Thursday, August 2, 2012

(Almost) Everybody Loves Pop Music.

It all started innocently enough. As I herded my girls into the car, ready for another (long) day of chauffeuring their lucky behinds to various summer camps and sports/music practices, I announced that I had downloaded a new song onto my iPod. This is a fairly unusual event, because I am pretty lost when it comes to new music. I just recently realized that I kind of like Kings of Leon. They are probably broken up by now. At least I actually have an iPod, and not just a Walkman (although I do still own boxes and boxes of tapes.) I was very excited about my new musical acquisition, and couldn't wait to share.

N: You downloaded a song? Really? What song? 
D: You better not have used the iTunes cards we got for our birthday.

After assuring them that no, I bought the song WITH MY OWN MONEY, thank you very much, I turned up the volume.

N: YOU DOWNLOADED THIS SONG???? WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? ARE YOU TWELVE?? (No, and you aren't twelve either. Not for another two years.)

D: MOM! UGH! Turn it off!!! It's too...bouncy! UGH! STOP!!!

And on. And on.

The offending song would not be a surprise to anyone that knows me well. (Ok, ok. I will admit it. "One Thing" by One Direction. Happy? Yes! Laugh! I'm used to it.) What can I say? I am an enigma. I gravitate toward darkness. I cried through The Dark Knight Rises. I YouTube the saddest parts of my favorite (sad) movies when I need catharsis (Look! It's Katherine dying in a cave while the Count walks across the desert, trying to save her! It's Harry, besieged by the spirits of loved ones who perished trying to save his ass! It's Viola saying goodbye to Will  before she is shipped off to the Americas!). A lot of times, the music I like induces suicidal ideation. I really do like a lot of different things, and am partial to moody singer/songwriters, loud rock, and Motown. But! The music I truly love, more than anything in the world, is pop (with a special place in my heart for boy bands.)

I don't know why. I can't explain it. Anyone who scrolls through my iPod is usually horrified ("Debbie Gibson?? WTF!???!!). I don't care. I really don't. It is cheesy, and horrible, and absolutely wonderful. My cooler friends shake their heads, perplexed. One of my younger brothers, an architect who gets to spend a lot of time discovering new music WHILE WORKING, is  thoroughly disgusted by me. "You don't even try!!" he laments. (Ok, Mr. Bel Biv Devoe. You weren't always listening to obscure Icelandic bands.)

Pop music, particularly recent stuff, is pretty formulaic. Just ask the Spanish National Research Council, which, in a recent study,  discovered the genre was too loud and all sounded the same. If that's what their scientists are working on, no wonder the Spanish economy is in the toilet. But I digress. "One Thing" does sound just like the 90's staple "I Want it That Way" by Backstreet Boys. But there is something comforting about that formula to me, something never-endingly endearing about the inane lyrics and catchy beats, something to while away the time and make you forget, just for a moment, that wars are being fought, most of us will never have the body of an Olympic athlete, and that people are using fried chicken as a metaphorical symbol of the decline of western civilization (Chicken as Text. As if I don't have anything else to worry about.) 

So I will soldier on. I'm counting on my children to introduce me to new musical horizons, eventually. I only hope they won't disown me before then. No matter. Juice Newton will comfort me in my perpetual state of uncoolness. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lagom (I Just Can Get Enough).

Taken at The Study Hotel, New Haven CT

Ah, these endless summer nights. And days. I know that I promised to be more prolific, but so many things have been calling for my attention, it has been nearly impossible. Business first. I would like to thank my dearest Blighty for honoring me with an award! The Liebster! Look!

I am sorry it has taken me so long to claim it! I know that I have to pass it on, and I promise I will, soon...please don't overwhelm me! But Blighty....XOXOXOXOXOXO!

