Big Sis, Little Sis

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It’s my little sister’s birthday today. With only 13 months between us, we have always been very close: best friends, playmates, antagonists, vyers for our parents’ attention.

The relationship between sisters is an especially precious one. Older sisters practice mothering the younger ones. I had seven of these “mothers” as I grew up, and I idolized them: their clothes, their hairstyles, their high-heeled shoes, their sophistication. I tried to be older than I was, bragging to anyone who would listen that “when I become a five-year-old teenager, I’m going to smoke.” I insisted that I could read long before I actually had the ability to do so. And being named one of the “little kids” in my family was a source of disgruntlement for me.

Yet my older sisters took me under their wings. They would spin elaborate fantasies when we played pretend. I remember secret meetings in little attic rooms in our house and twirling around into a world of fairy princesses and evil witches. My big sisters took me on adventures downtown in our suburban village and to the city beach on hot summer days. I even learned the basics about sex from them rather than my mom. When I was in junior high, one of them gave me a book that told me everything I needed to know, but was afraid to ask. Even when I entered the world of technical adulthood, my oldest sister was there to reassure me and help me out. She drove me down to move into college and would sometimes visit me there on weekends. I have relied on my older sisters, and my oldest in particular, to guide me through marriage and motherhood.

My two daughters have a very similar relationship. Eleven years apart, they are more like mother and daughter than sisters sometimes. In fact, I think I am a bit easier on my youngest than her big sister is. But they still share a sisterly bond that often unites them against their overbearing parents. They like to watch the same TV series filled with adolescent angst together. Now away at college, my younger daughter will often reach out to her older sister rather than to mom and dad for advice and moral support. The gift of an older sister is priceless.

My little sister and I, though, have a slightly different relationship born of our closeness in age. Little sis was the cuter and sweeter of the two of us, so she was my dad’s indisputable favorite. This made me jealous, and I would try to get her into trouble whenever I could. For instance, once I saw her sneak a candy from my mom’s prized box of chocolate-covered cherries, and I immediately tattled on her. For her part, she was often jealous of me because I got more grown-up clothes and privileges a little earlier than she did. We fought like the dickens as young children, and for years she sported a scar above her eye as a result of a scuffle near our bedroom radiator.

Yet little sis and I were and are also the best of friends. Being so close in age, we enjoyed the same activities: playing with dolls, swinging on the swingset and especially playing long games of pretend amidst the lilac bushes in our backyard. We looked so much alike that neighbors often couldn’t tell us apart. We have remained close throughout our lives, sharing college experiences and teaching stories. I was her maid of honor when she married. And we have seen each other through many times, good and bad. There is nothing I enjoy more in the world than a late night session drinking wine and gabbing with my little sister.

So little sis, I raise a glass of red to you on your birthday. May we always be best friends through the vicissitudes of life.

Not So Fast

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During Lent, there are two days on which Catholics are asked to fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Of course, many Christians participate in the practice of fasting far more frequently, and others fast for health reasons. For some reason, fasting is one of the hardest things for me to do.

I have a hard enough time each morning having to wait an hour after taking my medication to eat breakfast. I watch the clock and try to busy myself with activities so that my growling stomach does not drive me crazy. As soon as the one-hour mark hits, I chow down on oatmeal, toast, eggs, or other breakfast goodies. Many days I have an early breakfast and a late morning snack. But on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, I try my best to eat three very small meals with no snacking in between. This is essentially the modern Catholic requirement with regard to fasting.

When I was young, I tried fasting completely one day, convinced that the process would make me instantly skinny and attractive. I drank only water and somehow made it through a long summer day. The next morning when I arose, I got dizzy and had to lie down while my mother fetched me a glass of orange juice. Of course she chastised me for trying such a cockamamie diet strategy.

Yet I still feel like a bit of a failure that I can’t perform this act of self-denial while others seem to have no trouble doing so. For instance, my 86-year-old mother-in-law fasts every day of Lent, letting nothing pass her lips until after noon. She refrains from eating meat throughout the season as well. My hairdresser, who is Greek Orthodox, has described to me the many foods from which she and her family abstain during the lead-up to Greek Easter: a list that includes both meat and dairy. I can hardly imagine such restraint.

Maybe I just have a physical constitution that needs regular and frequent feeding. There are conditions such as hypoglycemia that demand consistent, frequent amounts of food in order to regulate blood sugar. Or perhaps my body just rebels after a youth spent trying fad diets and deprivation. Whatever the case, I will always dread fasting as part of my Lenten practice. I guess that’s why it’s called a Lenten sacrifice.

