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Thursday
Aug192010

In Which It Really Means Pineapple

For Beginners

by DANIEL D'ADDARIO

I went to London to spend the summer teaching-assisting at a summer program for students from around the world. I chose to believe the program was in the city of London long after it became obvious, in mailed materials, that I would be in a small village. Just how small became clear only on my ride from the airport – the town has only a bar and a combination post office/newsstand. I would sometimes wake up early to buy the Guardian at the newsstand, or go in the middle of the day to get an ice cream bar. It closed in the evening, and then I had to go to the bar.       

I always wanted to join the Scrabble games in the faculty room, but no matter how early I arrived, I was always ten minutes after the start. When I finally arrived at a Scrabble game on time, I found that a hierarchy had been established: certain players were not actually playing but floated around, giving advice on optimal moves, and others sat on the sidelines heckling. I thought I was pretty okay at word games but this felt more like psychological warfare, and I resolved to stay out of the faculty room altogether.       

I only grew more sure of this resolution later, once a co-worker, wife of the chief Scrabble heckler, told me to stop typing so loudly, then said, “Now you’re just typing quietly to piss me off! Go back to normal!” This laserlike focus on other people’s behavior was what united the faculty: stuck in a small village in a strange land, we only had one another’s quirks keeping us tethered to reality.       

I certainly had enough to keep me occupied, having been placed in the classroom of an English-as-a-second-language teacher for whom English was a particularly difficult second language. I tried to parse out for the students assignments that even to me seemed mind-bending and Kaufmanesque, requiring in most instances a keen grasp of the absurd. Once the students had to imagine themselves as babies and think of questions about nature – why one needed to be a baby to ask questions about nature was left unstated. On faster-paced days, whimsy was abandoned in favor of the ability to write one requested set of data with the left hand and another with the right.       

My head teacher told me, in a discussion that fell just short of an argument, that she didn’t think the students in our class were teachable. "They are all naughty!" she declared, with the conviction, and the thick accent, of a woman whose nation’s 20th century had seen plenty of congenital naughtiness. "They cannot be taught." Maybe she was right, in a way; the class was boisterous and clearly didn’t want to be learning English during their summer off from school. They all seemed too young, munching Maltesers in too-big Lacoste their mom (or maid) was still needed to iron; or they seemed too old, rolling their eyes when I asked if they understood the assignment, if they understood generic distinction. Did you hear what the teacher said? Dynasty is a soap opera. That’s a genre.  

This was ESL for beginners. I sat by a ten-year-old Scandinavian with grim Bergmanesque eyes until, after a few days of continuous attention (he was by far the youngest student at the entire program, and actually quite good at English, and I felt an unfamiliar paternalism that I guess teachers are supposed to feel often) he brightened, and out of nowhere told me a Swedish word. I was pleasantly surprised, when I looked it up, that he hadn’t tricked me into repeating a foreign obscenity: “ananas” really means “pineapple.”     

Eventually, in the way such things happen when one is a TA, I was switched into a new and far less eventful classroom. My post-Communist teacher surreptitiously looked over my shoulder as I checked e-mail and discovered that I had been, per routine, asked to submit an evaluation of the class to the academic offices; she called me a spy, told me I’d violated her contract, and asked if I was even qualified to judge her. "I am a certified economist, translator, and teacher. Who are you?" I saw her around a bit on campus after I’d been moved out of her class – she cut a line of students at Stonehenge to get an audio guide – but I didn’t talk to her. The Scandinavian boy asked me to play soccer with him during sports time, but I was wearing Birkenstocks, and had brought a book, and so I sat on the side supervising.

I find I tend to remember the egregious and absurd and thus there was little to report from my next class, in which I sat and watched and participated and learned a lot, I thought, about teaching. A colleague lent me a text called Learning Teaching but I was never quite in the mood to learn by the book once I got back to my dorm room, so it languished on the shelf next to a Spanish textbook I had brought but never opened. (I managed to break out some high school Spanish with the Venezuelan students, though – “Eres de Caracas?” was my opener, and closer.)

