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I want you to get mad

In the 1976 film Network, a TV newscaster named Howard Beale announces on TV:  “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  He’s irate, angry with the state of the world, and he tells his viewers:  “I want you to get up and yell ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’” 

I re-watched Network recently, and Howard Beale’s words have stuck with me.  Until now, I’ve written very little about politics, but the current state of things has pushed me to finally speak up.  Like Howard Beale, I’m mad as hell, and I don’t think I can take this anymore.

TWO KEY POINTS:

  1.  THE OVERWHELMING IMPORTANCE OF VOTING

Much of our country is now in the grip of—or is moving toward–minority rule.  State legislatures like that in Texas have assumed minority control, and they are dictating their desires to the entire state, whether the majority agrees with them or not.  One example is their outrageous legislation banning a woman’s right to choose, a right that was until June enshrined in the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly fifty years.

How can we escape this move toward minority rule?  Lawsuits have been filed, and activists have been clamoring for the U.S. Congress to act, to protect the rights of the majority and thereby protect democracy in our country.

While these lawsuits proceed in the courts, and while the GOP members of Congress sit on their hands, let’s focus on what WE CAN DO.  Every voter in this country must VOTE.  Nothing will change until the majority exercises its right to vote. We urgently need to energize voters to vote—even where voting is hard. Turnout is vital.

Many of us are enraged by the new restrictions placed on voters by the minority-dominated legislatures.  These restrictions, primarily directed toward voters of color, can also diminish the voting rights of older voters and the disabled. 

What can we do?  We can–and we must–encourage all of these voters to vote.  And we need to get them to the polls.  If that means that we need to organize a battalion of vehicles to transport them to the polls, then we should do that.  If that means that voters must deal with the unfair restrictions placed upon them by the new rules, then that’s exactly what they need to do.  Until the unfair rules change, they need to follow the rules.

It may not be easy for everyone to vote, but we need to emphasize how vital it is. Let’s tell voters:  Don’t go to the polls expecting short lines or people handing out bottles of water.  Be prepared for long lines of voters like you.  Bring water and food from home while you wait.  If you’ve been able to use a mail-in ballot in the past, don’t assume you can use it now without following whatever draconian rules have recently been enacted.

Why?  Because you need to follow the rules if you’re going to change anything.  Specifically, to change the people elected to the legislature and the other elected positions that are up for grabs.  Even if you’re in a gerrymandered district, go out and vote.  Lose a day’s pay if necessary.  Wear the most comfortable shoes in your closet.  Bring an umbrella if the forecast is for rain.  In short, do whatever you need to do to exercise your right to vote

The new Texas laws, passed by a legislature dominated by members who do not represent the majority of citizens in their state, make Texas the “poster state” for minority rule.  We need to keep Texas in mind when we encourage people to vote anywhere and everywhere.

I’m encouraged that many groups and individuals are taking steps to promote greater turnout.  Increasing enthusiasm and higher voter registration numbers, especially among women, are immensely encouraging signs.

  •  MAKING SURE YOUR VOTE IS COUNTED

We have an even greater challenge:  Confronting those who advocate that we do not honor the outcomes of rightful elections.  These candidates and others will not commit to honoring the will of the voters.  Win or lose, they want to proclaim victory and remain in power forever, creating a one-party state.

We need to do whatever we can to clamp down on this alarming trend.

These “election deniers,” who have falsely claimed that the ex-president won the 2020 election, appear up and down November ballots throughout the U.S.  Many are contending for local and state offices, like the state offices that run elections–the secretaries of state–that are frequently ignored by the electorate.  They have the potential to wreck the orderly administration of elections throughout our country. 

I’m especially disturbed by these efforts to undermine local elections because I have relevant personal experience.  For decades, I worked as a fair and unbiased precinct worker, poll worker, and election judge, and I’m appalled by what’s happening in our country right now.

In 1975, I moved to Wilmette, a North Shore suburb of Chicago, with my husband and one-year-old child.  At first, I didn’t have a job as a lawyer or as a law school professor (both of which I’d previously done), and I had no other meaningful employment outside the home. Because I had a lifelong interest in politics, I immediately searched for ways to get involved in politics in Wilmette.

It turned out that Wilmette was embedded in a largely Republican part of Cook County.  Village officeholders were chosen in nonpartisan elections, but other officeholders, such as our member of Congress, faced highly competitive elections.

Wilmette was in New Trier Township, which covered much of the North Shore, and I came across the New Trier Democratic Organization, filled with energetic Democrats who hoped to get more Democrats elected locally, statewide, and nationwide.  I allied with NTDO, volunteering to work in my precinct to elect Democrats in the November 1976 election.  In the beginning, I went door-to-door to learn who was likely to vote for Democrats.  I would then mark up a publicly-available list of voters and give it to my precinct captain, helping to get Democratic-leaning voters to the polls on Election Day.  Soon I became a precinct captain myself.

