Friday, April 13, 2012

She's Baaaack

Hello there, friends. It has been too long. I know. I cried myself to sleep, too.

So what’s been happening in my oh-so-interesting life since Thanksgiving, which, believe it or not, was the last time I posted? Well, I’ve started running again. Pumping out about 20-30 miles per week now—that is, as long as my knee decides not to be a pre-Madonna, requesting time on the couch with a milkshake. I was supposed to run a half marathon at the end of this month, but little-miss-drama-queen just couldn’t handle it.

I’m almost finished with my master’s program! There are about two weeks of class left and my need to jump out a window is slowly transforming into my need to dance for joy. I have to say, even though I’ve been uber stressed since I started graduate school, I am all the wiser for sticking it out. And it’s not just because I’ll have a master’s degree, but because I have learned so much about journalism since I started the program last July. For example, I now know the difference between a hyphen and a dash. Aren’t you proud? (In all honesty, though, I really have learned a lot.)

Ooooh! I also cut all my hair off. Clearly, this is the most exciting thing I’ve done lately. It only proves my impatience. Up until a few months ago I was trying to grow it out. But that’s no fun. So I chopped it all off, and I gotta say, it felt goooooood.

That’s about all that’s happened. But expect an interesting story about Lily Dale—one of the largest psychic communities in the country—in the future. It should make for one of my more interesting travel stories. Farewell all. And don’t worry—I will write again soon!


Betty White. Need I say more?

A woman who’s been around the block a few times in the land of sitcom, White woos us yet again in the TV Land comedy Hot in Cleveland. Although the show features other spunky sitcom actresses—Valerie Bertinelli (One Day at a Time), Jane Leeves (Fraiser), and Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me)—it is White who we can’t help but laugh at.

Promoted from her dumb blonde persona as Rose in the late 1980s comedy The Golden Girls, White transforms into the snarky, quick-witted Elka Ostrovsky, caretaker of a house in the burbs of Cleveland. And when three forty-something women from L.A. move in, Elka can’t help but ask the realtor, “Why are you renting to prostitutes?”

White gets much applause for her ongoing acting career (she turned 90 last week), however, the show itself could use a bit of a tune-up. Although worthy of a good laugh, Hot in Cleveland disappointingly stereotypes forty-something women as desperate and self-loathing. The main reason Bertinelli, Leeves, and Malick’s characters even make the move to the Midwest is because the men there are ruggedly handsome, pull out their chairs, and appreciate their beauty, unlike the self-absorbed, metrosexual men of Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, like any TV series really, it’s these exaggerated stereotypes that keep me coming back for more. Melanie (Bertinelli) is a recently divorced writer, whose naivety not only makes her lovable but gets her into trouble (“I’m gonna staple my mouth shut…as soon as I fix this”). Victoria (Malick) is a bigheaded TV soap opera actress who thinks every person on earth is her biggest fan. After her show gets cancelled, however, she struggles to accept the fact that she is only wanted for mother/grandmother roles and becomes the spokesperson for “Mrs. Lady Pants,” Japanese adult diaper pants for women that will make you “feel as fresh as Mount Fuji.” And Joy (Leeves) is the bitter beautician who was left at the altar, gave her son up for adoption, and is the butt of jokes for Elka. The upside? She’s the artistic genius behind Oprah’s perfectly shaped brows.

As TV Land’s first original scripted series, the show is doing well for itself. In 2011, White won the Screen Actors Guild Award for “Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series,” and the cast won “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.” The show also won the 2012 People’s Choice Award for “Favorite Cable TV Comedy.”
Hot in Cleveland isn’t going to get cold any time soon. In fact, the comedy is only five episodes into season three and they have already signed on for a fourth season. So try it out—if not for your own enjoyment, then for documenting Betty White’s last hoorah as an actress (and I’m sure she’ll go out with a bang).

Downton with a Dash of Poppins

Elegant damsels and suited up Britains, corsets and scandal and talk in the kitchen, a servant staff large enough for a king, these are a few of my favorite things. Downton Abbey will surely ingrain itself in your brain as do the annoyingly catchy lyrics of a Julie Andrews’ song. It’s witty. It’s scandalous. It’s more entertaining than I would have thought PBS capable of.

