From Turkey to Reindeer- Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

The day of eating massive amounts of turkey and carbs is behind us, but it is never too late to be thankful for the many blessings in our lives. This weekend, I am pretty dang thankful that the day of gratefulness is behind us.

CLO-ing (that is the official verb for what I do) has given me a whole new respect for holidays- especially those that are ingrained in American culture. Earlier this fall, I had to make peace with Halloween, letting go of my crotchetiness about too-old kids coming to my door to beg sweet treats, and instead got to celebrate with an array of critters and creatures in homemade costumes. Then, came Thanksgiving, a holiday which I have always loved because I can eat an entire meal of nothing  but white foods, which tend to be my favorites. There is turkey (no dark meat for this girl), mashed potatoes, rolls and maybe some Jell-O for a dash of color.  (My parents were firmly in the “eat-what’s-on-your-plate” camp when I was growing up, and since my dad served up the Thanksgiving plates, there always seemed to be an inordinate amount of yams on my plate. No one wants those nasty orange tubes of gunk, but they appeared on the table and my plate every year until I began the “by damn, no yam” protest, which continues to this day.)

In past years, I was able to sail through Thanksgiving with an offering of rolls and juice, but this year, not only was I right in the middle of the action, I *was* the action.  One of my CLO areas of responsibility (out of eight, in case you were wondering) is event planning, and nothing screams “event” like a sit-down, family-style meal for forty-five folks!

So how does one throw Thanksgiving for nearly four-score attendees? Potluck style! I ordered the turkeys from a local bakery, which would cook and deliver them to the consulate right in time for dinner. (At $92 each, USD, they’d better deliver!) To round out the meal though, everyone in the community pitched in with a variety of dishes and desserts. I panicked (internally) for days about whether there would be enough food. It would be a nightmare to plan such a big meal and have everyone go home without being totally full, because really, we say Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but we all know it is about overeating until our pants are too tight and we want nothing more than a nap on the couch.

My fears were all baseless. On top of the four turkeys, cooked to perfection, we had all manner of potatoes, veggies, breads and casseroles, not to mention apple pie, pumpkin pie, spice cake and cheese cake. Even after sending as much food home as I could with anyone who was willing to take it, we ended up with enough leftovers that on Friday, we had turkey sandwiches in the CLO Lounge at lunch for anyone interested.

This year, the list of things I have to be thankful is longer than ever. Of course, I have a wonderful family and fabulous friends, and the fact that I am able to live on the other side of the world and still be in touch with them on a daily basis is nothing short of a technological wonder.  In a single day, I am able to log into Gmail and send a quick note to a friend, use the Vonage line at the consulate compound to call my parents, Facetime with my nieces and nephews in Idaho and chat with former students about their college classes on Facebook.

I’m also thankful that Thanksgiving is over, as lovely as it was, because I am ready to hit the ground rolling with Christmas party preparations first thing Monday morning! (The consulate tree is half assembled in my office; I’ve got a growing stack of boxes behind my desk that I plan to wrap to go under the half-assembled tree; I’ve got stockings for our marvelous Marines, ready to be hung; and I’ve got a friend lined up to be Santa for the community party in a few weeks.) CLO-ing will be in overdrive for the next few weeks, but since Christmas is the number one holiday of the year, I’m happily ready to jump into the holiday fracas with both boots.

Good-bye turkeys. Hello reindeer!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Kind of Updo You Get for $8 in China

Hair styling, like most other things that fall into the “artistic category” is outside my narrow field of abilities. (Music, drawing, dance…all other artistic things that I long to be good at, but hold out very little hope for.  Being tone deaf and spastic will just about kill all artistic aspirations. But, books, now there’s something we can chat about!)  Knowing that I have the hairstyling skills of a four year old with a basket full of scrunchies and barrettes  who has conned her babysitter in to being a head model, I knew drastic measures would be needed in the weeks leading up to the Marine Ball.

Other than the aforementioned lack of styling skills, the fact that my hair pretty much refuses to hold curl without an entire can of Aquanet and being well-aware that Chengdu’s humidity isn’t going to help matters at all, I thought it might be time to call in the professionals.  I started with an hours long search of dressy hairdos on the internet, scrolling through page after page of Google search results, creating a personal hair portfolio that would rival Tyra Banks’ wig/extension collection. Eventually, I narrowed it down to a few fancy looking braids, again, because curls are really out of the question. (Although, the crimper that Santa brought my sister and I when I was in elementary school is still kicking and always a great option for when I feel like a bit of poodle-hair in my life.)

Knowing that my lack of styling skills still rates far higher  than my Mandarin hair vocabulary, I enlisted the help of one of the officers who lives in my complex and who has a trusted hair-guy in our neighborhood and together we set out  to chat with him, pictures in hand.

