Better Things – A Tonic For Contemporary Living

Personal Essays, Television

Once in a while a television show comes along that really shakes things up and presents a fresh approach to the entertainment we’re used to. A few shows that illustrate the kind of revolutionary programming I’m talking about include I Love Lucy, Star Trek, Saturday Night Live, Ellen, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm. These are shows that have had people lingering around that proverbial water cooler so they can dish on the latest episode and predict what might come next. 

The latest show to fall into this category is Better Things. If you have been under some kind of quarantine rock and have not yet discovered it, Better Things follows Sam Fox, played by the show’s co-creator/writer/director/producer/star Pamela Adlon, her three daughters,  across-the-street mother, small cast of best friends and loathsome, mostly absentee ex-husband.

I just watched last week’s season 4 finale. I’ve essentially been hoarding it like the last roll of quarantine toilet paper, waiting for the perfect moment to say goodbye until season 5 premiers.  As usual, the episode did not disappoint. Full of warmth and humor, Adlon hits one of her favorite themes – female aging – head on, with a tremendous amount of  compassion which has become her storytelling trademark.

I’m not sure what I love most about Better Things. I love that the story, on a macro level, is set against a gritty, realistic and beautifully articulated Los Angeles. On a micro level it’s set in an older, rambling Spanish style home filled with vintage furniture, art, music, dance, literature and dimensional characters. The set, script and hugely talented cast create scenes so inviting, you want to crawl right through your screen, cozy up on an over-sized floor pillow and join the conversation.

When introducing themes like teenage sexuality, racism, gender roles, mother-daughter relationships and divorce, Adlon’s commentary is so nuanced and well-crafted it beautifully delivers strong messages with a lot of sophistication. She has the ability to depict universal human experiences with both subtle and rousing drama. In  DNA (season 4, episode 4) Adlon masterfully characterizes her desire for her 20 something daughter to move out of the house while also desperately wanting her to stay.

Adlon’s ability to soulfully illustrate life’s inevitable juxtapositions might be her greatest strength. Her character, Sam, loves her big, beautiful family home but is daunted by the constant maintenance it requires. She adores her daughters but not their grabby ways when it comes to her favorite boots. She takes good care of her mother but is also challenged by her close, geographical proximity.

In general, Better Things has been a cathartic little present. It’s been a bright spot during our new, shelter-in-place, reality. I’ve drunk in the tonic of its artistry, wisdom and humor and it has soothed, entertained and bolstered me.

 

 

Better Things also stars Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie and Diedrich Bader and Kevin Pollak. All four seasons are available on Hulu (originally on FX).

 

 

Varsity Blues. What Is It Really About?

Personal Essays, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Varsity Blues college scam. I have two kids in college and it brings up interesting issues and concerns. Most of my friends have college aged or nearly college aged kids and the scam is certainly a hot bed of emotion for a lot of people.

The subject is so multi-faceted. I’ve heard both extreme criticism from some. Others have a level of understanding for the accused. While I’m no psychologist, I’ve been wondering about the psychology behind the need for people to get their undeserving kids into elite schools.

I think what it all boils down to is the need for belonging. We all need to feel as if we belong.  We know when people feel shunned or turned away – whether by a particular person or organization, painful feelings ensue. As parents, we know how much it hurts to feel shut out of a friendship, social group or organization. In our deep love for our children, we often make the mistake of attempting to shelter our kids from disappointment.  We have all lived long enough to know the sting of being left out so trying to save our kids feels natural. Sometimes we have to recognize how we feel but resist the temptation of fixing every boo boo which can be, I admit, sheer agony.

The college scam is not about education. It’s about belonging to an elite club. Think about how much energy we dedicate to joining the right organizations. We love to categorize ourselves. Whether it’s a fraternity/sorority, a team, a church, a country club, a philanthropic group, Skull and Bones Society, Gryffindor, Slytherine  — it’s all the same. And we don’t just want to belong. Usually, we want some bragging rights too. We use the group to define ourselves for other people. Families involved in this scandal were looking to attach themselves to a prestigious university, not for the assumed high level of education their children stood to gain, but for the bragging rights of belonging to a glamorous group.

