Sunday, November 4, 2012

Family & Politics

My mom won't tell anyone who she voted for in 2008. Ian and I have unsuccessfully reassured her over and over again that, "No, seriously, we promise we won't be upset!"  At this point I'm convinced that you could water-board that woman and she wouldn't spill the beans. I think she's taking her vote to the grave with her because she's afraid of offending two people: me and my father. Me because I did a poly sci internship with then-Senator Obama in college; my dad because he is an ardent Republican.

Poor mom, right? Right. She's stuck between two political opposites. Mi padre is a Fox News-watching, Chick-Fil-A eating, Romney-supporting conservative. He listens to Rush Limbaugh every. single. day. I do not. My favorite arguments come from the Real Housewives reunions, and I like to get my news from Anderson Cooper because... yum.

I certainly have my own well-defined political beliefs, but I've grown weary of arguing about them. My dad, on the other hand, has the debate energy and longevity of George Will.  He luuuurves to talk about politics and can masterfully turn an otherwise innocuous comment into a reason to debate. Once, when I called his attention to the beauty of the windmills against the sunset over the cornfields of Indiana, he abruptly responded "I don't support wind energy because it takes more energy to make wind turbines than they actually produce."

He loves political debate so much that a few years ago he called in to a talk radio show to discuss the importance of oil in our everyday lives. True enough, I suppose. But still... he actually called in, proving once and for all that behind every great dad is a daughter rolling her eyes.

But I haven't rolled my eyes at him recently because he isn't talking about politics with me at all anymore, and I know why. I totally lost my cool with him earlier this year. It started with a text message conversation one evening last spring:

"Hi Annie you should change to Fox News right now. John Stossel is on."

"No thanks, I feel like being able to sleep tonight."

"He is smart and it's an important message."

I pushed the Guide button on my remote and scrolled to FNC to see the program title: No They Can't: Why Government Fails But Individuals Succeed." Ugh. I texted back, "Yeah, government ALWAYS fails. I hate the interstate highway system," and clicked my phone closed.

Before I could change the channel back, Rascal Flatts began blaring from my phone. My dad was calling. I picked up.

His palpable frustration was choking his normal tone of excited debate. Feeling patronized, my annoyance quickly morphed into fierce aggravation. Alone in my apartment, I stood up out of my chair and shouted into the phone receiver: "HOW DARE YOU CALL ME JUST TO LECTURE ME ON YOUR RIDICULOUS CONSERVATIVE TALKPOINTS? ALL YOU EVER WATCH IS FOX NEWS SO HOW CAN I BELIEVE ANYTHING COMING OUT OF YOUR MOUTH? YOU ARE JUST A PUPPET OF ROGER AILES AND THE KOCH BROTHERS, AND I'M COMPLETELY SICK OF IT!"

He was immediately taken aback and could only muster out a "No, you're the puppet" before quickly calming me down. He spoke gently and hurriedly apologized, "Okay okay okay okay, I'm sorry, Annie. I'm sorry, I promise I won't talk politics with you ever again."

"Good. Have a good night." I hung up.

My dad has kept his promise so far. But I don't feel relieved; I feel bad because now he's afraid to include me in his favorite pastime. He avoids talking politics around me altogether. I fully realized the extent of his avoidance a few months ago when he quickly unmuted himself as soon as he found himself alone with Ian. The two of them left to run an errand together, and, as Ian told me later, the first words out of my dad's mouth were "Hey, if Democrats are proud of government spending, then why aren't they proud of the national debt?"

My poor dad. I lost my cool because I forgot my most important political lesson - one I learned from my dad, of course. We've hardly ever agreed, but no matter how much I rolled me eyes or told him he was wrong, he always knew how to end our political conversations. Ever the sensitive guy, he'd always say, "Annie, you're not mad at me about what I said are you?"

"No." I'd say with a clenched jaw and crossed arms.

He'd come over to hug me, "Okay, good. I love you."

Sigh. "I love you, too, " I'd smile, "Even though you're wrong."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"You Sho' Can't Choose Your Family"

I’ve been feeling lonely today. I walked downtown to run an errand and saw girlfriends chatting on their lunch breaks, eavesdropped on business conversations between gray-haired men in fancy suits, and heard the Chicago teachers chanting in solidarity “Hey hey, ho ho, Emmanuel has got to go.” But I walked the busy streets alone and came home to my big dog in my little apartment. With no one else around, I decided to ask Google about my feelings. I typed in a few key words and it suggested “Are people lonelier today?” Apparently so.

