Tuesday, December 22, 2009

“Isn’t There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas Is All About?"

[I originally posted this on January 5, 2006. I'm running it again because I like how it shows that the heart of Christmas isn't Jesus. There's a long history to this holiday that has included more gluttony and sex than Christ.]

Recently the History Channel aired Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. Here’s my summary of the program because I found it extremely relevant to the annual discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. The following historical facts are from the History Channel program, but the strong opinionated statements are mine.

Christmas Started Without Jesus

It turns out that early Europeans were observing a winter solstice celebration centuries before Jesus was even born. In Norse country it was called “Yule” and it lasted for as long as the enormous “Yule log” took to burn, which was about twelve days. In preparation for the cold, dark season people would kill almost all their livestock since they couldn’t feed them through the winter. The feasting and general revelry that resulted became the annual Yule celebration.

In Rome the winter solstice marked the period known as “Saturnalia.” During this festival people drank, behaved raucously and generally overturned the normal social order. While this was going on, the upper classes of Rome worshipped Mithras, the sun god, whose feast day was December 25th. Mithras was also believed to have been born in a field and worshipped by shepherds (hmm?).

In fact, the early Christians didn’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth, focusing on his resurrection. But by the fourth century the new Church needed to establish Jesus’ holy birth, so it began to put together the nativity story. It knew it would never manage to outlaw the pagan traditions already in place, so it adopted them and that’s how December 25th became Jesus’ feast day.

It Had More Sex Than Saints

In England during the middle ages, the pious went to church on December 25th for “Christ’s mass,” but most of the population just carried on as it always had on that day. Christmas was a festival of drunken revelry and sexual activity that would look more to us like Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It was a saturnalian free-for-all with little connection to Jesus except in name.

By the 17th century the Puritans had had enough of this and they made attempts to outlaw Christmas in both England and the New World. These devout people saw Christmas as a debauched and depraved tradition that had to be stopped. It didn’t work, but the holiday was greatly downplayed for a long time, as evidenced by the U.S. Congress being in session on all Christmas Days for its first 67 years.

America Needed a Tradition

When the United States were established in 1776, the early Americans wanted to rid themselves of all things English, including Christmas. But over time they also needed new culturally shared holidays and a reinvention of Christmas was on the horizon.

One new aspect of the American Christmas was how it addressed the growing class divide of the industrial U.S. In the early 1800’s the holiday became quite dangerous as working class people turned it into a time of violent payback for the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In response to growing economic imbalances, writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens created works of fiction that instilled a spirit of generosity and demonstrated sharing wealth with the poor. These popular stories gave the upper classes guidance about what their responsibility was to those who had less and established “giving” as a central Christmas theme. Christmas now gave people a chance to correct some of the socioeconomic unfairness of newly industrialized America.

The view of the family was also changing. Traditionally it had been seen as a mechanism for disciplining children and turning them into hard workers. But by the end of the 19th century the family was seen more as a nurturing body that protected childhood innocence. Christmas, with its emphasis on giving gifts, allowed people to lavish attention on children without seeming to spoil them. The holiday became a celebration of children, honoring them with presents and witnessing their expressions of pure joy.

Why Shopping Is Central

The creation of Santa Claus in the mid-1800's did a few things: it reinforced the idea that Christmas distributes wealth, it solidified the focus on children and it removed gift-buying from the marketplace and placed it in the realm of family love and affection. This diminished the obvious commercialism of gift-buying and obligated parents to fulfill their children’s expectations. Thus did shopping become the central activity of the Christmas season.

But Where Was God?

By the late 1800’s Christmas was just about everywhere, except in church. In fact, the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was an Episcopalian minister who initially kept his authorship a secret because he thought the poem was too friviolous; after all, it didn’t mention Jesus once. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was an established part of the Catholic tradition, but for quite a while American Protestant churches pretty much ignored it. For decades they stayed closed on December 25th until their parishioners made clear that they wanted services on that day.

So much for Jesus’ birth being the real reason we have Christmas. December 25th was originally part of a pagan festival that morphed into a holiday of gift-giving that American churches didn’t want anything to do with until almost the 20th century! There was no golden age during which people observed Christmas primarily as a holy day. That idea is as much a myth as Santa Claus. Sorry Charlie Brown, but Snoopy's not off target: Christmas is as much about the big decorated tree as it is about the manger.

Does Christmas Even Need Jesus?

By the 1920’s all of the sex and revelry were gone from Christmas and by the 1950’s it was all about kids and presents. So, where does Jesus fit into this again? Clearly a spiritual focus is appropriate since religious services recall the need to connect with a greater power. In the centuries before Christ, people needed to believe they’d survive the winter and they worshipped the sun as their source of life. Modern Christians worship the son of God, whom they recognize as the source of life.

But for as long as December 25th has been recognized as Jesus’ feast day, there have been lots of other activities going on at the same time. If Christmas were really just about Jesus, the holiday wouldn’t occupy public space as it does. Strictly religious holy days tend to be observed only by those who practice that faith. Our grand scale yuletide traditions -- big decorations, big eating, big shopping -- support the religious significance of the day, but they don’t really engage it.

What’s the True Meaning Again?

The History Channel’s program ends with the observation that only children understand what Christmas is really about: pure joy and celebration, and the magic and mystery of opening gifts. That’s why, even as grown ups, we often experience a moment of delight when we see a Santa truly in his role or glimpse a dazzling light display. Such moments take us back to our childhood and the unadulterated awe and glory that Christmas held for us then. Our American Christmas tradition was tailor-made for children and they are critical to its magic.

SOoo righteous religious people who say the true meaning of Christmas is about Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas includes Jesus, but today it's just as much about children and gift-giving. There has really never been a time during which people treated December 25th as a solemn holy day. In fact, the drunken orgy it used to be caused the Puritans to try to stamp it out altogether. So although Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's just as much about decorations and presents as it is about God, an interesting outcome for a holiday with a rich pagan history of drunkenness, gluttony and sex.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy First Day of Winter!!

