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dress like the ladies of mad men on a shoestring

Sunday, 25 March 2012

I’m baaaack! And so is Mad Men. Get your mod fashion fix here on the cheap.

I’ve taken a hiatus from updating swim&glitter  to bury myself in grad school tasks (yikes, it has been awhile!), but if there’s one thing that can get me back to posting, it’s what’s happening tonight: the return of Mad Men. After an 18-month hiatus (ouch), AMC will air a special double-episode for the Season 5 premiere of this Emmy-winning show tonight.

If you know me, you know I go totally unhinged for all things Mad Men (and all things sixties in general), and I am so excited about the show’s return that I can’t. Even. Put it. Into. Words!

So I’m going to try to put it into fashion instead. I recently purchased some new Michael Kors eyeglasses that are contemporary (large frames, sleek design), but have a very retro feel, too (cat-eye shape, gold metal detailing along the top), so I’ll have you know I’m pretty much looking like a fashion scientist right now.

I’ve raided my closet to present you with15 affordable, updated looks for 2012 based on the signature styles of my 15 favorite ladies from Mad Men. The average total cost of these head-to-toe looks is about $60, which is pretty good news for all of us penny-pinchers who love mod fashion! (Click on any picture to enlarge.)

1. TRUDY CAMPBELL

She’s: Pete Campbell’s tightly-wound, often-witty, and definitely blue-blooded wife who’s remarkably tolerant of all his crap.

Style: Ok, it’s actually really unfair, but whenever I think of Trudy, I just think of her being super-pregnant in this ridiculous lingerie. Her signature style is young, fashion-forward, and upper-crust, and she does put together a lot of good outfits elsewhere in the show, but when I think Trudy, unfortunately I just think pink. Pink cupcake elephant baby.

Best line ever: “I don’t care what your politics are, this is America! You don’t just shoot the President.” -3.12

Style Update: A long, sky-blue satin nightgown with sexy lace at the top would be a little less ridic, Trudy. Plus, you have nice boobs. Pete doesn’t deserve you, and maybe this will make him realize it.

The Tally: Nightgown: Etsy, $17 + $3 shipping

The Total: $20

2. MEGAN CALVET (now DRAPER?)

She’s: Don’s sugary, horsey, “artistic” French-Canadian secretary-turned-fiancée (as of the last episode of Season 4).

Style: Smart, mod dresses with lots of patterns, though I expect we’ll see her in more separates this season.

Best line ever: (to Sally) “Don’t worry. I fall down all the time.” -4.9

Style Update: A beige button-down blouse and retro-print paper-bag skirt get a very 2012 pop of color with bright yellow ankle boots.

The Tally: Blouse: H&M, $16.99; Skirt: handmade by a friend; Boots: Camden Market thrift stand (London), $40.

The Total: $56.99


3. CARLA  ______ (no really, she has no last name)

She’s: the Drapers’ maid and nanny, until Betty ruthlessly fires her, essentially because she’s jealous of how much Sally and Bobby like her. Poor Carla. I hope she’s back in Season 5. Seriously. They never even gave her a last name. WTF.

Style: Smart and sensible on the job, polished and proper on the weekends.

Best line ever: (to Betty): “You best stop talking now.” -4.13

Style Update: This is what I imagine Carla wearing to church on Sunday in 2012. Fitted and pretty but still classic and modest, it’s perfectly Carla.

The Tally: Dress: Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market, $20; Shoes: Crossroads Trading Company (but they look like Miu Miu!), $16.

The Total: $36.


4. MIDGE DANIELS

She’s: Don’s hot beatnik mistress in the first few episodes (let’s all try to forget that harrowing time she comes back in Season 4 as a heroin junkie and asks Don to buy her paintings for drug money…)

Style: Casual, downtown chic, ahead of its time.

Best lines ever (she gets two because she’s awesome): “You know the rules. I don’t make plans and I don’t make breakfast.” – 1.1 AND “It’s 7:30. I have to go to to that reading. I have to be there to act surprised when Jack Kerouac doesn’t show. Go home. Take a shower. You stink.” – 1.2

Style Update: Vintage cream high-waisted shorts, a true-blue button-down shirt tied at the waist, and a brown cotton sweatshirt with suede elbow patches. Finish the look with oversized round shades and comfy slip-ons.

The Tally: Shorts: Etsy, $26 including shipping; Shirt: J.Crew, $24 (on sale); Sweatshirt: H&M: $9.99; Sunglasses: ASOS, $12, Sneakers: K-Mart, $4 (on sale, truth).

The Total: $75.99


5. BETTY DRAPER (now FRANCIS)

She’s: Don Draper’s ex-wife and mother to Sally, Bobby, and Baby Gene. A a chain-smoking Bryn-Mawr grad, Betty is hopelessly trapped in her social mores and is the frigid queen of all things suburban.

Style: Always on the cutting edge of fashion, Betty has transitioned from poofy, patterned dresses to more mod silhouettes as the seasons have progressed (her fantastic equestrian outfits shouldn’t be overlooked, either). My new favorite look of hers? She’s one of the only women on Mad Men who regularly rocks separates, especially pants (and not just the ones in the family, either).

Best line ever: (to Don, regarding Sally) “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian!” -3.1; “You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.” – 3.8

Style Update: Subtle houndstooth on this black-and-white contrast blouse lends a retro feel, while these high-waisted peg-leg pants come in an of-the-moment electric blue. Finish with patent flats.

The Tally: Blouse: The Gap, $30 (on sale); Trousers: ASOS, $19; Shoes: Banana Republic (found unused at Crossroads Trading Co.), $22

The Total: $71


6. SALLY DRAPER

She’s: Betty’s precocious daughter. I love this kid.

Style: Smart and sophisticated, with lots of plaid, knee-socks, and headbands, and just a little bit of attitude.

