(Muir)eflections and the dilemma of poppies as tourist attractions.

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I went with Eric a couple weeks ago to the Walker Canyon California poppy super-bloom in Lake Elsinore, and the number of people there to see it was just below Disneyland at full capacity.  If I had to guess, I’d say there were about as many spectators as there were innocent poppies being trampled.

As fascinating as the number of people, though, was the variety of folks who showed up for this once-every-several-years show put on by God and Mother Nature. During the two mile in-and-back jaunt, I spied people in head-to-toe hiking gear, complete with neck-shade mullet hat, hiking poles, and mid-shin lace boots. Then, on the other end of the preparedness spectrum were those I can only guess had come directly to the hiking trails from church. Skirts, bejeweled sandals and even high heels were spotted along the rough gravelly incline.

I observed people wearing so many articles of clothing to block out the sun, they had essentially invented the burka of hiking apparel – eyes the only visible humanness beneath sweat drenched Northface attire. There were also girls wearing next to nothing, in sports bras and dolphin shorts, soaking up the first ninety degree day since early November, and sporting the pink shoulders and gawking men to prove it.

Dogs were also out in full force. Some just as you’d expect – leashed and bouncy and taking their owners for walks along the bunny-scented trail. What I wasn’t ready for was the dogs inside of backpacks: dogs too small or frail to walk along the trail, but whose parents KNEW they’d simply love to be brought out to the wilderness in a satchel to witness the poppy bloom from the safety of a Doggy Bjorn. Perhaps these were ailing “Make A Wish” dogs who had to see a field full of poppies a la Wizard of Oz before heading to canine heaven. It’s hard to imagine what else a Lhasa Apso would want with a poppy bloom, unless the blossoms have Pupperonis for stems.

My favorite dogs of the day were two brown teacup poodles – one boy and one girl. How did I know their genders at a glance? The girl was wearing a lace-trimmed gingham dress, and the boy was wearing lederhosen, obviously. These groomed, clothed dogs had to have been mortified being brought to a location where coyotes regularly romp and drag possum carcasses along the very same trail. It was a sad moment for evolution.

Our attendance at this event of nature was able to provide an answer to a pressing existential question: if wild poppies bloom on a hillside, and activewear-clad women don’t take twenty selfies in front of them, did wild poppies actually bloom on a hillside? The answer, according to what I witnessed, is unequivocally “no”.

I couldn’t help but wince a bit each time another girl lay down in a patch, friends hovering above with their iPhones, telling her “putting your arm above your head” and “turn your face toward the light” as a hundred and fifty poppies allowed their stems to give out under the weight of her body, never again to turn their faces to the sun.

In the masses of spectators, I pondered whether natural phenomena and the hordes they attract are advantageous or detrimental for our Earth. It conjured memories of the hundreds of cars I witnessed, lined up to enter Arches National Park, bumper-to-bumper traffic created by the beauty God and nature and time and weather had crafted. Or likewise, the thousands on the trail up to delicate arch, just waiting to snap their own photo in front of the famed piece of God’s handiwork – turning a feat of nature into a veritable county-fair backdrop with a face cutout.

Is nature glad to be observed? Even when it becomes a tourist attraction? When it becomes Niagara Falls on the Canada side, with mini-golf and Ripley’s museums and poutine restaurants all competing with the natural wonder? Am I justified when, for a moment, I hang my head in dismay at how we’ve cheapened creation?

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I imagine Muir in a canoe in the Alaskan wilderness – the lone witness of ice shards cracking off turquoise blue glaciers. The single audience member to meteor showers and howling packs of wolves and towering sequoias. As my mind pans back to “Poppyland”, I ask myself, “Is this what Muir envisioned?” When he arranged for essentially the first Alaskan tourism boat trips- thus paving the way for the Alaskan cruise industry, and when he forged trails meant for others to follow – was his goal for thousands of selfie-stick wielding men and women with chihuahuas in backpacks to witness these wonders?

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In the end, I do believe nature is for everyone, and that whatever woos us outside from our NCIS stupors, be it a geyser that sprays sulfuric waters every hour on the hour (give or take), weathered rocks forged into arches, or even a poppy super-bloom, I have to call it positive – maybe even wonderful.

I become disquieted, however, when we all show up at once, creating a circus spectacle from the wonder afforded by natural miracles. The lesson, I suppose, is to see every wondrous natural event one can, and rub shoulders happily with the hiking pole users, selfie-takers, and dog costumers alike – appreciating that Mother Earth still draws theme-park-sized crowds. But – and as PeeWee would say, it’s a BIG “but” – one should also seek the solitude creation waves tantalizingly before us. We should press on past the crowds – to the Muir Moments – creamsicle sunsets viewed in seclusion, a caterpillar inching across the road with no one around to mistakenly trample upon him, the stillness of the night beyond freeway cadences and power line buzzes – nights so quiet, that rustling in the grass could be a sparrow or a grizzly – because every noise is deafening.

Then, and only then, will we know whether the tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, and how deeply the Earth can restore our weary souls.

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” – John Muir

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*Photos by Eric and Miriam Bernard

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Portion from The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, inscribed at the foot of The Statue of Liberty

Today, a photo was released of Donald Trump with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Secretary Kobach is holding in his hands a document entitled “Department of Homeland Security: Kobach Plan for First 365 Days”. We know this because he failed to place the document inside the folder he is also holding, thus revealing its contents to the camera. A quick zoom and you can see a good portion of the plan, straight from the man being considered for the role of Secretary of Homeland Security.

I’m going to skip over the blaring irony that the potential Secretary of Homeland Security is posing with such a document visible in a photograph, and instead I’m going to focus on one particular bullet point on the accidentally shared plan:

“Reduce intake of Syrian refugees to zero using authority under the 1980 refugee act.”

Obama accepted around 12,500 Syrian refugees in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, of about 100,000 refugees total. Trump’s plan is to bring in zero. I’m unaware of what will become of those already here.

With three days until Thanksgiving, I need to declare how thankful I am to be lying in a bed in a safe home in a safe neighborhood in a safe country. I am exceedingly privileged and blessed to have the luxury of ‘safe’. But I have to say, Americans and Christians have turned safety into an idol, and safety is not what Christ has called us to.

A radio interview aired today on BBC World News of a mother in Aleppo, desperately describing how she is stuck in the city and doesn’t know how to get out. Audible in the background is gunfire and bombs. This is the hell in which Syrians are living. Tears came instantly when I saw the boy, a victim of a chlorine gas attack ask, “Miss, will I die?” It’s been one too many radio interviews and one too many torturous videos. To quote Brooke Fraser, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible.”

Last weekend, I sat on the beach watching the sunset, eating oysters and drinking wine, laughing with my friends. It was beautiful, but there comes a point when the contrast in one’s life to our brothers and sisters in Syria becomes so blaring, so stark; that you grow sickened by the luxury of your own existence, and sickened by the adamancy of your country to protect your ability to suck oysters on the beach to the extent that people desperately in need of help are being largely ignored and barred from “OUR” safety.

I’m tired of hearing about the inherent dangers of accepting Syrian refugees when the danger THEY face moment by moment is imminent – a true matter of life and death. We are sending the clear message, “Our lives are more important than your lives, and our safety is more important than your safety.” I am an American, but far before that, I am a follower of Christ, a citizen of this world, and a sister to my fellow man; with a job to find the exiled and the unwanted and to tangibly help them. Today, there is no one less wanted than the Syrian refugee. I want them.

In Biblical times, the enmity between the Samaritans and Jews was fierce. It was five hundred years in the making. Hatred is the appropriate word for how these two groups viewed each other. Yet, when Jesus was asked by an expert of the law, “Who is my neighbor?” He didn’t answer, “The nice family living next store!” Jesus, as He always does, confounds us yet again with a call to something greater. A call to audacious, offensive love. The kind that breaks down barriers between people groups who hate one another.

Is this screaming Christian vs. Muslim to you yet? Oh, good. Because Syrian refugees and oppressed Muslims are precisely, exactly the Jew lying bleeding and dead on the side of the road, and we Americans, in our refusal to help them, are actively living out this story as the Priest and Levite who cross to the other side of the road to pretend as if no one is having the shit bombed out of their city, with doctors fleeing town, and people starving within, and convoys full of aid being bombed so that literally no help is reaching these people.

“Bringing them here poses too many risks,” we say. We, living in a country built on rescuing the homeless, tempest-tossed and emulating a religion that calls for Samaritans to tend to the broken Jews on the side of the road, are being cowards. And we’re cheating the world of the love of Jesus in the process. Hoarding it for ourselves and our precious safety.

I will do whatever it takes to stand in solidarity with what Syrians and Muslims and ALL marginalized groups are facing right now – be it a safety pin on my shirt, a hijab on my head, or a freakin’ ticket straight to Aleppo. If I sit here and do nothing any longer, I’m going to scream. I want ideas and actions, so if you have any of those, please tell me, because I’m ready to get off my privileged ass and start living the words of Emma Lazarus and Jesus Christ.

