Bookstores & Subsequent Musings on Femininity

One of my favorite things to do in life is to read, so consequently it follows that bookstores are some of my favorite places in the world.  As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I have a particular affectation for used books, not only because they cost less but also because there is just something magical about knowing someone else owned (& presumably read) a book before me, particularly if it’s an older book.  In any case, today I stopped by a B&N (Barnes & Noble, not a used book store of course) to stroll through the sale/clearance section, just to see what I might find.  And naturally I wound up purchasing two books which have now been added to my ever increasing “to read” list.

How I feel when perusing most fiction aimed at people of my gender (aka women)

How I feel when perusing most fiction aimed at people of my gender (aka women)

As much as I love trawling bookstores, I’ve noticed a certain phenomenon happens every time I go look for new (to me) books: I end up having a slight “crisis of femininity.”  If you’re wondering what the hell that means, it simply means that I find myself cringing at most of the books that are clearly aimed at women.  For example the ever popular Nicholas Sparks makes me want to puke.  I can’t stand that sentimental, romantic BS.  Maybe I shouldn’t call out what I haven’t actually read, but even the synopses of his books (& the theatrical versions of such) make me sick.  I’ve actually tried reading books by other popular “chick lit” authors such as Lauren Weisberger, Sophie Kinsella, & Jennifer Weiner.  I’ve made it through a few of them (I’ll even admit The Devil Wears Prada was pretty good), but others made me roll my eyes so many times that I haven’t made it past the first few pages.

If the cover looks something like this, I probably ain't interested.  And, yes, I am judging a book by its cover but only because I've found that books with these kinds of covers really do suck (for me, that is).

If the cover looks something like this, I probably ain’t interested. And yes, I am judging a book by its cover but only because I’ve found through experience that books with these kinds of covers really don’t interest me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a large portion of popular fiction aimed at people of my gender just makes me want to gag.  I find myself wanting to punch most of the characters in the face for their irrationality & general idiocy.  For example, as much as I try to be an empathetic person, I’m fundamentally incapable of feeling sorry for a character who’s upset about losing $500 Jimmy Choo heels.  I just can’t relate to that at all.  (Even if I had that kind of money I’d never spend it on something so ludicrous.  If that’s judgmental, I’m sorry I’m not sorry.)  Or when a female character is devastated that a man who was clearly an ass turned out in fact to be an ass, I just don’t have much sympathy for her.  Instead I find myself wanting to yell at her, “How did you not see this coming, you idiot?!harlequin romance

To be clear I don’t find myself reading a lot of books clearly aimed at men either.  But I have noticed that at least half (actually, probably a good deal more than half) of the books I read are by male authors &/or have a man as the central figure of the story.  Hell, the book I’m currently reading, & enjoying immensely I must add, is Post Office, the first novel by the iconic Charles Bukowski.  If you know anything about Bukowski you know that his books could truthfully be described as ribald & irreverent, all the while being immensely profound & astoundingly hilarious.  But a far, far cry from mainstream chick lit in almost every possible way.  Yet I am devouring this book like it was my first meal after a long famine.

This really is one of the funniest books ever written, I swear.

This really is one of the funniest books ever written, I swear.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind romance in my fiction.  A little bit tossed in here & there is just fine.  But if romance alone is the central theme of the book, I’m sorry but it just doesn’t hold my interest.  Romance novels, whether of the Harlequin romance variety or the prim & proper Christian romance variety, are of no interest to me whatsoever.  And Fifty Shades of Grey might as well be in Greek for all I care.

(To be clear, I don’t think romance novels in & of themselves are bad or wrong.  Different strokes for different folks.  They just are of no interest to me.)

I’m not really sure what the point of this post is (that seems to be happening a lot lately), other than to say I know I can’t be the only woman who is a little disgusted by the majority of books peddled to our gender.  To be clear, I’m a far cry from a “tom boy,” but I also have a pretty strong disdain for most things pink, so much so that if I have a daughter I’ll almost certainly dress her in little boy’s clothes (or at least more gender neutral stuff) when she’s a baby, just to avoid the boatload of pink stuff.  (Baby pink really is the worst shade of pink, I swear.)  Yet as much as I sometimes hate to admit it, I fulfill a fair amount of traditional feminine roles within my marriage.  But I also listen to hard rock music, swear too much, devour murder mysteries the way most (or at least many) women read romance novels, abhor treadmills but love lifting weights, & speak way too loud for my own damn good.  (I don’t have an indoor voice, I’ve been told, & it’s just the plain truth, like it or not.)  I’ve had one manicure in my life, which was for my wedding, & have no interest in ever getting one again.  I don’t own high heels & don’t care to . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is I like to think I’m a good mix of both stereotypical feminine & masculine traits.breaking stereotypes

As I’ve written before, I think the most interesting people in the world are those who defy stereotypes, those who are difficult to place in “boxes,” the convenient categories of people society constructs in an effort to make sense of this confusing world which we inhabit.  I like people who are unpredictable in the sense that I can’t always predict what their opinion is going to be on any given topic.  Furthermore, I like people who prove me wrong when I find myself being small minded or petty.  And consequently I like books that make me think, that make me question myself & the norms of society.  And frankly most chick lit simply doesn’t do that for me.  All it makes me do is cringe & wonder if there’s something wrong with me for not relating to the characters who presumably represent “normal” women.  If any of this makes me unfeminine or weird, I truly couldn’t care less.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I suppose I DO care a bit or I wouldn’t be writing this post . . . But just once I’d like to go to a bookstore & not be reviled by most of the books clearly marketed at people of my gender . . . Oh well.  Maybe I’d better start writing that novel I’ve always wanted to write if I want to make that happen.  Ha!pageant material

I’ll end this post the way I so often do these days, with a link to one of my new favorite songs, Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves off of her recently released album of the same name.  The song contains the signature sassy but sincere, simple but profound lyrics that have become Kacey’s trademark.   (Skip to 2:50 in the linked video for a live performance of the song.)

