10 of my Favorite Things in 2014

MASSIVE UMBRELLA!

I’m definitely borrowing this idea from another blog — a blog that I am ashamed to occasionally follow, no less — but I do think it’s a fun one. Since I’ve been traveling for a good 1/3 of 2014, the items that I’ve found most “useful” are probably somewhat different than those I would have selected if I’d remained stationary.

Hurricane umbrella

Although this aptly-named Hurricane umbrella was a recent acquisition (a Christmas gift, in fact), it has already proven its worth. Wellington, like Chicago, is known as the Windy City, and my paltry little one-person umbrella promptly flipped itself inside out as soon as I dared to open it during a routine Wellington rainstorm. In contrast, this absolutely ENORMOUS and obnoxiously bright red umbrella is large enough to accommodate two people with a nine-inch height difference, and doubles as a walking stick and a fearsome weapon.

Goodreads

2014 was the year I joined Goodreads. Initially skeptical about the so-called “Facebook for books,” I ended up enjoying the site much more than I expected. The one-star reviews are helpful and often hilarious; I like seeing what my friends think of the books I hold in high esteem; I enjoy browsing others’ shelves and rediscovering books I forgot I’d read as a kid and teenager. I also found it surprisingly motivating — I couldn’t log on without being reminded of my 2014 Reading Challenge. Finally, it’s just a really nice, and easy to use, organizational tool.

THE BOOTS

You won’t believe it, but I arrived in New Zealand without a pair of hiking boots. In fact, I’ve never owned a proper pair of boots in my life until now! After attempting a 4-hour walk through the very muddy Pukenui forest, I knew that my tennis shoes weren’t going to cut it for the duration of the trip. Enter an extremely durable pair of Hi-Tec hiking boots complete with a semi-waterproof Gore-Tex layer and the most traction I’ve ever experienced in my life. I found them to be more comfortable than the Columbia boots I tried on, though they did require a lot of breaking in. You can find Hi-Tec boots at FCO stores in New Zealand, and probably other places, too — but that’s where I bought mine (for 60% off, no less).

Too Faced

On the other end of the spectrum is this incredibly lovely neutral eyeshadow palette by Too Faced (yes, you can catch a glimpse of my sweater there in the mirror). A last-minute goodbye present from my sister, this palette has served me well during my travels in New Zealand. Contained in a compact, durable metal container, the shadows are the best I’ve ever worked with. Granted, I haven’t tried a huge range of eyeshadows, but I can assert that it’s better than my Stila In the Light palette by an order of magnitude, and it also outperformed the Naked 3 palette that I got to borrow for a few days (and it’s cheaper than both of those!). Usually in palettes like this, you’ll get one or two great shades, three or four average shades, and a couple of duds. But all of the shadows in this palette are soft, creamy, evenly pigmented, extremely easy to blend (even for someone who doesn’t really understand what blending is), and work well with each other. I really can’t say enough good things about it.

Basil, sunset

It may seem silly to include a photo of a basil plant, but houseplants & herbs don’t get enough credit in my opinion. Though I’m only staying in Wellington for a few weeks, I decided to buy a full basil plant, as opposed to a package of loose basil leaves, because the plant only cost $1 more. It’s green, it smells good, it enhances all manner of pasta dishes, and it really just ties the room together. In all seriousness, though, the presence of a plant is strangely calming, as it gives the impression of stability during transitory times. When I leave Wellington for the South Island, I’ll plant the little guy in one of the spare pots in the front yard.

Little gray jacket

I think that my #1 clothing item for the past couple of years has been this little gray unstructured jacket. It goes with everything, can make a short-sleeved top winter appropriate, and is simultaneously tailored and casual. I wore it to classes at university, I wore it to work at the library, I wore it on the weekends, I’ve worn it 10,000 times in New Zealand alone. I bought it from Anthropologie, so I paid quite a bit for it, but it could not have been money better spent considering the fact that it has stood up to probably a hundred washes, if not more, and still looks almost perfect. Because it’s unstructured, it’s infinitely comfortable, and because it has no functional buttons, it complements any top or dress without overpowering it. Since I bought it at least two years ago, it’s no longer available, but something similar like this or this might fulfill the same purpose.