Matthew 25:35-40 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Saying Goodbye to my Twenties

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The first day of my twenties

I turned 20 years old to the tune of “Tanti Auguri a Te” – the Italian birthday song – sung by people I barely knew, as we gathered around a tiled patio table covered in vine canopies overlooking Italy’s Ligurian coast. I blew out a candle on a perfectly woven, pastry style pie filled with preserves, and was offered my first taste of champagne, which I politely declined. A pink and purple sunset sunk itself into the Bougainvilla shrouded Mediterranean below. The evening smelled of star jasmine and ocean spray.

As my newfound friends, Sandra, Elettra, Maddalena, Alessandra, Angela and Luca sang their foreign tune, I fought back tears. This was the first birthday I’d spent away from my parents, I was half the Earth’s circumference from my boyfriend, and no Italian coastal lullaby could soothe my aching heart.

That 20th year held my first international adventure alone. My first time away from my family as a nanny in Italy. I eventually stopped crying, learned Italian, and acquired a collection of adventures and memories which are now so treasured to me, they have become the happy place I go in moments of melancholy.

When my boyfriend, Eric, came and we toured some of the world’s most enchanting Italian cities, I had my first sip of alcohol, a glass of Italian Pinot Grigio, at an outdoor cafe beside the Rialto Bridge overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal. My first red wine, a Chianti Classico, was enjoyed with Maduro cigars while standing among the Chianti vines at a villa in Machiavelli, Tuscany. Little did I know then the oenophile I would one day become.

That fall, I returned home basically broke, in need of a job, and accepted a position I vowed would be temporary, but it turned out to be the last job I ever took. Ten years later and still at the same school, I love teaching and it loves me right back. It’s also brought me some of my closest friends.

Age 21 brought my hard-earned bachelor’s degree, and my engagement to a person who to this day is still the man of my dreams.

At 22, I changed my last name to Bernard and moved out of my parents’ house to Fullerton to begin a new and exciting stage of life. I taught science with enthusiasm, and loved coming home to Mr. Bernard.

At 23, I was given a classroom full of fourth graders three days before the school year began. Now deemed “The Crucible”, I weathered the storm of that year and came out on the other side wiser, seasoned and feeling ten years older. I almost quit a few times. I’m glad I didn’t.

At 24, we toasted to paying off over $63,000 of car, credit card and college debt, becoming fully debt free and earning our right to eat something besides mac and cheese or bean burritos for dinner.

At 25, we bought our first home – a condo in Yorba Linda we loved dearly. We made it our own, and I still miss the curtainless windows and wide open sunset views, as well as the kindest neighbors on Earth, Fati and Poora.

At 27, we hit the road with our Hyundai Santa Fe packed with a tent, some maps and my way-overstuffed suitcase, to spend 40 days seeing America and Canada from the front seat of the car. We witnessed and did unforgettable things, and I will forever cherish the hours of podcasts, stimulating conversation, breathtaking views, and silent, content, side-by-side togetherness of those 13,000 miles.

At 28, we purchased our first bit of Earth, a 1927 craftsman bungalow on 8,000 square feet of dirt that’s all ours. We’re chicken owners, garden growers, have heirloom tomatoes about to turn red, and are proud residents of the colorful city of Pomona, CA.

That year, I also watched my first class of fourth graders graduate from 8th grade and enter the world of high school as poised, exuberant young men and women who I am so proud to have had even a small hand in guiding.

At 29, I said goodbye to my trusty Santa Fe, Jack Kelley, on the side of the road in a small town in Oregon during another comically crazy road trip up California’s enchanting coast. I also earned my 10 year pin as a teacher, making me feel, officially, like a grown up.

I closed out the decade by taking a personal hobby and turning it into a public one: I entered a storytelling contest and won on my first try the day before my 30th birthday. It is the first step toward a dream of storytelling to larger audiences, possibly on a podcast, and maybe someday making something out of my writings.

My twenties turned me into a fiancé, a wife, a teacher, a homeowner, a dog owner, a wine lover, a mixologist, a volunteer, a reader, a writer, a devourer of podcasts, an NPR enthusiast, a skeptic, a deeper lover of Jesus Christ, and a better lover of myself.

If 30 year old Miriam could go back to baby 20 year old Miriam and tell her all that she would accomplish, the many ways she would grow as a person, and the unbelievable amount of FUN she would have in those ten short years, her jaw would have been on the floor. But it was more fun as a surprise, anyway.

As I wave goodbye to a decade, I realize my thirties have some big shoes to fill. Something tells me they’re gonna do just fine. ❤️

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The last day of my twenties.

Food and Me.

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I managed to reach my early twenties before ever experiencing “food guilt”. You know, it’s like that feeling after you’ve just eaten a big, delicious, gluttonous meal and wind up thinking, “This food is inevitably going to make my body look worse, therefore I feel sad.” Up until that point, my life had been one giant, blissful, guilt-free smorgasbord of Kraft Mac N Cheese, Tommy’s chili cheese fries, sour belts, peach gummy rings and tacos of every possible shape and size. I grew up with an incredibly high metabolism and had nicknames like “Toothpick” and “Skinny Minnie” through much of my life.

In college, when many girls were busy gaining the “Freshman 15”, I got home one day to have my mom pull me aside and legitimately ask me if I was healthy – because apparently I looked so thin she thought I was not taking care of myself. When I ran down what I had eaten that week – McDonalds, Del Taco (multiple times), grilled cheese at the school grill, Coldstone’s Ultimate Bucket (their biggest size – it comes in an actual bucket. With a handle.) and all other manner of God-awful sustenance – the finished list was so appalling, she quickly dropped the issue with a laugh, assured that I was still her normal piglet daughter with the hollow leg.

As a big-toothed, glasses-wearing ‘tween, I was blissfully ignorant of weight issues, and even most general appearance issues. My friends would ask me things like, “Look at that girl walking over there. Is that sort of what I look like from behind? Or am I smaller? Or BIGGER? Please don’t tell me I look bigger.” I would respond by shrugging and saying, “I don’t know, I’ve never noticed before…” because I honestly wasn’t even aware that girls were thinking about their size in such a way. Me and my spindly, knobby legs were just skipping through life without a single concept of size. It was a lovely time, and it was due in large part to my parents, who never even bothered to introduce me to such ideas. My mom would constantly remind me that it was the condition of my heart that mattered, and not remotely what I look like on the outside. I suppose that vibe perpetuating through my life couldn’t have been anything but positive. But also, I wasn’t struggling with my weight, except to keep it on, so the problem never really presented itself.

My summer as a nanny in Italy at age 20 was the first time I discovered the concept of “eating one’s feelings”. I was viciously homesick, and for the first two weeks, I could barely touch the bowls of freshly stewed, garlic-laden chunky tomato pasta and crusty bread being placed in front of me. I’d push the bowls away, no appetite in sight, and would go to bed missing Chipotle Mexican Grill and my boyfriend (not necessarily in that order) immensely. Then one day, over a heaping bowl of fresh pesto e penne, eaten on a garden patio table overlooking the Mediterranean, something in my brain clicked, and I realized that what I was putting in my mouth was some of the best tasting food I had EVER HAD. From that moment forward, I became a veritable bottomless pit. I had never had such a love affair with food before then, and I likely never will again. I ate such astonishing quantities of bread and pasta, it got to the point that I would regularly feel ill after dinner, and would be sent by the scolding Italian grandmother of the family, out to walk around town on a “passagiata” (evening walk). I’d waddle down the narrow streets heaving and doubling over with heartburn and slap-happy gluttony.

To give you an example, my dinner in a single evening would consist of three or four large slices of fresh baked bread drizzled with olive oil and course salt, then steak carpaccio also drizzled with oil, then a giant bowl of THE BEST thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, the grandmother’s own invention: Pasta con formaggio filante (Literally – pasta with melty cheese – some special type she’d get from the cheese monger next door that I’ve never again tasted since leaving their home) and then I’d go swiftly back for a second bowl, before a healthy portion of minestrone soup that had been stewing on the stove since eight o’clock that morning. I’d wash it all down with a giant glass of fresh whole milk that went down just like cream. Dessert would be a walk to the local gelateria for two scoops of Straciatella, and no joke, I’d go back to my room and get in bed, and lean down to a little bag of cookies I’d become fond of called Pan di Stelle (bread of stars, I think?) which were these little chocolate cookies with star-shaped sprinkles. AND I’D EAT THEM IN BED. As I dozed off to sleep. Ugh.

Meals in those weeks became a sacred ritual – like a tally mark placed on a wall with a piece of chalk. I’d count the time by how many hours until lunch, then how many lunches until next week. It was almost an experiment to see how much food I could fit into my little twiggy body. I even got into the habit of eating breakfast – something I’ve never managed to do in the states. But when breakfast consists of Twinings Earl Grey tea, perfectly crumbly chocolate biscotti, and the most luscious farm-grown peaches dripping with nectar, it’s a habit one could form about as easily as shooting up heroine.

To put it all in perspective, at the start of my trip I went on a shopping spree in Milan for cute Italian clothes, and by the end of the summer, I couldn’t fit in ANY of them. I gained 15 pounds in two months.

