Shop-o-Rama

I have fallen prey to the siren song of the discount, the ever-present lure of a bargain. Yes, I have started shopping at Costco. It’s worlds away from regular, everyday shopping, and I like it.

And why not? It’s a land of wonderment, where you can buy gallon jugs of olive oil, rice by the barrel, car tires, tube socks, books, and cakes that are layered in so much chocolate it would make Willy Wonka blush. I bought an enormous jug of laundry detergent for about $9 and six months later, I’m still using it. I got a package of paper towels that I had to lash to a dolly. I almost bought a package of 64 pairs of underwear, but I decided that was too much pressure.

It really is a hopeful place, when you get right down to it. Buying in volume is like saying “YES” to your life – “Yes! I will live to finish that six pounds of coffee! Yes! I will have canned peaches until the END OF TIME! Take your single-serving pouch of tuna and BITE ME!” (You’ll want to twirl down the aisles and possibly toss your hat in the air like a crazed Mary Tyler Moore. Resist the urge.)

You can spot the newbies right away. They’re the ones picking up two-pound cans of Chicken Noodle Soup and going, “Oooohhh…” They’re the ones looking at a three-pack of barbecue sauce and saying, “Now who in their right mind would buy this much?” But they’re also the ones who wind up at the check-out with six of those three-packs so you know the conversion happened somewhere, probably in the wine department. (The store is big on samples.) I imagine one of those new shoppers sitting on their kitchen floor about three hours later, weeping, surrounded by boxes of Popsicles, toothpaste and paper plates that are so big you could lose a toddler in them and thinking, “It’s all just too much…” Even in bulk, one must practice moderation.

It sure beats clothes shopping, as far as I’m concerned. Buying big at Costco is encouraged. Buying big in clothing stores, not so much. I have an upper limit of about twenty minutes for clothes shopping. It’s not a matter of not knowing what I’m looking for. I’ve been reading fashion magazines since 1977; I’m aware of what skirt goes with what blouse. When you’re not a Size 6, though, it can be discouraging. You walk from rack to rack, pulling pieces to look at.

“The vertical stripes on this sweater look like a landing strip. I’ll have planes circling, waiting for clearance.”

“If I wear this blouse, my boobs will look like they have their own ZIP Code. They’re there. We’re aware. We don’t need to announce them.”

“These jeans might as well have a bull’s eye painted on the ass.”

And if I’m actually able to find things in my size that don’t have cutsie sayings or pictures of cows on them, trying them on is, well, trying. Personally, I think the government should forget about water boarding. Trying on clothes in a cramped dressing room, with a mirror the store probably salvaged from a carnival, under those not-entirely-flattering lights (the heat lamps at McDonald’s would be a better choice), is a real and common form of torture. I’m serious. After three outfits the terrorists would be in tears.

If I find pants that fit in the waist, I guarantee they’ll be five inches too long. (I never understood this. They’re supposed to be “average length.” I’m 5’7”– who in the hell are they designing for?) If they are the right length, I have to practically lie on the floor to get them zipped. This, invariably, is when the sales person comes to check on me, and I’m sure she’s quite alarmed when my muffled response comes from about five feet lower than where she expected it.

“How are you doing in there?” she says, brightly.

“As God as my witness, I’m never shopping again. From now on, I’m wearing a nylon tent everywhere. Oh, I hate my liiiiiiffffeeee…”

“Do you need another size?”

“I need a cupcake. Back off.”

“All righty, my name is Sandy, if you need anything, let me know!”

“Thanks, Sandy. I’ve got my therapist on speed dial. I’ll keep you posted.”

I walked out of that store with a pair of socks and a sour disposition. It was not a successful venture.

I have been doing quite a bit of shopping online, which allows me to do the whole retail self-loathing bit in the privacy of my own bedroom. Unfortunately, if something doesn’t fit, you have to do the “shopping walk of shame” to return it. It’s gotten to the point where the kid at the UPS store has started to recognize me.

“No luck this time?” he asks.

“No, they’re weren’t ‘me.’”

“You got the capri pants, didn’t you? It’s a tough look to pull off, you know.”

That’s a lot of smugness coming from a seventeen-year-old wearing a nametag and a Batman belt buckle.

I have to work up the courage to shop for clothes, because it’s a necessary evil. It is also a solitary activity, because all my friends are slim and fit, and, bless their hearts, they don’t always understand that it’s hard to find things when you’re shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss, and when I’m trying on the sixth little black dress that looks like it’s designed by The House of Old Ladies, it’s not terribly encouraging to hear, “Oh, that’s….cuuuuute….” However, when I shop with a buddy we usually wind up with hot pretzels or vanilla lattes afterwards, so it’s not a total loss.

I’ll keep shopping at Costco, though, and enjoying my box of 600 garbage bags. They fit the can, they’re always in style, and they have cute little twist ties. That’s fun. And I may go back and get that 64-pack of underpants after all. Life’s a party.

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The Great Outdoors

I’m not the outdoorsy type. I have never in my life been camping. (I have been “to camp,” but it was an arts camp and we had showers and indoor toilets. Bare minimum requirements, please and thank you.) I say this only because I have some friends who do go camping, and they always try to sell me on how great it is, and how I simply must try it. They go on and on about something called “The Great Outdoors,” and how you get to be outside, you know, in nature and stuff (like this is a selling point for me). They go almost glassy-eyed describing the scenery, their tent, and the hikes, good Lord, the hikes. (Have they met me?) I was almost afraid they had joined a cult during the trip and were now recruiting others to wander about, communing with the chipmunks, deer and meerkats (or whatever it is that lives in the woods. My knowledge of woodland creatures is limited to Disney movies). I just nodded a lot, and said “uh hmm” at moments I deemed absolutely necessary. It was a vivid picture – they pitched a tent, they slept in bags, they ate beans in a can, and it was glorious, apparently.

They also had to go to the bathroom outside, but they curiously left that part out of the description. They probably knew it wouldn’t be a big selling point for me. Bears may shit in the woods, but quite frankly, Jews don’t.

My whole aversion to this activity may stem from the fact that I do not come from a camping family. We’re not outdoorsy. At all. Years ago I asked my mother why we didn’t go on family camping tips, much like Mike and Carol Brady did with their family.

“First of all,” Mom said, “You have to sleep on the ground. ON THE GROUND. With the bugs.”

I could tell Mom had thought about this a lot. I’m guessing she saw the camping episode of The Brady Bunch, too, and figured she better have a response ready.

”Also, you can’t make a reservation for dinner in the woods. You have to build a fire and open a can. What if you forgot the can opener? What then? You know, if you try to make a dinner reservation in the woods, you know who shows up? Bears. BEARS. Do you want to try to split your Chicken Almond Ding with a bear? They’ll take it all, plus your egg roll. You can’t reason with a bear.”

I’m also guessing bears don’t respond well to guilt, so my Mom asking the bear if this is really what he wants to do with his life, and when the last time he called his mother was, would have little to no effect. Although, you never know. Maybe the bear hasn’t called his mother in a while, because she’s just so disappointed he didn’t go into the family business and instead decided to follow Jimmy Buffet around the country – in which case my mother would have had the bear weeping against a tree stump. She was that good.

This bear just got off the phone with his mother.

I asked my Dad if he had ever been camping.

“No,” he said. “But I did have to sleep on the porch a few times during the summer when I was a kid. We didn’t have air conditioning.”

