Spring Breakers



Growing up in a middle class suburb of Chicago, I knew quite a few kids who were lucky enough to go away for spring vacation. Most of them headed to Florida, except for a few exotic families who went to Mexico. I envied these kids their week in a tropical paradise and the suntans with which they returned to school.

My images of spring break as a child were largely informed by beach movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, as well as the classic Where the Boys Are, featuring an ensemble cast that included Frank Gorshin (the Riddler!) and Dolores Hart, who went on to become a nun. (No doubt the near loss of her character’s virginity made an impression.) Those old movies created an image of a somewhat boisterous but mostly innocent revelry, and I coveted all the swimsuit changes the character Gidget made in her eponymous flicks.

I never really had a quintessential spring break experience with sand, sun, drinks, and boys until my first year out of college. A sorority sister and I found a cheap package deal to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which in the Eighties was primarily a vacation destination for Mexicans. I gamely downed margaritas and flirted with guys in the strangely named bar Carlos O’Brien’s. I learned the essential Spanish (Donde esta los banos?). I got too much sun and Montezuma’s revenge and lived to tell the tale.

Nowadays, my family has the good fortune to go away (usually to Florida) for spring break. We have a wild and crazy time lounging on the beach, fighting over the shower, and watching March Madness on TV. We go to dinner at the ungodly hour of 7 or 8 pm and catch up on must-see movies in the condo. (At least my husband insists that we must see them.)

I’m not too sorry I had to wait until adulthood to enjoy a trip for spring break. It makes me appreciate our family time in the sun that much more.

Whatever It Takes



Frank Underwood from House of Cards has nothing on the Republicans.

In this election, the party of Abraham Lincoln is showing  that it will do anything to get power. The presidential candidates have shamelessly pandered to Americans’ fears with their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Ted Cruz’s latest heinous pronouncement that American Muslim neighborhoods should be patrolled by law enforcement speaks to this willingness to say anything to get elected. Cruz surely knows such actions are unconstitutional. His own party members, who actively hate him, have roundly condemned the statement.

But the Republican party has spawned Cruz, Trump, and their ilk. They have been the party of “No” for the past 8 years: blocking legislation, trying to get Obamacare repealed more than 60 times, refusing to entertain even the most basic common sense gun laws. Their stated intention when President Obama took office was to (with apologies to the late Nancy Reagan) just say no.

As their party legitimacy slips through their fingers, Republicans are coming up with ever more questionable methods to assure that their Congressmen stay in office and that their dismal candidate has half a prayer to be elected president.

In Tuesday’s Arizona primary, voters waited until after midnight to cast their votes. Why? In Maricopa County, Republican County Recorder Helen Purcell reduced the number of polling places from 200 to 60, and many heavily Hispanic areas in the county had no polling places at all. Purcell claims the move was designed to save money, but voting rights activists are questioning whether voter suppression took place.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was dealt a serious blow in 2013 by the Supreme Court, which struck down a provision requiring federal oversight of state election law changes in states that had historical records of voter suppression. Since that decision, states have rushed to tighten voting restrictions and otherwise make it difficult to vote. These laws generally impact impoverished people and minorities more than whites. (Read: likely Democratic voters as opposed to Republican ones)

There is a Showtime television series titled Shameless. I’m thinking that’s a good moniker for today’s Republican Party.


Beauty Contest



In 1960, television was said to be at least partly responsible for John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s defeat of Richard M. Nixon for President of the United States. Despite the fact that Kennedy was younger and less experienced, as well as hampered by being Roman Catholic, he fared better under the glare of television cameras than did Nixon, who looked sweaty and ill at ease during the televised debates. (“The Election of 1960,” us history.org)

Since then, appearance has become ever more important in politics. Candidates and government officials are constantly being photographed and videotaped. Everything from their hairstyles to the timber of their voices is scrutinized. And the image they project becomes more important than the reality of who they are and what they can do (or have done) for the country.

Pundits use the term “optics” to describe how good or bad a politician looks in a situation. Just this morning, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC was complaining that President Obama attended a baseball game in Cuba after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. His main concern was the optics – that it didn’t look good for the president to be enjoying himself at a time like this. Former President George W. Bush came under similar criticism when, after learning about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, he calmly went back to reading a book to a group of schoolchildren. Shouldn’t we care more about what our political leaders are doing than about their image?

