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It’s a good time

Judy ClarkeThree years ago, when I told husband Peter I was going to take a line dancing class, he envisioned the Radio City Rockettes and he laughed. Then he did his version of a high step-kick across the kitchen.

And I howled.

No, we are not the precision long-legged beauties you see in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But we do dance in a line, without partners, and we follow a choreographed pattern of steps … at least that’s the idea.

Our class of “seniors” has a heck of a good time. We press on; never mind that we don’t remember the steps that go with the music from one week to the next.  I look forward to Thursday afternoons.

Cass, our instructor, flits across the floor the way a reflection bounces off water.  She must have wondered if she’d ever get through to us.

“Mama Maria” was our first dance. We caught on so slowly. As simple and boring as it seems now, it took us weeks to master.  We now know the names of steps — grapevine, rocker step, jazz box, kick ball change, Charleston, cha cha, hitch —but putting them to the music without Cass’ repeat instructions?  Never happens.

The “old faithfuls” from the original bunch, Lois, Joanne, Barb, Judy R and me, have been joined by “new faithfuls,” Gini, Pat and Gay.

Lois, the stalwart,  never forgets the steps once she’s learned them, though she refuses to count much to Cass’ dismay. “I can’t count and dance,” Lois grumbles. “Which do you want me to do?”  Joanne insists she’ll never learn whatever new dance Cass trots out, but she counts determinedly, concentrates so hard her red hair sizzles, and learns the routine quickly. Barb has a loosey-goosey interpretation of the steps that works for her. Judy R is so polished and perfect when she slips into the room during her lunch hour that she looks the part, so it doesn’t matter if she misses a kick-stomp here, a cha-cha there.

Me, Judy C.? I sweat. You know the saying, “Southern girls glisten, Yankee girls sweat”?  I’m a Yankee.

Early on I caught on to the new dances more quickly than now. “I was better but I got over it,” as my dad liked to say. I had to sit out most of last year because of my crumbling knee. (See Good to go wherever). For months, all I could do was try to learn while sitting on a chair and moving my feet to “mark” the choreography: chair dancing. That helped some, but chair dancing is probably akin to learning how to pole dance without a pole. Not that I’ve ever tried it, nor would I!

Now that I’m able to dance again, my balance has gone kaflooey.  Some of the twists and turns make me feel as if I’m on a Carousel riding a horse that’s made a dash for greener pastures.

Line dancing is usually done to country music, true. But our Cass has eclectic tastes that veer to breakdancing songs, Lady GaGa, gentle waltzes and even Christmas carols. I’m not a fan of the singer who wore a costume made of raw meat, but once I got the steps to “I like it rough,” I changed my tune.

Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” is our current challenge.  Most of the group have it nailed, but the full turns make me feel like I’m in a centrifuge.  I may have to sit that one out at the Christmas performance.

Alan Jackson’s “Good Time” is my favorite.  Love the beat and that it’s used in this GE commercial.  As a former GE employee, it’s great to see that the giant, rather stodgy company I once knew introduced such a catchy commercial for … ecoimagination?  That term hadn’t even been coined when I retired 25 years ago.  Imagine that!

— Judy Clarke

Judy Clarke is a wife, mother of two daughters, grandmother to two grown grandchildren, reader, writer and blogger in southwest Virginia. Her two non-fiction books, Mother Tough Wrote the Book and That’s all she wrote, can be found on her friends’ and family’s shelves, and she’s working on a novel, But why? (That’s the title of the novel, not a question to self).

Amster-damn

Lois Alter MarkWriting prompt #22: “Begin with the line: Let me start at the beginning.”

Let me start at the beginning.

We were on a tour bus in Amsterdam when the guide mentioned Hans Brinker.

“Who’s that?” my daughter asked me.

“You never heard of Hans Brinker? The boy who put his finger in the dyke?”

There was a pause as the kids looked at me in horror, then looked at each other and burst into the kind of obnoxiously loud, hysterical, can’t-catch-your-breath laughter that is absolutely inappropriate in public places – and impossible to control.

“Put his finger in the dyke?!” spurted my son, gasping for air.

“Oh, my God, you guys, you know what I’m talking about,” I said, rolling my eyes and trying to shush them while the other passengers gave us dirty looks and my husband pushed his Earbuds in deeper.

And so began another Mark family vacation.

You see, we are not your typical travelers.

While most people will tell you their vacations begin with the first stop on their carefully-planned schedule, that often becomes a quickly-forgotten prologue to ours. The real adventures – the ones that end up defining our trip – are rarely on our itinerary.

So, although we had already visited the obligatory sights – the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, the canal – our trip to Amsterdam didn’t really begin until the Hans Brinker incident.

