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. 

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.

When the hell is Ash Wednesday?

I’m embarrassed to admit I barely look at the calendar these days. In the three years since I left my job and the two years since the start of the pandemic, my relationship with the passing of time has changed. Today, for example, I thought it was the 19th. When my husband pointed out it was the 18th, I adjusted. I knew it was Friday, and that knowledge satisfied my daily functioning requirements.

My lack of attention to the constructs of days and months causes me to lose track of things sometimes. The shadowy memory of concert tickets purchased months ago lingers somewhere in the back of my mind. As the date approaches, I find myself digging through emails for dates and e-tickets. I should have tucked them into my Apple wallet way back when I bought them but I didn’t. I am sure I’ve missed something along the way. I think back to when I was employed and conscientious. Now I fly by the seat of my pants, and honestly, I’ve never felt freer, if not a little disoriented.

My upbringing etched one annual event deeply in my mind, and even if I ascribe to this newfound calendar-free existence, my guilty conscience, Catholic guilt, I’ll call it, kicks in. As the days and weeks of February pass, I keep waiting for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, but week after week, it never comes. I could look at the calendar. Instead, I wait for the official word to come to me organically, and today, it did. As a friend and I planned a writing meeting, she noted that the proposed day of our session was Ash Wednesday. I finally had my answer, although I was a bit shocked to find out that Ash Wednesday tipped into March this year. Mind blown.

Growing up, the nuns and my very devout mother taught me to “give up” something for Lent, and I did. Candy, cookies, and sweets of all kinds were verboten for the six weeks until Easter. My mother instituted an addendum: Sundays were exempt. I’m not positive her interpretation of Catholic doctrine was legit, but I embraced her thinking, nonetheless. I gorged myself on all of my favorites: Twizzlers, Swedish Fish, Hershey bars. Nothing sugar-based was left behind on my Sunday binge. Still, I never quite understood the connection between Lent and “giving stuff up.” The idea of not eating candy in response to Christ giving up his life seemed out of balance. 

As an adult, I view Lent differently. More than New Year’s Day, for me, Ash Wednesday marks the initiation of change–in habits, in self-discipline, in self-improvement. In the past, under the guise of sacrifice, I have denied myself the joy of shopping and declare places like Marshall’s and TJ Maxx off-limits. I have pledged to take a walk every day, in any weather. I mean, if Jesus could carry a cross, I could overcome plantar fasciitis for the sake of self-flagellation. This year, those sacrifices may not apply. There is nothing I need at TJ Maxx so I have no reason to go there. And although I may abandon my shopping sacrifice, I’m practically allergic to exercise, so for me to perform any type of physical activity is pretty godly, or at least, selfless. I’ll give that some additional thought.

As I consider what else to “give up for Lent,” I think of the things that make me happy. Denying happiness is what sacrifice is all about, isn’t it? Wine. I could give up wine. Or wine coolers, since I like them less. Or maybe just red wine, leaving white wine fair game. What about gummy bears, my long-standing Achilles heel and my guiltiest of pleasures? I’m not sure if God would be happy, but I know my dental hygienist would be. And when she wields those sharp instruments in the direction of my tender gums, for that hour, like God, she holds my fate in her hands. It’s definitely something to think about. 

Now that I know I have twelve days to plan my Lenten sacrifice, I may reconsider the somewhat easy TJ Maxx oblation. I’m tired and cold just thinking about walking anywhere. I doubt I could pull off withholding wine with the state of politics in our country.  Maybe I’ll reinstate the mite box, a throwback to my childhood in Catholic school. The mite box, a tiny cardboard container where I would toss in excess change and eventually donate the proceeds to a special cause, seems more godly, and it’s a lot cleaner than “giving something up.” It serves a greater purpose. In the true spirit of Lent, I think God would appreciate almsgiving over the idea of a Dry Lent, a missed opportunity on the clearance rack, or Haribo binge. Could it be I shed, along with my calendars, a little Catholic guilt, as well?

