Stories


While I was home over Christmas, I had my yearly facial with the awesome esthetician I’ve been seeing since I was 15  (15, and then in the throes of dermatological unpleasantness).  She is the mistress of the art of extraction, and my first visit to her was as much a cultural touchstone of my entry into modern womanhood as my first trip to the gynecologist.  Though no less painful than my first pap, at least the esthetician rubbed my face and shoulders down with essential oils, and I had glowy skin a week later, once the zits she coaxed to the surface and the redness had subsided.  The gyno just poked me with a metal spatula and gave me the pill… which made me break out.  (Sudden stroke of brilliant idiocy – spas that also offer pap smears!  I am trademarking that business idea right now.  Whole Women’s Health & Beauty sees you inside and out!).

Sadly, after treating my skin for almost 15 years and my own mother’s for 30, our esthetician was hanging up her tweezers, imported creams, and bug zapper to retire.  This would be the last proper facial I will have in a while, as I’ve yet to find anyone half as good.

Lying back in the chair, listening to Enya, snuggled in my quilt, wholly safe in the hands of a professional, I was sad, and wanted to mark the occasion somehow.  What about… a lip wax?  I’d been annoyed at the downy hairs on my upper lip for some time.  Terri is the only person I would let wax and pluck my eyebrows, given her skill, and the only person I trusted to tell me if an upper-lip wax would be a terrible mistake, or a bold move forwards. (more…)

If there is one thing that every young radical who has the misfortune of reaching their late-twenties and discovering that non-profit work fails to pay the electricity bill will discover, it’s that her cooler friends will accuse her of selling out.  And in all likelihood, the accusation will be just, and the “victim” of said insinuation or outright accusation will find herself with only a shaky stiletto on which to stand.

To many people, it doesn’t matter how much I recycle, that I walk to work, or how much money I donate to Planned Parenthood and the Red Cross.  The fact that I listen to NPR only consolidates my place in the affluent white liberal ranks.  I am a meat-eater who feels guilt because I am too lazy to make it to the organic farmer’s market every weekend.  I have a Banksy coffee-table book.  I am friends with my housekeeper.  I yearn to be a roller derby girl but don’t have time and was rejected by Teach for America.  My best friend bought me a Kindle for Christmas.  I am an embarrassing living embodiment of Stuff White People Like.

And yet, last week, when my best friend from high school jokingly emailed me something about my job as a “corporate shill,” I about spluttered my Merlot all over my Netbook.  I am far from moneyed, after all!  My apartment doesn’t even have a dishwasher (and I will tell you, I never thought I would be practically 30 and living without basic mod-cons like central air).  I do have a classic dryer from the 1970s, and a television that, as best I can tell, was the finest model on offer in 1995.  I have a mouse for a roommate and a potentially murderous mold problem in my bathroom.

If I were a proper corporate shill, I would have a condo and a standing appointment for a weekly bikini wax.  I would fucking know how to ski.  I would not have a deep-discount wine habit and holes in the toes of all my socks.  Just because he’s living in one of the Carolinas and getting his PhD in Hippie Pot-Smoking does not mean that I suddenly know how to iron. (more…)

Many moons ago, I was forcibly uprooted from the co-ed, hippie, Montessori learning enclave of my early childhood and enrolled by my parents in Catholic all-girls’ school.  Whereas once I had daily worn teal-and-black animal-print high tops and tee-shirts celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was suddenly thrust into a world of uniform plaid jumpers, saddle-shoes, and dour-faced nuns.

Orderly rows of assigned desks replaced the colorful carpets on which I was accustomed to lounging.  I was no longer permitted to while away the hours in the library, obsessively consuming comics and books on the Salem witch trials, or scribbling in my journal.  Instead, study time was strictly scheduled and misbehavior was publicly punished.  I was forced to take math beyond pushing a desultory bead around an abacus.

Math, in fact, was the fundamental cause of this disorienting change of course, as recent testing demonstrated that my nine-year-old self possessed the vocabulary of the average college student (thanks to my insatiable appetite for reading) and the math skills of your average three-year-old sorting out Cheerios at the breakfast table.  It seems my parents found this troubling, and despite the fact that I could adeptly weave hammocks from plastic six-pack rings and was extremely disturbed by the Gulf War, some basic educational tenets were lacking in my development.

This alleged inability (or total unwillingness) to learn math was also what prompted my mother to chauffeur me, whining, to Kumon twice a week, while my dad suffered my crying fits over everything from fractions to basic Algebra.  If you are wondering if the extra-curricular Kumon teaching methods are effective, I can only say that my math skills sped from 0 to 60 and the school was later that same year forced to furnish me with a sixth-grade math book – this for the girl who, months prior, had barely mastered basic addition.  In my experience, Kumon is the steroids of arithmetic, and for your math-averse child, akin to a prolonged, pinpointed torture session.  Obviously, I plan to subject my own children to it in the future, when they’ve been very bad.    (more…)

Two weekends ago, I met a friend for late afternoon drinks at a bar across the road.  When I arrived, he’d been soaking up the sun and cider for a couple of hours already, and was sitting with a cheerful group of people I was invited to join.  This included:  Chester from Newcastle; Chester’s Swedish girlfriend, called Em; the bar’s owner, Dave, who is Irish; Dave’s Polish wife; my South African mate, Sean; and their friend, Gary, who is from Edinburgh.  I mention the hodgepodge of nationalities only because this is one of those things I love about London – Sean also lives with a Ghanaian, an Italian, and two Czech lodgers who were all presumably drinking pints in another patch of sun.

