03 December 2005

Middle School Dèja Vû, All Over Again

For ten years I've been a member of a group of women — 1/5th of them men — that are involved in some way with the Web. It began as "webgrrls SF," but within a couple of years became San Francisco Women on the Web. I am on a few professional lists from which I get a ton of email, but this list is the one I've been on the longest, and in many ways it is closest to my heart. I even attend a live event once in a while. A fellow early participant in these events was this sweet, nutty guy named Craig who had this weird idea about doing some kind of web listings bulletin board. As the Web has grown up, so has Craig's list, and so has Women on the Web San Francisco. There are writers, coders and other technical geeks, designers, marketing people, project managers, photographers, filmmmakers, musicians, caterers and many many more talented people on this list. I know that if I need something: advice on who should host my blog, suggestions for a spa to take my squeamish East Coast relatives, or just to process an unpleasant business experience I can write to sfWoW and get what I need. I give back to it too, when I can. For example, I happen to have the address of the very best inexpensive but very comfortable small hotel in Paris. And, no, I'm not telling just anybody. But I owe it to sfWoW, because they' ve always been there for me.

So recently there have been some sfWoW postings about blogs, and I wrote that it was hard to keep up with because, aside from my business, I had middle school homework to do. Then a couple of very nice, well-meaning fellow "Wowsers" who do not currently have middle-schoolers under their roofs wrote in wondering why that was, and whether it was the right thing to do or not. "No one ever helped me do my homework in middle school!" they claimed, in that "When I was a boy..." tone, you know, like Michael Palin going "We dreamed of living in a cor-ri-dor!"

Which forced me to write a Middle School Parent Rant. I started a riff which got into a groove which took me on a trajectory that went off like, like something that takes off really really fast.

I had something to say to those non-middle-school-parents who think it's wrong for parents to help kids do their homework. I didn't think it was right either, when my kid was little, attending the smallest alternative public elementary school in the SF school district, in the sprouty old Haight District, with about 15 kids per class. Back then, I also had a boyfriend with a daughter who was in middle school, a daughter who I thought should be allowed to sink or swim on her own, too, and I complained often that he was doing too much of her homework. But now I know why.

Now my son goes to the second-highest ranking Middle School in the SF School District. I am glad he didn't end up going to the number one Middle School because I hear they give "too much homework." I can't even imagine what that's like. I was initially all for it, but now I know what "too much homework" really means.

There are 38 kids in each of Liam's classes. This means that each teacher cannot make sure each kid understands the homework assignment, or even what is going on in class from minute to minute. One of Liam's teachers is is rather soft-spoken and likes things done a very particular way — not that there's anything wrong with that — but Liam was spacing out on him totally from day one, from the first row. So, being in Early Seventh Grade and still a little Unclear on the Concept of homework generally, he gave up paying attention to Social Studies homework for several weeks, because he kind of felt it was hopeless. My 12-year-old son didn't know what to do and just decided to pretend Social Studies didn't exist, something I remember doing in college when...well, all of college, one particularly hazy semester. So being that Liam couldn't drop out of Seventh Grade like I dropped out of Junior Year, he sort of shoved it under the table.

Then his Social Studies teacher called me, which was considerate of him. I had trouble hearing him on the cell, and I was also in the doctor's office doing something demeaning, like begging for an extra month of pills in case of a natural disaster while wearing a backless paper dress. Liam was terrified when I found out about the Social Studies problem. But I know I have a good kid, and my first response was, what on earth is going on that would freak him out so much that he would do this? Liam is by nature a rule-follower; I knew he must be pretty freaked out. He was having a little Management Skills problem.

In Middle School, boys have a lot going on: they're growing like weeds, their bodies are doing weird things, their friends are forming rock bands, their voices are changing. They are being flirted with by cute girls from all over the globe and don't know how to feel or act, they're really, really disorganized, and their #1 priority is not to look like a dweeb. Boys generally are a couple of years (like, 25) behind girls in maturity. Girls tend to be more organized. And somewhat artsy boys with some attention issues (like my son) zone out easily: he didn't have strong enough glasses and he was living in a fuzzy world and he liked it that way. During Fourth Period, Liam liked being an impressionist. Social Studies was situated between Gym and Lunch and it's hard to focus right after working out, when you're hungry. He was granted permission to eat a piece of fruit or liquid yogurt in Social Studies, but this offer was recently rescinded by his teacher, who said he was abusing the privelege by moving on to his whole sandwich and even dessert. I personally think he was trying to work up the nerve to order a pizza to be delivered to his desk like Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Liam also lives in two households that are sometimes not communicating optimally.

So Liam's parents were told by his teachers to keep track of his notebooks and his papers and his projects and especially to keep on top of what he needs to do for homework. This is the first time he's got all different teachers for different subjects, and it's a challenge; it's not like he needs to sink or swim just yet. For heaven's sake, he's twelve. He gets to wear training wheels. He's a baby adult.

Another reason kids need help with their homework is all those "cool" teachers who like "creative" ( 3D or Powerpoint presentations or audio-enhanced) assignments/projects, for which they are so busy being creative they often underestimate the time required for kids to do them. There is no law that says they need to test-drive these on real 12-year-olds. They just get a bee in their bonnet, and Assign!

Recently Liam was asked to do a 6-panel comic for Social Studies about the Muslim faith. The teacher told me we'd love this assignment because he knows I am a cartoonist. Initially I was enthusiastic, but I was appalled soon enough, as he gave only 3 days to pencil, ink, write, and letter a 6-panel comic. I am a professional and this process takes me a week! I suggested Liam use stick-figures due to the time-crunch, and they looked kind of tribally postmodern. All the figures were men anyway. But it was rejected because Mr. K said it was "offensive to Muslims." None of us has been able to figure out why it was offensive, but he was asked to do the whole thing all over again. Perhaps I'll post the original here if anyone is interested in seeing it and you can tell ME how it was offensive. I'm still trying to figure it out.

I called the teacher and said that professional cartoonists need to edit sometimes, but you are permitted to do your edits over the art by whiting it out or pasting paper over the original, so Liam shouldn't have to do the whole thing over. This of course leads to another much more interesting topic, which was whether it's okay for a teacher to "reject" an assignment because he disagrees with a student's point of view, and this is indeed an issue. Had I gone down that path I would still be in the Principal's Office arguing about the First Amendment, which reminds me of the Billy Bragg album called Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. It just seemed futile. So I decided to pretend Mr. K was Liam's finicky editor and to have him make the changes and hand the damned thing in and get it over with.

Since Liam's stepmom (let's call her "Martha") and I are both artists and of course wildly creative, and his dad's also a writer, we all work together on ideas for these "creative projects" and help bring Liam the materials to build stuff. One project that worked out very well was his Labor Day project for English. I suggested Liam research the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the internet which is gory and fascinating and great Labor History and my grandmother's friends died in it, and I didn't even know about it 'til Ken Burns' documentary on New York City, in my forties, which is ridiculous since I grew up there. Liam learned all about Labor Day in a very riveting, memorable way. (This Cornell Web Exhibit is fascinating). I did go from store to store on 24th Street to buy a bunch of those tiny Guatamalan dolls to use as people to jump out the windows, because none of us — even ambitious Martha — had the time to make them. (Here is a photo of Liam's project. I am particularly fond of the squished shopgirls on the map of NYC. They are made of Halloween blood.)

The point of school is LEARNING about the world, and I had to ask myself: did Liam learn from this? Of course he did. I don't want it to be about learning that you are bad if you want to spend the evening talking with amusing houseguests or shelling peas or snuggling with mom reading a book rather than doing oodles of homework. Homework should be manageable: it should fit into an ordinary workday, i.e. there shouldn't be more than 2 hours of homework a night. Generally. With a few book reports and tests to study for, this should be enough. Some kids are set up better to do homework than others: they are genetically predisposed to doing things more efficiently, or have faster web connections, or have a nicer space to do homework, more or fewer siblings, fewer chores, or don't have to worry about which house they left which books in. I try to do my best.

