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Monthly Archives: January 2013

HAIR We Go Again

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 7.22.24 PMEvidently, Michelle Obama’s bangs are really important. I confess to reading an article in “She The People” in which several writers have an online tête a tête concerning the First Lady’s new coiffe. No surprises there — Michelle is a beautiful woman in a symbolic role, so naturally, the nation obsesses over her appearance. That’s the U.S. of A.

What’s more intriguing are the varying degrees to which people care about Mrs. Obama’s new do, why they care, and why they care so much or so adamantly little. Allow me to identify a few hair perspectives in the proverbial barbershop:

Straight and Simple

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We live in a culture that overly values physical beauty. The bangs are something else to discuss. The conversation is a testament to her popularity, and to how much the citizens of our great nation need a distraction from our underpaying jobs, savings-sapping universities, and ineffective elected officials.

Layered and Wavy

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Consider the timing of Michele’s new do: just before her 49th birthday and presidential term number two. Perhaps she is announcing a fresh start. Maybe she hates the attention, so she lets bangs and fashion do the heavy lifting. Maybe she wanted a change and thought, yes, I can.

Wired and Coiled

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The physique, wardrobe, and haircut debates reflect a societal sickness. Our preoccupation with the first lady’s appearance insults her status as a highly educated, accomplished professional. She should grow out the bangs and grow a more lasting legacy.

Blown Dry

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Can we talk about Beyonce’s extensions?

Frizzy Business

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It’s a thorny issue, and hair we go again. Bottom line:  it’s annoying to create a false divide between a woman’s professional identity and her appearance. If we can’t conceptualize a woman who chooses to be feminine/stylish as well as professional, then we are suggesting that women have to be more male-like, or at least gender neutral, to be taken seriously. That seems sexist.

To me, Michele lives out the idea that women can have it all, but not necessarily at the same time. I respect her willingness to play many roles, first as a successful lawyer and now as a supportive, stylish wife and mother. That said, it occasionally makes me cringe that her ceremonial role, told mostly through images, is the one laid bare for the world to comb over, with the most persnickety of picks.

See the full article here.

[Photos: “Barber Sign,” Valerie Everett’s photostream, Michelle Obama — Wikipedia]



1: agreeably sharp or acid to the taste

2: marked by a biting, acrimonious, or cutting quality

What is acidic about a buttery shell filled with pasty cream and topped with fruit? I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.

I have no idea. It’s mostly butter and sugar. The recipe comes from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. In true Ina Garten style, it is equal parts delicious and do-able. That said, it has a pressed-in, shortbread cookie crust that I found a bit clumsier and more pockmarked than a traditional rolled-in, homemade pie crust. If you are agile with pie crust, you may want to use a traditional crust recipe.

I should also point out how important it is to grip a false bottomed tart pan from the sides, not the middle, before your crust is fully baked — a crisis I narrowly averted while fumbling around in two large, white “Oven Gloves” à la Michael Jackson.

A third and final word of caution — when digging a serrated knife through your objet d’art, so as to snap off pieces of crust and trail squirts of custard, and maybe send a few berries rolling down the counter to one of the members of a book club as they grasp to articulate the merits of a particular character, it’s best to enter spiritedly into the debate, feigning distracted absorption in their many perspectives as you slyly pass them your dismembered, sagging pieces of tart. I recommend NOT dangling your custard dotted serrated knife near their faces as you lunge for a paper towel and then proceed to smear your countertop with a thin layer of fat.

In these instances a home cook may feel the need to justify her folly in crafting such a pretty dessert, only to butcher it and render it unappetizing before serving. Once again, a line from Pygmalion comes to mind. I saw a production at Theatre Wit this weekend:

“What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.” A good creed for a clumsy cook 🙂

On this note, allow me to promote some theatre, beyond the theatre of me wielding a knife in the kitchen. If you can, see Pygmalion at Theater Wit in Lakeview, jointly produced by Stage Left Theatre and BoHo Theatre. (If you do, check out Cooper’s across the street for some excellent barbecue!)