See the full lyrics below (bold added by me to emphasize my favorite lines):

There’s certain things you’re supposed to know
When you’re a girl who grows up in the South
I try to use my common sense
But my foot always ends up in my mouth
And if I had to walk a runway in high heels in front of the whole town
I’d fall down
And my mama cried
When she realized

I ain’t pageant material
I’m always higher than my hair
And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace
But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

She might not be pageant material, but she is beautiful.

She might not be pageant material, but she is beautiful.

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me
Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose

I ain’t pageant material
I’m always higher than my hair
And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace
But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

Maybe if there were beauty pageants for little boys too I wouldn't be so disgusted by them.

Maybe if there were beauty pageants for little boys too I wouldn’t be so disgusted by them.

I ain’t pageant material

The only crown is in my glass
They won’t be handin’ me a sash
And that’s okay, cause there’s no way
You’ll ever see me in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t
Yeah, I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

A Plea for Empathy

I usually try to be pretty positive on this blog because I think there’s enough negativity in the world . . . But I have to admit that today’s post is probably going to be a little cynical because frankly that’s how I’m feeling right now.  What with some challenging, exhausting events at work this week plus the frustration of watching some of my own friends & family support this Confederate flag nonsense & subsequently freak out over the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage today, it’s all made me want to pull my own hair out.  I just want to scream “Have some empathy for two seconds, people!”

Pretty accurate visual depiction of how I'm feeling right now

Pretty accurate visual depiction of how I’m feeling right now

I haven’t had enough sleep in the past 72 hours to formulate well articulated arguments, but I am so full of anger & frustration right now that I know I need to write something, for my own sanity if nothing else.  So here goes.

If you support the Confederate flag, please stop for a minute & ask yourself this: if you were black or part black or perhaps married to someone who is black, how would this flag make you feel?  As one of my friends so eloquently pointed out to me today, the Confederate flag was not even popular immediately after the Civil War.  It wasn’t until decades later that certain segments of the (mostly) Southern population took up the flag as a symbol, largely as a sign of their hatred of blacks.  Hmmm.  Now trying to say the flag doesn’t support racism sounds even harder to believe . . .racism

Yes, I am smart enough to understand that the FLAG isn’t what makes people racist . . . That’s obviously a behavior/mentality that develops over time.  As some have astutely observed, Ferguson, MO & Baltimore had “race riots” & those states do NOT fly the Confederate flag over their state buildings while South Carolina, who does, has NOT had riots, despite the recent racially motivated mass murder.  So, no, the FLAG isn’t what makes people racist or do hateful things.  But it is still a SYMBOL that represents a less than stellar history in the treatment of black people in this country, & as such it has no place in our culture.  If you were Jewish, would you want to see Swastikas flying around on government buildings?  Didn’t think so.

Boggles my mind that these flags are still flying side by side in SC

Boggles my mind that these flags are still flying side by side in SC

As a Libertarian, I obviously value freedom & I don’t think that PRIVATE institutions should be banned from using the symbol if they desire to do so.  I still think it’s a stupid thing to do, but, hey, this is America; you have the right to be ignorant if you want to be.  But there is no place in any official government position for the Confederate flag because of its history & the not so subtle “you’re not welcome here” message it sends to our African American citizens.  Furthermore, as another wise friend of mine pointed out, being proud of being Southern does NOT mean you have to embrace the Confederate flag.  There are plenty of other things about Southern culture to embrace to show your cultural pride if you feel so inclined.  (I have very mixed feelings about the South myself, but that’s another post for another day.)Marriage-12-15-10-web

As far as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, frankly it baffles my mind how anyone can still be opposed to homosexuality.  I have not heard ONE good argument for why homosexuality is wrong.  Ever.  And saying the Bible says so (ambiguously, I might add) is NOT a good argument.  Even if you think it is, there is still not a good argument for why gay marriage is discriminating against Christians or anyone else who believes it is wrong.  gay-marriage-flowchart

As a Libertarian, I don’t believe private organizations like churches should be forced to marry anyone they don’t want to marry.  That’s fine.  I respect that even if I completely disagree with their reasoning.  Hell, there are churches that would have refused to marry me & my husband because we lived together before we were married.  As crazy as I think that is, I still support their right to do so as a PRIVATE organization.  But I see no good argument whatsoever for why gay marriage should actually be ILLEGAL in this (or any other) country.  When I see pictures of my gay/lesbian friends on Facebook with their lovers/husbands/wives, I feel nothing but happiness for them, today especially.  End of story.supreme court

There really isn’t a focused point to this post.  The last thing I want to do is stir up arguments & debates.  I don’t have the energy for that right now, mentally, physically, or emotionally.  But for my own sanity, I just needed to write to clear my brain a bit because I’m so frustrated & angry at the lack of empathy I see around me right now.  We can be better than this, people.  We really can.

I’m out of even half way eloquent words right now, so I’ll end this post with a link to the video for a song I discovered this week that could not possibly be more relevant right now.  The lyrics are in the video, but you can also read them below the link: Christ Copyright by Nothing More

Nothing More, an awesome rock band out of TX whose music I was lucky enough to discover this week

Nothing More, an awesome rock band out of TX whose music I was lucky enough to discover this week

Don’t form thoughts, trust politicians
Forfeit soul, pursue religion
Lose free will to gain protection
Sink the ship with good intention

See our minds become conditioned
As we swear by these traditions
Lose our hearts & breed division
Oh my God, why can’t we wake up?

