“It’s a Sweeney Todd Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!”

October 27th, 2011

Signs from my neighborhood:

Let’s take a closer look at that …

… brought to you by our friendly Community Savings.

Portrait of Kestrel

April 26th, 2011

Kestrel and I are continuing her wardrobe-renovation project. After our shopping expedition a few weeks ago, our project today is to go through her existing clothes and decide what to keep and what to toss, and then assess what she has and what she needs.

Here is Kestrel in a plain black dress from Ann Taylor:

Isn’t she beautiful?

As Kestrel noted in the earlier post, I am trying to cut down her wardrobe choices in terms of color and styles. She hopes that doing this will make it easier for her to get dressed in the morning, as she can follow two simple rules: wear two to three colors at a time, and either match a slim skirt or trousers with a looser top, or flowing skirt or trousers with a fitted top. I hope that if Kestrel’s options are narrowed and focused, she’ll be able to develop a better independent sense of style.

After all, when you want to teach someone how to write poetry, you don’t read them “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and then say, “Make like so.” You introduce them to rhyme, to rhythm, to metaphor, to imagery, to form, to vocabulary, to voice. You have them experiment with one or two elements at a time — writing a series of haiku to springtime, a sonnet from Juliet to Romeo or vice versa, a poem based on a single metaphor illustrated by typographical conventions. Once students have isolated and analyzed the elements of a poem, they can start putting those elements together, creating action in the interactions. I’m hoping to break women’s style down in a similar fashion for Kestrel. Updates to come!

(Re)making friends

April 1st, 2011

This Saturday I will have the delightful experience of helping a friend of mine select a new wardrobe! The Traveling Psychologist has not bought new clothes in three years, and is finally up for a bit of refurbishment.

Ladies — and I am afraid this post is geared toward the women, although I’m always happy to hear from the gents — if you are fashion-challenged, or simply in a rut, don’t ever hesitate to ask a stylish friend to help you clean your closet, or shop, or simply sit down and figure out what you ought to be wearing, already. (In general, don’t be hesitant to ask for practical lessons from friends. Spending an afternoon teaching or learning knitting, auto maintenance, clicker training, or souffle-making is cheap and practical entertainment.)

The Psychologist and I are starting with the “sit down and figure out” bit at first. There’s no point running off shopping when you don’t know what you’re shopping for. Trying things on and buying what looks good is a nice way to wind up with a closet full of lovely garments that don’t get along with your lifestyle or each other. Here are some questions I sent my friend to think about:

1. You bike every day. What constraints does that put on what you can wear?
2. What kinds of clothes feel best on you: fitted, flowing, or structured?
3. What parts of your body do you prefer to cover, and which do you like to highlight?
4. Do you often have to go from one level of formality to another without having time to change?
5. Pick six colors that you like best: three neutrals, three colors.

The Traveling Psychologist is never going to be a woman who cares a great deal about clothes. She likes to look good, but the hunter-gatherer thrill of shopping is lost on her, and I don’t think she enjoys putting outfits together as much as I do. So my goal is to figure out a couple of basic silhouettes that will work for her, which she can then change up with various accessories. The “Traveling” part of her moniker ensures an appropriately Cantabridgian wardrobe of exotic earrings, shawls, and bracelets.

Have you ever asked a friend to help you revamp your look, or done the same for someone else? How did it work out?

How to charm a neighbor’s socks off

March 29th, 2011

IF … you are the parents of an artistically-inclined gradeschooler, and
IF … you have childless neighbors who have a dog,
THEN I can guarantee you, if your child paints a picture of that dog, the dog’s owners will be charmed beyond all reason, and will probably frame your child’s art and cherish it forever.

As evidence, may I present “Milo Rocks,” a composition in cardstock and acrylic paint:

Seriously. Do you think I would ever throw this out?

Greatest dinner ever

February 28th, 2011

Like a real Bostonian, I knew that the taste of spring we’d gotten in recent weeks was but a cruel joke, a taste of freedom before the iron hand of winter clutched us again. And I was ready. Because in my freezer, waiting for the return of that winter hand, was a chuck roast from Wild Idea Buffalo.

It was possibly the greatest meal I have ever cooked; certainly the best in my married life, according to Mr. Improbable. Slow-cooked chuck roast, whole-wheat egg noodles, baked squash, and collard greens (thin-sliced and sauteed in sesame oil, with a light drizzle of maple syrup). I can’t recommend Wild Idea Buffalo highly enough; I’ve been thrilled with everything I’ve gotten from them. And chuck roast is not only easy, but wonderfully aromatic as it cooks.

