Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Modern Day Thanksgiving

Recently, a friend sent me a forwarded email that outlined for those individuals under the age of 30 how lucky they are to have all the modern conveniences they take for granted. It was a sarcastic, flippant message, the kind I wish I had written myself. Even though my kids are a bit young for it, I read it aloud to them (omitting the choice language I’d rather not hear repeated). The responses from my oldest son were both incredulous and terrifying.

When told that when I was a child if I wanted an answer to a question I would have to go to the library, research the topic in the card catalog, and then go find the book and READ through it for the answer, he responded: “You didn’t have computers? Seriously?”

When told that we didn’t have handheld Nintendo DS video games with 3-D graphics, and that we had to play Atari where our “guy” was a little square and the screen stayed the same and there was no way to win so we just had to try to keep playing while the game got faster and faster, he gasped: “That sounds horrible.”

While his comments amused me somewhat, I found myself actually feeling a bit sad for him. Children born in the 21st century have to do so little for such an easy, quick payout. It got me to thinking about how grateful I am for the things I had to learn how to do while I was growing up. These are the things, I realize now, that make it possible for me to problem solve when the high tech solutions are not available. I was actually in an airport restaurant once when they were having a trouble with their ordering and payment software. We needed to catch a plane so we asked for our bill, only to be told that we’d have to wait because their system was down. We couldn’t believe that it never occurred to any of them to write out a bill, figure the total manually, and hand it to us so we could pay cash. Sometimes that thinking-out-of-the-box thing we learned growing up comes in handy. You know, the kind of thinking out of the box that you acquired when you didn’t have cartoons available 24/7, and you had to use your MacGyver brain to imagine that the braided oval rug in front of the kitchen sink was actually a ship sailing on an ocean of linoleum. After my son's comments, I couldn’t help but wonder if our children will ever be able to extrapolate solutions to the tough problems facing our planet when they are adults because so much has just been handed to them, and I kept feeling grateful for having been raised in the world I was raised in.

With Thanksgiving nearly here, I thought it would be timely to write a few quick notes of gratitude for things I feel incredibly fortunate to have in my life. However, instead of reaching deep into my heart and recounting the blessings that come to mind first (my loving and patient family, my incredible friends, my health, our warm and comfortable home), I thought I’d be a bit more shallow and give thanks for the things I could do without if I had to, but I’d really hate to have to do without. Might as well celebrate the conveniences that my children don’t realize are true conveniences.

First, I am grateful for my cordless telephone, the one that allows me to wander aimlessly around my house during a conversation without becoming entangled in a 100-foot cord that I then have to stand on a chair with receiver dangling to unwind again before the next call. I’m thankful that when I want to have a private conversation, I can actually disappear with that phone knowing that there is no cord by which someone could track me through the house and ultimately to the closed door behind which I am hiding.

I am uber-thankful for our DVR, which provides me the opportunity to pause television to shush my kids so I don’t miss one hilarious word Tina Fey is uttering on 30 Rock. That DVR is my lifeline during episodes of LOST; how invaluable it is to be able to rewind the show 5 minutes to point out to my less-detail-oriented husband how the numbers on the soccer players’ backs are, in fact, the LOST numbers of 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, ad 42. And, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how our DVR assisted in potty training our children by making anytime during a show a good time to visit the bathroom.

I am thankful for my luxury SUV. I pay homage to its heated seats that warm my backside in the winter, its back-up camera that ensures I do not run over my boys’ bicycles while backing out of the driveway, and its computerized gauge that warns me that I will be walking with gas can in hand if I do not hit a service station in the next four miles. The remote-operated rear door that I can open as I am walking to the car with my groceries rocks. The automatic sunroof and the in-dash CD changer are also treasured, but what I love the most are the two easily accessible plug-ins for my technology so I can listen to and charge my iPod Nano while simultaneously using my GPS to direct me to the nearest Starbucks.

Speaking of, I need to give a grateful shout out to that mega-giant of coffee and espresso convenience. Starbucks, thank you for rescuing me when I realized that I would never survive staying home with two, non-napping boys full-time without a ubiquitous fountain of caffeinated goodness. Thanks too, Starbucks, for the WIFI, the story time hours for kids, the numerous drive-thru locations, the personalized Starbucks cards (the one I got from a dear friend reads: “Given enough caffeine you could rule the world” -- and it’s true!), and for the invention of the Grande Skinny Vanilla Latte that is my life’s blood.

