Row Your Boat

While the blog was on hiatus, I took up a new hobby—rowing.

As to the common questions I get when I tell people about this:

  1. Yes, real rowing.  In a boat.  On the water.
  2. No, you don’t have to wake up at four in the morning.
  3. Yes, it’s lovely on the water.
  4. No, we don’t wear helmets or life vests.
  5. As a workout, it absolutely kicks your ass.

I had no prior experience with rowing.  I had no particular affinity for boats—I’d been in canoes and kayaks a few times, and my grandparents owned a pontoon boat when I was a kid.

But none of this prepared me for rowing.

The other question I am asked (particularly by the other members who are always recruiting) is why I signed up for their eight week learn to row class.

It’s a three-pronged answer:

  1. During the Oakmont Street Fair, someone from the rowing club handed me a flyer
  2. Tess Monaghan, heroine of a series of Laura Lippman detective novels, spends her mornings rowing on the Patapsco River and it seems to keep her body and mind ready to fight crime.  (I make a surprising number of life decisions based on what I think Tess Monaghan, Eve Dallas, Mary Chapin Carpenter, MacKayla Lane, or Katharine Hepburn would do in the same situation.  I normally don’t admit this, so let’s keep this between us, okay?)
  3. Steel City Rowing Club is fifteen minutes from my house. 

Fifteen minutes.  That’s all that separated me from a whole new world that was right outside my door.  Fifteen minutes and I was out on the water, rowing away and feeling like my teammates and I were the only people in the world.  If you’re doing it right, you leave all your worries and cares on the shore and just live in the moment of every stroke.

Eight weeks and I was hooked.  Eight minutes and I was hooked.

I have many well established, nearly lifelong loves—cats, dark movie theaters, good books.  I like to tell stories.  I like treadmills, and concerts, and obsessively organizing my desk.

But it’s good to try something new.  Sometimes—like my short-lived career in typewriter restoration—it doesn’t work out.

But sometimes it does.  Rowing has invigorated me—body, mind, soul.  I have a new exercise regimen, a new community of friends, and the thrill that comes from the step by step process of maturing from a complete novice to an intermediate. 

Maybe one day I’ll be a master.

But rowing is like writing, or yoga, or a life well lived.

There is no mastery.  There is only the joy of pursuit.

So whatever it is—small or large—try something new.  Row your boat, whatever that means to you.

And it doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, we nearly sunk a boat last summer.

But that’s a story for another Sunday.

Spilled (Chocolate) Milk

It’s nice to have friends you don’t have to be “cool” with.

You know what I mean:  the ones you don’t have to impress with your clothes, or your promotion, or with some clever antectdote about howgreat you’re doing.

The ones you can be yourself with.

Last weekend I had dinner with just such a group of friends.  Afterwards, as is our custom, my friend Esra and I stopped off for coffee before heading home.

Since it was the first snowy night of the year, and because I’d already had way too much caffeine, we ordered hot chocolate and biscotti instead.

My extremely un-cool incident began with a mishap involving the biscotti.

I had talked my friend into a late-night viewing of Little Women, and was searching my phone for movie times when the biscotti slipped out of my fingers.  There was a moment when I could’ve grabbed it as it bobbed along the chocolatey surface, but I hesitated and it plunged to the bottom of the cup.

No big deal.  I’d get to it when I reached the bottom of the cup.

This was not to be.  At least, not in the way I’d anticipated.

Because a few minutes later, I knocked the cup over with my elbow.  It was a straight shot, right from the table into my lap. The chocolate milk–thankfully no longer scalding hot–soaked through my jeans to my thigh.

It spilled onto the chair as well, ensuring the seat of my jeans was also drenched.

On top of that, the chocolate biscotti had disintegrated into a dark brown pile that was also currently all over me.

It had gotten the sleeve of my jacket, and the hat hanging out of my pocket as well.

While Esra and I cleaned up the mess as best we could with fistfuls of tiny beverage napkins, I took a step back and survyed myself.

Brown liquid soaking my jeans.  Ground up brown biscotti stuck to my butt.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.

There went my chance for a fifth viewing of Little Women.

