Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween

It's always fun to be something that you're not. This is why I like Halloween. Carte blanche to im- or ex- plicitly make fun of famous people is another staple of the holiday, and another reason why I like it.

So I don't understand the trend these days towards skipping Halloween. Can we ever really get too mature and responsible to don something ridiculous and drink bad spiked punch while wearing something unwieldly? I say no.

I know there are others out there who share my vision. So, if you dressed up this year, most likely on Saturday, when all the Halloweeny festivities seemed to happen, please send me a picture of you in your outfit. If you didn't dress up yet, there's still time tonight to make a sheet with two holes in it and run out into the streets during trick-or-treating time (which, in these days of rampant unease is about 3:00 in the afternoon). If you have no intention of getting in the Halloween spirit this year, you'd better have a good excuse, so I want to hear that too.

I recognize that some of us were busy this weekend doing things like having babies, but I have high hopes for the rest of you. Make me proud, people! Bonus points if you can guess my costume just by its top half, without its incriminating props.

Update: okay, Casson (cheatingly) guessed it. Here we are, props included:


To Benji and Skyla, the newest set of parents in our increasingly-parental group. Welcome to little Riley Berneace, who arrived on Friday at 12:28 am (she's clearly a night person--a girl after my own heart).

Monday, October 17, 2005

Coffee Conundrum

Where do you get your coffee? Apparently, your answer says a lot about your socio-economic status, your political leanings, and your ideals. And you just thought you were getting a little caffeine.

I have almost always hated Starbucks. At the beginning of their chain explosion in the early '90s I was uninterested in any coffee drink other than the Cappuccino Blast at Baskin Robbins which, let's face it, is just ice cream. During college (mid '90s now), Starbucks was just a place to do a little half-hearted studying in between celebrity sightings, seeing as my local shop in Montecito was the mecca for Steve Martin (bike helmet), Rob Lowe (every morning, with his kids), and Julia Roberts (just the one time, and didn't order anything because she already had ice cream in her hand--my kind of girl.) Somehow over the decade, Starbucks got super huge and corporate and became known for shoving out local coffee shops and for snobby customers who liked that you had to order in Italian.

As the heady, frenzied days of late '90s prosperity passed me and my entry-level job right by, coffee insinuated itself into my surroundings. At the Carlyle Group, the coffee and the Republican group-think were both free, and their consumption encouraged. Each kitchen was stacked with tiny Evian bottles and small, tight green packages with the Starbucks logo, ripped open to be brewed and served to the steady stream of billionaires dropping by. I myself mostly tanked up on coke (a-cola).

It wasn't until graduate school and the last gasp of the '90s that I finally accepted the fact that real coffee, sans ice cream, would be fundamental to my survival strategy if I was to finish four 20-page papers at the end of every semester. It was then that I finally tasted Starbucks coffee, straight-up. And realized it tasted like hot water mixed with a little char. Those of you with a Starbucks habit will immediately start squawking, but that's only because you're used to it after years of mega-dosing. You are in fact addicted to the alarming levels of caffeine particular to the Starbucks brew, levels that keep you buzzed and twitching all day. But people: it doesn't taste good. What's more insidious is that Starbucks coffee is so unabashedly stronger, so recklessly noxious, that once you've developed a taste for it, all other coffee actually tastes bad. Those corporate guys up in Seattle are no dummies.

