What I'm Reading

Stardust by Joseph Kanon
Coming out in the fall, the next novel by the author of The Good German. It's so good I kinda want to lick the pages.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It's My Party

My college friends and I generally complain that we don't see each other enough. Then the holidays come, and you have weeks like last one, where we saw each other four times. My friend's husband asked us, "By the end of the week, are you going to have anything left to talk about?" Never underestimate the power of women's ability to chat. He's probably one of those men who also doesn't understand why we talk to each other on our cell phones while we're on our way to meet. Sheesh.

Monday night was our 8th annual "Christmas on Crack" theme party. Now to understand this, you need to know that my friends love to create traditions. Even better if it's a crazy tradition. And eight years ago, our friend Anthony planned a drinks night at Rolf's, this restaurant that had totally over-the-top Christmas decorations.

We all crammed into this teeny bar area, pissing off everyone waiting for tables, and drank ourselves silly on German beer. At one point, someone made a comment along the lines of, "Dude! This place looks like Christmas on Crack!" (Except the words were probably slurred.) And just like that, the tradition was born. A year or two later, Schnapps sent around an email with this funny PowerPoint presentation and a comment that it would be great if we made t-shirts. Since one of our friends does marketing promotions for a career, we all showed up in shirts to surprise her. And thus was born tradition #2--the annual matching shirts.

On Friday night was my friends Doug and Joe's annual party, the highlight of which was the most honest invitation I've ever seen:

It's that time of year again to cram a shit load of people into a 600 square foot apartment. Free food and drinks will be served to those individuals willing to go nip-to-nip with their fellow man and woman! We'll start the festivities off at 7:00 so feel free to swing by for 10 minutes on your way home from work, or stay the whole night!
We look forward to seeing you all soon!

In contrast to my "early garage style" decorating mode, their apartment is what I like to refer to as "Gay Pottery Barn." My favorite picture of the night was taken several drinks in. This is Schnapps and me talking to Comet, our pregnant friend,'s belly (which she refers to as Poppyseed, since that was the approximate size of the baby when they found out). Schnapps was telling Poppy that (s)he had to come a few days late, on June 12th, since Schnapps would be on a business trip until the 10th. I was telling Poppy how much fun we were going to have and promising to tell her/him embarrassing stories about Comet.

Saturday night was Christmas dinner with the friends in my supper club. We do a Secret Santa at this party, and I don't want to imply that we're getting older or anything, but Ronnie got a food processor and was absolutely thrilled. Anthony pulled De's name this year, and her card said "ho ho ho to my little ho. Love, Sexy Santa." She opened it in front of her husband, and no one even batted an eye. I really love my friends.

Then Sunday, the grand finale of our Christmas weekend, was my annual Christmas party. (Well, sort of annual. I had to skip the last 2 years due to the black "paying off my credit card debt" period we don't like to talk about.) I cooked for two days in an effort to make everything perfect, and Louise declared me the "hostess with the mostest" so I guess I pulled it off. Phew. There was a big storm, and a bunch of people cancelled at the last minute (including Sarah, who told me "I really want to be there, but I don't want me and the girls to get dead," an arguement I couldn't disagree with), but we still had about 25 people in my apartment, which was enough to be fun, but not so many that other people's sweat was wiping off on you. Which is always nice. After the initial period of making sure everyone had drinks and walking appetizers in and out of the kitchen, I realized everyone was having fun, everyone was taken care of, and I got to actually enjoy the party. And even though it was an afternoon event, there may have been just a little bit of drinking going on.

I'm sure in a few weeks I'll be complaining again that I don't see them often enough. But for right now, I've had all the togetherness my liver can handle.

p.s. My nativity set has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but Comet took a picture of it, and I really love it, and it was a gift from my sisters. So I'm going to show it off a little.

p.p.s. She also took a picture of the infamous tree.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Monkey Wrap

Rhea Bouchard Powers is a columnist for one of the local Woonsocket papers, and when I lived there I always loved reading her columns. They're very real, very "a day in the life," and often very funny. My mom reads it, and a few years ago there was my all-time favorite column. It was about that great bane of my existence--Christmas wrapping. Ugh.

Ms. Powers's theory is that people all fall into different categories of wrappers. There are the Martha Stewart wrappers, where every package is a work of art. The precision wrappers, whose edges are folded with military precision. The average Joe wrappers, whose packages are unexceptional. And then way down at the bottom, the monkey wrappers, so named because their packages look like they were wrapped by a monkey.