Because even though I was grateful to be with a friend where I didn’t feel completely embarrassed at what I’d done, even I didn’t have the confidence to go into a movie theater looking like I’d soiled myself.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Since I was in junior high, I’ve made a goal every year to watch all the Oscar nominated Best Picture Films.

And every year events conspire to thwart me.

This year was no different.

I started with Joker, a film for which I had a visceral dislike.  In fact, I have not felt such anger and despair coming out of a movie theater since 2004, when I saw Million Dollar Baby, which incidentally won best picture that year. 

Surely the worst was over.  (Spoiler alert:  It was.)

One down, eight to go. 

Then I saw Little Women and all my Oscar plans went down the drain.

Greta Gerwig, the film’s writer and director, brings some of Alcott’s subtler messages to the forefront, but she doesn’t say anything that doesn’t exist in the text.  The movie is about the coming of age of the March sisters, as it should be, but also brings forth themes about women and art, commerce, and marriage.

Any careful reader of the novel chafes at the ending.  Gerwig has found a clever way to honor both the story Alcott told and the one the readers suspects she wanted but was unable to tell due to the dictates of the time.

But I must leave Little Women and soldier on.  More Oscar films await.  The next weekend I decided to watch JoJo Rabbit.

Except when I got to the ticket counter, I said, “One ticket for Little Women, please.”

Instead of the Irishman, I watched Little Women

When it was time to see Marriage Story?  You guessed it.  Little Women

Reader, I’ve watched it four times in the theater.

And I’m not sure I’m finished.

If it were up to me, I’d give every single Oscar to Little Women, including Best Original Song, even though there was no singing.

So we’ve established that my objectivity is shot to hell.  With the being said, I crammed in as many other nominees as I could. 

A quick roundup:

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…If you’re under 40, read Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter before viewing or you will have no idea what’s happening.

Parasite…If you know nothing about it, it’s probably enjoyable.  But it doesn’t live up to the critic’s hype.  And I’m not sure it’s worth dealing with subtitles.

1917…I didn’t care if those two boys lived or died, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what the filmmaker was going for.

Truthfully, if I had to do it over again, I’d have seen Little Women for a fifth, sixth, and seventh time instead.

Oh, and Ford V. Ferrari?  I know her part is small, but I won’t watch anything with Caitriona Balfe in it until after the Outlander TV series ends.  I want my vision of Caitriona as Claire Fraser kept pure.

Irrational?  Of course. 

But to love something that much is the gift of making and consuming art.

Merci, Mercy

Picture the scene:  Chick-fil-A during the Friday lunch rush.

A line of drive-thru cars snaking out of the lot and blocking traffic.  Every parking spot and table taken.  A cluster of people by the front counter awaiting take-out bags.  Kids screaming from the play room.

But it’s Friday and I want a Deluxe Chicken Sandwich with waffle fries, dammit.

The line goes quickly.  These people know what they’re doing. 

When it’s my turn, I give my order to a blonde girl behind the counter.  In her preemptive defense, I want to emphasize her youth over her blondeness.  My guess is she was about sixteen and working her first job. 

In the fast food dance as old as time, I order.

“Number one—with cheese, waffle fries, Coke.”

 “For here or to go?”

“Here, please.”

“And I can tell from your shirt that the name for the order is Mercy,” she says with that warm, genuine smile that must be straight out of the Chick-fil-A handbook.

That’s how she pronounced it—Mercy.  I had no idea what she meant.

Seeing my obvious puzzlement, she nodded at my shirt.

Oh boy.

Merci is stitched across the front of my sweater. 

And to be clear, this is not some treasured souvenir from Paris.  This is a fifteen-dollar sweater (pictured at the start of this blog) I bought from the Old Navy in the same shopping center as the Chick-fil-A.

I started to point out that Merci is French for thank you, but honestly, I couldn’t think of a way without coming off incredibly condescending. 

“Um, no,” I said, as politely as I could.  “That’s close, but my name is Melanie.”

I felt embarrassed for her, that’s why I gave her partial credit for Merci-Mercy being “close” to Melanie.  By close I suppose I meant they both started with “M.”

Suddenly, I realized she was looking at me with the same expression I was likely using on her.  One that said, this woman is a making a fool of herself but I don’t want to tell her so.

