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.


14 November 2011


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.

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


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.