Buying a Dress for a Funeral: Shopping as Prozac

February 27, 2009

Here’s a dubious hallmark of getting older: learning how to dress for a funeral.

It’s been so long since I’ve been to a funeral that I haven’t had to think about this for a really long time.

But I will be attending a funeral for a close family member in the next few days and realized that, in the wake of my move overseas two and a half years ago, I’d neglected to bring along any black dresses.

So yesterday I had to go out and shop for a funeral-appropriate dress. And I had to be quick about it.

I hate shopping, so I only gave myself like an hour and a half to complete this task. Fortunately, I live in one of the world’s poshest neighborhoods (Note to reader: My family isn’t posh in the slightest; we’ve just managed to stuff our family of four into an eerily well-located closet which we now call home in said neighborhood ) so there are an abundance of women’s clothing stores around.

And because I have turned into my mother (watch this space for more on that shortly), I decided to go to one of the three designer discount shops within a stone’s throw of my home (the other great advantage of living in a posh neighborhood: even the hand-me downs are nicer than anything I own!).

Within about 15 minutes, I’d identified four potential contenders for the event, two of which – it must be said – fit perfectly. (Note to reader: This never happens. Trust me. NEVER). One was a very simple knee-length cocktail dress which could easily be appropriated for a black tie event (were I ever to attend such functions…but here’s hoping!) And the other was an incredibly trendy Fendi dress, which looked something like this (NO I DIDN’T PAY ANYTHING NEAR THIS PRICE!!) As someone who perennially wants to update her look (but actually puts very little effort into said activity), I thought that if I bought something like this I might actually begin wearing it out about town.

I couldn’t decide. The cocktail dress was quite a bit cheaper than the Fendi, but, at the same time, less versatile. And the two women in the dressing room next to me (a mother/daughter team) kept insisting that I buy both. So while I tend to be a compulsive under-buyer, I made the snap decision to go ahead and take them both. Just like that.

George W. Bush once famously exhorted Americans to go shopping in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to boost the national mood. While I never quite understood his logic at the time, this was the first time in my life that I have gone shopping while feeling depressed and I must say, it worked wonders. I felt great.

Hmmmm….I wonder how many other pieces of the ex-President’s wisdom I ought to now emulate?

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Head Shots: The Joy of Feeling Professional

February 26, 2009

Yesterday I had some headshots taken for this blog. It was something I dreaded doing, but when the time came, I ended up having a lot of fun. Here are three reasons why:

1. It felt professional. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time sitting around in my yoga pants trying to decide if it’s *really* worthwhile blowdrying my hair because, hey, the mailman likes me just the way I am…(thank you, Billy Joel). But yesterday, I actually got off my tuchus and ambled up to the salon to get my hair cut. Given that my hair is so thin that – according to my current stylist – it resembles a new born baby’s (this is actually a step up from the haircutter who once affectionately described it as “doll’s hair”), having my hair freshly cut and styled made a world of difference to my appearance.

Before the shoot, I also painstakingly applied make up to my late-February ashen winter face. I’m not usually a make-up kinda gal, but I was once (mercifully) coached on what to do by an Aveda representative some 10 years ago and have clung to her advice shamelessly ever since.

Career blogger Penelope Trunk advises that anytime you do media, it’s essential to get yourself professionally groomed in order to be taken seriously by whoever is interviewing you (she extends the list of essentials to teeth whitening, but hair and make-up are a must). But there’s an added benefit to doing hair and make up: it also enables you to take yourself seriously as a professional, which is something creative types definitely need to do every once in awhile.

2. It got me out of my comfort zone. I’m not a terribly visual person. My husband – who is – can readily attest to this. I once famously scoped out an apartment for us in Boston and came home extolling the virtues of our new “three bedroom,” only to have him arrive a short while later and inquire as to where the third bedroom was located. The answer was…nowhere. So I felt really odd just sitting there before a photographer smiling at different angles and folding my arms in different ways and pretending that this was normal. But as the hour wore on, I found myself getting more and more into it, offering my own thoughts on the different shots and “tensing my eyebrows” (as the photographer so gracefully put it) a bit less.

3. I’m learning new skills. A big part of being a writer these days is self-promotion, especially via various social marketing tools. But to market oneself seriously, you also need to learn about – and care about – things like headshots and how you come across, visually even, to the general public. I’ll be the first to say, per point number two, that this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. It feels somehow terribly self-concious. But even though I know I’ll be tempted to pass the task off to one of my more artsy friends, once that little CD of photos arrives, I’m determined to be the one who sorts through them and decides which image best represents myself. Because I need to learn how to do that. And learning new skills is part of growing up.

