Written Out of the Script

Most parents who’ve been tireless school volunteers eventually confront an uncomfortable truth when their child starts high school: their services are no longer required. This is as it should be, since by that time kids are ready to take on more responsibility. Still it’s hard not to feel a little bereft.

This past weekend John was onstage for the first musical production of his high school career,“Bye Bye Birdie,” and for the first time in two years I was not working backstage. Throughout his middle school years I served as a “costume mom,” helping to sew and fit outfits for dozens of preteen actors, then hanging around during dress rehearsals and performances to zip, mend, primp and supervise. We costume moms have dressed workhouse orphans, Scottish thanes, seven brides and seven brothers, various human fauna and flora, and hundreds of other characters. I spent many hours in our spare room, sewing machine and iTunes playlist at the ready, stitching dozens of costumes and hundreds of yards of fabric. We altered prairie dresses from a size 16 to a size 2, and vice versa. We worked with costumes that had been used in so many productions that they were nearly disintegrating, working magic with fusible fabric and thread, like fairy godmothers in sweats.

But by high school the drama troupe is much smaller, tighter and more experienced onstage than the middle schoolers. Their hormones are calming down; they know how to get dressed all by themselves; and they no longer need parents to tell them to behave and keep their hands to themselves. Unlike with middle schoolers, managing them is no longer like herding cats. In fact, they don’t need to be managed at all. As in so many other realms, high schoolers no longer want or need their moms hovering backstage or anywhere else.

And if I think about it, that’s a key reason why I volunteered, along with the official reason of wanting to help out. It was my excuse to hover, to keep an eye on my youngest child — who has always been like an only child because his five siblings are much older – and make sure that he would be okay. While he dabbled in soccer and Scouting, John was always happiest playing with a buddy or two in our family room. We always had to import friends because our neighborhood was so isolated; he had no neighborhood kids to teach him how to roll with the punches and hold his own in a pack. Drama was his first opportunity to work collaboratively and create something with dozens of other kids his age.

In the beginning, I worried about my new thespian. Middle school children have different levels of maturity and precocity, and backstage we saw everything: a seventh grader who couldn’t keep his hands off his “girlfriend,” an eighth grader who stripped down to her pink Victoria’s Secret underwear in front of the boys, pre-teens who already elevated flirting to a fine art. Just a few feet away from them were pre-pubescent kids still hanging on to their soprano voices and Pokemon cards. John seemed to be part of neither world at times; he was happy to retreat silently into a book when he was not onstage. He didn’t flirt, banter or swagger.

Over the past few years we’ve watched our quiet and introspective boy blossom a lot more, both onstage and with his peers. He does not have the swashbuckling presence of a leading man but thrives best in a “character actor” part. He played a Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, a Shark in West Side Story, an old man in Walden, a British policeman in Oliver, the evil henchman Seyton in MacBeth, the preacher in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a reporter and dad in Bye Bye Birdie. We documented every performance in video; with each production his voice has grown deeper and his presence onstage more imposing. He’s learned to regroup when things don’t go according to the script, and even improvised a brilliant and funny monologue on the spot during comedy night, something I thought only Robin Williams could do. And through drama he has developed friendships with some terrific kids who appreciate his kindness and quirky sense of humor. He is still quiet and introspective, but he is more engaged with others.

So it’s time for mom to exit stage left, knowing that John Barrymore can take it from here. Our role now is to ferry him to and from rehearsals and performances, not to hover and fret backstage. What goes on behind the curtain is now a mystery, but not a scary one.

Would JFK be JFK today?

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a part of history so devastating that everybody who was alive then remembers where they were.

I was in Catholic school art class, where we were making Thanksgiving turkeys from construction paper, when the principal, Sister Pascal came on the PA system to tell us the President had been shot. We stopped what we were doing and knelt on the floor to say prayers, only to learn minutes later that they had been futile. I remember stepping off the school bus that afternoon and finding my mother and several neighbors heartbroken and sobbing. Later, our family would cluster around our one black and white television to watch the unrelenting news coverage and funeral events. My siblings and I, despite secretly missing Popeye and the Flintstones, were aware on some level that our nation had changed forever.

