Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Have you ever been interrupted by the absolutely lovely sound of a group of approximately twenty high-schoolers rehearsing several pieces of classical choral music in an acoustically ideal university lobby?

It was the most beautiful sound I have heard in months.

(I have to add, though, that if you really want to hear a sound that will bring tears to your eyes, all you have to say to a friend who knows what you're talking about is yiff!, and you will be rolling on the floor in uncontrollable, hilarious tears.)

Being around these kids is fascinating. They're bursting with all kinds of energy, and these are the kids who are gargantuous nerds at home but who can show their teachers up in Photoshop or Latin grammar. They go outside during their breaks and discuss their most recent German class, the seriously intense Social Studies debate about abortion or laws concerning religious constraint; they talk about Danté and Kant's categorical imperative and Aristotle while at the same time clutching a Marie Claire or a Seventeen magazine. These kids are so fascinating.

They inspired me today. I've been staring blankly at Tetris while watching a computer lab for about two weeks now (occasionally interspersed with the Evil level of WebSudoku) and was generally feeling miserable as a result. I ran across a couple of kids trying to teach themselves yoga and yelling at each other in French, and I finally decided to do something with all this time I've got.

A day into this burst of enthusiasm, I have four pages covered in rough sketches of female figures, three pages added to the beginning of a novelette, a lot of almost-forgotten recipes firmly cemented into Microsoft Word, and did a lot more research on the pros and cons of veganism. (I have to. Would you embark on a new dietary lifestyle with so much ridicule attached to it without checking it out first?) And--what do you know?--I feel absolutely fantastic. Productive. Far, far less lethargic. I'm loving every energetic minute of today. I cleaned my room this morning and I'm looking forward to falling asleep peacefully.

Now, if only I had an available kitchen. ;) But my juicer will have to do for now.

Have you ever noticed the spurt of energy that comes when you decide you want to start something? When you clean your apartment or your house, go to the gym (yeah, that was a three-week stint for me and never again), start a new kind of diet, start a new job, start a new year in college, start anything--you do it with a surge of energy that buoys you up for at least the first one or two days. If you're lucky, it lasts forever! If you're not...you crash and get horribly bored. This is an absolutely brilliant way to recharge yourself--start something new! Start something interesting! I've done it before--zoned out on writing a horrific 40-page college paper, pushed it aside to go paint the river with a best friend, and realized that the paper wasn't bad enough to make me want to kill all human life. It was actually interesting. I finished the paper and got an A. Try it!

If you're continually bored, lackluster, tired--just push sleepiness aside and do something else! Teach yourself rudimentary Photoshop. Try cooking something new. Go to a restaurant you never thought you'd like. (I did that with sushi, and now I'm hopelessly addicted! I love it so much!) Pick up that instrument you haven't played since high school. Plant an herb garden. Read a book totally out of your usual genre!

Try Terry Pratchett's Going Postal (there is a brilliant laugh on every page), Christopher Hitchens' god is not Great (for believers and unbelievers, it's something to think about), Natalia Rose's Detox for Women (inspiring and so, so healthy!), Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring (brilliant, luminous writing), Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (ever wonder how questionable phenomenons like Hush Puppies were catapulted into fame?), or Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI (the Johnny Depp movie's coming out in July!). Try anything! Anything and everything! Life is only there for us to grab it and make it ours!

It's everything we ever wanted, if only we can make it so. So, ladies, let's do it! Let's sing because we can, love because it's fun, kiss in a surfeit of feeling!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sparkling Wine Love: Paul Cheneau Cuvée Cava Brut

I used to have a very firm view regarding sparkling wines. They are not Champagne, not authentic, and very often terrible. Admittedly, this meant that I never drank it, because college students on scholarship and loans can't afford fifty-dollar bottles whenever they want to celebrate something. I made do with a Rioja or Bordeaux--hardships galore. ;) But then--then I went to Macon, Georgia's Lemongrass Thai Bistro, and adoration bloomed.

I want to take this moment to recommend a beautiful sparkling wine: Paul Cheneau Lady of Spain Cuvée Cava Brut. It's a light, dry, bubbly white wine, rather toasty and refreshing, with hints of apricot and apple. Although it's a Spanish wine, it goes excellently with Thai food--I had it with a red curry and never wanted to leave the table. I'm now unashamedly in love with this wine, so much so that I've ordered six bottles. On that note, it's also stunningly cheap. Wineaccess sells it for $9.99, or $8.99 if you buy 12 or more bottles. Hearing the description of a bottle bearing a woman's figure, I thought it would be tacky, but it's actually absolutely gorgeous, especially in candlelight. I'm pretty positive that, were I getting married now, this would be my reception champagne of choice. (Unless, of course, I decide to throw my boyfriend over and marry a less wonderful millionaire, in which case Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut will be a necessity.) It is excellent and well worth far more than the $10 I am glad to spend.

