Embarrassment of Riches – February check-in

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by Author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I have intended to read, but never found the time. 

Given the size of the pile, my goal is to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

This month I read:

The Defector by Daniel Silva:  This novel picks up where Moscow Rules left off.  If you will remember, I did not care too much for that one, and I was a little worried.  It was all for naught.  Despite being a virtual sequel, The Defector was a spine tingling thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat and breathless with anticipation.  Would Gabriel make it out of the birch forest alive?  Would he save Chiara from certain death?

My only gripe – it could have ended five chapters sooner.

The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva:  This one leaves the Russian oligarchs behind in the frigid Siberian tundra and returns us to the world of Renaissance art, Swiss corruption, and the empires of the rich and powerful built upon the ashes of the 6 million Jews who perished in Nazi death camps.  To me, this is when Silva is at his best.

I am currently reading Portrait of a Spy by…you guessed it…Daniel Silva, but I’m only about halfway through it.  One more left in this series, and I will be completely caught up.  Just in time for the summer release of The English Girl.

Progress toward goal:  5/24

What’s lying around on your nightstand waiting to be read?

The look of 40

Last June, I turned forty.  A dubious milestone no woman strives to achieve but like most unpleasant things in life, aging is completely unavoidable.  I took it on the chin.  I didn’t take to my bed in a blubbering fit of self-pity, or trade in my 4 door sedan for a zippy Maserati, or wake up with a tequila hangover and a mystery tattoo.   Being the boring mature adult that I am, I opted to celebrate with a quiet dinner, a glass of wine, and a Daniel Silva novel.

The first time my age came up in casual conversation, I was honest and straightforward.  There’s no shame in forty.   Anyway, I don’t really feel any different from when I was 39, even if the elliptical at the gym insists that I somehow burn fewer calories for every forty-five minute workout since my birthday.   The evil work of some abstract algorithm, I’m sure.

“You’re forty?” said the young optician measuring my pupillary distance for my new “no-line” bifocals.  “You don’t look forty.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I said.

“No, seriously.  You look good.  I hope I have such good complexion when I’m your age.”

Hm.

I assured her there was no mistake.  I’d seen my birth certificate – born 1972.  It had an official seal and everything.  At the time, I accepted her declaration as a compliment, vowed to continue using the overpriced anti-aging cream from that high-end department store I loathe, and went on my merry way with a little extra spring in my step.  Yes, vanity is a sin; and yes, I’ve been guilty of it on more than one occasion.  Sue me.  In the seven or eight months since, others have echoed her disbelief, but the initial boost to my ego has waned.  I should probably feel jubilant, over the moon even, that I appear to look so young and vibrant – especially, for someone of my advancing years.

I’m not.

I’ve said it before – I am a personality fraught with flaws.  The list is endless.  Near the top, just beneath chronically phobic is:  tends to over-analyze life, often prone to bouts of irrational suspicion in others, and is perpetually awaiting the other shoe to drop.  A dangerous trio that makes it impossible for me to let these benign bits of frivolous flattery roll by without further examination.

What does it mean when people say I don’t look forty?

What is forty supposed to look like?

Is there some predetermined criteria?

Am I somehow deficient?

Like most women of any age, I look at myself in the mirror every morning and cringe.  I am no great beauty – perhaps passably pretty, if we’re feeling generous.  I run on the wrong side of average, with thick thighs and flabby arms.  I have to sweat a lot to maintain a consistent weight in the mid-120’s, and I’m not known for my overt fashion sense.  My mouth is flanked by laugh lines, the delicate skin around my eyes crinkle ever so slightly when I smile, and every six weeks the silvery-grey hair I work hard to hide winks at me from beneath the glare of the bathroom lights.

It’s an image I’m quite familiar with, and it is an image that has gone virtually unchanged over the last few years.   I find it strange that no one commented on how good I might look for my age when I was 37, or 38, or even 39.  It’s only after I have reached the pivotal age of forty that I am suddenly an oddity in the eyes of my peers.

