26 August 2011

slightly obsessive behavior

I have this incredible ability to do things repetitively/obsessively. It sounds like a problem, but I promise it's not.

It's things like being able to eat the same lunch every day for a week. My tastebuds do not get bored, and I do not stop craving whatever it is I made too much of at the beginning of the week.

In reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, that book on cooking and eating alone, I've become more assured that this isn't bizarre behavior. Many of the essays in that book involved confessions of what a person ate every day for {insert absurd amount of time here, such as six months}.

Left to our own devices, we crave routine and familiarity. Is that because we want to feel not alone and so we create a continuity of our own?

I don't know; I just know that I could eat a fried egg sandwich every night and still get excited for that first bite.

Or it's my ability to listen to one CD—or heck, even one song—over and over, always coming back with the same freshness, the same feeling that this is a power song for me.

I should not admit how many times I've listened to "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast. It's on my Broadway playlist on Grooveshark, and that's the third thing I do every morning at work.

Step 1: Put lunch in fridge. Most likely, it's the same thing as yesterday.
Step 2: Look at email. Ignore pressing things for just a few more minutes.
Step 3: Start pretending I'm on Broadway. Let's start with..."Belle."

So I am a creature of obsessive habit, something I've been reminded of in two ways recently.

Way the First: This week, my friends Brenda and Beth brought back into my life the Rufus Wainwright song "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk."

It's on a CD that Brenda made for me a few years back, so technically, the song never left my life; I just haven't listened to it in awhile.

Hearing it again, I remembered how I laughed when I first heard it. Brenda has this slightly/very unnerving ability to choose songs that speak to that part of you that you don't speak much about.

It's freaky, actually, listening to songs that make you wonder if she somehow broke into your journal, even though she lives in a different state. {And you don't have a lock on your journal, so maybe "broke in" isn't the right phrase.}

This particular Rufus Wainwright song hits me here: I, at times, have very little willpower. Mostly this is when faced with Oreos or some other cookie. So these lyrics—oh, how I relate to these lyrics:
Cigarettes and chocolate milk
These are just a couple of my cravings
Everything, it seems, I like's a little bit stronger
A little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me

If I should buy jellybeans
Have to eat them all in just one sitting
Everything, it seems, I like's a little bit sweeter
A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me

What was that old Pringles ad? "Once you pop, you can't stop"? Yeah, that's me and Oreos, which is why I don't normally keep them around. A little bit fatter, a little bit sweeter, a little bit harmful for me—in massive quantities.

No amount of running can help you avoid the weight gain from eating a package of Oreos a day. Not that I do that.

Way the Second: Did you read about me and Downton Abbey? You probably should. Slightly obsessed, yes.

What's the point of all this confession? Honestly, I'm not sure.

Do I want you to buy me Oreos or talk about Downton Abbey—all in an effort to test my will power? No, and that just sounds cruel and mean-spirited.

Do I want to be Belle? Yes, but that's beside the point.

Do I want to hear that I'm not alone in my very focused behavior? Maybe, just maybe.

25 August 2011

star trek and downton abbey

Star Trek and Downton Abbey.

I am not suggesting a mash-up of those two—a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—although I'm sure someone has thought of that. Somewhere on the vast distraction that is the Internet, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is sitting down to dinner in an Edwardian dining room as Carson the butler holds out his chair.

If you didn't get any of those references, that's all right. You don't really need to in order to understand what I'm about to say. {If you did get them, we speak the same nerdy language, and to you, I say: hello, dear friend.}

I'm connecting these two shows because of my own confession: I am a fanfic girl.

I have never admitted this before so boldly {even using bold typeface!}, and I feel both relieved and exposed {and if one of you comments about how you're a fanfic girl/boy, I will feel comforted and supported, too}.

Facfic—fan fiction—is when you take already-existing characters from a TV show or a book or a movie and imagine future adventures or more of a backstory or missing scenes for them.

Essentially, you so immerse yourself in this other world that you want more of it. Need more of it. Want to, perhaps, be part of it.

And so you turn to fanfic.


Here's the deal: I've just finished re-watching Downton Abbey. I watched it for the first time back in January on PBS, and while I loved it {and even made my sister watch it when I was visiting her in LA}, when the season ended, I moved on. On into February and away from Lady Mary and Matthew and all the rest of them.

Until recently. My friend Brenda was watching it for the first time, and one day, she mentioned a little something about it.

A little something that propelled me into immediately switching my Netflix queue so that I could re-watch Downton.

Seriously, from the effect it had on me, you'd think Brenda was some sort of PBS/iTVsorceress, casting spells with a wave of a crooked finger—spells that make you forget all about other plans and real-life friends and your pug.

Just watch the period piece. Escape, escape.

And so I did. That part of my brain that allows me to completely immerse in what I'm doing to the point of repetition {be it reading all the Anne of Green Gables books or eating eggplant every night for dinner} was flipped on, and the rest of my brain was filled with Downton, much to my slight surprise and consternation.

You may have noticed Downton creeping in to my writing.

I talked about having a lady's maid and getting my hair styled every day.

I've mentioned English country dances, and there has been a decided bent of nostalgia in my writing of late.

In the same way that I imagined I was a princess when I was younger, I found my mind wandering to what my life would've been like if I had been born an aristocrat.

I wasn't born an aristocrat; I was born in Iowa to very good people but certainly no earl or countess. But here I was, reverting to a reverie-bound 12-year-old about something that was clearly not my life.

The turns my mind takes completely take me by surprise at times. I was daydreaming! About a TV show!

Having an active imagination is one thing, a good thing, but even I was surprised by my imagination's activity.

Now, all this makes it sound like I think you should grow out of imagination or out of losing yourself in a story. Of course I don't think that; the ability to lose ourselves in stories is partly what keeps us empathetic, I think, to what other people go through.

But I knew that this particular story had a strong hold on me when I found myself reading Downton Abbey fanfic.

My girly little heart wanted to believe that Lady Mary and Matthew would end up together. And my romantic self wanted to know more about their relationship, how it developed, what they were thinking.

Enter fanfic, which I started to devour, staying up very much past my bedtime to read what other people—people who were just as invested as I was in these other people's lives—had written.

11:30 and I wasn't in bed: I was on Chapter 10 of a Mary/Matthew story.

I was, at first, surprised at how easily I found Downton fanfic and how hard it was for me to stop reading, even when some of it wasn't all that well written {I have a low tolerance, usually, for poorly written stories where the characters say all the obvious things and no one seems all that real}.

But then I remembered Imzadi. It's this Star Trek novel written about the relationship between Will Riker and Deanna Troi {you know, from The Next Generation}. I read it when I was in middle school, and it gave me more of what I craved from the TV show: more details about why they fell in love and fiery interactions they had and headstrong decisions they both made.

{You may have noticed a theme to my fanfic interests: mushy love stories. Actually, I hope you noticed that because it's pretty obvious.}

On about Day 3 of reading Downton fanfic, I realized that I've been a fanfic girl for years. Ever since I first read Imzadi.