Landlording: An Unlikely Vocation

(This is an edited version of an earlier post from January 2022. This is an essay about being a landlord.)

By the time the carpet salesman dragged pressed wood boards full of samples up the steep stairs to the apartment, I accepted the reality–the old rugs had to go. Rugs, like anything consumable, have a lifespan and this one was on life support. Replacing two floors of carpeting was a huge, expensive job, but it was one of many projects ahead of me at our rental property. But short of throwing up my hands and listing the house for sale, I prepared myself for a full-blown case of sticker shock and an empty bank account.

Our rental property represents a deeply-rooted family connection as well as an income stream. When my grandfather moved his family from a crowded tenement apartment in the North End of Boston to our two-family ancestral home in Medford, he joined the migration of other family members who had already made the shift to suburban life. Aside from giving his family a better life, Grandpa sought the American Dream; fourteen years after emigrating to the United States, he had attained it as a homeowner. I am sure he never imagined his granddaughter would be the owner of his home, or that she would be wrangling with joys of landlording almost a hundred years later. 

Six generations have occupied the oversized Philadephia-style three-story house. After my grandfather’s death in 1987, my father and his sister assumed joint ownership of the house. When I bought my aunt’s share in 2010, Dad and I co-owned the property briefly until he passed away. Family members, including my own children, occupied one or both of the apartments continuously from 1926 until 2017. I appreciate this unusual arrangement and I honor our family’s legacy by making this special place my passion and my part-time job.

I had assumed the responsibility of running the house for Dad about seventeen years ago, long before my name was added to the deed. For a time, my daughter and her family lived in the upstairs apartment and my son occupied the first floor. When my daughter moved, I seized the opportunity to create a business out of the house. After a full deleading and a few renovations, I rented to outsiders. When my son moved to Texas, my family’s ancestral home became a full-blown “income property.” And I became a landlord.

I have learned a recently-vacated apartment is a veritable Pandora’s box, a progressive revelation of issues that, at a glance, are overlooked. While I love the cash flow, the downsides to property management surface with each apartment flip. Although I take a security deposit, renting and the residual aftermath is a gamble. I hope the escrow will cover any issues. The house is old and my ability to discern wear and tear from damage requires a keen eye and intimate relationship with the premises.

Currently, one of the apartments is empty. To prepare for the next tenant, I swallowed hard and made a few executive decisions. In addition to the carpeting, I knew at some point I would need to replace the ancient windows, but in light of the broken sashes, when becomes now. I called Window Nation and plunked down a three thousand dollar deposit. With the official measurements now complete, the installation of eighteen new windows is expected in early April. The rest of the windows will have to wait.

With my funds depleted due to the hefty outlay on these bigger jobs, the guerrilla landlord in me ignited. My motto has always been If you can figure out how to do it yourself, do it. When you totally mess it up, call someone. I have learned over time to perform less skilled chores to save money. My repertoire grows with each dilemma. I should replace the bathtub upstairs but I will touch up the scratches with epoxy for now. I will repair the cabinet hinges that are loose in the kitchen, using a trick I learned from watching a carpenter whom I paid $150 to repair a single hinge. The project currently consumes much of our free time. If my husband and I charged by the hour, no one could afford us since we spend most of the time scratching our heads and reading and rereading instructions versus actually completing the task at hand.

The job of running a rental property, done well, requires a hands-on approach, whether the landlord does the work herself or depends on a contracted service. I want everything to be perfect and I can hear my mother’s admonition: “You don’t put diamonds on the ceiling for tenants!” But when the painting and cleaning are done, and the new carpet installed, I will experience a moment of pride. I always apply my own litmus test as I imagine myself living in the space. If it’s good enough for me, I can rent without reservation and hope that a tenant appreciates my efforts and investment, both emotional and financial. 

