Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Role of a First Lady

What should the role of a First Lady be?

Ever since her (lying, misogynist, racist, corrupt) husband took office, Americans have closely observed the actions of his wife Melania.  Why does she always look so miserable? Why does she seem to actively avoid her husband (remember when she slapped his hand away)?  Does she really enjoy the perks of the job?  Does she really want the responsibility?

Right from the beginning the pundits speculated that not only did she not want the job, but she was actively shunning it.  She spent five months living away from the White House with the excuse that she didn't want her son to switch schools.  The rumors swirled that she was not interested in the implied job of White House social secretary and national hostess.  Perhaps that was going to be Ivanka's job.

Eleven months later the speculation is still going strong.  Even though Melania is taking on some of the social roles expected of a First Lady, she doesn't look happy about it. Vanity Fair made the observations early on.   The recent photos of her showing off the White House Christmas decorations show her looking blank and emotionless.  Liberal websites seem are gleeful about it.  The media (outside of Fox News and its ilk) all report that First Lady is a job she doesn't want, and doesn't want to do.

I say good for her!

In the twenty-first century women in the USA are supposed to have the free will and the power to pursue any goal they want.  Women can freely chase their dreams without being held back by a man.  A 21st Century American Woman can pursue her career or motherhood or any path she wants without interference from her husband.  She doesn't have to give anything up for her man.

Unless her husband if President of the United States.

Why is First Lady the one job title a woman must accept on her husband's behalf and forsake all of her other ambitions for?

I understand there are potential conflicts of interest.  If a First Lady wanted to continue to pursue her career or business, there would have to be rules in place.  She might have to put her money in some kind of holding account.  She would definitely be forbidden to use her husband's office to promote her business in any way.  There would need to some kind of wall between the White House and wife's business or her employers business.  None of  these rules should be impossible to enact and enforce.  If Melania Trump is happier doing other things, then there needs to be a system in place that will allow her to do them.

If Clinton won in 2016, would Bill have been expected to play America's Hostess?  Of course he wouldn't.  The man who once held such an important office himself is not going to step down from his role as statesman and become his wife's arm candy.  Angela Merkel's husband has a full time job (chemistry professor).  Theresa May's husband has a full time job (financial manager).

Many first ladies embraced the role and seemed to love it.  Although I wasn't alive to witness it, what I know of history tells me Jackie Kennedy loved the spotlight of being First Lady.  From what I have seen during my lifetime I would say Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama all enjoyed the job, even though they had to give up powerful careers.  That doesn't mean every woman will love the job no matter how much she loves her husband.

Melania Trump is the perfect First Lady to start the trend.  Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush came from a generation where standing by your husband was a priority, so they wouldn't have dreamed of not being a traditional First Lady.  If Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama had turned their backs on the White House, they would have been crucified (possibly literally) by the media and the public.  Maybe Laura Bush could have gotten away with it, but I'm sure she wanted to distance herself from the "uppity"Hillary Clinton and not appear too feminist-y.  Trump has a core group of supporters who thinks he can do no wrong and Melania receives that same blind devotion.  Whatever choice she makes, there is that 30% of the country that will still think she is the best First Lady ever.  I also think Melania will garner support from women who feel she is unhappy or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or being abused.  The more time away from Don, the better.

But what about her activism?  All First Ladies take up a cause and that's supposed to be their contributions to making the country a better place to live.  Should Melania give up her cyberbullying campaign?

Yes, she should give it up.  She hasn't done anything about it anyway.  I know First Ladies feel obligated to take up a cause, but does anyone really care once their husbands are out of office?  Do they make much of a difference?  Does the public even remember what those causes were?  I remember Nancy Reagan was the most passionate (if somewhat misguided) and visible of all First Ladies with her anti-drug campaign.  I have some memory of Barbara Bush talking about illiteracy, but I don't know exactly what she did to improve literacy rates in the country.  (Maybe she just wanted more people to read so they would buy Millie's Book.)  What did Laura Bush do?  What did Hillary Clinton do? I don't remember. I remember Michelle Obama's campaign to improve children's nutrition, but that may be because her beautiful White House kitchen garden got so much media attention.  Also I remember how she was pilloried for telling parents what to feed their children and forcing them to make kids eat stuff they don't like.  (Remember how there were troops stationed outside the homes of Republican parents during the Obama years? They would rush in and start shooting if they learned the kids weren't eating a diet of skim milk, kale, and quinoa.  Good times!)  Ten years from now nobody will be thinking about Melania's crusade to end cyberbullying even if she succeeds at it.

Please don't take this to mean I am some kind of Melania Trump fan.  I don't like her (or I don't like the persona she presents to the public).  I don't think she's all that smart. (Stop telling me about how many languages she speaks.  So what?  Most decently-educated Europeans speak multiple languages since countries are close together.  Slovenia is a bi-lingual country.  I'm far more impressed by Michelle Obama who is the first First Lady to hold two Ivy League degrees.)  I don't think she's beautiful.  (She was pretty twenty years ago, but her face is ruined by surgery and to me she just looks frightening as well as a walking argument against plastic surgery.)  I think she has proven herself to be as racist and classist as her husband.  She's no prize.  Nonetheless, she deserves the life she wants as much as any woman does.

Be free from the First Lady duties, Melania.  Run your ugly jewelry business.  Go back to modeling.  Pursue your dreams.  Be an example for every First Lady that comes after you.

Just please do it from the White House.  I don't want my tax money to continue to pay for you to pursue your dreams from Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween: I'm Just Not That Into It

Whenever I hear friends and acquaintances blather on about how much they love fall, one of the most common reasons they state is a love of Halloween.  If fall is their favorite time of year, then Halloween is their favorite holiday.

What is it about Halloween?  Is it the joy we take in artifice?  Do we believe costumes can transform us into something or someone else?  Do we think decorating with undead characters and murderers and mystical figures puts us in an acceptable place to explore our own dark sides?  Do we like to scare ourselves?  In the end, is it just an excuse to eat too much and (for adults) drink excessively just like almost any other holiday we celebrate in the US?

I don't think any of these things are a bad reason to like Halloween.  I just question if celebrating Halloween excessively really accomplishes any of this.

Halloween has become a massive commercial enterprise.  It is second only to Christmas.  Costume shops pop up in every neighborhood.  Every department store, drugstore, convenience store, supermarket, and card store is filled with Halloween decorations, costumes, accessories, and Halloween-related foods.  Then there are the haunted houses and carnivals and pumpkin picking.

The National Retail Federation forecasts a total spend of $9.1 billion, and that includes:
  • $3.4 billion on costumes
  • Of that, $440 million on pet costumes
  • $2.7 billion on candy
  • $2.7 billion on decorations
  • $410 million on greeting cards
  • $300 million on haunted attractions 
All of this is for one night?   

I think what gives me the most pause about Halloween in the thought people put into their costumes.  People care more about what costume to wear than they care about their Christmas shopping list.  The options are dizzying.  Do you go to a costume shop and buy something off the rack?  Is that too unoriginal?  Do you try to create a costume out of items already in your wardrobe? Do you assemble something original but buy a few separate pieces  (like wear your own dress, but accessorize with a costume shop hat and sword)?  Do you make something entirely from scratch by sewing  new clothes or constructing something from papier mache?  Do you buy a store-bought costume and accessorize it with sexy lingerie and too much makeup and thus become a "Sexy (Insert costume here)"?

In the end, does the artifice transform you?  Do you truly feel like a new persona, or is it just something you did for the photos?  You go into the party, you see if your friends recognize what you are supposed to me, and take some photos.   Then an hour later wish you could take the uncomfortable thing off already.  Is that more accurate?

But it's not just our own costumes.  Are you too old to go trick-or-treating?  Well, you're not if you have a baby.  It doesn't even matter if your baby doesn't even have teeth to eat candy with yet.  Just buy a costume for the kid and take him through the neighborhood.  Your baby doesn't know or care that it's Halloween, but it makes a great accessory for your own amusement.  Your baby will outgrow the costume next year, so you have to buy another one and spend even more money.  You can still go trick-or-treating while you wait for the kid to grow up and you can still eat all of "his" candy without guilt.

Don't even get me started on people who dress up their dogs.  I couldn't believe it the first time I was in a pet store with a dog-owning friend and saw that the store sold actual dog costumes.  Yes, people pay real money to dress up their dogs.  I saw my friend struggle to pick one out that would fit her dog.  This isn't even about the waste of money.  This is about the fact that your poor dog has to suffer.  Your dog doesn't care about Halloween.  In fact, Halloween can be quite stressful for dogs when they see an enormous load of people walking through the neighborhoods at night and then ringing the doorbell.  Do you want to add to that stress by making them wear an uncomfortable costume?  Dogs hate having stuff on them.  Why would you do this to them for hours on end just because you think it's cute and will make some fun Instagram photos?

I do understand that adults want in on the fun. The children are having a blast scoring pounds of chocolate and playing pranks on each other. What do we get? Adults deserve to be in on it too since we're the ones spending the money.  Unfortunately, as it is with most holidays in the 21st century, we are taking it too far.  It's not about candy or costumes.  It's another night of drunken revelry, of hard partying, of alcohol poisoning and drunk driving accidents waiting to happen.  Our culture never seems to stop becoming dependent on alcohol for a good time and Halloween is just another excuse for excessive drinking and carelessness.  

