Saturday, November 26, 2011

On dropping the extra weight.

It’s Thanksgiving which means a) everyone’s obsessed about food (with good reason I LOVE Thanksgiving) and b) everyone’s obsessed about weight.  I’ve been finding “tips for losing weight fast” all over the place, and after reading yet ANOTHER top ten list today that had the same useless recommendations (crunches are NOT the solution to all my problems tyvm) I realized that I probably could write my own top ten list, and it might be more useful than those canned magazine suggestions. 

First, a confession.  The summer after I graduated from college I weighed 170 pounds. According to those annoying charts, I was actually bordering on obese for my height.  I felt horrible about myself.  Then one day I looked in the mirror and realized that all the things I hated about my body were things I could change.  For the first time, I got really serious about the dieting. I spent the summer with my family as my coaches and cheerleaders, really working on losing weight, and in the end, I dropped almost 30 pounds.  I’ve kept that weight off for three years now, and I’m actually still losing weight (much, MUCH slower.  I have dropped five pounds over the past three years, but they were a hard-earned five pounds.)  Having actually managed to make a lifestyle change,  I feel like I actually have some advice to offer if you’re looking to lose weight permanently yourself.  These ten points are NOT tips for quick weight loss, they’re ideas that you might take into account as you begin to create a lifestyle change for yourself.  These have worked for me, and I hope you find them useful:

 1.  DON’T DEPRIVE YOURSELF.  It’s in all caps for a reason.  For me, diets never work.  I feel like I’m punishing myself and just end up craving horrible things (even the piece of chocolate cake I actually hate) just because I’m not allowing myself to eat them.   Instead of completely cutting out anything sweet, I keep a bar of dark chocolate or a box of ginger snaps in the house and an hour or two after dinner, when the sweet craving sets in, I have two squares of chocolate or two cookies and a cup of hot tea.  It makes me feel like I’ve had desert, satisfies my cravings, and allows me to stick to the diet plan I have.

2.  Don’t buy bad food.  If you have it available, you’ll eat it, so don’t tempt yourself, don’t buy it. It’s as simple as that (but not really.)  As a rule, I don’t allow myself to go to the grocery store when I’m hungry.  It helps me resist buying the bag of chips or the delicious slice of carrot cake.

3. Cook your own food.  If I cook it, I know exactly what goes into it.  I try to limit the amount of meals I eat out (and here I’m counting everything I don’t prepare from scratch.)  This is EXTREMELY hard to do when you’re busy, so here’s a place I find ways to cut corners: In the summer I eat a lot of big salads that make me feel full, but are quick to make.  In the winter when I’m craving comfort food, I make a huge pot of soup and supplement that with the occasional treat so I don’t feel I’m constantly eating the same thing. 

4. Find the exercise you enjoy.  If you enjoy it, you’ll do it.  I do a combination of yoga and jogging.  The yoga builds muscle and flexibility, the jogging is great cardio (and I can motivate myself by thinking of it as “outside time” rather than exercise time).  If you’re trying to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in, so make it easier for yourself by finding ways to make the calorie-burning endurable.

5. Kick-start by going no carb.  I started my diet regime with two weeks of absolutely no carbs at all: no fruit, no starchy vegetables, nothing.  I dropped a lot of weight quickly and it got my confidence up.  If you’re having trouble starting, try this, THEN focus on changing your lifestyle and habits to keep the weight off and continue dropping pounds. 

6. Set a non-weight-related goal.  I have a mantra I use when I exercise.  It reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.  Don’t lose weight to lose weight lose weight because....(fill in the blank)

7. Eat right.  Learn where the calories are hiding in your foods.  Don’t trust things that claim to be “low fat” or “low sodium.” Often, they compensate by adding more of something else equally unpleasant.  Read labels.  When I started I had no idea how many calories were in the food I ate, so I started keeping a food diary and counting calories. It was hugely frustrating, but it taught me some valuable lessons.  For me, counting calories didn’t actually help me lose weight (I felt like I was depriving myself) , but it did help me educate myself so I could be successful later. 

8.  Get a hobby  I eat when I’m bored, so if I keep myself occupied, I feel less hungry.  You can also try keeping snacks like raw almonds in the house to combat the urge to snack on something less healthy.  A friend of mine goes about this differently.  She set a rule that she’d never eat after 9pm and she sticks to it.  For me, with my insane life, that’s not a reasonable rule, but it works for her. Both of these strategies are about finding constructive ways to combat the urges and cravings that are just a fact of life.

9. Stay AWAY from the scale.  I DO NOT weigh myself every day.  My weight fluctuates by as much as 5 pounds daily.  I tend to weigh myself once a week and this gives me an idea of the general trend (am I gaining, losing, or maintaining?) so that I can adjust my habits accordingly. 

10.  Create your own top ten.  What works for me might not work for you. For me, as long as I’m exercising, I generally maintain weight, so I can afford to be a little lax about the food I eat.  I do some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just 5 sun salutations or 10 minutes of different kinds of sit-ups because I find it’s easier to maintain my exercise regimen that way. I mix up my daily routine with short-term challenges (the 40-day challenge is an example of this) and reward myself at the end (not a food reward of course.)  If your weight is more dependent on your diet than your exercise, your top ten will look different from mine.  Know what the challenges are for you and find reasonable ways to combat them.  The trick is not to go on a diet, but to create a lifestyle change.  It’s the only way you’ll actually keep off the weight you’re losing. 