This inconsistency makes me wonder by what standard forty is judged.  From my own experiences, there seems to be some preconceived notion of one’s physical appearance once a certain age threshold has been crossed.  It’s as if at forty, one abruptly reaches the apex of physicality and is then expected to begin a rapid downward spiral into the dark abyss of crippling old age.  I am, after all, now traditionally considered “over the hill.”  Or so, I’ve been told.  But am I really?

A quick internet search told me that in ancient Rome, a woman’s average life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years depending on her social status, the age she married, and the number of children she bore.   According to Sarah Woodbury, women living in the Middle Ages fared slightly better reaching an average age of 40.  This was, of course, provided she survived infancy, avoided contracting some sort of plague, and didn’t perish giving birth to her own offspring.  During the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England, life expectancy hovered around the upper 30s, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, those numbers rebounded to a staggering 50.  This upward momentum continued through the 1900s, and today women living in the United States can take comfort in the fact that, on average, they may live to be 82 or so.

Hm.

I have long wondered what it might be like to live in another time period.  Now, I know.  It drives home the true meaning of the old adage “life is short.”   While I am grateful to have been born in twentieth century, the numbers do paint a sobering picture.  At forty, I am now truly middle-aged.

Over the hill.  Long in the tooth.  A mutton dressed as a lamb.

Perhaps that Maserati isn’t such a bad idea, after all.  I wonder if it comes in red.

Even so, this depressing revelation doesn’t answer my original question:

What am I supposed to look like at forty – you know, now that I have statistically reached the midpoint of my life?

Should I have developed a hunch back?  A stilted gait?  A weather-beaten face?

Should I suddenly forget how to apply make up?  Allow my hair the freedom to convert back to its natural gray streaked frizz?

The more I think about the answer to this question, the more I’m convinced that age is simply an outdated societal construct designed to confine individuals to easily discernible categories in order to dictate acceptable behavior.  Generally, in our twenties we are considered young and beautiful with carefree spirits and the luxury of worldly ignorance.   In our thirties, we are plagued by the pressure of conformity, the harshness of reality, and the need to settle into designated career and familial roles.  By forty, any hint of the youthful spirit and beauty of our twenties is thoroughly eradicated and replaced by the exhaustion of motherhood, the cruelty of gravity, free-falling metabolisms, wrinkling skin, and mom jeans. By fifty, we are destined for the early bird specials at the local pancake house and an AARP lifetime membership.  Fifteen years later…well…it’s all over but the crying.

Do these categories represent reality? Perhaps there is a measure of truth to be found somewhere floating in the depths of these stereotypes, but I certainly do not believe that we, as individuals, fit into such nice neat boxes.  I don’t wear mom jeans, drive a minivan, or feel the weight of motherhood bearing down on me.   I did all of that in my early thirties.  Now, at the tender age of forty, I am on a wondrous journey of self-discovery and have never felt more alive.  This proves to me that I am right in my belief that age is a relative concept.  You are only as old as you perceive yourself.  I do not perceive myself as old, over the hill, or long in the tooth.  Therefore, I am not.

So, what does forty look like?

Fabulous.

Waiting for spring

I have been sitting here all morning avoiding my WIP by sifting through some old photos I shot last spring.

I can’t wait for everything to bloom again.

Here are few of the more interesting ones.

Enjoy.

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The bee is blurry on this last one, but I think that is what makes it interesting to me.

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Things I learned this week

 

“As life goes on it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself everyday.”

– Agatha Christie

I learned this week…

…that it appears I correctly self-diagnosed my nagging stomach ailment.  My new doctor confirmed it.  Of course, I allowed him to think he was giving me new information.  I have learned my lesson there – doctors don’t like it when you tell them how to do their job.  I’m not really sure why.  Anyway, I am now dealing with strict tiered dietary changes.  Up first – no more dairy.  I’m not big on the whole milk thing, so at first I thought it was no big deal.  Then I saw the list of forbidden foods.  I have to give up my hazelnut coffee cream, any and all chocolate, and my sugar-free chewing gum.  