They’re selling heaven tonight
Sign on the dotted line
They got your Christ on copyright

To think you know who goes to heaven
Is just one big misconception
Like God hates fags & communism
Create fear to feed the system

They’re selling heaven tonight
Sign on the dotted line
They got your Christ on copyright

We are not machines

If they scream loud
They might muscle the crowd
But we won’t bow down
No, we won’t bow down

They’re selling heaven tonight
Sign on the dotted line
They got your Christ on copyright

Music, Stereotypes, & Breaking Down Racial Barriers

As my Facebook friends already know, I attended a Lindsey Stirling concert in downtown Raleigh last night, & it was nothing short of scintillating.  I’ve always loved Stirling’s unique style of violin music combined with drums, electronics, & dancing, but hearing her perform live brought a whole new level of magic to the experience.  It truly is hard to believe that just a few years ago the judges on America’s Got Talent told Stirling she just wasn’t talented enough to play her violin & dance at the same time & that she needed to be part of a group because she’d never fill concert arenas on her own.  As it turns out, those judges couldn’t possibly have been more wrong! lindsey stirling In any case, as we were waiting for the concert to start, my friend & unofficial “concert buddy” commented on what a diverse group of people were in attendance at this concert.  Indeed we saw people of all races/ethnicities & ages (including young children) dressed in a wide variety of styles including everything from a girl in a red sports bra & wide-leg black pants (that were almost certainly taken from the men’s department), another chick in what looked like a one-piece bathing suit with shoes that were basically the definition of hooker heels, girls in rompers (ugh!) & cute sundresses, guys in prototypical T-shirts & shorts, & everything in between . . . There were definitely more girls than guys in the audience, though the proportion of females to males wasn’t actually as overwhelming as I expected it to be.  Point being, this concert was just one example of the power of music in drawing together a diverse group of people who might not normally associate with each other or at least wouldn’t be expected to have much in quote 1 All of this has got me to thinking about how music truly does have the power to overcome so many barriers that our society has constructed, in particular racial barriers . . . and yet sadly how often these barriers still exist.  For example, I grew up in an area that was about 75% white & 25% black & yet our high school band was probably 90% or more white . . . even the jazz band, which is rather ironic considering that jazz is one of the most quintessential styles of African-American music.  Furthermore, as Laina Dawes discusses in her book What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (which has been added to my ever-expanding “must read” list), there has historically been a dearth of African American presence in the rock/metal community, despite the undeniable influence & legacy of Jimi Hindrix.  There are a handful of Asian/half Asian artists in the rock/metal scene (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park & Matt Heafy of Trivium come to mind) along with a few Hispanic artists (like all of the guys who make up TX heavy metal outfit Upon a Burning Body), but in general it is still a genre very much dominated by white people.

Off the top of my head, Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust out of Atlanta is the only black lead singer I can think of in the rock/metal world.

Off the top of my head, Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust out of Atlanta is the only black lead singer I can think of in the rock/metal world.

If you consider country or bluegrass, the musical landscape is even less diverse.  And when it comes to rap/hip-hop there’s always Eminem of course, but aside from him the genre remains mostly black.  Same for R&B.  And don’t forget that Australian new-comer Iggy Azalea, a white rapper, has definitely caught some flack for “stealing black culture.”

Let me be clear here: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with certain genres being largely represented by whites, blacks, or people of any other race/ethnicity.  If a style of music arises out of a certain culture, it’s only natural that it will be most popular among the people of that culture . . . And that’s ok!  There is nothing wrong with that.

Duke Ellington, one of the great jazz legends

Duke Ellington, one of the great jazz legends

What bothers me is the idea that certain people can’t or shouldn’t like a certain type of music because of their race, ethnicity, culture, or any other characteristic.  I grew up in the 90s, a time when rap/hip-hop largely dominated the music scene.  And guess what: white kids/adults loved it!  And most people didn’t think twice about that, even though rap/hip-hop has traditionally been a genre created & dominated by African Americans.  But the minute a black guy or gal decides to be a country singer or a heavy metal guitarist or a classical violinist, suddenly people start giving them weird looks.  Hell, I remember the handful of black students in my high school band were sometimes referred to as “not really black” by other blacks as well as by whites, partially because they were in band.  As if being black means you can’t like classical music?  You’ll have to run that one by me again because it sounds like bullshit to me!

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a classically trained pianist.

Over the past four years I’ve attended at least a half dozen country concerts as well as a half dozen rock/metal concerts.  There’s no denying that the audiences at all these events have been mostly white . . . although I was pleasantly surprised by the racial & ethnic diversity I saw represented at Carolina Rebellion this year.  I can’t help but notice, however, that the Asians, Hispanics, & African Americans I’ve seen at these concerts have usually (but not always) been there with white friends.  Granted these concerts have all been in the South (VA, NC, & SC), so it’s possible that things could be much different in other parts of the country, though I’d be willing to bet they’re pretty similar in most areas.  I am not black, Hispanic, Asian, or any other racial minority (that is, I’m not any racial minority in the US, for on a world-wide scale I suppose being white does make me a minority, but that’s irrelevant to this post) & thus could easily be blissfully unaware, but I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anyone being teased, taunted, or otherwise made to feel palpably ostracized due to being a non-white person at a mostly white concert.  That doesn’t mean it’s never happened of course, though I do think the rock/metal crowd tends to be very accepting of people from all walks of life seeing as most people who like this kind of music are in some way a bit of an outcast/misfit themselves.  I can’t necessarily say the same about the country music crowd, but that’s a discussion for another day . . . In any case, read this post by one of my favorite bloggers for some insight into one African American woman’s experience at a mostly white concert (Celtic Woman):

Upon a Burning Body is an all Hispanic heavy metal band from Texas.

Upon a Burning Body is an all Hispanic heavy metal band from Texas.

