Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Feliz Navidad - a whole año later

When on a phone call with my Mom over the summer, I asked her where she purchased a cute mask she was wearing in a photo she shared. She pulled the phone away from her ear and called to her husband, “Jack? Who’s your mask guy?”

And that, my friends, is where we are in 2020: we now have ‘mask guys'.

While the rest of the year was not the best (<--- understatement), 2020 began on a high note: we rang in the new year with our cava and grapes at Puerta del Sol in Madrid – the end of a two-week trip through southern Spain that took us to Marbella, Júzcar, Ronda, Granada, Almeria, Madrid, Toledo, Seville, and Malaga. Southern Spain has been on our list of places to visit for several years now, as Mr. Brutalism's grandfather, with whom he was very close, is from a small village near Almeria and landed in upstate New York after coming through Ellis Island in 1920. (Not sure how he felt about leaving the Mediterranean coast for Buffalo, NY, winters but let's imagine all the new experiences were enchanting enough for him to overlook that.)

We learn a lot when we venture out into the world and this was no exception. And even though I've had a year to write this post and nothing but time to do it, I am just now capturing some of the most memorable moments of our trip. So, here goes - Southern Spain, what we learned:

1. When you experience a twinge of guilt for having your daughter miss Christmas morning at home for the first time in her young life, you quickly get over it when she lounges by the pool and on the beach Christmas morning. 

Not a bad first attempt, just need to 
work on the leading (and possibly the
kerning) in the headline (<---nerd alert)

2. Spaniards love fried dough with chocolate and they also love their ham. There are many iterations of these ingredients throughout the region and it would be provincial to not at least sample the wares. Repeatedly.

Palmera de chocolate in Toledo

Buñuelos in Seville

Jamón Ibérico in Madrid

Churros y chocolate in Madrid

3. When a concierge at the hotel in Marbella suggests you to take a side trip to Júzcar on your way to Granada - do it! Júzcar is a tiny village (pop. 225) that was populated with traditional Andalusian all-white houses (pueblos blancos) until 2011, when Sony Pictures wanted the town to help promote the new Smurfs movie by painting all the houses and buildings in the town Smurf blue. Part of the agreement was that Sony would repaint the buildings after promoting the movie, but the town decided to keep them blue after realizing how their Smurf village became quite the tourist attraction. (More than it was for mycology tours and the annual mushroom fair prior to this.) And while the drive through the curvy mountain roads will have you white-knuckling it - it is worth it for the random and Smurftacular experience!

4. When you watch your 14-year-old daughter negotiate with a street vendor in Spanish to get a better price on the knockoff sunglasses she wants to purchase, you feel a bit of pride. You will feel this again when you watch her understand she should not negotiate with the artist at a Seville Christmas market who helped her select a gorgeous piece of his original artwork. 

5. While touring the Granada Cathedral with an English language recording in your headset, and the narrator suggests you look up and then notes, "isn't that a beautiful organ?" it may prompt you to type the following into Google translate:

Spanish 101

6. While looking at all the Belen (nativity) displays in the cities you visit, do not assume it is either the jet lag or the vermouth in action when you notice what looks like a pooping figure in the middle of the tableaux. You learn these are Caganers - found in Catalan Belens. You will then embark upon an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find just the right Caganer at the Christmas markets. You will make up for this with this little gem of a gift for Christmas 2020:

Yes. It's a Pooping Jesus. You have your Christmas
traditions...we have ours. (I feel a "holy sh*t" joke would be simultaneously
appropriate and inappropriate here, which is confusing.)

7. You discover upon checking into the Aire Hotel and Ancient Baths in Almeria (an 18th century building in the old quarter of downtown that overlooks Alcazaba and the San Cristobal Tower), that the adults in your party are able to use the ancient baths as part of the room reservation. You bid your kid adios and head downstairs for two hours of awesomeness - massage, cold baths, hot baths, steam rooms, and floating in salt water in a completely quiet pool area. (Before you ask - this is all while wearing bathing suits. Something Mr. Brutalism wishes he had confirmed prior to taking off his robe.)

