Happy New Year?

I received a notification informing us that donations to Michigan food banks will no longer be tax-deductible after December 31, 2011, which coincides with the expiration of federal extended unemployment insurance programs.  The expiration of federal extensions will immediately drop 2 million unemployed from the rolls and millions more will follow as state benefits expire in 2012.  Also heralding in the New Year, Michigan will reduce unemployment compensation to a maximum of 20 weeks from 26, the standard of all states for more than 50 years.  Because unemployment compensation is designed only to cover living expenses, it is commonly accepted that all of these monies are promptly dumped back into our lagging economy.  A doom and gloom outlook for the unemployed and needy has been the forecast for a few years now, but the perfect storm of 2012 will add to poverty statistics at a head-spinning rate.  My inclination to seek out positive and humorous perspectives about any given situation has become more challenging, but I think I can do it for the remainder of 2011.

With the holiday season approaching my thoughts predictably turn to what I am thankful for and what Jesus gifted me with on the day he was born.  If there were ever a time to relish the present, it is now.  I plan to savor Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with my family members who are currently healthy, fed, housed, and humorous.  My focus is on blessings that money cannot buy nor replace, such as loving and supportive friendships and a stable marriage.  We will give what we can, not for the benefit of a tax deduction, but because we appreciate the need to share our bounty now more than ever.  People are pulling together, one of the few upsides to our economic climate, and I believe we will experience more brotherhood in the coming year.  While Christmas commercials and electronic ads are inundating a broke America in a futile effort to pry money from near empty wallets, we will buy gifts from local crafters, small businesses, wineries, and breweries.  2012 promises to be a challenging year, but I plan to have a rocking good time during what remains of 2011 and adopt a Scarlett O’Hara attitude of not thinking about it today.  Helping me to delay thoughts of next year is The Michigan Beer Cellar, the only micro-brewery in Michigan that is also a winery and artisan distillery,  conveniently located only a few blocks away.

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Dakota Fanning is deemed provocative in the U.K.

And ad for Dakota Fanning’s Oh Lola! perfume has been banned in the U.K. by the Advertising Standards Authority because they say it sexualizes a child.  The ASA stated that the following helped form their ruling, “We considered that the length of her dress, her leg and position of the perfume bottle drew attention to her sexuality.”  While I would not sport her ultra-girly dress at my age, feminine lace dresses on younger women are a stylish trend created by several designers for the 2011 Fall and Winter collections.  I see them in every fashion magazine I pick up, typically on young stars like Selena Gomez.  In one article I read about the Oh Lola! ad’s ban the author states that Dakota Fanning is wearing a “provocative stare”, which makes me question the author’s vision, as well as my own.  Am I so desensitized to sexy stares that I do not recognize one, or do I not equate sexiness with innocence?  Perhaps a bit of both, but what is deemed sexual is unique to an individual.  That is why people masturbate to images of feet, hands, pudding, or any other seemingly benign photo.

Although Dakota Fanning is 17 years old, they say she looks under the age of 16, which piqued my interest in British teenage style.  On the BBC’s teen fashion site Slink (a provocative title, don’t you think?) it seems on the other side of the pond sequined mini skirts are all the rage on the teen scene .  I would not have allowed my teenage daughter to wear what I term a hooker skirt, even with a grunge t-shirt, but perhaps the hookers in the U.K. wear little lace dresses and go around staring provocatively to lure in their clients.

Also deemed provocative by the ASA is the placement of the perfume bottle, which I chalk up to a natural male tendency to see phallic symbols everywhere.  A woman is more likely to note the blossoming flower atop the bottle.  While I strongly believe in protecting young women from exploitation, the written opinions of the ASA and media exploit Dakota Fanning more than Marc Jacobs with over-the-top sexual descriptions such as the Daily Mail’s “she tilts back lasciviously”.  What they have accomplished is to direct pedophiles to this ad by tying enticingly illicit  and child-like descriptions together.  The below photos of Emma Watson are from a complimentary article in the Daily Mail about her modelling career and a Burberry ad with her little brother in which I easily recognize provocative stares.

The Village

Relocating from the city to a village surrounded by apple orchards and woodlands has been a positive experience, for the most part.  The culture is simpler here; a local art revue with centerpieces of apple sculptures, a Celtic Festival, the annual Town & Country fair, and the small building whose only function is as Santa’s house during the three weeks of Old Fashioned Christmas, epitomize our small-town community.  We know our neighbors and everyone except one snotty couple waves to us when we turn onto our street.  If we want to know the happenings around the village, or even if we don’t, Johnny from across the street is a better reporter than those on the evening news, often delivering tabloid-type tidbits such as who drinks too much, who was arrested or picked up by an ambulance, and which relationship just broke up.  He inherited his reporting skills from his dad who will eagerly entertain us with both saucy and factual history dating back forty years.  They are the reason I pull our shades down the moment darkness arrives.  There isn’t anything gossip-worthy happening in our house, but privacy makes for more comfortable evenings.  Thanks to those two and the rest of our slightly less watchful neighbors, I do feel safer here than I ever did in the city where it seemed the primary goal was to avoid eye contact.  They tell me that most people do not lock their doors, but spending my formative years falling asleep to sirens instilled security habits that cannot be overturned.