I object to the fact that it is quality family time that is impinged upon by the school system's inability to take proper care of our kids' education during the time allotted. I think a GOOD school that is run well doesn't have to have so much homework, as the children are working hard and are focussed during the school day.

I don't DO his homework, but I make sure he knows what he's supposed to do, and listen to him say "Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom..." every 5 minutes while he's doing it, because he's excited about what he's doing and wants to show me. It's hard for ME to focus on MY work or write my blog while this is going on. And, being a City parent, I want him to do well enough so that he goes to a decent high school and not the one in my neighborhood, which I hear isn't very good, and if he winds up there I'll have to shoo away visions of Columbine and worry that kids he plays with after school might have guns in their houses. [I am exercising enormous restraint here because I would like to fly off into a tangent about how if all our neighborhood schools were good, and government subsidies were going to public schools rather than K-Mart, children would be able to walk to school, and not have to have their moms or dads waste petroleum products and precious blogging time by driving across town twice a day to drop them off and pick them up.]

Still, there is nothing like The Arts to get across the essence of the thing, so at the risk of having written the world's longest sfWoW post I wrote a short playlet of what life is like here at home between 5:30 and 7 PM on a typical weekday middle-school family night. I don't think the folks at sfWoW liked it much because, so far, almost everyone's ignored it, but maybe since you already like my writing you'll enjoy it. It may sound familliar to you, and I would love to learn how you manage this delicate time. In any case, thank you for reading this.


Liam (doing English homework at diningroom table): Mom, how do you spell "interspersed?"
Mom (trying to work on other side of room while burning dinner): Look it up, honey, the dictionary's right over here.
Liam: But it's not IN the dictionary, I tried looking it up in class. Just tell me how to spell it.
Mom: No, Liam, it is in the dictionary and you just have to walk across the room and get the dictionary, which is next to my desk under the little green table, and look it up yourself.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-i-r-s-e-d?
Mom: No, Liam I don't think so. Go get the dictionary.
Liam: Is it i-n-t-e-r-s-p-e-r-s-e-d?
Mom: Yes, ok, yes, I think so. Liam will you check on that rice over there please?
Liam: What does it mean? I have to write the definition.
Mom: Get the dictionary.
Liam: Does it mean, like, spread out all over the place?
Mom: (sigh) Yes, Liam, that's what it means!
Liam: OK, I'll put that.
Mom: Are you supposed to write the dictionary definition or define it in your own words?
Liam: Um...The dictionary...no, in my own words is ok....uh... (trailing off)
Mom: Are you sure? What is the assignment? [Mom gets up from desk, sniffs, goes over and sees that the bottom half of the Trad'r Joe's Instant Risotto has become a black frisbee stuck to the bottom of the pan] Oh shit, I have to deal with this...
Liam: I have to use it in a sentence.
Mom: So use it in a sen---wait! OW! Ow! WAIT LIAM! I JUST BURNT MY — [phone rings, it's a client who owes me $1500] A sentence, yeah. Liam, I have to get this [puts up special hand-signal we have for when Liam shouldn't talk to me because it's a business call.]
Liam: I can't use it in a sentence. I don't know what to write.
Mom: [hanging up] What have you written so far? [goes over to table which is near the kitchen, sees Liam's loose-leaf page with some sloppy scribbling-out and several Manga-style pictures of warriors and various Japanese instruments of torture drawn around it] Liam! This is a mess! You can't turn this in!
Liam: Oh, she said it's ok.
Mom: No, it's not ok, I want you to do that page over. Where's your sentence?
Liam: Well, I couldn't really think of anything so...
Mom: Well, think of something.
Liam: I need HELLLLPPPP!!!
Mom: [trying to figure out whether Blackened Risotto might not be all that bad...] Interspersed. Think of a sentence using interspersed.
Liam: Mom---!
Mom: Liam! I am not speaking to you any more. You do your own homework, and if you can't, fine. Suffer the consequences. I don't care if you flunk out of middle school. But let me tell you, if you do really badly they'll kick you out of the GATE (gifted) program, and you'll have to go to a crappy high school, and crappy high schools have tough kids that often aren't very nice to skinny kids with glasses, and they'll eat you for breakfast. So if you don't want your life to totally, totally suck, I would (comes over and lovingly pulls Liam's head and neck out of the socket between his shoulders, pushes his shoulders down off his ears, straightens his chair) SIT UP STRAIGHT AND TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND START A NEW PAGE AND GET THIS STUPID THING OVER WITH! YOU'RE UP TO THE JOB!! Sit up! Put your butt in the chair!! Face forward!!
Liam: (whining) I'm hungry. Is dinner ready yet? (pauses; looks wryly at the contents of the pot in Mom's hand; smirks) How about "There are a few little yellow grains of rice interspersed between the burnt ones?"
Mom: Yes, Liam, that's excellent. Among the burnt ones. That's fine.

01 December 2005

The Carefuls

An early gig at the famous Mather Club, right.

My girlfriend Catherine and I have started a rock band. It's all pinched-looking moms with glasses — well, so far we've been lucky — and we're called The Carefuls. True, we don't have as many lower-back tattoos as some other girl bands, but we make up for it with our vast experience doing middle-school homework. Having a kid in middle school isn't absolutely required — but it helps.

Our first release will be two songs (we just can't get over that old-fashioned "A" side "B" side thing). The "A" side is "You'll Put Your Eye Out With That," and side "B" is "When Peter Gets a Job." We have a few other songs in the works: a spirited cover of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," and others: "I Ovulate for Tim Robbins," "Ask Me if I Give a Shit" and "I Googled your Mom for her Cranberry Mold Recipe."

We're looking for gigs — after the holidays, of course, when we have a little extra time, all those pesky crafts projects are off the dining-room table, and the kids are back in middle school. Anyone interested in talking to us, especially on the air, especially Terry Gross, can contact us here.

27 October 2005

Will Write for Food

Yes, I admit it. I write for money. Sometimes I have to write a certain way, and when I do this, it's usually for money. For instance, I liked this restaurant a lot — but there are less than flattering things I could have said also. I just left them out. I still want to go there again, especially for their "Chef's Night," and the people there were quite charming. But, truth be told, it was a little hokey on the artsy-squiggles-from-mustard-squeezebottles side. And some of the food was just plain...silly. But, hey, I'm a professional.

So I am posting this piece as a sample food review. If anyone reading this wants me to write about their restaurant or travel business, please feel free to contact me. Oh, and yeah, I apologize for the punny title. I couldn't help it.

Nouvelle Comfort Food: The Beet Generation
by Violetta Dei'Contorni

"It's like...a work of art...but it also tastes delicious, like someone was really paying attention, orchestrating the flavors."

"Yes" said my equally-satisfied dining companion. "It's like...you know, Nouvelle Comfort Food."

She'd nailed it. That was exactly what it was. I was dreading knocking back another disappointing, bland Stacked Food Extravaganza, and this was precisely NOT what Rogue Chefs was. It was different. Like everything had been newly conceptualized not only from the plate upwards, but from the back door to the table.

We oriented ourselves in their beautiful new digs, ordered the special wine-tasting sampler, sat back and sharpened our palettes.