Since the Marine Ball really is one of the biggest things going in Chengdu, I didn’t want to leave the hairstyle to chance, so when the salon said they had time to do a trial run, we both jumped at the opportunity. Not only would we spend a Sunday afternoon getting fancy hair, but we’d get a twenty minute shampoo/head massage to start it all off.

As my scalp was being massaged with a heavenly coconut conditioner, the washer asked me what level of stylist I would like. The options were “trainee,” “advanced student” and “master.”  After having trusted my hair to what could only be termed a “trainee” in Gansu a few years ago, I wasn’t taking a chance on pink hair this time around and opted for the “master.” (Considering that the triple shampoo, head massage, and “master” styling came to a grand total of $8USD, I figured I could splurge the extra dollar for the good guy!)

The picture I brought in was a rather complicated braid that swirled from the front on the model’s head, around the back and into a bun in the middle. I figured they wouldn’t be able to replicate it exactly, but something along those lines would be great. Post-shampoo/massage, I was escorted to my chair in the smack middle the salon (better for everyone’s viewing pleasure) and handed my printed out page to the stylist. He took one look at it, gave me an “okay” and started to work. There was no plan considered, no plotting or hesitation. He instantly went to work with his comb, parting and braiding and wrapping. Within fifteen minutes he had a near perfect reproduction of my example, using a single rubber band and a handful of bobby pins.

As his fingers wove in and out of my hair, creating a swirling braid, he did stop occasionally to answer the questions of the curious onlookers who had gathered around his station. There was a long discussion about my natural hair color (uh, who even knows at this point!), about the length of my hair, about the texture of blonde hair and then, after all of this, whether I understood Chinese.

Wow! (On so many levels.)

Will I be going back to him on the day of the Marine Ball? You bet! (No appointments necessary. It is strictly walk-in, but this is one time being the foreigner is an advantage, as I am sure my blonde hair will bump me to the front of the line, as it creates entertainment for all.)

Hair, make-up, dress….this is the fanciest shindig I’ve been to since my own wedding over fourteen years ago. I think one of my criteria for weighing in on our next post (bid lists come out in the spring) will be whether or not the post has a Marine detachment. I could get used to a once-a-year dress-up day!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How Bizarre, How Bazaar

I’d like to announce that Christmas is in the Chengdu air, but it isn’t. (Something is in the air, but it definitely isn’t holiday joy, unless you consider that the muck from Santa’s “naughty list” hunks of coal Christmas cheer.) But, I have discovered that a peppermint hot chocolate from the Starbucks around the corner from the consulate creates a little bit of Christmas in my mouth though, so that is a good start.

There might not be pine scent wafting on the breezes or small town streets lined in twinkling lights, but the calendar tells us that the holiday season is upon us, so celebrate we will!

The holiday festivities kicked off this last weekend with the annual Chengdu International Women’s Club Christmas Bazaar. This yearly event takes over the grounds of QSI, one of the local international schools. Along with vendors from shops around the city, lots of food booths and a rotating schedule of school-kid performances, the few consulates in town also join in the fun. When I took over the CLO job back in June, one of the last things my predecessor impressed upon me was the importance of this event. It is, by far, the biggest ex-pat happening in this town and the US Consulate is expected to be a major participant.

With that in mind, as the pages quickly tore off my summer calendar, placing me squarely in the midst of fall, I was plotting and planning, with the help of some tremendous ladies in our community. Hours of gluing and sticker-ing and bow tying and ink stamping created one hundred lovingly handcrafted holiday greeting cards. (You can read all about that adventure by clicking here.) Many of those same women also brought in handmade goodies for cookie plates or volunteered to help run the booth.

Having been placed in charge of our table at the event which I had never before seen, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best!

Saturday morning dawned clear (qualification: Chengdu-clear) and cool. I met up with a couple ladies and got a ride from the consulate motor pool to the school with my loads of signage, decorations, plates of treats, pies, donated cheesecakes, boxes of imported Washington state apples and bags of cards. As we hauled boxes and bags from the van to our designated area, I had a suddenly flashback of all those summer mornings on the road with my family, selling my dad’s woodworking at art shows across the northwest. Even in the middle of the summer, the air was crisp as we cobbled together our tent of metal brackets and wooden beams, unloaded apples boxes filled with beautiful cutting boards, vases and bowls, handcrafted by my parents. Last Saturday’s goods were nowhere near as impressive as the works of art my dad churned out from our backyard woodshop, but the deja vu was overwhelming.  (About two in the afternoon I was wishing I had the luxury of hiding away from the world, under the tables for an hour or two of solitude and sleep. I loved the forts created by the table clothes, the way they tinted everything orange or green and how I could lay under there for as long as I wanted, listening to people chat about the various pieces, watching all manner of feet wander in and out, invisible to adults, my presence only known by my parents.)

