A Cheesy Story — Hold The Cheese

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My childhood during the 1960s and 70s in central New Jersey left an enduring impression on me. To this day, if I stumble across a metal Slinky on eBay, land on an episode of The Brady Bunch on Hulu, or find myself singing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the stereo, I’m twelve again. For some, the past is highlighted by visions of friends, parties, maybe boys. For me, though, my dominant memories surround food. Fantasies of Mom’s baked mac ‘n cheese casseroles and my brother’s fluffy popovers still make me drool, but nothing is as emblematic of that time in my life as pizza.

Pizza. A food so perfect, people have written ballads to honor it. Family pizza nights are long-standing traditions. College towns often boast multiple pizza joints to serve the demands of hungry coeds. It is the one food that everybody can agree on, from the pickiest to the most adventurous eaters. Anyone who has ever muttered the words “I don’t like pizza” must be one of two things: deranged or a liar. It is taste-tested, compared, and celebrated more than any other food I can think of. Food critics have written countless articles dissecting it, examining it, and rating it. There are numerous lists ranking it, from the best pizza in a given city to top pizza in the country.

My hometown boasted a substantial Italian population, ensuring I was never without access to some of the tastiest pizza ever created. Before chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Dominoes, and Uno’s rose in popularity, I had my pick of Gervasio’s, Mamma Rosa’s, Brothers’, DeLorenzo’s, Jojo’s, and Mannino’s, all within roughly two miles of my home. As a child, when I visited my family in Massachusetts and found myself in need of a pizza fix, I scoffed at the mushy dough slathered in watered-down ketchup with a rubbery cheese facsimile swimming on top and pined for a slice of authentic tomato pie from Papa’s.

Pizza is more than a food I love. It is an integral component of the backdrop of my childhood. It bonds me to the rest of humanity – other pizza fanatics, at least. So, imagine the pickle I found myself in when I decided to go vegan. At first, I was so excited by my new diet that bragging about my lack of animal product consumption was enough to override any cravings. But as the years passed, my sanity began to suffer due to lack of Vitamin Pizza. I yearned for the textural delights in my mouth, the orange-tinged grease dribbling down my chin, and the intestinal distress from over-indulgence. Those vegetable-topped, cheeseless slices that my local pizza joints triumphantly presented as their vegan option left me sad, unsatisfied, and frankly, lonely.

When my friend Jeanine, a food and travel writer, was assigned a story to research vegan pizza in Brooklyn, NY, I eagerly tagged along. Did a Land of Vegan Pizza really exist? Were there chefs who recognized that not all vegans found soggy, overcooked vegetables a suitable substitute for cheese? Could a two-day pizza crawl through the Greenpoint/Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn help me reconnect to my cherished memories of cheese-laden Utopia on the boardwalks of the Jersey shore?

I joined this culinary adventure with skepticism and a touch of hubris. I regard myself as a pizza connoisseur. The crust must be cooked perfectly – light, yet crispy. I want a red sauce that is seasoned so that I am not inclined to reach for a shaker of red pepper flakes or garlic salt. The mozzarella (or, in my case, “mozzarella”) must be fresh and fully melted. I don’t need toppings or novelty interpretations. I’m old school. I want a straight-up slice of cheese pizza, but it must be done well.

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Two Boots

Two Boots in Williamsburg offered only one vegan option by-the-slice when we visited, and it wasn’t the plain cheese that my tastebuds were craving. I glared in disdain at the mushrooms, roasted red onions, and artichokes, slathered with a generous layer of Daiya cheese, then drizzled with a red pepper sauce and basil pesto. Grudgingly, as I bit into the thin, crispy crust, I conceded that it was actually quite appealing. Somehow they made vegetables taste good and not like I was eating the consolation prize. The Jersey girl in me couldn’t bring herself to calling it “pizza” — it didn’t satisfy me like a cheese burn to the roof of my mouth did — but I couldn’t resist devouring the entire slice.

 

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Vinnie’s Pizzera

Next, was Vinnie’s, also in Williamsburg. NOW we’re talkin’! A cheery red arrow with “Vegan Town” printed on it pointed to several options for us. We sampled designer slices, from a mac ‘n cheeseburger to a barbecue chicken to a surprising favorite, eggplant parmesan, all with plant-based “meat” and “cheese” toppings. The owner, Sean, stood behind the counter of the traditional but wittily decorated (tributes to Tom Hanks abound) pizzeria. He proudly informed us that he was the first to bring vegan pizza to Brooklyn fourteen years ago and has perfected the simple cheese pizza that I crave. I could see that he understood the importance of pizza, even to those of us who willingly gave up cheese, and he wasn’t going to let us suffer.  I was starting to believe that maybe my pizza-loving days weren’t a distant memory.

 

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Adelina’s

For dinner, we chose a vegetarian/vegan Italian restaurant in Greenpoint that offers 12” oblong vegan pizza as one of their specialties. Given my esteemed background in pizza tasting, I would place Adelina’s pies into a category of their own. With a puffier crust, I’d call it a soft fusion of Sicilian and focaccia. We enjoyed an original, with sauce and NUMU cheese, one topped with sautéed mushrooms, and one with artichoke hearts and fingerling potatoes. These gourmet delicacies went down easily with some pinot noir. They were delicious, filling, and satisfying for a meal, but not quite what I was looking for. Would I come back another time? Absolutely. Would I come back when I’m craving my classic slice? Probably not.

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Screamer’s

The second day, we visited arguably the most famous vegan pizza joint in Brooklyn – Screamer’s. Offering only non-dairy options, their selection of pies is extensive, even by non-vegan standards. They offer the Green Scream and the Vampire and the Screamer and the Chorizo and the Hawaiian and the Grandma Pie and so many more. White pies, red pies, inventive pies. My stomach growled in excitement when I spotted the cheese pizza. Could my taste buds once again savor the beautiful blend of seasonings and textures? In short, yes. YES! I sampled some of the fancy pies, but that cheese slice almost brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. I wanted to jump to my feet and yell, “I’m home!”

As we strolled out of Screamer’s, Jeanine bubbling with excitement about the article she could write extolling the deliciousness of Brooklyn’s vegan pizza scene, I rubbed my satisfied belly, drifting on a sentimental haze. I thought it would be impossible to ever experience those tastes from my childhood that conjured up pictures of my parents. The distant sound of teenage giggles as my friends and I exchanged gossip while expertly folding our pizza slice in half. Youthful dates with cute boys, splitting a couple of slices and sipping our Cokes. But Jeanine informed me, we had one last place to visit.

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Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. In my mind, I had accomplished my goal. I had found vegan pizza that wrapped its deliciousness around the child in me and embraced my fondest nostalgia. We had visited four shops that all touted their twist on an old favorite, and I could be content living the remainder of my days eating at any one of them. But the universe chose to bestow an unexpected gift upon me. Paulie Gee’s has elevated the craft of crust making to a level that surpassed anything I’ve ever had, even back in those authentic pizza joints in the 1960s. I opted for a thin cheese slice, plus splurged on a thick crust with sauce, roasted Vidalia onions, and a sprinkling of vegan parmesan. One bite and I heard the angels singing. Both slices were excellent – crust that is light as air and simultaneously crispy, well-seasoned red sauce, and make-me-forget-about-dairy “cheese” – but the thick crust, with its layer of sesame seeds on the bottom, has made me question my lifelong allegiance to the thin crust. I may be a convert.

I make no secret of my love of bygone eras, but I like to think of myself as a modern, forward-thinking kind of gal, too. Admittedly, I’ve wasted an excessive amount of time mourning the loss of the pizza from my youth. My recent pizza crawl through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn has taught me a valuable lesson. While what Thomas Wolfe asserted is true, You Can’t Go Home Again (…to your favorite pizzeria), it is possible for me to recapture those memories in a context suitable to my changing dietary needs. Many thanks to Two Boots, Vinnie’s, Adelina’s, Screamer’s, and Paulie Gee’s for allowing me to enjoy fabulous pizza that is close to, maybe better than, the pizza of my childhood.

* * * * *

The Last Great Release

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When I was a kid, there was a stream running through the woods behind my neighborhood. My two older brothers would spend summers playing in those woods, building forts with fallen twigs and creating dams to redirect the water flow. Of course, I would tag along to help. And, by “help,” I mean busting my ass on a rock within fifteen minutes of the adventure and having to be carried home. My brothers distracted me from my self-sabotage by showing me the tiny tadpoles that squirmed in the gentle current and taught me about their development into adult frogs.

Those memories and my lifelong appreciation for nature may be what saved me this summer. My current home improvement project, scheduled to take two weeks but now going on eight, would have sent most people into a violent rage. We’ve had all the concrete around the pool, our basement entrance, and our deck ripped up and hoisted into three dumpsters. May turned into June and, because of weather delays, dragged into July. Through weeklong rainstorms and brutal heatwaves, the contractors hit numerous obstacles and countless setbacks.

Amidst the chaos and the filth, my pool lay waiting. While I bitched to my husband and complained to the masons, last year’s water remained untouched in the deep end. Since the pool could not get its new liner and filter until the other work was done, algae began to grow. Then, they came.

The frogs.

I grew increasingly aware of the chirping. Each night, they became louder and louder, competing to show off their machismo to the ladies. I waded through the mud and the unevenness of my construction site to commune with the nature happening in my very own backyard. I steered clear of the occasional snake; I mourned the two baby bunnies that my dog, Lula, thought were toys; I appreciated the bats that had moved into the house we made for them as I was seldom bothered by mosquitoes. But I loved the music of the frogs conjuring up nostalgia from my childhood adventures with my brothers or my idyllic summers spent in rural Massachusetts.

