Five Lands, One Dumbo Drop

[Originally posted May 27, 2012. Sorry, it still makes me laugh at how gross and ridiculous it is.]

This is a travelogue concerning poop.  Consider yourself warned.

Back in 2006, I was on an uber-fitness kick.  I not only ran 30 miles a week, I was on a strict diet – every gram of fat, protein and fiber was calculated and accounted for.  A result of this – and forgive me for the TMI – is you could synchronize a shuttle launch to my bowel movements. Enter my first trip overseas.

Chris and I went to Italy for the first time, and knew we would have to postpone the diet while we were out there.  When in the land of pasta, pizza and gelato, it seemed we’d be missing out on a key experience if we didn’t enjoy the food.  Enjoy it, we did – every hotel where we stayed included a free continental breakfast.  We expected this to be a couple of muffins, coffee and juice.  Oh, no; every hotel had a feast awaiting its guests in the morning: fresh pulled mozzarella, thin slices of prosciutto and pancetta, eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh tomatoes and basil, many kinds of bread, jams, butter, Nutella, juice and of course, cappuccino.  Lunches were made of delicious paninis, small pasta dishes and pizza, with an occasional snack of gelato.  Dinners? We generally went for places that had a prix-fixe menu, so we could try as many different types of food as possible.  One of our favorite spots in Florence was a coffee and pastry shop along the Arno – we’d get a little pastry treat, I’d get cappuccino served in a china cup, and Chris enjoyed drinking chocolate. One thing missing in all of this? Fiber.

This food was all delicious and delightful, but after a few days in Italy I felt a disturbance in the force; this radical change in diet left my digestive system in disarray.  After months of knowing exactly when I’d be in a bathroom each day, my lack of bathroom time began to scare me.  Oh, I didn’t think I’d need hospitalization or anything; I was fearful of what exactly would come out of me and when it would happen.  See, bad things always happen when you’re far from a bathroom.  This is the Poop Provision of Murphy’s Law.  Every day on our trip was well-planned and I wasn’t about to make an adjustment to our tight schedule to ensure I was within 50 feet of a public restroom.  I simply crossed my fingers and hoped.

While we were in Florence, there was one day trip I designated as a must-do – hiking the famed Cinque Terre.  Cinque Terre, literally translated, means five lands.  The region consists of five oceanside towns along the Italian Riviera – the outer two towns, Monterosso el Mare and Riomaggiore  are reasonably accessible, however the inner three towns, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, can only be accessed by train, foot, or by boat*.  Because of the remote nature of these five towns,  they are old, beautiful, and almost undisturbed (I say “almost” because this is a hot spot for tourism).  While you can take a train ride from town to town, you have the option of hiking the entire thing, which is 11 km long, and a total elevation change of 3200 feet.  Needless to say, you need to have an intimate relationship with an incline treadmill or a Stairmaster to be able to do this hike.

We took the train to La Spezia, and grabbed the connecting train to drop us off at Monterosso el Mare.  I read that the stretch between Monterosso and Vernazza was the longest and most intense, so we decided it would be best to start on that end and get the hardest part out of the way first.  We bought our passes to hike, ate lunch, grabbed a couple of water bottles and went on our way.

Before long, we were climbing, climbing, climbing up stone stairs on the trail, ascending the mountainside and leaving Monterosso behind.  When we looked ahead at vista points, we saw vineyards meticulously carved into the mountainside.  When we looked to our right, we had the constant companionship of the Mediterranean alongside us, its waves crashing peacefully far below.

And then it started.

I felt something in my lower abdomen that told me this long leg was going to be even longer.  Oh no.  Curse you, delicious, fiberless pasta!  Because Chris and I have been together forever and were long past that point of reserve in our relationship, I looked at him and said simply, “it’s time.”

His eyes widened with concern, and he shook his head.  The Poop Provision of Murphy’s Law – we were too far along and too high up to turn around, and still had a ways to go before Vernazza.  “Can you make it?”

I looked around.  Definitely no bathrooms nearby, and I’m a strict believer in the “pack it in, pack it out” rule of hiking.  I had nothing on me to pack it out other than the plastic bag we needed to carry our waters, so clearly that wasn’t an option.  I sighed.  “I hope so.”

Chris took in a deep breath of air and looked out to the ocean with a sarcastic smile on his face, as if he were cursing the piece of the universe that controls Murphy’s Law. “Yup; this isn’t going to end well.”

Thanks.

We continued on, and I became briefly distracted from my discomfort.  A flute? I heard a beautiful melody carrying over the breeze to us.  As we hiked, the melody got louder and louder until we turned a corner and came to its source.

An old man with a long, salt-and-pepper beard sat atop a boulder on the edge of the trail, playing a carved wooden flute.  He seemed in his own world, if not for the table of unlabeled bottled wines beside him. The golden nectar of the wine shimmered against the sunlight as we approached him.  The romantic and the realist argued in my mind:

The Romantic: What a story it would be if I bought a bottle of wine from this man!
The Realist: It’s insanely expensive and a tourist trap.
The Romantic: But how often do you get to purchase wine in the middle of a hike – on the side of a mountain?
The Realist: Never, because it’s probably illegal.
The Romantic:  It may be, but it has a story! I need to put aside your reservations and purchase this mysterious bottle of wine!
The Realist: …And carry it how, exactly? You only have a plastic bag.  You’re going to carry a bottle of wine along with your bottles of water in a plastic bag for 9 km?  Seriously?
The Romantic: Come on.  Have a little sense of adventure! There’s no label on the bottle – how mysterious! How unique and pure!
The Realist: How do you even know it’s wine, let alone a good wine? He could have peed in the bottle for all you know.
The Romantic: It does look a little like pee…I…oh…{{shakes fist}} It’s you, Asshole Brain! I should have known! You ruin everything.
Asshole Brain: Ha, ha! Oh, and… snotty mustache!
The Romantic:  I hate you.
Asshole Brain: I love me.  And you need to take a shit right now.  Badly. Hahhahahahhahaa {{skips off to a hidden part of my imagination to contemplate destroying other pieces of whimsy and joy}}

“Well? Are you going to buy it?”

I looked at Chris, whose slightly exasperated at yet another example of my inability to make a simple decision.  My stomache ached.  I sighed.  “No.  Let’s keep going.”

Damn you, Asshole Brain.

We finally saw a view of our next town – the town with a public restroom! Vernazza.  It was a stunning little town filled with wonder, old things and fat, stray cats, but ohmigodIneedtofindabathroom.  I was smart enough to read about where the bathrooms were located ahead of time, and we rushed towards the train tracks.  There was a sign for the bathroom.  Yes! There was one stall door, a white, wooden door with a single latch.  Wow, no privacy.  IdontcareIneedtogo.  I opened the door and Chris and I looked inside.  My heart fell a little.  Chris nodded his head.  Murphy’s Law.  “It’s a squatter.”

The little bathroom stall contained a white fiberglass square on the ground, like the base to a shower.  There was a chain pull for the flushing mechanism.  No sink, no toilet paper.  Was this even meant for people to take a poop?  “Do you want to find something else?”

I shook my head, slightly dejected.  “This is it.  This is all they’ve got.” I looked at him like we may never see each other again.  “I’m going in.”

He nodded sympathetically.  “I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

I closed the door behind me and latched it shut.  Logistics.  How am I going to do this?  I thanked my co-workers who told me I had to have a Charmin-To-Go roll on me at all times along with a bottle of Purel.  I opened my Charmin-To-Go and laid out squares where my hands needed to be.  Due to the size of the base, I realized I’d have to remove my pants off of one leg to properly straddle the base.  As I was preparing, I heard a few people begin to approach outside.

“Is this the bathroom?” A British female voice asked.

As I carefully hopped on one foot trying to remove a pant leg over my hiking boot, I heard the newly self-appointed Cinque Terre Tourism Bureau chief and Stall Guard – my husband, respond.  “Yup…my wife is in there.  It’s a squatter.”

