Snapping Turtle

She heaves her terrible body out of the black mud,
Like the monster in a Grade B movie.
You know the movie I mean
Where the townsfolk run off, screaming from the hill,
even though–
the monster has yet to make a single aggressive gesture.
Hasn’t made so much as an off-color remark even.
I understand the running.
It’s the screaming that puts me off.
This one has come to lay her eggs in our garden.
To wreak havoc on our sugar snaps.
I lie down in the grass, watch her side-on.
She fills my vision. Big as a footstool.
She’s like T-Rex, only less irate.
Even so, her jaws can snap a shovel. Or so they say.
Tank of a body, a shield of solid armor.
She was there, you know, just after the Big Bang.
Out of the wreckage, she came together, like a boulder.
She’s older than dirt. Or so they say.
She stops mid-stride, one foot raised, freeze-framed.
My breath stays. Now, here’s where I should remind you–
I’m not wearing any armor. I’m a little afraid.
Of our differences.
She rolls one dreadful eye towards me.
I drop down and down and down.
It’s not your fault, I tell her. Maybe if you blinked–
Every once in a while.
Oh, if you’d let me–I know better than to ask!
I’d lay my hand on your knobby forehead,
And then you could rest your tired, old eyes.
Well, at any rate, here we are–
Let us just pause a moment

And consider, just how far we’ve come.

O Tannenbaum

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This year our neighbors, Bob and Bette, swiped our Christmas tree.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, they walked through our meadow and stumbled upon a little spruce tree growing on the path that connects our properties. Spruce trees are rare here in the northwest hills of Connecticut. Most of our fir trees are white pines with needles as fine as baby hair; unsuitable for holding ornaments. A spruce is a find. A real gem. One in a gazillion.

“We found a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree at the edge of your meadow,” Bette texted. “We don’t know if it’s growing on your property or ours, but we want to take it for our last Christmas in Connecticut! Do you mind?” They’re moving to California next year and we’re a little bummed out about it. Things just won’t be the same around here.

I asked her to tag the tree so I could have a look at it before I gave the go ahead. Not because I had any right to say no, property lines are fuzzy in the woods, but a sudden possessive ‘Mine!’ rose up in me; that perverse feeling you get when you think you’re losing something, even if, until now, you hadn’t known of it’s existence.

The next day, Bette did more than tag the tree; she tied a big red bow on its uppermost branch. I couldn’t miss it as I crested the hill with my dog. It was that big red bow. Truth is, I couldn’t remember ever noticing that perfect little tree until the big red bow.

I’ve always thought of trees as spiritual beings. They’re perhaps the most generous beings on earth, offering shade when things get too hot, wood to build our shelters with, the warmth of a fire, ashes that regenerate life, and even oxygen. Trees give us life. They give us breath. They’re a quiet and gentle reminder to live our lives as they do, with compassion and generosity.

This little tree with its big red bow looked to be in high spirits.

And why not? Right in the middle of nowhere, growing quite by accident, it had been noticed. I realized the little tree must have been on that path for a few years now. I’ve tripped over it, gotten my dog’s leash tangled in it, pushed the branches out of my way a million times, but there’s one thing I hadn’t done; I hadn’t actually noticed it. Bob and Bette did.

Game over.

I didn’t really have a say in it; everything was now just a formality, but I texted Bette. “Go ahead and cut the tree. It looks so cute!” And it did, look cute and…somehow jovial. The way you feel when you doll yourself up and the right people pay attention.


I half-heartedly looked around the meadow for a second spruce, but the chances were slim and I knew it, so Saturday afternoon, Dave and I began the annual hunt for our own Christmas tree.

“We’ll go back to the place we went last year,” I suggested, “with the fun Edison lights and the Christmas shop. We’ll buy a new ornament for the tree.” When we pulled in, there were a few people wandering around the Christmas shop, but not many people seemed to be buying trees. I found a beautiful Douglas fir and flipped over the tag.

$120. I bent down to look at the stump. Maybe this was one of those potted trees we could plant in the spring. But, no. One hundred and twenty dollars for a cut tree that would only last through the holidays.

“$120!!!” This from Dave. “That’s highway robbery!”

