Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fine Print

I’ve been meaning to post in a nice, cogent manner for days now, but this cold is getting me down. So it’s all SNEEZE and HACK and WHINE and weird dreams in which I pick a fight with Courtney Love, but she turns out to be stronger than I’d thought, then we make up and she gives me a dress, then my mom gets pissy because I took Caleb to Courtney Love’s party because it’s not appropriate, Jenny.

Stilll with me?

--I read this book that I love, love, love. It’s a literary mystery: Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern. It came out a while ago, but it’s new to me. Plot-wise, it’s about an autistic boy who goes into the woods, something traumatic happens, and he regresses. The perspective is mostly his mother’s. But really, it’s a novel for anyone interested in mysteries, autism, motherhood, and/or the way children interact with one another, in ways both kind and terrifying.

--Caleb brought home a diorama yesterday: a winter scene with a red bird hanging from the ceiling, the floor a winter wonderland of cottonballs. He wrote an acrostic (where the first letter of every line spells something) with it.

Wow!
I think it’s cool
Live
Die

Like,
It’s hard
For life and death
Eat worms

Interesting juxtaposition of tone and content, sure. But what this makes this a ground-breaking acrostic is that the author actually considers the perspective of Life and Death—and then concludes with the unknowability of it all: Eat worms, indeed.

--

Dolly: awesome. Amy Sedaris: awesome. Lyrics: not my cup of tea. Because if I went to friend one Sunday night and was crying, and she responded by saying, “If I had a violin, I’d play” …I might suggest a place where she could put her cup of ambition.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Don’t Just Stand There. Bust a Move.

Over Thanksgiving, my nephew taught some of us how to do this dance:



I played the part of the audience. It looked really fun.

So fun, in fact, that yesterday, while I was waiting for dinner to finish simmering, I came upstairs and spent a good fifteen minutes looking up the instructions on how to properly dance to “Crank Dat.” I found them. I practiced for a little bit. I should mention that I was high on cold medicine.

I still might try to learn, even though I attend no clubs, even though I am in my thirties, even though I don’t have a best friend Pedro who might need me to bust out my moves when he runs for student class president. It’s good for a person to surprise themselves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cornucopia of Good Wishes

For as long as I can remember, every Thanksgiving, we go around the table and say what we're grateful for. (One year, Caleb horrified us by being grateful for ... President Bush.)

This year, if it didn't sound so stilted and strange to say it out loud, I'd say that I'm grateful that there are people in the world whose mere existence delights me--and vice versa. So I'm saying it here. And if you think I might be talking about you, you are absolutely right.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Buy Dress, Get Unflattering Silhouette Free

The local department store carries clothing in my size, but clothing that looks very much I should be out on the lanai, cracking wise about my incongruously tiny mother.

But a girl can’t wear the same increasingly shabby black sweaters every day, so I ordered some stuff online, including a nice patterned dress in the BabyPhat line. I got it the other day: red and black tiger stripes and a giant gold cat embroidered on it. (Brandon sort of choked when I showed him that.) BabyPhat owner Kimora Lee Simmons writes on the tag, “Baby Phat represents my dream of what every woman can be: stylish, beautiful, and ultimately—powerful.” Also, Kimora? Pregnant-looking in a way no Spanx can touch.

Every season, I dread what horrors await in fashion. And for the past several years, it’s been a whole lot of yuck: empire waists, babydoll dresses, jeans that taper, sweaters that end at the belly button. I’ve mostly been quiet about it. But last night, I read in the Columbia Journalism Review a review of Susan Faludi’s new book, in which she examines the way the U.S. responded to the attacks on 9/11: the hailing of the macho in men, the trend pieces about increased domesticity of American women.

It made sense to me, especially sitting there in the living room with the what to wear when you're expecting dress on the table to be returned. The empire waists, the skinny-legged jeans… it’s either the look of the pregnant or teenaged in fashion, both groups of vulnerable women. I’m positive Kimora Lee Simmons isn’t consciously participating in this fashion zeitgeist, but I’d like to go on the record here. Stop it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Schmorgasboard

--A few weeks ago, the mother of one of Caleb’s friends called. The talent show was coming up and her son was wondering if Caleb would like to be part of a skit he wanted to perform. “It’s a Monty Python skit,” she said. “It’s not funny,” she warned.

Last night was the talent show. This was the skit. The kids were adorable and well-rehearsed. No guts were busted.

--I’m probably the last person you should be taking health tips from, but I just discovered something to better my enjoyment of salads: Just dress the whole damn thing. That way, you’re not picking all the good stuff and dipping it in the globs of dressing, leaving you, in the end, with a bunch of naked spinach that you won’t finish. I stole this dressing recipe from my friend Janet, who’s the best salad maker in the world: Wisk together olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a little soy sauce, a little mustard. Toss it in the salad bowl and work your magic with the salad tongs.

--The Book Meme! The lovely MemeGrl tagged me. (Also, check out her link to this—awesome.)

