Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Shunning

The knock of candy snatchers at my front door tonight brings to mind my very first Halloween as a post-college professional.  The year that no trick or treater knocked at my door.  The year I was forced to eat an entire bag of leftover mini Kit Kat bars solo.  The year I was denounced as a child molester.

It's true.

Well, the child molester part is NOT true. But it is true that for a brief period I was mistakenly scorned as a social pariah.  And it was all the fault of one damned paper pumpkin.

My first year out of college, money was nonexistent.  As you can't eat holiday decorations or use them as fire starter, they were low on my list of economic priorities.  Which explains why I was thrilled to find a beautiful full page orange pumpkin picture in the weekend edition of my local newspaper.  I cut it out and hung it proudly on my front door, a blazing emblem telling the neighborhood kids "Here is candy!  Here is festive spirit!  Come say trick-or-treat!!"

All that week I had the lurking sense that my new neighbors, once friendly and cordial, were icing over toward me.  I shrugged it off as some weird case of collective seasonal depressive disorder.

And yet on Halloween night no one knocked.  I lived in a neighborhood full of young families and yet there seemed to be an invisible fence barricading the costumed hordes from my pumpkin bedazzled front door.  Again and again as I stared through the window panes with my bucket of Kit Kats ready to go, I would see some tiny princess or store bought ninja dragged away by their parents.  It was a total mystery.   Were Kit Kats no longer an acceptable candy offering?  Was I unwittingly that old lady who gave out stale Dum Dum lollipops and smelled like cat pee?

The next morning I mentioned my confusion over the detoured trick or treating traffic to my neighbor Betty, a lovely older lady with a Mumu in every color of the rainbow.  She gave me one long sympathetic stare and then in her graceful, wise way said "honey, you better take down yo' pumpkin'".

I didn't understand.  Until I dug the newspaper out of the recycling bin and read the rest of the page that I had cut out.

Turns out that big full page spread orange pumpkin was not an offering of festive good cheer but a symbol that convicted child molesters and pedophiles were required to hang in their windows as a "No Go Zone" sign to the community.

Oh crap.  The looks in the parking lot, the quick side steps with strollers, the total lack of Kit Kat takers...

What's a girl to do?  I ripped down the pumpkin, put on my prettiest dress and smile, and slowly worked my way from door to door of my new apartment complex, one doorbell at a time.

"Hi, nice to meet you.  My name is Julia.  I'm your new neighbor.  And the pumpkin was a mistake, I am not in fact a child molester."

Sunday, September 9, 2012


What's the tackiest piece of lawn art you've ever seen?  I'm not talking plastic flamingos or pointy hatted gnomes, they are mere child's play.  Close your eyes and picture the most heinous yard decor you've ever sneered at... and then open your eyes.  Because it's time to meet Mabel.

Yes friend, these 200 pounds of buxom concrete hold the place of honor in my Poppop's yard up in Maine.  He bought her several years ago on the side of the highway, justifying his splurge as "an investment in fine aht".  From anyone else, the implicit humor in that statement would be obvious, but coming from Poppop you can't be too sure.

Placing Mabel in the center of his yard lets Poppop bask in her corpulent beauty while simultaneously spiting the neighbors who groans objections to this intruder on their pastoral stretch of New England seacoast.  Spray painting her metallic gold was his own artistic addition, the perfect Midas touch to his treasure. 

Recently I made the trip up to Maine and was joined by a good friend.   I warned her in advance of Poppop's quirks, so if he started lecturing her about the perils of women's lib or quizzed her on why she wasn't yet married she would be ready.  But to his credit, Poppop was the soul of charm, with his Christopher Plummer-esque mustache freshly trimmed and wearing the nicest of his flannel shirts.

After showing us the house, discussing his carpentry projects, and nodding to his perpetual piles of wood chips and dirt, he led us to Mabel's side of the yard.  Clearly he had saved the best for last.

One arm around my friend's shoulders, he proudly gestured in a sweeping motion with his free hand:

"Ya may not know this ahbout me, but I am a connisseuh ah fine aht.  And THIS is Mabel.  Ain't she ah lookah!"  He proceeded to enumerate her fine features to my politely shocked friend, pointing out  "huh lil' tongue, that nice mink stole, ah gahtah belt, beauty mahk, an even wearin' high heels!".