Then, one night, my husband and I arrived home to discover the melody had become a symphony of croaking. We grabbed a flashlight and shone it around the pool area, expecting to find a mob of amphibious types staring at us with those bulging eyes. Instead, I found one lone pair of frogs. And, they were doing it. Froggy style!

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Now, I’m generally too private to discuss my sex life but, let me tell you, lying in bed, night after night, listening to them playing dirty leapfrog, I admit to being a little envious. I’d heard that manly warbling and witnessed his triumph at having gotten the girl. Now, he was just showing off. For hours!

As the pool algae flourished, so did the eggs from the fornicating frogs. Next came the tadpoles. I mean thousands of tadpoles! My mother instincts kicked in as I watched those slimy heads with tails swimming happily in the putrefying water. My new babies. I tried to give each one a name, but after mistaking Becca for Tommy too many times, I decided they were all named Sasha.  I began taking pictures of them and telling my friends about the ecosystem I was now in charge of in my very own backyard. “Maybe I’ll just leave the pool as a huge pond,” I joked.

Until Pool Guy came by to check on the masons’ progress and let me know they’d be taking out the old liner in preparation for the work on the pool. “We’ll throw some bleach in,” he said, “then we can get started.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, reality settling around me. “The bleach will kill the tadpoles!”

He laughed. “Well, is it a pool or a pond? If it’s a pool, they have to go.”

“No bleach,” I told him. “How long until you need to pump out the remaining water?”

“A week.”

“Then, I have enough time to Save The Tadpoles!”

I knew I could never get every last one of them. But I could do my best to save as many as possible. So, the process began. For hours every night, my husband and I took turns with the pool net and scooped. We dumped our haul into a large pot and went back for more. Once we couldn’t fit any more into the pot, we’d take them to the nearby stream and release them into their new home.

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It became a game to us – a quest. ‘Save The Tadpoles’ was our rallying cry. The masons worked during the day; we scooped during the evening. At first, it seemed futile. Finally, the horde began to thin. We got hundreds of tadpoles a night. We rescued a few dozen full-fledged frogs, and many, many that were at various stages in-between with legs and a tail.

Our friends and family learned what our immediate priority was. “Do you want to go to dinner tonight?” “No, we have to scoop tadpoles.” “Can you come to visit me this weekend?” “Sorry. Tadpoles.” They began to pitch in, eagerly taking the rescues to populate streams closer to their own homes.

At last, the day came for Pool Guy to throw in his pump and drain all remaining water. At 7 AM, I stood at the edge of the pool and calculated. There were still some stragglers bobbing around the edges. Could I get any more before the remaining water was removed? I could sure try! ‘No Tadpole Left Behind’ became my new cry. I scooped. Through the remaining muck and silt, I thrust in the netted pole and rejoiced at every silvery body I caught. They evaded me, but I persisted. With sweat dripping in the 90° morning, I was determined to save as many as possible.

Triumphantly, I took that stockpot with upwards of another 350 tadpoles, plus eight tiny frogs, and placed it gently in the passenger seat of my car. We drove to the nearby stream, and I hiked the distance from the street through the woods. I needed to get close to the water, right up to the edge. Unlike the frogs I released there with some regularity who could hop the rest of the way, these little guys needed to go right into the water. And, that’s what we did. As I stepped to the edge of the creek, the ground gave way beneath me and in I went, stockpot and all. Somehow, I managed to keep my charges upright as I landed knee-deep in mud and busted my ass on a rock. I dropped the lid and released them into the water. Little frogs hopped off, and big-headed tadpoles wriggled into their new home.

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As I extracted myself from the quicksand-like suction of the sludge, I eyed the piles of beer bottles and cans that lay strewn around the woods. Instead of allowing someone else’s casual disregard of the environment ruin my celebratory mood, I picked up my stockpot, stomped off as much mud from my feet as I could, and began cramming that trash into my pot to take home for recycling. Sighing with satisfaction, I looked one more time toward the last great release. A snowy egret was soaring low above the surface of the stream.

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A Sniff Down Memory Lane

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I was at a grocery store the other day – one of those upscale, bougie places that sells snobbish $5.00 bottles of enriched water and pompously superior organic/all-natural/sustainable/ethically-sourced…everything. My kind of place! As I strolled through the aisles, I was seduced by a display of colorful handcrafted soaps. Always in search of new scents to brighten my shower time, I paused to sample the goods. Two- and three-toned soaps; delicately swirled soaps; soaps with flowers embedded in them. All had precisely cut sides except for one deliberately rough edge, some left raw, some artfully pressed in lavender buds or dried rose petals. I breathed in intense gardenia and jasmine, calming chamomile, invigorating peppermint. There were clever names, like “Purple Haze” and “Volcanic Vanilla.” As I sniffed my way through the piles, I picked up one called “Sand and Sea.” I had a rough expectation of a salty ocean aroma, but, instead, I had a flashback so vivid and powerful that I closed my eyes and found myself transported in that memory.

That’s the funny thing about our senses. A taste, a sight, a sound, and particularly, a smell, triggers an association locked deep in our brains that can spontaneously return us to a specific time or place. The sweet fragrance of summer rain pattering on my roof and I’m eight-years-old, seated cross-legged on my front porch with my current Bobbsey Twins book open in my lap, fingers oranged from the Cheetos I wash down with cherry Hi-C. Protected by the overhanging roof, the driving blur of the downpour hypnotizes me. When the storm slows, I’m lulled into dreamy tranquility as I return to the adventures of Nan and Bert, Flossie and Freddie.

The crunch of dried leaves beneath my feet and I’m among the throngs of trick-or-treaters scuffling up and down the sidewalk. Shivering in the late October chill under Wonder Woman costumes or white sheets with eyehole cut-outs, it didn’t occur to us to ruin the effect with a heavy jacket. After a week of decorating the elementary school classroom windows with construction paper jack-o’lanterns and witches, our anticipation is at its peak when October 31 finally arrives. My friends and I, giddy with excitement, don our costumes in preparation for the school-wide parade along the main street, parents gathered to oooh and ahhh, passersby in cars honking in appreciation. After dinner, with pillowcases in hand to carry our haul of Hershey bars and 3 Musketeers, we join scurrying neighborhood ghosts, ghouls, and superheroes in the crisp, autumn twilight.

Coconut oil and it’s spring break in Florida. On crammed beaches with hordes of other college students, my friends and I sizzle all day until our skin looks like aged cognac. Nights are spent jammed in smoky clubs, shouting to hear each other over the music while flashing flirtatious smiles at cute boys. Stumbling back to our rented house at three in the morning ensures fuzzy, aching heads when we awake a few hours later to repeat the previous day’s schedule – coconut oil, sizzle, party.

The taste of almond paste and I’m watching my grandmother’s delighted smile as she opens her gift of colorful, fruit-shaped marzipan. The scent of Tabu perfume, and I see my aunt at twenty-five, sashing across a parking lot while every head turns to admire her youthful beauty. The syrupy smell of cotton candy and I’m strolling through the State Fair where I buy my first guinea pig. “Freebird” and I’m in early adolescence feeling the heartache of my unrequited crush on Eduardo.

The day I revisited when I smelled the “Sand and Sea” soap was a family trip to Cape Cod. I was four, maybe five, so too young to have clear memories. More just fleeting images. That’s why the impact of the aroma from the soap was especially startling. The impression was buried so deep that it was at an almost primal level. As I stood in the Health and Beauty aisle with eyes closed, I feel the rocky sand beneath my feet, very different from the smooth beaches I was used to in New Jersey. I’m wearing a floppy beach hat to protect my eyes from the burning sun while my skin is sticky with Coppertone. My older brothers have built a sandcastle nearby and are desperately digging a moat around it as the tide comes in. Mom and Dad are more relaxed than I ever remembered, lounging in metal-framed beach chairs with basket weave nylon seats – the kind that leave red crisscrosses on the back of your thighs – while keeping one drowsy eye on their three lively children. Every evening during that trip, I strip down in the outdoor shower to discover that my droopy bathing suit bottoms have carried back half the beach. Why did this bar of soap take me to that singular trip to Cape Cod instead of the countless excursions we made to the Jersey shore? There must have been the slightest nuance that evoked one memory over the others.

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Generally, these sensory nudges pleasantly lead me through the photo album of my life, flipping through memories with wistful nostalgia. There are others, however, that arouse a more painful response. I can’t buy poinsettias anymore because, as they were my mother’s favorite flowers, I bought out the nursery to decorate the church for her funeral. I’ve never watched my wedding video because it was the last celebration I shared with my father. My heart aches when I see swarms of dragonflies as they were the favorites of my college roommate Samantha. Every time I pop open a Miller Lite, I hear my recently departed friend Steve chortling for the umpteenth time: “Less filling, tastes great!”

Why some sensory memories bring a smile to my face while others bring a tear to my eye is something I can’t explain. It’s a visceral reaction, devoid of thought or intention. It must go back to that place deep in the brain where those responses originate. While both of my parents are gone, memories of them conjure different feelings. I don’t purchase poinsettias or watch movies of my father, but the image of innocent bliss conjured up when I smelled that “Sand and Sea” soap is equally linked to my parents. I felt such serenity as I stood there in the store, eyes closed, holding the bar to my nose, that I bought that soap. Then, I returned a week later to buy three more bars.

