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.

* * * * *

Holiday Traditions

 

My mom was big on holiday traditions, especially the Fourth of July and Christmas. Her closet was filled with bedazzled American flag t-shirts and a collection of ugly Christmas sweaters that were the envy at every holiday party. Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” on the stereo console, repeating “treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten…” until Mom moved the needle past the scratch in the album. Dad was no slouch in the holiday celebration arena, either. Just twenty hours after downing copious quantities of turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings, he was covered in cobwebs in the crawl space under the house, dragging out tattered cardboard boxes filled with ornaments and our artificial Christmas tree frosted with semi-realistic looking snow.

Dad’s job was outdoor Christmas decorations. What should have been a two-hour endeavor achieved with holiday cheer inevitably stretched into an entire Friday of swearing and grumbling. He pulled out string after string of outdoor lights, the extra-large, opaque kind in red, blue, green, and white, that somehow were a tangled mess despite the care with which they’d been stored the previous year. I loved watching him stretch the strands across the recreation room floor to check for outages, replace the faulty bulbs, mutter under his breath when those didn’t work either, then beam with accomplishment when everything lit up properly. Just as eagerly, I’d watch his frustration as he’d drape them around the 18’ White Spruce he’d planted by the front door the year my parents bought the house. Inevitably, as soon as he’d reach the top of the “A” shaped step-ladder, an entire section of lights would suddenly go dark. The stream of curse words that accompanied his up-and-down the ladder to locate replacement bulbs and twist them into the sockets put me right in the festive spirit.

Mom was one of those crafty types whose projects adorned our house year-round. The blown-eggs at Easter time were painted with artistry and care, then arranged in our table centerpiece. In the spring, tissue paper flowers bloomed in the living room. Or, flowers constructed from wire shaped into petals, dipped in some sort of goopy molten plastic, dried, then twisted together to make tulips and irises. Even Mom’s paper dolls were works of art. Christmas was when she pulled out the big guns, though. She’d start in September, buying pre-made kits of wooden ornaments that required the painting of her steady hand to bring them to life. Or, the satin balls that she’d embellish with ribbons, cords, beads, and sequins. Then, there was the year of the intricately nipped and cut snowflakes created from high-quality vellum paper that she’d sprung for at the art boutique. Our tree always carried the traditional glass ornaments that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but each year’s theme was based on Mom’s creative whim-of-the-moment.

My two older brothers and I were assigned the yearly job of finishing the tree with shimmering silver tinsel. I remember waiting for Mom’s signal, telling us it was up to us to put on that finishing touch. My stomach got a tingly excited feeling, knowing that with this final act, the Christmas season was officially ushered in. Every year it was the same. I gently lifted the tinsel, delicate strand by delicate strand, to hang them individually over each branch. My brothers grabbed handfuls of the stuff and threw it in the general direction of the tree, hoping some would stick. I’d scream at them. They’d laugh and tease me. I’d burst into tears. They’d call me a crybaby. Mom would yell at them to knock it off. I’d hear my father somewhere downstairs, cursing and swearing. I’d scream louder. Mom sent my brothers to their room, which was precisely where they wanted to be anyway.

As the actual day approached, pots of Mom’s favorite flower, the poinsettia, would appear. They took over the recreation room windows; they inhabited every open table surface; they even crept up the base of the railing on both sets of stairs. Reds, pinks, whites, mixes of all. Food for the holiday began appearing in the kitchen with notes reading “For Christmas – do NOT eat!” taped to it. Every year, the menu was the same — a glazed ham; baked, New England-style macaroni and cheese based on the recipe Mom had received from her late grandmother; green bean casserole with crispy, fried onions on top; canned cranberry sauce; fresh from the oven Pillsbury dinner rolls. My grandparents would show up about noon, my aunt and uncle soon after that. Following our feast, the grown-ups would loll on the couch, my brothers would disappear to play with their new Major Matt Mason toys, and I’d be left to entertain with a magic show. Through the years, my tricks became more complicated and my theatrics more absurd, but how I loved donning that top hat, whipping out my magic wand, and dazzling my snoozing family with the jug that endlessly poured water.