Even after I was hired to teach at a downtown Chicago law school, I chose to work part-time only, primarily to spend time with my children but also to be able to pursue other interests.  My darling husband (always supportive of whatever pursuit I chose) was a university math professor who could work on his math at home and otherwise had a flexible academic schedule, and he would often assume responsibility for our children.

So I continued to devote time to volunteer efforts related to electoral politics.  I eventually worked my way up to sit on the NTDO executive committee.  (More about that—and our pivotal endorsements–another time.)  Although I generally supported Democratic candidates, I respected Republican candidates and officeholders and those who worked to support them.

Two of my favorite efforts were 1) serving as a poll worker, monitoring the proceedings at an election site on Election Day, and 2) serving as an election judge, working as one of the two parties’ judges, checking in voters and tallying up votes at the end of the day.

Politics in Wilmette remained highly competitive, but this competition never interfered with the orderly conduct of elections.  On the contrary, everyone worked smoothly together, and I always felt welcome wherever I worked.  Even in the most Republican-dominated part of town, I enjoyed sitting beside and chatting with Republican judges.  Those of us who represented both parties at the polls respected each other and got along remarkably well.

The contrast with electoral politics in 2022 is enormous and truly frightening.  If the election deniers take over running local and state elections, they will not respect their opponents.  They will not tally votes fairly.  They will attempt to work toward their goal of a one-party state.

If they win, what will politics be like for our children and grandchildren?  Will our democracy survive?  Or will tyranny triumph?

Please become aware of election deniers running for office in your community and work to defeat them.  The prospect of their running future elections is horrifying.

As Timothy Snyder has stated in his book, On Tyranny, if we are to avoid tyranny, we must tell everyone:  “Believe in truth.  To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” 

We must “defend our institutions” and do all we can to “beware the one-party state.” 

Finally, Snyder has challenged all of us:  Be as courageous as you can.  If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

This is why I want you to get mad.  This November, voting is more important than ever before.  We need to get out there and vote.  To help others to vote.  And when we vote, we need to oppose those who would undermine our freedom.  Our democracy hangs in the balance.

Totin’ cotton

This may sound silly.  But The New York Times recently focused on a problem you’ve probably never thought about:  “the cotton tote crisis.”

What?  How can cotton tote bags create a crisis?

The Times described a woman who decided to count all of the free cotton tote bags she’d accumulated in her closet.  They totaled 25.  She complained that they’d been foisted on her at a variety of stores and hotels:  “You get them without choosing.”

This woman’s complaint is preposterous.  No one is compelled to accept a cotton or any other kind of tote bag.  When I’m doing errands, like shopping for groceries or other items, I bring along tote bags I already own.  I’ll sometimes take an empty backpack and fill that up with groceries, books, or the like.

But I do admit that I like tote bags and have acquired a lot of them.  Counting them seems absurd, but I’ll bet I have at least 25.  I especially like those that promote my public library, art museums, reading, and causes I support, like the environment.  My favorites at the moment?  One from the Save-the-Redwoods League, another from the California State Parks Foundation, both sent to me in return for a small donation.

But the question remains:  Is there really a crisis?

It turns out that there is a crisis.  But it’s a crisis that goes far beyond one’s possession of a heap of tote bags.  The crisis arises out of possessing everything that’s made of cotton.

Why?  Because cotton is itself an environmental hazard.  First, growing cotton takes up a lot of land, and it has “a big carbon footprint.”  As Tatiana Schlossberg has explained, producing the world’s cotton supply for use in textiles results in over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.  It also uses a lot of chemicals like insecticides and fertilizers.  But according to Schlossberg, the biggest problem with growing cotton is how much water it uses. [Schlossberg’s 2019 book, Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, is worth reading.]

The media are currently full of stories about the increasing worldwide shortage of water.  Global water supplies are seriously stressed.  Drought in the western United States is notably causing huge problems, leading to harsh restrictions on water usage that will probably hit residents who’ve blown off the warnings for years.  Farmers will bear most of the impact, causing predicted shortages in our food supply.

The story in the Times backs up these conclusions.  It notes the many problems with cotton, quoting a University of Maine professor that cotton is “so water-intensive.”   Others state that another serious issue, forced labor, is involved in the production of cotton.

