Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Plain Dealer Essay One

A few weeks ago, Positively Cleveland and the Plain Dealer ran an essay contest called "What I Want for Christmas." Not the most original prompt, but at least it challenged me to find a strong, original angle.

I wrote two essays for the contest (three, really, but I only submitted two). The essay that won is in praise of Cleveland: my wish for Christmas is that people in Cleveland will start to appreciate and take advantage of what we have. At first I was reluctant to write this one, fearing that it might just seem like pandering since the essay would be printed in a Cleveland newspaper, for a contest run by a Cleveland tourism group. I ultimately decided that anyone who knows me knows how passionately I feel about the city of Cleveland, and how one of my main goals has always been to look for the positive and share my favorite Cleveland places and things with others.

That essay won and it was mistakenly credited to "Melissa Desantis." Whoops. It got corrected two days later.

I thought I'd post that essay to my blog, but first I want to post the essay that didn't win, since many people in my life are curious about it. It doesn't have a title, as that was not required of me upon entry. But here it is, all 400 words of it:


This June I got engaged to a marvelous fellow. It all feels wonderful, but our wedding date will not arrive until 2010. Now, for the wedding I’ll be patient. But there’s just one thing I simply can’t wait for: there is no way I can go another year without a KitchenAid Artisan Series mixer.

As a little girl, I watched my grandma mix unreasonable amounts of Christmas sugar cookie dough in her hearty banana-yellow upright KitchenAid. I saw the beater, big as my head, tirelessly whipping potatoes into shape. I ogled the dough hook as it beckoned me with its calculated curve. Grandma used the model with the pasta maker attachment, slicing thick sheets of dough that would plump in her savory homemade chicken noodle soup.

I've always been a tomboy, eschewing girlish stereotypes and making crusades against what was expected of my gender. I always asked for the boy’s toy in my Happy Meal. I refused to wear the color pink. But my Grandma is tough, and so is her KitchenAid mixer. And I want one this Christmas.

Look at it. It's the ‘57 Chevy of home appliances. Seated firmly in the center of my hope chest, it's seducing the muffin pans and spatulas with its smooth and saucy sheen. Frilly aprons, beware! This piece of equipment demands to be operated in motorcycle boots. It's tough, it's sexy. Have you watched the videos on the KitchenAid website? The music is seductive, the camera angles provocative. They know exactly what they're doing.

This Christmas, watch me tilt back its chrome-plated head as I throw back my own in the uninhibited ecstasy of a culinary goddess. This thing can whip up enough dough for nine dozen cookies at one time. And oh, the speed! With that kind of production, I'll never have to worry about running out before Santa arrives.

This Christmas, I want what every red-blooded American wants, woman or man: a 325 watt motor, a 5 quart bowl, a stand mixer that looks like it was designed by the Fonz’s and Andy Warhol’s lovechild. The kind of tough-as-grits wedding present that probably outlasts most marriages. And it can probably beat tough grits, too. Ten pounds at once.

I want this one last whirlwind-whip hurrah before I get married. Or the rest of the wedding registry won't stand a chance.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lunch Hour Poetry

Wrote this one today while peeling an orange. Overheard a line from somebody in the front offices--thanks for the inspiration. Can't think of a title. Sorry for the fragments--my break's almost over.

With bitter rind still
stuck, dusty
beneath my fingernails,
I compose.

Ignore it.
Pull him off the road,
rest on the shoulder in a puddle
of tread-echo
and feel his wobbling head burst forward
like a forced tap.

My left hand fingers
dangling like baby shotguns
on a paneled wall,
a hot swollen door slams
in the middle of a thunderstorm.

These rusted pots and pans fill fast,
fill sideways
with percussive boil-over hope,
mouths skyward and earthward
in a fountain pile of spastic,

Let this be forever
like a roadside mutt that follows close,
bone hips syncopated by the sun beat.
Let it be as loud as screen door-scratching guilt,
and freer.

No more drowning in my sorrow

I can't listen to the opening notes of Over the Rhine's "Poughkeepsie" without crying.

I think I just want to start singing old spirituals. Isn't harmony the best thing in the world?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sexism/Idiocy Brewing at McCafe

This morning I saw a McDonald's commercial that troubled me deeply. The commercial is for McCafe, McDonalds' new attempt at competing with specialty coffee chains, providing lattes,
cappuccinos, and mochas for the fat masses. Homogenized products for homogenized people.

The commercial opens with two women sitting in a cafe and their dialogue is as follows:

Woman A: Now we don’t have to listen to jazz all day long!
Woman B: I can start wearing heels again.
Woman A: Read gossip magazines! (tosses book away)
Woman B: Watch reality TV shows…
Woman A: I like television!
Woman B: I can’t really speak French.
Woman A: I don’t know where Paraguay is!
Woman B: Paraguay?

After my mother told me that there was a male version of this same advertisement, I looked it up on YouTube. Here is the dialogue from the transaction between two men:

Man A: I can shave this thing off my face
Man B: We don't have to call movies films anymore.
Man A: We can talk about football.
Man B: I like football. I like sitting and watching football
Man A: I don't need these glasses. These are fake.
Man B: I do need mine. They're very real.

Alright. There are quite a few problems here.

The commercial seems to attack liberal elitists by creating caricatures of people who frequent specialty coffee houses. While I can agree that elitism (intellectual or otherwise) is obnoxious, this advertisement seems to wrongly define elitism as cultural awareness, well-roundedness, and even basic intelligence.

The message seems to be: "Only stupid people should drink McDonald's coffee. If your only interest is football or gossip rags, or if you don't know where Paraguay is, we have the perfect McOpiate for you!"

