Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grinning and Baring It

Until this year, when I've been asked what my best Halloween costume ever was, I've cited the year I went as the Incredible Hulk, draped in a plastic smock, breath steaming behind a green plastic mask.

Ever since I can remember (though I don't remember many of my early childhood costumes, and have no photos of them), I've been draped in something for Halloween, hiding beneath plastic, swimming inside capes, while everyone around me seemed to shed all of their exterior layers and let their freak flags fly. I didn't dress as a princess; I dressed as a witch.

For years as an adult, I insisted that I don't wear Halloween costumes, that I merely accessorize, resulting in a collection of kitty ears, devil horns, glittery masks, and ladybug and fairy wings (now in storage) that don't constitute a costume per se but at least give a touch of festive flair for the holiday. And after years of gender-neutral and unisex outfits, generally of the ghoulish variety, in my 20s and early 30s, I just wanted to be seen as cute.

But of course I love dressing up. I'm an actor, after all. I've just never felt like I could compete with the other New York girls on Halloween, in this city whose parade is world-famous and whose population is intimidatingly attractive.

But I've longed for the sexy ensembles that surrounded me: the French maids, nurses, angels, cheerleaders, and superheroes with their short skirts and hot pants, bare midriffs and decolletage. I've ached to be the one that everybody wanted their photo taken with. I've craved the confidence it takes to wear an outfit like that, and dare to be photographed in it.

And then this year, I lost 45 pounds. I turned 35 years old. And suddenly, as my body got a little better, my brain got a little braver.

I was determined to dress up this year.

I wasn't sure which iconic figure I was going to select, so I started shopping early. Nearly immediately after moving to Astoria, I began hitting all the party stores, Ricky's, and Halloween pop-up shops I could find - of which there are plenty - to scope out the offerings for this year. And then I found a gold chain bra in 1980s packaging that touted, "A perfect accompaniment to your harem girl costume!"

DONE.

Given my recent travels in North Africa and interest in Middle Eastern culture, and my experience studying bellydancing, the outfit was a no-brainer. And given my new relocation to Queens, I was sure to be able to source most of my outfit locally. Slowing accruing the basics - red bra and boy shorts, a sheer red wrap - and additional accessories - slave bracelet, anklet, belly jewels, veil and shoes - I assembled an ensemble that was my sexiest and most revealing ever.

The only problem?

I had to wear it in public.

Friday night, I was standing in my bedroom, overhead white light blaring, staring at myself in the full-length mirror, wrapping my arms around my exposed waist and doubling over in fear. How was I going to even leave my room, much less the apartment, much less the building? What was I thinking? What was my Plan B??

But as I slowly emerged, first poking my head out of my door and then an arm, then an exposed leg, I surprised my roommate, who in shock said, "Oh my God! You're hot! Look at you!"

Although that gave me the confidence I needed to walk down 30th Avenue, I then had to take the subway, walk into a brightly lit bar full of people, stay there and actually talk to them for a couple of hours.

The horror!

In the end, I survived. Some people averted their eyes, others couldn't stop hugging me. An Egyptian man tried to give me his phone number on the 7 train platform. A Brooklyn man asked for three wishes. A band from Atlanta sent me drinks from across the bar. People called out to me, "Hey bellydancer!" And I was brave enough to actually wear the costume two nights in a row.

Even after losing 45 pounds, I'm only now right at the very high end of the healthy weight range for my height. I'm a pound or so away from not being overweight for the first time in my entire life. (I was born three weeks late and therefore a big baby.) I'm not thin, per se - at least not by any conventional American standards - but in Brooklyn and Queens, the resounding reaction was, "You're hot!"

I'll take it.

As scary as baring my midriff is - especially because most of my bikini-clad time has been spent underwater and therefore not that exposed - I'm glad I did it. After spending the last 10 months slowly losing the equivalent of a small child, I don't have to suck my stomach in all of the time. I can see my feet.

And a bellydancer should have a little bit of belly...something to shake, at least.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted

"I mean, who likes brussels sprouts?" My food snob date was sitting across from me, watching me munch on the fried outer leaves of the brussels sprouts I'd ordered at dinner.

"I do."

"But they're not the best thing you ever tasted, are they?" he nagged.

"Well, no..."

But do they have to be?

