Thursday, December 11, 2008

The great Christmas sweater showdown

Sometimes in life we get so distracted by the ugly things that we forget about the beautiful ones.

That's what shot me out of my bed at 3:43 a.m. Sunday. I jumped into my slippers (which my boyfriend insists are actually called "house shoes") and slid across the polished wood floors to the front door. Then, my reason woke up, and reminded me there was nothing I could do in the middle of the night. I would have to wait.

It all started with this "season of giving." Giving has been the theme of these columns for several weeks now, in an attempt to smack the Grinch right out of me. And it's working. I recently bought my first ever real live (well, now dead) Christmas tree.

I even started my own tradition: Everyone who drinks a beer in my house has to decorate the can with fur and feathers and puff-paint and sparkles and hang it on the tree -- a personalized ornament. I know, sentimental. Although the tree is starting to droop under the weight of the aluminum. I mean, it has already been four days. Or maybe it's the family of wine bottle cotton ball snowmen.

I also decided that instead of buying gifts this year (I swear, it's not the economy; I refuse to spread the hype), I was going to make all of my friends something. The only problem: See above paragraph about how I rock the ornaments. I'm not crafty.

Someone once told me that fashion is being yourself on purpose. That is, owning and intentionally expressing your unique character, and then boldfacing that. So as I sat gazing thoughtfully at my silver-sparkling tree, I realized what I had to do. I would give the gift of time. And laughter.

I'd invite my best friends to a tacky Christmas party. Washed-up boy-band Christmas music. Crackers and Velveeta cheese balls. Boone's Farm martinis. A cappella scat music karaoke.

And most importantly, ugly Christmas sweaters.

Which brings us to Satur
day. My friend Leah and I were on a quest to find the mother lode. The king of the royal line of ugliness. The most abominable of all snowmen ... sweaters.

We hit up dozens of thrift stores on our quest. By the end of the day, our eyes were watering from all of the sequins and our abs were cramped from the laughter, but we concluded with the Top 10 Best (and by best we meant worst) Holiday Sweaters.

See them all and vote for your favorite one on my blog,

First, there are the vests. Especially dangerous because you can layer a vest on top of a sweater on top of a turtleneck, creating a triple threat. Vests also tend to have buttons, which, in the world of Christmas sweaters, are never simply buttons, but rather bells, bows, snowflakes or, in one of the worst offenders we found, 2-inch-long stuffed snowmen. Yes, as buttons.

One vest in our top 10 is covered in jingle bells that actually ring. So not only can you see the felt appliqué Santas and plastic amethyst and gold stars from six chimneys away, but you can also hear it coming.
Arguably worse than an audible vest is the overly tactile sweater, such as one we found covered in large cotton balls (obviously a knock-off from my wine bottle snowmen ornaments). This particular offender also boasted a faux-chenille fringe collar and cuffs.

Then there are the Migraine Sweaters. These are especially prevalent among elementary-school teachers, which -- little-known fact -- is the main reason why schools close over the holidays; the kids all were going home, anyway, with headaches after staring at the overstimulating patterns. Our top-10 Migraine Sweater bursts with clashing snowflakes and stars and bells -- and even a handful of nonsense designs obviously only added to spark chaos in the frontal lobe.

We found one sweater that we suspect was originally designed as a torture device, comprised entire of gold sequins, the itchiest substance known to man, even worse than hair shirts for monks. Another homemade sweatshirt featured a triangle of red felt that looked like the love-child of Santa and a garden gnome.

Our winning sweater came as a surprise. From the front, the bright blue ramie/cotton blend and white poodle-fur collar looked innocent enough. Then. The entire back -- I'm talking 2-feet-tall -- was a embroidered snowman with a circus-clown grin. If snowmen had thumbs, he would've been giving two thumbs ups, and winking. As soon as I saw the life-sized Frosty, I knew he would be my date to the party.

But I never thought he would be so sneaky. In between the piles of Christmas sweaters, I found a floor-length black faux fur cape from the '50s, with a hood and satin lining, in immaculate condition. The beauty of this jacket nearly cured my Migraine Sweater headache. At any vintage store, the jacket would have been bank. But here, it was a mere $12.

