Sunday, February 1, 2015

What Women Want (The Valentine's Day Edition)

 (This image can be found here:

What do women want on Valentine's Day? We want to feel special, cherished, appreciated, loved, and for some of us, a little indulged even.

Yes, we want a gift but not any old gift you picked up on your way home from work at 7PM on Valentine's Day night. We want the effort that was put into that gift. Because it's the effort that a man makes that causes a woman to feel special. Effort, as they say, is attractive.

The element of surprise shows effort. Surprising someone takes planning; it's premeditated romance.  The classic surprise is the blindfolded trip to some event, favorite restaurant or weekend away. It can also be the unexpected gift left on the bed or the individual fancy chocolates hidden around the apartment for her to find. It's fun, it's a little sly, and it's very endearing.

Knowing a woman's taste is key to a successful Valentine's Day gift. It shows you're paying attention. So start listening for clues a month or two before February 14 rolls around.

For example, my husband Mike likes to say that he never needs to ask me what I want for Christmas--he just starts listening more closely to me a few months before holiday shopping time, and by Thanksgiving, he has all the ideas he needs!

One issue I sometimes have with Mike is that I love impractical, sometimes fussy, usually superfluous gifts. Yes I could use an immersion blender, but do I want one for Valentine's Day from my significant other? In my mind, that's something we can pick up the next time we're in a Bed, Bath and Beyond. No, I want the earrings or the bag or the jeweled gloves. I don't care that I have a lot of earrings, bags and gloves. That's not the point. Practicality isn't in the spirit of Valentine's Day--treating your partner to something pretty that you know she'll love is what I'm talking about.

So just for fun, here are five things I would want in a Valentine's Day gift basket. Warning: Lots and lots of frills here.

  1. A fancy cookbook I mentioned I wanted to buy and that I hoped he would note for future reference (This one looks good.) With all the cookbooks I have, plus access to Pinterest, it's not that I lack for new recipes. But cookbooks are like works of art and I like to flip through them and "imagine" cooking every dish.
  2. Perfume, like Lancome's La Vie Est Belle or Folle de Joie eau de parfum. I don't spend more than $40 on perfume for myself, but the ones that smell really great and that I would wear everyday cost a bit more than that.
  3. A box of assorted Jacques Torres chocolates.
  4. This watch. People should start wearing watches again.
  5. These gloves. So pretty, and you need something that sparkles in the dead of winter.

So turning the tables, what do you get your guy for Valentine's Day? Again, it's about putting thought into it and showing you are considering what he really wants--not just what you'd like him to have. So if he wants cheese balls and corn nuts and a six-pack, who are you to judge him for it? Give him what he wants. If you know old-fashioned candy is his thing--forget the high fructose corn syrup for one day and get him the jaw breakers and pop rocks and all that other stuff you haven't touched since you were 12 years old.

I went and surfed for a while and you can get some really fun and creative ideas for all sorts of gifts-in-a-crate to surprise your sweetie--whether he's into zombies, video games, bacon or beer.  Check them out.

And don't forget the card. A real card. Yes, they still make them.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: How Patience Works by Janet Kathleen Ettele

**Thank you to Karuna Publications for the review copy**

Fables are a popular vehicle for teaching because of their simplicity. Like song lyrics, you can superimpose yourself into the story without much effort.  I put fables in a different category than other types of writing where I expect lots of character development and detail. Fables are simply not built to support that level of embellishment.  What matters when you read a fable is if you were A. moved by it on a very basic level and B. if you learned something essential about the human experience.

How Patience Works: The Quiet Mind to Benefit Others by Janet Kathleen Ettele (Karuna Publications, May 2014) is one such successful fable.  The third in a series of tales following a young man named Troy and his girlfriend Maggie that started with How Generosity Works and How the Root of Kindness Works, How Patience Works illustrates the teachings of Master Shantideva's Perfection of Patience. According to Wikipedia, Shantideva was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist whose master work--translated as A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way Of Life--is a timeless piece of wisdom, a long poem describing the process of enlightenment from the first thought to full buddhahood which is still studied by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists today.

