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Archive for January, 2010

Birthday carnage

I remember walking home from a birthday party in sixth grade, several blocks, with a backpack on my shoulders, a sleeping bag in hand, my hair unwashed, my fingernails poorly painted a crusty color of pink by a slap-happy, sleep-deprived peer, while I slept. The weekend day was half over. I’m sure I had had no more than a few hours sleep, and I was fuming about my pink nails. Upon waking, I found the alleged painter inhabiting my sleeping bag; having crashed prematurely on the couch, I had rendered myself a prime target for crusty pink sabotage.

Of course, we talked about it that morning, because what sleepover is not complete without the obligatory morning after run-down? One person will say, “I was out as soon as the movie started.” And someone else will say, “I watched the whole thing. The song for the credits ran like three times, and I finally got up and turned it off.” And then everyone else says things like, “I fell asleep I think right before the wedding.” “Hey, Amy, I think you were snoring after he kisses her.” And Amy responds with, “Oh my God, Mary, you punched me in the middle of the night.” And Mary says her obligatory apologies. Then, the conversation moves to who talked in their sleep.

This is where I am often targeted. Alledgedly, on my fourth grade caving and camping field trip, I had a sleep conversation about lollipops with a classmate across the room. Do not believe everything you hear at a post party run-down, here in the carnage of sleepover ecstasy. We attempt to remember, to relive, and no sleepover is complete without it. This is where people dig ruthlessly for the last remnants of last night. They scrape the plate of slumber party with their fork, they pick through the discarded bones and fat, hoping to feast on some tiny juicy tidbit.

Speaking of which, I had crab for my birthday dinner.

I’m rather making a habit–or tradition–of eating fancified seafood on my birthday. Last year, there were scallops, the third of a three-course meal topping buttery pasta and steamed vegetables.  This year, half a crab arrived on my plate, it’s barnacle-like legs, dangling ominously over the half-smashed red potatoes, its claw resting in the braised greens, beside it a bowl of smoky-paprika dipping sauce. I regarded it with the same suspicion as I would a crab in the bucket at the beach, the way one carefully regards a thing that might resist one’s whim, the way that one acts toward something that might fight back. The restaurant saved me the trauma of gazing into its eyes, or rather, its single eye, since we are, after all, discussing only half a crab. I can’t say I was completely sold on the meal.

Scanning the menu at “Belly” where Jake and I ate birthday dinner on Tuesday night, I was reminded how I had been previously deterred from the restaurant for its plethora of meaty items. My problem with meat is that I really don’t like it, and so, while the entree accompaniments–the quince with mashed sweet potatoes, the goat cheese polenta, and cranberries with braised kale–so desperately called my name, it was always the pork chop, the lamb shank from which I strayed away.

So, I ordered the crab. It can take a while for the party to get going–as you can imagine–with a dead crab, but then I warmed up to the idea. I guess you could say I like  my meat like I like my parties.

I am not one for large chunks of meat or raucous displays of party-ness. I do not like to work to hard to chew, nor do I like to work too hard to fight through crowds or hear my own voice. I am most content with a few solid and exciting sides, a leisurely activity such as extracting small pieces of crab meat from leg tubes with an itsy bitsy fork, and something to continue to pick at as the water glasses empty and the candles burn low. All I want is to play with my food. Is that so much to ask?

But then there’s the carnage–aside from the cracked and messy carcass that I had ravaged and abandoned, I felt a little guilty about eating the crab. Every time I accidentally moved its joints, or took too large a piece of meat, I felt slightly disgusted. It was a little like waking up in someone else’s basement in a half-zipped sleeping bag, with sparkly pink fingernails, surveying for the first time in the light of day the wreckage of last nights revelry: the half-eaten food trays, the gutted overnight bags. This happens to me much less than it used to, especially the fingernail part. Not so seldom is this:  I realize it’s 11:00 and by the time I get home, the day will be half over, and I think, “I have a sleep deprivation headache, and I should not have stayed up talking so late, but man, it was awesome.”

It’s rather early in my twenty-fourth year to make any sweeping statements, but perhaps, on some level, it comes to this: in all things worth their salt, especially where birthdays are involved, there must be carnage.

