Saturday, July 10, 2010

Garden Envy

I do the best I can. I follow the experts' advice on nurturing. I ponder theories of growth, development, and healthy rearing. I invest quality time and am an active caretaker. But still, I feel like a failed parent lacking control over my brood.

My brood of vegetables, I mean.

My spinach bolted faster than a rabbit from a pack of wolves. My broccoli opted for an early glorious bloom before deciding otherwise. And some little jerk is eating my strawberries.

It’s not all gloom and doom in my garden, though. My herbs have been fantastic. My jalapenos are growing beautifully (which the banana peppers would be wise to take note). My tomatoes do OK. The rest of my plants, however, cause me to stand in aisles of the hardware store tempted to abandon the organic strategy in order to blast my plants with enough poison to kill those bugs who eat my veggies before I do. Who knew gardening would bring such feelings of wrath and vengeance?

My mom, as always, offers support and justification. It’s so hot, she says. It’s been awfully dry, she consoles. I’d believe her if not for the garden next door. My neighbor planted his first garden in a patch of yard next to ours, and it’s a masterpiece. The fencing around it is in danger of bursting at the seams from the force of massive vegetables unable to curtail their growth: cucumbers the size of my arm, banana peppers the size of zucchinis, zucchinis the size of small children. Clearly, his garden is mocking mine.

His garden has even infiltrated the peace of my home. My favorite place to pass time in the summer is at the table on our back porch, which offers an unfortunate view of both gardens. I look at his. I look at mine. I look at his. It’s like the Old Spice commercial: “I’m the man your man could smell like.” His is the garden my garden could grow like.

Making matters worse is that my neighbor is an extremely friendly, modest, and generous person. He drops by to bear gifts of gorgeous vegetables, and when I ask him his secret, he smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and supposes it’s luck. I want to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and yell, “TELL ME WHAT YOU’RE USING! GIVE IT UP, MAN!” But instead I smile wanly and thank him for the bounty, inwardly reminding myself to give my plants an earful about their comparative laziness.

This morning, my neighbor emailed to say that he’s heading out of town, and I'm welcome to pick veggies from the garden while he’s away. As a token, he dropped off a huge, gorgeous cucumber on the table of our porch. Also on the table? My copy of “What’s Wrong With My Plant and How Do I Fix It?” along with one of my holey, bug-eaten tomatoes, left over from my diagnostic session the previous evening.

I swear I heard that cuke laughing. The knife I used to cut it was unnecessarily large and sharp.

Monday, March 22, 2010

And the Oscar goes to...

I made it my mission to see all movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year. With ten movies nominated, an opportunity presented itself to look at these movies and wonder: what do these movies say about 2010? What themes emerge? Why these movies, why now? So as best as I could, I tried to extrapolate a little social theories from a whole lot of movie watching.

The Other

I rank the movies in this category on a spectrum. On the most responsible end is District-9, a sci-fi movie in which aliens come to earth only to be subjugated and marginalized by humans. It’s a movie dealing with The Other, and what happens when someone of the majority morphs into The Other and can finally see the ramifications of their old behavior. Sci-fi usually isn’t my genre, but I really liked the story and execution.

In the middle of this spectrum is Avatar. Although an infinite amount of critical theories could apply and contradict each other, the most striking to me is an anti-imperialist one. But, like Huck Finn, the end wimps out: the Na-vi need the wisdom and leadership of a human to survive (whereas in District-9, the human needs the knowledge of the aliens to survive in their world). Although the story broke no new ground, Avatar did deserve every bit of praise for its visuals. For once, 3-D didn’t distract eyeballs but immersed them in a new world.

The most egregious movie here was The Blind Side. Sitting through this movie was like awkwardly sitting through a conversation with elderly people who don’t realize their own racism. The movie makes caricatures out of its black characters: either scary and violent or passive and in need of white assistance. The mother in the film repeatedly refers to the 18-year-old black man as “boy” in her Southern drawl. Anyone else uncomfy? The main character is a large, quiet man (who fails abysmally all aptitude tests but the one for “protectiveness”) who does a book report on Of Mice and Men… anyone else uncomfy now?

