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Saturday, April 18, 2015

"The Accidental Empress" is juicy, sweet historical fiction

"The Accidental Empress" by Allison Pataki is an intriguing visit to the Hapsburg Court of the mid-19th century.

Although I toddled around the castles of Vienna and Budapest when I was 20, I had never heard the story of "Sisi," (Elisabeth, Empress of Austria). Yet again, I was surprised by the twists and turns of actual history in the course of reading historical fiction.

After spending several weeks inside the dank, tense world of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" it was a delight to be on horseback with Sisi, trysting around the hills during the sunset of the Austria-Hungarian empire.

Pataki did what I consider to be an excellent job combining historical facts with dashes of fiction drawn from rumors that circulated during Sisi's lifetime. The story is compelling enough: A young Bavarian princess, Helene, is summoned to marry her first cousin, Franz, the Austrian Emperor, and when she arrives at his court, the emperor's eyes are immediately drawn to her little sister, Sisi, instead. Franz insists on marrying her instead and chaos ensues.
This is a real portrait of the real Sisi.
I TOLD you she was interesting!

(Side note: I'm utterly obsessed with Sisi's other cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. After our August in Bavarian, Chebbles shares my fascination with the handsome man who built Neuschwanstein and his enigmatic mind. His cousin Sisi was a dear friend of Ludwig's, they looked like brother and sister, and they seemingly shared the same bright, depressive mindset. And Sisi's younger sister was briefly engaged to marry Ludwig II. The juiciness knows now bounds.)

If I learned anything from the world of Henry VIII as depicted in Wolf Hall, noble marriage is a complicated beast, as any small fissure in the relationship between people can become massive when living under palace scrutiny. It's agonizing to watch appealing characters enter into the emotional blender of royal life -- but that's what makes these stories so fascinating. How will they negotiate their way to happiness, if it's even possible within their circumstances?

This tension is why Sisi's true story has been resonant for many generations, and Alison Pataki's representation of it in "The Accidental Empress" is a very appealing version of that tale.

Note 1: Pataki has an unfortunate "tic" within her story, that I dearly wish had been edited out. She repeatedly references hearts thumping inside of chests. Several of her characters experiences a heart beating against a breastbone or a chest thumping wildly, to the point that this reference became slightly maddening to me. I wish her otherwise deft editor had identified and varied this affectation.

Note 2: After finishing Pataki's book, I was thrilled to find this Austrian gem of a movie trilogy, which starts with (the misspelled) "Sissi".... Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2015

My crazy skin: a tragic history

The first pimple showed up when I was about ten. It was a little whitehead sitting in the little space next to my nose.

"Huh, my first real zit."

Did I really do this to
my face every night?
I got some Clearasil pads and other abrasive sponges, plus some tubes of benzoyl peroxide, and I scrubbed my poor young face in order to warn off other little whiteheads, with moderate success.

Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. It wasn't until I was in my early 20's that my skin started to go absolutely nuts with cystic acne. It wasn't just my face that erupted with large cystic zits, but my back as well. My acne sometimes made it impossible for people to look me in the eye.

One morning in my sorority house, when I had a big erupting cyst between my eyes, one of my Pi Phi sisters asked, "Have you joined a new religion, Erica?"

I flew into a frustrated rage. I know she didn't mean to make me mad, but I felt so helpless about these disfiguring outbreaks, I couldn't see the humor.

After trying many over-the-counter remedies for year, I finally went to a dermatologist who recommended I start using Retin-A (...she also scraped out several massive cysts that had become semi-permanent on my back, the scars of which are morbidly fascinating to Chebbles).

Every night, when I lived in Boston after college, my sister would dutifully rub Retin-A all over the terrible skin on my back, then I would rub it into my face, and I kept my fingers crossed that it would do some good.

At work, I had a boss who tried to "tactfully" ask me how I was handling my skin problem. I'm sure I wasn't the most lovely sight: me sitting there with my back broken out, sometimes wearing shirts with mesh that exposed some of the bad skin, with my poking at the cysts absentmindedly while I worked, but she was still a cow about it, pointing it out and mentioning in the most "off-handed" way that I should consider different clothing/dermatological care.

