Here She Is…

I’ve decided that I would like to be the next Miss America.

I am not kidding. I think I’d be great. Yes, I’m too old. I have no discernible talent. I am not perky, dedicated to public service, or particularly graceful. But I still think this could work. My current beef with the pageant is that the promoters insist that it’s not beauty pageant; it’s a “scholarship” pageant. Who are they trying to kid? If it were truly a “scholarship” pageant, the contestants wouldn’t be uniformly beautiful. They’d look like the occupants of the campus library on a Friday night. For me to win, though, there would have to be some serious revamping. There’d be no bathing suits, no helmet hair, and no plasticized smiles. It would have to become a true representation of the “average” woman in the U.S. today. Some would argue that it should not represent the norm; it should celebrate the “ideal” woman. I say that if they want to keep this thing afloat, they need to stir the pot a bit. They need, in a word, me.

Here I am. Miss Unusual America.

Doing a little digging, I found that back in the day, the pageant was originally seen as a symbol of the U.S., with Miss America often being referred to as the “female equivalent” of the President. (I’ll save the political rant and the need for a “female equivalent” for another day. Stay tuned.) But this is an interesting concept, Because I’m telling you, I think under the best of circumstances the presidency could be a two-person job. For example, the President could send me, as Miss America, to deal with the Congress, with all the bickering, petty politics, and selfishness. I was a middle school teacher – I can handle that sort of behavior. Set expectations with the Senators and Representatives. Let them know what the rules and guidelines are. And make sure they know that there will be consequences for bad behavior.

“Senator, you shot down the bill to help extend veteran’s benefits. Is this appropriate behavior for the government?”

“But he started it!”

“Senator, stop poking the gentleman from Massachusetts.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Precisely. You will be given a twenty minute detention after today’s session and will lose several points in your next polling.”

“Aww, man…”

Consistency is key, with Republicans, Democrats, and seventh graders.

(Again, saving the uber-specific political rant for another day. Moving on…)

As for the nuts and bolts of the competition, there are a few areas in which Miss America must be judged in order to win the crown. The first is a personal interview, where the candidate must be well spoken, articulate, polite and confident. Not surprisingly, this part is not televised. Too bad, because I think this could be my strongest area:

Host: Miss Old Illinois, what do you think is our greatest issue in this country?

Pageant Me: OK, listen up. First of all, I’d tell everyone in the Republican Party to just relax already about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ” and let LGBTQ people serve as well, for Pete’s sake.  Gay people have always bravely served in the military – this is not new. There will not be a sudden surge in gay enlistment. There will be no formation of the 77th Airborne Liza Brigade. Although if there were an uptick of gay enlistment, I think that would be awesome. Send these fellows in anywhere, surprise the hell out of the enemy with a chorus of, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and if the opposing troops won’t retreat, they would be met with a withering glare and firm “Bitch, please.” They’d have the enemy running for the hills. (AUDIENCE GASPS) Oh, really? This bothers you? An entire generation of kids is wasting brain cells on violent video games and overdosing on Fritos, and you all clench over a stereotypical gay joke?

Host (beginning to sweat): What are your personal goals?

Pageant Me: I would someday like to pull off wearing skinny jeans and a beret. I would like to invent a chocolate cake that does not induce feelings of guilt and an immediate increase in fat cells. I would like to convince the USDA to classify wine as a fruit. I hope to convince the world (and myself) that wearing pajamas all day is cool and not, as my friend Sophie classifies it, “sadthetic.” And, most of all, I’d like to persuade Nathan Fillion that those hot Hollywood starlets are passé and that he really needs to date a middle-aged woman with saddlebags, an overdeveloped sense of snark, and a killer lasagna recipe. (Looks at host) I think the word you’re looking for is, “Anyway…”

Perfect 10s all around. Nailed it!

Next up is the talent competition, which for many years has played fast and loose with the word talent. In the past, many contestants overplayed the piano or violin, while some juggled, did fast sketching, or even ventriloquism. There have been firewalkers, tractor drivers, and the ubiquitous baton twirlers. Some sang loudly with dramatic pageant arm gestures, garbled arias, or delivered a maudlin torch song with a huge smile, because, as my friend Nadine said, “Miss America is not allowed to be sad.” No more. Let’s bring this area into the real world, too. How about a Spelling Bee? Bargain Shopping? Expensive Footwear Justification? Those would be interesting.   But what is my particular talent, you may ask? I can look at a photo of a man and with less than three bits of general information, tell you why he’s still single.

