Monday, December 23, 2013

Entertainment Review 2013: Books

I'm a big fan of for maintaining my ever-growing list of must-read books, which currently stands at 252. What's interesting about this fairly substantial list is that, when it's time to choose a new title, I often have no interest in any of them. Or, if there's something I really want to read, it's unavailable to borrow from the library in e-book format.

Ah, the e-book. Having spent more than a decade in book publishing I thought I'd be forever devoted to holding a physical book in my hands, feeling the cover, turning the pages. Alas, I've strayed. Big time. Mostly it's about the convenience. If I can download a book to my iPad, I don't have to head out to the library to pick it up or worry about returning it on time. And when I'm eating lunch --alone, again-- I can pull out my iPhone and read and I feel a little less pathetic. I can't imagine how book publishing in its paper form is going to survive. There's just no reason to make that purchase. The exception is the book that changes your life, or the one you decide your family and friends must read. And frankly, those books are exceedingly rare.

But enough with my depressing prediction for book printers. Let's review the titles that resonated with me in 2013, none of which was actually published this year. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I only read 14 books this year, though I at least started 19. I'll confess to those I gave up on after I share this list of my top 10:
  1. Peace Like a River. My only five-star read in 2013. I loved every bit of this 2001 book. I don't know if would be categorized as Christian fiction, but even if it is, don't let that scare you. If you can appreciate the element of faith in a story, and believe in miracles, you'll like this one.
  2. Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Goodreads doesn't allow you to give 1/2 stars, but this one would have earned 4.5 stars. (I'm stingy with my fives.) Tell the Wolves I'm Home was published as young adult fiction, which I didn't know at the time, but it grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go. It dealt with AIDS and homosexuality, loss, and a young girl's love for the one person in her family who meant the most to her. 
  3. 11/22/63. I'm not a Stephen King fan, but my husband read this book about the day Kennedy was shot, and he highly recommended it. (Unlike him, I don't automatically rule out any book that my spouse suggests.) I really liked the time-travel approach to this story, and found myself returning to it in my head during the recent 50th anniversary of the assassination. 
  4. The Lakeshore Limited. I found the premise of this one really thought-provoking. If someone you had fallen out of love with, but were still intimately involved with, died during a tragic set of circumstances (i.e. 9/11), how would you react to that loss? Here's a description used on Goodreads: "A powerful love story; a mesmerizing tale of entanglements, connections, and inconsolable losses; a marvelous reflection on the meaning of grace and the uses of sorrow, in life and in art." Definitely worth a read.
  5. Cutting for Stone. A popular book club selection, Cutting for Stone is described as "Sweeping, emotionally riveting—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home." Highly recommended if you like literary fiction. 
  6. Running Barefoot. I think I got this one as a free BookBub offer. It's the story of an awkward 13-year-old musical prodigy, and her friendship with the new kid, Samuel, an 18-year-old Navajo boy. It can be considered young adult and/or romance, so it's not a deep or difficult read, but it was lovely and sweet.
  7. Art of Racing in the Rain. I try to avoid animal-related books; they almost always make me cry. This one was no exception. The dog's voice was compelling, but the human story was rather run-of-the-mill.
  8. Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Published in August 2012, this was one of the newest books I read and one that had a good deal of buzz and popularity with book clubs. In my Goodreads review, I described it as, "A fun and easy read that made me feel slightly more sane." Worth a read, but not a "must-read." 
  9. The Age of Miracles. Another popular book club selection, The story line in The Age of Miracles is quite unique and offers an interesting premise: The planet's rotation has slowed and all of human life is being irrevocably changed with each passing minute. To be honest, however, I can't remember how it ends, which makes me wonder how good it could have been.
  10. Grace, Eventually. It's not really fair to compare non-fiction to fiction, but Anne Lamott's book deserved to make the list. If you're not familiar with her, you should be. If the idea of reading a Christian book freaks you out, don't let it scare you away from reading any of Lamott's books. She herself has taken the long and winding road to faith and shares an honest, often irreverent look at its role in her life. 
Now it's time to fess up. I gave up on Jane Austen's Persuasion. I'm bowing my head in shame. While I could appreciate the humor and intelligence, I found it painfully slow, and the style of writing required me to pay serious attention to what I was reading. No skimming if I wanted to understand what was going on. I guess that's just too much to ask considering I do all of my reading in the few minutes before I fall asleep at night.

I also gave up on Private Life, The Witch of Portabello (a book club selection that was a little too out there on the astral plane for me) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan whose other books I've greatly enjoyed (particularly On Chesil Beach). In my Goodreads review of Sweet Tooth, I note that it would have helped tremendously to better know the state of the world in that time period (early 1970s), and being British would have come in handy, too. The story is intimately tied to time and place making it a tough read.

So that's my Year in Books. As always, I look forward to hearing about your favorites from 2013!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Movies and Television Year in Review

It's time for Freakin' Angel's 2013 Entertainment Review, one of our most anticipated posts of the year (an unsubstantiated claim). I have to confess that this was not a particularly good year in entertainment for me personally. You may recall that just over a month ago I reported a disturbing pattern of seriousness that appeared to be overtaking over my formerly fluffy downtime. Hence, this review may take a different tone than in years past. But let's get started and see where it takes us.

Let's begin with television. As I said in "Finding Light When Life is Heavy," in 2013 I found myself disappointed with my old television favorites. Once Upon a Time became too bizarre. Hart of Dixie lost its sexy sizzle. New Girl didn't feel so new, or funny, anymore. These mindless treats were replaced by Scandal, which at times was over-the-top disturbing. And I remain committed to Homeland even though Sunday's season finale was a heart breaker. I'm really enjoying Masters of Sex for the articles and I keep hoping I'll learn something. And just this past week I dove into the critically-acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black. As a side note, I must say that I'm already desensitized to the material in these programs. When I watched the first episode of Masters of Sex, what I was seeing (and hearing!) nearly gave me a heart attack (it didn't help that I heard one of the kids walking toward the TV room). Yet, when watching the almost equally graphic first episode of Orange is the New Black, I barely flinched. Interesting, right?

Call me sometime, Matt.
As for other television programming, the one show I'm still enjoying after a number of years is White Collar. I tell myself it's a great concept for a series and the stories are engaging, but if I'm being honest, I watch it because of Matt Bomer. Yes, I know he's not interested in me, or any other woman, but he's beautiful. Enough said. This winter I'm looking forward to the start of Downton Abbey, although if they keep killing off family members, I'm going to have to reconsider its place on my DVR. And, I'm considering returning to American Idol only because they brought Harry Connick Jr. to the judges table and I think he's beautiful too he brings a new level of credibility and class to the program. We'll see.

Moving on to movies. This is where I really failed to deliver in 2013. I don't recall another year in which I saw so few flicks. It pains me to think about how much popcorn I missed. Here are the films I  recall seeing. I've ranked them in order from "must see" to "meh."

  1. The Way, Way Back. A great coming of age story with the perfect balance of humor, angst and family dysfunction. 
  2. Don Jon. You may be detecting a bit of a theme here, but this was a really great movie about a guy's obsession with pornography and its effect on his relationships. It brings together family, religion, technology, society and cultural expectations. Once you get desensitized in the first scene with its heavy breathing and related noises, it's terrific. A good one for discussion and debate. Watch it with the marriage ministry group at your church!
  3. 42. Jackie Robinson's story. See it. 
  4. Frozen. I went to see this with my long-time movie companion, Rebecca. Just Rebecca, no kids. And I'm not ashamed in the least. While the story didn't wow me, the music was fantastic, with Broadway's best providing the voices. The visuals were also stunning. And -- spoiler alert -- a man doesn't save the day!
  5. Catching Fire. Not sure I liked this as much as The Hunger Games, but it's such a great story with such good actors and fantastic costuming and sets that you must see it on the big screen.
  6. Iron Man 3. As far as sequels go, the Iron Man movies are much better than most. 
  7. The Internship. Hope you didn't pay to see it like I did. Though I was with Ian, so it was worth every penny to have my 15-year-old son go to the movies with me. The Internship is good for a laugh, that's about it.
  8. Monsters University. I was having stomach issues and missed large chunks (no pun intended) of this one. But I hear it was pretty good. 
  9. The Great Gatsby. I watched it alone at the theater on a rainy afternoon. It served its purpose.
  10. Despicable Me 2. I agree with the critics. It just wasn't as entertaining with Gru as a good guy.
  11. Admission. I'm a big fan of Paul Rudd, but he didn't save this ho-hum flick.
  12. Blue Jasmine. Ah, the irony. I have not seen a single best picture contender all year, except for this one. I'll admit that Cate Blanchett was thoroughly convincing in her role, but the film was depressing as hell. Ain't nobody got time for that.
So that's it. A dozen 2013 movies. I encourage you to comment on the best films you saw this year, and your favorite TV programs.