The dormitory was so inconducive to reading, or writing, or anything other than watching reruns on Megavideo, perhaps because it too was a workplace. I could not bring myself to devote attention to anything there. I was always on guard – it was my workplace. When not required to be there, I tried to get out and spend time with the younger faculty members – this was what I was supposed to be doing! I went to a nearby town with a few fellow TAs, and we sat by the river on a sunny day, had some drinks, and watched the white swans float by. A swan suddenly sliced open, a red line gashing across its feathers. I looked on in confusion until I heard my co-worker, a twenty-year-old graduate of the school, giggling. She was pouring her bottle of red wine onto the swan. Other sunbathers told her that the swans were the property of the Queen, or just glared at her, but she shrugged it off. “Wine washes off!” she laughed, as the swan, who knew something was wrong, tried to dip its stained backside deeper into the water. I finished my drinks quickly, and spent most of my subsequent free time alone. 

Students got the most excited about weekend field trips, which the faculty seemed to view as an imposition. ("I wish Stonehenge had moved me," said the co-worker who’d lent me Learning Teaching, who spent the trip asking if any of the souvenir shops sold "Stonehenge commemorative cigarettes.") The students could do as they liked, and they were far more worldly than I was at 15, at debate camp in Washington, when I couldn’t make it too deep into Georgetown without freaking out and asking a local for directions, then deciding to go back to my room and study old Supreme Court cases.      

They were maybe more worldly than I was now: on a trip to the town of Windsor, I tried to find Eton College and ended up walking twenty minutes through empty, flat green fields, the pastoral equivalent of the Sahara. I asked a young guy walking back towards Windsor where I was, and I’d been going twenty minutes the wrong way. We walked back together, talking about what I was doing in England and what he was doing in Windsor – he was a very personable young guy, about to go to school for business – and then he sent me off on something called “The Great Walk,” five miles of pasture ending in a bronze sculpture of a horse. “It’ll be totally worth your time.” I made it five minutes, then sat down and read an Adrian Mole novel I'd borrowed from the students' library.       

The greenery of the “Great Walk” – not an American park with overdeveloped flora, just a long green field with some trees in there – was a nice palate-cleanser from both the stresses of teaching and the world of the city. There was no shopping here – the students, when I ran into them, seemed ill-at-ease. I didn’t bother trying to sympathize.       

On an earlier trip into London, I’d gone into Harrods with a coworker my age, who said he just wanted to buy a Swatch watch. During his education in the new Gilded Age’s afterglow, I looked at coffee mugs in the Harrods gift shop. I’d been drinking a lot of tea, and this china cup with red buses – or this one, with black taxis! – would be adorable in my apartment, when I got home, when reality began again. I decided not, though. It’d just break in my suitcase, and I hadn't seen enough red buses or black taxis to feel legitimate sipping coffee – and soon it would be coffee again – from this mug. Mainly, though, it was the price. At thirteen pounds for a mug, I simply wasn’t being paid enough, when you divided it out hourly, to justify the expense.

Daniel D'Addario is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in White Plains. This is his first appearance in these pages. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find more of his work here.

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"Our Riotous Defects" - Of Montreal ft. Janelle Monae (mp3)

"Godly Intersex" - Of Montreal (mp3)

"Sex Karma" - Of Montreal (mp3)

Wednesday
Aug182010

In Which His Personal Brand Is Neo-Plimpton

Sara Ludlow Is The Hottest Girl In School By, Like, A Lot

by MAUREEN MILLER

Twelve

dir. Joel Schumacher

98 minutes

The word for the number twelve comes from the Old English word for the two that are left behind when you take away the ten at the base. Twelve is a composite, even sublime. Surely Nick McDonell had some of this etymologic mishmash in mind when he published his first book at eighteen.

Yet McDonell, now twenty-six, is something purer than the milieu he lays bare in his prose. Scratch all that: I'm trying to talk around the fact that McDonell is an absurdly handsome guy. It's not his fault that his whole chiseled blond vibe is all Spader, and so at odds with the seaminess and prurience that sullies that unfurrowable brow. His personal brand — neo-Plimpton? — sometimes seems like a cosmic joke, an accident of birth or at least one of timing.