Watch this space!

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Designing Your Creative Space

February 25, 2009

As we grow older, we often begin experimenting with different kinds of creative projects in order to keep our juices flowing or just to have a change of pace. For some, it’s pottery; for others, creative writing. Others join a singing group.

Today I’m guest blogging over at The Urban Muse, a terrific website that offers useful tips for writers of all kinds. My post is about how one goes about setting up the mental space that allows that creativity to flow.

Have a look!

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Fear of Flying

February 24, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about the little routines and traditions we establish as we get older that give us something to look forward to at different times of the year. For example, I like to watch the Oscars (there, I’ve admitted it).

But as we grow older we also call upon routines and traditions from our youth to help us through difficult moments as adults.

I had occasion to think about this a few days ago while on an airplane. Right before the plane took off, I instinctively made the sign of the cross as if in prayer. There’s nothing odd about this – lots of people cross themselves at all times of the day and for all sorts of reasons. But I’m not a religious person. And I don’t normally pray. And yet whenever I’m on an airplane, I can’t help myself. As soon as the plane starts down the runway, I instinctively find myself as if in prayer.

I was raised in a religious family and attended religious education until I was 16 or so, so it’s not as if this action comes out of nowhere. But I stopped going to church when I went to college at 18. So I do find it odd that of all the aspects of my religious upbringing, this is the one thing I’ve clung to as a way to help me through the very specific anxiety of flying on a plane.

I also used to rock myself to sleep when I was a child by sitting up in bed and rocking back and forward. To this day, when under stress, I still draw my knees to my chest and rock back and forward (my husband affectionately refers to it as my “rhesus monkey” position, to call attention to the quite similar behavior that rhesus monkeys engage in when deprived of affection by their mothers. This image pretty much says it all).

O.K. So now that I’ve painted a picture of myself as this freakazoid neurotic – half davening, half genuflecting – I’m sure that you’d love to invite me to dinner. But I do think that there’s something universal here. When under duress, we all tend to reach back to these primitive methods of self-soothing in order to reassure ourselves that we can make it over a given hurdle. Some people make themselves a PB and J. Others meditate. My own methods are just a bit more…how to say?…motion-sickness-inducing than the average Joe’s or Jane’s.

On the upside, to counter my anxiety on this particular airplane ride, I also forced myself to stay up and watch the movie The Duchess, a fine period piece starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. I can’t say that watching costume dramas is a holdover from any secret childhood ritual, but it did wonders to calm my nerves.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Missing the Oscars

February 23, 2009

I have a confession to make today: I’m sad. Very, very sad.

I missed the Oscars last night.

I can’t even bring myself to listen to the radio today to find out who won or log on to You Tube to watch the various acceptance speeches. That will just drive home the fact that I missed them.

For me, this is one of the major downsides of living in London. Unless I want to stay up and watch the show live from 1-4 a.m., I am forced to skip it altogether. A few years ago, one of my husband’s colleagues took pity on me and acquired a bootleg copy of the show from a Finnish television program. I’m still not sure quite how she did this (some wonder of modern technology, no doubt). All I know is that a few days later I was sitting in my bedroom clutching a cup of tea as I fervidly watching the results pour in. At each commercial break, the network would cut to these three incredibly intense Finnish movie critics all speaking furiously about the nominees, of which all I understood was the word “hei hei” (good bye), thanks to an erstwhile Finnish roommate.

But no matter, I still loved seeing them.

Before I moved here I was an Oscars fiend. On the night in question, I literally locked myself into my bedroom for the entire four hour period, emerging only during commercial breaks to consume snacks and beverages that required three minutes or less to prepare. My husband was instructed not to let any phone calls through. I even gave up attending “Oscar Parties” because I couldn’t bear being the only person in a crowded living room whose eyes were glued to the screen.

I wrote an essay about this once for Chicago Public Radio (scroll down to bottom of the page and click on the very last entry to listen to it). The thrust of that piece was that I don’t love the Oscars for the fashion, or the red carpet or the cheesy musical numbers. I love them for that one brief second when the camera zooms in on the actors right after their clips are played and we get – for one instant – to watch them reconnect with their artistic alter egos. It’s as if, in that brief moment, we get to see the actors as artists – reflecting on their work – rather than as the pre-packaged media images we normally consume. And I actually…gulp…find this moving.

(Or, at least, I like to think that’s what’s going on. Maybe they’re just faking it.)

As we grow older, we begin to develop these bizarre affections for things in life that just…make it more fun…or offer us something  to look forward to at the same time each year. For some, it’s the Super Bowl. For others, it’s Halloween. For me, it’s the Oscars.  It’s like a little private treat that we give ourselves that also marks a tradition.