I am a fan of good food, good tastes, good flavors, good texture, but I am also a fan of variety. As a child, I was raised on a limited diet, but even my gastronomically provincial parents had to struggle to get me to eat anything more than bologna with French's yellow on white bread, or peanut butter and jelly (on white bread). (Quite frankly, I just didn't like the other options given to me, which were generally boiled meat, stewed tomatoes, a rainbow of cabbages and other German delicacies.) As an adult, though, I will try pretty much anything you put in front of me - any part of the animal, any animal. And although I don't always like it, and certainly don't always love it, I am always glad I tried it.

What would my life be like if I only ever ate the best thing I ever tasted? How much variety could I possibly get out of that, when the best thing I ever tasted was some chocolate and peanut butter product from Reese's? Even if I were to expand it out to the various food groups - the best meat, bread, vegetable, cocktail I ever tasted - wouldn't the repetition of that best thing cause a flavor fatigue on my palate, thereby diminishing how good I think it is?

Although I advocate living the best life one can live, consuming only the best things - or judging their competitors because they aren't the best - would only set me up for a life of disappointment. Sometimes the pizza I want the most is a frozen French bread pizza, or some weird little crackery saucy frisbee from a bar. And at that moment, I may not be craving the best thing, but it's the thing I want.

Happiness is knowing what you want.

During that same date, after seeing a movie I enjoyed despite his constant unwhispered complaints during it, my companion asked me, "You didn't actually like that, did you?"

"Yes, I did."

"But it's not the best movie you've ever seen, is it?"

"Well, no...."

But it doesn't have to be!

I have a lot of patience and appreciation for cheesy pop songs, cheap junk food, Hollywood movies and disposable flip flops. These experiences can be endlessly enjoyable in their fleeting nature, their accessibility, and their infectiousness. And although I truly believe that I can learn a tremendous amount from bad experiences and failures - perhaps more than from good experiences and successes - I won't regret not going out again with this ill-mannered, bratty drunk with no regard for  my enjoyment of our date, because he wasn't the best guy I ever went out with.

And although variety is a good thing also in the company you keep, I choose to share myself and my time with only the best.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

In Praise of the Nice Guy

It took me a long time into my womanhood, but I have found my way back to The Nice Guy.

When I was young, I was entranced by any boy or man who was nice to me.

I adored my father, who defended me to my mother, saying things like "Sandi's not bad, she's just misunderstood."

I developed crushes on and obsessions with authority figures: Officer Friendly, the firemen respondents to our house's lightning strike, the concerned teachers who counseled me after class when they witnessed my tear-swollen eyes and bruised nose.

Like any other awkward kid - especially one forced to wear too-big glasses, hand-me-downs from Sears and a boyish, unfortunately cowlicked haircut - I was tortured throughout high school, and whenever a boy would come to my defense, I would unleash my doe-eyed affections upon him.

I suppose that explains why my first-ever real date was with a nice boy who eventually came out of the closet. (There was one date before him, but the boy protested to his mother, my mother and all our schoolmates that it was not a date. He protested, that is, to everyone but me.)

None of those nice guys - especially not the gay ones - ever reciprocated my desires. Maybe they didn't want a nice girl. Maybe they were just being nice for the sake of being nice, with no ulterior motive, no intentions of woo or romance. As much as I wanted The Nice Guy, The Nice Guy never wanted me.

Then again, at the time, I was unfit for dating: sheltered, abused, battered and damaged as a child, allowed to go on a total of only three dates between sixth grade and high school graduation. When I went away to college, I quickly learned that despite the distance from my overprotective parents, I was still unfit for dating, and The Nice Guy wasn't so easy to spot anymore. Boys would kiss me with no desire for conversation, no regard for my feelings and no intention on ever kissing me again. I hung around one guy who seemed to treat me nicely, but spent all of his time telling me about his ex-girlfriend and the other girl whose dorm room he sometimes he slept over. As I got older, I sought The Nice Guy in underclassmen, but I mistook their innocence and inexperience for kindness, their doe-eyed gazes at me too fleeting, too easily distracted by another girl, smarter, thinner, younger, newer than I.

If a liberal arts education in a small, bucolic town in Upstate New York teaches you anything, it's how to make swift, meaningful connections with complete strangers, and then let them go as quickly as the semester changes, the dorm room assignments shift, the bars close and the party ends.

It's the perfect training ground for living and dating in New York City, whose newness keeps it in a constant state of flux, its population perpetually turning over via immigration and emigration between boroughs, coasts, and countries.