Get Thee to a University

My favorite films of the year: An Education and Precious. Both feature young women with two different problems: one is stifled by a strict family and private school and the other suffers from a horribly abusive family and uncaring society. Although the problems of the former seem like luxuries compared to the problems of the latter, both are young women unable to hear their own voices, much less use them. In the end, their minds, their determination, their educations, and their English teachers save them. Swoon!

All You Need is Love

Up. How I adore Up. It’s a movie about contented solitude. Then love. Then loss. Then learning how to take that love and apply it in ways that you didn’t quite count on. Up in the Air has a similar plot arc and character progression. The movie is my long-awaited grown-up adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit (a book which even appears in the film). While some viewed the movie as horribly depressing, I saw it as uplifting: even when love doesn’t last, it still transforms.

The opposite example is The Hurt Locker in which a character’s main love is to an incredibly dangerous job in a war zone, and his only emotional attachments occur in that environment. Back home, the adoration of a partner and child cannot pierce him. Does this mean the true love of his life is his work? Or that his war experiences have emotionally damaged him so that he’s unable to accept or give love outside of that context? It was a new look at a war movie, it kept me staring at the screen without blinking. Well deserving of the big prize.

A Dish Best Served Cold

And in the end, two very different movies about coping with being wronged. Inglourious Basterds focused on revenge plots against the Nazis. I could not find the movie as satisfying as Tarantino seemed to mean it to be. Mass murder is meant as a tonic for vengeance, but it results in moral chaos that kept my heartbeat rising but created an emotional rift between myself and the film by the end. The first scene, however, was reason enough for the best picture nod. Whoa-my-goodness. I'd like to see more of this kind of Tarantino.

A Serious Man. This deserved Best Original Screenplay. While it’s a quiet movie of soft conversations and uncomfortable silences, it’s troubled me since watching it. A man reacts to sudden bad news not with vengeance toward the ones who wronged him but with intense introverted reflection. In the end, his questions bear no meaning against the bigger question: How much of our lives do we make happen, and how much happens to us?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Jeepers, Creepers

Each artist has a preferred medium. Adams had his black-and-white film, Degas his pastels, Poe his creepiness. As for me, I create in Peep.

Three years ago the Washington Post launched the Peeps Show contest, challenging readers to create a diorama of a famous scene using marshmallow Peeps for characters. Each year since has gotten increasingly out of hand: last year they had over 1,100 entries, many by professional artists and designers who were not messing around. There have been Hopper and Escher paintings reimagined with Peeps, a marshmallow Marion Barry (memorably rendered in “Peep Set Me Up”), and even a Peep Captain Sully bravely standing on a plane wing in the Hudson. Who would’ve known that a marshmallow with dots for eyes could capture such broad range of emotion?

This year, I threw my Peep into the ring. Seeking to start early, I began to lurk in candy aisles in early February to no avail. While one can buy a singing Santa doll in September, it is impossible to peek a Peep before Valentine’s. I got a reputation at Rite-Aid for my stubborn return visits – the manager saw me one day and asked, “Hey, aren’t you that lady who’s looking for Peeps? The rabbit kind?” He laughed and asked why I demanded Peeps, and I only shook my head and said that the real answer was stranger than anything he could guess. But on that glorious evening of February 15 when heart-shaped boxes of candy made room for cartons of Peeps, the work began.

