Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Here's the payoff for getting a dog that eats everything he can get his snout on: as activity outside our first floor, Chicago apartment gets weirder this weekend, he's there for me. A 45-pound pitbull mix can be a strangely comforting thing, especially on New Year's Eve.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How was Christmas?

Christmas Eve:

Bob worked. I had dinner in Niles at the Omega Restaurant with friends. When I got home, Bob called and said that in the course of his job (in the restaurant industry) he'd been forced into a physical confrontation. Sadly as a result, Bob was in the emergency room on Christmas Eve from 8:30p to 3:00a. Emergency rooms are busy on Saturday nights and they're also busy on Christmas Eves, but they're busiest on Saturday nights that are Christmas Eves. It was awful. He just sat there for hours while more serious cases went ahead of him. But the x-rays were inconclusive, so it's more pain meds for him.

The other Christmas Eve drama was that Ozzie broke into a plastic Ziploc container of homemade gingerbread cookies and ate all of them. I know Ozzie has gotten very good at pulling things off counters and opening them, so this was my fault. I should have put that box in the fridge before leaving to have dinner (he only does this stuff when we're not home). So it was a good Christmas Eve for him! He was in a good mood when I got home.

Fortunately, there were only about eight cookies in there, not dozens, and they didn't have chocolate in them, which is toxic to dogs. I told him, "I hope you enjoyed your Christmas treat because those were the last cookies you're going to see for a long time."

Christmas Day:

Bob worked. I MC-ed a Christmas luncheon for Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. It went very well and I had a great time. I told jokes and stories, riffed, ad libbed, involved the attendees and later my friend Ceece (who’s development director for LBFE) said they liked me.

It turns out that the jokes that don't amuse me, were the ones they liked. The jokes that I laughed at when I first heard them, they didn't like as much. This taught me that I must have West Coast humor that is quite different from Midwest humor or maybe it's a generational difference. Anyway, Bob's joke about a talking bird went over BIG. They loved it. My joke about drinking and driving bombed. They also liked this one a lot:

Why does Santa like to garden?
Because he likes to ho ho ho.

This one didn't get much of a reaction, although I thought it was very funny:
Before I judge a man, I'll walk a mile in his shoes. That way if he gets mad, he'll be a mile away and have no shoes on.

Lesson #1: do not trust my sense of humor. If I do a gig like that again I'm going to ask MY HUSBAND for jokes. Ceece confirmed that the elders prefer simpler jokes. If I do this again I'll definitely use more Bob jokes.

I was in charge of making announcements, introducing the guitarist/singer, running the raffle and leading the sparkling cider toast. The Christmas toast was challenging since I don’t believe in God or family or hope or anything. In fact, I forgot to write the toast, and came up with this in the minutes before the party began:

"No matter what we've each been through in the past year, no matter what happened or didn't happen, here's to the things for which we are grateful and to the truth that if you think long enough, you can always find something in the past year that got better."

It worked.

Lesson #2: Keep moving. I like serving food or MC-ing but not sitting around. Being on my feet feels great because I spend so much time sitting at my regular job.

On Christmas night, Ceece and I drove out to the suburbs and took Ozzie for a walk in a brightly decorated area. Being a dog, he ignored the beautiful lights and kept his nose to the ground, fascinated by foreign (to him) soil. He peed on many lawns, but did not poop, which I thought was very respectful of him.

I hope everyone had at least as pleasant a Christmas as me and Ozzie, even though I know that's impossible. And yes, Bob is feeling a bit better today than on the day of his adventure.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

How to avoid visiting family for the holidays, without lying

This is merely a public service. I am not talking about the family I just visited last weekend (uh, hi Dad). Family gatherings are often fun and pleasant. This post is just for those few people who have family they'd rather avoid.

1. If you have a job with vacation days, use them all up before the holidays and tell your family you have to work.

2. If you're flying, give up your seat when they ask for volunteers to accommodate stand-by passengers. Ask the stand-by person who's getting your seat to give their best sob story so you can tell your family how their need was greater than yours.

3. Start volunteering with an organization that's active on Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas Day, etc. Make a commitment to help out on the holiday and then tell your family you can't possibly let down the children or the elderly or the botanical plants or whatever.

4. Start a serious, long-term relationship and divide your holiday time with your partner's family. Warning: this only works if their family is not as bad as yours.

5. Leave food out that is easily spoiled (mayonnaise, raw chicken, etc.). Eat it about 12 hours before you're supposed to leave. Call to cancel your visit when you're at the height of the food poisoning symptoms.

6. Tell those family members who you'd rather not see, exactly why you will not be visiting. This won't be an easy conversation, but it will be honest and might help them look at themselves in a new way. At worst, they'll stop talking to you and then you'll be all set for next year.

Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas in Not-Mexico-but-not-really-the-US-either

I just learned that the fence that separates Mexico from the U.S. doesn't actually run along the Mexico-U.S. border. According to a post on The Lookout, a news blog, the Rio Grande forms the natural boundary between the two countries, but because of a treaty with Mexico that prohibits building in the Rio Grande floodplain, the U.S. border fence stands more than a mile north of the official borderline and thousands of Americans live in that isolated strip of land. They live south of the U.S-Mexico border wall, but are still geographically inside the United States. For some of them, the fence divides their property. For all of them, the fence has drastically lowered the value of their homes.

The border wall as it stands now has gaps of several feet placed almost randomly along it. Some landowners use those gaps to get to their property. Now the government is considering sealing those gaps, which will require a solution that will allow property owners to still be able to access their land. This will be the residents' fourth Christmas with the fence. Increíble.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My perfect Christmas

Okay, it's not my perfect Christmas, since I won't spend it with my husband, but it's the next best thing.

Bob's working Christmas Day because his restaurant is open every day of the year. I spent Easter and Thanksgiving volunteering with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, serving dinner to people without other plans. LBFE provides companionship to elderly in Chicago who would otherwise spend holidays and birthdays alone. But LBFE doesn't need as many volunteers for their Christmas dinners, so I didn't know what I was going to do. Bob hates the idea of me being alone on Christmas with nothing to do, although I'm okay with the idea. I've done it before, knocking around Chicago by myself, taking myself out to dinner on Christmas Day. It's very peaceful (have you ever spent Christmas alone with nothing to do?).

Then LBFE called to ask if I could help out after all! At their northside Christmas dinner (there are several dinner locations that day) they said they needed people to help our elderly guests get from the car to their seat at the dinner table and back again at the end. I happily said yes, relieved won't be alone on Christmas, after all.

And then the LBFE staff member mentioned that they need a master of ceremonies for that location. That means standing in front of a big room full of strangers, welcoming everyone to the occasion, introducing the entertainment, running the Christmas raffle and then thanking everyone for coming. Can you guess what I said?

I'm going to be a Christmas MC! It's like a dream come true. I love being the center of attention, being witty and making up what I'm going to say on the spot. And, of course, I love being part of a celebration, especially Christmas. I'll be like the host of a huge party that I don't have to cook for. That's why I said this will be my perfect Christmas. I'm going to totally dress up and look as festive and gorgeous as possible.

Would you do it? Bob would never do it.

