The Give and the Get

It’s not hard to love the people who live in your house. They’re right there in your house, so you really SEE them,  almost from inside their very own eyes!

I mean here’s this one’s toothbrush, and comb, for example and the towel he uses each day for his shower, tokens of the daily care-of-the-body tasks we all must perform each day.

Here’s the book that one reads when sleep eludes him. He has left it on the porch, thinking maybe to pack it on his bike and take it to work to read at the lunch hour.

And here, under the bureau: here is a balled-up sock where it has landed after being taken off and tossed away some weary midnight.

You can never be annoyed at a person once you have seen these things.

I should say I don’t do actual maid service around here- not unless my houseguests are the ages of the two little ones I wrote about yesterday – so I see socks and such only sometimes, when these guys would be away for a week or two and I stripped their beds to washed their linens, just because everyone deserves clean linens….

But why don’t I back up a little here and explain this better: We have had four different young people staying in our house this summer, all part of the National Program for a Better Chance, all young men of on the cusp of college life.  No shower has gone forth without the muted boom of hip-hop pulsing from the bathroom. No golden summer afternoon has billowed into evening without the sound of their happy voices in the kitchen.

Two of them had jobs in this the first summer before heading off to Bard College RPI. That’s Cam and Tristan at the top here. Then a third, now a high school Senior, worked as a tech for a computer repair company, leaving for a two-week stint at Brown where he took a course in the computer operating system known as Linux . And a fourth, a high school Junior did a college tour, took a Neurobiology course at Emory and spent just a week with us, doing an SAT-prep boot camp at a great place called Chyten.  Boy Three did the same course and both came home each day at 5:00, brimming with news about all the English words derived from Latin.

The “give” By David and me was that they slept here and ate a little, though not very much I must say. They packed their own lunches so I just had to buy deli stuff , and it’s amazing how far a teen male can go on Pop Tarts and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Cocoa Puffs, foods I have never before stoked in this house. It’s true they like meat at night but hey so do we and if you’re grilling two nice fat burgers you might just as well grill six. I guess I also gave them rides to the Y so they could work out but again, I was going to the Y myself to catch those cardio classes I love so much.

So that was pretty much the ‘give.’ Not such a long list.

The ‘get’  list for me is much longer. I personally got:

  • Much more motivation to get to the Y than I would normally have.
  • Help putting away the groceries
  • Companionship in buying the groceries
  • All the emergency help I could ever have wanted with my PC, my i-Pad and i-Phone and even  my i-Pod when I dropped it in the sink that time
  • Help hanging drapes on extra-wide windows (Number Three has a six-foot wingspan) and..
  • A million laughs.

Here are House guest Numbers Three and Four, Rayvoughn and Hazees, helping me tote stuff in June.

Ray was with us almost the whole summer. He helped me, he teased David, he backed down from an arm-wrestle challenge from David (more than once) and he played with our little grandsons.

It’s  time now for him to start the long grind of applying to colleges.

He’s equal to the task I think. He’s a smart as a whip and hurdles just don’t scare him. even if he doesn’t always ZIP the life jacket even tough he put its mostly on, and maybe THAT’s the lesson he taught me this summer: Strike a humorous pose, look like you’re equal to any challenge and you might just pull it off!

OK DON’T Cut Me!

facelift-the-worstJeeze, never have a facelift. Remember how Demi Moore used to look? Even in the over-40 years she was lovely but not lovely enough it seems.

Never MIND that she now has as set of giant fake chompers, she also must’ve wanted the plumper cheeks of youth back or something because it looks to me like she had the skin on her face picked up and filled with foam or something. Plus she’s had her nose carved down so it looks like the nose of a witchy old lady and I mean come ON: Mother Nature does this for us so why would anyone ASK medicine to do it?

I’ve always marveled at the change in the face of Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda in the all-too-short years of her public life before mental troubles landed in her in the ‘home’ where she burned to death, leaving a single ballet behind.(Ballet became her obsession in her late 20s, though she was years too old to take it up.) She once had that same plump look. Then all of a sudden she looked well, hatched-faced.

This all began occurring to me when I was talking here about Linda Evans and saying how for years I had a hair-style like hers. (You can see it by clicking here. I call it Dave and His Cheeseball Wife.)

But here’s how Linda once looked. linda-evans-then

Darling, right? Natural, approachable – basically gorgeous, right?

Well here’s how she looks now with her old rival Joan Collins:


Goin’ for that rounder young face, see. Goin’ for God-knows-what in the lips department. She looks like she put her mouth on the exhaust pipe of a Harley after a long hot ride.

Now I’ll admit it: I used to look in the mirror and think Man, if I could just find the money to have those docs hike up THIS old face! Just untack the carpeting, give it a good stretch, nail it down again and boom, there I’d be again, little Terry Sheehy just as she looked singin’ in the Special Chorus at Lowell High School.