I usually don’t ask Google such existential questions. Whenever I feel a bout of loneliness coming on, I always end up searching for something else online: churches. Synagogues (as Carole Radziwill would say: I’m Jewish by injection), spiritual centers, places of worship - to me, they’re all community centers. They foster a sense of belonging to a group. So when I walk by a church on a Sunday morning and see the congregation walking through its doors, I find myself desiring a similar kind of inclusion. I google churches when I feel alone because they’re places I know I’d be welcome.

I’m not religious, though. I haven’t gone to church regularly since grade school. Ian and I tried the Sunday morning routine a few times since we moved to the city, but it never stuck. We attended a few services at a United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and loved the sermons, but the demographic of the congregation just wasn’t a good fit.  We even sat in on a Roman Catholic service in a gorgeous, high-vaulted cathedral once.  But with all the hand-movements and frenetic rituals, we definitely felt like the outcasts at the Cool Kids Club. So we’re still urban secularists, but on days like this I wish I wasn’t.

My religious community longings surfaced a few weeks ago when I was shopping for a birthday card for my mom. She joined the Catholic Church her in 50s (a statistical anomaly I’m sure) and now knows all those fun hand gestures and kneeling rituals. Because she's religious, and because I'm God-curious, I decided to peruse the "Birthday-Religious" cards. I bought the one that made me tear up in the middle of CVS aisle 7.

I’m sure it’s normal, even healthy, to feel sporadic loneliness like I feel today. Like all things in life, it helps us appreciate the emotional connections we do have with people. Like this greeting card writer knew, the most important people in our lives often belong to a group we don’t choose to be a part of: our families.

“...the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit... is of great worth in God’s sight.” ~1 Peter 3:4

A prayer, Mom, for the blessing of you.
Thank you, Lord, for my beautiful mother
For the love she always gives me
And her friendship that is never failing,
For her kind eyes that see the best in me
And her gentle wisdom that carries me through,
For her prayers that lift me up
And the dreams she holds in her heart for me,
For the happy memories we’ve made together
And all the hugs and smiles we’ve yet to share -
I am forever grateful

More than my prayers could express,
more than my heart could ever say -
I’m so thankful to God for entrusting me to the love
Of the world’s most wonderful mother -

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

180 Degrees

Yesterday afternoon I walked a few blocks north of our apartment to the Anti-Cruelty Society for my first volunteer orientation session. Founded in 1899, the ACS is Chicago's oldest animal shelter and runs many life-saving programs for Chicago pets, including an adoption program, a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, a pet behavioral help hotline, and many humane outreach and education programs. You can read more about this wonderful organization here.

I signed up for the Monday afternoon session, which turned out to be pretty sparse with only five attendees.  But I enjoyed our more-intimate orientation because it I got to learn more about the other volunteers, and our time together helped me realize something about myself as well.

As our volunteer coordinator began her PowerPoint presentation, she clicked through to the second slide entitled "About Me."  It featured two photos of a couple of adorable bulldogs and one pretty gray-and-white cat - her pets.  She was using their photos as a family portrait and as a tacit way of illustrating her own motivations behind her work at ACS.

Because we were long on time and short on attendees, our presenter followed-up her discussion of her pet family by asking us about ours.  An older gentleman sitting in the front row, said he had two cats named Grendel, after the Beowolf character, and Jack.  The second lady, sitting behind me, mentioned her feisty Norwich terrier who loves her but not other Norwich terriers.  Then the volunteer coordinator held out her palms towards me and asked curiously, "How 'bout you? Do you have any pets?"

"Yes, I do." I smiled, happy for any excuse to talk about my fur baby in front of a crowd, even a small one. "I have a dog, Teddy. He's a Newfoundland."

She cocked her head to the side and grinned, "Aw, what a perfect name for a Newfoundland!"

"Thank you, yes, he does look like a big black bear." 

I looked down and reflected on the enthusiasm with which the two previous speakers had talked about their pets, and a most significant realization came to my mind and out of my mouth: "You know, it's funny.  I guess I've kind of done a 180 in the past two years since I got Teddy. I used to not care much about animals at all."


It's true. Growing up, I never considered myself an animal lover. In college - heck, even in elementary school - if a visitor ever brought a dog to campus or, surprise of surprises, into the classroom, I watched from a distance as my classmates cooed over the furry novelty. 

I thought dogs made for nervous doorbell-rings and awkward moments entering a friend's house. "Off! Off! No jump!" Those were the words that always seemed to greet me at the house of a faithful dog owner.  Of course, I would cover up my discomfort with learned politeness. "Oh don't worry about him. He's fine!" I'd lie, as I felt the freshly trimmed nails of my four-legged doorman scratch my legs and feet.