I think, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us agree that big time universities don’t necessarily offer a better education. I have the sincere privilege of working with high school students who largely come from financially challenged families. Many of my students attend community colleges and work hard to transfer to state schools. They don’t take this path because their test scores and grades are poor. They take this route because they are seeking affordability.

I’ve seen bright, engaged, motivated students who have a love of learning and go on to seek excellent educations through the community college system because they take advantage of office hours, ask for supplemental reading material, take on extra credit challenges, work long hours at internships all while working jobs to pay their tuitions. Conversely, we all know folks who attended top schools who spent lots of time partying, graduated with gentlemen’s C’s and generally cheated themselves out of the full, meaningful education available to them.

Families involved in cheating and bribery were not looking for a superior education for their kids. They were looking for what they put value on – superior bragging rights. They were looking to belong to a group they would ordinarily be excluded from and they were willing to commit crimes to save their kids from the reality that their talents were not the right fit for those schools.

The sad irony, of course, is that had these kids been left to attend schools appropriate for them, they would have likely thrived. When it all sifts out, these people value ego over education and there in lies the real problem.

 

 

A Drone Saw Me Naked

Personal Essays, Uncategorized

Here’s what happened.

Often, in the early evenings I like to swim and then relax in my jacuzzi. Recently, one evening after I had taken a long walk and then a hot shower, pulling on a swimsuit just felt like an unnecessary hassle. Let me remind you my children are far away in college and my backyard is fully private save for a little peek view from the balcony of my neighbor’s guest house. I was almost certain nobody was staying there, so I weighed my options and decided to move forth with timid nudity

Just after I had shimmied out of my robe and stepped onto the top step of the jacuzzi, I noticed a drone overhead – quite low and just hovering. Without thinking, I jumped in and smashed myself into the most bubble-aggressive corner. Looking down at the white swirl of water that thankfully camouflaged me, I waited for the uninvited visitor to move on. It didn’t. It didn’t move on for a two-minute eternity.

Finally I  looked directly at the offensive cyber-peeper as if to say I see you. I see what you’re doing. Move on. But It Didn’t Move On. Finally, with no other conceivable choice, bathed in shame and humiliation, I turned my body around and studied my black and white pool tile like it was the most interesting thing I had ever seen until the thing eventually moved on, ostensibly,  in search of other backyard exhibitionists.

The experience brings up all sorts of issues about privacy and drones and technology. I googled drones boundaries laws and according to the state of California it is illegal for a drone operator to fly over someone’s home, but it is not a crime which sounds like a crazy, imagined law unless you live in California. There are rules about airspace which I’ve only heard of before because airspace was a featured sub-story on an episode of Million Dollar Listing.

What I’m more interested in is what my actions taught me about me. I wish I could be one of those people who faces embarrassment with complete bravery. I wish I was that person whose instinct was to stand there, unabashedly naked, in the face of the intruder as if to say Here I am. This is my space. I’m a confident woman who has every right to be unclothed on my own private property. I know women who would have faced the situation with that kind of top-shelf grit and fortitude. I wish I could have channeled that spunk in the moment.

What also nags me is the thought that some neighborhood milenilals, (with nothing better to do at five o’clock in the afternoon) could have been piloting the metal creeper. I can see them now, laughing their heads off and saying “Oh My God, it’s Mrs. G. the PTA mom who directed all those school plays?” I live in a tight-knit community and feel it’s absolutely possible that my privacy could have been compromised by someone I know. But, That sounds paranoid, right? I’m not sure.

At this point I guess I can be mad but anger just requires too much energy. So, I think I will remain embarrassed which doesn’t really take much energy at all. After a little time passes I hope I can laugh which seems the most livable option. Maybe I should even feel a little grateful the experience gave me something to write about. The scenario might turn up in my next book…..Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Ten Decorating Trends That Are Over (or should be)

DomesticArts, Interior Design, New Year

January is a great time to really examine your personal spaces and think about how you want to live and feel throughout the year. After holiday decor has been stored away, take some time to edit your belongings. Donate items that don’t speak to who you are. Take this opportunity to rotate things you love to different locations for a fresh look and feel.

