Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A backgammon blouse, for old time's sake. I can't tell who is winning in this game, perhaps you can.

This is merely a pretex for a long rant.

The Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, so legend tells us, were constantly repairing the Argo. After 7 years of repair, the ship had been entirely rebuilt. Piece by piece everything had been replaced. Is it still the Argo?

This is entirely rhetorical, perhaps.

The human body, I once read, is up to something similar. At the cellular level, we are all constantly repairing ourselves. After 7 years, all of the cells in my body have been replaced with new ones. Am I still Samsara? As all of my annoying (one could even say crippling) foibles are still intact, I am forced to admit it’s still me. Without quite the same spring in my step, but here I am.

Of course my city had been gentrifying for decades, that’s not news. Back in late ‘80s, I was among the horrified onlookers as Gaps and Barnes and Nobles sprouted up in Astor Place. I was out of town for a few years in the early ‘90s (one could call it graduate school, but I prefer to say I was just out of town) and upon my return I could no longer afford to live in downtown’s tenements. I didn’t like moving uptown but enough of the things I loved remained. I could still shop at Fifi Le Frock, the Fleamarket on 26th Street, or if I had enough paprika in me, head out to Domsey’s to dig through the dollar-per-pound bins. I could still chow down on dim sum at the Hop Woon Sing Tea House for $1.50 per plate, pop into Cafe Degli Artisti for cannoli, catch a Kung Fu movie at the theater that is now a Buddhist temple, or hear live jazz at Augie’s. I could rehearse a show at Harlequin Studios, or Fazil's, or Charas el bohio. I could see thrilling experimental theater by expensively trained actors for a mere $12. If I had had the dough, I could have learned to ride English saddle at the Claremont Riding Academy and gone galloping through Central Park. These are all the ghosts of Christmas Past, goslings, all gone. And gone too those days of loft parties that were actually fun and when I seemed to be constantly running into Bjőrk pushing Matthew Barney’s lovechild in a stroller.

I know, I know. I am beginning to sound like those old anarchists who are forever going on and on about the Thompkins Square Park Police riots. And what grand times those were. We had unity then, they insist, we all came together against the cops. But in the end, the tent city of homeless people was driven from the park, and the surrounding area is now inhabited by investment bankers. I personally know an i-bank millionaire who lives in of these now fancy schmancy buildings and bemoans the gentrification of the neighborhood. Yes, just like that. Without any acknowledgement of his role in this dynamic. Nostalgia, I tell you, is corrosive.

Lynne Yaeger’s column this week follows some new store openings and the continued gentrification of our town. I apologize for the New York centrism of this post, but perhaps the same thing is happening in your home town?

Ms. Yaeger explores the fate of the old CBGB’s, now the serious upscale retail space of a John Varvatos store. Varvatos has evidently preserved some of the famous filth and graffiti of the old club, as a historical monument, for folks to view while shopping, I guess. I went to the club a few times in the 80s, but I was never a big fan of CBGB’s, except in Nan Goldin photographs. I never got into that rock n’ roll the kids listen to. But it’s hilarious that rich people will look at the remains of it now safely behind glass. But it’s not just that theaters and art and music venues are being replaced by retail space. That’s bad enough. But does it have to be such overwhelmingly expensive retail? She writes: “A few cute little stores on Bleecker? No prob. But Bruno Cucinelli? If you want a $1,200 cashmere cardigan, can't you just go to Saks?”

But what cuts me to the quick, is that Florent, an old meat-packing district 24 hour French dinner, is closing tomorrow. She writes: "So traumatic is the passing of Florent, so symbolic, so fraught with pain, so rage-inducing, that the restaurant has launched a series of upcoming performance pieces under the rubric 'the five stages of loss.'"

