Monday, February 28, 2011

Monkey Business

Photo by Arthur Princehorn, Oberlin College Archives
I found this article pretty damn interesting.  Researchers have known for a while that women in committed relationships tend to downplay the attractiveness of people who aren't their mates.   If the potato chips aren't all that tasty, the logic goes, then you're not missing out by not opening the bag.   I've caught myself doing this any number of times, and, in general, I'm in favor of it.  Who wants to spend her life pining for all the, um, potato chips she can't have?  Or constantly upending stable relationships in pursuit of the latest salty snack?

No, far better to seize on that split infinitive, that whiff of dysfunction, that misplaced modifier.  (SIDE NOTE: Do not misplace your modifiers.  Ever.  I mean it.  Stop.) 

But here's what I didn't expect: Men do it, too.  At least according a recent FSU study, in which men sitting in a waiting room were asked to rate the attractiveness of an ovulating female accomplice.  Past research has suggested that men rate women in the middle of their menstrual cycles as more attractive than women in other phases -demonstrating, as if I needed more proof, that humans are overgrown baboons.  Single men in the FSU study hewed to this pattern, but men in relationships fell over themselves trying to downgrade the woman's attractiveness.   If they couldn't have her, she clearly wasn't all that hot.

Score one for the good guys? 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Making Bank

Part of the annoyance of moving is that you have to disconnect and then reconnect all those services you don't want to think about but, nevertheless, need.  You need a new doctor, a new dentist, a new library card, a new gynecologist.  You need a new electric company and a new cable company if you go in for that sort of thing.  A new gym, new car insurance, new renter's insurance.  And, as a prerequisite for acquiring many of the aforementioned annoyances, you need a new bank.

My method for selecting a new [annoying thing which makes me long foolishly for the days of cholera outbreaks] is simple.  I pull up my address on Google Maps.  I plug in an appropriate word, like "bank."  I search.  I select the closest institution, in terms of mileage, from my house, and proceed to avail myself of their services.

In this way, I have acquired a gnome-like, wizened doctor who still uses tongue depressors, a state-of-the-art dentist, a gynecologist who keeps eyeing me avariciously for signs of incipient mommyhood, and the New Generations Federal Credit Union, of which I appear to be the only white member.

It took me a while to figure this out.  At first I simply though, "Ah, I live in a diverse city." This being Richmond, former capital of the confederacy, I suppose I should have known better.  My new credit union is constantly sending me subtle cues that it's set up to serve, well, someone else.  It bombards me with advertisements for short term loans and speedy tax preparation services, but is curiously silent on the subjects of mortgage lending and investment advice.  At the ATM, the torn off account balance slips read $106, $35, $7.  I tuck mine guiltily in my pocket.  The last time I took the drive-through lane, the man in the van preceding me tried to hustle me for cash.

All of this makes me uncomfortable.  I am uncomfortable belonging to an institution that serves, and is not-so-subtly geared toward, people who are not like me.  I am profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that I am uncomfortable.  In addition, I am uncomfortable that I am uncomfortable that I am uncomfortable. Not to mention, writing about it is making me yet more uncomfortable....

Setting aside the question of whether an institution serving poor black people should or should not be offering different financial products and services than one serving middle class white people (and this is a question worth asking), what do I do?  Do I contribute to de facto segregation by hieing my uncomfortable self to a bank full of comfortable white girls?  Do I stick it out and keep tossing the endless solicitations for payday loans?  I want a mortgage someday.  I want an integrated society some day.

Oh, Richmond.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


That's the sound of nature, which has apparently decided to emulate that paragon of precipitousness,  Tigger, by careening up to 77 degrees and sunny in mid-February.  MID.  FEBRUARY.  I kid you not.

Today the temperature is supposed to sink to a relatively restrained 60, but I'm still miffed.   This can't really be called winter weather by any self-respecting denizen of north of tropical, so I'm left with the massive cognitive dissonance of wearing a t-shirt while trying to maintain a state of mind appropriate to the fact that it is still, or at least SHOULD BE, winter.

Winter is not much fun, but it's necessary.  It's the work to summer's weekend, sleep to summer's morning, years of dating cross-eyed actuaries to summer's great first date with your husband-to-be.  You have to make it though one, or you don't fully appreciate the other.

Which is not to say that winter doesn't have its good points.  It's an in-turned time, a time for reflecting and repairing and reading a whole bunch of novels while giving thanks for the fact that you are no longer living in a time or place that requires you to erect your own house from blocks of ice.  Without a good, long winter, spring feels cheap, like love you didn't earn.

