It has taken me six months, but with the help of the Lose It app I have lost fifteen pounds. I’ve changed the way I eat, certainly the amount I eat, because apparently my daily calorie limit is about 1,200 a day. I did not know this. I thought if I just didn’t eat a lot of junk food, I was doing fine. I thought if I exercised more, I would lose weight. I was wrong.

Here are some of the other things I have learned.

First and foremost, pooping is a privilege, not a right. Who knew? Apparently, you have to have a certain amount of daily fiber, which I was getting back in the blissful days when I just ate whatever I wanted, didn’t think about it, and just lived my life. But then I got the Lose It app, and its slogan should be: “You now have to count your calories every day for the rest of your life, and you have to make every single dang stupid calorie count.” So until I figured out how to live within my caloric means, I had to make either-or choices, and I erred on the side of protein.

Protein doesn’t make you poop.  This I also did not know, so yeah, that was a cranky couple of days.  Another thing I learned: Protein also doesn’t feed your brain.

You have to have some carbs. Carbs are good for the brain. I thought I was being so virtuous and Paleo, just eating lean meats, and some fruits and vegetables, but clearly not enough (see above). Then I started having problems remembering words. I am a writer, and I could not think of words! I don’t know how to convey the horror of this, except maybe the gaping maw of the Sarlacc – the sand monster in the pit near Jabba the Hut’s place, in whose belly, as C-3PO explains, “you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” That’s how scary it is for me not to be able to think right.

I told my husband, Mark, this. Mark is a doctor. He said, “It’s the diet. You need carbs. Eat a cracker. Drink a Coke.”

Mark, a very wise husband in addition to being an excellent physician, knows my love of the Mexican Coke, which is made with cane sugar the way Coke used to be – not “Original” Coke (original, my butt!), which has high-fructose corn syrup, and not that crap with the green label and stevia. Mexican Coke is God’s Coke! I usually drink one bottle over the course of a day, a little shot at a time. But I digress. Mark was right. I was convinced I was doing the right thing, just eating protein and some vegetables and fruit (again, clearly not enough). And yet – in my job as a medical writer, I cover a lot of research on dementia, and I had myself all worked up, thinking: “Oh, God, it’s starting!” So I Googled “on a diet can’t think” and found all kinds of articles talking about how your brain needs carbs, and how the lack of carbs actually hurts your brain.  My daughter, Blair, has been telling me that I need to worry more about eating a balanced diet than counting calories.  I didn’t listen to her, either.  I now publicly acknowledge that she was right, too.

I started eating more carbs, and I immediately felt better and could think again.  I am considering stockpiling Tater Tots.

Carbs are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Actually, the greatest thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread. A nice ciabatta, or rustic Tuscan loaf with olives, or some sourdough, or my new favorite, jalapeño cheddar. With a little dish of olive oil, some salt sprinkled in there, and some herbs. Oh, sweet Lord, I’m salivating just thinking about it.

When I lost 10 pounds, the Lose It app sent me a congratulatory message, saying that 10 pounds is what an average watermelon weighs, and I had lost the equivalent of that. That made me feel really good. I imagined carrying a watermelon around, and how heavy that was. The weight loss has been so gradual, I haven’t really noticed that I am no longer carrying around a watermelon. I just feel better. I want to lose about three more pounds.

The thing is, the more weight I have lost, the more I realize, food is good. Food is really good. Out here in the mountains of Arizona, I think about water a lot, and at least once a day, as I’m watering my plants, the words “water is life” pop into my head. I put water in my piano, to keep the humidity up. I water my indoor plants. I water my outdoor plants. We even installed a mist system to cool down the back deck and help our plants with very tiny amounts of water. I had never seen such a thing until we moved here and went down to Phoenix, where they have them outside just about every store and restaurant. So, definitely, water is life. Go, water! But food is life, too, and when you don’t eat enough, you feel like crap. If you don’t eat the right kinds of food – just Cheetos, for instance, or just junk food, or not enough salt, not enough carbs or protein – you feel like crap. And take it from me: not enough fiber, you feel like crap. Oh, the irony.

 

© Janet Farrar Worthington

At 6:30 this morning, I was standing in the kitchen, dying laughing. Usually, I’m barely functioning at this time of the day, walking around like an old person, with a righteous bed head, just trying to make myself some iced tea so the caffeine can get in there and help me function.

