Are You Giving Up Something for Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday. If you’re a “planning ahead” type of Christian, you may have over-indulged yesterday on whatever delicacy or vice you seek to avoid until Easter. Or maybe you don’t observe Lent that way and wonder what all this “giving up something” is about. Personally, I have always marveled at this relationship between behaviors and beliefs. Would giving up potato chips for 40 days make me a better Christian?

When I was a kid, I noticed that all my little friends carefully considered what treat they planned to give up for Lent. As the lone (it seemed) Presbyterian in a Catholic neighborhood, the concept was foreign to me. I mean, Lent was a thing, of course, but no Sunday school teacher ever implied we should observe it by giving up anything.

My friends, however, were deadly serious about it – they solemnly selected a favorite thing (usually sweets) and then abstained. Friday school lunches were meatless and desserts went un-touched. The collective willpower was impressive.

Despite the prevalence of Lenten sacrifice throughout my childhood, I didn’t get the reason for it until I was an adult. The behavior alone was significant enough to make an impression on me, so I never wondered about the beliefs behind it. Now, anyone can Google it: Lent is associated with penance and abstinence to reflect the 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).

I don’t know how much my young friends really understood about Lent while they fastidiously avoided temptation for 40 days. So much of their religious behavior perplexed me: all the kneeling and sitting in church, making the sign of the cross, and most of all their descriptions of how priests would assign them repetitions of the “Hail Mary” during Confession.

Does participation in rituals and strict observation of rules make faith more meaningful? Does behavior equal belief?

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Fun Fact: To satisfy Venezuelans’ appetite for capybara meat during Lent, the Catholic Church classified this oversized rodent as a fish.

Not always. I know Catholics whose children are being schooled in all the rituals my childhood friends observed, but the parents definitely don’t believe in all the values of the Catholic Church. A friend of mine who’s an Orthodox Jew (observes Shabbat, keeps a kosher home, threw a huge party for his son’s bar mitzvah) told me matter-of-factly that he considers himself an atheist.

And yet…traditional behaviors can be comforting. They connect us to others in our faith community and if performed thoughtfully, can remind us of the beliefs behind them.

I am partial to Lenten behaviors that are additive. Any daily activity – like prayer or Bible study or reading a devotional – is a perfectly acceptable way to practice Lenten self-discipline. But after missing out on all that “giving up something” as a kid, I admit that I feel drawn to consider the practice now.

That’s why I had a spectacularly huge bowl of potato chips last night. It was divine. After getting the most out of my own personal Fat Tuesday, I am now ready for Lent.

Tell Me About Your First Car

Was it a brand-new Dodge Shadow, because your dad worked for Chrysler? Did you inherit your mom’s old Volvo with 200,000 miles on it? Or did you hand over $100 to some stranger and drive off in his old jalopy? Whatever your answer, it reveals something about you and probably stirs up a memory or two. That’s why asking about that first car is my new favorite icebreaker.

I wish I could take credit for this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was sitting around with my team of fellow volunteer consultants (we’re working with a local nonprofit to develop a strategic plan) and we were trying to come up with a good icebreaker to use with our client in an upcoming workshop. Josh tossed out this idea, and we test drove it.

For a group of people that is not particularly diverse (we were all born within 10-15 years of each other, all have masters degrees from Harvard, all live in Boston, all work in similar white collar fields), our answers were all over the map. One of us remembered a little stick shift coupe she got in college (and the treacherous hill on campus that was the source of many anxious driving moments). One of us never owned a car until he bought a Nissan Leaf about a month ago, having lived mainly in cities. Oddly enough, two of us learned to drive in 1970’s-era Buicks that were so enormous an adult could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat.

I grew up in what’s now known as “flyover country,” a place where most teens got their hands on some kind of vehicle as soon as was humanly possible. In addition to reminiscing about our own cars, we remember our friends’ first wheels. One girl’s dad worked for GM and she had an enviable red Chevy Cavalier, brand new. My two close girlfriends had really cute cars with lots of mileage: a little Honda CRX and green Pacer. The Pacer driver eventually upgraded to a Nissan Sentra hatchback because she played the harp, which actually fit in the back when the seats were laid flat.

