Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Exact Emotional and Monetary Cost of a Good Pair of Jeans

It all started with a little Facebook post.

I take it back — it started with a year of semi-consistently complaining to my husband that I didn’t own a good pair of jeans, then him encouraging me to just buy a pair I loved, who cared how much they cost! And then also maybe we can stop talking about it?

And so I turned to Facebook to ask my ladies where they bought their favorite jeans. The response was overwhelming! Clearly I was not alone in this struggle.

Some said to go to Nordstrom or Bloomingdales and the right pair would “find me”, some said Nordstrom Rack, a lot of people said Madewell was the place to go.

I took their advice to heart and have spent the last two plus months trying to find the pair of jeans that will transform me into Charlize Theron. What follows is a detailed account of this unexpectedly arduous process.

Week following Facebook post:

-Contemplate the advice I’ve received and make some key decisions:

-Realize I have only ever felt intimidated in Bloomingdales. I don’t know if I can face my cellulite in those Nordstrom 3-way mirrors. Both are pricey, and why fall in love with something I can’t afford? I strike them from my list.

-Nordstrom Rack seems like the same options but for less — I decide I will go there.

-Madewell seems specialty enough that I am potentially okay spending more to get something better, if it can live up to the hype. I will brave the Madewell denim bar.  

 

Thursday, September 1st:

-Go to Nordstrom Rack. Am immediately overwhelmed.

-Gather a pile of jeans heavier than anything I’ve ever picked up at the gym, making sure to get the recommended brands — but how can I be sure I found all the options when I am surrounded by 17 rounds of denim?? What if my magical pair is buried somewhere, mislabled?!

-Try on 18 pairs. Go through the slow process of elimination by making a yes, maybe, and no pile.

-Whittle it down to Joe’s, which are indeed the most comfortable things ever, and cost $80, which seems respectable enough. The problem is I have to decide between a smaller size, which fits my legs, and a bigger size which fits my waist. Story of my life.

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Body shape has been exaggerated for emphasis, but you get the point.

-Decide I am an adult, and can no longer respect myself if I continue to live life with my top button undone. Buy the bigger size.

-Take them home, try them on with all my shoes. Only then do I realize they’re not cute. How did this happen? I don’t understand. I wear them all day anyway because they feel like freaking pajama pants.

Friday, September 2nd:

-Try the Joe’s on again. Am frustrated they didn’t become cute while I was sleeping.

-Wonder if I am to the point where I care more about comfort than style. Who do I have to impress anymore, I sit home most Friday nights! But I know in my heart I’m not there yet, and it makes me both happy and sad.

(September 3-4th I spend regaining courage)

Monday, September 5th:

-Hear Madewell is having a Labor Day sale. Text my friend who we’ll call Meg to see if she wants to go. We go, with her adorable 1-year-old son who will never have to experience what we’re about to.

-The Madewell Gals look trendy as ever in their ponchos and vests. They prowl along the line of jeans, asking if they can get me anything. I repeat what I’ve been told by my FACEBOOK LADIES WHERE U AT, maybe I’ll try some 9″ skinnies? They tell me this is a great choice.

-One asks if I want to try the “skinny boyfriend.” I know I should say no to any variation of boyfriend, but in spite of myself I ask her what they’re like. She walks out from behind the denim bar to show me she is wearing them. Those are weird, I think. “Those look cute!” I say. I’m not lying, not intentionally at least. They do look cute in the way that my brain knows they are trendy, they just don’t look very cute to my eyeballs. “They run a few sizes small,” she says, which is enough for me to agree to try them on.

-Meg and I enter our “dressing room,” which is more like a poolside cabana whose curtains are never quite closed. We try all different styles. We try the same styles in different washes, which somehow all fit differently?

-We find that the same two pairs look COMPLETELY different on us and the Traveling Pants were either extremely magical or it’s all a total sham. I can’t let myself believe it’s a sham, as I am still in love with Kostos.

Quatre filles et un jean The sisterhood of traveling pants 2005 Real : Ken Kwapis Michael Rady COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

My heart actually fluttered while picking this image.

Meg and I recall a time years ago when we went bra shopping together at Victoria’s Secret in an especially dark period of singlehood. We each picked out the most expensive, bejeweled contraption of a bra we could find, and in a beautiful moment, discovered we fit into the same size! You would not guess by looking that she and I could fit into the same size bra. This renews my hope that the Traveling Pants are possible, and we continue.

