Saturday, January 30, 2010

My first Work in Progress: COMPLETED!

Let it be known that at 10:10 pm, January 30th, Crystal completed her first first manuscript, entitled "In the Hall of the Mountain King," a literary fiction novel about an ex-Nazi doctor who flees to Buenos Aires after WWII to start a new life as a cab driver under an assumed identity.

She can't come to the computer right now because she's overwhelmed with excitement and yes, she realizes it's annoying to talk about herself in the third person, but feels she's earned it now that's she's finished an entire. bloody. manuscript. (!!!) (Finishing said manuscript also entitles her to use such British dialect as "bloody" in lieu of something more crass and unrefined. She is a lady, after all.)

It's true that the clouds didn't part and God didn't speak to her in the psychedelic trip she expected upon typing that final word. But she's still frolicking about in the snow right now, basically pulling these moves in a parka on the sidewalk to share her elation with passing traffic:

J has no comment.

Of course, she realizes that the easy part is behind her. Now the REAL work begins. John Irving once said that half of his life was an act of revision. She says let the revisions begin!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I just don't think we...mesh well

(In slow motion): "You're ... you're crazy man. I like you, but ... you're craaaazzzzy."

Remember that part-time teaching gig I applied to back in December but couldn't interview for because I was still out in CA? Welp, I got a call from them last week needing to fill a last minute supervisor position for the semester. w00t! After an alarmingly informal interview over coffee, you're lookin' at the newest part-time district coordinator for a private academic company. P.S.: My director said she chose my application over others because she saw I had quit my last job to try my hand at writing novels. This intrigued her. (Take note, it's funny how these things work out.)

Anyway, first day on the job was today and I had to play pinch-hitter for a teacher who needed to head out of town on a family emergency. Even though teaching isn't in my job requirements (it's times like these when I have upper-management written all over me) I accepted the last-minute task...and found out on my very first day that kids are really not my forte. Don't get me wrong, they were all well-behaved and all past that point where they poo themselves for fun (we're talking 6th grade+ here), but I am just completely out of my element when it comes to kids. Think Will Farrell in the pool party scene in Old School -- just without a dart in my neck and any of the slow-motion yelling.

What's striking about this realization is that I never, well, realized it until today. Growing up with a younger brother and sister who were no more than four years younger than me made it okay for us to all be kids together (hello breaking-my-arm-in-elementary-school-by-showing-them-how-to-swandive-off-the-top-rungs-of-a-bunkbed). And the only other time I had exposure to the under-14 set was in high school when my girlfriends and I volunteered to be bunk leaders for a 6th grade outdoor camp (more for the "Yay we get to take a week off school!" factor than the "Yay...we get to hang out with a bunch of whiny 6th graders..." bit). It was at that outdoor camp where I was deemed the "coolest bunk leader" of all since I snuck pillowcases full of candy in to feed my girls late at night (a no-no), stayed up after lights out (another no-no) talking about boys and music with them, and started the one and only food fight (epic no-no) on the last day in the cafeteria, blaming that flying carrot that started it all on my arch nemesis and neighboring bunk leader, Kari. (Hey, I watched enough Salute You Shorts growing up to know that there has to be at least one token food fight. I mean...c'mon.)

Such was the way I expected it to be today, just without all the food fights and candy. But it was even more anti-climactic than I thought and it made me question whether I had issues of my own. Like when I first met the kids I automatically spoke very slowly and loudly, as though they were both mentally challenged and deaf (neither of which they were). This did not start things off on the foot I had planned, as they probably wondered what was wrong with me. I kept silently reminding myself that they were just normal kids, not mentally disabled, illiterate mutes, but it didn't matter. I kept talking slowly. Kept talking loudly. My mind was yelling at me to stop but my mouth did otherwise.

When they had questions, I gave them explanations. When the explanations didn't make sense to them I wanted to stab myself in the eye with the nearest #2 pencil. And I get it -- they can't be expected to know everything (hence why they are being tutored for Christ's sake), so what did I expect? That they had been briefed in all levels of math up to Calculus, could analyze Nietzsche and engage in a spirited and coherent health-care debate? Of course not, they're only kids. So I would re-explain things slowly. Loudly. In my head I was smacking my head continually on a pretend desk, asking myself "Who the hell are you?"

