Friday, May 29, 2009

Hot competition

The competition to be the most verdant street in Brooklyn is heating up, and we're the new kids on the block. It's an evening of discoveries. Behind the green veneer of climbing ferns, window boxes and mulched tree beds ("tree pits just sounds so negative") there's enough simmering rivalry, power struggles and cunning plans to content an army of green-finger Machiavellis. It's like the Archers, but with toy dogs instead of cows. It's like Eurovision, without the camp. That's how serious it is.

Chris and I drink the wine and sample the spread ("it's raining, so we're munching not mulching!") and eye the photos of last year's winners. The reconnaissance work is impressive. The group seems torn between cooing "oh, very nice" (it is) and firmly pointing out that last year's judging was purely political ("after all, they can't let us win every year!"). After the relative ignominy of tying for second place last year, we're definitely in it to win it. We talk outside faucets (which get stolen by local rogues for the valuable copper), 'erb gardens (but isn't Brooklyn a little toxic?) and a fountain for the Children's playground (which could, our host sweetly suggests, be renamed the Kool Kidz Garden).

It's admirable how much effort these men and women are willing to put into beautifying their little piece of New York. There's even an understanding attitude towards residents who don't take it so seriously; after all, everyone is so busy these days, aren't they? Too busy, even, to water the blooms the street provide in big barrels outside their front doors. Only occasionally does the talk turn to less comfortable topics. Our block marks the very edge of Boerum Hill, and gentrified, green-streeted Brownstone Brooklyn. South is the fair and pleasant land of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, with Park Slope an easy stroll down 5th Avenue. North is Downtown Brooklyn: which, as everyone hints, but no-one says, is black Brooklyn.

Beneath the stories of noisy neighbours and unsuccessful block parties is another story: a story about Downtown Brooklyn intruding on Boerum Hill. It's a story told in songs, of loud "urban" music making already irritating parties unbearable. Of a church DJ playing, "you know, that P Diddy hip hop stuff" which was "totally inappropriate. Quite insulting actually to the older people round here." It's a story we want to block out, because these are palpably decent, kind, welcoming people, and we want to help out and get our hands dirty.

But we don't want our hands to get that dirty.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

All Greek To Me

The group of girls standing on the bench look, to my jaded eye, like a line of Malibu Barbies, lovingly posed. Their skins are smooth and tan (as they say here). Their white teeth flash in the May sunshine, and their floral dresses look as good on their girlish frames as they did on the Anthropolgie mannequins. But these girls ain't no dummies; in fact today they're graduating from Yale grad school. Beneath those Hollywood-perfect mortar boards lie five or six of the finest minds of their (our?) generation. They're so matchingly, toothsomely pretty that they're hard to count. But whether there's five, or whether there's six, you can bet your $60,000 tuition fee that they were in a sorority.

At the American University where I was a (sweatier, more hungover, generally less picturesque) graduate, we didn't have the Greek system. There weren't even the "dining houses" that allow for a reined-in version of the same rampant social Darwinism. Perhaps that was wise. This was, after all, the same school where undergraduates cut out Saussure quotes and stuck them to their Old Navy backpacks. I never got the impression that U of C shysters were much cop at the age-old student skills of varsity sports, underage drinking and getting laid. To be fair, their math scores were out of sight.

Looks like Yale's a whole other ballgame. We walk past another group of cheesecakes, these ones posing on the steps to a shadowy looking building. This, we learn, is the headquarters of the Yale Skull and Bones society. Like a fraternity on crack, its workings are secretive and its entry requirements highly selective. Fifteen new "bonesmen" are chosen each year to swell the numbers, and past members include George W himself. Rumour has it that during World War 1 Bonesmen took possession of the skull of Geronimo, and native American chiefs are now demanding its return. If things get too hot for the society, they can always retreat to their private campsite.

We walk on, without seeing the skull, without learning the secret handshakes. By now the Malibu Barbies are all high-kicking in unison. The Skull and Bones boys nod approvingly.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Museum of Sex Chronicles: Part II

I woke up sweating in the night remembering things I didn't want to remember from the Museum of Sex. The slugs that chew of each other's (or, if pickings are slim, their own) penises in order to procreate. The sexually aggressive koalas spreading a chlamydia epidemic through the entire cuddly species. The duck rape flight saga. That last one was the most disturbing. A scientist (who went on to be awarded an Ignoble award for his paper on the subject) watched as one male duck chased another around his garden. The pursued, evidently desperate to get away, smashed into a window and died. His pursuer then mounted the victim's corpse and proceeded to copulate with it for the next forty five minutes.