In any case, I guess what I am trying to say here is I think that sadly there are still racial barriers in this country, even for something as transcendental as music.  One of the greatest things about music is that it can & does speak to people of all different races, ages, cultures, & ways of life.  For example, I can listen to music in Italian, Hindi, or some other language I don’t understand & be just as moved by it as by a song in English.  Furthermore, composers like Beethoven & Mussorgsky can without words stir every human emotion known to mankind through their glorious symphonies.  Music is powerful, my friends.  It really is.words fail music speaks And that’s exactly why it breaks my heart to think that there are children, teens, & adults in this country who love music from various genres that they are not stereotypically “supposed” to like, & because of that many of them feel uncomfortable attending concerts, buying albums, or even telling their friends & family who their favorite artists are.  Some (who are invariably white) will probably scoff at this, saying these people are making a big deal out of nothing . . . but would you, as a white person, feel comfortable walking into a rap concert whose audience was 90% black?  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, maybe it’s not so silly, huh?  If you still don’t believe this phenomenon exists, check out this article about a black teen rock band in NYC:  The article also mentions an African American journalist who used to hide her rock records under her bed so her black friends wouldn’t call her a “wannabe white girl.”  Hell, even as a white girl, I know what it’s like to be told I don’t seem like I would like a certain style of music, namely rock/metal, because I’m “too nice” & conspicuously free of tattoos & piercings (aside from standard earrings of course).power of music I’m not really sure what the point of today’s post is other than to say this: whether you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, another race/ethnicity, or some mix of any or all of the above, please don’t let anyone or anything stop you from enjoying the music you love.  If you’re a black guy who head-bangs to Slipknot or a white girl who loves rap, whoever you are, whatever you like, don’t let society’s stereotypes or anyone’s expectations for you change who you are or what you enjoy.  If we want to see a change in this world, we have to be that change (as the famous Gandhi quote states).  I truly believe music has the power to change the world . . . and one way that can happen is by breaking down racial & cultural barriers & demolishing  stereotypes.  As the famous quote attributed to Dr. Suess goes, Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

On that note, I’ve been waiting for this day for months now: today is the day both Breaking Benjamin & Kacey Musgraves debut their new albums.  And naturally I’m going out to buy them!  Toodles!

Life Lessons from The Phantom of the Opera

The first time I was exposed to the music & story of The Phantom of the Opera was, I believe, senior year of high school when my band director chose the music for us to play.  Immediately I was enraptured by the glorious songs; the fact that they featured multiple flute solos for me helped a little, I suppose.  In any case, one Friday our director decided to let us watch the most recent film version of the story (the 2004 version directed by Joel Schumacher) so that we could become more acquainted with the music. phantom of the opera

The movie is almost 2.5 hours in length so naturally we weren’t able to watch it in entirety in class that day.  I distinctly remember leaving class that day, going home, & telling my mother we absolutely had to rent the movie that weekend so I could finish it because I just couldn’t stand to wait till going back to school on Monday to see the ending, not to mention to hear the rest of the music.  Rent the movie we did, & I’ve been absolutely enraptured with it ever since.  From the emotional story to the dazzling scenery to the excellent cast (who knew Gerard Butler, who’s had no formal training, could sing so well?!) & above all the beautiful music, this film is one I’ve watched literally dozens of times in the past eight or nine years, yet it’s never lost its magic. phantom of the opera 1

A few years ago I read the original novel by Gaston Leroux on which Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical & the subsequent film (which Andrew Lloyd Webber helped to produce) are based.  The basic premise is the same, though the musical & film certainly took some artistic liberties.  For example the film certainly takes a more sympathetic view of the Phantom, but I believe this serves only to enhance the original story by evolving it from a more simplified good vs evil plot to a more complex one in which the viewers are inspired to question the very nature of good & evil as well as society’s responsibility to those who are, for whatever reason, its outcasts.  The film also ups the sexual tension between Christine & the Phantom, but frankly I think that it was only rational to do so.  Indeed it is rare that I find a movie that is better than the book on which it was based, but in this case I think the film truly provides the most compelling version of the story.  (Not to mention that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is what truly makes the story come to life.) phantomopera14

Many who think of The Phantom of the Opera story probably think only of an odd love triangle centered on a “haunted” opera theater, but I’ve always seen this story as so much more because of the life lessons it offers to us.  For many years I’ve felt this was a story that just begs to be written about & today I feel compelled to share why I think this story is one with truly everlasting value.  Thus I will attempt to describe what I feel are the greatest themes imparted to us in The Phantom of the Opera & why you too should be as enraptured by this captivating story (& music) as I am.Why-so-silent-alws-phantom-of-the-opera-movie-1646781-700-453

  1. Be careful how you treat those who are different.

Say what you will about the Phantom, but the movie makes it obvious that he wasn’t exactly born evil.  It was the rejection & torture he faced from his own mother & clan that serve to mold him into the beast he eventually becomes.  You have a cold heart indeed if you can watch the suffering of the Phantom as a child/teenager & not have sympathy for his sorry state, particularly since the disfiguration of his face was hardly something he chose to have, hardly something over which he had any control whatsoever.  Seeing how the world reacted so negatively & cruelly to him based purely on his physical appearance, it’s really not too surprising that the Phantom turned out to be a rather dark character.  Underneath his tough & rather foreboding exterior, it’s quite apparent that the Phantom is a suffering creature who just longs to be loved & cherished . . . & if that’s not a feeling we can all relate to, I don’t know what is.  In the end, I don’t see how you can watch this film & not become more acutely aware of how important it is that we as a society learn to embrace those who are different & not treat them rashly or cruelly . . . for if we do not embrace them, we may well come to regret it later.  For example, in this story not only does the world miss out on the Phantom’s musical genius because they have rejected him due to his disfigured appearance, but eventually they suffer a great deal of misery at his hands.Stranger-than-You-Dreamt-It-alws-phantom-of-the-opera-movie-19743553-731-654

  1. Regardless of outside circumstances, in the end we are each responsible for how we choose to live our lives.

Perhaps I will sound like I’m contradicting myself here because of all that I’ve said above “in favor” of the Phantom, but I do believe this film eventually sends us the message that regardless of our outside circumstances, we are each in the end responsible for how we choose to deal with the cruelty, frustrations, & injustices that we face in this world.  As Christine tells the Phantom at the climax of the film “This haunted face holds no horror for me now.  It’s in your soul that the true distortion lies . . . The tears that I might have shed for your dark fate grow cold & turn to tears of hate!”  In the end, it isn’t the Phantom’s disfigured face that drives away the girl he’s come to love; it is the evil he’s allowed to grow in his soul.  What perhaps is most touching is that Christine’s sympathy towards the Phantom eventually encourages him to show sympathy to her & let her go so that she can live her life with Raoul. emmy rossum

