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September 23, 2006

Retardcapades, or, Stench! The Musical, Part II

I write to you, dear reader, from a motel room not 100 yards from my apartment, in which I will be spending the night and trying to work, having rendered my apartment temporarily uninhabitable. That tale of woe I shall unfold for you, in hopes that you, being wiser than I, will profit from my cautionary example.

Some will recall Stench! The Musical Part I from my old blog, now long defunct, in which I recounted the events of a certain memorable night at my old part-time job folding t-shirts for a well-known national chain of crap popular-culture peddlers. On that fateful night, a plumbing problem which developed in the movie theatre upstairs caused hundreds of gallons of shit to geyser out from a sewer access hole in the middle of the floor of our store, resulting in all of us employees being made to stand until the wee hours of the morning, folding garishly colored highly ironic t-shirts in an eye-stinging, brain-melting miasma of stink while plumbers grunted and spattered from the hole in the floor and the highly ironic CD on repeat at deafening volume played âWhen I See You Smileâ by Bad English, âWe Built This Cityâ by Jefferson Starship, âHigh Enoughâ by Damn Yankees, and the like, over and over. And over.

Unlike that situation, this is primarily of my own making.

An ant problem has recently developed in my apartment. Due to my extreme and slightly hysterical sensitivity to chemical fumes, I have been for several weeks attempting to get rid of them by every non-toxic method recommended to me. I sterilized the kitchen in boiling water and Lysol from top to bottom. I now own no food which is not hermetically sealed in tupperware or its original packaging. I sprayed expensive hippie ant spray made from clove oil, the fumes of which still made me crazy but which apparently pleased and enticed the ants. I distributed two jars of bay leaves around the apartment, which they used as toboggans to slide along the slick of peppermint oil with which I had wiped out their tracks, while drinking cocktails made from the vinegar I had later applied. I also put ant poison stakes everywhere, taping them to the ceiling in the path of their trails, and everywhere I could stick them around the outside of the apartment, but they shifted their trails by a few inches to avoid them. There werenât a ton of them inside at any time, but enough. This morning, however, I awoke to find that they had taken over the kitchen and had also found an entry point in my bedroom. Being a calm and rational person, I decided to go get a cup of coffee from the gas station down the street, and to calmly assess the situation while I caffeinated. But when I went to put on my sneakers, they were full of ants.

In short, I went apeshit. I marched into the kitchen, retrieved the can of Raid Earth Options which I had resolved never to use again, because it smells exactly like someone is smoking a clove cigarette while spraying Raid up your nose. I had put it under the sink because the trash didnât seem like a safe way to dispose of it, and this turned out to be my undoing. With full berserk abandon, through the red film of rage, I sprayed away. I sprayed the ants, their trails, and that place above the lintel in the kitchen which I canât see but know they are coming from. I sprayed the hole in the bedroom baseboard through which they were pouring, and I sprayed the columns marching across the carpet. Unfortunately, this means that I also saturated the highly absorbent carpet. All told, itâs not a ton of Raid, but in an apartment with one working window and therefore no possible means of ventilation, I quickly realized that I had no hope of breathing, particularly if I want to hold onto some brain cells for the next few weeks so I can get through my qualifying examinations and stay in grad school. Because clearly I am a genius, as today amply illustrates.

Unfortunately, I had gone berserk before showering or dressing. I ran outside in the track shorts and t-shirt I slept in, grabbed a big lungful of air, and ran back in to get the first clothes that came to hand. After a couple of tries, I managed to make sure that this included a full set of underwear, shirt, socks, and pants. But I couldnât exactly change outside, so I made several more trips into the apartment, holding my breath while I traded shorts for jeans, t-shirt for some other t-shirt. I swiped at my hair, grabbed my keys and wallet, turfed the ants out of my shoes, and headed out for breakfast. By the time I drove downtown, I was totally lightheaded from fumes, panic, and holding my breath. I ate in a fog, tried to read some part of a book, and went to the cafe to sit outside and breathe fresh air while I tried to think. âA fan,â I thought. âA fan would help air out the apartment.â I havenât owned such an item in several years, and apparently the beginning of fall isnât the time to buy one. I ended up down at the mall, where a nice man from some other country induced me, in my weakened state, to buy cheap knockoff sunglasses. I actually have a consistent need for cheap sunglasses, because I have an amazing talent for breaking any pair of sunglasses, regardless of price, within two weeks of purchase.

