25 December 2012

For Christmas, One of My Favorite Prayers

May God give you the grace to never sell yourself short; the courage to risk something big for something good; and the wisdom to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. 

(Prayer attributed to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, 1924-2006)

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

22 December 2012

A Poem For the Days Before Christmas

The sky is gray, flattened, putty, for days on end, and we wonder
whether it will always be thus, or whether
spring will come as it always has,
blindingly brilliant, sweater-shedding, flowers rising from the mud.

But for now, we turn on the car's headlights
in mid-afternoon, swipe away the occasional snowflakes,
try to be kind by holding the shop doors
for those laden with packages and secret surprises.

We are not ready. The wrong chords in our heads,
the wrong song in our hearts,
the lack of money sliding smoothly into skipped meals,
skipped gratuities, panic about skipped gifts.

The doors we hold, the hands we hold, the songs we sing,
the hearts we measure, beat by beat, in the ice-laden air
should count for something, and it is that something that we seek
to define, as the year slowly rolls, once more, to a silent close.

17 December 2012

My Reaction to the Newtown Shootings

Several people have asked me when I am going to write a post in response to the shootings that occurred on Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. My response has been "when I'm ready." But the truth is, I have no idea what to write about it.

I could write about my longstanding opposition to the ownership of assault rifles by civilians, about my disgust with those who insist that their right to bear arms is more important than the lives of little children, or about the movement my husband and I are trying to start to get some intelligent dialogue going about the gun issue. (You may wish to join our community on Facebook, March on Washington for Sensible Gun Laws, to stay in touch until we have a chance to get our permanent website up).

I could write about all those children, administrators, and teachers: the fear and horror they faced that day, the loss of innocent lives for no readily apparent reason, and the community permanently scarred by fear. I could write about the grieving families and their loss, if I could even begin to imagine it. I could write about the nightmares my fifteen-year-old daughter has been having, waking up in the middle of the night screaming, under the impression that someone has cornered her and is trying to kill her. I could tell you about her extreme reluctance to go to school this morning, and the fact that I had to take her out to lunch today because she could not bear to spend her midday free period by herself in the library.

I could even try to cover the broader cultural underpinnings of the disaster. The cowboy mentality of Americans and their guns, the every-man-for-himself society in which we refuse to contribute to other people's health care costs, the bloody and horrific violence that occurs every single day in our large cities and our small towns. People are shot in so-called domestic disputes; in drug deals; in robberies and home invasions; in hospitals, schools, places of worship, in theaters, on street corners. The victims are old, with years of memories stored away, or young, just beginning to experience all the world has to offer.

I could tell you about how my husband got up in church on Sunday morning at announcement time and hollered, at the top of his lungs, about his anger at the situation. About the young mother in the pew in front of me who dashed out in tears. (I found her a moment later in the ladies' room, gave her a hug, and talked with her for a minute before she wiped her eyes and returned to the service with me. I'd sat behind her for years, but I hadn't known until yesterday that she was a teacher.)

I could write about how we have decided to unplug that infernal X-Box thing in our living room, around which teenaged boys have been gathering for weeks without a meaningful break to do other things. Or how about last night at Stew Leonard's, a giant food and garden store in Yonkers, New York, where we'd gone to buy our Christmas tree? A group of rowdy teenagers burst into the store laughing and yelling and singing loudly - just being rowdy teenagers - and we all ducked for cover, terrified at even the slightest noise or disturbance in a public place.

I could write about the anger that has boiled over onto Facebook. The neighbor who scolded me and Sam for setting up the March on Washington page before the customary mourning period in his religious sect had passed. People who suffer from non-violent mental illnesses who took offense at my suggestion that the shooter must have been mentally ill. People who suggested that if we just let God back into our schools, this would not have happened. (Did they not hear about the shooting at the Amish school, or at the Sikh temple? Do they believe in a deity who metes out punishment for having secular schools by murdering our children? Good heavens) I could write about the arguments I've had about the nature of Asperger's syndrome, or why a mother with a troubled child would make automatic weapons available to him in their home.

But I can't really write about any of this. I wouldn't know where to begin. The problem seems so complex and overwhelming to me that I am paralyzed by it. Two thousand people will die in the next year in the United States in gun-related violence unless we act quickly and decisively to change things.

They say that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. (I apologize for the bizarre metaphor, but it's the only appropriate one I can think of at the moment.) What we can do now, in the short term, is tighten up the gun laws. I have always believed, and I still believe, that no American civilian has a need for an assault rifle in his or her home. Those are weapons designed for law enforcement and warfare; they are designed to kill large numbers of people in a small period of time. Let's get them out of the hands of regular citizens. We can do this; Senators Feinstein and Gillibrand are already working hard to get something passed early in Congress's 2013 term. Please support them.

In the mid-range term, we need to do something about the troubled, suicidal loners, mostly men, who commit mass shootings. Whatever their demons - and I admit I know very little about this subject matter - we need to get them help, and fast - before they kill another room full of first graders (or college students, or worshippers, or moviegoers). We need universal healthcare that includes mental health screening and treatment. The small amount you contribute to someone else's care could save countless lives. Stop being selfish, America, and start being forward-looking. Like you used to be.

And in the long term, we need to change the way we view violence as a society. We glorify it. We worship characters like Rambo. We adore movies where some guy dressed in black shoots a room full of people to get revenge for some past wrong. We must stop promoting a violent image of masculinity to our sons. The men we want to raise are thoughtful, intellectual, physically strong, helpful to the weak, and respectful of the rules that hold our society together. We can no longer afford to raise outlaws and problem-makers. We need to raise problem-solvers, cooperators, agents of social change for the better.

I'll probably write more about this as my thoughts settle. But for now, this will have to do.

As we end our Hanukkah celebrations or move toward the beginning of our Christmas celebrations, as we press forward into 2013, our hearts full of grief, may we turn sorrow into action. It is the least we can do in memory of those lost.

13 December 2012

Reentering the Workforce in the 21st Century

I often have the radio on while I am working around the house, and the station I listen to most often is NPR (National Public Radio). This morning, I folded a few loads of laundry while I listened to the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR. One of Lehrer's guests today was the writer Judith Shulevitz from the New Republic, discussing her article "How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society." Shulevitz spoke generally about the current trend among parents to start their families later in life than the prior generation did, and what she calls the "scary consequences of the grayest generation." She took calls from listeners who both applauded and took issue with her concerns. It was actually a very interesting program, and I paused over the laundry to listen closely.

There was a time when women were advised to have their children at as young an age as possible, to lessen the possibility of age-related birth defects (which, for a long time, were considered the "responsibility" or "fault" of a mother who waited too long to conceive). My mother, a product of that  time, still thinks that anyone who has children over the age of thirty is an "older" parent. Much of that advice has been left in the rearview mirror, what with the advent of sophisticated prenatal testing and the knowledge that men's age too plays a role in the health of a baby.

But the women who were advised to complete their families in their twenties were part of a generation in which they were not expected, and did not need, to work outside of the home. The education of women and attitudes toward us in the workplace have changed. Most working- and middle-class American women are now expected to enter the workforce and to have a career other than - or in addition to - motherhood.

Shulevitz spoke a little bit about the effect on children, and on society generally, of women who become mothers after they have established careers. She spoke about older grandparents, and difficulty with conception into one's forties, and the now-familiar juggling act women are expected to perform when they have small children at home but nevertheless work full-time in an office, alongside male and childless counterparts.

But the thing she mentioned that really caught my attention was that most women who leave the workforce after a period of being home with their children find it difficult - or impossible - to reenter the workforce after their children are grown. She suggested that employers should provide, as a basic benefit of employment, the opportunity for stay-at-home parents to reenter the workforce at the level at which they left.

This idea struck me as revolutionary (and, to be honest, extremely unlikely). The working world, like it or not, penalizes women for leaving to care for their kids.

I practiced law for ten years before stopping to be a stay-at-home mother to my three. The job I left was a wonderful one in a big firm in Manhattan, and my bosses - the partners at the firm - were kind and accommodating of my needs. But my children had issues that required them to have a parent at home, and, frankly, I wanted to be that parent.

I was home full-time for seven years, and I would have stayed home longer if finances had allowed. But the difficulty of living on one income became overwhelming. I had to go back.

