On Quarter-Life Crises, Existentially

It’s happened like clockwork. Every five or six months since I joined the working world, I start to panic. I find myself burned out, thoroughly exhausted, and inconsolable because it seems like everything I work so hard for is ultimately unattainable.

This month, I looked at my bank account after I paid my bills, sorted my savings, and so on. For the month of April, I have $15 a day. This includes gas for my car, food, and anything else I need. (Let me put this in perspective for you: It costs me around $40 – two and a half days of life – to fill up Simon’s gas tank. I do this every seven to ten days. Budgeting for four fill-ups during the month of April, we’ve already lost a quarter of my funds.)


According to new studies, about 11% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD. I lost the link to the article, but apparently the people with the highest percentage of prescription drug abuse are people born between 1981 and 1990. And then there’s this horrifyingly sad op-ed piece from a father who lost his son to a drug overdose.

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was twenty-three. It was a hellish two-day testing, during which all learning disabilities were ruled out. I’m grateful for that – I always wondered if I was just bad at math or if it was something more than that. (As it turns out, I’m actually average to above average at math, so I’m wondering how much learned helplessness is playing a role in my inability to do calculus. I also wonder how necessary calculus is for a long and happy life.)

In the year and a half since my diagnosis, I’ve embraced my Adderall and all of its drawbacks. Honestly, I’m eternally grateful for the drug. It’s changed the way I work. It’s allowed me to focus, something that I can’t do. I now have the ability to be productive. I often wonder what my grades in high school or college would have been like had I been properly diagnosed around the time I started wondering if I had a focus issue. I wonder if my inability to concentrate – which was honestly so bad that I never read a textbook – negatively affected my grade point average and my chances at success in life.

My manager when I was 16 always used to tell me that I had the attention span of a golden retriever. Now, I’m still not the best at impulse-control or listening, but I’m at least getting better at being patient, at doing work,
[edit: I came back to read this paragraph and realized I’d totally trailed off, leaving it unfinished. I’m leaving it this way.]

True, I immediately lost 15 pounds and have struggled to maintain my four-pounds-underweight weight ever since. I pick at my skin, unconsciously. I was having trouble sleeping for a while. They tried to prescribe me pills for that, but I declined them. I don’t want more pills.

Regardless, I’ve never abused it. Nor have I sold it. Nor would I ever dream of doing that. I believe that too much Dateline as a child has led me to lead the mostly drug-free life I lead today. I am disappointed to hear so much about the struggles that so many people are having with drug abuse, particularly my beloved Adderall. I never took it recreationally before being diagnosed, so I never understood the allure of it. I hate the vilification of Adderall-users. I hate how I feel like a criminal with my pharmacy and my doctors. I hate how hard I had to fight to get my insurance company to cover it, initially. I don’t take it on the weekends. I don’t take it so I can stay up and party. I don’t understand why you would.


I work sixty hours a week, and have for much of the last two years. I supplement my income from my full-time job with income from a regular babysitting gig and then a part-time job at a Dairy Queen. I am exhausted. There is no time for balance. There is no time for moderation. I see my family and friends when I can, working them in between the triple-work schedules that I juggle.

I hope that one day, I will make more than $xx an hour. I hope that eventually, I won’t have to work three jobs so that I can make ends meet. But for now, this is what I have to do. I try to love my job, and generally I do, but there are times when things start to get so impossible that I start to drown in the negative.

These past few weeks have been that cesspool of hell, the undercurrent threatening to pull me under. I go from being confident in what I do to cut down and weak. It’s frustrating. The environment, which can be so collaborative and positive, can quickly turn threatening and hyper-competitive, leading to unnecessary drama and unanswered questions. Instead of being able to stay afloat and above the chaos, I find myself questioning my own abilities.


People ask me why I work so hard. I don’t know how to tell them that I know what it’s like to wear damp pants to school because your dryer broke and your parents can’t afford to fix it right now.

I am so grateful for everything I’ve been given. I am grateful that I have been blessed with the ultimate gift of education. I am blessed because I  understand the value of a dollar, the value of simple indulgences like a drink with your meal. I understand what it’s like to make sacrifices; I understand how to cut out the unnecessary. (Seriously, if you want to save money, don’t buy liquid. Don’t buy juice, don’t buy soda, just drink water. One of my favorite indulgences is fruit and veggie juices. It pleases me on some core level.)