It was like I'd come full circle with a little sliver of my nerdy self. I suddenly didn't feel so guilty for my flights of fancy, imagination-wise. I was just being true to myself, my little fanfic girl self.

24 August 2011

do you actually understand baseball?

Tonight, I'm headed to a Cubs game, my once-yearly sojourn to Wrigley Field for a hot dog and the ability to throw my peanut shells on the ground.

I suppose I could do that at home, but then I would have to clean it up and that, as much as I like cleaning, limits the fun factor.

Peanut shells also make me think of pre-school: we had peanuts for a snack one day at Small World Pre-school {our fight song, if pre-schools can be said to have fight songs, was that song from the Disney ride}, and I ate the shells.

I liked the salt and the crunchiness. I even liked the little stringy pieces of shell getting stuck between my baby teeth.

Also, I didn't know you weren't supposed to eat the shells; my parents and I hadn't covered that lesson yet.

The teacher came over slightly alarmed that I did not have a growing little pile of shells, just like the other children. When I heard the tsk-tsk in her voice, I realized that one of these kids was doing her own thing and that one kid was me.

Ever the quick thinker, even as a 3-year-old, I told her that I'd already thrown them away.

The only way this would've been possible is if I were magical—had invisible powers or speed of light powers. That is the only way I could've made it past her watchful eye to the trash can, but I think she preferred the idea that I'd magically made it to the trash can {all in the name of cleanliness}—to the alternative truth that I'd just crammed in a bunch of salt and fiber.

You can see, then, why I get so excited about throwing peanut shells. It's as if I'm announcing to the world, "I learned in pre-school what to do with these things! NOT EAT THEM! Or maybe just eat one, just because you love salt that much, but make sure nobody sees you!"

At the Cubs game tonight, I admit, I'll probably be more excited about the food than the pitching. But just because I rarely talk about baseball—or watch it on TV or listen to it on the radio—my boss misinterpreted my "sportiness."

Today he asked, with a bit of hesitation, "So, will you even understand what's happening at the game tonight?"

The whole office laughed in shock.

I laughed so hard, I cried, which I think made the boss feel worse. He made me cry!

To give him the benefit of the doubt, he is English. Baseball is foreign to them, just as cricket is foreign/crazy/confusing/what's a sticky wicket to us.

But as I reminded him, I was born in America, and we're born with this basic knowledge of what to do when faced with a ball, a bat, and a diamond-shaped field.

You start taunting the pitcher, clearly.

Or you order a hot dog by yelling at the man carrying around a hot dog container made for such a time as this—big and hanging around his neck.

Or you get some more peanuts to throw on the ground.

And then you clap when your team gets a man on base. You stand up when he gets home. You stretch in the seventh inning.

Everyone knows this.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a team to cheer for.

23 August 2011

a nap

I do not nap.

And I don't look down on people who do—as in, How dare you waste your God-given day like that?

It's just that I'm not good at it, just as I'm not good at any dance that doesn't involve set steps.

On a related note: Why, oh why, don't we waltz anymore? Or tango. Or foxtrot. Or even do those English country dances so heavily featured in Jane Austen movies {aka, the one time men and women were allowed to hold hands without it causing a scandal}.

No, instead, we have to do the bounce and flail. The shake and twirl. The sway and make eye contact. Today, we are missing the weight that a dance together—a first dance together—can carry. Dancing has become, for the most part, a non-moment.

As the dance has deconstructed into nothing but a way to bop along in time {or not in time} to the music, we've lost the social graces that a dance used to effortlessly bring.

Bringing this back to the nap—because I certainly didn't expect to take that detour into dancing {one that made me sound like an agitated former debutante}—I will repeat: I do not nap.

But Sunday afternoon as I ate my leftovers from Saturday brunch, I felt the weight of tiredness creep up.

Sitting outside on my balcony, I thought about how cozy it would be inside on my bed. I knew precisely what I was doing: I was saying that I was going inside to read, propped up in bed like someone with all the time in the world on their hands, but really, I was going to read for 10 minutes and then curl up under the covers.

A nap!

I let myself do it, ignoring thoughts and plans of re-lining my kitchen shelves with contact paper.

Because when a summer afternoon is calling to you with offers of rest, you listen. You don't ignore that call for contact paper, of all things.

I finished my book about cooking and eating alone and then let it drop to the ground.

And I slept.

For 14 minutes.

I told you—I'm not good at it.

But allowing myself 14 minutes of rest—now that is something to get better at.

22 August 2011

i feel like a snob

This was not how I wanted to spend my Monday evening, sitting in a fancified chain restaurant off an expressway in the Chicago suburbs.

I was 45 minutes from home, and there was nothing special or unique or charming about the restaurant except that it's what the doctor ordered.

Or suggested; I guess that would be a more accurate way to describe what was going on there. I met with two doctors for work stuff, and a restaurant that was, essentially, in an office park is where one of them suggested.

My job occasionally has me wining and dining and schmoozing doctors, and normally it doesn't phase me. It doesn't phase me because I usually get to wine and dine and schmooze in places like Beaver Creek, CO.

There, I ate at a restaurant on top of a mountain. To get there, you had to take a sleigh attached to a snow cat.

Before I saw the actual thing, all I could think of when I heard "snow cat" were those lumbering machines used by the Empire on that really cold planet in Star Wars.

Someone more versed in that universe will be able to remember the name of the planet and which movie it was, but all I have to say now is: snow cats are nothing like that. They're more like tractors, but you certainly don't feel like you're on the farm as it bumps its way up to 13,000 feet—you wrapped in a fur blanket and looking up a crystallized light, little etched glass points of stars, above the pine trees.

No, I did not mind wining and dining that night. I ate elk and my salad had truffles on it and I even tried rabbit, which I normally don't eat, but it looked so pretty on the plate.

But tonight I did not ride a snow cat to get to the restaurant. I drove on an expressway with thousands of other people trying to get somewhere they're not. Peering through their windows, I wondered, 'Who are you and where are you going and what kind of day did you have?'

I'll never know, though.

Do you ever think about how many people you pass in a day? Especially when you're somewhere like on an expressway in Chicago, you're sharing an experience with so many thousands of people, but you don't know them.

And for all you know, your best friend from elementary school, the one who moved away at the end of second grade, is also on the road.

Or your future husband.

How would you ever know that? How would you ever know that you passed as literal strangers in the night on 355? Even after 56 years of conversation, I can't imagine this question coming up: "Where were you on August 22, 2011, at 7:30pm? On 355, you say? Going south? Well, I was going north then. Just think of that: we were so close but we didn't meet until..."

No, that would never come up.

Most likely this story of my evening with some doctors off a major road in a northern suburb will never come up, either. After living through it once, I see no need to keep it in my repertoire of stories.

It was a fine professional evening. I should stress that. But as I sat there nodding at the right times and mentally taking notes and writing follow-up emails in my head, I thought: 'This is not how I wanted to spend my night.'

