Seriously Winning Christmas

If giving is truly better than receiving, then ‘winning Christmas’ is the ultimate giving coup. Our family adopted the idea of winning Christmas as a way to acknowledge the really great gifts–the ones that make the receiver happy, really happy. On Christmas morning, I watch with a discerning eye to detect winning. Once in a while, a gift is received with such enthusiasm, it’s difficult to ignore–a clear-cut Christmas win. Other times, it’s tough to tell how a gift truly lands. In the moment, most gifts are received enthusiastically but I worry that an hour after the unwrapping carnage ends, the receiver forgets about, or worse, never uses the item. It’s a gamble that, for me, induces a serious case of agita.

I take gift-giving very seriously. I think back to last Christmas as I flip through the Mary Englebreit “The Magic of Christmas” themed notebook I have used for years to track my purchases. On the pages I’ve designated for each family member, I assemble lists of ideas, past gifts, and stocking stuffers. It’s a system of checkmarks and multiple color ink, scratch outs, and additions that keeps me from giving embarrassing repeat gifts and reminds me of past Christmases won. My notes remind me of the good and the not-so-good gifts, and what to focus on in the next round of buying and gifting.

This past Christmas, the winning stakes were a bit higher than usual. My son and his partner, Rachel, came ‘home’ to Boston for the holiday. Scott moved to Texas over five years ago and although we see each other a few times a year, it’s difficult to pick up on the new, evolving tastes and interests he acquires eighteen hundred miles away. I understood and feared the challenge ahead of me.

On Christmas morning, I positioned myself next to the tree to dole out the piles I had assembled for each family member. A smallish box containing Bose sunglasses teetered at the top of the boxes earmarked for Scott. The sunglasses were a risky purchase, much like any gift I purchase for him. I watched as he tore off the silver and gold wrapping paper and opened the box. He can be a tough one to please but these sunglasses, with speakers built into the temples near the ear, clearly hit the spot.

“Oh, I know what these are,” he said, having worked on a project that promoted the technology when it was new five or so years ago. I sensed his enthusiasm; he was clearly smitten with his new gift. A few hours later, I walked into the living room to see Scott sitting in the wing chair, staring off through his new Bose sunglasses. As he listened to something I figured was a podcast, I popped my head into his line of vision and he nodded in silent acknowledgment of my presence. Again, my heart was full, that is, once I got over the weirdness of the kid wearing sunglasses in the house.

When I chose the Kate Spade crossbody bag for Rachel, I knew I was taking a chance, not really sure of her taste or if she would like something like that. After we finished the gift exchange, I walked past the kitchen where I spied her dumping out the contents of her well-loved, well-worn, brown crossbody purse onto the kitchen table. As she transferred her wallet and the rest into her new bag, I couldn’t help but ask how she liked it.

“It’s good. I only wear crossbody bags,” she told me.

I marked that moment in my Christmas notebook as another Christmas win.

This year, the winning continued long after we unearthed our livingroom from red and green, tinsel-tinged glitter bomb of wrapping paper, discarded boxes, half-scratched lottery tickets, empty stockings, and toys of both grown-up and kiddie varieties. Three weeks into the new year and long after I rested on my Christmas gift giving laurels, my daughter, Lisa, sent me a text. I was sure it was to remind me to pick up our grandson at school that afternoon. Instead, she gushed about a silver and aquamarine bracelet I had given her for Christmas. She had worn it to a work gathering the evening before and had received compliments on the piece. 

“It’s not too delicate?” I asked. 

“Oh, not at all! It’s so pretty. I love it!” 

I appreciated her taking time out of her day to tell me how much she liked my gift. She understands I take winning Christmas very seriously and I live for feedback, especially the unsolicited kind. And is there anything better than knowing the joy of Christmas lives far beyond the season?

I happily report that the winning didn’t end there. A few days ago, my Apple watch buzzed with a text from Scott. Now safely back in Austin, he and Rachel had cashed in another Christmas gift from his dad and me, a gift certificate for a Cozymeal cooking class. His text featured a series of pictures of food and people. Instead of the suggested “Italian meal,” they had chosen a southern-inspired feast. I recognized the grits straightaway.  

I typed back, “How was it?” 

“It was fun,” he said. “Wanna hear the weirdest thing? Everyone in the class was from the Boston area.”

Besides being thrilled that they enjoyed the experience, his report made me wonder–maybe a few other moms and dads from Boston, with kids who live in Austin, had won Christmas, too. 

I can’t remember a time when Christmas winning lasted into February but I’m not complaining. As you can see, I take winning Christmas very seriously; for me, it truly is better to give than to receive.


After forty-two years of marriage, my husband has mastered the art of half-listening. He catches my first few words, checks out for the meat of the message, and responds with “Hmm,” or  “Really?” at the end. When I dipstick his retention, hours or days later, he will confirm my suspicions. He didn’t listen. 

I like my primary care physician but I fear he may also be a master of this dubious skill. I’ve complained for years about feeling unwell. I’m chronically exhausted. Aches and pains migrate from my fingers to my feet to my knees to my back. I’ve had all the basic blood tests and been ex-rayed. No red flags. I walked out of my appointment without answers. Worse, I accepted my fate as a hypochondriac. I dreaded going to the doctor’s office. 

In May, I got sick in a more tangible way. Stomach ache, bloating, and fever won me a pass to the emergency room where they diagnosed me with diverticulitis. They gave me a potent prescription and told me to eat a light diet of broth and canned fruit and then slowly introduce my favorite things: white bread, pasta, and potatoes. Two weeks after my first bout, I felt lousy again. I called my gastroenterologist who tele-healthed me for fifteen minutes, extended my prescription, and sent my insurance company a bill for $450 and charged me a $50 co-pay. He didn’t suggest a colonoscopy or a follow-up. His dismissive approach to my care caused me to wonder if he was also afflicted with the half-listening gene.

A few weeks after the original diverticulitis diagnosis, I developed a cough and shortness of breath. Cipro, the antibiotic I was taking, is great for lower GI infections but research links the antibiotic to blood clots and pneumonia. When I called my primary care physician’s office, I was told he was not available for a few weeks. The receptionist offered me another doctor. I was sick enough to know I had to be seen. 

I dissected Doctor R as she walked into the examining room. She was a tall, thin woman with sandy medium-length hair. Her outfit–tan slacks and a breezy white blouse–was unfussy and comfortable but well put together. I realized I never looked closely at what my own doctor wore. It must have been a woman-to-woman thing. 

I described my concerns, gagging and coughing as I spoke. Doctor R looked critically at me. “You’re having a lot of difficulty speaking.” Checking the notes on my vitals, she asked, “Is your heart rate always 120?” 

She sent me to the hospital for a chest x-ray and a scan. The result showed a partial lung collapse and no aneurysm. I began a new prescription to treat my latest ailment: pneumonia. I slept through the better part of June as I recovered from my multiple illnesses. 

I spent July worrying about myself. My diverticulitis diagnosis was unfinished business. Unsure of next steps, I read WebMD for advice. By the end of the month, I felt sick and bloated again. I panicked. As we traveled by car to Vermont for a wedding, my back ached. I wriggled in my seat, searching for a comfortable position. We stopped at a grocery store and grabbed a thermometer and some over-the-counter pain killer. I survived the weekend only to arrive home feeling lousy and with a sick COVID-stricken husband in tow. 

I waited for the all-clear before calling the doctor since I knew no one would see me in person while Tim was sick. Once again, my own doctor was unavailable so I opted for Dr. R, the doctor I had seen in June during my bout with pneumonia. I explained I wanted guidance on how to avoid a relapse of diverticulitis. “Well, first, you need a colonoscopy,” she said. “Didn’t anyone tell you that?” 

“No, they didn’t.” I felt a bit foolish. Maybe I should have asked earlier. Maybe the gastroenterologist should have told me. Maybe I was lucky to be seen by this doctor who seemed to take charge of my care.

“How are you feeling in general?” she asked. 