When you’re going through hard times, whatever they may be, it’s not a bad move to save a little treat for near the end. Yes, that’s when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also when you’re most exhausted. A reminder that winter can have its comforts was exactly what I needed this weekend.

Out of Egypt

February 1st, 2011

As I mentioned, one of my cousins and his wife are living in Cairo. They’re out safely now. Two of his brothers, in particular, were helpful in getting them out and finding places for them to stay. The rest of the siblings (there are a lot of cousins from that family) helped pass news along through Facebook. It was both touching and impressive to watch all of this play out online — the next time I’m confronted by Facebook haters, this story will be Exhibit A for why the technology can an exceptionally good way to keep in touch. The story also reminded me, in a smaller though infinitely more immediate way, of a post I wrote back in 2007, after I’d watched “Hotel Rwanda.” I said, in part,

One thing that has stuck with me since seeing the movie, however, is that Paul Rusesabagina, the movie’s hero, who in the movie and in life managed to save some twelve hundred Tutsis and moderate Hutus from slaughter–was able to do this, in large part, because he had good manners. Mr. Rusesabagina is no action hero, and no idealist, either. He is a man who knows how to finesse a situation. How to figure out quickly what motivates people, and use that knowledge to negotiate with them. How to bank favors against an uncertain future. How to restrain himself in the face of provocation. How to maintain dignity and grace, and extend that possibility to others.

Most of us, I hope, will never be faced with a crisis the likes of which Mr. Rusesabagina faced. But what he did should help us remember that the small skills of manners, self-restraint, intuition, empathy are not frills, moral accessories, to be put on when we are feeling the luxuries of time and emotional energy. They are essential tools that can save lives, literally and figuratively.

February

February 1st, 2011

I don’t care that we’re getting another storm today. Really, I don’t. All I care about is that January 2011 is officially over. Would anyone else care to join me in declaring a New Year’s today? Because if my Facebook news feed is any kind of statistically valid sampling of the English-speaking world, and of course it’s not, this past month has been a horrorshow for everyone.

For me, January began with a bout of stomach sickness and news of the unexpected death of my advisor, and ended with my cousin and his wife managing to escape Cairo sometime last night. I won’t write much about what happened in between, either because it primarily concerns other people and is therefore their business, or because it’s private business of my own. Please don’t worry: Mr. Improbable and Milo and I are all quite well, I hasten to assure you, both as individuals and as a pack. But, my Lord, what a month.

Despite the storm, the days are already beginning to get a little longer.

Welcome to February.

Midwinter Macabre

January 17th, 2011

As I mentioned, Mr. Improbable and I threw a party on Saturday night. It was a smash hit, and I’m going to tell you all about it so that you can have, if you like, a Midwinter Macabre of your very own.

From Chaucer to “Lost,” there’s nothing quite like a group of people sitting around telling scary stories. There is, within horror and fantasy, a subgenre called the “club story,” in which gentlemen at a posh club tell each other tales of the uncanny.

This, with a certain additional Goth element, was what I wanted our party to be like. Here is how I described it on the invitation:

Guests are invited to tell or read
a story or poem of the macabre, eldritch, uncanny, Gothic,
grotesque or arabesque

Those who wish may tell a story of their own,
Read one written by another,
Or be assigned a reading by the hostess.

(That everyone may have a chance,
stories should be no longer than five minutes)

Bring nothing but your voice, ears, and imagination

Formal dress
… from any era
… in any state of repair

We served English pub food: sliced roast beef and a cheese plate, with a basket of rolls and mustard and chutney for people to make sandwiches. I roasted some asparagus and pickled carrots. One of our guests made and brought a real English trifle for dessert. After eating and socializing, we read our stories in three groups of three to four readers, and took breaks between for more food and drink.

The whole thing was brilliant. Some people wore simple black, but others got into the Goth costuming: one woman wore a ball gown with a wide black corset belt and a black lace eye mask; another wore a bridesmaid’s gown with long velvet gloves and a bouquet of dead roses in her hair. I had bought a crimson prom dress at Goodwill and slashed it with a razor, so it hung off me in strips.

People chose readings ranging from Greek mythology to Edgar Allan Poe to Sylvia Plath to Tom Waits. It was immensely cathartic, sort of sexy, and very, very fun.

And it was easy. The hardest thing was creating the guest list — we had to keep it relatively small, so that everyone could get a chance to read. But everything else couldn’t have been simpler. Here’s the beauty of hosting a Goth-themed party: you don’t really have to clean all that much. The lighting will be dim, and hey, cobwebs are atmospheric!

