The Sad Tale of the Unfinished Pandemic Puzzle

The “Cliff’s” of Moher

I consider myself a shopping polyglot. I speak the international language of dollar stores. Poundland, Flying Tiger, Eurogiant. Wherever I travel, I hit the dollar store for the wall of gummy bears in varieties not found in the States, or a foam St. Patrick mitre, or some other unique find. A few years ago, I stopped in at one of my favorite Everything 2 Euro stores on North Earl Street in Dublin, where I thought I could pick up a few picture frames for an odd Euro-sized print. As I suspected, they had what I wanted and in my choice of black or white.

As I breezed down the aisles, scanning the shelves for something else I might need someday, I stumbled upon a few puzzles created from photos of famous Irish landmarks. I immediately recognized the inherent gifting potential of the items since I’m always on the lookout for cheap souvenirs. I grabbed puzzles depicting Trinity College and the famed Cliffs of Moher, and proceeded to the checkout imbued with a sense of accomplishment only a dollar store haul can inspire.

When the pandemic hit in March, I resisted the urge to join the throngs of puzzle makers who flooded Facebook with pictures of their completed projects. But a few weeks later, when I thought I was bored, I broke down and pulled the good old, still sealed and never gifted Cliffs of Moher five hundred piece puzzle, off the bookshelf in the den. I wondered why I hadn’t completed the puzzle before now and was thrilled that I had something on hand to keep me busy for the next few weeks.

I should have known straight away that the puzzle would be a problem. First off, the caption, in bold print on each side and across the picture on the top of the box, shamelessly touted the “Cliff’s of Moher.” I knew for a fact no one named Cliff owns the “of Moher.” At the time, I thought the error comical. I never imagined that this glaring mistake foreshadowed more dire quality issues.

Knowing that we wouldn’t be entertaining visitors for a while, I set up the card table in the corner of the living room. The table’s placement, which normally would have been unsightly, I welcomed the opportunity to stop and, in passing, secure a piece or two in place. With all of the free time at hand and easy and ready access, I assumed that this puzzle would be the first of many I could expect to complete during the lockdown and beyond.

I approach any puzzle project with excitement and trepidation. It’s a long-term commitment under normal circumstances, yet I never imagined the challenge ahead. When I removed the edge pieces from the box, I immediately noticed that, even the pieces that should be the easiest to slip into place, the frame, defied a smooth loop to socket connection. Without a bright light directed on the pieces, I struggled to match subtly nuanced tones of blue, green, tan, and blackish. I forced pieces into place, moved them around, and walked away.

In time, I realized that this puzzle was nearly impossible. Now firmly in the grip of hyperbole, I grew to hate the picture, the color of the ocean, the ruggedness of the cliffs, and anything to do with Ireland, in general. I questioned my own cognitive abilities. Did I have Alzheimer’s? Have I developed a rare form of late life color blindness? Maybe I vacuumed up a piece or two. Could it possibly be just a bad puzzle? Is that even possible?

Now, six months later, the puzzle, barely half finished, taunts me from its corner hiding place. Most nights between dinner and an evening of mindless Britbox or Family Feud, I sit down at the card table, rearrange the pieces, become frustrated, and walk away.

Last evening, my husband, Tim, noticing my confusion and angst, told me to “throw the damn thing away!” but I never leave things undone. I read the draggy, painful book cover to cover. I can’t go to bed without making sure the sink is clear of dishes. I curse my compulsive determination to complete these tedious tasks, but this one has taken me to the brink. Tim might be right. I picture myself folding the pieces into themselves, piling them back into the box, and depositing the whole lot into the trash bin. Unfortunately, I have a vivid imagination and zero resolve.

I assume, now six months into the chore, I will press on. I even managed to set six pieces last night, under the glare of a repositioned floor lamp and a handheld halogen flashlight. In my latest tack, I examined each piece for subtlety and shading, and organized each color into its own pile. I am working on a smaller scale now, managing tiny segments and then gingerly moving them into position. I feel a small amount of gratification but I can’t get past the fact that, in all this time, I’ve only come this far.

As the pandemic shows no real signs of abating, I think I’ll give myself a break. What’s the rush? I’m not going anywhere and neither is the puzzle. And for now, a lousy chopped up rendition of the Cliffs of Moher is sadly about as close as I’ll get to Ireland, or anywhere. I’m forced to make peace with the pieces of the puzzle as I study a fuzzy picture of a beautiful Irish landscape. In any case, I do have a deadline. I’ll need the space occupied by the card table for the Christmas tree, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. Sadly, it’s not looking too good for me, or the Cliff’s.

For my sanity, I think I will gift the Trinity College puzzle, after all.

Traveling with the Accidental Terrorist

Over the past five months, I tried not to dwell on some of the things I’ve really missed during Covid-confinement. Yet, as the weeks passed, I pined for a good browse through the racks at Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. I craved the Saturday night energy of a crowded Cafe Paradiso in Boston’s North End, my go-to for nocciolo gelato and a Nutty Irishman coffee. I mourn the rescheduled Tower of Power and Clannad concerts to which I hold tickets that aren’t happening until 2021. But most of all, I really miss travel and Logan Airport, my gateway to the world and most especially, Ireland.

Almost every year since 2005, I’ve made my way to Ireland at least once, sometimes twice, and, in 2008, three times. Call it an addiction or an obsession, Ireland has become a second home to me, a place where I can escape without needing adventure. A place where I breathe easier. A place that is so familiar that it is “home.”

As the plane touches down at Shannon, the flight attendant announces, “Tá fáilte romhat go hÉirinn,” and I breathe. At Border Control, my highly decorated passport always gets the agent’s attention. “I guess you really like the place,” is one of my favorite remarks. Then it’s around the corner to Baggage Claim and I’m off.

My friend Simon at the rental car desk welcomes me back. “You don’t need a map, you’re a local,” he says, and we both chuckle. I know he’s ribbing me but I love the familiarity.

The first hit of Irish air at six in the morning as I walk out of Arrivals at Shannon reminds me of why I return. I grab a car and exit the airport on my way to Connemara, or Clare, or Kerry in the pre-sunrise duskiness, driving on the “wrong” side of the road like a native. What I wouldn’t give to hop on Aer Lingus right now and disappear into the Irish mist!

Unfortunately, my travel habit has a dark side since not everyone in my party has things go quite as smoothly. Tim and I travel frequently, so last November, we went to Logan to secure “Global Entry,” but not because we hate lines (although we do). No, rather, for some reason, my poor, unsuspecting, nondescript (except for a face that just can’t deny his Irishness) husband at some point has been identified as a terrorist, meaning he is randomly detained at airports in the US and abroad, including Ireland. The tell-tale ‘SSSSSSS’ along the bottom of his tickets is a dead give away. He acts like he doesn’t care, or like the SSSSSS’s aren’t there. I cruelly laugh at him, as he argues with me in denial of the inevitable.

As I pass without issue into the gate area, I pause as Tim is directed to “wait there,” off to the side. Looking back helplessly, armed airport security shoo me away, down the gate, and into the plane while Tim is left behind to be frisked and interrogated in a separate room. In the interim, I befriend the flight attendants who often chat with me since I appear to be traveling alone. When I tell them my sad story of the terrorist husband, I usually get a sympathy bottle or two of wine, or a Cadbury, or some Biscoffs. It’s a bit of a racket on my part while poor Tim suffers humiliation and possible incarceration. 

There are times that he boards the jet moments before take off, only to endure the “Walk of Shame” as he passes the other passengers already belted and nestled in their seats. They all know who he is–he’s the terrorist guy.

In an effort to remove him from the terrorist watch list, we arranged to free him of the embarrassment with Global Entry, anticipating an uneventful, travel-filled future. However, I don’t think anything will change. According to a Homeland Security official whom Tim casually engaged in conversation at a wedding, “Once on the terrorist watch list, always on the terrorist watch list.” 

Now that we are in a travel holding pattern, Ireland, false terrorist identification, Global Entry, and bizarre post-911 airport procedures don’t matter. I think wistfully of the days of TSA x-raying my carry-on gummy bears and confiscating my contact lens solution. There’s nothing like the skeevy feeling of the grit of the airport floor on my bare feet. I even miss seeing the SSSSSS on the bottom of Tim’s ticket, just for the entertainment value, although I doubt he would agree.

I hope to get back to Ireland in the (near) future, but near is subjective. Who knows when it will be truly safe to fly again?  Ireland has made it clear, despite being a “local,” they don’t want me or the rest of us germy Americans, making all the commotion with Homeland Security and TSA mute. Yet, at this point, even Tim, an Irish citizen, would be willing to endure a little humiliation for a hit of Irish air or a real Irish-pulled Guinness. 

In the past five months, I’ve spent enough time at home; now, I wait for the time, hopefully not too far away, when my ‘accidental terrorist’ and I can truly go “home.” As far as getting the SSSSSS’s, it’s a risk we are willing to take to be “local,” once again.

How Far Haven’t We Come?

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, on just about every first day of school, the WBZ morning news on our kitchen television blared with the background theme to my bowl of Cheerios. Scenes of buses filled with kids of color being escorted through white neighborhoods, the sounds of violent protests, and images of police officers lining the streets to ensure safe passage to school buildings for little Black kids didn’t make much sense to me then. As a child, I also rode a school bus but none of those things happened in my neighborhood, just five miles from the Boston city limits. I thought briefly about how scary it must be to go to school, surrounded by upheaval. Then I happily went off to school without giving it much additional thought.

I grew up in West Medford, in a unique corner of a medium-sized city on the outskirts of Boston. Our area was special, with a small Black community woven into the fabric of our neighborhood. Life in West Medford included interracial interaction occurring naturally between the residents of ‘the Ville’ and us, the white people. We were neighbors. Living in this environment made it even more difficult to understand those scenes of the first days of school on the news. In a way, it made it even more difficult to understand racism.

When my father attended Medford High School in the 1930s, he formed colorblind friendships that endured for a lifetime. A man named Oscar Greene, a local author and memoirist, remained one of my father’s closest friends and, as a child, I often visited Oscar’s home with Dad, to drop off a tool or to just say ‘hi.’  My fondest memories of my days in an interracial Girl Scout troop at the Shiloh Baptist Church included learning to sew from Norma Jeffers, my beloved troop leader. I know that my experiences were unique. I also know that they made me a little ignorant of what it was like to be a Black person in America. 

When I visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin last year, the experience brought back memories of my own life-the images that I saw as a child, my semi-charmed life in an interracial neighborhood, and my insulation from the continuing struggle that minorities face in America. Johnson was an interesting character. He spoke like a racist, calling Blacks by degrading names and putting on a good show for segregationists, who believed that he was one of them. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, he acknowledged the need to elevate the cause of equality and social justice. To some extent, Johnson recognized his own racism and understood that we all needed to do better, himself included. 

How far have we come? I fear not very much. As I watch the protests that once again bring to light the need to reiterate the message that we are all equal, I think about my history lesson at the LBJ Library and the realization that our America qualifies civil rights, justice, and equality using a color litmus test. We do not yet live as equals and perhaps the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may not be worth the paper that LBJ signed in 1964 unless we recognize that, like Johnson himself, we still have work to do. 

The passing of John Lewis brings our role as activists into sharper perspective. So many years ago, Lewis championed peaceful protest to affect change and, to some extent, change happened. But we remained ignorant of the on-going plight of Black Americans.  We lulled ourselves into believing that we had made steady, sustained progress toward equality. Or worse, we didn’t care about the economic disparity and injustice that Black Americans endure. The latter thought disgraces us as a country, and as human beings. 

With the polarization of our country regarding the topic of race relations, unfair policing, and civil rights, we prove that have only begun, or worse, have reversed direction on the road toward a genuine belief that we are truly equal. Our commitment must go beyond planting a sign in our yards or a painting message on a street. Black men and women should not hesitate to walk our streets, fearing that they will be questioned or detained without reason. Our daily lives must embody inclusive and respectful actions. We must respond with outrage when the rights of the marginalized are violated. Only when we demonstrate truly deep-seated, universal protection of the rights of Black people as equally entitled to safer communities, the protection of voting rights, and fair treatment in the workplace will we change the way our society functions once and for all.

Leaving the Nest: Not Just for Birds Anymore

This summer, here at Chez Cahalane, we have been blessed to have a robin build her nest at eye level in the shrub next to our driveway. So far, our prolific little birdie has produced two sets of three eggs and six live robin chicks. We, along with our neighbors, who happen to be our children and grandchildren, have kept a watchful eye over the broods as they moved through the stages of gestation, hatching, and flying away. Mom robin has even become accustomed to our daily visits, calmly watching us from a branch in a nearby tree as we admired her little ones. In lieu of in-person science classes, our little nature experiment has been a wonderful way to enjoy a little hands-on, non-Zoom learning.

Last week, as our second set of three little ones peeped away in the nest waiting for their next meal, my grandson Declan and I peered into the nest. Their little heads turned towards us and I gushed, “Oh, Declan! Look at how cute!” Dec, always the realist and the master of the zinger, reminded me that nothing lasts forever. “Well, you know, Mam, soon they’ll fly away and leave the nest.” Although intellectually I know this fact, my heart sank.

As we passed these months, locked up here at the Compound-my label for our two houses side by side, I have become keenly aware of the growth of our own little ones. The pandemic lockdown resulted in rapid maturity in both Molly and Declan. Surrounded by adults all day, every day, they sound like mini-Me’s, picking up all of our expressions and habits, as well as a few of our neuroses and quirks. Their parents have worked diligently to juggle their own jobs and the kids’ intellectual enrichment, no easy task when you are fending off kids who, like little addicts, so eagerly crave a Roadblocks stupor (it’s a video game of some kind…I have no idea either). Science and cooking projects, and a recently added drone, have kept us knee-deep in entertainment and food. But in a very subtle, dramatic way, our kids have changed, and I don’t like it one bit!

I knew I was dealing with a whole new animal when my granddaughter walked into my bedroom last week and asked me if I still got my period. Apparently, my daughter thought that this quarantine would be a good time to fill Molly in on the details of “the facts of life.” Now ten, the child is full of questions, I know, but seriously, a little heads up would have been nice. I have successfully dodged her prodding in the past, referring her to the Parent Department for Customer Service issues. Now cornered, I started to explain and she cut in with, “Oh, yah, you’re probably too old for that.” It was like a one-two punch…and way too much information to process in rapid succession: she is growing up and I am getting old. (Insert misery emoji here)

When my son left Boston for a new life in Texas a few years ago, the Italian mother in me took a good hit. While he was thirty-two at the time, I sounded like my father when I reminded Scott that “we,” that is, our family specifically, “don’t do things like that,” aka “move away” or leave the nest. Four generations have played hot potato with two side-by-side properties in West Medford, and Scott, before his grand exit to Austin was living in a two-family house near Tufts University that has been in our family since 1926. We don’t leave, and it’s almost to a clinical level.

Our robin’s nest is once again empty. We observed the Mom Robin as she coaxed her babies to try out their wings, making a monumental leap to the branch from which she barked her orders. Now I look at my pandemic-weary, formerly-little grandchildren and acknowledge, as Declan reminded me, that they will someday leave the nest, as well. At some point, this arrangement-two houses, side by side, everyone up each other’s butts, every day a perpetual family reunion-has to end. I don’t like it one bit but it’s a reality that, while a few years away, I must get used to.

I know I have been lucky to have lived with my family near me every day for my entire life and I don’t take that for granted. The closeness has certainly made the pandemic easier to stomach. Until my nest is empty, I will revel in watching my grandkids become little adults, and prepare myself to field those really tough “can I spread my wings?” questions like “Will you take me for a driving lesson?” or “Can I borrow your car?” Now that I think of it, I may never be ready for those requests.

 

Pandemic Gains and Losses: One Woman’s Journey from Zoom to Noom

As I emerge from the fog of a ninety-day isolation, I realize that my pandemic life has lulled me into a comfortable numbness, a state of being where stretch clothes are the norm and taking my shower at at my leisure instead of six-thirty a.m. is a glorious luxury. I revel in a sense of tremendous accomplishment, having viewed entire series of numerous Hulu and Netflix originals. As we deplete the supply of food in the refrigerator and cabinets, I strategize my weekly deliveries from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. With plenty of food at hand, a newly-formed habit of enjoying three well-planned and nutritionally balanced meals provides structure to my otherwise free-flowing day. The joys of my new normal far exceed the grind of the old one, but I fear that there are changes afoot that may require my active participation once again in society-at-large. And taking stock of things, I notice that there may be a little bit more of me there was on the day that I locked down my tiny world. Action is required, and fast.

A few weeks ago, in a monumental gaffe, the president’s top aide questioned why COVID-19 posed such an issue for scientists and the medical community. Heck, it’s not like it’s COVID-1, she said. Once I recovered from the ridiculousness of her mistake, I thought seriously about one number in particular, the one I saw when I stepped on the scale. In line with the recovery of the stock market, the trajectory clearly pointed one way, and that was up! One, five, ten, nineteen-whatever! My focus now was to avoid not only COVID-19 but also the Corona-20. It’s no minor coincidence that a steady diet of beer, not confined to the Corona variety, was consumed, contributing to my dilemma. That, and Fritos, and Fudge Stripes, and well, I could go on. But you see my point. Short of amputation, off-loading the surplus is Job One.

Over the past thirteen weeks, I’ve spent my fair share of time fumbling through meetings resembling the intro of The Brady Bunch. While not a perfect system, with some people talking over each other and others cowering behind anti-social black screens, it was something. I was no stranger to Zoom, having purchased a few shares last year based on a Motley Fool stock tip and, after a short stint becoming a small time investor in the company, gave up the ghost in late 2019, never expecting a pandemic to change how we interact and how we meet. Seeing what was coming, I dove back in. Zoom has not only been my social lifeline in these difficult times, but it has also proven to be quite a cash cow. I only wish I could speak positively of my other gains that, while unquestionably an area of major growth, work against me rather than in my favor.

As for my less desirable gains, by early April, the upward trajectory worried me, but not enough to curtail my consumption. Watching the number on my scale increase in tandem with the balance of my Schwab account, I was reminded of the words of a very thin former colleague whose motto was always “calories in, calories out!” Actually, he usually invoked this mantra to coincide with our daily lunches, and in response to the eating habits of me and a few officemates who mowed down with reckless abandon on frequent take-out while bemoaning our weight gain. Now years later, I certainly wasn’t ready to give up my comfort food, especially in a pandemic, but I would entertain a little exercise to jump start the ‘calories out’ part. To that end, I descended into the basement and unearthed the elliptical, freeing it from its current vocation as a clothes hanger, and hopped on.

In order to make the whole heinous experience more palatable, I chose the entire series of Sex and the City, one episode a day, Monday to Friday, as a diversion from the anguish of physical movement. Every weekday since April 1, I have mounted the horrid contraption and focused on SATC from opening credits to end. The whole ordeal is more bearable when accompanied by Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda. Now deep into Season 4, I have clocked over thirty hours, and five additional pounds. Something is definitely awry. 

As I reach for the white flag of surrender, I realize my ability to gain weight is only matched by my lack of willpower. I like to eat, I admit it. But now, with my appetite running rampant to unnatural levels, I know that I need a keeper. As a housebound terminal over-eater, I turn to Noom, the app that not only monitors your intake and your weight but also attempts to modify behavior through educating the errant eater about triggers, good carbs and bad, and all manner of impulsivity. Having tried the app in the past, I know that it is effective-you just have to use it. Since I am halfway through an unused one year membership, I might as well give it a try, again.  

Tapping the Noom icon on my iPhone, I am hypnotized by the hopeful looking sunburst that explodes that on the screen. As I gaze at the orangy-yellow icon, I wish I was more hopeful about the answers that allegedly are found within. Whenever I turn to assistance in the cause of weight loss, I feel like I am effectively giving up on myself and any possibility of self-determination. I guess I could flip that thinking. Instead, I am acknowledging that I need help to keep myself honest when it comes to what I put between my lips. In essence, I am betting on myself to be able to overcome the rising tide of the Corona-20. And just like my Zoom stock, I hope for the best, in an opposite trajectory. 

As in any gamble, you need to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em. I pledge vigilance as I monitor my Zoom stock and my Noom weight. I hope to sell when the time is right and promise to put the fork down when necessary. When the time comes to rejoin society, I hope to be a little richer and a lot lighter. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take.

How Can I Not Feel Hopeless When All the News is Bad?

How to Deliver Bad News That Builds Trust & Confidence -

(This piece was written in early May after a spate of bad news.)

This morning, after reading another Facebook post about the latest conspiracy theory, I decided that I had enough. Tucked between uplifting memes and videos of ‘birthday drive-bys,’ a collection of political rhetoric, medical advice, and vitriol have overtaken my feed. The news, fake or otherwise, is never good anymore and it flows rapidly and endlessly. My head spins with uncertainty and fear. My nightly dreams are plagued by images seen during the day, by ones that my imagination conjures up, and by a myriad of terrifying possibilities. My brain works overtime trying to make sense of it all. As a former school counselor, I recognize the signs of anxiety. I also acknowledge the need for self-care and an emotional timeout from the madness of the pandemic and the world as a whole.

Making a conscious decision to unplug isn’t easy. I am a junkie for information, even if it does give me agita and nightmares. Nonetheless, this morning, I placed my phone on the table with a pledge to give it, and myself, a rest. Instantaneously, the familiar ding of a text alert forced me to check the message. As I read the words, the same dread from which I craved escape assaulted my already frayed nerves. A friend shared the news that, last night, her dad had passed of the virus and, like most victims, he died alone. I consoled her as much as I could via a text message since I didn’t want to intrude with a phone call. Actually, I couldn’t handle the role of comforter without my own voice faltering. As I put my phone down, I sat back and absorbed the news. It was the second recent death too close to home. Another friend had lost her grandmother, a nursing home resident, to the virus yesterday. The loss, still fresh in my mind, weighed heavily on my spirit. No longer were these just stories on social media or on the governor’s daily briefings; now, the statistics had names and faces. The vicarious sadness which sprung from hearing strangers’ stories had morphed into raw, palpable despair.

Shockingly, my morning’s dose of grief had only begun. Less than an hour later, my phone rang. When I answered, I heard the shaky voice of one of my dearest friends on the line. Instinctively, I anticipated the worst. As she shared the sad news that her mom had also died from the virus last night, I listened in shock and disbelief.  As she recounted the story of her last contact with her mother, a one-sided conversation conducted via cellphone and facilitated by a compassionate nurse, she believes that she heard her mother say “I love you,” even though the words from her mother’s lips were an unintelligible mumble. My friend, a nurse herself, has lived the challenge and heartbreak of the virus in her daily work at a large Boston hospital, but this time was different. The loss of her mother has reframed her own reality as a caregiver. As a nurse in the time of COVID-19, she appreciates the anguish of the caregivers who comforted her mother in her last moments. Sadly, she also joins the ranks of those who have endured this kind of loss, experiencing the haunting regret that her mom died ‘alone.’ Her sentiments mirror those of thousands of families who have depended on others to help their loved ones pass peacefully, their hands held lovingly by proxy as they crossed over. 

For me, the deaths pile on top of each other like stones in a cairn, the weight of each immobilizing my ability to process all of the sadness. And even though I try to unplug from the noise of the world, the reality seems to find me. It invades the insulated world that I have tried to create, the place to which I retreat to protect myself from the fear, sadness, and hopelessness outside my front door and as close as my iPhone. In the end, I’m not sure that I will be able to hide.

I know one thing for certain: the news is never good anymore.

Put the Phone Down | The Appreciation Factor

You Say You Want to Socialize With Me, Then You Must Answer These Questions 3: Applying the Wisdom of Monty Python in the Day of Covid-19

My apologies to John Cleese, Eric Idle, et al. but now that we are just about ready to release the beast, the invisible viral one and the real human one, I feel compelled to lay down a few ground rules of engagement before we possibly cross the “Bridge of Death.” With the “invisible scourge,” the “hidden menace,” or whatever our ‘leaders’ call it marginally reeled in, the noodgy amongst us are clamoring for freedom. We have been locked up for months and people want out. I get that but, without sounding preachy, why the hell would I want to undo months of seclusion and germ suppression because I feel compelled to socialize? I have been careful, and admittedly a little neurotic, but I have stayed away from everyone. And I mean, everyone. I respect our first responders, our mail carriers, our delivery people, and all of those who have stuck their necks and immune systems out there on my behalf. I wear a mask in public, I wash down my grocery deliveries, and I stay the hell in. And honestly, I kinda like it.

I guess I’m wrong to expect the same of others. Friends and family have braved the grocery stores, banks, and post offices over the past few months. I, on the other hand, have braved the jungle of Amazon, Whole Foods, and Drizly deliveries. But now it’s time to dip my toe into the potentially COVID-19 polluted waters and I am wary. With no real answers about contagion, immunity, and virus mutation from our leaders, am I being foolhardy to think that I can count on my fellow man to be as vigilant as I have been for the last ten weeks? From what I have seen so far, I worry that my fears are justified.

Over the past few days, I have allowed people into the inner sanctum of my pristine and germ-free bubble that is my home. Actually, I lie. My backyard was as close as they got. Even so, I know that each of them has been in contact with others who may be asymptomatic carriers. And now, my Coronavirus free world is tainted. I toy with the idea of another fourteen-day decontaminating quarantine. To counteract my crazy, I pull myself together, striving to impose rationality on my run-away imagination. 

Irrationality comes in many varieties. When I think about the way Coronavirus spreads, I am reminded of the 1970s era commercial for Faberge Organics shampoo. The catchy “and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on…” effectively illustrates the exponential capabilities of the virus; hence, I wear a mask in your presence. I ask you to do the same. Others take it to another level. Think of the people that you confront on a walk down the street, both of you masked, yet that person darts across the street to avoid you like you are Typhoid Mary or Patient Zero. Far be it for me to judge, I see the point, even though the reaction is a bit extreme. Then, there are the others, like the callous, mask-less runner who passes you just a little too closely, their particulate invisibly assaulting your mucous membranes. This variety of human strives to prove a distrust of government, the media, the medical community, or just humanity by endangering others as they exercise the right to unencumbered mask-free breathing. Even if I am over-interpreting their intent, not adhering to our new world order is just ridiculous and honestly, rude. (But then again, hasn’t rude become the norm? That’s a topic for another Mami…)

Today is the ‘day after’ the day of the visitors and I am riddled with guilt. While we employed social distancing as a group and our gathering happened outside on our patio, I fear that some of our behaviors mocked the hard work that we, or at least I, have mastered in these weeks. I began our visit with a mask at the ready, as did my husband,  but we were lone wolves in our small group of six. Self-conscious, I let down my guard and my mask. I wonder if this is what we can expect in the months to come-perceived peer pressure and public shaming for being cautious. With my friends, I sensed judgment. We are Democrats. They are Republicans. Our levels of caution lay clearly on either side of party lines. It was unsettling. 

