Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I Still Loathe Clothes Shopping

Some of you may recall that I'm not a big fan of clothes shopping. Well, I think I’m beginning to discover yet another reason I so hate it. I’ve always blamed it on the mall. The mall is really the best bet if you’re looking for a wide selection from which to choose, but I get exhausted just saying the word. I can’t imagine thinking of it as a great place to waste a Sunday afternoon, as so many Americans seem to do (and as I once did when I was a teenager and a twenty-something). You might as well suggest to me that for fun, let’s go sit in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV (actually, I prefer the hospital bed. I could read all afternoon and have someone bring me food). Top that with the fact I can never find anything that looks as good on me as it does on that size 0 mannequin.

Speaking of sizes, there’s that whole size factor that really irks me, too. I wish I could just go somewhere and know exactly what size I am. I used to sort of have an idea, but then everything switched on me. When I started wearing women’s sizes, around age fourteen or so, I was a size six, at least in regular stores. If (for some very strange reason, because I paid for all my own clothes when I was a teenager and didn’t have that kind of money. Maybe my grandmother took me to one or something) I went to some upscale boutique, where they want to make their customers feel good about themselves (read “skinnier than they are”), or something, I might be a size four. No one had anything smaller than a size four. Four was it, and fours in most places were way too small for me. My biggest problem when it came to size in those days was finding a pair of pants that didn’t need hemming (nearly impossible. Still nearly impossible, because I’m this odd height in which “petite” is too short, and everything else needs to be hemmed so much a whole new pair of pants can be made from the cut-off material).

At this point in my life, I weigh about fifteen pounds more than I did back then. I’ve never been what anyone would call fat (although like all female teenagers, at the time, I thought my butt was too big. How anyone who doesn’t even weigh 110 pounds can think her butt is too big, is beyond me, but teenaged girls are not known for being the most practical and rational people). Let’s take a look at what size I wear today: your guess is as good as mine. First of all, we’ve introduced the aforementioned size “zero.” Size zero: the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. You mean you’re no size whatsoever? Do you even exist? And the only person I’ve ever seen who could possibly wear a size zero is maybe Keith Richards. No one with hip bones could squeeze into something like that; yet they don’t appear to be made for eight-year-old girls, unless ten-inch-heels or maybe stilts are now all the rage for eight-year-old girls. Size two, another size I never saw when I was a teenager, maybe makes a little more sense, although I can’t tell the difference between a size two and a size zero when I see them side-by-side. I weigh fifteen pounds more than I once did, and yet size four, which never used to fit me, seems to be the size that most often fits me these days. I used to be a “small” t-shirt. Now, having gained weight, I’m an “extra small.” That is, depending on what store I’m in. In some places, I’ve become a “medium,” just like in some places I might be a six or even an eight, and that “upscale boutique” theory doesn’t work anymore. I can find myself wearing a four at K-Mart and a six at Saks Fifth Avenue. I can even find myself buying one K-Mart skirt in size four and one in size six. But I’m truly digressing here (obviously, this size thing is extremely annoying, if I can waste two paragraphs on it), because what I want to do is talk about my newest discovery.

Last year, on a shopping trip with my mother and sisters (the only time I like to go shopping is with my mother and sisters, because my mother has a knack for finding clothes that look great on me, and because it’s fun and often turns into a hilarious adventure), I was trying on a few things that just looked plain horrible on me (chosen by me, not my mother), and she explained to me that I look best in “classic” clothes. Translate that as “boring, preppy, tweedy.” I joked that, “yes, I look fabulous in a schoolgirl uniform,” but I wasn’t really joking.

The problem is, this isn’t what I want to look fabulous in. I want to look fabulous in “funky.” I want to look fabulous in “cool chic.” I want to look fabulous in “artsy.” I want to wear Indian skirts and crocheted tops and long flowing tunics and short black velvet jackets, and turn heads rather than watching them bounce all over the place, having been laughed off by those catching a glimpse of me in the ridiculous get-ups I’m sporting. And don’t tell me women over the age of thirty can’t dress like that. I’ve known plenty of women in their sixties and seventies who can pull off cool and funky and look stunning (my grandmother was like that), and even when I was eighteen, I couldn’t dress that way and look stunning. Both my sisters can pull off these different looks. It’s not fair. We’re related. Why can’t I? Why did I have to be the one who in order to look good has to look like she walked out of the pages of an L.L. Bean catalog or out of a banker's convention? No wonder I hate shopping! It’s like loving chocolate and suddenly discovering you’re allergic to it. You wouldn’t go hang out with Willy Wonka, then, would you?

So, I’ve spent a whole year in denial. I’ve ignored what my mother said and kept on wearing some of the things I’ve bought over the years that aren’t the least bit classic. I’ve been drawn to street shows in New York and done a tiny bit of shopping there (so much less painful than going to the mall when you know you can get some great, authentic ethnic food nearly every step of the way), but then I found myself in Atlanta, at a hotel that conveniently has some shops attached to it, and I needed some new dress slacks for all this business travel I have to do these days. Better to look for some there than to have to tackle the mall back home. I walked into Brooks Brothers, where I decided I might as well try on a few other things. I didn’t try on a single thing that – well, with the exception of the inevitable hemming – didn’t fit me perfectly (in case you're interested, at Brooks Brothers, I'm a size 4 for tops, 6 for bottoms) and that didn’t look like it was made with me in mind. But then I realized the other reason I don’t like “classic:” I don’t like forking over $200 and walking out of a store with nothing but a shoelace to show for it.