My husband fits in here more than I do, probably because he grew up surrounded by seven acres of farmland and woods where he and his playmates had free rein.  He adapted instantly, often performing acts of kindness such as snow blowing the neighbors’ driveways simply because there is a foot of snow and they brighten our days with their waves and smiles.  They return the favor, too, showing up if they hear a hammer or power tools and snow blowing our driveway after a morning blizzard.  It is a sweet joy to discover a clean driveway when you are imagining and dreading hours of work during your commute home.  Our next-door neighbor Linda feeds our cat when we go on vacation and baked my husband cookies as a thank you for his thoughtfulness.  I can wander over there with any question or request and she and her husband Don are unfailingly helpful.

The tellers at the bank and clerks at the grocery store, gas station, and video rental recognize me and exchange friendly chit-chat when I am out running errands.  It takes a little longer, but a few minutes are a trivial price for the personalized service and feeling of belonging that they gift me with.  Slowly, but effectively, they are wearing down my unnecessary defenses.

The village has changed since we moved in eleven years ago.  Streetlights were replaced by retro-style lamp posts downtown where our village taxes also paid for brick walkways and benches outside tiny mom and pop shops and restaurants.  A couple of years ago they installed a traffic light by the new energy-efficient high school and a long-time resident opened a hugely popular Mexican restaurant that attracts folks from the city.  I can handle the rate of change here.  This village is my respite with the biggest disruption being the children playing at the park across the road.  I can face the world outside of our village because of the comforting balm of home that I begin to feel when I drive past Potato Joe’s farmer’s market sign which always sports common-sense quotes such as the current, “A clear conscience is usually a sign of a bad memory.”  Makes sense to me.

Chasing Z’s

Sleep is an elusive and unpredictable bitch that switches up the timing of her escape between very late at night and much too early in the morning.  She requires that I court her all day long in order to gain a slim possibility of a rare eight-hour stretch that will leave me feeling like I won the lottery.  At least once a week I see or hear the sleep courtship rules that we have all memorized by now.  The advice to not drink caffeine or exercise late in the evening is like receiving instructions on how to tie my shoes at this point.  The only reason I continue to tune in is my hope for a new fix, just as I continue to read money-saving articles in hopes of something other than the advice to skip $5 lattes.  Note Starbucks’ success and the public’s tendency to follow that advice.

The number of adults that report trouble falling and staying asleep is on the rise, with approximately 17% reporting severe insomnia.  Ironically, as we become increasingly stimulated we are getting less rest.  The primary cause, however, is that the hypothalamus gland begins decreasing production of the human growth hormone associated with deep sleep in one’s early 30’s.  Peak production in the teenage years was responsible for those dreamy days of sleeping well into the afternoon (sigh).  I wonder if it is our body’s way of telling us that the older we get the less time we have to waste.I would love to wage an argument, but have learned that my body does not alter its’ course no matter how valid my debate is. A new study states that 80% of women report feeling too stressed or worried to fall asleep and 30% are now taking sleep aids.  According to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical intelligence agency, nearly double the number of women aged 40 to 59 were prescribed sleep medications than men in the same age group.  Perhaps this “intelligence agency” is somehow sabotaging our hypothalamus so that women do not take over the world…probably not, but that term makes me paranoid nonetheless.  The most prescribed sleep aid is Ambien.  I took Ambien for a year and it was very effective; knocked me out within 5 minutes.  The only side effect I experienced was sleep walking and eating snacks.  Potato chips were my sleep eating choice, but because I loved the deep Ambien slumber I ignored the chip evidence until I was busted.  During a visit my daughter and son-in-law witnessed me walk to the cabinet, grab the chips, and munch away on the couch with my eyes closed.  Of course they were laughing and asking me questions, but it seems my sleeping self was very focused on the chips.  Lucky for all of us, I had heard about the possibility of sleep walking, eating, and even driving, and always slept in pajamas.  I became afraid of what else I may be doing while asleep and night sweats began to make pajamas unbearable, so I weaned myself off Ambien with the help of Benadryl.  My doctor preferred that I try Trazadone over the Benadryl and although it is not nearly as effective as Ambien, it does make me drowsy enough to fall asleep by midnight most nights.  D.H. Lawrence expertly and lovingly described a night-long sleep:  And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.  Good night.

Essential and unsurpassed friendships

I will ask your forgiveness at the outset of this post for my sentimental remembrances of friendships that have been cornerstones to my uncharacteristic character and offer my advancing age as the only excuse for this mushiness.  The time to give credit where credit is due has arrived and I can no longer keep them unvoiced in my head.