I don’t ever want to worry about money. (Which is why the sad irony here is that I spend every day worrying about it.) I don’t ever want to have to ask for help. I don’t need a gold-plated bathtub – I need to know that I can pay the water bill. I won’t stop until I know I’m okay. I can’t. If something bad happens, I need to know that I can hold on for a few months, that I won’t lose my house, or not be able to afford a car, or whatever else.


I’ve been struggling lately. It’s a life crisis of the worst kind. The “why do I work so much when it’s not really getting me anywhere?” struggle. The “maybe I’ll just live off ramen and be done trying so hard” train of thought.

I’ve been wondering if it’s that I’m materialistic or too greedy. But then I think, that can’t possibly be the case, can it? Sure, I take pleasure in my material comforts, but I truly believe I’m reasonable about them. I haven’t gotten my car fixed (long live the duct taped bumper!) because I believe it’s an unnecessary expense.


In the middle of this disjointed spewing of thoughts, I renewed my prescription online. Then I got a message saying that I’m due for a blood pressure check. I will gladly go and do the blood pressure check so that I can get my prescription renewed. I’m responsible. I’m on top of it. I renew, I submit to the examinations of the mind and body whenever they tell me to, I pay. I don’t abuse. I take my dose, no more, no less. I hate that people want to make the drug the problem, when in fact, there are other factors to consider. I will say, though, that I’m glad it happened at 23 and not at 10, or younger. I am grateful that medication was my choice.


I hate to say it, but have we considered the fact that our society is slowly building a set of standards that are possibly unattainable? I hear all of these complaints, including that op-ed piece in Wall Street Journal by a very whiny high school senior who didn’t get into her chosen schools, from people who aren’t measuring up. But are the standards too high? Am I one of those who worries I’ll never be good enough simply because I could be good enough? Or perhaps I’m already good enough but can’t see it because I’m constantly being told I should push harder, run faster, be better. (For the record, I’ll never run faster than last place, and I’m cool with that.)

I need my Adderall to focus. But I need my focus to work. And I need my work to survive, to be happy, to be secure. Above all, I want security. Is that so much to ask for? Security should not be the result of a sixty-hour work week. It should not come at the expense of happiness.


Last week, someone asked me what I do to relax. I stared at them, my mind desperately searching for any answer besides “gin.” After a very long and uncomfortable pause, I weakly offered, “I take baths sometimes?”

“I expected that you wouldn’t have a lot of answers, but I didn’t expect nothing,” was the response I got. I’m determined to somehow find time to take care of me, to find my own relaxation somewhere in this madness. But perhaps, much like security and happiness, relaxation is another of the unattainables we were told we could have if only we worked hard enough.


On Nails, Beautifully (Optimistically?)

I used to have acrylic nails in high school. I loved them. At the time, I’d get a French manicure, but with black tips instead of white. (Because I was such a dark, edgy lady. *cringe*) They’re a bitch to maintain, expensive and they break, and once they’re off your fingernails, you’re left with sad, broken nail beds that are ridiculously weak.

I went back to my regular nails, which aren’t all that much stronger, and have been working to come to some sort of happy medium where I paint them regularly and try to keep them from breaking. But….usually, I just have the nails of a 12-year old boy, destroyed and neglected (the nails, that is).

I got gel nails yesterday. They’re artificial nails, long and cumbersome, because my ultimate goal is to stop picking at my skin (it’s such an unconscious stress-based habit that sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m doing it). In theory it’s much harder to pick at (and ultimately break) skin with fake nails.

However, after years of having stubbly, bitten nails, I now feel like my new accessories are becoming dangerously close to being reptilian claws. It doesn’t help that they’re painted a muted shade of green called “Mermaid’s Tears.” Nothing makes me feel more optimistic than painting my nails a color that invokes visions of sad mermaids crying out viscous sea water. Oh dear. Imagine how the animal rights activists would react once they get a hold of that story. “Seal Pup Pets Stolen By Nail Polish Industry: Mermaids Reduced to Tears for Corporate Profit.”