"Sweetheart why is there a pound of
makeup under your eyebrows?"
"Just smile..."
Luckily, after increasing the intensity of the Retin-A (crank it up to 11!), and finding a good esthetician in San Francisco, my skin began to clear up. It never stopped breaking out entirely, but the very strong Retin-A kept the cystic acne at bay, and eventually I was able to stop using it on my back.

But there were other drawbacks. When I had my eyebrows waxed before my wedding, a bunch of skin over my eyelids came right off owing to the aftereffects of Retin-A (I had stopped using it a few weeks before, but nevertheless, I had eyebrow scabs on my wedding day!).

Two days before I gave birth to Chebs,
horrible mood, awesome skin

When I became pregnant with Chebbles, my skin became AWESOME for the first time ever. I never felt more beautiful than when I was pregnant as every trace of acne cleared up. Even as the pregnancy hormones made me throw up everything I had ever eaten, my skin looked clear and terrific for the first time.

After I gave birth, the acne started to come back in spades. I would always have some tingling under my skin somewhere, signaling that the cystic acne was working to make itself known.

My subsequent pregnancy with Gigi was absolute hell on wheels, with bleeding and barfing, usually at the same time, persisting for 41 weeks. AND YET my skin cleared up again entirely, and I looked even better than when I was pregnant before.

"Quick, take the picture, I'm gonna hurl..."

So even though pregnancy hormones disagreed with almost every other aspect of my being, my skin wanted to be pregnant, glowing and gorgeous forever. Alas, I eventually gave birth, and my skin devolved back into its old terrible self, including new cystic acne on my neck, lower back and anywhere it damn well pleased.

I re-attacked the acne with Retin-A, and scrubs and everything I could think of, but the eventual result was that my skin turned semi-permanently red. My complexion grew redder and redder, and I mistakenly thought that using Retin-A would help cure the redness, so I continued using it until my sister introduced me to Alka, my current skin care professional.

My skin pre-Alka, bright red all the time
Alka gently informed me that my skin is getting a little too, well, mature for that regimen, so I needed to to dump the Retin-A and mean scrubbing routine immediately. Within a few months, the worst redness had cleared up.

Alka is wise with my skin, and I've discovered that now, as my complexion continues to cycle through horrible times (the area around my mouth tends to flare up with swarms of cystic acne at the slightest provocation... is it eating chocolate? If so, I don't want to know...), the best course of action is to be gentle with it, and let Alka do all of the "mean" work with my skin.

This is why, about every eight weeks, I go to Alka's and she tortures me for an hour, doing extractions with a firm, unwavering hand and not backing down, even when I squirm and cry. My skin loves Alka almost as it loved being pregnant. Other than this latest chin outbreak, I am so much happier with how I look.

I also traded in my harsh scrubs and drying masks for Beauty Counter's "Nourishing Cleansing Balm" which is super gentle and satisfying. It's become the one beauty item I would take if I ever appeared on "Survivor."

See, I can get past the fact that almost all the beauty products I now use are for "mature" skin, but if this acne would finally subside entirely, I would feel like I could actually grow up and BE mature.

So now that I'm slathering on the cleansing balm, and scheduling facials with Alka to keep the cysts at bay, and I think I have it solved, right?

Except just the other day, Chebbles came sidling next to me to show me her first tiny pimple.

"Huh," I thought, "your first real zit."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How I found Pura Vida, or how rum saved my vacation

"Did you hear that sound?.... Definitely a polar bear."
The first three days after we arrived in Costa Rica, I was in a state of shock. Everything I experienced felt distanced from reality and disconcerting.

While Costa Rica is, by all accounts, the most benign Central American country one could hope to visit, with friendly people and most amenities within a short drive, the heat and foreignness of the place made me a little crazy.

It's one thing, I realized, to explore an exotic country on my own, or with my husband. It's quite another to experience this culture shock along with three children, ages 5, 7, and 9, each with their own dietary druthers, quirks and load of figurative and literal baggage.

I was overwhelmed as I took it all in. The rough surf at the beach had a pretty significant undertow -- was it safe to let the kids swim there? Was the water safe to drink? For the kids too? The mosquitoes were biting us, the house where we stayed wasn't walking distance to anything (at least not for the smaller kids) and there were "Lost"-like sounds coming from the surrounding rainforest at all hours.

