Friday, November 25, 2005

Don't Go Changin'

I know folks don’t enjoy being pigeonholed, but it seems to me that the world contains two groups of people: those who like Billy Joel and those who don’t.

This division might seem arbitrary. Actually, it is arbitrary. I decided a couple of days ago, after an uneventful phone conversation with HTS. She was describing the stand-up routine of some locally popular comedian (“That Mr. Pibb...he’s just lazy! Why don’t he get his degree?”), and I asked if she had any comedy clips in her MP3 collection. “Would you burn a CD for me? I’m all alone and friendless in Charlottesville...” The self-pity routine hasn’t gotten me too far on this blog, but it worked for HTS, sort of. “What can you burn for me?” Ah, reciprocity. Well, I have Aerosmith. No? Justin Timberlake? Long pause. Billy Joel? I swear, the receiver got much warmer. “Don’t you dare put any of that ‘Always a Woman’ crap on my CD!”

Hmmm...frequently kind...suddenly cruel. (Only kidding, dear.)

After we mutually decided on Carly Simon (Moonlight Serenade album), I took a moment to evaluate my stance in the pro-Billy camp. What is it about the Piano Man? In my mind, his songs can be collected in three categories: Peppy Billy (“Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It”), Edgy Billy (“You May Be Right,” “Movin’ Out”) and Sappy Billy (“Just the Way You Are,” the controversial “Always a Woman”). But despite the dichotomies, he tends to, well, sound the same. It’s not like the Beatles’ early years versus “Paul is dead.” If Billy Joel were a food, he’d be pumpkin pie. As Garrison Keillor put it, “How different is the best pumpkin pie you ever ate from the worst pumpkin pie you ever ate?”

I suspect my boyfriend is anti-Billy. Since the start of our relationship, he’s made me two CDs. CD 1 contains Belle and Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward, and Wilco, among others. CD 2 contains more Belle and Sebastian, more Sufjan Stevens, Wolf Parade, Built to Spill, and Animal Collective. No “Captain Jack.” I’ve burned him one CD in return: “Cantaloop Flip Fantasia,” Notorious B.I.G. “Hypnotize,” and Dee-lite “Groove Is In the Heart.” I don’t know why I go to extremes.

Can Billy-yin reconcile with Billy-yang? This morning I looked to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for answers. B. Joel was one of Ellen’s guests, and I hoped Ellen would get Billy to the couch, allowing a dose of armchair psychology. No luck. After a pumpkin-pie rendition of “Only the Good Die Young,” Billy left the studio, making room for Queen Latifah. Somehow I doubt Queen Latifah listens to Billy Joel, either.

Perhaps I’m in dubious company on my River of Dreams, but I refuse to jump ship. These are unpredictable times: W.M.D. or no W.M.D.? Carbs or no carbs? Melt in your mouth or hit you with a street lamp ( I’ll take Billy’s state of mind and skip the 500-lb. chocolates.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

You Say Turkey, I Say Tofurkey

It took five or six minutes to place the voice down the booth at Starbucks. Peter Sellers? Not as nasal. Rumpole? Not as blustery. But it had to be one of those cartoonishly British on-air personalities. Mr. Belvedere? Maybe. I don’t really remember Mr. B’s speech pace and inflections, only that he was a TV butler. Is it ethnocentric to characterize a British voice as butlerish? Yes, I think so. Forget Geoffrey from “Fresh Prince,” then. And that Remains of the Day guy. In the end, I settled on the moderator from “My Word!,” the Balderdash-meets-Linguistics 101 game show on NPR/BBC. I’d need chirpy theme music to be certain.

The elderly woman at the corner table sounded exactly like Ex Who Shall Not Be Named’s mother, who in turn sounded like every loveable Southern grandma on Stouffer’s chicken commercials.

The cashier who handed over my cappuccino (whole milk, cinnamon on top) spoke with no particular accent or clip. Perhaps he’s the standard voice, against which other voices are measured. If everyone sounds like somebody, then there has to be an original “voice,” right?

When my boyfriend tries to imitate my accent, he comes off as a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Foghorn Leghorn. I pin him as a mix of NPR’s “Car Guys” and Vinny from “Doogie Howser.” We’ve been dating long enough for me to call him my “boyfriend,” but we haven’t reached the point at which flirtatious teasing can be dropped. “Mind if I paahk my cahh in this lot?” I ask him. “Well, fiiiine, Ellie Mae,” he replies. “You jest do thayt.”

