Monday, December 31, 2007

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

© 2007 Leighann Lord

We put up a Christmas tree this year. Big whoop, right? Actually it is. We haven't put a tree up in our house in years. I hate the hassle. Putting it up is cumbersome and taking it down is worse. A ubiquitous symbol of Christmas cheer becomes a monument to procrastination the deeper you get into the new year.

I'm not a complete Grinch. In lieu of a tree, I throw a little tinsel on the TV, put the presents around it and turn on the yule log. Ta Da, a modern Christmas. Adorning the TV was fine when I was single but my Dear Husband, God help me, loves to keep Christmas well. Unchecked I think he'd be one of those guys who turns the house into a landing strip for Santa.

This year I finally acquiesced. Maybe it was my husband’s sad face or his sparkling baby blues. My money is on the Oreo cookie bash (OCB) he made for Thanksgiving. Unfamiliar? Think Oreo cookies, pudding, whip cream, a big spoon, and Diana Ross crooning in the background, “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.” A religious experience that will soften the hardest of hearts.

I savored the taste of the OCB as we dug the tree out of the attic. After years of disuse it was shoved way in the back and had to be excavated from the detritus of old clothes, books and furniture. My family doesn’t know how to throw anything away. We hang on to old possessions like life rafts. The idea of letting anything go, sheer blasphemy.

It might have been easier to buy a new tree, a “real” one perhaps. But to me an artificial tree is a real tree if by real you mean not imaginary. I don't quite see the logic of killing a living tree every year when you can use an artificial one again and again. Isn’t that recycling?

Once freed from the attic, the tree itself was simple to set up, but the fun came in decorating it. Some of the ornaments were gifts from folks unaware of my Christmas TV predilection. The bulk were inherited from my parents; the upside of being the progeny of pack rats.

Every ornament was a sweet memory. The best was a yarn stitched, oak tag Christmas stocking that I must have made in kindergarten. My name spelled out in gold sparkles looks to be the work of a five-year-old, or an inebriated college student. It was nicer than I expected seeing the tree lit with presents underneath. The TV could not compare.

I'm hoping to hang on to this good feeling when it’s time to take the tree down. We’ve set a date, saved space in the attic and will keep our strength up with regular infusions of Oreo cookie bash.
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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Worst Cup of Coffee, Ever

What Dementors Drink For Breakfast

© 2007 Leighann Lord

I just had the worst cup of coffee, ever. I know this claim is subjective. I’m sure you have your own personal remembrance of a cup of java gone wrong. Maybe it was the first time you had a cup of "regular coffee" at Starbucks.

I’ll agree with you on that. Starbucks’ regular coffee is purposely dreadful. It’s meant to subtly encourage you to buy on of the more expensive flavored lattes. Good plan. The caramel machiatto latte gets me every time.

Perhaps the worst cup of coffee you ever had came at the hands of a loved one. Coffee always tastes better when someone else makes it, right? Not exactly. My Mom hates the way my Dad makes her coffee. Understandable. They drink instant and that sucks no matter who makes it. But she won’t tell him, drinking it anyway so as not to hurt his feelings or stifle his romantic impulses. Ah, love.

Maybe your worst cup of coffee, ever, was the first cup. I know of very few people who take their maiden sip and shiver with joy. Usually it takes a lot of trial and error; figuring out the right brand, and combination of lighteners and sweeteners. Like sex, a good cup of coffee takes some experimentation to get it just right.

Whatever your Worst Cup of Coffee, Ever story, allow me to share mine.

I was enjoying a leisurely lunch at my favorite Greek restaurant. I know some people think the Greeks only run diners, but I was at an honest to God, Greek restaurant. I had a little time to kill so I ordered a cup of coffee.

I should have realized my mistake immediately from the blank look on the waiter’s face. He blinked a few times as if stunned. I don’t think he’d ever heard anyone order the coffee before. He hesitated for a moment perhaps giving me a chance to change my mind, or let him in on the joke; telling him Ashton Kutcher was in the kitchen and he was being punked. Just before the moment became too awkward the waiter recovered and scurried away.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of coffee snob. It’s not my fault. My first real cup for enjoyment – and not to stay awake on a long drive – was Jamaican Blue Mountain served one Christmas at my cousin’s house. Purchased domestically Blue Mountain is almost $50 per pound. Jamaica’s best known export may be Ganga and surly women, but the most profitable is the coffee.

Snobbery aside, I still try to keep an open mind. I had a surprisingly delicious cup of coffee, for instance, at a hotel bar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They served a brand called Seattle’s Best; and, as it turns out, their best isn’t half bad.

Eventually the waiter returned with the coffee, milk, sugar and a plastic spoon. (I’d understand the latter later.) Glancing into the cup was my first inkling that all was not well. I may be a novice, but I don’t think coffee should have "legs" like wine or the viscosity of oil.

It didn’t move like any liquid I’ve ever seen, but more like an alien life form laying in wait to assume the shape of the first hapless human to touch it. Great minds think alike if you’re picturing the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) from "Terminator 2."