In my first several years in New York City, I forgot what The Nice Guy looked like altogether, so much so that I couldn't recognize him at all anymore. I assumed he ceased to exist. Instead, I allowed Other Guys to ignore me, deny me, hide me, cheat on me, cheat with me, and forget me. I paid their rent. I slipped $20 bills into their empty wallets when they weren't looking. I took late night cabs to outer boroughs to drive them safely home. I eased their aching backs. And I never expected anything in return. I didn't even expect them to return the feelings.

Does that make me the most magnanimous woman in the world? Or just a sucker?

I pegged myself a sucker, so I took nearly two years off. I went through hell. I stopped talking to my parents. I started therapy. I quit my job. I moved to the desert. I traveled alone. I joined Weight Watchers and embarked on the biggest self improvement kick of my life.

And somehow, a few pounds lost, a world of hell past, The Nice Guy reemerged.

I spotted him with disbelief, like the discovery of a species thought long-extinct, nestled in the depths of the rainforest or some remote wilderness. He thought I was smart and pretty. He encouraged my writing and photography. He taught me phrases in foreign languages. He took me on dates romantic and planned, with no expectations but to spend time with me and stare at my face. He spotted me from across the room, sidled up to me despite my group of friends, got my number and used it. He told me how much he liked me, earnestly, unabashedly, without regret or remorse. He visited me at all hours, slept with me in his arms, and kissed me goodbye and watched me as I left.

And I liked him back, needing him desperately, desiring him all the more because he was so nice.

I'm not sure what's changed, what world conditions have been altered in order to support the existence of The Nice Guy once again in my life. I'm 45 pounds lighter and an entire savings account and annual salary poorer, but emotionally richer, more stable, and more empowered. I can take a compliment and say "Thank you." I give out my phone number to anyone who seems like they'll really appreciate having it. And I'll go out with anyone who wants to put the thought and effort into taking me somewhere nice and making sure I have a good time (regardless of who pays, but these days, a girl's gotta eat).

Do I finally, after all these years, believe that I deserve it?

Of course, right now The Nice Guy in my life is a composite of several nice guys I've encountered over the last eight months. Some live elsewhere. Some have other lives and other women. Some are here but lost their interest in me. (It happens.) Some can't forget another girl; some would like to forget her with me. Some don't think that they're supposed to be nice, or that girls will ever like them if they are nice. But God help me, I love 'em: the young, the innocent, the impressionable, the confident, the experienced, the kind and the generous. Whether they are 23 or 43, there is no greater turn-on than someone who likes me so much they can't help but tell me and try to show me.

Maybe one day there will be one nice guy, The Nice Guy. But now, for the first time in my entire life, I am not lonely. I've surrounded myself with The Nice Guy Roommate, plenty of Nice Guy Friends, and a few Nice Guy Dates. After the life I have led, I will take it, run with it, and never look back.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

A Getaway Within a Getaway

"What's in LA?" people kept asking me when they heard I was going back.

"A client. Potential clients. Maybe a job," I said, and I meant it. But those were only my justification for the cost of the travel, figuring the benefit of securing a new client would outweigh the cost of the (cheap) flight, car rental, food, and - unfortunately this time - hotel.

But at the time that I booked my trip, moving to Queens made me want to return to LA more than ever before. To see the Los Angelenos that I've become quite attached to... To find work. To go somewhere. To seek out another time, another town, another everything...

Since then, I feel a bit better about my move to Queens, a change of scenery I desperately needed, and one that has rejuvenated me in surprising ways.

But I was still eager to get back to LA.

To save on costs, I booked a room at a place called The Circle in Culver West, the residential area to the southwest of lovely and historic Culver City, just north of Marina del Rey (sort of by LAX airport) and inland from Venice Beach.

For $50/night, staying at one of the customized "rooms" at the The Circle is like being dropped into another time or another town within LA. It is so quiet, save for the gravel crunching beneath your feet and the rustling of a raccoon in the bushes.

The front entrance - next to a parked Greyhound Bus that has been converted into a private cottage - encourages visitors to Create, Meditate, and Celebrate - exactly the kind of place I need right now, and so familiar to me after my time spent out in Joshua Tree.





I originally booked the cheapest room, billed as the "Modern Cave," which turns out to be an inground pool (or as the owner Sanni calls it, a fish pond) that's been covered. Sanni's kids' toys are strewn about The Cave's roof, and during the day they're usually found playing on top of it.


l-r: Treehouse, Floating Bed room, main house, The Cave (in lower right corner)

When I arrived, Sammi graciously put me in The Treehouse - a nicer (and taller) accommodation which happened to be vacant during my stay. In fact, the whole place was vacant during my stay, save for Sanni and her family, and their cuddly dog Lucy.