Rogue Chefs is part of an expanding culinary movement in the food service business that supports what is increasingly being referred to as a "sustainable lifestyle." Think seasonally-appropriate, local, organic hand-picked fruits and vegetables — from the neighborhood if possible (and in Half Moon Bay, that's very possible) — in concert with hormone-free and antibiotic-free meats, and seafood from local fishermen. Heirloom varieties of produce are nurtured back into the food supply, and food that is locally grown is always favored over food that requires petroleum products to show up on your table. Cumbersome packaging is also no longer necessary, and the food industry's tendency to breed crops for easy shipping and storage rather than flavor and texture is eschewed. This is all good news, and the good news is Rogue Chefs does it beautifully.

In addition, Rogue Chefs has re-conceptualized the whole idea of a restaurant; this isn't just a restaurant: it's a "culinary." According to founder Kevin Koebel, the Rogue Chefs seed was planted in his head while enjoying farmer-to-farmtable home cooking in his native British Columbia. This seed kept germinating throughout a successful international chef's career in North America and Europe, where he repeatedly was dismayed by the widening gap between fresh, just-plucked treasures from the orchard or garden and star-counting restaurant patrons. According to their website:

"The Rogue Chefs Culinary is a place where chefs can cook with fresh product [pulled] directly from the dirt for the person standing right in front of them. There are no buffers. There are no recipes. There are only classically trained chefs who use their five senses every day with ... passion and inspiration..."

The night we were there, Kevin was cooking. He came out to answer our questions about the food; I could tell my dinner was safe in his hands, and he and the rest of the staff had good listening skills and took a real interest in our suggestions. The dining room, at [address here], is gleaming and new, and in a separate location from their mouthwatering take-out counter down the street. In the dining room, the physical and psychological wall between kitchen and dining room is broken; Kevin cooked for us in plain view, as if on a stage, with a keen willingness to share his love of ingredients and artful presentation. This theatricality only made more true what Shakespeare said: all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely chefs. Or something like that.

But back to our sumptuous dinner.

I always enjoy the experience of tasting familiar foods in a new context. For example, the general paucity of good British restaurants encouraged me years ago to seek out their excellent health-food establishments. With their original interpretations of, say, salads, these places were years ahead of American sprout-and-lentil joints. A chilly land that had only recently become able to depend on a full spectrum of fresh international produce was having a quiet food revolution, setting the stage for unusual but heady combinations: a salad of radishes, walnuts and chickpeas; a "beetroot" mélange with tangerines and pinto beans. These eateries, often tucked away in odd corners of museums and dead-end cobblestone streets, were not bogged down by our generations of customary American vegetable combinations (coleslaw, carrot and raisin salad, three-bean salad). The witty Brits applied themselves to their expanded palette with the playfulness of a kid with a new box of crayons. I adore a good fresh coleslaw, but there were times when eating a "Beetroot Salad" at the overcrowded, subterranean Food for Thought in Neal's Yard was positively exhilarating.

Which is where I am going with the Marinated Local Beet Salad at Rogue Chefs. The warm, bright aroma and flavor of the locally-grown beets just leapt out at us. The accompanying celeriac-mint coulis, or fruit purée, was carefully chosen for its contrasting coolness, soft texture and contribution to the complementary color scheme of the canvas (in this case, a square white plate). We also ordered the Crisp Seared Ahi Sticks. The rare, lightly pan-seared ahi — a favorite dish of my companion — was also a knockout, even for a seasoned pan-seared ahi connoisseur. Lightly battered and fried rolls of seaweed wrapped around toothsome tuna tidbits are bias-cut and displayed artfully on a plate of perky, clover-like frisée greens — but this dish is more than just a pretty plate. It offers up such sparkling-clean chords of flavor — think the first few chords of, say, Pinball Wizard the first time you heard them — we didn't know whether to ogle the presentation, listen to what our awakened taste buds were telling us, or take pictures. We did all three.

Although there are no "recipes" per se, there are guidelines, of course, so that the food does come out looking and tasting like the food described on the menu, and of course the ingredients list needs to be consistent with its billing. I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I had to control myself and just go with one more appetizer. The words "Portobello" and "Napoleon" appeared together on this menu for the first time in my vast reading history, so I decided to have them bring it on. To be honest, I'll order anything that involves the name of any petite French dictator: appetizer, dessert, whatever. This was my least favorite of the three, but only because it was on the small side, and I wanted more. (Next time I'm getting the Truffle Flan).

So I was delighted with the main course: Pan-Seared Australian Beef Filet Mignon Medallions with Truffle Risotto and Spinach. Local is best, of course, but it's also good to throw in a bit of the exotic. Frankly, the fact that Rogue Chefs isn't too terribly politically correct is part of its charm. It was a hearty plateful, and it tasted spectacular. It was Vertical Food, all right, but each story stood up on its own, especially the deeply-flavored greens, sandwiched between the meat and the risotto. Each layer contributed to the layer beneath it so there was more than just "presentation" going on here, there was richness of content.

We also enjoyed a similar dish made with chicken and herbs, which would be a welcome alternate choice for those not wishing to be too politically incorrect. There are also vegetarian and seafood choices available on the menu, which reads as lyrically as a love poem from Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood.

We were sharing, Chinese-food-style, and my companion was intending to bring some of our leftovers to her significant other, but that was becoming increasingly less likely. Reluctantly, I allowed them to take the entrées away, only to have them replaced by a large, lavender-infused Crème Brulée with two spoons, reassuring her that I was finally finished. In my book, there's always room for anything-infused Crème Brulée.

Rogue Chefs' crew are chefs and other restaurant personnel who have come there on a quest to reconnect the earth, the food, the five senses, the people and the community. You can dine at their restaurant and wine bar Tuesday through Sunday, or eat lunch there on Saturday. In addition to having restaurant hours, Rogue Chefs provide private food services to peoples' homes, especially those who are too busy to cook every night. They also host wine tastings, and, of course, cater special events.

Wonderful prepared food is available at the Rogue Chefs Catering Company deli counter. They also run classes and workshops for beginners to more advanced cooks in basic cooking, baking, sauces, soups, cake decoration and so on. You can sign-up for special 6-8 course dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings for 15 or less people and enjoy direct interaction with the chef. These meals also offer wine pairing from different regions, including information about wine makers and farmers. They also bring in chefs from different parts of the globe for special evenings that spotlight various cultural dining experiences. For more information or to sign up for one of these events, please phone 650.712.2000 or visit their comprehensive, well-designed and easy-to-navigate website at http://www.roguechefs.com.

03 September 2005

Soaking Man

OK, it's true that I have never been to Burning Man.

When I first heard of Burning Man, I thought, "Jeez, that sounds great—the Be-In is back!" I was all for the Be-In. I was just a bit too young to participate in the original Be-In. I was offered tickets to join a bunch of cute teenage boys I knew who were going to a rock festival at Woodstock when I was 14, but my mother "wouldn't let me," a consideration that didn't stop me from doing whatever I wanted a year later. Burning Man? A big Rave out in the desert, or something? Is it, like, Guy Fawkes Day? It sounded suspiciously Klannish. Besides, I wasn't sure I was invited. I thought I might be too old; I was worried about all that Ecstasy antidoting my homeopathic remedy, or that I'd be too uptight or grossed out to use the bathrooms, and that it wouldn't be any fun to do Ecstasy while I was constipated.