Dude.

They carried on a conversation as I carefully placed my palms on my Charmin squares.  They were sliding and crumpling under my hands, and my feet began to slip.  Shit! I tried squirming to steady myself.  More people came up to the stall, different languages chatting and asking questions.  I heard someone shake the door.  Oh please, Jesus, let that latch hold.  I don’t want to experience the international embarrassment of people seeing me reinact the pose from the Exorcist where Linda Blair became a reversed spider and crawled the stairs.  Behind my fear and panic, I heard one reassuring voice inform people over and over.

“It’s a squatter.”

Really, Chris?!? If only one could facepalm in the spider position…

The pressure of hearing all these people gather outside the stall made me nervous and further complicated my expulsion process.  Focus. Focus.  Come on!

My thoughts were broken by an angry German man who stormed up to the door and started knocking furiously on it.  “BEEIL DICH! Ich muss scheissen!”

Chris calmly told the man that I was in there, and I’d be out as soon as possible.  I’m pretty sure he ended the conversation by informing the man that it’s a squatter.

GAHHHHH!!! Stop telling everyone I’m taking a shit!

Finally, relief came to me, and I swear to God it was like the heavens parted and I experienced perfection, mercy and all that was beautiful in the universe for one brief moment.

Now for the dismount.

I slid my hands towards my feet to get up.  I slipped for a brief moment, almost sending my back into the base. Luckily, I caught myself in time, grateful for the little things.  I took care of business, put my pants back on and grabbed the chain.  Please, please flush.  I pulled it, and heard a satisfactory disposal mechanism.  It didn’t sound like a traditional toilet flush, but it got the job done.  I Pureled like there was no tomorrow and unlatched the door.  The entire freaking G8 summit was waiting outside, legs crossed, doubled over and angry.  I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and simply found Chris in the crowd.  The look on his face was about 20% sympathy and 80% amusement.  “Feel better?”

I furrowed my brow.  “Let’s go.”

He bid adieu to his new friends, giving up his post to the next husband willing to accept the job of Stall Guard.  As we walked away, I could have sworn I heard a pleasant male British voice inform a newcomer, “It’s a squattah…”

We leave our mark everywhere, he and I…

 

Thanks to Sandra for the translation skills!

*This is what I read at the time, however when reading for this story, I discovered that there was a small road that went into Vernazza at the time we hiked it.  There were pretty nasty mudslides in the region in 2011, which closed off this road.

I Gave a Great Happy Ending

[Originally posted on Mar 28, 2012. This is the last entry of my most popular/favorite posts. Everything after this point is in actual posting chronology.]

[Note: * indicates a name change]

“…And we welcome you to the Friendly’s family!”

Upbeat Piano Music faded as the Friendly’s logo proudly remained, its image flickering oh-so-slightly due to VHS over-usage.  Do I just sit here and wait?  The screen went to snow.  I looked around at the break area where I was placed.  My first job.  Well, my first real job after being the world’s worst papergirl…up until this point, I was forbidden from working.  Due to a change of events and a change of heart by my parents, I was allowed to get a job and I desperately needed to save up money for college fast.  Friendly’s was the only place in walking distance from my house that would take a chance on an inexperienced teenager, and I gladly accepted the job.  Eventually, this is going to be a familiar place.  I pictured myself sitting in the back room during breaks, drinking a cup of coffee and chatting with a co-worker.  I pictured reading the memos and notes on the bulletin board, nodding knowingly at their message.  I was going to be The Best.  I was going to be the Tom Cruise Top Gun/Days of Thunder of waitressing.

As I looked at the bulletin board, one memo stood out.  It talked about a per store statistic on the amount of food and supplies brought in versus the money the store brought in.  Apparently our store was listed as the worst of all Friendly’s stores.  Using indirect corporate-speak, the memo basically accused our store of stealing a bunch of shit.  I looked around suspiciously.  Thieves!  Not on my watch, Mr. Friendly President.

“Ah, the video is all done!”

I turned around.  My boss, John Thirkus* had a warm smile that balanced that fine line between James Stewart and To Catch a Predator.  He was a man no younger than 50, balding, and he lived alone with his mother.  I liked him.

He handed me a menu.  “I’d like you to shadow Pete tonight.  He’s really great with the customers and he’s been with us for a long time.”

“Great!”  I was a little nervous.  As I shadowed Pete and learned the ropes of Friendly’s waitressing, I was surprised at how much the waitress had to make for her customers: salads, Belgian fucking waffles (Wafflefest was a long month, dude), drinks (including milkshakes and Fribbles), and every single ice cream concoction on the menu.  Making thier sundaes as designed was usually not so bad, but there are people on this earth who love to over-customize.  For example, the Friendly’s Reeses Pieces Sunday consisted of 5 scoops of vanilla ice cream, ladles of chocolate, marshmallow, and uber-addictive peanut butter sauces, whipped cream, and a handful of Reeses for garnish.  And yes, I believe I still know how to make all of the sundaes after all these years.  Despite the perfect harmony achieved by the flavors carefully selected for this sundae, customers would often order like this: “can I get a Reeses Pieces Sundae with chocolate, cookie dough…um…peanut butter fudge…butter pecan…and…let’s see;  I haven’t had black raspberry in a while, let’s go for that!  Oh! And for the sauces, can I do peanut butter, pineapple and caramel?”

“Sure!”

“And don’t cheap me out on Reeses Pieces like that waitress over there.”

“You got it.”

One of the first things I learned from Friendly’s was you must learn how to answer to multiple bosses and cater to their idiosyncrasies.  For example, take cash handling.  Thirkus instructed me to merely ring up, take the money, and give the customer their change.  Frau Margaret*, the assistant manager, took issue with that.  Frau Margaret was a German immigrant who had been in her 60s for the past 23 years.  She was demanding and spoke in a thick German accent, so naturally, many of our culturally-sensitive customers and line staff referred to her as a nazi.  Frau Margaret was a good person, she just was a royal pain in the keister.  When she saw me handling a customer’s money at the register, she walked up and took the money from my hands.  “No, no, no.  Ven a customer geeves you ten, you leave it out on top of the cash box like thees, and geeve his change.  If you don’t do thees, they vill lie and say they gave you a tventy.  So you can say, ‘no, no! You gave me a ten!  I have eet right here!  Don’t try to pull a vast one, sir!’”

“Oh, okay!”  I smiled as I gave the change to the fellow who was just told he was likely a con artist.

He grabbed the money from me and huffed.  “Nazi…”

Of course, five minutes later, our other assistant manager, Josef*, watched my cash handling and shook his head.  “What are you doing?”

I explained Frau Margaret’s con-busting technique.  He sighed.  “Don’t do that; it’s stupid and insulting.  Besides, the money could blow away.” ?? We weren’t near a window.

About twenty minutes later, Frau Margaret saw me employing Josef’s technique.  She took the cash out of my hands again.  “What deed I tell you?  Put the ten here.”

For sanity’s sake, future transactions were handled whatever way the nearest manager wanted.  Of course, in less than a week, I discovered I had one less manager telling me what to do.

I came in to work on a Sunday to find the entire restaurant in shambles.  Our ice cream window guy, a young man every Friendly’s patron in 90s-era Stamford accurately nicknamed “Urkel,” pulled me aside to explain.  “Did you hear what happened to Mr. Thirkus?”

“His mom died, right?”

“No!  Well, yeah, that happened too, but you won’t believe this!  Apparently, the Friendly’s truck driver made his delivery early this morning, Mr. Thirkus signed off on it, and he – and all of our food – are nowhere to be found!”

I raised an eyebrow.  Well, everyone grieves in their own way, I guess… “He stole an entire truck of food?  How did that even fit in his car?”

Urkel raised his gangly arms above his head, as if a puppeteer tightened the strings.  “I don’t know!  But we are almost out of everything.  No cookie dough!”