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 3.00.33 PMPygmalion is the story of a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins who makes a bet with fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can pass off “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle as a duchess, by teaching her to speak like a lady. Pygmalion is the source material for the musical, My Fair Lady, which dramatizes Eliza’s transformation in the wonderfully theatrical and visual way that a musical can. Pygmalion, on the other hand, is chock-full of word play, and subtly shifting power dynamics between the men and the women: Eliza and the professor, Professor Higgins and his mother, Eliza and her father…

What do I like about Pygmalion? There is always the theme of language — rather, the power of language to both create and limit our identity. The same could be said for education, and its powers of creation and limitation: at the end of the play, an exasperated Eliza tells Professor Higgins that she can’t go back to selling flowers on the street; her education has turned her into something new and irreversible, a “lady.”

And yet, being a “lady” at the turn of the twentieth century is in certain ways more limiting than being an uneducated flower girl. After the experiment, Eliza is permanently charged with being an object of refinement and beauty, though she is unmarried and has no real skills, except her recently acquired knowledge of phonetics. Professor Higgins  does not realize the burden he has placed on Eliza by giving her an education that he can’t take back, with no clear place to go. Higgins can’t see how objectifying his project was — he successfully created a lady, but for his own amusement. So what? What happens to her?

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 3.05.13 PMThis is an interesting twist on the Greek myth, Pygmalion, about a king who creates a beautiful statue of a woman, falls in love with her, and treats her as if she were real. It’s almost an inversion — as if Professor Higgins is smitten with a precocious, outspoken, low class woman, and gradually makes her more statuesque.

Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (and one of my favorite novels) also contains this theme, when the precocious and vibrant American, Isabel Archer ends up marrying a European aesthete who treats her like one of many beautiful objects in his art collection.

Aside from the obvious female objectification issues, there is a larger theme at work in these stories, which is: is it inspired folly or just plain folly to cultivate beauty if your spirit isn’t “friendly-like,” as Eliza Doolittle puts it?

More importantly, what are the implications for my tart? I’d say it was well-intended, and beautiful for a second or two. Let’s call it inspired folly. On with the tomfoolery.

[Photos:,, via Creative Commons]

Bill Cunningham New York

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Here is another documentary worth seeing, available on Instant Netflix. Bill Cunningham is an eighty-something street fashion photographer for The New York Times, living in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, surrounded by the now vacant artist studios of such legends as Mark Twain, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, and Isadora Duncan. He lives and breathes street fashion, sleeping in a twin bed sandwiched between messy filing cabinets.

We follow his daily routine: walk his bike down the stairs in the a.m., make a pitstop for a three dollar sandwich, flit from ritzy event to nightlife hotspots to cover New York’s social butterflies, making a point to decline any food or drink. In one scene, the camera follows Cunningham as he photographs a lavish birthday party for a high society matron, working the crowd with murmurs of “child” and “kid.” He hops on his bike and works the same magic with a gathering of drag queens in a different part of town.

Having made his life behind the lens, Bill is a mysterious subject. Interviews with an assortment of fashionistas, fashion editors, designers, and socialites provide incomplete snapshots of his private life. Some observe his comfort with people of privilege and his ambivalence toward money, speculating that he grew up in wealth. Others admit that they are have no idea whether Bill Cunningham is lonely, or if he has a life partner or what his living room looks like. Everyone does have memories of “being photographed by Bill,” seeing their wool coat or pink ankle boots or bowler hat in print, through the eye of his lens.

This documentary really touched me. Okay, it made me tear up a bit. Why? It’s a portrait of someone who is thoroughly kind, an octogenarian who has been biking around New York City for decades, living in relative anonymity, taking pictures of what he finds original, personality-filled, beautiful on the street. Forced to vacate his apartment in Carnegie Hall, Bill faces the prospect of having a kitchen, a closet, a window with a view. You can see that he is wary of these accoutrements. This is someone who sustains himself behind the camera, on the street, cramped between filing cabinets of film negatives until the next day’s search for something beautiful.

[Photo: “Right Back Atcha,” hunter.gatherer’s photo stream]

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 4.34.36 PMAh, the information age… Last Tuesday evening I “un-mundane-ed” such chores as chopping vegetables and grading papers by live streaming the following Netflix documentary about a heartfelt, hardworking artist doing his thing: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.

In Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim writes that Ethel Merman had “the great reservoir of anger of any great comedian.” Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is rather like Ethel — very funny, and not by coincidence, a little angry.