She knows who she is, the friend who risked her popularity to befriend me, a clear underdog in a harsh teen landscape.  We bonded over cigarettes, painful childhood secrets which had never before been shared, and belly aching laughter that made the tears stream down our faces.  I never understood why other girls were intimidated by her, but her protection saved me more than once and bullies steered clear of me for the first time in my life.  She made loving gestures, surprising me with cards, posters, and even a birthday party.  Her love helped me grow strong, confident, and free to be silly.  She has downplayed her impact on my life when I have tried to impart how happy she made me.  Have you ever noticed how generous people do that?

She knows who she is, the tenacious friend that I could not shake during the darkest period of my life.  She did not run from my overwhelming grief over losing my infant son.  It seemed to last forever and I gave her nothing, yet she expressed her love for me every single day of those two years.  I wanted to be left alone with my pain, not even answering the phone most of the time.   She would leave simple answering machine messages saying, “You don’t have to talk to me, but I am here if you want to.  I just wanted to let you know I love you and am thinking of you today.  Please let me know if you need anything and I will be there.”  And she was there, even though I rarely let her know.  She was the friend that loved me out of it, that helped me see that good still existed and it went by her name.

She knows who she is, the friend that shared her creativity and became a safe haven for mine.  She encouraged me to write and found value in pieces that I believed were garbage.  She is better than Strunk & White and was my first editor.  Our visits are an encouraging fix for me that fill my creative well and result in positive forward motion.  It is believed that friends are mirrors of our own selves.  In her case, she is often my best self.

He knows who he is, the volunteer who recognized how overwhelmed I was and generously offered to help with whatever I allowed.  Although he dislikes the term, he IS smart and shares his intelligence with me at a rate that my brain cannot absorb.  The most valuable knowledge I have gained from his friendship is how happiness can be derived more so from life’s simple aspects such as nature, food, giving of oneself, camaraderie, and butter pecan ice cream than from temporary material goods.  I now treasure my experiences and memories more than I did before I knew him.  He is an interesting combination of stimulation and serenity.  I hope that one day I can accept myself as wholly as he accepts me (and himself).

Lastly there are my two best friends, the one that gave me life and the other that gave me new life when she was born.  Although bonded by blood and mother-daughter love, our friendship was not guaranteed, but we actually like one another.  Our similar independent natures require that we each have differing views and personalities, yet no one could tell our cores apart.  It is the personification of friends mirroring one another.  They are both fiercely loyal, opinionated, and brutally honest.  I know them like I know myself.  We are like a stout tripod that cannot be tipped.

My public gushing may very well be influenced by my bouncing hormones, but my appreciation of my friends has always been there, unexpressed until now.

The case of the disappearing 401k

Either I am a cynic or the only one not drinking the Kool-Aid.  The bit I saved for retirement is invested in a 401k with a perfect risk ratio, according to the financial wizards, for someone who wishes to retire in 2035.  I followed the expert’s advice to not fret during the past year, which for me meant not even logging in to review the monthly online statements.  Stay the course is what they say.  The market has always had highs and lows and long-term investors always win.  Really?   I share both a blood type and a Myer-Briggs personality type with 1% of the population and my body temperature is 97 degrees, so 99 degrees IS a fever, damn it.  Based on these statistics and other life events I have learned to not depend on the word “always”.

But, I digress…likely because I just looked at my 401k balance and all I can see is 2035 turning into 2050, at which time I’ll be 82.  Judging from the European news, I could easily blame it all on Greece.  My inquisitive nature demanded that I take a closer look at what is happening there, and from what I found Greeks are not much different from us.  They work about 41 hours per week and the average age of retirement is 65.  But wait, there are differences in that they cannot count on being paid and average pay is between 600 and 800 Euros per month ($960-$1,280 per month).  What I found most interesting is that Greek citizens claim that their country’s financial crisis is due to tax evasion by the wealthy and corruption within the banking and political systems.  And then there is some nonsense about their banks being too big to fail.

While my brain tries to wrap around this global screwing of working people, it also races to figure out how I can stop the siphoning of my bitty retirement fund.  I may not be thinking clearly as I picture the richest men in the world sitting around a table planning to annually steal 5% of every retirement account in the world as if they actually need it.  I wonder if they think I am stupid, if we are all stupid.  The only course of action I can think of right now is to spend it all before they can get their greedy little hands on it.  Fortunately I have learned that when I am in a highly emotional state good decisions do not follow.  For now, we are stopping all 401k contributions.  The coffee can buried in the back yard savings plan is an option, but then there is China devaluing the dollar which has me imagining what it must have been like to have a bunch of Confederate cash in 1865.  I wish I would have continued my ignorance is bliss approach.  Where the hell is that Kool-Aid?