Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My seven favorite books of 2013.

Book tree from the window at Literati Bookstore - please buy from them!
They have a website! It is so easy!

Yes, my seven favorite books. No, seven is not a nice civilized, complete-feeling number like five or ten. It's a little arbitrary. But when I compiled the list of books I read this year, and thought about the ones that really touched me and amazed me, that glued themselves to my hands and made me postpone meals and bathroom breaks and subway stops, well, it was seven. And so here, in no particular order, they are:

GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn. You guys have all heard about this book, and for good reason. It's extraordinary. I will confess to being one of those for whom the ending was not entirely satisfying, somehow, but it doesn't even matter--I have never read a book so utterly compelling in its tension. Spectacular book.

BLACKBIRDS, Chuck Wendig. I first discovered Chuck via his blog, where he delivers road-tested (you can tell by the mud stains) writing and publishing advice, and I grew interested in his novels through the sheer force of his personality. Having read his craft advice gives me an interesting--and slightly voyeuristic--perspective on his fiction ("oh, here Chuck is deliberately abusing his characters like he's always telling me to do!"), but also gives me a heightened appreciation for the skill on display in his writing. BLACKBIRDS is the first installment in his urban fantasy series about Miriam Black, a young woman whose pyschic gift--experiencing a vision of the time and manner of a person's death when she touches them--has corroded her existence and forced her into a life of unsettled drifting. Miriam is a wonderfully drawn character: tough yet compassionate, opportunistic yet loyal to her own asymmetrical code of ethics, and this twisting story of her misadventures with dark places and darker people is wonderfully atmospheric and addictive. (And, a quick FYI: THE CORMORANT, the third book in the series, was just released today.)

CRIMINAL, Terra Elan McVoy. I loved this book for two reasons. First, Terra's writing is tight and fierce and compelling; and second, it made me think. I love fantasy and historical novels and all the attendant blood-letting and general abuse that often accompanies them, but when it comes to fiction with a contemporary setting, I will be the first to admit that I gravitate toward stories that take place in my own sphere of life: Privileged, Well-Adjusted Middle-Class-hood. As I worked my way through CRIMINAL, I felt a mounting frustration with the main character, Nikki: she's needy, and spineless, and she heaps one horrifically poor decision on top of another as the story continues. And then, finally, it clicked. She truly doesn't know better. Terra has created a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman raised with so little love and so little self-esteem that she risks everything to protect the brutal man she loves, simply because she is so starved for affection that his sporadic attention feels like the only worthwhile thing in her life. Nikki's story is all the more sad by virtue of how very believably Terra has rendered it.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my dear friend Liz this summer, where I mused aloud that I couldn't understand how people could still become involved in meth use, even after seeing its catastrophic effects on other people around them. Liz, who is one of the most compassionate and thoughtful people I know, turned to me and said, "Because some people were never brought up to believe that their lives were worth anything at all."

THE LOVE WARS, L. Alison Heller. I will skip a longer description of this one since I already wrote a full review here, but suffice it to say, I adored this book. I'm counting months until Alison's second release, THE NEVER NEVER SISTERS.

WHY CAN'T I BE YOU, Allie Larkin. The heart of this book. The warmth, the vulnerability, the unadulterated charm. The mistaken-identity plot felt, at first, like it was going to lead me into a tale of wacky hijinks and supposedly-comical misunderstandings, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. The critical point here is that Jenny, the main character, goes along with the mistaken identity of Jessie because she is so unbearably fatigued with her own bleak life. Jessie's friends offer a heady dose of warmth and humor that are absent in Jenny's own colorless existence. With a light and empathetic touch, the book offers a wise lesson on the meaning of family--sometimes it's not the people you're born to, but the people you choose.

ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell. I started this book last week, on the recommendation of several friends, and by the end of the third chapter it had marched right up and stolen my heart. I only put my Kindle down to pee. This story of first love is tender and piercingly bittersweet, but never saccharine, and perfectly calls to mind that incandescent wonder of the first time you discovered the way another human being could make you feel.

