Good Riddance, 2016!

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When the clock strikes midnight (or, in our case, when the glowing white numerals silently flip), I will scrape 2016 off my shoe like something nasty I stepped in.

Because I am done.

I am done with family members dying, I am done with friends dying, I am done with beloved celebrities dying.

I am finished with truculent Trumps on the television and emboldened bigots spewing hatred on social media.

I am over hurricanes that topple ancient trees, and floods that send creatures skittering into our walls for shelter.

I am beyond over zippers that strain and jowls that jiggle and photographs that capture a funhouse mirror version of me.

That is not to say these things will be done with me in 2017. But, like the polite person who pretends to ignore the malodorous lingering of 2016 on the sole of my shoe, I plan to just carry on as though there is no stench. Even if it means I have to hold my nose a bit in order to do so.

Happy new year – finally!

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Christmas is a Puppy

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Christmas is coming like a big, over-eager red and green puppy. It wriggles in earlier and earlier every year, and it speaks in uppercase letters: “NOEL!” or “JOY” or “HOMEFORCHRISTMAS.” It makes everyone around it speak in uppercase too: “TIME IS RUNNING OUT!” and “ORDER NOW FOR A BONUS” and “WE PICKED THESE DEALS JUST FOR YOU.”

Television movies turn mushy with curmudgeons finding true love, or the meaning of life. Ads aim for the tear ducts with returning war heroes, children snuggling up to lonely elderly neighbors, strangers reaching out to other strangers in friendship.

I am caught up in lists directing myself to pick up the perfect rib roast I’ve ordered before the butcher closes early, to select the serving dishes for the big meal, to get the ornaments down from the attic. I buy one more gift for someone hard to please. I give out holiday tips like I’ve won the lottery. I am too busy for joy.

Christmas comes bounding over and places its large paws on my legs and I can not resist its enthusiasm to go running alongside it with more busy-ness.

But even the most rambunctious creature must sleep and this is when I treasure Christmas.

In the soft carol that brings my mother back alive. In the slow sipping of the eggnog. In the first fierce hugs of family and friends returned for the holiday.

I am not religious, but the kitchen where my daughter makes her famous biscuits becomes my cathedral, and the silly laughter becomes my hymn.

The frantic pup sleeps and stretches and I remember why I love it.

I wish you all a sleeping Christmas.

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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The Blame Game

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Female executives are no longer wearing big shoulder pads; they’re shouldering blame instead.

I was wondering why in the recent election between two flawed candidates, the accusations seemed to roll right off the male candidate’s back while the female candidate was repeatedly investigated, exonerated, investigated again, exonerated again. And it wasn’t because the accusations against the male were false…we heard him on tape saying things he later denied.

So why did the vitriol seem so much harsher against the female?

I found what I think is at least a partial answer in a recent study of female CEOs. The media often is accused of having a liberal bias. But there’s another bias that may have played a role.

According to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation and public relations/research firm Global Strategy Group, females receive a disproportionate share of blame, at least in the media. The study says that almost 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis blamed the CEO when the CEO was female; only 31% of the stories blamed male CEOs in similar situations.

Another difference? Like the “What are you wearing” red carpet question that seems to get asked only to actresses and not actors, the news stories talked about the female’s personal life in 16% of the stories and 78% talked about her family and children. For the men, a personal life was mentioned in only 8% of the stories and none mentioned family and children.

Now, certainly in the presidential campaign, both candidates trotted out children and spouses and personal lives. But, if it seemed that one candidate’s flaws were described as foibles or “locker room talk” and another’s were crimes that should result in “locking her up”…well, maybe the media had a hand in that.

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Laughing Matter

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What makes me laugh won’t necessarily be the same thing that makes you laugh.

There is humor that is infantile (remember bathroom humor when you were little?) and some so intellectual that you need a PhD to get the pun.

Maybe it’s an only child thing, but I have never understood the kind of humor that belittles someone. I think that kind of humor may have its origins in sibling rivalry and those with the tougher skin from brothers’ or sisters’ pokes and prods certainly seem to enjoy that humor more than I do.

I’ve been thinking about humor a lot lately because, as we wind up the most divisive Presidential election in my memory, my social media is filled with people offended by the humor of others, and those others protesting at the lack of humor of the “politically correct” who are offended.

This week, a friend of mine called out a man at a bar dressed for Halloween as a bottle of Rohypnol – roofies. She tried to have a conversation in which she helped him understand why, in a country where one out of five women have been sexually assaulted, a costume representing the “rape drug” isn’t funny. The response was that the man was a feminist and his costume was satire. She was not amused.

I was not amused either.

The kind of comedy that makes me laugh is comedy that laughs with, not at. The rueful observations about the maladies that befall us all. The kind of comedy that makes you feel at one with the comedian in bemusement, not attacked or belittled, and not watching someone else feel that way either. Comedy that unites about this crazy old world, not divides the world into even more craziness.

I know that people under stress will cope with gallows humor. As a reporter, I did it all the time. I know doctors do too. But we all knew it wasn’t really funny, it was just an escape valve to let off the boiled-over emotions in laughter, which was far better than the alternative.

There are those who will still laugh at the racial slur, who will snigger at a Presidential candidate flailing in mimicry of a disabled reporter. Who feel that those who disagree with their politics must be idiots, and who then make jokes at their expense. It’s not a Right Wing thing or a Left Wing thing. It’s just a thing.

Is it politically correct to want that to stop?

Or is it just grown up?

Maybe it’s time we stop confusing the nervous laugh of discomfort with humor. Maybe it’s time that we learn how to use humor appropriately.

Sure, I used to laugh hysterically when someone would blurt out the word, “poop.”

I was two at the time.

Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.