Friday, May 28, 2010

Salon Talk

I was at the salon today getting my hair did when the stylist assistant, a spunky little slip in her early 20s with white-blonde hair and a sleeve full of tattoos told me about her most recent drunken faux pas. "I shouldn't drink tequila cause when I do I say crazy things." Apparently during an inebriated moment, she asked a woman with incredibly long nails, so long they curled ("something fierce," according to the hair gal) how she wiped her ass with those things. Surprisingly, this woman didn't slap my friend with the back of her hand. Instead she explained that she wraps the toilet paper around her talons thus protecting her tuchus. Genius!

My friend was satisfied but wondered about other possible risks of growing your nails into claws. "You couldn't use those OB tampons," she said, referring to the ones with finger inserts, "cause you'd give yourself a hysterectomy."

Lady GaGa, Yeshiva style

First, Glee does GaGa and now the so-called "Tichel Cuties" do their own super shtark version. (Thanks to Eli V. for posting this to Facebook first.) You're welcome. And Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Meta American Idol

I don’t watch American Idol. Looking directly at it is like staring at the sun—if the surface of the sun was covered in glitter instead of a chain of fusion reactions. Yet I know all this season’s contestants and last’s. I know that Simon has the chest hair of a Russian man. I know that the pit in front of the stage is filled with automatons that sway rhythmlessly to the beat. How do I know all of this? Because I am an avid watcher of Entertainment Weekly’s recap show, Idolatry, which by extension makes me a fan of AI. How meta of me.

My fandom began innocently enough. After I downloaded nearly every single off of season one champ’s, Kelly Clarkson’s sophomore effort, I wondered if there was something to the show discovered her. I couldn’t bring my snobby self to watch so I began reading recaps of the program. At the time, I was reading many such summaries that I considered myself “too hip” to watch just so I could make knowledgeable, withering comments about their inanity. I found Mr. Slezak’s column on the EW site a few years ago and found his mixture of sarcasm and sincerity to be endearing. He was genuine fan of the show—he loving refers to himself and others that are similarly obsessed “Idoloonies”—yet has a sense of humor about its shortcomings, i.e. Randy Jackson, who is apparently less comprehensible than Mrs. Maloprop. I became a fan of Mr. Slezak, if not of the show itself.

That was until a few years ago when I noticed videos accompanying some of his posts. In the aptly titled web series, Idolatry, Slezak along with a co-host, another EW writer, would discuss the week’s developments—who sang well, who hit the glory notes and who did the musical equivalent of clubbing a baby seal onstage. (My favorite guest host is Kristen Baldwin, who coined the term “The Ghoulish Widower” to refer to season 8 contestant Danny Gokey who seemed to milk the recent death of his wife to get votes, has been on maternity leave for most of this season.) The episodes, which are filmed in his work cubicle, were a pleasing mixture of straightforward analysis and humorous banter, like a McLaughlin Group except about a reality singing competition and less jowly.

While Idolatry may simply be an extension of Slezak’s column, there is one key difference— the insertion of clips from the actual show. These snippets were the first time I had seen any of the actual show, and what I saw didn’t horrify me as I had been expecting. Some of it was good. Some of it was downright sublime (and some of it definitely met my low expectations). Also, the folks at EW constructed elaborate montages that were worthy of a undergraduate film class, in which Japanese monster movies from the late 60s are subtitled with hilarious commentary on AI to subtly insinuate that a certain singer was robotic. Or if Godzilla was rampaging through downtown Tokyo the implication was clear—Kristy Lee Cook had destroyed the Beatles’ Eight Days a Week.

Inspired by what I saw, I went back in time to watch clips from the preceding seasons so I’d better understand Slezak’s references to contestants from the past. I learned that Fantasia is not just a Disney movie about Mickey and a mop with a classical soundtrack that I was forced to sit through as a child—it is also a former winner who famously sung a George Gershwin song from Porgy & Bess. Wait, Gershwin? Porgy & Bess? I thought this show was supposed to be cheesy and completely plebian in its tastes.

Yet despite discovering some of the Idol’s finer moments, I don’t know why I can’t bring myself to watch the series without a filter. Am I really that post-ironic? I’ve loved other pop culture objects that were subject to scorn. I’ve been a fan of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer almost since it premiered when I was in high school. I’ve been forced to defend the show on many different occasions (this was before True Blood and Twilight began the latest vampire craze).
Maybe the difference between then and now is that American Idol is not an object of cultic worship as Buffy had been, the kind that compels adherents to educate others on their tastes. Even its ratings have slipped over the last few seasons, AI remains the most popular show on television. You don’t get a badge of cool for liking it.