Best line ever: (to Don): “Grandpa says you’re going to a thoiréeee…(soirée)” -3.3

Style Update: Ok, so adults might not be able to wear all of these elements (saddle shoes, silk peter-pan blouse, and plaid skirt) at the same time without looking like a real weirdo. Dress your twelve year-old daughter in this whole outfit, or choose one or two elements for yourself and then set them off with more grown-up elements like tights and boots or a t-shirt under a blazer. Finish with simple silver jewelry, like these pieces I have from my family – a baby-spoon ring with an R for my grandma’s name and a delicate silver locket.

The Tally: Blouse: Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market (L.A.), $17; Skirt: Etsy, $22 including shipping, Shoes: Buffalo Exchange, $14

The Total: $53

7. SUZANNE FARRELL 

She’s: Sally’s former homeroom teacher, a staunch idealist, an avid runner, a veritable flower-child, and another woman who has slept with Don Draper.

Style: Hippie-chic dresses with earth-tone patterns.

Best line ever: “When school starts I’m going to read [MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech] to the kids the first day… I think it would be nice for them to hear an adult say it.” -3.9

Style Update: An easy tie-back dress in burnt orange with patchwork and piping. Wear it with leather Huarache sandals, a wooden bangle, and these dangly earrings made from vintage stamps from around the world. (Both pieces of jewelry were gifts from a friend, so I don’t know how much they cost).

The Tally: Dress: Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market (L.A.), $20, Shoes: Etsy, $24 + $5 shipping

The Total: $49

8. JOAN HOLLOWAY (née HARRIS)

She’s: The head secretary at SCDP and general bombshell.

Style: Totally sexy, body-hugging curvaceousness, complemented by large statement pins and her signature key necklace. Joan adapts her style to the times by changing her hair and trying new color combinations, but she largely sticks to a steno-pool style from the fifties that suits her figure.

Best line ever: “Peggy, this isn’t China. There’s no money in virginity” -1.9

Style Update: A flowy little mint-green dress that accommodates the bust and ties several ways at the waist. Wear with simple black heels, a silver watch or bracelet, cameo earrings, and, of course, a large pin.

The Tally: Dress: Thrift store, $19; Shoes: Ross Dress For Less, $14.99, Cameo earrings and pin: Flea Market (D.C.), $8 and $5; Bracelet, gift.

The Total: $46.99


9. FRANCINE HANSON

She’s: Betty’s dull, gossipy neighbor, always one line away from saying something else that’s racist, ignorant, or otherwise totally disturbing.

Style: Francine is always wearing some sad ensemble of “house-clothes.” She does try out patterns and pants, though, and I feel sorry for her because her life is so boring, so I think she deserves a fashion update.

Best line ever: (on finding out her husband is cheating): “I’ll poison him. He’s so stupid, he’d drink anything.” -1.13

Style Update: Oversize shades complement a vintage Christian Dior scarf, the perfect headpiece. Stay comfy in cotton high-waisted tie pants, a cotton top, and grey suede flats. Great for a weekend stroll, a day at the library, or just a time when you want to get really serious about eating a lot of food (these fantastic pants have an elastic waist, every gal’s dream).

The Tally: Blouse: free (from a friend’s closet cleanout); Trousers: Forever 21, $19.50, Sweater: Thrift Store, $8; Shoes: Mossimo for Target, $16; Scarf: Thrift Store, $2; Sunglasses: Topshop, $12

The Total: $57.50


10. RACHEL MENKEN

She’s: The foxy Jewish heiress to Menken’s department store who (briefly) upends some of Don’s misogyny with her business-savvy ways.

Style: Incredibly polished, decadent, close-fitting outfits that do their own advertising for her father’s store.

Best line ever: Don: “I’m sorry, I was -“/ Rachel: “You were expecting me to be a man? My father was, too. ” -1.1

Style Update: A luxe, vintage gold dress in rich floral brocade with a zip-back and a tie at the waist. Bobbie Barrett or Joan Holloway (now Harris) would look pret-ty foxy in this one, too.

The Tally: Dress: Etsy, $55 + $5 shipping, Shoes: Jessica Simpson for KMart, $16, Earrings: Etsy, $8 including shipping.

The Total: $84


11. DR. FAYE MILLER

She’s: The only woman with a PhD on the show, a beautiful, intelligent, curvy blonde who comes to SC as a consultant and seduces Don for much of Season 4. Too bad he takes advantage of her total generosity (she puts her job on the line for him) and cheats on her like a dog, actually proposing to the other woman, Megan, before Faye even knows what’s up. Burn.

Style: Classy-professional with a girly twist. She’s one of the only girls to wear suits (skirt-and-jacket) to work regularly, and she pulls it off like whoaaaaaah.

Best line ever: Faye: “Please, take a cookie.”/ Harry: “What’s it mean if we don’t?”/ Faye: “That you’re a psychopath.” -4.2

Style Update: A cropped blazer in a soft, stretchy fabric is incredibly comfortable. Keep it in place with a sweater clip, and tuck a bright blouse into a twirly black cotton skirt with a beige snakeskin belt. Pair with teal flats for a color-block effect and top it off with sparkly costume earrings!

The Tally: Blazer: The Gap (on sale), $45; Blouse: Thrift Store, $18; Skirt: Sway, $17, Shoes: ASOS, $28, Belt: Target, $12; Sweater Clip and Earrings: Etsy, $6 and $8, including shipping.

The Total: $134


12. PEGGY OLSON

She’s: Don’s former secretary, previously junior copywriter at SC, now the only female full copywriter at SCDP.

Style: A little Pollyanna, but definitely improving. Peggy’s got a new boyfriend, a new job, and a new edge to her by the end of Season 4. She still loves a pussybow on her blouses, though.

Best line ever: “I don’t mind fantasies, but shouldn’t it at least be a female one?” – 3.1

Style Update: A blood-orange dress with black bow detail at the neck worn with a patent-leather belt to cinch the waist. Wear simple vintage jewelry and give it a 2012 update with leopard-print ballet flats.

The Tally: Dress: Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market (L.A.), $15; Belt: J.Crew (on sale): $14.99, Shoes: Pay Less, $16.99, Earrings: Flea Market (D.C.), $8.

