Throwing Rosa Parks From the Train

The train conductor resembled how Lee Harvey Oswald might have looked in late middle age: white, wiry, angry-looking. He prowled rather than strolled the aisles as he took our tickets, wearing the wary and ready-to-shoot face of a cop looking for an escaped felon in an abandoned building.

The passenger was also middle-aged, but black, dreadlocked, overweight, and surrounded by nondescript shopping bags. Was she homeless, or just tired and disheveled? It was hard to tell.

I didn’t notice her until the conductor asked for her fare and she produced a bus token. What happened next still haunts me.

This was about a year ago when I was visiting my mom in suburban Philadelphia. I was on the SEPTA commuter train from her home in the leafy community of Jenkintown to its terminus at the Philadelphia airport, where I’d catch a plane home. The train went through some tony neighborhoods and some rough ones: Fern Rock, Wayne Junction, Temple University. The passengers were similarly diverse, and included sedately dressed matrons, people of all colors in casual weekend clothes, couples lugging toddlers in expensive strollers, tough-looking youths with headphones that did not totally drown out their music. All were minding their own business and lost in their own worlds as the train chugged towards its three stops in downtown Philly and to the airport.

I was thinking about going home, and feeling relieved that I had barely remembered to stop at an ATM for cash before I had stepped onto the train; otherwise I would have had no money for my fare. The conductor’s voice behind me woke me from my own reverie.

“Ma’am that token doesn’t work on this train,” he said loudly.

“But it’s a SEPTA token,” the passenger pointed out.

“I’m sorry, the fare is $7.50,” he said bluntly. “The tokens only work on the bus.”

“But I don’t have $7.50!” she replied. “All I have is this token.”

“Well, you will have to get off at the next stop,” Lee Harvey answered.

The passengers looked up from their Philadelphia Inquirers, from their IPhones, from their toddlers, and looked at one another incredulously.

“I’ve got to get to work,” pleaded the passenger with the token. “I’m a nurse and my shift begins at three.”

“I don’t care if your shift begins at three,” the conductor snarled back. “You need to pay the fare or you need to get off the train.”

He walked away from her for a second, and the couple in the seat behind me pulled out some money. The man stretched his arm wordlessly across the aisle, his offering in his outstretched palm. The conductor’s head whipped around and his face became angry.

“We don’t allow panhandlers on this train,” he said to the woman with the shopping bags.

A small vapor of disgust suffused the train, as passengers murmured among themselves, clearly not happy with the conductor’s attitude. The man behind me spoke up, in a respectful tone, to make it clear that he had offered the lady the money unasked. Another passenger, a black man, walked to the front of the train and tried to talk quietly with the conductor before turning around and stalking angrily back to his seat.

“I’ve got to get to my shift,” the lady with the bags kept saying. “I’m a nurse.”

In the front of the train the conductor was brandishing his radio. He contacted the Philadelphia police and asked for them to be waiting for the train at the next station, Wayne Junction. I heard him say that he was putting a passenger off the train.

The train pulled into Wayne Junction before the police. We sat there for several minutes. The passengers fumed silently. Finally, the black man who had tried before to intervene got up again, angrier this time.

“Excuse me sir…don’t you think this is a little excessive?,” he irately asked the conductor, who just shrugged.

We sat there some more, and mingled with my anger at the situation was the very real fear that I would miss my plane if this dragged on. I tried to squelch it and meditate on the thought that I was witnessing an injustice. Or was I? That train traveled through some dangerous neighborhoods, and I am sure that the conductor had dealt with some tough characters before. Maybe Lee Harvey Oswald was really a guy who had simply become jaded from the situations that arose on his train. The passenger could have been a vagrant, maybe somebody he had dealt with before.

Or she maybe she was just a harried nurse who ran out of time to groom herself before she got on the last train that would get her to work on time. Regardless of what she was, I concluded that she deserved the benefit of the doubt, and clearly other passengers did too, or they would not have offered to pay her fare or reacted the way they did.