Also, I am not a big Camping Person. Have I mentioned that? Camping in my family was when my mother had a beauty parlor appointment and my father and sister and I had to fend for ourselves, as in, "Well I've got a Beauty Parlor appointment this afternoon, you'll have to fend for yourselves and eat COLD FOOD." Having her family eat cold food made my mother feel like she'd walked out on us; how could we possibly survive merely on cold beet borscht with a chilled boiled potato in it smothered in sour cream, with a side of fresh blueberries or bananas in more sour cream sprinkled with sugar, fresh rye bread, and maybe some cold cuts? Another time we went camping was when my family took a gamble and stayed at a pastoral goyishe resort in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country where you weren't surrounded by a swarm of relatives or my parents' friends, and nobody played Mah-Jong.*

Anyway, back to Burning Man. I've met a lot of nice people that are "Burners," really a lot of nice folks. Did I menton how nice they are? They are warm as can be. They like to play dress-up, eat fire, and wear tattoos. Some of them are polyamorous. I have no problem with that. But I just cannot see myself driving 300 miles to camp out in the middle of the Nevada desert where it's 105˚ to "do art" or "look at art" or even have an Art Appreciation Party. I do art right here. I can be found appreciating art 24/7. If I want to see more art, I can go to the museum, or a gallery. I can also walk around the corner and see many pyramids of video monitors, doll head installations and painful-looking scarification and piercings — any time I want. I go to San Francisco Open Studios every weekend in October. If I want to spend the money and time to see even more art, I go to Paris or London. Or Cleveland.

I guess that's not true for everybody, so Burning Man appeals to them.

Not too long after I started hanging out with some Burning Man people, I had a date with one of them. I don't know what I did wrong (could he somehow tell that I was a born non-Burner?), but as the evening progressed it became apparent that he wasn't attracted to me, which put me in kind of bad mood, so up came an anti-Burning Man comment, a comment that had been bubbling just under the surface anyway. I just tossed caution to the wind and used the line about the doll heads and the TV sets, and he laughed half-heartedly, the way people laugh when you know you'll never see them again. Shortly thereafter, a hilarious anti-Burning Man spam appeared in my email called "How to enjoy Burning Man from the comfort of your own home." It pretty well summed up what I thought about Burning Man. I felt vindicated; you can read this brilliant spam here.

I must admit, I did consider Burning Man again briefly last spring, when I started dating a polyamorous (aka "Poly") Jack Mormon Burner — that's when you stop being a Mormon so you can drink alcohol, but you retain your idyllic childhood and vestiges of the traditional Mormon marriage, i.e. you get to have multiple lovers, and, of course, you go to Burning Man. You don't have to wear the funny underwear* anymore, though, unless you want to. I was booked an entire season — every other Thursday — as this P.J.M.B.'s lover. Every few weeks he would go down to Santa Cruz and camp out with his actual wife and a bunch of other Polyamorous Burners, and swallow fire. I know this because he complained about having sore gums from time to time. One time he took me to a Polyamorous Burner party where there was a big machine that did some awesome party tricks with fire. Aside from ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the fire-spitting machine — which, I was informed, is an object typical of, and created for, the Burning Man Festival — I didn't know what to say to anybody at the party, especially his wife.

Let's just say, I didn't have to play with fire to be playing with fire.

I understand that some people need extra stimulation to feel anything. It's like their systems are undersensitive; they need anti-antidepressants; depressants, tattoos, inconvenient plumbing facilities. My P.J.M.B. was obviously way, way too happy. He had to eat fire and pass his wife around (she was also Poly) to feel stuff. I feel enough already.

Way enough. So much that all week I've been bursting into tears watching all these miserable, pissed-off people in Louisiana and Mississippi. I'm pissed off too. I have been to enough poorly-organized rock festivals to know only a little bit what they might feel like. Imagine, say, having to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a crowded rock festival for 3 days with your dead aunt sitting in a wheelchair next to you covered with a blanket, because she couldn't get to her medicine, knowing you don't even have your own bathroom to go back to. With hungry, crying children hanging off your arm, and no way to explain this to them. Of course, The Horrors. I somehow can't turn it off in my mind. I don't think I should turn it off, either. So I went to Craig's List and read the New Orleans Missed Connections postings and cried. I had to do something. But I have to stay here and make a living by creating a dancing toothbrush, so how can I possibly help?

That's when it occcurred to me.

Operation Storm Desert

A whole lotta mostly white, middle-class folks that appreciate art and sacred places are, right at this minute, voluntarily rolling around in the Nevada desert sand and dirt and mud in unbelievably hot weather. They've constructed a huge, portable Art Capitol comprised of every imaginable type of shelter and tent and portable toilet, not to mention innumerable "Theme Camps" with, admittedly, spectacular art that, unfortunately, is scheduled to come down in a few days because everyone has to go back to their job as a dotcom geek or a lawyer in Portland and Marin and Boulder. But here's an opportunity to have the show get held over! An opportunity for thousands to see these amazing displays of light, fire, mechanical playfulness and hot music! As it happens, down in New Orleans there are a whole lotta poor and working-class black folks in desperate need of shelter and toilets, who've had it up to here with mud; what harm could a little sand do? A little flaming art and perhaps a fire-eater or a drag queen thrown in could go a long way to help cheer them up. Plus, black people from New Orleans are world-famous for their music. The Burning Man site is a perfect place for these people to dry out — it's 105˚ in both places, but, you know, it's the Nevada desert — it's a dry heat.

What George should have done with his military planes and helicopters — WOW, more machinery in the desert! Cool! — was airlift all the desperate New Orleanians (New Orleaños? New Orleansiennes? Orleanaisses? ) to the Burning Man site in Nevada, and airlift the many, no doubt liberal, more-than-willing-to-do-their-part, art-appreciating Burners down to the Delta. After all, New Orleans is a sacred place, too, sportin' a bitchin' exhibition staged by none other than that mindblowin' woman artist, Hurricaine Katrina, with accomodations provided by our very own priority-challenged, imperialistic right wing government. It's an awe-inspiring, interactive installation that can put them in touch with Mother Earth like nobody's business. Forget Christo, forget Andy Goldsworthy; forget those other clever and talented Burning Man sculptors — every Burner will want to come down and see what Katrina and the waves — aided by the Bush Administration's awesome cluelessness — hath wrought.

In addition, this would also have put an end to the problem of looting, since, apparently, only people of color loot — white people, what was it, "find provisions?" It would have been a perfect solution.

*My mother didn't play it either, but at a Jewish Bungalow Colony you were supposed to have fat ladies hanging around playing it. One time a bunch of such ladies, at Teamster's Local 805 Candy and Tobacco Wholesalers' Bungalow Colony in Wurtzboro, New York, played Mah-Jong in the sauna and their plastic Mah-Jong tiles melted. Everyone came running over to see.

**Funny underwear? What funny underwear? you say. Well, Mormons wear this silky long underwear between their squishy body parts and their clothing. They are called Garments. Garments are kind of like God's Post-it Notes. My P.J.M. lover explained it to me this way: "When you're making out in the car with Marie Osmond and you start taking her clothes off, and you get down to the Garments, it's a reminder: [smacking self in head] Whoa! Right! I can't do this. I'm a Mormon!"

24 August 2005

Dantés Auto Return

One fine day in April, my 11-year-old son, who I'll call, say, "Liam," and I, were heading toward the Bay Bridge in my spiffy 1995 Seafoam MomMobile to see The Homeopathy God. The Homeopathy God is this amazing world-renowned Homeopathic MD that I've been seeing for years in Point Richmond, in the East Bay, for my unique set of physical symptoms. The Homeopathy God only has an appointment available about every 4 months to hear my bubbele-meinzes (that's "grandma stories" in Yiddish, aka "complaints," like as if that's all Jewish grandmas can tell stories about). No one understands my bubbele-meinzes better than The Homeopathy God, except maybe a real bubbele. In this particular case, Liam had some bubbele-meinzes, too.