From the google:

(image taken from google image search – click to go to original image URL)

On Spring, Expectantly

What is it about the first hints of spring that incite a need for motion? I feel as though the minute the scent of the forthcoming growth stings the nostrils I have the urge for adventure, for chasing the dawn, for stars and night frisbee. (Night frisbee is my weakness. It gets me every time.)

This weekend brought warmth and the promise of summer heat – that first day that makes you shed your shoes and run outside, only to find that the ground is still cold and damp. Those are the days when you don’t care, you let the mud seep up between your toes and you relish it, knowing that soon enough, you won’t be cold.

Last night, as I left the restaurant where I was having second dinner with a couple of friends, I smelled summer. In my mind, I was no longer walking down a dark street in early March. I was suddenly walking down a dark street in June. It’s that smell that transports you, that reminds you of soft streetlights and sangria shared with friends. It’s the smell that calls you to the park, to sit on blankets, to listen to jazz. Oh, it’s the best.

When I was little, there was always that first really warm day before spring. I’d open all of my bedroom windows and run out to the backyard, where I’d begin to dig around in the still-frozen garden. My toes would be freezing because I was (still am) always barefoot and too stubborn to put on real shoes.

I had a dream last night about that garden, and about the wild green onions that used to grow there, and how I’d pull them, and chop them, and put them into pretend stews that I’d create using mud and sticks. My hands would reek of onion for days, but it was always so worth it. In my dream, they were there, growing sooner than ever, their green tops sticking out of the earth. They were wonderful. I smelled the spring and I woke content.


Speaking of things from the earth (what? totally legitimate seque, I swear), Katie and I juiced yesterday. She’s into making juices and I am into drinking juices, so this was bound to happen eventually. We ended up at the grocery store, loading up on fruits and veggies, before heading back to her house and breaking out the juicer. It’s quite the ordeal, with all the cutting and washing and juicer setup taken into account.

I had so much fun and I only cut myself once – great success. We made two different kinds – one green, one beet/orange. (I have such a thing for beet juice, but have never tried to do it myself since I’m intimidated by fresh beets. – That’s not weird at all, either.)  I think it’s something I may have to look into getting into. It could be fun. Or alternately, a piece of kitchen equipment that hangs out in my cabinets, collecting dust.

On Monday Mornings, Resentfully

If you know me well enough, you know that I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine in the morning. Somewhere between the seventh and eighth blast of my alarm, I regain full consciousness and immediately decide that I hate everything. Then I roll around, mourning the coming day and wishing I was still asleep. (It’s ridiculous how much time I waste in the morning. If I could redirect that into something, like morning yoga, I’d be insanely productive. But that’d make way too much sense.)

By the time I hit the shower, I’m usually a much happier individual. There’s something about the powerful lure of water that invigorates me. This morning, soapy and quite content, I wanted to stay in the shower until the hot water ran out. But I didn’t, because as usual, I was running a bit late.

One thing I take for granted is my curly hair. I blow dry it and straighten it far too often. But I’m lucky. This morning, I ran out of the house with wet hair, holding a half-eaten banana and forgetting my coat. (I am Katie Barry, this was bound to happen – I’m horrible at dressing for the weather. Days when it’s cold, I’m coat-free and embracing spring. Days when it’s warm, I’m wearing tights and scarves and sweaters. Can’t win; no longer care.)

By the time I hit the halfway point of my commute, my hair had sprung into spirally curls. It’s wash and wear hair and it’s awesome. When I got to work, my hair looked like I’d spent time on it and my bleary eyes and dry skin had been (magically) transformed into something that looked less like Voldemort and more like normal Monday morning exhaustion. (Thank you, makeup bag, my most trusted companion.)

This week is off to a roaring start. First press release of December officially completed. Gift baskets are ready to go out. It’s all good.

On Irony and Millennial Rage, Pointedly

I am a Millennial. I live in the age of technology, apathy, and stagnancy. I find myself, for some reason, oddly incensed when I read articles decrying the state of our Millennial generation and the effect we’ll have on the future.