Also: A big THANK YOU to Lily Tequila at Wishbone Soup for this:

I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy! But I will work on it.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

I've just discovered that I am Swedish at heart. No, I don't really like herring, and lack of darkness would make me ill (want to know what a Swedish midnight looks like?? It looks like noon.) It is the Swedish concept, nay, LIFE MOTTO, that I feel a great kinship to. Lagom. Here is a good description of it, from LexioPhiles.

In Sweden it is a commonly understood and often discussed topic that the citizens are striving to achieve a state of “lagom.” Lagom can be defined as normal or in moderate balance, but it also has an undertone of “not too much or too little” as well as “just right” or “just enough,” meaning one is standardized to the central norms of a society. Swedes are very proud of this term that has become so fundamentally integrated into the Swedish culture and cannot easily be translated. All example translations have either a positive or negative undertone, while lagom has none. It is a completely neutral word, which connotation is decided by the user. Lagom is neither being excessive nor sparse but looking/feeling/being at the perfect equilibrium right in between.
In one word, lagom describes the essential and elementary basis of the Swedish national psyche, which is one of consensus and equality. It is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes. The concept of lagom is similar to that of the Middle Path in Eastern philosophy, and Aristotle's "golden mean" of moderation in Western philosophy. Swedes generally consider their lagom ideology as a good thing, although sometimes the saying ‘lagom och svensk’ (lagom and Swedish) implies drab, colorless and perhaps boring; while ‘lagom är bäst’ (lagom is best) means moderation, balance and the wisdom of defining the best possible course of action between two extremes.

Nice, right? I was first introduced to the idea of lagom while preparing for a trip to Stockholm six years ago. It wasn't until I arrived in the city (one of the most beautiful places I have so far had the honor of visiting) that I really began to sense what was meant. Everything - the architecture, the food, the actions of people, the way food was arranged in the market - somehow was perfect. This perfection was the culmination of nothing more than knowing when to stop. 
I want to try to incorporate the philosophy into my life a bit more, and especially in the lives of my children. I think just knowing when to say when, now more than ever, is critical. Whether it is in talking about religion or politics (especially in an election year), writing a blog post, eating cookies, taking a shower, walking the dog, it is important to do everything in moderation. As is being thankful for what we have, when so many have nothing. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

I am often accused of being a pessimist. I am not, really. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. Like my buddy Tommy Hobbes (we go way back, Tommy and I), I tend tend to believe that life is "nasty, brutish, and short".  I also agree with his assessment that

"The condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone; in which case everyone is governed by his own reason; and there is nothing he can make use of , that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies." Leviathan 

I know. Kind of pessimistic. I also think that life is also quite full of beauty and wonder, and that sometimes people rise up to help each other in the most extraordinary ways, so he and I aren't soul mates or anything.

Now, one man I DO feel is my true twin (or at least the twin of my deepest, darkest, most pessimistic self) is  my dear Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. When I am so low as to think there can be no bottom to the abyss, I turn to him and realize, well,  yeah, it can get a lot worse. A LOT. And it makes me feel oh so much better.

We all have our gurus or saints, talismans and charms, mentors and gods. When I am truly bereft, I pray to THE GOD OF ABRAHAM ISAAC AND JACOB (That makes Him sound kind of official, doesn't it?). But there are other times I don't want to bother The Man Upstairs. And there are times I not only don't want to bother Him, but hope He is looking the other way, as well. In those circumstances, I turn to The Great Dane to extract me from life's dilemmas. I have also coined a mantra in his honor: What Would Hamlet Do (Or Not Do)?  (A big thanks to Suze over at Analog Breakfast for the "Or Not Do" part. That was kind of genius.)

When I am faced with a bag of Oreos at 1 am, and the house is quiet and there is no threat of little ones mewling "MOM!! YOU SAID NO SWEETS UNLESS IT'S AFTER WE'VE EATEN REAL FOOD!!" (They totally don't get that the rules are different for grownups, duh) I think: What Would Hamlet Do (Or Not Do)? He would stuff his freaking Danish face, is what. Waiting up late nights for Daddy's ghost to show up takes ENERGY. And who wants to chew on a mutton chop that late? Indigestion!

