Thursday, April 29, 2010

Not Ready for My Close-up

"Food Network taping in Lincoln Square this afternoon." You've got to hand it to my friend, Mary--she knows how to craft an email subject line.

I clicked on the link to an article she forwarded and yes indeed, the Food Network would be filming at Lutz Bakery, maybe a 15-minute walk from my house. Taping, according to the news item, was already completed for a kitchen-centric segment but the public was invited to come on down, between 2 and 4 p.m., and participate in a scene yet to be filmed in the cafe. Thanks, but no thanks, I typed back. Camera shy, I said. Not a fan of Lutz, I added.

Of course, I went.

I am not, I should quickly point out, a fame whore. I never so much as tried out for a school play, and barely suffer to pose for family photos. I prefer to fly under the radar. But I have an obsession with bakeries. While I had no intention of worming my way into a Food Network shot, I was interested in watching how the show was put together. Honestly, what I really was hoping for was a sneak peek into the inner workings at Lutz. In my dreams, I pictured the owner taking a shine to me--a quiet bystander--and shuttling me back into the kitchen to give one of his giant Hobart mixers a spin. (I don't know, for a fact, that Lutz uses a Hobart, but I've never seen an industrial mixer that was anything but.)

So I sauntered off to Lutz under the pretense that I was simply a gal in need of a sugar fix. Just in case I arrived and, surprise, a Food Network taping happened to be under way, I made a little extra effort with my hair (which was two weeks overdue for a haircut) and put on my cropped blue corduroy jacket, which pretty much serves as my wardrobe's little black dress.

As I walked up Montrose Avenue towared the bakery, I wondered if I had read the information wrong. I've come across a few movie crews in my day--where were the trucks and trailers? Where was the throng of gawkers attracted by any display of lights and cameras? Instead, the sidewalk was deserted, like it always is. This stretch of Montrose isn't exactly a mecca for foot traffic and it always surprises me that Lutz, which opened in 1948, has survived at this address for as long as it has. I mean, I've lived in the vicinity for nearly 10 years, have a massive sweet tooth, and this would only mark my second visit. Because I forget the place exists.

I tentatively approached the doorway and spied a sign in the window informing patrons of the camera crew on premises. I took a breath and entered close behind a handsome young-ish man in a gray pinstripe suit. Because I don't have cable, I rarely catch Food Network programming, so I'm not as familiar with its personalities as I'd like to be. Could this be the host?

Um, no. Turns out he was Lutz' loan officer, which I learned by totally eavesdropping on his conversation with a woman who seemed to be the owner/manager/person of importance. (To further shake your already diminished confidence in our banking system, the gentleman had apparently doled out large sums of money to Lutz while never before bothering to visit to determine whether it was, in fact, a decent investment.) There was no camera crew in sight and precious few customers besides myself, although I did witness much flurrying of staff--people popping out from the kitchen who clearly rarely visit the front of the shop.

Apparently I had ill-timed my arrival. The Food Network was between set-ups and in the hurry-up-and-wait world of Hollywood, everyone was cooling their heels for the next segment to begin shooting in the outdoor cafe (typically not open until Mother's Day but I guess the Food Network gets what the Food Network wants). I lingered in front of the bakery cases, pretending to peruse the merchandise while hoping to overhear a more definitive filming schedule and waiting for that chimerical invite into the kitchen. It did not materialize.

Eventually I could loiter no longer, what with there being no one else for staff to wait on, and selected a couple of treats that I didn't particularly want to buy or eat. (While I give Lutz credit for eschewing the cupcake trend and sticking to its European roots--strudels and tortes and bite-sized cookies--I find their cakes to be fairly dry and tasteless. Sorry.) As I waited to pay at the register, I seized upon an opportunity to insert myself into the tete-a-tete between the banker and the owner/manager/person of importance. Playing innocent, I asked, weren't the Baumkuchen samples on the counter featured in the New Yorker? Why yes, the PoI responded. Seems that's what had sparked the Food Network's interest (as if I hadn't already guessed). Suddenly banker boy was the third wheel and I was one-on-one with the PoI. "Do you know 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives'? Guy Fieri?" she asked. Mercifully, I did after wallowing in satellite TV on our last vacation. "He has a new show, 'A Kid in a Candy Store.'" (This contradicts info sent in Mary's link. Who to believe--a local reporter or a PoI?) The focus is on sweet shops, the Lutz segment should air in three or four months. How very exciting, I replied.

