Friday, July 22, 2016

The High Points of the Republican Convention

People will no doubt be discussing the high points of the Convention and arguing about them for days — after all, one person's high point is surely another's low. Take Ted Cruz's non-endorsement of Donald Trump during his Convention speech. To a Trump supporter, Cruz's snub brought the political discord to an all-time low, yet to a die-hard Never-Trumper it may have been the Convention's finest moment.

Melania. Photo from the L.A. Times.
I'll let the pundits ponder all that. I'd rather focus on the Trump women and the impact of their convention speeches. I don't mean the bruhaha over Melania's plagiarism or the daughterly love displayed by Tiffany and Ivanka. While all that was mildly interesting, let's get real — the most fascinating aspect of their appearances, the absolute high points, were their ridiculously high stiletto heels.

I'm amazed that they managed to walk to the podium in those heels and stand tall during their speeches with nary a whimper of discomfort, let alone a grimace of pain. You may find my focus on women's shoes highly superficial, but I beg to differ. What could be a more important subject than women's continued subjugation to their footwear?

Tiffany. Photo from Hollywood Life.
Admittedly, I'm one of those unfortunate women whose feet have never felt good in high heels. Were I to walk a few steps in Melania's Christian Louboutin's, let alone a mile in her shoes, I would be crippled for life.

I didn't expect things to turn out that way. My mother loved wearing heels, the higher the better, so much so that her Achilles tendon shortened and made it uncomfortable for her to wear flats. As a girl, this seemed to me the height of sophistication and I always assumed I would follow in her footsteps.

Alas, I inherited the dysfunctional feet of my aunt and grandmother. By the time I was a teenager, I had to give up my dream of spike-heeled glamour in favor of sensible, low-heeled, round-toed shoes. Luckily, I came of age in the late sixties, when the women's lib movement made sensible footwear all the rage, so I was able to camouflage my disability within then-stylish comfortable designs.

During the mid-seventies, I became an early-adopter of orthotics. They saved my feet, although of course they could only be worn in the most utilitarian of shoes. By the time women's heels began to climb back into the stratosphere, I wasn't tempted. I'd come to appreciate comfort over beauty. Yet, I'd never quite gotten over my regret at not being able to wear stilettos. In the late-nineties, Sex and the City fueled my fantasies of the life I might have lived if only I'd been born with different feet.

Ivanka. Photo from the New York Post.
These days, images of fabulous footwear are everywhere — from the film stars on the Academy Awards runway to Robin Wright as the House of Cards' ice queen in heels. So, I wasn't really surprised when the Trump women strode onto the stage wearing dangerous-looking, sexy five-inch heels. Still, was this appropriate for a Republican gathering? Shouldn't they have worn something a little more staid?

Maybe, but truth be told, I was jealous. All three women had the air of females who had never had a foot pain in their lives. If they couldn't empathize with aching feet, I wondered, how could they possibly relate to the average voter? I was caught in a paradox — I simultaneously disapproved of the Trump trio and envied them. Never mind that along with eschewing high heels, I don't like wearing makeup, nail polish, or even Spanx. It's not as if there but for high heels go I.

Perhaps I should forget footwear and focus on the upcoming election. I'm looking forward to the Democratic Convention. But while I wait for it to begin, I can't help but wonder — how high will Chelsea's heels go?





Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Older, But Still Walking

I took a walk yesterday morning. It was a beautiful day, but cold, the temperature barely above forty degrees. So, I bundled up in a parka warm enough for a blizzard, a thick scarf, gloves, and of course my special sunglasses with wind shields. Do I look a little odd in those glasses? Yes, but if it's cold and windy, or even a bit breezy, without them my left eye will start tearing in a nanosecond and soon I'll be crying a river. They aren't prescription lenses, however, so while I may not have tears streaming down my face, I can barely see where I'm going.

I realize that, like me, some young people suffer from dry eyes, which paradoxically can cause excess tearing. They may also resort to special glasses like mine. But since I developed dry eyes later in life, I regard the glasses as a sign of approaching decrepitude. Next thing you know, I'll barely be able to walk.