During the following two weeks, the dining room table was covered in fabric, cardboard, glue, and Peeps. I spent a good deal of time pondering questions like: If Peeps had arms, how long would they be? Are googly eyes appropriate here? What about wigs? As a kind of casting call, I sat before a row of marshmallow rabbits to evaluate their facial expressions and shape (they’re all different, really). Unable to resist a creative challenge, Jimmy joined me. We had lighting strategy sessions: overhead, back, spot, and combinations of the three. He tinkered with shutter speeds, focus, and had the artistic revelation to incorporate chicks amid the rabbits in order to create an oppositional us-versus-them conflict in our scene. It became an obsession. One day when my mom called and asked what I was doing, I replied that I was trying to sew a dress for a Peep but was having a hard time given that Peeps lack waistlines and shoulders. (She was proud, I’m sure.) And I’m ashamed to say that I skipped a Gloria Steinem lecture in order to make finishing touches on the diorama to get it to the Post on time. I’m sure Mama Steinem would understand; I was a woman on a mission.

With any luck, this diorama will be posted as a finalist on the Post website on Easter. But for a sneak preview for my loyal readers (both of you), I present: “Nobunny Puts Peepy in the Corner,” a marshmallow tribute to Patrick Swayze.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stupid, Smiling Clyde

I hate to admit this, but a message in a dream from a talking dog has changed the way I live.

On New Years Eve, full of filet mignon, champagne, and 2010 optimism, I went to bed unaware that a crazy dream was about to cause trouble. It was about Clyde, a smiling oaf of a dog at the animal control shelter. I adored this dog so much when I volunteered there that I returned to visit him. Just something about his smile. Shortly after, a no-kill shelter rescued Clyde from death row and placed him in foster care. Clyde lives!

In my dream, I chewed on Clyde’s leg like it was a turkey leg. He was delicious. I asked Clyde if this hurt him, and he smiled and replied not to worry, people do it all the time, please enjoy. I took a bite out of his side but began to feel guilty. No worries, Clyde told me, he was just an animal and everyone does it, please enjoy. I tried to take another bite, but couldn’t bring myself to do so. Clyde smiled and encouraged me to keep going, but I knew that if I ate any more, Clyde would die.

I woke up horrified. I didn’t eat meat that day. Or the next.

Since then, I’ve had meat twice. Once a relative made a chicken dinner, and I didn’t want to explain my talking dog dream to my meat-loving family. Another time, I began daydreaming about red meat and assumed my body wanted some. So last Sunday, two months since I had eaten red meat, I ordered a juicy burger. Turns out, my body didn’t want that at all.

But -- I insist in my best temper tantrum voice -- I like meat! I like Italian beefs in Chicago, pulled pork in Carolina, pastrami-on-rye in New York! I like to finish a day of yard work with Jimmy's grilled steaks, to celebrate summer with burgers or New Years with a filet. Meat is delicious! Since that dream, though, I’ve lost the taste for it -- it brought a long-simmering moral dilemma to a boil. When I look at meat, I see Clyde. Stupid, smiling Clyde. Whether I’m vegetarian, flexitarian, or whatever now, I don’t know. I only know that I didn’t have meat yesterday, I don’t want it today, and I’m not shopping to buy any for tomorrow. I harbor hope, however, that this is a passing fad that’ll have me eating corned beef by St. Paddy‘s Day.

Recently Jimmy and I went to a fantastic Indian restaurant in New York and asked the server to choose something great for us to eat. He asked for our parameters, and I asked for something spicy and without meat. “Oh, are you vegetarian?” he asked innocently.

I don’t know, I wanted to tell him, but what I do know is that there’s a trouble-maker of a dog available for adoption in Charlotte if you want him.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can Beauty Transcend the Ordinary? - Pt. 2

I flipped a coin this morning over how to spend my lunch hour: writing at a coffeehouse or running at the gym. My head beat my tail. Writing won.

My favorite coffeehouse can make my day with a good batch of snickerdoodle joe, so imagine my glee when they offered a better surprise: an impromtu performance by two violinists. The music was beautiful! I’d love to share the name of the song I swooned over as I walked in, but I only know it wasn’t included in my early study of classical music (the Tom & Jerry School of Music). When they finished to applause, they asked their quiet, coffee-sipping audience, “Does anyone here like AC/DC?” Um, yeah! These two violinists proceeded to rock out “Back in Black.” Rocked it.