Some other scenarios where WWHD (OND)? could come in handy:

1. Drivers that cut you off in the fast lane, only to step on the brakes immediately thereafter: This is easy. Hamlet would revenge. 'Cause that's he rolls! (Of course, he'd give a soliloquy first, and by that time, the driver may have changed lanes yet again...)

2. Should I go the movies this weekend? Again, so easy! Of COURSE! Hamlet shows there is nothing like a nice bit of entertainment. For extra points, if you want to break up with someone/propose/have them admit a terrible secret, take them to a film that has your preferred result in mind. Bingo! If it worked to out Claudius as a conniving incestuous murderer, well, it can work for you, too!

3. Should I show my true feelings? Well, here we are split. Sometimes, Hamlet's pretty good at playing his cards close to the vest ("But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue") and other times, he's kind of a rat bastard (erm, what's up, Ophelia?). The takeaway here is to regard the situation, and act appropriately.

I only hope when it comes time for flights of angels to sing me to my rest, I get enough time to say all that I have to say in a long-winded speech where I can spout stuff like "I die" and "I am dead" a thousand times, in case nobody gets the hint. Goblets of wine and swords that have been tainted with poison would be a bonus. Then I'll know I picked the best mentor I could have. (Well, if that happens, I guess Thomas Hobbes would have been right about the state of humanity after all. Awkward.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Dream Is A Wish (Your Heart Makes).


What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

   We know dreams are powerful. Literature and history and music and art are all brimming with themes dedicated to the raising of hope and the shuttering away of doubt. I first realized the hold that dreams can have through one of my favorite stories as a child, "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen. If you are not familiar with it, and you may not be, because you prefer bright sunshiney tales that feature unicorns and rainbows and pots of gold, it is sad. (Sad things and I go together like dubstep and hipsters in Park Slope.) Because I am lazy, I offer this, from Wikipedia:

On a cold New Year’s Eve, a poor girl tries to sell matches in the street. She is freezing badly, but she is afraid to go home because her father will beat her for not selling any matches. She takes shelter in a nook and lights the matches to warm herself. In their glow, she sees several lovely visions including a Christmas tree and a holiday feast. The girl looks skyward, sees a shooting star, and remembers her deceased grandmother saying that such a falling star means someone died and is going into Heaven. As she lights her next match, she sees a vision of her grandmother, the only person to have treated her with love and kindness. She strikes one match after another to keep the vision of her grandmother nearby for as long as she can. The child dies and her grandmother carries her soul to Heaven. The next morning, passers-by find the dead child in the nook. 

Nice, right? I know, I'm stretching here; it's not so much as a dream as vivid hallucinations brought on by hypothermia. The point is, The Little Match Girl held hope in her sooty little head, even if it was a false one, and it comforted her.
But when does a dream become a burden? The June 2012 issue of Psychology Today features a wonderfully biting article by Augusten Burroughs titled, "How To Ditch a Dream".  Burroughs says:

"...(T)here are many, many people who do not need to be told to cling to their dreams; they need to have those fantasies wrenched from their little fists before they waste their entire lives trying to achieve them. 

I am one such person."

I laughed heartily at his familiar self-depreciating humor (thankfully, the article was free of his other hallmark: shockingly lurid descriptions of past abuses suffered at the hands of...oh, everyone) then stopped short. HE'S RIGHT!  I panicked. You are now reading a blog post, so chances are, dear reader, you are familiar with the internet, and the phenomenon known as YouTube. Or Facebook. Or, actually, Blogger. The internet is FULL of people who think they have talent (ahem, all kinds of talent, or so I hear from anecdotal evidence). You know that this is not so. Their talents are greatly exaggerated. Except for that one guy who...never mind. You understand. So what if I AM ONE OF THEM? (This, incidentally, is partially the reason for my departure from the blog. Not that one guy - the fear that I am a no-talent hack showing off.) But I digress.