By all accounts, the bazaar was a success. The weather was gorgeous. It was 65 degrees and as sunny as Chengdu ever gets.  (Knowing that I am always cold and thinking that I would be chilly sitting in the shade of a tent for hours, I did what any cold-blooded American would do- layered up. I wore long johns under my jeans, two pairs of socks, as well as a tank-top, long-sleeved t-shirt, hoodie and jacket combo, paired with thin gloves and a scarf. Nearly none of which was necessary. By the end of the day I had shed more layers like hermit crab unloading too small shells.)  Our American Consulate booth made over $600 USD for local charities and I saw a lot of shopping bags headed out the gate with our community members. Success on many fronts!

As someone who usually puts off Christmas giddiness until after Thanksgiving, feeling like the fire chicken needs his annual chance at glory, I’m rearing to go this year. I want to put up our not-quite-authentic Christmas tree in our apartment. I want to put up the brand new IKEA purchased tree at the consulate. And I want to hang the Marine’s stockings by their post with care. It is taking all of my self-control to hold off until Friday morning, when I can officially declare the Christmas season upon us. It’s time to start making moves and starting grooves.  Oh, baby, this waiting is making me crazy!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Maybe Ostrich *Should* Be on the Table

Remember a month, or maybe six weeks ago, when I was talking about my lack of cooking ability and how it was fine because being a middle child, I’d never have to worry about being in charge of a Thanksgiving dinner? (No? Check it out here.)  I figured it would fall to the older sister or the only boy of the family, leaving me free to wander in and out of the kitchen, sampling as I pleased and then sprawl on the couch to watch my fantasy players mop-up during the holiday games.  Well, it turns out, Thanksgiving is headed my way, with a vengeance!

(On a side note, you hear a lot of complaints about being a middle child, but I figure, if you play your cards right, you’ve got the best of both worlds. Having on older sister who was good at cleaning got me out of many a chore. I’d do mine poorly and soon enough, they’d get passed off to her. At one point, I remember the bathroom being on my list of Saturday chores. I’d go in there with my oh-so-80’s boom box, turn on the radio with the door shut and “get to work.” All I needed to do was spend about twenty minutes and make it seem like work had been done. By splashing cleaning powder around the tub, the room had the smell of detergent, which means I worked. Occasionally leaving a trace of powder was also helpful, as it showed I’d really scrubbed. I’d be sure to run water long enough that it was convincing and then swirl some cleaning fluid around the toilet with the brush, again, keeping up appearances and smells. With that done, it was time to unplug my radio and move to my next Saturday morning chore.  It wasn’t long before the majority of the “real” cleaning jobs were reassigned to my sister, while my list included the ever-so-important chore of vacuuming the hallway and emptying the bottom rack of the dishwasher.

On the other end of the family tree, is my younger brother, who, to be fair, got away with a lot, but because he is a boy, bigger things were pushed his way, skipping right over me.  Time to haul hay? My siblings were the bale-buckers while I drove the truck, only occasionally hitting the gas just a little too hard or braking a bit too suddenly.

So middle children, have heart! Play your in-between role for all it’s worth. It can be done.)

But I digress. Thanksgiving. Yes, I am hosting one this year. And not a small one. Right now, my RSVP count is hovering right around the forty-five people mark. That’s right. I’ve gone from never having a Thanksgiving responsibility, beyond calling dibs on the wishbone, to planning and organizing an event for nearly four dozen adults and children.

With just a week until the big poultry eating day (big-poultry to be eaten or big day on which to eat poultry? You decide!), I’ve put in my meat order and am quickly assessing the tableware needs. Luckily, Chengdu has an American-style bakery in town that is cooking turkeys, so they’ll prepare the four birds, but at a price. Those suckers cost $92 each! That’s US dollar rates, by the way.  When I mentioned this to my mom in an email the other day, she responded by asking if they were possibly ostrich. She has a point. Considering wild turkeys wander across the ridge near my parents’ cabin on a regular basis, it’s a little painful to be paying so much, but that’s the name of the import game. If it were ostrich, I could get away with just one, rather than the four headed our way next week. Maybe I should consider a larger poor-at-flying poultry for next year’s festivities.

The birds are taken care of, decorations are ready to go (thanks to Thad’s recent State-side trip), a work order for the room set-up has been placed and now it is a matter of side dishes and desserts. The Foreign Service, in some ways, reminds me a lot of the Mormon ward I grew up in. We too are a potluck community! Nearly every event, whether it be a gathering at the Marine House, a back-to-school pool party or a Thanksgiving dinner, hinges on the attendees hauling along a dish or two for the crowd. Our current sign-up sheet is filled with holiday classics: green bean casserole, sweet potato pie, cornbread, as well as pumpkin pie to top it all off.