“Well,” she said, with southern belle bless your heart arsenic sweetness.  “It’s a pretty good guess based on the name on your shirt.”

I was speechless as we stared across the counter, each thinking the other is a complete idiot.

Awkward.

Merci,” I said when she handed me my tray.

Just kidding, dear Reader. 

I didn’t come up with that bon mot until hours later.

In reality I muttered a thank you and slunk off to a corner booth with someone else’s name emblazoned across my chest.

Rewatchables

So there’s a podcast I love called The Rewatchables.  In each episode, the hosts analyze a movie they’ve designated as particularly “rewatchable.”

Though it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes a movie rewatchable, you know it when you see it.  These are movies that, when you find them playing, you watch them, even if you’ve seen them multiple times.  It doesn’t matter if you catch them at the beginning, the middle, or five minutes from the end.  You see them through.  You can’t help yourself.

These aren’t always great movies.  Schindler’s List is a cinematic achievement that impacted me profoundly, but I don’t ever want to see it again.  

A rewatchable needs a bonafide movie star at work.  If you find this movie channel surfing, you need someone who’s going to pull you in enough that you’ll stick around through a commercial.  You’re not going to change the channel and miss Meryl Streep chewing up her assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, Bruce Willis running barefoot through broken glass in Die Hard, or Julia Roberts telling a snooty sales associate that she’s made a big mistake in Pretty Woman.  Big!  Huge! 

Rewatchables have easy to follow plots.  You need to know what’s going on even if you missed the first twenty minutes or are only half paying attention while you’re cooking dinner.  Think Clueless, not Inception.

They don’t have to have happy endings, per se, but they need to be satisfying.  There’s a big difference between dying at the end of The Notebook (eminently rewatchable) and American Beauty (less so).

Violence is good, but it shouldn’t be oppressively graphic.  Mission Impossible, not Joker.

Romance (The Notebook) over sex.  Actually, scratch that.  Fatal Attraction is a classic rewatchable all about sex.

Another clue that you’ve got a rewatchable on your hands is that the actors involved never received an Oscar for the movie even though it’s likely their most beloved work.

Be honest…when I say Reese Witherspoon, do you think of Legally Blonde or Walk The Line?

Kate Winslet…Titanic or The Reader?

Morgan Freeman…Shawshank Redemption or Million Dollar Baby?

We could play this game all night.

And it should go without saying that all your favorite movie quotes come from rewatchables. 

In the old, pre-streaming days, there was an element of serendipity to rewatching.  You’d find something on cable, or an old favorite on the Blockbuster shelf (kids, ask you parents.) 

Now we have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+.  The movies don’t choose us, we choose them.  We can finally, easily, watch all the IMPORTANT films that won Oscars for Best Picture, thoughtful subtitled foreign films, or documentaries that will change the way we see the world.

Or we could watch Mean Girls for the seventeenth time.  I vote for Lindsay Lohan before the fall.

Check out The Ringer’s podcast The Rewatchables, where they discuss all the Rewatchable movies mentioned in this post.

Me and Lady C

There comes a time in every woman’s life when you look in the mirror and face the truth. 

It’s not just a few stray strands.  You’re going gray.

“I’m thinking of dyeing my hair,” I told my mother, so she could reassure me it was completely unnecessary.

“Good idea,” she said.

That weekend I met Lady Clairol.

I put on an old t-shirt and began one of the medium-level bizarre female beauty rituals.  (More bizarre than lipstick, less than a bikini wax.)

I donned a pair of too big flimsy plastic gloves that tore at the slightest provocation. 

I mixed two chemicals together, helpfully labeled with a gigantic “1” and “2” on the bottles.  The first is the Color Enhancing Cream, and the second is the Color Activator.  I squeezed bottle “1” into bottle “2” and shook-shook-shook.  The two white chemicals turned a hopefully-natural-looking brown and emitted an unpleasant smell.

I hadn’t made this kind of reaction since playing with my childhood chemistry set, but it was so far, so good.

I squeezed the concoction onto my hair and rubbed it in.  It was around this time that I read the directions imploring the user to do an allergy test forty-eight hours before use.

Oops.

Could they make the font any smaller?