When we finally got off that bus, overcompensating for the kids’ rude behavior by overtipping the guide, we were relieved to find ourselves surrounded by coffee shops. “Just like Starbucks!” we sighed, already dreaming of the Dutch equivalent of a Frappuccino. We knew we had to get a drink for Sara, whose laughing fits always result in equally embarrassing hiccups, so we headed over to the one across the street.

On the way in, we were greeted by this lovely plant.

We didn’t really register what it was until we opened the door and were hit by the potent smell of marijuana. The kids’ eyes lit up as they realized coffee shop was an Amsterdam euphemism for smokeshop – and what people of all ages were smoking in there, openly and legally, was pot.

“Ooh, can we try some?” they pleaded. “You know, when in Rome …”

Uh, no. When we visited Rome, we hadn’t let them fight each other in the Colosseum, gladiator style, had we? (Sadly, that’s not a rhetorical question. I honestly couldn’t remember, and I was afraid there was a chance we actually had.)

We turned them around and pushed them out the door, convinced they had already inhaled enough smoke to get high anyway.

“You know, no one looked like they were having a great time in there,” said Sara. “They seemed like they were just pretty out of it.”

Out of the mouths of babes. I solemnly nodded in agreement, while Michael and I telepathically high-fived each other, happy that this unexpected moment naturally offered a lesson that the kids would have probably rebelled against if we had tried to teach it ourselves.

Back outside, we decided to walk over to the Red Light District. Even though the kids were 12 and 14, we felt it was important to see it.

We were sure we had reached it when we saw the red lights. Duh. You can’t fool us.

It didn’t look like much was happening there but Michael took a picture of me in my best you-can’t-afford-me hooker pose next to the red lights – much to the amusement of the passersby.

That was the closest we came to seeing any action there because, needless to say, you can fool us. Half an hour later, we finally came across the infamous windows, behind which barely-dressed women were advertising their wares. There were signs all over the place prohibiting photography, and we knew we were in the right place.

I was strolling with the kids, and Michael was ahead of us when a prostitute – a tall, thin, ebony-skinned beauty – came bursting out of her window, wearing a red satin teddy and thong, click-click-clicking on the sidewalk with her stilettos.

“YOU BASTARD!” she screamed as she tore through the street with surprising speed.

“Wow, some guy must have run off without paying her,” I matter-of-factly explained to the kids, secretly impressed that she could run like that in those shoes.

Just as I turned to see who she was chasing, she tackled Michael – MY HUSBAND! – and started pounding her fists into his back.

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU, YOU BASTARD?” she kept screaming.

The kids’ eyes were huge, Sara’s hiccups were scared right out of her and I knew in an instant that Michael must have taken a photo of the woman while she was in the window. The thing about Michael is he tends to see rules as suggestions.

“YOU DON’T TAKE A PICTURE!” she yelled at him, continuing to hit him hard.

Ever the faithful wife, I piped up, “He didn’t take any pictures.” I was furious with him but wasn’t going to let some other woman beat him up even if he deserved it. That was my job.

Sticking her finger right in my face – or, more accurately, down into my face, since she was Amazonian in height – she looked me in the eyes and warned, “YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP.”

Okay.

“GIVE ME THAT CAMERA!” she demanded of my husband.

“I didn’t take a picture of you,” he said, calmly. “Look.”

He held the camera firmly and rewound it to show her his last few shots. Somehow, while I had been heroically defending him, he had managed to get rid of the evidence.

“I only took a picture of the window,” he assured her. “I’ll delete it now.”

“You can’t go messing with our privacy,” she hissed at him. “Our families don’t even know we’re here.”

He apologized and she high-tailed it back to her window, click-click-clicking down the street until she was out of sight.

I was so angry at Michael, I was ready to hit him myself.

It didn’t matter that he had erased that photo. I knew that the image that would forever be embedded in our kids’ heads was of their father being beaten up by a prostitute. I also knew, though, that somewhere in there they had recorded their mother’s loyalty and their father’s acknowledgement of accountability.

And I realized that Alex and Sara would have very different memories of Amsterdam than pretty much anyone else who had ever been there.

Just like they do of many other places they’ve visited.

Although the family albums on our coffee table feature beautiful pictures of historic landmarks and famous sights, our kids’ internal scrapbooks are filled with a random assortment of adventures that can’t be found in any brochure. Adventures that come from living in the moment and taking the detours.

Like the time we let Sara gamble on a Mediterranean cruise – and she hit a jackpot which she couldn’t collect because she was under age. Or when Michael leaned over the rope barrier at the Hermitage in Russia, causing four guards to cock their guns in anticipation.

But those are stories for another post.

