Radical Middle-Aged Cake Acceptance: A Modest Proposal

April 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

IMG_0407Eschew this? Cake by Night Kitchen Bakery

 

I‘m processing books in the circulation office of the library where I work when I hear a sudden outcry.

“Oh, no!”  

“This is dreadful.” 

“This is just terrible!”  

What catastrophe are my co-workers, all middle-aged women, reacting to?  Have the library’s computers crashed again?  Has a letter from an irate patron just been posted on the bulletin board? Is there another new book by Joyce Carol Oates?  

Nope. They’re talking about cake.  

One of our patrons has baked us a scrumptious-looking chocolate cake, which sits invitingly on the counter in the circulation office. After taking a piece (“I really shouldn’t, but . . .”) I return to my work station and continue to eavesdrop as my co-workers respond to this thoughtful gift.    

“Oh my God!” 

“Uh-oh.“ 

“This is just evil.” 

You’d think that eating chocolate cake was the worst possible kind of calamity.          

“This is treacherous.” 

“I’m in trouble now.” 

“Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.“

I begin to wonder—isn’t anybody going to say anything positive? Like: “Chocolate cake? How cool is that?” Or  “I love cake. I’m having a nice big slice.” 

Not a chance. By afternoon’s end, not a single librarian has had anything nice to say about this unexpected treat. We’ve gobbled it down. But have we enjoyed it?  

You sure wouldn’t think so, listening to us.    

Last week, I helped celebrate my pal Lucy’s 40th birthday. As we all sang “Happy Birthday,” Lucy’s husband brought out a beautiful layer cake he’d made from scratch, lavishly decorated by Olivia, their 7-year-old daughter.

I try to avoid sweets, but I always make an exception for birthday cake. To turn down birthday cake, it seems to me, is just bad karma.  

So I had a slice. And I enjoyed it, too. But my pleasure was undercut by the guilt I felt about consuming all those empty calories.  

Lucy’s other friends also said yes to cake, invariably adding,  “Just a small slice for me, thanks.” or “Just a tiny taste.”   

But the kids at the party, a gaggle of little girls Olivia‘s age, had a totally different response. Drawn to that cake like moths to a flame, each child claimed as large a piece as she could get her hands on, then happily made short work of it.        

Seeing cake, they weren’t alarmed. They were thrilled. 

They were quite a sight, these little girls, beaming, with huge chunks of cake on their plates. 

And yet, sometime between now and adulthood, they, too, will stop being delighted by cake and learn to fear it. Rather than taking a big piece and loving it, they’ll ask for a tiny slice and beat themselves up about eating it.  

Is there a scientific name for this crazy cake phobia—the terror that strikes the hearts of otherwise sane and mature women when offered a delicious dessert? Yes, cake has zero nutritional value. Still, shouldn’t a grown woman be able to simply enjoy a piece from time to time?   

Listening to my co-workers kvetch about our cake, and remembering how much those little girls loved eating theirs, I resolved to attempt to shed my own fear of delicious pastry and get back in touch with my inner 7-year-old.

Call it Radical Middle-aged Cake Acceptance. 

When comes to cake, I’m going to give myself just two options. Either smile and say “No, thanks.” Or have a piece and enjoy it, without ambivalence or guilt, the way I did when I was a kid.

“Cake is not the enemy” is my brand-new mantra. (You can try it too. Just repeat after me: “Cake is not dreadful. Cake is delicious.”)

Is this an impossible dream?  

Invite me to your next party and let’s find out. 

Undermining “Underpants Man,” the Tony Matelli Statue

March 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Humor, Pleasures

sleep

If a Wellesley college student, walking across campus, spots a man her father’s age, wearing nothing but underpants, stumbling along, eyes closed and arms outstretched, she can call the police on her cell and they’ll be there in two minutes to remove him.     

But if he isn’t flesh and blood but, instead, an über-realistic facsimile made of painted bronze,  it’s a totally different story. That’s not some pervy stranger hanging around outdoors in his tighty whiteys. That’s art! 

Specifically, that’s Sleepwalker, a sculpture by artist Tony Matelli. The Wellesley campus is currently running a show of Matelli’s work, and this Underpants Man is part of the show. 

Sleepwalker,” says the artist, is intended to evoke “empathy” for someone who is “lost and out of place.” 

I don’t know about lost, but “Underpants Man” couldn’t possibly be more out of place than on the campus of an all-women’s college. Not only is he off-putting and unattractive, but a number of students find the sight of him alarming, reminding them of bad past encounters with other semi-naked older guys.  

Concerned students asked that “Underpants Man”  be moved indoors. When this request was turned down, two juniors began to circulate an online petition. Explaining that Sleepwalker was a source of “apprehension, fear and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault” for some students, they asked that the statue be relocated to the gallery where the rest of Matelli’s work was on display. There, Matelli’s fans could choose to enjoy it, and students repelled by it could choose to avoid it. 

An appropriate response would have been an apology for being clueless and insensitive, followed by a prompt change of venue for “Underpants Man.”

Instead, Museum Director Lisa Fischman refused to move the statue, telling The New York Times that the situation provides the Wellesley community with a “teachable moment.“  College President H. Kim Bottomly backed her up, welcoming the debate about “freedom of expression and the significance of safe spaces.” 

And the artist himself? Matelli was “surprised and delighted” by the response. Anyone creeped out by his creation, he suggested, needed to “seek help.”  

Would it be okay for a real middle-aged dude to wander the campus of a women’s college in his undies? I sure as hell hope not. So what makes Sleepwalker acceptable? I love art. But it seems to me that what this particular work of art expresses is hostility to any young woman who might not enjoy encountering a flabby, near-naked stalker as she goes about her daily life.

Had Sleepwalker been installed on my own college campus back in the ‘70s, I’m pretty sure that the radical feminist crowd I ran with back then would have quickly taken matters into our own hands and “uninstalled” him. 

Although these days I am a law-abiding librarian who would NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, counsel a college student to break the law, were I to channel the idealistic rabble-rouser I was back then, this is probably what she’d tell her sister students at Wellesley College:

Why not counter art with art? Taking “Underpants Man” down? That’s not vandalism, it’s a Performance Piece! Matelli is expressing himself with “Underpants Man”? You can Express Yourselves right back.

• Unmoor the dude and move him inside yourself. All you’ll need is a group of strong, motivated Lacrosse players and a few power tools and you‘re good to go!   

• Install him in the gallery. If they put him back outside, move him back to the gallery. (You can call this particular work of Conceptual Art “Don’t Mess With Feminists.”)  

• Better yet, move him into the college president’s private bathroom. Let’s see how much she enjoys encountering “Underpants Man” over and over again as she goes about her daily life.  

 If “Underpants Man” cannot be moved, mess with him a little:   

It’s cold outside. Cover him up! Clothe him in a heavy overcoat and warm hat. 

Dress him in a clown suit and attach bunches of brightly covered helium balloons to his outstretched hands. 

What would “Underpants Man” look like in drag? Find out! 

Consider him a giant Barbie doll! Try different looks for him.  What about a cocktail dress? Or a tutu? Maybe a blond wig and some make-up. 