I needed my coffee though, and I realized Starbucks coffee tastes like shit, and I found myself in Massachusetts. What's a poor, transplanted graduate student to do? It was clear. I joined the church of Dunkin' Donuts, a New England institution on par with Fenway Park, and it was there that I became a true Bostonian. In California, there is one small, sad and grimy Dunkin' Donuts for every three or four suburban cities. People go there to buy (small, sad and slightly stale) donuts. Imagine my bewilderment then, when I encountered gleaming, bustling Dunkin' Donuts on every corner of my new city, five branches at the airport, and lines out the door of every one! (One store for every 7,000 Massachusetts residents, compared to just one Starbucks per 15,000 people in Washington State.) People in New England don't go to Dunkin' Donuts primarily for the pastries, they go for the coffee: soft, comforting varieties such as French Vanilla and Hazelnut that don't make your eyes water as you read the Boston Herald. And they go a lot. Dunkin' Donuts is a way of life, familiar and respected like the blue-collar workers that are as plentiful around here as the chain. Although DD has moved slightly upscale lately, adding cappuccinos and other nonsense to their menu, at heart the franchise says simplicity, speed (the efficiency of the workers is amazing), Red Sox endorsements, and yummy stuff. As a result of this chain's ubiquity and its good-tasting coffee, I developed a legitimate habit. I had my standing order--"medium French Vanilla, skim milk, four sugars"--and I slowly incorporated Dunkin' Donuts' products into my life as a major food group. It was a wonderful relationship.

Unfortunately, the relationship turned bad. Not because things stopped tasting good, but because of the sheer number of ham, egg, and American cheese on-a-bagel sandwiches that I consumed per week along with my extremely sweet coffee. At some point, I added "Coolattas" to the rotation--foamy concoctions made with real cream and lots of sugar. Then they introduced steak bagels. Then I realized how good the Coffee Cake muffin was. Then I feared for my triglycerides. It became time to put an end to the madness. I ended my affair with Dunkin' Donuts at the same time I broke up with my native New Englander boyfriend. Cut all ties.

Now, in a cruel twist of fate, I have come full circle. There is a Starbucks beneath my gym, and that curious green/burning odor peculiar to the chain wafts up into the club at all hours. From my treadmill I have a view of the parking lot and an endless stream of commuter-ants scurrying into the store below, emerging with cups surgically planted into their palms. After my workout, I join them. Sadly, there is no other air-conditioned spot in my entire neighborhood where I can plug in a laptop and eat while working on my dissertation. I also have collected what seems to be hundreds of dollars' worth of Starbucks gift cards from my stepmother over the preceding five Christmases. All of which have put me square in my plushy chair at the local Starbucks, ordering $3 tea and trying to buy the "serenity" the chain is now apparently selling while I pound out a few pages. It rarely works, if only because invariably a gaggle of Boston College sorority girls traipse in to talk loudly about L.L. Bean and boys.

I am sad to have ended up here, among the slacker-chic baristas and the XM music. It feels like a defeat, like a violation of my honorary New Englander status. I am told that I belong more at Starbucks than at Dunkin' Donuts--Starbucksters vote Democrat, have advanced degrees, and read the Boston Globe. Dunkin Donutsters work construction, vote with the red states, and know the box score from last night's game. (Well, I'm with them on that one.) So, I belong here, even though I hate the pseudo-European fakery (I will never order a "venti" anything unless I'm in Rome) and the slick packaging of a product under the guise of "relaxed sophistication." I actually don't drink coffee anymore at all--I gave it up completely two years ago and no longer have crushing headaches in the morning as a result--so maybe this is why I am no longer blinded by the effect of all that green and caffeine. After all, anything you do each day, every day, becomes more than a habit and something nearing an identity: that's bad for both crowds, of the New England or Seattle variety. So I suppose it's best not to pledge allegiance to either side.

But I'm curious to know about everyone else--are you hopelessly addicted to the green bean? Do you have a weakness for the Dunkaccino that I used to love so much? Or have you broken free of the cycle altogether, maybe frequenting one of the nearly extinct local coffee shops in your neighborhood, or forgoing coffee stores altogether for trips to the library, the museum, and your own living room couch (who are we kidding about the library & the museum). Anyway, let me know. Perhaps your answers will inspire me to break free of the Starbucks cycle once and for all, slamming the door on its air-conditioned splendor and grossly expensive coffee forever!... with one more toffee-almond bar for the road.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It's Over

Getting swept by the White Sox wasn't too much fun, no. Witnessing the inglorious end of the Red Sox season up close and personal at a rapidly quieting Fenway Park on Friday was a mite depressing, yes. But no one can say we didn't deserve to lose. If you can't score with the bases loaded and no outs, it just feels like it's time to hang up the gear and head for winter vacation. Which is exactly what the Red Sox did. And I'm okay with it (considering). I really am.

