Mums the Word

My favorite photo of my daughter in a princess dress. She didn’t really listen to me at this age either.

I learned a long time ago to keep my mouth shut about major decisions.

Once you share your plans, it builds expectations and people wonder if the job came through, you got the house or the pregnancy test turned out positive. Once people are in the know, it opens to door to questions, unsolicited advice and opinions.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was younger, I was notorious for having a very big mouth and trouble keeping secrets. Just ask my mother, who recalls me asking older relatives embarrassing questions at family gatherings, including this one: “Why don’t you like each other?”

But with age, I’ve learned the value of keeping quiet. There’s nothing worse than opening your mouth, and then having to explain that you didn’t get the job, or the promotion you expected went to someone else. As my paternal grandmother used to implore me after filling me in on something, “Don’t say nothing.”

My best kept secret was my son. After 10 years of disappointment and stories of adoptions that fell through at the last minute, I told only my parents that we were about to bring him home. I brought him to my parents’ house and my sisters were shocked to see him in my arms, mainly because they couldn’t believe I kept such a big secret.

This has been on my mind lately because my daughter is applying to colleges, and applied to one early decision. She told five of her friends where she applied early decision, and even had a friend take a photo of her sending in the application. I told her I don’t think it’s a good idea because she’ll have to explain herself if she doesn’t get in.

After screaming and telling me I’m old and out of touch with today’s kids, she defended her decision. This brought to mind the famous John Lennon quote:

It’s true, isn’t it? Not many people’s lives go perfectly according to plan. Most of us are living our own version of Plan B, making the best of what’s in front of us. But it’s hard to drum cautious optimism into a teen-ager with a stubborn streak.

“This is how I’m wired,” she said. “My friends are supportive, and I want them there if I don’t get in.”

Fair enough. But we’re living in a society where people overshare everything on social media, and I still believe some things – like your college plans – should be kept confidential.

Back in the dark ages when I applied to colleges, you never told anyone where you were applying for fear of jinxing it. I looked up the origins of this superstition, and found that it’s rooted in ancient Mediterranean cultures that believed the evil eye would be cast on those who boasted about their good fortune.

I don’t know why humans are programmed to anticipate the worst, but apparently it traces back to our ancestors. I guess we can blame them for this spirit of pessimism and superstition, along with a host of other less than desirable traits.

I know other people in my age group share my belief in jinxing things by discussing them. Several months ago, a friend confided to me her plans to pursue her dream of buying and operating a business. She’d been in discussions for months and wanted to share her news, but worried that discussing it might make the deal fall through.

She asked that I keep our conversation confidential and I did. If the deal fell through – which it didn’t – I didn’t want to be responsible. But I was honored that she trusted me enough to keep quiet. It was clear she had no idea what a big mouth I’d been in my youth.

So far, neither kid has followed my advice about keeping things close to the vest. They do what they want, dismissing me as old-fashioned and out of touch. But I hope one day they’ll see the value in the saying, “Silence is golden.” Maybe this is something a lot of us must learn from experience.

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Slacker Time

The Curmudgeon and our lab puppy Lindsey, circa 1996.

The other day, one of my elderly passengers was suffering from a terrible cold.

Turns out that the world’s worst cold had descended upon her living quarters, bringing her and nearly all of the other women who live in her complex to their knees.

As she coughed to show me how sick she was, I promised to make her homemade chicken and kale soup, which is the only thing I ate when I came down with a really bad cold about three years ago. This isn’t to be confused with my “wonton soup” cold last year, when the only thing I could stomach was Chinese dumplings swimming in broth.

“Oh, that sounds terrific,” she said, as we made our way to her doctor’s office. “I can’t wait. When will you be bringing it over?” Gulp.

I hadn’t planned on making it immediately. In fact, I told her that I’d have to go to the store to buy all of the ingredients, including a rotisserie chicken that’s the cornerstone of the recipe. But I suddenly realized that the pressure was on because I’d offered to make it, and now she was expecting it. She was sick as a dog, and needed it now.

I went to the store and got the ingredients later that day. The next morning, I prepared the soup and delivered it to the sick ward, relieved that I was free of my obligation and hoping it would help.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need a deadline to get things done. During my years as a reporter, I’d often leave things until the last minute, scrambling to get things done under the wire.

One of my former co-workers at a chain of weeklies used to call me “Deadline Girl.” And as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I haven’t gotten any better with my time management skills. Things often sound like a good idea when I propose them, but following through is another story.

