Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

Yesterday I had one of those moments that would have caused a Catholic school nun to pull me by the ear or a priest to demand a dozen Hail Marys. I faced a moral curve ball, swung lamely and missed.

It was just a venial sin, but it happened in front of someone who deserved a better example. So like all good (albeit lapsed) Catholics, I’m confessing it — and looking not for sympathy, but a conversation with those of who who’ve faced similar dilemmas.

So here is what happened. I took our 16-year-old German exchange student, Antonia, to our local mall to shop for a dress for her swim team banquet Sunday. She decided she wanted to poke around the shops by herself so we parted ways and she headed for Forever 21, the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous. We met up an hour later.

On our way back to the car Antonia talked excitedly about her bargains, which didn’t surprise me at first because Forever 21 is known for their $7 jeans and $5.50 tops, prices unseen since my E.J. Korvette’s days in the 1960s. Three items – a flowered dress, yellow cardigan and jeans – cost Antonia just $17. We quickly came to the conclusion that this must be a mistake; a check of the receipt confirmed this. The sales clerk had forgotten to add the dress to the tally. The bill would have been twice as high without the mistake.

Antonia had spent her own scarce money on this, so part of her was glad. I could sense, though, that it was nagging her a little bit. It was nagging me too. The right thing to do would have been to return immediately to Forever 21, point out the mistake and offer to pay for the dress. But we were in a hurry to get home because we had dinner to make and things to do that evening, so I used that excuse for taking the easy way out. I’m sure the markup on their clothes is big enough that they won’t care, I told myself. Maybe there was a sale that we didn’t know about. And hey, how many times does a mistake in your favor get made? How many mistakes have you missed that were not in your favor? We packed our shopping bags and our guilt in the back seat and tried not to think about it.

On the way home we talked about the cheap labor that must make the clothing sold at Forever 21, and whether their minions at the sewing machines earn a living wage. Antonia said when she got older and had more money she’d gladly spend more on garments made by better-paid workers. I told her that she was young and didn’t have much money, and not to think about that yet…and that even higher-priced clothing sometimes did not come with a guarantee that the workers were better compensated.

But while we talked passionately about the issue of fairly treated workers, we danced around the moral dilemma of the innocently purloined dress. Antonia noted that the clerk at Forever 21 had remarked that the dress was a hot seller; so surely he should have noticed it as he rang her up, we both agreed. I can’t remember everything that I said about the matter, except that it was pretty lame. It would have been better for Antonia if I had demanded that we turn around and pay what we really owed, even if it meant dinner would be late. But I didn’t.

Now don’t get the idea that I make a habit of stiffing people. Many times, Bob and I have pointed out mistakes that were in our favor; we didn’t want a waiter to make up the difference out of his own money or the store clerk to get a lashing from the manager when accounts were tallied at the end of the day.

But sometimes doing the right thing is a pain in the ass, especially when it is inconvenient, like yesterday. And other times, sad to say, it is not your first instinct. Like the time 17 years ago when I was  out shopping with my children, Rachel and Ryan (then 11 and 8), and we parked head-in right next to a brand new Toyota that was parked head-out. One of the kids opened the back door right into the Toyota’s left headlight, smashing it to pieces. The first words out of my mouth were — in front of the kids — “Maybe we should move the car.”

Five minutes later, our shopping already underway, I turned to the kids and said, “You know, this isn’t right. We really need to write a note to the owner of that other car.” So we returned to the scene of the crime and did just that. When we got home I researched the cost of a genuine Toyota headlight and discovered to my dismay that it would be about $230 plus labor. Fortunately the Toyota owner, who called that night, was grateful, gracious and practical. She had her local mechanic do the job and it cost just $60. So it was a cheap lesson to learn.

Still, I felt guilty that I talked about moving the car in front of Rachel and Ryan. But now, 17 years later, I look at it another way: when you are scared or rushed the right thing isn’t as clear-cut as the Baltimore Catechism would have you believe. Is it OK for kids to see their parents struggle out loud with a moral decision and be seriously tempted to take advantage of a situation when the odds are in their favor? I think it is. It shows that we are human, doing our best when things are not always black and white.

So that is why, despite having many other things to do, today Antonia and I will do what it would have been far less time-consuming to do yesterday: we will head back to the mall with our sales receipt and the tag from the dress, and settle up with Forever 21.