At a recent travel conference I attended, Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler, proclaimed, “Passports are the new diplomas.”

I totally agree.

There is nothing more educational than travel. And nothing more powerful than the teachings that come when you stray from the lesson plan.

— Lois Alter Mark

Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and The Huffington Post. In December, she was named the top blogger in Blogger Idol, the premier blogging contest for bloggers. She also won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013. After being selected as an Ultimate Viewer by Oprah, she accompanied her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime.

Growing pains

portrait“Great hair,” Linda exclaimed profusely, elongating her words the way I wished I could lengthen my hair. “Greeeeat hair.”

“You know?”  I caught the stylist’s eye in the mirror.  “I just wanted a trim?”

“Such body.”  Snip.  Snip.  Snip.  She continued the assault on my head.  Scissors whisked efficiently around me in a whirl; a flurry of hair thickened the air.  “Must be nice.”

I watched with dismay as heavy locks of hair thudded to the floor.  “I’m kind of trying to grow it out a little?”

“Just. Terrific. Hair.”

For more than 30 years, I’ve been trying to grow out my hair, this latest attempt all gone in a poof.  Or rather a series of snips.

* * *

One bright afternoon in May — I was no more than 10 — I took a chair to the patio and handed my mother the scissors.  She lifted one of the long braids, plaited tightly in the style of my heroine, Laura Ingalls.  “Are you sure?”

“Yep.”  I pictured the new me, older, more mature, a sleek bob replacing the braids; city replacing the country.

Mom held the scissors to my hair.  “Ready?”

“Yep.”

Snip.

Boing!  Yes!  My hair actually boinged!  Released from the heavy curtain it’d been toting around for years, my hair suddenly sprung to life.

In a flash, my mother cut off the next braid.  “Do you want to keep them, to remember your hair by?”  She held up the headless braids, still bound up at one end in elastics.

“No.”  I stood from the chair.  “I’ll remember it when it grows back.”  My hair and I boinged our way into the bathroom to inspect the new me.

The new me didn’t have cute, straight hair.  The new me didn’t have a sleek bob. The new me had weird hair, insane hair: The area just above my forehead suddenly developed millions of spare follicles, causing an extra acre of hair to grow there. Hair spiked this way and that, no two pieces ever united. And no amount of styling, gel, hairspray or cutting could tame the beast upon my head.

I resorted to tears.  My mother took me to a salon. “I’m thinking,” the stylist said. I could tell she was trying not to laugh, “a Dorothy Hammil?”

Snip.

Dorothy Hammil.  Nice cut, when you’re spinning in circles at about 100 miles an hour.  But not nice for someone with a hump of spare hair sprouting from her forehead.

“You’ll appreciate it when you’re older,” the stylist told me, pushing the hump into place and securing it with industrial-strength spray.

Eventually, after several years of hair despair, I abandoned Dorothy and settled into a style of my own: the “cut it all off” pixie.  By effectively mowing down the shrub that was my hair, I had won the battle.  But the victory was hollow: Ever since that day in May, I’d imagined myself with long, silky tresses flowing down my back.  With long hair, I’d be elegant, stunning.  I’d look like all of my friends, who’d kept their hair long throughout the fourth grade and into middle school.  With long hair, I’d be able to casually toss my locks over my shoulder, thus attracting the attention of the boys around me.

But instead, I had…elf.  A tallish elf, to be sure.  But an elf nonetheless.  Elves are cute.  Elves are mischievous.  Elves are not stunning.  Elves wear funny hats and funny clothes and have bells on their shoes.  Elves are…well, elves.  Who wants to look like that?

So at least three times a year, when I’m feeling especially adventurous, perhaps crazy is a better term, I try to grow my hair out.  Strange times.  Strange times indeed.  As my hair grows, it passes through some of its own, unique styles.  Caution: Do not try these at home…

Three or four weeks past the scheduled “cut it all off” date, I’ve got the basic Heat Miser look going on.  In the mornings, I get out of bed, fumble for my glasses and head into the bathroom only to discover that I’ve gained 4 inches during the night.  I put out the flames with water and gel and hairspray and a couple hundred swear words.

After the Heat Miser stage, I get to the Baseball Cap.  In this gorgeous style, that extra acre of hair sprouting from my forehead grows forward, not down, and melds itself into something resembling the bill of a baseball cap. Convenient at ball games, and stunning, I suppose, but not in an attractive way.  In this stage, I resort to wearing an actual baseball cap or stay indoors until I grow into the next stage, the full-blown Einstein.  At this level, my hair explodes all over my head in some cosmic detonation that I’m sure has something to do with the mass of my hair.  Here, I make lame jokes.  “Yeah, I look like Einstein, but I’m not smart like him.  Haw haw.”