As for tote bags, according to the Times, a Danish study concluded in 2018 that an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times “to offset its overall impact of production.”  I’m not quite sure how that figure was arrived at, but, okay, let’s agree that we don’t need all of the cotton tote bags that are currently produced.  Stores use them as “mobile billboards,” possibly helping them boost their sales. Charities use tote bags to promote their more virtuous goals.  But cutting back in either case is probably a good idea.

Think about alternatives.  The string bags popular in Europe might be adequate for your needs.  If you’re handy with needle and thread, try cutting up old clothes and sewing them into colorful tote bags. Keep using the bags you already have.  But don’t forget: Plastic bags are far worse for the environment and should never be considered a desirable option.

At the same time, we don’t need a lot of the fashion items that use cotton.  That inexpensive dress from H&M? That sharp cotton shirt from Macy’s?  Another pair of Levi’s? Yes, these may look great, but I’ll bet that your closet’s already full.  Let’s not buy any more than we need.

Can we substitute other textiles for cotton? Suggestions abound.  Recycled cotton may be an alternative.  Hemp is another.  Recycled plastic water bottles?  Yes!

The real goal here:  Reducing the production and sale of unnecessary items made of cotton. Clothes, of course. Tote bags, too.

Please keep this question in mind:  How many pairs of jeans do you really need?  Think about it.  The same answer ought to apply to tote bags, cotton and otherwise.

Giraffe grannies

In the midst of the doom and gloom surrounding us on a daily basis, I offer some news that may brighten your outlook.

There are certainly more consequential things to write about.  But let’s think about something else for a change: the pivotal role of grandmothers in the animal world. 

Yes, grandmothers.

In a recent issue of National Wildlife, published by the National Wildlife Federation, writer Mark Wexler highlights the role of giraffe grandmothers.

I’ve always viewed giraffes as the most graceful and charming of animals.  I’ve probably been swayed by photos of giraffes bending their long necks towards and around each other. But according to Wexler, until two decades ago, giraffes were believed to be basically aloof and lacking any social structure. 

Guess again.  Biologists at the University of Bristol have reviewed over 400 scientific studies of giraffe behavior and reached a very different conclusion.

It turns out that graceful, elegant, apparently aloof giraffes have highly complex social systems.  Most notably, these often include small groups led by older females, who spend as much as 30 percent of their lives after their reproductive years.

The biologists suggest that giraffes fit the “grandmother hypothesis,” the idea that females in certain species survive beyond their reproductive years so they can help raise later generations of their offspring. 

It now appears that giraffe grandmothers play an important role in raising young giraffes.

Biologists have previously noted this behavior in only a few other mammals.  Which ones?  Orcas, elephants, and–of course–humans.

The behavior of older female orcas is highlighted in a new CNN series about Patagonia.  Colorful footage reveals orca grannies teaching baby orcas how to survive in the treacherous waters along Patagonia’s Atlantic coast.  Others have noted this kind of behavior among elephants.  And I hope we’re all aware of the vital role played by human grandmothers.

The lead author of the British study, Zoe Muller, is baffled that giraffes, “such a…charismatic…species,” have been “under-studied for so long.”  She believes that we can use this newly-revealed understanding of giraffe behavior to bolster the population of giraffes in the wild. 

Apparently, giraffe population has been in decline for many years—by 40 percent since 1985.  But now that we have a better understanding of how this species behaves, Muller believes that conservation measures may be more successful.

I’m hoping that the active role pursued by these grandmothers will help our beautiful co-inhabitants of planet earth survive in greater numbers.  I’d hate to see giraffes disappear from our planet, wouldn’t you?

So let’s celebrate giraffe grandmothers.  And let’s hope that the worldwide population of giraffes will increase rather than decline. 

Our own grandchildren will be the happy beneficiaries.

My Fight for Reproductive Freedom

Thanks to the recent leak of a draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, the news has been filled with stories about the future of women’s reproductive freedom, guaranteed to American women since the 1973 Supreme Court opinion in Roe v. Wade.

As a young lawyer, I fought for reproductive freedom over 50 years ago.  My co-counsel and I (working as an attorney with the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive 19th-century Illinois abortion law in February 1970. 

We argued for and won a TRO (temporary restraining order) allowing a Legal Aid client, a Black rape victim, to have a legal abortion in March 1970.  And after oral argument in September 1970, we ultimately won a hard-fought 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge court in January 1971.  You can probably read the court’s decision online.  Doe v. Scott, 321 F.Supp. 1385 (N.D.Ill. 1971).

In brief, the court held that the Illinois statute was “an intrusion on constitutionally protected areas…women’s rights to life, to control over their own bodies, and to freedom and privacy in matters related to sex and procreation.”  

I later filed an amicus brief in Roe v. Wade, arguing specifically on behalf of poor women. 