Nevertheless, since most of my friends fall into a certain age group, not quite sixty-five or older but not that far off, I take the advice of experts seriously. I don’t want to get sick, or pass on the virus unknowingly, and I’m pretty sure that a switch is not flicked at 65 making one more vulnerable. COVID-19 doesn’t ask to see my birth certificate. And I was one of the unlucky H1N1 victims ten years ago. Getting that kind of sick is no fun, whether one has pre-existing conditions, or not, or is a member of the ‘older than dirt’ category, officially or unofficially. It all sucks.

I’d like to think that I’m a bit more enlightened than the average non-believer in the threat of COVID-19. I watch PBS NewsHour, not Fox News. I am not terrified. I am informed. And I draw conclusions without politics. I listen to scientists like my dear friend, an epidemiologist who locked herself down in February. She saw what was coming and she didn’t wait for the ‘ok’ from the government to hunker down. She took matters into her own hands then and continues to claim that it will be a long time before all is well again. I believe her. And to visit with her, I use Zoom, and no one gets hurt.

But I can’t stay in the house or my yard forever so I need every assurance that the people with whom I choose to interact are logical, sensible, and cautious. As for my “questions three,” I tear a page out of the Bridgekeeper’s book of interrogation from The Holy Grail, except my questions are a little different. I ask if you value your fellow man by wearing a mask for their safety. Next, what is your quest? My quest is clear-to stay well and not infect my family and friends, or any human being with whom I come into contact. One other question: Do you mourn the nearly one-hundred thousand Americans who have died from this awful virus? As for me, I share the grief of so many of my friends who have lost loved ones. They are enough for me to take this threat seriously.

But maybe there is one more question that begs to be asked. Is it your rational mind, your need to buck those in positions of authority, or your political affiliation that drive your decision making in the time of Coronavirus? Yes, we are tired of social distancing and some of us believe that the threat is overblown. Some of us don’t even believe there is a threat. In any case, your answer will help me to decide whether to throw you into the ‘Gorge of Eternal Peril’, or choose the less violent self-preservative option, which is to continue my self-imposed exile. I may not like your answers but the choice to loosen the restrictions is mine. Please don’t take it personally. I will come out again at some point but for now, I will choose my outings wisely and hope to stay well. The world, albeit a little different, will be there when I’m ready again to cross that bridge.

Deliverance: How Junk Food and Wine Help Me Survive the Pandemic Despite My Best Intentions

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The box of Cheez-its stands at attention on the counter. In the cabinet below, bags of Fritos and Late July tortilla chips await the call. I have assembled the troops and they are at the ready for that moment, the one that occurs more frequently as the days pass in lockdown. But that’s not how it always was.

When I embarked on this adventure, the one with the two-week itinerary, I had the best of intentions. Braving an outing to an actual store for the last time on March 14, I stocked up on the essentials: fruits, vegetables, bread, a few canned goods (just in case),  some frozen items, a bit of meat, and milk. Two weeks, they said. I replied with certainty to the charge. “I can handle that! You want me to stay at home? No problem. I have Netflix and Hulu and the staples. I’m good to go!”

At first, my husband continued going into the office and food was plentiful. Once he shifted to WFH (Work from Home…who knew?), I noticed a simultaneous deterioration of the stockpile. We ate together-breakfast, lunch, and dinner- and I cooked. Our full-blown meals, eaten with great ceremony (I even used cloth napkins to conserve the stock of paper ones), celebrated our time together in quarantine. A novelty, we enjoyed our time together, working side-by-side in our dining room now converted into Mission Control. It was surreal and bearable.

With the first extension of the shutdown, I assessed the situation. Peace continued in the WFH kingdom but, food-wise, things were getting depleted. Even the shelves in the basement, formerly stacked high with pasta, canned soups, and beer, were emptying out quickly. Spurning a trip to the store, I needed to find alternatives. My daughter suggested the local Wegman’s, which offered curbside pickup. While that sounded like a viable option, my first attempt proved futile. Availability was non-existent. In any case, actually going to the store was not an option. I had heard the stories:  the close quarters in the narrow aisles, and the shoppers, cum banditos, with their masks. The images terrified me as much as the virus.

Despite being a veteran of Amazon Prime, I had never purchased food from the service but, at this point, anything was fair game in the cause of fending off starvation. I filled my “cart” with abandon, adding multiples of things like Half and Half for my coffee. By now, my coffee was about all I had to give me a reason to live and I could not sacrifice my morning joe. Aside from hoarding coffee creamer, I restricted my buying to bread (a lovely, squishy, Sara Lee wheat disguised as a white), cereal, peppers, romaine, and other healthy choices. Amazon divided my purchases into two carts, Whole Foods or Amazon Fresh. I had entered a new dimension of buying and I loved every minute since it offered a bright spot and a fun diversion in this bleak situation.

However, as quickly as I filled my cart and was assigned a delivery time, I realized that I had forgotten a few things. With no option to adjust my order once submitted, I began a new cart. Every few hours, I thought of something else I needed or might need, and I clicked the magic “Add to Cart” button. The cart filled from ten items to fourteen items to twenty items, in no time. I questioned whether it was time to ‘say uncle’ and contain my spending, I clicked on “Proceed to Checkout”, confident and empowered by my online buying prowess. 

“There are no delivery times available. Check back later as times are released throughout the day.” Delivery: denied! Shaken but not deterred, I followed the directive and relentlessly checked for delivery times, first every hour, then every half hour, then every fifteen minutes. Lulled into a repetitive clicking loop, I circled around until, unexpectedly, a time was conferred upon me like a reward for my hard work. My unbridled excitement caused me to pick the first thing I saw – Sunday night from 9-11 p.m. It could have been 2-4 a.m. I was at the mercy of Amazon and I succumbed to its power over me and my survival.

However,  the process was not that innocent. Within the delivery denial process, Amazon has embedded a ‘point of purchase’ trap, thinly veiled as helping, and I fell headlong into the crevasse. Framed as one of those “In Case You Missed It” things, I navigated past a page that dangled an array of Jolly Ranchers, Cheetos, Diet Pepsi, and other goodies that I had resisted in the early days of the siege. Over time, the images chiseled away at my resolve, corrupting the purity of my “essential goods” and tipping my buying into the danger zone.

The process repeated itself over the next few weeks. I clicked, my cart filled, I was denied, I tossed in a box of Cheez-it. As I played the delivery time game, the cart grew in size, and junk, until I was offered a coveted delivery time. Alternating between Whole Foods and Amazon Prime, I imagined a time when the delivery people would pass each other on my front stairs, backing off from each other and giving each other a virtual ‘high five,’ while maintaining good social distancing. 

I proudly posted my success story on Facebook and my celebrity as a seasoned pandemic buyer ignited. As friends and family followed my lead, I became the Guru of Amazon Pandemic Buying. I fielded all manner of questions on the fine points of manipulating the system. While I’m not sure how much manipulation was involved, I will credit sheer luck for most of my prowess. Nevertheless, I reveled in my power at a time when I felt so very powerless.

Yesterday, I faced a new emergency. As I took a bottle of pinot grigio from the wine rack, I realized that we had only four bottles in reserve. I’m not proud to admit that what was once a relatively decent back stock of booze had diminished rather quickly during the lockdown. I sounded the alarm, calling on the Facebook Gods to return the favor of my expertise with advice on how to handle this dilemma. Suggestions ranging from using Drizly to arranging curbside pickup at Total Wine, to braving Wegman’s for their vast range of libation flooded my feed. Thinking quickly, I downloaded the Drizly app and went into full purchasing mode. Within a few hours, two large boxes of wine and beer arrived at our doorstep. The process was seamless, and given the quantity of booze we secured, I hope, but won’t guarantee, that this will be the last Drizly mission of mercy for the duration.

In five short weeks, everything we knew about our society and everyday reality has changed. I wonder just how much about our daily lives will return to some version of normal and how much of it will go away forever. Speaking for myself, I have a newfound respect for delivery people and online grocery buying. I won’t even broach the subject of Lysol wipes, another of my passions. I’m making the best of being told to stay home to help the greater good. I do feel a little guilty that my needs have shifted from necessities to “less essential” items like junk food and alcohol. But, in survival mode, I think I’m doing my best for me. Once this is over, my habits, like maintaining social distance and incessantly washing my hands, may have changed forever. In the meantime, as I ponder what will be and revel in the simple pleasures, I’ll pour another cup of coffee and eat the Cheez-its.

Got Beer? Drizly Delivers! – Motif

Decision Making in the Pandemic

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Back when I had a schedule, I followed a routine. Most days by seven a.m., I had showered, dressed, made my bed, caught up on all my Words With Friends and Candy Crush games, done a load of laundry, and glanced at my agenda to plan the rest of my days.  By eight-thirty, I had driven my grandchildren to school, gone to Mass, stopped by the Walgreens across from church, grabbed a newspaper, and chatted with the cashier, who had become a casual acquaintance.  After that, I listened to writers’ podcasts, wrote, read, did more laundry, and planned dinner. My day had a rhythm and my life had deadlines. I had to get things done without delay or else there wouldn’t be time for all of the things I needed to accomplish.

In a little more than two weeks, nothing has a deadline, except for the application to a writing program that I completed last evening. Preparing the application was the last vestige of structure that remained. Now, with my days truly wide open and all the time in the world on my hands, I can waste time like it was a life mission. My schedule of limiting screentime was blown days ago, with Verizon warning me that my phone use was up thirty-six percent last week. Really? I hadn’t noticed although I will admit that, as soon as Candy Crush tells me that I have full lives, I am compelled to kill them. For entertainment, I register for remote classes to see other people and chat intelligently. And for everything else, there’s always tomorrow.

Clothes that were one step away from Goodwill are now my working wardrobe. My biggest decision of the day is choosing between leggings and yoga pants. I didn’t realize just how many pairs of stretch pants I own! I shock myself with the ensembles that I wear on my “sanity walks” in the cemetery across the street. Color combinations that would offend the artistic eye and a fashionista’s sensibilities are my means of self-expression.  As for skincare, I dip into the stock of free samples from Lancome and Sephora in an effort to ration my expensive skin cream. I forgot just how much I enjoy the feeling and scent of Sunday Riley. It’s a brave new world for someone who prides herself on good grooming and tasteful dressing.

A few minutes ago, I changed my earrings from my 60th birthday diamond studs to my Christmas 2017 pearls.  I usually would have saved either for “special” but now I say, “whatever!” Prompted by the realization that I hadn’t thought about earrings in days. the decision nearly crippled me. Clearly, I am out of practice.  A lifetime and a pandemic ago, I would have barely considered the options. Now, my choice, one of the few I will make today, had a monumental impact on my day. Every time I pass a mirror, I am drawn to the pearls gracing my ears and I am uplifted. Joys are so fleeting in the face of disaster. Finding one is a moment of grace.

So in the meantime, I think I’ll go clean the bathroom. Or not. I guess that can wait until tomorrow. In fact, everything can wait until tomorrow for the foreseeable future. I also see that realization as a moment of grace. We may never again find ourselves fully in control of our tiny personal destinies as the world and its wellbeing dictates our larger movements. So read a book, watch Mrs. Maisel for the tenth time, eat the potato chips. Give yourself permission to make dumb decisions, the ones that we resist in our daily grind.

We can only hope that before long, our lives will return to some version of normal and we can look back at this era as “the time when time didn’t matter.” Stay well.

20 Most Inspiring Quotes About Time - TimeCamp

Etiquette 101 and Coronavirus: A Primer

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I remember the old days when I worried that someone was standing too close to me in an elevator or at the checkout stand. Back then, it had nothing to do with contagion. Instead, I just obsessed with the need for common courtesy. A dirty look or a step forward usually cured the complaint unless the person was a real numb-nut and took a step forward, too. It was a simpler time and the rules were squishy. Ah, those were the days.

In a short ten days, life has become one long, painful Seinfeld episode where the world is teeming with close talkers and germophobes who wander amongst us. On the other hand, we need to be hyper-aware of the Poppy’s who are “a little sloppy,” failing to sing all of Bohemian Rhapsody twice in order to ensure that their hands harbor not a shard of the sloughed-off virus. My own family, living next door, avoids me, claiming that they do not want to infect us old people, just in case. I know better. They are afraid we are carriers as well. In our family, Coronavirus has pit mother against daughter, with an accidental passing touch of hands causing a stampede to the kitchen sink for a good scrubbing. 

Nothing is simple. In the day of COVID-19, we search our consciences to decide whether or not leaving the house is an essential act. Walking out the front door requires papal absolution, even if we pledge to not look into another person’s eyes and promise to cross the street whenever a stranger comes into sight. But sometimes, a girl just needs to get outside. 

This morning, I took a walk in the woods near our house but before embarking on my trek, I dipsticked the potential for effective social distancing. From my living room window, high above the access road in the forest, without the impediment of leaves on the trees, I saw that the path was clear. Although it was only twenty-nine degrees, I needed air, and it was only 9:15 a.m. I could see that it was going to be a long day of self-imposed exile. Slipping my camera strap over my neck, I set off. 

A beautiful walk in nature, undisturbed by humans wielding the Coronavirus, was just what I needed. Meandering up the hill, I searched the bare branches for owls and hawks. I photographed the streaming sunlight through the trees, ducks cutting the surface of a peaceful ebb-free pond, and my white whale, the great blue heron. Peaceful and chilly, I reveled in the calm.

Deeper into the woods, a dog approached. My first thought: if this dog bites me, I can’t go to the Emergency Room or I will certainly get infected. I greeted the dog calmly and realized in seconds that he was a good boy, friendly and calm. I searched the road ahead for the owner. As I spied the man who was oblivious to my presence since he was looking at his phone and smoking a cigarette, I chose to make a U-turn. The path was narrow and my now inbred need to keep my distance kicked in. As lovely as the dog was, I abandoned him to his owner’s questionable attention.

As I turned around, a group of three, well-bundled up, loud, chatty people worked their way up the hill. I assessed my options. About fifteen feet ahead, I saw the small road that would take me out of harm’s way. I hastened my step and took the right turn that would bring me to safety. It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps behind me. One of the group had broken off and approached me, far to close for comfort. I shot the glance I use at the supermarket when my personal space is invaded. She retreated. In a time of powerlessness, I was momentarily powerful.

After my close encounter, I thought about the need for an etiquette book for appropriate behavior in a crisis such as this one.  I would call my manual, Coroniquette: Distance Living for the Pandemic. With all of the confusion around the meaning of  “social distancing,” people need rules, and maybe even laws, to define limits. Whether they read my handbook or not is another thing.  It’s a time when nothing is simple and depending on your fellow humans is touch and go.

In the meantime, my best advice is to stay safe and hold your loved ones six feet away. The life you save might be theirs. 

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Writing in the Time of Exile

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When I retired from my career in education to embark on my writing adventure, I never imagined that, within the year, the world would shut down. Since I already embraced partial seclusion in my writer’s world, I needed to make only minor adjustments to my routine to adhere to the social distancing advisories. Still, there are pitfalls to the solitary life, especially when you live with someone. While I self-quarantine, my husband continues to go to work, defeating my best efforts.

Tim’s job, procurement for a hospital group, requires his contribution to the supply chain. By his own admission, he is buying “everything” from “everywhere” to keep the health care workers up to their elbows in nitrile gloves. His employer is working to set him up with Work From Home (WHF), but for some reason, it’s taking longer than expected. In the meantime, I scream “wash your hands” every time he walks in the door and warn him if I get sick and die, the blood is on his hands. No pressure there.

As I wait for him to join me in my exile, I adapt. Blessed with a seeming immunity to writer’s block, I write prolifically and am making great progress on my memoir. Without distractions, my ability to tap into memory and make meaning of the events in my history flows unfettered. I miss my writer connections but my classes at Grub Street have gone ‘high tech’ with Zoom so I check in with the writing community regularly.  A new skill for me, Zoom has kept me connected and I pride myself on my mastery of the platform. My writing group employs Zoom as well to stay in touch and to share our pieces. It’s a new way to workshop but, as it has been said, necessity is the mother of invention. For my writing life, this seclusion works and I await a time when I will want to rejoin society. For now, I’m good.

Yet the life of isolation is not all sweetness and light. The lack of a schedule messes with my head. Once I get up, shower, get dressed, put the dog out, and throw a load of laundry, it’s a crapshoot. Having hours to myself forces me to wrangle with my tendency to be a little distractible (I can hear you all chuckling). I plan for the day, making lists of chores and other pressing matters like tax preparation and plant watering. Without the list, I would be even more unfocused that I am already. Without the list, I would continue my quest to plow through another seventeen hundred levels of Candy Crush or an additional twenty-five hundred games of Words With Friends. I would read a book or two from the stack on the table by the sofa. The list helps but its completion requires the fortitude to resist the siren song of distraction. Monday’s list still sits on the dining room table, partially crossed out. I didn’t say it was a perfect system.

The safe harbor of writing puts me in the chair and provides a singular activity that forces me to be productive. As I damn the list for my seat at the computer, I feel no guilt. I have a goal, my memoir, and I see progress. Grateful that my life has taken this direction, my passion for writing distracts me in a good way from the sad news of the exponential growth of the Coronavirus. I know that, by staying home, I am doing my part to stem the contagion. 

Time in a quiet place provides an opportunity to think as well. Seclusion has taught me that I am more of an introvert than I ever thought. Socializing via remote conferencing is sufficient contact to fulfill my need to see people. I’m not sure that is particularly a good thing but I do think that being still and shutting down the chaos offer a chance to reset. Some of the things that are happening in our world are beyond our control. I worry about people who are ill and dying, those who have lost their jobs, the crashing stock market, and the burgeoning emergency rooms. In the meantime, I write and wait to see how we all come out on the other side. In the meantime, I write.

Men in exile Aeschylus

The Perils and Pitfalls of the File Photo

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When I hear that “print media is dying”, I panic. I truly do enjoy reading the daily paper. The feel of newsprint between my fingers connects me to the news and the world in a way that the abbreviated on-line version can’t. The daily newspaper grounds me and forces me to take time out of my day to sit and read. For me, rituals attached to the habit are sacred. I time myself to see how long it will take to complete the crossword puzzle. On Wednesdays, I clip the recipes from the Food section. Every day, I read the obituaries.

One of my favorite parts of the paper, the death notices, or what my family calls the “Irish sports page,” offers an opportunity to treasure another day above the roses. As I peruse the obituaries, I look at the pictures and often one catches my eye. So youthful and fresh-faced! Instantly, my heart drops. How sad! How tragic! I wonder about the age of the poor, young, departed soul. I scan the details-family members, places of employment, wonderful accomplishments, the dates and times of the upcoming services. And when the text begins with “Suddenly, at the age of eighty-five…”, I stop. In my opinion, with any age over eighty, the term ‘suddenly’ ceases to be applicable. At that point, it’s day-by-day but I’m sure I will feel differently when I’m eighty-five.

Eighty-five. I cross-reference this newfound knowledge with the photo above the blurb. The incongruity of the picture shocks me. Whoa! Eighty-five! Either they look damn good or there is some misrepresentation afoot. My husband has a practiced chant in response to this sort of travesty – “File photo!” Honestly, I can’t hold it against a dead person to want to be remembered at his or her best. The deceased probably never looked better than in this moment, captured for posterity, and certainly won’t look as good ever again. But if you can’t embrace the ravages of age at eighty-five, then maybe it was best that you, and Elvis, left the building. 

I forgive the use of the file photo in death notices, even though I contend that, while harmless,  it is the height of subterfuge. On the other hand, when the living take the same liberty, I cringe. The abuse and misuse of the file photo in professional circles teeter on the edge on fraud. In more than a few Linkedin profiles that I’ve come across, the image on the page barely resembles the subject. Even worse, in the recent past, I have attended two different writers’ panels and at each event, headshots of the participants, clearly professionally manipulated and enhanced, adorned the stage. There is a danger inherent in this positioning; it’s too easy for the attendee to see that the speaker no longer looks like the person in the picture. For me, easily distracted, hugely vain, and admittedly a little shallow, the differences in two representations, in person and in the photo, capture my attention and my focus on the subject of the presentation wanes, as my sights hone in on the subject’s need for makeup, a blowout, and, maybe, a facelift. 

Needless to say, the angst I project in this piece is tongue-in-cheek. Yet, I consider this essay a cautionary tale, a public service announcement, and a prompt to look critically at profile pictures across your social media. Do the world a favor and save yourself some embarrassment: update your headshot. I get that it sucks to get old, but it sucks more when you give people a frame of reference by which to measure the decline. 

Bet you never thought about it that way. Image result for wink emoji

 

Who doesn’t need a road map for life?

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A few years ago, a dear friend faced a long recovery from a hip replacement surgery that sidelined him from his athletic training job at a local high school. As with anyone who enjoys exercise and movement, the thought of being sedentary for weeks gnawed at Peter. While he attended physical therapy sessions and walked the prescribed distances, he was antsy. He could only watch so much SportCenter in a day. Pete needed something else to fill his time. 

When my husband and I embarked on a cruise with Pete and his wife Paula five years ago, Pete spent much of the trip regaling us with what he calls his “credos”, a litany of alliterative motivational phrases and sayings that he not only professes but lives by. With Rainman-like repetition, Tim and I endured the constant onslaught of Pete’s common sense revelations, at first thinking that the practice was odd. It seemed like Pete had devised a credo for just about every life situation. By the end of the seven day cruise, our cultivated and shared love of ‘Pete’s Credos’ made for fun and inspirational conversation. In a basic, almost primitive sense, the credos truly were a road map for life. 

Some of my favorite credos I soon adopted as my own. The quasi-oxymoronic statement, “Negativity Sucks!”, a simple but true proclamation, was easy to remember and quick in its delivery. Others like “Visualize Victory” came in handy during our weekly trivia nights at a local bar, even if we routinely came in last. And my favorite, “Get Better at Getting Better”, embodied the simple idea that one should never give up. The credos became my mantra, too. 

Being an incessant tease, I half-seriously prodded Pete to write down the credos. Paula begged me not to push the issue. She had heard enough of the credos and the thought of memorializing them made her crazy. To support my premise that the credos needed a larger audience, I insisted, citing the fact that I had been sharing the important messages contained in the credos in my counseling office at work.. Invoking the credo, “Always give your best effort”, I was relentless. Like Pete and his credos, it became a topic of most conversations, with me telling Paula,  “But there are no lies there! It’s all good information.” That pronouncement was usually met with a narrow eyed stare. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up. And what better time to transcribe those credos than when your legs aren’t working but your fingers are?

Peter embraced the idea of capitalizing on his convalescence to write down the credos, using Microsoft Word as creatively as Pete was able, inserting a decorative border to frame the numbered phrases. Once complete, Pete sent his son to laminate one hundred copies. The Mr. C’s Credos to Life were officially memorialized for all time, with copies available for the masses, or at least immediate family and friends. 

Since there is nothing shy about Peter, the credos have been foisted on anybody brave enough to allude to one of the precepts that Pete espouses. As a major fangirl, I have been the proud recipient of multiple copies, which I share liberally. I proudly display my copies of the credos at my desk, on the bulletin board in the kitchen, on the mirror in my bedroom. The credos have traveled as far away as Austin, Texas, safely tucked into my suitcase, as a gift for my son’s edification. 

As I write this Mami for Pete and his “Mr. C’s Credos to Life”, I smile to think that something so simple, a few phrases that embody “living your best life”, helped me through tough times in the recent past. When I was at my worst, Peter would ask me, “Are you living or just existing?” His question made me think critically about what made me happy and the changes I needed to make. I relied on the idea that one should not “pray for an easy life, pray to be a strong person” to manage hopelessness along the way.  Now when I get a wobble, I am reminded to “live daily with passion, energy, enthusiasm, and excitement”. And sometimes, a reminder is all you need.

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When Tragedy Strikes, Humanity Awakens

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A little while ago, my Apple watch alerted me to a breaking news story.  Kobe Bryant, a renowned, retired basketball great, was killed in a helicopter crash in California. While I would never claim to be a sports fan (that would be a lie), I was familiar with the name, knew of his notoriety in the sport, and felt a pang of sorrow. When someone famous dies, I immediately think back to my own interaction with their craft or their accomplishments. I remember the same feeling of sadness when Princess Diana died, when John Lennon died, when David Bowie died. But the connection to a loss doesn’t require one to be a fan. I have come to understand that all it takes to feel sad in response to a tragedy is to be human.

When a celebrity dies, our idea of immortality is shattered. Kobe, Princess Diana, and others who have achieved great fame seem to be above the pitfalls of life and death. Their greatness supersedes any vulnerability and we expect them to live forever. The image that has been created of our idols makes them larger than life and certainly larger than death. The realization that they are human, just like us, jolts us back to reality.

In this world of social media hype, news alerts and their musical introduction smacking of urgency,  and bad news overload, any breaking news can trigger the pang in my gut, not just In the case of a tragedy befalling someone famous. I’ve gotten used to the sinking feeling inside whenever I hear of something tragic. I wait for more details: how many were killed in the earthquake in Turkey, how many animals were lost in the Australian fires, how many died in the most recent school shooting? Yet, while I worry about these outcomes, I fear that I have become a voyeur lost in this swirl of information. Perhaps the purity of my interest and concern is tainted by the need for details regarding the shock and gore of it all. And maybe, I have succumbed to the adage, “There but for the grace of God…”

The uncertainty we know in life causes the unpredictability of death. Choices we make, or others make, can cause our demise. Kobe chose to fly in a helicopter today but, for us, things as simple as merging on to the highway versus taking the surface roads can be our last decision. Another driver’s choice to text while driving can be the reason a parent or a child doesn’t return home one day. A lifetime of cigarette smoking may or may not result in deadly lung cancer. The possibility of being caught in the crossfire of gunshots or involved in an act of terrorism has become less of a long shot.  Life is full of pitfalls and ways to die. It’s a crap shoot, for sure.

To be human is to understand the fragility of being and remaining alive. When I hear people say that they wake up in the morning and thank God for another day, the thought gives me pause. I can’t really say I profess my thanks for not being dead in the morning; instead, I wonder if maybe we should be giving thanks for surviving at the end of any given day. Considering the minefield that is daily existence, it truly is an accomplishment to make it through to bedtime unscathed.

There must be a bigger plan, one that spares us until it is our turn. Tonight, Kobe Bryant will not kiss his children good night. I feel sad for him and for his family.  Yet, the initial shock of the news has already passed, as it does and, once the shock becomes a reality, life goes on for the rest of us. We are once again reminded that, while today may not be ‘the day’, we will each have a last day. It’s sobering, but death, like life, is a part of being human.

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The Perfect (Snow)Storm

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I purposely stayed away from supermarkets these past few days since I knew that it would be madness.  The weather people had been warning those of us in the greater Boston area that there was snow forecasted for Saturday so plan accordingly. Granted, the accumulation was predicted to be in the 1-3 inch range or worst case scenario, outside of 128 (the highway that for some reason is the line of demarcation in these situations), accumulations may top out at six inches; yet, I knew from experience that the stores would be chaos. As I took a quick assessment of my supplies of milk, bread, and booze, I decided that I most likely could survive until Sunday when the onslaught of the three inch deluge would be over. 