Cats were cooler, but also more indifferent to affection. The closest I ever came to feeling love for an animal was for my family's cat, Snowflake.  Even today, I brag about his awesomeness, especially to defend the typical cat-shaming by dog lovers. Sure, he sometimes dragged dead birds to our front porch welcoming the mailman with a murder scene, and he hardly ever slept in my bed with me. Even when he did cuddle with me, I'd have to quickly bury myself in layers of blankets to protect my supple skin from his 15-minute-long, claw-wielding, blanket kneading session that would precede EVERY nap he took with me. BUT when I babysat in the neighborhood during junior high, Snowflake walked me to each house, waited for me on the windowsill, and walked me back.  Great cat. Case closed.

But I didn't love Snowflake like I love Teddy today, which has nothing to do with the merits of Snowflake v. Teddy or cats v. dogs.  No, I attribute my pet-indifference to my frustration with the dogs living in my house growing up. Those little terriers didn't always like each other, they peed on the kitchen floor with alarming regularity, and they'd snatch dropped food with the ferociousness of piranhas. My parents loved those dogs. But I only love them for the funny family stories they brought about, like the time(s) we shouted at my toddler cousin "DON'T PICK IT UP!" after he dropped his goldfish crackers off the kitchen table.

So I grew up never really understanding why everyone loved their dogs so much.

Then I got Teddy, and everything changed. The first few weeks of puppyhood were a bit stressful: whining in his crate, peeing on the carpet, and chewing the ethernet cord (true story).  Is he eating enough?  Why isn't he eating?  What did his poo look like?  Did we schedule his Distemper vaccine yet?

But through all of those initial little concerns, I was forgetting the bigger picture: that I was caring for this dog.  I was providing for him because I wanted him to be a part of our family.  

And then something magical happened: a few weeks after we brought puppy Teddy home from Indiana, I went to the bathroom (that's not the magical part).  I walked down the hallway, turned into our bedroom and then into our bathroom. As I sat down to do my business, I turned around to find that Teddy had followed me all the way in there.  I think that's the moment that I really started to love my dog, most selfishly, because I knew how much he was starting to love me.

A few months later I became a vegetarian.  Now I'm coming up on my 1-year anniversary as a vegan. I get email newsletters from West Loop Dog Meetup and vegan chef, Chloe Coscarelli.  On Facebook I follow Farm Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Heartland Farm Animal Sanctuary, Humane Society of the United States Farm Animal Protection League, Dogs Are Family, and the Anti-Cruelty Society of course. I've discovered that I care deeply for the welfare of dogs, cats, and all animals.


"You know, it's funny.  I guess I've kind of done a 180 in the past two years since I got Teddy. I used to not care much about animals at all," I said to the volunteer coordinator.  "But," I tapped my palm on my heart, "Now I love my dog so much I don't know what I'd do without him.  He is love incarnate."

She smiled at me.  "That's so interesting.  You see, most people see animal shelter volunteers and assume that we care for animals because of some sort of deep personal calling that we've had our whole lives. But you'll be able to relate so well to prospective adopters and their anxieties.  You have such a wonderful story to share."

I wish my story upon everyone.  My second orientation session is in two weeks.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gender & Belonging, Part 3: How Feminism Left Men Behind

Even with the wage gap and gender discrimination and all the feminist literature sitting on my bookshelves, something has me questioning my “second sex” status. If I could turn back time, I’m not sure I’d want to go through life as a man. Even with pervasive patriarchy in today’s society, I’m grasping my Girl Card with a firm grip for one big, selfish reason:

I know I’m getting a seat on the lifeboat.  

You see, men’s large-group social structure may provide them with big rewards, but it also comes with a big cost: male expendability, or the “women and children first” dynamic.  Patriarchy has led men to the boardroom, but also to the bottom of the ocean and the cold dirt of a battlefield.

So why are men disposable?  

Male expendability makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  For a species struggling for survival, every woman counts.  But one man can do the job of many.  In the words of Dr. Greg Hampikian in the New York Times, “If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.”

According to social psychologist, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, this male expendability traditionally meant that men could engage in riskier behaviors.  These risks could have been for good (standing in a lightning storm with a kite to discover electricity) or bad (mustering up in a warzone).  So the next time your boyfriend talks about the male need to “spread his seed,” just remind him that his ability makes him disposable to society (and then give him a hug).

Curiously, patriarchy may have evolved as a disproportionate backlash against this male disposability.  If their disposability breeds insecurity, then perhaps our male ancestors desired increasing levels of control over societies as a means of securing their futures within it.  Or, more generously, the biological need to care for women may have morphed into restrictions on their rights. As explained by this non-academic-yet-very-thought-provoking YouTube contributor, Karen: “The drive to protect women from harm has resulted in extreme limits being placed on women’s mobility, their agency, and their power of decision to direct their own lives all throughout history...”