I didn’t know what the allergy test entailed, but seeing as the combined contents of bottles “1” and “2” were all over my head, it was too late now.  I hoped the mild burning on the edge of my forehead was normal and not indicative of oncoming second degree burns.

Twenty minutes and a rinse later and voila!  I was young again.

I put my glasses back on and when I could see again things went downhill.

The trouble with hair dye is that it doesn’t just dye your hair.  It dyes everything it touches.

I thought I’d been careful, but the brown spots around the bathroom looked like brown blood spatter under a blacklight after a particularly vicious murder.

Frantically I wiped spots from the mirror, the sink, the floor.

I had dye on my forehead, my forearms, even on my knee.  I scrubbed against the clock, and I was proud of myself when I got every last spot.

Or so I thought.

I turned around and there it was.  Two brown smears across my white wooden bathroom door. 

Major Oops

Nothing worked.  Not scrubbing, not Magic Eraser, not nail polish remover.

So the day after Christmas, while the rest of the world shopped, I took the door into my garage and painted.  And painted.  And painted.

It took five coats to cover the spots.

But you know what?

My hair looks damn good.

Not a gray in sight.

MEGXIT!

It was bound to happen:  Harry and Meghan were going to shake up the royal family.

And I would revive the blog to write about it.

A quick primer:  After a brief honeymoon period in which the press gushed over Meghan Markle, the British tabloids quickly remembered that happy endings don’t sell papers.

She went from the glamorous modern actress charming Prince Harry to the vulgar social climbing divorcée who’d turned him against his family.

Grace Kelly to Wallis Simpson in less than a year.

Prince Harry has never let the press off the hook for their role in his mother Princess Diana’s death, nor the misery they caused her in life.  Nor has he turned a blind eye to their treatment of his wife—lambasting her for breaks in protocol including shutting her own car door, wearing off the shoulder gowns, signing autographs, and crossing her legs incorrectly (not failing to cross her legs, mind you, but crossing them incorrectly.)

Her greatest sin is subjecting the world to the horror of a white royal prince marrying a mixed-race woman.  The giddy headlines alluding to such are the work of small and nasty minds.

So is it any wonder Meghan and Harry have announced they are stepping back from their royal duties?

Much of the conversation thus far has focused on the “have their cake and eat it too” aspect of this process.  Harry is not (yet) abdicating his title, which would mean giving up this claim to the throne and all the financial benefits of royalty.  He and Meghan have proclaimed their desire to become financially independent, but plan to continue living in the Queen’s Frogmore Cottage that has just undergone a $3 million dollar taxpayer-funded renovation.  They will only talk to media of their choosing, but will likely still receive the bulk of their money from Prince Charles, and therefore from the British taxpayer.

Breaking up, it seems, is hard to do.

Obsessing over the money is to focus on the least interesting part of the story.  (Although it is true that as an American, my wallet remains intact either way.) 

This is a story of family versus country.

For truly, who can blame Harry for wanting to shield his wife and son from a parasitic press, an entitled public, and an internet full of vicious trolls?  Who can blame him for trying to maintain ties, however strained, with his brother, father, and grandmother?

Harry is putting his role as a husband and father first.  He’s a romantic hero.  The king of men.

(Speaking of the king of men, do you think Jamie Fraser would’ve let the press treat Claire this way?  I rest my case.)

But he isn’t just a man, is he?  He’s a royal.

And a royal puts his country and the royal brand first—before his own personal family, and certainly before his personal happiness.

At least, that’s what his grandmother thinks.

When Queen Elizabeth II took the throne, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn graced the silver screen in The African Queen.  Color television was a year away from mass adoption.  Married women couldn’t open a checking account or get a credit card without permission from her husband. 

Queen Elizabeth II does not speak out on political issues.  She has never acted in a way that lead to even a whiff of scandal (her family, of course, is another story.)  She has always put her role as Queen front and center.

She would never think of placing her personal happiness—or that of her children—ahead of her duties as Queen.

And she has been universally beloved throughout her nearly seventy-year reign because of it.

I am happy for Harry and Meghan for stepping back from the madness, in whatever form they see fit.  He and his brother will reconcile.  William will get over it.  Charles will too.