Oh well, though, why fight it? I might as well accept the fact, at age 43, that these are the sorts of clothes I ought to be wearing. “Classics” last forever, right? Anyone have any blue pinstripe pants you’re terribly sick of, having bought them twenty years ago, you’d like to send my way? If they’re that old, I’m probably a size eight. While you’re at it, you can send me your suits and coats and sweaters that are twenty-years-old as well. I just might have a few funky things to give you in return.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Bookish Meme

All right, I haven’t been officially tagged for this one, but this is the first evening in four that I put my foot down and decided not to go out schmoozing and entertaining till 11:00 p.m. (realizing that I would be a very poor representative of our company tomorrow if I engaged in one more night of that), and I wanted to escape all the madness by doing some writing. However, after desperately trying to get a few things that are floating around in my head ensnared in some coherency nets, so I could put them in writing, and finally realizing they just do not want to be caught tonight, I’ve decided it’s time for this meme, which I’ve seen in a few places, most recently over at Charlotte’s (I seem to be finding tons of stuff at Charlotte’s these days).

Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback?
Whichever one the book I want to read/someone wants to lend me happens to be. I will say, though, that if I could design my own hand-held ebook device, I’d call Apple and tell them to design one for me that was the size of a trade paperback (and dark green, please).

Amazon or brick and mortar? Amazon, if I know exactly what I want and want it soon. Brick and mortar (preferably independent brick and mortar) if I want to spend an afternoon somewhere other than the library (but brick and mortar library over everything, especially one that has a coffee shop attached, which many of ours in CT now do).

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
Borders, because, for some reason, they more consistently have what I’m looking for.

Bookmark or dogear? Bookmark, especially a nice leather one, but any will do.

Alphabetize by author, or by title, or random?
If I ever got my act together: by author, but since that never happens: random.

Keep, throw away, or sell? Keep until I get into a fit of needing to weed to make room for more and then give away.

Keep dust jacket or toss it? Toss? Do people, other than those with young children who might have destroyed them really toss? The idea never would have even occurred to me for a private collection. Thus, this one goes in the “learn something new everyday category.”

Read with dust jacket on or remove it? If it’s a borrowed book: remove. If it’s mine: read with (unless it’s an old book and is falling apart, then remove).

Short story or novel? Novel. Short stories are acquaintances, some I wish I could get to know better, but acquaintances nonetheless. Novels are friends. But this all goes out the window (without having to open it, of course) if we’re talking about ghost stories. I mean, most of the time, I really only want to be slightly acquainted with ghosts, and then I want them to disappear, although there’s a time and a place, as well (e.g. a few weeks in October), for ghosts who hang around for a while before disappearing.

Collection of short stories or anthology? Depends on the author/subject of the anthology. If it’s an anthology of science fiction (not one of my favorite genres. I hate to say that, because I’ve read some fantastic science fiction, but I have to admit I don’t tend to seek it out), I’d probably go with a Ray Bradbury collection, say. If it’s an anthology of humor, well, I’d go for that, hoping to discover some new authors who’ve also written novels I can read. (But really, if I’m making this choice, and I’m not in some sort of class or reading group, I must be stuck on a freighter trip whose library only has a short story collection, and for some unfathomable reason, because I packed a whole trunk full of novels and nonfiction books before I even packed my clothes for this month-long trip, I’ve run out of other books to read).

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? I like both, but I haven’t read much of either. I think if read all at once, though, Lemony Snicket would get old more quickly than Harry Potter would.

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks? Stop reading when a. I fall asleep b. some major catastrophe (e.g. ceiling falling in) captures my attention or c. interrupted by some poor soul whose parents may have told them never try to take food from a dog but forgot the “never bother reading fanatic when her nose is buried in a book” rule.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”? Depends on my mood.

Buy or borrow? Borrow, because then I’m guaranteed to have at least one other person with whom I can talk about it (although, then I can’t write in it or force it on others to read).

New or used? Couldn’t care less.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation or browse? Something I wouldn’t have said two years ago: blogs. What I would have said two years ago: all three.

Morning, afternoon or nighttime reading? Anytime I can. I mean, really, would you ask a heroin addict such a question?

Favourite series? Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer

Favourite children’s book? That’s like asking me: favorite adult book or movie or food or smell. I just can’t answer such questions.

Favourite book of which no-one has heard? Juan in America by Eric Linklater (although I’m learning since I started blogging, some people have heard of it).

Favourite books read last year? I posted on this twice but am too lazy to go back and find the links for you. If you’re really, really curious (which I’m sure you’re not), you can wade through all my posts from last year and find them.

Least favorite book finished last year? I don’t finish things I really, really don’t like, so maybe of those I finished, I’d have to say The Kite Runner, but I haven’t got my book journal with me and have probably forgotten something truly awful that I trudged my way through despite not liking it, maybe hoping it would get better, or something.

What are you reading now? I’m reading many things at once (as always), but tonight it’s Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay (wonderful, brilliant, very funny, thus far), because it’s one of the two books I brought with me on this trip.

What are you reading next? Gone with the Wind (already started), because it’s the other one I brought on this trip with me (I’m in Atlanta, and hoped – one of oh-so-many dashed ones – I might find some time to go tour Margaret Mitchell’s house).

Consider yourself tagged, if you want to do this one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Burst Bubble #? (I Lost Count Around Age 8 or So)

The past couple of months have not been good ones for someone like me, that is someone with hypochondriacal tendencies and an extraordinarily low pain threshold. It all began with my annual physical in January, in which my doctor proclaimed I was fit as a fiddle: low blood pressure, fantastic cholesterol levels, etc. He praised me for my wonderful exercise (thanks again, Mandarine) routine of walking in the morning and the evening, telling me he’s usually desperate to get people just to do half that.