The Total: $54.98


13. JOYCE RAMSAY

She’s: A total badass and the only gay character on the show (that we know of) now that Sal’s gone. She is an assistant photo editor at LIFE magazine and a downtown hipster who’s trying to show Peggy what’s what (mostly by bringing her to cool parties and getting her stoned).

Style: Practical and chic, Joyce wears a lot of turtlenecks, black cigarette pants, tweed blazers, and oversize coats.

Best line ever: “It’s like men are – vegetable soup.  You can’t put them on a plate or eat them off the counter.  So women are the pot.  They heat them up.  They hold them.  They contain them.  But who wants to be a pot? …Anyway, I wouldn’t’ve helped Abe out if I didn’t think he was some very interesting soup.” -4.9

Style Update: Tight black skinny jeans and patent flats (the same from the Betty outfit!) get the retro treatment with this warm and woolly colorblock turtleneck sweater. Wear with simple, faded-gold jewelry (the pieces shown here were gifts).

The Tally: Jeans: Ross Dress for Less (Juniors section): $11; Shoes: Banana Republic (found unused at Crossroads Trading Co.), $22; Sweater: J. Crew (on sale), $56

The Total: $89


14. KITTY ROMANO

She’s: Sal Romano’s totally sweet and adorable wife who is, unbeknownst to her, married to a gay man. We probably won’t see her again unless SCDP brings Sal back (unlikely), but she made some super cute fashion choices during her brief run on the show.

Style: Girly and just a little ahead of the others, with dresses that sport bold prints and slimmer skirts.

Best line ever: (to Sal, after an evening of doting on Ken Cosgrove and ignoring her): “A lot of people find me very interesting, you know!” -2.7

Style Update: Ok, so this is the one dress on here that I don’t own. But I want it! This button-front floral number in cotton channels Kitty in all the right ways.

The Tally: Dress: Delia’s, $32 (Yes, Delia’s. It still exists.)

The Total: $32


15. JANE STERLING (née SIEGEL)

She’s: Roger Sterling’s new, much-too-young wife (and former secretary) who tends to write crappy poetry, get wasted at parties, be a general brat and a showoff, and laugh at the wrong times (like when her husband performs “My Old Kentucky Home” in full blackface. Come on, Jane. Facepalm.

Style: Jane is a total betch, but she’s a betch who can colorblock. She was the first in the office to sport the ‘new’ 60s styles, but she hasn’t abandoned ladylike details like pillbox hats and gloves, either.

Best line ever: (to Joan): “What’s wrong with you?… Are you the only one who’s allowed to have fun around here? I don’t need a mother. I’m 20 years old.” -2.7

Style Update: A loose colorblock shirtdress in cream, white, and teal looks great on its own, but cinching it with a brown skinny belt, wearing mustard heels, and adding vintage gold jewelry and a fun amber-colored ring sends this outfit over the top.

The Tally: Dress: ASOS, $27, Belt: Thrift Store, $1; Shoes: Enzo Angiolini (found unused at Buffalo Exchange), $28; Bracelet and Earrings: Melrose & Fairfax Flea Market (L.A.), $10, Ring: Forever 21, $2

The Total: $68



dripping with untold meaning (review: the artist)

Sunday, 26 February 2012
Bejo poses as a silent film starlet in The Artist.

The Artist is clever and charming, even to the point of its own detriment.

Rating: 7.5/10 

I recently saw The Artist with my beau at Rialto Cinemas Cerrito, an eat-in theatre filled with an array of dining chairs, side tables, sofa seats, easy chairs, and low coffee tables stacked in amphitheater fashion. Their deceptively ordinary-looking concession stand in the entry sells all the usual fare, but the Rialto Cerrito also offers bottles of wine and beer on tap (right next to the soda fountain!), and a stack of menus sits on the countertop, from which viewers can order hot meals from the upstairs kitchen. (The waiters then walk through the seat arrangements during the show and deliver your order to you with a very audible “Enjoy your meal!” – a brief but noticeable departure from the regular cinematic experience.)

As we struggled to find a seat, toting our drinks awkwardly around the theatre, I wished we’d come a bit earlier to enjoy the more widely social aspect of the dine-in experience. We found a small table with two higher chairs off to the right side of the screen, settled down, and placed our order number on the table just as the lights dimmed.

The Artist tells the tale of Peppy (yes, you read that correctly) Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring Hollywood actress in the late 1920s whose chance encounter with silent film superstar George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) catapults her into talkies fame, even as George suffers a career crash at the hands of Hollywood’s irreversible transition into sound.

Peppy with George's dog Uggie.
Peppy with George’s dog, Uggie.

The film is mostly well-cast, stocked with actors whose looks really might have gotten them parts back in the day  – after all, standards of beauty do change – making John Goodman all the more delightfully and surprisingly convincing as the punchy director Al Zimmer. But the lovely Bejo (also the wife of director Michael Hazanavicius) is conspicuously gangly, bony-faced, and quirkily nostril-flaring, and since the film hinges on her classic ‘star looks,’ her purely millenial, rather distinctly European beauty (not to mention her anachronistic hand and facial gestures) feels out of both place and time.

The success of the film and the reason for its wide acclaim is plain: it is charming and clever enough to entertain modern audiences despite its silence, and at times, it’s also beautifully, if misleadingly, shot. Hazanavicius seems unable to decide if he’s making a film that looks like it’s from the twenties or one that’s simply about them; certain angles and modes of parallel editing seem to belong to the time of the film, but Hazanavicius uses the close-up more often to comic than to melodramatic effect, and the scenes are short and fast like most movies of today to accommodate this tone.

Most of the jokes in The Artist circle around visual-aural conflicts (we see Peppy’s radio interview but can’t hear it, we watch the dog barking bloody murder), though it is also laden with easy-to-reach ‘Easter eggs’ – embedded details for the viewer to find in the visual background that ‘ironically,’ heavy-handedly tell us that Peppy is ‘A Guardian Angel’  (on a film poster) or that an ‘Emergency’ is waiting in the wings (in an exit sign).