At 13 weeks, my hair rivals Medusa’s.  If anyone laughs at me, I’ll turn them to stone.

As my hair grows and reasserts it independence, even demanding its own pillow at night, I swear it’s laughing at my folly.  And all those teenage feelings of hair ineptitude come rushing back in.

My hair needs help.  My hair needs a magic wand to make it grow out all at once.  My hair needs some pixie dust.

My hair needs a grow button.

* * *

My mother wouldn’t allow my sisters and me to have Barbie dolls.  Her reasoning, rightly so, was that Barbie dolls set for girls an unattainable standard.  But we still had dolls, plenty of them.  I had a Kiddle doll, which, soon after acquiring, I fed to the dog.  Thereafter, poor Kiddle limped around on half a leg, a permanent dazed look in her eyes.

But my sisters, being older, had Crissy dolls: those magical dolls with the growing hair.  There was a painful-looking plastic dial planted in the center of poor Crissy’s back.  To shorten her hair, you spun the dial clockwise, thus drawing her locks through a hole into the top of her head and into her body.  Stab poor Crissy in her belly button, give her short hair a good tugging, and voila! Long, flowing tresses.  Instantaneous beauty. For a working-girl look, you could take Crissy’s hair to about shoulder length and then for a night on the town, just give a yank and she’d have hair down to her ankles.

Wow.

One of my sisters, she must have been in an industrious mood that day, decided to actually wash poor Crissy’s hair.  And, predictably, Crissy’s hair melted into a thick tangled mass of black piled upon her head.  No matter how much my sister spun that dial, no matter how hard she pushed her belly button, Crissy’s hair situation could not be resolved.  Crissy had horrible hair.  Crissy had my hair.  Yes, Crissy’s reign of beauty had suddenly come to a startling end.  I swear my Kiddle doll stood just a little bit taller on her gimpy leg that day.

* * *

Only once did I succeed in growing my hair out.  I proceeded through the various stages: Heat Miser, Baseball Cap, Einstein, Medusa.  For months, I pinned that hair back, watching it grow bigger and taller, a volcano threatening to erupt past the thousands of pins and combs and gallons of hair spray required to keep it in position.  Eventually, it evolved into a new stage, a stage whose name was coined by my sister: The Aunt Bee (think Andy Griffith) Look.

But finally, after over 18 months, my hair flowed past my shoulders again.  I was triumphant.  I could flip that hair behind my shoulder.  And did.  Often.

But my newborn son yanked at my hair.  He spit up in it.  He rubbed cereal into it.

After a year, I cut it all off.

“How does this look, hon?”  Linda held the scissors above my head.  I glanced at myself in the mirror.  I had reverted from Baseball Cap to the Heat Miser.  Who was I kidding?  I would never have a grow button to magically turn my hair from spiky to long and flowing.  And did I really want to go through those stages all over again, all the way to Aunt Bee?

No.  It was time I learned to accept myself.

“Just cut it all off,” I said to Linda.

Her hands fluttered nervously about my head.  “You sure, hon?”

“Yep.”  It was time to embrace my inner elf.

Linda resumed her snipping, cutting the Miser down to size.

Fully shorn, I paid Linda and left, repeating the mantra to myself: Accept myself.  Embrace my inner elf.  Accept myself… Once outside the salon, I fluffed my hair, ran my fingers through it, the way you can’t in front of a stylist for fear of giving offense.  I stopped before a shop window to glance at my reflection, to stare at my 43-year-old elfish self.  I turned to the side.  Glanced at the…

Wait a minute.  Was that my BUTT?  How did it get so big?

Hell, I don’t need a grow button.

I need a shrink ray.

— Kelly Garriott Waite

Kelly Garriott Waite‘s essays have been published in The Globe and Mail, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Christian Science Monitor, Thunderbird Stories Project, Volume One, Valley Living, The Center for a New American Dream and in the online magazine, Tales From a Small Planet. Her fiction has appeared in The Rose and Thorn Journal (Memory, Misplaced), Front Row Lit (The Fullness of the Moon) and Idea Gems Magazine  (No Map and No Directions).  A work-in-progress has been included in Third Sunday Blog CarnivalThe Contours of a Man’s Heart  and Wheezy Hart.  In 2013, she self-published two short books, The Loneliness Stories and Downriver.

Growing up white in Apartheid South Africa

Adele-Gould1-230x172The death of Nelson Mandela — my hero and the world’s icon — brings to the surface the deep shame I have carried with me for all of my adult life. I was once a typical white South African — privileged and spoiled — who learned by example to treat with disregard the needs and feelings of black people.

Having spent 29 years living under the apartheid regime before immigrating to Canada almost 40 years ago, it is with pain and penetrating regret that I reflect upon my experience and transgressions.