“Would you ever want to go camping with us?”

“With you, your brother and your mother? No. I mean, just…no. I’m not sure the woods could handle the level of…what’s the word? Kvetching.”

My gentile father resorted to Yiddish. I knew he was serious.

“Do you want to go camping?” he asked.

“No, not really. It just seems like…something families do.”

“Look, some families camp, some go fishing, some sing barbershop. It’s not for us.”

In all honesty, I never brought it up again. I roasted a few marshmallows over the stove burner, and watched Little House on the Prairie. That was about my level of rustic.

These people will all kill each other by morning. The guy with the guitar will get it first.

My friend Sophie likes to go rock climbing. This I really don’t understand. There’s a rock, go climb it. Big whoop. Is the weather bad? No problem! Here’s an indoor fake rock you can climb! I once asked her why she liked it, since she’s generally a person who appreciates creature comforts.

“It’s a challenge,” she said.

“Menopause is a challenge,” I replied. “You don’t see me being too anxious to tackle that.”

“You do it because it’s there. It gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

“So does eating an entire cheesecake,” I said. “And nobody has to harness you to a wall to do it.”

Sophie was not deterred.

“You get to go shopping. You have to buy special shoes.”

“Nobody told me there was shopping involved. That changes everything,” I said. “What are we talking about here? Something in a suede t-strap, perhaps?”

She told me that they tightly strap you into the harness, which then gets hooked to the rope. A guy stands at the bottom, holding the other end of the rope while you scale the rock wall. Then she leans in, as if to tell me a great secret.

“You really want to have someone you know very well hold the rope.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, the harness loops around your thighs, and let’s just say…it does not do nice things to your ass.”

“Oh, good Lord.”

“And,” she continued, “You really don’t want a total stranger seeing that.”

“So this guy holding the rope…” I said.

“The belayer.” she corrected.

“Yeah, the belayer. Is that his whole job? Holding the rope while people climb plastic walls?”

“Yes,” she said.

“His mother must be so proud.”

NOPE.

So I’m not going to be trying rock climbing in the near future. I know people do these things for an adrenaline rush. That’s fine; it’s just not for me. Take bungee jumping, for example. People say they bungee jump for the rush of excitement and adrenaline, but personally, I think it’s just an excuse to urinate on yourself in the name of sport. There’s also hunting. Some people hunt to feed their families, and that’s one thing, but others do it for the “thrill” of the hunt. Let me see – a guy goes out into the woods, armed to the teeth. As far as I’m concerned, unless when he approaches the deer it’s sitting in an overstuffed chair, stroking a white cat and saying, “I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Bond,” it’s not really a fair fight, is it?

There are things I would like to try someday that involve going outside. I would like to run a 5K. (This will be a challenge, as it, you know, involves running, but it’s on my list.) I would like to go bike riding again. (I don’t currently own a bike, but I’ll work around it.) And I would perhaps like to – gasp! – hike around the highlands of Scotland. But I guarantee you that at the end of doing any of those activities, I will return to a clean, quiet room with nice sheets, a private bathroom, and an ample supply of Cheerios. Believe me, everyone in the near vicinity will be better off. There will be no tents, guilt-ridden bears or cans of beans anywhere.

And if I want a boost of adrenaline, I’ll hit the 70% off sale at Filene’s Basement. Now that’s survival of the fittest.

 

Food Issues Redux

I come from a line of good cooks. My great-grandmother, Mimi, made a Tomato-Beef Soup that I swear once made my father weep. (This is despite having to use, in her words, “Goyishe bones.”) My grandmother has a recipe for an amazing Apricot Chicken that I like to think her ancestors carried with them as they fled some shtetl in the Ukraine on their way to begin a new life glazing poultry in America, but, in actuality, is one she found on the back of a box of Lipton soup. She is a magician. My own mother, when properly motivated, makes a lasagna that would make an Italian chef weep. (“Of course I know Italian food,” she once said. “I’m Jewish.”) Obviously, the bar has been set pretty high.

I seem to be the Muggle in the family, because my success in the culinary arts…well, let’s just say that although the bar is high, I managed to find a very tall stool and I’m at the end of it having a gin and tonic.

I have tried. Lo, have I tried. My problem seems to be that I have no desire to find a small repertoire of dishes that I do well and stick to them. I am always experimenting with new things, techniques, gadgets and ingredients, and have been left wanting. (I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do with a chafing dish.) And while I’m not good in the kitchen, I do love kitchen gadgets. I have a thing that turns zucchini into something resembling angel hair pasta. I have a food processor with attachments I still don’t understand, and they confuse and frighten me. I have two different kinds of egg poachers and a thing that’s supposed to slice avocado, but since it is lacking a release button it just turns the slices into blobs. So it’s not for lack of enthusiasm.

For example, I once made an eggplant casserole that turned greenish-orange. Need more? One – no matter how thoroughly I think I drain pasta, I invariably wind up with a pool of red water at the bottom of my plate. Two – I tend not to sauté anything, because half of it will wind up on the floor. (I guess I get a little overexcited.) I cannot, for the life of me, mince anything. I think it means to cut things really, really small. But I tend to get bored so the pieces of what ever I’m mincing tend to get bigger and bigger and by the time I’m done it’s like a small amount of tiny pieces and three big honking pieces. (Oooh! I can go get another kitchen gadget to mince things, which I will never use and lose all the pieces for! Fun!)

If I concentrate very hard, though, I manage to find some sort of offbeat equilibrium in the kitchen. I find if I stick to a minimum number of ingredients and no fancy strategy, I can create something edible. Take, for example, fish. On the Food Network, Rachael Ray might suggest a grilled filet of cod with roasted spring vegetables, and a nice dill sauce. Paula Deen would probably be a proponent of wrapping a stick of butter on it. (Sidenote: I take no issue with this.) On the TV show in my head, however, I have a much simpler technique, and one that I think would be more helpful to folks like me:

“Fish à la Jen”

  1. Take fish out of freezer. Make sure it is indeed fish, and not, for example, a blue-ice pack. Give it time to defrost in the refrigerator. Try not to do this five minutes before you start making dinner.
  2. Put fish in a baking dish. No, not that one.
  3. Sprinkle with lemon juice. LEMON juice. Put the apple juice down.
  4. Use any spice that you wouldn’t use in baking. No, not that one. The other one. No, the one that says…oh never mind. Just grab the Mrs. Dash.
  5. Clean the Mrs. Dash off the floor. (Sigh)
  6. Cover the dish with foil…oops, out of foil. Put fish in fridge while you run to the market.
  7. Come back from the market with three things other than the foil, look at the fish, say, “The hell with it,” and put a Lean Cuisine in the microwave.

Pairs well with an already-open bottle of Chardonnay. Eat standing over the sink.

Bon Appétit!

I’ve looked around, and it seems that a lot of other people don’t know what the hell they’re doing, either. I’ve been to too many un-catered Christmas parties, backyard BBQs, and office potlucks to know that there are damn few culinary competents out there. Once, when I still worked in an office, we had something called “Dip Day.” Basically, it’s organized snacking, as anyone who wanted to participate was to bring in a dip and something with which to dip into the aforementioned…dip. (I’m sensing a theme.) I didn’t usually participate, but I was feeling wild and crazy that day so I brought in a very nice Fiesta Dip from Trader Joe’s, and some guacamole-flavored chips. (See? Store-bought. Know your limitations.)