I called my old firm and was told that the job I left had been filled by a man. I sent resumés to dozens of places, only to be told that the seven-year gap in my working history was a major problem. I asked friends and professional associates for help, but I came up empty-handed. I eventually settled on a less-than-entry-level position at another big firm, at a fraction of the pay I had earned before leaving. I worked at that job for two years, while hunting for something better.

I was eventually offered a job that seemed promising: an in-house position at a German-owned company that would allow me to use my language skills and my legal training. The pay wasn't good, but the work as it was described to me seemed challenging, and the benefits would be a great help to my family of five. Unfortunately, when I started there, I discovered that, despite my title of "Attorney," I was actually a secretary to the general counsel. My job responsibilities included taking dictation (which I was terrible at, having had no experience or training), typing and filing, and serving coffee at meetings.

My protests - that I was every bit as educated (and more) than the male boss whose office I dusted and whose plants I watered - fell on deaf ears. I stayed for a year. When I explained to the CEO, on my last day, why I was leaving, he said, "We did bring you in with the promise of being a lawyer again, but we thought that, as a woman with young children, you'd actually prefer the less demanding secretarial work."

I'm home again now, working part-time doing writing projects for my husband's busy criminal law practice. The work is sporadic, and the pay is nonexistent. Our financial issues persist, and now we have college tuition in the short-term future. I don't know what the answer is. As a lawyer, I am virtually unemployable because of a choice I made in 2001 - one that seemed correct at the time.

Ms. Shulevitz's idea of employers offering parents the option to return to the work force after a period of staying at home is a tantalizing one. Imagine if I could have had my old job - or a similar one - back after my hiatus! The seven years I spent at home were hardly wasted time. I served on the board of the local library, approving budgets and drafting resolutions; I led a Girl Scout troop where the lessons and activities were heavy on civics and fund-raising; and I raised three bright, happy, well-adjusted children into their teens, while my husband was able to focus on building his business and his professional reputation.

Surely someone who's done things like that would be a desirable employee and should be welcomed back?

Society talks a lot about the value of women in the workforce, and about jumping through all kinds of hoops to keep them from dropping out. At the same time, we are sent the conflicting message that a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and a mother. Can we raise our own children while still earning a living? Can we take the breaks we need from our professional lives without dooming ourselves to underemployment or lifelong financial struggles? If delaying parenthood to a more financially secure period in our lives is a trend with numerous negative consequences (as Ms. Shulevitz seems to think it is), what are our alternatives?

27 November 2012

So Now, the Baking Begins

Thank you to everyone who participated in yesterday's online bake sale to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. You are generous souls, and you will be rewarded with some yummy treats. The powers that be at A Half Baked Life will be in touch about payment details, and then I will be in touch with those who bought my items to coordinate preferences and timing. If you did not succeed in winning an item, consider making a small donation anyway to the United Way's fund (you can do this using the button on the bake sale's main page). It's a very good cause.

When I was in college, I joined a sorority that had a very nice house with a well-equipped kitchen. Money was tight, and that kitchen was a godsend, as it allowed me to economize a little on food. My repertoire at the time included such sophisticated dishes as ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese from a box, and the occasional pan of Duncan Hines brownies.

 I remember that one of my sorority sisters baked an apple pie one day. Looking back, it was just a simple, plain apple pie, nothing flashy or exceptional about it, but I was mightily impressed. I had never made a pie in my life, and that crust - wow. I asked her, wide-eyed, "How did you DO that?"

Now, this particular young woman was a sweet, kind person, patient and virtuous. But she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot she had ever met. "It's a pie," she said. "You know. You roll out the dough and bake it."

I mumbled something like, "Oh. I'm not much of a baker," and I left it at that.

I think it's fair to say, at this point in my life, that I've become a fairly experienced baker. It's an activity that I enjoy when I'm in the mood for it. My three teenagers and my gourmand husband are the most appreciative recipients of baked goods ever to walk this planet. Sometimes, when I talk to people who do not bake but wish they could, or who are very new to the activity, they ask for advice. Here are the things I would tell a beginning baker.

1.  The first thing my mother ever sewed was an 18th-century-style dress for the Bicentennial celebration in our town in 1976. She locked herself in her room for a week and did not come out until she had a perfect gown, hoopskirt and all. This is how I learned to curse.  My point? Baking is not too different from sewing. Start with a good, simple recipe, something you and the people you love enjoy eating. Don't let the first thing you bake be a seven-tiered wedding cake the night before the nuptials.

2. Read the recipe carefully before you begin. Some recipes mention a special piece of equipment or an unusual step at the very end. If you haven't read the whole recipe, you might find yourself up to your elbows in batter before you realize you don't have the right size pan or the right kind of sugar.

3. Don't confuse baking powder with baking soda, or salted butter with unsalted butter, or vanilla extract with mint extract. Read the ingredient list carefully.

4. Give yourself plenty of time. Figure out how long it will take, and allow yourself the time needed. Rushing will compromise your results.

5. Measure carefully. This is a common mistake that beginners make. "One cup of flour" means a level cup, not a heaping mound. Don't try to eyeball things, at least not in the beginning. If you are dedicating an afternoon to making cookies, give yourself a chance for success and don't mess it up by being careless.

6. Follow the directions to the letter, at least the first few times. Most published and family recipes have been tested many, many times. If it tells you to sift the flour, sift the flour. And there's probably a reason why they want you to beat the eggs before adding them. Just do it.

7. Don't get hung up on fancy equipment. Martha Stewart pretty much taught me to make pies and tarts, so I hate to badmouth her, but some of her cookbooks can leave you with the impression that you won't be able to produce a tasty pumpkin pie unless you own an industrial-size KitchenAid mixer and a collection of vintage tin pie plates in every possible circumference. Those are wonderful things to have. But consider buying a 9" ceramic pie plate and a Hamilton Beach handheld mixer at the supermarket. I promise, they will work just fine.

8. Also, speaking of equipment, here's a great rule to follow: if a piece of equipment is designed for just one type of food, you almost certainly don't need it. When's the last time you dug out the fondue pot, the crepe pan, the panini press, the silly George Forman thing? I own a "slider" pan. It makes teeny tiny little hamburgers. It takes up space in my cabinet, but I never use it. You can make teeny tiny hamburgers in a regular frying pan.

9. Be kind to yourself. Do not make yourself crazy if your results aren't perfect. There are very few mistakes you'll make that will actually render your creation inedible. Like knitting or playing the piano, being a good baker takes practice. If the little stars you cut out for the crust of your pie look like little octopi, so what? I bet they're yummy anyway.

10. Finally, patronize your local bakery. Just about every community in the developed world has at least one bake shop run by someone who knows what he or she is doing. Get to know your local baker. Make friends. Ask questions. Entrust him or her with your more complicated projects (like that wedding cake).

What advice did I leave out? What would you say to someone who is new to an activity that you're good at?

26 November 2012

Baking a Difference - Today's the Day!

I apologize for the short post. I'm working against a deadline at my real job, and I need to focus on that right now. But I did say I'd remind you, so here you go.

HEAD OVER TO A HALF BAKED LIFE TODAY BEFORE MIDNIGHT to bid on the delicious treats that I and several other bloggers are baking to benefit the United Way's Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.

I'll tell you a secret. JHL, who is running the auction, says that bakers have only agreed to ship to US addresses. But if you buy one of my items, I will be happy to ship it to you anywhere at my expense. (Be warned, however, that sometimes international packages, even sent express, take forever, and that may impact the freshness of your purchase. I can't guarantee delivery times or freshness outside of the US.)

I was looking at the items this morning, and several of them had bids - but not mine. My self-esteem is flagging. Please at least check the cookies out. Aren't they pretty?

And if you are watching calories, JHL has provided a "donate only" button.

