chickarina: the melissa kirsch blog

Archive for February, 2007

Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It Etiquette Lesson #5

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

I gave a reading at Barnes & Noble here in NYC recently, and someone asked a question about the process of giving advice to others that reminded me of a fascinating psychologist I heard on NPR a while ago who said, “All unsolicited advice is self-serving.”

As someone who wrote a mammoth book of advice, who usually secretly has, at the ready, some sage tidbit or relevant statistic regarding whatever woe you might be airing, I have taken this wisdom to heart. I am careful not to spontaneously give my opinion, or at least to qualify my opinion as such, unless I’m specifically asked “what should I do?”

Which brings me to the conversational practice I shall refer to as the “You know, You Should” tic. You know what I’m talking about. You tell someone you’re trying to save money, they come back with “You know, you should rent out your apartment and sleep in your car for a month.” You tell someone you’re trying to lose weight, they come back with, “You know, you should cut all refined sugars out of your diet.” I was just chatting with Rebecca, a novelist at the writing space where I work, and she reminded me of one of my all-time favorites that authors get: “You know, if you really want to publicize your novel, you should rent a van, drive it across the country, and go on a guerilla tour, reading from your book in every major city.”

There is something about the “you know” that seems intended to soften the unsolicited “you should” that follows. The “You Know, You Should” tic is most often the product of your life filtered through the experience of the advice-giver’s experience and — too frequently — fears. “You know, you should probably see a dermatologist about that birthmark” is most often spoken by someone who is terrified of getting skin cancer herself and, while she may believe their “advice” to be well-meaning, the phrasing is most likely to strike terror into the port-wine-stained recipicient.

When tempted to give unsolicited advice, I suggest trying the slightly formal “Can I offer my opinion?” or even “I have an idea…”. “Here’s my take on the situation” works, or, if you really can’t resist the bestowal of your brilliant opinion, you may use my favorite Lorrie Moore reference, “According to One Woman’s Opinion…” where One Woman’s Opinion is an as-yet-unwritten book that includes every one of your personal prejudices and ideas.

You know, you should really consider getting back to work now before your boss catches you reading blogs on the clock.

  • Previous Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It Etiquette Lessons
  • Insomniac Fever Dream

    Monday, February 26th, 2007

    Ben said I should write about my inclination to cram for the Oscars yesterday. I didn’t end up doing it, but I was indeed inclined to squeeeeeze viewings The Queen and Children of Men into my Sunday afternoon in order to be as excited about the telecast as possible. I am aware of the supreme futility and dorkiness of this behavior but make no apologies.

    You will be pleased to know, however, that I instead went on a quest for snow boots (according to One Woman’s Opinion, now is the perfect time to buy winterwear at good prices). Of course the whole city was in a lather over the winter storm warning in effect in all five burroughs, so I had to batter a few tenacious shoppers in order to acquire a rather plain pair of black rubber boots along with discounted wool socks because those things are so not going to keep your feet warm.

    While watching the Oscars I was periodically assaulted by the scent of burning car tires. I am not unfamiliar with the Smell of Unknown Provenance and assumed the stink had resulted from my ironing my rug. Yes I iron my jute rug sometimes. Because the edge curls up in a most unattractive fashion and the only way I’ve found to make it stop and re-cling to its rubber rug pad is to use a hot iron. Anyway, it wasn’t the iron. It was the boots. And I was rather sad to discover this, as my apartment smelled like a Goodyear factory and the snow was coming down and for the first time since I wore plastic bags on my feet inside my rubber wellies as a child on the peat, I was going to have some appropriate winter boots.

    This led me to an extensive online search for “stinky rubber boots” online. Which led me to a lot of terrifying HUNTING sites. Did you know hunters have to eliminate every smell, human or otherwise, from their selves because if deer smell anything, they will run away and not let the hunters shoot them dead? Deer hunters wear rubber boots and have to contend with the same problems I do. (Do you see where I’m going? Total red state/blue state convergence thing happening here! I’m reaching across the aisle.) I almost but resisted ordering a product call No Scents-At-All from a hunting website, although I am totally intrigued by a product that is going to eliminate every single “malodor” from my person and possession. I had thought this product was called Febreze, but how wrong I was!

