I’m Doing My Best

26 Aug

A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak at Sunday Assembly* in a segment called I’m Doing My Best. That’s a short life anecdote given by a member that relates to the subject at hand–in church we might call it a testimony. Each month’s assembly has a different theme and August’s was Gender and Performance. Somebody got wind of the fact that I’m into theatre I guess, because I was asked to share this month. Scary!

*Sunday Assembly is, in their own words, “a life-celebrating congregation without deity, dogma, or doctrine.” Yes, in other words, Atheist Church. Along with the very cool folks that attend, what I like about Sunday Assembly is: 1) it’s Sunday night, not Sunday morning and 2) it’s only once a month. If you think it’s weird that I work at preacher school (where I occasionally participate in chapel services) and then sometimes attend godless church…well, yes and no. My personal spirituality could best be summed up as “I’m not ruling anything out at this point.” But that’s another subject for another time.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my speech with you guys. As a bonus for the “reader version,” I’ve added a few extra endnotes for your interest and edification. My thesis for this piece was inspired by this article I read recently, which put words to something I’d been feeling for a long time but hadn’t yet been able to articulate. It turned out a little more like a graduation speech than perhaps I intended, but I hope at least a few people will find the essential message resonates with them, as it did with me.

* * *

I’m not sure if you know this, but in theatre you face a lot of rejection.

Of course, most people will face rejection of some kind in their professional and personal lives, but in few other lines of work can it be so constant and at times so utterly arbitrary. For example, they like you, but…you’re too old for the precast lead. Or you remind the director of their ex. Or you’re too short for the costume.*

*yes, this actually happened to me–I almost got to be in the chorus of Beauty & the Beast at the Fox but you had to be at least 5’3″ to fit the dancing plate costume, FML.

You have to develop a bit of scar tissue to keep bouncing back, time after time when somebody tells you you’re not good enough.

But what’s even more insidious is the rejection that comes from within—the way so many actors—and so many of the rest of us, I’d wager—diminish our own accomplishments.

I got bitten by the theatre bug at an early age. In 5th grade I managed to convince my teacher to let me leave class every day for a week with my friends to write, direct, and (obviously) star in an original work. It’s a little fuzzy now but it involved princesses and a magical quick change into one of my old ballet costumes.

It was really good.

Anyone who knew me as a child would tell you what an incredible burst of passion it must have taken to motivate me to propose this scheme to a grown-up, let alone open myself up to the critique of my entire class. Just the year previous I had broken down in the middle of singing The Last Unicorn during the talent show because my friend was “looking at me weird.” I wasn’t really your most outgoing kid. Not a natural leader.

But whenever I tell people about this episode in my life, I’m quick to qualify it. You know–in a small school they let you get away with anything.*

*Not untrue. Hollatcha Clairemont Elementary. 

Fast forward several years. My parents were supportive of all my performances in middle and high school, but they weren’t so thrilled by my decision to major in it.* It was also around this time that I got my first significant rejection—my audition based application for a theatre scholarship was turned down. I still can’t hear the song I chose for my dance piece** with cringing a little.

*The technical name of my degree is actually Theatre & Performance Studies. The episode referenced here happened at Berry College where I attended for two years as a theatre major/psych minor before transferring to Kennesaw State to finish up. Fun fact: I transferred partly for money and culture reasons, but mostly for boy reasons. The relationship didn’t last but I’m still #winning because KSU is now recognized as one of the top schools in the nation for theatre degrees. Go Owls! (Berry has an excellent theatre program too; their shows were more professional than some actual professional houses.)

**”We Love to Boogie” from the Billy Elliot soundtrack. I wasn’t adept at choreography yet. Lots of head isolations were involved. 

But for whatever reason, I stayed a theatre major. I didn’t get cast in the first play of the season*, but I did get cast in the second.** And I regularly got cast in shows for the rest of my college career. They even awarded me that scholarship the second semester—thankfully I didn’t have to audition the second time.

*Translations by Brian Friel. It was down to me and another freshman for the part. That girl (who also later transferred to KSU) was a truly extraordinary actress by any standards, and led me to fret that college would be like high school, with the same girl getting cast in every single lead year after year (she was really good too and is actually sort of famous now, but still–this is an educational environment we’re talking about). Thankfully Berry, unlike Decatur High School, didn’t chose their seasons around their stars.

**The Learned Ladies by Moliere. I had a freakin’ awesome wig. 

Eventually I graduated and the minute I got my degree in hand, my dad said, Alright! Let’s see you start putting that thing to work! And cut me off.* I got lucky and was hired almost immediately as a dance teacher and within a year or so, I became a program coordinator and designed a dance curriculum that was still in place after I left that company.

But that was really only a part time job, and I was barely making rent.  It was just a kids’ school anyway.

*Yes, I realize how entitled this is. And I wasn’t even entirely cut off– I was still on my parent’s health and car insurance plans for a few more years. But for someone who had never supported herself, and who at that point hadn’t been taught any but the most rudimentary fiscal wisdom, it was a shock that cannot be denied.

