Backwards and In High Heels

Going Home: Planting my feet on familiar but not familiar ground

One of the perks of being a grown-up is that you can eat cupcakes before dinner if you feel like it. Hell, you can eat cupcakes instead of dinner; it’s totally up to you because you’re a grown-up. It’s the thought of this benefit upon which I rely whenever being an adult means dealing with un-fun stuff. Like when you have to make the trek back to where you came from because someone you love has died.

Such was the case last week when my mother and I boarded a flight together to mark the passing of one of her closest friends, a woman integral to my upbringing.

To say the journey was dirge-like is an inaccurate portrayal of what went down. Of course there was sorrow, but viewings and cemeteries just aren’t how my people roll. I come from celebratory stock, and there was no funeral. There was instead a celebration at an art gallery with several hundred people recounting memories of way back when.

Nance and mom

I visited with the people my mother calls “the village of fools” that raised me, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I caught up with people I never thought I’d see again, and some who, to be honest, I never thought about once I’d left: I chatted with old neighbors, parents of friends, friends, friends’ kids, former teachers, a woman who used to babysit me and even a woman I used to babysit.

“You showed me Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time and—Whoa!” she said as we toasted. “It scared the crap out of me, but it blew my mind!” I had no business caring for a child back then. Perhaps I still don’t.

Of course, parts of the trip were dreadful: We come from Utah, after all, where the only thing more dreadful than not being able to get a cocktail before noon is not being able to replenish the alcohol supply at a memorial service because the state-run liquor stores all close at 7 p.m.. That kooky old Beehive State. It makes Arizona look progressive.

every city should have one of these

As sad as some moments were, my trip to the homeland was a real-life version of The Twilight Zone, an adventure in the surreal. The heaviness of the experience was lightened by good stories, really good people and I think, if I remember correctly, some seriously good weed. Moral supremacists can pass all the laws they want, but people will find a way. Suck on that, prohibitionists.

Many things have changed since I left Salt Lake City nearly 20 years ago.

troy and gabriella forever!
The (still small) downtown is unrecognizable, with ongoing development causing us to take several detours as we strolled. Same goes for my high school, where Disney’s High School Musical series was filmed. There’s a stunning library—boasting architecture worthy of a city like Chicago—that was not just open, but filled with people.

My grandparents’ home was razed and replaced by a McMansion with three garages and a whole lot of black roof. And my beautiful, turn-of-the-(20th)-century childhood home that my mother worked so hard to restore, had a notice of condemnation taped hastily to the front door. This was especially unsettling, mostly I think because it seemed to mirror the implosion of my parents’ marriage and the unraveling of my nuclear family.

But other things were so unchanged that I felt as if I’d never left, an equally disorienting feeling.

mrs. backer's pastry shop

Mrs. Backers Pastry Shop, where my mother used to buy all of my birthday cakes, was as explosively pink and kitschy as always. The old glass cases were packed with cupcakes and cookies, and the smell of sugar as I pushed through the big glass door brought me to tears.

I wiped my eyes and told the girl behind the counter about how I used to freeze one flower—perhaps a dahlia or daffodil made of the world’s best butter-cream frosting—from my birthday cake each year and save it for a sweet tooth emergency. She just stood there and looked at me like I had 10 heads. But I didn’t care, because she had stiff claw bangs, which is way more permanent than my public display of nostalgia. Clearly, she did not fully appreciate the spectacularness that is Mrs. Backers’ butter-cream frosting.
best cupcakes in the world

Also unchanged was a popular restaurant where my family used to celebrate special occasions (Mother’s Day, graduation, the day I got my first period, what have you). The people on the wait staff looked vaguely familiar in a ruddy-ski-bum, college-y sort of way.

I ordered the world’s best eggs Benedict to a soundtrack of “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, followed by The Cure’s “In Between Days” and then “Big in Japan,” by Alphaville. I had to check my Swatch watch to see what year it was. I even checked my reflection in a nearby mirror to make sure I wasn’t wearing acid-washed overalls with one strap undone, pants legs tucked into two pairs of brightly colored socks, layered and scrunched down into lace-up ankle boots. Eighties attire must die.

Speaking of dying, I’m not super-experienced in dealing with death—a lucky streak I’m happy to maintain—so I’m still sort of wide-eyed from the shock of seeing how time can fly and also stand still.

pierpont artist studios
For the moment, I’m suspended in the life-is-short awareness, an acuity that will dissipate in a few days. I’ll be distracted by the minutia again soon enough, but not before I serve my husband and daughter Mrs. Backers’ cupcakes for dinner.

(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)

Put Down The Glass: Kate Hudson inadvertantly sparks new legislation

Late last week, Radar Online posted photos of a pregnant Kate Hudson drinking a glass of what looked like red wine while vacationing with her boyfriend in Argentina. The comment section of the website had barely begun to overflow with its collective opinion broadly castigating “the little tramp” before outraged Republicans leaped into action.

Though it’s too late for Hudson’s baby—who will likely have small eyes and thin lips due to genetics, rather than some fermented South American grapes—the GOP plans to use one of the tentacle-like arms of its small government to help ensure all pregnancies, forced and otherwise, are safe for the baby.

“Drinking while pregnant is absolutely not acceptable,” House Majority Leader John Boehner told CityBeat in an exclusive Skype interview recently. Boehner wept as he spoke, his shoulders heaving, orange self-tanner dripping from his chin. “That’s why I have sponsored House Bill 1920. The bill’s number is a nod to women’s suffrage. I thought of it myself,” Boehner said, wiping his face with a white monogrammed kerchief.