A Show of Faith

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On Ash Wednesday, Christians are marked in a physical way as followers of Christ. The ashes on their heads accompany them throughout their day, to the bemusement of some and the knowing acceptance of others.

It is natural to want others to know about the good things we do in the world. Young children are constantly saying to their parents, “Look, look! See what I did,” with a heart bursting with pride and accomplishment. We too want to share our successes with others: a new grandchild, a promotion at work, an award or achievement. And we also want to be seen as good. So we allow our names to scroll along the list of donors to a worthy cause. We talk about our work at the food pantry or the homeless shelter. Some even have their names attached to endowments or buildings they helped to fund.

So why, in today’s Gospel, does Jesus say, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing” (Matthew 6:3)? The Catholic Mass readings for this Ash Wednesday emphasize an inner conversion, a change of heart that goes much deeper than the outward signs of piety and charity.

Each Lent I begin with great purpose. I fast and abstain in accordance with Catholic Church teaching, and I give up desserts. I read Lenten devotionals and determine which charities I would like to donate to in fulfillment of almsgiving. But as the 40 days of Lent progress, I find myself slipping from my determination to be holy. I neglect my reading or sneak a sweet here and there. Most importantly, I go about the majority of my day without really working on that deep and fundamental change God is asking for in Joel 2:12: “Return to me with your whole heart.”

So it’s not just that bragging about your good deeds is unseemly. It’s not about hiding the fact that you are a Christian. It’s more about focusing on that which no one can see, our inner life. How can we make the journey of Lent a real and lasting change in ourselves? How will we be different on Easter Sunday?

St. Paul writes that “now is a very acceptable time” (2 Cor. 6:2) for us to be reconciled with our God. Let us ask, “Create in me a new heart, O Lord,” (Psalm 51:10) and allow that inner conversion to take hold in us this Lent.

First Kiss

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Her very first kiss was illicit. The hard and fast rule in her family was: no dating until the age of 16. At 14, she was stumbling into adulthood, her body already a woman’s but her mind still innocent and young. In the corridors of the high school, she tried to make herself smaller, hiding her well-developed breasts behind a stack of textbooks.

The boys in her freshman classes were barely on the threshold of adolescence. Small, awkward, with voices cracking into high falsettos at times, they were an unimpressive lot. But there was one. He had long, shining, straight hair that almost reached his shoulders. He was tall and had deep blue eyes, wore a blue jean jacket to class every day, and was decidedly not her type.

She was studious, sweet, and naive – a good girl in every way. He was a rule breaker, smoking around the corner before school, eschewing homework, sitting in the back of science class with his feet up on the desk. He’d been suspended for three days, and it was rumored that he’d set fire to the science lab. Dangerous. Attractive.

He started falling into step with her after class and holding her hand. She felt very self-conscious as she peeled herself away from him and walked into freshman English. Still, she wasn’t really allowed to go out with him. So when he asked her to meet him “in town” on a Saturday, her heart faltered. She had never really disobeyed her formidable parents, but the allure of being with him was too strong. They met up at the Walgreen’s soda fountain, and he bought her a Coke. It was a mild early fall day, and she had chosen her favorite outfit, a dark blue bodysuit with patterned yellow shorts.

They walked around the small downtown area of their leafy Chicago suburb, and then he offered to walk her home. She was nervous as she approached the small yellow brick house where she knew her mom would be busy inside cooking or cleaning. He pulled her to the side, away from windows and prying neighbors. Then he stepped in front of her, leaned down, and kissed her. His lips were soft, and his tongue lightly flickered against her lips. His jacket brushed her bare arms. He kissed her again, a bit more firmly, then said goodbye and walked away.

They “dated” for a few more weeks, which mostly consisted of walking together in the hallways at school and kissing outside classroom doors. Between their youth and the fact that they really had nothing in common, the romance fizzled out almost before it had begun. But the taste of her first kiss would remain a vivid memory in her mind for years to come.

