Friday, September 6, 2013

Shameless Self-Promoting Plug: Change Magazine - September, 2013

There's a little spa up in Montgomery County that's generating a lot of national buzz lately. What's so special about a spa? Well, at this one, you'll be doing a lot more focusing on life and a lot less eating. What's that about, you wonder?

See my story in this month's Change magazine!

Faith and Frivolity

About a week or so ago I shared an essay about why I was looking forward to seeing the touring cast in Book of Mormon on my pal John DeMers' Houston ArtsWeek blog.  It was personal, reminding me of a time and place in my life that was deeply influential.
 The Book of Mormon First National Tour Company
(c) Joan Marcus, 2013
And now, having seen Book of Mormon, I can offer this: it's really not for everyone, which says much more about "everyone" than the show. If you can't handle vulgarity, the insulting of religion and tremendous profanity, this is not your show. Because, after all, coming from the creative minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, what else would you expect?
Well, sincerity, for one. Amid all the chaos and caustic comments, there's a bright, beating heart for humanity about what connects us, what we believe and what we owe each other.
It's the story of two hapless Mormon missionaries, the egotistic and idealistic Elder Kevin Price and the geeky, socially awkward Elder Arnold Cunningham  who get sent to Uganda to preach the word of God as they know it and convert the population to Mormonism. Along the way, mayhem, crisis of faith and insanity ensue. Oh, and a few not-so-subtle references to The Lion King.
Elder Price, (the stunningly talented Mark Evans, who captures Price's confidence and insecurity with great charm and a fantastic set of pipes) is out to change the world and believes he's destined for greatness. Elder Cunningham, (the goofy and gregarious Christopher John O'Neill, who combines spastic and sci-fi geek into a genuinely believable performance) is prone to making things up, and just wants a friend. "I'm a follower" is his mantra. They realize almost immediately that nothing is as it seems in the Ugandan village where everyone has AIDS, where poverty is universal and an evil warlord is threatening to circumcise all the women. This is not a place that's ripe for hearing the word of God. IN fact, the villagers have a saying that pretty well sums up what they think about God, "Hasa Diga Eebowai." (I'll let you Google it; this is a family blog). But those plucky Mormons carry on, aided by the idealism of Nabulungi, a young woman in the village, portrayed with guile and glorious voice by Samantha Marie Ware. And, in the end, they find out that tomorrow really is a (latter) day.
Structurally, Book of Mormon borrows from the golden age of musicals, with homages to The Sound of Music, The King and I (Mormon's "Joseph Smith American Moses", a rip-off of The Small House of Uncle Thomas is absolutely delightful, both on its own and a tribute), with Casey Nicholaw's buoyant choreography borrowing elements of everyone from Alivin Ailey to Bob Fosse to Jerome Robbins. Eschewing the format of one big production number following another, the songs and their cheeky, clever lyrics move the story along, from the opening "Hello," in which the Mormon missionaries learn to ring doorbells and talk about how the Book of Mormon can change lives right down to the finale. The act one closer, "Man Up," is a 1980s-hair-band infused rock number that perfectly captures the crisis of the moment and how cleaving to your faith can push you to action, as well as giving a wink and a nod to Les Miserables' "One Day More.". "I Believe," Elder Price's part prayer, part self-help positive self-talk is epic for its heart and its skewering of Mormon doctrine. And "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," Nabulungi's anthem, is part "Disneyland" from the ill-fated Smile and put me in mind of "Lady's Maid" from Titanic
The ensemble cast presents this story as, well, a mission, and there's so much joy radiating from the stage, you might wonder, as one of our theater-going party did, "Why can't all musicals be this good?"
For all its sarcasm, there's a sweetness at Book of Mormon's core that shines through as brightly as those Mormon boys' faith in their God. It's a real trick to pull it off, too, since in the hands of lesser creatives, you might wind up with just the sarcasm, which would be ugly, or only the sweetness, which would be cloying in the extreme. But, even as Book of Mormon lambasts doctrine, reinforces stereotypes and overall acts offensive, it entertains hugely and manages to show us how a little belief -- in ourselves, in a higher power, in something -- allows us to change and transform each other.
Book of Mormon plays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway Across America through September 15.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Last Breakfast Taco*

I’m from New England, so there are (many, many) things that are (daily) maddening to me about living in Texas, and especially living in Houston (traffic, humidity – even it does mean I am in my forties and still carded at the grocery store – the proliferation of SUVs and pick-up trucks, the acceptance people seem to have about living in Katy and driving into downtown every day – a distance that, to me, feels like driving from my parents’ house in Rhode Island to Boston, which is, for those keeping track, a whole other state, just to name a few.)