Now when this column ran, I had long since moved to New York, but my mom cut it out of the paper, saved it, and stuck it on the fridge with a cow magnet. Every time one of my sisters came over, she'd make her read the article. And the day I got home for Christmas break, she handed it to me and said, "This is for you. You're a monkey wrapper." Now, another girl might have been insulted by that. But I know the truth. And the truth is that she's absolutely right. My wrapping is atrocious. I have actually given packages where I ran out of wrapping and the piece I had didn't quite wrap all the way around the present, so I cut off a strip from the end and just taped it in between. Somehow, even when I actually try to make my wrapping decent, it still always ends up baggy. And I have gotten out of wrapping countless birthday presents by telling my nephews "You can have it now, in the bag it came in, or I can wrap it. But then you're going to have to wait for it." (For the record, that one works every time. Foolproof.)

So monkey wrap became a standard expression in the Bookgirl family lexicon. And over the years, we've expanded it to fit other activites that require patience and/or manual dexterity. My sister Denise, for example, in addition to being a monkey wrapper, monkey folds laundry and is a monkey texter. (I know the buttons on the phone are little, and it's easy to make mistakes, but I have to regularly respond to her messages with, "I don't know what that means" or simply "monkey text," in which case she knows to try again.

With Christmas coming, I was really wishing I had the original article to share with everyone, so I sent a letter (typed even) to the the author, asking her if she might consider rerunning the article, or at least emailing it to me so I could pass it around. Not only did she rerun it AND email it to me, I even got a shout out in her column. Made me happy, I tell you.

Note: Today’s column, previously seen in 2001, is appearing again by popular demand. Well, actually, one woman named Bookgirl, formerly of Woonsocket but currently living in Jackson Heights, N.Y., wrote and asked if I could rerun it, and since I’m up to my eyeball in Adopt-a-Family stuff and have no time to write from scratch, it seemed like a good idea.

Monkey Wrapping
Rhea Bouchard Powers

I have long maintained that the gift-giving world is made up of those who hard-wrap and those who soft-wrap. Those who feel that every item of clothing should be placed in a tissue paper-lined box prior to being wrapped, and those who feel that boxing is superfluous and that paper alone should suffice.
I had never really given it any thought until several years ago when I volunteered to help wrap gifts at Adopt-a-Family.
There was a winter coat waiting to be wrapped, so I unrolled a length of paper and placed the neatly folded coat on it.
“Aren’t you going to put it in a box? Bobbie asked.
“No,” I replied. “I think boxes are a waste of money.”
“But they look so much neater,” she persisted.
“Soft-wrapping takes less time and less paper. Besides, soft-wrapped packages pack a lot more easily,” I countered. The good-natured debate has gone on throughout the ensuing years with neither of us changing our mind.
I also believe that the world can be further subdivided into various styles of wrappers.
For instance, there are those to whom wrapping is an art form. The Martha Stewarts of the world who see each box as a blank canvas just waiting to be turned into a masterpiece and whose gift wrapping almost qualifies as a gift on its own. You know the ones I mean. They’re the ones that have people “oohing” and “aahing” before they even see what’s inside the package.
Then you have the precision wrappers. They’re the ones whose packages never have a raw edge showing. Their seams are double folded. Their ends are neatly trimmed. All their folds are sharply creased and their corners as neatly mitered as well-made hospital beds. These are the people who, if they were in the army, would have quarters bounced on their beds.
Next in the hierarchy are your average Joes, gift-wrappers whose packages are unexceptional. They’re neat but not militarily so. Their work attracts little or no attention. It’s just gift-wrap.
Last but not least, at the bottom of the feeding chain, so to speak, you have the category my family refers to as monkey wrappers (the group into which my sister Bev and I fall), so called because the finished product invariably looks like it was wrapped by a monkey. The more gifts there are to be wrapped, the more monkeyesque it gets. Get Bev and me wrapping together and the quality slips even further.
When we wrap in tandem, Bev usually does the cutting because she’s the only one who can get the scissorless paper cutter to work. She cuts, I tape. The only time we’re particular about trimming the paper to fit the gift is when paper is running short or we need the trimmings to wrap smaller gifts. Otherwise we just fold it all up and tape it in place. Paper a tad too short? Not a problem. We’ll bridge the gap with tape. Running a little low on tape? That’s okay. We’ll put the peel-and-stick gift tags to double use holding the main seam together. Crude, perhaps, but it works.
When it comes to bulky or oddly shaped items we employ the “bunch and tape” method whereby you wrap the paper around the widest part and anchor it with a piece of tape. Then you bunch the paper up and tape it all together as best you can. Again, it may not be pretty but it gets the job done.
We have been doing this for years I have to tell you truthfully, we’ve never had a single complaint. Kids, especially, don’t care how their gifts are wrapped. All they want to know is what’s inside the paper.
It works for me.

