Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Ghoul's Guide to Holiday Dressing

Halloween is legitimate identity theft.
Halloween is by far my favorite holiday, not because I’m a witch, which most people will say is a misspelling anyway, nor because of the spookiness component.  In fact, I’m quite the scairdy cat, as my sister will vouch.  What I love about Halloween is that it is carte blanche for everyone to be anyone or anything for a few hours without being concerned about social repercussions, a few hours to explore aspects of ourselves that we keep hidden due to fear, shame, or propriety. For me, Halloween is a celebration of exploration and revelation

The first Halloween costume I remember was Cinderella.   In my mind, I wanted to be the scullery maid, magically transformed into a princess for one night – life imitating art imitating life.  I was probably hoping for the horses as well, but there were no mice willing to participate.  My costume consisted of an acetate smock, tied in the back like a hospital gown, with a princess dress printed on the front.  It included a sweaty plastic mask that attached with an elastic band across the back of my head and cut into my throat whenever I lowered my head to see better out of the eye holes. I was a one dimensional princess, nothing near the magic I imagined.  My sister was a one dimensional skeleton. From behind, we looked identical.

When we were done trick-or-treating that night, I helped my mother distribute candy to the “big kids.”  Some of the costumes were scary, some clever, and some simple.  But I loved all of them, even the ones that made me run out of the room screaming, because they were “real.” They incorporated real, not printed, clothing, make-up, wigs, and on occasion, a latex mask.  The idea of actually becoming something for the night, in three dimensions made my mind spin.  I was already planning for the next year, when I could actually be someone, something, other than myself. 

Jelicle Cats wear red tennis shoes and pom-poms
on their tails.
I started out simply.  I wanted to be a cat, not Cat Woman, but an actual cat.  Since my mother doesn’t sew, it was the perfect beginning.   I wore a leotard (with long johns underneath to keep warm) and tights.  My mother stitched felt ears onto a black head band and attached a tail also out of felt, to the leotard.  The best part was that she painted a nose and whiskers on my face with her black eye liner.  I was thrilled.  I was a cat, sleek, sly, and stealthy.  Rrrrrowr!

The next few years bled together:  Mad Madame Mim, from Sword in the Stone (a bust since everyone thought I was a princess despite the giant hairy wart I painted on my chin and the wacky grey wig), a witch, a pirate, Venus.   All were familiar personas.  But, then a neighbor created a costume where he became Igor carrying a coffin.  Brilliant!  Suddenly, I saw costumes as a showcase for artistic talent as well as identity.  With a friend, the next year we created a horse using boxes, paint, and a sheet.  We took turns being the front and back.  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the best horse, the knowledge that no one else had thought to do it was enough.

When I entered high school, my parents put the kabosh on me going trick or treating.  I was heartbroken, not because of the loss of candy, but because I wouldn’t have a predictable date to play dress-up.  Fortunately, because my friends were equally fond of dressing up, we moved on to Halloween parties.  I was ecstatic with the expectation of one up-manship of artistic endeavors.  I hosted the first party and dressed as a chamber maid.  The next year, I went to a party dressed as the Grim Reaper, with incredible face painting.  It was creepy, androgynous, and anonymous.  Just like Death itself.  I felt powerful and sinister.  And then I realized the hostess wanted to surprise me by inviting the boy on whom I had a crush. From then on, artistic genius was tempered with social opportunity.

While I was dating, costumes became a two-fer.  My boyfriends and I dressed as a set rather than solo.  Fortunately, the people I dated were willing if not active participants.  We dressed as dead Heathcliff and Cathy, 18th Century vampires, and dead Hamlet and drowned Ophelia – one of my favorite costumes until a friend informed me I could get chiggers from the Spanish moss I wove through my hair and clothing and the possibility that leeches might still be clinging to the rotting lotus leaves.

As I got older and my friends had children of their own, opportunities to dress up for Halloween dwindled.  Because giggling and ringing doorbells upset the dogs, we’re forced to stay home on Halloween night.  However, I still found other opportunities to don costumes:  the Labyrinth Ball, the various Victorian Balls, and an Art Deco dance.  However, when we moved to Northern California, the opportunities vanished.