But there I was, and sometimes you have to make the best of where you find yourself. You don't always get to do what you want every night.

Some nights, you have to go on an expressway and eat overpriced food.

Other nights, you get to stay home and make your own pizza dough and see what kinds of toppings you have to throw on it.

Tonight, I ate overpriced food.

But I got to see the sunset blaring boldly through the windows of the restaurant, making even the over-sized menus appear tinged with something prettier than us all.

And that sight alone made tonight worth it.

19 August 2011

you must try bicerin

She put the magazine down on my desk. "You have to try this."

I looked up at Val. "What? Try what?"

I looked down at the magazine. It was a particularly European-looking spread with a cafe and an old bridge over a river and things written not in English.

And there was an older woman pouring whipped cream into a goblet already filled with a dark something. Coffee? Chocolate?

I looked at the recipe under the picture. It was for bicerin, a drink served at this cafe in Italy. It was coffee and chocolate! And cream!

"Oh, you're right: I do need to try that. Perhaps right now, if that were possible, but it's not because we're at work, and I didn't come prepared. Why didn't I bring my bar of dark chocolate?"

And so a plan developed: we would try the bicerin on Friday. We all need a Friday afternoon pick-up. I don't care how exciting your job is, that is truth for everyone: Friday afternoons need a little zest.

I brought in what we needed, and at 1:30, Val and I gathered in the kitchen. Normally coffee takes, what, 20 seconds of prep time, and then you just have to wait for the brewing? And hot cocoa—if you're doing the horrific Swiss Miss variety—takes like a minute?

This was no drip coffee or Swiss Miss endeavor.

Bicerin took both of us hard at work for many minutes: Val making the espresso, me melting the chocolate. The boss even stepped in to wash mugs for us so that we could all try this.

In a place where we're always supposed to appear busy—and in a country that prides itself on busyness and that dang work ethic the Puritans brought over on the Mayflower—this intentionally taking time to make a treat felt luxurious.

It felt civilized, and it was a chance to work on something that wasn't a computer.

It felt, if I may say, slightly French, even though bicerin is said to be an Italian drink. Even though this coffee break could've been quicker, we were purposely stretching it out. We were approaching the coffee break as if we were honoring a ritual. We were making the mundane into more.

So here's the recipe, complete with tips for making this at work, should you want to take a bicerin break.

thank you, Afar magazine and Val

What You Need
{This will make enough for two people.}
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 3 ounces high-quality dark chocolate, chopped {But hey, if you want to use more chocolate, I won't look at you funny. I'd look at you encouragingly.}
  • 4 shots espresso
  • 1/2 cup freshly whipped cream, sweetened to taste

What You Do
  1. Warm the milk and chocolate together. You can do this over medium heat, or if you're making this at work, you should just melt it in the microwave. I have one of those Pampered Chef microwaveable dishes that was made for melting chocolate. Well, not really. I think its more practical use is for steaming vegetables, but there's no need to limit it to such a pedantic use.
  2. When the milk/chocolate is boiling, whisk vigorously until foamy. Or, if you forgot your whisk at home, just use a spoon. Our sink is currently overflowing with dirty dishes. {We're all such neat people in general; why when we're all together do we devolve into slovenly-ness?} So I did some quick digging and washing and voila, a spoon for frothing.
  3. Resist the urge to lick the spoon if you're making this for other people. People don't like it when you lick the spoon and then continue stirring the chocolate. Apparently it's "unsanitary."
  4. Slowly pour the warm chocolate mixture into clear glasses, preferably small goblets with stems. But who has those at work? Or at home, for that matter? Coffee mugs work just fine.

    For a brief moment, I considered clear plastic cups so that we could get the whole effect of the chocolate/cream layering, but then I remembered that I was putting something hot into them. Just because something will look pretty, that doesn't give you a right to disregard practicalities.
  5. Being careful to not disturb the bottom layer of hot chocolate, trickle two shots of espresso into each glass/mug.

    That instruction reminds me of the one time I tried to make my own mayonnaise. You're supposed to drop my drop add in oil. A tiny trickle. A test of patience, and I failed. I poured it too quickly, ruined the mayonnaise, and opened up the Miracle Whip. Thankfully, I didn't fail at pouring coffee into chocolate.
  6. Top the drinks with whipped cream. We actually used frothed whole milk. I ran out of heavy whipping cream at home, but I did find a can of Redi Whip in the back of the fridge.

    FYI: Those things can go bad. Such a sense of anticipation this morning as I stood with the can poised over my open mouth {why use fingers?}. A rushing hiss of the aerosol can and then a shot of soured dairy. Thank goodness for the mug of coffee I was holding in my other hand.

    So I didn't whip my own cream, but the frothed milk still looked pretty.
  7. Drink. Obviously. What did you think you were making this treat for?
We all gathered in the kitchen, and I made everyone wait to take the first sip together. On a Friday afternoon in the middle of August, we all took a sip and sighed.

We talked about Switzerland and Vail, two places where this drink would fit in quite well.

And then we talked about how much we liked having it right there, right in the office kitchen next to our ongoing Scrabble game. I made the word "down" on a triple, took another sip of bicerin, and then went about my day.

18 August 2011

the plum trees

I have been feeling a dearth of poetry in my life recently.

Please take that literally, not symbolically, as in: There is no beauty in my life, no lyrical moments, no hints of something deeper in an occasion as normal as a morning walk.

It's just that I haven't been reading poetry as much right now—summer hiatus? But what for?—and I didn't realize that I was feeling its absence until my friend Jessie handed me a book of poems last night.

"Thank you so much for letting me borrow this. Good introduction to Mary Oliver."

I stared at the book as if it weren't mine, this copy of American Primitive. I couldn't remember any of the poems in it, nor could I remember loaning it to Jessie, but here it was, in my hands and she said it was mine.

We were at the Chicago History Museum to watch Sixteen Candles, which doesn't sound like a very History Museum-appropriate thing to do until you remember that it was filmed in Chicagoland, and it was made in 1984, making it part of our near history now.

Besides, it was the kind of August evening that makes you thankful for seasons and in particular the one you're experiencing right then.

It was twilight, and the high rises next to Lincoln Park were lit with glowing lives, people going about making dinner or cleaning up from dinner or putting children to bed.

In front of us, the Museum had set up an outdoor movie screen, and just in front of us at our feet was a bottle of white wine, nectarines, chocolate, and cheese. And a Rice Krispy treat from Starbucks because we can't all be swank all the time.

It was, in fact, the kind of night to write poetry, but instead I watched a movie and then got on my train back to the suburbs.

I read poetry on the train before I fell asleep {taking a 10:40 train certainly interferes with my bedtime, which is 10:00}, and American Primitive fell open to this particular poem, "The Plum Trees."

I read it and remembered what it feels like to have poetry in your life. This poem was, in fact, like a small wild plum, which is a comment that will make sense after you read it, and so I will leave you to that now.