Nobody said anything more as we waited. Finally three police officers came on board. They spoke gently to the lady who was maybe a nurse or maybe a vagrant. With a sigh she stood up, gathered her bags and walked heavily up the aisle with them, then stepped off the train. I felt the rumbling of wheels as the train began to move and I checked the time, relieved that I would definitely make the plane.

It was only later that I remembered that I almost had boarded the train myself without any cash. How would the conductor have reacted to a well-dressed white woman with an empty wallet? Would he have smiled and given me an address where I could mail a check for the fare when it was convenient? Or would he have put me off the train at Wayne Junction?

I felt angry at myself for not speaking up, for letting this woman get marched away even though others had offered to pay her fare. I was angry for letting thoughts of missing my plane overshadow the outrage that I was witnessing. How many of us chat about social injustice over pinot grigio in our comfortable homes but look the other way when it stares us in the face? How many of us don’t risk speaking out because it might make someone uncomfortable, angry or inconvenienced? On a holiday celebrating history’s most iconic champion of Civil Rights, it’s something worth pondering.

The Freedom to Feel Ridiculous

Everybody looks ridiculous in the lazy river. That’s why you should plunge in.

Can you dress up like an Oompa-Loompa even if you are not a handsome 20-something like this guy?

Put Margaret Thatcher, the Dalai Lama or Mitt Romney in an unflattering swimsuit and an inner tube, and set them afloat on the “lazy river” that snakes through the nearest water park, and you start to see them a little differently.

Even the most dignified people look and feel ridiculous in this moving river of chlorine, which I discovered when I did it myself a few days ago. It is the sober equivalent of dancing with a lampshade on your head or singing a Taylor Swift song off-key at a karaoke bar.

Looking ridiculous has been a longtime insecurity for me, and being middle aged has made it worse. For this reason I have avoided swinging my arms too much when I am out walking, even though I’ve been told it will turbo-charge my workout. Until about 10 years ago I enjoyed boogie-boarding at the beach with my children, but now I don’t relish being tossed around by the rolling waves, so now I go in up to my knees. I don’t like cold water and what the salt does to my hair and most importantly I worry about looking ridiculous. I have plenty of company…most beach bathers are under 20, except for an occasional hardy septuagenarian swimming against the tide for exercise.

Sometimes I take this too far. Years ago we visited beautiful and historic Cape May, New Jersey, with our kids and we rented one of those 1920s-style surreys powered by bike pedals. I feigned enthusiasm but secretly worried about looking like a tacky tourist. While I did have a great time — and our kids were thrilled — I was happy to take the photos that day, so there are no records of me sitting in one of those things.

But a few days ago I took our teenage son John and two of his friends to Water Wizz, near Cape Cod. It was hot and sticky and we were lucky to get there early enough to snag a spot in the shade, where I thought I’d be content to lounge while the boys tackled the water slides and wave pool.

Soon the humidity began to stick to my face, the heat even in the shade became unbearable, and the river beckoned me. So I worked about a half cup of conditioner into my recently colored hair, tucked it under a baseball cap, waded into the holding area near the river, and placed myself in the long queue of people waiting their turn for an inner tube.

Once I had mine, I awkwardly hoisted myself onto the tube, settling my butt into the hole and dangling my arms and legs over the soft edges. I got settled just in time for the river to put me under a brisk waterfall that quickly penetrated my baseball cap and nearly knocked off the big sunglasses, that I wore to hide my face.

The day was so hot and the river was so crowded that I quickly became part of a mammoth clump of human jetsam, looking like a small version of that colorful wreckage from Japan drifting across the Pacific. We were tube to tube…a middle-aged blogger secretly fretting about her hair, a toddler in a life vest, a heavily tattooed guy, a gaggle of middle school girls in bikinis, a young dad hanging on to his preschooler’s toe, two women in Red Sox caps taking photos of each other with waterproof cameras. We floated under waterfalls together, under bridges where people gawked at us, past water slides where teenagers waited 45 minutes for their turn.

That first loop around the river leached out any decorum I had left, and I was ready for a second loop. Then a third. Then, after a rest on the lounge chair, a fourth, fifth and sixth. At one point my tube caught up with Naquaan, one of my son’s friends, and I grabbed his hand so we could float together.