And if I’m being honest (which I suppose I already am by admitting to this whole Idol fandom), my musical tastes have never been particularly intelligent or eclectic. Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family that banned hip hop and listened only to Lite FM in the car, I am familiar with Celine Dion’s entire catalogue. If I lived in the world of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity I would be endlessly ridiculed by the record store clerks for my tastes. While in high school, I ran on the treadmill while belting Sarah McLachlan’s only mid-tempo song and used Tori Amos for the cool down sections of my workout. In college, I tried to fashion myself into a person with “good taste,” a person who knew about music no one else had heard of and made CDs for friends with the most obscure artists I could find. When someone entered my dorm and asked, “Who’s singing that?” I’d swell with pride.

Though I’ve dropped most of my faux hipster bravado a long time ago, I still can’t seem to watch AI without my ironic filter. I know they’re truly no “shoulds” in the world of popular music. Neither the Arctic Monkeys nor Kelly Clarkson is the musical equivalent of eating your vegetables. Neither does your body good in any way. They’re just pop songs, and if one’s better than another by some subjective measure, who cares? It’s like arguing the difference between Pepsi and Coke. Perhaps one is better than the other but does it really matter at the end of the day? (For the record, I don’t drink soda so perhaps this metaphor falls flat.)

Yet I’ll continue to follow the finale through my Slezak-tinted glasses, rooting for Crystal Bowersox to make it all the way to the confetti shower at the Nokia Theater. Why? Because Idolatry told me so.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Visit the Rebbe, Get a Cookie

Saturday night was a night of two important firsts- first time I wore a pair of Crocs and first time I visited the Rebbe's grave in Queens. These milestones are actually linked.

I was at an uptown bar celebrating a friend's birthday when I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen for nearly a year due to grad school attendance in western PA. He offered to drive me home to Brooklyn since he was en route to late Lubavitcher Rebbe's grave in Queens. "Why are you going to the Rebbe's grave?" I asked. This MBA candidate was decidedly not a Lubavitch follower. He told me that a friend of his who is Chabad and about to undergo major surgery had asked him to slip a note on her behalf and one in the morning seemed like the best time to do it.

Would the Rebbe wear Crocs?

As we pulled out of the Upper West Side, I told him I was intrigued by the idea of visiting the Rebbe's grave, seeing what all the hoopla was about. I do not believe that the Rebbe is about to rise again anytime soon nor do I think he possessed any supernatural powers unless humility and piety are now superhero powers. (It is kind of fun to imagine the Rebbe as a comic book character- what would his costume look like?) But even though he is deceased and about as likely as anyone else to rise, his influence is undeniable. I wanted to see the grave for myself, maybe glimpse some of the power he continues to exert over people.

After a couple of GPS glitches (the address is not recognized by the satellite), we arrived at the "ohel" (Hebrew for tent, though in this case it was more solid and building-like) at 2 a.m. and passed through a foyer that had large flatscreen television playing footage of the Rebbe speaking to a crowd of women in Crown Heights, to the back room where the Crocs were. It was not permissble to go the grave in leather shoes though I have no idea why. I visit my grandmother's every year in whatever shoes I got on at the moment but when in the Ohel...

I slipped out of my fluorescent sneakers into grayish used rubber shoes. I'll grant that they are comfortable but not more so than my kicks, which are not embarrassing to wear in public. Why did this trend ever catch on?

Then we stepped outside into the actual cemetery. I've been to many graveyards to visit the tombstones of deceased relatives but never at night. I felt like Buffy patrolling for vampires. All I needed was garlic, a cross and more fashionable footwear.

At the mausoleum, my friend and I parted ways. He went through the men's entrance and I, through the ladies'. There was only one other Jew shockeling in front the grave and enormous stone vat that holds all the notes. I dropped mine in, which contained very unoriginal wishes for the health and happiness of my family. It was not the proper time to be snarky or ironic.

But even if I wasn't being my usual sarcastic self, I can't say that I felt much of anything more spiritual either. Perhaps I've grown too cynical but I don't feel connected to the Rebbe in anyway though I appreciate that many others are of a different mind on the matter. I feel more standing in front of my own bubbe's grave, watching my mom weep over her own mother, who I never knew.

If I was slightly troubled by inability to become emotional at the Rebbe's grave, my discomfort was of short duration. When we reentered the ohel and slipped back into our shoes, we found a large box of cookies, like the kind you get at shul after services. We helped ourselves before heading out onto the desolate Queens road.

On an unrelated Chabad note, a good friend of this blog, Feta related a humorous anecdote: When she was just starting to learn about the ways of the Tribe, she was approached by a young Lubavitch boy who asked her if she was Jewish, to which she merrily replied, "Kind of!" The boy returned to the mitzvah mobile to confer with his superiors and returned with the candles and a pamphlet about being Jewish (because it's easily summed up in a few pages-it's not very complicated). When Feta asked the boy what the occasion was, he said, "It's the Rebbe's birthday."

