Why I Hated St. Patty’s Day

This Simpsons leprechaun is spoiling for a fight...this was once the story of my life on St. Patty's Day.

This Simpsons leprechaun is spoiling for a fight…this was once the story of my life on St. Patty’s Day.

I’m about as Irish as lasagna, but I still like to spread the blarney on St. Patrick’s Day. Like many other non-Irish, I’ll find ways to mark the occasion Tuesday…with beer, stew and maybe one or two choruses of “Harrigan.”  But I wasn’t always this way.

When I was seven and eight years old the holiday of shamrocks and leprechauns gave me my first doses of neurosis. I would break out in a cold sweat in February, as soon as I saw the first shamrocks hanging in store windows. Here’s why: my family members were the only Italians in a predominantly Irish neighborhood.  My sister and I were the only Italians in our group of Irish playmates.  And I always resented St. Pat for throwing the snakes out of Ireland, because I was convinced that most of them had emigrated to our block.

I remember wishing that we had some German, Jewish or black kids in our neighborhood so it wouldn’t always be “us” and “them.”

It was tough being a pepperoni in an Irish stew. When my family first moved into our house in the late 1950s, one neighbor did not talk to us.  My sister and I always got along with our Irish friends — until a discussion of the relative merits of our heritages came up. Then we would be reminded that the Romans killed Our Lord; that the “Eye-talians” fought on the side of the Nazis during World War II; and other notorious missteps made by “the boot.” Nobody seemed to care about pizza, Michelangelo or the Italians’ profound impact on art, culture and cuisine…but what was logic against sheer numbers? The vote was 17 to 2 that Leif Ericson discovered America, not some “dirty Dago.”

One girl was the instigator. She had neat ideas like, “Let’s play football…Irish against Eye-talians.” Another playmate was half Irish/half Italian and needless to say he wore his green uniform on these occasions. If we were lucky the green team would give us a few of their toddlers.

Being sensitive, I was always running home in tears. I felt that my heritage was alienating me from my peers; and at the same time was very touchy about anyone cutting us down.

And I always dreaded the middle of March because Irish nationalism peaked around that time. I’d be walking home from my Catholic grade school, which was also mostly Irish, and I’d see those shamrocks and those huge green plastic derbys and green cigars int the five-and-dime. And I knew that “The Day” was near.

I remember getting out of bed on “The Day” and wishing I didn’t have to go to school. There were enough Irish kids in the school…couldn’t they give everyone else “The Day” off?

While I would tearfully retreat from the first onslaughts, my sister Julie was a fighter. One St. Patrick’s Day Julie accidentally wore a pair of greyish/green Hushpuppies shoes. When our mates at the school bus stop pointed this out, she rushed home to change them. Once we got to school, we were surrounded by shamrocks and cardboard leprechauns and green hair ribbons and buttons that said “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” If you were lucky enough to be English or German you did your busywork and thanked God you were not a picked-upon Italian.

In sixth grade our classmate Nicholas Catrambone brought in cupcakes for all the Italians on St. Patrick’s Day. He actually took a head count the day before to make sure he had enough.  Our Irish teacher confiscated them and gave them away through a random drawing. While I did manage to score one, I resented her interfering. Why couldn’t the Italians eat in peace while the rest of the class sang “MacNamara’s Band?”

Why am I digging this up? I haven’t really thought about it for years, and much has changed.  The former antagonists from my childhood are now cherished friends. Back in September the organizer of those Irish-versus-Italian football games, another neighborhood friend and I celebrated our 60th birthdays together. Education and maturity have made us more appreciative of one another’s gifts…and one another’s heritages as well.  I’ve learned that the Irish also went through a long period of being the oppressed minority; that the conditions that drove them out of Ireland were tragic; that they were scorned and mistreated here well before the Italians were scorned and mistreated here.

Neither the Italians nor the Irish can claim to be an oppressed minority now. We can feel relieved to be living in a post-ethnic America, at least as far as our own nationalities are concerned.  But others are not so lucky. We need only look at the events in Ferguson; the Muslim students slaughtered in Chapel Hill; the vile ditty sung on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon bus. We need only look at our own attitudes, stereotypes and suspicions about those who are different, feelings that can persist despite our best efforts.  The job of casting out the snakes of intolerance never ends.  Let’s start with our own.

Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

I’m Not 60…I’m ‘Sexagenarian.’

On September 20 I passed a milestone that everybody said would be very difficult: I turned 60. It seems like just yesterday that I turned 50 and friends were warning, “Fifty is nothing…but you’ll really feel it when you are sixty.” A few years ago a formerly heavy colleague, newly slim, confessed that “I had to get my diet and exercise in order, because I didn’t want to turn sixty and realize my body has totally fallen apart.” And it’s become popular for women’s magazines to have features called, “Sexy at Any Age,” with photos of gorgeous celebrities grouped by their decade. For some reason it stops at 59, unless they are talking about men.

