Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A History of Laziness

This weekend, my family and I made a pilgrimage to a town called Arab, Alabama, where my grandparents lived when I was a little girl.

If you’re not a local, you may be under the impression that the name of the town, A-R-A-B, is pronounced like a person from, say, Saudi Arabia. But it’s not. It’s AYE-rab, thankyouverymuch. Much in the way that Mobile, Alabama doesn’t sound like the word that means “moveable.” Or how, in NYC, only tourists pronounce the street called “Houston” like the city in Texas.

Throughout the South, you’ll find a slew of towns with Middle Eastern names, perhaps inspired by 19th Century orientalism. In the case of Arab, I always assumed that the founders wanted to give the place an exotic name, but Cairo, Memphis, Thebes and Alexandria were already taken by other Southern towns. So they just said, what the heck! Let’s just call it Arab! “Like those people with the towns with the names,” as Bill Cosby might’ve said.

I’ve since learned that the story is a bit more complicated. Originally, Arab was called “Arad” (as in, Mount). At some point, folks decided it was time to emblazon the town name on a water tower. But the poor painter was either dyslexic, illiterate, or both, because he ended up painting a “b” on the end of the word instead of a “d.” 

Now, paint is expensive. And climbing up a water tower is an awful lot of trouble. So the folks in the town figured it would be easier to just change the name of the town rather than repaint.

I would be willing to bet you that the person who made that call was one of my ancestors. Why? Because that is just the sort of thing that a member of our family would do. It’s not to say that we’re lazy per se. It’s that special breed of laziness where you’ll go to extraordinary lengths to take the so-called easy way out. And I must confessI’m more guilty of this than anyone I know (Paul can tell you. Just ask.). Anyone, that is, except my dad.

On the drive up to Alabama last week, my aunt reminded us of a classic “Kennedy moment” that illustrates this point. Ages ago, when he was in grad school, Dad decided to drive from Alabama to Delaware, where Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Jim were living at the time. It was a ’52 Plymouth, and he hadn’t gotten around to changing the oil since… well, ever.

Somewhere around Virginia, the crank shaft broke, and the car started hemorrhaging oil.
At this point, most people would stop and get the car fixed. Or sell it for scrap. Or take a bus. Or call home for a loan, or take any number of other well-reasoned measures. But that is not the Kennedy Way.

As fate would have it, the Plymouth conked out right in front of an Army-Navy supply store. This gave Dad an idea.  He went in and bought a gas mask. (You know, like you do when your car breaks down…)  His next stop was a filling station, where got a drum of, um, “slightly used” motor oil. There are many things that are good to get second hand, but motor oil is NOT one of them. Technically, you can use burnt oil-- if you don’t mind your car filling up with a cloud of toxic black smoke. But Dad had thought of that. With one hand, he held the nozzle of the gas mask out the window, to access some slightly-less-toxic air. Problem solved! "Changing the oil" is for chumps!

Not one to be deterred, my father set back out on the road to Delaware. Every fifteen minutes or so, he would have to get out and add another gallon or so of oil. (The car must’ve leaked more than the Exxon Valdez, but in those days, everybody was too busy eating asbestos to worry about such minor environmental hazards.) On the highway, thick black smoke billowed in the car’s wake, like a prop from a particularly elaborate Wagner opera.

Scene: The next morning.  A pleasant neighborhood near the University of Delaware, where my aunt was teaching at the time. In a theatrical cloud of black smoke, a man in a World War One-era gas mask emerged from a car held together with a pants belt (did I mention that the door, which was broken, was held together with a belt?). The next day in the faculty lounge, Aunt Jeanette must’ve been hard-pressed to explain why Mad Max—a fictional character who didn’t yet exist—had roared into their nice, clean neighborhood.

“Yep. That’s a genetic trait,” Paul noted, when I told him the story of the Plymouth.

