Turkey Mummy

Yesterday I went to three different grocery stores.

Thanksgiving is next week, and my shopping list was ready to go. For everyday shopping, I almost always keep a skeletal grocery list on my cell phone, and browse just a few aisles for the items that catch my eye. Mostly, I’m a simple cook.

But at the holiday season, tradition knocks at the door and I open my recipe file. For some of the classics, I barely need to look at the recipes; but then again, I don’t want to risk being caught without any chopped pecans, or sailing right past the fresh cranberries or sage.  So this week, there was a real grocery list, and I spent most of the day with it.

I’m not the only one thinking of Thanksgiving. Later in the day, a Facebook friend posted  a new twist on one of those Thanksgiving classics: a turkey blanketed in a meticulously woven lattice of bacon. My friend – and a slew of commenters – remarked on the magical blend of flavors and speculated that brining the turkey, or even salting it, would be optional. The cook could remove the bacon for the last hour or so, to insure that the skin got brown and crispy, the way we all like it.

My reaction was different.

I imagined myself bursting into tears as I struggled to create that perfect bacon lattice.  I imagined the feel of slippery fat on my hands and under my nails, defying me to lift the next piece into a tidy over-under-over pattern. Would it be easier to work on a flat surface, then lift the lattice like a blanket onto the pale turkey in my roasting pan? Or would the whole thing come undone when i tried to lift it? Still, weaving bacon over the curved surface of the bird seemed like a formidable task. I noticed then that the wings and legs were simply wrapped, mummy style, in bacon strips. I knew in my heart that even getting the bacon to stay in place on a  turkey mummy in my own kitchen was well beyond my skill.

And I know my limits. I have wept over culinary tasks more times than I can count. Pie crust that stuck to the rolling pin. Bread dough that refused to rise. I’ve never mastered the art of peeling a potato, so my family only knew baked, not mashed. I ordered most of my children’s birthday cakes from the Home Bakery on Main Street.

I’ve carried a particular grudge against jello. I remember the day in our tiny apartment in married student housing when I tried to make a molded jello salad. The aluminum mold had a fluted design, and when I flipped it over so the green concoction would let go, it stuck firm. I had followed the directions in the Betty Crocker cookbook to a T. There was no way to go around the edge with a knife; the fluting was too narrow and the knife blade wouldn’t fit. I immersed the whole thing in warm water a second time, just for a few seconds. No luck.

It was then that my failure launched a full assault against my good intentions. I retaliated with a fork. I tore into the jello, the chopped celery, the bits of pineapple, with a fury that I’ve hardly experienced since. Jello took flight. It landed on the tiny kitchen table, it leapt into the sink, it hit the ceiling. Droplets scattered across the brown and white rug.

Jello became something like volleyball – that thing that seemed easy to everyone but me. My anger burned white hot. How dare the jello cry “failure” when I was trying so hard?

The jello, of course, was not labeling me a failure. It was a used aluminum mold, with a few spots inside where the finish had worn off. It may not have worked very well for anyone. My anger that day had nothing to do with jello, really. It was about other kinds of failings, other kinds of fear, the desperate frustration of trying to make everything important all at once. It was the desperate frustration of trying to make everything perfect.

So no, I won’t be weaving bacon over my turkey this holiday season. I’m sticking with the basics: that sweet potato recipe that I’ve made for about 30 years now, stuffing loaded with celery and fresh sage, and turkey made in a Reynolds roasting bag. There will be jello, but I make it in a crystal bowl and we scoop it right out with a serving spoon.

After a whole lot of Thanksgiving dinners,  I know what works for me. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Posted in Balance, Domesticity, Holidays, Memoir, Obsessions, Overwhelmed | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

News Weak

I’ve been traveling the last few days, and my route has taken me through a few airports. This morning, my flight taxied out into the queue at PHL before the crew gave their obligatory welcome. Including the fact that we were 18th in line for takeoff.

Normally, I am a pretty flexible traveler. But today we were already at the point where electronic devices had to be powered down. And – nightmare come true – my only reading material on this flight was stowed in my iPad. That’s right. No book in my purse. No journal to jot down writing notes; those are on the iPad too, these days. I’d already skimmed the in-flight magazine on the first leg of the journey. And there we were, 18th in line.

I choked down a wave of panic and reached for the Sky Mall catalog when I saw it: an abandoned copy of Newsweek stuck deep in the seat back pocket.

Back in my high school days, getting my own subscription to Newsweek was a self-proclaimed rite of passage. It was the era of Vietnam, Woodstock, Apollo astronauts, Kent State, and Charles Manson. The 72 Olympics were in Munich; the Israeli athletes were murdered., and Mark Spitz clinched a handful of gold medals.

I read about it all in Newsweek.

I was surprised today at how thin the magazine was.  Not just in heft, but in content. I skimmed an article or two, but became more interested in exactly what Newsweek has become. It looks something like this:

A catchy title, for sure, and Newsweek is good at that. This week it was ‘Hit the Road, Barack.”

After a few letters to the editor, Newsweek held about ten pages of “Newsbeast.” Short articles, including  the “World on a Page.” Until this morning I never wondered if India could get to Mars without electricity, or what the French First Lady’s position was on being photographed in a bikini. There was something about a cricket team in Australia too.

