Tuesday
Mar212017

potluck and the end of hospitality

Every time my husband Ray and I give one of our monthly lunch parties some guest will ask if I wouldn't rather hold a potluck party so I don't have to cook for the 30 to 40 people who show up. It's a sweetly intended suggestion, but my answer is always a firm "Absolutely not -- I consider potluck to be a major sign of the decline of hospitality."

People will respond with "But I like potluck." To which I always say, "Then you should hold one. And I won't come to it. But if you're invited to our place you don't have to bring anything but yourself."

You know what I mean by potluck I'm sure but if not: it's one of those parties where every guest brings a dish. And that's what I'm denouncing in this blog post.

Is my generation the first to take potluck -- something you were stuck with at church and school socials -- and elevate it to the status of home entertaining? I fear that's the case, but I never went along with my generation's trend. I always hated and dreaded potluck meals. It meant that everyone brought some gluey or overly starchy or gloppy dish or worse -- fluorescent-colored jello weirdness -- that they only made for potlucks and you knew they never actually ate themselves.

Yes, everyone has some memory of that neighbor woman Esther who brought the best brownies in the world to the church potluck. But aside from Esther, who ever brought something to a potluck you ate without worrying about the digestive consequences? Fortunately, early on in the history of potluck, most people learned not to bring potato salad or their own lethal canned green beans. But really, how good have you ever felt tummy-wise after a potluck dinner?

I saw the Decline of Hospitality beginning with parties where I was invited and then instructed to BYOB. Maybe I was born a food snob but even then I thought it was declasse to ask someone to bring their own booze to a party. I even thought it was declasse to ask people to bring their own drugs. Well, yeah, I wanted somebody else to pay the big bucks for the cocaine. But I thought that BYOB showed a lack of hospitality even when the party took place only in a hot tub.

BYOB was hospitality-wrecking enough, but after that I started getting invitations to potluck dinners. "You're invited to our place for a party! Bring something to nibble!" That really galled me at the time, but I chalked it up to my boho friends not having any money or sometimes even a decent kitchen where they lived. It usually meant that there were five of the exact same macaroni salads, and six of the same tofu mash that the local health food store carried, and twenty boxes of crackers and cookies because of course we were all going to get stoned and have serious carb munchies. And the real stars of the potluck were the people who brought the weed, of course. (Or any other assortment of drugs.)

I have some nostalgia for the rap fests that ensued at these parties. But I have no nostalgia for the egregious potluck food and even then I worried that it signalled the end of hospitality. My parents' and grandparents' generations gave real parties. None of this BYOB shit or "bring something for us all to nibble." No, they were very proud of the food they served at their parties, so proud that they would immortalize their dishes in Junior League and Art Docent cookbooks.

Potluck be damned, I say. However, potluck has continued and I won't say it's flourished because that's giving it too much respect. But it has definitely grown expotentially. And really, there's no excuse for some of the people who throw potluck dinner parties. I know people who live in lavish places with gorgeous kitchens who will invite people over for "potluck!" In other words, they're saying "I'd like to be fed by a bunch of friends because it's my personal chef's night off -- so please bring entrees and appetizers, desserts and booze." And these people don't mean some cheapo dish you might pick up at the supermarket. No, they expect you to go at the very least to Whole Foods and spend $50 on the food and also pick up some super bottles of wine.

OK. When we invite you to lunch at our place I make it clear that I don't want you bringing any of the meal. I'm touched and pleased when people bring wine, candies, jams and candies and pastries as presents. But they'd be just as welcome in our place if they only brought themselves. I believe that when you enter our place you're our guest and it's our pleasurable duty to make you feel well fed -- it's not your duty to make us feel well fed.

And if I go to your place? I don't care if all you have is a bottle of Chuck and a bowl of edamame, but it means something to me that you invited me into your home and you want to feed me. Yes, maybe I'll be starving when I leave your place and need to stop off at a steak house, but I'll feel the love of your hospitality. And that's something we should all feel when we're invited to a party.