“Mama’s Boy.”

“Napoleon complex.”

“Mansplains. Everything.”

“Overcompensation for…shortcomings.”

“Bad breath.”

“Orders for a woman in a restaurant.”

“Calls women babes.”

“Continually tells women they’re overreacting.”

“Needy.”

“Handsy.”

“Thinks he’s an artiste.”

“Career goal is to be on Jersey Shore.”

Is on Jersey Shore.”

I can hold a violin while doing this, if it makes the judges more comfortable.

The next part of the competition is where they walk across the stage in a bathing suit and high heels. This is where I might have to take a pass. I won’t wear a suit in sunlight, much less a spotlight. And it’s not just an embarrassment issue; it’s really a logic issue. I mean, who wears a bikini (oh yeah, they can wear two-pieces now) and high heels? Since the main arena for bathing suits is generally near water and not in an actual arena, it’s really a matter of safety. You could slip and twist an ankle. See? I’m looking out for my fellow Misses. Doesn’t that show depth and higher-order thinking skills? Now, if it’s a real problem, I’ll don the suit, but I’ll wear it like most women my age wear it – completely covered with a knee-length t-shirt. Or with a sarong that starts under the armpits, reaches the knees, and is made of something that won’t stain if you get margaritas or Pop-Tarts on it.

On to Evening Wear. Now, my typical evening wear is flannel pants and a “Mystic Warlords of Ka’a” t-shirt, so I’m thinking I might have to bump it up a notch. Contestants in my new version of the pageant would be judged on poise, confidence, and who complains the least about how their double-Spanx is cutting into their waistline. I walk best in high heels if I’m carrying a cocktail and a plate of mini-quiche, so I’d see if I could work that in somehow. To make it more relevant, they could also judge things real people generally do while wearing fancy garb. We don’t just sashay, pivot, smile, sashay. We make small talk. We pretend to be glad to see someone. We eat cocktail franks. We sit through boring speeches. We fake smiles. We politely excuse ourselves to the ladies’ room to tug at our strapless bras. The pageant could tie-in this part with the “onstage question” they pose to all of the finalists, which is topical, completely random, and for which they have no prep time. I could handle this much better than the Miss Teen U.S.A. contestant from a few years back who couldn’t give a coherent answer to why one-fifth of Americans can’t find the U.S. on a map. My answer?

“They’re idiots.”

Done.

I really think we can get the Miss America pageant to be popular again. It just needs to be relevant. Right now, saying Miss America represents women in this country is like saying reality television represents…reality. There’s a real disconnect. Miss America should be outstanding, but not so incredibly removed from the rest of us that she ceases to become real. These things that they’re currently judged on in the pageant are not really life skills. We want our Miss America to be a representation of the best in all women. And that does not involve walking across a stage in high heels and a bikini. That’s why I think I’d make a good Miss America (or, in my case, Ms. America, thank you). I’ve survived in the real world. I have life experience. I’ve burned pot roasts. And I’ve raised a glass of wine, both figuratively and literally, with some amazing, brilliant, kick-ass women who I feel privileged to call my friends.

Plus, I’d love any excuse to wear a tiara on a regular basis. And if I added a cape and some awesome boots to the ensemble, I’m pretty sure I could take over the world. Who’s with me?

Advertisements

Stupid Cupid or, Raindrops on Roses are just Soggy

In a few days, it will be Valentine’s Day. The day of love, roses, candy, hearts, nausea, bitterness and regret.

I do like the candy, though.

I don’t do well with this day. I tend to ignore it with every fiber of my being, the emotional equivalent of putting my fingers in my ears and singing, “LALALALALALALALA!” I always manage to be single on this day of days, and as a disinterested bystander, I can only say this: The Whole Day Sucks.

This is not a new sentiment. There are countless others who have covered this idea, from writers of great note, to comedians, to meme-creators. But it is hard to be on the outside looking in, like some huge commercial pastry-shop where so many of us have collectively pressed our noses against the metaphorical glass.

Whew, that’s an image.

I don’t do well with…feelings. At all. I get squirmy at the mere mention of affection, and I swear to G-d when someone tries to hug me I try to slink away like a slinky slinkerton. (Insert better simile here.)