Hold a contest—the student who can make him look the most like Lady Gaga wins!  

 • Decorate him like a Christmas tree! Put a star on his head and festoon him with lights and ornaments. 

I’ve got two words for you—spray paint. Paint him blue. Or Black. Paint him like a rainbow. Paint him with your school colors, and write GO BLUE CREW! on his ass. 

• Or slap a Groucho Marx mask on his face and paint a slogan on his butt: “Where The Hell Did I Put My Pants?” “Beam Me Up, Scottie.” Or “If You See Something, Say Something.”

Should you hesitate, consider the words of artist Tony Matelli; “Art is open and designed to solicit responses no matter what they are.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like an invitation.

If the president of the college complains, just tell her it’s a “teachable moment.” 

That, of course, is the advice I’d have given you when I was a young, idealistic rabble-rouser. The woman I am these days would NEVER counsel a college student to break the law by defacing public property (however repellent). But countering art with art? Not a bad idea.  

Why not get a bunch of motivated art students together, construct your own über-realistic replica of a campus policewoman poised to arrest “Underpants Man” for public indecency, and install her right next to the offending statue? 

Call her Shutting Down Sleepwalker.

Don’t have the funding to make this happen? Put out a call for Shutting Down Sleepwalker donations. I’d be happy to write the first check. 

 

Are You a Handywoman? Take This Simple Test and See!

March 11, 2014 by  
Filed under Humor

18249085As I was reading Not Your Mother’s Book on Home Improvement, a new collection of lighthearted essays by (primarily) middle-aged female do-it-yourselfers, it became abundantly clear to me that, unlike the women who tell their stories here, I am not a do-it-yourselfer. How about you? 

Take this simple test and see! The following statements are made by the handywomen in this book as they undertake projects from fixing a broken doorbell to building an addition. How many of these sentences can you imagine yourself saying?    

Sweating pipes is something all women should know how to do. 

I can fix just about anything.

We were building our dream house, which I had designed and drafted. 

I’d memorized the recipe for perfect foundation cement.

My Mother’s Day gift was a weed-whacker. 

I slathered the pipe ends with flux, inserted needed sleeves and torched and soldered until they ran red hot. 

I am Ms. Fixit. 

Several years ago, during a day off from work, I decided to convert a coat closet into a pantry. How hard could it be?

As I headed to my truck for parts, I tried hard to think about all the money I was saving by fixing the toilet myself. 

My shelving lumber did not fit neatly . . .  into the miter box.

I have purchased ball cocks at the plumbing supply place. 

In an effort to break up the turd jam, I poured water into the bowl a little at a time to avoid overflow. 

I could whip up a funky, modern coffee table out of reclaimed wood and tricycle parts in a single afternoon. Bring on the power tools!

I’m not complaining about being the one who did all the yard work. 

I strongly believe that every girl should have a Five-Way Wonder Tool. (And no, she’s not talking about THAT kind of Five-Way Wonder Tool.) 

How well did you score?

0–4    Put down that hammer before you hurt someone! 

5–9    You can be trusted to change a light bulb, paint the powder room, or fix a running toilet. Otherwise, it’s Angie’s List for you!

10–13  Love the way you rock those power tools. Ms. Fixit. But there are a few projects even you can’t handle. 

14–15  Congratulations! You are, absolutely and without question, a genuine Handywoman. Not only can you design, build, and fix just about anything, you enjoy the challenge. (Speaking of which, my attic needs rewiring . . . any chance you’d like to drop by?)  

 

The ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Issue: Lewd in the Library

March 3, 2014 by  
Filed under Beauty, Humor, Musings

Sports Illustrated

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue just came out, and all over America librarians are flipping through its pages and rolling their eyes. 

The swimsuit issue, which isn’t actually about swimwear at all but is, instead, about young, beautifully shaped female bodies, is the single most stolen item in any public library. Shelve it in your magazine section like any other periodical? It’ll vanish.  Like magic. Always. But hide it behind the reference desk and make your patrons sign it out? 

Is that just good sense? Or is it censorship? 

Every year, the swimsuit issue gets a bit more lascivious—the bikinis skimpier, the poses more provocative, the expressions on the models’ faces less about “Look at my strong, healthy body!“ and more about “Do me! Now! Right here on the beach!

This year’s cover shows three stunning young woman, topless, their backs to the camera, smiling happily at the viewer over their shoulders, their gorgeous rumps more revealed that concealed by itty wisps of fabric.  

Is this really what we want to display on our library’s magazine rack?

Of course, my suburban Philadelphia library’s collection contains all three books in the Shades of Grey trilogy, and numerous other examples of sexy contemporary “literature.” (And the sex scenes in the romances we circulate are hot hot hot.)  

We librarians tend to be fans of the First Amendment.   I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU myself. I even subscribe to Playboy—for the articles and interviews, of course.    

What I’m saying is that I’m all for pornography.   

But there’s a time and a place for porn. I wasn’t sure this was the time or the place. I’m in charge of processing and then shelving incoming magazines. Before putting this one out on the floor, I decided to consult my supervisor. 

Carol and I perused the issue together.  “OMG!“ “Would you look at that?” “Yikes!” “Do you even SEE a swimsuit in this picture?“  “Oy!” “I hope her mother never sees that shot.”

This was pretty hot stuff.     

We were inclined to stash it behind the reference desk, along with the other stuff that patrons like to steal. The Thursday “Science” section of The New York Times. The Morningstar weekly stock market updates.  

But first, we brought the issue to the head of the library.   

Our boss took a look, then said,  “Just shelve it. Don’t treat it differently from any other magazine. It’s no worse than what they can see every day on television.”  

That woman sure loves the First Amendment.

And, of course, the truth is that we’re living in an era where anyone, of any age, can view all the naked tushies they want, whenever they want, online. 

“Put a security tag on it, of course,” she added. Although we all know how easy it is to remove those tags. 

Before I shelved it, my co-workers passed it around.  The consensus? We weren’t exactly shocked. But we weren’t exactly thrilled either. 

We’re all middle-aged women. Many of us are grandmas. Still, in our heyday, we too were hot chicks. But you can be a hot chick and not want to share that aspect of yourself with the entire world. The kind of young woman who is drawn to library work is rarely the kind of young woman who ends up spilling out of her bikini on the cover of a magazine.

We librarians don’t tend to let it all hang out.  

Which means that we are, increasingly, at odds with our culture. Modesty? How retro is that? Dignity? Forget about it.  

Still, we proudly stand behind the First Amendment. Perhaps to a fault.  And while I wasn’t exactly elated about adding that little touch of smarm to our quiet reading room, I went ahead and shelved the swimsuit issue just like any other magazine.   

Within 24 hours, it was gone. 

 

 

 

 

 

Books: Cartoonist Liza Donnelly’s ‘Women on Men’

February 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

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Cartoonist Liza Donnelly has said that her goal is “to write and draw in a way that makes people laugh and think.” With her new book, Women on Men, a collection of cartoons about what goes on between the sexes (and, occasionally, between the sheets) she’s done just that.  