Total number of books I own:
Did you see Oprah yesterday? With that lady who’s a hoarder? I’m not making light of her situation, but let’s just say, I’m pushing the envelope. My bookshelves are two layers thick, and Brandon has been saying the word “library” in a tone might be described as “meaningful.”

Last book I read:
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Sometimes, you need a mystery.

Last book I bought:
Jesus Land by Julia Sheeres because Kathy and Jessica told me to.

5 Meaningful Books:
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore: Before this, I didn’t know you could be funny and sad at the same time. (Like, in fiction. Real life, sure.) Also, the best opening line ever: “Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.”

Jenny & the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett: I love this for its own self, but it also made me believe that I might try to write fiction. (This is called either optimism or delusion.)

The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden: A book that brought hard facts, good research, and terrific writing to a vague idea that a lot of mothers were feeling.

I Can’t Remember What Anthology, But One That Has Both Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Welcome to Cancerland” and Jonathan Franzen’s “My Father’s Brain”: Two of my favorite essays, evah.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt: I love the way he synthesizes ideas.

So, speaking of books, have any recommendations? (And, if you haven’t done this meme yet, consider yourself tagged.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Birthday, Steph!

Love you, partner! Here's to a year of happiness and, uh, cheddar.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You're So Vain

In the paper the other day, I read that Virginia leads the nation in number of vanity lisence plates. Yes. Way to represent, Old Dominion.

The weird thing is, it didn’t even occur to me that other states don’t have this mania. For my first car, I requested “Neato.” It was a phrase I used a lot back in the day (although I could have easily substituted “jeezu” or “cool beans.”) My dad sent the form in, and throughout high school, I drove a car that seemed to be named NEA TOE. (Presumably for my respect for the National Education Association, an organization of which my mom is a member. I am just a chip off the old block, a toe on the foot of the this educational union, people!)

My dad has worked in the car business for many moons now, and when I got to college and needed another car, he came up with a silverish Chevy Citation. It cost $500, but it ran like a champ. By the time I got this car, I was working at C-Ville Weekly, my first job that didn’t entail a nametag or a uniform, and my dad was proud of me.

My license plate was: AUTHR.

I can be an asshole in many other ways, but I could not bear to tell Dad that the plates were just wrong on so many levels. As my friend Christina and I were talking about the other day, in Charlottesville, you might think you’re good at something, but chances are excellent that someone else here is not only better but has a genius grant to prove it. When I had the car, I was living in the same area as authrs such as John Grisham, Rita Dove, and Ann Beattie.

I putted around town in it. Its paint started peeling, and the cloth on the ceiling of the car hung about an inch above my head. I drove it to the grocery store, to clubs, to work. I parked it at work one day in the alley we shared with Snooky’s Pawn Shop. One man from the shop—perhaps Snooky himself—came into the office. He had an appointment and needed to get out of the alley. We walked back together. Then, stopping at my car, he cried, “Hey! Is that your car? My real name’s Arthur!”

I could have hugged him for thinking that I gave my Citation a kicky name, not that I was pretentious or insane.

These days, I go anonymous with the plates. I also try to be kind about plates I see--and I see many here. It could be vanity or jerkishness or any of the other things that might lead one to screw HOT GRL onto one's bumper. Or it could be just misguided love.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Go Find Yourself

I like having my numbers straight. Back when I was neck-deep in positive psychology, one of the equations that frustrated me was the one that laid out where your happiness comes from. According to Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Happiness = Set Range (your inborn disposition) + Circumstances of Your Life + Voluntary Factors.

Seligman tells his readers that the circumstances (what kind of government you live under, if you’re hitched or not, etc.) only account for between 8 and 15 percent of your total happiness.

So, that leaves at least 85% of your happiness to be parcelled out among Just The Way You Are and Things You Can Do to Change Your Life. No word on which gets more play. His book—about the voluntary things you can do—suggests that the voluntary actions make a difference. But my own experience makes me think the set happiness point shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Also, I’m starting now to think that he didn’t offer the answers because there aren’t any.

I just read Identical Strangers, a memoir by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who are twins who were separated in infancy and adopted into separate families. I finished it a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it.

One of the book’s threads that’s been walloping my head is the issue of identity. When Schein and Bernstein meet each other—at age 35—Bernstein, in particular, is wary. Like most of us, she has thought of herself as unique and special, and she fears that knowing that she has a twin, someone with her exact DNA, will undermine that. More than once, she worries that if her parents had adopted Schein, and Schein’s parents had adopted her, they would have been each other. She doesn’t frame it as such, but she’s hoping for something that’s not nature (DNA) and not nurture either.

I’m fascinated by this sort of stuff, and ever since I heard about the epigenome (kind of like gene switches that can turn a genetic propensity on or off) and the role of microbes (bacteria that live in humans and may interact with our mental and physical health more than we thought), I’ve been looking forward to the day when Research tells us that the specific answer.

Today is not that day yet.