Christmases of my childhood were magical. As I got older, some traditions fell by the wayside; some were altered to adjust to changing times. Mom lost the stamina to create complete sets of ornaments each year, so she began reusing old ones. Dad compromised with the outdoor decorations by purchasing fully-assembled manger scenes, reindeer cut-outs, and life-sized Santas secured with stakes. My brothers were “too busy” to help with the tinsel, so the tree trimming fell to me. I loved the newfangled sparkly garland that I could put up in minutes, allowing me to hurry back to spending hours on the telephone with my girlfriends. Late night church services interfered with my social life, so I’d cajole Mom into going to the 7:00 service, instead. We cut back on the poinsettia overgrowth when Mom learned that they’re poisonous to cats. One thing that remained through shifting family dynamics – marriages, divorces, deaths – and changing times was the macaroni and cheese. That was always Mom’s secret weapon to ensuring she could get us all to the Christmas dinner table together.

When I started my own family, and the building of new Christmas traditions fell to me, I reached back into my childhood for inspiration. The weekend after Thanksgiving, we brought the bins of decorations up from the basement. I assigned my husband the responsibility of adorning the outside. I’d even searched out those retro extra-large bulbs in red, blue, green, and white. The kids helped put up the tree. Since I didn’t inherit my mother’s gift of craftiness, we started our version of collecting ornaments. We’d brave the mad rush of shoppers to find our yearly Hallmark ornament for the family, and each of the kids would pick out one for themselves. I began collecting nutcrackers, displaying them on the tall staircase in our foyer, lined up against the banister going all the way up, just like Mom used to do with the poinsettias. I created a tree skirt and, every year, would trace my children’s hands on felt, cut them out, then glue them to the skirt, marking whose hand it was and the year. I’d long since given up meat, but I continued making Mom’s New England-style macaroni and cheese for our Christmas dinner.

Christmas skirt

My children loved and anticipated Christmas the way I always did. So much so, that their excitement would wake them up by 2 AM, cause them to sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come, then grab their stockings and race back to their rooms to open the only gifts they were allowed until their parents got up. Unfortunately, that meant they’d be waking us up by about six because they could no longer contain themselves. You’d think they’d have learned over the years that a sleep-deprived mother makes for a lot of the same cursing and grumbling I learned from my dad. But, no. Cranky Christmas Day Mom became part of our family tradition. And, that sibling teasing from my youth was passed down, too. It began the year my daughter, about five at the time, slipped on the top step. What we heard from the family room below was a series of boom-boom-booms, accompanied by clackety-clackety-clacks that seemed to go on for hours. When the noise finally stopped, and we were no longer frozen in shock, we leaped to our feet and ran into the foyer to find Tara laying on the floor surrounded by an army of nutcrackers. She had fallen down the full flight of stairs and wiped out the entire line of nutcrackers on her way. My son, being the concerned older brother, made sure she was uninjured before whooping in delight about the “glorious sound” that Tara had created. To this day, Avery gleefully recalls the “glorious sound” of those nutcrackers crashing down the stairs with his sister.

My mom passed away several years ago, just before Christmas, and knowing her love of poinsettias, I bought out the local nursery to bedeck the funeral home for her service. Since then, I have given up decorating with poinsettias for the holidays as those flowers now hold painful undertones for me. Many of the other traditions have evolved, as well. My children’s hands are no longer growing, but I continue to use the tree skirt with their handprints all over it. They each have bins of their own ornaments that we collected as a family since they were babies. We don’t put them on the tree at our house, but my son and daughter have them for their own homes, now. The kids still return home for the holidays, still expect their stockings to be filled, but now stay up until 2 AM to sneak down the stairs to grab them before racing back up to their old rooms.

This year, traditions continue to evolve. I still make Mom’s old New England-style baked macaroni cheese but now include a non-dairy version, too, for the vegans in the group. Also, my son’s girlfriend will be joining us and, since her religious background is Muslim, it will be fun to have her experience Christmas for her very first time with us. I hope she enjoys the traditions we’ve built; I hope she likes the macaroni and cheese that’s part of our heritage; and, I hope I get to sleep past 6 AM.