Fit as a fiddle I was, that is, until I started describing some rather disturbing symptoms I’d been having for about six months or so, noting those months had been rather stressful ones (stress being the typical source of any disturbing symptoms I suffer). The most alarming of these symptoms is that my right arm has decided that since I’m sleeping six to eight hours a night, it might as well do the same. Every morning, I wake up to a numb hand, and sometimes it takes quite a while to rouse it from its slumber. The other symptom was pain up and down my spine that comes and goes, but is sometimes unbearable. I suggested maybe the numbness was some form of carpal tunnel syndrome or something, but he automatically pooh-poohed that idea in the dismissive way doctors often do when a patient is bold enough to actually suggest a diagnosis. He immediately ordered a Lyme Disease test and a series of X-Rays.

The Lyme test came back negative. Then I forgot about the X-Rays, because we were struggling with Lady’s sudden illness and death. In the midst of all that, we got a call from the nurse informing me that something had shown up in my chest X-ray and that I needed a CT Scan.

Well, if you’re a Web MD aficionado (as some of us just might be, especially when the companies we work for give us special accounts through our insurance benefits), I don’t need to tell you that “something” showing up in a chest X-ray is alarming, even if the nurse is telling you she doesn’t want you to be alarmed. Even more alarming is what she says next, “It could just be an enlarged heart. But it could also just be a bad X-ray.” Yeah, right. A bad X-Ray, in this day and age of technology, and with that extraordinarily meticulous X-ray technician I thought was never going to let me go?

Again, even if you only have a fleeting acquaintance with Web MD, you’ll know that an enlarged heart is not a good thing. It’s not a problem in and of itself. No, it’s a symptom of all kinds of horrible things, from Lupus to heart valve problems to lymphatic cancer, just to name a few possibilities, although I wouldn’t want to alarm you.

So, off I went for a CT scan. The results? Still inconclusive. Seems something was going on in an unclear area that could be my heart or my lungs. Discussing what sort of funeral I’d like with Bob and calling up friends I’ve been neglecting for way too long, I made my appointment for the MRI.

Finally, some results. It wasn’t my lung. Nor was it my heart. I have multiple benign cysts on my thoracic spine and a protrusion that could point to disk problems in the future (God, I sound so old). The solution? Go see an orthopedist.

And here’s where my bubble gets burst (but I’m also vindicated). The first thing this rather humorless orthopedist and I discuss is my mysterious right arm and its seeming need for at least six hours of sleep every 24 hours. Here’s the vindication part: he suggests it might be carpal tunnel, explaining to me that we have a tendency to hold our arms in curled positions when we sleep, which can cause carpal tunnel (take that, Mr. Know-It-All Doctor #1). He prescribes a wrist brace for nighttime wear. He then, after a series of tests, in which he asks me to bend in different ways, prescribes physical therapy for my back (phew! No surgery).

Then he poses the big question, “What do you do for exercise?” When I proudly announce my routine (you know, the one that Dr. #1 thought was so terrific), he immediately dismisses me with, “That’s nowhere near enough.” (Mandarine, what were you thinking?) He goes on to say, “You’re not 80 years old, you know.” I’m walking an hour a day, brisk walks too, up and down hills. How many 80-year-olds do you know who do that? I wonder what he says to those people who come in and say, “Exercise? Well, I push the buttons on my remote to change channels.”

So, now I’m being told I need to get back on the exercise bike and the Nordic Track. I need to add weights back into my routine (I’d rather have surgery than to have to engage in the excruciatingly boring activity of lifting weights). Yoga’s good, but only when combined with many other activities. My morning and evening “commutes” had better be by means other than walking. There goes what I thought had been the perfect answer to my hatred of exercise for the sake of exercise. You can see that big, oh-so-beautiful-and-perfect bubble exploding, leaving me with nothing, can’t you?

You may be wondering why I mentioned pain in the first paragraph. None of this seems like it would be very painful (at least not physically), especially since I have yet to start the physical therapy, thanks to a huge snow storm last week and the fact I’m now on the road. Well, on top of all this, my tooth began to ache. Not ache. Pound and scream at me that it wanted my undivided attention. A visit to my dentist revealed that I had an infection under my tooth. Solution for this newest calamity? Oral surgery (which, by the way, may or may not work. I still might have to have my tooth pulled).

So, the day after my visit to the jolly, bubble-bursting orthopedist, I was sitting in a chair at the oral surgeon’s, hearing him, through a laughing-gas-induced haze, discuss with his assistant whether he should buy jewelry or give a spa gift certificate to his wife for her birthday. Before I can pipe up with “go with the spa gift certificate,” which he seems to be leaning against, I’m waking up, and he’s telling me the surgery has gone fine, and I’m asking one of the most idiotic questions I’ve ever asked in my life, “So, can I chew on this side today?” Luckily, he must be very used to idiotic questions from half-anesthetized patients, because he didn’t laugh at me.

Ahhh! for anesthesia and Novocain. Eeeek! for Novocain wearing off. Ahhh! again for Percocet. Will I ever be able to chew on that side again? Or eat hard, cold, crunchy foods? The verdict (a week later) is still out.

The spring and summer months are somewhere way out there on the horizon, right? I’m a winter soul at heart, but even I could use a little change in the weather these days.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I've Been Foxed

First, I want to begin by noting I’m a savor-er, not a gobbler, by nature. I pride myself on my self control, my ability to appreciate every second of a glorious experience. I always save the best for last. I can make a box of dark chocolate truffles last weeks. When I discover a magnificent author, I don’t race out and read everything he or she has written, most especially if he or she has only written four books, but even when it’s, say, Anthony Trollope or Agatha Christie.