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My senior year of high school, I committed one of the more ill-advised purchases of my life. There are worse things on which to expend money than an eighty dollar pair of blocky black dance sneakers, but if, five years later, they remain virtually unworn, you might have been better off burning the money.

The sneakers I bought were on display at my dance studio’s store. They had a thick sole with a circular pattern on the ball for turning and bent easily at the arch. The outside was a suede-like material and their shape tapered toward the front and allowed you to stand all the way on your toes while wearing them. I debated buying them for about two weeks.

The college dance team was wearing them. That seemed as sound a reason as any.

Turns out dance sneakers are not the product of sound reasoning. Cumbersome as they are, they were not built for any dancing I was hoping to use them for. Peeking out from under long jazz dance pants, they looked kind of cool, but even the lithe and articulate bare legs of the dancers New York City ballet workout video appear gawky when garnished with a black sneaker.

I wore them twice–once because they were new, a second time to try to learn to like them–and then stashed them in what is now my brother’s bedroom closet. There they remained for five years, until two weeks ago, when I reconsidered.

***

Perhaps you’ve heard of Zumba. It is an aerobics dance class, inspired by Latin dance rhythms and bearing the slogan, “ditch the workout, join the party.” That, my friends, is just what we did. I have never seen an hour of aerobics pass so quickly, never seen hips gyrate so adroitly, never seen jazz sneakers look so chic as they did on our teacher!

Jazz sneakers! I had a pair of those! “Finally,” I thought, “This is their chance to shine!” The dance sneakers would be perfect for this class, where footwear could be bulkier, but would not be required to turn.

But, the downfall of age is that it sharpens one’s awareness of the need for requisite skills. What I mean is that, in donning a pair of dance sneakers and marching them into a health club, one gives the appearance of expertise. Should one’s actual skills fall short of initial projected image—should her hips fail to keep the beat when the pace quickens, should she never manage to master a certain step—one might wish she was wearing regular athletic shoes, which provide unspoken permission to their wearer to flail.

I have been this person who cared about flailing. I have also been the person who would have worn the shoes proudly and not have worried about it. The latter is buried not-so-deeply in my past. I know, I have seen the footage.

***

My family’s video camera growing up was about the size of a truck, and we really only used it regularly for a few years, but it recorded a limited number of treasured videos, which unfortunately all catch me around the awkward age of eight: boisterous, attention seeking, unstoppable. As Emily, at the adorable age of five, wears pretty dresses and speaks with the inflection of a ruby-cheeked nymph, and Nathaniel, at two wears his baseball pants around his belly button and has the ringlets of an angel, I am most often glimpsed in leggings and an oversized T-shirt, doing something utterly cringe-worthy.

I’ve only found it once, as our home videos rest among other crudely labeled VHS tapes, but there is one tape of me, in said outfit, dancing, and dancing, and dancing some more. The back is hunched, the face is skewed, and oh, the thumbs are flying!

Around the same time, there is an audio recording documenting similar antics, but in a slightly less painful way. On this, I command most of the air time. I tell long stories. I try to make Emily sing songs. I hold interviews. I break into song myself. The song below is one that has stuck with us. In fact, when I talked to my mom last night, she told me my dad and brother were singing it as we spoke.

The following lyrics were first sung in a way that was at once reminiscent of the songs on a daytime children’s TV show, and the impromptu warblings outside a downtown bar after midnight.

I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. America.
I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. South America
I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. Africa
I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. A-asia
I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. Australia
I’m your singin’ and dancin’ teacher, Mrs. Antarctica

I’m quite certain my jazz sneakers were made to be worn by your singin’ and dancin’ teacher. On a good day, I am she.

***

*Just a note: the email notification mechanism seems to be working now. Sign up to the right if you’re interested.

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Is it too late to hazard a few thoughts on the New Year? Surely you wouldn’t hold me to such stringent deadlines, so let me begin by saying that I loved this cabbage from the moment I saw it.

So firm it was. So perfectly round. So expertly layered. So satisfyingly weighted. So made for the palm of my hand.