FOREVER, INTERRUPTED, Taylor Jenkins Reid. From the opening words of this novel, I loved it. I also hated it. I hated it not because there is any flaw in the writing or story (there isn't) but because I knew it was going to make me cry ugly, hiccuping tears, and that is exactly what it proceeded to do. It is a beautiful love story, unraveled alternately in the present and in flashback, and it's made all the more moving by the fact that you know from those very first words that one of the lovers is doomed. This story is a painful and yet ultimately hopeful take on life after loss, and the way love transforms us even after the person we loved is gone.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ms. Autumn Woman flees the city once more to frolic amongst the leaves.

This #selfie is a #failie. I don't care, I love it.

This year I was lucky enough to manage to squeeze not one but TWOOOOO October weekends up in the Catskills: one with my husband, and one with my girlfriends. Our girls' weekends are always heavy on cooking (it helps when one of your friends is a professional chef) and card games and general nerdery, and this one was no exception. We rented a beautiful little farmhouse in West Hurley, and went for rambles around town and took a spectacular late afternoon cruise on the Hudson.

I'm not somebody who enjoys the bone-rattling chill of winter, but I love the way that fall weather is cold - enough to make you want to burrow into your favorite wooly sweater, but you know the whole time that you'll warm up as soon as you step inside. And if you can walk around with a cup of hot cider to keep your hands warm, all the better. And yes, I absolutely recognize that my affinity for all of the special rituals of fall makes me Ms. Autumn Woman. At least I own it. ;)

Friday, November 1, 2013

When fear leads to freedom: facing a high risk for breast cancer.

I know you've all seen them - those inspirational quotes about fear, that we all love to post and tweet and share to lift ourselves and other people up. About how fear is our enemy, the quicksand that sucks at our legs to keep us from pulling free into achievement and triumph. And if we're talking about a fear of failure holding us back from trying something new and brave, then of course. Yes. It's all true.

But there is another side to fear, which I have been thinking a lot about recently.

Ever since I was twelve years old, I have been afraid of my own body. My mother died of breast cancer when I was thirteen. My mother's mother had also had the disease as a young woman, although in her case she survived it. And before I ever knew anything about the cancer-causing gene mutations that have been discovered since my mother's death, I knew there was often a familial link.

The other thing I knew is that my mother seemed to have somehow provided me with more than her fair share of her own genetic material. We have the same coloring, same height, same build, same eyes, same freckles. Same smile. Even the same maddeningly high-maintenance prematurely gray hair (I haven't been a natural brunette since about 2003). I once asked my aunt, her sister, whether I resembled my father at all; her response was, "Not a bit. I've always thought she just cloned herself."

So I have always believed, with a fear too strong for reason, that she had given me her cancer as well. For more than 20 years, I have regarded my breasts as ticking time bombs, just sitting there on my chest slowly growing something that would eventually harm me. The fact that at age 71 my aunt, too, developed the cancer only served to confirm my conviction.

When I tested negative for the BRCA mutations three years ago, the genetic counselor assured me that with that result, I had no reason to pursue the preventative mastectomy I had been considering (now forever known as the Angelina Jolie Thing). We would do aggressive screening, and I would take a five-year course of Tamoxifen, a drug with excellent results at controlling existing breast cancers and preventing new ones. "This isn't your mother's situation," the counselor told me. "We have much better screening technology, we are catching these cancers earlier and earlier, and they are very treatable." I made my decision, and elected not to pursue a destructive and psychologically damaging surgery out of fear.

And then, this week, I noticed a little lump. I pointed it out to my doctor, expecting her to tell me it was just normal tissue, but instead she frowned and said, "I see what you're talking about. Let's get you checked out." And with those words, I plunged right back into the terror that's shadowed me for most of my life, except this time, it wasn't a hypothetical - I had actually found something in my breast that didn't feel right. My friends immediately reminded me that almost all breast lumps turn out to be nothing; but my panic just screamed back that for the women in my family, the lumps have never been nothing.