One of my friends posted a link to a New York Times op-ed piece called “How to Live Without Irony” on his facebook wall. I, being the curious creature that I am, clicked on it. And I’ve been in a Millennial fury ever since.

The article focuses on irony as the “ethos of our age” and discusses hipsters as “the archetype of ironic living.” Before I even begin, I must state that I believe that the sort of hipster that the author, Ms. Wampole, is describing is a sort of hipster that we only see in stereotyped form – the sort of hipster that she imagines is the sort of hipster that died out the minute Urban Outfitters opened its first store, just as the emo movement of my teens trickled into black nothingness after a few years of outpourings of softened masculinity and affectation of grief stemming from the loss of nothing concrete.

(The cover image of the article shows two hip-looking twenty-somethings wearing Justin Bieber shirts, ironically. I know plenty of hipsters and I’ve never once seen a single one of them wearing any sort of pop star t-shirt, save for Ben, the South African grad student who owns a Britney Spears t-shirt but genuinely loves her. That’s not irony; that’s adoration.)

The author goes on to describe the acceptance of such an ironic life as being something easily mocked and lacking individuality, the ability to gift sincerely, communication skills, and an aversion to risk.

She’s right on the count that it’s easy to mock hipsters. But that’s not really a point. It’s easy to mock most groups, so long as you’re not a part of them. Ms. Wampole admits that the reason she’s so irked by hipsters is that “they are….an amplified version of me.” I’m not sure what she means by this, although she goes on to point out that she, just like hipsters, finds it hard to gift sincerely.

This is bullshit. Maybe you, Ms. Wampole, are just a terrible gift-giver. Yes, it’s terrifying to work really hard on a present that someone might hate, but that’s part of being alive. (Do you also not date because you’re afraid of rejection?) I know hipsters who gift-give insanely well – I own two eye patches and a pair of man-pants, neither given ironically, and all three things appreciated intensely.

I have no idea where the author is getting the idea that hipsters can’t gift sincerely. Oh, wait, perhaps she’s thinking Urban Outfitters, which is hipster gift central, but again, way too mainstream for authentic hipsters. (You’ll find them in the boutiques that I’m terrified to enter – because instead of finding acceptance and awesome things, I find condescending glares from the pierced staff and faces full of disgust.)

The teenagers who buy the brass knuckles mug for $17.99 (I’m making that price up) aren’t buying in to hipsterism and ultimately embracing irony as their ethos; they’re buying it because they want to feel badass. They want to feel adult. They want to feel like a unique consumer.

Same goes for the dude who’s in the Puma store buying a pair of sweet track shoes. Or the new bride in Anthropologie spending a ridiculous amount of her newly created joint back account on a bathrobe or a pretty, lace-lined dress. They want to feel unique. They want to exude the air of quality, or expensive taste, or maturity through purchasing power. Those people aren’t hipsters, or maybe they are. But it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, it’s not the ironic life that anyone is buying into.

This is in no way a new thing. Expression of self through material expression is the ultimate in statements. The fashion industry thrives not because we need couture. It thrives because the clothes we wear ultimately send signals to our peers about who and what we are.

Judith Butler (my favorite feminist theorist, don’t judge me) writes about a concept that I’ve hung on to: the idea that all individuals are always dressing in drag. This means, essentially, that what we wear and how we put ourselves together is all a performance. For example, I usually wear jeans and a sweatshirt to work. Today, I’m wearing dress pants and a nice shirt. My co-workers are all like, “Laundry day?” because me dressed up is usually my signal that it’s time to wash my clothes. But no, today I’m wearing dress pants because we’re closing on our house (eek!) and I want to give off the appearance that I’m totally calm and put together (I’m not).

Everything we do and own is performance, and I think the author would do well to remember that the idea of “heteronormative drag” goes much further than the Brooklyn hipsters.

It is my contention that the expression of irony through statement t-shirts, and other ironic, or potentially outdated fashions is merely a cultural commentary, and a rejection of the bubblegum pop materialism that we Millennials came of age in.  (Ms. Wampole seems to forget that fashion is cyclical – I would kill for some more vintage dresses. Think 50s housewife. The lines look good on me, and accentuate my almost non-existent curves. I don’t want them to make feminist statements; I want them because I feel good in them.)