Rioting in Valdosta

I'm currently working at a program which is essentially a summer school for fantastically gifted kids, rising juniors and seniors. We've got about seven hundred kids split up into different majors, which range from Math to Communicative Arts (foreign languages and English fall under this umbrella) to Dance. Then they get to pick from minors, and we try to shove them towards picking minors that they are new to. For instance, our Computer Tech minor has a lot of Visual Arts kids, a lot of CommArts and Social Studies majors, and, okay, a lot of Math kids. Theatre kids are seriously encouraged to go study Physics or Agricultural Science or Education or Latin--just something that they're almost completely ignorant about. And they love it.

They're being pushed out of the box every single second that they're here. It gets crazy, too--the day before yesterday, the SocStud majors wanted to personally study riots after researching Iran, so the natural conclusion was--to start a riot and study the effects. It was awesome and, okay, a bit insane. The supposed riot was about the ID cards all the kids have to hang around their necks, and although their teachers, the director of the program, and the president of the university campus on which we're holding this summer school thing all gave the project the OK, someone forgot to tell the RAs, who freaked out and called the police.

We had to step in and tell the cops what was going on, because they were getting ready to arrest a whole lot of kids, so everything eventually calmed down. I think the official reason for the arrests would have been congregating without an approved permit--you have to have a permit if you want to riot. However, the result is that we have a bunch of kids who hear about Iran and know just how terrifying it is to be up against law enforcement. True, they weren't in danger of their lives, and this was specifically a non-violent riot, but you can't tell me that these kids will remain blasé when they read news reports about Iran.

Personally, I believe that this shock value in education is fantastic. We've deleted it from our Social Studies and History books, resulting in bland heroes like Christopher Columbus and Woodrow Wilson who are such irritatingly inhuman do-gooders that they just don't matter to kids. No one cares about perfect people who are supposed to be heroes. But if you tell someone that Christopher Columbus wrote letters to Spain promoting the advantages of the New World by advertising that young Indian girls were widely available and used as sex slaves; the ones at nine years old being most in demand, then they care. Then that's something interesting. Then--oh, boy--those kids realize that "heroes" are often revolting and that they are better than their "heroes" are. And this means that they can do better than Woodrow Wilson, who led America through World War I and was one of the worst racists of his time.


Helen Keller didn't just fade into historical dust after blurting out "wa-wa". She went to university and grew up to explore the slums, the factories, the sweatshops; she learned about Communism, and, in support of the inhumanely downtrodden poor of this country, spoke everywhere in support of a Communist America. She experienced more than anyone could possibly guess out of the deified pages of American history books.

Adolf Hitler inspired absolute devotion in Eva Braun, a lovely, peaceful German girl who refused to leave him when the Allies neared their bunker, saying that she lived only for him. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a fondness for younger women and the FBI tried to blackmail him into halting his equal rights campaign by threatening to show a sex tape of him to his wife. (He refused.) There is good reason to believe that the FBI was behind Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. These are fascinating and riveting historical details, which are left out of mainstream education.

In camps like the one I'm working at, kids are exposed to all of this and shock values of practically every kind. They are pulled out of their comfort zones and thrown into learning. The result is that they leave this camp more grown-up, more changed, more knowledgeable, and more inspired than they have ever been in their whole lives.

Isn't the present and future of this nation's children more important than deifying historical figures who, after all, don't deserve the annihilation of the very traits that made them human?

Well, isn't it?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stereotypical Backlashing

I'm currently experimenting with veganism. Honestly, the most frustrating thing about this dietary lifestyle is not the diet itself but the intolerance and, occasionally, the blatant contempt and hatred vegans face from meat-eaters. I've been researching the dangers of this lifestyle for about three weeks now, and have come across some pretty vitriolic spite in the process. All you have to do Google "stupid vegan" or "veganism unhealthy" to get a sample. There are hundreds of bloggers who feel compelled to publish a "stupid vegan" diatribe. Why? I'm not sure, really. I think they actually think vegans are stupid. I think we irritate them, and I also think that "veganism" is automatically linked to every excess and piece of violence perpetrated and/or approved by PETA.

I won't go into arguments for veganism now, although I may desperately want to later. There are thousands of defensive comments, blogs, articles, books, and lectures out there. What fascinates me the most is the rampant contempt.

