Monday, October 17, 2011

Link to Other Blog Post

Hi! I just wanted to include a link to my latest piece on the Georgetown Patch. It has to be exclusive content or I'd post it here.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Problem With Invincibility

"So, what doesn't kill me doesn't kill me..."  Diana in "Another Day," Next To Normal original Broadway soundtrack 
"I created the sound of madness/wrote the book on pain/somehow I'm still here to explain/that the darkest hour never comes in the night..." Shinedown, "The Sound of Madness"

What the fuck was I thinking, attending my friends' sons' britot [ritual circumcisions] one month to the day after I was wheeled into an operating room and had the remains of my first, and only, pregnancy extracted from my body? I wasn't thinking. If anything, I was just feeling, and feeling good. Feeling, dare I say, invincible. I have been put through a crucible the past eight weeks. Losing my father tragically and surprisingly. The shock and indescribable excitement of learning I was expecting one week after we buried my father in the ground. My husband presenting with dramatic and scary medical symptoms with no obvious cause. Heartache caused by my father's handling of his estate, which by the way, I'm executing. Finding out at 9 weeks that the baby ceased to grow past week 6. Waiting around to miscarry. Not miscarrying. Listening to the obstetrician's gruesome description of a D&C, then being wheeled later that day into an operating room. The incredulity I felt when the administrator who checked me into the hospital asked me if I was ok, even though the reason for my admission was printed on the stack of forms in front of her. "I am anything but ok," I answered.

I never thought about how I'd react in the situation I found myself in this May. I wanted to curl into a ball. Instead, I've opted to pour every ounce of energy I have into healing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually, so God willing, one day I can try to be a mom again. For me, this means treating my physical therapy like my life depends on it, because it does. It means upping my meditation past my comfort zone. It means getting back into a yoga practice, and doing challenging cardio workouts to boost my mood and sate my anxiety. Most importantly, it means working through my physical pain through all of this.

Much to my surprise, the result of going through the crucible is that I feel friggin' amazing. It is exhilirating, in a way, to walk through the seventh layer of hell and come out the other side, burned but not broken. After avoiding most things pertaining to babies or small children for four weeks, I started testing myself. Can I look at a pregnant woman's belly and not feel a pit in my own? Check. Can I enjoy Shabbat dinner with my friends' darling toddler? Check. Can I hold an infant without my heart breaking? Check. All of this, to me, meant that of course I'd go to my dear friends' twins' britot. I was thrilled for them, and wanted to celebrate the miracle of their sons. I also wanted to catch up with dear old friends I don't get to see often enough. I'm sure somewhere in my intellect I thought, "This might be hard," but that was drowned out by feeling good. By feeling invincible. But, the problem with invincibility is that you're not invincible.

Everything started off just fine at the celebration. I have a rough time at these things anyway, because religious obligation aside, I'm not totally copacetic with circumcision, which is why I only attend the britot of close friends' children (usually a whole religious community is invited to these things). At no point did anything set me off or trigger me. A feeling of darkness just gradually crept in. I tried mindfulness to distract myself, to no avail. Almost instinctively, I sought out my husband, David, my comforter in chief. When he held me close to him, wiping tears from his own eyes, my walls came tumbling down. The atmosphere became oppressive; all I saw and heard were babies, and missing my own. After the ceremony, I knew I had to bolt. I gathered myself to wish the new parents a final "mazel tov," and planned to discretely make my exit. Then I knew, if I opened my mouth to say those words, a wail would escape me. I made the choice -- against all my schooling in Southern manners -- to leave without saying goodbye, and to not run cry on a friend's shoulder, which would've put the focus on me and not on the celebration and the celebrants. David held me while I sobbed in the stairwell, and then I made my way to the gym, sobbing all the while on the bus. I almost asked for a Xanax, but then remembered, "That doesn't help a broken heart."

I had a killer workout. I poured out all my grief, sorrow, and anger on that cardio machine, and I became one of those gym rats I admired but never come close to: someone who sweats through their clothes. I was soaking wet and heaving, but calmer. Somewhere, in that workout, I stopped chiding myself for being so foolish to try and go to that bris. I let admiration fill its place -- I tried to do something positive, with the best of intentions. Instead of viewing it as a moral failing that I couldn't stay the whole time, I just worked on accepting it as what was. I felt compassion for what I've been through instead of remorse for this perceived failing.

I've gained insight that your stuff will grab you when you least expect it, so you just run with it and make it work. Truly, the darkest hour never comes in the night.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Spa World

Groupon opened my eyes to whole new experience yesterday. My friend Rachel and I went to Spa World, a traditional Korean spa, in Centreville, VA. It is in a strip mall, but has more than 50,000 square feet of Korean Spa Pleasure. I thought I would enjoy it, but it surpassed my expectations.

Spa World can best be broken up into its wet (single-sex) and dry (co-ed) parts. The most important thing to know about the first part, the wet one, is that nudity is the word of the day. They don't actually just encourage nudity, they actively discourage covering up. It is outright prohibited in the bade pool, and if you had thoughts of hiding your butt in a towel, think again: they only have hand towels! The bade pool, which you can see a diagram of here), is a large jacuzzi tub with different types of sections and jets kept at a perfect 95 degrees. Sounds relaxing? Rachel and I spent an hour schmoozing in this tub along with about 20-30 other women at a time.

I was a little scared about the nudity: I have lost about 116 lbs, and I have lots of hanging skin, stretch marks, and cellulite. Furthermore, I am still about 15-20 lbs overweight. I decided to suck it up, and I'm glad I did. First of all, it was strangely freeing to hang around nude, and for the first time ever I saw what was appealing about nudist colonies. It was even more freeing to realize that a) people didn't seem to be checking other people out, but, when you looked, and don't tell me you wouldn't, b) all women but a few of the very young 20-somethings had wobbly, imperfect bodies. Even people who were at a healthy weight, and look like they've always been a healthy weight, had cellulite, stretched skin, etc. And nobody cares. I was totally impressed by the obese women confident enough to be there, and there were plenty, including one with a tattoo on her ass of Taz holding a whip that read, "Hurts so good." Not going there!