I don’t think that it’s so much “nostalgia for times he never lived himself” so much as it is the rejection of consumerism as a whole – for example, the move toward bicycles signals a conscious attempt to provide quicker pedestrian transportation, particularly in cities. It’s practical and functional, and people want to deck out their bicycles the same way they want to put fuzzy dice in their cars (but shouldn’t).

I can’t (and won’t) speak to fixed-gear bicycles because they terrify me. My dad gifted me his 1973 road bike (with gears and brakes, thankfully) for my birthday a couple of years ago – not because I was feeling nostalgic for the damn time in which the bike was created, but because I rode on the bike when I was a baby; I think it’s sweet; and it was free. Perhaps they signal some sort of accomplishment, as in, “yeah, you see this baby, it has no brakes. I’m a badass.” Again, I think that’s what people really want. It’s the cycling equivalent of a Tesla Roadster.

I grew up in an age marked by plastic and glitter and things made of glittering plastic. I think that the hipster mentality is rooted in a desire to embrace the bright colors but simplistic design and clean lines of times past, when furniture was for function rather than overly artistic design for the sake of overly artistic design. (Think of McMansions and the glittering, faux-crystal chandeliers. It’s not that the hipster is rejecting quality, but they’re rejecting the pretense that “all that glitters is gold.”)

Of course, I must address mustaches. I’m personally terrified of facial hair. I think it’s weird. On some people, it looks great, but I don’t want to wake up next to the remnants of last night’s sweet handlebar mustache. I don’t want to date a guy who spends more time on his mustache than I do on my hair. I don’t get hipster mustaches. And I am critical of them. But heck, I’m critical of Bump-Its, too.

I think Ms. Wampole is correct when she says, “Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions.” But she’s wrong to say that our “contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself. This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche.”

I do believe that outwardly, the display of the ironic is more present than at most points in history. But again, I contend that it stems from not only access to social media and all things internet-based and it also stems from a sort of cultural shift that’s happening. We’re frustrated and stagnant, and it seems that no amount of pushing and shoving is allowing this generation to get out of the critical gaze of our elders. I feel as though we can honestly do no right. I’ve attended webinars that focus solely on how to manage Millennials, webinars that criticize but neglect to touch on the benefits that we may have. We may lack social interaction skills, but I think that with enough mentoring and practice, we’d all be more than proficient. (I exchanged recipes with a middle-aged businessman at the last trade show I attended. I don’t think I sat there the whole time buried in my phone. I was terrified, but I stood, hands folded in front of me, smiling and making small talk. Success.)

(Something for middle-aged readers to remember: did you start out in middle-management? No? You started out as a kid in an ill-fitting suit who had no idea what was expected of you? Oh, really. Hmmm…perhaps you’d like to share your experiences and some tips with the young kids in your office. Perhaps you could each benefit from a relationship. I bet they’d be willing to teach you about a lot of things, not just pop culture references. I always say that one of the things I’m most grateful for is the fact that I’m the youngest by 18 years in my office. I’ve had such beautiful opportunities to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. And I’ve also contributed to the environment in which I work. I bring enthusiasm, perspective, and humor. I’d argue that we’ve all benefited.)

Is our move toward silly expression really just a reaction to the overwhelming burden that’s been placed on us? As a Millennial, I’m constantly met with statistics that are wildly incorrect. They tell me that I’m not civic-minded or politically engaged. These are distinctly false. I am both civic-minded and an informed voter. (I think the pollsters would do best to stop interviewing 18-year old high school graduates, for I think that all rational thought at 18 is not necessarily the rational thought that those same people will possess a mere five years later.) I’m constantly facing the news that I’m going nowhere, that I’m ill-prepared to lead a productive and sustainable life, that I’m vapid and moronic. I have news for you: I’m none of those things. And I resent it.

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive, the hallmark of my generation. We were so coddled and loved and adored, but that’s the fault of our parents, the generation that moved to the suburbs and embraced materialism as a marker of success and eschewed happiness in favor of social status. (Oh she’s shifting blame! Quick, get her!)

I’m not shifting blame entirely. I do know plenty of people who aren’t half as self-sufficient as I am. I know plenty of Millennials who lack the drive and focus. But can’t you say the same for people in your own generation?