So post-birthday, I’ve spent the past week waiting to feel the axe of old age upon my head, and guess what? Nothing has happened. My hair is no grayer and my body is no more stooped or saggy than it was last week. This new decade is not as scary as it seemed when I was 10 years away from it.

It could be because we have many friends now who are post-60 and say it’s a blast if you have the right attitude. Several friends at my 60th birthday party last week were living proof: they looked fit and gorgeous; passionate about their grandchildren, work, interests and travel; and as carefree as eight-year-olds. Not a bad place to be.

Here’s one thought: maybe the key for surviving the 60s is to think and act like you did in “the 60s.” I have to admit right here that I sat on the sidelines during the free love decade (and am happily married and have no plans to start such debauchery now.) But my mind was more open and I felt the possibilities were endless. So why not make a mind-blowing change in the concept of what it means to be 60-plus? Let’s start by declaring that we’re not in our 60s…we’re “sexagenarian.”

Doesn’t that sound better?

Ten years as a sexagenarian sounds pretty exciting. I’m now in the company of people like Helen Mirren, who, someone once declared, “put the sex back in sexagenarian.” Being a sexagenarian sounds as racy as being a dancer in “Hair,” something I wasn’t allowed to see in the 60s. It sounds as daring as wearing a Catholic school uniform with fishnet stockings (which I kinda did, in 1968.) Yet because of the “gen” syllable, it also sounds vaguely healthy, like oxygen or a yoga retreat. I like it…I’ll take it!

So I now have a whole ten years in this fun new decade before I have to redefine my age all over again. It’s probably not too early to start thinking about how to spin the 70s, which are already looking challenging. Somehow “septuagenarian” doesn’t have the same ring. If you read or watched “Game of Thrones” you know that a “septa” is a humorless female religion teacher. It also sounds too much like “septic.” Maybe we can think of something different.

And don’t even get me started on octogenarians.

A Crash Course in Humility

How do you react when you are out driving and notice that a nearby motorist is driving a very beat-up car? Not a well-used or old vehicle, but one that has clearly been in a serious crash?

I have to admit that my first instinct has always been to keep as far away from them as possible, because maybe the disfiguring disease will drift back to my car like an airborne virus. Or I’ll assume the driver is careless, another reason to keep at least 18 car lengths away. Either way, the sight of a caved-in bumper, a crumpled headlight or a beleaguered motorist standing next to a roadside wreck makes me both uncomfortable and grateful. Car wrecks happen only to other people, either through carelessness or bad luck. Until it happens to you.

A few Sundays ago I was taking our son out for his first driving lesson. It was an empty parking lot near our home, next to an office building. John, his learner’s permit recently won, was eager to start driving. His older brothers had volunteered to teach him the road skills, but I felt confident that I could at least teach him the basics of our 10-year-old Acura, whose handling I knew so well. I had done the same for our older kids, using an old Sentra with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a wheel that required serious arm muscles to turn. I had warm memories of those times, and had no reason to think this would be different.

Feeling buoyant rather than apprehensive, I went over the safety precautions first and explored the seat belts, gas pedal, brake and turn signals. We adjusted the seating and the mirrors. We turned the key, and John gingerly stepped on the gas, then the brake, then the gas. His movements were tentative; the car responded overeagerly, but he seemed to get the hang of it. After a few minutes we felt confident enough to attempt a turn, and that’s when we got into trouble. We learned too late that the very handling that made the Acura a pleasure to drive for an experienced driver made it too skittish for an inexperienced one. John’s touch on the wheel was too much; the car swerved too far to the left and moved too quickly. John was paralyzed with fear and I didn’t react in time. We plowed into a wall that had looked comfortably far away just a few seconds earlier.

Luckily, neither of us was hurt, and the wall was OK. But the front driver’s side of the car now looked like the Elephant Man. After several minutes consoling John, I drove it home. Luckily the car drove as smoothly as it did before.

The verdict was grim: no interior damage but some pretty extreme plastic surgery. A new bumper and fender, new $700 head lamp, new radiator support. One body shop, affiliated with an Acura dealership, quoted us $6,000 to do the work, more than two-thirds the value of the car. We were hoping that we could avoid going through insurance, but this didn’t look good.

“Hey, this is going back to a young driver,” I pointed out. “Can you just make it safe and cut corners somewhere to save money? It doesn’t have to be perfect.” The guy at the high-end dealer – who no doubt was used to pumping up the price and figuring insurance would pay for it – acted insulted and said that everything he was proposing was absolutely necessary.