But one of the things I’ve come to love about Texas, that I would miss if I moved to say, Kansas, is the breakfast taco. A few years back, the New York Times wrote a story about this start-your-day food and I posted it to Facebook, causing my Yankee pals to look askance at me, wondering if maybe next I was going to give in to Big Hair Syndrome (“Dallas,” I said) or being a cowgirl (“Only during Rodeo – you know I’m allergic to cows,” I said) or marrying an oil man (“My husband might have issues,” I said).  But there’s a simple joy to me in the breakfast taco: the egg and cheese mixed in with peppers and bacon and onion. It’s a small amount of yum at the beginning of the day.

Now, be assured, I do not seek this out. (If I did, I'd find way better quality ones, to be sure). The only thing I seek out in the morning is coffee – and I set the timer on the coffee maker to be sure it’s ready, hot in the pot, when I wander into the kitchen at 6:00 or 6:30. But, when it crosses my path (at the Whole Foods on Bellaire when I go to my allergist nearby; at Central Market if I’ve stopped in for a cold brewed coffee, made from the servery at Rice and available in the RechargeU convenience store), I seldom turn down the taco.

Here’s the thing, though. Lately, the breakfast tacos have been crossing my path a trifle too much. I am not obese. I am not, for the record, fat.  I may joke and say I’m a whale, but I know the truth is closer to a baby manatee – albeit, perhaps not as cute. But I am in my forties and I have a doctor concerned about the borderline-ness of my cholesterol and a body that doesn’t metabolize things like the chili-cheese burger the way it did when I was twenty-five.

I know it's my own laziness. Or just plain wanting the thing. No plea for sympathy here.

I am not a believer in diets. They aggravate me, honestly. First, I have zero desire to fill my house with a bunch of stuff I would never normally eat because on Day One of The Next Great Diet Revolution I have to have a spinach-kale-quiche cup for breakfast with exactly three ounces of plain Greek yogurt. Freaking seriously? No. Also, I can say from experience that yes, I’ll lose weight and be less puffy if I cut all carbs out of eating for a month. And I can totally do that. But then, I’m going to actually want some pasta (notice that last name, folks? Macaroni is in my DNA) or think it’s an excellent idea to dip the baguette into the garlic and oil left over from the escargots and I’ll gain back those five pounds I lost.

No, I subscribe to all things in moderation. Yes, it’s healthier to have a salad and a clear soup for lunch than it is to have the club sandwich. Sure, a breakfast of Fage 0% blueberry yogurt and a cup of cantaloupe are better than the beloved breakfast taco. But, you know, I have a pretty healthy relationship with food. I don't down a whole tub of Nutella hidden under my comforter, drowning my sorrows. I try to eat more good stuff than bad, and I don't beat myself up over the bread in the escargots juices or the lasagna or the occasional frozen dinner. Does it take me longer to lose weight that way? You bet. But I can still do it eating things that I really enjoy and not driving my friends crazy when they say we should go out for dinner (“How many calories are in those naked wings? Oh, no, I can’t have the pitcher of beer; I can only drink half a glass. Do you think they’ll make that fish with no sauce? And no butter? And no bread crumbs? You all can have that oozing chocolate dessert; I’m on a diet.”). I hate these people. I truly do. I don't hate them for trying to take control of their lives. I hate them for not realizing that when you impose your dietary restrictions (and they are always restrictions, never, "Hey, let's go to that new Healthy Kitchen place, I hear it rocks!" or "Man, I'd love to go to dinner. You know what I'm craving? The grilled fish at Such-and-Such. Let's go there!"as a way to get what they need and not make everyone else cater to them) that you become absolutely no fun to be with  and you start losing your sense of humor. We're not talking about someone who can't eat the bread crumbs because he or she might die because of his or her sensitivity to wheat. We're talking about people who need to tell you they have to oder this or that without this thing or that thing or, worse yet, come over to my place for dinner and then don't eat. ("Oh, I'm sorry. I know you said come over for dinner, but then I remembered you were making chicken parmagiana and I can't/shouldn't/won't eat that and even though I didn't tell you before, when we might have fixed it, I'll just insult you by being impolite and not having any food at all." I am totally reasonable. If I say I'm making chicken parm and you say, "Cool," my expectation is that you'll eat some; I did, after all, go buy all the stuff to make it with the intent of sharing it. If you'd said, "I love your chicken parm, but I'm trying to eat less heavy stuff, " I'm the kind of gal who who will go, "Awesome. I'll do a Nicoise salad.") I will not become one. Because I know that nobody -- not my husband, not my mother, not my friends -- wants to hear about every calorie I am cutting or counting or burning. They're supportive of the efforts, for sure. And I love them for it. But nobody cares if I pick the grilled fish over the fried oysters, even if inwardly I'm giving myself a gold star.