The best moment of his monologue was as he slowly bent down and began lovingly sweeping bits of twigs and leaves out of her enormous concrete rack, turning to my friend and in a very serious voice telling her "it's not easy keepin' huh cleavage clean!"

True, Poppop, it doesn't look easy.  Aging doesn't look easy.  Living alone doesn't look easy.  Which is why I'm glad Mabel's keeping an eye on things.  Or rather that he's keeping an eye on her.  Keeping those statue boobs clear of debris is one of those little tasks that, when all added up, make a day fuller and life more lively.  Someday I hope to inherit Mabel.  I will put her in my front yard and lovingly keep her boobalicious bird bath rack clean of twigs and leaves.  Just like my Poppop.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Girl Scout Gladiators

The situation is grave, I really need to go grocery shopping   Tonight's dinner options consisted of a sleeve of freezer burned thin mints or frozen peas.  Peas won, I hate thin mints.  They taste of disillusionment and broken dreams, a sugary echo of my cookie-haunted 4 months as a Girl Scout in first grade. 

The Girl Scouts of America empowers many young girls to grow into self-confident women.  But Troop 655 in Bremerton, Washington had no such agenda.  It was a cavalcade of pink hued giggles, friendship bracelets, and the annual bloodbath of cookie sales. 

My reasons for joining were two fold:
1) to learn to hunt a deer/start a fire/sew moccasins from the deer's hide
2) to go camping

I begged my parents for a whittling knife to bring with me to the first meeting "in case we have to carve our own spears".  So it was with game faced dejection that I waded through weeks of glitter glue projects and circle songs, sure all this fluff was necessary preamble to the good stuff, like knife tricks and archery.  But the macaroni art kept piling up.  And before long it was Cookie Sale Season.

We were given catalogs full of smiling girls decked out in enough badges to make General Patton jealous and received strict orders, issued through our troop leader's brittle smile, to sell sell sell.

I sold a box to my mom, a box to my dad, and a box to the old man next door, scrawling their orders down in mini golf pencil, a young Bob Crachit, and then setting aside the whole matter in relief.  I was such a shy kid and terrible salesperson, pushing even those 3 boxes had been a stretch.

A month later it was time for the Cookie Meeting (which to my chagrin did NOT involve eating cookies).  The troop sat in a tight circle as our moms stood around us like spectators at a gladiator competition.  One by one each girl stood up and announced how many boxes she had sold.

"18" (wow, her parents must really love cookies)
"81" (no way!!  how is that possi...)  
"181" (WHAT??)

Panic set in.  I had failed.  I hated ringing doorbells and asking strangers to buy my wares, but I also hated failing.  I nervously watched the moms around the edges of the room devour the litany of numbers like vultures tearing into fresh roadkill, Miss 181's mom feasting on the choicest morsels while 18's mom hung back in ignominy.

"Julia, how many did you sell?  Julia...Julia!"
"uh, three."
"Speak up sweetie, how many boxes did you sell?"

 The vultures cackled and howled at my hilarious joke.  But after a good look at my face, the laughs faded to an uncomfortable silence.  My mom, nonplussed, gave me a thumbs up and a smile in one of her most brilliant parenting moves to date.  If she didn't give a damn about the vultures, well then, neither did I. We drove home in happy silence and I never went back to the land of glitter glue. 

Miss 181 is probably out there clawing her way up in a Fortune 500 while 18 doggedly sells magazine subscriptions in the suburbs.  As for me, well, I know to never pursue a career in sales.  And only occasionally will I nibble on a samoa...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sex Ed-less

Middle school is rough.  Catholic middle school is worse.  Catholic middle school sex ed is hell.  My memories of this hell came back to me yesterday as I read an op ed piece railing against sex education in schools

For the "family life" unit in 5th grade we were separated by gender, the boys shuttered away in one room to learn man stuff while the girls were herded into another to listen to old Ms. Mayernik read from a scripted text about the "exciting joys of becoming a woman."  I kept losing focus, distracted by the terrible art in the musty 1970s pamphlets,the obscene crinkly sound of feminine hygiene product wrappers.  But I heard one word crop up again and again and it left me thoroughly confused:  vagina.  

As Ms. Mayernik droned on and on about one's vagina I got increasingly worried.  All the other girls had these knowing looks on their faces so I had no clue how I could have missed getting one.  Were they passed out that one morning I had come to school late?  Or even worse, what if I HAD been given a vagina and I had lost it.  It must have been in my homework folder that I had left at home on the kitchen counter. 