I rattled off the litany of aches and pains, tiredness, foggy thinking, and anxiety. While I spoke, she typed notes into the computer. She reviewed prior entries at the same time.

She looked up. “You’ve had these complaints for a while.” 

I wondered if she was on to something or was just throwing shade, confirming my hypochondria. I nodded.

“Well, there’s no one test that will give us the answer you are looking for,” she said, “but I am going to order some blood work that might point us in the right direction.” 

I frantically signed in and out of the hospital’s online portal as the lab slowly posted the results. Normal complete blood count. Normal thyroid function. A red exclamation point indicated a higher-than-it-should-be A1C. I wasn’t surprised. I come from a long line of diabetics, should take off more than a few pounds, and should abandon gummy bears as my favorite guilty pleasure. Nothing pointed to the answer that matched my malaise. 

A few hours later, another exclamation point appeared next to ‘Rheumatoid Factor.’ I clicked on the highlighted text. The number was thirty times above the normal range. Hmmm, that’s not good, I thought. I opened a new window on my computer and typed in ‘rheumatoid factor.’ The positive test results indicated raging inflammation in the body. The index finger on my left hand throbbed in agreement. I scanned an article about rheumatoid arthritis that outlined the symptoms. The diagnosis made sense. As Dr. R had hoped, the result pointed in the right direction. 

A few weeks later, I visited a rheumatologist who listened to my story. After ordering additional tests, she confirmed the diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. I immediately began treatment with the goal to reduce the inflammation and the degeneration of my joints. 

In spite of my long-standing symptoms, I am at the beginning of the illness, which is good news. I resist the urge to investigate the far-reaching impact of a disease like RA but I know it falls into the auto-immune and systemic categories. My rheumatologist assured me that I was in a good position to fend off devastating joint damage. Early treatment was the key to getting ahead of any continued deterioration. 

I still like my primary care physician, and I definitely like my husband, but half-listening is not acceptable in husbands or doctors. I’ll forgive Tim. He has too many good traits to crucify him over one shortcoming. As for my doctor, I want to say, “You have one job: to listen to me when I say I feel like crap.” I resist making the connection between gender and doctors who listen because I’ve had both male and female doctors who listen but I won’t deny I’m disappointed. While a husband can check out after forty-two years of hearing the drone of his wife’s voice, doctors don’t have that option.

I see my usual physician tomorrow for my annual physical. We will discuss the events of the summer and the constellation of illnesses and complaints that eventually brought me to a rheumatologist and a diagnosis. I will listen carefully to what he has to say and I will assess his level of half-listening, knowing Dr. R waits in the wings, ready to hear me.

The August of Our Covid Discontent

Over the past few weeks, my home has evolved into an unwelcome public health experiment that addressed two hot Covid questions: who is immune and who rebounds after Paxlovid? After attending a wedding in Vermont, my husband Tim and I returned home with happy memories and a stealthily simmering case of Covid 19. We had done good work avoiding infection for the duration of the pandemic and we knew we were taking a chance attending a large event. We also knew there were no guarantees the other attendees were taking precautions or wouldn’t be actively harboring the virus. It was a gamble. We lost. 

When the first partygoer surfaced with a positive test result, Tim and I began our emotional journey through the five stages of Covid grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We were sure we would be fine. We were angry that someone go to a large-scale event if they were sick or were a close contact who should be in isolation. We felt fine, that is until Tim’s first violent coughing fit during his sleep three nights later. The shrug when Tim’s test came up positive the next day demonstrated his tacit acceptance. The whole thing was depressing.

Although I felt fine, I tested myself, as a matter of course. Even though our house was a hotbed of germs, I was negative. Still, I believed it was a matter of time before I joined the ranks of the afflicted. Or maybe not. As Tim ran the course of symptoms–runny nose, cough, fever–I remained asymptomatic. Text messages exchanged between family members proved we were not alone in our situation. Some of us were sick, others were not. Some took Paxlovid, others chose to tough out the illness. Others dodged the virus altogether. Our extended family became a microcosm of society and a demonstration of the unpredictability of the Covid-19 virus and its variants. 

Tim started Paxlovid on ‘Day Two’ and saw improvement quickly. Despite my lack of symptoms, I isolated myself along with Tim since I was a close contact. As time passed, I continued to test negative and after five days, feeling as restless as I did in mid-2020, I ventured out to the grocery store wearing a mask. We needed food and I needed a change of scenery. I mean, I love my husband but the novelty of the early days of the pandemic, when he first began working from home, had worn off. I needed to get out in the world. 

Eight days into his illness, he finally tested negative but he sat out being social for a few more days, for safety’s sake. I continued to test negative and I made plans to dine out with a friend. On ‘Day Eleven,’ we embarked on an evening in Boston’s North End. Our friend conveyed some trepidation about our Covid status but we went. The next day, Tim’s nose started running. He tested. He was positive. I was negative. We rapidly cycled through the stages of Covid grief as the infection cycle began again. 

It is now Friday of the third week of Covid in our house. Tim’s symptoms continue to plague him and me. We pcr-tested at the drive-thru site in Revere last evening, and the results popped up in the middle of the night. I was awake to receive them since Tim’s fitful sleep prevented me from a good night’s rest. As expected, he was positive. I was negative. Fully alert from agitation, I moved to the sofa in the den and turned on the tv. I dozed until he left the bed at 6:30 am. Crawling back under the sheets, I nestled my pillow and slept until 9:30. I woke up exhausted, not just from lack of sleep. 

In the realm of coulda, woulda, shoulda, we have questioned ourselves, knowing what we know now, would we have gone to the wedding? We’ve missed concerts, our grandchildren’s plays, and dinner parties with friends, losses that cause us to be a little raw when we consider the topic. Maybe we will revisit the question once Tim gets a negative test. We played a game of viral Russian Roulette and one of us lost. We wondered why I never got sick. Wacky DNA? Mediterranean genes? An iron-clad immune system inherited from my father? As the experiment wore on, it didn’t really matter. I was a close contact with a conscience. I watched the summer slide by as I cowered in my basement until the all clear. When people asked me if I was ‘negative,’ I responded, “In more ways than one!” I sounded snarky. I didn’t care.

Tim will test again tomorrow and we’ll hope for the best. In the meantime, I’ll depend on my super DNA to save me and others from infection as I venture out into the world tonight without the patient. It’s ‘Negative test-Day Eighteen’ for me so I will assume I’m good to go. My Covid conscience tells me to grab a mask, just in case.

The Cinderella Summer

Leslie and Stuart

One of the greatest gifts of being a grandmother is the chance to share my own childhood memories and experiences with my grandkids, Molly and Declan. Usually, they feign interest, Sometimes they are honest. A few years ago, we watched, or tried to watch, the original Hayley Mills version of The Parent Trap together, Molly asked about twenty minutes in, “Is this almost over?” I squelched my urge to scream, “Are you kidding? This is iconic!” Instead, I calmly reached over to the remote and switched off the tv and VCR. “Wanna make some popcorn?” I asked. They were in the kitchen before I was off the couch. We ate our greasy, buttery popcorn sans Hayley. I learned my lesson.

The moment stuck with me as an unadulterated grandparenting failure. As the kids got older, I learned to be judicious in my choice of how to engage them. Ten-year-old Declan and I play the piano so we graze through my sheet music for a Disney duet to practice together. We also share a bizarre attraction to Snapchat and create videos using voice-changing filters while singing Aerosmith’s Dream On or Phil Collins’ Against All Odds. Molly, now twelve, likes to cook and bake. We scroll through our phones together and find recipes to try. Then we watch YouTube clips of The Office outtakes. They seek a different kind of engagement and I must evolve with their interests and access to technology. 

I have found other ways to breach Molly’s sphere of interest. In addition to her culinary pursuits, she also enjoys acting and going to the theater.  An appropriate birthday or Christmas gift for her can always be found in the listings for Broadway in Boston and other local venues for smaller-scale productions. For her twelfth birthday, I suggested tickets to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Northshore Music Theater. She was thrilled.