Me:  Wait what?  My non-dairy coffee creamer has milk in it!  Are you kidding me?

Nurse:  No, Mrs. Isaacs.  We don’t kid about these things.  However, most people find soy an acceptable alternative. 

SOY!

It smells like dirty feet. 

Not acceptable.

<grumble grumble>

…that, in keeping with the medical theme, pneumonia can sneak up on you when you least expect it.  My house has been passing around a nasty little respiratory virus for a few weeks now.  Up until last week, I had successfully avoided being slimed.  As often happens, my luck ran out.  This week I gave in and went to see my regular doctor for the sinus infection I knew was brewing.  Turns out – sinus infection + pneumonia.  Didn’t see that coming.

…that I received a damn fine grade on my first historical geology exam.  A half a point off a perfect score.  Take that scary geology with your thinly disguised chemistry, biology, and math.

…that sometimes an individual’s real story is much more interesting than the one I make up for them in my head.  For five years, I have spent two nights a week sitting in an old converted grocery store watching my daughter’s gymnastic practice.  I am well-known to the staff and the regular parents.  The smart ones leave me in peace; everyone else soon learns that I am not a stellar conversationalist.

There is an elderly woman who frequents the gym.  She is tall, European – maybe German given her accent, and carries herself with an air of sophistication.  I have never spoken more than a few trivial words to her in all these years, but I have long speculated about her story – it is what I do.  In my head, she is a warm, kindhearted grandmother, who bakes cookies for the children, tends a small container herb garden on the patio of her retirement community apartment, and enjoys peach Schnapps under the bathing glow of summer moonlight.

This week she sat next to me on the low slung module couch that borders the parents’ corral and talked for one solid hour.  I learned:

  1. She is Swiss;
  2. When she was young, she was a chunky chocoholic and her mother sent her to a brutish masseuse in hopes to combat her growing cellulite problem.
  3. Her late husband was some sort of high level Lufthansa executive.
  4. She is now a legal resident of Montreal, Canada.
  5. As such, is only allowed to enter and stay in the U.S. in 6 week intervals.  “Such nonsense,” she said with a dismissive wave.
  6. She flies a lot via stand-by.
  7. She believes this makes her an easy target for security.
  8. One time she was frisked because the TSA agent asked her if she had a gun in her carry-on bag and she replied:  “No.  I like to keep my gun on me at all times.”  She concedes this was not the smartest thing she’s ever done, and is convinced she is now on “the list.”
  9. As revenge for No. 8, she likes to pack her bras and undies in the very top layer of her suitcase.  She derives a sadistic pleasure in seeing the agents handle her intimates when they search her bags.
  10. This past fall, while attending a Lufthansa gala in Washington, D.C. she broke her hip – I’m still not sure I understand how that happened.  Instead of going to the nearest hospital, she got in a car with her friend and proceeded to make the 12 hour drive back to Canada in order to receive “proper” medical attention.  (I didn’t think it wise to mention that she was 5 months post-op – right hip replacement – and still walked with a cane.)
  11. She is pissed that as a woman in her seventies, she must now pay $60 per year for medical coverage.  “Highway robbery,” she declared.
  12. She wears all of her good jewelry at once because she fears it will be stolen.  When I pointed out that she is setting herself up to be mugged, she dismissed me with a brush of her hand and proceeded to tell me about the time she visited India.  The time when she thought her newly blessed Hindu talisman had been stolen by the hotel staff.  As it turned out, she told me, it was just the gods playing a trick on her because she had been careless with her things.  Now she is very careful.

Indeed.

There is much character gold to be mined here.  I hope she sits next to me again real soon.

…that the headline “Genesis Death Sandwich” is a real eye catcher.  I couldn’t help myself.  I had to click and read.  I’m still processing:

In the case of Genesis, the slices of white bread are themes of life, and the slimy cold cuts in between are mentions of death.

…that here is another bit of eye-catching nonsense I found tucked in a Salon op-ed entitled “Conservatives Declare War on College“, highlighting the right’s push for cheaper, online higher education in lieu of the more expensive traditional lecture-based programs:

[Daphne] Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.