That being said, I finally received my first issue of Slightly Foxed yesterday. This magazine is a quarterly. Quarterly. That means it needs to be read slowly. It’s going to be ages before I get my next fix the next issue arrives.

I examined the table of contents as soon as I took it out of its white mailer to note it has sixteen articles plus the “From the Editors.” This meant, basically, five articles per month. A little more than one per week. No problem. I’ve plenty of other things to read. This would be my evening chocolate truffle.

I went about the rest of my day and sat down by the fire with it just prior to dinner, planning to read only the “From the Editors.” Can I tell you I’ve now read all five articles, plus some, allotted for March? Oh, yes, and may I add that poor Bob kept asking, “Umm, are we going to eat dinner anytime soon?” only to be either a. ignored or b. snapped at.

I’m telling you, though, this issue is so, so sly. It knew exactly how to lure me into its den. I mean, the first article about a fabulous-sounding parody of surviving life in Cold War England, written and illustrated by two regular contributors to Punch magazine was not something anyone with the slightest sense of humor could ignore.

The next article was titled “Daphne’s Moment of Decadence.” Yes, of course it was about Daphne du Maurier whom I’ve loved since I was fifteen. Following that were two extremely interesting articles on M.F.K. Fisher. Some of you may have noted her Gastronomically Me is on my classics list for 2007. I had to read those.

Then I decided, “Okay. Enough!” and thought I’d just sort of idly flip through the rest of the pages to see what I have in store over the next few months. An article called “Riding the Leopard” caught my eye. I paused just long enough to read the first paragraph. You be the judge.

The more you read, the more you realize you want to read, for each book
generates a further reading list. Only occasional readers imagine that reading
is a matter of working through a list of classics, like moving a pile of logs.
The rest of us know that every “classic” multiplies infinitely into minor
classics.” (John De Falbe, "Riding the Leopard," Slightly Foxed, No. 13,
Spring 2007, p. 52)

How can a reader not be drawn into reading an article that begins thus? Hell, forget reading the article. If I were single, my question would be: how can a woman not be drawn to marry a man who says such things? Should I be blamed for reading the whole thing, especially when it turns out to be so much about a particular, remarkable publisher (Harvill), of all things?

And then there was the terrific article on Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which translation I’ve been wanting to read, but haven’t. Now I absolutely must). Beowulf was one of the few things I was required to read in high school that truly excited me, probably because it was a work that couldn’t be ruined by drab exercises, discussions, and quote memorization. I read it again in college, and it still excited me. I haven’t read it since, though.

When I flipped through some more and got to the article on A Passage to India, I finally decided truly enough! Someone please help me! I’ve got to get out of this den, more powerful than those where heroin runs like water. Thank God it's only a quarterly. Imagine if it were a daily. I’d have to answer “yes” on one of those addiction quizzes to questions such as “Has reading Slightly Foxed ever interfered with your work or social life?” and “Have friends and family members ever complained about your habit of reading Slightly Foxed?”

Nevertheless, pusher that I am, I’m encouraging everyone to subscribe. Better yet, let’s all make a pilgrimage to the fox’s den.

(Now I'm off for two weeks of business travel and don't know how much blogging time I'll have, so don't expect to hear much from me. Meanwhile, if you haven't already seen it, I also posted over here this weekend. Still waiting for Ian to post).

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Revealing the Lie

(If you haven't already, read the previous post first, or this one won't make sense.)

Okay, the lie is number two (although I realized in re-reading this that I inadvertently lied twice). My father did have a first wife, but she was no one anyone would know. Their story was tragic. She was older than my father, from the "wrong" town (these things were important in Virginia in those days), and from the "wrong sort of family" (translate as "not Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Jewish." Those classifications are odd enough as it is, but even odder if you consider the fact my grandparents were both agnostics. Then again, maybe that was the problem. Her family was deeply religious). My grandparents thought my father was too young to get married (I agree. He was only 22) and sent him off to live in Paris for a year, hoping he'd forget her. He didn't and came home to marry her anyway (which gives you an idea as to what sort of a man he is), even though she'd been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. They were married for five years before she finally succombed to the disease, the same year his father died, probably the worst year of my father's life. It was years before I saw a picture of this first wife. My grandmother had even taken scissors to all the wedding photos and cut her out of them, an act that seemed extremely uncharacteristic for the grandmother I knew. I'm realizing as I write this, it would make a great novel, wouldn't it?

That same grandmother (who despite this weird lapse when it came to my father's first wife was a wonderful, wonderful person, not at all the sit-in-the-rocker-and-knit old granny. She was one of those true intellectuals I mentioned in my anti-intellectual post, even though, like so many young women of her day, she'd never gone to college -- extremely curious and up on everything: history, politics, sports. She drove convertibles and played tennis until she was in her eighties) was extremely proud of her father, the one who was fed up while serving his term in Congress. She always wondered how he would have reacted to Watergate. And I wonder how they both would be reacting today. That was the second lie. Did you catch it? It was my great grandfather (her father), not my great great grandfather, as I erroneously referred to him, who was the U.S. Congressman.

And, yes, Dar Williams really is my cousin (second cousin), but before you get all excited, don't. I barely know her. She grew up in New York state, and I grew up in North Carolina, and we've maybe seen each other a half dozen times in our lives. By the time I moved north, she was already at college, so though I've gotten to know her parents who live a half-hour's drive from me and are always welcoming (two of the sweetest and most engaging people you'll ever know -- the kind you're proud to claim as cousins), I don't know her at all. But I'll shamelessly plug her anyway, because her music is so good. If you're not familiar with her check her out. One of these days, I'll post on how I connect to her music, a post that's been writing itself in my head for ages.