Donnelly—a New Yorker staff cartoonist with more than a dozen books in print, who has been married to fellow cartoonist Michael Maslin for close to two decades—has both the life experience and the cartoon chops to take on this enticing topic. 

The collection is divided into chapters like “Let‘s Get to Goodbye“ (dating) and “The Idiot I Married” (matrimony), each of which begins with an on-topic riff in the cartoonist’s own handwriting, giving the book the fun and informal vibe of a good pal dropping you a line.     

The cover art sets the tone.  Just two faces, one male and one female. The woman, who is (naturally) on top, looks down at her partner, happy and confident, as he, underneath, gazes up at her, intrigued. 

The women in this book are empowered. Strong, sharp, and funny, they’re fully capable of expressing (or defending) themselves with a wisecrack. But they’re caring and vulnerable too.   

 

They endure the nightmare that is dating:

do not call list© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

But, undaunted, they continue to look for love:  

enigmas© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

They often come up short in their search for Mr. Right:

180© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

Married life is often bliss. Other times, not so much. 

almost_finished© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

And let‘s not forget the topic of divorce.

 that_idiot_I_married© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

Although there’s plenty of frustration and hostility on these pages, the tone throughout remains friendly. Gently mocking. Nothing over the top or out of control. These are civilized people. Everyone has excellent manners. And Donnelly pokes as much fun at herself and as at the men in her life. 

You could criticize  Women on Men for its lack of diversity. These are all well-educated, high-earning New Yorkers, hanging out in nice apartments and going to cocktail parties. But let’s be realistic. Donnelly cartoons for upscale venues like The New Yorker and Forbes. This is her beat, and she covers it well.  It works because she tracks her own experience with wit and honesty.   

And Donnelly herself is well aware of the world beyond her own community. She’s both a charter member of “Cartooning for Peace” and the founder of WorldInk.org, a showcase for political art from around the globe, and she travels the world as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department.  

My own favorite Donnelly cartoon is, unfortunately, not in the book.

LD_marriage_in_trouble© The New Yorker Magazine and Liza Donnelly

 

In Women on Men, Donnelly confides to the reader that she loves to dance but her husband does not, which means that when he popped the question, decades ago, she had to ask herself: “Do I like this guy more than I like going dancing?”

She decided to give up the dream of a dancing husband and say “yes” to the man she describes, in the book’ s dedication, as “my husband, friend, lover (and) muse.“  (Good call!)  Nevertheless, years later, via this cartoon, she’s given herself  (or at least her alter ego) that dancing husband after all.

It’s an intriguing glimpse into how the creative process works. And a great way for a funny woman to get the last laugh.

 

 

 

Soylent! It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

January 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Food & Drink, Humor, Musings

Growing up in the sixties, I looked forward to a future in which I’d get to eat like The Jetsons, whose cuisine consisted of little tablets that magically turned into full-sized meals. 

Which is to say that I’ve never been much of a foodie. Call me a “fuelie.” Food, for me, isn’t about enjoyment.  It‘s about sustenance. 

I don’t get a kick out of cutting-edge cuisine, fabulous new restaurants, or creative food combinations. Sitting around a table for hours, ordering innovative entrées, tasting each other’s food, and yakking endlessly about what we’re eating as we gobble it down? I have more fun vacuuming the living room.    

Check out that amazing new bistro?

No, thanks. I’d rather stay home and open a can of Campbell’s. 

One reason that Mark, my sweetie, and I get along is that we’re both perfectly happy always eating at the Same Dam Chinese restaurant or, even better, staying at home to enjoy vegan chili, made from the recipe Mark has used for decades. 

When I’m on my own for dinner, I’ll either pick up something nutritious from the neighborhood gourmet take-out place or fix myself a salad.  Or, on rare occasion, indulge my sweet tooth with a serving of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies (a serving being, of course, an entire sleeve).  

“Don’t you ever feel like cooking?“ people ask.  

Not I.  There isn’t a meal in the world I enjoy eating enough to want to actually cook it. I use my stove not to cook, but to store the pots and pans that I’m not using. 

Which is all of them. 

So when I first heard about Soylent, I was thrilled.  

soylentSoylent, the creation of software engineer Rob Rhinehart, is a new food substitute that can supply 100 percent of your daily nutritional needs, costs next to nothing, and takes no time to prepare.  Using himself as a guinea pig, Rhinehart was able to thrive on nothing but homemade Soylent for three months.  After which he  crowd-funded it to the tune of  $1.5 million. And then the venture capitalists moved in.

The original  recipe is being tested and refined, and the first orders (including mine) should ship in early 2014.  

So what does it taste like?  

“I’m not trying to make something delicious,” Rhinehart said in a recent  Gawker interview. “There are already a lot of delicious things. It’s all about efficiency. It’s all about cost and convenience.”

Which is to say that it tastes like Glop. Or, according to one Gawker staffer, like “the homemade nontoxic Play-Doh you made, and sometimes ate, as a kid. Slightly sweet and earthy with a strong yeasty aftertaste.“ 

“Perfectly balanced nutritious sludge that you can live on instead of preparing delicious meals?“ I thought. “I’m in!”  

When he named his creation Soylent (after a foodstuff central to a movie whose tagline every Boomer knows by heart), Rhinehart was being ironic, although a few of the folks who posted responses on his website claimed to feel betrayed.  “If it’s called Soylent,” one huffed. “It had better be made out of people!” 

Let’s hope he was kidding.

I can’t wait to mix up my first batch. I’m excited at the prospect of thriving on a nutritionally perfect, hassle-free diet.   

It might even catch on! Maybe 2014 will be The Year of Glop. 

I’m dreaming of a Soylent-centered  Christmas for 2014. No hours of preparation. No groaning board. No overeating, then sinking onto the sofa in a ham- or turkey-fueled stupor. And no mountains of dirty dishes to wash. 

Instead, friends and family sit around the table enjoying witty, literate conversation as we cheerfully sip our Soylent.  (Perhaps, for the holiday, we’ll spike it with a little vodka.) We’ll donate the money we’ve saved to charities that fight world hunger.

Then, on to coffee and pie! Having satisfied 100 percent of our nutritional needs, we can indulge in a bit of food-as-pure-pleasure.

Okay, so that probably won’t happen. But aren’t the possibilities Soylent offers, at the very least, food for thought?      

As for me, it may have taken five decades, but I’m finally going to be able to eat like Jane Jetson! 

Now, where’s my jetpack? 

At 59, What’s a Cheap Thrill?

December 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Health, Humor, Musings

3476476973_b3190de817_zI’ve enjoyed so many things in my life.  Books and music.  Friends and lovers.  Children, cats, and canines.  Not to mention doing work that I love. But at 59, there’s one thing I know I can always rely on to make me happy.

A good night’s sleep.

I wake up each morning refreshed, then glance at the clock. “That’s eight solid hours!”  I’ll think happily.  Then I’ll turn right over and head back to dreamland for another hour. Sometimes two.

Sleeping in. It’s my favorite cheap thrill.

When I was in law school, I was up every morning at six, studying. When I was a young mother, I was up every morning at six with the baby. But at this point in my life, there isn’t a reason in the world for me to awaken at dawn and leap from my bed.