Paul reminded me of our various stress-inducing moves, but especially the first one, when we moved in together. Instead of hiring a man with a van, I decided to move most of my stuff in a series of cab rides across Manhattan. Taxi drivers cursed my heritage as I filled their trunks will hastily-packed Hefty bags filled with my various belongings. (Classy, it was not.)  Paul later did the math and noted that I probably spent two hundred bucks on all those cab trips, which would’ve been enough to pay some movers, or rent a U-Haul. Or something. But again, that is not the Kennedy Way.

Some people just love the thrill that comes with doing things the hard way. Especially if this involves saving a few bucks. My dad used to go to ridiculous—and often costly—lengths to save even the smallest amount of money. For him, it was almost like a puzzle, or some elaborate live-action video game. For example, he had a little Cessna that he would regularly fly to another state to get slightly cheaper fuel. See, gas is a lot cheaper in Georgia, so… yeah.

At this point, you might say, “But, it seems like the time and money it would take to fly to Georgia would offset the…” Trust me. Don’t over-think it. Your head will explode.

Aunt Jeanette also loves to tell a story about one of the times she and my folks came to visit when I lived in Paris. Like most people who are, ahem, “careful with money,” my dad has an almost pathological dislike of taxis. Thus, he decided that it would be cheaper for the three of them to take a bus to the airport, rather than a taxi. I pointed out that the bus was roughly $10 per person (total: $30), and a taxi at the time was roughly… $40. Still. Dad insisted that it was “the principle of the matter.”

What principle?” I asked.

Dad gave me That Look. The one that must’ve struck fear in the hearts of his students when he was a school principal, and in principals when he was a superintendent. One of those looks that makes you feel very, very wrong about whatever statement you just made, no matter how rational or accurate it may be.

“You know good and well what I mean,” he said, in a tone and accent recalling the judge from My Cousin Vinny.

I didn’t, but I did.

To map out how to get to the right bus station, we had to spend almost an entire day doing a “dry run.” Then, on their final day, Jeanette and my folks schlepped their luggage in and out of several (elevator-free) Metro stations with complicated changes, and onto the bus, which takes a long and sinewy route (through Poland, I believe) to get to Charles de Gaulle.

When I told this story to my cousin Reid, he had a delightfully optimistic take on the whole misadventure. “But… you must’ve seen a lot of things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen!”

And Reid had a point. We did see a bus depot, several brothels, and any number of Gallic hobos that the shiftless, taxi-taking tourists usually miss.

Now that I think about it, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to say my family does things halfway (although that won’t stop it from being said). Instead, we live at the intersection of laziness, innovation, and sheer determination of will. It is a conceptual place that used to end in a “d,” but where reinventing the world is easier than repainting a water tower.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Eat your unwanted Viagra emails!

The other day, I came home to an odd, hard-to-place smell: a mélange of hot rubber, bacon grease, and burning hair. 

“Uh… don’t go in the kitchen,” Paul said, avoiding my gaze. He looked like a dog who’s just peed on the parquet floors. “There’s something in there you may find a bit, um …disturbing.”

Disturbing?  Hmmm.... A dead rat?  A live hooker? A case of Cheese Whiz?

With great trepidation, I peered into the kitchen. My one open eye instantly spotted the iconic rectangular can immortalized by Andy Warhol. (Hint: it may contain snouts, taints, and other parts of the pig generally only known to morbid anatomists.)

Yes, Paul had cooked -- and eaten -- a sizeable chunk of Spam. To my knowledge, this wasn’t to win a bet, or because he was somehow trapped in a fallout shelter. Which are the only reasons I can think of to eat this un-kosher (in every sense of the word) abomination.
Proof the even God is not above shameless pressed-meat product placement...
Paul received the Spam in question as a birthday gift from our friend Keith, who enjoys this long-lasting Meat Product with Miracle Whip, olives, and Wonder Bread. As a novelty gift, Spam is hilarious; as a meal, it’s just disturbing. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I prefer not to eat foods that could survive a nuclear apocalypse. This goes double for pressed meats that are synonymous with unwanted emails from offshore accounts touting discount Viagra and/or “Near you girls are now wanting the sex click here!!!”