“HB 1920 is referred to in committee meetings as the Pregnant Women Cannot Drink Anything But Dasani Bill. Now, we realize that’s sort of a tongue twister for those on Main Street, especially for the lady-folk who shouldn’t be trusted with anything more than casserole decisions. So, the actual working title is the Fund the Troops Bill, which even a retard can understand.”

If passed, HB 1920 will make “the ingestion of alcohol by pregnant persons” a federal crime, punishable by up to 25 years in prison or—depending on overcrowding—as a seventh-grade science teacher in Texas. The bill makes no exception for nail-polish remover being absorbed through the skin.

“Pregnant women shouldn’t be painting their nails in the first place!” Boehner exclaimed. “This bill is unambiguous.”

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee offered tepid support in a recent radio appearance, saying the bill “is certainly a baby step—get it? Baby step?—in the right direction,” but that it falls short by not addressing the unwed-mother issue.

“First Natalie Portman, now this?” he asked. “It’s an epidemic! Just look at how Kate Hudson flaunts single-motherhood, wearing that string bikini, her baby-bump shiny and taut like Jim Cramer’s forehead. The woman doesn’t even have stretch marks! It makes me horny—I mean—it’s just not reality for most women, and to put that message out there is irresponsible.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, now living with his Argentine lover, had a slightly different take. “She [Hudson] should get married if she’s met her soul mate. But the wine? Well, they do things a little different down there.”

Murphy Brown did not respond to requests for comment.

Boehner laughed off Huckabee’s concern.

“He’s just so passionate when it comes to food and marriage. What I tell him is, ‘Whoa, slow down, Huckster. You didn’t lose 110 pounds overnight.’”

Indeed, Boehner privately calls this bill his “test-tube baby” because future legislation will be modeled after it. “If HB 1920 passes—and I feel confident it will,” he said, “we will criminalize the ingestion of soft cheeses, straining to poop and sex after the first trimester.”

To be sure, this bill is but one part of a larger tapestry to protect the unborn: Combined with funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, the repeal of healthcare reform, the decimation of the public-school system and changes to labor laws, Republicans hope to guarantee millions of fetuses the right to life but little more.

“What happens to the kid after birth is not my business,” Boehner said, his hands in the air. “We just want to get ’em here with a normal head circumference. I ask you: What’s more joyous than the moments immediately after the doctor sucks the mucous out of a newborn’s face with that turkey baster thingy? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing is more glorious than the ‘Wah!-wah!-wah!’ of a child taking his first breaths of fresh air.”

Nancy Pelosi balked in reaction.

“Whether that air is fresh is a matter of debate,” she told NPR, citing GOP demands that the EPA be barred from monitoring greenhouse gasses.

“Nancy, like all women, is no longer relevant,” Boehner said. “I’m speaker now, babe, so you can shut it and fix me a bourbon.”

While activists have expressed concerns about what happens to these children once they’re born, Republican legislators have offered more innovative ideas.

Missouri state Sen. Jane Cunningham points to Maine, Utah and Virginia as examples of out-of-the-box thinking. “Like mine, these states are doing away with child-labor laws so kids can work at age 14,” she told CityBeat.

“Let’s face it: Our schools suck and kids deserve other options. So, right here in The Show-Me State, not only are we opening the job sector for those under 14, but we’re also eliminating restrictions on the numbers of hours and days a child can work. Easy peasy.”

Boehner is elated by the prospect of Missouri’s contribution. “The tax cuts we extorted from the Democrats last December [for the wealthiest 2 percent], have resulted in an astronomical number of jobs added to our economy, which means a need for labor. So, to skeptics, I say, pshaw!”

For now, the focus is on preventing women from following in Kate Hudson’s footsteps. But in the long term, Boehner and his colleagues hope these little fetuses grow up as patriots who enlist in the military and fight America’s wars.

“Only a retard doesn’t want to die a hero,” Boehner said.

Want to commiserate over a cocktail? I don’t care if you’re pregnant. Write to aaryn@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

Spa Schma: No mud masks or hot-stone massages for this girl

When it comes to self-indulgence, there are three types of people in the world: Those who spa, those who do not spa and those who repeatedly attempt to spa, each time thinking, Surely, this time I will experience a gelatinous descent into the eucalyptus-scented nirvana that so many of my girlfriends rave about. Yet this third type of person always emerges from the steam more tense and aggravated and knotted and kinked than when she first slipped her feet into the complimentary rubber pool shoes. Shoes that have been worn by other people. With who-knows-what-kinds of foot fungus, and, dear God, I hope they wash them every night.

Can you guess which group I fall into?

I find it awkward to have someone I’ve never met rub me with oil and make small talk to the sounds of Enya and crashing waves on a loop. It strikes me as absurd when a stranger with good bone structure and tiny pores uses a magnifying glass to unclog my aged ones.

And then there’s the whole being-naked-in-front-of-other-people thing. I don’t know the psychology behind it, but I’m actually more comfortable getting a bikini wax than I am taking off all my clothes in a locker room.

Granted, I realize this is an unhealthy attitude toward my body, and I have worked to overcome it. I’ve spent more hours on topless beaches than I have in community service, and I’ve done my fair share of public streaking. If you were on Granada Avenue in North Park on election night, 2008, that was my flesh you saw bounding by.

Yes, public nudity is easier when you’ve thrown back any combination of seven different cocktails, but most spas I’ve been to don’t encourage cocktails, furthering my general disdain for them.

For my husband’s recent birthday, I checked us into a hotel in La Jolla known for its spa. I’d booked a massage for him but not for me; I’d planned to sit in the poolside jacuzzi with a good book and a glass of wine while I waited. But after noticing Dijon mustard-colored bubbles creeping toward me—never a good sign—I opted to kill time in the women’s spa, hoping for a whirlpool with a more strictly monitored pH. As usual, my experience was about as relaxing as being on a 12-hour flight with a colicky baby and seats that don’t recline.

