Archive | May, 2011

Ode to O

25 May

My love for Oprah is a running joke among my friends.

About ten percent of my sentences start with “I was watching Oprah a few days ago, and I saw…” They roll their eyes; I laugh. Yeah, yeah, yeah… Lauren is obsessed with Oprah.

The truth is—it runs a lot deeper than that. I’ve been watching Oprah since I was about 8 years old. In those days I sometimes watched with my mom. Other times, I watched with my best friend, Kelly. We knew all the Oprah Show theme songs and happily sang along at the start of each show.

But mostly, I watched alone. Me, the couch, and Oprah.

In the sixth grade, when I’d lost all my elementary school friends and had yet to make new friends, I came home after school every day and watched Oprah. She felt like a friend to my chubby, awkward, and often sad 12 year-old self. From middle school through high school, I must have written her seven personal letters, none of which ever made it to the mail. I wrote her letters because I thought she would understand me, and that meant I wasn’t alone.

It’s hard to explain why I love Oprah so much. She’s all the things that make up a phenomenal woman: smart, thoughtful, interesting, generous, passionate, talented, compassionate, beautiful and funny. But these adjectives are so boring in comparison with Oprah herself.

Some who watch Oprah can name the show or moment that transformed their lives. Examples of life-changing, “Ah-ha!” moments prompted by the Oprah Show surely number in the thousands. A woman who was abused as a child sees a show about sexual abuse and finally realizes it wasn’t her fault. A teenager sees a show about kidnapping just months before someone attempts to abduct her, and the self-defense strategies she learned from Oprah save her life. A gay man sees someone come out on national television and musters the courage to come out to his own family.

For me, there was no single life-changing moment. But the series of small revelations I’ve experienced over the past 20 years as a result of her show is the reason I call Oprah one of my greatest teachers. Most of what I learn from Oprah does not come directly from her mouth. I learn by her example and through her gift for the art of interview. She leads me to understand, and often feel compassion for, her guests. In turn, I reach a more compassionate understanding of myself.

Oprah’s interview with Dr. William Petit is one of the most moving pieces of television I’ve seen. Petit’s wife and two daughters were chained to their beds, raped, tortured, and burned alive as he tried desperately to escape and get help. He survived, but his wife, his daughters, and his home did not. I cannot imagine a more soul-crushing loss. Oprah’s interview with this man taught me more about the human spirit and the value of life than a lifetime of church services ever could.

One show led to my Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis. Another—her interview with JK Rowling—inspired me to start writing again. And yet another taught me why Justin Timberlake might just be one of the most adorable creatures on Earth.

Oprah brought me Dr. Oz, who held up on television an obese person’s omentum—a mental image I will never be able to delete from my brain’s catalogue. She got me interested in Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least 15 books on her recommendation.

I’m not the only one. Oprah has been an informal teacher to millions. Incredibly, she is also responsible for the formal education of 64,688 people. Yes, sixty-four thousand went to school thanks to one person.

Watching Oprah is a treat, a gift to myself. One hour to think, laugh or cry (sometimes all three at once). And it’s a bond I share with my mom. I can’t begin to count the number of times we’ve called each other to say “Did you watch Oprah today?” And for the past 11 years: “Did you read the latest copy of O yet?”

Not everyone likes Oprah. That’s okay—we are all entitled to our opinions. But nothing makes my O-loving blood boil more than men who proudly proclaim that they “hate” her. (I say men because I’ve never actually heard a woman make this statement.)

My immediate response is always: why? Among the answers I’ve received: She’s annoying, she brainwashes people, she’s too powerful, she makes too much money, and considering how much money she makes, she doesn’t give that much to charity.

I respond to those first four inane criticisms by pointing out the irony inherent in them. Here’s a woman born to a poor, unwed teen mom in Mississippi, who was sexually abused for four years by three different people. When she was just six years old and first arrived to live in the home where her mother worked as a maid, she was made to sleep on the front porch, by herself, because her skin was deemed too dark. Now she’s being criticized for being too successful? Silly me, I thought her’s was the quintessential, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American success story.