It would be a quick one, meteorologists said, over by midnight. And since the first flakes only started around three p.m, even at multiple inches an hour, which was unlikely, I could see that it was not going to be a big deal storm. In any case, the viewers were warned to stay home. It was treacherous! Dangerous conditions! Armageddon! Over time I have learned that the news people tend to exaggerate the onslaught in the cause of ratings and viewership so I resisted panic. In any case, I was happy to oblige. For me, it was a ‘perfect storm’.

I love snow, especially when I have no plans. For me, there is nothing more pleasant than a weekend storm, of the three to four inch variety, that deposits a perfect, glistening, white coating on the ground, shrubs, and trees – that I can look at from inside of the house. A glass of wine, a binge of a TV show on Netflix or Hulu, and fuzzy pajamas and I am fully equipped for the duration of the precipitation. I should mention that, while I love snow, I hate to go outside in it. I am a secret admirer, a closet snow junkie, who avoids interaction with the cold, wet stuff while adoring the beauty from a distance. 

As for winter activities, I have learned to ski, although I do not ski. I have ice skates, although I seldom skate. And I have a snow shovel, which I dodge using as much as possible. In the cause of skiing and skating, I adopted these skills not to be defeated by them. Both require being out in the cold. Both are not enjoyable and offer no appeal to me. Since shoveling requires no real skill, I have tried to identify as a dedicated shoveler, but I have failed. I thought about buying a pink shovel that I had seen at Reny’s in Damariscotta a few weeks ago but I knew that the purchase would not cure my aversion. When it comes to shoveling, like skiing and skating, I avoid it at all costs. Yet, the guilt that washes over me when I steal a glimpse of the entire family outside shoveling and cursing is enough to make me suck up my distaste for the activity and join in the ‘fun’. Dragging my heels while suiting up for the misery, I do my best to look like a team player. In the end, I am usually ready to make my grand contribution to the snow shoveling effort as close to completion as possible. It is a worthy attempt. That should count. And sometimes, I even make cocoa and a banana bread as a reward for everyone’s hard work, my contribution to the snow removal effort and a means to ease my conscience.

This Sunday morning, we woke up to the remains of a ‘perfect storm’ – a minor accumulation of the light and fluffy variety, easy to shovel, and falling on a weekend when there is no pressure to get up and out.  I reveled in the effects since the beauty of a freshly fallen, light blanket of snow fills me with such joy. Mid-morning, I heard voices outside and looked to see my husband and son-in-law as they chatted casually while pushing the light snow around. They seemed happy. I was happy, too. The pressure was off. It would not be necessary to join the chain gang of snow removal, avoiding a guilt trip. I poured another cup of coffee and settled in with a book, assuming a seat on the wing chair in the living room from which I had a clear view of the woods. Breathtakingly beautiful, the trees glistened as they donned their sparkling white coat. I imagine it’s cold out there, and a little wet. I wouldn’t know. And here was no need to find out. 

The Pressing Issue of Christmas Cookies

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I love getting a gift of Christmas cookies, especially in a quantity large enough to exempt me from making my own batch. But, nevertheless, I usually find myself compelled to pull out my recipe box, cookbook, or my grandmother’s notes to find at least one recipe to make just so that I can say I baked for Christmas. It’s a badge of honor as a sometimes homemaker, sometimes writer, and all-the-time grandmother to adhere to the expectation that you will participate in the tradition of cookie making. And for some reason, this year, I am feeling the urge a little more than usual to bake a batch or two of an old family stand-by, the pressed cookie. 

When I was young, my grandmother, Nonnie, would make a few types of cookies for the holidays. One of her favorite creations was the struffoli, a pile of ball shaped nuggets that were deep fried and drenched in a thick coat of honey and then sprinkled with multicolored round jimmies or, to the rest of the world of non-Bostonians, sprinkles. The cookie was gooey and over sweet, in my opinion, and I avoided them. I preferred the “angel wings” cookie, a piece of dough pinched in the middle like a bow, deep fried (do you see a pattern here?) and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was less obnoxiously sweet and less tasty overall. In the end, it was the multicolored trees, stars, hearts, and wreaths, each one carefully extracted from the cookie press, that won out for me every time. 

Maybe it is the different colors or the cute shapes but I believe that the pressed cookie, or spritz cookie, has a unique allure. The  most versatile of the homemade holiday cookie, the pressed cookie is crafted from a simple butter cookie dough. The dough is squeezed into a cylindrical gadget and extruded by twisting a handle that will eventually and hopefully produce, based on the consistency of the batter, a shaped cookie, as dictated by the disk inserted at the front of the tool.  Some of the disks lend themselves to various seasonal demands: with a shift in the introduction of food coloring, the green wreath can be a pink flower in the spring, the dog/reindeer are interchangeable since who is thinking reindeer in July, or the heart can double as a Valentine. Lightly sprinkled with some colored sugary crystals, the cookie can be dressed up and classed up enough for any occasion. In any case, the pressed cookie is a winner in my book.

I don’t remember just when or how it happened but Nonnie’s aluminum old-style cookie press migrated to my kitchen. I knew what the contraption was since I had watched my mother make the cookies throughout my childhood and I absorbed some of the technique. Over the years, I have made cookies, generated by the press combined with  my brute force, for all sorts of events and parties. Some batches come out better than others, mostly due to over baking, or too little or too much  food coloring. I still like pressed cookies, no matter what the complication.

In a moment of weakness, I made the leap to a what I thought would take my cookie pressing to a whole new level, a newfangled cookie press. It was a modern plastic design of Pampered Chef origin. In truth, the style is identical to my original press so it wasn’t a huge improvement in its physical appearance or its operation. It did have a few more disks than I still had, that is, haven’t been lost or misplaced. Excited about the prospect of a new and hopefully improved experience in cookie pressing, I embarked on my inaugural, and only, cookie press adventure with my new toy. I was left wanting more, or less. In truth, I wanted Nonnie’s cookie press. Not only was the new version not an improvement; it just felt wrong.

This afternoon, I will make up a batch of dough in anticipation of my grandchildren’s return from school. They love projects and it is a thrill to share with them not just the tradition and my love of pressed cookies but my respect for Nonnie’s cookie press. I am pretty sure that the press itself will be around for generations to come, unlike my plastic, modern, unused version. It’s one of those cases where older is truly better and tradition is the best thing of all.

Vintage Mirro Cookie Press, 11 Discs, 3 Tips, Holiday Cookies, Easy To

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The “Very Good” Zeppole Recipe

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Every Christmas Eve of my childhood, two things were predictable at my grandmother’s annual gathering: the heavy, acrid smell of oil frying and the collection of Seven Fishes, in line with the ancient Italian tradition passed down to me by my immigrant predecessors. Italians love to cook, but they take it to a new level in this pungent celebration. A collection of exotic and, in my mind, a few unsavory items: eels, smelts, baccala, red clam sauce, tonno, and an array of alternates, dictated by each family’s custom, ensured that everyone overate. It was compulsory. But for my own dinner, my family heated up a Taste O’ Sea haddock dinner, complete with tater tots and unnaturally green peas to ensure that I ate something. In the opinion of my Italian grandmother, whom I called Nonnie, I was malnourished and possibly harboring a case of rickets. In truth, I just didn’t like to eat. In an Italian family, that was a crime punishable by force feeding, or at least, public shaming. In any case, I came from a long line of full-figured women (I am being delicate) so I am pretty sure that, subconsciously, even in my early days, I feared a similar fate; hence, I ate sparingly, agreeing to a small repertoire of options that I really liked. And the Christmas fish certainly were not on my menu.

Yet, there was one food tradition that I embraced – the zeppole. A ball of dough born from a simplistic combination of flour, water, salt, and yeast, coaxed into rising by a warm wet towel draped over the bowl, the zeppole was a thing of beauty. While some of the zeppoles concealed a bit of the baccala, or salt cod, Nonnie always made sure that there was a supply of zeppole untainted by any manner of fish, knowing my preference and serving her burning desire for me to eat. To the average person, the zeppole was a tiny version of glorified fried dough, not much more exciting than the beach boardwalk variety; but to me, the zeppole was Christmas, my childhood, and little did I know as a child, the legacy of my grandmother.

In my grandmother’s kitchen, a huge behemoth of a stove, emblazoned with the brand “Caloric”, was the centerpiece. On Christmas Eve, a steaming pan occupied every gas burner, but none so important as the blue porcelain pan of oil, ready to accept the scoops of batter and convert them into donut-like goodness. With a scary, blistering amount of spattering and fizzing going on, Nonnie always warned me to step back from the hot oil, at least until the initial introduction of dough was complete. Once in the oil, the beigey balls transformed into crispy golden orbs, and I was allowed to witness their conversion at a safe viewing distance. One by one, Nonnie scooped them from the pan with a slotted metal spoon and relocated them to a towel-laden, red Pyrex bowl where their numbers grew magically while nestled in the terrycloth. Once cooled, a small bowl of granulated sugar was at the ready, awaiting the golden, crispy, doughy balls. As I thoroughly coated each zeppole, my mouth watered in anticipation. To me, it was the flavor of Christmas. 

By the time my grandmother passed away on Christmas Day in 1986, the Feast of the Seven Fishes had taken a new direction.  While not as grand, the Seven Fishes continued, except they now included things that the next generation preferred like shrimp, fried clams, crab cakes, lobster, and baked cod, as well as the customary linguine in clam sauce. My mother had assumed the tradition of making the zeppoles, without mention of the baccala lot. The recipe, found in a notebook and written in Nonnie’s handwriting, listed a number of possible variations in techniques and ingredients. But the one we chose to use was the one next to which Nonnie had scribbled “very good”.  And she was right.

Years later, we cherish the notebook that unlocks the portal of times and traditions that came before, and the people who left behind not just their recipes but their footprints on our hearts. The feast, or what remains, is now relocated to my own house, which annually wears the heavy smell of Christmas frying that lasts for days. The fragrant hangover is a small price to pay for the joy of savoring the taste of Christmases Past, the scent of frying dough, and a Pyrex bowl full of crispy dough balls, as I honor the legacy of my family, my Italian grandmother, and her “very good” zeppole recipe.

Buon Natale!

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Christmas Cards: Is it time to “stamp” them out?

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It’s an improvement over last year. I actually have what I guess is called the “Christmas Spirit”. The decorations are up. I have started practicing carols on the piano. The calendar is full of upcoming parties, concerts, and events like tours of swish uber decorated houses in swanky neighborhoods. The scent of pine, generated by multiple holiday themed candles, lightly wafts through the house. Even the dog is wearing her Christmas attire, a red and white knitted sweater with the word “Joy” embroidered into the yarn. All is right in the Christmas Haven that is our home except for one thing: the dreaded task of sending Christmas cards.

Now it’s not like I haven’t developed a system to streamline the job. My hatred of the process forces me to maintain a detailed list of “Cards Sent” and “Cards Received” that dates back a number of years. The prior year’s receipts dictate who makes the cut for the following year’s mailing and any opportunity to thin the herd is more than welcome.  Labels are prepared at the end of the prior season to expedite the mailing process. I scour all of the websites – Shutterfly, Tiny Prints, Zazzle, Vistaprint – for the perfect layout and the most festive design that reflects “us”. Photos are staged during the year in the hopes that a viable pose from a vacation snapshot will adequately capture the joy of a year’s travel exploits. The most pristine snapshots of the lot are selected to adorn our pre-printed cards (saving me from writing out each one individually). An assembly line is formed. Stamps, return address labels, addressee labels, cards inserted, envelopes sealed. The final step is a trip to the post office, where adding to the burgeoning mailbox stuffed with other people’s seasonal greetings, requires brute force. Despite the well-developed, multi-step  method of card preparation, Christmas cards are still the most annoying part of Christmas. 

The displaying of the cards themselves is a badge of honor, a testimony to just how many friends we have. Over the years, I have purchased a number of gadgets designed to display the cards in a decorative manner. In the end, I usually just grab the scotch tape and stick them on the door frame between the kitchen and living room, where they are knocked off on a regular basis and then cease to stick since the carpet fibers have now stuck to the tape, rendering it useless. Eventually, there is an arbitrary point where the decision is made to resist the urge to reapply the cards to the display, as well as a cut off for new cards to be added. My apologies to the New Year’s card folk. You end up in a drawer, unseen and un-admired.  

Once the season is over, a decision must be made as to which cards to save and which to toss. I have some weird superstition (all my own) about throwing away pictures of people so any photo cards are saved from hitting the bin. Every year, a card or two is just too beautiful to toss. They join the photo cards, never to be seen again once added to the box labeled “Christmas Cards 2014-2019”. All this prepping, hanging, and sorting is a lot of work for such a tenuous applicability and a short shelf life.

With the advent of the internet and the wonders of social media, my opinion of the necessity of Christmas cards has changed. In the “old” days, photo Christmas cards were one way to ensure that you saw the growing and expanding families of friends far and wide. A means to check in with assorted work colleagues past, a card with a pleasant note, bringing the receiver up to date with adventures and milestones, was welcome and expected. And if you were lucky, you’d find the ever enjoyable “Christmas letter” (the precursor to the cleansed internet personae that we all now project) tucked inside the envelope. Now, instead, I open Facebook or log on to Instagram and there they are, all of them, and all of their kids, and every event from the past twelve months, cataloged for the world to see, making me truly question the worth of the traditional Christmas card.  It is quite possible that the purpose and value of the traditional Christmas card is now mute in 2019.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t taken a good picture since January, maybe I haven’t found the perfect Vistaprint layout, or maybe I’m just lazy, but I have no interest in sending Christmas cards this year. I am not being anti-social or anti-Christmas. I dread the whole exercise. And, in truth, I know everything about you already. But I will admit, selfishly, that I fear being that person left off other people’s Christmas card lists for 2020. I know that I am not the only one who keeps track. It works that way universally – no card from you, no card from me. Yet, I still like to open my mailbox and feast my eyes on multiple red and green envelopes. Hence, my decision in the case of Marie versus the Christmas card is not final. 

I anticipate a few more photo ops before it is too late for this year’s card to be designed and assembled so maybe there is hope for season’s greetings from me in a tangible paper form. But I wouldn’t count on it. And if you do get a card from me this year, consider yourself lucky and know that I expect one in return. I’d hate to delete you, but it’s the rule of Christmas card record keeping everywhere. And just in case I don’t produce a paper version of my wishes for you, consider this your card. 

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours from me and mine.

 

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The Change We Seek: Getting Out the Vote for a New Tomorrow in a Not-so-Small City

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Yesterday, we were afforded the privilege to choose our elected officials in our city. The hotly contested Medford mayoral race saw our current mayor, a protege of the last who held office for 30 years, ousted. To her detriment, her close affiliation with the prior regime was her downfall. Lack of transparency, perceived poor management of city services, and a recently exposed police scandal overshadowed her campaign, despite the fact that her leadership was instrumental in the construction of a new police station and a new library. Her opponent, a 30-something lawyer, whose sister was a classmate of my daughter in grammar school, ran a solid campaign, garnering the vote of the young and those who wanted change. 

It was encouraging to see the outpouring of support and interest in the candidacy of this current city councillor but relative newcomer in the political arena. Young parents, who have chosen Medford to raise their families, shared opinions openly about the prospect of a new way of doing things. This is a marked change from the usual response I get when I ask my own children about current events: “I don’t pay attention to politics.”

When it came to casting my vote, I was torn. I could see the merits of both candidates. I weighed out the prospects: status quo or a fresh outlook. As someone who often refers to the local state of affairs in the city as “low standards”, I guess the status quo isn’t working.  But I was unsure about the young prospect whose performance in the mayoral debate was, as someone described to me, “unimpressive”. My apolitical daughter, who is generally allergic to local and national politics, was a proponent of the candidacy of the younger candidate, was enthusiastically persuasive, and unusually committed to voting for her. She is the face of a new Medford and maybe it is time. I entered the polling booth unsure and uncommitted, with all of these thoughts in my mind. And for some reason, I voted on the side of “status quo.”

In the end, youth won out over political connectedness, possibly to our advantage. We have a new mayor on whom a city now pins its hopes for a new day and a new way of doing things. Our city, just five miles out of Boston, is a prime location for a lifestyle that should be sought after; yet, our schools are not quite where they should be, city services are spotty, and our image when compared to the profiles of the rest of Greater Boston make us of the poor relation who shows up to the wedding with white socks on when we should be front and center. We allow a blind pride to drive our resistance to see our situation critically, a short sightedness about change,  and our “well, that’s the way it’s always been” attitude to dictate how we operate. We are stuck and our pride is counterproductive. Now may be our time to shine, to reinvent ourselves, and be a place of which we can be truly proud. 

I boast that six generations of my family have lived in Medford and our deep roots make me and my family unusual in this mobile society.  We have no plans to leave. Sadly, I would never publish this commentary in the local newspaper because of the backlash that I would receive. I know how this city works and this ousting of the sitting mayor, who enjoys a broad fan base due to her connections, would spark an attack that would be unmerciful. That’s Medford for ya!  It’s a culture that I understand but don’t always support. 

Now that the decision has been made, I am open and excited to see what lies ahead and hope that the change that the voters so desperately sought as they cast their ballots yesterday will come to fruition. It is an exciting time for our city and I look forward to the prospect of a new, revitalized Medford.

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Surviving End of Daylight Savings Time or “Does Anybody (at my house) Really Know What Time It Is?”

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This weekend marks the end of Daylight Saving Time for 2019. For some, it begins the dark season: shorter days, dusky late afternoons, and start of the depressing winter ahead. Maybe I’m weird but I love the change one hour backwards. It gives me license to climb into my coziest flannel pajama pants and my father’s old fleece quarter zip – at 4 p.m. It allows me to hunker down, to hibernate, and to savor every moment until March when I am forced to be a productive member of society once again.

In our house, the question “When do we change the clocks?” is asked as early as September 15. For us, it is a landmark event, not just because of our unbridled love of daytime pajama wear but also the fact that Tim loves changing the clocks. In the days before my Apple watch, I depended on the clocks in the house for my timely orientation. With Tim in charge, this dependency was problematic. Although a simple practice in theory, things went wrong, often. And while we seldom argue, more than once, changing the Timex alarm clock on the nightstand or the clock on the microwave brought us to blows (figuratively, of course). 

For Tim, Daylight Saving rivals Christmas or Thanksgiving in importance. I half expect that we will memorialize it eventually with gifts or some sort of decoration, perhaps a special meal, or a song. But for now, I must remain vigilant, lest I fall into the trap of time confusion, set skillfully by the “Master of Clock Adjustment”.

I think back to the year that Tim reset the clocks, all of them – on the wrong weekend. So eager to embark on his cause, he ran through the house (yes, I can only describe it as “ran”), pressing the pluses and minuses on the digital displays and spinning the little grooved circle on the box beside the battery on the back of the analog devices. Unsuspecting, I set off to bed, planning to awaken at seven to prepare for Mass at 9:15 a.m. For some reason, I woke up, on my own, at 6 a.m., according to the clock beside me. Knowing that sleep would not resume, I bounded out of bed and headed to the front door to retrieve the Boston Sunday Globe on the front porch. With the house quiet and serene, I took my place on the sofa, the newspaper my only companion. 

I turned on the stereo, soft and comforting, as a backdrop to the idyll. Feeling somehow proud of myself for getting up early and being so focused, as well as quasi-productive, I perused the paper with an air of self-satisfaction, barely hearing the music in the background; that is, until the DJ announced the time. It was actually 7:45, not 6:45. Shaken from my bliss, it took me a minute to absorb the reality that I was late versus early, dashing all of my visions of success and self-determination. But one thing was certain, the snoring man down the hall was a dead man (figuratively, of course). 

As I assumed the task of redress, I pulled the covers from the Clock Master and alerted him to the issue. In my opinion, he did not see this as a big deal. He chuckled, and promised to fix the clocks after church. Seething, I did not let this mistake go, as you can see by my detailed description of events. And now, as a matter of course, almost thirty years later, I still remind him for weeks in advance to check the weekend for the time change to avoid another debacle. To his credit, he has not made this mistake again.

When my family gifted me with an Apple watch a few years ago, they were unaware of the additional value I would derive from this gadget, twice a year. Now when Tim changes the clocks at four p.m. on the day before, I will not be fooled. I can depend on my Apple watch to be truthful, even when my nearest and dearest engages in clock subterfuge. It’s a testy twelve hours to be endured. On the other side await my turquoise penguin pajama pants and Dad’s old fleece. Once my senses cease to be at high alert in the cause of time, my hibernation is my refuge and my reward. 

In his defense, I would probably never change the clocks. I’m that variety of lazy so he really is performing a service on some level. In truth, Tim’s love of Time may be his only fault, so I really can’t complain (figuratively, of course). 

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The Miracle of a Successful Marriage

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Last Friday, my husband Tim and I celebrated our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. It must truly be a tremendous feat because whenever I share this detail with anyone, my news often is met with a gasp. “Wow! That’s amazing!” is a common response and honestly, I am taken aback whenever I hear it. Is it really that amazing? So many of our friends, actually most, have hung in with the original marital candidate. Are we old-fashioned? Are we just lazy? Is the remaining pool of applicants so sparse that we don’t bother looking elsewhere? Or is there more to the chemistry that makes a marriage work and endure? I gave this prospect some thought.

When Tim and I met at the Boston College versus Army football game in September 1977, there were no fireworks. Quite to the contrary – I thought that his friend Paul was far cuter and in truth, I was off the market and in a relationship with another B.C. guy. For the next year and a half, we would pass each other in the dining commons at Lyons Hall, in the Dustbowl, or in the corridor in Fulton. A quick “hi” and a passing glance was the extent of our attraction or interest. 

Nearly a year and a half later, at a Thursday evening in the Rathskellar, the campus bar, I found myself sitting next to Tim. We chatted casually, he asked me to dance, and a little seed was planted in my head. By now, I had moved on from the first B.C. boy, replacing him with a few other conquests but none quite right for me. In the next few weeks, our paths crossed more than usual and, at another night in the Rat a few months later, we danced and he kissed me. It was the first moment of the rest of my life. The slow burn of friendship exploded into a romance that resulted in a marriage proposal two weeks later. “So what do you think?” were the exact words. I really had no idea what he was asking and he clarified with “Us!” I took a second to consider. That’s all I needed. Of course, the answer was “Yes!”

Although I was only twenty, I knew that I had met the nicest person I had even known in my life. He was really nice! Kind, gentle, thoughtful, caring, and cute (I put that last because I don’t want to sound shallow), Tim was too good to pass up. And despite our parents protests due to our youth, we pressed on and married in 1980, unintentionally on the day of the B.C. vs. Army game. 

Thinking back to the first year of marriage, survival truly may have been a miracle. Attempting to make dinner one evening, I set the apartment on fire, requiring the evacuation of the entire building (including a 103 year old woman).  Tim was not happy. We began construction of a new house next door to my parents, a decision that has formed our lives. We partied like we did in college. We were still kids, which may have been a blessing and a curse. We hadn’t quite mastered the art of marriage, but we were quite pliable due to our youth. While we experienced growing pains as we wove our lives into one, we kept at it.

The second year was another miracle of survival. A new home, a mortgage, and a baby on the way. That last part wasn’t supposed to happen quite yet. Our trepidation in the cause of parenthood was confirmed by our parents, with both sets feigning excitement at the news but in truth, but we knew that they silently hoped that we would split before a child was involved. Too late!

While it has been a wild ride, marriage has been more fun than I ever expected. Our union resulted in two beautiful children, now adults and living their own lives. We find joy in travel, cooking together, and rainy days in pajamas reading or watching movies. We share many of the same tastes: in food, in entertainment, in just being quiet together. 

Over the years, we have had more than our share of challenges. Our parents presented with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, sudden death, and serious mental health issues. For better or for worse, our children have needed our support in ways that we never expected. Our own health issues tried the vow of sickness and health, resulting in a stronger bond than we ever thought possible. Career choices and struggles demanded patience and sacrifice, for richer, for poorer, as we each assumed the role of sole breadwinner while the other figured out the path ahead. Our support for each other has been unwavering and unconditional. 

Looking back, maybe it is a miracle when you find the “right person”. The “right person” comes in many shapes and sizes and personalities, so there is a skill required in finding your “right person”.  But maybe it’s not that hard. Maybe it’s the raw material that is needed – goodness, kindness, patience, understanding – combined with a desire to figure out life together. If the recipe is that simple, I guess those are the ingredients. It’s putting ourselves second and the other person first, always. Marriage takes two to understand this message. So if it’s a miracle, I raise a glass to all of us who have created our own miracles, every day, every year, for a lifetime. Wow! You’re amazing! And I wish you more miracles in the future! 

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Home Improvement: Do It Yourself or Maybe Not At All

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Now that I have retired from my twenty year career in education, I theoretically have the time and energy to devote to tasks and projects that have been begging for attention for the past few years. I made a list: new bathroom fan, ballast on the fluorescent light in the basement, replace the motion sensitive light in the backyard, new sill cock on the backyard faucet. All small and annoying jobs that contractors hesitate to take on. The small jobs are just not worth it and the effort that it takes to find a reputable craftsman deters my efforts. 

I take to Google – “how to change a ballast on a fluorescent light”, “replacing a bathroom fan”, and any other jobs that have come to my attention now that I have time to notice them. Having wired most of the lighting fixtures and some of the outlets in our house over the past 38 years, I fancy myself an amateur electrician. “Black to black, white to white, and the ground wire. Don’t forget the ground!” My self-talk through the process is derived from my father’s demonstration of the skill and my subsequent attempts to master electricity. So far, so good! My attention to detail, to shutting off the breaker at the electrical box, and to applying lots of electrical tape ensures that I have not been electrocuted or that I haven’t sparked a conflagration. 

Presently, I am at the mercy of a contractor who is replacing the front stairs of our house. A job that I could not Google, I needed to find a contractor who came well recommended. Three interviews later, we went with someone that had done work for one of Tim’s co-workers. When we met with the contractor, he took copious measurements and pondered on the approach that he would take to attack the chore. We were encouraged. We were assured that the job would take two weeks. We were hopeful. Half the cash down now, and half when the job is finished. We signed on, eager to be ready for a harsh New England winter with shiny new and safe stairs. 

Now four weeks into the process, we have stairs but the job was not complete. We are at the point in the job where the contractor has started his next job and we are an afterthought. Breezing in and out, I never know when the driveway will be off limits due to the onslaught of work vehicles. Days go by with no activity. Promises of “the next day” come and go. I text, he responds. I am cordial but my patience is wearing thin. Finally, I held on to the promise that the job would be complete before we set off to an out of town family wedding last week. It was not.

In our absence, a crew appeared and “finished” the job. Back from the airport, I pulled into the driveway. I was sure that they were not finished. I called for a meeting and the contractor obliged. Apparently the lattice that we expected to cover the foundation and footings was not included in the original price on the contract that we signed in August. Add to that the foundation for the stairs, which apparently was another extra charge. Now over the original contract by almost $2500, I was concerned. There was confusion despite a contract in hand and the cost was over budget. The railings that we had planned and contracted going down the lower front stairs were not done to our satisfaction and became another sticking point . The adjustment became another expense. When the change order came through, I lowered the boom. “No more! Finish the stairs and we are all set!” Desperate, the contractor  tried to negotiate to get me to agree to additional work, but I had paid enough and was glad to at least have the original stairs that were needed most. I was willing to eat the cost of what we were forgoing to get the job finished.