Around that time I made two life decisions: that I would not pursue acting as a full-time profession and I would never marry another actor.

One of those resolutions I kept.

But even though the lifestyle of a full-time professional performer wasn’t for me, I didn’t regret my major for a second—not even when justifying it for the 80th time in a “real world” job interview. I kept with it on a part time basis as I slowly made my way into the field I’m in now, which is flexible enough to where I get to moonlight as an actor, dancer, and choreographer without having to worry about whether I’ll be able to afford air conditioning in August.  I’ve had a pretty decent amount of success—for a non-professional—and then…I had a baby. After my baby-induced hiatus I tried to return to acting. I went to about a dozen auditions without even a callback. I nearly quit acting, but my husband convinced me to go to one more call and I got cast.* After that, things started picking up and now I have a full time day job, a family, and a pretty awesome hobby to talk about at parties. I even have a blog [hi guys!].

*In Cabaret, as a Kit Kat girl. The fact that I wore underwear on stage within a year of given birth is a feat in and of itself.

In some ways, I have more time to devote to creativity now than when I pursued it professionally—Case in point, I wrote a play last year—I’d never written a play before in my life (unless you count the one from 5th grade), and, it got selected to be produced in a new works festival. But eh, it was only a ten minute play.

Does anybody else do this? Achieve something, only to disparage their own achievement? Get excited about something and then feel the need to sort of downplay it?

Theatre is weird. You have to promote yourself relentlessly as if you were a business entity, not a person. At the same time, it behooves you to be friendly and personable—the guy everybody wants to work with. There are some jerks in the biz–that’s a stereotype with truth to back it up. But you’ll also make some of the best friends you’ve ever made in your life – only to turn around and compete with them for the same work.  With these kind of contradictions it’s really a miracle that anyone besides sociopaths stick with it—although you might meet a few of those too.  But those of us who are not egomaniacal have a tendency to downplay our glory. After all, we don’t want to make our best friends feel bad. We don’t want to be That Asshole.

At the performing arts camp where I met my husband we had a talent night, and one of the other counselors sang a soulful rendition of Fever by Peggy Lee. When I complimented her afterward she said “yeah, that’s the one song I can actually sing.”  She was being kindly self-deprecating, but I was truly kind of floored. Did she really think she was a bad singer? But the crazy thing is, I do that kind of thing myself all the time.

The arts are a hyper competitive environment under the best of circumstances and you can’t help but measure yourself again and again and again against what other people are doing. Doubt and self-sabotage are the Ebola of the creative professions—contagious and deadly. And complaining is practically a team sport.

But, ask any actor why they submit themselves to this continual self-flagellation and you’ll hear the same thing: we do it because we love it. It brings us joy.

I’m talking about theatre but everybody has these moments in their life that spark joy and fulfillment. Whether it’s starting a new business venture or starting a new relationship. And isn’t it strange how sometimes it’s actually easier to dampen that bright little spark than to fan it into a flame?

The truth is, there’s a lot that’s difficult and dark about doing something you love. We accept that as part of anything worth doing. But that’s why it’s even more important to stop throwing shade on the silver linings. They’re rare enough as it is.

It’s important for our own sanity, but it’s also beneficial to others. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. As we let our own light shine, we give others permission to do the same.”

So let me ask you this. Can you imagine if I told you everything I’ve just told you about my theatrical life…without the qualifiers?

So instead of saying, I’m an administrative assistant and I sometimes do theatre, what about…

I am an actor.

I wrote and produced a play when I was ten years old and performed it in front of my entire class.

I went to school on a theatre scholarship and graduated with honors.

I designed a dance program from scratch at age 23.

I’ve done shows all over town and gotten to play some amazing parts.

I have a blog that got Freshly Pressed within its first month.

My first play was accepted at a festival and was an audience favorite.

And how about a new one: I just finished the draft of a new play last week.

Both of these stories are mine. Which one is more compelling?

I like to tell my son I’ll never run out of kisses because for every kiss I give away, a hundred more pop up in its place. I’m doing my best to believe that joy, like kisses, is not a limited resource. There’s room for everyone at the table, and by letting ourselves really shine, we become a light by which others might see the path to join us there.

 

Why good actors should do youth theatre

17 Aug

 

 

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Naval gazing on the set of The Hundred Dresses.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to perform in a stage version of a well-known children’s classic, The Hundred Dresses. Most of the other roles are played by children. Technically and practically, this relegates the production to “Children’s Theatre” or “Theatre for Youth;” this particular company used the term Family Show*.

*For the purposes of this post, I use all these terms to mean shows with children as either audiences or actors.