Besides that, it'll be me and our dog Ozzie. We'll go for a nice Christmas walk to see the decorated building and homes. I'll probably sing carols to him as we go, but he doesn't get any special treats on that day. This dog has a very delicate stomach and I do not want to spend any part of my holiday at the emergency animal clinic. It's dog food and more dog food for him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Things I've learned about dogs recently

1. During my battle with bronchitis in the weeks after Thanksgiving, I discovered that our pitbull mix, Ozzie, will stay next to me no matter how much I cough, hack and sweat on him. He's my first dog ever and this is his third month with us. I'm amazed by how this animal behaves. He likes being near the humans no matter what, actually in physical contact. Ozzie amazes me with his sociability. I really never knew anything about dogs before and I'll probably spend the rest of Ozzie's life trying to understand, or at least accept, their uniqueness among the animals.

2. We totally saved Ozzie's life. The more I read about shelter dogs, the more it sinks in that Ozzie was in a very bad situation: not only was he living with a hundred other unhappy dogs in less than ideal conditions, but he has the main traits that make dogs UN-adoptable: he's an adult, he's not a purebred, he has pitbull in him and he's black. He was doomed! (Black cats and dogs take the longest to get adopted.) Bob and I totally did our good deed for life by taking him. Ozzie needed a home and Bob needed a dog, so it worked out.

3. There's a long literary tradition of using "black dog" to refer to depression. This is ironic because I suffer from depression and the idea of inviting in its icon into my home is as amusing as it is disturbing.

4. I'm beginning to genuinely like our dog. I had a lot of doubts for the first couple of months, including during my illness when I suspected that he had brought me a bacterial infection (humans can't transmit illnesses to dogs, but they can transmit them to us!). But now that we're all healthy again, I'm finally beginning to relax. Ozzie is still an alien to me, but he's not so bad, plus he makes my husband 100% happier. The little dog, as I often call our 45-pound pitbull mix, is beginning to rub off on me.

5. Purebred dogs are damn expensive and "puppy mills" often create health-compromised puppies who aren't socialized or trained or anything. Pet stores are often stocked with puppy mill dogs. I'm beginning to agree that there's no reason at all to get a dog from a pet store or breeder while there are millions of animals being killed in shelters every year because no one wants them. Shelter dogs need you and they're cheap. Many shelters have puppies and purebreds, at least periodically. Of course, mutts are great because they're unique, often are more even-tempered and don't have the health problems purebreds have. Heck, I'm a mutt as most Americans are.

6. Pitbulls usually live 10 or 12 years, but sometimes they make it to fifteen! Ozzie is between 3 and 4 years old, so I might be in my late 50s by the time he finally kicks off. This isn't good news to someone who's not good with long-term commitment, although I've gotten better since I got married. Okay, here we go...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

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

[I originally posted this on January 5, 2006. I'm running it again, with slight editing. The title refers to Charlie Brown's plaintive cry as he tries to reconcile his "commercial dog" with the party atmosphere of his play rehearsals and the original nativity story.]

Recently I watched the History Channel's Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. Here’s my summary of the program which I found extremely relevant to the annual discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. The following historical facts are from the History Channel program, but the 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.

In fact, the early Christians didn’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth, focusing on his resurrection (which makes a lot more sense to me). 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 appropriated 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. For those who celebrated, 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 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, the American family was supposed to discipline children and turn 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 pour attention on children without seeming to spoil them. The holiday became a celebration of children, honoring them with presents and sharing in their 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. Shopping became an expression of love. This diminished the obvious commercialism of gift-buying and obliged 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 original reason we have Christmas. December 25th was initially 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 most 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.

Pick Your Own True Meaning

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...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. This is why, although Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's just as much about decorations, kids and presents as it is about God, an interesting outcome for a holiday with a rich pagan history of drunkenness, gluttony and sex. I know when I tell someone "Merry Christmas," it has nothing to do with Christianity. I'm just wishing them a really good season of partying.

[This Chicago magician does magic, too, plus he's funny.]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Target Clinic misdiagnosed me

I started feeling achy on the day before Thanksgiving. I felt so crappy (achiness, fever, headache, chest congestion, horrible cough, alternate chills and sweats), that I went to a Target store health clinic on Sunday where a nurse practitioner told me it was the flu so I should stay in bed and drink fluids. When I felt equally crappy on Tuesday, I called my real doctor. On Wednesday night she identified it as bronchitis, with a touch of pneumonia and prescribed me antibiotics and an inhaler because my lungs were working at about half capacity. I was not breathing well and can't move very fast or I can't get enough oxygen. She tested me for flu, but I never had it at all.

I wish I could have started these antibiotics on Sunday. I'd probably be at work right now. I've been keeping my boss updated, although I don't feel proud to say that I accepted a bad diagnosis that prolonged my illness. The inhaler is helping a little and I'm waiting for the antibiotics to take effect. I'm still feverish and sweaty.

Can I sue Target?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why I'm enjoying my nasty flu

1. I keep alternating between chills and sweats, so things stay interesting.
2. I'm cheaply getting through a week without needing any real groceries (just juice and symptom relievers).
3. Caught up on all my TiVo'd programs by the third day of the illness.
4. I'm doing a lot of just laying still and staring at walls, which I don't get to do nearly enough.
5. Great excuse to not do any housework, but instead shuffle through an increasingly disgusting apartment.
6. Allows me to practice my laser focus driving, so I can safely get myself to a clinic or doctor's office through my fever and haziness (husband's out of town).
7. I'm catching up on my reading.
8. I'm catching up on my hydrating.
9. I'm catching up on my coughing.
10. If the fever gets high enough, my brain will shut off, which is the only time it ever does.

If anyone wants to join me in sickness, come on over. This thing started last Wednesday, but half an hour ago my fever was still 102.4.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Singlehood and marriage are getting better for women..and worse

It's the article that everyone has blogged about and discussed, and I know I'm about two months late, but I still want to make some notes. If you want a nuanced reading of Kate Bolick's All the Single Ladies, which came out in the November 2011 Atlantic, please go here somewhere. All I'm presenting here are the passages in this long, but fascinating article, that I highlighted. Words in italics are quotes from Bolick's article:

The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons ("something was missing") I see now is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else.

Of Stephanie Coontz, social historian and author of Marriage: A History from Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:
She'd long known that the Leave It to Beaver-style family model popular in the 1950s and '60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn't understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

Of how married couples functioned before the Beaver years: [t]wo-income families were the norm.

Here are the main ways Bolick sees American straight marriage and heterosexual dynamics fundamentally shifting (the numbers and words not in italics are mine):

1. We keep putting marriage off. (That is, the common age of marriage keeps increasing.)

2. We no longer need husbands to have children, nor do we have to have children if we don't want to.

3.Over the past half-century, women have steadily gained on - and are in some ways surpassing - men in education and employment.

4. have been rapidly declining - in income, in educational attainment, and in future employment prospects - relative to women.

5. If, in all sectors of society women are on the ascent, and if general parity is actually within reach, this means that a marriage regime based on men's overwhelming economic dominance may be passing into extinction.

6. ...American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be "marriageable" men - those who are better educated and earn more than they do.

7. In their 1983 book, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, two psychologists developed what has become known as the Guttentag-Secord theory which holds that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners because they have a greater number of alternative relationships available to them. (Bolick points out that in societies where women are in short supply, relationships are characterized by the valuing of motherhood, homemaking and marriage. In societies where men are in short supply, there are more illegitimate children and higher divorce rates.)

8. ...the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment.

9. Today, with the precipitous economic and social decline of men of all races, it's easy to see why women of any race would feel frustrated by their romantic prospects. (Is it any wonder marriage rates have fallen?)

10. Of her own singledom, Bolick writes, If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional, perhaps I'd be a little...happier. Perhaps I could actually get down to the business of what it means to be a real single woman.