Awkward.

I do not come from a huggy family. We’re not cold, it’s just that we’re not overly physically affectionate. We’re more of a “Hello, how do you do?” kind of family, so that’s what I know. My nephew gave me a hug around the waist last time I visited, and I looked at my brother and was like, “What is it doing?” I’m glad he felt comfortable enough to make the effort, but I would have been fine with a smile and perhaps a hearty salute.

Valentine’s Day is just so aggressive, with the red hearts and chubby armed toddlers floating around. I worked with a woman once whose husband took his romantical duties VERY seriously. I don’t know if he had been threatened at some point, but every hour or so the gifts kept arriving. Think Phyllis from “The Office” and you’ll be about on point. First, the flowers. Ok, no prob. Common enough. Then, candy. All right, I’m ok with that, she’ll probably share. Then, more flowers. Then a bear with a heart sewn on. Then chocolate strawberries. Then a robe. Then a necklace. Then a goat with a hat. (Ok, I may be making that one up.) By five o’clock she looked like the accessory department at Macy’s. She had two interns help her move the stuff to her car.

I did have a working theory that she sent all this stuff to herself, but I kept that on the DL. Besides, if true, she’s effing brilliant.

It’s just weird to have one day of the year (I’m ignoring Sweetest Day, which I’m pretty sure is not a real thing) to get over the top LOVE stuff. It’s so artificial, and it seems like it’s really for the benefit of other people in one’s life.

“LOOK HOW G-DDAMN HAPPY WE ARE! I GIVE YOU FOLIAGE AND SUGAR! IN A VASE! WE ARE G-DDAMN HAPPY! YES! IT IS TRUE!”

Just be nice to each other and don’t forget your anniversary. I think that’s enough.

I do like the sweets part, though. That I can get behind. I bought a coconut cake for my recent birthday (yes, my birthday is Valentine’s Day adjacent. Yay!) I don’t have an “off button” for cake.

My Dad: Isn’t that your third piece of cake today?

Me: Not in a row.

My Dad: Don’t you think you’ve had enough of the cake?

Me: I understand the words you’re saying, but not in context.

Reason #243 Why My Family Is Not Surprised I’m Still Single.

I also am not a fan of what people call “relationships.” I’m too old to be awkwardly adorable; I’m just old and awkward. I can handle dealing with people for about an hour, then I start thinking, “Why are you still here?” I have friends and whatnot (you know if you’re in the “whatnot” category) who still seem intent on interacting with me after that arbitrary time limit, which usually just leaves me thinking, “How on earth do you still have things you want to tell me? Even I’M done with me now.” I desperately need my quiet/alone/plotting world domination time. Even if it’s just a few hours to walk around humming the Gilligan’s Island theme, I need it and I think the world needs me to have it too. I’m pretty insufferable, in general, but I’m highly aware of it and try to limit my influence accordingly.

I just never figured out how to interact with people without feeling like I have six arms and a horn. The problem is, I can fake it, sort of. I can do small talk, and people think because I have a theater background, I’m extroverted extrovert. But in my head I’m like, “Is this the face for being interested? Am I doing it? Now? How about now?” But I know this only extends so far, because people seem to instinctively not attempt to get too close to me. Personally, yes, which is only sometimes fine, but also physically, which I am ever-so glad for. If someone gets too close an alarm goes off in my head – “Personal bubble! Personal bubble!” It’s fine (well, mostly fine) if I know someone fairly well, but strangers seem the most guilty of this. Instant Intimacy (trademark pending) is not my bag, and if  happen to meet a hugger upon introduction I’m done for the day. I appreciate the sentiment but I can’t muster the enthusiasm.

Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often.

I have some Love Theories. There really isn’t a cracked pot for every lid. I think true love happens, but not as often as people think it does. And it doesn’t happen for everyone. I’m not sure overt expressions of star-spangled lovey-dovey is emotionally healthy, and it doesn’t make it any better to throw caramel chews at it. Love is special, rare, and comes in many forms but none of them have anything to do with winged babies with armory. Wouldn’t it be better to save the Big Romantic Gestures for when they’re unexpected, not when it’s been collectively decided you SHOULD?

Like I’ve said, I’ve got no boxer in this fight. I’m a bystander. Maybe we should all take a collective breath and take time to appreciate those around us that we don’t completely hate. That would be nice.