After the excruciating hour was over, I got home and asked J: "Do you think I'm bad with kids?"

He said no, but now I'm beginning to wonder. I felt like that maternal instinct in me as a woman was missing. Instead I felt like an awkward zookeeper caring for a bunch of baby chimpanzees -- they're cute and all but I found myself asking "what am I doing here?" as I went over long-hand division with them. All this makes me wonder if I'm missing that motherly gene entirely, which scares me because J and I do want kids eventually. Maybe it makes a world of difference when they're your kids and not someone else's? Is this just what people in denial say?

Ugh anyway, this is by no means a start to a new career. J and I need some extra cash these next few months and this was just a way to make a bunch of money (32 bones per hour -- which is more than I made at my desk job -- plus compensation for all travel time) while maintaining a highly flexible schedule with no set hours (I can supervise as much or as little as I want). This was the biggest perk since it definitely allows me to keep writing as my number 1 priority.

Anyway I'm overseeing (read: overseeing, not teaching) eight after-school programs and hopefully won't have to fill in for any other teachers anytime soon. If I do, next time I may come armed with candy. And a dart in my neck.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Keeping the Feast: Book review and giveaway

Although set in the lush countryside and antiquated cityscapes of Italy, where happily-ever-afters are are as common as cappuccinos, Paula Butturini's memoir Keeping the Feast is not a love story.

Instead it's a story about what happens after the honeymoon phase of a marriage, when tragedy strikes and wedding vows – to love and to cherish, till death do us part -- are put to the test. It's a story about how a wife copes with the metaphorical “death” of her husband after he falls into a maelstrom of clinical depression, and how instead of giving up and leaving him to flounder alone, she finds strength and sanity through food and the preparation of meals. It's a story about survival through the darkest moments in a marriage and, in the end, it's a story about emerging from the darkness into light, hand in hand with your loved one.

In this Mediterranean country, where food is seen as a birthright and hearty meals are a defining staple in daily life, Butturini falls in love with fellow journalist John Tagliabue while both are working as foreign correspondents in Rome. After a whirlwind marriage John soon gets wounded by gunfire while on a separate assignment in Romania and the ensuing surgeries and treatments send him into a spiral of depression so deep he becomes a living ghost, a shadow of his former self. In Keeping the Feast, Butturini chronicles the loneliness she feels when she thinks she's lost John permanently to the depression, her memories rooted in family and food from her childhood in New Jersey, and her process of overcoming adversity and finally healing through cooking and (as cheesy as it sounds) love.

Italy has always held a special place in my heart. The country was a favorite destination of my family's during our European trips; when I was older and in college I studied abroad in Florence. And when J and I planned our wedding I wanted to make the day extra memorable so we booked tickets for our closest family members, rented a villa and had a Tuscan wedding that I still smile about nearly three years later. I can see, firsthand, how Italy would be the perfect backdrop for healing an individual and a marriage. Though I felt the ending of the book fell a little flat, it's worth a read if you're a foodie who enjoys salivating over vivid descriptions of Italian settings and gourmet cuisine. And even if food isn't your thing, we've all come to that crossroads in a relationship when we ask ourselves whether sticking it out through the bad times is worth it.

In Keeping the Feast it was. All you need is hope and a little bruschetta.

I'm giving away one free copy of Keeping the Feast for anyone who's interested!

How to Enter:

1.) Only US and Canadian residents can enter. Sorry international amigos, maybe next time.

2.) This giveaway is only open to readers of Brunette on a Budget, so you must be a follower of my random musings in some capacity or another (feed subscriber, a follower in the right-hand column of my blog through Google FriendConnect, etc.)

3.) Leave a comment below.

4.) Contest ends in one week, Thursday, January 28 at 12pm EST.

Once I get all the entries I'll choose the winner at random using a number generator. Good luck!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Home again, naturally

Oh Washington DC, so we meet again. This last month went by faster than I expected (especially with all the drama near the beginning, including Moxie and her unconscious bowel movements), but we survived and had a great time. Some high points included:

Visiting Pleasure Point (above) every morning and sometimes at sunset. No this isn't some secluded cliff where high schoolers go to make out in parked cars, it's a favorite local spot that bodes well for enjoying takeout nachos. I miss it already.