Having built two houses and renovated another one from the studs, I have been to the contractor rodeo too many times. As a landlord of a two family house close by, I have hired my share of skilled craftsmen for all sorts of jobs. Unfortunately, good workers are hard to find and way too rare. Every time I need to find someone to help with a job, I cringe. And when I do find someone who is reputable and honest, I hold on to them like grim death, knowing that the world out there is teeming with the unscrupulous as much as it is full of good and decent people. It’s a crap shoot. I know that the good ones are out there, it’s just a little difficult to know if even the most highly recommended worker will follow through. 

My father always distrusted contractors, but I chalked it up to his paranoia and frugality. In the end, he let things go and his house fell into disrepair.  I have vowed not to repeat history yet I have learned, to my detriment, that even when corners are not cut and workers are hired in good faith, things go wrong, sadly more frequently that one would expect. I won’t say my father was right entirely. Good people exist, and due to their credibility, are in demand. For that reason, I never take Frankie, my plumber, for granted. I value my electrician, Greg, for his fine work and honest practices. Brian, my carpenter and handyman, is skilled, clever, and decent. I rely on them and, whenever they work for me, I profusely thank them for their service. They must think I’m a bit daft. If they only knew what a rare commodity they are!

As I sit here listening to the hum of saws and drills just outside my door, I hope that we are near the end. I know that this will be the last project I will undertake for a while. I lack the stamina required for these endeavors, even though I haven’t lifted a hammer or a screwdriver. In the meantime, it’s back to Google for the small jobs and I will pray that nothing else breaks, decays, or otherwise needs a fix, at least until I replenish my bank account and get the nerve to go a few more rounds in the boxing ring of home improvement.

TITLE 3.5” MINI BOXING GLOVES

 

Guilt and the Art of Blogging

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Poor Mami! Since I embarked on my full-on memoir writing journey, my beloved blog is my very neglected and under-loved extension of me and I feel guilty.  With its inception in December 2017, Mami has been my focus and creative outlet.  I have dedicated myself to creating and promoting new Mamis on a regular basis. Over fifty blog entries have been read in seventeen countries, with over 1800 visitors to the site. Mami is my passion and my “baby”, but if lack of blogging was a case for mandated reporting, I would have called DCF on myself!

Guilt is something I come by honestly. As a Catholic, I feel guilty about everything. Instilled in my home and parochial school education, I live on the straight and narrow (most of the time) because of guilt.  And I don’t always see it as a negative. Guilt holds me to a higher standard. Because of guilt, I make my bed, send greeting cards, and empty the dishwasher. It’s a master motivator when plain old responsibility doesn’t quite do its job.  Without guilt, I would be a lot less productive most days and watch a lot more “Family Affair” and “Petticoat Junction” reruns. Instead, I keep busy. Guilt wrecks all of my best attempts at being idle.

My mother was really good at guilt. Laying it on nice and thick, she guilted me into just about everything I accomplished in my early life. In the end, I appreciate it.  As for my own children, the products of a different generation, they are less thankful and blame my parental guilt trip on their collective long standing anxiety.  I guess that the plan: guilt->anxiety->accomplish something.  The key is to not get stuck at “anxiety” and as Nike said, “Just do it!”

So here I am at the keyboard on a Monday morning, concerned that I haven’t written a Mami in a few weeks, banging out a short essay on “guilt”. Once again, without guilt, I would be doing any number of other things, such as scrolling through Facebook, liking pictures on Instagram, and playing with my bitmoji’s fall outfit. Instead, I write. And from here, I have a goal to generate ten pages of memoir writing before sundown. Goals and guilt go hand in hand. I have both, most of the time.

So for now, I write a Mami on a half-assed topic to allay my guilt. Nevertheless, my writing machine and my brain are revved for today’s marathon so I guess my guilt paid off once again.  And barring any disaster and a “That Girl” marathon, it looks like today may just a be one of those guiltily productive days.  At the very least, I wrote a Mami and I call that a guilt-free success!

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Two Weddings and a Shopping Trip

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Isn’t it exciting when the thick envelope appears in the mail signaling an upcoming wedding? How about two?  Within a month, we are invited to two weddings, two weeks apart – one of the son of very dear friends and the other, our nephew. Both require travel and some advance planning. To that end and looking ahead, flights were booked, hotels were secured. Tim’s tuxedo is being altered at the tailor.  I am on top of the process. All the pieces are in place, leaving what I will wear the greatest challenge and frustration. A feeling of dread at the highest level seizes my psyche. Yet I must meet my fears head on. I must go shopping.

It sounds simple. Run to the mall, try on a few dresses, pick from/or a few dresses, purchase said dresses, and go home. If only. Months of sitting at my computer writing have done their work to alter my figure. I refer to it as a “shift” since, while the weight has remained steady, the measurements have not. I ventured into my closet to see what was already in the stable and, while there were many options, none quite fit the way they did originally. Panic set in. I considered my options and, since it was too late to become a fashion designer or sew a frock of my own creation, I graciously accepted my daughter’s offer to accompany me on the quest for a dress to hide, as my mother would say, “a multitude of sins”. With my nine year old granddaughter, Molly, in tow, we embarked last Friday evening on our adventure.

Our first stop was Lord and Taylor, a solid go-to for the dressy dress since they stock a range of designers and cater to evening wear. Amassing an armload of “not quite what I was looking for but there’s nothing else” dresses, I set off to the dressing room with Molly. First piece of advice- never take someone, who holds you in such high esteem that your flaws are non-existent, to try on dresses that you know won’t fit. Too big on top, too tight on the bottom, just plain horrid, yet every modeled mishap was met with “Oh, Mami, that’s so pretty!” “You look so nice, Mami!” Fortunately, her mother came along to set her straight. She’s a little more scathing with comments like “Oh my God, take that off!” “Never!” “Hideous!” The reality check now in place, I made the Mami executive decision to move on to the possibly greener pastures of Macy’s garden of formal wear. I had little hope since my ego was sufficiently mangled already. Undoubtedly, the dress for me was still on the drawing board, or not. 

I trawled through the racks, armed with the knowledge of what won’t work, gleaned from the L&T debacle.  I marveled at the plethora of stretchy fabrics fashioned into narrow, form fitting, glove-like designs but left those behind for those poor malnourished would-be party goers. With disgust, I wondered if the fashion designers got the memo that 41.1% of American women over the age of 20 are overweight. Going up a size (maybe two), I plucked a few possible options of the Calvin and Tommy varieties, with low expectations. Downtrodden and hopeless, I once again took to the dressing room for my visual dope slap.

Ten dresses later, I emerged with four possible options that were better than workable. Even Lisa thought that they looked good, but unfortunately used the word “underpinnings” one too many times, leaving me to believe that some form of restrictive, “shapewear” undergarment would take the look to the next level. That’s a problem for another day. The store was about to close and I had to make a decision.  Never one to not hedge my bets, I refused to leave any of these options behind and bought them all. Granted, two of the dresses are the same dress – different lengths, different colors – but I still had four viable dresses in hand. I declared victory! 

I walk past the dresses now, as they lay on the bed in the spare room, and avoid eye contact. I know at some point we will need to have a conversation, one that includes underpinnings and accessories. But for today, I revel in the knowledge that I have a strong case in the matter of “the dresses vs. Marie”. And a choice, or four! My new shifted body has never felt freer!

As I settle into the empowerment that this situation affords, I let my guard down and say “Bring on the dreaded underpinnings! Truss me up like a Thanksgiving turkey, if you must.”  And I think of Billy Crystal’s portrayal of ‘Fernando Lamas’, “It’s more important to look good than to feel good!” I must say, I live by this mantra on most days. In truth, I have come to learn that breathing is so overrated, at least in the cause of fashion.

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Writing Responsibly: The Surgical Art of Memoir

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For the past eight years, I have been working on a memoir chronicling the life of my family; actually, I started eight years ago, but put my feeble attempt to bed. I thought very little about the project for a while since, at the time, my father was still alive. As the major character in the quasi-tragedy, if not the hub of the story, I avoided telling the tale until he was no longer here to take offense or challenge my assertions. But even after his death five years ago, I honestly didn’t give much thought to going back to the task. Now, all these years later, I am deep into the first 20,000 words of a story that divulges details, excerpted,  crafted, and  cradled in a blanket of empathy, love, and understanding.

Writing a family memoir requires a deep sense of responsibility: a commitment to the truth as the writer saw it, attention to the history concurrent with the story, and a gentle touch.  While the story burns inside the writer, those about whom the tale is told are owed a degree of deference.  For me, the most amazing part of the experience is the unpacking of a lifetime of experiences, one detail begetting the next, unlocking memories long forgotten. I may be unusual in this aspect due to a monumental and admired ability to remember “everything”, a great aptitude for a memoirist to possess. Even with this trait, memoir is exhausting work, revealing not just the larger story but also unearthing clues to my own personality, my innate foibles, and their origins.  As one friend projected, “It must be very cathartic.” And my answer surprised even me. “It’s a story now”, was my unrehearsed answer; and, in truth, it is someone else’s story, with my own past woven into the account. In any case, I write because the story of “us” burgeons inside of me now, fully incubated and ready to break through its semi-transparent shell.

The proverbial baggage of being anyone’s child can leave behind a residue that gnaws at one’s psyche. In my adult life, I hear others lay claim to having had “great parents”, practically canonizing them for their aplomb at handling the task of parenthood. Or is it that they avoided critically assessing the standard of parenting they experienced?  Should it be enough that parents provided a roof over our heads, allowed us to make mistakes, or supported us unconditionally? Rather, the truth is that our parents can leave us grateful, bewildered, or incredulous.  When all is said and done, can we truly confine our memories to the good ones alone and still appreciate the plethora of life experiences found living within the complicated dynamic of a family?

While the detritus amassed in a lifetime gives birth to a story, the writing of memoir demands obligation to a few truths: to storytelling so as not to shame, to revealing the roots of behavior without indictment, and to unconditional love despite the pain.  I liken the responsibility to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians: Do No Harm. And like a surgeon, the writer comes dangerously close to nicking veins that potentially unleash the flow of emotions that have the potential to trigger resentment and anger.  In these cases, not unlike a surgeon, the memoirist must know just when the cut is close enough without causing a bloodletting, to tell the story to entertain but not destruct the integrity of each situation and character. In memoir, the writer as surgeon uses the pen like a scalpel, with attention to closing the wound with care so as to minimize the scars left behind.

Cautiously, I embark on this journey, owing to those who came before a respect and a responsibility to tell their stories accurately and fairly. While the events unfolded in real life, so many years ago, contempt, anger, befuddlement, and incredulity may have been some of the emotions experienced.  Now they are replaced with a measure of understanding and a great love. It is the catalyst that pushes the pen point across the page with a velvet touch as the emotional history unfolds in my mind, cushioned in a reality of arriving unscathed at other end of my own life, in spite of it all.

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Being Italian in Boston: The Feast of St. Anthony and my DNA

 

Every year, as the Boston summer begins, the tradition of “The Feasts” reestablishes itself with the stringing of red, green and gold lights from tenement to tenement across city streets in the Italian enclave of the North End.  Central to Italian American culture in the Boston area, the “feast” offers an unrivaled experience and a genuine ethnic immersion, as the throngs wind down narrow streets that have been shut off from traffic to accommodate the processions.  On a platform hoisted high in the air by its handlers, the statue of the “Saint of the Week” is paraded through the lanes, accompanied by the “Roma Band” (probably not the real name but that’s what we always called it) and a crowd of “bodyguards”, followed by a group of the faithful.  The statue, draped in dollar bills (and a few other denominations) that are pinned along the way to attached ribbons by those observing from the sidelines, is the main attraction of the entire affair.  It is a sight like no other, a display of “real Italian-American” culture, and a part of the rich tradition of the Boston Italian community.

As a teenager, I remember going to my friend Gail’s grandmother’s house on Snow Hill Street, on the high ground near the Copp’s Hill, where we would assemble prior to being released to the mayhem.  Once on the streets, carts selling arancini (by the way, none of my Italian friends remember those being made in our families), fried dough, pizza, sausages and peppers, and all sorts of quasi Italian fare lined the narrow lanes, with aromas  so unforgettable that I can smell them as I type. Nearly fifty years later, I draw easily upon the memories of those experiences, mostly because they haven’t changed one bit since that time, as I can testify from my recent visit to “the Feast”.

This weekend, my entourage of three including my Irish husband, Tim, and my Italian friend, Rick, ventured into the North End to experience the “100th Anniversary of the Feast of St. Anthony”.  Rick, a Wellesley native, had never been to the “Feast” and his prior impression in his own words was that it was “the closest you will ever get to human sacrifice in these parts.”  Oddly, his Italian family jumped the line and went straight to the suburbs, never hailing from the North End like the rest of my friends’ families. In the early part of the 20th century, the progression of the newly landed Italian immigrants dictated the move from the West End, to the North End, to the suburbs, usually north of Boston, and most of my friends could claim this history. Without this inborn connection, the North End, while culturally interesting, lacked the same natural familiarity to Rick that those of us with these roots share.  In any case, he was intrigued and determined to pin a dollar bill on the Saint, bringing a lifelong dream to fruition.

Perhaps Rick’s impressions of the potential for “human sacrifice” were confirmed as soon as we walked into the North End neighborhood. It was mass, directionless confusion, which reminded me immediately that some of the traditions of the feast might be considered an acquired taste to the unschooled.  If the Tony Manero- John Travolta style of Italian is not your cup of Limoncello, the feast season is not for you.  While the familiar scent of sausage and peppers filled the air, the long, winding lines awaiting the delicacy made for tough navigation through the crowd. Tables and portable awnings, where family and friends gathered, were set up in the streets just steps from the front doors of the three deckers, owned in some cases for over one hundred years by the same family.  Down the street, we spied the main stage, the site of performances that included accordion players and other musicians, accompanying singers belting out Louis Prima and Andrea Bocelli songs. Once we finally made our way to the venue, the performers did not disappoint as they engaged the audience in banter punctuated with thick Boston accents of the “fugetabout it” variety. Tans, muscles, black v-neck t-shirts, gold chains (so many gold chains), and Louis Vuitton satchels abounded, making for an interesting attraction and a confirmation of stereotypes that really don’t seem to bother the “real” Italians. It is all part of the allure of the North End and its original inhabitants.

Just around the corner from the stage, we found the evening’s resting place of the statue of St. Anthony, housed in a makeshift grotto of fabric and gold trim, with its loot proudly on display.  As Rick mounted the stairs to the statue, a woman handed him a tiny pin to use to apply the dollar bill to the collection. I wildly snapped photos with my cell phone and my real camera, determined to memorialize this moment. Somehow, this rite of passage was necessary and important for Rick, even if he was from Wellesley.

In terms of my own North End history, my father was born on Cooper Street, on the kitchen table, as the story was told. These facts legitimize my own connection to the neighborhood and my native Boston Italianness. As a child, my father often walked me by the door of 11 Cooper, sharing tales of his faded remembrance of his time there. Since his family relocated to Medford when he was only 5, the story was a short one but nonetheless provided a belonging to the place.  Today, whenever I am in the North End with my family, I make a point of leading the tour to the doorstep of #11, sharing this history with my children and grandchildren. In addition, I include a visit to St. Leonard’s Church where my father was christened.  It’s important that they understand their birthright to this neighborhood and the experience of being Italian-American.

This year, since it was the 100th anniversary, a special attraction was added to the celebration.  St. Leonard’s hosted relics from St. Anthony himself.  As Catholics and Italians, this was a big deal and we were determined to set our gaze on these holy objects. In true Catholic form, the relics were of a gory nature; yet, we were spellbound. Skin from the cheek of the Saint, in addition to his “floating rib”, was held in suspended animation, ensconced in gold, and prominently placed near the altar at the front of the church. The exhibit added to our evening’s adventure and, in an odd way, confirmed our Catholicness since we were not grossed out totally by the nature of the display.

The Feast of St. Anthony, the last feast of the summer, holds additional significance for me and my progeny. My parents often spoke of the feast in 1955, which was the scene of the first meeting of my mother and father. Despite being in other relationships at the time, my mother clearly made an impression on my father who wasted no time in contacting her once they each had broken up with their respective love interests (who just happened to be brother and sister).  They dated, married, and the rest is history – I’m here, as are the next two generations behind them, making the Feast of St. Anthony a legendary and formative event in our family’s story.

While the celebration of “the Feasts” marks time and upholds tradition, for me, there is an inherent value in remembering and connecting with my roots through the experience. As generations are born and our elders pass away, we move farther away from those who came before us and the history that molded them and their personal stories. Honoring the past and appreciating the richness of the culture and customs that are part of our history and our faith ensure that their memories live on. And I am surprised that I feel a deep “pride” that this experience is in my DNA. But as I walk the streets of the North End, I am a part of the pavement, the bricks, and the celebration of what it means to be a “real Italian-American” Bostonian.

 

 

 

My Life in Three Acts: A Love Story

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Last evening, as we walked into the decrepit, magnificent building on Boylston Street, I was nervous but less so because I held his hand as we mounted the elevator to the fifth floor. As the door opened into the space, we entered the offices and classrooms of GrubStreet. I handed the envelope containing my acceptance letter to the young man signing us into the Open House. We grabbed our crackers, cheese, fruit, and wine, and eagerly sought a corner where we could be invisible as we observed the attendees. Once we settled into the room where the showcase of talent was planned, I finally breathed, less anxious and more eager to see just what I had gotten myself into.

When I left my final job in education last February, I had no idea what was next for me and my hard fought career. Multiple degrees in my field dictated what I was meant to do, yet I was adrift and bereft. When I started my own company, I believed that the “next thing” was taking shape and that I was tapping into my learned skills. Spending my days at the library, church, but mostly, home, cowering from reality, I hammered out a plan, creating flyers, business cards, promotional materials, and took out ads promoting my college counseling business. I was a school counselor by trade, after all. It was easy and safe, and I wrongly believed that it was one of those “if you build it, they will come” sort of things. In the meantime, I sought other entertainment and diversions from wallowing.

During one of my library visits, I picked up the monthly newsletter where an eight week Memoir class was advertised. It was being taught by a local author, who was an instructor in a local college, as well. I was intrigued since I had been writing Mami for about fifteen months at that point, and my blog was a forum where I had toyed with memoir, peppered with personal essay and opinion, and sometimes, just plain old ranting. With my psyche still scattered and battered, I signed up for this “next, next thing”, seeking an outlet and maybe some professional feedback for my writing.  In the end, what I got was so much more.

In the class, we read other memoirists’ pieces, dissected their styles, and shared our own work. Since I have never studied writing as an academic subject, I was a bit lost as my classmates, all older women who were semi or fully retired, batted around terminology like ‘style’, ‘arc’, and ‘voice’. Unbeknownst to me, I was a novice in this world of would-be writers.  Some members of my cohort had taken more than a few courses at some place called “Grub Street”, where the library course instructor taught in addition to his college level work. I made a mental note to research this place since I had no idea what it was. I didn’t expect this level of instruction, feedback, or support in a free 8-week library seminar but here I was, immersed in a culture that more than piqued my interest and forced me to write in a more prescribed way.  In the past, I just wrote, without a roadmap or an eye to the “practice” of writing.  This way of thinking and writing was different and, I admit, a bit challenging!

Each week, I would bring a writing piece, or two, generated by a prompt supplied by my instructor. Confident in my raw ability as I writer, I was always ready to share and get meaningful feedback but it seldom came. After I  read my contribution to the class, my classmates would commend me for my talent and my instructor would tell me that I had mastered “voice”, which I guess takes a long time (who knew?). I had good arc and a style peculiar to me. I was chuffed to say the least, fueling my interest in pursuing something of a larger scope than my beloved Mami blog.

By the time the class ended in May, my group had gelled into a supportive writing community, now based in friendship, with a connectedness rooted in our sharing of deep thoughts, ideas, and our histories in memoir form. Sad to see it end, we committed to continuing our group, meeting weekly at the same time as our class was held in the spring. For the past few months, we have worked around summer vacations while rotating our meetings at each other’s homes and local coffee shops. The outcome is more than I ever expected from a free, two hour a week, library class meant to keep me occupied and less self-pitying.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I did my GrubStreet research, learning that it is a cutting-edge “think tank” dedicated to breeding, cultivating, and connecting writers with like-minded instructors, editors, and publishers. As I perused the course offerings, my interest gravitated to the memoir cluster of master classes, generators, and incubators. Still not totally sure where my talents fell, I decided upon the Memoir Generator, a competitive program capped at 14, where I would be guided through the completion of a full, book-length, draft of a memoir. As part of the application packet, I needed to enumerate the classes that I previously had taken (my free library class?), share information about my published work (my CAGS thesis at Salem State, I guess, and oh yes, Mami!), and secure a recommendation from someone who knew my writing ability (who else but my instructor of eight weeks, since he taught at Grub). Most importantly, I needed to submit an excerpt from “my memoir” (oh, that’s rich) – I didn’t have one. I had started work on a memoir eight years ago and, since my father was still alive at the time, I abandoned the project in deference to him because my recollection did not paint him or his antics in a positive light. Now an orphan, I applied myself to the task and within days, I had pumped out thirty pages of gory, bizarre, and salacious details of my history that even intrigued me! Only needing ten written memoir pages for my application packet, I proceeded to amass the other required elements and made the deadline, despite lacking anything resembling a memoir just a week before.

When the notification arrived that I had been accepted to the Memoir Generator, my uncertain future instantly took direction. The next day, I walked into the Teachers’ Retirement Board and finalized my departure from the field of education.  I had other things to do now and mourning my career was not one of them.  The retirement counselor assured me that I was doing the right thing, summarizing my three acts: I had been fortunate to stay home with my children, I had a great career, and now I had a pension. His words solidified my resolve and lifted the final edge of the curtain on my “Third Act”.

Last night, my husband held my hand as we ducked into the elevator leading to my “Third Act” and I thought back on all of the times he held my hand throughout my life. As a full partner in child rearing, he supported the idea of a “stay at home” mom while our children were young.  While it was never easy, especially financially, our grip as we walked the path of parenthood never weakened. When I proposed a graduate degree (twice), he never flinched at the responsibility that would fall to him in my absence or the financial burden on our family. His unwavering support was invisible yet palpable, and his pride in my accomplishments spurred me on. Last night, as we listened to the talented writers showcase their work, once again I felt his hand hold tight and then release its grip, allowing me once again to explore the “next thing.” He knew that this is where I need to be in my next adventure.  While the warmth of his hand in mine provides an incubator for my dreams, it is in the letting go that I have realized my life’s goals, always knowing that when I need it, his hand is a far away as my fingertips and heart.

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When the Past Meets the Present: A Canadian Vacation Reunion

In the past, when Tim and I planned our usual summer vacations, we practically closed our eyes and let our collective, unguided finger decide our destination on a map of Europe. For some reason, Europe was the place to be. We tended towards Ireland, the British Isles and France, but ventured to Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy, as well. Last year, due to uncertainty around work commitments, we stayed in the U.S. and it felt strange, like we were missing out on something. However, our summer trip took us to Austin to visit our son and then on the Lake Charles and New Orleans so it was not a total disappointment. We saw ‘merica and it was intriguing to say the least.  

This summer, we chose to stay on the continent, but our destination was not in the United States. When our friend, Bernie, proposed visiting Prince Edward Island for a joint getaway, we were intrigued. Canada, while just a short ride away, was never on our vacation docket. And aside from dinners out, concerts, and just hanging out, we had never traveled with Bernie and Deb. This adventure could get very interesting.

I had known Bernie from my childhood as a grammar school classmate and a shy, quiet, freckle-faced little boy and, although we had lost contact over the years, we reconnected a few years back through our mutual friend, Janine. Janine attended our local Catholic school, Saint Raphael, for only a year during our seventh grade but she made an impression. This tiny blond girl from Prince Edward Island, an unfamiliar place a million miles away to the twelve year old me, had a quirkiness and impishness that we attributed to her being Canadian. Janine was a novelty, speaking with a funny accent that was punctuated with a few well placed “Ehs?” Our class adopted her as a sort of a “pet” since she was so different and she had a natural magnetism that helped her to connect with everyone. When she left us in June of that school year, we were sad to see her go and Janine and I pledged to stay in touch. Over the years, we wrote frequently, visited only once when she came back to Boston a few years later, and eventually found our way to Facebook. With technology, our written correspondence evolved into to a mere annual Christmas card with a quick signature. It was sad in a way that our our extensive letters detailing our lives of boyfriend stories and house moves, marriage, and babies, were reduced to a quick post or a few emojis as we plodded through our grown-up lives in our respective countries. 

In the end, it was Facebook through which I reconnected with Bernie. In our Facebook posts, Janine and I could see each other’s “friends” and the ranks of our mutual connections grew through our continued friendship. “Is that THE Joe Smith?” (insert any number of names) became a common question between us and usually it was a “Joe” in common. Hence, when Bernie’s name popped up on a comment, I sought clarification – “Is that THE Bernie?” – and it was. Despite the fact that Bernie lived only a few miles away, we had not spoken since 1978. Once our friendship was reestablished,  Bernie and I conspired to find a plan for our spouses to meet, hoping that we could cultivate friendships between us all. Over the past few years, Bernie and Deb, and Tim and I, successfully have become frequent ‘double daters’, sharing history and filling in the spaces between teenage and old age.

However, the connection between Bernie and Janine was deeper than just a Facebook “friend”-ship.  Janine had been Bernie’s neighbor during her time in the U.S., enhancing their familiarity. In addition,  Prince Edward Island was a family vacation destination both in Bernie’s childhood and as the scene of Deb and Bernie’s honeymoon. When he proposed the joint vacation for our foursome, he thought that using his faint memory as our map and tour guide would be sufficient to show us all a good time.  Always up for a road trip and an adventure, and in Tim’s case, the additional attraction of having a built-in vacation golf buddy, we accepted the challenge and the planning began in earnest. 

As an additional contribution to the plan, Bernie endeavored to find a time that would coordinate with Janine’s annual trek back home to PEI from Ontario. The prospect of seeing Janine almost fifty years we after we first met was amazing to me. For Tim, he felt like he already knew Janine since I always shared her letters and Christmas cards; in turn, he had also been added to the ranks of Janine’s Facebook “friends”. Tim was intrigued by the prospect of meeting this “mystery woman” almost as much as the prospect of a round of golf or two on a storied PEI golf course. 

A little over a week ago, Tim and I embarked on our first visit to Canada in almost forty years with our travel companions, Bernie and Debbie. Once on PEI, we applied ourselves to the task of hammering out the details of our reunion. When the moment finally arrived that Janine and I shared an embrace long overdue, it was hard to believe that a friendship, cultivated and nurtured via the mail and internet, had endured for so many years. During lunch, the conversation flowed, with very few lulls and ebbs. We shared a common history in writing and in life that made friends out of strangers. The reunion was more than any of us expected: a gathering of old friends in a new and very beautiful setting.  

