Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The New Normal

I could never write about 9/11.   It wasn’t for lack of trying.  Over the years, I’ve tried writing about it several times.  Just a few weeks after the towers fell, one of my journalism colleagues sent out a request for publishable words on the tragedy.  He wanted someone to write something that conveyed a broader perspective, and meaningful insights for the rest of the country.  I wrote something.  I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I can tell you that it wasn’t insightful.  Or inspiring.  Instead of conveying a sense of universal meaning, it  sounded trite and overly sentimental.  Where I wanted to pose some deep, searching questions, I only offered a kind of sad, desperate window onto the fact that none of it – nothing I was going through – made any sense to me at all.   
On September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose.  And a friend of mine – a brave and caring firefighter -- went to work and never returned.  He had a beautiful spirit and a gentle soul.   He knew his work posed dangers — including terrorist-sponsored ones -- but before that tragedy happened, none of us really imagined that his life, and those of many of his colleagues, would be extinguished by an act of such monstrous and intentional evil.  Nothing in my human experience had ever prepared me for losing someone in that way.   Like many people who lived through those events, it took me weeks to accept that my friend was gone.  In part that was because the bodies weren’t immediately recovered.  In part, it was because we were all in a state of shock.  In part, it was because for a long time, all of it – the death, the destruction, the pollution, the chaos, the terror –seemed utterly unreal.  For the family members of my friend and all those other victims, of course, it was even worse.
            Over the past week, in the wake of the tragic and surreal events at Sandy Hook, I’ve been searching – again -- for something insightful or meaningful to write.  Until now, I haven’t been able to think or write anything about that massacre that reflects more than my anger and despair.   I’ve been trying to deal with it, in large part, by reading what other people are writing.  For me, the most meaningful writing focuses on heroes.   Just as during 9/11, I find the stories of heroism to be uplifting and hopeful and real.  They help to convince me that even in our worst, most tragic moments, we might – all of us -- be better than the sum of our basest instincts. 
And yet the Sandy Hook events have been reminding me – in some very raw emotional ways – of those weeks after 9/11.  It’s not exactly, or even nearly, the same.  I didn’t lose someone close to me.  Let alone one of my babies.  I didn’t know these people in Connecticut.  I have never, to my knowledge, been to their town.   I haven’t been dealing with the aftermath of those violent events for these many days -- which will soon turn to weeks and months --with no end to the trauma in sight.  I was no more there – in Newtown – than I am there when another innocent life is lost, anywhere world.   I wasn’t there at all.  Those are not my lost and wounded children.
But like many people in this country, I have felt heartbroken.   I understand that some people haven’t experienced it quite that way.  I’ve read many times over the past several days – and heard people discuss it -- that innocent children are killed every day, both by guns and other forms of violence.   I know that those deaths don’t affect us in the same way, in part because they receive less attention in the media.   But I can’t discount the scale of this tragedy because for me, it was different.  Partly, it was different because the setting was more public, the coverage was more pervasive, and there were so many, and so very young, children terrorized and killed at the same time by the kinds of guns that have already been used to kill many other helpless and innocent people. 
It was also different for me, personally, because I could relate to them in some very basic and personal ways.  For better or for worse, I think, we can more easily empathize with people who remind us of ourselves.  People die at the hands of their own guns all the time, but I don’t keep guns in my home.  I’ve never known anyone whose child was lost because he or she got hold of a relative’s gun.  I know that children die at the hands of their own parents, but I don’t live in a violent household.  Children die in troubled communities, where they feel scared to walk down the street at night.  I wish no child ever had to endure these realities, and if they were on the news every night, admittedly, their parents’ losses would probably feel closer to my reality.  But that is just not the case.