We were learning new buttons to turn on fans or lights or fasten doors against the massive wasps that wanted to come in and eat my children. The washing machine spoke exclusively Spanish, so it took some time for me to develop that relationship as well.

But after those confusing first three days, I did something very important on my trip to Costa Rica: I sat back at a local surfer joint called Tortilla Flats and I had a big piña colada. This wasn't just any piña colada. This one was made from fresh pineapple juice and fresh coconut, plus some rum. This piña colada probably changed my entire life.

Once I had finished that cold drink, something very "pura vida" (that's basically Costa Rican for "aloha") happened to my bloodstream. I just leaned back and accepted that we were here, things were weird, my kids were covered in a hundred mosquito bites and some bits of sunburns, and whatever happened there in Dominical, Costa Rica, was going to be okay. We would, I finally realized, survive this trip to the tropics.

From then on, I gave the kids a more "free-range" space, I would eat things that had ants on them, I would sit on the hammock when by all rights I ought to be supervising my kids' (measly) homework efforts. I stopped planning, or even wearing mascara (this is a big deal for me). I started reading. I plowed through three thick books while the kids played.

Time simultaneously sped up (how did ten days go so quickly?) and slowed down (I began to amble instead of scurry).

Today I returned to the girls' school and caught up with a few friends. Even though I only had about four hours' sleep last night, many people commented that I looked good, refreshed even. It's because I'm still high on those piña coladas. I had several more before I left Costa Rica, all with fresh pineapple and fresh coconut. The girls began to lust after my frothy white drinks, but I only let them play with the paper umbrellas.

Because those rum milkshakes were central to my winding down, to becoming more than a stressed-out mother on vacation in an unfamiliar rainforest, and absorbing the pura vida that somehow trailed me home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My latest Seleni article funnels other moms' wisdom straight to you!

I enjoyed working on this BRAND-NEW piece for, because I got to speak to so many women about the things that make them frustrated, and their brilliant solutions. Why couldn't someone have written this 10 years ago so I was ready with some survival tips before Chebbles was born?

I am so grateful to the myriad women who made this article possible. You complete me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Other People's Love Letters" is a rubbernecking romp through love's crazytown

I read Bill Shapiro's collection of "love" letters while waiting for jury duty, and it was so absorbing I lost feeling in my legs.

My biggest takeaway from "Other People's Love Letters" was how GLAD I am not to be in my 20's anymore -- the letters written by younger people to the objects of their affections are just as mortifying as they always were, filled with irrational crushes and unrequited longings and declarations of extreme adoration after short periods of time. This entire genre is best typified by Pamela Ribon's spectacularly embarrassing "Notes to Boys," but Shapiro's collection is much broader than that. 

After reading a love letter not intended for him, Shapiro found himself fascinated with the love letters of others, and began collecting these little notes -- some just scrawled on napkins, and some typed on many pages of airmail paper and every type in between -- and curating it into this collection.

Not every letter is about how great love is. There is death and divorce in this collection, lots of break-ups and many of the whining "why's" I remember myself having written in my own youth. 

I found great relief, after reading several lovestruck notes by younger people, in reading the notes written by people who are long-married. The depth of their affection for each other was inspiring to me, and I do hope I write Hub-D enough letters of this type as we grow older, because they are simply the best.

My favorite part of "Other People's Love Letters" is the epilogue, in which he tells the stories behind many of the letters in the book. It has a "Humans of New York" feel to it, making the anonymous letters relatable, and in some cases these epilogues made me quite emotional. 

It's probably best that I wasn't ultimately placed on a jury, because my heart grew too big for the courtroom while I read this book.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Up with sillyhearts

Birdy's teacher wrote me this today: "I do not know if you check her homework….but many times it is incomplete or incorrectly done, so I make her correct and complete it."

This means that instead of playing with her kindergarten classmates, Birdy is relegated to a spot off by herself to erase and re-do incorrect homework during the school day. 

I don't know how to express this to her teacher without fully alienating her, but I don't care about my five-year-old's homework. 

This homework is lame busywork that is satisfying only to grown-ups, so they can stack it up and check it off. Due to this constant influx of "homework," Birdy has lost all of her previous enthusiasm for schoolwork through this year.