December is my favorite month of all. I love Christmas, but also winter is my favorite season and this is the very start of it. We have months of cold and snow and ice ahead of us! I'll state again that I was born and raised in California, but once I experienced my first true winter when I was 22, I knew I'd never be back. I went to gradual school in Ithaca, NY and that's where I found that I don't want to live without snow in winter and humidity in summer. My next move was to Chicago.

For those who hate winter, consider this:

1. Winter slows everything down. You just can't move as fast through slush and wet, whether on foot or driving, so you have take your time.

2. Winter dampens sound. With a layer of snow on the ground footsteps are quieter, and cars, trucks, shopping carts, strollers, all those things don't make as much noise.

3. Winter makes people go inside. You don't get us much congregating on corners and people just standing in front of your building, talking and talking into the night. Because it's just too cold to be out for long, public outdoor space is emptier and more peaceful.

4. Winter seals in the noise. People close their windows and there isn't as much music blaring out of them. Their parties don't happen on the back deck or front porch where everyone can hear. They happen inside where the noise is more contained.

5. Winter wraps everything up. We pile on more clothing, making facial features and body shapes harder to distinguish. This can be a safer way to go for a woman walking alone in the city.

6. It's easier to sleep. Hot summer nights are the hardest to fall asleep during. Winter is colder and darker which is more conducive for a good night's sleep. I have sleeping problems so this is important to me.

7. It's the perfect excuse to do indoor stuff like reading, watching tv, going online, working out at the gym, going shopping. I'm not suggesting that we don't do these things the rest of the year, but in winter we can feel a little less guilt about it. None of that, "It's a beautiful day! How pathetic that I'm organizing files instead of going on a picnic."

So cheer up, all you summer-lovers. Look at all the colors the sky goes when it's completely overcast. Have you ever really looked? It's beautiful. Take your time, surrender to the slower pace, sleep in. It's especially important to enjoy winter in Chicago because we won't be feeling consistent temperatures above 60 degrees (F) until June.

I love it. And Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Being with family

[The following discussion is completely academic and philosophical with no connection to anything real that has ever happened, anywhere.]

Given that the members of a family have the longest history together, know each other the best and have had the most time to build a stock of past transgressions and affronts,

Given that all of the triggers that set you off were installed by your family and they are most aware of just how to effect your behavior,

Given that human nature is to establish one's own comfort even at the risk of others' comfort,

Given that most people are trying for some ideal of a holiday celebration which adds real performance anxiety to the mix,

And given that once we leave our families of origin we lose the daily practice of getting along with them, so that on these major holidays we have to relearn old dynamics and strategies that often feel like putting a wet bathing suit back on (and worse analogies),

How can Thanksgiving and other major holiday gatherings NOT bring out the worst in ourselves?

Maybe more than that, I wonder why people do it. Why do we return, year after year, to our families that bring out the worst in us for celebrations that are mediocre at best? I'm not talking about the few people who have positive family gatherings of warmth and true affection. I'm not talking about gatherings without underlying tension and unspoken (or way too spoken) resentments. I'm sure there are those too, but they are in the minority. I'm talking about the tedious affairs with people who do not like each other. Why do those annual celebrations perpetuate?

I suppose it's a matter of things not being bad enough to cut them off. Someone who returns year after to year to outright hostility and physical violence is more likely to stop going than someone who returns to mild hostility and psychological violence. Also, if your family has taught you that emotional abuse is love, they can keep you enthralled longer than if you can clearly see that being screamed at over a turkey-laden dinner table is unacceptable.

I guess we return to these destructive rituals because we think this is how it's supposed to be. And lots of people probably think it's easier to struggle through such dinners than to face their family with the true reasons they will not be returning. As few people as there are who actually enjoy being with their extended families for the holidays, with no emotional price to pay for it, there are far fewer of us who have honestly told our families why we will not be back. I imagine that in order to avoid that level of honesty, many people will spend their entire lives returning to the scene of the crime.

But I still don't get it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Work and not-work

My husband, Bob, and I had lunch with a friend recently. I talked about Rotary International and what I do there. I mentioned that it's a rather low-status job, but I like the lighter workload and the people.

"And that's all right with you?" my husband's friend from work asked.

"The workload?" I asked.

"No, I mean that it's not a high-status job?"

"Oh, yeah. That's fine with me. I mean, sometimes I get tired of being a secretary AGAIN, but I totally don't mind having a low-pressure job where I never work overtime and I'm not in charge of anyone else. Yeah, that part's fine with me."

She said, "Really?"

I said, "Yeah, well I don't like for my job to take a lot of my energy and time because I put that energy into what I do outside of work. I have friends, we have dinner parties, I'm part of a creative writing group. Those are the things that are important to me."

Michelle seemed very surprised by this. She said, "I'm the opposite."

"What do you mean?"

"I was raised to go for it! In my family we take our jobs really seriously. I have just a few friends and that's really all I need."

"Oh. I thought you just said making friends was frustrating."

She then denied that the word "frustrating" had referred to her friend situation.

There were a few seconds of silence while I thought about this. Then I said, "Actually, my parents were very active outside of the their regular jobs. I mean, my dad was a government worker so you know he wasn't advancing or making lots of money. He pushed papers around a desk at the Veterans Administrative Hospital for 30 years, but outside of work my parents were very active in the Mexican American community. They worked to make sure Mexicans weren't being discriminated against in the schools or in housing or by the police. They wanted to make sure they were represented in local politics. And they did all of that outside of work. So, I guess I kind of am following in their footsteps in that way: in focusing on what I do outside of work rather than having the job be my main source of accomplishment."

"Yeah, you are," Bob nodded.

Michelle said, "Well, I've never met anyone like you before." But she didn't say it in an admiring way.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

You put THIS in the dryer?

So, in 2007 the spinster and the bachelor moved in together. I was 40, he was 44. I had spent 12 years living alone, he had spent even longer. Because I knew I'd need plenty of space (and patience) as I adapted to life in a couple, we deliberately melded our lives in a spacious two-bedroom apartment with a sunroom.

We divided the chores, which we've gradually adjusted and settled into over time. Bob logs our expenses and pays bills, cleans ours acres of hardwood floors and takes out the garbage. I do the grocery shopping, clean the bathroom and the kitchen and do most of the dishes, although Bob does a surprising amount of dishes. The task we've struggled with has been laundry.