    The last thing you want is for the deer to smell you, deer will ignore some movement after a while, but the first whiff of you he gets, then he is long gone! Often before you can even see him!

    In addition, I took it upon myself to organize the teetering ivory tower of my bookshelves last night. Long story long, the next thing you knew, it was 7am. This extreme activity was punctucated by attempts to read Bambi vs. Godzilla and doze off, to no avail. So I rise at 1pm, after terrible morningmares about what happens to people who sleep all day. And there’s barely enough snow on the ground to have detained the constructors from constructioning all the livelong day outside the window, which I sort of slept through and am now feeling terrible guilt.

    The Saturday Poll

    Saturday, February 24th, 2007

    This week: The Oscar Poll.


    Update 3/3/06: Okay, this is hilarious. Who’s stuffing the ballot box for Dame Judi Dench??–mk

    “Oh, baby, are we perfectible.”

    Friday, February 23rd, 2007

    An article about women’s advice books ran recently in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The reporter picks three books worth your time (phew!) and runs down the ones that aren’t. I like this article because it hightlights three things about the world today that I totally agree with.

    1. There is a ton of advice for women out there. Way more than any one woman could possibly read. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

    2. New Yorkers think there’s no world outside New York, or that the rest of the world is just like New York, and this is not true. There are no decent bagels outside of New York. People tip differently. People eat carbs (ostensibly, in the form of an English muffin). If the recent presidential elections haven’t given urbanites a good enough glimpse of the rest of the country, it’s time we started looking.

    3. Advice from celebrities or people who live like celebrities or that’s targeted to women who are dying to be celebrities is mostly useless. Because we are not celebrities. Even though it is devastatingly unfair that I am not being treated to millions of dollars of specialty spa treatments at the Hollywood Soho House in preparation for my Oscar win.

    Of course, if the reporter hadn’t liked my book, I’d probably be stomping my foot and insisting on the necessity of the rest of the country to learn how to craft a decent bagel already. (PS Before you start hating on me, my favorite bagel in the world is still from Bodo’s in Charlottesville. Sorry, H&H.)

    Craftastic Getaway

    Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
    craft night

    I’d just come back from my voyage to the Birthplace of Independence when Peter H. called and reminded me that we’d planned to escape to the country for the weekend. Contrary to my typical impulses following a period of intense activity and travel, which would dictate I rest, run, clean, reassimilate to the city, I hopped in the car and went to snowy country where there are big rooms and bathtubs large enough to stretch your legs in. As often happens these days, we pursued intense craft projects deep into the night. Cusi has introduced us to the Arts of Procraftination, which has evolved into a bit of a modern-day Bloomsbury (or so we like to fancy ourselves). Peter O. and Cusi’s hilarious friend Marcia joined us one night, and even these two inveterate non-crafters set to work painting and decoupaging and covering canvases in images and words like it was their job. It was heaven.

    I had no phone or Internet in the country, which was a blessing. I’ve tried going on technology fasts before, unsuccessfully. But in this case, I had no choice and believe my quality of life was much improved by my ignorance of Britney Spears’ head-shaving. The only thing that happened was my email box somehow filled up, which should not happen in this century, but evidently not being on email for four days should also not happen in this century, so I deserved it?

    I’ve been meaning to mention something that pisses me off to no end. Did you see this RIDICULOUS, insulting new product?

    camel grossness for women

    It’s the new ladies’ cigarette! We’ve come a long way, baby! To fuchsia and teal and a cigarette targeted at women (Wine cooler with your Light & Luscious, baby?) because there just aren’t enough women smoking Camels! How could anyone not be repulsed by such infantile, obnoxious, public-health-violating marketing?
    Never mind the fact that lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in women, surpassing breast cancer. Let’s see if we can snare a few girlies into our net who felt that Camels were too manly before now that we’ve packaged them in the hues of a hospital waiting room! Smart thinking, RJ Reynolds!

