Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lunar Ladies Who Rock(et): Fashion and Friendship in The Astronaut Wives Club

Tee: Gifted
Skirt: H&M
Shoes: Not Rated, Journeys
Bag: Princess Vera, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Cloud Nine, Ocean City

 Red Rose Necklace

Top: ELLE, Kohl's
Skirt: Worthington, JCPenney
Shoes: Ami Clubwear
Bag: XOXO, ROSS Dress for Less
Sunglasses: Mudd, Kohl's

Tee: Marshalls
Skirt: Modcloth
Shoes: Christian Siriano for Payless
Bag: Betsey Johnson
Sunglasses: Relic, Kohl's

 Two Scoops of Cute Necklace

Top: Delia's
Skirt: Necessary Objects, Annie Sez
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Candie's, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Mudd, Kohl's
Belt: Apt. 9, Kohl's

 Rainbow Roses Necklace

Dress: Modcloth
Shoes: Penny Loves Kenny, DSW
Bag: Princess Vera, Kohl's
Belt: B Fabulous
Sunglasses: JCPenney

Starting this post with anything other than a shot of my interplanetary princess tee seemed just plain silly.  Never mind that she's no lunar lady; this "princess" can wrangle solar systems with the best of them while still maintaining her sleek, sassy bob.  I think the astronaut wives would have liked her, right down to her otherworldly blue skin.  But then, I like to think they would have liked my alternate title for this post too, the zingy but nonsensical "Said Saturn to Mars: I'll Run Rings Around You."  Which just goes to show what I know.

Speaking of which, when I saw the cover of Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, my first thought was, "Man, these women look old."  All seven sported the kind of helmet head hairdos that skyrocketed vibrant thirtysomethings into middle age.  But then, that was the 1960s for you: a time of roiling contradictions.  The same second look phenomenon would turn out to be true as I read the pages ahead.  Because I had expected The Astronaut Wives Club to be kind of, well, boring.  You know.  Dry, historical, humorless, and maybe, gosh forbid, a little science-y.  But thankfully, my fears were unfounded.  It turned out to be wonderful, full of the kind of slice-of-life snippets that put the "story" in history.

Koppel introduces us to the real-life wives of the Mercury 7, an elite group of Air Force pilots recruited to be the first men in space.  They came from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds, suddenly forced to live in each other's starched pockets -- and in the spotlight.  Their every move would be shadowed by and published in Life, a publication that would pay them handsomely for the privilege -- much more handsomely, I was interested to find out, than NASA.  That said, the wives' first act of solidarity was to wear Mamie Eisenhower pink lipstick for their famed first cover shoot.  However, Life -- sneaky, pseudo-reality creating media machine that it was -- changed it to red.  The wives were appalled -- they were homemakers and mothers, not starlets!  I was even more astounded to learn that they usually wore no other makeup at all.  Although always on the side of authenticity, I couldn't help but be kind of bummed.  This tidbit dispelled my -- and probably America's -- cherished image of the flawlessly made-up 1960s housewife.  But the lip color kerfuffle showed that this image is just an idea of retro, liberally and wildly tinted by the lens of nostalgia that glamorized the wives, much like Life itself.  The magazine beckoned ordinary housewives to look to these newly-crowned paragons as setting the tone for fashion, housekeeping, entertaining, and motherhood, perpetuating the myth that spins the need to keep up with the Joneses.

Yet despite the wives' reluctance, lipstick was making its mark.  Revlon launched its Moondrops lipstick in 1959, a line that's still going strong on drugstore shelves -- and in my purse -- today.  To that point, style, it seemed, would be one of the things that distinguished the wives from each other.  It may sound a little sexist -- as in, oh sure, the only interesting thing about women is what they wear.  But I don't mean it that way.  (If you're a regular reader, then you already knew that).  If anything, their fashion choices are empowering, symbols of their individuality.  Take Rene Carpenter, who boldly turned up in a tight red flowered dress for the Life shoot, violating the magazine's shirtwaist dress rule.  Or Betty Grissom, a self-proclaimed fashionista (not that anyone used that word back then) who would go on to sport fur hot pants.  That said, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a rivalry between social star Rene and introverted Betty.  But Koppel doesn't go there, leaving much to the imagination (much like those shirtwaist dresses).  She does, however, provide a lot of details about Betty, the Indiana-born underdog who quietly rises as the star of this interstellar story.