23 November 2012

Standing in Line

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving here at Still Life. Mom, Dad, my older sister, my brother, their spouses, and eight of my parents' ten grandchildren feasted at my house on a beautiful fresh local turkey, expertly roasted by my husband, sausage and vegetarian stuffing, butternut squash soup, my sister's delicious homemade cranberry sauce, and, one of my favorites, Mama Laura's pickled beets. (Mama Laura passed away last March at 95, but she left my sister her recipe. I missed her yesterday, but I know she was here in spirit.) And there were pies: apple, cranberry cheesecake, and pumpkin - and a maple pumpkin cheesecake (my husband's favorite). My younger sister and her family, celebrating with her in-laws in Connecticut, shared the holiday with us by exchanging pictures on Facebook. My mom's dear friend Sue called in from Seattle to wish us a joyful feast, just as my dad was blessing our meal. We put her on the speaker so she could be with us.

Make no mistake - we are surrounded by love here, and we know it.

After a long day of cooking, about an hour before everyone arrived, Sam took me for a ride on his motorcycle. We rode up along the Palisades cliffs to Tallman State Park, which sits high above the Hudson River just north of the New York/New Jersey border. I sat behind him on the motorcycle, holding on as he drove. The daylight was just starting to fade. The river was gray below us, and the sky was steel blue above us. A few families were picnicking in the park, and we waved as we passed hikers and other motorcyclists. It was beautiful, and just the break I needed from the kitchen. We might have to make that part of our tradition as we go forward.

The kids watched the Thanksgiving Day parade on the television while we cooked. Every few moments, I poked my head in to see a group of dancers, a marching band, or a big balloon pass by. The thought crossed my mind that, when I was a child, the floats in the parade were based mostly on literary and cartoon characters. I remember Snoopy, and the Cat in the Hat, and Raggedy Ann. Now, the floats seem to consist mostly of advertising trademarks: Ronald McDonald, the Kool-Aid guy, and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

My son, thirteen, asked why there was a parade on Thanksgiving that featured Santa. The timing seemed off to him. In our tradition, we don't usually start talking about Santa and gifts and jingly bells until at least the beginning of Advent. (Advent, the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, begins on December 2 this year.) All the Christmassy stuff struck my son as premature.

I had to explain to him that the parade, with its corporate-sponsored floats and its strategic timing, was all about marketing. The retail industry has taken the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas and turned it into a "shopping season." The idea is to stir up a spending frenzy among consumers, to make them believe that they need to rush out and seek bargains and buy as much as they possibly can before the "Christmas rush." The day after Thanksgiving - formerly known as the day after Thanksgiving - is now known as Black Friday. The day the retailers go into the black.

And the retailers' plan works. Macy's in Herald Square was open all night last night. People lined up on the sidewalks hours and hours in advance for the chance to get some fabulous deal on something they were convinced they needed. Something they needed so badly that it was worth going out on Thanksgiving night, credit card in hand, hoping to get a deal. Or several.

The whole idea makes me sad. It turns a holiday that's about appreciation of what we have into a holiday that's about greed. Instead of focusing on Mama Laura's beets and that beautiful turkey, and all those cousins laughing and playing together, we focus on what's on sale, what we can get, what more we think we need.

But we don't need anything more. We have a roof over our heads. Ten bright, healthy children (okay, some of them are adults already) who call me either "Mom" or "Aunt Jennie" and ask what they can do to help. Healthy, happy, indulgent grandparents, hugging the little ones and tossing the salad and saying a blessing of thanksgiving over our abundance. We have each other, and the gray river, and the blue sky, and the warm apple pie, and the happy memories. Those things can't be bought, but they are the only things I'd ever stand in line for.

15 November 2012

Baking a Difference for the Garden State

My friend JHL, over at A Half Baked Life, is hosting an extraordinary fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief. She's coordinating a bake sale auction to raise funds for the United Way Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Here's how it will work:

Visit A Half Baked Life starting on November 26 to see the listings of the baked goods that will be for sale. (You can use the link on my sidebar to get there, and I'll remind you as the day gets closer.) All the goods for sale will be provided by volunteer bakers (like myself). You can bid on whatever tasty treats strike your fancy. If you win, the baker will ship the goods right to your door (or deliver them if you are local). All proceeds will benefit the United Way's relief efforts.

There are still parts of my home state, New Jersey, that are in great distress as a result of this powerful storm. From our big cities to our famous farmlands to our pristine shorelines, we are rebuilding and helping those in need in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster. Please consider supporting the blogging community's efforts to help our neighbors.

Wouldn't you love to have some of my Stained Glass Window cookies on your holiday table, and know that at the same time, you're doing something good for someone else?

07 November 2012

The Legend of Agayentah

My father is a graduate of a small liberal arts men's college called Hobart College, located on Seneca Lake in upstate New York. When I was a little girl, I used to sit on his lap and play with his class ring. It was one of those chunky gold affairs with embossed sides and a shiny purple stone in the middle. I loved the ring, and I turned it over and over, trying it on and spinning it on my finger.

On one side of the ring was the engraved profile of a Native American man in a feathered headdress. Time after time, I asked my dad who the man was, and time after time he replied, "That's Agayentah."  (The name is pronounced Oggie-YEN-tah. I loved the way it sounded, and I repeated it over and over again.)

My dad loved to tell the story. According to Hobart legend, Agayentah, a great Seneca warrior, sought shelter in a thunderstorm under a tree beside Seneca Lake. He was struck and killed by a bolt of lightning, and he and the tree were swept into the lake. From time to time, his ghost appears to Hobart students, paddling on the lake, inspiring them and impressing them with the bravery and greatness of the Seneca Nation. He remains an inspirational symbol to Hobart students to this day.

Many, many years have gone by since my dad last told me the story of Agayentah, and I probably would have forgotten it completely.  But last weekend, my college-applicant daughter and I found ourselves in Geneva, New York, visiting Hobart (or, more precisely, its companion women's college, William Smith). We took a campus tour on Sunday, and when we walked into the lobby of the gymnasium, there he was. A bronze bust of Agayentah. I knew him immediately by the proud curve of his nose, his strong chin, and the feathers trailing the nape of his neck. I had stumbled on an old friend.

My daughter, on the other hand, had stumbled on new friends. She spent the night with a William Smith student while I hunkered down at a hotel by the lake. I took a little jog along the waterfront right before the wind and rain started in earnest. The sky, thickly padded with clouds, warned of an approaching hurricane. I scanned the horizon for Agayentah, but I could not see him. I reasoned that, as a great warrior and seasoned canoeist, Agayentah would know better than to paddle these waters in this kind of weather. He would take shelter. He would stay put until the worst had passed.

I couldn't find a good picture of Agayentah, but here's the wind picking up on the shore of Seneca Lake.

We were to drive home on Monday morning, but by the time breakfast rolled around, it was obvious to me that we were going nowhere. The New York Thruway and Route 17 south through Ithaca would be treacherous if not impassable in this sort of storm. Following Agayentah's advice, which was ringing in my head, we waited it out for a second night. We had dinner in the hotel's little restaurant, where we could look out the rattling windows and see the churning waves and the swirling clouds. We slept soundly, despite the weather, and on Tuesday morning, after the worst of it had passed, we drove home.

As you know by now, the devastation wrought on New York City by Hurricane Sandy was profound. A week later, many of my neighbors still lack power; our local schools were closed for a week, and the shelters in Newark and Paterson (large nearby cities in New Jersey) are packed to capacity. We do not yet know the fate of my parents' house at the beach, as we have not been able to get there to inspect it. I suspect the damage will be marked.

It turns out that my daughter loved Hobart and William Smith and the friendly students there. I loved the gray lake, the wide lawns, and the cold wind. I don't know where my daughter will end up going to college, but we could do much worse than to send her to study under the watchful eye of an old, old friend.

Thanks to the Phantoms and Monsters blog and Delvina Smith, HWS '09, for refreshing my memory about the legend of Agayentah. And thanks of course to my dad for giving me the memory in the first place.

I Had A Terrible Nightmare Last Night

Last night, I had a terrible nightmare.

I dreamed that an extremist right-wing religious party had tried to take over the United States government. The candidate they nominated to run for President opposed public funding for just about everything - education, health care, public broadcasting, disaster relief. The people who ran for Senate hoped to make contraception, abortion, and in vitro fertilization illegal. They spoke about rape being the will of God and opined that a woman who conceived a child during a rape must have consented to the act. They opposed equal pay for women in the workplace. They called well-educated people "elitists."