            My reality is that I live in a small town.  My kids go to a nice public school in a community where people – both in the school and around it – know and like and help each other.  My children are young.   My younger one is in kindergarten, and often spends her evenings practicing her writing.  She writes the names, over and over, of each and every one of her fellow students.  She likes knowing, and thinking about them.  She likes going to school, even though it means going away from me, because she loves her teacher.  When I go to school to help out, the children all know me.  Many of them hug me.  They tell me, over and over and over, when their moms are coming in to help, to the point where I’ve memorized their mom’s volunteer schedules.   The tender-hearted love of a kindergarten child – any single one of them -- is so simple, and sweet, and innocent that it has been difficult for me, every day, not to imagine the children in Newton being exactly the same way.
And I remember what it feels like to try to move on, after all hell breaks loose.  In the several months following September 11th, the families accepted and said goodbye to their loved ones.  It was too much death.  But after the memorials and funerals were over, it also became clear that life, for the rest of us, wasn’t the same.  The toxic dust had long settled, the pile was cleared, the streets were re-opened, and life as we knew it returned to a more or less regular schedule.   New York -- the city of dreamers, and freedom lovers, and urban thrill seekers – would always be great.  The people, as a community, really pulled together.  Yet alongside the new security measures, the barricades, and the new flight patterns, a broader anxiety also endured. A pervasive feeling that the city had lost a measure of its innocence, its reckless youth, its unbridled creative joy.   Over time, we got used to that, and sometimes even forgot things had changed.  But there was a new mindset governing the city for years, characterized by more fear and more caution. 
It was, simply put, a new normal.
            I’ve heard that phrase – new normal – used several times already in regards to the recent school tragedy.  People have invoked it as they've expressed concern that elementary school shootings might become more regular events in our society.  We all hope, and pray, they don’t.  But in a more immediate sense, as I’ve recalled the traumatic weeks after  9/11, I’ve been thinking about that other new normal.   The one that happens in our minds, at the level of a new collective fear and sadness and especially, the loss of innocence.  Those children's death shook many people to our core.  Before this happened, many of us didn’t associate our local elementary schools with fear, not this kind.  Now, we have a set of images and categories and circumstances in our heads that may make us wonder, every day, if our kids are safe.  Now, we live with the daily reminder, when we bring the kids to school, that they may not be safely sheltered from other people’s madness and violence.  I don’t know how many other people are feeling that way.  But to the extent that many others are, we're all, now, living with a new normal.
I wish I had some more meaningful insights, or an inspirational perspective to share.  I’ve always admired writers who can bring great personal insight to a difficult time.  I’m not talking about a policy paper, or a program for the future, but an emotional tribute.  The ability to reach out from a place of pain, and form a narrative that others can relate to and possibly learn something from, is an important skill. In times of communal crisis, particularly, people’s stories can help to remind of us of our collective humanity.  And that is no small concern.
            The one memory from 9/11 that is giving me some small comfort is knowing that eventually, this new normal will get better.  It will get better as we help each other cope.  It will get better if we can come together to change our violent problems.  But mostly, I think, it will just get better with time.  As time passes -- and as long as tragedy doesn’t strike again -- we’ll feel incrementally more comfortable.  We will, hopefully, stop looking back at our children in the schoolyard, wondering if they're safe.   Over time, the new normal will come to feel, just, normal again.   That sounds like a sad, desperate thing to say.  And it may not resonate with what anyone else is feeling right now.  But at this point, accepting the new normal and moving on is the absolute best I can hope for.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Welcome to WOG Season!


Holiday Season is officially upon us.  
And holiday season has something for everyone. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Mayan End of Days. And for everyone, there is WOG.

      What is WOG, you say?  Well, technically, WOG is not a word.   It’s an acronym.   I made it up in my head to describe my eating habits from Thanksgiving to the drunken binge of St. Patrick's Day.  It stands for Winter Onset Gluttony. 
       If Winter Onset Gluttony sounds like Adult Onset Diabetes, then you know where I'm going with this.  Because that illness doesn’t happen overnight either.   It happens one, reindeer-shaped cookie at a time.   Or in my case, one round peanut butter cookie with the Hershey's Kiss in the middle at a time.  Contrary to what I have always believed, it turns out that a Hershey's Kiss does not have fewer calories just because it's stuck in the middle of a nutty, buttery cookie.  