Yoga Goves

I think these were a belated Christmas gift from my mom in late 2013, but I can assure you that they were most thoroughly used this past year. Though technically biking gloves, I use them for yoga. I’ve been doing yoga casually for a few years, but always had trouble with my wrists when it came to downward dog and plank poses. I’ve found that these gloves greatly increase my “grip” on the yoga mat, and subsequently reduce my wrist pain. Knowing how commercialized yoga has become, I’m honestly surprised that yoga gloves haven’t been marketed as an essential accessory! Unlike $50 yoga mats and $20 foam blocks, these gloves are actually useful.

Bumble & Bumble

Alas, it’s another expensive beauty item, I’m afraid. Since it’s basically the only thing I use on my hair, though, I think it’s permitted. As you might remember, I officially stopped straightening my hair back in May, and I didn’t even bring my straightener with me to New Zealand! It may seem like a petty or superficial change, but not spending 20 minutes per day dragging my hair between two plates of burning metal has been a significant life improvement, let me tell you. Now, I just wake up, run my fingers through my hair, and apply some of this magic “defining” creme, which does what it says. It reduces frizz and makes my hair look less wild and random without weighing it down or making it look greasy. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes. In the United States, you can buy Bumble & Bumble products from Sephora; in New Zealand, I have no idea where to find them — so let’s hope my bottle lasts the whole year!

Liquorice Tea

This was a completely random discovery — who thought that tea made from liquorice root and fennel seeds could taste so strangely delicious? Because it does. Taste strange, I mean. And unlike any tea I’ve ever tried. Just look at that poisonous adder intimidating all those poor tea cups. Red Seal teas are of really good quality and are usually only about $3 a box at grocery stores here in New Zealand. But in general, I’d highly recommend trying a liquorice tea if you haven’t before.

Black oxfords

And finally, another pair of shoes! These beautiful black leather oxfords were a parting gift from my mother (my, aren’t we a dramatic family), and, as you can see, I’ve already worn them so much in the last 4 months that the sole on the right shoe is starting to detach. They are comfortable, unassuming, and go with everything. After tearing up my other pairs of casual “walking shoes” in Chicago’s harsh weather, I wanted something classic that I could wear every day without having to think about it. I’m not sure exactly how I settled on black oxfords, but I suspect it had something to do with Janelle Monae.

Which small things ended up being favorites of yours over the course of the last year?

Photo credits: umbrella, hiking boots, basil, jacket, and oxfords by G. Remainder by me. 

2014: Year in Review

At the end of last year when I was just starting to get into blogging full-swing, I found it useful to read through these types of recap posts. They give blog authors an opportunity to highlight and summarize the content on their sites, and I thought I would do the same.

But first, this photo, probably the best one I’ve ever taken, which has languished in iPhoto for months waiting for an opportunity to be utilized. Perhaps it could be a metaphor for how we’re teetering on the edge between 2014 and 2015? Nah, too corny.

On the fence - 2014 to 2015

My most-viewed post in 2014 was, by far, 10 Things people say when they learn you were born in Alabama. It’s quite amusing, if I do say so myself, though most of those pageviews have been generated by random folks googling things like “Alabama stereotypes,” “are people from alabama nice,” and “shit people from birmingham say.” My second most-viewed post, Roger Mello: Brazilian Illustrator and Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, is probably more worth reading, especially since it had the distinction of being cited in an academic publication — a completely unexpected and very exciting development! My third most popular post was the brief analysis I did of Emma Watson’s speech, which was surprising since my review was far from the most thorough, or most unique, out there. On the opposite side of the spectrum, seemingly very few people people cared about the facewash I was using back in March, which is good, since I concluded it was terrible after just a few more days of use.

My favorite post to write was probably my cathartic takedown of Paulo Coehlo’s absolute rubbish novel The Alchemist. Turns out a lot of people hate it just as much as I do! I’m also quite proud of my feature on the independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings.