Then I paid for my slices of strange-looking pastries (one, a hazelnut log, and the other, I swear, called something like "The Plucker"), collected my change and left. Not five feet out the door and I was kicking myself for not staying. At that point, I could have turned around, I should have turned around, but every step I took toward home made that outcome less and less likely.

I don't know why I couldn't admit that I really wanted to watch the taping. It's not as if banker boy felt the need to engage in subterfuge--he was at Lutz for one reason and one reason only. I don't know why I didn't just ask the PoI if it was OK to hang back and be a fly on the wall.

I don't know why I'm so shy about doing or getting what I want.

When I was a little girl, my big sister, Anne, would take me by the hand, walk me over to my best friend's house, ring the doorbell, and ask if Amy could come out and play with me. If only Anne had been with me at Lutz, I have no doubt what would have happened: We would have marched into the bakery, asked about the taping, grabbed ourselves a table in the cafe and gotten ourselves on TV. Barring Anne's magical appearance from two states away, what I really needed was crowd. Us shy folks, ironically, find safety in numbers. Crowds give us cover, crowds give us anonymity, crowds give us permission to do whatever everyone else is doing without drawing any attention to ourselves.

I keep wondering when I'm going to stop wanting to be so invisible. When I'm going to stop observing from the sidelines and become an active participant. When I'm going to blossom into the assertive, confident woman that Oprah insists I should be by now. I keep wondering when I'll stop worrying whether I'm pretty enough to have my picture taken. Whether I'm smart enough or funny enough to hold up my end of a conversation. Whether anyone will want to come out an play with me. When I'll stop needing someone to hold my hand.

This was not that day.

Later that night, I sliced "The Plucker" in half and shared it with my husband (the one thing I did reach out and grab--perhaps I blew my whole wad with that one act of courage). The icing was hard and completely separated from the cake, which was as dry as expected. It didn't really matter; at I ate, all I could think about was how I had come to buy the thing in the first place. It could have been the sweetest of treats and it would have left a bad taste in my mouth.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Good Hair Day

Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" is like the thing you never knew you always wanted. Except that I did.

For the longest time, I've been totally intrigued by black women's hair, which is odd because I grew up in your standard all-white Midwestern suburb. OK, there was one black kid in our sprawling subdivision, but she was adopted. By a white family. Some 20 years later, I can still name every black student in my high school, because there were only five. It being a Catholic school, I can also name the two Jewish students and lone Lutheran.

I think the fascination started in college, where I had an internship on campus. It was a pretty loose environment, as offices can be when staffed by kids with a minimum of adult supervision. We worked when we had to but we also just hung out a lot. There were a couple of African-American students in the office, as well, and one day the topic of conversation turned to hair. Terri, who handled administrative chores, happened to mention that black women get perms to straighten their hair. As someone who'd suffered through her share of bad perms to do the exact opposite--add curl and body to otherwise lackluster locks--I was mystified. And curious.

Ever since, I've harbored a secret wish to spend a day in an African-American beauty salon just to see what goes on: how hair is straightened and braided and what's up with weaves. But that didn't seem like a bucket list item I'd ever fulfill. If "separate but equal" is no longer the law of the land, it still holds true for hair salons. I'm hard-pressed to recall whether I've ever seen a black stylist at any of the salons I've patronized; I know I've never seen an African-American client. Thanks to Rock, though, I finally got my wish.

The movie begins with a simple premise. Rock's young daughter complains she doesn't have "good hair"--meaning hers is naturally nappy, not long and silky straight--so the comedian sets off on a journey (New York, L.A., Atlanta, India) to discover how good hair is actually attained. I didn't get nearly as much info on braiding as I'd hoped--someone else apparently will have to make "Good Braids"--but I did walk away with profound insights into the African-American culture of hair.

What I learned, without recapping the entire film, is that African-American women (and men, like Prince, at whose expense Rock makes a few jokes) willingly submit to chemical burns to straighten their hair. (Relaxer is made out of some sort of acid; Rock calls in a scientist to demonstrate how the substance can eat through an aluminum can.) Women with limited financial means will also spend thousands of dollars to purchase and maintain a weave--or expect their man to subsidize this habit, which Rock likens to cocaine addiction. Hair for these pricey weaves comes largely from India, where people participate in a religious practice called "tonsure," which basically means they routinely shave their heads. So some woman in India thinks she's sacrificing her hair to the gods, when in reality it winds up on the head of Vivica Fox.

