Getting up the Hill With Mom

My mom, Gloria, has been visiting with us for a few weeks and we luckily have been blessed with great weather that is just perfect for going outside.

So Mom and I have made it a mission to get outside for a nice “walk and bitch” as often as we can. (Bitch is a verb here; not a noun ☺). That means we gossip and vent as we get our exercise, clearing our brains of whatever is annoying us. That daily constitution burns off calories and evaporates resentments, grudges and slights that might have been pooling in our heads. We also indulge in a delicious helping of our favorite mental junk food: gossip about other people. The talking brings us closer and helps us feel wonderful afterwards, and the walking helps us justify the glasses of wine we have been enjoying nightly.

Until yesterday we had been driving to a relatively flat neighborhood at the end of a steep hill in front of our house to make things easier for Mom. But yesterday we decided to leave the car in the garage and try to tackle that hill. After a few hundred feet of hill, Mom turned to me and told me she wanted to turn around and go back home…that the hill was way too much for her. But we decided to keep going and try to make it to the top, to the flatter neighborhood where the walking would be easier. We agreed that we’d take little baby steps to do it, and we’d stop to rest along the way if needed.

Well, a few minutes later we were at the top of this steep hill, looking down at what we conquered. We continued through the rest of the walking route and ended up doing about 1 ½ miles. We saw a lot of youthful runners out there, sweating and pushing themselves, but we just went at our own pace. It felt really great and now we can’t wait to do it again.

I bring this up because all of us, regardless of age, sometimes deprive ourselves of challenges because of our perceived limitations. I see it in our 13-year-old son John, who didn’t want to tackle an optional, extra-credit math paper because he struggles with that subject. He took his time, saved some of the harder problems for the morning when he’s more alert, and got it done.

I see it in myself as well, when I look at my past mistakes and my weaknesses and think I’m not as strong or as capable as others. Maybe I just need more time to think things through and to take a baby step at a time.

Nearly anything is possible if we just have faith in ourselves and take our time. We may bitch and moan along the way, but once we get there the view from the hill is great.

When Did I Turn 60?

Facebook is aging me, and I am not sure why.  Its targeted advertising is adding three years to my age.  I am not happy about this, even though nobody is seeing it but me.  I am going public with this because I wanted to see if anybody else noticed something amiss with how FB is selling to them.

Long ago, when I signed up for Facebook, I put in my birth date, including the year.  After a scare in which some dirtbag from Wales hijacked both my gmail and Facebook accounts (long story), I changed my personal profile on Facebook to make it less revealing to the outside world.   I subtracted my family connections and a lot of other personal information and rigged it so other FB users can see my birthday but not the birth year.  But while FB gives us the option not to show our birth year in our public profile, it does not allow us to dodge putting it in our private profile — the one it uses for its targeted ads. 

So until my last birthday in September I was getting targeted ads for night creams, $5 face lifts and other products that turn back the clock.  They all said things like “56-year-old mom looks 35,” and included a photo of a woman who clearly was no older than 35.

But since Sept. 20, when I turned 57, they started padding my age.  I am now getting ads that include the words “60-year-old.”  This morning I even got some selling pendants and music boxes that I can buy for my granddaughter, which I do not have yet. 

I resent that they make us include our birth year in our FB profiles, as if it’s any of their business.  It’s bad enough that they remind us of our age every day in those annoying targeted ads that pop up whenever I visit my home page.  But I’m perplexed and more than a little annoyed that they have made me three years older.  Did they think that once I got up to 57 I wouldn’t care if people overestimated my age? 

Is FB callous or am I being too vain?

Confessions of a turkey underachiever

Why does this ideal elude me?

Next Thursday, four of us will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a local country inn. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

Despite a general confidence in the kitchen, roasted turkey has been my stumbling block, year after overcooked year. I’ve tried everything: buying $70 organic turkeys, pickling it beforehand in brine, slathering it in butter and cheesecloth, draping it in tinfoil, cooking it at high temperatures a la Alton Brown, cooking it low and slow, cooking it upside down, cooking it sideways, asphyxiating it in a plastic bag, praying over it.