I bought yards of beautiful fabric for dining room curtains about 10 years ago, and it’s still sitting in my linen closet. I’ve been meaning to hang five pictures that were removed during my kitchen remodel for seven years. And a stock photo of two strangers has remained in an old photo cube for nearly 25 years, occupying space along with my niece and a young Curmudgeon with our first yellow lab.

Who are these people? The stock photo in my old photo cube.

I have no idea why I haven’t inserted my own photo after all this time, but I haven’t. It’s been there so long I almost feel as though I know the people. Have you ever heard a lamer excuse in your life?

One of my father’s favorite expressions – and believe me, he had tons of them – was “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Dating back to the days of Ancient Greece and Plato, it means when the need for something becomes imperative, you’re forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.

It makes me feel slightly better that procrastination (or should I say inertia?) has been plaguing man since ancient times. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m getting worse about accomplishing simple tasks.

I began to make a Thanksgiving invitation with Punchbowl, but didn’t complete it because I didn’t have all of my contacts and my iPhone ran out of juice. Even Punchbowl is baffled, sending me the following emails: “Only two more steps to complete your invitations” and today: “Where did you go?” (Good question)

The other day, a friend and I stopped into a farm market to buy apples to make pies. My friend made her crust the next day and assembled her pie, proudly handing me a slice to sample. She asked about my pie, but I had no words. How do you tell someone you haven’t gotten around to peeling and cutting six apples yet?

It’s been five days and my apples are still sitting in the refrigerator along with two frozen gluten-free pie shells that have now defrosted. If I don’t make the pie soon, I’ll need new apples and shells. But this is how I operate. Without a deadline or an elderly woman asking when I’m going to produce the goods, I’m lost.

I have friends who are organized and use every moment to their advantage, and I’m in awe of their accomplishments and time management skills. One woman, my sister’s neighbor Nancy, uses rainy days to make batches of banana bread made from ripe bananas she stores in her freezer. Her Thanksgiving table is always set the day before the holiday, just about the time I’m beginning to wonder where my tablecloths are.

I’d love to be that organized, but it’s not going to happen. Which brings to mind another of my Dad’s favorite expressions: “Know thyself.”

Panza Presenza

Someone in Italy is reading my blog.

When my stats popped up on WordPress.com, the boot of Italy was illuminated like a Christmas tree. This would be exceptionally thrilling except that it’s my sister and her family, who are visiting the motherland on vacation.

Though I’ve got about as much Irish in me as Italian, I consider myself Italian American because my father’s family came from Sicily. I don’t know if all families lean toward the father’s side in terms of traditions and heritage, but that’s how my family rolled. I guess it’s inevitable when your last name is Milazzo.

About the only sign of my mother’s Irish roots was a crest on a blue and gold tapestry hanging in our finished basement. I don’t know why it was relegated to the basement, but one day it appeared on a dark paneled wall across from the bar and has hung in the same spot for 50 years.

I never asked my mother about the crest, which represents the county where both of her grandmothers were born, until now. She said she bought it from another doctor’s wife who was from Ireland and hosted an art show. She bought the tapestry and two framed prints to help my Dad decorate the basement, which he finished himself.

Aside from the tapestry, there are no other obvious signs of being Irish in the house. There is no Old Irish Blessing hanging on the wall,, nor Celtic crosses, Irish kitchen prayers or anything with shamrocks on it. (The Irish blessing is on an old liquor bottle behind the bar, but I never knew it was there until Mom showed it to me. I don’t think it counts since no one ever knew it was there.)

Mom’s Irish tapestry.
Mom shows me an old liquor bottle containing the Old Irish prayer (below).
I love the Old Irish Blessing.

This is a little sad because the Irish are such a welcoming, friendly and festive bunch, as I learned when I married into a family named Murphy.

Both of the Curmudgeon’s parents were Irish, which made it easy for them to celebrate their Irish heritage and they did – with bells on. My father-in-law was the consummate host, filling our wine glasses before they were empty at dinners. Champagne began flowing at 9 o’clock Christmas morning, tingling our toes as we opened our gifts and requiring a power nap before we gathered for Christmas dinner.

But it’s tougher when parents come from different ethnic backgrounds because families must choose which traditions to keep alive. I guess it’s a little like when parents of two different religions marry and must decide how to raise their child. More often than not, they must choose one religion because it’s practical and less confusing for the child.

I don’t know why Italian won over Irish – perhaps it’s an outgrowth of our paternalistic society and a surname that came straight from a town in Sicily – but we were raised to think and conduct ourselves as Italian American women.