How a weave is applied was easily the most astounding segment in the film. I'm not sure I completely understood the process, which goes something like this: the majority of a woman's real hair is braided and tucked under a cap. The weave (aka, Indian hair) is then attached to the head in sections/rows/"tracks," either by gluing or sewing. Sewing. I kind of watched this part through my fingers, like a horror movie. I'm 99.99% sure the weave isn't sewn directly to the scalp, but it sort of looked like it.

All of this to achieve what black people call "natural" hair--meaning white-people hair--by completely unnatural means.

On the one hand, I felt a little guilty and partially culpable for the lengths black women go to to achieve hair I come by thanks to simple genetics. On the other hand, I could sympathize with their efforts. I've never had particularly good hair either, at least not by Jennifer Aniston-Gwyneth Paltrow standards. Yes, my hair is straight. But it's also fine. And full of colics. It looks horrible when wet, to say nothing of my morning bed head. Seriously, one of the (many) reasons I've never tried out for the show "Survivor" is that I'm totally reliant on volumizing shampoo, thickening spray, a blow dryer and some sort of gel to look at all presentable. To minimize its many defects, I also keep my hair fairly short, so short, at one point, that a fellow customer behind me in line at the grocery store once tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me sir. Er...whatever." I started wearting more lipstick to compensate. When Oprah triumphantly grew her hair out to the point where she could wear a pony tail, I shared in her exhilaration. I want a ponytail too, one that jauntily pokes out of ball caps and swings back and forth when I go for a jog. I want to look like all the other Breck girls, too, but it's not in the cards.

More than anything, the movie got me thinking about standards of beauty. All these black women are chasing an ideal that an awful lot of white women can't attain either. And it's not just hair. It's height and weight and skin. For every dollar a black woman spends on relaxer, I suspect a white woman spends on wrinkle cream. All of us are trying to look like some more acceptable version of ourselves: the black woman trying to get her hair to look more white, the white woman trying to get her skin to look more youthful (the great irony here being the cliche "black don't crack." Black skin color might not be considered desirable, but it's elasticity sure as hell is).

It's long been held that women identify more with their race than with their gender; that black women have to deal with issues that white women couldn't possible understand. I don't doubt that's true. But I wonder if we didn't all spend more time together in the salon, if we wouldn't find more common ground. If we wouldn't all agree that we'd all be better off looking a little more natural, and a little less "natural." That we'd all be better off if we could somehow get the culture's standards to conform to us, instead of the other way around.

Rock interviewed a fair number of women--most of them famous or semi-famous--for the film. Only one of them eschewed relaxers and weaves, and for this she was labeled "brave." I thought she was simply beautiful.

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Aussie and An Irishman Walk Into a Library...

In an article on the current state of electronic publishing, The New Yorker quoted Steve Jobs (circa 2008) as saying, "People don't read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year."

Far be it from me to argue with iJobs, but those statistics would seem to suggest that 60 percent of Americans read more than one book a year. How, precisely, does that translate into nobody reading?

Maybe I'm biased because I'm famous (well, at least with my husband) for once picking out a paperback at Borders and literally giving it a hug, so certain was I that I would love the contents within. Perhaps my perspective is further skewed because readers tend to attract other readers, and among some of my acquaintances, I come across as nearly illiterate. Or maybe, gasp, iJobs doesn't know everything.

If he had traveled to Chicago this week, he would have been hard-pressed to find a seat in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library, where hundreds gathered on a Wednesday night to meet the Irish author Colm Toibin. Toibin's novel, "Brooklyn," was selected for the city's One Book One Chicago program; his appearance was the culmination of months of events, performances and discussion clubs.

I first became aware of Toibin (pronounced COL-lum toe-BEAN; it's like Irish is a separate language) with the publication of his book "The Master" a few years ago. If he's not exactly a rock star of the literary world, he's like a well-respected indie band. "The Master" was a genius bit of work--a fictional account of a certain period in the life of Henry James--while "Brooklyn" is a quieter, more intimate affair. It tells the story of Eilis (EYE-lish), who emigrates to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1950s and was born, in part, out of Toibin's own feelings of homesickness when first traveling abroad. "You find yourself waking up and missing home," he said, "missing things you don't even like."