Although it was a gift for Molly, I selfishly chose the play based on my own childhood experiences. Once a year, long before tv viewing was ‘on demand,’ the CBS network aired the teleplay featuring Leslie Ann Warren as “Cinderella” and Stuart Damon of General Hospital fame as “The Prince.” The annual television event was so beloved by my generation, I believe watching Cinderella every year during our youth might have been as formative as the moon landing or the assassination of JFK. 

The songs imprinted on my memory so well way back then that I still can recall the lyrics verbatim. On the night of the play, I started singing on the half-hour ride to the theatre and I appreciated Molly’s tolerance of my performance since I am a notoriously horrid singer. It’s been five weeks since the show and I haven’t stopped singing yet. It was “A Lovely Night” and it feels more like “Ten Minutes Ago” than over a month ago. (See what I did there? I incorporated the songs into my essay. Clever, huh?)

A few days after our outing, good-natured Molly agreed to watch the Warren/Damon Cinderella via 2022 ‘on demand’ magic. We dissected the sets and considered variations between the two productions we had seen. Unlike The Parent Trap, she didn’t seem bothered by the primitive presentation, which even I have to admit seemed pared down and basic. I don’t remember it being so static. I still loved every minute. 

After seeing the play and rewatching the teleplay, I unintentionally dedicated the remainder of the summer to immersing myself in all things Cinderella. I downloaded the piano sheet music, which I practice every evening. I watched clips from the teleplay on YouTube while cooking dinner. Yes, I became a little obsessed but there was something pure and rejuvenating about reliving those special memories. As a bonus, by sharing those experiences with a grandchild, I bridged the time between my childhood and hers. I never imagined how gratifying that connection could be.

Summer is nearly over but I hope my Cinderella hangover will continue well into fall. In any case, I already know the next frontier in my quest to bridge generations: a viewing of The Trouble With Angels, the 1966 film about wayward girls in a Catholic boarding school. I’m not ready to give up on my girl Hayley and the chance for her body of work to be appreciated. I’ll have the popcorn at the ready, just in case.

When Did You Become So Political?

An old friend recently asked, “When did you become so political?” I should have responded, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t.” Instead, I referenced my political science major at Boston College. I chose poli sci because of my immersion in political discussion from my earliest memories. Even then, I suppressed my liberalism to live in my father’s world. I never tipped my hand at political leanings, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t “political.” 

I grew up in a family that ascribed to extreme political views, causing me to avoid discussing world affairs with anyone outside of our house. The only angle I fully knew was my father’s and I never totally bought into his perspective. Dad was a hawkish, Republican-leaning, pro-Vietnam, World War II veteran. As a captive audience, I spent the 1960s listening to his rants about the Commie pigs and the pinko hippies. I knew better than to comment or dissent, even if his views seemed a little out of whack. I never told my father he might be wrong because it never boded well for anyone who did. By the end of any verbal political scuff-up, the poor fool stuck enduring his harangue usually nodded and stared off into the distance, praying for spontaneous combustion or a serious case of diarrhea to force a speedy departure and end the tirade. 

Dad’s happiest days were spent serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and after the war, he found his niche when he joined American Legion Post 45. Rising to the rank of Commander, Dad considered the place his home and its rag-tag bunch of bar flies his family. On holidays like Patriots’ Day and Memorial Day, Dad marched in the local parades dressed in a para-military ensemble, complete with combat boots, a bayonet, and some fancy patriotic patches. He proudly wielded a ceremonial rifle that shot blanks in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

My parents immersed me in a Vietnam-era family culture that glorified war. Dinner-time entertainment included a force-feeding of the evening news with every forkful of pork chops. Deep and foreboding, the voice of Walter Cronkite reading a play-by-play of that day’s casualties on the battlefields of Vietnam droned in the background. Pork chops and Vietnam. The gruesome and disturbing images of bombs exploding feet away from American servicemen linger in my mind. I often wonder why my parents didn’t reach over and turn off the tiny Motorola that sat on the kitchen counter. I think they believed the war was part of my education. I know now it was part of my indoctrination in the pillars of Dad’s political belief system: war was good and necessary to secure democracy and grow the economy.

I was a teenager when the next big political event made the headlines. The Watergate scandal threatened our nation’s election integrity, but my father denied the implications of Watergate, even after Richard Nixon resigned. I discovered my father possessed an off-kilter moral compass when he declared the burglars’ only crime was to get caught. I learned another lesson: when someone says, “I am not a crook,” they probably are. 

When Ronald Reagan announced his run for the presidency in 1979, Dad was as happy as a six-year-old on Christmas morning. Years earlier, Reagan had visited the General Electric plant where my father honed his razor-sharp, blue-collar conservatism over the course of a thirty-eight-year career. Dad shook Reagan’s hand, a story he told so many times and from so many angles, I was sure my father was a personal friend of the man. Reagan’s politics spoke to my father’s belief in American capitalism. Dad loved money and defended the idea of trickle-down economics as a solid theory that would make him rich. As a G.E. shareholder, what was good for the company was good for my father, his bank book, and his individualistic worldview. He took pride in his success as a working man and he never understood people who couldn’t make it in a country like the good ol’ U.S. of A. 

Dad’s favorite t-shirt displayed an image of an American flag and the caption, “These colors don’t run!” My father blindly supported our country and our government, as long as Republicans were in charge. According to him, Democrats were socialists who spent wildly on social service programs that enabled people, who just weren’t working hard enough, to live high off the hog with welfare and food stamps. He believed Republicans made sure those kinds of things wouldn’t happen. Republicans looked out for people like him–hard-working and patriotic. I saw things differently when I went to work as a school counselor in the late 1990s. I shared stories about my students and their parents and their challenges with my father. I tried to explain to him that some people need help and that helping them was vital to the economic health of America. He allowed me my opinion, especially once Bush became president. The topic was then moot, again. 

Dad died before the ridiculous folly that is now the Republican Party took shape. I wonder if he would have listened to my pre-2016 election warnings about how dangerous one man can be to civility, morality, ethics, and democracy, even if the candidate did espouse some of Dad’s values. I imagine conversations with my father about the former president and fantasize about him denouncing the man’s character and his style of governing. One thing Dad hated was nastiness and name-calling (aside from the Commies and Pinkos), and he would have never abided the former guy’s mimicking of a disabled man, his calls for the lynching of a vice president, or his professed love for insurrectionists. I try to discern what my father’s reaction would have been to the events of the last seven years as Trump infiltrated his party with corruption and lies. I doubt Dad would even recognize the remnants of his beloved Republican Party.

I never felt compelled to discuss politics in social settings until the election in 2016. When I voted for Clinton, I voted against her opponent more than to support her candidacy. After the four years of Trump’s shambolic reign, I changed my party affiliation from Unenrolled to Democrat, making the statement that I could never ascribe to a political party so full of hate and un-American behavior. I posted my political beliefs on Facebook and Twitter as a litmus test of values. I questioned the integrity of friends who defended the former president, his behavior, and his administration, especially the ones who saw nothing wrong with the path our government was on, the one that brought us to the brink of governmental collapse on January 6th, 2021. Many are no longer my friends.

My politics have caused me to become patriotic but my brand of patriotism is not of the flag-waving ilk. I refuse to wear anything that bears an American flag, not because I renounce America but because it has become a banner for a belief system. True patriotism isn’t violent, cruel, angry, racist, homophobic, or sexist, but many of those who consider themselves ‘patriots’ flaunt those prejudices under the banner of Old Glory. After seeing the American flag used as a weapon on the steps of our Capitol building, the flag represents a part of America I don’t want to be affiliated with. Our Republican legislators, flanked by American flags, pose with weapons and call for expanded and protected gun rights while mass shootings occur daily. I despise that America, the one that uses the flag as an offensive, personal statement. My political stance does not make me unpatriotic. Patriotism doesn’t require one to wave a flag. It does demand one to fight for the preservation of values and the defense of our freedoms.