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My favorite Italian food buddies eating pizza and Coke – breakfast of champions

Then I got home and gobbled up like 20 In N Out burgers in a matter of weeks, but rather quickly, the pendulum of my eating habits swung back to a balanced place. I ordered eggplant and anchovies from restaurants here in the states, and was so appalled at their flavor, I quickly realized our food here is just simply NOT as good. In N Out or no, the 15 pounds kind of just fell off, and within a month I was wearing the clothes I had bought at the start of my trip. Bodies are weird.

It was several months into marriage when I first discovered my body’s ability to gain weight. Like, a legitimate ability, not the Italian love affair blaze-of-glory type of weight gain. I’m talking about the little bits of pudge that started to accumulate around my tummy and make my pants feel tight when I went to Red Lobster. It was a foreign phenomenon. I didn’t like it one bit.

For the first two years of marriage, Eric and I forced ourselves to live as if we were in poverty while devoting every spare penny to paying off our debt. In turn, our dinners consisted of LOTS of Mac N Cheese, burritos, frozen microwavable lunches, and two-dollar bottles of wine. Also, it wasn’t just the money. It’s that mac n cheese is really REALLY good, and don’t you dare ask me to share a box with you; each of us gets our OWN. A couple years of eating that way will put a couple of pounds even on the sprightliest of metabolisms.

When Eric had had enough of the slow and steady gain, he decided to get serious about his health and we began to change how we ate. I was riding on the coat tails of his dedication, much like I have through most of our marriage, so I ate better too, and I lost much of that icky weight. Then I slooooowwwly gained it back. Then summer was coming so I lost it again. Then the holidays approached and I sloooowwwly (but not quite as slowly as the first time) gained it back.

Thus began the slow and meandering four year roller coaster of weight loss and gain that I’d imagine many people have experienced, with which I am becoming acquainted. It has brought with it a lot of firsts, such as – keeping “fat” clothes and “skinny” clothes in my closet so that I have something to wear regardless of my size. When I was younger, I just kept on wearing the same exact clothes for over a decade. Not quite so, anymore. I’ve also picked up staring at myself in the mirror while cringing, and disliking clothes shopping (and dressing room mirrors) more than ever before. And yes, even looking at other girls and being tempted to ask my friends, “Look at that girl walking over there. Is that sort of what I look like from behind? Or am I smaller? Or BIGGER? Please don’t tell me I look bigger.” I also unbutton the top button of my jeans an awful lot.

Regardless of when in life it comes, the day one experiences “food guilt”, an innocence has been lost. There is a knowledge of what food does to a body, and once you comprehend that knowledge, you can never un-know it. The days of the guilt-free smorgasbord are no more. With every box of Kraft blue box and every bottle of wine, your insides cringe a little and scold, “You naughty girl. You shouldn’t be eating this.”

But here’s what I’ve realized. The knowledge of food and the damage it can do is a GOOD knowledge. Yes, while it may rob you of your happy childhood gluttony, I suppose we should discuss that IT SHOULD. Young and old alike should know concepts like moderation, smart eating and avoidance of sugar. Someone should have told thirteen year old Miriam that when ordering tacos cooked on a questionable grill in downtown Ensenada, and then drizzled with equally questionable un-refrigerated crema, ordering and eating TWELVE of them is probably a BAD idea. (I’m not gonna lie, though, that was a really good day.)

Here’s the rub: (Mmm that kind of makes me want barbecue… good GOD, Miriam, focus!) We can all learn something from both the young, carefree, twiggy version of me, AND the older, wiser, plumper version of me. First, we should strive to be moderate – to notice what we eat and put whole, real foods in our bodies MOST of the time. We should stop eating when we’re satisfied, and never reach the Italian heartburn, doubled-over “passagiata” status of old. We should put down the slim-jim and eat a freakin’ carrot instead. BUT we should also go to The Hat at midnight every couple of months, and just revel in pastrami and mayo and fries so greasy they’re nearly see through. Every once in a while.

And here’s the most important one: We should strive once again for a mindset like our adolescent  selves. A mindset that has no concept of scrutiny of one’s size. We shouldn’t be looking at that girl over there and wondering if we look the same as her from behind. Don’t do that. Comparison is the thief of joy. When we look in the mirror and want to cringe or cry, we must work to muffle and eventually silence that ugly voice telling you how much better you looked before. Just simply, turn off the light, walk away, and go climb some grassy hill til you’re huffing and puffing and looking out at a beautiful sunset. Skip the whining about it and jump straight to the doing something about it. Because every moment we spend lamenting over our looks is a moment wasted. As Amy Poehler wisely says in her book, “Yes, Please”: “Just imagine your ninety-year old self is talking to you. She would say, ‘You look great and you are beautiful. Can you walk? Stop Complaining. Stopcomplainingstopcomplainingstopcomplaining. Ignore what people think. Most people aren’t paying attention to you.’”

When you start to get down on yourself about your looks, it helps to think of how massively insignificant they are to your personality, brain and heart – the things that really matter. When you hear that voice reminding you how much you hate your cheeks, or that your thighs touch now when they didn’t used to, or that your wedding ring is getting tight – SKIP the lamenting, the self-deprecation and the self-loathing, and go read an article, then text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, then go outside while the sun is setting and take a very long walk – the kind where when you get back, your legs are doing little twitches for the next twenty minutes. That’s where it’s at. Life is too short to spend another single minute on self-hatred.

So I still love food. Not an Italian type of love, anymore, but still the type that leaves me ready to salt and eat my own arm in a ravenous frenzy when I’ve had a pithy lunch of sweet peppers with hummus as I did today. I’m learning to love me, and learning that part of loving me is feeding me well. And the other part is eating The Hat chili cheese fries late at night. Every once in a while. And that’s the skinny (and chubby) on food and me, so far.

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Old Devil Hate

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Wednesday December 2nd had been busy grinding through how to turn decimals into fractions with my class. When I said goodbye to my last tutoring student at 5pm, I exhaustedly plopped down at my desk, work for the day finished, and heaved a sigh that signaled the passing of another happy day in teacherdom. I clicked on Facebook to see what the rest of the world was up to.

14 people were killed and 21 people were injured in San Bernardino.

The computer faded out of focus. There it was again – that September 11th sick feeling in my stomach. I sat staring across my classroom. The ticking of the clock came into focus. More people dead. This time, 32 miles from the chair where I sat. My eyes fell into a distant stare as tears welled in my eyes. After a long minute, my sharp, shaky inhale broke the silence. I gathered up my belongings and drove home, red lights blurred through tears, feeling the weight of a world that sees so much darkness. Victims’ faces flashing across the screen: People who will never have another cup of coffee or hear another song, or laugh with their families ever again. I felt overwhelming grief for the brokenness of humanity. Fear for the safety of those I love. The world screeches to a halt again.

I’m not sure how you remember 9/11, but I remember a nation’s collective tears. How no one took their eyes off their screens. We all did what I did after hearing about San Bernardino: just sat still and cried. We put our arms around our family and just lowered our heads, allowing the gravity to wash over us. We stared in silence as firefighters dug through an Everest of rubble, praying for even one to emerge alive – to give the slightest flicker of hope in the blackness.

Then, something remarkable happened. Almost at once it seemed, everyone got up. They lit candles and raised flags. They took hands with strangers and walked to street corners, and bought markers to make big giant signs that said “United We Stand”. They bought flags that clipped them to car windows, and honked in support through intersections and demonstrated that we stand for something greater than fear – that we were unwilling to bend to the devastation. That we would not disrespect the dead by giving up our efforts and our lives to those who want to destroy. That we would allow good to prevail. Together, in our own myriad of tiny ways, we sent a message to evil: You will not beat us. You may beat us up, but you will not beat us. Our spirit is too strong; the good of the many is greater than the hate of the few, and we WILL WIN.

The news stories began to shift. In between ongoing footage of that pile of rubble, we began to rebuild our hope. I recall the flame in my heart watching on the news people standing together on street corners in Tallahassee and Buffalo and Portland, just like we were in Chino Hills. Togetherness was the first step toward our collective healing.

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The Facebook news feed world in which we now live has provided a very different response to these smaller versions of 9/11 tragedies which keep occurring in the form of mass shootings, dead black teenagers and hostage-held Planned Parenthoods. The street corners on which we meet are no longer physical, but virtual, and it is clear something has been lost. Instead of looking into the eyes of another human being and seeing his pain, our friends have been reduced to their ideals, logged away in the filing cabinets of our minds as conservative, liberal, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-Muslim, anti-Muslim. We’ve stopped allowing the grief to unite us, because the humanness – the sameness- of others is too far away – beyond the networks and wires and screens – in a place that is not real. And it’s tearing us all apart.

We hurl articles like grenades, monger with ideology , bully prayer and spew gun statistics. We are all the man who has lost his job, comes home, and takes it all out on the dog. Anger and sadness are fine – they are the CORRECT reaction – but they have been placed in error upon our brothers and sisters, when they should be directed at the true enemy: hate.