In the spirit of the Highlands.
Then, a couple years ago, a co-worker held a party.  My usually very staid husband agreed to dress-up, mostly to humor me.  We went as Highland ghosts.  I asked my husband to take a picture of me so I might admire my handiwork, and I took a picture of him.  As a whim, I combined the pictures, and created a ghostly collage that included not only the two of us in the Highlands, but also all our dogs, including ones that had died.  Basically, it was the story behind the costumes. I showed it to him.  He glanced at it first, then started looking at it more closely, recognizing the other dogs.

“That would be nice,” he said.

“What?” I asked, puzzled.

“If when we died, we became ghosts and had all our hounds with us,” he said, although he looked like he was still reconciling himself with the thought.

“Maybe that’s what happens,” I said.
"Yeah, maybe,” he smiled.

I think he’s finally getting the spirit of Halloween.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

There's a Hole in the Bucket

"Charming" and "quaint" translate to bizarre and
We live in an older house – by California standards.  It’s a quaint farmhouse.  The original portion was built in 1929 and it has been added to and revised several times since then, causing many oddities and idiosyncrasies which are alternately called “character” or “another drop into the money pit,” depending on functionality, aesthetics and mood.

My husband and I play two games with the house.  The first is called “In the Land of Infinite Funding.” This is where we fantasize about various improvements to the house, like correcting the switches so that the lights (or outlets) correspond to switches within the same room.   And then there’s changing up the bathroom so that one does not need to turn sideways to gain access to the toilet in the cubby.  The way “In the Land of Infinite Funding” ultimately ends, is that we realize, if we had infinite funding, we probably wouldn’t be living in this house.

The second game is similar, but usually starts out unintentionally and bears a striking resemblance to the folk tune, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.”

After a pleasant day of working outside, my husband and I sit in the backyard, sipping wine and enjoying a moment of peace without the neighbor’s dog barking. 

“The grass looks good,” my husband says with a sigh.

“Yes, but it’s such a waste of water,” I say. “Gravel would be more efficient and cheaper in the long run.”

“Oh?” he replies with some hesitancy. 

Our dogs look at him.

“What about shade for the dogs?” he asks, refilling his glass.

“Oh, I’d put up a pergola with wisteria outside the dining room doors and then a covered porch out here,” I begin.

He looks behind us at the laundry shed.

“What would you do with the washer and dryer?” he asks.

“Weeell …”

The dogs sigh and put their heads on their feet.  I’m off and running.

“If we flip the stairs so that they start in the kitchen, then we could convert that long hallway to a utility room,” I say.

“But then, what would you do with the fridge and hot water heater that are where the stairs will be?” he says.

“You know,” I draw a breath.  “Those instant water heaters take up much less space and they save money because they only heat water while it’s in use.  Of course, we’d need to get rid of the asbestos first.”

“Asbestos?” He looks worried and pours more wine.

“Yeah, remember, the guy told us about it?” I remind him. “But it’s fine as long as you don’t disturb it, which we’d be doing if we moved and got rid of the current water heater - -“

“To replace it with the instant heater that will save us money,” he finishes for me.

“YES!” By George, I think he’s got it!
Airing our dirty laundry in public ... sort of.

“And the fridge?” he asks. “Where will that go?”

“We’d have to move it to the other wall, where the pantry is,” I say.

“The pantry.”

“Yes, it’s a poorly designed kitchen anyways,” I explain. “We should just redo it.  Then we could put in a gas stove.  They’re more efficient.”

“It’ll save us more money,” my husband says with a shrug and refilling his glass.

“Of course,” I agree and nod to another glass. “But we’d have to put in a gas line.”

“Of course,” my husband says.  “Maybe I could get a gas fireplace in the living room.”

“And, since they have to crawl under the house for the line, they might as well level the floor,” I shrug.  “Then we can redo the bathroom, because that needs to be done.  No one would buy the house as it is.”

“So, a new kitchen AND a new bathroom,” my husband sums up.

“Well, yeah, that’s what makes a house saleable,” I say.

He nods.  “If we’re talking re-sale, don’t most people like lawns?”

I look at him and blink a couple times.  “But grass is such a waste of water.”

My husband sighs and stands. “I think I’ll go open another bottle of wine.”

 Perhaps rum would be better and this time, let’s discuss it in a Calypso rhythm.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Keeping Clothes Minded

Just say "NO!!"
“Step back,” the bullhorn in my mind demands.

I ignore it and reach for the sweats again.

“Eh!” it warns me.

I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I think, reaching anyways.

“Eh-eh!” It scolds.

“What!” I ask that inner voice.

“Work day over?”