What can I say?

Hei Hei.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


The Gift That Says (and does!) It All

February 11, 2009

Via the fabulous website, Very Short List, I came across this incredibly clever faux-advertisement for a new invention in phone-ware: The Pomegranate (be patient: this website takes a while to load, but trust me, it’s worth it).

Please drop whatever you are doing right now and spend 3 minutes surfing this website. The Pomegranate is not just a phone…it’s an entire lifestyle. And that’s not because you can do email/watch a movie/listen to music/take a photo or any of the other features that are now standard on most mobile phones. No. In addition to all those pedestrian i-functions, this phone also pours you a cup of coffee, shaves you, and has a built-in harmonica. I half expected a woman to jump out and do a lap-dance by the time I was done examining this creature.

It reminded me of those ads for “The Ginsu” when I was young (anyone??): “But wait! There’s more! It slices…It dices…”

I’ll admit to being initially conned by this ad (it’s actually an ad for Nova Scotia, but never mind.) I finally copped on when, looking at the built-in voice translator feature, someone orders garlic fingers in Farsi  (yes, despite the PhD, I’m a bit slow at times…). But I think what’s really great about the ad – Nova Scotia or no – is that it plays into our fantasy that life would be so fantastic if we could just have everything at our fingertips. Even if you didn’t believe that the lovely blonde lady was actually brewing a fresh cup of Colombian coffee in 30 seconds out of the bottom of her mobile phone, for a second, didn’t you just wish she could?

It reminded me of a friend of mine whose boyfriend once gave her a room full of all of her favorite things for her birthday. At first, it seemed like the most thoughtful gift on earth:  all of her favorite foods, soaps, gadgets, chocolates etc were all laid out in some cottage, just waiting for her.  What’s not to like? But then we sort of scratched our heads and thought: there’s something wrong with this picture.

After all, what’s the point of growing up if everything is easy? Part of the challenge of adulthood is what I call multi-sourcing:  figuring out how to meet your different needs, learning how to get things from different places,  balancing the different strands of your life even when they collide. When we cease learning, we cease growing up. And what fun is that?

I’m sure the Pomegranate folks were just out to showcase the innovative talents of their small, relatively under-noticed province and not to offer some deeper existential commentary, as I’m tenuously trying to do here. But seriously, folks, nestled inside this ad (right behind the movie projector) is a message. (And I think I can safely say many of us are guilty as charged.)

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Finding a Therapist (in London)

February 10, 2009

Yesterday I published a short essay in The Guardian Weekly about how hard it was to find a therapist in London. I write a lot of essays, but this was one of my favorites because: (a).  it’s 100% true and (b). because of (a), I happen to find it funny.

The basic thrust of this essay is that as an American, I thought having a therapist was the norm for any warm-blooded, reasonably introspective middle class person living ANYWHERE. Turns out, it ain’t so. At least not in ye olde, stiff-upper-lipped England. When I told my GP (internist) in London that I wanted a referral for a therapist, she looked at me as if I were mad. Therapy? Here? in Great Britain? You’ve got to be nuts!  (No, really, she thought I was nuts…) You can read the rest of the essay yourself…here.

As a friend of mine put it in an email today: “I am fascinated by the faux similarity and wild actual differences between us (USA) and them (Brits).”

Exactly. But I got a lot of feedback on this essay from assorted family and friends. And I don’t think it’s just the cross-cultural piece that they are responding to:

One friend confessed that she’d just sacked not one, but two, of her own therapists in rapid succession, but had signed her husband up for therapy.

Another friend (European) suggested that I extend this analysis to examine the relative receptivity to mental health provision across Europe, comparing France, Italy, the UK, even Finland.

And in a curious case of life…imitating art…imitating life, I got an email from my own (current) therapist, who confessed that she, at times, was guilty of kicking her washing machine rather than trying to figure herself out properly.

Which is a long way of saying that I think people responded to this piece because it resonates. And the reason it resonates is that  adulthood is, at the end of the day, one giant, protracted effort to figure yourself out. Now don’t get me wrong. Loads of people do this without benefit of a therapist (I don’t happen to know them, but that’s another story). But doing therapy – whether it’s traditional psycho-analysis, talk therapy, or some form of groovy self help’y sorta thing – (I’ve done all three) – is a HUGE part of “finding yourself in adulthood” (to coin a phrase).

I’ll have loads more to say in this blog on the topic of therapy – one of my not so closeted obsessions. But for now I will sign off with this, one of my all time favorite cartoons. I think it pretty much says it all, no?

AddThis Social Bookmark Button