Refreshed physically and mentally, I thought as we left the park that every adult should do some time in the lazy river at least once a year. It helps you rediscover the thrill you felt when you were young and brash and unafraid of looking silly.  So I’m wondering: What’s your favorite way to remind yourself not to take yourself too seriously?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

A few years ago my old neighborhood — which included dozens of kids — had a reunion. All middle aged, we picked up where we had left off. Do new friendships get harder to form as we age?

One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs, called “Taxi,” includes this memorable line:  “And she said, ‘We must get together.’ But I knew it never’d be arranged.”

The scenario was a faded taxi driver discovering that his late-night fare was a long-lost love, who had gone on to become a famous actress while he drove a cab and got perpetually stoned.  But it might as well be the empty pleasantries that many of us exchange with people who pass in and out of our lives after age 30.

That was the theme of an intriguing column, “Friends of a Certain Age,” that appeared in the New York Times recently about the difficulties of making lasting friendships as we grow older.   Alex Williams, the author, wrote about his own travails finding new male friends in New York.  He cites studies and experts who confirm his theory that it’s harder to find deep friendship after age 30.

“As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading,” he writes. “Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

“No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

That column hit home with me.  While I’ve been blessed with great friendships, some of them dating back more than 50 years, I’ve noticed we do have a more difficult time forming deep new friendships as we get older.  Why is it that our most profound bonds are formed over sandlot baseball games; whispered confidences at preteen pajama parties; all-night study sessions at college?  Then one day our established lives — spouses, children, jobs, household responsibilities – make us less open to it.

My widowed mom moved a few years ago to a small town outside Pennsylvania that on the surface seems to be everything a retiree would want:  safe, walkable, plenty of shops, a few minutes from my brother, who watches over her.  Yet she finds it hard to make friends.

“Everybody is already part of a clique,” she laments.  So she ditched the senior center where nobody wanted to sit with her and instead volunteered at a local school, where the young people appreciated her.  And she commutes by train to her old hometown to see the relatives left behind; and drives on treacherous roads to meet with the good friends from her long career as a high school secretary.

Many adult friendships seem to be more transient, or more “situational,” as Williams pointed out.  We become fast friends with fellow volunteers on the PTA or with people who share the early-morning shift at the gym or the 7:05 train home after work.  We bond at the playground with the fellow moms whose children are friends with our children.

Then, when we volunteer for a new committee or join a new gym, or a playground mom goes back to work, or when our children stop being friends, those bonds loosen.  We’ll run into those onetime BFFs in the supermarket after months or years and spend a few moments catching up with their lives and promise to get together, but we know it never will be arranged.

Even our deepest friendships have ebbs and flows, depending on the pulls from family, work and household duties.  I’ve learned to take it in stride when friends need to cancel plans because one of their adult children needs a ride to the airport, or when they can’t meet for dinner because they need to put up their Christmas decorations.  We’ve done that ourselves.

My Mom always has said, “Don’t expect too much from people and you won’t be disappointed.”  I think she is right.

As time goes on I gain the emotional strength I need from my husband and six children, my siblings, my mom and my husband’s great family.  And I have lucky to have some really wonderful friends and neighbors whom I can always count on.

Sometimes a friend will call and lament that it’s been so long since we’ve spoken and I always tell him or her the same thing:  I am a philodendron friend, not an African violet.  You don’t have to feed and water me every day.  Pay me some attention when you get a moment and my friendship will thrive.

Do you have any strong and lasting friendships that you made in midlife or beyond?

Gimme Swelter: 10 Tips for a Retro Summer Day

Your clothes will dry outside in less than an hour on a day like this.

Italian ice immediately lowers the temperature by at least 10 degrees.

What did we do before everybody had air-conditioning? We sought out the shade. We licked icy things. We ran through the sprinkler. We crowded in front of the most powerful fan in the house, which dried our sweat and garbled the words we spoke into it like a primitive synthesizer. We wore cotton baby doll pajamas and lay crosswise across our beds to best catch the breezes.