As I observe the serious issues plaguing our country, I draw upon what I learned in history class to make sense of what is happening. I remember being taught that gerrymandering is bad, yet the redistricting of states to favor one political party over the other is now happening across the country, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. I read about the filibuster as a way to derail legislation popular with the electorate, and now I see how the practice cripples progress. Now I am learning new terms like ‘packing the courts’ and I know the impact of appointing judges who adhere to a political agenda–it caused the dismantling of women’s rights. Four years of a rogue administration damaged our country irreparably, causing us to ask, “Is it time to expand the Supreme Court and end the filibuster?” It’s worth considering.

When did I become so political? I always have been aware of the impact of politics on our country, from my earliest exposure courtesy of my father to my career working with families who struggle to survive, to finally declaring a political party at the age of sixty-one. I never imagined our country in decline and I’m sure my father didn’t either. Our country has become a victim of politics so divisively political they threaten to destroy its core values. To counteract the moral and political decay, we must speak our beliefs loudly, and if even one mind is changed by our voice, it was worth the risk.  

I guess I’ve always been political but now I am vocal, and that is the difference. 

Dinner And Some Whine

Hanover Street, Boston’s North End

On Saturday evening, my husband Tim and I ventured out to our favorite haunt, Boston’s North End. A hundred years ago, my family called the Italian enclave ‘home,’ but I visit my roots not to trace the steps of those who came before me. Instead, I go to eat, drink, and people-watch. On a warmer than usual spring night, the streets bustled with plenty of people and plenty to watch. 

For our dining venue, we chose Quattro, a smallish restaurant at the end of the first block of Hanover Street, the main drag that dissects the neighborhood. I had read the reviews: Good Bolognese. Attentive waitstaff. A little cramped. I would earn 1000 Open Table points if I grabbed the 5:30 p.m. reservation. Once I set aside my fears of a “blue-hair, early bird special” designation, I booked it and hoped for the best. 

The hostess seated us at a table nestled in a long row of small tables for two, smack dab in the middle of the dining room. I recalled the online review, and I agreed with the description: cramped. The place was busy for such an early hour. Tim assessed the tight conditions, but with his seat facing a screen over the bar tuned to the Bruins playoff game, he settled into the coziness and the game. I barely noticed his lack of engagement in conversation. I had plenty to keep me busy as I gazed out the large windows that opened to the street. I had a front-row seat to the parade of young girls in sundresses and guys in fitted Hawaiian print shirts, and a steady stream of Mike’s Pastry boxes. It was a quintessential North End spring evening.

I turned my attention within, to the restaurant and the sociological experiment far more interesting than the tourists outside. Our waiter, a friendly young man with a thick accent, appeared and took our drink orders. Within moments, the seats on either side of us emptied. My eyes followed a group of four as the hostess led them to a table tucked in the corner, out of the fray. Amazingly, the men navigated the tight aisle even with their eyes focused on the screen and the game. As the hostess motioned to the table, one of the men in the party surveyed the situation–table, screen, table, screen. 

“Is there a better table?” he asked. 

The hostess remained focused on her task of seating the group, never taking account of the inventory of seats, and said, “No, this is the only table of four available.” She was firm and clearly prepared for pushback. 

The guy looked around, as if to question her judgment. He hesitated a few more seconds and looked over his shoulder once again. “Are you sure?” 

“Yes. Sorry.” The hostess placed the menus at each seat at the table, spun on her heel, and walked away, ending the conversation.

I kicked Tim under the table. “Did you see that? What the hell?” He glanced over at the landlocked party four, and after a fleeting moment of empathy, resumed his own viewing with selfish relief.

A few moments later, a middle-aged couple was shown to a table for two next to us. The gentleman paused, looked around, looked at us, and asked “Is there another table? How about over by the window?”

Initially, I felt judged and snubbed, but then I realized the guy was an ass. The hostess humored him, glancing across the crowded room. “Those are reserved, sorry.” 

The man shrugged and took his seat. Although like Tim, he had a great seat to view the game, he clearly wasn’t a fan. With his eyes riveted on the empty seats by the window, he complained to his wife, “Those tables are just sitting there empty. Do you think they are really reserved?” 

The woman muttered something inaudible as she looked down at her menu. He followed her lead, commenting on the entree choices until his attention was drawn to the couple the hostess seated at one of the coveted tables.

“See! See! She gave them the table! I told you!” His wife’s eyes remained on her menu. 

Smirking, I looked at Tim and said semi-loudly, “I’m definitely writing about this.” The man overheard me and probably wondered what I meant. My cryptic comment silenced his whining. I sipped my Cosmopolitan with satisfaction. If my lousy sociology degree from Boston College makes me a quasi-expert on human behavior in groups, my evening out provided a first-class lab experience. As a writer, I’m always looking for material for an essay to pitch or a new Mami blog post. As the stars of observation, investigation, and communication aligned, I knew I had a Mami on the horizon.

Although our dining experience at Quattro was brief (we finished eating within an hour), the restaurant itself didn’t disappoint; unfortunately, the clientele and their behavior did, but I accepted my fate in the cause of social science. I continued my research at our next stop, Caffe Paradiso. Things became interesting as we enjoyed gelato on “the patio” (patio: parking spaces in front of the building set off from the traffic by jersey barriers). Three no-so-young men sat next to us, yipping, howling, and high-fiving while videoing themselves and their antics. I assumed they figured, being outside, the rules of dining decorum didn’t apply. I feigned immunity to their foolishness until I hit my breaking point. I shot them a dirty look but nothing about their behavior changed. To cushion the aggravation, I ordered another Nutty Irishman coffee, grateful for the Brookline Ice truck that had pulled up beside the men. I welcomed the unpleasant drone of the reefer unit as it competed with the rest of the noise.

As I resume a social life after two years, the post-pandemic novelty has yet to wane but my patience with the post-pandemic behavior of others has. The sociologist in me detects an uncomfortable change in human nature. Is it a byproduct of isolation, or being denied freedom? Or are people naturally jerks? As I now watch bad behavior and rudeness in public settings, I struggle to remember the way things were, but I am convinced people have become less aware of the negative impact of their attitudes and actions on others. Shunning manners is one thing; having no sense of personal douchiness is another.

If you recognize yourself in any of the anecdotes above, check yourself next time you feel the need to be a jerk in public. To the men intent on securing the best real estate to enhance their short stay at a restaurant, get over yourselves. No one cares, especially the hostess who fields requests like yours all day. To the loud, obnoxious patio sitters, simmer down. To my waitress, hand me my wine…and my pen. I need to write this stuff down. I feel a Mami coming on.

Brooke Shields Reminds Us That Aging Is Indiscriminately Discriminatory

When the first pictures of Brooke Shields’ Jordache jeans campaign hit the media a few months ago, I took a moment to pose before my mirror in a similar stance as Shields, revealing a hint of breast. As I peered over my shoulder, the image staring back at me was nothing like Shields’ toned shoulders and the crease-free back. Instead, the reflection spat back the reality of being sixty-three. A fold in my skin, just below my bra line, caught my eye first. I studied the soft, squishy skin, replete with speckly age spots and sun damage. Perhaps if I, like Shields, benefited from intense five a.m. workouts, the unsightliness of sixty-three-year-old skin folds would have been minimized or even eradicated. Instead, they glared defiantly back at me, reminding me that a smooth back and a perky side breast mean little. The landslide of aging requires constant tamping down and demands time that some of us of a certain age choose to spend more productively. 

I think back to being fifty-six, the age that Shields is now. A mere seven years and a multitude of health and personal issues ago, I remember the feeling of empowerment she touts. I understand Shields’ comment that she possesses “a knowledge that comes with age.” At her age, I believed I was enlightened, too. My body gushed with bottomless productivity and energy bubbled inside me like a cauldron. The energy distracted me from the tug of impending mortality. Back then, retirement seemed so far in the distance that I gave it little thought. I knew my career and my meaningful contribution to the world-at-large had an expiration date, but it was years away. I had work to do, and some days, I even regretted there was no end in sight. My physique, pear-shaped and petite, suited my age, or so I thought. 