Halloween is not a religious holiday (unless you're a Satanist or practitioner of Wiccan/Pagan tradition that celebrates Samhain).  It is not a time for warm family gathering.  It's not even romantic. So many other holidays, including the most commercialized ones, have a reason to exist.  At best Halloween just a time for people who consider themselves to be rebels and "alternative" to prove how cool they are by celebrating the macabre and darkness.  That is just becoming a cliche`.  

The worst part of Halloween is the reverse side of it.  This is supposed to be a time when our children can go a little wild and eat sweets and roam around at night.  Paranoid parents spoil it for them by being suspicious of everyone and everything.  I remember hordes of kids passing by my decorated, well-lit house during the last years I lived at home.  There were no children in the house, my mother and my brother and I were not known parents, so families deliberately skipped our house because they don't "know" us.  Even though there is no evidence that child murderers are out to poison children on Halloween, too many crazy parents still believe it.  Don't ring the bell at the home of a relative stranger even if the house is lit and decorated.  Don't eat any homemade cookies or cupcakes.  Don't eat apples because there are razor blades in them (that myth won't die even though there has NEVER been a razor blade in an apple).  

Parents, every day of the year people who don't really know touch your children's food.  You decide you can trust them, but that doesn't mean you can.  Your food is touched by wholesalers, grocery store workers, truckers, cafeteria workers, cooks, and servers.  Why do you trust that cupcake from a bake sale just because it came from a church or charitable organization, but not one from your neighbor?  Why do you automatically trust one group of people over another?  NO ONE IS TRYING TO POISON YOUR KIDS.  Just let them eat what they want (as long as it doesn't make them sick due to overeating or allergies).  It someone really wanted to kill your child, he wouldn't have waited until Halloween to do it.  You child is more likely to die in your car. 

I'm not a Grinch (or even a Sexy Grinch).  I am not anti-Halloween.  There will be a bowl of candy in my home on Halloween night and I hope the children will come and claim some.  There is a costume contest in my office and I will be participating.  I thought of an idea for a costume, so I decided I would try to win the cash prize.  But if I hadn't thought of a costume, I wouldn't have stressed out about it.  I'll eat some sweets too. 

 I just don't spend much of my time planning and obsessing with Halloween.  I don't spend large amounts of money on it.  It's just not on my priority list.  I don't sit around in July wish for fall because I want Halloween to come.  I'm going to enjoy the sun and the water and the most important holiday of the year - my birthday.  Halloween can wait, and it can do just fine without me.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Autumnal Alternatives to Apple Acquistion

I know I talk way too much about how much I hate this time of year, and much of that talk is less about real issues with the time of year and more about the end of summer and the constant hyping of Halloween and pumpkin spice, and what I call the "Basic Blather" about crunchy air and sweaters.  I do think some of my concerns are legitimate though.  I don't like the dark and the weather is rarely as perfect as everyone wants it to be.  Most of all, I take issue with the traffic.

This past weekend I was driving home after a long day at the barn.  I had plans for the evening and I just wanted to go home and relax for a bit before going back out again.  I was cruising down Route 94 when traffic started to slow to a crawl.

Where was the backup coming from?  It was coming from the traffic pouring out of the road leading from Ochs Orchard to the traffic light.  Once I was past that traffic jam, I drove by Pennings Orchard.  While there were no traffic jams there, I could see just how full the immense parking lot was.  Any other time of year you might see a good number of cars in front of the market, but this day the lot was full from end to end.

The culprit for this massive conglomeration of cars?  Apple picking.

I remain a vocal critic of the apple picking phenomenon.  To me it's a contrived activity.  The bourgeois take a day "in the country" to pick fruit readily available in farmers' markets because it feels like some kind of authentic experience.  It feels close to nature.  To me it's just being duped into doing farm labor and paying for the privilege.  I suppose with immigration being so tightly controlled, farmers no longer having a steady supply of labor.   Having the masses come and pick fruit themselves as some kind of family activity must feel like a dream solution. 

So here is the authentic country experience.  You get in your car and drive to the orchard with hundreds of other apple pickers.  The traffic finally creeps into the orchard parking lot.  Then you have to search for a space on the (likely unpaved) expanse of parking area.  The attendants direct you to a space two states away from the orchard.

You get your bushel bag and picking device and trudge to the trees.  At first it's fun to use your device. You begin your adventure as a discerning customer, looking for the best apples.  Soon you have a dozen apples and this is getting tiresome.  Your kids are bored.  Still, you have to keep going to fill that bag because you can't just pick a few apples.  You have to buy them by the bushel and you need to pick your thirty dollar's worth.  Keep going until you fill that thirty dollar bag, kids.

Finally your bag is filled and you need to soothe your cranky kids.  They beg for candy apples (ka-ching), a pony ride (ka-ching), and a cider doughnut (ka-ching).  You see the apple jelly and apple pies.  They look good.  Should you buy some? (ka-ching?)  Maybe you will make a pie in the next couple of weeks.*  You pass on the pie and save ten bucks there. Good for you.  Too bad you had to have the dozen cider doughnuts and the jelly (ka-ching).

After you have paid for your apples, your treats, and your souvenirs, you make that long trek back to your car.  As you drive out, you have to wait in line while attendants search your car for contraband apples (because a bushel for a small family is never enough).  Finally you're back on the road with another two hundred apple pickers.  Your kids get over the sugar high and nap while you deal with the traffic snarl on the way home.

Was it really worth it?  Did you have your Authentic Fall Experience?  Are you closer to nature?  If you haven't done it yet, is it still something you want to do in the future?

If you answered no, then I would like to offer some non-apple-related activities that will fill a day nicely, get you outside, and help you enjoy those last few nice days on the calendar before winter sets in.  This list is completely non-snarky and I believe can provide you with some ideas that will take you away from the contrived experiences and crowds of the orchards.

Visit a farmers' market

"Hey Rachel," you protest.  "You said this list wasn't snarky."  I know it sounds rather obvious, and it's not exactly an adventure, but if locally grown produce and supporting local farmers are important to you, please don't neglect the farmers' markets.  You will find many of the same apple varieties (and the cider, and often the doughnuts) that you will find at the orchards, but without the traffic and parking headaches.  Maybe the farmers' markets in your town isn't that great.  Start researching the best ones and make a road trip out of it.

Visit a state park

I am willing to bet that somewhere within driving distance of your home is a beautiful state park you never bothered to visit. State parks offer plenty of chances to get close to nature with hiking trails and recreational facilities.  What better way is there to view fall leaves than to hike through a woodland path?  If you have kids who don't like walking around looking at leaves, then try to incorporate some other activities.  Bring a bird book and some binoculars and see what they can spot. Have a natural scavenger hunt.  If there is a shoreline or other open space, toss a Frisbee or fly a kite.  Older kids who are in decent shape might enjoy a trail with a tricky, steep, rock scramble

Go to the Zoo

People tend to consider zoos a summer activity and that's when zoos are most crowded.  In the cooler weather, animals are more active and more likely to out and visible. Seeing exotic animals live is an excellent way to be closer to nature.  If you live in the NYC area, The Bronx Zoo will not just give you a chance to view wildlife, but also boasts beautiful, tree-lined paths that wind through the exhibits.  It is a tranquil natural oasis in the summer.  It is even more beautiful when the leaves have changed.  If you're not in NY, I'm sure there is a zoo near you that will give you a similar experience.  If it's not as hot out, the kids will be less likely to beg for ice cream and Slurpees.

Visit a Botanical Garden

It does seem like a contradiction to go into, or stay in, the big city when you want to be out close to nature, but a botanical garden can provide you with all the nature and stunning displays of flora you crave.  Not only will you see the best of the season's plants blooming, but you can be educated about them.  Again, New Yorkers have an advantage with the New York Botanical Garden, which features conservatory displays of multiple ecosystems, quiet woodland paths, and many themed outdoor gardens as well as beautiful works of art throughout the conservatory.  Go before the end of October and catch the Chihuly exhibit if you can.  It's way more impressive than apples. Other gardens offer other beautiful features and amenities.  The Chicago Botanic Garden is another beautiful place to spend a fall day.

Visit a historic house

Sometime in the history of your region, a man became wealthy and he built a mansion or castle for himself.  His descendants couldn't pay for the upkeep, so it was donated to a historic trust or purchased by a non-profit preservation organization. Now, you, the unwashed masses, can wander through its halls in a way you never could a hundred years ago.   Take a tour and get a history lesson. Find out how the beautiful people lived (and get the dirt).  Most importantly, mansions like this have beautiful grounds and gardens.  Your family can enjoy plenty of seasonal foliage and flora.  If you want a more intense history lesson, there are historic houses that serve as "living history" museums where you can also enjoy craft demos and reenactments. These are always better at harvest time.

Visit a local winery or brewery

If you don't have kids, this is a perfect way to get outside and enjoy nature without having to make massive purchases.  Stroll through vineyards, have a picnic, and enjoy a tasting and a demo.  Have a designated driver if you don't plan to spit.

Then again, these can be as crowded as orchards in the fall.  They just have fewer kids.  Drunk adults may possibly be worse than bored kids on a candy apple high.  

Have lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant

Would you like to enjoy harvest season by actually eating the harvest?  F2T restaurants are almost always charming and you will have the same feeling of pride and responsibility of supporting local farmers that you will get from picking apples and visiting farmers' markets.  You can combine your lunch with any number of activities listed here.

