Grey

grey hair

My morning routine requires a pair of tweezers, a blow dryer that closely resembles a handgun in both shape and sound, and a handful of products that are poisonous if ingested. It is a fairly violent regimen, heating and pulling on my hair and plucking the willful ones that have fled my scalp to grow on my face. It feels like a fight against my body—against nature itself: fluffing bangs to cover my enormous forehead, spraying my hair to be glued in the upright position, slapping some Spanx around my suffocated hips. I know what you’re thinking at this point. She’s one of those anti-makeup, no frills types. False. I am of the camp that enjoys the artful aspects of self-expression. Doing hair, even if it does require some work and even a little pain, can be much like painting a canvas. But there is something a little hostile about the multi-billion dollar market for anti-aging products and “correction” creams. I have products like these in my makeup bag that remind me that aging is to be avoided at all costs. It’s no secret that telling a woman over 20 that she looks younger than her age is an enormous compliment. Aging includes, after all, the breakdown of collagen and other components that make up your skin, so maybe it seems fair to categorize it as bad.

I found a grey hair. That’s where this is going.

I found a grey hair on the very top of my head—like a white string to pull on when my posture needs correcting. Except it’s only an inch or two long, so now I have a grey hair and bad posture. I’ve found grey hairs before. I’m only in my 20s, so I’ve always assumed it was nature’s mistake and promptly plucked them out of my head. I had the tweezers in hand while investigating my prominent, little hair when it occurred to me that maybe all the people behind the anti-aging (what a ridiculous idea—I will not age, I have decided) market are wrong.

Hollie McNish authored an incredible poem called “Cupcakes or Scones” about enjoying looking and acting like a woman in a very girlish, youth-obsessed culture. I had to wonder if I couldn’t just like being a woman with my single grey hair and my non-teenage but still beautiful body. The last five years have taken me so many places, do I dare deny myself a souvenir in my hair to reflect the journey? I have a strange, fond feeling of my lower belly. It has light stretch marks from where I was pregnant. The skin there is softer and different from the rest of my skin. It reminds me that I carried my daughter closer than you can hold any other person. I stared at my short, grey hair and wondered.

[Caution: “Cupcakes or Scones” does feature some topics that are not suitable for children, so listen at your discretion]

I recently watched an old screwball comedy that startled me with how entertaining it was: Cary Grant’s Monkey Business (1952). The premise of the film is that a chemist (Grant) experiments with making a youth serum to help subjects feel, act, and think younger. Upon finding success, he decides he doesn’t like the serum after all. Before the serum was discovered, the chemist and his wife functioned as a loving and selfless unit, beautifully quick to forgive. While on the serum, though, they become, yes energetic and playful, but also argumentative, selfish, jealous, and lacking in self-control, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. The chemist states:

“I’m beginning to wonder if being young is all it’s cracked up to be. The dream of youth! We remember it as a time of nightingales and valentines, and what are the facts? Maladjustment and near idiocy and a series of low comedy disasters… I don’t see how anyone survives it.”

I have to wonder if something about our aging (degrading) bodies does not aid in the positive aging (think wine) of our minds and hearts? If nothing else, they serve as a finite reminder that most everything in this life turns to dust. I need reminders to focus on the few things that don’t. I think that’s why I like my grey hair. So I put the tweezers down and left it there, which felt like a brave and lovely thing to do.

A Zombie Outbreak (in Pop Culture)

Sprint Unlimited recently launched a commercial featuring a fairly freaky looking zombie. Advertising a phone plan that is “for life,” the zombie denies his obvious, undead identity. From my treadmill at the gym I watched as this grotesque figure was spotlighted on the center screen. In the last several years, the zombie theme has exploded beyond horror movies and Halloween into the mainstream with the rising popularity of TV show The Walking Dead, video games, “Run for Your Life” 5ks; even the CDC launched a campaign in 2011 on preparing for a zombie apocalypse. Zombies, these undead, flesh-hungry awfuls, have become the subject of our fascination.