A few months ago, a friend of mine offered to buy me a Starbucks frappucino. I said "no, thanks very much"--which was odd, because I used to be a Starbucks addict. He insisted, and I explained that I was a vegan. I don't think I will ever forget his response:

"Wow, and I used to respect you."

If people choose a dietary lifestyle that is different from yours, and if they are not hurting anyone by doing so, why should it matter to you? Why do people feel compelled to impose their beliefs onto other people who are very happy as they are? It isn't only veganism--this interesting attitude has a very wide umbrella encompassing practically every religion, liberal and conservative political viewpoints, alcohol-drinkers, mothers who choose to abort, people who don't watch TV, people who eat meat, who have sex before marriage, who wear certain kinds of clothing, and men who take their wives' last names. I do not think that there is anything a person can do in this world that someone else does not object to, including breathing.

With that in mind, why?

Mostly, I believe, we dislike en masse on the basis of stereotype. Vegans are extremist, PETA-loving, unhealthy health nuts who want to eradicate steak. Religious conservatives are ignorant sheep, bleating "God!" instead of opening their eyes. Liberals, religious or no, are God-hating, country-damning, Socialist home-wreckers. Any woman considering abortion is a murderess. Anyone opposing abortion believes that women are inferior beings who abort as a form of birth control. Women who show a lot of skin are whores. Men who are vegetarians are hen-pecked pussies who will die from lack of protein. (Seriously? People seriously think protein is only present in meat and dairy? Weird.) So what does this make us?

It means we're judging people based on stereotype. I grant you that sometimes it's necessary; waitressing comes to mind. But in general, we're spewing out dislike without knowing the whole of what we actually dislike--which, when researched, very often turns out to be a reasonable outlook. It means that we're walking around every day being critical of people who are smart, valuable human beings and who don't deserve stereotypical dislike. It means that we're a target of someone else's dislike. It means that whenever you crack open the opinion page of any newspaper, you will find a letter to incense you and make you unnecessarily furious. It means that we will be targets of the same contempt that we are showing other people.

Ladies, we are so much more than stereotypes. We are human beings, and as such never fit one particular picture. We are ten times as multifaceted as a hyper-dodecahedron. None of us deserve a mass blanket of contempt. You and I are better than that.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Some things are inevitable for every woman. Aging is one.

Treating age like it is a piece of waste that has just flown out of the toilet and landed just above your eyebrow is not.

It is stupid and ultimately more self-destructive than smoking. At least you get some pleasure out of smoking before you die. If you are not confident in your aging body and love it, you will certainly not attract a man who loves you for who you are. If you clearly hate yourself, why in heaven's name should he fall in love with you? Think about it.

What are the benefits of a youthful body? I know you can name dozens. What are the benefits of age? I want you to name ten in the space of two minutes. Can you? If you can’t, that is a clear sign that you need to get your head out of advertisements.

Ladies. Seriously. I know that hundreds of billion-dollar industries have poured zillions of advertising dollars into making you think that your crow’s feet, wrinkles, sagging eyelids, thinning lips, et cetera et cetera ad nauseum are things that must be combated at all costs in order to produce an attractive woman. But do you know what you are doing when you are buying into this?

You are dooming yourself to a lifetime of hopelessly wishing you were twenty-one and uselessly beating yourself up for decades as you get farther and farther away from your twenties. It is useless because you are going to age. You are human. It will happen. (Although you can delay it by not pouring junk into your body. You know this.) This mad craze for lotions, collagen, Botox, retinoid eye cream, wrinkle creams, crazy makeup, hair dye, and God knows how much else is costing you thousands of dollars in a last-ditch effort to approach ninety a bit more slowly. STOP IT.

Don’t get me wrong. Letting yourself go is unforgivable and stupid. But hating your grey hairs is, too. When was the last time you saw a woman’s hair go grey naturally, without any dyeing interference? I remember the moment I decided I’d damn all cultural prejudices and delight in growing gray naturally. I was sitting in the back seat of a car with my mother, riding across southern Indiana, and the sun struck her head just as it was setting. I have never seen anything more beautiful. Her hair sparkled copper, gold, and silver—especially silver. No artificial chemical products could possibly emulate hair so naturally stunning. If you do dye your hair, don’t do it because you’re afraid of your grey hairs. Really look at them. They are beautiful. They reflect more light and are more eye-catching than your colored hairs, which means that they stand out completely by themselves, in which they are unique. How sexy are your legs without a moisturizing lotion and high heels? How slim is your waist if you aren’t sucking in your stomach? If you are confident in your gorgeous, glinting, sexy grey hair, which screams maturity, intelligence, experience (and how many men would pass that up in bed?), and head-turning personal pride, you will automatically double your attractiveness in every sense of the word. Don’t you dare knock cougars, because they’ve got more guts and sex appeal than you do. They are attracting young men away from young women, who are supposed to be the epitome of vitality and beauty. They are fucking awesome.

