Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Other F-Word

I was always a skinny kid. Really, really skinny. Play xylophone on my ribs skinny. When I was in high school I weighed a whopping 105 pounds, and I couldn’t gain weight to save my life. Forget about the weight Morgan Spurlock gained on his 30-day diet of McDonald’s food; I worked for two years at McDonald’s, ate their food all the time – in multiple servings – and couldn’t gain an ounce.

For the entire eight years of my undergrad career at Syracuse University I had a 28-inch waist. That’s pretty skinny. Sometimes I had to shop for clothes in the “Young Teen” department. Everyone kept telling me that one of these days my metabolism would catch up with me when I turned 30, and I’d finally gain weight.

As a 30-year-old grad student I still had that 28-inch waist, and when I got married at age 32, I was so skinny that Tuxedo Junction didn’t have a tux shirt small enough for me. They had to pin up the back.

Maybe getting married is what started it. After a few years, a friend commented on how I’d actually put on some weight – just enough to make me weigh almost what I was supposed to for my height. She attributed this to what she called “Contented Cow Syndrome.”

Then I had kids, and was finishing up the food they left behind on the table – providing that it was food I liked. I do have standards after all. That’s when I noticed a little pudge, and the fact that I couldn’t see my ribs anymore. That’s also when my then four-year-old daughter started patting my stomach and asking me if there was a baby in there.

I freaked out. This wasn’t a good thing. But on the other hand, I tried to keep a sense of perspective about it. I was 41, and not only was a little pudge was probably to be expected of all of us, but being able to see my ribs all those years probably was not a good thing. My body image was based on having been a toothpick forever, and that was unrealistic.

There was another piece to this that made it necessary for me to be really careful in how I reacted and what I said. I teach adolescent girls, and you know the kind of body issues they have. If I said that I thought I needed to lose a little weight, it would just feed into their own anorexic and bulimic tendencies. Instead, I would just suck it up and deal with the “middle age spread” as graciously as I’ve done with going bald and gray.

But then it happened. One week after my 53rd birthday, someone asked Cheryl if I was getting fat. NOOOO! She said the dreaded F-word.

That was it! Until that moment, it had all been in my head. It had all been an issue of my having to adjust an unrealistic idea of what I thought my body should look like. But now someone had dared to speak the F- word. This meant that it wasn’t just in my head, and now I had to do something about it. Actually, now I could do something about it. Hearing it from someone else finally gave me permission to be concerned about it, without worrying about those adolescent girls. Let’s be clear about this. I’m not at the point where I have to buy an extra ticket when I go on planes (as if I’d get on a plane), but I wouldn’t mind losing a good 15 pounds.

It sure hurts not having seconds of chicken parmesan at dinner and not grazing through the day, eating whatever I want whenever I feel like it.

And right now I want some coffee ice cream!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Little Lamb, Who Wired Thee?

Little lamb, who wired thee?

Our oldest daughter hates church, and hasn’t gone with us on a regular basis since she was 13. This would make sense to us if we were one of those Bible-thumping, “believe it all literally or burn in Hell” families. In our experience, people who’ve soured on church come from those kinds of families and those kinds of churches.

But we’re not like that. We’re Lutherans, we’re expected and even encouraged to question. We’re expected to bring our brains with us to church. As such, we expected and encouraged our daughter to question what she heard in church and to look for the nuances that might change an interpretation, even as we did.

Dost thou know who wired thee?

It wasn’t always like this. She loved church when she was a toddler, and made us sit in the front pew so that she could see what was going on better. She would pretend to baptize you when she was taking a bath. She enjoyed the fact that her mother had been her Sunday School teacher and “knew every Bible story in the world.”

Then there was the embarrassing incident in Kindergarten when she told one of her Hindu friends that Ganesh, their elephant god, was stupid and didn’t really exist.

But at some point, somewhere around fourth grade, that all changed. She didn’t like church, didn’t like going, and resented having to come with us.

Little lamb, who wired thee? Dost thou know who wired thee?

I know who wired you, and I’m annoyed. But not with you. After all, you didn’t ask to be wired with a brain that often focuses on the one tree instead of the vast forest around it. You didn’t ask to be wired with a brain that looks at things in a strict linear fashion that takes what you know about the major world religions, and rather than being able to ask deeper questions about them, just concludes that since they can’t all be right, they must all be wrong.

Instead, I’m annoyed with the one who wired you this way, and then gave us the responsibility for trying to get you to “get” him. I’ve found myself throwing up my hands in frustration saying, “You want her, you deal with her. You wired her that way, so you find a way to patch into those odd, but fascinating circuits you created. But don’t put this all on us!”

I’m annoyed that he also seems to have wired millions of other people to not “get” him, while apparently blaming them for his wiring job.

Little lamb, who wired thee?

When she was baptized we promised to “faithfully bring her to the services of God’s house…and provide for her instruction in the Christian faith,” and yet there comes a point when you can try too hard, and lose a person forever. You can force attendance, you can force compliance to certain behaviors, but you cannot force belief. We didn’t want to win the battle while losing the war. And so she stays home.

Dost thou know who wired thee?

I’m no electrician. I don’t even like changing light bulbs. But maybe somewhere in that wiring that so confuses us is a homing circuit that will be activated someday, if we just leave things alone. An excellently made circuit that might be ruined by our mucking about with it too much.

Little lamb, God bless thee.

Little lamb, God bless thee.

with apologies to William Blake

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cheryl the Redeemer

Ah, this is one of my favorite stories, and I've saved it for the week of our wedding anniversary.