Homesickness is a subject I know well. I moved to Chicago (albeit from the relatively close environs of Ohio) in 1992, not knowing a single soul. Eilis at least has the advantage of a kindly priest who finds her employment and a boarding house filled with her fellow Irish immigrants. But she misses her family, nonetheless, and likely always will, in the same way that I miss never being able to meet my mom for lunch. "Home changes," Toibin noted. People adjust to their new surroundings. And yet he has the sense that "everyone in America comes out of a single individual arriving--and that haunts the country."

This isn't something we talk about much in America--homesickness. People uprooted from home and family. And not just those who cross oceans and borders in search of greater opportunity, but those, like me, who find themselves displaced within their home country. We take as a given--fairly pride ourselves on--our mobility and the dispersion of families from East to West Coast and all points in between. We have email and Skype and Facebook to compensate, but this hardly seems a fair trade for Saturday afternoons around the barbecue with siblings and parents and nieces and nephews. Yet it runs counter to the American mythology of the independent spirit, the pioneer, the frontiersman, to suggest that rootlessness and restlessness has a cost.

The next evening, the same auditorium hosted author Peter Carey, a two-time winner of Britain's Booker Prize, as part of the Writers on the Record program, hosted by Victoria Lautman. (Winning the Booker twice is liking winner the Oscar four times. Carey's the Katherine Hepburn of novelists, with a fraction of the fame or name recognition. One of those Booker's was for "Oscar and Lucinda," which happens to be the book I once hugged.) Carey has lived in New York for 20 years but originally hails from the backwaters of Australia, which he's never managed to shake. Or perhaps it's that Australia won't let him go; the country recently honored Carey with his own postage stamp, a fact Lautman lingered on just a tad too long.

Though I doubt the library purposely conceived of these separate author events as a one-two punch, they played well off of each other. This is the second time I've seen Carey. Where Toibin is the consummate storyteller (the gift of Irish gab is more than just a cliche), Carey is less polished, less overtly charming, but loads of fun in that off-the-cuff Aussie way. What they had in common--apart from their delightful accents--was using their outsider status to explore layers of American culture from a unique perspective. Turning their gaze on us forces us to turn our gaze on ourselves.

Carey was in town to plug his newest book (just out this week), "Parrot and Olivier in America." I haven't read it yet (did I mention, just out this week) but in short, the book is a fictionalized, imagined account of Alexis de Toqueville's tour of the New World. "I'm living here, I've got American children," Carey explained of his decision to tackle this particular subject matter. In deToqueville, he discoverd somebody who "really got America and American democracy." In reading through de Toqueville's seminal writings, Carey also found the present existing in the past, particularly in de Toqueville's concern over the dumbing down of American culture.

What I found perhaps most striking was Carey's comment that "the extremely radical notion of America is easy to lose sight of." True. We take our democracy utterly for granted--witness low voter turn-outs--when at one point, the idea of country without a king or queen at its head, was unthinkable. How on earth would a bunch of shopkeepers and farmers manage to rule themselves? We, who are lucky enough to have been born in the U.S., often forget how astounding our country appears to outsiders.

But we're not particularly unique in that regard. Carey noted that in his youth he was completely ignorant of Aussie writers, unaware that Australian literature existed. In similar fashion, Toibin stated, "I wouldn't have dreamt of reading an Irish book." Instead he was drawn to Hemingway and Richard Ford and Tobias Wolfe--only to discover that his idols were, in fact, reading James Joyce. We perhaps best appreciate our culture at a distance; too close and all we see are the warts.

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps Carey had also read The New Yorker item, because the decline in reading was also on his mind. (Or perhaps the decline in reading is always top of mind with people who make a living writing.) He likened it to global warming, as a potentially "life-threatening" condition. What he really meant was that we're all the poorer for an inability to inhabit other points of views than our own (to see Brooklyn through an Irishman's eyes, for example), for an unwillingness to explore others' experiences and imaginations, whether in novels or the other media we consume. And that, ultimately, is the more disturbing trend.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ladies Night

Chicago prides itself on its theater scene and I used to pride myself as a theater-goer. Over the years, we subscribed alternately to the Court, the Goodman and Lookingglass. Took in the occasional Steppenwolf show (rarely a pricey mainstage, but Steppenwolf nonetheless) and supported various smaller companies like Shattered Globe, packed into a cramped space with maybe 30 other audience members, nearly everyone within spitting distance of the actors. Some of these outings were more memorable than others--a musical, lesbian spoof of Nancy Drew springs to mind--but we always left feeling we'd participated in some worthwhile cause vs. simply lapping up the latest blockbuster movie. I suppose this is what Prius owners feel like when they pull up next to a Hummer.