I’m currently engaged in a writing project that focuses on Doe v. Scott.  I plan to answer questions like these:  What led me to stand up for women’s rights, including those of poor and minority women?  How did my experience as a federal judge’s law clerk enable me to pursue a class action of this kind?  And how did our case actually proceed to victory in the conservative federal court in the Northern District of Illinois?

I still have a great deal of work to do to complete this writing project.  It will not be a commentary on the current direction of the Supreme Court, which appears headed to sweep away five decades of women’s reproductive freedom.  It will instead focus on what happened up until 1973, and it will stop there.

In the meantime, I plan to continue to add a new post to my blog about once a month.

Caffeine

I’m addicted.

I admit it.  I’m addicted to caffeine.

I find that I increasingly need caffeine.  It’s become an absolute necessity.  I drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee from about 8 a.m. till about 4 or 5 p.m. Why?  Because I like it.  And because it helps me stay awake when I need to be.

First, a little bit about my relationship to caffeine. 

I remember how my mother drank coffee all day long.  Once I asked her if I could taste it.  I figured that it had to be delicious or she wouldn’t drink so much of it.  So when she said I could taste it, I took a sip.  Yuck!  It tasted terrible.

I didn’t try coffee again until my first year of college, when I discovered that it was drinkable if I put enough milk and sugar in it.  I decided to try it when late-night studying began to take its toll.  I found I’d doze off in class the minute the professor turned off the lights and showed slides on a screen at the front of the classroom.  But I discovered that if I had some caffeine in my breakfast coffee, I could stay awake.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that consuming caffeine is a necessity.  Especially before sitting in a theater, when (as in college classrooms) the lights are dimmed and I need to stay conscious to enjoy a film, a play, a concert, a ballet performance, or an opera.  Although the pandemic has cramped my style, suspending my theater-going, for example, I’ve continued to rely on caffeine while I read or watch TV at home.

Now let’s look at some of the science behind caffeine.  I won’t bore you with the wonkiest stuff, but you probably want to know something about it.

I found this info in the March 2021 issue of Nutrition Action, a monthly newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), my go-to source for honest reporting on healthy food choices and the like.  Here’s a summary of the most useful info:

How does caffeine work?  It blocks adenosine receptors in the brain.  Huh?  What’s adenosine?

Adenosine is a natural sedative.  When it builds up, you feel drowsy.  But when caffeine blocks it, you don’t.

But watch out:  You can build up a tolerance to caffeine.  What happens is this:  The more caffeine you consume, the more adenosine receptors your brain makes.  So you need even more caffeine to block those extra receptors and keep you alert.

But how much is too much?  The FDA says that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams a day.  This is roughly the amount in two large cups of coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  But the amount of caffeine in your home-brewed coffee can vary.  And caffeine’s impact on people varies.

So you need to judge the impact it has on you.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, or too much coffee makes you feel jittery, you probably need to cut back on how much you imbibe, and pay attention to when you’re imbibing.

You can try to break up with coffee, as famed author Michael Pollan has.  He reports “sleeping like a teenager” and waking “feeling actually refreshed.”  But that experience may not work for everyone.

One study asked 66 young caffeine users–who were having trouble sleeping–to go “cold turkey.”  But during the a week with no caffeine, they spent no more time asleep and took no less time to fall asleep than before. 

Still, it’s probably wise to avoid caffeine right before bed.  Studies show that people generally take longer to fall asleep and get less deep sleep when they have caffeine right before bedtime.

Coffee consumption has shown some real benefits.  A lower risk of type 2 diabetes, for one thing.  Better exercise-performance for another.  (Although few studies have looked at the exercise-boosting effect in older adults, one study of 19 Brits aged 61 to 79 showed that they performed better in a battery of physical tests after they consumed caffeine.)  Finally, studies have shown that people who consume more caffeine have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

I get my caffeine in a variety of sources, including coffee, tea, and cola drinks. I also happily consume coffee candy (my favorite is Caffe Rio, available at Trader Joe’s) and coffee ice cream.  I also heartily recommend the cappuccino gelato at my local gelato shop.  But let’s face it:  a cup of coffee packs the most punch.

The recent advent of cold brew coffee allows coffee-drinkers to get their caffeine in a less acidic form.  According to one source, cold brew is over 67 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee because the coffee grounds aren’t exposed to high temperatures.  Result:  cold brew appeals to some of us because it’s sweeter, smoother, and less bitter. (But don’t confuse it with iced coffee, which has the same acidity as regular hot coffee.  The ice can dilute it, however.)  I’ve tried cold brew and like it.  I keep a bottle of it in my fridge and frequently drink some.  But it’s much pricier than my home brew, at least for now.