8. If you pull into what looks like a hotel parking lot during the five-hour drive to Madrid so your driver can rest for a few minutes, you may want to ensure the hotel is not actually a "gentleman's club" so when you get out of the car to stretch your legs a big goon will not walk out of the building and tell you to move along. (You will later learn many gentleman's clubs are actually brothels and they prudishly frown on minors visiting their properties.)

9. When you reach out to an old friend from grad school who is from Madrid, you will be delighted to discover he will be spending the entire month of December there. He will then graciously invite you to dinner at his family home with his parents, and take you on tours of Madrid in a way that only someone who is from there can. 

Javier and his kids celebrating a Feliz año nuevo
with us at Puerta del Sol

10. When you walk around the area where El Escorial Monastery is situated, you may see somewhat creepy life-size nativity figures. You may also notice some schmendrick went around to most of them and bent down all but the middle finger on the figures. 

That's what you get for gifting myrrh

11. When you fly through Morocco on the way to and from Spain, you're again reminded of how well-connected your kid is when she sees school friends in the Rabat airport. (Repeat of seeing three schoolmates on the streets of London last year for spring break.)

12. You should visit the Puente Nuevo in Ronda, the Alhambra and Mirador de San Nicolas in Granada, the Royal Palace, Plaza Major, and Reina Sofia Museo (where Guernica is housed) in Madrid, the underground air raid shelter in Almeria, El Escorial Monastery in Madrid, Plaza de España in Sevilletour the Christmas light and Belen displays, and shop the Christmas markets in every city you visit. But you can learn all of this from any guide book - I'm here for the 'that's what she said,' poop, and middle finger jokes.

It's a beautiful country to visit and we can't wait to do it again. eso es lo que ella dijo.

For what we learned, Indonesia and Hong Kong, click here
For what we learned, Costa Rica, click here
For what we learned, Italy, click here
For what we learned, Iceland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, click here
For what we learned, London, click here
For what we learned, Bahamas, click here
For what we learned, Peru, click here
For what we learned, France and Morocco, click here

Puente Nuevo in Ronda

Fartsy shot

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020

 Submitted in family's virtual Thanksgiving contest...

...and re-imagined for company's holiday contest.

Monday, October 19, 2020


For my daughter's 15th birthday this year, she and four friends went to Build-a-Bear Workshop. A working theory of why she decided upon this seemingly regressive celebration is that it perhaps reminded her of simpler, more innocent times when she went to school in person, was mask-free, and lived in a country where the president was able to correctly use polysyllabic words. 

Or perhaps she wanted her friends to express their personalities by choosing an animal and clothing that reflected their hobbies and sense of style. 

Whatever the reason, the kids and their masks excitedly met at the local mall's store and decided upon the stuffed animals they wanted. Among the two boys and three girls in attendance, the choices included bunnies with Steelers and Capitals uniforms, a bear with a baseball uniform, and a bear with a fedora and sunglasses. 

My daughter chose a monkey, dressed him in nothing but boxer briefs, and named him "Wilson" after an affectionate neighborhood cat we completely love. Wilson is inarguably adorable:

See how cute Wilson and his
underpants are?

And speaking of harkening back to a simpler time, it made me nostalgic to see her hugging Wilson all day after she brought him home, just like she'd done with her stuffed animals when she was much younger. She kept him close until evening, then went to bed with Wilson tucked under her arm. 

All was good and teeth-achingly sweet until the next morning, when she woke up and found Wilson on the bed next to her like this:

Um. This is not quite as cute, Wilson.

She pulled his briefs back up - and the next morning found him the same way again. Now, every morning, she dutifully puts his boxer briefs back in place and every morning, she rediscovers him with his underpants around his ankles. 

A new part of our morning routine is my daughter matter-of-factly bringing Wilson into my room and humorlessly showing me his underpants around his ankles. Every morning, this makes me silent laugh until I cry. 

Note: Some internet research shows there is a drink called a "Dirty Monkey" - perhaps this is more rampant than we know?

Other note: When I shared the Wilson situation with my friend, Lisa, she determined that "Keep your pants on, Wilson" should be the new response to someone's impatience

And yet another note: Friend, Amy, suggested it may be helpful to coin an additional response based on recent events - that being, "Keep your pants on, Toobin."