This was the worst.  Not only did I not know what this vagina was but I had already lost it.  How could I find what I had lost without knowing what I had lost?  I started worrying about how much a new one would cost.  Would it have to come out of my allowance?  Were vaginas expensive?

Finally, I couldn't take the stress anymore.  I turned to my friend Caitlin and whispered "what is a vagina?"  She blushed crimson and giggled, pointing to her lap.

oh. my. god. Crotch.  My crotch was a vagina.  No way.

I was mortified at my ignorance.
I was angry no one had told me I'd had one all along. 
It was the only thing sex-less, education-less Catholic school sex ed taught me.        But a very useful thing to know.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Rise of the Thunderballs

I love watching the young neighborhood kids strut down the street in their crisp new sports team uniforms.  No grass stained knees yet, no smears of dirt or fraying seams; the first week of team uniform ownership is 0% effort and 100% pride.  The rest of the season is for sweating, for smelling, for getting that overpriced polyester outfit so caked in dirt you're indistinguishable from the opponent.  But that first week, it's an unspoiled stretch of infinite possibility: a perfect season, hitting nothing but home runs, a Slurpee after every game. 

I know all of this because I never participated in team sports as a kid.  And NOT having something is the pathway to observing it the most keenly.

This omission was born not out of lack of opportunity or shoddy parenting but my borderline pathological fear of organized sports as a child.  I hated gym class, excelling only at dodgeball, the sole sport devoted to avoidance (which was my entire sports strategy).

Eventually though convention dictated that I had to choose a sport.  So I joined a bowling team.   Once a week I would go with my older sister to the Bowl-o-Rama where we lobbed our hot pink 6 pounders down the shiny wooden lanes.  Surprisingly, it wasn't all that bad.  I could pretty much forget I was on a team at all, there was such a low degree of teamwork, technique, or athleticism.  And the bowling alley was an exciting place full of danger and sin.  Cigarette smoke!  Greasy pizza!  Fat men with tattoos drinking foamy yellow water!

Soon it came the time for coming up with a team name, and as intellectual competition has always been more up my alley, I set out to pen the greatest name possible, something that could summarize bowling's great legacy and athleticism.  As I had zero actual interest in bowling itself, I came up with something completely trite and forgettable.  My sister though, ever a more devoted fan of the lanes, had a brilliant idea.  It sparkled like a star, snapped off the tongue like the crash of a strike.


Our little democracy of elementary school junior bowlers put all the names to a vote and of course her submission won unanimously.  I was so proud of my big sister, so proud to actually be part of a team.  We were the Thunderballs, title of champions, an elite crew who knew our stuff.

Well, why then when we went to our first bowling meet did everyone else in the alley laugh when they announced us over the loud speakers? "Frrrrrom Bremerton Washington, in lane 4, theeee THUNDERBALLLLLLS!"

And whatever did happen to those team uniforms we had been promised?


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Winks and the Big Money

A few years ago I started my own little art enterprise.  My business strategy capitalized on three key ingredients: the overabundance of wealthy tourists in my town, American tourist's love of Kinkade infused local art, and my seemingly universal appeal to old men.  It's been a wild success.  And by wild success I mean it pretty much equates to my weekly bar tab.  Beer money begotten by mediocre art and a good wink.    

It started out innocently enough with Sunday strolls downtown to sit by the docks and let my brain run free while painting.  And yet when you are seeking quiet downtime,  it's amazing how many people stop to talk to you.  Also, it's amazing how excited people are to meet a "real" artist.

At first I was amused and frank with the folks peering over my shoulder. "No, no I'm not an artist or an art student.  I just do this for fun...No, you don't want to buy this, trust me.  See the mistakes?"

But after a few weeks I caught on and my answers began to change.

"Why yes, I AM an art student.  A poor, starving local artist.  I spent my every last penny to study abroad at the Uffizi.  You'd like to buy this?  Well, normally I charge $20 but for you I'll drop it to $15."

Granted, my paintings aren't terrible.  I've seen worse being hawked in other towns by other twenty somethings in need of beer money and diversion.  But still, they are a far cry from anything I would forcefully sell.  Which is where my business strategy comes into play.  Nonchalant free marketism.  Adam Smith would approve.

Step 1:  Put on an amazing outfit.  Something bright with a flowing skirt.  People buy art because they like the idea of buying art.  So by making the art, you are a large part of the idea of art that they want to buy into. 