So I don’t.

Nine hours is my sweet spot. Twelve hours, which I achieved on a recent spa vacation, is my personal best.

I just love the way it feels to wake up, refreshed, after hours and hours of delicious, soul-satisfying, care-unraveling slumber.

My friends feel the same way.

“I don’t just enjoy sleep,” says Stacia. “I wallow in it.”

“Sleeping rocks,” agrees Gloria.

“It’s my happy place,” adds Gill. “I just hope death is as satisfying and comfortable.”

“Just give me eight hours and I’m good to go,” proclaims Deb. “Unless it’s a weekend. Then give me nine. At least.”

Science backs us up. Sleep-deprived people get sick more often. They eat more. too. Want to drop a few pounds?  You can lift weights, speed-walk, or hit the gym and climb those crazy fake stairs.

Or just go to bed on time. And stay there.

To crave sleep isn’t always good.  Oversleeping can be a sign of anxiety or depression. If I woke up with the blues each morning, instead of bright as a goddamn buttercup, my love of sleep might be cause for alarm, not celebration.

But catching lots of zzzzs  is definitely working for me.  So I’ll dream on.

Not that my dreams are anything special. Given that I can do anything I want—fly! perform miracles! have tawdry sex with my favorite celebrities!—my dream life is one big yawn.

Say I’m planning to take Amtrak from Philly to Manhattan tomorrow. All night, in my dreams, I’ll walk to the commuter rail station, take the commuter train to 30th Street Station, purchase a ticket, then board the New York–bound train.  Or I’ll begin my walk to the commuter rail station too late and miss the train. Or start my walk with time to spare, but wander around endlessly, unable to locate the train station.

Sometimes I’ll arrive at the station on time and wait for a train that never arrives.

It’s not as if I need to stay asleep to continue to experience that.  (In fact, I’d love a dream upgrade. If anybody knows how I can transform my dreams so that instead of shlepping to the train station all night, I could wing my way to the Big Apple on the back of a unicorn, or fly there in the arms of Superman, please get in touch.)

“Can you remember when you didn’t want to sleep?“ comic Paula Poundstone asks. “Isn’t that inconceivable? I guess the definition of adulthood is that you WANT  to sleep.”

When my son was a toddler, he needed a daily nap, but he always fought sleep. When I put him in his crib, he’d stand up, sobbing, and plead for me to rescue him. Too soft-hearted to just let him holler, I learned to trick him into falling asleep with motion. If it was sunny out, I’d pop him in his stroller and walk  him around until he conked out.

In bad weather, I’d bundle him into his car seat and hit the road, telling him, “I’m driving around until one of us passes out!”

(It was never me. I don’t crave sleep so much that I’d ever indulge when behind the wheel.)

Now that he’s 25, Tom no longer naps. Like most people his age, he gets up early, stays up late, and is utterly unconcerned about how much sleep he’s getting.

By the time he’s my age, though, I’m guessing that he’ll have finally discovered the joy of napping.

My desire for lots of shut-eye means missing out on certain things.  Staying up late! Dancing till dawn! Enjoying an intense, soul-baring 2 a.m. conversation. Attending a midnight showing of Rocky Horror!    

In my youth I enjoyed all those things. Now I’m happy to trade them all in for a good night’s sleep.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” some folks announce proudly.

Not me. I’m going to grab nine hours right now.

What finally gets me out of bed in the morning? Birdsong? A good-morning kiss from my beloved? The promise of a glorious new day? Nope. It’s the lure of the one thing I crave even more than sleep.

Coffee.

Image from Flickr via.

Zen and the Art of Enjoying the Last Laugh

November 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

4184208236_bb9fd6730b_b“A-maze-ing Laughter” Sculpture, by artist Yue Minjun, China. Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011. Image from Flickr via Louise Gadd

“How do you manage to remain so cheerful?” people ask. “Your job can be so stressful, and yet you’re always smiling. What’s your secret?” 

It isn’t that I was born a perpetually happy camper, or that I’ve finally found the right meds. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) 

It’s because I’m a writer.      

I work at a public library. Everyone is welcome, from polite, friendly, reasonable folks to hotheads, scoundrels, and absolute lunatics. Our regulars include not only moms, toddlers, and retirees, but folks who take orders from their toasters and a dude who claims that he can read your future by examining your feet. At the end of the day, do my friends want to hear about the adorable tots who enjoyed my story time or the pleasant people whose reference questions I answered?  

Of course not! They want to hear about my run-ins with Toaster Man and Foot Dude. Because challenging encounters make for good stories. Or, to paraphrase (and slightly distort) Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill you gives you great material. 

I used to endure my problematic moments with the public. Now I cherish each one. Why? Because I can turn them into stories.

Yesterday a woman went ballistic when I refused to cash a hundred-dollar bill so she could pay a 25-cent fine. An hour later, an elderly gent called me a string of unprintable names because I wouldn’t let him check out Dora the Explorer (to watch with his granddaughter) until he paid us the $90 he owed us. I can take these little flare-ups in stride, not because I’m emotionally made of Teflon, but because I’ve learned to experience life not as a hapless victim but as a humor writer.

When things go well, I enjoy them. When things go to hell, I write about them. 

(By the way, Grandpa Putz did return later to pay the whopping fine. But not to apologize.)   

You don’t have to be a writer to play this game.  Telling a story about a crappy experience so that you come out on top is something anyone can do.   

Has anything happened to you within recent memory that made you want to weep, scream, roll your eyes, or throttle someone? For a normal person, that’s a bad day. But for a writer it’s story fodder. Readers adore conflict. (As long as it isn’t happening to them.) The more exasperating the experience for you, the more readers (or your friends) will enjoy hearing about it.   

Next time you’re talking back to Julie, Amtrak’s automated agent, or your boss is hollering at you for something that isn’t your fault, consider the silver lining: Give this the right spin and your friends will die laughing when you tell them about it. 

So what’s the right spin? As your boss continues to blather, you might think about how you can “punch up” his rant (and your response thereto) to emphasize how gracious, sane, and long-suffering you are, and how bat-shit-crazy he is. You’re not Lois Lane, and this isn’t the 6 O’Clock News, so feel free to embellish it a little. Exaggerate for comic effect. The sky’s the limit! 

Not only that, but when you tell the story later, you’ll be able to include all the snappy retorts and devastating zingers you come up with after the fact.  

I’m not talking about tragedy. Leave that to Shakespeare or Eudora Welty.  I’m referring to the story-telling goldmine that is everyday frustration and annoyance.   

Entertaining people with a story isn’t just fun. It’s good for your mental health. Talking about something that’s driving you nuts enables you to vent, which will make you feel better, and to shape the material, which lets you regain some control over the situation.  

Can good times make great stories too? Absolutely.  I’ve published essays about my son’s Bichon Frisé–themed wedding, the hilarious colonoscopy mix tape a pal just made, and the time my sister and I got an upgrade to first class on a flight to Chicago.

But I also coped with my sweetie’s window-rattling snoring by publishing a humor piece about it in the Christian Science Monitor.  