I am grateful for the Victoria’s Secret Miraculous bra that gifted me with an absolutely ludicrous (and yet totally awesome) D-cup and saved me thousands on surgery that would have appointed my girls the only not-sagging part of my body twenty years from now. I give thanks for the iPhone apps that make life less frustrating, apps like Shazam (so I can figure out who the heck is singing the song I can’t get out of my head) and Video Poker (so I can practice for Vegas while I’m on the flight out there). I am thankful for debit cards, pay at the pump gasoline, and satellite television on airplanes. And, I give thanks for the ultra-quiet dishwasher with a timer that washes dishes for me while I sleep.

There are so many modern inventions that I am grateful for and for good reason. While my life is more complicated than my grandmother’s life ever was, it’s also full of travel and adventure, which hers was not. And, I know, that someday when my sons are grandparents they will sit down and tell their grandchildren about how hard things were for them when they were kids in the days before hovercrafts. I’m sure they’ll also tell them about how in the olden days their mom used to tell them stories about how hard life was when there was no Caller ID or voicemail, just the same way my mom used to tell me stories about how she had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to school. I’m thankful that some things will never change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Woman

Something crazy happened to me yesterday. I was shopping for Christmas gifts, when a plaid miniskirt began shouting my name. I’m not often approached by random outfits in a retail store, so I’ll admit my curiosity got the best of me and I allowed it to drag me into a fitting room. I am not a fan of clothes shopping. I hate crowded retail stores with fashionable young people wearing name tags pestering me about all the help they can provide. Internet shopping was invented for people like me, people who avoid other people when possible. There’s something so satisfying about seeing the perfect outfit online and having it magically appear (okay, not completely magically) at your front door via a large, brown truck. But, this was clearly no ordinary skirt. So, I grabbed it and a couple of its friends and wandered back to the unisex fitting rooms in The Gap.

The fitting room was being managed by a way too attractive, twenty-something year old guy with striking blue eyes. I have to admit that this always throws me for a loop. I have been around long enough to remember when there were both men’s and women’s fitting rooms. And, after 14 years of marriage, I’m no longer accustomed to having a random guy nearby to assist me with my clothing. I guess I should learn to appreciate that luxury these days since fitting rooms at The Gap are as close as I’m going to get to reliving my college days.

But, I digress. The skirt and its buddies were all lined up, so I chose the biggest one to try on first. In a perfect world, I am still the same size 6 that I was in college. Well, the size 6 I had brought into the fitting room with me more or less fell down off of me as soon as I put it on. Interesting, I thought. So, I went to the size 4, which also proved to be too big. I scoffed at the size 2, but put it on only to discover that I could spin the entire skirt around on my waist. It was still too loose, and I had run out of sizes. I had to go to the laughable next step of asking the blue-eyed fitting room hottie to retrieve for me a size ZERO item of clothing. Yes. A size 0. My husband laughed.

“How can you be a size 0? By virtue of the fact that it’s a 0, doesn’t that mean you don’t actually exist? Wait. When you turn sideways, do you disappear?”

All joking aside, I was a bit perplexed at this point. I mean, seriously. Let’s get real here. I am 5‘5” tall and just under 130 pounds. I do not have an eating disorder, nor do I abide by some movie-star macrobiotic diet or Diet Coke and cigarette weight loss plan. I do not do 1000 sit-ups a day. I do not have a personal trainer. I am a fan of high-fat dairy cheese in all its forms, and I do eat dessert nearly every day. Yes. I live in the fittest state in the nation, and I do a reasonable workout 4 days a week. But there is absolutely no fathomable reason that I should be three sizes smaller now than I was twenty years ago.

Still, hottie returned with the size 0 skirt and I tried it on. It fit. What? How? Am I shrinking? If I am a size 0, then surely the young women on Gossip Girl must be wearing toddler clothing, right? Barbie clothing, perhaps? If I wasn’t a size 0 when I weighed 15 pounds less than I do now, how is this possible? Retailers have figured out that people will buy more clothing if they feel better about themselves. And, who doesn’t feel better about herself when she discovers she’s miraculously a smaller size without having lost any weight? Let’s face it. If you have to get a bigger size than you wore last season, you may not feel like shopping: you might actually feel a trifle nauseous. It’s depressing. But, if you get a smaller size, you figure that you’d better get two other things in this exceedingly small size as proof and then go out for a celebratory cheeseburger because, after all, you’re so skinny you must not be eating enough.