    While we’re on the subject of dumb (but not deadly — at least yet) marketing, I’ve recently begun a folie á deux with Splenda. Things are going well, but I can’t really get over the little Celestial Seasonings-style aphorism on the side of each packet that say things like “To err is human, to sprinkle divine” and “Get ready for love at first sprinkle.” These aren’t even puns. They’re not even smart. Splenda seems like a semi-smart product (chlorinated sugar!), but that’s just unsatisfying packaging.

    A Loaf of Bread and White Hyacinths For the Soul

    Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

    I have been going through old documents, scribbles, on my computer. In the midst of some rambling I found this, which I don’t think I wrote, but I can’t figure out who wrote it. It’s a list of some sort…some lines sound like me and some don’t. Whoever wrote it was incredibly clear-minded and definitive. Was it me?

    I never act naturally, never stop observing myself.
    You can’t make rational decisions when you have the flu.
    Many humble people actually crave the limelight.
    Having read Ulysses gives you an overall advantage in life.
    There should be a higher premium on funny than beautiful.
    My synapses are firing more slowly than they used to.
    There is enough room in coach class.
    Women with large breasts have it easier.
    We form some opinions on politics that are untainted by the media.
    Lie only to people you don’t like.
    Don’t worry about money: Use your last two cents for a loaf of bread and white hyacinths for the soul.
    Go outside at least once every day.
    Never purposely widen the gap between you and Dad.
    Stop trying to decide which poems you like and just write.
    Failure in poetry writing is not a high stakes game.
    I can’t believe how self-absorbed we are.
    I am not as beautiful as I deserve to be.
    I go outside at least once a day and ask for my glee to be stemmed.
    Marry someone boring.

    I feel like that line about your last two cents is some old saying. I think it’s a paraphrase. But “I ask for my glee to be stemmed” sounds like me.

    Too Much In One Day

    Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

    Eeek! Readership! Fanbase! Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Forgive me! I’ve gone to the dark side and am trying to get back to you!

    The day that was included:

  • minor surgery of a rather painful sort
  • getting locked out of my apartment due to some kind of continental drift that caused my door to shift and me to overuse & misuse the words “cylinder” and “hasp” when discussing repair of my lock.
  • a day spent running as many errands as possible, ending up in the Barnes & Noble due to its light, heat and free bathroom
  • having the door and lock totally deconstructed and reconstructed only to learn that the lock can’t be replaced until tomorrow.
  • I’m at sixes and sevens, my friends. Regular posting resumes tomorrow. Sit tight and enjoy Lost.

    Oh! And if you’ve been trying to email me and the mail bounced back, please resend. I’ve fixed the problem and should be dwelling in this century from this moment forward. Except when I play make-believe PBS’ Frontier House and wear a pinafore and churn butter. Otherwise, I’m here.

    The Saturday Poll

    Saturday, February 17th, 2007

    This week: The 2008 Secret Admirer Poll.

    clinton and obama


    I’ve been having conversations with lifelong Democrats who say Hillary’s nothing without Bill, that Barack doesn’t have enough experience. Then there’s the gang who say McCain’s too socially conservative, Giuliani was hated before 9/11. No one wants to talk about Joe Biden. I sort of want to talk about Al Franken. What’s your take?

    Tell me.

    Philadelphia: If You Build It, They Might Come

    Friday, February 16th, 2007

    Some things I learned about myself and the world in Philadelphia.

    1. I need a bottle of water on me at all times. Because I get thirsty, because I often need to take Advil or some other panacea immediately, because when I open my mouth to speak, sometimes I’m all froggy and sound like Joan Rivers.