“I didn’t get an invitation to the pity party.” My inner voice is even more sarcastic than my outer voice.

“FINE!” I huff and put on the jeans instead.  “Awwwwww maaaaaan!” I groan as I suck in to button and zip.

They’re not even my “good” jeans.  They’re the stretchy $15 mom jeans.  That means a piece of toast and fruit instead of stuffing my face with a ridiculous amount of butter soaked pancakes.

I throw on a t-shirt.  A normal one, not a gigantic sleeping one.

“See?  How much more difficult is that than sweats and a t-shirt?” my inner voice says smugly. “Don’t you feel better now?”

“Shut up,” I snap.

But, despite the breakfast let down, I do feel better.  I put on my make-up, brush my hair, and go on with my day feeling like I can answer the door without freaking out the UPS guy.  Working from home has its perks: a flexible schedule, time for my dogs, write-offs.  But, when I’m not meeting with clients, it means there’s no need to “dress,” there’s easy access to the fridge with various snacks, and there’s the prevailing air of “who gives a flying fig?”

Not having to dress is an issue for me.  I gain weight easily and quickly and during a difficult time I found myself close to 200 lbs., and I’m only five foot five.  It would have been different if I’d gained the weight eating cheesecake and raw oysters, but at that time, I couldn’t tell you what I ate for dinner the night before, let alone the meal before.  I was just Hoover-ing anything at any time.  It’s what I do when I’m stressed.

It took about a year, but I  lost much of the “excess” weight eating salads, cutting out desserts (except for Sunday night cruises to Cold Stone Creamery), and walking more with my dogs.  I looked better and health-wise felt better.  Of course, I had to get a new wardrobe and since I was feeling better, I dressed better.  Sure, I was hungry all the time.  But I’m also vain and cheap.  I liked my new clothes and I looked good in them, so if they started to feel tight, I cut back again.

Since moving, I’ve gained back some weight, partially due to stress, but also because I hate salads and feeling hungry.  While I worked at the animal shelter, my wardrobe switched from predominantly skirts and dresses to trousers and jeans.  I wound up buying a larger size, but when they felt tight, I knew I gained weight and I’d adjust my diet.  Now that I work for myself, the temptation is to forgo even the jeans and reach for the sweats. 

The problem I have with sweats, or any elastic or drawstring waisted pants, is that I lose track of how much slack I’m taking up.  I’ve deluded myself into thinking that if I can put it on, it fits.  This is why I have staunchly refused to join the leggings/jeggings revival.  Aside from the fashion rule of thumb that if you wore it the first time around, you should avoid it on the second turn, I know that spandex expands.  During the 80s, I wore leggings paired with Boy George shirt-dresses and giant t-shirts.  When I took off the leggings, I looked like I was wearing invisible leggings with welt seams running along my calves, thighs and around my ankles.  But, if I could still put the leggings on, I did.  I only escaped them because I got distracted by the New Romantic wave and someone threw away my leggings when I wasn’t looking  - probably my roommates.  You know who you are, and if I haven’t already thanked you, THANK YOU!

My other problem with sweats is that I tend not to buy the “cute” sweats with logos or slogans written across the buttocks.  The sweats I buy are $5 on sale.  Even worse, they always look like I have them on backwards.  They’re not blems that have been mis-tagged.  I’ve actually put them on backwards to make sure, and they look the same, like I have a butt on my front.  I had the will power (self-respect?) to purge one set, but somehow, I can’t bring myself to throw away the other. I set the criteria mentioned above and try to stick to it, despite my sartorial whinings.

But what does it matter if no one is there to see it?  Well, for me “who gives a flying fig” is a slippery slope. The step beyond the comfy schlumpy wardrobe is the crazy wardrobe.  That’s when I start arbitrarily wearing and doing things because they serve an immediate need, such as opting for a quilted zebra print hopi coat (like a short kimono) on top of the butt sweats and the sleeper t-shirt that has shifted to day wear along with the fuzzy slippers.  Forget make-up and brushing my hair.  I’ll just wear a headband.  The black stretchy kind, not the decorative plastic ones.  I have a fat head.

And now that my husband is also working from home, we’re both in the same boat.  When we first got married, he wore dress shirts and slacks to work.  But now, he only goes into the office once a week, at most.  On those days, he irons slacks and a button down shirt.  When he doesn’t go in, he’s unshaven and in sweats.  Plus he’s on a 24/7 work schedule, so he tends to steal sleep when he can, blurring the line between sleepwear and home office “work” wear.