So what are your top ten weight-loss strategies?  Leave some ideas in the comments so I can benefit from your wisdom.  After all, my list is a constant work in progress.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"It's not for Women"

 Dr. Pepper has just rolled out a new ad campaign aimed to get men drinking their new diet soda.  The tag line?  "It's not for women."  The ad opens with a mock scene from an action movie, a high-speed chase through jungle.  The male lead turns to the camera and says "Enjoying the movie ladies?  Of course not, cause this is for men."

Now, I understand that this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but something in my gut clenched tight when the man on the screen to a big swig of Dr. Pepper and then claimed "Keep your romantic comedies and your dainty soda."  I'm a woman, and yes, I drink diet soda and I watch romantic comedies.  I also watch action flicks and I have been known to claim that the 'goodness' of a movie is directly proportional to the number of explosions and high-speed chases it displays (whether or not these are directly relevant to the plot).   So what would that man have done if my answer to his question had been "yes, actually, I LOVE this movie."  Does this make me manly?  Are women only allowed to live in pink houses, watch romantic comedies, and drink diet soda?  I thought we were past this.

Is this a sexist campaign?  Yes, definitely.  Should we, the feminists of the world "Get the Joke" and shut up, as the Vice President of marketing suggests in this article?  (forgive the mediocre writing, this was literally the only article with any substance to it that I could find)   I'm not sure if I should be disparagingly amused, or grab my torch and pitchfork.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Closet Makeover

It's that time in the semester when the academic work starts piling up.   Add to that a high school theatre conference and an inconvenient car accident, and I am suddenly buried under mountains of work.  What does this mean?

Organization Tiem!

See, I joined this site called pinterest and there are tons of crafty people on there with interesting ideas for organizing spaces.  I ended up making a list of things to do and re-do around the apartment, and the closet happened to be the first thing on the list.

So before we get too much further, the before pictures.  Witness the horrifying horribleness of my closet!  (and this is cleanish)

This is a shelf which started as t-shirt storage and became "what can I throw here" storage

And in my defense, Gus (my cat(  has this weird facination with shoes.  He likes to sleep on them, hence the nest-o-shoes.

So, a few things had to be done.  The T-shirts needed to be contained in something.  I have a bunch of scarves that were mushed up in my Ikea hangy bag that needed a space of their own, and the shoes needed a method of containment (although it was very important that there still be a few available for Gus to sleep on)

So a trip to target, a little driving of screws, and some re-organizing, and here is the finished product:

Target was having a sale on plastic hangars, so I spent all of $2 to buy a whole bunch, and I replaced all the wire hangars in my closet.  It felt it bit fussy, but it makes the whole thing look so much cleaner.  And now hopefully my clothes will stop falling off their hangars.

Here's the solution to the T-shirt problem:  A basket!  And instead of shoving all the scarves into a bag, they're now hanging very prettily on their own little plastic hooks.  The best part about this is it will leave absolutely no damage on the walls (hopefully)
I'm especially proud of my shoe solution.  A teeny shelf!  It actually took less time to build this than it did to re-hang all the clothes in my closet.  Now I know exactly where everything is, I can see it, and The most commonly worn shoes are on the floor (where Gus can sleep on them)

So that's the great closet makeover.  All in all it took maybe an hour, tops (not counting the target run, which always takes longer than it should).  Next I'm tackling the couch and general "living room" area, which will involve a little more diy-ing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Driving West (or Breaking News: Tractor trailers are more annoying than slow snow drivers.)

I have just completed a 2 day drive from Austin to Phoenix, and survived.  Truthfully, I don’t think the question was ever, “Will I survive this trip,” but rather, “Will my cat survive this trip?”  Thankfully, Gus seems to have arrived in Phoenix sane and healthy.  He didn’t escape, he didn’t get indigestion from the change in water, and he doesn’t seem to be horribly traumatized from spending two days in a cat carrier.  He’s settled in to life at home nicely and life for him is more or less back to normal.  I, however, am still recovering from the unique frustration of driving long distances.

It’s amazing the sorts of things that bother you when you’re behind the wheel of a car.  There’s something about cars that tend to turn humans into raving axe murderers.  The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked in a small repertory theatre in Maine and one of my many jobs was to show cars where to park in the tiny, un-lined parking lot.  This was an eye-opening experience (to put it politely).  I even learned a few curses I’d never heard before.  Once patrons got out of their cars, they were lovely people, but behind the wheel they were all rabid lunatics.

The same can be true of people driving on highways for long stretches, particularly in the Southwest where you can go for hours and feel like you haven’t moved.  The scenery doesn’t change much, and after a few hundred miles, one cactus looks very much like another cactus.  You can set the cruise control to 80 and just drive.  It causes a certain zombie-like tunnel vision.  Anything that disrupts this rhythm becomes the enemy, turning normal human beings into horn-blasting, wheel-screeching psychopaths.