God help us all.

…that Skyfall is even better the second time around.

***Spoiler Alert*** If you have been living under a rock, or are just a slacker who hasn’t found the time to empty your DVR of the amassing Downton Abbey episodes, please avert your eyes now.

…that I may be the only person on the planet who thinks Matthew Crawley had to die.   There was just no other way.

…and, last but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by Chihuly.  I sure do miss that exhibit.

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Valentine’s Day: A lesson learned

I have never been one to put too much stock in Valentine’s Day – even when I was young and possessed a more romantic sensibility.  As an uncompromising cynic, I find the commerciality of it all ridiculous, and can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the men in our society who must live up to expectations they are structurally incapable of fulfilling.  It is as unfair a system as any I have ever seen.

To add to my derisiveness, my father passed away on Valentine’s Day, six years ago.  Any tolerance I may have had for the frivolity of the so-called holiday quickly evaporated and was replaced with the heaviness of grief.  It is no longer a day of light-hearted romantic celebration, but rather a day of quiet remembrance and reflection.

Still, I’m not completely heartless.  I usually pick up a few little trinkets, a box of chocolates, and an obligatory card or two.  This year, Valentine’s Day was a busy one.  An early morning vet appointment, last-minute cramming for a test, the test, a three-hour lab session, and finally, gymnastics practice.  I forgot all about buying gifts for the family until I overheard two classmates discussing their evening plans.

No worries.  On my way home, I stopped at a local grocery store – the one who likes to think of themselves as the neighborhood florist.  Of course, I was not alone in my procrastination, and the place was a sea of people – mostly men trying to live up to their love’s expectations.  I must say it is a funny thing to watch grown men pick through buckets of roses trying to find the nicest, yet cheapest flowers for the one’s they love.  I overheard one guy bragging to his buddy that he scored a bunch of lilies for nine bucks.  I wanted to tell him they were not appropriate – unless, of course, he was going to a funeral.  I refrained.  Some lessons are best learned firsthand.

I was quite pleased with my own purchases, especially given the late hour.  My daughter is one of simple tastes.  She prefers chocolates above all else and really likes it when I buy her a candy bar bouquet.  My mother likes Ghirardelli chocolates – done.  My husband likes chocolate covered cherries, and I almost bought him two boxes.  Then I spied a heart-shaped box of Italian truffles.  I chose those instead.  I thought he would appreciate the change.

He did not.

It seems Italian truffles are full of two things he hates most in life – almonds and hazelnuts.

IMG_1305He was even kind enough to circle them on the ingredients panel so that I could see my mistake firsthand.

Lesson learned.

Things I learned this week

“Proof brevity does not protect against dullness.” 

– Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in regard to Twitter.

I learned this week…

…that I don’t have to worry about those pesky little logarithms, after all.  My Historical Geology professor announced this gem during our last lab session.  It seems he’s not a big fan of the evil math, either.  He just might take over the top spot on my favorite professor list.

…that there is a new spy thriller on FX called The Americans, and I’m not too sure I care for it.  Don’t get me wrong, the concept intrigues me: Soviet KGB operatives posing as Americans during the early days of the Reagan administration, stealing intelligence.  Sounds right up my alley, right?  It is – for the most part.

So what’s the problem, you ask?

Keri Russell.

Yes, I know.  I should let my aversion to Felicity go; after all, it was the show that launched Jennifer Garner into Alias stardom.  Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But still, I don’t like Keri Russell (as an actress – I’m sure she’s a lovely person), and her character, Elizabeth Jennings, seems even less appealing.  She is cold and detached with a glint of something homicidal in her eye.  Perhaps this is the writers’ intention.  Maybe I’m not supposed to relate to her, to sympathize with her, to like her.  If that is the case then they are doing a superb job.

Bravo.