The old generation dies out and gives way to the new.  This is the way it is, and the way it should be.  But I can’t help thinking of the Queen, ninety-three years old and watching the world she spent her entire life shaping and defending crumble beneath her feet.

She won’t get over it.  And I don’t think you have to be a queen to understand why.

Night At The Airport

Beware the Evil Airport Kiosk!

Picture this:  I’m at the Pittsburgh airport the night before my first international business trip.  I’ve decided to stay at the airport’s hotel to avoid an early morning drive through a snowstorm to arrive in time for my six am flight.

At around 9:30 pm, I take the escalator up to the ticketing counter to check-in for my flight.

Not a single ticketing agent is around.  The kiosks are turned off for the night.  No security guards, no janitors, no other passengers.  Not a soul in sight.  All the evening flights have taken off.  I will have to check-in the next morning.

On my way back to the hotel, I find a solitary working kiosk.

Jackpot.

I scan my credit card and passport.  So far, so good.  The image of my passport comes up on the screen, along with a spinning circle as the computer processes my information.

And processes.  And processes.

Three minutes go by.  Five.  Eight.

The damn thing is frozen.

With my passport page—containing my photograph, name, passport number, and a whole host of personal information—on the screen for all the world to see. (If there was anyone around.)

I can’t find help, and I can’t just leave my personal information there for identity thieves to stumble over like a late Christmas present.

I panic.  Then I think about what I do when my computer froze at home, and figure, what do I have to lose?

With a quick glance around—now I’m quite happy for the lack of witnesses—I get down on my hands and knees and crawl behind the machine.  I find the cord and follow it down the aisle to its outlet.

Then, with one last glance over my shoulder, I do it.

I pull the plug.

On the kiosk, my face disappears and the screen goes black.

I wait for the TSA to rush in an arrest me.  Fortunately, the government is shut down so they are literally not being paid to deal with my shenanigans. 

No one comes. 

I plug it back in.  The kiosk reboots to a screen that reads “Out of Order.  Please contact the nearest ticketing agent for assistance.”

Good luck with that.  But all traces of my passport are gone.

Early the next morning, I check in at the counter.  I don’t say a thing about my late-night encounter with the machine.  Neither does the ticketing agent.

I make it through security without issue, so apparently I’m not on any terrorist watch list.

I meet my colleague at the gate, and he asks about my morning.

“Oh fine,” I say, acting like a seasoned traveler instead of a hot mess.  “Very relaxed.  No problem.”

I think he bought it. 

But you and I know the truth.

On The Basis Of Sex

I knew On the Basis of Sex, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic would be a great movie.  I knew it because the title is terrible.

I should clarify—terrible by Hollywood standards.  It’s difficult to remember, and it is not at all clear what the movie is about.  The word “sex” is loaded and gives the wrong impression.  By Hollywood standards, RBG would be a much better title (of course, it was already taken by the fantastic documentary the preceded and likely paved the way for this film).  But Hollywood movie names need pizazz.  I can imagine a bunch of Hollywood types sitting around the table, suggesting names like Marty and Ruth, Legally Brunette, or Ruth’s Truth.

The title refers to the fact that Mrs. Ginsburg spent her early legal career fighting to overturn laws that discriminated…you guess it…on the basis of sex.  In other words, women couldn’t serve on juries, open credit cards in their own names, or attend certain schools solely because they were woman.

If the makers of the film fought to keep that awful title because it was so perfect to the actual story, I was confident the movie would stay (mostly) true to the actual story of Ms. Ginsburg and not stray too far into some portrayal that made her look more like Elle Woods.

And I was right.  The movie is excellent, with enough dramatic Hollywood moments to keep things interesting, while all the while portraying the truth—that Ms. Ginsburg gained success through years of diligent, thankless, and technical work.  She worked longer and harder than those around her and prevailed by knocking down sex discrimination laws one by one.  This, by the way, was only her opening act.  In her sixties she started her new career as a Supreme Court Justice.

When I was in Washington D.C. this past summer, I visited Arlington National Cemetery.  I knew they had a section for past Supreme Court Justices, and I wanted to see where Ruth Bader Ginsburg will ultimately be laid to rest. 