* * * * *

…Does My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Son Make Me Look Old?

Avery 25th

Our son, Avery, just turned twenty-five. Twenty-five! Two and a half decades! I still have vivid memories of that towheaded, blue-eyed toddler, with the ever-present grin, who was running as soon as he could walk. He called me “Mama” and displayed clever wit from the start. At eighteen months, his favorite toy was a Playmobil firetruck complete with a bucket ladder that could go up and down. There were firefighters and a Dalmatian that fit into the bucket. One day, I put the dog into the ladder in the down position, and said, “Look, honey, a Dalmatian. Dal-ma-tian. Can you say that?”

Avery didn’t miss a beat. He put the ladder, complete with dog, in the up position and said, “Upmatian.” He grinned, waiting to see if I got the joke. When I did, I spent the next several weeks – or couple of decades – bragging about my son’s sense of humor.

Twenty-five years. All those milestones and goalposts that he’s hit. The physical growth – he’s six feet tall; the personal growth – he no longer regards himself as the expert on a given topic as he knows there’s always more to learn; the academic achievements and strides in his career; the ease and confidence that come with maturity.

So, while Avery has spent the past twenty-five years growing into this fine young man, let’s focus on the important question: does my twenty-five-year-old make me look old? Because, let’s face it, in my little world, isn’t it always about me?

Do I miss the infant I used to cradle in the sleepy hours of the morning or the pudgy little hand in mine as we crossed busy streets? Of course. His sports teams that became part of my life. His church classes that meant I became an instructor. His school field trips that I attended as a chaperone. I was his chauffeur, his organizer, his chef, his doctor, his teacher, his cheerleader, his comforter. I was his everything. So, what happens to me now that he’s all grown up?

First, I had to get past the notion that he was “mine.” He is my son. He has never been “mine.” Instead, I focused on the burgeoning adult and consciously shifted my approach to interacting with him. I gave him space to develop a sense of autonomy. I listened with respect to his thoughts and plans before offering advice. Did he always take it? No. But, he learned to appreciate me as someone equipped with experience, unconditional love, and genuine interest in his well-being.

Second, I rediscovered what I like to do for myself. I heard all the suggestions. I read all the articles. So, I started to focus on my writing, giving it the attention that had been back-burnered while the kids were little. Also, I joined a gym and began having regular facials because, let’s be honest. While I’m proud of my twenty-five-year-old son, I don’t want to look like I can have a child that old.

Our son, who was born with a need to always be on the go, returned last year from a graduate program that allowed him to study in Africa and Abu Dhabi. During that year, he indulged his wanderlust and visited several countries, including Thailand, Australia, India, Portugal, and Spain. Upon his return from Seville, Spain, he informed us that his new life plan included moving there. He’s had some random and far-fetched schemes over the years, but this one seems to be sticking. So, when he said to me, “Hey, I’m going to Spain for a couple of weeks. Wanna go?”, of course, I said yes. Truthfully, I felt a little honored that he invited me. I’m sure he had ulterior motives, like convincing me that his latest plan has merit (and that I’d foot the bill for food and entertainment, at the very least). But, still.

I’ve traveled with Avery throughout our lives together, but this trip was different. I was not in charge. He made all the plans, from the airplane and accommodations to leading me on sightseeing tours through both Barcelona and Seville. He’s visited those cities before, while it was my first time. He’s fluent in Spanish, while my anxiety causes me to spit out bad high school French in a pinch. He eagerly showed me ancient relics and regaled me with detailed Spanish history, while I learned from him with mixed fascination and pride. He strode with relaxed, cosmopolitan confidence, while I fretted over figuring out which subway line to catch.

In Barcelona, we watched the World Cup Finale of football (a.k.a. soccer) on tv in a restaurant. We walked the usual tourist spots, from the magnificent Arc de Triomf to the endless stalls of La Boqueria Food Market, to the quirky tiled intricacies of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell. We dined on paella and strolled the Rambla, down to the marina. I scurried to keep up with my long-legged companion, reminding him with frequency that, “I’m not doing too badly for an old lady, right?” as we crammed a week’s worth of sightseeing into two days.