One of the richest moments I experienced watching the film occurred mainly because of the context in which I happened to see it. As The Artist transitions into a sounding world towards its close, George sets his highball glass on his dressing bureau one day (during an otherwise completely quiet scene) and it hits the wooden surface audibly. Because we were in a dine-in cinema, this first intrusion of diegetic sound worked quite stunningly. Many in the audience looked around, checking to see if someone had set a heavy beer glass down near them. Then we looked back up at the screen to see the character’s incredulous face, getting the joke just as he began to test other objects in the room for audible effects.

Most of the film’s cleverness, though, feels just a little too smugly self-satisfied, and even a bit belatedly postmodern. We are supposed to laugh at the sudden intrusion of sound into a world we’ve been asked to believe as always having had sound – just sound the medium of the film hasn’t conveyed to us. By this logic, then, shouldn’t the whole film have transitioned into sound at the moment of the first talkie? And why, after all, should the first popular silent movie in eight decades be set in the time period of silent film, and take as its topic the production and fall of the silent film industry, when it could have been set in 2011, or 1987, or even 1598? Perhaps most strangely, as David Denby points out in The New Yorker, for all the doting on silent cinema this film performs,

… the silent movies we see [with]in The Artist all look like trivial, japish romps… why set one’s ambition’s so low?  [i]

I think the answer is, quite simply, for greater appeal. This is all fine and good, but there are other ways to widen appeal than by taking the easy way out. The trick of The Artist is to cradle its viewers in that sweet and comfortable spot of collapsed history that lies between an ironic, self-satisfied cleverness about the present and a rich, nostalgic indulgence in an imagined past.

Of course, this is precisely what makes it an Oscar favorite for tonight. Hovering between distancing irony and sappy sentimentality, The Artist is just challenging enough to be ‘real cinema,’ but not so avant-garde that it might alienate viewers or make the Academy look like a bunch of snobs (sorry, Tree of Life, but this is the real reason you’re out of the running). If the film were really asking “Can a great silent film that reaches a popular audience be made in 2011?” I’d be thrilled. Instead, it seems to be asking, “Can a silent film about silent films dripping in ironic references to the silent film era garner a profit and then sweep the Oscars?” (No surprise, then, that the unsavory producer and Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein was all over it from the start…)

Though the cast as a whole is solid, Jean Dujardin is the one really talented silent actor in the film, and he might actually deserve the Best Actor Award tonight (I still haven’t seen all of the nominees). His movements are expressive in a manner appropriate to the art, whereas the rest of the actors seem to be engaging in an over-the-top physicality more reminiscent of Broadway (or, indeed, Glee) than silent pictures. But that’s just another potential ‘problem’ that The Artist is ready to melt away with more layers of ‘postmodern’ posturing: of course the other actors aren’t great silent picture actors, because they represent ‘real people’ or actors in talking pictures, once again creating a confusion between the various and meaningless meta-levels of Hazanavicius’ invention.

The final scene.
The film’s final scene.

After a long, drawn-out separation and a few brushes with death for George, Peppy and her man finally end up together. The Artist concludes with a scene of the two filming a dance sequence, suggesting that the Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers formula will act as a solution for George’s failing career and preserve the happiness of their relationship. In the last moments, we finally hear George speak – and it’s in a thick accent! – apparently explaining away the whole richness of the plot, and placing far too much pressure on this clever little joke. (On top of this, 21st-century viewers that we are, we feel perversely robbed not to hear Bejo speak, knowing she would have the exact same ‘problem,’ though she’s been represented to us, just as George has, as an American througout the story.)

Still, it’s a visually rich conclusion to a very enjoyable film, and in its sweet and simple way, like a trifle after dinner, it leaves the viewer satisfied, if only for a moment. Melena Ryzik of The New York Times claims that The Artist and tonight’s ‘ideal’ Oscar host Billy Crystal have something in common because they hit precisely the same range of not-too-biting comedy:

… the Academy Awards are like a communal version of the in-jokes and warm fuzzies you get watching home movies. Those people from The Artist really are on to something.  [ii]

I’ve been wishing for the past few years that something more light and comic, something other than special effects, benevolently racist melodramas, and sob stories about bruised American masculinity (boxers, fighters) would become a real contender for Best Picture. As Kenneth Turan rightly points out in his otherwise too-apologetic review of The Artist for the Los Angeles Times, 

… today’s Oscar voters frequently skirt the parallel danger of disregarding sophisticated and intelligent entertainments, considering them to be not as worthy of the best picture Oscar as more ostentatious, pretentious fare.  [iii]

So maybe I should be gladder that The Artist is gunning for the top tonight. It’s just that as the first blockbuster silent film in eighty years, it had the chance to take real artistic risks, and it seems to have exchanged these opportunities for Oscar nominations. Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about it is that it’s enjoyable, it’s pretty, and it’s inoffensive. And I’ll tell you one thing –  I’d much rather The Artist sweep the awards tonight than The Help (see review).


yes, mr. friess, american women are “preoccupied by sex”

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Birth control is not a proper political or government activity, function or responsibility… it is not our business.  [i]

Does this statement seem to ring of recent headlines? It’s actually President Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking in 1959 (yup), and if you thought the 1950s were shockingly conservative, you should know that even then, Eisenhower’s take made headlines as an example of a conservative’s ‘last stand’ against reproductive freedom.

But here we are more than 50 years later, and it’s all over the news. Again. What’s shocking is not so much that we are “back in the fifties,” as so many commentators would have it, but that right-wingers are culling their so-called ‘values’ from the very darkest, shadowiest places of that era, sugar-coating them, and selling them back to us as viable moral stances for the 21st century. Ignoring all of what was actually inventive, subversive, and progressive about the American 1950s (like pop-art, avant-garde literature, the seeds of Civil Rights movements, and especially the high tax brackets for the rich that made the post-FDR American economy possible), conservatives (I use this deliberately to avoid generalizing about all Republicans) draw instead on the most repressive aspects of Cold War containment culture: racial and sexual bigotry, a call for ‘faith in government surveillance,’ and a blighting fear of change, difference, and all things ‘un-American’… whatever that means. Then they paper over their hateful beliefs with the language of ‘family values,’ harkening back to some shared, invented past that we should all be proud of if we are true Americans.