If you read this blog you know I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but I like the teachings and have tried to internalize some of them as part of my personal philosophy. On the concept of karma I'm a bit skeptical, but I'm open to the possibility, and can see how you get back what you put out in the world (for the most part.) I highlighted some lines in How Patience Works that gave me pause.  Here is one:

Anger is like a bad vapor that permeates space, and the space it permeates is that of the mind. Imagine yourself captive in a room filled with a putrid stench. Then imagine that while in this room you are presented with delicious food. You would not be able to enjoy any pleasant taste because you would be overwhelmed by the awful smell. When anger permeates the mind, its negative aspects become dominant, blocking us from experiencing the sweet things in life.

This passage is spoken by Mrs. Sternau, an elderly widow who every Thursday comes into the diner where Troy and Maggie work (she often flubs their names, calling them "Trevor" and "Molly.") Mrs. Sternau likes to write notes to her husband on the paper place mat at her seat, and then leave them behind like offerings to the universe.  Troy secretly pockets and collects them. At first he claims it's out of respect, but then admits it's because he thinks the messages are wise and inspirational--the first indication that Mrs. Sternau will be the teacher in this fable, just as a music teacher named Grace and a Vietnam veteran named Abe were teachers in the first two fables.

The problems facing Troy and Maggie are common enough--Troy is struggling to keep his cool around his shrewish stepmother, Maureen, and Maggie would like to have more control over her emotions, especially when she's confronted by rude customers in the diner. They are befriended by Mrs. Sternau, who at 80-something has successfully mastered her own emotions and is eager to share what she knows with her two young protégés.  Over tea and crumpets Mrs. Sternau tells the kids about an incident that happened early in her marriage that tested the couple--and how the teachings helped them to transcend the feelings of helplessness, anger and frustration that threatened to hijack their happiness.

How Patience Works is a very sweet and gentle story that beautifully illustrates the teachings of Shantideva.  It's a perfect little book for bedtime, when you're trying to loosen the hold of the day's problems from your mind to find a place of peace. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Kiss me again with your Barbasol face

Number of toiletry products taking up space on our bathroom counter: 32.

Number of toiletry items belonging to me: 12.

Number of toiletry items belonging to my husband: 17 (with the remaining three being shared items like toothpaste).

My husband has not taken up female impersonation nor has he fallen victim to this depressing trend.  He is far from being a metrosexual--unless metrosexuals are now wearing old t-shirts with logos of defunct start-ups on them and habitually losing gift cards to clothing stores because they waited two years to use them.

For the last few years Mike has been accumulating shaving products. It started with some "classic" razors (old) and a couple of matchbook-sized boxes of new blades. Then it was a moss scuttle from a pottery-maker in Nova Scotia. That led to quests to find and obtain this and this and this.

It's not like him to just dabble in a hobby--no, he dives right in. He joins online forums. He recruits: several co-workers are now his compatriots in the art of shaving. They order shaving creams together and sample each other's soaps. They text each other when they buy a new badger brush or mug. They catch each other mindlessly caressing their own chins (or, in slightly cruder terms, faceterbating, as in "I'm sitting here rocking on the screened porch, faceterbating after a lime shave.")

I can't recall the last time I shared a beauty product with a friend, much less texted someone after a trip to Sephora. If I find a product I like I might pin it or mention it in conversation if the topic comes up. I haven't converted anyone to using my brand of dry shampoo.

He likes the ritual of shaving the way that I enjoy the ritual of coffee and the newspaper (another dying pastime). The Mach 5 is purely a marketing gimmick in his eyes. If his father didn't use it, it's not worth it. If it's sold in an antique shop, it's a winner.

He's mentioned wanting his own shelf for all his shaving products. After looking at how many of his new products are squeezing out my assorted bottles like a man taking up all the space on a subway bench, I tend to agree.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Despite an aversion to changing his sneaker style (which is mid-80's black high-top Reeboks) my husband pays careful attention to hygiene. He wears an appropriate amount of cologne and/or after-shave so as not to smell like a college boy who hasn't showered in a week but douses himself in CK One (what they wore in the 90's when I was in college--not sure what the kids are wearing now). Instead he smells very clean and masculine, sort of what I imagine a man in the 1950's smelled like as he headed out the door mornings in suit and hat. There's something to be said for that man of old--it partly explains all the Baby Boomers.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The most hotly-debated topic on the Internet is...