My parents were indeed invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. My mother's father was a British Diplomat who was knighted (for some mysterious reason. When I ask my mother, the Queen of Modesty, her response is always, "Oh, everyone was knighted in those days right after the war," and I've never bothered to find out the truth), and my parents were spending the summer with my grandparents. Growing up, I was fascinated by this invitation from the Queen that was glued into one of our scrapbooks, envisioning my parents sitting down and discussing world events and the fact that they would both soon have children who would marry one day (that would have been Prince Edward and me). My father took a bulldozer to my castle in the sky one day when he explained it had been a HUGE garden party, and they hadn't gotten anywhere near the Queen (if she had even been there at all).

That same scrapbook held ancient newspaper clippings that portrayed the mountain hiking group led to their deaths on the Matterhorn by Douglas Hadow. They actually were the first group of men to make it to the top of the mountain, but he slipped on the way down (it was the sneakers. Truth be told, that bit about the sneakers may be nothing more than family folklore, but it was 1865, so God knows what kind of hiking shoes those men were wearing), and he dragged everyone down with him. Douglas's body was the only one never found. Meanwhile, a few years ago, my cousin Pen Hadow (whom I haven't seen since I was fifteen and he was seventeen, and whom we called Rupert back then), carrying on what must be a Hadow tradition of hiking around in the snow, went solo from Canada to the North Pole. Maybe the family genes have mutated to the extent that they've learned it's best to attempt such things without endangering the lives of others.

And finally, my great grandfather Waddy Wood was a rather prominent architect in and around Washington, DC. The lovely little church in which Bob and I were married (as were my parents), nestled in the mountains of Virginia is a fine example of his work. Family folklore, again, has it that this church was designed as a chapel for Lady Astor, but I'm not sure if that's true. And he did design a house for Woodrow Wilson.

That's all the bragging for today, except did I ever mention my great, great uncle won the second Wimbledon Championship, and I'm also related to Meriwether Lewis?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Guess the Lie

I liked Charlotte’s guess the lie post and decided I wanted to do it myself, but then I realized I do so much navel gazing, it would be pretty hard to come up with a lie that wasn’t immediately recognizable as such. Thus, I decided to turn to my family for help. Why not relive that childhood need to brag about my forebears and relatives a bit? So, below are six things that may or may not be true about relatives of mine. Only one is a lie. Take a stab at figuring out which one, let me know in a comment, and I’ll post the answer sometime soon (and maybe elaborate on all the truths a little while I’m at it). And sorry, Froshty, Ian, and Lindsay. For obvious reasons, you’re not allowed to play.

1. My great, great grandfather was a U.S. Congressman who decided to quit after one term, because he was fed up with all the nastiness he found amongst all those “distinguished” gentlemen.

2. My mother wasn’t my father’s first wife. His first wife was a well-known stage actress.

3. Dar Williams, the folksinger, is my cousin, and I’ve attended a number of her concerts with her parents.

4. The summer before I was born, my parents were living in England and were invited to have tea at Buckingham Palace.

5. I have one cousin who is the only person to have trekked solo, without re-supply, from Canada to the Geographic North Pole. Meanwhile, one of our other forebears led the members of a mountain climbing expedition to their deaths while attempting to climb the Matterhorn in his sneakers.

6. My great grandfather was an architect who designed, among other things, a house for Woodrow Wilson and the church in which Bob and I were married.

Invisible Cities in a nutshell: HUGE sigh of contentment! I’m sure this book was chock full of allusions that eluded me, but I’m sighing anyway, because it didn’t matter, its being such a beautifully, mathematically, ingeniously composed symphony of words (and so much more). Anyone read anything else other than If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler they’d recommend next?

Freaky Friday in a nutshell: about halfway through this book, I found myself thinking I could see why it would appeal to pre-teen girls, and why I liked it as a kid, but it really wasn’t something for adults. By the end of it, I’d changed my tune and felt it was a perfect book for adult “girls,” as well, one I will definitely share with my pre-teen friends (who’ve probably already all seen the movie) and their mothers.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Anti-intellectualism and Blogs for Those Who Like to Think

Poor Ms. Bookworld innocently caused a bit of a ruckus last week with her brilliantly funny post on Bloom’s Syndrome, a disorder I began to inoculate myself against at the tender age of eighteen when I entered the hallowed halls of my Institute of Higher Learning to discover what an epidemic it was. Unfortunately, in responses to Ms. Bookworld, the ugly word “anti-intellectual” made an appearance. Am I the only one who sees the irony in this word being used because a satirical piece was written that arose from something Harold Bloom said? I get the distinct feeling people must not understand what an anti-intellectual is. I’ve decided it’s my duty to set the world straight.

An anti-intellectual is someone who is anti-education, anti-study, anti-learning, anti-debate, anti-exploration, and anti-shades-of-gray. Anti-intellectuals are the sorts of people who will say, “Why study history? It’s all in the past,” or “No one needs to read the classics. They can’t teach us anything about today.” If you want some beautiful examples of anti-intellectuals, take a look at America’s current administration, you know, the one composed of people whose idea of improving education is to make sure educational testing companies are making big bucks while also making sure our children are discouraged from ever having any original thoughts. Otherwise, the kids might grow up to be citizens who vote and who pay attention to more than sound bites when doing so.

Walk into a room full of anti-intellectuals, and my guess is you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who even knows who Harold Bloom is. If someone does, I doubt he or she will have actually read any of his books or be able to quote him. And speaking of quotes, anti-intellectuals are also the sorts of people who take quotes out of context in order to ban books.

