Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reasonably Content Ever After

The morning news was all atwitter with the announcement of Prince William's engagement to Kate, aka Miss Catherine, Middleton. (Quick question: I get Kate for Katherine, but why not Cate--a la Blanchett--for Catherine? It's like she's a completely different person now that we know she's been a "C," not a "K," all along.) Far be it from me to tell Meredith Vieira how to conduct her interviews with professional royal watchers, but neither she nor any of her competitors asked the question on every viewers' mind, at least the female ones--what does the ring look like, how many carats, and when will we get to see it?

Diana sported a big honking sapphire sparkler that probably was worth a ton of money but wasn't nearly as pretty as a diamond--in fact it was kind of dark and ominous, which in retrospect was fitting for the marriage. Fergie got a ruby and I guess by default, Prince Edward gave his wife (named Sophie, but nobody cares about the 7th in line to the throne) an emerald. That covers the major gems--will Cate have to make do with a garnet? Or topaz? C'mon NBC, sick "Dateline" on this mystery.

Somewhere at my parents' house is a box of memorabilia from my childhood that contains my baby teeth, a rabbit's foot and a sheaf of magazine covers and newspaper clippings chronicling the wedding and early married life of Lady/Princess Diana. I was the perfect age to completely buy into this fairytale. She was like the ultimate glamorous older sister--so tall and leggy, so blushing and blond. Who didn't want to be her? It was as if by marrying Charles she'd managed the trifecta of head cheerleader, homecoming queen and prom queen all at once.

I lapped up stories of her bopping around the palace, listening to Duran Duran on her Walkman. Telling Charles to stop with the comb over. Falling asleep during stodgy old symphonies. If I were a princess, that's exactly what I'd do. Never mind that I was a junior high student and she was behaving like one too.

What I didn't realize at the time, because I was a kid and kids have absolutely no concept of how a marriage works, is that all the things that made Diana such a hoot of a princess made her a horrible wife. She had nothing in common with her husband. Well, what 19 year old does with a 30something prince? It was a recipe for disaster, but I, along with a billion other people, was too blinded by sapphires and tiaras to see the catastrophe ahead.

So I guess it doesn't matter what K/Cate's ring looks like. Don't get me wrong, I'm as psyched for the spectacle of this royal wedding as anyone. I actually said to my husband the other day, "If this wedding isn't on broadcast [Edward's wasn't, see above note about 7th in line] we're going to have to get cable." I'll be up at 3 in the morning, waiting to see what the dress looks like and hanging on every moment of horse-drawn carriage hoopla. But I'll also be watching with a wiser eye, rooting not for the beautiful princess and her dashing groom, but for a young couple and the success of their marriage. Already it bodes well that they're the same age, have equivalent educations and seem to genuinely like each other--this relationship seems less "Cinderella," more Jim and Pam of "The Office." I'll settle for a little less fairytale this time around, and a little more happily, or reasonably content, ever after.

Update: Oh no he didn't. William gifted K/Cate with his mother's engagement ring. Ugh. Maybe it's just me, but I'd want my own ring, not one associated with the most disastrous marriage in modern history. William sweetly claimed the gesture was his way of making sure Diana didn't miss out on the festivities, but I can vouch that no woman wants her mother-in-law being part of her marriage proposal. Good luck, K/Cate, you'll need it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I'm Keeping My Arm

I'm not giving anything away when I say that the climax in the movie "127 Hours" comes when Aron Ralston, well played by James Franco, decides to cut off his right arm. It's been pinned by a boulder, trapping him in a remote canyon for five days. He's out of food, water (he's already resorted to drinking his own urine) and hope, but not the will to live--it comes down to the arm or him. At this point, the audience has plenty of time to ponder what they'd do under similar circumstances, given that most people at the screening I attended, me included, chose to avert their eyes from the amputation, fake or not. I peeked at the screen for perhaps a nanosecond, only to see a flash of flesh and blood. I kind of vurped and put my head back down.

It didn't take me long to answer "What would Patty do?" because I had come to the conclusion an hour and 15 minutes earlier that I would never find myself in a remote canyon with my arm pinned by a boulder in the first place.

Rewind to another telling scene near the beginning of the film in which Aron befriends a pair of female hikers and leads them off the beaten path to a super cool hidden swimming hole. You've probably seen this in the movie's trailer: the three are wedged between rock, scooting along with their butts on one side of a narrow gorge and bracing themselves with their feet on the other. Aron suddenly drops his legs and plummets to the unseen water below. The girls follow suit, one more reluctantly than the other after letting loose a string of "fuck, fuck, fuck."

I'm the girl who says "fuck." And then turns around.

