Be Very Afraid. If You Really Like that Sort of Thing.

I have neither the knowhow nor the tangible resources for filmmaking, but if I did, I think my concept of the perfect horror movie subject would be the infamous occasion of Black Friday. As we Americans approach the national holiday I like the most of them all, Thanksgiving, I think with a shudder that Black Friday’s grim shadow lurks just behind it.
For if I have a tender feeling for the holiday that not only marks the anniversary of my first date with my soon-thereafter life partner and makes me immensely thankful for that gift but also marks the national celebration of gratitude in general, I have an almost antithetical feeling about the retail frenzy that follows it. The former only throws the latter into higher, less flattering relief.

I love shopping, don’t get me wrong, but I hate being told how and when to do it, and what or whom for, and to what magnificent extents. I dislike being so easily manipulated by commercial ploys and plugs as it is, and the stink of desperation mixed with hyperbolic greed on Black Friday becomes overwhelmingly off-putting to me.

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What makes us turn into beasts when we get a whiff of the hunt? When a crazy sale is advertised, do I become predator or prey? Or should I just pray?!

There are obviously large numbers of people who are not only comfortable with the event but energized and entertained by the spectacle and Olympian scaled enthusiasm packed into the post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza. I wish them all happiness and success in it. For myself, the greatest pleasure will derive from managing as successfully as I can to not even know it’s happening and staying immersed in the afterglow of my most overtly grateful time of year. Accomplishing that will be yet another reason for me to give thanks.
If I need any diversions during my quiet hideout from Black Friday, I can always work on a script for a rollicking thriller film with plenty of retail rowdiness and gruesome greed. Coming soon to a theatre near you!

Foodie Tuesday: Dad Goes Grocery Shopping, Too

Photo montage: Grocery BonanzaNot everybody grows up with a dad who likes grocery shopping, but I got lucky. My father was the son of a grocery man and had his first real job working for the same grocery business as Grandpa did, so it was not entirely unusual that Dad would be the one who took us kids grocery shopping when it was time to stock up again. Even summer vacations followed a little in Grandpa’s tradition; instead of the stereotypical roadside tourist attractions, he was wont to stop at any grocer’s the family passed on their travels, wanting to see what ‘the competition’ was doing and reveling in the interesting inspirations he might find along the way. My dad, too, had enough of the bug from watching his father in action that when we did go to the grocery store, it wasn’t one of those stomp-through-at-top-speed reluctant shopper experiences that so many have with their parents, notoriously fathers most of all.

We meandered up and down every aisle, having a happy, leisurely look through everything on display, and more often than not, we came home with something new or unusual or just plain frivolous. Much to the delight of Dad’s junior shopping contingent, of course!

Mom was a good grocery shopper and fed us well, and taught us the kitchen skills to use the stuff we were buying, but Dad got to play the primary role of finding the unusual fun in visiting the store. Between the two, then, they gave us kids not merely those practical survival and sustenance skills we needed but a sense of pleasure in exploring what food does beyond keeping us alive and healthy. Thanks to their teamwork, it became a focus for community, artistic invention, entertainment, and exploration, and this all made it easier to expand those ideas far beyond our home walls.

That my parents’ ideas about division of labor and gender roles was generally more practical and individualized than American, middle class, mid-twentieth-century standardized was a boon to us as we grew in many other parts of our lives. It was Mom who taught me by example to do the fix-it stuff for general home maintenance, having been brought up in a carpenter’s household herself, and both parents took part in helping us with homework, counseling us, playing with us, and much more. Dad was a neatnik by inclination as much as Mom was a careful homemaker, so there wasn’t much obvious differentiation when it came to keeping the house up and running on a simple organizational basis.

But that’s all peripheral to my thesis, which is that I was fortunate to have two parents, not just one, who took an interest in the choosing and assembling of what we ate. Dad never demonstrated a huge urge to Make things with recipes, so sandwiches and cereals and the occasional barbecue tending was his main realm of preparation, but he did those with aplomb and enthusiasm and played sous chef many a time. Mom was the chief in the kitchen. Having two skilled shoppers in the house, though, that was, and still is, inspiring, and I am the better and happier for it. If your household consists of more than your lone self, or you share meals and their preparation even occasionally with younger people, I hope you’ll consider creating such an atmosphere of joy and adventure in the process as well!