Not just a multi-millionaire. A misogynist, too!

Last week, Foster Friess, the megamillionaire evangelical Christian who is married to a former beauty queen and is also the biggest backer of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, made his now infamous ‘aspirin’ joke about birth control in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. (It’s sort of comical that birth control crusader Margaret Sanger once said she had dreamed of a contraceptive pill that would be ‘as easy to take as an aspirin.’ Sort of.)  [ii]

Here’s what Mr. Friess had to say in response to Ms. Mitchell inquiring whether Rick Santorum has endangered his chances for election through his ultra-conservative views on women (their service in the military, their access to birth control and abortions, etc.):

Well, I’m – I get such a chuckle when these things come out. Here we have millions of our fellow Americans unemployed, we have Jihadist camps being set up in Central, in, uh, Latin America, which Rick has been warning about, and people seem to be so preoccupied with sex. So I think it says something about our culture — we maybe need a massive therapy session so we can concentrate on what the real issues are. And this contraceptive thing — my gosh, it’s so, it’s such inexpensive — you know, back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.  [iii]

(You can watch the full video here, including Andrea Mitchell’s priceless response: “Excuse me, I’m just trying to catch my breath from that, Mr. Friess, frankly.”)

So, Mr. Friess, why is it that we aren’t focused on the ‘real issues’?

Well, for one plain and simple fact: because sex IS a real issue.

Sex is a real issue when political backers can speak about contraception as a matter of ‘ladies keeping their legs closed’ on national television, only to be forgiven by their presidential candidate because, as Santorum claims, this foul speech was just a sort of quaint, “off-color joke.” (In truth, as Dan Amira of New York Magazine wisely points out, the real joke is on us if we don’t see that Friess’ crude statement is a telling version of Santorum’s actual belief structure.)  [iv]

Sex is a real issue in a country where marriage inequality is shamefully touted as some kind of national moral preservation, and where the federal government continues to deny the LGBT community the same choices and freedoms that all other American citizens enjoy.

Sex is a real issue when the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation considers pulling funding for free mammograms from Planned Parenthood.  [v]

Sex is a real issue when the Blunt Amendment (Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO) threatens to limit working women’s coverage for birth control and treatments for AIDS and some cancers if they stand “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.”  [vi]

The all-male Issa hearing

Sex is a real issue when that same amendment is only addressed publicly by men (at the recent ‘Issa hearing’), and when women are banned from speaking during the hearing with the flimsy excuse that they “submitted their names too late to be included.”

Sex is a real issue when The Washington Post can still run an entire (poorly-written) article on monogamy penned by a man that is filled with unreliable statistics (somewhere between 25% to 75% of people might cheat, folks!), and which masquerades as social progressivism, but which is based solely on

…in-depth interviews with 120 straight and gay undergraduate men in Britain and the United States as well as broader research into monogamy.

That’s right, there were no women (or non-Anglo-Americans) interviewed in an article about mutually monogamous relationships. To top it off, the piece concludes with the argument that ‘liberal-minded’ women should pretty much let men betray them physically and emotionally because, well, that’s just how dudes work, girls. Scientifically speaking.  [vii]

Someone’s letting them leave the house like this!

Sex is a real issue when even some of the Republican Party’s most prominent female leaders perform a frighteningly rigid, sexually stylized form of ‘femininity’ as a means of apologizing for their leadership positions (Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ann Coulter come to mind, though let’s not forget Stepford Wife Callista Gingrich, Mrs. Cindybot McCain, and, while we’re at it, all the wives of male Democrats who do the same thing.)

Sex is a real issue when the GOP’s own female pundits, like Melissa Clouthier, damn young female CPAC attendees for their clothing by using foul, demeaning language that places the conservative burden of sexual control entirely on young women:

I was dismayed to see how many of [the young female attendees] either looked frumpish or like two-bit whores… have women so internalized feminist dogma that they see themselves in only two ways? Butch, men-lite wannabes or 3rd wave sluts who empower themselves by screwing every available horndog man?  [viii]

According to Clothier, women must not tempt men with their bodies, but neither must they appear desexualized or unattractive to men, so it is up to them (and, of course, the male overlords responsible for them), to prevent this through fashion:

…in a business environment where ideas are the priority, a dude thinking about your ta-tas is counter-productive… [S]omeone is allowing these girls out of the house with mini-skirts that reveal too much.  [ix]

Sex is a real issue when a woman’s (Ann Coulter’s) CPAC speech actually includes the following statement about other women:

I think all real females are right-wingers… And I can tell you that based on experience—and my [male] bodyguard will back me up on this—all pretty girls are right-wingers.  [x]

(Oh wait. It gets even better.) She continues,

And I’ll take 69 cents on the dollar, or whatever the current feminist myth is about how much we make, just to never have to pay for dinner. That seems like a fair deal to me.

Sure you’re not revealing too much, Ms. Coulter?

Sex is a real issue because countless women continue to be the victims of verbal, physical, and sexual assault every day, solely because of their biological sex.

Sex is a real issue because women, even those who work full-time outside the home, still perform the lion’s share of unpaid household work and childcare.

Sex is a real issue because women (pace, Ann Coulter) really do earn less money than men for performing the same labor outside of the home.

Sex is a real issue because women are thinking, voting citizens of this country whose bodies should be their own domain.

Are these the ‘good’ Republican women? (at CPAC)

Sex IS a real issue, Mr. Friess. And we should all, no matter what our gender identification, be troubled by the claim that ‘feminism is over’ in a world where all of the above things are happening. It is not enough to dismiss Mr. Friess as ignorant, or to merely term his speech as an ‘off-color joke.’ None of this will make for a better, fairer world.

I think Senator Barbara Boxer got it right when she said of the all-male Issa hearing,

I am amazed that now, in 2012, Republicans would have us go back to the medical dark ages. This dangerous amendment is a broadside attack on health care coverage for all Americans—and it’s an even more egregious attack in the GOP’s War on Women.