“I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner. All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.” muttered the lovable Charlie Brown in his eponymous Thanksgiving special. He and I are obviously twins, at least when it comes to kitchen-skills. (I have much more hair than him and would never wear a yellow shirt with a giant zigzag across the front. Twins in the kitchen, not in the style department.)  I may not be cooking the entire dinner (I did sign up for my old sit-down-dinner standby- rolls, which will actually be made by my ayi!), but I do have a whole lot of organizing and preparing to do in the next seven days so that the Foreign Service Officers and their families can enjoy a taste of America with a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Good grief, there’s a lot to get done!

Miiiiichelle’s Faaaavorite Thiiings!

They’re Miiiiichelle’s Faaaavorite Thiiings!  (If you read it in Oprah’s voice, you might think a brand new car or luxury vacation is coming your way. They aren’t, but relish in the possibilities, for just a moment.)

As I was flying solo in China last week, Thad half packed a large suitcase and was off to Washington DC for shopping…uhh, eating…I mean training. Yes, training. That is what he was doing. And a lot of it he did do. He spent a week at FSI getting additional instruction on a new portfolio he will soon be taking over, but between classes at the Institute, he made trips to the mall, to Target, to Mens’ Warehouse, back to the mall and back to Target.

Between hamburgers and non-dodgy seafood and a few pitas, he had a chance to pick up a few things for us (by us, I really mean “me”) back in China. You see, we are on the homestretch towards the Marine Ball here in Chengdu.  It will be held the first weekend in December, which means we have less than three weeks until the big event. Squeezed amongst the holiday preparation (Christmas bazaar this weekend, Thanksgiving next week, Christmas parties for the community and local staff…) has been Marine Ball preparation. We don’t have too many reasons to dress up in Chengdu, so when we see the chance coming, we jump on board and ride it out as long as we can.

You may remember I went shopping for a gown last spring while I was still Stateside. That was a good choice. Although there are wedding dress shops filled with frills and froof on every other street corner, the petite size of most Chinese women rules out me ever fitting in even their largest sizes. Plus, as much as I love some sparkle and shine, most of the dressier dresses here just take it a step or two too far. Coco Chanel, in giving fashion advice to women, once said, “Before you walk out the door every day, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Ms. Chanel would have a heart attack in China. She’d take one look at these dresses and suggest the designers take *all but one* thing off. Some of them are bedazzled on top of pleated on top of being adorned in large flowers (that often look like cabbages to me) and bows, finished off with a bit of lace or extra beading. Too much is an understatement.

But, although I’ve got a gorgeous wine-colored dress hanging in the closet of our spare bedroom, I didn’t plan ahead to accessories. (I thought ahead to it and then figured I’d make that Future-Michelle’s problem. Well, the future is now here and Present-Michelle has had to scramble to take care of it. Sometimes Present-Michelle has a real dislike for Past-Michelle, who procrastinates everything to Future-Michelle.)

Never one to shirk my shopping duties, two weekends ago I headed to the market with a couple of ladies from the consulate to do a little jewelry/shawl shopping. Knowing that it is going to be rather chilly by December and with all of us wearing dresses designed for warmer climates, we were in search of some nice shawls to help ward off the inevitable frostbite that comes with sandals in the winter.  Success was achieved in the shawl department and one of the other gals found the jewelry she was looking for, but after hunting through stall after stall of sparkly things, I couldn’t find anything in a pretty gold. (My shoes are sparkly gold, so that’s the metallic direction my other baubles need to go.)

With no luck at the market, in the following days we headed to two different malls in search of sparkles to hang from my neck and ears. Nothing. Everything in this town is silver, which is ironic for a country that prizes the color of gold so highly. In frustration, I went online to search of something, knowing it was too late to have it shipped, but hoping I could find something at a site with a brick and mortar store near where Thad was staying. I probably scrolled through thirty pages of jewelry before I found the perfect necklace/earring set. It was gold and rhinestones (no need for real diamonds for this girl!), and the perfect statement pieces to go with my simply shaped dress. Excitedly, I sent that pictures and asked him to make a run to the mall to see if they had them in stock. (I figured he wouldn’t mind an excuse for some food court Taco Bell while home in the States.)

The next morning, when I checked my email as I sat on the floor of my living room, eating Cheerios, I was bummed to see that he had gone, searched the whole store and came up empty-handed. The real-life store didn’t have the same selection that the online-one did.

Alas, Chengdu is a hardship post.

I was beginning to think I was going to go to the Marine Ball bare of baubles.

But, on Sunday, when Thad got home from the US, he unloaded his now full large suitcase which was overflowing with goodies from home. After trying on my two new brightly colored scarves and matching gloves, my warm wool-lined slippers with pink puff balls on top, and munching on a tasty Hostess Cupcake, I was presented with the coup d’état- Marine Ball jewelry.