So I left the car there and told him I’d think about it, then canvassed friends for other recommendations. I found another place that many said was worth checking out. So I fetched my car from the high-end shop and drove it there. The car still ran like a champ, but it attracted more than its fair share of somber glances from other motorists and pedestrians. What were they thinking of me? I wondered. Did they assume I was a bad driver, or careless, or unlucky? Did the drivers apply their brakes to add a little more distance between us?

Wish I could have told them that I’m a good driver, and I’m cautious. I’ve only had one accident that has been my fault, nobody was hurt, and it was 14 years ago. But I just learned two humbling lessons: one, you don’t put a responsive, high-horsepower piece of machinery in the hands of a new driver, even in a parking lot, and two, I don’t have the reflexes to be a driving instructor.

A happy postscript: the nice guy at that other body shop is doing the work for way less than half, and he even gave me a ride home. And John’s next driving experience will be with a licensed driving teacher in a car with two sets of controls.

You’ve Got Plenty of Sympathy

liliesToday in Target I saw something that I thought I would never see: a six-pack of sympathy cards.

I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!

You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?

A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.

Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support:  don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.

Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.

One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.

Little Bro Crosses Over

John through the ages.

John through the ages.

When your youngest child is born long after the others, he or she often spends an inordinate amount of time being “the baby.” These bumper crop kids are fussed over, cooed at and petted far longer than the others. When the adult siblings visit, the youngest often enjoys a short time playing piggyback or Mario Kart, then goes back to the safe spot under mom or dad’s wing while the adult kids talk about music, relationships and Breaking Bad.

But at some point, and sometimes it’s hard to pin down, the relationship changes. The youngest goes from being a pet to a peer, and for their parents this transition is bittersweet. We watch with love, pride and a little regret as the bonds strengthen between our little one and our older ones; as their universe of shared interests grows larger; as the conversations between them become more easygoing and filled with cultural references that we don’t understand.

Our son John recently celebrated his 16th birthday. As our youngest child – with a full 10-year point spread from our second youngest – John was the baby for far too long. We fretted over him, protected him, did far too much for him at times. He looked to us constantly for reassurance. But little by little something happened, and we can’t pinpoint exactly when it began, no more than we could have predicted the onset of adolescence through the gradual emergence of downy facial hair. He quietly migrated from our orbit to his siblings’.

Aiding that process is John’s maturing personality, which is delightful. Not that it wasn’t wonderful before now, but it is less childlike and more adult-like and appealing to older people every day. He has a wry way of looking at the world, an ability to detect subtle humor, a keen appreciation of rock and roll from all eras, and a fascination with fast cars (also from all eras). He appreciates Pawn Stars, Pokemon and Monty Python. He sets the table without being asked and clears the table cheerfully. While he once clung to us, he is also far more at ease going off on his own with people closer to his own age.

John marked his 16th birthday relaxing by the pool with some of his closest guy friends. Bob and I could not be there for the entire party so his 27-year-old brother Ben served as “the chaperone” until we got home. But as I watched the guys banter, talk and play video games, I realized that the relationship was more peer than parent. It doesn’t seem a whole 16 years ago that Ben and our other four children were in the hospital delivery room, only 15 minutes after John was born. They held their infant brother carefully, like a piece of crystal that they were afraid they would break. A few months later, during a beautiful fall afternoon at a local country fair, our son Jesse, then the age John is now, asked if he could carry around his baby brother because he would be a “chick magnet,” a hunch that proved correct.

John, often in his car seat, was a frequent fixture at my daughter Rachel’s hockey and softball games. When John was 3, Ben would carry him around on his back and pantomime his favorite TV wrestlers’ best moves. John would squeal with delight when Ben pretended to “finish” him through such medieval-sounding moves as the “tomb stone pile driver” or the “suplex.” We have videos from that time, trapped on mini cassette tapes from a broken video cam and now unplayable on DVD, Blu-ray or any of our other devices.

Over the past few months I’ve had to realize that John is growing up and I need to begin bowing out. I have hung back and let him have his private time with his siblings. I stayed out of earshot and watched John deep in conversation with his brother Ryan and Ryan’s friend David, both visiting from England. I stayed in the kitchen while John watched the latest wrestling pay-per-view with Ben and his friend Tom, when they talked animatedly and knowledgebly about the wrestlers’ colorful backstories and signature moves. The former “chick magnet” now enjoys talking about cars with fellow motor-head Jesse. A few months ago, when we visited Bob’s family and Rachel in California, I hung back while Rachel took John to the beach for surfing lessons and on a tour of Los Angeles, Venice Beach and Hollywood. He came back sunburnt but happy, proud that he finally stood up on a surfboard and filled with memories of special times with his sister.