So in what can only be described as true irony, a project came up last week. We (and in this case we, said by anyone, means me) should send our key bookstore buyers copies of our big new release as holiday presents. Oh, and they should be wrapped. And again, since marketing translates loosely into "anything that doesn't fall clearly into someone's else job description" that left me with a giant roll of gift wrap, a handy paper dispenser, and 100 books. Now, I've never minded being bad at wrapping. It's not an aspirational talent for me. Anyone lucky enough to be getting a gift from me loves me for many reasons that have nothing to do with my ability to fold and tape. So I've always happily monkey wrapped, cringing just a little at the final product.

But these were going to VIPs. With my publisher's name on them. Shaming myself is one thing. Shaming her was something else entirely. So I wrapped a few, and then went for a second opinion. I called one of my colleagues to come take a look. Were they really that bad??

The look on his face was priceless. I'm not sure if he was more appalled as a gay man or as my Advertising and Promotions Director, someone whose whole job it is to make things look good, but all he could say to me was, "What are you? Six? Those look like they were wrapped by a child." At which point he made me sit down with him, gave me a step by step tutorial, and then made me do a couple while he watched, critiquing my every move. Now again, another girl might have been insulted. But I was just too grateful that my packages were less pathetic to take too much umbrage. Just in case he started thinking that insulting me was okay though, I waited until he left for the night and covered his office with rolled up gift wrap scraps. Yeah, that showed him.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On Grapefruit

I got my annual delivery of Christmas grapefruit from The Dol today. How excited am I?!?!?

The Dol is Polly Poppins's West Coast best friend. And despite Mr Poppins's not-so-secret dream that we might some day have a rap-style East Coast vs. West Coast rumble, we really like one another. It's a good thing, too, because if Polly had made me slide over and make room on my pedastal for someone I didn't like, I'd be PISSED.

The Dol's husband is from Texas originally, and that's how they knew about Red Cooper Orange-Sweet grapefruit. They're ruby red grapefruit, that are somehow absolutely perfect and completely addictive. Since The Dol is smart and well-connected and loves to read and talk about books, she's found her way onto my big-mouth mailing list over the years. So when they ordered their holiday grapefruit a few years ago, she added me on to the distribution. It was love at first bite.

Once Polly found out about my new addiction, she got in on the action too, and sent me a couple of boxes. Mostly because she eats vegetables only because she has to, and thinks the fact that I can get truly excited about produce is adorable. For years, she would try to trick me into admitting that I didn't really like salad and was just eating it to be healthy. Also, she likes spoiling me. I love that about her.

So my girls spoil me horribly, I love every second of it, and grapefruit came to join apple loaf on the list of foods about which I've written bad poetry.

On Grapefruit
I love grapefruit, this I know
Because my tastebuds tell me so

Too much work for breakfast, but perfect for lunch
It's my #1 choice when I want to munch

I keep them in my office
And the refrigerator door
And just when I ran out,
My best friend sent me more!

They're oh so sweet
and nice and juicy
Since they're only 2 points,
Now my pants are loosey

Red Cooper rocks
Polly and Dol too
I love them more
than Winnie the Pooh

p.s. Don't worry. I'm not quitting my day job any time soon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New Mantra in Town

Peter Walsh, author of It's All Too Much, is an expert on organizing. On getting rid of clutter, ditching unwanted baggage, and simplifying your life. He's also the man who (indirectly) introduced me to my new mantra.

I'm a word person. I read. I write. I have whole files of quotes I just had to save. I love words. So it makes sense that the idea of a mantra would appeal to me. Words you can say to change your mood, make you think of something in a differnt way, to help you make a decision.

There are a lot that I like. Sarah's favorite yoga mantra is "I am." The mantra Denise learned from her pastor and passed on to me is "All will be well. All will be well. All manner of things will be well." The one I adopted from The Secret is "I'm so happy and grateful." Does it even matter what you're grateful for when you feel so much better just by the act of expressing gratitude?