I recently read an interesting, if academic, essay on HowlRound that argues for abolishing the division between “grown-up” and “kids” shows (if you read it, read the comments section too). I can get behind that theoretically but in practical real-world terms, I think most audiences appreciate the distinction, especially if they are bringing children viewers. But one particular phrase in the intro stuck out:

[Simone] examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

Deadening label indeed. It got me thinking about the subject from an adult actor’s perspective.

the hundred dresses photo call 7-24-2015 4-51-49 PM

 

The book version of The Hundred Dresses was written in the 1940s, and although it’s still popular with teachers I had never heard of it. The director, who I know from previous projects, asked me to come in and read for the part of the mother. At first I was shocked I was reading for mother roles. And then I was shocked that I was shocked–I mean, duh, I am a mother.

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Mom Face.

But anyway, had I seen the audition notice for the piece it’s not likely I would have come out. Being unfamiliar with the show is part of it, but the larger part would definitely have been the family tag.

But then I thought, why?

Of course many would say that it’s not worth it to do unpaid children’s theatre. I don’t think that’s the real issue. Many Atlanta actors both professional and non-professional attend Unified Auditions* It’s not uncommon to hear an actor complain after Unifieds that they only got callbacks from theme parks and kids theatres. These places pay. So there’s more to it than that.

* If you’re not an Atlantan, or an actor: Unifieds are a yearly general audition, aka cattle call, attended by many local and regional companies. Most are hoping for an audition invite from one of the big companies as most cast their seasons exclusively from Unifieds or personal recommendations.

I won’t attempt to explain this phenomenon–maybe it has to do with memories of our own youth theatre experiences (although I would argue that the majority of those are positive…why the hell else would you still be doing it as an adult otherwise?), or maybe it’s because daytime shows are par for the course in youth theatre, and day performing feels like a lower step on the totem pole (but then how do you explain the celebrities that clamor to do Shakespeare in the Park every summer?). Or maybe it’s simply that more kids=more noise. Whatever. I just want to point it out so I can refute it.

the hundred dresses photo call 7-24-2015 5-17-32 PM-ANIMATION

I think most people–including actors–would argue that we have a responsibility to the next generation. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in showbiz who doesn’t think arts education is important. My question, frankly, is how do you think arts education comes about? It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t put little kids in a machine that spits out professional actors on the other end.

Yes, there’s theatre in schools (well, sometimes), and there’s acting classes for kids. But I would argue that live theatrical productions (and to some extent film as well) touches many more young lives, either igniting the initial spark of inspiration or giving them the tools needed to actually practice the craft.

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Two young actors in Lionheart Theatre’s Production of The Hundred Dresses, July 2015

It’s true that mediocre family theatre is a common phenomenon. A lot of folks are afraid of a potential black hole on their resume into which three months of a lackluster children’s production was sucked. When this happens (and I think it’s rarer than we imagine), I suspect it can be entirely chalked up to inexperience.

The vicious cycles goes: more experienced adult actors don’t audition for family shows because of the bad rap they have, and without experienced adults the kids don’t have a good support system, so you end up with mediocre performances. The same holds true for the rest of the production team–a lot of people experienced in one aspect of theatre cut their teeth on new roles (stage managing, directing, technical design, even writing) in youth theatre settings. I guess the argument is, it doesn’t matter because everyone’s parents are going to love the show regardless. Sometimes you get just a few too many newbies trying to juggle all the balls, and a few get dropped.

That’s all the more reason for professional theatre artists of all ilks to throw their shoulder into the work of producing quality children’s shows. The inexperience should be concentrated in one aspect of the production only–meaning if the kids are new to the stage, the director, technical crew, stage manager should not be at their first rodeo. And it’s very important to have experienced adult actors lay a foundation of support. There will be a little more hand-holding, yes. A little more chaos, definitely. But I think it’s 100% worth it when you think of it as an investment in the future of theatre.

And at the very least, it’s a low pressure situation–everyone’s parents are going to love the show regardless.

So you want to choreograph a musical? Simple tips for setting dance numbers

17 Jul

Uh oh. Somehow you, a non-dance professional, got roped into choreographing a show and you have no idea where to start.

dance feet

First, you should hire me.

If that’s not possible due to my extremely high demand and exorbitant travel fees, never fear. Take a deep breath and remember: if you do not have a dance background, yet end up having to choreograph a show, chances are the majority of your cast won’t be up to anything crazy-complicated anyway.

Above all: Never show fear. They can smell it.

 

 

OK! Let’s get started.

Appoint a dance captain

There’s always at least one person who is both a good dancer and marginally responsible. It will be easy to spot that person after a few rehearsals. They don’t necessarily have to be the very best dancer, but for the love of God, pick somebody that actually shows up to rehearsals and stays the whole time. That person can help you in many ways including:

  • remembering what you said last time (a double-edged sword)
  • demonstrating stuff you can’t do or don’t feel like doing
  • doing partner bits with you
  • showing everyone else how to do something “right”
  • the person who everyone else will watch during performances (make sure to strongly discourage this, but it’s probably going to happen anyway. Reality.)

Do the locomotion

In choreography courses, you learn that there are two settings to movement: locomotor and non-locomotor (Fortunately there will not be a quiz). All you need to know is that moving through space–say, from one side of the stage to the other–in any fashion, to the music, counts as dancing. As my childhood ballet teacher will tell you, that includes things like walking/skipping/galloping in a circle. You can also use the old line switcheroo, if you have enough space. That’s where you’re in staggered lines and the back lines moves up while the front line moves back to switch places.