I read this entry on Huffington Post written by a dad giving advice to parents about what NOT to say to non-parents (or the childless or the child-free or DINKS.) I thought the article made some good points and it was refreshing to hear from a parent who was sensitive to the fact that relationships between parents and non-parents can be strengthened by a little empathy and understanding on both sides.

Of course articles like this almost always incite a comments war.  The decision to have children (or not) seems to rile people up like no other subject--except maybe politics, race, or religion. There are people on both sides of the issue who seem to feel that their decision is the only valid one. Ignorance of the other side is rampant. Some over-zealous parents (usually mothers, but sometimes dads) feel the need to defend parenthood as the most self-sacrificing and meaningful decision an adult can make. They accuse the child-free of being selfish and immature and put fear in their hearts about missing out on life and growing old and lonely. Meanwhile, defensive non-parents accuse parents of being egomaniacs who are just looking to replicate their wonderful genes. Or that parents are pod people who can only talk about their children's accomplishments. Of course the fact that these non-parents owe their existence to their own self-sacrificing "pod parents" is rarely mentioned. I've read comments from both perspectives that I hope have never been aired out loud because they're so petty and mean. These are comments that lack empathy and would end most friendships.

As a non-parent in the minority, let me share my experience thusfar. All of my friends who are around the same age as me have children now. One of my friends is delivering this week, in fact. It has been an adjustment getting used to the idea that my friends have a different focus now--perhaps even more so for me because most of my friends waited to have kids until their late thirties so I'm accustomed to thinking of them without kids. I won't lie--it can be lonely sometimes to be the only one without children. While they're adjusting to life with a baby on their hip, I'm fighting a chip on my shoulder. I worry, do they think I'm weird? Do they judge me? Will they want to stay friends? How involved do they want me to be with their kids? Is it OK if I want to occasionally spend some "girl time" with them that doesn't include their children, or should I consider it a package deal from now on?

Most of these questions were resolved fairly early on between me and my girlfriends, which makes me feel lucky to have chosen wisely in the friend department. The women who know me best appreciate me for who I am and aren't looking for another friend to trade diaper jokes with--they have enough of those, thank you. There was one incidence when a friend of mine mentioned that having her son gave her a reason to wake up in the morning, and I recall feeling stung at first. Was she intimating that I, by contrast, did not have a reason to wake up? But I caught myself before upchucking my insecurity all over her. She was sharing her joy at being a mom, a joy that she didn't realize she could feel. It had nothing to do with me. It's not always about me, and if I want to be a good friend I need to keep that in mind.

There are times when I'm around my friends when I feel like the only stories I have to share when relating to their parenting challenges are stories about my own childhood.

"Joey is afraid of the dark? So was I as a kid!"

"Lizzy insists on sleeping in your bed? I used to drag a sleeping bag and sleep in the hall outside of my parents' bedroom. I'm sure that must have gotten old PDQ!"

There is also the effort of trying to avoid comparing my dog to their child. In fact, I'm super-aware of falling into that trap, especially since my dog shares a lot of the tendencies of an infant or toddler: namely copious outputs of poo to which I must attend, needy barks I must answer, and the desire to press my face close to hers and sniff her little head because I love her so much. I do not refer to myself as "Mommy" to Carmelita, or at least not in any parents' earshot.

Ultimately my feeling about having kids versus not having them has evolved into this: both decisions, like any other choice in life, come with benefits and drawbacks. We can't even predict what they might be before they happen. Some parents are able to balance having children with doing pretty much everything they did before having kids. Some non-parents who thought they would have a lot of extra money to travel the world and stay at four-star hotels are realizing that in this day and age the cost of living is expensive without kids and exorbitant with them. Whatever choice you make (or whatever happens to you even if you do not choose it), you will adapt to those circumstances and it will be OK. If you have kids you will love and care for them and be happy that you had them. If you don't have kids, you will appreciate your abundant time alone and your independence.

