Thursday, April 23, 2009

Vita Brevis! Carpe Diem!

There are so many topics on my list of things to write about; celebrity obsession, the effect of children on marital happiness, my pesky last 12 pounds to lose. But right now everything I do for a living, write about, think about, and act upon seems so terribly trite. My life, my “problems,” and my musings on American culture feel less important following the untimely death of a college friend. Staring at the glowing screen of the laptop, all I can think about is how healthy I am. How happy that my body can run, jump, lift, dance, and sing. How fortunate I am to have a mind that is sharp, analytic, and balanced. It is a shame that it takes horrible life events to put things into perspective and remind us how lucky we are to be alive.

Wendy, a year younger than me, was a fellow Political Science survivor at Mary Washington College. She somehow possessed personality traits that are often mutually exclusive; shy and outgoing, polite and sarcastic, sophisticated and naïve, anxious and tranquil, silly and serious. Wendy would be the first to challenge a professor, to voice her opinion (to which she had many!), and to take action on a cause she believed in. That same woman who had no trouble going toe-to-toe with our professors would clam up in the presence of a cute guy. Her warmth and charm, evidence of a good Virginia upbringing, made her quick wit and sharp tongue beyond hilarious. Wendy could worry about political strife in the world while kicking back with an adult beverage at a Jimmy Buffet concert. She could communicate volumes and change the world with her smile alone. Wendy could somehow laugh, hug, tell a joke, flirt, answer a question, project her opinion, or get herself out of a pickle just by flashing her pearly whites; the best part was she was so terribly modest she had no clue of that power.

Her life after college followed the path I thought my own would take; job on Capitol Hill, apartment in Alexandria, traveling with friends, and involvement in her community. Wendy was brave enough to follow her dreams, even if those dreams started with a very low paying job as a Congressional aide; I will always be in awe of her sticking to her guns. While her life was short she accomplished more then many could claim in a lifetime twice as long.

Wendy was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer mere days after I received word that a co-worker from my first “real” job lost his battle with the same disease at the young age of 52. Both Wendy and Dave were non-smokers who followed the prescription for a long and healthy life; eat well, exercise, develop friendships, laugh, and love. They did everything we are supposed to do but both received a diagnosis usually reserved for people who make less than healthy life choices. Some people smoke all their lives and die of old age, some people manage to avoid the cancer sticks and die in their 30s. Not that I am advocating people taking up a 3 pack-a-day habit, but sometimes even an ounce of prevention isn’t enough to combat cancer if it is in our genes. To quote another friend “life is so hideously unfair.”

Wendy battled her cancer the same way she tackled life; head on with equal doses of humor, strength, courage, and sometimes anger. Despite her poor prognosis she continued joking around with her friends and family, even naming her cancer Earl after a Dixie Chicks’ song; that Earl had to die, goodbye Earl. We followed her blog religiously as Wendy kept us up to date with the ins and outs of her life and her cancer treatments. Her candid honesty was sometimes brutal, but more often brilliant. We cheered when there were signs of tumor shrinkage and cried when her cancer spread. She opened up about her struggle with hair loss and in turn received a boat load of hats from far and wide. We shared her excitement about her upcoming trip to the Dominican Republic and felt immense disappointment that she couldn’t enjoy her passion of travel one more time. Through it all Wendy was not a cancer patient but still her opinionated, open-minded, bacon loving self who happened to have cancer.

Earl ended up being far too strong and aggressive, taking Wendy from us after only 32 years of life. Her Facebook page, which now serves as a make-shift memorial for all those who miss her, includes a powerful reminder for all of us. Wendy left for us a quote from the movie Shawshank Redemption; “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Her legacy will live on in the spirit she so generously left to her friends and family and her reminder that life is short. Seize the day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Quote of the Week

Thanks to Amy for sending these fun words to live by...

Be what you are.
Give what is yours to give.
Have style.