Fashion Simplified? Forget the Frills, Get a Guy Guide

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What’s good for women to know about clothes is not really all that different from what men ought to know. First, of course, *wear* some! Unless you’re in a nudist colony. That’s a different topic for a different day, no?

Never has anyone suggested I was especially stylish, let alone a fashion maven. I wear dresses or skirts, and have even been known to kick up a pair of high heels from time to time voluntarily. In fact, I’ll admit to being so stereotypically girly as to like jewelry and shoes just a little more than it strictly healthy for my wallet.

Frilly, however, I am not. I feel ridiculous, conspicuous even trying on stuff with too much twinkle and ruffle, and am compelled to do a quick Coco Chanel obeisance and remove an item or two from my ensemble if I feel over-decorated. Sometimes, in truth, nothing beats slipping into the most user-friendly jeans, those worked almost to death and not pre-aged by some corporate design slave, until they are softer than bunnies’ ears and they conform precisely to my every nook and cranny, however unflattering that may be. By the time any clothes achieve this magical status, of course, they are generally worn so thin despite any and all repairs that even a ghost would put her knees and elbows right through them. Pity, that.

In any case, I suppose for the most part what would best serve me as style advice is what would do for most men. The males I know are more willing to admit, most of them, that the primary goal is comfort and all else had best conform to it. But even the least conformist among my male compatriots also recognize a need to appear appropriate for business and social occasions, if only to get along smoothly.

My solutions, for the guys and me both, are simple and few. Stay unfussy. Basic, classic shapes, relatively few or subtle patterns, and not too much extravagantly showy stuff. Strong, comfortable, easy care materials. For me, and for lots of people, it’s great to have clothes that are wonderfully packable, so it’s as easy to travel as to hang at home.

Though I love heels and feminine looking shoes, I’ve gotten older–and, I hope, smarter–enough to prioritize health and comfort very highly and now am willing to save up longer and invest more to get better quality low heels and, hurray, flats that will still please my taste preferences. This, it turns out, is becoming a larger theme in my wardrobe: comfort still reigns, and I’m still a determined bargain hunter who is never happier than in finding a good item of clothing for under ten US dollars, but certain things are absolutely worth the extra effort and expense of genuine investment.

That category, for me, includes staple or foundation clothes like shoes and other most often worn items. My grandfather, the most serious clotheshorse in my lineage, said that you could read a lot of a person’s character in his or her shoes and the care given them. I’m not entirely focused on shoes, despite my love of them, but I tend to agree with the sentiment that well-tended classic clothes of the sort best suited (no pun intended) to the occasion make a good impression. Good shoes. Just a couple of pairs of slacks and/or skirts (or a Utilikilt!) and/or a dress or two. Pieces that are sturdily made and perfectly fitted to form will flatter your best features and cover your sins, and they won’t need to be replaced often for either getting too worn out or dated. You’re good to go for work and generally common events without worry about making the correct choice and getting by with both comfort and class.

Accessories–socks, vests, scarves, hats and watches and all of that sort of thing–can certainly change the character of a strong basic outfit and personalize it as little or much as one likes. And sometimes, these are the easiest wardrobe items to find at spectacular bargain prices, so it’s easier to vary an outfit with them than to have multiple expensive, high maintenance ensembles cluttering choice and storage.

The foundational elements of design give plenty of clues how to make the most of what clothes you have, whatever they are and whatever your personal style. On a person, monochromatic sets of pants, socks and shoes give the appearance of longer legs than the broken-line look of wearing those three in different colors. Skin toned (whatever your skin tone) shoes on a woman in a skirt or shorts make the shoes look like an extension of her legs rather than an eye stopping different color, and again, they create ‘longer’ legs. A fitted torso (shirt, dress or jacket) is narrower in proportion to its top-to-hem length and so will tend to make the man or woman wearing it seem slimmer than a loose, baggy garment. And so it goes. All of the design basics in the world, however, will not guarantee you feel comfortable or that your clothes express your personality, so while I think it’s both practical and attractive to pay attention to smart details–and ask for help if you’re not so knowledgeable about them–clothes only indicate the man, they don’t make him.