Our typical South African household employed two servants whose salaries were shamefully low, as was the practice at the time. One of our servants was a lady named Nancy Sampson, a “colored” (mixed race) woman who spent 22 years of her life taking care of our family with the utmost love and devotion before she passed away in her 50s.

In my family — your garden-variety white South African family of yesteryear —  there was never any discussion about the meaning or impact of racial discrimination in South Africa. Apartheid was neither discussed nor questioned. As a child and as a teenager, I did not possess the insight to remove the ‘blinkers’ from my eyes, and it was only in my 20s that I began to awaken from the slumber so ingeniously instilled in my family and me by the apartheid regime.

I try hard not to think how many times during my teenage years that Nancy asked me to stop what I was doing for a moment in order to help her with something. But how could I have helped?  I was far too busy luxuriating in the pleasures reserved for white South Africans. The South Africa in which I grew up did not teach me to look beyond my own self-serving needs when interacting with ‘non-white’ people. I would never have dared to refuse to help a white adult.

I cringe when I think about the 10-foot-square room in which my beloved Nancy (like millions of other servants) spent so much of her life. It was a tiny, dark, cluttered room with a tiny window and no bathroom. The room served as her bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room, and it was located in the backyard of our lovely home — the one with the swimming pool on the half-acre property.

The vivid picture of these appalling living quarters remains indelibly imprinted in my mind’s eye, and leaves me feeling heart-sore and ashamed.

Miraculously, in my early 20s, I began to emerge from my stupor and began to see and feel, at the very deepest level, the horrors perpetrated in the name of “apartheid laws.” I began to see the self-indulgent carelessness I displayed and the blatant cruelty with which black people in South Africa were treated on a daily basis.

Like most non-white South Africans with live-in positions, Nancy had a home to which she returned on her days off (of which there were so few, as was typical at that time). One day I offered to give her a ride since it was raining. When we were almost there, she asked me to drop her off a little distance away. Not wanting her to have to walk in the rain, I ignored her request, but instantly regretted this when I realized that I had taken away what little dignity she could salvage. Her home was a small, corrugated iron shanty inhabited by who-knows-how-many of her family members.

I remember how, in earlier years, Nancy used to tell me (if I took the time to listen) that they were “waiting for a council house,” whatever that meant. How would I know? I never stopped to ask! Of course, they never got this council house.

Why, oh why, didn’t I hear the plea behind that piece of information? Why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t I try to help?

By acknowledging and openly sharing my lack of moral consciousness and my blatant disregard for the needs and feelings of the black people in South Africa, I try to sooth my own inner wounds of sorrow and regret. I have learned to forgive myself, but the memories of my failure to challenge the glaring injustices of the apartheid laws still elicit feelings of shame.

I know that for our family, leaving South Africa was the right decision. My biggest reward came in a strange package many years later. My daughter, who was attending graduate school in Buffalo, N.Y., talked frequently about her close friend and fellow student, Sharon. I met Sharon for the first time at their graduation ceremony. Sharon is a black woman. Her color was of such irrelevance to my daughter that she had never even thought to mention it to me.

My children are indeed “color blind,” and I will never take this for granted.

— Adele Gould

Originally from South Africa, Adele Gould is a retired social worker who’s passionate about writing. Her blog includes several pieces that have been published in the Globe and Mail in Canada. Adele and her second husband, together 27 years, have eight children and four grandchildren between them. Besides a writer, she’s a woodcarver, avid photographer and volunteer.

Re-gifting to myself

Jan-Marshall-199x300Christmas morning I was awakened from my deep slumber by the blast of my combo iPod/lawn mower/alarm clock playing of all things, “Silent Night.”

I sprang out of bed … well, sprang is the wrong word since it is obvious my spring has sprung.

I crawled out of bed because my head was filled with so much good cheer from the night’s festivities. Eggnog has calcium, and that’s good for the bones, you know.

I struggled to the living room to retrieve my gift, which I knew I would be getting because I had been very good, frankly against every attempt to change that condition. I really like to be bad, but there seems to be less opportunity recently.

How Old Nick even sneaks through our gated senior community or down my non-existent chimney is a mystery anyway.

I opened the box gingerly and, lo and behold, I encountered the most exquisite peignoir set this side of Jean Harlow. The primrose nightgown was trimmed with a scarlet boa.

The voices on the couch urged me to try it on. I remember when shouts from a crowd usually said, “Take it off.  Take it off.” Now I am always hearing “ICK! Put it on for God’s sake.”

I changed into the lovely outfit and immediately felt a draft.