Lifelong Friendship – A Return to Diapers and Bibs.

My earliest memory of Lori is faded and worn, much as most photographs from the 1960s. I was a tiny thing – I maintain that I was three while Lori insists we were five (we squabble over that detail to this day) – and can still feel the searing in my eyes from the noontime mid-summer sun. Stubbornly, I persevered through my headache because I couldn’t care less about the pea green chairs and brown plaid sofa being unloaded from the moving van. I had one interest and one interest alone as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house four down from my own. Did the new family have a girl for me to play with?

Those early years with Lori saw hours of hopscotch, chalked with precision on her driveway under my exacting eye. We played Chinese jump rope like pros as I insisted that we practice to perfection. In the fall, we arranged piles of leaves into floor plans for our dream home, arguing over how many bedrooms there’d be. In winter, we built igloos and had spirited snowball fights. In spring, we’d eyeball each other’s new Easter dresses and bonnets, each secretly assured that our own was the prettiest. In summer, we swam in her above ground pool or pumped our legs hard, until the poles of her metal swing set lifted out of the ground, competing to see who could soar highest. And, somewhere along the way, Jackie, who lived around the corner from us, seamlessly joined our adventures and we became a trio.

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Half a century later, I joined my two lifelong compadres for one of our time-to-catch-up dinners. Over the years, we’ve drifted in and out of each other’s lives as our days were commandeered by the usual marriage/kids/careers frenzy that puts all else on hold. Somehow, like a homing device that leads us back to those who knew us in our simplest incarnation, we intuitively convene over food and Pinot Grigio when one of us has hit a life obstacle. What is it about those friendships formed in childhood that we gravitate toward knowing no explanations will be required?

It’s like slicing a baseball in half. At the core, at the very heart of the ball, is a round cork. This is how I picture old friends – stripped down to their authentic selves before life’s demands and responsibilities begin building layers around it. The ball’s center is covered by two sheets of rubber, then four separate layers of tightly wound yarn. Next comes a coating of rubber cement before two coverings of cowhide are applied and stitched into place. Through our lives, we add layers to the raw center of who we are, creating facades, wearing multiple hats, and building an image as we meet our parents’ expectations, peer pressures, career demands, and become upstanding members of society.

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I’ve known Lori and Jackie since we were cork. I don’t have to wonder about their upbringing or life events that have made them the resilient, polished women they are today. I don’t have to question why Jackie’s children have been openly and unabashedly showered with her love since they were born. I know without asking why Lori is fiercely loyal yet emotionally delicate. And, in turn, they understand why I am demanding and defiant.

As we raised our glasses to toast fifty years of friendship, I realized that I never notice our time-worn faces, professionally enhanced hair color, or crow’s feet. Age spots on hands go undetected. Softening abdomens and saddlebags disappear as these friends are forever youthful through my retrospective lens. I see three little girls with flowing blond hair; I hear Lori’s infectious giggle; I picture Jackie’s open and engaging smile; I recall my endless rebelliousness.

As children, a favorite pastime was slapping metal roller skates onto the bottom of our sneakers and racing to Schmidt’s Corner Deli to peruse the shelves of chocolate and jars of penny candy. We’d pool our money – allowances or loose change dug out from under sofa cushions – then calculate what we could get when divided by three. Candy cigarettes made us look cool. Wax lips were both entertaining and tasty. Often, we’d settle on candy necklaces because who wouldn’t want edible fashion? After we made our selections, we’d hang out on Schmidt’s porch and greet other friends who came and went until I had to leave for my afternoon schedule of homework and piano practice, followed by an hour of baton twirling.

            Them: “Why do you have to do this every day? You never get a break!”

            Me: “You don’t get really good at something unless you work at it.”

            Them: “Yeah, but we want to play, and you’re always busy.”

            Me: “If I don’t get straight A’s and practice piano and baton, I’ll get in trouble.”

And, off I’d go, conflicted. I was sad to think of my friends having fun without me, and nearly tempted to stay a little longer, but I was more afraid of my mother’s reaction if I disobeyed her.

By the time we hit our early teens, my friends were used to the demands on my time, and I had learned how to game my parents’ system. As boys became more important to me, I spent less time procrastinating and became efficient in accomplishing my chores. Also, I’d learned to remove the screen from my bedroom window so I could sneak out whenever I pleased. Our favorite place to hang was a nearby busy road where carloads of teens would cruise up and down. We perched ourselves there on the split rail fence in front of the motorcycle dealership and waited for the ego-boosting honks of appreciation. Often missing from those adventures was Lori.

              Lori: “I can’t make it. I have to do the laundry and vacuum.”

              Us: “How about when you’re done? Meet us then.”

              Lori: “I can’t. I have to watch my little brothers and sister.”

              Us: “How about when your parents get home?”

              Lori: “They won’t be back until really late. Go without me.”

A huge milestone was when I was the first of us to get my driver’s license. We immediately gained the freedom we’d been craving since watching older teens cruise past as we waved from the wooden fence. Soon, we were driving with the rest of the group, stopping at a 7-Eleven for a Slurpee with me showily twirling the car keys around my index finger. That summer we cruised back and forth to the Jersey shore several nights a week just because we could. My parents thought they’d curtail my roaming by denying me access to their cars. No problem. Jackie’s mom let me drive hers so off we went. For hours we cruised, often with no destination in mind. When it was time for Lori and me to get home, Jackie would usually go with one or the other of us.

              Us: “Don’t we need to get your mom’s car back?”

              Jackie: “Nah. She doesn’t care.”

              Us: “Well, you should call and let her know you won’t be home tonight.”

              Jackie: “It’s okay. She probably won’t even notice.”

Fifty years of friendship. We’ve been each other’s cheering section, best audience, and most honest critic. We’ve been there through it all. First kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks. Family history, family dynamics, family secrets. Marriage, children, divorce, death. We’ve argued and hurt each other’s feelings and always moved beyond. We do more than listen and sympathize. We know. Know, only in a way possible because we’ve been together from the time we were cork.

Today

Our recent dinner was both a celebration and the mourning of Lori’s impending move to South Carolina. For numerous reasons, this is the best decision for her family, and we are excited for her. For selfish reasons, Jackie and I will miss the easy camaraderie that comes with our lifelong friendship. Always sentimental after a couple of long pours of wine, I lamented that it’s hard to break up a trio that’s been together practically since we were in diapers and bibs.

“But,” I said, thinking about buying Depends from the smirking teenager at Walgreen’s (long road trips can be tricky and sneezing fits are a big mess), “I guess we’ve been friends so long that we actually need diapers again.”

Jackie looked pointedly at the blob of salad dressing that had landed on my chest and said, “And bibs.”

Lori laughed that infectious laugh and said, “I guess when you’ve been friends as long as we have, you come full circle.”

 

Still Looking For My Zen

Another birthday, another delightful opportunity for me to take stock of my life. I get to weigh my successes and failures, laid out before me like a Balance Sheet or Profit and Loss Comparison (it’s tax season as I write this so you can guess where my head is) and assess my level of accomplishment. As I turn fifty-seven, I’ll be evaluating the degree of Zen I’ve managed to achieve, as that has been this year’s gift to myself. I’m up to ten minutes of meditation at a time. I perform my Downward Facing Dogs almost daily and haven’t faceplanted during Tree Pose in weeks. So, as I approach this next birthday, I’ll be celebrating my newfound ability to release negativity. I’m finding my truth; what is worth getting upset about and what is not. In other words, I’ve learned to let go of things I no longer give a shit about.

My language, since I’ve brought it up. I’m a verbalist. I express myself through words. And, if I throw in a sailor-worthy swear word for emphasis and someone finds it offensive, I don’t give a damn. With a cleansing breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, I mentally pardon them for not being as evolved as I am. Also regarding word choice, I no longer get that twinge in my heart when I use the expression-of-the-moment, and my children roll their eyes. As they unsuccessfully hide their smirks behind their hands, snickering at the Old Lady’s use of trendy phrases, I refuse to let them harsh my mellow. I offer a tranquil smile in response because deep in the cratered recesses of my mind, I’m still that groovy chick who can boogie down with the best of them. So, do me a solid and take a chill pill, ya dig?

I used to torture myself by succumbing to the advice of those opinion pieces, like “40 Things No One Over 40 Should Ever Do.” No more. At this Zen stage of my life, I no longer give a second’s credence to those articles written by snot-nosed prepubescents imperiously dictating age-appropriate behavior and fashion tips. If I want my knobby, 57-year-old knees on full display below the hem of a mini-skirt, I will not be age-shamed. My knees, my choice. And, while I’m at it, if I choose to wear a skirt cut all the way up to my nether regions, again, my choice. Just like it’s that Vogue-Editor-in-Chief-wannabe’s choice to look. Or not.

There was once a time when I wouldn’t step foot out of my house, not even for a quick trip to the grocery, without a full face of makeup and a lengthy session with my curling iron. I mean, what if somebody saw me, for Chrissakes? Now, when I need my chocolate fix, I don’t bother to change out of my flannel pajama pants, brush my teeth, or clean the crusties out of the corners of my eyes (please don’t think I’m totally gross) before racing out the door. You see, I have transcended my need for approval from others.

