Burn baby, burn

I set my sister on fire once. I don’t mention this as a bragging point, only as an example that I am in fact capable of setting something ablaze. It’s annoying to even have to bring up really, because I’ve been led to believe since childhood that fires were exceptionally easy to start.

As any issue of Highlights magazine will tell you, a pot of boiling water can go up in flames the second you turn your back on it. And god forbid a spent match should land on the ground because – run Bambi, ruuuun! – the whole goddamn forest will go up in a towering inferno.

I’ve been mapping escape routes and practicing my stop, drop and roll since I was old enough to light a bottle rocket, after which I’d carefully submerge my lit punk in lakewater before disposing of it in a sand-filled tin can.

Even now I live in constant terror that one of my guy’s lighters will spontaneously combust the second it goes for a spin in our clothes dryer, and well, there goes the neighborhood. He’s far more casual about his lighters than I ever could be, and will send two or three of them rattling around while I twitch and confirm that our townhouse is bolstered with cinderblock.

My trepidation around fire does not override my fascination, however. Every trip to a Greek restaurant includes flaming saganaki, and with each cheer of “Opa!” I think, “I could totally do that.”

There’s just something magical about the way fire quells the bite of alcohol and turns a dish into a toasty, caramelized plate of heaven. Why should I wait to go to New Orleans for real bananas foster, or pay some guy in an apron to flame my cheese? I never did quite complete my culinary degree, but no matter. I have enough bravado to be certain my kitchen skills extend to flambéing.

For my first foray into deliberate fire starting, I chose a simple shrimp recipe. Loaded with garlic, cayenne, and a symphony of other Cajun flavors, the final burst of cognac combined with fire would create a rich meal to rival any we’d ever eaten down south.

My prep work that night included a mental rundown of all my necessary ingredients: Garlic? Check. Worcestershire sauce? Check. Child-safe kitchen lighter? Check. Fire extinguisher? Hello …. Fire extinguisher? Apparently in our excitement at purchasing a killer bottle of cognac, we forgot to buy a fire extinguisher.

I don’t know why they’re not sold in liquor stores, really. Seems to me fire goes as well with liquor as soda and ice, so it stands to reason extinguishers should be lined up right next to the condom and jerky displays.

It was partially the fault of liquor that I set my sister on fire that one Christmas. She’d broken her wrist falling on ice a few weeks prior – something I suspect she’d been hoping for years to do – and was sporting her cast the same way a wrestler brandishes a folding chair.

“I’ll clothesline you, muthafucka!” was her battle cry over crudités, and by dessert she was every bit the impervious superhero (with ice, of course, being her only kryptonite). I’ve since learned the quality of the alcohol you drink bears no effect on the quality of your thinking while under its influence, but at the time it seemed a fine idea to knock back another glass of champagne and challenge my sister’s assertion that her cast was no different than Wonder Woman’s wrist cuffs.

She’d been waving her arm across the table quite a bit, mostly to grab at the bottle of Dom on my side, so with the next swipe she took, I pulled out a lighter, did my best Wicked Witch of the West impression and asked, “How do you feel about a little fire, Scarecrow?”

It was my intention to just wave the flame under her cast, but a small error in depth perception brought the fame to contact the surface directly.

She snatched her arm away and was about to declare victory over fire when we all caught a strong whiff of burnt cotton. You always smell it before you see it. Next thing we knew, there was a trail of smoke coming from the cotton lining of her cast and my sister had knocked her chair back from the table and was twirling around the room screaming, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!”

She clearly wasn’t as well versed in stop, drop and roll as I am.

In situations like these, the wise thing to do is usually offer assistance of some sort. And I would have, truly, if the whole situation hadn’t locked my body into involuntary fits of snorting laughter. It’s just what we do in my family: My dad happens to roll off the roof while cleaning gutters, we laugh. I break my foot while attempting to navigate walking and eating cheese fries: we laugh.

And she was fine, anyway. The flame had only singed a loose strand of cotton, and we were able to carry on without a trip to the ER that holiday.

That mini, not-quite fire was unintentional at worst. My shrimp were in a controlled environment, and according to my research, the ¼ cup of cognac would only produce a quick flare-up, then subside into a bubbling sauce of tasty goodness. I could always slam a lid onto the pot if I felt the flames were worrisome.

So with all the confidence in the world, I prepared to flambé, armed only with an unbridled love of food and a video camera. My guy typically has more sense about these things than I do, so he kept a safe distance from the stove as he documented the event.

The sauté portion of cooking went exactly as it should, and my shrimp were sizzling just as they do on Iron Chef or any of my other favorite cooking shows. I grabbed my cognac, inhaled the lovely scent of garlic and butter and delusion, and added it to the hot pan as instructed. With a quick flick I ignited the kitchen lighter, braced myself for the inevitable, and touched the tip of the flame to the pan sauce.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Where was the whoosh? Where was the “Opa!” moment? I wanted fire, and all I got was some crackle as the sauce continued to simmer mockingly. My guy was doubled over on the floor, rocking in laughter as I started to swear at my meal.

“Burn, damn you! Burn!” All my caution had gone to hell at this point, and I leaned over the pan, sloshed more cognac into it and fumbled to ignite the stupid child-proof kitchen lighter. My guy wrenched the thing out of my grasps before I could do any real damage, and suggested he give it a try.

He didn’t fare much better – he managed to set one shrimp ablaze for a second or two – and the dish sizzled on as if it were coated in sodium silicate and not 100-proof liquor. We gave up our dreams of flambé and decided it was best to serve the dish before it overcooked.