Playing a large instrument warranted a special kind of vehicle, so a cello-playing friend got his mom’s old green van (not a minivan – this was pre-the invention of the minivan) with limited seating but plenty of cargo room; anyway, no one cared about seat belts back then because we were teenagers and therefore invincible. One guy even drove an old station wagon which he spray-painted matte black (including some of the windows). It probably wasn’t legal but it made a statement. I’m sure he remembers that car.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve owned a series of forgettable cars. For a time, anything with four doors that could handle car seats sufficed. I shed no tears saying goodbye to a couple of Honda Accords, an Infinity G-35, and my last Subaru Forester (which was actually pretty great but come on – a leaky head gasket at 70,000 miles? Not OK). I’m now in another Subaru Forester, which is totally fine and great in snow but doesn’t turn any heads. Probably because EVERYONE ELSE IN NEW ENGLAND has the exact same car.

The automotive ‘love of my life’ was my 1990 Mazda Miata, black with tan leather interior, with a manual transmission (of course). I drove it home from the dealership (which was CarMax, my employer at the time) on a cold January day with the top down and the heat blasting. I drove that car as long as possible, but in my eighth month of pregnancy I could no longer justify a car with only two seats. As soon as I’m an empty nester, I’m going Miata shopping. Four years, seven months to go. Not that I’m counting.

What was your first car?

Be Gone, Ye Last Five Pounds!

I didn’t ask for this for Christmas, but I got it – an extra five pounds. Now I have to get rid of it.

To clarify: I’m not whining about being overweight. If you know me, you know that I’m a healthy weight. A fit person. I am satisfied with how I look and feel, despite the extra five pounds, but they must Be Gone.

I pledge this not for the Laura of today, but for the five-years-from-now Laura. Because this Five Pounds of 2016 wants to settle in and become permanent, so that it can later be a foundation for the Five Pounds of 2017. Which in turn would host a welcoming party for the Five Pounds of 2018. And so on. Before you know it I’ll need that seatbelt extender when I fly.

Do I regret gaining them? No, I can’t honestly say that I do. The Christmas season and its many delights were wonderful to consume. The holiday parties with their festive punchbowls and platters of mini egg rolls, pigs-in-blankets, and Cheese Glorious Cheese. The movie nights with popcorn and potato chips and my famous baked Mexican dip. The football games with beer and nachos and more nachos. Yum.

The memories of Christmas dinner itself will last me until next year (they might have to, if it takes until then to lose this weight). We always start with champagne and Southern Living’s famous Crab Cakes with Caper Dill Sauce. We burn the tips of our fingers eating them as they come off the buttery skillet. Then we roll to the table, already full, and enjoy mushroom saffron risotto and homemade gnocchi with Nonna’s sauce (not my Nonna – my best friend’s real Italian Nonna). This starchy extravaganza is but a warm up for the filet mignon and the grilled herbed shrimp. We soak up the juices with fresh baked breads.

Nobody saves room for dessert but we eat it anyway – chocolate cream pie and this concoction called Oatmeal Cake which sounds healthy but is mostly butter. And caramel and coconut and pecans and eggs and maybe a teaspoon of oatmeal somewhere in there, to satisfy the letter of the law.

I forgot to mention the wine and the coffee with real cream (the Bailey’s Irish kind). It’s a wonder that the damage was limited to only five pounds.

But the damage was done, so now comes the time of reckoning. What am I willing to do – or not do – to kick this five pounds to the curb?

I’m willing to:

  • Add an extra mile or two to my runs.
  • Exercise almost every day, even when I don’t fee like it.
  • Walk past the potato chips in the grocery store without so much as a glance in their delicious direction.

I’m not willing to:

  • Skip meals. That’s uncivilized.
  • Ignore my favorite stocking stuffer, the Trader Joe’s One Pound Chocolate Bar with Almonds. I get a few squares a day until it’s all gone – that’s my tradition.
  • Eliminate entire food categories like sugar, dairy, gluten, carbs, alcohol, or caffeine. A balanced diet is important, and coffee is especially important.