“Hey. You. You irritate me less than other people. Even though it’s the middle of April, here’s a piece of chocolate. And some post-its. I noticed you were out.”

That I could get behind. I need post-its. Also, paper clips. Viva l’amour!

When Did I Become Obsolete?

Really, when was it? One minute I’m trying to decode REM lyrics, the next minute I’m trying to figure out why in the hell kids today have to play their music so damn loud. Bands I listened to in my youth are now featured on oldies stations. TV shows have decided that “Seriously riiight?” is a legitimate punch line. And the ladies on The Golden Girls look much younger than they used to.

They look fun.

Take Justin Bieber. (I’m not kidding. Take him.) I suppose I get the appeal. He’s cute. He’s perfectly harmless. He can kind of sing if you have the Auto-Tune turned up high enough. However, he’s turned into this THING that keeps showing up in US Weekly, frolicking on the beach and living a much grander lifestyle than most of us can ever hope for. He has a line of nail polish, for Pete’s sake. But I’m concerned because the boy can barely string a sentence together without uttering the word “Yo.” Take a recent interview I saw on the TV:

Random Reporter: So Justin, tell us about your new autobiography.

Justin: Yeroeks thswel blurgel swot shvwlfogh. Yo.

Or something like that. I tuned out pretty quickly.

By the way, he’s like, nine years old and wrote an autobiography a few YEARS AGO. Is it a pamphlet? A paragraph written on the back of an index card? What insights could he possibly have?

This kid looks like he has it all figured out.

I read a blurb from it. He does a lot of “reach for your dreams” crap, and it contains other pearls about not listening to “haters,” and never saying never (which, I hesitate to point out, he did at least twice in that one sentence). All nice sentiments, but not very meaningful coming from someone who struggled for about six seconds before becoming famous. But at least he kind of works for it. He purports to have a skill. Explain Kim Kardashian to me. Her talent is literally her ass. I mean, I have a generous sized one as well, but you don’t see Entertainment Tonight following me around. (And I’ve worked for mine, man. A lot of couch-sitting had to be performed.)

So yeah, music. I will say that I used to teach middle school, and not one student I asked actually liked Justin Bieber. (To be fair, the school was 95% Hispanic and African-American, so I’m thinking that maybe his appeal doesn’t translate.) The kids liked music with suggestive lyrics and a bass line that would make your pacemaker (literal or figurative) explode. On a few occasions they asked me what kind of music I liked.

“Well,” I said. “I like a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

Knowing they probably wouldn’t know any of the artists, I tried to go to the obvious.

“I’ve liked U2 for a long time.”

Shoulders were collectively shrugged.

“Ummm, how about The Beatles?”

Nothing. But I knew that was a bit of a stretch.

I was going to try to press on and find someone they had heard of, but I knew it was a losing battle. (They thought Duran Duran was a boxer.)

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. I was doing some clinical observations a couple of years ago at a local high school, as part of my teacher certification program. The teacher was showing Cool Hand Luke. Afterwards, he talked about the movie a bit. He asked if anyone knew who the lead actor was. No one raised a hand. He said, “It’s an actor named Paul Newman.” The class was silent for a moment, and then someone said, “You mean the guy from the salad dressing?” The teacher paused, and he and I momentarily locked eyes. “Yes,” he sighed. “The guy from the salad dressing.”

Yes. Yes, I know.

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

In addition to music, the current vernacular has also changed radically, and I’m not able to hold on. “Yo” has become ubiquitous, and it seems to be a word that means absolutely nothing. Formerly an attention-getter (“Yo, I’m talking to you…”), it is now almost a punctuation mark. Case in point: a promo for a new adventure-reality show. Two people on a boat. One exclaims, “We’re in the ocean! We’re surrounded by water, yo!” (Apparently, “yo” can also be used to point out the obvious.)

I fought against it for a while, but as long as no one’s saying to me, “You’re on fire, yo,” I think I’m going swim with the tide. Besides, if you reverse the letters you’ve got “oy,” of which I’m very fond.