Even Our Lady of the Locust Valley Lockjaw, Lisa Birnbach, can't quite find a corner of the pantheon for the McDonells of her world anymore in the rarefied constellations over which she moons in True Prep, the 2010 edition of the Official Preppy Handbook.

One day we became curious or bored and wanted to branch out, and before you knew it, we were all mixed up. (...)

And now one of our nieces, MacKenzie, is a researcher at the C.D.C. in Atlanta and is engaged to marry the loveliest man... Rajeem, a pediatrician who went to Duke. And Kelly is at Smith, and you know what that means. And our son Cal is married to Rachel, and her father the cantor married them in a lovely ceremony. Katie, our daughter, is a decorative artist living in Philadelphia with Otis, who is a professor of African-American studies at Swarthmore. And then there's Bailey, our handsome little nephew. Somehow, all he wants to do is ski, meet girls, and drink beer.

Well, there's one out of five.

That seems to make the McDonells of her world, and his, some kind of sixth man. How... droll.

In book form, McDonell's chosen one is White Mike, thin and pale like smoke. As intoned by Kiefer Sutherland, stentorian keeper of the lovingly warmed-over sterno flame that is the film adaptation of Twelve, the novel's first sentence comes across as instant camp classic, all ennui and pithy, childish self-regard. This line, in all earnest, is genius! Why screenwriter Jordan Melamed chose to bury the lede three or four more sentences in is almost as baffling as the whole notion of Chace Crawford, gaze still unrelenting and opaque after Crawford has spent five years of his live-action life in local prep schools, give or take a postgraduate year. Crawford qua starry-eyed WASP naif has perhaps become as impossible in 21st century New York as Nick McDonell himself.

But bygones! Both McDonell and Crawford are, by all accounts, really sweet and nice guys! And the theatre in which I saw Twelve, a United Artists outpost on East 64th Street and 2nd Avenue, was one of two Manhattan theatres screening the film this weekend. It was deserted except for me, the Dominican manager selling the bottled water I got in lieu of some popcorn, two street toughs, a few pert blondes, and some Silent Generation silver ferret in a summer suit out with the missus for the afternoon. They all seemed manner-born to the kind of meanspirited scene-setting that is all too easy to throw around about a Joel Schumacher opus like this one. The mix of maroons in the dear seats was not that far removed from the face of True Prep itself, and we were all kind of enthralled, I think, by the close-ups of Crawford's face.

Like McDonell, Chace is a beautiful, impossible distraction: No working actor seems to have employed his particular suspension of intensity and vacuity so effectively since Keanu. So Crawford plays our awareness of him as ur-brah to the hilt, his permanent five o'clock shadow obscuring an otherwise eerie resemblance to Mare Winningham, doe-eyed, cornbread soul of Joel Schumacher's earlier thinkpiece St. Elmo's Fire.

Did you know that Crawford told EW earlier this summer that he is reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon's coming-of-age novel? I choose to believe this selection is not coincidence: Technicolor Health, the 2009 album by Harlem Shakes, who once shared "whitest band in New York" status with Vampire Weekend, also took its title from Chabon's book. No matter that the Shakes' former bassist is named Jose, or that the a reviewer for the Yale Herald once wrote the following of frontman Lexy Benaim, who I seem to remember played basketball uptown while he attended the Dalton School around the same time McDonell was finishing up at Riverdale:

He is a sleek, SoHo version of James Dean with a better tan and more ambiguous ethnicity. In the words of Sonic the Hedgehog, he’s “cooler than the other side of your pillow” (Note to self: Quoting ’90s Sega video game characters does not give you authority.)

"Harlem Shake? Nah, I'm in Harlem shaking awake/Shakin' to bake, shakin' the Jakes/Kill you, shoot the funeral up and Harlem Shake at your wake"

An earlier, prep schoolier incarnation of Harlem Shakes — then known, I seem to recall, as The Harlem Shakes, as was the style at the time was playing downtown clubs around the time Atlantic Books published the first edition of Twelve. Almost ten years have passed since, and we have now made it through The Rapture to another new New Wave of vaguely cokey dance bands. If these earlier bands were Official Preppy Handbook, Boy Crisis and Passhy Pit are def this newer thing, True Prep, cf. the Boy Crisis single, "Dressed to Digress," which plays as we are first introduced to the week's hedonism @Whatevs_Culkin's townhouse:

I've been to Prague, I've been to Iraq

In search of booty and I never came back.