Don't limit yourself to just one fall activity.  There is so much more out there than apple picking.  Go enjoy the season for yourself.

*You won't.  Trust me.  I don't even bake a lot of apple pie and I love to bake.  Give up the fantasy.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why I Won't Pray For You (and what I will do instead)

Let me start by saying right away that you may be offended by the beginning of this post.  You won't like it. I'm sure it will make you angry.  That's fine, but before you decide to vent your anger back at me, please read the entire post.  You may not think I'm such a bad person after this is finished.  My purpose is to bring hope and cooperation.

With so many tragedies happening across the country right now, many friends have requested I pray for them, or else pray for others who may be suffering.  That's all you want me to do - pray.  You want me to ask a deity - and I'm sure you mean the deity you personally worship - to do something for you.  I suppose it's an easy way for me to respond to your problems.  I pray for God (or gods) to help you. Better God than me, right?

Let's say I decide to help you by praying.  How do I go about doing that?  I go to a quiet place where I won't be interrupted.  It might be my home and it might be a church.  Maybe it's my car or just a quiet time at my desk at work.  Here I silently ask God to help you.  It takes me just a few seconds.  It doesn't inconvenience me at all.  It hardly requires any thought or effort.  It's done and I have done my duty.  I have prayed for you and now it's up to God to help you.

At this point you're sneering at me a bit.  You are probably downright angry.  "We get it, Rachel.  You don't believe in God.  You are just being contemptuous of my religion and I don't like it."

What I do or don't believe in, and why I don't believe  (and those subjects deserve posts of their own) are irrelevant.  Even if I did believe, I would hope I could do better than prayer.  Prayer is something that's between me and the gods of my choice.  I feel I need to involve the person I'm praying for a bit more directly.

I also find this idea of group prayer to be somewhat disturbing.  If you take up an issue with God and pray about it, a loving God should want to help you because He wants to help you.  This shouldn't be some kind of numbers game.  Does God say, "I don't want to help you when you pray to Me for that.  Wait!  There are other people praying for you too.  I think I will change my mind."

What happens if my prayers are ineffective.  What if God or gods has a different plan that doesn't include helping you the way you requested.  What then?

If you are hurt, if you are in trouble, if you are sick, if you are grieving, if you are distressed, then there is so much more I want to do for you.  Prayer is just a few seconds of my private time.  If you are someone I care about, then you deserve much more than me giving you a few thoughts separately from you.

What will I do for you instead of pray?

I will give you my company.  I will provide hugs and a shoulder to cry on.  I don't want you going through troubled times in isolation.  I will spend real time with you, talking to you either by visiting in person if I can, phone calls, or emails.

I will help you with chores or errands.

I will cook meals for you or bake you a batch (or batches) of your favorite cookies or cakes or pies.

I will do volunteer work if I can.

I will donate money. I will donate to a relevant charity for disaster relief.  I will donate to your GoFundMe.  If we are close I may provide you with direct financial support if I am able to.

All you have to do is ask.

But that's the crux of it, isn't it?  If you need help, will you ask?  If I offer help, will you accept?
If I'm not offering, why aren't you asking?

To me this shows just how isolated we have become from each other.  We say we don't have time.  We say we are busy.   We sit in front of our computer screens, complaining endlessly on social media about how stressed out our lives are.  Then one day we run across a friend in need and she says, "Pray for me," and we respond, "Sure, I'll pray for you," and the transaction ends.  Prayer is said and we go on with our lives, hoping God heard and will fix whatever the problem is.  We feel smug about our good intentions, but what are we really doing for each other?  Platitudes and prayers on social media have replaced meaningful human contact.

We are afraid to reach out and ask for help because our loved ones are all too "busy" complaining about their lives on social media.  We don't say what we really need.  We don't offer more help because our friends and family aren't reaching out.  Ask for a prayer.  Say a prayer.  Let something else sort it out.

Can't we do better than this?  If you're going to go to church, don't just pray.  Volunteer in that church's disaster relief efforts.  Visit your friends and family.  Call up a loved on to check on him.  Send whatever donations you can.

I'm not just going to sit on my butt and pray.  God may have another agenda other than answering my prayers.  If I want to make a difference in the world, it's up to me.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Modest Proposal: How To Remove Confederate Memorials

The Civil War was a black stain on our country's history.  Half of the states in the United States committed an attack of treason against our country and attacked us for the right to no longer be a part of us.  Their motivation for doing so was so they could continue their horrific abuse of human rights in the form of slavery.

We should never forget the Civil War, but we shouldn't glorify it.  Heroes of the Confederacy should not have a place of prominence in the public square.  We should not be honoring their efforts.  They betrayed our country and they lost badly.  Many of these statues and memorials were erected in the 20th Century rather than during or after the Civil War.  This reverence for the era of slavery and the violent protection of it, happened during the height of Jim Crow laws.  These memorials were meant to be a reinforcement of institutionalized racism

It makes sense for decent people to want them down and placed in a museum rather than in the public square.  Sadly, there are hordes of Americans who don't see it that way.  I am hearing the never-ending  Republican cry of "Political Correctness" and "Stop being offended."  The more one tries to bring racism into the equation, the harder the right will dig in its heels.

How do we get this statues removed?  It's simple.  Liberals have to advocate for them being kept in place.

First get the ACLU involved.  Make it about southerners' rights.  Regressives hate the ACLU, so if they start advocating for statues staying in place, you can get a crowd of neo-nazis will want them down.

Next, just make all liberals advocate for the statues.  Liberals want to be empathetic to the poor southern losers who want to remember their fruitless wars.  I'm so sorry you lost.  You can have your statues if it makes you feel better about yourselves.  Here's a hug.

Liberals can also take the history route.  The Confederacy is a major part of Democratic Party history.  Democrats want their history preserved too.  Liberals are owning up to their repugnant, racist history?  We won't give them the satisfaction.  Let's take those statues down.

Whatever liberals want, regressives want the opposite, so let's leave those statues up.  If we advocate for them staying up, they will come down tomorrow.

What I don't get is the sudden panic about removing the Statue of Liberty.  Let's consider a couple of points about the statue.
  1. She's French
  2. She welcomes immigrants to the country.
 I'm surprised the Republicans didn't advocate for her removal years ago.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Finally Reviewing The Ms. Collection

Anyone who has read style posts on this blog knows I love to shop in theory, but find it frustrating in practice.  That's why I am often pursuing online services that have stylists pick out clothes for me.  I have done multiple posts on StitchFix (I have ordered a few boxes since my last review post with varying levels of success) and the now-defunct Keaton Row (I think they ruined their own business model).

My most difficult problem with buying clothes in the past three years has been weight fluctuations.  I joined StitchFix after a major weight loss, but a year later I was gaining again.  Fit issues continued to be an issue with Keaton Row.  I went from a size 8-10 to a size 6-8 to a size 10-12 in a short period of time.  I'm back down to a fairly steady size 10 now, but I'm working on going back to the 6-8 days.  I have had to buy multiple sizes of clothes to accommodate all of these weight fluctuations.  It means I have assorted items of clothing that are too large or too small.  I don't know what I should keep and what I should toss anymore.

I decided my best way to keep my wardrobe fresh would be to rent clothes.  A rental service would provide me with a constant influx of new items and I wouldn't have to commit to any of them.  There is no uncertainty in a rental service.  I don't have to worry if the dress they send will fit me in six months because it will go back in six days and I receive another dress next week.

I had four options for clothing rental services.

Rent the Runway is the most expensive of the bunch.  For a monthly fee I can choose designer items of my choice from their inventory and keep them as long as I need to. 

The main drawback of this service is the price.  The monthly fee is steep.  There is also no guarantee the clothes and accessories I want will be available when I want them.  I would consider this service for a one-time occasion rental, but the subscription doesn't seem worth it even though I know the clothes are fabulous.

Le Tote is the most well known downmarket rental option.  Unlike StitchFix, you have some control over what they send you, although not as much control as Rent the Runway.  With LeTote you can view their inventory and choose items you like, but you may not receive them (but receive similar items). 

I chose not to use this service because I read too many online reviews complaining about the quality of the clothes.  Also, the items users chose often didn't make it into the boxes anyway.

There is also Gwynnie Bee.  This is aimed at plus sized women and seems well-liked around the blogosphere.  It starts at size 10, so I could hypothetically use the service with no fit issues.  I am trying to get below that size range though, so I optimistically decided not to go with this service.

I decided to to with the Ms. Collection.  They have the same fun surprise element as Stitch Fix, carry decent, mid-level brands (the stuff you might find at the malls and department stores like Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Vince Camuto, J. Crew, and Kut from the Kloth), and offer both casual and business options.

When I first decided to subscribe, I looked online everywhere for reviews.  Unlike StitchFix, there aren't many women reviewing the service in the blogosphere.  Many of those reviews are negative with complaints about bad choices and poor quality.  I did manage to find one positive review in the group.  One would think the lack of good reviews would keep me from subscribing, but I was too curious.  I came to the conclusion that there weren't enough reviews out there to know what the service was like without trying it.  On the other hand, the bad reviews of Le Tote were too numerous to ignore.

The Ms. Collection offers three levels of subscription.  They have a "Ms. Play" ($39 per month) collection that provides 3-4 pieces of casual clothing, a "Ms. Business" ($49 per month) collection that provides 4-5 pieces of work clothes, and as "Ms. Combo" ($113 per month) that includes 6-7 pieces from both collections.  It also includes accessories like scarves, bags, and jewelry if you indicate in your profile you are interested in receiving these.

