Free Fashion Advice

As I stood at the front door ready to take my daily walk, I thought of Coco Chanel’s famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’ve acted on this bit of advice many times, since I love all the accessories.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t take off anything for my walk because everything is necessary. Whereas I used to take long summer walks with nary a hat or sunscreen, I now wear a super-cautious wide-brim hat with a hole in back for my ponytail. Not only that, it has a chin strap to keep from blowing off my head with the slightest gust of wind. Wide brims love to catch air, you see.

I resisted the chin strap, due to an aversion to the elastic chin straps of my childhood Easter bonnets slicing across my throat. Those things were deadly serious about keeping the straw hat on your head until the final Amen. I now yield to the chin strap because I hate chasing this hat down the sidewalk.

Draped across my chin strap is another eyesore, the cord to my earbuds. When I bought a new cell phone, it turns out my old phone trade-in was only worth a cheap pair of earbuds, not the fancy wireless kind. These earbuds work just fine, though, as I rock out to National Public Radio whilst on my daily rounds.

The only downside is they won’t stay in my ears, so I clipped the cord together—right in front of my chin strap—with a metal binder clip. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Coco had in mind when she advised taking one thing off. But I need my earbuds to stay in my ears, so the binder clip is here to stay. Office supplies are so versatile.

This all sounds tragic (is probably what you’re thinking), but maybe I could compensate with some cool shoes. Well, that’s not gonna happen. After years of wearing poorly fitting shoes and toe-pinching heels, my feet desperately need a comfy pair, and the brand that best fits the ol’ water skis is a venerable sneaker beloved by boomer dads. I buy the cheapest ones in my size, which means I rarely have cool colors on my feet.

Lastly, there’s the accessory that brought Coco Chanel’s advice to mind: my elbow brace. The doctor says my chronic pain is tennis elbow, although I’ve never played tennis in my life. Still, the pain is real, so I wear a fancy black Velcro band around my left arm. Standing at the front door, I seriously considered taking this off because I’m just vain enough to fear it’ll give me some deeply weird tan lines. However, elbow pain edged out vanity, so I kept it on.

Donning my prescription sunglasses, I turned to Phil and said, “I feel like my walking outfit just gets weirder and weirder.”

“It’s not just a feeling,” he said, without looking up from the computer. “Tomorrow, you’ll put on a tutu.”          

Little does he know, I have no reason to add a tutu to my ensemble. Knee socks and ankle weights, maybe. We’ll see. Getting older is truly liberating.

Strutting out into the glorious sunshine, I tighten my chin strap, adjust my binder clip, and crank NPR like a real, live twenty-first century Coco Chanel.

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )

Strangers and Other Creatures

Right after the mask restrictions were eased recently, I noticed something strange. A woman seemed to be following me at Schnucks. At first, I assumed she happened to be shopping for the same things in the same order: celery, snow peas, avocados. But when she spoke, it broke my vegetable reverie.

Stranger danger. Maybe she was stalking me.

“I am just striking out today,” she hollered through her mask.

“Oh?” I said, wary of appearing too interested in case she wanted to sell me on a healthy new lifestyle or the divine lordship of Krishna.

“I can’t find fresh ginger anywhere! Already been to Walmart and Dierbergs and now here!” Still wary, I felt obligated to help her find it, since she’d hollered at me and all. I had to pick up Caroline from dance class, but this cry for help would not let me off the hook.

The ginger root was piled next to the avocados I’d just been picking through, so I said, “Oh, here’s some ginger – looks like you hit the jackpot!”

She thanked me a bit too much — she’d have found it herself in two seconds — and I headed on to other things on my list.

But she wasn’t done with me. It was her husband’s birthday, she said, and she wanted to make his favorite dish, which is Korean but not too spicy, and you definitely need fresh ginger, not this powdered stuff that some people think is ginger. Right, ha ha ha?

“Ha ha, right!” I laughed along. Cooking with ginger is a joyous occasion indeed.

Now, I’ve been grocery shopping in the off hours the entire pandemic and haven’t made small talk with a single person. This stranger, determined to include me in her ginger mission, gave me pause.

Then, the same thing happened the next day as I shopped for laundry detergent! A stranger asked what detergent I like, and I told her all about the pods that smell amazing.

The next day, it happened again. Browsing in Marshalls, I was stopped by a woman trying on shoes. “Aren’t these the cutest?” she asked. I looked around, unsure if she was talking to me. Emboldened by the ginger and detergent convos, I told her they were the cutest, and she should buy both colors.

So, three days, three chats with strangers. Is it just me, or have we turned a corner? We are so tired of bad news, so eager to feel normal, and so lonely for the oddest things, like small talk in the store.