The last criticism, about her charitable donations, is laughable at best. However, it is a particularly fun one to dispute. The Giving Back Fund has been releasing a list of the 30 most charitable celebrities for the last four years. Oprah has topped the list for three of those years. (The only year she didn’t was 2009, which ranked Paul Newman first for all the money he gave to his foundation the year before he died.)

In 2010 Oprah gave $41,000,000 in charitable donations. That’s approximately 26 percent of her after-tax income. Not to mention all the money she raises using her enormous platform. Uncharitable my ass.

Oprah is phenomenal woman, indeed. But my favorite thing about Oprah hasn’t won her any accolades and isn’t frequently discussed by the press. To me, it’s what says the most about her character.

Oprah is self-aware enough to recognize when she is wrong and humble enough to admit it to the world. Two examples come to mind.

First, her infamous dispute with Jay-Z over the use of the word “nigger” in rap lyrics. In case you’ve been living under a rock: Jay-Z is for it, Oprah against. They discussed the issue on the show and in an O magazine interview, respectfully disagreed, and that was it. Until this winter, when Oprah read Jay-Z’s new book, Decoded. She announced on her Favorite Things show that she’d chosen the book for this year’s list because it inspired an Ah-Ha! moment. In the book Jay-Z says, “Rappers are young black men telling stories that the police, among others, don’t want to hear.” This line made Oprah realize she was one of “the others” and the book helped her understand why younger generations use the n-word in rap lyrics. She admitted she was wrong.

More recently, she interviewed James Frey, who famously admitted to her that large parts of his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces had been fabricated. Back in 2006, Oprah skewered him for lying to her and millions of readers in an interview that was so uncomfortable to watch, it made my ex-boyfriend break out in a sweat.

In the latest interview, just last week, Oprah admitted to Frey and the world that she had made a mistake. She allowed her ego to control her, and she failed to have even an ounce of compassion for Frey. While interviewing rapists, murderers, and child molesters, she explained, she’d always brought a sense of compassion to the table. Not with Frey, though, because her ego got in the way. So she apologized to him on national television (she actually called him to apologize personally when she first made this realization a few years back).

If a woman as powerful, as rich, as successful, and as beloved as Oprah can recognize when she is wrong and admit to it, then surely we are all capable of doing the same. It takes one huge helping of humility, grace and self-awarenes, a combination to which we should all aspire.

Yesterday, on the second-to-last Oprah Show, Jada Pinkett Smith told Oprah: I know you don’t have children of your own, but you have mothered millions.

So thank you, Oprah, from one of those millions. On every step of my journey from insecure 12-year-old child to strong, phenomenal woman, you have been there to encourage, challenge and teach me. As all great mothers do.


Lucky in Love

23 May

In seeming opposition to our last post (though not really in opposition at all), we bring you this video. A true story, and a darn good one at that.

All the Single Ladies…

20 May

It took me 27 years to discover the value of being single. Now I finally get it. And I think everyone, yes everyone, should be single for at least one year of their adult lives.

Let me be clear: I believe love is the highest expression of humanity. And I am most certainly a romantic. I love cuddling, hugs in the morning, blueberry pancakes in bed, knowing that another person has my back (and I have his), laughing so hard that I fall off the bed, embarrassing nicknames, streaking through my living room to wild applause, sweet messages on sticky-notes, and being comfortable enough to perform my goofy, made-up songs for someone.

I am not suggesting these experiences alone are equal to the massive, ineffable concept of love. They are simply human expressions of love. And they are some of the reasons why it took me so long to appreciate the single life.

But love does not require a committed relationship, let alone a ring (c’mon Beyonce, I know you don’t buy that shoulda put a ring on it crap). Love doesn’t even require another person. Although a measuring device does not yet exist, I am pretty sure I experience more love as a single woman than I did as a girlfriend or fiancé. But why?

For one, I am more open. Open to experiences. Open to people—forming new friendships and reviving old ones that have faded. Going by myself to a quaint little bar in town leads me into the most fascinating conversations with the most fascinating people. (Most recently: an ex-lawyer from Jersey who used to defend mobsters.)  Sure, you can do that while in a relationship, but how many do?