Defending our personal choices as better than someone else's is not just insulting--it's nonsensical. You never know what's going to happen in life. You might fall in love with someone who doesn't want children. You might find yourself pregnant before you think you're ready. You might be physically unable to have children. You may have one child thinking that is all you want, and then decide you really like being a parent so you have another. In the end, what does it matter if my choice is different from your choice? That's life. That's what makes us all interesting.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Don't Sweat It

 Photo from

We're having a heat wave in the Boston area (it's affecting the entire eastern seaboard), and I am living the life of the anxious person in an anti-perspirant ad.

When I take the "T" I am afraid to lift my arms to hold the strap lest I reveal the spreading patches of wetness under my arms. I don't hug or kiss friends and family because I don't want them to have to towel themselves off after.  I am spending as much time as possible in the only room in my apartment that has air conditioning, the blinds drawn, and even post-cold shower and with the air blasting, I'm STILL sweating.

What makes my sweating differ from the run-of-the-mill sweating that anyone in 90+ degree heat would experience is the sheer volume of it. I begin sweating almost immediately after walking into a hot room, and in addition to the unsightly wet patches and the sheen of moisture I leave in my wake, my face turns as red as someone holding their breath until they pass out. A little color in the face is becoming, but I'm talking full-out, flushed face, like an incensed Elmer Fudd.

This has caused me more than a little embarrassment. It has also made me wary of engaging in activities that would otherwise be unequivocally positive: exercising, getting outdoors, leaving the bedroom more than twice a day to walk the dog (I've actually thought of going back to puppy pads, but that might confuse her and it took a year just to get her to stop peeing in the kitchen.) One particularly hot weekend in June I spent both days in my bedroom, entertaining myself with streaming Netflix on my iPad and ordering takeout which I also proceeded to eat while sitting on my bed.  Sadly, it was not as fun as it sounds.

I work from home now so I don't get the benefit of corporate central air. But I do get to type articles in my summer nightie--so there are tradeoffs. Still, I find myself having difficulty carrying on intelligent conversations with real, live humans because I spend so much time alone, holed up in my bedroom, which is currently littered with empty tubs of Whole Foods olives, dirty napkins, and scattered sesame seeds from my morning bagel. Writing is a very solitary pursuit, sure, but one needs some interaction with people, otherwise who are you going to talk to about that brilliant, DOMA-inspired New Yorker cover or even nonsensical stuff like what kind of mouth bling Amanda Bynes wants to get before she launches her "rap career?" This reminds me of one of my favorite online comic strips by an artist who is wiser than he may appear if you just judge him by his more crass cartoons.

This morning I went for a fitness walk that ended at the new Whole Foods location on Beacon Street near St. Mary's. I wore my Indiana Jones-like Tilley, shorts that were probably a little TOO short for a 40 year-old who has been spending an inordinate amount of time lying around trying not to sweat, and an old AMC t-shirt that misleads people who see me wearing it into thinking that I'm a crunchy, outdoorsy type (silly people!) 

It was good to get out because it meant I was leaving my comfort zone, even for an hour, all for the good cause of not turning into a Goth teenager. I was out and about among other people who had places to go and people to see. I stretched my dormant leg muscles. And I dared to sweat profusely in front of the Whole Foods barista, who thankfully refrained from burying her face in her arm at the sight of me as I ordered an iced latte.

Since probably the sixth grade, worrying about what other people think of me has kept me from doing a fair number of things--big and small--that I'd like to do.  My hope is that every time I come up against embarrassment I get a little more skilled at shrugging it off, like it's an extra layer of clothing on a very hot day.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Camping for Sissies

As you get older you try to accept things about yourself that you know are not going to change.  I will always have fine hair (I don't go in for extensions--too expensive and scary-looking), I will always be just a little bit too gullible, and I will always hate camping.