Oh, shit. No cookie dough ice cream?  That’s like the scene in Airplane! where they say there’s no coffee.  What a long damn day that was.  We each fought each other to get the last scraps of everything for our tables and received extra-crappy tips.  That night, I imagined Thirkus speeding down I-95 in his Caprice Classic, digging into a giant tub of half-melted cookie dough buckled into the passenger seat, blasting Cat Stevens while honking and screaming at passing semis, hamburger patties and hot dogs flying out of his windows at 68 miles per hour.  Really, my day wasn’t all that bad…

Friendly’s corporate briefly sent in an emergency manager named Tina to help us.  Tina was awesome and didn’t put up with anyone’s shit.  It figures she was temporary.  Our next manager was a beady-eyed go-getter squirrel named Phil Goldblum*.  For Phil’s first week, he preferred to assist the line cook.  He pulled a ticket off the carousel and groaned.  “WHO is employee 742?”

My muscles tensed.  “That’s me.”

He looked at my ticket.  “Can you tell me what ‘K-HD’ is?”

A quick lesson in Friendly’s shorthand – each menu item had a designated shorthand we were expected to memorize, and if you have ever been in a Friendly’s, you’ll know that means we had about 845 menu items to learn.  The “K” indicates a kid’s menu option.  Thankfully, we only had four – Mac N Cheese (K-MAC), Hamburger (K-HAM), Grilled Cheese (K-CHEESE), and…

“Hot.Dog.”  I made sure to emphasize each word so he got it.

He tossed the ticket on the counter.  “It’s FRANK.  Get it right next time.”

What an asshole.

In addition to constantly riding my ass for my Captain Obvious shorthand that everyone behind the counter understood except for him, Phil was a bit of a creeper.  One day I was assigned hostessing duties for my shift.  He smiled at me.  “Why do you have your hair up?”

“Because Frau Margaret told me it’s unsanitary to wear your hair down in a dining establishment.”  Really, dude?

He flipped my ponytail.  “Forget her.  Wear it down, it looks really pretty.”

Ugh.  But, money.  “Okay.”

Of course, five minutes later:  “Fraulein! Vy is your hair down?  Vee don’t vant blond locks een our patty melts!”

Jesus.  Needless to say, I agreed with Frau and held my ground on any future ponytail debate.

Keep in mind, I was a very plain-looking high school senior.  Yet, any eating establishment has its share of sex-crazed sleazers.  I was known by several names: Babe, Honey, Cutie, Sexy, That Stupid White Girl…it was my first experience with that sort of thing, but I knew that’s how it was in the food industry.  And, money.  I’d usually just blow it off and act like a naive bumpkin.  It worked sometimes.  Other times?

Enter Sean Mulligan*.  Unlike the other guys, who just liked referring to me with cutesy misogynist nicknames, Sean wanted a date.  I was 18 and had no interest in a guy in his late 20s.  I was really bad at saying “no” to people, and I’ll admit, it was wrong of me to not be direct.  I wound up making a couple of high-octane bitch moves in my life because of this problem, but those stories are for another day.

On this day, Sean came up to me while I was making Happy Ending Sundaes for a table.  “So, we should go to a movie together some time.  It would be fun.  What do you say?”

I smiled at him.  “No, thank you; I don’t watch movies.”

He laughed.  “You don’t?  Everyone watches movies!”

“I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I like reading.  Alone.”

We went about our sundae-making although he later cornered me near the kitchen.  “Hey, since you don’t like movies, how about I pick you up and make dinner for you at my apartment.  A couple of candles, some soft music…”

As sure as the sun is hot, my asshole brain inserted a mental image.  Tiny apartment using cinder blocks for makeshift shelves and bookcases…two candles lit on a tiny table…food that’s a cross between marsala and Hungry-Man…a boom box, quietly playing “Is this Love” from Whitesnake…Sean in a button-down shirt, half unbuttoned to show a mildly hairless chest (hurrff!)…I panicked.  “I…I don’t eat.”

Yes, I really said that.  And no, he didn’t take the hint.  I think I ultimately told him I just wasn’t into dating and it’s not you it’s me, and blah blah blah you’re 10 fucking years older than me, and please kindly leave me alone and let me talk to Urkel in peace, thanksmuch.  But more giggly and evasive.

This was happening around the same time I realized Phil wasn’t paying me my credit card tips, and good ol’ Mark the Sunday Waiter was grabbing my lower hips every time he “brushed” by me.  When you think Friendly’s you just don’t think Sausagefest, do you?  Unless Sausagefest was a monthly promotion that came with a Happy Ending Sundae for just .99! What a deal!

After just a few months, I knew that I wanted a Happy Ending for myself.  Not that kind, you sicko.  And not the ice cream sundae kind (although I do love a Happy Ending with chocolate ice cream and that peanut butter sauce – yummers!).  For one thing, I was leaving for college in a short amount of time.  For another thing, I didn’t want to be like some of the good people I met there, who were so beaten down by the hard work and disrespect they encountered they forgot what it was like to expect more out of life.  Sure, some people enjoyed it there.  All of Sausagefest did, I’m pretty sure.  A few waitresses liked it, too.  But some people belonged in a better place, and I’m not sure they realized they deserved better.  That’s what happens when you settle for too long – you give up a little bit each day.  I didn’t want that for me – at least not at that point in my life.

I found a job paying less doing data entry and I put my two week notice in, although Phil wouldn’t accept the resignation.  By that time, I stopped hating him (a few experiences where he was forced to work the floor miraculously made him tolerable), but he was still a little bit of a creeper.  I agreed to stay on, and did my thing.

What was my “thing,” exactly?

I grabbed two gallons of peanut butter fudge ice cream on my way out and never stepped in that Friendly’s ever again.  It was no Thirkus-style exit, but it was my little way of saying, “so long, you frank-eating, sausage-festing, Whitesnake-playing mother fuckers!”  That? Was an acceptable happy ending for me.

 

 

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Angels Landing

Image courtesy of Chris Giard

One of my favorite things about hiking is it provides me with endless metaphors for life. The most common one I think of is when you’re hiking a mountain, and you feel like you’re in the final turn, but it turns out there are several more switchbacks to traverse. It’s that feeling that you’re never really done and you never really “get it” – you’re constantly learning and climbing, for better or for worse. Or when you find yourself looking at the trail in front of you and forget to look at the view around you. Or when you’ve overcommitted to a trail, and you realize the only way to get to the end is to just put one foot in front of the other over and over again.

For no less than a year, I’ve been struggling with depression. It crept up on me, and I believed that it was mostly situational. I did a major move and dealt with job layoffs which are two huge stressors to experience on their own, never mind together. I often think of mood as having a baseline with peaks and dips. When I was in college, my baseline was the lowest it’s ever been – it was a struggle to get up most mornings. A few years ago, my baseline was the highest it’s ever been – I was truly happy and felt mostly complete. Since that height, my baseline has dipped lower and lower. A few events happened that helped it sink – I had a little bit of a health scare, my dad died, my best friend became very ill, a close friendship ended, and then of course, the ordeal with the layoff.  Great things happened in that timeframe as well, but these events made me think my sad mood was just situational and if I could only get through them I’d be fine again.

Things are situationally really good right now. I finally put some of my music out there, I have a phenomenal work-from-home gig, I have the flexibility in my schedule to make time to enjoy life. Yet… I feel sad and incredibly isolated. Not in the work-from-home isolated way, but in the “something is wrong with me, I can’t talk to anyone about it and why can’t I just feel and act like a normal person?!?” way. I have good days, and I have down days. My down days aren’t like they were in college, thankfully – I get very sad and feel a mixture of hopelessness and worthlessness, but I can still get out of bed. I also am mostly able to recognize when this sadness is trying to seduce me, and I make a point to go outside and look at the water or explore the city. Distractions and changes of scenery are exceptionally helpful. But that sadness and isolation still lingers on some level.