“We didn’t have any other Caveman-friendly foods,” Paul complained. Why he couldn’t hunt and gather some food from the grocery store, I don’t know. 

At least it wasn’t a bison carcass. But I’m not sure that would’ve been any better.

I would go on about this, but first, I have to figure out how to adjust the Spam filters in our kitchen cabinets.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Caving as a Caveman

As for the Caveman Diet, well… I caved. To be honest, I only lasted a few days. Cheese and crackers, offered by The Calf & Kid, beckoned me to return from the Paleolithic to the Atomic Age.

I hate diets. As soon as something is forbidden -- even if it’s something I don’t even eat very often --  suddenly, I can think of nothing else. On the Caveman Diet, that’s how I felt about bread, and cheese, and other products of that crazy thing we call the “Agricultural Revolution.”

The last time I went on a diet was shortly before we got married. At the time, the South Beach Diet was all the rage, so I decided to give it a go. If you’re not familiar, the first two weeks are pretty extreme; almost no carbs of any kind, very low fat, etc. Lots of baked fish and steamed vegetables, but without any salt, oils, or aerosol canned Cheese Product. It’s supposed to be “delicious” and “filling,” but (spoiler alert!) … it’s not. 

Around the eighth day of the diet, I found myself in the bread isle of a grocery store, determined not to fall victim to the siren song of the refined carbohydrates. For the next half hour, I found myself wandering around the store, clinging to a loaf of actual Wonder Bread (something I never normally eat), cradling it in my arms like a beloved newborn baby. Ignoring the strange looks from fellow shoppers, I shoved my nose in the top of the bag, savoring the aroma of the high-glycemic, low-fiber goodness. 

That’s when I realized that there’s a fine line between a low-carb diet and prisoner interrogation strategy. If I were a terrorist suspect in Guantanamo, all they’d have to do would be to put me on the South Beach Diet. After the first two weeks, I would happily make up any number of damning lies about my family, country, or heritage in exchange for a small crust of delicious, high-carb bread. 

Of course, the real South Beach diet is something else entirely. I’m pretty sure it involves an eight-ball of Peruvian blow, black coffee, and a gallon of Captain Morgan’s rum. (You may or may not die on this diet, but either way, you’ll definitely loose weight.)

Maybe it’s my years of living in France talking, but I don’t think bread is the enemy. I’m one of those nuts who believes in that crazy fringe theory of dieting, known as “eat less, exercise more.” Say this out loud, and people tend to just look at you and shake their heads, as if you were one of those people who thinks 9/11 was really the work of a covert group of German Shepherds trained by the CIA. 

Amazingly, Paul is still going strong on the caveman diet. But the life of a hunter-gatherer isn’t easy -- he’s eating a lot of fruits and nuts, which he foraged down at Safeway. Even though he’s not eating bread or cheese, at least he has the consoling fullness that comes from winning a bet with one’s spouse. Which is almost, but not quite, as delicious as a big, fat slice of pizza.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Albania, my labia, and other would-be Nirvana lyrics...

My leg was up in the air as a nice lady named Violetta poured hot wax over parts of the body that are sometimes, euphemistically, thought of as “private.” 

Like a solid 95% of people who’ve intentionally ripped patches of hair off my nether-regions, Violetta had a distinct Eastern European accent. This may not hold true in other parts of the country, but in New York, I’ve never once been waxed by an aesthetician who didn’t hail from a former Soviet or Eastern Bloc nation. (Trust me, it’s a thing.)

To distract me from the pain and/or awkwardness of the situation, she asked me about my summer plans (none).  The next *riiiiip* left me shuttering in painful silence. To fill the void, Violetta volunteered that she was about to leave for a few weeks to visit her family in Albania.

Again, silence. Maybe it was the endorphins from the pain, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Not wanting to be rude, I piped up.

“I’ve always wondered. Why are there so many, uh...?”  What’s the word? Waxers? Is that an offensive term?  “There seem to be many waxing professionals who come from Eastern Europe. Do you know why … ?” 

The words hadn’t left my mouth before I realized how stupid this sounded. Like many people with limited filters, I spend a lot of time digging my way out of well-intentioned, yet thoroughly ill-advised statements.