Like many folks, I was excited for Conan when he finally inherited the Tonight Show and  disheartened for him when NBC snatched it back. I always thought that Conan was a more natural comic than Jay Leno. I thought he handled the debacle with class.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop follows Conan during the first five months after his short stint on The Tonight Show, during which he is contractually bound to stay off TV airwaves. As the title suggests, Conan channels his frustration with “any business person who screws over the creative guy” the only way he knows how: by building a cross-country comedy tour. We watch him build a show around job insecurity, disappointment, and “dreams deferred,” which, as you can imagine, involves a lot of self-depracating humor behind the scenes. But the difficult, humble moments also remind you why Conan still deserves The Tonight Show, why comedy is so complex, and why the job of making people laugh requires a fascinating blend of insight, disappointment, vulnerability, and attention-seeking.

At one point, Conan admits to being “like Tinkerbell; without applause, he dies.” After his first gig, he looks into the camera and admits that while it feels good to be onstage, it doesn’t feel as good as he thought it would. The disappointment of having once been “interviewing Barack Obama” and now restarting from scratch understandably lingers. By the end of the movie, he feels a strong need to end the tour and go back to New York, but he has genuinely reinvigorated his sense of himself, his roots as a comedian. At the end of the movie, Conan says that he has always been seeking something “more real” comedy wise. This aspiration led him up the NBC network ladder. As it turns out, the raw “realness” of a successful comeback tour, generated by loss and disappointment, ultimately feels like the next step on that upward climb.

[Photo: JackGouldPhoto via Creative Commons]

Bread Puddin’ and Vicodin

IMG_1240There’s nothing like bread pudding as an antidote to prescription narcotics. Does that sound unhinged? Allow me to elaborate:

Random fact #1: I just recently lost my last baby tooth. My predicament was the result of an impacted, twisted permanent tooth that wouldn’t give the baby the boot. I have long been dreading the day when oral surgery would be required, until just before Xmas, I developed an infection. I promptly went on antibiotics, buying myself important time to savor holiday treats. After celebrating a delightfully mellow New Year’s Eve, I bit the bullet, or the mouth rest, so to speak, resigning myself to laughing gas and deep, yoga-cultivated ujjayi breathing, to set those suckers free!

Random fact #2: I am a sucker for bread pudding. The down-home-ness of dredging bread in custard implies a certain level of decadence and deliciousness that more rarefied desserts can’t compete with. I read dessert and brunch menus more avidly than I order from them, and I am always drawn to the variations on bread pudding that are advertised — from elegant almond flavored croissant bread puddings to savory stratas with sun dried tomatoes and spinach greens. Bread pudding, along with rice pudding, has been on my shortlist of frugal, versatile comfort food meals to experiment with and file away.

Random fact #3: My grandparents don’t know what to do with panettone. Every Xmas, they receive a red tin from Italy, sent by their producer friend. I have truly stylin’ grandparents, but this Italian sweetbread baffles them. So with a lingering holiday sweet tooth, a reluctance to plunge back into work, and a mandatory soft food diet, I now had my hands on the bread…

I adapted Smitten Kitchen’s “raisin-studded apple bread pudding” — sans the apples and raisins  — using panettone with candied chestnuts:

Instead of whole milk, I used 2 cups heavy cream and 2 cups rice milk and everything worked out fine. Per Deb’s instructions, I opted to go with 4 cups milk and 4 eggs for a bread pudding “truly submerged and then suspended in…custard, rather than just lightly soaked in it…” I was happy with this decision — the bread cubes were still nicely bruléed on top and not overly saturated.

It was the perfect storm for a foray into bread pudding: a toothache, unwanted sweetbread, no groceries and some leftover pantry ingredients. But lest we forget the final ingredient: vicodin. From that experiment, I learned the following:

  1. Bread pudding can be vigorously sucked down one’s throat using one’s tongue and bottom right side of teeth only.
  2. Bread pudding can augment the gentle high of prescription painkillers, distributing the warm buzz of vicodin in the form of molasses-soaked sweet bread, while simultaneously offsetting nausea.
  3. Bread pudding helps a lady convalesce, continues the holiday feast, clears out the pantry, and keeps it classy.
  4. Bread pudding, I may have stitches in my gum and a slightly discernible lisp — but I sing your praises!
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