Aside from the preparations for a new tenant, being a landlord requires a commitment to a lifestyle, much like a vocation. It’s a vow to be available around the clock. A tenant’s problems can come at any moment–a broken boiler, a fussy fridge, a clogged drain–and I must drop everything and snap into action. My goal is to fix the problem as quickly as possible for them and for me. Grateful to have good tenants, I prioritize keeping them happy. 

Renting apartments is a gamble and no amount of vetting will ensure a perfect tenant. I can only hope that my tenants appreciate my commitment and respond by keeping things in some livable arrangement for the next occupant. As I anticipate listing the apartment once again, I’ll keep working, cleaning, painting, replacing carpeting, and applying the diamonds to the ceilings, no matter what Mom’s little voice in my head says. And hope for the perfect tenant.

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.

Present Tension and Imperfect Past: Rewriting My Story In A New Tense (Part One-My Italian Family)

A trulli, prehistoric houses found in Cisternino–the homeland

I am an orphan, although at my age it’s difficult to claim such a title since most of my friends are orphans, too. Most of our parents are gone. In my case, I am an only child but one might assume I have some extended family but before departing this life, my parents, or more specifically, my father, saw to it that almost all of our relatives disowned us. Money, houses, and territorial foolishness caused multiple rifts. Years later, I realize my family is the sum of the people I chose or created myself. Luckily, I chose well and created some pretty awesome humans, so I am better off than many.

Still, we somehow managed not to alienate one branch of my family tree. My only child mother maintained a relationship with her paternal side, a collection of thick-accented Italian aunt and uncles who one-by-one came to America by sea over the course of thirty years, from the early 1920s until the mid-1950s. When I was a child, this spirited bunch enhanced my childhood as they fiercely held on to their traditions, spoke in another language, and demonstrated a palpable zest for life.  

The presence of my Italian relatives spiced up our family gatherings. One aunt, Annuziata, spoke only Italian. Because of her, I learned to understand Italian. Even so, I never learned to speak the language (except for the bastardized expressions my mother and grandmother used–all grammatically incorrect and sometimes offensive). A simplistic conversation with Aunt “Nancy” (her Americanized name) sounded like this–

Nancy: “Vieni qua!” 

Me: “No, I’m not coming over there.” 

Nancy returned to the old country for good in the late1960s and with her went my cursory knowledge of the Italian language and my sassy ability to be a Euro-brat.

Aside from my Aunt Nancy and my Uncle Dario, both of whom lived for a time in my grandparents’ three-decker in East Boston, the rest of my Italian relatives settled in upstate New York. Grandpa’s brother and sister, Nick and Grace lived in Utica and Rochester, respectively, along with their spouses, Mary and Pete. Grace and Pete had one daughter (we seem to specialize in only children). Carmela was a few years older but I remember our childhood times together. Pete, Grace, and Carmela returned to Italy in the early 1980s, leaving me with memories and a few 8mm movies taken by Dario that memorialized the golden era of my Italian immigrant family in America.

Sadly, my Italian family never totally assimilated into American culture as proven by their collective gnawing desire to go “home.” With each of their departures, a part of me was laid dormant. For years, my mother and Aunt Grace communicated by phone, but back then, international long-distance phone calls cost a small fortune and required coordination. These well-planned trans-Atlantic conversations transpired in the late evening, Boston time, and early morning, Italian time. When my mother died in 2003, my father made one last call to our relatives to announce her passing, effectively closing the door on my Italian family forever.

Over the years, I have thought about reconnecting with whoever was left in Cisternino, my grandfather’s hometown, the place to which my family returned. I scoured phone records, Facebook, and ancestry sites for clues. Once I thought I had unearthed Carmela’s address in an Italian version of the online White Pages and wrote a letter that was never answered or returned. I wondered if she had ever received it or maybe she was cutting me off as well. It had been a long time. Did she even remember me?