I wouldn’t label anyone who can laugh at her own tendencies toward intellectual snobbism an anti-intellectual. I also wouldn’t use the word to describe myself. I grew up surrounded by intellectuals, and I have chosen career paths that guarantee constant encounters with intellectuals. However, I would absolutely call myself anti-pseudo-intellectuals (well, except for the fact that I can’t help feeling a little sorry for pseudo-intellectuals and wondering what their childhoods were like for them to grow up into people who constantly want to prove to others how smart they are). Perhaps the real problem is that people are confusing intellectuals with pseudo-intellectuals. I sort of find this hard to believe, because there’s such a profound difference between the two.

Intellectuals are first and foremost curious. That means they would never pretend to know it all. Good grief. Knowing it all would mean having nothing new to learn, and how boring life would be with nothing new to learn. Intellectuals are not afraid to ask questions, a means to learning. Intellectuals are passionate, and their passion inspires others. They love to teach, always aware that those they teach have plenty to teach them in return. Intellectuals are open-minded, truly aware of the fact that, although they may catch themselves doing so (after all, they’re only human), unless they’ve been there and done that, they don’t have much right to criticize. If they don’t understand something (e.g. why someone loves American Idol), they will talk to people, try to understand it, and come away from that conversation with some interesting thoughts, even if they still don’t get it. Intellectuals (at least the ones I know), although they may often be depressed over the state of things, know how to have fun, and they love to laugh loud and hard. But maybe above and beyond all this, I've never met a true intellectual who went around trying to make others feel small or stupid.

Then, there’s the genius. Lucky are those of us who get to meet a few of those in our lives. I would imagine pseudo-intellectuals don’t meet many. After all, Mr. or Ms. Genius might have just walked out of a low-life bar or a movie theater featuring Hollywood’s latest blockbuster hit, places pseudo-intellectuals peer at over upturned noses. While a pseudo-intellectual is busy bemoaning his inability to find anything worth reading that he hasn't already read at his local Border’s, he may, frowning, walk right past a genius chuckling over Bridget Jones’s Diary.

And that’s the key word: frowning. Pseudo-intellectuals love to frown. They frown at Hollywood. They frown at popular sitcoms. They frown at bestseller lists. They frown at schools that aren’t in the Ivy League or at least one of the “Public Ivies.” They frown at anything considered “middle” or "low brow” (defined, of course, by them). Do they ever laugh? Well, yes, of course they do, as long as it’s at someone else’s expense.

I’d love to be an intellectual. I love hanging out with them. Maybe that’s why Book World was one of the first blogs I ever read on a regular basis. Meanwhile, I was tagged by Dorr for my own blog that makes her think (a wonderful honor, coming from someone whose posts are guaranteed to keep the cogs and wheels in my brain from rusting). That means I need to nominate five others for the thinking blogger award. The rules don’t say whether or not people can be nominated more than once, but I’m hoping not, since that means others have already nominated the many, many blogs that deserve this award, making it much easier for me to choose a mere five. Here they are (and don’t let me catch you calling any of these an anti-intellectual):

Jew Eat Yet – I mean, where else can you find such brilliance as a comparison between Haman and Ann Coulter (who, incidentally, is the Platonic anti-intellectual)?

Froshty Mugs

-- Well, I have to note these two, because they’re related to me. If I can’t be an intellectual, at least I can be related to some who’ve been making me think all my life and are now doing so via their blog posts.

Mandarine – a philosopher, a tech whiz, a master with words (even in a second language), as close to a “Renaissance Man” as it’s possible to be in The Information Age

Miss Snark – how can an editor not be made to think by Miss Snark?

Friday, March 09, 2007

May I Suggest...?

A couple of years ago, my friend Becky introduced me to the wonderful British literary magazine Slightly Foxed. She mentions it herself over here. I’ve been wanting to subscribe to it ever since, but it’s incredibly expensive for us Americans to do so, so I’ve been putting it off. Recently, though, I’ve been given some monetary gifts, and I’ve decided to treat myself to it for a year (which will, of course, turn into more than a year, once my subscription runs out, but I’m hoping I’ll have more gift money by then). Sometime shortly before that, my former boss had lent me a collection of Algernon Blackwood stories that included The Wendigo and a book by Kingsley Amis called The Green Man, both of which were wonderfully scary. (Amis surprised me. I’m not a big fan of his, he being one of those smug, “look how clever I am. I’m more clever than you are” sorts of authors.) Earlier this week, Charlotte posted on her experience reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.

You may be wondering what all these things have in common. Well, put such things together in my brain and toss them around in that empty space resembling one of those old-fashioned tumbling barrels in a fun house, and they’ll bump into each other. They may not exactly bond, but connections will be made, and they will stick to each other, at least for a little while. The Scotch tape for Slightly Foxed, stories that terrified me, and Julie and Julia is the word “suggestibility,” a word my brain woos with an ardent passion every chance it gets, but most often when I have the written word in front of me.

They happen to all be perfect examples of how susceptible I am to suggestion when I read. These years later, I’m still amused by the fact that when I read Slightly Foxed for the first time, a magazine that doesn’t exactly review books, but rather, has people write about books/authors they like, I found myself thinking, “Maybe I ought to give The Scarlet Letter another try.” In order to understand how absurd this is, you need to know how often since high school, I’ve “given this book a try.” It’s one of those books that’s alluded to so often in our culture, it’s a shame not to have read it. But I just cannot get into it. Here I was, however, reading how much someone else enjoyed it, and I was convinced it must be the classic to beat all American classics and a delight from beginning to end; my own feelings and opinions just being tossed out the window in favor of those of someone I’d never met.