Yet, this country is getting fatter. You needn’t go any further than your local mall or grocery store for adequate proof. Our sedentary lifestyle, combined with an abundance of “convenience foods” heavy on fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, has been working against us for decades now. I spend a lot of time at home perched on a stool in front of my laptop, mere feet from a giant stainless steel box full of food, and this could be a huge obstacle in the road to thinness. However, I am also fortunate to have the time, flexibility, and income to afford active hobbies. Our family hikes, bikes, skis, snowshoes, and inline skates. There are miles of open space trails behind my house for running and climbing. I have a gym membership and the time to use it. I realize not everyone has the same good fortune I’ve had. I was blessed with a fairly high metabolism, good health, an apathy towards chocolate, and an honest love of being active. But many people in this country are not as fortunate as I am. And, this is why clothing manufacturers have changed their sizing to increase their sales.

I’m not downplaying the positive, albeit ephemeral, effect achieved by suddenly and inexplicably seeing a size 0 on your clothing tag. It did make me temporarily euphoric and self-confident. But, it’s not realistic and it’s simply not true. Nearly twenty years ago, when I was what was then a size 6, I bought a gorgeous velvet cocktail dress at a vintage store. It was labeled size 12, and it was a tight fit. It threw me to try on a size 12 dress only to discover that it was nearly too tight to wear. But, that experience stuck with me. I’ve never forgotten that dress or the lesson that obviously I was not the size 6 my clothes proclaimed me to be.

This downsizing clothing (while we’re all upsizing everything else) is troubling to me. We’re deluding ourselves into believing that the status quo is not only good but it’s better than good. What’s not to like about putting on 20 pounds since high school but still being able to wear the same size you wore to chemistry class? The reality is, however, that 34 percent of Americans are obese and nearly another 33 percent are overweight. We’re not healthy. Maybe if we stopped focusing so much on sizing each other up and focused instead on helping each other out we’d make some progress?

While I’m not sure what the solution to this clothing dilemma is, I do know this much: I am not the Incredible Shrinking Woman, and I didn’t buy the super cute, plaid, size 0 miniskirt that called me by name. I knew every time I’d put it on, I’d feel at best a bit disingenuous and at worst like a complete fraud. Perhaps that sounds silly, but it’s the truth. Before you judge me, just remember that a zero is merely a number. I’d like to believe I’m a bit more than that. We all are. And we should start treating ourselves and each other that way. I think we’d be a lot happier.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Which Witch?

Before trick-or-treating last night, as I was putting on my costume, I offered my yearly address regarding Halloween etiquette to my children. It is remarkably similar to the speech my mother would deliver to my sisters and I before we would embark on our trick-or-treating romps through the old neighborhood. In my perfect world, I imagine other parents recite similar words to their children before sending them off into the night.

So, as I was adjusting my pointy, black hat with the silver stars, I gently but firmly reminded them that there are a few Halloween rules by which they must abide if they want to be permitted to trick-or-treat. The mandatory, non-negotiable Halloween rules in our house are:

Only approach houses with porch lights on.
Say “trick or treat” when someone answers the door.
Say “thank you” when the candy is given.
Do NOT not balk at what you are given. You’re lucky you’re getting anything.

The boys pretended to listen and promised to be good, and I sent them on their way with their father so I could hand out candy from our house. As I finished lighting the jack-o-lanterns on the porch, I was feeling as optimistic as a couple of pear ciders will usually convince me to feel. I dumped the last of our ginormous Costco bag of assorted candies into the pumpkin bowl, turned off the lights inside the house, and donned my purple gloves just waiting for the costume-clad hordes to arrive.

I like being in costume to hand out Halloween candy. It’s unexpected; the majority of trick-or-treaters are genuinely thrown off when I open the door and they see I’m in costume. I’m normally a fairly predictable person so I revel in my chance to confuse someone, even if that someone happens to be a 4-year old dressed like a bumble bee. But, wearing a costume also puts me into the Halloween spirit. Although I am usually somewhat reserved around people I do not know, a costume gives me the freedom to be a bit more bold.

As the doorbell rang for the first time, I hadn’t yet decided which witch I was going to be for the evening, the good witch or the wicked witch, but I didn’t have to wait long for my character to develop. I opened the front door and stood there in my costume and standing there staring back at me were a princess, a knight, and a vampire, all approximately age 6. They said nothing. I stood there staring back at them until one of them finally offered up a feeble “trick or treat.”

I opened the storm door and started to put multiple treats into the bags, and one of the children questioned me.

“Do you have any gum?”