I was recently thinking about my “Reach Out” post and how many wonderful people I have in my life. I thought, “hmm, maybe I can reach out to my friends about this.” I walked it through my mind, because of course I could do this. There are a ton of loving people around me, and I know I have their support. As I walked through the scenario in my mind, I realized that it is a pointless endeavor. What happens after you tell people you are struggling with depression? What fairy dust can they possibly throw on you to make it go away? A memory of one of my hiking experiences popped into my mind as I thought it through:

Several years ago, Chris and I were hiking on the Angels Landing Trail at Zion National Park. It is not a trail for the faint of heart or the out-of-shape. Most of the 2.4 mile trek is at a 30% incline, and towards the end of the hike, you deal with narrow walkways with steep drop offs. I’m not too bad with heights, but I have my limits. There was this one stretch where they bolted a metal chain into rock, and you had to hold onto it while you stepped up and down onto rocks and outcroppings. Beyond those rocks was a steep slope and then a 3,000 foot drop off. I initially crossed it and felt exceptionally uneasy. I told Chris I couldn’t complete the hike, as I knew the final leg contained a very narrow walkway with a sheer drop on either side. I knew I’d be too shaky to do it. We decided to turn around. Chris went first and I started to follow him. Going back was even harder – there were parts where I had to lower my foot behind me to find a rock to rest on. At one point, I couldn’t feel where the rock was, and I began to panic. I started to hyperventilate and my limbs felt like jello. My hands shook, I started to cry. There was nothing Chris could do other than watch me and try to calm me down.

There was a moment as that all was happening where the thought entered my mind – I have to do this on my own. No one can help me – I have to calm down and get across. I knew only I could get myself out of this situation. I took a few deep breaths. Okay…okay…okay…I can do this. I can do this. I lowered my foot and trusted Chris when he said the rock was right there. I did it again and again until I made it to the clearing on the other side. Of course, when I got there, I cried and hugged Chris to release all of that anxiety, but the important part is, I got myself through it.

This memory popped into my head, because it is very much like being depressed and getting through depression. You can have support around you and waiting for you on the other side, but in the end, you’re the only one who can take each blind step forward. You’re the only one who can calm yourself down or get yourself out of bed in the morning, putting one foot in front of the other. You’re the only one who can communicate to a therapist, and you’re the only one who can allow yourself to get better. It’s not a single choice – it’s a series of choices. It’s that constant pushing to get better when that warm, heavy blanket of depression is weighing you down and tempting you. It’s resisting the temptation often no matter how tired you are or how much bullshit is thrown at you, because eventually it’s going to get a little better, in time potentially a lot better. I don’t want to cling to the side of a rock, isolated and sobbing. I need to move my feet.

To my friends – if I seem a little distant or sad or off, I’m still on the side of that cliff, but I have to believe I’ll get past it. I know you’re there waiting for me at the clearing, and I’m going to get to you. The first blind step behind me is just centimeters from my toes…

Mental Health Parity: This is a Really, Really Good Thing

Image courtesy of antpkr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is a new regulation going into effect on the national level that is going to help millions upon millions of Americans: insurance companies will be required to treat mental health and substance abuse the same as general physical ailments.

This is huge. And it makes me want to tell you a story, because this is something I have personal experience in:

My first job out of college was working for a California company that provided mental health case management and claims administration as a carveout to local HMO providers for professional services. Mental health is a very nuanced field in healthcare, and at the time, most HMOs would contract with a company that specialized in that area to handle their members’ needs. The HMOs would pay either as a fee-for-service (which is to say, the carveout would receive a certain amount of money per procedure), or, they would pay a monthly capitation rate (which is a lump sum estimated on the number of lives covered). To make money on a fee-for-service, the carveout simply had to pay the provider of the service less than what they received from the HMO. To make money on capitation, the carveout had to make sure that payments to providers each month were less than what they received from the HMO each month. Of course, the providers had to be contracted with the carveout, so those rates were previously negotiated.  This is a fairly predictable thing, as the carveouts typically only handled professional fees (doctor’s/therapist’s visits), which means they were shielded from those huge-dollar, unpredictable hospital bills.

With all of the problems I saw in the company I worked for, I can honestly say that despite the obvious temptation to shortchange care for a larger profit margin, I never saw them do this. They’d cut corners in every way imaginable, but in the end if someone needed care, they got care. That said, I saw a system that was designed to fail: the Pre-Parity California System.

At that time, all mental health was considered a “specialist” benefit. You know how on the back of your insurance card, you have a lower copay for general office visits and OB/GYN visits, but a higher copay for specialists? Mental health providers fell under that specialist category. If you had schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, or any other mental illness, you had to pay that higher copay whenever you saw your mental health providers. In these more serious instances, that meant you had to pay a copay once a month for your 15-minute medication management session with a psychiatrist, and you had to pay a copay no less than once a week for your 45 minute counseling session with your therapist. With things like severe depression or anxiety, it’s not unheard of to have a therapy session two or three times a week. Keep in mind, if you were on an HMO like our patients were, your doc had to obtain an authorization to see you, and “renew” that authorization every 6 visits (which is why so many providers hate HMOs; on the other side, it does provide a check that can ensure a provider isn’t fraudulently billing or just dicking around in their sessions).

The worst example of this process I’ve seen came from an insurance I’m going to call Acme Health. This is a huge national provider that had and has a presence in California. Their specialist visit copay in 1999 was…get ready for this…$50/visit. Fifty damn dollars. Now here’s the kicker – due to our agreement with the HMO group connected to Acme Health, we were contractually obligated to take that full copay amount from the member. Why is that worth mentioning? Because our medication management reimbursed at $45. So because the patient was using their insurance, they actually paid more out-of-pocket than what we charged for the session. Once a month, for a session that lasted up to 15 minutes, no more. If you did medication management, you almost always had to supplement it with counseling, so add $50 per week to a counseling session with a masters-level therapist, who was reimbursed at $65 per session. So in one month, you, a person who is schizophrenic or severely depressed or what have you, just spent $250 on your mental health on top of what you pay monthly for your premium. Your insurance paid $60. Do you see where this comes across as somewhat immoral and outrageous?

I was working for the company when California passed their own Parity Act. The act stated that any treatment for specific diagnoses (all severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or severe depression) had to be handled the way a general office visit would, meaning members only had to pay their office visit copay and not their specialist copay. Those people who were paying $50 a visit, now only had to pay $10 a visit. Rather than spending $250 a month on their care, they were now only spending $50 a month (plus that premium, of course). Think about that when you hear Big Insurance panic – and they will. They were making a fortune off of the mentally ill in California, and then they were cut off.

The Parity Act killed businesses like the one I worked for – why pay someone to manage something that you are now managing like a regular office visit? We folded in under a year due to the passage of that act. I had no problem with that. When you hear Big Insurance say they can’t stay in business because of this government interference? Just look at Acme Health – they are still in business today, and are one of the largest and most profitable insurance providers not only in California, but in the nation.

The Fabulous Five Observations of the Week, Part 1

Soooo… I really need to write more often and get back on the horse. This week nothing huge happened worthy of its own post, so I’m going to fill you in on 5 micro-postings that happened this week and my observations. If you’re tired of me talking about music, skip to number 2.

1. Support Feels Awesome
So I finally put myself out there and uploaded two tracks I recorded at home. I cannot thank everyone enough for listening, encouraging, sharing, reposting, etc. Look; I know this isn’t going to lead to anything big. I’m an overweight 38 year-old woman making music in my house. I’m not the kind of person a record company straps two whipped cream cans onto to create some infantilized masturbatory product (not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re into that sort of thing?). It’s just that my soul comes alive when I write, and it feels special to share that with the internets. I want to share it with as many people as I can and find people who like This Thing That I Do. So thank you everyone. The biggest surprise is how many compliments I’m getting on my voice. I’m hoping I can keep up this charade that I can sing for a little bit longer! In a week or two, I’ll add two more songs, then I think I’ll wrap it all together as an EP. We’ll see how it goes. I want to bring good, quality stuff to you, and that is quite a challenge on a $0 budget.