Inside the women’s locker room, I fumbled to undress much like I did when I was 13 and awkward, embarrassed to be naked in front of other girls. The mandatory naked-showering in seventh-grade gym class— enforced by the rigid Mrs. Allen, who stood snapping her gum at the shower exit, waiting to inspect all the girls—is a trauma still with me 28 years later. See? Some teachers do make a lasting impact.

Pushing thoughts of Mrs. Allen out of my mind, I wrapped myself in a thick spa robe, and shuffled outside to a whirlpool secluded in an alcove of lush plants and bamboo. I was terrifically uncomfortable, but I recognized this to be irrational: I was the only one in the place.

Girl, I said to myself, this is a spa and you’re supposed to be naked. Be a grownup. Get over it. So I shrugged off the robe and my neurosis and sank into the (much cleaner) whirlpool.

My hamstrings and low back thanked me. I had been soaking for a good 10 minutes and was just beginning to relax when I noticed the sign. “Proper attire must be worn at all times.” People: I couldn’t have been more horrified had I farted publicly.

My hamstrings and low back seized. My breathing became sharp and shallow. I had to get out of there before all the people who weren’t around noticed me, the stupid girl who went naked at the spa!

Paranoid? Oh, totally. What’s worse is that I knew I was being paranoid, but I was powerless to overcome it. Instead, I cut my soak short, calmly lifted myself out of the water, and dragged the robe around me. My heart was pounding and I quietly berated myself for taking off my swimsuit in the first place. Which is about when I noticed my robe was on inside out.

I felt my cheeks turn red as I hurried to peel the robe off and put it back on properly. Still determined to make this work, and with another 30 minutes to kill, I decided to sit in the steam room. In my terrycloth robe, of course. But it got mighty hot in there, as steam rooms tend to, and I finally said aloud to nobody, “Fuck this.” Again, I undressed and laid the robe down as a barrier between my derriere and the wood bench.

It was quiet, warm and peaceful. My hamstrings and my low back were thanking me and I was just beginning to relax when a drop of hot water—and then another, and another—fell from the ceiling onto my forehead like Chinese water torture. Drip. Drip. Drip. Then began an ominous, throaty, machine-like groan. It started low and got louder, a stuttered and angry rumbling that culminated with a burst of hissing and a cloud of thick steam.

Which is when I thought of Auschwitz. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. Call me the Juan Williams of saunas. Call me what you will, but the plain fact is that thoughts of torture and murder effectively cancel out any possible spa benefits.

My hamstrings and low back seized. I was done.

I gathered my robe around me and used it to dry off. Then I got dressed, fast, and retraced my steps to my hotel room. Then I called room service and ordered a hot fudge sundae.

The Big Scare: Is my daughter a wingnut?

“Do you want to go to the beach?”

“No.”

“Do you want to go to the zoo?”

“No.”

“Do you want to go to the aquarium?”

“No.”

This is a typical conversation between my daughter and me these days, and it’s not just limited to offers of big excursions. It happens when we discuss the possibility of doing anything other than viewing High School Musical 2 for the 943rd time. And as a woman who once practiced kissing techniques using a Shaun Cassidy album cover, I totally get it. Zac Efron is so fine that even a newt could recognize the hypnotizing hum of his sky-blue eyes. And there’s always the possibility that he and Vanessa Hudgens will finally get that uninterrupted kiss. A glass tank full of shimmering sardines has nothing on that.

Still.

Any opportunity I offer my child—from walking the dog to taking piano lessons to learning about tsunamis through wild bathtub splashing (who wouldn’t want to do that?!?)—is met with a definitive oh-hell-to-the-N-O! It’s unbearably frustrating to be on the receiving end of such assholery. It’s like a never-ending tap dance: See me over here? (Rhythm roll.) I’m trying to entertain you! (Shuffle-ball-step.) Trying to make your life fabulous! (Windmill arms, jazz hands. Big! Smile!)

Response from my child: No.

It makes me want to punch myself in the face while wearing the jagged, over-priced, purple quartz ring I was forced to purchase at Hunt & Gather after it broke when Ruby dropped it on the floor—after already having been reprimanded (twice) for dropping other breakables on the floor. Mark my words: I’m going to give her that ring on her wedding day.

Worse, though, than the self-face-punching frustration is the gut-punching thought I had in recognizing this pattern of now-predictable negative responses: Is my daughter a Republican?

Oh, how the head spins. I nearly had to lie down after typing that. That my child should grow up to be a Republican is my third worst nightmare. (The second is that she would also be an evangelical golfer, but I’m going to stay positive.)

When I first voiced this concern to my husband, he brushed me off. “Don’t ever say that!” he said. That I should accuse our Pride and Joy of such an ugly thing made him angry, which is totally understandable. The possibility makes me angry, too. For six years, we’ve worked hard to raise a good, solid liberal who can one day hold her own against the 19—or is it 20 now?— children that have been delivered into the world through Michelle Duggar’s Slip ’N Slide vagina.

We own a hybrid. We recycle and eat organic. We clean trash off the streets in our neighborhood several times a year and donate to the less fortunate. We practice throwing peace signs at aggressive drivers with ugly bumper stickers. We have naked time. We listen to Michael Franti.

Despite all these efforts, the growing evidence is disturbing.

Our child is selfish. And greedy. And she doesn’t like to share. That is, unless we have something she wants, and then, of course, we’re expected to share. No discussion, no meeting half way. She balks at reasonable concessions and then goes nuclear, taking what she wants as we’re still trying to figure out a compromise. This, because getting what she wants is in her best self-interest and long-term goals, everyone else be damned.

She is—and it pains me to admit it—a hypocrite.