And then we just stopped. Partly because we moved out of walking distance of most neighborhood theaters, partly because we acquired a mortgage and a night at the theater can get pretty expensive, but mostly because we're lazy. Following the theater takes effort: it doesn't come to you, you have to actively seek it out. Unless the show is "Billy Elliot" playing at one of the huge downtown palaces, it's not like there's any advertising. You're on your own and at the end of the day, it's a lot easier to sit in your living room and switch on "House" than it is to pick up a paper, scan the theater listings, comb through reviews, schlep to some tiny, hard-to-spot storefront building and hunt for parking. On a Monday night.

All this is by way of explaining why it took so long for us to get around to seeing the Neo-Futurist's "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," which bills itself, at 21 years and counting, as Chicago's longest-running show and who am I to question that. TMLMTBGB consists of 30 plays in 60 minutes, with an ever-rotating cast performing a constantly changing "menu" of acts. We'd probably be ignorant still if my friend Craig hadn't called me up on Sunday and invited us to last night's special performance at the Biograph--a one-night-only, all-female presentation (TMLMTLadyGB) featuring current and past Neo-Futurists. This time, the theater had in fact come to us, so how could we refuse.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, or that I even understood what we were attending. I like Craig enough to follow him blindly. Here's what I learned (and could have sought out beforehand on that handy thing called the Internet): The thing about the Neo-Futurists is that they don't produce traditional plays. The actors appear onstage as themselves and they write their own "scripts," which are drawn from personal experiences. The difference, more or less, between writing an essay vs. a novel. In a round table, of sorts, after the show (there was no table, round or otherwise), the cast members noted that what they do bears little similarity to traditional "acting." They may take on a persona, but they don't put on a character. The result was dazzling.

Just to quickly set the scene: A clothesline runs the length of the stage, pinned with pieces of paper numbered 1-30. The audience is handed a menu, also numbered 1-30, with the corresponding titles of the various plays. When a performer says "curtain," audience members yell out the numbers of the plays they want to see. Whichever number cast members hear first, they yank off the line and away we go.

Craig was immediately obsessed with #23, "Bad Clowns, Really Bad Clowns." Because he is a clown. For real. I had a thing for #12, "Pride and Prejudice II." Because I am a geek for Jane Austen. I suspect my husband looked at #8, "Presidential Cunnilingus," and wished he had stayed home. I suspect he changed his mind after the opener, #6 "Just Give Me a Jamaican Accent and a Calculator," which, like the inaptly labeled round table, had nothing to do with Jamaicans or calculators. I have no idea what it was about actually--just an angry, rambling, hilarious tirade by Jessica Anne, she of the carrot hair, helium voice and intense eyes, that culminated in her yelling "I have one leg." You won't hear anything like this on TV or in film and you certainly won't see anyone like her. (A fact, reinforced later in the evening, when David Letterman welcomed Jennifer Lopez to his show.)

It was like that, play after play. There were oddities, including #24, "Cash for Cluckers," which had Kristie Koehler clucking at an audience member until he ponied up the titular cash. Or Rachel Claff in #26, "Trust Me. Every Single Sentence of Moby Dick Is a Life Lesson" thumbing to a random page and reading a random sentence of the Melville classic to prove her point.

But more were like #3, "One for the Ladies," a pointed discussion of toilet etiquette. (Ladies stop squatting over toilet seats and spraying them with the very liquids you're trying to avoid.) Or #5, "girlie girlie dum-dum game" with cast members' heads springing out of cardboard boxes like whack-a-moles to spout common female pleas--Do you love me? Do you love me? Or #11, "Cut 'Em off at the Pass," which pondered the genetic test that causes women to proactively cut off their breasts, and whether men would behave similarly if they discovered they had the gene for prostate cancer. Just asking. Or the breathtaking #4, "A Very Very Neo-Futurist Play," that had Noelle Krimm bravely wiping off her make-up, taking out her contacts, swapping her form-fitting top for a shapeless sweatshirt and trading her butt-enhancing thong for maternity underwear (behind a tastefully held towel). This is what a real woman looks like, stripped of all artifice.

It was exhilarating.