We hopped a 90-minute Vueling flight to Seville, during which time Avery squirmed in anticipation at returning to the city he’d come to love. I forced a smile on my face every time I cracked my knee on the seat back in front of me while crossing my legs. I maintained a serene expression while furiously elbow wrestling with the man-spreader on my other side. By the time we arrived in Seville, I was suppressing fatigue from my tribulations and irrational annoyance with the country at large.

One look at the city of Seville acted as a balm on my angst. It was every bit as beautiful as Avery had described. Within three days, I was in love with it, too. Less international than Barcelona, Seville gives a more authentic sense of Spanish culture. I became very adept at day drinking sherry, beer, and wine with my tapas, accepting the more relaxed rhythm of the Sevillian life. Still, we saw much of the Old Town, from its modern structures, such as the wooden mushrooms, as Avery coined the Metropol Parasol, to the ancient ruins, Antiquarian, dating back to ancient Roman times. I feared Avery would be impatient, dragging his old bag of a mother behind him, as I begged for occasional breaks in a park or tapas bar to rest in the 100° weather. But, he wasn’t. He seemed to enjoy sharing the city with me.

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour, combining history with the culture of tapas. We hit roughly ten tapas bars while we were there, loving the lighter, more frequent meals. We saw the Spanish royal palace and gawked at the magnificence of the Seville Cathedral. We spent hours roaming the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, expressly designed and built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. Everywhere we walked, in every direction we looked, we found ancient buildings with rich history. All the while, Avery chatted happily, explaining the influence in the city from the Romans to the Moors and through the Christians.

We spent five days together in Spain, just Avery and me. I kept waiting for hints of him wishing I could attend a free midnight flamenco dance show instead of paying for the 7:30 PM version. I expected that he’d laugh at my goofy hat designed to keep the scorching sun off my face. Instead, he offered me sunscreen for my nose. I apologized for my (comparatively) early bedtime of 11 PM, but he insisted that he needed to catch up on his sleep, too.

Then, it struck me. Avery hadn’t simply grown up. He was an adult. We’d moved through all those wonderful moments of childhood where his every decision relied on me. We’d survived the turbulent teenage years when sarcasm reigned supreme. And, we came out the other side as two people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Our son is twenty-five-years-old. A quarter of a century. He remarked to me that the milestone was a startling realization of his advancing years. My knee-jerk thought was, “Well if you think that makes you old, imagine how I feel!” Instead, after I bought myself a new advanced skincare line, I basked in the recognition that, while our dynamic has changed, I am still every bit as relevant in Avery’s life as when he was a child. He may no longer need me to hold his hand while crossing the street, but he values that I’m still eager to cross that street with him. He’s no longer pulling away from me, as he did his first day of preschool, racing to explore the world. Now, he’s inviting me along for the ride. One thing hasn’t changed, though. At my insistence, my twenty-five-year-old still calls me “Mama.”

…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

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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

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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.

…By The Hair On My Chinny Chin Chin.

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I’m staring down fifty-six – with a box of medium ash blond hair color in my hand, the kind specially formulated to cling to gray hairs. Yep, my hair color and I are staring down fifty-six.

I’ve been toying with the idea of letting my hair go gray. I just watched a video on Facebook of a woman, maybe thirty, having a makeover. Her shimmering chestnut hair was stripped of its natural color, then dyed gray. Why? Why would a young woman intentionally make her hair the color that so many women spend a fortune to cover? I was intrigued, though, when the stylist added a splash of electric blue to the underside of the back. I’m a little envious that these fun, bright colors weren’t a thing when I was a teenager back in the 1970s. I’d have jumped right on that bandwagon. Hell, I’d have been out front leading that band with my baton.

While the future of my hair color is still up in the air, there’s one hair issue that really gets my dander up. It’s those random hairs that sprout overnight on unsuspecting parts of my face. Is this how middle-aged is supposed to look? A cheap dye-job and a three-inch wiry, black hair jutting from my face?

The first time one of those charming little reminders of my advancing age appeared was about ten years ago. My husband, who’s learned to tread carefully when commenting on my physical appearance, began the hemming and hawing that precedes a topic he’s leery to broach.   

