Good Times onThe Year’s Best Holiday

a turkey knows when it's doneBack in the day, we used to get a free local turkey from my husband’s work for Thanksgiving and for some reason the thing was always huge, more like a pterodactyl than a domesticated fowl, so huge that one year we had to tie the oven door shut and brace a chair up against it to hold the beast inside. I remember too the year when, taking some bit of turkey-roasting advice I saw in the paper, I cooked our bird breast side down for the whole time, only to extract, at the end of six hours, a roasting pan containing something that resembled a skeletal sunken ship, a sort of scaffolding of bones perched over a world of turkey fat and what could just barely be described as meat. If memory serves, that was also the year the whole roasting pan shot out of the oven and onto the floor.

Ah, but does memory serve us very well, or are you, dear reader, not yet at the age where you tell a story about something that happened to you only to be wryly advised by a family member that no, actually that whole thing happened to her? Anyway, isn’t it better sometimes if we look ahead rather than looking back?

Who is to say?

I know my sister and I still love looking back at the Thanksgivings of early childhood in our household of five grownups, four of whom were female and all of whom could be seen laboring away in the kitchen for a whole week leading up to the big day. Our grandfather meanwhile, as the sole male among those aunts and great aunties and our mom and our pretty Aunt Grace, sat in his easy chair smoking a cigar and reading biographies of the great men of American history. Though come to think of it I do remember hearing about that one Thanksgiving eve, when he did what he had said he would try to do and actually brought home the turkey  –  still attired in its longjohns as you might put it, in the form of hundreds of soft under-feathers that took forever to pluck out.  “How did you ever manage?” my sister and I squeaked in delighted horror as young adults which we were when we first heard the tale. “Ha!” she replied. “Well, the first thing we did was pour a few stiff drinks!”)

That ease-taking grandfather is gone now, as are the ancient great aunties. Gone too is our merry Aunt Grace, and also our funny and irreverent mom. I have my own children now and they have children themselves and I write this from a house that at 10am bears no scent at all of the cooking of a turkey. We are to eat at the home of one of our daughters, and our duty is light duty: We’re bringing the beer and the wine and I am to make a salad (which is funny all by itself since really who eats salad on Thanksgiving? I mean, besides me and my strikingly slim, pure-foods-only sister-in-law?) Oh but wait I am almost forgetting! I am also to do the gravy because our daughter confesses herself shy about pulling off a good gravy and for sure I feel ready for that task. We’re going over to her house at 1:00 but I have already set out my full-length chef’s apron, as well as the special lump-defying  flour and the steel spatula for prying up the pan drippings. I have a pocketful of chicken bouillon cubes too in case we need to make gallons of the velvety stuff,  so I’m pretty sure I can do the task justice. Really all I need do is close my eyes and I can see – see  as if they were standing before me – the literal gravy-making movements of all those hard-working women in whose kitchen I spent one happy childhood.

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A Strange Peace

A strange sense of peace has descended on me over these last few days, following, I should probably say, a strong desire to tear out all my hair. This happened because some robot somewhere hacked into my Gmail account, then showered a million droplets of spam in the direction of every last person in my Contacts. The account was promptly suspended by Google and, I was advised, on the page where one might plead one’s case, that it could easily be three or even four business days before they got around to ‘hearing’ it.

In the meantime how odd it is has been to look down at the phone I practically bring into my morning shower and see nothing waiting for me! There is such quiet all of sudden! And in all this quiet I am noticing things I had previously missed:

I’m noticing how nice it is to wake in the morning and NOT see a lot of urgent headlines  summoning me from the little cigarette-pack that is the iPhone 6.

I’m noticing how nice it was to look out my bedroom window at the dawn sky the other day and see a tiny silver dart of an airplane. It pierced the rosy clouds in its ascent from the oceanside airport next to close-crowded Boston with its jumble of buildings like the tall quilt-looking vanilla cookies you’d get as a kid when some kindly grownup thought to crown your scoop of as ice cream with a few. Why have I not spent ten minutes looking out at this slice of sky every day? I ask myself.

I think too how simultaneously alarming and comforting it was for me that morning to look in the bathroom mirror a little longer than usual and discover my mother’s very face looking back at me, though the lady has been gone these 30 years.

