Monday, March 30, 2009

Everyday Pleasures #2 - Packing Your Lunch

I started a new job last week. Another temporary "gig" but I like it. I'm scoring standardized tests from across the country for an educational publisher. Right now I'm grading 7th grade essay tests which I'll have to bring up again because it's been very interesting. I've also met some interesting people; a lot of overly-educated people (some with MBA's and PhD's) trying to fill in some employment gaps while looking for permanent work.

Anyway. Because my start time is a hard 8:00 and because the commute is across town, I have needed to streamline my "waking up and getting ready" process. In the past this has not been the smoothest of routines. Now, I find myself reveling in the perfect timing of a quarter pot of coffee brewed in time with a half sink-load of dishes. The thermos takes about 3/5's of the coffee and I pour the rest into a mug to take into the shower. I make a killer PB&J with 7 grain bread and fresh srawberry preserves. I went out and bought one of those soft lunch bag things - one that looks like an old-timey pail, but is fabric (and cute.) I pack fruit that is not brown. I rotate between two oreos or twenty-two (1 serving) of chocolate Teddy Grahams for dessert. I throw in a Women's One a Day Vitamin for good measure.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I went to the movies tonight. I've been going to a lot of movies lately. This might seem like an obvious statement but, with the exception of Oscar season, I tend to wait until things come out on DVD. But lately I've discovered a renewed interest in the theater-going experience.

I think part of it has to do with a deliberate effort to not get caught up in things that used to bother me. I'd start by counting the amount of coming attractions (not to mention the newly added commercials - over fifteen minutes! That's ...[calculation in head] __ % of the whole movie...) I try not to do that any more. Mostly, I try to come in late and coincide my entrance with the opening credits. Also, I used to be very pre-controlling of the crowd. I would exhaust myself by trying pre-determine the talkers or chair-kickers. I try not to do that any more. Not that it always works, this zen-attempt to just go, but it sure beats starting out every movie unnecessarily stressed out.

I'd forgotten how special a space the Drexel's main auditorium is. I love most theaters, just for being theaters. I'd say being in a theater is like being in church, but that's not true. Mostly because I already go to church and my experience is not the same. But there is a sacredness that I am always aware of. I tend to get my best ideas while sitting in a theater seat.

The architecture of the Drexel auditorium is not particularly grand or spectacular. But I did get the chance to sit and take it in this evening (I confused the time with one for a different cinema so I was early.) I concluded that the architecture was designed by a passionate craftsman on a tight budget. It is modest but purposefully classic in its beauty.

Because I was early, I got my choice of seats. So I picked my favorite option - the seventh seat of the seventh row, which put me pretty close to the middle. As others trickled in, an interesting thing occurred. Usually, the space in a theater is like that of an elevator, people tend to space themselves out. But the very next people (a couple) sat with only one seat between them and I. The next people did the same on the other side of me. At one point during the movie I looked around and counted sixteen people, no more than a few rows up and back. It was the most bonded I have ever felt with a crowd of strangers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Everyday Pleasures #1 - The Shamrock Shake

Yesterday was St. Pats Day. It has been years since I've actually gone out in the evening to engage in out-all celebratory merriment. I have to remind myself again and again as I'm getting ready on that morning to even wear green.

But every year, I do go through the McDonalds drive-thru and get a Shamrock Shake.

I love that it's not even advertised any more. I mean, it's McDonalds they advertise everything. And it's St. Patrick's Day. It's like someone in the advertising department just gave up one year and the lack of promotion just stuck. At the same time, it's not like there's any buzz or hype about it being this secret-handshake kind of thing either. Kinda weird. Still, I find a satisfying pleasure in suddenly remembering it's St. Patrick's Day and impulsively going to McDonalds. I keep expecting them to say "We don't have those any more." But no.

A woman in my writing group last night said she took her son a Shamrock Shake at his school after his lunch. That is the power and pleasure of a simple, special ritual. That kid will always remember that.

I will say, the Shamrock Shake has changed. It doesn't so much taste like mint chocolate chip ice cream as much as it tastes like it was flavored with Extra gum, the bright green kind that came out in the eighties. It's not that I find that flavor unpleasant. But, you know, in a gum, not a shake. Every time I took a slurp, I could not help thinking this is what it would taste like if you pryed a big wad of already chewed gum off of a dashboard somewhere and put in your mouth.