In the ensuing decades, as one politician after another failed to measure up to Jack and Bobby and Watergate made the press less deferential to elected officials, many would mourn for the Kennedy era when we were more hopeful and innocent and our country seemed so full of promise. But how long would the high have lasted if JFK or Bobby had lived? Over time, new information would become public about JFK’s affairs with mafia moll Judith Exener, Marilyn Monroe, intern Mimi Alford and many others….affairs that were known about but never publicized out of deference to the commander-in-chief. One commentator referred to the press of that era as a “Victorian gentleman” who looked the other way when public figures engaged in extramarital flings.

Maybe the trajectory of history would have been different if the Kennedys had continued to unite the country behind a young, idealistic and charismatic leader. Or if Chappaquiddick had not happened, enabling Teddy Kennedy to represent an ideal instead of a flawed mortal. Would Nixon have been elected and would Watergate have happened if a Kennedy had stayed in the Oval Office? Would the press have continued to look the other way when personal indiscretions happened?

Some things we can guess would not have changed. The sexual revolution would still have happened, making us more willing to talk about sex and less prudish, if not less prurient. Magazines like People and Us would still have turned the personal lives of the rich and famous into a hot commodity. The Internet, YouTube and smart phones with built-in cameras would still have been invented, giving anyone the capability to blow up someone else’s reputation within seconds.

Like nuclear weapons, these tools are capable of great devastation, but only if someone is willing to push the button. How willing would we have been to do that if the Kennedys had kept us more hopeful and less cynical? Would Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky have mattered? Today would John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Anthony Weiner be admired for their ideals rather than scorned for their peccadillos?

Weighing the JFK myth against the man we now know him to be, it’s worth asking: would someone like JFK be able to hold public office today? And is knowing the full truth about a public figure’s personal life a good or a bad thing?

Field Notes from An Early Thanksgiving

We didn't make the turkey ourselves -- got it prepared from a turkey farm -- and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

We didn’t make the turkey ourselves — got it prepared from a turkey farm — and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

For the past three years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving on a Saturday in early to mid-November, not on the last Thursday. So today, while the rest of you are perusing recipes for stuffing and pecan pie or figuring the best place to procure a turkey for the big day, we are getting ready to inter the remains of last Saturday’s feast in the freezer. This will be our last day of shredding turkey into chef’s salads, making shepherd’s pie with stuffing and mashed potatoes, and smearing cranberry orange relish onto sandwiches.

Why the out-of-sync Thanksgiving? For one, it’s easier for our guests to get here before the holiday rush. Bob’s parents can get discounted fares from the west coast; my mom and sister, Bob’s cousins and my cousins don’t need to drive on the busiest driving day of the year. His brother Rich from Houston was able to join us this year; brother Tom from Switzerland was here two years ago. And since we are a blended family, an early Thanksgiving eliminates the need for our adult children to endure two belly-busting meals in one day or choose between parents. We can heartily recommend it for anyone who has similar family demographics.

Another great reason for an early feast is that while I love to cook, I am miserable at roasting turkeys…and our local turkey farm, Out Post Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, will gladly roast a turkey for you on any day except for Thanksgiving. At noon on Saturday we picked up a steaming, aromatic box with a piping hot, stuffed turkey and a quart of gravy. The price is easily three or four times the price of doing it yourself but worth every penny. It saves many hours brining, massaging, pampering and wrestling with a 22-pound fowl, not to mention the blow to the cook’s ego when it inevitably dries out despite these spa treatments. Farming out the turkey to someone whom you can trust removes some of the performance pressure for Thanksgiving, but not all of it.

No doubt some of you who are hosting Thanksgiving on the real day are feeling a little bit of that pressure right now. Thanksgiving to the home cook is what the Nutcracker is to a ballet troupe: a mythic production with high expectations for everything to be perfectly choreographed, gorgeous to look at, lavish in scale, universal in its appeal and seemingly effortless in the execution.