Soon the humidity is supposed to return to Boston, but today was still mighty hot and I wrestled with pushing the A/C button. Instead I gave myself a retro day and recreated the hot summer day of my 1960s youth…when nobody had air conditioning except for a few stores that advertised: “Come in, it’s Kool inside.” (Featuring a pack of Kool cigarettes.)

Here are a few things to try at home, guaranteed to lift your spirits and help you savor the summer regardless of the heat index. Of course, you need a clear schedule to do this.

Go barefoot through the grass early in the morning, and enjoy the cool feeling of the dew before the blazing heat turns the crabgrass all crunchy. I did this as I watered our window boxes.

This time of year gives me the blues.

Pick blueberries. They are at their peak in the sweltering days of July. Look for the ones that have shiny blue patches on them; the opaque purple ones need a few more days. Go in the morning before the heat gets unbearable.

This zucchini is great on the grill.

Visit a farm stand. Keep a local farmer in business. I found freshly picked zucchini, summer squash and the season’s first corn. I’m planning to grill the squash and make corn fritters for dinner some time.

Get some really fresh eggs. Chickens lay more eggs in hot weather, and luckily a friend of mine happens to have some in her back yard. She let me take a dozen eggs off her hands so that I could…

Make deviled eggs. The quintessential picnic food; one I never see during the winter. I use plenty of mayo, some mustard, pickle juice, salt and pepper.

Deviled eggs are the perfect retro summer snack.

Hang your clothes outside. They will dry in about an hour. When you carry them inside for folding, bury your face in the pile and inhale deeply.

Make iced tea. A half gallon of ginger peach tea is chilling in the fridge right now.

Go out for Italian ice. Cherry ice reminds me of Fourth of July in my old home town in suburban Philadelphia. The Rosati Water Ice company always gave out free cups of water ice on the fourth, complete with a wooden spoon for scraping out every bit of goodness. Today’s, alas, had a plastic spoon but it still brought me back.

For added nostalgia, make sure your purveyor of Italian ice has a window that looks like this.

Have a siesta under a whirling ceiling fan. I spent part of this afternoon reading the New York Times on our screened-in porch under the fan.

Finally:

Take a shower at night. It will wash off the day’s sweat and cool you off, and you’ll feel mighty good slipping into the sheets.

Are We Busy For All the Wrong Reasons?

Most of us wear way too many hats and have lives too busy for introspection. Photo courtesy of livinggreenmag.com.

The most emailed article from Sunday’s New York Times is one by writer Tim Kreider, who extols the benefits of being less busy. The article claims that for most people, busyness is more pointless than purposeful; something we do because we are afraid our lives will be meaningless if we don’t fill every second.

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider writes.

This article was timely because I just got back from vacation, which always clears the debris from my head and makes me ponder just what distractions are worth putting back in.

Kreider points out that most people keep their lives so tightly scheduled that it leaves little room for idleness and spontaneity, which feed the soul, recharge the mind and make one far more productive. He mentions a friend who left New York to live a bucolic life in the south of France and over time became a nicer, more relaxed and creative person.

The article, and the comments that follow, really struck a chord. Kreider cheerfully admits to being a bit of a slacker, working just four or five hours a day. “And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?” he adds.

A few commenters chided Kreider for taking on a topic that is really a problem only for well-to-do people who can afford to slack off (although he does acknowledge that many people have no choice but to work very hard to make ends meet.) One commenter even called the article “tragically elitist” and accused Kreider of being upper middle class or writing his essay from a family-owned vacation spot. But many more agreed that a slower, more lumbering pace is better for them, even if it means fewer creature comforts.

So why do so many people who can afford to be less busy keep up their frenetic overscheduled lives? One friend of mine recently confessed that he had to keep checking his work emails over his entire vacation. He said that people who don’t respond to his company’s group emails – even while on vacation — are talked-about and marginalized as lightweights. Another friend spends several hours a day touching base with her staff even when she is “on vacation.” She is keeping her eye on the ball: retiring early within the next five to 10 years. Even one unplugged week leaves her too far behind.

