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The Meaning of Big Brothers

15 Jun

The boys. That’s what we called my big brothers growing up. They are eleven months apart, so they’ve essentially been a pair from the beginning.

My brothers have always had each other’s backs. Dave once intercepted Dan’s “warning notice” from middle school and called their shared answering machine to leave him a message in hushed tones: “Dan, go in the closet and check your left boot.” These heroic acts of brotherhood occurred often. (Of course my mom heard the message first and totally appreciated the explicit directions.)

It’s obvious that Dan and Dave have a special bond. But as their little sister, what I appreciate most is the kind of brothers they’ve been to me.

Admittedly, I’m biased. But it seems to me that every little girl ought to be blessed with a big brother. Lucky me—I have two.

When my mom brought me home from the hospital and lay me down in the crib, my oldest brother Dave made his first brotherly sacrifice. Just five years old, he marched into my room and covered me with his Sesame Street blanket, announcing: “I’m a big boy now so I’m gonna give this to baby Lauren so she will be happy.”

My brothers quickly became my heroes. I wanted to be just like them.

At age two, I made my own bold announcement: “I’m ready to be a big girl now!” Then I removed my diaper and attempted to pee standing up. My mother had to explain, much to my dismay, that I couldn’t pee like the boys. Ladies must sit–a fact I still find terribly inconvenient.

When I was eight I attempted to join the football team, but Mom said no and offered cheerleading as an alternative. Standing on the sidelines with pom-poms in hand, I fantasized about being out on the field in a helmet and heavy shoulder pads. I sat on the kitchen counter and watched the boys dip their mouth guards in microwaved hot water, preparing to create a perfect mould. When they weren’t home, I tried on their jerseys and swiped black goop across my cheeks.

Awkward photos, tucked away in boxes at Mom’s house, feature me in hand-me-down neon Umbros and boy-short hair. I hacked worms in half to watch them squirm, climbed sap-coated trees, played on a boys baseball team, sat happily-strapped to the front of charter boat with a fishing pole in hand, and traipsed up and down our driveway in oversized jeans, a boom box on my shoulder blasting Dave’s Naughty by Nature tape.

I tried, despite emerging breasts and a monthly reminder of my womanhood, to be one of the boys. And my brothers, for the most part, let me in on their fun.

Because my dad was president of our town football club, we hosted weigh-in-eve parties at our house. The kids watched team footage and took turns in the sweat box, trying to shed those last pounds. These nights threw a wrench in my tomboy identity. I was pumped about hanging out and watching films, but also unexpectedly delighted by the sight of sweaty, shirtless teenage boys.

Hormones continued to course through my body until one day in the midst of a middle school social studies class, a boy turned to me and said: You really need to wear a bra or something. I should’ve punched him in the nose. Instead, I hid in a bathroom stall and cried.

And it’s in my growth from that insecure twelve year-old tomboy to a confident woman that my brothers have played the most significant role.

This influence began in seventh grade, when a boy from Cherry Hill with a skater cut and a single mom moved to town. I hung around like a limp dish towel while he hooked up with each of my friends until finally, finally he decided to be my boyfriend.

Throwing in a load of laundry one afternoon, my mom found a neatly-folded note in the pocket of my jeans:

Lauren,

Roses are red
Violets are blue
If you f**k me
I’ll f**k you

Love, Brandon

I mean, what was so bad about your twelve year-old daughter receiving such a note from her boyfriend? I, for one, was secretly thrilled. A boy thought I was attractive enough to have sex with. Not that I understood much about sex, but I felt special.

A few days later I watched from an upstairs window, tears streaming dramatically down my face, as Brandon paced the corner across the street from my house.

Oh. My. God. I thought. My parents are so cruel, forcing him to bow down and apologize like this.

To his credit, Brandon did cross that street and say he was sorry. He listened to my mother’s speech about respecting her daughter. I, too, listened from the top of the stairs, and briefly considered throwing myself down them.

It wasn’t until my brothers threatened to “kill that kid” that I finally realized something was wrong. It’s one thing for your parents to disapprove of your badass boyfriend. It’s quite another when the disapproval comes from your big brothers, who happen to be your idols. I pretended to be embarrassed by their threat, but the next day I went to school and told my boyfriend he better not speak to me that way again ‘cause my big brothers would kick his ass.

The boys had their mean moments, too. When I was ten, Dave told me the Laura’s Fudge shop on the boardwalk was named after me because I looked like I ate a lot of fudge. Dan told me that being a Virgo meant I’d be a virgin for the rest of my life. They poked me and pinched me and told me to leave them alone. They held me underwater as my limbs flailed and rubbed my face in the snow. Typical brotherly antics.

At the time I cried and tattled to my parents. Once I phoned Mom at work to tell her David had called me a bad word, one I couldn’t say out loud. “Spell it,” my mom said. “B. i. c. h.” I heard muffled laughter–why wasn’t she wasn’t taking this more seriously?

But now? Now I’m a tough girl. Not in a worm-killing, tomboy kind of way, but in a speak-my-mind, don’t-take-crap-from-people kind of way. I have my brothers to thank for that.

The boys support my endeavors, my adventures, and my passions. Whenever I get a new job, they are two of the first to congratulate me. They take me to Phillies games, befriend the guys I date, and these days, they even pay my tabs. We aren’t just siblings, we are friends.