I actually like some of the new music today, but I’m rather selective. I will say that there are some recent songs I’m very glad are played out. I’m glad, for example, that the reign of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” is long over, because after the first listening it made me want to stuff olives or erasers or my elbows into my ears just to make it stop. And there are other “artists” that I just don’t get –  Lil’ Wayne makes me a lil’ nervous, for example, and I’m sorry, but that Ke$ha girl looks like she needs a bath. It’s not just on the radio, though. It’s everywhere. Once a student of mine was singing the chorus to a Rhianna song, which pretty much consisted of repeating the same two lines over and over again about popping one’s bubble.

Good Lord.

This is what the young people listen to these days. So little creative imagery. So few interesting melodies. Just thump, thump, thump (or pop, pop, pop, as the case may be). I’m not saying my teen heyday of the ‘80s was exactly a musical renaissance (hello, Culture Club) but at least it didn’t all sound the same. There’s so much good older stuff out there. I really just want to walk up to a kid one of these days and say, “Led Zeppelin. ‘Black Dog.’ It will change your life.”

Some days I’m I know grasping at straws to stay relevant. Has everything always been geared for the young, or am I just noticing it now that I’m no longer minty-fresh? Fashion is impossible, most movies are banal, and if I see one more ad for osteoporosis featuring a woman who looks five years younger than I am, I’m going to cry.

So what’s the answer? I don’t want to be one of those women who clings madly to her teen years, strapping herself into skinny jeans that are, quite frankly, no longer quite so skinny, and maintaining the same teased “do” that she had in 1989. But I’m also not ready to hang out with the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” lady. (Although we’ve met. She’s very nice.) How do we find our own relevance in a society that seems ready to put us on a dusty shelf after age forty?

Like looking into a mirror. Actually, I should be so lucky.

Maybe I’ll have to dig a little deeper into Justin Bieber’s book. He may be on to something. I will never say never, yo. I will not dislike haters, yo. I will reach for the constellations, yo. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, yo. Be your own sunshine, yo. (Or something like that.)

Yo, indeed, Mr. Bieber. Yo, indeed.

Oy.

I Sing The Body Eclectic

I need to stop watching medical reality shows.

I should know better. Really, I should. I spent years stress-watching E.R., and that was fiction, for Pete’s sake. But half-hours, filled with bones sticking out of legs and torn off ears and people with silly string coming out of their elbows, make me squeal like a stuck pig. I’ve now gotten to the point where I just have to turn the channel, because the most serious medical thing I want to contemplate these days is a Band-Aid commercial.

I’m already aware that the human body is weird. Especially mine. I mean, I don’t have three arms or six ears, but I’m perpetually surprised by my person, by the things that it is able to do and by the things it…isn’t.

This is never more fully evident than when we’re sick. We revert back to childhood, no matter our age. We want soup, we want our blankie, we want to whine and moan and watch soap operas. Basically, we want our mommies, and in the absence of her, we want the flu fairy to bonk us on the head so we can sleep until it’s over. Our bodies ache, we can’t breathe, and we cough up weird things, just so our bodies can make room for more gunk. I’ve always been flummoxed by that phenomenon where one of your nostrils is plugged up and then…it’s not. The other one is. Then the mucus gets bored and goes back to the first one, until you’ve got a game of snot seesaw going on in your sinuses.

Worse than the illness, I think, are the various remedies people throw at you in an attempt to be helpful. (Of course, they’re usually thrown from a distance, as no one wants to actually be near you when the snot settles in.) “Drink lots of fluids!” is a big one. True, one wants to stay hydrated but it’s tough to get rest when you’re running to pee every five minutes. “Steam your face!” is also quite popular. For me, it doesn’t work. Then I just have a stuffy nose and frizzy hair. And that joy of joys, the Neti pot. I finally broke down and bought one. Mixed results. First of all, do not use it if you’re congested, which seems to be counterintuitive because it’s supposed to keep the nasal passages clear. But if you’re blocked up, the water can’t circulate and it winds up dripping down the back of your throat. Phlegm cocktail, anyone? And even when it works, it’s an odd sensation. I spent most of my swim time trying to prevent that from happening, so it’s strange to be doing it voluntarily. I am generally not a fan of things going up my nose. This is also one of those things that you should never, ever do in front of another person. Swooshing water through your nose is not sexy. Nor should it be.

“Hello, darling. Do you like my bedroom eyes? My seductive stance? My ‘come hither’ attitude? Wait right there, my love, one moment….SNERT!”

I would say that maintaining at least a modicum of mystery in a relationship is vital.