  1. The power of music is truly transcendental.

As some of you may know, I hate all that sappy Nicholas Sparks romance bullshit, but I’ve yet to watch The Phantom of the Opera without feeling my heartstrings tugged from all angles, & I can’t help but believe that is largely because of the music.  From the dark power of the title song to the sweet beauty of All I Ask of You to the seductive enchantment of The Music of the Night & The Point of No Return, I don’t think there’s one human emotion that isn’t touched on in these songs.  I truly don’t see how anyone with a sense of hearing could watch this movie or listen to the songs & not feel stirred in some deep & primal way. phantom of the opera 2

If you’ve not yet seen The Phantom of the Opera, either as the musical or as the film I’ve described here, I hope you’ll take the time to check it out soon.  Hopefully I’ve not given away too much of the plot but have tempted you with enough enchanting glimpses that you’ll be compelled to experience the story & its captivating music in all its great splendor.  Trust me, you will not regret it.

Anxiety, Plane Tickets, & Flying Solo

I did something tonight that might not seem like a big deal to most people but was a big deal for me: for the first time in my 20-some years of life, I bought a plane ticket.  By myself.  With no help from my husband or anyone else.  AND I did it WITHOUT HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK.

When my husband & I went to Montana last Fall, he bought the plane tickets (actually I paid for them I think, but he did all the work of finding & selecting the flights).  Ditto for when we went to Boston the next month for a wedding.  Furthermore, every other flight I’ve taken in my life was planned by someone else; thus, I was never involved in the tedious process of finding & obtaining tickets.  All I had to do was show up & follow someone else who knew what they were doing.airplane

Not only did I find, select, & buy the plane ticket for this trip by myself, but this will also be my first time flying by myself.  I know for most people my age this whole scenario probably seems like no big deal.  But when you have anxiety like I do, even something as “simple” as buying a plane ticket, particularly for a solo trip, can induce extreme anxiety, the kind that most people associate with taking a major exam or giving a speech.  (Oddly enough, neither of those activities has ever been all that nerve-wracking for me, with the exception of the NCLEX, although I only had major anxiety about that the day I actually took the test).

In any case, as “silly” as it may seem, one of the most beneficial things I’ve learned from a dear, dear friend of mine who is bipolar is that, particularly when you have a mental health issue, even something as “small” as mild anxiety, you have to learn to celebrate even the minor victories.  You have to learn to recognize when you’ve reached a milestone in your recovery, if you will.  I hate to use the word recovery because I don’t believe my anxiety is something I need to or can “recover” from.  It’s not an illness, like the flu or strep throat, mostly because it’s not something that can be cured with a week’s worth of medication with only a small chance of recurring later.  But my anxiety IS a disease that I have to learn to manage, just like many other folks have to learn to manage diabetes or heart disease or any of a myriad of other chronic conditions.hello-my-name-is-anxiety

In my case, I’ve realized that buying a plane ticket by myself for a trip I’ll be taking by myself WITHOUT HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK is indeed a victory.  It’s an accomplishment, just as much as is giving a successful speech, acing an exam, winning a game, or any other more commonly recognized achievement.  A year ago, before I started taking Prozac, I can tell you without any doubt that this would not have happened.  So this is progress for me for sure.anxiety meds

As I was telling a friend at work last week, the longer I’ve been in therapy, the more I’ve realized that my anxiety has very deep roots.  In other words, this is something I’ve been struggling with more or less my entire life.  It’s probably the major reason I wasn’t a very happy child.  Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t depressed or suicidal or anything like that.  But I just never remember experiencing that carefree existence that most children seem to enjoy.  I still feel guilty for that sometimes because my parents were & are wonderful people who did so much to ensure that I had a healthy, happy home.  But I’m slowly beginning to understand that it was my own anxiety that prevented me from fully embracing life for so many years.  And that wasn’t my parents’ fault.  Or mine.  It’s just the way it is.anxiety charlie brown

The trouble is that when anxiety is something you’ve battled for so long, it’s very easy not to realize that it isn’t normalAfter all, the only brain you know is your own!  This is why it took me over 22 years to realize that maybe, just maybe, the constant swirl of anxiety in my brain wasn’t normal.  Better yet that it wasn’t how things HAD to be for me.  I look back now on my college years & I so regret not seeking help sooner.  It’s not that I didn’t have a good time & create lots of wonderful memories.  I absolutely did.  But I also know it could have been much better.  I’m also very aware that on the outside I probably seemed like I had it all together . . . & in a way I did.  I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, I maintained my relationship with my high school boyfriend (now husband), I passed the NCLEX on the first try, & I got married & started my first nursing job within 3 months of graduating from college.  Outwardly, I suppose I was the definition of “put together.”

A very simplified explanation of anxiety . . . but it made me laugh.

A very simplified explanation of anxiety . . . but it made me laugh.

But on the inside my brain was a wreck.  No wonder I struggled with high blood pressure for a while!  My mind, & subsequently my body, was on constant overdrive for so many years.  As my husband describes it, I had this endlessly “chattering squirrel” in my head that was always, always, always thinking, thinking, thinking!  Despite what many people think, having anxiety isn’t just spending too much time pondering the “what ifs?” of life.  It’s so much more than that.  It’s a brain that never stops, that plans everything, & perhaps more than anything just doesn’t know how to shut up & relax.  And a brain that can’t relax is a brain that will eventually burn out.anxiety

This is why I’m so incredibly grateful I took the advice of a friend & sought help: first through therapy & eventually by adding medication (Prozac).  Through a combination of the two, I have come to an even greater appreciation of so many things in life that I’ve always enjoyed but that I can now enjoy even more & thus utilize to further relieve my anxiety: music, books, my relationship with my husband, & so much more.