Now that's dedication to the cause.

Perhaps it's the hormonal excesses of Fleet Week, which are making these facts stick so doggedly in my head. Manhattan is a sea of hungry sailors, honking middle-aged women and jail-bait teens giggling behind their chipped pink nails. Or perhaps it's the little not-quite-love scene I overheard yesterday on the subway. I only caught the Hoyt-Schmerhorn to High Street section, but I'm guessing the pair had been sat next to each other all the long trip from JFK.

"So I'm probably just going to hang out with my Grandma. Go see Terminator, you know." He glances across to see how that deliberately quirky mix goes down. She smiles an approval.
"Well I'm sitting in on my sister's class. Crazy times in New York, I know."
"Well..." a hint of panic flickers in his voice, "I'm getting off at the next stop, but you should ride it all the way into Manhattan."
They both look down at their luggage. The girl speaks first.
"Well it's been really great talking to you. If you're ever down Denver way, come to the Boudoir. That's where I work."
"Oh yeah? What kinda place is it?"
"Oh you know, a sort of bar restaurant place. We could hang out..."
"Sweet. Yeah, Definitely. And look..."
But we're at the station.
"I guess..."
"Well have a great trip."
"Yeah, you too. Have fun with your Grandma."
"Yeah you as well. Your sister, I mean."
"And like I say, it was nice..."
But the doors have already closed behind him. She plugs herself into her Ipod and stares straight ahead, heading for the city.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What I learnt at the Museum of Sex

1. That Amazon Ducks have spiked, 45cm long penises that dangle down into the water like obscene, angry fishing lines.
2. That a monkey's scrotum becomes less blue whenever it loses social status.
3. That the first vibrators looked like electric mixers and were sold as "beauty aids" in the Sears catalogue.
4. That one of the most controversial children's book of recent years tells the true-life story of two gay penguins who raise a chick form an abandoned egg.
5. That deer enjoy threesomes.
6. That snake pit orgies can contain 15,000 writhing reptiles.
7. That Paris Hilton looks annoyingly good in her sex tape.
8. That sea lions deliberately undershoot when they're jumping through hoops because they like the sensation of brushing against them.
9. That female monkeys, even when they're not in heat, partake in gg-rubbing, where they rub their swollen genitals together until they display signs of orgasm (clenched feet, grimace, howling).
10. That lurking around the dark booths of gallery two (Sex on Film) on your own is liable to make you look like a pervert. Even amongst people who choose to spend a sunny New York afternoon in the Museum of Sex.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Laundry Day Blues

Now it seems to me that the very essence of blogging is airing your dirty linen in public. It's like writing a Top Secret diary and leaving it hanging around for your mum or the Park Slope Co-op to read. In fact the very idea of laundry has acquired a new symbolic heft for me since moving out here and away from the rumbling machine in the pantry. Even the very idea of a pantry seems quaint and improbable in our brave new world of two room walk-ups and swollen fridges.

One of the myriad ways that my super and I are uncomfortably in tune is the fact that my dirty laundry always reaches a critical mass on the day that the recycling does too. Backwards and forwards I pass, loaded up like a donkey with Ikea bags brimming with worn pants and cat-hair infested sheets. It feels oddly intimate to stand there making small talk about dogs and the weather and swine flu when only a thin layer of blue plastic separates us from a sluttish avalanche of musty intimate apparel.

"Achieve stuff?" He asks, as I return from the post-wash, pre-dryer run, carrying the damp T-shirts that Chris doesn't trust to the maws of the Atlantic Wash Center dryers.
"Mmm hmmm." I say, thinking of the Heidegger essay I just unmangled over a cup of hot chocolate. "You?"
He doesn't even have to answer. The barricade of clear plastic sacks does the talking.
"Have a great day!"
"You too."
My smile is so cheesy it could clog your arteries.