Now whenever I visit the Strand, St. Mark’s books, The Village Chess Shop, Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, Tea and Sympathy and Caffe Reggio it’s like a dowager visiting her charities. As if they are orphanages in need of my philanthropy, but of course, I also the orphan. Please stay open, please. Raise your prices, fine, and I’ll surrender my seat to a tourist in 10 minutes, I promise, just please stay open. Otherwise I'll have nowhere to go.

Reminiscence is probably the last affordable vintage place left standing in Manhattan. (Yes, there is Brooklyn where vintage is still to be found, but sometimes I'm too tired to spend 1 hour each way to get there. But that's another post entirely.) They still do a lot of vintage reproductions which I never cared for, but it’s probably what kept them afloat. It was the sort of place I used to look down on, back in the day when there were piles of 40s rayon dresses to be had for $5 a piece at Dalia’s on 7th Street. Just piles of them. Sigh. Ah, well. Reminiscence has been good to me over the past decade. I can usually find interesting evening wear for under $20 there, including some real workhorse evening gowns that are still in high rotation. I was in there last week when I overheard a very adult-looking young woman telling her friend: “My mom used to shop here when she was young.”

And then (I know this sounds horribly contrived but so help me it’s true) when I got home I found a letter addressed to me personally from a funeral home. It begged me to take the pressure off my loved ones by buying a grave stone and plot now. I’m only 38, for crying out loud. And how did they get my name and address? (A friend of mine was recently outraged when she received a letter from a fertility clinic advising her to freeze her eggs before it was too late. She only felt better when I told her that I got that letter too, almost 8 years ago.)

Last summer I saw a documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes, which chronicles the work of Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs show the massive impact of industry from the denuded hillsides of iron ore extraction to the displacement of people during China’s 3 Gorges Dam project. The film also shows Mr. Burtynsky at work photographing shipbreaking in Bangladesh and the remaking of Shanghai from a city of two story houses and communal outdoor kitchens into a terrain of high rises. In one scene, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal interviews a Shanghai real estate developer, a starkly beautiful young woman, skinny as a runway model. The developer sits in her obnoxiously modern penthouse looking down on the city. I believe that even the windows are remote-controlled. She speaks of her current troubles. In knocking down all the old 2 story apartment houses on a particular street, everyone had accepted buyouts (or perhaps succumbed to threats) except for one old woman. She just won’t leave. Skyscrapers were going up around her, blocking the sunlight to her garden and still she won’t leave. The developer simply can’t understand it, and she’s pissed off. This old lady is just gumming up the works, and what value could she possibly have? The developer says unabashedly that Shanghai is for the young, without acknowledging the impermanence of her own youth. Of course, you’d get a more sympathetic interview on the plight of minnows from a shark. And I thought, I have a lot in common with this old lady who’s staying put. I'd love a chat with her.

How much needs to vanish before I cry uncle? Before I say that the New York I loved no longer exists? The festival I dance in every summer has been cancelled. It’s kind of a relief since I can no longer afford rehearsal space. Even my more successful friends have nowhere to perform. All of this is to be sung to the tune of “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?”.

Many of my friends have left this town, and gone on to mortgages and children. All of them call me to express how bone-chillingly miserable they are. Between working and marriage counseling and potty training, they say that the thing that grinds them down the most is the utter lack of impending fabulousness. Gone is the feeling that maybe you’d get booked into a better venue, or meet a gallery curator who is putting together a show of pinhole photography and wants your work in it. That maybe you’d become a glove model, a dj, a UN interpreter, or Ru Paul’s ghost writer. Or perhaps you’d be lewdly propositioned by Salman Rushdie, or run into Laurie Anderson in the elevator. The feeling that something note-worthy is about to happen, and that all of your hard work could pay off.

I tell them: this place existed only in our imaginations. The sense of impending fabulousness was just a feeling. And even worse, that feeling was just a by-product of youth. And I repeat: nostalgia is corrosive. This is especially funny if I am on my analog 70s phone, wearing a 40s vintage suit and sitting in the yellow velvet chair I rescued from the garbage. Ah, it's amazing just how hard it is to see your own blindspot. Corrosive indeed.