"The other wives still thought of Betty as an unsophisticated Hoosier and didn't know that Betty (whose full name was Betty Lavonne) saw herself quite differently.  Betty cared a lot about fashion and thought she was the best dresser of the group.   . . . Not many in the group sought out her friendship, but Louise Shepard was always sweet to her.  She always complimented her on her adorable new accessories, a watch or a pair of screw-back earrings, color-coordinated to one of her spiffy outfits.  "If there is anything out there new like that," Louise would say, gently touching a new wristwatch, "You've got it, Betz."  Louise was the only person who ever called Betty Grissom Betz -- like she was Bette Davis or someone." (61)

In this exchange, Koppel gently reveals the delicate fabric of female dynamics at work in The Astronaut Wives Club, and, for that matter, in groups of women everywhere, highlighting the importance of simple kindnesses.  Everyday social pressures may not seem like a big deal when husbands are being hurtled through the stratosphere or making time with groupies known as Cape Cookies.  But in the microcosm of the Astrowife world, female friendships were center stage, courting anxiety for he shy and the awkward.  This was especially true for Annie Glenn, who suffered from a lifelong stutter so severe that she had to write instead of speak her requests when in public.  Yet, although their husbands' fame foisted them into high profile -- and very social -- lives, it also equipped them with a much needed, built-in network of supportive copilots.

The Mercury 7 wives were more than interesting enough to hold their own.  So, when the Gemini and Apollo wives landed in Houston, I viewed them as something of an intrusion.  Ironically, it was this "intrusion" that gave rise to the official Astronaut Wives Club organization, which had, up until this point, been a string of informal gatherings over ham loaf and Jell-O.  Headed up by "Mother" Marge Slayton, the AWC, as it came to be known, became an almost invisible backbone for the rest of the book as it branched out to make room for the woman behind the men of Gemini and Apollo.  Still, for me, the heart of the story beat in Mercury.  I had so enjoyed getting to know these women, respected their pluck and bravery.  Life's goal had been to present them as perfect, forcing them into the kind of one-size-fits-all mold (and not the funky fresh Jell-O kind, either) that was a sign of the times.  In today's world, the media's objective would be very different, "reality" TV exposing and exaggerating their flaws and secrets Real Housewives style.  But Koppel achieves a balance between keeping it real and keeping it classy, presenting an account that is candid without being callous.

I was so taken with the book that I couldn't wait to watch the ABC miniseries, which premiered last Thursday night.  The reviews weren't great, but then they never are.  There are two reasons why people criticize TV shows and movies based on books: 1) they like to criticize things, and 2) they have such a bond with the book that they think of it as their own and feel that screen adaptations somehow betray it.  I, for one, liked the show, even if it did seem a little more surface-skimming than the book, relying on breezy one-liners to introduce character types.  But to be fair, character development in a book and in a TV show are two different animals, especially when the TV show spans ten plus years in ten episodes and boasts seven leads.  What's more, TV has its own techniques for conveying subtext, and sometimes its delivery is even more powerfully subtle than that of its print counterpart.  For example, always-ladylike Louise Shepard (Dominique McElligott) and trailblazing Trudy Cooper (Odette Annable) were more in the background in the book but emerge as wives to watch in the series.  Also, in the pilot, the wives are posed around the space capsule for the Life shoot, all wearing the mandated pastel shirtwaists.  Betty Grissom (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is the standout, front and center in her yellow dress and matching earrings that are a near-replica of those in the original photograph (these costume people are good), smiling with nervous pride as she smooths her skirt.  Then Rene (Yvonne Strahovski) bursts on the scene, all apologies for being late in her red flowered dress.  She's just the thing to set off the shot, the photographers snap away excitedly, and Betty's smile fades.  See?  I knew there was tension there.  Not that I blame Rene; if I'm being honest, I can see myself pulling just such a stunt.

So, I'm eager to see what develops.  And I'm specially excited to see more swinging sixties fashion.  Many a reviewer complained that the series concentrates too much on costumes and not enough on conflict.  But I disagree.  A whole closet's worth of conflict lies in each circle skirt's crease, in each hat's regal bearing.  Anyone who doesn't feel it needs to get to a lady's lunch, stat -- followed up by a good rummage sale.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Summer Turf of Sand and Surf . . .

