Friday, December 26, 2008

Snow days in Jersey and rain days in Jamaica

At 5:50 last Friday morning both my husband's and my phones rang. The minute I heard it I knew. The automated message from our older son's school confirmed it was to be our first snow day. It had snowed since the boys and I moved to New Jersey, but only to accumulate inches on the ground. I was actually looking forward to seeing what 'real' snow looks like. After I listened to the message I practically ran to the window to see the white splendor that was to keep D1 from his holiday party. I was more than a little surprised to see nothing. The sky was clear, the rooftops were brown and the rainbow of cars along the street were still visible. Not a drop of snow. Hundreds of schools had been closed, not due to snow, but in anticipation of snow. I thought, "What wusses!" But then I thought about rain days back home.

Rain days in Jamaica are anything but regular days. Business slows and anyone who can, stays indoors. I can't remember any official school closings for anything less than a hurricane, but on days there was heavy or consistent rainfall classrooms would be largely empty. Since my mom never allowed me to miss school for anything, I spent most of those rain days at school. There would be little actual classwork and teachers would either find some indoor recreation to occupy our time or leave us to our own devices. There was always plenty of fun to report to the absentees the next day. The one rain day I remember staying out of school (I think my dad was around, and he let me), I actually didn't spend at home. My best friend and I spent it in her bedroom because we could watch and hear the neighborhood boys hanging out in the house behind hers.

Even after I started working, rain days always conjured up warm and fuzzy feelings. Those days seem wasted on doing anything but curling up in bed with company or a good book. Of course, I never missed a work day because of rain, but I never worked late on a rain day either.

I am yet to find out if snow days will make me feel the same way rain days did. There is something soothing about the rhythmic patter of rain on glass, or zinc; something cleansing about watching drops run into each other as they cascade down the window. I can't imagine snow will be the same.

My name is Toni-Anne and I am hungry

The story getting the most interest in this month's issue of the O magazine is Oprah Winfrey's essay on her ever fluctuating weight. In the article, she talks about being embarrassed about being back up to 200 lbs. I have to say I find some solace in Oprah's shame. If she, with her dietitians, trainers, cooks and assistants, can still find maintaining a healthy weight challenging, then certainly there should be sympathy for me.

For more than two decades I could eat what I wanted without gaining an ounce. If I knew then what I know now I would have appreciated that time, instead I hated my lean body and the nicknames that came with it - Olive (Oyl), Skinny, Slim, Bones. I did all I could to gain weight. I think I spent an entire college semester eating bun and cheese and drinking malta because someone told me they would help me gain weight. Everything I did worked. The pounds just came all at once, seemingly overnight, many years later.

Now, I am what I ate all those years without thought. The Simply Delicious plantain tarts are my thighs. The Ziggy's oxtail lunches are the extra padding around my waist. The extra servings of my mother's stew peas are now my bat wings. I am heavier, but certainly not happier.

My choice is to love my lumps, love exercise or watch what I eat. With all due respect to Mo'nique and the rest of the love-your-curves movement I am not likely to feel any affection for my extra 20. As I have never been one to beat a path to the gym or or look too hard for ways to work up a sweat, it is too late for me to develop a love of exercise. That leaves dieting - a torturous burden that should have been listed right after "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children."

I know well enough not to follow fad diets. I had the good sense to get the help of a nutritionist, but that makes the task no less harrowing. Only a few days after pulling out and dusting off my nutritionist's charts - again, I feel like a drug fiend going through withdrawal. Of course, my drug of choice would be a Tastee patty or a slice of fruit cake.

Oprah relates regret that she is still - at this stage of her life and after all her accomplishments - having to talk about her weight. I understand that. I wish weight was never a concern outside of health, but that is not the case in our society. We all know plus sized women who accomplish much in their lives, but a successful woman seems less so if she is heavy. I know plus sized women who never look less than stunning, but sexy and beautiful don't dovetail with anything over a size 8 in most people's mind. Most importantly most women - society-induced or otherwise - are uncomfortable with themselves with even a few extra pounds. Many of us are tormented by the body we could have, if we could just lose 5, 10, 20, 40 pounds.

We want to wear the clothes that don't look quite the same in the double digit sizes. We want seamless lines under our knits and no muffin tops in our jeans. So I will look past the Harry & David cookies my husband brought home and make myself a no-sugar fruit smoothie. I will measure and weigh every morsel of food and I will drink water like I have two humps to fill. I will grit my teeth and I will do it. Bikini season is only seven months away.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas as I remember it

One of my best Christmas memories is of the year my girlfriend and I earned money doing odd jobs for our neighbors. We ironed curtains, wiped walls, greased baking pans - anything we could do in the five other houses on our cul-de-sac for a few dollars. I don't remember how much we made or what we bought, but I remember well how happy we were with our ingenuity and our earnings.