Thursday
Mar162017

The difference between sewing for women and for men

My husband Ray wearing one of my shirts.
I pretty much design and sew my own clothes these days: most of my dresses, shirts, tops, pants and skirts. I've also designed and sewn most of my husband, Ray's shirts. The digital sewing machines and sergers (which bind material so it doesn't fray) make it easy and the range of fabrics you can find on the internet, if no longer in local fabric stores, gives you an endless range of creative possibilities.

My husband Ray and I get stopped a lot on the street by people who want to know where we bought our clothes. When they find out I made them, they ask if I'll sell what I create. I've seriously thought about selling my clothing but if I did, I'd only design shirts for men. Here's why -- AND WARNING! THIS POST MAY TRIGGER FEELINGS ABOUT GENDER GENERALIZATIONS:

Women will say they want what you're wearing but when they get down to it, what they really want is for you to make them look thinner than they actually are without them actually having to diet or work out.

Don't get me wrong -- I'd love to design clothes for women of all ages and sizes. In fact, I've made tops and pants for my 90-year-old mother because I hated the way that clothes for women of her age are almost always in drab stretch fabrics, as though older women should give up on looking sexy or glamorous in splashy colored patterns. There's a ton of gorgeous stretch jersey out there and I've made my mom stretch bell bottom pants in all sorts of colors and patterns that she loves being in, even if she's at home.

I feel the same about the plus size women -- they shouldn't be relegated to wearing all black, which I've never believed makes anyone look thinner, it just looks like you're on your way to a funeral or finally emerging from that punk club you went to twenty years ago.

But even if I feel that way about women's bodies, the truth is a surprising number of women have a love/hate relationship with clothing. They want the clothes they buy to magically transform them into runway gazelles and that ain't gonna happen unless you already are one. There's a reason models are skinny and tall, it's because they're walking clothes hangers that don't challenge the drape the designer made. Which doesn't mean a woman who's not skinny or six feet tall shouldn't wear those clothes, she just shouldn't expect to look the same as the models wearing them in fashion photos.

But some women will hurl all their fury about their feelings about their own bodies at the designer blaming them for their "bad self body esteem." If you don't believe me, read the customer reviews on any clothing company site.

Then there's the demand that women have for trends in what they wear. Women want constant novelty in what they wear. Women love seeing what the fashion designers have come up with for this season. Women will blame the fashion industry for making them buy a whole new wardrobe every season (the way they love to blame the chocolate industry for their chocoholism). But most women love any excuse to shop for something new. And it's not to please their husbands or boyfriends who usually don't care about women's fashion trends, let alone notice them unless it's, say, a season of butt crack exposing shorts on women. Women keep up with fashion tends and wear them to impress other women.

Women also buy clothes that are absurdly over-priced also in order to signal to other women how much their husbands/boyfriends love them, or just want to get them off their backs. Now, you might think that I'd love that aspect of designing for women, but I don't. Because the more expensive the dress or sweater, the more women feel entitled to complain about it and return it to the store, while often not even bothering to actually wear it more than once. You need to ask why? You can't possibly think women who are obsessed with high-end clothing can be seen in anything more than once, do you?

Women claim to be "concerned for the planet" so designers have to convince them that the clothing has been made in the most eco-friendly way while not exploiting women in other parts of the globe who actually sewed the garment they're wearing. Which basically means that clothing companies brag a lot about how much money they're donating from sales to good women's causes, while hiding how they keep their profit margins up by, yes, exploiting women in other parts of the world who sew the clothes for  nothing or next to nothing.

The only clothing items I've noticed that don't seem loaded for women are kimonos, scarves and aprons. Kimonos because they just flow around you, scarves because, unless a woman is obsessed with being able to do that French thing with it, don't have any stress factor. And aprons because they make women feel like they just cooked a meal and looked adorable doing it even if they just popped some frozen entree into the microwave.