Not a word about Afghanistan, terrorism, the nuclear threat, energy costs, fracking, or the economy.

Features come next. Here, Newsweek offered up the reasons that things are they way they are. Why Obama must go. Why we love being conned. A piece on Syria that ran six pages – probably more than the average reader will bother with. The real Indiana Jones, who does indeed wear a hat. I got to read about Richard Gere’s upcoming role as a “hedge fund magnate.” (In which he fell just short of saying, “I am not a tycoon but I play one in a movie.”) And interestingly enough, I found the term “hedge fund” three times in this single issue, without really looking for it.

The last ten pages, called “Omnivore,” comprised the entertainment section. Ten pages of movies, TV, and a piece about the late David Foster Wallace, which implies that of course the erudite reader can recite everything Wallace wrote.

I can’t. Can you?

Turns out that the entire Newsweek organization was sold for $1 back in 2010. The purchaser got the magazine plus $47 million in liabilities. Today, I’m glad I didn’t plunk down $5 or so for a copy of Newsweek at the airport news stand. I’m a thrifty sort, and there wasn’t even a buck fifty worth of information behind that cover. I felt a twinge of sadness, though, as I thought back on Newsweek’s glory days. I learned a lot from Newsweek back then.


Not even close.

Photo: Carolyn Caster, AP,  for Newsweek

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Just Waiting



Waiting is the hardest part, they say. And there is certainly some truth to that.


I’ve never been particularly patient in situations that involved a lot of waiting.


At 15, waiting for the drivers’ ed roster to be posted to be sure my name was on it.


At 17, waiting for my college admission letters.


In my 20‘s, waiting to hear the results of a job interview.


Later, waiting for the birth of my daughter; her due date was Christmas Eve, so it’s just as well that she didn’t arrive for another week or so.


This weekend, I’m waiting for a hurricane. Isaac is still technically a tropical storm, but he’s gaining strength down in the Caribbean, and bearing northwest. It’s not my first hurricane experience, really; in Pennsylvania, the edge of Ivan took out our flowering plum tree in 2003, and last year Philadelphia felt the brunt of Irene.


But Isaac will be different. I’m in southwest Florida this year. Naples has a pretty good track record as far as hurricanes go – we checked. And our house is situated a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, so no risk of storm surge here. Of course, there’s plenty of time for Isaac to make a slight right turn and head toward Miami, or to veer west out over the Gulf. You can’t really tell, because Isaac is a “disorganized” storm at this point. It’s a pretty sure bet, though, that we’ll get a piece of the action.


Anyway, I’m prepared.


Water supply. Check.


Pantry stocked. Check.


Flashlights – check.


Lots of batteries. Check.


Propane stove. Check.


Cash on hand. Check.


Cars full of gas. Check.


72 hour kit. Check.


It’s a little like packing for Girl Scout camp, to tell the truth. Make a list, check it twice, all that stuff.


The news media is all over Isaac, not because he is an unusual storm but because of the Republican Convention in Tampa next week. Huh? You plan a major convention in Florida in August and then act surprised that you might run into some bad weather?


If…just if…Isaac became a major storm and Tampa took a direct hit, the issue wouldn’t be whether the GOP would come up with a nominee for November’s ballot. No, the challenge would be what to do with thousands of politicians and media hounds who have probably had way too much to drink the night before.


But that’s a different issue.


Today, the sky is brilliant blue. Not a cloud to be seen. Golfers are teeing up on the 12th hole just past the palm trees in my back yard. It’s my day off.


I think I”ll head over to the pool and just wait a while.




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The 95th Summer: A Tribute

My mom was born at the peak of the first World War. I learned in high school that the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand; I’m not sure how…or even if…my mom’s family got word of that assassination, what with living in the mountains, and having a family and a farm to take care of.  News came by word of mouth during daily trips to the post office. I imagine that July 1 was a hot day that year, and that tending the farm and a new baby in the house gave her parents plenty to do without worrying a whole lot about world affairs.

Mom came of age during the time known as the Great Depression. She often says that, “We didn’t really know about the depression. My mom always made do with what we had, and she had a way of making it all work out even with a big family. That’s how it always was for us, living on a farm. Other people were poor but we never were, not really.”  Mom and her brothers and sisters made their own fun, wading in the creek on hot days and playing in the fields of daisies. Every evening, my grandfather Liberty gathered his brood around him to impart “counsel.” The kids listened; they didn’t dare not.

Liberty and LouAnn Bowman ran a loving but strict household. “We never played a card game in our lives,” mom says now, “and a set of dice was an evil to our family.” I remember once Aunt Eileen reminisced about the girls stealing away and, out of sight of their parents, dancing the Charleston as best they could, hoping they wouldn’t get caught.

Country doctors didn’t know yet  of vaccinations, and mom recalls the time when smallpox raged through her family. Families infected by the disease were quarantined, but there was little that Grandma Bowman could do to prevent contagion among her own children.  She hung sheets between their beds in a vain attempt to separate those that were sickest. Mom was a small child, but remembers losing her older brother and sister Carl and Ethel in that epidemic.