Several years ago, Dave and I were hiking the Angel's Landing trail in Utah's Zion National Park. A more accurate moniker would be Satan's Spire but the Mormons had naming rights, so heaven won out. From the guidebook, and I quote: "The route, cut into solid rock, very steeply ascends a knife-edge sandstone rib, from which cliffs plunge 500 feet or more on either side. Sloping steps cut into the rock making footing precarious. Short segments of chain bolted intermittently to the rock offer occasional handholds, but many exposed stretches offer no such protection." Yeah, just another walk in the park.

The guidebook had duly warned me, yet there I was, "fuck, fuck, fuck," clinging to the "intermittent" chain for dear life. We came to a lookout point and stopped so I could collect myself. That was it. I was done. I'm sure the view at the top was spectacular, but I'll never know.

Do I regret not finishing the climb? Hell yes. I was angry and disappointed in myself, for being afraid and giving into that fear. For being such a wuss-assed wimp. Not for "faint-hearted hikers and small children" the guidebook chided. That was me--a faint-hearted baby. I stomped back down the trail, which intersected with another less-vertiginous path, and proceeded to death march Dave for miles through the blistering August heat just to prove...what? If I couldn't conquer height, I would conquer distance? Spurred on by adrenaline, I quickly outpaced my parched and hungry husband, who ultimately refused to go one step further on our meager reserve of supplies. I continued some way without him--who was the wuss-ass now--until it struck me that this was our vacation. We were supposed to be having fun. Together. For the second time that day, I switched direction.

The Arons of the world keep going.

I want to be the person who climbs mountains, but content myself hiking the foothills below. I want to camp under the stars, but retreat to indoor plumbing at night. As much as I envy and admire the people who abandon themselves to the call of the wild, I'll never be one of them. For some reason, that depresses me.

Do you know how many people tour the Grand Canyon via car? Griswold-like, they pull up in their SUVs, hop out to snap a photo, then hop back in and motor on to the next scenic turnout. The fact that Dave and I hiked halfway down and back should be a point of pride and probably puts us ahead of 99 percent of the population (it doesn't count if you get to the bottom via mule, unless you're the mule). But damned if we didn't encounter a pair who were hiking the canyon's entire width, rim to rim. The couple, a man and woman (we assumed married), were maybe in their 50s, possibly early 60s. And just like that, our far less vigorous excursion was utterly diminished. It mattered not one whit that on our return to the top we came across another couple huffing and puffing and turning at the one-mile point. In their minds, we were gods, but I knew better.

I'm not Aron Ralston. I might share his motivation to challenge nature, to go deeper and farther, to explore and discover, but where he plunges ahead, I hold myself back. When I come to a sign that says, and I paraphrase, "If you're stupid enough to think you can hike to the bottom of the canyon and back in a day, you will die," I take it at face value. So I go halfway, half-hearted, half-assed. I respect limits, I consider consequences, and once you do that, you're toast as a Mountain Dew poster child.

Aron lost his arm because it never occurred to him that he might. I've got both of mine, because it occurs to me that I could.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Top Chef Disappoints

The good thing about being a vegetarian: how superior I felt when reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The bad thing about being a vegetarian: how inferior I feel whenever I go out to eat.

I tend to think my little neck of the woods is crawling with vegetarians, the same way that when I get together with my family, I have the sense that all people are shorter than 5' 5". I forget that I'm part of what's still a fairly small minority. Fortunately there's always a restaurant menu handy to bring me back to reality. Doesn't matter whether the joint serves burgers and fries or 3-star French cuisine, there's typically a lone concession to non-meat eaters. Often it involves a portobello mushroom or eggplant, always combined with goat cheese, as if by swearing off meat I also took an oath against cheddar and gorgonzola. For the record, I hate mushrooms. I hate eggplant. I hate goat cheese.

"Nothing here for Patty," I say, disappointed by yet another chef's limited approach to meatless cuisine, as Dave and I wander hopelessly from restaurant to restaurant, like Mary and Joseph searching for a room at the inn.

My email constantly fills with messages announcing trendy underground or farm dinners, great bargains on prix fixe menus at the latest hotspot, grand openings of the newest gastropub. A revolution is taking place in terms of innovative, fresh cuisine--could there be more cooking shows on TV--and I'm stuck with my nose pressed up against the glass. I don't need someone to throw me a bone, I need them to throw me an avocado.

(I know what you're thinking. Aren't there vegetarian restaurants? Why don't you just go there and shut up already. Trouble is, I don't much care for "vegetarian" food. Tofu has all of the appeal of a pencil eraser and seitan resembles congealed oatmeal or, worse, vomit. I don't want weird food, I want the same stuff as everyone else, without the meat.)