But when the alarm went off today, I was in the middle of the craziest dream. And so here I was, trying to convey to my husband, Mark, the true hilarity of it – at least, it seemed like a laff riot to me. I was with my old boss at the Public Affairs office at Johns Hopkins. We were filming a commercial for the Department of Neurology, for which I am currently writing a book. A young Dan Ackroyd was there on camera. I could see the cue cards he was reading. With his best huckster voice, he was hard-selling something, and putting down the competition: “That’s nothing but pink sweevum, folks!” And when he said this odd word, he drew it out, like “sooey,” and his voice went up in pitch. The cue card spelled the word phonetically. I know this, because the first thing I did (after I got some caffeine in me) was write it down: “SOOOOEEVUM.”

I have no idea what this word is – I’m pretty sure it is not actually a word at all – but I kept saying it and cracking myself up.

It’s pretty nice to start your day with a laugh.

I think, the older I get, the more I appreciate Uncle Albert from “Mary Poppins.” Maybe you remember him, played by Ed Wynn, floating around near the ceiling, because laughter made him lighter than air. “I love to laugh,” he sang, “Loud and long and clear. I love to laugh. It’s getting worse every year!”

This is the opposite of what’s happening in our world right now. I think there are an awful lot of people who read the news and then their brain goes, “Hate, hate, hate.” Then maybe they get on social media, write nasty posts, get more fired up, and their brain goes, “Hate a whole lot, hate even more, grr.” It’s like eating something fried, putting ranch dressing on it, getting terrible heartburn, and then eating ghost peppers, and getting worse heartburn and maybe even fiery diarrhea. This is self-inflicted, people! It’s Orwellian. Seriously, in 1984, George Orwell wrote about the Two-Minute Hate, where every day, the whole society of Oceania had to watch a film that ginned up hatred for their enemies, and then express that hatred for precisely two minutes. This, in Orwell’s view, was hellish. In my view, this is what a lot of us are doing every day, for a lot longer than two minutes.

One of my relatives was a wonderful person. I loved her very much. But man, did she enjoy battling her enemies. She’d get all riled up about something, and then write letters, go to meetings, and just talk about whatever it was. Her face would get all red. My dad used to say “She runs on acid.”

I think the world runs on acid right now.

            I don’t want to run on acid. So, in my own way, I rebel.

On Facebook for instance, I don’t do anything political. I just won’t. All I post is either stuff about work (rarely), pictures of my family (also not very often), and terrible puns. I know they’re terrible! That’s why I do it. I just want to make somebody smile, and maybe inspire my friends to come up with bad puns of their own. That’s all I want to do.

I also look for the humor whenever I can. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t laugh at people; I’m laughing with them. There is an expression, “the human comedy,” although I saw a movie with that title, set in World War II with Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson, and oh, man! What a downer! So it’s not that particular human comedy.

My pastor’s favorite movie is “Pollyanna.” It is a wonderful movie, in which Hayley Mills looks for the good in people and finds it.

Well, I look for the humor, and I often find it. I don’t even deliberately try, but things just strike me as funny. I can usually find something that makes just about any situation seem not so bad. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to be yukking it up over a school shooting, or natural disaster, or bad medical diagnosis. Too many things in this world are just plain painful, or horrifying, or heartbreaking. Of course I know that.

There are a lot of things in this world that make me cry. But I laugh when I can.

For instance: A couple weeks ago, I was in the doctor’s office, waiting for a routine visit. I sat there for 45 minutes waiting for my appointment, which took all of five minutes. I had brought a book, but the people-watching was so good, it was kind of like a dinner theater, without anything to eat. Or drink. But really, it was like a show.

A lady came in, and said out loud for the benefit of the entire waiting room: “I’m late, I’m late.” Not only that, but she said it in this creepy singsong, little-girl voice. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. She continued, still for the benefit of the whole room: “First, I had to get rid of the satellite TV installer. My doggie didn’t like him.” If you’ve ever seen the movie, “The In-Laws,” with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, you may remember one scene where Alan Arkin, who plays a dentist named Sheldon, is just appalled at something, and he has one palm on each side of his face and his mouth wide open; he just can’t take it in. I sat there and thought about Sheldon. But not for too long…

… because about one minute later came another woman, who had the stage presence of Elaine Stritch, the Broadway grand dame. She was moving extremely slowly with her cane, and she stopped in the doorway and announced, “The mechanical door does not stay open nearly long enough.” But she said “dwoah,” and “lwong” with a New York accent. Just a captivating entrance. Bette Davis caliber.

