The Art of Everyday Moments, Courtesy of the L’Occitane Sales Lady

I had to fight the crowds today to get one last gift for which we waited to late to order online. So I dutifully trudged to NorthPark Center — my favorite mall in the entire North Texas region, if I must select one — this morning and hoped that getting there early would make it easy to find a parking space.

I clearly wasn’t thinking that whole plan through.

I did find a parking space, but behind the mall. It wasn’t too bad, but I was surprised at just how busy and crowded the mall was on a weekday morning, even if it was 5 days till Christmas. I didn’t see a lot of kids either, so it wasn’t about school letting out early for the holidays — just a lot of people across the Metroplex who collectively decided that now would be a great time to get some shopping done.

I only had one thing to purchase, and that was a tube of L’Occitane’s lavender hand cream. I made my way to the little shop near the interior entrance to Neiman Marcus and found it mostly empty but redolent of the sweet mixture of flowers and herbs of which the shop is known. I’ve never found it to ever be busy, even on this, the busiest shopping season of the year, which I always thought was a bit odd considering our mad obsession with all things French. Maybe it’s the fact that a small tube of hand cream can set one back about $25, when one can get something similar at Target for half that? In our up-and-down economy, I can see why that might be a bit of a turnoff, although that doesn’t explain the crowds at Origins and Sephora.

Nonetheless, I still enjoyed my brief time there. Since we’re in the thick of the holiday shopping marathon, the shop had lots of beautifully packaged “gift sets,” from mini travel kits to lavish deluxe “collections” priced in the three figures. I sort of wished that I had people on my list for whom I could scoop up all these delightful and fragrant French beauty and grooming kits, but I had exactly one gift for one person in mind.

When I finally made my way towards the register at the back of the store to make my purchase, I was ready to just pay and leave, but that’s when I was reminded again of why, sometimes, making that small investment of time and effort in doing actual shopping at a real brick-and-mortar store can transform a mere transaction into an experience.

Now, here’s the thing: I used to love Christmas shopping. When I was in college and finally had my own car and a part-time job that paid a decent wage, I couldn’t wait for winter finals to be over so that I could make the pilgrimage to the local mall in our city and shop for my loved ones. Back then, it really was an event — I loved every second of it, even the crowds and the long lines.

I’m not sure what happened, though, but sometime in the last few years, Christmas shopping has become less of a pleasurable activity and more of a chore. So much so that I now do 90% of my Christmas shopping online and avoid the mall as much as possible.

It doesn’t help that that “local mall in our city” has since deteriorated quite a bit to the point where it seems little more than an air-conditioned, indoor flea market. JC Penney left awhile back, a sad-looking Burlington Coat Factory struggles to survive, and the fancy old Dillard’s that served as its strongest anchor is now a depressing, badly lit clearance outlet of that once-proud department store. Even the Barnes & Noble finally surrendered and packed up last Christmas. In its place is something called Shoppers World, which I hope to god I’ll never need to enter.

In other words, it’s not even a shadow of its former self. That former self is a ghost that likely isn’t even interested in haunting this bleak building. Yes, it’s that bad.

Today’s brief foray into the L’Occitane store at NorthPark Center (a good 45-minute drive today, given all the holiday traffic) for that $22 tube of hand cream reminded me again — if only for a brief moment — why shopping at a physical store can be a genuine pleasure. When it is, even the smoothest online transaction can’t quite compare.

LoccitaneshoppingFirst of all, the sales associate (isn’t that what they’re called nowadays?) seemed truly happy to be there and effortlessly engaged in a casual chat that seemed downright…well…neighborly. She seemed in no rush to finish my purchase so that she could, say, get back to texting on her phone or fiddling around with inventory in the back, but rather appeared to really enjoy doing her job. Can you imagine that?

Once she’d finished ringing up my purchase, she asked me if I wanted a gift box, and I’m sure I must’ve looked at her in surprise. Really? For one tube of hand cream? Since the hand cream already came in a box, it wasn’t really necessary, but oh what the hell, why not.

I was slightly awestruck watching her carefully wrap my little box of hand cream in red tissue paper, gently place it into a charming little box, and then put the whole thing in a lovely paper bag in a cheery design. And the final step? A little sample packet of their shea butter hand cream.