One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that there’s nothing more satisfying—for both you and your audience—than a well-told revenge story.  Getting back at somebody who has put you through hell (or, at least, heck) is especially gratifying.  

I was once kept waiting for close to an hour in a chilly examination room at a doctor’s office, wearing the usual flimsy cotton gown. When the doc finally showed up, he was rushed,  perfunctory, and totally unapologetic about my long wait. 

I left with the antibiotic prescription I needed. But I also left feeling angry and humiliated.  

When I got home, I wrote “Outpatient,” a short story about a woman who endures the same experience, but I added a plot twist that enabled her to triumph over the situation. Not only did I feel better after giving that uncaring physician his comeuppance, if only in fiction, but the first magazine I sent “Outpatient” to grabbed it and sent me a check. 

The story has since appeared in two anthologies and is currently included in med-school course materials aimed at helping doctors-to-be relate better to their patients. My little story not only enabled me to let off steam and made me some money, but might just stop a few future docs from being as terse and snotty with their patients as that doctor was to me.

Which is so much better than if Id just gone home and stewed about the experience. 

When “Outpatient” was published, did I send a copy to my doc? With a little note saying, “Thanks for the inspiration!” And did that little gesture put a big fat smile on my face? 

What do you think?

Is Your Stomach Making You Sad? and Other Conundrums of 21st-Century Life

November 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings, Pleasures

Question_mark_(black_on_white)The questions we ask ourselves define who we are as a culture.  “What is the meaning of life?” “Is there a God?” “Does anybody really know what time it is?”  “Where the hell did I put my car keys?” 

To see what America is asking itself these days, I checked a dozen popular magazines out of my local public library, from  Martha Stewart Living to Sports Illustrated, and scoured the ads for questions.   

So what’s on your mind, America? Here’s a sampling of the questions I found. 

What’s the Gecko’s favorite yoga pose?

What do you hate most about vacuuming?

Why do we love football? 

What’s your dinner made of? 

Unexpected zit from hell?

How pure is Purified fish oil?

Is your stomach making you sad? 

When’s the last time you were this excited to get on a plane? 

Allergy fog?

On the go?

Got milk?

What’s so wrong with a bald head?

Your secret ingredient?

Ready to sparkle?

Is your cholesterol at goal?

Your litter may control urine odor. But what about feces? 

Is it demanding to want it all . . .  in two minutes?

First rule of taking the world by surprise?

What does a water balloon tell us about strong, healthy skin?

How long has it been since you gratified all your senses?

Can your deodorant do this?

Can you visibly shrink your pores after just one use?

Is your life a work of art? 

It’s 5 o’clock. Is your make-up still fabulous?

So, how does the Man of Steel shave?

 

 

There are no bad questions, the saying goes, only bad answers. Or in my case, sarcastic answers. Here are a few of my own responses:   

What do I hate most about vacuuming? Vacuuming.

What’s your dinner made of? Whatever I can phone in..

How long has it been since you gratified all your senses? Twenty minutes.

Unexpected zit from hell? Not at my age.

What does a water balloon tell us about healthy skin? If water balloons could talk, I doubt that’s the topic they’d choose to address. 

On the go? Probably not. 

Ready to sparkle? Maybe later.

Your secret ingredient? Lunch meat.

What’s the Gecko’s favorite yoga pose? Standing by the Coke machine asking if anyone can break a twenty. 

When’s the last time you were this excited to get on a plane? During my anxiety attack.

Can your deodorant do this? No, but you should see it write on mirrors. 

Got milk? Not since I was 12. 

First rule of taking the world by surprise? Two words: Invisibility cloak. 

Is it demanding to want it all . . . in two minutes? No, but it could be Bipolar.

Is my life a work of art? Not yet. But I’m working on it. 

How does the Man of Steel shave?  He gets Batman to help him.

 

“At the end of the day,” Zen guru Leo Babauta has written, “the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people we become.”

I guess this makes us a nation of football-loving, fish-oil-gobbling folks who love to sparkle but hate to vacuum. 

But at least our make-up is fabulous.  

 

Colonoscopy Serenade

October 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Family & Friends, Humor, Musings

zz-top-tush-london-2Retired cantor Janice Woltag Cohen just turned 50. We boomers all know what that means. It’s Colonoscopy Time!

Colonoscopy! That fabulous 50th birthday present you give to yourself. Yes, it’s yucky. But it’s absolutely necessary. (It could save your life.)

As kids growing up in the 50s, we joined the Mickey Mouse Club. Now that we’ve hit the half-century mark, it’s time for the Colonoscopy Club. 

Looking at a day filled with poop-inducing “cocktails,“ lots of clear fluids, maybe a little Jell-O, and a million trips to the bathroom, Cohen decided to have a little fun. She needed some distraction. Not to mention something that would get her in the right mood for that very special procedure. 

So she logged onto Facebook and posted a question:  “What songs should I put on my colonoscopy mixtape?”

Cohen has 1,412 Facebook friends. Most of them are boomers. And, apparently, all of them are smart-asses. They were on it in a flash:  

The first suggestion? 

“Ring of Fire, by Johnny Cash. Duh.”

Following which, Cohen’s pals quickly came up with:  

The Long and Winding Road

Baby Got Back

Looking Out my Back Door

Back in the Saddle Again

Fixing a Hole (The Beatles) 

My Humps

 

“Hilarious!!” Cohen responded.  But her Facebook friends were just warming up. If Cohen needed some tunes to help her through this boomer rite of passage, then that’s what she’d get. How about:   

Like a Virgin

Little Brown Jug

Brown Sugar

Turn, Turn, Turn

Bad Moon Rising

Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Dirty Work (Steely Dan)

 

Then they really started to get into it:

“‘Tush,’ by ZZ Top!” 

“How about my fave Springsteen tune—’Thunder Road?’”

“James Taylor’s ‘There’s Something in the Way She Moves.’” 

“John Cougar Mellencamp’s ‘Hurts So Good.’” 

“Paul McCartney’s ‘Let Em In.’”

“’The End,’ by the Doors.” 

“Anything by the Butt Hole Surfers!” 

“Anything by Hole!”

Even a classical music fan got into the act, with: “Beethoven’s Last Movement!” 

One friend posted: “Another man might suggest ‘Don’t Touch Me There,’ by the Tubes. But I have too much class to even suggest that.” 

Several folks suggested the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic “Cheek to Cheek.” One even linked to the video. 

Another linked to a music video called “Colonscopy: It’s Not That Bad,” from the Stop Colon Cancer website. (The song is a hoot. Listen and laugh.)  

 

And the titles continued:  

I Wanna Be Sedated

That Ain’t No Way to Go

Black Muddy River

Highway to Hell

Friends in Low Places

Foggy Bottom Breakdown

 

The final suggestion?  “Classical Gas” (Mason Williams). 

Janice ended up receiving 125 comments in just two hours. (One pal pointed out that actually playing through all the songs would last much longer than the procedure itself, which usually runs around 30 minutes.)

 Janice, laughing, posted: “Thanks for making Baby’s First Colonoscopy fun!“ 

With any luck, she’ll drift off under anesthesia with “Moon River” echoing in her ears, and emerge, after a quick and painless procedure, with a clean bill of health. 