And while our not-so-flaming Cajun shrimp were delicious, I couldn’t help but think that I’d had far more success in setting my sister on fire. And while this didn’t entirely surprise me, it did make me just the slightest bit sad.

Going to the chapel

Last week, I became THAT bride.

It’s slightly surreal to refer to myself as a bride, and even more so to categorize myself – however temporarily – as one of the legion of seething, white-clad demons. But that white dress somehow smothers my usual disregard and replaces it with something much more sinister: desire.

The big revelation is that I have always wanted to be a bride. That I’ve slugged through 35 years without so much as a pre-engagement or shotgun attests that it’s not just the wedding I want, but a lifelong relationship with the right man – the latter being , of course, the most important part of everything.

But let’s face it, having found that one, amazing man – my guy – and even with all our love and good intentions, this wedding is mine and I’m sinking my nails into it like a slightly overripe tomato.

Perhaps if my parents hadn’t pulled me out of private school just in time to miss preparations for a Junior Cotillion, I wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic about throwing a formal ball in our honor now. The awkwardness of sweaty palms, stiff public waltzing and barked parental instructions could have quelled the sticky romantic notions years of Disney movies helped instill.

Instead I’m left with visions of being showered with pristine white rose petals while a band of trumpeters herald our union. I wouldn’t object to a gilded carriage somehow being involved.

Amusingly, no one has said specifically that this can’t happen. The curious thing about weddings is that they are among the few events where egocentric opulence is not just tolerated, but encouraged. Throw enough money at it, and even the most absurd whim can become a wedding reality, even if it means genetically engineering unicorns or taking Walt Disney’s brain out of cold storage.

I’m not quite as whimsical as all that, and have already designated a chunk of our budget to throw at booze. Nothing ruins a wedding quicker than wine cubes and well liquor. But that’s about where my practicality ends, because I’ve had to admit that colors and flowers – things that in any other context rank somewhere near saving endangered dung beetles on my list of priorities – have become imperatively, urgently important.

The one thing my guy can say for me is that I make decisions quickly, so when presented with the stunning facilities at Chicago’s W Hotel on Lakeshore Drive*, I knew instantly that this was the place my wedding was meant to be held.

Breathtaking. Over-the-top spectacular. Everything about this venue was perfect, from the candle-lit path to the ceremony room, to the panoramic view of the entire city from the top-floor reception area. This was the contemporary equivalent of my lavish, Cinderella-esque dreams.

If the wedding coordinator seemed somewhat vacant at the time, we wrote it off as typical to the field. Enough Vogue wannabes crossed my path in my LA public relations days that I tend to regard the lot of them with bemusement. They just try so very hard to be fashionable and in on everything that it’s hard to not giggle just the slightest bit behind their perfectly manicured backs.

Besides, what they lack in general intelligence they typically make up for with ambition – and a high regard for money, so we felt comfortable in putting our wedding in the W’s eager hands. Agreements were made, phrases like “first right of refusal” were spoken, and I was given the official permission to become a bride.

And that was the last we heard from the W.

Three months passed, and the only confirmation we had of our impending wedding was the save the date cards we’d sent after agreeing to give the W our souls. The new year had arrived, and I was getting itchy to schedule crucial events like tastings and floral previews, and all I could get from the W was voice mail. Wedding-savvy friends did their best to calm my frothings, but I knew – knew in the pit of my now silk-clad soul – that something was wrong.

The tipoff? Not receiving a call back after dangling a briefcase full of cash in front of their door. When the W ignores money, Satan has either stepped down from his reign of their corporate offices, or we were out of a wedding venue.

Up until that point, I’d done my best to suck back the vicious burblings of a bride scorned. I’m more of a terse e-mail kind of chick than a vengeful one – that is, until I feel the balance of decency has been unjustly compromised.

In fact, very few things set me off. I haven’t had a meltdown since last summer, when Three Dog Night completely bastardized one of their classics into a hokey rap song, complete with backwards baseball caps and cheap gold chains. My guy had to drag me out of the bitterly disappointing concert as I screamed, “Play some Brickyard Blues!” in a tearful, drunken fit.

And that was just music. Try to deny me the opportunity to be belle of my own ball, the one I’ve played out in my head since childhood, and let me just say that by the time I’m done with the W hotel, it will be renamed the J in my honor.

The good news is that in between psychotic screaming phone calls (where I have since forced the W to reveal that our wedding was indeed bumped for another), my guy and I have secured another astoundingly lovely venue in the heart of Chicago for the wedding. Much to my deranged surprise, there’s more than one ideal wedding location – suck it W.

It required a change of date (take a guess who’s going to pay for the new Save the Date cards), but the location and its wedding coordinator have already proven to be far more suited to our desires and needs. And, I have to say, it absolutely rocks.

Thus far, being a bride and planning our wedding hasn’t exactly been the dream I’d expected. Not that I truly crave the extravagance of white doves or gloved servers, and I’d certainly never want to diminish what the day is really about, mind you. But I do admit, this being the one time in my life when being a ridiculous, cooing girl doesn’t make me want to hurl, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

My fingers are crossed that dress shopping with my girlfriend this month goes well. Because, fair warning to the boutiques we’re visiting, if my dress somehow gets swapped for a neon pink Quinceanera gown, someone will lose their vital organs to an axe wound, and it won’t be me.

*Spoiler alert and disclaimer: I’m not normally one to “name names” in my essays, but the Lakeshore W Hotel has so thoroughly and completely annoyed me, I have no trouble throwing it under a bus, backing over it, then scraping the remains off the ground and force-feeding them to the vile little harpy who coordinates weddings there. Just sayin’.