So there I lie in bed, restless and unable to go back to sleep, now 3:40 on Sunday morning. Sitting on my night stand: the snowman sweater. Sitting in the dressing room at the ARC thrift store on Pecos Street in Denver: the fur cape. Ah yes, sometimes we get so distracted by the ugly things in life that we forget the beauty.

I was at the glass doors, all Mervyn's-open-open-open style, well before the thrift store opened on Sunday.
On my way out the doors, while clutching my new jacket, I bumped into Leah. Back to pick up that gold sequin-explosion blouse.

She swore it was for my party.

But the knowing glances that we exchanged contained a concession that we would never utter out loud -- at least not for 40 more years: That gold top would sure look mah-va-less under my new fur coat.

Photo by Mark Leffingwell.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I'm dreaming of a black Christmas

I did not want to shop on Black Friday.

Too many years working behind the retail counter has all but destroyed the months of November and December for me. In fact, nonstop Mariah Carey Christmas remakes eight hours a day/six days a week/for three months straight is likely the root of my hatred for holiday music.

Which is what brought us here to begin with.

Three weeks ago, I snapped at my boyfriend for (loudly) singing Christmas carols (before I'd had my coffee, gosh). As my penance, I vowed to write happy-go-schmucky fashion columns until Christmas, on the topic of giving to prove I am not, indeed, the Grinchette.

First, I wrote about giving when it's not expected, and then giving when it is long overdue. This week was supposed to be on "a different type of giving." I was going to "give back" to the poor retail workers by banning Black Friday altogether. Call me a revolutionary. It could have been the beginning of the end of the over-commercialized holiday season, or at least the end of any more boy-band remakes of "Last Christmas."

I was so committed to my noble cause that on this D-Day, I made special arrangements to have coffee with my mother. My mother talks. A lot. A "quick coffee" with Mom is like running into Wal-Mart to "just pick up batteries." A spinning head, shaking legs and six hours later, you manage to break free. If anyone could keep me in safe, shop-less confinement, it was this woman.

And it worked. Until.

Ah yes, there is always an "until."

I had a fashion show on Saturday at the Rocky Mountain Rod and Custom car show. All I was instructed to bring was black shoes. But of course, I had recently busted the strap on one pair of my black shoes, and then worn the heels down to the nail nubbins on my other pair.

I had an "until," "but" and "of course" all working against me. I decided to just run into FlatIron Crossing and buy the first pair of black shoes I found. Twenty-five percent off? Dang, I could afford two pairs for that.

The black patent-leather stilettos with zipper accents down the sides were a great deal. So was the black leather handbag with ruffles and rivets (not to be mistaken for Ruffles with ridges). And the gold sparkly top with an open back; hey, gold's the color of winter 2008. And the gray lace top. And the black lace fingerless gloves. And the lipstick, the eye shadow, the other shoes, the three pairs of earrings. Individually, everything was a great deal. It was all combined on one credit card that hurt so much.

So was the question, "Would you like a gift receipt?"

Because I had to answer, "No."

Which meant whereas everyone else was Christmas shopping, I was padding my own Grinchy closet. Not only had I failed to overthrow Black Friday, but I had flopped for no good reason.

Or so I thought. (There's always an "or so I thought," too.)

Then my BFF Brittany called. She reminded me that there's nothing wrong with taking care of yourself sometimes, and that doesn't make you selfish. In fact, she said, you cannot give from a place of depletion. Self-love is a hard concept for women, and even harder during the holidays, because society rewards us for taking care of others and raises us to believe that's how we acquire self-worth.

Having a good relationship with ourselves teaches us how to have a good relationship with others, which, in turn, helps us understand even less tangible, spiritual concepts, such as how to build a relationship with God. So, in that sense, pausing for just one flicker of the holiday season to treat yourself might, in fact, be the foundation of what Christmas is truly all about. Fill yourself up until you overflow.

Well, actually, I have paraphrased Brittany a bit. What she said was more like a laugh and an eye roll. But that's what she meant.