And then my brain started with the guessing. How big was it? How long had it really been there? Could it have been there early this year, somehow undetectable in my baseline mammogram and sonogram that had both come back normal?

Because the thing that makes cancer so uniquely terrifying is that the length of time it has existed in your body is directly correlated to the likelihood it will kill you. Whether or not it has had the opportunity to spread beyond its point of origin - that question is literally everything. It might mean chemo. It might mean worse.

To my indescribable relief, the lump was nothing. But I was prepared for the very real possibility that it might not have been. And I am equally prepared for the fact that next time, it might not be.

And what I realized is, I don't know if I can take the chance. I fully understand my doctors' hesitation to have me undergo a major surgery, exposing myself to pain and the possibility of infection or complications, over fear of a threat that may never materialize. Or that, if it does materialize, can be effectively dealt with.

But what my doctors can never understand is what it is like to live with this fear. Cancer is not an abstract concept to me; I have seen it. I watched my mother's horrific suffering, her pain, her fear. Her loss of another half-lifetime's worth of memories and love and joy. As an adult, I understand now the shattering grief she must have felt, knowing she would have to say goodbye to me and my father and everyone else who was precious to her. I felt it when I fell asleep next to my husband the night before my tests, thinking, "what if there were a time when we knew we only had a few weeks together left? How could we bear that agony?"

So. I had decided against the surgery, but I think I may have to consider it again. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, I was actually disappointed by my negative BRCA result; if I'd tested positive, then I would have known my prognosis, and what to do to protect myself. Instead I am still walking in the dark. But common sense and the medical community agree that there are likely other genetic factors, still undiscovered, which may account for strong incidence of the cancer in BRCA-negative families.

It feels like sunshine, the thought of being able to face my future without the fear of this disease. Without the fear that I might someday regret not having had the tissue removed before it became dangerous. The fear that even with my screening regimen, something might get enough of a foothold in my body to kill me. I'd be making a decision out of fear, yes, but with the goal of eliminating that fear for the rest of my life. And there's something freeing in that, after all.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ritual and memory and stained-glass leaves.

It's a known fact among my family and friends that I can be counted upon to repeat myself. I am a creature of ritual, most especially when it comes to family gatherings... the mystery of the new is often overshadowed by the comfort of the familiar.

One of my very favorite traditions is the annual fall Woodstock weekend that my husband and I spend with his brother and sister-in-law. The first year was actually a late summer gathering, but I, mountain-bred girl that I am, needed a fall weekend with time spent among hills patchworked with gold and green and orange, and the rush of wind in glowing leaves over my head. So I co-opted the weekend from August to October. Two years ago, the weekend took place days after we got engaged; last year, it was the weekend of our wedding. This time (our fifth year) was our first anniversary.

Every year we do the same activities (flea market, apple picking) and visit the same restaurants, and that process of layering year after year of similar memories on top of one another is just the most magical thing. "Was it the wedding house or the mountain view house that had the crazy staircase?" "Do you remember when we were packing up after the wedding weekend and there was that insane ladybug swarm?" And of course, "What year was it that Bethany got baked for the first time?" (Some day I will tell you guys that story.)

So this year we did old things and new things, both of them equally precious. New layers of memory were added to the pile: the morning hour I spent alone on the balcony at the house, listening to the wind in the golden trees; the sweetness of the port that the owner of our wedding venue gave us with our anniversary dinner. The fire we built and proudly maintained until four o'clock in the morning.

If you really want to feel the mood, click this link and listen to the most exquisite country-folk harmony ever recorded by a pair of Swedish girls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC57z-oDPLs

This was our fireside, where we sat up late listening to music and laughing and telling stories:

And then we woke up the next morning in our little mountain house to these leaves: 

And then went for a ramble around town:

Woodstock Flea Market

My dream house, on Rock City Road 

 And then slowly drove home the next day, stopping for apples and donuts and whiskey and wine.