11. Singlism..."matrimania"...Those who don't want [marriage] are seen as threatening.

12. Our cultural fixation on the couple is actually a relatively recent development...Indeed, [Helen] Fisher sees the contemporary trend for marriage between equals as us "moving forward into deep history" - back to the social and sexual relationships of millions of years ago.

13. Some even believe that the pair bond, far from strengthening communities (which is both the prevailing view of social science and a central tenet of social conservatism), weakens them, the idea being that a married couple becomes too consumed with its own tiny nation of two to pay much heed to anyone else...unlike singles, married couples spend less time keeping in touch with and visiting their friends and extended family, and are less likely to provide them with emotional and practical support. (Mmhm.)

14. Coontz points out that two of the hallmarks of contemporary marriage are demands for monogamy on an equal basis, and candor. "Throughout history, there was a fairly high tolerance of [men's] extramarital flings, with women expected to look the other way," she said. "Now we have to ask: Can we be more monogamous? Or understand that flings happen?"

15. ...real change can seldom take hold when economic forces remain static. The extraordinary economic flux we're in is what makes this current moment so distinctive.

16. Bolick quotes Christopher Ryan, co-author of Sex at Dawn: "In every society where women have power - whether humans or primates, the key is female bonding."

And those are what struck me as the passages worth highlighting.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Protester quote is more relevant to some than others

My dad visited the Occupy protesters in Oakland, California on Sunday, before they cleared out. This was my favorite part of his report:

I did pick up one poetic gem yesterday. A large oak tree on the side of the encampment was roped off, with a nice sign that said to keep out in order to take care of the tree. A hand scrawled sign hanging on the fence stated, "An oak tree is just a nut that decided to hold its ground." I like that.

I wrote back to him: On behalf of nuts everywhere, thanks for sharing that quote!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A single woman's Thanksgiving

As a woman who didn't marry until 41 and who doesn't live in a state that contains anyone I'm related to, I have experience spending holidays alone. Sometimes I minded, sometimes I didn't. I became very self-reliant and learned to find things to do whether it was hosting my own party, finding someone to host me or just taking myself out for a lovely meal.

In 2008 I got married, guaranteeing that I'd never spend another holiday alone -- almost. Okay, not even close. My husband has had a 33-year career in the service industry and now works in a restaurant that's open 365 days a year (except for leap years, when it's open 366).

I did three years as a server, so I'm sympathetic to Bob's situation. In fact, I'm going to join him by spending the day feeding people, only I'll do it for free. Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly is a great organization that a friend of mine works for. They provide companionship for Chicagoans over the age of 70 who don't have friends or family in the area. LBFE elders get regular visits and/or social invitations and they are all invited to major holiday celebrations.

Bob began his current job last April and I felt amused to find myself in the old position of spending holidays solo. I volunteered with LBFE on Easter Sunday and it went very well. I enjoyed serving at a big party, felt that good exhaustion of energy well spent and my participation kept me from feeling left out. Bob's very lucky he married a woman who's used to functioning as a single person on holidays, and who does it so well.

I'll do it again this Thanksgiving: spending hours on my feet, surrounded by people I don't know, enjoying a nice meal and feeling glad to be part of a celebration. Plus LBFE really appreciates their volunteers because if it weren't for us, these parties couldn't happen. The Chicago branch of LBFE runs three Thanksgiving celebrations on that day, which rely on hundreds of volunteers. I'll be at the far northside location.

Is anyone else in Chicago free on Thanksgiving
? Want
to serve turkey to people who will really appreciate it? I know most people have solid plans on that day, but maybe you know someone who would be alone. If so, pass on the idea of joining me.

Bob will certainly be working on December 25th, so guess what I'm doing on Christmas Day?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Who still trusts in God?

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, What's God Got to Do with It? Michael Shermer reports that last week the House of Representatives voted to keep "In God We Trust" as the national motto. He writes that Congress originally adopted the phrase in 1956 when many Americans were afraid of godless communism taking over the country, but Mr. Shermer asks what the reason is for keeping it now. He argues that since we're no longer fixated on communism and 90% of Americans solidly believe in either God or a greater spiritual presence, there's no need to keep this phrase stamped into our coins and buildings.

I say there's more reason than ever to keep "In God We Trust" imprinted on the American imagination: because we're terrified.

I was raised Catholic, but weaned myself from it while an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley (it happens). While I no longer think there are gods or spirits, I've remained conflicted about the value of religion itself. Before I settled into atheism, I went from the Catholic church to a gospel choir to a synagogue to a Unity Church and then back to Catholicism. I have believed and I have believed. Having faith got me a community, a place in the believing majority of Americans, a sense of safety in the world, and the feeling that if I followed all the rules, I would be okay.

Following all the rules, no matter which version of god I used, did not guarantee my safety and I eventually dumped it all out the window, but I sometimes envy those who know "He's got the whole world in His hands." Religion isn't just a blanket to clutch in the night; it's a point of contact for human companionship and love. It's a shared history and life view that gains you access to a global community. And, yes, it provides a powerful source of comfort when you lose your job or a family member or just feel overwhelmed by life. Religion is a beautiful thing.

Sure, it's caused countless wars and bloodshed, but humans would do that no matter what. We can't blame religion for our violence. Many conflicts are called religious, when the true problem is land rights or other forms of control. Being human causes violence, not religion.

Michael Shermer has also considered the timeless question of why a benevolent being would allow endless suffering and he mentions it as he argues against the continued use of "In God We Trust." But Mr. Shermer, you won't get anywhere using logic because trusting in God isn't rational and, in these hysterical days, reason often makes less sense than ever.

But if you need one, Mr. Shermer, here's a rational reason for the motto: research shows that people with a spiritual belief system survive life-threatening circumstances better than those who don't believe. Believers have a greater ability to make sense of tragedy and overcome adversity. Now I don't think that I, as an atheist, am at greater risk of dying in the street than my Christian cohorts, but I accept that I'm not as emotionally resilient or content with life as they. The world is scarier to me, but unfortunately, after all my faith-hunting, my brain is too rational and focused on the unresolvable parts of religion to find peace in another spiritual practice.

We feel like the ground has disappeared beneath us, Mr. Shermer. That's why we still need to trust in God. Of course Congress wants to drum this motto into our hearts and minds, now more than at any time since 1956, when it was adopted. If we don't trust in God, what have we got? An unpredictable, unfair world of endless pain and inexplicable circumstances. I as an atheist know that bad things happen to good people because life is godless and random and there are no payoffs for good behavior. But most Americans can't accept that and to swallow it would be the last gulp before they go under. So sure, let's say we trust in God because, at this point, that faith might be the only thing holding many of us together.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Stigma against black dogs - who knew?

I just read this article online: Black Dogs Face a Hard Choice at Shelter. It discusses how shelter dogs that happen to be black (at least in the U.S.) have a really hard time getting adopted because so many people don't want a "BBD" or big black dog. Guesses for this stigma (although this article doesn't go into this) are that black dogs are too ordinary-looking, are believed to be more aggressive or are associated with depression and bad luck. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his "black dog" and the use of that term for a troubled mind goes back centuries.

I can't believe it. Blackness was one of my dog criteria. I wanted a dog that was black so it wouldn't mess up my dark clothing with its light-colored hairs. Ozzie is perfect for that. And he's playful, calm, friendly and rarely even barks.