All of this is in contrast to designing clothes for men. Men are, by and large, simple creature when it comes to what they wear. Like most things with men (such as sex and cracking jokes) if it works, why change it? Initially men can be picky -- my husband, Ray, for example hates the new tighter fitting shirts for men. And they can also have weirdnesses about their current physical state. In addition to making shirts for Ray I've also made a few shirts for guy friends. The hardest part of it was getting the guys to tell me if they wore small, medium, large or xxx-large. Instead of telling me, they'd say "I'll give that to you when I've gotten back from the gym." Or they'll claim that I made the front of the shirt shorter than the back of it. Sorry, dude, that's your stomach hiking it up in front.

But once happy with a shirt, guys see little reason to do anything but order ten more in the exact same style only in different colors. Which is great as far as I'm concerned.

However, when it comes to wearing colors or patterns, which is what I love working with, guys can be weird about venturing away from what they've always worn. But I've found with most men it just take some coaxing, as it did with Ray. He'd always worn solid color grays, faded blues or non-attention grabbing plaids. I begged him to let me make a shirt for him in a pattern of wolves. He was wary of "looking silly" but every time he's worn it women tell him how much they like it and even ask to touch it. And animal patterned shirts are now okay! He'd like ten more with different animals on them. Although he said no to a shirt with kitties on it. We shall see.

So if I do decide to venture into making and selling my clothing designs, I think it'll just be shirts for guys. However, the thing that stops me is that I'm only a fairly okay seamstress. If I were sentenced to work in an overseas sweat shop I'd routinely be taken into the corner and beaten for my uneven seams. And the idea of designing my clothing line and then producing it at a reasonable cost by forcing other people to sew my designs in those sweatshops is not so appealing. But if I figure out some way to make a profit without exploiting seamstresses or sending jobs overseas, I just might start a men's shirt line. And maybe aprons.
Monday
Mar132017

why i stopped giving dinner parties

For years I loved giving dinner parties. I liked making a three-course meal. My husband, Ray, and I have great friends and it was a blast to get a few of them together over a home-cooked meal at our place.

However, a year ago I stopped giving dinner parties. It was no longer fun. In fact, it had become incredibly stressful. Planning a menu that would suit everyone at the table became nearly impossible.

When I first started giving dinner parties there was a division between those who were carnivores and the vegetarians. I didn't mind that so much. I'd send out an invitation and ask who ate meat and who didn't. But about five years ago it started to be so much more complicated. When I'd send out a dinner invitation I'd get back a list of things each person didn't eat or want to eat along with their health reasons for it, which rarely amounted to life-threatening allergies. But as the host I certainly didn't want to be sabotaging anyone's "healthy eating" plan.

The last dinner party I gave left me so exhausted and stressed out I swore never again. One person didn't like meat but was okay with fish. I thought, great, I'll make a creamy pasta dish with mushrooms and have steamed mussels as the first course. But the next person was "dairy-free" and the third person was "off gluten." The fourth person said he ate everything. Phew. But the fifth said she absolutely hated shellfish. The sixth was a vegan. I did come up with a menu that suited everyone, which was oxtails in a tomato sauce and with a side of Italian braised beans for the vegan. The shellfish hater flaked out at the last minute, but the meal was a success. Like I said, we have great friends even if some of them are bat-shit about their diets.

Now, I'm very sympathetic to people with genuine allergies -- genuine celiac disease or life-threatening reactions to peanuts or shellfish or sesame. I don't want to send anyone to the ER from our dinner table, let alone kill them. However, it's hard to tell today whether someone really is allergic to say, wheat or just feeling trendy about being "gluten-free." Or whether they really can't eat carbs or they're just deluding themselves that they're on a low-carb diet.

The thing I truly can't deal with is when someone I've invited to dinner says they'll bring their own food to eat. WTF? I'm going to slave over making a meal and they're going to sit at the table and take out some bottle of a probiotic drink they picked up from Whole Foods? And no doubt as they open it they'll engage in a fascinating discussion of how their gut flora has prospered from drinking the stuff.

It's a wonder anyone gives dinner parties any longer. I see photos in food magazines like the one below and think, wow, everyone at the table is actually eating the same dish of food. Then I realize they're all models for the shoot and probably each one brought their own carton of "healthy" food. Probably the photo crew ate the food on the plates.