“Aw, you shouldn’t have,” I exclaimed, while internally thinking, “^%*(@#,” all the while exhibiting my Liberace smile.

So, this is what I did the minute they were out of sight.

I ran to the Goodwill bag where my criminally guilty family members had once again stuffed my wonderful, soft, faithful remnant of a bathrobe. They had tried this ploy for years thinking maybe if they bought me something nice, I’d get rid of this schmateaux (French for rag!).

The sleeves are frayed, the flowers have blown away and the sun-kissed yellow has become a nasty shade of puce. The quilting has matted in big clumps, looking like Joan Crawford or Peyton Manning’s shoulder pads

Constant washings caused fading and shrinkage. I often get chapped hips.

Still, I love it.

Everyone has something they are attached to. Some men have old sweaters or girlfriends.

How many of you insist on wearing the same tacky shirt, chicken outfit or onesies? You know you do.

I’ve never been caught wearing my formerly quilted frock except by my immediate family and the dog who recently disappeared.

Let’s face it, I could keep the more attractive peignoir set, but that would only create problems. Word would get out that I look spiffy and then rich; handsome men would, once again, hound me.

When I was younger and cuter, that created terrible ankle problems because I had to keep kicking throngs of gorgeous guys out of my way. Thankfully, it is no longer an issue. Even at my yearly checkup, the doctor insists that I not disrobe. Just yesterday one said, “For goodness sakes, Miss, please keep your clothes on. I am your dentist.” 

As long as there is thread of material or a button hanging in there, so shall I. That is what friends do. After all, my big heart can embrace being both a friend of this robe and all of Canada, the United States, Europe, etc., plus all the ships at sea.

So, Santa, you might as well stop this yearly stunt.

Stay out of Victoria’s Secret, or I will be forced to actually reveal her secret, which happens to concern you and Mrs. Claus’s sister.

To the rest of you: Step away from the robe!

— Jan Marshall

Jan Marshall has devoted her life’s work to humor and healing through books, columns and motivational speaking. As founder of the International Humor & Healing Institute, she worked with board members Norman Cousins, Steve Allen and other physicians and entertainers, including John Cleese. Her newest satirical survival book, Dancin’ Schmancin’ with the Scars: Finding the Humor No Matter What! is dedicated to Wounded Warriors, Gabrielle Giffords and Grieving Parents. She donates a percentage of the profits to these organization as well as to the American Cancer Society and the American Brain Tumor Association.

Confessions of a promiscuous shopper

Barreca-Gina(This piece first appeared in the Hartford Courant on Dec. 26, 2013. Reposted by permission of Gina Barreca.)

“Will this make me happy every day?” I have a friend who asks herself that question every time she considers buying something.

I’m not talking about purchasing a house or a car. I’m talking about a woman who spent 31/2 years searching for the perfect shower curtain.

Me, I once spent $2.99 on a shower curtain after looking around for two minutes, total, at a discount store. It was festooned with apples and oranges. When I stood in front of it, I felt as if I should belt out, “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say, Bananas have to ripen in a certain way.”

For 3 1/2 years it didn’t bother me — not until I saw that my friend had found the Aristotelian ideal of a shower curtain.

Hers had elegance and elan. Mine had fruit. (I could never figure out why exactly. Who thought it was a good idea to turn a piece of fabric with fruit on it into bathroom accessory? Was it designed to invoke roughage? Was it simply bad taste?)

These questions started keeping me up at night.

Was my friend wiser to summon up patience and select her items carefully instead of employing my method, which was to swoop down on the sale bin like a seagull hovering over a landfill and plucking up whatever seemed shiny?

She was cautious in her choices whereas I was promiscuous. I’d give the time of day to whatever sale was winking at me; I’d be tugged in the direction of a cute promotional gimmick. She’d keep her eyes straight ahead and be faithful to her list.

I’d been known to unashamedly grab something if I knew it would make me happy for a few months, a few weeks, even — dare I admit it? — a few days. That’s the kind of loose shopper I’ve always been.

You’re selling a cheerful and cheap rayon scarf that matches earrings I own? Gimme that schmatte before somebody else grabs it.

Handmade soap scented with fennel and wrapped in organic papyrus? I guess so. It’s made locally? Sold. My friend laughs at me, but I point out that it’s nicely packaged. I only experience disappointment when, upon unwrapping it at home, the cat immediately attempts to push it into her litter box.

My friend would never have bought the soap. She has focus. She has a mission. She wants only what will make her happy every day. Impulse buys, reckless spending on frivolous items and point-of-sale transactions are an anathema to her.