One of the first rules is good manners, and always having more than enough food to eat. If you have just enough food or wine, you risk running out and embarrassing yourself. And let’s face it, no Italian American hostess with any sense of pride wants to do that.

One night while growing up, my mother ran out of veal cutlets at a weeknight dinner. We’d all finished our meals, so the empty platter meant that there wouldn’t be leftovers for sandwiches the next day (seriously, a huge blessing. Finding a cold veal cutlet between two slices of bread in your lunch bag is the biggest disappointment in the word).

When my father saw the empty platter, he turned to my mother and said, “I guess I’m not giving you enough money for meat.” My mom looked rightfully hurt and annoyed because she had prepared enough cutlets. But this is how it with Italian Americans. You may not want or eat the leftovers, but you want to know they’re there.

Another rule is cleaning the house for company. I don’t mean picking up and a light vacuuming. I mean a full-on deep cleaning including wall, baseboard and floor scrubbing, upholstery cleaning, polishing furniture, wiping down windows and dusting door and window jams. Above all, the bathroom must be immaculate.

One of my mother’s biggest pet peeves with my father was his insistence on cleaning doorknobs and light switches before guests arrived. “There’s so much to do around here and he’s polishing doorknobs,” she’d say. It kind of became our catch-all expression for people doing minor work when major jobs loomed.

The other major rule for Italian American queens is never to show up at someone’s house empty-handed. In our house, we referred to people who committed this faux pas as showing up panza presenza. I don’t know if this is the correct translation, but in our house it meant presenting yourself with your empty stomach.

Huh? Here’s an example:

You’re hosting a party. Most guests bring food, wine, flowers or other hostess gifts, but someone shows up with only a smile. The next day, her (and it is always her, not his) oversight is duly noted.

“Can you believe she showed up panza presenza? someone asks. “No, I really can’t. She couldn’t have picked up a few pastries on her way over here? Like we’re all not busy? Who does she think she is coming over here empty-handed?”

Showing up with something is deeply ingrained in my psyche. The other day, we were visiting relatives, who were hosting us for an overnight stay. As we sat in the car waiting for the ferry, I turned to the Curmudgeon and said, “We’ve got to bring something. I can’t show up panza presenza. It’s bad form.”

So we trotted over to a bakery and bought a blueberry pie. It wasn’t much, but it was something. At least we didn’t show up on their doorstep with just two growling stomachs looking to be fed. You want people to feed you because they want to, not because you’re ravenous. (And incidentally, you never show up at someone’s house starving. That’s bad form too.)

I’ve never been to Italy, but I hope to change that next summer. Both kids are graduating from their respective schools, and we’re thinking of going over to see the old country. It’s too early for a non-planner like me to think about, but I’ve already have one prospective stop.

While writing this piece, I stumbled across a restaurant in Sicily on the web called Panza E Presenza. It’s located in none other than Milazzo. Coincidence? You tell me.

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Broken Vows

A man, his paper and juice.

It was an innocent question.

“Do you need anything at the grocery store?”

So I was a little taken aback when the Curmudgeon fired back with this response dripping in sarcasm:

“Orange juice. I mean, could we get some orange juice in this house?”

To be fair, my daughter drinks orange juice like water, and my son was home from college, putting an enormous strain on the food supply. But I’d never heard him complain about orange juice, and was surprised by his tone.

So I asked him about the orange juice, and here’s what I got:

“Orange juice is part of the trust,” he said. “It’s expected that you’re going to always have milk, juice, butter and eggs in the refrigerator. Why wouldn’t you buy orange juice if you’re at the store?”

This was the first time in 36 years of marriage that I’d ever heard the words OJ and trust in the same sentence. I had no idea specific food and beverages were part of the marriage contract. I had no idea I was breaking a sacred trust by failing to supply orange juice on a daily basis.

But that’s what great about marriage. You’re always learning something new, even when you least expect it.

It didn’t start out this way. At one point, the Curmudgeon was a prodigious grocery shopper, slipping into to the store after jogging at night, or bringing the kids to basketball games on Saturdays.

But the Curmudgeon has pretty much retired from grocery shopping, except for the occasional dash for doggie yogurt, fat-free chocolate milk, beer or butter and eggs, which we can’t keep around with a teen-age baker under our roof.

His retreat from the grocery store was subtle yet steady and deliberate, much like a woman extracting herself from a toxic friendship. It was clear that he was no longer interested in grocery runs, but no words were spoken. He just stopped going to the store and I picked up the slack.