Christmases on Newton Close were always great. Even before my parents finally got divorced, and were still pretending for my sake to be happily married. My father would always come for the holidays bearing a bounty of gifts - absentee parent syndrome maybe. Now, I wonder how uncomfortable it must have been for my parents. I knew things weren't perfect, but I was always happy to have them both.

As I got older, shopping for Christmas gifts and sneaking out to holiday parties took priority over family time with my parents. I remember when going 'uptown' was the main thing to do during the holidays, particularly on Christmas Eve. It was just about the only night when most teenagers had carte blanche to go out with their friends until the wee hours of the morning. To not go, or to have to go home before midnight was social suicide. One year my mother decided I wasn't going. I don't remember why, but it is fair to assume the sanction was deserved. My cousin/big brother Ken interceded on my behalf and got me released into his custody so I could go on the plazas. As soon as we got into town I was off with my friends, ignoring his instructions to meet him at a certain hour.

When I remember Christmases back home, I remember visiting and be visited by friends and enjoying serving after serving of sorrel and fruit cake. Auntie Judy's fruitcake continues to be the mark by which all other fruitcakes are judged. Mom's sorrel is the yardstick. I remember there was always a big spread on our table. Mom always had the classics - roast beef, curried goat - but also tried to have something atypical of the Jamaican holiday feast - turkey, rock cornish hens. Whatever it was it was always good and we always had guests.

This year, far from my family and my friends I see more than ever what Christmas really means to me. To steal a line from the popular carol "Christmas just aint Christmas without the ones you love." I miss consulting with my mother and my girlfriend about the menu for dinner. I miss plotting with G about what gift to buy for my mom. I miss a house bustling with people.

The best Christmas present I can give my sons is memories like mine. Next year, wherever mom is, there we will be also.

Monday, December 22, 2008

In Allah's name

I have long said that one of the main things wrong with the structure of my church's services is that you can't raise your hand during the sermon and ask a question or disagree - like in a classroom. I have walked away from sermons with many questions and concerns and I know I am not the only one.

In the Seventh-day Adventist Church (and I talk about this church because it is the one I have personal experience with) the lesson study period should be the time for open discussion. However, I have noticed that even during these periods people are mum and the discussion is dominated by a class leader/teacher whose qualifications amount to his popularity with other church members. That leaves a group of people, not sure enough of their knowledge to participate in a discussion, possibly being taught by someone whose interpretation of the material, or whose view in general, may be askew. Where are the checks and balances?

This past weekend, a few minutes after I sat in the back of a class during lesson study, I heard the teacher say "Well you know the spirit of Satan is strong too. Look at those suicide bombers. They are under the power of Satan and they are willing to face adversity up to death."

I was appalled. I could only hope that the other people hearing him understood that what he said was hateful, at best misinformed. Our Bibles and history are filled with wars and acts of violence carried out in God's name. Even if we believe that suicide bombers are misguided, we cannot dismiss the foundation of their rage.

Admittedly, there are those who bring harm to others for political reasons, but for many, politics and religion are intricately intertwined. Even as the scriptures of every religion advocate for treating others well and against violence, they also make room for defense of righteousness and righteous people. As with every religion, there is dissent among Muslims. Some believe that bombers act against Islam; others believe that many Muslims have forsaken Allah by choosing to integrate and assimilate, and more so by calling some acts of violence terrorism.

The Sabbath School teacher's comment reminded me of an old joke: A Baptist man gets to heaven and is welcomed by St. Peter at the pearly gates. He is told to go enjoy all the bounties of the kingdom, but to be quiet as he went by a particular room. St. Peter gives the same instructions to a Methodist, Unitarian and Lutheran that follow. Eventually someone asked why it was so important to be quiet around that room, to which St. Peter replied, "The Adventists are in there, and they think they're the only ones here."

I have seen various versions of the joke, with many denominations taking their turn in the room. It is a joke, I suppose that could be made of Christianity in general. Christianity interpreted as exclusive goes against the basic theology of Godly love and compassion. Love and compassion begin with understanding, not by dismissing others as being of Satan.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The shoe that told a story

By now everyone has seen or heard about the shoes that flew at President Bush's head today in Baghdad. The pair flung by an Iraqi journalist was a poignant statement about America's War on Terror. The act was particularly meaningful since in Muslim communities even showing the bottom of your shoe to another person is considered an insult. Even without the accompanying dialogue ("This is a farewell you dog."), it is not hard to imagine what the message was.