…that for the first time in a long time, I found the Grammys enjoyable.  Usually, it’s a tortured affair, one that leaves me feeling old and out of touch, yet strangely fixated.  It’s like witnessing a horrible train wreck – the pitchy performances, the excessive bleeping of lyrics too inappropriate for primetime, the painful acceptance speeches by artists scarcely worthy of the name.  I want to look away, but I just can’t.  Most years, I am doomed to disappointment and will spend a solid week bemoaning the sad state of music and vowing to do something more productive with that three and a half hour block of time.

This year was different.  This year there were (by and large) real musicians on stage, playing real instruments, and producing real music.  I enjoyed most of the performances and tributes – Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, fun., Jack White, Dr. John, Carrie Underwood and her hypnotic dress, Ed Sheeran, Sting, Sting, and Sting.

What?  He wasn’t alone on stage?

Funny.  I didn’t notice.

In all seriousness, I felt renewed hope.  Maybe music has turned a corner; maybe the manufactured, auto-tuned sludge we’ve been subjected to for two decades will finally give way to the return of the vocally and musically talented singer/songwriter.

Maybe?  Please?

The only dark spot on the night – besides Elton John and Taylor Swift – was the Florence Welch snub.  I may hold that against Kelly Clarkson for a very long time.  I’m a grudge holder, you know.

On a side note:  Ratings for the 2013 Grammy Awards were down, and critics panned it for its somber feel.  Mature…somber.  Whatever.  Click here to read one of the more scathing reviews.

…that listening to an audio book in the carpool line will cause me to do something I rarely do – nap.  It’s problematic for a few of reasons:  1) I’ve never gotten around to tinting my windows; 2) the telltale head bob that accompanies vertical napping is embarrassing; 3) inevitably I will have to rewind (can you rewind an MP3?) the audio book because I end up missing vital chunks of the story.   Yesterday, I missed the whole part about Chiara being kidnapped from the villa in Italy.  I woke up in the middle of a shit storm and had no idea what the hell was going on.

I panicked a little.

…that ginger tea is the elixir of the gods.  For the last year or two, I’ve suffered from a stomach quirk and steadily over the months, my tolerance for many of foods has waned.  I am a notorious self-diagnoser, so I tossed around the idea of a gluten allergy, a fructose intolerance, a faulty gall bladder.  I cut a lot out of my diet.  Sometimes it helps; sometimes it doesn’t.  After a recent upswing in symptoms, I took to the internet for advice – because if it’s on the internet, it has to be true – and discovered ginger tea.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but I have to say it has helped a lot.

<covers ears to block out BFF’s (licensed RN) screams that I need to stop with the internet diagnosing and see a professional>

I did finally make an appointment for next week with a specialist.  But I already know what he’s going to tell me.  I looked it up on the internet.

…that I am not irrational.  Okay, yes I am, but not when it comes to cruises.  My friends go on cruises – they love them.  They tell me I should go, too.  I would love it, they say.  “You forget you’re even on a boat.  It’s so much fun.  Go.  Try something new.”  I have no desire for the obvious reasons:  big ship; inflatable “life” boats; tiny windowless cells staterooms; crushes of people breathing my air; lack of wide open sandy beaches; and the Norwalk virus.

Here are few more reasons:  no power; no ventilation; no working toilets; Soviet era bread lines for a daily hot dog rationing.  Read more here.

No, thank you.  I’d rather risk getting my head loped off by the drug cartels in Mexico.

…and last, but not least, this week’s photo is a macro I took in November, at the Dallas Arboretum.  It’s always a nice surprise stumbling across these shots and I am a sucker for water droplets.

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Distractions

I am writing an action scene today.

Leo Baxter is tracking an Albanian through the dark alleyways of east London.  Little does he know, in about ten minutes he will become the hunted and end up in a dank cell somewhere in…well, I don’t know where they will take him, but rest assured it will be somewhere hellish.

I’ve been quite productive in my writing today, but every now and then I find myself distracted by the sparkle of a new addition to my office decor.  I’m not sure if it is the cucumber lime scent – I am very sensitive to smells – or the way the reflected light looks like little birds flying across my wall.

I couldn’t help myself.  I had to take a picture of it.

Now back to Leo and the Albanian.

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