My curiosity persisted. The history of my family intrigues me and I admit to a mild obsession with Grandpa Conte and his story. This summer, as I randomly searched for clues to my grandfather’s family and any link to my heritage, I searched Facebook once more. I typed in Carmela’s name–and there she was, picture and all. She looked the same, older but the same. As I typed a note in Messenger, I knew I was taking a chance. Maybe it was the wrong person after all. Maybe she didn’t want to connect. Or maybe this was my chance to salvage a remnant of my past and my family. I pressed ‘send’ and waited.

A few weeks later, as I scrolled through my iPhone screens, I clicked on the Messenger icon. Carmela’s message put to rest any fears. 

Hello Marie…I’m so very very happy to hear from you. I often thought of you. 

She continued, sharing the news of a newborn grandchild the month before, which explained the delayed response. When she proposed a video chat, her mixture of Italian and English endeared her to me even more. 

We have a six hour differenza…I will wait for your risposta…LOTS OF HUGS AND KISSES

We arranged a call for that afternoon. After a few first joyous moments face-to-face, we reminisced about the members of our family who had now passed. While writing my memoir these past few years, so many questions had arisen. With no one to help me fact-check, I depended on the spotty memories of a little girl and the questionable facts ascribed to stories I had been told. Now, through technology, I found family and a resource to answer my questions. Carmela is my last living relative with a link to those sketchy images and the truth.

Over the course of ninety minutes, we shared and clarified details that supported my own recollections. I asked questions about things I had always wondered about. With her responses, my cousin added to, rearranged, and upended what I had believed to be the truth. The call ended. I sat back and took a deep breath. We had discussed a range of family lore but one revelation decimated a story I had never questioned. Part of my truth was a fantasy. My head swirled with more questions than before. I had some research to do. 

Carmela and me 1980

(Next: Part 2–Not Seeing and Still Believing)

Boomer Bashing: You’ve Messed With The Wrong Old Lady

Last week on PBS NewsHour, I watched a panel that included millennials and author Bruce Gibney as they engaged in a spirited Zoom conversation about that infamous generation of sociopaths, the Baby Boomers. ( At least, I thought that was what I heard and, to my dismay, I wasn’t mistaken. In Gibney’s book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, the author pins all of the problems of today’s America on my generation. I confess I haven’t actually read the book and after this segment, I wouldn’t waste my time. This crowd took “OK Boomer” to a new and repugnant level. That evening, I remember taking a minute to process followed by a deep breath. Then, to no one in particular, I muttered the question, “What the hell?” 

I have to admit that the entitled attitudes of the assembled whiners got under my skin, so much so that I couldn’t resist speaking on behalf of my generation and in the interest of civility and fairness. I waited until I cooled off.

A week or so later, my head is clearer but time has done little to quell my anger. Being scorned by this population, the age group that much of my generation birthed and raised, alarms and amuses me. I will own some of the contributing factors of this crowd’s angst. They were the first wave of the “everyone gets a prize” horde. I knew then the approach would blow up in our faces but we wanted everyone to be happy and not feel slighted. When we took these children to the store, they inevitably walked out with a toy, even though we only went for a loaf of bread. Disney World, summers on the beach, a steady stream of bikes, skateboards, video games. Cars, education, and big weddings. I guess it wasn’t enough. It’s the proverbial bite to the hand that fed them.

I wonder how many of these kids, the Boomer-attacking PBS NewsHour Zoomers, ever heard about the recession in the mid-seventies at the time we came of age. Inflation was out of control. Twenty years before, our parents enjoyed the post-World War Two boom. They were able to go to college and buy houses with the G.I. Bill. I never remember complaining about the benefits they reaped despite our own challenges. Instead, we had bigger fish to fry. Our peers were going off to war and coming home in coffins. We worried about ending a horrible war, not going to bachelor parties in Jamaica or hen parties in New Orleans. 