Since I long ago conceded that my philosophy of housekeeping is to make everything as easy as possible for an inveterate lazy-pants, no-iron shirts are a gift from the gods, and packable knits the virtual equivalent of wearing jammies to work. So I’m likely to break rules, if there are any, in favor of what pleases me. But you know, sometimes it really is enjoyable, if not de rigueur, to wear something tailored and crisp and beautifully fitted.

This, my friends, is one of those places where I have actually learned a few useful items over time. Behold, in this my era of crepitation, I can still learn a thing or two. Thing One: professional tailoring can make the ordinary extraordinary for less than buying custom. Wearing extraordinary things doesn’t hurt your image, unless you’re cultivating a scuzzy vibe. I won’t judge you. Thing two (and also not recommended for those polishing their grunge-meister cred): dry cleaning. While it can be pricy and is pretty ecologically objectionable, is the only way to make some tailored clothes look, and stay, the way they should. Invest in these two and, more significant even than that you will love your clothes more, your clothes will love you more, and for a longer time. That is a good investment.

But enough of this. I’m going off to find my jeans and T-shirt. My work here is done.

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Multiplication tables.

New is Not Necessarily Improved

digital illustrationWhat is it about commercial enterprise and marketing that says we need to change everything on a regular basis and that everything newer is better? Have we not looked in the mirror lately?!

Aside from the obvious danger in believing that every tweak a company makes to its products is an actual improvement of it in form or function rather than a logical step toward getting us to buy more from them, there’s the problem of how easily we are led astray by our own hubris. What we see as innovation and a natural extension of expertise that comes with our getting older, more advanced and practiced does not, in my experience guarantee that no further missteps and mistakes will occur. Why, a flood of examples comes instantly to mind. Every era, and every single object conceived and invented and designed in that era, has connections to spectacular failures and dismal disappointments in this regard.

Being lazy and spoiled, I’ll happily replace perfectly repairable things with prettier, shinier ones some of the time, but even in my privileged state I am capable of looking at my briefcase, thinking that I wish it had a strap that made it hug the handle of my rolling travel bag, imagining what it would take in time, money and effort to shop for another and find one that I really liked as well as I like this simple briefcase but had such a strap and then pay what would likely be an exorbitant price for it and thinking instead, ‘what do I have on hand from which I could make a suitable strap that I could then attach to my favorite little briefcase?’ The answer to which real-life question was a length of wide grosgrain ribbon, lapped fourfold end to end and stitched into one heavy piece now the width of the case and hand-sewn onto it. It’s not fancy, but it’s unobtrusive and cost me only a little labor, and by golly, it works.

Not that I intend to make my own replacements for, say, outmoded electronics when they no longer work. Because my new versions would be guaranteed to be failures, given my complete lack of knowledge or skill or anything related to them in the world of electronics, and I would have lots of nonfunctional electronics, a lot of things not done that should have been done, and a bunch of annoyed people around me wishing I’d just suck it up and get the equipment that would put me back on track. I am an accomplished fantasist, but I don’t go so far as to delude myself that I can make everything better than it is in its current form.

Not all upgrades are legit. Some of them are full of bugs or their new formats are not nearly as appealing and user-friendly as their predecessors’. Not all growth is positive. Noxious weeds grow, after all, and so does the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, which as you can imagine is not nearly as cute as it might sound in the Little Pigs’ tale.

Yet ranting about it is pointless other than as a vent. And much more good than ill comes from change and growth, it’s true. As a tiny example, while today’s pictorial illustration may not be high art by any stretch, it was made by using a combination of tools that I’ve only recently begun to embrace, and it was fun to make. An end in itself? No, and far from ideal and flawless as a Thing; I have new methods and am beginning to work on a new set of skills to use them and improve them, but I’ve a long way to go. But I don’t have to be all better, i.e., perfect, for the process to be worthwhile and the me that’s also in progress is an improvement if only because I am working on making change. I am happy when I can get up the nerve at any point to learn, to try, or yes, to become anything that I am not already firmly entrenched in being, because it’s worth striving to improve even–maybe especially–when the odds are against it. My evolution will always be slow and full of sideways and backwards steps, but I’m pretty sure it beats stasis.

