Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Holiday Gallivanting

My apologies to those of you who are new to my blog and tuned in for the first time only to be bombarded by my last two over-long over-wrought posts. Now that I've exorcised that particular bee from my bonnet, I feel much better! Let me just add a teeny postscript to what I said before:

1. There are many women of my acquaintance who actually DO possess an enviable level of natural beauty and who are quite lovely with minimal to no grooming.

2. There are also those (not me) who exude personal style with total ease. They dress with flair without spending hours agonizing over how to achieve their look. This is not something I disparage, but something I admire.


Well, I may have forfeited my title of World's Least Spontaneous Person by accompanying my family on a trip requiring the purchase of airline tickets that was planned only a week in advance! Pathetic, really, what qualifies as spontaneity in my world.

We spent the Memorial Day weekend at Shaun's folk's house, located on the family tree farm off the highway that runs from Portland to the coast. Shaun's sister and brother-in-law and their baby were up from So Cal for a visit, so we decided it would be a perfect time to go see everyone. The boys got to do the things that make life for boys worth living (i.e. throw rocks in the river and ride the tractor with Grandpa) and I got the opportunity to participate in a Jensen family tradition that I'd always heard about.

On Monday morning we headed to the Vernonia cemetery to meet up with Shaun's grandparents and "put flowers on the graves." If you haven't ever been to Vernonia, let me just say that it is about one of the smallest towns that I've ever been to that is recognizable as such. The cemetery is very lovely, as is everything in that lush green neck of the Oregon woods. Shaun's mom cut peonies, snowballs, and iris from her garden to place at the graves of her father's parents and her brother.

I was amazed to see that almost every grave was adorned with fresh flowers. As we walked among the headstones, Shaun's grandpa pointed out the people he'd known, worked with, been a friend or neighbor to. I thought of all the people who had brought the flowers and envied their connection to a particular place and the continuity it provided. I don't know the whereabouts of a single one of my forebears, physically or metaphysically :), and it makes me sad that the scatteredness of even my immediate family means we will never have the opportunity of reconnecting with those who have gone before by making a tradition of visiting their graves.

It was special for me to bring Nels to the resting place of the men who inspired his name: Shaun's great-grandfather Niels and Shaun's uncle, whose middle name was Nels after his grandfather. Not that we tried explaining it to OUR little Nels. He is a very sensitive and perceptive little guy, but being at a graveyard was confusing enough for him as it was. Though we've discussed death with him a very little bit, we weren't quite prepared, as Shaun put it, to explain body-soul duality. So when Nels asked "What's a grave?" on the car ride over, I answered that it is a place where we celebrate someone we love who has died. Good enough.

All in all, we had a lovely long weekend. The kids and I were all varying degrees of sick, so we did a lot of lolling about. The adventure was extended a bit on our return flight when the left engine of the airplane was deemed "broken." Fortunately this was determined before we left the ground. We de-planed with much grumbling of passengers, but another plane was available (phew! does ANYone ever want to get back on the plane they just fixed?) and we were only delayed about an hour or so. We actually got a lot of sympathetic looks as it was bedtime and our children looked tired.

So here we are back in Boise and all four of us in shorts this evening. Shaun is tan from cycling, but if only we could somehow harvest the power of the leg pallor of the rest of us...well, I don't know. We could change the world.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How We Look and Who We Are: Part 2

I never questioned my belief that a well-executed makeover was an unmitigated force for good until six months ago, when I got cable TV for the first time in my life and started watching What Not To Wear on TLC. There were new-to-me episodes every day, so I got a heavy dose all at once. And I started to notice something.

Everyone sort of looked the same after their transformations. Sure, each woman had a different hair cut and color and most flattering skirt length, but the overall effect was so sanitized and homogeneous. This troubled me.

Were you a biker chick? Now you're a catalog model. Computer geek? Catalog model. Missionary barrel? Catalog model. Japanese schoolgirl? Catalog model. Art student? Catalog model. Call girl? Catalog model.