I settled into a table and began my usual struggle to write (one page! why is one page so hard to write one damn page?), but my words provided weak competition against the music, which segued from the “Love Story“ theme to Guns N Roses. I remembered the Washington Post article about a renowned classical violinist playing one of the world’s most valuable violins in a Metro station while most people only scurried past. The Post’s experiment: Can beauty transcend the ordinary? It didn’t. I shamefully recognized myself in the story -- the person sometimes too distracted to notice pretty things -- and vowed to reform. So while sitting in Dilworth Coffee amid beautiful music, I set my work aside to listen and enjoy. Despite my less-than-sophisticated palette for classical music, I recognized this as amazing work. All guilt about skipping the workout and the writing disappeared.

During a break, one of the violinists approached me with the line, “So I’m happily married and not looking for anything like that, but you seem into music, and we’d like to talk to you.” Have a seat, fellas! These were classically trained musicians who went to conservatory together then toured internationally for fifteen years. As their careers sucked the joy out of music, they each broke out on their own. One traded downtown Chicago for a West Virginian farm, then bought a bus and took his family on the road as he performed smaller shows. Now that they’ve partnered, these two musicians perform everywhere from concert halls to dinner parties and play the music they like (“for some reason, our conductor frowned upon performing AC/DC”). We exchanged information, and I promised to see them play when they returned to town. They asked if I found it weird to come across two violinists randomly playing in a coffeehouse. I shook my head and asked if they read the Post article about a famous violinist playing in a Metro station. The guys laughed and said, “Yeah, Josh Bell is a friend of ours.”

Ever the skeptic, I hit Google. The name of the violinist in the 2007 WaPo story? Joshua Bell. The story about a famous musician leaving Chicago to move to a farm in West Virginia? Recounted in news articles. The instrument played by this musician? A rare Bernardus Calcanius violin made in 1750. Check him out yourself. I’d be lucky to hear these guys play Carnegie, much less a tiny coffeehouse in Charlotte.

Three years ago, I tortured myself with the question posed by the Post: would I stop my routine to appreciate a classically trained musician playing a rare violin during an ordinary moment? It seemed an experiment impossible to replicate, but today I got my reassuring answer. And the bonus? Unexpected moments of beauty do wonders against writer’s block. I finally had something to fill my one page. You just read it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Bother

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."
President Obama, State of the Union, January 2010

Because of WHO THEY ARE. Obama recognizes homosexuality as an inherent part of WHO THEY ARE. Sexual orientation is not a choice, but it's as natural to gay people as it is to straight. Yet this recognition makes his other views seem unthinkable -- that while being gay is just part of who people are, it's still a part that prevents their right to marry and have families and equal rights under American law.

Obama's "Don't Ask" reversal is not even for full integration, but for the military to stop aggressively pursuing disciplinary action against gay servicemembers who are outed by third parties. This is being discussed today on Capitol Hill, as if there's anything here that needs discussion. Integration of openly gay servicemembers is still years away and requires -- you guessed it -- further discussion. To call this equal rights for homosexual Americans is like calling an end to the Salem Witch Trials a final victory for feminism.

The arguments against allowing gay servicemembers to serve openly are similar to the fights against racial or gender integration of the armed forces. What is the new fear? That openly gay servicemembers will introduce sexual harrassment into the ranks? As someone who interned at the Pentagon and wrote for a military-related company, I'll attest that sexual harrassment IS prevalent in the ranks. Cat calls and propositioning during professional situations were commonplace. Why weren't these offenses of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Too many see sexual harrassment against women by men as nothing serious (even flattering!), while sexual harrassment against men by men is an abomination of nature. Let's have a military that allows the best and brightest to serve in a professional environment, shall we?