This political party's adherents tried to rationalize their cruel social views with bogus economics. They claimed that poverty existed because people didn't work hard enough. They told people who were dying for lack of health insurance that they should have purchased insurance before they got sick. (If they hadn't, regardless of the reason, it was not the government's responsibility to help them.) They called wealthy people "job creators" and assured the middle class that cutting taxes for wealthy people would create a vast wave of prosperity on which all of society would rise, simultaneously and gloriously.

They alternately used religion to rationalize their policies and to intimidate the electorate. God created women differently from men, they explained, which was why women had to be dealt with differently under the law. Homosexuals were portrayed as sinners and were therefore not entitled to equal treatment under law. Preachers publicly denounced the faithful who refused to vote for the extremist party's candidate. They threatened to shun dissenters, denying them participation in comforting rituals and threatening them with eternal damnation as a consequence of their views.

And, in my dream, the American people bought it. They succumbed to the bizarre, twisted, cruel views. They voted in droves to shrink the federal government beyond recognition. They stopped arguing sensibly and started calling dissenters idiots, retards, godless fools. As the rest of the civilized world looked on helplessly, the extremist party and its views caught hold in a nation that had once prided itself on its inalienable freedom of expression, its thoughtfulness, its educational dominance. People sank into poverty and died from lack of food and medical care, which became luxuries affordable only to the ruling class.

I woke from my nightmare and rolled over. My bedroom window faces due east, and I can see Jupiter glimmering in the night sky until almost dawn. But my grand celestial view did not help. Unable to fall back asleep, I tiptoed downstairs to my kitchen.

When I switched on the light, my nightmare dissipated immediately. The kitchen was filled with the remains of a joyful party. Long-stemmed champagne flutes, rimmed with lipstick and holding traces of Veuve Cliquot champagne, lined the counter. Dessert plates and forks were stacked in the sink. Candy wrappers, cast about by celebrating children, littered the floor.

The scene reminded me that the threat of takeover by conservative extremists had been a fleeting nightmare. I remembered that life was still good. I could still practice law, even though I'm a woman. I could still discuss my health care with my doctor behind closed doors. I would still be welcome in my church next Sunday, regardless of how I had voted or spoken out in dissent. Maybe I'd lost a few friends who had subscribed to the rhetoric, but life would go on.

And it would be good.

23 October 2012

The World's Most Womanly Laptop

This summer, a funny little internet phenomenon occurred: the Amazon.com listing for the BIC Cristal "For Her" pen, a pen designed for and marketed to women, gave rise to a slew of satiric comments and reviews praising the pen's ability to meet the "unique writing needs" of women. The sparkly pink pens, designed to fit in "a woman's smaller hands," became a symbol of sexist marketing and a source of endless jokes.

The Cristal pen hilarity was followed, this fall, by a similarly silly set of comments and reviews on the Amazon listing for an Avery Durable 3-ring binder. In the wake of Mitt Romney's now famous debate remark about his "binders full of women," the internet wags reviewed the binders with tongue-in-cheek cheekiness, complaining that the binders did not actually come with women, or that purchasers had difficulty folding themselves or their daughters into the binders.

But the ultimate insult to women was yet to come. On October 19, Fujitsu Limited announced the release of its new "Floral Kiss" brand of personal computers, designed by and intended for the exclusive use of women. Among the features touted in Fujitsu's proud press release are three available colors (Elegant White, Feminine Pink, and Luxury Brown); a top casing equipped with a flip latch that will not break long, lacquered fingernails; pearl- and crystal-adorned buttons and keys; and custom-designed applications that will facilitate such womanly pursuits as diary-writing, digital scrapbooking, and horoscope reading.

An alternative model is offered "in collaboration with the jewelry brand Agate, which is known for its drive to constantly offer stylish new products that reflect the latest trends in women's lifestyles and fashion." The Agate model has a cursive-key font, a unique packaging box, and a lovely little tote bag. It is available in Agate jewelry shops.

I write this blog on a little MacBook that my husband gave me for my birthday last year, shortly after my last laptop died a slow, torturous death. For the same occasion, my friend Derek gave me a gift certificate for an adhesive laptop skin, so my little laptop, I admit, has a pretty, swirly design on its cover. All of its other features, however, are woefully unisex. No pink sparkly buttons for me. The damned thing is all silver, except for the keys, which are a plain old boring - and, now that I think of it, sort of masculine - black.

I had no idea that I needed a female computer. I have been using a personal computer on a daily basis since I was about thirteen years old. The first one I ever used was an Apple II, situated in the computer room of my all-girls' high school. It, too, was designed by and for men, with no thought to the length of its ultimate users' fingernails and, as far as I know, no built-in horoscope software. I and my high-school buddies all lived a pretty privileged life back then, or so we thought; we had no idea how disadvantaged we were at the time, having to use a men's computer for our math homework and our college applications.

I've known for a long time that I am fashion-challenged (as mentioned, I sometimes buy jeans at K-Mart and Kohl's, because those stores carry clothes that fit my circumference), but I really didn't understand the extent to which my lifestyle had been compromised by my lack of womanly computing supplies. For years, I have been drafting all my legal work - motions, briefs, petitions for certiorari - as well as blog posts - on a men's computer. Had my friend Patricia (a gifted artist - here's a shameless plug for her beautiful and clever children's book) not brought the new Fujitsu "Floral Kiss" to my attention, I might never have known that I had other, more suitable options. A mother-of-pearl power switch! A cursive font available at the touch of a button! A cool purse in which to carry my fancy she-machine around! How did I ever survive without such a thing?

As you know by now, women's issues are near and dear to my heart. In this very contentious election season, I have lost at least three Facebook friends because of my "stupid, idiotic, elitist, obsessive" (their words) views about women and their proper place in the world. I clearly need further education on the subject of what is and is not appropriate behavior for women in and out of the home.

Having the right computing equipment should be a good start for me.

P.S. Thank you for supporting me in my CROP Walk on Sunday. The day was gorgeous here in northern New Jersey. My daughter and I walked the course together; we raised over $1000 to fight hunger at home and abroad. Hunger is not a women's issue. It is a human issue. I shall leave the link up on the right for another week or so in case anyone is inspired to make a further donation; in the meantime, please accept my sincerest gratitude. My readers are the best.

06 October 2012

Working at the Food Pantry

I got up at seven this morning - a beautiful, bright October Saturday - and saddled up my scooter for a trip to the food pantry. I work at the food pantry a couple of times a year; I sign up to do it on a sign-up sheet that gets passed around at my church. The pantry is housed in the basement of the Methodist church in Hillsdale, New Jersey, which is across the street from my own little Episcopal church.

The scooter ride from my house to Hillsdale is about a half an hour. I try to stay off the main roads, as my scooter tops out at only about 45 miles an hour, and I don't want to get run over by one of the local maniacs in some kind of crazy hurry. There was mist rising off the reservoir, and yellow leaves swirled around me as I rode. I stopped at 7-11 for a cup of coffee on the way.

When I arrived at the Methodist church, the families in need of food were already lined up at the door, half an hour before the pantry opened. They come early because the selection of food and other items is better before it's been picked over. They come mostly on foot, with big metal carts to help them take home their haul, but there were a few teenagers with bicycles and one woman with a battered old car. The pedestrians are mostly women with young children, and the teenagers are always boys.  I parked my scooter by the curb and said "good morning" to them as I walked past them into the church.

The first thing I did on arrival was sort the donations. All of the food and other pantry items are donated, and they come in big shopping bags or boxes. The other volunteers and I have to check them for expiration dates. Food that's expired has to be thrown out. Food that's still good goes onto the shelves, sorted by type. There's also a shelf for hygiene items (toothpaste, soap, feminine items, deodorant  and shampoo) as well as basic household supplies, like laundry detergent and paper towels.

When everything was sorted and we were ready to go, they let the shoppers in. Each family filled out a form, indicating how many people were in their household and the ages of the children, if any. There was no income or identity check. The shoppers ticked off items on a list of things they might need, and the list was handed to a volunteer worker like me. I took it downstairs.