       Frankly, I’m not sure if WOG works better as a noun or a verb.  But fighting holiday WOG is definitely an issue for me. And that is saying a lot.  Because triple chocolate cookies are a staple in my house, all year round. We also go through a lot of avocados, spring onions, poppy seed bagels, and those noodles that are shaped like tennis rackets.   I believe the precise term for those is “raquettes.”  Which makes a lot of sense, because the only thing more French than tennis is pasta.
       Most of the time, I think WOG works best as a noun, because it sounds like several other words of the same ilk. The most obvious one is HOG.  As in, “I already ate four pieces of that chocolate that our financial planner sent us.  I can’t believe I'm such a hog.”    And I would feel worse about having done that, if I didn’t believe that caramel was invented in heaven.   A brown chewy candy that you make by simply melting sugar?  Let me be the first to say, “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus!” 
      Another close cousin to the word WOG is NOG.  When I first posted this, a friend of mine wrote, “WOG NOG.”  Exactly.   Because nothing says “fight the holiday bulge” like a beverage made from half a dozen raw eggs, a pint of cream, and a cup of sugar.  Throw a few ounces of bourbon in there, and you might as well just sign up for the next Weight Watchers meeting.   Egg Nog – or Glog, as it was once called – originated in Europe. And that is quaint.  But I think it should now be considered the official drink of the American holiday season.  Just like Denny's is now the official American diner.  Back in early modern Europe, only the upper classes could afford to drink something with that much fresh egg and cream.   It was only when the British settled in America that gluttony was democratized.   Plentiful farm land, an abundance of spirits, and voila -- a classic American cocktail that a whole nation full of alcoholics with high cholesterol can enjoy!   In our house, we at least try to drink organic Egg Nog.   Because, dammit, if I am going to work that hard all winter to grow an extra layer of fat around my middle, I want it to be hormone free.
      Sometimes, however, WOG works best as a verb. Especially in its gerund form of WOGGING. In December, particularly, I find myself overeating at so many consecutive holiday parties that I actually start to overuse the word overeat.   When I first wrote this post last winter, for example, I was sitting in a Green Bay Packers sweat suit at my dining room table, enjoying a cheesy slice of leftover pizza for breakfast, while I waited for two sticks of butter to reach room temperature. We had leftover pizza because we'd ordered it for the kids, so we could go out to a Mexican restaurant for chips, guacamole, some kind of appetizer that could best be described as blobs of cheese in a creamy anchiote sauce, seafood crepes, and two glasses of sangria.  After that, we stopped by a holiday party and drank two glasses of passion fruit vodka punch and ate some homemade pineapple upside down cake. 
      I justified all that eating on the grounds that I had gone to yoga the day before.  Although, in fact, I had gone to yoga because the night before that, I had gone out for a bacon cheeseburger, sweet potato fries, and a 4-glass sampler of local beer.  Was I a little concerned that it was only mid-December and I was already waking up on a Saturday to put on a loose-fitting sweat suit that says “MEET ME IN THE END ZONE” in giant block letters on the back?  Yes.  Yes, I was.   And there's a reason I didn't write a post about jogging.
      Behind many cases of WOG, there is often some kind of stress.   In the current economy, for example, my anxiety spikes whenever I see my financial planner’s name.   Even if it's on a friendly holiday card and attached to a box of chocolates that opens out like a drawer for easy access.  I generally cope with stress eating by reminding myself that dark chocolate has been tied to heart health in several major studies.  Doctors might say, I suppose, that chocolate flavinoids are less beneficial when they are encasing a full square inch of fattening caramel.  But if you could see the stressed out, manic look on my face as I'm shoveling those caramel candies into my mouth, you would be wise not take that moment to give me a lecture on healthy eating.  
      Yes Indeed.  WOGGING sounds curiously like another activity that many of us do in anticipation of the holidays.  That is WIGGING.   As in, wigging out.  December is that special time of year when everyone looks forward to celebrating Christmas, or watching the first snow, or -- if they have kids -- watching other people celebrate New Year’s Eve on television.  At least until 10:30 pm, when they all go to sleep.  It's also a time when friends reach out and send each other holiday cards. And the Target Corporation reaches out to sell a cluster fuck of Chinese-made consumer shit, so that no one has to think about where their gifts are coming from. 