The result is the same: dry breast meat and rubbery, red-tinged thigh meat.

Is it my oven? Is it the fact that I only roast a turkey once a year and never get the chance to really hone my skills – like some people have to re-learn to ski every year because they go only once? Or is it because deep down inside I can take or leave turkey and have no desire to become accomplished at cooking it?

I’ve stopped torturing myself and just faced the truth: I’m bad at turkeys. And it’s very freeing to punt when called upon to produce one.

As I did a few weeks ago, when we had a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Bob’s folks, our kids and their guests, Bob’s brother Tom, cousin Joe and nephew Harper. It was a great family feast, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, two cranberry dishes, green beans amandine, sautéed greens, fresh apple crisp…and a juicy turkey that somebody else made.

About 10 minutes from our house, in Holliston, Mass., is a wonderful turkey farm called Out Post. For a very handsome fee they’ll slaughter one of their turkeys and stuff and roast it for you just in time for your event. Bob, Joe and I picked up the bird, still steaming hot, beautifully golden and fully stuffed, about 45 minutes before dinner. Best money we ever spent. Unfortunately the only day they won’t cook your turkey is Thanksgiving. So in the days beforehand people wait in line at Out Post, freezing their butts off as they wait to pick up their pre-ordered fresh turkeys to cook at home.

The Boston Globe did a great story last year in which they asked local chefs – who cook for the restaurant crowds on Thanksgiving – for their secrets of getting a moist, flavorful bird. Their answer was pretty grisly. Forget that Norman Rockwell ideal of a big honkin’ whole turkey in the middle of a table full of beaming relatives. Instead, hack up the turkey’s torso and limbs, sauté in a huge pan, then put them in the roasting pan with some wine and aromatics and cook gently til fork tender. Keep some broth handy to pour over the slices if they dry out.

Does anybody else have a hard time with this? Don’t we need that iconic whole turkey as the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table? This seems almost sacrilegious, almost as bad as not having stuffing.

I asked my mom, who is visiting us, about whether she’d mind going out instead of doing the traditional thing. She was thrilled…and she confessed that she might order fish or prime rib instead of the turkey.

Finding Dad in Cyberspace

My dad, Guy Cipolla, died from cancer in March of 1998. All of us who were fortunate enough to know him and love him will never forget him.

Around my home and on my computer desktop are many photos of him, doing the things he loved the most: holding his grandchildren, picking peaches, fishing, and mostly just enjoying himself with his family.

I thought I had seen every photo of Dad until I got a message from my brother Dan last night. Dan, who is passionate about family history, has been looking online for information about the Cipollas. Last night he sent this message to my mom, my sisters Julie and Maria, and me:

“In commemoration of Veteran’s Day, I always look on line for information on Dad’s unit in the service. He was part of the 47th Bombardment Group, 84th Bombardment Squadron. I happened to stumble on some old pictures from a guy in his unit, and I starting looking. I found this—Does the guy with rolled-up sleeves look familiar? The hairline looks right, and the ears and eyebrows. It came under the title of ‘payday.’”

While much of his face isn’t visible, we instantly knew the handsome soldier second from the left in the photo was Dad. We instantly recognized his jawline and his habit of standing with his shoulders slightly forward and his hands in his pocket. It would be Dad’s official stance for the rest of his life.

While we had seen photos of him as a young man before, seeing this one felt different. It felt strange to pluck the photo from cyberspace rather than a family collection, and to realize it was a random photo taken by a stranger rather than somebody he knew. If his comrade had not decided to post his pictures online, and if Dan had not looked in the right place, we would have totally missed this photo, taken when Dad was about the same age as our sons are now.

It also felt strange to peer in from the future on this moment when we were not yet part of Dad’s life. Where was he in this photo? What was he talking about with the guy on the left? Who was he thinking about right then? Did he have any idea that within the next two decades he would have four children; within five decades he’d have a dozen grandchildren; and that 67 years later we would be looking wistfully at this photo on a computer screen?