Trust me, there are still days when I struggle with my anxiety.  There are times when the idea of interacting with anyone other than my husband or closest friends seems like torture.  But those days are much fewer & further between now.  And even when they happen, I have the foresight to know they won’t last forever.  And that one bad day doesn’t doom me to a bad week, month, year, or life.bad day quote

I’ve wandered a lot in this post.  But, as I’ve done so many times before, I want to encourage anyone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness to seek help.  Admitting that you need help is NOT a weakness.  Let me repeat that: needing help is NOT a weakness.  Rather it is the first & perhaps most important step in creating a better, more peaceful life for yourself.MentalHealth-HeadGraphic-250px

Looking back on my childhood, adolescence, & even into college, there were so many signs that the anxiety I faced on a daily basis was not normal.  But they were mostly things that only I knew about (for example, the hours I spent awake at night off & on for years & years thinking about the Holocaust & how horrifying that was) . . . My point is that I didn’t realize how bad things were until I got the courage to ask for help.  And now that I’ve gotten help & my anxiety is so much better managed, I honestly can’t believe I struggled alone in silence for so long.  But I suppose sometimes we have no idea how dark the night is until we see the light of day.  I’ve found that light, & there are days when it is dimmer & days when it is brighter, but I think I am now even more grateful for the light since I know what it was like to live in the dark for so long.

Whatever you're facing, you are not alone.

Whatever you’re facing, you are not alone.

If you’re living in the dark of anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, please don’t suffer alone.  Get help.  Life CAN be better.  I am living proof.

The Best Lesser Known Hikes in Virginia

As those of you who know me in real life or who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I spent the first 23 years of my life in Virginia.  I grew up in the Piedmont area & didn’t really get into hiking until I went to college in the mountains of SW VA.  During the five years my husband & I spent in that area, we explored numerous trails in that region of the state, including all of the famous hikes such as McAfee’s Knob, Dragon’s Tooth, & the Peaks of Otter as well as several lesser known trails like Mill Creek, Rice Fields, & Burke’s Garden.virginia

We’ve been in NC for almost three years now, but being a bit further from the mountains than we’d truly prefer, we don’t yet feel like experts on the trails of this state, although we have certainly hit many of the highlights such as Mt. Mitchell, Hanging Rock, & Stone Mountain.

In any case, today I thought it would be fun to share some of my knowledge of VA’s hiking trails, particularly those that are not quite so well known.  Any list of the best hikes in VA is definitely going to include such gems as McAfee’s Knob, Dragon’s Tooth, & Old Rag, so I’ll skip those because, while all fantastic, I’m assuming that if you’ve lived in VA for any amount of time you’re probably already aware of their existence.  Instead I’m going to share those lesser known trails that I think are simply too beautiful to miss (& usually a lot less crowded too, which for me is always a huge perk).

The most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail is McAfee's Knob, outside of Roanoke

The most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail is McAfee’s Knob, outside of Roanoke

*All the pictures are my own.

  1. Grayson Highlands State Park: Grayson Highlands State Park adjoins Mt. Rogers which, as you may know, is the highest point in VA. However, being wooded, there is no view from Mt. Rogers whereas there are spectacular 360 degree views all over Grayson Highlands.  (You can easily hike from Grayson Highlands over to Mt. Rogers if you do desire to see the state’s highest point.)  This is truly a place like no other in VA, & I’m always amazed at how few Virginians have actually been here.  It’s the one place in this state in which you can get a small taste of what the mountains feel like out West.  Additionally there are wild ponies roaming the park & numerous gorgeous wildflowers dotting the landscape as well.  My husband & I have been here at least four times over the past few years, & yet we are always anxious to get back.  Considering this is some of the highest elevation terrain in the state, the hiking is actually quite easy.  Most of the elevation is achieved while driving to the park, so once you get there you’re basically just hiking the ridgelines.  I will warn you to be sure to wear sunscreen.  Because much of the park is un-wooded, you get a lot of direct sun exposure as well as a fair amount of wind.  This is definitely not winter hiking as the temperature tends to be a good 15-20 degrees cooler than areas with lower elevation.  As far as distance, you can hike as little as 1-2 miles & still see plenty of gorgeous views, or you can hike about 8-9 miles round trip if you want to go all the way to Mt. Rogers & back.  I can’t say enough good things about this park; just go & thank me later!
    1. Highlights: 360 degree views, wild ponies, unique terrain, relatively easy hiking