“What’s the matter?” I asked, watching him squirm in his seat as he steered the car.

“Well, you’ve, uh…”

“What??”

“There’s, uh, something on your chin.”

I rubbed, thinking it must be leftovers from dinner.

“No,” he said, glancing at me, then back at the road in front of him. “It’s attached.”

I pulled down the visor and flipped up the mirror cover, the sidelights casting a faint glow in darkness.

“Where? Where? I don’t see anything!” I jammed on my reading glasses, another joyful reality for the middle-aged, and began that game of closer-further-closer-further as my eyes tried to focus. “What is it?”

“I think it’s, er, a hair?”

“A hair? What do you mean, a hair?” The shrill in my voice drowned out “Hey There Delilah” on the stereo. I turned my head ever so slightly to the left and there it was! In profile, it stood at a proud and defiant ninety-degree angle from the left underside of my chin.

Using my thumb and middle fingers to form a pincer, I began fishing for it, trying to grab it between my nails. The car mirror was dimly lit; my glasses kept slipping down my sweaty nose; and, that whisker was as elusive as my grasp on the reality that the close-up in the mirror of that chin antenna really belonged to me.

“I can’t get it! I can see it; I can feel it. I just can’t get it!” I sank back against the seat in defeat, rubbing my thumb over the hair, trying to smooth it down against my skin. Maybe it wouldn’t be so noticeable then?

Once I got home, I flew to the brilliantly lit bathroom and found a pair of tweezers. I played that close-far game in the mirror until my eyes focused on the appendage. I aimed the tweezers at it, never blinking for fear that it would run for cover if I weren’t watching. Closer and closer as I angled the tips of those tweezers at the base. I closed them slowly…gently…not wanting to spook it. When the two sides came together, I triumphantly yanked. Where’d it go? It wasn’t attached to the tweezers. I searched the sink and surrounding counter, but it wasn’t there. I touched my finger to the place on my chin where it had been, assuming I’d feel smooth skin.

“Whaaaa…?” I felt a teeny bump that moved when I pushed it. Those tweezers had caused the hair to coil up into a ball, like a three-banded armadillo, protecting itself from extraction. Right there on my chin!

I yelled for my husband and, familiar with my history of self-inflicted injuries, he came running at full-throttle. When he appeared in the doorway of the bathroom expecting blood or a broken kneecap, what he found was his wife holding out a pair of tweezers toward him.

“Here. You get it.” I tipped my head back exposing the wiry curlicue on my chin. That is what I’d been reduced to. When we first met in our early twenties, my big, brawny husband used to watch my young, somewhat cute self with undisguised love and admiration. Now, he stood yanking an errant hair from my chin. I didn’t think any amount of eye-batting the following day could erase the harsh memory of the operation that had taken place under the stark lights in our bathroom.

I figured it was an aberration. A one-time thing. Throughout the subsequent years, my finger would check in with my chin to make sure a regrowth hadn’t happened. I became skilled at plucking at anything that dared break the surface. Never again has a tentacle emerged uninvited under my jawline.

Then came the morning, bleary-eyed from having just awoken, I stumbled into the bathroom and reflexively flicked on the light. I splashed some water on my face and grabbed my toothbrush. Absently, I regarded myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. It took a moment, but suddenly, like a spotlight with laser focus, I couldn’t see anything else except for the antenna growing from my left eyebrow. I knew it wasn’t there yesterday! Who could possibly miss that monstrosity? But, there it was now. Overnight, I’d become The Fly!

One yank and that thing was history but, seriously, is this what life is for me now? Gone are the carefree days of not thinking about skin care and stray hairs. Now, my daily routine includes a shelf of lotions and ever-ready tweezers. I can only imagine the delights I have awaiting me when I move out of middle-aged into the “old” category. Until then, however, I’ve decided to keep up my blond-in-a-box. I also went to the drugstore and bought some Indigo Semi-Permanent Hair Color. I figure a couple of strategically placed shocks of blue in my mane will cause a distraction in case there’s a return of that hair on my chinny chin chin.

…Meat-Free? Dairy-Free? Gluten-Free? Uh…Yum?

