28 December 2011

Year-End Reflections

Dear readers, I have not vanished from the face of the earth.  Christmas is a busy time in my home.  Every other year, I host the family gathering at my house, and it is a joyful mess.  This year, for the first time since approximately 1992, there were no small children present.  (My brother's children are still small, but this was their year to spend Christmas with their maternal relatives.  I missed them all - the kids, but also my brother and his wife, whom I regard as my third sister.)  My husband made a crown roast, and I made meringues with chocolate kisses hidden inside.  My older sister got a pair of homemade socks from me, and my younger sister got a small pair of pearl earrings.  (I have always thought she looked great in pearls.  I'm happy to do my part to encourage her.)

And now I find myself in exactly the same spot I was in when I started this blog a year ago:  my friends' little ski home in New London, New Hampshire.  There is very little snow on the ground, so I don't think we are going to get much skiing done.  Nevertheless, it is restful here.  It's after 9 in the morning, and my children are still asleep.  Sam has made me a cup of tea, and we are trying to decide what to do with the empty days that lie ahead.  The Ben & Jerry's factory tour?  The Montshire Museum?  A short drive to Dartmouth College?  (Always a favorite.  My husband and I are both alums.)  Sam thinks we should drive down to Boston for some clam chowder - it's only an hour and a half from here.  There are few things I wouldn't do for a mug of clam chowder.

But in the meantime, I am happy to sit on the couch in front of the fire and knit and reflect.  I have been blogging for a year now, and I have learned much about the process of writing and publishing.  I have baffled and annoyed certain family members with my candor, and I have entertained myself and some of my friends with my funnier pieces.  I am disappointed only that I don't have a big following.  After a full year, I only have sixty or so regular readers.  There are blogs out there with thousands of followers.  How do I get myself into their ranks?

The most important thing I have learned is that, with a little discipline, it is possible for me to write on a regular basis.  One of my goals for 2012 is going to be to produce a publishable manuscript.  I'll keep blogging, of course, because it's fun, and I enjoy its interactive nature and the near-instant gratification.  But I am going to try to focus on bringing a big project to the table this year.  It's been a lifetime goal, and here, halfway through my life, it's about time that I did something to make it happen.  I will keep you posted as to my progress.

I attended a blogger networking holiday party a couple of weeks ago, and everyone I met there asked me what my blog was "about."  I had come prepared with business cards and little Still Life refrigerator magnets to hand out, but I didn't have a good answer to their question.  Some people blog about environmental issues, or food, or travel, or current events.  I've covered a little of everything this past year.  The only answer I could give the other bloggers was that my blog was about "everything."  That's not a good marketing strategy, I know.  But it's my voice and my writing, and what I know how to do.

Thank you for staying with me this year.  I look forward to another year of everything.

Jennie

P.S.  I have lots of refrigerator magnets left over.  If you want one, e-mail me a mailing address.  I'll send them out for as long as my supplies last!

19 December 2011

My Son the Elf

When you outgrow the Santa myth, you graduate from being a receiver to being a giver.  You become eligible to participate in the magic.  You have the opportunity to enthrall younger children, to help your parents with the holiday preparations, and to become Santa-like yourself.

16 December 2011

In Defense of Santa

Parenting seems to be subject to all sorts of trends that come and go.  People can get pretty worked up about the things they do and don't do in the course of raising their children.  I know plenty of people whose lists of "don'ts" run pages and pages long.  Without passing judgment on any of them, here are a few examples of things I hear frequently:

We don't do refined sugar.

We don't do vaccinations.

We don't do toy guns.

We don't do baby formula.

We don't do traditional medicine.

We don't do religion.

In my experience, all of these attitudes are pretty common, but there's a big one I hadn't heard in a long time, until I heard it again today: "We don't do Santa."

I feel a need to defend the guy - and the practice of believing in him.

The arguments in favor of eschewing the big fat mythological gift-giver are many.  Parents say they don't want to lie to their children, or to teach them that lying is okay.  They don't want to give their children the impression that Christmas is all about gifts.  They don't want to build them up just to disappoint them. They don't want to use a fictional character to manipulate their children into behaving better.  And - this is one of my favorites - they don't want their children to think that God is like Santa: a mythological character who doles out rewards to them based on their behavior.  Allow me to address these arguments in turn.

Lying.  Somewhere along the way, someone started a story that all lying is bad.  I'd like to make an argument that that is simply not the case.  There are lies that are hurtful and wrong, because they cover up bad behavior or hurt other people in some way ("I didn't steal the car" / "I didn't kill him" / "Susie made that mess, not me").  But some lies are kind and caring, because they spare the listener from a more painful truth ("Yes, your new haircut looks beautiful" / "I'm so sorry - I'd love to come but I have other plans that day" / "No, your house isn't messy - you should see mine").  Don't try to convince me that it's morally better to tell your friend that her haircut is hideous or that her house is a disaster zone.

And so it is with Santa.  Santa, like many religious and quasi-religious stories we tell our children, is a good lie.  He lends an air of magic and gratuitous generosity to a season that, according to popular culture, is all about buying and spending.  He is a saint - a person who, according to Christian teaching, is to be emulated for his good behavior.  The more preposterous parts of the story, like the flying reindeer and the toy-making elves, are simply fun details.  Do you let your kids watch Barney or Veggie Tales?  Do you feel bad for lying to them about the existence of giant purple dinosaurs and talking artichokes?  Of course not.  Neither do I feel bad for encouraging my children to believe that a loving soul has bestowed gifts on them for no apparent reason.

I believed in Santa, and so did my sisters and brother, and we did not grow up to become pathological liars.  Nor do we distrust our parents or think of them as dishonest people.  (On the contrary, actually.)  The only lie the Santa myth encouraged me to indulge in:  I pretended to believe in Santa for a long time after I knew the truth, because I was afraid of hurting my parents' feelings.  Lying to preserve someone else's feelings. That's a virtue my parents taught me through the Santa myth.  My children were also Santa believers, and they've grown into perfectly normal human beings, no more prone to lying than their non-believing friends.

It's All About the Gifts.  In a way, Christmas really is all about gifts.  It's about the gift of redemption, of new life, of hope, and of peace.  Our exchange of gifts is symbolic of sharing what we have been given.  If you are not teaching your children that Christmas is a time to give and receive, freely, without worry or grudges, and from your heart, then what exactly are you teaching them?  And why are you celebrating this holiday in the first place?  Santa is a symbolic way to teach children about generosity and kindness - lessons not taught often enough in our modern world.

Disappointment.  God willing, your children will live long lives, and doing so will, by definition, acquaint them with the feeling of disappointment.  Life doesn't always give you what you want, or what you fantasize about.  It doles out disappointment in generous portions.  However, life does give you repeated opportunities to be kind and generous to others.  When you outgrow the Santa myth, you graduate from being a receiver to being a giver.  You become eligible to participate in the magic.  You have the opportunity to enthrall younger children, to help your parents with the holiday preparations, and to become Santa-like yourself.

Using Fiction to Manipulate Behavior.  We use fiction all the time to manipulate our children's behavior, but it is apparently objectionable only when it comes in the form of a guy in a red winter suit.  Our mythology, religious and secular, is loaded with tales of good people who are rewarded and bad people who are punished.  The virtuous Cinderella marries the handsome prince and lives happily ever after, while her mean stepsisters get their toes cut off.  Saint Peter gets the keys to heaven, but Judas meets a nasty end.  It's a common device, and it's so pervasive that it seems ridiculous to single out Santa (or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy), among the more harmless good-behavior motivators, for elimination from the pantheon.