Surrounding the bade pools are smaller hot tubs of differing temperatures, and a cool tub, as well as a sauna and a steam room. There's also a marble slab you can lay on that purportedly had "infrared healing rays," but I laid there and didn't feel anything but cold. Off to the side are these sinks close to the floor with accompanying stools where Korean women washed their hair (or each others') and groomed themselves. There were also showers with no doors. There was a walled-off section of 10 tables with Korean women giving traditional exfoliations and massages. I didn't partake in that this time.

After spending about an hour and a half in the wet area, Rachel and I donned our prison uniforms to head out to the poultice rooms. These were hideous, shapeless, orange, cotton shorts and t-shirts that we had to don when we headed out to the co-ed dry area. There was a massive central room with tatami mats spread on the floor and piles of little plastic-covered pillows. There were loungers, sofas, free wi-fi, and a snack bar in that room. This is also where you can access the Korean restaurant. Apparently, many Koreans use Spa World as a community center, which is probably why there are year-long memberships. If you take a flight of stairs up, there is an arcade, a sleeping room, a salon, gift shop, and more massage rooms.

Off of this main room are six different poultice rooms, which are rooms made of different natural materials that allegedly have healing properties, like an amethyst room and a salt room. All have dry saunas and range from 114-148 degrees, and comfortably accommodate 8-12 adults. There's also a 65 degree ice room where you can cool off. All of the poultice rooms are very quiet, and there are men and women laying down or sitting in them. The most fun, to me, was the clay ball room, which is filled with thousands of clay balls the size of marbles. They felt marvelous to roll around in!

Two surprises lay in store for me in the dry area: first, although I personally don't believe that physical things like rocks or other natural elements have healing properties*, I felt strangely calmed in the amethyst room, on an energetic level. It didn't hurt that the room was gorgeous: the walls were a soothing nature-scene mosaic done in earth-tones, and the ceiling has brilliant amethyst and another red stone for you to gaze up at while the sweat stings your eyes. This room felt so calming to me that I went back to it. The other surprise was how relaxed and cleansed I felt after all this. I was a little tired, but mostly invigorated. My skin felt marvelous, and I could see how Scientologists put so much stock in a good shvitz.

At $35 a day sans Groupon, it's not cheap, but I will definitely go back to Spa World. I can see myself doing it once a season as a pick-me-up, cleansing thing.

*Please note that hope still springs eternal: In spite of my doubts, I deliberately tried a room that claims to up your sex drive, to no avail.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stronger Now

This is the first time I've looked at my blog since May 5, the day my father died, and it's a little surreal. The last seven weeks of my life have in many ways have been the hardest -- and this is coming from someone disabled from Lyme Disease, who at her worst was unable to wash her own hair or write more than scrawling her name. In the last few weeks, I have been tested and pushed in all capacities, most of which I'm unwilling to write about at this point. It is fair to say that my problems started just as my father died, and got worse from there. My therapist, in a moment of candor, said, "The book of Job comes to mind," after I summarized the startling difficulties of the past few weeks.

That said, I'm actually doing ok, much to my surprise. I have my ups and downs. A week ago I thought I was in a deep depression, but it was just a couple of crummy days, and they passed. Many people have reassured me that after the hell I've been through, some dark days are justified. Today is Father's Day; I thought I'd be a basket case, and I'm sad, but not a basket case. Losing my father has sucked, and it felt worse than I thought it would. For the first few days after he died, I felt like I had been turned inside out. The worst part was waking up, in a good mood, thinking, "That must have just been a terrible dream," and then remembering that, no, my dad was dead. For a few days, I woke up to this startling realization each day and promptly burst into tears. Now the grief comes in waves, like when I think, "Oh, I haven't talked to Dad in a long time," and then remember, "And you never will." Over the past few weeks, I've wanted to share with my dad the trials David and I have endured, desperate for his assurance that everything would be ok. I always felt like he had my back. It's cold comfort that I could imagine exactly what he would have said if I was able to converse with him about what is going on.

I don't mean to sound all grim. First of all, I am extremely grateful for the blessings in my life which I celebrate daily -- the first of which is always David, followed closely by abstinence (sobriety) from compulsive overeating. Secondly, I am finding out I have vast reserves of strength that I didn't know I had. It's actually kind of astounding. I don't mean this to sound arrogant; on the contrary, until recently, I think I (wrongly) viewed myself as fragile. But nothing in my demeanor the last seven weeks even hints at fragility.

Strangely, I want to end this post with a homage to Jani Lane, the singer/songwriter of '80s hair metal band, Warrant. I saw a TV clip of Lane where he said he literally would have blown his "[f-ing] brains out" if he had known how writing "Cherry Pie" would've ruined his credibility in the music business. I think of that sad TV clip when I hear Warrant's ballad "Stronger Now," which I find myself humming often nowadays:

"I held you for a moment in my hands
The moment with you slipped away like sand
Through my fingers now
In front of me a choice I have to make
To carry on or simply fade away
I lose you either way
I'd like to say that it was easy, it was hard
To say goodbye, I thought that I would die

Letting go of you, was so hard to do
And I thought that it would kill me but I made
It through somehow, and I'm so much stronger now..."