Some might say that extreme busyness is the price we need to pay for the right to be non-busy some time “in the future.” The bait shack owner in Fiji, the ski instructor in Telluride, the organic arugula grower in Nantucket, the hippie-ish adjunct professor of cultural studies…how many of them were once over-scheduled bond managers or 80-hour-per-week mid-level executives somewhere? But others might say that life is too short and we may be dead before the payoff comes; that it’s best to work in some downtime now.

What do you think?

Suiting Up for Adulthood

Our 13-year-old will dress like a man for the first time this weekend, when he attends his first dressy affair without us.

One of the things about having a “surprise baby” when you are near middle-age – especially if his brothers and sisters are way older – is that you don’t rush things as much. So last weekend, when we finally bought our 13-year-old his first dressy blazer at a “grown man” store, was a little bittersweet.

A few months back John grew out of his boys 18/20 Columbia jacket with the zip-out lining, the one that had seen him through sixth grade and the early part of summer camp. Last fall its sleeves began to creep north of his wristbones. We knew that its days were numbered. We bought him a man’s ski jacket – one that looked like a bigger version of his boys jacket — at a local sporting goods store back in February.

But the blazer was something different. We are informal people who don’t belong to dressy clubs or go to church regularly, and its rare when we need to dress to impress. In the past when John was smaller we were able to get him through most parties with a pair of chinos and a casual shirt. But John has a bar mitzvah this weekend, his first dressy party with his peers and without us, and we have a family wedding in September.

So it was time for the boy who lives in worn tee shirts and elastic-waist basketball shorts to discover the grownup pleasure and responsibility of dressing for an occasion.

The jacket we picked out was navy featherweight wool with dull gold buttons, not brassy like a ship captain’s coat; more subtle and classic. The dapper men who waited on us at the clothing store showed us how the blazer could harmonize with different dress shirts and ties. Our salesman Gary, cheerful despite a bleary-eyed weekend handing out hundreds of tuxes to prom-goers, plucked a light blue shirt and a navy and gold plaid tie from the shelves and slipped them under the jacket.

“This is what all the young guys are wearing to the weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Gary told us. The combination was perfect – polished but youthful, classic but versatile, the perfect foil for khaki pants and a sheepish teen smile.

John was between sizes, and while the size 35 short blazer fit him perfectly it didn’t allow for any growth spurts, which we were sure would come this summer. We chose the 36 regular, a little long in the torso, but a surer bet for September and maybe even freshman year of high school.

John wore these fake muscles when he went out for Halloween as “Battista,” a WWE wrestler.

So now the blazer and its accoutrements hang in John’s closet, above the box of his third-grade artwork and next to his Super Mario Halloween costume of a few years ago, a set of fake padded muscles from another Halloween, and a pair of slippers emblazoned with WWE wrestlers — all things John has outgrown. But we hang onto them anyway, even though we suspect that John is embarrassed by them now. It’s easier for us to imagine our son dwelling in that less complicated world than trolling YouTube for edgy videos or wondering how to ask a girl to dance at a dressy party.

This is our last child and every day he leaves childhood farther behind. The blazer is a reminder of the grownup years that await. This weekend, when our young man wears it for the first time, we’ll feel proud but a part of us will miss our little boy.

How to Win at Bingo

I always liked Bingo because it is totally based upon luck. One does not have to think strategically, or be smart, cunning and ruthless. I suck at Monopoly because it requires all of these things.

In Bingo you merely watch and listen for the rattling of the cage that delivers your fate to the metal cup. You toy with your chips, peer at your neighbors’ cards and take a breath just before the gray-haired church deacon calls the letter. Then another quick breath as you wait for the number. Your ears perk up after each sonorous call, waiting for a triumphant cry from some noodge in the far corner of the room. Each silence gives you a thrill of hope, allowing another rattling of the Bingo cage and yet another chance for victory.