"Tell him I said 'Happy Birthday!'" she told the horrified youth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hebrew School Confession

A few weeks ago, I screened the video of my bat mitzvah for my seventh graders at Hebrew school as a reward for their hard work and an enticement for those who had already entered Jewish adulthood to continue coming to class. It was as unfamiliar to me as it was for my students, many of whom had never attended an Orthodox event, since I hadn't watched it since I was 12 and couldn't preview it since I do not own a VCR.

My bat mitzvah, according to Orthodox tradition, was simply a party. There was no synagogue service, no ritual. It was held on a wintry February Sunday afternoon at a catering hall in Canarsie called Kevelson's. My students were riveted by presence of an uncanny Michael Jackson lookalike-they cried out "MJ" every time this particular woman flitted in front of the camera- and by what passed as "special video effects" back then. (The videographer was obsessed with stills that lingered for nearly 60 seconds at a time.)

But what struck me, aside from the braces, the teased bangs and the mid 90s fashion (which in Orthodox circles more closely resembled the late 80s in style) was how happy I appeared in the video. I don't why this surprised me. I was just 12 and little adolescent angst had intruded.

I suppose that I expected to see signs of the trouble to come, the discontent that would impel me to shuck the Orthodox enterprise. (There was one teeny indication- I sped through my bat mitzvah speech in under 90 seconds. I hadn't wanted to give one since it would interrupt the party. "Really," I tried explaining to my mother, "there is no point. Girls just have parties." But my mother threatened to cancel the bat mitzvah if I didn't offer a few words of Torah and enlisted my cousin to write my speech. So I grudgingly read it from the typewritten pages but so quickly it was incomprehensible.)

As I watched myself on what was arguably my happiest pre-adolescent day, I felt warmer about my religious upbringing than I had in a good long while. A part of me wondered what I have been complaining about for the last five years. Look how happy I was, my brain whispered. Maybe, I thought, I could've gone on being happy in that world.

Ah, nostalgia, you tricky little bitch. You almost got me. In a college literature class about works of mourning and memory, we discussed nostalgia as not just a process of remembering but one of forgetting the most unfortunate pieces, leaving just the happy behind. And I read the following in a Commentary piece by John Podhoretz, "Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make both intolerable."

For a moment, nostalgia almost made me regret my present, somewhat uncertain religious status. But I'm glad that I watched myself as I danced and pranced at my bat mitzvah, even seeing my joy momentarily confused me. It was good to see myself like that, to momentarily puncture my cynicism. I just need remember that what made me happy when I was 12- Paula Abdul cassettes, Mary Higgins Clark paperbacks and frumkeit- no longer works at 27 and that's just fine.

(Okay, maybe Straight Up still makes me smile).

Friday, May 14, 2010


The other night as I was standing on the Brooklyn bound F train platform at the Essex-Delancey stop, I saw someone snapping a picture of a subway sign. When I looked to see what was so photo worthy, I noticed that the traditional spelling of "Brooklyn" had been changed to original Dutch word, "Breuckelen," which means "broken land." At the time, I thought it was an isolated, funny instance of sign doctoring but last night as I limped down to the A train platform after a night of dancing in painful heels, I saw it again.

(photo courtesy of the guy I met on the subway platform)

Has anyone else seen these modified signs? Is it the work of some naughty American history teacher? Or is the MTA changing signs in anticipation of even greater cutbacks than already announced, so great that we will be sent back in time to when the city didn't have mass transit?

UPDATE: An astute reader who possesses the powers of Googling, sent me this link to a small piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I was a really bad club gymnast

My ode to NCAA gymnastics appeared on Frisky yesterday, called "I was a college gymnast." This was not a title I chose but I do find it particularly hilarious and reminiscent of the MTV series, True Life, whose episode names have the same construction:

I'm Hustling in the Hamptons

I Hate My Plastic Surgery

I'm Polyamorous

I'm Happy to be Fat

Much to the chagrin of some of the readers, I'm ill qualified to write such a piece since I did not compete collegiately, which I acknowledge at the start.

But for me, a former gymnast—mediocre in skill, but a gold medalist in mania—April is what I live for.

They felt that such an essay should be written by a better athlete. Believe me, I wish I had been a better athlete but all I got were verbal gifts so I'm just doing the best I can with them. I urge all former competitive gymnasts to write about their experiences- I'm curious to learn more- even if I'm confident that they're not as funny. You have to really suck at things to find your sense of humor.