I found myself seriously dismayed at how much this was occupying my thoughts. All this thinking led me to a few conclusions:

I have wasted a lot of energy in my life by fretting over the fact that I feel like the way I look doesn't reflect who I really am. To a lesser degree, this goes for the way my house is decorated too. It's like I would have a disclaimer sign hanging around my neck if I could. "I know I don't have cool hair and I'm just wearing kind of lame jeans and a plain T-shirt from Old Navy, but I'm a really interesting person." This is silly, silly, silly.

These women who were made over let go of the personas that their clothing was creating for them. Did this make them less "them?" At first I thought so, but now I think it's the opposite. Is it so bad if people don't immediately put us in a particular category just by looking at us? If I dress like I only hang out in biker bars, people who aren't dressed like bikers are going to assume we have nothing in common. And I'm going to have a narrower view of how I fit in to the greater culture as well. There's still a place for personal style in all this. I just now think that our experience will be broader if we're not trying so hard to send signals as to who we are with the clothes we wear. Let's do a little work to get to know one another.

I happened to stumble across a post by Joe Carter (hat tip to Wittingshire) who was thinking along similar lines. Although his ultimate point was that bloggers tend to undermine the content of their blogs by focusing too much on expressing themselves with the aesthetics of their blogs, his example is quite pertinent:

"To see what I mean, look at the dress code of the modern teenager. One of the biggest challenges I faced on recruiting duty was explaining to teenagers what I call the paradox of uniformity. They believed that expressing themselves by how they wore their clothes, hair, makeup, or jewelry helped them to stand out from the crowd. Instead, it merely provided signals about their chosen subgroups.

Whether the signals provided clues about class (rich kids wear expensive clothes), sub-culture (skaters sporting funky haircuts), or interests (a t-shirt of their favorite band), they provided a useful means for the teens to pigeonhole themselves into their chosen stereotypes. (The extremes of nonconformity often lead to the most extreme conformity. Have you ever seen a "Goth" that didn't look like every other Goth since the 1980s?)

Paradoxically, forced standards of conformity (such as wearing a military uniform) cause people to send and receive signals about personality in ways other than dress. The individual personality traits of people in the military tend to stand out more for their colleagues because they are not camouflaged by the normal civilian clothing signals."

I can't tell you how many mornings I spent in high school gazing into my closet in utter despair, fervently wishing that my school required uniforms.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know humans are creative by nature, and I don't think it's BAD to enjoy expressing oneself by carefully curating one's appearance. It's just not EVERYTHING. (Please take note, hipster parents whose children sport 70's hair-dos and $50 t-shirts. But that's another post for another day.)

Just as with most things in life, there remains a tension as one tries to find a balance between two extremes. (FYI: one of the things I MOST anticipate about Heaven is the cessation of the lifelong struggle of discerning and maintaining this balance. I'll get it just right.)

I'll end with this observation: The VERY very best artists of all sorts are almost without fail not the ones who look "artsy." They look like they shop at JC Penney.

Just sayin'.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How We Look and Who We Are: Part 1

You wouldn’t guess it to look at me, but I have been fascinated by fashion and beauty for as long as I can remember. I spent many blissful summer hours in my grandmother’s house in Las Vegas staging “fashion shows” which featured outfits put together from her glorious stash of designer scarves, gloves, and costume jewelry. Even as a tiny girl, I knew her shoes were something special. There were gold gladiator sandals encrusted with faux stones, gold mesh mules embellished with a metal flower that made a satisfying slap on the floor with every step, and a pair of black and one of brown pointy-toe crocodile pumps lined in gleaming cream satin that still inspire a sense of reverence in me when I think of them.

I never saw her wear any of this finery—by the time I knew her, her uniform had become the muumuu. I asked her once why she never wore any of the jewelry, and her reply was that she was allergic to it. I wondered to myself how she was able to bear this cruel deprivation without even seeming upset about it. I surely didn’t know the name of Audrey Hepburn, but when I tied a black and white scarf around my head, put on some giant black sunglasses and slipped my feet into the alligator pumps, all felt well with the world.