This seems to be how most household chores are ultimately divided between spouses – the war of attrition. One day, you turn around and realize that you’re doing the grocery shopping, housework and bulk of the child-rearing, though that’s not exactly how you envisioned it at the pre-Cana conference.

I admire women who assign weekly grocery shopping to their husbands. They’re my heroes, and I’d like to talk to them about their power of persuasion someday. But the majority of American women – a whopping 70 percent – are still the primary grocery shoppers for their families, according to a survey by Progressive Shopper.

“Although women’s personal and professional advancements have grown significantly in recent decades, their time spent grocery shopping has not decreased,” the study states.

Women also are the “rulers of the kitchen” (no surprise here). According to the report, 84 percent of women are the sole preparer of meals in the household, with 61 percent of women stating that they prepare meals at least five times per week.

Aside from meal preparation and grocery shopping, women also are responsible for other important household areas: seven in 10 women said cleaning the house is their job, while three-fifths said they take on the majority of the laundry chores in the home.

Seriously? This isn’t fair. No wonder women are so stressed out, exhausted, angry and in need of self-care. We’re doing everything around the house except taking out the garbage and putting salt in the well. I think all of us need to stand up for ourselves a little more.

I had no idea how much I dread grocery shopping until I returned from vacation last summer. I was still in “re-entry mode” – that weird state when you just return from vacation but feel and want to be still away – and a major grocery shop loomed.

The thought of going to my regular supermarket was overwhelming, so I drove 15 minutes to another store in a different town. I associated grocery shopping with being home and back in my routine, and I wanted no part of it. And though I’ve returned to my regular store dozens of times since then, I dread it. Every. Single. Time.

My worst recent experience occurred on senior citizens’ Tuesday when I was nearly run down by an elderly woman in a riding shopping cart. As she cruised the aisles, she had her husband on speaker phone, barking orders from home for specific food items. They were too lazy to write out a list, so she decided to call him and inflict their conversation on the entire store.

I wouldn’t have minded, except that she wasn’t watching where she was going while she drove the cart. She was completely oblivious to everyone else, and nearly drove into me in the dairy section as I was headed to get – you guessed it – the orange juice.

Hey Gourdgeous

Three gourds drawn by my sister-in-law Ann.

I’ve got a little thing with gourds this year.

I’m not sure why, but I can’t get enough of the gnarled, twisted, lumpy, misshapen and in some cases downright hideous-looking symbols of fall lining shelves at supermarkets, garden centers and farm stands.

They’re in my window boxes, nestled between the fading miniature mums and decorative cabbage. They’re on my countertops, holding court in white ceramic bowls and baskets. And they’re on the kitchen table, peeking out of the box holding the salt and pepper, condiments, napkins and sauce packets from the Chinese place.

I should have suspected things were a little off when I texted the following to my friend (and fellow gourd fan) Barbara on Sept. 23rd:

“The farm stand near your house has phenomenal pumpkins and gourds this year.”

I never heard back from her, which was unusual, so I checked the number. I actually sent that text to a stranger, who’s probably wondering what constitutes a phenomenal gourd and why anyone would actually care.

I was equally smitten when my sister-in-law Ann drew three gourds and posted her work on Instagram (#annsarthabit).

“Very cool gourds,” I wrote.

I’m not sure when this love affair (obsession?) with gourds began, but I think it may be a function of age. I never cared about them when I was younger, wondering who’d spend good money on nature’s ugliest bounty. But I’m fascinated with gourds now, realizing they’re Mother Nature’s version of the troll – so ugly that they’re cute and endearing.

Perhaps as we age and become a little lumpier and bumpier ourselves, we develop a soft spot in our hearts for things that are less than perfect. How else do you explain buying a gourd covered in bumps that at certain angles, looks like the surface of the moon?

Gourd close-up.
Moon close-up.

Last year, I stacked several large gourds as part of an autumn display in my memorial garden for my first Lab Lindsey in my front yard. But I’ve been slow to bite the bullet on big gourds this year, mainly because I’ve lacked the time to leisurely gourd shop.

I don’t just want to grab any old gourds on the run. I want time to study them, to decide whether I really want an orange one that looks like it has Elephant Man’s disease or a white one resembling a human brain. Unlike pumpkins, gourds require a bit of deliberation. You must decide whether the lumps and bumps are endearing, or simply too hideous to bear. And because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s probably best to gourd shop alone.