(S)he knows when you are sleeping

I’ve always thought serving canned cat food as the filling in homemade ravioli would make for an amusing revenge. There’s a certain elegance to it, really, more so than say, hurling a brick at someone’s head or releasing a few copperhead snakes into their car.

It’s practical, too. Assuming you know how to make ravioli, of course. But even that doesn’t require any far reaching skills, timing or acquisitions, especially considering the availability of pre-made ravioli sheets these days.

I’d make mine from scratch – that’s just how I run my kitchen. Pre-made anything in my opinion is usually subpar, and it seems it would be a nice touch to season the pasta dough to really complement the flavor of the meat and poultry by-products typically found in cat food.

I’m a bit sketchy on what exactly by-products are – I’m guessing nothing I’d personally want to eat, but nothing that would kill a person, much – so some parsley would probably be the best choice of seasoning. It’s less intrusive than oregano, but herby enough to give a subtle festive edge to dough.

Filling is a trickier choice: while the gravy-enhanced cat food options may have more savory appeal, they’d most likely prove too wet and would ultimately seep from the cooked ravioli.

Best to stick with a more pate-like selection. Fancy Feast Tender Liver and Chicken Feast seems like a good, albeit blind, bet. My experience is limited to squishing it onto a paper plate for my cat, but I can vouch for the smell (tangy, but not disconcerting) and texture. Plus, it’s one of the few meals that won’t cause The Bugaboo to hoark up a furball later.

Saucing the ravioli makes for an interesting debate. Initially, I’d be inclined to serve it with an alfredo, but in considering it further, I fear it may be too rich. A white wine reduction would certainly make a flavorful topping, but only if the ravioli were pan-fried after boiling, and frankly, for a dinner party or potluck, that’s an extra step I’d rather avoid.

What about a light lemon cream? I believe that could be the solution! Julia Child wrote a delightful lemon cream sauce recipe … Of course, she paired hers with squash, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind the liberty with it. After all, wasn’t she the one who said that a great cook must be fearless?

Or maybe I heard that in Ratatouille. Either way, when served with a side salad of mixed greens and balsamic, maybe some candied walnuts, the Tender Liver and Chicken Feast ravioli with lemon cream could be an outstanding, purposeful, meal.

I doubt dessert would be necessary, at least, not after the dozen or so empty cans of Fancy Feast can rattling out from under the sink. My cat may be fat enough to eat that amount, but she’s certainly not in possession of a can opener. I do hope that in this instance, the guest will be courteous enough to bolt from the house before yaking.

And if not, this is exactly why steam cleaners were invented.

Not that I’ve ever given this much more than cursory consideration. Still, when the holiday season and pressures of work and writing grow obnoxious, I have to admit it is a comfort to have professional pastry training and a Petco Pals discount card.

The sound of it is something quite atrocious

I don’t know why I thought I could go on vacation for a week and return to the women of my office miraculously learning how to replace an empty roll of toilet paper. It’s not clear what’s more distressing: that the women here are so barbarically lazy that they will leave a full roll of toilet paper on the public bathroom floor rather than place it in its holder, or that one of the silly luxuries I relished while on vacation is that I never once had to replace the toilet paper myself.

(Excuse me while I sob quietly for a moment.)

I suppose I can understand general disregard at the office. Most days people are lucky to get a nod in greeting from me, so if leaving toilet paper on the floor is a “fuck you” to the man, I may not like it, but I get it. Where I do not understand lack of social grace is while on vacation in the most magical of places: Walt Disney World.

Isn’t the whole point of going to Disney World an escape from the everyday? I have to wonder, especially when I hear a woman bark to her husband, “That’s it! I’m not talking to you anymore,” on the Monorail en route to Epcot.

It seemed an odd time to declare radio silence, but they certainly weren’t the only people in Disney World to display less-than-magical attitudes. I’d already been chided by one nasty mom for bumping into the back of her seat on a Disney bus, and given the evil eye by another parent for letting my balloon drift too close to her peripheral view.

I turned to my guy as the giant sphere of Spaceship Earth came into view and leaned in close, our matching “Just engaged” pins lightly clicking against each other. “That’s it,” I whispered. “I’m not talking to you anymore … I’m only going to communicate by LICKING!”

And with that, I dragged my tongue from his chin to forehead, leaving a long, wet trail and delightedly started humming “Zip A Dee Doo Dah.”

Did I say something about social grace?

Admittedly, behavior like that is not exclusive to Disney for me. But considering that we were moments away from being engulfed in a furry hug by a walking teddy bear named Duffy, it wasn’t as out of place as it could have been.

This was our third trip to Disney as a couple – we like to give the “World” a year or so between visits to recuperate. Our trips always coincide with Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival, a theme park street fair of sorts that features alcohol and tapas-sized portions of various cuisines from 25 countries. Which essentially means we walk around for an entire week fat, happy and gently intoxicated.

Not that I need alcohol to suspend disbelief in Disney. It’s an odd dichotomy, I suppose, general misanthropy coupled with the belief that toys come to life when I leave a room. I tend to not let on to that thought in most circles for fear of soothing pats and padded cells, but in Disney, it’s a perfectly reasonable contention. There, I can run around with a Mickey Mouse balloon that changes color and wear a tiara without reproach.