- Stanley Kunitz, American poet

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Losing my Religion

Holidays are a time to gather family to eat a fine meal, connect, and create lasting memories. Religious holidays are often the reason for formal family gatherings, filled with time honored traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. Some of my most vivid childhood memories took place at my Grandmother’s or parent’s dining room table during these holiday celebrations and I attempt every year to bring that magic to my own home when hosting. The one holiday we consistently host every year, not splitting between Minnesota and New York is Easter; my obligation to travel home for Easter ended during college. We love entertaining and hosting family and friends for Easter brunch but the irony of this being “our holiday” doesn’t escape me. Easter is, even with the advent of the bunny, a very religious holiday and I don’t believe in the reason for this season.

For several of my formative years I was dragged kicking and screaming to a “megachurch” with so many members it required large movie screens so the back row wouldn’t miss the three hours of worship. Followers prayed out loud, threw their hands up to God, and supported the preacher and his brood of children through weekly offerings. I would not be surprised if snake appearances and people fainting in the aisles actually happened, but they kept that stuff away from Sunday school area. Even in my youth I was clever enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of this cult. The “leaders” used unhealthy tactics to keep people coming and giving week after week; making the congregation feel guilty about their thoughts, uneasy with their bodies, disempowering their ability to learn, think, feel and believe in themselves. This wasn’t faith, it was a money making business, and the business plan included preying on people who had no faith in themselves and making everyone feel terrible so they needed “healing.” In bible school we learned to love our neighbors but hate non-believers and gays. We learned that we were all beautiful in the eyes of God, but men were more important in his eyes. Upon declaring I didn’t want children, I was told there was something wrong with me and I needed healing because women were put on earth to make more disciples. Needless to say this experience left me very cynical about organized religion and more then a little battered by their belittling, sexist teachings. Through the years I returned to the denomination I was baptized under, Lutheranism, but often attend not for the word of God but for the music; where else can you get a good performance for a tax-deductible donation?

This disdain, fear, and suspicion of organized religion led me to look at the world of religion from a magnifying lens. Studying political science after attending a cult-like church only deepened my cynicism of organized religion, examining social conservatism’s heavy reliance on the relationships between politicians and religious leaders. Those seeking power throughout history often used religion to achieve political objectives. Church services became a strong campaign medium, promoting candidates and causes through the exploitation of faith. “What Would Jesus Do” morphed into “Who Would Jesus Vote For” and congregations nationwide faced the ultimate peer pressure from their church to conform politically. “Followers” learned that that voting differently then their church leadership was an act against God. A few church leaders were so vocal from the pulpit about their political standings they were charged with violating the terms of their church tax-exempt status.

Separation of church and state is a nice idea in theory, but governments rely heavily on religious organizations to teach and enforce a code of morals and ethics. Even the most secular societies recognize religious holidays, encourage worship attendance, promote religious donations through tax-deductions, and support faith based volunteerism; religion is a tool used to maintain a happy, healthy, and reliable population. Religion teaches lessons like “thou shalt not kill,” “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and “forgive those who sin against you” but it is society as a whole, therefore government entities, who benefits from basic moral lessons. Religion is used as a means of enforcing order, law, and control in chaotic societies. Throughout time government, rulers, dictators, and other leaders recognized the power of religious faith; often people who would rebel against political leadership would blindly follow their religious leaders. Naturally many politicians and preachers recognized the benefits of combining forces; politicians get more votes and a better behaved populace, churches get tax breaks, attendance laws, and greater recognition.

There are plenty of churches and teachers that are true to God’s word, uninfluenced by political agenda, but my struggle with organized religion includes the historic interpretations and writings. I don’t know whether the Bible, or any other books like the Torah, Qur’an, or The Book of Mormon, is truly “holy.” Did messages get lost in translation, misinterpreted in a “game” of scripture telephone? Are holy scriptures more a reflection of the writers’ beliefs than divine message? Have we taken fictional literature and declared them God’s word? Were the messages in any or all these holy books manipulated to serve the political and social needs and beliefs of the very humans writing the verses? Our cultural rules of “polite conversation” and “don’t discuss religion and politics” make it nearly impossible to engage in any intelligent conversation on these difficult questions; it’s much easier and less volatile to discuss celebrity gossip.