In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, writes as a demon named Screwtape instructing his nephew, Wormwood – also a demon – how to best corrupt his “patient” – a young man trying to make his way through life. When the “delightful” news of world war has been discovered, Screwtape explains to his nephew the bad news that in war, Europeans wielded only a “mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats”. In other words, though they proclaimed an intense hatred for their enemies, their kind hearts would offer aid to the first German pilot who landed in their fields. In an attempt to help Wormwood foster the hatred in his “patient’s” heart, he offers the following advice:

“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day, and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

By all means, maintain your views about whether guns are the hero or the villain. Feel how you wish about cops, or Muslims, or Trump, but friends, those ideas and the people who tout them are not the enemy. Hate is. And the antidote is love. It is literally ALL that matters. It is the rope reaching down into the pit that we must grab hold of to perpetuate the good left in this world. Now is the time to love, not in the remote circumference, but in the real, immediate world around us, and we must let it flow out of us without faltering and without discrimination. Let it become habit, for Screwtape says, “It is only in so far as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us.” They are fatal to hatred because the active beneficence we show will mean the difference between the broken state of our world today and a better world tomorrow.

Hug your kids. Call your mom and tell her you love her. Send a letter to your childhood best friend. Look at the eyes of the person checking your groceries and comment on what a beautiful day it is. Invite a stranger to your Christmas dinner table. Watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Find the children in your life and teach them to love, too. Sit down next to a homeless person, look in his eyes, and ask how he’s doing, then listen. Put your grocery cart back in the cart corral. Tape change to a vending machine. Let that buffoon who has no idea how to merge into one lane go ahead of you, and then SMILE at him as he passes. (Not that I have any experience with this…) Send a private message to that person who’s driving you crazy with their gun posts. Ask her how she’s doing and if she’d like to get together for coffee like old times. Then go and TALK with her, and LISTEN to her. Say you’re sorry to whom you need to, and mean it. Love the refugee and the Muslim, yes, but love the Trump supporter and the outspoken Bernie supporter just as fiercely. Love the “Coexist” bumper sticker owner, and the Gospel Coalition member. Don’t cheapen your benevolence by offering it only to those you feel have earned it.

Hey Miriam, your incurable optimism is showing.

Yeah. I’m not sorry about it.

Somewhere along the way, between political memes and righteous reputation smearing, we’ve stopped looking at people’s eyes and have lost a level of human connection. We need to find our way out of blog warfare and back to the candlelit street corners of late September 2001. Those of us with love in our hearts have nothing short of a RESPONSIBILITY to demonstrate that love as emphatically, strategically and zealously as those so effectively demonstrating their hate.

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands
Old devil fear, you’d like to freeze me cold
But when I’m sore afraid, my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago
Before I learned the poison in your breath
Now when I hear your lies, my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time

From “Old Devil Time” by Pete Seeger

Hear the song here.

 

American Christianity: I Can’t “Unsee”

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Like a true child of the nineties, I went through a brief obsession with these optical illusion books called “Magic Eye”. You may remember them: On each page, there is an image that looks like a strange, colorful pattern, with no apparent focus or meaning. However, hidden in the details of the pattern is actually a 3D image which becomes visible when one stands back and widens his vision, almost to the point of a blank stare, until the shapes come into focus. Once you see it, the picture is not only right there in your face, it’s virtually impossible to “unsee”. The emergence of this new image changes the meaning of the picture completely.

For a hot second in the nineties, people liked them so much, they put them on the walls of their houses like works of art. As a nine year old lying on the floor of the La Habra library, staring into the deep abyss of “Magic Eye”, I certainly imagined my own home someday would be covered in them. Fortunately, a visit to my house reveals that I grew out of that stage, but these puzzles came rushing back into my memory recently, and for an unexpected reason: American Christianity.

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I recently began reading a book by Kevin Kruse called “One Nation Under God – How Corporate America Created Christian America”. I’ve read exactly one chapter, and my mind is already so brimming with thoughts that I need to start with a blog post even though I’m sure more revelations will come as I swim deeper into the turbulent waters of this book.

I feel a burden – a responsibility, almost – to share it with you, because I spent the first 25 years of my life without a shred of understanding from where American Christianity has come. Although, having spent my entire life in church, I did make plenty of observations. Here’s a little timeline that demonstrates the types of conclusions I reached about Christianity at milestone ages. These are within the Christian circle in general – not only from my own church, but from a variety of people from all over, including media and politics.

Age 4: Christians go to church. Then we go to Sizzler after church. We love Jesus.

Age 8: Christians pray a lot. We dress up for church. We are “pro-life”. We say “Merry Christmas”, not “Happy Holidays”.

Age 12: Christians love America. We love our freedom because our founding fathers were all Christians. We know America was formed because they couldn’t be Christians in England.

Age 16: Christians boycott stores when they hire homosexuals. We see America’s morals “going down the drain”. We pray that God will save our nation before it falls to ruin.

Age 20: Christians are republicans. We appreciate soldiers. We like safety and comfort and guns and fourth of July. We are capitalists, because “The American Dream” is God’s plan for us.

How did the groundbreaking story of a homeless, middle-eastern carpenter and vagabond whose audacious, revolutionary love for humanity ended in the ultimate sacrifice of His life, turn into something… else? How has such a huge percentage become a wealthy, Sunday-best wearing, gun-toting, potluck-loving, anti-welfare, American flag waving conglomerate of middle-class ultra-conservatives?

I’m going to attempt to squeeze 100 pages into a few paragraphs, so if you want the full details, you should read the book that’s spawned my writing. But here are the basics: The individualistic, capitalistic, patriotic, brand of Christianity present in most churches today is a carefully crafted product of the 1940s, created to combat a shift in American ideals as a result of the New Deal.

In 1934, as America fought to rise out of the depression, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) created an organization that would work to bring free enterprise back into the good graces of Americans. It was called The American Liberty League. It wished to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property” and went directly against FDR’s call for such “egregious” social programs as social security and veteran’s benefits. Roosevelt had long taken jabs at the Liberty League. He was quoted saying, “It has been said that there are two great commandments – one is to love God, and the other to love your neighbor. The two particular tenets of this new organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.” At that time, the league did a poor job of its originally intended purpose of revitalizing free enterprise with the public, because everyone could clearly see that the big wigs were behind it.

When FDR used scripture like those above in his public addresses (something he did constantly, to my surprise), and referenced that social programs and taking care of one’s brother were “the Christian thing to do”, the NAM and heads of corporations with the most to lose decided that two could play that game, and at the failing of the American Liberty League, they decided to launch their most aggressive campaign yet.

The book states: “In a forceful rejection of the Social Gospel, they (NAM) argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified this, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.”

In 1940, the biggest names in industry (titans from General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Sears & Roebuck) gathered at their annual convention at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to strategize. Enter Minister James W. Fifield Jr.: a charismatic, well-spoken, Jimmy Stewart lookalike, armed with a plan that would put the American public back on the side of capitalism. Fifield stood in front of these titans and delivered a “passionate defense of the American system of free enterprise and with erring assault on its perceived enemies in government.” In short, his plan was to hide the corporate motivation of the free enterprise movement where no one would suspect it: the church. Those gathered at the hotel that day were left enthralled, jumping to their feet in thunderous applause.

Fifield’s plan was set in motion immediately. The foot soldiers were to be America’s pastors, ministers and Rabbis, and they would deliver its message to the millions of Americans in their churches and synagogues – not because they were paid to do so, but because they were strategically wooed into the belief that capitalism and free enterprise were inseparable ideals and integral to God’s plan for America. Fifield and the other tycoons were so set on doing this, they created yet another organization, called Spiritual Mobilization. It was intended “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” Fifield began taking his own politically charged sermons and distributing them via mail and newspaper to ministers all over the country.

Spiritual Mobilization quickly began to work. Ministers were taking hold of NAM’s ideals and were delivering them in the form of political sermons of their own. The focus was the individual and his freedoms, and took the emphasis off the dreaded social programs, and placed it back on personal property and personal freedoms, where they felt it belonged.

This mindset certainly fit perfectly with Fifield’s own life. An early version of Joel Osteen, he pastored First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, and although the church was deeply in debt when he took it over, he went on an immediate spending spree to advance its programs of bible school, paid choirs, orchestras and organists, and dozens of other programs and draws. Within a few years, the church had paid back all its incurred debt and was turning a profit. It had quickly become California’s first “mega church” and was home to celebrities, film-makers and industrial tycoons. Fifield was staunchly conservative politically, but surprisingly liberal theologically. He believed God’s blessings on him were meant to be enjoyed, and soon had purchased a mansion nestled in the hills, complete with wait staff, butler and chauffeur. And he was the motor driving the movement of America into what he felt was her capitalistic destiny.

That’s what I’ve read so far.

I already know that waiting for me is hundreds more pages of the Eisenhower administration and America’s obsession with Fourth of July and “freedom under God”. I know that I’ll learn that the phrases “One Nation Under God” were added to our currency and pledge in the 1950s as a further push to marry our government with our faith. I know that Reaganomics and the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell all lay ahead, but I’ve read enough to form some initial, and I would say, important conclusions:

  1. Christianity is not American.
  2. Christianity is not capitalistic.
  3. Nor is it necessarily socialistic.
  4. Nor does it subscribe to any particular set of political ideals.
  5. Contorting the gospel of Jesus to fit it into one’s political views, regardless of the “side”, is not just immoral, but also pointless. Spirituality could never be placed into as small a box as politics.
  6. Number 5 is not an excuse to ignore politics, hide away, put one’s head in the sand or stop voting.
  7. Number 6 is not an invitation to choose one party, accept its ideals and stay with it until you die.
  8. Our reasoning minds are a gift from God and they are intended to be used to discern, to measure against the character of God and His son Christ, and then act accordingly.