And then, immediately after her – I don’t know if he was with her, or was a party of one – came an older guy, who said all in one run-on sentence: “There are plenty of places to sit but not anywhere to lie down and that’s what I really want to do is lie down.” He kind of reminded me of Mr. Carlin, one of psychologist Bob Hartley’s patients on “The Bob Newhart Show.” The nurse came at that point and called me back; I kind of hated to leave.

On the way home, on Willow Creek Road, our local version of a racetrack, this guy tailgated me in the left lane. I moved to the right lane, he gunned it and dramatically passed me. I then moved back to the left of him into a turn lane, and as fast as he had gone, we were sitting side by side at the red light. He turned his face away from me – yes, it is awkward, isn’t it, when you ostentatiously pass someone and then they catch up to you – but I could see his hands on the steering wheel. He was wearing driving gloves. I laughed. Clearly, if I had seen his face, I would have seen Dick Dastardly from the old cartoon show, Wacky Races. “Curses, foiled again!”

A lot of hassles in this world are nothing but pink sweevum, folks.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

 

 

I just saw an ad on TV. I started to fast-forward, as I usually do, then I thought, “Did I hear what I think I did?” So I backed it up. A woman in her bathrobe says, “My She Shed has no rules… no shoes, no bra…” It’s an ad for Fiber One Brownies! So basically, “I take off my bra and eat fiber brownies!”

My She Shed has no rules, but it has a state-of-the-art toilet, plenty of scented candles, all the latest magazines and an industrial-strength vent fan, because I deserve it!

            Those tight-waistband pants? They hit the floor when I walk through the door.

            Then, I just go where the night takes me… maybe set out a little All Bran, some Benefiber.

            Sometimes I get a little crazy, wake up on the couch covered in Shredded Wheat. But what happens in the She Shed stays in the She Shed.

I made up the rest of it, but I think that ad is hilarious. I can only imagine it was thought up by some guy who saw some Pinterest pages on She Sheds and thought, “This is what the women want! We can tap into this market!”

I’m having a little fun with the idea, because I hope it will make you laugh, too. See, I think our humor needs to be more gentle, like the fiber-containing food products in the Fiber One Brownie She Shed, or perhaps as Activia, the probiotic-containing yogurt that helps Jamie Lee Curtis stay regular. And not harsh, like chemical-containing laxatives.

There’s a lot of harshness out there right now in the world of public discourse. Harshness and bloating. It’s agitating!

I have cut back on Facebook, I never watch the TV news, and if I could, I would prefer to read the news in print – because people who write letters to the editor can’t do it anonymously, thus they tend to have a little more self-control – i.e. maybe they actually read over it and think about what they said before they hit “send.”

Have you ever read the comments on the Washington Post, or LA Times, or basically any newspaper or news site? Most of them, first off, have trolls. Jerks. Sometimes, I understand, they are jerks who get money from somebody to demean anyone with an opposing viewpoint, but I think most of them aren’t paid. I think they like being mean, and justify it with self-righteousness because of course, their view is the only right one. They’re enlightened.

They’re not that enlightened, because they can’t tolerate even hearing from the other side. Also, I think there are a lot of people out there who might not be very nasty in public, but they sure let it fly in private.

There’s something undisciplined and unsavory about that. Have an evil thought? Fire it off in a Youtube comment or Facebook rant. Use plenty of F-bombs. Spread a little dirt, like Pigpen.

Maybe it makes people feel good, for about a second. Then that little burst of feel-good hormone goes away, and they do it again, like a hit of a bad drug.

It’s just unpleasant. I’m not going to bring you down with examples; I’m sure you’ve seen them, from every political party and pro- or anti- social viewpoint you can think of. The worst thing is, it incites others to behave just as badly – like the crowd shouting, “Boil that dust speck!” in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. It’s easy to get sucked into the group mentality.

As a culture, we’re getting sloppy. I’m picturing a bunch of military raw recruits, shirts not tucked in, poor posture, not knowing how to make their bed with a blanket so tight you could bounce a quarter off it, or shine their shoes, maybe badly in need of a haircut, too. That’s us. We’ve stopped making the effort to be civil. There’s nobody like Sergeant Carter on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” or Louis Gossett in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” to whip us into shape. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t want anybody telling me to drop and do 20 push-ups, or telling me that I can’t express my opinion.