The need to be entertained above all has brought us the candidacy of Donald Trump. He reminds me of the character Chance, the gardener, in Jerzy Kosinski’s satire Being There. When Chance’s wealthy employer dies, Chance dresses in the deceased man’s clothes and is mistaken for a wealthy man named Chauncey Gardiner. Chance is simple-minded and talks mostly about gardening. His simple statements are taken as great pearls of wisdom by the movers and shakers of society, and he finds himself being considered a candidate for president. Chance’s appearance and the simplistic sound bites he utters make him the ideal modern candidate.

Like Chance, Donald Trump has no real platform or policy ideas. He simply spouts off his opinions with no filter and conveys his own sense of importance. His empty promise to “make America great again” has obviously been effective, though. He is the frontrunner and heir apparent to the Republican nomination for president.

My mother told me that when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, many people had no idea he was in a wheelchair. There were no television cameras dogging him wherever he went, and photographs of his wheelchair were discouraged and often outright forbidden. (Matthew Pressman, “The Myth of FDR’s Secret Disability,” Time, July 12, 2013) It’s interesting to ponder how well received he would have been in that day and age if he had appeared disabled in the public eye. Yet FDR is remembered for his actions during World War II and the Great Depression, for what he accomplished, not how he looked.

Shouldn’t that be our standard for our political figures today?


Palm Sunday Splendor



Of all the Sundays in the Catholic Church’s liturgical year, Palm Sunday is my favorite. I love the pomp of the priest entering the church clad in red robes while congregants hold palm branches. I love the “Hosannas” that echo what Jesus heard when he entered the holy city of Jerusalem as a triumphant king. I love the deep and doleful story of that same kingly Christ being arrested, tried, and crucified by a fickle, unruly mob. In many churches, the story is read like a play, with the priest and various members of the assembly taking parts. There is a visceral bloodthirstiness when all of us are called on to cry out, “Crucify him!” There is a grave sorrow to Jesus’ words as he dies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The story of the anointed Son of God being the subject of adulation one moment and hatred the next reminds me of how much people love to build up their heroes, only to tear them down. Whether in entertainment, politics, religion, or personal life, this tendency seems to be part of human nature. Our envy and pride often make us incapable of wishing others well, especially when “well” means “better than me.” For Christians, our fallen human nature is what put Jesus Christ to death.

Yet Palm Sunday is mostly a day of joy. Spring is upon us, and Easter is only a week away. In my family, Palm Sunday was an occasion for a giant feast featuring my Italian grandma’s ravioli. Whether they were rolled out by Grandma with her three-foot-long rolling stick or painstakingly formed into tender circles of deliciousness by Mom, we kids would count how many ravioli we could eat while simultaneously stuffing ourselves with homemade meatballs and ricotta cheesecake.

Not too many people I know make much of a fuss about Palm Sunday. For me, though, it will always be a reminder of time spent with family during what is for Christians the most important week of the year.

Hosanna in the highest.

Take Me Out OF the Ballpark?



The biggest news in the world of sports seems to be White Sox player Adam LaRoche’s decision to retire rather than cut back on the amount of time his son is allowed to hang out at the clubhouse. It was such big news in Chicago that it appeared above the fold in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

I usually pay little attention to sports. But this story has intrigued and puzzled me.  I wonder if there is more to the story than meets the eye. On the surface, it seems that LaRoche expects special treatment for himself and his son so that he can spend as much time with him as possible. How many kids get their own locker in the clubhouse of a major sports franchise?  In a Tribune story today, LaRoche claimed that this arrangement had been part of his original contract. White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams disagrees.

But why should anyone get to take his or her child to work every day? Unless you work from home or teach at your child’s school, it is unlikely that the organization you work for would be able or willing to accommodate your kids in the workplace. I am all for onsite daycare and making it easier for parents to juggle work and family life. But imagine your child sitting in on client meetings or shadowing Mom or Dad on the sales floor. Baseball is LaRoche’s job, and he gets paid handsomely to do it. Does he really expect to have his family along at all times?

