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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Like my brownhouse:
   book and antique stores of Columbia
Thursday, March 29 2001
This particular day was long and arduous and felt the least of all like vacation, since most of what I did was go through motions with Gretchen and her family. Sometimes these are things you have to do as a concession to civilization.
We went out for Chinese food at a restaurant in Kafkaesque Columbia. It's a well known stereotype that American Jews love Chinese food, and I've even heard that in some Jewish circles anything in a wire-handled white waxed cardboard box is automatically considered kosher, no matter what it is. It certainly makes life easier if you're a practicing Orthodox Jew and suddenly everything you can get in a Chinese restaurant is automatically kosher. Gretchen's parents don't really have this problem though. They keep a kosher kitchen and go through the motions if they aren't too difficult, but they're secular Jews and really only in it for the culture. When they eat out, they'd just rather not consider what happens back in the kitchen. Of course, I'm also definitely that way about Chinese food. I order it, I eat it, and I try not to ask too many questions or look at it too carefully as I shovel it into my mouth. My concerns are obviously not the same as those had by a practicing Jew, but there are just some things I'd rather not know I'm eating.
I ordered some sort of Sczechuan noodle dish and it was so heavy with depp-fried greasy meat nuggets I had to stop before I was even halfway through. I much prefered the marinated mushrooms in whatever it was Gretchen had ordered.
We spent a long time in a warehouse bookstore called Dædalus Books as Gretchen and father loaded up on novels and anthologies. My book interests have always been more practical and less literary, so I spent my time in the art history and science sections, where I feel most comfortable. Gretchen's mother was probably even less interested in this adventure than I was and she was the one who finally motivated us into moving on. You should have seen the pile of books Gretchen and her father bought. I only wanted two, one a text book about gender's role in art history and the other a pop science book about faces (I learned enough from the chapter on kissing to want to buy the it). Gretchen's father, being something of a patron saint of books, paid for it all. On the ride to our next destination Gretchen and I fought back and forth over a stereoscopic book about reptiles and amphibians, complete with stereoscopic glasses. The pictures were so vividly 3D they almost looked like they were breathing.

Next we whiled away a few hours in various antique stores. Now you have to know by now how tired and cranky I can get in an antique store. But Gretchen has a way of making any experience interesting, no matter how dull. In an antique store we can always find interesting things to talk about. We have a lot of similar standards about the beauty of things. There's something so perfectly convenient about a rack of tiny drawers or a vintage Snap-On-Tools display case that really gets the juices flowing. I picked up a baby doll and joked that I should appear in front of Gretchen's parents randomly holding it gently as if to imply a strong fatherly urge and a massive desire to fill the world with children. This would come as the ultimate relief to Gretchen's parents. They might be left-leaning upper middle class, but they were horrified by Gretchen's five year lesbian relationship. I'm sure they consider me a vast improvement, even if I'm not Jewish. I'm intellectual, male, have a house and a good job. The only real fly in the ointment as far as they're concerned is Gretchen's oft-proclaimed desire not to reproduce. "Maybe we should wander out in front of your parents swinging the baby doll casually by the ankles instead," I joked.
Then this youngish woman with a completely retro hair style turned up. Her bleached-blonde trusses were severely feathered back on both sides in a style that would have been possible to forget about were it not for high school year books circa 1979. I whispered to Gretchen that she had come to this antique store in a quest to find the tool necessary to maintain her hair in its absurdly anachronistic state.
In the antique mall we managed to find another bookstore, this one even cheaper than Dædalus. The woman at the cashier had a voice which implied some sort of adnoid complaint. Gretchen found a Kurt Vonnegut book and asked her how much it would cost. "Well, if it was a really well know author it would probably be five or six dollars, but for that one probably only two or three," she said. I was tempted to buy a Richard Scarry picture book, the kind I used to have when I was a kid. I told Gretchen that everything I ever learned, except for how Xerox machines work, I learned from a Richard Scarry book.

In the evening I went with Gretchen and her parents to visit a friend of theirs, a 50-something-year old woman named Judy and her Italian husband Umberto. Judy is a writer and Umberto is a mathematician. They're eleite culture-minded lefty Jews, with a strong interest in classical music. Along that line they had youngish pianist visiting from Italy. His name was Aldo and he didn't speak much English. Anyway, Judy is mostly confined to a wheelchair because of her arthritis, but she went out of her way to be a proper host all the same. Everyone was talking endlessly about poetry, literature and this and that concerto, all kinds of high culture about which I my knowledge was clearly inferior. So I mostly kept my mouth shut so no one would know what I fool I am.
But later during dinner I came into my own with my vast reserves of socio-political wisdom, gleaned largely from and other fine web publications. When I talked about how dotcom culture had driven out the older, more legimitate artists of San Francisco, I knew what I was talking about. I could tell that no one else at the table had even considered this subject before. When I was done celebrating the comeuppance of the dotcom crowd, we all had reason to root for a recession. But later I found Gretchen's parents unwilling to belive me about a botanical fact: that water cress is in the mustard family. They were under some delusion that members of the mustard family have square stems (that's actually the mint family) and because the watercress in the salad had a round stem, they were sure it wasn't a mustard. It didn't matter what I said (and mind you, I'm a professionally-educated botanist), they refused to believe me. I felt like the victim of a grave injustice and wasn't happy until we looked up wartercress in a huge unabridged dictionary and proved them wrong.
Not being a vegetarian, I ate some of the beef that had been prepared for dinner. There was nothing especially kosher about this household. For example parmesian cheese and beef juice mingled without complaint on my plate. Someone asked me if perhaps I wanted a new plate at some point, possibly as a mild concession to formalities of kosher, but I said it didn't matter, that it all ended up in the same place. "That's a really bad argument," said Gretchen. "I knew you'd say that," I told her.
Then Aldo sat down at the upright piano and busted loose with various concertos and fugues and fine classical things like that. We all sat silently as he passionately tickled the ivories. Later I chatted with Gretchen's dad about the origins of jazz. Evidently Beethoven had done most of the work of anticipating jazz forms, and these were simply extended by Gershwin and various klezmer musicians. I'd always thought African Americans had more of a role in jazz than Gershwin and the klezmeristas, but perhaps I've been misled by so much Afro-centrist noise. Maybe, as was implied by my elementary school history books, black people haven't done anything much for society since George Washington Carver.

[This account was written on April 7th, 2001]

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