So, Jani, if you're reading this, I think you are a good singer/songwriter, which is why I identify with your music and lyrics a decade after you wrote them. And I still think you kick ass, which is why I can't bring myself to throw away the framed, autographed napkin you signed for me.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Journey

I am in Phoenix helping my father die, and move on to the next leg of his journey. It's 1:30 a.m. I'm physically, emotionally, & spiritually exhausted, but sleep is elusive. I just listened to Sia's song "Breathe Me"; it captures my feelings pretty well at this moment. I'm writing, with sore arms, on my iPhone, so more later. Please pray for my Dad to have a peaceful death, and for my family. Blessings, Sarah

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clutterama Follow-up

Now that I've quit vomiting for a few minutes (I seem to be the lucky recipient of the stomach virus going around the metro area), I wanted to write about my previously aforementioned session with Scott Roewer of Solutions By Scott. I feel awful, so my writing is clunky. Sorry. My appointment with Scott was four intense hours, and at the end of it, I wanted to collapse and felt pretty overwhelmed with all the information I took in. What's great, though, is that I am thrilled I had this appointment and definitely felt like I got my money's worth. Many things came out of the appointment, including:

1. Specific suggestions for better organizing our home and life as we live it, including a simple "active projects" organizing system for me to handle all the incoming stuff that I can't handle right away.

2. Ideas for specific rooms of the house, such as putting a 3-hole punch in my husband's man cave (aka the "music room") so he can put the pages of his song lyrics in a notebook instead of them fanning out on the floor. Scott also suggested many more hooks for cables hung out of the walking space in that room, which there isn't much of. He also suggested saving the guitar stands, which take up room on the floor, for gigs, and instead, hanging guitars on the wall.

Scott also made a good suggestion for covering the drafty vent that comes into our living room in the winter; our current solution is a towel, which, frankly, just looks really ghetto. We don't like it, but didn't have another idea in mind until now.

3. Very detailed suggestions for turning our file cabinet from the abyss that it is to a manageable system containing only information we really need to save -- which, it turns out, is actually shockingly little. Furthermore, we're ditching our desk, which takes up a lot of room to just hold stationary and clutter. Scott pointed out we can keep all of our office supplies on one small shelf.

3. Great suggestions for Web sites/applications that I've never heard of that can be integral to managing my clutter and organization problems. I plan to write a separate blog post on these once I get more adept at using them.

4. Very detailed discussions about some home projects we need to undertake to facilitate organization in our house. For example, Scott recommended installing Elfa shelving in our cellar -- our only real storage space -- to turn it into really usable, organized space instead of the disorganized clutter room that it is. I agree this is ground zero for us, and as Scott and I toured the rest of our home, I could see how so many organizational solutions came back to the cellar. Ditto with our bedroom closets, which are the achilles heels of the house. Our 100 year-old home does not have a linen closet, which we could integrate into a closet redesign. This is something we scoped out as part of our major home renovation, but we scrapped it due to budgeting. What Scott recommended was significantly cheaper and less extensive, with more focus on maximizing utility than what the general contractors suggested.

Perhaps one of the most important things I got from my session was a sense of confidence. As you can read in my last blog post about this, I was very down on myself, feeling like my organizational issues were a character defect. While I can't say that I'm not lazy, I can say that until my session with Scott, I didn't really know how to be organized. No one really taught me the advanced organizational skills  you need to successfully run a multi-person house. This alone made it worth the fee.

I have been in the middle of a severe pain flare, so use of my arms is very limited (I wrote most of this 4 weeks ago), so it sucks to not be able to implement Scott's ideas as rapidly as I was hoping for. Oh well. All in good time!

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm in an acute pain flare after a severe vomiting spell due to a stomach virus. My arms are in extreme pain, so minimal typing for me. Will be back to blogging as soon as it's safe to. Thanks!

Sunday, February 27, 2011


I am completely powerless over clutter. We have clutter of all types in our home, but I am especially completely powerless over paper: so much of it comes into our home, it overwhelms me. I'm fine with immediately shredding or recycling the junk. What confounds me are the things to keep, or to come back to later, like appeals for charity or bills to be paid. Basically, I've never been great at organization; it's just something I never learned how to do.

This clutter causes me no end of grief. It makes it hard to clean when I have to declutter first. It makes it hard to find something, and yes, some bills don't emerge from their hibernation before I get a "friendly reminder" from accounts receivable. I get nervous if someone stops by unexpectedly, because I typically tidy up for guests before they come. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it keeps our home from being the restful place of respite that I want it to be. The world is tough, and I want my home to be a place of comfort, shelter, and restoration. Clutter kills that mood fast.

I have tried different methods of dealing with clutter including many self-help books and organizational Web sites. None of them made a lasting difference. I even hired a self-proclaimed "organizer," who ended up being completely unprofessional and unhelpful. She was an entrepreneur, and organizing was just her latest venture, and after three hours I felt like her therapist.

A friend suggested that I work with another professional organizer named Scott who won the local organizer-of-the-year award, and seems very competent and accomplished. Most importantly, he provided a valuable service to my friend that she believes is worth the money. I struggled with whether to hire him for two reasons: one, he is expensive. Two -- and this is the major reason -- I realize that there something going on that no one can fix for me. I analogize this to my struggle with food addiction. I saw all kinds of diet doctors and nutritionists, followed dozens of diets, had therapy (including with eating disorder specialists), and read all the self-help books on the market, but none of these resources on their own were enough to help me conquer my food addiction. I had spiritual and emotional problems galore that were at the root of my eating, and only serious spiritual and emotional work on my part could clear the passage for me to heal from my food addiction.