Nothing causes this transformation from reasonable person to asylum inmate more efficiently than a tractor trailer.  No matter what your speed is, tractor trailers seem constantly to drive 15 miles below it.  If you’re going 80, they’re gong 65.  If you’re going 45, they’re going 30.  It doesn’t make much sense.  Surely there’s a point at which everyone can drive at the same speed?  The really infuriating thing, however, is that these gigantic trucks constantly feel the need to pass each other.  It invariably only happens on two-lane highways where you can’t possibly get around the incredibly slow trucks driving side-by-side because really they’re both going 65 (even though the speed limit is 75) but one decided the best way to compensate for his feelings of inadequacy by passing the other.  The major problem here is that it requires you, the innocent bystander, to slow down, possibly even (horror of horrors) reset your cruise control at 60 for 20 miles while you wait for the truck in the left lane to finally decide he has enough room to pull in front of the truck in the right lane.

On this particular trip, the problem was compounded by The Construction From Hell.  Every 85 miles or so, like clockwork, there would be “construction.”  This means that all the cars on the highway have to funnel into one lane and reduce their speed to 35 for about 2 hours so that four guys can stand in front of an idle backhoe wearing ugly hats and drinking coffee like they’re in some lame college frat.  These are arranged by some diabolical power to occur about 10 minutes after two trucks have completed the 2-lane pass, giving you just enough time to get back up to 80 so that you can slow down again.  It’s infuriating. 

I seem to have survived the ordeal just in time to fly to Merida, Venezuela for a 3-week trip (which will no doubt be the subject of its own blog entry at a later date), and that really is swapping one frustration for another.  I suppose it’s the destination that really matters, though, and in both cases, the destination is well worth the inevitable frustration of getting there.

To those of you who are traveling, be safe, be happy, and if you can't enjoy the journey, enjoy the destination.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Half Jew Celebrates Passover

When I am asked, “Are you Jewish?” I usually say, “I am culturally Jewish.”  I come from a household that is half Jewish, half Christian, and mostly Atheist.   I grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays, and for the first several years of my life I didn’t quite understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity.  One famous Chanukah, I asked my parents if I could say the blessing as we lit the candles on the Menorah and promptly thanked God for the Baby Jesus. 

Since then, I’ve managed to get the two straight and my Jewish heritage has become quite important to me.  Perhaps it is a way for me to connect to my grandfather who died when I was quite young.  Perhaps it is because I spent a lot of time living in places where I was the closest my friends and classmates came to a “real” Jew... whatever the reason, I tend to find myself called upon to be “Jewish” at least one or two days out of the year, generally around Passover. 

This year, the Day of Jewishness was Tuesday, April 19th, the first day of Passover (the night of the 18th was the first night).  On that day, I participated in a Seder and a half (the half was a presentation I gave in a class), told a story about Chelm, and danced the horah.  I said blessings and sang songs in hebrew.  I even cooked a potato kugel from scratch (in spite of the 95 degree weather).  I always feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly guilty, wondering perhaps if I am appropriating a religion to which I have no right.  But then I find myself surrounded by first-timers singing Dayenu IN HARMONY and something inside me rejoices.

There is something beautiful about Passover that calls me to be Jewish for a day.  After all, the service starts with the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  Every year I find myself at this table.  And every year I find myself wondering if I am disgracing my ancestors by only claiming “Jewishness” a few short days out of the year.  Probably so.  And yet I cannot quench the desire I feel year after year to return to that hope of Passover: Next year in Jerusalem.  Next year may all be free. 


Sunday, April 17, 2011

There's Even Music at the Grocery Store

Austin is a city of live music.  It’s everywhere: in the clubs, in the restaurants, on the street corners, in the schools... everywhere.  One of the things I love most about Austin is the over-abundance of live music.  You can head out your door on any given day and I would be willing to bet you money that it would only take you ten minutes or so to find someone playing music.

It may sound strange when I say that my new favorite place to go hear music is actually a grocery store, but take into account the fact that it’s a grocery store in Austin and it begins to make sense.  There’s a Central Market (the organic and gourmet branch of the local chain) a couple blocks from my house.  It’s well within walking distance, which has proved useful since I tend to shop a bit sporadically and often realize that even though I was just at the store yesterday, I need to go back today.  This particular Central Market also has a rather large prepared food section that’s half-way decent and a gorgeous patio area with trees and tables where you can eat the food. On Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays they have local bands playing for free outside on that patio.  So you can go to the grocery store, do your shopping, buy yourself a dinner, and eat it in the afternoon sun under the shade of trees listening to FREE MUSIC.  It really doesn’t get better than that.

Actually it does, because Central Market is a gathering place for all types of people: older couples sway to the strains of the local indie-rock band that happens to be playing at 6:30 on Friday and next to them, a four year old is excitedly jumping up and down while her father chases her around frantically, carrying an ice cream cone.  It’s one of the best places to people watch.  Today a couple who clearly were trained in ballroom dance spent the first half of the band’s set dancing really impressively and the second half teaching a bunch of thrilled children how to swing dance.   This is what I love about Austin.   

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spirit Voices

The first time I heard Paul Simon’s album,  Graceland, I was in a coffee shop in Mount Desert Island, Maine, called Cafe Milagro, and it felt like un milagro.  Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes was playing, and it felt like Paul Simon had written that song for me.  It combined together all of my varied tastes in music into one glorious song: a simple, folk-like melody, african drums and rhythms, voices in close harmony, acoustic guitar, and poetic lyrics.  I turned to my mom, who was ordering a latte, and asked, “What is this?”  She told me, and I don’t think its hyperbole to say that my whole life changed.