New sources have popped up.  One may be bottled water.  In the bargain bin at a local supermarket, I once came across a bottle of Sparking Avitae, whose label states that it’s caffeine plus water and natural fruit flavors.  It claims to have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” thereby giving you “instant go with added fizz.” According to the manufacturer, it includes “natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans.”  I’m not sure this product is still available.  Possibly something like it is.  My original purchase is stashed in my fridge, but I’ve never tried it.

Even newer:  I recently spied an ad for a cosmetic product called “Eyes Open Caffeine and Peptide Eye Cream.”   Yes, eye cream.  This one claims to be “supercharged with caffeine,” adding that it can “reduce the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.”  Does it work?  Who knows?  I’d guess that it probably works just about as well as any other eye cream.  Dermatologists generally tell their patients not to expect very much from any of them, no matter their price or their claims. 

To sum up, I confess that I ally with Abbie Hoffman, the “Chicago 7” trial defendant.  When the prosecutor asked him whether he was addicted to any drug, Abbie said “Yes.”  Which one?  “Caffeine.”   [Please see Post #9 in my blog series, “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” published on 4/20/21, where I noted this amusing bit of testimony.]

My favorite coffee mug says it all:  Its vintage photo features a stylish woman in glamorous riding gear, holding the reins of her horse, saying “You can lead a horse to water…but I could use a triple expresso.”

And let’s not forget my sticky-note pad featuring a stylishly-coiffed woman, circa 1928, drinking what’s clearly a cup of coffee.  She boldly announces:  “Given enough coffee, I could rule the world.”  

Well, maybe coffee-drinkers like me should actually try to rule the world.  We might do a better job than most of those who’ve been in charge.

Okay.  I’m addicted.  And my path ahead is clear. 

I’ll continue to reap the benefits of caffeine while at the same time I steer away from any potentially harmful impact.

Maybe you’d like to join me on this path?

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman: Post #2

This is the second in a series of posts recalling what it was like to serve as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman.

We currently live in a time in which we’re increasingly aware of the enormously important role that judges play in our lives and how critical it is to have judges who are fair and unbiased.  For this reason, I think it’s useful to talk about how judges perform their jobs.

Thanks to the recent film focused on the trial of the “Chicago 7,” Judge Hoffman has garnered new attention in the public eye.  I’ve attempted, in this series of posts, to tell exactly what it was like to work for him for two highly significant years.

What were Hoffman’s quirks?  How did he conduct business, on and off the bench?  As Hoffman’s law clerk from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1969, I observed him on and off the bench, in his role as a “hanging judge” as well as his role as a charming personality who enjoyed engaging in clever repartee.  “Warts and all,” here is what Julius J. Hoffman was really like.

Hoffman’s Proclivities

•      His calendar

                Judge Hoffman was obsessed with his “calendar.”  The court administrators published statistics on every judge in the district (the Northern District of Illinois), and Hoffman was fanatic about being first in the judges’ rankings every month.

                Why was he so obsessed with this single evaluation of his judgeship?  My guess is that he saw these statistics as an objective measure of his worth as a judge.  Although the statistics did nothing more than state how many cases a judge had dismissed or tried or otherwise removed from his calendar, Hoffman wanted to be at the top of the list.  Then the whole world would know that he was a judge who disposed of cases efficiently, had the smallest number of cases left on his calendar at the end of every month, and therefore was–had to be–a great and admirable judge.

                To achieve this ranking, Hoffman sometimes trampled on the rights of the criminal defendants who appeared before him and often rushed to judgment in his civil cases, forcing undesired settlements and otherwise compromising the pursuit of justice in his courtroom.  The appellate court that reviewed his conduct often took him to task for it.  Yet he continued his relentless pursuit of first place.  In my view, his obsession with being first in this ranking was in large part responsible for much of his erratic behavior.

•      His bias in favor of the government

                Hoffman’s bias in criminal cases reflected a general bias in favor of the government and an even more fundamental conservative streak.  He was, after all, appointed to the federal bench by a Republican, President Eisenhower, and his background and relative affluence (in part due to his wealthy wife) probably accounted for some of his conservatism.  But because he was so willing to favor the government in criminal cases, he frequently wound up in big trouble. One criminal case, the “Chicago 7” trial, ultimately led to his downfall.

•      His delegation of decision-making to his law clerks

                Hoffman’s desire to have the “best” calendar in town worked to the benefit of those of his law clerks who relished assuming a large measure of responsibility for Hoffman’s rulings.  (I happily fit into this category.)  While he spent almost his entire day on the bench, presiding over trials and disposing of motions, his two clerks were working in chambers on the rulings that he would later adopt as his own. 