The Kindness of Strangers

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I have noticed a phenomenon on social media that is interesting to me. I find that my friends on Facebook are generally very supportive of and positive with each other. I also follow a couple of groups on the site, and the members seem to go out of their way to build each other up, praising each other’s writing, complimenting each other on the decision to let our hair go gray, etc. It reminds me of the famous line by Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”

Indeed, compared to my immediately family members, people I know only casually or not at all are downright effusive with praise. Part of the reason for this, I’m sure, is that most of us are raised to be polite in public spaces. We say “please” and “thank you,” smile, hold open doors for others, and try to act as civilized as possible. Yet we don’t always extend the same courtesy to the ones we love most. Why?

People we are close to know us the best. They see all of our flaws along with our strengths. In some ways, it’s their responsibility to criticize those less than flattering aspects of our personality and behavior. They actually have a stake in our improving ourselves. With strangers or casual acquaintances, there is nothing to be gained by telling someone you hate their hairstyle or think their singing/writing/art/fashion sense needs work. We are also so comfortable with close friends and family members that we feel free to tease them or engage in passionate arguments. I used to quip that if my husband was too respectful to you, it meant he didn’t like you. A certain amount of good-natured banter can be a sign of closeness and even love.

Yet I think it would be beneficial for us to try being more generous and complimentary to the people we hold most dear. As a mom, for instance, I have sometimes felt harshly judged by my husband and children. I’m sure from their point of view, I can be mean and judgmental too. I sometimes remind myself to try to treat my family members the way I would their friends who come to visit.

Everyone could use more positivity in their lives. I’m not talking about false admiration or unrealistic praise. It’s not fair to tell your child you think she’s the next Kelly Clarkson if she can’t carry a tune. However, it’s important to encourage others in our lives whether they are passing acquaintances or those near and dear to us. When people put themselves out there, they are generally looking, not for constructive criticism, but for acknowledgment and support.

The world is a better place when we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. And what better place to shower kindness than among those we hold most dear.

Fair Weather Friends

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Since moving to Florida, my husband and I have become armchair climate sadists. Every morning, my husband will turn on The Weather Channel, and we will gleefully observe all the snow fronts, cold snaps, and polar vortexes descending on our family, friends, and former neighbors – all the while enjoying the monotonous sunshine and balmy breezes off the Gulf Coast.

To add insult to injury, my husband likes to take pictures of us enjoying the outdoors, preferably with palm trees in the background and a mimosa in front of us, and then send these photos to our beleaguered family and friends up north. He usually adds captions sarcastically referencing our “suffering” or “enduring” our lot here in the Sunshine State. I have no doubt these missives will soon get old, and our loved ones will put us on their Do Not Call lists.

We are clearly still in a honeymoon phase with regard to our escape from winter and all its attendant miseries. I recall doing the same lording it over our Midwestern friends when we got married and moved to California in 1988. It seemed unreal to be decorating a Christmas tree in 80 degree weather. Even as we got used to living in a land of abundant sunshine, it always seemed strange to think of other parts of the country being cold, rainy, or snowy. In fact, shortly before our move back to the Midwest, I made an emergency trip back to Chicago to see my father, who was suffering from complications of cancer surgery and in critical condition. At the time, I was six months pregnant and always hot. It was April, and I could not imagine ever being cold again. So I hurriedly packed light clothing for myself and my two kids and hopped on a plane. A typical chilly and blustery Chicago spring greeted us, and we ended up having to borrow warmer clothes so as to stop our teeth from chattering.

My existence here in Florida seems equally unreal. I guess part of the reason I look to the weather map to see what I’ve left behind is to assure myself that indeed, I am not dreaming. The winters I have known since childhood still exist in my hometown and elsewhere around the country. And I have to admit that seeing piles of snow back in Chicago makes me feel as if I’ve dodged a bullet weather-wise.

I’m sure my hubby will get tired of taunting everyone we know who hasn’t decamped to warmer climes. Either that or we will have an exceedingly quiet existence down here as our family and friends desert us for being so smug. In any event, I hope I never take for granted the loveliness of a 75 degree day near the sea.

I Miss Your Smile

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One of the casualties of COVID-19 has been the disappearance of smiles. I’m not just referring to the fact that people’s lives have been upended and their fears brought to the forefront. With masks being our best defense against the virus until there is widespread vaccine protection, people have had to hide their smiles behind cotton and filtered paper.

In our former lives B.C. (Before COVID), we may have taken for granted the casual upturn of mouths and show of teeth from passersby. Now it can be hard to read the expression of people with whom we are dealing. Are they pleased to see me? Will they be helpful or harmful? Friend or foe? With half of our faces covered, it can be difficult to know.