And seeing my disappointment, he added, “but, if you really want one of these trees…” He pulled his wallet out. Acts of love come in all sorts of packages. You just have to keep your heart open so you don’t miss them. Except I couldn’t let him do it. He’d been at work from sunup to sundown for the last six days.

I turned on my heel. “Let’s go,” I said. “At those prices they can keep them!” Dave agreed. We left in a huff. We became a team, a force against Christmas corruption!

But where to go? We sat in the car for a moment thinking of other places that were selling trees.

“Price gouging,” I heard Dave grumble.

“If we buy an artificial one at Walmart,” I said, “we’ll never have to do this again.” He turned to look at me.

Never have to do this again? 

Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? Wasn’t this supposed to be a ritual that exemplified our Christmas spirit! This was a lack of Christmas cheer!

Then… a dastardly thought…Bob and Bette’s tree. The little spruce all lit up in their living room. On Christmas morning, they’d leave to visit their daughter in California. If they left early enough, we could steal our tree back, lift it from their living room, ornaments and all, Grinch-style, and put it up in our living room. Who would know?

I started the car, ditched the idea. “There’s the cider mill,” I said, “They were selling trees.”

The cider mill, just up the road a mile or two, was a bustle of activity. Four old men ran the show. The temperature hovered around 22 degrees and the air felt raw. A meagre fire in a rusty old barrel threw out half-hearted sparks, but no warmth. Dave asked one of the old guys how much they were asking for the trees.

“They range in price from $55 to $110, sir. All different kinds.” The old man’s nose was purple-veined and swollen from the cold.

“So,” Dave said pulling his wallet out, “which ones are the…”

The old man spit. “Sir! point to a tree! Just point and I’ll give you a price!” Dave and I shot each other a look.

There are moments-we’ve all experienced them-when the world, for contrary reasons of its own, is determined to knock the weak spark of Christmas tree joy right the heck out of you.

This was one of them.

Dave scowled and disappeared into the trees as the old man went off in the other direction.

I found Dave working out three $20 bills from his wallet with his own set of frozen, working-man’s hands. His coat had come undone, exposing his chest to the cold. He looked done in.

“Um,” I said, “I heard that man say he must be tired.”

“Yeah…well,” Dave sighed, “I guess we’re all tired.”

We went back to the old man and the two of us obediently pointed to a tree. I watched the old man’s raw and calloused fingers as he snugged it to the roof rack. “Well, anyway,” he said, “Merry Christmas!” And he even waved.

As Dave backed the car out, I saw the old man standing by the fire, waiting for his next customer.

They say that Christmas is not about the presents or the food. I think they’re right. It’s a time to slow down, pay attention. If your leash gets tangled, take a moment to see just what the heck.

If you think about it, Christmas trees prove that transforming yourself from something ordinary into something magnificent isn’t as hard as you imagine.

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Poetry for People who Don’t Like Poetry. No, really. This stuff will knock you flat.

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To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

___ William Blake

I have a confession to make. I love poetry. Yes, I’m one of those people, but I have a theory for those of you who don’t like poetry.

You’re probably reading the wrong stuff.

Consider this; poetry is as personal as music. If you find a style that fits, poetry is just as accessible as music. Are you into classic rock? Me, too. Hip-hop and rapper music doesn’t appeal, but I still love music.

So, if you do sometimes see heaven in a wildflower or your dog’s limpid brown eyes, then you like poetry. Plain and simple.

Here are three great collections of poetry for people who thought they didn’t like poetry.

img_8376 From the book jacket: ” Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs is a celebration of the special bond between human and dog, as understood through the poet’s relationships to the canines that have accompanied her daily walks, warmed her home, and inspired her work. Oliver’s poems begin in the small everyday moments familiar to all dog lovers, but through her extraordinary vision, these observations become higher meditations on the world and our place in it.”

img_8377 From the jacket: “Berry’s poetry is alternately a testimony to the harrowing of his (and our) world and an ardent invocation of that once and still-glimpsed world. The peace of wild things was in him in the writing and it is in us in the reading.”

img_8378 Daring, funny, and highly accessible. Most people know Cisneros for her novel, The House on Mango Street, but she’s also a talented poet. I highly recommend this book.