Instead I look like Zelda myself these days and now after that incident at Christmas my family has taken away all my matchbooks. (click here for that one.)

But what are you gonna do hey? We’ve lived through what we’ve lived through and our faces just mark the journey.


Gaudeamus Igitur

Italy Day 11: Being on a guided trip is like being a baby again: you HOPE your caregivers know you need a nap and a juice break; you HOPE they’ll check to see that you’re still dry. Our caregivers do know all this and have handed us along from dawn to forenoon to golden gloaming with so many of our needs anticipated that I find myself released somehow to range in thought over all of my tiny life, remembering, and regarding anew, and looking forward.

 What I’m remembering today is what it was like to be 18 and beginning my second year at Smith College, when a girl named Vicki James arrived.  Dewey House, where we lived, was a tiny dorm, the place where my Aunt Julia had lived in her own time at Smith with her big sister (my future mom) just three dorms away. It is for me one of THE key places of my life, a stage upon which unfolded so many new thought and fresh insights, a place gracious and formal and fine, staid and timeless – until Vicki came and changed everything.

She knew History, and believed in History’s lessons. She also knew what fun was and she believed in beer. The above picture shows her blindfolded on the lawn in front of Dewey House before the Freshman Sophomore picnic that ended with one of us spraining an ankle and another getting wedged inside one of the sinks at the Davis Student Center. It was Vicki who found out we could drink 35-cent beers in downtown Northampton. She liked the townie boys and so I liked them too, and the nights we walked down to see them we’d roll back up the hill toward campus singing the ancient Latin drinking song she taught us all.  “Gaudeamus Igitur dum Juvenes” it began. Let us rejoice now while we are young because “Where are they who were in the world before us?” As if we didn’t know. We knew all right, but we didn’t think for a minute that we would ever be anything other than young, with firm strong limbs like the marble limbs of the Greek and Roman youth we saw in our textbooks.

I had my first apartment ever with Vicki that summer while I worked and she took the courses at Harvard that would let her finish Smith in three years’ time.  A week into our living in that tiny Cambridge house I met the boy who would become my husband. Vicki went on to the PhD program at Harvard; David, then a Senior there, went on to get his MBA at the B School just across the river. And I, who had so earnestly hoped to go to grad school too, instead became a teacher of Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth graders and saw almost every value I had previously held turned on it head, in the best possible way. Those students changed me as much as Vicki had and when the letter came at last admitting me to my own Masters Program I tore it up, taught five more years, and four years after that began writing the newspaper column that has aimed always and only to delight a weary public.

Well, Vicki came a few days ago to see her two old friends in Bellagio. She is called Victoria now, Dottorressa Munsey in fact and has lived here in Northern Italy for the last quarter century. She and I walked the hills above the city while David toured the Villa Carlotta and then three old friends ate dinner together.

Our blindfolds are off now and we all see more clearly. And if we are old, yet are we happy.

So here below is old Dewey House that gave birth to our young dreams; and below that and larger for the beauty of the photo the clear light from our hotel room that helped me remember it.


Mystifed. The Kid Was Mystified.

(for all you young’uns: THIS is a harp.)

An Aubuchon Hardware store, one of 130 in the New York New England area, in its 100th years of service to the public. I walk in to encounter a pleasant looking youth who asks if he can help me.

“Sure can! I need a harp.”

“A hop?” he says and I think to myself This is good old New Hamshah, and I still have to pronounce those pesky R’s? “Oh I’m sorry H-A-R-P, the basis for any lamp.”

“Hmmm,” he says again, looking puzzled. “We don’t carry those I don’t think.”

“Are you sure? Because you know most hardware stores do.”

He leads me to the lamps aisle where there are little desk lamps, utility lamps etc. “See?”

“But they wouldn’t be HERE, exactly,” I say.

Still he doesn’t think they have them so I give up and say I also need some spray paint.

“THAT I can do!” he says with his nice smile and off we go to the spray paint aisle where I begin studying the labels of two brands of white enamel spray paint Good on wood, good on metal, the really big printing on the front says,

“Hmmm, but t I need this stuff to spray on ceramic,”


“Yeah you know, like a pitcher-and-bowl set,” I say realizing there is NO chance he will know what this is, 100 years and more removed as we are now from the time when people had chamber pots and pitcher-and-bowl sets in their bedrooms. Sure enough , he looks pleasantly fuddled so “Can I spray this stuff on, like, china?” I ask.

“I really don’t know a thing about paint,” he says.

“Do you know how to read?” I say, though I am not at all grouchy – just incapable of reading the very tiny print on the back .

“Well I’m only 16 of course. I figure I have my whole life ahead of me, “ he says with a wink. He takes the can and reads it – but alas even then we remain mystified in Aisle Twelve.