When both of us haven’t worked out of the house in a while, we get a bit wack-a-doodie because we don’t even see each other.  We’re hunkered down in our separate home offices.

The danger of solitude and untrimmed bangs.
“Check this out, honey!” my husband calls to me from his office.

I leave my office to look.  Somehow, he’s managed to loop the cord from his sweat pants around his neck so not only does he look like he’s wearing shoe string suspenders, but the waistband is up under his armpits.  And he’s wearing gym socks with slippers.

Holy crap, I think.

“Geeze,” he says, staring at me, “What’s up with your hair?”

“It’s a reverse ponytail.” I tug at the clump of hair spurting from the middle of my forehead and tie the zebra hopi coat shut.  “My hair was getting in the way.”

We both lose the glassiness from our eyes.

“I’m gonna take a shower and go to the grocery store,” I announce.

“Yeah, I’m gonna take a shower, too and then run some errands,” my husband says.

 Sometimes, we have to give a flying fig.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lifestyles of the Average and Ordinary

The world is full of doors and everyday lives behind them.
When I was around seven years old, my father’s co-worker invited our family to dinner at his home.  As was proper in those days, we dressed up (not formally, but nicer than school clothes), hopped into the station wagon and headed out.  We pulled up to a large building and parked on the street.  An apartment!

My sister and I grew up in a tract home suburb in an isolated quasi-beach community.  Although there were apartments about a mile away, the majority of housing in our area at that time was free-standing homes and all of our friends lived in freestanding homes.  Our house literally bordered on an affluent community, but in the early ‘70s, the area below our house was still fields of garbanzo beans or wheat, depending on the year.  So, actually going to an apartment was exciting.

We stopped at a gate and had to get buzzed into a large green courtyard with hillocks, bridges, and lush plantings.  There was the sound of gurgling water.  My sister and I exchanged piqued looks and rushed towards the sound.  A river!  Sure, we had a little fish pond in our front yard, but we didn’t have a river.  How cool was that?  A river! We hadn’t even met my father’s friend yet and already he rated high on the coolness scale.

“It’s not a river, it’s a stream,” my dad corrected us.

“A stream!  COOL! Can we live here??” my sister and I asked breathlessly.

“We live in a house,” my dad snorted.  “And it’s not a real stream.”

My sister and I looked at the running water in confusion.  The water was clear and there were rocks lining the sides and bottom with a little concrete.  There weren’t any fish, but it wasn’t a gutter.  And hadn’t Dad just said it was a stream?  Moving water was thrilling. My sister and I exchanged shrugs and gleefully followed the stream.

My dad called us to him and we entered the building.  It was like a hotel: carpeted hallways, doors on either side with numbers on them.  Were we going to have room service for dinner?  We’d done that once before in a hotel and a guy showed up with a cart and the food was covered with silver inverted bowls, which made the food soggy and taste all the same.  It was like a mix between take-out and eating in a restaurant.

When we got to the apartment, we met my dad’s co-worker, who was much younger than my dad.  He was tall and thin, wore tiny silver framed glasses and a sweater vest.  His parents were there.  Their voices lilted.  They from Switzerland and so was my dad’s co-worker.  Was this how Swiss people lived?

The apartment itself was disappointing.  It looked like a house, not a hotel room.  There was a kitchen, so no room service.  The t.v. was black and white and only got a few channels.  There were two wires on top.  By moving them around, my dad’s co-worker showed us how to get channel 52, a channel we’d never heard of, and we were introduced to The Little Rascals.  It was a night full of discoveries.

The wonder of seeing different lifestyles is something I’ve kept.  There’s the quirky individual stuff, like my friend’s house where they used toilet paper as napkins, but I’m more intrigued with other people’s lives in different environments. 

When I was in middle school, a friend moved to Minnesota.  She sent pictures of her new home and I thought she’d died and gone to heaven.  They had three acres, horses, woods, and a large old colonial house.  I was allowed to visit her for a month, and while the property itself was fabulous, the hordes of mosquitos weren’t and it was a good thirty minute drive to get groceries or go shopping. I did get to swim in a lake and we hiked through the woods, which I stopped doing when my friend told me about ticks dropping out of trees.  I pictured tiny skin boring ninjas.  We rode daily, but it was so hot and humid that the barn looked like we’d hosed it down.  We spent evenings on the porch listening to the mosquito zapper pop and sizzle.  Rural life definitely had perks (horses) and lakes were definitely beautiful, but I’m not a bug person.  As I’ve grown older and more forgetful, convenience has become increasingly important.

