Boo!

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Despite the November-level temperatures that have descended on us like a harbinger of winter, I have been bundling up and taking my daily walks. On my most recent one, I kept seeing the same yard sign on front lawn after front lawn. It showed a cartoon big cat in a ghost costume and sported the announcement, “WE’VE BEEN BOO’D.”

For the uninitiated, being “boo’d” means that someone sneaked up to your door in the weeks before Halloween and deposited a bag or bucket of sweet treats on the doorstep. The signs are apparently a way to indicate that one’s household has already been hit, and booers should spread the wealth in Halloween candy somewhere else.

But the signs also celebrate a simple and neighborly tradition whose sole purpose is to light up the eyes of children. I distinctly remember the joy my children felt when the doorbell rang on a dark autumn evening and we found a decorated bag of goodies left on the doorstep. The goodies came with a piece of paper adorned with a ghost and the message that we’d been boo’d. We were instructed to make four copies of the notice, place ours in a window, and then pay it forward by surprising four other houses in our neighborhood.

I conspired with the kids to target favorite friends on the block and helped them with their covert ops in the dark. We’d all giggle as we ran away or hide behind a shrub to watch someone open the door and discover our gift. Being a mom, I would make sure I had put enough of the same kinds of candy for as many children as I knew resided in the house we were booing. I also added Halloween-themed activity books and other inexpensive trinkets since I knew they were about to be deluged with candy from trick-or-treating.

It was heartwarming to see that the booing tradition is still alive and well in my town. With COVID-19 still severely compromising our lives, it is nice to see people spreading a little joy – and in a socially distant way! Maybe this is the secret to this year’s Halloween dilemma. Instead of having kids go from house to house to garner treats, maybe neighborhoods should organize candy drop-offs to any house with a designated sign indicating they’d like to participate. Not only would it be safer, it would be a way to bring the community together in a tough and politically divisive time.

There’s still time to make your own little boo bags and treat some lucky children to a pre-Halloween surprise. It might just bring out the child in you.

Undecided Voter?

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Less than two weeks before the presidential election, I am still seeing stories about that mythical creature, the undecided voter. As the texting crowd would type, SMH. How can anyone possibly be undecided at this point in the race?

More than most years, there is a stark choice in this presidential contest: a choice between class and crass, between compassion and self-interest, between someone who respects the norms of our democracy and one trying to shatter them.

Over almost four years, our president has never tried to reach out past his base to the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for him. Instead, he has sown division between red states and blue states, condemned cities with liberal mayors, and even threatened to cut off funding to states whose leaders disagreed with him. For someone who seems so bound and determined that we all stand up for our national anthem, this president has gone out of his way to weaken national unity.

But back to those undecideds. I try to imagine their thought processes. Do they vacillate between ideologies? Are they still busy examining the issues? Are they waiting to be convinced by all the last minute hyperbolic campaign advertising on TV? I would really like to know.

I voted the other day amid a long line of other early voters in my suburban area. It was very orderly, and there was no electioneering other than the RBG face mask a young woman was wearing. Sadly, I have read about voter intimidation at some polling places and fighting breaking out over some voters wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. I hope American citizens can safely and peacefully exercise their most cherished right in our democracy this year.

It felt good to get out and make my choice. Come on, undecided voters. It is time to make yours.

Ties That Bind

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The other day, my sisters and I braved chilly temps and blustery winds to meet outside for a socially distant get together. At times we could barely hear each other over the wind as we sat in a circle six feet apart, all of us covered from head to toe in warm clothing. Yet we would all say we had a thoroughly wonderful time. Such are the ties that bind.

Throughout this pandemic, people have sought creative ways to stay in touch and to be together. Zoom stockholders are sitting pretty these days as the virtual meeting platform has become a lifeline among colleagues and loved ones. Each Sunday my family meets on Zoom to share the week’s joys and challenges – and to see each other’s beloved faces.

Outdoor dining has been another invaluable resource for safer in-person meetings. Even as the weather has turned cooler, a few judiciously spaced heaters can make the outdoor spaces tolerable, at least for now. Many restaurants have erected tents outside their buildings for further protection from the elements.

Mask wearing has also made brief meetings much less risky. I recently went on a walk with a friend, and our masks did not at all deter our conversation. My piano teacher and I also wear masks for our weekly lesson. These activities have made me feel so much less isolated from those I care about.