Ms. Wampole describes us as a “self-infantilizing citizenry,” and I think she’s wildly incorrect. We are not that. We are driven, determined, and yes, stagnant. Our under-employment and over-educated minds are frustrated. Our loans are crippling and our credit scores sick with over-exertion and exhaustion. We work jobs and jobs and jobs, until we are exhausted, mentally and physically. And yet, we hope.

Just as Ms. Wampole says she did in the 90s (mind you, she’s really only 3 years removed from this pathetic generation of Millennnials and hipsters, so perhaps the fact that she sees some of us in her is based in proximity alone). We hope for better for ourselves. Not necessarily materialistically better, but better. We hope for many things – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; a solid 401(k); a peaceful, sustainable future for our own children (should we choose to procreate). None of these things vary that drastically from the hopes of generations before us, but the messages are so mixed these days, it’s hard to tell if we’re headed in the right direction.

She also discusses the archetype of her own generation, “the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating antidepressants like candy.” I’m not sure how this differs from the current hipster archetype. I’d like to argue that her generation’s slacker has become the hipster of mine. The aimlessness we feel somewhat resembles that of the Lost Generation, the generation who struggled to find meaning, who struggled in a post-war world, who lacked the solid foundations of a future, yet who desired so much to discern meaning from their circumstances.

We need to stop writing off the hipsters or the Millennials, or both singularly, as being unintelligent and uninformed. We need to stop criticizing them for this mess – the current social atmosphere is far more charged and reactionary than you might be inclined to believe.

The friend who posted the article responded to my comment taking offense to Ms. Wampole’s assertion of our insincerity through ironic expression saying that he felt that the author’s intent was not to go after hipsters and that irony can undermine sincerity and authenticity. He’s wrong about her intent: she’s a hipster-hating human who doesn’t have any clue what she’s talking about since she’s locked in the ivory tower of academia – it’s a very sheltered world, and I often find that when theoretical thinking is not paired with real-world experiences, it tends to become a shade too intense and unrealistic.

He’s right about irony undermining sincerity and authenticity. I personally strive to be the most authentic person I can be. I love sincerity and truth and understanding and the trust that can be fostered through honest communication. But I also think that since truth and trust are difficult for some to embrace, irony can serve a purpose.

I think that plenty of identity formation can stem from negation. Think of it as “I am not this, therefore I am something else.” Granted, it’s a much broader approach, but finding out what you dislike or reject can lead to some very necessary self-exploration that perhaps you may not have done otherwise.

I will concede that irony, like all things, is best in moderation.

On Doing It Yourself, Perilously

(If you click on this picture, you’ll be directed to the site that I got it from, although I originally saw it on Pinterest.)

I’m not really that crafty at all. I’m also not big on DIY stuff, because I find that I usually end up frustrated and covered in glue, or paint, or whatever it is that I’m working with after having spent a ridiculous amount of money on whatever project it is.

That said, this is something that’d be super easy to do and would look awesome. So perhaps I’ll find some time in the near future to get all crafty and do this.

The above sentence was most likely a boldfaced lie.

This is probably one of those silly “Future Me” moments where Future Me is so cute and crafty and put-together and hip. “Present Me” is more like, “Meh. I  have not finished spray-painting my dresser.” Yep. I had a blonde dresser that I was in the process of spray painting black when it started to snow – ah, Colorado – and so I stopped.

So now, a year and a half after the initial spray painting attempt in the snow, I have a half blonde, half black dresser that doesn’t even stress me out. It’s vintageish and awesome and flanked by two even more-awesome bookshelves. (Hah, I was going to put a mirror over the dresser. I went so far as to purchase the mirror. The mirror lives in my closet now, waiting to be put up.)

Maybe I should finish that project – finishing moving in to an apartment I’ve lived in for a year and a half – before I go melting crayons all over canvas.

On Wine, subtly

I’m a huge fan of wine. More than that, I’m a huge fan of affordable wine. There are plenty of delicious Malbecs for under $20, so both my bank account and myself can remain happy. Ha, but sometimes you do get what you pay for. I’m looking at you, $4.99 bottle of Gato Negro.