Okay, so perhaps I’ve just become so used to lackluster service that even the smallest gestures are magnified in importance, but I’m still impressed. It reminded me of when I lived in Japan in my early twenties and discovered that shopkeepers there considered every purchase, no matter how small or “insignificant,” to be important and deserving of careful and deliberate presentation. (Hence the stories of $100 melons wrapped in doilies and packaged in sturdy gift boxes.) People cared about objects and considered them almost like works of art deserving of a proper “frame.” It was an eye-opener for the jaded American in me who was used to things being unceremoniously dumped into a plastic bag and handed to me with the perfunctory, “Have a nice day!” If that much.

In Japan every purchase is a ceremony, so their meticulous and gorgeous packaging of even the most mundane of items is a reflection of that.

I walked out of the L’Occitane store, through the mall and back into my car feeling a little lighter on my feet and a faint melody of a Christmas carol in my head. I still only bought that one little tube of hand cream and nothing else, but suddenly the 45-minute drive, the crowds, and even the light rain that had begun to fall as I exited the shiny glass doors of Neiman Marcus seemed worth the effort. In a world where Christmas has become not much more than a marathon of tiresome chores and obligations, it was a brief but memorable reminder that meaning can be found in the smallest of detail, and that the effort to create beauty and grace in even the most prosaic of everyday events  is a ceremony worthy of attention and appreciation.


Beauty Review: Paula’s Choice Hydralight Shine-Free Daily Mineral Complex SPF 30

Paula's Choice Hydralight Shine-Free SPF 30

The best daily sunscreen I’ve ever used. Strongly recommended.

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I’m a BIG fan of Paula Begoun, aka the CosmeticsCop. I’ve been a fan since the late 1990s, partly because she’s been screaming about broad spectrum sunscreen long before the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries finally woke up to its necessity. Asians have known for centuries that aging well is all about sun protection, which is why it could be a warm, bright day in Tokyo, Manila or Kuala Lumpur, but there will be a sea of brightly colored umbrellas shielding faces and necks from the noonday sun.

She’s since rolled out an ever-growing collection of skincare and cosmetics under the Paula’s Choice label, and while not every product is a winner, a few have become staples in my daily regimen. Her skin balancing toner, super antioxidant serum, BHA exfoliant, and clay mask, are all winners and have done wonders for my skin.

Surprisingly, what I haven’t been a big fan of up to now is her sun protection line. Despite the fact that she’s been a pioneer in getting people to use broad spectrum sunscreen on a daily basis and that her own skin type is very similar to mine (oily, sometimes combination skin prone to acne), her sunscreens have been a little disappointing. The last one I tried was a daily facial sunscreen that left my face looking and feeling shiny all day, from the moment I applied it on my skin. I went back to my tried-and-true Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 30, which I’ve been faithfully using for years. I wasn’t crazy about the fact that Neutrogena apparently removed the antioxidants a year or so ago, but I can live with that since I use Paula’s Choice’s antioxident-rich serum at night.

Recently, though, a complimentary sample of Paula’s Choice Hydralight Shine-Free Daily Mineral Complex SPF 30 arrived with a shipment of products I ordered. I tried the whole packet this morning on my neck and face and was astonished at the results. Not only did it glide on smoothly and easily on my skin, but it has kept that beautiful matte finish all day long. There’s a hint of shine on my nose and the top of my forehead after a few hours, but otherwise my skin feels delightfully silky and soft. Even my Neutrogena standby can’t claim that, as my face usually feels a little sticky after a few hours.

It does cost quite a bit more than the Neutrogrena, of course: $20.95 for a 2 oz. tube vs. about $9.00 for the 3 oz. Neutrogrena. (Although I just checked the site and found it currently on sale for $17.81. Too bad I just ordered!) Still, it’s a small price to pay for beauty. I’ve spent twice that for products that did nothing to my face and had far less to recommend them, and if I can use this and forego foundation altogether, well, then, I’ve no qualms about making this small investment.

Bottom line: I’ve found a new daily sunscreen.


Book Review: Paris in Love: A Memoir, by Eloisa James

Warning: I read this while I was on a Caribbean cruise vacation last week, so you’ll forgive me if my review is colored by the backdrop of my reading environment!

I’ve become very skeptical of late by many Paris-theme memoirs of Americans gone abroad, especially by those who’ve only recently moved to the City of Light and who have been thus inspired by his or her forebears to write passionately and with so much color about What I Learned About Myself and the Parisians. Typically these center around food (lots of it, and always organic and freshly picked within an inch of its life!), wine (even more of this, and the more famous the vintage, the better!), beauty and fashion (always chic, never sloppy, and always topped with an artfully tied scarf), and of course, sex (what else is there to add to this most ancient of traditions?).