The standard three staggered lines, aka windows (source)

Bonus for kids’ shows: everyone gets a chance to be in the front.

Grab yer partner

Do not underestimate the power of things done in pairs. Do-si-do is classic of course, but think outside the box (square?). Mirroring can produce a neat effect, as can shared-weight.

Make use of tricks

I rather hate tricks in dancing as a rule.

Tricks refers to acrobatics like aerials, any kind of extraordinary body contortion, or things like running up a wall and flipping off of it.  I don’t like it because it’s not true dancing, and it doesn’t require as high a level of technique over a long period of time (if you’re bendy, you’re bendy). Plus, tricks can and often do mask a lack of technical artistry. But if you have folks that can do a million turns in a row or a switch split leap, give them the opportunity to do it (have the other dancers frame them and strike poses). Easier for you, plus it will take up time and provide a little wow factor for the audience (my opinion’s unusual, most people are highly impressed by tricks).

I mean, sigh…I guess. If you must.

Plus, nine times out of ten, in a non-professional show the people that can do tricks are not cast in a large role (I don’t know, law of theatre?) and it gives them a chance to shine.

Get your Richard Simmons on

This may seem weird, but many fitness styles like aerobics are excellent resources for “dance-ish” moves, and they’re easy for your actors who move because they’re usually repetitive (see below). Sometimes when I do workouts, I think of certain moves as dance choreography and it makes it easier for me. So it stands to reason the opposite thought pattern can be used.

Give ’em a hand

If you have to choose, focus on the upper body, in particular the arms. Why? The feet are more difficult to get correct and for better or worse, the audience notices the upper body more. There’s a reason the classic Broadway stance is so powerful and continues to be used in every show of all time.

The power of strong arms and simple feet (source)

Press repeat

I mean this in two senses. One is repetitive movement. I have trouble choreographing this way because I die of boredom slash feel like I’m actually exercising. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. Examples would be, for instance, four grapevines in a row.

The other is recycling sequences of movement from earlier in the number or from another number. I promise, this does not mean you are lazy, and coming from me that’s saying a lot. If anyone calls you on it you can say it’s “thematic.” (Hey, even Bill T. Jones did that boob-groping bit over and over in Spring Awakening and he won a Tony for it).

If all else fails, freestyle

Especially if you’re working with kids, you will generally find that actors are eager to move to their own rhythm and sometimes even create something that is awesome enough to teach everyone. But you might encounter significant hesitation if you straight-up ask “who has a good idea for this next part?” Nobody likes to be put on the spot, plus it might breed resentment of the isn’t-this-your-job? variety. Instead, frame it as a collaboration. Then put the musical number on and let everyone dance around while you watch for an inspiration–but be sure to give whoever created it due credit.

Happy Choreographing!

Emergency Bikini Body Part III

25 Jun

As we touchdown on the runway of 4th of July week, it’s time to wrap up this party and talk about the very last last last minute tips for a beach body so you can get to the important part: relaxing. (You can read the first parts of the series here and here).

chillax

Day of

Eats

Let’s consider what to eat the night before and morning of your vacation or event.

Google “foods that cause bloat” and you’ll get 866,000 results. That’s what I call info overload. Spend a little time sifting through the advice, you can find basically any and all foods listed at least once somewhere. Even foods that are quite healthy and nutritious can cause bloat if you don’t already eat them frequently. That’s the catch-22: if your diet already has nutritional holes, introducing new things to fill those holes quickly and all at once can cause bloat. That’s why advice to avoid certain foods is kind of a muddy prospect. Ehh…kind of yes and kind of nah.

There’s the usual suspects like cruciferous vegetables (ex: brussels sprouts and cabbage) and beans. Then some say apples and peaches as well (while other sources say they actually stop bloat). Those folks over there say dairy causes bloating.  Then these guys say that high fat foods puff you up due to longer digestion time (while others say the fat-packed avocado is a top flat belly food). Others sources go as far as to say avoid artificial sweeteners, chewing gum, eating fast, and drinking through a straw. In the end, nothing is safe but an IV of black coffee and dandelion greens chewed at a cow’s pace.

That’s pretty silly.

You know your body best. After years of observation I’ve discovered that bread and salt are two of my biggest bloat triggers, so a practical breakfast for me on a beach morning is something like yogurt with berries and a boiled egg, or a banana with natural peanut butter. For someone who has issues with dairy, or with fat, it might be totally different.

Women’s Health has a huge archive of daily eating plans. (Most of them make me depressed and slightly hangry just looking at them, but you’re bound to find examples of meals that avoid whatever your trigger is).

But the number one bloater to avoid?

A large meal.

That’s the only one-size-fits-all solution: just keep meals small and frequent, particularly 1-2 days before you want to look trim, and you’ll be golden.

Elemental Side note: Water or Gas?