In the next post we'll review my 2013 reads (books I read in 2013 versus books published in 2013). Till next time...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I'd heard good buzz about this book, which recounts Strayed's 1,100 mile solo hike on the PCT. A few chapters into it, however, I questioned why it made the best seller lists. Here was a woman who suffered the loss of her mother to cancer at the too-young age of 44, whose remaining family drifted away, who sought solace in the company of men despite her marriage to a good man, who gave heroin a try one-too-many times, and who had an abortion just days before she began her hike. If you watch television, you know that this is all fairly typical stuff. The hike itself was full of challenges, the biggest being that Strayed had no real experience that prepared her for such an arduous journey. One could say that she was a dumb ass for considering it. When you look at all the heartbreaking memoirs out there, Strayed's is just another in a long line of stories of redemption. Interestingly, it took a day trip to NYC to help me see Wild in a different light.

Rob and I were in the Big Apple on Black Friday to see Big Fish, a Broadway musical with its own story of redemption. That's not what triggered the connection for me, however. It was the ride home, beginning with the PATH to Journal Square where we'd parked our car. The train was packed, standing room only, and I was bundled up against the cold from our walk. Now inside, I felt like I was melting. I couldn't easily remove my coat and scarf and didn't want the burden of carrying them, so I "suffered" in relative silence. Then, just a couple stops into our route, a very intoxicated and/or mentally ill man boarded the train talking loudly to anyone and everyone. I was relieved that I wasn't the unfortunate individual standing right next to him, and I was quite glad that the train was full and that I wasn't alone, feeling anxious and concerned for my safety.

With the exception of the heat and the somewhat sketchy company, the ride to our station was otherwise uneventful and Rob and I walked to our car, happy to be out in the fresh air, about to head home. Soon, however, I became exceptionally hungry. We'd eaten lunch at noon and it was nearly 6:00 p.m. Anyone who has spent a day with me is well aware that I have to be fed at more frequent intervals. I'm like a zoo animal. My hunger had given me a headache and made me irritable. It doesn't take much to make me irritable. And that's when it hit me. I am a chronic complainer who could never in a million years take on a challenge like Cheryl Strayed's. This past Sunday I got a blister while trudging through the snow to meet my son who'd picked one hell of a day to run away from home. Limping with that blister reminded me that I needed to write this post. Ian running away during a snow storm reminded me that I need to get him boots and gloves and possibly have his head examined.

As I reflect more on Strayed's book, I believe one of the reasons I didn't think it was all that it was cracked up to be was because she didn't tell it right. She didn't make it sound exceptional. She didn't lay it on thick enough. She forgot the gratuitous play-by-play of her drug-fueled liaisons. The gory details of her every misstep on the trail. The book was terribly light on the melodrama, opting instead to communicate in honest and reasonable terms the realities she faced both before and on the trail. The news media is way more salacious in its story telling. But that's a post for another time.

With Strayed's story in mind and my Black Friday + Sunday revelations, I decided to challenge myself. I needed to see if I could survive something that would test me and push me to my limits. I wanted to prove to myself that I am stronger than I think I am. That I can do anything I put my mind to. And so...

I've given up soda for the month of December.

I know you think I've lost my mind. I should have started small, taken baby steps. But it's time to go big or go home. No more gliding through life with nary a care in the world. I am woman, hear me roar!

While it's still early in the month, I'm proud to say I've only broken down in tears of frustration on three occasions and only once have I become verbally abusive with my coworkers (it was during my lunch hour when I used to enjoy my daily Coca-Cola). The good news is that I think the candy bars are helping. I no longer shake uncontrollably or glaze over around 3 p.m. each afternoon. I've gained five pounds in less than two weeks, but at least I'm sticking to my commitment.

Most importantly, I now have confidence in my "wild" side, and the next time I set a challenge for myself, I'm going to go even bigger and braver. I may start making my bed and making dinner. I may stop cleaning up after my children and refuse to take them to school when they're running late. I might go crazy and start following through on all the idle threats that have been dramatically diminishing the effectiveness of my parenting. Perhaps I'll commit to a sport or activity that I've never been good at (which gives me many, many options). Maybe I'll vow to meditate and read the Bible daily. Oh, the choices. I welcome your suggestions as I prepare to face yet another challenge in my already dramatic and remarkable life. Be gentle.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pieces of Home

Before I begin, I have to apologize to all my Southern friends and friends with Southern friends. Last week's post about my social awkwardness offended more people than anything else I've written, including thoughts about race, sexuality and religion. That's saying something! Those of you who know me best know that I was aiming for humor when I commented on the geographic differences between women. It should go without saying that there are millions of intelligent and accomplished women across the country. When it comes to a sense of humor, however, well, that's another story. KIDDING! Let us stand united in our awesomeness! And now, let us give thanks for Thanksgiving ...

I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner last week the same way I have enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner for all but one of my past 40+ years -- at my parents' house. There was one year in which I temporarily lost my mind and decided to host the meal myself. Thankfully, I regained my senses and that never happened again.

My mom and dad have lived in the same house on Old Orchard Drive practically since the day I was born. There was something about being there this year that felt different, however. It wasn't just the newly refinished hardwood floor and a new look for the old coffee table. It wasn't the fact that my mom didn't make her traditional lettuce with bacon dressing (which I never liked anyway), or that I discovered there have always been onions in the filling (not to be confused with stuffing). No, this year was different in the way I saw my childhood home. It was as if I was looking at it from outside myself. Like I was seeing it through the many stages of my life and my parents' lives. Alright, I can't put it into words. Just work with me.

I'm sure the loss we experienced in 2013 was a major contributor to the "visions" I had on Thursday. Most of you know that two of my aunts, my mom's sisters and best friends, passed away within six months of each other. And other older relatives dealt with their share of health-related issues. These experiences were an unwelcome reminder of my parents' age, a fact of life that many of my friends are also facing. While I generally prefer to ignore all the signs that tell me they won't live forever, my parents are pretty matter of fact about their stage of life. For years, my dad has had a hand-written letter prepared with his "wishes," along with a "guest list" of names of those who are to be invited to his funeral (you better not piss him off if you want to make the cut). He's currently working on handcrafted wooden boxes for the cremated ashes of my mom's two living sisters, and I think my mom has put in a request for hers as well. Yes, it's definitely becoming harder to ignore.

In light of this new reality I'm being forced to acknowledge, everything at "home" came with layers of meaning and memories this year. I didn't just pull a glass from the cupboard. Instead I opened the cupboard and noticed the variety of glasses and recalled them being in those very same locations 30 years ago. It meant trying to remember if those Philadelphia Eagles glasses were a collector set from the supermarket or the gas station. It meant looking at the characters on those colorful kiddie cups and having no clue who they are. This year, there was more than a touch of nostalgia in the selection of serving dishes and trivets.

This year, playing Monopoly with Ian and my sister wasn't just about beating her as payback for more than a decade of Monopoly abuse. This year there was something sentimental about how worn the board and the money had become from years of use. There were memories of painting the little green houses and gluing them to a poster board for a school project. There was the annual reminder from my mom that she hates playing board games because I never gave her a break from them when I was a kid.

Though every room on the main floor of my parents' ranch home has been redecorated since I moved out
nearly 20 years ago, the basement is exactly as I left it. The same wood paneling and the bar that my dad built. The old fashioned ice cream table and chairs that had been my grandparents'. The same archery trophies on the shelves. The same muzzle loader and deer antlers on the wall, albeit with a couple new deer and fox skins. The same furniture, including the couch that Rob and I destroyed with a few years worth of premarital snuggling. The same gazillion-page Volume Library from 1977. It was like stepping back in time.