I think, as women, we get used to being interpreted by men and the media (which are really the same thing). So it was astounding to spend an entire evening seeing myself more or less accurately reflected back at me. It was like "Sex and the City," only without New York and the fabulous clothes and lifestyles to make me feel like crap. It was like everything we expect from Tina Fey--and only Tina Fey--that she can't possibly deliver. And you know what, there were lots of men in the audience, who were laughing and whooping and applauding as much as the women. Because they know what we're really like, and they think we're funny and amazing too, when we get the chance.

Not to toot my own horn, but the entire evening was encapsulated in my play of choice, "Pride and Prejudice II." Claff, Krimm and Chloe Johnston took to the stage, enacting a drawing room scene in the Bennett household after the weddings of Jane and Elizabeth. With no Mr. Darcy or Bingley to liven their day, the women sat down to tea, embroidery and reading, respectively. Not a word was spoken. Claff took a sip from her china cup, Johnston primly held her book aloft and gradually turned a page, Krimm gazed up and sighed, opened her mouth as if to talk but then thought better of it. Their ennui was palpable; in the absence of men, they had nothing to animate them. This, of course, was the plight of females in Austen's time (and "Mad Men"'s for that matter), but couldn't have been further from the truth demonstrated on stage last night. If the world were at all fair, and talent won out over image, all of these performers would have bigger careers than Jennifer Aniston. Alas and alack.

I couldn't help but think of "Saturday Night Live" and how it might benefit from the creative input of these gifted Neo-Futurists. Imagine actual, relevant satire and cultural commentary on "SNL." Instead of another pointless and grating Target Lady skit, we'd get "on playgrounds across the street from organic bakeries." ("My baby's half black and half Filipino." "My baby has autism but we're just pretending he's gifted.") Who's the second city now?

Note to self: Stop being so lazy. Turn off the TV. Get thee to the theater.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

That's the Spirit

After Spirit Airlines announced it would begin charging for carry-on baggage, I waited for the onslaught of consumer backlash. And waited. Shockingly, the opposite occurred. Judging from responses broadcast by our local television stations, a lot of frequent fliers are applauding the move. WTF?

One person seemed to feel less carry-on luggage would translate into faster de-boarding times (I don't know that he/she actually used the word de-boarding, or if, in fact, it's even a word at all). Puh-lease. The reason it takes so long to get off a plane, especially if you're in Row 23, which seems to be where I'm seated every single time I fly, is that a couple hundred people are attempting to exit down narrow aisles through a single door at the same time. It has nothing to do with people in First Class spending hours grabbing their suitcases from overhead bins. People in First Class don't even travel with luggage. They're rich enough to just buy everything they need whenever they get where they're going.

Another person thought that charging would teach a lesson to people with large carry-on bags. As if fines for texting while driving has eradicated that behavior. The thing is, if passengers had any confidence that their checked luggage would arrive with them at their chosen destination, they wouldn't be so obsessed with stuffing their entire closet into their carry-on, myself being one such individual. I'd like to point out that the one time our luggage did get lost, I had all my toiletries and several changes of clothing in my carry-on, while my husband, a carry-on non-believer had bupkiss. I felt incredibly smug and superior until I realized his misery would translate into my misery.

By far my favorite response came from a senior citizen. He/she was thrilled that us young 'uns would have to pony up for our carry-ons, same as the old-timers do for their checked bags. I wasn't aware of this phenomenon, but apparently seniors are incapable of hauling their bags into the overhead bins. And can't find a flight attendant or fellow passenger who will lend a hand. So they check everything. Seriously? I'm 5' 1"--the overhead bins are physically out of my reach too, and I always get someone to help me out. Granted, this is usually my husband, but others have offered assistance as well. AARP needs to investigate this ASAP.

Add the baggage charges on top of the full-body scanner they installed at O'Hare, and I've pretty much settled on never flying again. Not that I was keen on this particular mode of transportation in the first place. Sure, air travel covers a large amount of ground in a relatively short amount of time, but that's about its only benefit. You can't roll down the windows. There's never anything good playing on the radio channels. It's impossible to time a bathroom break--as soon as the sign says "unoccupied" someone always beats you to the punch. You don't even get honey-roasted peanuts any more. Mostly I just hate the whole hurry up-and-wait aspect of flying, which, come to think of it, resembles the whole hurry up-and-wait aspect of a doctor's appointment. You make every effort to show up on schedule--usually at an inconvenient time that they've dictated to you--then they keep you cooling your heels, taking off/calling you into an exam room whenever they see fit. We only put up with this because they hold our lives in their hands and we don't want to piss them off.