To make matters worse, she comes in a mesmerizing package filled with promise. With giant brown eyes, dimples and a gap-toothed smile, she can wrinkle her forehead and present herself in a seemingly genuine and well-intentioned manner. The kid can placate a gullible crowd with a determined, passionate and convincing argument, even though—upon closer consideration—it lacks rationale and is filled with holes and, yes, sometimes a few fibs. She’s so good that we, too, are susceptible to her sideways, circular, grammatically challenged fast-talk. Thanks to a few well-played hugs and kisses, cuddles and compliments (“Mama, your eyes look so pretty today!”), she tends to get most of what she wants, often at our expense.

Horrified by this set of circumstances, Sam and I put Ruby on the couch the other day and forced her to watch Inside Job, followed by Sicko and two episodes of The Rachel Maddow Show. We then offered a comprehensive lecture about the dangers of global warming; the constitutionally protected right of American women to have access to safe abortions; why gay marriage, prostitution and pot should all be legal; and how it’s totally normal that a shirtless Zac Efron makes her blush.

After she passed a short quiz and went to bed, we turned to the child-development literature where we learned that Ruby is right on track with respect to age-appropriate behavior. Not only is she behaving exactly as she’s supposed to be, but she’s also still ripe for the imprinting of our atheistic, heathen-based, live-and-let-live belief system. She is not (thank every pagan God) a Republican. She’s just acting like one.

Undervalued: The absurdity of teacher as scapegoat

“Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! What about you?” —From “What Teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If Things Don’t Work Out, You Can Always Go to Law School” by poet Taylor Mali

As I write this, the battle between the mouth-breathing governor of Wisconsin and American workers is raging. It’s my hope that, as you read this, the 14 Democratic senators necessary for a vote on Scott Walker’s union-busting bill will still be in their undisclosed bunkers, fondling their newly grown balls. It sure has been nice to see the Dems finally stand for something, even if it is too little too late.

Regardless of how this “brouhaha”—as Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal dismissively called this pivotal moment in American history— plays out, and aside from the larger issue of Unions: Good or Evil?, I am awestruck by the widespread disdain for teachers, a profession, as it happens, largely undertaken by women. But that’s another column.

The broad demonization of teachers is being underscored by the daily news cycle. It’s not just one or two states taking an antagonistic stance toward teachers; this is happening everywhere.

State education officials in Michigan have ordered closure of half the schools in Detroit, where class sizes in the high schools will swell to 60 students in the coming year.

In Providence, R.I., teachers were given a layoff notice last week. This doesn’t mean all 2,000 of them won’t have jobs next year (some of them definitely won’t). But it does mean they work the remainder of this year knowing they may not have jobs next year. Yay for workplace morale! I should point out that annual layoff notices are not uncommon and are, on the contrary, part of the fabric of our modern education system. They’re a yearly occurrence across the country. Sort of like Christmas. With lumps of coal. Delivered by Scrooge.

Back in Madison, Wisc., highly paid (non-unionized) administrators are refusing sick pay to teachers who were absent from work while protesting Walker’s proposed bill. Each of these administrators—who I know have never fudged on a sick day—is conveniently channeling an inner Helen Lovejoy. The poor children are not learning when a teacher spends a day in the capitol rotunda with her sign that reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

Never mind the civics lesson inherent in civil disobedience; these teachers should shut up and teach—and never deviate from mandated curriculum. Or else.

As if the headlines aren’t alarming enough, one little jaunt into the toxic waters of any comment section reveals a widespread derision.

“I love teachers…. for all their self righteous babble…” wrote someone calling himself Deucejack on The Huffington Post. “[T]hey don’t give two nickels about the kids they supposedly provide a service to. LMOA at teachers…. Now I’m laughing at the unions in their last nose dive.” One thing is certain: Douchejackass here could have used a better grammar teacher.

Comments like this are disturbingly abundant and wildly narrow in their vision. Just as in any other profession, there will always be what I call “driftwood” among teachers; there is a small subset who are underachievers, skaters, system-bilkers and incompetents. They exist and Sarah Palin is the poster child for this unrefudiateable fact. Her devotees serve as supporting evidence.

But, by and large, teachers teach precisely because they give at least—and usually far more than—two nickels about the children in their care. With a child six months into kindergarten, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time in the classroom and see what a teacher does when she’s set adrift by a society that progressively downgrades her worth.

With increasing class sizes, no aides, few support staff, absurdly limited supplies and resources, an endless barrage of new training requirements and too many too-busy-working-multiple-jobs-to-be-involved parents, a teacher puts a smile on her face and welcomes her children in the morning. Then she goes right on ahead and teaches her ass off.

While meeting district-, state- and federally mandated goals, she also acts as counselor, nurse, custodian, disciplinarian and parent. She manages personalities, fixes scrapes and cuts, wipes noses and tears. She helps her kids navigate ever-changing relationships and moods. At any given time, she’s attending to the hurt feelings of one child and attempting to engage another whose attention span is fleeting. She may be patiently problem solving with a child who struggles with a concept or assisting four others on a math test. Often, she’s doing any number of these things simultaneously, while teaching!

In addition to all of this—and her prep work and training and certifications—she responds to perhaps the most demanding customers in her equation: parents, both those who respect what she does and those who don’t. There isn’t enough money in the world that could entice me to do even that part of the job, let alone the rest of it.

For seven hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks each year, for 13 years, we put our children in the care of teachers. But from the way many folks are vilifying them, you’d think our little bumpkins were spending time with Osama bin Laden.

(As published today in San Diego CityBeat.)

The Palm Pilot: Who needs church when you have an app?