I also had time to notice too a long silky hair I had never seen before, sprouting from a new place on my chin. With my new shorter hair and my now far more meager eyebrows I also had a shock: “Hold on!” I thought. “Am I actually starting to look like a man? Like maybe Paul Giamatti in his role as Sam Adams?”

But no, I told myself at that point. If I am to be without the incessant pinging of  incoming emails for this interlude, then let me harbor thoughts less and silly self-involved.

I walked back to my room then and opened the curtains wide.  My husband had left our bed at 4am to make a 6:30 flight across the country. I crawled back under the covers and looked out at the sky – just in time to see a second silver dart rising from the horizon-hugging clouds. “It’s him! ” I thought. “There he goes!”

And isn’t THAT a much better way to start the day than with that brackish tide of awful news?

 

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No Problem?

“… Now happy as I was to hear that it was ‘no problem’ for these young people to have done what they did, the fact remains that the transactions that brought us together in those two instances were, in fact, commercial transactions, in which one party offered a good or a service in exchange for pay from the other party. Thus, as far as I have always understood, the notion of a problem doesn’t enter into it.”

no problemAn erstwhile reader of my column has just advised me about a piece he just read in the Wall Street Journal about the use of the phrase “No problem” in place of “Thank you.” This man remembered that I had written about this same custom myself few years back, and so I had, as I saw when I went hunting for it on the web. “No problem,” one young waitress had told me back then when I thanked her for bringing my order. “No problem,”’ the young barista had said after I thanked him for my decaf latte.

Now happy as I was to hear that it was ‘no problem’ for these young people to have done what they did, the fact remains that the transactions that brought us together in those two instances were, in fact, commercial transactions, in which one party offered a good or a service in exchange for pay from the other party. Thus, as far as I have always understood, the notion of a problem doesn’t enter into it.

Consider, by contrast, another part of our common life, that of the daily commute. It’s darn hard to spend two or more hours on the road to get back and forth to your job week in and week out. It’s hard to have to stand out in the elements in wet or cold or sizzling-hot weather waiting for the bus that will get you there and back again. Ask any random group of adults what time they have to GET UP in the morning in order to get themselves and their family members fed and dressed and out the door to work or school and what you learn will back up the statistics: Americans are among the hardest working people on the planet. And yet you rarely hear them using the word ‘problem’ about what it takes for them to get to their jobs, so I have to ask: what’s with this ‘no problem’ phrase that has become the norm among so many younger people? 

I don’t mean to be grouchy here. It’s just that ‘No problem’ is the wrong response to ‘Thank you’ and don’t we all know that? Don’t we all remember the right response, the one we were all taught as kids? The right response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome.’ In Italy and Spain they say, ‘It’s nothing’ in response to a ‘Thank you.’ In Germany they use the word for, ‘Please,’ which, handily enough, also means ‘Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ ‘After you,’ and a host of other things as well.

In English we sometimes say, ‘Don’t mention it’ when someone says ‘Thank you,’ which, come to think of it, feels a lot like ‘It’s nothing.’ So too, the German word ‘Bitte’ serves to say “You’re welcome,” as well as standing in for  ‘Please’, Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ and ‘After you.’

‘You’re welcome’ means ‘You are welcome to my help’, or, in these instances, ‘I am happy to be the one providing you with your coffee/ dinner. No matter if the person is not all THAT happy; we say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Please’ and ‘You’re welcome’ because it is courteous to do so; because it oils the social machinery.

But enough beefing from me on a lovely October morning. Let me save my complaints for the next weekday morning when some postal clerk, who knows at a glance that I can name the entire cast of the Howdy Doody Show, tries calling me ‘Young lady’! 

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Oh It’s Cryin’ Time Again They’re Gonna Squeeze You

You’re almost done at your doctor’s office door when they drop it on you: “And of course you’ll have the yearly mammogram before the end of the month?” chirped my primary care person last April, with the same merry tone as when she orders up the dread colonoscopy.

Oh, I’d  go get the darn mammogram, of course I would – and I know I am lucky to be someone who can show up and fulfill this yearly obligation. Still, we all vividly remember what it’s like, don’t we ladies? The way the tech lifts and nudges those poor delicate tissues onto that cold glass plate? The mechanical squeeeeeze as she brings the second plate down upon them? The way she then tightens that diabolical vise to ‘hammer’ them flat as a couple of veal cutlets?  It’s a never-changing ritual, only this time as I held my breath the way they make you do, the room started to wobble in my sight, causing me to begin my internal mantra of old,  “I will not faint, I will not faint…”

I didn’t faint  but this was the first time in many, many years that I had come so come close. It would be a real bummer if I had, since fainting right in the doctor’s office means forever after they will label you as a ‘faller’ and snap a plastic bracelet on you advertising the fact to everyone in the place. This is the worst. If you have to faint you want to do so anonymously.