Think about it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Restaurant Etiquette

I love going out to eat. Do you? I think it's fabulous. You don't have to do any work and you have a fetch-and-carry slave waiter who makes you feel like royalty, if he's doing his job right. If your absolutely stunning date is doing his job right, you're also luxuriating in a free evening. Or you could be having a brilliant time with your best friend or your group of girls, who will all be sure to be far more scandalous than any guy will ever have the balls to be on preliminary dates. You could be out with clients, piling on the fun so they'll pile on the business. You could be trying to scare away a creepy guy by sticking mushrooms up your nose. Any number of things. They're all fabulous.

Wanna know how to ruin it?

There are many types of restaurant etiquette, but they basically boil down into two kinds: one for the customer and one for the server. I have been both on a slew of different occasions, and, trust me, there are thousands of pet peeves on each sides. Want to hear the obvious ones?

The customer's greatest fallacies are:

  • Treating the waiter like a person who makes more than $2.13 per hour. Most of the time, that is all they make. That salary pays for gas to get to work, and that is all. Unless a new minimum-wage law is enacted for servers, almost every single restaurant will take advantage of their waitstaff and let you pay their salary. This sucks, but, in America, that's the way it is. (Don't do it in Italy; though; they can get offended if you tip them there.) It is NOT okay to leave a dollar tip per person unless you have only had a cup of coffee. It is never okay to leave a tip under 10% unless the server did a miserable job. If you're eating at a café and your entrée was around $8 or $9, don't leave less than $2 per person. It's rude. Moreover, don't you fucking dare send that poor server running all over the restaurant to serve your needs and then tip him or her forty-five cents. That is disgusting. You are exploiting your server. Stop it. Tipping an extra dollar will not hurt you and will let your waiter pay rent.
--Ladies, we're especially prone to under-tipping. Women tend to have separate checks and to tip much less kindly than men do. Frugality is laudable, but not when it comes to an extra dollar.
  • Being an unfriendly jerk. Ladies, beware! On your first dates, there are millions of men who will judge you based on the way you treat your waiter. Do you want to send a gorgeous, successful, funny guy running as far as he can because he's just seen how you treat people you think are subordinate to you? That is not sexy. That is rude. One of the first rules of having class and charm is to treat everyone, everyone, with respect. (Unless some guy is making you seriously uncomfortable. In that case, I firmly advocate everything from deprecating remarks to a swift kick in the groin.)
  • Making a horrific mess on the table. Oh, my God. I hate just eating with people like this. Sometimes I cannot help spilling things, like dipping oil for bread, but it's revolting to eat with someone who treats the tablecloth like a trash-collecting welcome mat. You have got to control this. Eating more slowly helps so much, as does the novel concept of making sure that everything on your fork actually stays on your fork until it enters your mouth and your lips close around it.
  • Bringing children to eat and allowing them to crumble crackers and scatter food all over the floor. Do you even realize what you are doing? You are trashing the restaurant! It makes you look like trash. The servers have to make the place look spotless for every other customer and you are making them hate you. Do you really want all the other customers to look at you and think "oh, my God, who is that trashy bitch who can't even keep her children from making me want to throw up my lunch"? No. I realize children will make messes. Just do your part to try to keep your area from becoming a saltine cracker pasta soda garbage dump.
  • Throwing your trash and your napkin onto your plate. It's gross. Your server will know you are finished if you put your knife and fork into the "five o'clock" position on your plate (okay, I'm left-handed, so mine end up in the "seven o'clock" slot), and if he or she is not familiar with this piece of etiquette, just stop eating. Eventually, your plate will go away. Do you really want to be so rude as to make a trash heap for yourself and the other people at your table to look at? An empty plate is an empty plate, not a garbage can. I hate, hate, hate eating with people who think it is completely okay to shred their napkins and then place napkin bits, straw wrappers, and sodden drink coasters into their plates while I still have food and drink in front of me. EW. Don't ever, ever, ever do this. Please.
Gross Server Breaches of Common Decency:

  • Don't call ladies "guys". "How are you guys doing today?" Great! We just lopped off ten percent of your tip for making us feel less than glamorous! How about you? We're ladies. I don't care what you snicker to your friends in the kitchen, your job is to respect us.
  • When you bring us refilled glasses, take the old ones away. I do not want my table to become a dumping ground for empty glasses.
  • Not cleaning off tables quickly. The surrounding tables feel encompassed by trash and you don't get your table turned in time to catch people who just don't feel like waiting long enough for you to get your act together.
  • Know your menu. Really. Top to bottom.
  • Try not to write anything down. I make exceptions if the party includes more than five or six people, but your memory is better than you think. In most cases.
  • Don't ever, ever touch plates or glasses anywhere near where food, drink, or mouths will go. Ew.
  • Dirty aprons are gross. I worked with a long white apron for about eight months and, sure enough, as it got dirtier, tips dropped drastically. Eventually, I was stuck spraying the damn thing with degreaser, soaking it, and then drowning it in bleach to get it white again before starching, ScotchGarding, and ironing, but it worked. I loved making $100 for a breakfast/lunch shift. It pays for the bleach. ;)
  • Do your customers a favor and remove all bits of trash from their tables when you check on them. Straw wrappers and other obnoxious things like that clog up the table and will guarantee you a happy little tip raise if you are that attentive.
Sometimes, though, you can make terrific mistakes and people will love you anyway. You can spill a tray filled with 20-ounce Coke glasses all over two small boys, and the mother will tip you 40% because she was so happy that it wasn't her kids making the mess.

One of the most lovable servers I ever worked with was named Paige. Paige was about fifty-five, smoked like an oven on fire, was somehow incapable of getting a haircut, and was about the most absent-minded people I have ever met. Paige and logic did not get along, she and problem-solving divorced long ago, and I think multitasking was aborted. She once asked a teenage girl at lunch with her mother if the girl was pregnant and then managed to wave goodbye to them with a solid ten-dollar tip for an eighteen-dollar ticket in her apron pocket. Hundreds of people loved her. It was inexplicable. Just being a lovable, nice person seems to make up for a helluva lot of mishaps.

The Why and Wherefore

Imagine growing up with your wiggly six-year-old butt plastered firmly to a red velvet-covered chair in the box of a German opera house the Kaiser used to visit. Imagine scurrying through gilded ceilings and marble staircases, weaving through about two thousand adults desperate for alcohol, until you finally locate one of about twenty backstage entrances. Imagine bounding down concrete stairs and discolored but clearly labeled hallways until, finally, after about seven wrong turns, you scamper into the canteen for the cast and crew.

The air smells like old wood, resin, thickly-cut French fries, Bratwürste, beer, wine, makeup, and a whole lot of cigarette smoke. The light is dim and yellow. Men in tails contrast fabulously with women in glittering tulle ballet costumes and the most fabulously huge gowns a soprano was ever corseted into. You join your father in the non-smoking section, happily clutching your Coca-Cola in a glass (no ice, of course; it's winter-time and this is Europe!).

The coasters are all gold and beige advertisements for Warsteiner beer. You watch, fascinated, as your father introduces you to the Queen of the Night (one of the opera's three!), the prima ballerina in Carmen: Bolero or to Hansel, who seems to inexplicably be a young woman! You meet the crazy-cool conductor, who is small, Japanese, and guaranteed to up the fun of every operatic production by jumping around like a flea on steroids whenever the music gets terrifically exciting. Imagine all of this being an everyday evening.

Then imagine moving to America.

Dude. America is seriously disconcerting to a nine-year-old German girl. It's fascinating and really, really, really strange. Everything is enormous (pickup trucks! What the fuck?), fifteen-year-olds can drive (dude, awesome!), you have to ask people (especially Southerners) to repeat everything about five times before you give up in embarrassment (hey, perfect stage American English is spoken by practically nobody), and you can refill your own drinks at any fast food restaurant, instead of being really excited about once-a-month post-swimming-pool trips to the one KFC we lived near. A nerdy little German girl dropped into America can learn a lot of terrifically interesting things by just staying a little bit detached, watching, observing, and thinking a whole lot.

Now, terrifyingly, she's a woman. And she loves to write to and for women.

Seriously, girls? I have watched so many of my friends and acquaintances struggle: with food, diet, ethics, men, boyfriends, loneliness, beauty, fashion, personal style, class, etiquette, accomplishments, reputation, massive deluges of too much information--that I'm completely sick of it. I quit standing on the sidelines. I want you to know everything that I've gathered from three different countries, multiple eating styles, a degree in costume design, a passion for acting, countless books, countless friends, and countless frustrations. It's a hell of a lot of fun. ;)