In college, I lived in dorms and on campus apartments.  I later moved into duplexes when I lived in Louisiana, having learned that neighbors above or below created complications and aggravation.  I learned I liked having a little elbow room.  But I still hadn’t lived in a city.  Urban living was still a mystery.

A friend of a friend lived in San Francisco.  We discussed rent rates, which were ridiculous in comparison to Baton Rouge.  He paid more to rent a parking space for his car than I paid for half of a shotgun duplex with a deck and yard.  My friend and I stayed with him when we visited San Francisco.  I fell in love with the city, but it struck me as odd that there weren’t any major grocery stores nearby.  The apartment building had its own store that had groceries, prepared meals, and “necessities.”  It was only maybe 800 square feet, so the offerings were limited.  Still, I was intrigued by the idea of the store owner knowing the customers by name and ordering items to suit his specific clientele.  There was a charm to that as well as being able to be carless, if one chose.  San Francisco has good public transportation, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops just out the door and in walking distance.

The ultimate looky-loo coup for me was when my husband and I visited New York City.  Everyone has seen NYC apartments on t.v. and in movies, but that never meshed with the “word on the street.”  In magazines and conversation, the dilemma of a NY apartment was size.  Neither Seinfeld’s nor any of the Friends’ apartments seemed small.  They seemed ordinary.  Lofts of course, were spectacular (and I have yet to receive an invitation to explore loft living), but what about an “ordinary” New York apartment?

We met a family friend of my husband’s.  He was a restaurant investor, so we went to his diner and then he offered to show us around the area.  I was thrilled to see “real life” New York as opposed to tourist vision.  At the end of the tour, the friend asked if we would like to see his place.

“Yes!” I blurted out before my husband could refuse.

The apartment, in fact, wasn’t completely “ordinary.”  The neighborhood, Tudor City, was actually one of the first “planned community”/gentrification projects in NYC.  It was built as a suburb in the city.  Still, it was someplace “real.”  The building itself was a 1920s take on gothic.  There were restaurants, dry cleaners, and other shops contained within the building.  There was a private garden across the street and another in a building.  The architecture was gorgeous and then we went up to the apartment.

The apartment was 500 square feet, two rooms:  a living area and a bedroom with a small bathroom.  It was the size of a large motor home and as efficient in its use of space.  The “kitchen” was contained in a closet.  There was a burner, an oven and an under counter refrigerator, like the kind used in dorms.  The sink was bar size.  Dinnerware as well as pots and pans were stored in the console behind the couch.  I was stunned.  How cool.  How perfect.  There was no room for clutter, and yet the apartment was beautifully decorated, could even accommodate several guests for a cocktail party, although there was no seating to eat.  But, it was NYC.  Who needed to eat at home?

I’ve lived in a townhome within a maze of townhome complexes, a house within walking distance of restaurants and shops, and now in an old house in a pseudo-rural community.  We like having space both indoors and out.  For coastal California, we’ve managed to have homes on large-ish pieces of land which allow a certain lifestyle, such as having three medium to large dogs.  But, we’re contemplating the next move. 

The best of both worlds, except for the missing llama.
My husband and I always waver between the excitement and convenience of urban living and suburban comfort.  Both of us are drawn to the idea of a farmette, someplace where we can have horses and chickens, perhaps a llama (my husband’s dream), a pond and space to run the dogs. On the other hand, we’ve never really lived a truly urban existence, and that still holds a romance to us.  Maybe someday.

When I was first started grad school in California, my sister and I decided to live together with two other roommates.  Since my sister and her friends were undergrads already going to school in the area, they went looking for apartments.  My sister called me and told me she had found the perfect place.

“It’s within walking distance of school,” she told me.  “But I know you’re really going to love it.  It’s got something awesome.”

“Oh yeah,” I said wearily, knowing my sister had a penchant for being a party girl.

“Yeah,” my sister assured me.  “The place is called ‘Stoney Brook.’ It’s got tons of streams running through it.”

Both of us laughed.  Streams?  How could it not be cool?

Forget the champagne and caviar.  Here’s to imported beer wishes and mixed nuts dreams, and the chance to vicariously live it all.
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The Cranky Cow by Kou K. Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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