In the basement pantry, I took a shopping cart and filled it according to the needy family's shopping list. I went up and down the aisles of donated food, tossing cans of tuna, boxes of pasta, rolls of toilet paper, and tubes of toothpaste into the cart. One family had a six-month-old baby; I found some stage-2 baby food and zweiback teething crackers and put them into the cart. One family had a 13-year-old girl and asked for "sanitary napkins, please." I found them behind the toothpaste and tossed them into the cart. The family with twin seven-year-olds got a couple of boxes of Girl Scout cookies tossed into their order, along with the necessities.

When I was done with each order, I bagged it and carried it back upstairs, where the families waited. I gave the completed order form to the volunteer coordinator and handed the groceries to the family. The kids who were big enough to carry bags always helped their moms. People with smaller children hung their bags on the handles of their strollers.  The teenaged boy on the bicycle tied his bags to his handlebars while he strapped on his helmet. I watched them go, and then I took another order and went back downstairs.

As I threw boxes of macaroni and cheese into a shopping cart, I thought about how long those boxes would last in my house (approximately ten minutes). I thought about how hard it is to be a thirteen-year-old girl even if you can afford all the sanitary supplies you need.  For the Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret crowd, buying sanitary supplies is embarrassing enough in itself. Imagine having to ask for them, please, at the food pantry. Imagine not having enough money to buy toilet paper, or telling the kids to go easy on the Cheerios because there won't be more until next month.

Regardless of where you live, where you came from and under what circumstances, what your political leanings are, how well-educated you are, or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. All living human beings have basic needs that must be met somehow, and food pantries take care of a little bit of that. There are people who believe that poor people are lazy and don't deserve handouts; in this day and age, that's a popular philosophy. But I know better. That teenaged boy, up at the crack of dawn, riding his bike to the food pantry to get a month's supply of food for his family - he is the antithesis of lazy. You don't have to be lazy to be hungry.

On October 21, I am participating in a fundraising walk to combat hunger in my neighborhood and around the world.  If you have had a full meal recently, if you bought a cup of coffee at a fancy café, if you refused a doggy bag or pushed the excess food away, if you bought the things your family needed at a grocery store and pocketed the crumpled receipt without looking at it - please consider donating to the cause. You can contribute in any amount by clicking the button on the right sidebar (with the picture of me in my purple shirt). As of this writing, I am nowhere near my fundraising goal, but I know you, my dear readers, can help me get closer.

Thank you. Have a wonderful weekend.

04 October 2012

Rooting for the Predator

My son, who is thirteen but wise beyond his years, asked me a question last night that is better than any blog writing prompt I have seen to date. He asked me, "Do you root for Tom or Jerry?"

"That's easy," I said. "Tom."  And then, after a pause, I added, "Also Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester PuddyTat. For the same reasons." My son agreed without further comment. We understand each other, he and I.

Just in case you're too young to know them, Tom and Jerry were the stars of an eponymous Hanna-Barbera television cartoon series, aired on weekends and after school during my childhood. Tom was a housecat, and Jerry was a mouse. Tom spent every single episode chasing Jerry around, trying to catch him and, presumably, eat him. Each episode is full of hilarity and comic violence (and great sound effects) as Jerry narrowly and ingeniously escapes the claws of the vicious predator. On occasion, the two act as allies against a common enemy (usually the family dog), but most of the time it's just a big cat-and-mouse chase. Often, Tom gets an anvil or a baseball bat to the head for his efforts; as with our friend Wile E. Coyote, the constant injuries smart but are gone by the following frame.

When I was a little girl, I always sighed with relief at the end of each episode, glad that Jerry was safe and would live to appear on my television screen the following Saturday morning. I didn't want to see a cute little mouse get dismembered by a mean cat. As I grew older, though, I realized that Tom wasn't really all that mean. He was just a cat, doing what cats do. His owners might even have adopted him with the understanding that it would be his job to eliminate Jerry. He not only failed, episode after episode, at that pursuit, but he got injured and humiliated in the process. Jerry was smarter and quicker on his feet every single time.

Jerry was a bully.

The little mouse could have just run into his mouse-hole to avoid injury, but he couldn't leave it at that. He had to mortify Tom, pound him over the head, drop a burning iron on his tail, lock him in the freezer, or do something else equally mean to drive his point home. There was no stopping at détente.

Of course, the cartoon would not have been entertaining - hilarious even - if it had not involved the violence, but that's beside the point of my son's question. My son's question was a moral puzzle with huge implications. If we cheer for Jerry, we are endorsing the same type of over-the-top violence that regularly sent Wile E. Coyote over cliffs, dislocated Daffy Duck's bill, and left Tweety Bird simpering disingenuously in his cute little cage while that little old lady handed him treats. That sort of sympathy just isn't right. And our conflicting emotions about the safe little prey animal are part and parcel of the cartoon's conceit. It's logic turned on its head, and that's one of the things that make for great comedy.

Also, great moral discussions at the dinner table. Your thoughts?

24 September 2012

Women in the Law - But Not in Serbia

My husband left yesterday for a weeklong business trip to Serbia. (He will not be happy to read this; he worries about my safety and does not like my publicizing his absence.) He will be speaking at the International University in Novi Pazar about the criminal justice system in the United States. He also has scheduled stops in Kosovo and Frankfurt to hobnob with the international legal community. I'm proud and thrilled for him; I helped him pack a little bit, and on the way to the airport yesterday we chatted about what sort of gift he could bring me back from Germany. (I read German and always need practice, so I'm hoping for books and magazines to keep my skills sharp. )

I'm staying home and making sure the kids get to their various obligations during the week.  I was originally supposed to go along on the trip. I was to address the audience in Novi Pazar about the role of women in the American legal profession. I'd started working on a PowerPoint presentation about statistics and attitudes and trends when the New York State judge organizing the Serbia trip called my husband to advise him about conditions for women in that country.

Specifically, the judge said, if I came along on the trip, I would need to keep my head covered at all times. That's okay, I responded. I'm a when-in-Rome type of person and happy to comply with local customs. I envisioned myself in a pretty hijab and matching long dress.

Then, the judge said I would not be able to sit at the same table with the men while we were dining in public. Really? Well, I guess that's okay. But I thought it sounded odd that women weren't allowed to eat alongside men in public. I did some quick internet research on Serbia and could not come up with any evidence that this was true. Novi Pazar is apparently in a conservative area, and modest dress was recommended, but it seemed more like western Europe than some oppressive anti-woman regime. The pictures I found showed female western tourists walking freely in the streets and dining in restaurants with men.

Finally, the judge advised my husband that I would not be able to travel in the same cars with the men. My husband thought this would be a deal-breaker; in the event of an accident or other stroke of bad luck, he did not want to be separated from me. I wasn't worried, though, because I began to see what was going on. I began to suspect that the judge simply didn't want me along. "Does he not want me to come?" I asked.

"He says it would be 'logistically difficult' to bring you."

And so I stayed back. The irony was not lost on me, however. The young Serbian students are not going to learn about the role of women in the U.S. legal profession, because there will be no women included in the delegation visiting and addressing them. Though they will learn a great deal about the American legal system, they are likely to come away with the impression that the system is dominated by middle-aged white men. And it is, of course; my preliminary research more or less confirmed that.

It's hard for a woman, even one knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand, to break into a visible role in the legal profession. Those who already occupy visible roles are not leaving the door open for us and are certainly not going out of their way to make it easier. It would have been wonderful if the judge had said, "There is a woman who is part of our entourage, and she is treated like her male colleagues in the United States. Please extend her the same courtesy here."

Maybe that would have been logistically difficult, but progress usually is.

21 September 2012

Where In The World

Okay, enough ranting and sadness and taking offense. Sorry about that. Wait, no, I'm not sorry I said all that. I'm just moving on, back to my blog challenge. Today I am supposed to write about where in the world I would live, if I could live anywhere at all.

I think my first choice would be a ski chalet in Park City, Utah. Preferably one of those beautiful houses on the slopes at Deer Valley. When we ski there, I always pause outside the big post-and-beam houses and imagine myself waking up in one of them, taking a hot cup of tea out onto the veranda, and, with my dog by my side, watching the skiers go by. I have actually never been in Utah in any season other than winter, so all of my Utah fantasies have to do with snow and ice, big fluffy blankets, warm nights by the fire, and season passes. I understand, however, that it is equally beautiful there in warm weather. I could hike and swim and ride my little scooter all over the place. I am certain that I would be very, very happy there.