That last one really gets me thinking about Jesus. He’s this sneaky guy who finds a way to challenge every person, regardless of what “side” they’re on in a situation. His ministry is full of scenarios in which an obviously sinful person is caught in their sin and is given boundless grace instead of impending judgment. Then it switches up and a person who would have been regarded as holy or upstanding gets put in their place. Jesus leaves behind him a long trail of challenging the cultural norm.

So where does this leave us? Is the American dream of capitalism and wealth a farce? Is socialism the only way to help our brothers and sisters in the name of Christ? No, and no. I believe in man’s right to build for himself wealth, a name, and a legacy as so many have done in this great country. Just don’t call it Christianity. I also believe in helping those who need it through programs put in place to improve their status. Just don’t call it Christianity.

Although I know this chapter is just one gear of the massive, complicated machine that is the marriage of politics and religion in our country, I’m already angry. I’m angry that so many good people, with love in their hearts have been force-fed and then happily digested the message of MINE.“My salvation is MINE. My property is also MINE. You can’t take MY guns away. You can’t make MY country accept gays. You can’t use MY money for someone else’s survival. You can’t put refugees on MY home turf. If I am moved to help others,  I should be the one to choose when and how to do that, and no one should force ME to give of what I rightfully EARNED.” Does this sound familiar to you? We as the general public have gobbled up the comfort and ease of this message, because it plays into an ever-present part of our psyche that will never fully go away: greed and selfishness.

While I have no problem with someone taking on the “mine” viewpoint, I have a SERIOUS problem with them associating it in any way with what Jesus calls us to. Jesus does not call us to a God-scented version of the American Dream. For it is this push on individualism that paves the way for Christians to look at another’s problem and say, “That has nothing to do with me.” It gives an excuse to separate ourselves from the world, claim moral superiority, and seal off the doors of churches as we conduct our own special meetings in our own special clubs. It creates a place to say, “My safety, comfort and way of life are more important than love.”

But we can’t do better until we KNOW better. After all, for 80 years, we have been taught by very rich, very influential, intelligent, cunning, law-creating people: “OF COURSE God doesn’t mind if Christians are incredibly rich and keep nearly all that wealth for themselves and hoard their freedoms, property and land!” This is precisely why I write today. Because, as Brooke Fraser beautifully states in her song, Albertine, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible.”

“American Dream Christianity” is how many of us were brought up to believe, yet we claim to follow and attempt to emulate a man who said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of Man does not have a place where He may lay His head”.

While we are busy trying to protect what we feel so strongly is rightfully OURS, Jesus’ voice calls out through the mayhem: “My child. I am yours.  I am all you need. Your wealth is found in ME. Your freedoms are found in ME. Your right is the kingdom of Heaven and I, in my deep love, have given it to YOU.” Jesus shows up in our lives in the form of the friendless, the weird, the ugly, the disenfranchised and the down and out. If it’s going to be about Him, it must in turn be about our fellow man.

Long ago, the black sand of individualism was poured into the white sand of Christ’s message. Today, it’s difficult to see anything but grey. Still, the toil of picking out the white, grain by tedious grain, is well worth it, for the end result will not be tarnished with the agenda of enterprising men, but the pure religion to which Christ calls us.

Try as I might to step back into the blissful ignorance of the fuzzy, meaningless pattern through which I’ve viewed my faith thus far, a 3D image has come into view. It is the image of a political movement which has taken up costly residence in the American church and in my own greedy heart. I can never “unsee”. The meaning of the entire picture has changed. Now that I have seen, I am responsible.

 

Contain the Nipple

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It’s time to talk about boobs! Yours, mine and everyone’s. Having copious mommy friends causes many a boob and breastfeeding comment to cross my path/Facebook news feed, and after quite a few conversations with my husband about this topic, I’d like to express his views and my own on the subject.

Speaking candidly, I have always had curiosity when it comes to nakedness. For whatever unknown reason, I wanna see what other people look like. Is this normal? I have no idea. You tell me. For a girl, I’m assuming that I am more inquisitive about people’s nakedness than the average homosapiens. I bring this curiosity up to my husband and he says, “Oh, so you’re curious, you say? You literally have no idea. You have no idea what curiosity and excitement over boobs is, until you get inside the head of a guy.” Since there is no way for me to get inside the head of a guy, I’m just going to have to trust him.

So here’s the situation. It seems a lot of women lately are trying to make a statement on behalf of feminism and equality that a woman’s nipples and a man’s nipples are equal, and therefore should not need to be covered. There are also a lot of breastfeeding proponents who feel that covering oneself whilst breastfeeding is not necessary because, in their minds, the beautiful and natural bonding moment taking place between mother and baby trumps the potential offense or curiosity spurred by their choice to breastfeed.

I say the following admittedly as a non-mother, but also as a future mother with full intentions of someday breastfeeding and loving it: Whipping out your gorgeous boob in public to provide your child with her dinner is going to cause the finely-tuned boob antennae of most men and likely many women in the vicinity to telescope out, causing their eyes to be drawn like horseshoe magnets to your voluptuous, nurturing, dairy-filled fun bags. If you’ve ever been breastfeeding in public and have seen someone staring at you, it’s far less likely they are offended by you, and far more likely they’d really like to catch a glimpse.

“How disgusting!” you say. “Can’t they leave me alone to bond with my baby in peace?”

Well, no, actually. Because whether you are a fan of Darwin or God, in both narratives, survival of the fittest and/or God’s command to be fruitful and multiply have placed a carnal desire to reproduce inside the mind of most men. When they see those two circles side by side with other, tinier circles inside of them ( .)(. ), their bodies have an involuntary response which says, “I WANT TO PERPETUATE THE HUMAN RACE WITH YOU, YOU GODDESS OF FERTILITY, YOU.”

There is a recent trend of women placing the sole responsibility of sexual suppression on men, saying things such as, “I’m going to dress how I please, act how I please, and whip out my breasts in various contexts as I please, but I expect you to consistently avert your eyes and behave yourself and your thoughts, regardless of what evolution has injected into your DNA for the last several million years.” How unfair is this?!

Now is a good time to address that moms are likely picking up pitchforks aimed at me right now, uttering phrases such as, “If Kim Kardashian can show nine inches of cleavage in every dress, and girls can wear itty bitty bikinis to the beach, WHY CAN’T I JUST FEED MY FREAKIN’ BABY WITHOUT SOMEONE BUGGING ME?!?!” Before you hurl your garden tools in my direction, let me say that on behalf of my husband who is beautifully honest about all this, I wish Kim Kardashian and bikini-clad girls would put their boobs away, too. It doesn’t matter in what context they’re on display – the carnal response is the same. I get that our very sexualized culture causes my entire point to sound antiquated and archaic, but that doesn’t make it false. Also, as someone who has been seen in a bikini in recent months, I’ll admit that I’m not exempt to the constant messages of our culture telling women to flaunt themselves and care not whether anyone is looking or lusting. So if I’m a hypocrite – then I am. Perhaps I should rethink my bathing suit selections as a result of writing this. The point is, I’m not just picking on breastfeeding moms.

Here’s the thing though – one difference between girls in bikinis and women breastfeeding without covering themselves (besides nipple) is that context matters. At the beach, where everyone’s clothes are microscopic – a bikini doesn’t feel out of place. Those neon strings and triangles are going to attract more eyes on the streets of New York in February than they will at Huntington Beach in July, you know what I mean? That being said, let me share with you a couple of recent breastfeeding experiences I have witnessed which helped spawn this very blog post:

  1. Friday Night – Downtown Disney – Inside Starbucks. A mother is wearing her breastfeeding infant as she approaches the front of the line. When she gets to the register to order, Junior decides he’s all done, and tucks his cute little Asian head down inside the Baby Bjorn, leaving mom ordering her salted caramel frappucino with throbbing nipple fully exposed to barista and everyone in the vicinity. She feels a cool breeze, glances down and tucks it into her shirt without so much as the widening of her eyeballs.
  2. Sunday Morning – Norm’s Hangar – Breakfast Café in Pomona. A family sits at the table and three-ish year old toddler starts to get a little whiney and fussy at the table. Mom, wanting to make him feel better, says, “What? Why are you sad, honey? You want the boobs? You want the boobs, don’t you.” She then takes out her VERY large breast in the middle of the busy diner, and it hangs there in mid air while hungry Henry gets out of his seat, walks over, and pushes his head up against her to have a treat while her husband saws on the biscuits and gravy on his plate. Fun fact: This event occurred THIS MORNING. Like, today, November 1st, 2015.
  3. Personal favorite: Tuesday afternoon – Goodwill – Yorba Linda. A haggard looking mother tries to contain her three young children who are running amok in Goodwill. She exhaustedly collapses into a chair that is for sale near the register, and Tommy runs up and hollers, “MAMA! I’m HUNGRY!!!” She rolls her eyes and says, “Okay, but make it quick, because mommy needs to check out soon.” She then – I cannot make this up – lifts up the BOTTOM of her t-shirt, revealing a tired, maroon nipple at equal latitude with her belly button, at which point Tommy flops his head into her lap and latches on to that overworked, fatigued nipple and he gets his snack while mom looks on, on her cellphone.