So, part of the reason I hesitated to hire Scott is that I realize there is a piece of my clutter problem that only I can fix. There is some reason I hold on to it and perpetuate the behavior, or I wouldn't continue to do it. People only hold on to dysfunctional ways of being if there is some payoff (caveat here: some people want to change their dysfunctional patterns but don't know how). I've spent the last few weeks thinking about what might be behind some of my clutter. One ugly answer is plain old laziness; I'd rather do other things than organize. Another is that it might strangely give me some kind of comfort, like a kid making a fort with stuff around the house. Perhaps it perpetuates an old tape I play in my head that I am "overwhelmed." This is one I can confront directly: that feeling of being overwhelmed was a vestige of my food addiction, when I spent all of my energy procuring, eating, and hiding the evidence that I binged. Thank God, in recovery through the 12 steps, I have shed that addiction and with it, the feeling of constantly being overwhelmed. My life is significantly more manageable than it used to be, so I can let that old label go. Most of the time, I am not overwhelmed anymore, with the weeks before Passover a notable exception!

Those are the things that Scott can't fix for me: I have to get to the bottom of this coping mechanism and constantly remind myself that I deserve the kind of home that I want, and that David and I are worth putting the effort in to get that home. Scott can't do that work for me, but he can give me insights, and I've talked with his assistant about the concerns that I'm expressing here about the limitations of his services. I had to send back a pre-appointment questionnaire with answers to questions about what I hoped to get out of Scott's services and for insights into what I think my problem is and why I'm motivated to change.

I have a relative who was very condescending about my decision to hire Scott, and I considered canceling the appointment in light of that reaction and my own hesitations expressed above. However, after some helpful chats with my trusted friends and David, I decided to go ahead and keep my appointment with Scott. Because while there's a piece of me he can't fix, he is a professional organizer, and I need the services he sells. I don't have a good organizational system, and have been unable to put together one that works. The food analogy works well here, too: yes, I needed the 12 steps, but I also needed a nutritionist to tell me what to eat and a therapist to help me sort through some of the larger issues that came up through my step work. OA minus those auxiliary professional services would not have yielded the same level of excellent results that I've been blessed by. I needed all of it.

OA sponsor. And yes, I am seriously considering at least dialing in to a Clutterers Anonymous telephone meeting. I have dedicated a lot of my life to self-improvement and enlightenment in different forms. I'm grateful for all of the tools I have used including therapy, Judaism, books, energetic work, yoga, meditation, exercise, etc., but nothing has ever been as transformative to me as the 12 step program of recovery.

I have started applying the first three steps to clutter:

1. I admit that I am powerless over clutter and that my life has become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.
3. Became willing to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand God.

My lengthy, personal email to Scott was my step one, detailing exactly how my life is impacted by my organizational problems and how unmanageable it has become. For me, the higher powers I'm trusting to restore me to sanity are God and Scott, in that order. Step three is a process of letting go and surrendering my problems to forces greater than me, combined with footwork on my part. It's not enough to say, "God, make my house uncluttered." I have to do the aforementioned homework/opportunities.

In spite of the progress I've seen in my food addiction, there is a piece of me that considers that a once-in-a-lifetime kind of miracle. I believe adults can change with a ton of hard work and tenacity, but it doesn't happen much. Lately, I've been blessed with profound, positive changes in two areas of my life: intimacy and anxiety. I see these as reminders from God to me that my recovery was not a once-in-a-lifetime miracle, and that if I put in the work I need to and turn the results over to Him/Her/It, that I can grow and recover in other areas of my life. My fondest wish for myself and my family is that we can grow and heal in this area too. I'll keep you apprised of my progress; my appointment with Scott is Wednesday. Like my food issues, I'm sure there will be periods of regression, but I have the tenacity of a terrier, and am determined to give this my best effort.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quick Updates to LOL Playlist

I wrote about my laugh out loud playlist recently, and have two updates, which won't surprise you if you've caught on to my sense of humor:

16. "The Sex Is Good" by Saving Abel: "I have to fake it/I'd leave if I could/I'm not in love but the sex is good" and "we don't get along that well/not much for talk, but you're hot as hell" never fail to make me crack up.

17. "F**k You" by Cee-Lo Green. Brilliant, just brilliant. Once I finally listened to this, I could see why it created so much buzz. That this song is so cheerful and soulful, and yet so relatable, is great. My biggest problem is not singing this in public. Maybe I should listen to the radio-friendly version, "Forget You," in case I slip.

I had a super-busy day and have a super-busy night ahead, so peace out!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review: Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives

Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our LivesOrigins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is full of fascinating facts based on research into fetal origins. Some things I found especially interesting include:

* According to some researchers, about one-third of gay men are gay because their mothers had more sons before them. The researchers hypothesize that this is because the mother's immune system manufactures antibodies directed at proteins secreted by male fetuses. When she becomes pregnant with another son, these antibodies allegedly affect the baby's developing brain in a way that predisposes him to homosexuality. According to these researchers, the more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay.
* Babies reap the same benefits their moms do from cardiovascular exercise: their heart rates and heart-rate variability are lower than those of fetuses whose moms don't exercise.
*One emerging consensus coming about due to fetal origins research is that one's disposition to heart disease may have as much to do with prenatal nutrition as one's diet and activity level. Specifically, a lack of healthful nutrients during gestation seems to predispose offspring to cardiac and other organ problems.

These are just a few examples of the interesting research that Murphy Paul writes about. The reason I can’t give the book more stars is that the author seems particularly prone to confirmation bias; she is all too eager to unquestioningly accept research that supports her theories, and is apt to confuse causation with correlation. One example of this is Murphy Paul’s descriptions of the effects of obese mothers on their babies. She cites a study comparing the obesity rates of children born to the same mothers pre- and post- gastric bypass surgery. The kids gestated post-surgery were 52 percent less likely to be obese than siblings born to the same mom when she was obese. Murphy Paul takes this as proof that the changed physiology of the mother causes the changed obesity rates of the post-surgery offspring.

I found this conclusion arresting, because anyone who successfully loses and keeps weight off after bariatric surgery has made major changes to her diet and presumably her household environment that supports that diet. Murphy Paul erroneously drawing these conclusions, and blindly accepting research results and/or confusing causation with correlation, cast a pall over the rest of the book for me. It made me doubt whether I could trust her reporting of the clinical studies. Fortunately, the book is well-sourced, so I can personally look up any studies that I have questions about.