If you suffer from bloating and aren’t sure why, do a body check at the end of the day. If your bloat is due to water retention, you would see swelling in the feet and ankles. Reducing sodium intake and drinking more water will help that. If it’s all in the tummy, the culprit is probably gas, which comes from food. Only time and attention can pinpoint what your individual trigger might be.

Plank

Right before you head out to the beach (or step into ya fancy clothes), do 10 push-ups and hold a minute long elbow plank. I confess almost never get to do this step because by the time we’re at this point of readiness there’s generally a swimsuit-clad child jumping on me and whining at the door to go out (is this a preschooler or a puppy?), but when I do there’s a real difference.

Get Up, Stand Up

To look immediately thinner in two steps:

1. Roll shoulders back

2. Pull tailbone forward (tuck hips) without squeezing the tush (check out the first installment in this series for details).

Out of all posture checks, this is the best because it’s how classical dancers are trained to stand (have you seen a ballerina?). It takes practice to stay that way when you’re used to slouching, particularly if you’re a female who is #blessedinthechest, but it’s the fastest, easiest trick in the book. Try it in the mirror. Then try it on the beach and see what happens.

Get in the water!

You’re not doing yourself any favors by sitting or standing by the pool edge, trying to remember to keep it sucked in. Everybody looks cute swimming around like a mermaid (or man – no hate or discriminate). Plus, you’ll automatically be getting more activity into your day.

And One Parting DON’T

As an experiment, I tried a DIY body wrap (anything for my readers). And it was a huge fail. The plastic just bunched up into a thin band and made me itch, plus I lost all the clasps on the ace bandages. Leave it to the professionals, or better yet, ignore that snake oil entirely.

 

So that’s it! The Cushion Cut Beach Body countdown. But just remember the thing the makes you the most attractive on the beach, male, female, young old–is having a good time. Take it from this guy.

Happy Chillaxin.

 

Emergency Beach Body Part II

12 Jun

Five to Seven Days Before

Strategic Suits

If you’ve been following the first part of the plan, you may already be noticing a difference. Time to go suit shopping! (Feel free to skip this section if the event you’re counting down to is a wedding or something like that).

Rashguards, patterns, color blocking, high waists, deep plunges, funky cut-outs: coming from a girl who grew up in the string bikini era, there’s a lot to love about the resurgence of sexy one-pieces. Used to be wanting a little more coverage meant you were confined to speedos or unflattering tankinis. Now there’s tons of fun choices with nary a skirt suit among them (although if skirts are your thing, go for it!). Here’s a few of my favorites. There’s something for everyone here, from funky to preppy, petite to plus!

Swim 2015 CollageLeft to right, top to bottom:

Athleta Rash Guard — Splendid Spory Blues SwimsuitMichael Kors One Shoulder SuitBeverly Swimwear Daring DollyAsos Petite High Waist Deep PlungeMara Hoffman Harvest Cut Out Print SwimsuitGabifresh City Slicker Plus Size Wrap BikiniZimmerman Floating Halter Swimsuit

Here’s the top I got for myself this year. Something new and interesting to draw the eye up! (Top: Bocas Criss Cross Halter by 6 Shore Road, Bottom: old Victoria Secret)

Meaghans Bachelorette

I blacked out the other ladies not because they’re not beautiful each and all, but because I don’t have their permission to post their pic on the interwebs.

Speaking of tops…

Make sure yours fits right. You can see I have some spillage in the above pic…see, what had happened was, my size was sold out, so I went with the next size down because it was the kind of top that stretches to fit (the next size up seemed like it’d be too much fabric). I really don’t recommend buying a suit that is not available in your best size, but what can I say, I’d been eyeballing that top since last summer and when I saw it on sale I couldn’t stop myself.

But anyway. In general you really don’t want a top that’s too small, or you’ll get bra bulge. Much of the time, what we see as back fat is actually breast tissue overflowing from a too-small top. When shopping, don’t even look at the size on the tag. Just bring a few different sizes into the fitting room that look like they might fit to the eyeball. And don’t forget to try on your older suits to make sure they still fit and are holding up OK.

Tan

OK Yes, I did just make fun of this in the last post. But to some extent, a tan (faux of course) really does perform some kind of trompe l’oeil on the body. I usually double up on my tummy tan, not because I’m trying to sculpt muscles or anything, but because it regularly stays 45% paler than the rest of my skin. There are so many excellent self-tanners at all price points, you don’t have to worry about choosing between skin damage and being orange, smelly, and streaky anymore. I read recently that up to 90% of aging we see on the skin is due to sun damage. (!) Excuse me, I’ll be over here building a time machine to go back and kick my pasty ginger ass circa 2002 laying out in SPF 2.

If you’re in Atlanta, I cannot say enough good things about the custom airbrush tans at RAW Bronzing Studio. Sadly it’s a special-occasion only treat for me, but they do an amazing (and very fast) job. It was raining the last time I went and the receptionist actually walked me to my car under an umbrella while she got wet herself so I wouldn’t ruin “my investment.” How’s that for service?