I wonder if there's a drink called a "Dirty Legal Analyst"?

UPDATE: Witnessed yesterday, and possibly (probably?) explaining the displaced underpants:

Apologies for the victim shaming,


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I'm Sure I Was Number 21

Earlier this summer, I submitted an essay to a writing contest conducted by the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop. I have never before entered a writing contest, and figured one that selected 20 winners might be a good one to dip my toe in, particularly because the topic was 'Sisters' - a topic for which I have much fodder. 

Alas, the list of winners was announced today and I am not on it. Not one to keep things from you, dear readers, the essay is included below. 

Twisted Sister

The sisterly bond is one of loyalty, love, and support.

Or so I hear.

I entered the world exactly thirteen months and one week after my sister and only sibling. According to our mother, she was completely fascinated with me initially – it was as though my parents had brought an exciting new plaything into the house. This seemingly auspicious start was actually rather foreboding, as she spent the rest of the time we lived together conceiving of ways to toy with me.

It began when a kindergarten teacher asked her to draw a picture of her family. She returned home and proudly shared the original work that depicted all our family members in a line: a full-color Daddy with a huge, red crayon smile, a vibrant Mommy looking elated, and my sister – looking every bit as vivid and happy as our parents. As the next in order chronologically, I expected to see myself. However, the space where I should have been was reserved for our cat, Henry, who also flashed a cartoonish, gleeful grin. Instead, I came last – a figure set apart from the rest of the family, drawn entirely in brown and lacking any facial features. I often reflect on the efficiency of simply walking into a therapist’s office and wordlessly handing over this picture.

A vacation memory from our early years signaled my sister’s inclination toward premeditated torture. Knowing we would be sharing a hotel room bed, she stopped clipping her toenails well in advance of the trip, then sharpened them into miniature shanks before crawling under the covers with me. It is no surprise one of my favorite photos of my sister and I around this time is from Halloween, in costumes we selected. I am dressed as an angel and she is dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. 

The metaphor is not a subtle one.

During our childhood, I was perpetually the Charlie Brown to my sister’s Lucy – I wanted so badly to trust her, I repeatedly and foolishly let down my guard. She rewarded this vulnerability with some of her most cunning work during our high school years. I fallaciously believed she would be an ally in high school and possibly even help me assimilate into her group of friends. Rather, she elevated my social pariah status to staggering new heights.

We attended high school when kids still listened to terrestrial radio – and everyone our age followed one particular Top 40 station. She used this very public platform one evening to call in a treacly love song dedication to the quarterback of our school’s football team, claiming it was me and that I was too shy to profess in person the feelings the song so perfectly articulated. I conveniently blocked out what were surely some humiliating school days following this incident, though the sound of Casey Kasem’s voice will likely always be triggering.

Another time, my best friend and I took a summer class for driving instruction so we could earn our learner's permits. Each morning for a week, we met at a local school where we assembled to receive instruction on a parked school bus. We would then exit the bus to drive cars in the parking lot and practice what we learned.

As my sister already had her driver’s license, she was tasked with schlepping us to class. Because this errand cut into her free time, she decided to make this chore entertaining for herself. So one morning, she tore into the parking lot at what felt like a million miles an hour, turned aggressively to perform a squealing donut around the instruction bus, and screeched to a halt right next to the open bus door. My friend and I slunk out of the car and up the bus steps as my sister sped away.

Unamused by these antics, the instructor berated my friend and me, and explained we had demonstrated exactly the wrong way to drive a car and were completely irresponsible with no regard for safety. I was so thoroughly mortified I told my parents about it, naively believing it would address the situation. I was hopeful we’d reached a détente as my sister pulled into the parking lot slowly and carefully the following day…and continued driving slowly and carefully as she deliberately ran over each and every orange pylon set up for our class.

Understandably, all of these exploits affected my self-esteem, so when I was inexplicably able to attract a boyfriend senior year (albeit from a different school), it felt like something of a coup. The relationship was going well until he called the house one night and my sister and I both simultaneously lunged for the phone. She managed to grab it first and when he asked to speak with me, my sister politely informed him I was unable to come to the phone as I was “having a bowel movement.” He was gentleman enough not to mention this when we ultimately spoke, although he subsequently requested a rain check for our date at a Mexican restaurant that weekend.