Fast forward to the 19th century, and women’s rights movements began the long struggle against these limits on their rights.  Feminism - a movement I proudly support - is a backlash against patriarchy. I remain deeply indebted to the courageous women who came before me, who stood up for the radical idea that I should be thought of as equal to my husband.  And the Feminist mission is hardly complete. The quest for equal gender rights continues today, in distant corners of the world and in the minds of our political leaders speaking on TV.

But male expendability is something that modern Feminism has not addressed, and I think it’s a significant omission.  As YouTube Karen explains, the omission of male disposability pollutes the Feminist mission:

Feminism’s greatest victories have only reinforced in everyone that society still owes women provisions, protection, health and support just because they’re women... [It] teaches us to put women’s needs to the forefront of every single issue, whether that issue is domestic violence law, sexual assault, institutional sexism, [etc.]... Feminism has done nothing but exploit this dynamic, this expectation on men to put everybody else before themselves, especially women.

She also addresses female privilege, which is a byproduct of male disposability:

Feminists will insist that... restrictions placed on women...are the ultimate form of objectification.  You lock up your possessions to make sure that they will never be...harmed.  Honestly, if I were a guy on a battlefield, I might appreciate being objectified that way.  If I’m going to be an object, I’d rather be a sexual one.

This omission of male expendability is a very first-world, 21st-century feminist problem.  To even consider it presumes the evolution of women’s rights to an acceptable point.  I can hardly imagine rape victims in the Congo or Elizabeth Cady Stanton considering men’s rights in this way.  

But male disposability is still a feminist issue that needs to be addressed.  If women seek gender equality, then we need to acknowledge our disadvantages and our privileges.  Men may run the world for now, but they also run into battle for us.  To get to the boardroom, women might need to give up our seat on the lifeboat.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gender & Belonging, Part 2: The Social Roots of Patriarchy

I have something in common with biology professor at Boise State University.  We both published articles espousing the virtues of femaleness this weekend.  Mine on my humble little blog; his on the New York Times.  Chock-full or Y-chromosome shaming, Greg Hampikian’s partially satirical article “Men, Who Needs Them?” might get him kicked out his fantasy football league this year:

It’s true that men have traditionally been the breadwinners. But women have been a majority of college graduates since the 1980s, and their numbers are growing... Meanwhile women live longer, are healthier and are far less likely to commit a violent offense. If men were cars, who would buy the model that doesn’t last as long, is given to lethal incidents and ends up impounded more often?

For the record, I would buy the man car because it’s cute and has a nice rear.

Even with these pro-women articles, including my own, it’s hard to feel bad for men, isn’t it?  They have it pretty good these days, at least from the vantage point of my couch. The two folks running for President are both men (though I wouldn’t mind if Hillz was added to the ticket); men lead 488 of the Fortune 500 companies; and even influential women in academia and government struggle with gender discrimination.

So where did patriarchy come from?

Patriarchy's theoretical roots are numerous and oft-debated. But one interesting explanation for the origin of male-dominance of our societies comes from Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University. He credits the evolution of patriarchy to the structure of men’s social groups.  While women prefer smaller, more intimate social groups, men seek larger, shallower groups.  Being part of a larger group encourages individuals to specialize and take risks to distinguish themselves from the rest:

…[M]en think of themselves based on their unusual traits that set them apart from others, while women’s self-concepts feature things that connect them to others.  [S.E. Cross and L. Madsen] thought that this was because men wanted to be apart from others. But in fact being different is vital strategy for belonging to a large group. If you’re the only group member who can kill an antelope or find water or talk to the gods or kick a field goal, the group can’t afford to get rid of you.

As specialization occurred, culture developed around men's social groups, and hence evolved patriarchy:

…[I]t’s just that the women’s sphere remained about where it was, while the men’s sphere, with its big and shallow social networks, slowly benefited from the progress of culture. By accumulating knowledge and improving the gains from division of labor, the men’s sphere gradually made progress.

Even today, this gender discrepancy of social ordering may be holding women back.  Take the wage gap, for example.  A study published in Organization Science called “Engendering Inequity? How Social Accounts Create vs. Merely Explain Unfavorable Pay Outcomes for Women,” found that the perception of women in the workplace puts them at a disadvantage.  Kerry Hannon wrote about this study here:

“Research on stereotyping shows that people assume that women care more than men do about communality and belongingness and that men care more than women about their own attainment and self-interest,” wrote Maura Belliveau, the study’s author, an associate professor at Long Island University. For this reason, the managers generally felt that the women would be able to recognize the need for the cutbacks and would not feel as personally offended as the men if they received small raises.

So women may be willing to accept less pay because of their strong social desire to belong. 