I took several pictures before I even considered what to do with it. Sitting by the fire place, the sun from the bay window glistened on its veins, which wound like a tree up its side. On the table, the topmost leaf formed a shoreline sloping gently around the curve of the globe, its edge a darker green, as if just dipped in water. Still, I liked it best outside, against the background of mountains and neighborhood yards, suspended like a tiny planet ascending into the big sky.

Because that—that vibrant blue, those wave-like clouds—is how the New Year greeted Missoula, stark but practically singing.

I don’t know where my family’s tradition to eat cabbage on New Year’s began. Like so many other customs on this momentous day of every year, we do it for wealth and good fortune. To eat a spoonful of cabbage is all that my relatives have required of me each January 1st, and so I have done just that: buried it under mashed potatoes, dutifully consumed it, and refrained from the vegetable until the same time next year.

But, the best things have a way of working themselves in when they are most appreciated, and this year, the cabbage felt just right. It was what I needed. Heck, it might be what we all need. Not so much the caramelized rapture that emerged from the oven after 2 ½ hours of braising—although that might be appreciated, too—but the simplicity of the head of cabbage, humble yet beautiful, and ever-so-gently nourishing.

***

My other New Year’s tradition, one which I’ve always relished more than the cabbage, is a comprehensive recording of the coming year’s To Do List. Simply put, it is a list of resolutions, but the term “resolution” has a bad rap, so I prefer to disassociate. The making of my To Do list is a tradition that I really enjoy because I sit down and think about the year ahead and imagine how I would most like to spend it, and what I want to accomplish.

Last year brought unwanted change for people really close to me. Since classes at the University ended in the spring, it has been a year that constantly teetered on its corners; at its less severe, it was a drawn out job search and uncertainty about money and school, at its worst, the need to immediately be in places we weren’t. The one thing I can say for loss is that it births clarity, and where I’ve had sadness, I’ve also had moments of perspective. The results have sometimes surprised me, or they’ve reaffirmed plans that made sense all along. Sometimes, they’ve fallen right in my lap. There are the long-term things like the people I know I want around, or a certain desire to work in health care, when all previous signs pointed toward liberal arts. And there are the smaller things, like a recent diminished need for dance in my life, even though I still love it. My To Do list this year reflects that.

I love New Year’s Day because it comes around every year. The list is new each time.

So, happy New Year. Here is to not making restrictions, but to devoting time, and taking stock, and making sure that when something as unassuming as that head of cabbage slips in and offers itself up, we know when to go ahead and say “yes.”

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We found it while perusing the shelves of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland–a gilt edged book of ample proportions, facing out from the stacks and exhibiting a colorful picture of a giraffe head in outer space.

In the vein of the British educational spoof series Look Around You, Giraffes? Giraffes! offers 64 pages of ‘facts’ presented with utmost sincerity. One page lists “Things Giraffes do not believe in”—things like playgrounds, ovens, astronomy.* Another reveals that giraffes control everything we see in mirrors. So, there you go.

In the face of such novelties, I am quite prone to buyer’s temptation. I somehow managed to settle for some stationary and this versatile joke which would encapsulate the weekend:

Giraffes? Giraffes!

Burrito? Burrito!

Bedtime? Bedtime!

Awesome parking spot? Awesome parking spot!

Is that woman across the restaurant from us really going to get on that table and perform a strip tease in front of everyone? That woman across the restaurant from us is really going to get on that table and perform a strip tease in front of everyone!

***

Epitomized most fittingly by this exclamation was our trip to The Bins, a Goodwill outlet store where customers sift through bins of clothes and household items and pay for their merchandise by the pound. At designated intervals, the price per pound lowers, so that one could sometimes benefit by buying more.

Jake looked it up online as we considered activity options, “Apparently, they bring out the bins, and people wait for them and then just dive in,” he told me.

“Bring gloves,” warned a review site, “citing the urine and broken glass as reason for precaution.”

“Sometimes, people get into fist fights about stuff,” Jake recalled from another review.

“It will at least be an experience,” we reasoned, as we drove across town.

***

Indeed, “Grab first, then decide” was the motto to go by. I consider myself a fairly seasoned Goodwill shopper, but The Bins was a different game. It’s not yours until your hand is on it. Dive in blindly, hope for the best, and you will be rewarded. When things go well, the dialogue inside your head might go something like this.