God is Like Santa.  Well, of course God is like Santa.  That's the point.  He gives us mountains of gifts that we don't deserve.  He has unlimited stores of love, which are multiplied and spread by the hard work of His faithful helpers.  When we reach the age of reason, we are expected to pitch in and do our part, and perpetuate generosity and kindness in His name.  We do His work for Him.  I'm not going to get all religious on you here, because I never intended this to be a religious blog, but please remember that Santa is a saint.  The whole point of saints is that they are like God.  Their stories are to be told, and retold, from generation to generation, to teach young people about the nature of love and good behavior.  Santa is a great example of a saint whose story is tailored to a specific holiday and whose attributes are both attractive to children and easy for them to understand.

I'm not a fan of baby formula or of toy guns, but I'm a huge fan of Santa.  I believe in him and what he stands for.  When I shop and wrap and hide gifts, and make them magically appear on Christmas morning, I truly believe that I am teaching my children well.  Childhood is brief; the responsibilities and stresses of adulthood follow quickly on its heels.  Let's slow down a little, take ourselves a little less seriously, and encourage our children to believe in a little magic.  The ability to believe might come in handy for them someday.

15 December 2011

Running

I have been running.

I know those of you who know me well are probably in shock at hearing this.  But I have wanted to become a runner for a long time.  I first got the bug when we swapped houses some years back with a wonderful English family, and they participated in a New York City half-marathon while they were here.  I was impressed, and I corresponded with them about it.  They recommended to me the book that had gotten them started:  Running Made Easy by Susie Whalley and Lisa Jackson.  I read the book and was hooked.  I did the book's little ten-week get-started plan . . . several times.

Then one of my daughters dabbled in track at school, so I tried to run with her, to see if I could keep up.  I couldn't.

Now, she's sixteen and I'm forty-five, and I have all kinds of other excuses that I could detail here, but I won't.  I had some legitimate physical issues this past year that seemed like really good reasons not to exercise, so I let it lapse.

But the bug never left me, and lately, I have been getting back into it.

I said to myself, "It doesn't matter how far I go or how fast I go.  No one knows about this but me."  Indeed, it was one of the few things about my life that was truly all about me.  It doesn't cost a cent, other than a decent pair of sneakers and a little stolen time from a busy day.  And I don't know any runners who have weight problems.  It seems to me like an ideal way to exercise.

So, after the kids were off to school in the morning and before I settled in to work, I took myself for a walk.  I started in the park down the street, which has a nice running track and is frequented at that hour only by two or three dog-walkers and a little old lady who does tai chi by herself near the monkey bars.  I gave myself a half hour and just said, "Let's see what I can do."

It turns out that I can walk a pretty nice distance in half an hour, if I keep up a good pace.

Encouraged, I went home and downloaded the Nike+ GPS app onto my iPhone.  This is an app that tracks your speed and distance, gives you challenges and encouragement, and plays the music of your choosing while you go.  I love it.  I told myself, "The app is for runners, but it doesn't need to know you're just walking.  Let it think you're the slowest runner in the world.  Who cares?"

I walked and walked.  I bumped up my time gradually until I had reached an hour every other day.  And then something weird happened - I just started jogging.  At first, I jogged just once around the track, and then walked the rest of the way.  It broke up the monotony, and I wanted to see if I could do it.  I could!  I was thrilled!  Then I challenged myself to jog once around for every eight loops.  Then, four loops for every mile.  My outdoor track is eight loops to a mile - that meant I was jogging half the time!

The weather got colder, so I took it inside, to the smaller indoor track at my gym.  The indoor track is sort of boring, so I spent a few minutes one evening making my music more interesting.  Also, there are more people there, and passing people on the track - or not passing them - makes me inexplicably nervous.  I also hate the thought of people seeing me run - I am not the most physically fit person on earth.  But I have been persistent.  I set a personal best for a 5K yesterday afternoon, right before I went to pick up the kids from school.  I felt a strange combination of euphoria and exhaustion.

I know you're thinking this must be a guest post, someone other than Jennie writing.  I'm the queen of knitting, baking, blogging, criticizing other people's grammar and driving habits, and other sedentary pursuits.  But there's another side to me.  I secretly long to be athletic, and though I will never be a real athlete, it has made me very happy to know that I am not totally out of the game yet.

Today's a rest day, and my shins are thanking me.  But I am very much looking forward to tomorrow - and that's always a good thing, right?

11 December 2011

Gaudete

Advent lasts for four Sundays, and the third Sunday is called "Gaudete Sunday."  Gaudete, pronounced GOW-deh-tay, means "rejoice" in Latin.  Gaudete Sunday is a day for rejoicing, anticipating, and, if you're a little behind the 8-ball, for decking the halls.

Today is the day we light the pink candle on the wreath.

To everything there is a season.  This is not the season for dieting or self-denial.  It's the season for cookies and candy canes and wrapping paper and cards from old friends I haven't seen in years, and hanging the stockings by the chimney with care.


Bobby and Sarah helped Dad set up the tree.  They decided to name it "Douglas."  (It's not ready for trimming yet; it will take a day or two to open its branches fully.)




Becky set up the crĂȘche.

  

If you've been reading this blog for a year, you know I'm missing a wise man.  Don't let me forget:  this is the year I'm going to figure out which one I need, and to finally get it.


Last night was the Madrigal Festival at school.  Today, my little bell choir practiced "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" for next week, and "O Come All Ye Faithful" for Christmas Eve.  Later this afternoon, Bobby practiced his carols on the piano.


Finally, I pulled out the Christmas china today and ran it through the dishwasher; we'll use it for the next several weeks in place of our usual white stuff.

Speaking of white stuff, we are all hoping for snow.  I know a lot of people who hate snow, but we're not among them.  Besides being skiers, we're optimists.  We believe in white Christmases.  Now that we're all decked, and have tons of cookies, a little snow is all we need to be completely ready.  It won't be long now!




09 December 2011

Sam's Favorites

In case you didn't notice, I've been in baking mode lately.  I spent all afternoon today making chocolate-chip cookies.  (I use the recipe on the back of the bag of Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels, just like my grandma used to.  It really is the best recipe.  You can find it here.)



Late this afternoon, my husband called.  "What did you do all day?" he asked.

"Oh, I worked a little, and knitted, and made some cookies."

"Ooh!  Did you make my favorite oatmeal-raisins?"

"Uh...yeah."

Crap.

Fortunately, I had the ingredients in the house, so I scrambled and made some oatmeal-raisins for him.  Here's my recipe.

1 cup unsalted butter, softened.  (Don't use salted butter.  But if you have to, omit the salt from this recipe.)
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup plain-old white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if you are using salted butter)
3 cups oats (use the old-fashioned kind that comes in a drum - not quick-cooking or instant)
1 cup raisins (I used golden ones today, because that's what was in the cabinet, and I liked the results).

Mix the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt together in a bowl with a fork.

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer (stand or hand-held).  When it's fluffy, add the eggs and vanilla, and mix well.

Slowly add the mixed dry ingredients to the buttery goo, and mix thoroughly.

Add the oats; mix; then add the raisins and mix by hand.



Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a Silpat- or foil-lined cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, or until just set.

I personally think Silpat is one of the greatest inventions ever.

Cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet, and then transfer to a rack to cool completely.  Do not cool these on the back porch or in any outdoor area, as squirrels like them just as much as husbands do.

Yummy.