I started with the Ms. Business pack, but this spring I decided to upgrade to Ms. Combo.

After these many months of subscribing, I have mixed feelings.

I do believe the stylists pay attention to feedback.  One time they sent a blouse that I thought was cute, but was too see-through and too large.  Two packs later I received it again in a smaller size and with a camisole to wear under it.  They have never neglected to send a camisole with sheer blouses since then.  Another time they sent a top I loved in February that I thought was not seasonally appropriate and wouldn't look good layered under a sweater or jacket.  I asked if I could revisit it in the spring.  I received it again in April.  If I say I like a piece, but it was the wrong size, they will sometimes send something similar in a different size.

In general there is always at least one piece in every pack I can wear.  This is an improvement over StitchFix where I have sent back boxes that have had nothing useful in them.

Here is a recent box they sent.

The stylists have a good general feel for my style. They know I like strong colors and floral prints.

In this pack I was only able to wear the burgundy top, the floral top, and the yellow top.  The yellow top was the only thing that fit me really well.  That's too bad because I don't like yellow. I have indicated this in my profile, but sometimes they slip a yellow piece in a pack.

I loved the tropical dress, but it was huge and hung like a sack on me.  The pants were way oversized.  The chambray dress made me look like a toddler wearing one of Daddy's shirts.

Thanks to my love of personal style blogs (I should address those in another post), I considered ways I could get creative with the chambray dress.  I thought I could wear it open as a duster.  It would have been a nice idea, but I wouldn't want to wear a chambray duster in July.  The stylists don't always pay attention to weather in their choices.

After receiving this particular pack, I realized I had lost some significant weight.  I congratulated myself and adjusted the sizes on my profile.  The clothes are fitting me better now.

There are times I will receive a box that is boring and too much like previous boxes.  I will vow to end the service after one more box.  Then the next box will be filled with perfect clothes and I will decide to keep subscribing.

The turnaround time on the packs can be slow.  If you wear everything once, you might have the pack a week.  If you want to wear some items two or three times, you are stuck with the pack for longer.  You need to give it a week to mail the pack back and then wait another week for them to style another pack and send it out to you.  I average two packs a month.  That means I have to make sure there are enough clothes in my closet to wear between packs.

The other drawback of the service is you can't rent one item and send everything back.  I loved a skirt in my last pack and wanted to wear it multiple times, but the other stuff I was happy to wear just once or not at all.  I couldn't hold on to the skirt and send everything else back.  You have to rent the entire pack and send back the entire pack at once.  If I sent back everything in the pack but the skirt, they would have charged me to buy the skirt.

There is an option to buy any piece you love at a discount (it's used clothing after all).  I rarely buy anything from my packs because the whole point of using this service is I don't want to commit too much to my closet while I'm still losing weight.

I have been happy enough with the service to say I will hold on to the subscription until I lose 20 pounds.  I am about 5 pounds above that right now, so at the pace I lose weight, I expect to be subscribing another three or four months.  It has been useful.  I am constantly injecting a bit of freshness into my closet and I love the anticipation of a new box.  It's more environmentally sound to rent clothes instead of buy them as well.

I don't know if I would say outright I recommend the service.  It has its drawbacks and its advantages.    I can only say if you are considering it, to take a chance and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Life's Little Annoyances (That sometimes don't seem so little)

Getting into an elevator with someone who just smoked a cigarette (or pipe, or cigar, or any other smokeable substance).

Having a piece of food - particularly a hard piece of food - stuck on your tonsils and the back of your tongue keeps bumping up against it.

Your passenger's left leg when you put your manual car in fifth.

Being stuck behind a slow walker on the streets of New York (and the people coming from the other direction are moving too fast to allow you to go around the slowpoke).

The slow walker above is smoking a cigarette.

Donald Trump's ugly face everywhere I look.

The crying baby in the apartment upstairs.

People who hold the elevator forever at their floor.

People who won't re-rack weights at the gym.

Bent bra hooks.

The View from the Plateau

I know health and fitness posts aren't the most interesting items I write.  I doubt there are many readers who want to know the narcissistic details of my health and fitness improvement efforts.  Nonetheless, every once in a while I do feel it's not a bad idea to discuss my progress and whether or not I'm making the right moves to achieve my goals.  I do hope it inspires some of my readers.  I'm sure there are many people out there with similar struggles who want to know what worked for me and what doesn't.   I felt my regular updates on my progress on the Lean Eating program provided some insight to readers who might be considering the program themselves.  I'm also sure there are people who are struggling with losing weight after recovering from an injury or illness as I was.

So now that I have made excuses for why I still continue with this boring and self-centered pursuit of writing about my body issues, I want to talk about the problem so many women face when trying to reshape their bodies:  The Dreaded Plateau.

At the beginning of 2017 I blogged about my determination to finally do something about the post-surgical weight gain.  The surgery was nearly 3 years ago.  I may still have some stiffness in my hip, but I am functioning normally.   There is still some pain in my elbow, but it is only aggravated by heavy pulling motions (I doubt I will ever attempt to do pullups again) or putting direct pressure on it.  I no longer have any excuse to put a full effort into my lifestyle improvement.

I enacted a few rules.  I reserved sweets only for special occasions.  I made sure all my meals were planned ahead.  I limited alcohol consumption by never drinking it in the house unless I was entertaining.

It worked for a while.  I lost about 11 pounds, but soon I fell back into my old ways.  I'd quaff a glass of wine or a cocktail at home.  I would give in to a sweet craving during slow afternoons at work. The weight kept creeping back on.  I wasn't looking any fitter.  My body still looked soft and flabby.

But the worst of the plateau came in the gym.   At first it seemed I was starting to make real progress. One morning I was at the gym and I was doing a heavy weight/low rep day.  I meant to do my front squats at 60-65 pounds.  I miscalculated the weight of the plates when I loaded up the bar and I realized after my first set or two that I was actually squatting with 70 pounds.  I wasn't squatting that much before surgery (I squat all the way to the floor in case you think that sounds light).  I couldn't believe how strong I had become.

Two weeks later I was back at square one.  I was working in the mid weight/rep range and decided I could do 10 reps at 60pounds  with no problem.  I couldn't.  I struggled.  I lowered the weight.  The next time I had a light weight/high rep day, I took the weight all the way down to 45.  I was not only not making progress, I was regressing.

Now is the time to start making the same self-pitying comments I always make about my poor genetics.  Here is where I complain about how naturally unathletic I am.  It's where I say for the hundredth time about how it takes me twice as much time to make half as much progress as a normal person does.  This is the point where I moan about how my body just loves its fat and doesn't want to give it up.  Woe is me.

Oddly enough, even though I throw a really good pity party, I know when it's time to pack it up.  I realized I had learned a lesson in the past few months. What I had been doing wasn't working anymore.  I had gone as far as I could go with the old rules.  If I wanted the old rules to continue working, I would have to adjust them and I would have to find other ways to stick to them.

Back in May I discovered the Whole Life Challenge.  This is an online weight loss "game" where you pay a small fee and track your nutrition, exercise, sleep, and other various lifestyle habits for 8 weeks.  The rules were strict.  I had to give up all grains, including corn, all sugar, and most dairy products.  I also couldn't drink more than one glass of wine per week.  The program worked on a point system where I started each day with 5 points and lost a point for every non-compliant food I ate.  I had tinkered with the Paleo* diet in the past and WLC depended heavily on the Paleo Diet.  I could do this.  I was capable of cutting out a few foods and occasionally taking a hit of a point or three when the occasion called for it.  Besides, the exercise requirements were light.  I only had to do 10 minutes per day.  That's not even a third of what I do on a regular basis.

I knew the WLC eating habits weren't ones I could make permanently, but I felt they would help me practice restraint and think more about my food choices.  It paid off and by the end of of the eight-week program I lost 9 pounds and had lost a total of seventeen pounds since the beginning of the year.  My ultimate goal is to lose a total of 34 pounds, so I came halfway to that goal.

Do I see a difference?  Sometimes I look in the mirror and I still see a fat girl.  Sometimes I see a fit girl.  I don't know what to believe.

This is Kevin and me in 2015 on the beach in the Greek island of Zakynthos .  It's less than a year after surgery.  I was still hurting too much to work out at pre-surgery levels.  My elbow was still pretty bad even after the expensive PRP treatment.

Here we are in Chincoteague in the summer of 2017 after spending a year and half working out the way I did pre-surgery.  I am about 15 pounds lighter.  I happen to be wearing the same bathing suit (as a coincidence, Kevin is also wearing the same bathing suit and the same hat).

Sometimes I look at this and see an improvement.  Sometimes I think it's just that I'm in a more flattering pose.  Do my arms and legs look smaller?  At least the surgery scars on my right hip have faded.

Isn't it strange  how I judge myself not just how I look but also how I judge only one type of athletic performance.   Maybe there is more to consider.

On my birthday I took a day hiking trip with my friends Rich and Mickey.  We went to a trail called Breakneck Ridge.  It was aptly named.   We chose it for its proximity to the charming town of Cold Spring rather than for its ease (or lack of ease) in ascent.  We read the trail was difficult, but we felt we could handle it. We had no idea of what we were in for.