One of my daughter’s schoolmates walked up to me the other day, her blue eyes wide, and apropos of nothing, said, “If you don’t go to church, you can’t know God.” She was confident. I, on the other hand, was rattled, given that the outrageous remark came from nowhere, as outrageous remarks from 5-year-olds often do. Still, I’m not great when put on the spot, and my involuntary response ruled the moment.

“Well, that’s not true,” I said.

“Yes it is!” said the sure-footed little darling.

“Well, some people believe God is all around them,” I said. “And some people—.”

Some people, I thought to myself, don’t give their kids iPhones because if Little Miss Sure of Herself had an iPhone, she would know that in the age of new media, church is nearly obsolete.

Case in point: After consulting with priests, the co-founders of LittleiApps have developed Confession: A Roman Catholic App. The Pope has bestowed the app with his seal of approval, which is hardly surprising given he up and abolished limbo a few years back because, he argued at the time, limbo is just a “theological hypothesis.” Ahem. I mean, Amen.

Selling for $1.99, Confession became one of the top 50 most-purchased apps from iTunes as of late January, a boon for the developers, one of whom claims his tithing more than compensates for the profit he doesn’t admit making. The same goes for the suckers guilt-ridden among us: To be absolved of badness without setting foot in a church, for less than two bucks? That’s like an additional 50-percent-off clearance at Barney’s for the financially challenged fashionista. At that price, I could justify purchasing it to satisfy my curiosity. But I’m a Jew; recognizing a good deal is in my genes.

Concerned this purchase would be a donation to the Catholic Church—where the Grand Pooh-Bah wears purty dresses and protects the child molesters within its ranks (talk about a dude who need this app!)—I decided to buy some clown porn to balance the karmic scales. I got freaked out, however, by the still images on the producer’s website (if a photo of clowns fucking doesn’t do it for me, a moving picture is out of the question). Instead, I made a donation to Planned Parenthood.

After printing the receipt for my records, I opened my new app and readied myself to feel closer to God. Sure, there’s that whole I’m an atheist thing standing between God and me, but I’m not closed to the possibility that a phone can be a conduit for spirituality. Just the other day, a girl next to me in yoga class was texting from downward dog and her chakras seemed perfectly aligned. Why not an app to save my soul?

Before I could properly confess, I had to register: The app asks for a Name (iSinner), Sex (doggie style, pls! Er, I mean, female) and Birthday (1998—priests like minors); there’s a required and oddly limited pull-down menu for Vocation (single, married, priest, religious) and Date of Last Confession to be updated with each subsequent use. The brilliance of technology will keep the confessor honest in the way a priest on the other side of a thin partition can’t; there’s no fudging the date of your last confession here.

After setting my password (I’ll let you imagine that one), I went to the Examination of Conscience page and reviewed the Ten Commandments. Some people need an e-reminder that killing, cheating, stealing, lying and screwing your neighbor’s husband are no-no’s. I’m good to go on the How to Behave as a Human Being because my mama raised me right, so I skipped to the confession.

“This app is intended to be used during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic priest only,” reads the disclaimer. “This is not a substitute for a valid confession.” Ah ha! I get it. This app is a shortcut, like a “Sabbath” setting on an oven.

So there I sat at my dining room table, talking to my iPhone. Not talking on my phone, but to my phone.

“Are you there, God? It’s me, Aaryn,” I said, recalling one of my favorite Judy Blume books. “Uh. Last Friday, my in-laws took my daughter for the morning so I could write. But instead of writing, I—masturbated.” Just saying the word “masturbated” made me kind of horny. Is it bad to be horny during confession?

Holding my phone, I continued: “And as long as I’m confessing, God, well, last Monday, I told a 5-year-old fan of yours that some people don’t believe in you.”

My iPhone then did what I imagine lots of priests do: It went to sleep. I felt a little offended that I had to log back in to finish up. Not to mention I was trying to hurry so I could masturbate before I had to pick my kid up from school. Alone time is precious in these parts.

After my confession, I was prompted to read a little ditty called “Act of Contrition,” which I did, though I have to admit I kept getting distracted by the sound of my eyeballs rolling to the back of my head. I didn’t feel all that sorry. In fact, I was kind of bored. But I said “amen” and waited for my absolution.

For $1.99, I felt nothing but amusement.

Spend the money if you want, but, in my opinion, there’s only one way to know God and it has nothing to do with showing up at church or iConfession.

(As published in San Diego CityBeat.)

I love my snowbirds: My in-laws are here to stay

It was Monday, Dec. 20, and we weren’t expecting my in-laws for another four days. But then the phone rang.

“We’re making really great time. The weather’s been terrific, and there’s hardly any traffic. We’re in a town called—” My father-in-law paused to double check. “Uh, Lakeside? Have you heard of it?”

“Lakeside?!?” I said to Sam, when he relayed the information. “But—they’re supposed to be in Santa Fe right now! What the hell?”

“They’ll be here by lunch time,” Sam said. I blinked at him in silence. I started to hyperventilate. “But I’ll tell them to come at dinner,” he said. I was getting dizzy, seeing spots and auras and tracers. I genuinely like my inlaws, but I was dreading this visit.

“What do you think? Is 4:30 OK?” I nodded, and sat down on the couch using a hand to steady myself. I asked Sam to bring me an ice pack for my head.

And so it was that my husband’s parents—along with my sister-in-law and one cute but yappy lap dog—left blizzards and black ice in their rear view mirror and began their first winter as snowbirds. It was now only the distance between East County and the College Area separating me from a two-and-a-half month visit.

No, that’s no typo; it’s my reality. A two-and-a-half-month visit! With my in-laws!

Good Christ.

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law.”

Now, I don’t need a jungle between my in-laws and me. But one plane ticket is about right. I’m the Queen of the Short Visit, Master of the Three-Day Weekend. I can tolerate just about anything for 72 hours, but give me an entire season of my mother-in-law’s perfume and my furry father-in-law shirtlessly sunning himself in my back yard? Well, then. You can just consider me a wild card.