Here are my two favorite at-home tanners.

Neutrogena Micro Mist Airbrush Sunless Tan

This is pretty close to fool proof. I wasn’t even capable of spraying, as the direction indicated, “in a single smooth motion” and it still turned out beautifully. I just smoothed it over with my hand after spraying to be sure it was even. It dries very fast, so fast I was able to take a shower, shave, and airbrush tan, all during my hour long lunch break from work. Yes, it really does spray upside down. No, it does not get all over your carpet and everything in a 5 foot radius. I do recommend finding a well-ventilated area; honestly outside would be best. They aren’t kidding about the airbrush particles–EWG would not approve. HA.

L’Oreal Sublime Bronze Self-Tanning Towelettes

If the spray still glooks you out (understandable), give tan towels a try. These are also very easy to use, are a nice natural color, and take like two seconds to wipe down. I even use it on my face to great effect. To do your back, grab one end of the towel in each hand and sort of floss it in an up and down motion. You’ll get your back evenly, and also a wonderful shoulder-opening yoga move. Can’t do that with a lotion or foam!

One caveat: these both do have a touch of that self-tanner smell, not bad, but it’s there. But I am freakishly strange because I actually kind of like it. It reminds me of summer.

Eat in Skinny Jeans

Don’t even play, I know you all have your “eating pants.” You know, those stretchy things you put on at Thanksgiving so you can comfortably overstuff? The opposite also works. Put on something–anything really–that is fitted and has little or no give in the fabric. I have a pair of melon skinny pants I ordered online that, as it turns out, have absolutely no stretch. Whenever I wear those things, I noticed I don’t (maybe can’t would be a better word) overeat. When you’re close to busting out of your clothes you generally don’t feel tempted to gorge.

Lest you think this is some kind of freaky pro-ana trick, let me assure you I am not the first to suggest something like this (it was actually Dr. Oz, and was swiped up quickly by popsugar).

OR, why not go big or go home: have meals in your snazzy new swimsuit (no coverup)! I confess I’ve never actually tried this at home, but I have worn my suit during lunches on vacation, just incidentally, and I do tend to eat lighter. This is a good choice if you have GERD, which is exacerbated by tight waist bands.

Drink Water

It would be remiss of me not to mention the water thing, even though we’ve all heard it a million times before. But if you’re not already doing it, a week out from your big event is the time to start pounding nature’s nectar like a champ (watery fruits and veggies also count). If you’re retaining water at all, this is the best/easiest/cheapest way to get rid of the bloat.

Get on the Reg

While we’re on the subject, make sure your digestive system is a well-oiled machine. Water helps with that majorly, but if bloat is a real problem for you (it is for me), pop a probiotic. There’s a whole lotta choices in that aisle now, but you want to look for one with Bifidobacterium infantis–that’s the only strain that’s effective on GI problems like bloating (according to a review at Northwestern University).

Miralax is effective for a bit of stoppage (just ask T), and pick up some Gas-X if tummy bubbles are a contributing factor, but please please please do not take laxatives to lose bloat. Huge mistake.  You will regret. Do not want.

OK that’s it for today! Keep up the micro-workouts and good(ish) eating, and stay tuned for what to do at the very last last minute before you hit the sand!

Summer Reading: Ghost Stories

9 Jun

Never fear, I’m cooking up part II of the ER beach body series as we speak. But in the meantime let’s talk summer reading!

Completely by accident, I found myself reading four books at the same time that all had something to do with ghosts or other such ghastly creatures. And by an even greater stroke of coincidence, they were all good. Here for your reading pleasure are my reviews, in the order I finished them.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I received an ARC of this title from LibraryThing* and it was in – ahem – PDF format, which is worrisome. How good could it be if they couldn’t even be bothered with epub at least? But I thought I’d give it a try since I found myself with the time, and it was a short novel. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a YA book set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but it was quite unusual in all other ways. The narrator Wasp, has the lonely, undesirable, and psuedo-religious calling to catch ghosts and record their habits, a role she just so happens to keep by yearly fights to the death. When an unusually powerful and guilt-wracked ghost enlists her help to find the soul of his dead partner, Wasp wonders if the terrifying and beautiful underworld might just be a better deal than the raw one she gets on earth.  First, I’ll admit there was a bevvy of technical tripwires (ambiguous transitions, a few loose ends, and a tendency to overuse interrupted and ellipsed dialogue) that detracted a bit from the novel’s overall clarity. There were even a few outright errors (like misplaced pronouns) that made me wonder if I was reading some kind of beta version. But the dream-like underworld the author paints, each layer an entire universe utterly different from the one before and resting inside each other like nesting dolls, is amazingly creative. It’s almost worth reading for that alone, but I think many will also enjoy, as I did, the slightly different take on the strong-and-prickly female lead. The lack of romance between any of the characters is a bit like stepping off a staircase in the dark only to find you’re on level ground–disorienting, yet oddly relieving. The core themes that replace it–trust, teamwork, reliance and self-sufficiency–will speak to many.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

