Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Beowulf of Us

Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita. Every culture has its creation myth; an epic tale of how a nation was forged from an otherwise disparate group of people. Usually some sort of battle or war motivates the myth’s hero and tests him or her (though most often it’s a him) until victory reigns and the Babylonians, Hindus or Goths go on their civilized way.

Likewise, a couple’s answer to that classic small talk question, “So, how did you meet?” forms the basis of their own creation myth. Here, it’s a tale full of grand gestures, knowing glances and inevitable setbacks of how me and you became us.

Some people have stories that even the most cynical among us would have to categorize as “cute.” The teenage, puppy dog crushes that fade after adolescence and then resurface at a more appropriate age for a serious relationship through some chance encounter or alignment of the planets.

For example, two volunteers I work with knew each other through their respective high school Jewish athletic clubs (aka Maccabi) and dated as teens. Then she tracked him down when they finished college and now they’re married. It’s ridiculously adorable and made that much more so when you learn that her parents met at Jewish summer camp. It’s OK, if they weren’t such fantastic people, I’d hate them too.

Other couples’ creation myths rely on pure random occurrence. In the butterfly effect theory of dating and mating, a couple’s existence hinges on a friend of a friend’s chance encounter at a Penn State football game, followed up by not one, but two brief exchanges at two separate happy hours at a time when both actually happened to be single and looking.

Believing that a one-degree change in the earth’s temperature in Botswana may or may not deliver your true love, can seem like a stretch, but it certainly proves that my grandmother was right all along – you should always look good because you’ll never know who you will meet. And since she met her husband playing bridge at the 92nd Street Y, she has the credentials to back up this theory.

Our final mythology lesson comes to us today straight from the shtetl, as it were. How could any discussion of how a couple forms be complete without looking at the matchmaker? Whether a professional, a Web site, a well-meaning friend or (eek!) a questionably-intentioned relative – meeting your intended through the machinations of a third party has its pros and cons. Hypothetically, the other person fits into your basic criteria or else you wouldn’t have been set up together. It also cuts down on the ax murderer potential for your date, unless you hang out with convicts.

Besides, this model for forging a couple leaves some accountability for the potential failure of the relationship in the hands of another. I mean, why blame the other person’s (or your) inadequacies when you can just blame JDate?
No matter the origin or the impetus, the romanticized legend that melded two disparate lives into some shared arrangement, makes a great story to tell at dinner parties, long airport layovers and holiday gatherings for years to come. At least until you have the story of meeting the parents.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shameless Self Promotion

In my ongoing effort to expand my readership beyond my mom and a few loyal readers (and those excellent lurkers), I have begun a narrow but shameless journey to self-promotion.

To that end, I am proud to announce that Shtetl Fabulous has joined the ranks at JBlog Central. A collection of hundreds of blogs with Jewish, Israeli, religious, not-so-religious and current events themes, the site gives readers an opportunity to read recent posts without having to navigate to each blog. You can also rate the posts which is quite tempting as I auto-advertise myself, but so far I've restrained myself to only one self-loving score. It's another fantastic way to waste time at work - I mean, how else might you have learned about Kosher Beers or Dixie Yid?

For all my fellow bloggers out there, this site is a great way to get a little inspiration, build readership and make a few friends who you will probably never interact with beyond becoming Facebook friends.

Since I began writing this blog several months back, I've struggled with what direction I want to take it in and I've aspired to write witty, insightful and somewhat entertaining pieces for your general enjoyment and my personal catharsis.

If you're new here or just haven't offered your two cents - please comment, it really inflates my ego. If you're one of my loyal peeps from back in the day - thanks and keep reading!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Condemnation of the Hipster

Sitting on the worn wooden benches in the sweat-soaked gym, I am witness to an unusual sight more often reserved for the football stadiums of Indiana rather than the isle of Manhattan. There they sit, clad in horn-rim glasses, artfully torn jeans, faded t-shirts and the perfect mixture of dirt and superiority. But tonight, their regularly exercised restraint has taken a backseat to unbridled excitement and – dare I say – team sport enthusiasm. What is it that has made this coven of apathy so passionate? What kind of drug-riddled mushroom or post-modern band has transformed the crowd into a scene more akin to a Texas high school football stadium on Friday night?