I admit there was a time when I performed random acts of kindness as much for the attention it garnered me as for the intention of helping someone. Now, with a more modest approach to altruism, I take quiet joy in offering support or coming to someone’s aid. I don’t need credit when I’ve graciously corrected someone’s toilet paper if it’s hanging the wrong way, trailing down the wall from the back of the roll. With a serene smile to myself, I switch it so the roll leads from over the top. The only reward I seek is the knowledge that I’ve set things right in the universe.

Once upon a time, my blood pressure would soar when I’d engage in the age-old battle of which is the best band of all time, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. No more. I accept that people have different tastes. We all have our associations with this classic music, certain songs transporting us back to an early love or a past heartbreak. I enjoy both bands, and their lyrics and melodies are part of my constitution. If asked to choose, I assert with unwavering confidence that the Beatles are the greatest. But I’ve reached new heights of enlightenment and am no longer rattled when someone disagrees because I now recognize that they are entitled to their incorrect opinion.

I believe that good manners are the cornerstone of civilized society. As my children were growing up, I strove to model good behavior, often “rising above” someone cutting in line or speaking out of turn. With my own growth in mindfulness this past year, I’ve realized that I may be stunting the growth of others if I allow myself to be victimized by their bad behavior. Recently, I had the opportunity to explore my guru potential when I encountered a particularly teachable moment. I had just left a club in New York City and was standing on the edge of the street, hand raised to hail a cab, while carefully (and politely) avoiding interfering with other passing cars. As the yellow taxi careened toward me, a drunkenly raucous young woman in a skin-tight Spandex micro skirt, with her gazelle-like, perfectly tanned legs on full display, glanced at me as she pranced toward the car I’d successfully flagged. Oh, hell to the no! As she staggered, laughing at my stubby legs peeking out like sad little ghosts from beneath the bottom of my mid-thigh length dress, visions of Kathy Bates from Fried Green Tomatoes flashed through my head. I scurried toward the car handle, pushed her hand away, yanked the door open, and hip-checked her as I slid into the back seat. “You may be younger and faster, but I’ve been a bitch a whole lot longer.” As I chuckled over the memory of the incident afterward, I realized that I might have some work to do on my inner guru.

Restaurants have become the bane of my existence. Recently, however, I’ve tapped into my Zenness to reclaim my enjoyment of eating out. I recognize that it is my duty as a patron to help the wait staff understand my little idiosyncrasies. I know they are trained to maintain the illusion of “fine dining” by whisking away my plate to some magical place behind closed doors to pack my leftovers into foil containers. But I need to make sure every last drop of saffron sauce is scraped into that container. I have to tightly roll up a paper napkin to create a divider between leftover pad Thai and the sugar peas. I must make sure that those nasty chickpeas I’ve carefully extracted from my loaded quinoa salad don’t accidentally end up going home with me. So, while they graciously and firmly tell me, “No, no, it’s no problem…I’ve got it,” I just as graciously and firmly place my hand on the plate and say, “I insist.”

One of my greatest anxieties in restaurants had become the constant hovering of the table clearers, eying me from across the room, ogling my every move. If I dared rest my fork to take a sip of water, I’d feel the rush of air as one swooped in to grab my plate away. When did the notion of “good service” devolve into forcing diners to gulp down their meals? The day I discovered myself hunched over my lunch, both arms protectively placed around my dish to nonverbally indicate that I was still actively engaged in eating, I snapped. I’d made the fatal error of thinking I could put down my utensils momentarily when the busboy grabbed my plate. “No! I am NOT done!” I yelled at the poor child, physically yanking back the half-full plate he had snatched. At that point, my Zen was nowhere to be found. These days, I try to ignore them as they drift about, poised to spring into action if I dare chew my food thoroughly. At the first sign of infraction, I place my fingers on the rim of the plate, draw a meditative breath, smile, and calmly inform them that I am a slow eater. Placing my hands over my heart chakra, I repeat myself. I am very slow. Bring-the-rest-of-the-table-their-dessert-while-I-finish-my-meal kind of slow. I will let you know when I am done.

Let me wrap up my restaurant rant discussion by saying that Sally from When Harry Met Sally has nothing on me. I understand that chefs are proud of their creations, thoughtfully combining flavors and textures to entice their customers. Unfortunately, I have dietary restrictions, not to mention an eccentricity or ten, and used to get stressed at the thought of customizing my order. I would pick out the components in my salad that I didn’t like or couldn’t eat because I didn’t want to be deemed “difficult.” Now, I get my salad precisely the way I want it. No cheese, egg, or meat. Dressing on the side, and is there any dairy in it? If so, just bring me oil and vinegar. Add olives and extra tomatoes, unless the tomatoes have been refrigerated or are underripe, in which case, leave them out altogether. Add walnuts, if they can be toasted; if not, add almonds. I like my carrots shredded, please, not diced or julienned. No spring mix – substitute Romaine and arugula instead, thanks. Could I more easily make my own salad at home and maintain my hard-earned tranquility? Sure, I could. But, as adorable as my husband is, I’m not immune to the eye-candy in the form of the thirty-something waiters at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

With age and wisdom comes Zen. At least the semblance of Zen. With nearly six decades under my belt, I am less concerned with how others view me and more comfortable in my own skin. I may decide to color my hair purple. I will continue wearing the jeans I love, possibly graduating from bell bottoms to bootcut, if the spirit moves me. I won’t worry about whether I’m “ladylike” when I let a string of obscenities fly at the reckless driver who nearly sideswiped me or when some little shit tries to steal my taxi. I refuse to count calories because I enjoy great, fully customized food. I laugh out loud and unabashedly. I’m giddy when I’ve indulged in a strong drink or glass of wine. My family, friends, and animals are the center of my world. Most significantly, however, as I reflect on my advancing years, I am deeply salty (cue my children’s rolling eyes) about the disco ball ring, inarguably the greatest women’s accessory ever designed, no longer being in fashion. Namaste.

* * * * *

I Got A Facial

It’s no secret that I’m easy prey to all the latest fads for beating back the rapidly turning pages on life’s calendar. I wish I had the confidence of the beautiful Jamie Lee Curtis and Helen Mirren who gracefully embrace the passing of time, but I come from the land of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Here, we embrace each other with a critical eye and our greetings, instead of “How are you?” begin with “You look great!”

I was an early admirer of Jack LaLanne, following him on television as I touched my toes and did jumping jacks. I was a devotee of Jane Fonda, donning my shiny spandex leotards and sweating to her high-paced aerobics workouts on VHS. I’ve powerwalked; I’ve kept pace with Denise Austin through the decades; I’ve Jazzercized; I’ve joined gyms and quit gyms; I’ve taken step classes and spin classes and cardio funk classes and yoga classes and Zumba classes. I bought Jillian Michaels’ Body Revolution and worked myself into a (short-lived) size 4. I’ve fought gravity every inch of the way with ab crunches and pumping iron.

Alas, the face and body cream industry has also benefited from my insecurities…and my gullibility. Hydrate and moisturize, rinse and repeat. By this age, I’ve spent enough money on slathering products for my face and neck that my husband and I could have retired years ago. I’ve needed the age-appropriate cleansers, toners, eye creams, daytime moisturizers, nighttime moisturizers, acne treatments for “mature” skin (something’s wrong with that reality). Twelve years ago, I was a chaperone for my daughter’s dance group on a trip to Kentucky. Another little girl stayed with us in our hotel room and marveled at my case filled with lotions and potions – “more than Harry Potter has!” – she exclaimed. That was a proud moment for me.

Drunk Elephant

My insomnia has permitted me to remain updated on trends in exfoliants, glycolic acid, and retinol as the late-night infomercials readily educate me. I’ve explored Botox and fillers, but the idea of injecting foreign substances into my face freaks me out. I’ve bought home microdermabrasion kits and ultrasound devices that are supposed to cause my sagging facial muscles to contract, thereby restoring them to my early twenties’ firmness. How about DNA-based skincare? Should I explore the gluten-free products? Kim Kardashian informed me that a vampire facial is what I want. How about a gold facial because, I mean really, I haven’t wasted enough money, yet? Fermentation? Radiofrequency? Mesotherapy? Do I need these?

With the slackening jawline and turkey jiggly thing developing under my chin, I’ve pondered a partial facelift. But, when does it stop? I’ve heard I could become addicted to surgery. Would my nipped and tucked face look fresh and youthful, or just nipped and tucked on my wrinkly, rickety body sitting in the poor house beside my long-suffering husband?

Just as I resigned myself to a lifetime of demanding that candid pictures of me were never posted on social media…just as I learned to stop gasping in horror when my phone camera accidentally swiveled to selfie mode, accentuating the multitude of chins and parenthesis-shaped lines around my mouth, Groupon emailed me the answer. The newest and the latest. A non-surgical approach guaranteed to give me the same results as a facelift. As I said…gullible.

And, to add excitement to the thrill, I could also get liposuction results with a non-surgical body procedure. Why wouldn’t I want to make my love handles disappear? Smooth the bulge under my belly button? These two miracle treatments, for face and body, were on special for about $150. What a bargain! I signed right up.

I kissed my husband goodbye the morning of my appointment, surreptitiously making sure he had a good look at my face and figure before I left. I didn’t tell him of my big plans so I could surprise him when I got home. I drove the 45 minutes to the elite spa that offered the Groupon deal and nervously walked into the foyer. I was greeted by a woman who seemed unaware of who I was and why I was there. After a quick conversation, she became animated. Later it would become clear to me that her brief assessment led her to think of me as an easy target.