And then I find Akhenaten staring in horror at my cassette tapes saying: “Habibi, Egypt is a third world country and even there we don’t listen to tapes anymore.” And I am at a loss, perhaps all five stages of loss, on how to move forward. Oh, I suppose I could buy an ipod, cut my hair, whistle a Sondheim tune, look at where I'm going not at where I've been. And then what? Then my 78- year-old father calls and asks me how to attach a document to an email (though he says "mail it through the internet") and I find myself filled with more compassion and patience than I thought possible.

"How do you really preserve a part of history, but keep something moving?" Mr. Varvatos asks Ms. Yaeger, "almost," she writes, "pleading for understanding."

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Now let us praise Deanna Durbin, the 1930s operatic-voiced teenaged star of lighthearted musical comedies who grew up on screen and walked away from Hollywood altogether in the late 40s. Unless you are over 70, you've probably never heard of her, but she was a big deal. Anne Frank was a fan. One of the magazine photos Anne tacked to her wall in her attic hideway remains there today.

Of course at that time there was another little lady with a great big voice. A voice to big for her body that seemed to be eating away at her from the inside. A little girl named Frances Ethel Gumm who grew up on the MGM lot to become Judy Garland. Now I genuflect before The Great Garland. The ecstacy of her voice, the pain of her life, the otherworldliness of her talent and how it made her suffer. If I had a god, she'd be it. If you don't believe me, watch A Star is Born, and be prepared to exult and weep.

There is no comparison, in my mind, between the two singer-actresses, though Universal and MGM tried to create rivalry and competition between them. The Great Garland was presented as jazz (with all its contradictions), while Ms. Durbin was well, light opera, you know, something of a square, and as she sings:tra-la-la.
But I can't help it if there's always a place in my heart for the hopelessly twee. So let Ms. Durbin nestle comfortably in the category that includes novelty tunes, CuteOverload, Cheburaska, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performed by a cavalcade of Sanrio characters. And of course, The Sound of Music.

Though I believe Ms. Durbin came from the same rough and tumble vaudeville background as The Great Garland, nonetheless Universal did its best to make her look like old money. Tailored looks, and always age appropriate, with touches of late 1930s whimsey. Her bicycling outfit has a polka dot yoke that ties around her neck and waist. And look how those polka dots peek out of the pleats of the skirt. (And if you like that, all her school chums wear it too, as the cycling uniform.) Just look at that cravat, will ya? Now as a devotee of the scarf that is something I try to emulate. Natural curls, bright eyes, big smile. That's what I strive for everyday (though alas, I'm no longer exactly an ingenue and I often miss the mark). I don't care much for her overly sculpted eyebrows, but that is a minor quibble.

I recently watched Mad About Music and delighted in the uniforms for Deanna's Swiss boarding school, not to mention the murals of the alps that stand in for scenery. In addition to the cycling get-up, they've got plaid raincoats with capelets and matching garrison caps shielded by transparent umbrellas on japanese frames. I'm not kidding. This stuff is glorious. They've got jaunty boleros worn with high waisted skirts and white blouses. All by Vera West and a few gowns done by Edith Head for Gail Patrick who plays Deanna's mother. (I once had the ambition to watch all the films costumed by Edith Head but had to give up. She was one busy lady.)

If you'd like to see Deanna in action, go here and here. Though I warn you, it just might melt your teeth it's so sweet. Mad About Music also has a novelty harmonica orchestra, the obvioulsy fake alps in the picture,"traveling incognito", and an imaginary father. It's set in a nostalgic, romanticized Europe where somehow everyone speaks English. It is a ball of kitsch where if you say something often enough and cross your fingers, somehow it will come true. Again, I'm not kidding.