Dinner guests actually all eating the same entree -- hah!

Since I do love cooking for friends and having them over I thought about what to do instead.

I decided to start making buffet lunches. Ray and I began throwing monthly lunch parties for our friends. Between 30 to 40 people show up each time -- and I reconnected with the fun and pleasure I'd once had in cooking for friends. It's actually much, much easier to cook a buffet for several dozen people than it is to do a dinner party for eight.

You'd think it'd be a lot more work, but it's less. I make a meat or fish dish, a big salad or soup that qualifies as vegan (and gluten-free, dairy free, etc. etc.) and a lot of carb loaded stuff like bread and pasta and cakes and cookies. Sure you have to double and quadruple recipes, but I never ask people ahead of time what they eat. Instead I put out the buffet and let them figure it all out for themselves, although I do explain what's in each dish, since I'm sympathetic to real food allergies. But other than that, they're on their own!

Interestingly enough, I've noticed that people feel freer when they're in a crowd at a buffet than they do at an intimate dinner party. Suddenly all those dietary principles vanish. Or at least recede into sensible eating. I've seen people who tell me they avoid gluten be the biggest eaters of the breads and cakes ("but I'm just going off my diet today" they'll say). I've seen people who tell me they're "off sugar" have several pieces of cake. And I've seen people who proclaim being "off dairy" load up on cheese, because what they hell, cheese isn't really dairy, right?

I'm hoping one day to return to giving dinner parties, but I don't see it happening in the near future. America's becoming more and more of a special eating-interest country and much like the people who define themselves in special-interest political ways, people now extend self-definition to their diets. I'm not up for challenging that in the kitchen. And until things change I'm very happy cooking for a crowd.

Tuesday
Mar072017

Cooking is better than couple's therapy if you're an artist

Is he thinking about what he's chopping or the next chapter in the book he's writing?

When you're in the arts world you run into a lot of creative people who're involved with completely non-creative types. I have artist friends who live with perfectly wonderful people who have absolutely no idea how art is made -- I like to refer to those non-creative types as "civilians."

Quite naturally, there's often a conflict in these relationships. Which is that every creative person needs time to scheme and dream. These moments are as much a part of artistic productivity as the actual brush stroke on a canvas or choosing the notes for a song.

However, it can be hard to carve out these moments in these kinds of relationships. The non-creative type sees this as "wasting time" and an opportunity to barge through the artist's reverie and demand they listen to things that are utterly creativity-killing, like "You haven't noticed that I just came back from the hairdresser with a new cut!" or "Since you're obviously not doing anything, do you think you could finally put some drano in the sink?"

Honestly I don't know how artists live with non-artists. It takes way too much daily explaining of the creative process. I'm sure that non-creative types think we artists don't understand what it takes to sell real estate or crunch numbers and the fact is, we don't and most of us don't even want to know what's involved.

But apparently artists do routinely fall in love with non-artists. Maybe creative people really yearn for that practical anchor in their life. Maybe it's also true that artists like to have someone who doesn't really understand what they do, or isn't a competitive threat, or who actually stymies their process so they don't have to come up with their own creative blocks.

Why practical people are attracted to creative types is a whole other question. They seem to find us exciting at first because we're so damn wacky and boho. But after a while, they just get impatient as to why we can't come up with a runaway bestseller. And at a certain point they often start feeling as though they can do what we do. And even better. And certainly faster and without all that annoying anguished fuss.

I once knew a non-author woman who was married to a successful comedy writer. She'd tell me he made way too much out of stewing over his next joke. Finally, enough was enough for her. To prove she could do what he did, she sat down and wrote a sit com script in something like three hours. "See?" she said showing it to me. "I've put up with all his baloney about him needing space in which to think up his next funny line and really all it takes is just sitting down at the computer and doing it." Her script did indeed look professional, typing and format wise. But she never sold it and she never wrote another one.