“Hey it’s OK, I’ll just take this one.” I say. “Now let’s go back to the front of the store. I forgot I need finials for two lamps.”

“Finials! Another VO-cab word!” he shouts gleefully. “What are finials?”

“Well a finial is an ornamental element found atop a thing. Like the knob on your ladder-back chair, for example, or at the foot of he stairs the little sculpted element on your newel post…”.

“Newel post?”

“Or the decorative thing on the top of a cupola even.”

“Cupola?” But just then comes striding along the lady 60 who has worked here for decades.

“I need a harp and some finials,” I say.

“Of course,” she smiles and leads me straight to a corner of Aisle Two where I find it all: harps, finials, even risers and I buy them all from her and my spray paint besides after she has walked me up to the counter, where the boy takes of his apron and gives me a big happy wave as together we exit the store and cross the parking lot in the warm June sun.

…and these children, these are finials.

Two Night Sleepover with a Side of Fries

At the end of every week when my column begins to appears in papers all over I often wonder if the people reading it would like to hear more of the story than those 600-odd words can convey. For example, the piece up this week is about the double sleepover-retreat held at my church lately, “we” being 15 youth, three of us adult leaders and the Reverend Judith Arnold, Minister of Youth and Parish Life.

Remember how Elizabeth Marshall Thomas said in her great book about dogs that all they wanted was to be with other dogs? Any group of teens is like that too. When they’re together they’re happy. These guys mostly pop and sizzle, joke and nudge, but when it’s time to get serious they can stop on a dime to flip the switch and go earnest. In the open, Quaker-style prayer portion of things they arise spontaneously, each to light a candle and say a word about some person or struggle or issue in their hearts. Sometimes, one will rise and say nothing, but only light a candle. Sometimes, any one of them will choose not to even do that. There is no pressure or expectation.

In regular life, this group meets Sundays nights when we can all feel the new workweek bearing down on us and most Sunday nights for the last four year we have seen the now newly-graduated Steven light his candle and offer the same prayer: “For procrastinators everywhere,” he solemnly intones. And so on that Saturday night a whisker before midnight, with the kids set to buzz and seethe like bees in the hive until sleep at last overtook them Judy would be the one sweating bullets.

Why? Because it wasn’t enough that she was the one who’d called the whole thing into being, produced all the food, kick-started all the discussions and led most of the prayers; she was also the one who would preach to the hundreds of regular church-goers set to show up in the morning. Thus, as we gathered in that reverent candle-lighting circle it was Judy, loved unreservedly by teens and toddlers, by the ill and the well, by the young and the not-so-young and the very dogs who see her stoop to pick up her morning paper – Judy who rose, lit her candle and borrowed Steven’s prayer. “For procrastinators everywhere,” she said referring to herself, then blessed us all a final time and withdrew to start on that sermon.

Even Jesus Loves a Pizza


Here it is Tuesday night and I’m STILL not back to normal after the big retreat weekend, a dirty-sock, shower-free sleepover extravaganza that’s not normally held right in church. Last year it took place at the Marotta’s summer house and here on the left is an example of the fun we adults had sealing the faces of the kids up in cement to keep them off their cell phones (kidding!) Masks and Why We Wear Them” was the theme of that particular weekend. The part here pictured was just the making of the masks which the kids then decorated and talked about on a metaphorical level as they say, then later spilled ketchup on or else wore as crash helmets or codpieces or who knows what when the old folks were out of sight.

All that was last year though…THIS year we had the big retreat weekend really late, and we had it right at church and here’s how the whole thing went down as best as I can recall:

On Friday at 6pm: 15 teenagers and four adults gather in the designated Youth Room, a basement ‘bunker’ redolent for as long as I can remember of that chicken soup-smelling-kind of human sweat.

At 7 we begin tackling the retreat’s theme, Making Time for God When You’re Almost Too Busy to Shower and at 7:30 curl up to watch The Golden Compass , which the religious right thinks exalts Satan though these kids don’t see it that way. They see a strong girl-child who does not wish to become a lady, and the search for a father, they see the quest for meaning, yadda yadda and so forth. In other words what they see mostly is a craftily concocted and slightly cynical amalgam of a half dozen other blockbuster films from Star Wars to The Mummy to Harry Potter and his many his cinematic offspring. Kids are sharp: they don’t just understand movies; they ingest them, like food pellets.

Then at 11 Judy tells her little flock that it’s time for Taps and they can sleep anywhere on this level or else one flight up in the cozy pinkness of tiny Ripley Chapel. If they don’t want to sleep but talk instead that’s fine too only no going up into the sanctuary and no going outside.