Now Deanna usually plays a rich girl, and nothing really bad ever happens to her. (Unlike Shirley Temple who was orphaned in just about every picture.) But the characters she plays are still smart, kind, a bit kooky, and never so refined that she can't do a pratfall. The word on the street is that she was a consumate professional, even at 12. And she had the good sense to walk away from the Hollywood machine when she still could. But that makes sense if you look at her performances. She is working hard, but leaves something of herself in reserve.

"If you do not go to your limit, what do you have to give your audience?" That's what one of my Butoh teachers used to say. And I agree wholeheartedly that does make a performance compelling. The Great Garland always gave 110%, no matinee soft sell, not her. The Great Garland doesn't even leave herself bus fare to get home. Deanna gives it her all, yes of course, and even with the total shlock she had to work with. But then she's going to have a ice cream soda, read a little bit and get to bed. And I admire that.

Why must we all throw ourselves on the pyre of Dionysian creativity? What so wrong with being kinda well-adjusted? Not that I would know much about being well-adjusted, but leave the drama on the stage, no? Kill your children as Medea, or whatever it is, but don't take it home with you. Now I try to do performances like I'm working a middle-management job. Do my darndest, then go home and listen to the radio. No need for excoriating self-criticism, congratulations, or several rounds of scotch and monopolizing the conversation afterward. Hmmm, maybe I'm becoming too sensible.

But as far as I know, Deanna had a much easier time of it for one simple reason: she wasn't on drugs. As for the Great Garland, well, the studio was giving her speed when she was a preteen to just keep her Hollywood thin. It gave her attacks of paranoia where she was whirling around her trailer saying people where plotting against her.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bully for you in a bear market. I think this print is hilarious. The columns of stock quotes in the background really make this thing work. But unfortunately the shape of the dress itself screams nightgown or housedress. Perhaps it is more substantial in person, though the ebay seller recommends re-purposing the material.

I have no luck with games of chance or strategy. I'm invariably dealt bad hands at poker and mah jong. If I bet on a horse, the poor creature is bound to injure herself. I always roll snake eyes, small children have trounced me at Monopoly, and on a tear I once fed almost $50 into a slot machine and didn't net a dime. So I've stayed away from the stock market, not having anything to invest anyway. It just seems too much like gambling.

However, I am excellent at predicting market trends. Better, I'd say, than most who write on this stuff for a living. I predicted the '97 Asian currency crisis, and in even in '98 I knew the tech stock bubble would pop. I was talking about a subprime mortgage crisis as early as '03. True, I can only sense when things are about to go seriously wrong, and only in the market. (How many times have I been blindsided in relationships? Sigh.) My talent may be a pessimistic one, but I can't do worse than the monkey hired by the Chicago Sun Times to pick stocks.

How could I get that job?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I've learned a new adjective today, goslings, and it's Peter Max. It's all there, the combination of Art Nouveau, psychedelia, and an Asian influence, all tweaked with cheerful animation. All this time I've been periphrastically thrashing about, now all I have to say is: Peter Max.

All these images are from ebay. The first is a thrilling scarf. The second, an astrological silk scarf. Next is from the box for Mr. Max's signature fragrance, and a rainbow scarf. And finally, some wisdom literature complete with Peter Max illustrations. They are affordable. Go get 'em.

Now I am filled with longing for a Peter Max scarf. Who knew that new longings could be kindled in my aged and jaded breast? And then I thought to myself, what other bastions of outré materialism have I left untasted?

Earlier today I realized that I was really slacking on my plan to become a philistine and that I'd better step it up. I discovered that there are Freemasons' ladies auxiliaries, complete with their own secret handshakes and goofy badges. And that the Order of the Eastern Star accepts both men and women and as they state on their website "people of any faith". Take me to the pdf of that application. There I learned that one needs a current member to vouch for you, and you need to profess belief in a supreme being. Oops. As Luis Buñuel would say: I'm an atheist, thank God. Well, I could shine it on for half an hour, just for the initiation. When asked, "Ms. Samsara, do you believe in a Supreme Deity?", I could answer distractedly: "Oh yeah, sure".