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The first thing I noticed the other morning was that my kitchen reeked like dirty feet. It took me a moment to realize that the source of the offense was not my husband’s gardening sneakers parked by the back door but, instead, the remnants of the previous night’s dinner-gone-wrong still fermenting in the garbage can. Even with the lid tightly secured, the odor socked me in the gut unlike any smell had since the first trimester of my pregnancies over two decades ago.

That dinner was the most recent installment in my ever-evolving culinary experiments. My husband—my long-suffering, gung-ho, real sport of a Guy (yes, that’s actually his name)—had forced a neutral look on his face as he bravely took the first bite of my latest creation. Over thirty years, I’d become proficient at finding mouth-watering recipes in cookbooks or online, then modifying them beyond recognition to align with my ethical concerns, ongoing health self-education, or doctor-advised dietary restrictions. Over thirty years, Guy has learned to adapt to whatever I placed in front of him.

When we first met, a McDonald’s cheeseburger with a side of fries and a large Coke was Guy’s lunchtime staple and, in his estimation, a well-balanced meal. It had meat, dairy, a bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion (so, basically, a salad), and potatoes. Sure, the Coke was pure sugar, but what’s one vice? he thought, since the rest hit all of the essential food groups. By the time we met in 1984 however, I had just quit an advertising sales job where one of my clients was a beef and pork product producer. I’d only gone once to that advertiser because once was all it took for me to refuse ever to return. Also, I never ate beef or pork again. So, while everything else in my McDonald’s lunch mirrored Guy’s, I opted for the filet-o-fish sandwich instead of the cheeseburger.

Through our early years of marriage, Guy enjoyed my cooking. I mastered quiches; soufflés in red bell peppers; baked lasagnas; even a quick, vegetarian modification of Hamburger Helper. I was a wizard with Salmon en Papillote and could whip up a mean Chicken Cacciatore. I tackled recipes like a defensive guard, and we rarely had leftovers for next day’s lunch. Our weekly restaurant visit was to The Chowderpot on Thursdays with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, including endless pick ‘n peel shrimp and bottomless soup bowls.

While I had given up red meat and pork before we met, Guy continued to satisfy his cravings when we were guests at someone else’s home or if he had a work lunch. When our son was born though, he had a sudden and absolute shift in how he viewed the food on his plate. In one fell swoop, he became a vegetarian. He gave up all red meat, pork, poultry, even seafood. With my husband’s shift in perspective, I chose to eliminate all meat from my diet as well. Since we decided to raise our child as a vegetarian too, I had extra incentive to provide a diet complete in vitamins and nutrients. This is when I began my foray into tofu, tempeh, lentils, black beans, and new, exotic-sounding grains like quinoa. We discovered seitan and a growing number of meat substitutes by Morningstar Farms and Quorn.

By the time our daughter was born, I’d mastered the meatless diet. With a colicky baby resulting in next to no sleep, I had little energy to make the planned, nutritious gourmet offerings my family was used to. A quick pasta dinner with a side of broccoli and a multi-vitamin was about all I could swing. When our daughter was ten, a savvy friend suggested her ongoing intestinal troubles may be connected to the dairy-heavy diet that television commercials had convinced me was essential for my growing children’s bone development. Back to the internet to learn how to safely eliminate dairy to see if that was, in fact, my daughter’s problem. Within days, lifelong symptoms disappeared and she claimed to feel better than she ever had. That got me thinking. Could my own battle with intestinal unpredictability be related to dairy too? A month later, I knew it was. Since then, even a small amount of butter or cream results in noise and pain from my gut that demand I be more careful.

With this recent revelation, I stopped buying dairy. With articles and reports about factory-farming in the egg industry, I ticked off eggs from my shopping list as well. I furiously sought substitutes that my family would find acceptable as I doled out their daily dose of vitamin B12. Soon, my son left for college and scurried to Vermont where he was free to indulge in as much Cabot cheese as he wanted. My daughter mysteriously had “other plans” when I’d announce dinner would be broccoli loaf or spaghetti squash with meatless balls. Yet my husband always chewed his food gamely, nodding in appreciation of my efforts.