What a damn shame that prejudice against blackness even applies to animals, but it makes me even more proud that we picked Ozzie. So, if you ever get a dog, please consider a shelter dog who's black.

This also explains why people sometimes see me and Ozzie coming down the sidewalk and say, "Oh, shit!" their eyes widening in fear. And yes, they're looking at the dog, not at me, okay?

Hamsters vs. dogs

Bob stood in the kitchen, getting a drink of water. Ozzie stood in the kitchen, staring at him.

Me: So you don't mind him staring at you right now?
Bob: Nope. You know why?
Me: Why?
Bob: Because he's a dog and that's what dogs do.
Me: You know what doesn't stare at you? Hamsters. Hamsters never follow you all around, staring at you. Even when they're not in their cage, they could care less about what you're doing.
Bob: Hamsters don't love you.
Me: Exactly!

My various experiences of love have not all been good and I remain suspicious and fearful of it. Animals that don't love me are perfectly fine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


This is my latest fixation: Arbonne cosmetics. My skin is so sensitive that it reacts adversely to direct sunlight (another reason I dislike summer), but so far these products are working for me. They absorb nicely and don't cause any redness or itching, as so many lotions and chemical-based products do.

No, I'm not getting anything for promotion. I just wanted an upbeat and cheerful post and this week Arbonne is lifting my spirits. A friend invited me to an Arbonne party on Oct. 16th and I was the perfect guest: I'm a 45-year-old woman who owns almost zero skin products because of my hyper-sensitive skin, but who has been wondering what I can do to age gracefully. By the time the demonstration was over I was placing an order for their Skin Conditioning Oil, some face moisturizers and a couple of cosmetic items. My skin is drier than my sense of humor, so even hand creams feel like nothing to me. I have to go straight to oils, and so far Arbonne's Skin Conditioning Oil is working pretty well for me.

I embrace my middle-age-itude. I'm happy to wear neck scarves and comfortable shoes and to apply four creams and lotions before bedtime. Ah, getting old!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

even less a dog lover

Ozzie, the four-year-old pitbull mix we adopted from a shelter, has now been with us for three and a half weeks. He's fit into our household smoothly with no housetraining, chewing or barking problems. He doesn't get anxious when left alone and is always affectionate and happy to see us. He loves other dogs, children and animals and is remarkably happy. Even the vet was impressed with how he has no aggression, food or anxiety issues. He doesn't even shed hardly any hair and the only difference to our apartment is that the floors need to be swept more often (no scratching or other destruction to our property).

So my ongoing discomfort is purely a personal problem and has nothing to do with what a great dog he is. I'm just NOT a dog person. I don't like being outside and this animal has to be taken out several times a day. I particularly hate being in direct sunlight because it causes me rashes, but when you have to walk a dog during a bright day, there's no avoiding sunlight. Sunscreen makes no difference. I used to just stay indoors on bright days, but now I walk around with a rash. Also, the charm of walking a dog is over for me. I'm bored by it.

When we're home, I'm emotionally uncomfortable with how much he stares at me and follows me around. People keep telling me, "That's just how dogs are," but this gives me no comfort because it hardly matters what Ozzie's motivation is. He reminds me of bad relationships where the other person clung to me every minute and craved my constant attention and made me feel suffocated. These relationships made me feel inadequate. I felt guilty for not fulfilling the other person's needs and constantly anxious that I was handling things badly. I felt like I was constantly letting the other person down.

Can you see how having a dog that's always eager for playtime, walktime, snacktime and cuddling might evoke my lifelong fears of having the life sucked out of me by someone who is too "loving?"

I was talking to someone about religion recently (it fits in, just stay with me). She couldn't understand why I wouldn't want to be a part of something that promises constant attention from a loving God. I told her that it's been found that a person's concept of "God" is hugely influenced by their childhood. Children with nurturing, supportive, unconditionally loving parents tend to believe in a benevolent spiritual presence. Children with abusive, violent or emotionally unpredictable parents tend not to believe in a benevolent spiritual presence, or to at least be suspicious of what that means.

My companion was baffled by this. She said, "God is love." I said, "Yes, but when a child's parents teach him that love is yelling and abandonment and fear, then that child does not grow up believing that love is necessarily good. To such a person, the statement God is love can even sound sinister."

This is my problem when people tell me that I should relax because no matter what I do, Ozzie will love me anyway. I don't want Ozzie to love me anyway. It took a very long time for me to become comfortable with platonic friendship. It took me decades to make peace with the idea that a person could be in love with me just for who I am. It took me quite a while to finally accept the level of generosity and support that my husband gives me. To tell you the truth, I'm still working on the concept that Bob loves me unconditionally. Unconditional love? What??

Yes, love and intimacy have always been very scary to me. I have always needed to take things slowly, but there's no going slow with a dog. In just three and a half weeks, Ozzie acts like he's glommed onto me for life and it's freakin me the hell out. He smells doggy, he licks me too much, he makes me feel guilty every second that I'm not focused on him. I find tug-of-war, squeaky toys and throwing the ball boring and refuse to do it.

Bob is baffled and disappointed by my response. He adores Ozzie and is much happier with him in our lives. Bob knew I wasn't an animal person, but he's surprised that I'm responding this badly. I'm depressed and hitting the carbs hard again. I feel drained from taking care of this animal. I don't enjoy my weekends anymore because I'm on dog duty. In fact, my most relaxed days have become Tuesdays and Wednesdays because those are Bob's days off, when he takes responsibility for the dog.

I know, I'm pathetic. It's ridiculous to be whining about a dog when others are dealing with a death in the family or financial catastrophe or raising children, or all three at once, but it indicates how bad I am at life. I've always known I wasn't cut out for parenthood or family obligations and I have wisely avoided them. Foolishly, I didn't realize that even a nice dog would bring up my emotional baggage, turning me into a basket case, again.

I want to enjoy Ozzie more than I dread him. I want to enjoy my weekends again. I've got to pull out of the depression that dog ownership has sunk me back into. Time to see both therapists this week.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I vote Obama in 2012

I quote my cousin Troy Rodriguez:
So the Libyan people asked for our help to stop a massacre and overthrow a terrorist leader, we did it without a single American service member hurt. Osama bin Laden is dead. Don't Ask Don't Tell is over. The unemployment rate that was 5% in April of 2008 and 8.2% the month after the new administration came in, is only 1% worse. The previous administration's TARP program has largely been repaid. The unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act is no longer being defended by the government. Yeah, the guy from Godfather's pizza is going to be much better.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Leather weather

Today Chicago is finally having the weather I've been waiting for: cold, gray and rainy. I bought a leather jacket in August and have been waiting impatiently for temperatures to drop into the 40s and 50s F. They finally have!

I love October, but only when it's gray. I could have been a member of the Addams Family.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

So, how's the new dog?

Thank you for asking. It's been interesting because I'm no animal lover. My husband and his entire family adore dogs, but I see them as clumsy, overenthusiastic creatures that take a lot of work (the dogs, not the family).

But there's no turning back now. We brought Ozzie home from a shelter and I'm not going to make him go back. Anyway, I don't do things halfway. Either I want nothing to do with dogs or I'm 100% committed to one.

In July, when we started looking at shelters, I began researching. I bought Tamar Gellar's The Loved Dog and 30 Days to a a Well-Mannered Dog. Her books stress positive reinforcement and working with your dog's wolf instincts instead of against them. She explains why brute force and loud dominance will not build a good relationship with your pet and gives step-by-step instructions on how to successfully teach your dog to sit, stop jumping on people, come and do just about anything you want.