Sex is a real issue, and it is part of a conversation about equality that needs to continue for a long time, preferably at the volume of  a shout, rather than a murmer. If you agree, please consider signing Senator Boxer’s petition, “One Million Strong for Women.”

The louder we are, the harder it will be for them to keep pretending that they can’t hear our voices.


almond-spice candy-glass heart cookies

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Cookies that won't disappoint, no matter how you feel about Valentine's Day.

Until recently, my track record with boys on Valentine’s Day was pret-ty bad. In elementary school, the boy who stared at me worshipfully across our desk cluster also cheated off all of my spelling tests. In high school, I managed to be single every time the day rolled around. In college, my otherwise wonderful boyfriend, who had been raised Modern Orthodox Jewish, missed the boat repeatedly (to be fair, he had no exposure to the holiday whatsoever as a child). In my early twenties, I gave my number to a seemingly promising prospect one Valentines’ Day, only to have him kick me out of his house 2 dates later because I wouldn’t sleep with him upon sight of the salmon and creamed spinach he had cooked me. Another boyfriend gave me – wait for it – a single rose and an extra-large bag of Pop Rocks one year, and the next year, when we were on-again-off-again, he left me an extravagant bouquet of flowers. When I went over to his house that evening, thinking we would talk about getting back together, he was pulling into his driveway with another girl in the passenger seat of his car. He asked if we could postpone the ‘getting-back-together talk’ to the next day and then took the other girl into his house. 

This is all true.

My sweet and simple bouquet today.

So last year, when I had maybe the first really great Valentine’s Day ever with a boy, I was pretty surprised. And this one’s off to a wonderful, if low-key start, with the same surprising sir. This morning I received some lovely flowers and an even lovelier card, and although all we have planned is Sherlock Holmes 2 at the drive-in, I think it’s going to be a pretty great night.

In the past, Valentine’s Day has usually been fun because of the women in my life. My mom and grandmothers always send me charming valentines (thanks for the crafty one this year, Mom!), and since none of my girlfriends or I have ever wanted to feel enraged/sorrowful when we’ve been single on Valentine’s Day, we’ve gone out to dance around raging wasted, stayed in to gossip through a movie, or baked delicious treats for one another. In fact, the first time I ever made a(n even less impressive) version of these cookies was with 2 girlfriends and some beers in a ramshackle dorm kitchen on a toaster-sized cookie sheet circa 2003.

Women have been the loves in my life who have loved me through my hearbreaks. That’s why only half of these cookies are for a boy and the other half are for my darling lady-roommate. Pair them with a handmade valentine and your sweetie (whether GF, BF, or BFF) will surely melt… like hard candy into your heart-shaped soul-hole. (Sorry, I just had to.)

This bucket of 101 cookie cutters is a thing that happened.

The answer to both of the burning (pun intended) questions 1) Can you fit two hard candies in each cookie? and 2) Can you bake these on a cookie sheet without parchment paper? is a resounding NO. I had to tinker and finesse different things as I went along, since the dough’s a little hard to work with (but have patience – it’s so delicious in the end!), so I was constantly reworking the experimental recipe to get it sort-of right. Not a bad lesson for a Valentine’s Day, though – after all, isn’t that what love is all about?

Cookies:

• 1 stick softened, unsalted butter

• heaping ¼ c white sugar

• 2 tsp almond extract

• ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice (seriously, it’s the best! Any combination you like of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other such spices will do, though.)

• ½ tsp baking powder

• ¼ tsp salt

• 1 c flour (I know my audience, so I’m using ½ c of almond flour and ½ c of regular flour), plus more for rolling

• one hard candy of your choice for the center of each cookie (you can cut them in half to mix & melt)

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add almond extract, baking powder, spices, salt, and flour. Chill for at least 30 minutes and gently roll out one quarter of the dough at a time on a well-floured surface, cutting dough into large hearts and then cutting smaller hearts out of the centers.

Using a spatula, place the cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and drop one hard candy or two different-colored halves into each center. Bake at 400° for 7-9 minutes, or until just brown at the edges. Cool completely and remove carefully from paper before decorating.

For your own sake...

…throw some parchment under these babies.

Glaze:

•  ½ c confectioner’s sugar

• 1 tsp almond extract

• 2 tsp milk, juice or water

Whisk the confectioner’s sugar, almond extract, and other liquid. Brush over cooled cookies and decorate as desired with red-hots, sprinkles, nut pieces, coconut, or more powdered sugar. Yields about 12 large cookies. Prepare to be wooed.

A handmade valentine sends these sweets over the top.

Variations: 

• Use shortening instead of butter to make this vegan

• Cut out the 2 tsp of liquid in the glaze to make a thicker white icing.

• Try with your favorite sugar cookie or gingerbread recipe!

Sometimes the heart overflows…

...for a lady, for a dude.


the semi-horrible, not-so-great, sort-of bad day that turned out just fine

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Yesterday morning I slept through a few snooze buttons and awoke to find myself jet-lagged and sporting a brand new zit. It was early enough that I did not yet suspect that this was going to be one of those days. Do you remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day?

This is pretty much what was going on.

Of course you do. Well, I’m not pretending to rival Alexander. I didn’t experience the kind of problems that made me want to move to Australia or anything (or, in the Australian version of the book, to Timbuktu). Additionally, Alexander had the excuse of being a child. Whereas I do not.

So I will admit that this was not a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. This was more like a semi-horrible, not-so-great, sort-of bad day, the kind where all the big things are just fine, and even as all the little things go wrong, your 21st-century, internet-meme-conditioned brain tells you that these are “First World Problems,” even as you get even more annoyed thinking about how offensive “First World Problems” is as a meme, and even as all the little things add up and start to drive you pretty nuts.

I guess you could think of it as a kind of Chinese water torture test for your personality. It’s just some drops of water, but waiting for the next drip to drop can make you feel insane. Insanely cranky.

I hate cat memes. Looking at this just makes me hate cat memes.

So. I woke up with my zit and my jet lag. drip. And as I made coffee and realized that my half & half was sour, I watched the ant infestation-celebration that was happening all over our apartment. drip. drop.