I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that a bona fide Top Chef like Rick Bayless would be more progressive in his offerings. On a recent weekday that happened to be a holiday for Dave, we headed downtown to XOCO, Bayless' latest downscale restaurant, intended to satisfy people with gourmet tastes and fast-food budgets. We stepped up to the counter and perused the list of tortas (Spanish for "sandwiches made with round bread"). Lots of pork and chicken. Last and most definitely least, oh look, mushrooms. With goat cheese. And black beans cooked with pork.

We could have walked away and gone to Potbelly's but, dammit, all they have is mushrooms too and besides, I would not be denied yet another opportunity to taste the creation of someone who had appeared on The Food Network. My options narrowed to vegetable soup or a churro. Churros I can get at Costco for a buck so I ordered the vegetable soup in spite of the fact that I hate soup. Someday, when I'm 90, and I don't have any teeth and my jaw doesn't work, I'm sure I'll feel differently. But at this point in my life, I still have the ability to chew, and that's what I like to do with my food. As consolation, I also ordered a hot chocolate, the Barcelona, described simply as "thick."

A hostess-type person led us to our table, explaining for the second time that this communal table seated six, and other people that we didn't know would eventually be joining us. (As if restaurants aren't typically filled with strangers.) Our drinks arrived first and our mystery companions shortly thereafter.

The Barcelona, how to describe it. You know those chocolate cakes with the molten centers? It was like drinking that or, perhaps a more accurate analogy, warm brownie batter. I had to finish it with my soup spoon, which was a better use of the utensil than scooping up my sad, salty black bean broth, about which I have nothing more to say.

The Barcelona saved the meal. Not just because it was so magically delicious, but because it was the spark that lit the conversation with our tablemates. "Now I wish I'd ordered that," she said. And we were off and running. We learned that they were originally from New York but now lived outside Philadelphia--he wanted to move back, she wanted to explore other possibilities (I suggested Portland, my personal obsession, though I've never been). They talked about their experience with Amtrak (hey, we hate flying too) and their impressions of Chicago--deep dish pizza overrated, Lincoln Park Zoo a total gem, with which we were in total agreement.

It was a delightful, serendipitous 20-30 minutes, what Michael Pollan would term the difference between eating and "dining." XOCO completely failed me in terms of the former; the communal table completely delivered the latter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No One's Cornered the Market on Misery

For all the years I've studied writing, for all the time I've put into honing my craft, for all the money I've debated plowing into an MFA program, I am constantly humbled by the work of Tom & Lorenzo, aka, TLo, the bloggers behind the projectrungay site. As one of their adoring minions (or, alternately, kittens), I laugh out loud at their bitchery and insanely clever turns of phrases; their television recaps are frequently more insightful than those of professional entertainment writers/critics. They helped me understand "Lost," which is saying a lot.

While it may be simple to dismiss the boys as lightweights--their In or Out fashion posts aren't going to win any Pulitzers for investigative reporting but are often the highlight of my day--their work also demonstrates a frank, emotional depth that's irritatingly illuminating, particularly given how quickly they crank out this stuff. I've debated verb tense longer than it takes them to write a beautifully crafted 1,000-word post.

Their recap of last night's episode of "Glee" was typically heartfelt. Speaking from their own experience: "Giving a young gay boy the dream that someday Prince Charming will come and sing a love song to him? You cannot imagine. You simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is."

Their point: "Imagine going through high school without even so much as a hint of yourself reflected in any of the things you watch and listen to, any of the things that literally every other kid is talking about." Heartbreaking stuff.

And yet...I sort of beg to differ.

I'm not saying gay people haven't been woefully underrepresented in the media. I am arguing that they're not the only ones who don't see anyone remotely resembling themselves onscreen. Unless you're a super hot doctor, lawyer or police officer.

I'm barely over 5 feet tall. I wanna see someone my height, I've gotta watch Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. I've worn glasses since I was in the fourth grade. My compadres on the boob tube are limited to Tina Fey and Ugly Betty, emphasis on ugly. I have thighs--when's the last time you saw a pair of those on an actress.

I don't mean to equate being short, chunky or near-sighted with being gay. None of those things is nearly as isolating or draws the venom of "religious" conservatives. But we all have things that make us feel like outcasts, especially in high school. There are the fat kids, the nerds who join Chess Club, the kids who have really bad acne, anyone with a disability. ("Glee" makes paralysis look cool. My husband works with special needs wheelchair-bound students who require toileting. Trust me, they don't have a gaggle of friends.) To suggest that gay students are the only ones with their noses pressed up against the glass, always on the outside looking in, is to ignore all the others kids (and adults) for whom Prom King or Queen, or a first kiss, or a happily-ever-after with Prince or Princess Charming is a complete and utter pipe dream as well. No one group has cornered the market on misery. I have a friend whose nephew is 7 feet tall--and he's not Shaquille O'Neal. Her nieces top 6 feet. Ask them how they feel when they watch romantic comedies. Do J. Lo and Matthew McConaughy represent any remote possibility of how their adulthood is going to play out? You don't have to be gay to find "When Harry Met Sally" depressing as hell.