I share these stories because, well, let’s be honest, it’s partially to entertain you, but also, I wish to hopefully demonstrate that in Starbucks, diners and Goodwills, a bare breast raises more eyebrows than, say, the beach, due to the fully-clothed context of everyone else in the area.

I can only imagine how commonplace breastfeeding must be for a mother, and how LITTLE she must care about her vitamin-filled milk machines after a while. With multiple feedings a day from day one, the number of times her bosom has been retrieved to give sustenance to another tiny human quickly reaches into the thousands. There is probably nothing less sexy than feeling like a dairy cow – wanted for your milk every two hours.

Allow me to remind you, mothers, the world does not see you the way you see yourself. You still spark the curiosity of men and women alike around you. (Okay, I’ll admit, my response to breastfeeding mother number 3 was less sexy curiosity, and more can’t-look-away incredulity, but still.) However, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD get to see it. We, the general public, are so not worthy. Boobs are best with less spotlight brazenness and more mysterious subtle suggestion. Don’t cheat yourself into thinking that just because a child is being given life and strength from yours, that they’ve lost even an ounce of their intrigue.

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Take this picture Alyssa Milano posted yesterday for Halloween. Alyssa is sending a lot of powerful messages and evoking several responses through this photo:

  1. Breastfeeding your child is an empowering and wonderful thing to do.
  2. Mothers are superheroes whether they’re in costume or not.
  3. Moms are beautiful and keep this crazy, incredible world turning.
  4. Alyssa Milano is still freakin’ hot and why can’t that baby get its dumb head out of the way so that I can see a little better? <– every man and Charmed fan ever.

Before I leave you today, there are some things I want to make sure are crystal clear:

  1. Breastfeeding is a great idea, for as long as your little one wants to do so.
  2. Breastfeeding in public is also a great idea, because moms deserve to go out, too.
  3. Breastfeeding with your chi-chis on full display WILL cause men and women to want to see your nipples. To avoid stares and potential arousal, donning the nearest scarf, Kleenex or cat to cover those beauties up is appreciated.
  4. Men’s nipples are simply not women’s nipples. They NEVER will be. There is no such thing as BROZZERS.COM. At least I don’t think there is. Dang, I hope there isn’t. Let’s not check. Anyway, the chesticle and the breasticle are not equals. Stating that a bare-chested woman and a bare-chested man are exactly the same robs a woman of the inherent beauty, mystery and intrigue that was bestowed upon her the moment she gained that second X chromosome. I say this not as someone trying to rob women of their right to show off their bodies – but as someone desiring to share that it is in mindful discretion that a woman’s equality, individuality and power shine through.

Women, feed your beautiful babies, know your astounding loveliness, and for the sake of my husband and men everywhere, please CONTAIN THE NIPPLE! Preferably with something besides this:

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#containthenipple

Disclaimer: Miriam Bernard is a human being capable of human error. She is not a mother, therefore it is possible that through lack of experience, she has not considered every possible viewpoint in her writings. She is neither claiming gospel truth nor having figured it all out. She is simply sharing her husband’s and her own views for the sake of encouraging knowledge sharing, learning from others, providing am alternate viewpoint than those most common, and an unhealthy  enjoyment of stirring the pot. Please consider this before commencing the burning at the stake.

My Pomona

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Barry Gibbs Hobo Jesus lives two blocks north of me, in a tiny shack behind someone’s already tiny house. He clunks around town on his beat up bicycle wearing no shoes and no shirt. His skin is leathery and tan from years of direct sun, but a healthy coating of black soot seems to dust the tan, giving him a charcoal hue. Sometimes, when it’s cold, he wears a poncho and his dark bony legs poke out from underneath it. Barry Gibbs Hobo Jesus – as we’ve deemed him due to his resemblance to, well, all three of his namesakes – is a scavenger. I always see him ride by with old bike tires, pieces of plywood, and plastic bags containing unknown trinkets and treasures. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to learn that behind his little shack, he’s building a time machine or a one man band. I often think about stopping him to find out his story, but he seems to be a man of few words – stoic and shy – not apt to smile. I don’t really know what I’d say to him anyway. “I like your long hair and your poncho?” “Can I be your first time machine passenger?” Everything I’ve thought of thus far seems awkward. Nonetheless, he is a fixture in the city and the neighborhood that have become my hometown of Pomona, California.

On Towne Avenue, regardless of the time of day or night, middle-aged Hispanic men and women drive along in their Nissans and Toyota pick-ups at abominably, comically slow speeds. Latinos are truly living at an entirely different pace of life than the rest of the world. Although I pass by them on my hurried commute to work, I always glance into their cars and smile, as they meander south at 28 miles per hour with the windows down at 7am. Collectively, they are the wise old guru who speaks volumes without ever opening his mouth. Their rattling mufflers seem to spit smog and fortune cookie phrases at me as I pass, “Those who travel only to reach their destination miss the entire journey.”

The roads in Pomona are the junkiest roads probably in all of LA County. Drives through Pomona are best accompanied by the Indiana Jones theme song, with the level of mountaineering it feels one’s car does on the pot-hole laden pavement. When I’ve fallen asleep in the car as Eric drives us home from dinner or drinks in another city, my hometown always gives me a wake-up call as we come into her city limits. A jolt her and a lurch there, and I’m surely awake ready to put myself to bed.

This morning, while stopped at a stoplight near Alcott Elementary school, two boys were crossing in the crosswalk being followed by a stray dog looking for some fun. They kept turning around and laughing as this over-eager pooch trotted along behind, hoping for a pal or a snack. I wonder if the dog followed all the way up until they walked inside their first period classroom.

People are real neighbors in Pomona. They go outside their houses, doing actual, real outside things and hanging out. They drink Bud Light in their driveways and sit on their porch swings as the old houses retain the afternoon heat long after the sun has gone down. The only screens in the vicinity are those which keep the moths flocking the porch light out of fevered living rooms. These neighbors walk up to you while you hoe your yard and engage you in conversation, and they don’t worry that you might have something else going on, because they assume you’ll excuse yourself when you need to. You wave to each other when coming and going, and exchange cookies and tamales during the holidays because it just seems right to share the tastes and smells coming from your own kitchen.

Helicopters fly overhead every single day and night. I spent the first several months I lived here thinking someone was always, perpetually on the run from the cops and our neighborhood was in the middle of all the drama. Later, I learned that the elementary school a block from our house has a heli-pad, and it is the closest one to the Pomona Valley Medical Center, so people get air lifted to the hospital from here daily. It’s amazing what a city’s reputation will do to one’s imagination when you move to a place. But when perception meets reality, you can go on vacation and realize you accidentally left your back door unlocked and unattended for five days, come home to find everything intact, and you realize your city isn’t what so many people have made it out to be.

One distinct bonus to my home town is the abundance of authentic Mexican food surrounding me at all times. There are so many different formats of tacos, one could eat a different type for a year and never come close to trying every taco available in this city. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. There are three different ice cream trucks that cruise the neighborhoods every afternoon. Every couple of weeks I relive the childhood thrill of dashing for change, then outside fast enough to stop him before he passes the house. I buy Lucas Mexican candy and chili-covered watermelon suckers. The ice cream man always speaks to me in English, and I answer in Spanish. I say “Dios Le Bendiga” and start toward the street, and he always stops me to give me a free handful of my favorite tamarind fresa candies.

My neighborhood, Lincoln Park, just started a garden society. Flower enthusiasts of all ages gathered together in the side room of the Spanish style Presbyterian Church located inside the neighborhood to discuss planting native plants and how best to create a drought-tolerant yard and garden. Everyone united through an app called Next Door that allows neighbors to be in touch regarding neighborhood happenings, clubs, meet ups, safety concerns and neighborhood watch.

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The Stater Bros. within walking distance of my house is the hub supermarket for the myriad of neighborhoods surrounding it. What results is a melting pot of apartment-dwelling young moms shopping alongside retired white couples living in fully restored mission-style bungalows. There are homeless, disabled, and regular people all just living their lives side by side and it is the most normal and comfortable thing. I can scarcely remember back to a year ago to the Albertson’s we frequented in Yorba Linda, which was mostly a homogeneous, white-washed shopping experience. I always preferred the Persian market back then anyway, in which the hijab-covered heads outnumbered the uncovered ones, and one could purchase an entirely intact Halal lamb straight from their colorful and varied frozen meat section (not that I ever worked up the courage to do so). Here, the lines are a little longer when some moms thumb through their WIC booklets in line, making sure all their selected items are “WIC Approved”. I still smile, though, as I stand behind them, thinking of the toddler who will squeal with delight when mom walks through the door with Goldfish crackers and a brand new gallon of Mott’s apple juice.