Another thing that disturbed me was how Murphy Paul blindly seemed to use the research she found to justify her own experiences. She was pregnant at the time she wrote the book, and it flows between data about fetal origins and how that meshes with Murphy Paul’s experiences as a pregnant woman. Both of her sons were born via cesarean sections, and I found myself rolling my eyes when she was extolling their virtues, such as the assertion that children born via c-section are less likely to experience pain as infants. There was no information whatsoever about the very real risk of c-sections to fetuses. In the interest of fairness in a book about fetal origins science, I would have preferred a more balanced look at the pros and cons of vaginal and caesarean births for the baby in light of current research on the topic.

Overall, this is a very entertaining read, but take it with a gigantic grain of salt.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on an Intense Day

If I had to rate my Wednesday on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 9. We buried David's grandmother yesterday. She strongly influenced me, and I wrote about my deep feelings for her here. She died at the end of October, but because she was having a funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and the men and women dying in our current wars get first priority (rightly), this was the soonest Grandma could be buried. My in-laws were staying with us; they are perfect house guests, but having any house guests comes with challenges, so the week was already not normal for us. Tuesday night was Grandma's wake at a funeral home. The closed coffin was in the room with us, and it was mostly like a party without any food or drinks. People laughed and caught up with relatives they haven't seen in a while. A few people told mostly-funny stories about Grandma.

Since I didn't react emotionally to the coffin in the funeral home on Tuesday, I was surprised by the cry that welled up in my throat on Wednesday morning, when we arrived at the church for her funeral mass, and I saw her coffin draped in the American flag, lying in the back of the hearse. The cry left my throat by the time her pallbearers, her grandsons, had carried the coffin into the rear of the sanctuary, where the priest covered the casket in a cloth the same color and with the same pattern as the ones on his vestments.

Grandma was a devout Catholic (she was even a member of the perpetual adoration society), so I was glad that she had a service that reflected her beliefs. However, it was a little surreal on many levels: first, the fact that with the exception of one Grandma's sons (and his wife), the rest of the family are ex-Catholics. There were not very many people taking communion at this mass. But what really made it surreal was how antithetical the tone/content of the mass was when compared with Judaic beliefs and philosophies about death. There was a lot of liturgy talking about what a happy day it was, and much to my shock, included a lot of hallel (!!!), in English, of course. Hallel is a Jewish prayer composed of Psalms 113-118 that is said on joyous occasions like Jewish holy days, or Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, when we welcome the new moon. Hearing it said at a funeral was the spiritual equivalent of having a bucket of ice water tossed on you. It really highlighted the difference in religious philosophy between Christianity and Judaism: Judaism thinks that death sucks and finds no joy in it whatsoever. This is one of the reasons that it is in poor taste to send flowers to Jewish mourners. That said, I think the mass was a fitting way to say goodbye to Grandma, and it certainly would have met her approval. All of her granddaughters who were in town for the funeral participated in the church service, and my mother-in-law delivered a lovely eulogy.

It was perfect weather for a funeral: cold and rainy. The rain turned to hail during the short ceremony at Arlington. Attending a military funeral is intense in its own right; I can't imagine someone not being moved by it. I started to cry, again, when I saw the horse-drawn limbers and caissons -- I should've taken David's advice to bring two handkerchiefs instead of my one, which was soaked half-way through the mass. The firing of rifles, playing of taps, and folding of the flag covering the casket -- all by other sailors who performed perfectly and in unity even as they were pelted, hard, with hail, was profound, but not as profound as the relief of Grandma finally being buried next to Grandpa, and her son, Michael. One of David's cousins handed out roses, which we all laid on the coffin as we touched it and whispered hurried goodbyes; they were hurried because Arlington officials want you away from the grave as soon as possible. As soon as the service is over, they ask you to return to your vehicles. I really liked that option of going up to the casket, and it's one I've never had at a Jewish funeral. As a Jew, it feels deeply wrong to me to leave a casket above ground; people at a Jewish funeral all pitch in and shove dirt on the coffin. It felt weird to me at Grandpa's funeral to walk away from his casket, and it felt weird to me yesterday. As soon as the family cleared out, Arlington's crew was there to lower the casket and fill in the grave.

It was touching to see Grandma's kids, grandchildren, and great grandchildren support each other and celebrate her complicated, but authentic life: a life really devoted to service of God, her family, and her country, probably in that order. After the funeral, we gathered at David's cousins' house, which felt satisfying, but soon we had to brave the storm to go home. A 22 minute drive took us two hours, but thank God, we made it home safely. To say that the day was emotionally draining was an understatement: we all had headaches and sore eyes from crying all day, and by 9:30 p.m. I felt like I had run a marathon.

Today has been all about rest and revitalization. My massage therapist and I mutually agreed to cancel my appointment today. I showered, prayed, meditated, did my physical therapy exercises, roasted a chicken and brussel sprouts for dinner, took Kacy on a short walk, did one load of laundry, took very few phone calls (although I chatted with my sister for almost one hour), and watched "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on my Netflix instant que. Oh, and now I'm blogging. And that's it! I needed to have a self-care day to decompress from the tensions of the week. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which might be the subject of my next blog post.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shomeret Duty

Last night was my first time acting as shomeret at the mikvah since I fell seriously ill in early 2007. A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath composed of tap and rain water mixed together. It is used at various transition points, such as after a woman's menstrual period, before marriage, and as the final step in conversion to Judaism. A shomeret is a woman who witnesses another woman's immersion to make sure she is completely covered by the water and has correctly prepared her body pre-immersion. Some mikvaot [plural of "mikvah"] have paid shomrot [plural of "shomeret"], but the one at my synagogue is completely staffed by volunteers. Participation is critical, because an immersion usually isn't valid unless it is witnessed.