When I do the laundry, Bob comments on the "weird" way I fold clothes, tie or ball socks together and tend to bring all the laundry up unsorted and let it lie around the living room until I feel like putting it away. This can take days. I also have a terrible time getting Bob's shirts right. The process he has established is to throw his shirts in the dryer for exactly 10 minutes, then take them out and let them dry on hangers while the rest of the laundry finishes the cycle. When I forget to take them out after 10 minutes, they dry in a big wrinkled bundle.

We used to both do laundry, depending on who had time to do it, but eventually Bob took over. This made sense, until the problems started for me. As much as I have tried to teach Bob the distinctions of what goes in the dryer and what must not go in the dryer, he does not grasp them. Several times I have wailed over a shrunken blouse that did just fine in the washer, but couldn't take the heat. In response, he started hanging all my shirts to dry. I tried to tell him that workout t-shirts can be dried in the dryer, but I guess to him this information contradicted my earlier wailing. He understands laundry categories such as "shirt" "underwear" and "pants." He does not understand laundry categories such as "can sustain the heat of the dryer without structural changes" and "cannot sustain the heat of the dryer without structural changes." When I noticed my ongoing anxiety about what might happen to any clothes I put in my hamper, I decided we had to make another change.

Two and a half years after we began inhabiting the same living space, Bob and I have come to a new division of labor: I do my laundry and Bob does his. Now I am calm in the knowledge that I will rescue my delicate tops from the heat of the dryer. I decide how long my jeans will tumble. I no longer fear for each item I put in my hamper (yes, separate hampers) and I do a lot less wincing as I put my clothes away.

And Bob now has less laundry to do. We are both very happy with this new system. Maybe some parts of our lives just aren't supposed to be "as one."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

2009 Goals Group

Cranky Pumpkin (I made this for work this past week)

That's my gratuitious cake photo for the month. It was devil's food inside.

Last March I blogged about a goals group I started so I could have help with my 2009 resolutions. It started out great, with nine women meeting monthly to discuss our intentions and accomplishments. Some goals were about fitness or nutrition, some were about personal relationships and as the year went on, an increasing number were about job-hunting. I want to report that the experiment went very well. Although the number of attendees has ebbed and flowed (and ebbed), several of us got some very valuable support and made real progress.

My goals were about nutrition and personal relationships and I surprised myself with how productive I was this year. What I eat every day is very different from a year ago and how I feel about the personal relationships that I targeted is very different as well.

My diet has mainly changed because of this: acupuncture reduced my sugar cravings and another medical treatment (details in the next paragraph) enabled me to make another change. Now fifty percent or more of what I eat each day is now made up of either fruits or vegetables. I now eat a lot more produce and a lot less meat, dairy and grains than before.

My personal relationships have changed because of this: panchakarma. Panchakarma is an ayurvedic treatment and ayurveda is traditional Indian medicine. It's hard to find good information on what this is, but here's one explanation. My treatment was mostly the application of oil, not the purging and fasting. But it affected me very powerfully, emotionally as well as physically and I feel very different now than before. The main difference is that I was carrying a lot of anger and now that anger is mostly gone.

Your personal relationships are affected by things like, if you're carrying around lots of rage at the world and it comes out wherever you go. Yeah. And things improve a LOT when that rage finally goes away. OH, yeah.

After my panchakarma treatment, I feel lighter, happier, in a better mood most of the time and with much less self-hatred. My knee-jerk negative response to things like, oh, children -- is gone again. My digestion is better and I'm able to do that 50%-fruits-and-vegetables thing because the panchakarma left my body less interested in heavy food. I'm losing weight. A five-day panchakarma treatment from an ayurvedic specialist from India cost me $750, but it was worth it. Even my husband agrees and he doesn't toss $750 around lightly, as you can imagine. (Here's another blogger's description of the panchakarma treatment. Tim saw the same doctor that I saw, here in the Chicagoland area this past summer. I'm grateful to Tim for documenting his experience so I don't have to!)

So after almost a year of regular, non-judgmental support from the women in my 2009 goals group, I am in a very different place on both of these issues. Other women also reported making significant progress during the year, especially on diet. Some began other goals groups that are specifically focused on job-hunting. In general, this group yielded great results, supporting the assertion that people more successfully keep new year's resolutions when they have the support of others.

I'm proud.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Rogers Park and how I feel about it

This is for Rudy, who asked a couple of questions about the place where I live.

Rogers Park, which is on the far northside and borders the next town, is one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in Chicago and I moved here in 1995. I love being a 50-minute train ride from downtown. I also like the rents, the friends I've made here, the proximity to the lakefront and the little restaurants nearby. Rogers Park has some great neighborhood bars and cafes and it's definitely home for me.

In terms of safety, I find it a patchy neighborhood. I walk down one block and feel perfectly safe, but then I turn a corner and maybe I'm looking at an empty building where I wonder about the "tenants." It's practically Evanston in proximity, but this is still the city and it feels like it. I regularly get too much attention from men I might pass on the sidewalk just outside of our apartment building. It's annoying. But I also spent ten years in Rogers Park as a spinster living alone without once experiencing any crime at all. I walked among prostitutes and gang members without ever interacting with any of them. I left them alone and they left me alone. I think if you have either a little inner city savvy or complete naivete (for a long time I thought I'd never seen a prostitute), you'll be okay.

I don't know what the real estate prices are. I've never bought anything and have never even looked. All I know is that developers were swarming the place for years, but now those condos stand empty. I moved into my current apartment with my husband in April 2007. The buildings on either side of ours were in the process of being rehabbed. Our early months here were filled with the sounds of carpentry and masonry. Then sometime around Christmas 2007 it all stopped. Those buildings are still empty and in the winter I have to contact our alderman's office to get the owners to clear the sidewalks in front of them. It's annoying. There's also some illegal activity going on in the building that hasn't been boarded and sealed up.