One of the women on my team, defying the rules inherent in the title “Dip Day,” brought in something called “Monkey Bread.” I had to have a piece, because who can resist the lure of something with the word “monkey” in it?

Oddly enough, it had no bananas in it. (Or monkeys, thank goodness.) It was an absolutely horrifying concoction of cut-up pieces of biscuit coated in sugar, cinnamon and melted butter, and then baked. (Actually it was slightly under-baked, so it was also a bit mushy.)

Of course, I didn’t know this when I went to try it.

I had one of those “What the hell???” moments when something doesn’t taste the way you expected. I was expecting something banana-ish; I got a sugar and cinnamon-coated oily lump. (It was one of those things where it wasn’t immediately bad; I kept thinking, “Is this good or is this icky?”)

The funny thing is, when she brought it in, she kept apologizing to everyone, saying how it didn’t turn out like it usually does, she used a different brand of whatever, blah blah blah. We all told her, don’t apologize, we’re sure it’s fine; if you hadn’t said anything we wouldn’t have noticed. (We noticed.)

It reminded me of the “Lemon Bars of Death” incident earlier that year.

The woman who baked them didn’t call them that, of course. I think she referred to them as her “famous” Lemon Bars. I’m generally not into Lemon Bars, but she was so enthusiastic about them I had to see what the fuss was about.

Let’s just say that my only thought after biting into one was, “This must be what evil tastes like.”

I think it was supposed to be powdered sugar that was sprinkled over the top, but I suspect that it might have been cornstarch, because I swear to God that one bite sucked all the moisture out of my mouth. She chose that moment, of course, to ask me if I liked it. It was hard to answer, as it seemed that the Lemon Bar of Death got bigger and bigger the more I chewed it. So I gave her my biggest “Bite ‘Em and Smile” face, made a yummy noise, and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to spit it out in her paper clip holder.

Anytime someone adds the word “famous” to his or her dish, you know you’re in trouble.

My Mom’s friend Pam used to go on and on about her “Famous Porcupine Balls.” (It’s not what you’re thinking. Stop it.) Finally, she invited us over for dinner so we could try them. I looked at my plate, and saw what looked like…meatballs. They tasted like meatballs. There was nothing inherently wrong with them, but I just couldn’t figure out where the “Porcupine” part of the recipe figured in. Could you throw them at porcupines, theoretically, if cornered? Do porcupines particularly enjoy this combination of meat and spices? Are they made of porcupine? It remained a mystery until half way through the meal, when Pam suddenly exclaimed, “Oh! I forgot to put the rice in the meatballs!”

They were supposed to look like porcupines. I never would have guessed that in a million years.

Potlucks can be a minefield, in general. There does seem to be a glut on processed meat products wrapped in bread, various things sprinkled on cream cheese and wrapped in tortillas, and of course, the ubiquitous three-bean salad. (Run fast, run far.) I no longer participate, as I would always wind up next to the chef du crock-pot and have to listen to her singing the praises of her stewed meat in sauce. I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also don’t want to go into a song and dance about how I really, really, really don’t want to try it. Some people are over-sensitive about their food, though, and when you say, “No, thanks” they get really intense and practically growl, “Try iiiiiitttt…” So you put a little on your plate, stand there half-heartedly and enthuse, “Oh, yeah, yeah, great, great.” It is oddly stressful. I know they probably stayed up until one in the morning putting this stuff together but that means there’s some negatives vibes happening with that Pigs-in-a-Blanket simmered in cranberry-caramel sauce and I have enough food guilt running through my head 24/7 so I don’t need any of YOUR ISSUES, DONNA.

And why do so many potluck dishes contain the words, “Easy,” “Bundles,” or “Mold?” (The shape, not the fungal status.) It’s as if there are only about seven or eight basic recipes that were invented in a church basement somewhere in the Midwest in the 1930s, and we’ve all been working on variations since then. Perhaps there is a secret team of scientists somewhere who have devoted their lives to figuring out how many different ways cream cheese can be utilized, and deciphering the algebraic formulas needed to determine exactly how to get the fruit cocktail suspended perfectly in the Jell-O, and not float to the top like mine always does. And I will never eat anything that has mayonnaise in it at a potluck, because I always imagine the scene from The Office where Michael Scott goes to a cocktail party and brings potato salad that has been sitting in the trunk of his car for several hours. So basically, I wind up eating carrot sticks and the aforementioned gelatin dessert. Next time I’m roped into one of these things, I may have to bring a secret flask, because if I’m faced with one more Seven-Layer Salad (with peas) I’m going to need a stiff drink.

Food at any party can be a bit dodgy. You never know what to expect. When my grandparents threw parties, for example, the food was plentiful and very good. There was only a small bar for drinks, but no one cared because they had waiters going around with silver plates of tiny quiche and shrimp the size of your thumb (which is totally kosher if you eat it standing up). On the flip side, I went to a party at a co-worker’s house once, and my mother warned me to eat first, on the premise that WASPs don’t know from food. She was right. There were four separate bars, including a daiquiri station, but everyone was eating gherkins on a stick. What is wrong with you people? I silently screamed, as I searched for a spare lime wedge to suck on.

I just discovered Instagram (welcome to 2011, Jenny. Why thank you!) and I find that I’m following two kinds of people: those who post pictures of their pets (hello, Golden Doodles!) and those who post recipes and pictures of their food. Maybe it’s a bit twee to get excited over an over-decorated cupcake with a unicorn horn, but I’m totally in. I follow a couple of people from “The Great British Baking Show” and I squeal with glee over a frosted gingersnap. And I know someone who posts pictures of his adventures on the Dim Sum circuit in San Francisco and it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. If I can’t cook I can at least watch people who can.

IS THAT OK WITH YOU, DONNA?

Phobophobia

We all have things that we’re afraid of, large and small. Sometimes it’s a real phobia, like a fear of heights, and sometimes the scale is a bit smaller, like being afraid of having something stuck in your teeth. For many of us, dealing with fears is necessary to get through the day. As long as it’s not paralyzing, a bit of fear might be a good thing – it can push us to keep going, to do what we need to do. And, like driving past a graveyard, we can enjoy that sense of “Whew!” when it’s over.

A lot of people are afraid of insects. I’ve seen grown men scream and dance like little girls when they get within two feet of a moth. In general, I’m not worried about bugs. I spent too many years at summer camp to be terribly put off by them. Even spiders don’t freak me out, as long as they’re not tarantulas. But I’m not an arachnid warrior, exactly. I have no problem killing one, but as I’m running with said spider mashed up in a paper towel on the way to the bathroom to flush it down the toilet, I do have a tendency to make an “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” sound. I’m not proud of it. Sometimes I pretend it’s a battle cry, which doesn’t make me feel more empowered, but it’s really a case of “him or me,” and sometimes a little “whoop” of self-support is in order.

It’s easy to freak out though, even if you think you’re cool with the bugs. Once I got stuck in traffic behind a 1972 Ford Ugly that needed a new muffler. I entertained myself by watching the cicadas dance around in the air as if they had collectively decided to ignore the cicada choreographer’s instructions, switching back and forth from Swan Lake to the can-can number in Moulin Rouge at random intervals. This was all well and fine until one of them dive-bombed my car. I actually ducked. OK, I didn’t duck, I just flinched a little bit, which is still kind of stupid because it bounced off the windshield and didn’t even get close to my breathing space. But still, I flinched. On some level, for just a split second, I must have thought, “It could have a drill or a saw or an etching tool of some sort and it will get through the windshield and hijack my car! Oh wait! Never mind! It’s a cicada!”