Then I got looking at websites for local lodges and found that they have theme songs. The one near me has chosen "Climb Every Mountain". How much fun would it be to get together with a bunch of old ladies every month and sing songs from the Sound of Music? Perhaps I could propose that we sing "The Lonely Goatherd", and "Doe Re Me" as well. I could work for the newsletter, and help plan events for charity. It would cut into my drinking, yes, but it would keep me off the streets, and most importantly, out of the stores.

Further examination of the tenets and beliefs and structures and rituals and meeting minutes and administration and...I dozed off. And then there are dues. It was becoming less and less appealing.

Finally, looking at the photos for various conventions, this group was resoundingly not diverse. We are talking white people, most with the look of hardened churchgoers about them (not a burlesque artiste nor an astrologer among them, no siree.) I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they want to be more diverse. At least I hope so. I mean, come on now. Something about it began to make me a bit queasy.

Maybe my Masonic lodgings need extend to further than a Masonic themed vintage compact. I'll have to find a more diverse and less bureaucratic psuedo-secret society to belong to. At least in France the Masons admit atheists.

I was feeling so glum the other day that I went shopping. I've been trying really hard not to buy anything, especially more ridiculous clothing. So far this year I had shown amazing self-restraint, but now that I've fallen off the wagon, who knows what mischief I could get up to. Using stuff to improve your mood is kinda like doing drugs. And constructing an identity through stuff is a paltry thing indeed. Paltry! But you know what, I felt better, by gum. And I always follow the advice of my patron saint, Kate Bornstein, who says: rotate your addictions and it could look like moderation.

I found a photo print trapeze dress printed with images of Ancient Egyptian art (in homage to Akhenaten), a Vera scarf to hide what's happening to my hair, a handkerchief with teddy bears at the circus, and, the showstopper: a cotton 60s Alfred Shaheen dress for only $17.

It looks just like this, only it's a dress.

I promise a photo once it's up and running.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Well, goslings, I'm off to Washington D.C. for a work thingy. If only I had this Capitol Hill dress, or would that be like coals to Newcastle? I am going to be drastically internetless for a few days as I stand around a convention center wearing my pathetic excuse for a suit.

Movie round-up: Over the past week I've watched all sorts of old movies.

Insomnia led me to the 1944 Bette Davis and Claude Rains vehicle, Mr. Skeffinton. There is some fun stuff here (caution, spoilers ahead). There's a marraige of convenience to an older man who is--gasp!--Jewish. Ms. Davis plays a shallow society woman who loses her looks after a bad bout of diptheria. In the end she is tricked out in a curly wig and doll-like ruffles, a foreshadowing of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The script is not a good one. She has only one memorable line, delivered in pure Davis style, when she is broken and lonely: I've learned that one should never go looking for admirers when one is falling to bits. Hear, hear, sister. And there is a hilariously shmaltzy scene where Claude Rains is trying to tell his beloved half-Jew daughter about the prejudice she will face if she chooses to live with him after the divorce. There is some fun, yes, but by all that is holy, watch this with your gay boyfriends, your Uncle Monty, and other bon vivants who will make fun of it. Don't watch it by yourself in the middle of the night. Especially when you've been ill, your dalliance with a man ten years your junior is on the rocks, and you've just spent a good quarter of an hour evaluating what is turning into a bald spot. Really.

Don't worry about me, I'm a test pilot.