Fortunately, Bob and I don't own this place, so we're not watching our property values fall. We just have a beautiful apartment with great rent, plus a covered parking space. Whenever we move, which won't be for several years I'd guess, we'll just tell our landlord we're leaving and go. He's the one who's stuck with a building with illegal activity going on nearby. (Actually, he's in the process of putting up a gate to try to keep it out.)

And we do have a beautiful apartment. It has amazing woodwork and molding, a lovely enclosed porch, two bedrooms and a very attentive landlord. Aniceto Villegas responds quickly to maintenance requests, chooses his tenants carefully and does some impressive landscaping. It's the first place I've lived with carefully planted and trimmed flowers, bushes and trees out front. It's very nice to come home to.

Bob likes to ride his bike along the lakefront, heading north into Evanston. Northwestern University has an excellent campus for exploring, with chestnut and walnut trees, and it only takes him about 20 minutes to get there. On Saturdays when there's a home game, he can hear the crowds roar and the band play as he cruises by.

I also love being so close to the Howard el station hub and the Gateway Plaza. That's where I go to the gym and do our grocery shopping. It couldn't be more convenient. I hardly ever drive. Being near the Howard station means I can take the red, purple or yellow train lines without having to wait to transfer between them. The same is true of a number of CTA and Pace bus lines. They all originate/end here. It's wonderful.

Rudy, why do you ask?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bob went on vacation

So my husband went on vacation in August, all by himself. I enjoyed very much having the apartment to myself, eating whenever I wanted and falling asleep without the white noise machine blaring to drown out his snoring.

It reminded me of my old spinster days when I lived alone and hop scotched from relationship to relationship, unable to relax into intimacy, unable to trust, unwilling to let anyone know what was really going on inside here. The week alone also helped me realize that I have managed what I didn't used to think was possible: I have initiated a legal marriage with a real, live man while I still have all those problems.

Being married is no badge of competency in human relationships. It just means the rocks in my head fit the holes in his. I'm still having trouble with trust and letting him really know what's going on inside. It's a mess in here and I think he's beginning to figure that out, which makes me even more hesitant to share things with him.

I remember talking to a Match.com "possibility" years ago, who ended the conversation with me because I had never been married or lived with anyone. He believed that if a woman had reached the age of 38 without either of those things happening, that meant she'd never be able to successfully live with a man. I figured the cause-and-effect sequence was that not living with a man during those critical 20's and 30's caused me to be unable to adjust to sharing my life with someone. But now I think it's the other way around: my inability to share my life with someone kept me from marrying or moving in with anyone during my 20's and 30's. The dysfunction was always there. It caused the protracted spinsterhood, it didn't result from it.

So now I'm one of those wives who adores her husband, but who likes having lots of her own space, time with friends, dinners alone and her own room. Are there other wives like that? Women who are truly happy with their partners, but need a lots of room, physically and otherwise? Fortunately, Bob was a bachelor for so long that he has his own rituals and habits and he doesn't mind a marriage with plenty of extra room. Sometimes I think we're still the spinster and the bachelor, only now we're married and living together.

Welcome, Winter!

We didn't get much of a summer in Chicago this year. Temperatures stayed surprisingly cool through most of it and, although we got a few days that were above 85 degrees, I think most Chicagoans agree that this was a non-summer. That was particularly crappy for people who were recently unemployed and experiencing their first summer off in years. They were totally entitled to beautiful weather that could have offered some tiny compensation for not being employed, but no. This summer just sucked for them.

These days fall is in the air, which is making many people unhappy, but not me. I like winter better than summer. Cold weather just makes me feel safer, partly because I prefer my skin covered rather than exposed. Bundling up and hiding in layers of clothing feels like wearing armor against the world. I'm not as vulnerable as I am with arms and legs swinging free.

Also, I'm a low stim person ("low stimulus") who prefers quiet and darkness to noise and light. During summer weather, everything's louder: people crow and bray outdoors, music spews out of open windows, arguments explode in the street at 3 a.m. But nothing shuts the city up like a thick muzzle of snow and temperatures below freezing. Ah, yes, here comes the quiet. I say let winter last for months! Fortunately, in Chicago, it does.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

From the inside

Back when I was single (a little over a year ago legally and three years ago in practice), I used to wonder what it would be like to be married. It seemed unfair that the general answer seemed to be "Every marriage is different." What the heck did that mean? Why couldn't anyone just give a clear answer as to what being married is like?

There's a single/married difference in how much information it is culturally acceptable to share. At least there's a difference in the expectation. We're allowed to ask a single person, "So, how's your love life?" or "So, are you seeing anyone these days?" with the expectation that the single person will spill it, at least some of it. We expect them to tell us if they're currently dating and if so, how serious it is, plus we expect basic information about the person they're dating.

It's obnoxious, but it might be fair if the single person were allowed to ask things like, "So, how are you and your husband getting along these days? Do you feel a real connection with him when you talk about what's important to you? Any fights lately?" But single people aren't allowed to even think of asking such things, unless they're talking to someone like their own sister.

Married people also sometimes ask single people about their sexual activity, either clearly or in a veiled, implied way. Again, this is just rude, unless the single person can also ask, "And you? Are you getting enough?"

At parties, over coffee, in water cooler conversation, everywhere, the lives of the single are much more accessible than the lives of the married. There's a curtain that hangs over the Married Experience and the only ones allowed behind it are the Married.

Screw that.

I remember hearing of a wife's response to the search for a husband. She considered all these women on the manhunt and she said, "All these girls want a husband so bad only because they've never had one." I was single and desperately lonely at the time and I thought, "That's right! I want a husband because I've never had one."

Now I have one. Now I know what she meant.

The only marriage I ever saw when I was growing up was my parents'. Because I thought my parents' marriage was representative of all marriage, it took me an extra twenty years to make it to the altar myself. I was terrified of getting married and by all reason I should still be a spinster right now.

But I've also struggled my whole life with self-esteem and I truly believed that unless a man was married to me, I had proof of my loserdom and failure. I desperately wanted to not be a failure in life and that drove my efforts to find a husband. I saw marriage as my badge of honor. It would stamp me as NORMAL and loveable.