It’s worthy of mention that my husband and I haven’t lived within 1,500 miles of a parental unit for more than 20 years, a choice with which we are both very content. We visit with my mother twice a year, and she and I chat on the phone once every three or four weeks. It works for us.

My in-laws, on the other hand, would like to talk daily. And visit often. And hug and kiss and generally enjoy each other in person, all the time. This is uncomfortable territory for a girl who digs her obligation-free existence. Family dinners? What is that? It’s accurate to say I went into this whole we’re-coming-out-for-the-winter arrangement with a little bit of apprehension.

OK, so maybe that’s downplaying it. I’ve been a little bit more like a 4-year-old having a temper tantrum, complete with foot stomping and fist pounding. It’s not been graceful.

But back to their first night: Their arrival was as smooth as 17 clowns piling out of a Volkswagen Beetle right in the middle of a meditation retreat. The cosmos was disrupted with much exclaiming and fawning. There was tearful hugging. And kissing and touching and stroking of hair and multiple expressions of how exciting it was to have So! Much! Time! Together!

There was a dog-butt-sniffing frenzy and then a small territorial battle. There were the noise-making toys brought cross-country for Ruby and the excited screaming over a much-anticipated Barbie Bus.There was the kitchen takeover and general overcrowding of our little home, already overstuffed with Christmas paraphernalia. It was pandemonium. It was sensory overload. It was everything I’d imagined it would be, and I knew I couldn’t deal for another two months. I poured myself a cocktail and stretched a thin smile across my face.

During the coming weeks, my in-laws settled into a little house they rented in South Park and Sam and I set a few boundaries—he, of course, being more tactful about it than I. When my mother-in-law happily chirped that they’d booked the house for next year, it was through clenched teeth that I said I wasn’t ready to talk about it just yet.

My mother-in-law ignored that and went about her business. She and my father-in-law began to get familiar with what they now call “our ’hood.” They introduced themselves to shop owners and neighbors; if you live or work in the area, I’ll bet money you already know Tommy and Marsha from Wisconsin.

My mother-in-law signed up for knitting workshops. My father-in-law walked the beaches. He’s pushed well beyond his fear of Southern California freeway driving, and just the other day, I watched him top out at 70 mph—I didn’t know he could go over 50—while talking on his cell phone. I was so proud of him.

My sister-in-law does her thing, sometimes with us, sometimes without. But what matters is that they’re all making their own life here, and the presence of a routine has made together-time more wonderful than I’d expected.

And I’m not saying this because of their willingness to babysit, any time, for free! Dear Lord, Sweet Baby Jesus in the sky, the free babysitting is glorious! Just last Thursday, they picked Ruby up after school so I could go to the gym. When I got home, the dishes were done, the floors were swept, the laundry was folded and stacked and our windows were washed. I had to point out to my mother-in-law that she’d left a streak on one of the windows, to which she said, “Oh, fuck you!” God, how I love her.

My temper tantrum is over and this is my public apology for my private bad behavior. I have decided the good far outweighs the bad when it comes to living with only a 10-mile concrete jungle between my in-laws and me. I just can’t wait until they make it permanent.


(As published in San Diego CityBeat.)

Why Fight It?: How to grow old with flair and no apologies

“I’m not depending on fashion because what I do is very individual and this is mine and I enjoy it. That’s all. Nobody else has to like it as long as I look in the mirror and—Ah!— this is me, you know?“—Ilona Royce Smithkin, 90 years old

Without making an itemized list of my various physical and psychic ailments, I’d like to offer this thought on aging: It’s sucky. And just to get in the proper frame of mind for writing about how much I’m not enjoying it, I decided to employ the writer’s version of method acting and listen to some smooth jazz for a bit. That’s right. The words you’re reading have been strung together with country-club-foyer music as inspiration.

“Why smooth jazz?” you ask.

Because smooth jazz is like the McRib and Kathie Lee Gifford: It reminds me that there are things more dreadful and way less stylish than the inability to read a menu in dim light, standing-induced jolting knee pain and the eventual and permanent retiring of all high heels. Be still my heart.

Now, some things can be tackled. Like, when your daughter insists on repeatedly counting your forehead wrinkles, you can create bangs. Or when the Almond Roca and bourbon you consumed during the holidays permanently affix themselves to what was once your waistline, you can use an elastic hair band to button your pants (big shout-out to my once-pregnant friend for that tip).

But “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind and Fire re-mastered as a piano-and-trumpet convergence by someone named Kim Pensyl? That’s a travesty that can’t be fixed with a nylon zip tie. Becoming irrelevant is small potatoes compared with that, and it is this knowledge that keeps me positive in a fake-it-’til-you-make-it kind of way.

In my efforts to shrug off my disdain for aging and come to terms with the inevitable, I started searching the Internet for inspiration. Obviously, I’m not the first woman to go down this path, and there isn’t very much originality in dreading—or worse, complaining about—the aging process. I knew there was something out there that would stir my aspirations. I simply had to find it.

And find it I did. After suffering the usual plethora of mommy blogs (blech and double blech), I turned to my favorite fashion blogs, most of which are aimed at 20-somethings. But it was through these ladies and a complex labyrinth of links that I struck gold—or rather, Bakelite—when I stumbled across Advanced Style.

Hosted by Ari Seth Cohen, a young street photographer in New York City, Advanced Style is devoted almost entirely to the stylish older woman (though Cohen includes some very dapper men, from time-to-time).

And by “older” I mean “senior.” Cohen has a tab at the top of his home page called “I’m proud to be __ years old,” and all of the stylish women featured on that page proudly claim more than 80 years each. Not only that, but they also make being old look way more fun than any of this “prime of our lives” bullpuckey.