The Plum Trees
Mary Oliver

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don't

succumb, there's nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it's anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

17 August 2011

the voice

I have spent most of today reviewing a video series I made for work. I'm off camera, hiding but coaching: my dream is not to be Katie Couric but more to be Mary Richards, associate producer. {Yes, another reference to MTM.}

After listening to me kindly but firmly tell these on-camera people what to do—no, say this, do this, look here, try again—all I can say is: my voice doesn't sound as little girlish as I thought.

This is a reassuring thought for me.

16 August 2011

summer afternoon and beautiful words

Henry James once said:
Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

And I mean him no disrespect, this man who wrote Portrait of a Lady and taught me the word dilettante—

{Sidenote on that: I have yet to use the word dilettante in normal conversation. Please, someone, give me reason to use this word. Although I guess I'm asking you to be pretentious, to put on airs, to make me want to flash my eyes in exasperation at how impressed you are with yourself, just so I can fulfill a long-held desire to say, "You are such a dilettante."

Maybe you don't want to go along with my plan at this point, although aha! When I was writing that bit about flashing eyes, I realized that I do know someone who could be described as a dilettante. My eyes flash around him more than usual—perhaps that's my dilettante sign—and I've also been sorely tempted to bring him down a few notches every time I've talked to him. A dilettante in my midst: how exciting!}

So no disrespect to Henry James, but I disagree with his love of the summer afternoon.

To me, there are so many more beautiful times of the year, let alone beautiful words in the English language.

For example:
  • dilettante: Try it. It rolls off the tongue. It'll make you wish you had one around, just so that you could use the word.
  • twilight
  • violet
  • yes
  • ephemeral
  • plethora
  • delightful
  • glade
  • lagoon

And that's just off the top of my head.

So much beauty in language: what would you suggest to Mr. Henry James as the two most beautiful words in the English language?

15 August 2011

also, i'd like to get my hair done every day

Weddings are wonderful for many reasons, but one of the more superficial ones—if you're a girl and if you're in the wedding—is that you get to have your hair done.

Not just like washed and brushed, because I hope you do that every day, even if there isn't a wonderful wedding going on.

But done as in: You sit in a chair and someone uses a lot of product and bobby pins on your hair. Curling irons are usually involved, as is purposely ratting your hair so that it has more volume and oomph than it does, say, on a normal Tuesday.

Volume and ratting = fancy. Remember that.

So I had my hair done on Saturday, and when I first sat down in the chair, the stylist asked me, "Do you have any thoughts for how you'd like your hair done?"

"Well, considering the last time I had my hair done was for prom, circa 2000, I'm going to say no. All I know is that I probably don't need to see that many ringlets on my head ever again."

"Okay..." Obviously, the stylist was a bit at a loss. "No ringlets" isn't helpful when you're facing a mass of thick hair.

I tried to give her more help.

"I've been watching a lot of BBC period pieces recently. So if you could channel any Jane Austen movie or Downton Abbey, that'd work well. I think low, swept to the side with maybe some pinned curls. Or think Audrey Hepburn. Classy. Polished. Put together. But with some flair."

"Okay..." The stylist continued to stare at my hair, waiting for, I presume, the image of a Audrey Hepburn playing Elizabeth Bennet to come to mind.

While she thought, I kept talking.

"You know, I've been thinking how wonderful it would be to have a lady's maid. You know, someone to do my hair every day and help me choose dresses and jewelry and maybe just the right perfume for a particular evening. Not that I think you're my lady's maid today; I didn't mean to imply that. And I guess I would have to be a lady first. I mean, I am a lady, in the girl sense, but I mean a lady in the 'everyone should curtsy to me' sense."

I don't think this last bit of talking did any good, but considering my vague, BBC-based suggestions, I think the stylist did well. You can see for yourself below.

And I'd still like to have a lady's maid, just so you know. My experience on Saturday only solidified this idea.

12 August 2011

it'd be nice to wear a cocktail dress

Whatever happened to the cocktail dress?

I wondered this last night as I stood, cocktail in hand, in jeans and a sleeveless top from Ann Taylor. Classy but not classic.

I know the cocktail dress still exists and there must still be cocktail parties, but I don't seem to get invited to them, possibly because I don't live in Mad Men or The Dick van Dyke Show.

But last night I was drinking a Sidecar, a drink that was ostensibly invented at the Ritz in Paris during the 1920s.

The Jazz Age.

The age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and lines like "Her voice was full of money."

The time before the crash and the Great Depression when everyone was dancing so hard to forget that the war had been so bad.

And here I was at a party where a drink from that era was being served, and I didn't have a cocktail dress on.

'It'd be nice to wear a cocktail dress,' I said to myself, thinking about how cocktail dresses hit at just the right length to show off the calf and how the heels you have to wear with the dress also work to show off your calves.

I am not in a show off mood; there is just something to the particular form of pretty you feel in a dress with a full skirt that makes you think that maybe you could be drinking a Sidecar with Fitzgerald at the Ritz.

He may not tell you anything about your voice being full of money, but you'd feel pretty, I just know it.

11 August 2011

a want/need thing: a ticket stub diary

In various pockets and purses, you will find a paper trail of my travelling life.

In a jacket, for instance, I have the last Metro ticket I used in Paris when I lived there in 2003. All the ink has worn off because every time I wear that jacket, I reach into the pocket and remember my trip to Charles de Gaulle airport with my friend Katie—both of us lugging bags that weighed more than we did. {Do you know a trick for going through turnstiles with suitcases? We didn't, which led to much laughter. And to many French people looking at us with consternation.}

And in other places, I have movie stubs and boarding passes and postcards and receipts from very good meals.

I like that when I opened up my copy of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking the other day, I found my boarding pass for a Chicago to La Guardia flight. With one glance at the flimsy ticket, I remembered my trip out there with my parents a few years ago: it was July, and we spent time exploring bookstores in Greenwich Village, as well as reading in Central Park.

My scattered paper trail means that at any moment, I could be reminded of a good experience. This seems like a worthwhile way to go about my day.

But then I saw this ticket stub diary the other day, and my need for order jumped up within me, a resounding whoosh of excitement, like a kid who's just heard the recess bell and needs to make it to the playground as soon as possible.

Organization is my playground, and if that's true, then this ticket stub diary could be my curly-cue slide. Hours of fun! Up and down, around and around! Every time I flipped through it, it'd send me flying down memories, twisting and squealing into joy.

It really would: I am not taking this metaphor too far. I mean, just look at this thing:

You could order this for yourself/me from uncommon goods—just go here.

If I got it, though, I'd lose that moment, that surprising moment when I pull out a purse I haven't used for awhile and I find a ticket from the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands.

And then, in the midst of packing my purse, I get to think of tulips and the rainy day I spent at the Keukenhof with my parents.

There's something to be said for that surprise of a moment, and so, to keep some spontaneous joy and nostalgia in my day, I will forgo organization.