Luckily for both kids, they were away at school when my doctor suggested I try a gluten-free diet to address lingering symptoms of Lyme Disease. That added a whole new level of difficulty to my cooking challenge. Finding gluten-free breads without that chalky after-taste and experimenting with gluten-free flours and gluten-free panko crumbs taxed my patience, but Guy kept eating what I produced. What I really, really wanted though, was a grilled cheese sandwich. To most people, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But to me, it had been a lot of years since I’d indulged in the real thing. No butter, no cheese, and most recently, no bread.

That’s when I had my great idea for dinner the other night. Like a translation app, my mind has learned to read a recipe and automatically make the exchanges for ingredients I can’t use. For grilled cheese, I replaced the butter with Earth Balance. I bought Go Veggie! Cheddar “cheese” slices. And for the bread, I substituted cauliflower. I found a recipe online and followed the instructions for grating the cauliflower, squeezing out excess moisture, mixing with egg (I used Ener-G Egg Replacer), herbs and spices, and Parmesan cheese (I used Go Veggie Parmesan). I mixed it all together and created slices of “bread,” then constructed grilled “cheese” sandwiches. Served next to a steaming bowl of vegan “cream” of tomato soup, my husband eyed his meal with thinly disguised apprehension. I eagerly watched him take his first bite and awaited his verdict. Slightly disappointed that his eyes didn’t light up with surprised enthusiasm, I watched him finish chewing, then swallow.

“Well?” I asked.

“It’s…not bad. I can see what you were going for.”

“Going for?” I blinked rapidly. “It’s a grilled cheese!” How could he not know that?

“I’m thinking that maybe—and I’m not saying absolutely—but possibly the ‘bread’ could have been cooked a little more. It’s just a little under-done in the center.”

I’d show him! I dipped a corner of my sandwich into the soup and took a hearty bite. Instead of the gooey cheesiness enfolded between pan-fried-in-butter crispy toast that my mouth was anticipating, I chomped into tasteless rubber surrounded by foot-flavored granular particles. I couldn’t even pretend in the moment. Two chews later and I spit it into my napkin and threw the remains into the trashcan where it stayed, stinking up the kitchen until morning.

I recently developed an obsession with John Joseph, the lead singer from Cro-Mags and Bloodclot. He is vegan, a triathlete, and the author of a book about vegan nutrition, Meat is For Pussies. He is coarse, foul-mouthed, and deeply knowledgeable about living a healthy vegan lifestyle. I adore him. His video for making a vegan lasagna had me laughing and convinced me to give it a shot. Off I went to Whole Foods with my husband in tow. I was excited as my cart started to fill up with the ingredients to make John Joseph’s recipe. I snagged some plum tomatoes, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses. I skipped over the zucchini that John suggested for his recipe as Guy hates anything that looks remotely like a squash. I found the Kite Hill ricotta, Daiya mozzarella cheese, and Beyond Meat crumbles. I allowed Guy to choose tomato sauce. Finally, I went in search of the lasagna noodles. I scoured the shelves from top to bottom but couldn’t find what I was looking for. Always quick with the substitutions, I snagged a box of manicotti tubes instead.

“Look!” I said, proudly displaying my find. I was already envisioning how I would stuff the noodles with my lasagna fixings and it would still be delicious.

But Guy’s face had dropped. It had sunk so far to the ground that it seemed I had to look down at my 6’2” husband to meet his eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, utterly baffled. “I thought you liked manicotti.”

With his mouth turned down, he jerked his head in the direction of the box I held out. “But they’re gluten-FREE!”

I burst out laughing. My poor husband. I’d sliced and diced nearly every edible pleasure out of his diet. I’d gotten him excited at the thought of a hearty lasagna, complete with fake cheese and fake meat, slipping in some broccoli for additional nutrition, but he’d forgotten my gluten issue. That was the final insult. I hadn’t seen him look that sad since the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series.

I’m not a heartless person. I could see that he had hit his limit on my creative food reconstruction. I had mercy on him and relented.

“Okay. No gluten-free manicotti. I’ll use eggplant instead,” I said, conveniently forgetting his aversion to all purple foods.