In 35 minutes I'm due to run the super-gauntlet again, and for me, it is a gauntlet. Working from home rubs away tough the outer social surface that used to let me deal with irate authors and dismissive journalists without flinching. Now normal pleasantries embarrass me, and I know that it won't just be the fug of the permanently pressed clothes making me flush and sweat when I come to finish the weekly duck and dive through the stressed-out mothers and sardonic professionals.

Back at home, finding the basket empty, the cats get busy dirtying up next week's load.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Eggplant soup for the soul

When we lived in Japan we went the whole year on an anti-intuitive diet, denying ourselves fruit and vegetables. While all sorts of raw, suckered tentacles and green-tea cheesecakes found their way into our shopping baskets, the exquisite Fuji apples and swollen peaches remained stacked in their velveteen show cases. With the perverse economy of former students, we figured that while we could afford to spend a thousand yen on a beer, we couldn't afford to spend the same amount on an avocado or a red pepper or a handful of lychees. Instead we'd stalk the produce aisles looking for free tasters, then stockpile the satsumas we were given for school lunches, gorging on six or seven at a time in a desperate attempt to ward off scurvy.

Five years later we're in New York, and we're still trying to kick that habit. After living on organic vegetable boxes in London, we'd gotten used to European stockpiles of swedes, carrots and softening pears. Despite the vast farmlands of the American plains, the produce that makes it to Brooklyn reminds me of Tokyo's less appealing department stores: it wouldn't matter that it was so tasteless, so sprayed with death-dealing chemicals that you can blithely forget it in the bottom of your fridge for a month, if it weren't so stomach-twistingly expensive. After the Co-Op debacle I feel like we've been excluded from the garden of Eden and forced to wonder through a barren, bodega-strewn desert until we reach the promised CSA land at the end of June.

In the meantime, there's always soup. Roasted aubergine and red pepper and mushroom, with beefsteak tomatoes, onions, garlic and celery. Thyme, Parmesan rind and bay leaves, and a pinch of red spice which might be either paprika or chili powder. After a wince-inducing shop, and several hours of chopping/roasting/sweating/bubbling I had created a thick stew that smelled of health and happiness. It wasn't until several portions later that I realised I'd forgotten to add the liquid stock.

"Delicious." Chris murmured. "Kind of like pasta sauce."
Eventually he noticed my death stare, and the way that I'd let my spoon drop back into my bowl.
"What? What did I say?"

This week we'll be mostly eating Hamburger Helper and PopTarts (fruit-flavoured).

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Other Football

We're huddled round discussing plays, and I'm trying to look as if I'm taking it seriously.
"What we're going to do is a double-hand off. Who is faster out of you guys?"
I shrug and point to the other guy. That's almost certainly true.
"Right. So you come up behind me, and then you pass it straight to him, and he'll do a running play. Meanwhile she'll go wide, he'll stay short and we'll see how far we get..."
"What do I do after I pass it?"
"Get out of the way. And into their way. See what I mean?"
I nodded dutifully. We'd already been playing for an hour, and this was the first time I looked likely to touch the funny-shaped ball. So far I had been mostly running around and trying to look like I knew what I was doing... which is precisely my preferred tactic on the so-called soccer field. I must have been doing whatever I'd been doing pretty efficiently, because we had a pretty healthy lead. But that was all about to change.

We lined up and I stared down my opponent. She was a tough broad, and I got the feeling that she wasn't fooled by my game face. Personally, I thought my game face was pretty intimidating until I got tagged in lots of photos looking like a gnome. Bet that quarterback that married Gisele (in a bid to make the world's most beautiful babies) never had that problem.

When the grunt sounds I move as if in a slow motion playback. For a horrible second it looks like I'm going to drop the ball which has been placed directly into my outstretched arms, and which I am charged with conveying a full 10 inches backwards into my teammate's hands. The runner hardly has time to shoot me a quizzical look before he's taken down by one of our strapping opponents. Shouts of "Smooth" come from their side of the field. Although this America, land of free speech, drop kicks and fumbled irony, I'm not entirely sure they're in earnest.