1. Kitchy Farmhouse

When you start seeing home decor items pop up at discount stores like TJ Max or HomeGoods, you know the trend is dwindling (or more likely, has dwindled). Tasteful farmhouse style is tricky because the market is flooded with low-end objects. Keep things simple and use authentic pieces for a genuine feel.

2. Heavy Metallics

We’ve seen lots of mass-produced metallic home accessories in the last few years. A little bit of metallic in any room adds interest and a playful, reflective quality. Just be careful to balance it out with other textures so it doesn’t look to trendy or over-done.

3. Subway Tile With Dark Grout

Subway tile is a clean, simple, inexpensive material that works in a variety of settings. Unless you live in an urban loft or industrial type space, subway tile with black grout doesn’t work. If you still want to try the trend, use it in a small space like a bathroom wall so it can be replaced inexpensively if you don’t love it.

4. Kitchens Sans Top Cabinets

Many designers have eliminated top cabinets in contemporary kitchen design which is supposed to give a space a light, airy look. Just be honest with yourself about whether your life-style suits the trend. If you are able to be highly selective/disciplined about your kitchen wares, a kitchen with limited kitchen storage might work for you. If your kitchen cabinets are filled with a mish-mash of stuff you don’t necessarily want displayed on open shelves, upper, closed cabinets are still best.

5. Tiny Pendant Lights

Small, inconsequential pendant lights do very little to make a statement. When choosing lights to hang over a bar or island, keep the scale of your bottom piece in mind. Don’t feel obligated to go with the new trend of using huge pendants (which is a look that won’t be lasting either). Choose pieces that will give you adequate task lighting. Don’t go for tiny and precious or huge and trendy. Select something in the middle that provides a comfortable, visual balance.

6. Fake Flowers

While some high end silk trees are well-made enough to look nearly real, I implore anyone out there who is still decorating with silk flowers to abandon ship. No matter how lovely a room, silk flowers stand out like a bad nose-job and can simply ruin your space. You’re not fooling anyone with silk flora. Imitation  flowers look fake, are horrible dust-collectors and generally make a room stodgy.  Silk flowers are to real foliage as Velveeta is to an artisan, aged Manchego. A single bloom in a bud vase is far more lovely than the most elaborate silk arrangement.

8. Faux Art

You and your home deserve original art. Reproduction posters or mass-produced prints available at chain furniture stores won’t  inspire you or anyone else. But one of a kind art pieces don’t need break the bank. Consider custom framing old postage stamps, vintage vacation photos, kid’s art, a meaningful letter you’ve received, a gorgeous scarf… When you surround yourself with interesting pieces that communicate a personal narrative, your home will feel instantly enriched and unique.

9. Shower-Only Bathrooms

I’ve come across several beautiful homes lately that feature big, fancy showers but no bathtubs. If you truly hate baths and plan on staying in your home forever, certainly customize your space to reflect your personal needs. Do keep in mind that for re-sale value, you will attract lots more buyers if you have a master bath-tub (and tubs in guest spaces as well). The ritual of bathing is very important to lots of people and tubs are a pure necessity for anyone with small children.

10. Wall Decals

In reference to the anti-faux art note above, avoid decals like the Black Plague unless you are decorating a child’s room (although… still questionable) or maybe a dorm room. It’s better to leave a wall blank while you search for the right piece of art than to hastily use a sub-par solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Your Hoppin’ John On, Ya’ll

DomesticArts, New Year, Recipes, Southen Food

If your family is from the American South, a New Year’s Day hasn’t gone by you haven’t feasted on a nice warm bowl of Hoppin’ John. It’s not only delicious. It’s nutritious and is said to bring good luck for the new year. It’s also incredibly easy to make which is always a huge plus.

If you shop today, the fresh black-eyed peas you can find in the refrigerated section of your market may be sold out but not too worry. It’s still early enough in the day to buy dried black-eyed peas. You can soak them this afternoon. I like to put everything in the crock pot on low before I go out for the evening and let it stew all night.

This is a basic recipe. Keep in mind, some folks add kale, spinach or other veggies to enhance the nutrition profile. Like most family-styled Southern dishes, many liberties can be taken to alter or add to the fundamental recipe. If you don’t eat pork, try browning chicken thighs as your meat element — just remove the skin and dice the chicken meat just before serving.