Dressel Farms

this year's haul

Tuthilltown Distillery

Brotherhood Winery

It was a perfect, magical weekend, the way each of them has been. And as soon as the vibrancy of the leaves fades from my eyes, I will be looking forward to the next year.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Kelly Wearstler's Miami Viceroy

Aside from our various adventures with hair dryers and alcohol, we did really enjoy our stay at the Viceroy. I've been looking at photos of Kelly Wearstler's spaces for years, of course, but I've never before had the experience of exploring a space designed by such a strong and unique viewpoint.

These were some details from the main lobby and elevator bank:

A detail of the giant fu dog lamp and patterned dresser in the room:

On the way out to the pool deck:

And a detail of the massive marble table in the area where our friends had their ceremony.

One thing's for sure, I'd love to stay in more Viceroys around the world to experience the unique personality of each!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Even more drinker

File:Red Light District.jpg
wikimedia commons/user quinn norton

And by the way, this wedding we were attending was a great wedding. I just want to share with you the sequence of stream-of-consciousness texts that my husband's drunk buddy sent to him from the rooftop club at about 1:00 in the morning, after the two of us had retired for the night. Original grammar and spelling are preserved throughout. Please, if you will, imagine them being spoken in Michael Shannon's dramatic reading voice:

Holy shorthairs

Holy shot this us loud

Even more drinker

& louder

Even more drinker

I know where the red lights were coming from and I do not like it

Monday, October 7, 2013

Blow-drying with wine bottles: my failures at girliness.

File:Female hands.jpg
Wikimedia commons/user Justcurious

A couple of times a year, like a meteor shower or some other planetary phenomenon, I become suddenly obsessed with the pressing conviction that I ought to try to be a better girl. For a few weeks (it never, never ever ever, lasts more than a few weeks), I launch a multi-pronged initiative that involves me pre-planning the week's outfits, wearing makeup to work even when I don't have meetings, and not only painting my nails, but removing and re-doing the polish before it starts to take on the texture of second-hand dinnerware.

Weddings have a tendency to bring this out in me, what with the knowledge that all the other ladies in attendance will be primped and pressed to their respective nines. This weekend we flew to Miami for a friend's nuptials at the Viceroy, and so taken was I with my renewed commitment to grooming that I gladly consigned half the space in my overnighter to non-TSA-friendly bottles of product. Including nail polish that leaked all over everything else in my makeup bag.

Our beautiful Kelly Wearstler-designed room at the Viceroy

Now. Another element of my historically poor performance in the "polished and put-together" department has always been my chronic overconfidence about the amount of time these rituals demand. On two consecutive years, friends have arrived for our holiday party at the specified hour and found me dripping and shame-faced in a bath towel. (Seriously, though, who shows up exactly on time for a house party? It's fucking heartless.) So this weekend, I made sure to allow way more time than I needed. I departed the sunny pool terrace where we had been lounging two whole hours before I had to be ready. I had a plan. This is what it was:

Item 1. Draw bath in glamorous soaking tub (pictured above).

Item 2. While enjoying relaxing soak, remove old polish from fingers and toes, and reapply at a leisurely enough pace that everything will dry before I can find anything to smear it on.

Item 3. After bath, retire to shower for actual cleansing. Relish the luxurious water pressure like a woman in a plumbing fixture ad.

Item 4. Apply full, flawless makeup without borrowing it from anyone* or rushing through it at the last minute** or applying any part of it in a moving vehicle***.

Item 5. Gracefully arrive at the wedding ceremony like a hummingbird alighting on a twig.

As soon as I entered our room (solo; husband was still at the pool with his friends), I spotted the bottle of wine on the hotel dressing table - this would be the perfect touch to enhance my pampering experience! It was only a half-size bottle; how expensive could it be?