It’s roller derby.

Racing around the track of the Hunter College gymnasium, wearing neon colors and ample black eyeliner are the members of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby squad – the Brooklyn Bombshells and Manhattan Mayhem in particular. With pithy names like Bitchie Slambora, Speedy Sedgwick and Jackie O’ssassin – these ladies bruise, cajole and slam into each other all in the name of sports achievement and hipster glee.

Though I too fall under the roller derby spell during my night of fandom, I am puzzled by its power to melt the icy exterior of the normally impenetrable indie twenty/thirty-something denizen of locales such as Williamsburg or Silverlake. If only I could harness the power of the roller derby and use it when I encounter this breed of human as I walk down the street.

My favorite line in Cameron Crowe’s ode to the music of the 1970s, Almost Famous, is uttered by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman. As writer Lester Bangs, Hoffman tells his teenage friend and aspiring rock critic, William Miller that, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world... is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.”

While it might not flow so easily off the tongue as Crowe’s more frequently referenced “You complete me,” I think it has tremendous applicability in our day-to-day existence, particularly when in the presence of that perennially cool breed of human being – the hipster. Are they just another segment of the population designed to make us feel bad about ourselves – like models or trophy spouses? What are they hiding in their post-consumer recycled messenger bags that makes them so much better than all of us?

In his title to the book that inspired the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick posited, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The implication being that simulated humans would experience everything humans do in a slightly altered, more electronic way.

Erego, one might ask the same thing of the average American hipster - does he know how hip he is? What happens when she geeks out? Do hipsters dream of i-pod listening/Williamsburg-bound/trendy-clothes-wearing sheep? Of course not, they dream of roller derby.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Pesach - the Atkins Holiday

Pesach (Passover). The word alone inspires both fear and an intense need to clean for Jews around the world. We scour our rooms, kitchens, offices, cars and every other area on a quest for eliminating products made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. The rest, as they say, is up for intepretation.

In my interpretation, the world is a global village where none of the hard-pressed rules about Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazis) similarly avoiding beans, corn, soy and rice as if they were bacon-wrapped scallops need apply. Likewise, those Sephardi Jews from Spain and North Africa or the Mizrahis from all over the Near East should be able to eat potatoes with abandon. But since I don't run the world or any board of Jewish law, my revolution is still limited to me.

There's another big aspect of Pesach that seems to get lost in all the insanity of preparation and only occasionally makes a big appearance at our annual seders. That idea, however elusive, of delivery and freedom. In our modern society, with all the immense freedoms afforded by the Bill of Rights and the culture of the individual, we can all too easily forget we are still imprisoned by concepts like status, appearance, health, etc.

It's a little beyond me right now to get into a whole post about what freedom all means and how we can strive for it in our daily lives. Right now, I just want to offer a little Passover prayer.

May God grant us all a speedy and complete deliverance from the evils that plague us; from the tormentors who would constrain us; from the thoughts that enslave us; and from the hate with which we limit ourselves.
Dare to hope and make time to pray for our freedom.

Chag sameakh!

Monday, April 14, 2008

It's prononced "sah-wa-ro"

Whilst celebrating the end of another workweek at my local drinking establishment the other night, I ran into a friend of a friend. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and rather quickly got to the topic of our respective geographic origins. Much to my surprise and delight, my acquaintance revealed he is not only from Arizona, but the same part of the greater Phoenix area as me. In fact, he’s from the town next to mine and went to a high school that my high school frequently trounced in football.

I should note for my readers from such far-flung places as Tunisia and Denmark, that in New Jersey, to meet someone else who isn’t from New Jersey merits a knowing nod. To meet someone from any region that could be described as “western,” yields some instant but flimsy bond. And to meet someone hailing from your particular section of the biggest metropolitan area within your home state of Arizona, means you have now made a friend for life… or for however long you both weather the storm of living in New Jersey.

As my new best friend and I kicked back a few beers and reminisced about the things we missed from the Grand Canyon State (and specifically the eastern portion of the Valley of the Sun), our topic of conversation veered from saguaros and monsoons into another common ground – the art and practice of writing. See, this particular friend and I not only share tales of surviving that day the temperature hit 122 or explaining to people that we don’t have accents, we also share an interest in and passion for creative writing.