More than just the flashback of memories, I found myself wondering, "What will we do with all of this when the time comes?" My ever-prepared dad has given me directions for a number of things, but what about the rest of it? Will I ever be able to get rid of that dish, this game, those photos, that table, this bed, those records? I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to toss the plastic floor plant and that useless downstairs couch, but what about the hundreds of other little things that each hold some kind of meaning? I was both nostalgic and miserable just thinking about it.

Hopefully I'll have my parents for another 20 years and I won't have to deal with any of this for a very long time. For now, I'm just thankful to have a childhood home filled with countless good memories.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Painful Realities of Socializing

'Tis the season ... for socializing, which is fine if I'm socializing with people I've socialized with before. But put me in a new setting with new people and it's like high school all over again. I'm awkward, self-conscious, anxiety-ridden and convinced my time would be better spent studying.

During the past couple years, my social life has seen relatively few new faces. My circles have stayed basically the same, and in some cases they've begun to overlap as friends from one circle get to know friends from another. There's comfort in those intersecting circles, unless things go too far and friends from those ven diagrams of my social life start getting together without me. Admit it. We all want our friends to like us more than they like any of the competition their other friends. Learning that a friend is going away for a weekend with college buddies or ditching me for someone I don't know can cause slight pangs of jealousy and concerns that I will be forgotten and left behind. It's creepy and controlling immature and silly, I know. If you're my friend I simply request that you don't put me through that. Then everything will be okay. But I've gotten off track here. We were discussing the great Dale Carnegie test of socializing with new people.

Two weekends ago, when Rob and I were in Charleston, SC, I was challenged with a scenario that I hadn't faced in years. We were spending time with Rob's fraternity brothers, two of whom threw their significant others into the mix even though I was relishing having them all to myself doing fine without them. These were women I'd never met before. I don't know about you, but it's been a very long time since I had to put on my game face and spend an evening with complete strangers. Do you know what's involved when a woman meets another woman for the first time? It's second only to prom night in terms of the stress level. All your feminist tendencies go out the window as you become ridiculously obsessed with your appearance. You want the competition her to be unattractive. Preferably with bad hair and a big butt. You want this "cheese" (fraternity-ese for "that girl is mine") to be shallow, vapid, clueless and completely without humor, wit or charm. You hope that she will be dressed inappropriately. That she didn't go to a more prestigious college than you. That whatever job she has involves no brain power whatsoever. You pray she's not one of those fitness freaks who makes you feel like a schlub. Rather than face the possibility that you won't measure up, you decide to suddenly develop chills and a fever, rendering you unable to leave your bed. Just like high school.

This coming weekend I am again faced with the opportunity to socialize with others whom I do not know well. Though I will most likely recognize many faces at this party, I will fail to remember the names of 95% of them. That's assuming we were ever introduced in the first place. While the presence of men means I won't be subject to a head-on, woman-to-woman competition, I will be even more likely to feel insecure. See, although women in the South are beautiful and have charming accents, they aren't nearly as smart and accomplished as women here in the Northeast. That's a fact. Women in my community are typically bright, cultured and excellent conversationalists. They usually dress well and have terrific figures given that 90% of them are freakin' triathletes. They make good money and/or are married to men who do quite well in their impressive careers. Most own another house somewhere in the mountains or at the beach. And should you naively believe you can hold your own with your intelligence, witty banter, basement renovations and Nordstrom Rack shoes, you'll soon learn that their kids are attending Ivy League schools on scholarship.

Besides setting women back 50 years with my gross generalizations and focus on physical appearance and income levels, what this post is really trying to say is that once you have a circle of good friends who don't cheat on you, you should show your appreciation and stop socializing.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful friends!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Finding Light When Life is Heavy

It looks like 2013 is going to be the year I officially grew up. It's not so much that I feel older, but I think I've matured. I've had to. The past 12 months have been challenging. The loss of family and friends, adjusting to a new job and all that that entails, managing concussions, walking with my church family through the shocking events that have affected our spiritual home, raising increasingly teenage-like teens. You get the idea.

Given the heaviness, you might think I'd be craving more fluff in my life, especially on the entertainment front. More light and silly television, movies, reading material and even music. Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. It occurred to me the other day that my choices in entertainment are increasingly reflecting the gravity of real life. It seems I've decided to put away childish things. Take television, for instance. In September 2011 I wrote a post dissing reality TV and confessing that, "When I turn to Hollywood entertainment for my ticket out of Funkville, I look for a dreamy escape, something that will make me laugh, or sigh (a happy sigh), or simply put my brain to rest for a short period of time." Back then I wasn't much of a television watcher, but I decided that it was time to see what I'd been missing. With my Entertainment Weekly 2011 Fall TV Preview issue in hand, I selected ten shows that I thought I would enjoy as mind candy. Two years later, six of those programs are still on the air and I've given up on all but one of them (Homeland). I exchanged Once Upon a Time for Scandal. Hart of Dixie is being replaced by Masters of Sex. I opted out of Glee. Even one of my former favorites, New Girl, is on borrowed time. It's not that I don't want to laugh, but it seems that what was once amusing is now silly, senseless or downright stupid. The dramas I've switched to better reflect my mood (and possibly my subconscious desire to sleep with the president, a terrorist and a sex researcher). Perhaps I've grown to realize that consuming fantasy and fluff doesn't make life any easier. Damn, that's depressing, isn't it?

Another tell-tale sign of this maturity trend is my Dial America magazine subscription. For years I've helped support the PA Special Olympics (at least that's what they tell me) with my yearly renewal of Entertainment Weekly. In 2013, however, I opted for TIME instead. Thought it was time I knew what was going on in the world. Though keeping up with the weekly issues is definitely a challenge, I must say that, three months in to the subscription, I already feel considerably smarter, albeit considerably more depressed about the state of our country and the world.

Then there are my choices in books. While I was never particularly fond of chick lit or Harlequin Romances, I did gravitate toward fiction. My last two reads? The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL and Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Both true stories. Both heavy. Heck, even my music's heavier and a little bit harder. All the better with which to vent my aggression and stress. Maybe I should go back to martial arts training, too.

The good news is that with all this weight I've taken on (including about five pounds), I was recently reminded of one source of light and lightness in my life. Believe it or not, it's a man. My husband, to be exact.

Rob and I spent the weekend in Charleston, SC where we met up with three of his fraternity brothers. Great guys. Funny-as-hell guys. Single guys. One is twice divorced and engaged. One is divorced and in a relationship. One has never been married. As fellow Fij came up in conversation, it became increasingly obvious that Rob's and my almost 19-year-old marriage is an anomaly. More importantly, it became obvious that I'm married to a man who understands what's important in life (me), whose values match my own, and who sees the world not through beer goggles rose-colored glasses or cynical eyes, but as it is -- the good and bad -- and never fails to recognize all of life's tremendous blessings.

Life can be heavy and hard, but I can take comfort in knowing that I'm married to a man who stands beside me and lightens whatever burden I carry. I may just try to do the same for him. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Of Vitamins and Tutus and Notebook Dividers

You might be kind enough to think that I'm not nearly as a bad a mom as I say I am, but I'm serious when I tell you that I was born without a mothering/nurturing gene. This week offered ample proof, starting with those damn concussions. The fact that I refer to them as "damn concussions" is case in point. I went from being appropriately concerned about the kids and cognizant of the danger of these injuries, to being annoyed. Here's the deal: I become irritable when things inconvenience me, whether it's Congress or my children.

On Tuesday, both Ian and Abby saw concussion specialists at the Rothman Institute. Abby was found to be in relatively good shape. Some balance issues, but hell, I have balance issues every day, and not just from the drinking. She should be cleared to play sports again this week, right after the season ends. Ian's diagnosis was significantly worse than Abby's. From the tests they gave him to eye tracking and dizziness, the kid's a mess. He will be reevaluated this coming week, but personally I'm not seeing any improvement. In fact, I think the symptoms have worsened since the doctor told him how severe the concussion is. Read into that what you will.