The article below serves to validate my frugality when it comes to purchasing wine:

Most Of Us Just Can’t Taste The Nuances In High-Priced Wines

02:56 am

March 6, 2012

Research suggests that most of us don’t or can’t taste the subtleties of fine wines.

Have you ever splurged on a highly rated bottle of Burgundy or pinot noir, only to wonder whether a $10 or $15 bottle of red would have been just as good? The answer may depend on your biology.

A new study by researchers at Penn State finds that when it comes to appreciating the subtleties of wine, experts can taste things many of us can’t. “What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” says John Hayes of Penn State.

So what explains this? Part of it has to do with training and experience. But our ability to identify nuances in wine is also influenced by physiology in our mouths and brains.

“We evaluated hundreds of wine drinkers,” says Hayes, by having them sample/taste a chemical that measures their reaction to bitter tastes. He found that wine experts — people such as wine writers, winemakers and wine retailers — were about 40 percent more sensitive to the bitterness than casual consumers of wine. They have a more acute sense of taste.

Hayes says his findings fit with prior research on so-calledsupertasters — people who are more sensitive to the sweetness of sugar, the sting of chili peppers and the saltiness of chips.

The experts I reached out to are not convinced that “biology” is as deterministic as the research may suggest. “There may be some people who are gifted tasters,” Dave McIntyre, who writes about wine for The Washington Post, wrote to me in an email. “But I think it’s mostly experience.”

He says he’s taken the time and made the effort to taste many, many wines. “If you taste enough Cabernet Sauvignon you’ll learn to tell it from Merlot,” MacIntyre says. And over time, if you pay attention, he says he thinks most people will heighten their ability to detect nuances.

But for those of us who are not inclined to invest a lot of time in wine-tasting, should we pay attention to those wine reviewers’ ratings and scores?

A 90-point rating may tell us that an expert thinks the wine is a good choice. And the higher the point rating, the higher the price point. But what if the critics’ palates are not in sync with ours?

“Wine shopping can be confusing and overwhelming,” Katherine Cole, a wine writer in Portland, wrote to us. She says to some extent, the point ratings can help us narrow our choices. When you spot a bottle in your price range, and you see one of those “shelf talkers” (the term she uses to describe those little tabs affixed to store shelves) that tout a 90-point rating (on a 100-point scale), it can make the decision easier. “Oh, Wine & Spiritsmagazine likes this wine, so it must be good.”

Experts all seem to acknowledge that there’s quite a bit of subjectivity involved in reviewing wine. “Every critic has his or her own taste,” Cole says, “so the same wine might garner wildly differing scores from a variety of critics.”

All of this leads me to the conclusion, that yes, I’ll try to use experience as my teacher. But I’m not going to be ashamed by my affordable favorites. I may not have the most experienced of wine palates, but I’ve found plenty of pleasant $10-$15 Syrahs and Malbecs — two of my favorites — and I’m sticking with them!

Tags: food scienceflavor sciencewine

On my Hair. A photo essay, sort of.

My hair has been a constant source of dismay for me.

I believe it started somewhere around birth. I was quite bald. Even as a toddler, people would say, “My, what a cute boy you have!” (Sort of like the Red Riding Hood – Big Bad Wolf exchange: “My, what big teeth you have.” “All the better to eat you with, my dear.” Except not exactly like that.) And finally, after a few years of this gender confusion, I grew hair, cementing my place as a female member of society.
Did my parents ever worry about alopecia? Maybe not, as I’m sure they don’t subscribe to my worst-case-scenario-projecting-is-the-only-way-to-look-at-life philosophy. (For the record, I don’t worry about alopecia. Not yet, at least. And by the time I start to worry, there will be science-miracle cures that I can buy on TV for easy payments of $19.99. Done! Alopecia problem solved! Thanks future hair plugs/miracle creams/sweet interchangeable wigs.)
(trade this dress for a tux, and you’ve got an adorable future George Clooney)
After hair comes bangs.
My mom knew I was going to cut my hair soon. I’d been cutting grass, the dog’s hair, paper. So one day, I came flouncing down the stairs with crooked bangs. They were completely diagonal. I’d cut them with safety scissors and then left the hair behind a chair upstairs, as though no one would ever find it. There was no fixing it, so they just had to grow out.
Any mother’s worst fear is the years and years it’s going to take to grow our a small child’s bangs. It took years. It was a source of stress. When I was in first grade, my mom told me that I wasn’t allowed to have bangs again until I was 18.
So I didn’t.When I was little, my mom would try to put my hair in a ponytail. I was never happy. There were always bump when she’d try to pull it up. I’d reach back and feel it and tell her that there was a bump and so I’d make her redo it. To this day, I still redo my hair when I’m worried that there’s a bump. She’d get exasperated. “There’s no bump!” (Just to be 100% clear, there were bumps. I am not wrong.)
A few months ago, she was walking past a mother doing her daughter’s hair. She said that she was tempted to walk up to the daughter and whisper, “There’s a bump!”