The beginning of the trail is one continuous rock scramble.  It was tricky at times trying to figure out the best way up.  Sometimes the only way up that presented itself still seemed impossible.  I plowed ahead with every climb.  I wanted to get up those precarious parts as quickly as possible.  I wanted to be ahead of the slow climbers so they wouldn't slow me down.  I started out a bit cocky as I swiftly made my way up.

Then I came to a part of the trail that had only one possible way up and it was terrifying.  There was a large, flat slab of rock that was almost vertical with no obvious footholds and handholds.  I saw several climbers ahead of me having trouble with it.  Rich went up first.  Between Rich and Mickey and me there was a young woman trying to go up and having trouble.  I had to wait for her before I could keep going.  I found a ledge to the side to sit and wait.  From that ledge I could see the long descent down to the Hudson River.  I began to panic.  I felt that sense of vertigo one feels when confronted with dizzying heights.  I had confidently come this far, but I suddenly feared I would not be able to get over that slab of rock.  This woman ahead of me couldn't figure it out.  Why would I be any different?

Oddly enough, as she called up to her boyfriend who was on the trail above her and asked for help, he said to her, "Just follow her."  She looked over at me and said to him, "She's off to the side waiting for me."  I realized I was "her" and apparently other hikers noticed how adept I was at climbing.  It gave me a little bit of confidence that others saw me as someone who knew what she was doing (although if I looked down, that confidence would diminish).  Finally Rich helped pull her up and she made it to the next ledge on the trail.

It was my turn.  Going back down was not an option.  I had to get up over this bit of rock.  I couldn't even tell you where I dug in my foot or what I reached for.  I just did it.  I figured it out without even giving it much though.  I think I definite hoisted my leg up pretty high to the edge of the top of the rock and pushed myself up.  I had to be both strong and flexible to do that.  After waiting for several minutes watching someone else struggle, I made it over that section of the trail in a few sections with no assistance.

The view from that (literal) plateau?  It was breathtaking.  Breakneck Ridge is worth the crazy climb.

What else have I accomplished lately? I completed the Warrior Dash and thought most of the obstacles were easy.  This summer I took my first modern dance classes.  I took a tap class with a new instructor who is nothing like my regular teacher and who made it feel like I never tapped before.  I rented a bike in Chincoteague and realized how much better balanced I am on a bicycle than I used to be. (I can take my left hand off the handlebars without feeling like I'll lose control). I was having trouble with Riddle over the winter and stopped riding her for a few months, and started riding other horses to work on my skills until I felt I could communicate with her again.  I started riding her again in the spring and my ability to work with her successfully earned me a Rider of the Month award.  I can do so much.  I have overcome what I lost post-surgery.  I'm as fit as I ever was.  Why can't I be happy with that?

You have to climb to reach a plateau.  I had a long ascent.  It's time I just enjoy the view for a while. I know I can keep climbing again.

*I am not one of those weird, quasi-religious Paleo freaks.  I think the Paleo diet provides some useful guidelines for eating since it focuses solely on fresh food.  However, I also think legumes, grains, and dairy can have their place in a healthful diet.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Whovians Need to Get Over Themselves

"It's traditional."

"It's always been done this way."

If you want me to support your cause, you will never use these phrases with me.  I believe tradition can be more of a hindrance than a help.  Rigid adherence to tradition is a potential impediment to true progress.  If humans always stuck to the belief that things should be done one way because they have always been done that way, we would all still be living in trees.  Everything changes and moves forward and most of the time humanity is the better for it.

This doesn't only apply to the big issues.  It also applies to the small ones.  Pop culture needs to be refreshed and reinvented too sometimes.  If it didn't we would all still be watching vaudeville and the Keystone Cops and wondering why were were bored with them.

The grand tradition of Dr. Who deserves a face lift as much as any institution.  For the uninitiated, I will clarify that Dr. Who is a TV show that began in 1963.  The BBC created it as a way of teaching children about science and history.  It was about a mysterious, humanoid space alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels throughout time and space in a magical spaceship shaped like a phone booth called the TARDIS.  He solves complex issues throughout the universe using only his wits.  The show caught on with a broader audience.  Thanks to PBS, it found an audience in the US.  It was a cult hit.

Unfortunately the actor who played the Doctor became seriously ill and could not continue playing the role.  Rather than end the show, the writers came up with an ingenious plan to keep it going.  The Doctor is an alien with two hearts.  When he is close to death, he has the ability to regenerate into another form.  He would still be the same person with the same memories, but have a different body.  That body could be anything, but from 1966-1989, the Doctor always took the form of an eccentric, middle-aged (EDIT: Okay, not all of them were middle-aged), white, English man.  Audiences saw 8 of these men before the show was cancelled.

In 2005 the BBC decided to reboot the series.  Its old fans were nostalgic, and the emerging popularity of nerd culture among young people made it ripe for a new life on television.  In order to appeal to a younger audience, the producers began casting younger, hipper men in the lead role.

As stated in an earlier post, I had a long and complicated history with the show. The reboot helped shatter my expectations of what the Doctor could and should be.  The Doctor was no longer a middle-aged man in a funny hat.   He was a cool guy in a leather jacket.  When Christopher Eccleston left, the regenerations became even younger and more eccentric.  I enjoyed each of these regenerations.  Every actor brought something new to the role.  I never let myself get too attached to one Doctor.  I don't have a "My Doctor" (although if you forced me to choose, I'd pick Eleven).

When I heard Matt Smith was leaving the show, I started to think long and hard about the choices the producers had made in casting the show so far.  Sure the Doctors each had different personalities and appearances, but they all had one thing in common.  After fifty years, maybe it was time to make some changes.

"The next Doctor should be black," I said to Kevin as Matt Smith's departure became imminent.

"Or a woman," was his response.

I'm a progressive feminist kind of gal, but the idea of a woman threw me for a loop for a moment.  Why a woman?  Why not a woman?  Certainly a woman is capable of doing everything the Doctor does.  If you want to go by stereotypes and say that men have the brawn and women have the intellect and sensitivity, wouldn't a woman be perfect as a hero who defeats enemies with wit and negotiation?  Still my brain was as tied to the idea of a male Doctor as the producers and writers were.  It was difficult to envision.  But back in the 70s could fans of the show envision a young man in a leather jacket and jeans as the Doctor instead of a weird guy in a ridiculous scarf?

Whatever hopes I had of a radical change in the Doctor ended with the new season.  Tradition won out in the end and Peter Capaldi, an eccentric, middle-aged, white man was cast in the titular role.  Doctor Who had come full circle.

I liked Capaldi and what he brought to the role, but the Capaldi years have not been the most successful seasons.  Ratings are slipping.  My husband groans when I suggest we watch an episode of Doctor Who.  "The writing just isn't good anymore," he protests.  The show has lost its momentum.  Do we blame Capaldi?  Do we blame Steven Moffat?  Do we blame the fact that the show has been on the air for over 50 years and there is only so long you can play the same concept to the same audience?

Certainly women have played a stronger role in the show since the reboot and the show has played with the idea of a female time lord.  Throughout the first few seasons we learned the mysterious River Song, while a human born to human parents, has Timelord DNA due to her being conceived in the TARDIS.  We saw her regenerate from Amy's childhood friend, Mels to her final incarnation as River.  She must have regenerated at least one other time because Mels was black and she was a white baby.  In the more recent seasons we saw the Doctor's nemesis, The Master, regenerate into Missy, a woman.  The character became immensely popular and she is far more complex than the Master, who is portrayed almost as pure evil.

With Capaldi's departure imminent, the speculation that a woman would be cast as the next Doctor grew to a fever pitch.  There were speculations on potential actresses to play the role.  There were denials from the producers who said this wouldn't happen.

On July 16th, I received my birthday present of the notification of the next Doctor.  Jodie Whittaker, formerly of Broadchurch will take on the role..  It is an interesting crossover since the Broadchurch cast features two former actors from Doctor Who, David Tennant and Arthur Darvill. Also Season 2 featured  Torchwood alum, Eve Myles.  There was also speculation about Olivia Coleman playing the role, and I think that choice would have been equally legitimate.

Nerdbros have exploded all over the internet.  Apparently a woman isn't fit to play the Doctor.  The angry Twitterverse has provided several interesting reasons why. Much of that is pure sexism. Apparently The Doctor can't fulfill her role as savior of the universe if she's on her period.  (Do Timelords have periods?  Do they have human genitalia?  I suspect if she gets her period, she does what human women do.  She sticks a tampon up her hoo-hah, takes some Advil for her cramps, and carries on.)  She might cover the TARDIS in frilly decorations or cry when the Daleks threaten to exterminate her.  What if she breaks a nail or gets a run in her stocking? No matter how many strong women exist both in pop culture and in real life, there will always be sexist pigs who won't believe they are capable of heroism.

What is sadder than the sexism is the viewers who can't accept change.  We are back to doing things how they have always been done.  Doctor Who has always had men in the starring role, and that's the way it should be.  It doesn't matter that doing this eventually led to a cancellation the first time and slipping ratings the second.  Jodie Whittaker may be terrible in the role, but she may also be brilliant.  The show could go in new directions that will be fresh and unexpected.  She will have different relationships with her companions (and that's why I look forward to seeing the most).  She is breaking a tradition, but breaking tradition is what leads to progress and this is exactly what the show needs.