Because releasing music also unleashes an inner urge to endlessly and relentlessly force a musician’s crap onto others, I provide you with this link to my Reverbnation page. If you like, please share. If you don’t? That’s okay, I still love you. In short, the more plays I get, the more I move up the chart and the more exposure I get, so if you love it? Don’t be afraid to listen to it often.

2. Big City Life: Mass Transit Wonders and Angry Pedestrians
I’ve been going into the city for seminars and whatnot related to my “Career Transition” (more on that later). As a result, I’m fully taking in mass transit and pedestrian life – something you don’t experience in Arizona. Here is a list of mini observations on this point:
- No matter how nice someone might be outside of their car, Bay Area Drivers are horrible, horrible people. There is so much impatience and law-breaking going on at any given second it is stunning.
- BART mid-day provides me with interesting seat partners. One day going in, despite many open rows, a guy decided to sit down next to me and engage in what I can only describe as a vigorous lotioning routine for the duration of the trip. Another day, I got a contact high from a kid who smelled like he was a 5’8” joint. I seriously hate the smell of weed with a passion – I would take cigarette stank over pot stank any day. Ughhhh.
- You know Shit Just Got Intense when you are walking across a major intersection in the Financial District during rush hour and EVERYONE stops and stares nervously at a pedestrian screaming profanities and punching the hood of a car. I don’t know what led up to that, but I know the guy probably needed a little bubble of space when he got to my side of the street.

3. Please Don’t Ask Me About My Career Transition
I am so freaking tired of this. I’m done defining myself as unemployed, so I’m not going to do that anymore. My onsite seminars are both incredibly useful and deflating. Everyone there is accomplished and amazing and I’m a simpleton. Every time I try looking for a job I get incredibly depressed, so I’m just done talking about all of this. When I find a job, I’ll let you all know, but until then? Let’s talk about anything but what I do or don’t do for a living.

4. OCEAN OCEAN OCEAN
On Friday, I decided to let spontaneity take over and accept my friend Kirsten’s spur-of-the-moment invitation to go into SF and hang out at the ocean. I’m glad I did – it was absolutely beautiful, it was my first trip on MUNI (which went through a bunch of cool neighborhoods), and I felt human again. It was nice to take a one day reprieve from the self-flagellating unemployment process and just enjoy the moment. I can seriously watch and listen to the waves crash in the Pacific for hours on end. I saw the sun turn into a sliver and set over the ocean. Why don’t I allow myself that kind of joy more often?

5. Sonoma is Beautiful
On Saturday, we headed up to wine country for a wedding. It is gorgeous up there – hills upon hills of golden vines, mountains in the distance… just breathtaking. The wedding took place at a vineyard and was absolutely lovely. It felt like the quintessential northern Californian wedding: wine, delicious food, guests from all over the world…it was a great way to end the week. Plus? I got Chris to dance with me to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” We’ve got to head back up there for a tasting tour some time.

The Elephant in the Room: Here’s Where I Unleash My Music

Note: I’m putting the music on top so you don’t have to read and be like, “just get on with it already!” But if you want some info and background, please read below the widget. BTW, the widget started to look chopped off in my browser – if you only see one song, scroll and the second one is there too. I have no idea why it’s doing that…Also?
HELP! GAHH! I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in terms of offering these to download. I would like to start out simply offering to sell these as single downloads for a cheap price – just something to help me offset fees, save up for better gear, etc. I feel really presumptuous asking people to pay, but…I should, right? Should I? I’m new at this and I have no freaking clue what I should be doing. I’m researching things like CDBaby and ReverbNation’s services, and I’m not sure they fit what I’m looking for at this point. So...if any of you have experience with these services and are willing to offer advice, feel free to leave me a comment below or email me (submissions@themenacingkitten.com) Thanks!

 

 

People have told me that they appreciate how vulnerable I’ve been on this blog. I’ve talked to you about my depression, my social anxiety, dealing with my father’s death and my reluctance to let people into my life. I’ve touched on songwriting and music in some of these posts, but until now it’s been the elephant in the room. Talking about most of the things I struggle with never felt all that vulnerable to me. Music? Well, this is a true vulnerability for me. This feels like a release of control, and I’m a little terrified.

Why am I terrified? I talked to Chris about this a while ago: you’d think that people hating my stuff would be the biggest fear. It’s not. Hate is an emotional response, and it means I created something that triggered an intense emotional reaction. A moment of rupture. Art! Um, yay? Seriously though – I know what I’ve created isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m mentally prepared for that. So what is it?

Apathy.

This is something that is in my bones. It has been a part of me since I could barely talk, and it’s the thing that both carried me through hard times and broke me. My biggest fear is to unleash this piece of me and no one cares. Okay – some of you care, because you’re my friends and family. But I mean, what if no one cares? Like, people listen to it and think, “gee that’s nice; soooo…what’s for dinner?” And they never play it again. They leave it behind and it’s meaningless. Again, I expect that to happen to some people, but I am terrified that will happen to all the people. Why? Because I care so much. This stuff is me. What you are seeing here is the ultimate vulnerability.

After Chris bought me my keyboard and my hands found their way to a new song, I wanted to cry. I was so removed from the theory of it all, I wasn’t even sure what key I was writing in, but like I did when I was a little girl, I trusted my ears and the little atrophied hamster in my brain hopped back on a wheel and started running. This note has to go here, that note has to go there where is this melody coming from wordsaredanicnginmyheadand…ta da! Song. It was a shitty song, but it was a start. In time it led to other songs, like these two:

NOWHERE LEFT TO RUN
I just wrote and recorded this on Friday, and I liked it so much it replaced what I originally intended to post. This is an odd one in that the main keyboard riff is a take on something I wrote when I was 14 and appeared in a song I wrote when I was 19. I normally am unable to recycle my stuff, but the riff haunted me a little and begged for a new melody, lyrics and structure. I am really, really happy with the lyrics in this song; despite the serious subject matter at the core of it, they were a shitload of fun to write. I mean, how often can you incorporate Publisher’s Clearinghouse into a song? There’s something special and magic-y about this song (at least to me) and I am excited to share it.

BLACK TO ALABASTER
Yes, I want to be a magician. Here’s my theory for how I could achieve magic:

Well-written song + solid recording + ??? = MAGIC!

I’m working off of mostly old, crappy gear in my house. My mic is roughly 16 years old, I only have GarageBand (which Chris messed around with to keep the integrity of some of the sounds that morphed or disappeared over the years), and I also really suck at mixing things. I have like, zero aptitude for the technical side of music. I see more than five knobs on a soundboard and I turn into Rain Man after he burns toast. But, this song is somehow working for me. Perhaps it’s so new I haven’t had a chance to imagine how it should sound. It’s not perfect. It’s just a simple piano and voice demo and has some clear areas where it could be better, but I’m happy with it. It feels a little magic-y for me.

Anyway, here’s my heart and soul. I hope you like it. I have roughly 20 songs I’m working on right now, so as I get them to an acceptable level and they don’t suck, I’ll be adding more. Thank you for listening and letting me share this with you. Sincerely.

Sorry Everyone, I Suck

Hi everyone,

It’s been too long since I posted, so consider this an update of sorts. Since my last post, I’ve probably written 5 posts I didn’t feel were good enough to publish, so I’m just going to wing this and get something out to you. So, a few of you know that I took part in the world’s longest layoff, which began well over a year ago when I suspected my position would be nixed. The end of last month was my final month at my former company, which was after receiving several extensions. My original end-date was supposed to be December 2012, so it’s been a long road. I can’t really complain; it’s the nature of the business – the bigger company took over our little company, saw redundancy and eliminated all of us. I worked hard up to the end and got a decent severance, so…I guess that’s fine.

