December 18, 2005

'Tis the season for charity and Chias

While you may think the Chia has gone the way of the pet rock, the "holiday" season proves the concept alive and well and available as either cat grass or edible herbs. However much of a novelty item a Chia anything might be, all manner of oddities are represented on TV commercials at this time of year. Anything that might remotely be construed as present-worthy gets air time.

Meanwhile, my mailbox heralds the arrival of the annual beg-a-thon. For me, 'tis the season for survival, not the one for boundless generosity to organizations that have enough spare change to rent a mailing list with my name on it, then entice me with address labels or note cards I give all year round. I'm not looking for a year-end tax deduction. I'm not looking for anything to remind me it's December: the short days, minimal sunlight and freezing cold are inescapable.

Besides, according to the New York Times, my demographic -- a working American "who makes $50,000 to $100,000 a year" is "two to six times more generous in the share of their investment assets that they give to charity than those Americans who make more than $10 million. "

The Scrooges, if you will, are "the least generous of all working-age Americans in 2003, the latest year for which Internal Revenue Service data is available. [They] were among the young and prosperous - the 285 taxpayers age 35 and under who made more than $10 million - and the 18,600 taxpayers making $500,000 to $1 million. The top group had on average $101 million of investment assets while the other group had on average $2.4 million of investment assets."

So much for trickle-down economics. But if these are the people who have everything, perhaps a Chia garden wouldn't be amiss.

December 09, 2005

"What fresh hell is this?"

D. wrote/e-mailed: "I just had my 35th birthday last month. With all that was going on at the time -- finishing a dissertation, trying to get pregnant a second time, now that [D.] is earning a living wage and her partner can stay home and be the at-home mom to the child-to-be and the 2-year-old they already have -- [she] didn't really have time to realize that she is now MIDLIFE. What the hell?? When did that happen?"

"Whom the gods would destroy they would first make promising," wrote Cyril Connelly. When did we get to be 25, 35, 45? How did we make it this far, we drug-imbibing, neuron-frying children of the 1960s and 1970s?

Is 50 the new 40, as the magazines suggest? Alice counters: if 45 is the new 55, she is not long for that day she gets to call going-to-work quits. In real life, that's not going to happen quite along those lines, not given her place in the baby boomer lineup.

Personally, she has passed the "promising" mark, underachieving according to the dictates of her hard-wired chemical imbalance (not subject to post-partum, take-six-months-of-drugs- and-move-along-depression), not overachieving as she did with scholastic accomplishments that came so easily early in life.

"I'm kind of coming to grips with that middle-aged subject," said another friend. "I've just realized that I need to be concerned about things like heart disease, stuff like that. Especially since my sister recently had her second heart attack. It makes me feel very strange since in my head I'm only 40.

"Middle age *gasp* retirement *gasp*, I'll never see that because I won't be able to afford it. I wish I'd known [Alice] when I was 25!" (For hire, Alice does financial and retirement planning, in case you were wondering.)

In the past year Alice has seen several contemporaries suffer through breast cancer, and two so-called healthy men in their 40s drop dead of heart attacks, watched three marriages disintegrate, one at a cost of $100,000 in legal fees; another, quiet resignation; and the third, a bloodletting that would not go gentle into that good night.

That middle-aged thing? Dare I say, it sucks. Let me count the ways. Why is it every time I see a doctor, it is for a new medical mishap? Who knew there were so many body parts that could misalign and cause pain yet have me still sound healthy on paper?

Dating at 45: please, take these people out for dinner -- away from me.

D., if you had known me when I was 25, that would have been a decade before I got into financial planning -- when I was involved in torrid romance with my once-lover, now-again-friend CC. It would also have been pre-Prozac. I was studying history in grad school and working part-time as a editor.

Overall, that year was the best of times -- three months in Paris, a love affair that finally had traction -- and the worst: my grandmother, whom I loved dearly died, and my father went to rehab under threat of my mom's committing him, and around the new year, the torrid romance went south for good.

45 is, according to my genetic makeup, half the way there. Of course, I've been having nervous breakdowns and major depressions for so many years, who can tell the difference?

This is most definitely not my favorite season, no matter how many hours I put in under my SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamp.

Medically, you can get tested for more potential diseases than ever before, and I don't think I want to know. (Yearly mammogram achieved; bone density test up next.) I cannot remember the source (French), but the saying is, "if youth but knew; if age could do."

And George Elliot: "If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about it: for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new."

The "been there, done that" T-shirt is so old it's been cut into rags.

December 04, 2005

Survivor: the American holiday trifecta, Part I

I'm not much for reality shows, but this time of year, we are all on an island of consumerism and forced cheer, and too much family time. The idea here is not to kick everyone off the island; the idea is to get through the whole holiday trifecta -- Thanksgiving/Christmas*/New Year's Eve alive.