Now it has. Now I don't need it to do that anymore. My husband knows that my low self-esteem was a critical part of my desire for wifehood. I've also told him that if/when this marriage ends in divorce or his death, I will probably not get married again. I liked being single. Living on my own worked great for my personality and values. I've managed to fit myself into this partnership, but there are ways I do not fit the married role. If I one day find myself on the aftermath side of this union, I can imagine resuming my solitary life and taking my time deciding if I want to get hitched again. Maybe I would, but I won't feel driven to it by doubt in my value. That gives me a lot of peace.

In a former post I wrote about the possibility of going on vacation without my husband and how generous I think he is to offer me that option. Since then, the reverse has happened. Bob's job gives him four weeks of vacation a year while mine gives me two. We've made the decision that makes sense: in August, Bob will take a week off to do whatever he wants. He might fish. He will visit family. He stay in a hotel part of the time and with his mother another part. He's looking forward to it.

And so am I. During that week I will re-live my spinster days: I'll nap on the sofa, leave my stuff on the floor by the front door, have the ENTIRE SPACE TO MYSELF, go to bed without waiting for someone else to get ready for bed, sleep with the bedroom door open. I might eat no meat at all and I will never once have him say in a restaurant, "Do you want dessert? Are you sure? Maybe I want dessert" and then have him torture me by ordering a dessert I was really trying to avoid (especially since he doesn't even like sweets!).

I think it's going to be great for both of us.

[I just read this post to him and he says he'll stop with the gratuitous dessert-ordering]

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My 43rd Birthday

Yesterday, July 24th, I turned 43. I am enjoying a middle-aged body, middle-aged loneliness and the desperate full-sprint to get some retirement savings in place when I only had a few thousand in an old 401k until I started socking it away a year ago when I got my current job. Today my retirement total stands at that same few thousand I had a year ago (and the entire planet knows why).

But at least my life has the newness of a one-year marriage and a one-year job, both of which I am still happy with. Bob and I celebrated my birthday with dinner last night at The Stained Glass Bistro in Evanston which had excellent food AND excellent service. That second one is rare, especially in a restaurant as busy as that one was last night. We sat near another birthday table and right next to another couple about our age. After I blew out the candle on my dessert, they wished me a happy birthday and mentioned that they were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary.

"Congratulations!" I said. "You're way ahead of us. We've only been married a year."

"Really?" the woman was surprised.

"Yes," said Bob. "First time for both of us."

"Late bloomers," she responded, warmly.

"Yes, definitely," I agreed.

"Are you having children?" she asked me, while the husband talked to Bob for a minute.

"Oh, no," I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. She accepted this answer with a sympathetic nod. It didn't even occur to me to ask her if she had kids, I guess because once you ask someone that, they think you want to hear about their kids and I usually don't.

I guess people ask stuff like that all the time: they hear that you've recently gotten married for the first time and want to know if babies are on the way. Does it happen as much if they know it's your second marriage? Someone else has to answer that one.

But the way this woman asked about children seemed different from the usual inquiry. I get an attitude sometimes that women think I should have children and are bewildered by my lack of desire for children. Maybe sometimes it's envy or surprise because it never occurred to them to not have kids. But this woman, who has been married for 15 years, just seemed curious about whether a 43-year-old newlywed (because, of course, I also told them my age) is still hoping to raise a family. And she received my answer with complete acceptance. I appreciated that.

My restaurant district partner husband gave them free drink coupons for one of his restaurants as we left, as an anniversary gift. They see it as generosity, he sees it as marketing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Husband is Not My Best Friend

[Yes, I've given my blog a new look, but it's still me.]

When I was young I had a best friend. She was my favorite person in the world. We had lots of fun. Then a new girl entered the picture and my best friend eventually decided to be her best friend and to stop being my friend at all. I started high school as the loneliest person I knew and have spent the rest of my life looking for a new best friend.

I've heard women say their husbands are their best friends. I've always thought that sounded like a great situation, but how could a best friend be a guy? Best friends were the same gender as you, no?

I've been married a little over a year now and I still hear women say their husbands are their best friends, but I still don't understand it. My husband is not my best friend. He's my husband. I married him because he makes me happy, not because he'll listen to me go on and on about my family or politics or clothes or current events or the human condition. In fact, his capacity to sit and pretend to listen to me talk about those things is quite limited. He's a simple guy who just isn't that interested in what's happening to the Republican party or the best thing to put in a pasta salad. I need friends for that, usually women friends. And for the really tough life questions that I need to hash out over and over again, sometimes with tears, I need a best friend.

I like to talk for hours. Bob doesn't. He's not that big a talker or listener. I can get him into a conversation over a meal, but after we've finished eating, he wants to get up and move on. I cherish time with friends who will happily sit over a cup of tea for two or three hours just talking. And talking.

But grown-up lives don't stay the same. Over the years I've made friends with women who functioned very much like a best friend, until life changes caused one of us to move on, lose touch, drop the connection. This recently happened and I'm very much in mourning over it these days. I no longer have a best friend and I feel like the loneliest person in the world. Again.

Has anyone reading this had the experience of losing an extremely important friend because that friend began a serious relationship or got married or had kids or experienced some other huge life event, and that shifted their time commitments? Does this happen a lot to grown ups? Do we just have to get used to it?

I have to have friends. My husband just doesn't fill all my companionship needs. I'm baffled when I hear people say that their life partner is the only person they really need. Can that really be true? They need no other people in their life?

Maybe this makes my marriage 1950's old-fashioned. I remember watching the movie A Coalminer's Daughter when I was 13. Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline are best friends and when Patsy is killed in a train wreck, Loretta wails to her husband, "Now who am I going to talk to?" I watched that and thought, "What a harsh thing to say. How does that make her husband feel, hearing that his wife doesn't feel like she can talk to him?" Thirty years later, I totally understand it. I don't believe any husband will talk to his wife for as long as she needs, every time, no matter what's on tv. For that, we need friends.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Facebook

On June 20 I posted that Facebook fails to draw me because I'd rather talk to friends in person than online. That was a comparison between blogging/emailing and having live friends in the room with me. But it's damn hard to get live people in the same room with me. Grown-ups don't make much time for each other. I'm often left with email as my main way of keeping in touch.