That damn groundhog.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Advisory Speed

Advice is everywhere.  It lurks in your road signs, your fluoridated water, your medical system, the RDAs on your box of girl scout cookies.  But is it any good?  I mean, we've all gotten, and perhaps given, plenty of advice that was glib, oversimplified, or just plain wrong.  Here are some of my favorites:

Do what you love and the money will follow.
 This is true if what you love is investment banking.  If it is novel-reading, video-game-playing, loafing, ambling, lolling, or shooting the shit, then not so much.

It's what's on the inside that counts.
If by counting you mean enumerating how many cookies you have, then yes.

You can be anything you want to be.
But you probably won't.

Yet, sometimes -only sometimes, mind, and not even very many sometimeses- you get a piece of advice that is so bang on the nose, and so novel, that it actually manages to change you.  The change might not be particularly large or important, but change is hard to pull off, and the fact that it's words -words!- that have driven you to it is pretty damn stunning.  I suppose this is why I still read the Agony Aunts, despite my suspicion that Ann Landers is a cryogenically preserved early Medieval pope.

This is what they call good advice.  And I can count the pieces I've received on one hand:

Don't focus on how you're different from people.  Focus on what you've got in common.
Thanks, Dad.

You don't want to be a Musicologist.  
No, Professor B, I didn't.

You need more practice.
Spoken by my tottering, whey-faced driver's ed instructor as he shot out of the test vehicle.  He was right.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


The ingredients list is unprepossessing: red chillis, garlic, salt, sugar, fish extract, and various kinds of acid.  The kick, on the other hand, posessess my heart just fine.

Lately, I've been putting sriracha on everything. There's not much I can think of that isn't better with a good dollop of the stuff, with the possible exceptions of ice cream and doctoral dissertations.

What's sriracha's secret?  I could pick one ingredient to laud, but really, I think it's about certainty.  You know what you're getting, with sriracha, and you know you're going to get it for as long as it takes you to wolf down your entree and immediately drown the conflagration in your oropharynx with milk.  There's no doubt, no equivocation, no nuance.

Certainty in politics is dangerous.  So is certainly in religion, certainty in science, and a bunch of other certainties.  Much better to get it out of a squeeze bottle.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


From the otherwise fairly fluffy "I Think I Love You," by Allison Pearson:

"As she gets older, she finds she suffers more from hiraeth; a word with no exact equivalent in English, it means a powerful yearning for the place you came from.  She has lived in London longer than she lived in Wales, more than half her life, yet there is some stubborn part of her that prevents her calling this city home.  The hiraeth feels like an extra muscle of the heart that contracts painfully whenever she thinks of the hills and of the rain falling in a curtain over the sea."

Or the creeks, the lazy hills, limestone, fireflies, sassafras, flagrant trees.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I wanted a cleverer title for this post, but practicing is difficult to riff on.  It's not glamorous or evocative or even very interesting.  Like toothpaste or breakfast or socks, it's simply there.  I don't usually think about it very much (do you think about your oral hygiene products?), but the past couple of weeks have been different.

It's kind of like waking up one day and realizing that your mother, the woman who munches grape nuts across the table from you every morning at 6:20 AM, your mother looks like your mother.  That particular fall of hair!  That individual grain of skin!  How have you never noticed before how...motherly she is?

I think what started my re-examination of practicing was a conversation I had with the women in my ensemble.  I've known these ladies for over a decade.  We've discussed sex, elimination, death, underwear, love, all things decent and less so.  But we'd never, to the best of my memory, talked practicing.  It felt a little bit like describing how you clean out your earwax.

B uses a stop watch.  A needs an hour of solid warm up.  I have a daily minimum, with the caveat that if I get twenty minutes in and feel like I'm going to puke, I can stop.  B stops the clock for bathroom breaks.  A knows someone who does visualization.  I take off Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day, and I have the option to take off the day after a performance.  Fever and emesis get me a pass; a head cold does not.

I mean, what is all this?  As a student, practicing serves a clear purpose: you're in training and you're trying to get better.  But after you've graduated, when you're more or less a working (or "practicing:" ha!) musician, practicing morphs into something else, something that's half preparation, half superstition. You learn repertoire,  yes.  But it doesn't take you as long to learn stuff as it used to, so when you're done with subduing the music you're going to perform in the near future you "hone your craft," or bang your head repeatedly against the asymptotic nature of perfection.

There's actually something poignant about it.  Practicing, as a student musician, made you successful, so there you are, years later, dancing the macarena in your lucky bikini around a bonfire in an attempt to appease the Gods of Music.  It's not that you don't need to practice (you do, and everyone can tell you the cautionary tale of Someone who Lapsed).  It's not that you aren't still learning (you are).  It's that you can't stop.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Separation Station

So the navigation tabs of the Huffington Post website read something like this:

Politics, Business, Media, Entertainment....Travel, Tech, Living, Health, Divorce...