    2. It is easy to mistake hunger for nerves. Meaning I have to eat, especially when I’m nervous, because hunger makes the nerves worse and if I only have caffeine in me, I’m going to feel so anxious and possibly have a tiny coronary.

    3. One thing Terry Gross and I don’t have in common is she makes speaking on the radio seem very easy. I thought having listened to every single episode of Fresh Air, This American Life, Studio 360, The Next Big Thing, not to mention countless Selected Shorts, Car Talks and even Tavis Smiley Shows would make public radio easy. I’d just sit down and put on my dulcet, soothing NPR voice and read from my book and I’d be recognized for the natural I always expected to be. I learned that loving NPR doesn’t mean you get your own show on NPR, that they do several takes, that radio shows have directors who tell you how to be funny, and they’re right. God, I love public radio even more now that I know a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

    4. In Philadelphia, there’s an ordinance that says you can’t erect a building taller than William Penn’s head on top of the city hall. This ordinance is sometimes violated. Also, all the streets are numbered going in one direction and named after trees going in the other direction. Ah, sylvania!

    5. New Yorkers need to take more advantage of Philadelphia. I theoretically knew about Philly’s role in the lives Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but I didn’t know there was a museum an hour away that was housing Teddy Roosevelt’s leg braces. This is a city that’s really proud of its heritage.

    So on the night of the biggest blizzard we’ve had this year, I went to Philadelphia on the Acela Express, where I like to sit in the Quiet Car, because it’s the one place on earth outside of the library where a stern ssssh from a stranger is acceptable. Not that I’m the one shushing, I just like being on the side of the righteous who is observing the rules of the Quiet Car to a tee. I also like being a “business traveler” because this means I have business to tend to, which makes me feel important.

    philadelphia train station

    Philadelphia Train Station, Night.

    It was very, very cold in Philadelphia. Like deep-freeze cold and I waited for 45 minutes in a taxi line. This is odd to me, because I come from Taxiland. It was Valentine’s Day, which may have accounted for the limited coaches, but my very wonderful media escort, Art, later told me there’s a taxi shortage in the City of Brotherly Love. So, more cold, but I’m getting used to it. I adored arriving at my hotel and telling the women at the desk it was my first time in Philadelphia, at which point one of them straightened her suit and said very officially, “Well! Welcome to the Birthplace of Independence!” to the shock and delight of her colleagues.

    Yesterday was bananas. I was on a live morning show on the Comcast cable network, then I had tea with the brilliant and innovative Jeri Johnson of Philly’s Intercultural Family Services who’s putting together an extremely cool program for at-risk girls in their Adolescent Violence Reduction Program. Then I had my NPR experience, which was very fun and exciting (I was in a studio with headphones with producers on the other side of the glass, which felt very Alan Partridge.)

    alan partridge


    I did a taped interview at the local CBS station, which included footage of me walking down the hall holding my book. This, I love. I think it’s called “B-Roll,” if I remember anything from my time at Oxygen. You know those shots on Primetime where the anchor does a voiceover “Louise Jones lost her job because of a clerical error. Now she’s fighting back.” And you see Louise walking sort of weirdly down the street in the wind. I did that in the hallway of CBS, loving every minute of it, because it’s hilarious to walk nowhere for footage’s sake. I went from there to Drexel University, where I gave a reading and did a Q&A with a group of very cool women who were all so sweet and smart and asked questions about what to do when friendships fade and how to defriend people you don’t want in your life anymore, which is a sad but common situation we all encounter and that I address in my book. Halfway through the reading, the funny CBS camerawoman arrived so we had an intermission so she could get footage of me signing books, which was strange but heck why not it was fun like walking down the hall was fun and I’m very good at signing books and also fake-signing books, or like to think I am.


    The charming girls at Drexel.