The Wendigo and The Green Man are both stories created from wonderful, woodsy, mythical creatures. Probably because they tap into a primeval fear of being lost in the woods, they provided especially chilling pictures of themselves when I was reading these stories, and I found myself suspiciously looking out the window across the street to an undeveloped wooded lot where one of these creatures might decide to set up camp and keep an eye on me. Ridiculous. More than ridiculous. You don’t have to tell me that. But this lot is attached to the woods whose trail I trek for part of my morning and evening walk, and believe it or not, sometimes when I’m alone, and it’s a bit windy, and I can hear the fabulous, eerie creaking of the wood as that wind knocks the trees about a bit, I expect to look up and see some branchy, leafy creature lumbering towards me from a place far off the trail. This is an image completely placed there by having read Blackwood and Amis, as well as having recently seen an unrelated, but fantastic, movie called The Wendigo, whose setting is basically right where I live. I spent a good deal of my life living around wooded lots, exploring and building forts in woods, hiking all kinds of trails in all kinds of places, and never once did I imagine such a monster following me around (the furry Big Foot, whom I read about as much as I could as a child, yes, but not this fellow). Now, he’s there on many occasions.

Charlotte and others who commented on her post agreed that not only did Julie and Julia not inspire them to want to cook their way through Julia Child, but also that it did not really inspire them to cook anything from Julia Child at all. I wish I could be so unaffected. I read this book and immediately wanted my own copy of Julia Child, just at the point when the latest edition was being published. I found myself wondering if I could ever master the art of flipping a crêpe. If I were to buy and cook lobster, something to which I’ve always been opposed (I won’t eat lobster, not because I don’t like it -- how could one not like something that’s basically an excuse to eat tons of melted butter -- but because I feel so sorry for those creatures floating around in tanks with their poor little claws taped shut, and the idea of boiling them alive horrifies me), would I discover the same animal instincts Powell seemed to find buried inside once she started preparing lobsters? Is there something to the notion that we enjoy the kill as much as the food, but don’t want to admit it? And then there was the liver, which was just like The Scarlet Letter. I know I hate liver. No one has to tell me that. Unless it’s lovingly disguised in a delicious pâté or turned into Liverwurst, I don’t want to see it or smell it, let alone have to eat it. Yet, Julie, with her descriptions of how much she ended up liking it, had me second-guessing this knowledge. Thank God I’m married to Bob. My common sense had lapsed into a coma or something, but all I had to do was imagine his reaction were I suddenly to race out and buy a few pounds of liver to realize what a bad idea it was.

These are just a few examples, but give me a little more time, and I could probably come up with hundreds (actually, that should be hundreds of thousands. Just the topic of illness alone could produce hundreds) of my 110th percentile ranking on the suggestibility scale. But, I haven’t got time. I’ve just heard something downstairs and need to go see if it’s the Green Man knocking at my door, and if no one’s there, I need to find a copy of The Scarlet Letter to peruse after I’ve whipped up a batch of crêpes for dinner tonight.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

In Which Emily Discovers She's Not Alone

A few weeks back, after a period in which I’d been seeing some extremely good but extremely violent movies, I posted on the subject. (I’m feeling too lazy today to go find that and link back to it, so just trust me. I did.) Well, now Bob and I have gone to see The Lives of Others, which just exemplifies the sort of movie I was saying I’d like to see more of. This was a movie that so easily could have had some extraordinarily violent death scenes, not to mention excruciatingly graphic torture scenes, but there wasn’t one in sight. Nonetheless, I was gripped with fear and worry throughout this magnificent movie. Casino Royale, that movie most of us would describe as “great fun” was far more disturbing in its depictions of death and torture than this one was.

As we walked out of the theater, I said to Bob, “See? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. No hideously violent scenes anywhere, and yet I was on the edge of my seat.” Now, maybe part of me was on the edge of my seat because I was expecting the violence one has come to expect in such movies these days, but I don’t think so. By the time we got close to the end, I’d pretty much figured out these sorts of scenes weren’t coming, but my heart was still racing.

Then, I stopped in the women’s room and discerned I wasn’t alone in my opinion. Two women in front of me were talking about how terrific the movie had been and how it was even more so because there’d been no gratuitous violence. One of them commented on how great it was not to have to see things like fingers being cut off and to still be in a state of horror over what was happening. I, the person who usually likes to play the fly-on-the-wall role in such situations, found myself speaking up to tell her I completely agreed.

So, three cheers for The Lives of Others. Let’s bring out more films like that. And I’ve now forgiven it for beating out my favorite Pan’s Labyrinth for the Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film. If you haven’t yet seen it, do. It will inspire you with its message of hope for humankind even more than Schindler’s List did. And it will remind you, the way Hotel Rwanda did, that no matter how much we might complain about our country and our current regime, how extraordinarily lucky we are to live where we do and to be able to do and say what we like. I’m the first to jump on the “we’re living in a police state” bandwagon, but you know what? We’re not – at least, for now, we’re not. And, at the moment, we have very hopeful signs that we won’t be anytime soon. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Still Blushing

If you don't hear from me for a few weeks, don't worry. I'm just going to be really busy erecting my shrine to Mandarine. And then, of course, once it's erected, forget everything I said yesterday about my lack of enthusiasm for sustained ritual. I'm just, somehow, going to have to figure out how to fit into my busy schedule the thrice-daily lighting of the incense, bowing down, and chocolate sacrifices.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Vegetarian for a Day (or 2 or 3...)