Even as a girl, mom was always the one who looked for ways to make her surroundings a little more beautiful. She tells of taking the household scissors outside to trim away weeds that no one else seemed to notice. From an early age she couldn’t tolerate disorder and to  this day she won’t rest if something is out of order or a little chore remains undone.

By her college days, mom was a young beauty, trim and petite with auburn hair and delicate features. She was chosen May Queen, but worried about what she would wear; Her older brother Vernon checked the National Bella Hess catalogue and sent her a stylish grey dress with a snug waist and flared skirt for the occasion. Mom was popular during her college years despite being younger than most of her classmates. She knew how to cut and style hair and could help her friends design and sew dresses without using a pattern. For fun, she  combined a few spare pennies with friends and head to the local soda fountain where they would share a single Coca Cola.

As the years passed mom began teaching at the Spencer School, a one-room rural school. There were sixty children under her care; the Superintendent was Sam Taylor, a “good Republican” and friend of her dad. One day Mr. Taylor visited her school and pointed out that she was keeping her students too long. The school day was to end at 3:30, but mom didn’t dismiss her students until 4:00. She still talks about the boys who finished her 8th grade class and kept coming back year after year. Those boys were far bigger than she was, and almost as old. Their families didn’t have the means to send them the miles to attend high school; mom’s door was always open for as long as they chose to attend. I imagine that she kept more than a few of them out of trouble. No doubt she learned a thing or two about keeping an orderly classroom!

Mom has always managed her money well. She saved during those first years of teaching and bought her family the first radio to be found for miles. It was a large, battery powered contraption, and all the neighbors gathered at the Bowman’s to listen to country music “of an evening.” It didn’t take long for the group to begin clapping and singing along with Mother Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe.

At 22, Mom married, and bore her first child in the midst of another great war, with her soldier husband on the other side of the world.  Later, she saw his blurry black and white pictures of the liberated concentration camps. She has spoken only rarely of how the experience of  war changed her husband. For mom’s generation – known now as the greatest generation – the world had revealed its darkest underbelly.  She recalls hearing the news of Pearl Harbor while folding men’s shirts at a Montgomery Ward store in Ohio, and leading her students in singing “God Bless America” when the news of VE Day reached the door of her classroom at the Oliver School. Mom’s generation earned the prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, but they learned some hard lessons first hand. I don’t think mom has ever spoken in support of war during my lifetime. Instead, she shook her head in regret as television images and newspapers blared headlines of Vietnam…Cambodia… Iraq…Somalia…Afghanistan…and occasionally comments about the American boys who face unspeakable horrors on foreign soil.

95 years of living bears witness to countless changes in our world. In 1917, the average annual income was $750 per year. Model T’s rolled off the line in Highland Park.  As a young woman, Mom couldn’t have imagined a time when there was a cell phone in everyone’s pocket. She still loves radio, even though television has gone from a novelty to a necessity. Air travel is simply how we get around; she was the bold one of her sisters when it came to travel, venturing to the Bahamas, Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) during the Apollo era, the Pacific Northwest, and embarking on a European tour. She has seen the growth of sprawling developments where cattle once grazed, and malls on every corner have long since replaced her dad’s general store. While she’s not fully embraced the digital age, she checks with Dee and me regularly to see what family news has popped up on Facebook.

But she holds a few traditions dear. She writes letters the old fashioned way, with a pen.  Ditto, Christmas cards; I get that tradition from her. She loves to shop in small, local stores when she can, rather than the super centers. Better yet, a farmers market or good garage sale can make her day.

Mom has always been a teacher, by profession and by example, and over the years she has gained a level of wisdom that is unmatched in any other person I know.  There is never a day – that’s right, never – when I don’t hear her words and her lessons running through my mind.

Mom has taught me that family matters. A lot. I have seen her take care of the generation that came before her, and the ones that followed.

Value your privacy. Or, as she puts it, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Take your time. Be patient.  Theres no need to rush. Take time to smell the flowers, and as you do that, exercise a little caution. Size people up carefully.

Keep busy. We’ve all heard Mom say, “I can’t stand idleness!”

Learn something new. Every day if you can. Keep your mind active and sharp.

Behave yourself. Don’t talk too much, carry on too loudly, or complain about your station in life. Listen more than you talk.

Women are not to be “tough.” They are not to smoke or drink, and are never to use profanity (except maybe when muttered quietly under the breath.) Women are cut out to be strong, but there is a difference between strength and toughness. Learn that difference.

Spend time outdoors. Get your hands dirty. Plant flowers, and tend them well. People will notice when they approach your home. Mom’s philosophy is, “Your entry should be spectacular.”

Early to bed, early to rise. People who sleep late miss the best part of the day. Better to be up and around, and nap a little later.

Take care of yourself. Keep up with your doctor’s appointments, but remember — they are all in cahoots. Eat carefully, at least most of the time. Invest in a few nice clothes. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Use good moisturizer. Get your hair done.

Be informed. Read the newspaper. Don’t let those old politicians pull anything over on you.

Take time every day to do the things you love to do. Paint, sew, garden, cook, write a letter, talk with someone you love.