Could he have known back then, as he bantered with his fellow squadron member, how much greatness was in store for him?

The man in the photo eventually became the father who loved us; showed us the primacy of family and loyalty; taught us to fish, to choose a ripe peach and to build things; and who was there for us always, at our greatest celebrations and lowest moments. He became the husband who fiercely protected his wife and his children (even from themselves); the coworker who was universally respected over more than three decades with the same company; the grandfather, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, neighbor and friend who inspired both respect and affection; and, more than 13 years after his death, the dad we miss every single day.

The Pleasures of Being Unplugged

Taken with my IPhone 😦

Last night, over a Mexican meal with our sons and Bob’s parents – visiting from California – made me think about the mixed blessings that technology has brought to our lives.

On the plus side, it has allowed us to stay constantly connected with family and friends. On the other hand, it has robbed us of the ability to think deeply about anything, and of the chance for any real connection with people.

What prompted this thought was our son Ben’s announcement that he wanted to start keeping his smart phone turned off more often. This is his three-week-old IPhone 4s, with its dual core processor, voice-activated consierge “Siri,” and an entourage of apps that amuse, entertain and make life “easier.” Ben, who has always been fascinated by the latest video game or technology breakthrough, couldn’t wait to get his hands on this IPhone. He spent half a day trying to activate it on the Apple web site, along with millions of other new users.

Last night Ben lamented that he never has time to rest his brain without being interrupted by a phone call or text message, or “push” notification. Often the source is a friend who is sharing news, “checking in,” or wanting to know when Ben can hang out. Sometimes, as he’s rushing to meet his friends, Ben is bombarded by people just a block away wanting to know his exact location.

Ben said he wants to start turning off his phone to give his brain a chance to rest. He’ll start by turning it off during his workday and maybe for short stretches in the evening, but he worries about missing something.

“What if there’s an emergency and somebody can’t reach me?,” he fretted.

When pressed, he said that real emergencies don’t happen that much. More often, the emergency is just a friend who wants to hang out. Ben said he doesn’t want to miss out on these good times but would like just for once to set a time and a place several hours in advance, then turn off his phone and rest his brain.

A deep thinking and very creative young man, Ben in his high school, pre-smart phone days once wrote a brilliant essay about the potato, in response to a writing prompt that asked him to describe which vegetable he’d most want as a travel companion. The essay probably required a relaxed mind and some mental space for Ben’s ideas to meander. A mind that is battered by constant pings and push messages does not have the delicious luxury of meditating on a potato.

Moreover, I think that these technology-enabled “connections” are artificial and false. It forces us to develop this online “stage presence,” in which throw out clever tweets and witty status updates to make ourselves appear cool. How much does this online, carefully managed image truly reflect who we are? I sometimes wonder if it robs us of the chance for the real intimacy that can only result when we spend long periods in the physical presence of loved ones and show them our unedited selves. That is a lot harder than hiding behind our smartphones.

This morning I thought about how being constantly connected affects my own mind, which always has been easily distracted. Yesterday, as my family watched television, I had spent an entire afternoon being mentally absent, wandering through emails, Facebook and no less than seven games in “Words with Friends,” an online Scrabble-type pursuit.

Today I made an effort to avoid checking emails, Facebook or my Words With Friends opponents’ latest moves for a few hours. At 6 a.m. Bob and I watched several deer meander through our back yard, and we marveled at how they stood out against the green grass then disappeared into the dead leaves in the woods behind us. I listened as my aging father-in-law Gene talked wistfully about his experiences as a brash young salesman, and about writing his own obituary. I hugged my in-laws as they packed up for their plane ride home to California, and meditated on the blessing of having such a great family, on my husband’s side as well as my own. I helped John clean his trombone and listened to him play songs from his upcoming holiday concert. I looked out the window as I changed sheets and savored November’s bleak beauty, with the trees past their peak, the wilted chrysanthemums and the fleeting, muted sun.

It was a time to rediscover the pleasures of being unplugged.