With the memories of the ramp-up to our early Thanksgiving fresh in my mind, here is some advice:

Do as much as you can in advance – Last Thursday was for shopping at our local Wegman’s, which included several bags of pre-trimmed and pre-washed thin green beans. Friday was for making the extra tray of stuffing, cranberry-orange

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

relish and a make-ahead mashed potato recipe (thanks to my mom and mother-in-law for all that peeling); and for blanching the green beans. The prepared potatoes went into the crockpot on the day of our feast; everything else was put into pans for re-heating in the double oven while the guys went to the turkey farm.

Get help. One friend, a wonderful cook, prepares Thanksgiving for 35 relatives every year, and does everything herself. One year she decided to ask a few guests to bring desserts, and was dismayed that some of them went to a bakery instead of making it themselves. Now she’s back to doing everything. I’ve learned to ask for help — even if it’s asking a non-cook to bring some beer or chips — and when somebody asks if they can bring something, my response is “hell, yes!” This year our party included a store-bought birthday cake in honor of Bob’s brother Rich, a silken homemade chocolate and tofu pie from daughter Rachel and an astoundingly good apple pie that our cousin Judy bought from Costco. My sister Julie brought her famous squash casserole; cousin John brought homemade wine. All were delicious, and my vastly reduced stress level made me realize that giving up a little control is not a bad thing.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie, especially if a birthday is involved.  We marked brother-in-law Richard's birthday with  an apple-themed cake instead.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie. We marked brother-in-law Richard’s birthday with an Apple-themed cake instead.

Think seriously about disposable dishes and pans. When your feet and legs feel as sodden as gravy-logged stuffing you will be thankful that you don’t need to do dishes.

Expect last-minute kitchen messes. In our case, we discovered that just one quart of gravy wasn’t going to cut it. Our cousin Bhavani, a topnotch personal chef, insisted we make more. That meant dragging out the cast iron skillet, butter, flour, chicken broth and spices to combine with the drippings from our turkey. This upset my well-staged attempts to avoid a mess in the kitchen that day, but Bhavani was so cheerful and enthusiastic as she stirred the roux that I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Making the gravy was glorious, creative and messy but well worth it. We needed nearly every drop.

Take a walk between dinner and dessert. If the weather permits, it’s a great way to clear your stomach and your head and to enjoy some great conversation undistracted by a plate groaning with food. About a dozen of us took a wonderful three-mile walk at twilight. By our last steps we had created just enough room for a heaping plate of desserts!

Relax and remember it’s not all about you. Sure I felt lots of performance anxiety about hosting Thanksgiving for 20, and I had a few grumpy and harried moments. But sweating out the details a few days ahead, preparing stuff in advance, and farming out some of the work did make a difference, and in the long run people really don’t care if every detail is perfect. Last Saturday, sitting in mismatched chairs around three conjoined tables in our dining room, I could relax enough to truly savor our families and our many blessings. And that is what it’s all about.

So on Thanksgiving, I will raise a glass of wine and a spoonful of matzoh ball soup to home cooks everywhere and their families!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

John, Paul, George and Ringo in My Life

beatlesI can’t call the Beatles my all-time one-and-only favorite band. Not sure I am capable of musical monogamy, since I am so easily lured away by an irresistible hook, driving bass guitar, dangerous drumbeat or moody lyrics. I’ve been known to disappear with other bands for days, weeks or even months at a time. I dallied with the Stones and David Bowie in the early 70s; Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and the Cars in the late 70s; the Police and the Human League in the 80s; Radiohead and REM in the 90s; and the Shins and the Clientele more recently. I’ve had one-night stands with the likes of Chumbawumba, Men Without Hats, Fastball and Ok Go and haven’t regretted a thing.

My musical tastes are eclectic and will never be stuck in one era. But if my memories could be bound into a photo album, the Beatles would be the friends who showed up in every picture, looking different each time, sometimes a little dated, but somehow belonging there. In my life, no other band can awaken specific moments and the sights, smells and even tastes that accompanied those moments. So when WordPress asked its millions of bloggers to write about their favorite band or song, for their weekly writing challenge the choice was clear. While other bands have captured my passions and my listening hours, the Beatles have been my only long-term relationship – sometimes wildly exciting and other times unlistened-to and taken for granted, but always part of my soundtrack, long after they stopped making music.