In the absence of natural dog affection, what holds my interest in Ozzie is an almost clinical fascination with him and a great appreciation for how much he makes my husband happy. Bob now wakes up smiling and spends time every day playing with Ozzie, telling him what a good boy he is and just cuddling with him. Bob's pleasure in life definitely increases tenfold with a dog and that's why I went against my nature and agreed to get one.

As for my clinical fascination, I like the experiment of trying to train Ozzie like the experts. I'm intrigued by how teachable he is and how his brain seems to work. Now that I've read a bit about the motivations of dogs and their basic nature, I like to watch him greet other dogs, react to children, play watchdog, and react to new situations. I have infinite patience for how much he sniffs and sniffs and sniffs because I'm amazed by what I've learned about how dogs process the world mostly through smell. My attitude only changes when he drags his snout through the most disgusting garbage you can find underneath an el (elevated train) viaduct. I still don't stop him, bu I watch in horror because I know Ozzie's nose will later brush me. I accept this because, apparently, that's the life of a dog owner.

My husband works an upside down restaurant schedule so here's our deal: Bob walks/feeds Ozzie in the morning, I walk/feed Ozzie in the evening, and whichever of us has the day off exercises him during the afternoon. My days off are Saturday and Sunday, Bob's are Tuesday and Wednesday. Three days a week we have a dog walker take Ozzie out in the afternoon.

This means I'm living a very different life. I now come straight home after work, after thinking about Ozzie all day, hoping he's not miserably lonely and ripping apart all the kleenex boxes. As the afternoon wears on, I gauge my energy level because I know he'll need a good walk and a shorter one before my bedtime. Of course, right before my bedtime is when I'd like to be winding down instead of trotting around the neighborhood, my attention riveted to every night sound and every tiny shadow that could be a pile of rotting food, but I'm trying to adjust.

Every day I have my worries and doubts. Can I keep up all the physical exercise and attention this dog needs? Can I adjust to the constant animal smell our apartment now has? Will I ever enjoy a relaxing evening again, knowing I have to take the dog out one last time before I can sleep? With my history of responding poorly to emotional attachment and being needed, will I adjust to how much this dog follows me around? And how do I keep it all up for the next six to ten years?

Then again, I know I lie around too much, especially on weekends, so I'm kind of enjoying the exercise I probably should have been getting all along (an early gym routine is not enough). I maintain a brisk power walk with Ozzie, unless I'm patiently observing him sniff everything in the world, and like to jog with him. I forgot how good running can feel, especially the thrill of speeding through the darkness, across leaf-covered city sidewalks. Ozzie enjoys this and I have to say, I'm right there with him. Exercise is also excellent for my mood, so taking an active dog out two or three times on most days of the week doesn't feel bad and it's bound to help my weight loss.

There's also a very Take-Back-the-Night aspect to walking a pitbull mix. I'm a short, 131-pound (these days) woman who has always been smaller than most others. No one's ever been afraid of me, but seeing Ozzie on a four-foot leash, people back away. I find myself saying "Hi" and smiling ingratiatingly at white, African American and Latino men who are a foot taller than I am so they won't panic at our approach. I marvel at how little I have to fear from anyone who might crawl out of the Chicago shadows because my black 45-pound pitbull mix looks mean (that is, until he cringes from anyone who raises a hand to him, but few strangers discover that).

As you can see, Ozzie is kind of cute. I like his glossy, smooth fur (let's hear it for short-haired dogs!) and puppy-like face. He's four years old, but looks and acts much younger. I like how well he responds to my training and how happy he is when Bob and I come home. My favorite things about him are his Batman ears. They're very expressive, especially in those moments when he actually flattens them in submission. I like brushing my fingers against their softness. Are ears always the softest part of a dog?

Having Ozzie around is sometimes endearing. I close my bedroom door when I'm not home because I don't want him on my bed, but he's figured out how to open the door. Bob says this means he misses me. At first I was annoyed, but now I find it kind of appealing. I continue to close my door when I leave the apartment, but just to give him a task to do, not to keep him out. I carefully make my bed to minimize the amount of dog dirt that gets under the covers (I hate dog dirt in my room).

Bob invites Ozzie to sleep in his bed each night, which I'm completely fine with because I just go in my room and close the door (I sleep best alone). They curl up together and Bob happily lets Ozzie rest his head on Bob's head, neck or shoulder. I could never fall asleep with a dog on my head, but Bob actually sleeps better this way, even though he often finds himself hanging off the bed when he wakes up. I find Bob blissfully waking up with a furry ear in his eye, starting off the day right.

It feels worth it, so far. Our household is a lighter and more cheerful place, plus Ozzie is great at cleaning up kitchen spills. It's my personal dog experiment and it's going well for a 45-year-old woman who never wanted one. I still don't (I felt much more immediate payoff when I got a husband), but I'm optimistic. I'll never be an animal lover, but I believe that pets are good for you, and I expect my affection and enjoyment of Ozzie to eventually outweigh the inconvenience and worry. Eventually.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How to Throw a Party and Still Have Fun

It's party season, so let's get ready! I love having people over, an option that makes increasing sense as we all whittle down our entertainment budgets and try to stay close to home.

Maybe you're thinking, "How does that save costs if I'm providing food and drink for all my boozing friends?" Or maybe you're thinking, "The last time I threw a party, I got stuck in the kitchen" or "I had to run to the liquor store in the middle, while everyone else relaxed." If you avoid hosting parties because you don't want to be the cook or bartender all night, here's how to throw a party while still having a good time.

EASY - The Dinner Party

1. Choose an entree that you can make ahead of time and either leave in the oven or on the stove simmering. Simmering pot dishes are good because they'll be hot no matter what time you serve them or what time latecomers arrive. This frees you from having to stay in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a sautee or a meatloaf, while your guests are arriving and mingling without you.

Anything you can put in a crock pot is perfect. Inexpensive options are thick stews or soups that you can load up with beans and vegetables and only a little meat, if any. Don't forget how filling split pea or a bean soup can be.

2. Serve buffet style. No waitressing for you and it also relieves you of having to wait until everyone arrives before you sit down and serve. In fact, I've never hosted a sit-down, plated meal because my friends arrive at all times and I never know exactly how many will show. People are often shy about being the first one at a buffet table, so go and serve yourself first to get everyone eating.

3. Have an assistant. Ask someone to help you answer the door, greet and take coats. Of course you'll be doing this too, but you'll enjoy your party more if someone else helps. Sometimes you'll already be getting someone a drink when the buzzer goes off again, or you might be deep in conversation, etc.

4. This one might be controversial but I do it: if a guest arrives with a contribution to the meal that requires some preparation, let them do it. When a friend handed me a couple of baskets of fresh strawberries, straight from the supermarket, I handed them right back and said, "Thank you. Do you mind washing them and putting them in a bowl? I'll get you a bowl." Otherwise you can end up stuck in the kitchen washing produce, opening containers and cutting up the extra food people have brought. That's lost party-time.

5. Stick to wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages. Set wine bottles out with cups and bottle openers, tell them the beer's in the fridge and let them have at it. Always encourage guests to bring something to drink because most people will do it and that decreases your chances of running out.