This wasn’t just an innocent cup of black coffee. This thing didn’t reflect light, but absorb it like a black hole. Forget Mr. Kutcher, I wondered seriously if the twin Stephens – King and Hawking – were collaborating on something in the kitchen that got away from them.

Gamely, I poured sugar and milk into the cup. The milk swirled feebly for a moment and then disappeared into the unchanged murky blackness. I poured off some of the "coffee" into my empty water glass; careful not to spill any, less I accidently set it free. Still no change, even after I stirred it; thankful now for the plastic spoon. If my "Terminator" theory was correct the substance in my cup would have assimilated a metal spoon. The last thing I wanted to do was arm my coffee with a weapon.

I plumbed the depths of my courage and took a taste. One sip and, while death was not immediate, I realized that in the time I do have left I owe Starbucks an apology. I was wrong to think they have the worst coffee in all of Christendom. Nay Friends, that distinction belongs to the bitter brew that brushed my lips at my former favorite Greek restaurant.

Like the black hole it appeared to be, it not only absorbed light and milk, but the memory of anything sweet and good I’ve ever imbibed. This was a cup of liquid evil. For my fellow Harry Potter fans, this is what Dementors drink for breakfast. I would have told the waiter how bad the coffee was, but I never saw him again. I hope he’s okay.

I still shudder at the memory, but modern psychology believes the best way to excise the demons is to share my story. I think the best remedy is a freshly brewed cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain, administered intravenously, stat.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kicking Ass On & Off Stage

The Delicate Flower Holds Her Own

© 2007 Leighann Lord

If anyone finds it shocking that I would participate in a mixed martial arts tournament, join the club. In high school I hated gym class and openly disdained organized sports. Sweating in public? How undignified. I’ve never even been in a fight. I was the geeky kid who learned to avoid physical confrontations through diplomacy, humor, quick thinking and fast talking. I also learned to read a situation, and to get gone while the getting was good. I never even stuck around to watch a fight. Why would I? It's the innocent bystanders who get hurt. So a fight, on purpose, is way outside my comfort zone.

Even with the extra training I put in, (see "I Love the Smell of Icy Hot in the Morning") I learned – day of – there are a few things you can’t prepare for, like the boredom of waiting around. My first match, scheduled for 3:15pm, didn't begin until after 6pm. There wasn't much for anyone to do but watch the other matches, chat with friends and surreptitiously size up the competition.

Actually, the latter wasn’t very subtle. The reckless eyeballing was intense and flagrant. If I had a dollar for every woman I caught boldly accessing my age and weight, I could pay off my Visa bill. Okay maybe not the whole bill, but at least the minimum monthly payment.

I think this explains why there are fewer women competitors than men. A woman's weight is as sacred as her age and lifetime number of sexual partners. While it’s standard practice to get weighed before you fight, I believe most women would fight not to get weighed.

That's the other thing I wasn't really prepared for: fighting with strangers. Although The Challenge of Champions is an intramural tournament between the 40+ martial schools within one organization, you tend to know only the folks at your own school. You get so used to training and fighting with your friends, the idea of fighting strangers seems down right weird.

When my first match in submission grappling finally began it was relatively short. You’re supposed to be equally matched but after the referee said, "Go!" I quickly realized that while my opponent may have been a brown belt, she handled herself like a third degree black belt.

She got the take down and I got her in my guard with a guillotine choke. She swiftly worked out my guard and got a very tight side mount. If this sounds a little too technical, let me simplify: she was winning. I would have congratulated her superb technique, but I was too busy trying to breathe.

I was also in a catch 22. I was afraid to let go of her head, thinking she’d used the opportunity to get a full submission on me. But by not letting go I could not improve my position either. And so the match ended in a stale mate. I didn’t tap out (yea!) but she won the match on points and position.

And just like that it was over. All that training and I was knocked out of the box in three minutes. I felt terrible. My fellow class mates all hugged and congratulated me. My husband was proud too, although he kept casting menacing looks at my opponent. I, however, felt like a loser. It was like inviting everyone to come see me at a comedy show and bombing miserably.

I packed up my stuff and moved on to my next match: Kick Boxing. Oh great. Let me explain. Back in September I began testing for my brown belt. One of the things I was weak in was free sparring. No brown belt for me until I measurably improved my skills. Since I was already going to tournament training for grappling, I asked my Sensei if I could come for kick boxing as well. He said, "Yes," and added, "I think you should kick box in the tournament."

And here is where I began questioning his sanity. Why would he suggest I sign up to compete in a sport I wasn’t very good in? To me the answer was an unequivocal, "Hell no!" But as the weeks of training went by, and I saw improvement, my confidence grew. And with an equal mixture of "What the hell am I am doing?" and "Oh what the hell!" I signed up to compete in kick boxing on the very last day of registration.

So now it was with a heavy heart and a head full of doubt that dragged myself off to the next match. If I couldn’t do well in grappling, my supposed strong suit, how was I going to fare in an area where I needed the most work? To compound matters, I learned that the woman who just beat me and went on to win third place in grappling – a United States Marine – was going to be my opponent, again. Check please.