                 Of course, he made some rulings spontaneously from the bench without his clerks’ assistance.  But virtually all of the pre-trial and post-trial motions filed in Hoffman’s cases were decided by his clerks.  So while he sat on the bench, dispensing his own brand of justice, his two law clerks were working hard back in chambers, researching the law that applied to these motions and other matters (like jury instructions) filed by the lawyers in his cases, and writing the rulings that Hoffman later read from the bench.

                In the two years I worked for Hoffman, we law clerks probably decided at least 95 percent of the motions filed in his cases.  And he rarely overruled our decisions.  Once in a great while, he would walk into our part of chambers, hand back a written decision, and ask us to rewrite it.  But he never took the opportunity to do his own research or do any rewriting, even when he was displeased with the decision we had left on his desk.

                The tremendous degree of responsibility we had, as a result, was astounding.  At first, I was amazed at how much power I had been given.  Later, I realized that I was, to some extent, dispensing justice where Hoffman himself never would have.

Reunion-worthy clothes: A follow-up

In my last post, I described my new strategy for purchasing clothes:  I ask myself whether they’re reunion-worthy.

I adopted this strategy for the first time before a class reunion a few years ago. Pondering what to wear to the reunion, I decided to no longer fill my closets with clothes I wouldn’t wear to an event like a reunion, where I wanted to look my absolute best.

Recently, when another class reunion loomed, the issue was once again front and center.

Now that (more recent) reunion has come and gone, and my strategy proved to be a huge success.  When I packed for my flight to Reunion City, USA, I selected only reunion-worthy clothes to wear during the reunion weekend.  And I think I accomplished my goal.

In photos taken during that weekend, I look simply smashing.

Now let’s focus on another question:  What about those duds you and I still own that are NOT reunion-worthy?

I have two suggestions.  My hope is that you’ll adopt your own version of one or both of them.

  1. Donate non-reunion-worthy clothes to charity.

I have a longstanding policy of donating to charity those clothes I’m no longer wearing.  I  donate still-attractive and wearable items of clothes (as well as shoes, costume jewelry, household items, books, and a whole host of miscellaneous stuff).

I prefer two nearby charities.  One favorite is Goodwill.  This is a venerable charity organization that channels clothing and other items by selling them in their stores to those who want to acquire these items at rock-bottom prices.  Goodwill also plays another role:  It will happily take possession of almost any electronic device you no longer find useful.  It apparently hires people who know how to extract usable parts from these devices, working or not, and repurpose them for the greater good of humankind.  Bravo!

My other favorite charity?  The Discovery Shops that dot the landscape in the Bay Area.  Discovery Shops are attractive stores filled with beautiful things donated by people who decide to pass them along to others and, at the same time, support an important goal.   Because Discovery Shops are affiliated with the American Cancer Society, the money raised in their shops supports research aimed at defeating the scourge of cancer.  I donate to Discovery Shops the most desirable items I no longer wish to keep but sincerely believe would enhance someone else’s wardrobe or home.  Passing them along this way makes me feel great.

  1. Create a “jettison pile.”

Some years ago I created what I call my “jettison pile.”

My jettison pile serves a valuable purpose, a purpose that benefits not only me but others as well.  The end result resembles donating to charity, but in practice it operates somewhat differently.

First, I periodically review my wardrobe and set aside clothing that has become less and less useful to me.  These are usually clothes that are somewhat ill-fitting or no longer suit my lifestyle but are okay to wear one more time when I’m traveling.  I’ll add clothes like these to the jettison pile, and next time I prepare for a trip, I’ll throw some of them into my suitcase.

Then, when I arrive at a destination, I jettison them.

I often jettison them as I depart from a hotel room.  I’ll leave them in a neat stack for the cleaning staff with a note that clearly states something like the following:  “These items are for you if you want them.  I no longer need them.”

In a foreign country where I know the basics of the language, I’ll try to write my note in that language.  If I don’t know the language, I’ll ask English-speaking staff at the front desk to help me write my message.

Jettisoning clothes (and sometimes other small items, like an extra flashlight) serves a double purpose.  I’m leaving things for cleaning-staff people who may be able to use them, or who know someone else who can use them.  (Of course, they have the option of dumping my stuff in the trash.)

I benefit as well.   When I leave these things behind, I make room in my suitcase for new things I acquire during my trip, like souvenir t-shirts or books about local sites or……well, you get the idea.

On a recent river cruise, a young woman from a not-very-prosperous country was assigned to clean my cabin.  I’d prepared for the cruise by bringing very nice but no-longer-wanted-by-me tops, pants, skirts, nightgowns, and miscellaneous stuff.  When the cruise ended, I left my cleaning woman two shopping bags full of things she could either use herself or pass along to her family and friends.  And I now had newly freed-up space in my cases for things I’d acquired during the trip.