      No picture can truly capture the magnificence of this place

      No picture can truly capture the magnificence of this place

  2. Upper Cascades/Barney’s Wall: Anyone who’s been to VT or Radford is probably familiar with the ever popular hike to The Cascades, a gorgeous waterfall in near-by Giles County. It’s a relatively easy hike that is well worth your time despite being very crowded much of the year.  (I’d highly recommend going in the winter when the waterfall is frozen.  In my opinion it’s even more beautiful then & considerably less crowded.)  However, what few realize is that if you continue just a few miles further up the trail you can reach a second (albeit less epic) waterfall which is basically abandoned as well as a huge cliff with gorgeous views called Barney’s Wall.  There is actually another way to access Barney’s Wall that doesn’t involve walking past The Cascades, but the one time we tried it the roads were so muddy & full of so many potholes that we truly could not pass.  In any case, the round trip from the Cascades parking lot to Barney’s Wall & back was probably about 6-8 miles.  We only did it once & it was quite a few years ago now, so my memory has faded a bit.  What I do remember is enjoying the solitude at the Upper Cascades & some gorgeous views at Barney’s Wall.  A word of warning: when we were there about 4-5 years ago, the sign denoting the side trail to Barney’s Wall had been knocked down.  We actually missed the entrance to the trail & had to turn back to find it.  I have no idea if the sign has since been righted or not.  Just be on the look-out for it.
    1. Highlights: solitude, 2 waterfalls142
  3. Burke’s Garden: For some reason I remember learning about Burke’s Garden in elementary school. I have no idea if it was something we discussed in school or just something I found when studying a map.  (I was & still am one of those odd people who could spend hours poring over a map!)  In any case, it is a truly unique place in VA, being a very isolated mountain-top valley in Tazewell County.  There is literally one road in & one road out of this valley, & the northern end of that road is gravel & questionably passable by anything other than true off-road vehicles.  (We never tried leaving that way since at the time we were driving my husband’s Chevy Cavalier, not exactly off-road exploring material, although I’d be willing to bet that little car spent more time off-road than most SUVs or Jeeps out there today!)  Just driving around Burke’s Garden is quite fascinating; one of the first things I noticed on our first trip there was how there are literally signs pointing down roads to denote which families live there (e.g. “The Martins, the Thompsons,” etc).  Talk about a place where everyone knows everyone . . . I’m pretty sure this is it!  In any case, the best way that I know of to hike at Burke’s Garden is to access the AT (Appalachian Trail) off of Route 623 (the one road in & out of the valley).  The road enters the valley as a paved road but turns into gravel after a few miles.  It’s pretty easily passable at least up until the point it crosses the AT (which is well-labeled).  After that, all bets are off.  It’s a long hike, but I’d recommend hiking North on the trail until you reach the shelter at Chestnut Knob.  It’s about a 12 mile round-trip hike but well worth it to explore such an isolated region.  I would recommend doing this hike in early spring or Fall because at the height of summer a lot of the views into the valley are obscured by the overgrowth.  A word of warning: on our last trip to Burke’s Garden we ran into a through hiker who had just come across several black bears.  We missed them, but they are definitely out there.  For any history buffs reading this, you will be interested to know that the Vanderbilts wanted to build their estate here but everyone refused to sell their land . . . so instead they built the Biltmore in Asheville, NC.
    1. Highlights: isolated, unique views into mountain-top valley, possible bear sightings106
  4. Mill Creek: This is a little-known hike in Giles County that I am only aware of because one of my husband’s former coworkers was from the area & told him about it. I would highly recommend making this a winter hike because the three waterfalls on the trail are, in my opinion, most beautiful in the winter when they are partially or completely frozen.  The first time I ever actually enjoyed a beer was on this hike.  It was so cold that when my husband (boyfriend at the time) offered me a Coor’s Light, I decided to try it because I thought it might warm me up.  And it did!  And actually tasted good too, ha!  And to this day any time I drink Coor’s Light I remember this hike.  For driving directions, follow this link & scroll down to “Mill Creek Falls:”  Both times my husband & I did this trail, we ran into no more than two other groups of people.  It’s definitely isolated.  A word of warning: be prepared to cross the creek several times.  Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet if you accidentally fall into the creek.
    1. Highlights: isolated, 3 waterfalls

      Sorry, the photo quality isn't as good here but this was taken with my first digital camera in 2009

      Sorry, the photo quality isn’t as good here but this was taken with my first digital camera in 2009

  5. Kelly’s Knob: Here’s another great gem found in Giles County. Students at VT & Radford frequent the hike, but otherwise it seems to be little known (& it’s far less crowded than The Cascades).  When you’re driving down 460 West coming up to the main entrance to the VT campus, you can actually look up & see Kelly’s Knob, but you kind of need to know what you’re looking for.  In any case, the hike offers grew views into the New River Valley & can make a great sunset hike if you don’t mind hiking downhill with a few flashlights.  (I did this with some friends once, except we forgot to bring flashlights so we ended up using our cell phones & cameras as lights.  Wouldn’t necessarily recommend that method, but it was a lot of fun!)  A word of warning: the first bit of the hike is basically straight uphill.  If you’re an asthmatic like me, be sure to bring your inhaler.  When I first started taking Singulair, the biggest way I knew it was working was that I did this hike & it was the first time I’d ever done it & not had chest pain.  Not kidding.  After the initial uphill climb, the trail follows the ridgeline & is very easy the rest of the way.  I can’t remember the exact mileage but I’d say it’s 5 miles roundtrip at the very most, probably less.
    1. Highlights: great views of the NRV, good place to watch the sunset042
  6. House Mountain: House Mountain might be a popular hike for VMI or Washington & Lee students, but the one time my husband & I did this hike, I don’t think we came across more than one other person. Granted it was November & fairly cold that day, but nonetheless we got the impression that this isn’t a crowded destination.  In any case, House Mountain is actually a series of two mountains: Little House Mountain & Big House Mountain.  The trail leads up to a meadow at which point you can veer off onto two different trails, one for Little House & one for Big House.  We’d read that the views were best from Little House Mountain, so the day we went we chose to only do that side because we were tired & it was quite chilly.  (Neither trail is very long so you could easily do both mountains in one day if you desire.)  The hike up to the meadow is nothing more than a simple walk in the woods, but the hike up Little House Mountain is quite steep.  The good news is it’s also quite short so it’s over pretty quickly.  The views at the top are well worth the effort expended getting there.  Trust me, they do not disappoint.  This is one of those hikes I really wish we had discovered earlier, but we didn’t find out about it until late Fall 2011 & then we moved to NC the next summer, so unfortunately we only did this hike once.
    1. Highlights: excellent views, short but challenging hike, isolated006
  7. Pott’s Mountain: Here’s another hike I wish I’d discovered sooner. Pott’s Mountain has been compared to McAfee’s Knob in terms of gorgeous views, but in terms of popularity it could not be more dissimilar.  We did this hike on my 23rd birthday on an unseasonably warm day, & I don’t remember passing a single other person on the trail.  I would actually recommend making this a late Fall, winter, or early spring hike because the trail was pretty overgrown even in December, so I can imagine it being difficult to follow during the height of spring or summer.  When you reach the top of the mountain, you’ll actually be walking along a Jeep trail.  From what I’ve ascertained this area is more popular for that than for hiking.  A word of warning: we didn’t see any, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there are bears in this area.  Since this trail is so isolated & can be difficult to find, I’m including a link to a good article that includes driving directions:
    1. Highlights: very isolated, similar views as McAfee’s Knob but without the crowd022
  8. Mt. Pleasant/Cole (or Cold) Mountain: This is a series of trails in Amherst County that offer spectacular views, but the trails are relatively easy & definitely not crowded. I’d recommend going in the spring when the rhododendrons are in bloom.  Cole Mountain, which is alternately called Cold Mountain, is a bald mountain that offers fantastic views of the surrounding area.  Mt. Pleasant has multiple rocky outcroppings from which you can look over onto Cole Mountain & the surrounding area.  If you’re an inexperienced hiker but you would love to see some fantastic views, this would be a good place to start.  You can easily do both trails in one day, as we did when we visited here several years ago.
    1. Highlights: easy trails with excellent views