You see, before that day in the coffee shop I hadn’t really managed to define my taste in music.  Now, armed with my parents’ copy of Graceland on tape, I was able to say clearly that I liked folk music, world music, and particularly that rare, beautiful place where the two intersected.  For Christmas that year, my mom gave me a three CD collection of Paul Simon’s music.  I discovered Rhythm of the Saints with its South American beat and portuguese lyrics, and my conversion became complete.  It may seem like a small thing to safely say “This is the kind of music I like,” but for a shy teenager stuck in that difficult place where you’re not really sure who you are, it was a moment of fantastic self-awareness, a chance to clearly define an aspect of my own personality.  “I like this type of music, and I don’t care if you don’t like it.”  It was a powerful feeling for me.  Thanks to Paul Simon, I tend to march to the beat of my own talking drum.

Why am I throwing this out into the world seemingly at random?  Two reasons: I happened to be drinking a latte in a funky locally-owned coffee shop near my house this morning when Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes started playing, and it took me back to that day in Cafe Milagro.  It also started me thinking about this past week.  I just finished one of the longest, most insane weeks of my time at UT Austin: the New Works Festival.  It’s a huge, week-long festival of theatre, dance, and art totally written and produced by UT faculty and students.  I worked on three projects (an over-commitment, but worthwhile)  and spent the week running around frantically trying to fulfill my duties to the shows I had worked on and somehow see other people’s shows at the same time.   I am still overwhelmed by the sheer amount of high-quality theatre my colleagues and I produced this past week.  We march to the beat of our own drum, all of us, and I feel so privileged to be able to spend my days working with such a creative, individual group of people.  We have found our Graceland.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Legend of La Llorona

I am deeply fascinated by ghost stories.  It's all about allowing yourself that healthy dose of fear, that suspenseful moment where your pulse is racing and every tiny sound suddenly becomes menacing.  There's something universal about the way we tell ghost stories.  You turn off all the lights except for a candle or a flashlight, you sit in a close circle, huddled together to keep out the evil spirits (or just to get some moral support from your friends) and in your best "spooky" voice you whisper a story about death. 

This past week I was given an assignment in a class I'm taking called "Directing New Work."  We were to bring in an "experiment"--some sort of theatrical experience we've been meaning to try but have never really gotten the opportunity to attempt.  So this Tuesday, on the day of my presentation, I asked the class to gather in a circle on the stage, turned off all the lights in the theatre (except for a flashlight I grabbed from the glove compartment of my car), and told a ghost story.  Before I came to class, I carefully planned out what I would say.  I wrote down the results and, while it's really best to hear this sort of thing told in a properly creepy tone of voice in a properly creeky room, I thought I'd post the results here so that wherever you are, you can enjoy a good ghost story.  Just do me a favor.  Before you read this, turn out the lights.

 The Legend of La Llorona
     There are as many different versions of La Llorona's life and death as there are people who claim to have seen her.  Some claim she was the innocent victim of a man's betrayal.  Some claim she was a harlot who seduced and killed her lover and then drowned her children.  There is only one detail on which these various stories agree:  Her name was Maria.  This is just one version of Maria's story, but it is the version that was told to me by someone who truly believes this woman existed and that her ghost still roams the earth.
     Maria was a young woman from a small pueblo in Mexico, but her beauty was a legend that spread far past the edges of the village.  Men traveled miles and miles just to court her, but to all of them, Maria would say, “My heart belongs to another.”  You see, when Maria was young, her father had hosted a wealthy man from the city.  Maria fell in love with him in the short days he stayed in her house and no other man could measure up to his handsome looks and worldly conversation.  Maria spent her days pining for the man she had met so long ago, and though her friends told her he would never return, she couldn’t help dream of him.
     Perhaps the stars shone down on Maria, perhaps it was the devil bringing temptation, but whatever forces were at work, one starstruck day, the man of Maria’s dreams returned to the village to stay at her father’s house.  He became captivated by Maria's beauty (as so often happens in stories such as these) and remained in the village to court her.  In a year’s time, Maria bore him a child, a young son.  She was so overjoyed by the perfect child, she turned a deaf ear to her family’s horror and the town’s condemnation.   Maria expected that her suitor would ask her to marry him, now that she had borne him a son, but days went by and he said nothing.  Finally, one day he disappeared and even Maria’s friends whispered that he had gone to the city, never to return. 
    Time passed and Maria raised her son as best she could, but it was a constant struggle for her, and she never forgot or forgave her lover for abandoning her.  One twilight, Maria was wandering on the bank of the river that ran through her pueblo, her young son in her arms, when she heard the sound of an approaching carriage.  She felt a deep shudder, like a premonition, running through her body as she stepped closer to the road to see who it might be. 
    The horses’ hooves never faltered, the carriage's wheels never caught on the rocks or the potholes in the country road, passing Maria by as if she were already a ghost, standing invisible by the side of the road.  Maria’s heart broke to pieces as she watched her former suitor ride past, holding his new wife’s hand.  He never spared Maria a second glance.
    Maria fell into a wild rage, motivated by hate and fed by grief.  In her anger and sadness she threw her son into the river.  The child was far to young to swim, and by the time Maria realized what she had done, he had already disappeared, carried away by the strong current. Maria cried “Ay mi hijo, mi hijo” and her sobs were heard around the world.
    No one is really certain what happened next.  Some say Maria killed herself, throwing herself into the river that claimed her child.  Some say nature itself killed her, dissolving the bank beneath her feet and tumbling her into the river.  Still others claim that Maria stood staring at the churning water for days, weeks, and months refusing to eat, drink or sleep until she wasted away and became a spirit.  And today, at twilight, you can see her wandering the banks of the rivers of the world, looking for her child. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Pleasures of Armchair Travel