The very randomness that makes Bingo so satisfying also makes it frustrating. In some games everybody else’s numbers are called except yours. The Bingo cards in front of you are as unpopulated as the Great Plains, while others’ cards are spangled with clear red chips as garish as a Times Square hooker. Or maybe you have finally have a row all filled up for the first time that evening, but this particular game requires four corners instead. It’s fair but unfair.

Haven’t played Bingo in years, but yesterday felt like one of those games. It was rainy, boring, lonely, frustrating. My card was empty. I was not busy enough and had far too much time to think, which for me quickly devolves into brooding. A year ago, when I was working at a job that I did not love and pulled in too many directions, I felt a different kind of stress. That felt like having your Bingo card covered with many chips, but nothing that would give you a win.

Yesterday I checked my email and Facebook every few seconds, watched the phone for the red message light, snacked on pretzels, halfheartedly puttered instead of focusing on what I really wanted to accomplish. I was waiting for other people to pull my number and make things happen for me. Big mistake, and one that I have made time and time again. A mistake that I’ve warned my kids never to make, yet I continue to make it myself.

But I managed to pull myself out of it by being proactive, making myself do things that I really didn’t want to do at first, just to overcome my inertia and get me rolling again. I called a housebound friend and made plans to take her to lunch. I finally mailed my daughter that book that I thought she would enjoy. I defrosted some chicken and found something creative to do with it for dinner. By the end of the day the sun was peeking out and I felt better.

And I realized that while both Bingo and life can be random, one can still maximize the chance of feeling on top of the game. Over time I’ve realized that I need these things :

B – Bed rest. If I don’t get enough of it I can’t function.  Do what you have to do to get it…get as physically tired as possible, avoid alcohol at dinner, give up watching “The Walking Dead” late at night.
I – Interests. It could be work, hobbies, anything that gives you great pleasure, or at least gives you something to accomplish.
N – Nutrition. Whatever works for you. For me it’s avoiding white bread, alcohol, sweets. Others give up gluten or red meat.
G – Getting out. If you don’t have a paid job to order your day, schedule other things – workouts, volunteer duties, a walk with a good friend, anything.
O – Others. Stay connected. If nobody’s calling you, call them. Make plans.

And finally – Free Space. If you’re busy it gives you some breathing room. If you’re not busy enough, it will make you restless and bored enough to brood a bit, wallow in self-pity then snap out of it and make things happen.

Why Laziness Can Be a Virtue

Indolence is an underrated virtue. In small doses it can fortify us for our demanding lives. I totally recommend it as an occasional tonic, like a juice fast or a massage. This early 1900s painting is by Frank Markham Skipworth and totally summed up my mood yesterday.

The happiest people, I’ve been told, have a sense of purpose: a mission they are passionate about, children to care for, a class to teach, a milestone to reach. They are energetic and industrious, unable or unwilling to stay still. They have things to accomplish every day, and a brightly burning drive to fill their plate with things that have to get done.

Inertia has always been my greatest enemy. Once I overcome it I can keep going like the Energizer Bunny. That’s why each morning, after finishing my third mug of coffee, my comfy fleece robe starts to feel like chain mail, protecting me from the needling tasks ahead yet weighing me down. So fearlessly I cast it off, dress for the day and keep going…until mid-evening when my battery runs out the second I sink into the couch and disturb its throw pillows for the first time in 21 hours.

But yesterday I tried an experiment: a full day of being a total load.

The idea was hard for me, because my entire adult life I’ve always had a job and/or small children to give me a reason to get out of bed and keep moving. Even our vacation days were usually spent going someplace or getting ready for a holiday or guests. The idea of a day of indolence conjured up images of frowsy, depressed women in Snuggies or shirtless, unemployed men in drawstring sweatpants, drinking Mountain Dew and watching As The World Turns, Beavis & Butthead, and commercials for tech schools and personal injury lawyers.

Yet on the occasions when I’ve been sick, or when a storm forced us to cancel plans and handed us a windfall of time, I secretly relished having an excuse to do nothing. So yesterday, after a morning walk with my friend Jane, I decided that I would live the rest of the day like a total load, by choice.