Attractive wall clock? Attractive wall clock!

Un-chipped ceramic pot? Un-chipped ceramic pot!

Expensive diamond jewelry?

You get the picture.

***

When we arrived, a circle of no less than fifteen semis surrounded the industrial sized parking lot. Their sides showed a picture of an apartment-sized man and woman wearing primary shades of blue and yellow. Both stared at a shirted teddy bear, which rose eerily from a pile of miscellany. The man’s shoulder’s shrugged and his face bore a smile with the kind of forced giddiness you might only otherwise encounter in a fifth grade mathematics textbook. The woman’s look was overly benevolent, no doubt trying to sweeten the words, “Here is a teddy bear for you. I found it in a bin.”** I am here to tell you that this is a fabricated image of a situation unlikely to actually occur at The Bins

I take issue with the eye contact, for once inside the store, there isn’t any. Oh, you can try to make it, but you won’t get much in return. I spent the first half hour looking people in the eyes with a look that tried to say, “I will not take your stuff—do not desire to punch me.” Really, though, if you’re trying to be conscious about your focus, I would suggest just keeping it out of other people’s carts. You can tell people are serious about protecting their stuff, because many will tent their loot in blankets.

For some time, I shopped like I do at a regular Goodwill, avoiding the crowds, backing out of an aisle when continuing to the end would mean pushing past someone, namely searching the bins that held no one’s interest. I soon realized that as I was living by “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure . . . blah blah . . . I’ll find something good, even if everyone has picked through this,” the rest of the store was hovering around the prime meat, the new bins just emerging in glorious wealth from the storeroom. Like, I said, Goodwill: The Bins is a different game, wherein fear of crowds and weak resolve garner no glory. And so it was that I resolved to enter the crowd, to stand among the hungry eyes  and try my hand at competition.

My first mistake was only too obvious. Friends, repeat after me: “I will not try to hold onto my cart while digging through the newly placed bins.” You will want to pass it off to whomever you came with, or you might try covering it with a blanket and placing it in a corner, topped with a paper plate that reads, “do not take this cart. It is still being used.” Taking it with you is a beginner’s mistake.

You see, as the bins are pushed into place, more shoppers, other than those lined up beside you, ones you had not factored into your plan of attack, start to squeeze their way in beside you, baited by the glint of something shiny against the yellow plastic. They will push your cart. They will push you. And if you are not prepared to let go of the cart and grab before you look, you will find yourself empty-handed sputtering for air in a sea of smoky denim jackets and unkempt hair.

As I retreated from the swarm, I watched two men grab for a bag of plastic jewelry. It was a large plastic bag, and each emerged with his fist grasping a corner. Both stood still for a moment, their eyes fixed on the bag. “I think I got it,” said the first. “I think I did,” said the second. Upon a few more seconds’ examination, though, they let it go.

Here is what they were thinking: “Expensive Diamond Jewelry? Expensive diam– . . . uh, never mind you can have it.”

***

Jake and I left the store with a full cart for $25 dollars. That is a lot of stuff! Still, I was about to write off The Bins, as “you know, a pretty cool place, but nothing special,” until I found this:

There is a possibility that, had we not picked up Giraffes? Giraffes! at Powell’s, this poster would not have caught my attention. It might have fallen into the category of things I stupidly passed up at Goodwill, along with the quilted square dancing dress, whose absence I will forever lament. It is difficult to pinpoint my favorite part of this image—That the panda appears to be petting the flamingo? That the giraffe wears a necklace of grape leaves? That the tiger seems to be trying to sate itself with water, while eyeing those luscious birds inches from its nose? Never mind the absurd speciation. I thank you Giraffes? Giraffes!, for without this poster, I am sure my life, or at least our wall décor, would be a little less complete.

*None of these are things giraffes don’t believe in. In fact, you might say giraffes believe fully in all of these things. I just can’t remember what they really were, and so I made some up, only after, of course, searching online for the real answer.

**Not that there is anything wrong with that–that is, giving someone something you found at The Bins.

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