But recently it's even become hard to connect through email because I have friends and family that don't check their email accounts as often as they log in to Facebook. I'm learning that can get their attention better on Facebook than I can with email or voicemail messages.

When the party moves to the other room, you have to move with it. Here goes my Facebook experiment. And we'll see if I successfully linked this blog to my Facebook page.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

So how is married life treating me?

In the spring of 2004, almost exactly five years ago, I had a do-nothing job that gave me hours in front of an online connection every day. I was just emerging from a period of social isolation. I had few friends, longed for a romantic relationship and had a lot of free time. I craved connection with others and longed to be a part of a community.

I started this blog.

With one of those rare jobs that pays ridiculously well for an infinitesimal workload, I primarily maintained this blog at work. You might be able to look at the times that I posted during those early months and confirm this. By the end of 2004 I had left that job and started my three-year restaurant career. During that time I posted a lot late at night, which is perhaps a more typical blogging hour.

I spent a lot of this blog mucking around in loneliness and pining for a man. It's clear to me now that I was most prolific when I was most miserable. But over the past five years I've worked hard to build new friendships, solidify connection and create a real-life community of people who I regularly invite over to eat my food. And I found a man to marry. As a result, my emotional dependence on this blog has diminished so much that I seem to have stopped posting. In fact, it has been so long since I last used this blog as an outlet for my ruminations and emotions that I've sort of forgotten how to do it. Typing this right now feels odd.

I craved intimacy and this blog provided it. I still crave intimacy, but now I get it from my friends and my husband. Maybe this is why Facebook fails to draw me. It might seem like a natural fit for someone like me, with a history of blogging and online community, but it doesn't fit because I'm no longer interested in "spilling it" onto a keyboard. Now I do that in person.

Married life is mostly good. There are things I miss about living alone (like quietness and my great spinster pad that got so much natural light), but I'm happier with this particular person in my life. Getting married was a good move for me because it attached me to someone who is so buoyant that I can never drag him down, no matter how gloomy and emotional I get. Before our first date (we met online, of course), Bob Martin described himself as happy-go-lucky, funny, super-easy to get along with and the guy everyone wants to be friends with/work with. That has all turned out to be true. He has his bad days and sometimes his job gets to him, but life never looks completely black to him. His attitude towards the world and everyone in it is amazing to me and I need to be around it even if (or especially because) I'll never attain it myself.

But no matter how well it's going, I know that few marriages last for decades. Bob and I have the advantage of having started this marriage late in life (in our 40's), so it's possible that it will last until one of dies. With less ground to cover in front of us, we've minimized the length of time we have to navigate this institution that some call "unnatural," an opinion with which I can't disagree. Why does society expect two changing, evolving people to occupy such an extremely intimate dynamic, happily, for an unlimited amount of time? It's ridiculous and since I'm rarely surprised when a marriage fails, I hope I'm not when/if mine does.

However it plays out - we divorce, he dies -- I have some expectation that I'll be single again one day, that my role as a wife is temporary. Maybe this is realistic, or maybe I'm in denial: afraid of long-lasting intimacy and trying to regain my former spinster freedom. It's probably the second explanation. No matter how happy I am with Bob, I still see spinsterhood as providing freedom, safety, room to move. I'm what you could call happily married, but I remember the advantages of being single: taking vacations wherever I wanted to go; eating boxes of cupcakes with no one to see the empty containers; spending my money on anything I wanted without ever having to discuss it; being unemployed without dragging anyone down but myself; setting up the exact living space I want.

I am happily married, but I still see the advantages of being alone. I don't know if all the other married women have forgotten those advantages or if they ever knew them. Maybe the sisterhood of married women lives by unspoken rules, one of which is to never express true longing for singlehood, at least not until you're ready to file for divorce. That's too bad because there must be ways to preserve some of those wonderful spinster freedoms even within a marriage.

Today Bob and I discussed going on a vacation to my favorite place in the world: Breitenbush Hot Springs. I took two vacations there when I was a swinging spinster and swore I'd continue regular visits for the rest of my life. But it all came to a halt when I started vacationing with Bob two years ago. Every once in a while I think about Breitenbush with sadness and longing. It's still my favorite place. I see it in my mind whenever I need to relax.

During our talk it became clear that Bob has no desire at all to go to Breitenbush. A beautiful natural resort where you eat vegan food, take yoga classes, relax in the hot springs and basically do nothing? Not only is there no cell phone reception, they have only one landline for office and emergency use only. Bob wants nothing to do with this place.

But he wants me to go back. He wants me to take some vacation time and either go alone or invite a friend. This is a stunning offer. I can go alone? The spinster can swing again?

So marriage is treating me as well as someone like me can accept and often even better. I'm not complaining. Actually I do complain, quite a bit, all the time, but I at least try to keep the really toxic stuff to myself. You'd have to ask Bob if I succeed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our First Wedding Anniversary!

One year ago today, Bob and I married and my spinsterhood ended. One year down, 49 to go. Good thing we're just in our 40's...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The "R" Word



The Special Olympics has declared March 31st a "national day of awareness." They are out to get rid of the "R-word" and so am I. Why do people think this word is okay? I know people who say things like "It was retarded" when they mean to express distaste or disgust. I've asked people to please stop using this word because it bothers me, but apparently people who use the R-word really have it entrenched in their vocabularies.

The campaign by the Special Olympics is called "Spread the Word to End the Word" and in a statement about it, it says "Most people don't think of this word as hate speech, but that's exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends..This word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur."

They're targeting people ages 18 to 30 with their ad campaign and are asking people to vow not to use the word at www.r-word.org. Across the country 300 schools have committed to hosting rallies on March 31st.

I'm grateful that CNN ran this story on their website and that I saw it. I've emailed it to those friends who I've asked to stop using this word. I'm very glad to have some backup on this one because I've felt very alone in my preference that people not talk this way. I really hope the Special Olympics makes some headway on getting it through people's heads that this language is not acceptable.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Building Community

At the beginning of the year, I became convinced that a new year's resolution support group was just the thing I needed to help me with some health and relationship goals. I sent an email to all my women friends and asked who wanted to meet. Only a few replied and even fewer showed up to brunch at a local restaurant on January 10, 2009. I figured I'd work with whoever was willing.