It was an all-day affair, looking for that spot.  Her husband Marty Ginsburg is already laid to rest there, so it was his plot I was looking for.  I wanted to pay my respects to the man behind beside the woman.

Finally we found the Supreme Court Justice section of the cemetery.  I was looking at the headstone of Oliver Wendell Holmes when my mom called me over

“I think I found it!” she called.

I went running, and promptly stepped into a large hole in the ground.

My ankle screamed and I went down like a sack of potatoes.  The whole was a foot deep, and was well-hidden by the overgrown grass.  I rolled around in pain and my mom came running over, yelling for my dad.  There wasn’t another person in sight and the cemetery covers over 600 acres. 

What the heck were we going to do if I couldn’t walk? 

Fortunately, after a few minutes, I was able to stand.  My ankle was sore and a bit swollen over the next few days, but it wasn’t broken and it wasn’t sprained.  Before we headed back, I insisted on hobbling over to Martin Ginsburg’s grave.  I hadn’t come all this way to give up now.

I saw the spot and paid my respects to both Ginsburgs. 

So go see the movie.  And remember me hobbling around looking for the future resting spot of the great RGB.

A Tale of Two Pots

For years, I have coveted a Dutch oven.  They’re big and heavy, and I figured they would be great for making soup and stew.  (As some of you know, I cook one thing on Sunday and eat it all week, so in the winter I live on alternating weeks of chicken noodle and beef barley soup.  Thus, a big pot is especially appealing).

But I always held back because they’re expensive.  Until this Black Friday.

There she was—eight quarts of beautiful rusty red cast iron so heavy I could barely lift her.

The Dutch oven wasn’t on my list, and I didn’t really need it, but at fifty percent off, it was now or never.

I took her home, and the next morning I made the best beef and barely soup of my life

I was giddy. 

I needed a big space for her, so I immediately emptied out the bottom shelf of the pantry and enshrined her there.

Fast forward to mid-December.  I was at Wal-Mart, and came across the aisle of Instapots.

Instapots are multipurpose pressure cookers.  They’re all the rage online, and I have a coworker who absolutely loves hers.  She told me you can make yogurt, short ribs, spaghetti, and even cheesecake by dumping all the ingredients into the pot, clamping it shut and forgetting about it.  Instead of slow cooking a beef stew in my gorgeous Dutch oven for eight hours, I could whip it up in an Instapot in forty-five minutes.

On impulse, I bought it.  My Dutch oven had worked out so well, so why not?

It was late, so when I brought the Instapot home I temporarily stored it on the floor just outside my kitchen.

The next day at work, I told my coworker about my purchase.  She was thrilled.  It was so fast!  So easy!  So versatile!  So fun!

I came home and saw the Instapot on the floor.  I waited for the euphoria I had felt when I bought the Dutch oven, but nothing.

I told myself this was because I didn’t know how to use the Instapot yet.  I’d do some research on the internet, find some recipes.  Also, I didn’t have room for it.  The Dutch oven had taken up all available pantry space.  Finding space for the Instapot was going to require a full-scale kitchen decluttering.

It would be great.  I’d Marie Kondo the kitchen and find both joy and a place for my Instapot.  And then I’d spend my Sundays making fast! easy! fun! stew and yogurt.

Except I didn’t. 

Between Christmas and New Year’s, I had two four day weekends and nothing but time on my hands.  Every time I thought about decluttering my kitchen, I went to the movies instead.  And every time I thought about researching new recipes online, I read a novel.

I went back to work in January with the Instapot still unopened on the floor.

Suddenly, I had problems.  I had a cluttered kitchen.  I constantly tripped over the Instapot.  I had a boring to-do list:  read instructions, research recipes, make yogurt from scratch.

The Instapot had become a major pain.  Until the solution hit me.

Reader, I returned the Instapot.  My problems went poof!

My kitchen was no longer cluttered, now that I didn’t need to find room for another huge gadget.    With no directions or new recipes to decipher, I had plenty of time for movies and novels. And as for the yogurt, I bought a six pack of Dannon with Fruit on the Bottom and called it a day.

My lovely Dutch oven and I are perfectly content to simmer for eight hours on Sundays.

Now that’s what I call an InstaFix.