       But as easy as Target makes it for people to get through their holiday list -- with those oversized red carts and that quality in-store dining -- holiday shopping often feels like the emotional equivalent of getting pepper sprayed in the face.  That is because it all happens in the brief four weeks between the day we express gratitude for all the stuff we have by ingesting tons of sweetened starch -- aka Thanksgiving -- and the day we get a bunch of new stuff and throw our outdated crap into a landfill.  On top of the shopping, you still have all the parties, holiday decorating, family events at school, piano and ballet recitals, theater performances, and holiday cards.  This year, I am spending the bulk of my "December free time" taking my children to and from Nutcracker rehearsals, where I enjoy watching emaciated women do a lot of exercise while I sit on my ass and draw whiskers on baby mice. 
       Last week, my regular tree company delivered -- and put up -- our Christmas tree.  Once again, I celebrated my inner New Yorker by unceremoniously driving my car to a nearby parking lot, pointing to a tree, and paying someone else to deliver it to me.  Once again, I thanked the delivery guys for helping me to avoid one of my least favorite spousal arguments of the holiday season.   Last year, when I made a similar remark to the tree guys, I thought I had maybe said too much.  But on the way out the door, they confessed to me that they heard that from women so often, they were considering wearing t-shirts that said “Couples Therapists.”  
      For me, WIGGING really turns into WOGGING when I get into that holiday habit of eating things just because they’re there. Around Christmas at my mom’s house, there are always several plates of kolache – a Czech pastry that looks like a round pillow of dough with a dollop of fruit in the center. There are also gingerbread cookies, sugar cookies, and an assortment of candies in candy tins that are – fittingly, I think – shaped like obese members of the Claus family.  I know I don't need extra sugary sweets.  But I can't help myself.  Those red and green m&ms just look even more irresistible inside a fat tin belly. 
      At my own house, I bake a lot during holiday season.   I bake a lot in general.  Mostly because baking quick breads flavored with pumpkin, banana, or zucchini is the easiest way to get fruit into my younger child.  As winter approaches, I find baking particularly soothing. It’s warm. It smells nice. It’s formulaic. Also, I believe that gingerbread settles the stomach. This is particularly true if you decorate your gingerbread cookies to look like people you dislike and then systematically break off their limbs and devour them.  That is a bit more like the practice of Voodoo than Christmas, but -- wasn't Marie Laveau some sort of Catholic?  The other great thing about making cookies is that you can give some to your kids’ teachers. When you wrap them up and include them in the box with a soulless gift card, it doesn’t seem quite so much like you’ve ticked something off your to-do list.
       For the record, Urban Dictionary defines “wigging out” as a feeling of “mild depression and high anxiety when one has binged on large amounts of psychoactive substances,” and then those substances ” where off.” I read urban dictionary a lot because I like to be hip to the youth slang.  And maybe the phrase “where off” is a new form of slang.   Then again, Urban Dictionary advertises “douchebag” mugs for holiday gifts.  So they might just not bother running the spell checker.  In any case, Urban Dictionary says that people usually counteract the feeling of wigging out by drinking alcohol, smoking weed, or consuming “large amounts of anti-anxiety benzo pills like xanax.”  You will be relieved to know -- and so will your children's elementary school teachers --  that Target pharmacies now carry a wide variety of benzodiazepines. 
      But another option, friends, is that you just give in to the WOG. With the holiday season upon us, that’s easier than buying prescription drugs.  And, remember: Peppermint bark is good for your heart.  Contrary to what Seinfeld said, sweat suits were not just invented as a way to tell the world you've given up.  They were also invented as a way to hide your expanding waistline.  And at the end of the day, it really IS pretty easy to consume large amounts of alcohol, when it’s all mixed up in a tall festive glass of raw custard.