Though Avatar was not a high point, wearing the gauche 3D glasses was. They were very Brad Goranski from The Rachel Zoe Project, which was fine with me.

New Year's Eve, though spent without J, was still fun. I loved seeing my whole family together again and, of course, always look forward to spending quality time with my brother and sister (above).

Descriptions of the MIL's place only go so far, so I waited till she was out "peeping the pots" (what she calls taking Lola out for a bathroom break) so I could snap a few pictures of the surroundings:

World ... meet the maraca gourd painted to look like a duck.

The backyard labyrinth.

The MIL's work area.

The bathroom faucet I brushed my teeth at every morning and night. I admit that nude drawing threw me for a loop in the beginning but it began growing on me as time went on. Love & gratitude?

Oh and for anyone interested in her special female coloring book I mentioned a couple posts ago, I found out you can by it here. With these drawings you should have no problem coloring within the, uh, lines. Moving on...

The next time I'll be jetting off driving to sunnier skies will be the end of May when J graduates. After graduation J and I plan to pack Lola, a tent and a 5-gallon polyurethane shower bag into our little Hyundai to drive cross-country for about two weeks, camping in national parks like Badlands and Yellowstone along the way. (For being such an urban dweller I cannot wait to embark on such an Easy Rider adventure. Squeeee!)

In the meantime reality calls, and reality is expensive.

The 12-month lease on our apartment is up at the beginning of February; signing on for four more months (to carry us till J graduates and we ship out) would bump our rent up to about $1,700, not including utilities. Highway robbery, I say, for a one-bedroom apartment a mile away from the nearest metro stop. So we found a studio up in Silver Spring, Maryland for only $1,000/month and (*breathes heavily into paper bag*) we're canceling our cable TV for our remaining 4 months on the east coast. I can find most of my shows for free online, but Tony Bourdain -- I will have to buy you on iTunes. A sacrifice I'm willing to make. But only for you.

Anyway I haven't started packing yet and have only two weeks to be out of here. Though stressed I'm thankful that by moving (even for such a short time) we'll be able to save about $600 per month. I tend to hang on to everything -- from empty shoe boxes to unread pamphlets -- so filtering out the trash, packing up and cleaning will take up the rest of my month. Joy.

On a final note I got to meet the lovely Carolyn from Hang on Little Tomato for the first time on Saturday morning.

She shut it down in this leopard coat. I die. And I want one.

Carolyn is a fashionable attorney from Austin who I met through blogging and we couldn't be more alike. Reading her blog I was convinced we'd mesh and I was right. From our obsessive natures (e.g., listening to one song on repeat for weeks) to our love of the Kardashian sisters and online makeup tutorials, it felt like I was hanging out with an old friend. I hope I get to meet others soon!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How complicated is too complicated?

"Let's make whoopie."

The other night us Mahayana riders took a break from the Zen Den for a special occasion. J's brother (since we've all been introduced to him already, let's just call him Burt for brevity's sake) invited J, the MIL and I over to his girlfriend's parents' house. Let's call Burt's girlfriend ... Clothilde.

Now I don't know Clothilde all that well but I've liked what I've gathered from speaking with her in a social setting. Even when she and Burt surprised us with 3-D Avatar tickets and that social setting was a movie theater in Santa Clara that I was dragged to by an overeager J who salivates at the thought of naked blue women loves alien movies, which basically sabotaged my plan to never see the damn movie. (I love a good sci-fi movie, but this? Just, no.) Yes, when I realized about 10 minutes in that I was essentially watching a rehashing of the Spanish conquest of the Incas, and then about halfway through it got hot and sticky in the theater and I leaned over and whispered to J: "It reeks of B.O. in here, all the geeks must be getting nervous" and quite possibly aroused, I forgot to add, because it was a sex scene after all, with naked blue people that like plugging their hair into nature and probably each other. Yes, even through that I smiled and gritted my teeth below my 3-D specs at Burt and Clothilde in the dark and thought "Look at them, holding hands all coyly. Pretending it doesn't smell like a warm fistful of wet pennies in here. It's sweet. She's sweet. Why hasn't he proposed to her yet?"