My disdain for flying (not to be confused with fear) sucks, because there are places I'd like to go--Portland, New York, Paris, New Zealand--that are difficult, if not impossible, to reach by car from Chicago. Frankly, I'm running out of Midwest travel destinations within a six-hour drive. Then the other morning I awoke with a flash--we could ride the train to NYC. I immediately e-mailed my brother for his opinion of Amtrak, which he'd taken from St. Louis to visit us last fall. He was enthusiastic, but only about those few hundred miles of track. The east-west rails, he reported, are notoriously ill-kept, outdated and prone to delays. (I trust him in these matters because he's an urban planner and listens to NPR.) He suggested a sleeper car to help pass the 20+ hours in unconscious oblivion, unaware that I am perhaps the lightest sleeper in the history of sleep.

So...I'm thinking there must be something cool to see in Iowa.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"Lost" Love

Last night, I was planning on attending a lecture by starchitect Frank Gehry. But it was an unseasonably warm evening and I wasn't in the mood to sit inside an airless auditorium, so I went for a walk with my husband instead. In all honestly, I was also worried that I wouldn't get home in time from the Gehry chat fest to catch "Lost." (And yes, we are the only household in America without a DVR.)

I know that "Lost" is no longer the buzziest show on TV, hasn't been since Season 1, mostly because it airs on a broadcast network instead of cable. (And yes, we are the only household in America without cable.) I don't care. I still think it's amazing. I know a lot of people find it frustrating and confusing--some think it's too heavy on "mythology" and light on coherent plot. What they're missing, and what was on display last night, is that it's also wildly romantic.

You can see that in the show's larger themes: Jack's "live together, die alone" speech. The belief that people have the capacity for heroism and redemption. Sure, there's also a lot of stuff about electromagnetic energy and pushing buttons and smoke monsters, but the foundation of the series has always been its characters and their connections to each other. Ask any long-time fan of the show to name their favorite episode and 9 out of 10 will say "The Constant," which featured the star-crossed duo of Penny and Desmond reaching across time to declare their love. It sounds hokey on the page, but in practice it was an emotional stunner.

Lately, I've been more or less forced to read a number of novels with infidelity as their central premise. I find this depressing and discouraging and not particularly relevant to my personal experience, but I understand the writers' urge. It makes for good drama--soap operas have known this for decades. Falling in love is exciting, staying in love is a drag. What gives writers fits and starts, it seems, is how to make a successul relationship seem equally interesting. And really, why just single out novelists. Was "Access Hollywood" covering Tiger Woods before he became a sex addict? How many romantic comedies show what happens after the meet-cute and inevitable wedding?

In that light, "Lost"'s creative geniuses--Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (aka, Darlton)--have managed something truly astounding. In contrast with, say, the Drapers over on "Mad Men," "Lost" presents its core couple--Desmond and Penny--with a total lack of cynicism and a complete belief in the power of true, enduring love. (Of course, there are still a few episodes left in the final season and they could blow this all to hell.) Darlton's real trick wasn't getting us to believe in time travel, it was getting us to believe in lasting romance and to find it utterly gripping. They didn't hide behind the "will they-won't they" that so many other shows rely on, but bravely said they are, they always will be.

I imagine "Lost" is the last place most people would go to find an affirmation of soul mates. But there you have it and I, for one, find it refreshing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hoop Dreams

Now that March Madness is over, we can all get back to more important things, like whether, as Entertainment Weekly inquires, Jesse James is the most hated man in America. Most hated, really? When Glenn Beck is out there? Let's get some perspective, EW.

I've never quite been able to put my figure on what it is about the annual NCAA tourney that I find so intriguing, especially considering that I pay zero attention to basketball the rest of the year. Don't get me wrong, I love sports--baseball, football, bocce ball, I'm there. But not basketball, which is just too much running up and down a court for my taste. Perhaps that's the answer: March Madness isn't really about the sport, but more about the brackets (ie, a competition we can all play at home) and the scores. Particularly during the early rounds of the tournament, so many games are being played simultaneously that most match-ups are distilled by broadcasters to their final minutes or seconds, which is about how long I think these contests should last in the first place.

Maybe if my alma mater were ever part of the 64-team pool, I'd feel differently. But alas, I happened to graduate from the University of Toledo (Ohio, not Spain), which is not exactly an athletic powerhouse, though they actually used to have a pretty decent hoops team when I was a kid. My dad was a big fan, and I'd sit with him and listen to their games on the radio, keeping score at home with a pencil and pad of paper. The Rockets had a great run during the '70s and even made it to the Sweet 16. Once.