*The ARC copy was provided with no strings attached, except if I rate the book on the LibraryThing site I’m more likely to win books in the future. It’s purely my choice to review it here. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors for me (like Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Moore, and sad to admit Jodi Piccoult) whose books I’m almost 100% guaranteed to enjoy. This one in particular though, by some kind of bookworm’s alchemy I can only haphazardly summarize as “the right book at the right time,” struck a cord with me. Not exactly a ghost story as much as a fantastical play on particle physics, Ocean tells the story of a boy (Gaiman gets inside a child’s mind like no other) and his brief but formative run-in with the supernatural underbelly of his rural English home and the Hempstocks, a mysterious trio of women who have lived in the farm at the end of the lane for untold ages. If you think of piles of rags, bath tubs, and the color pink unthreatening, you won’t after this little tale. Despite the overall pall of terror cast on the events of the plot, you’ll find yourself feeling the loss of it keenly at the end (hope that’s not too much of a spoiler). It’s a gentle reminder that even our darkest moments are lined with unbelievable bright silver, and to lose one means the loss of the other.

I listed to the audio version read aloud by the author, and it was as perfectly digestible as the farm suppers the Hempstocks serve up. It’s just a good, strange, wonderful story.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Also a rural setting, albeit more backwater than idyllic, The Winter People is a little bit mystery and a little bit horror, which I think is the author’s specialty (this is the first of her I’ve read). This book was chock-full of storylines and characters that pushed the book to the edge of chaos, but McMahon managed to herd them into a streamline narrative against all odds. The title refers to ghosts that linger on the land like the long New England winter. But the real danger is the temporarily resurrected dead–don’t call them the Z word–that come from a cave in the woods. Despite the variety of chills that this book sends down your spine–including some pedestrian ones involving greed and guns–the real horror is the uncontrollable longing of the grief-stricken. More specifically, to what ends such longing drives the grieving.

There were a few things that didn’t really work for me–the pocketed braid for one–but I chalk that up to reading it on a Kindle. I sometimes miss things in that format.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

If it didn’t say so right on the cover, I would never have believed this was written by the same author who wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, so very different were the two. One thing I appreciated about this book, especially after Winter People, was the first person limited narration. Far from being constraining, it was revelatory to hear the story from one person instead of several, which if I’m being honest, is a device that sometimes feels like a cheat when it should have just been written in third omniscient. But I digress.

This was the most traditional haunting of the four books–straight up disembodied souls floating in secret passages. But in other ways the novel attempted to be unconventional, although its success in this is limited and perhaps in the eye of the reader. Again there are some parts that don’t quite work for me, the biggest being the aunt–not her motivations so much, those I understood perfectly–more her personality and mannerisms. In comparison to the other characters it felt overly heightened, which is saying a lot when the other characters include a homosexual tree-hugging ghost. Despite all of that, I really enjoyed seeing the story unfold. The old house was a character in itself too.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Read any good books lately?

How not to: Emergency Beach Body

3 Jun

Behold, a last-minute plan for that important event on the horizon, like a beach vacation or a Dirty Dancing Reenactment.

So you’ve got a thing coming up that you want to look good for. And here it is, summer already! Now what?

This is the first post in a short series with tips to help you get ready for (as one of my magazines once crassly put it), half-nakey season. All of course, geared toward the last-minute and lazy energy-efficient.

DON’T: expect miracles

Let’s start with the disclaimer: This plan isn’t going to significantly and permanently change your body. I get so irritated when I read about Victoria Secret models making vague recommendations about getting spray tans and watching what they eat before a bikini shoot, like it’s no biggie. There is absolutely no way around it. If you want to actually look like a model, you need to be slightly miserable. You need to work out hard (at least 90 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week) and think about every bite that goes into your body.

But my thoughts on the matter are: who wants to be slightly miserable? Most of us have jobs, kids (whether four- or two-legged), stuff going on, you know? This list is for actual humans. You know, those who want to live ya life, and simply look as good as possible doing it.

DO: something

At this point you might be tempted to throw your hands up and order a cheeseburger pizza. But even little somethings add up, promise.

Ten Days to Two Weeks Before

DON’T: do long, hard workouts

Long, strenuous workouts, like seven mile runs, aren’t the best plan (unless you’re already in a regular habit). Why? Because the average person is way more likely to overeat afterward and/or be more sedentary during the rest of the day, and maybe even skip the next day.

DO: Micro Workouts

Exercise every day, in bite-sized chunks. My favorite workouts are the 7-minute scientific workout, which is an app you can download to your phone and needs no equipment besides a chair (or couch). I also like this 4-minute workout (fair warning: it’s Tabata style, aka fall-on-the-floor intensity). I do them at night while watching TV. Who the heck can’t spare four minutes? You don’t even need to put on workout clothes or shoes.

If you have the time and energy to go a little harder than 4-7 minutes, try a 15-20 minute interval workout (I do P’s Ruthless videos which are great for both chicks and dudes) or here’s a free one. But seriously, don’t push it. The goal is to workout out every single day.