This isn’t the first time that popular entertainment has dwelled on the darker subjects. (A brief history, if you will.) Gothic fiction, most prominent in the second half of the 18th century, combined elements of romance (as in Romantic literature, not your mom’s collection of harlequins) and horror. It took the supernatural, anti-rational, intuition- and emotion-driven writings of Romanticism and added a heaping dose of fear, mystery, curses, and death. The term “Gothic literature” comes from the association with Gothic Revival architecture, which rejected the rationalism of Neoclassical architecture. Both Gothic structures and novels appreciated the joys of extreme emotion and awe. A few of the classics include Frankenstein, Dracula, and anything by Edgar Allen Poe. An extension of Romantic literary pleasures, they utilized a “pleasing sort of terror.” Not so different from our zombie obsession.

Darren Mooney made the observation in an article last year that when our economy struggles, horror movies do well. He revealed correlations between recessions of the last century with horror film success. In a similar way, Gothic fiction associated the architecture they were compared to with what they saw as a “dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, and superstitious rituals.” For centuries it seems that we have externalized the darkness of our times. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes horror as hitting our “pressure points,” almost as if a therapeutic process. We alleviate our fear by pressing into it, by finding out what is behind the closed door or what happens when you stop running. But the question remains, why zombies?

In Gothic fiction, the ruins of Gothic buildings were utilized as dramatic settings that drew attention to the inevitable collapse of all that we create. Zombies, in contrast, are not limited to ruins or cemeteries or even to nighttime (depending on which fiction you’re reading). They come for you in the broad daylight of your quaint neighborhood with the good school district and they don’t care about your age, race, income, or even your good looks—they are as inevitable and indiscriminate as death itself. In the midst of our economic depression, we have also had our attention on the Mayan calendar prediction, terrorist attacks, catastrophic natural disasters, wars, and Biblical signs of the world’s end. It is not surprising that the imminence of death—whether it comes for you as fast and violent as 28 Days Later or slowly and inevitably like Night of the Living Dead—is a pressure point.

Beyond the despair of an apocalypse, there is also a freedom found in the destruction of the systems that bring us most grief: our enemies, our cubicles, our laws, our financial state. It all disappears. For once, our struggles are outward and tangible and it is our duty to fight them. The calling is to survive rather than to be civil or to practice restraint. And whether we’re bitten or not, we have the freedom to unleash the internal monster.

Potentially the greatest freedom of the fictional zombie apocalypse is seen as we physically run from the brainless consumption of the masses. We are not free from threat, but there is a glimmering possibility of escape; and with whoever is left in this societal collapse, we find something more. Mass death, like that anticipated in an apocalypse, sheds a light on our lives for what they really are. In light of death, the importance of friends, family, love, forgiveness, and God is revealed. Perhaps, in the end, our zombie obsession has a bit more to do with that.

Mom Jeans

Mom. The word calls to mind a variety of images: a woman with her hands full, an out-of-date closet, cleaning products, a minivan, bandaids, yelling in public, a ponytail, stretchmarks, one-piece swimsuits with little skirts on them, pearl earrings—it’s often somewhere on the scale of a 1950s vacuuming perfection to a disheveled figure on the brink of a mental breakdown. And no matter what, it is not sexy. More than likely a lot of negative connotations come to mind as a result of commercial marketing attempting to pinpoint the problems of motherhood that need their products as solutions for the overtired, always cleaning, always driving, never satisfied mother. Saturday Night Live said it best in the incredible Mom Jeans skit: “I’m not a woman anymore; I’m a mom.”

Most magazines geared toward women’s interests (or men’s, for that matter) display a barrage of boyishly skinny women—adoration of the prepubescent body. We clutch onto the smoke of our fleeting youth, and paralyzed, we fear that the only way to grow is old. In the midst of this, mothers are tattooed with stretch marks, marks of their traversing into the abyss of adulthood to never look back. All the others know is that when their day comes, they swear not to let themselves go, not to stop listening to good music, to never ever wear jeans with pleats on the front.