After failing to find the pieces I was looking for, Thad went back to the mall a second night (and for a second round of Taco Bell) and renewed the search for jewelry. All he knew was I wanted gold and sparkly. I don’t know how many trips around the building it took him, but he came home with the perfect necklace! It is gold, with rhinestones in the shape of flowers. Undecided about which dangly earrings would best compliment the necklace, he bought two pairs- one with large teardrop jewels at the bottom and the other with gold, diamond-shaped cut-outs linked by gold chain. Gorgeous!

As we continue to move closer and closer to the big day, my Marine Ball outfit is coming together nicely. I’ve got the dress (which I need to take to the cleaners to be pressed this next week), the shoes and the jewelry. Next up: finding a hairdresser and hosting a mani/pedi party for the ladies of the consulate.  While a single night of fun may not seem worth this much effort, when the days are as gray and polluted as they’ve been lately (today we’ve been running “very unhealthy” on the air monitor, inching its way toward the “hazardous” zone), having something bright to look forward to and chat about is as good for morale as the vitamin D sunlamp that sits in my office.

17 days and counting…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Avoiding the Elephant (or Donkey) in the Room

Just hours after we as Americans chose our leader for the next four years, am I going to post something political and electoral? No way! I have tried hard to continue to like everyone on my Facebook feed, both those I agree with and those I disagree with when it comes to political topics, so I will try and help  my two and a half readers feel the same way about this blog.  (I have to say, sometimes it was just as hard to like the folks posting on with my same thinking as it was those who see the world through a different lens. A little respect on both sides of the aisle would be nice. And I am ready to go back to a newsfeed filled with pictures of babies and dinner plates rather than any more red/blue,  Republican/Democrat, Yes/No on Props 1 through 3823 or legalize this/criminalize that updates.)

The only election-related comment that I am going to make is that it happened. It happened big in Chengdu with an awesome election-watch party that I was privileged enough to work at. And it is over. So let’s all move forward–that is the goal after all. (At the US Consulate party here in Chengdu, I was tasked with being in charge of our photo station. We had life-sized cardboard cutouts of each candidate, so our guests could get their pictures taken with “the next President of the United States.” That went well, but I’m pretty sure the number of guests who asked to have their picture taken with “the next President of the United States *plus* the blonde girl” checked it at close to 50%.)

So what does one write about when she is desperately trying to ignore the elephant (or donkey) in the room?

Nail fungus!

That’s right. The hot, fasicinating topic of nail fungus. (If you aren’t into such topics, you may want to just skip on ahead to the next blog entry in your Google Reader feed. If you are my older sister, thrilled with all things biologically yucky, read on.)

You see, back in probably April, I noticed that the nail on my left ring finger was peeling away from the nail bed below it. I thought I must have damaged it and that it would grow out and be healthy as time went on.

It didn’t.

When I went home for my mom’s surprise 60th birthday party in early May, I spent a lovely ladies’-afternoon out with one of the most fantastic girls I know, Shannon. Our original plan was to go to a salon for pedicures, but since Shannon decided to turn a corner in her house too soon, stubbing (and breaking!) her pinky toe, our spa day switched to manicures. (Manicures done by none other than an amazing former student of ours, one Ms. Dixie Kent, who is a doll and a half.) At the salon, the techs looked at my nail and suggested I see a dermatologist, which a normal person would have done, but as someone usually only goes to the doctor if death seems a possibility and because I was home for just a few days before shipping out to China, I didn’t make the appointment.

Fast forward five months.

My left-hand ring finger nail has not grown out and reattached as I had hoped. Basically, there is a cavern under my nail. The finger is a little puffy and the part near the cuticle a little red, with some low-level throbbing pain on occasion, but there is no discharge, no smell- nothing really going on.

Then, several Sundays ago, as I sat cross-legged on the floor on my living room, using the coffee table as a manicurist desk, painting my nails like to do each weekend, contemplating if I was going to go with stripes in fall colors to match the season or polka-dots in shades of pink to match my personality,  I noticed that whatever was going on with my left-hand nail had jumped ship and was taking over my right-hand ring fingernail. (Coincidence they are both ring fingers? I have no idea!)

Figuring that the one hand had been suffering from whatever strangeness was going on for more than half a year and now it was spreading, I thought it might be time to get it looked at. I made an appointment with our consulate medical unit to have it looked at. (These are the same lovely ladies who  recently gave me my Japanese encephalitis booster and today added flu vaccination to the needle pricks in my arm, but always with a Garfield bandage to make it worthwhile.)

After examining both nails, the nurse decided a skin scraping was the way to go. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. She took a needle and stuck it under my fingernail, scraping some of the skin to look for fungus. I wouldn’t say it was painful per se, but it definitely isn’t something I’d sign up for again. With my gross little skin cells smeared on a glass slide, her educated eye to the microscope detected no fungus.

But, if it isn’t a fungus, what is it? That is the question of the week. With promises to get back to me after a bit of dermatological detective work, I headed home to contemplate the hollowness behind my nails and the possible options for this weekend’s paint job. (Gold with darker tips as Thanksgiving ekes ever nearer or variegated pinks because I always default to pink?)