Sometimes our bodies surprise us in wondrous ways. It seems that a select few are the beneficiaries of the “superhuman” genes. They can accomplish far more with their bodies than the rest of us. They’re almost works of art. Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum – me. No matter the circumstance, I’m not the most coordinated gazelle in the herd. In gym class, I was always playing “far right field.” (It’s not a real position. I looked it up.) In basketball, no one passed me the ball, so I was actually just jogging back and forth while watching the game. Oddly, I was often required to play goalie in soccer. Yeah, that makes sense. Take the girl most likely to flinch and cover her head whenever the ball comes near, and make her play goalie. (David Beckham can kick soccer balls backwards over his head. I’m just saying.) I’ve attempted dance classes twice in my life. I only lasted a short time in ballet as a small girl; I didn’t want to go because the other girls made fun of me. In college, my friends were supportive, but on the first day of dance class I was met with the teacher’s raised eyebrows and an insincere, “I’m so glad to see you in this class.” My brain seems unable to transmit the movement message to my body. Why is this? Did I miss a lecture? Is it an inner ear thing? What? Advertisers would like us to believe that it’s merely a lack of fancy shoes or sports drinks, but I’m not buying it, literally or figuratively. I am grateful for the fact that I can move, see, and hear, but just one time it would have been really nice to be able to dunk a basketball or attempt a graceful plié without my classmates giggling.

It happens to me in all areas of life, not just sports. I tend to be rather unaware of where my limbs are in space, which results in a lot of bumping and tripping over nothing. (When I’m walking, there are times that I swear I have to remind myself, “Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot…”) Whenever my theater friends and I were working on building a set, if there was a crash, invariably the first thing you’d hear is, “Where’s Jenny?” I always responded with, “I’m ooooo…..kaaaaaay!” Once, I was working on drilling some screws into a set piece we were building. It was particleboard, and I just couldn’t start the hole. Suddenly, the drill slipped and scraped the hand that was holding the screw. (Note to all of you knowledgeable handypeople: I know.) I looked down and realized that I had taken a small chunk of flesh from the base of my thumb. I looked around, and saw my friend Alan.

“Look!” I said, showing him my wound.

Now, Alan wasn’t easily moved by my plight. His first question was not, “Are you all right?” or even, “Does it hurt?” Nope. Alan had a slightly more pragmatic approach.

“Who put you in charge of a power tool?”

I would have been offended, except that it was actually kind of true.

 

Beyond physical feats of greatness, there are other common occurrences I don’t understand. Charlie Horses, for one. Actually, I understand what they are; I just don’t get the name. Sounds like the name of a children’s toy. Or a Disney character. It’s too cute. They need to make the name a little more intimidating, like “Adolph Viper,” or “Voledemort Rhinoceros,” or really, just name it after what it feels like:

“OwowowowowowcrapcrapcrapcrapNoNoNoNoStopstopstopstop…”

That’s just one of the lovely things that happen when you exert yourself. (Or in my case, do absolutely nothing.) No wonder doctors can’t get their patients to exercise. It’s not that people don’t want to be fit; they’re just afraid of cramps, shin splints, tennis elbow, or jog pooping. (I’m not making that up. It’s a thing.) When I work out, my face gets red. Beet red. Like, “Oh my God, she’s having a stroke” red. And my fingers swell up. There’s pain in my shins. I’d love to concentrate on sculpting a better ass but that’s hard to do when your thighs are rubbing together with such intensity that you’re afraid your crotch is going to catch on fire. (Not that this has actually happened.) It’s enough to make you say, “Screw it” and eat a plate of curly fries. It’s crazy. I saw a man on TV who was an archery champion despite the fact that he had no arms, and I can’t get past the first level of “Dance Dance Revolution.”