The Iraq invasion promised the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, more safety for the American people, and the Iraqi people's eternal appreciation for their freedom from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Undeniably, the war has not delivered on any of those promises.

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found. In fact, it is now widely believed that the intelligence that lead the country into a war was more than inaccurate, but also manipulated. The invasion, its cultural and religious implications, and the ensuing hardships for residents have become a lightning rod for anti-Americanism and a recruitment tool for terror groups. Flight restrictions and color codes aside, whether America is indeed safer is still out with the jury.

The Iraq war has cost American taxpayers $580 billion since it started almost six years ago, even as education, social services and healthcare have suffered. More than 4,000 from the ranks of the U.S. armed forces have lost their lives. Long engagements and multiple deployments have created innumerable health, mental and social problems for members of the military.

For the Iraqi people the war has created strife and violence like they never saw under Saddam Hussein. For every accomplishment the Bush administration points to, detractors point to two that indicate the war was a mistake and continues to be an albatross around the neck of both nations.

Any number of people wish they had the cojones to throw those shoes.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Power corrupts

I have friends in politics and civil service; friends who I think are honest and hardworking. I think it is impossible to ignore though, the prevalence of dishonest conduct among politicians. Today Rod Blagojevich is the national poster boy for political corruption, but in almost every town and hamlet across this country there is a similar story of someone who betrayed public trust.

Civil servants of every color and creed, of every economic background and religion, and at every level of the food chain seem to fall victim to greed. Campaign trails are filled with promises of rooting out corruption, total transparency and good intentions. The road to hell?

The corrupt politician has gone the way of the sleazy used car salesman - an accepted cliche. Every one assumes their government representatives are less than honest. Just read through your local paper's editorial section to know how much faith your neighbors have in your mayor or councilman.

Is there something intrinsic to politics that makes corruption par for the course? Are the politicians that stay above the fray just better at the game? It certainly does not take a genius to know better than to make crooked deals and dates on the phone a la Blagojevich and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. So are 'honest' politicians merely smarter politicians?

What is the answer to corrupt politics? More checks and balances, including term limits is most certainly the place to start. We should also consider what politicians make. Politicians - particularly those with administrative responsibilities - manage billion dollar budgets, make decisions that affect thousands of government employees and millions of residents, and interact with businessmen who make many times what they make. While the annual salary of mayors and governors range widely with city and state size and population, municipal administrators typically make more than those elected. Senators make $162,100 per annum. Clearly not the kind of work one goes into for the money. The president of the United States makes $400,000 - far more than the average national salary, but less than most CEOs. It is not surprising that politicians look for the perks - and not just the ones that make up the official compensation package.

In Miami-Dade County, commissioners have been trying for years to convince voters to change the County Charter to give themselves a salary increase. Their current salary of just over $6,000 is obviously not a living wage and regularly raises questions of questionable other employment and conflicts of interest. Every time the matter has made its way unto the ballot, voters have overwhelmingly rejected the increase - suggesting residents want the county legislators to do the work out of the goodness of their hearts. Time and time again, commissioners have shown that goodness cannot be relied on.

No doubt, some politicians will be astute enough to get past any number of checks and balances and some will be dishonest no matter what they're paid. Even knowing well the stories of crooked politicians who languished in prison wont deter some people. It is, after all, not merely the pursuit of wealth that corrupts. The power to do good, which public office presents, is in itself a corrupting force.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The honesty of children

I had seasoned the oxtails thoroughly, and let them sit in the fridge overnight. As they cooked, a delicious aroma hung in the house. They were fall-off-the-bone tender and delicious when finished. Both my sons love oxtails and were very excited to see what was for dinner. They started to eat and gave me rave reviews. "Mom is the best cooker ever...but Auntie Georgia is better."

My best friend Georgia is an extraordinary cook and my sons love her cooking. I suppose I could do worse than be compared to her - even if I am on the losing end of the comparison. To my credit and as a sign of my personal growth my feelings weren't hurt at all.

Kids tell it like it is. No bullshit, no pretense. We all start out that way. Then we learn tact and manners and lose our honesty. That is such a shame. I understand that it is important to be concerned about others' feelings, but I think we lose something when that concern outweighs all others.