As I was a little bit late to the party, the conversation was relaxed and winding.  A popular topic, however, was what substances could be used to spike Gary’s drink without him noticing.  A range of fluids were suggested, with Gary’s enthusiastic participation.  This was mildly amusing, but a bit weird for a bunch of thirty-somethings to be talking about – with two PhDs amongst them, no less.  It was more the stuff of the fifth-grade cafeteria table.  Because four of the group were bartenders, the discussion covered what noxious liquids could be visually disguised in what ranges of seemingly innocuous beverages.  I finally had to pipe up and ask:  What exactly was the deal?

It turned out that one drunken night four months ago, Gary bumped his head getting into a taxi, and suffered a mild brain injury that had left him without a sense of taste or smell.  The loss of smell is called anosmia, but Gary’s principal complaint was that everything tasted of, well, nothing.  Although likely the hundredth time poor Gary was forced to tell the story, we all sat and contemplated this for a while.  (more…)

I take great pleasure in helping out people looking for directions or guidance, in so far as I am able.  Here in London, exasperated tourists will approach me with varying  degrees of English competency on the regular, looking for assistance in locating their destination; I am always delighted to point them in the right direction, when I can, drawing maps on a notepad or even walking them partway if I have nowhere important to be.  Even though this is not my home country, this is just good hospitality, and I like to do my best to send folk on their way with a positive impression, just as I rely on fellow Londoners to help me out when I’m in an unfamiliar part of town.  I am a big believer in asking for, and offering, directions.

So this is, as I said, just good hospitality, and ultimately good karma.  It’s not a big city, but it is a busy and twisting one, and we all need a little help from time to time.  I was recently thinking, however, about the people I call Travel Angels.  These are the people you meet in the course of your journey who go far out of their way to assist you, and leave you with a warm feeling in the pit of your belly, the people who replenish your basic faith in humanity, however grand or small the gesture.  These gestures are always poignant, but especially so in a foreign setting when you are wary of your vulnerability.

This is more than essential kindness, and more than giving directions.  These acts require the Angel to take time away from themselves to see you safely to your destination, or extend their welcome to the point of invitation into their own lives.  It’s the person who sees you on your own in an unfamiliar place and invites you to a Lebanese family supper, or offers to drive you 30 miles out of their way (both experiences from my own life).  With that thought, I wanted to detail four instances of Travel Angels and invite you to share your own.

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On point as usual, The Onion had an article in January called “Cat Refuses to Die” that was both amusing and wince-worthy in its familiarity.  I emailed it to my mom and suggested a blog post recounting our own history of the more ridiculous medical shit we’ve been through with our animals, saying that I thought it would elicit comments.

She wrote back, “Yeah, the comments this will get are that we are crazy people.”

Certainly some people would find the amount of time, money, and energy invested in our pets’ care to be shocking.  Tallying it up is sobering, especially as we’ve only had standard house pets – think about people with horses or exotic animals, who probably spend a fortune in care and maintenance.  With that perspective, our kitty hospice and doggie rehab shouldn’t seem so absurd…

In a house of Responsible Pet-Ownership, we, like many other people, often found our good intentions stretched to extraordinary measures, and often with extreme grossness and expense.

There was our much-beloved Yonkers and the Blood Parasite in the late ‘80s that cost over $2500 to treat (about $4600, according to an inflation calculator).  He spent two weeks in the feline ICU, and we made more than one “final visit.”  Miraculously, Yonkers was eventually discharged with a feeding tube punched through the back of his neck to his esophagus; for feeding, my mother would blenderize cat food, uncork him, and inject it into his neck with a syringe.  He made a full recovery and went on to eviscerate many more lizards, in his day. (more…)

storytellerIf you’re a fan of This American Life, radio, or personal essays, you’ll want to know about The Moth, a live, non-profit storytelling event held in New York City.  The Moth was founded in 1997 by George Dawes Green, a writer from Georgia who had relocated to New York.  He and a group of friends at home used to gather together on his friend Wanda’s porch to share stories, and he wanted to recreate that close sense of connection in his new life.  So, he invited friends to his New York living room to recreate story hour, and the event gradually grew into larger and larger venues.  Currently, The Moth holds eight ongoing programs and has told over 3,000 stories to over 100,000 people.

Famous participants include Jonathan Ames, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Simon Doonan, Candace Bushnell, Spalding Gray, John Cameron Mitchell, Susan Orlean, Dan Savage, Suzanne Vega, and many others.  The Moth Outreach Program “offers storytelling workshops to students and marginalized adults living in New York City,” and works “with high school-age teens from underserved communities and with adults in rehabilitation and training programs, including homeless men and women, recently released prisoners, and people recovering from substance abuse.”  Other events include “StorySLAMS” that take place in Chicago, LA, and Detroit, and offer the public a chance to tell their stories in front of an audience, guided by a host.

You can listen to stories on their website here, which is both a wonderful alternative to watching TV this evening and a pleasurable way to pass the time while cooking or folding laundry.  I’m a big reader of personal essays (like David Rakoff, Sloane Crossley, and Jill Soloway, to name a handful), so this is right up my alley.  It’s also a chance to appreciate a narrative form I enjoy in a different medium, and a reminder of the importance of oral tradition and the community aspects of storytelling.  It exposes unexpected layers to hear the emotional voice of the storyteller and the participatory reaction of the audience members, and how each story is alternatively touching, raw, and usually very funny. (more…)