For today.

10 August 2011

in which i freak out a middle schooler

My pug is named Daisy. And today, Daisy got me in a situation that almost made me shout, "But I don't like 12-year-old boys, not in that way!" which is something I never thought I'd have to say.

Her full name, by the way, is Miss Daisy Marie Walker.

{I considered the name Miss Daisy Elizabeth Walker, but then I thought: my friend Elizabeth might not appreciate that. Naming a child after a good friend is one thing; naming a little fur ball with buggy eyes and a squished nose is another thing, especially when your friend isn't a big dog fan to begin with—although she is developing an appreciation for Miss Daisy.}

But I often call her baby pug.

Or just baby.

She responds to basically anything that ends in -y, a trait I'm sure my brother-in-law will exploit. My sister talked him into getting a pug, which he refers to as a Smelly Wad of Evil, or something like that. When he finds out that baby pug will look at you with love if you call her...you know what? I'm not going to give him ideas. I'm sure he's already brainstorming how to insult her/me.

So I call my pug baby, and now, who else is thinking, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner"? {If it wouldn't make me look so bizarre, I'd consider using that as a retort when my brother-in-law comes up with new names for her.}

This morning on our walk, baby pug took a right when I needed her to go left.

"Hey, baby, no! That's the wrong way! You come over here by me, okay, baby? I want you to be by me."

I called this out to her, a coaxing edge to my voice but with a sweet undertone, here on this sweet, slightly chilled August morning.

And that's when I saw him.

A kid who must've been 12 or 13, cutting across the lawn not too far from me.

Certainly within earshot of my "Hey, baby! Come over here by me!"

Now, middle schoolers are prone to looking freaked out all the time. They live in continual fear that they will either a) stand out too much or b) not be noticed enough.

Plus, they have limbs that are out of proportion with their bodies, and most of the time, they're focusing on looking like they're aware of where their limbs are, spatially.

So they look freaked out anyway.

But this boy looked at me like I was out trawling the manicured lawns of suburbia at 8am, just looking for someone with arms that hang down to his knees to be my baby.

He looked at me with eyes that said: "I see what you're doing. You're using that cute pug as a ploy. You pretend to love the dog, but what you really want is for someone like me to come talk to you."

I've never been looked at with such fear before, googly 12-year-old boy eyes taking in my Ann Taylor skirt, brown heels, pearl earrings, and pug with a pink harness on.

I've never felt the need to defend myself as someone who is not, oh so definitely not interested in 12-year-old boys. Usually, that's pretty clear.

"Oh, I was talking to my little pug! I'm so sorry to have scared you!" I tried to sound very grown-up and maybe a little matronly when I said this; I channeled Marian from The Music Man and Sarah Brown from Guys and Dolls. I wanted him to stop looking at me like a 29-year-old cougar, if he even knows what that is.

"S'okay. Your dog's nice." He smiled at Miss Daisy Marie Walker, and then he smiled at me, avoiding, as most 12-year-old boys do, eye contact. My matronly tone must've worked.

"I like to think so, thank you. Have a good day!"

"You, too!" And he shuffled off.

I very carefully and quietly said, "All right, Miss Daisy, let's go this way."

09 August 2011

alone in the kitchen with an eggplant

In the mail yesterday, I got a book I'd ordered from Amazon: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone.

A friend was over for dinner, so I wasn't dining alone last night, although I do most nights, a fact that doesn't make me sad.

We had a dinner that featured zucchini and red new potatoes, along with hamburgers and ice cream sandwiches {those last two things were not eaten at the same time, of course}, and after dinner, we took baby pug for a long walk.

A late afternoon rainstorm had finally broken the heat, and I was wearing jeans for the first time since the beginning of July when I'd been in France.

As enjoyable as the evening was—and should my friend be reading this, I want to stress that I was so grateful for all the laughing we did—there was a hush of anticipation within me the whole night.

When she leaves, I can read my book about dining alone. I kept thinking this and then shaking my head to shake the thought away.

When one of your best friends is sitting across the table from you with a hamburger on a pretzel roll in her hands, you probably shouldn't be thinking about reading in bed.

But I was, and I just needed to admit that.

That's how excited I was for this book, which combines two of my loves: writing and food.

The title is the same as an essay by one of my favorite writers, Laurie Colwin. In her essay, there's this delicious paragraph:
Dinner alone is one of life's pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.
For a moment, let's relish that incredibly smart idea of a peanut butter and bacon sandwich. That is yet another example of combining two of my loves.

Moving on, let's think about cooking and eating alone.

I do it out of circumstance: I live alone, so most nights, it is just me. And I love it. Some people have to learn to love eating alone {or living alone}, but I took to it {to both of those things} with gusto and gumption.

As much as I love family dinners—and my family ate dinner together every night when I was growing up—and as much as I love dinner parties and having friends over for dinner, to me, there is such pleasure in spreading out the paper in front of me at dinner time.

Or reading a book of essays at the table.

Or even watching TV while eating. {Don't tell people I do that; it's a little secret of mine.}

There is such pleasure in making precisely what you want to eat and then sitting down in a space that is wholly yours and enjoying it: the quiet, the food, the time.

I realize not everyone feels this way. You, for example, might not relish cooking and eating alone.

Tell me: do you? Do you think dinner alone is one of life's pleasures?

08 August 2011

how target made my life complete

When I made it out of Target on Saturday afternoon, I had successfully:
  • bought presents for two friends
  • decided that all wedding cards are over-the-top and ridiculous. I do not want to make my friends read bad poetry, nor am I into gushing sentiments about how their rings are circles because the circle is never ending...just like their love. If I were them, I would be scanning all the cards, just looking for who signed it and if they wrote a personal note. Any script-y font would immediately be shunned.
  • {on a related note} decided to just write my own dang wedding card, one that didn't involve poetry, bad or otherwise. I didn't buy a 50-pack of brightly-colored cards at Hobby Lobby to just have them sit in my card closet. {What? You don't have a card closet?}
  • bought Double Stuf Oreos on sale for $2.50.
  • resisted the urge to buy:
    • several packs of Oreos
    • a dress that I didn't really need but was on the sale rack
    • the DVD set of Downton Abbey {You have it coming on Netflix. You have it coming on Netflix. This I kept repeating when my heart kept whispering, 'Period piece. You know how much you love period pieces.' Shut up, heart. You already paid for Netflix, so you better take full advantage.}
My heart pretty quickly got over the Downton downer when it saw—on the shelf right next to Downton—this:
And it was only $8.99.

That's actually so exciting that it deserves shouting: AND IT WAS ONLY $8.99.

Pride and Prejudice, the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice was being sold for less than $9.00. Considering it's something like six hours long, that's an incredible bargain for entertainment.