6. Clean-up: sometimes if you start picking things up before people leave, someone will step in and help you. That's the best. But even if no one does, make things easy by using disposable tableware and asking if anyone wants to take anything home. You might say, "Hey, Jackie, do you want to take some brownies?" or "Kenn, you really liked these potatoes. Can I pack them up for you?" Have aluminum foil ready and some plastic containers you don't need. If you play it right, you'll have nothing to put away but some chips and cookies (but keep unopened bottles for your next party). This also gets people moving if you're ready for them to leave, but they aren't budging.

EASIER - The Potluck

These days everyone understands why one person wouldn't want to foot the whole bill to feed a large group. Call it a potluck, follow some steps and people will be happy to pitch in. Fifteen years ago I threw a potluck for which I made a pot of beans, a pot of rice and bought some tortillas. I figured my guests would fill in with extras and was very disappointed and embarrassed when they mostly showed up empty-handed. We had a humble meal and I learned a big lesson.

1. Get potluck commitments from everyone. Invitation websites like Evite and Punchbowl will let you specify what you want guests to bring and lets them sign up for each item. If you don't use a website, when each guest says they're coming just say, "Great. Right now it's wide open so you could bring a side dish, dessert or something to drink." Get them to pick one and say they'll bring it.

2. Provide the main course. This keeps you from waiting on someone to arrive before you can start eating. If the mashed potatoes are an hour late, so be it. You can enjoy the entree and whatever else is there until they arrive.

3. As it gets closer to the date you can say things like, "Pretty much everything's covered, but I could use one more dessert." You know what your friends like. Assign to each person their favorite party food/beverage and they will not mind making sure it's there.

4. Another way to assign items, is to ask people who tend to run late to bring desserts and extra drinks, while asking your more prompt friends to bring appetizers and side dishes. If everyone's unpredictable, provide a core meal (main dish and one side) and add other things as they arrive.

5. Do not feel bad about asking your guests to bring things. You are offering them a chance to enjoy your home, relax with great people and spend a fraction of what they would at a restaurant, bar, theater, etc. Anyone who's not into it can just RSVP no.

6. Serve buffet style, etc. as described above.

EASIEST - The Snack Party

There was a time when I was on the tightest shoestring budget possible, but I refused to let that stop the Regina Party Machine. This is what I did.

1. Find a focus that isn't food. I love card game nights, but it could also be movie night, football night, charades, whatever.

2. Ask people to bring their favorite snack foods. Make sure they know you're not providing a meal (at least I had to because everyone was used to me cooking). Chances are, if everyone's bringing soda or chips or a pizza or cookies, you'll end up with PLENTY. I was also up front and told them I just couldn't afford to provide a main course this time and absolutely no one minded.

3. Put out napkins and sit down and enjoy the evening's activity.

Hosting friends in your home is a generous and gratifying way to socialize. You'll be surprised by how many people will thank you, even if you did nothing but open the door and point to the place they could put their items. Please do not let a little effort stop you from hosting people. Remember how great it was when you were a kid and you had friends come over to play at your house? Do it again!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

National Depression Screening Day

Thursday, October 6th is National Depression Screening Day in the U.S. Millions of Americans suffer from depression and don't even know it. We assume we're in a bad mood because of our crappy jobs or lack thereof, or any of a hundred reasons. We assume everyone would feel the same way given our situation.

I find that I'm depressed when I leave the house every day in a bad mood, when everyone irritates me, when I don't look forward to even my favorite things and when all I have to say to my husband in the morning is complaints and criticisms. For a lot of people, this probably sounds like business as usual. If it goes on for months, it's not.

You can check yourself for depression here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A dog named Ozzie Martin

My friends, I give you our new dog, Ozzie. Ozzie is a four-year-old pitbull terrier mix who lived with a family for three years before he went into Orphans of the Storm animal shelter in Deerfield, Illinois USA. The family had two teenagers, another dog and a cat, so Ozzie is good with children and dogs one-on-one. We'll work on his comfort with more dogs at the same time.

Ozzie is impressively well behaved. Bob and I took him for our first "family" walk last night, then pretended to eat dinner (just had a snack) so he'd learn that we are the alpha dogs. In the wild, the alpha dog eats first and it's important that we establish who's boss. Then we fed him dinner. Later he dozed on his bed while we had our real dinner and he didn't even watch us eat. This dog clearly does not have food issues because the whole place smelled like my homemade meatloaf, but he stayed in the other room so there was no begging at all.

He also hasn't barked hardly at all. He peacefully watches people walk by when he sits in the sunroom with Bob. And speaking of the sunroom, that's an enclosed but unheated porch at the front of our apartment where Bob does all his smoking. Ozzie doesn't mind the smoke! I'm amazed, but he and Bob seem to be the perfect match.

I like the name "Ozzie Martin." It makes him sound like the old man who runs the cigar store and likes to tell stories about his family who's originally from Ireland.

So far the plan is working: Ozzie adores Bob. I knew he would because Bob is a total dog lover. I'm hoping to become more of a dog person as time goes on. I know Ozzie will be sad to see Bob go to work later today, so I'm planning to pour on the affection and fun times. I'm looking forward to jogging with him.

(P.S. "Martin" is our last name. The dog only goes by one name.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

At 45, I'm finally an adult

Because I put on so much weight last spring that I couldn't fit into my professional clothes, I cut out wheat, grains, potatoes, pasta, sweets, processed foods, fruit and all beverages except for water (I'm lactose intolerant, so dairy was already out). Excitingly, I'm beginning to fit into my suits again, but also exciting is that, I'm beginning to like wine!

Few will understand what this means to me. When I was 15, I did not like beer, wine or alcohol, but everyone assured me that I would soon. It didn't happen. In college and graduate school, I gave it my best, sucking on bottles of Rolling Rock and sipping mixed drinks, but my taste buds simply rejected it. Alcohol tasted nasty to me.

In my late 30's I began a three-year career in the restaurant industry where alcohol knowledge was required. I had to endure wine training sessions, sipping and spitting while others swallowed. Unable to distinguish between "buttery" and "oaky" or "jammy" and "fruity," I memorized wine descriptions from books. My opinions on different wines were simply "yucky" and "yuckier."

For decades, I've been the non-drinker. With acquaintances and co-workers, I would turn down a drink, explaining that I don't like alcohol, only to have them make suggestions of kinds I might like. It got tedious to constantly face people who couldn't believe a grown woman could simply not like the taste of alcohol. Worse was when people assumed I was judging them for drinking. I felt bewildered and chagrined that they saw my behavior as moralistic.

A couple of new year's eves saw me resolving that this would be the year I'd start drinking. Marrying Mr. Restaurant-and-Alcohol (my husband has been in the restaurant industry for over 30 years), motivated me greatly, but my resolve never got me past my natural recoil from the sharp burn of fermented liquid. Each time I failed, I felt disappointed in myself.

Now I suspect that my hyper-mega-sweet tooth was a large part of my distaste for alcohol. As a sugar addict, sweets were my main coping mechanism. I used to eat cookies for breakfast, following up with other pastries and candy all day long. Red wine in particular tasted sour and bitter and I couldn't understand how anyone could finish an entire glass without making a face.

Although I've cut out carbohydrates in past attempts to lose weight or deal with a health problem, I think this time is different because this time I'm not white-knuckling it. This time letting go of the sweets and starches has really worked for me. Why? Because, at the age of 45, after decades of trying, I have finally emotionally let go of the carbs. I did this over the past year with intensive work on my food and emotional issues with an amazing EMDR therapist (if you're in the area, you can find her here).