But I do think there should be some standards of common decency that wouldn’t compromise anybody’s ability to put their point across.

At least one website out there has a policy I really like: “This is a salon, not a saloon.” Bad language is not allowed. Insulting other posters is not allowed. Crudeness is not allowed. A moderator makes sure of this, and deletes posts that don’t follow these simple rules.

Many people weren’t as lucky, as I was, to have parents and grandparents and teachers and Sunday School teachers and friends’ parents to set standards and expect you to stick to them. People to say, “Do you kiss your mom with that mouth?”

Maybe that’s part of the problem: If everybody talks like they’re in the sewer, why shouldn’t they be that way in social media, too? When even prime-time network TV shows have basically nothing that’s off-limits, when a lot of songs have bad words and crude themes and celebrities have profanity-packed diatribes in public, how would anybody know that’s not actually a good way to comport yourself?

I could go on, but you get the idea. I just have one simple suggestion: How about all those big newspapers, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., set a standard or two? No profanity. No personal attacks at the someone who doesn’t agree with you. Attack the ideas, instead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get your point across. But it also doesn’t mean you have to take the cheapest, lowest-class road to get there, either. H.L. Mencken eviscerated his critics; so did William Randolph Hearst, and William F. Buckley, and Dorothy Parker, and Jonathan Swift, and Juvenal, the ancient Roman satirist. Heck, they weren’t always gentle, either. But they weren’t as harsh as chemical-containing laxatives, and they didn’t resort to profanity. Maybe we could all just try to have a little more self-control – at least leave the bra on, until we get to the She Shed.

© Janet Farrar Worthington

 

It’s the start of the New Year, and I’m already stressed out – mainly due to constant harassment from technology. “Oh, really?” you may sneer. “Well, why not just turn it off?” It’s not that easy, buddy. Trust me. Here are just a few examples:

My phone: I’m tired of Apple constantly saying that my recently updated phone is not finished being set up because I haven’t done Apple Pay. I don’t want Apple Pay. If I wanted Apple Pay, I would have set it up. But it keeps asking. Stop bugging me!

My dishwasher: I don’t know why; I can’t explain it, but I feel just feel pure outrage and violation when the light comes on my dishwasher saying I need more rinse agent. I just filled it up! I bought a huge bottle of Jet Dry at WalMart. But why do they even sell a huge bottle of it? It should come in a little ampule and an eyedropper, because that’s all the dishwasher holds! But wait – there’s more! It takes a nasty turn. My “smart” dishwasher punishes me if I run out of Jet Dry by making the cycle 15 minutes longer. How dare this machine do this to me? Who’s in charge here? So I put in another micro-alloquot of rinse agent, all this expensive “smart” machine will hold. The dishwasher is pleased with the sacrifice. The digital readout that tells me how long it will theoretically take to wash my dishes – it actually never takes as long as it says – goes back to 2:15 instead of 2:30.

I don’t want my dishwasher to be smart. I want my dishwasher to be a dumbass.

My car: I get crap from my car, too. God forbid if I have to haul something like – oh, I don’t know, just say for a random example, eight feet of floorboard molding from Home Depot. It won’t quite fit. My car, Magnus – it’s a Highlander, so we gave him a name that would be appropriate for kilt wear – starts beeping. He starts out by just being pushy. Then he gets annoying. Then he gets the Red Mist – he quickly moves into rage at being ignored – and the beeping becomes increasingly louder and, frankly, unbearable.

I’m just trying to get home. I have the back door tied down. That’s not good enough.

I looked online, and there is no way to make it stop making this noise. Because it thinks it knows best. (I could stick some cardboard in the door latch, but that might mess it up, and besides, who carries around cardboard?)

The reason for this is that the arrogant designers – the same pompous, smug presumption we see all the time from Apple, which harasses you to update your phone, and then won’t let you actually update it (which I do, just to make it shut up) until you hit the “agree” button, agreeing to God knows what – don’t think I’m an adult who can actually make quite rational decisions, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to drive if the back door is not shut.

There’s a lot of that.

Guess why I don’t have a smart watch? I don’t want some machine telling me I haven’t exercised enough, or slept well. Duh! No poop, Sherlock! I know I haven’t slept well! I was there!   I know I haven’t exercised enough! Happy now? Now? I already have the health app on my Apple phone. I can’t make it go away. It won’t be deleted. If I could put my phone on the washing machine and have it think I was exercising more, I would. Just to make it shut up. I do what I can. Isn’t that enough for you, Apple?