The winter had been, for us, a bumper-crop year for flus and their ilk. Liam and I were still suffering from the tail end of a flu that had wrecked my already iffy nervous system so thoroughly that walking into my studio (next door to my bedroom) felt like an expedition to the South Pole. Panting, shivering, I'd sit down at my Mac and be jolted clear across the room by Brian Eno's perky bonggg; then I'd squint at my computer's unforgiving, nonsensical shaft of rectangular light before turning the darned thing off and shuffling back to my blankies. Liam missed a lot of school, and when he wasn't missing school entirely, he was calling me from school to get picked up because he was sicker than we thought he was. It seemed like it would never end. Every day I had a fever. A friend of mine who's a lawyer had fallen victim to this same awful fate, and for what seemed like centuries he and I exchanged brown paper bags full of books and videos and vitamins. I was horrified that he was working in his office and driving his car and actually appearing in court on behalf of his clients in this condition, because for me, heating up canned chicken noodle soup in a little pot was about all I could manage.

Anyway, this went on for quite some time, and I remember it had some gruesome effect on the tummy, too, which is gone now but kina hora, you can just imagine. What's that disease that's supposed to make all your organs decompose while you're still alive? I am not going there on the internet. Well, anyway, for the first three months of 2005, Liam and I wrestled with this abomination of the flesh, and by the first week of April we were well enough to trundle off to The Homeopathy God in search of some immune-system-sustaining homeopathic support.

We were late for our appointment, so naturally our freeway entrance was closed. I drove around the block several times, saying things I'm not particularly proud of saying in front of a child. Down Market Street to Eighth we went, turning right, moving over to the left, signaling all the way, eager to drive onto the freeway. Then I became aware of the flashing red and yellow lights and the siren and the speaker saying "pull over to your left...don't get out of the car." Surely this was not intended for me, as I had been extra-careful to drive perfectly; I had recently been towed unexpectedly (anyone here ever expect to get towed? hands?) for outstanding parking tickets, an experience I vowed never to repeat. I thought this special attention was intended for someone else, certainly not a busy mom in her MomMobile heading purposefully to the doctor with her son. Perhaps there was some poor soul nearby who really needed the help of a friendly California Highway Patrolman?

Perhaps not.

I pulled neatly over to the left, right across Eighth Street from the Holiday Inn, where I could see the helpful California Highway Patrolman unmount his motorcycle and head right over to my car, obviously eagerly anticipating a personal consultation with me.

As it happens, he was distressed by the fact that I didn't have a current California registration sticker on the rear bumper of my car.

"Yes, officer, I can explain that" I said, pulling out my current drivers license, my current insurance statement and my current registration payment receipt. "You see, it's all paid for; I registered the car and paid the full amount, $285 and my firstborn son, but I still needed the Smog Certificate,*" and, smiling triumphantly, I proudly presented my current Smog Certificate, which I had finally managed to pull together the previous week, thank God. "Here's the Smog Certificate," I said, helpfully. "I've just been sick, you see, and hadn't gotten a chance to go b..."

The officer was nonplussed. "You were supposed to have your sticker by now. You applied for it —" He lifted his darkly-tinted motorcycle goggles to examine his UPS-style electronic clipboard. "Last November. That was six months ago."

I can't believe I fell for that. It was five months ago, actually. Four and a half, really. Four, if you take off for Christmas and, well, Chanukah came early last year. I think it was Thanksgiving Weekend, in fact, which was absurd. So it was really three months.

"It's PAID, Officer. I just don't have the little bitty sticker."

"Yes, but even if you did pay for it, the rule is that if you're driving around without a sticker for six months, I have to have you t—"

My doctor's appointment was just being frittered away, and it was making me crazy. It was at this point that I became a bit overwrought, causing me to revert to my native speech pattern, that of Queens, New York, where I'm originally from. Occasionally I find that Californians aren't so fond of my speech pattern. It is best exemplified by those old screwball comedies where Eastern City Women are trying to explain things to Cowboys. The City Woman, played by a fuel-injected, fast-talking blonde like Judy Holiday — who died tragically of cancer at 43 and, incidentally, is reputed to have had an IQ of 170 — babbles, in a squeaky voice, something like, "I nevah shoulda come heah in tha foist place; whaddid you say yaw name was? I sweah, someone has gotta get me outta this joint."

"The END of November, yes, officer, but you see, then there was Christmas, and since New Year's my son and I have been ill constantly. In fact (bringing my voice up an octave here) we are right now going to the doctor because, (another octave up, and a little faster because I had the sense that he was getting a little impatient) because we are sick and have had the flu for weeks and please officer please let us go, it takes months to get an appointment (a few coughs here I think) with The Homeopathy God and my son here needs to use a bathroom and so do I and please officer I already paid the registration and you can see I have everything here, I just haven't had time to go back to the DMV and get the actual sticker because we've been sick. Isn't that in there somewhere?" I pointed to his clipboard.

Then Gary Cooper pauses, takes the weed out of his mouth and goes, "huh-yup."

"Please step out of the vehicle" said the Helpful Policeman.

We were beginning to create a bit of a scene.

Liam started to panic.

"Officer, I can't step out of the car, I have to get my son and me to the doctor. We're already late for our appointment." I waved my cell phone at him and indicated that I had finally reached The Homeopathy God's Receptionist, who was comforting me as best she could by suggesting we do the appointment right then, over the phone. I had become quite distraught, and I couldn't find my Rescue Remedy.

Liam said, "Mom, I've gotta puke."

We got out of the car so Liam could puke.

"You are a very, very bad man." I said, like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, except under my breath. Go Dorothy!

We were detained for an eternity. This guy was one of these guys that actually gets off on watching women and children suffer. I think they're called "Sadists" or "Nazis" or something; he was one of those sick people. I was gobsmacked to be having an interaction with such pure, crystal-clear Evil. When Liam told him he needed to use the bathroom, the officer said, "You can go to the hotel across the street." My jaw dropped. We were not even at a crosswalk.

"My son is not crossing this street by himself and going to a public restroom in this neighborhood without me," I asserted. "Mooom" said my son, desperately. "Sir!" I pleaded. "Please let me and my son cross the street and let me take him to the bathroom!" Liam and I started to cry.

"Ma'am, if you don't calm down, I'm going to have to call my Supervisor." Well, all right! I can really wield my power over a hysterical woman thought the Policeman. She probably deserves it. Hell, they all deserve it. Women, bah.

"Call your Supervisor! Please call your Supervisor!" I bellowed, clutching my child. I had trouble imagining one person this nasty; it was impossible to envision another. I was certain I could convince this Supervisor that this was just a terrible mistake, an intrusion into the everyday business of a workaday mother, PTA member, university instructor, art director, published writer, upright contributer to the community — and her sweet, innocent — sickly even, as he is quite slender — little boy, and that he would admonish his subordinate for being needlessly cruel, snatching away his badge, cartoon beads of sweat popping off his demoted forehead as he pleaded for mercy.

As Liam says so often and so eloquently: "Ri-i-i-i-ght."

Suddenly I had two motorcycle cops on my hands, as well as two large motorcycles and a small but colorful group of onlookers. As The Supervisor unmounted his horse, I mean bike, I started explaining the details of how I was being detained unnecessarily to the point of abuse.

There was a long pause as The Supervisor lifted off his helmet, revealing an unusually large head. He took out his clipboard.

"It appears you also had a fix-it ticket for a broken tail light," observed The Supervisorator.

"I had it fixed," I said, pointing out my fixed tail light. I started jumping up and down, shaking my hands from my wrists like a teenager doing the Frug.

"But you didn't send in the fix-it ticket with the $10, saying you'd fixed it."

Yeah, fine, make a federal case out of it.

"I had no idea. I got a fix-it ticket, so I fixed it. I never got one before. I thought I just had to fix it, not show it to anybody."