Well, today is the last day of Spring Break.  I’m back home in Austin, having spent most of the week with my family in Phoenix, and trying (in vain) to catch up on all the work I SHOULD have been doing.  Spring break is always like this (at least for me.)  You set yourself all of these goals and then achieve none of them.  This break, my goal was to read a few Jose Cruz Gonzalez plays, in preparation for a paper I’m writing this week comparing his work to Suzan Zeder’s work.  You can imagine how well THAT turned out.  So far, my thesis is both authors have a number of Z’s in their names...

I did manage to achieve one goal (of course, the one that was completely un-work-related.)  I read a pleasure book.  A whole book!  Actually, I read one and a half. I managed to finish Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a novel I’ve been working on since August.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re the sort of person who enjoys  character-centered stories filled with quirky, humorous personalities and just enough plot to keep the whole thing interesting, Alexander McCall Smith is your man.  He’s written several series, but the Scotland Street novels are definitely my favorite. They come with the added bonus that they’re written in an episodic manner, so you can read a few chapters at Christmas and return to it over Spring Break without needing to remember exactly which plot developments you read 2 months ago.

The main book of the break was Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice.  This book has been at the top of my “read me” list for years now, and I finally got around to reading it.  I’m so glad I did.  Calvin Trillin strikes me as the sort of person I’d really like to have a meal with, maybe wander through a European market remarking on the annoying presence of non-edible items like mops and gathering cheese, bread, and olives for a picnic by a lake in Tuscany. 

Dan Cryer from Newsday describes Trillin as, “The sophisticated traveler masquerading as the innocent abroad,” but I don’t think this fully captures the odd mix of sophistication and insanity that Travels with Alice seems to hold at its heart.  Anyone who can eat about 8 fast-food burgers and french fries in one afternoon (in the name of “assessing the authenticity of French Fast Food restaurants), enjoy a game that essentially involves tricking a bull into standing in a paddling pool, play a rousing game of fooseball (called babyfoot in France) in the local bar, and then trot off to the local market to sample fresh fruits and vegetables, pastries, and cheeses all in the same trip is definitely insane in a fantastic sort of way.  He’s exactly the sort of person I’d love to go on a trip with.

There’s something paradoxically sophisticated and simple about the way Calvin Trillin describes his vacations abroad.  He’s one of the few writers I’ve ever encountered that would seem equally at home in a dive-bar that just happens to have the best seafood this side of the atlantic, and a restaurant in Paris that won’t let you in unless you’re wearing a tuxedo.  I really admire that kind of flexibility, and it definitely makes for an interesting read.  It also helps that Calving Trillin is HILARIOUS. (For proof I point you to the chapter entitled “Beach Picnic” where Trillin contemplates bringing an entire ham, which at the time was hanging from a peg in the ceiling of his living room, to a trip to one of the British Virgin Islands, known for its beaches, but not for its food.  He ends up leaving the ham at home, at the behest of his wife, but they do bring an entire suitcase full of provisions.) 

The best thing about this book is that it got me thinking about some of the places I’ve been.  Calvin Trillin tells his stories in such a natural way you feel like you’re sitting in his living room (under the ham) hearing stories about his family’s latest exploits, and gearing up to tell a few stories of your own.  His tales of exploring the Mercato Centrale in Florence reminded me of my own experiences there (he even mentioned the incredible, overpowering smell of meat that hits you when you enter the market, one of my chief memories of that place), and his stories about France actually invited me to fantasize about returning to Paris, even though my experience there wasn’t always positive (not being able to speak french makes it difficult to enjoy France.)  If you’re looking for a book that will take you on a journey, that will make you laugh, and that won’t take you long to read, Travels with Alice should definitely be on your “read me” list.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Driving in Inclement Weather (Or: Step 1--yell obscenities at the car in front of you doing 10 mph because there’s 3 centimeters of snow on the ground.)

It snowed in Austin today.  I gather that this is a relatively rare occurrence.  How did I figure this out?  Well, it could be my amazing, Holmesian powers of deduction, or it could be the amount of freaking out that occurred over the past 3 days.  Allow me to recap for you.

On Tuesday, the temperature plummeted from it's-starting-to-feel-like-spring to oh-my-god-why-can’t-I-feel-my-fingers.  For the rest of the week, the overtaxed power grid struggled to cope with the sudden, overwhelming strain placed on it by countless heaters working over time, and we humans pulled out every warm item of clothing we owned (at one point I had 3 pairs of socks on: two on my feet and one on my hands.)  In our defense, it was genuinely cold.  I can’t remember the last time I was actually out in single digit weather.  Then (cue dramatic music) the weather channel said the S word.  Snow, beginning Thursday night and stretching into Friday.  An atmosphere of vague panic descended on the city on Wednesday, and by Thursday afternoon it had gelled into genuine fear.  While Chicago prepared for Snowpocalypse 2011, Austin prepared for Snowpocalito, its annoying younger brother. 