 The Treehouse

The Treehouse is a strange wooden spaceship built on stilts above another fish pond with a canoe and a fountain. Overlooking the backyard, one of the walls literally folds down and out into the meditative garden (something that would have been great during LA's recent heat wave, but it was too cold and overcast while I was here).



Immediately upon my arrival, I cast all my New York City hangups aside, and just let myself be. No lock on my door? Fine. People can see me change if I prop my window open? So what. Ants are crawling on the desk? They'll leave eventually. I have to tiptoe through the backyard in a towel to get to the bathroom and outdoor shower? Yes!



This place is not for everybody, but in many ways, it's just what I needed. I needed to not care when I saw a mouse scurry under the bathroom door, or along the power lines above my treehouse (which isn't actually in a tree). I needed a safe, quiet, cheap, clean place to stay where I could be alone only when I wanted to, and not feel lonely.

And now I leave LA today after the shortest trip I've spent here all year. A surefire way for me to hate New York is by leaving New York and then coming back. I hope I reacclimate quickly.



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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Photo Essay: Back on the Trail at Runyon Canyon

Boy am I out of practice.

I haven't done a hike since August, when John and I climbed up to a tower and got only slightly lost on the way back down, but enough to necessitate rescue from our fellow hikers who'd left us behind in their dust.

And now that I'm back in LA and decided to squeeze an afternoon hike in between meetings and events, I realized I'd become a total amateur again.

I brought the wrong sneakers.

I forgot to apply sunscreen.

I really needed insect repellent.

I didn't research how to get to Runyon Canyon and my GPS sent me on the craziest, most circuitous route through private roads and driveways in the hills to get there, depositing me into the parking lot and northernmost entrance on Mulholland Drive.

My legs felt weak.

And the sun was setting soon.



But, I managed to bring a big bottle of water, my camera, a backpack and my hiking clothes (into which I changed in the Greystone Park parking lot, true to form), certainly enough to put me back on the trail. I've seen LA locals hike in merely a bikini and flip flops carrying only an iPod.

Runyon Canyon is definitely an urban canyon hike, situated right in the middle of Los Angeles, basically right off of Hollywood Blvd. It's a popular place for locals to hike routinely, many with dogs in tow.



There are power lines everywhere.







It's also one of the worst places to try to hike improperly shod, because it's so popular that many of the paths have been tightly packed to the point of being slippery, and other paths are so eroded - from footsteps and water - that it felt like walking on a dry creek bed.



And this summer I established how unsuccessful I am at that.



In Runyon Canyon, hikers have to tiptoe through gravel, on rocks, down steps, and around gullies formed by running water, now so big and so deep they're practically ravines, only exacerbated by all of the foot traffic on them.

I was trepidatious with my own unsure footing, but I only turned back once, choosing to not climb a steep, narrow path to a lookout point. I've seen the city from above - practically that same view - plenty of times.

Because I entered from the north, I only did a loop around about half of the canyon park, leaving the more popular southernmost half for a future trip. After only about an hour or so on today's hike - not wanting to do more before having to change back into my nice clothes and go out to an event - the sun was at a very low angle in the sky and I was ready to go.

But I was glad to be back on the trail. I haven't hiked at all in New York City since returning from my last LA trip, partially out of not wanting to be alone, partially out of being otherwise occupied with life, work, lack of work, living, general crisis.

But my legs need to move, and now that they've started moving again, I hope they won't stop...

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Photo Essay: NYCWFF Tacos & Tequila with Bobby Flay

Sometimes, even when you don't have the money, you have to splurge for a once in a lifetime experience.

For me, that was the opportunity to rub elbows with Bobby Flay at a New York Wine & Food Festival event he curated, Tacos & Tequila, which took place this weekend at a private space in SoHo.

Both Mexican and non-Mexican restaurants from throughout New York City converged on the space to offer their own interpretations of tacos and other Mexican dishes.

There was a lot of corn.



And pork, thanks to a sponsorship by Pork.

Highlights included seared chicken liver tacos from Cabrito, raw tuna tacos from Abe & Arthur's, Bobby Flay's blue corn shortrib taco, and a spicy smoked swordfish taco from Ed's Lobster Bar. We were also appreciative of NYC's Mexican mainstay restos like Dos Caminos, Rosa Mexicano, and Toloache.