These bastards are not messing around. They’re in our kitchen, swarming over the basil and around the sugar. We clean up the food assiduously, but they appear in my bedroom, climbing the quiet cityscape of books on my floor and dodging in and out of the keys of my laptop. We spray them with chemicals, but they show up in the bathroom, scaling the shower door, eating our soaps and singing French love songs to one another. goutte-à-goutte! (oui, ooh la la, “drip-drop” en français!)

There was almost nothing to eat, so a grocery trip was in order. And it’s always a good idea to go grocery shopping when you are ravenously hungry. At the store, I spent too much money (yes, buying things like $5 coconut water out of curiosity, shut up), and then got caught in the rain trying to carry my overloaded, quickly-weakening paper bags outside. drip. (rain)drop.

Picture this. But all over all of my fingers and my palms.

When I got home, I had enough quarters to start half of my laundry, and after realizing that I had lost all my nice hair clips on my recent trip to New York, I pathetically decided to repair some old ones with superglue. This is a pretty sad activity, made sadder by what happened next. I snipped the clogged superglue nozzle and, yes, squirted the contents of the (deceptively small!) tube all over both of my hands. drip-drip. 

Superglue, as advertised, dries instantly. Suddenly I stared down at two stunted, weirdly fetus-like appendages and could only pulse them in futility, since neither hand was free to separate the fingers of the other. My solution was to rage around my house like a tiny, bratty Godzilla.

Ye shall feel my impotent wrath, world.

Did I mention I was on the phone with my lovely boyfriend? I shouted that I was bleeding and dying (I mean, there was a little blood, since the tearing flesh stuck more to the glue than one would hope as I desperately pried my digits apart). I’m also pretty sure I accused him of not taking my crisis or my very sincere feelings about it seriously. drip-drip-drop.

I soaked my fingers in hot soapy water, gently cutting and peeling glue and skin off my leper’s hands with a pair of tweezers and then rubbing the little red sausages raw with lotion (this actually helps, by the way – the greasiness of the lotion after the soap works wonders, in case you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. I hope you do not.) After going to retrieve my laundry, which had not fully dried and had been thrown aside in a damp pile by some unknown hellion, I hung my sheets on the building’s interior banister (it was still raining outside), returned to my desk, and only then realized I had spilled superglue on that as well. drip. Scrubbing away at it, I destroyed the varnish around the spot without removing any of the glue. drop.

“I AM IN THE WORST MOOD! I FEEL HORRIBLE!” I shouted into the phone.

“Yes, I see,” said my calm counterpart. “Do you want to stop feeling horrible? Let’s go out. I’ll come get you.” This seemed potentially more agreeable than my solitary state of misery, so with much harumphing (using the technical term here), I deigned to come along. I started by taking a nice shower. I realized when it was over that my towel was out with the wet laundry. Rather literal drip-drip.

Sequins have more fun.

I put on a sequiny dress to effect higher spirits and rushed out the door in high heels, only to step into the dark stairway of my building, trip, fall face forward on my hands and knees, and slide down 4 or 5 stairs to the landing. drop-drop.

But you know what? Soon I was outside, dashing through big, splashy drops of rain to a warm car where someone waited who wanted to laugh with me (at me?) about it, and my stockings hadn’t even ripped. And that’s how this semi-horrible, not-so-great, sort-of bad day turned out just fine.

I think the more irascible among us have to be reminded sometimes that that all the little drips hardly add up to anything, and that we’re the ones standing in our own way. Maybe we just have to put on our most sequiny dress and let someone who really loves us take us out on the town to for a few drinks and a good laugh at ourselves.

Alexander’s mom tells him at the end of the book that everybody has bad days, even in Australia (or Timbuktu). And who knows? Having your fingerprints removed violently by superglue may not be the worst thing. I could become a spy. I could think of it as a fancy spa treatment. I could probably steal a copy of Alexander from the bookstore and they wouldn’t even be able to pin it on me with my prints.

So there.

Life is pretty good.
And at least I’m not this guy. His friends are serious a-holes with superglue.

the baby & the bourbon cake

Monday, 30 January 2012

Recently, I have become more fanatical about both babies and bourbon. Before you protest that these two things don’t really go together, hear me out.

Bulleit and chocolate: the real heroes.

I’ve always enjoyed a mixed (read: lamely diluted) whiskey cocktail of a winter’s night and had the habit of smelling the sweet heads of other people’s babies in elevators, but I’ve thought of the serious taste for either as a rather adult acquisition. Well, recently, my biological and bourbon clocks seem to have started ticking, and I’ve begun to like them both straight up. For common sense’s sake, I’ll wait awhile on the baby, but the bourbon is floating me right through grad school, and I have just the cake to prove it.

A very dear old friend of mine just had a baby this Christmas. A BABY, FOLKS. (To make it stranger, she is a personal trainer, so she in no way looks like she’s had a baby. Very mysterious.) I have known this girl, who is a year older than I am, my whole life. Our mothers met in a grocery store when her older sister and my older brother were in diapers. Long story short, we shared a childhood’s worth of Halloween parties, craft-themed sleepovers, and long afternoons of humiliation at the hands of our siblings, who orchestrated such games as “Nuns & Rockstars” at our expense (a story for another post, probably), entrenching us in a common little-sisterdom. My boyfriend Jeff and I drove down for dinner on Saturday night, dessert and wine in hand, to meet the little one.

And put it in the oven for baby and me.

And she is beautiful. Watching someone you knew as a child have a child is pretty incredible. Overnight, my friend and her husband have magically acquired the graceful, loving ease of parents.

Good thing I had her delicious crab cakes to stuff in my mouth at the dinner table (I’ll have to steal and reveal that recipe sometime), since I felt like tearing up at the dinner table just talking about their “little Roo,” as they call her. Okay, so I actually teared up. Then I broke out the pint-sized chocolate bourbon cakes I had brought and insisted on holding the sweet baby all the way through dessert. To her credit, the kid was very cool about the whole thing. As Jeff pointed out, only with babies is it considered a compliment to your personality if you can put them to sleep just by talking at them, which is something I unfortunately do quite a lot.