A few weeks ago, Oprah called Peter Walsh in to help a woman who was a hoarder. Her house had been reduced to about 200 square feet of livable space, because the rest was taken up by stuff. Just all sorts of stuff. And in coaching her on how to get out from under that monkey, he told her that she needed to ask herself two questions about each piece of clutter: Does this help me get the life I want? Or does it keep me from having the life I want? Now, I didn't actually watch Oprah, since, well, I have a job. But someone who takes another Weight Watchers class with my leader saw it, and she repeated it to Courtney, who repeated it to my group. And just like that, Peter Walsh (twice removed, three times if you count Oprah) changed my life.

Because doesn't that just simplify every difficult decision you have to make? Don't most things do one or the other? Bring you closer to the life you want or farther away? It's perfect for Weight Watchers. Going to a fancy dinner with my friends, and then having dessert? It might be a lot of calories, but it's worth it. I want to be the girl who can go out, let go of the reigns a little bit, and just enjoy myself. That's totally helping me have the life I want. But the chips and onion dip I have a tendency to buy at the supermarket and then gorge on sitting on my couch, feeling bad about myself the whole time? Not so much. The week I adopted this new mantra, I lost 4 pounds. I love this man. Seriously. I LOVE this man.

I sat with him by chance at a dinner party six months ago, and it's a good thing I didn't know about this whole mantra thing back then. I might have embarrassed myself. It's bad enought that I gave him an honest estimate about how many pairs of shoes I own. He seems to think I don't actually need that many shoes. Silly man. I won't hold it against him, though. Nobody's perfect, right?

Monday, December 3, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Those of you who are new to my world may not know this, but I love Christmas. I really love it. At this time of year, my friend Nancy calls me “Chrissy Christmas.” (Aside #1: I know I usually switch things to Bookgirl in this blog for consistency, but Bookgirl Christmas doesn’t have the same ring to it. Aside #2: Just because Nancy calls me Chrissy doesn’t mean you can too. The list of people allowed to call me Chrissy is short. If you’re not sure if you’re on it, you’re probably not.)

But back to the topic at hand. I love Christmas. And everyone who knows me knows that. So every Christmas people buy me more ornaments and decorations and Christmas-themed housewares. Friday night, I purposely didn’t make plans. I went home after work to unpack my Christmas boxes and take stock of what I had. Out came the boxes. And boxes. And boxes. And I realized something. I am not okay. I am the poster child for conspicuous consumption. I counted, and if you count anything large enough to stay in its original box as its own box, I have 11 boxes of Christmas decorations. Eleven. I have three decorative Christmas pillows. Twenty-five Christmas CDs. Three boxes of onrnaments. Christmas dishes. Christmas glasses. Christmas wine charms. Pot holders and dish towels, place mats and cloth napkins. Napkin holders, spoon rests, salt and pepper shakers, and sugar bowls. It’s shocking, and a little bit embarrassing. But it sure is pretty. I like to think that I try to keep my decorations tasteful, and that all those tiny white twinkle lights all over my living room give everything a soft touch. Deep down I suspect that it might just look like Christmas threw up in my apartment, but I’m okay with that too.

On Saturday, my sister Denise and I had our annual Christmas shopping and feel-good movie day. Every year we meet at the Connecticut outlets in the morning (about an hour and a half drive for each of us), shop all morning, have soup and sandwiches at the same little cafĂ© for lunch, shop a little more, see a movie, shop the rest of the day, and then go to Friendly’s for dinner. We somehow even get the same waitress every year. We’re creatures of habit, Denise and I. I got a ton of shopping done, totally loved the movie Enchanted, and even found these two great sweaters that fit perfectly and will show up under the tree on Christmas Eve to me from Den. (She has such great taste. I don’t know how she knew I wanted them. It might have something to do with my picking them out, trying them on, and then handing them to her and saying “Merry Christmas to me, from you.” Oh, and it turns out that on open highway with no traffic, my beautiful new car can go 90 without even shimmying. Um, not that I tried it or anything….

So yesterday was the big day—decorating day. I left my apartment, all bundled up, pushing my little rolling cart through the gently falling snow, off to get a Christmas tree. An hour later I came back to my apartment, cold, wet, and treeless, and said to my roommate, “You know those things I do, that will be really funny when I’m writing about them later?”