That's sort of boring and short for a blog post, but that's it. In case anyone is feeling like buying me a gift, I'd be happy to take one of those $50 million houses in Deer Valley. Everyone would be welcome to visit me anytime. It would be the least I could do.

I'd be interested in hearing from my readers about where they would live and why. Have you ever been somewhere that's tugged you back? Or dreamed of living somewhere you've not yet been?

20 September 2012

Special Needs

We interrupt this daily blog challenge to address a pressing issue.  That pressing issue is the definition of "special needs children." In response to an op-ed piece that appeared in yesterday's New York Times claiming that our public schools focus too heavily on learning-disabled children and not enough on intellectually gifted children, a number of people have told me, on Facebook and in person, that gifted children have "special needs" too and need to be segregated out from the general public school system so that they are not dragged down by the "dumbed-down system" designed to "be all things to all people." Gifted children, they say, need to be educated in special public schools so they are surrounded by other kids who are "just like them" - to save them from the stigma of intelligence.

I have heard this before. I am not going to try to argue that our schools are or should be a level playing field, or that gifted children should not be pitied because they are not sufficiently challenged and segregated from the rest of the kids so that their needs can be met. Nor am I going to argue that intelligence is not stigmatized in our society (because it so obviously is). All I am going to do is to ask you to imagine what it is like to be the mother of a disabled child and be told by the parent of a typical (or even "gifted" child) that your child's presence in public school is dragging her child down.

Imagine suspecting that something is wrong with your young child and being told that you have an overactive imagination or that you're making it up to get attention. Imagine being told that by someone close to you, like a parent or a spouse. Imagine being told that if you were a better disciplinarian or a stronger presence in your child's life, your child would be talking or using the potty by now.

Imagine, if you will, holding a toddler in your lap and being told that this child that you have dreamed of having since you were a little girl is atypical in some way. Imagine hearing the word "autism" and having a neurologist shrug when you ask about the prognosis.

Imagine being told by a school official that your child's disability is your fault because you work outside the home and are not a dedicated enough mother. (Imagine being told that not in 1950, but in 2001.)

Imagine being told by relatives that your child is "incorrigible" or "difficult" and having people suggest that you don't bring him or her to family gatherings. Imagine a relative telling you that she's planning on taking the other children in the family on a trip, but your child will have to stay behind because the others don't like her and don't want her to come along.

Imagine the other class parents grousing about the fact that there's an aide in the classroom and giggling about the fact that the teacher wears a microphone. Imagine pretending not to know why the aide is there and giggling along about the microphone, just so they won't suspect your child has anything to do with it.

Imagine being made fun of for organizing and showing up at board-of-education meetings on a regular basis, just to educate yourself about procedures. Imagine every teacher in the district giving you the stink-eye whenever they see you, even in the supermarket, because they are sure you are going to ask questions or demand something "extra" for your child.

Imagine having to explain to your child the sarcastic remarks of other children and of other parents. Imagine having to explain to your child why the other children don't like him or her.

Imagine no playdates. Imagine asking for them and being told "no." Imagine teaching the Sunday school class, leading the scout troop, and chaperoning the trip, all because if you didn't, your child would not be able to participate. Imagine your child's participation being turned down routinely by music teachers, sports coaches, and anyone else who doesn't understand and is not obligated to put up with him.

Imagine running into the class bullies in the deli at the high-school lunchtime break and hearing them snicker and whisper, "there's so-and-so's mom."

Imagine teachers calling your child "stupid" to her face, in front of the rest of the class, or being told he will "never amount to anything." Imagine being criticized by the school system and gossiped about by the other parents for pulling your child out of that class.

Do you still think your soccer-star chess champion should be classified as having special needs? I would propose (modestly, and aware of the criticism that is going to rain down on me for writing this) that unless you have lain awake all night crying about a disability that will never get better, and wondering what will happen to your child when you are someday gone, that you should not throw the term "special needs" around too lightly.

School is usually the first place where children come to terms with the fact that all children are not alike. Saying that your gifted child deserves to be in a place where the other kids "are just like him" ignores an essential reality and an essential part of his education: all kids are not just like him. We all have a range of abilities and a range of gifts. We drag each other down, but we also pull each other up, on a daily and minute-by-minute basis, by showing each other what we have to offer and by teaching each other about our needs and abilities. We learn to live in a diverse society. That's what education is about.

Sure, your kid is special, and your kid has needs. All kids are special, and all kids have needs. But please, think about the pain you inflict - intentionally or not - by arguing that your child's success will be hampered by being educated alongside less able children. Those less able children have gifts too, and both they and their parents have feelings.

Desert Island

Today, my assignment is to tell you which three items I'd want to have with me if I were trapped on a desert island.

I am going to assume, for purposes of this assignment, that people and animals are not eligible to be brought along. By so assuming, I avoid hurting the feelings of (a) the FOUR other people who live in my household, (b) my mom, and (c) Sparky the Wonder Dog. I should note that Sparky would be the most hurt of all if I didn't bring him along - not because he loves desert islands, but because he loves to go on road trips. He doesn't care about the destination; for Sparky, life is all about the journey. He is majorly offended if I so much as go to the supermarket without him.

Anyway, back to my assignment. The first thing I'd like to have with me is my Kindle. I'd finally be able to finish the Fifty Shades trilogy, and because I'd be alone on a desert island, no one would be around to make fun of me for reading it. And without laundry to do, dinner to cook, carpool to drive, or house to clean, I'd finally be able to reread the classics.  My Kindle also has a Scrabble application on it, which would come in handy since I have yet to beat my husband's cousin at that game. With unlimited, uninterrupted time, I'm pretty sure I could eventually bury him with my brilliance.

Second, I'd like to have a solar charger for my Kindle. I assume my reasons for this are obvious.

And third, I'd like to have my knitting bag. If I had the opportunity before being sent off to the island, I'd stuff it with as much yarn and as many different needles as possible. I currently have three baby blankets that need finishing, and I'm three-quarters of the way through the first of a pair of socks. If the island is warm and I need neither blankets nor socks for myself, I'd just knit a big pile of gifts and hang onto them until I got rescued. With any luck, I'd finally have enough time to knit for everyone in my life who deserves it. (That's a lot of people.)

Here's a short list of things I would not bring.

1. Food. Because I watched a lot of Gilligan's Island as a kid, I know that there's a veritable banquet of fruit and fish available on desert islands. Imagine the weight I'd lose if I were deprived of Cheez-Its for the duration of my stay and forced to eat only healthy yummy stuff.

2. Exercise equipment. Because of the lack of snacks, I wouldn't need it.

3. My phone. I'd have a pretty good excuse not to answer it, so why not take advantage and leave it behind?

Finally, if, by some weird glitch, I were actually allowed to bring FOUR things with me, Sparky would probably win. Sorry, Mom.