Communication was not Callie’s strong suit. She was pleasant enough but didn’t understand with whom she was dealing. I needed to know exactly what she was doing. I needed to know how it was going to feel before she ever lay an instrument on me. I needed to know that her lotions and potions were sterile and that the equipment was cleaned after each client. I kept asking for information, and she kept giving me whispered abbreviated answers. I’m not a spa expert so I may not have been aware of some protocol demanding silence. Was I supposed to be quiet or just not question the specialist?

Plus, Callie should have warned me – really, she should have – before she assaulted me with the EXIMIA machine. I’d read that this device employs not one, but two state-of-the-art solutions to my cellulite accumulation. I did my research. While I’m not particularly scientific-minded, I understood the concept of lift and suck. This miraculous Italian contraption would do exactly that to my cellulite in a simple, painless, easy session. After all, I’d paid $150 to be made over in just one visit. Once Callie had applied the lotions needed for the machine to glide over me, a loud banging and sizzling noise startled me into a near panic. She needed two hands to control the gadget as it proceeded to do what I can only describe as trying to eat me alive. It had powerful jaws that chomped and crunched across my abdomen and hips. All while paralyzing me with its commotion.

“Is it supposed to sound like that?” I managed to choke out between gasps for air.

“Yes, yes!” Callie told me with a bright tone. “It’s doing its job. You’ll see a difference in just one day.”

Oh. I forgot to mention Callie insisted on taking photos of me with my phone, full body and close-up of the face, before starting any of these treatments. She wanted to celebrate with me the results when comparing before/after pictures. You already know how I feel about pictures of myself so you can imagine how excited I was by this little exercise.

When she finally released me from the table, Callie took that after-picture but saucily informed me that I couldn’t look until after she’d worked on my face. She wanted to save it for the Big Reveal. Off we went to the facial room which had a smaller version of the body machine I’d just escaped. I knew what to expect this time, though, so braced myself for having my face eaten. Maybe the pressure was less; maybe I was better prepared. As it turned out, I had to control my laughter because that machine tickled as its little mouth gently chewed up and down my cheeks.

Callie was shocked that, at my advanced age, I’d never had a facial. She kept asking me, “Really? Never?” as if that would change history. It was a rather pleasant step-by-step process of cleaning my face, applying lotions and potions, wiping off the lotions and potions, the EXIMIA device nibbling on my face, massaging away the tension, and on. I was relaxed, thinking this was definitely worth my Groupon special rate when Callie pulled out a new device. She applied a thin liquid to my face and began swirling a three-pronged electric current wand all over, from my neck to my jowls, up my cheeks to my forehead.

“I’ll turn it up as high as you can tolerate it,” she told me. “The higher the setting, the better the results.”

“Okay,” I said. I was game. I wanted to see the results. She’d taken the before-pictures, after all, and I wanted to bask in the glow of my freshly treated skin in the after-pictures.

“Just a tingle,” Callie assured me. “You’ll feel a tingle.”

I felt a tingle. Not bad. I couldn’t wait to see the toned muscles, the youthful radiance. As the liquid on my face was absorbed and swept away with Callie’s motions, the tingling grew stronger. Suddenly, it felt as if someone had applied a live wire directly to my face, and my arms and legs began to convulse.

“Stop! It’s burning!” I said.

“Shhh! Not burning. Tingling,” she assured me.

“Burning!” I yelled, swiping the torture device away from me.

“Hm.” Callie eyed me skeptically. “Maybe I didn’t give you enough lotion.”

“Ya think?” I was sitting upright by then, fingering the skin on my forehead, feeling for blisters. Clicking her tongue at me, she lay me back down and applied a hydrating collagen mask to my face.

collagen mask
Callie took those after-pictures. I saw no difference. Not on my stubborn love handles, not around my jawline. My online research had promised me that I’d see a noticeable improvement after one treatment. But Callie informed me that I needed at least six treatments of each to see real results. At full price, I was looking at close to $2600.

“I’ll give you the package rate,” Callie whispered conspiratorially. “You’ll get 20% off.”

Callie may have fancied herself a good saleswoman, but I’d show her that I wasn’t someone to be trifled with. While I had not had the best experience with my first body treatment and facial, a 20% off hook gave me pause. I scratched the body treatments from her proposal and arranged a dubious look on my face as I eyeballed the remainder. She countered with an additional 5% off a package of six facials. I hedged and mulled. Our eyes met, each sizing up the other. I told her that if she would trim another 5% off the facials, I’d do it. She agreed, and I wrote her a big fat check. She grinned as I walked out, a hint of smugness on her lips, but I assured myself that, while I may be gullible, I’d shown her that I’m no sucker.

* * * * *

…I See Your Headache And Raise You One Kidney Stone: The Game Of One-Upmanship.

One-up

It’s summer. Beaches, barbeques, and baseball. And, my mid-thigh length white shorts that reveal the paunchy waist that’s been kept under wraps all winter. The paunch and the colossal ropey scar that runs from two inches above my kneecap to about an inch below. I wish I could say that scar was something I wore like a badge of honor along with my gray hair and wrinkles. Unfortunately, it’s merely the result of the reconstruction surgery on my kneecap following a kitchen slip-and-fall.

That injury, which required a year of physical therapy to regain use of my leg, wouldn’t be particularly story-worthy except it came directly after my daughter’s diagnosis of Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common cause of knee pain in adolescents who are going through growth spurts. My family “jokingly” alleged that I was trying to steal my 10-year-old’s thunder by one-upping her with my shattered patella. There may be a subconscious element of truth to that accusation. Every time my daughter would explain to someone why she’d quit Irish step dancing or couldn’t jump rope, I found myself chiming in about my own knee.

What is that? Why do we feel compelled to pull out our own illnesses and injuries for discussion when we learn about someone else’s woes? I have a theory.

When I was a child, if my mother wasn’t reading me a lively story from the countless fairy tales and children’s books that crowded our living room bookshelves, she would regale me with stories from her adventurous childhood. While I loved hearing about her Airedale Terrier, Tippy, and how she and my father met in college, nothing piqued my interest more than the antics of the Blue-Haired Ladies. These were the socialite friends of her maternal grandmother from New Haven, CT who would gather weekly for tea and a cutthroat game of pinochle. My mother, who spent a month every summer with these grandparents when she was a little girl, told me how she would hang out under the card table, assessing who had the baggiest stockings and chubbiest ankles. In her boredom, she would eventually tune in to the conversation taking place above her.

“My William, we were all day at the doctor’s last week. You know…diabetes.”

Another would pipe up. “Oh yes, diabetes. My father had diabetes. He lost his right leg up to his knee.”

Loud gasps.

A third could barely wait to contribute. “Well, my sister, Minnie, poor dear. Her diabetes caused kidney failure!”

A chorus of, “Ohhhh,” ended the conversation.

I can remember thinking what a boring bunch of old ladies they must have been, sitting around with their blue-tinted hair and nothing better to talk about than their illnesses and injuries. Did any of them ever read a good book? What about travel to foreign countries? Or, didn’t they have hobbies like making tissue paper flowers or blowing the insides out of eggs and painting the shells? Couldn’t this group of bored, wealthy Blue-Haired Ladies find ANYthing else to talk about?

As I got older, I started to understand that it wasn’t just that select group of elderly women who discussed their health incessantly. I began witnessing it in my grandmother’s generation. The only difference then was the hairdressers had stopped using that bluing agent. Now, I heard nearly identical conversations from the Gray-Haired Ladies.

Gray-Haired Lady #1: “Oh, my sciatica. I’ve never known such pain! I can’t sit. I can’t lie down. And, forget sleeping.”

Gray-Haired Lady #2: “You think that’s bad? Try having a herniated disc in your neck! Talk about pain. I can’t even turn my head! My doctor says I can’t drive until it’s better.”

Gray-Haired Lady #1: “But, the amount of aspirin I have to take. Oy! In the morning…before bed. Too much! It’s too much!”

Gray-Haired Lady #2: “Well, I’ve taken so much aspirin that I’ve developed a stomach ulcer.” This statement would be followed up with the kicker: “Now I’m on Tagamet.”

A collective gasp arose. Then, another eager contribution.

Gray-Haired Lady #3: “Patti’s husband was just diagnosed with…” voice lowered to a whisper, “…cancer.” Pausing briefly, she added with a nod, “Lung.”

At the mention of the C-word, all conversation would halt, and the wagging of gray heads would confirm that no one could top that. That’s when it hit me. This prattling on about illness and medication, injuries and emergency room visits, wasn’t just to fill the silence. It was a competition.

My tiny 4’10” grandmother couldn’t hope to keep up. As she aged, she remained in nearly perfect health while her friends began dropping like flies. By the time she was eighty and diagnosed with osteoporosis, she was the last woman standing. Osteoporosis was an impressive candidate for entrance into the competition, especially when Fosamax was prescribed as treatment, but there was no one left with whom to compete.

Until my mother broke her foot. Then the games began a little closer to home. Grandma was first out of the gate.

Grandma: “You don’t have thinning bones, do you? That wouldn’t have been the cause. You’re too young for osteoporosis, but maybe you should be checked, just to be sure.”

Mom: “No, I tripped and fell down the steps. That’ll do it to anyone.”

Grandma: “Lucky for you. If it had been me, I could have broken a hip!” She takes the lead.

Mom: “Well, I did break my foot in four places.” Whoa, what’s this? Mom pulls ahead.