Now at sixty-three, the wisdom of my fifties, the “knowledge” of which Shields speaks, has been replaced with a full-on, five-alarm, in-your-face reality check. In the time since I reveled in being the best version of me, a fifty-something whose life experience fueled wisdom that helped reveal my full potential, I have accomplished many things. Three years ago, I retired from a career as an educator, started my own independent college counseling business, wrote the first draft of my memoir about being the child of hoarders, and began a graduate program in Creative Nonfiction. In between, I completed two intensive writing courses at GrubStreet in Boston. I resisted boredom by keeping busy. I also kept busy to silence the low-pitched wails of impending aging that lived in my head. The forward movement kept me alive. 

My body hasn’t gotten the message. It reminds me every day that, no matter what I do, it will work against me so I choose my commitments wisely. When I exercise, it is to maintain my health, not for my appearance. I look at the photos of Shields owning her fit fifty-six-year-old body. She flaunts her attributes, planting a flag on the surface of time, freezing the moment. She parades “her best self”–an ideal for all of us to admire, but few of us will ever attain. Knowing what I know now, the things my fifty-six-year-old self didn’t, time will catch up with all of us, and after sixty, the passage of time feels like a dragon’s hot breath on my neck. Life, it seems, moves at a speed faster than I ever imagined. 

As a society, we pledge to move away from judging others by their appearances. We say things like “beauty comes from within” and “weight is just a number,” but advertisements like the Jordache campaign only reinforce the ideas we outwardly spurn. For the rest of us who do not have the benefit of a trainer or the perfect raw material to begin with, publicizing images like Shields’ bare back and “side boob” demonstrates a callous tone-deafness that proves how far we haven’t come.

In a 2017 New York Times piece, Ashton Applewhite reinforced my concerns. “When women compete to “stay young,” we collude in our own disempowerment,” she wrote. “When we rank other women by age, we reinforce ageism, sexism, lookism and patriarchy.” 

Applewhite professed my belief that what lies within matters more than how we look. I took her comment to heart when she said, “Of course, aging brings wrenching losses, but it also confers authenticity, confidence, perspective, self-awareness (and my mother said her legs got better). Priorities are clearer. It’s easier to manage emotions. We want less. We care less about what people think, which is really liberating.” The claim that empowerment comes with age along with the ability to overlook what people think gives me hope. Then, along comes Brooke to blow up that theory. Thanks a lot, sweetie!

While Brooke flaunts an ideal, I live the reality of aches and pains, embrace wisdom borne of experience, and accept that looks are fleeting. I commend Ms. Shields for her self-awareness and her self-confidence, but without the intensive intervention she has enjoyed, the physical landslide will rev up and age will win in the end. Perhaps, fighting against the inevitable isn’t really so wise at all. 

For the love of Wordle

Every morning, there is a moment when I realize that’s it for sleep and I roll over and grab my phone. The new Wordle board opens and hope springs anew for that bull’s eye, hole in one, first try guess. I mean, it can’t be that difficult. How many five letter words can there be in the English language? 

As a logical person, I believe I have an edge in this game. As the letters become grayed out, logic intervenes. I am a whiz at analogies, earning me Mensa eligibility due to my high Miller Analogies score. Trust me, I’m no genius but I like games that require brain power, and for that reason, my son, Scott, pushed me into the world of Wordle. (He was also the person who alerted me to being “Mensa eligible.” I laughed in his face at the possibility.)

The text arrived back in early February. “Ma, have you tried Wordle yet? I think you’ll like it.” 

Scott and I have similar brains, quirks, and interests, which gives him insight into my basic likes and dislikes. I thought I meant it when I said, “Scott, I’m not getting involved in another game.”  

I’m already a slave to Words with Friends and Candy Crush Saga. My stats for those apps appall me. No human being should play enough words that they stretch 3 miles or 2,491 rounds of anything involving pretend candy. But I had no one to play Yahtzee or Boggle with. When Scott defected to Texas, my choices for playmates whittled down to my grandchildren and endless rounds of Go Fish and Old Maid using my original cartoony card decks from 1964. It’s bad enough I live next door to where I grew up but still using my nearly sixty-year-old toys? Talk about getting stuck!

I opened the Wordle app, just to see what all these posted Facebook scores were all about. I read the instructions and went at it. In four tries, I discerned the word of the day. I hit the share button and Scott’s name appeared at the top of my texting list. Adding the comment “Is this good?” I hit “SEND.” A few minutes later, Scott responded. “Well, you won but you really want to get three or less.” My golden bubble of success popped immediately. He has a knack for that. When your kid is so much like you, they know how to cut you to the quick. It’s a hazard of motherhood I tolerate for the sake of civilized communication.

The next morning, I opened the app and typed in “PARTY.” Three letters, one in the correct position, appeared. In three tries, all of the letters turned green. I shared the score. The kid’s response: “Good for you! It took me four today.” Vindicated, I played the next day and the next. Now on my fiftieth game, the preponderance of my scores hovers in the three-four word range, and I am proud to declare I have never lost yet. (I just knocked on wood. That was a jinx if I ever heard one.)

Wordle is a frustrating, intriguing, and challenging daily distraction. A salve for the soul weary from world events, it delays the inevitable dive into the Twitter rabbit hole for a few more minutes. It jars my brain into thinking mode. But what I love best about Wordle stems from its purpose as a conversation starter. From eighteen hundred miles away, my kid and I communicate, first about the scores of the day, and then about a million other things. I miss having him nearby but I appreciate Wordle for its contribution to family relations in a natural, unforced means of conveying news and affection.

Last week, he followed up his Wordle score text with  “Have you tried Quordle?” I shut him down immediately. “What the hell is that? No! I’m not getting involved in anything else!” I impressed myself with my forceful, adamant response. I’m sure he could hear my voice across the miles and he probably laughed. He knew it was a matter of time.

Yesterday, as I sat on the sofa with my nine-year-old grandson, Declan, we punched in letters and watched as they illuminated the Quordle screen. It was only a practice game but we shared the score with Uncle Scott. 

“Hey, it’s Dec, on Mami’s phone! Check this out!” 

“Well done, buddy!” 

I imagined Scott’s satisfaction, especially since he knew I was behind the Quordle success. With Dec as a decoy, I shamelessly demonstrated my lack of self-control when it comes to internet games and my commitment to the indoctrination of the next generation of people who play games, online and otherwise. 

I know the Wordle haters dread the daily Facebook scores friends share but the Italian mother in me appreciates Wordle for the unspoken service it performs keeping me in touch with my adult son, halfway across the country. It masks my cloying motherliness as it encourages our playful commentary and harmless competition. 

But I swear, that’s it. No more games. For now, at least.

What’s in a pronoun? Semantics and tone-deaf Catholicism

It’s never been easy to be a Roman Catholic. I’m used to “the look” I get from people when they find out I still go to church, or that I went to Catholic school, or I educated my kids in Catholic schools, or that my grandchildren are being educated in Catholic school. It’s the look that says, “Oh, you buy into organized religion,” or the one that reads, “I had no idea you were so gullible.” The look comes in many forms–a smirk, a chuckle, a hmmph. I know the intent and I consider the source. Their judgment doesn’t change what I do. I believe in God and I try to be a decent person, one who doesn’t judge someone for a different belief system or for not having any belief system at all. 

Allow me to clarify my brand of Catholicism. I do not consider the Church infallible. The Church is its own worst enemy by allowing the rule of men to outweigh the rule of God. As my son says, “The message is a good one, love God and love others. It’s the rest of the crap that sucks.” He’s right. Sadly, men in the Church hierarchy invent the crap that causes the rest of us to scratch our heads, stop going to church, or leave the Church entirely. 