Here are 5 random things I’ve observed about the process of being laid off over a period of a year:

1. Brain feels mushy. Not having a career goal for a year is not good for anyone who is goal-oriented.

2. It really sucks laying people off who you’ve known for years, knowing they have families to support and are also damn good at what they do.

3. Spending the last 5 months working remotely as a person marked for layoff is bad for creative writing. While my officemate is awesome (in particular because she’s furry and likes having me around), I feel like an isolated pariah and don’t really have a whole lot to write about at the moment. It’s weird. As part of my severance, I am working with a “career transition” place which has helped me leave my cave and go back into the wild to some degree.

4. Despite having no job this month, I’ve been really active? How did that happen? I’ve done a shit ton of hiking this month (I’m averaging somewhere around 30 miles a week), I’ve been taking lots of online classes…and I’ve been writing a lot of music – more on that in a minute.

Before I move on to the fifth observation, I have to point out that the Old Spice “lizards eating your legs” commercial just came on. That is fantastic. I love that their commercials are so WTF that you have to go back and rewind them because your subconscious is like, “wait…what?” Well played, Old Spice. Well played. Ok…. 5th observation:

5. While my regular writing has suffered, this layoff has been great for my songwriting. I seriously think I’ve written some of my best stuff ever over the past year. It’s different and it’s exciting. I believe in it. Now my ability to record the songs? That’s a different story. I’ve been in a recording hell over the past couple of weeks – my gear is outdated, and every time you put a mic in front of me I suddenly get a stuffy nose, a tickle in my throat, or my neighbors decide to break the concrete in their backyard with a jackhammer. I want to create something magical, and I know it’s in me – I’m struggling to get it out. But I’m determined to publish my songs on here. I have to. Enough of my procrastination and self-doubt. Before the year is out, I want to share at least 4 of my songs with you. So send good recording vibes my way, because I need them. I can’t explain it, but the job loss has made this aspect of my life very, very important.

Anyhoo, that’s what’s going on. I’ll try and post more often, but unfortunately, I can’t guarantee I’ll be awesome. In the meantime, if you want to see what I’m up to in small doses, check me out on various social media:

- I post a LOT on Instagram (@TheMenacingKitten)

- I post sometimes on Twitter, (@MenacingKitten), but 90% of my posts are Instagram posts. If you want to chat, I always respond to tweets, though. There isn’t enough conversation on Twitter, and I love chatting with people.

- I also still have my Facebook Page, which you can like. I’ll try and post a little more often on there to make up for my lack of posting on this site. As with Twitter, if you post on my page, I’ll definitely respond :)

I hope all is well for all of you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support you’ve given me, and I feel kind of like a shit for not posting more often. I really hope you stick around and I can share my music with you.

Take care,

Anne-Marie

Menacing Kitten Services You Part II: The Everyone is Tacky Wedding Edition

Hello, fair felines, to my second edition of The Menacing Kitten Services You. Through the thick storm clouds of writer’s block and moving stress, a beacon of inspiration has cracked through thanks to this lovely article appearing on Jezebel which involves the tackiest people ever to both give and receive a gift. To summarize if you aren’t up for reading the link: a former boss was invited to a wedding and gave the blushing brides a basket of grocery store items. Well, to be specific:

“As a gift, my Girlfriend and I gave [the couple] a wicker box with a hinged lid, filled with food items, most of them PC Black Label, including: tri-color pasta, salsas, Balsamic vinegar and Olive, Gourmet croutons, Panko Breading, Pesto, some baking ingredients, Biscuits from Godiva and a few ‘Fun’ items like Marshmallow Fluff, Sour Patch Kids and Butterscotch sauce.”

Bride #1 requested a receipt from the gift-giver, explaining she was gluten-intolerant. The former boss didn’t have a receipt to give, so Bride #2 told him that a basket of fluff and sourpatch kids isn’t a good gift for a $100-a-plate wedding. Well, to be specific:

“Hey it’s [Bride 1's] wife Laura. I want to thank you for coming to the wedding Friday. I’m not sure if it’s the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding… People give envelopes. I lost out on $200 covering you and your dates plate… And got fluffy whip and sour patch kids in return Just a heads up for the future :)”

They then got into a passive-aggressive war over etiquette, which basically is the same as when the Real Housewives of Botoxville start throwing overpriced tequila and electric plug-in dildos at each other while arguing over who is klassier.

While the bride side of things is pretty abhorrent, both sides present us with teachable moments in the art of wedding gift-giving and gift-receiving. When discussing etiquette, rule number one should always be:

ETIQUETTE IS NOT AN EXPECTATION YOU FORCE ON ANOTHER PERSON, BUT THE STANDARD YOU HOLD YOURSELF TO.

But Anne-Marie, you say, you’re placing an expectation on other people just by posting this very thing. To this I say, YES! But that’s because I’m better than them, as are you, dear reader. We are third party observers and have no personal stake in this matter. This is the internet – an anonymous, unnecessary collective that joins together from across the globe to pass judgement on viral stories with minimal perspective and even less fact-checking. You and I are but two lion heads in a Shame-Voltron.

Plus, I’ve been uninspired to write lately, and this story just tickled my sarcastic side. So this is happening.

Let’s start with the lesser of two evils (in my opinion), the Gift-Giver. Let’s walk through his missteps in this matter, remembering that we are discussing what he has control over – the brides’ missteps will be covered later. We’re spending a little more time on this side because it’s a bit more nuanced:

  • As an attendee, the polite thing to do is to provide (if you can afford it) a gift or gift of services that roughly equals the expected cost of your meal. Even when couples are established, weddings are not cheap. More graceful couples than Bridezilla2 are inviting you to share in their special day at a great expense to themselves; as a friend, consider helping them offset that cost in some way.
  • You know how I placed “if you can afford it” in parentheses above? Don’t let that part go unnoticed. Not everyone can afford a $100+ gift, and a graceful couple usually knows that. If you are a close friend or family member to the couple, it can be assumed that they have at least an inkling of your financial situation. I would argue that it means more to the couple that you are there than that you gave them an expensive gift. If you do fall into this category, I guarantee the graceful couple would be honored to receive something you made or designed, or accept a service you can provide – perhaps you can arrange the flowers, pick people up at the airport for the event, or even housesit for them when they’re on their honeymoon. Here is the fact of the matter – a graceful couple should expect nothing, but that doesn’t mean it’s proper for you to take advantage of them.
  • The food gift basket the gift-giver gave them is a tricky thing; why? Because he states he didn’t know them all that well. That sort of gift takes on a different meaning if you know the couple and you know they love those things; for example, one of my sisters gave me this amazing marriage-themed Penzey Spice Box. I love baking and I love Penzey’s. Plus, the spice box was filled with certain spices and a description of how they represent marital bliss, love, etc. in different cultures. That is a well thought-out gift and an excellent gesture. I loved it so much, I bought one for another couple.
    There is one other problem with the gift-giver’s homemade basket: it doesn’t make any fucking sense. You’ve got tri-color pasta, balsamic vinegar, pesto and olive oil. Italian. Then you’ve got salsas. Mexican. Then croutons and panko crumbs? Okay… “some baking ingredients” – flour? Extract? Huh? Godiva biscuits, and…fluff, Sour Patch Kids and butterscotch sauce. And a card that says “life is delicious.” This is such a random hodgepodge of food with such a lazy cliché attached, Mr. Gift-Giver, that it tells a story of you running down the grocery store aisle an hour before the wedding in panic mode, throwing random crap in your wicker basket that you’re probably re-using from a gift you received along with the original straw that came with it. I’ll bet you the straw was still molded in the shape of a wine bottle and glasses. I probably sound like a bitch on this point, but here’s why – I’m seeing zero sentimental value or thought behind this gift. If there was some real thought, at least tell a story that ties all this shit together – a story that doesn’t involve you sweating in your cheap suit in the Cost Plus parking lot with your trunk open, desperately trying to reshape the straw in the basket while bags of Korean-labeled Lemonheads and Israeli couscous spill everywhere. Effort and thought? That actually would have made this gift A-OK.
  • This takes me to my third suggestion: if you don’t know someone that well and you don’t feel they are worth a thoughtful gift, why are you bothering to go to this wedding?  I’m just throwing that out there.
  • I’d go into the etiquette of their text exchange, but there is just so.much.wrong.happening. I can’t say I disagree with him on a few of his points, but there are a few too many low blows made for me to approve of his handling of the matter.