Considering Downton Abbey details the life of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants (not to mention it falls into the niche of black-suited, Laura Linney-introduced Masterpiece Theatre), it comes as a surprise that the storyline woos its audience with shock, scandal, and strife. Of course, what is considered shocking, scandalous, and strife-worthy in 20th century England differs greatly from what is considered those things in present-day America. Regardless, scenes of pre-marital sex, wounded WWI soldiers, and a love affair between Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and chauffer Branson (Allen Leech) keep you as wide-eyed as a five-year-old in Willy Wonka’s candy shop.

And while the storylines are surprisingly provocative, the characters and their relationships with one another are remarkably poignant.  No matter how wretched Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) can be towards her sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), you find you will continue to root for her I’m-better-than-you feminist attitude as well as her back-and-forth relationship with earnest Matthew throughout the series. Downton’s servants seduce viewers into popcorn inhalation, as well, with both their kindness and knavery towards the beloved Crawley family. I almost choked on a kernel when O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) maid, plants a half bar of soap by the edge of the bathtub, in which Lady Grantham (well-past child-bearing age) slips upon and miscarries her last chance for an heir to the Crawley fortune.

What began with a tragedy in season one—the sinking of the Titanic—and ended with an engagement in season two (Cousin Matthew finally gives into his own stubbornness as he propositions Lady Mary for marriage, who insists he kneel down in the snow and propose if he wants a proper answer from her), Downton Abbey has yet to disappoint. With just enough wealth, war, and saucy remarks from Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham (“So, that’s Mary’s replacement. Well, I suppose looks aren’t everything.”) weaved into the equation, I have become an avid fan of the pleasantly arrogant Crawleys and their gossiping staff.  So when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply watch Downton endlessly, and then I don't feel so bad.

Sauce Runs Through My Veins

“Manga, manga!” she’d start to yell whenever my brother and I would commence in chatting at the dinner table. My full-blooded Italian grandmother insisted that eating was more important than talking. You could set an egg timer for five minutes, and by the time you walked into my grandmother’s house until that egg timer buzzed, she would have asked you three times already if you want anything to eat. And eventually, a five-course meal would materialize below the napkin that somehow made its way around your neck.

The best part about my grandma’s food obsession was the intricate attention to detail she gave to her spaghetti sauce. I remember watching her cook as a curious child. I observed her like a doctor observes study subjects through a two-way mirror. I noted her process: She’d start by placing a large saucepan on the stovetop, turning the dial to low. Then, like a ballerina, she’d float over to the counter and begin to chop the onion and garlic with steady hands and smooth slices. Her elegance never faltered as she tossed the freshly cut ingredients into the pan, which would sizzle and fragrant the air upon contact with the hot, oiled metal surface. Then she’d mosey over to the sink, turn on the faucet, and scrub her hands clean. Just as I’d tiptoe and peek into the pot, a slab of bloody pork smacked the bottom. “Pork gives the sauce its flavor,” she’d say. Again, running water and the scraping of the sponge’s bristles against my grandma’s tanned skin would sound. Then came the spices and the tomatoes, which she’d hand-strain twice through. The faucet could be heard again. Then her secret (and my favorite) ingredient: a sprinkle of sugar. As the sauce bubbled its way into perfection, she’d start rolling the meatballs (a whole different complex process) and throw them into the skillet, letting them sizzle and pop to perfection. She’d give me a bowl with a meatball, some sauce, and a piece of bread to hold me over.

My father used to do the same when he was a kid. He’d stand by her apron-side, paying close attention to both her movements and ingredients. And I’m sure my grandmother had experienced these moments with her mother, as well. But the sauce involved more than the process of construction and digestion. It glued my family together. Every Sunday, my dad would attend 8:30 a.m. mass at St. Francis Church, conveniently across the street from his Grandma Gringeri’s house. Once mass ended, he and his folks would head over there for spaghetti and meatballs. She’d give him a bowl with a meatball, some sauce, and a piece of bread to hold him over.

Food was always paired with a variety of stories from the past. How my great grandparents fell in love and voyaged to America to share their lives with one another and get married. How my grandmother, donned “The Queen” by her brothers and sisters, pursued her passion for luxuries and class as a child, regardless of her 10 other siblings. How good of a man (and a barber, apparently) my Grandpa Rocco, who everybody called “Roxy,” was and how much he would have spoiled me if he had survived the stroke that killed him. And love, I cannot forget about the love, also known as the incessant stinging on my cheek from being pinched by every relative over the age of 50 that walked through the door expecting sauce on Sundays, full of exclamations of how big I was getting and how beautiful I was becoming.