I found the last fan, cheap, on a shelf in the clearance section of the Sears housewares department. On a whim, I also bought a heavily discounted air purifier that claimed to filter out any particle down to 2 microns. A micron is pretty small, although I donât know whether Raid particles are smaller. I figured I could always take it back. It turned out, I think, to be the better purchase. Back home, I opened my one working window and the front door, set up the fan, and went outside to read. An hour later the apartment was no clearer, so I set to work prying open the 2 other windows which I know it is theoretically possible to open with great effort and at some personal risk. This task is made particularly difficult when attempted in 20-second segments while holding oneâs breath, but I got them partway open, and the matter of whether they will ever close again I will leave for another time. It was not possible to sit on the gated patio directly outside my apartment without breathing the fumes emanating from it, and although I found this to be an encouraging sign that the fumes might be trying to leave, I went to sit with my book, in my cheap sunglasses, with my bottle of water, outside by the driveway and my neighborâs front door. This proved infuriating.

My neighbor L--- is a very nice young man, and I genuinely like him. He is also always alarmingly stoned, talkative, has just finished his first year in grad school in a different discipline, and thinks he knows everything. He is constitutionally incapable of being home when Iâm outside and not talking to me for at least an hour. Unfortunately, the only mode of discourse which he has mastered happens to be unsolicited advice about everything, which I find to be the most rude, presumptuous, and generally noxious form of conversation. Generally, I respond to unsolicited advice in the spirit of least resistance: nod, thank, disregard. Today, however, while I was desperately trying to marshal my surviving brain cells to stick together long enough to get me through some fairly dense material which I absolutely must read, L--- chose to wax his car in the driveway, a process which took several hours. This was less because his car is enormous than because he interrupted me every fifteen seconds to proffer his advice on subjects ranging from how one should go about purchasing a motorcycle on eBay, why I should hate my current internet service provider, why I should go to the flea market tomorrow, how I should use the blackboard in conducting my discussion sections, and why I should only attempt to prepare for my exams while blind drunk. Partway through this, strictly to get away from him, I went back to assess the situation in the apartment (bad), and to set up the air purifier in the bedroom.

Another hour passed in the manner just described. At the end of it, the situation in the bedroom was actually noticeably better. However, the rest of the apartment was still on Code Awful, and it was equally clear that I was not going to be able to sleep there and that I wasnât going to be able to work outside. I quickly rejected the idea of crashing at a friendâs house, because what I clearly needed was a close duplicate of my apartment: confined, private work space, lacking only the fumes. I waited until L--- was away for a moment, so as not to risk being subjected to his advice on the merits and manner of executing this project, and went to canvas the many hotels and motels in my neighborhood. With relatively little event, I procured a room in a place that I walk past several times a day on my way to and from my apartment. I went home, packed a bag while holding my breath, grabbed the first eight books that my fingers touched in the absolute certainty that I must with equal urgency read them all, moved the air purifier into the kitchen, and came here. I have now managed a shower, a little bit of reading, and am in the enviable position of being forced to go procure Thai takeout before I come back and work like a demon. After my trip this summer I was thoroughly sick of hotels, but thatâs all changed. Thank god for my tourist town and its abundance of cheap, close lodging which reeks of ancient cigarette smoke and vacation sex rather than clove-scented nerve gas.

Posted by katie at 08:37 PM

September 19, 2006

Vegan [Black-Eyed Peas with Ham]

As opposed to [Vegan Black-Eyed Peas] with Ham, which would rather defeat the purpose. I just made this up because I had to make lunch out of whatever the ants havenât gotten to. This is crazy easy, so that even though it contains a few more ingredients than anything in Conveniently Vegan, my Delightful former Housemate might want to try it.

Heat Earth Balance or oil (or both, which is what I do) in a large-ish skillet or pot.

 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, mashed or diced

Saute until onion is just getting soft. Turn off heat. Add to pot:

1 celery rib, diced
About 1 cup (or 2 handsful) of finely chopped collard or other greens (I used mustard greens)
2 slices tomato, diced
1 bay leaf, if you have it
 tsp sage
2 cans black-eyed peas, mostly drained (I used 1 can black-eyed peas and 1 of butter beans, because that was what I had)
4 slices Yves veggie canadian bacon, finely diced
about  cup of stock or broth, or a chunk of bouillon cube and  cup of water.