My 10 favorite search terms that brought people to Literary Vittles in 2014:
10. depraved humanity, despair, violence and gore = walking dead
9. i refuse to straighten my hair
8. why do we need wisdom from on high
7. yara greyjoy naked
6. the alchemist open book quiz pages 11-47
5. why i like them movies
4. college feels like prison
3. boobs, butts, and thighs in GOT
2. pressure your sister is valedictorian and you’re not
1. did chick corea ever play the piano with his feet?

YA section - Bookends & Beginnings

At the end of 2013, I resolved to read 30 books in the coming year — and to spend proportionally less time watching films and television. Well, I ended up watching roughly the same number of movies, but I did read more books. So, partial success?

The best book I read in 2014 was, by far, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (full review). Unfortunately, I finished it in January! Persepolis, which was also granted a rare 5-star rating, was wonderful, unique, and came in second place. You can see a full list of the books I read in 2014, and links to my reviews, on my Book Review Index page.

The best and worst movies I saw in the theater were Edge of Tomorrow and The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively. If Edge of Tomorrow seems like a surprising or lame choice, well, it kind of is — but I found most of the promising new releases to be disappointing, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Most Wanted Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Boyhood, Under the Skin, and, yes, even Interstellar. It’s true that Ida was very good, but I thought it lacked something, and I’m hard-pressed to find any major faults with Edge of Tomorrow. An action movie, my favorite theatrical release of the year?! What’s happening! I should mention that I didn’t see as many new releases this year due to my trans-Pacific move and the significantly higher cost of movie tickets in New Zealand.

But the best “new” movie I watched in 2014 was, hands down, Taxi Driver. Really says something, doesn’t it, when Scorsese flicks are both my best & worst picks from the year?  The French-German miniseries Carlos, which falls somewhere between a movie and a TV show, was also extremely good. Some of the other very good movies that I watched in 2014 included Let the Right One In (Swedish version), Apocalypse NowTsotsi, Robot and Frank, Snowpiercer, Boyand The Babadook. The worst movie I watched (yes, even worse than Wolf of Wall Street!) was Divergent, the result of a sad trip to Redbox in rural Missouri.

But what did I miss? Were there any good movies that I didn’t manage to see, but should have? I’d still like to watch The Immigrant when I have a chance, along with Only Lovers Left Alive even though it’s been divisive, and I also think that Pride would put me in a good mood.

Lights

Last year I only had four resolutions, but one of them was major. It’s also the only one I managed to accomplish in full, ha! A review:

1. Stop being late to work every day
Well, I quit my job in September, so does that count? I never went to bed on time, meaning I never got to work at 8:30 like I was supposed to. I did, however, manage to fairly consistently arrive by 8:45. Which isn’t bad, if you know me!

2. Eat healthy & exercise 3x a week
I know I didn’t exercise 3x a week throughout the entire year, though I have been more active since arriving in New Zealand. As for the vague “eat healthy” mantra, I don’t think I’ve been eating any more unhealthfully, so, success?

3. Read 30 books
Nope! Only managed to read 22, of which only 18 were of considerable length. Ah well. Better luck next year.

4. Move to New Zealand
Well, of all the things! How did I manage to pull THIS one off?!

Lights 2

My resolutions for 2015 are a bit more specific:

1. Try again to read 30 books within the year (two shorter YA books only count as 1 “full” book)

2. Cook more often: try out 1 new recipe per month while traveling, and 1 per week when stationary. Bookmark any good vegetarian recipes I discover for my sister.

3. Eat more fruit — specifically, eat one piece every morning with breakfast

4. Eat less sugar — specifically, have one dessert-type thing every other day, instead of… every day

5. Do yoga 3x a week

6. Start running again so as to eliminate the huffing and puffing when hiking up hills

7. Stop getting so behind on others’ blogs — read new posts the same day they are published

8. Apply to grad school

And there you have it! Saved the big one for last, as per usual. If I ignore #1-7 and only accomplish #8, then I’ll still be pretty pleased with myself. I tried to make my goals a bit more specific so as to better define what “success” means — though “start running again” is really vague, I’ll admit.

May these beautiful lens flare photos also inspire YOU to undertake ambitious and possibly impossible self-improvement goals in the coming year.