During the week, Janine and I, and our companions, met a few more times for dinners out, for ice cream, and at our cottage on the strait. Stories filled in the holes found in the history shared only in truncated letter and electronic form. Our spouses and significant others sat back and listened, and perhaps dozed, as we recounted tall tales and exploits of our youth and young adulthood. When names from our grammar school were mentioned, Janine remembered the who’s and what’s while Bernie, who attended our school for a few more years than one, didn’t. I feigned outrage at Bernie’s memory gaps, which in turn became a source of entertainment. It was a new kind of fun that I never imagined; without this opportunity, I would have missed something that I didn’t know I needed or wanted, and I am complete in a new way with another box ticked on my ever growing (and depleting) bucket list.

A lifetime ago, I met a spirited, little, blond-haired girl from a far away island.  Never did I think back then that we would still be friends as “almost old” people. Now home, my visit to another country, just a short distance and a world away,  is a mental souvenir enhanced by a reunion that restored memories and created new ones. I am grateful for the years of dedicated communication between Janine and me that provided the foundation for this gathering. It required commitment on both sides and, if one of us had not maintained our resolve to stay connected, Janine would be just a memory from long ago instead of a part of my today, as well.

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The Stuff of Fairy Tales

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(Today is the thirty-eighth anniversary of the marriage of Charles and Diana. I wrote this piece a few months ago for my memoir writing group.  I thought that it was an appropriate tribute to this event.)

When I prepared to be married in 1980, at the age of 21, I dreaded the chore of planning the event, devising the guest list, picking bridesmaids’ dresses, and surviving the day, in general. With a goal of an understated affair, there was little joy in the process. Since our union was not blessed fully by our families, we possessed a combined resolve to “show them” and despite the objections, both verbal and tacit, we professed our vows. It was a day to endure rather than enjoy.  And amazingly, thirty-nine years later, we have endured, to everyone’s surprise.

Just a few short months after our own wedding, the excitement of a Royal Wedding seized the attention of the media and the world, making me feel a bit gypped!  How I had missed the boat, sacrificing my own happiness at the hand of the naysayers?  I somewhat had been robbed of the joy by my own circumstances.  In response, I threw myself fully into the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. She, like me, was quite young, making her a comrade in life inexperience.  I pitied Diana, so shy and reserved, as she assumed a position that thrust her and her life in a spotlight with a lens set on zoom. In the days before her wedding, she dodged cameras and paparazzi while making her way to and from her work in a preschool. The simple act of getting into her car caused mass hysteria. I watched rabidly anytime she appeared on my television screen. I purchased every People magazine with a cover picturing her or alluding to an article about her. I was obsessed, along with the rest of the world, all the while mourning my own loss.

The day of Charles and Diana’s July wedding was a work day for commoners like me.  While getting dressed for the day, I interrupted my routine as I scanned channels, assessing the quality of the news coverage and turning the dial of the mammoth Motorola T.V. set until I was satisfied with the camera angles and narration. Setting my VCR to “Record”, I left for work at the last possible moment, trying to not miss a moment of the simulcast festival of pageantry and fanfare.

That evening, my friend, Csilla, and I planned an evening dedicated to viewing all that my recorder had captured. Sitting on the floor in front of the screen, we watched eagerly as the carriage, reminiscent of the one that converted from a pumpkin to a coach for Cinderella, emerged from the palace with a glowing bride and her dad inside, off on a fateful journey to meet her Prince. As the gold and black orb made its way through the streets of London, the throngs along the route cheered. Once at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the ornate door of the carriage opened and the bride emerged, enveloped in a mass of layers and lengths of silk taffeta, which ballooned into a glorious cloud of fabric that seemingly lifted her up the stairs and into the church.  There were ruffles! So many ruffles! It was the world’s first glimpse of ‘the dress’. On first glance, I noticed that it looked a bit rumpled, perhaps indicating a poor choice of fabric, but that was where my critique ended. I was spellbound and more than a bit envious.

Once inside, the coy ‘Princess in Waiting’ portrayed a palpable timidity, teetering between being nervous and poised all at the same time. At the appointed hour, Diana floated down the aisle, with her procession of bridesmaids and pageboys and her trailing veil, transported on a puff of ivory to her Prince, who waited expectantly, bedecked in his military uniform.  I took in an excited breath, anxious and eager for the melding of these two hearts and for the possibilities of the royal life ahead for this young couple.

The ceremony was enchanting, with ethereal angelic singing and selections of instrumental classical songs written by British composers. As they spoke their vows, Diana stumbled over hers, transposing Charles’ many names, to the delight and amusement of the news correspondents from across the globe and the viewers at home, including me and my friend. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his sermon, noted that this “was the stuff of which fairy tales are made”.  An ocean and a fantasy away, the image on my television was magical and spellbinding.   For Diana, in her speaking her vows, she unknowingly solidified the prospect of a future life of scrutiny and the end of her privacy forever.  For me, this glorious day gave birth to my life-long obsession with all things Royal.

Years later, armed with the knowledge of “the end of the story”, I fondly remember the very royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana with melancholy. Very common issues marred the fairy tale ending that I expected for them in my fantasy.  In the years after the excitement of the storied nuptials, Diana and I shared many life milestones. We had babies together and raised them in tandem. We wore similar hairstyles and loved designer clothing.  We shared a connection, while one sided, that was the commonality in being a wife, a mother, and a woman. Yet, my memories are tainted with sadness now that the story is done: a troubled marriage and the loss of Diana at an early age. I accept that child rearing, hairstyles, and a great wardrobe were where our connection ceased. In the end, my far less royal, understated wedding and somewhat uneventful, enduring marriage is the ‘true stuff’ of ordinary, common, and enchanting fairy tales.

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Losing My Mind: A Weighty Conundrum

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When I got on the scale today, I had gained weight.  Since yesterday, that is.  I wasn’t shocked.  It was a number I had seen before in my collective two hundred pound lifetime weight loss. That’s not to say I was two hundred pounds overweight at any time – I just lost the same twenty-five pounds, repeatedly, for the past twenty-eight years.  My choices of vehicles to lose the girth ran the gamut of trends and organized movements that not only helped me to lose weight (maybe) but also made my wallet a bit lighter, too.  Meetings, books, online programs, and websites, all promoting the keys to being svelte, wonderfully thin and, less importantly for me, healthy, have taken up more of my time than I like to admit. Yet, I repeatedly continue to seek the cure for my compulsive need to eat, not eat, get skinny, and get fat.

I am proud to say I am a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, for what that’s worth. In truth, it’s worth the price of not paying for meetings, if you stay within a few pounds from your goal weight.  Given my stature, five feet if I stand up really tall, my goal weight from my very first attempt in 1991 was so low that, when reached, I could not put a morsel of food between my lips, let alone swallow.  I maintained this starvation mode for the better part of six months, until I needed to eat really badly.  Before I knew it, I had not only revisited the weight that brought me to WW initially, I surpassed it. I think back on the number, forty pounds from where I am now, and I chuckle. At the time, and at the age of 32, I was mortified. How could I have let myself go?  I was sure that people snickered and sneered that I had really packed it on.  Things got out of control when I fully committed to eating again. I crawled back to “the program” once I was twenty-two pounds over the restrictive, non-eating original goal set by the Weight Watchers program and eight pounds over my initial WW weigh in.  Willpower was not my strong suit, apparently.

My less than triumphant return to WW was repeated nearly every summer, and never again did I enjoy the benefit of meetings without a fee.  While on my ride of my pendulum swings and ups and downs, I saw the value in Weight Watchers but I just couldn’t sustain it. In the meantime, I tried no-carb, low-carb, high protein, fasting, and any other premise-of-the-month.  Some really worked: the South Beach Diet, for example, netted a fifteen pound loss in just two weeks. As long as I stayed away from carbs, I enjoyed a flat belly and suffered from constipation.  Then I had bread…and beer…and anything else not on the plan, and the numbers on the scale skyrocketed, once again.

A few years ago, I started Weight Watchers for the millionth time (ok, that’s an exaggeration), but this time I did it in earnest (again).  My husband, who also needed to drop thirty pounds, joined me. As his weight melted away with a few minor lifestyle changes, my numbers stagnated.  I would lose a few, gain some back, lose a few more, and gain some more back. The trajectory was downward but never as profound as his result. He was smug about his success, adding to my angst.  Yet, I minimally persisted.

As I sat in the meetings, I dissected the atmosphere and the business model. The room was filled with women, and a few men, all telling the same story that I lived. Yet, they returned, as had I, and I was more than intrigued so I invested in the company.

At the time, in late 2016, the stock was reasonably priced, trading in the low teens.  When I invest, I like to have an idea of the marketplace and the product and, clearly, there was value.  The company successfully reinvented itself repeatedly over the years, with ever adjusting “points” values and revamps to the program that seemed to appeal to the constituents.  My hunch was correct and my stock rose quickly, unlike my opposing minimal weight loss.  Broker friends called it the “Oprah” effect and my portfolio benefited with a healthy infusion of cash. Unlike Oprah, I was less successful on the weight loss front.  And not so curiously, as soon as I backed off from the program, my weight increased: concurrently, the stock price plummeted. Fortunately, I got out before I lost all of my profit but it was an interesting ride.  Update: The stock is still rock bottom and I am still overweight.

My revolving door at Weight Watchers continued until a few short months ago. The weight packs on, I go to the meetings, I change my evil ways, I lose, I eat normally again, and I gain. It’s the life cycle of my fat.  This time, I’ve come to embrace it. Maybe I was meant to be minimally overweight and happy.  If that’s the case, I’m good with it. Svelte is less important at my age since shallow is unbecoming in an older woman.  That’s my convenient theory.  At the very least, I am going on that premise for now while I enjoy my carbs – and if necessary, buy bigger clothes.

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Simpler times, simpler pleasures

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A few weeks ago, I spent a lovely weekend visiting friends in a beautiful area of Maine that’s a bit more down south that Downeast. Purchased just five years ago, the house in which Tim and I stay has become Dave and Gail’s hobby, passion, and occasional bane. A beautiful antique center entrance colonial built in 1834, the house is expansive with an extension that houses a kitchen and a spare multipurpose room (or as I call it, “my room”), and another further offshoot that is an embellished “barn” (the word ‘barn’ doesn’t do this structure justice). It is the epitome of New England living in a simpler time, with a modern tweak.   From an open window, the rushing sounds of the Sheepscot River, just across the road, soothe the soul of the weary city dweller.  For entertainment, we watch the colorful birds clustering at the multiple feeders outside of the kitchen window, an arrangement that Gail calls “Bird TV”.  Needless to say, we seize the opportunity to partake of the peace every time an invitation is extended.

As an added attraction, our visits north always include a ride on the Waterville, Wiscasset, and Farmington Railway, a living museum, and reconstructed railroad system assuming the pathways of a defunct means of transportation that was a lifeline to the area over one hundred years ago.  The trains we ride are originals, unearthed in storage throughout the country, or from donors who collect the vintage railcars and early steam engines. As the train rumbles through the woods and countryside, volunteers who are dedicated to the endeavor of restoring and retelling the history of the WW&F regale the passengers with stories that craft a portrait of a time long gone, but it all becomes so real in the telling of the tale.  At times, I find myself compelled to put my hand through their seemingly corporal bodies, but I resist. I know that these men are of this time; yet, their passion for this place and its history paint them ghost-like as if channeling specters of another era.

As I became lost in the bliss of days gone by, stark reality shook me from my reverie into 2019 consciousness.  After a dinner out in nearby Damariscotta, we embarked on the ride back to Head Tide, a good distance by city standards. An urgent alert on the screen of Tim’s BMW replaced the Sirius XM display and intruded on the streetlight-less ride.  The vehicle now in distress was my 60th birthday gift to my husband and the epitome of modern, complicated living.  Heated steering wheel, the ability to park itself, and the miracle of run-flat tires all promised a driving experience that was unsurpassed with its state of the art technology.  Now demanding attention,  one of the storied “run-flat” tires rapidly lost viability as air escaped into the night from its thirty-two pounds per square inch chamber.  Unspoken panic ensued as we watched the PSI numbers drop (picture Walmart’s falling prices).  Within minutes,  nerves won out over the chatter and the car fell silent.  Once back in the driveway at the house, we plucked the never-read manuals from the glove compartment and set about the business of seeking roadside assistance.

When I purchased the car, my salesman sang the praises of BMW and its customer care. With a promise of 24/7 coverage, he advised me to cancel AAA, since BMW would now be my safety net. In the heat of my emergency, I soon discovered that safety net had a big hole in the form of no roadside service on a Saturday night, or for that matter, Sunday.  The advice of the person at BMW: “Can you extend your trip until Monday and we can help you then?” Her non-answer, the equivalent of “Gee, that’s tough”, frustrated me and I told her as much.  After a fitful night of sleep, we arose the next morning, not quite ready for what the day would bring.

The Sunday morning weather could not have been nicer as I hoisted myself into the cab of the flatbed tow truck for the sixty-five mile trek to Saco, where AAA, my hole-free safety net that I, fortunately, had not canceled, had secured replacement tires. The tire on the Beemer was beyond repair with a massive gash in the sidewall. Since we didn’t have a spare (you don’t need those little details when you have these wonders of automotive advancement), there was no choice but an hour and a half in a flat-bed. The driver was a skilled storyteller, sharing tales of the road, the military, and life on the farm. His pleasantries made for a nice enough journey and the cab of the truck was moderately clean and comfortable, despite the broken seat belt fixture that impaled me for the entirety of the ride as well as leaving me unsecured. In any case, we were making progress, or at least, heading south, in the direction of home, with the little X1 in the rearview, secured and ready for its rubbery infusion.

Ah, but as for the tires? When you are greeted by the salesman at the destination with “Sorry, we don’t have run-flat tires here. They are too expensive to keep in stock. Can you stay in the area until tomorrow?”, your only option fizzles and you get a little crazy.  In a few short hours, we had heard a mantra repeated by every expert to whom we had spoken: “Run-flat tires – they’re great in theory.”  This theory, clearly tested, inspired a cleanse of the entire complement of run-flat tires on the car, resulting in four new high-performance tires of the less fancy variety.  At that point, we had run out of options. The cost for all four was comparable to the purchase of two run-flats and now we were outfitted with brand new, safe, and less complicated tires.  At the time, it seemed a little reactionary and extreme, but my instincts were correct and confirmed by my BMW dealer, to whom I ranted on Monday. He knew the mantra, too – “Run-flat tires are great in theory.”

All the while, I could see in my mind’s eye, my father, shaking his head, reminding me that what is sold to us as conveniences occasionally backfire.  At the same time, I remember that he also never owned a car with electric windows (what if you went into the water and the car shut off?), air conditioning (I just open the windows), or a credit card (I use cash).  In any case, I get his point. Sometimes, simpler is better, if not the best way to go.  When I brought the Beemer for service on this past Thursday, the litany of recalls and upgrades to the computer system made my head spin and required a day long commitment to the remedy.  I recounted the story of the now defunct run-flat tires to the service coordinator and the mantra rolled off his tongue – “Run-flat tires are great in theory.”  I hate that my father might have been right but I relent to his posthumous guilt trip.  Simple things, like riding the rails of the WW&F or crank windows, really appeal to me at the moment.

Today is another beautiful Sunday but this time I am sitting in my house, cowering from the heat outside, in air-conditioned comfort.  Now that’s a convenience that I refuse to relinquish.  The rest I can do without, or so I say at the moment. Nevertheless, I do wonder how the Beemer parks itself, but that’s a project for another day.

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Coming to America:  My Grandfather’s Gift

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Once upon a time, there was a young man, timid and frightened, who boarded a ship bound for America. With a promise of a place to live, as confirmed by a Western Union telegram, and a few dollars in his pocket, he embarked on a journey that forever would change him, his life path, and his family back in the Old Country. At that time in Italy, Mussolini was in control and his regime actively drafted young men for service in the Facist army.  Knowing that he could not stay since his fear of war was greater than his fear of the unknown, he took a chance.  And so begins the story of Frank Conte, my grandfather, my hero, and an immigrant American.

While I could tell virtually the same story for three out of the four of my grandparents, Frank’s story is the most profound. A genteel man of exquisite taste and a love of culture, Frank’s appreciation for America and the life he found here fueled his determination to survive. Born in 1902 in Cisternino, Brindisi, near Bari in Italy, Frank was one of eleven children. He was the oldest, and the first, and one of the few to leave. In turn, his emigration cast a pall on the family, with my grandfather deemed a defector since he was a conscientious objector. It wasn’t that he was a coward; he just couldn’t embrace Facism and its constraints, or the rule of Mussolini, or the thought of being a soldier. In leaving, he knew that he may never see his home again, or his mother, whom he loved dearly.  Yet, he persisted.

Once he arrived in the United States, Frank applied himself to the business of “being American”.  He was a keen observer of the American way of life and assimilation was a vocation for him.  He met and married my grandmother, a woman of means and Italian descent, already established since her family had come to America in the late 19th century. My great-grandfather was a tailor and a shrewd business man, working his trade and buying up numerous properties on Chelsea Street and other places in East Boston.  My grandmother was “gifted” a house on Eutaw Street by her father upon their marriage, a gift that my grandfather was determined to repay. To do so, he worked at all sorts of low level jobs.  When he became a father in 1928, he seized the opportunity as a way to be as American as possible.  Studying an American baby name book, he searched for as un-ethnic a name as he could find for his baby. For a boy, he decided on the name “Arnold”; but if the baby was a girl, she would be called “Ethel”, after Ethel Barrymore, the silent film actress. Neither name quite particularly desirable, “Ethel” became Mary and Frank’s only child. Later on, my mother, by her own admission, was grateful for her gender, despite the still-awkward moniker.  In essence, she saw the name “Ethel” as the lesser of two evils.

After the Great Depression, the year after Ethel was born, things became dire and my grandfather gratefully took any jobs he could find. He swept streets for the WPA and accepted the free food offered by the government, even though it bothered him greatly.  In time, he found work in a casket factory, where he learned the skill of furniture finishing. Terrified of the idea of death, caskets freaked him out, but never more so than the day that someone closed the lid of the casket in which he was working.  My grandfather was always an anxious person and this event was truly formative.  He never returned to that job after that day. Fortunately, the war effort was burgeoning and Frank soon found work in the Charlestown Navy Yard, as many patriotic Bostonians did. It was noble work, and it paid well.  And Frank never felt more American.

I always thought that my grandfather’s anxiety sprung from being psychic. He just knew too much.  For example, when his mother died in Italy, he knew long before the arrival of the telegram. My grandmother found him one day, standing by their third floor bedroom window in the middle of the night gazing out on the quiet street. Concerned, she approached him and asked what he was doing. He replied, “I am watching my mother’s funeral going by.” Within days, confirmation of his mother’s passing arrived in the form of a telegram.  While I think that his other worldly ability was a blessing, he was terrified of what he knew, without even knowing.

Deeply religious, my grandfather had a sense of the mystical. His Catholic faith, combined with his underlying psychic abilities, made for an interesting combination. Every May and June, he created altars in his home, out of reverence to the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart, respectively.  He created an oasis in the city in his back yard with the installation of statuary recreating the events and participants of the visitation in Fatima, all colorfully painted and strategically illuminated. It was actually quite beautiful, with abundant roses, snowball bushes, bleeding heart vines, and a trellis covered in ivy, under which a cushioned swing was housed. A fountain with a young boy, created by him, where the water spewed from an unmentionable place, made for a humorous addition to all the sanctity.

Returning the favor bestowed upon him, Frank assisted my great uncle, Dario, in attaining a sliver of the slice of the American Dream that he had attained.  Dario, who was highly educated with a ‘Doctorate in Engineering’ from the University of Pisa, came to live in the spare room between the second and third floors of the tenement, created by closing off an extra room in the second floor apartment.  He found work in Boston at Stone and Webster, a prestigious engineering firm. Born after Frank came to the United States, Dario became the son that my grandfather never had.  Frank was happy for the connection to his home that Dario provided and, even though his life in America was all he could have hoped for, he never stopped longing for his family and his beloved Cisternino.  I guess that’s just the life of the immigrant.

After the war, Frank found a job at Rapid’s Furniture, a preeminent establishment in Boston’s West End. The company’s furniture factory, located in Charlestown near City Square, was a cement fortress with high windows and little ventilation.  It was there that Frank became sick and was forced to retire.  Years later, this building was the scene of a horrific conflagration where fire fighters died due to the poor construction.  Ultimately, it killed my grandfather as well.

It was during his years at Rapid’s that I was born. I was the pinnacle of joy for my grandfather and he couldn’t get enough of me. A collection of photographs remain as testimony to his doting on me, fussing and cuddling his precious and only grandchild.  I can still remember him squeezing me as if to meld our lives and energies permanently. When I find myself over-kissing or hugging my own grandchildren, I sense a channeling of Grandpa. At least, he always comes to mind, making the connection between us strong despite his passing almost fifty years ago.

Frank eventually went back to Italy in the late 1950’s and again in 1966. In the latter trip, he took my grandmother “home”. It would be the last time. A few years later, Frank became desperately ill with liver damage as a byproduct of his years inhaling denatured alcohol as a furniture finisher in an unventilated shop.

On the day he died, I remember feeling ill in Sister Gemella’s seventh grade Math class and I asked to leave the room. It was 8:45am on the morning of November 18th, just two days after my twelfth birthday. As I stood there, by the twin white porcelain sinks of the third floor girls’ lavatory, I sensed something, but I had no idea what. Relieved that the nausea passed a few minutes later, I returned to class and my day’s activities. Later that day, both of my parents picked me up from Girl Scouts, which I knew was a bad omen.  Grandpa had died that morning at 8:45am, leaving me with a never-ending psychic and emotional connection to a man of courage, determination, and faith.

As I think back on Grandpa’s story, this quiet, gentle man was a survivor.  Never above whatever it took to get by, he was the epitome of the American Dream and a casualty of it, as well.  I wonder sometimes if I don’t get some of my scrappiness from him, although on the surface, you would have never detected this trait in the man that I knew. But when I think of him and all of my immigrant predecessors, I know that I would have never had the strength or courage to seek a new life, even in the midst of poverty or repression. I think of Grandpa especially as I consider the immigrant heart. He was fearful and fearless, all at the same time. But in the end, his gift, and the gift of all of my grandparents, is this life of comfort, privilege, and perhaps excess that I enjoy.  Would I ever sweep a street? Am I above taking government food? I am fortunate that I don’t have to. But I recognize the burning desire of those who want to better themselves and their human condition, and the sacrifices that they are willing to make to attain their goal.  And who am I, with traces of the immigrant heart in my DNA, to judge or refuse them that privilege?

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The Backyard of My Lifetime

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Today, as I sat outside reading on this beautifully warm July day, my memory wandered to my childhood and the extended backyard, now shared between me and my daughter. Having never left the place where I was born and raised, I was inches away from where, summer after summer, I embarked on my vacation reading adventures.  When I was young, summers were boring and hot and many of my friends went away, leaving me to provide my own entertainment. Since I was an only child, my vacation destination ended steps from my parents’ screen door.  An enormous pine tree, so large that it could be seen from the bridge a quarter of a mile down the street, graced the cool, shady backyard of my parents’ house. While not Cape Cod, it was the scene of my vacation, and to me, it was idyllic. Under this tree, I read for hours on end, with books supplied by frequent trips to the Medford library. Daily, I set up shop with my stack and my mother’s pumpkin-orange chaise lounge, the kind that pinched the tender skin behind the knee if it was not fully extended and locked in place. Purchased with S&H Green Stamps, it was the only lawn furniture that my parents owned and a safety hazard. An entry strategy was necessary to avoid a blood-curdling scream and a certain blood blister.

In the early days of my backyard residency, I depended on my father to take me to the library for my fix. My frequent requests for more reading material resulted in my mother’s demand that I read more slowly. Those books provided minimal challenge since they were in larger type and designed for early readers. As I got older and more independent, I was able to walk to the bus stop and board the ‘95’ bus to Sullivan Square that stopped across from the library on its route through Medford.  By then, my tastes had expanded to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the entire catalog of Trixie Belden mysteries to date. Once I could drive myself and had access to a car, my trips to the library occurred more frequently.  With more unpressured time spent grazing through the stacks, I unearthed well-known and obscure titles that appealed to my quasi adult tastes. Once ensconced on the chaise, I read and dozed with commitment until the days turned colder and school began again, always too soon and before I had read my fill.

As I think back to some of the books and authors of my fancy, I chuckle at the racy and worldly topics to which I gravitated. I voraciously read Philip Roth, John Updike, and Jacqueline Susann. Under that tree, I learned about life from the literature of the day. I peeked into the real world, so different than that of a Catholic schoolgirl’s experience.  Through the tutelage of the likes of Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Marry Me, ‘Rabbit, Run’, Valley of the Dolls, and Once is Not Enough, I matured.  Through the lives and internal struggles of these characters, I experienced religious questioning, internal sexual conflict, social issues, infidelity, and other themes about which I had no clue. While one might question the status of these novels as “classics” in the strictest sense, they represented a time and place in history and culture, and most importantly, a catalyst to my development. The orange chaise and my book companions provided the setting for my own coming of age, a place of fantasy bordering on the obscene.

Today the grown-up me settles into my cushioned chair on my patio, book in hand, breathing in the air and atmosphere of my youth. The pine tree, now long gone, became a casualty of the construction of my own home thirty-eight years ago, yet I still can sense its strength and legacy in the land. A huge oak tree, on my side of the fence that divides my past from my present, now provides the shade for me and my passion. The 2019 me resists the urge to nosedive into my cell phone or grab my Kindle.  I eschew my penchant for the trashy novel, having learned all I needed to know about life years ago from my mentors: Updike, Roth, Susann, and their contemporaries.  Rather, I revel in the feeling of a light fiction novel in hand and the enduring comfort found in this familiar setting:  this backyard, the memories of a solitary childhood under my beloved pine tree, and the calm beauty of this forever sanctuary.

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The Reality of Living a Life of Fantasy

To my advantage or detriment, I am an extreme fantasist.  For me, it is not enough just to observe; some images inspire me to become part of the scene. Over the years, I have perfected the practice of designing experiences that remove me from the mundane and transport me out of my condition.  Finding inspiration in unconventional places, I look to my favorite characters, real and manufactured, and crave ways to share their experiences. I make a plan, address the details, and once there, I insert myself into the setting.  Since travel is often required, it’s an expensive hobby that is safe, fun, and habit forming; the material for my adventures is as close as my television or a People magazine.  With a little imagination and creativity, I make fantasy a reality.