The 1954 Ulysses with Kirk Douglas was more fun than I expected. I knew it would be pure shlock once I saw the producers: Dino de Larentiis and Carlo Ponti. Mr. De Larentiis produced Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Dune, and Diabolique and several Conan the Barbarian sequels. Mr. Ponti, Sofia Loren's longtime paramor, produced Blow Up, Contempt, Boccacio '70. Besides Mr. Douglas, everyone else was speaking Italian, and the dubbing showed a delightful disregard for versimilitude. The costumes were thrilling. Circe, played by the same actress as Penelope, was so fetchingly corseted and garnished with fake hair. But the island of Corfu was my favorite. When Nausica and her ladies find Ulysses on the beach, all of them are wearing candy-colored faux tunics that catch the wind to show some leg. All the men on Corfu sport beards and ringlets with low-cut 80s prom dresses that show their chest hair. Nausica and her maidens wear dirdls in the palace and hats that look like cakes. The costumes are hilarious.

And the 1955 Three for the Show wears marvelously thin, but the premise is promising. Betty Grable plays a Broadway star who remarried after her husband was killed in WWII. When he returns unharmed, she finds herself legally married to two men, and she likes it that way. This one is a howler. She has a dream sequence where she's got a harem of shirtless men in tarbooshes climbing out of cages. Ms. Grable wears a blue faux-Indian pant suit, and what looks like a paisley pattern of fake hair entwined on a metal structure like a pagoda. It must be seen to be believed. Ms. Grable is so platinum blonde it looks gray. Dancer Marge Champion has a dream sequence in a 19th century gown where she runs up and down stairs with a revolver, shooting men in tuxedos with stockings over their faces. This culminates in a sword duel with another blonde where they cut each others' clothes down to their corsets to the tune of what sounds like a stolen riff from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Again with corsets and shamless fake hair wearing. That was awesome. But the whole thing gets sappy and conventional in the end, and Love and Honor and Marriage and all that crap are preserved. Even though W. Somerset Maugham is credited as one of the writers. Go figure.

I think I need some fake hair and a corset and I'll be right as rain.

The adages I live by are many: Never work harder than you have to. Being fabulous is better than being beautiful. Enjoy your own shtick. Failure is the mother of success (that was from a fortune cookie, actually). Eat fresh fruit everyday. And, of course, never shtup a roommate or a co-worker. That last one is iron-clad and I've never broken it. The fresh fruit, well, I do my best.

I have many clothing rules too, but most imporantly: never wear a novelty print depicting something you don’t endorse. Unless, of course, the results are hilarious.

For Passover this year I wore a 60s A-line dress with an Egyptian print to a seder. Inappropriate? Kinda. Did it get a laugh? Absolutely. However, I must point out that although the context makes this dress cheeky, I am not ideologically opposed to what it shows. I like all things ancient Egyptian (and modern too, since Akhenaten is a very modern young man) and am not a Zionist.

As to this smoking frock, though it is a marvelous print ( just look at those striking matches! And the triangular collar and waist!) I couldn’t wear it. I quit smoking in 1996. I am seriously proud of quitting. Now there are those who say they used to smoke, meaning that they would bum one from someone at a party. Feh, that’s not smoking. They were bumming them from me. I lit up before I opened my eyes in the morning. If I can quit, anyone can. And believe me, I don’t miss it. Not even when watching a Bette Davis movie.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Be seeing you! This heartfelt and bedazzled old timey bicycle print wants to be your new friend. I love the overlapping collar and the poufy Victorian-flavored shape to the bodice and sleeves. And I cannot resist the blue rhinestones on the handle bars. Evocative of the penny farthing emblem of The Prisoner, though without the canopy. Wear it on Bicycle Day.

Seredipitously, I am wearing my bicycle print blouse today. It's got banana seat bikes in brown on a cream background and some short puffy sleeve action. If I ever get a computer at home where I can transfer my photos, I'll show you. Not that I am writing this from work, I would never dare do such a thing!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Eat your veggies. While I am a semi-professional fruit fly, nonetheless, it is the vegetable that is the true beauty. Do you hear me, Uncle Monty?

I have two vegetable-themed summer dresses already, though this one is so tempting. Those radishes, I tell you, they get me everytime. This one is a medium and bidding is slated to end in minutes. Go get it. You'll look so healthy and toothsome in it.