Delightfully, eating only vegetables and protein for the past two months has cleared my palate for flavors that used to be intolerable. A couple of weeks ago I ordered a glass of red wine, not in an attempt to fit in socially, but because the smell of it actually appealed to me. This had never happened before. I spent the rest of the dinner taking tiny sips every once in a while, just enough to get the flavor of the wine in my mouth. I was amazed to actually like it. At the end of two hours, I'd finished only half the glass, but for once I didn't leave the rest because it was gross to me. I simply stopped because the meal was over.

Since then I have been bewildered to twice enjoy a small amount of red wine with dinner. Last Saturday night, I ate a piece of steak and sipped on Shiraz. I used to hate Shiraz.

This is a huge breakthrough for me, a real accomplishment that I don't expect many to understand. I have long associated alcohol with adulthood and felt trapped in perpetual childhood because I just couldn't join the club. I'm so excited to finally be on the inside. I want to stay here, I want to keep liking the taste of wine and I want to keep feeling like a grown up. I want these things so much, I might never add sugars and starches back into my diet. Who needs cake, potatoes or pasta? I've got adulthood!

(photo by my husband, Bob Martin, who is very proud of me)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A fun new way to look at a 1992 thriller

I recently watched a film that I should have seen decades ago: Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, which came out in 1992. It was one of those movies that featured a woman who becomes increasingly unstable and dangerous, in the tradition of Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Misery.

Single White Female is suspenseful, sexy and wonderfully woman-centered for a film from the early 1990's. The movie is sort of a triumph for feminism that stars two women who end up facing off in a duel-to-the-death, similar to those that male characters engage in all the time. There are supporting male actors, but they fill good-guy and bad-guy roles without interfering too much with the main plotline: Ally (Fonda) takes a new roommate named Hedy (Jason Leigh), who tries to move into Ally's most intimate, personal life

It's a great ride and I'm sure I would have appreciated it as such if I'd seen it back in 1992. In fact, I don't know why I didn't. Both lead actresses are my contemporaries and the story of a single woman trying to live safely in the big city became my life within a year of the film's release.

Somehow I missed it, but I'm glad because last week I got to see it through the eyes of someone who has some knowledge of mental illness, from which Hedy certainly suffers. Hedy is described as crazy several times in the course of the movie, either by Ally or others, but it's never with any sympathy for someone suffering from an illness. Each time Hedy's behavior is referred to as crazy, it's with fear, in the context of what-are-we-going-to-do-to-protect-ourselves?

The scriptwriters could have substituted the word dangerous for crazy and the lines would read the same. Indeed, this is what society fears: not that mentally ill people have detached from reality, but that we are going to hurt other people. If the worst that mentally ill people did was rock ourselves and mutter in a corner, people wouldn't fear us as deeply they do. Sure, we all fear what's unfamiliar, but horror films aren't made about people who are different from the norm, unless they have also escaped from an asylum or clearly belong there.

Americans tend to vilify the mentally ill, and since we are a highly moralistic culture, we've turned mental illness into a sin, like excessive greed or an inability to be faithful to your spouse. Movies like Single White Female turn symptoms like mood instability, idealization/devaluation of others and paranoia into signs of an evil soul who must be punished (preferably killed).

Yes, mental illness can cause destructive behavior, but not because we are bad people who want to ruin the world. Our destructive behavior is an attempt to reduce the emotional pain we're in. It's irrational and unproductive and often makes things worse, but not because we want to drag you all down with us. Yes, we're acting crazy and that can be dangerous to others, but it's motivated by a desire to feel less alone, less afraid and less hopeless, not a desire to make your life miserable. Categorizing people as good or bad is an easier way to conceptualize your life, but it's irresponsible and cruel. People with mental illness don't have the devil inside of us, however you might think we do.

When we are healthy and responsible, those of us who manage a mental disorder tell our friends and family to take care of themselves when we slip, and to help us take care of ourselves by reminding us to take our meds or see our health professionals or go to the gym or walk the dog or whatever helps ground us in reality. I'm very grateful to everyone who knows I'm on an anti-depressant, but doesn't feel afraid of me or fear that I'll act unpredictably and make their life difficult.

There's a scene in Single White Female in which we hear Hedy's father begging her over the phone to come home. He says, "No doctors this time." We get a glimpse of Hedy as a lost little girl who needs professional help instead of a bullet through the head. But after Hedy hangs up on her father, the movie continues to show Hedy as an unstoppable force to be feared, not a human being to be treated. Tragically, this is how a lot of people still see the mentally ill and how the media still tends to portray us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


My reasons to get a dog:
  1. Owning a pet has been shown to improve humans' health (physical and mental). My husband and I can definitely use that.
  2. Bob loves dogs, was raised with them and has been wanting a dog for a long time.
  3. I am finally mature enough, at the age of 45, to take care of a being who is dependent on me for food, safety and well-being.
  4. I'm not as afraid of being needed as I used to be.
  5. I've been studying the art of training and sharing one's life with a dog and I'm feeling confident about it.
  6. Owning a dog will make me a nicer person (more patient, more relaxed, less afraid)...eventually.
  7. Bob says they're fun to play with.
  8. For god's sake, we're a couple that doesn't want children. Isn't it required by society that we have at least one dog?
We're going to adopt a full-grown dog from a shelter. I imagine I'll become one of those people who forwards emails with photos of animals, spends hours watching pet videos and asks everyone, "Do you have a dog?" But I'll try not to become a doggy blogger, I promise.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No, not the peanuts! NO!!

What food are you unable to live without?

Because of U.S. drought this summer, peanut prices could climb by 30% over the next several months. This puts in jeopardy my favorite lifelong snack: peanut butter. I'm talking about freshly ground, organic peanut butter, which contains just the peanuts, that I get at a natural foods store. How important is this oily protein source to me?

  • If asked to choose one food that I simply cannot do without, I choose peanut butter.
  • If I run out of it, what food most drives me to run out to the grocery store? Peanut butter.
  • It's my main comfort food.
  • It's what I'm almost always in the mood for, even when I don't feel like eating anything else.
  • I'll eat fresh, organic peanut butter with jelly, carrots, apples, raisins, tomatoes, mushrooms, bean sprouts, chicken, beef, tuna, bread, crackers or rice cakes, but it tastes best off my finger.
  • I consider it a diet food and will not sacrifice it even when I give up grains, sugar, processed food, beverages-besides-water, dairy products and anything made out of flour (as I've been doing since July).
  • Yes, I'm losing weight right now, on a protein-and-vegetables diet that includes peanut butter.
  • Given a choice of flavors for cookies, protein bars, candy, etc. I will always choose peanut butter.
  • Peanut butter!

If prices go too high, maybe I can stop getting haircuts.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Low carbs, high animal protein

On July 29th, with a doctor's guidance, I cut out all carbs, including fruit. Eating only vegetables and protein, I have watched the scale stubbornly show only the smallest changes from week to week. When I cut out carbs in the spring of 2010, the weight came off by about 1.25 pounds a week, but that's not happening this year. What's going on?

My doctor and I believe it's my anti-depressant. That's the only thing that's changed in the past year and many anti-depressants cause weight gain. I thought I was so lucky that it caused no change in my weight when I started taking it last winter, but it turns out that I didn't completely escape that effect. It seems to have affected my ability to lose weight.

So getting rid of those ten horrible pounds I put on in six lousy weeks (in May/June), is turning out to be much harder to lose than it should. After five weeks of vegetables, protein, exercise and sauna-sweats, my weight barely registers almost a four-pound loss. Mental illness sucks even worse than I thought.