Landline phone calls: I’m tired of robo calls with fake people. I got two this morning, both from spoofed local numbers, so it looked like someone from my town was calling me.

Some innocent-sounding, high-pitched female voice says, “Hello, can you hear me?”   I know what you want, you evil spammer robot hag. You want me to say “Yes,” so you can use that as taped permission to open some account in my name. I always just hang up.

“Hi, this is Angela from credit card services.” Hi, Angela. You’re a robot. Take a long walk off a short pier. Click.

Email: I’m tired of websites saying “We’ve missed you!” when I JUST MADE A PURCHASE. Literally, yesterday, I just bought something, with the 20 percent off and free shipping that you offered. What do you want from me, Williams Sonoma? Pottery Barn, cut me some freaking slack! Dillards, Nordstrom, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works – you’re downright needy. Amazon, I don’t even like myself for buying stuff from you, because I feel like I’m hurting actual retailers – except they don’t sell all the stuff that I can buy from you. Stop bugging me! I’ll come crawling back, the next time I’m looking for something I can’t get here in town.

It’s gotten to where, if I had any sense of humor left, I would laugh when I saw an email from a store with the words, “Last chance!” No, it’s not. Something else will go on sale tomorrow.

And frankly, I don’t need anything.

I Do Not Need Anything.  It’s important to realize this.

TV:  HGTV sells dissatisfaction, disguised as serenity and happiness and shiplap. I love HGTV, don’t get me wrong. But you know why all those made-over homes and rooms look so beautiful? First of all, it’s because they decluttered!  They’re crap-free!  More than anything, that’s what makes your home look good. That, and a coat of paint.

Get rid of all the clutter, and any place is going to look more Zen. Add a houseplant, paint the walls a lovely shade of white, and boom, it’s already more serene. But who can live like that? If I really followed HGTV’s advice, I wouldn’t have books double-stacked on my shelves. I would have just a handful, hard cover, matched by color, and maybe a nice Mason jar tealight candle. Actually, in Country Living magazine, I saw books placed on shelves BACKWARDS, so you couldn’t read the spine! It looked more restful that way. WHAT THE HELL! Hey, I want to read a book: I like this one. It has a nice width! Said no one ever.

Charities: I’m tired of pushy charities. If I make a donation out of a burst of goodwill to an organization, I wish I had as much money as I really don’t want to get envelopes in the mail with the words, “Your Account,” or “Membership Statement Enclosed.” I’m not a member! I just made a freaking donation! We don’t have a relationship! I’m sorry I ever gave you money in the first place!

One organization, which shall remain nameless but is located in upper New York State, has a bird app that is really cool. My son, Josh, loves it. I downloaded the app and from the get-go started getting online appeals to Save the Birds. I made a donation and thought, “Good, I’ve done my part.” Wrong! The emails doubled down! “Triple Match Alert! Give now and a donor will not just double, but triple your gift!” Emails several times a week, sometimes daily.

No! I’m not the dang bank machine.

Bah, humbug! And it’s not even Christmas!

 

 

Could we just talk for a minute about the creepiness of the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside?”

If for some inexplicable reason you haven’t heard this song in one of its many iterations at the mall or on holiday radio stations, it goes way back to 1944. I know, because I looked it up on Wikipedia, which describes the song as a “call and response” between a man and a woman, originally identified in the song sheet – creepily – as “mouse” and “wolf.”

Clearly, this was before “no” meant “no,” and a wolf whistle was … what, a compliment?

Here are some lyrics: The woman says, “I really can’t stay,” and the man says, “But Baby, it’s cold outside.” Then:

“I’ve got to go away”

“But Baby, it’s cold outside.””

“This evening has been”

“Been hoping that you’d drop in”

“So very nice”

“I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice.”

Okay, so we go from maybe he’s concerned about her safety in hazardous weather, to, he probably doesn’t actually give a crap about her safety or the hazardous weather. He just wants her to stay for two reasons: she’s there, and she has a pulse! He can work with that!

Also: he calls her “Beautiful,” and “Baby.” Does he even know her name? Does it matter?

I’m sorry; I was an English major in college. I can’t help myself.

But at best it’s awkward. Later on, she says flat out, “The answer is no.”