Photo credits: Fence, me. Shelves (a takeout from the Bookends & Beginnings post) and spheres of light taken by G. 

Dental Disasters

I went to the dentist yesterday. I hadn’t been to the dentist in over a year and a half. Not good. When you’re moving from one insurance plan to another, and trying to graduate at the same time, scheduling a dental check-up is not high on the list of priorities. Well, IT SHOULD BE.

All was normal as I entered the waiting room. I filled out the necessary forms, then watched as a rather large man, wearing shorts that didn’t quite fit him, bent over the desk and bugged the blonde receptionist for entirely too long. Across from me, an old lady sat flipping through a copy of People. Apparently Prince George is celebrating his first birthday. I congratulated myself yet again for flossing the night before, and for brushing my teeth right before I left my apartment. Finally, my name was called, the little napkin was attached around my neck, and the doctor walked in.

She poked around for a minute before declaring, “You’ve got cavities.” She said this casually, as though I already knew. Well, I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected that those brown spots on my molars were up to no good.

“Yeah, you’ve got a few. Twelve.”

Twelve cavities?! The words hit me, but they didn’t sink in.

My mind immediately flicks to the case of Diet Vernors sitting in my fridge. I think of that old crazy friend, Allison, who used to make me watch videos on YouTube where Diane Sawyer went around poor communities in the Appalachian Mountains, interviewing children whose teeth had rotted from drinking too much Mountain Dew. Had it come to this?

“Is there… is there any reason in particular that there are so many?” I asked, still in denial.

“No, not really. Just think — you’re 23, right? And you’ve had these teeth since you were six. So that’s 17 years of chewing food. Think of a car. All cars, even a nice one like a BMW, are going to have problems after a while.”

At 23, it seems a bit weird that my teeth would go ahead and just give up on me. If they’re acting up this much already, then what the hell are they going to be like in my 30s? Did my teeth decide that since I work in a library and I’m in a long-term relationship, that there’s really just no point anymore?

“So, twelve. Six on each side. You can come back and I’ll do one side. We’ll save the other six for a separate appointment. The good news is that you only have to be numbed once on each side.”

The good news, huh? As I blinked through the sunglasses, peering up at the bright light, I wondered what it was going to feel like getting six cavities filled in one session.

“Ok. So I’ll do the cleaning now, and then we’ll get you scheduled for a follow-up appointment next week.”

She proceeded to vigorously clean my teeth (they deserved it). I was not given water to rinse with, but rather mouthwash (anything to stave off further decay, I suppose). I made my way out of the room, and a dental assistant abruptly handed me a toothbrush. Every other time I’ve gone to the dentist, I’ve gotten a hefty goodie bag. Not this time. Why even bother giving the girl with 12 cavities some floss? It’s not like she’s going to use it.

I picked up my bag, signed my name on the line agreeing to pay for 12 cavity fillings — a bill that, even with insurance, added up to more than my monthly rent — and floated back downstairs to the street where I waited for the bus.

I sat there wondering how I’d gotten to this point. I used to take such pride in my teeth. In fact, I’ve only had one cavity up until now, and it was a teensy tiny one that the dentist said wasn’t my fault. I’m used to sitting in that chair and opening my mouth and hearing the exclamation, “Wow! You have beautiful teeth!” The first time I had braces, I whipped out that irritating little floss threader and meticulously cleaned between each bracket every single night. Where did that dedication go? Was it when I was told that I was going to have to endure a second set of braces? Was it when I chipped my two front teeth in an otherwise lame hockey match as a sophomore? Was it when the lady at the hospital warned me never to drink coffee again, and to drink all liquids except water with a straw, because they would permanently stain my caps? Was it with the arrival of the Vernors? Or did I just let it slide, along with part of my A-type personality?

I’ve been floating around in this cavity-induced, pseudo-exististential crisis for the past 24 hours. Changes ahead. No more Vernors. Switching from coffee to strong black Kenyan tea. Nightly flossing will resume.

As for the 12 fillings? Well, I’ll just have to let you know how that goes.