Today at the supermarket, the cashier was clearly friendly. Her voice had a pleasant lilt, and although she wore a mask, the underlying smile lit up her eyes. Indeed, the eyes, often called windows of the soul, are the truest part of our faces when it comes to smiling. A smile that does not reach the eyes is considered insincere or even cold and calculated. A warm and friendly smile lights us from within, and we can detect the warmth even when the lower half of the face is obscured.

Still, I miss smiles. They are the social glue that binds strangers together. They can put us at our ease and make us feel better, even when we are down. And, like COVID-19, they are incredibly contagious. I look forward to a day when we are spreading smiles around the world with abandon. Until then, my Irish eyes will be smiling above that mask.

Time to Rein in the Wild, Wild Web?

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In just one issue of The New York Times, there were three separate stories related to the damage that can be done in the internet age. Yesterday’s Times featured on its front page two instances of how the internet can sometimes be more of a blessing than a curse.

First there was the story of the stock trading platform Robin Hood, which has come under fire from small investors for its decision to halt trading temporarily on GameStop and some other stocks that had become part of a stock market free-for-all. Robin Hood came on the scene to allow anyone with a smartphone access to real time trading. The catch was that these “free” trades were not free to Robin Hood, which found itself under regulatory obligation to raise over a billion dollars in reserves after its users started flocking to low value stocks such as GameStop and AMC, buying stocks and options at a record pace in order to screw over the Wall Street hedge fund crowd.

The Times analysis explained that the Silicon Valley company may have understood web design and marketing, but it failed to understand the underpinnings of the financial system and the necessary regulatory burdens imposed upon any company involved in stock trading. It may not be as easy as we’d like to think to remake some of the fundamental institutions of American society. And the fallout can cause damage, not just to fat cats, but to ordinary citizens.

A related story that shows the downside of the internet was a piece that described how the owner of the New York Mets was forced to shut down his Twitter account after a war erupted over his company’s supposed connection to the GameStop debacle. Critics decried his private equity firm’s involvement in shorting the stock of GameStop, effectively betting on it to lose value in the months ahead. His good-natured banter with Mets fans devolved into a battle, and he pulled the plug on an internet platform that makes slinging mud only too easy.

Which leads to the third story of a World Wide Web that can create a world of damage and heartache for innocent victims. I’m referring to the other front page Times piece, this one describing how an English man and his family were ruthlessly defamed on the internet by a disgruntled ex-employee who knew the power of the Google search engine to frame how an individual is depicted online. Despite indefatigable attempts to hold the perpetrator accountable and have the defamatory material removed from the net, the innocent man and his family have been unable to undo the damage.

In the past, privacy concerns have dominated the discussion on how large tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter operate. Nowadays, truth, safety, and fairness are the dominant issues. There needs to be a balance between First Amendment freedoms and people’s right to be protected from ruin. Some of the victims of online shaming sites have been unable to get a job, for instance, because they were unfairly labeled perverts or pedophiles. Sure, you could sue an individual for defamation, but the sites themselves are protected under U.S. law. Similarly, Facebook and others have tried to weasel out of their obligations by claiming that the First Amendment protects the disinformation that abounds on their platforms. There have to be some standards by which these entities are held accountable.

I realize the irony of writing this piece using an online platform called Word Press. Some of the damage done to the individual in the Times story was perpetrated by blogs on Word Press. How can we provide a balance between my right to express my opinion here and my responsibility not to do harm to others? It’s past time to tame the wild, wild Web and bring some semblance of respect and sanity to our society.

Gaming the System

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My interest was piqued lately by all the excitement over the GameStop stock bubble being created by small-time investors. Ordinarily I think about stocks about as often as I ponder the subject of astrophysics. The world of stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments has always been opaque to me. Five minutes into the movie The Big Short, in fact, I fell asleep.

The world of finance is just too abstract for most people. If I make, say, a cool t-shirt and sell it online, the money I made bears a direct connection to a product in the world that will now be seen on someone’s back. If I’m a farmer selling my corn, a factory owner selling widgets, or a restaurant feeding customers, there is a tangible trade between a physical entity and money. Even if what I’m selling is a service such as tutoring or housecleaning, the connection between my activity and the money I receive is direct.