Here’s the recipe, originally for a chocolate-and-whiskey bundt cake from the New York Times, that I have tweaked both in size and savor. Bourbon, I think, is pretty much the king of whiskies (whiskeys?), and not just because it’s American. KIDDING. Kidding. Anyway, since the boys at this dinner party were from KY and TN, I think they, at least, would agree. I used Bulleit; it has a firm but mellow flavor on its own that complements the chocolate very well and, let’s face it, it’s affordable (thank you Trader Joe’s, for offering this nectar at $17.85 for 750 ml, in other words, a wine-bottle’s worth of bourbon for under 20 bucks).

This ‘half-recipe’ will make about 10 individual ramekin cakes or jumbo-cupcake-sized cakes (I made 6 baby cakes and a mini loaf-pan). The texture is actually pretty light and fluffy – it’s not like these are soggy booze bombs or anything – but they are fairly rich, so this makes a good portion size, and you won’t be stuck with seemingly self-multiplying amounts of leftovers. (You can also bake this in a regular loaf pan or double the recipe for a larger party by using a bundt mold, a round cakepan, or 2 loaf pans.)

Yes, please.

Recipe:

  • a heaping ½ cup (5 oz) unsweetened baking chocolate or bittersweet chocolate pieces
  • 2 T espresso, coffee grounds, or instant espresso powder (I like the grit of real coffee, and you can even use this morning’s wet grinds. Frugality, people. Laziness.)
  • 1 heaping T unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 stick (½ cup) softened, unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (a bit less if your chocolate is sweetened)
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup bourbon (plus another ¼ cup or so for brushing)
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 T vanilla extract (Trader Joe’s also has a Bourbon Vanilla extract that works well with this recipe. But be warned: they card you for it. Not kidding.)
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice mix
  • 1 scant cup all-purpose flour
  • a few tsp confectioner’s sugar for dusting
  • candied pecans for garnish in winter, or about 2 cups fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries in summer (or in California)
All ready to go.

Preheat oven to 325°. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a small saucepan, stirring occasionally and being careful not to burn, and set it aside to cool. Draw (or boil) ½ cup of very hot water and pour it over the cocoa powder and coffee grinds in a small heat-proof bowl or glass measuring cup. Add the whiskey, salt, and vanilla and set aside.

Use a mixer to beat the butter until fluffy (or take this as an opportunity to get your stress out on that butter with a whisk). Add the sugar and beat again until well-combined. From here on out, you can mix well by hand or continue to use the mixer on a low setting. Just don’t overbeat – it will make the cake too fluffy and dumb down the flavors.

Mix in the eggs one at a time, followed by the chocolate, spices, and baking soda, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go. Mix in 1/3 of the liquid, 1/2 the flour, 1/3 of the liquid, 1/2 the flour, and then the final 1/3 of the liquid.

Scrape into greased-and-floured ramekins or jumbo cupcake holders, placing on a cookie sheet for ease if you prefer. Bake until cooked through, or when a toothpick comes out clean. I actually like this cake slightly underdone in the center – it keeps it moist and fragrantly boozy – oh yes. (The baking will take more like 50-60 minutes if you have made a double recipe in a bundt or round pan or this recipe in a loaf pan).

Cool the cakes for 15 minutes or so, and then remove them from the pan and brush them generously with the 1/4 cup of bourbon, using more if you need to (obviously). When they cool completely, sprinkle them with confectioner’s sugar and top with a candied pecan or serve with fresh berries, depending on the season.

The mini loaf pan I "drank half of" the next night.

Variations: For a nuttier flavor in winter, use ½ cup ground pecans and ½ cup regular flour, or for you gluten freebies, use a whole cup of nut flour and add an egg for fluffiness.

Bonus: This cake tastes even better on the second day. Throw 2 (tiny) dinner parties! Or have a morally filthy breakfast. Hey, you can add some Bulleit to your coffee and make it happen. Me? I brought the extra to another friend’s house the next night and we ate it after a bottle of wine, at which point I asked her “why I drank half the cake and she only had one piece.” If that doesn’t inspire you to make this cake right now, you’re crazy.

the common blues

Saturday, 28 January 2012

As a PhD student in English, I’m a writer by profession. (Only, of course, if 5-7 years spent crossing your fingers that you’ll end up with a real job someday while you read theoretical essays, grade undergraduate essays, and slave over your own essays in a patchy caffeine-and-bourbon-engendered haze can leniently be referred to as ‘a profession.’)

Nonetheless, I spend my days engaged with words – on the page, on the screen, in discussions – and I can feel the way that following them changes me, my paths of thinking, and my sense of humor, although they don’t always make it onto a page or even stick around in my memory. Too often, in fact, they flit away soon after they alight. 

There are many kinds of writing, of course. I’m also a writer of lists, schedules, and recipes, a dabbler in poetry and fiction, a former devotee of the humiliating diary of teen angst, and an avid letter-writer, not to mention my throwaway creations in the forms of photo captions, emails, status updates, and texts. But while I’ve catalogued many species of my formal writing, I would like  to begin collecting and observing, pressing and preserving, other lovely specimens from life, to keep, to turn over, and to share (and to you in the back questioning my metaphor, YES, even if it means chloroforming them and pinning them into a frame and then hanging them up somewhere really creepy, like over the toilet).

My favorite novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, was also a great lepidopterist. He contributed much to the study of butterflies, including the Common Blues, or Polyomatus icarus, pictured here. In his devotion to perception and expression in both nature and fiction, Nabokov had something in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson, I think, who reminds us of the importance of renewing our vision in his essay ‘Experience’:

Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

I hope this will be a place to pin some words and thoughts down before they fly away, and to preserve and renew perceptions, whether they are magnificent reads or only the common blues. As the Romans said, “verba volant, scripta manent“; that is, “words fly, writing remains.”

P.S. Many thanks to my friend Melissa, whose own wild and wonderful blog inspired me to start mine. Check it out by clicking “How to Be a Wife from 2,568 Miles Away” in my blogroll.