Sometimes when we’re facing a moral curve ball, we swing and miss before we connect. Have any of you ever felt this way?

The Less Said, the Better

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Does being quiet mean being surly, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick?

Do we talk too much? Maybe it’s the winter, or maybe it’s that I’m getting older and running out of earth-shattering experiences to talk about, but over the past few months I haven’t felt like talking very much.  Memo to my loved ones and friends: it’s me, not you.

Seems I am in good company. The New York Times last weekend did a great story about how freelancers and sole-proprietor business owners often forget how to hold a phone conversation, since much of their communication is via email and text. And a new book on the best-seller list, “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, talks about how introverted people are less valued than the dynamic fast-talking extroverts, and automatically presumed to be less capable leaders. The adoration of extroverts came about when the U.S. switched from an agrarian society to one based on manufacturing, creating more goods to be sold — and hence, a need for more smooth-talking extroverts to sell them. Cain points out that today Harvard Business School encourages its students to be confident extroverts and persuasive talkers, even if the ideas they are promoting are only 55 percent developed. She also says that some of history’s most dynamic business leaders have been introverts rather than extroverts, but skilled at bringing out the best in others. And she says that introverts can still be sociable and have great conversations, but they just need lots of time to decompress afterwards. I’m reading that book now and it has been a revelation. I am starting to understand those friends and family members who just don’t like talking on the phone.

Have any of you ever wished that you didn’t have to talk so much? When I was growing up, quiet people were considered weird, depressed or difficult. It was difficult to row the boat the whole time with them. It was much cooler to be a good talker, to be spontaneous and “outgoing.” I think I knew in my heart that I was quiet and thoughtful but felt I needed to talk to have friends. And if I was around someone who didn’t want to talk – either because they were naturally shy or reserved, didn’t know me or didn’t want to know me – I’d feel panic. My response was to talk more to fill the void, often with bad results. I also talked because I felt that being vivacious and a “people person” would make me more lovable. The real me is actually more introspective and better at having a quiet and meaningful discussion with one good friend than a roomful of strangers.

Having to shift gears quickly from focusing on one person to focusing on another is challenging. This compulsive need to talk when I didn’t feel like it has led to much foot chewing after I  invariably say the wrong thing. I think that is why I like to disappear into the kitchen or take pictures when at parties; it’s easier for me when I don’t have to talk. It is also why I went into writing, a profession that requires more listening and note-taking, and some thought before one communicates through the written rather than spoken word.

Maybe it’s OK to be a man, or woman, of fewer words. Just ask New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, master of the one-word answer. Or Bartleby the Scrivener, whose only conversation was “I prefer not to.” Or plenty of other legendary and literary figures who were the strong and silent type.

Still, I worry that a quieter me won’t have as many friends. Will my loved ones will be upset or think that I love them less if I don’t talk as much, when nothing could be farther from the truth? I also worry that being more introspective will cause me to brood too much; that maybe it’s healthier to get out there and engage with other people and put my inner life on the shelf.

Can one be silent and strong?

Can one be silent and strong?

A few weeks ago when my grown children were visiting for Christmas, we had some times when we would just sit silently on the couch and disappear into our Iphones. I felt bereft during those times and responsibility to fill the void. Had I lost my connection with them? Did their lives on the other side of the country and on another continent have a stronger gravitational pull on them? But the funny thing is…those connections crackled to life when we just went out and did something, without a need for constant talk. My daughter Rachel and I took a nine-mile hike around a nearby lake, and sometimes we talked and other times we didn’t. The I-Phone that drew much of her attention in the house became a GPS for helping us find our way around the trail. We had some great conversations when we were not busy concentrating on the trail and the scenery. I felt proud to be able to share this hike with her.

Maybe, whether one is an extrovert or an introvert, the key is less talking and more doing.  What do you think?

Time to Enjoy the Gifts that Matter

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas has come and gone, and it was among the most easygoing holidays that I have remembered in recent years, because we did four things differently.

1. Our family, which includes five adult children and one teenager, decided to do a “secret Santa” instead of scrambling to buy gifts for everyone. That meant each of us was on the hook for one or two reasonably priced gifts for just one other person. Most were ordered online. We exchanged these gifts on Christmas Eve, and followed with a festive dinner and British-style “crackers” that dispensed small trinkets and silly paper crowns, which we wore with unabashed gusto.