Cohen’s site is filled with wonderful photographs of vibrant, relevant women of very diverse and yet similarly concrete individuality. Most recently, he’s teamed up with a videographer named Lina Plioplyte of Teenage Peanut, to make videos of these women, shorts that are both inspirational and indescribably moving.

One of my favorite stylistas is the oft-featured and wildly bohemian 90-year-old Ilona, who has an insatiable thirst for color and no time to fret about age. She has short, bright-orange hair, the clippings of which she used to make a set of fabulously long false eyelashes that she’s worn like a trademark for 40 years.

“I’m in very good relationship with them, just like with my body. I talk to it. I say, ‘Now listen: I’m very nice to you, be nice to me,’” she says in her video.

We should all be so kind when we talk to our bodies.

Jean and Valerie of Idiosyncratic Fashionistas were recently launched to international fame after Cohen featured them on his site. During their interview, Jean extends an arm stacked with red and black Bakelite bracelets and squeezes—between fingers also adorned with Bakelite rings—Valerie’s homemade stress ball necklace. Their motto is “Growing old with verve.”

And then there’s Debra Rapoport, an expert thrifter with a pink streak splashed through her asymmetrical white hair. She takes us shopping in her video and tries on a black leather dress that zips down to there and up to here. She throws an orange boa over the top (“Nothin’ like an orange boa! You know how I love orange! Orange is neutral”) and the ensemble instantly underscores her magnetic personality. With all this, plus a body to die for, Rapoport is gorgeous, sexy, smart and wonderfully au courant. I want to be her when I grow up. Scratch that. I want to be her right now.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Advanced Style—The Best Website Ever Invented—is what you will not find: Women puffed up by collagen injections or boob jobs; women attempting to deny age; women wearing labels for status; women following rules (you should see the number of 60-somethings wearing skirts above the knee). You will not find Kathie Lee Gifford here. You will not find smooth jazz.

But, someday, if I’m lucky and if I stop my whining and really take to heart the message the ladies of Advanced Style are sending, you may find me.

(As published on January 19, 2011 in San Diego CityBeat.)

Hypothetically speaking: Resolutions that I’m not going to make

As far as I’m concerned, New Year’s resolutions are for other people. You want to make enough of them to fill a Torah-length scroll? Good for you. Way to be ambitious. I, on the other hand, never make any. I don’t need that kind of pressure. The way I see it, failure hurts less when you aim low. If it’s suffering and self-flagellation I want, I’ll let eight weeks slip by between bikini waxes.

However. When a flight attendant offered a free cocktail to the passenger with the most creative resolution during a recent flight, I whipped out my pen. It may have been disingenuous to participate, seeing as I had zero intention of actually seeing mine through. But I’m competitive and I wanted a whisky. Mostly, I’m competitive.

The judging resulted in a four-way tie.

Two people promised to feed the homeless and do good for the downtrodden and blah-dee-blah—fairly vague and accountability-free goals, if you ask me. Another winner planned to travel on Alaska Airlines 50 times during 2011. Clearly, this lady was the class suck up, the one who always sat in the front row with her hand up and a ready answer. She was the one who volunteered to help the teacher pass out the exam sheets.

And then there was the woman in seat 9B who promised “to be more compassionate toward all the mutants who seemed never to have been through an airport security check point before, like the sedated lady with a lapcat and two teenage traveling companions who—more concerned with the perfect placement of their Justin Bieber coifs—couldn’t be bothered to help their molasses-impersonating basket case of a mother unload her 17 bins of crap.”

Is it wrong to quote myself ? And so it was—as Sam and I sipped on free Crown Royal during the last hour of our flight, basking in the glow of my win—that I proceeded to compile a list of resolutions I would make if I were a resolution maker. Which I still am not. But if I were, 2011 would be the year that:

• I would be on time for everything, including bill payment, starting my period and deadlines (waves sheepishly to editor).

• I would brush my teeth and floss after every meal.

• I would open and sort through my stack of mail on a daily basis rather than piling it up on every household surface indefinitely.

• Instead of running on fumes, I would fill my car up with gas whenever it gets down to the quarter-tank mark so that when Armageddon or Rainmageddon or Whatevermageddon happens, I’d be prepared.

I might even stock my trunk with a gallon of water, a flashlight, an emergency blanket and some canned beans. I’d be sort of like a Mormon, only without the magic underpants and self-righteousness.

• Speaking of beans, I would stop kvetching about how the taco shop screwed up my burrito again, even as I ate my burrito. Instead of ruining the meal for everybody, I would take it back to the counter and ask for it to be fixed.

• I would ask nicely.

• I would try to pretend, for the benefit of my friends who insist on owning them, that I like cats.

• In addition, I would quit making remarks about how the best place for cats is cuddled up next to a bunch of stones in a burlap sack at the bottom of the San Diego River.

• I would respond in a most heartfelt-regretful manner to hate mail from cat lovers.

• I would donate the proceeds of every future column to the Feral Cat Coalition.

• (Ha ha ha ha ha— yeah, right. That totally isn’t a resolution I would ever make. Fuck the Feral Cat Coalition.)

• I would swear less.

• Rather than secretly enjoying the melancholy for the angst-riddled teenage days of a simple country girl mocked by cheerleaders, I would change the dial on my car radio whenever a Taylor Swift song is played.

• I would put more money away for my daughter’s future.

• I wouldn’t regale the telemarketer from the Democratic National Committee with an itemized list of reasons why I’ll never donate another penny to the Democrats while also antagonizing her with repeated requests for a donation to my child’s college fund.

• I would simply hang up on her instead.