Embrace change, or lose what you love entirely.  Your choice.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Life's Little Victories

When I am on the train going home, I do not like to get up after I find a seat and sit down.  I want to sit down and immediately get my ticket ready and read my book.  I don't want to be disrupted.  I want to stay seated until the train reaches my stop.  This means I do what it takes to not have to move to let someone in my row.  If I'm sitting in the aisle seat, I will ask anyone requesting to sit in my what her stop is.  If that person is getting off before me, I will gladly take the middle seat.  It's is much easier than standing up, moving into the aisle to let the other passenger into the middle seat, and then getting up again at that passenger's stop.

Today I boarded the train and found an available seat in the two facing rows at the back of the car.  Two people were in this group of seats already.  One was sitting on the aisle and one was sitting at the window.  I decided to take the remaining window seat since I wouldn't have to move at all as other people came to sit in this row.  The passenger opposite me was an elderly woman of middle height, who, like most American adults, was significantly taller than I am.  I politely tucked in my stubby legs so they were a reasonable distance (for a train anyway) from hers and pulled out my book.

Another minute later, she moved into the middle seat.  It was obvious she couldn't bear to have my knees hovering just a few inches across from hers.  She needed to sit with no one close to her.

Along came a tall and portly teenager who took the aisle seat next to her.  His body occupied all of his seat and appeared to be spilling into hers a bit.

Then a statuesque and voluptuous woman, quite a bit taller than this elderly woman and significantly bigger and taller than I, sat in the middle seat.  There was some extreme leg tucking going on here to maintain that polite distance between knees.  The elderly woman did not look happy.

The train began to move.  Nobody came and sat in the window seat opposite me.  I stretched out my legs and smiled.

I tried not to smirk at the former occupant of the seat opposite me.

Ah schadenfreude!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Real Presidents Don't Punch Back

Donald Trump can't help himself.  He has to lash out at everything and everyone.  There seems to be a general consensus among rational people that his recent comment about Mika Brzezinski is a step too far.

His minority of supporters are cheering him on.  His long-suffering wife defended him.  This woman who claims to be supporting an anti-bullying project said, "He will punch back 10 times harder."

Is this the kind of behavior we should expect from someone occupying the the highest office in the land?

Being president - being in politics in general -  requires an extraordinary personality.  A politician needs a thick skin.  He needs to be able to take the high ground when attacked.  He needs to be diplomatic at all times.  He has to walk a fine line between being gracious and saying what's on his mind.  When you are president, you must deal with the media, the public, and the leaders of other countries with consistency and class.

In other words, you don't "punch back".

Let's look at some some examples from the past few decades.

Obama was hanged in effigy.  He was pictured on posters and t-shirts wearing a Hitler mustache.  He received death threats daily.  I never heard him insult or demean his enemies.  He laughed it off.

Remember the meme that went around the internet of George W. Bush pictured next to various primates?  We all saw it, but I never heard or saw him react to it.

In 1986 the band Genesis released the video for the song Land of Confusion that featured a grotesque puppet of Ronald Reagan accidentally hitting a call button for his nurse and ended up launching nuclear missles.  I never heard him as much as mention it.

Donald Trump is under the same media scrutiny that every other politician throughout American history has had to endure.  A free and unbiased press is a necessity for a free and democratic society.  Americans need to know everything about our government.  We need to know the good and the bad.  We need to know what policies will be enacted.  We need to know if our public servants are properly representing us abroad.  We need to know if politicians truly respect and serve us, or if they are serving their own power.  It is the job of the media to relentlessly pursue the government in search of facts because the actions of a politician can literally mean life or death to American citizens.

Occupying a high office doesn't just mean you have to face scrutiny from the press.   You must also expect to be lampooned by comedians, criticized by pundits, and grilled by citizens.  You will be criticized and satirized.  It doesn't matter what side of the political fence you are on. Someone, somewhere isn't going to like what you do.  At some point you will make a faux pas or do something embarrassing and it will be all over the news.  The press will fight to keep you honest.

This is part of public life. You are choosing it.  Hitting back is not an option.  Your only option is to do your job and do it to the best of your ability.

So Mr. Trump, it's time you take the advice of Harry Truman: "If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen."  You chose this office.  It's up to you to give it the grace and dignity it deserves.  You can't punch back, so start acting like a president.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Please Stop Using This Word

Drama, drama, drama.  Everything is drama.

I hate that word.

Oh, do you think I'm being "dramatic" when I say that?  Well, tough.  Maybe it's time you stopped pointing fingers and started listening.

This seems to be the typical reaction to any displays of negative feelings these days:

Person #1 - I'm really upset right now by events around me, or the people around me.

Person #2 - Oh cut the drama!

Another example:

Person #1 - I'm stating my opinion.

Person #2 - I'm disagreeing with your opinion.

Person #3 - Ooh!  Look at all the drama.  I am getting the popcorn to watch this unfold because it's all just entertainment.

Person #4 - Oh no.  It's drama.  I can't handle it.

What is "drama"?  In the true definition of the word, it is a form of entertainment that is meant to be mostly serious.  The feelings it are meant to evoke are not humor or warm fuzzies.  A play, television show, or movie that is considered a drama will generally leave us with uncomfortable feelings.  It may make us sad or angry or scared.  This isn't always a negative reaction.  There is entertainment and pleasure in sitting with these feelings for a while and then hoping the situations will resolve.

So what exactly are you saying when you accuse someone in real life of creating "drama"?

Are you saying she is putting on a show?

Are you saying his feelings are inauthentic?

Are you saying others' disagreements are somehow wrong and shouldn't happen?

Worst of all, are you saying that that such conflicts are happening for your own entertainment?

As I see it, when you accuse an aggrieved person of creating drama, you are trying to invalidate that person's feelings and experiences.  You are saying, "Stop it.  I don't like what you are feeling.  It makes me uncomfortable, so I'm going to tell you it's not real.   I am going to put my discomfort back on your and try to make you think your feelings are wrong."

Perhaps I'm being a bit too much of an armchair psychologist, but I consider myself a highly sensitive person.  I react strongly to emotions.  Many friends, family, and acquaintances think I overreact.  My emotions, no matter if they are positive or negative, are always large and expressive.  I can never hide how I feel about something.  On the good side, I feel it makes me more empathetic.  I have learned to make peace with this.  I am who I am.  However, throughout my life, I have often been accused of being "dramatic".  I suppose there are times when this label was warranted as I have always been attention-seeking (and the armchair psychologist in my suspects I may suffer from Histrionic Personality Disorder), but seeking attention and having authentic strong feelings are not mutually exclusive.

I want you to consider a few points the next time you want to accuse someone of drama:

Did the person's feelings seem authentic?
Yes, you may feel someone overreacted to a situation, but is that feeling genuine?  Don't judge the expression.  Judge the emotion behind it. Just because you do not have the same reaction to a situation doesn't make another's reaction invalid.

Why does this affect me?
Is there a reason why you want to invalidate someone's feelings?  Does a person's point of view make you uncomfortable?  Do you fear conflict?  Do you simply dislike it when someone disagrees with your point of view?  Perhaps brushing off someone's feelings as inauthentic makes you feel more secure in your own position. Remember, you can't control others' emotions.  You can only control your reaction to them.

If conflict is present, is it automatically bad?
Conflict is part of life.  Humanity is diverse.  There are many ways to live and many ways to think.  Life would be pretty boring if we all thought and felt the same way about everything.  In any given group of people issues will arise and opinions will be divided.  Sometimes it can be ugly.  There are also times when it can solve problems and bring enlightenment.  Whatever the case, to the people involved in a conflict, it is real.  It is not drama.  It is not meant for your entertainment.

If you are one of the people involved in the conflict, you will not solve anything by accusing your opponent of drama.  His feelings are as legitimate as yours.  Again, learn empathy.  Learn compassion.  If that is too difficult (and I will happily admit sometimes it is) then learn to just walk away.  Again, you can only control your reaction.  You can't control other someone's feelings, so don't try.

Feelings are feelings.  Emotional expressions happen.   You have the right to feel uncomfortable with other people's emotions.  You also have the choice as to how you react and you have the choice to walk away.  Please just accept this and stop calling it drama unless it's on the stage or screen.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Who Am I Online?

Sometimes I feel weary of hiding.

When I make social media posts, I am always cognizant of who will read it.  What will readers think?  Will they be offended?  Will they still like me if they post it?  I want people to like me.

What do I do to stay safe?  I don't always say what's on my mind.  I have come up with blog post topics that I would never dare publish.  I have hidden my opinions behind metaphors.  I have specific lists of friends who can only see certain Facebook posts.

When you see me online what do you see?

The girl who is obsessed with food?

The horse girl?

The theater girl?

The smart aleck?

Maybe you don't want to see:

The feminist.

The secularist who wishes you well, and will help you in any way she can, but will not pray for you.

The patriot who believes that the tide of progress can not, and should not be stopped, who believes that one should understand the line between patriotism and jingoism, who believes the government and the American people need empathy more than they need religion, and who believes diversity is the true strength of this country.

What is my fear of what will happen if I show everyone every aspect of myself?

Why do I fear rejection so much?

I am not just one of these traits above.  I am all of them.  All of these parts of my personality, my belief system, my values, are part of a larger whole that makes up Rachel.  If you want to be friends with me, you shouldn't pick and choose what you want to be friends with.  I want you to want to be friends with all of me.

I accept the people in my life in their entirety.  We can't love everything about every person we know.  Have I ever stopped caring about someone just because I didn't like what was on his or her Facebook timeline, or Instagram and Twitter feeds, or posted in a blog?