I asked this same question two nights ago when I found myself, a Corona in hand, sitting in Clothilde's parents' house, a McMansion of sorts in the hills of Santa Cruz. The kind of house tucked near the end of a windy intestinal tract of backroads that make the property cheap enough to build on for the nouveau riche but too difficult a trek for Google executives or the like looking for a convenient summer home. Nevertheless Clothilde's parents had a beautiful partial view of Monterey Bay through the giant arched window in their kitchen that housed a six-burner viking stove that would have made Gian Carlos or Giada or whatever her name is on Food Network jealous.

As I pondered the massive thing Clothilde's father -- a salty old dog of a man with the crass good nature of a grizzled Vietnam vet -- clomped into the kitchen in his shitkickers and asked if I wanted anything else to drink, pointing at my empty Corona bottle.

"Sure," I said. Pointing to his glass of what looked like diluted blood slash cherry cough syrup, I had to ask. "What are you having?"

"Wine," he exclaimed. "I've got this or Pee-not Greeee-gee-o." I had to admit, the mountain man slash biker accent was growing on me.

"I'll take the Pinot," I said, smiling at his glass of what I was convinced was cosmo mix.

After he poured me a glass of wine we stepped out onto the back patio, he clomping in those amazing shitkickers behind me, the two of us taking our seats in a large circle that included both our families.

I soon found out that Clothilde's father was in construction and Clothilde's mother worked as an admin clerk of sorts down at the county courthouse; the land that housed that giant viking stove was given to Clothilde's father by his parents for free. Clothilde herself, turning a ripe 24 this year, just finished grad school and was currently taking her certification tests to be a teacher. For what Burt wanted, it all sounded perfect. He fit in seamlessly with Clothilde's family; they loved him. We all seemed to get a long with them (well, as much as a spiritual hippie, her conservative son and his deranged writer wife could), and it dawned on me: This wasn't just any dinner. This was the pre-proposal dinner. Right? If it wasn't then this fragile, delusional heart can't take this kind of anticipation.

And here's why: It's no secret that Burt wants a family. He'll be 30 this year and it's not like he's scared of the whole marriage establishment -- he proposed to his last girlfriend, who I should add was no walk in the park, as most recovering drug addicts slash basketcases generally are. But Burt stayed with his ex for years, even moving in together and enduring the years of emotional abuse she put him through, until it finally culminated in a breakup right around the time J and I got married and Burt saw just how dysfunctional his relationship was compared to ours.

So my question is, what is he waiting for? Clothilde is head over heels for him. So are her parents and her dad's shitkickers. And my good ol' MIL loves Clothilde (though she has yet to introduce her to the Tantric Sex manual I've been handed to read, so obvi I'm still her #1 daughter-in-law). Everyone wants it to happen, but when I corner Burt about it he says he's got to finish school (he wants to be an architect), save up money, blah blah blah. Excuses. All of them. None of this stopped him from proposing before. So why all the fear?

Now I know it's none of my business but life is too short to tread with such trepidation. Sometimes you need to be brave and follow your gut, especially if you're one of those types who thinks "this can't be right -- it's too easy." Listen, contrary to popular belief not everything that makes you happy has to be hard or mired in layers of complication. Some things really can come easily. I feel like we're taught in our early years to expect the opposite sex to play games, that we ourselves have to play these games to "win" and luck out with the right person. But do we really? Or are we, by and large, just buying into the bs? In trying to "win" have we already lost?

Relationships take work, but the point is they shouldn't feel like work 24/7. And some just come easier than others. But all this raises the question: How complicated is too complicated?

Many relationships start off easy enough, but when the gloves come off, when you really get to know the other person -- morning breath, manipulative tendencies and all -- when does it start to get over-complicated? And when do you lose sight of yourself and what you wanted because you're trying to make up for the other persons' inherent flaws that are all just neon warning signs pointing to incompatibility? It's important to be aware of when something is working versus when it isn't (as in most things in life), but it's hard to do when you've got issues like loneliness and age looming in the shadows of your insecurities. And these were all Burt's problems before with his ex. The over-complications, the excuses for her poor, abusive behavior, the fact that it was easier just staying with her than breaking up a 4-year+ relationship and being alone again.