• I wouldn’t hold a grudge against our college neighbors for taking the parking space directly in front of our house.

• I would buy only one pair of shoes all year. OK, probably two. It’s good to be realistic when writing resolutions.

• I would believe in unicorns and the fundamental goodness in all humans, even greedy bankers and those who shop at Michael’s—like the woman in front of me this past holiday season who waited until her subtotal flashed on the cash register before holding up the entire check-out line while a manager procured for her the green spray paint she forgot to grab.

• I wouldn’t, in such situations as the one above, take a photo of the annoying person hemming-and-hawing over which hue of spray paint to purchase, send it to my only Christian friend and tell her she was right, there is a hell after all and it is called Michael’s.

• I would resolve to never set foot in a Michael’s again.

• I would give my husband more blowjobs. The annual birthday / anniversary / Christmas schedule really is phoning it in.

• If I did that, I bet I could revise my previous shoe resolution to one purchase a week.

• I would definitely, definitely hang the oversized glass dreidel ornament from my mother-in-law on the Christmas tree, front and center, before her arrival, instead of keeping it packed away “in case of breakage.”

• I would not let more than four weeks pass between bikini waxes. Oy, the suffering that could be avoided.

(This article ran in San Diego CityBeat on January 5, 2011. I’m a little behind in posting.)

I quit, part two: Life before Facebook is better than I remembered it

I think it’s official: I’m a curmudgeonly old person. I listen almost exclusively to NPR. I recount, daily, how there were naps and no homework when I was in kindergarten. I sometimes drink coffee with my lunch. I can’t see well at night, and while I don’t have to put my teeth in a jar before going to bed, I’ve decided that Facebook is the Devil.

And so it was that without much pain at all, I found and hit the “deactivate” button on my account a couple of weeks ago. I was promptly bombarded with a well-executed, if ineffective, guilt trip: Rachel **** will miss you if you leave! Steve ***** will miss you if you leave! Joe ***** will miss you if you leave! And so on and so on.

I was unmoved: As it happens, I was going to be drinking beers that very night, live and in-person, with all the friends who were going to be missing me. At least they’d have the opportunity to pine for me face-to-face.

Less than one week after freeing myself of the cloying self-promotion, inane inner dialogue and regurgitated thoughts that define Facebook, I heard Mark Zuckerberg talking on NPR about his latest endeavor to take over the world. Of his new e-mail-ish method of communication, he said: “All your IMs, messages, e-mails, SMSs go into that, and you have one history, and you can kind of go through it forever, right? And that’s going to be really cool because five years from now, you’re going to just have this full, rich history of all of the communication that you have with each of your friends and the people around you.”

A “full, rich history of all of the communication that you have with each of your friends and the people around you”? “Really cool”? Oh my God, you guys. Humans are so doomed.

Who wants a transcription of their life?

Not me, thanks. The transcribed existence is not cool. What it is is thoroughly disturbing. And let’s face it: Zuckerberg, of all people, should know that the only folks interested in his version of a “full, rich history” are lawyers.

Here’s the thing: What makes life full and rich is not a public announcement of every headache, twitch, itch, crane, peacock or firefly pose successfully (or not successfully) accomplished. Namaste.

It is not the status update about your sit-ups, push-ups, break-ups, breakdowns, kisses, orgasms, orgies and subsequent afterglow (and tagged photo documentation of all of it).

It’s not the countless wasted hours of swirly-eyed reading about all these things done or not done by your friends or “friends” or boyfriends or exes or childhood playground playmates whom you haven’t seen in 30 years.

It’s not the quick, heartfelt posting of “Happy Birthday, You!” on the wall of a friend whose memory in your mind’s eye is, more often than not, way better than the reality of who they turned out to be, the poor schmuck.

It’s not the use of what Grant Barrett of A Way With Words calls “paralinguistic restitution”—those little clues also known as <3 and J and LOL—in an endless effort to convey that which would otherwise be conveyed through a conversation held by two people in the same physical space.

And a full, rich history is definitely not navigating the dangerous quagmire of drama that arises when the <3s and Js fail to fill in the blanks after a simple status update is woefully misinterpreted.

What it is—this “full, rich history”—is what you build with the people in your real life, with whom you spend real time, to whom you send real birthday cards and for whom you buy real cocktails. It’s what you have with people who know your phone number—if not by memory, then by contact list—and use it.

It’s what you have with a person you can (and want to) touch and hug and laugh to the point of tears with over some joke that isn’t going to be recorded for all eternity, and, believe me, that joke isn’t going to be half as funny five years from now, with a few emoticons tacked onto the end reminding you to LOL.

A full and rich history is what you build when you look a friend or a neighbor or a parent or a child in the eyes and connect and discover and truly understand the complexity of being human. What makes life full and rich is the exact opposite of Zuckerberg’s wonderfully, permanently, litigiously tracked “forever” interactions. The brilliance and glory in a full and rich life is, of course, the fleetingness of it all. The impermanence of now. It’s the knowledge that there is an end in store for all of us, even—though they would deny it—for those who live today in prostration for an eternal tomorrow, an endless string of sunny days to be spent at the Great Big Shopping Mall in the Sky.

>It’s all temporary, so you’d better get busy and smell the roses. Or, spend your time texting to your Facebook wall, “I’m at the zoo with the monkeys!” while the monkeys fling shit at your oblivious face, turned down as it is, focused on your smart phone.

This constant exposure and revealing and sharing and recording and general vomiting of every single second of our lives—an ongoing habit shared by 500 million of us with a now-insatiable need for constant validation— isn’t meaningful. It’s gross.

And that’s why I quit. Because I want to be less gross. So far, so good. But we can revisit this status update when my teeth begin to fall out.

(As published yesterday in San Diego CityBeat.)