But here's the good news: at any other point in my life I would GREATLY resent passing up all the buns and bread, the chips and crackers, the cookies and cakes, the summer fruit, the bowls of cereal and pasta, and my favorite: rice. But after seventeen years of slowly weeding out processed foods, dairy products and everything that now causes my middle-aged digestive system pain, I don't mind the way I'm eating now. After intensive work on my food issues with an EMDR therapist I have broken my emotional connection with sugar. Between the stomach aches I get from grains and dairy and no longer needing sugar as a crutch, eating only vegetables and protein feels good.

So if it takes six months to lose what I put on in six weeks, even on nothing but meat, eggs, fish, beans, nuts and produce, so be it. My stomach is at peace this way. I sleep well at night. I'm finally beginning to understand that all bodies have different needs and the high-carb vegetarian diet that someone else swears by, isn't a diet I should feel obligated to try. Every time I hear someone say that we shouldn't eat meat more than a couple of times a week, I know that might be true for them, but it's definitely not true for me. When nutritionists recommend dairy products, I know they're not talking to the lactose-intolerant.

From decades of experimenting on my own body, I know that all foods can cause me stomach aches except for these: vegetables and animal protein (even too many nuts or beans will upset me). Those are the only two categories that never hurt me, so I eat them happily and let the rest go.

Friday, September 02, 2011


For a few months now, my friends might hear me say "This is my favorite time of year." There are two reasons for this:

1. I love cold weather
2. I love Christmas

Anticipating Christmas adds a wash of happiness over my days that is completely irrational. Does Christmas Day bring me great joy? No. It's the weeks-long celebration that I enjoy. Others grumble about the commercialism of Christmas and feel offended when they see Christmas-themed ads in October. I love seeing Christmas-themed ads in October because they signal the beginning of weeks of special treats, extra parties and indulgences accompanied by the attitude, "Why not? It's Christmas." I know businesses are just trying to wring as much revenue out of us as possible, but I look at it differently. To me it's all just one big celebration and there's nothing I enjoy like a celebration.

My husband and I are people who happily put up our tree in November and take it down some time in February, but I even out-do him. In my opinion, it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas. One of the best things about being in a church or community choir is that you might start learning Christmas carols in August. I'll make holiday vacation plans that early, too.

Today we're having what I hope is the last beastly-hot day of the Chicago summer season. I don't have much patience with summer and by this time every year I want nothing more to do with it. This is a huge part of why I choose to live (and die) in Chicago: its protracted winters and truncated summers totally work for me.

And now it's September! The way others feel a little down at the end of summer, so do I dread the end of March when the really cold weather lets up for the year. So I'm doing great right now. I wait for this month all year long, just as I wait for October all year long and November, etc. Anybody else feeling happy?

Saturday, August 27, 2011


(Hey! Less than four months left til Christmas!)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mental illness has benefits!

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts USA, has published a book that links strong leadership ability, especially in times of crisis, with mental illness. Equally remarkable is the hypothesis of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness that mental illness provides us with better tools for coping with extreme crisis.

Dr. Ghaemi's book counters the usual attitude that while some world leaders have been identified with mental disorders, those illnesses are details to be ignored or handicaps to be overcome. But the idea that mental illness can be an asset in a leader isn't new. One of Darryl Cunningham's graphic short stories, in Psychiatric Tales, brings up the same idea. Cunningham writes that Winston Churchill's bipolar disorder symptoms helped his leadership during World War II. In England's grimmest moments, Prime Minister Churchill's extreme energy, grandiosity, belligerence and lack of inhibition helped pull his people through. His remembered quotations include "If you're going through hell, keep going," and "I like a man who grins when he fights."

Dr. Ghaemi says that not only can manic symptoms serve a leader well, but so can depressive symptoms. He writes about Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas Ghandi surviving suicidal episodes years before they emerged as grassroots leaders. The idea is that a major depression takes a huge toll on your psyche and requires all of your emotional and creative resources, but the effort it takes to pull yourself through builds a special skill set. Coming out on the other side of wishing you were dead creates a strong sense of self and a learned ability to respond to crisis with positive, productive action. We depressives who have been up and down, emerge from each dark battle with an even better ability to thrive in adverse circumstances.

Surprisingly, A First-Rate Madness includes a discussion of John F. Kennedy, who I'd never associated with mental illness. From Kennedy's hypersexuality, extreme energy and family history, Dr. Ghaemi concludes that Kennedy had a disorder that causes mild manic symptoms all the time. This enabled Kennedy to endure serious health challenges while building a political career towards the presidency.

It gets a bit edgy at the end of the NPR article, when Dr. Ghaemi speculates about President Obama's ability to weather one of the most economically horrific periods in world history. Dr. Ghaemi categorizes the president as being mentally healthy and stable, but hopes the president's early life, which was characterized by both personal and racial identity crises, might have affected his moods and anxiety levels, creating a more "nuanced" personality than average. The doctor recognizes the strangeness of hoping your president has mental illness in his makeup, but believes that if President Obama did, it would be to his advantage.

Any book that points to the advantages of mental illness and how it makes one more resilient under pressure, is a book I must investigate. I've heard the assertions about people with mental illness being more creative, but our society doesn't value creativity nearly as much as it values strong leadership skills. I'd like to be associated with that, too. I urge you to read this article, or even better, listen to the radio story (even better, read the book and let me know what you think). My husband says, "There's good and bad in everything," and I'm happy that it looks like that applies to mental illness, too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Booth at the End

Last weekend I discovered the web series The Booth at the End. Only five episodes were made, shown exclusively on HuluPlus this summer. As I watched episodes one through four, I wished the series went on forever, but when I heard the final line of episode five, I realized, no, the story ends perfectly right where it stops.

Apparently the show counts as science fiction, but only in the way that Stephen King short stories or certain Twilight Zone episodes count as science fiction. The series is really more of a character study (articles about it call it a psychological thriller). I like that one HuluPlus user (HuluPlus is the only place you can see it-correction: you can see it on regular, but not if you're in certain countries) called it the most boring show he'd ever seen. I am fascinated by the show, but to appreciate it you do have to be satisfied with a single location and a bunch of two-person conversations. My only complaint about it is that its many shots of pie and sandwiches make me crave diner food.

The central question of the narrative is "How far would you go to get what you want?" People come to a man who sits in the booth on the end, in a small diner. They want something that has proven impossible to achieve in their lives (it often involves the well-being of someone they care about or the attainment of a certain kind of experience). This man provides them their greatest wish in return for a task that he gives them. As they go through the steps of completing the task, their dream starts to come true.

What's interesting is that not all the tasks are unpleasant. Some are difficult for ethical reasons, but some are just difficult (such as, to befriend someone with agoraphobia and get him to go outside). There also, at first, seems to be no point or greater design to these tasks. Each is simply the price for what you want.
It's painful yet engrossing to watch the characters constantly weigh the challenges of their task against how badly they want their desire. Often the tasks require them to stretch their beliefs about right and wrong and they seem to be asking themselves, "Is this worth it? How about now? How about now?"

The science fiction aspect of the show is the way this mysterious, nameless man can work such magic in people's lives. That part is never explained, but I don't think it's important.
The Booth at the End gets its suspense from the slow reshuffling of people's ethics and the always present question in the viewer's mind: are they really going to do that? If this is the kind of series we get when an Internet entertainment provider creates original programming with no budget, then let them never have enough for a haircut.