In my childhood and teen years I got to do a lot of anonymous fainting: I fainted all the time in church, first going fish-belly white and then melting down in the pew until large male hands heaved me up by the armpits and hustled me up the aisle toward the back of the church, limp feet dragging behind me. I fainted when a doctor unfamiliar with wart removal burned two cigarette holes in my right arm, scars I bear to this day.

I fainted once in the Men’s Department of a fancy store and woke just in time to hear the manager say, “just drag her behind the counter” because you can’t have a lot of passed-out people standing in the way of commerce.

But looking back now I see that the most embarrassing lapse into near-unconsciousness occurred at my own wedding, up on the altar. Cocooned as I was in a complex wedding veil and a peau de soie gown with full-length sleeves that came to a point at the base of the finger bones, I felt my young self mist over with a sudden wash of fine perspiration. Ah, I can see it all before me even now: Here was the priest intoning away. Here were the wedding guests, a sea of blurry balloon faces out their in the congregation. My bridesmaids were there too but I was unaware of them in this moment of need.  The only help I could look to at all came in the person of my similarly young, similarly perspiring groom. We were each facing the priest and not each other so I had to whisper my SOS to him out of the side of my mouth, like a gangster.

“I’m going to faint! I hissed, my eyes on the priest and my face frozen into a death mask of a smile as we stood there holding hands as instructed.

Fake smiling himself, he hissed right back. “You can’t faint!” he said and punched the side of my leg, pretty hard too, under cover of all that silk.

It worked. I didn’t faint, we were officially joined in marriage seven minutes later and have remained joined, basically thigh to thigh, every day ever since.

All of which leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t bring HIM to my next mammogram to help keep me awake and upright. Though as I think about I’m guessing that even one quick look at this whole Inquisition-style process would have out cold and flat on the floor before the tech had time to even duck back behind her screen to start taking pictures.

mammogram

How It’s Done (not me however)

You Hate Us, We Get That.

We Baby Boomers have become one of society’s favorite piñatas, that much is obvious but why? Is it because we’ve always acted like our music was the best music? Is it because many of us still have all those heavy dark furniture ‘sets’ from the 70s and the kids are jealous haha?

Really I think it’s because we rode such a long wave of prosperity when we were young. We acted like it was just normal when, as soon as our school days were behind us, lots of us said say sayonara to the folks and set ourselves up in funky little walk-ups with candles stuck in empty rosé bottles and wooden-bead curtains to separate our sitting area from the so-called kitchen. In the apartment my cousin and I sublet the year I was 20 the fridge we inherited with the lease was found to have, in the 4-inch thick ice cave of its freezer, many jagged shards of a broken whiskey bottle and a lone human hair. Even so, it was all ours and what joy it was to do your underage drinking in a place where nobody ever yelled you to cut out the foolishness and go do your homework. Those were the days all right.

So if you guys coming along behind us envy that far more affordable life we had, well, I get that. I get why you’re sore, but I have to ask myself: Why do you have to go after our CLOTHES? A person can’t turn around these days without seeing list after list of Fashion Don’ts for us Ike-and-overs. (And, of course 90% of these lists are directed toward us women, since a man in this age group can go out looking like one of the Walking Dead and nobody thinks a thing about it.

It stings, kind of, in no small part because half the things on the list are things most of us ladies are still wearing.

I speak of sleeveless or cap-sleeved shirts. These we’re not supposed to wear because people will recoil in horror and be turned to stone by the sight of our upper arms.

Also, a pair of shoes with a matching bag is now a major no-no. But didn’t we used to pay people to have the bag and shoes dyed to match the dress?

And how about the fact that we’re told never, ever to wear a fleece outside the house? Instead, the list makers say, we should wrap ourselves in “cool, slouchy cardigans,” presumably over large loose ‘boyfriend shirts’ and never mind that this get-up is exactly what I wore in 8th grade while pacing the floor and trying to memorize The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained for Mrs. Meehan in Fourth Period.