Also on the list of things I do now that I didn’t do when I was in a relationship: practice yoga, meditate, disappear on a long drive without telling a soul, spend entire days reading and writing, dream up the most fantastical scenarios for my future without feeling a single ounce of guilt about who else would be affected, cry senselessly and often without anyone asking what’s wrong, and converse weekly with adorable boys from Chicago I’ve spent only 9 amazing hours with (okay, there’s just one adorable boy from Chicago).

I’ve been single for the last two years or so. During the first 8 months, I didn’t date anyone. Unless you count that one time I spent two hours watching a guy down five gin and tonics on a Tuesday night while raving about how much he hates liberals.

It’s not easy being 100 percent single, as in not dating, after being with someone for years. The loneliness is piercing. I spent a lot of time trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered ego. I also spent time beating myself up, smashing what remained into tinier and tinier pieces, until one day I had absolutely no idea who I was.

And that moment, when I had lost any inkling of an identity and sat in a heap on my living room floor, turned out to be the most important moment of my life. It was the first time I realized that truth we all do our best to avoid: I am alone. I’d been alone a year prior, when I had a boyfriend, and I’ll be alone 20 years from now when I’m (hypothetically) married with three beautiful kids.

People change, people leave, and people die. That fact always exists. Moreover, other people live inside their bodies and their minds, and they will never live inside mine. We may try to merge with our loved ones—through hugs, words, laughter, sex—but we cannot. And so often when we try, we lose our own sense of self (or fail to develop it in the first place).

When I was finally whole enough to date again, I did so with new intentions. I stopped looking for a boyfriend, a soul mate, a lifelong partner. I began opening myself up to simply experiencing men. Appreciating each one for who he is at this moment in his life. Worrying less about where it’s going and more about how it feels now.

The notion that a loving relationship requires a label, or even an exclusive commitment, is just plain false. I dated a man for 9 months, never once referred to him as my boyfriend or made a declaration not to see other people, and had more fun than I’ve had with any other guy in my life. I loved him. I still love him. We remain (gasp!) close friends.

This is not to say everything was perfect, or that we never experienced jealousy, or that I didn’t struggle with having to explain our relationship to family and friends. And it’s not to say that a non-exclusive relationship is necessarily tenable long-term. It’s just that we proved love exists outside those boxes into which most people insist on cramming it.

My relationships are not shallow. Tears flow, my heart breaks, and disappointments are inevitable. I am still me: fiercely loyal, passionate, intense, and exceptionally picky. When I love you, you know it. And this love is not reserved for boyfriends only. It’s available to everyone I invite into my life.

I am learning how to love without giving myself away. Without needing to nail down the future (an impossible feat to begin with). Maybe you were lucky enough to learn these lessons in high school. Or maybe you learned them through your relationship or marriage. But for me, it took being utterly alone to appreciate what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his letters to Franz Kappus:

Nothing describes loving less aptly than calling it a merging, surrendering and uniting with another person (what could such a union of the unresolved, the unready and the as-yet-unorganized possibly resemble?); it is a sublime occasion for the individual to mature, to become something in himself, to become a world, to become a world unto himself for the sake of someone else; it is a great immodest demand placed upon him, something that singles him out and calls on him to go far. Only thus, as a task to work on themselves (“to listen and to hammer day and night”), should young people be allowed to use the love that has been accorded them.

Ahhhhh, Cacao

18 May

I’ve never been that into chocolate. I know, I know–this is heresy to some. It’s just that I find artificially flavored, sour, gummy candy far more alluring. A peanut butter cup here, a Milk Dud there, and I’m good to go on the chocolate front. An entire bag of Sour Patch Watermelons? Gone in 20 minutes.

My mom loves to tell people about the time I sucked so many sugar-coated sour candy strips that my tongue bled. My brother called me last week solely because he was in a candy store, and therefore, thought of me. No such phone call has ever been spawned by the sight of a chocolate bar.