I’d Rather be Clean than Tidy, & I’d Rather be Tidy than Frustrated

It’s possible that, given my genetic descent from a pair of neatnik parents, I keep a slightly fussier house than average. But I must emphasize the word ‘descent’, because the Czarina of Creative Chaos and the Lama of Laziness are my spiritual parents too and often win out in the balance between controlled environment and bombing aftermath. What this means in practice is simply that I often settle (and therefore, my housemate and our guests must, too) for ‘clean enough for safety’. I don’t like any sense of living in the bottom of a rubbish tip, let along canoeing a sewer [the kind with appalling effluents in it, not the kind that makes things out of fabric]. So I think I can fairly claim that I have never–barring being bedridden–let my environs fall into utter wrack and ruin, but there are times when I’d rather let sleeping heaps lie and be satisfied with relatively germ-free untidiness than spend all of my energies on a pristine home.

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Use every tool around, and you may find sufficient space for everything. Shelves, hooks, boxes, crates, and so much more can coordinate to make everything fit together. Pretty is nice, but pretty practical suits me better!

I can’t imagine wanting to have a ‘show house’ anyway. If I can’t slouch around a bit and put my feet up on the furniture (yes, dining surfaces excepted), it doesn’t feel comfortable enough for me to call Home. All the same, I enjoy those times when I’ve been in my cleaning-tornado mode enough to find whatever I need to find without pulling all of my remaining hair out by the roots, and to have the house all spiffed up and looking its prettiest beyond merely being generally non-toxic.

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Plastic milk crates, bound together and bolted to the wall, lined with clean cardboard salvaged from packing boxes, make handy closet shelves that won’t trap dust and can easily be moved and reassembled.

For that reason, deep cleaning is not saved exclusively for the Spring, and a few spates of active reorganization throughout the year are not only helpful but refreshing. When those bouts result not only in unearthing and offloading unused, excessively worn, dated, or redundant things from closets, cupboards and spaces that ought by rights to be airier or at least better used, that is exceedingly pleasant. When the result is more practical organization, it also means that not only are things pleasanter than before in the short term but they will be easier to maintain in that state and even to return to it when the busyness of the everyday has overridden good intentions and available time for a while. I may never have that DIY-goddess glory of everything in pretty and cute and magnificent containers, all labeled alphabetically with gorgeous calligraphy and stored so beautifully that the cabinets should remain forever open and on display, but I have what I want where I want it. At least for the time being. My putative parents of Chaos and Laziness do come calling, and they’re ever so much more trouble to have around the place than my biological ones. Ah, well; I’ve learned to live with them.

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Necktie hangers and clothespin-style clips work for holding all sorts of other things and can tuck behind the clothes so no extra space is required–and all of the ‘trimmings’ are easily visible.