When the pandemic first started, I’d hold my breath when I passed a stranger. I also avoided eye contact just in case droplets could be transmitted by gaze. (Can’t be too safe nowadays.) Shockingly, this wasn’t conducive to friendly interaction. But now that maybe, just maybe, we are on the other side, it feels okay to engage with others again.

A couple months earlier, my family had ventured out among strangers in Florida. After spending the past year only with people in our circle of work and family, the spring break beach experience was weird and overstimulating.

One morning at breakfast, we were seated six feet from a table of people for whom nothing was right. One complained that her coffee was too hot. Another felt slighted for having to sit in a patio chair while all the other chairs at the table were indoor chairs. Yet another complained that her egg whites were “too wobbly” and inedible. My blood began to boil hotter than the offending coffee. I hadn’t been around strangers for so long that I could not abide their grievances. I left our nice breakfast shaky with caffeinated rage.

I think the problem is I had turned inward — even more than before the pandemic — and had come to see strangers as threatening at worst and irrelevant at best. I was a grouchy hermit crab.

Yet the interactions in the grocery store and shoe department were oddly delightful. They stayed with me for days after.

I mean, the word isn’t wrong: strangers can be strange. But I’ve enjoyed peeking out of my shell. Who knows? Maybe the next time I’m shopping in the frozen section, I’ll spark a conversation about imitation crab.

-Em : )

What Happens in Vagus (the Remix)

Hi, there. This morning I fainted during an eye exam at the mall. The doctor feared I was having a seizure and called for an EMT. By the time they arrived – three EMTs and a police officer – I was fine. This fainting problem happens somewhat regularly at medical appointments. When it happened six years ago, I wrote a blog post about it. So, today I’ve dug out that golden oldie from 2013.  


“Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” –Mahabharata

I like my eye doctor. She feeds me animal crackers and dabs my forehead with a damp cloth. She’s nice. And pretty, too.

This doesn’t sound like your typical optometrist, but I’m not your typical patient. I’m a fainter. A swooner. A savant of the smelling salts.

My daughter was with me during the eye exam. Knowing that she’ll need one before kindergarten, I brought her along to prove that it’s no big deal.

A few weeks ago, she tagged along when I got the pertussis booster vaccine. She buried her face in her hands and whimpered while the nurse gave me the injection. I tried to counteract her fears by bragging about my cool Band-Aid and, later, super-sore arm. Like most people over age two, she’s too smart for my tricks.

Long story short: playing it cool at the eye exam, I ended up out cold. When I came to—drenched in sweat, mortified—she was standing over me saying: “Mama! You took a nap!” She wasn’t even alarmed, just confused about my napping schedule.

The first time I fainted was in high school biology class. In college, I passed out during a women’s health event where the speaker was talking way too enthusiastically about cervical cancer. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with the carpet at SLU library, the dermatologist’s office, the endocrinologist’s office, and now in the optometrist’s exam room. It had been five years since the last faint, and I thought I’d outgrown it.

The trigger is language: medical terms, procedures, mechanisms of disease, the words “catheter,” “intravenous,” and “retina.” In the latest case, the optometrist was analyzing my retinal scan, where you look through the peephole and the machine takes a quick photo of your eye—much easier than dilation. (Incidentally, if scientists could invent a similar scanning technique for pap smears, I and half the world’s population would be most grateful.) The doctor helpfully pointed out my retinal nerve and macula, and the more she used the word “retina,” the more squeamish I got. My ears were ringing, my eyes were blacking out, and consciousness slipped away.

I vaguely remember Dr. Oz talking about the vagus nerve on an episode of Oprah. He may have mentioned it in relation to fainting. I made a mental note of it then quickly forgot it—because I was planning to outgrow fainting.

The vagus nerve runs from the medulla down through the neck, chest, and abdomen, conveying “sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system” (according to Wikipedia). When your vagus nerve freaks out from stress, you suffer the most common type of fainting, vasovagal syncope. As I read Wikipedia’s list of triggers, my eyes alighted on the one closest to my heart, er, vagus nerve: “watching or experiencing medical procedures.”

Whoomp. There it is.

Willing myself to stay conscious doesn’t work. The more I tell myself, “snap out of it,” the quicker I’m out. Chances are, at darn near forty years old, I’m not going to outgrow it.

Maybe the reason for the trigger is that medical terminology reminds me that I’m a body, and bodies aren’t made to last. Practicing for death—it sounds so morbid. But that’s vaguely what my vagus nerve is up to.

Tempus fugit, memento mori, and carpe diem. This message was approved by my vagus nerve.

Thanks for reading! -Em