Where you from? You must be Japanese-Jamaican

'cause your panties are making me hot, and I'm not fakin'

A member of Boy Crisis and the possible author of that quatrain, Victor Vazquez, would later observe in his better-known capacity as Kool AD of Das Racist that "shorty said I look like Devendra Banhart, shorty said I look like that dude from Japan's art... you know, that dude who did the Kanye album cover? Shorty said I look like Egyptian Lover."

Naturally, the YouTube video for "Shorty Said" credits Gordon Voidwell (ne Will Johnson), a self-described scholarship kid from the Bronx who graduated from NYU after Fieldston.

By comparison, the fictionalized shorties in Twelve seem kind of unconvincing. Why give True Prep face time to Zoe Kravitz's True Prep entourage when we can linger on WASPy "Jessica," splayed under a canopy to escape her own Wesleyan application and her harridan of a mama (Ellen Barkin, obvs). Jessica (Emily Meade) seems to like to talk to the animals whilst strung out on Twelve — and is it really unintentional that one of the teddy bears with whom she raps on her trip has a difficult to place ethnic accent?

Point being: Who are the non-Chace types of Twelve to try to compete? There's this one guy in a polo shirt and blazer, the straight-edge track star, who's written kind of like Mack from Daria and looks kind of like the Yale Law grad who passes the bar many times in the original Official Preppy Handbook. How can I pay any mind to his backstory when there's Fiddy meandering around, plus cameos from Dukie and Clay Davis, all played off against Chace and breakout NYC Prep microcelebrity PC Peterson coming on too strong in many senses of that idiom? (Are there many senses of that idiom?)

"A real therapist would've corrected PC's grammar" my sister, on NYC Prep

"Thank God this movie is finally over," the one older woman in the audience exhorted at the end, and we went out into the afternoon, me and the Upper East Siders, them back to home nearby and me downtown to try to catch Maluca at some Mad Decent block party way downtown. Or maybe that was just me wishing they were Upper East Siders. It's easier to see them through that lens; it's more sobering. So for the haters, I reckon Twelve's about an eight or a nine, maybe nine-and-a-half in four beers' time.

Maureen Miller is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in New York and the founding editor of RapGenius.com.

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"Ivy League Circus" - Gordon Voidwell (mp3)

"White Friends" - Gordon Voidwell (mp3)

"Paradise's Parody" - Gordon Voidwell (mp3)

Tuesday
Aug172010

In Which All Your Clothes Smell Like Coffee

How Big is the Big? How Small is the Small?

by EMMA BARRIE

I’m 23, but at times I feel like I’m 11 and back at sleep-away camp. I wish I could say these times are few and far between (I hated sleep-away camp), but they’re not. On a morning shift, they occur every few minutes: every time a bagel pops out of the toaster.

My urge is of course to say “Not it!” or “Nose goes!” and quickly touch my finger to the tip of my nose. But it’s an unspoken rule that whoever is standing next to the toaster as that fateful noise sounds has to cream cheese that bagel. I put on a disposable glove and pull the bagel halves from the toaster. The bagel is so hot that the gloves melt to my fingers.

But here is the first coffee shop secret I will let you in on. If the bagel pops up and you’re by the toaster, press the button again to toast it twice and then slyly walk away to begin another task. Someone else will have to get it soon. “They wanted it toasted dark,” you could say aloud, or even to yourself if that helps. This is called cheating. It feels good.

My increasingly high tolerance for pain has become a perk of this coffee shop job. I’ll accidentally grab a metal steam wand. I’ll spill a pitcher of boiling water on my leg. Coffee splashes out of the cups and onto my hands as I take them to the customer. We never scream. We grit our teeth and raise our eyebrows. We mouth “Fuck,” but only if we are behind the espresso machine and out of sight. We don’t drop what we are holding, even if it is what’s burning us. What I’m trying to say is, I think this will make childbirth bearable.