Turn stove back on to medium. Stir occasionally until greens wilt somewhat, the tomatoâs not too overcooked, and the whole thing is thickening a little, about 5-10 minutes. It will thicken a lot more after you take it off the heat. Salt, pepper, eat. Delish.

You could saute the celery with the onion if you must, but I like the occasional crunchy snap to break up the mush. If you canât get the Yves canadian bacon, any fake bacon product that has artificial smoke flavoring will do â thatâs what makes the whole thing delicious.

Posted by katie at 01:03 PM

September 13, 2006

Wig-Wam Bam

I have just watched two movies which represent variations on a theme: The New World and The Road to El Dorado. They are both set in a context of European expansionism in the age of New World exploration, and I expected one to be pretty good, and the other to be pretty bad. I was right about that, but wrong about which one would be which.

First, the bad: The New World, which purports to be a sweeping historical epic romance (just to confuse a few different genres) about the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, the early tensions over the constitution of the nation, and the love affair between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. This movie is idiotic.

The movieâs one real merit is that QâOrianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is incredibly beautiful and very good at keeping her mouth closed and her eyes open while she looks around at stuff, which is basically the extent of her acting. Of course, she was only 15 when the film was released, and she's related to Jewel, so I feel gross for even mentioning her. In the male lead, Colin Farrellâs main acting strategy seems to be to play Captain John Smith as though heâs mildly mentally retarded, which could be an interesting historical stance to adopt if it were intentional and thematic. Itâs not just those two characters, though; this is the main aesthetic of the film, in which the white characters spend most of their time staring unpleasantly at each other and the native characters spend most of their time waving their hands and moving their heads around while barking.

Aside from the fact that the acting and directing prevents the movie from developing or sustaining a plot, my other main beef with this film is that even though it was apparently nominated for an Oscar for cinematography â its one nomination â it is edited to look as though it was randomly assembled from cutting room scraps. Iâm not normally the first person to notice that sort of thing in a movie, but it made me nuts here. For example, during one twelve-second segment that spans one piece of dialogue, shots of Colin Farrell in a conversation with another character halfway up an embankment in broad daylight in a stand of trees will be cut with seemingly unrelated shots of Indians doing Tai Chi in the river at sundown, Pocahontas running through a field, and Colin Farrell having the same conversation in a different stance on the riverâs edge on a grey day with no trees. This can only be a deliberate strategy, because the entire movie is assembled this way. It looks as though, between every take, they moved the cameras five yards and sixty degrees and then set up and shot again. The effort is clearly to be arty and daring and to challenge narrative continuity or set up suggestive temporal pairings or some shit. The net effect, however, is that it is hard to follow, boring as all hell, and the editing gets in the way of the filmâs ability to tell a story or take a stance.

After the first hour, more colonists came, so I was expecting the issue of expansionism to come back to the forefront, or at least for some history to enter this historical drama. Instead, all of the history was flattened out so it could be mapped onto a cloying love story in which Colin Farrell would, eventually, liken his fruitless search for the Indies to his mistake in abandoning Pocahontas. In a particularly heavy-handed move, the film took her from being a Rousseauian hottie in not much deerskin, to showing her stuffed into English dress, staring Colin Farrell in the nostrils (part of what makes it look like an affair between two developmentally disabled people is that theyâre incapable of focusing their gazes or looking each other in any part of the face that makes sense) and saying âYou have no evil. I belong to you.â Gag. The upshot is, I was so annoyed that I watched the last 75 minutes while doing other stuff, and by the time Christian Bale came in to save the movie, I didnât give a shit.

The good part is that compared to this trickle of treacle, the 2000 animated family feature The Road to El Dorado offered a surprising wealth of interest and subtlety. Granted, I set the bar for this one pretty low. Itâs Dreamworks, so itâs sub-Disney, which means that the animation just isnât as good, no matter how strenuously they attempt to argue that point in the production notes on the DVD. It also means that they had to assemble a soundtrack out of various songs that the Elton John/Tim Rice machine had been apparently unable to sell to Disney. The songs which are tailored to the movie are simply embarrassing, and the others are random remaindered love songs with no real connection to the movie except insofar as they serve to underscore the strikingly homoerotic relationship between the two main characters, the accidental conquistadores Miguel and Tulio.