Grandma: “You know, a broken hip for someone my age is usually the kiss of death. First, it’s the hip, then pneumonia sets in, then…” Neck and neck.

Mom: “They had to put pins and screws in my foot to hold the bones together. You haven’t even broken your hip, so I don’t know why you’re talking about it.” We have a winner! The blue ribbon goes to Mom!

I’d chuckle to myself at the intensity of these Games of Injury and Illness. How silly, I’d think. Spending so much time and energy trying to outdo the other person. Then, I began hearing the competition taking place everywhere I went.

In restaurants:

Opening bid: “I just had to find a new cardiologist.”

I’ll see your cardiologist… “I have a cardiologist, too, plus a nephrologist. I spend half my life in doctors’ offices.”

And, the pot goes to… “Well, after having been twice to the emergency room in the past month, I’m having my gallbladder out next week.”

At funerals:

“This is my second funeral this month.”

“This month? This is my second this week!”

I may not be the quickest learner, but I’m pretty good at a game once I know how to play. I was raised on the playbook of the Blue-Haired Ladies. I watched the occasional match of the Gray-Haired Ladies. I had front row seats to the Grandma vs. Mom bouts. I became tuned into the contests that happened all around me. I listened, I watched, and I bided my time on the bench.

And then, it was my turn. I was called up to the Big Show.

I was seven months pregnant with my son when I made the mistake of mentioning to my mother that I had to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. She took that as a challenge. On your mark. Get set.

Mom: “You have no idea. I’ve had three children. Imagine the havoc that’s wreaked on my bladder!” Go!

Me: “Yeah, well, I’m up three or four times a night. That’s a little tough when I’m working full-time. You weren’t working when you were pregnant.” What’s this? Was I gaining ground?

Mom: “I wasn’t working because I had three children under the age of five.” She elbowed me in the gut, and I fell behind.

Me: “Try giving a presentation to a room full of people while a baby is doing a tap dance on your bladder!” I strained to catch up, but she pressed toward the finish line.

Mom: “I was a little busy with my three little children while finishing my master’s degree.” Arms raised in victory as she broke through the tape.

To be fair, she’d had more experience than I by that point. She’d been groomed by pros – her ferocious mother and grandmother – and had years to hone her skills while I was still on deck. I made valiant attempts over the years, but she always walked away with the spoils. Even at the end, she would be victorious.

Me: “I’m so exhausted all the time, I can barely keep my eyes open.” My opening jab.

Mom: “I’m exhausted, too. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed.” A block and counter punch.

Me: “But, I’m forty years old and work out regularly. I shouldn’t have to drink six cups of coffee just to get through the day.” A hard left.

Mom: “I’m going to have to quit my part-time job because even that has become too much.” Uppercut to the jaw. I’m down but not out.

Later that year:

Me: “The doctor thinks my problem is peri-menopause.” A swing and a miss.

Mom: “The doctor says I have Multiple Myeloma.” Knockout. Ding, ding, ding.

Fortunately, I had children to whom I could pass along my competitive skills. My son refused to participate, but my daughter gamely picked up the gauntlet. She hurt her back while playing soccer but, luckily, I managed to herniate not one, but two, discs in my lower back. She developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but I won with the Chronic Lyme Disease that my doctor had initially thought was peri-menopause.

That Lyme Disease got me a lot of play until a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. As I said earlier, that one pretty much always takes the prize. Recently, the doctor told me I also have Hashimoto’s disease, causing a sluggish thyroid, and that I’m pre-diabetic. You can imagine how that made me feel. Yep, I raced home to my computer and logged into Web M.D. to find out how weighty were the new weapons I’d been given to wield in my next competition. Because, I’ve decided that by this stage, I don’t need any more badges of honor. I’m going for Olympic gold.

…Here Comes The Bride…And A Reality Check

IMG_20180609_171129 (1)

I recently attended a wedding in Virginia Beach. Nice, you say. Yes, it was nice. Actually, it was rather spectacular. It was held at the bride’s family home on the Chesapeake Bay, outside in weather that could not have been more ideal. Every detail — the customized ceremony reflecting the couple’s personalities and aesthetic; the strung globe lights and high-end rustic décor; the perfume wafting from the landscape’s burgeoning hydrangea and the florist’s skillfully arranged rose bouquets; the catered spread and the energetic band that featured Motown classics — was orchestrated to perfection. For one evening, I felt about twenty-six again. Instead of my usual two glass of wine limit, I lost track of how much wine and beer I downed. I danced with youthful energy and vigor, hoping that my torso-hugging shapewear would keep my love handles in check under my clinging flowered dress.

You see, the bride is the daughter of my dear friend and college roommate, Kathy. There’s something reality-checking about attending the wedding of a young woman whose mother I have known since we were girls, just eighteen-years-old. It’s not that I’m unaware of the fact that I’ve rounded the corner of my mid-fifties and am sliding out-of-control downhill toward sixty. It’s not that I ignored my 30th wedding anniversary just two days after our trip to Virginia. It’s not even that I’m in denial about my age. I own and brag about every wrinkle, stretch mark, and gray hair I’ve earned through my life.

Maybe I tend not to think about my age too much; maybe I’m not as profound in my assessment of aging as others. Or, maybe I have my own perspective.

I view the passage of time less as a linear journey ending in the inevitable conclusion. I see it more as an amassment of experiences — gathering memories along the way, like precious gems, that I store safely in the treasure box of my mind. Of course, I know that with each birthday, each anniversary, every annual holiday, and each loss of a loved one, time is moving forward. I simply tend to view these events less as markers and more as another reason to enjoy the here and now. I think maybe that’s why attending Kathy’s daughter’s wedding jolted me so. It caused me to step out of my little mindset, unpack some of those dusty memories, and poke through my personal history.

My life’s story is no more remarkable than the next person’s. It’s just mine. Memories, unlike flat photographs, are filled with three-dimensional sensory nudges that can return us to any given event. My treasure box is crammed with a childhood of Fluffernutter sandwiches and Florida Punch flavored Hi-C. The pervasive stench of Sulphur, courtesy of two older brothers whose preteen years were enlivened by setting off cherry bombs in the sewer in front of our house. My dad’s rusty, old Rambler created frequent excitement — could he get it started today or not? Summer nights meant chasing the mosquito spray truck, piling into the car for family night at the drive-in, or hanging out at the local Little League to eat stale concession stand candy and cheer on my classmates.

Throughout my teens, priorities shifted. I was caught up in the usual school work, friends, and boys. I struggled to conjugate the French verb aimer — j’aime, tu aimes, il/elle aime — with Queen’s “Somebody to Love” blaring on my 8-track player for inspiration. Who was dating whom? Where were we hanging out on Friday night? My college days were much the same. I balanced an impressive schedule of Chaucer and macroeconomics with frat boys and Bud Light. I lived in the moment without much thought of my future. Post-college, I floated through various jobs, eventually married, then had children. All the while, I collected my memories.

My father died when I was twenty-seven. I’d suffered loss previously, but this was the first marker that I viewed in those terms. An actual passage of time; a sharp realization that my life wasn’t static. While I continued to create memories — with my husband and children, with my friends, in my career — I was peripherally aware of my own life’s calendar flipping page after page. Still, the years were an abstract to me. A human invention that didn’t hold much significance other than a sudden realization like, “Huh. My kids have moved out, so I guess that makes me an empty-nester.” I’ve always known we were all getting older; I just never framed it formally in my mind.

Until the recent wedding in Virginia Beach. Suddenly, there was my college buddy. The one I’ve known since I was eighteen. The one who could always finish a beer bong faster than I could. The one who, when I picked up the lead singer of a local band, picked up the rest of the band. Despite the 300+ miles between us since college, we’ve shared weddings; the births of our children; trips to see each other in various locations, sometimes with, sometimes without kids in tow; and, sadly, the burial of our beloved friend from school, Samantha. I’ve seen her children growing up through the years, so it shouldn’t have been a shock to see her oldest exchange vows under the flower-draped wedding arch. But, suddenly, my college buddy was the mother-of-the-bride.

Twenty-six years earlier, I’d attended Kathy’s wedding. My memories from that event are crammed with the young faces of our entire college group and their significant others. There were pre-parties and after-parties, abundant food and ever-flowing alcohol. But, as is the case with many of my life’s memories, there is one that stands out from the rest, like a 16×20 portrait capturing the essence of a special occasion. I was privy to a moment between Kathy and her father that remains one of the most poignant exchanges I’ve ever witnessed. Kathy’s dad, handsome in his tux with a smile so proud that it demanded my attention, put his arm around his daughter and asked, “Are you happy?” I can still hear the din from the music and boisterous guests in the background, as she returned his radiant smile and said, “I am, Daddy. I’m so happy.”

I recounted that moment to Kathy’s father when I spoke with him at his granddaughter’s wedding. He chuckled and smiled that same handsome smile. I don’t think he remembered, but I sure do. It occurred to me, as I glimpsed the bride and groom snatch private moments — grabbing a bite to eat, just the two of them; a sweet kiss by the water’s edge; gazing at each other as if they were alone among the guests — that their shared treasure box began when they met six years earlier. They’ll continue to fill it with fiery sunsets as they stroll hand-in-hand on the beach; the bold smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning; the exotic spices of ethnic foods they’ll sample on their travels; the cherished words “I love you” that are sweetest when spoken by one’s partner; the hot sun on their skin as they go for a run together; the pounding of rain on the roof as they curl up on the sofa with a favorite book. Their lives will be filled with their own remarkable moments that become treasured memories.