So let’s take a look at some of my pictures through the prism of the Beatles’ catalog:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Picture the bus stop for my Catholic school, a Monday morning in February, 1964. My childhood friend Mike Graziola is thunderstruck by the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show the night before, when they sang this song and 73 million people listened. We can’t stop talking about it as we clutch our Jetson’s lunch kits and exhale vapor into the chilly morning air, shivering and eager for the bus to come but not for the conversation to end. Soon afterwards Mike would start dressing more like a Brit and learning guitar. At 59, he’s still playing.

Hello Goodbye – December, 1967. The song was at the top of the charts and my sister Julie and I have just unwrapped our Christmas gifts from Uncle Nicky: new transistor radios with fragrant leather covers. My dad rounds up a nine-volt battery and I plug it in and click and turn the volume button, then the tuning button, until the static disappears. This is the first song I hear. I hear it again under my pillow, where I’ve placed my radio on low volume before I drift off to sleep. The song always makes me think of the smell of leather.

Happiness is a Warm Gun – Senior year of high school, 1972. The cool and dangerous kids in our school, the ones with no curfew, are very much into the White Album. In the hallways I hear some classmates chanting: “When I hold you…in my arms…and I feel my finger on your trigger…”

Got to Get You Into My Life – Freshman year in 1973, a Theta Chi frat party with live music at Penn State. The band had brass along with guitars and they played this song and everybody danced drunkenly to it. This song makes me think of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on tap and its faint taste of parmesan cheese, and a floor that is sticky underfoot.

Twist and Shout – I’ve given up frat parties and joined the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, where I meet my future husband Bob and friends that I have kept to this day. Our frequent parties usually climax in a drunken clotted mess of friends hanging onto one another and singing loudly to Beatles songs, including this one. Sometimes we girls would dance on tabletops, like disco dancers. Later, as party-goers begin to stagger home and the rest of us lay around in a stupor, we’d switch to more soulful songs like “Julia.”

She’s So Heavy – In 1995, newly separated and fragile, I drove from my home in Pennsylvania to New England to visit with Bob, who was my steadfast college friend but nothing more at the time. We visit with other college friends, go out to dinner and share many laughs. At his home we listen to Abbey Road and slow dance to this song, with its heavy and hypnotic guitar that goes on and on, then ends abruptly when you are not expecting it. I’m in his arms when that happens and not sure what to do, so I break away and feel like an awkward middle schooler.

That Means A Lot – The Beatles never released this song, originally intended for the Help! Album, but it showed up in Beatles Anthology, Volume One, which Bob presented to me soon after we became a couple. It was not the Beatles’ best effort, but it reminds me of a very sweet time when our love was fresh and new.

Mother Nature’s Son 1996, a reunion at Penn State of former Collegian staffers and their families. We are at the picnic pavilion in Stone Valley, a park owned by the school. Our old friend Jeff is playing his guitar and singing this song. My daughter Rachel and I sing along to the “do-do-do-do-do-do-dooooo” part during the chorus. It is a sublime moment.

Helter Skelter – 2011. Our son John is discovering rock music and his own voice, which is strong and clear and on pitch. He is singing along to this song in the car and I realize how good he is. Through his eyes I start to appreciate the Beatles all over again.

In My Life – Perhaps no other song sums up Bob and me so well. We danced to it at our wedding. “Though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things that went before, I know I’ll always stop and think about them, in my life, I love you more.” I guess that sums up how I feel about the Beatles as well.

The Monsters in My Closet

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sweats from a store that's synonymous with tacky. Why can't I throw them away?

Sweats from a store that’s synonymous with tacky. Why can’t I throw them away?

November 1 and the wind is howling outside. It’s warm today but if you believe the weather forecast the wind is ushering in some cold temperatures. A perfect time to edit my winter wardrobe with a clear head…because once the cold weather arrives I will put on anything warm without thinking about how it looks.