And then one day, in a flurry of fear and wonder, she holds that positive pregnancy test and absolutely nothing prepares her for the oh-my-god-there’s-a-human-inside-me or the how-will-we-do-this or the sickness or the labor or the waa of the baby. Inside that hospital room or wherever it is that one births, a mother is born. She doesn’t feel different, but she holds in her arms the catalyst for the greatest growth in all her life. The secret of what happened to all those moms who were once so hip and now wear vests with embroidered teddy bears on them is revealed with its tiny red mouth and soft cheeks. This little baby is the undoing of her.

Perhaps womanhood is something some women only find after this moment. The moment when something infinitely more important rips your attention away from whether jeans are supposed to be up high near your belly button or down by your hips, what song is being overplayed on the radio, or how many carbs you ate today. You care more about the content of your arms than the content of your makeup bag. The truth of it is that there is something distinctly childlike about being limited to only seeing yourself. That’s not to say that a mom who manages to dress well is selfish, just that she is a talented multitasker. And that it is not the fashion that makes her womanly, but that womanhood is found in the selflessness—in the being still when you want to move, moving when you were being still, waking when you wished to sleep, sleep training, potty training, removing training wheels, training up in truth and grace. That these things might just be the sexiest attributes a mother can have. The rest is just frosting.

People Like Me

Until that day, I had never been closer than fifteen feet from Herman. All I knew about him was that he looked kind of like George Clinton without pants. He wore five hats at a time that created a Mad Hatter meets Abraham Lincoln look. Long, awry dread locks hung from beneath the bill of the bottom hat. His half zipped vest revealed that the curly hairs on his chest had turned green from lack of hygiene—or maybe it was the scurf of an exciting venture of dying body hair. There was more duct tape than shoe covering his feet. And of course the most noticeable feature and the least looked at was that tiny pair of spandex shorts.

I saw him frequently. He was always outside of that Starbucks we drove past on our way home, standing by the fountain with others like him. There’s something about living things and congregating around water—at beaches, by fountains, under bridges. I suppose it’s instinctual, because I too found a certain magnetism about that place. I found myself parking the car next to it, laptop in one hand and daughter in the other. I sat down inside the café near a window where I could see the many who smoked and yelled and slept around that fountain.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen while working here?” I asked the cashier. I love asking cashiers that question.

“The strangest? Well, it’s kind of gross, but one man walked in here, dropped his pants, and just peed in the middle of the shop… and this isn’t as strange as it is scary, but one guy got his head busted open right outside our door.”

I paid on a card and sat down with my latte, computer, and sleeping infant. I opened a Word document and stared at it blankly, as usual. After watching the cursor pulse slowly for a minute, I noticed Herman standing at the counter. He pulled a small, plastic bag out of his fingerless gloves. After methodically untwisting it, he dumped out some pennies and nickels. There was no way it could have amounted to a whole dollar, but the cashier scooped the coins into his hand and prepared a coffee for him.

Herman walked to the fixing station next to me and held the sugar canister upside down over his coffee. As a steady stream of granules flowed, he watched, unmoving for nearly a whole minute, until he finally tipped the canister upright and set it back on the table. I’m not sure why I did it; maybe it was fear or distaste or maybe it was simply wondering what it’s like to have so many people feel repelled by you. I leaned over my computer and smiled.

“I like your hat.” I was sure to be loud enough to be heard. He kept his head down, but his eyes flicked up to see me. A whisper returned.

“What’s that?”

“I like your hat.” I repeated, pointing above his head. His eyes flicked up again and he nodded as he walked away toward the door. I suppose it was very grand of me to think that I was doing him a favor by saying hello. Maybe he didn’t care that people like me didn’t talk to him. It seems reasonable that he would have little interest in talking to a woman surrounded by the evidence of her comfortable life.