I mean, that is such a good deal that I half expected a TV infomercial spokesman—spokesperson, since I should be PC—to pop up in the DVD section of Target and say, "But wait! There's more! When you buy Pride and Prejudice now, we'll throw in—absolutely free—a Special Edition DVD of Downton Abbey. It includes never-before-seen-here-in-America footage with a guest appearance by Colin Firth himself. That's right, you're getting all your dreams to come true in an explosion of period pieces...for only one easy payment of $8.99."

{And then in a really fast "we have to tell you these legal details" voice, the guy would say, "Yeah, we were totally lying about Colin Firth in Downton Abbey thing. We just said it because it appears that he can sell anything, just by appearing in a cravat, or in that particularly famous scene from P&P, in a wet shirt. Sorry for lying. Just pretend we're a nasty relation from a Jane Austen novel, the kind that you never expected to do anything good."}

I picked up Pride and Prejudice.

I looked around.

No spokesperson appeared.

But I bought Pride and Prejudice anyway.

This will, I'm sure, come as a surprise to you, but until Saturday, I didn't own the movie. I've asked for it for Christmas and my birthday for years, but it has never appeared under either the Christmas tree or the birthday tree.

{My birthday is in December, so until my birthday is over, I call my Christmas tree my birthday tree. These are the kinds of things you have to resort to when your birthday is the same month as Christmas and you still want your birthday to be special.}

It was time to take matters and Colin Firth into my own hands: that's what Elizabeth would've done, I think.

So I bought it and emerged from Target—into a summer rain in Illinois—thinking about tea and living in a time when you got to dress for dinner.

And on a related note, I'm going to be really busy for the next few nights. Doing very important things like swooning and learning how to do those English country dances.

Call if you need anything, but I'm warning you: I'll probably answer the phone with a fake British accent.

06 August 2011

vanity, running, and oompa-loompas

A moment from my rainy morning to share with you on this quiet, gray Saturday afternoon.

I ran 9{ish} miles this morning in the rain. That's -ish because I ran without a watch and without paying attention to the mile markers.

After living here for almost six years, I have a good enough sense of miles on the Prairie Path, the crushed gravel path that is taken over every Saturday and Sunday morning in the summer with people training for long-distance races.

I know that it's about 3 miles from where I live now to an intersection by the apartment building I first lived in when I came here. {I had a studio apartment then on the 16th floor of a high rise, and I felt very Mary Tyler Moore whenever I stepped through the doorway of my own place.}

Then it's maybe another 1.5 miles to a subdivision construction site: it's been in progress for more than a year—maybe even two years—and they haven't gotten much past the "level the dirt" phase. Every time I run past it, I think about how it's a sign of the times and how it's an object lesson in the housing bubble.

So 9{ish} miles this morning as I train for the Air Force Half-marathon on September 17 {and then the Prince Edward Island Half-marathon a month after that}.

The rain kept me cooler, and I was thankful for it, but here's a confession: I have horrible tan lines from my trip to France. And my attempts to deal with them have not proven successful, especially this morning in the rain.

I'll explain that, I promise, but first: Why, oh why, did I think I needed a watch on the sunny day that Amie and I biked for 30 miles? We weren't on any schedule; we had no appointments to make. Why did I need to know the time as we biked past sea salt fields and vineyards? To see if the workers were on schedule?

And why did I choose to wear a t-shirt that day, instead of a tank top?

It was a shirt from my NYC half-marathon: did I think it made me look sportier, more capable of biking 30 miles on a flat island where the only challenge was passing slower people on the path?

And why was I concerned about looking sporty anyway? It was France; French people have the oddest idea of what counts as "work out attire." It involves full make-up for women, by the way.

Once, I ran five miles along the Seine and past the Eiffel Tower. It was November, and it was gray and rainy in Paris that day. I had on capri running pants and a water-repellant black jacket. My hair was pulled back tautly, and I had a sporty headband on, the kind that slicks your bangs back so they don't distract you.

Most of the other runners I saw had scarves on and not the kind you use for warmth. They had on fashion scarves, creatively and so French-ly draped around their necks.

Many of them wore normal jackets, and most of the women had their hair flying behind them and in their eyes.

And yet they looked at me—in my just-stepped-out-of-a-Runner's World-photo-shoot outfit—as if I were the one in crazy clothes. I assume this is because I didn't have on make-up because I clearly was dressed appropriately: we Americans are very committed to our athletic-looking work out clothes. We know how to look healthy.

So because I was concerned about looking sporty and knowing what time it was on a bike ride in France, I now have these tan lines. Usually, these wouldn't bother me, but I'm in a wedding next weekend, and while it's taking place in a farming state, it's probably best not to showcase an actual farmer's tan while standing there in a sleeveless gray dress.

Try as I may, I haven't—as a cubicle-bound person most of the week and therefore limited on the hours I can spend suntanning—been able to even out the lines.

Therefore, I'm doing a little self-inflicted spray tan. And therefore, in the rain this morning, I panicked that I was dripping orange, leaving an Oompa-loompa colored trail of a vain attempt at vanity along the Prairie Path.

I don't think I actually was—it's a pretty good self-tanning product, I promise; it's not like I'm simply dying myself with henna.

But when I wiped the sweat/rain from my forehead at one point, I'm relatively certain I saw orange on my hands. Panic, of course, ensued, as did spot checking every other part of my body.

The only thing worse than a farmer's tanned bridesmaid is a streaky Oompa-loompa colored one.

I don't plan on being either.

When I was showering after my run, I saw that my self-tanner panic was for naught. I am still fake tan in a natural-looking sort of way, and my watch line is less evident.

I've learned a few things from this experience:
  1. Don't wear a watch on a bike ride in France. This tip applies mostly when it's sunny out, and I guess it applies to non-French bike rides, too.
  2. I am not an Oompa-loompa, height similarities aside.
  3. Vanity is ridiculous, whether it's applied to "trying to look sporty" or "trying to not look like a farmer."

    This brings to mind a quote from Jane Austen {sometimes I like to throw in references to her so that my blog title is not in vain}: "Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously...Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."

    {Read this, please, in a British accent. If you didn't do that, please go back and read it again.}
That Jane. She knew what she was talking about, so maybe she did prepare me for something: for my run this morning in the rain, panicking about orange on the Prairie Path and realizing later that it was my rightful comeuppance {when talking about Jane Austen, you have to use words like "comeuppance"} for my vanity.

05 August 2011

august is just like february, except hot

August is just like February.

The obvious weather differences aside, these two months can be lumped together for me because they are when the charm of the season has worn off.

By February, you—if you live in the Midwest, at least—are thinking: For the love of snow boots, can I have a day where I don't have to wear 16 layers of clothes? A day where the sky isn't gray? A day when I don't have to worry about black ice?

These are surprising thoughts, considering that the first time it snowed, just a few months before, you thought: SNOW BOOTS!

And by August, I am done with the heat of summer. You may have been able to tell this from my writing recently because I mention the heat ALL THE TIME. For something I'm done with, it sure does occupy a lot of my thoughts.

Maybe the August doldrums hit me because I no longer have school to go back to. Back in the day, August was a season of anticipation.