 Dark Daisy Necklace

Top: LC Lauren Conrad, Kohl's
Dress: Modcloth
Shoes: ELLE, Kohl's
Bag: Marshalls
Sunglasses: Mudd, Kohl's

 Avian Adventure Necklace

Top: Jessica Simpson, Boscov's
Pants: Sears
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Nine West, Marshalls
Belt: Wet Seal
Sunglasses: Michaels

 Queen Bee Bauble Necklace

Tee: Merona, Target
Jeans: Candie's, Kohl's
Shoes: Worthington, JCPenney
Bag: Candie's, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Mudd, Kohl's

Some old, some new, some fun for you (well, mostly for me, but that doesn't rhyme, now does it?)

. . . is not something you'll see in these pictures.  But I did hit the waves this weekend, rekindling my love-hate relationship with the beach.  I usually make the first trip there in June on a cloudless, calendar-empty Saturday when staying inside seems like a waste.

Not that going to the beach is easy.  It's a commitment that demands more than your average bum is willing to sign up for.  There's the gathering of the paraphernalia, followed by the traffic-choked drive or the chair-chafing walk, depending on where you're coming from.  Then, just when you see the tops of the dunes, there's the trudge through the hot, hilly sand, the stuff spraying up in geysers to coat the backs of your legs.  This is followed by the choosing of the spot.  You know the one.  Not too sunny, not too far from the water, with plenty of distance between smokers and screaming five-year-olds.  Bonus points for one far from anyone hurling volleyballs, horseshoes, or Frisbees.  Then there's the unpacking and arranging of everything before you can finally plop in your chair -- and start applying sunscreen.  If you're the type who can't leave the house without slathering on the SPF 50, then you've probably had one of those moments where you think, "I'm not putting that stuff on today!  (Or, its seemingly more well-intentioned cousin, "I'll put some on later.")  What's the use of going to the beach if you're too worried about getting burned to enjoy it?"  Such bravado is usually spurred by 1) the desire for the all-elusive vitamin D absorption, and/or, 2) seeing some lobster-necked volleyball enthusiast (because you didn't nab that primo, no-sports zone spot after all) blatantly flouting UV protection.  He's big, he's athletic, he's as appealingly copper as a shiny new penny; nothing bad's going to happen to him!  To those people (and by "those people" I mostly mean me), I say: resist that urge.  Because after sundown, back in your bathroom, when the sun's angry red handiwork is glaring at you from the mirror, all of your worrywart ways will flock back to you, seagull style, in a tidal wave of self loathing.  And there's nothing carefree about that.

Still, despite its many nuisances, the beach has a lot going for it.  For starters, there's that scent of spandex, salt, and, yes, sunscreen, that makes you feel like the star of a Banana Boat ad.  Then there's the sun gleaming bright white on the surf.  The rumbling waves reminding you how wretched it would be to live anywhere land-locked.  The sand between your toes (and other places, but no need to go into that).  The horizon stripes of tan, green, and blue that look cheesy anywhere but in person (I'm talking to you, hotel art).  

It's quite the emotional roller coaster, the beach outing.  Much more so than that actual roller coaster roaring up on the boardwalk.  Whoever coined the phrase "a day at the beach" didn't do all of his homework.  But the guy who came up with "life's a beach"?  That guy was really onto something.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Soft Serve for Soft Hearts: Remembering Marvelous Maeve

Tee: Arizona Jeans, JCPenney
Jeans: So, Kohl's
Shoes: Chinese Laundry, DSW
Bag: Merona, Target
Belt: Izod, Marshalls
Sunglasses: Mudd,, Kohl's

Tee: Arizona Jeans, JCPenney
Jeans: City Streets, JCPenney
Shoes: Venus
Bag: Nine West, Marshalls
Belt: Wet Seal
Sunglasses: Michaels

Tee: Arizona Jeans, JCPenney
Jeans: City Streets, JCPenney
Shoes: Christian Siriano for Payless
Bag: Nordstrom
Belt: Marshalls
Sunglasses: Michaels

The whole creamy crew, plus our old pal minty.

This week I'm rolling out gumball bead necklaces in soft sherbet shades.  Which is why I included this shot of a larger-than-life custard cone (although I probably would've posted it even if today's topic was rodeo clowns).