The other thing that puzzles me is that LaRoche’s teammates have come to his defense, and there is even the possibility of a grievance being filed over the issue. It seems the players resent this intrusion from management and say that the presence of LaRoche’s son has not been a problem at all. I have a couple of issues with this. First of all, I don’t think you can really consider this a matter of workers’ rights. And I also doubt that players who do object to having the child around all the time are going to be vocal about it. It just looks bad to say, “I don’t want that kid around here.”

I also think it is unfair to the families of all the other White Sox players to allow so much privilege to one child. I’m sure there are many other players’ children who would be thrilled to be allowed daily access to the baseball environment.

We may never get the whole story behind LaRoche’s retirement. But player Chris Sale’s argument that the incident is somehow destructive to the morale of the team sounds lame. I certainly hope the team doesn’t use it as an excuse if things go south for the South Side team this season.

Meanwhile, we have bigger fish to fry. March Madness, anyone?


Cut and Dried: Only at the Salon



People like their black and white. They like things simple, cut and dried. But rarely are important issues so easy to dissect. Problems are complex, yet we persist in trying to describe them in simple terms.

In an election year, the tendency to oversimplify issues gets magnified. Take, for instance, the topic of free trade. With manufacturing jobs disappearing overseas, people have become disenchanted with treaties such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Some of our presidential candidates have seized on voter discontent and vowed to do away with all free trade agreements, imposing hefty tariffs on our trading partners around the world. That may sound good to the factory worker whose automobile plant has just shuttered and moved to Asia. But it won’t look great when the consumer shops at Walmart and finds a lack of bargain merchandise made in China. The issue of trade is complicated by so many factors, among them tax policy, the global market, and technological innovation, to name a few.

Nuance, however, does not play well in the sound bite atmosphere of modern politics. So we have politicians posturing and promising all kinds of things that they may be unable to do – or that will have unintended consequences we don’t like.

Even outside of politics, the tendency to anoint or vilify things runs counter to sound thinking on issues. A perfect example is the case of GMOs, which stands for “genetically modified organisms.” That term sounds scary, doesn’t it? I don’t want to eat those. Yet GMOs have been around for decades and are considered predominantly safe by scientists.  The bigger issue surrounding GMOs has to do with pests becoming resistant to the widely used pesticides sprayed on the crops and, therefore, the need to use greater quantities of potentially cancer-causing agents. Yet some farmers believe that their genetically modified crops require less pesticide than their other, non-GMO crops. Furthermore, GMOs have enabled farms to produce more crops and feed more people. So the GMO debate is far from simple.

When it comes to wanting our choices to be cut and dried, I get it. I really do. It can be exhausting sifting through the amount of information and reasoning on a given issue. We have jobs, children to care for, and homes to maintain. It’s hard to be informed on all the  issues of the day. I think it’s important, though, to realize that there are few simple problems and even fewer simpler solutions. As we make decisions for ourselves and our families, and as we elect our leaders, we need to keep that point in mind and not be lured by simplistic messages.

The Natural Look


naturalface1Women know just how difficult it is using makeup to achieve “the natural look.” That dewy, fresh-faced appearance of having just stepped out of the shower takes painstaking application and plenty of time. The principle holds true for hair and clothing styles as well. I used to drive my hairstylist crazy by bringing in photos of my favorite celebrities with their wavy, wind-tousled hairstyles. She would patiently explain to me the hours it took to get and keep that beachy, natural look.

There’s a concept called “studied casualness,” which refers to any look that appears thrown together but in reality has been carefully wrought. I have seen it applied not only to personal appearance but to interior decorating and photography. Any time something looks appealing but easy and effortless, you can bet that a lot of work actually went into it.

This concept applies to many other facets of life. For example, actors who inhabit a completely different character make us believe in their total transformation. They don’t seem to be acting, but rather they are the character they’re portraying. Great athletes also make their moves look effortless. Slam dunks, triple axels, balance beam dismounts, and graceful football passes all look easy. It is only when you see the athlete sweat that you realize the skill and concentration behind the move.

Last weekend, I participated in a piano recital along with students ranging in age from 7 to 17. As I watched the best performers, I noticed that their fingers seemed to fly easily and fluently over the keys. Yet I knew from personal experience that playing a difficult piece on the piano requires concentration, effort, and hours of practice. And playing in front of an audience is a nerve-wracking experience. Luckily I only do it once a year!