“Is there, maybe, a special school, or … ?” 

For a second it felt like I was floating over my body, listening to someone doing a bad impression of a particularly idiotic American. A special school? Really? Did I think I would evoke fond memories of her time as an exchange student at the Gulag School of Beauty & Interrogation Tactics?

Violetta was nonplussed. I worried that I’d offended her, which is never wise to do to someone in direct proximity to both hot wax and one’s exposed genitalia. Besides, my intention was the exact opposite! It was just an awkward attempt to make conversation! I wanted to shout. I’m not an anti-Waxite!

As often happens when I get nervous, I couldn’t just shut up.

“Or maybe Eastern nations have a rich tradition of … you know….”

Day spas? Waxing? Inflicting pain? Anything I could possibly say next would just make matters worse.

“Leg, more higher,” she said with authority. I complied.

Using a tongue depressor, Violetta spread another layer of hot wax onto a place complete strangers don’t normally see. The wax always feels so nice and warm, in those seconds before--


Maybe it was just a coincidence, but this one hurt more than the last. I knew it was time to change the subject, and fast. Say something nice about Albania!, my reptile-brain shouted to the bits of grey matter that retain facts and figures from the World Almanac (in my case, about 10 cells).

That’s when I realized that 99% of my knowledge of her country of origin came from TV sitcoms I watched as a kid. One was a very early episode of The Simpsons, which aired during the waning days of the Cold War era. Bart was sent to France, and the family got an exchange student from Albania, who turned out to be a spy who was stealing secrets from Springfield’s nuclear power plant. This prompted a lengthy and boring lecture from my dad on the history and geopolitical difficulties Albania, something about how it was one of the most isolated and repressive of the Eastern Bloc countries, blah, blah, blah. This didn’t help the problem at hand.

“So, I hear your country was cruel and repressive!” Not a good conversation filler, though it may answer some questions about the waxing.

Albania, Albania, Al

Into my head popped the voice of Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties, singing in a lilting melody: “Al-bay-nee-AH! Al-bay-nee-AH! You border on. The. Ay-dree-ATIC!” 

If you’re an American born at any point in the 1970s or early 80s, assuming you’re not Amish, you know the episode in question. Chances are, the melody leaped to mind at the mere mention of Albania.

In case you missed it, I’ll try to summarize based on vague, possibly-faulty recollections (please don’t make me re-watch this episode). High school student Alex P. Keaton was on some sort of academic decathlon team which was headed for the finals (or whatever)!  One of his fellow team members got sick (or whatever), leaving them one person short for the big match.  For reasons that escape me (and that probably defy all logic in the first place), Alex’s sister, Mallory, was the only person on earth who could fill the empty seat.

The hilarity-inducing problem? Mallory was dumb and superficial (i.e., female), whereas Alex was super-smart (i.e., non-female). Thus, Alex had to stay up all night coaching Mallory before the big match. Hence the song/mnemonic device about the geography of Albania.

Back to the 21st century. The waxing table. My leg raised in a contortion worthy of Cirque de Soleil as Violetta does her thing in awkward silence.

“Albania.” I paused for effect.  “Doesn’t that (ahem) border on the Adriatic?”

I tried to act casual, as if I always spent my days discussing the Adriatic and its formerly-repressive border-nations. But secretly, I was pretty darn proud of myself.

Violetta didn’t even look up. “Mmmm,” she nodded.

*RiiiiiP!*  A searing pain.

Just ‘Mmmm’? I thought. I’m not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting, but definitely more than a mere “mmmm.”  Which, in retrospect, is thoroughly ridiculous. To her, my observation was about as impressive as saying, “The United States… that borders on Canada, right?”

The rest of the session continued in painful silence, a I silently cursed the producers, writers, actors, caterers and key grip of Family Ties. You see, this was not the first time an awkward situation made even more awkward by an entirely separate quote from the very same episode. It was years before, on a bad blind date with a guy who was obsessed with SCUBA and, well… it’s a long story.