What I’ve detailed here may cause some to think my sister was unrelentingly cruel. I contend that in retrospect, her behavior toward me was not all heartless and actually quite formative. While these embarrassing episodes were tough at the time, they absolutely helped me develop a sense of humor and discover an outlet for expressing it. In fact, I learned most personality traits are molded in the developmental years and these characteristics often help identify which career best suits us as adults.

I suppose, then, it is interesting I became a humor writer and my sister found her calling as a corporate litigator.

Which is also not a subtle metaphor.

Saturday, August 01, 2020


While on one of the 27 walks I now do daily to cope with not being able to do anything else, I chatted with my friend and walking partner, Lisa.

As we discussed the weirdness, disappointment, and horribleness that currently characterizes life in 2020, she made the observation that in 2020 one day blends into another with no discernible difference, nobody wants this year, and everyone really just wants it to go away. Which is when she adroitly noted, "2020 is cankles!"

A more apt analogy never existed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


I came to know John through his wife, Meredith.

Meredith and I met when we were in our 20s and dating guys who lived in the same row house in DC. We eventually outgrew those relationships and grew into ours, and she became one of my very best friends. 

Lore has it she and John met on New Year's Eve 1999 when Meatloaf was performing at Madison Square Garden. Meredith had been selected from the crowd of thousands at the concert to join the band onstage during the song "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." (Things like this happen to Meredith all the time - her life is a series of bizarro incidents that sound made up but are not.) When John spotted her on stage, he turned to the friend he was with and proclaimed, "I'm going to marry that woman." (The reality is they'd met one other time prior to that, but this telling makes for a better story.)

When they started dating soon after, I asked about him and she told me he was a comedy writer. As Mer is one of the world's funniest humans and provides almost-constant comedic fodder, I figured this was a perfect union.

And in many ways, it was. They moved from NYC to LA and back to NYC - following writing jobs for which John was hired. As a native New Yorker and part of the comedy world, John had a community of comedian and writer friends who, if you didn't recognize their names, you'd definitely recognize their work. I got to know some of this crazy, creative circle during visits to see John and Mer, which at times included taking the train to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone, going out to restaurants, or just hanging out in their apartment. This circle grew to include my daughter, my Mom, and assorted friends I introduced, who immediately (and understandably) liked John and Meredith better than they liked me.
One of my favorite pics of these two
taken during one of the Writers Guild
Awards shows.
By any measure, John is an impressive guy. He graduated from an Ivy League school, received an Emmy nomination for his writing on "The Chris Rock Show," published a novel, did stand-up comedy, and wrote and produced the Writers Guild Awards in addition to many other notable writing and performing credits.

Additionally, John knew more about music than anyone I've ever met. And not only knew music but was, himself, an accomplished musician. (He and I shared a love for the Ramones. One of my favorite memories is when we were at a relative's house following Meredith's mother's funeral, and John sat down at the piano during the gathering and began to play what sounded like a classical music piece. After a few moments, I realized he had actually slowed the tempo and stylized one of my favorite Ramones songs - then looked over, gave me a sly smile, and continued with his performance.)

He was really funny like that.

Other favorite memories of John are:

- On the way to my cousin's wedding on Long Island, I absentmindedly left my phone on the train. A Samaritan located and turned in the phone, but the LIRR would only allow it to be picked up in person, they would not ship it. John offered to head to Penn Station from their apartment (not a short trip) and send the phone back to me in Northern Virginia, which he did. While I know it was inconvenient and required a lot of logistics, he made me feel he was happy to help

- When Meredith and John had to move their wedding from Malibu, California to Orlando, Florida very quickly due to both of Meredith's parents being ill and not able to travel, John not only went with the flow, he also embraced it. So many things did not go as planned during the wedding celebration (photographer broke out in hives and left without telling anyone, audio did not work, so reception music was played via niece's Hello Kitty boom box and a microphone, etc.) and instead of either John or Meredith getting upset, they laughed at the absurdity of it all and as a result, set the tone for the most memorable and fun wedding I've ever attended