I didn’t actually get to see the snow fall.  It happened late last night.  When I woke up this morning there was a fine dusting of snow, perhaps an inch thick at the most, covering everything.  The university canceled classes, businesses declared a holiday, even the US postal service declared a no-mail day due to “inclement weather.”  Now I spent a good part of my childhood living in the south where a forecast of snow sent most of our neighbors scrambling to Walmart to stock up on toilet paper and milk (why toilet paper and milk I will never know...) but I have never encountered anything close to the amount of panic that inch of snow caused in Austin today.  Just for fun, I went out driving at about 10 am.  I’ve never driven in snow before (I learned to drive in the Sonoran Desert) and while I know the theory (having spent years listening to my parents shout it angrily at the cars in front of us on snowy days in North Carolina) I’ve never actually put the theory into practice.  I did a little research to brush myself up on what to do if the car skids, bundled up, brushed off my windshield, warmed up my car and set out.  Much to my disappointment, I didn’t skid.  Not even close.  I did, however, encounter the unique frustration of being surrounded by completely clueless drivers.  I feel entirely in my rights to complain about bad snow driving, seeing as I LEARNED TO DRIVE IN THE DESERT.  I understand the dangers, and I don’t mean to belittle the actions taken by the university (I have seen too many tragedies caused by dedicated students trying to drive to school in snowy conditions they just don’t know how to handle) but really.  There’s no need to panic.  Simply drive at a speed at which you feel you have good control over your car (that does NOT mean 10 miles an hour), leave plenty of follow space between yourself and the car in front of you (That’s difficult, I know),  and if you don’t think you can handle it, don’t drive. 

To those of you who are well and truly snowed in, stay warm, stay safe, and enjoy your milk and toilet paper.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gus: The Theatre Cat

When I was little, I used to love hearing my dad read poems from T.S. Elliot’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.  These are the poems the musical, Cats uses as its text, but in my opinion, they’re much better read as bedtime stories, particularly when it’s my dad doing the reading.  We especially loved to recite “Macavity, Macavity there’s no one like Macavity...” Dad would put in funny voices for all the characters that spoke (his old man voice is hilarious) and the illustrations by Edward Gorey (if you watch Masterpiece Mystery, you’re familiar with his work) are delightful. 

What has this to do with anything?  Well, one of the poems is called “Gus: The Theatre Cat.”  And when I adopted a cat from the shelter yesterday, there was only one name suitable for him.  Asparagus, or Gus, for short. (In the poem, you see, Elliot explains that Gus’s real name is “Asparagus” but that’s such a fuss/to pronounce that we usually call him just Gus.)

My Gus, the theatre cat even has a bit of an air of an Edward Gorey illustration about him.  He’s all black except for striking yellow eyes and two white whiskers on the right side of his face.  The whiskers, in particular, give him a certain... Gorey-ness.
Gus: The Theatre Cat

I have been contemplating adopting a cat for a long time.  I started thinking about it almost as soon as I found out I had been accepted to UT Austin.  I had to do some real thinking and planning, though, to make sure I could financially and emotionally support a cat.  Now that I have, I already couldn’t imagine life without him (I’ve had him for two days.)

The final deciding factor was finding out about the program Austin Pets Alive!, an animal rescue service that takes cats from the local shelters’ euthanasia lists, boards them in kennels and foster care, and adopts them out to worthy families.  Pets Alive! is an incredibly supportive adoption facility, and as a new pet owner, I feel so confident knowing I can contact their animal behaviorist with questions free of charge.  They even pay for all of Gus’s shots, his neuter surgery, a microchip, and a month’s worth of pet insurance (which will be useful, as I was considering getting pet insurance, and this will be a great way to try it out.)   They are a really, really great adoption service and I’m proud to have supported their efforts. 

Gus is adjusting extremely well to his new home.  So far, there has been an almost suspicious lack of problems.  He uses his litter box just fine (even manages to be a relatively tidy litter user in spite of the fact that he has to spend 15 minutes interior decorating before each poo), he hasn’t scratched the furniture, doors, walls, or floor, and he isn’t too much of a nuisance at night.  He likes to be near people, following me around the house (occasionally yowling to let me know I’m not paying proper attention to him).  He’s not a lap cat, but he’s sleeping right next to me while I write this.  He’s absolutely wild about chasing bits of string.  I bought him one of those sticks with a feather at the end, and we happily played with it together for a solid hour and a half (and only stopped because I got tired.)  I think my strategy to keep him entertained while I’m doing homework will be to balance his feather toy on the couch next to me so it dangles down and he can bat at it to his heart’s content without feeling neglected.

That's all for now. I’m sure in the future there will be many more Gus stories.  He’s the only thing I talk about right now.  I’m trying hard not to be annoying about it.  Maybe this will get it all out of my system... Probably not.

Gus: The Theatre Cat
Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His name, as I ought to have told you before,

Is really Asparagus. But that's such a fuss
To pronounce, that we usually call him just Gus.

His coat's very shabby, he's thin as a rake,

And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.

Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats--
But no longer a terror to mice and to rats.
For he isn't the Cat that he was in his prime;

Though his name was quite famous, he says, in its time.

And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(Which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,

With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree--

He has acted with Irving, he's acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,

Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.

But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,

Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.

"I have played," so he says, "every possible part,

And I used to know seventy speeches by heart.
I'd extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag,
And I knew how to let the cat out of the bag.