At least the guy in question never saw my labia.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Yabba Dabba Diet - Part 1

It's what's for dinner...

Thanks to Amtrak, Paul and I are on the Caveman Diet. This is what happens when a marital bet goes terribly, terribly wrong.

It all started last week, on a train ride to Portland.

Until recently, cars, trains and airplanes were among the last havens of forced non-connectivity to Our Electronic Overlords. To lure more folks to ride the rails, Amtrak is “Now featuring Wi-Fi!!” on the Cascades route. Thus connected, Paul somehow stumbled upon an article on “Urban Cavemen,” people who strive to eat like early, pre-agricultural humans -- no wheat, no dairy, no ... [whatever the hell’s in Fruity Pebbles]. 

Some guy on the Internet reported that he lost all kinds of weight by eating like it’s 19,999 B.C. (And no doubt he’s getting a TON of hot Neanderthal chicks.)

“I’m SO doing this,” Paul declares, brandishing the article on his tablet.

“What’ll you eat?” I ask. “Free-range Wooly Mammoth?”

Paul got that look that husbands sometimes get when their wives fail to understand, say, the vast and important difference between early and recent Spider Man comics. The look he gets when I ask, about virtually any video game: “But … what’s the point?”

If you’re not familiar with the so-called Caveman Diet, the idea is that you only eat foods that would’ve been available to our ancestors during the Paleolithic era, affectionately dubbed “the Paleo” by a growing legion of followers. For instance, dairy is strictly verboten (early man couldn’t be bothered with animal husbandry). Ditto for potatoes, corn, wheat and all other grains. Eggs make the cut, since early humans would gather eggs from birds’ nests, and, presumably, eat them raw (yum!). Thus, neo-Cavemen are free to forage for chicken eggs down at their local Whole Foods. Similarly, you can eat all the nuts you want (after all, you are what you eat...).

The hard science behind this idea is hotly debated among nutritionists, anthropologists, and couples on stalled Amtrak trains.

Advocates of the Caveman Diet are, to say the least, passionate about "the lifestyle"   (saber-tooth tiger bathrobes are optional). Imagine the combined zeal of a Scientologist, a Mary Kay Cosmetics Representative, and the Sham-Wow! guy, and you begin to approach the level of enthusiasm of your average "urban caveman." 
According to the website Caveman Power, this diet “gets you tuned into your animal instincts … your senses will become sharper; like an animal in the wild.” They go on to note, “The Caveman Power Diet is like a good friend you can turn to at anytime, for support and direction.” [Emphasis mine.]

Yes, this diet will totally be your BFF. It will lend you money. It will help you move. It will cry and watch Sandra Bullock movies with you when your partner dumps you because of the rotting bison carcass in your living room.

I’m no Paleontologist, but I have been to The Museum of Natural History on several occasions. I’ve seen the dioramas. Those Early Humans didn’t look happy. Their clothing was very unattractive. They had to spend all their time hunting and gathering, which prevented them from spending their days in higher pursuits, such as looking at videos of rapping gerbils on YouTube.
Cave people, in early Alexander McQueen couture
I, for one, don’t want to go back. I’m a big fan of Agriculture. I would totally friend it on Facebook. Thanks to agriculture, we enjoy stables such as tobacco, popcorn, and Slurpees. Other perks include bread, and cheese, and not having to eat the liver and kidney of a Wildabeast. Ever. Unless, of course, you happen to be in Scotland, where Wildabeast Innard Pie is considered a delicacy.

To make a long story short, I bet Paul he couldn’t go 48 hours as a pseudo-caveman.

He extends his hand for a shake. "Bet I can do it longer than you can.”

 I reminded him that beer is an agricultural bi-product, and hence was unavailable to hunter-gatherers.

Paul considers this. “Okay, not counting beer.”

I give him a look. “Cavemen drank beer?”

“No, but … My diet, my rules.”

Don’t think too hard about the logical problems, there. We’re going to be Wilma and Fred Flintstone in our own, special way. Let’s see how long it lasts…