I shouldn’t have been at Starbucks on Monday morning. Last week I vowed a 7-to-6 Thanksgiving holiday work schedule, in anticipation of my early-December deadlines. I’d rise at 6; shower; dress; email briefly; start work at 7, and pause only for an hour-long lunch break. Today I stuck to the plan (more or less...silly Friendster), but Monday I needed a prescription refill, and Barnes and Noble/Starbucks shares a shopping complex with CVS. Should I stay and sip? Should I drive back to my apartment and retrieve an ego development study? Best American Essays 2005 perched right next to the java: bright red cover, David Sedaris beckoning on the inside. I could afford an hour. Have you heard David Sedaris’s voice? No comparison.

And I’m glad that I chose the Starbucks booth over my computer desk. Sometimes I do need to hear voices other than the nagging ones in my head. My inner voice alternates between Madeleine Albright and Fran Drescher. “Everything is okay, dear,” it says, with a faint Eastern European accent. “This day has been good, and one mustn’t worry about the future.” Then, Fran takes over: “My gawd, can’t you stay focused for a second? Jeez! Get back to work!” Fran does not go to Starbucks, apparently. Or if she does, I have mistaken her for someone else.

There are certain voices I don’t enjoy: Fran; the FOX sportscasters who wake me at 6; my own, echoed on my cell phone as I’m trying to chat with my mother. Mom and I started sounding alike several years ago, in accordance with the “turning into my mother” stereotype. But am I borrowing her “Well, gosh!” and “anyyyywayyy,” or is she taking mine? The reception is too fuzzy to tell.

In any event (anyyywayyy): Happy Thanksgiving. I say “Thanksgiving,” but Boyfriend claims “Thanksgiving” has the proper emphasis. We’ll reach an agreement around the time he stops mock-requesting mint juleps.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Get Smart or Die Tryin'

I suppose Armageddon is not at hand. Reached this conclusion today, after waking to 30-degree weather. For the past three or four days, temps have been in the 60s and 70s. On Tuesday, I wore a t-shirt to class. Mr. President? Um, maybe we should’ve checked out this global warming thing. Or at least moved “the environment” farther down on our shit list. Then again, “Christmas in July” has worked well as an office-party theme. “July at Christmas” could be equally chic.

Just to be safe, I’m stockpiling Aquafina. Another ominous sign: 50 Cent may make Oprah’s book club. Is this the “club” Fitty envisioned all along?

Crazy times.

Unlike Ben Affleck, I can’t honestly say that I “don’t wanna miss a thing.” I wouldn’t mind closing my eyes and falling asleep for the next week or so. UVA has granted students a full week for Thanksgiving break, but this means a shorter pre-Christmas crunch. The co-eds have already traded beer pong for a game I call “Don’t Even Start.” Object: shame anyone who claims to have a heavy workload. I got lots of practice at Wellesley.

Player 1: Ohmigod! I’ve got soooo much to do! Three 5-page papers, two problem sets, and an American lit presentation in the next five days!

Player 2: Don’t even start. I’ve got two 20-page papers, three presentations, and a biophysics lab report in the next two days. And I’m donating a kidney tomorrow.

My contribution to the game -- class presentations on 12/1 and 12/6, a paper on 12/5, a research proposal on 12/9, and exams thereafter. So much for tofurkey and football.

Though I’m not looking forward to T Day in Charlottesville, I can’t complain much. In the spirit of our Puritan antecedents, I find some pleasure in denying pleasure. “Don’t Even Start” probably originated on the Mayflower. Pilgrim 1 said something like, “Ohmigod...what if we don’t find land? I only have enough water to last five days, and I feel a case of scurvy coming on.” Pilgrim 2 responded, “Don’t even start. My water rations ran out yesterday, and Goody Proctor just gave me the mumps.”

Things could always be worse.

The exams and papers aren’t causing me much concern, anyhow. It’s the presentations that might ruin my holiday. I realize public speaking is no match for religious persecution, discomfort-wise. But at least the pilgrims knew exactly what to expect in England: marginalization, jail, flogging. Public speaking involves a few more “what ifs.” What if my PowerPoint slides vanish into the techo wilderness, leaving me alone at the podium? What if my voice goes shaky and sheeplike? What if my legs refuse to perform their standard, torso-supporting function?

Count me among the individuals who fear public speaking more than death. Death might involve humiliation, but, by definition, you don’t have to live with the shame.