Don't underestimate the importance of giving to yourself -- or at least the value of overanalyzing bad shopping choices until you find justifications.

And never, ever underestimate the power of Black Friday.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Body piercing as therapy

It could just be a coincidence.

There's no hard evidence. But the correlation has local acupuncturists and body piercers intrigued -- and baffled.

Granted, it's only been three months. But if you're a victim of chronic anxiety -- paralyzing panic attacks several times a week, usually for no reason -- three months feels like a new life. Like coming up for breath after 29 years under water.

It was September, and I had an especially rough attack. In a daze, I ended up at K&K Piercing on University Hill in Boulder. I walked in and impulsively asked the workers to pierce my chest with a vertical bar in between my breasts along the middle of my body. This was out of character; I'm not a big fan of piercings, and I didn't know anyone with one. Maybe I thought it would be a good distraction.

It did not hurt. In fact, it felt tingly. Odd.

Several weeks later, I was at my acupuncturist. I told him about my piecing. I asked him if the rod through my chest could affect the flow of my energy, or "chi" in Eastern medicine. If sticking tiny acupuncture needles into your body can transform you, what about a more permanent puncture?

He looked at where I was pierced and smiled.

"You pieced two exact acupuncture points," he said. "The anxiety points."

Acupuncturists place needles there to reduce panic attacks, insomnia and anxiety. The increased blood flow and changed direction of the energy there often eliminates panic attacks, he said. I had never talked to him about my struggles with anxiety.

Which is when I realized I have not had an attack since I got the piercing.

Still haven't.

I didn't even know what I was doing when I got the piercing. Could I have subconsciously "fixed" myself? I consulted the experts for an answer.

More than a pretty jewel

Jeanette Barrie says maybe.

Barrie, of Boulder, is an integrative wellness counselor with a background in Ayurveda, an alternative medicine with roots in India.

Piecing the ears and nose is an extension of traditional Indian acupuncture, Barrie says -- "not just for beauty, but to trigger the vital energy points in the system."

Ayurveda tells women to piece their left nostrils with a gold post. That is supposed to ease childbirth and menstrual pain by giving a warming, energetic balance to the cooling right ("lunar") side of the brain, which rules the left side of the body.

Michelle Backus agrees; piercings affect your body beyond simple aesthetics.

Backus is the owner of the Ayurveda-based Alaya Yoga Spa in Louisville, and she does marma point massage. Marma points are similar to acupressure points, although they don't directly overlap in location or size.

Initially, Backus says, "You get a euphoric rush when you get a tattoo or piercing at the physical level, and the mind and emotions are usually in a particular state before you get the work done, then afterward your mind and emotions have shifted."

A tattoo on a marma point, such as the palm of the hand, or a piercing at a marma point, such as the "Nabhi Marma" (navel) serves a similar function as marma massage or acupuncture, Backus says.

But, she adds, the energy change is not long-term -- positively or negatively. The energy of marmas will eventually redistribute around the piercing.

Unlike the deeper needling in Chinese acupuncture, Japanese acupuncture uses more superficial stimuli. And throughout history, people have tattooed their bodies on specific points to "re-regulate nerves," according to Japanese acupuncturist Dann.

Europe's oldest natural human mummy, found frozen in the Alps, sported 57 tattoo marks on his body on the acupuncture points for osteo-arthritis. An X-ray found he had arthritis, suggesting he had been tattooed for medical reasons.

"There's enough history that shows certain types of piercings and tattoos have been used to enhance energy flows," Dann says.

And in Africa, scarification -- a sort of mix between tattoos and piercing -- was believed to open up spiritual and physiological energies, Dann says. For example, scarification on the chest would open up the home of the spirit.

The ears are especially packed with acupuncture points.In fact, acupuncturists consider the ears a "microsystem," with a point for everywhere on the body.

Note that ears look (sort of) like an upside-down fetus, with the lobe representing the head. Some representations of the Buddha depict him with massive earlobes, signifying wisdom. Throughout history, Buddhists have pierced the center of their earlobes to connect with their "third eye," to enhance their inner vision, according to Jeffrey Dann, a Boulder-based acupuncturist and medical anthropologist.