When do we give up on our dreams? The real ones. The ones that keep us warm at night like the poor Little Match Girl, and the hopes that raise us afloat during the day, promising better tomorrows and ever afters? And how do we keep living when all hope seems lost? It's not in me to give up. So I won't. But I will always wonder if I'm doing the right thing.

(PS sorry I called you "dear reader". The only thing I dislike more that that is "What say you?" I will try to refrain heretofore.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where The Gin Is Cold (And The Piano Hot).

(I took this picture with a point and shoot. Quite pleased. Quite!)

I just returned from a short trip to Chicago to visit a friend. It was wonderful in so many ways (Garrett's Popcorn - I don't like popcorn too much normally but the "Chicago Mix", a seemingly odd combo of cheesy popcorn and caramel corn was addictive) and not so wonderful in others (the cab drivers). Destiny cursed us with the strangest assortment of drivers I have ever seen - all surly and hellbent on breaking every traffic law known to man.

I am a person that talks too much. Maybe that was the problem. In other cabs around the world, however, this has made for interesting conversations. I love inquiring the drivers about their home countries (always asking them to teach me an insult or two in their language). I just like people, and am fascinated by their life experiences. The ride usually involves a lot of laughter (except in the case of a Chinese driver we had in Sydney - there were some sad stories there). On holiday with the kids in Mexico, my husband consistently shoved me forward, since my Spanish is better than his. I'd always end up in the front seat, looking at pictures of new babies on cell phones, asking if tourists were cheap bastards, trying to figure out where we could eat without being subjected to fluorescent mixed drinks served in foot-high beakers. These rides are always wonderful experiences that culminate in cries of "take care, wonderful to meet you!", a window into the lives of immigrants making lives in places sometimes very foreign to them, and overtipping. (I can't help myself!)

I love public transport in general. I live in a place where it is very inefficient to take the limited public transportation options, making me feel guilty every time I get into my gas-guzzling vehicle. I am always excited when I go to a place where this isn't true. Every major city I have been to excels at some aspect of moving large mobs of people around. Let's discuss!

MOST EFFICIENT PUBLIC TRANSPORT: This is a tie between the London Underground and NYC's subway system. So many stops! So many lines! I could ride them both all day! Although, truth be told, I do prefer to Mind The Gap.

CLEANEST SUBWAY SYSTEM: This is a tie. Only in New York have I been on a truly disgusting subway car, but the cleanest award goes to the Tunnelbana in Stockholm and Le Métro de Montréal. The cities themselves were surprisingly tidy as well. 

SUBWAY SYSTEM THAT SCREAMS "TAKE A VESPA INSTEAD": Barecelona's metro. It doesn't have a lot of lines, and they don't seem to stop anywhere near where you want to go. Maybe that's why everyone is so thin there....

COOLEST PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM: Sydney. Their trains stink (there is a sign that says when the next train is coming, but the time keeps changing. We were stuck in some outlying suburb forever and I swear I could hear the kookaburras singing in the old gum tree as we waited. And waited. And waited...) But OH, to take a ferry across Sydney Harbor, passing the Opera House, wondering if you fell off, how long it would take for a shark to find you....priceless! Stockholm may have ferries as well, if I recall, being that they are an archipelago and all. Don't worry, only about 1,000 of those over 20,000 islands are populated, so it's not as many stops on the line as you think...

MOST COMFY TAXI SERVICE: Allo Taxi in Beirut. It is a fleet of new, air-conditioned vans that will take you anywhere in style and comfort - even Syria! Try to avoid regular "service" cars, please. PLEASE. Once I was in a private taxi (where you pay for the whole car; it was myself and my family) going to Syria to visit other family and rode in a car that that had a hole in the floorboard the size of a baby's head. It took extra vigilance to make sure not to place anything on the floorboards by accident - especially your foot, which would be sheared off immediately.