Come to think of it, only a few weeks ago I was barely able to walk. I sprained my big toe while standing on my tiptoes to give my son, Aaron, a hug. He's not even that much taller than me, but all it took was a slight hyperextension of my toe to produce a piercing pain. Luckily, Aaron was just leaving for the airport after a lovely visit, so I didn't have to face the indignity of hobbling around in front of him for days, all because I hugged him too enthusiastically.

Was this toe mishap yet another sign of encroaching old age? A quick google of my symptoms indicated that I most likely had a mild case of turf toe, an injury common to young athletes, especially those who, like football players, constantly push off with their toes, especially on astroturf. So, okay, this could happen to anyone. But, it happened to me when I wasn't doing anything remotely athletic, except over-bending my slightly arthritic toe. Even if it didn't occur because I'm older, it certainly made me feel old.

I'm able to walk normally now, but every once in a while I get a twinge, a reminder that I could re-injure my toe all over again. Maybe that's a good definition of life over 65 — a time when the most trivial of injuries seems destined to lead to total disability and inevitable demise. Stating the obvious, my demise is inevitable, but while I once assumed that I'd bounce back from even serious illness, now the most minor ailments convince me that it's all downhill from here.

Yesterday, though, I felt hale and hearty enough to brave the elements and walk for several miles. My toe didn't throb even once and my glasses did their job admirably. I passed several wild turkeys during my perambulation and none of them attacked me. All in all, it was a delightful outing. I may be older, but I'm still walking.


Friday, January 1, 2016

Would It Help?

I recently saw the excellent film, Bridge of Spies. In the movie, which is based on a true story, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer, James Donovan, who defends Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy. A couple of lines from the movie particularly resonated with me. Given the title of this blog, you won't be surprised which ones.

When Donovan meets Abel shortly after his arrest. Abel seems calm and unconcerned about his dire situation. Donovan, perplexed by this, asks, "Aren't you worried?" Abel replies, "Would it help?" This exchange becomes a humorous refrain throughout the film. Later, Donovan asks more pointedly, "Do you never worry?" Abel's reply is still the same.

These exchanges are oddly endearing and signal a growing respect between the two men. To me, they also signal an unattainable state of mind. If only I could make a decision not to worry and stick with it for more than a nanosecond.

After I saw the film, I found myself imagining the life of a spy. Clearly, not being a worrier would help. Spies, after all, live in constant danger of discovery, arrest, or even death. Not only would worrying not help; it might create a self-fulfilling prophesy, since any outward sign of anxiety — worried glances, furtive looks, trembling hands — could give them away.

I'm a fan of the AMC series, The Americans. Watching it, I'm often amazed that the Russian spy couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, can make it through five minutes, let alone their entire lives, without being (literally) consumed by worry. The "otherness" of the characters is partly what I love about the show. There couldn't be people more different from me than the Jennings, unless perhaps undercover narcotics agents or Formula One race car drivers.

As surprising as it may seem (to me at least), many regular people (and one I actually live with) aren't worriers. They care as much about their friends and family as I do, but if they're concerned about an issue whose outcome they can't control, they're somehow able to put their worry into a secret compartment (secret to me, anyway), and get on with their lives. Why worry if it won't help?

I'm so not one of those people. Even when those I love are healthy, I worry that they might get sick. If someone I care about has a job interview, I worry that he or she will be rejected. If I'm planning a long drive on a beautiful day, I worry about brake failure and sun glare. Okay, not really. Well, maybe just a little.

My guess is that a person like Rudolph Abel could no more choose to worry than I can choose not to. Still, this being New Year's, I'm tempted to make a resolution to worry less in 2016. But would it help? Not likely.



Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Good Walk Unspoiled

The other day, I took a walk to the pond near my home. The foliage, though past its peak, had a muted beauty. I admired the yellow and rust tones, filtered through a soft light, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of drying leaves. I walked through piles of leaves, crunching them underfoot.

A day earlier, I had taken the same route to the pond. Just before I left the house, though, I'd started listening to an NPR broadcast remembering Tom Magliozzi, the Car Talk host who recently passed away. The program consisted of clips of Tom laughing uproariously at one thing or another, mostly his own jokes. I didn't want to stop listening, so I grabbed my iPhone and earbuds and set off on my walk.