    On from there to the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, which is one gorgeous college bookstore. It was, by now, about 1 degree but I was very cheered that a hardy group came out to chat. When I asked the audience what they know now that they wish they’d known earlier, one woman said she wished she’d known that what her parents want for her and what she wants weren’t necessarily the same thing, and she needed to make her own decisions about her life. Amen, girl. We also talked about Tyra Banks and Paris Hilton and other starlets-as-role models. I think our unending access to gossip, the confusion of celebrity gossip with actual news, makes it confusing to determine who our role models should be. I also defended all of our rights not to feel guilty about reading In Touch magazine. It is entertaining. But just because she lost a person in weight and I like to look at pictures of it doesn’t mean Kirstie Alley is a role model. Nor is Justin Timberlake, just because I find him (secretly) beyond sexy and talented (stop it! come on! JT! he’s like Michael Jackson, without the scandal or surgery!) – he’s not a role model. Nor is Tyra Banks, even though I am fascinated by her and think she does some fascinating things, even good things, with her celebrity. I’m still thinking of who, besides Oprah of course Oprah, would make a good role model for young women.

    By the time I got back to my hotel to collapse and watch Grey’s Anatomy (why on earth would they try to tease us into thinking Meredith is going to die?? I mean, the show is basically called The Meredith Show — even though we can all agree it should be called The Izzy Show because she’s still the most fascinating character they’ve got in rotation. Killing off Meredith, or pretending it could happen, would be like trying to convince the audience that Raymond could die on Everybody Loves Raymond. Which, incidentally, they don’t. I mean I don’t.) I was exhausted, exhausted. I felt a little un-myself. This morning, wandering around the Philadelphia train station, admiring the slogan of Buck’s County Coffee – “Life should be this simple” — I kept thinking of the title of the Bill Bryson book I’m a Stranger Here Myself, which may or may not be the one in which he has an essay about going on a book tour. I just love that title and it seems sort of apt right now. I feel like a stranger in my own life. It’s all very exciting, but it’s also a lot of anticipation and fear and being “on,” which is challenging and strange all at once.

    New York: Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Gloom of Night

    Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

    So it’s weird to do a book signing in your own town. On the eve of an overhyped storm meant to BLANKET THE NORTHEAST. The northeast may indeed be blanketed, but NYC this morning is lying under a tattered and frayed crochet shawl of snow 1mm thick that could hardly be called a blanket. CORRECTION: We’re buried. I spoke too soon. Waaay toooooo sooooon, oh my blizzard.

    It was at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, which was the first B&N in the universe, built during the Depression. It’s an odd combination of history (see above) at a glamorous address but with strange non-B&N vibe inside, like if the store had been transported to Warsaw. The good thing about a reading in your hometown is that your friends and family come. I was so besotted looking through old emails from my initial research phases of the book that I nearly forgot to get dressed to go to the reading and had to take a cab, trying very hard not to be that person in a cab who is letting out huge, stage sighs from the backseat every time we miss a light, muttering “go go go go go go” under my breath.

    I was especially happy that many people from Workman, my publisher, came to the event (and bought books, which was beyond generous). I get a little bit freaked out when people from 70 different areas of my life are all in one room, which seems to happen to me a lot lately. You think that’s what you want, for everyone to meet everyone and see who you’ve been talking about, but the reality is far more like a weird dream where you’re in your house but it’s not your house, it’s the mall. You know?

    Peter is in town, newly transplanted from California, so we went out to dinner with a group of very fun friends. An additional good thing about a reading in your hometown is you get to go out afterwards with your very fun friends. I tried to take pictures but the table was weird and I couldn’t get everyone in. I like this one of Cusi, Peter & Peter because there’s a stranger in the background who is the only one who’s posing for the photo.


    Next stop, Philadelphia. Go away, winter wind.

    Oh PS, we even talked about this very phobia of mine last night at dinner but Peter is still insisting on drinking water out of coffee mug, which as we have established makes me more depressed than just about any…other inappropriate appropriation of a vessel. Anyway.