All of the above starts today, so wish me luck. As always, I’m guided by the wise philosophy of a very dear friend:

Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

 

 

 

 

Swimming With Ray

When my fellow middle-aged, amateur swimmers and I came up for air after a particularly hard workout, the last thing we wanted to hear was “swim an easy 50 to cool down.”  We wanted to rest and recover. But Coach Ray believed in recovering while we swam. He said it would boost our stamina and endurance.  This turned out to be a brilliant foresight. 

 The first time I met Ray, he made me feel right at home even though I was a nervous wreck on the inside. I came to him because I wanted help leaving my comfort zone.  I feared I had reached a point in my life where I might never again learn a new skill, which was depressing. I was an old dog in search of a new trick.

 That’s why, in my mid-40’s, I finally mustered the courage to sign up for the Masters Swim team at my local YMCA. I was shivering but determined as I walked gingerly across the wet tiles toward the edge of the pool. I admitted to Ray that I was a total novice with no swimming experience. He was nonplussed.  

 He told me to get in the pool and start swimming.

 I soon realized what Ray’s other swimmers already knew – the guy was a genius when it came to coaching.  He knew exactly what to say to get a better result out of each of us. With the patience of a saint, he tried to correct my lifetime of bad habits.  Pretty soon, this former-band-geek-with-absolutely-NO-athletic-ability started to think of herself as a swimmer (I’m still not sure about the “master” part).

 As we gazed up at Ray between sets, he flailed his arms and swung his hips from side to side in surprisingly helpful demonstrations of perfect technique. He shared anecdotes about other swimmers he’d coached; he was especially proud of the youngest ones. He could not hide his love for the sport, and for his swimmers of all ages.

 In the moments between our drills, we also got to know one another.  Relationships formed gradually as we exchanged breathless tidbits of personal information during our 30-second rests between laps. We all had different reasons for being in the pool, but Ray was absolutely determined that we’d all get faster. He was our biggest champion and an eternal optimist about our swimming abilities.

 One of his favorite drills allowed for no rest at all, but rather an ‘easy lap’ between one set and the next. “Recover while you swim!” he bellowed.   He knew we could do this because to Ray, our hodgepodge collection of lawyers and professors and consultants were real athletes.  Because he believed this wholeheartedly, eventually we believed it, too. We swam, we recovered, and we swam some more.  

 But then Ray didn’t show up one morning, or the next. Worries were shared; inquiries were made, until our absolute worst fears were confirmed. Ray had passed away at home. He was only 57.

 Sometimes when I swim, I let my mind lapse into a gentle rhythmic complacence as I stare at the black line on the pool bottom for lap after endless lap, focusing only on my next breath.  Like that black line, Ray was always there to provide direction and guidance.  His presence was as certain as the rising sun, until it wasn’t.

 I am devastated that my coach is gone, but I’m not alone in my grief. I have my team.  We are strong; we are athletes now. At our first practice after Ray’s funeral (standing room only and overflowing with his young swimmers), we traded memories of the sets and drills he had taught us over the years.  With no choice but to get back in the pool, we mustered the stamina and endurance Ray had built within us. 

 We recovered while we swam.

 

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Ray (in red) with members of our Masters team. In his memory, we re-named our team “the Rays.”

 

 

 

 

All I Want For Christmas

Some women want jewelry; others want designer bags. Not me. I want to play Jedi mind tricks on American political leaders. According to the official Star Wars website, “the Force can have a powerful effect on the weak-minded, a phenomenon Jedi sometimes take advantage of in pursuing their missions.”

Perfect.

What’s my mission? To make 2017 better than 2016. It’s a low bar. If I could just harness the Force, I’d point it directly at our “weak-minded” lawmakers so they would…

  1. …Stop worrying so much about where other people go to the bathroom.

I’m looking at you, North Carolina. When the most well-known piece of legislation to come out of your statehouse is called the Bathroom Bill, it’s time to reflect upon your governing priorities. This panic over public bathrooms is the very definition of a First World Problem, and I use the word “problem” loosely. If you are really that concerned about bathroom habits, consider focusing your time and resources a little further away from home.