Thirty-six dollars, is how expensive. For a half bottle of wine. I couldn't do it, you guys. But what I could do was crack open the rum mini that the bride & groom had graciously included in their welcome bag, and pour a bunch of it into a glass with the unrefrigerated Coke that had been in the bag next to it. I don't particularly like rum & coke, but I had to work with what I had. And god dammit, I was determined to enjoy a festive beverage while I soaked in my bath.

And speaking of the bath, since I don't think I've taken one at all since moving to New York (I've only ever lived in pre-war buildings, and trust me, bathtubs do not make the list of amenities contributing to the charm factor of that type of apartment), I was remembering a vague childhood paranoia about bathwater never being quite warm enough. I ran it hot, figuring I'd add just enough cold water at the end to make it the perfect temp.

My bath turned out hot enough to boil potatoes. After several minutes of swearing, whimpering and scrabbling, I managed to sufficiently drain and refill the water until I could lower myself into it without shrieking in pain. I took a soothing sip of room temperature rum & coke, and reached for the emery board to begin filing my nails.

I bet you guys probably don't know what happens to an emery board when you get it damp. Why would anyone know that? Normal people file their nails when their hands and everything around them are dry. Well, I'm here to tell you that what happens is the little crystals on the surface disintegrate. Instead of the board filing away my nails, it was happening the other way around. But it was fine. It was fine. Nobody was going to notice my scraggly uneven-length nails, anyway.

Finally it was hair and makeup time. A recent and life-altering revelation for me was the discovery that if I spray my bangs with volumizer, wind them over a roller brush and then zap them with a dryer, they will take on a covetable gently-curved shape instead of hanging against my forehead like overcooked linguini. This has quickly become part of my daily regimen; it's dazzling to me that such a rudimentary trick could make such a visible improvement to my appearance.

But did my roller brush make it to Florida with me, my friends? The answer is no, no it did not. And it turns out that roller brushes don't rank alongside shampoo and dental floss in terms of the emergency toiletries that hotels keep on hand; not even at the Viceroy. So when the Big Moment arrived, instead of whipping out my brush to do the Magical Thing, I had to spend an anxious 90 seconds ransacking the hotel room for any workable stand-in. My eyes skipped over a peanut jar (too short) and a Voss bottle (the heat will release BPA's from the plastic!) before settling on my dear old friend, that little upstart $36 half-size bottle of wine.

I held the bottle. My husband held the dryer. Together we pressed the poor woebegone bangs in place against the curve of the bottle, since there were no brush bristles to work with. It was the first cooperative grooming effort of our fledgling marriage, and we pulled it off in style. My bangs were as curvy and bouncy as the D-cups I will never have. And I even made it to the ceremony on time.

Wine-bottle bangs. Pretty respectable!
But I've still got lipstick on my cheeks cause I forgot my blush.

*I did this at the last wedding I attended
**I did this at that same wedding
***I also did this at that same wedding

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Virginia country textures: Millwood and Middleburg

Take me home, country road.

One of the elements from my own life that I sprinkled into NAILING IT is the ass-flattening amount of backseat window-staring time I logged during weekend excursions with my parents. After having lived in cities or suburbs for most of their lives, my parents were enchanted with the unmanufactured charm and beauty of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge foothills that surrounded our town. On any nice weekend when we had nothing more demanding to do, we were off and exploring. Back roads were preferable - the backer, the better. You always have a better chance of seeing something lovely along a road that doesn't look like it has anywhere important to take you. 