As the party wound down, Kathy and I had the chance to catch up. We sat and chatted, laughing about times shared in college and, more recently, a trip we’d made into New York City. I invited myself on a future visit to see the newlyweds at their new home in Seattle. We made tentative plans to travel to Sicily to learn Italian cooking. I look forward to storing those future memories along with the ones we were making the evening of her daughter’s wedding.

And, as is often true with old friends, some long-time traditions never fade. Kathy’s son appeared with a smile as radiant as his mother’s, wielding his own beer bong, identical to the one she and I had used for the first time almost forty years earlier. So, the mother-of-the-bride and I showed the rapidly growing crowd of twenty-somethings what would always be true. Kathy will always finish a beer bong faster than I will.

…My Life With The Upstager

The Upstager

Like all marriages, my husband’s and mine has had its share of joys and sorrows. Over the past thirty years, we’ve raised two amazing children; we’ve lost loved ones — friends and family. Through challenging times, we’ve recommitted to the partnership we vowed to uphold during our wedding ceremony when the priest symbolically bound together the hands of two twenty-somethings. And, like most marriages, we’ve learned the art of compromise. You might fall into the conventional mindset, laughingly assuming the husband makes all of the adjustments, being “trained” by the wife. Well, I take umbrage with that characterization because while, yes, Guy knows better than to raise my ire by tracking filthy shoes through the house or stacking his dirty dishes in the sink instead of emptying the clean ones from the dishwasher, I maintain that I’ve had to make the biggest adjustment. You see, I married The Upstager.

I was born the only girl, the youngest of three, and learned from an early age how to garner attention. I was a champion baton twirler — a bookcase jammed with trophies to prove it; I was a practiced pianist, the result of countless hours of running scales and transposing chords. By the time I hit high school, I had balanced a rigorous academic schedule with weekend parties and keg stands. I basked in praise for my accomplishments while, simultaneously, developing an inflated sense of self. By the time I was twenty-two and met my future husband, I had come to expect that my attributes and abilities would be lauded.

The first time I saw Guy, I was drawn to his disarming smile and boyish charm. I learned that he had that effect on most people. Somehow, he could do and say things that should be offensive, but with his mischievous grin and genuine goodwill, he got away with it. While in college, his friend, Sue, had a motorboat accident during spring break, losing all of the fingers on her left hand. Others pretended they didn’t notice or carefully avoided looking at her injured hand, but not Guy. He cheerfully yelled, “Hey Leftie!” across the quad, causing her to laugh for the first time since returning to campus.

From our early days together, I saw glimmers of Guy’s natural ability to attract attention. It should have been a warning that, no matter what I had to offer, I would be outshined by the irresistible allure of a perpetual adolescent.

Nevermind the wedding gift for friends of a one-of-a-kind serving platter that I commissioned from a local artist, with a hand-painted likeness of the pagoda where they’d gotten engaged. Instead, oh!, the excitement and exclamations over the ditty Guy had whipped up on the accompanying card with a perverse slant on “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue.”

Then came the time we threw a Christmas party and I, two months pregnant and in the throes of morning-noon-and-night sickness, spent weeks cleaning and decorating the house and preparing a lavish buffet, laden with sweets, savories, and rose lemon champagne punch. Guy spent an equal amount of time sweating over a comical poster that he titled “House Rules.” Yeah, it was funny, I’ll give him that. But, my mini quiches, lemon Madeleines, and eggnog cheesecake bars were distractedly scarfed down in between laughter and guffaws at Guy’s singular 36” x 48” creation that detailed punishment for offenses like drinking too slowly or being caught in the master bedroom.

I’m not saying I’ve never had my own opportunity for recognition. It’s just if my husband is within a square mile of my accomplishments, I become invisible. And, it’s not like he hip-checks me out of the way so he can stand center-stage in the spotlight. It just…happens. Let me continue.

After my father died, my mother and I, looking for an activity we could do together, signed up for a beginner oil painting class. I used the painter’s palette to mix colors and learned impressive words like “cerulean” and “viridian.” I began assessing the world around me with my newly acquired artistic eye and snapped photos to be brush-stroked into masterpieces. A corner of our living room was crammed with my easel, painting supplies, and sweeping landscapes and realistic still lifes, stacked on end in rows eight-deep. I was one step from completing my new image with a black wool beret when it happened again. I awoke one morning to find Guy perched in front of my easel, canvas in place, with all of my paints and brushes strewn on the table next to him. He’d been up all night, inspired by my enthusiasm, and decided to dabble in my artistic realm. In front of him rested a completed and, I’ll concede, pretty convincing replica of one of those jet-haired, pasty-faced women made famous by Patrick Nagel. That sort of stylized human likeness was Guy’s aesthetic and, ultimately, elicited gasps of appreciation from our friends and family. By contrast, my sunset seascapes had been met with lukewarm, murmured nods of acknowledgment. I never picked up a paintbrush again.

Still not convinced? Well, then there was the time Guy and I were driving down the highway and slowed when we saw several cars pulled off to the side. There was a commotion which we soon realized was a frantic dog evading capture by a group of good Samaritans.

“Stop!” I yelled, to which Guy responded, “There are plenty of people to help.”

“Pull over right now!” I opened the door, ready to jump out whether or not he stopped. By the time he reached me, I’d already gathered the terrified Beagle in my arms. A quick survey informed us that the dog had run into the road and been hit. Climbing carefully into the car, the shivering dog on my lap, I told Guy to drive to the nearest animal hospital.

“How are we going to afford this? We don’t even know if he has an owner.”

I checked the dog’s collar and found only a tag registering “Monty” with a town in Connecticut.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “He has to see the vet. We’ll figure it out later.”

Fortunately, Monty wasn’t badly hurt, just bruised and frightened. We brought him home with us and placed him in a quiet room to rest. I began making phone calls, trying to get information about dog licensing in that Connecticut town, determined to track down the owners. My persistence paid off. The family had just relocated to New Jersey but had called the township office in their old state to let them know the dog had escaped. I got the owners’ phone number and left them a message.

The following day, Guy was home when Monty’s owners called back, and they spoke at length. Guy learned that the owners had been in a car accident and Monty, traveling with them, had been thrown from the car and run off. They had searched for days but had been unable to find him. Guy assured them that Monty was safe and arranged to bring him home. When we arrived at the house, Monty yelped with excitement and ran to greet his people. They hugged us both then turned to Guy and said, “How can we ever thank you for rescuing our precious Monty?”

I believe my jaw sported a bruise for a month from where it hit the ground. To Guy’s credit, he informed them that I had been instrumental in the rescue, too. Still…

By this point, it was clear a trend was developing. You might try to tell me that these are flukes — rare occurrences. I contend that despite what I do, somehow Guy swoops in and gets the credit. Let me offer more proof.

It was dusk on a hot summer evening. Our car had broken down but, miraculously, we’d managed to coax it into a service station just north of town. This was back in the mid-1980s, b.c.p. (before cell phones), and we used the station’s landline to call our friend, Chris, to pick us up. As we waited, an enormous boat of a car drifted slowly into the station and up to a gas pump. An elderly couple sat in the front seat — the woman in tears and the man shaken. The attendant spoke to them, then told us they were looking for a place to stay overnight. I hurried to the passenger window and leaned in, asking if I could help.

“We are on our way to the Pocono Mountains and it’s taking longer than we thought,” explained the woman. “My husband can’t drive at night and I don’t drive at all. We don’t know where to stay for the night.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “Why don’t you let me drive you back to town and find you a place to stay?” I told Guy what I was doing and that once Chris arrived, to come and find me.

I got behind the wheel and maneuvered the car onto the road. The couple told me they were from West Virginia and going to visit their son’s grave. I learned about their daughter and grandchildren who lived in Maine. They asked about me, and I told them that Guy and I were soon to be married. I kept up the conversation during the drive back to town. The couple was relaxed by the time we got to the hotel.

“Wait here,” I said. “Let me just run in and make sure there’s a room for you.” There was not. I racked my brain for another option and decided on the only other place I could think of nearby — a tiny bed and breakfast. Hoping Guy would think to look there next, I smiled for the worried-looking couple, got in the car, and continued to drive. When we arrived at the B&B, again, I jumped out to check on availability. This time, we were in luck. I returned to the driveway, nodding my head in affirmation.

Just then, a car sailed into the drive behind us. Chris was behind the wheel, but Guy was sitting up on the passenger door, upper body on the outside through the open window. He was grinning, with arms spread wide, and I swear I heard the Mighty Mouse theme song playing somewhere in the background: “Here I Come To Save The Day.” When the car stopped, he swung his legs out and leaped to the ground.

“Please! Let me get your bags for you,” my Mr. Joie De Vivre offered gallantly, pulling their suitcases from the trunk.

As I linked my arm through the elderly woman’s to steady her climb up the steps, she turned to me and gushed, “Honey, don’t let him go! He’s one of the good ones!”

See? Are you seeing what’s happening?

I’ll offer one last story as evidence. This one happened while our kids were in elementary school. I had signed up to be a substitute teacher at their tiny Quaker school and received a call asking if I could fill in for the 4th- and 5th-grade math and science teacher for two weeks. Those two subjects aren’t necessarily my strongest but I figured 4th and 5th grade? Pfft! I could handle that! I arranged to take off time from my day job (full-disclosure — I do the finances for Guy’s business, so it didn’t take much convincing) and jumped right in.