I will return to the metaphor I made before the season even started. You remember--the Sox were the scrappy, maybe even freckly guy who had made it all the way with the hottest girl in camp the previous summer and thought, "you know what, I might be able to do that again." Well, he didn't. He crashed and burned before he could get close to sealing the deal. What's worse: the biggest asshole in camp is still in the chase. But (after a weekend of reflection and vodka tonics) it's okay--his first time is behind him, it was fabulous, and there will be other summers, other girls. He's okay. We're okay.

Onward, Sox.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Here We Are Again

So things are gloomy in Red Sox Nation this morning. It was a bad loss last night, that errored-away a 4-0 lead and put us one game closer to the end of the Sox season. What with the fumbling and our quiet offense, Chicago took the first two games in the series rather handily. That means, of course, that the Sox have to win two in a row to stay alive. Not that it hasn't been done before--we won FOUR in a row to beat the Yankees last year after all--but that was the first time it had ever been done in baseball. I have tickets to tomorrow's game, which may or may not be the last one of the season. If they lose, it's all over. Swept by the White Sox. Ugggh.

I have to admit I love do-or-die games though. There is something so invigorating about hanging off a cliff with your fingernails, rather than being the guy looking down from above and cackling. In action movies, the hero is always the guy hanging off the edge, and the villain is lording it over him, savoring his evil dominance, and usually banging on the hero's clutching fingers with a blunt object. This is a staple. One of the most famous fingers-at-the-edge-of-the-cliff scenes in recent movie history appeared to end very badly, but actually bumped the hero up a level in the end, from a gray wizard to a white wizard. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to take a scifi/fantasy crash course right now. Yes, now.) What fun would it be if you were on solid ground the whole time, only to find yourself abruptly hurtling down the cliffside at the very end, as is the route of all cackling villains? (Ask the Yankees.) No, a little desperation is a good thing. Give me my underdogs every time.

There's nothing wrong, on paper, with having all the advantages in life from the beginning. It seems like it would be quite a picnic to be born enormously wealthy or already-famous (Scout, Rumer, Apple), to have connections in all the right places and every type of leg-up as you grow up. On the other hand, it would really suck. Who wants to be known as "the boss's kid" at the company, or have it whispered that you weren't all that bright after all, just well-connected. Being born into a lot of money makes it imperative that you somehow make even more. And if you are not fabulous and successful in every way, you have failed to reach your potential. (If the Yankees don't win the World Series every year, everyone in the organization is disgusted.) That is the dilemma of the Jude Law character from Gattaca that I finally watched last night (good movie--scifi meets film noir). Genetically programmed to be an ideal specimen, he feels compelled to end his life because he "only" received a silver medal in swimming. High expectations much?

These crippling expectations are something the defending World Series champs have been trying to shake off all season. They lost the freewheeling scrappiness of the underdogs the minute they won the championship, and they miss it. Last season they were loose, relaxed, playful, and eager. Nothing to lose! Everything to gain. This year they came into it as "the best," and you can see the strain. This isn't to say being World Series champs is a downer. It's been fantastic. But the topdog job comes with a lot of pressure, and it is a dynamic that the Red Sox have shaken free of only now, with quite possibly one game left in their season. Let's hope the reversal came in time.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Wild Card

Well, the Sox have made it into the post-season by the skin of their teeth. We didn't quite beat the Yankees for the division title, but we did beat the Yankees yesterday and that counts for something. (In the complicated world that is baseball division races, the Sox came out with the exact same record as the Yankees, but those evil New Yorkers win the division by virtue of their record against us. In 19 games between the Sox and the Yanks this season, the Yankees won ten of them. So close.) It is difficult to accept the fact that one more win against crappy Tampa Bay would have given us the divison title.

But the important thing is that we are in. There will be October baseball, hopefully lots of it, to go along with the cooling weather and the apple dumplings I am going to make this weekend. Despite the injuries and the grumbling and Kevin Millar, the Sox got it done, and so, we celebrate. Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS, tomorrow, 4:00 p.m.