Why am I so afraid others will treat me this way?

More importantly, why would I want to be friends with someone who can't be friends with all of me?

Tomorrow will I post something you don't want to see?  What do you want to see when you see me?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Dream Week In Amsterdam

I'm not sure exactly when the bug got up my butt.  I would say it was about 3 or 4 years ago.  I may even have to partially credit reading The Fault in Our Stars.  I can only say at some point Amsterdam became a city that was a major item on the Bucket List.  It seemed like a city that contained a little of everything I love as a tourist: beautiful scenery and architecture, friendly people, and plenty of museums and culture.

I put it off for a few years.  I never seemed to be able to get the money together.  Twice my father made me offers I couldn't refuse for other vacations like Prague and the cruise to the Mediterranean.  Amsterdam was put on the back burner again and again.

I had no major plans for the back half of 2017, so I considered taking a trip in the fall.  I got Kevin tentatively on board with the idea.  We were planning our usual Chincoteague trip in July and wanted to escape winter in March by going to Hawaii.  I thought it would be pleasant to take a trip in October when I have a long stretch of time with no days off between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  I penciled Amsterdam in for the week of our anniversary.

Then Kevin was cast in the recent Harrison Players production of Inherit the Wind and our Hawaii trip would have cut into his rehearsal schedule.  He suggested we postpone the trip until October and celebrate our anniversary in Hawaii.  I was sick of winter and reluctant to ruin my chance to get away from it for a week, but I'm a theater person too, and I know how important it is to be loyal to your production.  With much grumbling and whining and fuming, I reluctantly agreed to wait out the end of winter and not go to Hawaii.

That left me with three months between Presidents' Day and Memorial Day with no time off.  I needed a vacation in the spring.  I had to get away.

Now was my time to go to Amsterdam.  This was the universe giving me an opening.  The time had come to move on this and  stop wishing for the right time to go.  I did my research on hotels and flights.  It was February and booking Amsterdam in April isn't easy, but I managed to find a recommended hotel and flights that had plenty of seats.

So what happened?

Day 1 - Sometimes a flight can be so easy it seems too good to be true.  I was able to book Economy Comfort seats so I had priority boarding (well, I could board immediately after business class anyway), legroom, free wine, and unlimited entertainment.  The flight was on time and smooth.  We touched down in Amsterdam in mid morning, quickly cleared passport control, claimed our bags, and met our pre-arranged ride in good time.

We arrived late morning at our charming hotel, The Hoxton.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this hotel.  The top rated hotels on Trip Advisor were mostly all booked.  I preferred a small boutique hotel in a central location and the good ones fill up fast.  As a fallback I could have stayed at a large Doubletree and used my Hilton Honors discount, but it wasn't in my ideal location.

Once we arrived at the Hoxton we knew we had made the right choice.  It is a bit modern and hipster, but it's still cozy and warm.  The staff was friendly and spoke perfect English.  It was still too early to check in, so we sat in the cozy lobby and ordered mimosas (they were serving brunch in the restaurant after all) and planned our next few hours.  We decided to go on a canal cruise to get the lay of the land and just walk the neighborhood a bit.

The cruise was interesting some of the time and boring other times.  There were some fascinating lectures on local history and it gave me some idea of the layout of the canals (although in the end I got by knowing the four canals around my hotel: Herengracht, Singel, Kizergracht, and Prisengracht). It is hard to understand the layout of the streets when you're viewing the city from the water though.  I have to admit jet lag was getting the better of me and I nodded off for part of the cruise.  I didn't feel bad as I also saw Kevin and the woman sitting across from us nod off.

We did a bit more exploring on foot and ate a late lunch before returning to our hotel to finally check in and take a nap.   It was a small room, but it had a beautiful view of the Singel canal.  The trees were budding and I always had a beautiful spring day to view on the other side of my window.  The room was tiny, but pretty.  I was frustrated when I began unpacking because I had no closet (just a rack with some hangers in one corner) and no dresser.  I grumbled for a while about how I would have to live out of a suitcase for a week.  Wednesday I discovered there were two large drawers under the bed.  Oops!

We had dinner at our hotel and attempted to take an evening walk.  The sun sets much later in Amsterdam than it does in NY this time of year, so I wanted to enjoy the scenery at sunset and maybe take some good photos.

Day 2 -  What do you do when you only have a few days to spend in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and so much to see?  If you're traveling with me, you hop out of bed and hit the ground running.  We ate an early breakfast and headed for our first stop of the day, the Anne Frank House.

Before we booked this trip we learned no one should ever try to purchase tickets at the door.  The lines build up and go around the block and you're better off buying tickets online for a particular time slot.  I bought tickets ahead of time for 9:30 giving us enough time to have a leisurely morning and still have time to enjoy the rest of the day.

We started out in the main rooms of the museum where we saw displays and videos about the history  of the Jews in WWII and the history of the Frank family.  Eventually we were led into the rooms where the Franks and the Van Pels hid.

I think what struck me the most about the area was how small it was.  When you watch TV shows or movies or plays about Anne Frank, it is impossible to stage or shoot in a space that small, so the Secret Annex looks much bigger on screen than it was in reality.  You're never really prepared for seeing those small, close rooms.  They feel so dark and claustrophobic.  It's almost impossible to imagine everyone in the house gathered in the kitchen when you know the Van Pels also had to sleep there.  I was surprised the rooms could have stayed hidden for so long.  The warehouse building is fairly large.  Wouldn't the Nazis have noticed the public rooms were smaller on the inside than the building was on the outside? (I suppose someone did eventually figure it out since the family met a tragic end.)

Everyone needs to see places like this as well as the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.  It's the closest one can ever come to truly seeing the human side of the Holocaust and how important it is to never let something like this happen again.

Once we left the museum, we quickly moved on to happier events.  We met up with our friend Miriam for lunch.  We met Miriam on our trip to Italy in 2011.  At the time she was newly pregnant with her daughter Lisa, so we also go to meet Lisa "on the outside" along with her younger sister Ada.  Kevin and I rarely have opportunities to meet up with people we know when we travel, so it was great to cross the ocean and be able to see a familiar face.  We had a delicious lunch and caught up with Miriam and were amused by the girls (although they don't speak English yet, so we couldn't really talk to them).

After lunch we pushed on for some more exploring.  We went to the Westerkerk, a Protestant church next to the Anne Frank House.  The weather wasn't great for pictures, so we didn't bother climbing the tower.  There was live organ music playing when we walked in, and that enhanced our experience.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find Rembrandt's grave.  There are tombs under the floor everywhere, but we couldn't find Rembrandt's.  The church does nothing to mark it.

I wanted to explore the Jordaan district, but it was raining by then and we thought we should head to some of our more sheltered destinations first.  We walked through the Red Light District on our way to the Oude Kerk.  At first we didn't see any of the area's most infamous residents.  We did see a lot of sex shops though, and also many coffee shops.  There is one chain of coffee shops called Bulldog that seems to have a monopoly in that area.  Bulldog even has it's own gift shop.  (Kevin wondered if the t-shirts they sold were made of hemp.)

Eventually we approached the area where there is a high concentration of the infamous glass doors with the women behind them.  Most of the doorways were empty, but I noticed one woman hanging out expectantly behind one of them.  Kevin and I were walking a little apart from each other (one could say we were doing a Donald and Melania impersonation) and as Kevin approached her, I saw her start to open her door and look out.  Then she quickly closed it again.  I joke she was trying to proposition Kevin, but then saw me and realized he wasn't alone.

I did my best not to gawk too much at the women before we made our way into the church.

Oude Kerk is a unique experience.  The map they give you when you enter looks like an illustration from a children's book.  There is something almost playful about the place.  There is strange, conceptual art throughout (the most prominent one being a bunch of shattered mirrors at various spots on the floor).  If you want a view of the sanctuary from above, they have someone taking you up on an open elevator.  I would have done that if there wasn't such a long line (only one person can go up at a time).  I would say it shattered many of my expectations about what I would find in a centuries-old church.

Later in the day when the rain seemed to hold off for a while, we headed into the Jordaan.  We did linger in one interesting gallery, but many of the stores and galleries were closed that day, so we didn't see as much as we had hoped.

Sadly, the rain came down harder and steadier at dinner.  We hoped for a better day for our outing in the countryside.

Day 3- Today we took a bus tour to the towns of Zaanse Schaans, Volendam, and Markem.  We met with our tour group in the morning and headed out of the city.

Our first stop was Zaanse Schaans where the Dutch tradition of windmills is meticulously preserved.  It is a charming town, although definitely set up for tourists with shops meant to lure you in at every turn.  We didn't linger much.  Our tour brought us to a windmill that grinds linseed oil.  We went inside and had a demonstration on mill operation and we even went to the second floor to enjoy the view from the top.  We took plenty of windmill photos, but never explored more than that because we were herded back on the bus pretty quickly. 

Although our guide Velika gave us some talks and guidance on our tour, we mostly listened to recorded lectures on the bus.  The most fascinating ones were about how the Dutch farmland was created.  It was such a brilliant feat of engineering to create the polders and to keep pumping and channeling out the water.  Equally astounding is how the canals have to be at different elevations in order to channel water below sea level back out to sea.  Although windmills are no longer needed for industry, you can still see them scattered throughout the countryside pumping the water out of the polders.