Disney markets that kind of experience or feeling as a “magical moment.” And to be sure, our trip was full of them. Of course, where many magical moments are of the calculated Disney variety (like meeting characters or watching fireworks) the bulk of ours were more unintended. Because while Disney does its Fascist-like best to control your day, right down to what you’re able to smell, there are a few things that defy Disney order.

Like lizards. It’s the Jurassic Park syndrome, really: every so often, nature manages to go rogue on Disney. A few years back, it was ducks. You couldn’t so much a drop a piece of popcorn on the ground without having your ankles nibbled to stumps.

The ducks nearly got my sister that year, too. We were sitting at an outdoor café in the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot when she decided to offer a cute little duck a nacho. It squawked a few times, gobbled down the nacho, and promptly signaled for backup. Within seconds, seven, then eight, soon ten ducks had circled my sister in an elaborate attack formation and demanded the rest of her lunch and calf muscles.

I would have helped, except as I tried to suck back my waves of laughter, an errant duck dropped from whatever it had been perched on and smacked right into my face. Ducks look all funny and nice as they swim and waddle about, but the truth is, those fuckers are wet and they’re slimy and they don’t like to be untangled from your hair.

Thankfully, Disney has cleared the ducks out of the parks just in time for the lizards to uprise. We stumbled across dozens of them making their perfectly happy homes out of the toy train display in the Germany Pavilion.

Everywhere we looked, we’d spot another little lizard: riding atop a plastic cow, looming on the rooftop of the mini train station, climbing ladders in the plastic apple orchard. It was just so absurdly Godzilla-like that we couldn’t help but take dozens of pictures and worry near-by children as we loudly proclaimed, “We hereby welcome our lizard overlords to Epcot!”

This clearly wasn’t what we were supposed to take away from the Germany Pavilion. In retrospect though, for all the laughing and giggling and fun we got out of the situation, it ranks as one of those moments I’ll never forget.

That’s the best part of going to Disney World, to me: sharing ridiculously happy moments in the most uncommon of settings.

Having people to change the toilet paper for me is just an added bonus.

And now, a few pictures…

View from our room at the Boardwalk.
Me, stealing balloons at Disney Hollywood Studios.
Us before dinner at the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort.
We welcome our lizard overlords!
Magic.

For what it’s worth

My mother sees dead pets.

She’s fairly bitter about it, as if the specters of our pets past have nothing better to do in their afterlife than deliberately plague her. I don’t see what the problem is (aside from the whole “my dead pets are haunting me thing,” of course). Seems to me a ghost cat would be less trouble than my mother’s three alive-and-biting ones, but what do I know?

She’s been seeing dead things for as long as I can remember, and while I’m not above conceding the existence of the supernatural, I am inclined to ask my mother to pass the crack pipe she’s smoking. Somehow, seeing Princess Aura Roo, our ten years-gone Siamese, playing hide and seek under the kitchen table is a bit too fantastic to let pass.

My own paranormal experiences have been less vivid to say the least, though not for lack of trying. I spent hours circling a planchette over the Ouija board my mother gave me, hoping in some childish wonder that my invisible friend Possum might find his voice in it.

Looking back, the Ouija board seems like something of an odd gift to give a seven year-old, though I never did get so much as a twitch out of the thing. But then again, I buried it in the basement six months after receiving it, not coincidentally following my first viewing of The Exorcist.

The movie freaked me out enough that I took a very Smokey the Bear approach to keeping our home Captain Howdy-free. Burying the spirit board was easy enough; my mother, no so much.

It wasn’t my mother that I wanted to bury so much as it was her china set. You wouldn’t think to look at it that it was the devil’s china; the pattern was obnoxious in a 70s sort of way and covered with a rose-colored floral pattern. It was ugly, yes, but nothing to sprinkle holy water over.

But there I was, slack jawed, bug eyed and repeating “It’s only a movie,” as I rocked back and forth on the couch when I came face to face with a horrifying connection: the exact same mug that I was drinking hot chocolate out of was also in the on-screen hands of Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist.

And just one flight of stairs away from her in the movie was a ravaged, screaming, demon-seething Linda Blair, who as far I was concerned at the time, may as well have been standing directly behind me dribbling vomit and holding the matching saucer and serving tray.

The connection was too close to home for my liking. Not that my mother cared. She got that giggly, self-amused look when I told her of my “Only You Can Prevent Demonic Possession” campaign – the same look I’d seen the previous year as she presented me with a stuffed vulture when I was quarantined with scarlet fever.

I suspect she considered the creepy coincidence her own satanic seal of approval. In fact, she had actually stood up in the theatre when she and my father first saw The Exorcist in ’73 and announced with glee, “Those are my dishes!” The crowd was too busy fainting and crying and covering their eyes at the time to much care, but with me she had a new audience.

So no, she had no intention of throwing the china set away, she would not donate it to charity, and if I wanted water at bedtime, I’d drink it in the mug she gave to me and like it.

I’d eye that miserable china mug in the twilight of my room every night and shudder. As the night hours wore on, I’d envision the clicking of our cats’ claws on the hard wood floor as the scratching of Pazuzu, every door shutting became the slam of a possessed girl’s convulsions. I’d go off to school the following day a twitchy mess and it wasn’t long before I was regularly performing the Rites of Exorcism on my dolls, just in case.

Perhaps it was finding my favorite doll fastened to a wooden pinball game, arms and legs roped to the frame with pink ribbons that prompted my mother to swap my mug for a shiny new plastic drinking glass. It had Garfield on it as I recall, fat and happy.

