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Shrinking from the truth

The average woman will spend any amount of money, suffer any discomfort and believe any ad that promises to make her more beautiful.  Leading today’s trend are “shaper garments.”

Reducing garments are not new. In great grandma’s day, a fashion-conscious woman clung to the bedpost while another adult planted a firm foot in her back and heaved on her corset strings as though a quarterhorse anchoring a maverick for branding. The goal was a figure nipped at the waist like a vinegar cruet, even at the risk of an attack of the vapors.

In 1957, Playtex introduced a two-way stretch latex rubber girdle with molded garters that clung comfortably as a second skin yet left no panty line. Tiny perforations in daisy designs allowed rubber to adjust elasticity and trapped flesh to breathe. And trapped flesh certainly was.

Once on, bridging from hipbone to hipbone, allowing no hint of tummy bulge, it was painless so long as I swallowed not a single extra bite. Otherwise…agony.

I recall after a lunch that included raw carrot strips I was in such pain that for 30 minutes I lay on a hard bench in the women’s cloakroom with my girdle rolled down below my hipbones before I returned to my desk.

Because a Playtex girdle cost roughly half my week’s salary, I could afford only one. Every bedtime I hand-laundered it, patted it dry with a towel, and spread it out to dry overnight. If it was the faintest bit damp, such as after sweating (and in New York most summer days were humid), no amount of baby powder would ease it on. So I wore it all day like a prosthesis, removed it at bedtime or after I was certain I would be staying home.

Toward noon of a humid day, the dampened powder clumped, acting like rosin, chafing beyond belief at waist and thighs.

The latex was powerfully elastic yet vulnerable to fingernail puncture. The tiniest nick could outrun a snag in a sheer nylon stocking. Thus, it had to be rolled down, every inch liberally sprinkled with Johnson’s baby powder, stepped into, and gently unrolled toward the waistline a little here, a little there.

Though pink and sweet-smelling as a freshly bathed baby, over months of wear it gradually turned gray and adopted the odor of stale air leaking from a tire — until the day it would split and fall off taking along nylon stockings.

In 1961, I made the acquaintance of pantyhose and my future husband. He hiked my Playtex girdle to the nearest garbage can and forbade me to replace it. I happily complied.

Inexplicably, after decades of pantyhose convenience and comfort, as well as the acceptance of bare legs in the office, now women are rushing to adopt the latest torture device — Spanx — advocated by fashion and Hollywood’s red carpet.

Essentially a tube of industrial strength elastic, Spanx have two improvements over the Playtex girdle — they won’t split, and they let skin breathe. Just pulling them on gives a woman a strenuous full body workout.

In one Youtube video, a slim young woman grapples with her Spanx as she strives to stretch them up to her waist. Midway through her protracted contortions her buttocks project like a shelf over the Spanx waistband. By fancy manipulating, she trapped flesh into a semblance of womanly charm without dislocating a wrist or elbow. By contrast, wriggling into tummy-control panty hose is effortless.

Then last week I saw a TV ad for arm shapers, sheer elasticized sleeves to be worn under regular garments to “reduce unwanted arm flab while providing a smoothing and compressive effect.” Velcro tabs attached to bra straps at the shoulders hold the sleeves in place.

Don’t ask me to believe arm shapers stabilize batwings, or Spanx appear to reduce excess pounds.

But it’s worth a try.

—  Claudette Sandecki

M. Claudette Sandecki, 77, began as a writer by penning letters to the editor of various newspapers. In 1988, she was invited to write a weekly column, “Through Bifocals,” for The Terrace Standard in Terrace, British Columbia. She aspires “to write funny like David Sedaris or Dave Barry.”

Only the good dye young

(Amy McVay Abbott’s humorous essay originally appeared in The Broad Side. Reposted by permission.)

As we age, parts of us change color.  We want our teeth to be white, but not our hair. We want our arms and legs sun-kissed and bronzed, but certainly no brown age spots on our faces. It is a problem we women “of a certain age” deal with every day.