I can tell this Weight Watchers thing is just not going to work for me until, like, January.  That's okay.  The cookies are worth it.

Happy munching!

04 December 2011

Butterfly

It's a Sunday afternoon in early December.  It's cold outside, and we can feel winter closing in.  The late-afternoon light throws a rosy cast on everything.  I'm at the piano, and I snap on the little lamp next to my music.  My second daughter and I are practicing her solo for the upcoming Christmas concert at school.  She sings "Dost Thou in a Manger Lie" in a beautiful, warbling soprano, while I squint at the hymnal in front of me, my fingers struggling to keep up on the keyboard.  I will never be more than an adequate accompanist, but it's good enough for our purposes.

"Hey Mom," my son calls from the other end of the room, "look at this!"

I turn and look.  He's standing by the living-room window, where, on the sheer white curtain, there is perched the most exquisite yellow butterfly I have ever seen.  It looks like this:


At first, I'm pretty sure it's a prank.  He's trying to trick me into thinking there's a butterfly on the curtain.  It's some kind of paper toy he's stuck to the window, to see how gullible I am.

Then it flaps its wings.

We all gasp simultaneously.  I get up from the piano bench for a closer look.  It is, in fact, a real butterfly, fully grown, a creature of summer right here in our December living room.  I stare at it in awe for a moment, and then I run for my camera.

"How did it get there?" Becky asks.

My only guess is that it must have come into the house in a chrysalis attached to one of my house-plants.  I have several plants that live on the porch all summer and then come inside in early November, to spend the winter in the living room.  There must have been a secret life clinging to one of my plants all this time, developing in the darkness, and I didn't know it until it burst forth and flew over to my curtain.

I examine the Christmas cactus and the spider plants, but I see no evidence of a chrysalis.

The children want to keep the butterfly as a pet.  It's cold out, they reason.  If you turn it loose, it will freeze overnight.  Here, we could keep it in an aquarium and admire it all winter.  Please, mom.

But our butterfly is a wild creature, entitled to live out its life span, however short, in its natural habitat.  I capture it carefully under a Tupperware bowl, careful not to clip its wings or its exquisite antennae, and then I release it in the backyard.  We watch it fly away before the sun sets.

It's just a moment, just ten minutes out of an ordinary day, but the gift the butterfly has given us lingers.  Nothing we can make or do can even approach that level of beauty.  We are surprised by summer in the midst of winter, and reminded of all the ways in which life can touch and affect us.  I take the lesson for what it's worth, and then we return to the piano.

01 December 2011

Calendar

Well, it's the first of December, and you know what that means.  The Advent calendar.

The Advent calendar is a big wooden box with twenty-four little cabinet doors in it.  Each door is numbered, and you open a door each day in December leading up to Christmas.  Behind the door is a tiny little gift - a pen, a holiday-flavored lip balm, a small piece of candy, a bookmark - one for each child.

My family long ago outgrew the little one-inch-by-one-inch compartments in the Advent calendar, so now I usually stow a little note in each compartment, indicating where the treat of the day is hidden.  "Look behind the clock on the mantel."  Or "In the crystal vase in the dining room."  In the hiding place, the delighted kids find candy-cane shaped pens, Santa-shaped markers, or little tubes of M&M candy.  The possibilities are limitless; the only rule is that the treat has to be small and relatively inexpensive.

I'm not sure where the Advent calendar tradition came from.  When I was a kid, we didn't get gifts every day.  We did often have little paper calendars with doors that opened on a little picture, or a Bible verse, or, sometimes, if we were lucky, a piece of chocolate.  But the calendar is a huge deal in my house now.  For the past several days, the kids have been asking, "Thursday is the first of December, right?  The Advent calendar starts on Thursday, right?"  The tradition builds exactly the sort of anticipation that the season is about.

And, wouldn't you know it?  Today, I woke up empty-handed, without anything to put into the calendar.  Yesterday was just too hectic, and I didn't get out to a store.  As I shooed the kids off to school this morning, I promised them that the Advent calendar would be fully stocked when they returned this afternoon.

I hate to disappoint them.  But such is the dilemma of the working mom.  I can see to it that the house smells like cookies late in the afternoon, and that the Advent calendar is full of goodies, and that the candles are lit and the mood is set.  Or I can finish writing a legal brief that desperately needs to be done right about halfway through the magical season of Advent.  But I usually can't do both.  I've tried, and I've ended up in tears on the twenty-fourth.  People who see me crying in church on Christmas Eve mistake the tears for religious zeal.  Actually, they are tears of exhaustion and frustration.

The pressure to shop and bake and generally make a difficult and expensive season appear magical has weighed heavily on me since I first became a mother.  I try to play it as low-key as I possibly can now.  My children are beyond the Santa stage, so I don't need to create too much magic.  (A little, though.)  I'm not a big believer in putting up a tree and decking the halls as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are in the dishwasher.  I like to wait until the season is in full swing - usually not before the beginning of December.  I won't give you a big speech about what Christmas is really about, because you are probably getting plenty of that from other quarters right now.  That lecture is probably competing with the media message that you need to spend, spend, spend.  Everyone has to find her own happy medium at this time of year.

Whatever you do to build up to your holiday, I wish you just enough magic to get it all done and make it look easy.  And now I am off to the drugstore to find some teeny tiny treats.

24 November 2011

Twenty-Four Days of Thanks

I posted a Facebook status every day this month, leading up to today, mentioning something I am thankful for.  I'll have an original essay for you soon, but for now I'm just going to recap my twenty-four days of thanks.


November 1: This idea from my sister-in-law: every day in November leading up to Thanksgiving, post something you are thankful for. The first one is easy: my three spectacular children. Sarah, Becky, and Bobby. They rock.


November 2: Today I am thankful for my brother. Happy birthday, John. I love you.


November 3:   I am thankful for my beautiful niece Grace, who turns 16 today. Make a wish, Gracie.


November 4:  Today I am thankful for my three extraordinary sisters: Patty and Amy (by birth) and Kathy (by marriage). They are always there for me, rushing to my support and defense whether I deserve it or not. On this gray November day, I raise my coffee cup to the amazing Arlin women.


November 5:  I am thankful today for life and good health. These are things we take for granted until they are gone - and, as I have seen with friends and family, they can vanish in an instant. My family and I are blessed to be alive and healthy on this beautiful November day, and for that I am truly and sincerely thankful.


November 6:  Today I am thankful for the people of my little Episcopal church in New Jersey. Friends and family past, present, and future. Their influence runs through my life and my being like a thread through a tapestry.


November 7:  Six years ago, my little dog Sparky was abandoned in a hurricane in Louisiana by his first owners. I am thankful that he made his way north and is now my best friend and constant companion. I am thankful too for the people who risked their lives to rescue him.


November 8:  Mere women, my great-grandmothers were unable to vote. Today, I am thankful for the right to do so, for the women who fought for that right, and for the men who supported them. Happy election day!


November 9:  I am thankful for the women of my high school class. They are an extraordinary group accomplished in a wide range of fields - doctors, writers, designers, artists, business leaders. They have taught me much, and my thirty-year association with them is one of the greatest gifts of my life.


November 10:  I am thankful for my husband. I can't fit 28 years into a status update, so I'll just say that many many years ago, finding a convenient streetlight, he stepped out of the shade...and I'm very very thankful that he did.  [The reference is to Dire Straits' song "Romeo and Juliet."]