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Which sister are you?

-The boyfriend jeans throw me off. They are sort of actually cute? Or perhaps just so comfortable that I am fooled. They are so comfortable…I could pull these off…okay no, SNAP OUT OF IT. I am not a Madewell girl, I’m not ready for this level of trend.

-Find that my favorite pair is grey. This is a problem because I have come here for JEANS. Jeans are not supposed to be gray. Meg’s favorite pair is denim, torn at the knees, and fit her great.

-Am really starting to like the gray jeans and it’s making me sweat because they cost over one hundred dollars. Suddenly I remember the $50 Visa gift card I won at work that’s sitting on my dresser at home. I fall to my knees and wail “NOOOOOO!” because that could have made this purchase somewhat palatable.

-Grab a blouse to try on with my 2nd favorite pair of jeans. It’s the cutest thing in the world, and suddenly I am this girl:

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I’m not wearing this outfit, but I am her in spirit you know? I have her essence.

 

-Decide I will get the blue denim. I probably also have to get the shirt too, until I look at the tag– it’s $80. I put it down, gently, as my heart rips in two.

-Meg texts her husband to forewarn him about the upcoming credit card charge, just so he doesn’t think it got stolen. I cringe imagining the trying-to-be-supportive-but-still-confused look on Scott’s face when he sees how much mine cost. We lament having not spent all our money on clothes while single, are uneasy with this strange new guilt.

-We part ways, a little giddy, a little dazed at having spent $128 dollars before tax on jeans. I go home and try them on with all my shoes. They look great. Phew!

 

Tuesday, September 6th:

-Wake in a panic, knowing I’ve made a mistake. I was supposed to get the gray ones! I liked them best, they fit me best, and who needs “blue jeans” anyway?

-I blitz to Madewell, gift card in hand. I walk in, grab the pants, but the salesgirl (thankfully different from yesterday) asks if I need any help. I tell her no, I just want to try on one pair real quick. She asks if I’ve tried the Skinny Boyfriend Jeans. I decline politely, but while trying on my grey pair she appears outside the curtain, saying she brought the boyfriend pair “just in case.” I agree to try them on because I am spineless.

-She brings me a pair of white Puma sneakers to try on with the boyfriend jeans, and she’s right — it’s so cute. It’s so cute and new! I love it! But I can’t buy sneakers AND jeans, and without the sneakers the jeans are not. I try to tell her that skinny is the cut for me, to which she responds she recently read an article in Refinery 29 about how skinny jeans are expected and boring now.

-Presented with these facts, I suppose maybe I just need to try them on at home. I buy the damn boyfriend jeans, and the grey jeans, making sure to secure the receipt.

 

Wednesday, September 7th:

-I, a 28-year-old woman, put on music while home alone and try on all the jeans with all my shoes.

Saturday, September 10th:

-Have a brilliant idea to do my fashion show for Scott. He says kind but unhelpful things like, “I think they all look good on you — just keep them all!” I appreciate his support but cannot allow it.

-Briefly yearn for female roommates.

-Make the mistake of also trying on all my Zara jeans. I’m struck by their cuteness and the fact that they cost 1/3 of the price.

-Exclaim, “I HATE CLOTHES!” from the bedroom, loud enough to make sure Scott and The Universe can hear me.

-Go to text all my friends pictures asking for their opinions. Realize the only ones I event took a photo of were the boyfriend jeans. Is it a sign? 

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They’re cute. They are, aren’t they? Don’t tell me I don’t want to know.

 

-Long to live in a world where we all wear tunics. Give me a nice, shapeless bag of burlap, I will wear it every day and never complain about life in District 12!

 

Sunday, September 12th:

Have a moment of clarity where I realize that to be stylish you must invest a significant amount of either a) time or b) money. My behavior has demonstrated that I am willing to invest neither of these, which means I deserve clothing from Zara and Forever 21.

No mere mortal can resist.

Monday, September 13th:

-Wake, serenely, and put on the grey pants. They feel right. They’re not perfect, but no one is, and expecting perfection is not realistic. I’ve been through so much here, I would like to have something to show for it. This is a commitment, and I must choose to be committed each day. I choose the grey pants. I take everything else back.

Sunday, October 2nd:

I see a group of girlfriends, many who commented on my Facebook post. They ask excitedly, are those the new jeans?! They’re so cute! I have to tell them no, these are from Zara, $40.