UT is largely a commuter school, and while its urban campus is actually quite pretty, affordability is its main selling point. If I found myself in possession of a hot tub time machine, I don't know that I would choose to attend today. Instead, I would advise my younger self to give Gonzaga a serious look, or maybe Robert Morris, or UTEP.

It's not exactly a secret that all American universities are not created equal. On one level, you've got your Ivy League schools and Ivy wannabes, which are out of financial or academic range for the vast majority of students. And on another level, you've got everything else. If you're stuck with everything else, you should at least pick one that prospective employers have heard of--and the NCAA tourney, or any big-time sports program, is a golden ticket to name recognition.

I have no idea what the physics department is like at the University of Kentucky, but I know that UK exists. Ditto for Seton Hall, Bradley, Louisville, North Carolina and UNLV. A Harvard diploma might seriously grease the wheels for you, but I'm betting that one from Butler will open a few doors now as well, or at least start a conversation in a way that a degree from UT or Eastern Michigan won't.

There's also a pride and camaraderie that surrounds successful sporting schools--a reason for strangers to gather together around a television with a common interest. I miss that. Mercifully, my brothers attended Ohio State for grad school, so I nominally have someone to root for during bowl games and the like. But it's not the same as being able to strut down the street in my UT sweatshirt (which I don't even own) and receive an approving nod from passersby.

The NCAA is mulling whether to expand the basketball tournament to 96 teams, a notion I initially opposed, largely because I'm generally against any kind of change. But I'm starting to warm up to the idea. With 96 slots open, the chance of UT sneaking into a bracket vastly increases. And if they manage to pull off an upset or two, hello Cinderella story, hello pride, hello no longer having to pretend I went to the University of Texas.

Go Rockets!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Spring Break

It happens every year around this time. Temps suddenly turn warm and I'm caught off guard. Oh, mentally, I'm more than prepared to bid farewell to winter, if indeed it is farewell. (Chicagoans are notoriously suspicious of spring. I've got four words for you: Cooler by the lake.) But physically? Ugh.

I spend most of November through March swathed in wool and corduroy and scarves and hats. And bitching about it every minute of every day. Hat hair is not my friend. But then April comes along and suddenly remaining under wraps doesn't seem so bad. I mean, I'm totally cool baring my feet and arms, but my legs weren't meant to see the light of day.

I seriously can't remember when I didn't hate my thighs. Maybe when I was two but probably not even then. I do not have the gift of gams and there's nothing I can do about it; it's in the gene pool same as my brown hair and eyes. Seriously--no matter what I eat (or don't eat) or how much I exercise (or don't), my legs remain stubbornly stubby.

So I've never looked forward to shorts season, to say nothing of swimsuits. Then one day it dawned on me that I could just say no. To shorts. I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before, that I had the power to wear whatever I wanted.

In the first phase following my conversion, I relied largely on capri cargo pants. The thing is, on a 90-degree day, they're kind of hot and not in a hottie way but more in a sweaty way. (Shorts, it seems, exist for a reason. How Jane Austen's heroines kept from melting in their empire gowns is a grad thesis waiting to be written.) More recently I've begun branching out to skirts and sundresses. Sometimes I feel a little over-dressed for the occasion, but mostly I feel prettier and way less self-conscious than I would in shorts.

I don't know that I would call this a trend, but a lot of women seem to have come round to my same conclusion. Maybe it just seems like that because I live in a large city where fashion is more of a priority. Or maybe we're collectively tired of seeing guys get away with wearing those baggy shorts that droop down to their calves while we struggle to fit into Daisy Dukes.

The odd thing is that the very style of dress that liberated me from years of poor body image feels a bit like a throwback. All these skirts and dresses seem very 1950's-ish--back when being "full-figured" or "curvy" was something to be proud of and not code word for "fat." (Unless you are Beyonce, where curvy is code word for sexy. She gets a pass but the rest of us don't.) Actually, most women I've talked to who've also discovered the joy of the dress would like to revisit not a previous era but a previous age. We're all ever so jealous of the adorable styles designed for young girls; the sweet and simple shifts that all but scream sugar and spice and everything nice. They're meant to be playful and fresh--like spring and summer personified. Who wouldn't take that over a pair of khaki shorts.