I went through my ugly duckling phase (era, actually – it was like a decade from awkward hell) with no discernible hair style. I really didn’t do anything to it – I don’t even think I had approached a hair dryer at this point. It just lived in a ponytail at the base of my neck. Every day. All day.

There was one day where we tried curlers. Like a 50s housewife, I slept in rollers. When I woke up and took them out (Mom was at work, so Dad may have had a hand in the meltdown that happened immediately after I realized I looked like young Frankenstein), I freaked.
(me, at age 8)
One of my worst memories of 6th grade is the day that I forgot to wash the conditioner out of my hair. All day, I was greasy and gross and miserable. I now triple rinse, without fail. In South Africa, long after the water had gone cold, I’d be under the shower head, rinsing. Triple checking that no traces of conditioner remained.
It gets worse.
Remember high school? (This is still part of the era of awkward.)
The only rule was that I couldn’t dye my hair black. So of course, I dyed it black the first chance I got. Mom has a sixth sense about these things (either that or I’m a terrible liar), and I hadn’t even finished drying it post-coloring when she was on the phone. “What color is your hair?!” she said, in her terrifying phone/teacher voice. (I should add that my mom isn’t really that scary – and I’m grateful that she let me do so much experimentation during those years. I may not have looked great, but I was figuring myself out. I respect her willingness to let me try that, just like when she would let me wear her high heels and my play dresses to church when I was little.)
   (Those were interesting years. I cut my bangs myself. They were always horrifying. Short, uneven. Not really bangs. Not really side bangs. For evidence of this bad bang cutting, see my sophomore year school picture – it’s still on display at Mom’s house. Compounded with my ever-changing hair color, I was not my best self. It’s a good thing that there are still people on this planet (my friends) who value inner beauty.
College. I chopped off all of my hair. I looked like a goon. (That’s not entirely true. It was actually sort of cute.) I spent the next three years in various stages of hair length, usually around my chin. Sometimes adorable, sometimes not at all.
Cut to Africa. Mama P wanted me to have fringe. So I sat on one of her kitchen chairs and her daughter took shears to my hair. Full fringe. I kept that until this spring, when I grew them back out.
So of course, December rolls around and what do I want to do again? (I haven’t gotten any tattoos or piercings in years, so I get the urge to do something drastic every six months or so.) Bangs. My super ego was telling me no, but my stubborn self was saying yes.
But I was waffling. I didn’t know. I looked back through pictures, realized I couldn’t find a single one with bangs that I liked, and then thought, let’s do it again! (That is nothing if not sound logic right there.)
(That’s a lie – I like this picture. Long Street, 2010.)
So I’m back to half-bangs. But I swear, I am growing all of it out and just having hair that’s one length. 2012 is the year of less hair cut, more learning how to style the hair I have. Curling irons? I can master them. Learning to love my curly hair? I can learn that too. I have taken baby steps – I own good hair products. I am open to re-embracing hair spray.
(Imagine if I wasn’t doing the mickey ave – I’d look adorable.)
Moral of this story? Stop messing with your hair. Learn how to style it. Stay away from the scissors. Curling irons are your friend. Your natural hair color is that way for a reason. Listen to your mother, at least when she tells you to stop trying to rock bangs. She might be right.
Other moral? Pick friends who will still love you when you look ridiculous. Or just make sure you pick ridiculous friends.