November 11:  Today, of course, like all of you, I am thankful for those who serve in our armed forces. I am also thankful for the friendship of one Joe L., my husband's college roommate, my dear friend, and godfather of my son. Happy birthday, Uncle Joe; good health and much love in the coming year.


November 12:  Well, today I'm thankful for AAA.  [I had taken my daughter and her friend on a little college-visiting trip north.  At the University of Vermont, we allowed the young men at our hotel, enthusiastic UVM students, to valet-park our car for us. They unfortunately left the headlights on all night.]


November 13:  Thankful for my pretty little house, freshly painted (finally), warm and welcoming after a long weekend away.


November 14:  I'm thankful that I live in an era of technology that enables me to work anywhere I want - and my music and my coffee can come with me.


November 15:  I am thankful for my father. Educator, activist, retired Army chaplain, devoted husband of my mom, father of four, and grandpa of ten. Currently serving an Episcopal congregation in New York. A man of faith, intellect, and conscience. I admire him greatly and am thankful for him every day.


November 16:  I am thankful for my mother. She is responsible for my stubbornness, my work ethic, my devotion to my family, my obsession with grammar and etiquette, and my teeny tiny feminist streak. In the end, we are the sum of the women who went before us. How lucky I am to have followed her.


November 17:  Today, I am thankful for my nieces and nephews: David, Grace, Robin, Maggie, Zac, Stephanie, and Steven. They are the next generation, and they make me incredibly proud. Because of them I have confidence that, when I am gone, our family, and even the world, will be in good hands.


November 18:  I am thankful for my education. I was privileged to attend great schools and to study under some first-rate teachers. One of the things I learned was how much fun it is to learn. That's a gift that will stay with me all my life.


November 19:  Today I am thankful for my friend Annika, who writes to me in German, so I'm the only one in the house who can read what she says.  [I had gotten a sweet note from Annika consoling me for my recent loss.  She enclosed some craft supplies to be used in making Christmas ornaments.  I'll show you the results later.]


November 20:  I direct a little children's bell choir at my little church. I am thankful for that opportunity and for the kids who participate. I love their furrowed brows as they concentrate, waiting for their turn to ring, and their expressions of triumph when they get it right. Making music, and teaching someone young to make music with me, is one of life's greatest joys.


November 21:  Thankful to have reconnected with old friends, from my childhood and teenage years, who would otherwise be lost to me. There is no friend like an old friend. You know who you are. Thank you for being part of my life again.


November 22:  There are 100 million people in the United States who don't know where their next meal is coming from. That's nearly one in three, a shamefully high number. I am thankful that I am not one of those people and that I have frequent opportunities to do something to help them.


November 23:  Today I give thanks for my local friends and neighbors. Next door, around the corner, across the street, across town - you have taught me what community means. Thank you.


November 24:  ‎"I'm grateful for anything that reminds me of what's possible in this life. Books can do that. Films can do that. Music can do that. School can do that. It's so easy to allow one day to simply follow into the next, but every once in a while we encounter something that shows us that anything is possible, that dramatic change is possible, that something new can be made, that laughter can be shared." - Jonathan Safran Foer

Blessed feast to all. Thank you for being my readers.  I am thrilled whenever I get a comment, a link, or an encouraging note from anyone.  You have no idea how much your readership, support, and feedback mean to me.


Jennie

14 November 2011

Raking

Ah, November. Pink sunrises, dark afternoons, hot mugs of cider, and lawns completely covered by crispy leaves. Leaves that must be removed before snow covers the ground (lest the lawns die beneath them).

So the sounds of November include the sounds of leaf-blowers and rakes. My neighbors are pretty considerate people; I don't have any complaints about leaves being blown around at 7 A.M. on a Sunday morning, or about people blowing leaves from their yard into mine. In fact, most of my neighbors go out of their way to be nice and helpful about these things. But I do have a few thoughts about the process of leaf removal, and I know you're dying to hear them.

When I was a child, Dad raked the leaves, sometimes with help from the teenagers in the neighborhood, who were willing to lend an assist for a little pocket money. The leaves had to be bagged and put at the curb. When we kids got older, the raking duties became ours. It wasn't a task that I particularly liked, since we lived on a heavily wooded lot, and the work was exhausting and tedious. It was really hard, producing sore shoulders and blistered hands. But it could be fun, especially if we were doing it together on a nice day. It could be turned into a game, or a race, and there was always something good to eat waiting for us in the kitchen when we were done. It was one of those things that just had to be done, so we did it, but it had an element of fun in it.

When I first moved here, I noticed that most people in these parts had landscaping services that took care of their leaves for them. For a while, we hired leaf-removers too. They were expensive, but they dispatched the leaves quickly and efficiently, using four-man teams equipped with gas-powered leaf blowers. I sometimes made them cookies, or planted bulbs while they worked, so that I could feel like I was part of the process.

But I never loved hiring someone to do the leaf removal. First, it took away a seasonal task that I had enjoyed (sort of). Second, I never really found a landscaper that I got along with. And third - well, there was the cost. When I was a stay-at-home mom without a salary, we had to closely examine everything we were spending money on, and leaves just didn't make the cut. Especially as the kids got older and were able to give me a little help. Sam bought an electric leaf blower, and the kids and I took turns with it. We always had fun, and we always managed to get the task done before the snow fell.

This year, our leaf-blower is broken. We haven't had the time to replace it. But winter is approaching, and the job still needs to be done. So yesterday afternoon, I fired up my iPod, grabbed a rake, and tackled a little more than half the yard before it got dark. We have mostly maple, oak, and poplar here, so we are treated to a spectacular color show every fall, followed by a thick carpet of leaves. They are dry and light, mostly easy to rake, but my hands still get sore, and I feel the motion in the shoulder I broke last winter. I cheered myself on by imagining that I was burning tons of calories as I worked. I waved to neighbors who were doing the same thing, methodically raking leaves into piles, then merging the piles, then sweeping them into the street, where they will be collected and mulched by the town. Rakes are much quieter than blowers, and the near silence was welcome. I could hear the music in my headphones and the thoughts in my head.

Late in the afternoon, my son, frustrated and needing a break from his French homework, came outside and asked whether he could help. I got him a rake, connected the iPod to speakers so he could hear the music too, and had him join me.  And while he was there, raking alongside me, I remembered the fun part about the leaves.  It's the camaraderie, the sense of sweeping up the remains of the summer together and tucking them into the annals of memory. The air is getting colder, little by little, and when the winter arrives in earnest, we'll be ready, frost-covered lawn, hot cider, and all.

07 November 2011

The Real Issues

Okay, okay, enough with the hate mail.  If you are or ever were a mailman, a teacher, a restaurant hostess, or a maternity nurse, I wasn't talking about you.  Same thing goes, I guess, if you are a bad driver or one of those little skinny women who own the roads of my town in their Lincoln SUVs.  I was not trying to make a political statement about the current financial state of the United States Postal Service.  I thought I made clear in my "disclaimer" at the top of my last post that it was all a joke.

I have endured lawyer jokes all my adult life.  These jokes are usually told to my face by someone who has never studied law or taken a bar exam.  The jokes all have a common theme: that lawyers are heartless mercenaries who exploit other people's misfortunes for the sake of earning a dollar.  Now, we all know that while generalizing often makes for a good chuckle, there are in fact good lawyers out there in the world.  They work for human rights in my own neighborhood and in far-off places.  They get out of their beds in the middle of the night to help the domestic violence victim and the accused criminal.  They defend people against meritless claims that threaten to destroy livelihoods.  They prosecute the people whose crimes affect our safety and our way of life. They serve in public office and draft treaties and...