Sometimes artists marry complete cultural boors. That one I really don't understand. I knew a writer who was married to a banker. When he asked if she'd read his latest book his wife responded with, "Sure, I skimmed it." She seemed to have no idea why he went off and had an affair after that.

And yet civilians and artists insist on having these conflicted marriages. Many of them end up in Couples' Therapy. However, I'd like to suggest that the real solution isn't that. I'd like to suggest that all the creative types in these relationships just start cooking!

It's what I do. Cooking is the perfect way for me to drift off into thinking about my current creative dilemmas while doing something practical and pleasing. And I say this as someone lucky enough to live with a fellow traveler on the creative road of life. We've always respected each other's brain space, even in tight living quarters. Still, we will interrupt each other out of our individual reveries. I'm as guilty of it as he ever is. You see your spouse just sitting there and they are fair game for brain or emotional dumping. It's just something married people do.

But if I'm mulching about an artistic project while cooking, Ray never questions what I'm doing. The moment he says "Sweetie, can I read you a really annoying blog posting I got off the internet?" I shake my head gravely "no" and just point to the stew I'm stirring or the pie crust I'm rolling out. And he understands! He's going to eat some stew and some pie! He'll leave in happy silence and I'll go back to thinking about my own creative projects. He never once says while I'm in the kitchen "But you're not doing anything right now." Because everyone loves being cooked for.

Btw, there are domestic arts that I wouldn't recommend going off into imaginative reveries while doing. I like to sew, but it takes a lot of focus on what you're doing. Every time I drift off while designing or making a piece of clothing it's been a disaster. Yesterday, for example, I was making a flannel shirt for Ray. It was all going so easily, and I've made him over twenty shirts already, that my brain went off into creative thoughts. When I sewed in the sleeves I discovered I'd managed to make two left ones. And god knows you don't want to be thinking of how to finish that big painting of yours while hammering nails or running a saw.

But cooking is perfect. I've never understood artists who don't spend time being in the kitchen. First, you can get away from more abstract artistic issues to pragmatic ones. Cooking is great that way because you either want to eat what you've made or you don't. None of this dilly-dallying about "have I produced a worthwhile short story?" You know if what you cooked is edible, let alone delicious.

The second is you get to play creatively with elements outside your usual metier. You get to turn your imagination from composing or painting to mingling herbs and spices. It's amazing how often I solve problems in my writing just by getting away from it into the kitchen.

The downside: I lose myself so much in cooking that I often have no idea what I'm doing or have just done. Ray will say "This soup is great, how'd you make it?" I'll realize that I have absolutely no memory of what I did. And it's not because I drank wine while putting it together, or at least not entirely because of the wine. That half hour I spent absent-mindedly rummaging through my spice jars and then going back to the stove and adding them, then rummaging some more and picking the ones to combine with what was already in the pot didn't just make for a good soup, it somehow miraculously got my brain off my writing and I unconsciously solved what I needed to do with that testy paragraph in the piece I was writing.

Friday
Mar032017

As the daughter of a narcissist, I couldn't care less if Trump is one

Who's the bigger narcissist?

I'm the daughter of a narcissist. My father was a brilliant, hugely successful, power-driven lawyer. He was an off-the-charts narcissist who either treated me with emotional abuse or wouldn't talk to me at all. He sued me when I was 50 and didn't talk to me for a decade simply because I told him I needed to live my own life. I also grew up with a lot of his highly narcissistic colleagues. On top of that, I've worked for years as a writer and artist and have lived in LA and NYC. So I've known many, many narcissists. And I've tried to turn that experience into art. I perform my one-woman show about it "We Only Get One Father -- So Why Was I Given Mine?" which is my look into what that's all been like for me as a woman who's the daughter of a narcissist.

But despite my background, it really angers me when people bring up Trump's "narcissism." It's not that I ever want to be around another narcissist after my dad. For the record, I've been in therapy about having a narcissistic father, with a wonderful, extremely helpful therapist. I've taken great care to exclude narcissists from my personal life. I don't have narcissists as friends, although it's nearly impossible to exclude them entirely from my professional life as an artist. I'm not attracted to narcissistic men either. The guys I've been involved in longterm relationships with, including my husband of 28 years, are anything but narcissists.