I ambled through the lovely autumn foliage but barely noticed it. My mind's eye focused on Tom and I felt surrounded by his laughter, scarcely aware of the trees, the leaves, or the car that almost hit me because I didn't hear it driving up behind me. I've never been good at multi-tasking, so my inability to simultaneously listen to a radio program and take in the beauty of autumn shouldn't have surprised me, but it did strike me how easily I distract myself from being in the moment.

I'm a news junkie and I listen to the radio while washing up, folding laundry, or cooking dinner. I read the paper during breakfast, read a book with my lunch, and talk with E. while eating dinner. Unlike me, though, E. is capable of simply eating. I've actually observed him doing this at breakfast. He simply sits at the table and eats. He doesn't read. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't engage in conversation with me. He just eats (and, I assume, thinks deep thoughts, perhaps about cereal). Amazing.

But, back to my walk, the one without earbuds. When I arrived at the pond, I saw familiar sights — mallards floating on the water, two by two; a great blue heron fishing among the cattails; an elderly couple sitting on a bench. Then I spotted something different in the middle of the pond, a crowd of small creatures, flashing white as they swam to and fro. As they approached the shore, I thought they looked like little ducks. Out of some fuzzy corner of my brain flashed the word merganser.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When I got home, I searched "merganser" on the Internet and in short order found the bird I had seen, a hooded merganser. I felt pleased to have spotted a new bird on the pond and even more pleased to have half-known its name. But the thing that made me happiest was finding photos on the web that let me know for sure what I had seen.

What is it about attaching a name to a bird that gives me such satisfaction? Possibly it's because I'm generally not very good at it, so when I make an identification it feels like a hard-won accomplishment. Certainly, naming is a very human preoccupation. The hooded merganser, after all, gets along swimmingly without ever knowing my name, or its own, for that matter.

Which brings me back to where I started — a gorgeous autumn day, when nature's beauty is on display, oblivious to whether I or anyone else takes note of it. While I'm pretty unlikely to give up all the things I do to distract myself during the course of a typical day (did I mention crossword puzzles?), I'm not planning to bring my earbuds along on future walks. And I won't check the number of steps on my Fitbit until I get home. Or look at my email. But if I'm walking with E. or with friends, all bets are off. I can't not talk.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.


Monday, November 18, 2013

My Favorite Cerebral Place

As some of you know, I received a law degree from the University of Chicago. I was hardly the typical hyper-intellectual U. of C. student. Nor was I destined to be the typical Law School graduate—that is, one who actually works in the field of law. Nevertheless, I harbor an inordinate love for the entire university, a feeling that was confirmed yesterday, when I attended an inspiring lecture by Juan de Pablo, a U. of C. professor in the newly-created Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Perhaps you've heard the line about the University of Chicago—the place where fun goes to die. During the late seventies, when I was there, it could certainly have been called the place where fashion goes to die. People simply didn't care how they looked. But they did care about ideas. If "the life of the mind" had a physical location, that spot would have been Hyde Park, where the University is situated. Back then, for those inclined to engage in non-stop intellectual discourse, the U. of C. was the very definition of fun. Yesterday's talk confirmed that the University still deserves its cerebral reputation.

Professor de Pablo's lecture was part of an alumni series that brings University of Chicago faculty to locations around the country. Over the years, E. and I have attended lectures in both Boston and South Florida on subjects as far-ranging as astrophysics, literature, mathematics, education, and psychology. We've almost always enjoyed not only the content of the lectures but also the enthusiasm of the lecturers.

The U. of C. has long been known for collaboration across disciplines. The Law School pioneered the field of law and economics. In fact, E.'s cousin, Aaron Director, a professor at the Law School for many years, founded the Journal of Law & Economics. The Committee on Social Thought, another example of the interdisciplinary approach at the University, uses literature, philosophy, history, religion, and art to explore trans-disciplinary issues.

Now comes the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the University's latest endeavor reflecting its long tradition of cross-collaboration. Its mission is to "translate discoveries in basic physics, chemistry, and biology into new tools to address important societal problems." The approach of combining basic research in the sciences with cutting-edge engineering techniques seems simultaneously obvious and brilliant.