My mother eventually upgraded her china set, too, and for this I am grateful because while I came to appreciate The Exorcist over time, I never could get used to those damn dishes. They remain packed in the basement where they belong, alongside worn scratching posts and cat beds that my mother refuses to dispose of. The spirit board I lost track of years ago, but I think it’s a safe guess that my mother knows exactly where it is.

Make me lose control

I’m thinking of ending every conversation with, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” It’s enigmatic enough to cause confusion, but specific enough to convey that I’m right, the conversation is over and it’s time to move along.

At least, I hope it is, because I’m rapidly finding it is impossible to be both a misanthrope and a bride.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned by wiser people. Not that it mattered, I guess. Warnings have never had much effect, mainly because I tend to think conventional rules don’t apply to me.

This isn’t as wonderfully narcissistic as it sounds, believe me. Usually it means I’m the .01 percent who catches swine flu after a flu shot or whose laptop battery explodes when it gets too hot. This is partly why I refuse to jump out of a plane: clearly I’d be the one deploying a spare tire instead of a parachute.

It stood to reason in my silly little brain then that I’d be in the minority when it came to planning my wedding – that I’d be the one to blissfully walk down the aisle without ever having had to stamp my feet, roll my eyes or sharpen my chef’s knife.

My first indication that my logic was a bit tricky was upon hearing the sentence “You’re engaged.” It wasn’t so much the words themselves; it was the extended emphasis on “you” that drew the word out like a mildly unpleasant flavor of taffy. My casual acquaintance rolled it around in her mouth for a while and finally spit out an implied question mark as if she wasn’t quite sure what she’d ingested.

Her friend nodded in wonder: could such a thing really be true?

What’s the proper etiquette in a situation like that? I’m guessing I won’t win any nods from Emily Post for responding in a similar fashion with, “Indeed. You’re married.”

Of course, the opposite of incredulity – mind bending girly shrieks delivered by near strangers – can be just as intolerable. Not that I object to genuine well wishes and congratulations, mind you. It’s the insistence that I must suddenly become the new BFF of every woman in a 50-mile radius just because we all wear a diamond ring on the same finger.

My ring seems to have inadvertently granted me passage to some secret den of married women who are all-too-eager to share advice and opinions. Their familiarity quite honestly creeps me out, especially when women who have historically gone out of their way to avoid me now corner me in public bathrooms to ask if I’ll be wearing a corset under my wedding gown.

When I admit I haven’t even gone dress shopping yet – let alone selected what I’ll be wearing under it – they begin to froth. Apparently I should have been dress shopping long before my guy proposed.

They ask if I have at least registered at theknot.com.

In fact, I have. I even went so far as creating a cute little profile for myself and several idea boards with my favorite color schemes. But then theknot automatically generated a “to do” list based on the wedding date that was quite literally 783 items long, and that was just for the first three months. I stopped logging in after that.

It’s not enough for the Wedding Club ladies, of course. They block my attempts to wash my hands and proceed to extract every conceivable wedding detail out of me, not because they truly want to hear my ideas, but because they want to bludgeon me reasons with why their weddings were either far better or far worse… and then upsell the services of family members, pets and the homeless man down the street who would be all-to-willing to participate in my wedding.

By the time they’re done, I’m usually limp and muttering incoherently in the corner, hands still unwashed and twitching gently. I can only be grateful that I’ll never be admitted into the Motherhood Club, which, I’m told, is far more brutal.

Still, even store clerks seem to want in on the wedding fun. Just the other day the checkout girl at Target complimented my ring. She had a lovely engagement ring of her own, but that didn’t stop her from asking if she could try mine on.

“Can I try your ring on?” is not a question I’m accustomed to hearing at Target. There, the only questions I want to hear are if I have any coupons, or if I require a bag for my jug of Jim Beam. I could only blink in response.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “There are video cameras everywhere here.”

As if that made it okay. I’ve ceased using credit cards at Target because I don’t trust them with my meager banking information; even Tiffany & Co. has an elaborate process involving velvet trays and notarized documents, and that’s just to have the ring steam cleaned. I was not about to play ring toss with a complete stranger.

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t taken it off since my guy proposed,” I said. She had the audacity to look annoyed, and didn’t give me a bag for my jug of Jim Beam.

Sigh. These are not the droids you’re looking for. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

What a wonderful world

Nature hates me.

Actually, I think it’s safe to say that nature and I hate each other equally – the net result of more than 30 years of mutual antagonizing. It is something of a dichotomy considering my soft spot for neopaganism and strong preference for organics, but that’s where my affection ends. I just can’t love something that has tried to kill me on more than one occasion.

Nature nearly won when I was five years-old, too. Back then, allergy testing happened only after your throat swelled shut – which pretty much meant that if you were allergic to anything, you walked around in a snotty, itchy fog.

That’s why my parents never thought twice about bringing a live Christmas tree into our home that year. My instant wheezing hardly stopped anyone from decorating that wafting tower of moldy wretchedness, myself included. What did we know? It was a tree, we covered it with ornaments, draped it in lights and garland; these are the things you do during the holidays.

I was so entranced by the tree, I immediately curled up under it to gaze through the branches and hopefully catch site of Disney’s Chip or Dale. And that’s exactly where my parents found me an hour or so later – coated with a fine dusting of dropped pine needles, covered in hives, and violently gasping for breath.

A hasty trip to the ER, several hits of epinephrine, and a pocketful of steroids later, and my parents wisely decided to relocate the holiday tree to the front lawn. I wasn’t even allowed out of the car upon checking out of intensive car, and I still recall pressing my face against the chilly glass window in misery as I watched my father wrestle the tree out the front door to prop it up in front of the house with several wooden planks.