This intimacy/attainment trade-off has interesting implications for both genders. If women value intimate relationships, they may bring home less bacon; if men attain positions of power, they may have more shallow relationships.

In second grade I asked everyone on the playground a precocious question: “If you could go back to when you were born, would you rather be a boy or a girl?”  All the boys said boy, and all but one of the girls said girl. (The dissenter said in all seriousness that she would have rather been born a boy, which was quite the playground controversy back then.  It may have been a playful hypothetical on her part, but I can’t help but wonder if that little girl might have known that something was different about her sexual orientation, even at 6 years old.)

Even with the wage gap, gender discrimination, and all the feminist literature sitting on my bookshelves, I think I’d still answer “girl” because, in a most significant way, I feel more valuable than a man.  Maybe patriarchy is really just a backlash against a fundamental male insecurity: that they’re disposable.  I’ll explore male expendability in Part 3.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Gender & Belonging, Part 1: Women & Belonging

Today I read a Slate article about the pervasive influence Great Lakes cities are having on American vowel sounds. As a Hoosier transplant in Chicago, I recognized the dialects referred to in the piece. I hear them every time I turn on the five o’clock news and hear the voice of a Chicago police officer, government official, or any lawyer involved in the Drew Peterson trial.  But one line at the end of the article piqued my curiosity about dialect adoption:

“While our skin color is often the first and most obvious indicator of our membership in a social group, our dialect is the first outward signal that we consciously influence.”

I started hearing the Chicago dialect regularly when I went to college at a school where 80% of the student body was from the suburbs of the city.  Mid-freshman year, a few of my friends from Indiana and downstate Illinois made an empirical observation: girls from the suburbs tended to be the ones with the strongest Northern accents, not the boys.  (Folks raised in the city most often had an accent.)  

More empirics: my father-in-law and my previous boss were born and raised in the same part of New York City during mid century.  But my boss, a woman, is the one who still calls coffee “cwoh-fee.”  And a dear girlfriend of mine who moved to Texas a few years ago now says “y’all” more than her native-born Texan husband.  It’s adorable.

It's not just me noticing this gender discrepancy.  According to this New York Times article, women do adapt to linguistic changes quickly:

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.” Less clear is why. Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues.”

So, does A + B = C : If our dialects are our “first outward symbols” of belonging to a group, and if women adapt more quickly to dialects, then do women have a stronger need to “belong” than men?

From an evolutionary perspective, we all need to feel like we belong to a group.  Banding together and the comfortable feelings of kinship that accompany collective identity have helped ensure the survival of our species.  But maybe women value belonging differently than men.  University of Michigan professor, Bonnie Hagerty, studied college students’ feelings of belonging and concluded that, “being able to say ‘I belong’ is important to the healthy psychological functioning of men, but it is vital to women’s.” She further noted that

“Those who didn’t feel they belonged were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicidal thoughts and psychiatric treatment. They also were less likely to be involved in community activities. Women, however, experienced the effects of belonging or non-belonging more acutely than men.”

Aside from my empirical dialect theory, plenty of evidence supports this idea that women value belonging to a group more than men:

  • Women are more likely to be religious than men.  According to the US Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Women in several Christian traditions are more likely than men to attend religious services at least once a week...”
  • Women spend more time on social networking sites like Facebook.  ComScore, a digital marketing company, reported that as of last year, “In North America and Europe, women spent an average of nearly two hours (30 percent) more than men on social networking sites in October.”
  • Can I see a show of hands of women who often act as the social coordinators of their relationship, meaning you organize the get-togethers with friends, you throw and attend birthday parties, and you remind your partners to send appropriately-timed greeting cards?  Oh, is that almost all of you?  I thought so.  The handwriting on the outside of my birthday card envelopes is always from my mom, aunts, or grandma.  
  • Women are held / women hold themselves to easily definable and highly visible standards of belonging. The cosmetics, weight loss, and fashion industries form a multi-billion dollar beauty industry that profits from our insecurities about not fitting in.  Men are subject to these pressures. But with push-up bras, bronzers, and diet pills, women undoubtedly bear a disproportionate burden of this industry’s influence.  

Dr. Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University summarized women’s need for belonging in an address he made in 2007.  Referencing a Psychology Bulletin article written by S.E. Cross and L. Madsen, he said,

“Men think of themselves based on their unusual traits that set them apart from others, while women’s self-concepts feature things that connect them to others.” (emphasis mine)

So, perhaps women do have a stronger need to belong than men. We plan parties and send birthday cards because we crave deep, meaningful relationships with our friends and loved ones.  In Baumeister’s words, “women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships [while] men specialize in the larger group.”  