Playing dress-up was always the best thing to do next to reading a book. Remember Color Me Beautiful from the 80’s, when everyone was having their “colors done” to find out what season they were? Fascinating.

And I have ALWAYS been a sucker for a skillfully-done makeover. Mind you, there are plenty that aren’t. Back in the day when I used to have just one fussy infant and no cable, I used to turn on the Oprah Winfrey show (there, I said it) if they were doing makeovers of people or home interiors. I stopped, though, not only because I was sickened by the sight of Oprah basking in the shrieking adulation of grown women who should know better, but also because I was not at all impressed by what her team accomplished. Another show that was on at the same time was Ambush Makeover, and those stylists knew what they were doing. Everyone looked better at the end.

Major life changes for me in the past few years have brought all of this to the forefront of my mind. I now have a body that’s had two kids. I no longer dress to go to the office every day. What the helk (as Nels said the other day) do I wear now? How do I balance the need to look presentable with the need to get five extra minutes of sleep? Why get out of my pajama pants? I no longer have hours to myself to comb through thrift stores for great finds. Solutions that worked before no longer do, and I will descend on the steep path to severe schlumpiness if I don’t work it out.

So I’ve been mulling this all over lately. Believe it or not, this is only the first half. I have more thoughts on makeover shows for the next installment. For anyone at all interested in beauty and popular culture, I would highly recommend this short but extremely insightful article by the scintillatingly named Garance Franke-Ruta. She’s got a very interesting perspective that goes against the popular wisdom of the day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This One's For The Teachers

Please enjoy this well-crafted rant. It's full of good nuggets. I've never been a teacher, but I could still identify with point #5, having recently become reconciled to the fact that I've spent 34 years being "the opposite of cool" myself.

Be so kind as to avert your eyes as the author shoots himself in the foot at the end of the first paragraph: "I'm not smiling because I think you're smart; I'm smiling because you just used that word wrong." He's a music teacher, after all, not an English teacher.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Nels Tutoring Me on Last Night's Dinner's Side Dish:

"You just say cous. And then you say cous again."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Making Connections

"Mommy, I'm ready for a wipe!"


"When you crash when you're surfing, it's called a wipeout."

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Here's to Mothers

Count me among the vast horde who never realized how significant a holiday Mother's Day is until I became one myself.

Thank you, mom, for the occasional "special day" when I got to take off school and go shopping at the mall with you and eat a Carl's Jr. Famous Star and onion rings for lunch. And thank you for eating the tomatoes from my burger.

Thank you, step-mom, for taking me, an ungrateful, alien creature into your home and feeding me homemade doughnuts and potstickers, and tortillas made from scratch. Also for the handmade Christmas stockings.

Thank you, mother-in-law, for helping us clean the house when we MOVED. Nothing says "I love you" like being perfectly willing to clean someone else's bathroom after they take all the stuff out of it.

I hope I can live up to it all. The paradox of motherhood is that, while one loves one's children with an intensity that borders on frightening, one can also be terribly bored by playing pirates for more than two minutes.

Pretty much the instant I gave birth to a child for the first time, I felt an enormous debt of gratitude to every woman from the beginning of time who's ever gone through with it. As I've resisted the urge to toss an unpleasant child out the window, I've gained a new respect for even the most damaging of mothers who at least made the attempt to raise their children.

To me the joy of motherhood is to have the opportunity of loving someone I've known since the day he was born. To see Nels pick up a new book and look it over and take it over to his corner in the sectional sofa, cocooned with all the throw pillows, and settle in for what would be a good read if he actually read yet. For Willem to throw his arms around my neck when I am sitting cross-legged on the floor and to say "Hi" with his mouth almost on mine. Motherhood is a burden and a gift, one I feel undeserving of but grateful for almost every day. Here's to all you moms out there, biological or otherwise. Here's to all the women who have taken it upon themselves to love and nurture, and to God who teaches and shows us how to do it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Mine brought me home a 1.75 litre bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin and a bottle of vermouth for Mother's Day. Read it and weep, ladies.