People can say I’ve lost my faith or that I am a heathen but I’m not alone. According to recent data nearly 25% of American Christians and 60% of American Jews question the existence of God. 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation think salvation can be found in a variety of religions and not just the one they practice. Churches are closing in record numbers and many churches face decreased attendance and an aging population. Many churches now close on Christmas, unable to draw in people who are too busy opening up their Santa presents. Practicing Catholics and Evangelicals are often at odds with church teachings on birth control, abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex. Muslims and Jews often eat bacon, forbidden by both religions. More and more people pick-and-choose what they believe in; practicing the parts of religion they like and leaving the rest on the table. I just happen to be on a very strict diet when it comes to organized religion.

This week I celebrate Easter even if that makes me a hypocrite for questioning whether I believe Jesus was the son of God or his ascension into heaven. I consider myself a spiritual person despite my skepticism of recognized world religions. I do believe in a higher being and she is not too happy with how we humans have distorted and manipulated her teachings or planet. I believe in not one but many higher spirits that would be more pissed at how we rape our soil, overpopulate our land, pollute our water, torture our creatures, discriminate, and hate than eating meat on Fridays during lent. This Easter Sunday I celebrate the changing of the seasons and pray to the gods above that our earth continues to provide the bounty on my family table. I applaud the Lutheran Church and the University of Minnesota's Eco-Palms program; ensuring leaves used for Palm Sunday, for a growing number of churches, were harvested in an environmentally sensitive manner by workers getting paid a fair price. I am thankful to those churches that promote acceptance and togetherness, organize their communities, promote volunteerism, and deliver services for the greater good. I thank the heavens above for providing me with the strength, will, intelligence, and determination to succeed in my “chosen” profession. I give thanks for the family and friends who provide me love, support, guidance and remind me of what is important in life. Most of all I celebrate living in a country where I can question its religious and political leaders without fear of persecution or crucifixion.

Summary from my “Facebook 25
23. I am not religious. I celebrate religious holidays because of tradition and family togetherness, not because of the true meaning of the day. Christmas for me is a celebration of winter. Easter is a celebration of spring. I (occasionally) attend church because it is a place to listen to cheap, beautiful live music. If there is a higher being then I think there is more than one required to do all the work required of higher beings. I guess this technically makes me a neo-pagan for those who must put me in a neat little religious box.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Feast or Floodin’

“Why would people live there?” This question is often asked when a part of the world suffers from a catastrophic disaster; hurricane, tornado, fire, earthquake, drought, famine, volcanic eruption, blizzard, flood, et cetera. Sometimes the answer is easy to comprehend. Californians deal with earthquakes and fires in return for good weather. Residents of the dry Denver desert fight over water rights but have mountains to admire and slopes to ski. Miamians spend hurricane season at Home Depot buying tape and plywood to protect their homes but lazy days on the sand and surf make up for that inconvenience. The risks of living in these areas have rewards that people from major metropolitan areas can understand, but those urbanites are baffled when catastrophic news arrives from a place like Fargo, North Dakota, or Moorhead, Minnesota.

Admittedly I would never live in Fargo, North Dakota; I already experienced enough of a cultural seismic shift moving from New York to Minneapolis. I know many “big-city” dwellers residing on both the left and right coast who cannot comprehend why people live in “fly-over” states like Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota to name just a few. Disasters that strike these areas, whether it is a flood, tornado, or blizzard, leave your average urban/suburban American wondering about the sanity of residents and seriously questioning why people rebuild and return to these places after surviving the wrath of Mother Nature.

Most perplexing is how many of the same people who wonder why money is spent rebuilding cities and towns on our nation’s great rivers think nothing about rebuilding and protecting places on our shoreline. Hurricane drinking and gumbo eating tourists think that rebuilding New Orleans is critical because of its cultural and historical importance although its contribution to our national economy is miniscule at best. Golfers and beach bums wouldn’t think twice about protecting and saving homes and businesses in coastal places like Myrtle Beach. It would be considered unpatriotic to question rebuilding the World Trade Center in New York although its location will forever be a terrorist target. People rarely question the sanity of people living through disasters in these “desirable” areas but are perplexed why anyone would want to live by raging rivers, deal with brutal winters, or be hours away from the nearest Target. Those who wonder why anyone lives in the middle of our country should all be thankful they do; the “fly-over” states might not provide US residents with popular vacation destinations, cottages on the shore, or Mardi Gras but they do supply us something very important that should never be overlooked; our food.

