Tuesday, January 31, 2006


The other day my phone rang and to my dismay, it was a solicitation call I found myself unable to hang up on: a student calling from my alma mater. "Are you familiar with the Penn Fund?" she said in a painfully young and optimistic voice. I could pretty well guess what the Penn Fund was from the name and from the solicitations that I’d thrown in the trash, but I let her talk.

While she outlined such worthy purposes as scholarships and improvements to school facilities, I thought of all the people who had graduated in my class and are now 10 times richer than I am. I thought about how Penn’s campus sidewalks were up for sale in the form of commemorative plaques, how Revlon magnate Ron Perelman had given so much money to the school that he had a quadrangle named after him, and how the student bookstore had become a Barnes and Noble franchise. (We’re talking about the home of the Wharton Business School, after all. There are a few people around who know how to drum up money.)

But still, when she asked me for my pledge, I somehow couldn’t say no. Maybe it was the flattering chit-chat about my a capella group, or a sudden thankfulness that someone as lazy as myself had gotten to go to college at all, but I felt a resigned sense of responsbility to my school that I’d never quite felt before.

The thing is, I feel sort of conflicted about my undergraduate education. It was inaugurated by failure: I applied to Penn early decision, and was rejected. This unexpected outcome sent me into a tailspin, and a flurry of desperate college applications. My jarred parents, who had previously felt able to leave me to my own devices where academic advancement was concerned, followed suit with the rest of the families in my affluent neighborhood and hired me a private counselor.

A woman named Marge was produced to guide me through the applications labyrinth. She spread out my essays and credentials like an oracle, and went soberly to work. Her favorite word was BIG. She taught me to consider playing the race card (a Hispanic last name is BIG); to drop my bid for William and Mary ("don't even bother; their out-of-state admissions rate is 15%"); and she set me up an interview with Northwestern’s alumni guy in D.C.(He was BIG in that school's admissions scene).

The weeks before my freshman year found me in the following predicament: enrolled at Bucknell University, wait-listed at Washington University and Northwestern, and in some weird "encouraged transfer" limbo with Cornell University. Turns out, a nice high-school record and test scores didn’t buy as much prestige as I’d thought.

I ended up going to Wash. U. for a year and then gratefully transferring to Penn. But when I got out into the working world, my Ivy League degree didn’t seem to matter as much as I’d thought it would when I was a senior in high school. It certainly didn't confer me automatic status as the next Kurt Loder or David Sedaris or Madonna or Oprah or even Ty Burr, my favorite critic for Entertainment Weekly. And it didn't seem to help me command a better salary than any other twentysomething striver. The most memorable benefit was a bump down to 11% commission on the lease for my first NYC apartment, because the broker happened to be a Penn alum.

Since finding out that it would be necessary, even with a bachelor's degree, to continue working my arse off for merely questionable rewards, I've really put the Baracus into my English B.A. I've also forgotten to get my Master's, which everyone I know now seems to have. Nonetheless, Penn now has a pledge from me for 41 big ones. Perhaps I'll receive a doorknob engraved with my name in one of the English Department bathrooms.

Image from TVacres.com

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sssh, I'm Thinking.

Everyone says they want to go out with someone smart. We claim we're willing to make all sorts of compromises on anatomy, personality and income; but we adamantly refuse a sped-class relationship. Yet somehow, at some time or another, each of us finds ourselves with someone just a little bit dumber than we are. I'm not talking about gaps in cultural knowledge or that big oxymoron known as "emotional intelligence." I'm talking about the bulb that never quite makes it past soft white at 60 watts, the person whose depth of intellectual curiosity goes only as far as TiVo will take them... and no farther.

A friend of mine is living with someone with whom she has a real partnership, shared interests... a good life together. But when it comes to having a philosophical conversation, or getting into an analysis of the movie they just watched, her boyfriend would rather start planning their next travel excursion. I briefly dated someone who, also, never quite seemed to connect all the dots -- his job as a programmer required intelligence, so I know he possessed some, but in many ways talking with him was like talking with a friendly alien, one unfamiliar with the words spanakopita or Nabokov. He confessed to me with a rather smug expression that the problem with his last ex was that she just wasn't smart enough for him, which meant either that he had a shocking lack of self-awareness, or I had him all wrong. Still, he was really cute.

I know another person in this situation: my current boyfriend. Now, don't get me wrong: BF never makes me feel stupid, and if you asked him he would certainly tell you I'm smart. He has to tell you -- and himself -- that, because I'm his girlfriend. Even when your significant other is kind of dumber than you are, you can't really admit it to yourself until later. Instead, you pretend the person is smart in some way that they themselves do not have the brain power to imagine. It's like trickle-down: You help the less fortunate by using your smarts to manufacture some aspect of cleverness to bestow upon your beneficiary. "Sasha is an absolute genius when it comes to organizing the products in our bathroom. I don't know how she does it!" "Paul just devours books. He reads a ton of James Patterson, I can't keep up." "Gina is some kind of savant when it comes to relationships. She just reads people really well... I never realized how much thought goes into nurturing."