Not so with stocks and bonds and other investments. A stock is part ownership in a company, but what does that really mean? What that means is being played out in the American stock market right now as bands of Reddit users are allegedly sticking it to hedge fund managers and other investors who make risky bets on which stocks are likely to fall in the near future. What exactly is a hedge fund, by the way? If you polled random people on the streets of a city, very few would be able to answer that question. I myself am mystified by the intricacies of the financial markets. And that is the point behind the “takeover” of GameStop stock. It is a virtual version of occupying Wall Street.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the stark divide between haves and have nots. Lower income Americans, particularly people of color, have been disproportionately affected, both physically and financially, by the virus. A divided Congress has been dilatory and ineffectual in providing adequate relief for ordinary Americans who find themselves unable to pay their rent and feed their families. Meanwhile, those with the means and the know-how have seized the opportunity to enrich themselves even further by capitalizing on misfortune.

With capitalism, there are always winners and losers to some extent. The pandemic has raised the fortunes of companies such as Zoom while devastating the restaurant, travel, and entertainment industries. Some health care workers are in high demand while waiters, stylists, and others who come into close contact with customers have lost jobs and income. The pandemic has accelerated some of the job loss caused by technological innovation.

What is the role of government in all this? The Securities and Exchange Commission is monitoring the situation with the stock market, striving to protect investors from gigantic losses due to unprecedented volatility. But there needs to be a larger effort to make sure the economic divide between rich and poor does not become a chasm into which our democratic ideals fall headlong. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but it is good to see “the little guy” forcing the questions to be confronted.

Un-American Activities

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Now that the inauguration of Joe Biden has taken place without a hitch, Americans may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief and try to forget the violent attack at the U.S. Capitol that occurred a mere week before. We are tired and want to be hopeful about the future, not frightened. But forgetting the blatant assault on our democracy by a group of white supremacists would be a grave mistake.

We should not delude ourselves into believing that the mob action that occurred at the Capitol was a spontaneous, one-time occurrence. Far right groups had been planning the siege online in the aftermath of an election result they did not like. They came equipped with weapons, ropes, zip ties and a purpose: to shut down the certification of the lawful democratic vote for president and demand that Congress reinstall the petty despot they so admire. Although it might be tempting to laugh at some of the more lame behaviors and the bizarre costumes of this crowd, their actions were nothing short of treasonous.

Not only does justice demand that the rioters be tried and punished, the consequences of taking the Capitol siege lightly are serious. Such groups as the Proud Boys and other white nationalist organizations have not given up the fight. Indeed, the inauguration had to take place under unprecedented security because of continued threats by these groups. Many of their members have arsenals of sophisticated weapons. All they would need would be some sympathetic government officials and members of the military to stage a coup.

Indeed, Americans should be disturbed that many of the rioters were ex-military or law enforcement officers. And a number of National Guardsmen were removed from the inaugural security detail when it was discovered that they had ties to right wing extremist groups. Add to that insiders from the Justice Department insisting that the election results were questionable along with more than 100 legislators voting against certifying results in a couple of states. And they had the nerve to vote this way after the mob threatened the safety of their fellow Congress members.

All of this leads, of course, to the incitement provided by none other than the president and commander-in-chief of our armed forces. Donald Trump is especially responsible for encouraging white nationalists toward violent actions in general and the Capitol attack in particular. For four years, he has given tacit acceptance to the extremist, hateful views of these people through his rhetoric, through his policies of discrimination against minorities and foreigners, and through his inaction when white supremacists practiced violence and intimidation.

Some have suggested that it would be a mistake, if Trump is convicted in the Senate, to vote to bar him from running for president in the future. They reason that millions of Americans who don’t accept the results of the 2020 election will be incensed and perhaps further radicalized by such an action. I say we cannot afford not to convict and ban Trump from political office. Only by clearly signaling that our country will not tolerate insurrection will we be able to make unlikely a repeat of such a horrible spectacle as a Capitol building overrun by a mob.

If Islamic fundamentalists, communicating through social media channels and bearing such apparatus as was found on the person of the Capitol rioters, had stormed our Capitol, they would be sitting in Guantanamo cells or, more likely, dead. To see the actual mob courteously escorted out of the building by besieged Capitol police was infuriating to me. And it should be to any American who values the rule of law and the principles upon which our country was founded.

Dealing decisively with the insurrectionists in our midst will not heal our divisions, that is true. But it will send a signal that the United States of America stands ready to defend itself against all enemies, both within and outside our borders. Only when Americans feel safe will we be able to work on the state of division in which we unfortunately find ourselves.