Now, onto Bridezilla2:

  • So after Rule Number One, which applies to both gift-giver, and gift-receiver, you, dear Bridezilla have a Rule Number Two: NEVER HAVE A WEDDING YOU CANNOT AFFORD BECAUSE YOU SHOULD NEVER INVITE SOMEONE TO MAKE MONEY OFF OF THEM. This ties into Rule Number One. See, a gracious host (which is what you strive to be since this is the grandest event you will likely ever host) wants to share an experience with others. That’s your end-game; not how many envelopes you’ll get at the end of the night. My favorite weddings were the ones that were basically giant celebrations filled with food, drinks and laughter. My least favorite weddings were ones where you can see every corner cut, every mini-quiche counted, and a couple who only interacted with 70% of their guests during the Money Dance. And people – can we please stop with the Money Dance? It is SO FUCKING TACKY. If you really need money, start up a fucking Kickstarter or something so I don’t have to treat you like a freaking stripper on YOUR SPECIAL DAY. It’s ridiculous. Unless you offer a lap dance option. Then it suddenly just turned into a hilarious crazed Hedonistic Awesomefest fully worth the price of admission.
  • Following Your Special Day, when you find out you got a few shitty gifts, do you know what you do? YOU WRITE A THANK YOU NOTE. “Thanks for the Marshmallow Fluff and croutons! We smeared them all over each other and had sexy sex on the basket! I’m so glad it had hinges! Life IS delicious, Pasta Boy!” It’s that simple. Now wait a minute; did you write thank you notes to your other gift-givers? You know, the ones who apparently gave you the dollas that make you holla? I’m guessing you didn’t. Call it a hunch. Sit down and write your damn thank you notes! I know it forces you to open your Precious Wedding Kitty filled with its sweet, sweet cash (and a half-eaten Sour Patch Kid), but it is what you do.
  • A quote from Bridezilla’s message: “Weddings are to make money for your future.” Please read Rule Number Two. No, they’re not. If they were, I would have skipped college and just married myself every couple of years. It definitely would have been a better return on investment than a Music degree with an Art History minor. Another quote: “People haven’t gave gifts since like 50 years ago!” Coincidentally 1963 was the last year grammar books were handed out as gifts.
  • Keeping all of this in mind, do you know what you don’t do? You don’t tell people what to gift you at your wedding, and for God’s sake, you don’t tell someone how cheap they are and proceed to give them an etiquette lesson. Now, the closest thing to telling people what to gift you and having it be acceptable is to set up a couple of bridal registries. If Bridezilla2 did this (I’m assuming they didn’t since it’s not 50 YEARS AGOOO), they probably only put expensive things on there, like I don’t know, Jimmy Choo pillow cases (I don’t know if that’s a thing; probably not). Please don’t do this. If you want to put a few nice items on there, by all means, go ahead; but please, give your guests affordable options as well. And don’t force the registry on people – if they want to go off a registry, they’ll ask you where you’re registered.

There is something I tell people when I talk about my philosophy on weddings: A wedding is just a day, a honeymoon is just a vacation, but a marriage is a lifetime. People spend way too much time, money and drama on the one day. If you’re going to make that level of effort, think of it as a gift you are sharing with others. If you are viewing Your Special Day as a giant G-string for people to stick their hard-earned dollars into, perhaps you need to reevaluate your priorities. And your friendships. Likewise, if your friend is getting married, celebrate it with them. Give them something thoughtful and nice. Like two jars of maraschino cherries. Black Label.

Arrested Development 2013: 3 Things I Loved, 3 Things I Didn’t

WARNING: Minor spoilers in the form of spoiling a couple of punchlines

The most hyped television event of the year didn’t occur on a network or cable station. Netflix, a company that appeared to be going down faster than the Hindenburg two years ago, resurrected themselves through the revival of Arrested Development.  Their new-found approach to viewing television through on-demand original programming is revolutionary and somewhat exciting to watch unfold. While they’ve had original shows prior to Arrested Development such as the popular House of Cards, you can’t help but feel this was the Big Event to show off the New Netflix to the world and test the waters for this uncharted territory in programming. Of course, this uncharted territory is only revolutionary if the show is worth the purchase of a subscription.

So, was it worth it? In my opinion, yes. Due to the scheduling conflicts of cast members, writing around said scheduling conflicts, dealing with a different model of television-viewing, and working with what I’m assuming was a much smaller budget, the long-awaited season of Arrested Development was sure to be a different experience from its network television days. To be certain, the show wasn’t free of problems, but the fans who stuck through all 15 episodes were treated to soon-to-be classic scenes, extremely clever writing, and the luxury of watching a marathon of new episodes at their own pace.  Below are a few of the things I loved about this new season and a few that didn’t quite work for me:

What I Loved:

  1. The Multi-Layered Storyline. After the first couple of episodes, I looked over to Chris and frowned. “I’m not feeling this. At. All.” He shook his head. “Neither am I…” I recalled that the most recent season of Archer started off slow but we wound up loving it as it progressed, expressing my hope that this would too be the case for Arrested Development. I am happy to say it was. By the time they got around to telling Lindsay Bluth’s first story, you began to see a glimpse of the greater story they were weaving. Imagine each episode as a single cartoon cel: as the season progresses, you see one cel layered on top of another until you get to the final episode, where the entire image is complete. The writing is brilliant in that it was a creative way to work around the real-life scheduling conflicts of the actors and use the Netflix on-demand format to its fullest potential. I doubt this layering of stories would have worked on a traditional programming schedule; the episodes seemed designed to be watched back-to-back, where one doesn’t need a long memory to recall a subtle joke or remark in earlier episodes. The storytelling was very ambitious while still clever and funny, so the writers get an A+ for effort.
  2. They Didn’t Overdo the Meta Jokes. Well, not more than Arrested Development typically did in its original run, at least. Let’s face it – Arrested Development works because it’s so meta, but unlike many shows and movies, it’s meta done right. While some of the Ann jokes got a little tired, as a whole, the recurring jokes on the show were used at the right times. There are few things I hate more than excessive meta-writing, and for a show as quotable as Arrested Development it would have been too easy for them to just make this a retread of “greatest hits.” Instead, they ran with a few of the recurring jokes, added onto old jokes (the Fakeblock storyline is a great example – I didn’t see that coming at all), and created a slew of new great moments. My personal favorites all seem to revolve around the Fünkes – whether it was the goose scenes or the cornucopia of Tobias double entendres, they created many moments deserving of a rewatch and a YouTube supercut.
  3. Michael Cera / George-Michael. I want to give serious props to both Michael Cera and the writers for advancing the character of George-Michael while managing to still make him the Charlie Browniest. It’s easy for a character like George-Michael to get lost  in the mix when put next to the grandiosity of Tobias or GOB, but they did a fantastic job of subtly passing the baton from Michael to George-Michael to be the star and the sort-of “straight man” for the season. This had to be done; Michael has to have his family next to him to not come across as a selfish, self-righteous (hilarious) asshole. They did a good job of highlighting this in the first couple of episodes of the new season – it was painful to watch how awful Michael was. Cera jumped back into the role of George-Michael more seamlessly than I would have expected, and did a great job of interpreting him as an adult – who is still a Charlie Brown, despite his mustache and sexual um…awakening? I thoroughly enjoyed his scenes. And? “Make me cry!” “You’re a bad mother!” – huge laugh in our house.