 

Update: Curly Hair

I’m pleased to report that it has been over 2 months since I’ve straightened my hair. That post I wrote a while back, Resisting the Urge to Straighten, ended up being one of the most popular posts I’ve ever published, which was unexpected. I mean, there are so many bloggers out there who talk about their hair, and it’s kind of a superficial subject in general, that I felt a teensy bit bashful about writing something so self-indulgent to begin with. Apparently, though, it resonated with a lot of people, and it ended up feeling like some sort of pledge. Could I straighten my hair when I’d declared to a tiny slice of the Internet that I was no longer going to do so? NO! And so, my Chi straightener has been thrust into permanent retirement.

Has life changed dramatically since I stopped straightening my hair? Of course not. I got a couple of funny looks at work for the first couple of weeks, but that’s probably just because people weren’t fully aware of the amount of fluff sitting atop my head. I do feel like I have a bit more time in the morning, and generally my head doesn’t get as hot (ha!) since straightened hair is more dense and retains more heat. I wish I could say that I’m now at peace with myself or something, but that’s really not true. I do like the idea of being lower maintenance, but let’s be honest: my recent impulse purchase of a 10-piece eyeshadow palette hardly supports that argument.

I do think, though, that I’m somewhat less fraught about my appearance. I don’t feel as though I’m duping the world (or myself) quite as much now that I’m working with, instead of against, my hair’s natural curl and wave. I’ve worn makeup since I was 14 and that’s not going to stop anytime soon, but I think that’s duplicity of a much lesser degree (e.g., I’m not committed to changing my skin color, covering up my freckles, or altering the shape of my nose or cheekbones). So, yes. I think it’s just one less thing to worry about, and since I lean slightly toward the anxious side, that’s certainly not a bad thing.

If you are wondering exactly how I get my hair to look like it does, then here’s a detailed explanation for everything I do.

Shit for curly hair

I wash my hair at night (yes, every night! I’m so bad) using Pert. Pert is super cheap and the 2nd ingredient is sulfate. I tried using a sulfate-free shampoo for a couple of weeks after several people recommended it to me, but it just didn’t work for my hair. My hair is curly, yes, but it’s also fine and oily, and it needs that SO2-4 foaming agent, dammit. A couple times a week I use the Aussie 3-minute miracle conditioner. This stuff is also super cheap but just as effective as the significantly more expensive Redken conditioner that’s been banished to the corner of my shower. The Aussie stuff is really conditioning, though, so I’d warn against using it too often otherwise your hair will get weighed down really quickly. When I get out of the shower, I spread 1 pump of the Paul Mitchell Super Skinny Serum throughout my hair, comb through it, and pin it back with a couple of bobby pins. The Paul Mitchell stuff is expensive, but I prefer it to the cheaper & stickier leave-in serums, plus I feel like it does genuinely make my hair softer.

Then I just let my hair dry overnight while I sleep. I hate hairdryers and yes, my pillow is perpetually damp, but I’m lazy and this will never change. In the morning, I simply comb through it with my fingers, apply a generous dose of the Bumble & Bumble curl conscious defining cream, then flip my side part over juuuuuust a little bit more to make things more dramatic and to hide the pillow frizz. The Bumble & Bumble stuff is really expensive ($29), but the jar lasts for ages – you can see that the label on mine has started to rub off. (If you want a cheaper alternative, then I also like the Giovanni Strong Hold Styling Gel). I apply a bit more of the defining cream until I’m satisfied, then smooth it down with a tiny bit of oil. The oil I currently use is the tiny Biosilk jar that I got at Ulta for $1 (it has lasted since November). Finally, I spray a shitton of hairspray over everything to make it stay. I find that the hairspray is actually a very important step. It helps keep the curls looking consistent throughout the day & also adds volume back to the hair after the Bumble & Bumble stuff takes a bit of it away. This Garnier one is quite cheap and I prefer it to the Tresemme one that I was using previously.

That’s it! That’s all I have for you. Again, I’m not trying to start a revolution or anything, but if you do feel like it’s high time you stopped fighting your hair’s natural texture, then I’m here to tell you that signing a ceasefire works out well for everyone involved.

Photos thanks to G.