5 Ingredient Fix tacos



Sam Talbot's tilapia

Bobby Flay's Persephone cocktail, with Patron tequila and pomegranate, was a hit, despite how long it took to order and receive it.



And despite the (literally) dozens of tacos consumed in only a couple of hours, we managed to make some room for dessert, too.





Claire Robinson's tequila chocolates topped with salt were A REVELATION.



And despite how full we were, we danced and even took a moment for a photo opp.





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Photo Essay: Abandoned Royal Motel, Mattydale, NY



In my jaunts back to my hometown of Syracuse, NY, I'd often noticed the delapidated, hopeless neon sign of the Royal Motel, which looked transplanted on the front lawn of a typical vinyl-sided suburban Central New York home.

I didn't realize it actually still pointed travelers towards a still-standing motel, abandoned down a long driveway off Route 11 in Mattydale.



Most of the doors are boarded up, some with foreclosure notices.



But you can still get into some of the rooms...



...which are surprisingly bi-level, with stairs leading up to a mezzanine level.





The motel bears the marks of typical abandonment, including strewn mattresses about the property...



...but in the rear, surrounding the building that appears to have functioned as a front office, or management office, there are surprising bits of beauty...







The motel - which appears to have functioned most recently as an extended stay rental property, with motor lodge-style apartment housing - is abandoned, but not entirely empty.



Squatters were eying me as I skulked about. And an overweight woman in a pink shirt emerged from the front house property (upon whose lawn the neon sign rests) and smoked a cigarette while waiting for me to put away my camera and get back in Maria's car.



Delicious.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Photo Essay: Central Park Arsenal

The arsenal in Central Park is one of the sites featured in Open House New York's annual weekend that's normally open to the public during the week.

At Fifth Avenue and E. 64th Street, you can see the musket railing of the front door stairs...



...and snare drum lights...



You can even view the WPA murals in the lobby which have aged to such a dark pallor that they're nearly impossible to photograph.

But on this weekend, there is one area that we got to see that's normally only accessible to Parks employees: the rooftop garden.







Up there, you're amongst the turrets of the arsenal that was built as a castle, first in white stucco, then restored to red brick. You're overlooking the Central Park Zoo and legions of tourists.

But it's quiet, except for the bees.



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Photo Essay: FDR Four Freedoms Park, Under Construction

In years past, Open House New York has taken me to Roosevelt Island a few times: to visit The Octagon (before and after it was turned into luxury condos), Lighthouse Park, the Renwick Ruin (smallpox hospital).

This year, I revisited the south point of the island which houses the ruin to see the construction-in-progress of the future FDR Four Freedoms Memorial Park, a tribute to the namesake of the island itself.

The upper part of the southern end of the island - designated as South Point Open Space - has been relandscaped with a new granite retaining wall (sourced from the island's own natural resources) and completely cleared of the rubble, weeds, and trees that nearly blocked the view of the Strecker Memorial Laboratory.

Before (Circa 2008):




Current (2010):


It turns out the old Strecker Lab was renovated in the 1990s and turned into an MTA Substation (!!) AND an emergency exit for the 53rd/Lex E train!



Past the lab, traversing a bed of rock fragments reminiscent of demolition rubble, you reach the smallpox hospital, whose stabilization project ceased (or, er, was "completed") eight months ago when funding ran out.



And then trucks and cranes and claws, oh my!











Huge piles of dowels and giant imported granite blocks are scattered on your way down to the point...







...until you reach the southernmost tip of the island (which is already landfill, just past the hospital): the future site of the park's "room," where they are building a concrete bathtub out of which they are constantly pumping water.



The granite blocks will be placed on the dowels, spaced apart just enough to create an open air plaza - a prime viewing spot for Manhattanhenge, they say.



Roosevelt Island's south point was always a favorite spot of mine to bask in the sun in the midst of the East River, and watch it set behind the Manhattan skyline, when there was nothing there but a big grassy knoll. Here's hoping the new park - on an underdog island - retains some of that sense of solitude and serenity. At least we've been reassured that the smallpox hospital will be preserved as a ruin (even though the park developers would like to house concessions there, if they could get the funding).

Projected opening of the park is Fall 2012. Roosevelt Island is surprisingly easy to get to from Astoria. But I doubt if I'll still be living here two years from now....

Related post: Brooklyn Bridge Park, Under Construction

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