But life with Clothilde is different. J says he is the happiest he's ever seen him. I can sense how fulfilled he feels. Now all that's holding him back is hesitation, fear, that things feel too easy. They'll be celebrating their 2-year anniversary this year. For the love of God, just get married already I want to yell, shaking Burt around by his neck like a rabid chicken.

Maybe I'm just getting used to smelling like a patchouli-scented wood sprite, or maybe it was watching How to Strip for your Man the other night with the MIL when I realized people tend to over-complicate life, tend to spend so many days and years stuffing life into their little box of expectations and standards. And of course every expectation and standard and goal can't possibly be met so malaise sets in that your life isn't perfect because of A, B or C. I'm guilty of doing this, and I know others are too.

But maybe it's time to stop the comparisons and stop the hyper expectations. There is no perfect woman, or perfect man, or perfect job or perfect life. It's about finding what's perfect for you, and for some -- like Burt in this instance -- what's perfect for him (Clothilde) came minus all the heartache and complications he was used to in a relationship.

Don't expect that the path to every single dream has to be fraught with peril or games or heartache. It's true that failure -- in any endeavor in life -- is always lurking around a corner, but it's liberating to live without fear of failure, even better to reach out and shake its hand, since that means you actually gave your endeavor a try instead of just dreaming slash talking about it. If we embrace life for what it's all about (love, death, some successes, some failures) instead of constantly forcing it to be exactly what we want or expect, I think we'd be happier. It'd be easier to ride the ebbs and flows.

So Burt, I know you don't read this blog at all, and would most likely be embarrassed by my stream of consciousness about your love life, but bite the bullet already. Plug your hair in to hers or whatever you have to do and make it work. All happiness does not come with hardship.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Put the Viagra down...use goldenrod oil instead

Day 13 of living in cramped quarters with the MIL. If anything it's teaching me infinite amounts of patience. Or is it just testing my true wherewithal of hippie-dom?

Rozalin Focker, the every-woman MIL.

Some days -- with the aid of hyssop oils and patchouli, walking the miniature stone labyrinth she's fashioned in her 8' by 8' plot of a backyard replete with a Terra cotta fire pit and gurgling table-top fountain -- I ride my natural highs. No drugs necessary. Other times the vibe gets on my last nerve, like when (for some irritating reason) she projects her lifelong desire to be a 1950s-style housewife onto me, convinced that I quit my job to take care of my house and serve my husband. Um, just, no. If anyone does any serving in our household it's my husband to me (foot massages and tea brewing included). But when I tell her I actually despise cooking and cleaning she tells me I will learn to love it, because I'm a woman and I have breasts. (...) Of course I grow annoyed at this assertion, but trying to explain myself is like attempting to teach calculus to a pre-schooler (most likely because she's so romanticized her fantasy of being June Cleaver).

These are the times when I politely excuse myself to the bathroom upstairs, wash my hands for no reason other than to cool down and remind myself to follow the "love & gratitude" adage penned above the faucet. But it doesn't help because all I can think is "Anymore love and gratitude and I will punch someone in the face." Most likely my husband, since he's about an arm's length away at any given moment and, really, if he hadn't yelled at my mother we would never be in this predicament. Yes, I just went there.

But other times it's worth it enough to see J's mortified face light up crimson when his mom pulls out her “Cunt Coloring Book” from the '70s, all about exploring the nether regions of the female form. It's supposed to be art, but all I see is ... well ... you know what I mean. J is so different than his mother, very Mark Darcy with a bit of a goofier side, that I often wonder how he managed to stay that way growing up with such an open, liberal, anti-coffee woman.

When we first arrived at the Zen Den it took me only one morning to realize that there was no coffee in the kitchen. It turned out there was actually nothing caffeinated in the entire apartment.

"Why?" I asked shaking, pilfering through the kitchen cupboards.

“Because she thinks its toxic to your body,” J whispered to me.

“So?” I replied.