You can also make a Midwinter Macabre party as fancy or as simple as you want. You could rent out a British or Irish-style pub and give prizes for the best readings. Or you can do it as a BYOB for about $20 worth of cheese and crackers, and maybe $10 for a black or dark red bathrobe, dress jacket, or gown from Goodwill.

If you decide to have a Midwinter Macabre of your own, let me know how it goes! I can also provide suggestions for readings.

Here I am, doing my reading. One of the Fabulous Bureaucrats came dressed as Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca,” and held a candle for the readers.

Breathes there a man with a soul so dead

December 27th, 2010

… who never to himself has said, “Woot! Snow day!“?

There’s no particular reason that this ought to be a day off for me, given that all the work I have to do is right here at home, as are sufficient Chinese leftovers from Christmas to keep me from even having to cook. I could probably finish That Paper I’ve been working on. (Don’t we all have a That Project, that despite all our competence and maturity and stick-to-itiveness simply won’t get done?) I could get a month ahead on columns.

I’m planning on finishing my tea and taking Milo for a long, long walk in the snow.

After that, maybe I’ll finish the novel I’m rereading (Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride) or take a nap. And maybe this afternoon I’ll be bored, and ready to tackle some columns, if not quite That Paper yet.

But this morning, it’s snow day.

How are you spending this snowy Monday, oh fellow Bostonians? I hope the snow brings you minimal irritation and maximal fun. For Christmas people, especially parents, may the snow provide a soft landing to the irrational exuberance of the holiday.

Posts from the Illuminati

December 24th, 2010

When I told my friends on Facebook that I’d gone on the Illuminations Tour, one of them responded, “The Illuminations Tour is great. My favorite comments from the guide who narrated ours was: 1.) ‘There’s Roger’s Rubber Foam Factory – best fire of my childhood!’ and, 2.) he singled out a display for ‘Best use of a lobster trap as a manger.’”

The second comment inspired my friend Molly — yes, that Molly, she who wrote “The Pirate’s Prayer” and “Bitchin’ Menorah,” to come up with this:

Away in a manger, down on the sea bed
The little crustacean lay down its wee head
Blissfully unknowing what fate was in store
Perhaps dipped in butter, perhaps Thermidor.

Be near me, wee lobster, stay here with us Jews
For our Christmas dinner, we’ll have Chinese food
You will not be eaten, of that I am sure
Because, although tasty, you are not kosher.

Pictures from the tour

December 21st, 2010

My friend Katherine and her husband went back over the Somerville Illuminations Tour route the next night, and took some pictures. This will give you an idea:

More below the fold:

Click to continue reading "Pictures from the tour"

Winterizing

November 10th, 2010

Here‘s a good, if slightly facile, article on how to protect yourself against winter depression.

I’m not looking forward to this winter. It’s not as though normally, I’m all “W00T! Boston winter, yeah! Bring it on and keep it up through April again this year!” But generally winter is a slight annoyance, a constraint, a nuisance. This year I’m afraid, to be honest. Because as the days get darker and shorter and colder, so are my thoughts and my temper and my spine. Because last winter was when I was really, really sick, and now I’ve got that irrational, but hardly abnormal, fear that as winter descends, I’ll get sick again.

Even if I don’t, I want to be extra careful and good to myself this winter. Right now I feel scared and anxious about the approach of the cold weather. So I made a list of a few things I’m going to do in order to keep myself on track:

1. Invent lots of new vegetable & whole-grain stews, and share my best recipes with my readers, and ask for yours as well.

2. Stretch and meditate to the Hebrew prayers I have on my iPod at least once a day.

3. Write at a coffee shop at least twice a week, even if it’s really cold. There are several within a seven-minute walk. I have a brand-new 800 fill count Patagonia winter coat. I can walk seven minutes to a coffee shop.

4. Study Torah and write more about Judaism. Ideally, for money. (Yes, I know that sounds like the most anti-Semitic joke ever, but I mean it. I want to do this for my own benefit, but I really do want to start getting my religious writings published. I think I have a distinctive voice, and it’s a way of participating in my religion that is very, very meaningful to me.)

5. Take up photography. I’ve done bits and pieces of arts and crafts, but the problem with it is, then you have arts and crafts all over your home, and what do you do with them? (Especially if your artistic style is dark and gothic. It’s great if you’re a knitter and can knit scarves and booties, but you can hardly give someone a mixed-media Cornell box based on 16th-century anatomical drawings and clipped-out phrases from Poe and de Tocqueville as a christening gift.) I can’t quite grapple with the logistical problems of creative efforts that can’t be archived on a computer. Fortunately, photos can be.