The lengths we are willing to go to to see our friends and loved ones are a strong indication of how important personal ties are to people’s emotional and mental well-being. One of the disturbing side effects of the lockdowns was an increase in suicides and drug overdoses. (npr.org, Oct. 14, 2020) We need each other. Let’s remember this simple truth as we near a divisive and bitter presidential election. Let’s strengthen the ties that bind. It’s the only way to get through tough times and come out stronger on the other side.

Force of Habit

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A friend of mine recently asked the following question on his Facebook page: “Would you consider hypnosis to eliminate a bad habit?” That question got me thinking about how enduring habits can be and how hard to break.

Routines are important to human existence. Imagine if every day, you had to think about each and every action you needed to take. Such tasks as getting dressed, brushing teeth, putting on the coffee, and driving one’s known route to work are all made easier when we don’t really need to think about them. And they become so ingrained that when circumstances change, we still accidentally do some things on a sort of auto pilot. Who among has never followed a familiar route while driving and then realized we were actually supposed to be going a different way?

Habits are a bit more idiosyncratic. We develop them for a myriad of reasons. Many bad habits started in childhood when we attempted to soothe ourselves in times of distress. Thumb sucking, nail biting, and knuckle cracking (my personal bugaboo) are a few of these habits that become so ingrained in a child, it’s hard to break them of it. I remember my cousin telling me that she used to have to wear gloves to bed to break her habit of sucking on her fingers. And to this day, when I am feeling stressed, I start cracking my knuckles, a habit that has not been kind to the looks of my fingers.

People also develop habits around eating, drinking, and other substance use. The nature of many things we ingest makes them addictive or habit-forming. Smoking in particular is a damaging addiction that people spend years and serious money on eliminating. For these people, hypnosis might be just the ticket to helping them rid themselves of the destructive habit. My eating habits are the area in which I struggle. The temptation to eat sweets is something I have had all my life, and my sweet tooth just doesn’t want to give up.

I’ve read that it can take months or even a year to eliminate a bad habit. The best way to get rid of one seems to be to develop a new habit to replace it. This is easier said than done, though. Accountability to someone else helps. This is why organizations such as Weight Watchers have regular meetings for members to share their progress and struggles.

COVID-19 has forced many of us to confront our habits, good and bad, as our world has shrunk considerably. At the beginning of the shutdown, I saw a video that depicted a young man, alone and depressed in his apartment. He looked slovenly, and his coffee table was strewn with junk food wrappers and other trash. He slumped on his couch, dejectedly watching television. Then on the TV appeared Gen. William McRaven giving his famous speech about starting to change our lives by making our beds each morning. The young man took McRaven’s advice, and slowly he got himself up and out of his funk by gaining control over his space and his physical body.

Good habits are life-affirming and healthy, particularly when many externally created structures have been eliminated in our lives. We feel better, are more productive, and usually mentally more stable when we develop these life-enhancing routines. It will be my goal in the months ahead to create many more healthy habits and thus eliminate the not so healthy ones. Who’s with me?

Adoring Autumn

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The fall color in Michigan is magnificent this year. It is at that stage in early fall when the trees have not yet relinquished their gaudy leaves. Instead, the sugar maples are showing off their brilliant reds and golds amidst their still-green compatriots.

Ah, fall. I know I write about and extol the virtues of the autumn season an inordinate amount. I just have a big fat crush on fall. For one thing, it has my personality: warm and sunny one day, cold and unfriendly the next. You never quite know what you will get when you arise on an autumn day.

The leaves here in Chicago have been dropping since late August. The late summer drought stressed out the trees, so they started their deciduous dance early. Still, there is an abundance of color. Sometimes I stop dead in my tracks on a walk and just gaze at the breathtaking beauty of it.

It has apparently become fashionable to mock us pumpkin spice-loving fall groupies on social media. The way we embrace all things autumn is downright cult-like at times. A local newspaper editor regularly mentions her tradition of allowing herself to have exactly one pumpkin spice latte every year during the season. Quelle restraint! Meanwhile, I’m making my way through a bag of sinfully delicious apple cider donuts from the farmstand in Michigan where I stopped before heading back home.

I don’t love everything about fall, though. The days have gotten noticeably shorter, for one thing. I’ve had to break out the gloves and other warm outerwear for my daily walks. And this year, in the midst of a pandemic, the prospect of being cooped up inside again feels isolating and lonely.

No matter. I’m still hopelessly in love with autumn. I plan to enjoy every leafy, crisp, pumpkin-infused moment of it while I still can.

An Open Heart

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“Approach today with gratitude, understanding, and openness, knowing it offers potential and possibilities.”