Like I said, not exactly badass behavior.

I think so many people are afraid of bugs because they really don’t know anything about them. Did you know that a female ladybug, for example, will lay over 1,000 eggs in her lifetime? (They never write, they never call.) During hibernation, they feed on their body fat. (This is important because it’s so hard to lose all that egg-weight.) The Jungle Nymph Stick is one of the heaviest insects. In Malaysia they are often kept by people who feed them guava leaves and use the droppings to make tea. (I prefer Lemon Zinger, but whatever.) And a cockroach can change directions up to twenty five times in a second. (Probably because he wouldn’t stop and ask the guy at the gas station how to get there.) So insects are actually kind of interesting, but in all honesty, I’d like to keep this knowledge theoretical. I really don’t want some entomologic Wild Kingdom in my living room.

Insects aside, there are a lot of other things to be nervous about. Like clowns. I never understood the appeal. Ever. Even as a kid I wouldn’t get near one, and a few years ago at a street carnival I actually made my friends cross the street because I saw one coming at us. Although for me, it’s not a fear, exactly, so much as an aversion. I don’t like people dressed in animal costumes, either. But fear of clowns has it’s own designation – Coulrophobia. I can understand why someone would fear them. They paint their faces into some sort of primary color-based death mask, have oversized feet, and are full-force committed to making you laugh with horns, squirty flowers, seltzer, and buckets of confetti. That’s a lot of pressure. And despite all this, they used to be a staple of children’s birthday parties. But I’ve never met an adult who loves clowns. Never. I’m starting to form a theory that their appearance at parties was either A) A large-scale psychological experiment meant to freak out people for years to come, B) The clown union had way too much power, or C) Parents were deliberately trying to give their kids nightmares for the rest of their lives. (“Go to sleep, Johnny, or Chunkles will come and EAT YOUR FACE!”) OK, so maybe I do have Coulrophobia. Just a little.

I don’t have a problem with other performers with painted faces; just clowns. (Although to be very honest, people dressed in full-on animal/mascot costumes freak me out too.) But I’d like to state for the record that I have no issues with mimes. Now, some people get oddly aggressive when you mention mimes, and it’s generally people who have never actually been in the presence of one. And they always go right to the “I’m stuck in a box” bit, which I now think has become the international symbol for “mime.”  “If he’s miming being in the box,” a friend once exclaimed, “Why can’t he just mime having a box cutter and get the hell out of the damn box?” I figure that if a mime is stuck in a box he’s a bad mime and deserves to be there. I once went to a performance by the famous mime, Marcel Marceau, and he held an audience spellbound for two hours without saying a word. Or being stuck in a box. That’s some good mime right there. The only weird part was attending a master class he gave the next day, and hearing him speak. It was much like, I imagine, watching Henry Kissinger dance the Merengue. You know that it’s possible, but it just seemed like the oddest possible thing he could be doing.

Also, heights. Not a fan. Clear-sided elevators give me the fits, and I can’t get past about the third or fourth rung of a ladder. But considering my propensity for being particularly high strung, that’s pretty much it for the phobias. I do have many fears that seem to come and go in passing, though, depending on my mood and what I’ve watched on television recently. I used to watch ER, with its disease/disaster of the week, and think, “Oh, good. Something new to be afraid of.” (See also: hanger stuck up a nose; and helicopters, having one’s arm chopped off.) I’m afraid of flying, but only during take-off and landing, and the rest of the time I only fear airport food. I’m afraid of bears, but I live in the suburbs, so really, what are the odds? I do fear being hit by a driver who is texting or gabbing on the phone, and that plays into my fear of dumbasses in general.

But the rest of the time I think I’m just dealing with concerns, really. When cooking for others, I always worry that there won’t be enough food, so I prepare too much and then grumble when there’s leftovers. (Hovering over the food table and tensely pointing at the Lemon Bundt Cake always puts people in an eating mode, correct?) I need to check the stove every time I leave the house. Doesn’t matter if I haven’t used the stove in three days; there could be water simmering that will evaporate and burn down the house the moment I put the keys in the ignition. I’ve also been known to check my car several times after parking to make sure the doors are locked. True, the only things that someone breaking into the car would find is a travel coffee mug, an old grocery list, and a copy of Bossypants that I can’t seem to remember to remove from the back seat, but some thieves are highly specialized so you just never know.  (Maybe one could be a hard-core Tina Fey fan.) I also used to scan the obituaries, not to be morbid, but to reassure myself – because as long as the people were much older than me, I figured I was doing all right.

Note: Some people feel that obituaries would be more interesting if they told you how the people died, but I think that would only be true if it read something like, “Details are sketchy, but the death appears to have involved a watermelon, a pair of lederhosen and a spatula…” That would be interesting.

Of course, there are the Really Big Concerns, like violence, illness and death by any number of ways. But I have found that I can’t live in fear of those things on a daily basis – it’s too overwhelming. Some days just backing out of the driveway can be a supremely brave act, so we just need to put those other fears to the side to get through the day.

I’ve even gone so far as to come up with names for my all-new phobias. They may apply only to me, but sometimes it’s all right to put a label on things.  For example, there’s “Heineyophobia,” which is “The fear that yes, your ass does look big in those jeans.” And let’s not forget “Snobbygoopphobia,” which is “The fear that somehow, somewhere, Gwyneth Paltrow is judging you.” And my favorite, “Oopsadorkaphobia,” which I think is “The fear that, after asking someone how they are, and they respond and ask you how you are, you say ‘fine’ and then ask them how they are again.”

Even more prevalent than my fears, though, are the Things I Don’t Understand. I’m not talking about calculus or nuclear fusion; I’m talking about mild, run-of-the-mill things that just make me go, “Enh?” I continue to be frustrated when Size-2 actresses like Salma Hayek and Halle Berry are described euphemistically as “curvy.” I don’t understand some people’s refusal to learn and/or use basic grammar and spelling. The rampant misuse of the apostrophe is staggering, and I’m thinking of getting a letter-writing campaign going to teach everyone, collectively, the difference between “your” and “you’re.” There are even problems with food. The menu board for the café I pass on the way to the gym once featured “Belgium Waffles” as their breakfast special. I resisted the urge to march in there and correct them, because they probably don’t care, and they would most likely miss the humor in me ordering the “France Toast” instead. Or the “Sweden Pancakes.” Or even a piece of “Germany Chocolate Cake.” And while it’s probably not the end of the world, and I know it’s VERY old news, this last thing may very well be one of the harbingers of the imminent decline of American civilization. Forget the economy, folks, we have something scarier to worry about:

I found out that “musicians” Pete Wentz and Ashley Simpson named their child Bronx Mowgli.

Can we all just admit these two are a couple of nim-nuts, and pass some sort of unofficial law outlawing celebrities from naming their offspring in such a fashion? Like at some point, they should just be forced to use names like “Child of Idiot #1” or “My Parents Think They’re Creative?”

And I’m sorry, but “Bronx” sounds like some guy’s prison nickname. Things are not boding well for this child. But at least the Simpson-Wentz’s didn’t try to get cutesy with it, like spelling it “Bronxxx” or with a silent “Q” or something.