To top it off there’s this most galling prohibition that makes it to every bossy list I have seen this season: We women over 55 aren’t supposed to ever, no matter what, wear “neutral” pantyhose, which I first thought meant the really pale kind that make your two legs like a pair of uncooked sausages, because surely they can’t mean those nicely tinted ‘Suntan’-hued L’Eggs that I have favored for the past 40 years?

Alas, they can and they do. Instead of wearing any type of translucent pantyhose we’re meant instead to pull on black or solid colored TIGHTS. Tights, like a babies wear over their diapers! Tights, like court jesters wear under their bloomers and inside their curly-toed shoes!  So now – what? – am I expected now to wear tights with a cocktail dress?

Oh no, they say, heavens no, certainly not. In these cases we are invited instead to – get this – go barelegged, which to me is truly insane since what if it’s freezing out? Or what if we have long walks or waits at a bus stop in our daily working life? And how, in the name of all that is holy, does it make sense for us ‘elders,’ who are asked to hide sight of our upper arms to then inflict on the world the veiny fireworks going off ON OUR LEGS?

I’m on to these youngsters though. I know they’re trying to make us all crazy so they can lock us up, or put us by our millions out on a giant ice floe off the coast of Antarctica. I know they’re just dying to take a big old bat to the piñata that is us.

Well, let ’em, I say. For revenge, we’ll die and leave them all our dark old room sets with the faux-carved wood – like this one I just found on the internet – and see how they like that haha!

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Dodging the Falling Anvil

falling anvil

Many Floridians feel that they dodged that old falling anvil in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and I know the sense of relief of my own family members in that area is immense.  Anyone lucky enough not to be flattened by the falling anvil,

or the falling safe,

falling safe.jpg

or the falling piano…

falling piano

…is bound to feel relief, though sometimes there is guilt too, or at least a heightened compassion for the folks who were not so lucky.

I’m thinking of the people of Cuba, of St. Martin/St. Maarten and Barbuda and Antigua. I’m thinking of the people of St. Thomas and St. John – any of these places where things are very bad indeed right now, with no power and scant food and structures that look as though a gaggle of elementary school kids just walked away from a giant game of Pick-up-Sticks. The New York Times described things most vividly in their lead story yesterday: “The wind whipped the tops of palm trees around like pompoms in the hands of a cheerleader,” it said in part. “The flooding in Key Largo had small boats bobbing in the streets next to furniture and refrigerators like rubber toys in a bathtub. Shingles were kidnapped from roofs; swimming pools dissolved into the ocean….”

Here’s a picture I took a couple of winters ago when, due to promised financial inducements, we got talked into staying at the Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas, a hotel the likes of which I have not been a guest at before or since. (I posted about it back then if you’d care to take the detour.) Until last week, this was their pool. That’s the ocean in the background of course, but the whole foreground is pool. I had never seen a swimming pool this lovely where, on the ocean side, the water brimmed up clear to the rim, as on a spillway, and did in fact trickle gently over.

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I don’t know what this pool looks like now. I only know the hotel’s website advises the world that the hotel is closed until further notice.

I can only think that the vast cleanup effort to get back to where folks were before the storm must be keeping them in that unhealthy-over-time state where the stress hormone cortisol just keeps pumping and pumping.

I felt stress myself this past summer, though in a very minor key by comparison. Back in the first part of the summer while we were on a ship in Russia for two weeks, our hot water heater died, peed all over the cellar floor and left us, on our return, with a waist-high pile of travel clothes in such a state of UNcleanliness that it was practically steaming, like grass clippings in a compost pile. Lucky for us in the modern world of detergents, you can also wash in cold water.

Then, some weeks later, we came home one day to find that the handle-slash-control panel of our dishwasher broken. Just broken and hanging off, so that for 15 days we were washing glasses, china and cutlery by hand until the repair guys could get the part shipped here from Louisville and they could come install it. That finally happened yesterday.

The point is, we lived. We were fine.

The real falling anvil that we dodged, we dodged at the end of August when, in their regularly scheduled walkabout, our local utility discovered a major leak in the gas going into our house.

As it happened, we were away that day too, but a close, near-family member had offered to look after things for us.  When he walked up our street from the train station after work, he was greeted by the sight of a big white truck, a team of workers busily moving about our property and a trench two feet deep and three feet wide running in a wide gash from the far side of our street, over our lawn and clear over to the house’s foundation.