*or Hanukkah, Kwanza or Chris-mukka, the Jewish secular answer to Christmas, the holiday I grew up with.

If you are remotely religious, stop reading here. (Religious holidays call for a different kind of Survivor, and you are not eligible to play this version of the home game.) If this is the season of your dreams, you might also want to stop here.

There are rules and suggestions to follow. Remember, the game has nothing to do with voting someone off an island; it has to do completely with saving your own sanity.

The only voting is what you decide you will and will not do for the season, i.e., will you go to grandma's proverbial house, choose a non-blood related home for holiday season shelter and rituals, or declare yourself Buddhist and above material possessions.

Thanksgiving begins the holiday trifecta, and is truly the least stressful and least expensive holiday in the running. Wear comfortable clothing so you can stuff yourself and still not have a pinched waist. This is about food, plain and simple. And possibly drink, depending on your company. It is possibly the worst of all possible times to travel far, so try to keep your celebration local. Walking distance is good; public transit is also advisable.

As for drinking -- and this goes for the entire trifecta -- if your family tends toward excessive consumption and it is more than you can tolerate, find another family -- perhaps one of friends -- with whom to share the day. If, on the other hand, you will be arriving at a home that considers temperance its goal and you don't, then bring a flask and some breath mints.

If you are the host/hostess, don't be a martyr: if one of your guests offers to provide the dessert or the string beans or yams or what have you, say yes. Your role is to set the table and make sure the turkey is ready when you want it. Anything else is, shall we say, gravy.

Tis the season for conspicuous consumption: if you don't want to make a large contribution to the retail trade and American economy, agree beforehand with those to whom you are normally required to give gifts that their company is gift enough. Besides, if you are over 30 and reasonably solvent, there's a good chance that anything you want that is within the present-giving dollar amount is an item you can afford or aready own.

To my way of thinking, the kickoff for the Christmas season is when Santa lands by helicopter on the roof of Saks Fifth Avenue the day after Thanksgiving, as he did when I was a child. Apparently the merchandising masters have rescheduled the start of the season for the day after Halloween. Ignore them.

As for Christmas/holiday cards, just because you receive one doesn't mean you have to reciprocate unless you want to. If the card is not addressed by hand, you definitely don't owe anyone anything. If the card is a family photo op, try to find which person was absent for the shoot and then photoshopped into place.

Do not send cards with mysterious relatives on them -- your immediate family is the only acceptable option, unless you choose your pet. Remember, a dog won't wear antlers for very long; a cat will refuse, and my off-White Rabbit will chew any decoration.

Personally, I am in favor of a Christmas tree with presents wrapped underneath, and a nice roast beef with Yorkshire pudding dinner. Christmas with small children -- and they don't have to belong to you; indeed, you may prefer that they not belong to you -- does make the day run more smoothly. Anyone who believes in Santa Claus will probably prove very entertaining and cheering on Christmas morning.

I will also sign up to help my hostess do the cooking, or bring something, so the burden of food preparation is shared. If tofu is on the menu, go elsewhere, unless you are a vegan and consider Play-Doh to be nutritious and festive.

Should you be in that position, you may be attending a solstice celebration, about which I know nothing, except that I am grateful it represents the return of daylight.

As for Hanukkah, I lit the candles and said a prayer in Hebrew as a child, but I was in my 30s before I knew there was more than one prayer. Dreidel spinning has never been high on my list, but if it is on yours, you might want to remember that the holiday is considered minor in the scheme of Judaism, and presents are optional -- it's not the Jewish answer to Christmas.

Kwanza was invented in the 1960s to celebrate black heritage, I believe. Here I know even less than I do about Judaism.

Nonetheless, your presence may be expected at any of the above holidays, and what you have to remember is a) you may turn down any invitation you like and b) if you do choose to attend festivities and become uncomfortable in the midst of all the happy people, you should plan an escape route, complete with medical excuse and transportation backup.

I suggest this as one who has experienced a family member writing expletives on hotel dinner Frette tablecloths -- in pen. Yes, the service sucked and the food wasn't all it could be, but the all-you-can-drink element made me anxious to kick the waiter so he might cut said family member off, regardless of her desire.

When I was a child, and nothing more than my presence was required for Thanksgiving or Christmas, clearly it was a less stressful time. Now, in my 40s, life is different, and I would be much happier if I could escape with TV -- but every commercial and every other movie or drama decks the halls more than I care to see.

I will deck the halls when I'm good and goddamm ready. And this year, red and green not topping my favorite colors list, I'm going with white lights and purple ornaments.