This was the mantra in yesterday’s virtual yoga class. And as often happens, it was exactly the message I needed.

Since becoming an empty nester, I have been grappling with my purpose. Years of habit and necessity have caused me to develop routines that no longer suit my life. But looking out into the vastness of possibility can be scary.

For so long I have identified with my primary roles as wife and mother. The myriad tasks and responsibilities associated with these roles have made it easy to forget about some of the aspirations I had when I was younger. Perhaps it is time to dust off those dreams and see if they still fit the woman I have become.

I have also lived in the same home for almost 20 years, a home that served my growing family well. It may be time to open my mind toward new places and living situations. For years my husband has longed to live in a warmer climate, and I have resisted the notion. But I think it is time to open myself to his long-held wish.

Our relationship also needs to move into a new phase, one in which the day-to-day needs of our children are not paramount. We now have the freedom to redesign our marriage, so to speak.

All of these changes require an open heart. Thanks to yoga, I have begun to practice that openness more consciously and intentionally. So I begin today – and the next phase of my life – “with gratitude, understanding and openness, knowing it offers potential and possibilities.”

Cultivating Compassion

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The word compassion literally means the act of sharing another’s suffering. No wonder it is so hard to find compassion from others and to practice it ourselves.

We run from suffering. It is not something anyone would seek. Our lives are spent meeting our physical needs and hungers, seeking pleasure, avoiding and medicating pain. Yet suffering is something that comes to us all, unwanted and unbidden. And if we are lucky, we will find someone to share our burden with, someone with compassion.

Perhaps it is easier to show compassion when we ourselves have endured much suffering. It is a bit like the fact that people in service jobs are the best tippers. They have been there, and they understand. And perhaps it is why Jesus tells his followers that it is harder for a rich man to get to heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Not knowing want, the rich man is insulated from pain and unable to see the need for compassion to others.

It is possible, though, to cultivate an attitude of compassion towards others even if we ourselves have been fortunate enough to avoid great suffering. One way is to practice deliberate deprivation. Many religious adherents practice fasting as a way to suffer in solidarity with the poor, as well as to focus their minds on what is truly important. Withdrawing from the world at a retreat is another way to deny ourselves outside stimuli and boil our existence down to its essence. Giving to charity is a form of denial that puts us in touch with the needs of others.

What works best for me in cultivating compassion is to use my imagination, to put myself into others’ shoes and try to feel what they might be feeling. This is not hard for me because I love to read, and the world is full of stories, both real and imagined, of people in dire circumstances, of loss and suffering. A heightened awareness of the world is sometimes all we need to realize that as we sit in our comfortable circumstances, there are others going through hardship, pain, and suffering.

Compassion has seemed in short supply lately in our fractured society. We have shouted over and at each other across the political divide. We have retreated into our camps of special interests and belief systems. Meanwhile, a deadly disease stalks the world and indiscriminately targets the haves and have nots. Maybe COVID-19 will be the great leveler that makes us realize we are all in this life together and that helps us develop more compassion.

Trumps Test Positive for Heartlessness

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I’ve often considered the private lives of the president’s family off limits for public scrutiny. Along these lines, I have wanted to give Melania Trump a break over these past four years. It wasn’t, after all, her decision to run for president.

When Mrs. Trump insisted upon staying in New York City for months after her husband’s inauguration, I felt that was her prerogative. The fact that she has been a largely invisible First Lady also didn’t bother me much. Most of the First Lady’s duties are ceremonial anyway. I even gave her a pass on the hideous Christmas decorations she used at the White House.

But when Melania Trump visited migrants being detained and children separated from their parents while wearing a jacket that said, “I really don’t care – do you?,” I felt she showed a lack of compassion. That feeling has been reaffirmed by yesterday’s revelation of a taped phone call in which she heartlessly complained about media coverage of her visit and insisted the children were being well cared for. Sure, they missed their parents, but how was that her problem?

Americans no longer have any illusion about President Trump’s moral compass, or lack thereof. His cruel policy to separate children from their parents remains one of his most shameful acts as president. But I would have hoped the First Lady, a mother herself, would have had a bit more compassion for families being torn asunder. I guess I hoped in vain. Mrs. Trump even argued in the taped phone conversation, “They [the migrants] could easily stay in Mexico but they don’t want to stay in Mexico, because Mexico doesn’t take care of them the same as America does.” Indeed. The Mexican government doesn’t take their children away and put them in cages.