Anyway, it was a great trip, except we went to a show, and I got in trouble.

To make a long story short, I was recording a particular song with my cell phone (LIKE EVERYONE ELSE) and was accosted by a security guard, who actually grabbed at it and screamed at me! Hmph! I didn't erase the video, but it sounds terrible. It was an amazing show, but it was general admission, and it made me realize I was too old to be in a venue that didn't have cushy seats and toilets that function properly. Also, my knees are now killing me from standing the whole time!

On another note, thanks to Suze over at Girl Wizard and Analog Breakfast (whom you all already know!) I have to answer this wondrous quiz! And I promised to do so, so here I go.

1. If you could go back in time and relive one moment, what would it be?
Algiers. 1935. The Oasis of Thieves. I can't say more.

2. If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

I would have worked harder as an undergrad so I could go on to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I don't have a lot of regrets, but that is a huge one.

3. What movie/T.V. character do you most resemble in personality?

It's going to have to be a cross between Fox Mulder, Eeyore, and Sofia Vergara in Modern Family.

4. If you could push one person off a cliff and get away with it, who would you choose?

That's a bit extreme, so I will change it to "if I could allow one person to be whisked off by aliens". It's a toss-up between The Kardashians (come on, they count as one person!). Or any of the Housewives. Or the Jersey Shore cast. Ew. Ew. Ew. If those aliens are stupid enough to take them, they can keep them! And not bring them back! (To any other life forms reading this: I didn't actually say you were stupid.  You are obviously really smart if you can make it to Earth and then go back home. Just saying.)

5. Name one habit you want to change in yourself.

Irrational Exuberance.

6. Why do you blog?

The same reason teens go to after-school programs. To stay out of trouble!

The last question was who do I want to send this meme to, and the answer is anyone who wants to answer it. I don't want you guys to feel obligated, but I would LOVE to read your answers.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Constant Craving.

I wanted to write a post about something important, but I'm too mad at Greece right now (even though they have given us Homer and spanakopita and Athena and lots of cool stuff in the sciences and philosophy.) I guess those who decided a European Union was a good idea never had the experience of doing a group project at school. Anyone who has embarked upon such lunacy knows it never works. Someone always pulls most of the weight, and there is some loafer who never shows up to any of the meetings, because they know someone else will pick up the slack, lest the grade of the entire group plummet into oblivion. Now, I am not calling the Greeks slackers! My Mediterranean cousins are a group of smart, swarthy intellects! However, I think living on the Med makes you a bit nuts in some way. Maybe it's the clear blue skies and the glassy, warm water, I don't know. Anyhow, I am not here to talk about global finance! This week I'm going to write about something else the Mediterranean folk share a passion for (besides loud fights that go nowhere and everyone wanting to be the boss): food.

I have been cooking a lot the last few weeks, and here I will show a few of the fruits of my labors. Just to show off, if I am honest. Also, because it's kind of an easy out, isn't it?

The above: red velvet cupcakes I made for a birthday. 

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup with Spiced Chipotle Cream and Pepitas (Pumpkin Seed)

Polpette for Meatball Subs 

S'Mores Cupcakes (chocolate chocolate chip cupcakes with graham cracker crust and homemade roasted marshmallow topping)

Pina Colada Cupcakes (coconut cake filled with homemade pineapple curd and topped with a coconut buttercream frosting)

S'Mores Cupcakes (again! different party....) and Cherry Limeade Cupcakes (Hello, Girl Wizard!)

Spiced Quince Compote (I bought too many quinces and had to do SOMETHING with them.) The flecks aren't dirt, I swear. They are vanilla bean, cardamom, and clove, along with cinnamon and ginger.

Spicy Red Pepper Jelly

Caramel Apple Cupcakes (with homemade caramel and apple chips)

Almond Joy Cupcakes (coconut almond cake with chocolate ganache and coconut almond buttercream, toasted coconut and almonds)

And, because Suze so kindly dedicated a blog post partially to me, and begged me to post these, here you go. Don't laugh! The above is the outfit I gave out candy in on Halloween. (The package said "Gretchen" on it...)