Dan lives in New Jersey, Dave lives in Florida, and I live halfway in-between. But having big brothers means knowing that, even from 600 miles away, there are two people willing to kick some ass for me. A long time ago I stopped wishing to be a boy. But I still want to be just like my brothers, who are two of the finest people I know.

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The Civil Wars

4 Jun

Living down in Dixie has changed me, no doubt. “Y’all” seems to pop out of my mouth a dozen times a day. I’ve taken a major liking to pickup trucks. And the one thing I swore I’d never like, I kinda like now… country music.

Okay, country music lite. The kind that “real” country music fans scoff at: Taylor Swift. Carrie Underwood. The Dixie Chicks. And then there are the folk artists: Ray LaMontagne, Mumford and Sons. Johnny Cash used to be the only exception to my distaste for country. But these days I’ve been known to sing along to a Rascal Flatts song. (Hey, that Broken Road tune is catchy…)

Which brings me to The Civil Wars. I call them folk, others call them country. Either way, they are damn good. So good that they were the opening act for Adele (before she cancelled her remaining tour dates due to illness), whose album is currently the best-selling in the country and whose single is sitting pretty at number 1 on the Billboard 100. If you’re opening for perhaps the hottest act in the country right now, you must be doing something right.

The story behind The Civil Wars is, well, boring. John Paul White and Joy Williams met at a songwriting session in Nashville and eventually decided to put their solo careers on hold and start a band. Their music is anything but boring. Minimalist, yes. But not boring. And people are starting to notice. The Civil Wars’ only studio album, Barton Hollow (Feb 2011), landed at number 12 on the Billboard 200 and number 2 on the Folk charts. The duo also put out two EPs: Live at Eddie’s Attic and Poison & Wine. The former is available for free digital download on their website.

First, my favorite: A haunting version of My Only Sunshine. Second, Adele’s favorite: Poison & Wine, the band’s first single.

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Soak It In

1 Jun
Bath fantasies: I have a lot of them. Most involve me, a novel, pillowy poofs of bubbles, and a flute of champagne. The more interesting ones feature chocolate-covered strawberries, candle pillars, and that French guy from the Sex and the City movie.
 
These fantasies have never come to fruition, and not just because the French beaut has been busy on Dancing with the Stars and Brothers & Sisters (besides, he’s really more famous for showering…). The real problem: I simply cannot get over that icky feeling of my bare bum on the tub floor. No matter how clean the porcelain, it feels slimy against my skin. And then there’s the yuck-factor induced by stewing in water contaminated by dirt and dead skin cells. Surely I’ve whetted your appetite for a lovely bath?
 
Those tub-lovers are out there, though, as well as plenty others who are more in love with the idea of the tub. (Especially those vintagey clawfoot ones.) So if you’re one of the former, you’ll enjoy using the bath accoutrements below. And if, like me, you prefer the fantasy to reality–then you’ll enjoy positioning them around the bath, where they will look quite pretty.
 

I’m a sucker for packaging. This is some of the most alluring I’ve ever seen. If these bottles arrived at my house filled with rat poison, I wouldn’t mind. I desire them purely for their prettiness. If you’re into the actual bubble bath, though, rest assured. The Relax Evening Bubble Bath is a luxurious blend of white orchid, Tahitian vanilla, bee blossom honey, Indian amber, and moisturizing olive fruit, avocado, almond oils and vitamin E. Or for a more feminine scent try the Breathe Tranquil Bubble Bath, which features peony and white lily.

 

 

Lollia Foaming Bubble Bath

 

 

Yeah, so I’m not really sure why you’d need regular bubble bath and foaming bubble bath. But you might once you lay eyes on this screened glass decanter adorned with a Chinoiserie bird. Inside: Imagine Foaming Bubble Bath, a fragrance with hints of willow, lotus, orchid, rice flower, coconut milk, mandarin and jasmine.

 

 

 

Beekman 1802 Milk Shake Bath Soak

 

 

Love the old-school apothecary look of this soak, which is comprised of dehydrated goat milk and mineral salts. True, I’d rather dine on goat cheese than lie around in a goat milk stew, but apparently this stuff contains skin-healing  properties. Plus, the dropper is filled with essential oils, to be combined with the soak and tossed into your warm bath.

 

 

Truly Aesthetic Bath Affirmations

These neat little tubes contain bath salts and remind me of those sand art bottles we used to make at the town fair as kids (minus the neon colors). Each test tube includes a positive affirmation scroll to help start or end your day on an uplifting note. Varieties included in this set: Enliven Coconut Basil, Repose Thyme Lavender, Harmonize Juniper Berry Grapefruit, Fortify Mango Peppermint, and Thrive Camomile Eucalyptus.

Fiat Luxe Felted Soap

 

 

Oddly reminiscint of a Fraggle, the swirly wool pouch surrounding this yummy soap is both exfoliating and anti-fungal. The soap comes in six flavors, each with it’s own felt design: Fir, Citrus Spice, Amber, Lavender, Lavender Mint, and Verbena (my favorite!). Though pricey, the soap is designed to last longer than a regular bar. Plus, it’s pretty, reusable and economy-boosting (handmade here in the States).

 

 

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My pup shares my distaste for baths.

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.

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.

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