Step 2:  Set up in a well trafficked area.  Spots near ice cream shops guarantee a high volume of happy people.

Step 3:  Casually place out a few Dollarstore matted paintings with no prices on them (to avoid violating anti-busking laws and to keep prices flexible to the day's market)

Step 4: Paint!

Step 5:  Wink at old men as they walk by.

Yup, Step 5 is the key.  Plenty of people will stop to oogle your awkward brushwork and compliment a lumpy painting of a sailboat, but to clinch a deal you need to target the weakest customer.  And that customer is usually 64, wearing loafers, and has a bossy wife with entirely too much gold jewelry on her overly tanned skin.

The wink is not a hard and fast rule.  The first painting I sold was to a Mexican dishwasher who had just gotten off his shift at a fancy restaurant down by the water.  He was a nice man and picked up a piece I really was proud of.  I let it go for $5.

Oh but loafer man, your Sperrys and madras shorts tell me that you are easily $15-20 prey.  Annnnnd... done.  Ah the thrill of the sale.

In every other part of my life, I am the antithesis of a ruthless money grabber.  But in this little business venture, I've been amazed by my knack for shameless cunning.

That said, not every day is a sale.  On today's painting excursion, I made friends with two adorable Spanish toddlers, Marco and Violetta, who taught me a thing or two about watercolor finger painting.  It might be my next medium.   I had a conversation in broken French with an old lady who used to be a real painter (she called me out on my shenanigans).   To top off the afternoon, I was protletized to by a man in a cheesy dark suit who asked me if I believed in God the Mother and Her Imminent Salvationizing Power. No, I don't.

No winking, no sales, but definitely more fun than sitting at home.  I got to relax and paint.  And that was the whole reason this started in the first place.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Boob Job

Lest you thought this just another foodie blog, I bring you a tale from this past Thanksgiving when my 86 year old grandfather informed me it might be time I considered getting a boob job. 

Polish in bloodline, exquisite cheapness, and determination, William Cynewski is the Paul Bunyan of coastal Maine.  The joys of his life are shoveling piles of dirt around his yard, telling off waitresses who fail to bring him enough coffee creamer, and flirting with disaster in his leaky little motor boat with the faulty outboard motor.  This is a man who at age 85 fell off a 20 foot cliff, broke his neck, and pulled himself back UP the cliff face to get help.  The kicker?  Even with a broken neck he refused to go to his next door neighbor for help because he can't stand her.  He is an obstinate legend and I could not love him more.  Except for when he grills me on my dating life.

My lack of marriage proposals and progeny at 25 is one of the chief sorrows of his old age.  It's a puzzle he sighs over every time he sees me, shaking that big strong head in disappointment as he eyes my unadorned ring finger.  I've taken to sitting on my hands when around him just to keep the whole conversation at bay.  But this past Thanksgiving he had a whole new line of thought ready for our biannual battle.

"So grandaughtah, any nice young men in yuh life?"
"Mmm not really, Poppop."
"Oh Lawd, I don't know what men is thinkin today.  You'se so pretty and smaht and that's nawt gonna last fuhevah."

       It's not...?  

 I tried humor rather than a full on defensive.

"You know how it is Poppop.  I live in a yuppie town; the men want trophy wives, you know, anorexic, boob jobs, lots of makeup, the whole nine yards.  I'm not really interested in that."

He gave me a long slow once over.  Nodded sagely.  And then:
"Yeah, shuah.  I can see how thaht would work."

"Wait..wait..what?  You want me to get a boob job?!"

"Well yeah, I mean if good ain't good enough ya gotta bettah!"

With a firm nod and a satisfied grin he sat back in his recliner, content with the sheer simplicity of his brilliant solution to what he thought needed fixing.  His mind at peace, he turned his attention back to the John Wayne reruns perpetually looping on the television.

The rest of the Thanksgiving holiday he called me "Boobs".  I'm going up to visit him in another month and I'm seriously considering inventing a fake fiancee.  Or just buying a killer push up bra.   

Monday, March 12, 2012

Death of a croquembouche

Artistry, appetite, and ego are a terrible combination, especially when it comes to late night baking.