The human race is fueled by food and much of what we are accustomed to eating still comes from places affected by natural disasters; farms in the mid-west and California. Food doesn’t come from your grocery store; most of it comes from our nation’s heartland. People forget the dependence their diets have in far away places in our industrial food chain and if they did not get their food from places like Nebraska it would come instead from China and I personally won’t even feed my dogs food from China. Those who are mindful about where their food comes from, locavores attempting to live off of land as close to their homes as possible, are well aware of how much our food supply depends on far away farmers. Kansas and North Dakota supply most of our wheat, Iowa and Illinois are responsible for a bulk of our feed corn production, and Minnesota produces most American’s Thanksgiving turkeys. If residents of flood plains in the mid-west decided to throw in the towel after a disaster and move elsewhere the effects on our food-chain would be felt worldwide. We shouldn’t be questioning why these residents decide to stay, we should be forever thankful that they do.

Many thanks to all of those citizens who roll up their sleeves in times of crisis saving their homes, farms, communities; and, in turn, our lives. Thank you for showing us the power of a community that works together and asks not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their neighbors. Thank you for electing competent citizens to your local offices who are capable of managing the complex logistics of disaster preparation and recovery. Thank you for reminding those who are all but disconnected from their family and neighbors that when the fit hits the shan those people who can rely on and help of a local network fare better then those who have to turn to strangers. Most importantly, thanks for all you do to keep our bodies running.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Trickle Down Weight Loss

Last year I decided once and for all to stop dieting and learn to eat healthy well-balanced meals with the hope of someday attaining a healthy weight. After embracing a healthier lifestyle my weight initially climbed; I had been starving myself prior to this epiphany and needed to reset my metabolism. After climbing back to ‘pre-starvation diet’ weight the scale has started to trickle downward again, slowly but steadily. Losing weight slowly through lifestyle changes is proven to be the most permanent and effective way to maintain a healthy weight; but unfortunately I, like many women, have a one major issue with trickle down weight loss.

Our faces and neck are often the first places people report noticing weight loss. The scale goes down and people start saying “your face looks so thin” but the fat-pants are still tight. If you continue to lose weight beyond the thin-face then upper arm definition starts peeking out from beneath a former layer of fat. This period is often marked with increased usage of tank tops and cap sleeved shirts. Just when we begin to gain a little body confidence we unfortunately begin losing the part of our body that most of us would prefer to keep; our boobs.

Losing weight from the top down is one of the cruel ironies of dieting, fitness, and weight loss. The very areas that most women despise, our hips, butt, thighs, and tummy, are the last to disappear. Yet our breasts, the one body part that even the waif promoting fashion industry likes large, shrinks before our eyes. For most of us lucky enough to get the “T” the “A” isn’t far behind; karmic balance. I know life isn’t fair, but this really isn’t fair. I’ve dropped 2 cup sizes in 15 months, but only one butt size. This isn’t just in my head, during a recent trip to buy undergarments the following traumatic conversation occurred:

Sales Woman: “What size are you?”
Bombchelle: “38D”
Sales Woman: “Oh no you’re not honey, let’s measure you.”
Bombchelle: “I was just measured in November, I’m pretty sure that’s right. I lost a little weight but I already dropped from a DD to a D.”
Sales Woman: “It’ll only take a minute.” (tape measure enters scene) “36C.”
Bombchelle: “WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!? You’re kidding, right?”

The good feminist in me shouldn't care about the size of my breasts; just think of all the bras I can burn that no longer fit! The drama in Victoria’s Secret is still traumatic for so many reasons. If I continue losing weight slowly (and healthfully) the size of my rear end will take another year to match my incredible shrinking chest. Rather then being well-proportioned I’ll have a heavier bottom then a luxury cruise liner making the suits I have to wear for work very difficult to purchase. On top of this, the Blonde Bombchelle moniker has just as much to do with embracing my curvy, voluptuous body as it does my hair color (which is causing its own drama, turning strawberry blonde in my “old age”). I wonder what cup size Marilyn and Mae sported since silicone was not an option for them (or, frankly, for me). Is there a minimum cup requirement for bombshell status?

If it sounds like I’m whining it’s because I am. After working out hardcore for a year and losing 15 pounds what do I have to show for it; tinier tatas.