      Standing on Cole Mountain, looking back at Mt. Pleasant

      Standing on Cole Mountain, looking back at Mt. Pleasant

Whether you’re a new or experienced hiker in the VA area, I hope this list has been beneficial to you in planning your next adventure.  Please feel free to comment below on any of the hikes for which you have questions or concerns.  I’d be happy to assist with driving directions or other inquiries.  If you do decide to check out one of these trails, please let me know & share one of your pictures as well, if possible.  I’d love to see/hear your stories.  Happy hiking!

On Sexual Harassment From Strangers

I decided to go to the gym this afternoon & on the way there I realized my gas tank was on E, so I stopped to fill it.  There I was, innocently pumping gas, when some nitwit comes up behind me & calls out to me.  Naturally I turned around thinking maybe the man needed directions or something.  Instead he proceeds to leer at me & say “Does your husband know how lucky he is?  If not, there’s a bunch of men who could get you.”  I was so completely taken by surprise that my only response was to flippantly say “Have a nice day” & walk (read: run) away.'BOY that REALLY makes my skin crawl when MEN undress you with their eyes!...'

I spent the next 5-10 minutes hyperventilating & driving a somewhat circuitous route to the gym just to ensure that I wasn’t being followed (thankfully I wasn’t).  When I parked at the gym, I sat in my car in tears wondering once again if I have a sign on my forehead, of which I’m blissfully unaware, which reads something along the lines of “I’m so innocent & trusting.  Please take advantage of me!”  But the fact of the matter is crap like this happens all the time to women all over the world.  My female friends who are reading this are surely nodding along in agreement because many, nay, most of them, have told me similar stories of creepy strangers who have made similar disturbing remarks to them.  And worse yet, some have even been physically assaulted.

When stories like this are told, many jump to asking “Well, what were you wearing?” as if that were somehow relevant.  Let me be the first to say that such information isn’t the least bit germane to the conversation at hand, considering Channing Tatum could be pumping gas in nothing but his boxers & 99.99% of women would never dream of coming up to him & asking “Does your wife know how lucky she is?  If not there are plenty of women who could get you.”  The point is no matter what a woman (or man) is wearing (or not wearing), no one has the right to treat her (or him) with disrespect.

And just in case anyone reading this feels like railing against the younger generation & saying we have no respect for anyone, let me be clear in stating that today’s creeper, along most every other man who’s ever harassed me in a similar fashion, was at least in his 40s, if not considerably older.respect 1

Let me also be clear in saying that I am not one of these women who thinks every man who says hello to them or touches them in any way is harassing them.  Indeed, I once got asked out at the gym, but I in no way found that intimidating or rude because it was done in a nice, respectful manner.  I’ll admit it made me a little uncomfortable but only because it reminded me that I am in fact not invisible at the gym as I usually wish I were.

Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my narrative . . .enough is enough

This isn’t a treatise against men.  Indeed I’m incredibly thankful for the many wonderful men in my life, from my loving husband to my father, grandfather, & many other male friends & family members whom I feel blessed to know.  But I can’t let something like this happen to me without saying something.  I refuse to live my life thinking of every man as a potential rapist or harasser, & yet I know that men like the one I unfortunately encountered today take advantage of the fact that so many women like me operate under the assumption “innocent until proven guilty.”  (This is not to say I invite strange men into my house.  Indeed, I almost never open the door to solicitors when my husband isn’t home.  I just mean that I generally assume the best of people until shown otherwise.)  And sadly most women placed in situations like mine today react in much the same way I did: we’re too flabbergasted to come up with a response that sufficiently puts the creeper in his place.  While we should be telling them we’re not pieces of meat to be acquired, most of us are too stunned to say much of anything at all.

This is mostly a joke, but there's some truth in it too.

This is mostly a joke, but there’s some truth in it too.

I consider myself to be a fairly strong, independent woman.  I have a good career, financial stability (even without my husband’s salary), & a good head on my shoulders.  And yet situations like today make me acutely aware of just how vulnerable I really am.  Despite the fact that I work out quite a bit & am definitely stronger than the average woman, the simple truth is that even guys half my age could easily beat me up if they really wanted to.  It happens much more often than I like to admit that I get off a machine at the gym thinking how awesome it is that I was able to do 50 lbs or whatever when I used to only be able to do 20 lbs, only to watch some scrawny thirteen year old boy hop on the machine & pop out 75 or 100 lbs like it’s nothing.  It’s just biology, that’s

If you’re a man who is reading this post, you’re probably already the type who is far too respectful to ever consider approaching a woman the way this man approached me today.  Yet I can’t help but ask that men consider what it’s like for us as women in a world in which we are clearly the more vulnerable half of the population.

Let me be clear: this is not a pity party I’m throwing.  I’m not asking for your sympathy.  Only for your empathy.  Situations like today make me realize how difficult it must be for all the good men in the world because the creepers of the world are giving your gender a bad name.  If I’m capable of being empathetic towards men even after being so unceremoniously harassed today, I think it’s not too much to ask that we raise our sons to respect women & treat us like the human beings we are.empathy

Here’s what I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say to the asshole who felt it necessary to intimidate me today:
“Yes, my husband knows exactly how lucky he is to be with me, just as I know how lucky I am to be with him.  Additionally, I am not some piece of meat or object to be acquired.  My husband did not “get” me.  I chose to be with him because I wanted to be with him just as much as he wanted to be with me.  On behalf of the other innocent women of the world whom I’m sure you’ve similarly disrespected, let me be clear in saying you’re a miserable, disgusting wanker who needs to get the hell out of my way . . . On that note, have a nice day!”