On a recent trip to buy ingredients for my most Pomona indulgence yet –  Micheladas, I found myself behind a tiny Hispanic girl and her father. She was holding a flowery “Get Well” balloon and as we caught eyes she says, “Hi, what’s your name?” When I told her, we struck up a conversation about her balloon, which she explained was for her sister who was sick at home with mommy, and she would surely be cheered up when she sees it, because she loves balloons and she loves flowers. When I mentioned what a good big sister she is, she responded by telling me that in addition to the two heart-shaped bracelets she was wearing she had three more in her purse, which she then reached in, took out and showed me. Dad beamed on as we “oohed and aaahed” over her jewelry and talked girl talk.

Supermarket line conversations have proven themselves to be some of my favorite moments in my ten months as a Pomona resident. One particularly memorable chat occurred in line at the 99 cent store, when I found myself waiting in line in front of a baggy pant wearing, shaved head, big-muscled Hispanic man wearing a Raiders jersey and covered in tattoos. I noticed his presence and maintained a friendly, confident yet cautious air; that is until he decided to speak directly to me. “Cookies?” he asked. “I’m sorry, what?” I responded. He referenced toward the several holiday tins I’d placed on the conveyor belt and said, “Are you baking Christmas cookies?” I almost laughed. “Oh, no, these are actually going to hold some holiday caramel corn.” “Awww man, I LOVE caramel corn.” He responded enthusiastically. “So do I. Hopefully my neighbors do, too.” “You’ve got some lucky neighbors then.” I smiled back at him. The checker rang up my tins and we said our goodbyes.

Between Brian, Kim, Monica, Fati, Poora, Jenn, Hayley and Maddie, Fullerton and Yorba Linda brought us some pretty excellent neighbors. But in my town, Pomona, life is sweet. Community is real. Love abounds in our little house, and it flows out into the cracked streets, over the homes of our neighbors as we trade pleasantries and yard tools, across the Presbyterian Church where they hold the garden society, over the shack belonging to Barry Gibbs Hobo Jesus, through the hundreds of tiny taco shops, and all over this weird, historic, flawed, beautiful city. It hasn’t yet been a year, but I’m oh so very home.

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Photos taken in Lincoln Park, Pomona, by Julia Tavis

Let’s talk about guns, baby. Let’s talk about you and me.

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Gun Control. The very utterance of the words may cause you to respond emphatically, “YES!” or “NO!” depending where your ideals and opinions fall. Especially in the wake of national tragedy, everyone becomes eager to share their feelings.  It’s incredibly easy to become emotionally charged when both lives and freedoms are at stake, but statistics are the key to helping us understand where the problem lies, and how to fix it. Lots of words are clickable in this article, because I’ve spent  a great deal of time reading statistics and articles related to this issue before writing this. I hope these links are as eye-opening for you as they were for me.

Here are the facts:

  1. We have a problem in our country and world with people dying at the hands of other people.
  2. Most of the people dying by homicide are dying by guns.
  3. The majority of those guns are acquired illegally.
  4. There are a lot of guns in our country.
  5. Simply talking or arguing about the problem doesn’t get us closer to a solution.

Many gun proponents make the claim that criminals will get their hands on guns regardless of their difficulty to acquire. Not only is this true, it is the case today. Even if no gun laws or regulations are changed, even now, few homicides are committed by a person who legally acquired the gun used to commit the murder. Criminals know how to get past the rules currently in place and know other ways to get their guns. Here is a really excellent article about that, if you’re interested.

So, rather than talking about how we can take guns from people who are playing by the rules, let’s instead get really serious about the GREAT MANY people who are not following the rules and thus increasing the ability of the wrong people to get guns and kill people.

  1. We need to stop “straw purchases”. This is where a person with no criminal record purchases a gun for someone who pays them to do so. How can we stop these? A. If two people walk in to buy a gun together, both need to be legally able to purchase one. When Eric pays for wine at Total Wine, I get carded too, even though I’m not buying any alcohol. That’s because it is possible that he could be buying that alcohol for an underage person. It should be the same with guns. “But Miriam, then the person with the criminal record just won’t come in to the shop.” You’re right, so B. we need to be harsher about prosecuting those who are caught purchasing guns for those unable to. If they’re willing to put legal guns in the hands of murderers for money, they’ll need to be ready for incredibly harsh consequences if caught.
  2. There are a large number of Federal Firearm Licensees (FFLs) who are doing shady business on the side because of the huge amount of money that is to be made in illegally peddling guns. Here’s a quote from the previously mentioned article: “According to a recent ATF report, there is a significant diversion to the illegal gun market from FFLs. The report states that “of the 120,370 crime guns that were traced to purchases from the FFLs then in business, 27.7 % of these firearms were seized by law enforcement in connection with a crime within two years of the original sale. This rapid `time to crime’ of a gun purchased from an FFL is a strong indicator that the initial seller or purchaser may have been engaged in unlawful activity.”

Can we all agree that these FFLs doing this need to stop immediately?! How do we stop them? Well, first, we monitor them more closely, then we punish them harshly when they do it.

Using the most recent compiled data available by the ATF (US Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives), there were 780 ATF field agents employed in 2014. Their jobs were to enforce federal law regarding possession of firearms, drug trafficking, the use of explosives, and the sale of ammunition. Wow. Can you say “heavy job description”? This little group of agents is trying to juggle guns, drugs, explosives and ammunition under their tiny team. That is a lot of hats to wear. I’d imagine it’s slightly more complicated than the families who successfully run the donut shop/Chinese food restaurant/cleaners I’ve seen around town.

Now, this team of 780 is responsible for checking in on the practices and firearm sales of around 141,116 federally licensed firearm dealers. A little calculator action reveals that if these agents split up these dealers evenly for investigation, each would be responsible for 180 licensed firearm dealers. There is simply no way to closely manage the activities of gun dealers when these numbers are so lopsided. ATF agents are so vastly outnumbered, gun dealers are going largely unchecked, and are feeling the freedom to succumb to the temptation of illegally dealing their guns because they can make BUKU bucks doing so. Imagine if restaurants went eight, ten, 30 years with no inspection. We’d probably see sanitation slip and more cockroaches show up in kitchens if nobody’s checking on anything, wouldn’t you think? It’s the same with these gun dealers and pawn shops.  Here is an unreasonably long article expressing some of the troubles that ATF agents have had monitoring so many dealers with such a small team.

So, we need to do the following right away:

  1. Separate the drugs aspect of the ATF from the firearms aspect. These problems are too large to lump them together and place them on the shoulders of one small group of people. Leave the drugs to the DEA, and let the ATF focus on firearms.
  2. Increase their measly budget! People are dying by the thousands at the hands of people who have found the loopholes in getting their guns. Put some money into this program, and put feet on the ground to close these loopholes and prosecute those breaking the already sufficient rules.
  3. Increase the fleet. The number 780 is a joke. Having just watched the show Narcos, when the drug lords of Colombia became out of control, the government decided to fight back by hiring and training a large number of well-trained, committed soldiers known as the Search Bloc. They were hugely effective. ATF Agents need to be given similar attention, training, but mostly NUMBERS.
  4. Investigate and monitor. Today alone, I’ve read stories of FFLs who went 30 years without a single visit or investigation. There are stories of firearms dealers who “lost” years worth of gun license reports, leaving 3,000 guns unaccounted for and still didn’t lose their licenses. Let’s update the rules. Something like this: One rules infringement equals probation and a second visit within six months. If the problem isn’t corrected, the dealer loses his/her license. FFLs should have yearly, unannounced visits.
  5. Surprise the black market. Even if we monitor FFLs, there are still thousands of places to buy guns from full-on black market dealers. Set up sting operations! Hundreds of them! Get lay people to attempt to purchase guns, and when they do, raid the entire operation. Arrest people! Arrest anyone who is caught selling illegal guns and get them off the streets!

How can we help make all these things happen?? Well, that’s a really great question. I’m not positive. Getting people in positions of authority who share these ideals is a good start. I know how tough that can be, however. I’m open to your suggestions in this arena, because I know it’s one thing to think up solutions, but it’s entirely another to implement them.

It comes down to this: increasing rules for people purchasing guns legally is like doing laser eye surgery on a person who is deaf. We’re operating on the wrong area. The problem lies in the bad guys who are willing to do bad things to get guns. Let’s get serious about finding them and stopping them. Like Hansel and Gretel, they’ve left crumbs for us to find them, and those crumbs are all the avenues one can get a gun that are not walking into a shop and applying for one. Here’s a case study in which this idea saw positive results. Granted, it was on a small scale, but the number of violent crimes decreased, which is the idea.

Let’s consider the root of these words: gun control. Controlling guns. With the proposed 300 million guns in existence in our country, when you have 300 million of something, controlling them is important. 300 million crickets? That needs pest control. 300 million cars? You need traffic control. 300 million people? You need crowd control. 300 million guns? You need some stinkin’ gun control. Find out where they’re going, how they’re being used, and how to keep them from being used incorrectly. Are you using yours correctly and acquiring them from the right places? Carry on, good sir. Are you using them incorrectly and acquiring them from the wrong places? We’re going to find out, and if you’re not, you’re going to wish you had. This is the mindset America needs to take on, if we expect our unacceptable homicide rates to decrease.