Then, as Bill Cosby’s dates allegedly wondered, “What’s in this drink?”

Meanwhile, he says, “What’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?” Yes, because it’s all about you! Followed by, “How can you do this thing to me?” Seriously? Is he Charlie Rose, casually standing around naked after his shower? Or maybe he’s Matt Lauer, with his secret Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery buttons under his desk that lock the office door? What’s missing, Harvey Weinstein telling her that either she’ll never work in this town again, and/or he’s going after her family?

And toward the end, when she repeats, “I really can’t stay,” he says, “Get over that hold out,” or “old out,” I can’t really tell, but it sounds a little bit like the tone has turned from playful to: I already paid for your drink; let’s cut to the chase! I’m on the clock here!

Then in unison – symbolic unison, my English major self says – they both sing, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” And suddenly everything’s supposed to be peachy.

Now, I’m going to come right out and say, the song is catchy. It’s clever, and the tune kind of gets into your head. The Dean Martin version is very good. My personal favorite rendition is by Brian Setzer, who also adds a delightful guitar solo, with Ann-Margaret, whose singing voice is as lovely as ever.

But the giant elephant in the room is the clear fact that the guy is not going to take no for an answer.

What’s in this drink?

“I Believe in Christmas.”

Changing the subject: You know my love for Hallmark movies. In fact, I even own a shirt that says, “All I want to do is drink tea, bake Christmas cookies, and watch Hallmark movies.” I adore Hallmark Christmas movies. But just like the phenomenon I have previously mentioned, about the hair of the leading men and ladies dyed a shade too dark, there’s just a shade too much Santa.

“I just want my son to believe in Santa Claus.”

“We all need to believe in Christmas Magic.”

See, the thing is, Christmas is a holiday dedicated to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ! Christ, Christmas… the reason for the season… And frankly, why go to great lengths to make your kid believe in Santa Claus – I admit, I’ve done it, once snipping a curly lock of snowy chest hair off of our liver-and-white Springer Spaniel, Penny, and pretending to find some of Santa’s beard hair, which, I acknowledge, was weird – when, eventually, they’re going to suspect that maybe, just maybe, it was not actually Santa?

Instead, we see supernatural Santa doing magic, matchmaking, transporting from the North Pole to a train, to a street in a small Hallmark town, putting up roadblocks to delay the wrong suitor so that the right suitor can finally make his move. We see a magic stocking acting as a sort of divine Providence. We see Santa’s wife having her own powers, going around helping people find love. We see Santa’s daughter helping people and actually finding love. We see Santa’s lovable and sometimes cranky elves busy making toys in undercover towns in the far north. We see Santa’s reindeer… well, they don’t have speaking parts, but still.  And kids write letters that are like prayers… to Santa!

It’s not about Santa! Believe it or not, it’s not even about presents!

Similarly, Easter is not actually about a large rodent tenderly breaking into your home and placing candy and toys in baskets lined with plastic grass, although some might argue that Peeps are heavenly, and so are malted eggs, and of course jelly beans.

 

 

 

 

Every year at Prescott United Methodist Church, we put out an Advent devotional, a little daybook of stories written by people in the church for everyone to read.   It’s the other kind of preparation for Christmas – not Black Friday, or Small Business Saturday, or Cyber Monday, or Giving Tuesday, not online shopping or trudging around the mall, not gifting and regifting and decorating and baking and either sending Christmas cards or thinking of sending Christmas cards and somehow not getting around to it (I fall into this category).  Preparation of the heart, you might say.

This year’s Advent theme was a weird one: “Tear Open the Heavens and Come Down” and it must have stumped the congregation because, toward the end of November, there was an urgent call for entries. I thought about it, and I kept picturing that fourth wall in the theater – the invisible barrier that keeps performers on the stage from talking directly to the audience.

It used to be that, although God was always with his people, there was that distance. Nobody, for instance, dared to go into one secret part in the temple – God’s special dwelling place, blocked by a thick curtain. Clearly, the Hebrews knew God was with them; they’d have to be pretty dense, as they wandered through the desert for 40 years, not to notice the “pillar of clouds that went before them by day to lead them on the way, and the pillar of fire by night to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21). But this innermost sanctum was off limits. Trespassers would be prosecuted: think of that gruesome “face melting” scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant.