A favorite destination that we visited more than once was the wonderful Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood. The building dates from 1782, and is still operational as a mill - they do grinding demonstrations every few weeks and sell the mill-ground cornmeal and flour on the site. The mill interior, with its immense wheels and cranks, is a wonderland for any mechanical engineering buff or history nerd (of which I am firmly the latter - I mean, I was the kid who was actually excited to go to Colonial Williamsburg). I stopped to visit it when we were in the area for my friend Katie's wedding last fall, and though it wasn't open for touring that day, we still got to explore the grounds. On a crystalline autumn afternoon, it was as serene and lovely as I remembered. It's one of those places where the weight of history is palpable, as if the essence of the people who worked and lived in the building before is somehow just out of reach around the corner of time.

Antique store across the road from the mill

 The mill building

Lichen on the split-rail fence

Sun grazing the stone wall of the building

The glass panes are old enough to be ripply and uneven.

Reflection and sunbeam in the millstream

After our Millwood stop, we continued the drive back toward DC, and stopped for lunch in Middleburg. If you're familiar at all with Northern Virginia, you probably know of it - it's the ultra-tony epicenter of Virginia horse country. The hilly roads leading into town are lined with massive multi-million-dollar historic estates where some of the finest horses in the country are bred and trained. The town itself is lovely: sort of a smaller Southern cousin to Greenwich, Connecticut, it has that same genteel, WASP-y grace. And a generous sprinkling of beautiful 18th-century buildings with irregular mortar walls and bowlegged roofs.

ivy and black berries on the side of an old tavern

The list of this roof is so enchanting to me.

Allen and I gave serious to consideration to purchasing a six-million-dollar horse farm, but we figured we should probably hold out for something closer to home. Also we don't know anything about horses. So for now we'll probably just stick with our imaginary Hudson Valley farmhouse. Hell of a lot less upkeep on it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Best friends, tube tops and the hidden romance of Viking helmets

 She's going to be pissed at me for posting a photo that reveals her to be sub-5'4".*
*(I'm not a giant, though; I just hadn't given up on my shoes yet.)

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the wedding of my very best friend on earth - I hope you guys all have a friend like this. If she's a friend from college, she's the one where the entire first year you knew each other is a blur of irresponsibly late-night (and in our case, inexcusably sober, because we were both too square to drink) conversations about everything and nothing. The one with whom you have so many inside jokes that you have to remind each other where half of them originated from. Even if you haven't lived in the same place in years, she's your first phone call when you're twisting in circles over a crisis that nobody else will understand. She's the only person on earth who calls you by that appalling nickname (the only person permitted to do it, for that matter). And even if you have a partner by now, and even if that partner of yours is as steady and strong as we all dream they will be, this friend's presence in your life will always be the very definition of the phrase "having your back."

I do have a shirt on in this photo. It was a tube top.
It was not one of my better decisions.
You may have heard what they say about flat-chested girls, strapless items, and gravity.

So, a year ago yesterday she married the love of her life. All the usual things were true when they got together - after 12 or 13 years of growling at stories about asshats, I could hear the difference in the way she talked about him, and I could see the difference in the way he treated her. Unlike the asshats, he actually deserves her. He is steady and strong, and kind, but also ridiculous in a completely essential way. KT and I do not last long around people who behave like normal adults.

This is from my wedding, which was two weeks after theirs.
He is wearing a dinner napkin and a Viking hat that he stole from the photobooth. She is gazing at him adoringly.
That should really tell you everything you need to know.

Looking back, I especially love this photo of the two of us, from 2005:

We were in LA for another friend's bachelorette party, and we spent the afternoon driving at random through the Hollywood Hills. We stopped at this lookout point to admire the view, and decided to take pictures of ourselves against the backdrop. I don't even remember what cracked us up, but I love that we were laughing so hard that we totally could not pull it together for this photo. We were 26/27 and didn't have the faintest idea what would happen with the guys we were dating at the time (I married mine, a long-ass time later; she kept looking for a few more years before she met Viking Helmet), but it really didn't seem to matter all that much. Whatever did or didn't happen with the guys, we'd always have each other.

Still, I'm so deeply heart-glad that she found him. That helmet wouldn't look the same on anybody else.