Black Friday; everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

I’m not much of a shopper, unless I’m in a saddle shop surrounded by the scent of new leather and a life-sized horse mannikin.

I’ve never gone wonky over a sale on big screen televisions and I don’t get the vapors over shoe sales. Sad to say, all the media hype around Black Friday does nothing to quicken my heartbeat like it seems to for other folks. I feel left out. I’m missing something, I know, to be so ho-hum about saving a boatload of money on stuff I don’t need.

What is wrong with me?

Black Friday is a major shopping event, a shop-a-holic’s dream come true, a shopping phenomenon, if you will.

And that does quicken my heartbeat, so, in the interest of scientific research, I unearthed a few fun facts-and some not so fun facts- about Black Friday.

  1.  The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the kick-off to the holiday shopping season, but it never had a name, until recently.
  2. The term, Black Friday, is thought to have originated in Philadelphia, when pedestrians and vehicle traffic clogged main shopping roads and generally made ordinary life difficult. It’s also the day when retailers’ accounting books switch from being ‘in the red’ to being ‘in the black.’
  3.  People get crazy for a deal. To date, there have been 16 reported deaths due to Black Friday shopping mania.
  4. In 2018, American shoppers spent a whopping 717.5 billion dollars on Black Friday alone.
  5. 50% of the 717.5 billion dollars was spent on electronics and technology.
  6. Environmentalists criticize Black Friday as yet another consumeristic bomb as shoppers purchase items they don’t need simply because they’re on sale.
  7. On Black Friday,  in a line outside a California Walmart, a woman used pepper spray on fellow shoppers to prevent them from cutting the line. She was waiting for an Xbox 360.

The psychology behind Black Friday is even more interesting.

  • Black Friday hype awakens a psychological urgency. First, retailers encourage you to believe you want IT, whatever IT is; then they drop the bomb. “You have just one day to get IT.”
  •  When we shop or engage in exciting or impulsive behavior, we feel a little thrill. That’s the brain’s physiological response to impulse behavior. Your brain sends a shot of dopamine to your neurotransmitters, which- lo and behold-reinforces that impulse behavior.
  • Advertising sells happiness, not products. Your life will be amazing if only you buy this sweater, television, computer, I-pad. No, really…your life will be amazing!
  •  Consumer Psychology is an entire field of research. No lie. It’s research devoted to finding out what motivates shoppers to make purchases. Some of the motivators include boosting self-esteem, an ‘I deserve this’ mentality, a happiness reach, cultural conditioning, and the desire for immediate gratification. Finding out why you buy, is a full time job for someone.

But hey, don’t let any of the above stop you. I don’t want to be a killjoy.

Happy Black Friday shopping everyone!

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The Booklist; great books to read over the holidays.

Many of you will be getting together with your quirky relatives over the holidays. Why not bring along a book with interesting characters? You know, for the downtime when Aunt Martha is sleeping off her third glass of port.

Alias Grace is a favorite of mine. After reading the book, indulge in the miniseries. It was fantastic. Set in 19th century Canada, the story unravels the truth (or does it?) of a woman imprisoned for a brutal murder.

The End of the Affair is set in London just after World War II. The story is more than a fascinating love triangle. This book was also adapted for television and is excellent.

Another Graham Greene novel; The Ministry Of Fear is short, but oh so good. A man’s ordinary day spins out of control as he gets caught up in a Nazi murder plot in war torn London.

Yorkshire Pudding

When I was a kid, Yorkshire Pudding was a staple side dish in my British-born household, especially at the the holidays. Mom would make the muffin-style Yorkshires and we’d fill them with a spoonful of meat drippings. Definitely not health food.

So when my boyfriend arrived for that first holiday dinner, I wasn’t sure what he’d think of our very English tradition- no rolls, just Yorkshires. I think he gobbled down three or four of them. Dad could see he had to look sharp if he wasn’t going to lose out on the last one. I married that boyfriend and at every holiday dinner he’d spar with dad for the last Yorkshire Pudding. That sparring became a new tradition.