A few weeks ago I was visiting my father who lives in a retirement home. Another resident saw me in the hall and asked, “Are you a new resident?

This is my life now.  I have been eligible for AARP for five years and have earned the right to buy the senior portions at Bob Evans.  I consider myself young, even if the fine folks at the grocery store ask me every week if I’m eligible for the senior discount. In my mind, I’m about 37.

Notwithstanding my “50 is the new 30″ outlook on life, about four years ago I gave up coloring my hair to see what God hath wrought.

I can’t afford $80 every four weeks for the Magic of Being a Blonde.  I had my own sorry history with Color-in-a-Box and decided to let it go.  Within eight weeks, I was quite gray — well, let’s call it sexy silver.

Genes are, frankly, not my friend except in the area of skin and hair. My maternal grandmother and mother both aged with beautiful skin and silver-to-white hair, and it appears I’m on that journey.  With her beautiful white hair in a bun, my grandmother was mistaken for Maria von Trapp in Stowe, Vermont.  She loved the attention and did not correct the mis-identification.  Had she been asked to sing, her cover would have immediately been blown.

My mane began to lighten when I was in my late 20s. I colored my own hair for many years, except for the nine months I was expecting. (Hide those hospital-with-baby photos.)

Coloring your own hair is a challenge. Women who say, “Oh, it’s so easy” are lying or have a sister-in-law who is a stylist.  Mark my words.

And while the hair gets whiter, the teeth go in the other direction. I’ve never been blessed with sparkling white teeth like those Chiclets Suze Orman sports. My choppers were already yellowing when the orthodontist pulled off my braces in 1968. Yes, I am a coffee drinker, and I know this compounds the issue. Without the pleasures of white sugar, flour, and real Coca-Cola most of the time, don’t try to take my coffee away from me.

So what to do? On a friend’s suggestion I recently tried activated charcoal capsules, a homeopathic fix. My friend emptied capsules of activated charcoal in a paste or “slurry.”  This may be an old wives’ tale, but I’m an old wife. Apparently the charcoal is quite corrosive and removes plaque.

I’ve never tried to open a capsule before.  There must be a trick to it, but I didn’t know it, so I cut it open with cuticle scissors. Surprise! Immediately after opening the capsule, black stuff was everywhere on my white countertop. “Activated charcoal” is code for “black tar that sticks to everything.” I opened another pill, enough to make a paste. Leaning over the sink, I put my brush into the ebony stuff and rubbed it against my ivories.

Having worn braces — both upper and lower bands and a face bow —  for five years, I brush well.  Apparently too well, and with too much vigor.

Are you aware that if you are brushing  with an inky material, said inky material may fly over the walls, the mirror, the sink and the counter top?

But, that wasn’t the end of it. In the mirror, I saw black teeth, a black tongue and black lips. And silvery white hair. I brushed and brushed, and the black came off my teeth. This might be the secret of the activated charcoal. Is it possible your teeth are so tarred with the charcoal that you brush and brush like you’ve never brushed before, resulting in the cleanest teeth of your life?

White hair, black teeth, not exactly progress. Want to hear about my sunless tanning experience last October for boarding a plane to Italy?  The sunless tanner tech said to me as I went out the door into a rainstorm, “Don’t sweat and don’t get wet.”  Telling “Don’t sweat” to a post-menopausal woman is like telling a rooster not to crow.

As for my legs, they are normally so blindingly white that small children hide their faces when they see me in my Capris and summer sandals.  Last October I was the hit of the crowd round Rome’s Trevi Fountain with my streaking skin.

Silver hair, black and yellow teeth, white pasty legs and arms — I think I’m the “thing” in the saying, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

— Amy McVay

Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. Amy specializes in health writing, with a passion for rehabilitation and disability issues. She also enjoys writing about politics, travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth.