But then he turned around. After grabbing a newspaper from the rack, he sat down at the table next to me. He flipped through the pages and as I looked up at him, he began to speak. He spoke in such a soft whisper, I could hardly comprehend every other word: “nice of you,” “woman like you,” “what you do?”

“I’m here writing.” I spoke loudly, hoping he would follow suit.

“Real nice to see, working, so many people, out there, I say I don’t want trouble, good attitude, don’t do nothing, that’s why, I tell them.” There were entire sentences I missed, but I leaned forward and paid attention anyway.

“You have kids?” he asked me.

“Yeah, my daughter. She’s taking a nap here.” I patted the car seat on the other side of me.

“My son, I tell him, he, jail, caught up in, long time.” I responded when I knew what he was saying and just kept listening when I didn’t. He told me about the people by the fountain and the woman he called his wife. As he spoke, he ripped an ad out of the paper and slowly tore it into tiny squares. When he was done, he pulled his small plastic bag out of his glove, untwisted it, and placed the squares inside. He twisted it again, and placed it in one of his hats. The little bag moved from hat to glove and back to hat several times in the course of our conversation. Occasionally he added to the paper squares inside.

After an hour, he pulled a Starbucks card out of his glove. It had a promo code for a free song download on it. I have often wondered why he had it in the first place—what would he download it onto?  He asked if I had a pen and then proceeded to scribble onto the card for a few minutes.

“Made my day, woman like you, made my day.” He handed me the card and left the café. I looked down at the piece of paper. In a big, clumsy handwriting surrounded by meaningless scribbles it said, “HERMAN.” The man in a suit on the other side of my table looked at me over his laptop. I wondered what he thought of our conversation. I glanced down at my sleeping daughter and then at the blinking cursor. It had made my day too.

Zumba, Kinesis, and Planks (Oh My)

In the spirit of losing pregnancy weight, and through a newfound YMCA membership, I have placed myself in a myriad of gym classes. Nothing like having someone else forcing you to run around while listening to their pump up music instead of yours.

It all began with zumba a few weeks ago. If you haven’t tried zumba, you really should. It’s the non-dancer’s dance class. With rhythmic Latin music, you are taught dance moves that are equally easy and funky and that kind of make you feel like you weren’t raised in a white, Anglo Saxon, protestant home, but in some dancing land where you’re friends call you “chica.” In the off chance that you look stupid, though, you always have the excuse that you’re just following the instructor and you weren’t doing this cause you thought it looked cool, psh, you’re just trying to get fit and this was the only open class.

Anyway, with this in mind, I excitedly showed up to the 9am zumba class. With the squeaky wood floors and the large wall of mirrors, I had my flash dance game face ready to go. Stationed safely in the back, I prepared to out-zumba all of these damas. And then the instructor hit play. Carrie Underwood, ladies and gentlemen. We began with a side-side-step touch, side-side-step touch to the twangs of country pop. There was no booty shaking. In proper WASP form, we remained rather unaware of our hips altogether with our Christmas-pageant circle formations. All so terribly disappointing.

Ready for something more intense, I proceeded to the kinesis open house. Kinesis, I found, consisted of 2-minute long, intense circuits of strength training with cable machines. When the instructor, Molly, walked in the room, I knew I was somewhere between doomed and in the right place. Her guns needed no flexing, no inadvertent flashing via a demonstrated pushup; nay, they looked at each one of us scrubs completely unflexed and entirely huge regardless as if to say, “Prepare to die.” It all felt rather hardcore until I found myself on my hands and knees with a cable across the bottom of my foot. As I straightened my leg against the force of the cable, it slipped off and slapped me in the back of the head with a loud crash of weights. Molly claimed it was an easy mistake, but out of seven of us, it only happened once.  It was $20 a class after that week anyway.