My problem is not stupidity so much as laziness, but the effect is the same. I like discussing movies, when I can actually be coaxed into accomplishing the feat sitting down for two hours and concentrating on something. And I don't mind a philosophical discussion, until the food comes. But the main conversational hurdle for BF and me is politics and economics. He devoured media at a rate I found unfathomable for someone who was also pursuing a dual masters degree while earning money as a freelance programmer and interning at high-profile Washington, D.C. institutions. Throughout the campaign year, he had dozens of interesting theories and revelations about the impending election, so that sometimes being with him was like living in an extended edition of 'Crossfire' -- where the studio audience is empty. I always want to tell him he should find someone who is interested in analyses of topics with more heft than, say, the marketing of ketchup and mustard, which is really all I'd rather talk about. When he launches into a commentary on steel tariffs, I raise the latest issues aired on Celebrity Fit Club. He wants to convince me that children need to be taught theology in school; I want to convince him that it's worth listening to "Here We Go" by Trina. I think his reaction to the latest David Brooks column is all well and good, but what does he think about the fact that my four-year-old nephew's first school pictures have a yearbook-style reflection pose?

Just as I was starting to think that it was only a matter of time before I was ditched for a woman with a master's degree and a mean grasp of game theory, I saw that column by Maureen Dowd entitled "Men Just Want Mommy." The thrust of the column was that my desire to talk about the low-hanging fruit of life's conversation topics may actually make me a keeper. Dowd's point was that increasingly, men just want to marry their assistants or someone like their moms: Someone who will take care of them, someone who looks upon them as 'the moon, the sun and the stars.' It is true that I like to take care of my boyfriend, and I do marvel at his ability to expound upon serious subjects, even if I sometimes get distracted by water spots on my hardwood floor, or a well-made martini. Besides, Dowd writes, "Men think that women with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them." My job as a Web editor for a media outlet is hardly threatening. Does the fact that I'm not paging through Bush-administration exposes or citing the New York Review of Books will imply that I'm just too vapid to do anything but listen and nod politely? Any man who assumes as much (bf is not guilty of this) deserves to be cheated on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Battery Assault.

A recent entry at the pb.c reminded me to catalog my latest environmental offense, other than being human.

Pete reminds us, rightly, to be conscious of waste materials such as plastic bags. That I am. I have reused and recycled since 1990. I stopped eating meat in order to stop the slashing and burning of South American rainforests for cattle grazing. I eschew paper towels and plastic utensils whenever I can.

Remember when you were in college and you were idealistic about something, and then you got older and lazier and you saw the pessimism-inducing outcomes in the world (Bush) and you became this half-assed version of your younger, peppier, changin'-the-world self?

At one point in college a guy I used to date said, "Every time I recycle something, I think of you." That didn't really make me feel good, you know? It made me feel like one of those annoying strident people. These days I use disposable products a lot more than I used to and I don't belong to any environmental groups at the moment because I somehow make more room on the credit card for $40 margarita nights than for $40 memberships to the NRDC. At the same time, I feel I am less annoying.

Perhaps it takes annoying people to institute change. Or perhaps we need an MLK Jr. of the environment, someone who has the charisma to be the face of a movement. When was the last time we had a political activist who was sexy? When was the last time someone took a stand who wasn't just that boring, annoying dude in the dorm who talks too much about sustainability?

But I am digressin' from the confessin'.

The other day I decided it was time to remove the ailing battery from my Dustbuster and replace it. I opened up the back of the Dustbuster. A plastic case of four batteries lay nestled inside with a sticker that told me to pull up on the tab and lift the battery from the appliance.

Well, I pulled up on the tab. I also scissored the tab, pried with a knife, yanked and pummeled the battery until, with much effort, I managed to extract it. I left the room and went, dutifully, to Google the words "recycle nickel-cadmium battery."

Whilst I was a-Googling, I heard some very loud pops and eventually smelled something nasty. I thought it was out in the hall, that workers were doing something. I am so dumb that I even opened my front door and only realized something was amiss when the hall smelled like roses and my apartment still smelled like a chemical fire.

On the kitchen counter, the Dustbuster battery was smoldering and oozing. From inside the fractured casing, the misshapen mass guffawed at me, "HA HA! NOW YOU HAVE CANCER!"

Freaking out, I quickly grabbed the battery with a rubber glove, threw it in my trash and escorted it to the Dumpster, all the while flashing back to Web pages on which I had seen the phrases "NEVER dispose of a nickel-cadmium battery in regular trash" and "Where to Recycle Batteries." I thought of Karen Silkwood, cancer clusters, and unexplained Dumpster fires. Then I opened all my windows and went about my day.

So, here it is: I am the person who threw the exploded nickel-cadmium Dustbuster battery in the regular trash on Florida Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. I am really, really sorry. And I promise to write a check to the NRDC.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


At a recent showing of The Family Stone, the audience streamed out of the theater while a lone couple remained behind in their seats, yoked to one person's grief. They remained as the staff worked around them, a mess too big to clean up among the discarded soda cups and popcorn bags.