Dan Zevin

Dan Zevin is the 2013 winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor.  His latest book, Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad, along with his previous one, The Day I Turned Uncool, have been optioned by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. He has followed his readers through each phase of life, from post-college coping (Entry-Level Life) to tying the knot (The Nearly-wed Handbook) to developing a disturbing new interest in lawn care and wine tastings (Uncool). And that was all before he had kids.

From the powder room

Marriage is give and take. But sometimes it’s hard to take without your girlfriends. As humorist Janie Emaus knows, they bring the tissue, a good bottle of vodka and a much-needed perspective to help through the rough times. Her essay, “Confucius Say: When Shit Hits Fan, Girlfriends Bring Pooper Scooper,” appears in the newly published anthology, You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth.

Call for entries: digital storytelling

The Online News Association, the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists, and the University of Miami’s School of Communication have issued a call for entries for the 2013 Online Journalism Awards, emblematic of the best in digital journalism.

The deadline for entries is June 21. Click here to enter. Winners will be announced in October.

Nine of the 29 awards come with a total of $37,500 in prize money, courtesy of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Gannett Foundation, including a new $5,000 award honoring the best in Watchdog Journalism.

This year, non-English entries will be considered in all categories.

“Some say journalism is in trouble, but we think these awards show the opposite is true,” said Joshua Hatch, OJA chair and senior editor for data and interactives at The Chronicle of Higher Education. “When we look at what’s happening on digital platforms — from the creation of new user experiences to the power small organizations have in reaching large audiences through their important work — we’re thrilled by what we see. And now that all of our awards are open to entrants of all languages, we can’t wait to discover even more innovative work and share it with our community.”

Above all, breathe

(Sharon Short, author of My One Square Inch of Alaska, Sanity Check: A Collection of Columns and two mystery series, offers seven great pieces of advice for writers. This article first appeared in Writer’s Digest on April 30. Reposted by permission of the author.)

 1.  Follow your heart…

Are you passionate about your idea? About your story? Fantastic! Write that! Early chapters of  My One Square Inch of Alaska helped me earn a local literary artist’s grant; I used the award to attend a conference for writers of YA fiction. There, an editor (not mine!) told me that fiction set in early- to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) I was not thrilled by her comment, but knew that my story had to be set in the 1950s, and I also knew that I just had to keep working on it. It was a story of my heart.

2. But also thoughtfully consider constructive advice…

On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens — if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal.  On my drive home, I realized that on this point she was right. I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised. That revision became My One Square Inch of Alaska. So, listen to feedback, dismiss what doesn’t resonate, but also carefully consider constructive criticism truly aimed at making your project a stronger piece.

 3. Your opening is probably not your opening.

My least favorite part of creative writing is drafting that opening scene. It always feels so forced, so awkward. I have to get pretty far into the story before I know how it really should begin, and to realize (for the millionth time) that ‘dumping backstory’ is not an opening that will hook readers.  As I wrote what I thought was the beginning of chapter 18 for My One Square Inch of Alaska, I realized I’d just written the opening paragraphs. Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out everything I’d written for chapters 1-17. But I did have to write that much before I discovered the real hook of my novel.

4. Be persistent.

When my daughters were younger and disheartened by all the “No!” responses to their attempts to sell Girl Scout cookies, I told them that one gets more “noes” in life than “yeses,” and to get to the “yeses,” one has to get through the “noes.” Selling books is a lot harder than selling cookies. Of course, now when I complain ‘writing/publishing is so hard!’ my adult daughters remind me of my cookie-selling advice. (And I also say yes to any Girl Scout who comes to my door, so at least I have cookies to help me through the woes of the ‘noes.’)

5. But also be realistic…

On the other hand, if your project has received so many ‘noes’ that it really looks like it is time to move on… then move on. I know of a few writers who have spent literally decades revising the same project. At some point, you’re spinning your wheels. When you sense that is happening, review what you’ve learned from the experience of that project, and then move on to another one and apply those lessons.