Tuesday, October 18th:

I wear the grey jeans publicly but the tags are still on. I catch a reflection of myself and must admit they are one fine pair of pants, but see they still tug just so around my tweedle dee tummy.

Thursday, October 20th:

I take them back and get a size bigger. They are comfortable, they are almost as cute as the smaller size, I am taking steps towards maturity.

Today, October 28th:

Find myself looking at the photo of the Skinny Boyfriend Jeans.

I will probably go to Zara next time.

The New Conquistadors

I went to Machu Picchu over the summer and it was spectacular. It did what travel does better than vacation, which is to enlarge your puny mind. I gained an appreciation for Peruvian culture and some guilt for having exploited it — a strange juxtaposition which I will attempt to explain.

I grew up dreaming of going to Machu Picchu.

My mom went there in 1968 when she was nineteen years old, and she reminisced about it so many times I came to know the story by heart — how her parents decided to take her at the last minute (and during finals week, no less!) How they traveled twenty hours from Lima to Cuzco on a bus full of chickens. How she and her 21-year-old brother hiked unmarked paths in the mountains and got lost in the maze of ruins.

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The cutest 19-year-old Mother!

That’s why when my in-laws invited us to go, it was a no brainer.

I didn’t do a lot of research or trip planning. Instead I mostly daydreamed about the picture my mother and my father in law (who also saw Machu Picchu in his twenties) had painted in my head.

For convenience, I ordered a fanny pack. For safety, Scott bought a water bottle called a LifeStraw. We packed our carry-ons with essentials — Nikes, travel-sized hand sanitizer, a Spanish 101 book, and were on our way.

Most of what follows is taken from notes I jotted on my iPhone.

When we land in Cuzco we are greeted by the travel guide my in-laws have arranged. As we exit the airport, a Peruvian man begins snapping photos, grapevining in and out of our group, paparazzi style. We giggle nervously, surprised this was part of the deal until the man walks away and we realize it wasn’t.

Paloma, our guide, takes us to see Inca ruins all over the Sacred Valley. As we drive, we spot them everywhere — massive terraces cut out of the sides of the Andes, so high I can’t fathom how they got up there; we can barely manage the climb in our rented 10-passenger van.

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For a little perspective — each of these terraces is 2.5 humans tall

Paloma educates us on Incan architecture, pointing out pyramidal angles and the way each rock is cut into perfectly interlocking shapes — like Legos, she says — all to protect against earthquakes.

Notice how perfectly they all fit together. Legos!

Photo taken by my brother in law, Zac Taylor, who should work for National Geographic

She tells us the Incas built lavish temples out of stone and covered the most sacred ones in gold leaf. They ruled their empire from the capital of Cuzco for hundreds of years until the 1500’s, when the Spanish Conquistadors invaded. It was guns against spears, men on horses versus men on foot. It wasn’t even a fight. The Spanish tore down every Incan structure and built Catholic churches in their stead.

The jerks tore down every single Incan structure — all except for one.

We visit a textile factory inside an adobe home in a cobblestone town called Chinchero. The air is thin at 12,343 feet and the surrounding mountains are solid brown.

There are five women in the factory, all wearing traditional garb, shockingly bright. They all have the same hairstyle — long black pigtail braids hanging over each shoulder. The older ones have faces like the apples I used to peel and let shrivel at Halloween.

We sit on thatched benches in a semi-circle as one of the women, we’ll call her Camila, walks forward and begins to show us how they make dyes. Red from a parasite that lives inside a cactus. Purple from purple corn. Green from coca leaves.

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Another stunner taken by Zac

She grabs a root that looks like ginger and grates it over a bowl of water, creating a shampoo they use to wash alpaca wool, and also — she points to one of her braids — the women’s hair. She works the alpaca with an easy, habitual motion, pulling the gunk out of it, then shows us another bowl that contains already-cleaned wool — the finished product — like it’s a cooking show. The two women with apple-doll faces walk up on cue, spinning cleaned wool on what look like Peruvian yo-yos into yarn. She tells us how the women can do this all day, even when chatting or dancing!

She tells us baby Alpaca is the softest of the wools, and that you should only buy it in this factory because elsewhere, it’s probably not even real. “It’s not baby Alpaca,” Camila says, “it’s maybe Alpaca!”

Camila’s presentation ends and suddenly three more women emerge to sell us their textiles. After what I think is successful haggling, I buy a beautiful blanket for gobs of money. I won’t tell you how much, for I am ashamed.