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Besides, those lawyer jokes are all made up.  My stories are as true as the day is long, every single one of them.  A mailman really did mace a yipping puppy on my front porch, and the USPS really did defend his right to do so.  That maternity nurse really did yell at me.  And I get honked at while riding my bike at least once a week.

And, finally, yes, there are people who deserve eternal damnation a lot more than the people I listed.  In the grand scheme of things, the comma-dropping teacher really doesn't matter.  There are people starving, and a whole lot more people turning their heads the other way, pretending they don't notice or that there's nothing they can do about it.  Genocide and persecution and unnecessary death still plague the world.  The guy I worked for many years ago who used to throw stuff at me is, as far as I know, still employed.

Let's all lighten up and focus on the real issues.  This morning, I went to the grocery store and bought a dozen eggs.  When I got home and opened the little styrofoam crate, I realized that each individual egg had a tiny pink ribbon stamped on it.  I stood at my kitchen counter and slowly absorbed the fact that  I had inadvertently bought breast cancer awareness eggs.  If that doesn't tell you something about the state of the world we live in, I think things are much worse than I realized.

Have a good week.
Jennie

P.S.  I am not in favor of breast cancer.  I know a lot of people who have suffered from it and, unfortunately, I even lost a childhood friend to it.  I am aware of it, for heaven's sake, and I do not mean to make light of a serious and real issue.  That being said, the egg story is 100% true and was intended to make you laugh.  Or smile.  Or something.

04 November 2011

The Ten People You Meet in Hell

Rather than just give you another generic rant about the people who annoy me on a daily basis, I thought I'd give you a rundown of the ten people I am most looking forward to meeting in hell.

DISCLAIMER:  This is a work of attempted humor.  I do not actually think that restaurant hostesses or maternity nurses should suffer eternal damnation (the mailman, though...that's another story).  By reading and/or sharing this post you agree not to get your panties all twisted up in a knot, not to call Child Protective Services (this actually happened to a blogger who called her kid an "asshat" in one of her entries because he failed a math test - I'm not kidding, read it here), and not to otherwise harass me, online or in person.  Let's keep it light, folks.

So here we go.  The ten people I am most looking forward to meeting in hell.

1.  The Mailman Who Maced My Dog.  My dog was a puppy when, one afternoon, her snooze on the front porch was interrupted by a man in a uniform who "doesn't like" dogs.  Startled, she barked; he responded by spraying her with a noxious substance that caused her great pain and confusion.  She is now seven years old, and that formative experience has seasoned her interactions with all people ever since.  She hates any man she doesn't know, particularly if he is in uniform.  I need to lock her up when the meter reader (a very kind and friendly dog-lover who is puzzled by her reaction to him) shows up on his monthly visit.  She has occasionally suffered from fear aggression, and the people on the receiving end, not knowing the history, blame me.  The United States Postal Service maintains that mail carriers are entitled to carry mace and to use it whenever they see fit.  I understand that the wilds of suburban New Jersey can be a dangerous place to be going door-to-door, delivering coupons and water bills.  But I humbly suggest that if you hate domestic animals, "suburban mail carrier" is probably not your ideal job title.  Maybe this jerk will be in another profession soon anyway, as his employer appears poised to go bankrupt.  You will see no tears from me.

2.  The Restaurant Hostess Who Refuses To Seat Us Until The Entire Party Arrives.  She's nineteen years old and wearing a miniskirt.  She's majoring in art history at the local community college.  And when my husband drops me at the restaurant door while he drives around looking for a parking space, she makes me stand, or sit alone in the bar, until she sees the whites of his eyes.  Now, it's possible that I'm lying about actually needing a table for two and that I am going to be stood up, stealing that second seat away from another more deserving couple.  But it's also possible that I am going to sit down, order a brand-name single-malt Scotch, and then, upon the arrival of my husband of twenty years (also a Scotch drinker, by the way), I'm going to overeat wildly.  Consider too that if you treat me kindly, I might come back again and again.  I know that when you're nineteen and you have no real stake in your employer's business, this might be a hard concept to grasp, but please internalize it now:  letting a tired working mom and her friends have a seat, as soon as possible, is a good business decision.

3.  The Customer Service Rep Who Puts Me On Hold While She Determines Whether I'm Making It All Up.  Yesterday, I noticed my checking account was overdrawn, and upon investigation, I determined that the gym I joined two years ago, at a location which closed a year later, was still automatically billing me for membership fees.  It's a national chain, so I called their customer service hotline to see if I could get the charges reversed and put my little bank account back into the black.  I explained to the agent on the phone that she was billing me for membership to a gym location that did not exist.  "Fifty-second and Broadway?" she said.  "That location is still open, according to my records."  Um.  "No, it's not; it's been boarded up since November 2010," I responded.  She then put me on hold for ten minutes to verify that I wasn't lying about the closure of the branch.  When she determined that I was telling the truth, she kindly cancelled my membership, effective immediately, but she refused to refund my money because I had failed to give her thirty days' notice of cancellation.  I'm scared to name the chain, but you'll recognize them when you get to hell.  They'll be the most physically fit ones there, burning in the corner with the other thieves.

4.  The Maternity Nurse Who Yells At The New Mom.  I know, I know, you think I'm exaggerating.  How could a maternity nurse actually yell at someone who has just given birth?  Someone who is exhausted and wearing nothing but a backless cotton gown and a sanitary pad?  Does such cruelty even exist in this world?  But this really did happen to me.  My third child was, to my great surprise, of the male gender.  I hauled my sore butt out of the hospital bed at three in the morning to feed him, and I decided to change his diaper first.  Baby boys, unlike baby girls, pee up.  As soon as I took off the old diaper, and before I could put a new one on him, my hospital gown got wet.  I do not tell this story to humiliate my son, but rather to point out that if you are a maternity nurse, and you get buzzed at your station in the wee hours by a crying, soaked mom who wants nothing more than a dry nightgown, do not yell at her for being careless.  Otherwise, you will get a mention in her blog twelve years later, and your meanness will be laughed at by all 54 people who purportedly read such blog.


5.  The Guy Who Cuts Me Off By Making His Left-Hand Turn The Moment The Light Turns Green.  I have a lot of pet peeves, but this one really drives me nuts.  I'm stopped at a red light, and the guy across from me is clearly planning to turn left.  And he does so, immediately, as soon as the light turns green.  He fails to yield to oncoming traffic, which has the indisputable right of way.   I know you probably think this is a petty thing to write about, but I know for a fact that this guy bothers other people too - in fact, he got a mention in my pastor's sermon a few weeks ago under the general topic of selfish people, and that confirms my sense of moral superiority over him.  If you are turning left at a light, please yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.


6.  Anyone Who Criticizes My Siblings Or Makes Their Lives Difficult In Any Way.  Except Me.  I'm allowed to harass my siblings.  You are not.  If you are an only child, you might have learned this lesson the hard way, joining in the ribbing of your friend's sibling and then suddenly realizing that your friend and his sibling are actually on the same team.  This is a hard-and-fast rule.  It's best to follow it even if you are tempted otherwise.