6. …and open to change.

I’ve been in the writing business in some form or another for more than 20 years, and the best opportunities haven’t been ones I planned or could foresee. For example, if someone had told me while I was writing contemporary mysteries that I would eventually write a mainstream novel, and a historical one at that, I would have scoffed, thinking I couldn’t plot without a mystery backbone. But once the idea for My One Square Inch of Alaska came to me, I just couldn’t let it go, or perhaps it wouldn’t let go of me. So, I committed to seeing it through. I’m so glad I did.

7.  Above all, breathe.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by large goals — write a novel! find a publisher! — or to feel distracted by too much writing/publishing advice. When that happens, slowly inhale, exhale, relax and remind yourself that in this moment, you’re simply writing a new paragraph, or revising a page, or sending out one query letter. Focus, and remember why you got into writing in the first place —t he sheer joy of creating a story or poem or article that will touch another human. Breathe, focusing on the moment. Those moments eventually add up to complete projects and a lifetime of the best journey I can imagine — the writing life.

— Sharon Short

Author Sharon Short is the “Literary Life” columnist for the Dayton Daily News. She directs the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and is an adjunct instructor of creative writing and composition at Antioch University Midwest.

The pick-up artist

(This is an excerpt from Joel Schwartzberg‘s The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad, now available as an audiobook. Posted with permission of the author.)

“Daddy, lock your doo-wer,” Cindy says as we pull out of my ex-wife’s driveway.

Cindy and her six-year-old twin, Miranda, are already in pajamas and buckled into second-hand car seats, their arms just long enough to flip the door locks. My nine-year-old son Charlie is locked and loaded into the back seat between his sisters.

They’re with me from Friday night to Saturday night every week. We call it “Lazy Dadurday.” And lazy it is. We wake up late, then trek to the bookstore, the pet store, the mall, or the pool, and just let it all hang out. It amazes everyone except actual parents that kids enjoy an errand run to Kmart just as much as seeing a movie or eating bad pizza in an arcade with oversized mouse robots. My kids love hanging on to the sides of the shopping cart like sanitation workers on a garbage truck as I make gratuitously sharp turns in the hardware aisle. They don’t require these Saturdays to take a page from Fantasy Island. And my joy is simply being with them.

I flip my car door lock per my daughter’s plea, and thank her for looking out for me. Feeling the increasingly familiar weight of sole parental responsibility, I proceed down the long suburban road that will eventually take us from their mother’s home to mine.

“Everything okay, guys?” I ask, glancing at them in the rear view mirror.

“Sure,” offers Charlie.

“I mean with the divorce and all…do you have any questions or worries or anything?”

“Nope,” he replies for all of them.

But Miranda has a question: “Why can’t Mommy sleep at your house with us?”

I imagine the scene — my girlfriend, my ex-wife, me, five cats, three kids, one bedroom.

“Remember, you have two homes: one with Mommy, and one with me,” I say, not answering the question. “You don’t just visit me; you live with me, too.”

I remind the kids that, while other things in life may change, even crumble, a parent’s love never does. The words sound pathetically trite in my head, but it’s the most important thing to convey — not what changes, but what doesn’t: Two parents. Eternal love. Lots of pillows. Endless Cheerios.

In the first few weeks of the separation, I was the one feeling I had lost a firm grip on my own life. Seeking reassurance, I turned not to therapy, but to Google, plugging in search terms as if posing questions to a great swami:

“Fathers and divorce”

“Children of divorce”

“Separated Dads”

What came back was a chorus of single-minded advice: DON’T DO IT.

Think it’ll be better for the kids? WRONG.

Think you’ll find the girl of your dreams? KEEP DREAMING.

Think it’ll make you a better parent? NOT ON YOUR LIFE.