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Eloisa James’ latest book, Paris in Love: A Memoir, an account of her year in the city with Alessandro, her Italian husband and fellow academic, and their two children, Luca and Anna. I knew that she herself is an academic, and a literary-minded one at that: she’s a Shakespeare professer at Fordham University. She’s also better known among mainstream readers as a romance novelist, sort of like a brainy Joan Wilder, with titles like Once Upon a TowerAs You Wish, and Seduced by a Pirate. Clearly, then, she’s familiar with writing for a mainstream audience and has an easy facility with emotion-laden words and imagery.

The mere word itself — Paris — already evokes so much heart-felt emotion, even among those who’ve never been there. It’s difficult enough to say the word with a neutral inflection — you almost want to breathe it out, the letters spilling out of your mouth like a fragrant breeze. It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about Paris, and more than one writer has succumbed to the temptation. I won’t name names, but it can be challenging finding a good, contemporary book about life in the city that doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes and vomit baguettes.

Thankfully, James’ book isn’t that book. It has its shortcomings but overall, it’s a lovely book, both inspiring and thought-provoking, and rarely overwrought.

James had originally planned on writing four books (presumably more romance novels) during her year-long tenure in Paris, but much of the writing she ended up engaging in turned to be pithy Facebook posts for an ever-growing audience of friends and Francophiles. She eventually edited and elaborated on these posts, the result of which was this book, something she explains in the opening pages.

Now, as soon as I read this, I cringed. And yes, rolled my eyes. I’ve had enough of books that are basically edited compilations of their respective writers’ blogs. Yes, I love reading the collected essays of, say, John Cardinal Newman or H.G. Wells. Most bloggers, however, are not of the caliber of Cardinal Newman or Wells, and in any case I usually feel cheated. I get that many readers would love to have a favorite blogger’s essays and posts in a single, well-bound paper copy, one that they can dip into on a rainy evening by the fire with a glass of really good wine. But in other ways I also feel as if the blogger was just rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline to produce something while the masses still craved her writing.

James book reads nothing like that at all. The mini-essays that fill each chapter are delicious to digest and savor, like multiple courses of a once-in-a-lifetime meal. Consider this, one of my favorite passages:

I lived in Paris once before, during a junior year abroad. Back then, I was working as a model, which meant that I reflexively averted my eyes from all sorta of culinary temptations. Instead, I salivated over lingerie stores displaying delicate pleated bras and extravagant silk panties. Now I zip past those stores only to linger at chocolate shops displaying edible chess sets, or a model of Hogwarts in dark chocolate. It’s nice that life is long enough to give you desires of many kinds.

She paints a small picture here, but it’s one packed with such vivid imagery and sentiment. The book is filled with thoughtful micro-stories like this one, many of them starring her precocious children and their wondrous, if often complicated journey through this new foreign land in which their adventurous parents have deposited them. James’ vision of Paris and her own life grows, expands and embraces so much, you almost forget that the idea for the trip partially grew out of a cancer scare. She finds joie de vivre in the delectable chocolates she loves so much and which can be found everywhere in her adopted city, but also in that quiet, cold day she stayed home with a cold, curled up with a weepy book about a newly widowed mother.

One of the things that I think attracts so many people to Paris is that a lovely life is all about the details. Dallas, where I live, is about living large, where the hair is ever bigger, the makeup ever heavier, the jewels ever more bedazzling, and the personalities as outsized as the sky is wide. Paris, on the other hand, is about moments where walking on the sidewalk is an art form, food and wine are  objects of poetry and song, and love blooms on every street corner. If one is to believe James and her lyrical memoir, the French view life as a feast for the senses, but without the indigestion that comes from overindulging. Enough is, well, more than enough. And life, however long it may be, is indeed long enough to bless you with all the desires your heart can hold.

Click on the image below to purchase a copy of this book on Amazon:

The Heart is a Lonely Runner

Running as an act of grace

After what happened at Boston last week , I’ve been obsessed with getting back to running. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for awhile know that I’m a big runner, and have been since the mid-1990s. Boston terrified, horrified and also inspired me, and while I don’t know if I could ever get to the point where I would actually be able to qualify to run the event — let alone actually do it — it’s the City on the Hill for many runners, the shining beacon of light for those of us slogging through our daily runs.