6. Make physical pleasure a priority. Well, yes, Mr. Improbable gave a big cheer when I told him that resolution, but I’m not only talking about that. I mean burning incense. Taking time at night to rub lotion into my legs and feet. Getting a massage when I want one. Curling up on the sofa with a book and blasting the space heater right at myself until I feel like a human hot toddy. Taking a sauna after working out. Making time to sit and really gaze into my art books — or, for that matter, at some of the art I’ve bought or made myself. Taking hot baths with essential oils. Going to Colonial Drug and smelling the perfumes. I’m good at giving my brain pleasure — through work, books, conversation, television, blogging. I’m less good at giving my body pleasure. (I’m hardly the only one, I suspect, in our culture that is simultaneously Puritanically afraid of the body and hypersexual. I almost blushed writing the phrase “giving my body pleasure” — it seems dirty, crude to say. But I believe my body is as holy as my mind. I believe pleasure and beauty are religious values, not sins. I believe God wants me to be happy as well as good. Maybe if I act on those beliefs, I will truly feel them as well as believe them.)

7. Ramp down December, ramp up January and February. Because we all know December’s not the hard one. The first snow is fun. And there’s Christmas and New Year’s and Hanukkah and such to keep you occupied. It’s January and February, when the snow is old and dirty and half the Christmas lights have burned out on your neighbor’s house but he still won’t take them down and your social calendar looks as blank as Don Draper when faced with another person’s emotional need, that life gets hard. So start planning now for some treats for yourself in January. A girls’ or boys’ night out, a potluck, a costume party, trapeze lessons — whatever does it for you, and brings a little jolt of novelty into your life. Don’t burn your body and mind and wallet out during December and leave yourself depleted in January. Boston winters are a marathon, not a sprint!

(I originally typed that as “spring.” Paging Dr. Freud!)

So that’s my list. Probably a little heavy, because I’m dealing with stuff that not everyone else is. Of course, I’m also not dealing with winter stuff that other folks have to: fine, maybe you’re not worried about your digestive system collapsing, but I don’t have to worry about a commute or what to do on my kid’s snow days. Point is, winter’s hard. And this time I’m gearing up for it. Are you? What are you doing?

Yet another storytelling event

October 22nd, 2010

This Tuesday, October 26, I’ll be one of the judges at a storytelling slam at Johnny D’s in Davis Square. The slam starts at 8:00 pm (signup begins at 7:30) and tickets are $8 — free for Somerville residents with a story to tell! More info here.

The slam is on the theme of “Horrified!” — nicely specific yet open-ended, that — and is hosted by Massmouth. From the press release:

Many things may make us horrified, from medical to the media, social and political, culinary, natural and macabre. On October 26th, ten intrepid contestants will strut, before judges and audience, their best 5-minute tale on the “horrified!” theme for laughs, gasps and prizes. First prize: a $50 Johnny D’s gift certificate. For contestant tips & coaching, visit: http://massmouth.ning.com/. In between, audience members may participate in story games, Halloween riddles & who-knows-what-all-other surprises. Make reservations @ Johnny D’s for a great dinner & the best seats!

What’s your best five-minute story of a time when you were horrified? Come tell us!

Oh, I didn’t tell you there was going to be a part II?

September 2nd, 2010

… because there is. Part II of Mr. Improbable’s manga adventures came out today!

Also, I am a manga sidekick

August 30th, 2010

I believe I mentioned this on Twitter, but one of the biggest Japanese manga publishers has come out with a manga about Mr. Improbable and the Ig Nobel Prizes. Part 1 came out this week, part 2 next week. And I get to be in it, as Mr. Improbable’s loyal sidekick:

That’s not how I wear my hair anymore, but they did an excellent job with my eyebrows. I may take this in to the salon the next time I go to get them waxed.

People, I hope you all know: I never intended to have a life like this. I grew up in a series of aggressively normal Midwestern suburbs. Granted, I was kind of the Sookie Stackhouse of the Midwest: people knew there was something different about me, and weren’t necessarily comfortable with it. (I never had a convincing accent, either.) But this …

I don’t take it for granted, that’s all I mean to say. I know not everyone gets to be a manga sidekick. I know not everyone gets to be paid to write a story about their dog in a national magazine. I wake up sometimes and realize that I was born a Midwestern Christian, daughter of a good union man and a stay-at-home mom, and now I am a genu-wine member of the east coast Jewish media elite. I thought there might be more money involved in that then there’s turned out to be, but you can’t deny it’s still a hell of a long journey.

I’m grateful. I’m mightily amused. I laugh at least once a day at the sheer absurdity, the improbability, of my life. And I know God hears a prayer in that laugh, a prayer that words can’t articulate.