The diagnoses did not in themselves inconvenience me. I didn't even go to the appointments; Rob took care of that (he has the nurturing gene). It's the recommended care that's bugging me. Namely, vitamins. Apparently concussion docs have come up with a cocktail of four vitamins that should relieve headaches and promote healing. Of the four, we had one in the medicine cabinet - fish oil capsules. This meant a run to the store to hunt down the other three, in the correct dosages. Have you ever tried to find vitamins on the shelves at a supermarket? There is no logical organization behind their placement. And did I mention neither of my kids can swallow a pill? The only scenario in which this is a good thing is at high school parties where prescription drugs are being traded like baseball cards. The rest of the time, it's a major pain in the ass. While manufacturers are offering increasing numbers of chewables, they aren't available for every vitamin, and those that are available are in such low doses that you'd have to eat a bunch to get the right amount. I think Ian is eating 8 fish oil gummys twice a day. The rest of the pills are being crushed and added to sandwiches and cupcakes and smoothies. It's like a pharmacy in our kitchen with powdery residue on everything. I'm just waiting for the feds to show up. All of this inconveniences me; therefore, rather than being worried sick about my kids' brains, I'm annoyed. I'm also more than a little stressed at the amount of work Ian is missing in school.

So that was Tuesday, and the week went downhill from there. On Wednesday, Abby had to have a red tutu for her devil costume for Halloween. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a picture of the devil wearing a red tutu, but whatever. Running errands after I've come home from work is right up there on my list of most inconvenient and annoying things ever.

While in shopping hell (appropriate, given the devil costume), Ian called to say he needed me to stop at an office supply store on the way home to pick up "professional notebook dividers." It seems that the dividers with the plastic tabs that we all grew up with - and used in the office, for cryin' out loud - are not considered professional. He needs these professional dividers for health class. For the notebook check. Seriously. At this point my head is about to explode, but mercifully God intervenes, arranging for Rob to call while I'm on the phone with Ian. He senses my madness, probably because I told him I was going mad. He offers to take Ian to Staples while I wrap up my expedition with Abby. Crisis averted.

Throw into the vitamin-tutu-notebook dividers-mix a minivan that's three months overdue for an inspection and oil change. Then add a kid who mopes around the house like a dictionary illustration for "pathetic." And there's no relief in sight for this weekend. Rob leaves tomorrow morning for Vegas and will be gone until Tuesday night, and I'll be spending the entirety of Sunday at church for various commitments. And my house is a mess.

But then it happens. It almost always happens. I'm given some much needed perspective. We're having dinner (out) when I check my email and see there has been a flurry of exchanges between the angels. This January is the official opening of the Dr. Ann Bates Memorial Children's Hospital in Ghana, named in honor of our dear friend who lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. Freakin Angel Theresa will be there, putting her new nursing skills to the test on a service trip with others from our church. The email exchange begins with FA Kim G. suggesting that we have a plaque made with this photo (Ann's in the baseball hat, in the center), dedicating it to Ann, and hanging it somewhere in the hospital. Theresa responds that she has already ordered the photo, having had the very same idea. Gotta love those God moments.

Well, I burst into tears at that point. Overwhelmed by the love I feel for the angels in my life. Overwhelmed by the loss of Ann. Overwhelmed by the needs of those in place like Ghana. Overwhelmingly embarrassed by my childish, over-exaggerated complaints about my comfortable, secure and basically awesome everyday life. It occurs to me that, even though it doesn't make for humorous blog posts, perhaps I should practice gratitude and appreciation rather than give in to annoyance and irritation. It took me about 30 seconds to come up with this list of blessings:

  • Access to top quality health care to diagnosis my children
  • Access to vitamins and medicine and medical treatment
  • Life in a community where it's safe to send my daughter out for Halloween dressed as the devil
  • Excellent schools that want what's best for my kids, even if that extends to professional notebook dividers
  • Being able to afford a car and the maintenance that goes with it
  • A church that means enough to me to make it worth spending a whole day there
  • Food, and not having to cook it
  • The ability to communicate with my friends with the click of a button
  • A husband who knows when to step in before I check out
Finally, I leave you with this thought: Whomever creates a chewable/gummy that combines all four concussion-related vitamins, will be a very wealthy man or woman. And I want half for giving you the idea. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Heady Stuff

Given the year I'm having I shouldn't have been surprised to learn -- within 24 hours -- that both of my children have mild concussions. Abby's is the result of a tremendously impressive header in Sunday's soccer game with her travel team. (For those who don't know, a "header" is the redirection of a soccer ball with one's head.) Ian's is the result of an accident during play practice. Yes, I'm serious. Apparently he was lying on the floor (for a reason), when another actor whose vision was obscured because he was carrying someone else off stage (for a reason), stepped on Ian's head. Basically, Ian had the weight of two teenagers on his head. Obviously, that hurts. It just so happened that the high school's athletic trainer was still in his office and was able to see Ian and diagnose him with a concussion.

Five days later, Abby feels fine but won't be permitted to play soccer again until she's seen by a concussion specialist (pediatricians apparently are not qualified to evaluate these types of injuries). We couldn't get an appointment with one until Tuesday. Four days after his incident, Ian is still struggling. Or so he says. He is an actor after all. But seriously, his headaches are bad and he's experiencing occasional dizziness. I don't think he's faking it because with a concussion you're not supposed to watch television or sit in front of a computer or view anything with moving pixels. In other words, he's bored out of his mind at home and would actually prefer to be at school. He will also see the concussion specialist on Tuesday. (Unfortunately, the doctor didn't go for my "two for one" suggestion.)

Concussions are scary stuff. Did you know that the brain doesn't stop growing until about age 25, making impact that much more dangerous for children and teens? Did you know that for some reason concussions are worse for girls than they are for boys? Just a couple months ago an enlightening and disturbing piece appeared on Huffington Post. In "Why My Wife and I Pulled Our Daughter Out of Soccer" the author shares research findings which report that "girls' soccer is second only to football in terms of the number of concussions in youth and high school sports." While most soccer concussions are the result of collisions between players, or falls in which a player's head strikes the ground, what is of even greater concern is the effect of the repetitive sub-concussive hits the brain absorbs during games and practices as a result of heading.
Habitually heading soccer balls may have similar effects on the brain as the repetitive sub-concussive hits that offensive and defensive linemen receive banging heads along the line of scrimmage in football.
According to a UNC brain researcher, "Long-term (brain) damage may have less to do with the number of diagnosed concussions and perhaps more to do with the number of sub-concussive impacts to the head." The post goes on to cite other research findings and none of them paint a pretty picture. Like I said, this is scary stuff.

I confess to having trouble with the idea of Abby never playing soccer again, but I also can't imagine my incredibly bright, confident and industrious daughter not having her brain intact for the long life that's ahead of her. I can't imagine that thinking, solving and remembering could become a challenge because she played soccer throughout her formative years. While I realize that one header is not (God-willing) going to leave Abby brain damaged, I do question whether it makes sense to allow her to continue to play, even if we forbid her from heading. While I don't have the same concerns about Ian's time in the theater, I am worried about his current injury and any long-term effects it might have. When something happens to your children that could affect them for life, you quickly realize how precious their lives are and how much you love them just as they are now.

I know I'm generally not the picture image of parental love and concern, but my words today are heartfelt and serious. I'm sure if the kids were to read this, however, they'd have their doubts. I submit as evidence a conversation I had with Abby on Monday night:

Me:  I think I have a "sympathy headache" for you and Ian.

Abby: No, you don't. You're not sympathetic.

Me: [A look of shock and disbelief]

Abby: When we were little you told us that you weren't sympathetic and that "if you're not bleeding, you're fine."

Damn that kid and her long-term memory.

As Ian and Abby have grown, I've learned that the cuts, scrapes and bruises of their childhood are not, in fact, the injuries most deserving of my concern. It's the hurts they suffer on the inside -- emotionally, mentally and physically -- that demand my full attention.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Thank You for Your Support!

My daughter is usually pretty squared away. Someone in the family has to be. Given that Abby's only human, however, once in a while she drops the ball. Or forgets her soccer socks, like she did last week.  She was already at the bus stop when she remembered that she needed them, but I was determined to make the drop before the bus arrived, thereby saving myself a drive to the middle school. Unfortunately, I got tripped up in her pigsty of a bedroom, unable to find anything other than fuzzy red knee highs she wore in third grade. She's wearing them, dammit. Given that delay, the bus naturally beat me. 