After graduating from Boston College in 1980, I worked as a clerk at the Boston Public Schools Central Office. I earned $140 a week. Jobs were scarce at the time and I was grateful. My husband, another BC grad, took a job at a local supermarket. His salary, three times what I was earning weekly, supported us. Gas prices were high. We used coupons to survive. Then we had babies, forcing us to tighten our belts even more. Lean times for sure–yet I never blamed my parents or their generation for my struggles. 

I bristle at being lumped into the group of alleged sociopathic money grubbers. I have given my kids a leg up. They had cars at a young age. They went to private colleges. Somehow, my own children do not hold me responsible for any economic setbacks they may have incurred. They wouldn’t dare, knowing the argument didn’t have a chance. They have a healthy respect for common sense and for their generous parents. 

I can hear the lashback–oh, yeah, you walked six miles to school barefoot in knee deep snow, wah, wah, wah.  No, actually, I rode a school bus. My parents didn’t drop me at the door of the school, or drop off my lunch when I forgot it, or breathlessly rush the project forgotten in the backseat of the car to the door of the school so I didn’t get an ‘F.’ I was on my own. And due to that sort of ‘callous parenting,’ I learned to figure things out for myself. Maybe that’s where it all went wrong. Maybe this generation just can’t solve problems. Again, I will shoulder the blame for my kind– the selfish, awful, wealthy, greedy Boomers. But I won’t apologize.

This latest groundswell of emotion designed to scapegoat the older generation surprised me–momentarily. Millennials blame Boomers for not being able to buy a house or a luxury car. The entitlement is all our faults, Boomers. We fought their battles. We questioned their teachers and any well-deserved discipline. We disputed a bad grade. We made these children believe they were special. They haven’t figured it out yet–they’re not. 

One last point–I wanted to remind those of you who take issue with the wealth my generation has amassed–one day, it will be left to you. In the meantime, I advise you to be careful about whom you piss off. I hear it’s very simple to bequeath an estate to a favorite cause. 

For those of you who don’t get my drift, I suggest watching the movie, Mommie Dearest. Christina Crawford learned the hard way, too.

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.


Cooking With Cats And Other Pandemic Pastimes

Four seasons deep into our pandemic journey, an accounting of all of the distracting and engaging activities birthed by this phenomenon may be in order. I’ll go first–From the early days of the confinement, I immersed myself in guilty pleasures. I rewatched every episode of Sex and the City, including the movies, which I justified with a coincident session on my elliptical. From the sheet music websites, I downloaded way too many Carpenters songs, printed them out, and made a commitment  to master every one of them. (I particularly applied myself to the tune, “Where Do I Go From Here?” since the question begs the reality of a one year removal from society.) Every weekday evening, from four to seven p.m., I take to my recliner to watch three back-to-back episodes of one of my favorite British shows, Escape to the Country, to calm my seething urge to travel. Yet, all of my distractions pale to my absolute favorite activity: my Wednesday afternoons with Cooking with Tina and the Cats.

The meeting of Tina and me was kismet. Both of us career Royalistas, we met at the early morning wedding of Harry and Meghan, or at least a televised version, at the Fairmont Park Plaza in Boston. That morning, I stood on the stairs of the Ballroom, drinking in the scene: tables set for a formal affair, the large screens strategically in place throughout for optimum viewing, women in their hats and feathers, and tuxedoed waiters peddling trays of champagne to the arriving guests. Our party of five, dressed in our wedding best, fascinators and all, floated to our seats on a royal cloud of excitement. 

We settled into our table, our pastries, and our tea. A party of one, who introduced herself as Christina, slipped into her assigned seat at our table. Instantly and effortlessly, we absorbed her into our group. She was engaging, funny, and as nuts as we were. Who else would go to a mock royal wedding at 6 a.m. but a bunch of crazies? 

