Monday, December 23, 2013

Double Feature: Welcome to Night Vale and The Nutcracker

I couldn't post yesterday because of zombies, which you can read about on my book blog. I'm still scared something is going to grab me from under the furniture. Stupid imagination.

Last week, I got to do one of my new favorite things and one of my old favorite things. Rarely am I so blessed in social events! On Wednesday night, I went to a live taping of "Welcome to Night Vale" at the Bell House here in Gowanus, Brooklyn. And on Saturday night, the BF and I went to Lincoln Center to see "The Nutcracker."

I like the contrast. "Night Vale" is a podcast, an entirely dialog-based medium with no visual element. "The Nutcracker" is a ballet, which, as we've established in my family, has no lyrics or dialog. Sound plays a big part in both a podcast and a ballet, but in a podcast, sound the only means of conveying information, while in a ballet, the visible movement of the dancers tells the story in conjunction with the music from the orchestra.

Both art forms encourage a level of engagement on the part of the audience far beyond that of a movie. Movie simulate reality:  here is a visual image and here is the ambient noise, the dialog, and even some music to set the mood.
What, you don't hear theme music everywhere you go?
Movies are easy to understand and absorb. Even your brain waves relax and slow down when you're watching one. But a ballet or a podcast asks an audience to take a more active role by mentally filling in the visual or auditory negative space to complete the narrative experience, using the information conveyed by pure dialog or movement.

I also see some parallels between the subject matter of "Night Vale" and The Nutcracker. For those who may not be familiar with America's most popular podcast, "Welcome to Night Vale" is an ongoing series of community radio updates from the small desert community of Night Vale. In Night Vale, librarians are hideous monsters, real estate agents live in the bellies of wild deer, the sheriff's Secret Police monitor your every word, and the dog park is never to be entered by either dog, or human, or sentient glowing cloud that drops animal corpses on bystanders. All of this is considered normal to the citizens of Night Vale, half of whom are genetically incapable of feeling physical pain.

Honestly, the whole project is a bit hard to describe, because the subject matter is creepy but also treated as mundane, so "Night Vale" is more of a comedy than a horror show. I didn't know just how funny it was, however, until I heard it in performed in front of a couple hundred people. Then I realized that shit is hysterical. It's all available for free at the link above, and I highly recommend it. (Listen for celebrity cameos! Mara Wilson, who played the lead in 1996's "Matilda" movie, is the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your House. And Jackson Publick, co-creator of "The Venture Bros.," is all five voices of Hiram McDaniels, mayoral candidate and five-headed dragon.)

So what does any of that have to do with The Nutcracker? Aside from the obvious parallel that The Nutcracker is America's most popular ballet, it's also--when you think about it--it's own special kind of creepy that seems normal to the characters in that world. A little girl gets an old man-doll/kitchen implement for Christmas. The little girl shrinks while the doll comes to life and they fight a giant six-headed rat. The doll turns into a little boy and presents her with the crown of the rat monster, which is supposed to be romantic, and then spirits her away to a magical land where the snacks and racist beverages dance for them. But it's okay, because after the food dances, he takes the little girl home again in Santa's sleigh. Although Santa is nowhere to be seen, so I think at some point, the kids jacked Santa's ride.

Maybe one of the "oriental" beverages stole it. Seriously, does no one else find this distasteful?
If Night Vale was going to stage a ballet, and it was all going to go horribly wrong, as everything does in Night Vale, I don't think they would actually have to change anything about The Nutcracker.

This is probably why The Nutcracker is my favorite Christmas activity. It has so little to do with Christmas! There's no hint of Jesus or the Nativity, no part of the Santa myth, really nothing to connect it with the holiday other than the fact that the Nutcracker is given as a Christmas present to Marie. (I always thought it was Clara, but the playbill called her Marie on the cast list, so where the hell have I been getting Clara all these years?) For a non-Christian who always knew that it was Henry Dudois under the Santa costume at the Ocean View Community Center, this weird European fairy tale is Christmas to me. It has all the magic and delight and charm I'm supposed to feel around the holiday, with none of the uncomfortable religious baggage.

The Nutcracker even has an answer for my ambivalence toward gift-giving in a consumer society. Marie is given a single gift that has the power to transport her to a magical fairyland where candy comes alive and little children live in the skirts of drag queens.