Fun Fact: nearly 2.4 billion people in the world don’t have proper toilets (according to the World Health Organization.) So instead of demanding that we show our birth certificates to the ‘potty police’ every time nature calls, consider writing a check to UNICEF.

  1. Remember that America asks the world to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” even when those huddled masses come from Syria.

Half the population of Syria has been displaced and a generation of children is growing up in refugee camps without education or security or hope. Why isn’t our government doing more about it? I’ll tell you why: because we can never be 100% sure that a terrorist won’t slip in among those refugees!

I can’t argue that, but let’s unpack the threat. Suppose 1 of every 1000 refugees is a terrorist (a totally absurd assumption since in fiscal year 2016 we admitted over 6,726 Syrian refugees, of whom exactly zero were terrorists). Canada had welcomed over 25,000 refugees as of last February, and none of them is on Santa’s naughty list.

If we welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees and if 1 of every 1000 was not only a terrorist but also successfully committed a terrorist act, approximately 44 Americans would die in those attacks (fatality assumptions based on 2016 data).

That means we won’t risk the chance that 44 Americans might die, in order to save 25,000 people. Either this great country is filled with cowards, or we are bad at math. Or possibly both (given the falling regard for all things scientific or fact-based, and the tiny percent of us who serve in the military).

  1. …Act like decent humans.

It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Yet time after time, our elected leaders behave like babies (at best) or heartless bastards (at worst). I am tired of turning on the news and hearing about a certain someone grabbing women by the privates, whining about his press coverage, and threatening to create a Muslim registry. I don’t know what’s more exhausting: keeping track of it all, or sustaining an appropriate level of outrage. But what can I do about it?

If I get the Force for Christmas. I will play my Jedi mind tricks. And by this time next year, the 24-hour cable news cycle will go dark for lack of material because our president will actually be presidential. We’ll have some new Americans with whom to celebrate the holidays. North Carolina will no longer be the butt (ha ha) of much bathroom humor.

If my stocking is empty, however, I fear 2017 may be even worse than 2016. In which case, I will seriously consider relocating. To a galaxy far, far away.

 

The Last Time I Got Harassed By a Strange Man

If you guessed yesterday, congratulations! Four jerks in a parked car made me afraid in my own neighborhood and ruined my day.

Because so many women have been sharing their stories of harassment and assault lately (thanks to the presidential campaign, these topics are in the news), here is mine.

My day started out just fine. It was a crisp, cool morning. The sun was shining, the leaves were gorgeous, and I was listening to NPR Weekend Edition on my iPhone while walking the dog. We were strolling along one of my favorite routes, beside a pond in a residential neighborhood where I always see ducks and geese, and sometimes wild turkeys.

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I noticed an SUV parked on the other side of the road, and four young men were sitting in it with the windows down. As I passed, one of them yelled out at me, “How you doing, beautiful?”

I stopped in my tracks. Did I just hear that? WTF???

 Then I had a split second to decide what to do. Ignore it? Engage in constructive dialogue about appropriate behavior? Unleash 30 years of frustration and anger, condensed into a stinging one-liner that’s sure to make him really, really sorry?

I wish I could report I did something vengeful or witty, but all I did was look at him and ask, “REALLY?

As in: Really, you have the gall to harass me in my own neighborhood? Really, you weren’t raised better that that? Really, you are so confident in your safety and dominance that you feel entitled to say absolutely anything to me, even though you know you are scaring me?

Because that was absolutely his intention. After I turned away and high-tailed it out of there, I could hear him yelling at me. I was afraid to turn around. I was never so glad to have my 80-pound shepherd-mix-who-looks-like-a-Doberman by my side. If not for my dog, I would have been terrified. There was no one else around and there were four of them, one of me.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Come on, Laura, he just made a harmless remark. He probably meant it as a compliment.” You would be wrong. What 20-something man sees a 40-something woman in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt (hair in ponytail, no makeup) and says something like that? He knew what he was doing; he probably does it all the time. There is no excuse for it.