Keep a good attitude. It is the key to health, both physically and mentally. “The mind controls so much,” she commented the other day.

And so, as this July begins, we celebrate Mom’s 95th summer. Each and every one of her children. grandchildren, and great grandchildren know in our hearts that we are far better people living better lives because of her.

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You Just Can’t Have It All

Beautiful loser

Where you gonna fall

When you realize

You just cant have it all….

Bob Seger

Women are in the news again today, making the cover of The Atlantic. A few weeks ago, the buzz was all about Time’s “attachment parenting” cover story, featuring a young mom breast feeding her almost four-year-old son. This time, Anne-Marie Slaughter weighs in on the challenges of balancing family with a powerful position at the US State Department. And Slaughter concludes, based on her experience, that women still face tough, tough choices when it comes to career advancement balanced off against family life. Choices that just aren’t the same for fathers.

I grew up in the feminist era of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. I can still hum the ad for Enjoli, which claimed to be the 24-hour fragrance for the woman who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man.” Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman” to my college friends and me. My roommates and I bought tickets to hear Betty Friedan speak on campus. My friends were smart women – doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and musicians.

When I married, there was never a question that I would work full time. So I headed out every day by 6:30, to teach a captive audience of high schoolers. Summers and a few nights a week, I worked on my graduate degrees. I was president of a professional organization. I spoke at conferences. Eventually I wrote and published professional articles. Moved into a consulting job, then administration. Built a decent resume.

But here’s the part the resume doesn’t talk about. My son Bryce was born in June. I planned to be at home for the summer with him and his 17-month-old sister Sarah, and return to teaching in the fall. I even had the option to return on a part-time basis for a while. My sister in law took care of the kids and loved them as her own. Ideal, right?

But two children in diapers is a lot of work. And Bryce wasn’t sleeping through the night by the time back-to-school season rolled around. He wasn’t sleeping by Christmas either, or by the following Easter. Bryce was one of those kids that didn’t need much sleep; I sat in shocked silence as friends described babies who took two naps a day and were down for the night by 7 p.m. Bryce might drift off by 10, but was ready to rock and roll a new day sometime around 3:30 am.

So while Slaughter writes of redefining the value of face time in the office and revaluing family values, the elephant in the room is this: Being a mom is a lot of work, and working moms get tired. Even in the ideal circumstance outlined by Slaughter,  by the time we work a full day, eat with the family, watch a basketball game or drive the carpool, and oversee baths, bedtime stories, snuggles, and goodnight….guess what? The prospect of a few hours of work related e mail may lose out to putting your feet up for fifteen minutes or so and turning in early.

Returning to work for an evening meeting, or dialing in to a teleconference?

Well, you decide.

Photo: Phillip Toledano for The Atlantic

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Meeting Aira



Yesterday was a domestic kind of day. I cleaned my kitchen. Paid bills. Organized a stack of paperwork and resolved again to scan it all one of these days and get rid of the clutter. Cooked up some Swiss steak, using my all -time favorite recipe. The house smelled great by dinnertime.

I didn’t eat the Swiss steak though. Instead, I packed slices of meat and thick tomato sauce into a container, along with rice and fresh sliced zucchini. I loaded  everything into a bag and headed out to Vicky’s house.

Vicky is about my age – just  a little younger. She is the second of eight children; her parents had four, adopted four, and have fostered 250. She has the kind of flawless skin I admire. Like me, she loves music, especially the blues and Etta James. She lives out in the country, and adores the backyard “critters,” as she calls them. (To be honest, I wondered if that included Florida bobcats and panthers.) She keeps track of where the cardinals are spotted each day. She has a sharp intellect and uses words thoughtfully, with precision.

I’d never met Vicky before.

In April, Vicky was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It started simply enough, with some vision problems, and migraines. Now, just eight weeks later, she has lost her sight almost completely and she can no longer feed herself. Her words sometimes slur. Sentences occasionally trail off before the end. She cannot walk on her own. When she wants a drink of water, her mom gently tips the bottle to her waiting lips.

I knew she was sick, and that things were moving fast. But when she entered the kitchen, I was shocked.

Not by her appearance. I know what a very sick person looks like.

What shocked me were the first words out of her mouth.

“Thank you, God, for this beautiful day.”

I knew then that I could learn a thing or two from Vicky. As her mom prepared her plate, Vicky asked that I call her Aira…the name she says God gave to her.

And I have no doubt in the world that He did.

Vicky’s mom said grace before she fed her, a tiny spoonful at a time. She gave thanks for the food, for Vicky, and for the tumor that was teaching their family some  important lessons.

For dessert, Vicky opted for four raspberries with banana slices. Ovaltine is her favorite beverage, but she only drank a sip or two.

After dinner, she helped her mom document her evening medications for the Hospice nurses. Vicky recalled what each medication was for (controlling swelling in her brain, controlling seizures, keeping on an “even keel”) and her dosage. She got most things right, but missed a few. Her mom knew, then, how her memory was doing that day.

We headed into the living room and talked for a while. Vicky and her mom spoke about the progression of her disease.  When Vicky said something that didn’t make sense, her mom said that the remark “came from the tumor, not from your heart.” Vicky sometimes talks with her Aunt Janet, who passed away years ago. She told me about the times that the separation between her earthly life and her eternal life is very thin, indeed. And she accepts that without a glimmer of fear or trepidation.