I learned this last weekend at my favorite farm stand, when a teen-age girl ran up to a length of tables holding hundreds of gourds, picked up a small yellow one shaped like a pear and said, “Can we get this one Mom? Puleeze?”

I stared at the mom, hoping she’d say yes. It was such a simple request. It wasn’t a $400 Apple watch, a $1,000 MacBook Air or even a $5 gourmet cupcake from the overpriced Italian bakery down the street. It was a tiny gourd being sold for $1.49/pound.

The mom looked at me waiting for her response. And when she nodded and said it was OK to buy, we smiled at each other. At that moment, we both understood that in the grand scheme of things, a daughter’s request for a pale yellow gourd was a simple wish, and that others wouldn’t always be so simple, cheap or attainable.

My furtive bounty.
Small gourds in autumn hues.

Of course, not everyone appreciates gourds. I was hoping the Curmudgeon would heave some heavy gourds into a wagon and the car for me, but he brushed off my request to buy big gourds.

“Big gourds are dumb,” he muttered, as a couple of young women spirited by with a wagon full of huge gourds. “I bought you a nice pumpkin, and five small gourds. Why do you need big gourds too?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell the Curmudgeon that no one needs gourds, but people want them because they like them around. People have been cultivating gourds for 5,000 years to use for everything from drinking vessels to weapons, so I have humanity and its survival on my side. I’m not the first and certainly the last person to want big gourds.

So I returned to the farm stand on my own, and heaved two big gourds and a 20-pound Hubbard squash into my wagon. I have no idea where I’m putting them, but that’s not the point. I finally put in the time and effort to get the gourds I want. And right now, that’s enough for me.

Open Interview

When my son first went away to school five years ago, I became obsessed with getting a job.

Being out of the job market for nearly 20 years – and 56 years old – weren’t exactly strong selling points, but I applied to dozens of jobs on Indeed.com for everything from a writer to a brand ambassador for Kind bars.

Many of the jobs were below my experience level or pay grade, but you commit employment hari kari when you stay home with kids. Employers think you’re a brain-dead ditz who spent her days watching TV and eating bonbons (which is not to say this never happened. It might have. That’s all I’ll say on that subject).

They also assume that you’re out of touch with the working world, particularly computers and technology. They’d much rather hire a kid fresh out of school with magic thumbs than somone who started out on clunky VDTs (video display terminals) in 1981.

I never got one interview from Indeed, and began to wonder if anyone did. That is until I applied for a writing job and was invited to an “open interview” in a public library about an hour’s drive away. In the application, we were encouraged to show our writing chops, so I wrote what I thought was an amusing cover letter.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I got the email to come in for an interview, relieved that someone finally appreciated my sense of humor.

I was happy until I opened the company’s Facebook page and saw that they invited the public to the open interviews at the library. The slight kick I had in my step vanished when the library posted a “job fair” sign in the lobby inviting everyone to the open interviews too.

So much for my writing chops.

I called up the Curmudgeon and told him that I wasn’t going to bother going to the open interview, which we both joked sounded like an “open marriage.” But he quickly turned into my father, ordering me to go. By the way, he’d never do this to either of our kids. He is such a pushover when it comes to them.

“I think you should go,” he said. “You are too much in your shell. You’ve got to get out and explore. If you don’t like what they have to offer, just go home and walk the dog.”

He may be right. Staying home eliminates the need to get dressed up or put on make-up on a daily basis. One of the things I enjoyed most about working is that it kept me honest. It forced me to get dressed up, do my hair and make-up and generally look presentable every day.

I can’t say this has always been true as a stay-at-home mom. I’ve let some things go. In fact, I’ve often felt the need to apologize when walking into Ulta, where employees often look up and probably think: “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

So I looked at this interview as a chance to regain my edge, or some semblance of it.

I dressed in business casual: a new silky blouse from the Loft, a black skirt, black tights and black ankle boots that I hoped would make me look a little younger and hip than I am. I took my seat among three other job candidates, including a young girl sitting with her grandmother.

“This is my first job interview,” she said.

“Oh, did you just graduate from school?” I asked.

“No, I’m actually still in school,” she said.

“Oh, what college?” I asked.

“Well, no, it’s high school. I’m a junior in high school.”

So there it was: I was vying for a writing job against a high school junior, who also applied on Indeed.com and was invited to the open interview. Another applicant was a journalism major at Central Connecticut State University, though blessedly she appeared to be at least 20.