- When my daughter was born, Meredith came to my shower and presented me with a gift from she and John: a tiny Ramones t-shirt and the following original artwork:

- When I turned 40, John put together a mix CD heavy on the Ramones and other music he knew I'd like

- And perhaps best of all - for Christmas a couple of years ago, Meredith tracked down a (ridiculous, amateur) horror movie she and I had filmed years earlier and John edited and scored the movie as a gift, adding credits and graphics to the video. It was thoughtful and creative and hilarious and so very him

Some of my other favorite John and Mer moments through the years are captured in the posts below:

New Yawk - December 2008
New York Part 1 - Meredith - June 2009
Happy 10th Anniversary of Guy Who Flipped Over the Banister Day - December 2009
Psycho-phant - November 2010
The Red Carpet Treatment - February 2014
The Write Stuff - February 2015
A Martle By Any Other Name... July 2015 (this one is about Mer, so I feel it provides context)
Finding Mr. Write (aka Bob Balaban) - February 2016

As I'm sorting through specific memories over the past few days, it's clear that somewhere along the line, John became more than just my friend's husband - he also became my friend.

When John, who had never smoked and rarely drank, got sick five years ago with lung cancer, he and Meredith did not let it define him or their lives. Through the years, I often felt there would be no John without Meredith - she seemed to sense exactly what he needed and was able to provide it and support him in all his endeavors. She took such good care of him always, though particularly in the past few years. When I and others told her how awed we were by all she did for John, she brushed it off, saying it was "what anyone would do." Except it wasn't. It was extraordinary. And the most loving display I have ever witnessed.

Ave's first visit to NYC in 2006 - John and Mer babysat her
in the hellhole hotel room we rented so Tim and I could have a night out.
Ave screamed her head off the whole time. They are very good friends.
Comedy Against Evil show at the DC Arts Center the
night before Rally to Restore Sanity, October 2010
Brunch with John, Mer, and my Mom at "Fetch"
(We were so trying to make "Fetch" happen)
November 2012

Brunch with Meredith, John and my Mom in November 2014.
I cannot remember why we were having a stare down, I just
remember we laughed all day. Especially when my
Mom declared she had a "hankerin' for some gravlax."
(She loved this day because she made John laugh, which
she knew was a high compliment, indeed.)

Tribeca Film Festival 2008 - Meredith starred in 
a short selected for the festival - John and I were there as

More shenanigans with John at the film festival.
As I recall, I made an insensitive comment about the size of his prostate.

The last time I saw John was about a month ago. Meredith cleared with his doctors it was safe to visit as long as I was diligent about hand washing and did not hug him. That weekend, we spent all our time in John's room, told stories, and watched a video some of his comedian friends had created for his birthday. The video was hilarious and very sweet, with each person taking time at the end to share birthday wishes and talk about how much they loved John. When the video ended, John remarked, "there are a lot of people who love me."

As I was leaving the next day, I told John I loved him and that I would see him the following month (my daughter and I were scheduled to do a charity walk in NYC with Meredith at the end of April). Of course COVID-19 thwarted our plans, but we were still hopeful at the time.

On April 19th, Meredith called to let me know John had passed - at home with her, his Mom, and their dog, Baxter, snuggled up next to him - as always, surrounded by love.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

It was MerMagical!

One of my best friends loves all things ocean and beach. She takes beautiful beach photos, aspires to attend all the major pro surfing events around the globe, and has decorated her apartment to feel airy and beachy. So it is probably no surprise she also loves mermaids.

Which means I was delighted to discover the largest Mermaid convention in the country (world?) happens here in Northern Virginia where I live - at an aquatic center in Manassas (which seems a little far inland, but what do I know?) The event is called MerMagic Con.

It also means for Christmas, I sent my friend the most presumptuous Christmas gift, ever - that being a ticket to MerMagic Con. (Some context: she lives in Manhattan, has more going on in her life than anyone else I know, and my gift to her required a weekend's worth of travel.)

I'm thoughtful that way.