Parents make a child’s earliest memories, and if we have done our job right the good times will burn more brightly than our inevitable mistakes. But at some point children begin making their own memories, and we are no longer the director or the lead characters. A key breakout for kids like John is transitioning from the role of “little brother” to simply “brother.” For a parent, it is beautiful as well as difficult to watch.

Where’s My Magic, Dammit?

Sometimes a day hands you a magical moment, the kind that friends tap you to write about in one of those many viral campaigns on Facebook this summer. This is not one of those days. This means that for the third day in a row I will be disappointing my daughter, who has agreed to post her own magic moments on Facebook and three days ago tapped me to do the same.

If you are reading this it means you have not deserted my blog, despite its inexcusably long absence. And here I am on your doorstep — feeling sheepish and apprehensive but hopeful you will show me to my old bedroom in your blogging home once more. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you had assumed me dead (or worse still, a lightweight) or if you shut the door in my face.

But first let me explain. I have a long list of excuses reasons for not blogging. I got busy professionally. We were traveling. It’s been gardening season and I go into a zen-like, mindless trance while pulling weeds and drowning Japanese beetles with Dead-Bug. For the past few months I have even given up newspapers and most television to spend my limited free time binge-reading all five “Game of Thrones” novels. Most seriously, my mother has come to live with us and we have devoted ourselves to helping her get adjusted…a job we are honestly happy to do for a woman who gave so much to me when I was an angst-ridden 13-year-old. All of these have totally cut into the time I have for the introspection that a blog requires. But part of me still believes in magic, and hopes that by some miracle you have not un-followed me.

Still with me? Good, because I want to tell you the closest thing I had to a magical moment today. I’m sure many of you have been asked on Facebook this summer to sign up for a multi-week marathon of posting your blessings, reasons to be grateful, 25 things people don’t know about you, etc. These have been making the rounds on social media these days, and I frankly have found them tiresome. Usually I just read my friends’ postings while feeling a little smug that I’ve eluded the trap. I’ve even resisted the ever-growing conga line of people who’ve embraced the ALS ice bucket challenge, a group that now includes the New England Patriots, many celebrities, Ethel Kennedy and most surprisingly, even some of my most cynical friends. I think my sister and I have been the only ones who haven’t posted videos of ourselves dumping ice on our heads. We both agreed that writing a nice check to the ALS Foundation was far preferable than getting our naturally curly hair wet and having to spend an hour blowing it out all over again. (I know that many of those who donated also were game enough to ice themselves down, but I have no sense of fun. Just ask my kids.)

But as I mentioned earlier, three days ago my daughter Rachel asked me to look for magic in each day and write about it. I thought about it this morning but once again was too busy to slow down and look for any magic. We have been enjoying a visit from son Ryan and his friend, David, both visiting from England, and it has been wonderful but not magical. We also hosted our son Ben, his friend Tom, and some of my son John’s teenaged friends over the past two days for swimming and watching a wrestling pay-per-view. I’ve been frantically defrosting hotdogs, drying wet towels and blowing up air mattresses. Just as the last teens left today, my husband Bob hosted some business associates at our home, and lunch had to be made. Horror of horrors, for the first time in memory, we had no beer in the house.

And of course, there were our dogs Gus and Rita to attend to, and they have been work recently. We have had a few challenging weeks with Rita, who did not take it well when we left her in a kennel while on vacation (even though she looked happy on the kennel’s streaming video). We arranged for them to be bathed and groomed before we picked them up, and Rita arrived home with gleaming gold fur, a pink bow, an attitude and some bad habits we thought she had outgrown. She started having the occasional accident on the floor, and my olfactory sense developed a raging paranoia, smelling plots everywhere. And I smelled one in the house today, right after I had brought Rita outside to do her business in an “authorized” location, and just as Bob’s business associates were arriving for lunch.

Armed with paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, I went on the hunt. But where was it? I checked all the spots in the house where she had offended before, but could not find anything. I smelled it most strongly in our small laundry area, and crawled along the floor there without any luck. I was equally unlucky in the kitchen, with its dark floor that hid a multitude of dark deeds. I crouched down and eyeballed the surface of the floor like a golfer eyeing his shot at ground level. Luckily, Bob’s business guests had retreated to the open-air porch and its forgiving breezes.

Then I spied it. Not on the floor, but on the bottom of my shoe. I pulled off the shoe and brought it just close enough to my nose to confirm it. And then I laughed, so hard I was afraid I’d be the next offender. I shared the story with John and he laughed just as hard. And I realized that sometimes a day just hands you magic, but other days you step in it.