Trying to be as polite as possible while not letting on that I was slightly annoyed by the blatant request I replied, “Sorry, sweetie. No gum.”

He replied, “It’s okay. I don’t like gum. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to give me any.”

Then they wandered off my porch without a second glance while I stood there incredulously. I found myself wondering when children got so brash as to make requests for what they want in their plastic pumpkins or pillowcases. Should I be impressed that he’s a kid who knows what he likes (or doesn’t like) or is it okay that I found his attitude a bit troubling? One of the best parts of Halloween when I was a kid was spilling the loot out onto the table after trick-or-treating and trading treats with my sisters or friends. I don’t like Butterfingers, so I was more than happy to trade them to my sister for her Almond Joys. The negotiations were brutal, but we always ended up with what we wanted. What was this kid’s plan if I had dropped gum into his bag? Was he going to take it out, hand it back, and ask for something better? I felt myself starting to turn a bit green.

I placated myself with the thought that surely my children would never do such a thing and hoped the next group would make me feel better. The doorbell rang a few minutes later with a parcel of five children. This group also stood there looking at me without uttering trick or treat. When I finally requested the obligatory phrase, they acquiesced.

As I started putting candy in their bags one child at a time, I noticed a little hand begin to creep towards my stash of treats. I stopped what I was doing, turned sharply, stared the child down, and stopped just short of smacking his hand (although I really wanted to).

In a voice that was gravelly and somehow not my own, I scolded him sharply. “I hand out the candy.”

He quickly withdrew his grubby little paw and I went about finishing my task. This group at least did manage a couple “thank you” comments as they walked away.

I walked back into the house pondering when it became acceptable for a child to reach into the candy bowl as an adult was actively passing out candy. Did I miss the memo? I mean, I was standing there in costume with my own hand in the bowl. Did he not understand why I was there? Was he afraid I was going to skip him somehow or was he, like the previous child, just trying to grab what he wanted? Whatever happened to children like the kind I was, the kind who was afraid of adults and wouldn’t have had the nerve to just grab candy from the bowl? Are all children so brazen these days?

Before I had time to think any further on that, the doorbell rang again. This time there were two 10-year-old girls on my doorstep. They were clever enough to sing-song a cheery “trick or treat”. As I opened the door to hand out the candy, the princess heard something from within her treat bag and started rooting around in there.

“It’s my cell phone,” she told me. “Hold on one second.” And, she put her forefinger up to let me know she’d be with me in a minute.

Galloping ghosts! Did this little girl just put me on hold on my own front porch? I am fairly certain I looked around for the hidden camera. This had to be a joke, right? I stood there for a minute while she had a conversation with her friend, Henry. Apparently, Henry was trying to meet up with them but couldn’t figure out where they were. At last, she ended her call, dropped her phone back into her bag, and then presented her bag to me. I dumped something in and as I did I noticed that my fingers seemed somewhat longer and bonier than they had before.

One 8-year-old child asked me why I didn’t have any lights on inside my house. I didn’t understand where he was going with that question. Perhaps he was implying that it looked as if no one was home (despite the porch lights being on, the lit pumpkins sitting on the porch railing, and candlelit paper bags that were illuminating a pathway to my doorstep)? Still I found myself answering this child, as if I owed him an explanation. Maybe if he had been dressed like a cop I would have been clever enough to invoke my miranda rights? As it was, however, by the time I had finished elaborating regarding the non-illumination of my household, I noticed a broom leaning against the corner of the porch.

As the evening progressed, I became depressed by the number of children who did not feel it necessary to grace me with a “trick or treat” when I opened the door. I thought that was standard Halloween protocol. Amazingly enough, it was the teenagers who made me feel better; most of them came to my door with better manners than some of the younger children who had parents standing nearby. At least the majority of the teenagers seem to comprehend how the whole Halloween thing is supposed to work. I don’t mind teenagers trick-or-treating. I realize that some folks think there is an age at which one should stop the charade and move on, but I like Halloween and feel that if you’re willing to get dressed up to ask for candy when you’re sixteen then you deserve a flipping Kit Kat.

I could cackle bitterly on and on about my experiences last night. I could tell you how no more than half the children who darkened my doorstep bothered to say “thank you” or how some of their equally rude and lazy parents actually followed their children around the neighborhood in their cars so they wouldn’t have to walk in the 50-degree temperatures. But, maybe it would just be better at this point merely to straighten my hat, tie a double knot in my cape, and fly out of here on that broom. Who said the Wicked Witch of the West is dead?