“Are you the homeowner?” they asked our kind caretaking friend.

“No, but I can call them.”

He did that and ten seconds later I was on the phone with the job’s boss.

“The pipe from the street is very, very old and very narrow!” he said with what seemed like genuine surprise.  It’s leaking,” he said, “and we need to stay right here and fix it. Will that be all right?

“More than all right!” I yelped, “and thank you SO much! I’ve been smelling gas outside my house since 2008! I called then and when you guys came you said it was just minor.”

“It probably was back then, but it isn’t minor now,” he said. “Can we get inside and fix it? Will somebody be here?”

Our friend agreed to stay, though he was just home from work and mighty hungry. He stayed until they were done some three hours later, a little bit after 8pm.

So our house did not blow up which is what happens with a gas leak and we felt relief. My Florida-based sister and her husband did not see their home on the bayou destroyed, either by the winds or by that predicted  storm surge. Their kids’ home was fine too, as they learned yesterday from the place where they sheltered after their mandatory evacuation last week. Miraculously, they none of them even lost power and maybe all that was because of prudent building, and strict codes, and careful planning.

But prudent foresight will only take you so far in this world. At the height of Irma’s fury on Sunday, when the winds were so strong they sucked the water right out of the Tampa Bay, that city’s mayor Bob Buckhorn said it best:  “Everybody’s got a plan ’til they get punched in the face.” He was quoting Mike Tyson.

Look more closely now at the sign in that cartoon of the falling safe here at the top. It does  “Warning,” yes, but it also says “This is a Safe Area.” As IF there could be such place on this old earth!

10 Tips at the School Year’s Start

schoolroomI guess we’re ALL back to school now, so how about this: How about we pretend I’m the teacher seated on one of those pint-size elementary school chairs and you guys are on the floor in front of me. Pretend we’re sitting in a sunny classroom where dust motes from the chalk lazily circle. Pretend everyone’s tummy is nicely full and we’re thus all feeling peaceful enough to take in some words of advice.

In that hope, I offer the following:

One, sit up front, whether your classroom is a literal or a figurative one, and let yourself be known, by both your teachers and your fellow students.

Two, if the teacher writes something on the board and you’re at an age where note-taking is the norm, then copy when s/he has said in your own notebook, even if it’s just a few word. If your teachers are going to the trouble of setting down something large and neat enough to be read from 30 feet away, then you should go to a little trouble too.

Three, make sure you actually LOOK AT this notebook after class. Even just glancing at what your teachers said and what you heard and copied down will help you begin knitting things together in your mind. I know someone who, for the Con-Law class she took in college, copied out all 27 Amendments to the Constitution and taped them at eye level around her dorm room, then read them twice a day as she brushed and brushed her waist-length hair. Does that sound old-fashioned? Maybe, but who can sniff at the reward of  a Magna Cum Laude served up with a side of Phi Beta Kappa? I can tell you the effort felt worth it to her!

Four, don’t wait ‘til the last minute to write that term paper, composition or Compare-and-Contrast paragraph. Doing so will cause you to become unduly fond of what you have finally managed to get down on paper, just because it IS down on paper, and falling in love with your first draft is like growing fond of your shortcomings. If we are very lucky in life, the people who love us will grow fond even of our shortcomings over time, but that’s for them to do, not us.  Waiting until the last minute will also cause you to panic and freeze as the deadline approaches, leading you to decide not to complete the assignment at all and take the F.

Five, never give up and take F. Making the effort in life counts way more than you can imagine at this stage of things.

Six, stay strong, as the saying goes. Remember who you are. Be mindful of the dignity of your family and of their struggles, and the dreams that have been dreamed for you.

Seven, about ganging up on others, even “in fun”: Do not participate in such behaviors, ever.

Eight, Don’t engage in gossip, or listen to gossip. Ugly speculation about others harms everyone. It withers the soul.

Nine, since sexual gossip is even worse, there is corollary: Do not speculate about what other people may or may have done or be doing in the sexual realm. If there was ever a topic that was none of your business this is it.

And finally, Ten, never laugh when someone asks a question.  We’re here to ask questions, the little questions and especially the big ones. So ask away and think hard with your well-rested post-summer minds. Then come back and teach the rest of us what you’ve learned.