I’m not sure how people get Christmas trees in other cities, but every neighborhood in New York has at least one Christmas tree stand set up on the sidewalk. These nice people come down from Quebec with their trees and live out of their vans for the month of December. So I walked (4 streets and 2 very long avenues, this will be important later) to get my tree. Sure, I have a car, but why take it out in the snow when I have my trusty cart that’s served me so well in past years? I got there and explained specifically what I wanted—6 or 7 feet high, it had to be very fat and very round, and it had to have the stiff needles. No wussy soft needles for me. (It turns out that the technical term for what I want is balsam. I’ll forget it by next year, but good to know.) They go digging into their stash and come up with The Tree And I come up with the perfect solution to the whole “struggling to put the tree in the stand” torture I go through every year. I’m just going to throw some money at it. So I tell the nice Canuck. “I already have a tree stand at home. But I’ll buy one of yours if you put the tree in it for me.” He gets more money, my roommate and I don’t have to fight over whether or not it’s straight. Everybody wins. So far so good.

But now it’s time to pay for it. And this is where the problems start. I have $3 in cash, and I lost my ATM card. Again. I know this would be a big deal for someone more organized than I am, but I lose it pretty regularly, and it usually shows up, so I’m not all that worried. I had taken my American Express card so I could take a cash advance against it. Yes, I knew I’d have to pay a fee, but today was the day I was putting up my Christmas tree, dammit. I refused to let a little thing like service fees get in my way. So I leave the pretty tree and go into the drugstore to get money from the ATM. Transaction Denied. Shit.

But wait. The ATM had a weird message when I got there, and it made me wait while it loaded. It’s obviously the machine. I go across the street to the bakery and try again. Transaction Denied at this Terminal. Ah, that’s it! American Express won’t let me take a cash advance at a store ATM for my safety. That’s so nice of them. I need to go to a bank! Great. So I walk 3 long avenues and 3 streets to the nearest bank. I’m good. I’m getting my money. Transaction denied. Okay, now I’m in trouble. They already cut the tree for me, put it in the stand. I can’t just not go back, because I left my cart with them. Besides, this is decorating day, dammit

So I head back to my apartment (one long avenue, 1 street) and show up (cold, wet, and treeless) to explain to my roommate that this will all be very funny later, but right now I need her to give me her ATM card so I can go get cash to pay for the tree. I walk to her bank (2 long avenues, 1 street) and back to fetch the tree (4 long avenues, 3 streets). I’m in business. I’ve got my tree. It’s in the stand. I’m ready to go. But oh, one little detail. See the stand is too big to fit in my cart so they’ve had to tie the tree across the cart. Which means I now have to make it home (4 streets, 2 long avenues) with a 7-foot wingspan. In the snow. In New York City. I wish someone had been there to see me. Tilting the cart to get around trees, just giving up at some points and pushing my cart down the middle of the street like a homeless person. And of course, giggling out loud, because even I can see how ridiculous I look. Anyone who saw me had to think I was insane.

So finally. Finally!!!! I get home. I push my cart up to the ramp that leads to my side door and all I have to do is get the tree off the cart and I’m home free. But did I mention that it’s tied on? Really tightly? I try sawing through the rope with my house key. This is going to take forever. I try just standing the tree up and holding it, with the cart still tied on, sticking off the front like a three-foot tumor. There’s no way I can get it inside without killing myself. Now I’m screwed. My super is out there shoveling, but he’s conspicuously ignoring me and avoiding eye contact. I’m going to have to leave my tree outside, unattended, and go inside for scissors. My beautiful, beautiful tree that I have now worked REALLY hard for.

Just then, one of my neighbors comes to my rescue. He has nothing to cut with either, but that’s okay, because his window is right above where we’re standing. And he calls his wife and has her (I couldn’t make this shit up) drop a steak knife out of their kitchen window down to us so he can cut the rope for me.

So my beautiful tree made it inside my apartment, I got a workout, I made friends with my neighbor (and his wife, who I met when I returned the knife) and my apartment is totally decorated. I still love Christmas, but right now I’m glad it only comes once a year.

p.s. For those of you who remember the Fourth of July Lost Key Debacle, I still haven’t found my ATM card, but while I was looking for it, I found the key to my dad’s car. It had somehow fallen between the head of the bed and the wall, and gotten stuck under there. Because I evidently took my car keys to bed with me the night before?? For those of you who were with me, just how much tequila did I drink that night??