Furthermore, clear gender roles and dangerous sexism are perpetuated in each of these ads. By McDonalds' definition of what is normal and acceptable, women who don't wear high heels are pretentious, snobby, and undesirable. And it doesn't matter that neither of the women in the commercial is intelligent. (The fact that the one woman actually gets giddy when she learns she can wear constrictive footwear is deeply disturbing as well.) It also seems to say that intelligent women can't wear stylish or sexy footwear (since heels are apparently stylish and sexy...so I've heard.)

Can't speak French? Don't know basic geography? That's fine--we don't expect you to. Stop overworking your poor tiny little lady brains pretending to be educated.

And she throws her book away! In this commercial, there is no happy medium. You cannot read substantial material and enjoy a McLatte. Books are for stuffy, pretentious beatniks who hang out in coffee houses discussing philosophy, world events, films (not "movies"), that evil and intolerable jazz music you hate so much, and a slew of other topics you can't be bothered to
deal with or relate to. But let's see what TomKat is up to over a watered down Styrofoam cup of saccharine garbage. That's something normal, down-to-earth women can get behind.

I can't believe she throws her book away.

The male version of this commercial is just as bad. First, the idea that having facial hair defines a man as some sort of counterculture pompous snob is absolutely absurd. I get the idea that these men are supposed to be "regular guys." When my mom told me that this commercial existed, she said that it had "two jocks" in it. So I guess I get where they're going. But I know so many "jocks" with chinstrap beards and soul patches...

In this version, the men don't seem to have collected quite as many pretenses as the women, but they also don't seem to be very deep or interesting. They are the ultimate cliche: two straight men who just want to sit and watch football. Period. That's it. American men should strive for nothing more. Just football and homosocial encounters over cheap McCafe beverages with their bros. Why can't the men be interested in literature and film AND enjoy watching football? I've never met a man who was exclusively into sports. Even my dad, a retired football/basketball coach and self-proclaimed jock reads books, eats at independent restaurants (and McDonalds), and enjoys classic and independent film. My fiance is one of the most well-read people I know, but he still plays cards and watches the Steelers with his friends. The same goes for a lot of women I know. But the female version of the ad doesn't even acknowledge that American women enjoy sports. Because they totally don't. Not ever.

It's also quite telling that the men don't have to do all that much to shed their false intellectual skin. They basically alter physical attributes: remove glasses, shave goatee. Next to the female version of the commercial, this shows that women have to try a lot harder to be accepted in the intellectual community; they have to pretend that they know things instead of just donning a pair of spectacles to appear confident or astute.

The commercial doesn't really go much further than this, except for presenting the silly idea that wearing glasses denotes intellectual elitism, and then trying to make good by giving one of the characters actual prescribed eyewear.

Nowhere in the commercial does McDonalds mention value, which could be a preferable consumer-empowering way to sell its product: "You're smart; you like to save money. So order a McMocha." Maybe they don't use this selling point since most McDonalds specialty drinks are only about fifty cents less than those offered at Starbucks.

It doesn't really mention quality either, but that's not much of a surprise, since McDonalds is clearly uninterested in selling quality products to quality people. Just simple, aw-shucks products to equally simple [read: stupid] people.

Man. And I thought McDonalds commercials were just racist most of the time.

And to make one thing certain: all of this is not in defense of Starbucks. I tend to support local. All of this is in defense of people--people who deserve more respect from advertising agencies and from each other.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Caves of Sound

My favorite parts of my job have little to do with my actual day-to-day duties, who I work with, how comfortable my desk chair is (the answer is moderately, if you're curious), or how often I get out of kitchen duty.

One of the best things about working 9 to 5 at a desk is that I have an hour commute that often allows me to listen to a complete album on my way to and from work. This morning on the way in I listened to Times New Viking's loud, infectious, and refreshingly lo-fi Rip it Off. On the way home I think I'll do Constantines.

The other great thing is that for eight hours straight, I sit in my cube, covered in a blanket with headphones wrapped around my skull in a warm cocoon of music. Since most of my work involves documentation and email correspondence, I rarely have to tug at my phones or deal with anything but my own little private fourth wall of sound.

I still maintain that the car is the best place in the world to listen to music. Sam Jones affirmed my belief in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco. As a musician, I get some of my best songwriting done in the car, fueled by the romance of coming miles and an anxious feeling of transience. A car trip is the best way to listen to a new album. You are focused, captive and free. You are both plotting and distracted. It's very possible to be swept away by a new unheard-of something.

In the film Once, a group of newly-recorded musicians leave the comfort of the plush recording studio to do a "car test" with their new record. Because anything sounds good pouring out of a set of pro-grade speakers, but the best albums sound good everywhere, where real people are, and where real people are going. In Once, the musicians and their producer prance and delight along a grey, dismal autumnal beach, an ethereal celebration of creation, and completeness.

There are some albums that have become synonymous with the road for me: My Morning Jacket's Z, Over the Rhine's brilliant double disc, Ohio, Neil Young's Harvest, Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits, and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to name a few. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago is my new favorite night-driving album.

At 74 minutes, Sufjan Stevens' Illinois is almost the exact length of the trip from my home in Cleveland to my fiance's home in Beaver Falls, PA. I've made a game where I try to time my arrival to the end of "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run." As much as I am going to love having my man 100 miles closer than he is currently, I will truly miss that 1.5 hours of uninterrupted musical immersion.

Great music is meant to be shared, but my most intimate and affecting moments with music are when I am completely alone, even if my aloneness is just a pair of snug headphones, a rolled up car window, a two foot padded cubicle wall, a wish for the other warm-bodied shoegazers to dissipate and leave me staring, central in the room, at a new local band that is selling me their goods, raw and sensuous and kinetic.

I look forward to my Greyhound ride to Cincinnati this weekend.