Being the good mother that I am, I cursed Abby’s forgetfulness and then went after the first school bus I found. Not knowing her bus number (I'm not that good a mother), merely praying it was hers, I drove like a woman possessed, hoping to catch it at the next stop. I caught up to said bus, still unsure if Abby was on it. 

SIDE NOTE: What's with the tinted windows on the school bus? Even Run DMC knows that "Tinted windows don't mean nothin', they know who's inside." 

As I pulled up behind the bus and jumped out of my mom-van, the driver shut the doors and started to drive away. I gave chase, waving fuzzy red socks in the air and shouting, “WAIT!” A startled mom at this stop saw my crazed condition and flagged down the driver. When he opened the doors my mortified daughter reached out for her socks and actually thanked me for the effort. Even better than my daughter's appreciation was the driver's flirty comment: "I thought we had a new student!” Aw shucks, even I know that I don't pass for a middle schooler, but when you reach your 40s you'll take any attention you can get. Of course, it's likely he said that assuming I had a child in tow, not just socks. But I prefer to believe I was being flirted with. And no, I don't care that he was 83 and had no teeth.  

The socks and bus piece of the story, while painfully amusing, is not important in and of itself. It’s what happened next that I will always remember for the next few weeks: the mom at the stop who flagged down the driver gave me a congratulatory fist pump, and two women who were out for their morning walk shouted, “Go, Mom!” Frankly, it was the most support and encouragement I've felt in a very long time (sad, right?). It was also proof that moms, whether we know each other personally or not, know how to bond over life's everyday parenting moments. It's the little things that keep us going.

There's something to be said for receiving support and encouragement from the larger communities of which we are a part. I believe we'd all have a bit more spring in our step, the increased possibility of a smile on our faces and a greater sense of well-being. Here are just a few scenarios in which we could offer each other a quick pick-me-up:

  • You're using self-checkout at the grocery store and not once does the machine instruct you to "Wait for Assistance." Fellow self-checkout shoppers would offer you a pat on the back and a "Way to go!"
  • At the gym, you make it around the track once without stopping to catch your breath. The speedy person who passed you twice puts you up on his/her shoulders for a victory lap.
  • You've been waiting an unacceptably long time for a table at your favorite restaurant. When you're finally called, fellow waiting patrons sigh, but applaud your tenacity and good fortune.
  • At the Vietnamese-run nail salon (I've blogged about them before), you successfully deflect recommendations that you have your entire face waxed. Women in earshot give you a thumbs up and then gently suggest you reconsider your upper lip.
Research has shown the advantages of gathering in support groups - hence AA, Weight Watchers, GriefShare. All I'm suggesting is that we extend the love into our everyday lives. The results for society as a whole could be tremendous. 

Now get out there and make someone's day!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Great Expectations

Earlier this year I became aware of a tween and teenage issue affecting families in what I naively thought was my perfectly insulated and innocent community. It seems "sexting" hit close to home in the families of more than one personal friend. The shock and disappointment was profound and ultimately led to our church organizing a parents' night on the topic of teens and sexuality. And yes, if you know what my church has been going through, you're seeing some irony in this. But that's beside the point.

As my friends and I discussed this disturbing trend in teen behavior, someone mentioned having read about the affects of technology on a teen's desires and proclivities. She reported that the graphic and "advanced" nature of their early exposure to sexuality results in many teens needing "more" in the way of stimulation as they grow toward adulthood. The effects of peeking at Playboy magazine or reading a young adult romance pales in comparison to what our kids are finding online and sharing with one another on their cell phones.  

I'm finding this desire for "more" to be an ongoing theme in this world in which my children live. It may be a byproduct of living in a community where most families have what they need and then some, but it's disturbingly prevalent. No longer is a cell phone acceptable; a smart phone is required (and they still don't answer when you call). A vacation to Colorado is unappreciated because "we've been to that state before." A plain old birthday party at home doesn't suffice when everyone else does something way cooler and more expensive.

Sweet 16 parties and bar/bat mitzvahs are often examples of "more." In many cases, these rite of passage events resemble mini-proms or a wedding reception. I can't speak to the bar/bat mitzvahs of my day because I never attended one until recently, but I did turn 16 a couple nearly three decades ago and these grand affairs were not the norm. I find myself wondering what happened to the good old slumber party. But then again, it's probably safer to gather all of your kids friends in a supervised location where they're less likely to be drinking and photographing their private parts to text to a friend (who then sends it to his friend, and so on). I guess my biggest concern with these first class affairs is that they're setting our kids up for disappointment years from now. What if on their 21st, 30th, and 50th birthdays there's no one to throw them a lavish private party? How can your wedding reception top your bar/bat mitzvah when twenty years earlier it was the talk of the town? If you set the standard so high so early in their lives, can we exceed those expectations for the special moments later in life?

A couple years ago I heard stories of prom date invitations that both amused and concerned me. Boys were arranging elaborate scenarios in which to pop the question, "Will you go to prom with me?" Proposals were staged involving teachers and principals. Banners were hung on the bridge that links the middle and high schools. And a member of the track team recruited his friends to run in sequence wearing specially made t-shirts that read WILL - YOU - GO - TO - PROM, followed by Romeo wearing "WITH ME?" Awe! As in awesome, right? Absolutely. I would have loved to have been proposed to that way. Oops. That's what I was afraid of. To be on the receiving end of that level of sweetness and creativity as a high school senior only sets you up for disappointment when your adult boyfriend proposes marriage by leaning across the couch during a timeout in the football game and opening a little black box. And, he probably belched at some point in this transaction. Trust me, guys get lazy once you've been together awhile. You're rarely going to find romance delivered high school style. (Side note: Rob did not propose to me on the couch during a football game. It was a baseball game. No, but seriously, he proposed to me on the side of the road. It was more romantic than it sounds.)

Lest you think I'm presenting myself as above all this excess, I can assure you that I'm not immune to the temptation to fulfill my kids' desire for more. This Christmas we're heading to Mexico for the week. Unlike Colorado, Ian and Abby haven't been there yet, so they're looking forward to it. (Just hope we can get Abby a passport in time. Damn government shutdown.) And in lieu of a Sweet 16 party, a friend and I made our daughters a deal a year ago, promising them a trip to France instead, assuming they keep up their French studies. I'm sure the party would be much less expensive, but this way I get something out of it, too.

The reality is that many parents, myself included, want to give their children more than they had. Or they want to express their love and pride in their child, regardless of the cost. Sometimes, we go overboard trying to make up for the lack of time we spend together as a family. Our hearts are in the right place when we decide to go big for our kids, I just sometimes wonder whether our heads are in on it too.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Down Time is Bringing Me Down

When I woke from my two-hour nap on Saturday, I engaged in a bit of self-psychoanalysis. The sheer fact that I reflect on the state of my mental and emotional health as often as I do, is probably a sign that I'm worse off than I think. Or I'm just completely self-absorbed. But that's beside the point. The important thing is that these self-examinations provide me with blog material.

Speaking of blog material, you may be thinking that the reason I don't write as often anymore is because I have less to say. Nah. It's this new job. It's cutting in to my writing time. When I get to the office I actually need to hunker down and get right to work. No easing into my day with a period of self-discovery. You might argue that I could write when I get home from work, but anyone who has a full-time job and kids at home who expect a meal and a ride to soccer practice, and a church or synagogue that needs you at weekly meetings, clothes that demand to be washed, and a body sorely in need of a workout recognizes that writing probably isn't high on my list of things to do in the evenings. No, when I have down time, I want it to mean something. That's why I play Words with Friends or 7 Little Words, or I watch the TV shows on my DVR, or try to get caught up on Scandal before the new season starts. If my head's in the right place I might actually read, but writing? Well that requires entirely too much thought.

For the most part I'm okay with the way I choose to spend my down time. Or I was until Rob pointed out that someday I'm going to die. He pointed this out after I woke from my nap. He suggested perhaps I sleep too much and noted that there will be plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead. Well, damn. When you look at life through that lens, spending my time playing word games or watching television seems pretty ridiculous. When I'm gone, what will I have contributed to this world? Will someone go back and read my WWF scores? Will my TV viewing habits warm the cockles of someone's heart? I think not.