Obama started his gay rights fight with the military. Why would a gay person volunteer to fight and die for a country that doesn't grant equal rights? A country that sees a gay person as too morally unfit for the human experience of marrying, having children, and being recognized as a legal family with all rights therein? A country where most states make it legal to fire someone due to sexual orientation? At least when gay people get fired for being gay they can join the Marines, provided they hide a sexual orientation that straight people can flaunt, and when they get assigned to a base they'll go alone because the government doesn't recognize their families as legal spouses or dependents. This is the Obama version of gay rights.

This country doesn't treat gay Americans as full American citizens with equal rights. Instead of a gesture that plays lip service to gay rights but only adds retention numbers to a military struggling with enlistment, Obama should start treating gay Americans as the real Americans WHO THEY ARE.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

These Boots Are Made For Travelin'

A new year. A new trip. It’s become my classic combination, akin to wine with cheese or Doritos with M&Ms (trust me, it works). My earlier fascination with travel has grown into a nearly physical need for it. The signs of the craving are now familiar: I’m restless, I peruse travel websites during work, I look at stamps on my passport and reminisce as if they’re old family photos.

I don’t know where this year will take me, but I hope it will be across the Atlantic. In anticipation, I’ve amassed stashes of travel porn: Budget Travel magazine, Rick Steves DVDs, VRBO, and my beloved weekly Kayak travel deals email. While I may look like the same old me, I focus on my potentially awesome versions of me in 2010: the me who hikes through Croatia to see waterfalls! The me who sips Bohemian beer after a day of sightseeing in Prague! The me who watches for giraffe and lion on the plains in South Africa! I salivate at the idea that by year’s end, I might know my way around Salzburg or dicker for prices in a Budapest market or learn basic phrases in Dutch.

I recently read Alain de Botton’s Art of Travel in which he examines why and how we travel. Parts are refreshingly unromantic: I sympathized with the feeling of arriving to a foreign location expecting to find both the city and myself there to be postcard perfect (see above) and feeling let down initially. But the gap between the ideal and the real -- in regards to both the place and myself in the place -- seems the most valuable part. I love the discovery of it all. I travel because I know that the person I’ll be on the return flight will be more enlightened (albeit tired) than the starry-eyed one on the outbound trip, that I’ll have learned more about my world and myself largely due to the gap between my expectations of the trip and the reality of it.

It’s funny -- in a humiliating way -- to remember predictions of my past trips. Upon booking our Paris trip, I fancied I’d become a Parisian Carrie Bradshaw, breezing through streets wearing a dress with a flirty, full skirt (I don’t even own dresses like that!), scarf around my neck, while speaking my few phrases so convincingly that the locals would be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn I wasn’t a native. The reality? I was my usual jeans-clad persona, only the people on the Metro stared so disapprovingly at my boots that I knew they set me apart in a bad way, and I couldn‘t figure out how. In cafes, after I’d stammer my order and a couple niceties in French, I’d wait for the waiter to escape earshot before exclaiming to Jimmy, “I did it!! I ordered us coffees!” And unfailingly, the waiter would return -- not with coffees but with espressos because I ordered the wrong damn thing. Again. Luckily, I had many opportunities to learn to love espresso in Paris. The boot thing really bothered me, though. C’mon, black leather boots! What could be wrong with black leather boots?

Travel changes me. Improves me. Each new place demands humility, an open mind, and a willingness to learn what it has to teach. Paris -- despite its reputation -- taught me to be more polite to strangers, to greet and bid au revior to shop owners and to respect a local language at the cost of my ego and desire to appear effortlessly chic while abroad. Italy taught me to slow down while eating and walking, to stop rushing and start noticing, and in the name of all things holy, to use fresh foods and herbs when I cook. Ireland taught me to cherish ties and time with friends and family. London, like the rest, taught me to ditch my preconceived notions and to accept a place on its terms -- or, as it were, to mind the gap.

So where will this year take me? Which me will I become? What place will offer its own lessons that will forever change me? I don’t know, but I just hope where ever it is, black leather boots will be OK there.