A couple of points to note. First, the teacher I was covering had gone MIA and left no lesson plans, or even an overview, of what I needed to do. Therefore, I was left to fly by the seat of my pants. I spent my evenings reading the next chapters in the science and math books, developing lessons for the following day, and having my own children teach me the math that I hadn’t seen in about four decades. During school, I taught upwards of five classes while having to earn respect and cooperation from the children. I mean, who was I? Some mom? They thought that sounded like party time! The other point to note is that, while I wasn’t aware at the time, I was already very ill with Lyme Disease. The fatigue and headaches alone were enough to make me want to stay in bed and sleep all day. The seven-hour school day with another four hours of planning at night just about did me in.

Those two weeks turned into three months. The teacher had vanished and, by now, the kids were seeing me as a viable replacement. I enjoyed the job immensely but, by the time summer arrived, my illness rendered me nearly bedridden. When the yearbook came out, I wasn’t looking for accolades. I knew I had done a great job and was proud at having watched those children flourish. But, wait. There’s another piece of information pertinent to this tale.

My husband had “adopted” field day at the school. This meant that on the last day of classes, he sprang for pizza, six-foot subs, and cake for the entire school. Additionally, he purchased customized gifts for the graduating eighth graders. Everyone anticipated this day, and Guy was dubbed “Queen for the Day.” (That is a whole story for another time).

Back to the part about the yearbook. Yes, you’ve probably guessed. I flipped through the pages, positive I’d see a picture — just one measly photo — of me in my esteemed role as a teacher. I looked through all of the faculty and staff and did not find one. Oh well, I thought. It’s no big deal. That’s not why I took on the job. As I continued to leaf through the book, though, wouldn’t you know? There, prominently displayed in a section named “Field Day” was my husband! And, not just a single picture, but several. That’s right. One day — that man spent one day at the school! — with his food and his gifts and his cake, while I sacrificed day and night to educate those children. And, he got an entire yearbook section devoted to him.

As accustomed as I had become to my life with The Upstager, that one left me nearly speechless. Until I ran into the Head of School and then, oh boy, did she hear about it! I gave her the complete rundown of what I’d endured for all of those years. With the wedding gift and the Christmas party and the oil painting and the rescued dog and the elderly couple and on and on. That poor woman. She and I ended up laughing about it, but she could see my point.

So, while I’ve spent the majority of my life overshadowed by my husband, I’ve learned to adapt. That’s right; I’ve learned to compromise. It’s something my twenty-year-old self would never have imagined but, I guess there’s always room for growth. I’ve stopped looking for recognition for what I do and, instead, embrace the notion that it is the deed itself that is important. Plus, I have to say that even though I’ve been married to The Upstager for thirty years, I still find his mischievous grin pretty charming.

…You Should Have Asked For Help

blog piece

I showed up to the veterinarian with my elderly Spanish Water Dog, Josie. I try to make these trips quick because her shaking and whining during the entire ride to and from the office inevitably get on my last nerve. Racing down the interstate, I was making a mental list of what I hadn’t had a chance to accomplish before leaving the house. I pulled into the parking lot at 9:26 AM, with just enough time to let Josie do her business before going into the office.

Immediately, Josie scooted under the row of chairs in the waiting room, hoping no one would know she was there. I grabbed my phone and clicked open the Notepad app. Rapidly, I began typing out the to-do list that I was storing in my head, knowing it was unlikely I would remember everything by the time I got home. Schedule with the dentist…Call the bank…Start a load of laundry…Check on my husband’s prescriptions…Finish the outline for my next blog piece…

 I looked up when one of the techs sat next to me and leaned close, whispering, “You’re an hour early, you know.”

“Whaaa—?” I pushed aside my thoughts and tried to focus on what Heather was saying.

“Josie’s appointment is at 10:30. It’s only 9:30.”

“You sure?” I asked, popping open my phone’s calendar app. I flipped to today’s date and stared: Josie to vet: 10:30. My shoulders sagged.

“It’s okay. Really.” She patted my arm reassuringly. Or, maybe it was compassionately.

“Oh, Jeez. How’d that happen? How could I have done that?” I glared at the trusty phone organizer that had let me down. The truth was, my organizer was correct. It was me who had gotten it wrong.

As I sat there, resigned to losing a full hour out of my already overflowing day, I began to play that familiar blame-game that nearly every woman I know has played at some point. With my lists and my schedulers and my organizers and my reminders and my post-it notes and my…and… I was still failing. If I had it so together, why did I feel so inadequate?

I wasn’t inadequate. I was stressed and overwhelmed. I remembered a comic strip I had read in The Guardian by the French artist, Emma. As I thought about the illustrations, I stopped blaming myself. Emma introduced me to the concept of The Mental Load. It’s when one person in a household, usually the woman, is seen as the household manager. In a work environment, the manager is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operation while delegating the tasks to workers; in a household, it’s that, plus more. The woman often does at least half of the household chores in addition to overseeing the entire operation.

The woman thinks about every detail of the running of the house, from knowing when it’s time to go grocery shopping and what to buy, to maintaining health records for the children, to everything in between. This constant attention to, and organizing of, details is unrelenting and exhausting. Add to that performing at least half the family tasks and the inequity becomes clear. Next, layer on the outside job(s) that many women hold, and it’s obvious why things like showing up to the vet’s office at the wrong time might happen.

I’m not saying my husband and children aren’t happy to help cook dinner, switch the laundry from washer to dryer, or take out the garbage. I’m saying that it doesn’t happen unless I issue the order. This leads to me constantly reviewing the countless and endless tasks, determining what needs to be done and then assigning the job. I assume The Mental Load. The rug needs to be vacuumed. Am I the only one who can see that? The dishwasher needs to be unloaded. Does no one else realize those clean dishes don’t put themselves away? The dog poo needs to be picked up in the backyard. Am I the only one who doesn’t want to clean it off my shoes?

In one sample day, someone let the dogs in without wiping their feet; I spent twenty minutes picking up my daughter’s dirty clothes from her room; my son sat playing a video game as I juggled three dishes cooking simultaneously for dinner; the front doorbell was ringing, but no one was answering; the filthy floor from the muddy dog feet still went unmopped. When I snapped at my husband and he made a joke about my moodiness, I went on strike. All three of my people stood blinking at me in confusion and said, “You should have asked for help.”

The Mental Load. The expectation that I have to ask or instruct what should be obvious. I knew it couldn’t just be me, so I asked some of my women friends who are roughly at my stage of life. Was this Mental Load something that they carried, too?

Buddy One: “Oh, like the time my in-laws were coming over and I had to yell at my husband to get his dirty boxer shorts off the floral-patterned Queen Anne-style wing chair in my living room? He said I should have just told him to move them.” Bingo. The Mental Load.

Buddy Two: “You mean, like when I go away for a weekend with girlfriends and I get a phone call every time the dogs need to be fed to make sure they’re doing it correctly. I write it down in detail, every step of the feeding process, but it’s not enough. I have to talk them through it.” Even on vacation, The Mental Load.

Buddy Three: “When I get home from work and my teenage kids are all sitting around, watching tv. The first thing they want to know is ‘how long until dinner?’ I left the chicken thawing and the vegetables in the strainer in the sink. I ask why no one had started dinner and they just stare at me. ‘You didn’t tell us to start it.’” Yep. Mental Load.

Buddy Four: “My son has been having a toothache. I gave him the phone number for the dentist, but when I asked if he’s made the appointment, he said, ‘I thought you were going to do it.’ My son is twenty-two.” Check. Mental Load (and maybe a bit coddled).

Buddy Five: “The toilet and bathroom need to be cleaned. I ask my husband why he hasn’t done it when he’s the one who made the mess. He says because I didn’t tell him to do it.” Okay, Mental Load and…come on, gross!

Add to the daily list of household chores all the other activities. Planning family vacations. Organizing kids’ birthday celebrations. Overseeing holiday preparations and gift-buying. Scheduling car maintenance. All part of life. All things that need to be done. And, all I have to do is ask if I want help.

Now, to be fair, there is truth in the adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Someone must be the point person. Someone has to have the big picture view. The problem becomes when that someone who is carrying The Mental Load is also doing a large portion of the daily chores.

There is a valid reason why the women I know are exhausted every minute of every day. Having her significant other explain how difficult his day is, with all of the stress that falls on him, only underscores his obtuseness. When he needs some “down time” after work, with a recap of last night’s basketball game on the tv and a bottle of Bud, he forgets that the dinner being cooked also required planning, shopping, and prep. The Mental Load that was carried before that meal was cooked.

What’s on sale?…In how many dinners can I use this massive head of fresh broccoli?…When can I get to the store?…After I finish paying the bills and before I pick up tax forms from the accountant?…I hope the car doesn’t die on the way since I forgot to have it checked when the engine light came on…Do I have enough soy sauce or do I need to go back to the store?

Is there a remedy for The Mental Load? Is it possible for the average woman to be the family manager and delegate all the tasks to the others in the household? Maybe some women assume this role because it makes sense that one person has sweeping oversight. Or, as in my case, maybe there’s a touch of a control issue. I am convinced that things are done more to my liking if I am in charge of everything. I won’t pretend I have the solution to The Mental Load. I just know that it is a full-time, energy-sapping job. And, I know women should give themselves a break when they show up an hour early to the vet’s office.