He further notes that social orientation towards the larger group can foster competition for dominance within it: “In large groups, getting to the top can be crucial. The male preference for dominance hierarchies, and the ambitious striving to get to the top, likewise reflect an orientation toward the large group...”

History aside, these conclusions should have some important implications for women’s participation in halls of power, shouldn’t it?  Putting my international relations education to the side and ignoring the “Self” and “Other” concepts ringing loudly between my ears, I can’t help but wonder: If women really do have a stronger need for belonging to a group, whereas men tend to fight for dominance within it, could women perhaps be ideal world leaders?  If women value relational intimacy, might they be able to forge political relationships better than their male counterparts?  

Our current political paradigm has men at the helm.  Even with all our world troubles, I’m going to give men a solid B+  in running things over the past few millennia because I’m starting to feel kinda bad for them.  As I’ll explore in Parts 2 and 3, men’s large-group social orientation comes with big rewards, but even bigger costs.   

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Guacamole Salad

Recipe below

Sometimes I'm nervous to call myself a vegan. In fact, I have a big confession to make: in the past year I have eaten four glazed donuts, two butter-laced pancakes, and a bite of cow's milk ice cream. But I'm grasping my vegan card with an iron fist because I eschew animal products 99% of the time. As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau once said, "Veganism is not about perfection; it's about intention." In other words, gimme a break.

But my epicurean sins are not the reason I bite my tongue in front of waiters. I hesitate to identify as a vegan because, frankly, I'm afraid they won't believe me. You see, according books like Skinny Bitch, vegans are supposed to be runway-model thin. The big names in veganism - Patrick-Goudreau, Kathy Freston, Ellen and Portia DeGeneres - are all quite slim. I've definitely lost a bit of weight since converting, but I am neither skinny, nor a bitch, a fact a playfully pointed out to my mom when when we were back in Indiana visiting my parents two weeks ago. Ever the concerned mother, she was worried that she didn't have anything vegan for me in the kitchen (she did):

"Sweetie, I just want to make sure you're getting enough to eat."

I grabbed my belly and laughed, "Does it look like I'm not getting enough to eat?"

I eat 2000 calories a day of tasty food and am proud to be an immutable example that it is possible to indulge on a vegan diet.

I'm pretty sure all that cute belly pudge I shook at my mom comes from one dietary source: avocados (...and peanut butter...and chocolate). I love that mushy fruit so much that I put on my pasta, on my potatoes, and I'd spread guacamole on my breakfast toast if that wasn't weird.

I've even discovered a way to make a delicious guacamole-like salad. With no added oils and only 4 primary ingredients, this salad is so easy, so quick to prepare, and so tasty. Suffice it to say that if the Muppet's Christmas Carol fruits were talking about me, they'd sing: "If she became a flavor you can bet she would be guacamole."

Guacamole Salad
A big bowl of salad greens (1 serving)
1 avocado, peeled and chopped
1 tomato, diced
2-3 Tablespoons rice vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Add ingredients to large bowl. Mash avocado with spoon or hands until salad leaves are coated.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Father Time

In the darkness of our little bedroom a few nights ago, Ian had one of his hands wrapped cozily around his pillow, and the other around my waist.  He was close to falling asleep, but I was still awake, my mind flooded with philosophical nighttime ponderings as I gazed at the popcorn ceiling.  My eyes eventually drifted from the ceiling to his pillow-obscured face, and my voice punctuated the silence of our bedroom as I asked him a most inappropriate bedtime question:



“How often do you think about death?  Like, about you or your loved ones dying?”

“I dunno.  Not much.”


“Why, Annie? How often do you think about it?”

“All the time...”

It’s true.  I feel like Father Time is always looking over my shoulder.  But before you check my body for pagan symbols and ship me off to live with the Addams Family, I should clarify that that I don’t think about death in a scary way.  I’m not walking around in constant fear that I’ll be hit by a bus or bitten by a poisonous spider.  Nor am I emotionally depressed at the ever-presence of suffering and death in life, a la Emily Dickinson.

On the contrary, I’d characterize my “thinking about death” as “ruminations on mortality,” and I believe that my daily ruminations are a good thing for my life.  A really good thing. Father Time may be standing right behind me, but I welcome his presence.

The first time I remember thinking acutely about death/mortality/life was on a cold street corner in London when I was studying abroad in early 2006.  It was winter, it was raining, and I was miserable as I waited for my big red bus to come pick me up to take me to Ealing Broadway station.  The winter rain pricked my hands and feet, and the wind blew against my face, stinging my cheeks red and challenging my little H&M umbrella.  I wiggled my toes around in my soaked shoes and swung my shoulders from side-to-side to stay warm.  I wiped my runny nose and cursed the germy buses for giving me my second cold in two months.  I looked at my watch to track the passing time, and then up at the dripping wet houses, and down at the slick stone sidewalks.  And then, in the midst of my cold misery, I paused as a profound thought crossed my mind: When I’m dead, I won’t be able to feel the cold rain.  Or the biting wind.  Or my damp skin.  Or a stuffy nose...  