Running was something I never thought I’d engage in, and certainly not as seriously as I have in the past. Being ill for so long has made me forget — almost! — what a great and freeing experience it is every single time I step out onto the sidewalk just outside my door and just start running. It’s both simple — a pair of good shoes is all you really need — and complex — nutrition, rest, recovery, training plans, oh my! — but in essence it’s something just about anyone can do.  Best of all, it’s the best stress-reliever for a Type A personality like me. Even a short run of just half an hour can dissolve every ounce of nervous energy in my body, replacing it with all those delicious endorphins that make me feel like anything is possible.

So it was with dismay and shock that I read about the Boston bombings and their horrific, bloody aftermath. I’ve spent the last two weeks – can you believe it was only a week ago last Friday that the surviving suspect was nabbed after a massive manhunt? – scouring the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, CNN, and the Guardian UK (by the way, the Guardian turned out to have the best, most accurate coverage of all the media outlets) for any and all details about the event, the suspects, the manhunt, the investigation, the brothers. The brothers Tsarnaev themselves were singular in their stories – especially Dzhokar, the youngest and only surviving suspect, now languishing and recovering in a federal prison, his skinny frame riddled with bullet wounds, one possibly self-inflicted. I’m as puzzled as anyone why these two young men, seemingly with their future wide open with possibilities, who fled to the United States with their families from a homeland bloodied by war, could even contemplate turning against the country that welcomed them with open arms all those years ago, let alone actually carry out such a brutal and unforgettable act.

I wonder about Dzokhar in particular, this teen who just a few weeks ago, by all accounts, was just like any other ordinary teenager anywhere, now handcuffed to a hospital bed, having just bombed the storied Boston Marathon, killed three people in the most painful way and maimed and wounded hundreds more, watched his brother gunned down in an explosive firefight with the police, and slowly bleeding almost to death while hiding in a boat. Whatever his motivations, whatever his future holds, his life – like that of those he had hurt and killed in such cold blood – is essentially over.

Running itself is such a peaceful act, one of the simplest there is among all activities and sports. I put one foot in front of the other, and while there is nothing profound about stepping outside one’s front door, there is also something timeless about the movement of the legs, the cadence of the breath, the communion with the road unrolling beneath and in front of you. We place our poor bodies in harm’s way so much, so often, abusing it with stress, bad nutrition, inactivity, and God knows what else, but when we run we switch back to our primordial selves, and however reluctant it may be to respond after such prolonged neglect and indolence, it somehow remembers what it means to be a living, pulsating engine, powered by a beating, happy heart. More than “runner’s high,” that sweet flood of endorphins that can sweep you a runner to ecstatic heights, it’s about the freedom to simply be that we find nowhere else in our busy, hectic lives. Ambition powers the mind, but freedom unlocks the heart.

Ancient men and women crisscrossed the savannahs in this way, before work, deadlines, 24/7 accessibility, multitasking, “work-life balance,” mobile phones, cable channels, unfathomable CEO paychecks, commuter traffic, petroleum pipelines, rampant obesity, suburban angst, urban crime, drug addictions, geopolitics, $5 lattes, $100,000 weddings, reality TV, abortion debates, angry soccer parents, high fructose corn syrup, Wall Street, and everything else that makes up the puzzle that is modern life. Ancient humans suffered and died like we do now, and their lives may have been more savage, less noble, but for better or worse, running is what moved them – us – from the hard, bleak existence on those vast savannahs and into the comfortable, fat, luxury that we take for granted today. Once upon a time, our ancestors ran towards the enemy full of courage, or ran away from it for survival.

After every scrap of evidence has been compiled, all the videos and photos analyzed, every witness interviewed, every word Dzokhar has ever uttered or written scrutinized, and every argument has been made, we will likely still never really know what compelled these two otherwise bright, promising boys to inflict such unspeakable damage on so many lives. Even Dzokhar, the surviving brother, for all his youthful bravado and intelligence, may not really know himself. Sometimes, the darkest secrets within our own souls lie just beyond our reach.

What I do know as a runner, however, is that while we’re far removed from the dangers of the ancient savannah, running still requires courage. It’s still about survival. The enemy is still on the hunt, ever present, ever unknown. Boston proved that. But now we run in spite of the enemy, not because of it, a defiant act in the face of such evil that is breathtaking (literally and figuratively!) in its very audacity and ordinariness. Whatever inspired the Tsarnaev brothers to commit this crime against humanity, they chose the wrong venue in which to do it. Runners have fragile bodies but strong hearts, filled with compassion and fueled by freedom. Boston proved that, too.

I have fought the good fight.

I have finished the race.

I have kept the faith.

- 2 Timothy 4:7


Photo courtesy of h.koppdelaney on Flickr.