Happy 50th birthday, Janice. And welcome to the Colonoscopy Club! 

 

Marion Winik Has Kissed a Lot Of Frogs

October 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Books, Humor, Musings, The Arts

16056243Writer Marion Winik has ridiculously bad taste in men. She’s an intelligent woman and a terrific writer, a good mom with a good heart, and ALL of her romantic relationships are train wrecks.

Winik recounts her quest for love at age 50 in her new book, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living, and no matter how tumultuous or misguided your own love life has been, she’ll put you to shame.

The healthiest relationship she describes is with first husband, Tony, who, when they met, was a  “penniless gay bartender who had recently lost his job as an ice-skating coach due to his drug problem.”

Winik fell hard for this guy. Why? “Having a beautiful gay man change his life to be with me was like getting the Nobel Prize for lovability,” she explains. Plus, the man could  “cook, bartend, devise and execute wall treatments, garden, iron, arrange flowers, set a perfect table and professionally cut and color my hair.”

That almost made me want to marry a gay guy myself.

They got hitched, had two sons, enjoyed some good years and endured some bad ones, before Winik’s husband died of AIDS.

And, romantically, it’s all been downhill from there.

Winik, to be sure, brings her own challenges to the romantic table. She describes herself, in a self-deprecating moment, as “an alcoholic, manic-depressive slut.” She’s also an ex-junkie. And she smokes.

But she writes like an angel. (With a wicked sense of humor.)

Winik, who has published nine books, makes a good living writing about her unconventional life. She writes for The New York Times, she’s a regular on All Things Considered, she blogs for Baltimore Fishbowl.com, she’s a professor at the University of Baltimore’s MFA program, and she’s been on the Today show, Politically Incorrect, and Oprah.

Solid career success hasn’t stopped her from establishing a track record, in her personal life, of passing up great guys to throw herself at losers.

Some women enjoy being courted over a quiet, candlelit dinner. Winik goes for edgier stuff. A typical seduction? “He led me to a floodlit, garbage-swept concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence . . . with no further preliminaries, a furious make-out session was in progress.”

Winik, it turns out, is a woman in her 50s who dates like a hormone-drunk teenager. She may be looking for love. But what she finds, instead, are thrills. And when she finds them, she shares every juicy, peculiar, hilarious, and humiliating detail with her readers.

I hate to see a smart woman make a foolish choice, and yet I loved this book. Why? I’m a sucker for a good sentence, and Winik couldn’t pen a boring line if she tried. Her love life may be a mess, but it’s great material, and she makes the most of it.

She describes swapping spit with, among others, a construction worker who beds her only to hit her up for cash; a young ex-student who already has an age-appropriate girlfriend; her own second husband, years after their acrimonious divorce; and a dude whose personal ad claimed he’d only ever been with two women— his ex-wife and her best friend.

Winik thought he was joking. He wasn’t. 

Ironically, while all this was going on, Winik was writing an advice column for a national magazine. 

Fans of Winik’s earlier books know that she’s not only an engaging writer but a good mom and a good friend. She deserves to find a great guy! But it’s clear to the reader of this new volume that the chances of that happening are slim. (One hint: the book is dedicated, not to a dude, but to that ever-reliable bed partner, her miniature dachshund.) Still, you keeping hoping that this clever chick with the appalling blind spot when it comes to sussing out good guys will finally come to her senses and fall for a mensch.

There’s a touch of schadenfreude in the pleasure you get from this book. (Not to mention a heap of comfort for those of us whose own romantic choices have been less than fabulous.) It’s fun to watch someone else screw up, as long as it’s played for laughs. (I Love Lucy, anyone?)

And if there’s one thing Winik excels at, it’s laughing at herself. 

She’s not afraid to play the fool. And she shares everything, from her Match.com profile  (“Sassy, sensual and smart”) to the absolute wrong way to seduce a gay guy (“I sexted him a picture of me lying on the couch in my bikini underpants.”)

We’ve got front-row seats to even the most embarrassing encounter.

And yet, as the writer who chronicles these events, it’s Winik herself who has the last laugh. She let her bad dates fact-check “their” chapters prior to publication, and she’s changed a few names, but she’s retained the power to present her life as she sees fit. 

The key to Winik’s continued success is that she’s, ultimately, so likeable.You wince at her mistakes and despair at her decisions, but you can’t help rooting for her, despite the fact that she can’t stop leading with her libido, and seems never to have met a Stupid Choice she didn’t want to make out with in a midnight parking lot.  

But then, she isn’t really looking for Mr. Right. What she’s seeking is a man  whose kisses will make her forget all reason.

And when she finds him, thankfully, we can rely on her to tell us all about it.

 

Fun with Boomer Barbie

September 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

wvfc-barbieIf you’re a girl and you’re a boomer, one thing is certain—you grew up playing with Barbies.

Whether you lived in a mansion or in a trailer, you spent hours as a little girl playing with America’s favorite foot-tall plastic fashion plate. You dressed her up in stylish clothing (remember “Silken Flame?”), complete with tiny matching shoes that were always falling off and getting chewed up by the dog. You sent her off on dates with Ken. You staged pajama-clad heart-to-hearts with Barbie’s best pal, Midge. 

Barbie play was designed to prepare you for the wonderful world of romance and dating. And that future was always wholesome and bright. (There was no Unplanned Pregnancy Barbie or High-School Dropout Barbie.)   

Of course, the edgier kids could always improvise. I know one girl who, after seeing the movie Gypsy, had her Barbies perform strip-teases for her Kens.

(Okay, so it was me.)

And I know of at least one future lesbian whose Barbie enjoyed marathon make-out sessions with Midge.

Barbie has been updated and modernized countless times since she first came on the scene in 1959. (Although her shoes still fall off and the dog still chews them up.) These days, Barbie doesn’t just don cool outfits and go out on dates. She has a career! 

Teacher Barbie! Pop Star Barbie! Airline Pilot Barbie! Brain Surgeon Barbie! Rabbi Barbie!  Porn Star Barbie! (Okay, I made that last one up.) 

But one thing about Barbie never changes. Her age. While the little girls who once played with her have grown and matured, Barbie hasn’t aged a day.  

Now that we boomers are middle-aged, we’ve discovered that it’s time to play Barbie again, this time with our granddaughters. 

This gives me idea. 

I think we need a new kind of Barbie. A Barbie who, like us, HAS grown up. When we get down on the floor to play with our grandkids, instead of a fresh-faced know-nothing who is just starting out, why not introduce the kids to a Barbie that reflects both our lives and their future.

Middle-aged Boomer Barbie! 

What better way to signal to our granddaughters that there’s more to life than what outfit you’ve got on? And that while teenage dating is great, so is being a mature woman with a rich, full life?  

This new line of AARP-aged Barbies could include:

Happily Married Barbie

Now that the kids are grown, Silver Fox Barbie and Slightly Balding Ken can re-focus on each other. Includes a Dream House with a paid-off mortgage, a zillion frequent-flyer miles, fat 401(k)s and matching Medicare cards.