7.  The Tiny Lady In The Enormous SUV Who Honks At Bicyclists.  Actually, anyone in any car who honks at bike riders fits into this category.  Also, I say bike riders, but this rule applies to joggers as well.  (I'm a bike rider but not a jogger, you see.)  Anyway.  Except under the most dire of circumstances, honking at a bicyclist is a really, really stupid and mean thing to do.  Bicyclists are not surrounded by glass that insulates them from sudden, loud noises.  If you honk at them, you are likely to scare the crap out of them.  Scaring the crap out of someone who, in a vain attempt to get skinny like you, is mildly infringing on your ownership of the road, is not just mean.  It's dangerous.  It can send them into a ditch, over a curb, into a tree - and if you get sued or prosecuted for injuring a bicyclist, you might lose that expensive car or your right to drive it.  We can't have that happen, can we?

8.  The Teacher Who Sends Home Flyers And Notices Riddled With Errors.  It happens all the time.  The teacher lectures my child about grammar, or takes ten points off a test for misspelling something tricky,  like "receive" or "algorithm."  Then I get a notice that the class will be having a bake sale and that my contribulations are welcome.  This category also includes the mean World History teacher who has no patience for small errors but, on Back-to-School Night, fails to capitalize "United States" in her written presentation to the parents.  If you think I'm just being picky, you are probably right.

9.  The Sexist Car Salesman.  Once I bought a car, and the salesman took a moment to show me how to work the controls.  The car had an automatic transmission, and the gentleman pointed out to me that "R" meant "reverse" and "D" meant drive.  He also advised me not to worry about "D2" and "D1," the lower gears, because "they're just for people who know how to drive a stick."  Sadly, this man is no longer living.  Happily, his death was not the result of my having run him over with my standard-shift Volkswagen.


10.  The Little Old Lady Who Tells Me How To Dress My Child.  You know her - she lurks in the supermarket aisles, waiting for some young woman to walk in with a baby who is not wearing a hat, for heaven's sake.  She then leaps upon this poor young mother and scolds her, or at best lectures her at length about dressing children appropriately for the weather.  Back in the day, I actually let this little old lady and her opinions get to me.  Now, I simply write about her in my blog.  That'll teach her.

01 November 2011

Weight

I went to a Weight Watchers meeting this morning.  This, in and of itself, is not unusual.  I follow a cyclical pattern: I decide I am too heavy, so I join Weight Watchers. I attend the meetings regularly, but I do not follow the diet plan. I fail to lose weight, so I give up and quit. They keep my money.

What was unusual about this morning's meeting was how many men were present.  Almost half the attendees were men. Weight loss is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and Weight Watchers is its biggest player. Women form the backbone of the company's clientele. Though I can't find quotable gender statistics online, I can tell you from personal observation that Weight Watchers' membership, at least that portion of it that attends meetings, is overwhelmingly female. Take it from a Weight Watchers veteran: losing weight, and paying crazy amounts of money for help in doing so, is primarily a women's issue.

Why is that? Weight Watchers has made some effort recently to recruit men as members, featuring them in their online ads and promising special dietary advice for the beer-and-barbecue crowd.  But I know very few men who would be caught dead whipping out their point-counters in the aisles at the supermarket or writing down in a notebook exactly how much dressing they had put on their salad. Some men I know have made concerted efforts to lose weight, but they are more likely to follow something like Atkins or South Beach, which allows them unlimited steak and requires no attendance at meetings.  That confessional, supportive stuff is for girls.  Weight Watchers understands this, and that's why their male-targeted advertisements push online membership rather than meetings. You can do this from the privacy of your computer. You won't run into anyone you know. No one will be the wiser.


But it's not just that men are embarrassed to talk about their food issues or to seek help with them. To a large extent, the problem is bigger: men are not subject to the same societal pressures as women. Their weight is not constantly in play as a discussion topic, so they are not as self-conscious about it as women are. They are not targeted by magazines featuring starving, underage boys on their covers. They are not encouraged to believe that they need to look like supermodels to succeed in business, relationships, or life. They are simply more comfortable in their skin than we are.

And then there's that unfair fact of life about women: we fluctuate naturally. We gain and lose as a matter of nature, according to the phase of life that we happen to be in. Girlhood? Menarche? Adolescence? Child-bearing? Menopause? They all come with weight ups and downs, and they all raise their own issues, both physical and psychological. Men don't swell up in order to gestate and nourish their young, or shrink back down because their calcium supplies are diminishing. I'm generalizing here, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of them don't stand in front of their closets in the morning, pushing aside the "skinny" clothes and rummaging through the "fat" things, looking for something that will fit on this particular day, in this particular year, at this particular time of the month. Something that will fit, and won't make them look too fat.

I'd like to think that my weight is entirely outside of my control. It's partly genetics, and partly age, and partly circumstance. My body has been through a lot in the past twenty years, for sure. But there's a big part of it that's psychological too. I'm not going to lie and say that I don't find food comforting, or that I love aerobics classes, or that I didn't eat a ridiculous amount of candy yesterday.

"Wish me luck," I told the Weight Watchers lady today, as I signed yet another credit-card receipt for the privilege of eating less.

"I would," she responded, "but it's not about luck. You know that, don't you?"

Yes, indeed, I do.

29 October 2011

Coffee

It's a cold, nasty late-October morning.  We are expecting a nor'easter that is predicted to dump four to seven inches of snow on our little hamlet on the Hudson.  This will be our first measurable snow in October since 1952.  I think this is a perfect time to talk about...coffee.

My parents are big coffee drinkers.  When I was growing up, my dad got up early every morning to make a pot for my mom.  He drank it too, and so did my Grandma, but the story always was that the coffee was a gift of love for Mom.  She could not function in the mornings without it.  Dad was happy to oblige.  He cheerfully got up before the sun and ground the beans and perked the coffee.  Back then, in the early seventies, coffee was not brewed.  It was perked, either in a big tin pot that sat on the stove, or, later, in an automatic percolator that sat on the counter.  I don't know the etymology of the word "perk," and I'm too lazy to look it up, but I'd guess, off the top of my head, that it had something to do with the sound made by the percolator.  Perk-perk-perk.  The percolator always had a glass knob on top, and you could see the coffee perk-perk-perking through the knob.

It perked Mom up, too.  You were not permitted to speak to her or ask for anything before she had had her morning coffee.  If something drastic happened before she had had her coffee, that fact would be essential in the retelling.  She would tell one of the other moms on our street, "The phone rang on Friday morning.  It was the police.  They called before I had had my coffee."  And the other mom would cluck sympathetically.

Later, my grandma had some heart problems, so she switched over to Sanka.  Sanka was instant decaffeinated coffee that came in little individual packets.  I can still see Grammy standing in the kitchen in her green bathrobe, whacking her little orange packet of Sanka against the edge of the counter to settle its contents before she ripped it open.  I think the fact that restaurants put an orange plastic rim on their coffee pots, to signify decaf, is an homage to Sanka and its distinctive packaging.

Coffee wasn't a big deal when I went off to college.  I never really developed a taste for it.  When I needed caffeine (which was fairly often), I drank Diet Coke.  I stuck with that until the nice doctors at the college health service advised me to stop.  (Extreme amounts of caffeine can cause or aggravate all kinds of maladies that plague young women, like bladder infections, heart palpitations, and cystic breast disease.  Not to mention what it does to sleep patterns.)  I discovered herbal tea and have been a big decaffeinated tea drinker ever since.

I do enjoy the occasional cup of coffee.  When I was working in the city, I became a fan of Starbucks and their various latte drinks, which generally contain more milk than coffee.  I drank a lot of them, mostly decaf.  Now, once a week, I meet with a group of neighborhood women for a cup of coffee and a chat.  It was my turn to host this past week, and I got myself a nice new Cuisinart coffee machine for the occasion.  It's white, which means it needs to be wiped down lovingly after each use, lest it develop brown coffee stains all over it.