We’d only recently moved into that house, and the land was so new that sod hadn’t even been laid for the front lawn. All that stood in front of the house was an expanse of dirt and that damn tree in the middle of it all, a silent, but deadly, enemy.

Benedryl and Albuterol became my best friends over time. Still, even the drugs couldn’t protect me enough from the elements that I didn’t become that wheezy, gimpy kid who dreaded the track and field portion of gym class.

I can only hope that regulations have been put on gym teachers these days the way they have on employers in the U.S., because back then my junior high gym class was more sweatshop than educational institution. Spring would roll around and we’d be forced at whistle point to run laps around the outdoor track all period long. I’d be lapped five, six, seven times by the majority of my classmates while I stumbled on the outskirts of the pack with the fat kids, struggling for air and dodging bits of pollen that wafted in the breeze.

Not that it mattered to the teacher. To keep us moving she’d clap her hands, widen her eyes and yell so viciously that her eyelids would fold over themselves. You’d regularly catch her manually flipping them into place after a particularly nasty tirade and quietly hope that one day she’d finally burst something that couldn’t be flipped back.

It’s a fair wonder then that I ever agreed to visit our friends’ cabin in the Michigan woods with my guy recently. My allergies have decreased over the years to be sure, but they’re certainly not abated completely. And my general avoidance of nature has made “roughing it”, to me, sharing a bathroom and foregoing the use of my blow dryer.

Still, I find that alcohol makes a lovely chaser to Benedryl, and I was assured that our friends’ cabin was more Pottery Barn catalog than Survivalist magazine.

And truly, the weekend home is lovely with its vaulted ceilings, skylights and hard wood floors. Even its location, tucked into the woods and just steps away from Lake Michigan, couldn’t be more desirable. Not that it stopped me from surveying my surroundings upon pulling into the driveway and declaring, “That’s a lot of … trees.”

My guy patted my head in a bemused way and quickly grabbed the arsenal of liquor we’d disguised as a hostess gift. Clearly, I’d be the one doing the heavy drinking that weekend.

Perhaps it’s all my time at the gym these days, or maybe the antihistamine-vodka combination is a true wonder drug, because for all my near death experiences in the past, I found that my guy and I had an amazing time in the woods with our friends. I hiked, gathered branches, sat in front of a roaring fire pit and waded through Lake Michigan’s waves with hardly a sniffle and only a few girly freakouts… Until I got home, that is.

Within 24 hours, five giant welts cropped up on my body, all red and hard and seething with the kind of toxins that both itch and cause panic attacks. The welts were too random and widespread to be of the contact dermatitis variety, which left me to conclude that nature had dropped some sort of vile insects onto me and allowed them to run rampant on my unsuspecting body.

Fortunately, I had the world’s greatest paranoia-inducing resource at my fingertips: the internet. Google should really insist upon user prescreens before revealing search results, much the same way porn sites confirm that you’re of porn-viewing age and mind before hurtling videos of Cleveland steamers and blumpkins at you.

I’m certain asking questions such as, “Are you really sure you want to see these images?” and “Are you currently in a state of irrational panic that might cause you to make snap decisions, like handing your guy a magnifying glass and asking him to search you for ticks?” would save countless individuals from night terrors and humiliation.

Of course, it might also help if that person’s partner didn’t pretend to dig a tick out of their leg and remind them of the spider face scene in the movie The Believers. That could just be me, though.

The good news is that I’ve self-diagnosed my welts as the hysterical reaction to chigger bites, and not deer ticks or perhaps a wacky version of stigmata. The bad news is that it took a bottle of calamine lotion and Jack Daniels to get there.

Nature: 5,873,632. Me: 0.

Maybe I’m amazed

I have always said, “I’m not that girl.”

Of course, I’ve typically said it after doing something especially girly and dumb, like eating my way through a block of cheese and bag of tortilla chips during a Jane Austen film festival, and then vowing to take the stairs all the following week to “make up for it.”

I’m not entirely sure who “that” girl was ever supposed to be really – perhaps some odd amalgam of Bridget Jones and Marlo Thomas – but I clearly need to reevaluate my litmus test on girlish behavior. Because when I find myself making that very proclamation just yesterday after cooing over a color combo of purple and pink, I think it’s safe to say I am indeed becoming that girl.

It’s a confusing contradiction for me, though it certainly explains why I’m suddenly considering once-absurd concepts like idea boards and very nearly taking out a parade of street-crossing geese when the light catches my finger in a certain way.

For all my Bukowski reading, whiskey drinking, and stabby thinking, I find myself in entirely new waters that I’ve always quietly admired from a distance but never truly thought I’d experience: I’m engaged to be married.

The very idea makes me giddy and swoony and whatever else those lovely Jane Austen girls did when they’d found their one love, though unlike them I have the smiling hand of reality to smack me into place and keep my newfound girlish curiosities from usurping what’s left of my brain.

Frankly, we can essentially thank my father for that. My guy and I actually started discussing marriage seriously about six months ago, and in keeping with conventional wisdom of sorts, my guy decided it was only proper to ask my father for his permission to marry me.

He went into their lunch appointment anxious and excited; he left slightly bewildered. My father hadn’t objected to the request at all, quite the contrary: When my guy had worked up the nerve to respectfully ask to marry me, my father bellowed “Great! Take her!” and promptly dug into his fish and chips as though handing over his first-born daughter was no different than handing over the keys to a car you’re desperate to sell.