A good number of my friends have those “real jobs” everyone refers to with air-quotes. And while I understand that a “real job” means a job in which one can move up, or a job in which one is doing something that he or she has some interest in long-term pursuing, it still seems unfair, as if I wake up in the morning to serve invisible coffee to stuffed animals. Though at times my job seems unreal, or surreal, I’m pretty sure it is taking place in reality.

Most mornings, I’m awake at 4:30. It’s pitch dark outside, and I immediately think of a few excuses I didn’t show up for work for when they inevitably call me in a few hours. Food poisoning, 109 fever, my grandfather died and I just got the phone call this morning (both of my grandfathers are already dead so this is not a jinx), my kitten got eaten by squirrel, I set my hair on fire with the blow-dryer, I just woke up in Central Park with no shoes on and I don’t know how I got here. Then I pull myself out of bed, try to remember to brush my teeth, and walk to the subway.

On the streets, and in the subway station, there are only a few other people around. As I see it, there is an unspoken code. Some kind of mutual 5 a.m. understanding: we are invisible. There is no eye contact, no acknowledgment of one other. Some of the subway riders are still out from the night before, and some are heading off to work (mostly fast food and construction jobs, some nurses). You can tell the difference by their fresh-from-the-shower wet hair versus just-partied sweaty hair, and sad eyes longing to get back into bed versus expectant eyes longing to get into bed.

I open the shop alone with keys I was given after working there two weeks. “Are you sure? Are you sure is this OK? What if I screw up?” I think I asked the manager, fearful of a soon-to-be-discovered latent urge I might have to flee to Atlantic City with all the money in the register.

I put on music I like, because I know no one is there to make fun of the fact that I have the new Taylor Swift single on my iPod. I organize bagel by type and grind coffee by the pound. At 6:30, someone else comes in to work with me. We decide who wants to be on bar, and who wants to be on register.

Days to be on bar: You’re hungover, you’re nauseous, your boyfriend broke up with you via text message and tear remnants are still visible on your face, you haven’t slept in three days, you accidentally slept with one of the customers last night and would prefer to not make eye contact, you’re pretty sure if someone orders a big-sized macchiato (oxymoron!) from you, you’re going to snap.

Days to be on register: You’re feeling social, you want to chat people up, you’re hopeful that a celebrity might come in and you can make a killer joke which would of course lead to a job as their personal assistant, it’s 100 degrees outside and you don’t want to be excessively steaming milk with your hand on the burning metal pitcher, you’ve already had too much coffee and the idea of not talking makes your face feel like it’s melting and your brain feel like it’s going to explode.

I often prefer to be on register, but being on bar can be enjoyable, too. Latte art is a skill I’ve come to take a lot of pride in. It’s kind of like arts and crafts! I can make leaves on top of your lattes, and hearts atop your cappuccinos. But more importantly, I can talk to you about it. People (read: my family) find this endlessly impressive. I have spent many a dinner party waving around my glass of wine saying things like, “For cappuccinos you have to stretch the milk, but for lattes you really want to keep that steam wand in place.” Everyone (read: my grandmother) looks at me like I just told them I can shoot fire from my eyeballs.

For me, being on bar is fairly tedious because of my height, or lack thereof. I’m virtually invisible. And over the loud grinding of espresso beans, I can’t pipe in and make a joke. I can’t even snoop on other peoples’ conversations. So at most 6:30 in the mornings, I request the position on register. I’m just being honest here: it’s because I want to talk to you.

For the most part, you’re a regular. I know your drink by heart depending on the season, and I probably know your first name. I have a vague idea of what you do for a living, or I know exactly what you do for a living and I’ve already Googled you. I know which customer is your husband or your wife even if you’ve never come in together, because you both carry the same baby or you get drinks for one another.

“I’ll have mine, and also a Big With Whole Milk and Nine Sugars,” you might say. Nine sugars? Wait a second, you must be Jim’s wife.