19 September 2012

Profound Goals

I did not write in response to yesterday's prompt, and I'll tell you why.  The prompt was to write about "the most profound thing to happen in your life today."  First of all, I generally write early in the morning, because that's the time when I can best concentrate and when I have the fewest distractions. And there is no way I can write about the most profound thing that's happened in my day before my day has even happened yet. By 9:00 yesterday morning, the most profound thing that had happened in my house was the making of a pot of coffee.
Secondly, as the day went on, absolutely nothing profound happened. In my town, schools were closed yesterday and the day before for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. We don't celebrate Rosh Hashanah, so the kids slept late yesterday and spent their day relaxing. Someone had a friend stay overnight; someone finished an English paper; and someone did nothing of any moment that I can remember. The weather was bad; in between cloudbursts, high winds caused branches and power lines to fall all over town.  Our neighbors lost power temporarily. My husband worked a normal day; the kids and I went out for lunch. In the evening, the two younger kids saw "Paranorman." (One of them loved it and the other thought it was "creepy.") Nothing out of the ordinary or particularly profound went on here.
Today's blog prompt is to list five short-term personal goals.  That's easier because it's more mundane and, for me, doesn't require a lot of thought.  Here are my personal goals:
1.  I need to get into better physical shape. You've read about this in this space before and it shouldn't come as a surprise that my sedentary and well-nourished lifestyle have not helped me in this regard.
2.  I am attending my first-ever blogging conference this Saturday. I am looking forward to making some new connections and learning how to use Triberr, an online service that increases readership for blogs. I am also nervous about what to wear, how to get there, and whether everyone else in attendance will think I'm a total Luddite amateur. Some of these concerns are legitimate and some are not.
3.  I have two memoranda of law and a will that need to be completed by the end of next week. They are all in progress, but I worry that they won't get finished by deadline. (Deadline is, of course, a bad word to use in connection with the drafting of a will, but there it is.)
4.  I need to establish some rules about the excessive playing of video games in my household. I'm not a video gamer, so I guess I don't understand how someone can spend an entire day doing nothing else. On the other hand, I'm the mom, and I am entitled for no other reason than that to establish oppressive rules about things I don't understand.
5. I need to write more. It would be a good idea to get out in front of the daily prompt situation, so that I don't have to write hasty two-at-a-time posts like this one. I owe at least one thank-you note that I can think of. And maybe I should get around to at least outlining that brilliant novel that lives in my head.
In the midst of all this, I need to turn 46 without incident and without getting too depressed about my failure to achieve my short- and long-term goals. With any luck, that will happen next week with as little fanfare as possible.
Did anything profound happen to you yesterday? What are your short-term goals for the next couple of weeks?

17 September 2012

Growing Up

[Note to readers: I have been invited to participate in the Autumn Blog Challenge (see the button below on the right), which involves following a writing prompt every day between now and October 31.  I'm not sure time is going to allow me to participate fully, but I'm going to do my best. Today's writing prompt asks me to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up.]

I grew up surrounded by books - my father is a clergyman and my mother is a teacher - and I learned to read at an unusually early age.  (My mother claims that I was reading fluently in preschool, around age 3.)  As soon as I found out that books were written by people, I resolved to be one of those people.

My mother read to me and my sisters (and later to my brother, too) every single night.  We curled up on her bed in the matching nightgowns that my grandmother had sewn for us, and we listened. There were nursery rhymes and fairy tales from my mother's My Book House anthology, and later I remember a story called My Naughty Little Sister. When I got older and started reading on my own, I went to the public library and checked out every single book by Carolyn Haywood and Sydney Taylor. I wrote to my favorite writers and asked them for advice.  Their advice was, of course, "write."

And so write I did. I made up stories and cartoons and poems. In third grade, I wrote a series of stories about sisters I called "The Swiss Triplets."  I named the main characters after my best friends, Jackie, Pam, and Gail.  I submitted my stories to American Girl magazine, but they were always rejected.  In fifth grade, inspired by the television show "Eight is Enough" and Sydney Taylor's books, I worked on composing a tale about a large family. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baglieri, read my installments regularly and encouraged me to continue. "Someday," she wrote in my 1976 yearbook, "I want to go to the library and check out a book by Jennie Arlin."

Mrs. Baglieri hasn't seen her wish come true yet, and I'll tell you why. I have always had to earn my own living, and I never figured out how to do so as a fiction writer. My skill at stringing words together ended me up in law school, and though I hated it from the beginning, being a lawyer provided me with a decent paycheck until I became a mother. And when I finally escaped the full-time practice of law and decided to embrace stay-at-home motherhood, there was simply no time to write.

I don't really have much of an excuse now. I still have to practice law on a part-time basis at home, but there should be at least a little time to write creatively, if I really try.

I started this blog a couple of years ago as a first step toward reclaiming my childhood dream. I have an idea for a novel (actually, I have several), but every time I sit down to work on it something else interferes. There's the paying work that has to get done even though I get no pleasure out of it.  And there's the daunting task of keeping house for three teenagers, an overworked husband, and two dogs. In my spare time - I admit it - I usually practice my guitar or read. I should really be spending that time writing. I'm not getting any younger.

I'll admit that I am intimidated by the process of traditional publication. I hear story after story of the novel that took years and years to find a publisher. I don't have years and years. I find the blog platform easy because I can write something quickly, from the heart, and see it published immediately. But this blog doesn't have a lot of readers, so I don't get a lot of feedback. (Frankly, a large chunk of the feedback I get is from disapproving relatives. That doesn't do much to encourage me.)

So there you have it. I am not yet what I want to be. I worry that I never will be. But I feel like I owe it to myself - and to Mrs. Baglieri - to at least try.

14 September 2012

Zoom Lenses

This morning, the French magazine Closer published a number of photographs of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless at a family-owned vacation spot in the south of France.  The Duchess had apparently been alone with her husband, Prince William, on a brief vacation, staying at a remote chateau owned by one of William's cousins. She had been relaxing on a balcony without her bikini top when paparazzi with long lenses snapped the pictures in question.

This is the second embarrassing photographic incident affecting the British royal family in the last several weeks, and it raises a number of questions about the nature of privacy and the ethics of chasing famous people around with cameras, waiting for them to do something that will be worth selling to a tabloid. The British royal family is now threatening to sue for breach of the Duchess's privacy.

Spokespeople for Closer have defended the photographs as "not shocking" and "like millions of women you see on beaches."  People have also defended the publication of the photographs by saying that the Duchess has no reasonable expectation of privacy.  The argument goes that, having married a prince in line for the British throne, she has more or less consented to the publication of any picture that can be taken of her, with any technology, in any location, in any state of undress. This is a familiar refrain - I heard it a few weeks ago when the Duchess's brother-in-law Harry was photographed cavorting naked in a seedy hotel room in Las Vegas.  It goes like this: he's a prince of England, for heaven's sake - what sort of privacy does he think he's entitled to?

Closer's first response is simply disingenuous.  It is customary for women to sunbathe topless in the south of France and in many other parts of the world where the baring of a woman's breasts is not considered obscene.  I've done it myself, but if Closer had followed me and my husband to the south of France and had taken pictures of me without my bikini top, I doubt it could have sold the pictures to a tabloid for any appreciable amount of money.  Nobody's interested in seeing me topless (well, nobody other than my husband).  I'm like the millions of women you see on the beaches - Kate Middleton is not.

The privacy argument is more difficult, because it brings into play a deeper societal attitude about women's bodies and the distinctions we draw among virtuous women, naughty women, famous women, and normal everyday women. Kate Middleton married a prince. In doing so, she took on a public role as a famous, virtuous woman. She needs to make public appearances and observe the modest standards that society demands of a princess. She is a role model for many, and as such, she needs to behave as virtuously as possible. As a requirement of her job, she must dress well. She must avoid public confrontations with people who annoy her. She must smile and nod and speak only when she has been asked to do so.

But isn't she entitled to a private life? Is there nowhere she can go to be a normal woman, out of reach of cameras just for a few moments? Can't she take off her bikini top at the family home and let her husband help her with the sunscreen? This is the man she's married to, after all. Unlike Harry, she wasn't cavorting with prostitutes in a public hotel. She was at her cousin's home trying to relax for a few minutes with her life's companion.

Harry got off with an apology and a winning grin. Society doesn't expect anything more of a single man.  Catherine, however, is a married woman, and it's never that easy for a woman. She has breasts and someone saw them. The response is mortification (how embarrassing it must be for the world to know that a princess has breasts!) and the old blame-the-victim saw (hey, honey, you married a prince, so you can't complain about fuzzy naked pictures of yourself appearing on a newsstand).

Single men who play strip poker with strangers are just having fun. But women who let anyone see their breasts - including, apparently, their husbands - are naughty. We are expected to be modest, reticent, and, above all, embarrassed about our bodies. And there is a huge public market for that embarrassment. I have no doubt that Closer's naked-Catherine issue will be a big seller today, and that the pictures will be online in no time and shared all around the world.

The fault is not the Duchess's. The fault is in societal attitudes. As long as we consider women's bodies obscene, and as long as we are willing to pay money to see rich and famous women humbled, this sort of behavior will continue. Shame on Closer and shame on all of us for perpetuating this attitude.

07 September 2012

Book Covers

In my little town in New Jersey in the 1970's, it was a back-to-school ritual.  Textbooks were handed out on the first day of school.  We wrote our names and the year on the inside front cover.  Then we brought them home, and after the dinner dishes were done, my sisters and I sat at the dining room table and covered our books for the school year.  Each book had to be covered by the second day of school, to protect it during the coming year.