Prof. de Pablo illustrated the concept with a discussion of his own work in directed self-assembly of nanoparticles for use in integrated circuits. As with the best lectures, I gained a glimpse into the thought processes of an insightful mind. On the one hand, I was reminded how little I know or understand about the universe. On the other, I felt just smart enough to be thrilled by the exciting new developments in nanotechnology. And, once again, I found myself caught up in the passion for learning that's the hallmark of my alma mater.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Call Me Grandma

What's in a name? A lot, apparently, when it comes to deciding what your grandchildren should call you. When my granddaughter, Raina, was born ten months ago, I thought friends might ask me about her uncommon name, but invariably the question they posed was, "What do you want to be called?"

I assumed I had a while to decide, unless Raina turned out to be even more of a prodigy than I expected and began speaking at three months. Besides, I figured that whatever moniker I chose would be subject to Raina's unique pronunciation. I had seen that happen when my father-in-law asked to be called by the Yiddish word for grandfather, Zaide (pronounced zay-dee). His first grandchild, my nephew Jesse, gave it the more original and winsome pronunciation of Zepa (zay-pa), so Zepa he became, for Jesse and all subsequent grandchildren.

Still, the question nagged at me. My kids had called my mother Grandma, which seemed so uncreative. I wracked my brains for alternatives, but hardly anything came to mind. A friend told me that her husband had checked out grandfather names on the Internet. Really? It hadn't occurred to me that people could search for grandparent names the way expectant parents look for baby names. I felt reassured that I wasn't the only grandparent in need of inspiration, but when I perused the lists of "traditional," "trendy," and "playful" names, I didn't find inspiration after all. Somehow Bamba, G-Mom, Granana, or Mimo just didn't do it for me.

At a family gathering when Raina was six months old, we batted about names for grandmothers. I felt pressure to make a decision. My daughter-in-law, Karen, said that even though it would be a while before Raina could talk, she wanted to be able to show Raina pictures of me and know what to call me. I tried to imagine myself as Nana, Mimi, or Grammy. None of them felt right. I longed for something original and charming, like the sobriquet chosen by my mother-in-law—Fuffy.

The next morning, having slept on it and still come up empty, I told my son, Aaron, that I would keep thinking about a name and let him and Karen know my choice soon.

"Why not be Grandma?" he said. "I called your mother Grandma and she was a wonderful grandmother to me, just like you are to Raina."

Who could say no to that? I realized I'd been looking for a sense of connection, and here it was. I recalled the special relationship Aaron had with my mother and how much they loved one another. She was Aaron's "Grandma" and I'm Raina's. I can't wait to hear how she pronounces it!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where Are My Followers?

Unlike Hillary Clinton, when I opened a Twitter account, I didn't attract thousands of followers. More like one. This was back in the fall of 2008. I wanted to find an appealing way to stay in touch with my son, Alex. He suggested we tweet back and forth. Since I only hoped for a few pithy lines from him now and then, Twitter, with its 140-character limit, seemed the perfect medium.

Once I opened my Twitter account, I treated it as a private link to Alex rather than using it to expand my social network. Still, I loved our communications. Alex wrote clever, often hilarious, tweets to me, while I inclined toward overwrought poetic messages, such as this one:

"Saw a little fish leap out of the water with a littler fish in its mouth—beautiful and tragic."

Over time, our tweets petered out and we reverted to more traditional modes of communication, like phone and email. But it was fun while it lasted.

Recently, I decided to revive my Twitter efforts. I've been taking an online class that aims to help students use social media to increase the audience for their writing. But before tackling Twitter or Facebook, the instructor urged us to tweak our own blogs to make them as attractive as possible. Plus, I needed to come out of the closet. For the first time in many years of blogging, I created a home page that reveals my full name. In fact, you can access the home page by using the url barbarakriss.com.

One thing I've learned—it's hard as hell to keep up with 20-something techies when you're pushing 65. The recent redesign of my blog took me days of trial and error. At some point while I was tearing my hair out trying to get just the right background color, Alex decided to redesign his blog. As far as I can tell, it took him about five minutes and the result is fabulous.

Don't get me wrong. I had a fantastic experience trying out various templates, brushing up on my html, and taking risks (it seemed as if every time I altered the template code, I risked losing all my work). But my brain just doesn't have the hard wiring to do this stuff easily. And my brain is having an even harder time adapting to Twitter.