Yorkshire pudding has a colorful history, dating back to the 12th century. It’s believed to have originated in the kitchens of King Henry II.  In the village pubs, meat (probably mutton) was dangled on a hook over a cooking fire. A pan underneath caught the meat drippings which were used to cook the Yorkshires, a mixture of flour, salt, eggs, and fresh milk.

The result is sort of like a moist and flavorful popover. Sort of. Trying to  describe a Yorkshire pudding to those who haven’t had the pleasure is like trying to describe the color of the sky to a blind man. It’s just not the same.

With the holidays just around the corner, I share our family recipe for Yorkshire Pudding.

Yorkshire Pudding      

4 Large fresh eggs
equal quantity of fresh milk to eggs
same with all purpose flour
pinch of salt
vegetable fat or pan drippings (best if you use Crisco…no, this is not health food.)

Mix the first four ingredients. Consistency should be somewhat like cake batter. Do not overmix. Leave to sit for 30 minutes.

Put a pat of Crisco (about 1 tbsp.) in each muffin hole of the muffin tin pan. You can make one big one in a big cake pan, but there is less fighting if everyone gets their own pudding. And they taste better this way.

Get the oven real hot-450 degrees. When the fat is just smoking, ladle mixture to fill muffin cups to 1/3 full. Bake for about 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on them, but don’t open the oven or they’ll fall.

Serve with just about anything; pot roasts and roast turkey are my family’s favorites.  Encourage guests to spoon a dollop of gravy into the cup.

Delicious.

5-Rules for Writing About the People You Love

It’s easy to tell an embarrassing truth about someone else. Actually, as a writer, I get a perverse pleasure from it. I can tuck the truth into a piece of fiction and no one will ever be the wiser or I can tell it outright in an essay and call it art.

Still, sharing other people’s truths, even if it benefits my creative life, can feel awkward.  Unless, of course, the person is dead. After you’re dead, everything you ever did or said is fair game, rich fodder for my creative life. If we’re estranged that can work just as well.

But, we’re not estranged and until then, you’re safe with me, sort of. I can’t say I won’t write about you, but I’ll write so that even your mother wouldn’t recognize you. Fair enough?

Here are my 5 rules for writing about the people I love:

  1.  For every story I write about a person I know, I ask myself- is this my story to tell? Some stories are not mine. I don’t understand them or I don’t have all the facts I need to tell the story true. As a twelve-year old kid, I saw the movie, “The Trial of Billy Jack.” Okay, so I was an impressionable girl, but after I saw that movie, I switched from writing about cute boys and horses to writing long, boring, tragic stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men. Don’t rent the movie. It was awful and don’t read my terrible, terrible stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men.
  2. I never want to write something that would embarrass or humiliate someone I love. This rule brings to mind Pat Conroy’s book, The Prince of Tides. It’s probably a bad example because if you’ve read Conroy’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel of his abusive father, you know that sometimes you just have to get things off your chest. The book is so darn good.  His family disowned him after the novel’s release, but came around eventually. Here he comments in a 1996 story for The Guardian,

Pat Conroy tells the story of when his mother was dying of leukemia. She said, “Son, I find it hard to relax when I’m dying, knowing you’re going to write down every damn word I say.” When he told her that she’d be included in the film version of “Prince of Tides”, she told him to get Meryl Streep to play the part. 

3. I write the story true. No one is all villain or all hero. Yesterday, I ripped off the kid at the coffee shop. The coffee cost $2.19. I gave him 3 dollars. He gave me back $1.91. I didn’t tell him. I drove away satisfied that I took money from the donut shop that takes money from me. Serves them right for putting all the good donut shops out of business. Checkmate. Gotcha. Then I thought of how the kid’s cash drawer might not add up at the end of the night and what if this was his last day to get it right? I didn’t turn around and go back, this is a true story, remember? Later that same day, when the grocery clerk asked me if I wanted to round up for the local fire department I said yes! in a really loud voice. No one is all villain.

4. If it’s a story that will define the person for evermore, I don’t write it. There is still something about the published written word that seems like hard fact. It is very difficult to live down a defining moment even if the story appeared in a seedy tabloid. The story can dog the person forever. I think of Axl Rose, the front man of Guns N’ Roses. I mean how many times has he been reported dead only to resurface, go on tour, and record a new album? I feel like if he actually dies, no one will believe it.