When it was time to leave, Vicky stretched out her arms to hug me. It was a big hug. She didn’t let go for a long time, and she whispered, “You are an angel of God.”  She kissed me. Twice.

And then she said, “I’ll see you on the other side.”

I hope she does, but the truth is that before that time, I’d like to sit with Vicky and listen to a little Etta James.

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It was a perfect afternoon in May, sometime in the 1990’s, when my car died in the parking lot of the grocery store. The Blazer was nearly new, but in the ten minutes that it took to pick up milk and some pizza toppings, the on-board computers conspired against me; the engine simply wouldn’t turn over when I returned, ready to head home. It was too far to walk, and besides, I was in work clothes complete with stockings and heels.

I skimmed the phone numbers in my Palm Pilot (remember, it was the 90s) and quickly ruled out few dozen names: those who lived too far away, those who weren’t home from work yet themselves, those whose young children were clambering off the school bus right about that time.  In the end, I called on my grad school buddy Denise, who came to the rescue within minutes.

That, as the song says, is what friends are for.

I’ve passed the stage of life when I collect a lot of objects. I cleaned closets and sold off more than a few things at a consignment store a while back, and now think long and hard about a purchase. I have come to realize that my treasured collections in life boil down to two things.


And friends.

Today, a group of old friends visited the Titanic Exhibition in Detroit. Knowing they were together aroused sweet memories of the days we shared laughter over lunch at work, and (more often) logged hours in meetings trying to fix what was sometimes not fixable. I felt a moment of melancholy, mixed with the certainty that if miles didn’t separate us I would have been at the museum today, too, laughing over lunch once again.

Another friend left her home in Washington State a couple of weeks ago on a two- month boat trip up the coast of British Columbia. She and her husband will pilot the boat; often, she will be too far from civilization to send pictures. That’s okay. Her adventure is, in some small part, my own.

Sometimes I don’t keep in touch the way I intend to. But I know that those old friends don’t hold it against me. I have yet to write to Beth to congratulate her on her marriage, and it’s going on two years. I don’t have Rachel’s new address, but know that work has her buried this time of year anyway. Donna’s phone number is neatly tucked into my smartphone, but I missed our annual Mother’s Day call. And I want to let Bill know that I saw a flyer for an organ recital that made me think of him.

Ironically, I am struggling with another friend today. A different kind of friend; actually someone I “friended.” We’re acquaintances really, with some shared interests.. Education. We know some of the same people. I admire her recent training for and completing a 5K. We hang out in the same virtual communities.

But she has revealed a side that I didn’t expect.  She has become, in her own words, a “mean girl,” and is enjoying the experience a bit too much. She’s dug in her heels. She won’t apologize for some cutting remarks. She won’t go public about her rationale. Not that I need to know, really, and not that she can explain it away.

Some say that her unkind remarks are based in her own unhappiness. I know that she has her share of struggles right now. Job woes. Raising a family. Losing her mom a few years ago.

But short of personality change stemming from a brain tumor, there no excuse for deliberate unkindness.

For much of the day, the dilemma of whether to “unfriend” her has bothered me more than it should. I’ve wondered why.

It comes down to this: It would take a lot for me to turn my back on a real friend. I expected more of my troubling and  troubled friend. I am disappointed in her, and a little angry besides. She isn’t the person I thought she was. Maya Angelou says that when someone shows you who they are, believe them. The first time. And Maya also says that once you put words out into the Universe they hover there forever. Kind of like the old saying, you can’t un-ring a bell.

So yes, I will be clicking her off of my “friends” list this afternoon. We may see one another again, down the road, but maybe not. I have debated whether to let her know the reason why, but truthfully, she may not care.

And whether a friend is a friend in “F2F” world, or online, I guess that makes all the difference.

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Procrastination is the Enemy of….



How often have you said, “That would be nice….” or “Someday I will….”

Now, realistically, a few things on our lists are indeed “someday” kinds of events. A trip to Paris, perhaps, or a Mediterranean cruise. But more often, we procrastinate on those things that are right under our noses.

I’ve lived near the beach for almost six months now, and I’ve seen plenty of sunsets. But the loose idea of spending a morning at the beach was always on the list of things to do…someday.

Until yesterday. I pulled into a parking space early, at a time that I’d usually still be browsing the morning paper or (I admit it) checking Facebook. I set up my chair, but didn’t even sit down before heading out to walk a few miles up the beach and back. Morning is different from evening. The tide has just made its delivery of shells….different from what I see at day’s end. The pelicans paddle close to shore and dip gently into the shallows for breakfast (a far cry from their kamikaze dives later in the day).  The ebbing water and clear sky made me wonder exactly what words one uses to describe those shades of blue.

What simple things have fallen to the bottom of your “someday” list?

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Sticks and Stones

My niece Kathy describes it as “brutality.” She noticed it a while ago, and said she needed to cut back on television. It was just too brutal, she said, even admitting that her favorite shows were those with story lines centered around violent crime….NCIS, SVU, Criminal Minds. I’ve always liked crime shows, too.