According to almost every web resource on the subject, divorce drives kids bonkers and parents to the poorhouse.

Yet, over a year later, I don’t feel emotionally, financially or parentally bereft. A little stretched, but not impoverished. My children are usually thrilled to see me when I pick them up, and just as excited to return home and share their adventures with their mother.

More importantly, I’ve located my inner parent, the one who tells me when it’s okay to let my son stay up late, and when it’s not; when it’s appropriate to be interrupted on the phone by a whining daughter, and when it’s not; when a tense situation calls for stern rules, or just an all-out, no-shoes family wrestling match. I’ve weaned myself from my parents’, my ex-wife’s, and even Dr. Phil’s parental expectations of me; I now provide my own.

In short, it took divorce to make me a better father.

“Dad, let’s play pod-racer,” says Charlie, a few miles from my garden apartment.

“Okay,” I say, and select the Star Wars theme on my MP3 player. I maneuver around the other cars like a spaceship pilot, dramatically barking navigational orders all the way.

“Commander Cindy, prepare the right side thrusters. On my word….Engage.”

We make a sharp left into my apartment complex, and I hustle the kids out of the car, holding their overnight duffel on my shoulder and their hands in mine. As usual, the bag is overstuffed with art projects, stuffed animals and board games they’ll never touch while in my 24 hours of care, but I’m happy for all the pieces of themselves they care to bring along.

Once inside the apartment, the girls brush their teeth, then burrow their tiny bodies into small Dora- and Pooh-inspired inflatable beds. I get their bedtime “sniff shirts.” One is their mother’s worn blouse from home; the other is my own T-shirt from the laundry basket.

When they first started staying with me overnight, Miranda asked for a “Mommy sniff shirt” to help her sleep. When her sister requested a Daddy version a week later, I couldn’t run fast enough to grab it.

“Eeeeewwwwww,” Cindy said, giving it a strong smell.

“Too stinky?”

“No. I like it,” she replied matter-of-factly, putting the T-shirt to her nose and closing her eyes.

I make some popcorn, which Charlie eats ravenously while playing on the computer. I’m tempted to ask, “So, everything’s really okay?” but enough’s enough. I’m not really looking for answers so much as affirmation anyway, and that’s not worth an interrogation. It’s my children­ — not Google — who hold the secrets to how this is going to work out, but those truths will be revealed at their own slow pace.

Eventually, Charlie traipses into the bedroom, collapses on the queen-sized bed, and allows himself to be swallowed by the warm comforter.

Hours later, before my girlfriend Anne and I take our positions on the living room’s convertible couch, I peek in the room.

Watching them all silently sleeping, their bodies frozen in soft contortion, I know I should go to bed, too. But I treasure the moment, just as I did after each of them was born.

At the time, seeing them asleep came as a relief.

Now, it’s a gift.

— Joel Schwartzberg

Joel Schwartzberg is an award-winning humorist, essayist and screenwriter. He has published pieces in Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The Star Ledger, and “in the flimsy pages” of regional parenting magazines around the country.

In your Face(book)

One evening after dinner, my wife and I settled into our respective spots on the couch and easy chair. As normal, we began to unwind from the day’s work by watching TV and checking our Facebooks.

The first post in my newsfeed was from my friend Dennis, announcing his new daughter’s dedication on this coming Sunday. In my usual attempt to be funny, I left a comment that read, “I’ll see you there if I can get approval from her highness,” and then I moved on to the rest of the newsfeed.

A few moments later, a notification popped up telling me that my wife, who was sitting across the room from me, had commented on the same post. When I clicked back to Dennis’s page, she had posted a response under my comment that read, “Why do you always have to make me sound like a nag or a party pooper?”

“I was just being funny,” I answered via comment, annoyed at her lack of humor.

“You are always trying to be funny, but a lot of times you’re just a jerk.”

Before I could respond, a comment popped up from Jill, a mutual friend of ours and Dennis’s, which read, “We are honored to be able to share this blessed day with you and your family.”