2. We skipped writing out Christmas cards, sending out e-cards instead. I think I sent one to everybody, but I may have missed someone and if it was you I apologize. Some might call e-cards tacky and lazy, and yet another sign that technology is like General Sherman for thoughtful customs, and they are probably right. But what was interesting is that in years past we would always get a flood of paper cards about a week after we sent out ours. The flood did not happen this year, so now I know who has us on their B list! And that’s perfectly OK.

3. I baked only one batch each of two types of cookies. Neither required rolled dough or intense decorating involving tweezers or piped-on icing. The dough was just plopped onto a baking sheet, and finished result did not look like a holiday catalog from Williams Sonoma. Lightning didn’t strike. And fortunately, we received many fine-looking cookies as gifts from cooks with more patience and steadier hands. We proudly served these to visitors, and I beamed graciously when complimented.

4. We posted only half the photos to Facebook that we’d normally post, after a very candid conversation with our kids about how a focus on capturing the moment prevents us from enjoying the moment. Next year, I hope to post only one photo, or maybe even none. We don’t need Facebook to show ourselves or others that we are having a great time, but I did include two of the photos here.

Christmas is receding as swiftly as a port viewed from a catamaran, and pretty soon it will be a mere speck on our consciousness before it disappears. Like everyone else, we feel that having our children at home with us was the best gift of the season. Keeping the rest simple helped us do this. It was not easy to avoid falling into the trap of frantic, guilty shopping; of writing out scores of cards and baking dozens of elaborate cookies; of over-sharing on Facebook because “that’s what people do” at Christmas. The result is that the good feelings from the past holiday, the pleasure we had from being together, will linger long after the last of the decorations are put away.

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

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.

Halloween’s Darkest Hours

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as "Able Baker Charlie" from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

Ryan as a clown and Rachel as “Able Baker Charlie” from the Richard Scarry Books, 1989.

It’s dusk on October 31, and for the first time in decades, we won’t be turning on the porch light for trick-or-treaters. It has been years since we had more than a few visitors, and we could have justified bowing out some time during the last millennium. Living on a dark street with no streetlights or sidewalks, we are in forbidden territory for wee princesses, jedis and older ghouls. When a family with three young children still lived next door we knew we’d get at least a few visitors. Alas, they moved to California and we can no longer count on them. And even our kids never trick-or-treated close to home; we always drove them to neighborhoods with sidewalks.

But the most important factor in our decision to close is that our 15-year-old is not doing Halloween this year. Too much homework, a diminished taste for candy, and a long day of school and after-school activities have made John decide to throw in the towel (or the pillowcase). While his friend Zack called a few weeks ago to try to get him interested in prowling a few neighborhoods, John has officially retired from trick or treating. This will be the first time that none of our children has gone trick-or-treating from our home, since all but John are grown and flown.

So the pumpkin went uncarved this year, and I have to say that my hands, with their creeping arthritis, won’t miss scraping out pumpkin guts with an ice cream scoop. I think about all the thought we gave to pumpkins in the past, all the faces we dreamed up, all the candles we lit, all for naught because nobody came. Yes I am relieved but also feeling a little regret.

John as "Batista," a favorite wrestler, 2010.

John as “Batista,” a favorite wrestler, 2010.

Halloween used to be a big deal. I remember dressing my daughter Rachel as a bunny, when she was just a year old, and looking forward to showing her off around the neighborhood, but she fell fast asleep on my shoulder by the second house. At our former home in Pennsylvania, in a densely populated neighborhood, close to 80 trick or treaters would visit each year. When I had more youthful energy I’d make up Halloween party bags with homemade cookies for the kids and set out spiked cider, cheese and crackers, and pumpkin bread for their grateful chaperones. As I look through old photos I see the march of time: from baby bunnies, gypsies and clowns to “Scream” masks, cross-dressers, slashers, wrestlers and pimps. In grade school my daughter Rachel dressed as a football player and son Ryan as a cheerleader. Ten years later Ryan borrowed my longest white coat, added a big hat and trick-or-treated as a pimp. Our son Ben went out one year dressed as a bag of trash, and somewhere we have tape from a camera that doesn’t work anymore that shows a toddler John whacking Ben with a pitchfork that year. Despite a half-hearted clucking about violent-looking costumes I always enjoyed the creativity the kids brought to Halloween.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

Jesse and Rachel, around 1987.