The Church, it seems, is always finding itself on the wrong side of history. In the twelfth century, the church decreed that priests could not be married or have children, not for the reason of chastity but because the Church feared that any sons of the priest would inherit land when the priest died. From the middle ages on, corruption has plagued the Church. Wealthy men purchased indulgences, effectively buying their ways into heaven. Popes and bishops came into power illegitimately. In the present day, the Vatican and its henchmen invent man-made rules that have nothing to do with our personal relationships with God or the essence of our faith. And still, the powers that be, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, fail to see how ridiculous it looks to the world outside of Catholicism.

In the past twenty years, the Church has made a real spectacle of itself with its most repulsive failing, the priest sex abuse scandal. The Church and a male-dominated ministry in the broader sense offered a potential hideout for pedophiles. These priests were well known to the higher-ups; still, they remained in parishes, where access to children enabled them to sexually abuse the most vulnerable. Cardinals and archbishops reassigned them after a few years to different parishes, increasing access to new vulnerable populations. For many of the parents of these kids, the Church was infallible, as were the priests. Children feared exposing the behavior, knowing their parents would never believe them. Herein lies the greater problem. The Church depends on our trust, even when the crowd in charge is untrustworthy and harmful.

In the past two weeks, a story has emerged from Arizona where a Catholic priest is accused of using improper verbiage in the rite of baptism. The Church dictates the words, “I baptize you…yada yada,” this priest said, “We baptize you…” The story might have ended there–a slap on the wrist for one man and a cautionary tale to stick to the script for all priests in the further administration of sacraments. Instead, the Church (the hierarchy–bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) has condemned this act, resulting in the invalidation of all of these baptisms. The Holy Water continued to trickle downstream when it was announced that everyone impacted by the “we baptize” debacle now had to re-receive any sacraments conferred after the botched baptisms. Invalid baptisms made everything else that followed null and void–penance, communion, confirmation, marriage. If the Catholic Church were an interstate highway, this mess would be a one-hundred car pile-up on an already icy 93 North, and like most accidents, a situation that is truly unnecessary and avoidable.

Now let’s pause for a moment and think about this situation logically. How was the priest’s error in judgment investigated? Did the Church request the videotapes from parents who surreptitiously captured the moment, never realizing the evidence would be their undoing? Catholics know that videoing these important life moments is often verboten. Talk about karma, or in this case, divine retribution. Did they interview the participants in these sacraments, forcing them to attest under oath at a tribunal to hearing “we,” not “I?” In this case, I recommend lying, even though it breaks a commandment because nothing good can come from answering a stupid question with an answer that only contributes to a stupider outcome.

Now we add to the mix similar situations in Oklahoma and Michigan, where priests are being investigated for their loose interpretation of what the Church is. These men also used the forbidden “we,” and “we” must now pay for their glaring error in judgment. I have no problem with the word “we” in the case of baptism. The nuns taught me Christ is the head of the Church and we, the devout, are the body. But now we are told that only the priest is the representative of Christ on earth and worthy to welcome someone into the faith. With this semantic foolishness, the Church is not only cutting off its nose to spite its face but accomplishing a full-on decapitation. And they wonder why numbers are declining?

Last week, my son and I discussed the baptism news story and I took note of his almost giddy reaction to the idea that he might have had a “we” baptism. He is typical of younger Catholics who have lapsed or moved on, never to return to the faith. He welcomed a loophole where all of his ties to the Church were negated. I don’t regret all the money spent on Catholic grammar school, high school, and college; I appreciate the intelligent conversations I have with him over the weaknesses in the Church and the need to question authority always, especially when it comes to the Catholic church. It’s a good reminder that the Church is run by men, tone-deaf ones at that, and not everyone hears the same off-key tune.

I attend Mass most Sundays, pushing the failings of the Church out of my mind for forty-five minutes. I avoid parish churches, preferring the teachings of the Franciscans to the narrowmindedness of mainstream Catholicism. The church I attend proclaims “All are welcome” in a banner over the door. The friars truly support “all:” spirituality groups for the LGBTQ community, a food pantry for the hungry, a homeless women’s health clinic, Latino and Haitian ministries, a youth ministry for young adults in their 20s and 30s, support for those struggling with addiction, homeless outreach, and ministries for senior citizen and veterans. For me, the most powerful is the Lazarus ministry where the homeless and those who have no one are given a proper burial. I have always wanted to attend these special Masses but I know I would be a puddle. Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine often brings me to tears. It defines what I believe to be our mission as Catholics. I harken back to the words of Jesus as reported in the book of Matthew: Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me. In that place, for almost an hour, I am part of the greater “we,” not the hierarchical “I.” It’s why I remain a Catholic, as difficult as it is sometimes.

My son’s sentiment rings painfully true: The rest of it is crap. The semantic pettiness of the ‘we vs. I’ debacle turns people away from the Church. I hope data will be collected to track how many of these ‘negated Catholics’ choose to take the necessary steps to be ‘officially Catholic.’ Honestly, I wouldn’t bother. And they wonder why people are leaving the Church.

Considering the Purpose of Work in Retirement

The alert pinged on my phone as my screen lit up. I couldn’t resist the urge to click and release the distraction that I knew would take me off task. The message from a former colleague alerted me to a posting for a school counseling job. My mind wandered to consider the possibilities. After three years free of a schedule and the stress of work, I pictured myself waking up to an alarm, battling traffic, packing a lunch, and dealing with co-workers. Nothing about the images appealed to me, but I searched my computer files for a dusty, old resume to update.  

I was surprised when Schoolspring, a clearinghouse for all school-related work opportunities,  remembered my log-in information because I didn’t. It had been years since my last job search. I avoided Schoolspring once I retired from public education. My pension made it’s easy to “just say no” to employment. I ended a pretty good twenty-year career with an anticlimactic thud, triggered by an ill-fated job change. Although I am not sure I want to dive back into the job pool, especially with Covid rampant in schools, I won’t deny I’m intrigued.

My stored documents on the Schoolspring site provided a snapshot and a time capsule of my former work life–resume, transcripts, recommendation letters, licenses, and cover letters. I thought looking back on what I had accomplished before leaving my career in education in 2019 might ignite the spark I needed to do it all again. It didn’t, leading me to wonder if my career was in the rearview for good. Nevertheless, I updated my resume and created a new cover letter–a short and direct statement of interest. I added my latest educational endeavor, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, from which I am now taking a leave. Without coursework, I had the time to take on a job. I hit the button– “Submit.” 

As I sift through the possible scenarios, I imagine my reactions. If I get a call for an interview, I will go. If they offer me the job, I’ll say “no,” or maybe “yes.” Or maybe they won’t call me at all, solving all my problems. They’ll do the math based on my work experience and decide I’m too old. They’ll see a work interruption and worry I’ve been out of the game too long. I’ll wait for the call and obsess over no call, taking stock of what I’m willing to give up and what I will gain with each possibility. 

Comfortable in my non-work life, I enjoy my free time writing, playing the piano, and reading. Do I want to screw that up? Probably not. But there is something that awakens a sense of mortality in a late-life job search, even for someone like me on the early end of elderly. Perhaps the idea of “retirement” lacks a sense of a tangible purpose or a reason to keep busy. Maybe work-life helps us to retain a link to youth as it slips away. As much as I enjoy my flexible lifestyle, I wonder if I haven’t put myself out to pasture prematurely. Given a choice, will I disrupt my plan and return to work? I’ll wait to decide until I’m given the choice.

Holding On to Christmas

After much consideration, I chose today to take down our Christmas tree, the centerpiece of our living room since the day before Thanksgiving. Despite my penchant for premature decoration, to my credit, I didn’t illuminate the fake monstrosity until Santa appeared on screen at the Macy’s parade, but at that moment, I declared the holiday season officially underway. 