It starts with an old girlfriend, we'll call her Maggie. I had actually thought about marrying her. In fact, I had gone to Wilson's Jewelers to pick out an engagement ring and put a $200 deposit on a nice one that I saw on sale. But things didn't work out as I had hoped, and Maggie turned me down.

Now as if that wasn't bad enough, when I went back to Wilson's, they told me that since it was a sale ring, they couldn't give me back my money. The best they could do was to give me a store credit slip. The salesperson was very understanding though; she told me that I should buy something for myself with the money. Like maybe a nice watch.

Well, I've always been basically a Timex kind of guy. I really didn't need a $200 watch. So that credit slip just sat in my wallet, mostly forgotten - or at least something that I wanted to forget about.

Then, almost a year later I met the person who would change my life. The person that Maggie told me I would never find, because people like that just didn't exist. The person that I was being totally unrealistic to even look for in the first place. This was Cheryl.

Cheryl and I got along perfectly from the start. Much better than Maggie and I ever did. And in the time that Cheryl and I were getting to know each other, she got to hear a good many "Maggie stories" - including the one about the ring and the credit slip.

It became apparent to us rather quickly that we were going to marry each other. In fact, Cheryl brought it up first, saying that she'd marry me if I asked. I told her to hold that thought, because I intended to. And eventually it became time for us to look for rings.

Not engagement rings. She decided that she didn't need one, and that the money could be put to better use for both of us. No, it was time to look for wedding rings. We went to the mall, and as I was all set to walk into Zale's, I felt a yank on my arm, as Cheryl pulled me in the other direction.

"What's going on?" I asked.

Cheryl replied, "You have $200 sitting over at Wilson's, and you're not going to let it go to waste. Just because Maggie was too stupid to want to use it with you doesn't mean that I am. We're using that money for our rings."


They say that you're always fighting the last war, and that's what I had been doing when I headed to Zale's. In the Maggie universe this would not have happened. According to Maggie you didn't buy the new girlfriend something with money that was originally meant for the old one. But Cheryl was no Maggie. In fact, now we joke that a bad day with her still beats a good day with Maggie.

The word redeem has a number of meanings. It can mean something as simple as to cash something in - like an iTunes gift card. And that day, Cheryl and I redeemed that old, worn out, credit slip in my wallet for two gold wedding rings.

But it can also mean to save or rescue, to make right, to restore to honor. And when Cheryl decided that the credit slip in my wallet was not something that belonged to Maggie, but something that belonged to us, she redeemed it in all the other meanings of the word.

It also proved that she was exactly the right person for me - and has been for the past 21 years.

Happy Anniversary, Cheryl!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Princess, the Saint, and the Pop Star

12 years ago Princess Diana was killed in that automobile accident in Paris, and almost the entire world went into mourning. I remember seeing my own wife crying for someone she had never even met.

And yet, while the rest of us were mourning for her, so-called wiser heads looked down their noses, asking “What has she really ever done to deserve all the adulation she got in life and the outpouring of grief she’s getting in death?” “What will happen when someone truly important, like, say, Mother Teresa, dies?”

They got to find out five days later, when Mother Teresa died. And quite frankly, the attention given to her death was a direct result of that question having been asked five days earlier. Under any other conditions, Mother Teresa’s death would have been given all the attention as that of the Queen of Denmark – not much. But because the media felt guilty about how much attention they lavished on Princess Diana’s death, Mother Teresa got the star treatment too.

But let’s go back a moment to those deep thinkers who looked down the noses of the rest of us for seeming to pay more attention to Diana than Teresa, when the latter’s work was so much “more important.” Was that really the case?

I, for one, don’t think so. I think that they represented two different ways of doing good in the world, and two vastly different ways of living in order to get it done. Mother Teresa represented the kind of good you could do in the world if you were willing to live in a hovel. While we admired her for being able to do this, and supported her with donations, it is not something that most of us aspired to.

Princess Diana, on the other hand, represented the kind of good you could do in the world while still having fun. While having the kind of life we think we wish that we had. She brought our attention to causes that needed to be supported, and support them we did. This is because Princess Diana seemed like one of us. In fact, she was one of us – a regular person, a Cinderella, who got lucky (so we thought) and married a prince.

Princess Diana represented us as the everyday people we were, and Mother Teresa represented what we could be like if we gave it all away. Quite frankly, I don’t recall seeing any of the deep thinkers volunteering to give it all away as they looked down their noses at those of us who were mourning for Princess Diana.

This brings us, of course, to Michael Jackson, and all the attention being given to his death.

Again, the deep thinkers look down their noses asking why so much attention to this “mere entertainer,” especially when there’s a war going on and the economy is in the toilet. And if you must give so much attention to a recently deceased entertainer, why not give it to Ed McMahon? He at least served in the Armed Forces during World War II.

The answer here is deceptively simple. It’s the number of people he reached, all over the world, through his music. I know that I wanted to be like the Jackson 5.

In 30 years of being Johnny Carson’s sidekick on The Tonight Show, Ed McMahon didn’t influence anywhere near as many people as Michael Jackson. And I say this as someone who fondly remembers the Carson/McMahon years.

Yes, there are pressing problems in the world today, but every time that there have been problems, there have also been those who helped make those problems seem bearable by making us laugh, dance, or sing along with them. A Jolson, a Crosby, a Hope, a Jackson.

So, to the deep thinkers, I say, "Lighten up!"