By invite from a friend who assured me, “If you like kinesis, you’ll love this,” I then attended horizontal conditioning. I must say, I was unprepared for this one. Women set up their stations (a step stool, a yoga mat, a weighted pole) practically on top of one another. This class was like the popular table, and if there weren’t seats, you could stand. Little did I know that Sandra, the class instructor, kind of invented this whole thing and had a host of videos and pamphlets and special tank tops—a workout dynasty. Arriving exactly at the class start time, I parked myself at the only available station, a bit too close to the front for my taste. That is, until the creator of said station informed me that you had to gather materials and make your own station. She kindly helped me set one up even closer to the front.

I think the name should have tipped me off. “Horizontal.” I don’t know if you’ve ever spent an hour doing thirty variations of the plank, but it’s rather like Chinese water torture. Except it wasn’t created by the Chinese, but by Sandra. And it doesn’t use water. Somewhere mid-plank, I looked around and realized that the front of the class was made up of the real housewives of Mountain Brook. My post-partum butt stuck out like a sore thumb in the row of toned, rich, 50-year-olds whose faces had been pulled so tight that they looked like they were in a constant wind tunnel. Not to mention the instructor was wearing her hair down under a visor. A visor. Inside.

Out of the entire class, not one woman dropped her plank (well, maybe one) or did a modification to make the exercise easier. It then occurred to me that my weighted pole was a different color from everyone else’s. The colors must represent weight. No wonder I was struggling so much! I must have accidentally grabbed the heaviest one. Upon the end of class, I checked to find that indeed the colors did represent weight and that I, in fact, had the lightest pole available. After two days of my shoulder tendonitis locking my arms into a mummy-like position out of sheer rage that I would do a plank for an hour, I came to the educated conclusion that perhaps I’ll just stick to running.

How to Make Friends in a Foreign Land

So you’re moving to a foreign land. And of course you’ve googled the town and made a list of restaurants to try, trails to run, and shops to visit. But a month has come and gone and you’ve toured the fool out of said town and it’s just not quite remotely home yet, eh? Enter: The Mrs. Adventure Handbook to Making Friends in a Foreign Land.

Step 1: Speak the Language

Whether it’s German, Swahili, Spanish, or Southern American, chances are you’re experiencing a language barrier. The most important part of this process is learning that there is, in fact, a language difference. Many are under the false impression that their location is speaking the same American English as their last. An example to the contrary: ask an acquaintance in your location if they’d enjoy a nice visit to the local creamery this weekend. If you’re stationed on the West Coast, the acquaintance will likely check his or her schedule and get back to you with a straight forward “yes” or “no.” If you find yourself in a Southern state, the acquaintance will assure you he or she would love that, perhaps while touching your arm and making warm eye contact followed by a 35% chance that the acquaintance will show up come Saturday. Recent studies have shown that there are at least seven different meanings to the word “yes” depending on one’s location. (“Recent studies” consist of my move across the country a month and a half ago and “seven” might be a number I pulled out of thin air that has nothing to do with analyzing data and everything to do with the lovely two-syllable ring it has.)

On the topic of acquaintances: It is important to understand the social construct of the land in which you are stationed. This can most simply be understood by examining the cultural understanding of an acquaintance. On the West Coast, for example, one has many strangers, a lot of acquaintances, and a handful of friends. In the Northeast, one has mostly strangers and a handful of friends. In the Southern states, one has zero strangers (one may choose to make an exception for alternate ethnicities, though the other regions frown upon this behavior), an unbelievable amount of acquaintances, and many friends. It’s a good idea to figure out what you’ll be working with in this department.