One of my son's dearest friends is a boy named Juan.  Juan's family comes from Colombia, and Juan drinks coffee.  We don't usually serve coffee to young people in my house, but Juan insists, like my mother, that he can't get his day going without it.  In the beginning, when he slept over at our house, we refused him a cup of coffee.  He told us, however, that all children drink coffee in Colombia, and that his parents would not let him sleep over any more unless we provided it.  (I know his mom pretty well, and I am fairly sure that the latter assertion is false.  But I didn't call him on it - I just handed over the coffee.)

So here we sit at the breakfast table, me with my herbal tea, my son with a cold glass of milk, and Juan with his steaming cup of coffee, freshly poured from my fancy new machine.  The sleet and rain are swirling outside, and I am thinking about what should go into the crockpot tonight.  It's going to be a good night for it!

26 October 2011

Decorations

Halloween is approaching.  I can tell, because my neighbors have decorated their yards.

When I was a child, we didn't really decorate for Halloween.  We did carve smiling pumpkins and set them on the porch with candles inside them.  We did dress up as princesses and fairies and pirates and go door-to-door, filling our pillowcases with candy.  Sometimes Mom, who was a teacher and had a stash of seasonal decorations in the attic, hung a cartoonish paper skeleton on the front door.  But we didn't decorate our lawns, trees, and windows with gruesome likenesses of dead, dismembered bodies.

That's what my neighbors do.

The house a few doors down from me is actually locally famous for its Halloween display.  It features rotting corpses, bleeding Chuckie dolls, and realistic rubber rats feeding on body parts.  There are hands, half-stripped of flesh, reaching up out of the ground from behind Styrofoam gravestones.  My neighbor starts decorating in mid-September, and by mid-October, amateur and professional photographers are crowding the corner, documenting the carnage from every angle.  Cars slow down so their occupants can gape at the orange-and-black lights hanging from the trees.  The local newspaper actually calls around the neighborhood, looking for quotations from neighbors to use in their coverage of the display.

This house is right across the street from our local elementary school.  For two years, my daughter refused to walk past the "scary house" during the fall, instead making me walk the long way around the block to take her to school.  She had nightmares that featured vignettes from the phony graveyard on the corner.  I asked my neighbor, in the most polite way I could think of, whether it might be a good idea to tone things down, given the proximity of the school and the number of small kids in the area.

The response?  Halloween was a favorite holiday, allowing my neighbor an opportunity to decorate with abandon.  Scaling back just because some local kids were freaked out was just not part of the plan.

It's been almost fifteen years now, and I've gotten used to the seasonal carnage.  My kids are no longer frightened, but simply regard the decorations as a massive display of terrible taste.  Most of the neighbors I have talked to about it agree that it's awful, but they would never complain about it, publicly or privately.  Doing so might jeopardize neighborly relations or hurt feelings.

I agree with my Halloween-enthusiast neighbors that they have a right to do whatever they want with their lawn. I just wish that what they wanted could be more about the fun - the costumes and the candy - than about death and destruction.  Halloween, after all, is all about children.  It's about wearing costumes, walking around the neighborhood with your friends, waving a flashlight, crunching through the fallen leaves.  It's about knowing there's one night a year when you can eat peanut butter cups for dinner if that's what you want.  Adulthood and mortality come fast enough for all of us.  Can't we just enjoy a little innocence for a while longer?

24 October 2011

Moving On

And so life goes on. Not necessarily because we want it to, but because it has to. There are briefs to be written, lunches to be packed, leaves to be raked, messy houses to be cleaned, knitting projects to be finished, cookies to be baked. There are celebrations and quiet moments. We keep breathing in and out, because what else are we to do?

The days immediately following my miscarriage were difficult. My husband took me out to dinner, and a woman at the next table, noticing the size of my belly, glared at me as I sipped at a glass of wine. We saw a movie. I had a facial. I walked the dogs endlessly - never further than a few minutes from my house, but endlessly. I went to church in ambiguous clothes, pretended nothing was wrong, and directed my little children's bell-choir as usual. The pastor, who knew what was going on because Sam had called her, touched my hand as I packed the bells into their little black case after rehearsal. She didn't need to say anything. What was there to say?

My son made my favorite tea and brought it to me in bed. My daughters hugged me. On the day of my surgery, my neighbor brought my children to school in the morning. When I got home, I discovered that she had also left a crock-pot full of chili on my counter, with a big loaf of French bread next to it and a salad in the refrigerator.

The anesthesiologist at the hospital was brusque. "How far along are you?" she asked, as she was about to put a tube down my throat. She had not read the chart and assumed I was aborting electively. Just another wealthy suburban woman, terminating an inconvenient pregnancy. I looked at my obstetrician for help. She squeezed my hand. My eyes welled up. "This is a case of fetal demise at thirteen weeks," my obstetrician said softly. I saw the oops in the anesthesiologist's face just before everything went dark.

The light came back into my life slowly. I got some beautiful gifts for my birthday: an orchid from my mother-in-law, a crystal vase from my brother and his wife, gift certificates for spa days from my sister and my mom. My brother sat next to me and put his arm around me, without saying a word. The bell-choir performed flawlessly at church a few weeks later and brought tears to the eyes of all present. Yesterday, I walked in a 10K charity fundraiser to combat hunger, and I was the top individual fundraiser there. And last night, I had the privilege of hearing an old friend, one of the most gifted pianists alive today, perform a Liszt concert at Carnegie Hall.

Life is cruel, but it is also a great gift. There are high and lows. We all endure our own little tragedies and our own little triumphs on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes those around us know what we are going through, and sometimes they do not.

Here is what I have learned: we are all going through something. Do not glare at the pregnant woman with the wine glass. Do not assume anything about the apparently wealthy suburban housewife. Do not wish moments away. Do not withhold the bad news, but do not hesitate to share the joy either. Someday, they will cancel each other out.

Have a wonderful week. Seize every moment. I know I will.

Jennie

22 October 2011

Thursday

Thursday, September 22, 2011.  Approximately 2 P.M.  Mount Sinai Medical Center, Department of Maternal and Fetal Medicine.  Manhattan.

I am excited.  I have been waiting for this appointment for weeks.  I am going to have a detailed sonogram and undergo a quick, painless test to make sure the baby has all the right chromosomes.  I'll have the results in time to announce my pregnancy to my family at my birthday dinner next week.  That will coincide with the end of my first trimester.  So far, no one knows but my husband.  He's just finished a hearing in Brooklyn and is on his way to join me so he can see the baby too.  Mount Sinai has sophisticated, high-resolution sonogram equipment, so we'll get a great picture to show my parents and Sam's.  They'll be stunned and thrilled.

On the crosstown bus on the way there, a lady offers me her seat.  I decline but ask her, "Is it obvious?"

"It is," she says.  "Best of luck to you."

On the table in the clinic, the technician smears warm gel on my swollen belly and presses down with the transponder to get a good view of the baby.  "Look!" I say.  "It's starting to look like a baby!  Hi baby!  So those are the little feet that have been kicking me!"

She doesn't say anything, but she takes some measurements.  Rump to crown, cerebrum.  "Make sure you measure the nuchal translucency," I tell her.  "At my first-trimester screen last week it was a little thicker than they liked.  They wanted me to mention that to you."

She switches off the screen and says, "Stay put.  The doctor will be right in."  She then leaves me alone in the darkened room.