5. Rules are made to be broken. Or at least, bent a little. Be careful. Be oh so careful what you share with me. I didn’t ask to be born this way.

Where Inspiration Lives; treat yourself to an Artist’s Date.

Writers and visual artists are often asked this question; Where do you get your ideas?

I’m one of those people who is never short of ideas. It’s bringing them to fruition that challenges me most. But, if you’re a writer or visual artist, engaging in new experiences can spark an idea for your next project. It’s these little artist dates, a concept I first read about in Julia Cameron’s excellent book, The Artist’s Way, that infuse my creativity. Even if you are not an artist, stepping outside of your routine can help you get creative in your personal life, maybe even helping to solve a problem that has you stuck.

When Dave was building our kitchen cabinets, I went along with him to the hardwood outlet in Enfield, Connecticut. It was an afternoon well spent. The Hardwood Outlet is nothing like your local lumber yard or a chain home improvement  store. From the moment I stepped through the doors, the scent of freshly milled wood filled my nose. I walked along the rows and rows of woods and read their names.

The names, so beautiful, were like words in a poem:

Spanish Cedar, White Oak, Lacewood, Eucalyptus, Cypress, Q-sawn Sycamore, Poplar, Walnut, Red Maple Curly, Sassafras, Maple Birdseye, Hickory, Basswood, Cherry, and Flame Birch. I thought of the forests these woods lived in and I loved that the Hardwood Outlet was committed to buying only sustainable wood, grown and harvested in eco-friendly forests.

All the wood was sold by the board foot. The old man running the place leaned in to me,

“You’re very smart to come with your husband. No man should be allowed to come in here without his wife, too tempting!” He seemed surprised to have a woman wandering the wood.

Sadly, this hardwood outlet has closed up shop, but since then, I’ve treated myself to an assortment of artist’s dates. An heirloom garden seed festival, a talk on Samuel Clemens, a dog groomer’s, a Jewish deli (even though I am not Jewish), and a state fish hatchery. Artist Dates don’t have to cost you anything, but they should help you step out of your everyday humdrum.

I’d love to hear your ideas for artist’s dates in the comments.

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The Booklist; great books to read on the throne.

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Are you a closet bathroom reader?

(You can lie about it, but you’ll have to live with that lie for the rest of your life.)

Anyway, here are a few of my favorite books for reading on the throne.

 

IMG_8115 The connection between our gut and our mood. This makes perfect sense to me. Fascinating!

img_8116 This is a great book to read while you’re ‘scatting’ yourself, especially if you love to spend time in the forest.

img_8117 I understand that some kids are afraid to poop. I don’t remember this being a problem in my family. Can we blame this problem on the millennials somehow? Just joking. I love millennials!

Blinded by Beauty

This morning, the girl at the McDonalds drive-thru handed me coffee without making eye contact. She wasn’t being rude. I don’t think she could see me. At some point between yesterday and today, she’d caved to the latest beauty fad, blinking from under an absurdly thick fringe of false eyelashes. She had to grope around for my hand as she passed me my change.

There’s a hard truth around every beauty fad; if you want the real thing, in this case, authentic Kardashian lashes, you have to spend a boatload of money. If you don’t have a lot of money, you have to try to make it happen on a thin paycheck.

I used to be that girl. My reach wasn’t for eyelashes, but blonde highlights. At sixteen years old, I noticed the Marcia Brady types in my school seemed happier. My part time job as a nurse’s aide was barely enough to pay for my car, let alone salon highlights. I bought a box of hair dye at the drugstore for three dollars. The girl on the box looked like Farah Fawcett. This was going to change my life.

But, like the girl at McDonald’s, I had mixed results. First of all, I made a mess of my mother’s new bath rug. That didn’t go over well. Two weeks later, my friend noticed a swatch of hair at the back of my head that had turned an alarming shade of granny apple green. Chlorinated pool water and blonde hair dye led to a chemical reaction on the back of my head. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty at all.

So, yes. I feel an alliance with my friend at McDonald’s. If I was young enough for false eyelashes, I’d be just like her, making do with a cheap set bought at the five and dime. Then I’d go home and have to glue them on as best I could.