My blog on the other hand, well this sucker is leaving its mark. It will live forever. I know this because I've tried to delete posts that I later regret, and it's true what they say about things in cyberspace never truly disappearing. This means my uber-honest, somewhat snarky, frequently funkapotomusized, periodically painful and gladly grace-filled random thoughts will live on in perpetuity. Woo hoo!

SIDE NOTE: There's something to be said for the old fashioned written journal. The one you could burn before your parents, sister, boyfriend, best friend, husband or children read it. Those were the good old days. I think I have about 13 of those embarrassing tell-alls hiding in the back of my closet. Does anyone have a match? Perhaps I should do my own Freakin' Angel version of Throwback Thursday. I'll share an old journal entry and we can laugh together over how I've grown and matured stayed pathetically the same since I was 13. I won't make it more painful by adding an old photo to go with it. Some things really should remain private.

Back to the issue of my poor use of time. As is the American way, I refuse to take responsibility for my choices in this regard. Al Gore, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and that Zuckerberg kid are to blame. If they hadn't gone and created the computer, the internet, social media, e-books, on-demand video, etc., I would probably be a published author by now. And my son, whose technology addiction makes me look like a Luddite, well who knows what he would be doing with his life. He probably would have discovered some kind of new insect (he wanted to be an entomologist until he discovered the computer), written a comedy sketch for Saturday Night Live or made his mark in community theater. Yes indeed, we are being controlled by forces greater than ourselves. In fact, I think computer technology is the new Darwinism.

Think about it. Thousands of years ago "man" lived with the constant threat of being eaten alive by dinosaurs (I know this because I watched Land of the Lost). Natural selection meant that only the strong survived. Survival of the fittest, if you will. Today, we no longer are being chased by dinosaurs. Instead, we are chased by technology that wants to pin us down - mind, body and soul - and trap us in a  never-ending web (pun intended) of useless information. Those who are not strong enough to rage against the machine are destined for chunky thighs and a big butt, distorted thumbs and wrists, and a future spent in their parents' basement. Our "natural" selection has been replaced by man-made selection. Only those who break free from this technological tyranny have a chance to survive and live as the actual human beings we were created to be. I feel a doctoral dissertation coming on.

In conclusion, between the demands of my new job (how long can I consider it "new?"), my need for sleep and the distraction of technology, I'm lucky if I can write one blog post a week. I promise that once the kids leave home and I'm off these committees at church, and I've given up on trying to keep in shape, I'll resume my more prolific output. In the meantime, I'm sure you can find something to amuse you on the web or my DVR.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If I Could, Would I?

Ever since I graduated from college, my dad has wanted me to go into business for myself. He's offered to help financially, and even offered his support if money is the obstacle to my writing a book (it's not; it's just laziness on my part). After 50+ years of "working for the man," my dad knows that true job satisfaction comes from pursuing your own dream, not someone else's. While I'm certainly blessed to have such supportive parents, unfortunately, I'm chicken shit scared to death at the prospect of going out on my own. The work I do for others stresses me out, and that's with a guaranteed paycheck and benefits. I can't imagine how insane I'd be if financial security and success rested almost completely on my shoulders. This fear of doing something so radical leaves me awed and inspired by those who go for it.

In the past few years, more than a couple friends have taken the leap to fulfill a dream. My college friend Tom and his girlfriend moved to Florida from PA and started a kayak tour business. Freakin' Angel Kathy decided to go solo with her law practice, and FA Andria is engaging her creative side in making unique pieces which she sells in local stores and at shows. MPC friend Bill opened a Sports Clips Haircut location. My former Judson Press colleague Linda ventured out on her own as a marketing consultant; and while I'm not exactly sure what she does, my old Lehigh Valley friend Cathy appears to be successful in whatever endeavors she's pursuing. Among my craziest most inspiring friends is Dave, who just a couple months ago fulfilled his dream of opening a restaurant (get thee to The Granary!). I'd be scared to death, but even if he's a tad nervous, he doesn't show it. Geez, imagine my blog posts if I was trying to succeed in business on my own. You think I bitch, whine and complain now!
An example of Lori's stunning photography

As impressive as these friends are, there is yet another who inspires me at an even deeper level. Imagine sacrificing your salary and the comforts of home to spend thousands of dollars in order to travel to a foreign country to help others in need. In two short weeks, my friend Lori Sheppard, a pediatric physical therapist, will leave for Morocco where she will train and provide support to people caring for children with special needs. This will be Lori's third visit to this country - her first two visits were for two weeks each, but on her last trip she felt called to return for nearly three months.

Lori's company is kind enough to hold a position for the duration of her trip, but she needed to resign from the management job she held and will return as a staff physical therapist. As you can imagine, this decrease in salary adds to the financial burden of this opportunity (home mortgage payments don't stop while she's away). Lori has made some lifestyle and budget changes over the past year and has started a small photography business (she's amazing!) to help bring in some funding. These changes alone are not enough, however, and this is where we come in to the story.

While many of us like to think we would do something like this if we could, realistically, most of us can't. Lori can and is, and her only reward will be the joy of helping others in need (a nice reward, albeit with no monetary value). The cost of Lori's trip is $12,000.00, including travel (airfare and in-country), living expenses, ministry expenses and financial obligations here at home that cannot wait. Would you be able to give a tax-deductable monetary donation to help out?  There are a couple ways to give:
  • - On the donation page, select ‘short term trip-Morocco’.  On the payment info page, use the drop down box under ‘designation’ to select my name.
  • Checks (payable to “Compassion Corps”) can be mailed to the address on the website – put Lori Sheppard's name in the memo line.
Lori would remind us that the finances are not the only important item to consider. If you are so inclined, would you please keep her endeavor in prayer?

Thanks for thinking of her and offering your support. Of course I also encourage you to eat at the Granary, buy Andria's cool gifts, get your haircut at Sports Clips, and seek legal counsel from Kathy. And if you're ever in Holmes Beach, FL, visit Sea Life Kayak Adventures.

As for me, I'm going to ask my dad if he'll support my desire to purchase a boat and take friends fishing. I'm sure that would pay the bills!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My New Fear of Flying

Air travel was never an issue for me. No fear. No need for a drink to calm the nerves. Heck, I didn't even mind getting stuck in the middle seat. I think my only real issue with flying was the increasing expense. Damn them and their luggage fees and unwillingness to give me a freakin' bag of pretzels! Yes, the dollars and cents of it was the only gripe I had. But that was before Friday, when my family and I flew from Denver to Philadelphia. Friday's flight changed everything. I'm just glad no one was hurt.

I knew I was in trouble when I sat in a row with a mommy and daddy and their 11-week-old bundle of joy, Samuel. Sammy looked a bit like a Cabbage Patch kid, but he wore the bug eyes and bald head really well. I oohed and aahed and that's saying something because I'm one of those terrible people who believes there are ugly babies in the world. But I'm getting off track here. The important thing for you to know is that Samuel started to cry before we even left the runway. Karma at work. If I had let Rob sit in that seat instead of foisting our children off on him, I would have had relative peace and quiet. Or so I thought.

I'm not sure when the disturbance began. Early on I was probably distracted by Sammy's Cabbage
Patchness, or that heart-breaking newborn cry of his. At some point fairly early in the flight, however, I became painfully aware of what I was dealing with. I should say what "we" were dealing with given that she affected at least a dozen people - certainly those seated directly in front of, behind, and next to her, but those across the aisle and a couple back as well. I was one row behind on the other side of the aisle and could not escape. The "she" in this story didn't have gas, wasn't snoring and didn't fall asleep and slobber on her neighbor's shoulder. Those fairly typical airline experiences would have been preferable. No, in this case, "she" turned around in her seat to talk to someone in the row behind her. For the entire flight. No exaggeration. Certainly that would have annoyed the person sitting next to her or next to the person she was speaking to, but here's where it gets ugly. This MAAPE -- Most Annoying Airline Passenger Ever -- spoke loudly enough for my dad, my mother-in-law, and the deaf guy on Project Runway to hear her. Did I mention this continued for more than three hours?