To my surprise, this group has now met three times and each time at least one more person joins us. We call it "the '09 group" and we are committed to supporting each others' goals for 2009 (I tried to call it the "Less Whine in '09 Group" but it was just too hokey). I just wanted some support on my goals, but to my delight people are really into this. We started with five women; now there are nine. We've moved from restaurants to meeting at someone's home for a potluck brunch one Saturday a month. This is what we do.

After we've gotten our food and chatted and settled in, we go around the circle and each person has the floor for about 15 minutes. She just checks in with where she is on the goal(s) she has chosen to focus on. Some of us have just one goal we want to work on with the group. Some have many. My goals are to stop consuming corn syrup, reduce all sugar consumption and to reach a feeling of peace regarding my relationships with my parents. I have made surprising progress on these goals and it's just March.

The main challenge of the '09 group is having enough time. Sometimes the person checking in just needs us to listen, sometimes she wants perspective and opinion and sometimes she's stuck on a problem and needs real advice. With nine participants, our last meeting lasted over three hours. But I've checked with everyone and nobody minds the time commitment. It seems that in these times, we need all the help we can get. The best survivors know how to use resources, including support from others. With layoffs and job searches and stress levels increasing, I think everyone is drawing on their survival skills these days. The '09 group women are getting an extra way to practice some of those skills.

We didn't all know each other at the start. I founded the group by calling on my friends, but some of them have invited others that I didn't know. Some people are only familiar with one other person in the group. I love this dynamic because it means we also get to practice friendship. That's an excellent goal for 2009: learning how to be friends with other women. As I said in a recent post, being able to make and stay friends with women is a lifelong challenge for some of us and many women have feelings of loneliness and failure when it comes to women friendship.

So I offer this as a nice, focused, low-pressure way to build community, more important than ever in this economy. It also offers an invaluable chance to practice being a facilitator/hostess. You carefully keep things moving, conscious of the time, keeping people focused, but also doing your best to make sure everyone is getting what she needs. Afterwards people thank me, but I feel grateful to them because of what they're doing for each other. I couldn't possibly know what to say about every person's life challenges, but as a group, we have more wisdom than any of us would have alone. And it works.

Use the upcoming spring as your theme. Invite your friends to turn over a new leaf and set new goals for themselves. Tell them how much greater their chances of success are if they have the support of others. Soon they'll be helping each other with problems they had previously felt overwhelmed by. Everyone can use a support group like that.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

How to Be Friends

I think grown ups, for the most part, suck at friendship and we often have no good role models for it. When I was growing up, no one modeled successful adult friendship for me and I'm only just now (age 42 1/2) learning how to become and stay friends with women. It's the "staying friends" part that's the challenge. Even after I learned how to make friends with women, I used to give up on them at the slightest disagreement and for most of my life I've had no friendships that were older than a few years. I didn't like it, but I didn't know what to do about it. By hammering away at this friendship problem and not giving up, I have finally started to learn the following:

1. Not every friend has to be fascinating, intelligent, hilarious, attractive and have amazing connections. I've learned not to cut people off because they don't have my same sense of humor and my same interests, etc. because often those people have other gifts I haven't noticed yet. Maybe they give amazing legal advice or have in-laws just like mine and can relate or have insight into my job situation. You also never know who's going to turn out to be the friend who stands by you in your worst times. It's often not who you expect.

2. Even if someone pisses me off and is clearly the most selfish person I know, those aren't reasons to decide she's not my friend anymore. It shocked me the first time it happened, but I have actually worked it out with a friend I was in total disagreement with and today we're still friends. Believe it or not, people are often approachable and open to talking it out. If someone really values me as a friend, they'll want a chance to adjust behavior that bothers me or at least listen to my viewpoint. It takes bravery, but after a lifetime of fear, I've finally started giving people a chance to work on a friendship instead of deciding that a bump in the road means it's never going to work.

3. If I stop being friends with everyone who displays poor judgement or co-dependent behavior or bigotry or general assholery, I will have no friends. This doesn't mean putting up with a bunch of jerks who mistreat me, but it does mean allowing people to be human and maybe talking with them about it. Definitely I want to give friends as many chances as I'd want them to give me (OH, yeah..).

4. It's important to have many friends because some WILL fall in love or move away or become serious jerks you have to cut loose or whatever and then you'll need your other friends to fill in the space they left. This is another reason I don't put too many expectations on every single one of my friends: if I can't get love and support from my closest, most bestest friends, I'll take love and support from my not-so-close friends. Love and support are that important.

5. Every woman I've ever talked to about this stuff has had a LOT to say. We women tend to be so afraid to raise the topic of friendship, but we all have the same fears and feelings of failure about it. And many of us have a similar level of loneliness.

I don't mean to sound like I know everything. I've learned all of this the hard way and I still get judgmental and impatient with people and I still fight loneliness all the time. But I think if you can stay in contact with people and not have this reaction when they make a mistake, "Oh, she's THAT kind of person. I can't be her friend anymore," then you can really build a social circle. When you do, stick with it because you never know who you'll meet through these kinds of social circles. Some of us actually are fascinating.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Cake



My life in cake. I took this to work today.

it's over

The Bush administration is over and the Obama administration has finally begun. Finally. It's the biggest day in American history that I have lived through and, probably, that I will ever live through. And I had to work.

Of course, many had it much worse. There are those who were being laid off as President Barack Obama gave his first presidential speech. There were people dying as it happened. Et cetera.

But no matter what else was happening, most of the world was, at least, aware that today the United States swore in this man who stirred hope in many people just when we were about to need it most. Without his campaign of bootstrap enthusiasm and almost irrational optimism, I think we would have met the stock market crash of September 2008 with even more fear and panic than we did. Without his unshakeable smile and bizarre confidence in our ability to rebound, I think the past three months would have been even harder than they have been.