Buying school supplies and new clothes.

Planning my first day of school outfit—and later, when I got to high school, planning my outfit for the locker decorating party. They must not be the same outfit, and they are equally important in establishing your entry into the year; everyone knows this.

And of course I got nerdily excited by all I was going to learn that year in physics or chemistry or English or American History. {I can really only remember stuff from those last two. Please don't quiz me about any physics formulas, unless it's about force. That one, for some reason, I remember.}

I, as an office dweller, no longer get back-to-school excitement. I get back-to-school envy, and those are not the same thing.

So what to do when you become a grown-up who isn't a teacher or a professional student? When August doesn't mean NEW but instead means HOT AND THE SAME?

You create a little excitement of your own, that's what you do.

My little excitement for this week was re-designing my blog.

This is the online equivalent of re-arranging your living room. By just moving around a couch, you feel like you've stepped into a new life. The light looks different in the room somehow and you never noticed how pretty that side table would be with a vase of flowers on it.

A new background and a new font on the blog and look at that: excitement during August.

04 August 2011

king corn {and an activity-less week}

This week has been unusual for me, the girl of ongoing weekly commitments.

Everything has stopped.

Not like the world. The world is still spinning, thank goodness, but my activities have stopped spinning. I think, here at the beginning of August, I've arrived at "summer break."

No Bible study, no choir, no writing class.

Nothing to run off to after dashing home to feed and walk baby pug.

Really, all I've needed to accomplish every night this week is: feed myself. And not to brag, but I'm pretty good at taking care of that, especially when I allow myself to count popcorn as a meal.

So with these free evenings stretching in front of me, long like rows of corn lined up to the horizon, I decided to watch a documentary on corn.

Yes, corn. King Corn, to be specific.

You're probably wishing I still had activities so that I could tell funny stories about interacting with other people, aren't you?

But hey, I told a funny story about the eyebrow waxing lady! That was a people interaction story! So no more complaining!

I don't know why I just accused you of complaining, but this illustrates my point well: when I spend too much time alone, I quickly lose my ability to act like a normal person and make normal conversation.

This has happened for years. When I was little and on vacation, we sometimes spent entire afternoons reading. {You know you're jealous: I was camping in the backcountry of Utah and reading Anne of Green Gables all day. Best of so many worlds.}

When it was time to interact with real people again—and not just the people in my book—I would struggle to:
  • not talk just about my book
  • not get upset at my family for not being Marilla, Matthew, and Diana in Anne of Green Gables
  • remember that just because I was reading a book set in Canada, that doesn't mean I get to speak with a Canadian accent.
There were tough transition periods, let's just put it that way, as I tried to pull myself out of my head and back into reality, which involved a discussion of what was for dinner and if we should have a campfire that night. {Which are such prosaic details to be pondering when you could be reading about Gilbert Blythe.}

The same thing happened this week when I was too often alone, too often in my own head.

I watched this documentary King Corn that was filmed mostly in Iowa; it's about how corn became such a major part of our diet and not in the "wow, we eat a lot of sweet corn in the summer" way. More in the high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed cattle way.

Fascinating, right? Yes, but not quite fascinating enough to talk about it as much as I have, but after an evening of talking to no one but Miss Daisy, I'm telling you, I forget how normal conversation goes and I start to sound like either a1a) a newscaster, b2b) someone who can't pick up on social cues, c3c) someone narrating a documentary, or d4d) a pinball conversationalist who can't stay focused long enough to put together a full sentence.

For example, an actual* conversation I had this week:

*Actual in that most of these words were said. It's not like I go around documenting everything people say to me, in the hopes that it'll become story fodder. No, it's more that I remember the gist of the conversation and hit the highlights. I say all this to reassure you that I'm not secretly taping you when we talk.

Co-worker: So, what'd you do last night?
Me: Last night was awesome. So great! No activities this week! Isn't that wonderful?
Co-worker: Well, yeah, if you're used to—
Me: And, ooh! I made this amazing eggplant dinner! Recently, I'm obsessed with eggplants. I even bought a book on Amazon the other day called Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. I'll let you know how it is, ok?
Co-worker: Um, all right. But did you have a good night?
Me: Right, you were asking about my night! No activities {already mentioned that!}, so I watched this documentary called King Corn. About corn. Well, the corn business. In Iowa, where I'm from.
Co-worker: Yes, you mention essentially every day your love for Iowa. So what made this documentary so good?
Me: Oh, man, what didn't make it good?
Co-worker: That's not really an answer.
Me: Yep, right, good point. It's about corn and the state of agribusiness, especially in Iowa. Really good discussion of farm subsidies and how the government pays farmers to grow corn using the Farm Bill and how subsidies came about. It also shows how the farming business has changed over the last 50 years to become not so much about the family farm as about the mega farm.
Co-worker: Huh.
Me: I promise it's much more interesting than i just made it sound.
Co-worker: I sure hope so.

But see, then I went on throughout the day to bring up King Corn several more times.

Me: What I really liked in that movie was how it's an outsider's perspective on Iowa.
Co-worker: You're talking about your corn movie again, aren't you?
Me: Haven't we always been talking about this? That's what it feels like.
Co-worker: You're telling me.
Me: {Blithely unaware that no one is as fascinated by corn as I am} Yeah, so at home we have grain elevators, and one of the first questions the guys in the movie ask the farmer they're interviewing is, "Why is it called an elevator? I mean, it's a whole building, not just an elevator." And see that's something I've just grown up with, calling those big things elevators. They store all the grain until it's ready to be transported, you know.
Co-worker: I don't know how to respond to that.

In conclusion, I think everyone in my office is happy that my activity-less period doesn't last very long.

And please, if you've seen King Corn, discuss it with me. I have some thoughts I'd like to share.

03 August 2011

today, i'm grateful for...

I sporadically keep a Gratitude Journal, and judging from how it brings up my overall attitude, I think I should un-sporadically keep it.

Such a simple thing to do, really. In my planner on those weekly pages that Franklin-Covey tells me I'm supposed to use for prioritizing daily tasks—

Have you ever read the Franklin-Covey instructions for prioritizing tasks? No? It involves letters and numbers and a sorting system that makes even me a little overwhelmed, probably because it's a system I didn't come up with. My little/large independent streak comes out when someone tries to explain to me how to organize my life, so I read the Franklin-Covey explanation and say, "You think you're good, don't you? Well, just you watch what I do with your A1, B2, C-whatever system: I disregard it. Take that, F-C."

—So in the section for prioritizing daily tasks {and when I'm in a Gratitude Journal phase}, I write two kinds of things:
  1. What I tres really want to accomplish that day: This I do in the morning after I've run {thinking time} and after I've walked baby pug {brain organization time, which includes the time for deciding what I'm going to wear to work that day}. I try to narrow down what would make me feel accomplished that day.