Eww, right? Still. I've already established an inertia with the Shamrock Shake that I've decided it's worth the two dollars to simply drive around all day with the pleasantly-colored whipped sensation in my cup holder...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who's Afraid of A Clockwork Orange

As a movie fan, I am frequently compelled to reconsider films I recognize as "classics" but have resisted seeing. It took me years to finally get around to watching The Godfather. Personally, I blame the surge of bad low-level mob Tarrantino rip-offs for saturating the genre for me. But, I did finally see it and was blown away (no pun intended.)

Then there is a whole other list of films I am conflicted about because I suspect they have something to teach me, either about the filmmaking or storytelling or the human condition. But they scare me. These include - The Shining, The Exorcist, Scarface, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, Eraserhead and, well of course, A Clockwork Orange.

I'm not entirely sure when A Clockwork Orange first entered my consciousness. It was released in 1971, much too early to have figured into my early life at all. By college I was certainly familiar with the image of Malcom MacDowell's eyes forced open to a barrage of images. Still, I knew very little about the plot. One night, a friend told a group of us that a friend of hers at another college was walking home by herself, very late, and a group of college guys came up behind her. One was whistling Singing in the Rain.

"Oh my God," one of my friends listening to the story said, and the teller gave an I know, right?" look.

"What?" I said, jealous to be left out.

"That's how my friend reacted," said the storyteller, "like Lia, when the guys walked past her, she just looked at them because they were staring at her, waiting for a reaction."

For those of you who don't know, there is a scene in A Clockwork Orange where the main character and his group of thugs terrorize a couple - tie up and beat the man and rape the wife - while singing Singing in the Rain (or is it whistling, I can't remember and I'm not about to go digging just to get it right...although I'm certainly not above doing this to get something correct).

While I was highly engaged in the debate over whether this friend was "saved" by not eliciting a fear response to these guys who obviously tried to scare her, I vowed never to see this movie because I specifically did not want this image in my head. Fast forward a dozen or so years. I impulsively put a Kubrick documentary in my Net Flix cue and it arrived in my mailbox one day.

Of course, the thing was loaded with Clockwork Orange clips, including the Singing in the Rain scene. At first, I relieved that it was not nearly as devistating as I'd built up these past, oh, twenty years or so. I was drawn to the excellence of the filmmaking (there is a scene where one of the thugs pushes another into a pool of water and the lighting and composition are unbelievably gorgeous - especially considering the subject matter is someone pushing someone into some water.)

So I decided to go ahead and rent the movie. And I didn't love it. Once I got over the techincal excellence (of which it holds up) I realized something. I don't avoid movies because they are "difficult." There are any number of films that I have willingly put myself through that I knew would be challenging - Leaving Las Vegas, Thelma & Louise, JFK, The Fisher King, The House of Sand and Fog, Into the Wild to name a few, but I've gone in willingly, in the attempt to deepen my world view.

When I look back up at the list of those movies I supposed to admire but am "afraid" of, I have come to understand that many represent a "look how awful we humans can be to each other." I realize that I am hesitant to accept this without some sort of hint at solution. I understand that others may argue with me on this, and that's okay.

My point is to simply say, I am no longer scared of A Clockwork Orange, but this doesn't mean I find it worthy of my admiration. Except that pool scene... and maybe those shots of the record store. And a couple of times when he speeds and slows the camera to control and enhance the pacing... Maybe i will have to watch it again. But I will fast forward throught the Singing in the Rain scene.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Old School Ode #3 - the Bicentennial Quarter

I went through the drive-thru window at Wendys this afternoon. The cashier handed me change; among it a shiny silver disk etched with a Colonial drummer and star-circled victory torch.

Remember those?

The first time I ever saw one was under my pillow, in exchange for one of my teeth. I don't think I kept it (probably went right back into some sugar treat that by cause for fillings in other teeth) but I remember being enthralled by the idea of the "special edition-ness" of the thing.

I assume 1976 saw a plethora of Bicentennial over-saturation in the market place. I did a little research and came up with these promotions: The makers of Coffee Rich put out a "Bicentennial Kit" that included a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the ad headline Coffee Rich Started a Revolution in Good Taste. d-Con Insecticide included flag stickers and called themselves The People who are helping to free America from Bugs. Baskin Robbins sold red, white and blue ice cream cones.