In the next play my natural aggression and butter fingers are put to better use with a bit of tactical body-blocking. But however much I barge and snarl and run like the clappers in my flowery dress the game has turned and lady luck is smiling on our enemies. They finish victorious just as the sun goes behind a cloud. It doesn't matter. I'm one step closer to being an All American Sportswoman... and I have the gnomish photos to prove it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Let's Leave Baby in the Corner

Pride comes before a fall... or at least sustained public humiliation. The minute I signed up for that Tuesday class I knew I'd made a fatal mistake. We were drunk on the sweaty swing tunes and the bumbling beginners' atmosphere and in our heads our six-count swing-outs were a cut above the hoi polloi. Why would we bother with intermediate classes when we could go straight for advanced? Why indeed.

A week later, and it was obvious that the dancing we'd done in our heads was not translating to our feet. To mine, in any case.
"Ow, she's hurting my hand!" my partner squealed, as I apologetically relaxed my death grip and tried to remember anything I'd ever known about lindy-hop. Our old teacher Simon used to start us off with a One, Two, We Know What To Do. Without his cheesy charms and the anonymity of a packed dance-hall I'd lost the plot, the beat, and all semblance of expertise. My body is a rigid cringe of embarrassment; my footwork a fudging mess of incompetence.

"I just can't make my feet behave" I quip to my severe-faced partner, as the cute, elvin teacher looks at me through narrowed eyes, wondering what she's done to deserve a pupil like me.

The "Truth Combo" she's devised to warm us up and weed out the weaker links gives me a syncopated tasted of the rhythms of rendition. Five minutes in and I'm ready to spill my guts and admit defeat. Yet at the end of the class she insists we are not the weakest of the three couples. Somehow this little sop to my pride makes me promise to practice, and stick it out.

Now the hours are ticking down to this week's class and swine flu is looking like a more and more attractive prospect.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Throwing Stones in Gingerbread Houses

Now as someone who grew up thinking that they probably-weren't-but-might-just-be a vampire, it is strangely gratifying to see Bloodsuckers trumping Spell-casters in the zeitgeist hit parade. Although I remain leery of mirrors after dark, I still enjoy charting the success of those Twilit characters who are brazenly "out of the crypt" and serving as role models for the hitherto reluctant undead.

Sadly for my craven brothers and sisters, it seems a new moon has dawned over New York. For the past week it's been witches everywhere I turn - and not young, perky, OWL-studying ones either. In The Witch's Trinity, hunger turns the inhabitants of a German village against each other, and once you're accused of witchcraft the only way out is via a burning pyre. More prosaically, the play Gingerbread House presents a mother who sells her disappointed children, and is branded a witch when she decides she wants them back.

While Erica Mailman's book played into my obsessive Horrible History reading habits (I can, to this day, recite a dozen authentic tests of witchcraft, none of which involve a duck and a pair of scales), the play's magic was a little dark for me. When the ghostly illuminations of the missing children stopped hinting at the horrors they were enduring, and started openly describing their abuse, the spell was broken. For anyone who's ever worked on a misery memoir it felt like the grimiest sort of busman's holiday. In contrast, even the fetid atmosphere of Transylvania felt like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Compare active ingredients to Vicks NyQuil

It's hours since I took the last couple, but still my eyes are moony, pupils dilated like an anime character. Anime is on my brain - or should be in any case. But each time I come back to my desk from gazing at my kuwaii reflection in the bathroom mirror I can't get my thoughts to sing in tune. I'm writing a treatment for a series of Young Adult novels, and one of the categories on the form is What Is It Not Like? This, to me, seems a question of infinite possibilities. It is not like Anna Karenina. It is not like Sweet Valley High. It is not like Lego, or cauliflower, or irony.

I give up on producing and decide to try being an idle consumer instead. If my head was cloudy before, it's now a whirl of candyfloss and it is only with effort that I can relate one scene of the Dollhouse to the next. I'm not sure whether the problem is mine or Joss Whedon's.

But despite the disorientation, the fuzzy-mindedness, the vague discomfort of being tripped-out on over-the-counter medication I still reach for the poor man's NyQuil before going to bed. Anything that can string me out this much, must be making me better, I reason, woozily, trying to push aside the suspicion that what I am doing is akin to amputating my foot to cure a fungal infection. Surely I should just shut up, dose up, and put my trust in the American pharmaceuticals?