The reality of high school and life in general is that flat-out winners represent a tiny fraction of the population--kind of like the teeny tiny percentage of people beautiful enough to take up acting. To consider them the standard model for how we should look or how we should behave is kind of crazy.

While I agree with TLo that it's a wonderful thing for gay kids to see themselves represented on TV, I'm not sure that's the be-all end-all we should be pursuing in terms of validating our own individual life experiences. Why do we need to see ourselves reflected onscreen to feel worthy? I'm a fairly rational person and I buy into this myself. I watch "Sex and the City" and I think, my god, I've never had a Brazilian wax, I can't afford to buy Manolos and even if I could I'd have no hope of walking in them, and I don't think it's insane to date a man for more than two weeks before having sex with him. Ergo, I'm not a modern woman. My existence is nullified.

Wouldn't we all be better off if we stopped looking for entertainment and the media to provide us with a reflection of ourselves? Wouldn't we all be better off if we turned to the person next to us instead--if the gay kid and the fat kid and the pimply-faced kid and the homecoming queen all saw themselves reflected in each other?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Day After

The calendar says November 3, but it feels more like Groundhog Day. I could swear this is a repeat of a morning in 2004, when I awoke to discover that my fellow Americans had ushered in a Republican Congress, defying all reason, logic and my own personal preference. Back in 2004, I dressed in black to mourn the occasion, which I've decided to eschew today because it's just not a good color for me. But the emotion remains the same.

I'm depressed.

I'm depressed by the mere existence of Republicans. I don't mean I want them to disappear off the face of the Earth. Some of these creatures are my family members and when they stop talking politics, I kind of like, possibly even love them. But I can't wrap my head around their thought processes, by their way of thinking that boils down to "I've got mine, too bad you didn't get yours." I don't quite understand how most of these people also consider themselves the sole keepers and bearers of the Christian flame. They can quote the chapter and verse that seems to prove God hates gays, but they can't remember "do unto others." They drive around with bumper stickers that wonder "What Would Jesus Do?" without contemplating that Jesus would never consider health care a privilege, as opposed to a basic human right. There's much talk about the need for the left and right to compromise, to come to the center, where most Americans reside. The thing is, while I agree that most of us have more in common than FOX and MSNBC would suggest, I would also argue that at the most basic level, Republicans and Democrats have such a fundamentally different approach to life--"me" vs. "we" if you will--that the gap is too wide for us to ever bridge.

I'm depressed that the young people who were so excited to vote in 2008 showed absolutely no interest in governing. They seemed to consider Barack Obama the electoral version of Lollapalooza--a really fun show--and supporting his legislative agenda the equivalent of canned peas. Distasteful. Which brings me to my next point.

I'm depressed that Americans are so ADD. A lot of us went to the polls in 2008 hoping for change. When that didn't happen the day after the inauguration, we started getting antsy. What the hell was taking so long? We wanted the stock market back at 13,000; we wanted everyone to have a job, even the people who were unemployed before the Great Recession; we wanted China and India to go back to being Third World non-powers; we wanted our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday; and if we could stop being so fat, well, that would be cool too. Never mind that change takes time. We don't have the patience. We're so used to flipping channels when we don't like what's on TV--and politics has become TV--that we don't understand you can't switch social movements on and off with similar ease. Because I'm convinced that I was supposed to be British, I can't help but think that the UK form of government might get us all to settle down a little bit. Four or five years between election cycles would give policies a chance to prove their merit--as it is, the ink was barely dry on the healthcare bill before opponents began talking about repealing it. These two-year cycles mean congressmen and women are in perpetual campaign, not legislative, mode. Everything is a posture, nothing is a real position.

I'm depressed because I have to look at and listen to John Boehner for two whole years. I'm suicidal at the thought of two more years of Sarah Palin, who was supposed to have gone away by now. John McCain may have lost the presidency but look at the devil he unleashed.

I'm depressed because "The West Wing" is off the air and I don't have an alternate political reality, where everyone is honest and idealistic and morally upstanding, to get me through the misery to come.

I'm depressed to think the people on the other side of the fence hate Barack Obama as much, if not more, than I hated George W. Bush.

But here's the thing: As much as the pundits and the Tea Baggers are all talking about last night's election as some sort of sea change, life for most of us will pretty much go on the same as it has for the past decade. Some of us have lost our jobs and homes, but most of us haven't. Whether the Congress leans blue or red, we'll still get married and divorced, have babies, watch football, hit the beach on a hot summer day, eat too much pie on Thanksgiving, run red lights, go to the movies, and pay too much attention to Charlie Sheen. The world wasn't coming to an end before last night; it's not coming to an end now.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.