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Cloaked in the blanket I am certain can be purchased at Urban Outfitters

In the coming days, each of us finds our spoils being sold by street vendors. I beg Scott to not find out how much our blanket is going for, but he can’t resist, and the answer is that we have been severely ripped off.

We laugh to keep ourselves from feeling stupid. After all, we are educated people! We have traveled! We are not used to being had. Their presentation felt so sincere and lovely, I don’t like thinking it was a sham. And I really don’t think it was a sham — I think it was a hustle. I want to feel good about supporting these women, but the blanket I now must smother into my already-packed carry-on feels like a token of American naivete.

After more hikes and markets and unbelievable ruins, the time finally comes to make our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. It will be the most incredible thing I have ever experienced, but to earn it we first must go slowly through hell.

We take a train that descends into Aguas Calientes, a tiny town built for the sole purpose of housing earlybird tourists eager to make it up the mountain by sunrise. My father in law tells us the town didn’t exist when he came here forty years ago. I am sure it wasn’t here when Mother came either.

The Andes seem different in Aguas — less arid, more jungle. Less of a rambling mountain range, more individual peaks jutting out of the ground; a cluster of granite push-pops covered in green.

The air buzzes with anticipation. Everyone seems to be speaking a different language; zip-off pants abound. We stroll up the main, only road as locals peddle llama keychains, llama paintings, bags, scarves, and hats featuring llamas, and selfie sticks. They speak fifty words of English and two of them are selfie stick.

I have so much trouble with the selfie stick.

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I have dozens of these photos. DOZENS!

After dinner we head back to our hotel. We see a four year old boy dressed in the traditional garb of the mountain towns. It’s the cutest thing we’ve ever seen until he starts scrambling towards us shouting, “photo! photo! photo!” and we realize he is not dressed but in costume, sent by his parents to help make a buck.

We do take a photo of a traditionally-dressed family, and pay them a handful of Soles for it. It’s what they’re at the market for, will surely help feed or house them, but it still feels a little gross.

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Don’t miss the baby strapped to her back. They’ve been doing this way before those solly baby things.

We go to bed at 10 PM, too wired to really sleep. The men get up at 3:30 AM to make the bus line by 4 AM. The women go to meet them at 4:30 AM and are dumfounded by how far we have to walk to find their spot. Together we stand in the pitch black for two hours until finally it’s our turn.

We board the bus at 6:30 AM and scale one of the push-pop mountains, zigzagging sharp switchbacks on a narrow dirt road. We exit the bus and see that we have not made it yet — there is yet another line to enter the park. At seeing it, my mother in law Norrie despairs, “It’s like Disneyland!” 

While in line I notice that my ticket says I am a 59-year-old man. Norrie is supposedly 27. All of our tickets are somehow off, two are even scheduled for the wrong day. We fret for thirty minutes that we won’t be able to get in, but at the ticket house they let us through without a word.

As soon as we’re through the gates, Scott and I run up the uneven steps to the Guardhouse, anxious to get there before all the tourists. We call them tourists, as though we aren’t.

I snap a few people-free photos, and can now breathe enough to take in this view.

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Photos have never been more useless

The sun breaks over the mountains in rays of light so defined it looks like a kid painted them.

I am so overcome, the only ways I can think to describe it are awful cliches like ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘on top of the world.’

I wonder how I got here. I mean, I know — there was the flight to Mexico, then to Lima, then to Cuzco, the bus ride to Ollantaytambo, the train to Aguas Calientes, the lines and the buses this morning. But still — how did I get here? How did this get here?

Norrie and I marvel at what can only be called the majesty of the Andes. We apologize to the Rockies where we both grew up, but a higher bar has been set.

A new tour guide, Mario, takes us through the ruins. He goes over all the theories about Machu Picchu, which we’ve heard by now — most historians think it was a sort of summer cottage for wealthy Incas. Other theories say it was an agricultural center. Apparently someone even wrote a book arguing it was an ancient Playboy Mansion.

Mario speaks almost reverently, tells us the reason Machu Picchu is in such pristine condition is because the Spanish never found it. It was discovered in 1911 when American explorer Hiram Bingham set out to discover a different set of ruins.

Fun fact: Bingham was outfitted by a little company called ABERCROMBIE & FITCH.