The late great Maeve Binchy would certainly second this sentiment, as she's owned up to having a "custard heart."  I'm not sure if this is a Maeve-ism or an Irish-ism, but either way it spoke to me.  Even if custard means pudding across the pond (and pudding means something else); it's still soft and sweet and gooey and all the things that a good heart should be.  I learned this and much more in Maeve's Times, a collection of her Irish Times columns compiled by her husband after her death in 2012.  I've been reading Maeve's books since high school and always assumed 1) that she was in her sunset years, and 2) that she led a quiet life (probably because reading her books was, as their jackets proclaimed, "like having tea with an old friend").  It turned out that I was wrong on both accounts. She was only 72 when she passed, and her life was bustling.  She began her professional life as a history teacher who traveled the world on her summer vacations.  She wrote her father vivid letters about her adventures, and he was so impressed that he submitted them for publication to the Irish Times.  The paper offered Maeve a full-time position, and she ended up working there for decades, even after making it big with her books.  As origin stories go, it's a nice one.  I love imagining Maeve's father proudly posting the letters that would launch her career.  

Teaching and journalism proved apt training for writing fiction.  Binchy went on to produce twenty plus novels, most of them bestsellers.  All focused on the quiet and not-so-quiet dramas of small town Irish life (even Dublin is a village according to Maeve), and for that reason they were all realistic.  Alternately light-hearted, sad, and shrewd about the dark truths of life, Maeve's tales always emerged as optimistic.  It was an optimism that was more trustworthy than the kind that comes without shadows, and for that reason it was all the more hopeful.  Maeve's was a voice you could trust.    

Still, she had some mischief, too (she wasn't Irish for nothing).  Although I always thought she was funny, it wasn't until I read Maeve's Times that I realized the sharper side of her wit.  Take this passage from her July 9, 1996, column "Curmudgeons of Summer" (which also has the bonus of ice cream):

' "I don't like summer myself.  Personally," said the girl in the pale pink shorts and the dark pink halter top.  She was eating a huge ice cream cone and waiting in the crowds to see the USS JFK come into view in Dun Laoghaire.

She looked like an advertisement for summer, with her shining hair, her 97 small, healthy teeth, her light suntan and her air of well-being.

"I know," said her friend, who was no use as a friend.  She had said 'I know' to people for all of her 18 years, and you could tell she would do so forever.  "I know what you mean."

The girl who didn't like summer, personally, was was at least a person of views; she was prepared to elaborate on her stance.

"You see the thing about summer is that you expect so much from it," she said earnestly.  "Every time you open the papers or turn on the television, there's someone saying, "Here comes summer," and you get all excited and then nothing much happens at all" ' (302).

This is just one of the many examples in which Maeve uses gentle, almost companionable sarcasm to expose a character flaw.  As unkind as it seemed to this prematurely sour pink lady, I must admit that I rather enjoyed it.  (To be fair, Maeve ends this exchange with an expression of pity for the girl because she has no tough love friend to set her straight.  Even as she mocks, she mothers.).

Still, the part that hit home for me was the one about writing, namely the November 30, 1984, piece "Develop Your Own Style" (a mantra, apparently, that applies to more than high heels and handbags).  Binchy urges young writers to "write as they talk" instead of crowding their prose with a bunch of big words.  I couldn't help but smile because I used to do this.  My eighth grade English teacher insisted that I rewrite my salutatorian speech because otherwise no one would understand it.  I was, of course, righteously offended.  Who cared if anyone understood it?  I was supposed to use big words -- that was the point of being salutatorian.  Stern but kind, ex-teacher Maeve is sympathetic to such misguided behavior:

"It's not easy to do it at once, not if you have been used to writing as a vehicle for other people's thoughts and expressions.  But once you start, it becomes easier and easier and you will wonder how you could ever have begun a tale with some showy sentence full of words and hiding what you meant to say.  It's a bit easier also to hide the real you, and what you feel if you use the disguise of other people's language.  It's somewhat safer to say "within the hallowed walls of this esteemed place of learning" instead of saying "here at school" because the first one has a kind of sardonic ring to it . . .  the second is more naked." (209)

Now, if sardonicism is your thing and/or if you're talking about said school ironically, then I'd say go full steam ahead with the first version.  But if all you're trying to do is establish the setting of a school dance or bake sale, then listen to Auntie Maeve.