All mothers of my acquaintance have a standing invitation for martinis at my place.

Sun Valley, Beautiful Dud

So the husband and I went to Sun Valley, Idaho for our seventh anniversary. This may seem like a strange destination to choose, but, since we live in Boise now and have seen almost nothing of the state, it seemed like a good opportunity to go somewhere that we'd actually heard of but was a relatively short drive away.

We won't be going back any time soon. Let me first say that we are VERY thankful to Shaun's parents for watching the kids and giving us the opportunity to spend two entire nights and mornings sleeping free of the responsibility of getting up to tend to young ones. That alone was worth the price of admission. But Sun Valley in May? Creepy.

The setting is beautiful. The mountains are RIGHT THERE. But Sun Valley Resort (where we stayed at the original lodge) and the town of Ketchum were really a downer. It didn't help that we were there during the off-season. Shaun spent Sunday afternoon on a bike ride and my plan had been to look around at the superior art galleries and swanky boutiques. Alas, almost nothing was open. Much of that was due to the fact that it was Sunday. But I encountered so many hand-written "See you in 3 weeks!" signs on shop doors that I started to feel like I was experiencing August in Europe but without the ambiance and copious number of bakeries.

One would think that the fact that I grew up next to Santa Barbara (another bastion of the service/those being served economy) would have reconciled me to the dynamic of Sun Valley. But instead it creeped me out. Everyone knew everyone else. This gave me unpleasant high school flash-backs. I will admit that I have a small case of class bigotry and that perfectly groomed rich people give me the heebie-jeebies. I don't think that it's OK to make assumptions about people just because they are wealthy, but it's very hard not to do. I had supposed that Ketchum, the city to which Sun Valley Resort is appended, was a bit more of a city in its own right, but it had the soulless feel of a town that owes its entire existence to rich tourists.

I had pushed for staying at the Sun Valley Lodge because of its storied history and famous clientele. Little did I know that it has been refurbished during many unfortunate periods (late 70's/early 80's country French oak, anyone?) and that it smells bad. Any resort with shops that sell Prada should not smell funky.

Add to all this the self-loathing I experienced when I ill-advisedly wandered into an upscale (UNDERSTATEMENT) shop curated like an art gallery and fell in love with a $500 Dries Van Noten striped cotton blouse, and you can see how it wasn't the most unqualified success of a weekend I've ever had.

Thankfully we drove the route of Shaun's bike ride (up to the top of Galena pass and back) before he did it, and that was a soul cleanser. I was able to vicariously enjoy the virtues of his four-hour ride. That was the actual day of our anniversary, and we followed the ride with a nice dinner in Hailey at CK's that hit just the right note. The next day we had my favorite meal of the trip (feral fennel soup and panini with brie and smoked ham) at Cristina's. I felt like I was in Europe. In a good way.

I can see how Sun Valley in the winter would be quite magical (if still smelly), but I think our next Idaho excursion will involve a tent, a camp stove, and a more down-to-earth vibe.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Happy Birthday, Shaun

Today is that magical day of the year when Shaun becomes only one year younger than I am. The best part of any family celebration in the past year has been assisting Nels in making a card for the honoree. He draws a picture and then one asks him, "what do you want the card to say?"

The reply, word for word:

"Dear Daddy,

I love your birthday.

I love you, but please don't fight at my birthday.

I don't want you to be sassy or naughty at my birthday.

Dear Daddy, please don't be a monster at my birthday!

I love you for your birthday, but don't --please-- talk naughty and sassy. But I love you."

And, yes, those birthday sentiments DO reflect EXACTLY what kind of week we've had around here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Food for Thought

"Now I'm not saying presentation is everything, but, let's face it: if you know how to produce a nice, tasty frosting or icing, and you know how to apply it in an attractive manner, well, heck; that's my definition of power."

-Alton Brown