Let's get one thing out of the way: I don't like going to the movies that much.

That may seem like an alien thing to say, sort of like saying "I don't like breathing" or "I'm not very fond of having teeth."

But really, it takes a very specific confluence of factors to get me into a movie theater. Going to the movies is like a minefield for control freaks like me: timing, seating logistics, random audience variables, questionable movie quality... the prospect of gambling two hours or more on any given movie is enough to turn me into a Raymond who'd rather just watch Judge Wapner at the appointed time.

One thing I need to start taking into account is a possible Inappropriate Emotional Response. In the case of The Family Stone, my crying started with the pregnant daughter curling up next to the sick mom on the bed, continued through the fraught dinner scene, and rolled on through the credits.

I could blame it on the fact that my mom, like the Stone mom, has had breast cancer. I could blame it on a very fraught holiday week, on many aspects of the movie that resonated with me. But it doesn't really matter when you're choking back tears while everyone else is calmly watching an average Hollywood film. It doesn't matter when you're hobbled by sobs, unable to exit the theater with the rest of the patrons.

I know I'm not alone in terms of seemingly ridiculous emotional responses to movies. A friend just told me about trying to downplay her copious tears during King Kong, which did make me feel better. Still, I hate being caught emotionally unawares -- in public to boot -- by cinema that many would regard as sentimental or melodramatic pabulum.

The first time this ever happened was at a friend's house in eighth grade. A bunch of us watched a VHS copy of the TV movie The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett as an abused wife who kills her husband. As the lights came on and everyone adjusted their sleeping bags and got up to get water, I sat there crying uncontrollably. "It's so sad," I sobbed. "Hw cld smething like that happn? *gack* *snorf* *choke*" It took me several minutes to calm down.

In this moment, people tend to be sympathetic toward me but understandably distant, as my friend David was when we saw Titanic together and the lights came up to reveal that I was having a virtual breakdown. "Ohh... are you okay?... yeah, it was sad," he said, obviously taken aback. In the end all he could do was politely wait out my fit. I mean, it was just a cheesy movie for chrissake. During the Stone sobfest, my bf delivered gold-medal support -- but I wished he didn't have to.

What's frustrating is, it doesn't happen every time. There are plenty of movies I have sat through with nary a tear, so it's hard to predict when and where a movie-induced fit will occur.

This is why when it comes to potentially upsetting movies, I prefer the DVD format. That way I can have my Inappropriate Emotional Response alone, in the comfort of my own home, with no one to judge. I can lie in a tearstained stupor in front of such surprise catharses as Lovers of the Arctic Circle or Moonlight Mile.

I like to think there others having the same Netflix nights that I am. I like to think that when Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction sat depressively clicking her lamp on and off, she wasn't upset about Michael Douglas; it was that she'd just finished watching Fearless.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Holiday Edition, Part Two: Noche Buena.

This year there was a disruption in our Christmas family ritual. My inability to tolerate change -- along with its genetic source -- was revealed anew to me.

Is your family fucking nuts? Well yeah, mine too. "The holidays are a time for remembering."

The routine usually goes, we open our presents and then go to the house of the relative whose turn it is to host the Christmas dinner. We have some ham and some mashed potatoes. We do a halfhearted extended-family gift exchange and rehash whatever was talked about at Thanksgiving and then we go home. It's nice.

But this year my aunt, who is Cuban and also suddenly weirdly averse to hosting family meals despite her status as an awesome cook with a lovely home, threw a curve ball. She had agreed to have Christmas dinner, but then we got an e-mail: L. had decided to do something "a little different" this year and throw a Noche Buena, a Christmas Eve feast of pork and beans and rice and yucca.

"Great!" you say. "Did you have a good time?"

Baby didn't like it. What is this shit, I thought? It's Christmas. What do we do on the actual day now? We open our presents and then go... "Yeah, we had some Cuban food last night"?

My Mom and I spent enough time griping to each other about it that anyone looking at us would have understood immediately that it "wasn't about Christmas dinner." My dad grumbled a little, my brother took it maddeningly in stride and for my sister it was moot, since her family was already committed to her husband's side.

This felt very lonely. Didn't anyone understand that the sanctity of the experience was being interrupted? Didn't they understand that plans had been made based around Christmas Day dinner? That this was unorthodox, unplanned and uncool?

Despite the fact that the one-week notice of the date change was pretty much indefensible, especially given that my bf's flight was already set to come in on that night, in the end I decided to turn my holiday frown upside down. The yucca was garlic-tastic and suddenly I realized I didn't necessarily need to be spending Christmas with these people anyway. My Cuban aunt had scored a definitive coup in her bizarre two-year quest to avoid hosting most holiday-day dinners. Her husband, my dad's brother, said at the beginning of the dinner, "So, this is the first year that we have all had dinner on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas. Is everyone okay with that?"

My dad, inexplicably and amusingly, dug into his pork and said, "Sure. Who's complaining?"