Several months ago my house hosted a Great Gatsby party and other than binding my breasts and putting Annette Hanshaw on the Victrola I wasn't sure what to contribute.  Ever an advocate for all things edible, I thought back on previous culinary victories:  the Marie Antoinette sheet cake beheaded in the back yard by bagel slicer on Bastille Day, port on the carport for Trafalgar Day, endless pots of outlandish chilis.  It was 10 pm the night before the Great Event when I decided nothing else would do but the most lavish offering my overzealous, under trained pastry skills could concieve:  I would make a croquembouche.

What is a croquembouche, you ask?  A traditional french dessert for weddings, christenings, or liberation from the Germans, it is a tower of creme puffs held together by caramel and spun sugar.  Picture Willy Wonka being force fed sticks of butter by Paula Dean and you get the general idea.  Making one can take six hours; in arrogant ignorance I tied on my apron at 10:01 pm and got to work.

At midnight my spirits were high, buoyed by custard sampling.  The first few batches of creme puffs sat in rows of golden perfection.  I hummed about with the efficiency of a confident chef anticipating well earned applause.

By 2 am my dedicated creme puff sampling had me feeling antsy and irritable, skin crawling with gooey sugary residue and the smell of melted butter seeping out of my skin.

3 am and the endless trays of creme puffs were coming out as flabby lumps.  My icing bag had ripped.  Boiling caramel had reduced my hands to a collection of sugar encrusted burns.  It was a bad scene as I constructed my tower, sugar gluing the creme puffs one by one until I had built a (slightly leaning and sagging) croquembouche.  The last batch of caramel wasn't done but I was and I drizzled it on top, exhausted and relieved to be done.

I dreamt of sugary monsters chasing me with blenders through a sea of pastry dough.

At 6 am I emerged blurry eyed from my room, stumbling into the dimly lit kitchen.  Funny, why did the floor feel so sticky?  And what were all the little....

oh no. 
NO no no no NO!
damn. it.
Evil leprachauns had thrown a bowling alley rager in my kitchen and their creme puff bowling pins lay scattered across the room.  Creme puffs on the counter, under the stove, sticky tacky tracks leading underneath the fridge, a schmoo sludge of wet pastry on the sole of my slipper.

Standing in the middle of that fetid pastry puddle, I dropped one good loud F bomb.  And then--- total calm.  Buddhism speaks of non attachment as the pathway toward enlightenment and in that unexpected moment, standing there in my ratty robe and be-schmooed slippers, I caught a glimpse of that truth.  I had been obstinate and arrogant and this had happened.  Actually it was almost funny.  Almost.

So I dumped it all in the garbage, resisting the Polish corner of my soul that arged "hey!  some of these are still salvageable!  just wash off the dust bunnies and the guests will never know!"  I would know.  And like the Grinch on Mount Crumpet, I knew that serving up a brag worthy dessert just wasn't the point anymore.

The party went off without a hitch, and if anyone noticed the lack of pastry, they were too kind or too into their gin to say so.  I had a wonderful time not trying to impress a soul.  And the whole incident cured me of wanting to ever even look at another creme puff.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What will the neighbors think?

My street is nestled in the quaintest nook of an historic town, the stomping ground of rich retirees enjoying vespers cocktails at sunset.  It is the playground of trophy wives, the insistent staccato of their running shoes starting up with the dawn and keeping tempo well past dusk. Tidy lawns, impeccable homes, picturesque families; my street is an eco-yuppie magazine come to life.

Yet one house on my street stands apart.  Perhaps it is the listing carport, architectural echo of a tackier decade, that marks its exclusion.  Or perhaps the camoflage jon boat parked askew in the drive way in lieu of a BMW is to blame. Why is a girl sitting barefoot on the lawn with a meat cleaver and why is she surrounded by a sea of feathers?

 Welcome to my home.  It's Saturday afternoon and my roommate has shot a goose.

We agreed that if he shot a goose, I would clean and cook it.  After all, what could be more eco-yuppie than that?  Every cafe in our neighborhood boasts of their sustainable products, local produce, free trade coffees.  So here I am living the locavore dream, sitting barefoot on my front lawn in a sundress and apron, gamely pulling feathers from the rump of a freshly dead gander.

Before long the soft snowy sea of downy white and brown has drifted across the street to tickle at the ankles of two anorexic trophy wives as they jog by in their spandex and diamonds.  Turning, befuddled, they pause mid stride to eye the trail of feathers leading over to my yard.  I flash my best society girl smile, but it's too late.  The hand I have raised in a gesture of neighborly greeting holds a neatly cleaved goose foot.  Perhaps I should have kept this project to the back yard, out of sight of my street.