The best gifts are transcendent. They open up the world to marvelous new possibilities. For little kids, toys do the trick, because their imaginations haven't yet been pounded into submission by years of reality and tooth-brushing. But grown-up little kids can still find that magical sense of possibility in gifts.

Especially if that gift is two tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Thank you, Mum!

Mele Kalikimaka. And good night, Night Vale. Good night.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Classic Wonder Woman is a little odd. If you ever happen to cruise through some of the original 1940s comics, you'll notice a great deal of light bondage and domination/submission themes. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, was into that sort of thing.
He also invented the systolic blood pressure test. Yowzah!
Even though the sexual subtext is about as transparent as a jellyfish, I can't find it in me to be offended. I don't know if it's ye olde tymey charme, or my postmodern detachment from what used to titillate less jaded audiences, but there's something kind of wholesome about it. It's sleazy, but in a kid-friendly way--like grubbing for presents at Christmas.

Sure, Christmas tends to bring out the greedy despot side of children everywhere, and then the rest of us have to endure a billion Christmas specials peddling the myth that it isn't about the presents. (Kids aren't fooled, by the way. You can turn off those Rankin/Bass demons.) But look how happy they are when they get the presents that they want! Isn't that cute? Look at that smile!

Like I said, sleazy, but wholesome.

Happy Holidays, I guess.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Arbitrary rules for holiday parties

My co-worker A was considering buying a Christmas sweater last week. She called me over to look at a couple of sweaters online, one with reindeer and the other with--well, also reindeer, but smaller.
Dramatized here.
We got to talking about the sense in buying an item of clothing that you can only really wear for about six weeks out of the year: immediately after Thanksgiving up until December 26. Even if the sweater isn't explicitly Christmas themed--snowflakes, for example, instead of Santa Claus or a Christmas tree--it's really only suitable for the Christmas season.

This is holiday party arbitrary rule number 1.

Warming up to the topic, we discussed the context in which one would wear a Christmas sweater. You can wear a Christmas sweater to a holiday party, but you can only wear it to more than one holiday party in a season if the parties aren't frequented by the same people. For example, you can wear it to the office party and then to your family's home for Christmas dinner, but you can't wear it to the office party and then wear it again to a bar get-together with some folks from work, because the same group of people will see you in it. Arbitrary rule number 2.

"No pictures! They'll be up on Facebook!" Matt cuts in at this point.

"And you can't wear the same party outfit to the same party two years in a row," I said, stating arbitrary rule number 3. "You need to wait at least three years between parties to wear the outfit again."

I guess at this point, Matt just couldn't handle any more feminine nonsense. He stood up and said, "I love how you just make up this arbitrary rules, but you say them with such an air of authority and confidence, as if they were real, actual things that people do!"

And we all had a good laugh.

BUT--allow me to describe my wardrobe saga of the holiday season thus far, since I went to three parties this week and will be hosting another one tomorrow. I wore my 2012 Holiday Tea dress at the President's Party last Thursday. I'm going to wear my 2012 President's Party dress to the Holiday Tea on Monday. I wore my 2012 Valentine's Day dress to Thanksgiving 2013. I'm going to wear yesterday's post-Hanukkah party outfit to Valentine's Day 2014, and 2009's Christmas Day outfit to 2013 Christmas Day because it's time again.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here for evermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine's left side...

I'm never going to wear last Friday night's party outfit to another party again, because I didn't realize I was going to be the most casually dressed person there, BF. 

I know to some, these rules and distinctions seem arbitrary. Lots of things women have to do probably seem arbitrary to men. Hell, they seem arbitrary to me sometimes! But that doesn't make them any less real. And it doesn't mean that other women aren't watching to make sure you follow the rules. "The Simpsons" did a whole episode about it, so you know it's true.

That's arbitrary rule number 4.

And it's the most important rule of all.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Play us off

Tuesday was our final radio show of the Fall 2013 season. It was also our 50th live band on the show, so like most special occasions and anniversaries, everything went wrong.

One of our sound techs didn't show up. The broadcast cut out completely for the band's first song. There were roaches scurrying around. Some student wandered in and tried to put up anti-fracking posters while the band was playing. The broadcast cut out again during the first half of the interview. The cake wasn't tasty. The cat bit the drummer.

Really, all we needed for the evening to be complete was for the slow cooker to break and leave us with no chili.

But you know what? The band was great. I guess that's showbiz, kid!