It’s fascinating, though. The study of our social inadequacies never gets old. Even limited to the celebrity pool, there’s a never-ending source of material. Most of the time it’s amusing; sometimes it’s just mind-boggling. We all say stupid things from time to time, but most of us are not being quoted by US Weekly. And we haven’t volunteered to have reality-show cameras follow us around 24/7, catching our every word and misstep. And thank goodness. I really believe that the phenomenon of reality television has elevated stupidity to an art form. There are girls weeping loudly over losing the “man of their dreams” who they just met twelve hours before in front of an entire camera crew. Young people living on the shore of New Jersey glamorize drunken debauchery, tanning, and hair products, maneuvering them into actual career choices. Education doesn’t even enter into it.

So, yes, I fear the stupid people. I fear that being called “intellectual” has become an insult. I fear that rationality is giving way to ignorance. I fear that Kim Kardashian’s tush is threatening to take over the world, or at very least the television. I’m afraid to eat fettuccini in public. I am terribly afraid that our nation’s youth thinks that “IDK” and “LOL” are actual words. I fear that if yet another version of Real Housewives hits the airwaves we are all doomed. And I’m really, truly afraid that if I put one more book on my IKEA bookshelf it will come crashing down because while putting it together I couldn’t figure out where the last flurfinghugen was supposed to go.

It can get tiring, but let’s face it all head on. Let’s start on a small scale, and work our way up. Wear skinny jeans and horizontal stripes. Drink milk three days past its Sell-By date. Embrace the fact that you’re turning into your mother. Personally, I figure that as long as I don’t run into a clown on an escalator, I’ll get through just fine.

And just for the record, I didn’t realize cicadas could fly. I thought they just lounged around and ate wood or leaves or Cheetos or whatever. They don’t seem to fly with much purpose or sense of destination, but if you stare at them long enough, it’s almost like a little bug ballet. They apparently urinate, too, so wear a hat if you’re suddenly afraid of cicada pee.

As we all should be, really. That’s just good sense.

The Old Grey Mare

Every so often, I become very resentful of the fact that I am no longer twenty-two years old. When you’re young, your body generally works like it’s supposed to. Nothing pops, creaks, aches or leaks. You recover from exertion pretty quickly. And you sure as hell don’t make an “Oy…urumph” sound when you get up from a chair. As I get older, I find that every little thing that goes wrong is cause for alarm. Every headache is a tumor, and a patch of dry skin on my arm causes me to fear that my elbow is going to fall off at any time. It’s exhausting.

When you’re young, you can get away with a great deal of injustices to your body. Then, I could get by on three hours of sleep, shake it off, eat a granola bar, and get on with my day. Now, I’ve become so concerned with preserving the health I have left that I will read any magazine article with a headline that contains the words “anti-aging,” “youth enhancing,” or “saggy ass.” I try to wade through the plethora of information designed to enhance health. Every so often, for example, I try to quit drinking coffee. Coffee dehydrates the skin, they say. Exhausts the adrenal glands. Quit or die! In vulnerable moments, I fall prey to those über-health nuts who insist coffee is evil. I don’t know why I listen. I love my coffee. It is a happy, rainbow/unicorn/fuzzy ducky thing that has me in its claw-covered talons. The last time I quit, I lasted three days. It was a valiant effort, but three days of grumpiness, generalized weepiness, and feeling like I couldn’t even lift my hands over my head was enough. Sure, good health was my motivation, but the lack of caffeine made me feel so awful that I usually wound up sitting on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night eating saltines. Or toast. Or leftover…whatever.  So I’m still drinking coffee. It’s really a non-negotiable. Even the terrible coffee that is present in every office in which I’ve ever worked – I’ll choke it down.

Speaking of which, there should be a tiny little place in hell for the person who takes the last cup of coffee from the pot and walks away without making more. I once seriously considered going to Human Resources and suggesting surveillance cameras for the coffee maker. That way we could identify the culprit(s), and while I knew there was really no way to enforce this miscarriage of justice, if we knew who they were we could have walked by their desks during the course of the day and FROWNED at them. Apparently I get more passive-aggressive when I’m mildly dehydrated and adrenally depleted.

That better not be the last cup, friend-o.

For a few months in the early 1990s, I was a vegan. It didn’t go well. Now, I believe that a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy and that we all, collectively, could do with a little less animal products being shoved into our craws, but I was a Bad Vegan. I basically lived on large quantities of brown rice, butter beans, soy burgers and celery. I was tired, cranky, and due to the fact I apparently have an intolerance to soy, not a hell of a lot of fun to be around. But I thought I was being “healthy,” and, godammit, I was willing to suffer. I sat at restaurants, sipping my herbal tea in the most sanctimonious manner possible, all the while digging my nails into my hands to keep myself from diving face first into the basket of warm bread and butter the waitress just brought. I also bought into the ultra-low-fat diet for a while. Fat free dressing, fat free cheese, no oil, no butter, no joy. I was super-cranky, my skin got really, really dry and I swear I creaked when I walked. It got to the point where a friend offered me $50 to “just eat a fucking avocado already.”

I’m long-since done with the strict regimes. It’s tough on anyone to be so rigid, but especially tough when you’re a compulsive/emotional eater. You try to be “good,” but the moment someone looks at you sideways you run home and shove the first thing you can find into your mouth to push down whatever feelings have started to bubble up. Health doesn’t even enter the picture when you’re inhaling stale Cheezy-Do’s. Wouldn’t it be nice if we craved “healthy” food when we’re upset? I wish I reached for broccoli when I’m stressed, or Swiss chard when I’m upset, or quinoa when I’m lonely. Nope, it’s got to be mashed potatoes or baked ziti, and preferably in large quantities. I do have a fair amount of self-awareness when I’m food-medicating, and often I have starch-induced visions of Richard Simmons in his sparkly shorts, grapevining his way over to me and wagging his finger in disapproval to the tune of “On Broadway.” Once in a while it’s the mental picture of Gwyneth Paltrow writing a blog about how a shot of organic wheatgrass grown at the foot of a mossy hill in a small village in Switzerland and costs $120 an ounce is guaranteed to kill the urge to eat the leftover boiled garlic potatoes. Emotional issues aside, I seem to have been born without an “off” switch that says, “Put down the food shovel, please.” I’m convinced that the only reason I don’t weigh 600 pounds is that I don’t eat fast food, and that it’s a good thing I don’t live in a big house, because there are some days I feel like one of those fish that will grow to the size of their environment if you keep feeding them. However, I’ve started working on the mindset that the emotional issues that go along with compulsive eating are just as toxic as the mustard pretzel logs, so I know I need to find a different way to cope. It’s a process.

I have a growing obsession with what goes on my face as well as in my face. I’m a beauty products junkie, scouring women’s magazines for the Next Big Thing. The cosmetics section of the drug store is like my personal Field of Dreams, each bottle and tube with its own set of promises, large and small.

“This will make me younger!”

“This will make me taller!”

“This will make me blond and gentile!”

They rarely come through. I would soak in a tub of marinara sauce if I thought it would give me back the skin I had when I was eighteen. Even I, however, have my limits. I recently read about – get this – a bird poop facial. That’s right, somewhere in the world, women are willing to subject their faces to a mask of nightingale doody. It is, of course, wildly expensive. Look, I’m not against trying weird things in the name of beauty. I once gave myself an egg white facial. I put mayonnaise in my hair when I was thirteen, because I read it was a “natural conditioner.” I want to look youthful, but I draw the line at putting something on my face that makes me go, “Awww, man, gross!” when I see it on the windshield of my car.