Every year, Bob and I give up meat for Lent. Being Presbyterians, this isn’t really necessary. As a matter of fact, giving something up for Lent was an idea that was foreign to Bob before he met me. I’m not really sure why, since I was raised a not-extremely-observant Episcopalian, but I’ve practiced giving something up for Lent every year since I was a teenager. Maybe it’s because I went to a Catholic high school, but I think it has more to do with the fact I’ve got so many Lyonses and Seligmans hanging out on the branches of my family tree, I must have a ritual gene that refuses to let go of its little claim on my cells. It’s just dying to get me to add some cleansing rituals to my life that don’t have anything to do with baths and showers and bars of soap, things meant to help me tap into the more spiritual and mystical aspects of life. I’m so impressed with all the rituals my observant Jewish friends (most especially those I know who are Orthodox) incorporate into their lives. Lent gives me the opportunity to pretend I don’t lead such a chaotic, catch-as-catch can existence, spiritually. Lent is sort of Ritualistic Cleansing Lite. You know, I don’t want to have to fast all day long on all those holy days, and I don’t really want to have to say all those prayers all the time, nor do I want to forego driving every single Sabbath, but hey, I’ll give up one thing during Lent.

Anyway, we’re in the midst of week two of Lent, and I’m still all excited about our temporary diet. I’ve been looking through cookbooks and websites and getting ideas for different ways to prepare our favorite vegetables. For my birthday, my brother-in-law gave me this wonderful huge book on the world’s healthiest foods, and, of course, most of the healthiest are fruits and vegetables, so I’m busy making plans to shop for the ones that top the list (except Swiss chard. I have no idea how anyone can eat that stuff. I’ve tried disguising it with lots of garlic – another extremely healthy food, I might add -- but to no avail). I’m busy thinking, “This is so much fun. We really just ought to become full-time vegetarians.” I'm feeling extremely virtuous.

All right, that’s me right now, full of the spirit of sacrifice. Talk to me come Palm Sunday, though. You may discover the melodic little “we love vegetables” tune has become somewhat atonal. I’ll be telling you, “Screw the lamb on Easter Sunday. I’m going to go out and get a big, fat hamburger.” Or you might hear me say, “If I have to figure out one more creative way to prepare a potato, I’m going to slit my wrists.” And don’t interrupt me if you see me with a newspaper in my hands: can’t you see I’m busy searching the classifieds to see if any chicken farms happen to be for sale?

But that day hasn’t arrived yet. Thus, I’m off to the grocery store to buy some mushrooms for the curried mushrooms (an extremely healthy food, if you buy the crimini, which is just a portobello with a fancy name – as if portobello doesn’t sound fancy enough – and a heftier price tag) and cashews I plan to stir fry this evening, a recipe that’s been writing itself in my head all day. I’ve been wishing the day away, so I can get to work on it. I’ll let you know how it turns out, and will someone please remind me in a few weeks how I was so excited about doing this? And how I wasn’t sick of mushrooms yet? And how I just loved all the things that could be done in a wok, the wok I was not yet contemplating giving to the Good Will, because when would I ever need that hideous instrument of tortuously boring meals again?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Support Our Troops

Hobs has requested that we all write about the meaninglessness of the phrase “Support our troops,” which I am all too happy to do. We live in an age of meaningless words and phrases. “Patriotic,” for instance. What happened to the days when being patriotic meant more than waving an American flag and voting Republican? Then there’s “Right to Life.” Hobs so aptly compared the notion of supporting the troops to that of “the right to life.” When I was growing up in North Carolina in the heyday of Jesse Helms’s Senatorial rule, the handful of people in the state who didn’t support him came up with this great bumper sticker: “Jesse Helms: right to life from conception to birth.” And I’d love to see how many of these people who so vehemently believe in the rights of a fetus would eagerly tune into a televised execution of someone like Charles Manson, big bowls of popcorn in their laps to accompany the evening’s entertainment.

I also love the way everything is turned into a “war.” We have the “drug war.” Am I the only person in the world who thinks that sounds like a war over who gets the drug? “The War on Terror” would be extremely amusing, if these words weren’t being used to strip away people’s rights and to condone torture. Those who most love to use the phrase seem to be incapable of seeing the irony in the fact that they’re doing their damnedest to strike terror in every citizen’s heart, keeping the American public in a perpetually frightened and uncertain state, so they can do whatever the hell they want. Of course, when we’re actually doing something that looks extremely war-like: sending our armed forces over seas with tanks and weapons, well, that’s not a war, that’s just an operation, as in “Operation Desert Storm.”

What does it mean, then, in this day and age of meaningless phrases to "support our troops?" It's a good question. Anyone who knows me doesn’t have to wonder how I stand on this evil endless war in Iraq. Unlike many a politician in this country, I’ve been unapologetically opposed to it from day one. That does not mean I’m opposed to getting rid of malicious, inhumane dictators. I just want to know, if that’s our mission, why we aren’t busy getting rid of all the other evil dictators in the world. It also does not mean you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is more concerned about the poor young men and women over there fighting a war that will get them absolutely nothing once they come home (if they do come home). The travesty of war in this day and age is that those who make the decisions are not the ones getting blown to bits in a foreign land. I’d have been all in favor of this war if Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld had been the ones to march in there themselves to fight for their all-so-important oil. So, I’ll let you judge. Do I not “support our troops,” because I feel extraordinary empathy and pain for the young soldiers laying their lives on the line and want them all to come home now? Would I be someone who “supports our troops” if I felt not an ounce of empathy or pain were Bush and Co. to be blown up due to their own greed and hunger for power?

I’m tagging you if you’re reading this: please post on “support our troops.”