So as I waited for my big red bus, I took one of my hands off of my umbrella handle and jutted it out away from my body.  I held my palm up to the wet sky and felt the icy rain collect on my freezing fingers, and I felt the glory of Life, of living.

Six years later, I gladly let Father Time walk beside me everyday as a reminder to bring levity to my beautiful life.  As the weight of two heavy shopping bags and a purse dig into my shoulders during my mile-long return from Trader Joe’s, I refuse to focus on the discomfort of walking home; instead, I marvel at the beauty of my body’s ability to carry such a load and remind myself that One day, I will not be so strong.  When the summer weather is oppressively hot and makes me sweat through my clothes, I turn my face towards the sun and tell myself that someday I won’t be around to feel its radiance.  When Teddy makes me trip upon exiting the shower because he’s napping on the bathmat, I give him an extra hug once I dry off because I know that all too soon, he won’t be here to follow me around.  And every time I hear my mom or dad’s voice on the other end of the call, I say a little prayer of thanks, because one day they won’t be there to pick up the phone.

After I surprised Ian by responding that I think about death “all the time,” he asked me why I think about it so much.  
“It helps you appreciate the present,” I said, “Because one day one of us will be lying in this bed alone.”  
His opened his eyes and sat up.  “Annie, no!”  Ian didn’t want to think about that eventuality, but he managed to lighten the conversation with some self-deprecating humor, “Well, it’ll probably be you.”
He squeezed my hand, lied down, and we fell asleep together.  We held each other a little closer that night, and maybe Father Time smiled in contentment as he saw us over my shoulder.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sheddy Teddy and the Fur Broom

In loving memory of Tobey.  We’ll all miss you, especially Sheddy Teddy.

Mercury was in retrograde at the end of July, so I’m going to blame that stupid red planet for all the problems I’ve been having with modern technology lately.  First, our laptop slipped out of my fingers and landed clumsily right on its power adapter, royally screwing up its charging system.  Then, two Fridays ago, Ian and I played a quick game of “Should we go the emergency room” after my screaming, leaking blender really hit me below the belt. WebMD and aloe saved the day, but I’ll sum up the dramatics with the following equation / warning:

Soup recipe that calls for blending - Immersion blender = First-degree burn

My blender is such a diva.  But that bee-yotch makes good smoothies, so whadyagonnado?

However, my blender ain’t got nothin’ on my vacuum cleaner.  Excuse me, EX-vacuum cleaner, I should say. After repeated attempts to distress my respiratory system following manual filter-unclogging and once almost catching on fire, my relationship with this particular household appliance is dunzo, kaput, nada.  And who’s to blame for this one?  Not Mercury.  Not even the manufacturer.  Mr. Vacuum Cleaner Breaker is sitting two feet away from me.  Behold the face of guilt:

For shame, Ted!

Don’t let the cuteness fool you, folks.  That adorable pooch is a DESTROYER of vacuum cleaners; the Loki of filtration systems.  I don’t even think that the best-designed, most-efficient vacuum cleaners could survive the wrath of Teddy.  In fact, shortly after I eulogized our old vacuum with anger and profanity, someone told me that we should “just get a Dyson.”  Meh, no.  First of all, I’m much too risk averse to spend a gzillion dollars $400 on a vacuum cleaner even if there’s only a 5% chance that Teddy would make it catch fire.  More to the point, I refuse to support that smart man on those Dyson commercials because I think he is wasting his precious mental energies designing easily maneuverable vacuum cleaners and highly-efficient airport bathroom hand-dryers instead of devoting his brilliance to, I don’t know, fusion power or something.

I may blame Teddy for breaking our vacuum cleaner, but I know it’s not his fault.  He never chewed or scratched at it, and he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.  No, my heffalump is just so. friggin. hairy.  Sheddy Teddy leaves little cottonball puffs of black fur to gather dust in the corners of our apartment.  And when we sit down for our brushing sessions, I regularly collect basketball-sized piles of fur from his body.  So, after a year of dealing with pipes clogged with puppy fluff and filters choked from hair, it’s no surprise that our pet-hair vacuum cleaner waived the burning white flag of surrender.  

I haven’t bought another vacuum since.  I have a compact apartment one for our little weekly needs, but I use something else to pick up after Teddy.  Pet owners take heed!  I think I’ve found the ultimate in pet-hair solutions.  It’s not a Dyson, it’s not even a vacuum cleaner.  It’s better, and it only cost me $10: The Fur Broom.