But brutality extends far beyond those crime shows in our TV lineup.  

Nowadays, it goes viral. It attracts viewers by the millions, launches stars and books deals and even gives us a bit of a laugh. Last week, you probably saw the Facebook post in which Simon Cowell rolled his eyes at “Shy Kid” – who it turns out, really can sing. It reminded me of his initial reaction to Susan Boyle: He and Piers Morgan traded knowing glances, as if no 47 year old woman with a dream was worthy of a moment of their time.  And remember Cowell’s cruel ridicule of Jennifer Hudson at her Idol audition? Cowell told her that her outfit looked like something you would wrap a turkey in.

Even though Simon has moved on, America still celebrates each new season of Idol, where audition shows and Hollywood week focus on contestants who are light on talent, but offer a hefty dose of humiliation-as-entertainment to an eager public.  

I hate to admit that I followed “The Biggest Loser” for several years. I watched as Jillian screamed at desperately obese contestants to “move your ass” and “don’t you dare stop, don’t you dare!”  – then claimed a “breakthrough” moment when a contestant collapsed or vomited. Tears weren’t enough. Storming out of the gym wasn’t enough. Jillian, quite literally, brought contestants to their knees. (We excused it, though, if the weigh in for the Black Team was a happy one.)

And of course, reality TV is rife with “alliances.” Suspense builds as we wonder who will be “voted off the island,” or which beautiful girl will receive a rose.

 It occurs to me that a lot of what we see on TV these days is, in fact, pretty brutal. That TV shows instruct us in the fine art of…

Get ready for it….


We didn’t hear much about bullying until the early 2000’s, after the massacre at Columbine High School. The press speculated that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been ostracized by their peers; that the so-called Trench Coat Mafia was made up of kids who were bullied by the more mainstream student body at Columbine.  In retrospect, according to journalist Dave Cullen, Harris and Klebold weren’t the victims or social outcasts portrayed in the media at the time. In our horror we tried to compose a logical explanation for an illogical act, and came up with bullying: it would have made sense – maybe – if Harris and Klebold were motivated by revenge. We told ourselves that maybe those kids out in Colorado were just too mean. We didn’t dare say it out loud, but may have wondered if some of them got what they deserved.

Since then, the issue of bullying has taken center stage. Schools adopt zero tolerance policies. Parents struggle with what to do when the classic advice of “Just ignore them” doesn’t work. These days the stakes are higher. Technology opens the doors to bullies 24 hours a day. There is no escape. No respite. Kids have died. This is serious stuff.

Has it always been this way?

Isn’t it true that everybody goes through it?  Boys will be boys, you know. Those girls will get what’s coming to them.

I asked some adults (ages 23 to 50 plus) if they had experienced bullying in their lives. Here’s what they said:

  • It was a nightmare.
  • I had to endure a lot of torment on the bus.
  • In 4th grade they made fun of my underwear.
  • I was too smart.  
  • I was raised by a single mother.
  • They made fun of what my mom packed in my lunch.
  • They blamed me for being weird.
  • I was raised without parents….in foster homes.
  • I was short. I was about 4 feet tall until high school.
  • We moved a lot. There was always a bully waiting for the new kid.
  • I never did figure out why they threw rocks or spit on me.
  • Catholic bashing was a favorite pastime.
  • My own sister called me hippo in high school.
  • I was pale skinned and skinny, with large red lips.
  • It became a game for the boys to walk into history class and see which one could hit me in the head and either make me cry or make my nose bleed. There were plenty of takers on that one
  • I wore the clothing mom bought, not what was stylish because I was fat.
  • They stole my lunch. I was scared to report it so I didn’t eat.
  • I was excluded from things…ignored.
  • The boys would put their hand on my seat so when I sat down they would be groping my butt. This happened for a whole year.

And what happened to those bullies as a result? Not much.

  • An older girl just sat there oblivious, gazing out the window pretending she didn’t see a thing going on right next to her!
  • The PE teachers and coaches made it worse – they fostered it and actually set some kids up.
  • I would lie awake at night thinking up revenge tactics, but I never did anything.
  • For months I avoided going to school anyway I could.
  • The school principal denied that anything was happening.
  • I spent a lot of time in the bathroom or making sure I was by the yard duty teacher.
  • The principal took me into a closet and threatened to beat me with a clothes hanger. The bully was the principal’s nephew.
  • My self-worth was so low that it never occurred to me to tell anyone.
  • My home life was so bad that I did not think anyone would listen to me

The bullying victims, even years ago, felt that they had nowhere to turn. Only two people mentioned that they told a parent what was going on. Part of the equation was – and is – that the victims may indeed believe that adults who are supposed to protect them may be as powerless as they are.

I feel a bit of relief that my own children are adults, and less vulnerable to cruelty from their peers. But I feel a pang of sadness that we send such mixed messages to the next generation.

On one hand, we lament that we have to work so hard these days to teach kids to be civil, respectful, good people. But on the other hand, brutality is captivating. We don’t like to admit it, but we have adopted a cultural acceptance of cruelty. We reinforce that acceptance with a click of the remote.

We talk “zero tolerance” – but our walk takes us to a different destination altogether.