Jesus changed all that.   Right after his birth, the sky filled with “a great company of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13) – glorious angel songs of praise, with a message that didn’t get heard much in that brutal time: Peace on Earth.

The fourth wall was broken again right after Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:16): “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Some people thought it was thunder.

Later (Matthew 27:51), right after Jesus was crucified, there was another break in the clouds. A really big one: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.”

Maybe there are signs from heaven all the time, and we just miss them; maybe we just think it’s thunder.

Once, on our farm in Virginia, the air grew very still and the sky turned bright green. I had never seen anything like it. I called the kids to come outside and see; we sat on the porch and marveled at it for about 20 minutes. We brought out some popcorn and juice boxes. It turns out that what we saw was a telltale sign of a nearby tornado: nature’s way of saying, “Stop gawking and take shelter, you morons!” The sky was bright green because of all the vegetation that had just been sucked up into the air. Oops! My bad! Who knew? Apparently, a lot of people, just not me.

A few years later, right after my mom died, my dad and I were driving back from the funeral home. We had just picked out a casket and made the kind of arrangements that nobody ever wants to make. My mom had been in a coma, and although her eyelids were partly open and we could glimpse her beautiful green eyes, and although we talked to her a lot, she wasn’t really awake and she never responded. It was a cloudy, cold December day, about as bleak-looking outside as we felt inside. But suddenly, this little patch of sky opened up, the sun shone through it, and – I’m not kidding – it looked like a beautiful green eye. We took comfort in it.

The green sky in Virginia was a sign that I didn’t recognize. The green eye in the sky was a sign that we didn’t expect.   We didn’t really need it to know that Mom was with God, because, with that fourth wall broken, Jesus was right there with us. We knew. But still, it was nice.

In the Bible, Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! … Come down …and cause the nations to quake before you!”

Isaiah wanted his nation’s enemies to receive a cosmic butt-kicking, from a distant and mighty God. I wonder if he would have recognized the baby in the humble stable. I wonder if I would have. Maybe the fourth wall that needs to be open is the one in my heart, so that I can see the signs that God wants me to see.

 

 

 

You know why I look so good in my makeup mirror? The lighting. Whoever figured out that bright, whitish lights, coming from below, produce flawless skin and just generally make the world a better place was a genius.

Light from below, you say? Like Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff, or Severus Snape in Harry Potter? No, of course not! Don’t be ridiculous! A flashlight put directly under the chin makes anyone look spooky and awful. That’s not what I’m talking about at all.

All I’m wondering is why they don’t have light like that everywhere.

Restaurants! Who needs candlelight? Just beauty-light me, and I’ll sail through dinner with confidence and poise!

Department stores! Ka-ching, ka-ching! Glorious beauty lighting makes everything look good! Your customers will be more likely to buy things instead of putting them back and skulking away in shame. Or maybe that’s just me…

Instead, dressing rooms are so very dreary, with hideous fluorescent light that imparts a greenish, bilious skin tone, invents or highlights bags under the eyes, gives you cellulite where you don’t actually have any, adds 20 pounds, and just generally makes you look like crap.

Let me just take a moment to say that when I was a kid, we used to shop at Sears and when that Wish Book came in the mail around Thanksgiving, I immediately stopped everything, lay on my stomach on the living room rug and read that thing cover to cover. I dog-eared numerous pages of things I didn’t even want – like sheets! Just because they showed a pretty canopy bed with matching pillows and beautiful bedspreads. They really knew how to make stuff look tempting and good.

But now? Fuggetaboutit. Walk into Sears and, first of all, at least in the Sears stores I have ventured into and quickly escaped over the last decade, there’s the dead silence. Pipe in some cheery music! Then there are the grocery carts. And zero sales clerks in the individual departments; they’re at centralized checkout stations that exude the efficiency and joy of Eastern Europe in the Cold War. I remember when people used to be clerks in one department, like lingerie, or hardware, or children’s shoes, and that’s all they did for years. They were experts, and the best of them knew you and your whole family. It was their career.

Shopping carts in a department store! What moron came up with that idea? When I go buy clothes, I don’t want to be pushing around a grocery cart. Maybe the big idea is something like: “Give people a cart and they’ll fill it up.” If I want a cart, I’ll go to Walmart, and buy some canned goods or cleaning products while I’m there.