I know they say not to try to change yourself to please your man, and in principle I completely agree with this. But when my husband starts talking about backpacking with some guy friends, and how his good friend Greg's wife Genoa wants to come along, I start to feel like the stick-in-the-mud, high maintenance wife he would be better off without. Mike loves hiking and camping and doesn't care a fig what his hair looks like after a couple of days of not showering.

Unfortunately, I do care.  Plus the thought of trudging up a mountain and getting sticky-sweaty-dirty and not being able to shower afterward is as appealing to me as eating fried crickets as an appetizer--no matter how on trend it might seem to other people.  I have no interest in fishing an insect leg from between my teeth and I doubt I ever will.

"I wish we liked doing more things together," my husband said, not realizing that his words were causing my interior alarm to start buzzing off the hook.  I recently read that women measure their life satisfaction by how well their relationships are going. I liked to think that my primary relationship--my marriage--was Ashford and Simpson-esque. But then I remembered a CBS Sunday Morning interview with the husband-and-wife songwriters and how they fell in love in part because of their shared love of music. I quickly did a brain scan of the activities that Mike and I both enjoyed.

"We both like to go to nice restaurants," I said, which was probably more true of me than him, but it's not like he DIDN'T like nice restaurants, right?

Then I added, "And we both like books."

"But not the same books," my husband said. It was true that if you looked at our bookshelves you would see the dividing line pretty quick. My books tend to be novels about women in urban locales trying to manage careers and find love. Or they're about the perils of consumerism (I continue to believe if I read enough of these anti-materialistic tomes I will transform myself into an ascetic. So far it hasn't worked.) My books have colorful spines with interesting fonts. His spines are all grey or black and profile World War II heroes and accomplished scientists who would never write about their personal relationships because they're too busy BEING BRILLIANT.

"I liked In Harm's Way," I countered, referring to the book I just finished about the true story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis right before the end of World War II. But then I think, of course you did! The book was chock-full of I Shouldn't Be Alive-type moments, including passages about crazed, marauding sharks who crunch-crunched on the lower extremities of numerous unlucky survivors and the desperate fools who gave in to their thirst and drank the salt water, then decided that they could swim to shore even though they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

So maybe on paper my husband and I don't have a ton of common interests. But we could still do things to make the other person happy, even if it's not our first choice for a rockin' Saturday night.

This weekend I agreed to go camping with Mike. Well, not exactly CAMPING camping. We'll be sleeping in a tent all right, but it will be on my parents' property in Manchester, Vermont, a tony New England town known for its upscale outlet stores. My parents own a small cabin that can sleep two people comfortably. Usually when we visit them in Manchester we stay at a hotel, but since I'm currently bringing in just a fraction of my salary in weekly unemployment checks (plus the occasional $150 I earn for freelance assignments) we're trying to keep discretionary spending to a minimum.

Mike started packing for our one-night car camping adventure last night. He fired up his twenty-year old Coleman lantern to make sure it still worked, dusted off our wicker picnic set--complete with silverware, a tablecloth, and two wine glasses (OK, the wine glasses will come in handy), and asked me where we kept the long matches. He advised me to bring something warm to sleep in. He asked me to come over and look at his computer because he was thinking of buying me this.

"I'm glad my period will be over by this weekend," I muttered.

"That's OK, they have something for that, too!" he said, as if he was telling me that if I acted now, they'd throw in what those clever REI marketers decided to call The Diva Cup.

I have to admit, though, that I'm excited about this weekend, and not just because Mike is bribing me with a small stipend for outlet shopping. I will get to spend time with my parents, whom I miss, and for the first time sleep under the night sky with the man I love. That's worth skipping a shower and a continental breakfast.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

My Spring Inspiration Board

My vision of Spring
I'm not a visual artist like my mother, but I do like assembling found images, like collages and mood boards. It's very relaxing, actually. It's important when you're making a collage/inspiration board not to aim for the perfect aesthetic, but to go with whatever comes to you. I know that sounds airy-fairy, but it works. Since it's your idea of inspiration, your mood, you can't do it wrong. I like projects where I don't have to worry about the potential for failure. More of  life's tasks should be approached this way, but unfortunately we often second guess ourselves.