My foot was operated on about two months ago. The recovery has taken longer than I would like and it has dramatically decreased my ability to work out. Thus, I am finally in a place where I have doctor’s clearance to put more pressure on said foot and can do some more rigorous things. So, in celebration, I am taking my first Pilates class in eons (no, seriously, the last time I took a Pilates class, dinosaurs were roaming the earth. Not so much with the flexibility is the Stegosaurus) this weekend at Bella Body Fitness. I am deeply excited to have some toning happening in a way that will not screw up my foot (jogging is still pretty much out and the elliptical is ok while I’m doing it, but renders me to ice and Advil once it’s done). And swimming. My beloved swimming. (Insert sigh of bliss here).

Thus, it’s time to pay much more attention to the diet – the everyday eating diet, that is. And the breakfast taco must be sacrificed for a while. One a month won’t do much damage, I know. Three a week, when I’m trying to add more exercise? Probably not the worst idea I ever came up with, but not the best, either.

Again, no plea for sympathy. I offer it as a loving lament to too much of a good thing. Maybe even with a little accountability on the side. Because I know you don't care about how many calories are in that taco or how many I'm giving up. Or burning. Or wishing I were eating. Or whatever.

So, this morning, I savor my silly breakfast taco from RechargeU. And I savor it with a pear, delivered yesterday, from Greenling.  Goodbye, breakfast taco. It’s not the end of our relationship. We can still be friends. But we really need to just see less of each other. I hope you understand.

*For just a little bit

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Some people eat when they're sad or overwhelmed. I've never understood this. perhaps I'm too italian. For me, food is about sharing. I'd far rather rip apart the entire kitchen, making beef Wellington to share with friends over a lingering dinner that includes wine and conversation than I would devour a whole tub of Nutella sobbing under the sheets.

Other people go in for yoga. Please. Maybe I'm too Aries. Who on earth has the patience to stand in tree pose for unending minutes, connecting to the positive energy flow? Honey, if that's your thing, I applaud you. Rock on with that healthy mind/healthy body correlation.

When I find there's too much chaos in my head, too many piles of paper on my desk, too much noise invading the places I need quiet, I swim. The water makes everything better. The metronome of the stroke and the breath. One lap after another. Rhythmic. Soothing. Thinking about nothing other than passing through the water to the other side of the pool.

And what a pool, when it's the one at Rice Unviersity. Olympic-size. Well cared-for. With a diving well, even. I admit it's psychological, but I like it much better when the lap lanes are set up across the width of the pool.  Twenty-five yards across seems vastly more managable than 54 yards long, even though I know my typical swim is around 1,000 yards, total. It shouldn't make a difference how they're counted. I also have a weird thing about the bottom of the pool. I don't like watching the water get deeper and deeper below me. I've never bothered to ponder this; I've been swimming nearly my whole life, so it makes no rational sense. I just chalk it up to one of those personality things.

No matter what, though, the pool is sanctuary. No problem is so insurmountable that it can't be fixed with a half-hour swim. No demon chasing me can intrude on the sanctuary of the pool.

In addition to always feeling better following time spent in the pool, I realize there's actual exercise happening. And, as a lazy exerciser at best, I appreciate this. Guess next I'll have to determine how many calories are in that beef Wellington and how many yards it would take to swim them off...