Why are there so many pictures with women putting fruit on their eye?

I realize that aging is a natural process. We all deal with it. My ninety-nine-year-old grandmother once said, “I don’t mind getting older. Consider the alternative.” She has two master’s degrees and a PhD; I should probably listen to her. But I’m still in the phase where I’m trying to fight the good fight. I stopped getting carded about eight years ago. The first time it happened, I tried to force my I.D. on the cashier; he kept resisting, as if to say, “I believe you, lady!” Plus, the sign now says, “You need to have been born before this date in 1991 to buy alcohol.” In 1991, I was already old enough to buy alcohol. Reading this sign makes me feel like I need to buy alcohol. On the other hand, alcohol dehydrates the skin, making you look older. This in turn makes me feel depressed, prompting the need to buy some wine. It’s kind of a boozy vicious circle.

That’s gotta sting.

I’m also beginning to succumb to the theory that the fountain of youth can be found in a BHA-free water bottle at the gym. I’m resisting with every fiber of my being, but I’m being drowned out by the sound of weights clanging and the mental image of Madonna’s braided rope arms. I once voluntarily walked up and down seven flights of stairs without stopping, to get one of those ubiquitous office exercise breaks. It was not a well thought out plan. I survived, but when I got back to the seventh floor I was pretty sure my lungs were going to pop out of my chest and wave “Hi” to me from the floor. I knew the only way it was going to get easier was if I did it every day, but I was not able to convince my body of this fact. But I’m working on getting some more exercise; in fact, I think it’s becoming a true necessity. I need it, basically, because my body parts are no longer stationed exactly where they used to be. I mean, they’re all still in the same general ZIP Code, but they don’t seem to be as eager to be there. I was shopping at Ikea the other day, and I got the distinct feeling that someone was directly behind me. I even heard a slight, “flap, flap” sound. I kept glancing behind me until I realized that no one was following me – it was MY OWN ASS.

Fine, fine. I’ll get back on the elliptical. But those endorphins better kick in or next time I’ll be on the treadmill with a glass of chardonnay.

I heard someone once say, “Age is all relative.” That’s true, unless you’re really old. The relativity comes into play when you’re around those who are much younger and obviously don’t deserve it. Recently, I was in line at Starbucks, standing behind some girls who really tested this theory. One of them was pulling the, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m so old!” crap. Apparently she had just had a birthday, and was having a bit of an existential crisis.

“I can’t BELIEVE I’m twenty four!” she exclaimed. “Wow! That seems so old! Boy, I’m really getting up there!”

Yes, you are aging quite rapidly.

She has no idea how close she came to being smacked in the face with my purse. I could have gotten away with it, too – she was wearing those stupid high heel flip-flops, and even at my age I could have outrun her. I haven’t quite settled into a groove yet, though, and I’m still ever so slightly resentful of those twenty four-year-olds, with their stupid shoes and chocolate croissants. I don’t even want the croissants, but something about them just makes me want to…oh, I don’t know…SMACK THOSE BITCHES DOWN! Oh, I’m sorry, was that me? I have some repressed anger. I’m working on it. Hand me the non-fat latté, please.

But it’s really a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Despite their enviable abs and lack of cellulite, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to my early twenties. On one hand, I feel like I know a hell of a lot more now than I did then; I’m able to have a wider perspective on things and I am much less willing to suffer fools gladly (and even less willing to date them). I would like to believe that I’m like a fine wine (or whine), improving with age. But still, there are days when all it takes is one chicky tottering around on her mega-platform heels (which totally look like hooves, by the way), with her fake tan, short skirt and tight neck to bring me right back to feeling like Miss Daisy without the cute hats and wise chauffeur. But I take solace in the fact that all of those young twenty-somethings who have around zero body fat, smoke, go to tanning salons, and drink a lot will soon be in for a big surprise. In my forties, I’ll have decent skin. In their forties, they’ll look like leather handbags.

You know, sometimes it’s the little, petty things that make life worth living.

In order to get organized and plan my needed youth-retaining regime, I have recently subscribed to a health magazine. I figure this way I’ll have all the things that I should be doing in one publication, for easy reference. Apparently, I need to do yoga, exfoliate, moisturize, eat fruit, but not too much fruit, find the right sports bra, massage my scalp, have regular, awesome sex, meditate, cook whole grains, grow my own vegetables, volunteer, make facial masks from yogurt and honey, sleep eight hours, work my quads, detox, use just the right amount of olive oil, strengthen my core, drink six barrels of water, and get the perfect eyebrow arch. Sounds simple enough. I’ll start tomorrow. And then I’ll be too tired to worry about my wrinkly knees. Or get anything else done, really, but at least I’ll look fabulous.

Just kidding.

In all honestly, I’m trying. I am. But I will say I have stopped forcing myself to drink buckets and buckets of water. They say that it helps kill the appetite. Uh, they LIE. All that happens is that I always have to pee and I make a sloshing sound when I walk. I don’t want to build my liver an above-ground swimming pool, thank you very much. And running to the restroom does not count as aerobic conditioning. I checked.

Getting older doesn’t just happen on the outside. It happens on the inside, too. I asked my Dad what he found to be the toughest thing about getting older.

“Change,” he said.

I didn’t understand. Of course we’re all changing.

“No,” he replied. “Routines. You become more conservative with your behavior. As you get older, the idea of change becomes a little scary.”

All of a sudden, I totally understood.

When you’re younger, you can take risks, because you’re immortal and have all the time in the world to recover. As you get older, the stakes get higher and you know it will take longer to bounce back. Your life is more stable, and there’s a sense of security in that. You know what you know, and the idea of anything changing your current reality is scary. I get it. I’m seeing it in my own life, too. I think twice before making plans. I don’t buy the impractical shoes. I don’t stay out late very often. Major life decisions are becoming fewer and fewer because they might change the status quo. But isn’t that when we really get old? Forget the crow’s feet, forget the grey hair – it’s when we refuse to change that we’re really in trouble. We must resist becoming overwhelmed by inertia. Change and grow, change and grow. One might feel that it’s too much; that we get to a certain age and think, “Well, that’s it. I’m done. I am who I am and this is my life.” That has a certain sly seductiveness, in a way, because it lets us off the hook, as if our journey is done. But it never really is, is it? As long as we’re here, we’re changing and growing. How we live our life determines how much we grow, and whether we can measure it in inches or miles. If youth is our goal, maybe that’s how we can hold on to it longer – by being willing to keep on risking, moving, and changing. Living. There’s an element to that which is also kind of scary, but as my Grandma said, consider the alternative. We can grasp at all the anti-aging creams and injectables we want, but the real fountain of youth is the ability to keep going. Shake things up. Stare into the abyss. And while I’m doing all that, maybe I’ll slap on some eye cream and do some lunges. Couldn’t hurt.

I’m also going to work on some sort of coffee-wine hybrid. I could make a fortune. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

Party On

I’ve never been what you might call “The life of the party.” I’m not the worst person to invite – I don’t stand in corners shooting eye daggers at people or espousing the dangers of chewing gum – but I’m definitely not the pivot around which any social gathering rotates, and I can’t be talked into wearing a paper party hat. And party games? Yeah, I’m making a bee-line for the door.