I was struck last night by how gratifying this service is. Women using the mikvah may be vulnerable; some of them are desperate to conceive, and others may be using the mikvah for the first time after a miscarriage. I'd argue that anyone using the mikvah is a little vulnerable, since you're naked in front of a peer for a short period of time. There can be a lot of emotion caught up in mikvah use as well; I believe there is a conspiracy of fantasy among Orthodox Jews when it comes to discussing taharat hamishpacha (the laws of family purity, which govern when you can be physically intimate with your partner). There are many books talking about the "gift" of taharat hamishpacha to your marriage, usually all along the same lines: your marriage will be revitalized by the regular cycle of abstaining from sex. When you are finally able to make love again, it'll feel like the first time, and other bullshit along those lines. I'd love to write a real-life manual for Orthodox women, which would include the following:

*You are most likely to be amorous during the time that you're forbidden from having sex
*You will resent the assumption that you will have sex on your set mikvah night. Furthermore, since you can only go after dark, you will be too tired to have sex after a long day at work followed by preparing for immersion and actually running the errand itself.
*Going to the mikvah will usually not be the ultra-spiritual experience promised in books on taharat hamishpacha.

I think this would be a self-published book, as I don't see Feldheim Publishers picking it up. I don't mean to be negative; my feelings about using the mikvah have waxed and waned over 14 years of use, and there are some really beautiful things about it. I just resent the rose-colored glasses that color traditional forums that discuss this topic.

Anyway, back to shomeret duty. For the reasons mentioned above and many others, I feel like the quality of a woman's mikvah experience can be the difference between her choosing to follow this mitzvah [commandment] or not, or the difference between her finding it tolerable or not, and I think the quality of her shomeret has a lot to do with that. Last night, I felt like by being pleasant, hopefully soothing, and respectful of women's privacy to the degree that I could be, I made a difference in the quality of their experience. I think being a shomeret carries a lot of privilege with it: at the very least, you make a routine errand pleasant; at the most, perhaps you give positive energy to someone who hopes to conceive that month.  I was grateful to be able to be of service in this capacity.

Ironically, one of the women who immersed last night said, "Weren't you one of the people who started this mikvah?" I said I was the president at the time it opened. She went on to effusively thank me for my work and say how much she enjoys using this mikvah. That really touched my heart, especially because she identified herself as non-Orthodox. To me, that is really a mark of success for what the D.C. mikvah has accomplished: if people from outside the immediate religious community feel comfortable there, we must be doing something right. 

In an odd twist on this, my ability to give service in this capacity is dramatically tied to my recovery from food addiction. There are minimum observance requirements for shomrot stipulated in Jewish legal texts, and one of the most basic is that the shomeret keeps kosher, which means adhering to Jewish dietary laws. Most of the members of my synagogue keep kosher kitchens at home, but don't fully keep kosher, meaning they eat food prepared in non-kosher establishments (I try not to have judgments about this, until otherwise-smart people go to great lengths to convince themselves that their fish is not being handled by the tongs that are toasting the BLT next to it. Or that their vegetarian pizza cooking in the 600 degree oven is segregated from the pepperoni and sausage pie one tray away. As someone who worked in food service, I can tell you this is laughable). Because most of my synagogue members don't strictly keep kosher, we have trouble finding qualified shomrot in our community.

When our mikvah opened in July 2005, I was still leading an outwardly Orthodox lifestyle, but bingeing almost daily on non-kosher food. I came to a crossroads: was it more important to spend a lot of money at Burger King and feel guilty all the time about my hypocrisy, or could I actually make something in my life more important than food? Because that's what I'd have to do if I wanted to give much-needed service to the mikvah. I chose to put the needs of my community above my own desires, which happened to be soul-killing, and that dovetailed nicely with recovering from my food addiction. I make no promises about not eating in non-kosher restaurants "forever," but for today, I'm sticking with that choice, and I'm glad I made it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My "Laugh Out Loud" Playlist

Today has been really crummy. Nothing bad has happened; the problems are of my mind's own making, mostly stemming from my (unfair) comparison of myself to a friend.  I write a list every night of things that I'm grateful for, and tonight's top honor goes to my "laugh out loud" playlist on my iPod. I can't not laugh when I listen to it. Here's what made it on, with brief comments. Please leave other song candidates for this playlist as comments.

1. "Thank God for Jack Daniels" by the Sex Slaves. Winning lyric: "Thank you lord for Jack Daniels, thank you lord for saving me/the only thing that keeps me from the devil/is another glass of that good ole Tennessee ... the only thing that's better than Jack Daniels, is drinking my Jack Daniels for free."

2. "Fever For the Flava" by Hot Action Cop. I laugh at the mere thought of this song, an ode to cunnilingus. I can't decide what's funnier: that a band actually wrote this, or that my husband heard it played on a radio station in Florida. I guess the only funny lyric I'm comfortable quoting is, "Here we go, yo, here's the scenario: gonna strip you down like a car in the barrio."

3. "Totally F**ked" by the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakenings. I guess the opening line says it best: "There's a moment you know, you're f**cked/not an inch more room to self-destruct."

4. "Schadenfreude" by the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q. This whole song is a riot, with examples of schadenfreude abounding, including "Watching a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken/or watching a frat boy realize just what he put his dick in." But my favorite example of schadenfreude has always been, "Being on an elevator when somebody yells, 'hold the door!"/No! 'F**k you, lady, that's what stairs are for!'" I've been on both sides of that elevator door.

5. "Betty and Me" by Jonathan Coulton. Lest you think that I'm only amused by sex and vulgarity, here is a clean song that makes me laugh! This is just a clever little ditty.