Step 2: Make the Leap

Transitioning from one social standing to another (say, from a stranger to an acquaintance) can be a delicate and challenging process. When done incorrectly, it may have treacherous results including but not limited to a lack of friendship, an embarrassing misunderstanding, or a restraining order. When asking an acquaintance to lunch, doing so too aggressively may scare the potential friend. When attempting to start a conversation with a stranger, it is important to remember body language and nonverbal communication. Before approaching, be mindful of eye contact. Too much eyeballing prior (or following) to the conversation attempt may ensure that your stranger feels preyed upon. If said scenario unfolds, the stranger likely will treat you like you are indeed a predator and physically run away. In said scenario, do not follow the stranger. If you recognize that you have indulged in far too much eye contact before the attempt, abort the mission immediately. Finding an activity aid may benefit you if you find it difficult to find the appropriate momentum for making a social leap.

More on activity aids: An activity aid is an activity that one may acceptably engage in with a stranger without striking discomfort in either party. Common activity aids include but are not limited to: taking a class at the gym, examining a piece of artwork, and joining a pickup game of volleyball (only if you aren’t terrible at volleyball—aiding a team in losing will not make you any friends). The most important rule is to be nonthreatening. Strangers and acquaintances should never feel like: they cannot escape the conversation, they are being hit on, they are being literally stalked and should fear for their safety, etc. Poor activity aids include but are not limited to: using the restroom, being tried for a federal crime (misdemeanors are ok), and attending a funeral.

Step 3: Assume the Best

This step is applicable and important for all stages of friend-making in a foreign land. When you are new to your station and have zero friends and perhaps even zero acquaintances, consider the wonderful things you have to offer and find excitement in the friendships yet to be made. When you are afraid that you have broken a social rule or boundary in the social leap phase, assume that you’re reading too far into these things and that the stranger or acquaintance might actually be rather fond on the idea of being upgraded to a friend. When you have just spent intentional time with someone and feel unsure due to the awkward pauses and conversation hiccups, assume that he or she took no notice and had a great time. It’s quite likely that you are a lovely person to be friends with.

Step 4: Initiate

Once you have spent intentional time (“hanging out”) with someone, ask to do it again. If this step introduces too much mental or emotional difficulty to be achieved, refer to step 3.

Additional conversation aids: babies, witnessing a public spectacle (say, a runner being hit by an empty can thrown by a homeless person), shared suffering (reference the suggestion of taking a class at the gym), a question about directions (utilize the phrase, “I’m new here,” until its expiration date of 6 months), and when in doubt, talking about the weather really does work.

To Be Southern

I recently read the incredible novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Upon finishing this powerful book, I found a brief essay called “Too Little, Too Late” by Stockett about herself and her writing of the book. Raised in Mississippi, she so beautifully articulates the tension that exists in most of us Southern folk. In light of  moving back to the South, I found this beautifully appropriate:

“The rash of negative accounts about Mississippi, in the movies, in the papers, on television, have made us natives a wary, defensive bunch. We are full of pride and shame, but mostly pride.

“Still, I got out of there. I moved to New York City when I was twenty-four. I learned that the first question anyone asked anybody, in a town so transient, was ‘Where are you from?’ And I’d say, ‘Mississippi.’ And then I’d wait.

“To people who smiled and said, ‘I’ve heard it’s beautiful down there,’ I’d say, ‘My hometown is number three in the nation for gang-related murders.’ To people who said, ‘God, you must be glad to be out of that place,’ I’d bristle and say, ‘What do you know? It’s beautiful down there.’

“Once, at a roof party, a drunk man from a rich white Metro North-train type of town asked me where I was from and I told him Mississippi. He sneered and said, ‘I am so sorry.’

“I nailed down his foot with the stiletto portion of my shoe and spent the next ten minutes quietly educating him on the where-from-abouts of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Henson, Faith Hill, James Earl Jones, and Craig Claiborne, the food editor and critic for the New York Times. I informed him that Mississippi hosted the first lung transplant and the first heart transplant and that the basis of the United States legal system was developed at the University of Mississippi.

“I was homesick and I’d been waiting for somebody like him.

“I wasn’t very genteel or ladylike, and the poor guy squirmed away and looked nervous for the rest of the party. But I couldn’t help it.

“Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.” Kathrym Stockett