Fun fact: Bingham was outfitted by a little company called ABERCROMBIE & FITCH

The native Peruvians didn’t know about the ruins Bingham sought, but they did know about a city up in the mountains, which a young boy led them to.

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The Peruvian boy who escorted Bingham, next to the Sundial or “Hitching Post”

Aside from being part buried and part overgrown by the jungle, it looked basically identical when they found it to the way it does today.

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Mario tells us he’s been giving tours for thirty years, but this year has the biggest crowds he’s ever seen. He tells us legally they are only supposed to let 2,500 people in but he’s seen up to 8,000.

(Later Scott and I will find it’s more like 5,000-6,000 a day, but STILL.)

We get the Christmas Card shot.20160802_07-1-34-48

We find my favorite tree.

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We figure out the selfie stick, and promptly embarrass ourselves.

us being tourists

We have a “Machu Picnic” on my blanket — tangerines and pancita smuggled from our hotel breakfast, plus a can of Pringles my rumbling stomach demanded I overpay for. We get to the famed sundial or ‘hitching post,’ and my father in law tells us he has a photo of his mustached, 23-year-old self sitting atop it. It is now roped off.

We are there for seven magical hours before it’s time to head back. But after everyone’s gone down the steps, Scott has to come back for me because I can’t stop staring.

The journey back proves as arduous as the one there — in line for 1.5 hours. Bus down switchbacks. Hour wait amidst a crush of people to catch the 2-hour train back to Ollantaytambo, then 3-hour bus ride over roads so jostling they add 8,000 steps to Norrie’s fitbit. We are more tired, more happy, more spent than we have ever been.

It is on this bus ride that I begin to have all the feelings, which I have since sorted out to be something like this:

I think the beauty of Machu Picchu is its remoteness. I think what makes it so stunning is maybe not the ruin itself but its setting — it’s the wondering how you got to be standing on top of the world. It’s the having gone through hell to get there. Machu Picchu makes an explorer out of everyone who visits her, and yet there’s a part of the equation that’s off.

 

My mom and her brother got quite the scolding after my grandmother got this film developed - "You could've gotten yourselves killed!"

Mother says she got quite the scolding after my Nana developed this photo

I think it’s the Disneyland part — the selfie sticks. It’s 8,000 people when even 2,500 is too many. It’s the capitalization of a place that otherwise felt sacred.

I think of the way my mother and my father in law talk about this place forty years ago. I get cynical or maybe ungrateful and start wishing I’d seen it the way they did — not one in a throng of tourists, but in solo discovery. I think it’s the way it was supposed to be seen. You don’t build a summer cottage on top of an unscalable mountain if everyone’s invited, do you?

I think about Machu Picchu herself, and wonder if she is annoyed — for so long she had peace! For so long she evaded discovery, and now we march all over her, 365 days a year, like so many conquistadors wearing Nikes.

I am torn — so enamored by my transcendent experience, I want to tell everyone in the world to book a ticket. Today! And yet a part of me feels that in Bingham’s discovery, something was lost.

What is fascinating about the Incas is the mystery surrounding them — how they built what they did, without any modern technology, without even using the wheel. I loved learning the many theories, hearing each guide’s speculation, because it gave me a sense of wonder.

I haven’t felt that sense of wonder in a long time. Why would I, when I can Google every question that has ever crossed the human mind? I think we’ve created a myth that everything is knowable, and in so doing have forgotten what it feels like to be in awe.

We’ve gotten used to fabulous pictures of faraway places, of living through others vicariously that when we feel awe ourselves, what we register is cliche.

But what I felt standing on Machu Picchu was good old fashioned awe. It filled me up, then it made me feel very small. It was a sacred feeling.

Once home, Scott and I will try to research tourism in Peru, attempting to grasp what it has done to the country, but the information is so scattered and varying it’s hard to find a through-line.

Yes, tourism has boosted the economy and lowered unemployment. Yes, there is bribery, corruption, and disorder (aha! the tickets!). Yes, our footprints are wearing the place down and they are taking precautions to preserve it. No, the numbers show no signs of slowing down.

Almost done posting photos I promise.

One more in case you forgot how magnificent she is

Seeing Machu Picchu in real life was more stunning than any of my daydreams. I will remember it forever and recommend it to anyone who asks.

But part of me secretly hopes Bingham’s original theory was right — that the first city he sought is still hidden in the Andes, maintaining the mystery of the Incas, leaving something to make us wonder, to help us remember the feeling of awe.