Wait, divorce?  I mean, Living is kind of an odd heading given that it's difficult not to live and still be reading the Huffington Post, but Divorce is way stranger.  After all, there's no marriage page  There's no section on dating or sex or even love.  But by golly if there isn't a whole page devoted to heartbreak, alimony, infidelity, and loss.

To which I say, bring it on!  Turns out I'm a divorce voyeur.   I don't generally enjoy delving into other folks' tragedies, but divorce is different.   It's seldom entirely tragic, for one thing, even if there is a lot of pain involved.  But it is nearly always messy, and I do love messy.  Divorce is complication, ambiguity, mistakes, and niceties rolled into one sloppily wrapped package with someone else's name on it. 

It's like watching other folks' blizzard videos or babysitting someone else's recalcitrant toddler and then handing the poopy half-sentient squaller back.  Is my addiction shameful?  Ugly, even?  Yes.  But it sure beats

Sunday, February 6, 2011

February is for Fever

It's sleeting.  There's no other word for what's going down (yes, literally going down) in the great state of VA.  The precipitation is too moist for snow and heavier than rain; it bounces off the car windshield like a handful of sand.  I said January was for abstemiousness; I guess February is for sleet.

Only, sleet is unsatisfying.  I want each month to have a larger purpose, a neat compression of its strengths and pecadillos into a one-line resume objective.  I want every month to tell me, clearly, why I should hire it. 

After all, every month has a birthstone.  (As a compulsive systematizer I know more of these than I really should. GOLDEN TOPAZ IS THE BEST.  Not to rain on y'alls garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, diamond, emerald, pearl,  ruby, peridot, sapphire, opal, or turquoise parades.)  Shouldn't every corner of the year have some secret to impart, something it wants to pull you aside and whisper in your ear?  The answer is yes, and this year I'm listening, hard.

So February.  If not sleet, than what? 

Not love: Valentine's Day is an accent, a brief burst of red in the drab.  Not cold, because it's not as, or dark, because it's not as.  Not waiting, because we haven't, or at least I haven't, even begun to understand that spring is possible.  Rather, February is an inward month, a quiet month, a month to be, or not to be, to stand still.

Just don't do it outside.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Comfort Me

Rumor is, if you make your bed in the mornings, you're happier. 

I tried to figure out the source of this particular gaseous emanation from the volcano of science, but when I Googled "making your bed makes you happier" I got a pittance of information on bedmaking and a plethora of advice on how to please my wife.  Since I don't have a wife, this was less than 100% useful. So you will just have to take my word for it that the source of the rumor, like the sentient alien jumpsuit-clad empath, is out there somewhere.

I'm not a bed-maker, but I AM an inveterate tilter at the windmills of happiness, so I thought, hey, why not?  Especially since last winter's purchase of a down-filled comforter means that all I have to do to make the bed is pull the thing up toward the pillows.  Laziness AND happiness in one pneumatic menage a trois? WIN!

I tried it, but I forecasted failure.  I figured that making the bed, and thus symbolically denying myself the mythical midday nap/ noontime novel devouring, would depress me.  An unmade bed, this logic goes, is like an invitation to a really great party you hang on your refrigerator.  Your chance to samba til dawn may be weeks a way, but doggone it, you're envisioning it now!

Only, instead of engendering deprivation, making the bed filled me with pleasant, priggish complacency.  It was as if I'd sat on one of those artificial glove warmers and was subsequently perfused by a mild chemical coziness.   I may not have written a novel or saved the universe or won the Nobel Prize, but by golly, I had WREAKED MY WILL UPON THE WORLD.

I think I've been made.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


If I were a real food blogger, I'd truss the following recipe to a significant and/or poignant life event using a web of glimmering prose.  But I'm not a food blogger, so I'll just toss the recipe out there and report that it is damn tasty.

I give you Aztec Hot Chocolate, slightly adapted from Mark Bittman's sort-of-recipe in Kitchen Express, aka the best cookbook ever.
  • Whip heavy cream with half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and one teaspoon vanilla extract.  Or, if you are lazy like my household, use half and half instead and froth it.
  • In pot, warm 4 cups milk with half a cup of chopped semisweet chocolate (note that half a cup is different from half a cop, which is what I originally wrote), more cayenne, and a whole bunch of cinnamon.  Warm til chocolate is melted. 
  • Put half the chocolate in mugs and top with all the spicy cream.
  • Put  the remaining half of your chocolate in the fridge and warm it up in the microwave the next morning to sub out for half of your coffee.  Yes, I made this last part up.  No, I will not repent.
Love, Anne