Finally, Maeve devotes many a column to defending the elderly, the poor, and the all-around unpopular.  This is where her journalistic roots and innate soft-heartedness come into full flower, foreshadowing the underdog-championing sagas that would seal her fame.

So, that's Maeve.  Pretty marvelous, huh?  The next time I'm dithering outside a Kohr Brothers window, torn between chocolate mint and vanilla orange twists, I'll think, Maeve, this cone is for you.

Monday, June 1, 2015

On the Topic of Tropics Part Two and the Pull of Papyrus

 Mint Julep Jewel Necklace

Top: Wet Seal
Skirt: Marshalls
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Bueno, Marshalls
Belt: Candie's, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Michaels

 Spangle Tangle Necklace

Top: Merona, Target
Skirt: Marshalls
Shoes: Guess, DSW
Bag: XOXO, ROSS Dress for Less
Belt: Gifted
Sunglasses: Rampage, Boscov's

Top: Macy's
Cardigan: Mossimo, Target
Skirt: Candie's, Kohl's
Shoes: Dolce by Mojo Moxy, Shoe Dept.
Bag: Candie's, Kohl's
Sunglasses: Michaels

Big, colorful blooms make great backdrops, as seen with this week's trio of rain florist-flanked rhinestones.  No surprise there.  Exotic flowers have a rep for being the most dramatic, both in appearance and temperament.  We turn to the hibiscus, the orchid, and the bird of paradise when we want to make a splash, whether it's by the pool or for some kind of formal (that is, if we're talking orchids -- and the formal's a luau).  Yet everyday blossoms breed their own brand of intrigue, however seemingly safe behind white picket fences.  Take the dandelion.  It's the Transformer of the weed world, magically morphing from a strong, sunny circle to a cloud of ethereal white fluff.  Or wisteria.  I only recently learned that this pretty purple vine is a ruthless tree strangler, a piece of trivia no doubt horded by horticulturists and "Desperate Housewives" fans. Yep, garden variety flowers have a certain cachet, whatever their super powers.  I'm so taken with them that I've decided, after years of thinking the venture hopeless, to grow a few of my own.       

Fledgling green thumb or not, like most people, I don't like change.  Despite all the conveniences available to help us cope in this cuckoo world, I find myself clinging to stuff that's old school (including the movie Old School, which airs on TBS about once a month).  I write checks instead of using online bill pay, listen to CDs instead of MP3s, take pictures with a camera instead of my phone, and watch TV in real time instead of On Demand.  But of all these outdated rituals, the one I enjoy the most is reading books on paper instead of a screen.  Because I want to experience it all.  Vicariously.  From the comfort of my couch.  And everyone knows that it's just not the same curling up with a Kindle.  So I was particularly pleased to have recently read this nostalgic nod of a passage in Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Scandal

"(Stella) Paused at the book aisle.  Cast a sidelong glance down the neat rows of best sellers.  She used to love to read, her bedside table stacked with thrillers and mysteries and historical romances from the library.  Once Ollie was dead, she treated herself to an occasional hardcover - she loved the feel, the smell, the sensation of letting the pages flutter against her fingertips.  Only, ever since she'd taken up the banner in defense of the defenseless, it seemed like her days ended in the kind of exhaustion that didn't do well with reading a chapter or two." (177)

Although many a print book proponent gets all flowery about the feel of the pages, I never tire of hearing it (especially from a vigilante browsing a rural Missouri Walmart).  There's just something special, almost hallowed, about the aura of tangible objects, and that goes double for books.  They seem to have histories and personalities that can't be unlocked by a cold, charmless screen.  Now might be a good time to admit the irony of saying so on a blog (an acknowledgement that I've made at least once before in these some 1,000 posts).  But then again, a collection of ramblings, however colorful, is not the same as a piece of fiction, and so does not demand the same timeless trappings.   

Take that, Kindle.  You too, Ollie.  Because the pen is mightier than the sword.  Except when the sword is a Taser or whatever weapon it was that Stella was wielding when she did you in.  If there's a takeaway somewhere in here, then it's this: never cross a woman with a library card.  

Even though I think that libraries smell funny.