Being a girl doesn’t come cheap.

A full set of extension eyelashes applied by a certified eyelash technician (yes, there is such a thing) costs anywhere from 175 dollars to 400 dollars plus a tip. Monthly maintenance will run you 55-75 dollars a pop.

Eyelash extensions come in a variety of thicknesses, from lashes as thin as a pencil tip to something that looks like my 1970’s fringed jean shorts. They’re either applied in a strip or single tufts. Some false eyelashes are made of mink (yes, mink!) while others are made of human or synthetic hair.

The eyelash technician glues the extensions to the natural lash line, which takes 12-24 hours to fully cure. During that time you can’t get your eyes wet. No face washing. No swimming. And no watching that last scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere sweeps Julia Roberts off the balcony. If your boyfriend breaks up with you on the day you get your lashes done, let’s hope he wasn’t worth crying over.

Once your lashes are ‘cured’, you’ll be instructed to avoid rubbing your eyes. Super long lashes require a daily brushing with something called a ‘spoolie brush.’ At night, you’ll have to lie flat on your back like Sleeping Beauty. No side sleeping and no mashing your face into your pillow.

There are health risks, including the risk of losing your own eyelashes or the very real risk of eye infections like pink eye. Some adhesive products contain formaldehyde which, quite honestly, I didn’t research the effects, but can we agree it can’t be good to put formaldehyde near your eyes?

Every new beauty fad comes with an unspoken promise; do this, buy this, wear this, and you will be desirable. If only you do this, you’ll be pretty. If only you do this, your life will improve. If you do this: you’ll fit in.

It’s easy to blame this over-reaching on men and the culture of beauty around women. But, I don’t think men are to blame for this. I believe it’s all on us. Most men I know wouldn’t turn down a date with a woman because her lash length wasn’t up to his usual standards.

My oldest daughter was home for a visit from Montana. “You know,” she said, as she laced up her hiking boots, “I feel if women just stopped buying into it, we’d all be so much happier.”

So true. I don’t feel pressure from men to get a perfect pedicure. I feel pressure from women. If I want to be accepted into the Girls Club, I have to wear the right clothes, have the right hair, or turn my eyes into a Venus fly trap, never mind that I’m blinded in the process.

I know that even feminist types want to be accepted into the Girl’s Club. Don’t tell me they don’t. Successful executive women wear pencil skirts and high heels for a reason. They want others to notice their narrow waists and slender calves while they make important decisions on company policy. Even Gloria Steinem wore a fetching pair of strappy sandals while carrying a sign on a stick that said, “We Shall Overcome.” Puleeeeze.

A couple of weeks ago, I did the most informal survey of all time. I asked the men in my life to weigh in on the Kardashian eyelash craze.

This comment from my husband who just celebrated his sixtieth birthday. “They’re kind of distracting. Unnatural. I’m afraid they’ll poke their eyes out.”

And this from a 30-something year old guy. ” On some girls they look okay. I don’t really think about them.”

My litmus test for beauty these days is simple. Feeling good about myself shouldn’t hurt or come with risk of injury. Feeling good about myself should…well…feel good.

But this requires an awareness of why we buy in. As I get older, some of the women I know are getting work done; bottoms lifted, tummies tucked, lips plumped. That’s not a beauty fad; it’s an expectation in some circles.

But, that path is not for me. I don’t have enough self-restraint to start down that slippery slope. I won’t know when to stop. My eyes would search my body’s landscape for every little thing that needed improvement. Pretty soon, I’d have to re-mortgage the farm to pay for the upgrades.

Here’s my litmus test for beauty trends: I ask myself why I do it. Is it for me? Or is it for them? Who are they, anyway? Am I enjoying whatever it is I’m doing?

If we’re doing it for men, we should know that most men don’t judge women as harshly as we judge ourselves and each other. What a man appreciates, is a woman who likes herself, who takes care of herself, who laughs at his jokes, essentially, a woman who is confident in her own skin. Men can’t always put their finger on what it is that makes this one or that one stand out, but I bet you they never say…it was the eyelashes.