6. "Flakes" by Frank Zappa. Kudos for me being sophisticated enough at age 13 to get the brilliance of this song! Years of homeownership have only affirmed its wisdom: "Flakes flakes! They can't fix your brakes/You ask em, 'where's my motor?'/'Well, it was eaten by snakes'/You can stab n' shoot n' spit/but they won't be fixin' it."

7. "I Won't Be Home for Christmas" by Blink 182. Scrooge at its best! "It's Christmas time again/it's time to be nice to the people you can't stand all year/I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer."

8. "Merry F**cking Christmas" from Comedy Central's "South Park." What's up with the Jewish girl having two Christmas-related songs on her playlist? After a string of other ridiculous insults to other faiths that don't celebrate Christmas, Mr. Garrison says, "Hey there Mr. Shintoist, merry f**king Christmas, God is gonna kick your ass, you infidelic pagan scum." Even typing that makes me laugh.

9. "Ikea" by Jonathan Coulton. Sheer genius! "Long ago in days of yore/It all began with a god named Thor/There were Vikings and boats/And some plans for a furniture store/It's not a bodega, it's not a mall/And they sell things for apartments smaller than mine/As if there were apartments smaller than mine." Ikea totally deserves a song.

10. "If You Were Gay" by the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q. Nicky trying to lure Rod out of the deep closet he's in is just funny.

11. And on that note, "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada," also from Avenue Q. Watching Rod dig deeper into that already deep closet makes me laugh.

12. "Ebay" by Weird Al Yankovic. This song is to Ebay what "Ikea" is to, well, Ikea! A parody of the Back Street Boys' "I Want it That Way," Weird Al nails it:

"Wanna buy (a PacMan Fever lunch box)/Wanna buy (a case of vintage tube socks)/Wanna buy (a Kleenex used by Dr. Dre/Found it on Ebay."

13. "The Internet is for Porn" also from Avenue Q. Kate exclaims, "Normal people don't sit at home and look at porn on the Internet!" Trekkie Monster replies, "Oh?? You have NO idea! Ready normal people..." I think it's a testament to this song's social relevance that my mother quoted it at me yesterday when I told her we learned to fix a toilet by watching how-to videos on YouTube. Her response? "See, the Internet is not just for porn!"

14. and 15. "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love). "More genius from Avenue Q, but what do you expect from writers who thank "Lithium" in their CD liner notes? "Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes/Look around and you will find/No one's really color blind/Maybe it's a fact/We all should face/Everyone makes judgments/Based on race." My mom actually uses this song in her presentations about diversity. She doesn't use "You can be..." that I know of!

Ok, there are a few more Jonathan Coulton songs on my playlist, but my arms are sore and there's a little dog who needs walking, so later!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Elvis's Birthday Fight Club

If the rest of 2011's weekends are as good as the first two, I'm a very lucky girl indeed. Last night, David, two friends, and I went to Elvis's Birthday Fight Club. Yesterday would've been Elvis Presley's 76th birthday, and some geniuses got the idea that nothing would better celebrate the King's birth (no, not that King! That was Dec. 25) than fighting and "hot ta-tas," as the evening's hostess explained.

They had two shows planned, both of which quickly sold out, but we were lucky enough to get tickets for a hastily-added show. We went out in the freezing cold to get these, then had to go back home for a while before heading out again. We waited 20 minutes in the freezing cold to get in, and it was totally worth it. We were treated to an hour of fake boxing, complete with punch and whammy sound effects. They pitted Abe Lincoln v. The Washington Monument. Abe was kicking some ass, but when he stopped to catch his breath, the Monument opened a panel on his front, pulled out a gun, and shot President Lincoln! His dying words were, "Every time I go to the theater!"

We also enjoyed a round between Sarah "Mama Grizzly" Palin and a really fugly "she-male," which is their term, not mine. I'm still trying to get the image out of my mind, but you can see his/her backside in my photo stream. Another winning bout matched Colonel Sanders against a giant chicken! It looked like the Colonel was going to be victorious over a chicken yet again, until he stopped and said, "In my day, we used to keep the white and dark meat separate ...," which was met with a resounding cry of boos from the audience. At that point, the chicken put the KFC bucket over the Colonel's head, tied the Karate Kid-style headband around his chickeny brow, and did the famous crow karate kick made famous by Ralph Macchio in the final scene of the competition in "The Karate Kid." This was complete with that cheesy song, "you're the best around, nothing's gonna ever keep you down," just one example of the care that went into selecting great music for this. Another example was the two burlesque dancers mock-fighting to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The picture above is from the fight between Mr. Roboto and The Washington Monument. It was comforting to hear the mega geeks behind us loudly singing the chorus to Styx's "Mr. Roboto." Mr. Roboto later was defeated by the chicken after she laid eggs and pelted the robot with them, thus ruining his delicate electronics.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Ok, sounds like a good fight club, but what about the hot ta-tas promised?" Don't worry, we were treated to excellent burlesque between the rounds by Reverend Valentine and L'il Dutch. I've seen L'il Dutch dance before and I've enjoyed her both times. Her best number was a striptease done to "Viva Las Vegas." She had fuzzy dice attached to the back of her thong, and her pasties were roulette wheels. She had a cute poker chip hat as an accessory. Rev. Valentine did a good striptease to "Jailhouse Rock," complete with a ball and chain attached to her ankle. My friend Shoshana and I found it oddly comforting that L'il Dutch, though beautiful, has a little meat on her bones, and it cracks me up that she says on her Web site that she is a lifetime member of Weight Watchers.