In the meanwhile, reading Identical Twins, I kept thinking of my sister Erin, who’s two years younger than me. She’s in my first memory; I’ve been in her life the whole time. We’re not twins. (Obviously—pity the woman who gives birth to twins twenty-three months apart.) And I always thought that we had very different talents, personalities, even looks. But the older I get, the more similarities I notice. Maybe it’s getting out of the nurture environment we shared as kids (a fab one, Mom!); maybe it’s just getting older in general.

But I wonder sometimes about that epigenome that we may or may not share. I wonder if you wait long enough, life will transpire and a flipped switch will toss you and your sister in the same boat, at last.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Stems in the Tide

Beth Kohl (of Embryo Culture and this post) has a great piece up on The Huffington Post about the possibility that science can get stem cells from menstrual periods. Writes Beth: “That sticky glop is brimming with the most valuable resource on earth. No, no. Don't swish it in a pan seeking gold nuggets or siphon it into your gas tank. But, thanks to Cryo-Cell International Inc., you can now consider it a rich river of stem cell juice.”

I loved the gas tank imagery. Whatcha doing in the driveway, hon? With, uh, the tube?

And… poof. There go my male readers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Magazine-a-Rama

Last night, I went up to UVA to hear Kristin van Ogtrop, the editor of Real Simple, speak. Her talk was in the Rotunda, which is very fancy. If you didn’t go to UVA or don’t live in Charlottesville, you might not know that the original Rotunda (it once burned down) was designed by UVA’s founder Thomas Jefferson. You can’t turn around in this town without seeing a photograph of it. The real thing stands, like a big marble tit, right on University Avenue.

(And this is totally off topic, but every time I hear about someone “speaking,” it seems as if it’s An Event, as if the person had previously taken a vow of silence, but now! Now we can behold the voice!)

Anyway. You can talk magazines to me all night. I’m all ears. And I had some white wine, so I was all fiery ears. In the Q&A part, someone asked van Ogtrop what sort of content Real Simple can and can’t publish. One thing, she pointed out, was that stain removal goes over really well with the RS readership. But basically, she said that they can’t publish anything that might make their readers’ lives more complicated. No complex recipes, no advice to clean the gutters four times a year, no insistence that a given solution will work for anyone (which is why I like the magazine). Every publication that has survived its first couple years, I think, knows its demographic, but I thought it was interesting to frame your content in terms of what would alienate the readership.

Also, she mentioned that the tactile experience of paper, at least for women’s magazines, have insulated them from the creep of the internet. This is something Stephanie and I have talked about quite a bit, and we leaned over and peered across the room at each other when van Ogtrop mentioned it. Paper! Hollah! It’s where it’s at!

I got to attend this shindig because Stephanie finagled me an invite. Steph’s on the advisory board of Iris, a magazine affiliated with the Women’s Center at UVA (who put the event together). Iris just got a fancy new redesign, by Anne Matthews, also Brain, Child’s designer, and tinkered with its own mission. They’re signing up people for free subscriptions to see how this whole re-do is working out, so click here if you are or know anyone who might consider herself a thinking young woman. Say what you must, but I’m down with any feminist publication that gives a shout-out to Go Fug Yourself.

Monday, November 5, 2007

This Old Ailment

The older I get, the more difficult I’m finding the life of a hypochrondriac. The world (in my head, anyway) is no longer this brand-new place, shimmering with the possibility of any number of maladies. It’s more familiar. I have winced this way before.

I have an unexplained pain in my upper left abdomen (don’t worry—I’m under medical supervision), and instead of ruminating about what rare disease I might be harboring, I’m thinking fondly of an old ailment.

The summer of ’92, I was waiting tables at a suburban restaurant—the kind that serves the same food as the chains, but without the chipper d├ęcor and level of quality. I was on break from college, and this is what I did: slept in, drank coffee and smoked endless cigarettes at work, came home, changed clothes, and went out with Brandon to drink filched alcohol. My diet was made up disproportionately of fries taken off the restaurant’s patrons’ plates while they waited under the heat lamp. I dipped them in the open containers of salad dressing and popped them in my mouth before delivering the plates.

Turns out, all of this—the hoisting of trays, the greasy fries, the coffee and alcohol, the smokes—contributed to a hiatal hernia. I had a G.I. scan, was given some medicine, and took a few days off of work.

The best thing about it—in fact, the only thing I really remember—is how relieved I was to get out of Fajita Night. Even now, I can’t smell fajitas without thinking, pain in the ass. The hot skillets, the many plates, the little tub of tortillas, that last squirt of lemon juice to make it sizzle as we lugged the trays across the dining room. The extras sidework of cleaning the fajita grease off the trays. The way the smell would stay in your hair and in your clothes. (The only thing worse than fajita night, in my opinion, was employment at an all-you-can-eat seafood place, meaning the lingering smell of crab legs and the hushpuppy fryer.)

My diet is better now, and I don’t drink coffee. I’m on the same sort of stomach pills. I still don’t quite know what that pain in my side is, but I think my hypochondria is dormant. These days, I'm thinking it ain’t nothing but an upper G.I. thing, and (knock wood) I never have to participate in Fajita Night again.