Brown one small, diced white onion, one stalk diced celery and two diced carrots in olive oil. Place golden veggies in the bottom of your slow-cooker. Add a ham hock (or some kind of pork product — you can use about 4 -6 ounces of  sausage, bacon, pancetta, etc.). Add about 12 ounces of black-eyed peas (fresh, canned or previously soaked). Add a clove of garlic, a dash of onion powder, one bay leaf, salt, pepper. Cover with about 4 cups chicken broth. Cook on low/simmer all night. Serve over cooked white rice. Potential toppings include chopped parsley, chopped green onions/chives, diced red onions, grated sharp cheddar cheese, Tabasco.

We like to sleep in on New Year’s morning. Then we enjoy a yummy brunch of Hoppin’ John with corn bread and greens while watching the Rose Parade and Bowl Games on TV.

Wishing You All a Safe New Year’s Eve and lots and lots of luck throughout 2019!

Deconstructing Christmas

Christmas, DomesticArts

Every Christmas I promise myself when it’s time to take down the Christmas tree I will carefully and thoughtfully organize my ornaments. I vow I will store all like-themed decorations together so that if, one Christmas in the future, I want to style the tree in all angels or all Santas or all nutcrackers… the task will be easy. While some may have visions of sugar plumbs dancing in their heads, I have visions of opening beautifully ordered boxes of decorations each year I have carefully and lovingly stored the year before.

As is the case with most fantasies, my reality is grossly different from my well-intentioned imaginations. Yesterday afternoon I started pulling the tree apart. From the photo above you can see I still have my work cut out for me. Most everything is off the tree and I’m gripped with the familiar need to toss everything in big Rubbermaid containers without time or effort put toward organization.  As much fun as Christmas is to assemble, it’s agonizing to put away. Does anyone else have the urge to toss the whole tree with lights still attached? I’ll admit I’ve done it but the nagging image of our landfills jumbled with tree lights will dissuade me from doing it again.

As soon as I post this, I’m going to take a deep breath, get the Rubbermaid tubs from the garage and dump everything inside just to be done with it. The task of expunging Christmas is pesky, it’s true, but the promise of a de-cluttered home, all fresh with clean spaces where vignettes of decorations have been sitting for a month spurs me on. There is something about ringing in the new year in an orderly house that just feels right. It feels so right, I use it as justification for the atrocious way I heave all my treasured ornaments into boxes without much thought.

I’d still like to believe that, one day, I will rise to the occasion and fulfil a responsible post-Christmas clean-up routine. At least this year I’m still too driven by the out of sight/out of mind philosophy that has served me well for years. I suppose it’s always good to have something to aspire to.

 

Late, Late Summer Cobbler

Recipes, Southen Food

Fall makes me want to buy dozens and dozens of freshly sharpened pencils, don penny loafers and makes me feel like cooking warm, feel good dinners. We’re still eating al fresco here in sunny California but the evenings are getting cool and it’s almost time to use both the outdoor and indoor fireplaces.

I had a half-dozen, large, organic nectarines in the fruit bowl today and decided to surprise my husband with a gooey late season cobbler. If you have some late summer stone fruit, this is a great way to use it up and transition into fall at the same time.

If you aren’t a cobbler fan, you will be amazed at both how easy and yummy this throw-together recipe is. It works for weeknights, for company and is easy to transport too.

Stone Fruit Cobbler

Pit and chop six to eight nectarines (or other stone fruit) into similar sized pieces. No need to be exact — there’s almost nothing you can do to ruin a cobbler.

Over low heat, stir your fruit with the juice and zest of two lemons plus 1/3 cup sugar until the liquid thickens. You can use any ol’ skillet you have but my favorite is my great-grandmother’s iron skillet that creates such marvelous, even heat.

Roughly toss  two cups of oats (not instant), a half stick of butter chopped into small cubes and a pinch or two of brown sugar in a bowl and add, evenly, to the top of your fruit. I just add my oats to the fruit and put the iron skillet in the oven at 350 degrees for about 7 minutes or till the oats start to brown a bit. You can also dish your fruit into individual ramekins before you bake for a more polished presentation.  Garnish with a bit of lemon zest.

 

Enjoy! I promise your family will thank you.