DON’T: fast or juice

I do not believe that drastic calorie drops under any circumstances are healthy. At best you’ll get hangry, and eat all the things–if not before your vacation, then definitely during. At worst, you’ll leach important nutrients from your system, weakening your immune system and making you susceptible to injury, illness, and fights with your significant other.

DO: pick your poison

Instead of trying to eliminate everything bad (that is to say, good) from your diet, cut just one dietary evil for a couple weeks.

Here are the four main things that will make the biggest difference:

White carbs – includes white potatoes but does not include high fiber grains like oatmeal or brown rice

Sugar – particularly when combined with carbs or in drinks

Alcohol – especially beer or cocktails with sugary mixers like soda or margarita mixer (sob!)

Sodium – such as is found in sneaky places like bread, condiments, and salad dressing

For most people, one category makes a bigger difference than others. Beer makes me bloat up like a blimp, for instance. It’s a shame because I really like beer, especially on a hot summer day. But I know that if I don’t want to go to the pool disguised as a puffer fish I’d better skip it.

If you’re having trouble choosing go for white carbs. Why? Because if you cut down on the carbs you’ll probably also cut down on salt and sugar automatically, without even having to make a special effort. (Note: I do not recommend low carb diets as a general lifestyle choice. This is just a temporary thing).

Let’s not get crazy here. I’m not saying you should forego cake at your husband’s birthday or suddenly become a teetotaler (like I said, this plan is for actual people with real lives). I’m just saying if you know you’re going to eat cake, don’t also have champagne. If you’re going to have cheese and/or mayo on your burger, leave off the bun. Go ahead and put butter and salt on your steamed veggies, but don’t get anything that comes in its own sauce. Remember, it’s only for ten days, not the rest of your life. You can handle anything for ten seconds days.

DON’T: attempt a thigh gap by sticking your butt out

There’s some kind of subconscious call, that I can only assume is evolutionary, that makes women stick their booties out when they want to look thin, instead of tuck under as you really should for proper posture. Leave the butt hike to the bikini model contestants. Honestly those girls scare me.

I always stand like this on the beach.

Because in reality, this is what happens.

DO: stretch away a pooch (dudes, this is you too)

A major culprit of potbellies in both men and women, even for those who are otherwise thin, is anterior pelvic tilt. APT is caused by tight psoas mucles (aka hip flexors) and a weak pelvic floor, and to some extent tight hammies and glutes. Why do we get this? Desk jobs, for one.

The psoas is the muscle that allowed our ape-y ancestors to begin walking upright so many eons ago. So it deserves some lovin’! There are many good resources to help combat this very common issue but I’ll show you the easiest stretch in the world. Do it once or twice daily to both sides.

Take a gentle high lunge.

Like so

Like so.

Keeping the back leg straight[ish], pull your tailbone forward (like in hip isolations, for my fellow dancers) until you feel a stretch at the front of the hip. Alternatively, you can think of someone scooping out your stomach with an ice cream scoop.

If the difference in the hip is too hard to see, look at the heel.

If the difference in the hips is too hard to see, look at the heel.

Hold for 20-30 seconds. Don’t push it, the effects are not immediate. That’s why this is in the 10-14 days ahead post.

Optional: lift arm and side bend in the same direction as the front knee.

APT stretch 3

You can put your hand on a chair or couch back for balance if needed.

Switch legs and repeat.

While we’re on the subject, working the pelvic floor is not just for ladies. Gents, you’re not doing yourself any favors if you overlook this crucial organ hammock.

So, confession: kegels skeeze me out big time. Not a fan. Luckily there are other ways to work the pelvic floor, and one you can do during the stretch above. Simply avoid squeezing your glutes when you tuck forward in the lunge–the PF takes over the action automatically.

Another easy PF activation is deep squats. This time, you do want to stick your bum out! Hold for a minute or two.

Squat yay nay

If I can share this embarrassing picture with you, the least you can do is like my post.

I have to hold on to a door knob because there’s a bone in the front of my ankle that’s so long, I can’t plant my heels and stay upright at the same time #weirdanatomy. But you normal people can also do this while watching TV. Or, as my mom always did, while brushing your teeth.

DON’T: forget dat back

Your back is part of your core. Give it a little attenshun and your whole tummy gets tighter. This move is fun and hits all the corset muscles. It’s perfect to do in place of bicycle crunches, which are both strenuous on the back and contribute to tightness in the psoas.

DO: the banana superman

Start in a superman. Think of someone pulling your arms and legs away from your body, as opposed to arching your back. Without letting your arms and legs touch the floor, roll over to your back in a banana shape. Keep rollin’ all the way through to superman on the other side. Then roll back the way you came. Go slow, otherwise you’re cheating by using momentum instead of muscles.

My photographer got a migraine at this point, so you’ll have to make due with a demo by this much less attractive chick.

Up next….what to do 5-7 days before your beach deadline!

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