Before long, we had consumed our share of morning champers and more than a few of the signature cocktails. Giddy and a bit tipsy, we dragged Christina into our “formal” pictures with the Queen, superimposed on a background of Buckingham Palace, forever memorializing her as part of our outing. When it was over, we exchanged cell numbers and Facebook info, promising to stay in touch. But seldom do those promises stick–except this one. In four hours, I had attended a Royal Wedding and made a new friend.

For two years, we slowly became acquainted, liking each other’s Facebook posts. We shared similar political views and crazy Italian roots. I soon realized that this was Tina’s world and we were just visitors swept into the swirl of her orbit. When the world closed down, Tina, in her inimitable style as an event planner, nanny, professional chef, and mixologist, seized the opportunity to turn coconuts into pina coladas.

Every Wednesday for the past year, a motley crew of kids, their respective adults, and I join Tina on her weekly Zoom show, Cooking With Tina and the Cats. Tina’s cats, Hodie and Bristow, occasionally make a cameo appearance on the second camera. Every week there is a theme (superhero, Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras) and appropriate attire is encouraged. As the token unaccompanied adult, I avoid the dress up but dive right into the hijinx, silliness, and cooking tips. It’s the best fun I’ve had in a year.

Every Saturday, Tina posts the menu and the shopping list on her CWTC Facebook page. After taking an inventory of what I have in house and what I need, I create my Amazon Fresh cart. In a year, my pantry has expanded with the likes of rice wine vinegar, chili paste, star anise, and Thai fish sauce (medium). I have no idea what to do with these things beyond my Tina recipes but I have pledged to myself to dig up a dish that will use some, or all of them, before they expire. It’s an unlikely prospect.

Under Tina’s tutelage, I have upped my cooking game. Tina is a virtual encyclopedia of substitutions for those of us who are lacking an ingredient, a wizard of meatless options for the vegetarians in the group, and a master of cooking tips and tricks. Under Tina’s direction, Wednesday night dinner is a done deal by six, a vast improvement from my frequent eight p.m. meal prep, which seldom guarantees as delicious an outcome. 

Entertaining, informative, educational, and occasionally ‘spicy,’ Cooking with Tina is good clean fun, that is, until the time a Zoom bomber attempted to infiltrate the room with a saucy request. Tina handled the assault with aplomb, ending the siege before the kids knew what was happening. Aside from that, a few references to ‘balls’ (meatballs) is about as racy as we get. We end every class with a mock-cocktail (mock for the kids, full-on cocktail for the adults). My shaker, martini glasses, and liquor supply have never seen so much action! After some “cheersin,’” we negotiate the next week’s theme, menu possibilities, and costumes.

A few times, I’ve had conflicts that have kept me from my weekly constitutional with Tina and the Cats and I am bereft. To the world, I refer to my ninety minutes with Tina, the Cats, and the kids as “my cooking class.” No one needs to know that I spend every Wednesday afternoon with a bunch of adorable little kids and their moms and nannies, and cats attired in lace tank tops. It’s my little secret (mine and Facebook’s). A chance meeting resulting in a friendship, which sprung from getting a little drunk at a pretend Royal Wedding at six in the morning, that turned into a standing date with my cooking guru proves that destiny is real. It also proves that, in a pandemic, with the right friends, you can turn lemons into lemonade, or lemon blueberry margaritas. Cheers!

How Far Haven’t We Come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Deliver Bad News That Builds Trust & Confidence -

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put the Phone Down | The Appreciation Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheez It Stickers | Redbubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got Beer? Drizly Delivers! – Motif

Decision Making in the Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Most Inspiring Quotes About Time - TimeCamp

Etiquette 101 and Coronavirus: A Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing in the Time of Exile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men in exile Aeschylus

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Guilt and the Art of Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing My Mind: A Weighty Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simpler times, simpler pleasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Reality of Living a Life of Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Art of Selflessness