There were no fancy pre-made book covers or BookSox back then.  No, we covered our books with brown paper bags from the supermarket, and then we decorated them with markers, crayons, stickers, and our imagination.  My father, a gifted artist, often pitched in with the decoration; in my seventh-grade year, he impressed a few of my classmates with his exact freehand duplication of the calligraphy on the cover of Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours.

My daughter brought home a few books this year that needed to be covered.  Instead of buying pre-made covers, she decided to try the paper-bag method, which she found charmingly retro.  The ease of making the covers and the sturdiness of the result impressed her.

Do you remember how to do this?  If not, here's a little tutorial starring my expert and beautiful daughter.  Even if you're finished with textbooks, you might find the method useful for covering your pleasure reading (if, for example, you want to bring Fifty Shades of Grey onto the subway or the bus).  Have fun!

You will need your textbook, a pair of scissors, and a plain brown paper bag.  That's it.  No glue or tape. 

Cut the bag down the side from the top to the bottom.

Then cut off the bottom of the bag and discard it.  Lay the resulting strip of brown paper flat on the table, wrong side up.  That is, the outside of your book cover should be facing the table.  (This is important if, for example, there's a design on the bag that you don't want on your cover, or vice versa.)

Center your book's spine on the paper strip, leaving about two inches at the top and the bottom.  If your book is small, you may need to trim the paper a little bit.

Fold the top and bottom in evenly, so that the paper is exactly even with your book's spine.

Lay the book flat on its front cover, leaving two or three inches of the brown paper sticking out.  (I'll refer to those two or three inches as "the extensions.")  Fold the long side of the paper over to cover the book completely, and trim so that the front and back extensions are about even.

Fold the extensions in and crease them over the book's cover, to make a tight fit.  (This is easiest if the book is still lying flat on its front or back cover.)  The top and bottom edges that you folded over now form a neat pocket on each side, into which you can tuck the book's cover.

Lift up the book and slide the covers into the slots.  You now have a perfectly-fitting custom cover for your book...

... and you can get started on your homework!

Decorate your cover as you see fit.  For example, if you are reading Fifty Shades of Grey, write Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice on the spine and draw Mr. Darcy or Vronsky on the cover.  If it's just a math or science book, make a cool drawing and color it in, as my daughter's friend Gavin did:

Nice job, Gavin.  Have a great senior year!

27 August 2012


I had my (what's supposed to be) annual mammogram today.  I'm really glad that it's only annual, because I will tell you honestly that it's a painful experience.  Everyone always talks about how great and important it is to get a mammogram on a regular basis.  No one ever tells you how much it hurts.  Now, there are a lot of things that hurt and are nevertheless necessary and worthwhile, and I would venture to say that a mammogram is one of them.  But still.

Unless there's something very interesting going on in the news, I almost never watch television at home.  This morning, however, I was in the Breast Center waiting room with a bunch of other women, all wearing the same bathrobe, and the television tuned to ABC's The View, which is a sort of female-hosted, female-oriented talk show dressed up in a news costume.  I'm not going to talk about Rielle Hunter, the guest on today's show, because I have enough to say about her that I think I might want to save it for another post.  Instead, I am going to talk about a commercial that came on in the middle of the show.

This is a show by and for women, and it's on in the middle of a weekday morning, so I am guessing that the target advertising audience is some combination of stay-at-home mothers and retirees.  (The undressed-to-the-waist crowd at the hospital is just incidental.)  Accordingly, most of the ads were for soaps, diapers, snack foods and drinks, and cleaning solutions, and they featured cute but grubby children and pets.

The particular ad that caught my eye was for Betty Crocker's Fruit Snacks.  In it, a young child accompanied his mom to the supermarket, and as young children tend to do, he announced in the middle of the shopping trip that he was hungry.  Mom quickly wheeled him to the fruit snack aisle, where she was able to get him a package of these fabulous little brightly-colored gummy treats.  The announcer praised her for her choice in a rich, avuncular baritone, noting that Fruit Snacks contain fewer than 100 calories per serving, are low in fat and gluten-free, and are made with real fruit.

Just like, well, real fruit.

This woman was in a supermarket with a small child.  She could have theoretically bought him anything in the store to assuage his hunger.  Why did she run for the packaged Fruit Snacks instead of, say, the produce aisle?  Because, after all, an apple, peach or pear is also under 100 calories, is entirely fat- and gluten-free, and (here's the kicker) is made entirely with real fruit.  No carrageenan or partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (unlike the Fruit Snacks).  Also, a piece of real fruit probably costs about half of what a package of Fruit Snacks costs.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a health-food freak by any stretch of the imagination. My kids eat sugary cereals from time to time, and they usually prefer macaroni and cheese from a box over my homemade version.  Fresh fruit sometimes goes begging in my house.  Just yesterday, while I was out, my daughters went to the store and bought bottled spaghetti sauce and canned chicken soup, even though the refrigerator at home was stuffed with my homemade (and healthier) versions.

I'm just interested in whether this commercial works.  Does it make people think that Carageenan Fruit-Flavored Oil Gels are a good snack choice for a toddler when anything else is available?  This kid was not trapped in a car seat on a cross-country drive with limited stops, and his mom was not rummaging through her bare cabinets in a snowstorm, looking for something - anything - to feed her hungry child.  There was no mention of food allergies, and the kid didn't even appear to be throwing a temper tantrum or demanding the Fruit Snacks in lieu of other options.  He was just happy with what he was given, and his mom was smug in the knowledge that she had made the right choice.

Every once in a while, the food marketing machine presses my buttons, and I guess it happened this morning as I was sitting there with all these other women, undergoing a very important basic health screening test.  I guess that intelligent women, watching this ad, are perfectly capable of making their own nutrition decisions for themselves and their families.  I just wish, sometimes, that the marketing machine would treat us more like the intelligent women that we are than like the hungry children we are trying to feed.

25 August 2012

Giant Leap

When I was in Mrs. Cushman's third-grade class at Meadowbrook School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, we learned to write business letters.  We practiced putting the date and the return address in the upper right corner, and then the inside address on the left, above the salutation.  We learned to spell "sincerely" and to distinguish "dear" from "deer."  Most letters were handwritten back in those days, and we practiced our cursive handwriting diligently, to make it neat and legible for the strangers who would receive our letters.

The assignment was to write two business letters: one to a favorite author, and one to another celebrity. I initially chose Lois Lenski as my author, and I was saddened when Mrs. Cushman told me that she had recently passed away. My second choice was Sydney Taylor, author of the "All Of A Kind Family" books.  I'm glad that I chose her, because she responded to my letter, and we began a back-and-forth correspondence - a long-distance friendship - that lasted for the entire school year.  Her kind encouragement made me decide for sure that I wanted to grow up to be a writer.

The celebrity recipient of my second letter was Neil A. Armstrong, astronaut and first man to set foot on the moon.  I chose him because I was captivated by the idea that someone had actually walked on a celestial body other than the earth.  To my great delight, Mr. Armstrong responded to my letter with a handwritten note and a huge manila envelope full of 8x10 glossy photographs from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission: pictures of the moon, of the earth from the moon, and of himself.  One of the photographs was, as I recall, autographed.  In his note, he told me how proud he was of me for learning to write such good letters, and he encouraged me to continue to be curious about all things scientific.  Mrs. Cushman let me read his letter aloud to the class, and the beautiful pictures were handed around for all to see.

Mr. Armstrong made a huge impression on me at an early age.  He was one of the great idols of my childhood, but he wasn't too busy to take a moment to write to a schoolchild and to make her day by enclosing some beautiful photographs with his letter.  I don't have his letter or the pictures anymore; they have gone missing in the nearly forty intervening years between then and now.  I have not lost, however, the memory of his kindness and his caring response.  As a result, I have always thought of him as not just a great scientist and astronaut, but as a great role model and human being.

Mr. Armstrong died today at the age of 82.  I've lost a childhood friend, and the world has lost an icon of an age gone by.  I'll always think of him as I look up at the sky.  My memory of our brief interaction will always be high up in the sky, and deep down in my heart.