For the most part, the plot is very predictable and easy to describe. Miguel and Tulio are an ambiguously gay duo of Spanish con artists who, in evading arrest, accidentally end up stowing away on Cortezâs ship right as it is leaving for the Americas. When he finds them on board, he promises them flogging and lifelong slavery in the Cuban sugar plantations, which would be interesting since theyâre both white. But they understandably donât like this plan, so they escape in a lifeboat with a horse, almost die, tearfully thank each other for the richness of their life together, wash up ashore in what should probably be Guyana or Colombia (but the aesthetic is distinctly Mayan), and stumble upon the golden city of El Dorado. They are naturally mistaken for gods by both the goodnatured, fat tribal chief (voiced by an uninspired Edward James Olmos) and the high priest (a cackly Armand Assante), whose position is far more interesting: heâs not the megalomaniacal grand vizier of the Disney film, but rather a limited religious authority whose cruelty stems entirely from his servile devotion to a pack of bloodthirsty gods. He becomes a crazed villain only when he discovers that these two white guys arenât gods, but fakes, partly as a result of their failure to usher in the predicted new age of El Doradian culture and to cleanse its corrupt streets with blood. Then he goes apeshit and tries to kill them with evil magic.

But the positions laid out here are surprisingly interesting, because itâs not simply a story of two white men and a pack of natives; unlike The New World, this film brings in a third term to show that the good guy/bad guy positions are totally unstable in this context. Because throughout the film we jump to sequences that remind us that Cortezâs army is actively searching for the city, and that they have much larger and darker plans than taking a little bit of gold and trying to head back to Spain. Miguel and Tulioâs position as false gods isnât directly examined in a moral capacity â the anxiety here is more around whether theyâll be found out and killed â but the film nevertheless manages to build in an implicit moral critique via comparison with the colonial war machine of Cortez. Miguel and Tulio are understood to be up to no good â theyâre con men, after all â but theyâre doing it on a pretty small scale, and the primary danger is to themselves. The high priest isnât a nice guy, but his primary concern is protecting his community in the way that he understands that to be necessary. He wouldnât be a bad guy at all except for the fact that he poses the only direct threat to Miguel and Tulio (and because weâre squeamish about blood sacrifice). Cortez, on the other hand, is a hostile invader with a lot of muscle behind him; heâs ruthless, scornful, and has his sights set on all-out conquest rather than petty theft. In an interesting turn, the high priest ends up seeking out Cortez and trying to use him to rid the city of the false gods. Miguel and Tulio then redeem themselves by allying with the natives and precipitating a situation in which Cortez will fail to find the city and, in his anger, kill the high priest. The ruthlessness of Cortez, and the assumption that he will be equally glad to kill whoever is in his way regardless of context or moral standing, is then used by both sides against each other. Cortez ends up being more helpful to the residents of El Dorado, by ridding them of the crazy priest, but that is only because he is worse than the priest, and more powerful.

This was much more than I expected from this movie. Its only real failing was auditory. The filmmakers decided, in addition to packing the soundtrack with cringe-inducing garbage, to include a female character who would have surprisingly explicit (for a kidsâ film) dalliances with Tulio and thereby mask some of the homosexual undertones of the Miguel-Tulio relationship. Thatâs disappointing but not surprising; the major problem here is that this character is voiced by Rosie Perez, who makes her into a snappy, sassy, slightly shrewish Mayan ho with that Brooklyn accent that can make blood come out of your ears. The other vocal performances are pretty bleah â Kevin Kline has already played gay in In & Out, so he could have done better with Tulio, and I generally expect more oomph from Kenneth Branagh â but Rosie Perez in this context is simply fucking awful.

The verdict:
Due to the pacing and acting, The New World looks more like a zombie film than a historical romance. If you played the visuals from this film against the sound track to Dawn of the Dead, it would work perfectly and be much more entertaining.

Due to cut-rate Elton John and the scourge of Rosie Perez, The Road to El Dorado would work much better if you removed the sound track entirely and ran it silent. It wouldnât lose anything, and it would still be pretty interesting.

Posted by katie at 06:04 PM