What I Didn’t Love:

  1. Moments of Poor Production. Like I said, this new season wasn’t perfect. Now, I am not a “movie person.” I’m not typically the kind of person who spots the digital watch on the caveman, or sees the cameraman visible in the reflection of someone’s sunglasses. I seldom read the “Goofs” section of imdb, because that’s not my thing and I normally can’t spot the mistakes anyway. That said, there were a few really sloppy aspects to the production that I noticed. Because I don’t look for these things, I feel like if I notice them, they must have been pretty bad. There were some very noticeable continuity mistakes (for example, when Maeby is writing on the whiteboard during the real estate scene), some of the camera tricks they used to hide that the actors weren’t physically in certain scenes together were distracting, and the makeup work was really bad at times. On both Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, the yellow concealer under their eyes was very noticeable. Additionally, I felt like there were moments the camera moved away from something too quickly (especially when the viewer needed to take in a single image or read something) Did this ruin my experience with the show? No. Do I understand they had a tighter budget and the quality would be a little lower? Yes. And I appreciate how many obstacles they had to deal with to film the scenes, however I’m hoping for any future seasons or movies they can get a little more money or have a little more time to clean up these little things.
  2. Seth Rogan as George Bluth Sr. Generally, I was not feeling the flashback scenes of Lucille and George Sr., but I have to tell you: I really, really didn’t care for this casting decision. And I love Seth Rogan (I’m a big Undeclared fan; I pretty much root for anyone who was on that show). I just couldn’t get past thinking, “That’s Seth Rogan in a wig.” Kirsten Wiig did a pretty good Lucille, but it was more of her doing an impression of Jessica Walter’s Lucille than really being Lucille, if that makes sense. I didn’t love this. To be fair, who could be a young George Bluth? I hope they don’t do this for the movie (or any future seasons – I know they didn’t really talk about future seasons, but I’m just throwing it out there. Like The Secret – throw it out into the universe, and it will become so. Right?)
  3. The Lack of the Ensemble. I know there wasn’t much of a way around this, and as fans this was the only way we’d get our Arrested Development, but the show was missing something by not having everyone together. The chemistry between everyone on the show is phenomenal, and not having them share more scenes was removing one element of what makes the show magical. Tying back to my point about the production issues, the camera tricks to make actors appear in the same scenes became distracting, and I feel like some of the scenes would have had a bigger payout if they could have acted off of each other more. Funny enough, I think the Fünke scenes worked so well because the joke is how disconnected they are from each other, so this format worked perfectly into that.

Despite my quibbles, I absolutely enjoyed the season when all was said and done. I can’t wait to see what they have planned next – hopefully we won’t have to wait another 7 years to see it.

What did you think? Add your opinions in the comments below – to those who haven’t seen the new season yet – assume that the comments will contain spoilers.

London Calling: The Religion of Nationalism

For the past week and a half, I’ve been soaking up the sights in London. This is only my second trip overseas, and once again I find myself longing to do this more often. London is an amazing city teeming with excitement, diversity and history (and pubs). As someone who loves art history, it has been a feast for the eyes. I particularly enjoyed exploring both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – these two houses of worship are very different from one another, but have a common thread which runs between them. As I walked through them, I found myself thinking about politics and religion in the U.S., and how the concept behind the Anglican Church influences us today.

My first stop was at Westminster Abbey. While it was built over multiple eras and has a variety of stylings to show for it, the Gothic signatures are the most dominant – flying buttresses, an enormous rose window, and my favorite – stunning, stretch-to-the-sky rib vaults. The nave is particularly breath-taking; I kept looking upward as I walked along it. The abbey is beautiful and at times seems to defy gravity.

Unlike the churches in America or the cathedrals I’ve seen in Italy, there is an unmistakeable secular feel once you are inside of the church. As I later joked to Chris, who couldn’t join me for the excursion, “anybody who’s anybody is buried in Westminster Abbey!” There are so many tombs here, you are practically tripping over tombs to get to more tombs. Images or statues of the crucifix are lost or forgotten when placed next to these often grand monuments to the rich and the powerful. When I think of the history and evolution of the Anglican Church, I find it interesting to see the theme of placing images of royalty in the church where one would expect to find a Biblical figure.

The Lady Chapel, housing the tomb of Elizabeth I (and is also the burial place for her half-sister Mary I) is an area of exceptional beauty, filled with natural light and elaborately carved pendants and fan vaults. According to the Abbey literature, the room is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but the architecture and positioning of the tomb make it clear that Elizabeth I’s tomb is the main focus of the room. I would even make the argument that there was a conscious effort to equate Elizabeth I with the Virgin Mary in this space.

There is a celebration of the humanities at Westminster Abbey as well, with the famed “Poet’s Corner” as well as monuments honoring Purcell and Handel, who were both buried here. It is only when you enter the older portion of the church – the undercroft – where you feel a sense of piety and quiet spiritual reverence through its simplicity.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, its current iteration constructed in 1675-1711 after the prior cathedral burned in the Great Fire, has a different character than Westminster. It’s built in the English Baroque style, with a Romanesque approach to it’s arches and vaulting systems. Aesthetically, it’s a “heavier-looking” building than Westminster and is more of a celebration of massiveness achieved through an open, rounded horizontal design versus the celebration of the vertical displayed in Westminster. It has a far more religious feel to it than Westminster Abbey, with images on the dome telling the story of St. Paul’s life. Again, though, there is a secular feel on the main floor with the statues featured. The religious iconography is out of reach and at times difficult to see (in part because much of it is so high up on the ceiling of the massive dome), but the secular figures are large and at arm’s reach. This isn’t to say it is a primarily secular space – the high altar, chapel and quire are all very traditional in design – it is just more focused on the secular than one would see in the American churches or Italian duomos.

As I walked through St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, I kept thinking about using art as a way to connect leaders and religion. In these two grand spaces, you see a governing body that intertwined itself with religion to encourage people to equate their nationalism with their religiousness and vice versa. The role of St. Peter and subsequent popes are replaced with a nation’s leader and subsequent leaders, in a way that encourages people to believe their leader has the “keys to the kingdom,” that is, the direct line to God. Supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, and supporting your nation is supporting your God. In return, God will bless your nation, which blesses your leaders and by association, you. God Save the King.

When you look at American history, you see a similar trend of equating nationalism with religiousness, particularly when the nation’s ideology is challenged. Consider the phrase “In God We Trust.” It appears in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written during the War of 1812. When we were a nation divided during the Civil War, the Union added “In God We Trust” to coins as a way to indicate God was on the side of the Union. In the 50s, as a response to the anti-religious sentiment of communism at the height of the Cold War, we changed our nation’s motto from “e pluribus unum” to “In God We Trust” and added the phrase to all paper money. Finally, following the September 11 attacks, posters with the phrase “In God We Trust” filled the schools, again suggesting God is on the side of the United States. Once again, supporting your leaders is supporting your nation, supporting your nation is supporting your God. If we all are patriotic enough, God will Bless America. Whether you believe this or not is entirely up to you, but the parallels in history are fascinating (to me, at least).

There is one noticeable difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: when I look at the reverence placed on kings and queens in Westminster Abbey and the similar VIPs buried in St. Paul’s, I notice a certain secularism to the Anglican Church and to England in general that we don’t have in the U.S. The effect in England seems to give the religious areas a more secular feel, whereas in the U.S. the effect gives our secular areas a more religious feel. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m interested in reading the various theories people may have explaining it.

As I come across other notable things while in London, I’ll share them with you – most will likely they be far more fluffy and touristy than this post. I’ve seen many amazing things here and have a few suggestions to those of you who are considering a visit. Until then – cheers!