Take the case of me and the British Royal Family: I am an expert.  Rabid for all things Windsor and beyond, I buy every magazine that alludes to a story within that will release another royal secret, with the knowledge gleaned enhancing my status as a Royal insider.  Royal weddings especially are my passion, having taken personal days off from work for one woman viewing parties that begin at three a.m. As an official nod to the nuptials, I completed the Kate and William celebration by hosting a Royal Wedding party for family and friends complete with Pims and sausage rolls.  Years later, I was beyond grateful when Harry and Meghan chose to marry on a Saturday since I didn’t miss any work on their behalf. Even better, I left my house at 5:30 a.m. that day with my entourage of likeminded friends in tow to attend a Royal Wedding Party at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.  In my mind, my nifty fascinator, made of feathers and satin that matched my coat and dress perfectly and fancy enough for a stroll up the drive at Windsor Castle to the chapel, made me one with my “people”. I supped on a “Full English”, sipped champers, enjoyed a slice of wedding cake, and viewed the event remotely on the big screen in the ballroom. The experience transported me to a place in my imagination where I was myself a Royal, or at least an American version, thereof.

In addition to my Royal preoccupation, it is common knowledge in my circle of friends that I obsess over British and Irish television.  Once again, my interest tips into the blurred lines of fantasy and reality.  More peculiarly, I watch a daily British soap opera called Emmerdale.  While the show has been on the air since the early 70’s, I became a fan in 2005 during a trip to Ireland.  At 7 o’clock every evening (or 1900hrs, to the locals), ITV airs this iconic serial drama.  The Emmerdale theme transports me to the countryside near York and Leeds in the north of England.  In truth, I have designed entire vacations so that I can visit the sets where the show is filmed, deep in the Yorkshire Dales. Watching a foreign show in the U.S. can be a challenging affair and I keep abreast of the storylines with frequent trips to the U.K and Ireland, spoilers from Facebook groups, YouTube clips, and now with Britbox (there were a few other means by which to view shows, but since the legality is questionable, I will refrain).  Having brought my husband, Tim, into the Emmerdale flock, we often find ourselves chatting about the fate of a favorite character over dinner. Occasionally, the conversation begins with reference to a character’s name and, I, not ready for a foray into “fantasy” mode, have no idea to whom he is referring.  His response, “You know, David’s Alisha!”, jolts me into the “make-believe” and I contribute my opinions, hopes, and dreams for the storyline and the poor, unfortunate Alisha.  Escapism comes in many forms, and, for us, often it has a British accent. 

On our destination “Emmerdale” vacations, we strolled the streets of the town, taking pictures in front of the local, the Woolpack. We pulled pints behind the bar and took a seat in Rhona’s living room. We stepped inside St. Mary’s, the generic, non-denominational church that is the center of the community.  We paid our respects at the graveyard where many of the more unfortunate characters (those who are totally written out of the show) are buried.  We posed in front of the sign, “Emmerdale”, at the town limits, solidifying our belonging to the community at large, despite our American accents.  Duly noted by the young man at the concession (as we bought up the entire catalog of mugs, pens, magnets, and tote bags), he admitted that he doesn’t see many Americans at the attraction.  Tim, eager to spill the beans on our furtive viewing habits, spewed a few of our secrets until I kicked him vigorously, abruptly ending his confession.

Vacations to “Emmerdale” provide only one example of my fascination with manufactured reality requiring international travel.  A few years ago, on another trip to England and Wales, I designed a tour that focused solely on the locales of favorite, more accessible, television shows – that is, those on Netflix and Hulu.  Our visit to Wales, designed solely to ‘become one’ with our favorite Brit television characters, netted experiences that edged on the surreal. Tim and I recreated scenes from Gavin and Stacey in Barry Island, with a local sitting on the beach offering to help us recreate the final series episode by taking a photo of us sitting on the wall in front of the arcade where Nessa worked. And in spite of looking foolish, we took turns taking pictures of each other on the sidewalks in front of Gwen, Bryn, and Doris’ row houses. Back in Cardiff, we were surrounded by Weeping Angels and Daleks, and took a spin on the Tardis at the Doctor Who Experience. Moving on to Cornwall to the south, we walked in the footsteps of Doc Martin and Louisa on the Cornish streets of Port Wenn (Port Issac in reality).  More fun than we ever anticipated, the next year we were sure to visit the Cotswolds and the world of Midsomer Murders. Walking the deserted streets lined with houses donning thatched roofs and secreting budding crime, I could hear the mysteriously haunting theme music in my ears. I imagined the possibility of running into Barnaby and Troy on the case, or worse, the increased risk of being murdered at the hand of a cricket bat wielding lunatic. In any case, another box was ticked on my list of real life “pretend” experiences.

Not limited to things Brit, occasionally the depth of my immersion into my fantasy life even surprises me.  In a writing class not long ago, we were discussing writers, their styles, and their voice. I presented Carrie Bradshaw as my choice of a writer who had a particular style as she posed a question early on in her pieces, which became the catalyst of her musings.  A pall came over the class, with my teacher explaining gently to me that Carrie Bradshaw was not a real person.  Shocked on some weird level, I took the news badly.  While she may be the main character in the show, Sex and the City, in my mind, Carrie is a friend, of sorts.  She certainly is my “go-to” when I am looking for mindless entertainment.  More than occasionally, my six-season boxed set, along with the two movies of the same title, provide a respite from a stressful day or the background noise to a day of housework.  To me, Carrie is very real, as well as an inspiration, and a survivor.  And I follow her, or SJP, on Twitter – how much more real does it get?

While possibly perceived as foolish and trivial, my silly hobby offers an escape mechanism that requires a measure of creativity, detail orientation, and belief in a reality based in fiction.  Perhaps I take all of this imaginary reality too seriously; yet, each of these adventures and connections fuels my memories and are as accessible as closing my eyes, transporting and inserting me into a reality that suppresses the residue, distractions, and defeats of the day to day grind.  I am temporarily free of worries, immersing myself fully in the shallow waters of fantasy.  This distraction feeds my soul.  My quirky passion, harmless and consuming, entertains me. And as I plan my next vacation or afternoon of housework, I will look to my collection of the unreal for inspiration. Thankfully, the repertoire is as endless as my access to Hulu, Netflix, and the BBC, and as close as my imagination.

The Kindest Goodbye

When we assume responsibility for a pet, we tacitly accept the good and the bad and, like a marriage, the “for better or for worse”. We vow to be there in sickness and in health, until death do us part. We pledge care and protection that ensure a happy, long life. And in the case of a dog, the many years of shared joy and deep connection reflect the abiding trust and love given and received mutually. It is a relationship like no other: unconditional, dependable, and enriching.

Over the past 39 years, my husband, Tim, and I have been fortunate to share our lives with four dogs – Tasha, Taffy, Muffy, and our daughter’s dog, Bailey. Each one of our pets possessed a unique personality that completed our family. Having parented Tasha in the days pre-first baby, we were broken in for the challenges ahead by this boundlessly energetic black Lab mix. She understood her role as the protector as our family grew and she taught us all so many lessons, not the least of which being how to say goodbye. She was our first child as well as my children’s first loss and, at the ages of ten and eight, they mourned their dog despairingly, until we added Taffy soon after Tasha’s passing. The tiny Cairn terrier mix offered a completely different experience. She was portable – versus Tasha, whom they rode like a pony in the early days. She was smart and sassy, with a propensity for nipping at strangers. At the age of nine, Taffy was diagnosed with an invasive tumor and we prepared for her demise. Clearly a misdiagnosis, Taffy persevered another seven years, making for the longest wake on record.

When our daughter, Lisa, married Jeff, we had a feeling that they were on the hunt for a dog since both of them had grown up in dog families. When they found Bailey through a rescue site, her picture, captioned “Marsha”, captured the essence of her soulful brown eyes and stole their hearts. Renamed forthwith, Bailey, a rescue from Tennessee, was a blend of terrier and possibly coyote (as was the family joke), with a lineage that was unclear from her appearance. She was a pup and may have been anywhere from 14 weeks to six months old at her adoption. Her paperwork was sketchy at best but, as a dog, she was gem. A few months later, we inherited Muffy as a result of the passing of my godmother, who was her owner. I happened to be visiting her the day she died and the dog, a peppy little white poodle ball of fluff, needed to be cared for so I volunteered. Against Tim’s initial protests (his angst lasted 2 minutes), she stayed with us for good, where she joined the aging Taffy, who was miffed to say the least. Within the year, we added a non-fur baby, our little Molly, to the family, exponentially increasing our ranks, both human and four-legged.

Bailey and Muffy formed a sibling-like partnership early on while Taffy, too old for the antics, sat back and observed. And when she died five months later, we were grateful for Taffy’s long life that we all shared together. The sadness, while not remedied completely, was cushioned by the addition of Bailey and Muffy, just months before, offering a welcome distraction to the hole in our hearts.

Eventually, my daughter and her growing family moved next door to us and, in that setting, the relationship of Muffy and Bailey blossomed. Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, the dogs had the run of the dual backyards, individually fenced but connected by a gate that, when open, allowed for easy movement to and from either house. Our days were filled with text messages asking, “Is Muffy over there?” or “Have you seen Bailey?” and with this system, we always accounted for an errant pup. Each morning saw a meeting punctuated by a nuzzle, or as we called it, a kiss, and a tandem trot to the grass to assume their positions in various states of recline. A singular unit, Bailey and Muffy always had a sense of the other’s location. They taught each other tricks like sneakily eating sticks (until scolded), feasting on the detritus from the bird feeders (until they got sick), and chasing squirrels (Muffy lacks any killer instinct).

As they aged, things became slower but not very changed. Bailey liked spending time with “the old people” (us) next door since our house was more peaceful minus the activity of kids. Both dogs were clever about securing an extra meal by visiting each other’s house at dinnertime, stealing from the other’s bowl, and then chowing down on the regularly scheduled meal at home. Always underfoot while cooking, the odds of falling over a dog were high, requiring vigilance in the prevention of a tumble. As I worked at my desk, both dogs tucked themselves under my chair, and I reveled in my co-workers, who were compliant, non-complaining, and lovable.

Last week, we said goodbye to our Bailey. Her passing was unexpected; she went to the hospital to have a tumor evaluated and, in the testing, a number of issues came to light. Bailey was seriously anemic and in pain and the proposed surgery, which included an amputation, would not cure her problems, only require more intervention in the future, if she even survived the operation. Our first instinct was the “at any cost approach” to saving her life, but it was clear to all of us what was humane. The decision, once made, gave us little time to process what was about to happen. We piled into our cars for the fateful journey, knowing that we would be coming home with one less.

As a participant in the euthanasia of our dogs in the past, I have experienced how powerful that moment, at life’s end, is. With each event, an overwhelming, though anti-climactic, peace pervaded the space and, as I looked back one last time, the finality was palpable but not despairing. And, for my family, once we get beyond the emptiness of our home and yard, we will slowly become whole again, but changed. Another dog will not repair the void, even though we entertain the thought, albeit colored by the dread of potty training and puppy teething. No, now is time to mourn, reminisce, and pine.

I knew innately that I had to write a Bailey piece even before my family’s pleas for a ‘Mami’ in her honor. My heavy heart provided a monumental case of “writer’s block” and it took me days to sit at my desk and ponder on our loss. As I watch Muffy, listless and displaying the effects of her loneliness, it is clear that she feels the loss as she misses her friend. We, as the human members of the tribe, mirror Muffy’s feelings, although we understand it all a bit better. Or, in truth, do we?

 

Fate is not Fair

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In my play with my grandchildren, sometimes things get dicey. A toy is suddenly disputed, with both of them claiming ownership, and when I, as the arbiter, make a decision about the ultimate winner, the loser inevitably cries out, “That’s not fair!”  My usual snappy retort, “Life’s not fair”, does little to remedy the situation and pouting, or worse, ensues.  It is one of our earliest lessons – what is fair, for which we develop ways to cope with matters when the scales of ‘fair’ tip against us. I doubt any of us really masters the skill of accepting the unfair in life, but if we didn’t on some level, chaos would reign, not just at home, but in the world at large.

When I think about the idea of ‘fair’, the premise can be applied to so many scenarios. For example, when we choose a line at the grocery checkout and the person in front of us requires a price check, or forgets something and runs back to the aisle to retrieve the item, we watch as the surrounding lines move seamlessly. Now, that’s not fair, but it is reality. Sitting at a traffic light, the driver of the car in front of us is not paying attention, and by the time they realize the light has changed, enough time has passed that he clears the intersection but we are once again hostage to the red light. That’s pretty unfair but getting angry is not productive since in thirty seconds, the situation is history. When a co-worker, who appears to work less hard or with as much commitment as we do, is promoted, we think to ourselves, “that’s not fair”.  While the candidate may have had different credentials or skills, we view the travesty from our perspective and believe that we are somehow wronged. Our sense of ‘fair’ is piqued frequently every day in minor and major ways, with one thing always certain-humans bristle at being wronged.

Today I pondered the more important “fair” – the one that involves life and death. I just finished reading an article online about a young woman who has battled cancer for the past ten years. The decision was made to seek comfort care, or hospice, until the end of her life, which is eminent.  In one of his tributes to her, her husband posted a letter he wrote in which he made a reference to the situation as not being fair. I agree that, while being robbed of old age and life experiences, is extremely sad, I question the premise there being a ‘fairness’ when it involves on our fates.  When we begin this journey, projections as to our potential, our futures, our long lives, are made. No one ever thinks that there will be complications and that the road may not be straight or long. Like any beginning, hope drives our joy and aspirations. When the journey takes an unexpected turn, the cry of “unfairness” rises from our thoughts and lips.  Is it really unfair or is it our fate?

I am not above claiming a keen sense of ‘fair’; but the older I get, the less it matters.  The things that I let get under my skin about being wronged at the hand of ‘fair’ are fewer, with the more mundane becoming inconsequential.  And in truth, is ‘fair’ in the eye of the observer, or the person who is dealt the fate?  Finding peace in our lives gives rise to an acceptance of ‘fair’ as being the situation in which we find ourselves.  We, as observers, might assess ‘fairness’ in any scenario; nonetheless,  ‘fair’ is a personal judgment, owned in full by the one to whom the cards are dealt; and as in a card game, chance and fate go hand in hand, making our sense of ‘fair’ a complication of what is truly the product of a grander scheme.  Fate mocks the idea of ‘fair’ in the conventional sense and, in many ways, preempts and defies it, while becoming the essence and mystery of life, in all of its wonder, beyond our comprehension and control.

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A Brief Friendship, A Lifelong Legacy

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During my career as a school counselor, I worked in public and private settings and saw the best and worst of humanity-natural born scholars, engaged students, supportive families, and inspiring administrators balanced by inept parenting, teachers who should never have entered the profession, profoundly disabled students, unfathomable meanness, and questionable leadership.   During one tremendously formative year, I worked as a counselor at a small Catholic high school in the Greater Boston area which served a mostly urban population from all parts of Boston and its closest suburbs. Sadly, it had attained a negative reputation and was the object of some bad press in the local newspaper, claiming ongoing, systemic drug issues in the student body.  Years before, I had applied for and had been offered a job at the same school, which I declined, to work in the public school where I had interned.  With a major crisis at hand, I was contacted and recruited for the position by the administration, in the hopes that my experience would be a means to stabilize the situation.   I considered taking the position as a vocation versus a job since my son was a student there and I was taking a twenty five percent pay cut from my public school job.  This decision changed the course of my very settled, orchestrated life.

While I only worked in this role for one year, it was an intense experience. In the course of ten months, my mother unexpectedly passed away, my son was in the throes of teenage and pre-adult issues, and the school itself was in financial difficulty, with its student body shrinking rapidly. I witnessed the expulsion of emotionally, behaviorally, and financially compromised students, who clearly would have benefited from the support and message of a religious education, but the school lacked the resources to address these issues. In one of my most difficult situations, a pregnant senior, months away from graduation, was sent packing, not because of her condition, but because her parents had thrown her out and she could not pay her tuition.  My heart broke for her, yet I had no influence to alter the decision. That spring, on the evening of Holy Thursday, a tenth grader overdosed, just after having assisted as an altar server at the vigil in her parish.  While she survived, she remained permanently in a vegetative state. Sadly, her boyfriend, from another local, all-male, Catholic school, was not as fortunate and died that evening in his sleep.  In the meantime, the school staff and administration was shaken by the Boston Archdiocese’s decision to get out of the business of running high schools as it dealt with its own issues due to the mismanagement of the clergy scandal.  As a byproduct, the archdiocesan teachers’ union was disbanded, causing a work-to-rule atmosphere and the start of a mass exodus. Teachers, some of whom had spent their entire careers at the school and were committed to Catholic education and the vocation of teaching, now looked toward the future with fear and sadness.  All the while, I questioned my decision and plotted my escape.

Today, a lifetime and a career later, I sorted through some old notes and papers that had accumulated in my back of my 2018-19 (educator style) personal calendar. Between the last page and the cover, I found an email, dated July 14, 2004, sent to all of the teaching staff of this Catholic school by a colleague. Jay was in his mid-twenties at the time yet he had lived a lot of life, including a stint in the Army immediately after college. He had graduated from this high school ten years earlier and was a “Golden Boy” with the staff, not just due to his history but because he was a fine person. Warm, affable, energetic, genuine, and kind, Jay was the glue. Always maintaining and projecting a positive attitude as the walls of his alma mater, turned employer, crumbled around him, he trussed up the shaky emotions of the staff with his unbridled zest for life. Most importantly, the kids loved him; he was an inspirational teacher, mentor, and role model as he strove to do his best for them. He is one of my fondest memories of this challenging experience and his words, fifteen years later, on a gray, rainy morning that matched my own psyche, were a blessing and a souvenir.

In his note, Jay graciously thanked us for the wonderful experience that he had, both as a student and a teacher at this school, and acknowledged the contribution of the teachers, past and present, to the lives of the students whom they prepared for life after high school.  He also informed us that he would be leaving to accept a job outside of education, and that his only regret was that he did not work with each of us longer.  Encouraging us to stay in contact, he assured us that, if he could ever be of help to any of us, he would be at the ready. In closing, he wished us “the best of luck and healthy and happy days” and hoped to hear from us soon. I was truly touched by Jay’s sincerity and printed the email, tucking it into my agenda book, where it found a new home in each successive year and calendar. 

In the fall of 2004, I received word that Jay had been diagnosed with cancer, the bad kind, and his prognosis was not good. His condition deteriorated quickly and in a few short months, he died. His death invoked profound sadness in me, equal to the pleasure in life that his upbeat, joyous nature had given. In twenty-eight years, Jay had managed to connect deeply with so many, to serve his country honorably, and leave behind a legacy of kindness and grace. His short life reminds me of a meteor blazing through the sky, provoking awe in those lucky enough to get a glimpse. His spirit glowed with such a bright light that perhaps was too bright to endure.  I knew I was lucky then, and have been reminded of my good fortune to have known Jay every time the rumpled and dog-eared printed email surfaces to feed my memory and soul.  

I often think of Jay. He was a person for whom everyday was a mission dedicated to others, imbued with positivity, energy, and joy. He lived without knowing that he would be cheated out of so many life experiences; yet, he lived as if every day was a gift, even without that foresight.  I fantasize that he died knowing that he changed the world, even if just a small corner of it, in a short lifetime.   His work in life was done quickly and well.   His memory prompts the lyrics of the song, “Vincent” by Don McLean: “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.  And as I question the why of Jay’s short life, maybe that is the answer.

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The Art of Aging: The Voices and Choices of Our Generation

When I began my “Mami” journey a year and a half ago, I jokingly touted my style and message to my friends as the “Voice of Our Generation”.  Hoping to appeal those of the “slightly old” set, I wrote on serious topics that I observed and assumed were global to us: toying with the idea of retirement, the fear of aging, and the death of a friend.  For fun, I wrote about dressing appropriately in the later years, Barry Manilow, my obsession with the Royals, and the pressures of Christmas decorating. In between, retrospection and remorse took hold. In any case, my ramblings were musings of the pre-elderly me.

As for getting old, my initial reality check happened years ago when I received my premature invitation to AARP shortly before my 50th birthday. I was somewhat offended and minimally amused, knowing that this reality was years off.  As I anticipated the joys of a life free of the daily grind, the idea of being referred to as a “retired person” was incomprehensible.  The years flew by, it is suddenly ten years later, and retirement is a daily topic. When I left my job earlier this year, the first question with which I was bombarded consistently was “Are you retiring?” It would be my guess that this question seldom is asked of a 50 year old in “transition” (the new term for not knowing what the Hell you are doing).  But at 60, the expectation is that you will just roll over and play dead in terms of career and spend your days on the golf course or joining a Mall Walking Group (yes, there is such a thing).  In light of my family’s life expectancy keeping us alive well into the 90’s, thirty years of “pididdling” was not an option.  

Thinking back on my years as a guidance counselor, a term evolved to refer to our middle school students – ‘tweenagers’ – not quite a child but certainly not a teen. Perhaps, our pre-elderly stage might be referred to as ‘tweenelder’ or ‘twelderly’, a gray area somewhere between middle age and old.  Unlike tweenagers, we are not in any rush to reach the next developmental stage.  In truth, we tend to look backwards rather than forward, holding on to every shred of what we perceive to be the definition of youth. We are a subset by our own design, with a youthful vibrancy not found in our predecessors and, in turn, we have redefined “old age”.

When I think back to my mother at my age, she was old! I remember the agony as she bent over to pick up something that she dropped or the moans from the act of rising from a chair. Everything was a physical challenge. Was it that being elderly happened sooner in those days?  In any case, this clumsy version of aging remains in my mind’s eye and I ask, “Am I there yet?” And I answer with determination, “God, NO!” Perhaps a delusion, I see myself as spritely, youthful, and energetic. I walk with a spring in my step. Old, or any connection to the term, is unacceptable.  Although Mami was designed to be the mouthpiece for “my people”, over time I realized that the “generation” with whom I hoped to connect as its mouthpiece had a diverse voice. We collectively have lowered the bar and adopted a determination to retain not youth, but simply all vestiges of midlife.  We have mobilized against aging.

Stemming the tide of aging has become an art form and an industry unto itself. As I stand at the checkout line in the grocery store, my attention is drawn to magazine covers promising all sorts of cures to reboot our thyroids, reverse the effects of time with simple yoga, workouts that can be done in 45 seconds, and all manner of youth recovery.  After a lifetime of sun exposure, drinking, eating Hostess cupcakes, enjoying a steady diet of red meat, and sofa surfing, I do believe we may be a little late to the triage. But still, I am intrigued at the thought of ’60 being the new 40′ and my wallet is $2.99 lighter for my interest in the promises within those glossy pages.

Sadly the magazines go unread in my bathroom but being of a terminally shallow nature when it comes to “looking old”, I accept the memories of my mother as a cautionary tale and take action. I exercise minimally as to keep marginally active and reduce the snap-crackle-pop of daily movement.  I refuse to groan or moan when I move around and I even occasionally ride my bicycle for enjoyment.  My lifetime membership to Weight Watchers affords me the ongoing privilege of attending meetings, resetting my intake, dropping a few pounds, quitting, gaining back the weight, and repeating the process. Yet, it keeps me honest and only a bit overweight.  As for externals, I drive a cute car, having graduated from a Solara convertible (the poster child car of the old) to a snappy Audi A3. I attend to the things that are somewhat under my control, the ones set apart from the run away, unwieldy decay of time that defy resistance.

As I contemplate my physical attributes, I observe others and make comparisons to myself. I assess the number of wrinkles on a 60-something visage and I make all sorts of assumptions about sun exposure and skin care, and then, rushing to a mirror, I take account of my own deterioration. All those years of Mary Kay moisturizer and a commitment to SPF 30 have really paid off!  Then there are the clothes about which you need to reconsider. Hesitant to wear sleeveless shirts and dresses, I look quizzically at those who bravely “bare” arms at my age.  Unless they work out regularly (and even those allegedly sculpted arms scream “old”), their arms are ravaged with crepey skin as are mine (as in resembling crepe and yes, it is a word), yet their wagging, flaccid biceps are cold comfort for my own modesty.  Truthfully, working out is futile in an effort to stem the tide; crepey skin is like a tsunami, and once you stop working against it in a concerted way, it comes back with a determination that only ancient, collagen-deprived skin can.  And gray hair?  Unthinkable, and I am not shy about my commitment to a color and a cut (the color being most necessary) every four weeks.  Roots would be a dead giveaway to advancing time!

In respect to my wardrobe, I acknowledge an impending progression:  JJill to Chico’s to Coldwater Creek to, if you are unfortunate to live long enough, Blair’s! Styles range from the tunic to stretch pants/leggings to the unashamed elasticized waist to a fully committed polyester ensemble of carnation pink pants and jacket to match, paired with a floral top.  Still at the JJill stage, I imagine a future relegated to brands created “for the older woman in mind” and I cringe.  And men, it’s a future of Sans-a-belt and sandals with black socks.  Sadly, there may come a point when you don’t even realize how ghastly that fashion statement truly is! Yet, with a new self-awareness in place, stretchy pants and polyester may never invade our closets.  We are the new brand of “old”!

As for living arrangements, terms like ‘aging in place’ and ‘downsizing’ define the housing arrangements of many of my aged compadres.  I employ neither term or embrace either approach. The thought of relegating myself to an “over 55” living arrangement terrifies me.  Somehow similar to a leper colony, the corralling of the ‘slightly old’ and ‘truly old’ connotes a “putting out to pasture”.  Leaving the home where I resided my entire married life to move into communal living is not my taste. I enjoy my privacy, my backyard, and my life, as is, until it is not possible, hopefully many years from now.  I watch curiously as a number of my neighbors and some of my classmates from my childhood sell their homes and move to these elderly compounds. It must be a culture shock of enormous magnitude.  In the same way that I avoid polyester, I resist the trend to abandon the peace of my little home and garden.  Yet, these options exist and work well for others, providing independence and carefree living for those who choose it-just not for me!

A “new age” old age has been created by the growing numbers of Baby Boomers as they reach their 60’s and beyond. The last chapters of life have been narrated in the cadence of many voices that direct each of our futures. We have choices that support a happy, healthy, late adulthood.  So in the end, it is my personal voice that sets a goal to remain a productive and contributing member of society for as long as I wish. I also plan to have a wrinkle-free face, have hair without gray roots, don clothes that lack synthetics, drive a cute car, and sit in my shady back yard. The “voice of our generation” sounds as different as each of our goals, hopes, and dreams.  We have awakened to the myriad of possibilities available to us. We know better than anyone the meaning of the saying, “It’s not over until it’s over!”

Like the years since my AARP invitation, time will fly by and Mami, ten years from now, may be in a very different place. Her graying hair and crow’s feet, despite her best efforts, may be more evident. But, undoubtedly, her voice, perhaps a bit more gravelly, will be fueled by a rabid determination to live with passion and tenacity; and, if she’s lucky, she will give in to a little “pididdling” and the continuing shallow and frivolous desire to drive a really cute car, that is, until the Registry pries her license from her mangled arthritic fingers.