As I myself make the sauces, the meatballs, the pasta that brought my family together over all those years, I continue not only the traditions of family, but the traditions of a long lost past I can only dream about. The sweet aroma of the tomatoes, the sound of the meatballs sweltering in the olive oil, and the sensational combination of flavors brings me back to Sicily when my great great grandmother would make the same meal for her family. And perhaps someday, I will do the same for my child. Let her study my every move with the concoction of my family’s generational tomato sauce recipe. And while she waits patiently for dinner, I’ll give her a bowl with a meatball, some sauce, and a piece of bread to hold her over.

Deliverance (Banjos Not Included): How I survived the rip-roaring rapids of West Virginia’s New River

Our raft, wedged between two rocks, threatened to plunge all 9 of us into the rushing waters of the river beneath. We struggled, paddles in hand, to shove ourselves from the grasp of the red fist-like stones that captured us. The instructor ordered us to place all of our weight forward, causing the river to take over the inflatable yellow boat. Knee-deep in water and 45 degrees in the air, the raft shot out, like a spaceship transitioning into hyper drive. We survived.

Whitewater rafting isn’t for everyone. And even if you convince yourself that the thrill of the ride and the adrenaline exploding in your chest makes it worth pursuing, you’ll probably still shit yourself at some point. Because when you’re flying who knows how many miles per hour while 20 feet in the air above a rip-roaring river, life falls into perspective. At least, that was my experience.

In the summer of 2010, I voyaged ten hours south in my green Subaru Outback (a soccer mom car at best) to stay with my Aunt Deanie in the quaint town of Chilhowie, Virginia, where people pass the time looming on front porches, watching fireflies. My aunt, perfectly aware of Chilhowie’s low-key lifestyle, took advantage of having me around and planned a plethora of day trips to places she wanted to visit in the area. For my 22 birthday, I told her I wanted to go whitewater rafting somewhere. So we researched. And of course, where was the best place that offered the extreme sport? West Virginia. I could hear the hypnotizing banjo of Deliverance luring us into the back country. We weren’t going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, that’s for sure.

One of the oldest rivers on the continent, the New River’s 53-mile descent flows steady in July through what people call the “Grand Canyon of the East.” The morning of the rafting expedition, Deanie and I waddled like ducks onto a school bus overflowing with people. During the bumpy ride to the highest point of the gorge (because rivers flow downhill), a guide talked us through the safety concerns affiliated with whitewater rafting. After listening to 30 minutes of stories about people who drowned from being sucked under the water’s current, shattered their skulls on the rocks, and suffered traumatic brain injuries, the shit started flowing.

As my mind drifted and daydreamed in complete horror at the dangers I’d be facing, I realized we were no longer on the bus. Someone had strapped me into a fluorescent yellow life vest, and our personal raft guide, Nick (a beautifully rugged 6-foot tall man with curly dirty blond hair), ran through the safety precautions we might encounter while in the river. I assume that throughout this entire speech my mouth was agape and drool had begun to pool on my chin. This, of course, could have been from either the immense fear shaping itself into a hard ball in the back of my throat or my admiration of Nick’s flawless, tanned chest.

Once coerced into the raft and pushed into the water, the awareness of no going back slammed my whole body into reality, and the prickly sensation you feel when your foot falls asleep consumed me. Terror. Utter terror.

The ride seemed innocent enough at first, gently floating through the water like you do on the inner tubes of a lazy river attraction at a water park. Soon enough, however, we approached our first grade four rapids. Grade four rapids consist of whitewater, medium waves, sporadic rocks, and often, a considerable drop, which all require the ability to swiftly maneuver the raft. I sat hunched up in the front, catatonic until I jousted forward. We were stuck. Between two rocks. Hooray.

Nick’s burly voice boomed up and over us into the canyon. “Paddle! Paddle!” Gripping my oar like Excalibur, I used blistering force to cut through the rapids. I paddled harder and harder under heavy, constrained breaths, and prayed to God (for maybe the fourth time since I left Catholic school at age 13) to make it back to Chilhowie alive. And suddenly, as if God himself bent down and gave a small whistle, like a toddler blowing on the remains of a dandelion after it whitens, we popped up and out from the rocks. And I thought to myself, “I’ll never leave the porch again.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Taste of Home: The Captain's Room in Geneva, NY

Captain Morgan. Captain America. Captain Kirk. This is where they all dine, Sunday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., when the fires under the grease-stained grills extinguish, the last drips of coal black coffee evaporate, and the electric blue and red lights of the “Open” sign disappear.