I had not previously even heard of a fix-it ticket. I had gotten a fix-it ticket the week before, but I was drunk. Fortunately, I was not driving; my date, the Designated Driver, was driving. The cop that escorted us off the Bay Bridge that night gave the Designated Driver a sobriety test, and he passed; then he gave him a fix-it ticket and mentioned that I should get the car smogged, which I did, the next day. But I was drunk, so I don't remember the rules regarding the fix-it ticket; it's not against the law to be drunk in a car you own as long as you're not driving it, right? And by the time I sobered up and got the damned Smog Certificate, I'd been dumped by the Designated Driver. Even now, he won't take my calls.

"Look, I don't want to get back together with you," I could have said; "I just want to know, do you know what I'm supposed to do with that fix-it ticket?"

"Boy, that chick was really needy" my ex-Designated Driver would have commented astutely.

I looked up and saw a tow truck backing up to the front of my car.

"Lady, we have to tow you," said The Evil CHP Supervisor-dude.

"What?! You're not serious. You're kidding, right?" I searched the windows to the souls of both California Highway Patrolmen, but didn't find any. I looked around wildly for help. The crowd had dispersed by then; even the vagrants in the Tenderloin had more important things to do. So I got in my car.

"I'm not moving" I said. "Liam, get in the car."

"Mom, I have to use the bathroom!" said Liam.

"Get in the car! I yelled like a crazy person. "I am not going anywhere." I said emphatically, to everyone, even the people who weren't there anymore.

Liam got in the car.

"Ma'am, I don't want to have to take you down to the station house," said Sadistic Highway Cop #1.

I sat stonily, facing forward, arms crossed. "We're not getting out of the car."

The tow truck driver started feeling up my front bumper. I felt violated.

"Leave my car alone!" I shouted.

A woman pulled up next to me and rolled down her window. Liam unrolled the passenger window.

She leaned out of the window. "Are you getting out?" she hollered.

"What?! Am I getting out? You're kidding, right? I'm in the middle of getting arrested. Yeah, I'm getting out," I cackled insanely. "In five years, with good behavior!"

I settled back down. "I do not believe this" I said to Liam, while a part of me totally believed it and was stowing it away for a screenplay, a comic, a column. Something. I was increasingly floored by how difficult life had become in this town, and I was, and still am, considering a flight to the suburbs. I considered Fairfax for a minute. Then I dialed my Lawyer Friend, the one who had been sick with me, whose office was nearby. I had no idea what he could do, as he's not a Registration Sticker Lawyer, but he's always worth a try. He does have his own kindly way of helping, even if it's just standing by, looking tall and blonde and dapper in a pressed suit, letting me blow my nose on his crisp sleeve.

The last time I called my Lawyer Friend in a Time of Need it went something like this:

Violet (on the phone): They turned off my electricity! Those bastards! Can't you do something?
LF: Um, yes, I'll call you right back.
He calls me right back.
LF: Well, I fixed it, you're ok now.
Violet: Really? What'd you do?
LF: I paid the bill.
Violet: Paid my bill!? Oh, come on. You can't have paid my bill!
LF: Yes, well, I find that the easiest way to get people like PG&E to cooperate is by giving them money, so I gave them some.

So my Lawyer Friend came by, and advised me to get out of the car and to let them tow it. Then he tells me that cops hate lawyers; who knew? I never watch TV. He thought it best just to go along with it and deal with it later. (Stop the presses, he's a lawyer.) I took a few things out of my car and clasped his starched arm while he walked us three blocks over to the AAA office, where I didn't even have to wait in line to get my sticker. Before dashing off, he threw us a few extra bucks for a taxi down to the Courthouse, where I was charged $600 and directed to go even further down, to the Pits of Hell, to be exact, to get my car.

I enlisted my friend Lisa to help us with that part. She met us while we were sipping expensive, frosty, rejuvenating shakes in front of a Jamba Juice at the Potrero Shopping Center, and drove us down there. As it happens, it was the day (of the month? of the year??) that they auction off the unclaimed vehicles at the Pits of Hell, so it was teeming with sweaty men of just about every description, some of them women. I was trying to get my car back before they auctioned it off. I had to beg and plead and cry for them to pay any attention to me at the creepy trailer office parked at the bottom of the Pits of Hell. I felt extremely prim and delicate. Getting my car back was like having to step through the Hell Panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights in a white linen suit. Without the good sex.

I was a nervous wreck because Lisa was with Liam in her car, and had to drive over to UC Berkeley and teach that evening, and had I not made a big fuss, all three of us would still be there right now. I was SO happy to drive up the long ramp out of the Pits of Hell, pick up my son, bid adieu to Lisa and drive off, it felt like I was being brought back to life on the emergency room table.

"Mom," says Liam on the way home. "You know what was the funniest thing? You know that lady that wanted our parking spot? On the way to AAA I noticed she'd just waited behind us, and when they towed our car, she actually took our spot!"

"You're kidding!" I grimaced, unable to actually smile quite yet, but telling myself there would be a time in my life that I would in fact smile again. It was hard to fathom.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was in an accident on the Grand Central Parkway, near Grandma and Grandpa's house in New York, with my boyfriend Jonathan Wallace when I was 19?"


"We were in his mother's big, fancy Citröen, driving past Creedmoor State Mental Hospital, and there was a ten-car-pileup, and we were in the middle of it. Lots of people got hurt; ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene. But the car was so well-appointed and plush, all we did was bash our lips on the dashboard, so we both had blood dripping from our mouths, but we weren't badly hurt."

"I know, Mom."

"Anyway, ambulances arrived, there were stretchers and tow trucks everywhere, and while we were stumbling around with blood-soaked Kleenex hanging from our chins trying to figure out what to do next, a woman driving along the Parkway pulls up next to me, rolls down her window and says, "Is this the way to the Cross-Island Expressway?"

That's the New York version of THAT story.

"I know, Mom. You told me."

And so, you might ask, why do I bring this up now?

Well, subsequently, I got two additional bills from the Department of Parking and Traffic regarding my driving without a sticker and having not reported fixing my tail light. For a total of over $2000! No way was I going to pay that. So I went to court Monday. I brought all kinds of documentation, medical records, papers from my glove compartment. Waiting in line for the doors to open, I shared my story with a young Realtor who had gotten in trouble for not knowing what to do with a fix-it ticket for a broken tail light. Ten minutes later, we were both dismissed, and I was ordered to go downstairs to the cashier and pay $20. No one had the faintest idea of how to file a report against having been abused by a California Highway Patrolman. They said it wasn't their department.

*For those of you who live in states without compulsory Smog Certification (are there any? West Virginia? Montana? The Bronx??), you should know that this is — quelle suprise! — a total Racket. If you have a car that's such an old shitbox that you know it can't possibly pass certification, you are exempt and you can just go without it. If you have a modern car that can pass certification, you have to pay $95 and show the DMV a certificate. For an explanation of why this is weird, Google B.F. Skinner.

21 August 2005

The Twinkie Malt and Other Cheap Shots

I have no idea how I wound up on the Patty's Newsletter mailing list, but the twinkie recipe is priceless, and worth passing on. I keep thinking of great, deep, funny pieces to write and by the time I sit down here and actually write, all I can do is post this ridiculous newsletter I got today. But how could I resist? Go to her website and see what "Patty's Newsletter" SELLS! I want the Monkey Welcome Plaque and I want it NOW.

Vol 2. no. 4
Hello my friends!
I have been working on a new website www.pattysneighborhood.com which I invite all of you to visit.

It reminds me of this old Far Side with the caption that reads "What if dolphins really COULD talk?" and it shows 2 dolphins swimming, and one is saying to the other, "Knock, knock...c'mon. Knock, knock."