As the mystery of the odd nail disease continues, as I begin to ponder my nail art options for the upcoming weekend and you wonder why you just read an entire post about my finger deformity, remember, it could have been about the elections. And most days, nail fungus is a better dinner table topic than politics.



MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche

Friendship is a tricky thing. When you are young, it is all about who lives in your neighborhood or who is in your class at school. Kids, for the most part, are good at finding connections within those preset groups. One you get in to middle school and high school, friendships are much more chosen. Kids look outside the few houses surrounding theirs or their homeroom and seek out kids in the school with similar interests or backgrounds. And by college, while your dorm mate might be your BFF for the first few weeks, you quickly find others who are studying the same things, involved in the same activities or hanging at the same places as you do. Your friendship net is able to cast much wider than ever before.  But, by the time we get to be adults, it seems like we lose a bit of our ability to automatically connect the way we did as kids. It can make finding friends, especially close ones, tough to do.

That’s the premise that Rachel Bertsche started with in MWF Seeking BFF. She was new to Chicago and looking for girl friends. She had a wonderful husband, but wanted the chit-chat, reruns of Glee and mani/pedi dates for which a husband just doesn’t cut it. With the need for new girl friends, Bertsche went on a year-long quest to add to her friend Rolodex. She committed to “date” fifty-two girls over the course of the year, hoping to make some genuine connections along the way.

When I first picked up MWF Seeking BFF, I thought I was in for another blogger turned memoirist book. (I have to admit, I love this up and coming genre.  There is something to be said for someone who gains a huge following online and then is able to translate it on the printed page.) And the book is a memoir, but it is more than that. There is a touch of self-help thrown in and a whole lot of research on friendships, along with the humor and storytelling that I prize in these types of books.

Initially I was very turned off by the research included in the book. To me, “memoir” doesn’t scream quotation citation and reference checks. And, to be honest, Bertsche’s use of the research is a little choppy at times. There were moments, mostly early in the book, that I felt like I was reading the world’s longest 8th grade research paper. (Believe me, I’ve read enough of those to know what I am talking about.) The transitions from her story to the quotes by scientists and sociologists were not always the smoothest. It felt like she was told her had to have a certain number of citations, and by golly, she was going to get them.

But, once I got used to this rather unique writing style, I really tuned in to the book and enjoyed it. Rachel Bertsche is just a few years younger than I am, and having recently moved to the other side of the world, (with many more such moves in my future) I get where she is coming from. At 30-something, it isn’t easy to leave behind your BFFs and make new friends, to basically start over in the friend department.  I found her discussion of different levels of friends to be spot-on and her tales of breaking the ice with new person after new person sounded rather familiar to me.

This book was originally recommended to me by one of the members of my book club in Washington DC (and fellow blogger in the world of Foreign Service- you can check out her adventures in Mexico City here), and would have been the *perfect* read for a book club. After finishing it, I am super disappointed that we didn’t get to read it together and talk about the struggles of friendship as an adult. MWF Seeking BFF: My Year Long Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche was a fascinating book, in which I saw a lot of my current situation reflected, which earns it a very strong:

Coloring Outside the Lines

I always color within the lines. The precision and prettiness of the picture depend on it. Within those bold borders I can color coordinate to my heart’s content, mixing a deep raspberry with some dusty fuchsia  and maybe throwing in a splash of watermelon to brighten the scene.(And of course, there will be glitter, if it is an option.) Regardless of the color choices made, all 50 shades of pink will fall neatly within the prescribed outline of the princess’ ball gown.

When I go to a job interview and am asked to name three words that describe myself, I don’t, put probably should, put “rule-follower” on the top of that list.  Sticking within those bounds keeps me sane. In the sixth grade, which I would like to say was just a few years ago, but a couple decades is probably a closer estimate, I got a detention. It was my first and only detention I was every privy to in twelve years of public schooling. How does a sweet, shy middle school girl get a detention when she hardly speaks in class? Jake. It was all Jake’s fault and to this day, I blame him for tarnishing my perfect discipline record. (I had a pretty good attendance record going to, but things came up to break that one as well, very few of which were my own fault. Sometimes it was the flu or an orthodontist appointment. My senior year, the streak was intact, until I got wind of  a Clay Walker concert, which I just had to have tickets for. So, Candace, my best friend since middle school, and I decided to take a morning off from US Government and Geometry and Advanced English to  go stand in line at the ghetto-Albertsons in Caldwell to get tickets. Perfect attendance my senior year? Nope. A concert worthy of hypnotizing the moon? You bet! But, even this seeming swerve from the rules was one that was pre-approved by my parents. I would never have dared to ditch school to buy concert tickets, heartthrob in Wranglers or not.)