“The Captain’s Room” in Geneva, N.Y. bustles from the creaks of the front door to the subtle buzzing of the heat lamps at its rear at 12:10 p.m. Friday afternoon. Four men, slack in their chairs but lively in their voices, engage in a tongue-rolling conversation over empty and stained glasses at the next table. Their quick conversation would be difficult to understand even if they weren’t huddled together like a football team. Spanish can be tricky.

“Ya ya,” shouts a baby from across the diner, as if she was responding to the waitress’s delicate question—“More coffee?” The waitress laughs in response to the baby’s babbles, causing her caramel-colored curls to spring forward.

With a motherly gaze, she bends down to talk to the baby face-to-face, waitress to customer, woman to woman. The gentle hand of the baby girl graces the server’s cheek, eager to touch a face that isn’t her own.

An abrupt ding of the kitchen bell sounds, and the waitress snaps back into motion, like the gears of a clock that has been switched on for the first time. She swivels around and heads toward the wafts of steam emerging from the freshly plated eggs and toast the cook had just plopped down. Two plates per hand, she charges to the nearest table. And as soon as she sets them down, she hustles over to the register, rapidly pressing its fingerprint-stained buttons.

As customers dwindle away from the warm atmosphere, the waitress remains. She pulls out boxes from below the counter. Like the bottomless bag belonging to a magical wizard, the boxes continue to appear, one after the other. The packages overflow jellies, sugars, and creamers onto the black-speckled counters.

Floating from table to table, she stuffs napkins into rigid metal holders. She pushes the red upholstered chairs back into their respective places. She wipes down the tables in attempts to make them as spotless as they had been at opening.

She looks relieved for the work day to be nearly over at 1:55 p.m., yet saddened that she would no longer be surrounded by others.  The captains would keep her company still—portraits of Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island” and members of “Captain and Tennille” cling to the walls. Melted into the plaster, a mural of Captain Hook, Captain Falcon, and Captain Caveman also keep her from complete solitude.

This café is not only a place where waitresses and captains meet daily, but friends and family, adults and children, strangers and first dates, who engross in the aged tradition of sharing moments and meals.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Thanks to Thanksgiving

I am dying. Not literally. But it would be nice if this week could just end so I could make my hour-long highway drive home for Thanksgiving break. I love everything about Thanksgiving in my household. 

I love waking up to the waft of onion and garlic that slips through the crevices of my bedroom door. As I float downstairs, I am greeted by my mom and dad in the kitchen, gracefully moving from stovetop to refrigerator to kitchen table. They move like clockwork—my dad is preparing the Turkey and the ingredients for his famous pumpkin soup, and my mom is briskly skinning sweet potatoes, in attempts to perfectly duplicate my grandmother’s mouthwatering candied yams. I drift over to the couch to watch three hours of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—I eat up every minute of it, as if it’s as scrumptious as the gigantic meal my parents plan to serve later that evening.

Then the family arrives. On Thanksgiving, my mom gets the pleasure of having all of her kids (and their families) over for dinner—my two oldest half-brothers and their five kids, my closest brother, Adam, his fiancĂ©, and their dog Toby. My sister-in-law’s mom and husband also join us for dinner.  It’s pretty chaotic. And wonderful.

Guaranteed by dessert, my nieces and nephews have made their way down to the basement to scavenge for toys or into our backroom to try to find and torture our cats. Others are spread throughout the house, debating over which team will win the football game on TV, drinking beer and chatting at the kitchen table. By this time, Adam and I have already debated over whether it was mom or dad who salted the potatoes—mom never adds enough. Dad is licking the gravy off the rim of his plate and sucking the turkey bones to the marrow, like any real Italian would (or maybe it’s just him). 

The night isn't full complete, however, until someone has mentioned my swift samurai skills in attacking the dessert table. It is a gift. The night ends when everyone leaves, and I am lulled into a food coma, falling asleep to pre-Christmas TV specials. Ahh, yes. Thank you Thanksgiving, for bringing all the quirks of my family together in the same room for one evening. And hurry up and get here!