Mexican Drinking Chocolate

Hot chocolate, however, is a totally different story. With marshmallows, whipped cream, or au natural… hot chocolate is my jam. Not that crap from Starbucks. (Attention Starbucks: If you are reading, be assured I love absolutely everything else about you.) What I’m talking about is that real, authentic, one-of-a-kind hot chocolate: Swiss Miss. Mmmmm. (Just when the hipsters are loving my Starbucks bashing, I go and blindside them with Swiss Miss love!)

Never fear, cocoa purists, my taste in the hot stuff made a dramatic turn this spring. A week after my parents visited Playa del Carmen in March, I received a package in the mail containing something for which chocolate enthusiasts can only stand up and cheer:           Ah Cacao Real Chocolate.

Ah Cacao, based out of Playa del Carmen, started as an MBA project.  Irishman Rohan Barnett and his Mexican wife, Monica, were inspired by their visit to a cacao plantation while backpacking in Mexico. Barnett soon drew up a business plan, and with little money and no experience in the culinary industry, ventured into the world of chocolate-making. Ah Cacao’s chocolate is made from criollo beans grown in Tabasco and Chiapas. The beans are harvested, fermented, dried, slightly roasted, and then ground into a fine powder.

Bean Harvesting

By the time the cacao reached me, it was formed into delicious rounds of chocolatey, cinnamony goodness. You could simply eat the stuff, but I did something much, much better. I made Mexican drinking chocolate. Suffice it to say, this stuff kicks some Swiss Miss ass.

So buy some. Or if you can afford it, hop on a plane to Playa del Carmen and visit the Ah Cacao Chocolate Cafe, where you can witness some ridiculously rad latte art (see below). If you get ahold of some Mexican drinking chocolate (other brands are available in gourmet grocery stores here in the States), here’s a simple recipe for preparing your mug of happiness.

Ah Cacao Chocolate Mexicano (Drinking Chocolate)

For every serving use:
2-4 segments of a chocolate tablet
1 cup of milk or water

Heat the milk or water in a pan until the first bubble pops. Remove from heat. Using a molinillo* or whisk beat in the chocolate until completely dissolved. Heat again until a froth begins to rise. Remove from the heat and beat a second time. Half-fill each cup then beat the remaining chocolate until frothy. Add the remaining foamed chocolate to each cup.

Your drinking chocolate can be spiced up by adding any of the following ingredients during the heating phase: Real Vanilla Extract or Bean, Orange or Lime Zest, Honey, Chile Pasilla, Nutmeg.

* A Molinillo (available in Ah Cacao stores) is a wooden chocolate whisk which is rotated by rubbing the staff between the palms of the hand.

Ah Cacao makes fantastic snacking chocolate and a number of other goodies. Oh, and they make skin care products to boot!


Guitar Hero: Benjamin Beirs

13 May

Say what you will about Facebook, but it fulfills its intended purpose: keeping people connected.

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from an old high school friend, who now lives in Baltimore, letting me know he’ll be playing live music during a yoga class in Asheville on Saturday. A two-hour yoga class, live music, and a friend I haven’t seen in years? Yes please.

Naturally, I started rummaging around on the web for videos of Ben playing guitar. I already knew that he teaches music and performs around the world (this info came to me via Stalkerbook, how else?). But I haven’t heard him play in ages, so a refresher seemed necessary.

About five seconds into the first video, I thought of you. Cheekie readers. You ought to start your Friday off right–with the delightful picking and strumming of Mr. Benjamin Beirs.

A little background: Ben trained at Peabody Conservatory with Julian Gray and has earned first prize in guitar contests such as the National Guitar Workshop Competition. In addition to his solo career, Ben performs internationally with the prize-winning Duo Transatlantique, a partnership between Ben and French guitarist Maud Laforest.

If you live in Asheville and would like to hear Ben and Michael Hynes play live (while stretching out those hamstrings in downward dog)… the Jivamukti yoga class is at West Asheville Yoga from 2 to 4 pm on Saturday.

Otherwise, enjoy the next best thing…




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