At this point I held onto one fragment of hope: that someone who was so good at grappling, might not be as good in kick boxing. Silly in retrospect, but it kept me from running out of the arena, into the car and off to the nearest Dunkin Donuts to drown my sorrow in a white hot chocolate.

In the ring, we bowed to each other, touched gloves and began the fight. All the training and advice of the last six weeks swirled through my head like an unending mantra:

"Elbows in... keep your head down... breathe... put your whole body into the punch... turn into it... breathe... open them up down the center with straight punches.... on the inside use body punches... start a combination with a punch, end with a kick... start with a kick, end with a punch... breathe... work combinations... look for an opening... don’t let a punch or kick go unanswered.... it’s never the other person’s ‘turn’ to hit... breathe..."
At the end of the two minute round, the referee separated us, turned to the judges, and raised the hand of the winner. He raised my hand. I was so stunned that the ref looked at the judges again to make sure he had ruled correctly. He did. "Oh my god, I won... the first round."

For some crazy reason I didn’t realize that winning one match doesn’t mean it’s over. You have to keep competing. I had exactly two minutes to catch my breath and fight the winner of the next match. Oh goody. I fought two more times and earned SECOND PLACE! "Hell yea!" Maybe my Sensei's not so crazy after all.

I’ve never been so exhausted and happy in my life. I felt exhilarated and proud, and vaguely grateful that nothing was broken or torn. The icing on the cake was when my husband hugged me tight and whispered sweetly in my ear, "Damn, Baby, you throw an upper cut like a man."

Afterwards, he treated me to quiet dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. I don’t know when carbs ever tasted so good. And for a night cap, that sweet elixir of champions: the Dunkin Donuts white hot chocolate.

In the end I earned a pretty little plaque, a slightly larger comfort zone, and – at last - my brown belt! (For you long time blog readers who remember my post "The Yellow Belt Blues" let me assure you that yes I have brown hand wraps to match.)

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Knocking Boots

© 2007 Leighann Lord

I love shoes. I have a closet full of neatly boxed and labeled foot wear categorized by season (wearing opened toed shoes in the Winter is silly), color (life long New Yorker that I am, I believe black goes with everything), and heel height (there's a time for flip flops and a time for pumps). I hope one day to have two walk-in closets; one for clothes, one for shoes. Imelda Marcos and Adrian Monk would be proud.

I also have a small but functional boot collection; everything from construction worker style Timberland's to the patent leather, pointy toed stilettos. Not only are the latter drop dead sexy, but they were also dirt cheap. It doesn't get better than that.

Strutting down the street one day -- cause these are the kinda boots you strut, not walk, in -- a lady said, "Ooh, those are 'Cat Woman' boots." I took it as a compliment, but I couldn't help but wonder which Cat Woman she meant. I hoped for Eartha Kitt. She was the quintessential Cat Woman. Halle Berry was beautiful, of course, but her Cat Woman illustrated why secondary characters shouldn't have their own movie.

But I must confess that I'm a bit biased. I've never forgiven Halle for doing a half-assed job as Storm in "X-Men." I know. Let it go, Leighann. Let it go. Believe me, I've tried. Candles, meditation, scream therapy and still the nerve is raw.

I have a very special pair of boots that I wear so rarely they look brand new: A flat heeled, black leather boot that comes up to my thigh. The top can be folded down for the pirate look; unfolded and worn up to the thigh: pure Dominatrix. These boots taught me a valuable lesson very early in my comedy career: some outfits and accessories are too distracting to wear on stage.

I am a staunch advocate of dressing nicely for a show, but women have an interesting dilemma. Look too sexy and the men in the audience are paying attention to you for reasons that have nothing to do with comedy, and the women with them are none too pleased.

This is not an absolute. There are experienced comics who dress provocatively on stage, well aware of the effect they have on the audience and know how to use it. Back then I was not one of them. The boots looked great, but it was not one of my better shows. I got off stage sad and dejected and in need of relief.

Some comics turn to alcohol, I turn to sugar and so off I went to the candy store next door to the club to buy something sweet. There's nothing a little sugar can't fix. I walked into the candy store and saw just the thing to make it all better: a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. I picked it up and asked the man behind the counter, "How much?" And he said, "Nothing. Baby, in those boots you can have anything you want."

What? I was stunned, not only by what he said, but the sincerity and urgency with which he said it. It make me really look at him. He was an older man (there's a time in your life when all men are older) and he was serious.

I was not so naive as to be unfamiliar with the attentions of strange men. I've received bold glances, cat calls and the occasional proposal of marriage, but this was different. This was wasn’t just lust. He was enthralled. The boots were a siren that called to this man in some way I did not yet understand and was not mature enough to handle. I could indeed have had everything in the store I wanted including him.

I stammered a quick, "Uh... no thank you," and left the candy store sans gum. The Boots were neatly returned to my closet and not worn again for several years. They still aren't something I'd wear everyday, but they do make it into the rotation. I have never worn them on stage again, by choice. I know their power and prefer more subtle ways of engaging an audience. I can't have hordes of people offering to buy me gum now can I?

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