    Is it getting done that nagging life admin task, such as getting more stamps at the Post Office? {When it comes to managing your life, don't you find that it's the small tasks that can pester the most? Why is that? And then when you do them, you feel such relief and like you could take on the world. I know I'm not alone in this: read this post over at Pink of Perfection, this blog I stalk/read because I'm convinced the girl and I are kindred spirits.}

    Or maybe what I really want to accomplish is finishing a book or that big project at work. Whatever it is, I write it down in the morning to help focus my day.
  2. Five things I'm grateful for: The next morning, I think back on the day before and write down five things that I'm glad happened.

    Could be a long talk with a friend or making a delicious eggplant dinner.

    Could be getting done that life admin task.

    Could be getting to bed early.

    Could be whatever, but it's the moments and interactions that made the day special and right.

The whole process, the thinking ahead to the day in front of me and the thinking back on the day behind me, takes about five minutes.

And what a difference it makes. Even if I had a very bad, no good, horrible, rotten day, I can usually find five bright spots, and that helps keep life in perspective.

Nothing is all bad. Bright spots count no matter how small they are. This five minute exercise brings calm to my day before it even begins.

So I'm going to jump ahead a bit here and list my five things for today here, right now. {Because I'm me, I'll probably copy them into my planner later.}

Today, I'm grateful for:
  1. a fast morning run
  2. the little desk fan I bought at Walgreen's: no air circulation, AC that I'm convinced in broken, and a heat wave outside pushing up against the windows makes for an uncomfortable work environment. I'd consider worshiping this little fan, with its white noise and steady stream of cool, if I believed in idol worship.
  3. an email from a friend who lives far, far away
  4. listening to my musicals playlist that right now involves selections from White Christmas, just so that I remember that it's not always this hot. {I talk about the heat a lot recently, don't I?}
  5. cupcakes—frosted with leftover vanilla buttercream from the gateau a l'orange—for dessert after dinner {okay, I haven't had dinner yet, so I'm being pre-emptively grateful for these because I'm sure they'll be good. And I'll be eating them with a friend, so that makes them doubly good.}

02 August 2011

just the eyebrows, please

My face smells like vanilla wax.

Not because I dipped my face in a Yankee Candle. No, that sounds dangerous.

Also, it's too hot to be burning candles just for the smell of it. If you want a pretty scent when there's a heat index of 105, I hope that you really, really like the smell of sweat, because that's all you can smell.

You walk outside from your office to your car—a distance of about 20 steps {I felt like saying 20 paces, but that made it sound like a duel}—and all you can smell is sweat.

My face smells like vanilla wax because I just had my eyebrows waxed, something I get done approximately every four years.

Actually, let's think about this: the last time I had my eyebrows waxed, I went straight from there to see the movie Australia.

Do you remember that movie? It had a Gone with the Wind feel to it but with Australian accents and nobody said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

IMDB, that great warehouse of movie knowledge and trivia, says Australia came out in 2008, so I will now amend my statement to "I get my eyebrows waxed every three years."

This is mostly out of laziness. In between waxings, I half-heartedly tweeze.

And unfortunately, I whole-heartedly pick at my eyebrows when I'm nervous or stressed or worried. If you ever wonder why I'm trying so hard to control my stress level, it's because I like my eyebrows to stay on my face.

Except for those stray hairs that make me look like a unibrow. Those I'm fine with pulling out.

Tonight, the woman at the salon pointed me to a chair.

"You sit here and relax. Just the eyebrows?"

I may have been reading into things thanks to my fears that my beauty routine isn't up to par, but I'm pretty certain she was taking in every other stray hair on my face—this woman who did not have one misplaced hair on her body, I'm sure.

She said "Just the eyebrows?" with a tone that meant, "You do realize that you have chin hairs sprouting, thick like little oak trees and while it's usually good to be sturdy like an oak, it is not a positive in this case? And you do realize that you have a hair coming out of that thing you think is a freckle but, let's face it, probably isn't a freckle? And with all those other hairs, you really just want the eyebrows?"

"Yes, just the eyebrows." I tried to smile with confidence, but mostly I was thinking of that scene in The Truth about Cats and Dogs where Janeane Garofalo goes to the beauty counter at a department store.

The woman working the counter makes her feel so insignificant, so not desirable, so likely to end up alone and with nobody but her 42 cats to discover her body after she has a stroke in her studio apartment.

And she does all that simply by pointing out Janeane's pores and making her look in a magnifying mirror.

This is cruel.

This is the commercialization of beauty.

This is a movie, I know, but I can't help but think of it whenever I step into a beauty situation, be it a salon or even the cosmetics section of Walgreen's.

I start to feel like I could be doing more, like I should be doing more. All these products exist for a good reason, right?

Maybe I do need to use a rejuvenating night cream so that my smile lines aren't as visible, but then how will people know that I like to smile?

Maybe I should use essential oils on my cuticles every night before bed. They're called essential and so they must be.

Maybe I should get a personal electrolysis machine to take care of that forest of oak trees on my chin.

It's exhausting trying to keep up with what the world thinks is essential to beauty and so most of the time I ignore it.

I look for beauty around me—in literature and conversations and music and people—and I stick to a simple routine of washing my face, using sunscreen, and wearing mascara.

On the whole, this keeps me happier. Inner beauty is more appealing than any marketing scheme, if you ask me, although it can be hard to remember that these days, what with a Kardashian telling you how you should look every five minutes or so.

However, this ignorance-is-bliss approach to the beauty department doesn't mean I don't experience that moment of self-doubt when the waxing lady asks, "Just the eyebrows?"

Just the eyebrows, yes. But thanks for noticing the rest of me beyond the eyebrows.

And I'll see you in three years, lady.

01 August 2011

gateau a l'orange

That means orange spongecake, by the way, that gateau a l'orange.

I baked up a storm this weekend, and by that I mean: I baked two cakes, and it was 100 degrees outside, not your typical baking weather. It's more the weather for languid afternoons in front of a fan, perhaps with a glass of lemonade. Or with an entire box of popsicles in a little cooler right next to you—easy access so that you can eat popsicle after popsicle without wasting energy trying to part the humid air as you walk to the freezer.

But despite the heat {or to spite the heat}, I wanted to bake, even if it caused a small heat wave in my kitchen. {Air conditioning is no match, it seems, for an oven at 350 degrees.}

A very, very good friend was having her wedding shower this weekend, and I volunteered to make the cake because what is a shower without a little slice of cake? Without a little tranche of sweetness?

And because this very, very good friend shares my Francophile tendencies, choosing the cake was easy: open up Mastering the Art of French Cooking and let Julia Child take over.

I made this gateau a l'orange because it just sounded summer-y. Doesn't it?

Orange spongecake.

It sounds like afternoon tea with white gloves on, something right out of a Katherine Mansfield story.

Like the snack you sneak before dinner.

Like dessert after a meal made only with food bought at the farmers' market.

Or like a Sunday afternoon wedding shower for a very, very good friend whose eyes smiled with contentment when she took a bite of gateau a l'orange.


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