On Saturday it becomes clear that they have NOT slept that much but they are young and clear-eyed still and begin the day by going outside to look for God in a blade of grass so to speak. Then they return to talk about what they saw, then we eat lunch and do some physical stuff, then talk about forgiveness: when do you let a thing go and when do you not? Some kids counsel others that it is never worth it to carry a grudge, even against that lazy and unkind teacher who doesn’t even read what he makes you write but glances at it and gives you the check-plus or the check or the check-minus strictly on the basis of length.

At 4 I do a little journaling seminar with an assignment attached and off they go to write for 40 minutes the darlings, each one finding a place alone to scribble for 40 minutes, later sharing what it felt like do this but not necessarily sharing what was written, because that is personal.

For supper Judy announces that she has bought steak tips of all things plus a big green salad plus some lovely hot rolls and they all smile at her because they love her so much but she knows what it means and says “OK how many would eat pizza if we got pizza?” and 15 hands go up so we order four giant pizzas and they eat them all and the steak tips too and the salad and everything from last night along with six or eight bags of cookies and chips.

Then a stab at meditation as a way to call God closer. Then the drawing of names as we use tissue paper and cardboard and glue and bits of Scripture to make something for our person and that’s it for Saturday. The grownups all sleep and the kids just keep on talkin’ – all night long I suppose – and darned of they STILL don’t look great Sunday morning. And Judy has on her clerical garb and looks super-great. And even the two guy chaperones look good if slightly more bearded than they did Friday night whereas I myself look like some deranged old dust mop if a dust mop can be said to look deranged and I realize that I am in fact deranged when, having nipped home to shower and dress in Sunday-Go-to-Meetin’ clothes I return to church and am just ascending the big stone steps TO SEE MY WHOLE SKIRT FALL TO MY ANKLES BECAUSE IN MY EXHAUSTED STATE I NEVER EVEN ZIPPED IT NEVER MIND BUTTONED IT.

But so what? I was pretty much alone out there and in any case as my 11-year-old once said to me “Nobody’s looking at YOU Mom!” – but how about we all look at the kids now in these two imperfect snapshots and you try telling me they don’t look ecstatically happy, even three-quarters of the way into the comfort of the slow-moving Sunday morning service!

Sex and the Ninth Grade Ninny

The column I wrote for this weekend is a tribute to my middle school teacher who just last week departed this life at the ripe old age of 102. You can see it at right now by clicking here.

In it I told of the English class we had her for and her sweet vexed utterances at all our hi-jinks. (“What AILS you people?” she was always saying to us.) I did not tell how naughty we really were, especially my best friend Kathy and I. For example we had a music teacher named Miss Priest, a maiden lady, young and pale in a cashmere sweater and pearls who disapproved of the two of us, perhaps because we held our violins under our chins in Orchestra and those instruments just shook with our laughter the whole time we were rehearsing up under the sweltering roof of that Civil War-era schoolhouse. Kathy always got assigned the cool complicated part with many curlicues and arpeggios, while I was always given the dumb part that no matter what the tune was went basically “Uh uh, UH uh, uh uh, UH uh…” – just the two sounds, just what you could saw out for the low notes without doing too much violence to the melody. A monkey could have played my part and this was what we found so killingly funny. We laughed all through “Scenes from Carmen” and even, preparing for graduation, through the grave and weighty bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” itself

We thought we didn’t like Miss Priest; probably we had crushes on her. Anyway we found a greeting card designed for an ordination, tore out the real message inside, wrote a new message in a demented-looking scrawl and slipped it under her door. “Thou Art a Priest Forever” the real part of the card said, then in our writing on the inside, “That is, until I crush you in my arms my little PASSION FLOWER ha HAH!” We didn’t get suspended but we sure-enough got caught and so set out to compose a long and earnestly over-the-top letter of apology that made us feel wonderful connected to the side of the angels, just wonderfully forgiven if only by ourselves.

And that wasn’t half as bad as what we did when we found out the youngest male teacher in the school was getting married: We put a jar of Vaseline on his desk which carried the strong implication that of all things he would need in his new conjugal state Vaseline was uppermost – just as if we actually knew Thing One about the marital act, which, uh, we didn’t.

Back in the late-90’s, thirty years and three kids into my own marriage I remember a youth group leader telling the high school kids we both worked with that they really and truly would be a lot better off postponing sex until much later because it was, well… it was just too complicated.

“Complicated?” said one of these sweet kids, looking truly puzzled. “Why complicated?”

“Let’s just say it involves a lot of towels,” she said with a meaningful look.

Dave! I rushed right home and said to my husband, “I think we’re doing it wrong!”

Ah dear…Our old English teacher was great all right but how could she answer the pressing questions of her middle-schoolers? How could anyone have answered them when what we really wondered about was sex which of all things in this wide world is STILL the most mysterious?