And here is one I wore to a costume party. And, James Littlejohn, I know you may mock me for it (I think there may have been an Open Letter to Girls Who Take Pictures in Mirrors With Cellphones) but I am taking a chance.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We Found Love (In A Hopeless Place).

Finally! I am waiting for some cupcakes to cool before frosting them, so I thought I would take this brief reprieve to post a little something, since it has been a while. The cupcakes are for the school Harvest Fete tomorrow. (It's really just the fall class party, but "Harvest Fete" sounds so much more soignee, no? Anyway, the school cannot call it a Halloween Party, being that they are affiliated with a religious institution. Perhaps you will see a photo, perhaps not. Of the cupcakes. Not the religious institution. But I digress.)

Parent-Teacher conferences were yesterday, and unusually, I showed up a little early. Bored with trying to figure out the latest on the Ashton-Demi debacle through the wonders of my smartphone and internet tabloid rags, I wandered the halls a bit. Fortunately, my girls are great students, so I don't have to visit the school much. Not that I am not involved (see above description of cupcake crafting); I just (knock on wood) haven't had to do more than provide treats and chaperone field trips. I like it that way. I was not born to be a room mother or helicopter parent (not that they are necessarily the same breed, mind you). I do communicate with the teachers, and with other parents, just usually at carpool and birthday parties, so it is rare that I actually enter those hallowed halls.

My girls and their classmates had just completed a project on a timeline of their lives. The posterboards lined the hallway, and it was such a delight to read about the seminal events in these children's lives. Some of the kids had been with the girls since the three-year-old class, and I felt a little twinge seeing pictures of them in chubbier states, toddling along with various stuffed creatures tucked under their tiny arms. I remembered how some of the students came in to school speaking only the foreign language they had learned at home, like the little girl who only spoke Korean until four years ago. Now, her English is unaffected, strong and sure - but she still has the benefit  and gift of that first language. 

It was obvious that some of the parents had a heavier hand in the production of these projects - the handwriting was too neat, the wording too advanced for that age group. Although the posters were all different, there was an element of sameness in them: trips to Disneyland, to the beach, first football games, swim meets and soccer tournaments. Even the more esoteric events were products of privilege: Renaissance Faires and swimming with the dolphins, sleepaway camps and horseback riding.

At first glace, the mini-biographies could be seen as the banal outcropping of a solid middle-class suburban life.I thought about the events around the world the last few weeks, and felt humbled by good fortune. A lot of us are ground down a bit by the day-to-day, shuttling kids from school to activities, trying to schedule family time between work and errands. The displays at school yesterday were happy, colorful pieces of art, innocence untouched. There were remembrances of parents who had gone to Iraq, and perhaps the death of a beloved pet, but for the most part, they were joyful celebrations of lives just beginning. Think of the children in Misrata, or Kabul, or Baghdad. What would their timelines look like? Instead of trips to see Mickey, we might read about relatives that had been brutally murdered by a corrupt regime, the wish to go back to school and learn, the longing for something more than a bowl of rice as the once-a-day meal. All of us have our own struggles, and I know, though I hate to contemplate it, that those happy posters may not reflect the reality of all of those children's lives. We know what can lurk in a family's shadows. That isn't my focus, now. My focus is, for myself,  to remember to be grateful for the freedoms and choices I can make, and the relative safety I enjoy - and to remember to not take these things for granted. 

When somebody asks me, "How are you?" I try never to say "Great!" or, conversely, "Terrible." I say, "I'm OK, thank God." Because that is what I am. It could always be better, always be worse. There but for the grace of God go I, right? In a world in chaos (I'd like to give a big shout-out and a "whoop whoop!" to Angela Merkel and her smooth moves that helped get that European debt crises in go, girl!) I am doing my best to keep perspective. It's all I can do.

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