"Yes you look fat in that dress." "I'm not busy. I just don't want to go out with you." "Your boyfriend really is a cheating, lying bum." "No, I am not fine..."

With child-like truthfulness you get to wear a more flattering outfit, ask out a woman who is actually interested, find a better man, or share your woes with someone who cares.

I get to try harder with my oxtails next time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Take my foolish advice

I was talking on the phone to my 95-year-old grandmother when my kindergartner came off the school bus without one of his gloves. As I chastised my son for this the latest in a long list of items lost under bus seats, on the playground and just about everywhere else he happens to walk, my grandmother was shouting in my ear, "Don't buy him anymore; make him go without!"

I assured my grandma that I would certainly not be replacing the lost glove, never mentioning that the boys have several pairs of gloves and wouldn't be heading out to school with frosty hands. As she often does when she thinks we "young people are spoiling the kids," Grandma suggested I take her "foolish advice" and put my foot down with my toddlers.

"I had eight of them and I never bought them any gloves." Since neither my mother or uncles have lost fingers to frostbites, I'm pretty sure Grandma is overstating - or has forgotten. The conversation highlighted though, how different we parent today. There is a vast difference between how my mother and uncles were raised and how I was raised; and even between how I was raised and how my 17-year-old brother is being raised.

Today parents read Dr. Sears' books assiduously, put babies on their back to sleep, never give them gripe water or honey, and adamantly avoid baby talk. My mom and uncles regale my cousins and I with stories of my grandmother's beatings, punishments and strictness; a method of parenting that would get my grandmother arrested today.

I don't get the impression that my grandmother was a touchy-feely kind of parent, though my mother was very communicative with me. Today parents know our sons and daughters need lots of loving assurance from both Mommy and Daddy so that they will be well adjusted members of society.

When I was growing up, responding to an instruction with anything other than "Yes Mommy"
was grounds for being exiled to my room. Today my mother tells me that my brothers need to have the opportunity to express themselves - even if it sounds like disrespect to old ears. I give my four and five-year-old choices about what they wear, eat and watch on television. I don't remember having much of that as a child.

In some ways I think we're getting better; in other ways I'm not so sure. I may be a more affectionate and well-read parent than my grandmother, but I can't imagine that my boys could be much better men than my uncles. For one thing they wont know how to sew on their own buttons.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

17 Years later

The realization that my mother was in her 30s during my high school years hit me like a senior center bus very recently. I don't remember giving my mother's age much thought growing up. She was just old - the standard parent age. When she became pregnant with my brother in my fifth form year I thought it was disgraceful. Old women like that should certainly not be having children.

Now here I am in my mid-30s, feeling far from old, but realizing that time is not so much wafting as it is blowing by. It is hard to believe my mother's indiscretion turns 17 years old today.

As I child and teenager, I would roll my eyes when relatives and my parents' friends would hold their palms low and say "I know you from you were this high." I get it now. My brother was the first baby I remember being allowed to hold, and definitely the first baby's diapers I had ever changed. It is stunning every time I see him - tall, handsome and cock-sure of himself.

He has gone from weeping in shame at being scolded to laughing at my mother when she tries to muster a bit of sternness. His shyness has given way to a warm and interesting character. He has grown from my annoying baby brother, to my friend. I look forward to seeing how much more he becomes.

Happy birthday James. Some birthday advice: Enjoy the moment. Time goes by so quickly. One day you are 17 and chomping at the bit to be 21; the next, you are 35 wondering what you were in such a hurry to see.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jihads, Fatwas and Church Boards

The word terrorist has become entrenched in our vernacular since September 11, 2001. As the 'War on Terror' continues and we are still watching pictures from the Mumbai attacks I see similarity when many see only differences.

It is always interesting to me how Western Christians are horrified by the acts of religious radicals from the Middle East. I don't advocate violence for any reason, but I think it matters very little what we believe, if those beliefs cause us to isolate or mistreat others. Western Christians as a group, particularly conservative Christians as are many West Indians, have always used religious beliefs as a reason to do just that.

Christian families put pregnant daughters out on the street. Churches 'read out' and isolate members who fall short in public view. And many churches' treatment of homosexuals can only be considered persecution.

As with Islam and the Koran, any interpretation of Christianity and the Bible that advocates treating anyone as anything other than an equal member of the fold is perverse and inaccurate. Even if you believe any particular behavior is wrong, the litmus test is whether you believe that person is being treated differently from someone who lies. The Bible does say all sins should be considered the same.