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When I visit Ireland every February, there are a few things that I can count on: the first “hit” of Irish air at 6 a.m. as I emerge from Arrivals at Shannon Airport; the first time I have to say “Mar-i Ca-hill-an” versus my usual flat American pronunciation; my first bag of Taytos; and my first really fresh pint of Guinness. Other things for which I yearn include driving on the wild Irish R and L roads (all on the “wrong side,” as Americans say), eating my first bowl of “vegetable soup and brown bread,” hearing the obituaries on Clare FM radio, and attending Mass spoken in a mixture of Latin phrases spoken in an Irish accent. Roman Catholic Mass in Ireland is truly a cultural experience, where occasionally one receives Communion at an altar rail and “Prayers of the Faithful” include pleas for things like “a reduction in the use of the Lord’s name in vain”.  I have to chuckle at the latter since Ireland is a country where  “Jaysus” is invoked at every turn and “Mother of God” punctuates many a sentence where the narrator conveys shock and dismay. But this time, church offered a very different and unexpected lesson.

As we walked to St. Brigid’s, just up the road from the inn where we were staying, the rain pelted us and we hustled to the churchyard. Clearly a popular Mass, parking was at a premium for those faithful who drove. But most interestingly, parked just outside of the door of the sanctuary was a flower-filled hearse. Momentarily deterred, we pressed on and walked in mid-church, the congregation assembled and a casket prominently displayed before the altar.  With the pews full of mourners and townspeople, we made our way to the rear and mounted the stairs to the “Gallery” or as we Americans would say, “the balcony.” In the gallery, we gazed upon the full church from, arguably, the best seats in the house.  As Mass proceeded, references to “Mary” and the “repose of her soul” were peppered in the priest’s comments and the church was heavy with sadness without visible emotion (the Irish don’t really do that).

As the priest mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, our voyeuristic urges to hear more about “Mary” and her life ignited.  Mary, it seems, was a wonderful person. But aren’t we all after we die? However, in Mary’s case, she epitomized the image of a saint on this earthly plane. As the priest shared the details of Mary’s life, we learned that Mary’s mother passed away when Mary was only fifteen years of age and Mary assumed the role of “mother” in the home, leaving school and raising her siblings. Years later, she married “Jack,” and she and Jack had five children of their own, to whom she dedicated her life. Sadly, Jack died at the age of forty-two, leaving Mary to raise her children alone. The priest expounded on the virtues that Mary possessed and the life of service to others that clearly defined Mary. Her family, now expanded to twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all beneficiaries of Mary’s goodness, dabbed their eyes as they considered the virtuous soul now lost.

When the priest shifted his focus to her family, he acknowledged their dedication to their mother and grandmother and the fact that Mary remained at home, despite her declining health. Everyone pitched in and Mary’s care was delivered lovingly by those seated there. Hearing this approach to elder care, I felt a little sadness and some regret that I was not strong enough or had the time to deliver that same level of care to my own father.

As I sat there listening to the story of Mary, I wept. For Heaven’s sake, I didn’t know Mary, or even how she died, but Mary and her deep love and commitment struck a chord with me and I felt the loss. The story was one of a simpler, yet complex, life. Despite the amazing opportunities that our American way of life affords us, I fear that we have sacrificed a deep connection to our families and our roots. We often hear that we should “live our lives” and when family life becomes complicated and presents challenges, find the geographic remedy and move away. Now when things get difficult, we turn inward to ensure that we are “taking care of ourselves” and “making ourselves a priority”.  Yoga and mindfulness to address the stress in our lives, and big cars and swish houses in desirable zip codes that cause the stress are the rewards and byproducts of our frenetic lives, motivating our view of success. But as I ponder the life of Mary, her selflessness was her success. It is her legacy. It is the lesson that she left behind, so well learned by those who so selflessly cared for her.

It has been two weeks since Mary’s funeral and I think of her often, and marvel that I cried for her, a total stranger who touched me in death because of the way she lived.  Rest well, Mary…

And as they go, it was a hell of a funeral! As the Irish would say, “She got a great send-off though, didn’t she?”

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