After some time reading the New York Times online and playing Words With Friends, I fortified myself for an undemanding afternoon by making tomato soup and a Panini of sourdough bread and cheese. With my insides sedated under a blanket of carbs, and dressed in my fleece shirt and loose jeans with an extra few percentages of lycra, I sank into the couch and reached for the television clicker. Hundreds of channels but nothing I really wanted to watch. So I powered up the laptop and found the web site for PBS, and spent more than four hours catching up with “Downton Abbey.”

While the first episode demanded some attention, by the next one I had caught onto the story line and let the characters, the scenery, the plotting and back-stabbing carry me away. I even went to the PBS page to get a synopsis of season 1 and to rate the characters – how likable or despicable they were. (O’Brien, Thomas and Vera got the lowest grades.)

“Shouldn’t you be blogging or something?” asked my husband, up for a break from his normal 10-hour day.

The phone rang a few times, flashing familiar numbers on the caller ID, but I didn’t bother to answer. Even interacting with humans was more effort than I wanted to make right now. The only time I rose was to brew some tea and to look in the refrigerator. I found some homemade peanut butter cups, made by a friend who came to our SuperBowl get-together, and ate one, a little bit at a time. I kept the sharp knife at the ready so I could carve off a little piece whenever the mood struck. By an hour later I had consumed the hockey-puck sized treat.

John came home from school and I barely asked him about his day, so deep was my chocolate coma and my absorption into the World War I-era romances and scandals of Downton Abbey. I took a break from my indolence to quiz him in social studies for a test, to drive him to wrestling practice, sip a glass of wine and warm up some meatballs for dinner. The rest of the evening I lay on the couch, talked on the phone and watched more Downton Abbey. It went so fast and before you know it, it was time for bed.

Today I am looking at a list of jobs to do, things I need to accomplish before the end of the day. But I look back at yesterday without a shred of regret, although I doubt I could live that that all the time. Sometimes the best way to power up is to power down, to push “control/alt/delete” and forcibly shut down all those simultaneously-running tasks. My energies thus re-booted, I am ready for whatever the day brings.

The Story of Another Jack and Bobby

Jack, left, with his best friend Bobby and his daughters Jeanne (top left) and Sheila. Jack and Bobby have been friends for more than six decades and have kept each other company as Jack battles pancreatic cancer.

Most of us thankfully can depend on family members to support us day in and day out during the worst of times. How many of us have at least one great friend who will do the same?

Last week I spent time with Jack and Bobby, a pair of 74-year-old buddies whose friendship started in second grade and never waned. Now Jack is dying of pancreatic cancer, and while he has a loving family, the visits from his old buddy cheer him the most. My story about their friendship was published in the Marlborough Enterprise.

Like the Kennedy legends with the same first names, Jack and Bobby were often inseparable. The brotherly bond between the two men – a bond that has stayed strong despite competition from their large families, busy careers and many other commitments – got me thinking about how our childhood and young adult friendships evolve as we grow older. The bonds that we forged so long ago never go away, but they become rusty and forgotten as other relationships and commitments divert us. The occasional email or holiday card reawakens fond old memories – the whispered secrets at a pajama party, the long sob-fests following a heartbreak, the rum-soaked revelry at a shared beach house — but we tend to move on when the Christmas cards are thrown away and our lives intervene.

That didn’t happen for Jack and Bobby. I think one reason is that they both stayed in the same community except for the time they served in the Marines. But there’s something more: both frankly admit that the pain of being in troubled families made them cling to each other emotionally from the beginning.

Both spoke of the need to escape their parents’ drinking problems and fighting at home, when they were just little kids. Bobby said they both had plenty of other friends, but Jack was the only one who understood what he was going through. As the years went on they remained there for each other – chipping in for gas, doing home improvement projects together, serving as honorary uncles to their growing families, helping each other to be better fathers because they wanted their own kids to have a better family life than they did.

And in their twilight years, they drove each other to the hospital for surgeries, checkups, chemotherapy. Over the past few weeks Bobby has been sitting beside Jack’s hospital bed, sharing stories about boot camp and making him laugh.