Not that either of us expected a celebratory party over announcing that we were, for all practical purposes “pre” engaged, but a general “good for you!” pat on the back would have been nice. My guy even went so far as to tell my dad when he planning to officially pop the question … which my father, much to my annoyance, forgot.

He likely never even heard my guy tell him the date to begin with, which only served to make my intense grilling all the more futile. Every week or so I’d call my dad to beg for anything, a number, a day, a sign of the zodiac … any bit of information that would clue me in on when my guy would indeed propose.

That may have been when “that” girl started to take over.

I certainly never expected to be the girl who would scrutinize a calendar to determine possible proposal days, or the girl who checked her ring size three times a day, or who lingered over bride magazines in the grocery store.

Then again, I also never thought I’d be the girl to want nothing more than to come home and be with her guy, to share every moment with him and want to inspire him the same way her does her. Which may explain why I started crying when presented with that little blue Tiffany & Co. box last Saturday night.

Funny how the one thing I’d been hoping for and looking forward to was the last thing I expected that night. My guy’s elaborate cloak and dagger routine had me convinced I wouldn’t be seeing a ring until Labor Day weekend, so our dinner out that night seemed no different than any other.

In hindsight, I can see that my guy may have too eagerly agreed with my suggestion that we dress up for dinner, and that the staff at Ruth Chris seemed far too excited to see us when we arrived, but in the moment all I really knew was that I couldn’t be happier to be out with my guy.

And then, between courses, as my guy and I poked and laughed and chatted, the room was silenced by the start of a violin. Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” moved closer to our table, and as the familiar melody washed over me, I looked to my guy.

“Are you ready for this?” he asks, and reaches into his jacket pocket as my eyes fill with tears and I realize that finally, truly, we’re about to make official our commitment to each other.

I’d like to say that I remember exactly what my guy said to me, or what the next song the violinist played for us was, but in the moment of his sliding the ring onto my finger, all I can clearly see his him holding my hand. I doubt I’ve ever felt more certain of anything than I did right then as I looked back at him and just said, “yes,” over and over again.

And later, as we floated out of the restaurant, high on compliments and good wishes from the staff and patrons, we decided to call our families to share our good news.

My father, true to form, interrupted me as I started to tell him that I was now engaged to be married, and launched into details about his day working on his new car in the garage. I finally had to yell, “Shut up! I’m engaged!” at the top of my lungs, to which he replied, “Well congratulations, it’s about time. Now, put your guy on the phone so that I can welcome him to our certifiably insane family, and tell him all about my new tig welder.”

My dad knows how to celebrate. Note to self: do not, under any circumstances, let dad assist in the wedding plans. That is clearly a job for that girl.

Saturday in the park

Question: Is bleeding onto my guy’s lips considered sexy, or just gross?

Watch enough late-night cable, and just about anything is considered sexy: vomiting, vampires, dirty waffles and whatever other fetish HBO declares cool.

Frankly, vampires just don’t do it for me. Their heady, tortured existence was annoying even before the vampire became a metaphor for teenage angst – and now that their pasty, god-help-me sparkly faces are plastered on every billboard, it’s all I can do to keep from retching at the site.

Not that I’m not a fan of dramatic teen angst. I just prefer mine in a John Hughes-Cameron Crowe candy shell – where brooding is replaced by rebellion and everyone gets laid in the end.

That doesn’t stop me from drinking my own blood, of course – though I suppose “drinking” is an overstatement. I certainly haven’t succumbed to the absurdity of dribbling platelets into a wine glass and tossing them back as though they were Patron. I’m old school – or perhaps compulsive is more accurate – in that I absently chew on the inside of my cheek when I’m occupied or thinking and subsequently suck the residual blood from the gouges.

The repulsiveness is not lost on me, which is why I typically carry gum as a preventative measure. No one likes to look like an aggressive terrier with a chew toy, least of all me, especially since it thwarts my attempts to assure my guy that I’m not completely nuts.

Somehow though, he’s always a contender in the “How wacky is your girl?” game that he plays with his friends. I’ve never witnessed this bastion of male bonding in person of course, no chick ever will, but from the tales I’ve heard, I imagine it resembles a sporting event complete with back slapping, guffaws, and oddly-placed pride.

It has the makings of a “Your mama” joke, really, only instead of being “so old, she knew Burger King when he was still a prince”, it becomes, “My girl so is wacky that she orders onions on a burger, but picks them off because she only wanted their ‘essence’.”

(Yep, my guy won with that one.)

My guy assures me that the game, on his end at least, is played with love. And I believe him, because he would have run screaming from the room long ago at the sight of my intricate games of Tetris, played not on a computer but in the drawers containing my spice jars, or the way I manipulate time and keep our bedroom 20 minutes in the future, if he didn’t have some deep affection for me.

That was all before I bled on his mouth, though. Nothing says “I love you” more than a mouthful of secondhand blood when you go in for a kiss. It’s almost as sexy as my allergy medicine-induced nosebleeds.

I could see the “What has she done now?” question floating in my guy’s eyes as he slowly backed away, likely expecting there to be a corpse in my trunk that we’d need to dispose of later.

I ran to the bathroom in a fit of mortification to confirm that yes, I had indeed gnawed a hole in my lip during my long, chewing gum free, drive. If I could even remember doing it, I would have tried to explain myself better.

Instead, all I could offer my guy was an embarrassed shrug, a swift rinse with Listerine, and the promise to continually give him more ways to win at “How wacky is your girl?”.

It’s the least I can do.

With my crooked little grin

“You’re doing it wrong!”