There's a quick knock, and I think it's the doctor, but it's not.  It's Sam, having just arrived at the hospital.  He sits on the chair next to me and I jabber away, telling him what he missed.  "I saw the baby.  It's really cute.  Don't worry - you'll get to see it in a minute when the doctor comes in.  The whole procedure is sonogram-guided, so you can watch it in real time."

The doctor comes in, introduces herself, and turns on the sonogram machine.  She moves the transponder over my belly, back and forth for a few minutes.  There's the baby on the screen again.  Sam leans in to get a good look.  It's a little grainy, but it's there.

Then the doctor says, "I'm not seeing any cardiac activity."

At first I don't understand.  I'm thinking, cardiac problems we can deal with.  It's the chromosomal stuff I was worried about.  You know, because of my age.  We'll call in a prenatal cardiologist or something and fix whatever you see.  No worries.


But then there's a pause, and Sam catches her meaning a second before I do.  He puts his hand on my arm.  I turn and look at him, and I see a single tear making its way down his cheek.

I realize the doctor is talking and moving the transponder around.  "There's no heartbeat and no fetal movement.  It looks pretty recent, because the fetus is measuring true to your due date.  I'll have your regular doctor call to discuss the next steps.  You can get dressed."

She turns off the machine, turns on the lights, and leaves the room.

That's it?  I think.  Just like that, this whole thing is over?  No more tests, no more pictures?  Now I just go home?


Sam helps wipe the gel off my belly, and I sit up.  The doctor comes back after a moment and hands us a box of tissues.  Sam pulls out six or eight sheets from the box and presses them to his face.  The doctor tells us she has called my regular obstetrician and brought her up to date; the office will call my cell phone shortly to set up the necessary surgery.  The doctor says it was probably a severe chromosomal defect in the fetus, since the nuchal translucency measurement, a marker for chromosomal abnormalities, was indeed elevated.  "I'm sorry," she says.  "You seem like such nice people.  Maybe I'll get to see you in here again sometime soon."  And then she leaves.

On the way out, I stop in the bathroom, and I pass the technician in the hallway.  She gives me a sad look and mouths, "I'm sorry."

The lobby is crowded with people.  We go through the revolving door into blinding sunlight.  The car is parked right outside, on Madison.  We sit in it for what seems like forever.  Sam answers a business call or two.  He cancels all his afternoon and evening appointments.  And then, slowly, he starts the car, and we begin the drive home.

20 October 2011

Morocco

Did you ever wonder what exactly a "casbah" is?  Me too.  As it turns out, the casbah is the heart of a large city, often the oldest part.  In Tangier, Morocco, it's fortified and surrounded by a wall, probably to protect against the threat of invading Christians.  We had occasion to rock the casbah of Tangier toward the end of our trip to Spain, when we hopped on a ferry and took the short trip from the south of Spain to the north of Africa.  We didn't exactly invade.  We were accompanied by our Spanish friends and a tour guide named Aziz, and we came entirely in peace.

Getting ready to board the ferry.



Aziz met us on the dock in Morocco with a van driven by a friendly man named Mohammed.  Aziz's first order of business was to teach us to say hello (salaam aleiku, literally "peace be with you"), and to touch our heart after shaking hands, to signal sincerity.  I loved this latter gesture and vowed to remember it when I got back to New Jersey.

Sign in the port of Tangier.  The French says, "Welcome To Your Country."  (I can't read Arabic.)

Our first stop was the main mosque.  We got out of our tour bus to take a picture.


Aziz drove us all over town and pointed out the important sights:  the King's palace, the most beautiful hotel, the prettiest beach, and the inner city.  The Spanish children in our group had been to Tangier before, though, and all they wanted to do was ride a camel.  Aziz was able to arrange that as well.  I even got on a camel and rode around a bit.  I thought, how many times in my life will I have the opportunity to ride a camel in Morocco?  Probably not too many.

Bobby kissing a camel.  This is one of my favorite pictures from the whole trip.

Tangier boasts a really cool prehistoric cave that was once inhabited by actual cavemen.  Now, it's inhabited by merchants selling locally-produced crafts and cold bottles of drinking water, both of which are in pretty high demand.  The cave opens out onto the ocean, making for some really great photo-taking opportunities.




Aziz took us to the Hotel Mirage, one of the nicest hotels in Tangier, so we could look out over the cliffs at the water.  The beach in the background is for the private use of the King and his guests, so we could only gaze from afar.  Still, the view of the Mediterranean was breathtaking.  We saw someone jet-skiing on the water and wondered whether it might be a member of the royal family.  Personally, I think my daughters looked pretty royal on the balconies.




We had a delicious lunch at a Moroccan restaurant, chosen for us by Aziz, in the casbah.  The children were amused when the waiter told them his best language was French.  This gave us occasion for a little history lesson to explain why so much French was spoken in Morocco.  The children also noticed that Aziz sat and chatted with us but did not eat.  "Aren't you hungry?" they asked him.

He smiled.  "Yes, but it's Ramadan," he told them.

"What's Ramadan?"

Aziz explained that all three of the Abrahamic religions observe periods of fasting and self-reflection. Ramadan is Islam's holy month, during which devout Muslims do not eat during daylight hours.  "So it's like Yom Kippur or Lent?  It's a religious fast?" the kids asked.  Yes, Aziz said, exactly.  He smilingly told them that, while he was indeed hungry, he would wait until sundown.  He also told them that when we wandered through the casbah after lunch, they might see people praying in the streets.  This, too, was a Ramadan tradition.

Sumptuous lunch.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the heart of the city.  The place was simply beautiful in its architecture and its layout.  The people were friendly.  The Moroccan children were curious about us and followed us through the casbah, trying their English out on us as they tried to sell poor Bobby, who still had a bad cold, little packets of tissues.

Tangier is known for the many beautiful doorways in the casbah. 


This man was just sitting in a doorway, making a mirror with metal that was hammered thin.

This is the communal oven.  Casbah residents bring their prepared meals here, and the attendant bakes their dishes for them.

All tours end up in the gift shop, and this one was no different.  Aziz appeared to have friends in the retail business.  We were expected to buy souvenirs, and we did.  Bobby and Sam bought jelabas, traditional gowns worn by Muslim men. 


I was enchanted by both the tooled leather and the pottery, and I had a hard time choosing something.

Should I get a beautiful hand-painted plate?  How would my Christmas cookies look on one of these? 
Or maybe a beautiful hand-tooled leather purse?

In the end, I chose a simple brown leather purse, because it was easier to carry home.  I kept that picture of the pottery as the background on my cell phone, though, and I look at it all the time, wondering whether I made the right choice.  I would have really loved one of those beautiful plates.

Late in the afternoon, we took the last ferry back to Spain.  We had to run to catch it, and our last half-hour in Morocco was like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie.  We ran through the casbah to get to the main road, where Mohammed was waiting in his van to take us to the loading dock.  All along the way, Tangierian children chased us, waving pocket-packs of Kleenex and chanting the few English words they knew:  "We love America!  Two Euros for tissues!  Buy tissues!  Go Yankees!  We love America!"

Back on the ferry.

Not feeling great, and ready to go home.

You know you're approaching the coast of Spain when you start seeing this guy everywhere again.

Safely back in Spain, with a solid education and some great memories under our belts, we were ready to go home.  Bobby needed antibiotics, as both his ears were clearly infected.  The flight home would be difficult for him.  And me?  I needed prescription-strength vitamins and some solid rest.

Thanks for joining us on our vacation.  Coming up:  what happened when we got home.