On a different point, one thing that particularly impressed me about his speech was that he said "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers." He included me! I'm an atheist. Has any president ever included atheists and agnostics in their inaugural address? Or any address? He included us as part of the strength of the "patchwork" of our society. Atheists are becoming increasingly organized and even have a lobby in Washington. I take President Obama's inclusion of us as further evidence that our culture is beginning (beginning) to recognize that there are people who don't believe in a god and we're not cursed souls. Beginning to.

President Obama. We can finally stop with all that "president-elect" stuff. President Obama!

And George Walker Bush is gone. He's finally, finally gone. And I still don't forgive those who voted him in for a second term.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Heavy Quietness

Today Chicago got several inches of snow. When I woke up this morning at 7 a.m. there were a good few inches of snow on all the cars outside and it was still snowing. It was still snowing two and a half hours later as I fought my way through unplowed streets to go meet friends for brunch. I was almost knee-deep in it wherever I walked.

It was still snowing (even harder) at noon when I gratefully accepted a ride to the el train station so I could go downtown. The prediction was that it would continue to snow into the afternoon. When it snows that hard, salt trucks and snowblowers can't keep up and the roads and sidewalks become stark white barriers to mobility. The streets that have gotten some salt develop huge puddles at the corners where people have to cross. My boots were barely keeping my socks dry and my right ankle was hurting like an old person with every step.

But I loved it. I was born and raised in California, but I love this weather. At the age of 22 I moved from California to upstate New York, which was where I realized that I loved seasons and never wanted to live in California again. On my 27th birthday I moved to Chicago, partly for the cold, snowy, long winters. I've been here 15 and a half years and I still enjoy the winters. I never expect to move again.

What I love about a day like today is that the snowfall gives everyone the perfect excuse not to do stuff. The news broadcast even advised that if you didn't absolutely have to go somewhere you should stay home. Great! What better reason to blow off running errands and just curl up with a good magazine or your TiVo list. When you're tired of that, there's going online, trying out a new recipe, calling someone just to chat or simply lying still and falling asleep. These are my favorite things to do.

I love snowy winter days like this because things slow down and get so much quieter. You can just give up on the outside world, turn inward and enjoy the silence. I just made one trip before I gave up and spent the day at home. As I sat on the train, which trundled slowly along, I gazed at the beauty of the city under snow siege. The rooftops looked like frosted cakes to me, and there's nothing I like better than frosted cake. In fact, the whole world looks like a dessert to me when the snow is coming down like that. I know it eventually goes gray and slushy, but at first it's beautiful. The few people in the train car sat in silence, as if in reverence to the January display.

When I got home, I lay down on the couch and savored the sound of emptiness. A heavy snowfall like this can even silence Saturday afternoon in the city. Now it's 8:30 p.m. and it's still quiet. One of the things I dislike about warm weather is how it brings everyone outside where we all have to hear each other's business. This is so much better.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cupcakes

One thing I want to do more of in the new year is tell more stories. That is, write more stories, either on my blog or just on my own. They'll be mostly stories about my life, but maybe fiction, too. Anything that has a beginning, middle and end will count.

Since I'm new at telling stories, they'll undoubtedly be boring. Here's the first one.

I like making cupcakes. At my office day job, I've become known as the person who bakes. I bring cupcakes whenever someone on my team has a birthday and I bake cookies, brownies and coffee cakes just for fun. My husband doesn't eat sweets, so I'm excited to finally have eaters for my baked goods.

This past weekend I decided to make the birthday cupcakes with my friend, Ceece, who likes baking from scratch. I usually use a mix and a tub of frosting. Ceece and I opened her Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook from the 1930's and found a recipe for "light, golden yellow cake." We paired it with Ceece's tried and true buttercream frosting, which she uses on her Christmas cookies every year.

We actually produced the lightest yellow cake I've ever managed to make. It was fluffy and delicious with that great home oven taste. Unfortunately, the Christmas cookie frosting was too heavy and sweet. There was no flavor contrast and the frosting overwhelmed the cake. In my opinion, and I am a cake-with-frosting connoisseur, it was sort of like a big blob of vanilla-sugar-too-much.

But they were still edible and the birthday girl was happy with them. However, I think many of my co-workers were suffering from post-holiday fatness since they didn't eat as many of them as usual. I ended up taking the final six pastries to my dry cleaners. I did this because one day a few months ago, I found myself in the similar position of having two cupcakes left over at the end of a workday. I had some dry cleaning to pick up and the elderly gentleman who works there was happy to take those cupcakes off my hands. This time his wife was also there, so they each got two. I ate the last two myself that night (frosting scraped off).

Ceece and I are now on a mission to try to create the perfect cupcake. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

I've been one of those people who looks at new year's resolutions with disdain. Why bother with a pointless cliche that never works? Well, it turns out that new year's resolutions actually do work. According to research I recently heard about on National Public Radio:

1. The success rate of new year's resolvers is 10 times higher than the success rate of adults who desire to change, but don't make a new year's resolution.

2. Of those who make new year's resolutions, 40%-46% will be successful at six months (so yeah, most people fail, but a big percentage succeed).

3. People who make new year's resolutions tend to move from the contemplation stage to the action stage much more than people who don't make resolutions.

4. Having the support of a few friends helps get you to the action stage even faster.

SO!

Do you have a new year's resolution you are serious about? Would you like the support of a few friends? Invite some friends out to brunch. Actually, invite as many people as you can think of because only a percentage of them will actually want to do this. I'm doing it! I sent an email to 21 women and about five or six of us will be meeting.

We'll share our new year's resolutions, see what we have in common, make plans, tawk. Maybe we can set up a support system that will help keep us on track throughout the year. Or if we don't stay on track, we'll have friends to tell us that it's okay and we shouldn't give up. Research also shows that people who are ultimately successful in their resolutions have just as many early slip-ups as those who ultimately fail. We just have to keep each other going.

One friend sent me a link to a great set of tools for goal-setting and accomplishing. Download them here by clicking on the "2009" icon at the bottom of the page. It's at website called Till Creative and I haven't explored it yet, but these downloadable materials look very effective. I'm excited about this.

It's a new year and a new chance to focus on making realistic, measurable changes. Who's ready?