No. Mall stores should spend their money on better things – like vacuuming the bleak, depressing carpet in the dressing rooms. In a lot of them, it’s dingy and stained, too. And who hasn’t been simply minding his or her own business, trying on clothes, and stepped on a straight pin? That’s a mood-killer. The worst was in a mall in Baltimore, where they actually had to put up signs asking people not to change their baby’s diapers and/or go to the bathroom in the dressing rooms. What is the thinking process there? One stall’s pretty much like any other? No, see, one actually HAS PLUMBING.

Misuse of the dressing rooms aside, I feel that many retail stores are out of touch, and this is a shame. I grew up going to the mall. I love malls – when, that is, they’re full of life and people and not dismal, half-empty shells with boarded-up windows from stores that have folded. We have a really nice mall here in Prescott, but the genius owners imposed rents that were too high, and stores couldn’t stay there. Many have folded. Right after we moved in, the Barnes & Noble folded, and it broke my heart. I can’t tell you how inexpressibly sad it was to see it empty – and then how much sadder it was, for me at least, to see it with the walls painted black for an indoor lunar mini-golf course, which that space briefly became.

Books are sacred. Bookstores are, too. To lose one is like saying goodbye to a friend.   The remaining merchants at our little mall are trying so hard to hang on, and many of us here in town are shopping there and rooting for it to come back. J.C. Penneys and Dillards seem to be doing well, and amazingly, we just got a Sephora.

I love Dillards and although we don’t have one here in town, I love Nordstrom. I get emails from both all the time with suggestions “just for me.”   These are not good suggestions! Here are some fashion trends these stores recently suggested for me in emails:

“Romantic bodysuit.” As in, crotch snaps. No, thanks. I did that in the 70s, and they never stayed snapped. True story: I was not a svelte child. My mom enrolled me in a ballet class and she bought me a leotard, but she didn’t realize that it was actually a body suit. Every time I moved around too much, snap, snap… Not good.

“High-waist jeans.” No! The only trend worse than this would be, “high-waist jeans with PLEATS and peg legs.” Designed to give you the shape of a bowling pin.

“Menswear details.” This one sounds possible… Kathryn Hepburn pulled off that look all the time. But this particular menswear detail they’re showing me is a shoe that looks like something the Pilgrims might have worn, with a high chunk heel, except with a fringe tassel instead of a large buckle. And it’s metallic gold! Hello, Rust-Oleum!

“Bell sleeves.” Three inches longer than my hands, guaranteed to get in any plate of food. Not recommended for eating biscuits and gravy, maple syrup, spaghetti, or soup.

“Giant gaps between the sleeve and shoulder.” I don’t actually know what these shirts are called, but they look stupid and if I were to get one and wear it often, people would say, “There she is again in that shirt with the big holes in the shoulders.”

“Flare-leg jumpsuit.” No. Whom do they think they’re dealing with here? I lived through the Seventies! I was there, Gandalf! Yes, it looks great and dramatic, very Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel.   Imagine yourself wearing it… and then having to use a Port-o-Pot, or a public restroom. Maybe one with an under-sized stall, the kind where you have to take your purse off your shoulder so you can turn around and get the door closed, and you end up holding it because you don’t want to set it down because there’s moisture on the floor, and/or something worse: grossness. Ugh. See, with a jumpsuit, unless they come up with a Union suit-type butt flap, you’re out of luck if you have to go. You can’t just lower the pants only. The whole thing has to come down. Not good.

And yet, I also realize that today, we don’t make enough of an effort to be beautiful at all times. Not like they did way back when. Even the pioneers looked better than I do half the time: I know this because I’ve seen Fess Parker’s wife, Rebecca Boone, played by Patricia Blair on the old TV show, “Daniel Boone,” and even though it was back in the early 1800s, she managed to keep her hair sprayed, her updo looking smooth, and her false eyelashes on straight.

Similarly, “Big Valley,” late 1800s in Stockton, California: Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Evans managed to convey “respectable gentry” with their turtlenecks, bolero jackets, and blue eye shadow. And they didn’t even have electricity! Shame on us looking less than our best, with all our modern conveniences! We need to try harder, ladies!

But not too hard. I say this with love to Hallmark. I love Hallmark Channel movies, but somebody needs to do an intervention and dial back the hair dye on the men and women in their mystery movies. That’s about all I’m going to say on that, but just look at it sometime. The hair is way too dark on many of the people in Hallmark Land.

They just need to go back to the basics, and focus on the one thing that makes everyone look good: Beauty lighting.