The Red and the Green

photoI can’t help but think of the holidays as an equal-opportunity treasury of over-the-top delights for those who want to dig in and enjoy them. Seems evident to me that no matter what the origins–religious, practical, philosophical, historical, cynically greedy or purely spiritual–many holidays ultimately become part of the cultures from whose centers they spring. From there it’s a small progression for the holidays to gradually suffuse and/or be avidly imitated by hordes of people who had no previous connection to said origins. Thus we have masses of westerners rejoicing in the marvels of the Chinese New Year, loads of gentiles gathering around feasts of latkes and brisket and rugelach, and a secular Christmas celebrated by tens of thousands of people who’ve never set foot in a church.photoHappy holidays, y’all. I don’t doubt that there are some holidays, just like many other elements of the belief systems they represent, that are sacrosanct and oughtn’t to be co-opted by even the most well-meaning people, but if it’s done with a good heart and not with offensive intentions, there’s something childlike in the desire to share in everyone’s celebrations that still cheers my heart.photoI’m not even remotely related to those who go all-in to the degree of decorating every square millimeter of their homes and gardens, cooking and baking for weeks on end and stuffing the freezer to bursting, throwing extravagant parties for dozens of my closest friends, and sending out massive missives full of hilarious and heartwarming news about my astounding accomplishments from the last year and poetic best wishes for your own holiday celebrations and year to come. My version is oh so very much humbler, as of course it ought to be.photoI’m quite happy to embrace the good in any holiday that comes my way, though, so there are a few essentials on which I’ve focused my attention. Yes, there are a small number of sparkly white lights lining our front porch roof and touches of the requisite scarlet and Kelly green here and there. The holiday greeting cards that others have thoughtfully sent to us are hung on a broad gold ribbon between the living and dining rooms so as to broadcast their goodwill around the house. I’ve stocked the larder with a few favorite treats for all of us (Mr. Spousal Person, his parents and me), not least of all the requisite quantities of chocolate. Not that that item is limited to holidays, admittedly.

The best present I can give myself in celebrating any holiday whatsoever is, naturally, to surround myself with the love and joy of good company, whether eating chocolate or not. So I am sending out my best wishes to all of you lovely people for peace and happiness, good food, glimmering decorations, swell parties, and lots of love and joy throughout the celebration of all the holidays. And throughout a Happy New Year.photo

Of Half-Baked Gardens, Discount Shopping and Fellow Travelers

There’s always the possibility, when one is Out and About, of meeting a kindred spirit moving through the dimension with something like a parallel purpose. No matter how often this might happen, I don’t remember it very often when I embark. It takes that sudden moment of recognition in the presence of one to reawaken the spark of companionship and adventure that these confluences allow.photoToday my fellow traveler and I were both in search of tall grass, it seems. I’d gone to the home improvement store to buy cabinet latches, but having discovered recently that it’s the end of the main plant season at many such places here in north Texas, I always make room if I can for a few minutes’ perusal of the mark-down racks of plants; having determined that there’s no room in the budget for major garden renovation, I’m equally determined that I won’t leave the current yard completely untouched. The one-dollar bonanza becomes a greater than ever enticement.photoLast time I did that sort of shopping I was lucky enough to find a batch of half-dead baby crape myrtle plants marked down to almost nothing and in just a few days of careful and shaded watering and pruning I’ve managed to revive them to a surprising degree. With that encouragement, I dove back into the store’s leafy aisles and found, today, a half-dozen pots of scrawny native grasses. Hurray! Just what I’ve been seeking lately, once again. These, too, were far past their peak but potentially rescuable.

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Some fellow travelers don’t even seem to mind hanging around with an old bag on a shopping trip . . .

It was when I got up to the cashier’s counter that I looked down at my shopping cart and saw a big grasshopper gazing back at me. Whether with curiosity or challenge, I wasn’t quite sure: it had obviously grown ‘attached’ to the grasses I was carrying and mightn’t have been too well pleased that I rudely stole them from the shelves like that. But the bug wasn’t so awfully put out, after all, because it clearly enjoyed its new landing spot on my old carrying bag and enough so that it plainly didn’t want to let go when I tried to encourage such a move. It took me some serious effort to pluck the thing away from the bag, and I must admit I was moved to contemplate whether I might not have felt exactly the same had our positions been reversed.photoYes, I still flicked the creature away. Our mild-to-nonexistent last winter here has left us with enormous populations of all sorts of insects, not least of all grasshoppers that in parts of Texas are reaching fairly near to Biblical plague proportions. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that while our grasshoppers haven’t yet reached such an outlandish census level, they’re in large enough forces that they’re lunching and munching exuberantly on our property as it is, so I didn’t see a great need to import yet another diner to our all-you-can-eat buffet.photoNow we shall see whether I can get these past-prime grasses I captured to revive enough to settle in thoroughly to their new home here. I don’t doubt there will be plenty of insects right on hand, not least of all more big, hardy grasshoppers, munching away on them as they grow here too. We’re all really on this big journey together, after all.