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May and AP testing: A Retrospective Indictment

(For the past 19 years, Mami has worked as a guidance counselor, department head, team leader, and Director of Guidance.  Now semi-retired, she looks back on one of the many responsibilities of her tenure, the role of Advanced Placement Coordinator for the College Board program at her former school. Mami’s statements in this essay are solely her opinion yet she knows, through conversations with colleagues, that her criticism of the AP program and the College Board, as its parent organization, is not unique.)

Every May, a fearsome sheriff called Advanced Placement testing rolls into town wielding the law of the College Board and all of the trepidation that comes with the name.   For some reason dictated by past practice that no one seems to question, public and private high schools in the United States and beyond provide a venue and a cash cow for this expensive and questionably worthwhile program. As a former AP Coordinator in a public high school  for twelve years, I marveled at the amount of time that is required to pull off a well-run AP program, that is, in line with to the rules and regulations of the College Board.  The process really begins in the early Fall when high schools are asked to report the anticipated participants and complete a lengthy questionnaire.  On the multi-page document, the same questions year after year are asked that yield answers of a historical nature and, I would assume, most likely accessible by the College Board in its own record keeping.  Yet they persist with the interrogation, giving AP Coordinators a new respect for the tedium of “bubbling”.  During the next six months, every detail is reinforced, prescribed, and monitored in repeated emails and letters to the Coordinator that dictate seating distance between testers, test storage procedures, packing directives, and payment expectations so as not to incur a penalty.  Dutifully, I followed the rules since I did not want a visit from the fabled “AP Police”.

For the first time in thirteen years, I have not laid hands on a single Advanced Placement test, dealt with students who have not prepared for the test and now want out, or argued with parents who refuse to pay on time despite months of warning.  I can’t lie – I haven’t missed it.  The six months of stress generated by the preparation for the two weeks of testing is rough on someone like me – a perfectionist.  The process is rife with details: room assignments, attending to student disabilities and separate test venues, counting (so much counting) of exam booklets and answer sheets, creating piles (so many piles) for each test administered, and other juggled requirements.  I lived in terror that I would miss something! In the build up to the testing, great effort is expended in keeping everyone from teachers, students, and parents in line. It’s exhausting and thankless work where I became a shill for this organized and legalized syndicate.

What is the value of AP testing, you ask? The benefits are pedaled to parents as a way to defray the cost of college. In most cases, a student may be exempted from taking a lower level “101” college level class but often another course must replace it in order to attain college graduation credits. Parents often misunderstand this fine point. In addition, a student must get a score of at least a “3” out of “5” in order to apply the class, if their prospective college even will allow the substitution.  There are no guarantees of an acceptable score or any college level benefit.  

And then there’s the soccer field chatter – parents have been known to brag about their kids and these conversations rev up other parents whose student may not have been ready for or chosen AP. These concerns eventually land on the desk of the school counselor to field.  Parents also tout a perceived badge of honor connected with their student taking multiple tests. However, once the bill for hundreds of dollars arrives for one to five or six tests, parents balk and occasionally refuse to pay, despite signing a contract a year earlier at the time of course registration.   Although the circumstance was rare, when it did occur, tension abounded and I became a one woman collections agency. This situation was somewhat peculiar to my school since, where I worked, there was a requirement to take the AP test in order to get the weighting and designation of AP on a transcript, but we did not fund the test, as do other districts.

As for the students, AP sounds like a great idea until they receive the syllabus on day one of the class and realize just how much work is required.  For the most part (and I know that this is a generalization), today’s students are not eager to expend extreme effort to complete a task. AP is one of those places where slacking is not an option. And when slacking does happen, teachers quickly sound the alarm, alerting the school counselor of the situation. Often, parents are at the ready to defend the student and request to remove them from the class.  Unless the student’s struggles are a byproduct of a lack of understanding and ability even with extensive effort (after school sessions, independent work with the teacher, etc.), high schools are hesitant to allow a transfer out of the class, knowing that this sort of response becomes a precedent and an invitation for a one way revolving door out of the AP class.

On the school side, the AP teacher is breed set apart. As a rule, they are a tad more high-strung than the teacher relegated to College Prep levels alone. Since they answer to a higher power, the College Board, and are under the gun to ensure that their students perform well as measured by a single three hour test, things from April 1 on get tense!  Review sessions interfere with field trips, assemblies, and the day-to-day operation of the school and pit teachers against their peers. It is as if a higher score average will merit a raise but we educators know that is a pipe dream.  And then there is always that AP teacher who wields his or her lofty calling to AP instruction as a designation of quasi-royalty, believing that they are more erudite than those who have not been called to this “noblesse oblige”.  Even with all of these observations, as a former coordinator, I truly enjoyed my work with the AP teachers overall. They offered brightest spot in the ordeal and were great support to the process.

In the final analysis, as a preparation for higher level course work, Advanced Placement offers a leg-up if a student takes the coursework seriously and understands the value.  However, AP is not for everyone and all students are not quite ready for college level work while in high school. There is a reason that high school is four years long. It is a place to grow academically, emotionally, socially, and personally, allowing for experiences and relationships that nurture and inspire. And since life is full of stress, I suggest that AP may be one additional area that hastens along the trend toward anxiety in our kids.  

Perhaps our educational leaders should begin to question the purpose and value of AP as well as the wisdom of allowing an organization like the College Board to have unlimited access to our students, school staff, and our already stretched school resources. While the College Board offers a kickback of approximately 10% on each AP test, it is minimal consideration for the complication that is the school based AP program. In a recent development, the College Board is offering school-day testing of the SAT, once again tapping into the resources of our schools and interfering with our students’ learning. We, as educators, need to question the true value of a program like Advanced Placement, or the stronghold that the College Board has in our students’ education, in light of the tremendous cost to our kids, their families, and our schools.

Thoughts on Becoming a Writer

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This spring, I enrolled in an eight week memoir writing class at the local library. It was risk-free as well as being cost free, with no grading and no cash exchanged. As an additional bonus, I gave myself permission to quit at any time. It was a place where I could test drive my writing vehicle, this blog I affectionately call Mami, to see if I was on the right track and if my writing had a wider appeal than my loyal friends and family. Aware that they are a biased audience and know my story first hand, the cheerleader role that they have assumed delights me, but I needed a true critique. And if the criticism hit too close to the heart, I planned a speedy exit back to the bosom of my dedicated and slanted followers.

While it did not always flow readily, I always knew that I could write, at least at the perfunctory level of business memos or the college brand of term and research papers. Professors, coworkers, and friends over the years have commented on my writing. From their feedback, my personal style apparently shines through, as evidenced by the frequent, “I bet Marie wrote this”. I accepted this recognition as compliment yet I never imagined that writing could ever be my calling. It was a passion but never a vocation. My skill, however, traces its roots to my high school experience and a teacher, a man named Bill Murray (not the actor), whom I greatly feared. However, it was through this fear that I developed my craft. It was Catholic school, after all, and we were bred on fear which, in theory, would give birth to our future success.

Mr. Murray, a cruel taskmaster and a purveyor of snappy commentary, would return essays to his students in a state that nearly was unidentifiable. My class assignments, handwritten on crisp white composition paper turned a sea of red ink, convinced me that I had a problem – I clearly could not write. To address this issue, during my Junior year, I enrolled in Mr. Murray’s Composition 101 class, knowing that I needed focused assistance to correct my wayward grammar and usage.

On the first day of the semester, I walked into Mr. Murray’s classroom, sheepish and contrite, ready to be shown the proper way to basic writing. He looked up from his desk and, in his patented, caustic style, sniped at me, “What are you doing here?” Already terrified of the man, I lowered my eyes, responding with a trembling, “I can’t write.” He looked at me with confusion and retorted, “Yes, you can! This class isn’t for you. Go to the library and you’ll do an independent study.” Shaken by his borderline complement and banishment, I scurried off to my new Period 3 home. Throughout the semester, Mr. Murray assigned writing prompts to me and, as I sat in my solitary confinement of the school library, I dutifully pumped out essays. The time spent alone to write for writing’s sake offered me the opportunity to hone my style for the first time. Through this formative experience, I grew as a writer, with the proof being papers progressively less mutilated by the harsh scourge of red corrections.

Unfortunately, my confidence never quite caught up with my writing ability. As much as the written word came easily to me, I never imagined a life driven by the need to write. I stood on the sidelines and observed as my friend, Gail, who was a journalist and editor by trade, enjoyed the perks of her work. Annual assignments took her to Fashion Week in New York, her weekly columns required dining at the newest, cutting-edge restaurants, and frequent nationally syndicated articles fueled my envy. Another graduate of the School of Murray Hard Knocks, Gail knew her life direction early on. As she pursued her career, I floundered, working at an array of jobs, and finally landed in the field of school counseling. My passion for writing, while confined to college recommendations and staff emails, smoldered under the weight of the daily grind of my work life. Not interested in serious discourse, I burned to write a blog about silly, inconsequential things about which I have an opinion. In the end, Gail encouraged me to give into my curiosity. Directing me to what I needed to launch my idea, which included all manner of social media and a domain (Mami Knows Everything just happened to be available), I secured the pieces. In her antique home in Maine, the birthplace of the poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mami Knows Everything was born, as well.

With time, Mami transformed into a place where I could share my joys and sadness, my high and lows, and my story. Amazed that people found interest in the thoughts that lived in my head and drove my script, I discovered freedom in my essays, as well as a sort of therapy. I watched as the metrics on my blog site rose and ebbed, in direct relation to the scope of interest in the topic. The writing became easier, more fluid, and more fluent. Mami provided a hobby and an outlet that evolved into my own personal forum for which there was an audience. Yet, I was not a “writer”.

On the day that I was told that I had a ‘voice’, I became a writer . The actual moment happened in my memoir class, the one for which I prepared an exit strategy. Apparently, the development of ‘voice’ is a big deal since developing voice does not come easily to some writers. ‘Voice’ is developed with time, practice, and the willingness to offer a glimpse into the soul. I’m pretty sure my ‘voice’ sounds like me, saddled with a thick Boston accent and blessed with a healthy dose of sarcasm. In any case, I write from the ‘heart, baring my emotions fearlessly and honestly. My ‘voice” in real life mirrors Mami‘s'”voice’ in the writing.

A fellow student in class, who was struggling with technique, directed a question to me as “a writer”. I forced myself not to look over my shoulder, wondering to whom she directed the question. I answered with command, surprising myself. In that moment, I sensed a palpable evolution as a “writer” with my confidence, long lost, fully restored.

A few weeks ago, a publisher reached out to me about Mami. The communication took me by surprise and, in turn, I considered my response with care. Being of a suspicious nature and a rabid ‘Googler’, I first researched the credentials and on-line presence of this person. The verdict: very real. I engaged the expertise of my son, another writer, who also backed up my findings. Clearly, one hundred and twenty nine thousand followers on Twitter don’t lie! Intrigued and honored, I responded with interest and trepidation, not knowing my readiness for where this opportunity might lead. That part of my story has yet to be written.

For now, my ‘voice’ and I will sit tight and infuse our message into Mami . In the meantime, I can feel my transformation taking hold. I write daily. I dream about ideas and sentences. I wake up in the middle of the night with topics swirling in my head. I outline my next essay in the shower. I suspect that those traits define a “writer”; if so, perhaps, the metamorphosis is complete.

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A Lesson in How to Accept Graciously the Gift of Time

“The Gift of Time” – the idea sounds simple but, in truth, I never truly understood the phrase until the past few months. For the first time in my life, things came to a screeching halt as my days of work in the conventional sense ended and I reinvented the possibilities of what a day could become. In the early days, I envisioned sitting in front of the television with a bowl of cereal tucked under my chin, catching the errant drips of milk from my mouth as I sat mesmerized by the likes of Judge Judy and The Price Is Right.  Since I see Judy as a mentor in the snippy responses department, studying her could be considered an education.  I honestly welcomed the idea of becoming skilled at guessing the ‘right price’ through the study of games like ‘Price Tags’ or cringing as the little mountain climber tipped over the summit in ‘Cliff Hanger’.  Then again, I could always embark on a full day of vintage TV – Family Affair, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and That Girl, stacked like cards in the deck of the Me TV viewing schedule. The possibilities were endless and I looked forward to the utter mindlessness of it all.

In reality (and somewhat sadly), none of these lofty goals were attained; rather, quite the opposite occurred. After the initial shock to my unemployed system subsided, my mind ignited.  I made a point of starting my day early, looking to the list of ‘To Do’s,’ created the day before and offering focus and structure to my day.  With the Beatles Channel on Sirius as a soundtrack, I vigorously checked off items like ‘Call on insurance bill’, ‘Return library books’, and ‘Clean bathroom’. For fun, I took lessons in writing and photography.  When at home, I often watched from my dining room window as birds gathered at what I refer to as the ‘Birdie Buffet’.  The ‘Buffet’, an array of feeders of shapes, sizes, and purpose, arranged by my husband, attracted all manner of native birds as well as squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.  I embraced the research as I indentified the breeds of my feathered friends; on other days, I employed my new found photography skills, combining them with my bird watching, as I waited, still as a statue, perched on a patio chair, to capture moments of birds in flight, a testimony to my ability to set effectively the controls of my camera.  Clearly, this was progress and some level of success. While I loved being the master of my daily destiny, a surreal specter hovered over the idyll that was my existence and stark reality set in when too many transfers transpired from savings to checking. At that point, I knew that I needed an income, as well as my well-developed taste for distraction. In response, I invented my own little company, attended seminars in all sorts of small business mastery, and sat back, awaiting the influx of dollars to refill the coffers.  Once again a contributing member of society, a new equilibrium emerged as I awakened to the realization that time was a gift, one that should not be squandered. I could do anything I wanted and my newfound, heightened level of consciousness was exhilarating!

Despite my hobbies, my diversions, and my fledgling business, I still had time on my hands so, in addition to these activities, I contributed to the operation of my extended family as the chauffeur to my grandchildren. While there is a bus available for school transport, three generations of Dello Russos, Cahalanes, and Kanes, all of whom have attended the local Catholic school, St. Raphael, have managed, for the most part, to avoid the torment that is a school bus ride. For all of us, riding the bus was a horrid fate and solely an emergency measure for when there is no ride available. Happy to continue our family legacy, I gladly assumed my new job, and in a surprise move, announced to my family that I would combine this commute with a commitment to daily Mass. I observed their sideways glances and could sense their fear that Mom was on her way to becoming a “Holy Roller”.  Little did they know that daily Mass has always been a life goal for me and now I had the time to achieve not just my goal, but secure my place in the afterlife.

Now months into my church habit, I have become a “regular”, along with all the ‘old people’ in my parish, many of whom I have known since my childhood.  I revel in the spirit of the students in the rows before me, who attend Mass by grade, depending on the day – Grades Three to Five on Wednesdays. Grade Two on Thursdays, and Grades Six to Eight on Fridays. I assume my usual seat, right in front of the huge oak column.  There is a familiarity in the wave to my fellow attendees during the ‘Sign of Peace.’ And, in the end, I emerge more peaceful for the time spent in the presence of God in that holy place.

Today was particularly special. Arriving a few minutes earlier to school than usual, I took a few minutes to visit my grandson Declan’s classroom.  Formerly assigned to Grade One in the ancient times of my era, this space had been the Kindergarten home to both of my children and now to both of my grandchildren.  Alive with color, children’s work, familiar early reading books, and palpable energy, my tiny escort, eager to show me everything, waltzed me from one end of the room to the next, pointing out items of particular interest because they were of his creation. The experience jumpstarted my day with a joy found in family legacy, the pride of a grandparent, and historical belonging, all of which have blessed me beyond description.

My reverie and tour ended abruptly when the bell rang for the beginning of school. I descended the stairs of my childhood and proceeded to my daily constitutional – Mass.  It was Friday so I knew that the row ahead would be filled with awkward, uniformed sixth graders and that we would be treated to a sermon by the Deacon, whose energy, as he preaches, permeates the church.  Asking the students directly about their favorite music, their hands raised, and when called upon, the kids shot out responses like “Panic at the Disco” (he had no idea) or “Ariana Grande” (he had heard of her) or the “Eagles” (he asked that student her age).  In response and brotherhood, he shared his own favorite, “The Beatles,” and pinpointed his favorite Beatle (we all have one), “George Harrison.”  I smiled involuntarily. This man was my spirit animal, sharing a love of both the band and the man, and I hung on his every word. He recalled some of the ideas that George expounded. A spiritual man, George Harrison never hesitated to acknowledge the presence of a higher power.  The sermon alluded to the glory days of fame and affluence in George’s life and George’s frustration with it all. He acknowledged George’s words: “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait.”  George’s reference to the need to connect to “God,” the universal God not dictated by sect, presented a challenge and a path. I love a meaningful sermon and today’s powerful message offered not only meaning but purpose in my need to connect, both spiritually in daily Mass and in the experience of  everyday.

It is a rare and brave person who uses his fame to express ideas of a higher power; George Harrison is one of those unique beings. In another of his many profound quotes, he states, “You’ve got as many lives as you like, and more, even ones you don’t want.” I stumbled into a life I really didn’t want only to emerge with a newfound appreciation for nature, writing, creativity, my own story, and my faith, all things I most likely would have never realized without the gift of time. Due to circumstances, I was forced to slow down, to take it all in, and truly to be present. In slowing down, every day offered a chance to understand what was important: using well the gift of time to feel deeply our moments of joy, the grace of inner peace, and our connection to a God. And George was right. Everything else truly can wait.  

The Accidental Entrepreneur, or How I Started My Own Business Without A Clue

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“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel

Two months ago, newly unemployed and pretty bereft, I committed to a life of multiple self abuses including emotional flagellation, indulgence, and pity. I took to this mindset pretty naturally, spending hours on the sofa contemplating the ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’. In addition to promising myself and others that I would get up and dressed most days before 2pm, I set daily goals like buying up all of the sugar raised donuts at Donuts with a Difference or a CVS run for shampoo. As a corporal work of mercy, I visited my friend who was recovering from an extensive surgery. Other days, I went to the library and borrowed trashy novels and piano sheet music books like “Best Break Up Songs of All Times”. I played “The Long and Winding Road” ad nauseum on the piano. I knew it was time to stop when my grandson complained that the song went on forever and I barked back, “Well, they don’t call it “The Short and Winding Road!”. When I became a regular at the Dollar Tree, I knew that I was losing the plot in a big way. Something had to happen soon to reverse the trend and stem this systemic shutdown.

As heartening as it was to hear the encouraging words of friends who still believed in me and my skills, I had lost all faith. I was a casualty of a bad work situation and my career was the road kill. While a core group of my nearest and dearest stayed in touch, others disappeared, teaching me a lot about who you can depend on in a crisis. Angry at myself for allowing this disaster to happen to the post full-time Mommy, mid-life career that I worked so hard for, everyday I could sense some of the weight lifting. Knowing that I could not stay in my house wallowing in misery forever, I sought some enriching experiences that were stimulating and, at the same time, non-committal. At Christmas, my husband had given me a gift certificate for photography lessons, in direct response to an impulse purchase that I made of a Canon camera to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. With my camera and its multiple lenses sitting idle, he capitalized on my despair and thought that I would love these lessons. He had no idea that he was throwing me a life preserver to counteract my rapid sinking. This experience was just the emotional massage that I needed to begin the rebirth of my psyche. Not only did I learn all about aperture and exposure, I learned about my own resilience.

Two classes later, I could take pictures where motion stopped, where backgrounds faded, and where things were generally in focus, all of which I considered major successes. With the art of photography mastered, I now needed a new frontier. I scoured local community education catalogs, websites, and supermarket information boards until I found just the thing – ‘Writing Tight: Short Memoir Writing’ at the Medford Public Library on Tuesday mornings from 10-12 for 8 weeks. Since it fit my schedule (oh right, I don’t have one) and my budget (it was free), I signed up, but the class didn’t start for another 3 weeks. In the meantime, I needed something to fill my days.

When I chose the career of school counselor over 20 years ago, I employed a graphic organizer, the versatile, two column type that lent itself to any purpose – this time, with pros and cons. I broke my life down into a primitive “Things I like to do” and “Things I don’t like to do”. Simplistic, yes – but the information that I gathered about myself fueled my decision to go to graduate school and work towards my Masters degree. I was 39 and a bit of a dinosaur, with my classmates considerably younger, less jaded, and lacking life experience. However, I believe to this day that my advanced years enhanced my attractiveness to employers, with a few job offers upon graduation while others were not as lucky.

Now, more than 20 years later and at another crossroads in my life, or as my friend calls it, “My Third Act”, I returned to the trusty Pros and Cons list to inform my goals. Once again, my age deterred me momentarily but knowing innately that I was not quite done with a work life, I forged on. The pros: I love working with kids, I know education, I have a tons of college application and advising experience, and I am relatively pleasant and easy to work with (if you do things my way, that is). The Cons: I never want to work for “The Man” again! That was it – the one and only negative to a work life, written at a dark time and possibly over-reactive. Not even sure who “The Man” was, I was resolute in my intent to avoid him. Combining these revelations with encouragement from colleagues who know well my abilities and professionalism, I decided to dive into the deep end of self-employment and start my own college advising business.

Terrified of my good friend, the IRS, I needed to make this endeavor legitimate and unquestionably legal. When a lawyer offered to incorporate me for $1995, flat rate, I was shaken but not deterred. Now on a “fixed income”, as my husband often jokes, with no cash flow to speak of, I needed to find a way to create my company on my limited budget of approximately $0. One evening of research netted a company name that was available and catchy, a domain address, and an offer of an LLC filing for $799. Mami, the aging but enthusiastic entrepreneur, was born!

Spending my days writing a business plan, creating marketing tools, and attending small business seminars, I prepare for the curtain to rise on my Third Act. I think I can make a go of it, maybe. If not, I always can write my memoir or take pictures. In any case, my project keeps me busy and minimizes my self-loathing. Sometimes I feel like I am just throwing the possibilities in the air to see which ones stick on the way down. Other times, I wonder if I am anesthetizing myself from reality, immersing myself in my still imaginary company (it’s always imaginary until the first paycheck). In the end, I am blessed to have those airborne possibilities, and the imagination, interest, energy, emotional glue, and most importantly, the hope that they stick.

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“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel

Girlfriends’ Weekend: a coming of a certain age story

This past weekend, I experienced the sublime pleasure of spending time with “old” and dear friends in the framework of a “Girls’ Weekend”. For my college friends and me, the Girls’ Weekend became a thing when we all turned 50, a mere ten years ago now. Since then, our gatherings have assumed many forms: usually just a once-a-year dinner or a spa day,
occasionally a weekend, and sometimes a quick evening minus a player or two. Each time, the gathering is a place to share joys, pains, sadness, accomplishments, and a history that spans over forty years.

The celebration to mark our collective fiftieth birthdays was quite momentous. Due to the gravity and excitement of our mid-century milestone, we embarked on a three night spa-casino extravaganza. We rented a condo on the spa compound, enhancing the ability to roam the grounds in robes while sipping fruit infused waters and eating crisp, delicious apples as we awaited the next treatment. Restful and blissful, we revelled in the time together, as well as in our hot stone massages, mani/pedis, and facials. We participated in belly dancing lessons, and more in our element, a wine tasting event. Our guards were down when, on night number 3, we set off to the nearby casino, where I introduced my friends to Cosmopolitans (a la Carrie Bradshaw), and it was a case of “one martini, two martinis, three martinis…floor”. Sadly, I am not exaggerating. After a few Cosmos, we dined and enjoyed more than a bottle or two of wine. All a little tipsy, we returned to the spa property for a night cap, and to this day, where I believe where it all went truly wrong. Some of us were queasy, some of us drove the porcelain bus, but all of us fled on that Sunday morning much worse for wear but with a story that is told in humor, embarrassment, and camaraderie – a battle wound that only solidified our connection. Our legacy remains: we are the only people in history who went to a spa and emerged damaged from the episode.

Now ten years and the blink of an eye later, armed with more life experience, repaired egos, and a resolve to avoid a repeat performance of our 50th celebration, we planned a weekend of theatre, dining, and conversation in Rhode Island. In the planning stages, I depended on my friends to take the reins of planning, since I was in the middle of a personal crisis and didn’t have the energy to assist. And as friends do, the slack was taken up by the other three and the plans fell into place – two nights at a lovely hotel in the shadow of the Rhode Island State Capitol building (rooms with a view, of course), restaurant reservations, and tickets to The Phantom of the Opera matinee. Upon arrival we set off to lunch at a restaurant recommended by the hotel staff, a distance away. As a veteran of Uber and the parent of a sometimes Uber/Lyft driver, I suggested “Ubering”. Showing their ages and relative distrust of social media types of thing, a general lack of knowledge and trepidation around the miracle of Uber was exposed. As I took the reins, we secured a ride, using my app, and we were off. It was a moment of wonder and I felt oddly empowered and youthful, as I showed off my iPhone app prowess.

Once at the restaurant, we were met with by a maitre d’, who was chilly, aloof, and condescending. We were “sans reservations” and clearly very low on his list of priorities (I wanted to tell him I was Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, but I was pretty sure the reference would have been met with a stony glare.) In our younger days, this treatment might have offended us. Instead, with limited time left (we are 60, after all), there was no room for attitude. And so, we proceeded to the bar where the explosion of news and chat ensued, as well as our first toast and cocktail of the weekend. And Girls’ Weekend was officially in full swing.

As if no time had passed since our last meeting, a familiarity that comes with years of connection took hold and, without hesitation, we shared the details of the passing of a parent, another elderly parent’s broken hip, a family member’s cancer diagnosis, and late career unemployment. Our collective empathy in this setting, so removed from our problems, provided needed comfort and respite. Interestingly, we each revealed that we had rethought the timing of our mini-break due to these life complications, which would have made it too easy to slip into our own thoughts and worries. Instead, we fought the urge to retreat, with an outcome that surpassed any expectations.

By the end of the weekend, without effort or intent, we affirmed the reason for our getaways. We all had learned a little more about downloading apps on our phones (some of us have none), mastered the world of Uber (we had an Uber virgin or two in our midst), drank moderately (no replay of 2009), and discovered that some of us have never had an avocado (ok, I confess) or ever been on a cruise (and probably never will). We also exposed our fears of elder care, parent loss, cancer diagnoses, and parenting our now grown children. But most importantly, we remembered why we still cling to this time together after all these years. Our time together is truly ours and, while the spectre of the life we leave behind for even a few hours is palpable, we are present for each other. We do not proclaim to feel 20 again in each other’s presence, because we don’t. We bear the scars and memories of the experiences that link us as humans, connect us as friends, and call us to return to each other, if even for a few hours, every year. So, to 61, or sooner, I pledge to raise a glass in the presence of my “old” and dear friends, for a evening, or a weekend, as we forever become “a certain age” together.

The Pressures of Having Too Much Time

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-with apologies to Styx

In the past few weeks, I have found myself in the enviable position of having an income and not having to go to work. While this is a fleeting phase, I greeted the possibility with great expectation and hope for productivity. While the way that I arrived at this condition, through unexpected and premature unemployment due to resigning a job, probably is not the best means to be free of the day-to-day grind, it has taken a modicum of effort to get my sea legs in the ocean of undone tasks and household chores long ignored. Images of springing from my bed at sunrise have been replaced with the reality of questioning just what the heck I am doing in this mess and what happens when the tasks, chores, and money run out. I am lost, unfocused, and inert, a victim of malaise in the greatest degree.