So, several weeks before the event, she let me know she would not be able to make it this year. Rather than let our tickets go to waste, I invited my friend, Lisa to attend with me. And attend we did - last weekend. And while I'm not sure anyone would truly know what to expect at such an event, we found it to be completely eye-opening (in addition to being fun, inclusive, welcoming, interesting, and about 97.8% outside our comfort zones). Thanks to the mermaid community for letting us be part of your world (see what I did there?) for a few hours.

As with all new experiences, we were exposed to many new things (and more than one heinie), which I've captured below.

MerMagic Con 2020 - what we learned:

1. The exhibit hall was fairly small, which led us to brainstorm ideas for how they could expand in the future: t-shirts printed with the phrases, "Got Tail?" and "Got Krill?"; a Starbucks pop-up (think of their logo); celebrity photos with Vince Gill - the possibilities are endless.

2. When you attend the Mermen panel and the moderator asks the five panelists, "What do you like most about being a Merman?" and the first guy excitedly replies, "the tail!" and the next four say something along the lines of "inspiring people/making the day of little kids/letting kids know they can be anything they want" you're fairly certain the first guy would like a do-over for his response.

Photo cred: MerMagic Con Instagram
That's me at Camp John Waters - clapping
appreciatively on the far left, while my
friend, Ricky, gets a neck sit.

3. You look like the straightest, most boring person in the room when you are unadorned by any mermaid paraphernalia and flash back to your Camp John Waters experience when you were also the straightest, most boring person in the room. (see photo at left)

My mersona is no mersona.  
4. Custom mermaid tails are no joke. Nused tails were being offered for $3500 and weigh probably 50 pounds. It requires strength and training to swim in these things, and they can actually be dangerous and hazardous to those who are not properly trained. (That's okay, firefighters and cops - you still corner the market on swinging.)

5. People earn their livings as mermaids. Not many, but some. What I wouldn't give to be at that class reunion when a former schoolmate asks, "So what do you do?"

6. In the "Creating your Mersona" panel, a woman sitting in the front row inquired of the presenter, "what age should I be as my Mermaid persona?" and the instructor helpfully noted that to make it easy to remember her backstory, she adds a zero to her real age. The person sitting up front added, "See? I knew Mermaids were older. My sister is a vampire and we always have this argument!" (See: "straightest, most boring person there," in number 3 above)

7. When you miss the "Merwrangling" panel, your friend suggests chatting up a Merwrangler in the hallway for the Sparks notes version of the panel. It is here you learn a Merwrangler acts as a bodyguard and schlepper (once in tails, Mermaids cannot easily get on stage or into a tank without help from another person) for the mermaids. And tells you that Mermaids attract a LOT of unwanted attention from the drunks at Ren Faires. (Aside: Can you imagine being really drunk at a Ren Faire and seeing a mermaid in a tank? Would you immediately begin adding up the tankards of beer you drank or closing one eye to determine if you were seeing things?)
(Ed. Some internet research has indicated most people can't imagine not being really drunk at a Ren Faire. This blog teaches me so much.)
Merwrangler. Merwrangling.
(photo courtesy of @theMerFriends on Twitter)
8. You will be simultaneously impressed and slightly horrified when your friend immediately understands what is meant by "LARP" when it is mentioned in a panel. (For the uninitiated, it is Live Action Role-Playing.)

9. After a couple of hours at the event when you become more comfortable with the art of mermaiding, you nod in agreement and solidarity when a panel moderator states, "I didn't think I was going to be a rose gold mermaid, but then I found a rose gold tail and here I am."

10. Being part of the mermaid community is much like being part of the Smurf community, as many words in the MerMagic Con program were converted into portmanteaux e.g., "Creating your Mersona," "Make your own Mercessory," and "Merlympics"

11. There are seminars and panels for things such as mermaid resume writing, traveling as a mermaid, basic tail repair, considerations about getting your own tank, and safe breath holding in the water. Since we had only a few hours there this year, we'll know what to focus on in '21.

12. You are reminded again about how much of a Dilettante you are because you could never get this into anything, and have a healthy respect for those who can and do.

They're mermazing,