But back to Jake. It’s a long story, but the short version is that during music class (one of the least favorite periods of the day for this tone-deaf girl), I had slipped my generic-brand Keds off under the desk. Jake took one and tossed it across the room. He got a stern look and I got a detention. Apparently, because it was my shoe, I was responsible for it. (To be fair, there may have been some nuances to the story that my middle school mind blocked out in attempt to justify my seething-anger over the detention, but two decades later, that minutia has been lost in my gray matter.) This all went down on a Friday afternoon, so I had the whole weekend to fret about getting my detention slip signed by my parents. I just knew they were going to kill me, or worse yet, assign me as the sole-pooper scooper for the llama barn until high school graduation. It took me until Sunday night to pull out the yellow and pink pages of that carbon copy slip. In near hysteria, I handed it over to my educator-parents for their John Hancocks. (Other than trying to tell my side of the story through sobs, I don’t even remember what came of the whole thing. I do think I got out of actually serving the detention by telling the music teacher I had piano lessons that night. Again, for a tone-deaf kid such as myself, thirty minutes of piano lessons is probably a harsher punishment than after school detention anyway.)

What I am getting at is that I like to know that things are being done the right way, and rules help set those boundaries. The control that comes along with and the lack of chaos are comforting, so much so that I tend to create guidelines where none exist.

Arbitrary rules are the name of the game in my world. Thad laughs at my rule-creating but usually goes along with the neurosis, even as he makes a mental note of the craziness. There are lots of little daily-life rituals that just work best if done a certain way. For example, when making a burrito, the order of creation should go: shell, sour cream, beans, cheese, salsa, olives. Thad’s mayhem of shell, sour cream, cheese , salsa and then beans is just causing the world to spin out of control!

Some of the most concrete rules, deemed “arbitrary” by Thad, have to do with Christmas, like no Christmas music/decorations until the day after Thanksgiving and then all Christmas music ends the day after Christmas, with the decorations down before the New Year.  Why all the self-regulations revolving around the holidays? Because I love Christmas more than the Grinch after he stole it, had a change of heart and subsequently returned it. I love Christmas like gym teachers love the Presidential Fitness Awards. I love Christmas like the cockroach currently residing in my kitchen loves crumbs. (I had so many more similes I could have gone with here, but in the name of good taste I veered away from any involving things Jerry Sandusky loves or the love bestowed upon the East Coast by storm Sandy. It is quite possibly too soon to go down either of those literary device paths.) Christmas is less special if it is dragged out from mid-September through early February, as retail America has established as the new norm. Christmas is a season. There is a season for everything. (Feel free to bust out some “turn, turn, turn” at this point.)

China has made me toss this rule into the (hazardously polluted) wind. Today, November 3, I spent the day making Christmas cards. Granted, it was a for a good cause, but a tiny bit of my soul died with each sparkly doo-dad I affixed to the card stock, a miniscule piece of my heart shriveled with each ribbon tied and strategically placed to mask a mistake and an infinitesimal sliver of my mind was blown with each sparkly stocking stamp firmly placed on the project.

But, after spending a wonderful five hours with other ladies in our US Consulate community, crafting to our hearts’ content, chatting about everything from Foreign Service bidding to the challenges of schooling aboard to whether a wallet-gutting trip to the Maldives in February is worth it, I am okay that my in-the-box thinking when it comes to the holidays had its corners nicked, just a bit.

There will still be no Christmas station streaming on Pandora for a few more weeks and no hauling out the artificial tree for sprucing up the apartment for another month, but I made red and green cards bejeweled in silver and gold and life is okay.  Just like I was able to bend the rules a bit to make sure I got prime seats for the dreamy Clay Walker’s first Boise concert, I have a strong justification for the early arrival of Christmas greeting- four fabulous local charities.

But now, I’m back on the Christmas regulations bandwagon…for two more weeks. Until the Christmas bazaar rolls around, at which point I will be down and dirty in the muck of holiday madness. (But, probably secretly loving it more than Mitt Romney loves his tax bracket.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey

While I am a big fan of literary novels and an occasional reader of non-fiction (more in the last few years than prior to my Peace Corps service), I had a real soft-spot for this new genre of comedy/memoir book that seems to have sprung up in the last few years. (Now that I think about it, maybe it has been there all along and I am just rediscovering it. I remember pulling dusty Erma Bombeck books off the shelf in our family room at home and devouring those during naptimes, when I didn’t have to sleep, but I did have to entertain myself quietly so my parents could have a few minutes of sanity each afternoon, all summer long.)

There are many things to like about these comedy/memoirs. The chapters are usually rather short, which are perfect for reading in a bubble bath or the taxi on the way to work. (Who ever thought a bubble bath and a taxi in Chengdu would have anything in common?)  Also, the chapters, while all tied together, stand alone, making it okay if the books sits on my nightstand for a week or two, unread, because I somehow picked up another book and haven’t made it back to the first.  Often times there are pictures or charts or comics to break up the various sections of the book, which let’s face it, even as adults, we like to see.