Please don’t make me wear a paper hat.

But there are some positives. Crab cakes, for example. Always a nice touch. “Crab cakes,” I might think. “The host isn’t a tight-ass with the money. Oooh, baby quiche…” The trick here is to make friends with the cater waiters so you get them while they’re hot (the crab cakes, that is). If it’s buffet-style, you need to hover – unobtrusively – so that you can get the crab cakes fresh from the oven as the hostess puts them out, but not so closely that folks think you’re plotting to poison the artichoke dip. If the food has a toothpick in it, I take a pass. There is always concern with food on sticks. There are never any trashcans out, so I never know what to do with the toothpick. Put it in my purse? In the potted plant? Throw decorum to the wind and start picking the Gruyere out of my molars? (Once, I was at a party that was so boring, I seriously considered going around the room collecting the toothpicks so that I might build a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood cabin on the credenza.) Now, if you have both a drink and a small plate of food in your hands, unless you can score a chair you’re pretty much stuck posing in the corner. Waiting for a seat at a party is much like an airplane circling around the airport waiting for clearance to land. By the time you do, you’re cranky, tired, and ready to lick the inside of your mini-bag of pretzels. If you sit, though, you have to watch your drink, especially if you have a hyper-vigilant hostess who insists on cleaning up every fifteen seconds. Then you’ll have to get up for another drink, which, of course, means you will lose your seat and the whole process begins again. It’s Boozy Musical Chairs.

So “yay” for the drinks and tiny food. But there is one barrier to having a good time, as far as I’m concerned – small talk. Don’t get me wrong; I excel at the small talk. I can feign interest in a total stranger’s life, nod sincerely in the right places, and ask appropriate yet reasonably impersonal questions that allow the talker to think that I find him or her fascinating. For about three minutes. After that, little mental bells go off, like the ding-ding-ding signaling the end of a round in a boxing match, and I need to either excuse myself politely or fight the urge punch him/her in the head. (So far it hasn’t come to blows. SO FAR.)

How hard I want to punch him/her in the head will usually be based on what kind of party guest they are. Sometimes they’re the type that I call “The Best Buddy,” which means they’ll tell you their entire life story in the first thirty seconds of meeting. This is dicey, because while you don’t want to get stuck playing therapist, you also don’t want to be the person who, after the talker has tearfully described how their biology professor battled mightily but eventually succumbed to a fatal case of dishpan hands and died in their arms, just smiles brightly and says, “How sad. Oh, look! Crab cakes!”

The Best Buddy is rivaled by The Clam, who won’t give it up no matter how hard you try.

“Oh, you work in barnacle removal? How fascinating. Did you study that in college?”

“No.”

“OK…how do you know Jane?”

“Work.”

“Have you worked together a long time?”

“Yes.”

“Do you enjoy your work?”

“Eh.”

And so on. But these two types don’t hold a candle to that most notorious of party guests – “The Boring Person Who Thinks They’re God’s Gift.” These people will seek out the weak members of the herd, isolate them, and lull them into a semi-trance with their narcissistic drone:

“So of course I chose the blue one oh do you like Lil’Wayne I had front row tickets a gift from a client so I took this really hot guy/girl from accounting and we had a super dinner first I had the flounder and told the most HI-larious joke and he/she said it was just hilarious I should do stand up comedy how does it go two cows walk into a bar no wait it’s a couple of goats love your dress/slacks I wonder if I can get them in my size it’s so hard to find things that fit me because I’m in such great shape hey do you like polka music I know this place it’s off the beaten path we could check it out oh look crab cakes…”

And they always find me. Every time.

A good skill to develop is the “Nod and Pass.” As soon as you can, smile, nod approvingly, find another sucker in the room and pass the Buddy/Clam/God’s Gift off to them. You have to act like you’re doing both of them a favor so the transition goes smoothly and you can get the hell out of there. Much like Bridget Jones tried to do, introduce people with interesting tidbits to get the conversation going:

“Oh, here’s someone you just have to meet…Nigel Tappernose, meet Hilary Boomschlaken. Nigel, Hilary is a horse-loving, Twilight-reading stick in the mud with a propensity for random cursing and overindulging in peach schnapps. Hilary, Nigel is a gum-snapping, nutjob mama’s boy with abandonment issues and breath that could knock over a cow. “

Or something like that.

The problem is that I’m just not interested in most people. (I don’t consider it conceit on my part; I assume that people, in general, have no particular interest in me, either.) I try, but I have no interest whatsoever in hearing about trips to The Wisconsin Dells, grandchildren, recent surgeries, or home repairs. And I also don’t want to hear about how everything will kill you these days; I just want to enjoy a diet cola without worrying that it will cause me to break out in purple scales, thank you very much. And for the love of all that is holy, I don’t want to be lectured to about how I need to find someone quickly because I’m no spring chicken. Yes, I’m fine being single; no, I’m not gay; no, I haven’t joined that dating site; and yes, you should just mind your own business even though you’re “just trying to be helpful.”

Yeah, Marge. Where’s the bar?

Considering my general dislike for attending parties, one might think that when it came to hosting parties, my attitude would take a 180° turn and I’d turn into a Martha Stewart disciple. One might think that, but one would be very, very wrong. Martha Stewart makes me feel highly inadequate. I really think that her magazine is the equivalent of 1950s housewife porn. Homemade centerpieces made from shoelaces! Antique curtains repurposed into wrapping paper! Bronzing baby shoes in your kitchen and turning them into charming wall sconces! It’s all very exhausting. And Real Simple magazine makes me feel incredibly inadequate. (“But it’s supposed to be Real Simple! I can’t do it! What the fuck is wrong with me?”) On one of the very rare occasions that I actually threw a party, I found myself lying on my kitchen floor about twenty minutes before people were supposed to arrive, frantically scrubbing the underside of the refrigerator door with an old toothbrush. My friend Sophie stood over me with a glass of wine and a dour look on her face.

“What on earth are you doing? No one is going to look there!”

“Someone could look there!” I exclaimed. “Martha says no detail should be overlooked!”

“I think she was talking about silverware.” Sophie said, handing me a glass of water.

Taking the drink, I looked up at her from my position under the door. “Do you have a straw?”

Sophie turned to walk away. “I’m finding you a Xanax.”

I also tend to get a bit over-involved about the food. (Some might use the word, “crazed,” but to each his own.) At this party, I wanted to do a nice vegetable tray, with the vegetables cut in unique and interesting shapes, perhaps reminiscent of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” (You know, as you do.) After a stare-down with the food processor and the realization that I had no idea how to turn a stack of celery sticks into a lily pad, I decided to just arrange them according to carbohydrate count. (P.S. Nobody noticed.) To add to the drama, when someone asked me later where I bought the dip that I spent fifteen minutes carefully blending and seasoning, it almost ended in tears.

Clutching Martha Stewart’s latest issue under one arm, I did a final mental inventory to make sure nothing had been overlooked.

“What’s left?” I said. “I’ve got drinks, dips, hot apps, cold apps, veggie tray, crackers…I know I’ve forgotten something! I just know it!”

“Did you put out plates?” Sophie asked.

“Oh, good Lord – plates! How could I forget plates? This whole thing is going to suck.”

“I think you need to calm down,” Sophie said, pulling Martha from under my arm.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, placing my hands on my forehead. “It must be the stress of entertaining.”

DING! The oven timer announced itself.