The fact that radical Islamists blow up buildings does not mean they are any worse than judgmental, Bible-toting Christians; it just makes them more passionate.

Farin min'

Every time my husband hears someone say some place is too far, he chides with what can be summarily restated as 'pish posh.' He reminds us about how far we used to walk 'back home', how packed the buses were, and how long it took us to drive from Portmore to New Kingston. His stories of life in Jamaica sometimes border on exaggeration, but I have to admit he's right.

From how and what we eat, to how we raise our children, things in the United States don't look much like our days in Jamaica. True much of it is advancement and taking advantage of opportunities, but there is more than that. My interest in all things Jamaica has grown exponentially over the years. I read the Jamaica Observer and Gleaner voraciously and engage in passionate discussions about how the island can be 'fixed.' I now become out of sorts if my local supermarket doesn't have the ingredients I need to make dishes I never used to care about.

There is also the oft-reiterated notions that we work harder in the United States. We don't go to work late or not at all if it's raining when we wake up. We work late and on off hours. It has become so commonplace for West Indians to have more than one job here that the 'hardworking Jamaican' has become a comic punch line. This, though I didn't know one person who had a second job when I lived in Jamaica.

How are you different from your days in Jamaica - or Trinidad, or Guyana?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

All the single ladies

On Thanksgiving Day, while in Philadelphia at the in-laws, my husband's 'why black movies have to be so trite' complaints lost out to my 'give Tyler Perry a break' so that we watched Meet the Browns. The movie is not in the running for Perry's best movie, but it was just good enough for holiday brain vegetation - until it started working my nerves.

The movie's pseudo-modern day knight-in-shining-armor story was at best humorous, at worst condescending. The main character played by Angela Bassett is a single mother struggling to pay her bills and care for her three children. Her situation is exacerbated when she loses her job. Then she meets a man. Suddenly, there is no more mention of a job, her problems seem to inexpicably dissipate.

I sounded off at the television set. The assertion that the answer to all a woman's problems is a man - even a great man - struck me as archaic and socially detached from today's woman. According to every statistic available, including those from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, more and more women are choosing to live their lives single. There are no spinsters or old maids anymore.

When my grandmother got married at age 30, 65 years ago, she almost did not have a choice. I am sure my grandfather was handsome and charming, but her younger sisters were already married and she was likely hearing the whispers. Today, my single girlfriends in their 30s and 40s date, travel, support themselves and live full, happy lives. None of them have sworn off men, or vow to never marry; but they are not waiting for a man to make them whole.

Today's enlightened woman can enjoy a satisfying relationship with a man of her choosing, because she can - not because she needs to.

Monday, December 1, 2008

I married my father

He could also be your father...or any middle-aged Caribbean man.

When my husband and I started dating as teenagers, my mother regularly reminded him that I hated housework. He, being a man of the 1990s, espoused equality among the sexes and his mother's domestic training. I was grateful for that since I would never have married a man who expected me to cook and clean while he put up his feet in front of the television. Imagine my horror when I realized that I, in fact, hold almost sole responsibility for taking care of our home and children. I certainly believe my husband meant well, but alas it seems genetics and cultural conditioning are winning.

My opinions about Jamaican men were formed pretty early and I still can find no reason to object to the 'whe mi dinna deh?' jokes or stereotypes. I grew up with a caricature of the 'typical' Jamaican man just across the street from my house. My neighbor - aptly named for the ill-tempered Sesame Street character - lived in a house full of women who he required - often loudly - to wait on him hand and foot. My father, then step-father, were never as demanding or as dependent; but neither of them tripped over themselves to wash dishes or hold a broom.

As I talk to my girlfriends about their West Indian parents I realize that while things have gotten better with later generations, there are more than a few husbands/boyfriends who are throwbacks of their fathers and grandfathers. Despite higher education and the airs of sophistication, these 30-something and 40-something men still live oblivious to dishes in the sink, laundry needing to be folded, and dirty floors. My husband will fly into rage of righteous indignation if I suggested he does not help around the house. He will quickly point to the last time he loaded or unloaded the dishwasher, even as he ignored the dirty stove and the sticky floors. Friends leave their husbands at home with children, fully expecting that the house or the children will be in dire need of cleaning when they return. Doctors' appointments, teacher conferences, project due dates - few seem to register with men as part of their responsibilities.

I say all the time that I should be able to sue my husband for breech of contract - but then again I probably wouldn't win. He is after all, really not responsible for his lack of is just the West Indian way.