Yesterday it was announced that the president and First Lady have tested positive for the coronavirus. This is unsurprising given Trump’s dismissal of the seriousness of the pandemic and his willingness to go into crowds without wearing a mask. The president who mocked his opponent Joe Biden for hiding in his basement and wearing a mask all the time received the following message in a tweet from Biden: “Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery. We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.” The Biden campaign pulled its negative campaign advertising in the wake of the announcement that the Trumps had COVID-19. In case Americans have forgotten, that is what it looks like to act presidential.

Like the Bidens, I wish President and Mrs. Trump a swift and complete recovery. But I also hope when they go to the polls, Americans remember the heartlessness and lack of compassion that have been displayed by our first couple. Let’s not reward their lack of feeling with a return to the White House.

“Shut up, man”

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When my kids were little, they thought the “s-h word” was “shut up.” The expression “shut up” is a verbal slap in the face. Therefore, I taught my children not to use it. In last night’s presidential brawl debate, an exasperated Joe Biden leveled the “s-h word” at Donald Trump. And all I can say is: about time.

For more than five years, even well before he decided to run for president, Donald Trump has been shooting off his mouth: peddling birther rumors, making grandiose pronouncements about himself, and shouting “You’re fired!” on TV. Since becoming president, Trump has spewed an almost endless stream of lies and hatefulness, creating rather than attempting to heal divisions in this fractious country. Someone needed to call him out, and that someone was the mild-mannered presidential candidate Joe Biden.

I have to admit that my knowledge of Biden’s exhortation, “Shut up, man,” came to me second-hand – that is, in news reports on the debates. I did not watch them, unwilling to subject myself to any more of Donald Trump than I absolutely have to. From what I gather, the debate was little more than a shouting match that Chris Wallace could not control. As my mother might have chastised back in the day, “America, I hope you’re happy now!”

President Trump’s ardent supporters could literally watch Trump shoot the proverbial man on 5th Avenue and insist, “He had it coming.” Whatever lies and hate Trump spews, they will collect it all in their MAGA hats and fling it at liberals.

But the rest of us don’t have to – listen to Trump, that is. We can tune him out. The press can stop covering his rallies and over-the-whir-of-chopper-blades blather. Imagine how distressed Donald Trump would be if his nemesis, CNN, just stopped covering him. Sure, Trump’s official propaganda machine Fox News will still slobber over him. But we could easily make Fox an echo chamber that the rest of the country can ignore.

As a nation, we can issue Trump a collective “Shut up, man.” And better yet, on November 3, let’s tell him, “You’re fired!”

China Syndrome

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One of the reasons the Trump Administration has had no trouble demonizing the People’s Republic of China is because of their autocratic style of government that stifles independent thought and speech. Ironically, Trump’s own administration has been using the very authoritarian tactics that make China a target of criticism around the world.

One area in which Trump is using the power of his office to stifle dissent is by politicizing the Centers for Disease Control during a pandemic that makes him look bad and threatens to derail his re-election. The most recent example of this came when the CDC removed the following statement from its website: “Airborne particles can be suspended in air and be breathed in by others.” (“CDC reverses itself and says guidelines it posted on coronavirus airborne transmission were wrong,” Washington Post, September 21, 2020) This is not the first time the CDC has seemingly changed its guidelines after pressure from the White House. When independent agencies are forced to censor themselves at the behest of the president, we are venturing into authoritarian government territory.

Trump ironically resembles the Chinese autocracy in other ways:

  • using tear gas on peaceful protesters
  • keeping people from ethnic minorities in detention camps
  • banning consumer products it considers a threat to its country (Tik Tok app)

There are ample reasons to criticize the government of China, most especially in the area of human rights. But Trump’s vilification of the Far East superpower is merely a cynical ploy to keep us from examining his tacit support for Russia and its Poisoner-in-Chief, Vladimir Putin.

And demonizing China has had real detrimental effects on Asian Americans. More than 1,000 instances of anti-Asian racism were reported in California between the months of March and July. (Ashley Wong, Sacramento Bee, September 17, 2020) Trump Administration rhetoric has gotten so bad that the House of Representatives felt called upon to pass a resolution denouncing “anti-Asian rhetoric related to the coronavirus pandemic, including expressions like ‘China virus’ frequently used by President Donald Trump.” (Patricia Zengerle, Reuters, September 17, 2020)

Most of all, Trump’s adversarial tone on China is the height of hypocrisy. When it comes to autocratic leaders, Mr. President, it takes one to know one.