Happily Divorced Barbie

After Barbie catches Ken and Midge making whoopee in the Dream House mudroom, help her kick him to the curb and jump back into the dating pool. Assist Barbie in crafting her Match.com profile, then dress her up in tiny Eileen Fisher outfits and sent her out on exciting dates! 

Cougar Barbie

She may be in her 50s, but she loves those younger dudes. (For her date, just borrow Ken from your regular Barbie. She won’t mind—he’ll come back to her a much better lover.) 

Never Married Barbie

Includes a Xanax prescription, a tiny plastic vibrator, 3 cats, a library card, and a tenured position at an Ivy League University. 

Billionaire Barbie

Comes with 4 mansions, 3 ex-husbands, a private jet, a personal trainer, an unscrupulous investment adviser, and an offshore bank account. 

Out and Proud Barbie

Help Barbie and Midge shoot their “It Gets Better Project” video! Includes a rainbow flag, a Massachusetts marriage license, matching white tuxes and a Provincetown time-share with a signed Alison Bechdel original in the foyer. 

Every Boomer Barbie is slightly shorter and plumper than Original Barbie, and comes with at least one ailment (bad knees, a bad back, cataracts, etc.) to kvetch about with the other Boomer Barbies. (The deluxe model has genuine hot flashes!) And all of them talk, saying things like  “Where did I put my glasses?” “Is it hot in here? “Can you repeat that?“ And “At least I have my health!” 

The best Boomer Barbie of all, of course, will be Grandma Barbie. 

What better way to enjoy playing with your beloved granddaughter than for the two of you to help Grandma Barbie play with her beloved granddaughter? 

Grandma Barbie reads books, sings songs, plays pretend, makes cool snacks, and gives great hugs. If you’re lucky enough to be her granddaughter, you know there’s nobody Grandma Barbie loves more than you. And shouldn’t a cool grandma who loves you to bits be just as much fun for a little girl to play with as a vapid teenager who gets dressed up and goes out on dates? 

Not only that, but Grandma Barbie’s stylish yet sensible shoes will never fall off and get chewed up by the dog. 

 

Two Little Words

September 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

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You can spend a lifetime figuring out who you really are. As I approach my 60th birthday, I‘m finally closing in on the truth. At the very least, I know who I’m not. An avid magazine and newspaper reader, I’ve noticed that the media loves to sum people up with just two words. Like “Internet billionaire.” Or “Famous chef.“  (Occasionally, the epithet-makers help themselves to three words: “Health-enforcing mayor,” anyone?)

I recently began collecting some sobriquets that can never be used to describe me.  For good or ill, I’m never going to be a—    

Deranged genius

Renowned adventurer  

Disgraced cyclist  

Superstar swimmer

Serial sexter

Afro-sporting son

Legendary anchorman

Pop icon

Clueless banker

Megawatt star 

Doomed aviatrix 

Urban gardener 

Luv gov

Adulterous multimillionaire 

Florida socialite 

Unrepentant rapist

Republican megadonor

YouTube pioneer, or  

Blonde chanteuse

Of course, when it comes to a few of these, I do come close.  For instance, Blonde Chanteuse. I am (with salon assistance) a blonde. And the toddlers who attend Storytime at the library where I work love my rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” 

And while I’m not exactly a Superstar Swimmer, I’m still in the pool every day, executing my plodding but consistent breast stroke.  

Disgraced Cyclist? No thanks. I don’t need performance-enhancing drugs to enjoy a ride around the neighborhood on my one-speeder.    

The truth is that I’m happy with who I am: a Good Mom, a Retired Attorney, a Published Writer, and a Part-time Librarian.

Although there’s still hope that, one of these days, “Lottery Winner,“ or even “Pulitzer-Winner,” might apply.

Or perhaps I should just add “Incurable Optimist” to that list.  

What about you? If you could describe yourself to the world with just two words, what would they be?  Amazing Mom? Stellar Wit? Fantastic Lover? 

(Or, if you’re having a bad day, you might want to go with  “Exploited Wage-Slave,“ “Problem Drinker,“ or “Unhappy Homemaker.”)

Go for it! Share your two words in the Comments Section below. Be as honest (or as delusional) as you want. Here’s your chance to establish yourself as a “Piccolo Virtuoso,” “Investment Whiz,” “Unsung Genius,” or  “World-Class Bodybuilder.”  

As for me, I’m going with “Sexy Librarian.”   

 

 

Cantor Debbi: Have Torah, Will Travel

September 7, 2013 by  
Filed under Marriage & Life Partners, Profiles

Debbi Baillard

An underwater Jewish wedding, with both bride and groom in scuba gear?

Cantor Debbi Ballard hasn’t performed merely one such ceremony. “I’ve done three!“ she says happily.

“I’m game for anything unique,” she explains. “And I’m always up for adventure.“

Cantor Ballard probably isn’t what you imagine when you think “religious leader.”

That‘s fine with her. “I am, in all ways, untraditionally Jewish,” she says.

Which is exactly what you’re going to need if, for instance, you want a Jewish wedding but your fiancé isn’t a Jew. Or if he is a Jew but you’re both gay. Or if you’re an interfaith couple but you want your child to have a bat mitzvah.

Or perhaps you just want to attend High Holy Day services, but don’t currently belong to a congregation.

If so, Cantor Debbi Ballard, a.k.a. “My Personal Cantor,“ is there for you.

Ballard, a freelance cantor, is redefining the meaning of Jewish worship by creating services and “life-cycle events” that are grounded in traditional Judaism but radically inclusive. Interfaith couples, unaffiliated Jews, and LGBT Jews are all welcome. “Every person,” says Ballard, “regardless of affiliation or orientation, deserves an open-arms approach to Jewish worship.”

This isn’t your grandpa’s Judaism. The message you’ll find on Ballard’s website? “We are not Reform, Conservative or Renewal. We are just Jewish.”

And if a Jew wants to get married under water? Well, why not?

Where a more traditional cantor (who leads the congregation in prayer and sings liturgical music) might turn down the opportunity to perform such a ceremony (or to officiate at an interfaith or LGBT wedding) Ballard’s approach is to focus on the possible.

“I‘d rather say ‘yes’ than ‘no’,” she explains. “’No’ ends the conversation. ‘Yes’ begins a dialogue. With ‘yes,’ you leave the door open.”

By saying yes, Ballard is addressing a question central to Judaism in the 21st century where, increasingly, Jews are marrying non-Jews, and the old idea of what it means to be Jewish is being challenged.

It used to be that you belonged to a congregation, paid your (often hefty) synagogue dues, and married within your faith. If you wanted to marry at your synagogue but outside of your faith, you were (usually) out of luck.

An LGBT wedding? Totally out of the question.

“That old model is broken,” notes Ballard. Most American Jews no longer belong to a congregation. (In South Florida, where Ballard is based, 80 percent of Jews are unaffiliated.) “To bring them back into the fold,” she says, “we need to find a way of being Jewish that works for them.”

Ballard’s vision of Jewish community has nothing to do with synagogue membership. There are no membership dues. (Non-Jews are often shocked to learn that belonging to a synagogue can cost thousands of dollars a year.) Instead, Ballard’s upbeat, affordable services are pay-as-you-go. And although Ballard owns a Torah, she doesn’t have a building.