So whether it’s someone speaking a foreign language,  throwing a baseball, playing guitar, or looking fabulously casual, realize that it didn’t come naturally. All good things take effort and time. It’s only natural!



First Lady Kerfuffles



The death of Nancy Reagan this week brought me back to the glitzy Eighties, the age of glamor and conspicuous consumption. And it reminded me that being First Lady is the most thankless of jobs.

Nowadays, Michelle Obama gets a lot of criticism for traveling too much, spending too much, and not being “ladylike” enough. Despite the fact that her predecessor Laura Bush travelled much more frequently than Mrs. Obama, conservatives routinely vilify Michelle whenever she takes a trip. They also dislike the fact that she displays her dance moves on TV talk shows, and they make cruel personal remarks related to her campaign against childhood obesity.

I hope Michelle Obama takes solace in the fact that many First Ladies who came before her were subject to a critical, demanding public. Jackie Kennedy spent too much on clothes, Betty Ford was too outspoken, Rosalyn Carter had the nerve to sit in on Cabinet meetings, and worst of all, Hillary Clinton tried to push forward her universal healthcare agenda.

During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan was roundly condemned for her expensive wardrobe, as well as the pricey redecorating and china purchases she made for the White House. When questioned about her expenditures, “Queen Nancy” responded, “I am just being myself.” (New York Times, October 13, 1981) In later years, when it came out that Mrs. Reagan consulted astrologers while advising her husband, the press went wild.

As women’s roles in society evolve, our expectations for First Lady behavior have become a bit anachronistic. These are intelligent women who have given up their own careers and are suddenly expected to be the little woman, staying home and baking cookies, as Mrs. Clinton famously complained when she was First Lady.

I think we need to give our First Ladies, whether Republican or Democratic, a break. And I myself am looking forward to the role that Bill Clinton will fashion for himself when he becomes the nation’s first “First Husband.”

Do Not Call



I am not a phone person. I don’t enjoy talking on the phone and avoid tasks that involve it. Even my oldest child used to complain that I never called her when she was away at school. What college kid makes that kind of complaint? I think the reason I dislike phone conversations is that I like to read people when I am speaking with them. If I can see their facial expressions and their body language, I am much more comfortable communicating with them.

Of course, I realize that phones are a necessary part of modern life and a useful way to stay in touch. But lately, I am finding myself annoyed by the number of unsolicited calls I receive on my home phone. With the widespread use of cell phones, many households no longer even have a landline. But for certain reasons, our family still needs one. The problem is that these days we receive very few personal calls on this landline. Instead we get a daily barrage of political calls, sales pitches, and solicitations for charitable donations. Thanks to another technological innovation, Caller ID, I know when not to pick up the phone. Yet the constant ringing of our phone gets so irritating that my husband just unplugs it half the time.

When I heard about the National Do Not Call Registry, I was thrilled. Here was an official way to eliminate the myriad solicitations by phone we had been receiving. We dutifully signed up for the registry, but that act has barely made a dent in the number of unwanted calls we receive. One reason for this is that numerous organizations are exempt from the requirement to honor the Do Not Call list. These include charities, nonprofits, and political entities, which comprise the vast majority of the annoying calls we receive on a daily basis. And even if we do get 20 calls a week from Glamour Services (which is, inexplicably, a window-washing service), I don’t take the time to report the breach to the National Do Not Call Registry’s website. Scammers also love to call and warn us, for instance, that if we do not pay our taxes, the IRS is coming to get us. I’m pretty sure we have no taxable income, though, because we have sent all our money to someone in Nigeria who needs our help.

This brings me to another thing that puzzles me about all these phone solicitations. Does anyone actually respond by buying goods or services over the phone? Do people actually give their credit card information to strangers claiming to be collecting money for some charity? In the old days, when I answered these calls, I would ask the solicitor to send me something in the mail to which I could respond. Very often, they were unable or unwilling to do so. Telemarketing just seems to be a massive waste of time and money to me.

To make matters worse, I have started receiving calls from unknown callers on my cell phone. This appears to be the new frontier in telemarketing. But I have advice for anyone I don’t know who wants to reach me: DO NOT CALL. I won’t pick up. Unless, of course, you’re George Clooney. Be sure to indicate that on your Caller ID.