I knew how to act with my back and my tail;

With an hour of rehearsal, I never could fail.
I'd a voice that would soften the hardest of hearts,

Whether I took the lead, or in character parts.
I have sat by the bedside of poor Little Nell;

When the Curfew was rung, then I swung on the bell.

In the Pantomime season I never fell flat,

And I once understudied Dick Whittington's Cat.

But my grandest creation, as history will tell,

Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell."

Then, if someone will give him a toothful of gin,

He will tell how he once played a part in East Lynne.

At a Shakespeare performance he once walked on pat,

When some actor suggested the need for a cat.

He once played a Tiger--could do it again--

Which an Indian Colonel purused down a drain.

And he thinks that he still can, much better than most,
Produce blood-curdling noises to bring on the Ghost.

And he once crossed the stage on a telegraph wire,

To rescue a child when a house was on fire.

And he says: "Now then kittens, they do not get trained

As we did in the days when Victoria reigned.

They never get drilled in a regular troupe,
And they think they are smart, just to jump through a hoop."
And he'll say, as he scratches himself with his claws,
"Well, the Theatre's certainly not what it was.

These modern productions are all very well,

But there's nothing to equal, from what I hear tell,

That moment of mystery

When I made history

As Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell."

note: If you like this poem, be sure to check out Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats!

Monday, January 24, 2011

"I haven't heard of that guy"

Ok, I confess it.  When I posted a facebook status a couple of days ago celebrating that I had met Jose Cruz Gonzales, I did it partly as an experiment to see how many of my friends had actually heard of him.  I was not surprised to find out that none of them (not even my father, who knows everything) know who he is.  Do you? 

If you do, it's probably because you have either a) been to a production of one of his plays at Childsplay in Arizona, or b) Studied Theatre for Youth. Jose Cruz Gonzales is one of the most prolific playwrights of theatre for youth (another being Suzan Zeder, a professor here at UT Austin).  His work is especially exciting to me, as he writes bilingual and trilingual plays.  Many of his works reflect his hispanic heritage, incorprating elements of magical realism seamlessly into the plot.  Meeting him and speaking to him about language was thrilling. 

Theatre for Youth is a very young field.  Perhaps that is why its heroes are practically unknown to the general public.  Who among you have heard of Dorothy Heathcote or Aurand Harris?  You may never have heard the name "Winifred Ward" (unless you went to Northwestern) but she is the George Washington of Theatre for Youth, the woman largely responsible for shaping the field into what it is today.  She's one of my heroes.  If you've never heard of her, look her up.

There is another, darker reason why you may be unfamiliar with most of these names, and any teacher (especially arts teachers) will relate to it.  After all, those who can, do, and those who can't, teach, right?  For some reason Americans tend to think that because they are children, we can get away with presenting young audiences with bad theatre.  "It doesn't matter, they won't notice.  They're just kids."  It's a deplorable attitude.  We expect the very best out of our schools, so why, when those same students enter the theatre, are we content with mediocrity?  These students deserve better.  They deserve to see high-quality, well-written, and well-produced productions designed specifically to address the issues they deal with and portray the world they live in.  I have seen to much "children's theatre" where the plot is obvious, formulaic, even insulting, and the production value is shockingly low.  I challenge you to become familiar with the names I have given.  Find out if there is a play by Jose Cruz Gonzales being produced in your community.  If not, why not?  It is not enough that those very few of us in the field of theatre for youth are asking these questions.  We must, as a society, demand better theatre.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Leaving Home

I am headed back to Austin today after a long, relaxing break, and I can’t help feeling a little sad.  Not that I don’t love living in Austin, or that I’m not enjoying the grad program at UT; I am, and I’m anxious to return.  There’s a lot waiting for me in Austin: A move to a new apartment, the beginning of a new, exciting job, the preparations for a conference in Tampa I’ll be attending next week... but its never easy to leave home regardless of how much I might enjoy the destination.

I realized as I was trying to sleep last night, stuck helplessly going over all the various items on my to do list (the way you do when you’re slightly stressed, but not sure exactly what you’re stressed about), that I’m out of practice in dealing with the conflicting emotions involved in a return to school. There is something wildly different about returning to school after a long break versus returning to work (even if that work happens to be teaching in school). There is anticipation: each semester is a new and different animal.  With the change of classes comes a change of work-load and responsibility that I always find my self both eagerly anticipating and dreading.  There is also a certain nostalgia: Christmas is over and there is still the long stretch of January and February ahead before we can begin to think about spring.  I find this is true, even in climates where late winter is one of the most pleasant times of the year.  There is also the inevitable sadness of having to leave my family behind again.  We are extremely close, the four of us, and no matter how many times I’ve done it, it never gets easier to wave goodbye to them at the airport.  For people who grow up in houses that they can’t wait to leave, this can be hard to understand.  It might seem as ridiculous as Michael Palin insisting to a stunned John Cleese that his dead parrot is merely “Pinin’ for the fjords.”  To me, however, leaving my family behind is one of the most difficult things about the return to school. 

Paradoxically, I think it is actually easier to be the person doing the leaving.  Regardless of how much I might dread saying goodbye to my father and sister in the airport in a few hours, I would much rather be the person waving a tearful goodbye while trying to navigate the increasingly complicated security screening than the person being left behind.  I discovered this last year when, in a strange twist, I stayed in Phoenix while Dad and Miriam left.  I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with all those conflicting emotions I mentioned.  When I’m leaving to go back to school, there is always that anxious anticipation to temper the homesickness.