But it wasn't all disposable trending. The Bicentennial supposedly also influenced the makers of School House Rock to launch "History Rock" (my personal favorite sub-category of that awesome show.) Come to think of it, my first lunch box was a 1776-influenced cartoon. It came with a free pack of gum.

Pulling out of Wendys, I put the quarter in the coin divot on my dashboard. I won't keep it for long, inevitably feeding it into meter when I'm running late and out of change. But its nice to see those things every once in a while...

My First Retraction...

So I went by my parents house on Saturday. My dad says, "I told your mother about the fake eyelashes entry and she says her sistes never wore false eyelashes..."

"Is that a made-up story?" my mother added. Ouch.

In order to save my reputation from a James-Frey-like spanking, I take it back. I admit that I have no solid evidence that my aunts wore false eyelashes back in the 1960's and 70's. I jumped to the conclusion that the gaudy appendages came part and parcel with the masssively teased and sprayed giant hair (of which I have much evidence, by the way...)

In terms of the new wave of lashes, I saw the Watchmen over the weekend. Every woman in that movie (which, admittedly, was not many) wore them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

False Eyelashes Are the New Combover

Has anyone else noticed the sheer volume of young celebrities who wear fake eyelashes? Even though it's been a trend for a few years now, I have a hard time accepting them. Now eye make-up, even the excessive, I understand. I've got a whole other entry ready to go concerning the true merits of eyeliner alone...

But the fake eyelashes, I don't understand them. Like the combover, no one's fooling anyone...

The first time it became a problem for me was in watching the Post 9/11 call in Tribute Show on television where singers and movie stars generated pledges for the families of the fallen fire fighters. Faith Hill sang a song. I don't remember the song because I could stop staring at her enormous black tangle on her face. It didn't help that she kept her eyes closed most of the time which made the things only that much more irreverent and frightening.

Now they're all over the media: on MTV (which I could just chalk up to flamboyant fashion), on television (which is harder to take when the actress in question is playing a school teacher or a nun.) Even Katie Couric has taken to donning the lazy face spiders. When she does I cannot hear a word she says. Someone on your show has a cure for cancer? Sorry, your eyelashes won't stop screaming at me. This is not unlike the inner voice that calls out combover, combover, combover while I'm watching an otherwise smart-seeming guest on Charlie Rose ... Look how far over that part is... and like four strands of hair...

Perhaps the notion of fake eyelashes seem so foreign because they skipped a generation. I've seen pictures of my aunts in them, and the women wearing them today look like they're playing dress up in mommy's room. Perhaps I just need to view them in the same light as the roll-bang of the eighties, something ridiculous but also rather impressive when you consider the commitment and skill it takes to execute such a thing.

Except Katie Couric. When interviewing the crazy president of Iraq, for God sake, Katie, take off those ridiculous lashes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I am...Amber Pickles...

I did something stupid yesterday.

In order to give my story a proper context, I have to first start by saying that, up until yesterday, I have resisted all peer-pressure to sign up on Facebook. I try not to be snotty about it. I know a great deal of people who love it and I am, at times, curious about all the connecting going on without me.

Part of it is a "been there/done that" feeling because I have a MySpace account. I understand that Facebook is "different," better, the new thing, I have a feeling it really isn't... I created a MySpace profile a few years ago, downloaded a few pictures and accepted friend requests from people I sat next to in choir. Another part of my resistance is, I watched a 60 Minutes episode with the guy who started Facebook who reminded me of the cagy politicians and CEO's you often see on 60 Minutes. I was also a bit startled by the fact that it uses a tracking system that monitors what you buy from other sites and sends that information to your friends. Another thing is, I'm slow and easily distracted. I don't need something else fighting for my attention.

Anyway, all of this to say, essentially, that I've had many reasons to avoid signing in. Then the nosey girl inside of me took over.

So, on an impulse, I went onto Facebook, thought I was giving a fake name with my a real (albeit older) email, and filled out no personal information so that I could "browse." Because the people of Facebook are obviously smarter than me, it instantly sent a message to everyone who had ever tried to search for me.

With the name Amber Pickles.