In the past few weeks, I must admit that I have not been a slave to my situation totally. No, quite to the contrary. On the heels of my work exit (and in truth, the same day), I embarked on a magical trip to Paris, planned in advance yet amazingly timely. However, the Parisian whirlwind, a means to delay the impending new “reality” that awaited me at home, wasn’t fully a distraction and dinner conversation often wandered into the subject of picking up the pieces of career and passion, and of the feel of a life of unscheduled days. It was exciting and terrifying, all at once.

As those unscheduled days unfolded before me, I found myself only moderately productive as I migrated to too many hours spent in the throes of Words With Friends and Candy Crush Saga. There were the few odd loads of laundry, a closet or two dissected and reassembled, and a more than a few Konmari moments – my pajama drawer is a work of art. On other days, I have been forced to rise at an early hour for occupational therapy to address my December hand injury, having set the early appointments to accommodate my prior work schedule. And then there were the days when I purposefully dove into that recently realigned pajama drawer and thoughtfully chose my previous night’s pajamas so as to be comfortable as I anticipated and pursued a full-on “duvet day”, replete with vintage game shows and British television. On some level, I see that self-direction as progress.

Yet, barely two weeks into this altered reality, I find myself adrift, while at the same time, finding an equilibrium. I do think that there is a fear among my nearest and dearest that Mommy has lost the plot a bit. I could sense this belief when I announced that I would be attending daily Mass during Lent, and with this pronouncement, I committed to driving my grandchildren to school in close proximity of both time and location. A great cheer went up from the crowd – not only would Mom be getting up and dressed daily, but in addition, she would take the kids to school, saving the parents the daily trip. It was relief for the masses on two levels, and for me, as well. I found a purpose in life and a way to pave a clear path to the afterlife, all in one fell swoop!

I can’t lie, I have accomplished a few important tasks – like the new wall hangings installed in our bathroom, referring to various bodily functions in an artful way. Some would find this offensive; I am entertained. My favorite: “Please Remain Seated for the Entire Performance”. Classy, huh? And I visited my dear friend, Gail, who had surgery and I had yet to see since her convalescence due to a cold and my world travels. For those of you keeping score, chalk that one up to a “Corporal Work of Mercy” – Visiting the Sick. And I sewed – all of the sewing tasks that accumulated between my blinding eye issues this summer and fall, and my hand issue this winter. As I make my list everyday of tasks to attack, I know that there will come a time when all of the items will be ticked in completion, and I will take to the sofa and the British telly permanently.

At some point, I hope to wake up and say, “It’s time to go back to work”, but I am not there yet. However, as I move beyond a bad experience, I know that there is more to be done, both personally and professionally. I know that I have more to offer than an organized drawer or a lousy decorating project. I also know that I need to add one more item to my to-do list – update my resume, just in case.

The Effects of Second Hand Worry

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It’s a great feeling when everything is going well. Good health, finances in order, nights of great sleep, joyful times spent with family and friends, and a fulfilling work life fuel a sort of euphoria that unfortunately is not recognized or appreciated until the spell passes – that is, unless you live in my head. In my case, while I relish the joy of every single moment of the good, I wait expectantly for the next disaster and work against any possibility. I control my environment to thwart life’s best efforts to destroy me and make only the most informed decisions. Yet, despite my best efforts, “stuff happens”, opening the door to the “The Worries”.

I can’t take credit for the term, “The Worries”. It was coined by my granddaughter at the age of 4 while in the throes of anxiety. In our family, we come by “The Worries” honestly, having sprung from a bloodline rife with hoarding, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. I prided myself on being relatively sane, despite my genetics. I was productive, organized, focused, and driven, which are just a few of the traits that suffer with unmanaged mental health. However, while not at a clinical level, I will admit to being a “worry wart”. I worry about everything, in a truly absolute kind of way.

I am a champion worrier, having legitimately won the title in the boxing ring of hard knocks. Not unlike many people, I’ve been through some tough times, especially in the area of child rearing and elder care. The epitome of the baloney and cheese in the proverbial “sandwich generation”, I tried my best to manage the struggles but I will not deny that the challenges and triumphs and missteps came with a cost. My guard is up all the time, bracing for the worst and ready to fight back.

Now confronted with new, scary and very different challenges, I brush off the title belt and enter the ring this time with trepidation and crippling fear. This time is different. Normally, I have a scrappy determination to “not let the bastards get me down”. This time, I am not sure I have the fight left in me. Did they get me this time? Am I washed up, a “has been”? While the cost of retreat is dear, I am defeated, with the world as a witness.

Of anyone in our family, I have mastered the effects of “The Worries”. Instead of giving in to the fear, I am the problem solver, the maker of magical outcomes, the rock. But when the magical, problem solving rock is down for the count, there is panic in the kingdom.

Since the “The Worries” run deep in our family, ‘Second Hand Worry’ elevates itself to an art form and provides the catalyst to create a safety net as strong as family ties. They are clearly worried. In the past few weeks, I have been told daily that I am loved via phone, text, and in person; received Bitmojis affirming me and cheering me with a “You Da Real MVP”; received notes of encouragement from my grandchildren; and made to eat pizza – there has been a lot of pizza, our family’s comfort food, as we gather together in an effort to bolster my weary ego. But underlying all of these beautiful gestures, there is an extreme case of “The Worries” and, in turn, my family’s ‘Second Hand Worry’.

With the tables turned on the ‘Magical Rock’, my own fears awaken more vividly as I see myself through the eyes of others. Clearly, the concern is not limited to my blood tribe as I have experienced an outpouring of concern from friends as well. I am changing before their eyes and what they are seeing alarms them. In turn, I am alarmed, as well. This is serious.

Exposed to ‘Second Hand Worry’, the sense of others worrying about me pervades my soul. It exposes like a mirror reflection, and it warms like a fuzzy blanket. Gazing boldly into that mirror to assess the adjustments necessary to repair the damage done, I struggle to see the future. Yet, to grasp the warmth of their concern is a comfort. While mired in the darkness, the distant light of what will be evades me and desperation takes hold. Only time will tell the outcome and the reveal what remains.

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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go to Paris

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One thing I have learned, repeatedly, is that life is tough, everyday. The unexpected, the predictable, the drudgery, the fun – all are accompanied by minefields of nasty that are substantially more distasteful than imagined or anticipated. Each day, some of this unpleasantness seeps into my soul and leaves me weary and exhausted. To counteract the misery, I travel.

For the past fourteen years, the chosen antidote to the nasty that life doles out (coupled with the winter doldrums) has been a winter/spring trip to Ireland. A cure like no other, it transports me to a place where I immerse myself in beauty, peace, and inner joy. I drink my fill of Guinness, devour multiple bags of Taytos daily, and drive with abandon like a local on the tiny, rugged Irish roads. I revel in the encounters with shopkeepers and barmen, where I gather my best stories. Life thwarted my best efforts a few times over the years by calling me to care for my dad versus assuming my wild Irish life, but the possibility is always as close as my passport and a delay only makes the visit sweeter.

But once in a while, something happens to change the path of predictable and comfortable, and even in my pre-determined wandering world, the course alters and realigns. A few weeks ago, scenes of Paris on the television screen sparked a conversation between me and my beloved about the possibility of a trip to France. Our last trip was magical! Cafe life and quartinos of wine, full blown cane sugar Coca-Colas and shops with racks of colorful macaroons – the images were palpable, transporting us back to the wonder we experienced. And that was it. Impetuously and impulsively, we decided, this year, to go to Paris.

Paris – in my mind’s eye, the setting fills the senses with romantic images of bridges over the Seine, the evening sparkles on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Mona (only first name needed), and my own moment standing in the shadow of the L’Arc de Triomphe. My wounded and bruised psyche, a casualty of life, craves a Francophile redux and perhaps, I will once again dust off of my cobwebs from my sketchy ability to communicate in the native tongue of the locals (interestingly, eight years of French in school surprisingly kicks in once immersed in the environment). Of one thing I am certain, I crave a distraction and a change of scenery to anesthetize me from my aching soul.

So in a few short weeks, we will escape from the everyday to a place where magic and beauty and romance abound, which I hope will be a welcome change in an otherwise acutely difficult spell. I depend on this adventure to transport and transform my weary mind, at least for a short time. And if asked about my destination, I will reply, “Quand les choses se compliquent, les difficiles se rendent à Paris!” I think that’s a pretty “tres bien” reason!

A little w(h)ine on a welcome change of year…

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2018 began like most years – full of resolutions and hopes for great things ahead. However, why is it, when we reach the end of each year, and this one in particular, we are thrilled to be rid of it, like an old moth eaten sweater that makes us sad because it was our favorite but now is so much less than it was before the assault? How does something so promising, so shiny bright, and so exciting turn into something so full of negative connotation? Interestingly and unavoidably, life happens yet we are surprised when life becomes so exhausting, so terrifying, and so challenging that we question just what possibly could be next.

As for me, now at the start of a new year, the same hope for the future persists, yet this time, I am different. The challenges of the past year have hardened me, weakened me, and changed me for what I believe (and fear) may be forever. Struggles with my health, regrets around job change, and the realities of age have hit me hard and have infiltrated my psyche. While it was a year full of peak excitement, sad goodbyes, new experiences, and devastating loss, each moment stole a bit of my heart and my confidence. The passing of time and the celebration of each of these events, happy or sad, molded the “me” that I am today. As I embark on new “resolutions”, I acknowledge that the nature of the foci has changed. In the past, at the start of a new year, I focused on what could be defined as superficial: losing weight, developing better habits, keeping a healthy schedule, or reading more. Now, the changed “me” seeks to be happy – that is all – and whatever it will take to be there again, that is my goal. At this moment, I am not sure exactly what will be the ticket to this destination, but I am certain (or at least, hopeful) that the journey will evolve into the joy of regaining myself.

In my life, I believe that everything happens for a reason and, in turn, I question the why of what happens. I want to believe that there is a lesson hidden within each joy and misery, yet why are the lessons so hard to comprehend in the moment? And once the siege has passed, why is it so difficult to remember just how deep the despair was felt? In essence, those experiences fuel our need to return to the baseline of “happy” when we are not, and the drive to sustain “happy” when we are.

So on the first day of this new year, I wish for myself the strength to seek new experiences, discover new opportunities, and embrace the possibilities that will lead to being happy, because in the end, happy is all that truly matters.

Christmas Decorations and the Scourge of Being Merry

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Every year, I promise myself that I will not succumb to the competition that is Christmas hall decking.  And every year,  I find myself guilted into upping the ante with another addition, or five, to the Christmas decor stable.  I try to be good, but once I spy the first twinkling light on an otherwise nondescript shrub outside an otherwise uneventful house that is suddenly transformed into a winter vision of wonder, my resolve is dissolved and I become a fiend for the red and green stuff.

This year, I began my enslavement to the chore of being festive just hours after the Thanksgiving bell tolled. Compelled to participate in the madness that is “Black Friday”, I meandered through the likes of “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” and “Joann Fabrics”, looking for nothing in particular. But with a promise of 70% off on ribbon, and text messages teeming with links to coupons of all sorts, who could refuse?  Six rolls of ribbon later (soon to join the long time residents of the 3 boxes of holiday ribbon amassed previously), a pang of “Buyer’s Remorse” gripped me and I suddenly regretted my purchase. Heck, it’s only ribbon, I lamented internally. Yet, the purchase symbolized the cultural conundrum that is Christmas. Can it be really be Christmas without the Christmas schmutz?

It was still Thanksgiving weekend when the need to deck the halls became acute. An audible moan arose from my husband’s gut as I announced that it was time to put up the tree. Yes, put up the tree – the one that is housed in the box in our basement. Prelit, modular, narrow, short by Christmas tree standards at 6 feet, the Cahalane Christmas tree is a Lowe’s special. It’s important to note that our family didn’t always have a “fake” tree. God forbid! In the early days of the Medford Cahalanes, we wouldn’t have dared an imitation. Ensconced in a neighborhood where “go big, or don’t bother going to Mahoney’s” was a mantra, you overbought.  Your ceilings were 6 1/2 feet? – go for the 7 footer and then realize it’s too tall, forcing the executive decision – chop from the top, or the bottom.  Who knew that, once you unleashed the soon to be blazing Yule from its protective transport wrapping, half of your living room would become unnavigable? The annual dilemma of visual tree measurement was real and driven by the need for the “perfect tree”, the one that you couldn’t wait to get out of your house by January 1.

The year that broke the back of our quest of the perfect real tree came at the hands of our children, who were teenagers at the time. With drama club and sports schedules to accommodate, the opportunities were few to gather the flock (we were a family of 4…) for the annual trek to the tree lot. We scheduled a time agreeable to all yet, when the hour arrived, there were complaints of the weather being too cold and other manufactured obligations, limiting our offspring’s availability. With the window of opportunity thrust open wide, we jumped into the car like hormone-crazed teens running from an overbearing parent and fled to a nearby Bradlees’ (who remembers?).  As gratifying as any visit to Mahoney’s, there stood the “perfect tree” – 6 feet of green polyvinyl chloride, promising to bring years of Yuletide joy to our home, all for the meager price of $99, plus tax. As we slipped the parcel into our 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass wagon, a sense of accomplishment and freedom washed over us. Arriving in the driveway, we beckoned the children, who miraculously arrived home despite their other commitments, to come and help with the “tree”.  I will never forget the moment when realization overtook our daughter as she exclaimed, “YOU DIDN’T!” As a parent, I momentarily felt a little guilty – and moments later, weirdly powerful! And so began the era of the Cahalane Fake Tree.

Many years have passed after the initial shock of the fake tree infiltration but the work of decorating seems interminable. Weeks in the making, the chore refuses to be finished. Thematic collections of snow and gingerbread men and women call to me from their chilly cellar coffins, begging to be sprung. And I succumb. Furniture must be relocated, and day to day decorations are tucked away for three weeks, replaced by the “Christmas schmutz”. It’s a lot of work, and I swear, the supply of Christmas accoutrements begets itself. Entire boxes are overlooked from year to year, suddenly to be discovered and needing a space for display. But no space exists. The house is full, my brain is full, and the fun of it is over.

I imagine a day when Christmas is a table top tree in my tiny assisted living apartment and I will wax nostalgic for my days of decking the halls, and the kitchen, and the dining room… Until then, I will continue the dance of relocation, decoration, and restoration. And I truly wonder if it would still be Christmas without the “schmutz”.  My guess is, after the initial shock, Christmas will be Christmas, for the right reasons, and the time that we spend together, surrounded by our family and friends, will help us to understand that love is truly the best decoration of all.

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Mami REALLY does know everything…sometimes

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When life and fate take me by the hand and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what could possibly happen next, my mind races. As I strive to regain my balance and right the ship of my life, I wonder how I ever lost control of my destiny. Fear, uncertainty, and dread seize my body and mind, and like a captive audience, I ride the wave of trepidation, with an acute hopelessness tinged with a tiny speck of optimism that it will all work out. But during that time in between, I always have my go-to, and when the going gets tough, the not so tough go to the psychic.

It was forty years ago this week that I first stepped into Regina Russell’s Tea Room in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was a day of firsts – on that very morning, Gail and I set off to get our ears pierced, again, adding an additional hole to one of our lobes, solidifying our renegade, “bad girl”, 70’s personas. No strangers to the world of fortune tellers, we had frequented the “Gypsy” in her tiny storefront on West Street, near Jordan Marsh,  for years. She told us of foreign men in our futures who would become our husbands, and tallied our future children by assessing the lines on our palms. It was dark and mysterious, and being “good” Catholic girls, we were dabbling in things forbidden. When she prepared to close her shop after many years, she offered us her home address in Somerville so that we could continue the conversation, but that just seemed a bit too dangerous. With no GPS tracking in those ancient times, we were pretty sure we disappear without a trace. So we abandoned our soothsaying friend and moved on to greener, psychic pastures.

When we arrived at Regina Russell’s on that fateful Thursday in November 1978, we paused in the angled parking lot surrounding the tiny white house, unsure about taking our curiosity to the next level. It was clearly some sort of organized operation, far from the dingy West Street storefront. On that day, and every time since, we were greeted by a “hostess”, who seats you at a table designated with a zodiac sign. Handing you a “menu”, she asked if we would like a drink, offering a limited choice of tea, coffee, or lemonade.  As we sipped our pink lemonade from little plastic cups, we perused the psychic options: tarot cards, playing cards, tea leaves, palm, crystal ball, jewelry, fire…or a combination, thereof. So many choices! The Gypsy was clearly an amateur! We were in the big leagues now.

On this inaugural day, I became a true believer.  Our reader, who is still there to this day, warned us that sitting together at the same table could be problematic to the reading since we were very close friends and, in so many words, the wires might get crossed. We poo-pooed the idea to separate, mostly out of fear, I think. Yet, true to his disclaimer, he confused our readings, warning me of a a kitchen with a red floor and a dropping glass that would smash into a million pieces. He noted that I would not drop the glass by accident but because of a startle. On the other hand, Gail would find herself in a hockey rink, wading through trash, cans, and newspapers. And it happened, except it was I, at Boston Garden, at an Aerosmith concert, navigating the trash filled ramps (the old Garden, that is), on my way to my seat. It was the ultimate “ah ha” moment. I knew instantly that this was the moment referenced in Gail’s reading. On the other hand, the next morning, Gail called to tell me that she broke a glass, on a red tile floor, while at her job at a bar, because someone slipped a piece of ice down her back. Armed with this credible proof, my psychic love life began.

Throughout the years, I have introduced many friends and family to the RR Tea Room, some of whom emerged as converts, others as confirmed skeptics. I can only speak for my own experiences and they have been powerful. In one spirit reading, the reader was in contact with a man, who was standing behind me (spooky!). He referenced a “J” name, and then a Tom, a Mike, another T (Terri?, no that’s not it…). In the end, she tapped into the names of all of my brothers and sisters-in-law, leading me to believe that it must be my father-in-law, Charlie. But when she told me that he was very excited about the baby, a girl, I pretty much told her she was full of it! Why, Lisa had only been married about 10 months at the time so a baby was not quite in the plans.  You can imagine my surprise (and hers) when three weeks later, Lisa announced her pregnancy. Apparently, I (and Charlie) were the first to know.

Around the time of the “big baby reveal”, my godmother passed, which was really why I sought a spirit reading that day. While I was not disappointed to hear from Charlie, I had hope that Julie would have come through. Fast forward one year, Lisa and I trekked once again to Regina’s, hoping to connect with my mother. While Lisa ducked into a small alcove with her chosen seer, I remained at a table awaiting my reading. When she emerged, in tears, twenty minutes later, she recounted the experience where my dear Julie came through. She thanked our family for taking care of her little white dog, for helping to clean out her house, and few other details known by a very few. In truth, Muffy, the little white dog we inherited the day Julie died unexpectedly while awaiting my visit that afternoon, was taking care of us. Julie worried about me and my caretaking role with my dad and I am sure that she left Muffy behind to supervise.

These are but a few anecdotes of the history of 40 years of readings. Using the information gleaned from my psychic encounters, I have planned trips, sold homes, and dealt with unruly teenagers. In one of my favorite experiences, while awaiting a closing date on our Hampton home that dictated our exit to the U.K. for ten days, I sought the guidance of a R.R. psychic. As we flipped the cards, she sought a clearer picture of the situation. She commanded me to pull four more cards from the tarot deck, all of them 7’s and 8’s. Taking a stab at the information revealed, she pronounced that the closing would be on August 7th, and that I should feel confident planning the trip for a departure from that day on. And so, the details unfolded – the closing was at ten a.m. on August 7th, and I was on a British Airways jet by ten that evening.

However, I do believe that you need to be of a certain sort to be open to these messages and to allow the psychic in. As a client, I have been identified by many readers to be gifted psychically as well. This fact I acknowledge, I fear, and I embrace, which causes me to dabble in the mystical. My grandfather also was whacked with the psychic stick and “knew things”. I know things. A lot. But I can never predict the accuracy or interpret the meaning, until it happens. In one case in 1979, while driving home from work with Gail (she is a theme, clearly), we came upon an accident scene and I knew that a friend was involved. I verbalized my concern in my usual impulsive way (when I “know” things, I just blurt them – without proof or reason), drove home, and then, troubled about the message, returned to the accident to assure myself that it was not his car, and hence, could not be him. When I received the call the next morning that the accident did involve my friend, Gail queried me as to how I knew. I had no idea but I was shaken.

In the clearest demonstration of any psychic prowess, I became physically ill (not illness in the strict sense, but a sense of dread permeated my body) prior to my mother’s passing in 2003. For two weeks prior to the event, I experienced a psychic heaviness, a weight, a darkness. I had changed jobs of my own volition just a month before and I was miserable. In my last conversation with my mother (who was not ill), I shared my concerns about my decision and she assured me that I would figure it out, I always did. I connected my dark feeling to my work situation and wondered just how long I could bear this pain. I often took in deep breaths and tried to release the tightness. I spoke of the feeling to Tim, and he, being firmly centered in this worldly plane, struggled with what I tried to convey. Three days later, as I sat in restaurant eating dinner, a sudden lightness pervaded my body. I felt better than I had in weeks and I noted this feeling saying, “Wow! I suddenly feel good!” and took in a huge, unencumbered breath.  Moments later, the phone rang and I was summoned home. At the moment that my darkness transformed, my mother had taken her last breath.

So, once again, I find myself questioning decisions, seeking a path to the future, and tapping into that part of me that rears its head occasionally.  I am not feeling dread, so I am pretty sure that no one is going to die, but I need some assistance in navigating my reality. And maybe for me, that is what psychics do. While they tap into their abilities, my own are enhanced and empowered, informing my thoughts and outcomes. In any case, I think it’s time for a trip to Quincy for a little pink lemonade and a chat – and, hopefully, a little empowerment, knowing that it all works out in the end, once you figure it out.

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Baseball and Me: Mrs. October, or My Accidental Fair Weather Fandom

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I watch the World Series by default. Every night, year round, I assume my usual position on the dual reclining sofa and hunker down for a dozy few hours watching mindless television, like “Family Feud” or “Britain’s Worst Teeth”, before moving to bed for the duration.  This scenario is dependable and sacred, except on World Series game nights in October, when my viewing is preempted with the arrival of my husband and his cell phone, his reader glasses, and a glass of seltzer water, signifying the end of my respite. He needs all of these tools to communicate with the outside world while the game ensues. Communication via text message goes out to family and friends, while frequent “dings” emanate from his lap where his phone is cradled. Most importantly, it has become his new means to watch the game with our son in Texas since his move last winter. In truth, I am amused yet mildly  annoyed, especially since there are only six other televisions in our house.

My history with baseball is long and storied. My mom, a fervent fan of the Boston Red Sox, taught me the game from her armchair, never having gone to a major league game herself. When my mother was a teenager, she became quite ill, turning to the ballgame on the radio for comfort and distraction. A true fan, the excitement of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” was the culmination of years of dedication.  Her excitement was contagious and I became a forever fan. Armed with a decent knowledge of the game and a fervor that only a mother can instill, I set off with my friend Noreen, in the summer of 1971, on the MTA to Kenmore Square, to my first Wednesday afternoon Red Sox game. It was the day of Yastrezemski, Tiant. and Petrocelli, and despite their talent, the chances of a post-season playoff berth, let alone a World Series opportunity, were slim to none.  Presenting ourselves at the ticket booth twenty minutes before the first pitch, we purchased two tickets for $4 each, affording us the privilege of entrance and two box seats, four rows behind home plate, just to the first base side of the much abbreviated backstop screen. It was a dream come true and a bucket list tick, even before I knew I had said list.  And to make the experience even more complete, a foul tip by Carlton Fisk hit me in the shoulder and popped into Noreen’s hands. Pretty much, my life was complete at that moment, at the age of 12, and I could have died happy, right there, right then.

For the next few years, my visits to Fenway were frequent, and I was in a constant search for willing partners in crime. With time, it was clear that my go-to comrade would be Gail, a neighborhood friend who yearned to be a sports writer and loved the Red Sox with a depth that match mine. Gail and I embarked on our intrepid journeys to the far end of Boston via a combination of bus and subway, experiencing all form of sights and sounds. We could rely on the man on the Mass Pike Bridge perennially collecting donations for “Wheelchair Basketball”, or be shocked with an unexpected assault like the man who exposed himself to us from the opposing side of the platform in the Haymarket subway station. Buying a cheap bleacher ticket for 75 cents, we anticipated the fourth inning when we would pay an extra 50 cents to cross over into the grandstand for an new and different perspective. Games were invented and goals were set, like Fenway Frank eating contests – my personal best is six – or sitting in every section of the ballpark during the course of one game (it was the 70’s and the place was a ghost town!).  On warm August Sundays, we would ride our bikes to South Medford early in the morning to buy Italian cold cuts and thick Italian bread from LaCascia’s to be packed in grocery bags (yes, you could bring bags into the game back then) for our early arrival at the park where we watched batting practice, gorged ourselves on capicola, and worked on our bleacher tans. Oh, and we met boys – which was an additional draw to the full Fenway experience. We relish these crazy memories to this day as part of our shared history and  our love for our hometown heroes.

One of our favorite hobbies involved scoring the game in the program purchased as we entered the park. If I must say, we were pretty good, often checking our accurate decisions with the scoreboard or against each other. When our high school formed a girls’ softball team, Gail and I decided to put our vast knowledge of games involving bats and balls to the test and tried out for the team. Failing at athleticism flamboyantly, the coach, aware of our scoring skills, named us co-managers, a position we proudly held for two years, alternating equipment management and game scoring between us.  Who knew all these years of fun and frivolity could be something that could enhance our college applications?

If I had to put a finger on when the Fenway frenzy ended. I would say it coincided with finding a boyfriend who lacked the fascination with the game that I had. Sacrificing my own interests for “love,” as so often happens, I found my Fenway pilgrimages to be fewer and less entertaining. It is baseball, after all, and once I had to just watch the game instead of involving myself in competitions and goal setting, it became a bit more tedious. And despite marrying a Red Sox fan, my baseball interest never sparked to the same level as those of my teenage self.

However, like riding a bike, you never fully lose your ability and knowledge, and your real passion for the game. For me, baseball is like riding a bike, or that comfortable, fuzzy blanket tucked under your chin when you doze on the recliner as the game blares.  Admittedly, I still love to watch a good baseball game. And in October, when the Red Sox are involved, a special comfort comes to mind. On the day before my mother died in October 2003, she called to discuss the Martinez-Zimmer scuffle with my husband. Their agitation and excitement were such fun to watch and the encounter offered the last time I had contact with her, even if indirectly. Red Sox baseball and October, woven like a tapestry into the fabric of my life, offer a security blanket, a connection, and a memory overload that always bring a smile to my face, and perhaps a tear to my eye, as well.  And, for that, I thank you, Mom.

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