The holiday transformation began with the tree but the complete metamorphosis took more than a few days. While I dreaded the work of digging out the Christmas decorations, I got into the groove of opening boxes of glass snowmen, battery-operated candles, Santas, and gingerbread men. Once complete, I sat back and took it all in–the heavily ornamented tree with souvenirs from our family’s life journey, the railing draped with fake boughs, and the doorways framed in sparkling “Italian” lights. I grouped items, like with like. The Santas lived on the shelves on either side of my kitchen sink. The nutcrackers stood at attention on the piano while the ever-expanding collection of gingerbread men overwhelmed the top of the pantry closet in the back room. I lined the top of the bookshelf with a ridiculous number of porcelain snowmen  The result was worth the effort. My holiday home made me happy.

For weeks, I admired the arrangement of more than forty years of acquired holiday schmutz. I proudly lorded over the wintery wonderland of my design, and by mid-December, I could barely imagine the house without Christmas superimposed on my usual surroundings. As Christmas drew near, the thought of “taking Christmas down” brought tears to my eyes. My misery isn’t new. Every holiday season, I find myself dwelling on the passing of time–Christmasses, when my children were young, seemed to move slowly. At some point, time sped up and they were grown, and I became old. The end of Christmas dredges up feelings of mortality. As much as I fight against it, my melancholy robs me of some of the seasonally-prescribed joy

I can never predict when it will happen but the moment comes every year when I decide it all has to go. Out of reverence for the holidays, I remove the decorations in stages–first the Santas, then the nutcrackers, then the gingerbread men–until only the tree remains. A hangover from my childhood dictates it must stay up until the sixth, Little Christmas, and I commit to this goal until the gnaw of normalcy gets to me. Still, once the tree comes down, Christmas and another year are over. The idea saddens me. The night before dismantling the tree, I always take a picture of the “last night,” fight back a good old cry, and I go off to bed with resolve to return my living room to pre-Thanksgiving status.

When I awoke this morning, I pushed back on the plan. A rainy Sunday suits watching multiple episodes of The Office more than dismantling the last remnants of Christmas 2021. What was the rush? With the rest of Christmas tucked away, I could think of no good reason to pack the tree and the ornaments. The finality symbolized an ending I’m not quite ready to accept. 

It’s only January 2nd, and for now, the tree will stay up a little longer. My apologies to Gatsby and Fergie when I say a few more days of Christmas never hurt nobody.

To MFA Or To Not MFA, That Is The Question

Whenever someone asks me how I weathered the isolation of the pandemic, I proudly announce, “I wrote a book.” I admit I didn’t accomplish that feat without support. A little over a month ago, I completed the Memoir Incubator program at a well-known writing center in Boston, and as a result of the experience, I completed a first draft. While I expected the rigor of the eleven-month program, my lack of formal preparation and real world writing experience put me at a deficit. Surrounded by authors, journalists, and Ivy League grads, my Boston College education and advanced degrees in Education gave me little credibility. It might have been in my head but I felt like a second class citizen. Whether or not my perception mirrored reality, I saw myself as inferior, unskilled, and remedial. In my exit interview,” my instructor said, referring back to the beginning, almost a year earlier, “You were a little wet behind the ears.”

I won’t sugarcoat the situation. Every minute was a struggle. The thought of quitting nagged at me and required a lot of “put on your big girl panties” self-talk. I showed up every week, panicked, overwhelmed, working overtime to learn everything thrown at me, all the while writing new words and editing what I had already produced. I had applied and been accepted to this competitive program, and I spent months wondering how I got in and what made me think this was a good idea. 

Now on the other side of “the year that was,” I realize how much I gained from surviving the experience. I learned how important writing was to me, enough so that I was willing to bare my incompetence to this accomplished group. I latched on to the techniques and ideas shared by my instructor and guest authors, and employed the ideas to improve upon what I had written. I re-wrote–a lot. I learned how to read critically and offered constructive feedback in editorial letters. I have been able to apply what I learned in my college counseling business. My own essays are stronger and I’ve had a few pieces published. Still, I sense something is missing. I scooped up the crumbs of information as they were scattered before me but I needed the whole story, in one place. I craved something comprehensive and focused, with a bonus of credibility and credentials. 

When I float the idea of another graduate program, a Master of Fine Arts, to family and friends,  the reactions are mixed. My husband, Tim, anticipates retiring in about a year and a half. He fears going into debt for another degree, especially at this point in life. I have sheltered him from the actual tuition costs of the MFA program until I figure out a combination of IRA withdrawals, loans, and cash. Of all the stumbling blocks, this is the biggest. I am not young and spending this money now is an enormous gamble. 

My son didn’t mince words. A writer himself, he said, “What the hell do you want to do that for?” It was an honest, impulsive response but as we discussed the possibility, he said, “I get it, Mum. The days of the Bukowski types are over. There are few who make it on sheer talent.” We discussed the reality of the writing community. Our shared experiences in stand-up comedy came to mind. Comedians laugh loud and affirmingly for their fellow comedians in a pretentious way. Similarly, writers cheer each other on and puff each other up. While connections within the discipline help, in the end, talent combined with a curriculum vitae full of residencies, publications, and advanced degrees in writing affirm potential and help pave the way to success. I only wish that someone would recognize my Bukowski-like way with words without needing all the superfluous trappings to back up my raw talent (my apologies to Charles…).

Another writing friend initially reacted similarly, and like my son, shifted her thinking. After questioning the prudence of an MFA at this point in my life, she reaffirmed my son’s observations. It’s a tough field. I started to think, I really do need to do this. The idea intrigued and terrified me. 

When I applied to the no-residency, fully online program at a school in western Massachusetts, I submitted a very overworked excerpt of my manuscript, a personal statement, and my transcripts from my undergrad and two prior grad programs. In a few weeks, I received a call to schedule an interview via Zoom. Having conducted enough interviews in my career as a manager, I knew the meeting went well. A week later, I received a tentative acceptance pending forthcoming recommendations. 

As the university awaits my decision, I examine my conscience–what do I really want for my future? I read an article about a seventy-year-old man who became a veterinarian so that he could help the dogs he rescues. I googled to find inspiration from other older students. I found a ninety-year-old man who earned a doctorate in Economics, and a one-hundred-four-year-old man who swears you’re never too old to learn. 

I also searched for drawbacks. Another negative lies in the age discrepancy between “the old student” and the rest of them. I won’t delude myself into believing my “wisdom” will be welcome. I’m a dinosaur and of another generation. Will my age be a distraction? I am most comfortable in my writing groups with my peers who look beyond age and look to craft and ideas. Will my obsession with being the oldest distract me, as well? Will I discover a fountain of youth while immersed in a youthful environment?

An MFA is a huge commitment of time, money, and effort. I question whether I need to invest any of those things to get to my goal. And, truthfully, what is my goal? I grind out words and revise. Then, I will write more. Will these exercises ever end up as a polished book–refined by an editor, represented by an agent, and published by a small press? Is that what I even want?

In the next few weeks, I foresee myself asking these questions over and over again. I acknowledge how far I have come with the proper instruction, guidance, and mentoring. I imagine my quest to improve will not end anytime soon. I will explore my options and make the right decision.

One thing will not change–I will keep on writing. 

House Almost Beautiful: My Muse And The Never Ending Project

In the past year, I have spent way too much time walking around my tiny house and noticing my less-than-perfect surroundings. Our home of over forty years has benefitted from a few updates and additions. As time passes, paint colors beg an update. Window treatments need an overhaul. Furniture could be rearranged. While I have lived with the current state of affairs for a while, my desire to change things up has roots in one of my many vices: a recent overdose of home decorating shows that has me jonesing for a redo.

My viewing preferences come in the form of one specific obsession–the Canadian designer, Sarah Richardson. Sarah is a big name and a bit of a brand up north. Her vintage shows–Sarah 101, Room Service, Design Inc–run daily on the Dabl channel. My sacred Sarah ritual causes me to stop whatever I’m doing and turn on the television promptly at 2 p.m. My dependence on Sarah grounds me in a quasi-schedule. It also causes me to take to the websites of Amazon, Wayfair, and Lowe’s to replicate her ideas, a habit that has become a costly hobby.