If we’re lucky we have buddies like this in our lives. I feel blessed to have my own great friends, some of whom go back to toddlerhood. Others are our neighbors, book club friends, college friends, work friends, terrific adults we met when our children became friends. We trade gossip and child-rearing tips, watch the big game together, bring them casseroles when they are sick, pick up their children at school when they’re stuck. We are there for each other.

Still, no matter how great a friend we try to be, we can always be inspired by the depth of Jack and Bobby’s friendship. It was forged in their childhood pain and it has sustained them in good times and bad over more than six decades. It will continue even after Jack draws his last breath.

Jack’s daughter Jeannie says, “We take good care of him but there’s nothing like the emotional support he gets from Bob. We value him as a dad but having Bob here validates him as somebody else.”

You Say You Want a Resolution? Start Taking Your Own Advice

Happy New Year to all of my readers! Please disregard the nagging nature of this headline. It’s directed not to you but to me. But if you have the bad habit of trying to get others to break the bad habits that you share with them (maybe unbeknownst even to you!) then please read on ☺

Yesterday we packed up all the Christmas stuff, stripped the tree of ornaments and dragged it outside, leaving a path of needles along the way. The house looks bare now, with the garland off the mantels and the Christmas village and electric candles packed away. All of the photos and knick-knacks that previously filled end tables and shelves had been put away to make way for the holiday décor; now I have to remember where I stashed them and contemplate which ones I want to put back.

New Years is traditionally a time to examine our longstanding habits and attitudes and decide which ones are worth keeping. The holidays, with their emphasis on family, kind deeds and merriment, are a welcome distraction from the work of introspection. But the now-empty mantels and shelves are a reminder that I can make a change if I really want it. The pictures that stood there throughout all of 2011 (indeed, I don’t think I’ve moved them since 2007) don’t have to go back to the same place. Lightning won’t strike if I move them to another place, update them or keep them in the closet.

So which habits and attitudes would I like to retire? I’ll tell you: the very same ones that I lecture my loved ones about all the time. Here are a few lectures that I have given others but should play back to myself.

“Make things happen for yourself.”
My daughter Rachel moved to California without knowing anyone, found roommates and a fulltime job, then another better job. And here I sit, worrying about whether I will ever write professionally again because the holidays were a slow time. Time to start brainstorming for ideas and to stop fretting about where I filed my Mojo.

“Get all your hardest work done when you are most alert.”
John has awoken at 5:45 a.m. to tackle the 7th grade algebra problems leftover from the night before. So why was I playing Words With Friends at 7 a.m. today?

“Eat something healthy if you want a snack, especially in late afternoon.”
It’s 4 p.m. Where are the pretzel nuggets?

“You’re incredibly smart, but try to remember to listen.”
Listening is integral to being a good spouse, parent or friend. Why can’t I do it that well? I sometimes pressure myself to dispense advice, when really just lending a friendly ear is enough.

“Get out of your comfort zone sometimes.”
This is especially hard for me since I like things to be somewhat predictable and tend to attempt something only if I am reasonably sure it plays to my strengths.

“Get some exercise outside and you’ll feel better.”
But only if the temperature is between 40 and 75.

“Be a friend and you will have friends.”
How many times do we sense that a friend needs companionship – which they often don’t ask for – and we are too busy or preoccupied to offer it?

“Believe in yourself.”
Sometimes following your inner voice is the most challenging task of all. Technology makes it easier to be confused by a growing barrage of updates, tweets and alerts from people who spend a lot of time making themselves look brilliant, witty and successful, even when they are not. You DO measure up.

One more resolution: be willing to make a big mess in order to do something creative! I tend to be anal in the kitchen, preparing everything in advance so that I can look effortlessly in control when my guests arrive. But on New Years Day our friend Linda brought the fixings for some deliciously messy “lumpia” (Indonesian egg rolls) to our home. We rolled them, laughing heartily at how bad my lumpia looked compared to others. Then we deep fried them and enjoyed them with Indonesian dressing. Worth every grease spatter!