But all six have moved on, and no neighborhood kids have taken their place. So tonight we’ll catch up on all the shows we missed because of the World Series (go Sox!!!) and maybe watch Young Frankenstein again. But we will take one last wistful look at the ghosts of Halloweens past.


Football player and cheerleader, around 1994.

Happy Birthday, Gene-ius!

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

In 2009, Gene revisited his bachelor pad at the Normandie apartments in Manhattan.

A few weeks ago we worried that my father-in-law, Gene, would not be celebrating his 84th birthday today. He was in the hospital, his breathing labored with pneumonia and COPD. Doctors found a blood clot in his leg and other problems. They talked about Gene possibly staying hospitalized for weeks. My mother-in-law Lois was distraught; three of their grandchildren drove long distances to see them and the rest made anxious phone calls and Facebook posts. My husband, Bob, and his three brothers kept in touch constantly and worried about whether this could be it.

But today, Gene is at home, off the oxygen that the doctors said he’d need for weeks, marking his 84th year. He is determined to keep his plans to fly with Lois from California to Boston next month for our early Thanksgiving dinner, a three-year tradition in our family. At last count he had at least 15 Words With Friends games going, and has returned to his daily morning worship at the Squawkbox shrine, following the market as fervently as an old nun fingers a rosary. Lois is back to nagging him about the volume on the TV, so things are really back to normal!

I guess I was not surprised that Gene fought his way back. He has done it before, having beaten lung and colon cancer 17 years ago, another time when we worried that the end was near. The man is a survivor — kept breathing by his lively curiosity, his highly creative and inventive mind, his brash confidence and his unflagging love for his family. And that’s good because we can’t imagine life without him.

His close call motivated me to go through some old photos of Gene and think about his life. The pictures show a mischievous teen who thrived in New York’s mean streets; a

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

Gene (lower left) had the devil in him already as a teenage boy; can you tell from that smile?

confident rake and businessman (the word “swanky” comes to mind); a family man with four young sons; an 80-year-old looking wistful as he revisited his old haunts. Gene has been all of these, as well as a gifted salesman, an entrepreneur and inventor, an artist at the easel and the computer, a shameless flirt, a teller of outrageously ribald stories and jokes (we’ve had to reprimand him when he goes too far in front of the grandchildren), and a proud agnostic who delights in challenging believers. On the home front, he is father to four sons, grandfather to eight, and a father figure to his beloved daughters-in-law and to other now-grown men whom he and Lois sheltered and encouraged as boys.

Gene talks frankly about his difficult family life, which drove him out of the house to hang out with a rough crowd in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan. They would gather at a stone wall near an athletic field and plan the day’s exploits. When we visited New York with him in 2009 in honor of his 80th, Gene reminisced about swimming in the Hudson River under the George Washington Bridge; something that would probably cause some type of nasty disease ending in “osis” today. But Gene had an artistic streak as well as a wild one; he studied at the Art Institute of New York and showed amazing talent.

Later, as a young businessman at his dad’s company, he’d bring secretaries home to his New York bachelor pad. One of his favorite sketches depicts Lois, his future wife, asleep in his bed looking as peaceful as an angel. Lois successfully ended Gene’s bachelor era; once they married she gave him four sons in six years. Gene’s work in the restaurant equipment business would take his family from New Jersey, to Wyoming, to Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Driven and accomplished, he worked hard, patented many inventions, founded and sold several businesses and made a good living. He and Lois passed on their intelligence, artistic ability and work ethic to their four sons, all of whom have been successful.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene as a young rake and businessman.

Gene’s remarkable paintings and digital art cover the walls of his California home and his sons’ far-flung residences; his pizza ovens, dough presses and tools can be found in pizza kitchens around the country. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gene continues to come up with new concepts and inventions, including (my favorite) a sponge that would be worn inside the mouth to absorb onion fumes and prevent tears. Lois has had to gently (or not so gently) discourage him from doing a patent search every time he has a new invention, for fear of that the fees will drain their savings. Some of his ideas are frankly crazy…but then again, so were those of some of history’s greatest artists, thinkers and inventors.

To Gene I say: keep coming up with those crazy ideas and keep dreaming. And now that you are back from the brink, take care of yourself and postpone the next one as long as you can. Happy birthday! We love you!

Through the years, Gene's family has been his greatest joy.

Through the years, Gene’s family has been his greatest joy.