You can imagine what a sucker I am for the stuff next to the register, right? I’m the kind of person who only has to see “ChapStick” while I’m waiting in line to decide that my lips are actually now so dry they are falling off of my face and that I must immediately get three balms (not a word used without causing confusion these days; insist to the guy next to you “Hand over the balm” and he’ll alert security). Usually I rip open the package before I reach the cashier; I am unable to contain myself.

I’m just retail-incontinent.

At least I’m not one of those poor souls addicted to shopping, the sorts who roam through malls with predatory if undefined tendencies and often travels in packs. I do believe that shopping can be an addiction, but since I also believe that checking Twitter, watching “Mob Wives” and talking incessantly about the benefits of kale can be addictions, perhaps I’m not a good judge.

Yes, it’s true that my friend and I have fundamental differences. I believe tomorrow is promised to no one and that we should all make hay while the sun shines, even if the hay is not quite the right texture or color. She believes life’s too short to surround one’s self with the ersatz, the makeshift or the slapdash — and that the sun will come out tomorrow.

We’re both right, of course.

The luxury of being able to make choices is not lost on us. And we know, too, that enjoying our friendship — despite our differences (or perhaps because of them) — is really what makes us happy every day.

— Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She regularly writes columns for the Hartford Courant, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Psychology Today. In 2012, she served as a keynoter at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and is returning to be part of the faculty in 2014. Learn more about Gina here.

My mom’s fur coat

Mindy-Trotta-e1352144016434-223x300 (1)My mom’s fur coat had been hanging in my front closet ever since I moved her out to California — six months before she died. When we wanted to get our very seldom used cold-weather coats out, we’d push it to the right, and when we wanted to get our luggage out from the crawl space in the back of the closet, we’d push it to the left. We’d been pushing that coat back and forth for 10 years, without even noticing it, without me ever wearing it.

When the time came for us to relocate to the East coast, and for me to start purging, I finally had to take the muskrat by the tail, so to speak, and deal with the fur coat. My husband thought I might take it with me; after all, winters in Boston are mighty cold, and “lots of people there wear fur.”

“No way,” I said.

Even though I had nothing against wearing vintage, that black Persian lamb coat with the wide gray and black beaver cuffs was too big, too old-fashioned and too REAL FUR!

It would be very hypocritical of me to claim I was bent on making an ethical statement since I have no compunction about wearing leather shoes and jackets. And I would never scoff at a gift of the latest Miu Miu tote, but I would never be caught wearing a fur coat in public — well, aside from that time during a winter vacation in New York City. I had borrowed a friend’s beautiful parka, never thinking that the “fur” around the hood was real until a group of PETA members surrounded me on Fifth Avenue and followed me down the street yelling, “Bimbo in fur, bimbo in fur!”

(Boy, did my kids and my niece get a kick out of that one. Thank goodness none of them was old enough to have iPhones at the time, as I’m sure the video would have been an overnight sensation on YouTube.)

My mom’s coat represented so many things to me. So much of her personality and my childhood were wrapped up in that coat. I can remember the feel of the curly fur as I would sink my face into it. And the fur cuffs made me laugh as I would brush them across my nose when Mom wasn’t looking. The black-and-white paisley silk lining was chosen specifically for her. She had a matching scarf that she draped around her neck and tucked in, just so. So valuable was the coat, I believed, that her name was hand-embroidered on the lining in a fabulous scrolled font, “Blanch.” It was hers and only hers — and in case some mistaken soul should try to abscond with it from any of the various coat check rooms she hung it in, her personal ID was there for all to see.

Back in those days it was de rigueur for my mother’s friends to own a fur. In fact, many of them had many such coats. Their furriers were treated as members of the family (what 5-year-old even knows the word “furrier” these days?!?) My mother had her own furrier, and he treated her almost as regally as he treated her coat. And when the weather grew warmer, Mom’s coat, like all good fur coats, went on a paid vacation to “summer camp,” otherwise known as cold storage. (Didn’t everyone’s?)

The coat for Mom was not just something that kept her incredibly warm, it was also a symbol of prosperity and stature. A grand statement and a fierce slap in the face of those shadowy, haunting bogeymen and women who tried to vanquish her flame during the Holocaust. She had made it to Hell and back, and now she had the fur coat as proof of that emergence. The ethical aspect of wearing fur did not hold a candle to the ethical dilemma I dealt with when deciding what to do with the darn coat. How could I get rid of something that represented my mother’s battle cry of defiance?

I’ve come across quite a few letters written by daughters who have wrestled with similar predicaments as my own. One woman had her mother’s coat made into a jacket so she could keep her mom’s embroidered name intact. Another mentioned that she found an animal preserve that uses old fur coats as bedding for rescued weasels and beavers. And one theater lover donated her coat to be used on stage during period plays.