You know how people come together in times of crisis or despair? They form a special bond having lived through a terrible experience together. Well, that's what happened to passengers in rows 14-17 on flight 1752. As the hours went by, trips to the bathroom were opportunities to share a sympathetic and somewhat crazed smile. When the MAAPE volume increased, or she took a rare breath, our brothers and sisters in travel hell turned their heads to look at one another and communicate their frustration wordlessly. The poor guy next to me was trying to get work done, but gave up because he couldn't concentrate. Even earplugs didn't help block the noise. About two-plus hours into it I turned to my husband and told him I was going to say something (in keeping with my Grumpy Old Woman status). It seemed absurd that we should all suffer when perhaps she just didn't realize she was a loud talker (the polar opposite of Seinfeld's low talker). My husband, never one to make a scene, told me not to. Why I listened to him is beyond me. I said nothing and the dozen-plus people around her suffered in silence. Until...

One man, seated in front of me (the aisle across from the MAAPE) finally could hold his tongue no longer. He stated, loudly enough for all of us to hear, "Thank God this isn't an overseas flight! Three hours straight?! Seriously??" In the ultimate display of camaraderie, a gentleman sitting in front of the MAAPE passed back one of those airline-sized bottles of whiskey. Followed by one filled with vodka. Followed by a can of Coke. "So this is how you're surviving!," replied the grateful fellow passenger who took the whiskey in one shot. The laughter united us, and the MAAPE turned around and smiled, wondering about the joke she must have missed. She then continued talking. As loudly as before. We all had one more good laugh at her expense when I sneezed (never a subtle thing on my part) and my quick-witted son Ian announced for everyone to hear, "Geez, Mom, must you be so LOUD!" Love that kid.

When at last the plane landed and passengers disembarked, the palpable tension was broken and along with sighs of relief were comments and questions like, "Why didn't someone say something?" (We can all blame it on Rob.) One woman suggested the flight attendant should have spoken for all of us. The attendant responded with "I couldn't believe it. I kept thinking she had to stop eventually, but she just kept going."

I learned several valuable lesson on this flight:
  1. Everyone should own noise-canceling headphones.
  2. Alcohol is a good idea, regardless of whether you need it to calm your nerves.
  3. Never listen to your husband when it comes to dealing with a problem.
Oh, and one more thing. Don't diss the baby. Little Samuel slept through the whole thing. Lucky little Cabbage Patch kid.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Racey or Racist?

You know I tend to avoid potentially divisive issues, but perhaps as evidence of my increasingly stupid outspoken nature, I'm going to take on the issue of race, as raised by writer Anne Theriault. Anne got me worked up with her Huffpost Music article "What Miley Cyrus Did was Disgusting -- But Not for the Reasons You Think."

Yes, let's give her even more attention!
For those of you who have been living under a rock (or away from social media), Ms. Theriault is referring to the revolting, disgusting and scripted-to-generate-a-reaction performance of Miley Cyrus at the VMA Awards, The writer takes on what she refers to as "Miley's minstrel show."

She writes:
What Miley is doing is cultural appropriation. She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day. In short, she can imagine that she is being "ghetto" without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean.
Ms. Theriault finds particular offense in Miley's use of "black women as props...Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate."

My reaction to this post was disbelief and frustration. Is everything ultimately about race? Haven't white performers (musicians in particular) "culturally appropriated" elements of black culture for decades? Isn't imitation the highest form of flattery? Do African Americans really want to claim sexual vulgarity as their own? Would it have been okay if the woman Miley slapped was white? Would it be acceptable if a black woman slapped a white woman? Would the message have been different if Robin Thicke was black? Or what if Miley was a black woman rubbing up against a white man? Dear God, is this really about race?!

That was my initial response to Ms. Theriault's piece, when I assumed she was an African American woman. I confess to being surprised when I read her bio and saw her picture. Anne is white and this is her life:
Anne lives in Toronto with her husband and young son. She spends her days teaching yoga, reading in caf├ęs, and trying to figure out how to negotiate in toddler-ese. She regularly blogs about books, nostalgia and feminism.
Clearly, deep breathing in yoga studios and hanging out in cafes qualifies this woman to write about Miley's misuse of the black experience. She can identify with what black women live with every day. Seriously?

The issue of race in this country is challenging enough without bringing a Miley Cyrus performance into the conversation. We're at a place where "black America" takes up the Trayvon Martin case as a rallying cry, and later, when three black youth kill a white man for fun, "white America" responds by asking where the hoodies are for Chris Lane. Is someone keeping score of the violent attacks one race perpetrates on another? We want to be sure things are fair. Well, guess what? They're not. And once again we're failing to ask the questions that really matter. Imagine if we spent as much time debating and addressing the real issues as we spend engrossed in the nonsense of pop culture.

We're living through one of the most challenging and disturbing times in our country's recent history. From the economy and issues of social justice, to our under-resourced educational system and involvement in foreign affairs, it's time to put our priorities in order. Let's not add the fuel of a Miley Cyrus performance to fires that have been steadily burning without her help.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Grumpy Old Woman

A foreshadowing of things to come?
I turned 44 last month. One year closer to my mid-40s and middle age. I'm not often bothered by getting older, except for the gray hair and the hearing loss and my complete inability to read a pill bottle without glasses. The one real concern I have, however, is my potential for becoming a mean, grumpy, crotchety old woman. I'm already seeing signs:
  1. The "fun" I have being snarky, sassy and sarcastic in my blog is slipping over into "real life." For example, during his last visit to PA, I scolded my 4-year-old nephew for eating some of the rice from my Chinese food. I wasn't serious, of course (though I really don't like sharing my rice), but he gave me the death stare and then burst into tears. Damn kids and their tears. They'll do whatever it takes to get what they want. 
    Same thing happened when I saw some kids with their dad in a Dunkin' Donuts when I was on my way to Dutch Wonderland. I casually mentioned I was going there and how lucky I was and what a shame that their dad wasn't taking them somewhere cool like that. Again, the death stare (from the dad) and the tears (from the kids). Whatever.
  2. As I'm getting older, my confidence/attitude is leaning more toward "I don't give a damn." I feel like Kathy Bates in "Fried Green Tomatoes" when she goes a little nuts and tells those bitches in the parking lot at Winn-Dixie "Face it girls, I'm older and I have more insurance" (see video below).
  3. I'm more easily angered. Anger was never a prevalent emotion for me, but lately, perhaps because of the uptick in bullsh*t in my life, I definitely have a greater tendency for getting ticked off. Where I used to have a "stay out of it, keep your mouth shut, what's the point of starting something" attitude, I now feel like calling out people who are arrogant, talk out of both sides of their mouth, and don't stand up for what is right.
  4. I'm becoming defensive and starting to think that "don't go down without a fight" is a way of life that I've overlooked for too long.
  5. My skin is thickening. Someday I'll resemble a reptile. I'm learning, rather late in life, that it I have to toughen up if I'm going to survive in this world. Yes, there are people who don't like me. There are those who think I'm too outspoken. Some who don't think I'm "nice." Not being loved and adored used to bother me (just a few months ago), but my corporate bitch of a sister gave me a good talking to and set me straight.
  6. Finally, I need increasing amounts of alone/down time. I don't want to answer the phone, respond to texts, send emails, go to meetings, visit friends, cook dinner, run errands or even write blog posts. After a full day at work, all I want is to curl up with my iPad, and sometimes my cat, and fall asleep nice and early.
As evidence of this "change" (not the change, I hope), I'm finding the greatest enjoyment in spending time with my family (at least when I can't be alone). I actually like my kids' company, and that's saying something given that they're teenagers. Even better is a day on the boat with my parents (and the kids, too, assuming they're not whiny). And for a little slice of heaven give me a getaway with Rob and throw in a dear friend or two. 

As often happens when I put my issues/feelings/angst/funkapotomusness into writing, I'm blessed with some insight. The occasional "A Ha!" moment. Having put it all out there, it occurs to me that at least some of my personality disorder changes can be attributed to evolving family dynamics. I have two children who are torpedoing toward independence. I've also experienced entirely too much loss in the past nine months. In addition to the understandable haywire affect it's having on my emotions, this loss and change is calling me to re-prioritize. And shocker -- it looks like family really does come first, with friends and faith right up there as well. What's less important is the stress of a job, the need for a clean and tidy home, and social obligations with people I really don't want to spend my valuable time with. 