The 12/1 presentation is for Social Stigma, and the professor has advised us to frame our schpiel as a “story.” “What you want to do is tell us a story about some part of the stigma literature,” she explained. If you’re in the mood for a “story” --that is, if you’re not playing “Don’t Even Start,” and you have time to comment on my presentation draft -- please email me. Most of you are writers (newsies) or teachers (past or present) or both, and I could sure use your critiques. In exchange, you’re welcome to share my doomsday shelter or organic pumpkin pie.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

68-Day Cinema

Have we ever discussed how fun it is not to be pregnant? No swollen ankles. No aching lower back. No restrictions on caffeine, alcohol, or Space Mountain. The joys of unpregnancy are on my mind today, not because my own “with childness” has been in question, but because my advisor canceled our 11 a.m. weekly meeting due to her impending (Thanksgiving Day) delivery. “I can’t really move,” she explained over the phone. Mobility: hard to overrate.

Like a good advisee, I made sympathetic noises and offered “anything I can do to help.” I then thanked the anti-fertility gods and ran to the grocery store for wine, coffee, and maybe a non-craved jar of pickles. Skipped the ice cream aisle.

Even with wonky hormones and sore feet, my advisor is a pleasant person. I really would help her if I could, but in the oft-quoted words of Butterfly McQueen, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.” I will, however, gladly volunteer for diaper duty when I return to New Orleans in the spring.

Yeah, I’ve decided to go back. My landlord says the apartment is in good shape, and the Tulane Web site continues its abuse of exclamation points (“Only 68 days until the first day of classes!” “Students, parents head back to campus!”). As I read these enthusiastic snippets, I imagine Tulane’s provosts skipping around their desks and spontaneously bursting into song: University Renewal, the Musical.

My own punctuation of choice is the ellipsis. I’m not certain how I feel about leaving Charlottesville...guess I’ll adjust.

Ambiguity triggers odd desires for me. I’m not talking sauerkraut with chocolate sauce -- my appetite is more cinematic. I need to see When Harry Met Sally.

When Harry Met Sally is my mac ‘n’ cheese: my comfort movie. Feel free to share your own. A good friend credits Grease for easing her through her harder-partying early 20s. She claims that Grease is the perfect hangover flick: from start to finish, it matched the length of her post-debauchery nausea. “I knew that by the time Sandy and Danny sailed off in the convertible, I’d be okay,” she said.

When Harry Met Sally is 90 minutes long -- enough time to feel depressed without sliding into Radiohead territory. The length isn’t so important to me, though, nor is the dialogue or most of the plot. I do believe men and women can be friends.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal aren’t my favorite actors, either. As a romantic-comedy team, I prefer Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (well, before they got divorced).

I think I like this movie for what it isn’t. It’s not a “love at first sight” tale. Harry and Sally meet after college, but they stumble around for 10 years before falling for each other. There isn’t much action: no big vacation montages or career moves. Sally lunches with friends; Harry practices softball. The path to their happy ending is neither complicated nor extraordinary.

And Harry Connick Jr. does the soundtrack.

Class now. Class again in...68 days. In between, I’ll be with my remote.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Tainted Love

Is it love or poor hygiene? I’ve been dating the same guy for three and a half weeks, and yesterday I watched a cricket-sized black bug crawl along my bedroom wall. On the right side of my computer: two empty mini-bottles of Bella Sera; crumbs from a rosemary olive oil loaf; an unwashed orange juice glass. On the left: two cans of Coke Zero; an Adelphia receipt; more crumbs. My trash can leaks deskjet paper and dental floss. My clothes hamper lists to the left. We won’t talk about my bathroom.

There are lots of songs about how love screws with your insides. Nat “King” Cole says, “This can’t be love, because I feel too well.” Love is supposed to knot your stomach; fuzz your brain; increase your heart rate, blood pressure, sweat production. It isn’t supposed to clog your sink.

To be fair, I should say it’s a little soon to use the word “love.” The guy and I certainly haven’t traded “loves” -- “I like you a lot,” we tell each other. It’s the truth. I like the moments he stops along a hike to recount a Calvino short story. I like the fact that he gave me an ironing board on our second date (purchased at a rummage sale, decorated with gingham and bemused cats). I like the way he says “hot” and “God,” because he’s from Cape Cod. And he thinks I have an accent.

I do not like the strange smell in my closet.

Sunday used to be for Mr. Clean and Tidi Bowl. Work five days; play one, and on the seventh day, scrub. I maintained that schedule through much of September, even with the five-week syllabus deficit. But now “like” has come to town, and the carpet crunches under my toes. My health is fine.

In January I’ll leave Charlottesville (maybe), and I should have time to dust again. Until then, don’t check under my bed.