The only thing that could've made this night better (besides doing fake blow in the bathroom with my fake Elvis TCB (Taking Care of Business in a flash) cash) would've been kicking ass at Elvis trivia. Oh yeah, I did that! The hostess asked if anyone knew a lot about Elvis and all four of my companions started loudly pointing and saying, "Oh, she does! Pick her!" I was completely unprepared for this, and thus was wearing brown Uggs with a heather gray cashmere sweater. Oh well! It was me vs. a punk daring to call himself "Elvis Aron." Announcer "Elvis" stood between fake Elvis and me, and we fake-punched his arms with boxing gloves to ring in to answer a question. We battled it out over Elvis-related trivia in front of an audience of 100-120 people. I beat the punk solidly, and received a trophy: a banana-shaped dish in honor of Elvis' love of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. By the way, you haven't lived if you haven't eaten one; you laugh and judge it now, but make one, and you'll be an instant convert. Must be cooked in lard or butter for the full effect (that includes you, vegans), best summed up as "cardiac bypass on a plate."

I went into last night feeling pretty crummy from a cold-virus thingy, and I've undoubtedly prolonged my illness from the late night, hooting and hollering, and being so jazzed I couldn't fall asleep until 12:30 a.m. It was completely worth it, and it made me grateful to live in the city where we could access something so fun at the drop of a hat. In a strange way, events like that also solidify David's and my partnership with each other, because how many couples share that bawdy, gross, adolescent sense of humor? How many women are like, "Hey, honey, want to see burlesque and a fight club Saturday night?" Bonding over this type of shared humor is fun, and usually ends up with David giving me some kind of warm-fuzzy complement like, "The fact that we're doing this is just one more reason that you're the perfect woman for me." Aww... everyone wins!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Long Weekend Of Good Art

I heard about the band Gogol Bordello for the first time on NPR's On Point radio show, my favorite podcast. Host Tom Ashbrook was interviewing GB's singer, Eugene Hutz, and asked him to describe the world-famous GB concerts. Hutz's response: "It's like a great, cosmic orgasm." I knew I had to hear this band. The group is best described as gypsy punk, but they are a group of eight people from all over the world, and their collective cultural heritages seem to come out in the music. Besides their great sound, what really captivates me about GB is their catchy, yet profound, lyrics. This first struck me when I heard "Zina-Marina," a catchy-as-hell little ditty that happens to be about ... sex trafficking. Hutz told Ashbrook that the song was inspired by a trip back to his native country, Ukraine, when he noticed that all the beautiful women were gone. He asked someone about it, who said that they are recruited as overseas "models" and are sold into sex trafficking.

In a similar vain of catchy, but pointed, songwriting, Hutz sings in "Break the Spell," a song about prejudice against the Roma, "You love our music, but you hate our guts. I know you still want me to ride the back of the bus." Ouch!

A great GB classic is "American Wedding,"(video link here), which manages to capture the boring nature of most American weddings. This is where attending mostly Orthodox Jewish weddings has spoiled me: they make most other American weddings, including other Jewish-but-not-Orthodox weddings, seem lovely but ... boring (no offense meant if you had one!) Thus, "American Wedding" cracks me up.

Anyway, back to their show: it was as close to a cosmic orgasm as I could imagine -- I have never seen a band more masterfully work their crowd. The fans, and GB, were loving it, and they played a good mix of old favorites and lots of stuff from the new album. It was a great time, and even though my feet were killing me from standing for 4.5 hours (the club is standing-room only), it was really worth it. In the coolest move ever, after the encore, one of the band members announced that they would meet fans at the after party at the bar across the street from the club! How cool! If I had the stamina, I would've gone.

Kudos to the 9:30 Club for having free Wi-Fi so I could play my Scrabble games against David and my sister in between the acts. One of those opening acts, Man Man, was the most hilarious performances I have ever seen. These guys, whom David points out have not one, but two, xylophones, had their faces painted and all started off wearing white shorts that look ridiculous on grown men. The singer ended up wearing a bunch of different outfits, including a flasher-style trench coat, and a beaded ladies' tunic. Man Man's act was so bizarre and funny to me, I literally had tears of laughter streaming down my face. As for their music, I can't improve upon David's description: "Imagine if Frank Zappa hired Devo to play klezmer music, and added Tony Clifton as a frontman."

Our second great arts experience of New Year's weekend was seeing the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Candide. It had gotten rave reviews from media in D.C., but it really upped the ante to see it when my mom -- who lives in Memphis, TN, -- said she had heard it was incredible. In a moment of serendipity, the day after that conversation with my mom, I got a Goldstar notice that they had $30 tickets for Candide over the weekend. I never read "Candide," so I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed the show. The subject matter at hand is whether the doctrine of Optimism -- whether everything that happens is for the best and furthers God's plan -- is viable or true (Voltaire's answer, and mine, is a resonant "no.") Interestingly, I have a devout Mormon friend who believes this, that everything that happens is part of God's plan. This has come up with her in several discussions, and I always have a universes colliding moment, because that is so not my worldview, or that of my faith. Anyway, back to the play: it managed to be amusing, cheeky, provocative, and entertaining for a full three hours. The acting, music, and sets were really awesome, and I felt privileged to have seen it. I was pleased that the male and female leads were both in the Broadway show "Rock of Ages," which of course you knew about since you read my blog post about when I met Dee Snider.

We had a tiring weekend, since both the concert and musical meant that we couldn't go to bed until past 12:30 a.m., but we really enjoyed ourselves and got to experience two very different kinds of great art.

One of the things that occurred to me when we saw the play was how awesome Washington theater has gotten in the past decade. I don't recall D.C. being a great theater town when I moved here in 1994; the Kennedy Center was the most prolific professional theater around. Now there are tons of great theater companies doing all kinds of quality theater, and what limits my theater going is money, not lack of desirable options. There is such a variety and glut of good choices, David and I have resisted subscribing to any one theater, preferring to not be locked into one company and being able to pick and choose. My dream would be some kind of collective theater subscription, where a bunch of theaters pooled subscriptions and I could pay for a package of shows at different places.