Even though some of the shows date back to the mid-2000’s, Sarah’s timeless style appeals to me. I watch in awe as she trolls through antique stores, pausing at some broken-down piece and imagining how she will breathe new life into the borderline junk. She always sees potential in someone else’s discards. Sarah repurposes old decrepit bureaus into bathroom vanities and refinishes chandeliers, well past their sell-by dates, into shiny, glittering fixtures. Like a magician, she transforms tiny, cramped spaces into seemingly spacious, usable rooms. Her innate sense of scale and texture translates into visual appeal that, in my humble and somewhat untrained opinion, is perfection.

I must confess the whole design obsession is not new for me. I refer to myself as untrained but, in a little known piece of Mami trivia, decades ago, I spent a year and a half in an Interior Design program at a local college. I studied Art History, Textiles, Color, and Drawing. I visited museums, admiring Caravaggios and Titians for their deep, rich tones and use of light. On field trips, I strolled through the collections at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I created mood boards–presentations juxtaposing swatches of fabric, paint chips, carpeting, wallpaper, and furniture ideas. I developed floor plans for imaginary clients. I never completed the degree but I learned enough to transform our own home, frequently. My long-suffering husband usually played along. Nonetheless, Tim was relieved when I changed career paths and studied school counseling in a Master’s program. I returned to non-design related work once our kids were older and I know his relief wasn’t based on additional income flow alone.

With my reawakened interest in home design, Sarah seeped into my psyche and before long, she invaded my dreams. After watching an episode of Sarah 101 where she constructed a baby’s changing table designed to fit over an old bureau, I found myself working on the same project in my sleep. I measured and mitered joints with my assistants, Barack and Michelle Obama. Besides watching too much t.v. I was also reading Becoming, Mish’s memoir. Worlds collided, a sure sign of a Sarah problem, an obsession with the former First Couple, and an overactive dream life. 

My pandemic Sarah habit has inspired a few minor changes. Since last summer, we have repainted a few rooms and dissolved a dining room to create an office for Tim’s ‘work from home.’ With the completion of each tiny project, I anticipated my next conquest and Tim shrugged. Sarah’s ideas, teamed with my own modest knowledge, sparked more projects. Most of the time, I pondered silently, germinating an idea fully, so as not to rile up my husband prematurely. I knew he dreaded hearing “Hey, I was thinking…” He’s had a twenty year respite while I abandoned my home rearrangement in the interest of counseling America’s youth. But now, I’m retired and back home for good, rejuvenated and teeming with ideas inspired by my muse–my Candian idol.

Last week, when Tim walked into the house after a game of golf, I am sure he had a moment of PTSD. In the few hours while he was out, I had dismantled the living room. Tired of the arrangement, I covertly contemplated a change. With a clipboard in hand, I sketched out a few options. I removed all of the breakable items, leaving behind the heavy furniture. In the old days, when I deconstructed the rooms, I seldom required much help to shift the big stuff. I could usually get things back together before Tim returned from work. He tended to appreciate the final product, especially when I cut him out of the process.

This time was different. I am older now, and I hesitate to acknowledge it, weaker. Moving the piano by myself posed an impossible task but the monstrosity needed repositioning before anything else could slide into place. I stood in the middle of the room, helpless, dreading Tim’s gasp when he walked in the door. I suppressed my panic and practiced how I would frame my sudden need to rotate the seemingly static pieces. I readied myself for any reaction, knowing that his outrage would pass. My new arrangement would be worth the bother.

In the end, Tim helped me with my dilemma without much argument. Fortunately, our muscles remained unstrained and intact. Once everything was in place, I stepped back and absorbed the change, feeling a bit Sarah-ish. The result pleased me and fully vaccinated friends who have visited have given my efforts multiple, enthusiastic ‘thumbs up.’ On the other hand, Tim refers to the exercise as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I ignore him.

The time spent critiquing the inside of my home, combined with my friend Sarah’s inspiration, provided a diversion during these quiet months stuck in the house. Still, even though we can move about more freely, I know I’m far from finished changing things up. Today’s frontier: the upstairs shower curtain–which of course becomes drapes, rugs, towels, candles, and matching soaps. Lucky for Tim, you can’t move a toilet or a tub without a major demo. He’ll be glad to know he’s off the hook. For now.


Uncle Sam, Dad, and Me: A Taxing Relationship

Tax time always reminds me of my father. When I was small, I watched as my father took on the task of “doing the taxes.” Every April 14th, he set himself up at the kitchen table with a pile of mishmashed documents, muttering swears under his breath as he scribbled, erased, and reworked the data.  Dad was the master of the loophole and fudging numbers, knowing exactly where to tweak a digit without fear of an audit. To his credit, he seldom got hauled in for an “accounting error.” Instead, he toyed with working for the Internal Revenue Service, going so far as to take the civil service test, pass it, interview, and ultimately decline the offer of employment. His work at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts was far more lucrative than what the government paid, and since he worked the night shift, he could nap on the job. He knew he couldn’t snooze at his desk at the IRS, making his life as a blue-collared machinist preferable to a career dressed in a shirt and tie and sitting upright.

Dad’s professed acumen with a 1040 and its multiple schedules gave birth to a side gig. He did the taxes for most of the guys in “the shop,” my grandparents, and anyone who needed help navigating the convoluted forms. Again, he employed his skills–a little heavy on the charitable donations, a little less on the bank interest. It was the 60s, a simpler and less precise  time when the use of computers the size of an entire room had yet to manage the banking world. Paper, pen, adding machines, and old fashioned manual typewriters kept track of transactions. Dad easily snuck a few adjustments by the discerning eye of an auditor. He was clever, if not also a bit dishonest. I never questioned or doubted my father. To me, Dad’s shifty ways were normal.

Propping me on his knee, Dad showed me his calculations and how the numbers interacted to produce an amount of tax owed. I was probably only six-years-old the first time I flipped to the back of the IRS manual to find the chart, sliding my finger down the margin to my father’s income range, then moving to the right to the “Married Filing Jointly” column. Like magic, there was Dad’s tax liability. I remember giggling at this secret my father was letting me in on. For years to come, I sat at his side, learning to fill out the forms, curious about the process without ever knowing the life skill my father was teaching me. When we finished, he always gave me the extra, unused forms and I subjected more than a few of my dolls to my version of tax prep. Didn’t every kid do that?

This past Monday, I filed my taxes. It’s harder now to play the system, and being of a more honorable nature than Dad, I wouldn’t even try. Still, in the tradition of my father, I waited until the last minute to file and pay my bill. I heard my father’s voice clearly as I procrastinated:

 “Why the hell would you pay early if you owe them money? Keep the money in the bank until the very last minute and then write the check. Why give them use of your money when you could be making money on it yourself?”

Dad loved money: making it, saving it, investing it. He was shrewd and calculating. And maybe a little devious. 

In the 1990s, I assumed the responsibility for our family’s taxes–ours and my father’s. Dad sat beside me as Turbotax prompted me for the digits found in Box 1b and I typed the numbers on the computer keyboard as he read to me from his 1099’s–R, DIV, INT, OID. Dad watched in awe as the program whirred through the responses, giving us a real-time calculation at the top of the screen. I loved to hear him say, “Geeze, that’s amazing!” Dad loved technology but for him, this  bordered on miraculous.  In time, he just handed over his half-assed file of tax paperwork, leaving me to plow through his lousy recordkeeping system. Eventually, I just kept the books for him and me. As Dad passed the baton, he never doubted my abilities. He knew I was trained by the best, and now had a computer calculation to back me, in case I screwed up.

In a surprising shift, my father also had a slant on paying his due. I think about his words every year as I send off my small fortune in taxes owed to the IRS: 

“Never complain about paying your taxes. It means you have money to pay taxes on. Be grateful.”

And as much as it pains me to see my bank balance shrink every year, I know he was right. And for Dad’s tutelage and my good fortune, I am grateful.

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

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

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. 

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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