Clearly, the 15 year-old in me wants to kick my ass. I stopped listening to her years ago, but every so often she rears her little Sun-Inned head to scoff at what I choose to indulge, or eschew, now.

This is, of course, the same “me” who was arrested in high school. I’d like to say it wasn’t my proudest moment, but let’s face it: a police escort at 15 gives a suburban chick an edge in certain circles.

I fancied my own edge like my denim jacket: frayed, undeniably cool and something of a badge of honor, and I wore both with equal pride. My jacket, which was covered in autographs from the rock stars I loved, I could pull off. The edge? Not so much.

For starters, I wasn’t so much arrested as I was detained. And it certainly wasn’t for anything as “cool” as smoking in the park after curfew (I tried – and had an asthma attack) or defacing school property (I tried – and broke the tip off my only pencil).

My grasp on anything cool was shaky at best, which made being a freshman only slightly better being a captive at a North Korean detention camp. And if you went to my high school, the distinction between the two is a fuzzy line.

Most of my early rebellion was culled by watching my friends, who probably didn’t know any better than I did, but lacked my reserve. They’d all learned to ditch class by their second week of school, and by the end of the first semester had detailed routes to make it to Garden Market, the local between/after class hangout for the cool, without being caught by the resident school narcs.

I envied their daring but hesitated to follow suit. Consequences were important to me even then, and I had to find the right motivation before I’d commit a teen crime.

That motivation came in the form of music, or, more specifically, musicians. I was very new to the music scene then, and hadn’t yet developed my knack for conning my way onto a tour bus under the guise of journalism. Instead, I relied on meet & greets to accost my favorite stars with teddy bears and teen adoration, and when I learned that a band I worshipped would be signing autographs at a local record store one afternoon, I had just the incentive I needed to launch my life of cool crime. I quickly made a plan to skip sixth and seventh periods and walk to the store.

Leaving the school grounds was easier than I thought, which made the upset stomach I’d been suffering from all day seem all the more embarrassing. My anxiety often took physical tolls on me, usually in the form of a hot blush or nervous cuticle picking. That day it spiked to all new highs, and I probably could have had the nurse send me home legitimately had I not been so determined to see my delinquency through.

I covertly dashed through a side door and through the back alley to Garden Market. Rather than take the obvious direct route to the record store, which would have had me walking down a main thoroughfare, exposed and likely emitting a neon glow that screamed “Truant!” I decided to cut through the park and take side streets.

The park, of course, was a haven for delinquents. They’d camp out on benches smoking and sneering at children on the playground, and would eventually head to darkened woods to make out. Needless to say, the park was routinely patrolled by local police.

None of this occurred to me as I giddily danced my way through the woods and onto the park’s sidewalk. I was confident I was in the clear, and instead fantasized that the lead singer of the band I was about to meet would ask me to coffee to talk about poetry. (Yes, there may have been a picture of a unicorn hanging in my locker, if that’s any indication of my naïveté at the time.)

“You there! I need to see your ID now!”

The loud voice jarred me out of my fantasy and sent me into instant panic mode. An actual police officer was standing behind me and he definitely didn’t resemble the last officer I could recall seeing in person, that being the “stranger danger” policeman who spoke to my kindergarten class.

My school ID was back in my locker, along with my senses and the bottle of Tums I desperately needed. I lied and told the officer that I had been legitimately excused for a doctor appointment. The feeble excuse carried no weight, and I was promptly deposited in the back of his police car while he radioed the school admin office.

The back “seat” of the car was hard molded plastic and murder on my bony freshman butt. Murder was the first thing on my mind then – it was what I assumed my parents would do when they learned of my arrest, and what I planned to do to my school-ditching friends who neglected to warn me about the truant sting set up in the park.

The officer started the car, and rather than taking me to a police station or home, drove me back to school. There, he released me from the car, grabbed my upper arm as though I was anyone other than a very lame girl in over her head in the cool pool, and escorted me through the school and to the admin office.

Classes were letting out right then, making my police escort a public display. Eyes widened as my classmates saw The Law dragging me through the hall, and rumors quickly spread about what I could possibly have done.

Vandalism was the biggest rumor, accompanied by vague whispers of drug sales and fights. Wisely, I kept my mouth shut about the truth and accepted my subsequent detention like a pro.

I’ve since ceased caring about cool while simultaneously growing more adept at ditching. Of course, it’s now called “blowing off work,” and it’s what I was doing the other night when 15 year-old me felt the need to chime in.

I was standing on the VIP deck at what was once called World Music Theatre and is now named after some random bank. More than 40,000 people stared back at me – the most I’ve seen at this outdoor theatre since the 80s. The only thing separating me from the main stage was a railing, and for all practical purposes, the night was perfect … despite the fact that I was at a country concert.

My former self whined in my ear, annoyed because my guy and I had, just a few weeks before, turned down the opportunity to hang out with the same band I had been “arrested” for skipping class to see. I had stopped caring about that band long ago when their music ceased being good, not that 15 year-old me cared. A country concert? Where is the cool in that?

Priorities change with age – as does the definition of cool. I’ve managed to figure them both out finally, and while the concert may not have been rock n’ roll enough for me at 15, it most definitely rocked for me now.

And now, a few summer pics:

A view from our VIP seats

The Grimm Taylor gang
My guy's band Grimm Taylor at Summerfest
Going hillbilly for the NASCAR show
Just us. Together.

lovely

Essayist, author, podcaster, and general misanthrope. Official blog of lightly fictionalized musings and general word vomit. Visit www.juliettemiranda.com for additional info.