I understand fully that these proposed ideas are not going to eliminate the problem. People will still die. They’ll die by knives, by bonking people over the head with heavy objects, and guns are never ever going to go away. However, if we start looking practically at the problem, and attack it where it most badly needs attacking, I’m convinced we WILL see fewer people die, and statistics begin to change. Flawed as this post is, I don’t know how to be the type of thinker or writer who just says, “Well, this situation sucks and I have no clue what to do about it.” My personality requires that I toil over data and possible solutions, far fetched as they may be. What are your ideas for solutions, and how would you implement them?

10 Couples You Didn’t Know You’ve Dated

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YOU DID IT! You’ve found “the one” – that special person who will be by your side forever. The peanut butter to your jelly. The macaroni to your cheese.  You’ll never be lonely again! Or will you?

Three years in, you’re sitting on a bench outside of a PF Changs on Friday night date night, spinning the buzzer back and forth between your fingers, and there it is: a flutter of a feeling. Loneliness.  Yes, yes, you’re here with your spouse on a date, but you realize that sometimes you don’t want just “a date” sometimes you want…… dun dun DUNNNN: A DOUBLE DATE.
Then comes the million dollar question: Who to choose? How do you know which of your friends will provide you with optimal super fun times and minimal cringe-worthy awkwardness?  This is going to take some serious poring over your phone list and Facebook friends to figure out who would be good candidates. After all, these people are going to need to be fun-loving, chill, enjoy the same types of things you do, as COOL as you (which, let’s be honest, is tough)….. and then, the blood drains from your face as reality hits you. THIS IS DATING. And it’s back with a vengeance.

You thought you were through with that cruel ritual forever, but just like that, it has reared its ugly head in your life, and it’s wearing a facial expression that screams, “NANNER NANNER NANNER.”

Like the search for true love, couple dating, when successful, yields high rewards. You end up with life-long friends who become the Monica and Chandler to your Ross and Rachel. But when it doesn’t work out…. Well, you get these 10 runners up.

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1.The Eager Beavers: You’ve hung out exactly one time, and yet this couple is now convinced you’re all soul mates. They are incredibly adept at getting a hold of you through every possible mode of communication. Who sends snail mail these days? And how did they even get your land line number? Only problem is, whatever fairy dust got sprinkled on them during your hang, somehow missed you, and you’re just not feeling it. Maybe it was his deer-in-the-headlights response to your comment about Boehner’s resignation, or her mention of never having missed a single Carly Rae Jepsen concert, but you’re less than enchanted. And even though you’re probably on their speed dial, there’s a good chance they’re on your blocked callers list. Sorry ’bout it.

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2. The Unreachables: He wears vintage Levis and Herschel backpacks, and she can quote The Big Lebowski even more accurately than you can. He has hook-ups to free Ducks tickets, and she could match you Old Fashioned for Old Fashioned. You adore these people, and always have the best time…. that is, when you see them once a year at that one party. Otherwise, they’re literally never available. Between their constant trips to Portland and BVI, going to everyone’s parties and all around living a bad ass life, it seems they just don’t have time to make dates with you. You’re out of your element, Donny. Note: To this couple, there’s a chance you’re the Eager Beaver.

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3. The Lopside: This is a situation in which either the husbands OR the wives get along incredibly well, but definitely not both. Depending on which side of the lopside you’re on – this is usually identifiable by: A. laughing so hard over your mutual disdain for Donald Trump that your sides ache, or B. by talking about today’s weather, tomorrow’s weather, yesterday’s weather and Canada’s weather so extensively, you begin glancing down at your fork and repressing the urge to stab yourself in the eyeball. How long have we been here, anyway, three hours? Oh. 17 minutes. Right.

4. The Lopside – Old-timers Edition: One half of the group has been friends FOREVER. The spouses of those forever friends now have to orchestrate a friendship out of thin air, while the lifelong pals are already waist deep in high school inside jokes and bagging on that one teacher who walked with a limp. It’s going to be a few hours before they even come up for air and remember the two of you exist. Again, get really comfortable discussing the intricacies of the weather. Maybe brush up on your understanding of meteorology in advance this time, because chances of getting your conversation past the low-pressure system moving in are slim to none. Also, whiskey. Find some whiskey.

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5. The Would-Have-Been Best Friends: This is a couple with whom you get along incredibly well, but life has cruelly put you at opposite ends of the country, so that occasional witty text messages and the bi-yearly overnight visit are all you get to keep your friendship going. 60% of your conversations over Facebook and text consist of discussing how great life would be “if not for that pesky continental United States in the way”. You consider a Skype date, then shoot it down because, well, you’re just not that pathetic. You’ll just have to wait for the dawn of teleportation.

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6. The Inebriates: You’ve just shut the car door, and you’re already wondering why there isn’t a drink in each hand. Hour one: How much longer must we endure his near-constant South Park references and Cartman impressions while wifey laughs like a lunatic, pretending she hasn’t heard them a THOUSAND times? What is this drink, anyway? Vodka Redbull? Next time just hold the Redbull. Hour two: Well, this is slightly more comfortable. I can deal with Kenny McCormick over cheesy chicken casserole and wine. This isn’t so bad after all. Hour three: Dang, these people are FUN!! I haven’t laughed this hard in days. Cartman is a highly underrated player in the comedy world. And that impression really is SPOT ON. Huor four: Hahaaaaaaaa South Park really is DUH. BEST. SHOW. You know wut? You guys are my bessssss frennnnnss. I love you guys. No, really. I LOVE YOU. I luv youuuuu.

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7. The Carbon Copies: You can’t help but notice how this couple has been to all the same places you have, likes the same things you like, and wait, the last time you were over, did they have that tin of your very favorite tea? Or did they…. buy that for your visit? Did you previously mention enchiladas are your favorite, or are they lucky guessers? But seriously, why are all our outfits matching? Is that a picture of us on your mantle? This is just getting creepy.

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8. The Bait and Switch: Upon first meeting this couple, you think: THIS IS IT. This is the perfect couple! You make plans, and hold off expressing your undying love and devotion, for fear of being creepy. Then, upon your first official double date, you find out that she is president of the local chapter of the dog sweater knitting club, and the “league” he previously referenced is actually a weekend LARPing league in a nearby park. He also once won a contest for armpit farting. Back to the drawing board.

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9. The One Uppers: “Where’d you eat last week? Perch LA? Oh, we know all the bartenders there. You should come with US next time.” “You’re getting into Madewell bags? I just bought their newest line! Do you want my old one?” “It’s so funny you mentioned the Civil Wars album that comes out tomorrow. That’s what’s playing in the house right now!” “Oh, so you’re planning a trip to Paris? How cute! On our fourth trip there, we discovered the most perfect little café that you MUST try.” No matter what you bring up, this couple has already been there, done that and is ready to throw it in your face to make you feel like the least cool person on the planet. Have fun!

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10. The Doting Parents: This may be a couple you knew before parenthood and things were going really well – until their bundle of joy arrived. This also may be a couple who already had kids, but you first met them at a non-kid event where they were able to wear real clothes and drink real beverages, so they were able to mask their true selves. You don’t have any offspring, so you’re on different continents, but maybe things will all be okay? Let’s just do it. Things will be great. “Ding dong!” “Hey guys, welcome!”  “Hi! Wow, your house is so pretty. I love that staircase.” “Thanks! Yeahhh, we had to put that railing in because Jack is just SUCH a little escape artist. He just goes straight for them every time! He pulls his little self up one by one, and BAM! He’s at the top! Did you know that 143 child deaths occur every year due to unsafe staircases? Yep. Babies just falling left and right. It’s terrifying. The second we heard that we just knew: ‘RAILING TIME!’ Heh heh. Yeah, no way he’s falling down those things now! Well, unless he falls backward of course. Or forward, if that’s possible. Or sticks his head through the bars, GOD FORBID. ‘Honey! I think we need to carpet the stairs, and get a different railing without bars, and add an inflatable cushion at the bottom! It’s a small price to pay for our little Jack Hammer!’ Anyway, what were we saying? Oh right, babies. So anyway, Jack began crawling around 7 months, did you know that’s 22% earlier than most children? I don’t know, maybe he’s just meant to be in the Olympics. Babies babies babies…. babies BABIES! Babies? Babies!!!”  Mission failed.

Of course, every once in a while, you come across that couple who gets you in every way, and it makes these other ten totally worth it.

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The Go-Tos: You’ve never left their house before 1am. You take turns grabbing the bill at the restaurant because there’s always a next time, and they’ll just get you back. One stray Tupac song can turn into a three-hour deejay battle dance party of 90s hip hop, complete with a twerking contest that makes you have to run to the bathroom because you’re actually going to pee on yourself from laughing so hard. You collect empty wine bottles. You can just as easily discuss theology and humanity with tears in your eyes as you can bust up over that lady’s outfit. They love food like you do, they love the TV shows you do, and they love YOU like you love them. They even wake you up and put you to bed when you’ve fallen asleep on the toilet trying to pull off a full day at work, a full night out, and multiple cocktails and you just couldn’t rally. You can watch the movie Wedding Crashers innumerable times and no one ever gets sick of it. You fight or argue when you drink, but you hug it out in the end. You vacation together, road trip together, wine taste together, quote Sideways together and do the mundane together and it’s all perfect. Your Go-Tos – they make all the couple dating hilarity worth it.

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