Fur Broom and a small pile of Teddy fluff

Oh sweet, sweet Fur Broom.  You gather Teddy’s fluff balls off of the floor and furniture so efficiently, and you take up such little space next to the washing machine.  You even sweep up leftover food and dust off of the hardwood floor.  And you can’t catch on fire!  I’d kiss you if I didn’t know where your rubber head has been.  

Technology usually feels like a blessing; but more acutely - when the computer breaks or when the blender explodes all over the kitchen - it can feel like a curse.  So sometimes it’s nice when the low-technology option turns out to be the better choice.  Maybe that’s what Mercury was trying to tell me all along.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Kids Question, Part 2: Opportunity Costs

I have pretty faint memories of my Intro to Economics course in college.  The 8am class time rings a sharp bell, but the rest of that course is just a blur of colorful supply and demand curves on the whiteboard, fat textbooks squeezing onto our too-small pull-out desks, and my vague environmentalist concerns directed toward “infinite growth.”  But one memory stands out: the lesson on opportunity cost.  That morning, my petite, gray-haired, lovingly uncool professor taught us the definition of opportunity cost by talking about NBA basketball players.  She explained that if LeBron James had gone to college for four years after graduating from high school, he would have lost out on four years of his gzillion-dollar NBA salary.  For LeBron, college came with a really high opportunity cost, so of course he went straight to the pros.  Thus, opportunity costs are the things you give up when you choose another path.  Or, put in economics mumbo jumbo, an opportunity cost is:

The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

My professor’s apt analogy not only seared the definition into my head, but also created a Pavlovian reminder of professional athletes’ lack of higher education / extremely high pay every time I watch a sporting event.  

Nowadays, opportunity costs have moved from the theoretical to the practical.  As Ian and I consider if and when to have children, we are critically pondering the emotional and financial costs that accompany parenthood.  Certainly, children come with some hefty opportunity costs like sleeping in, melt-down free trips to Disney World, and, of course, and the actual financial cost or raising a child.  

But whenever I think about the opportunity cost of raising a child, one item seems to have a larger price tag than the rest: travel.  Specifically, living abroad.  As Ian and I consider if and when to have children, the badgering voices of Leslie Mann (Debbie) and Paul Rudd (Pete) in Knocked Up rings loudly between my ears:

Pete: Isn’t it weird, though, when you have a kid and all your dreams and hopes go right out the window.
Debbie: What changed for you? What went out the window? You do everything exactly the same.
Pete: No, I love what I’m doing. But say before you’re married with children you want to live in India for a year. You can do it.
Debbie: You want to go to India? Go to India! Seriously.
Pete: Do you want to go to India?
Debbie: No. You can go.

With my fertility clock a-tickin’, I’ve been ruminating over the “India” question.  You see, many of my friends and college alums joined the Peace Corps or moved abroad for work after we all graduated college five (!) years ago.  I stayed in Chicago, choosing to battle the cold winters instead of the heat in West Africa.  But even with my propensity for heat rash and my penicillin allergy, I can’t help but wonder if my choice to stay is one that I’ll regret.  And the Kids Question has put this India Question front and center because having children is the denouement of the slide into adulthood known as "settling down."

If you want to know why I never joined the Peace Corps, and why I’m not jumping on a flight to Delhi, it’s these guys:

I love travelling, but I love my boys more - and I refuse to see love as a limitation.  But I didn’t quite realize how this powerful love factor plays into the Kids Question until I heard the answer come out of my own mouth earlier this summer.  Two of our teacher-friends stayed with us over a weekend in June, and they both love dogs.  But they’ve hesitated adopting one because they fully intend on travelling the world during their summer vacations.  We enjoyed their company of course, but Teddy thought they were the best house-guests ever!  They wrestled with him and threw his favorite ball to fetch.  They gave him lots of cuddles and pets and loved on him like any dog-lover would.  So during one late-night cuddle session, I looked over at them and just had to say what I’d been thinking all along, “I know you want to travel every summer, but you guys should really think about getting a dog.  Sure, Teddy keeps me and Ian from doing everything we want to do, and he limits our wanderlust.  But it never feels like a limitation because every day with him is an adventure.”

So when it comes to the Kids/India Question, I think I may have answered it in my heart awhile ago.  I never joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to stay in Chicago with my Ian.  I can’t imagine spending a year abroad now without my Teddy.  You might say I’m giving up too much for them.  Call me a Romantic, but when you sacrifice for love, it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice.  It just feels like the right decision.  

In my book, Love should never be an opportunity cost.  So maybe the sleepless nights are worth it after all.