I like all those ideas (although I can’t say Mom would be too thrilled to know some old beaver was sleeping on Blanch’s pelt). But I have to admit when push came to shove, the coat went into a storage facility with the rest of our things. And there it hangs, once again, its future in question. Knowing someone on “Mad Men” was wearing her coat would probably make her happy, but I know my mother would rather I just keep it as a memento.  And I just might. But really, I don’t need the actual coat to remember. The memories I have of her are already embedded in my mind.

— Mindy Trotta

Mindy Trotta spent many years as an editor behind a desk, and then switched to working behind the oven as a pastry chef. She’s now back at her first love, working as an editor and social media manager at Betterafter50.com.

Going commando at the holiday work party?

IMG_1042Let’s face it.  Ladies’ undergarments were not designed with comfort in mind.  Not much has changed since the invention of the corset that was meant to give a woman an 18-inch waist.

But the undergarment I am going to rant about is Spanx or shape wear, like the old fashioned girdle.  They tout the motto, “No matter the occasion or season, we’ve got a shape to keep you looking great from all angles!”

But at what price?

I heard of a case where the mother of the bride was stuck inside a full body Spanx for five hours.  If Spanx’s motto is, “Spanx is here on your big day,” where were they?  It slims and lifts, but is it worth it?

Holiday Party

My big moment came to prove the claims made by Spanx.  My husband’s company was hosting a New Year’s Eve party and I needed a little tightening in some places, especially the tummy.  At the mall, I purchased a pair of  “Trust Your Thinstincts Mid-Thigh Control Panel Shapers” for $58.  Size:  Large.  Slimming level:  medium.  Unfortunately, I did not try them on in the dressing room before purchase.

Dress ironed, shoes polished, hair coiffed, face painted, it was time to get on the undies.  Unwrapping the package, I realized I had made a terrible mistake.  Straight out of the envelope, the pair dropped into my palm as small as a mustard seed.  Were these for children?

The instructions or “warnings” stated that putting on Spanx was “moderately challenging.” An understatement.    Don’t use after a shower.  Use with baby powder.  When all else fails, go up a size.  Take your time.  For additional assistance, call the Spanx hotline.  Yeesh.

I stepped into the panties right foot first, trying to pull up to the waistline on the first try.  Major mistake.  I was knocked to the ground.

Next, I entered the left foot.  Starting from my ankle, I rolled a tiny bit upward.  A combination of yanking, jumping and holding my breath got the panties past my knees.

At mid-thigh, like a tourniquet, it was constricting and compressing my extremities.  As the panties climbed higher, I felt light headed and sweaty.  I panicked.  Losing circulation fast.

It was time to call in the reinforcements.  Or 911.

“Mike, help!  I can’t get up.”

Rushing into the bathroom, he took one look at me on the ground, undies half on, legs askew, and blanched.

“Avert your eyes,” I said.

“Grab my arm.  I’ll try not to look.”

I reached for his hand with a clammy palm.  I realized as he pulled me upright that he may never look at me in the same light again.

“I’ll be waiting downstairs,” he said, blasting down the staircase.

Ping!  One final yank moved the Spanx into place. But Spanx couldn’t contain my fat any longer.  It started to roll out the bottom and my knees grew as huge as my butt.  Fat bulged above my waistline, yet not high enough to enhance the bust line.  What do I do now Spanx?  Huh.

I threw on my clothes after molding the fat into the right places and then headed down the steps.  Dear God, if this wrap-around dress comes undone, my husband will be lucky to keep his job.

It’s Show Time

At dinner, my stomach was compressed so tightly that I could only eat tiny portions of food.  And drinking?  Forget about that.

After three hours, I was eager to use the restroom.  Twisting and turning in the confines of a bathroom stall, I made as much ruckus as a rugby player.  I could dislocate a shoulder pulling my Spanx down.

“Are you okay?” asked the lady in the next stall.

“Just a little out of breath.  I’ll be fine.”

After we left the restaurant before midnight, my husband said, “You seem happy.  Did you have a good time?”

“Yep, it was fun.”

Bottom line, stuffing Spanx into my purse and going commando was the only option.  I value breathing and eating over beauty. My advice, save the money and do sit ups.

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is a freelance writer, humor columnist for Midlife Boulevard, artist, blogger and stay-at-home mother. Her blog, “Are You Kidding Me?” is based on her suburban family and everyday life. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Books.  Her work appears in Generation Fabulous, ZestNow, Pleasanton Patch, corporate newsletters and even a commencement speech.  She lives in California with her husband and two teenagers who provide an endless supply of inspiration. She writes about parenting and daily frustrations like her dislike of laundry, the DMV and being middle-aged. Visit her blog www.staceygustafson.com and Twitter @mepaint.

Reflections of Erma