After about two days of drinking my MIL's coffee substitute, a 100% caffeine-free root drink called “Pero”, I was ready to pour a few carafes of espresso on my head. As was J, who's typical morning starts with a good, stiff Colombian roast. Starbucks Via, you've come in more handy than I could ever imagine. Along with no coffee there's also no ice and no microwave -- because “the radioactive waves poison the food,” duh. What I would give for an ice-cold Coca Cola and a piping hot bag of microwaveable popcorn. She's also deemed wine, or any other alcohol, a poison so there is nary a Pinot Noir in sight. Because of this J has been sneaking in the occasional bottle of red that we uncork late-night after she's fallen asleep, to enjoy in crystal goblets near the fire pit in the backyard.

I try to write here, but it's nearly impossibly. This post, for example, has taken me about two or three days to cobble together since every time I sit down and open my laptop the MIL begins quoting Rumi out loud and exploring what good karma is all about and before I know it an hour or two has passed and I have no idea what's going on. None.

So last night I stayed up after she and J had gone to bed, finished a good chunk of writing then desperately searched the Internet for any and all illegally uploaded episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians (since cable is as absent as coffee in the Zen Den). After pages and pages of bogus results I finally found a pirated site so good I'm toying with the idea of canceling my cable when I head back to DC since it has every show I watch. Needless to say I finally reached Nirvana or enlightenment or whatever it's called, headphones in my ears, eyes devouring the computer screen as I chuckled along to the general debauchery of the Kardashian sisters from some illegal Chinese television website. What have I become?

It's like the Summer of Love ... every single day. Which is awesome, but too much of anything in too high of a dose and the novelty wears off. Behold a typical night at the MIL casa:

(Open scene in MIL's small living room. Crystal is sitting nearby at the dinner table reading the New Yorker online as MIL is cross-legged on the carpet, meditating in silence. In the gap between them lies an odd-shaped gourd maraca with a long appendage sprouting from its side. The ornamental gourd/instrument is hand-painted to look like a long-necked duck, the words “love and gratitude” written across its little chest. Apartment is silent; J has gone to run errands with his brother).

MIL: "If a man can't get erect, use goldenrod oil."
Me (confused): "Uh, what?"
MIL: "Goldenrod oil. It works wonders for erections."

(I burst out laughing, amused. Are we really having this conversation?)

Me: "Goldenrod oil?”
MIL: “Yes, goldenrod oil. If your man is tired and having trouble getting it up.”
Me: “What are you supposed to do with it, put it directly on the guy's ... thingy?"
MIL (completely serious): "Yes! Or on his feet. I've read it works in both areas, but I've only tried one."
Me: "Sweet, I'll remember that ..."

(Two hours later, J and his brother are hanging out in the living room with me.)

Me: “So guess what? If you have any trouble down there goldenrod oil is supposed to do the trick.”
J (in embarrassed disbelief): “What?”
Me (laughing): “Goldenrod oil. Apparently it's a legitimate substitute for Viagra. Your mom told me.”
MIL: “Oh yes, it is. Goldenrod is a magical substance.”
J (blushing and whispering to me): “You are such an instigator. You love bringing this stuff up and prompting her.”
Me (whispering back): “No! Ok maybe a little, but it's like hearing a little kid say inappropriate words. It's funny!!”
J: “Yeah, for you.”

It's both hilarious and disturbing when anyone's MIL -- especially yours -- starts discussing the art of tantric sex. True to form J grows bright red when this happens, which makes me laugh even harder. If anything it provides excellent comic relief to the situation with my fam right now.

Speaking of the fam we had a good New Year's, though I came thisclose to booking an all expenses paid trip to Cancun next week for my Aunt's bday – then realized my passport is sitting on my nightstand back in Virginia. *Insert deleted expletive here.* My sister, like always, will get to be enjoying the fruits of the spontaneous plans, sunning on white Mexican beaches this next Sunday while I look forward to heading back to the East Coast. *Insert yet another deleted expletive here.* Moral of the story: ALWAYS carry your passport with you. I did for the last couple years, but then after my trip to South America I casually left it on my side table, thinking that with our budget I probably wouldn't be taking another international trip for at least a few months. Stupid me.

So I may not be en route to Cancun in one week, but I've got something even better coming my way. According to the MIL Saturn's moon rises every 28 years and it's the highest form of orgasm. Well guess who's going to be 28 this year? Yep, yours truly.

"It is your time," she told me yesterday.

And to think, I don't even need a passport and an H1N1 vaccine to enjoy this trip.
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