Not everyone is WORTHY of a newsletter, Patty.
Then she provides us with the following recipes, just in case we're on an IQ-free diet:

Citrus Jello Cake, "from my cousin Marie"

1 Lemon Cake Mix
10 oz Sunkist Diet Lemonade (soda)
1 Can mandarin oranges, drained and rinsed
1 Package sugar free orange Jell-O

Mix cake mix, soda and oranges. Blend with mixer until smooth (about 1-1/2 minutes on medium). Pour into a 9X12 inch pan that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, until lightly brown on top and firm to touch.

Mix Jell-O with 1/2 cup hot water, sir to dissolve. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir until ice cubes melt. Prick cake lightly with fork and pour Jell-O over cake. Refrigerate for about 3 hours.

( TOPPING?! She never said there was topping! Now she tells me! Now I have to go out and buy some Dessert Topping, and the cake will get all...all...what will it get? I can't even figure it out. Melted? Hard? Warm? Cold? No, it's already cold. I give up.)

1/2 container fat free whipped topping
1/2 of an eight ounce package fat free cream cheese

Blend topping and cheese with mixer until smooth. Spread over chilled cake and serve.

Come on Marie, what's with the 1/2 packages? Live a little. And now for something completely disgusting...

Twinkie Malt

2 cups milk
6 Hostess Twinkies
4 Oreo cookies
3 cups vanilla ice cream
1/3 cup milk

Blend milk and Twinkies for 5 to 10 seconds. Add Oreo cookies. Blend together. Add 3 cups vanilla ice cream. Blend until smooth. Pour in milk and enjoy.

Pour in milk? Pour what in milk? Pour this thing INTO a glass of milk? I am confused, Patty. I am frightened and confused and I don't know where my Twinkies went. They were here a minute ago.

Now for Patty's Spiritually Uplifting quotes:

“When I look at my life through the lens of gratitude, all my experiences take on a rosy glow”
-Thomas Kinkade

“Your faith is what you believe, not what you know”
-John Lancaster Spalding

Regarding the first quote, I think when Thomas Kincaid looks through the lens of gratitude he ought to see a rosy glow, considering how much money people have shelled out for his creepy signed prints. When I look at his life through the lens of Aunt Violet, I see the greenish glow of lots of little winged dollar bills.

Now, let's take this second quote. Who IS this John Lancaster Spalding person? It makes a great companion piece to the excellent editorial in this week's New Yorker, which is about the Bush Administration being, well, a little unsure about the veracity of "science." You know, apparently this Administration finds "science" to be a controversial subject. I could never come close to saying it nearly as eloquently as Hertzberg, so I'll just publish the link here.

Your faith is what you believe, not what you know? Your faith is that you believe that Iraq has WMDs but now we know they don't have them but we'll keep blasting the shit out of them and killing our young soldiers anyway, because our faith is what we believe but not what we know? What kind of bullshit is this? Do people think they can just write just anything in quotes these days? Oh, man.

If the NYer has taken the Hertzberg piece down, write to me and I'll send it to you.

Aunt Vi, with a migraine

12 August 2005

The Luckiest People In The World

"You can never change your life until you change something you do daily." - John Maxwell

Indeed you cannot.

I have been thinking all week about how to make my life more Camp Mather-like. What was it that felt so...so healthy about it? Why did I have so much energy? Was it the fresh air? Was it the peace of knowing my kid was doing something healthy, like riding his bike and cavorting in the pool, rather than lying on the couch worshipping magic cards, eating Zours or Squints or Squirms and not using kleenex?

Was it that someone else was cooking the food? Was it the beautiful lake? Was it the peace of mind generated by an unlimited quantity of easy-to-access roughage?

Indeed it was not.

It was the people. Yes, the people. The community. I am just one of these people that gets energy from other people. And according to Barbra Streisand, I'm one of the Luckiest People in the World.

Now, that last bit may have been true in Brooklyn in 1963, but is it still true in 2005? In Northern California? Let's take a closer look.

When I was a kid growing up in Darkest Queens (which is almost Brooklyn, but not), other families used to go on, oh I dunno, picnics for entertainment, or something. We went to Idylwild International Airport to watch the Italians greet each other at the terminal. We'd sit there, my dad would get a coke out of a machine that would sometimes run out of cups and just knock out some ice cubes and piss coke into a plastic tray, and my mother and sister and I would park ourselves on a bench and eat Belgian Waffles and watch old Sicilian widows see their American grandchildren for the first time. It was...moving. While other families were racking up impressive shuffleboard scores and working on their tans, we were sitting on a concrete at Jones Beach's mutant "boardwalk," our transluscent shoulders covered with pastel cardigans, "people watching."

I had no idea this was weird, but over the past few years I have raised an eyebrow at some cues. Here are two that immediately come to mind:

1. A conversation with my Polish-from-Chicago-coder-geek-saxplayer-ex-boyfriend, G, who happens to be getting married next weekend not that I give a shit, that went something like this:

Setting: On the way to The Friedlich's Fourth of July BBQ (in the Sunset District, for all you Bay Areans) with G, who was attending this annual event for the first time, and my son, let's call him, say, Liam.

V: What's that?
G: It's a frisbee.
V: What's it for?
G: It's for throwing around in the backyard.
V: Oh we don't need that.
G: What are we going to do for 7 hours?
V: We're going to Visit.
G: We're going to Visit? Sheesh, that sounds really boring.
V: What do you mean "boring?" There'll be about 20 of my old friends there! And the kids just run around. It's not boring.
G: It sounds boring, like when I used to have to visit my aunt in Downtown Chicago. We'd better bring a frisbee.
V: This is not your aunt's! It's nothing like your aunt's! It's not THAT kind of visiting. It's Fun visiting. We talk! We joke! We tell stories!
G: (frowning) I've never had fun visiting.
V: It's what we do. Everyone is really smart and funny and we all know how to cook so the food is great. We're going to have witty repartee, the children will frolic, and we'll all eat like pigs. At about 4 PM everyone will start freezing, and we'll start putting on sweaters and pulling on socks and legwarmers, and wrapping ourselves up in woolen blankets and the hides of sheep, and one by one we'll move inside for coffee and tea and Sally's yummy home made pie, and complain about how we live in the coldest spot in the Northern Hemisphere. Then we'll drive home at dusk, and stop briefly to try to watch the fireworks up on Clipper Street — but we won't be able to see them through the fog. Then we'll go home. A frisbee is not necessary.
G: I'm bringing the frisbee.

2. Another conversation with G, my Polish-from-Chicago-coder-geek-sax-player-ex-boyfriend who, as you know, happens to be getting married next weekend, not that I give a shit:

Setting: Afternoon, Harbin Hot Springs (hip spa in Northern California with various hot tubs at various sizes and temperatures where everyone is naked).

V: Wow, floating in pools of various sizes and temperatures for two days was really relaxing, but I'm feeling a bit pruney, and I can't take any more of these Watsu sharks*. Whaddaya wanna do now?
G: Oh, I was considering an orthobionomic massage, or maybe trying that 2-hour-long Bikram Yoga** class.
V: Well, have fun. I think I'm going to lie on a towel on this big deck and watch the naked bodies go by, and eavesdrop on what naked people say to one another. I'm bringing my sketchpad so I can look busy.

Come to think of it, these may not be the greatest examples, because there's a wee chance maybe it was my ex-boyfriend that was weird and not me. But I'll go into that another time. Did I mention he was getting married next weekend? I have no problem with that.

It seems normal for me to be surrounded by civilization. Even naked civilization. But in the city where I reside, it's so civilized it's all going on behind closed doors and in back yards. And if I want my kid to roam around, 'cause he's a wanderer, yeah-eah a wanderer, tough luck: the streets are too steep and his friends are scattered all over the damned city because the public schools are so lousy there's a lottery system that places kids in schools all over town. My son has never thrown a basketball through the basketball hoop next door, because the neighborhood kids don't know him. Who knows, it might belong to some gang or something.