Posted in Learning, Media, Parents and children, Teachers | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Read And Follow Directions: The Meme Redux

I’ve said it a thousand times: Read and follow directions.

In my teaching days, of course, teaching students to follow directions was built into the content of whatever else they were supposed to learn.

Fast forward to today, and I can tell you for sure that few of us actually read even the short blurbs of directions that appear in pop up windows on our computer screens. (They make us anxious, I think. We just hit “cancel” and suffer the repurcussions later.)

But a closer look at the meme phenomenon assures me that I don’t always follow my own advice. There is more to it than simply answering the set of questions I posted yesterday. There are three phases, actually.

Phase I: List 11 things that others may not know about you.

OK, I can do that.

1.         In college, I started out as a pharmacy major. I took tons of chemistry, physics, and human anatomy, including a human dissection.

2.         I used to sew almost all of my own clothes. Then I had children.

3.         I chose my children’s names long before they were born. I still love their names, and think of them when I hear the Elton John song, “Blessed.”

4.         I am completely UN-athletic. To this day, my nightmare come true is a picnic with volleyball. The times I have actually hit a baseball with a bat have been total freak accidents. It took forever to get the training wheels off my bike. I have mixed eye/hand dominance which is, I believe, the root of this problem.

5.         Continuing with #4, I cannot brush my teeth with my right hand, although I am mostly right handed.

6.         I was very shy and self-conscious in high school – more so than in junior high. That social stratification thing set in in a big way.

7.         I taught myself to read at age 3.

8.         My earliest memory is of my 3rd birthday.

9          I am fairly frugal, but not especially good at managing money.

10.       I am interested in languages; I was once able to construct my thoughts in German, and now would like to start learning Spanish.

11.       I would like to sing in a choir again someday.

Phase II: Answer the 11 questions posed by the person from whom you got the meme.

I had skipped over Jenni’s questions entirely. And so, dear reader, you get a double dose and a 2nd set of 11 questions answered today. I greatly fear that I have spent way too much time indulging my own ego in the last 24 hours!

1) Sunshine or starlight?

Although I love seeing the Milky Way on a dark, dark night (preferably over Lake Champlain)….I’m a sunshine girl at heart.

My favorite day of the year is, without exception, the Summer Solstice. I consider it my own private holiday.
2) Do you have a pet? If not, would you prefer to have one? If so, would you prefer not to have one?

Over the years, I’ve become a definite dog person. We adopted our boxer girl, Holly, just about five years ago. She is aging now, and may very well be our last pet. Even now, we rely on very kind neighbors to keep her company (and thus, keep her out of trouble) on long work days or when we travel.
3) What food have you tasted that you will never eat again?

Oh, I fear a very un-trendy answer: Sushi. Just not a fan, and it’s very expensive.

Another un-trendy answer: Calimari.It’s usually fried. And fried, rubbery food has two strikes against it right off the bat.

Other foods I just don’t like:

 gravy and sauces (bad mouth feel),

too-spicy foods (just don’t like the hot hot peppers),

strong onions (no interested in bad  breath for three days afterwards),

lamb (don’t ask),

lobster (too rich),

scrapple (despite its PA dutch “charm” – blechhhh),

anything beyond a touch of salad dressing or mayonnaise (see gravy and sauces).

That’s enough for now.
4) What food have you not tried that you’d like to taste?

Well, this is a shorter list than #3.

Ethiopian food. At an authentic restaurant where you eat with your hands.

Homemade baked sweet potato chips.
5) What’s the farthest you’ve ever walked?

Six miles I think. At a time when I routinely did three or four, this was a big effort. Right now I have my eye on a five mile beach walk.
6)  What surprises you the most about your life now?

What’s not a surprise!

In the past year I have made a major (and needed and positive) career change, and am living in a different state. Those are two biggies, for sure.

In the past five years, I’ve lost a lot of weight, I’ve learned to love exercise, quit eating sugar and refined carbs. Each of these is a biggie in and of itself.

In the past ten years, I’ve moved twice and left my home state of Michigan. I took a risk and it has paid off many times over. I’ve formed many precious friendships I’ve grown spiritually and emotionally. I’ve learned a lot about listening (I hope) and still work on that. I know a lot of great kids who call me Grandma; most of them weren’t even born ten years ago.

Yes, life is full of surprises and delight.
7) What’s the best concert or performance you ever attended?

Do I have to pick just one?

If theater counts in this list, I will say that attending a world Premier of Arthur Miller’s “Up From Paradise” at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan is right near the top. While the play itself was not widely produced, Arthur Miller himself took the role of narrator. I was thrilled to see him on stage.

My favorite musical is Les Miserables, which I have seen on stage at least four times. Each time, I’ve cried. Each time, I’ve cheered. And when the Fulton Theater staged Les Mis a few years back, I could have burst with pride hearing my dear friend (and wonderfully talented) Hannah Young sing in the role of Young Cosette.