This could have interesting implications for the growing number of Americans stretching their lobes with ear gauges. Based on these beliefs, could the plugs open or stretch the mind?

Others stories say lobe piercing came from pirates or sailors, who thought stimulating that area would improve eyesight and help them see land at far distances.

Then there is the tragus, the bump of cartilage in front of the ear canal -- and the acupuncture point for metabolism. Local piercers report they regularly see people getting their tragus pieced to help with losing weight.

In fact, tragus piecing has turned into a business in and of itself: "ear stapling." It's been big in the South for years, and fans say it's just now taking off in Colorado.

Annette Cutter, of Littleton, runs Ear Stapling of Colorado (, the only certified ear-stapling business in the state.

Cutter has been stapling ears for about a year. She uses an "acu-locator," which reads energy levels, to locate the precise trigger point and inserts a surgical steel staple into each tragus. She says the $75 piercing sparks weight loss, appetite reduction, increased energy and better sleep 80 to 90 percent of the time. She says it also makes food taste different.

It worked for her, she claims. Cutter says she lost 20 pounds in 2½ months after her first staple.

Cutter is not an acupuncturist. And she says she doesn't exactly understand why it works. But using acupuncture principles, she says, the changes that people feel are hard to deny.

The argument against

Unless, of course, you're talking about the placebo effect. That's how Tracy Akers explains the tragus-weight connection.

"If people think it will work, then it will," says Akers, a piercer at Tribal Rites. "Sometimes it does simply because the person believes so."

Josh Wood, also a piercer at Tribal Rites in Boulder, agrees. Wood has piercings, and he gets acupuncture.

"They are two completely separate things," he says. "An acupuncture needle is more like a screw. They don't jab it into you. They gently twist it into the skin, and it releases, well, whatever it does."

He thinks piercings and tattoos are mainly aesthetic.

"We can pierce any part of the body, and when we hit the meridian points, nothing happens. You don't get joy or excitement from the piercing," Wood says.

He adds with a laugh, "I wish you got joy from tattoos."

Take your belly-button ring out. That's the first advice Amy Dickinson offers her patients with fertility problems. The navel intersects with what acupuncturists, like Dickinson, call the "conception vessel," or the middle meridian up the body, which connects with the uterus.

"A belly ring impedes the flow of energy to the conception vessel, and could have an effect on fertility in some people," she says.

Dickinson, of Boulder, is the vice president of the Acupuncture Association of Colorado. And she says she cannot imagine a positive reason to get a piercing.

"The entire body conducts electricity and has an innate wisdom about where the energy should flow," she says.

In traditional Chinese acupuncture, most piercings are frowned upon, according to acupuncturist Dann. Piercings can interrupt the flow of energy, especially along the middle meridian, where the navel is located. A piecing in one of the energy lines can weaken an entire organ or system. Others believe that metal disturbs the energy flow.

This has created a conundrum for Kirsten Hamilton. The local woman has multiple piercings in her nose. She also has chronic sinus infections. Her acupuncturist says her metal is creating the problem. But she says she loves her rings, and does not want to take them out.

"Everyone's energy is different and resonates with different types of metal, images and other types of jewelry," Hamilton says. "Everyone is different. There are only good and bad places on a specific individual."

Molly Plann, of Louisville, says she began having digestive problems after she pierced her nipples. She eventually removed the piercings because she got pregnant. Since then, her problems are gone, but she says she doesn't know whether it was the pregnancy, the piercings or coincidence. Nipples are on the stomach meridian and can relate to digestion -- although some acupuncturists say they would never needle a nipple.

So assuming there's a connection, how can you know whether a piercing might help (such as Indian women and nostril piercings) or hurt (such as stories about fertility and the navel)?

"You can't, really," says acupuncturist Dann. "It could go either way: block or stimulate the point. You don't know."

Take a cleavage piercing, between the breasts. This is a "huge" acupuncture point, he says, "the master point of the upper body, for heart and lungs."

He says he needles this point to help with anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks.

"If someone had a lot of those problems," he says, "it'd sure be interesting to have it pierced and see what it does."

Hmm. You don't say?