Today I leave for vacation -- Breckenridge, CO -- and it can't come soon enough. It's been a tough summer. It's been a tough year. I'm ready to get away from it all and focus on the stuff that matters. I may even refrain from checking my work email. 

Just one more thing. Before you think I've truly become an evil person, I didn't actually torture some stranger's kids at Dunkin' Donuts. You didn't really think I could actually be so heartless, did you?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Top 10 Reasons You Should Join Us Next Year

I returned home three days early from my church mission trip to Banner Elk, NC last week. This change in plans did not result from an ailing child, a broken fingernail or a frightening encounter with a galloping horse (though the horse thing did happen). Unfortunately, I was called home by the death of my Aunt Glenna who had suffered from leukemia for the past six months. This is the second of my mom's sisters to pass away this year - my Aunt Faith died on April 30. This loss, my mom's grief, and the need to leave my church family at a time when I needed them most, made for a weepy couple days. My ridiculously bad hair and increasing facial blemishes didn't help either.

But this post is not meant to bring you down; I can point you to some others if that's what you're looking for. No, this post is intended to convince you to join me on next year's Media Presbyterian mission trip (church member or not!). Here are the top 10 reasons (in David Letterman fashion) to mark your calendar for 2014:

10. There is nothing worth watching on television during July and August.

9. Hot, humid, buggy weather in Pennsylvania is replaced by pleasant days and cool, sweatshirt-weather nights in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.

8. You will see teenagers taking on actual manual labor. You're also likely to meet a teenager who will talk to you. And perhaps hug you when you need to leave early. You'll feel much better about the next generation.

7. Evenings filled with games, devotions, carb loading in the dining hall, and rocking on the porch in the Lodge.

6. This trip provides a great opportunity to practice your southern twang and brush up on your knowledge of country music.

5. Taking vacation days to do work around your own home is sad and depressing. Taking vacation days to work on someone else's home is inspiring and rewarding.

4.  The chances are excellent that someone will actually express appreciation for your work.Try getting that at home!

3. If you're looking for friends, you will make them on this trip.

2. If MPC people are already your friends, there is no better way to spend a week together (a vacation to OBX would cost a great deal more and you wouldn't have that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from helping someone else).

1. In one week, your personal problems will be put in perspective and you'll be reminded that it isn't "all about you."

Need more convincing? Check out this video from our week:

Can we count you in next summer? 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Bit of Perspective is In Order

I've been in a melancholy mood this week and really wanted to dump all of my issues on you. It makes for good reading (she says facetiously):
  • My cleaning lady quit because I was a pain in the ass.
  • My hair dryer died a violent death on Monday and I still haven't replaced it.
  • I've had several bad hair days in a row.
  • Upon noticing my increasingly gray hair, my son announced "wow, you really are old."
  • I've caused trouble. Again.
  • I have a zit on my forehead that could pass for a third eye.
  • The neighbors have erected an ugly wire fence that I have to look at every time I pull in the driveway.
  • My so-called friends figured out that I'm turning 44 tomorrow, when all this time I thought I was going to be 42 or 43, tops.
Now that I've put it all out there, the reality is that no one really cares about my issues. We all have our problems. I think what I need is a little bit -- or a big dose -- of perspective. So this weekend I'm going to drive more than nine hours to Banner Elk, NC where I'm going to spend a few hundred bucks for food and lodging and use a week's vacation to immerse myself in a reality that's quite different from my own; one in which cleaning people have no role and a fence is the least of my concerns for my neighbor.

One of the things that makes my church, Media Presbyterian, so special is its commitment to our neighbors -- both around the corner and around the world. Our members have traveled to Chester and Philadelphia and to Ghana and Liberia to make a difference in communities that need a helping hand. Western North Carolina has long been our family summer mission trip with youth and parents working side by side and the little ones taking on their own small projects and learning what it means to share the love of God by serving others. This year, 72 of us are making the long trek to work on two Habitat for Humanity builds, address the needs of of a couple other home owners, and bring a bit of joy to children living in a homeless shelter.

To be honest, I haven't gone on this NC trip in several years. The drive is too long. I didn't want to "waste" the vacation time. It just wasn't convenient. But this year, even before the church was rocked by the resignation of our senior pastor, I felt called to join my church family in Banner Elk. And in light of the painful reality of what has transpired at MPC and the rebuilding that is taking place, I think this mission trip is exactly what we need. Again, it's about perspective. If we return to our foundation of serving others, we will be reminded of why the church exists in the first place. We can take the focus off ourselves and put it where it rightly belongs.

So I'm going to serve next week. And I guarantee that on Day One I'll be asking myself what the hell I was thinking driving down here to work for someone else when I don't even like to do that kind of work for myself. I'll be whining about the heat or a chipped nail (hey, I just stopped biting my nails, so breaking one is going to be a big deal). The lodge beds won't be comfortable and I won't like the food. Ian will get sick and want to go home (the precedent is there). But I guarantee that by Day Three (I'm leaving some wiggle room in there by not promising Day Two) I'll be weepy when I count my blessings. I'll be hugging members of my church family (and even my children, if they let me) and tearfully telling them how much they mean to me. I'll even have gotten over my irritation with how slowly Cathie drove on the trip down.

If you too are struggling with those day-to-day issues that drag us down, consider doing something for someone else. It doesn't have to require a nine hour drive, but it does require your head, heart and hands, which ultimately sets you free, at least temporarily, from your own problems.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hey! Look at Me!

Last week I shared details from my recent trip to Pittsburgh, which included the "furries" who stole the spotlight from a visit with my college roommate, time with our friends the Boyds, and the Phils v. Pirates game. Truly "a trip" to remember. If you haven't seen that post yet, I encourage you to start there; at least check out the pictures if you don't feel like reading.

At the end of "Now That Was a Trip" I confessed that I had genuine reservations about photographing the freaky furry people animals. It seemed rude, most likely because I knew I wasn't taking the pictures in respect or admiration for what I was seeing. I was basically photographing something bizarre that I needed to share with others so that together we could enjoy a good laugh or at least a disbelieving shake of the head. As I considered the appropriateness of snapping those photos, I had another thought, one prompted by a video I watched recently about the evolution of the swimsuit. Yes, you read that right. Stay with me here.

In The Evolution of the Swim Suit, swim suit designer Jessica Rey presents Princeton University research which studied men and their reaction to photos of scantily clad women.. The study found that men do not see women in bikinis as women, but rather as objects. "Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person's thoughts, feelings, and intentions." Translated, these findings mean bikinis are a bad idea if women want to be recognized and treated as human beings by the opposite sex. You're probably wondering how this relates to computer geeks in unicorn suits.

Well, both scenarios lead me to this undoubtedly controversial conclusion:

When we choose to dress, adorn, or style ourselves in a manner that stands out from the crowd, we invite attention. That attention may include having our picture taken by complete strangers.

Does that mean you should try to look like everyone else? Only if the attention bothers you.

Like it or not, dude, you've got some
stares coming your way
If you decide to dress like a unicorn, appear half naked in a skimpy bikini, tattoo every exposed part of your body and pierce everything else, or wear a ball gown to a baseball game, chances are that folks are going to look your way. And you have no right to complain. How we choose to look is a statement about who we are. Your look may scream dork, centerfold, non-conformist or "desperate for attention" but it's "screaming" because you made that choice. And choice is an important word here. People who are born with physical differences are off limits in the "check that out" category. As are people who dress differently for religious or cultural reasons. I know the Amish look really interesting in their dress and mode of travel, but that doesn't mean we should gawk and photograph them like they're a tourist attraction.

Saying that your choices open you to attention, does not mean your personal space should be invaded or compromised. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't be treated with respect, dignity or consideration. I'm just saying when you opt for a lifestyle that lends itself to dressing like an animal, a sex object, or a Klingon, you can't get pissed off when people stare or snap your photo with their smartphone.

So there you have it. The connection between furries, bikinis and the Amish. I'm sure you were wondering how I was going to get there.

No doubt at least a few of you will find my conclusion offensive, so I look forward to hearing your counter response. (Wouldn't this be a great debate topic for a high school competition?)