Passing things along this way seems to be another good choice.

Please decide what works best for you.  Just remember to make choices that bring you joy!

 

The Charm of San Miguel de Allende

 

Light rain was falling when I arrived at the airport in Leon, Mexico, searching for the shuttle that would take me to San Miguel de Allende.  A sign listing all the passengers on my shuttle made clear it would be crowded.

I jumped on board, taking a seat near the door. Not a great choice.  Passengers departing before me carelessly left the door open too long, and raindrops pelted me every time.  Even more annoying was the man behind me who talked incessantly, telling another passenger everything to do and see in San Miguel.  I wished he’d shut up.  I wanted to discover all of it for myself.

The shuttle driver finally located the house on Calle del Castillo belonging to Merrily and Paul, my great friends since college, and they welcomed me warmly, ushering me inside.  The house was a wonderful surprise, modern and comfortable, and I felt very lucky to be in their sheltering arms.

For the next few days, the three of us set out together every day, covering a host of sites in and around this charming city set in Mexico’s central highlands.

Why go to San Miguel?  First, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, an extremely beautiful city filled with historic and architecturally-astounding buildings.  Next, although parts of Mexico have sadly seen a measure of violent crime in recent years, San Miguel is still a peaceful sanctuary where one feels totally safe.  And although it’s perhaps best known in the U.S. as a city inundated with American ex-pats, the overwhelming majority of the population is made up of warm and friendly mexicanos.  Unlike the Mexican resort cities like Puerto Vallarta (my favorite) and Acapulco, San Miguel is a much more authentically Mexican city.  You may want to spend a vacation of a few days there, or linger much, much longer.  Or, like Merrily and Paul, you may even want to move there, joining the five thousand or so ex-pats who have made San Miguel their home.

In case you’re wondering how the lengthy name of the city came about, here’s a brief history lesson:  When the Spaniards arrived in this part of Mexico during the 16th century and established a colony, many of the indigenous inhabitants fled.  A Franciscan friar took advantage of their departure and founded a Spanish settlement that evolved in the 17th century into a beautiful town called San Miguel el Grande.

During the next hundred years, when many people who by now considered themselves Mexicans rose up against Spanish rule, Ignacio Allende was a prominent local leader.  He was executed by the Spanish, but he was not forgotten.  After the Mexican army defeated the Spanish in their War of Independence, the city was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor him.

Today’s city has the Spanish to thank for many of its striking buildings, constructed during the colonial period.  The most magnificent is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a pink-hued Neo-Gothic cathedral dominating the Centro Histórico, the historic center of town, directly across from the leafy park, El Jardin.  Originally built in the 16th century, a local architect did a smashing renovation about 300 years later.  Its pink sandstone towers present a facade unlike that of any other church I’ve ever seen, resembling a set right out of a Disney fairytale, and when it’s illuminated at night, it has a truly magical vibe.

The city contains a host of other remarkable sights.  Instead of listing all of them, I’ll highlight just a few.  One of the must-sees is El Jardin (pronounced har-deen), the leafy green park in the center of the city.  It’s a vibrant gathering place, filled with both locals and tourists.  Groups of mariachi musicians play there every evening, and all around its perimeter are vendors featuring kids’ toys, balloons, and lots of food, including some pretty wild varieties of ice cream (helado), including elote (corn), queso (cheese), and guayaba (guava).

El Jardin is also the place where tours of the city center begin.  These tours, organized by a local children’s charity called Patronato de Ninos, are offered at 9:45 a.m. three times a week.   They’re led by a diverse group of cheerful and knowledgeable guides (mine was an American ex-pat wearing an exquisite locally-embroidered dress).

Another highlight is the Fábrica de Aurora, a former textile factory whose machinery has been preserved and can be viewed through large glass windows.  It’s been totally renovated and now houses a wide range of art galleries, craft studios, and delightful places to eat and drink.  A bit north of the city, it’s well worth the trip.

Farther outside the city (about eight miles from downtown San Miguel) is the town of Atontonilco.  Its centerpiece is another World Heritage Site, an astonishing church called the Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atononilco.  The church’s walls and ceilings are covered with paintings of religious stories and figures, a remarkable achievement by an artist who spent 30 years of his life creating this result.