He writes short stories and strives to get them published through magazines, online journals and contests while I’ve taken the dubious route of writing pithy essays for an oddly-named blog. As we talk about the things we miss most from Arizona – electrifying lightning storms, umpteen varieties of cactus and that big dust cloud that sweeps over the Valley at the start of a monsoon – I begin to realize how much the place you come from affects how you live your life.

I would hardly argue that coming from the Midwest inevitably makes you friendly or that being from New Jersey means you have a predilection for the Mafia. However, when you grow up in a place like the Phoenix metropolitan area, you do approach the world a little differently.

For example, when you’re from Arizona you understand that sandals are intended to be worn year-round and that seasons are mere suggestions that flit past imperceptibly. You also know how to drive with only two fingers and are strangely puzzled when streets don’t go perfectly straight. Native Americans live on reservations, not nature preservationists and you can be in the car for five hours and not leave the state. You can correctly pronounce saguaro, mesa, cholla, jalapeno and you don't laugh when you say Hohokam (though Ho-ho-Kus is a different story).

After nearly six years living on the East Coast, I still have not figured out all the ways my Arizona roots carry forward into my daily life, though I get constant reminders from all the locals. Just as your birth order, parents and any other nurture over nature elements shape who you are, so does the geography of where you come from.

Ultimately, you can register your car, get your voter ID card, pick up the regional accent and marry a local but you may never get all that Sonoran sand out of your hair.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One Word Benjamin: Plastics

Is it Carl Jung's classic theory of synchronicity or did the programmers from AMC call up Matt Lauer from the Today Show this week? Either way, plastics seem to have shot up to top billing in my consciousness for the past few days.

Both Wednesday and Thursday, the Today Show featured segments on the questionable safety of plastics that come into contact with our food and beverages on a nearly constant basis. Not long ago, news began circulating that water bottles labeled with a number 7 in its recycling code could leach out incredibly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the liquids held within. Thinking you might not be susceptible? Well all those Nalgene bottles you've shlepped around for years are made of #7 plastic. Oh, and those other water bottles, the ones you buy in bulk at the grocery store - yeah, they're made from #1 plastic and if you use them more than once or leave them exposed to extreme heat (like in your trunk in Arizona in August), then you may also have exposed yourself to highly dangerous chemicals. In your water.

I generally try to process the fearmongering the popular media perpetuates with a healthy dose of skepticism. I believe in germs in respectable doses and I refuse to live my life in fear of terrorist attack. That said, it really makes me angry and scares me to think that I could get cancer or put my fertility at risk just by drinking water. Out of a reusable bottle that "they" told me to use because it was better for the environment.

During the 1950s, the popular wisdom erred on the side of "better living through chemistry," and overwhelmingly, industries adopted this theory and ran with it. And they continue to run, often failing to test, retest and evaluate the impact of these chemicals along the way. In a world where autism has become as common as chicken pox and where autoimmune diseases have ravaged (predominantly) women of my generation, I find it difficult to believe we are living better.

Without a degree in chemistry, molecular biology or materials science, I feel incredibly impotent to effect any change except to broadcast my concerns in this forum and to encourage all (five) of you to be informed and aware consumers. Check out sites like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy or the Organic Consumers Association for information not subsidized by big business or filtered by government interests. Be a little subversive, be a little smarter and hopefully be a lot healthier!

Friday, April 4, 2008

All Apologies

My most sincere apologies for being a little lax in posting of late. Insert classic excuses of work obligations, family drama and an outright desire to have a life outside my computer here.

I'm off to Arizona this afternoon for my dad's wedding on Sunday, which I'm confident will provide ample fodder for a venue like this blog.

Til then, here's a little food for thought courtesy of the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/books/review/Donadio-t.html?ref=review. The underlying theory, which I've long ascribed to, is that just as Rob Gordon asserted in High Fidelity - what you like is as important as what you are like.

Now, I won't go so far as to say I did a literary and cinematic assessment of my current main squeeze before I consented to dating him. However, the fact that he does read more than just magazines and comic books (and is apparently the only reader at the Ridgefield Park Library), was and continues to be a factor in why I like him. Neither of us are members of the Ayn Rand fan club, but at least we read.