Dressing for winter is always a bit of a problem. I’m extremely sensitive to cold (especially damp cold, very common here in New England) and need warm and comfortable layers, preferably in natural fibers, to keep me from shivering. I also don’t work outside the home so have no gun to my head to make me look polished every day. A typical day consists of some writing, answering emails and Facebook-trawling at my home computer, keeping up with two dogs, cooking for the guys, doing some chores, taking a walk, running some errands and maybe meeting up with a friend for lunch. Except for the last two occasions, comfort usually wins out over pride.

I have a closet full of nice clothes that I have picked up at boutiques and shops here and in California, where my in-laws live and the clothes have a bit more panache than they do here in New England. They are filmy tops made from manmade fibers (which look terrific but are never warm), snug-fitting jeans that pinch if I sit too long in them or had carbs at breakfast, dressy sweaters (perfect for an afternoon at an art gallery or in a chic part of the city but not for making homemade sauce with meatballs.) I buy them with the best intentions, and look far better when I put them on – usually when the weather is comfortably warm or cool and the humidity is low. Yet on a raw, blustery day with nothing on the agenda I inevitably reach for the shleppiest thing in my closet – loose jeans, drawstring

UM...this isn't glamorous. But it sure is warm.

UM…this isn’t glamorous. But it sure is warm. (Sorry, UMass.)

sweats, once-proud cashmere sweaters that have holes and have gone through the wash, thick Wigwam socks designed for sub-zero camping trips, corduroy pants that cry out for a sweater emblazoned with country geese, shirts from the loungewear department at Target. Even defended from the cold by unglamorous layers of fleece, I still need to brew lots of hot tea to stoke a warming fire from within.

A few days ago we enjoyed a visit from some good friends from the Silicon Valley area, and we were talking about moms from nice neighborhoods who dress to the nines even when they are walking the dog or picking up the kids from school. My friend Renee talked about the mothers at an upscale grade school who dressed like they were on a runway to pick up their offspring. Picking up my own son from school, I am amazed at the number of pubescent girls who wear bare legs and short skirts with their Ugg boots. And I thank God for tinted auto glass.

I also marvel when Bob and I watch the news on TV and see the female weather forecaster dressed in a chic short-sleeved dress, perfect for a summer night out, when she’s predicting sub-freezing temperatures. Bob does not help when he remarks, “She should do the weather in the nude.”

A few years ago I interviewed a boutique owner who always looked fabulous, and she lamented that she wished more northern gals cared as much as the southerners do about how they dressed. Southern women, she pointed out, wear chic Juicy Couture track suits, good jewelry and nice makeup even when they are shopping for groceries. I’d like to introduce one of these Georgia peaches to a nice nor’easter. After that experience she will happily put on a pair of drawstring sweats from Old Navy.

There must be a happy compromise between being chic and being comfortable and warm. I’ve looked around our local mall for answers but can’t envision myself with the word “Pink!” stamped on my butt, or in anything that Kanye would wear with a thick gold chain. Nor do I see myself in anything that is sold next to the camping gear or that would look good with a folk art sweater.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

I do have a few tips that have served me well. One is that if you are only in the car, you need only worry about what you are wearing on the part of your body that can be seen through the window. I have some nice colorful scarves that can be easily draped over those tacky sweats and nobody will ever know. However, this can backfire, as one of my best friends found out. When her daughter got on the school bus without her lunch, my friend pulled a jacket over her short nightshirt, jumped in the car, and sped down the street to a spot where the bus would stop later. Only she didn’t count on a male neighbor recognizing her car and sauntering over for a chat.

Another tip is that the right close-fitting underwear is a fitting armor under those flimsier but more attractive clothes. Maybe that’s what those weather chicks wear; I must ask them some time.

While I have nowhere to go today except for Target, I think I nailed a good compromise: comfortable but close-fitting jeans (thanks to the Lycra gods), a lavender Lucky Jeans waffle-weave top, the pretty necklace that Bob gave me last Christmas. Tomorrow I may not be so lucky.

So in the spirit of true confession, this post includes items I wear when I care most about comfort, most of them very unfashionable. How about you? What do you wear when comfort is the top priority and nobody is looking?

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.