So, those of you who happened to wonder if I'd recently taken up a creative "side project," that is the boring story. The upside of the experience is that one of the first people to send me an email is someone who has attempted to be in touch with me on and off for a while. I have no interest in being in touch with this person. Not because of some long-simmering grudge or painful falling out, but for some more generalize feeling of not wanting to be in touch. And so I retain that right without having to deliberate over it all afternoon.

I will not be joining Facebook right away. But you can browse my not-recently-updated MySpace page...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Depressed About the Economy? Call My Dad

I got up this morning and, despite finding some decent job leads yesterday, started feeling down. I think it was because I'm now in that "waiting" mode that comes between looking for work and the next round of looking for work.

So I called my dad, you know, just to "check in," and almost immediately started complaining about the how bad everything is. "Contrary to every one's belief," he said, "we will recover; we always do. We took a big dip back in 82 and things came around. People and companies get smarter, and then they comfortable and lazy and reckless and things fall apart. This happens over and over."

Now, I'm generally suspicious of over-generalized optimism. I tend to want to argue over how hopeless it seems. But then I got to thinking about how impressed I've always been about my father's ability to barrel forward throughout his whole life. He and my mother have always seemingly done the right things when it came to their collective life, jobs, home, finances, doing all the things you're "supposed to do," etc.

"Dad," I said, "How do you do it? Stay so positive, that is, and not lose your mind over this stuff?"

"I don't know," he answered, thinking about it for a few moments. "Maybe it was because I was 135 pounds high school and wanted to play football. I bugged and bugged the coach who finally put me in at the hardest positions for someone my size - linebacker and center. My sophomore year I got All County Honorable Mention, and 2nd team my Junior and Senior year."

Not sure how to fully embrace and apply that advice to my life, but it sure knocked away a little of the self pity. Hard to argue with that kind of drive, especially coming from a guy raised in Appalachia by a single mother who ended up retiring as Executive Vice President of a steel company and owner of two companies.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Old School Ode #2 - The Mall...

In warmer months I walk around Westgate Park. Last winter, I decided to join the throng of retirees at the mall - usually Tuttle, sometimes Polaris - and that worked out pretty well. This year, no longer able to justify driving twenty minutes to walk for thirty, I decided Westland Mall (1.9 miles from my house) was a better choice.

Back in the day, Westland was a booming metropolis of teenage loitertude. But, over the past two decades, the major retailers either never came (no Gap, no Victoria Secret, no Chick Fil-A...) or have disappeared one by one (goodbye Limited and Limited Express, toot-a-loo Merry Go Round), leaving the place to an eclectic assortment of independent clothing and knick knack stores.

I hadn't stepped foot inside of Westland Mall for the better part of ten years. My reluctance was made up of a curious blend of sadness and generalized fear of the unknown. After a few weeks of deliberation, deciding the place was probably not crawling with roving drug dealers, I laced up my Nikes, powered up the iPod, and headed to the mall.

For the first few weeks I passed the time trying to remember all of the stores. Foxmoor there, Orange Julius over there, Chess King, Waldenbooks and The Art Works... Then I started a game where I tried to match the store with anyone I knew who worked there. I, myself, worked at Dimitrios, a sort of Greek Resturant/Pizza place hybrid (job #2.) I watched workers set up Santaland and marveled at the presence of an actual fat Santa with a real beard. I thought that was a good sign.

Now, I mostly pay attention to the people. I also wonder how it remains so clean and open for business. Out of the seventy retail spaces available, twenty-four are currently occupied. Only five are national chain stores (Sears, The Finish Line, Champs, J.B. Robinson Jewelers and The Great Steak Escape.) The BMV office (in the space that was once Wendy's Bridal) probably helps pay a good deal of the rent. Among the other tenants are a "New York" Tailor, the Westand Arcade, the Sherriff's Office Volunteer Center, and two Mexican restaurants.

This past Thursday, I was having coffee with some writer friends. When I mentioned that I'd been walking around Westland Mall, one of the men said, "Did you buy some crack?" I gave him the same look I used to give at college when people asked if I saw many guns when I went to West High School. Later that night I read in the paper that one of the Mexican restaurants had been invaded and 18 people arrested for selling heroin.

To be fair, the door from the resaurant into the mall was always pulled closed; in reterospect I'd often wondered if it was actually open for business or not.

Still. It has made me reluctant to return.