Getting angry, I typed, “Do you mind not butting in, Jill? And @wife: You think everything I say is being a jerk! You have NO sense of humor!!!”

The next comment came from Dennis, whose page we were on, “Could you guys go fight on someone else’s baby dedication announcement post?”

And then my wife, “I used to have a sense of humor til YOU wore it out with your STUUUUUPPPIIIIIIDDD “jokes”!!!”

Having had enough, I hit “like” on my wife’s last statement, and exited the page.

I was still stewing when the little scrolling account of what everyone is doing on Facebook showed that my daughter had commented on a status from her iPhone. Wanting to move past the argument with the wife, I clicked to see what she had said.

My daughter’s friend Nikki (with a little heart before and after her name) had posted that she had the flu and wasn’t feeling good. My daughter had then commented that she was sorry, and hoped she would feel better soon. Being proud of my daughter’s kindness, I “liked” her comment.

I then paused for a moment to take a bite of the sandwich that I had been working on while Facebooking. Before I could move on from my daughter’s friend’s page, a comment popped up from my wife that read, “Don’t you dare “like” me and then walk away!”

She had obviously seen in the same scrolling privacy-invasion box that I had liked our daughter’s comment and followed me there.

“I’m not continuing this conversation if you are going to be unreasonable!” I answered.

“Oh that’s you, leave whenever you know you’re WRONG!”

Then a comment from Nikki, whom neither my wife nor I were actually “friends” with, saying, “Who are you guys, and why are you on my page?”

Followed by a comment from my daughter that said, “YOU GUYS ARE RUINING MY LIFE!!! GO AWAY!”     

“@Wife: I’m not wrong! @Daughter: Oh yeah! Did I ruin your life when I bought you two new pairs of jeans last week? @Nikki: Sorry, we’ll be done here in a minute.”

Meanwhile, I saw that the wife had left a comment back on Dennis’s page that read, “Sorry Dennis, he thinks only of himself.”

But before I could respond to that, my daughter commented, “That doesn’t give you the right to ruin my life!”

Nikki wrote, “Will you all please go away?”

My other daughter popped up in the “chat” box, “YOU BOUGHT NATALIE JEANS? WHY DIDN’T I GET ANY?”

Another notification chirp let me know that my wife was tweeting @me that #MyHusbandIsAJerk.

I was now FURIOUS!! I began firing back responses.




I then tried to go back to the dedication post to get the last word in, but discovered that Dennis had “unfriended” us. And he wouldn’t answer my call to see if he would at least let me dictate my response to the wife’s last remark.

So I set my cyber sights on daughter and fired off a comment that read, “WHY DON’T YOU BUY YOUR OWN CLOTHES AND FOOD, YOU SELFISH BRAT!”

But at the exact moment I hit the send button, I noticed that the comment above mine didn’t look familiar. It wasn’t from my daughter, my wife or Nikki. Scrolling up, I realized I wasn’t even on the right post.

Somehow in my angered frenzy, I had hit the wrong notification and had just commented on a link our pastor had posted that featured a starving child from Somalia’s heartbreaking plea for help. … I had just called a starving child from Somalia a selfish brat and told him to buy his own food and clothing.

It took several sweaty minutes for me to figure out how to delete my comment to the Somalian child. After which I called every Facebook friend that I thought had been witness to the whole debacle and apologized.

Then I gathered the wife and daughters all together in the same room, and we had an all-out, old-fashioned, face-to-face blowout, complete with shouting and arm waving.

And just to make sure everything was good, I made a large (by my standards) donation to the charity whose video the Somalian boy had been featured in.

— Jon Ziegler

Jon Ziegler is a 44-year-old husband, father of two girls and a tree trimmer who started writing as an outlet for what he calls “creative madness.” He’s the author of The How-Not-To Guide to Parenting and Marriage.

Reflections of Erma