It’s OK to spoil yourself

About two months ago, I threw my back out and was out of commission for a few days. The pain was immense and I had to take a prescription muscle relaxer and painkillers. Toward the end of my recovery, I made a quick decision to do something I had wanted to do for a long time, but hadn’t yet dared: I booked a hot stone massage for myself, and a facial treatment.

Both treatments, at the Willard Continental’s Elizabeth Arden spa, went amazingly well. I felt incredibly relaxed and rejuvenated and my face had a noticeable glow that almost made me look pretty. I justified the expense by writing it off as a treatment for my back; the facial I’d gotten just because hey, I was already there.

Earlier today, I went back to the spa and had another massage (Swedish this time) and another facial. My skin is still glowing and my back kinks are worked out. Did I have a “medical” excuse this time? No. I wanted to go, and I did. And it was amazing. And I don’t feel guilty about doing it.

I’m finally to the point now where I have a healthy savings cushion built up. I can fulfill my rent and student loan obligations and other bills, and still have a decent amount of money left over. More recently, I’ve been buying (small) things for myself that even a few months ago I’d have written off as frivolous or unnecessary: a new ring, a necklace, a pair of flats, a pretty blue lace slip. None of them are necessities, but all of them give me enjoyment and allow me to express myself.

As long as you pay up for the necessities, whatever you do with the gravy is up to you. It’s been an almost overwhelming concept to me, given that I’m practical and frugal almost to a fault (I rarely buy anything that’s not on sale, and I don’t have much jewelry or even pierced ears). I don’t blow through my money or rack up credit card debt I can’t pay off. But I also don’t second-guess myself. Do I really need that bra? Do I really need those shoes? That facial? That flavored espresso drink? No, I don’t need them. But I want them, and I have the means to get them.

So why shouldn’t I?

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On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

Finding your voice

Not too long ago, I was having dinner with some friends, a couple. One of them described a book she had just read, but couldn’t think of the author or the title. Based on her synopsis, I remarked that it “sounded like something Chuck Palahniuk would write.” She ended up looking up the book on her phone, and the author was … Chuck Palahniuk. Her girlfriend was impressed that I could identify the author correctly — I hadn’t actually read the book.

I’ve thought about that exchange since it happened, and I’m still torn on whether, from a writer’s perspective, it’s good or bad or both or neither. On the one hand, here is a writer with such a developed voice and tone that a mere summary of a book was enough for me to identify him. On the other, from a more cynical perspective, it could be seen as the mark of someone who perhaps relies too much on a singular focus.

As a writer who does far too little of her own writing, I fell on the side of positivity (how un-Palahniuk of me) and settled on the former interpretation. I’d honestly love for someone down the line to read something I’ve written, or hear about something I’ve written, and positively ID me as the author. Really, it shows a familiarity with the overall body of work, and that’s something an author should strive for.

(The book was “Invisible Monsters,” I think.)