We arrived on a Saturday and encountered not just one but two weddings being held in the church.  While the first wedding was being celebrated, the second wedding party lined up outside, awaiting its turn.  On the city streets outside the church, friendly locals offered items for sale, most notably whips of various sizes.  Whips?  Yes, whips–mainly of the “cat-o’-nine-tails” variety.  Why?  Because the sanctuary has a long history as a Catholic-pilgrimage destination, and that history includes self-flagellation by some of the pilgrims.  For kicks, you might want to buy a souvenir whip while you’re there.

Speaking of shopping:  If that pursuit interests you, San Miguel offers a wide range of possibilities.  Merrily and Paul first guided me to a largely low-rent and authentic option (my choice).  Descending to a small alleyway, we found the Mercado de Artesanía, a distinctly non-posh assortment of stands tended by local artisans and their families.  There I purchased trivets and other items made of pewter, earrings made of silver and abalone shell, and colorful embroidered blouses and pillow covers.  Besides admiring their wares, I relished meeting the artisans and speaking with them in my high-school-level Spanish (Merrily helped).

We then went on to some actual shops, like Martha’s shoe store, where she sells the famous “San Miguel” shoes in many different colors; delightful candy shops; and the highly unusual “oil cloth” store, where the brawny young proprietor makes useful items—like tote bags and luggage tags—out of a variety of bright oil cloth patterns.  (I hadn’t seen so much oil cloth since I was a kid in Mom’s postwar kitchen!)  I later sought out stores offering artisanal products like ceramics and jewelry.  My favorite purchases were the ceramic trees-of-life I bought for both of my daughters.

If the art scene is your thing, be sure to check out Bellas Artes, an art school and cultural center in downtown San Miguel.  Stroll through the arcades surrounding its beautiful courtyard and view exhibits by local artists.  As for art galleries, they’re everywhere you look.  Many of the ex-pats living in San Miguel are part of a well-established artists’ colony, and anyone interested in art will have no problem finding the kind of artwork he or she prefers.

And then there are the fiestas.  Mexico has a huge number of outdoor fiestas and religious celebrations, all observed with great exuberance.  I was extremely lucky to be in San Miguel during one of its notable events, the celebration called the Fiesta del Seňor de la Conquista.  I won’t elaborate on its history and religious connotations.  But I was blown away by what I saw and heard.

When we entered the area surrounding El Jardin, we saw crowds gathered in and around it to watch a multitude of dancers garbed in wild costumes, many with brightly colored feathers, masks, and most notably, shells artfully attached to their legs.  As they danced, the shells vibrated, making a wonderful and raucous noise.  The dancing, accompanied by music, went on all day Friday and continued on Saturday.

Combining indigenous traditions with Catholic ones, this fiesta struck me as extraordinary.  But it’s just one in a long list of festivals like it.  In fact, if you happen to be in San Miguel around Easter, you’ll witness an even more spectacular celebration—two full weeks of processions and pageantry.

Here’s one more thing about San Miguel:  Great food and drink are available everywhere.  (Just avoid local tap water.)  For recommendations, check a recent guidebook or ask locals like Merrily and Paul.  The food is delicious and prices are remarkably low.

And just in case you long for familiar surroundings, there’s a busy Starbucks in the center of town and, believe it or not, a place called the Bagel Café!

Curl Up With a Good Book

If you have a penchant for reading fiction, guess what. You may have better social skills as a result.

A recent Harvard study asked 26 young people to undergo MRI brain scans while reading brief excerpts from novels, magazines, and other sources. The study found that reading fictional excerpts about people heightened activity in a brain system called the default network.

The study suggested that those who read a lot of fiction turn out to have stronger social skills than non-readers or people who read nonfiction. Why? Well, according to the researchers, reading fiction can improve social skills (also called social cognition) because a reader’s attention is drawn into other people’s mental states.

When the study’s participants read passages about people, there was significantly greater activity in the default network. (Reading about physical places didn’t evoke the same response.) The researchers noted that the enhanced activity stemming from reading about people linked to higher scores on social-cognition assessments.

In other words, stories with compelling emotional, social, and psychological content seem to trigger neural changes in the brain. And this apparently translates into enhanced social skills in real life.

The take-away? Reading fiction, especially stories that take readers inside other people’s lives and minds, may improve social skills by exercising the part of the brain related to empathy and imagination.

As someone who occasionally writes fiction, I’m delighted to learn the results of this study. They validate the feedback from those of my readers who’ve praised the characters I’ve created and the harrowing situations they’ve found themselves in.

As a reader, I love plunging into an absorbing story that’s focused on people with fascinating lives. Now I can envision my brain lighting up as I read an exciting passage.

I’ll bet you can, too.

So curl up with a good book—especially a story about other people’s lives. Then take a break and spend some time with your family or friends. As someone with enhanced social skills, you’re sure to have a great time.

The study, published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.