Because you and I only have a few moments with each other every day, our knowledge of each other’s lives grows slowly over the course of time. Today you find out what my parents do for a living, tomorrow I learn that you used to bartend because you teach me to always make sure to hand out one-dollar bills, the next day I find out that you got an advance on your novel, or that when you were in the Korean War you had to pee on your weapons to keep them from freezing. It’s the longest and most mysterious first date. And then one day I learn that it’s your birthday. Coffee’s on me.

You all come in and you take your same seats and your toddlers squeal in delight when they see each other. You order for your spouses and trade crossword puzzles for book reviews. If there’s no line, you stand at the counter and stir your drink for five minutes so that we can chat. Yes, I’m always free Friday nights to watch your really cute kids and your HBO. Sure, I will absolutely take that unwanted stack of books from you, and tonight us baristas will read aloud to each other from The Infidelity Pact.

Of course every job has those days where the rhythm is missing. I’ve been up since 4:30. I haven’t eaten. I’ve taste-tested too much coffee and it’s giving me a weird kind of buzz where my body feels jittery but my brain feels dead. Someone sent back her cappuccino because it wasn’t foamy enough. Someone took the wrong drink, causing everyone behind him to take the wrong drink, causing us to remake every drink. My co-worker broke up with his girlfriend the night before and has to go into the bathroom periodically to collect himself. A woman in a pants suit threw crumpled up money at me while she was on her cell phone.

But I can tolerate those days, because the days with rhythm are like a natural high. I made a great playlist the night before. I’m working on the floor with my best friends. We gossip about customers while we steam milk. (When we don’t know names, customers’ drinks become their names. “Small Skim Latte Extra Shot was on Law & Order last night,” or “Honey Soy Macchiato’s cute boyfriend broke his collarbone scuba diving.”) We scoop ice to the beat of the music. All our favorite customers come in. I have a thirty second exchange with each one because the line is out the door, but each exchange tests my wit and memory. Our boss comes in and pats everyone on the back, yells, “The A-Team!” That 80’s power pop song he loves comes on and he starts singing all the wrong words. Customers look on, pleased, at what probably makes them feel like they’re back in the small town they’re from, or always dreamed of moving to.

In the beginning it was a job, but now it’s a lifestyle. And not one I’m ashamed of just because it’s not “real,” just because I don’t have dreams of cream cheese-ing bagels well into my thirties. When people ask me what I do, I don’t need to say it in that self-deprecating way I used to (though sometimes I mistakenly revert to my old ways). After college, I needed proof that there was comfort somewhere in New York City. Proof that it wasn’t just a place where people walked fast and told each other to fuck off.

We’re putting on a production, a high school play. We are a cast and a crew, isolating ourselves with shoptalk, bonding over complaints. We’ll stay late mopping up and making jokes. Dishing dirt, being irritated and speaking in tongues you can’t understand. Did we get a new portafilter? Is your grind the same as her grind? Well, how hard is your tamp? We roll our eyes at a decaf espresso order. We hate when you ask for your drink “with no sugar,” because we don’t always hear the “no.” We mechanically repeat phrases: Sorry we don’t have one (a bathroom), Sorry we don’t take take them (credit cards), All our shots are pulled double so do you want two double shots? We beg for shift coverage when we’re at the ends of our ropes. And then we come in on our days off because it feels the same as stopping off at home.

The other day, my boss asked me if I could drive around and do some coffee deliveries with him. We were in his Jeep, and I was asking him if he could sing me any of the songs he wrote from when he was 17 and wore a leather vest in a rock band. He was belting out a love ballad when the phone rang, and I caught the tail end of his conversation.

"How’s your wife?...And the kids? Good, good. No, no kids for me. How come? What do you mean how come!? I’ve already got thirty of them to take care of!" He looked at me and winked. I belong to a community now, in a place where I wasn’t sure community existed.

Oh, and thank you for my ever-growing collection of umbrellas. Thanks for never coming back for those.

Also, we all hate Splenda, and you should know it’s bad for you.

Emma Barrie is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. Her last entry in these pages was The Keyboard Company.

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"Good Morning, Good Morning" - The Beatles (mp3)

"Rise & Shine" - The Little Ones (mp3)

"Good Morning" - Gene Kelly (mp3)