The whole episode brought back terrible memories of times in my life when I encountered this kind of crap a lot more often. My entire early 20’s, when I lived on or near military bases and could not go running outdoors without being harassed by the cars passing by (I just turned up my music). The time I went to a Patriots game and was groped by a stranger in the crowd. Jogging on a beach vacation just a few years ago, when an asshole in a car yelled nasty things at me as he drove by (what is it about being in a car that makes these men lose all sense of decency? We can still see you!).

But all this is just part of being female and having a pulse. I hate it, I think it’s wrong, but I’m used to it. I’m glad more people are talking about now and calling it unacceptable. And despite yesterday’s incident, this happens to me less and less as I get older (maybe the dude yesterday wasn’t wearing his glasses?).

My friends, save your sympathy for the next generation. The worst part of getting harassed yesterday wasn’t that I felt afraid (though I did) or that I was looking over my shoulder for the rest of my walk, wondering if they would follow me (they didn’t, thank goodness).

No, the worst part was sitting down with my 13-year old daughter and telling her about it, and talking about how to handle it when this happens to her. Not if. When. She’s taller than me and looks like an adult. She walks around our town all the time.

And her middle school bus stop is 100 yards from where this incident happened.

Good luck, honey. You’ll need it.

Is Donald Trump Really a Genius About Taxes?

After last week’s revealing New York Times article which speculated that Donald Trump may not have paid federal taxes for at least 18 years, his campaign surrogates took to the microphones in response to all the fuss.  “The man’s a genius,” declared Rudolf Giuliani, former mayor of New York City.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the story simply proved how qualified Donald Trump is to overhaul the tax code.

 For his part, Trump tweeted: “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president.”

 Really?

 Because if you read the entire Times article, the last few paragraphs featured some pretty revealing insights from Trump’s tax preparer at the time, Jack Mitnick.  Here is the first:

 “[Mr. Mitnick] had long handled tax matters for Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and he said he began doing Donald Trump’s taxes after Mr. Trump turned 18.”

 Think about that for a moment: Donald Trump never, not even once, filed his own tax return. Never completed a 1040 EZ like most of us do when we turn 18 – a rite of passage signaling the arrival of adulthood and full citizenship. Not for Trump – Daddy’s accountant handled that for him.

 But surely as his business interests grew along with his assets, he must have learned how to leverage the tax code to his advantage. He must have educated himself on the basics, if only to protect his wealth and maximize its value. Right?

 Wrong. Mitnick remembered Trump and his wife when they reviewed and signed the tax returns he had prepared for them.

 “[Mr. Mitnick] contrasted Fred Trump’s attention to detail with what he described as [Donald’s] brash and undisciplined style. He recalled, for example, that when Donald and Ivana Trump came in each year to sign their tax forms, it was almost always Ivana who asked more questions.”

 If that’s true, Donald Trump may actually know much less about the tax code than the rest of us.  He’s never filed his tax returns without professional help, and apparently he expressed little interest in understanding what was on the pages he signed.  And yet he boasts that he knows more about the tax code than “anyone who has ever run for president.”

 This is what worries me. I don’t actually care that he used the tax laws to his advantage; I am in the same camp with those who say, “Don’t hate the player – hate the game.” The tax code is what it is. I have never heard any American claim to willingly pay more taxes than he legally owes.

 I worry because Trump believes he’s an expert in something he knows nothing about. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s part of a pattern. He’s previously claimed to know more about warfare than our decorated military leaders. He repeatedly brags about his outstanding temperament (when he’s in between tantrums or resting his thumbs after a 3 a.m. tweeting session).

 But his supporters believe he’s a tax genius, when in reality he probably couldn’t find the signature line without the little yellow post-it arrow his accountant affixes to his returns. If Donald Trump is elected president, he is in for a big surprise when he signs his first tax return in office.

 After all, the presidential salary is $400,000. There are few loopholes or offsetting losses from businesses, so a President Trump would likely have real taxable income on which he would pay actual federal taxes.

 Possibly for the very first time.