I was excited when I heard Tina Fey had a new book, Bossypants, coming out soon. I guess not excited enough though, since it took me over a year to actually get my hands on a copy and read it. In retrospect, I have to say that that is okay.

Tina Fey is awesome. I loved her in “Weekend Updates” on Saturday Night Live and her Sarah Palin was spot on during the 2008 presidential campaign. But, the book wasn’t everything I ever hoped it would be.

It was funny, at times. It was entertaining, at times. But, for comedy, it seemed to take itself a little too seriously, at times. There were points where I felt like I was getting a lecture about being a proper feminist, about how females can be funny, can have jobs and families, their cake and they can even eat it too.

I’m living the life I want to live. I don’t need Ms. Fey to give me a self-esteem boost. I just need a laugh after a long day of gray skies.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally panning the book. There were great parts to it and it did make me laugh. I loved hearing the backstories of the path that lead her to producing an award winning television series and some behind-the-scenes peeks at SNL. I especially got a kick out of the chapter about when her mom gave her the “special” booklet about becoming a woman, which had three best friends chatting with each other about their changing bodies. I clearly remember getting a similar pamphlet in the sixth grade, after sitting through a truly horrifying presentation by the school nurse, in which three flowers are going through “the change” and discussing what is happening to them. (On a total tangent, but are the flowers as main characters a snarky nod to “the birds and the bees?”)

Maybe I went into this book with a misconception about what it was. It isn’t really a memoir in the sense I expected, but rather a comedic look at the winding road required for women to be successful in a male-dominated field, like comedy. I would offer the book to a friend, for sure, but I would also warn them that it isn’t just a laugh-along look at the life and times of Ms. Tina Fey. It attempts more depth than that and definitely achieves a sharper edge. Overall, Bossypants was a great break from the longer novels and more intense non-fiction books that have been on the top of my reading pile lately. Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants earns a solid:


Did I Actually Just Enjoy Halloween?

Halloween costumes can be a walk down memory lane (or at least another block in the search for the end of the sidewalk.) One year I was a mouse, wearing black tights over black shorts, a black shirt and some mouse ears, plus an electric cord for a tail. One year I was a clown with this crazy jumpsuit that came out of my mom’s closet (I have no idea why she owned it in the first place!), added some wild hair and was a clown. And there was the year I dressed up as the Chicago Bears defensive end with the best grammar and writing skills. (I didn’t actually know what defensive position Shea plays, so I had to look it up on my handy-dandy internet, which sent me to his Wikipedia site. You know you have officially reached “it-dom” when you have your own entry on Wikipedia.)

After teaching middle school for nearly a decade, I saw an array of crazy costumes many of them straight out of a package from the store. (Don’t even get me started on the parents of middle school students who buy them *any* costume with the word “sexy” on the packaging. It happens…more that you would like to think.) Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old (that and the streak of gray hair that has appeared on my temple, which my stylist in America insists is white, which I guess makes okay somehow), but I remember costumes being made from what you could find around the house and then adding a detail or two, if needed, from the second-hand store. When I was a kid, costumes were more about creativity and craftiness than the shimmery and skimpy outfits being pushed by retailers. Although, I do have to say I’ve been very impressed with some of the pictures I’ve seen on the internet. People are still creative! But, the thing that all those awesome costumes I see online have in common is they are cobbled together from pieces of this and parts of that, original designs, not store-bought tedium.

Being in charge of this year’s Halloween events at the Consulate in Chengdu meant I was right in the middle of the spooky goodness this year. But you know what? It was great! Since Halloween costumes can’t be bought in Chengdu, families either had to prepare in advance (super advance!) or come up with something from what they had here. I loved that yesterday’s costumes ranged from an Olympic track athlete, decked out in a warm-up suit, race number and medals to the white rabbit in her dance leotard, tights and cute little ears, with some of Mom’s makeup for a nose and whiskers.  Halloween, Chengdu-style, was a bit of a throwback, which was awesome!

To further point out how maybe my hatred of Halloween could be toned down just a tad, a high school friend and fellow blogger (and all around awesome gal!) put together an amazing Halloween display in her yard. As one who professes to not be on the Halloween bandwagon, I kind of, really, wish I had been there to see the spectacle in person. (Check out her blog here.  This whole month has been filled with holiday posts and pictures. The mummy is my favorite!) Her enthusiasm and excitement are contagious, even from the other side of the world. (Could Halloween be like SARS, spreading on the wings of sneezes and airplanes?)

For someone who claims to dislike Halloween so much, it sure seems to get a lot of play time on this blog. Could it be that I secretly love this ghostly and ghoulish holiday? No, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but there are parts of it that are growing on me. (Adults in costumes will never be one of them though.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.