So here’s hoping that where ever you are and where ever your travels might take you, you embark on the journey with a healthy mix of excitement and sadness.  May the road rise up to meet you.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Layout Change

Yes, the layout has changed.  It's criminally easy to do, and I decided I wanted the blog design to focus on the actual entries rather than an eye-bleeding pattern.  If you have any comments or suggestions about the layout, please let me know.  I have complete control over things like font, text size, color, etc.  So if something makes the text hard to see on your computer, please let me know!

Concerning an Annual Conundrum

Every year around this time I come up against the same question: to resolve or not to resolve?   More specifically, do I make a New Year’s resolution this year, or do I give up on the idea altogether (before I have a chance to break that noble resolution)?

Normally I’d almost immediately jump to the “give up” part, but this year, having spent a semester talking about setting goals in grad school, I’m starting to think that setting a few attainable goals for the year isn’t too horrible an idea.

That then raises the question, “Which goal?”  For help, I google searched “Top 10 New Year’s resolutions, 2011” to see what other people are doing.  The results were unsurprising, but disappointing.  Most had something about loosing weight, which is always one of my goals (so why bother making it a New Year’s resolution?).  “Getting organized” was also popular, generally followed by “Procrastinate less” (this makes me feel much better, knowing the rest of the world is just as disorganized as I am, and just as liable to put off eventually getting organized...).  Of course, I promised myself I’d set attainable goals, and let’s be honest, organizing my life isn’t a really attainable goal.  I thrive in semi-organized chaos.  Most lists also included something along the lines of “enjoying life” which just seems like a cop-out.  Identify what it is that’s preventing you from enjoying life and change that.  I don’t intend to waste my time with vague, sappy resolutions.

So we’re back at square one.  Clearly, google doesn’t think about New Year’s resolutions the same way I do.  However, after some careful consideration, I have come up with 3 goals for the New Year that I think I can accomplish:

 Maintain a daily yoga practice.  “A daily yoga practice” could mean any number of things.  I do intend to participate in the 40 day challenge again next year, but the rest of the time I try to practice yoga in the studio at least 3 times a week.  I start most mornings with a short set of sun salutations, meeting the “daily yoga practice” goal in a way I might actually be able to maintain.  I should also mention that I’m supplementing the yoga with some more aerobic walking and jogging.

 Keep in contact with friends and family.  This is my one concession to google’s “top 10” lists, but I’m REALLY bad at calling people.  Everyone who knows me knows this.  I absolutely hate talking on the phone, and I use that as an excuse to just... not do it.  Well, friends, this year, I’m going to fail equally badly at calling you, but I’m trying to change my ways.  Luckily, we also have email, skype, facebook, and all sorts of other ways to keep in contact. 

 Learn how to bake a superb pie crust.  This will probably be my summer project.

Well, there you have it.  Notice there’s nothing about grad school or future career goals in there.  I figure I’ll be setting enough of those types of goals through my grad school program that I could drive myself crazy if I try doing it for New Year too.  We’ll see how well I do. 

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year?

Celebrating the New Year has always seemed a bit strange to me.  While I might be up at midnight most nights, on New Year's eve, I am compelled to be up at midnight watching a ball lit with LED lights drop in Times Square (and since I live in Arizona, I watch this event "live" on a time delay two hours after it has actually happened.)  There is nothing about this holiday that is not ridiculous.  Who on earth decided that the right way to ring in the New Year was by setting off a lot of explosives in a place full of drunk people?  See?  Ridiculous.

There is this strange pressure to attend a really crazy party on New Year's Eve.  I find, especially now that I'm back in school, that in the weeks leading up to Christmas, everyone I know asks me "What are you doing for New Years?" expecting me to say something like "Going out to paint the town red while freezing in a sparkly gold evening dress and high heels. You?" If this is something you enjoy, good for you, but having experienced standing, freezing all night waiting for a few minutes of fireworks while listening to some bands play songs I've never heard before, I think having a happy New Year for me involves staying far, far away from firework displays and large crowds of drunks.  This may seem boring to you, but I find I LIKE spending the last hours of the old year on the couch, watching movies with my parents.  If I must celebrate the passing of a second, I intend to celebrate said second's death in the manner of my choosing.

Most of my New Years are like that.  For as long as I can remember, my family has celebrated New Year's Eve by sitting on the couch together eating excellent food and watching movies.  For years, we only watched musicals.  I saw classics like Singin' in the Rain and Funny Girl  for the first time on New Years Eve.  Eventually, we began running out of classic musicals, and figuring out what to watch became difficult.  One year, we rented Fiddler on the Roof, which seemed like a good idea in the video store, but proved to be so depressing we rang in the New Year in tears.

This year I had a particularly unusual New Year.  I was the virtual guest at a party where my closest friends were celebrating.  They were all in Kentucky, and being in Arizona, I was unable to attend the party in person.  Instead, I ended up talking to them on Skype (using the video chat).  My friends carried "me" (that is, they carried the computer) around the party, took pictures, even poured me a drink (which I'm rather glad I wasn't actually able to taste).  It was a bit surreal, but completely awesome.  Occasionally technology is a wonderful thing.