I recognize that this is another reason we should return to homeschooling, but as of today, I'm having a very distinct Uncle Buck moment, feeling like my daughter's kindergarten teacher is admonishing her about not being serious about her academic career:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why is (almost) every animal in Costa Rica cute?

We were lucky to stay in Costa Rica right between the rainforest and the beach, so we were exposed to a remarkable amount of wildlife. And out of the perhaps 150 species of animal we encountered during our stay, we only saw two animals that wouldn't qualify as cute. (One very tiny and one very large.)

Is there something about the topography of Costa Rica that makes for unusually cute animals? There seems to be some sort of natural selection for adorableness at play.

So now, for all you zoologists out there, I present a guide to the ridiculously attractive animals of Costa Rica. And the two less attractive ones.


I mean, WHAT? Toucans? I thought they only existed at South Hills Village in the 1970's, or perhaps at the back of Murphy's Mart. But, as it turns out, they are not just Beanie Babies anymore -- they are native to Costa Rica, and whole flock of them nest just south of Dominical. We saw them dorking around in the trees by our house, and it was our first suspicion that perhaps Walt Disney had decorated Dominical.


The sloths will KILL YOU (slowly) with their cuteness. We saw a mother and baby sloth KISSING each other in the rainforest -- our guides set up a scope and we got to experience this first hand. While I'm the topic of sloths, it must be kind of easy being a rainforest guide who is in charge of showing tourists the sloths because they're always in the same spot. We learned that the three-toed sloth is the only diurnal one in Costa Rica, so don't go around thinking you're going to spot a two-toed sloth during the day.


What, you don't think crabs are cute? May I introduce you to... Sebastian? He will clown around on the seashore with you, and dart into a wee hole when you get too close. He will watch you with his big pointy eyes and skitter in circles just to delight you. He also thinks you should consider living under the sea... with...

Spotted Dolphins!

Eeeeeeeee! Why?! Why do you all have to be so cute, leaping next to our snorkeling boat just to be especially sweet, with your wee spotted dolphin babies lingering for an extra look? Are you trying to kill me? These guys followed us to Caño Island, full-on cavorting.

Vine snakes!
This is what they look like...

Look at you all winding around the trees, posing carefully for your close-ups. Who do you think you are?

This is a wee vine snake on Violin Island, slanting diagonally across the leaves just for extra cuteness.

Random lizards!

Having visited many Mexican beaches, I thought I was over iguanas. Then the lizards of Costa Rica showed up and explained that I ain't seen nothing yet. We had a whole set of lizards that lived in our yard in Costa Rica, and we gave them names, most notably, Iggy. We thought they would just lurk at the periphery of the yard, but we were proven wrong when the kids spilled corn chips on the porch. Iggy and his buddies all came slithering adorably up onto the porch in order to feast on the spoils. Have you ever heard a giant lizard eat a corn chip? It's so crunchy and awesome.


This guy was just lurking in a parking lot

What do you call a shrunken down crocodile who obediently snaps at branches your children poke into a stream? That'd be a Costa Rican cayman!


This fellow lived in the stream below our rental house. We would just see him scampering around the rocks each time we drove down to the highway. Agouti! It's even fun to say.

Then of course there were well-fed cats and dogs in every restaurant, and migrating butterflies flew all over the top of the ocean waves, miles from shore.

I haven't even touched on the legion cute animals we didn't get a chance to see yet. There are white-faced monkeys in Costa Rica, for pete's sake, so we're clearly going to have to come back once we recover from this tidal wave of adorableness.

And finally... presenting, the only two not-cute but still fascinating animals of Costa Rica:

Asshole ants AKA Fire ants

Listen up, ANTS... did I, and my entire family, deserve to be attacked by you, just because I left a Luna Bar wrapper in the side pocket of my backpack? OK, I'm impressed with your determination to eat every scrap of chocolate from that wrapper, and how quickly you found it in my backpack. But you're still total assholes.

Boa Constrictors on the Road

And finally... the 6-foot boa constrictor that slowly crossed the road in front of our car, having recently eaten what seems to be a three-foot iguana.

This boa constrictor was AWESOME. He was in no hurry, busy as he was digesting the iguana. But he definitely wasn't cute. Fearsome, sleek and a very surprising discovery in our headlights, yes. But cute, nope. Not compared to the amazing festival of cuteness occurring in every other corner of Costa Rica.