I learned this week the Dutch have no fear of climate change because of their advanced water management systems.  They are confident they will always be able to pump the encroaching sea back out where it belongs.

Our next stop was the lakeside village of Volendam.  This is a traditional fishing village where many locals still try to preserve the old culture and dress in traditional clothing.  IJsselmeer lake itself is another engineering wonder.  The old harbor could not hold back the southern sea and keep it from flooding the farmlands.  The lake was created with a dike and more of those wondrous Dutch water management systems.  It is now the largest freshwater lake in western Europe.

Once again, we didn't explore the more interesting or historical parts of town.  We went to a major cheese shop and walked down one of the main streets.  It's a resort community and I thought of it as the Dutch Jersey Shore.

The weather grew steadily worse at Voledam.  The rain became more frequent and there was even some sleet mixed in. I didn't have an adequate coat for this kind of day. 

After lunch we took a boat ride to the village of Markem on the other side of the lake.  It a much quieter and more rural village.  All we did there was visit a wooden shoe factory where we did get a carving demo.  I suppose it's part of the experience, but it wasn't really necessary.

We returned to Amsterdam in the mid-afternoon.  We had some time before dinner, so we took a walk to the Rembrandt House museum.  Although he moved out of the house after several years (he was in debt and couldn't pay for it), it has been preserved and restored to look the way it would have looked when he lived there.  Many paintings were on display as well.  What impressed me the most was learning how Rembrandt worked.  He was devoted to realism and accuracy.  We visited his cabinet room that was an example of how he amassed a collection of curiosities and antiquities to use as models in his paintings.  If he was going to do a painting about Greek mythology, he wanted to work with real Greek statues as models.  Maintaining this collection wasn't cheap, so I can see how he would have been unable to afford the payments on the house.  In a sense he was bankrupted by his own devotion to his art and its process.

Day 4 - We stayed in the city today and made it our Museum Day.  We started off on foot to the Van Gogh Museum.  We made one major mistake with our visit.  We bought city passes that gave us free admission to most of the city's major museums and attractions.  We didn't realize the Van Gogh museum is small and only lets a certain number of people in at one time.  If you buy tickets online ahead of time, you bypass the line.  If you don't, you have to wait in line for an hour until they let the next wave of people in.  We must have waited in line for an hour.  At least we didn't have to pay admission.

Photos were not allowed, so I can't share anything, but I will say it is a well-run museum and well laid out.  Each of the five floors covers a different period of his life and work.  The audio tours are not your standard recorded messages.  We received multimedia devices that provided us with photos (so we were always sure we we looking at the correct paintings) and other interactive features.

I enjoyed contrasting the works of van Gogh and Rembrandt.  At the Rembrandt House I learned how Rembrandt would go out of his way to buy unusual objects to use as models for his paintings and how his work often represented stories that were not of his time.  Despite the fact that his work did not represent real, present life, his style was solidly realist.  On the other hand van Gogh believed in painting the real world.  His models were objects right in front of him.  Despite his belief in painting reality, his paintings were decidedly not realist.  His style was whimsical and impressionistic.  He painted objects as he saw them and not how they were.  Great art runs such a grand spectrum, doesn't it?

After lunch we headed for the beautiful Rijksmuseum.  After waiting so long to enter the Van Gogh Museum, we decided not to take any chances.  Even though we had free admission to the Rijksmueum, we didn't want to wait in line again.  Kevin bought advanced tickets on his phone.  Of course the museum is huge and anyone can walk in at any time, so we didn't need those advance tickets.  Life is ironic.

The museum is such a beautiful building.  It is an attraction by itself.  I wondered if had ever been a palace like the Louvre, but it was built in the 19th century and built to be a museum.  Once again the audio tours were on interactive devices.  The devices offered several options for touring the museum focusing on different areas for differing amounts of time.  They also provided explicit navigation where you followed a little shadow man on your screen.  We did a 90 minute highlights tour that covered the major collections and most famous pieces.  I wish we could have seen more, but the museum is huge and we were exhausted.  You really need a few visits to truly see all this place has to offer. 

We had been moving nonstop from breakfast until dinner that night.  It was a good day, but an exhausting one.  We were so tired by the end of the day we spent a ridiculous amount of money just to take the hop on-hop off boat one stop so we wouldn't have to walk back to our hotel or figure out which tram to take.

Day 5 - This was the weakest day of the trip. It was King's Day, a national holiday where the country shuts down and everyone parties.  It didn't seem like the best day to be hanging out in Amsterdam, so  I booked a bus tour to Antwerp and Brussels.  Although Amsterdam was the focus of the dream trip, I was interested in seeing as much of BeNeLux as I could.  This tour seemed like a good option.  We met with our guide in the morning and took the long ride to Antwerp.  We hit a lot of traffic and the ride was torturous (no bathroom breaks). 

Antwerp is a depressing city.  It is just dingy and dark.  It didn't look economically depressed.  I didn't see any outright signs of extreme poverty.  There were high-end stores everywhere and the people were well dressed.  The city just looks in bad need of an update.  There were few historic buildings in the area and they just looked old and worn.  The newer buildings looked as if they hadn't had a face lift since the 70s.  At best I would call the city visually boring.

The tour only stopped in once place.  We went to the Jewish quarter and stopped at a large jewelry store called Diamond Land (I kid you not).  This might have been interesting if our guide or the staff at Diamond Land gave us any sort of talk about the history of the area and the history of the diamond trade.  All they did was give us a lecture on the 4 Cs, which anyone who has ever been engaged via diamond ring would know.  We did see the diamond cutters working behind a glass wall, but we had no narration as to what they were doing.

Antwerp is home to a cathedral with one of the tallest towers in Europe.  It is also home to Rubens' house and museum.  We saw none of that.  We had time to grab lunch before heading to Brussels.  More traffic ensued.

We made it to Brussels and stopped by a few highlights with some lame narration.  Our guide was phoning it in.  We passed the royal palace and stopped for a photo of the giant statue of a magnified iron molecule before boarding the bus again.

We ended up in the central square of Brussels.  It's a pretty city and I'm sure there is a lot to see there, but we had maybe two hours to enjoy it.  We saw the old guild halls and the main cathedral. Our guide also took us to the famous Mannekin Pis statue.  I know it's a tourist trap, but I felt I might as well see it if I was going to be in Brussels.   Kevin and I opted to spend most of our free time in a bakery where we could eat some Belgian liege waffles.  We managed to spend about 5 minutes in the cathedral before it closed for the day and we had to board the bus again.

We came back to Amsterdam late that night. The King's Day celebrations were winding down, but we had to fight heavy crowds of drunk and stoned people to return to our hotel. 

Day 6 - I booked another bus trip for today.  This time we went to Bruges.  I had heard many stories in the past about how beautiful this city is, so I had high hopes of this being a better day than Antwerp and Brussels.  Fortunately we had a much better guide this time and she kept us entertained and informed during the entire 3-hour drive.

Our tour was well organized.  We drove to the south end of the city and our guide Maryann gave us a narrated walk north to the main square where we viewed City Hall, the belfry, and the Palace of Justice.  Then we had three hours to explore the city on our own and make our way back down to the bus.

Bruges has three churches.  At one end of the city is the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  There is a vial here containing a cloth stained with Jesus's blood obtained during the Crusades.  I don't know how authentic it is, so we skipped this one.

In the center of the city is the main cathedral St. Salvator.

A little south of that is St. John's hospital and the Church of Our Lady.  That church contains the tombs of the king and queen and a Madonna statue carved by Michelangelo.  It is one of the few Michelangelo statues existing outside of Italy. 

If we had more time we would have visited the Dali Museum in the main square and the old hospital.  I would have liked a boat tour of the canals too.  Climbing the bell tower for a view of this charming city would also have been fun.

In order to enter and leave the city we had to pass the Minnewater Lake, said to be a lover's spot.  The legend of the lake is that it is made of the tears of a man who could not marry the woman he loved.

We also had to pass through the Beguinage.  This was once a place where the city's working single women could have refuge from lusty men.  It is now a convent.  We took a peek inside the small affiliated church and saw the nuns engaged in vespers.  It was interesting to watch and listen to them sing.  Kevin thought it felt intrusive, but the church prints up a schedule of all masses and activities happening at the church.  I assume they expect spectators.

Before we left I managed to snap a few last photos of the tulips in the local park and eat one last waffle.

We had another late night as we had to both eat dinner and pack.  Our vacation was ending.

Day 7 - Remember what I said about our easy flight being too good to be true?  It was.  I received a notification from the airline our flight had been cancelled due to a faulty plane.  They were able to schedule a new flight at the same time with a different plane, but it was also a smaller plane.  I had a comfort seat on the way to Amsterdam, but the couldn't give me one on the way back, even though I had paid for it.  After being spoiled by nicer seats, we were back to being squished with no free wine to lubricate the experience.  At least we had enough movies to keep me occupied.

If I had one consolation about returning to New York it was the weather.  After a week of continual rain and temperatures that were in the low 50s at the warmest, I returned to a sunny, 80-degree day.  I miss Amsterdam terribly, but at least I have warm and sunny weather now.  I am so glad we did this trip.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city.  It is as if Prague and Venice had a beautiful baby together.  The people are warm and friendly.  The sites are plentiful.  If you are considering a trip here, I recommend you book it.  If you're not considering a trip here, I suggest you start considering it.
You won't be disappointed.