And please tell me, why the hell do we have to deal with adolescence? Talk about not understanding the body. Just when we, as kids, start to think we’re figuring things out, we’re hit with Hormones From Hell. Frizzy hair. Oily hair. Dry skin. Acne. Braces. Glasses. Weird growth spurts. Voice changing overnight. Happysadhappysadhappy. (And this could all be from one kid. In one day.) Nature, in her infinite wisdom, decided to dole out this misery on us when we’re probably the least prepared to deal with it. Sure, some sail right through it, damn them, but the rest of us struggle for a while, ending…well, any day now, fingers crossed. Junior high, I believe, could be considered part of the ninth circle of hell. You’re supposed to negotiate evolving gender relationships, figure out who you are and where you fit into this life, all without tripping over your own feet. You can be best friends with someone one day, fierce enemies the next. It’s a whole swirling vortex of the worst parts of life. It would be great if we could get through it in, say, a week, and then move on. Instead, we’re tossed about like a ship on the proverbial “three hour tour,” and after a couple of years of this nonsense, we’re washed ashore and left to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and say, “Well, there’s that, then,” and move on to a whole new set of issues. And there are always new ones to deal with. Always. Every day. I foolishly once thought that if I could just get through the teen years, then everything would be all right and I’d never feel awkward again. Of course, I’d laugh at that thought, but I’m stunned by the fact that I still look remarkably like my seventh grade class picture. And not in a good way. More like an, “It’s thirty years later and I still haven’t figured out my bangs” kind of way.

The truth is, our bodies are continually changing. Sometimes for the better, sometimes…not. Things grow, things fall off, things shift, things hang lower than they used to, things don’t glow quite as much, things take a lot longer to establish normalcy. I once got completely freaked out because I found a lump on my shoulder. Naturally, after years of watching medical shows, I assumed the worst. “Oh my God,” I thought. “It’s shoulder cancer! It’s an absorbed Siamese twin! It’s…wait, there’s one on the other side. What the…?”

It was my collarbone.

Also, sometimes our intestines just decide to screw around with us. No kidding, I think I farted out of my ear last week. My stomach was “gurgling,” and the pressure started to build. I was in a meeting, so there was no escape. I just kept repeating positive thoughts and regretting the turkey chili. Then, in my right ear, I heard an “eeeeeeeee”sound, and suddenly my stomach was fine. I felt like a human kazoo. No other internal body parts do this. My spleen never sounds like a banjo. My appendix doesn’t make a sproingy sound. But our digestive systems? I wouldn’t be surprised if one day mine sounded exactly like the B-side of “Abbey Road.”

Let’s not forget the most important thing that makes us adorably human – our brains. Brains that can invent the microchip, formulate string theory, or paint a masterpiece. Or, for most of us, brains that tell us to eat the cheesecake, to bet on the Chicago Bears, or that can’t remember where we parked our car. But of all the body oddities, dreams are the most far out. Much thought and research has been spent on why our brains do what they do at night. One theory is that dreams are when the brain formulates ideas, or “random thought mutations.” Another camp thinks that it’s the brain “cleaning house.” And our old buddy Herr Freud thought that dreams were expressions of unconscious desires. Personally, I think it’s the only time that we let our minds run free and wild, without being burdened with everyday decisions, worries, and random bits of “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League. I used to dream about flying a lot – not soaring over hills and dales like a bird, but more like being able to get about five feet off the ground and maybe making it across the room. I would also dream about losing my glasses, and not being able to see anything but blurs all around me. Of course, there were the ubiquitous chase dreams, in which I’d be trying to escape my pursuers in a building by going into room after room, or even in the walls between rooms, higher and higher, always worried I’d be found. Quite regularly, I’d have dreams that I was getting married, but I would have no idea what the lucky chap’s name was, which does make sending the invitations a bit tricky. Not surprisingly, people look for meaning in dreams – losing teeth means this, or being naked in public means that, or that any number of things represent Freudian penis envy (trust me, gents – we don’t). I think we’re over-thinking the whole thing. I believe dreams are just a kaleidoscope of ideas, images, fears, desires, worries, hopes…and yes, fantasies. Weird, nonsensical, badass fantasies. Water skiing with Nelson Mandela? Great. Making a three-story strawberry mousse while your third grade teacher makes you recite the multiplication tables? Fabulous. Standing under the Eiffel Tower, naked, while singing “Copacabana” into a hockey stick? I want to meet you. I think the best goal we can set for our dreams is to just let go, enjoy the ride, and wake up thinking, “What the hell was that?”

Overall, I’m doing all right. So I’ll never be a ballerina. I can’t run fast. My stomach makes weird noises at inappropriate times. The important thing is that when I fall down, I can pick myself up, brush myself off, and hope like hell nobody saw me. And if I’m very, very lucky, tonight my brain will be nice to me and I’ll have that dream where I’m taking a bubble bath with Nathan Fillion and Jon Hamm.

 

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.

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.