“Who needs a building?’ she says. “I feel more spiritual connection on a beach than in a sanctuary.”

Indeed, Ballard has held Jewish worship services on the beach, as well as in private homes, restaurants, hotels, on a cruise ship, and in the conference room at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The services themselves are easy to follow, with plenty of singing, storytelling, and even dancing, but also they include the prayers, blessings, and melodies that more observant celebrants are accustomed to. Ballard‘s mission is to make everyone—from Jewish “newbies” to long-time worshippers—feel welcome.

Ballard, 52, was raised an observant Conservative Jew, but became estranged from her parents when she married outside the faith. When she first introduced them to her future husband, her folks were shocked and furious.

“My faith was so important to me,“ says Ballard, “they were sure I’d marry a rabbi!”  Instead, she fell for a blond-haired, green-eyed “goy.”

They found it impossible to be happy for her.

The pain of this estrangement, as well as the years that followed, in which Ballard, as part of an interfaith couple, felt like a second-class citizen in her own shul, radicalized her. She came to realize that there were many people who, as she did, wanted to practice their faith, but just didn’t feel welcome within a traditional congregation.

A problem-solver by nature, Ballard, in her 40s, decided to leave the corporate world, where she’d thrived for decades, and train (at All Faiths Seminary in New York) as a cantor, so she could provide interfaith couples, and others, a way to stay connected to Judaism. A perfect calling, being a cantor combines her love of music, her ability to easily connect with people, and her faith.

Now, as “My Personal Cantor,” Ballard serves not only her South Florida community, but flies all over the world to provide unaffiliated families with weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, memorial services, and other Jewish “lifecycle events” that are personal, authentic, and inclusive. (She is now divorced.)

Ironically, by welcoming anyone who doesn’t feel at home in a traditional synagogue, and by creating services that speak to both newcomers and to the long-observant,  “I’m forging the type of faith community that people all over the country are trying to achieve,” Ballard says proudly.

And the best thing? Her once-estranged parents now share Ballard’s vision.

Debbi Cantor

Ballard’s father, in fact, was so inspired by what his daughter had accomplished that, upon retirement, he trained to become a rabbi so that he could work with her. Over the next week, father and daughter will, together, be leading High Holy Day services at the Miramar Cultural Center, an 800-seat auditorium.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Ballard says happily.

What does it mean to be a Jew? Is an age-old question. Cantor Debbi Ballard is giving the answer a vibrant and inclusive 21st-century spin.

 

The Big Chill: Tale of a Thwarted Librarian

August 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Humor, Musings

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I just returned from the insanely expensive resort where I vacation for a week each summer, which makes me sound like the kind of person who can actually afford that kind of thing.

Alas, because I work in a public library, I have to save all year for that one week in paradise. 

But it‘s usually well worth it. Because the Absurdly Expensive Inn is, indeed, heaven on earth. The rooms? Beautiful. The staff? Super-competent. The cookies on the pillow at turndown? Bliss. But the best thing about the Bank-Account-Draining Inn, if you’re a swimmer like me, is the pool.  

Large. Sparkling clean. Ringed with flowers in bloom. For the rest of the year, as I swim in lesser pools, I’ll close my eyes and imagine that I’m there instead. (Then reopen them before I swim into the wall.)      

The day before I arrived this year, I phoned the desk clerk to make sure the pool was up and running, a little precaution I’ve taken ever since I checked into another hotel years ago, only to discover that the pool was closed because a toddler had just done something no toddler should ever do in a pool.   

“How’s the water?“ I asked. 

“Cold,” he replied. “Very very cold.”  

“You haven’t turned on the pool heater?”  

“There IS no pool heater.”  

“No pool heater? Are you sure?” How could this be? The water had always been maintained at a balmy 86 degrees!

“The pool isn’t heated. That’s what they’ve told me.” 

I was tempted to cancel my reservation, but I was vacationing with friends to whom a pool is merely something you recline beside while you sip iced drinks and read bodice-rippers on your Kindle.   

You could stock the pool with piranhas and they wouldn’t care. 

I couldn’t bail on a vacation we’d all looked forward to just because the pool they weren’t going to swim in was too cold to swim in. So I did what I always do when life hands me lemons. I phoned my sister to kvetch.  

“They told me that there isn’t a pool heater,” I wailed.  

 “They’re lying, ” she said, then went online and pulled up half a dozen travel sites which enthused about the Inn’s glorious heated pool. When I emailed this list to the inn’s manager, I promptly heard back from her assistant, Mr. Useless, who insisted that not only was there no pool heater, but there had never been a pool heater. 

If I wanted a HEATED pool, he suggested, I could always enjoy a swim at the local YMCA. He concluded, mysteriously, with the sentence “I hope I have met your concerns.”

Yeah, on Bizarro World, maybe, where you ask about the pool heater because you WANT the water to be the same temperature as the iced drinks served poolside.  

When I arrived at the Inn the following day, the plot thickened.  

“I was mystified to learn that the pool has no heater,“ I lamented to the desk clerk. “I could have sworn that the pool used to be heated.”

“Of course there’s a pool heater,“  she said. “But it costs a fortune to run, so this year the manager decided not to turn it on.”

I asked to speak to the manager.  

“She’s out of town. Would you like to speak with Mr. Useless?”   

I did not. But for the rest of the week, I played Nancy Drew, asking everyone on staff about the elusive pool heater. To a person, they confirmed that there was a heater, but the Inn had opted for a cool pool this summer to save a buck.

Determined not to let the Lying Tightwad Inn’s penny-pinching ways defeat me, I got in touch with my inner Polar Bear and dove in anyway. I discovered that I’m tougher than I’d thought. 

At 58, I can still endure, if not enjoy, a daily swim in bone-chilling water. 

Besides, a true swimmer hates a crowded pool, and, if nothing else, I always had that sucker to myself. As I glided back and forth, teeth chattering and slowly turning blue, I’d watch would-be swimmers approach,  dip a toe in, then shriek and retreat to their chaises to pen furious Trip Advisor reviews. 

Before I penned my own furious review, I thought it only fair to have a little chat with the Inn’s manager, who’d finally returned from whenever she’d been. (Perhaps at a seminar on “How to Lie to Your Customers and Get Away With It.”) 

She claimed to have no idea the pool had a heater. The fact that you might actually be able to heat that glorious pool, she told me with a perfectly straight face, was news to her. 

“I’ll look right into it!”  she said airily.   

“Stroll over there with me now, sister, ” I wanted to say,  “and I’ll PUSH you right into it.“  

But I’ve never been the stinging-retort type. My policy has always been: Don’t Get Mad, Get Even. Online.   

Chilly pool? Surely a chilly review is in order.  One that asks a simple question: Can you honestly call yourself a luxury resort if you’re too darn cheap to heat the pool? 

I don’t think so. 

So listen up, Tightwad Inn! When I return next summer, I hope you’ve solved the mystery of the disappearing pool heater. Or I might be tempted to do something in that icy-cold pool that no well-behaved librarian should ever do.