“Cocktail!” I yelled, and headed for the bar.

“What’s that ‘ding’ for?”

“I have no idea!”

And a good time was had by all.

Now, I don’t throw parties anymore, as one might imagine, but I’ve recently discovered the freezer section of Costco where they have all different kinds of pre-made appetizers in really big bags, so I may have to lift my self-imposed party embargo and have some folks over. Otherwise, that’s a lot of mini Spanikopita to handle all on my own. (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it might take a while.)

I just know the party invites are going start ROLLING in after this.

Gypsies, Pants and Sleeves (with apologies to Cher)

I’ve been thinking about outfits lately. Not mine, necessarily, but the fashion choices of the world at large. A typical mall walk will produce some cringe-worthy looks, but I think it’s particularly interesting when it happens to famous people. Maybe it’s jealousy, maybe it’s insecurity, but I would guess that many of us secretly love it when celebrities’ ensembles figuratively crash and burn. The word “schadenfreude” means “to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.” Doesn’t quite apply to fashion, though. I think we need to make up a word that describes the secret delight that comes from watching how the mighty have fallen hemlines.

How about “schadenfrock?”

Yes, schadenfrock. To take pleasure in the baffling, wackadoodle fashion choices of others.

To be fair, fashion can be confusing. One moment it’s A-line mini skirts; the next minute it’s maxi-dresses and gladiator sandals. It’s almost enough to send one running to the home shopping channel to buy coordinating, bedazzled mock turtleneck/knit pant ensembles (of which I may or may not have three.) It can be tough out there. And while I’m no fashionista, I have been reading Vogue since I was a kid so I at least have a basic idea of who the major designers are and how to add accessories to change a look from day to night, which apparently is very important because God forbid one should wear their daytime earrings after 6:00 PM.

We all seem to have an opinion on fashion. For some, it’s “Eh, it’s clean and kind of matches;” to others, “I worship at the altar of Project Runway.” The majority of us fall somewhere in between, but I would hazard a guess that most of us – at least the female most of us – feel a secret glee when others make bad choices. Especially when it comes to celebrities, when we figuratively poke each other in the ribs and whisper, “Isn’t that dreadful?”  I love to look at the pretty dresses, but secretly I live for the “Worst Dressed” lists. Weird necklines, tops that don’t fit, spatula-applied makeup, ill-advised sequins, bad hair extensions – all are met with a rousing chorus of, “Was her stylist high?”

It’s really getting out of hand for some celebrities. As my friend Nadine remarked, “It’s like they’re trying to sartorially out-weird each other.” For example, Nikki Minaj once showed up at an awards show wearing what looked like pink and white sausages on her hair-do, silver origami on her bust, a plush-toy purse, an art-deco SARS mask and what appeared to be a tourniquet on her leg. (She’s since toned it down a bit, disappointingly.) Katy Perry appeared at the same show wearing what I’m reasonably certain was a wedge of cheddar on her head. I think Lady Gaga once wore the kid from “Stranger Things” as a poncho. (He’s fine.) Now, I know these outfits border on being less fashion and more costume, but I still would have liked to have been in the production meeting that produced these ideas. (“I want you to embody space unicorn chic. With a touch of ennui.”)  I also know that they have a little more leeway at this event than at others – what wouldn’t fly at the top movie award show is perfectly acceptable at the Awards For Films On That Channel That Used to Play Videos But Now Not So Much. But still, I can’t help but think that somehow, somewhere, the 1980’s versions of Cher, Boy George and Cyndi Lauper are looking at these outfit choices and thinking, “You know, it’s really all a bit much…”

Unless you’re Cher. Then totally be Cher. She could wear a space unicorn and OWN IT.

Mere mortals are vulnerable to bad choices as well. We see it every day. Most women, at one time or another, have greeted a friend fresh from the salon with a rousing, “You look great!” only to think to themselves, “Oh my good Lord, what DID she do?” and follow up with a tiny, slightly guilty, silent chuckle. Everyone has their opinions about what looks good, but I’m going to make a declarative statement: Leggings. They are a clear and present danger, and they must be stopped. The only women on whom these look good are the ones who are six feet tall and weigh about three pounds. But sadly, it’s never those women who I see wearing them. It’s usually women who, bless their hearts, are trying to not wear sweatpants everywhere but really don’t have the asses to truly pull off this look. They either pair it with a t-shirt that is too short, spotlighting the offending area, or try to balance it with a too-oversized top that makes them look like they’re wearing a dress and their legs are really, really cold. (Full disclosure: I count myself among those who should not be wearing butt-spotlighting pants. If I could get away with wearing a sandwich board to hide that area, I totally would.)  Leggings are the cousin to the stirrup pant, which was popular during my college years. All those did was give you cankles. And if they were even a smidge too short you spent your whole day hiking them up. Not attractive. I also take issues with low-rise jeans, which tend to show more of the underpanties than I want to see, and so-called “skinny jeans,” which are, sadly, often worn by folks who are anything but.

Now, there is a solution to the tight trouser situation. Our grandmothers called them “girdles” or “foundation garments,” but most of us know them by their new, monosyllabic modern moniker: Spanx. (Let us all bow our head in thanks.) While Spanx might be a necessity, and definitely help one’s figure, they should, quite frankly, be classified as a torture device. They hold in the fat in the tush area, but the concept of displacement is quite clear and you know that the fat has to go somewhere. Sure, your bottom half looks great but your top half might look like you play offensive tackle for the Bears. I’ve even heard of women doubling up on their Spanx, but I wouldn’t dare try that because I’d be afraid that if I sat down I’d be in danger of farting out of my nose.

There’s something to be said for dressing one’s age. I know some people find a look that they like and lock into it for the next thirty years. (It’s worked for The Queen.) But some try to walk that fine edge between hip and, “Oh, honey, no.” I used to work with a middle-aged woman who wore jeans that had big crowns on the back pockets. Crowns, like cartoon royalty would wear. I’m trying to get behind the thought process that went into purchasing, much less wearing, pants with crowns on the butt. Most women of a certain age try to downplay that area. She practically pointed it out to you. I guess that takes a certain level of moxy. But really, why crowns? Does she think, perhaps, that her ass rules? That she is the Empress of Heineytown?

Or the Tsarina of Tuchasville. I haven’t decided which one I like better.

By the way, she was the kind of person who, if you almost bumped into her and then said, “Excuse me,” didn’t even acknowledge your existence. She just kept on walking. That’s a rather high-falutin’ attitude. Perhaps her ass went to her head.

So, all in all, fashion is a game. Sometimes it’s a game of risk, and sometimes it’s a highly planned operation. We all want to look our best, and some of us try a little harder than others. But I would wager that even the most fashion-challenged of us remember a time when we looked really, really good. For me, I’m still proud of the dress I wore to my senior prom – pink lace, dropped waist, tea length and so, so pretty. But we also remember the bad looks too – I once had an unfortunate run-in with a pair of palazzo pants, as well as an experiment with the “smoky eye” that went horribly awry. Most days, though, I stick to a few rules: No orange and black together, even on Halloween. (It makes me look like a five foot seven inch candy corn.)  No sweaters with ducks on them. (Except those three bought on HSN after a touch too much chardonnay.) Avoid the muffin top at all costs. Other than that, I try to relax about it. Life’s too short for tight pants.

And remember – if you wear cheese on your head, you’re asking for a little schadenfrock.