And I won’t forget my first Broadway show. I had travelled to Manhattan on a Sunday to prepare for a presentation at a prestigious private boys’ school on Monday morning. My hotel room was actually a penthouse apartment with a breathtaking view; the Headmaster told me that they had some “connections” in the hotel industry, and they were right. And so on that Sunday night, I seized the moment and got a cab to the Theater District. Tickets were available for several shows that night. I chose Beauty and the Beast, and was able to get a seat in Orchestra Center. I was transported that night, with Times Square just up the block and Belle singing her heart out in front of me.

But then there are concerts.

Mike and I share a love of Motown music, and the oldies in general. We’ve become groupies of the semi-annual Jerry Blavat review shows at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Jerry Blavat began his career in music as a dancer on American Bandstand, pre-Dick Clark. He became a legend in Philadelphia radio, and continues his show today on WXPN. Twice a year, he assembles a group of the legends of the early doo-wop/rock and roll era at the breathtaking Kimmel Center. Among my favorites have been Jay Black (of Jay and the Americans), Kenny Vance (also of the original Jay and the Americans) and the Planotones, and Ben E. King (who brought tears to my eyes he was so grateful to his audience).

Along that same line, Mike and I travelled to Maryland one Saturday night to hear the Funk Brothers live. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear the backup band that has recorded more #1 hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis combined. Not sure who the Funk Brothers are? Try a google search. Or check out the movie “Standing In The Shadows of Motown.”

Other great concert moments:

Cry Cry Cry at the Keswick Theater in suburban Philadelphia. The evening was really and truly all about Dar Williams, and followed a packed day of travel between Philly (my first visit) and Princeton, NJ.

Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Meadowbrook Music Festival. It was late in her tour, and she just kept singing. The night grew cold, and she just kept singing. Three hours on stage, and she just kept singing.

Cheryl Wheeler at the Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, Ohio. An after work road trip on a Friday, sitting on the floor at the edge of the stage, and hearing Cheryl in her prime.

Allison Krauss and Union Station in Detroit, Michigan. I probably own more music by Allison Krauss than any other single performer.

Cat Stevens at Detroit’s Masonic Temple. I camped out overnight on the street to get these tickets at the back of the balcony. Who cares? I saw him!

Santana at Pine Knob/DTE Music Theater. This one was at the peak of his “Supernatural” fame. It was a perfect summer night for a dance party.

Moxie Fruvous, a now-defunct Canadian group, at the Ark in Ann Arbor.

The Four Tops with the Detroit Symphony at Orchestra Hall.

Judy Collins. Her voice was like silver.

The Carpenters. These tickets came to me because a neighbor couldn’t use them at the last minute. It ended up being less than a year before Karen Carpenter’s death.

Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. Actually, this was my very first live concert, at the Michigan State Fair. Later on, I was able to see them two more times. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Gladys Knight in Las Vegas. Total class, that lady.

Now, what you have to know about each of these concert memories is that yes, the music was memorable. But each memory is also associated with the person with whom I shared that music. Obviously I could go on and on.

8) How do you feel about speaking in front of groups?

They say that speaking in front of a group is the most common fear among adults.

Always a talker, my own stance has been, “Go ahead. Give me a hundred people and a topic.”

I dare say, I could do it.
9) How old is the oldest person you ever met? Who was that?

I believe that person, today, is my mom.

She wouldn’t want me to divulge her age, but let’s just say she is “retired.”

In the span of her life she has seen events that made history: the rise of transportation, communications, and the dawn of the information age. She has lived through times of war and peace…and war again.

Her perspective and wisdom are invaluable to me; she has keen insight into human nature and is usually right. She keeps an eagle eye on political events. She reads the newspapers daily. She seeks out learning, and carefully budgets her days so that there is enough time to do the things she loves most.

She is generous. She is an encourager. She is genuinely interested in others. She draws people to her, and always has.

She lives her life with the kind of quiet dignity that I can only dream of having. (See above, as I work on that listening thing.)
10) Who’s your favorite comedian or comic actor?

Comedy is difficult to pull off. My favorites are the classics, from the days when comedy didn’t rely so heavily on how many times “that word” could be worked into a monologue.

The best of my lifetime: Lucille Ball

The best currently living: Carol Burnett and Bill Cosby

One I wish I could see more of: David Hyde Pierce
11) Do you own a functioning record player?

Nope. But I did hold on to the core of my LP collection for many years, eventually passing the best of these on to my son Bryce. There is a comfort knowing that he has, and that he values, The Concert for Bangladesh, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Teaser and the Firecat.

He, by the way, does own a turntable.

Phase III: Pose 11 questions of your own for others to answer.

Feel free to take these on and reply via comment, FB note or message, or e mail.

1.         What is your favorite photograph of yourself? When and where was it taken?

2.         What is your greatest artistic or musical talent?

3.         Are you thrifty, or does money burn a hole in your pocket?

4.         What is the last new thing you learned?

5.         What are three songs that you count among your lifetime favorites?

6.         Do you wear lipstick? Any special color or brand?

7.         Tell us about your favorite pair of shoes.

8.         Are you afraid of heights?

9.         Is your closet neat, or more like an episode of Hoarders lurking behind that door?

10.       What is your guilty pleasure?

11.       Are you a Rosie O’Donnell fan?

Feeling much better now that I’ve done it right!

Posted in Friendship, Opinion | Tagged | 1 Comment