However, I couldn't care less if the person in the Presidential seat is a narcissist. Much as I disliked having a narcissist for a father, I'd still have to say that he was a brilliant and effective lawyer. If I'd needed a lawyer, I'd have hired my father, and he helped turn his law firm into a global powerhouse. Nobody ever said he wasn't a great manager. But I've never wanted him or any other narcissist anywhere near my personal life.

And here's something I learned early on from being around my power-driven father: people who want power are all narcissists of one sort or another. Doesn't matter if they want to be the mayor of some small unknown city or they want to be in the White House. If you think that the people in office really, really care about you, then you're just buying the surface they present. Narcissists are very good at presenting. They know what you want for them to appear to be. They're not normal people and they don't care about you. Don't expect them to be someone you can be friends with. Instead look at what they do and whether or not they do it.

So the most annoying recent thing to me for me was the ridiculous letter to Obama from a Harvard psychiatrist, Judith Herman. Harvard!!!! Wow, do I hear NPR being impressed? Anyone for a little NPR-induced narcissism here? Judith got a couple of fellow shrink professors to join her as she pleaded to Barack:

We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the mental stability of our President-Elect. Professional standards do not permit us to venture a diagnosis for a public figure whom we have not evaluated personally. Nevertheless, his widely reported symptoms of mental instability — including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality — lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office. We strongly recommend that, in preparation for assuming these responsibilities, he receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.

The letter is signed by Judith Herman and two University of California, San Francisco professors, Nanette Gartrell and Dee Mosbacher.

For Christ's sake, Judith -- you're writing to Barack Obama as though he's not a narcissist? What is wrong with you? What exactly did you think he was going to do about it? What did Obama ever do about anything (oh, I know, I know, he had that dreadful Republican congress that wouldn't let him do all the wonderful things he so wanted to do and know he just has to content himself with his golf game and multi-million dollar book deal, etc. etc.). If you don't know that you're working on Obama's own narcissism with this letter, Judith, then you should hang up your shingle.

But I suspect that you were knowingly pleading to his narcissism about dealing with what you call Trump's narcissism. You're a Harvard trained shrink. You know that narcissists hate other narcissists and they hate even more admitting that they might be narcissists. So what you're really saying is "Obama, only you can stop this monster! You, Barack, are the one caring person in office!" And thereby appealing to Obama's narcissism.

What I really suspect, Judith, is that by doing this, you just want a chance to shine for a moment in the media and you hope that Obama will mention you when he gets Trump impeached as his inspiration and the media will shine on your beaming face for one moment ... Maybe, just maybe that'll happen, Judith, but in the meantime you need to stop being attracted to narcissists like Obama who don't appear to be narcissists because when you do this, you're nothing more than an enabler of narcissists. The funny thing is, I kind of suspect you've always been attracted to narcissists, Judith, even if you are a shrink. I think you just spend too much time with that Harvard trained list of narcissist attributes when you judge them.

Because what you're really talking about is that you don't like Trump's style of narcissism. You don't like that he's out there with it rather than hidden in the way that Obama was, or he doesn't have the Ivy League style of narcissism that the Clintons have. Personally, I don't see any difference between Trump's narcissism and the Clinton's or Bushes' or Obama's or maybe even Abraham Lincoln's narcissism. I don't care if they're narcissists. I don't want to be involved with them, and would never want any of them as fathers. I only care what they do in office.

I only care about what Trump does during the next four years. And so far, even though I didn't vote for him and am not a fan, I think he's far less erratic and far less prone to forgo his promises than Obama or Hillary.

Maybe, Judith, you need to think about your own projection onto narcissists and what you're really upset about. Is it Trump's style that irks you? You can't accuse Trump of not owning his narcissism -- is that really what gets your knickers in a twist, Judith? Or is it that you want to enable the narcissism of the Harvard endorsed narcissists like Obama? Because it's a style that suits your own narcissistic enabling.