PTA members correspond with one another online; you can live in Estonia and still be an active PTA participant, though you'll miss the Spam Sushi and Gluten-free Kugel at the multicultural pot-luck.

I went to a party two doors down one night because they jammed a flyer in my mailbox inviting me (and the whole block) to stop in. I thought they were serious and really wanted me to come. Pathetically, I got all dressed up, and even gift-wrapped a vintage cooking pamphlet for them as a housewarming present: "1000 Things To Do With Hamburger Meat the Betty Crocker Way." I walked into their flat, and it was fabulous, like a Hollywood set. I expected Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellweger to waltz out, fresh from Bikram Yoga. Instead, some ingenue that wasn't even old enough to ride a bus by herself emerged and took my oddball gift in a poised but irony-free way (why try to explain?). Then they introduced me to the towering megaplex of swollen gin and vodka bottles on their oversized oak diningroom table. I made friends with a strikingly tall bottle of gin, told it my best party jokes, and split hastily, after having caught sight of a short older guy (who must have been one of their dads) sharing his party jokes with younger, Betty Crocker pamphlet-free babes. I went home and started cruising the M-seeking-W section of Craigslist.

Many years ago when I was married and had a baby on my hands, I lived in a building where, for a few precious years, several of us tenants became friends. It was cool, even though my girlfriend across the hall thought she was Lucy and I was Ethel. Certainly I was far Lucyer. At any rate, she and her husband are now divorced; he lives in Shanghai and has a new baby, and she eventually got so many tattoos she became the bookkeeper for Burning Man. I'm divorced now, too. Though I have lived in San Francisco for 25 years, the fact that most of the time I don't really know my neighbors still seems wrong to me. I miss Lucy-and-Ethel time.

It's unnatural that my real communities — most of the Camp Mather people, for example, were from the wonderful community of parents from Liam's artsy alternative elementary school — have to travel 150 miles to the High Sierras to sit around a lake and schmooze on a daily basis without an appointment.

I adore my online community of friends, and consider them my comrades, truly. But I need a network of messy, breathing, pheromone-producing humans to interact with. I tried going to my local café but no one there talks to anyone else unless they're having a website planning meeting or a job interview. When I try to make helpful suggestions to people in these stuations they somehow act annoyed with me. Perhaps I should actually get an on-site job? This is a
scary thought. Move to the suburbs? A town? Both? Neither?

There must be a better way.
For now, I rant.

Aunt Violet

*Watsu sharks: A sort of Northern California-style gigolo; a guy with strong arms who hangs around in warm pools at Harbin looking for single women to float.
**Bikram Yoga: Yoga that is done in a room heated to about 100˚ for absolutely no reason I can possibly imagine. I do yoga myself, but it makes my arms ache just thinking about this hot room. From reading magazines at the checkout at Safeway I have learned that Gwyneth Paltrow does this kind of yoga.

10 August 2005

After Camp Mather

What I really wanted to do here, see, before it was 2AM, was write a little about how changed I was by going to a fucking Family Camp. Am I allowed to curse on here? I certainly hope so.

I went to this Family Camp for San Francisco residents last week, because my friend B. called me up and said, "We're going to Camp Mather, get me your tax return so [you and me and our kids] can get a cabin at the discount rate. And make it snappy, this thing has to be in by tomorrow afternoon." Well, I was just floored. I mean, I had no idea what she was talking about, really, but I knew some intelligent and engaging people that actually went to this Family Camp. And LIKED it. A LOT. I tore the place apart looking for last year's tax return.

Now, I know how to arrive in Paris and New York; I could arrive in Rome, too, without too much ado, and Boston, or Vancouver, and pretty much any place that used the same alphabet as me. Philadelphia. Aix-en-Provence. But the California wilderness?! I hadn't a clue. This place is in the High Sierras, right next to Yosemite. Would we have to sleep in a tent? (She said "cabin," didn't she?) Would we have to hang our food from ropes so bears wouldn't eat it? Would we have to poop in a cartoon outhouse with a moon on it, in a hole in a plank of wood ? I had so many questions. And dear, lovely friends were actually coming out of the wood...er, woods, COACHING me, so that I could really, really do this absurd thing: go to Family Camp with my son and my friend's family for a week.

Mosquito nets and extension cords and fans and lawn chairs started filling up the Purgatory Area of my apartment.

I always liked the British idea of Family Camp, but I had no idea they had them here in the United States. Here, most of us had to make a kind of leap to understand the whole Tommy's Holiday Camp thing...like, why were there adults at camp with the kids? And if there were adults, why was Uncle Ernie allowed to fiddle about? What WE did HERE for "sleep-away camp" was send kids alone up to the mountains, so they could have "fun" by themselves in The Country. That is the myth, anyway. I will spare you my expanded discourse on the tortures I endured at the hands of evil bunkmates at Camp Louemma, an innocent Native-American-sounding name until one realized the camp was run by sports fiends Lou and Emma. (I'll save this for another rant, one about clueless camp directors and sadistic 11-year-old girls.) Anyway, this Family Camp thing actually sounded like a pretty good idea, but I had no idea they had them here.

I had been mortified by an old friend who once told me, after she'd had kids and I didn't (yet), that she and her husband had gone on a Disney Cruise. This kept me from having kids for at least another 6 years. Is this what parenting would make of me? A person that will go on a Disney Cruise? It felt like I'd be selling my soul to the devil. I was horrrified, with 3 r's. It was creepy, like that housing development in the "F" State next door to Disney World, or ThomasKinkadeland. It would be like having to live with Barney 24/7 and those creepy teenagers (who should be out scoring crack or something) that hang out with him. No thank you. Can you even begin to imagine the food? And the prices?? And all the HATS?! And...Pinocchio? Oh dear, don't get me started.

Well, it's almost three and I haven't made my point yet, so I'd better hop to it. I KNEW this would happen if I started ranting in one of these blog thingies.

The point is, I had a wonderful time at Family Camp. Like that Talking Heads concert I saw in 1988 at the Civic, where there was like Before the Talking Heads Concert and there was After the Talking Heads Concert. I was blown away, I was never the same. This was true for Camp Mather. It was all about being outside, and people all eating together, and eating whatever I wanted (3 meals a day, prepared by someone else, eaten at a dining hall, outside, on a big patio), and not gaining weight because I was happy and I was walking and riding horses and playing ping-pong and swimming and talking and dancing and singing and hiking and lounging by a lake reading and playing bingo and walking many yards (a block?) to a bath house (NOT a plank, thank heavens) every day and back, and I swear I am ready to join a commune. I was so happy and healthy I almost forgot that I wasn't having any sex.

Yes, it was a virtually sexless week, and I came home more determined than ever to create for myself more of a family, which meant joining three more online dating sites. (I would have joined four had there actually been a "Kikes&Goys.com," but that one was apparently a joke on the part of a friend.) Yes, it would have been perfect if I'd gotten to snuggle up with Mr. Right at the end of every wholesome fun-filled day and gotten to have some incredibly wholesome fun-filled sex.

Of course, it was also the first time in 10 years I'd been without email for more than 3 days.

But it was great anyway.

I am a Changed Woman. I went to Trad'r Joe's and bought seven large plants and put them out on "the porch" (formerly known as "the fire escape.") OK, Real Plant People probably don't buy their plants at TJs but it was a start. And now I have a garden! And you won't believe this, but tonight I made oatmeal cookies.

Something unusual is definitely going on here.

Welcome to Rant Violet, Aunt Violet's non-blog.

Vi (do you sign these things?)

09 August 2005

Rant Violet #1

Hi there. Is this thing working?

Welcome to Rant Violet.