Here's to 50 great bands on the Rodent Hour, and to another 50 more.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

More than you ever wanted to know about tea

We had our office Thanksgiving party last week. I was doing pretty good, socially--shoes on and everything--and then I got some cheesecake in me and found myself doing the thing. All nerds know what I'm talking about, when you find yourself talking for an inappropriately long time about a topic no one has any interest in except yourself.

Kate Beaton knows.
I could feel it happening--I could see it in the slightly alarmed expression of my listeners--but I couldn't stop myself. I was just--so--interested in the topic!

It was tea. I was talking about tea. I was talking about tea because I love tea and everyone else needs to love tea as much as I do, and if they don't, it's only because they don't know how delightful it is, so I have to tell them.

You see how easy it is to fall into doing the thing.

I'm especially jazzed about tea right now because I went to the Big Island a couple of weeks ago and my sister took me to a tea garden. As far as best gifts ever received, this is now tied for the number one spot with the Christmas 1994 tea sampler from me mum (with 20 different kinds of tea).
Fuckin tea!
Let me tell you all the things I learned at the tea garden! This particular tea garden is located on the grounds of Volcano Winery, the southern-most winery in the U.S. It's about a mile above sea level, near Volcano Village in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Volcano Winery has seven acres of tea plants, which as you can see from the above picture, are basically just hedges. (Honestly, if I hadn't been told that this hedge made tea, I would have been like, Hey Sparky, what's with all the hedge?)

The tea that you drink is made from the new baby tea leaves, and the different types of tea--green, black, white--depend on the maturity of the leaves at the time of harvest. The newest leaves, which are still rolled up and not open yet, make silver needle tea. Just-opened leaves make white tea, slightly more mature leaves make green tea, and the leaves at the last stage of maturity, before they're just useless hedge, make black tea. At Volcano Winery, the black tea leaves are dried with a big fan, while the finer grades of tea are air-dried over a few days.

Tea leaves themselves don't smell like much of anything, even if you crush them between your fingers. Tea flowers, on the other hand, smell exactly like brewed tea. It is the damnedest thing.
Brewed tea. Who knew?
Each different tea grade requires different temperatures of water for brewing. Black tea needs water just at the boiling point. Green tea needs water slightly below the boiling point, otherwise you scorch the tea and it becomes bitter. I already knew about the water, because when I lived in Waikiki, I used to visit this Taiwanese tea shop in the Kings Village shopping center. Kings Village is the kitchiest, tackiest place you can imagine--it looks like Santa's Village, except it's open year round so there's no end to the suffering.
Three years I lived across the street from this.
However, tucked away in a corner of this Block 'o Camp was the Cha-No-Ma Teahouse, an oasis of good taste, simple but expensive sculptures, and orchids that were always in bloom. The only other customers I ever saw in there were old Chinese ladies in Chanel suits.

This place was magical. The experience would begin with charcoal peanuts, which were like little briquettes with a peanut inside, to cleanse the palate and settle the stomach. I'd pick a tea--usually one of the cheaper ones on the menu, because this was a nice place and the tea could get pretty fancy--and the owner would bring out a tea set and a HUGE kettle of hot water. He would brew the first pot himself, filling the tiny teapot and letting it overflow into the wooden tea tray. After a few seconds, he'd dump the tea through the strainer into the other tiny teapot. Then he'd pour the tea into the first set of cups. Those were the smell-good cups. You'd pour the tea out of those cups into the drink-cups, and then smell the residue left in the smell-good cup. Then you'd drink. And then you'd fill the tiny tea pot yourself from the kettle and start it all over again. 
Clockwise from left: charcoal peanuts, tea strainer, first teapot, second tea pot, smell-good cup, drink-cup.
Each round gets you about one full mouthful of tea. It takes about an hour and a half to finish the kettle. And if you can think of a better way to spend your afternoon, you can just shut your filthy liar mouth because there is no better way to spend your afternoon than in Cha-No-Ma.

The second or third time I went back, the owner taught me that tea should be treated as a vegetable. "You don't dry asparagus, do you?" he demanded. No, I agreed, you did not. "Americans only know about Lipton," he said. It's a travesty, I agreed, tea is so much more. We were kindred spirits, he and I.

He would have looked at my pictures of the Volcano Winery tea garden without searching furtively for another party-goer to rescue them from my clutches. Where are you going? Don't you want to see me picking some of the leaves?
I haven't even gotten to the pictures I took of me drinking the tea! I have to explain what my facial expressions signify about the taste and bouquet of the brew at that moment!