After waiting for about an hour, I was invited into a meeting room and told by my prospective boss that this would be a “speed interview,” which I assume is akin to speed dating. But as I sat there and answered a few questions, I began to wonder about the “open interview” process.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to sift through applications and narrow down the applicant pool instead of hosting a cattle call? And how much can you really learn about someone and their abilities in five or 10 minutes? I think an “open interview” is a useless step, particularly after learning that serious candidates would have to return for a second interview.

But that’s just me. I’m old-fashioned like that. Which is probably why I’ll continue to write my blog and leave this writing job to the high school junior. (By the way, I’m pulling for her to get the job. Can you imagine how good it would look on her college application?)

One of the many pitfalls of getting older is an unwillingness to do things or perform tasks that you were willing to do in your youth to get ahead and advance your career. As you age, you get a lot more picky about how and with whom you spend your time. And at the end of the day, you realize time is a lot more valuable than money.

I’ve learned that I don’t like open interviews, so I’ll probably never subject myself to another one. I’ve learned to embrace my part-time job, which allows me the time and freedom to explore and express myself.

But mostly, I did what the Curmudgeon asked of me. I showed up, and gave it my best shot. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dog to walk.

Uber Baby Steps

I’m not a social media influencer.

But I can take credit for encouraging one stay-at-home mother to become an Uber driver after reading my recent blog post about signing up to drive. And after two weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally opened the Uber app and drove my first passenger, earning a whopping $4.

I’d probably still be on the fence had it not been for my new Uber comrade, who texted and called me after she signed up. She wanted to discuss her first two rides, and I had to confess I hadn’t opened the Uber app yet.

While I was sitting home mulling the whole thing over, she was hitting the road in her SUV, shepherding a high school student to his mom’s house in a neighboring town, and bringing a teen-ager to work at a nearby shopping center.

Listening to her talk, I found myself jealous about her spirit of adventure and willingness to try new things. And though she complained about the pay, I reminded her that she provided a service to two kids who really needed it.

I had to remind myself that this was my idea, and I needed to get with the program if I ever planned to drive with Uber. I went to Dino’s Car Wash and shelled out $29 for the MVP package, which included a wipe down of my dusty dashboard. I was just returning home in my immaculate car when my Uber app jingled.

The sound is something like a slot machine when you hit the jackpot. Hearing the sound makes you think you’ve won something, and you actually have: a chance to rake in a couple of dollars shuttling people around. It’s kind of the same feeling when you hear the CoinStar machine at the supermarket. The sound of coins in a machine is exciting and invigorating, even if it’s just someone’s jar of old pennies being counted.

Once you’re pinged, you have about a second to decide if you’ll take it. If you hesitate, you’re out of luck. But don’t worry. I was constantly reminded that I was in a “busy” area and ride requests would be flowing in at any minute.

My children tell me all the time that I’m “technology challenged” and I can’t argue with them. When the Uber app went off, I had no idea what I was looking at, but decided to accept the request from a rider named Cody. As I drove over to Cody’s house, I realized that I had no idea where he wanted to go and just hoped it wasn’t Bradley International Airport or New York City. I had no time for a long drive, so I hoped that Cody was staying local.

And he was: a recent high school graduate who hasn’t gotten his driver’s license yet, he needed a lift to his job at Shop Rite supermarket, where he works as a cashier. Cody doesn’t live on or near a bus line, and his parents encouraged him to use Uber so they don’t have to cart him around all the time. He said all of his experiences have been positive (at least up until our ride).

I told Cody that he was my first-ever Uber rider, and he seemed honored. I wished that I had flashing lights like they do on the show “Cash Cab”or a cupcake to mark the event, but alas I did not. What I did have was a captive audience in Cody. The kid is proof that today’s teen-agers can carry on a conversation if given a chance.

Cody is working at the supermarket to save money to attend school to learn how to be an auto mechanic. Though many of his high school classmates are now away at college, he said some of his friends work with him at the supermarket.

He said most of the customers he encounters are nice, but noted their moods tend to shift with the weather. Show him a stormy, grey day and customers are likely to be a foul mood, he said. But he said overall his expeience as a cashier has been positive. This was such a relief for me. I’d hate to have people being mean to Cody because he’s such a nice kid.

After I dropped off Cody at the store, I realized that I hadn’t swiped and officially launched my Uber route. I immediately texted my Uber guru Shali, noting “I just did my first ride, and I want to make sure I get the $4 I deserve coming to me.”

She told me not to worry, that it had been logged and I’d be paid. And then she reminded me that I still hadn’t entered my bank account information, which is needed if I expect to get paid.

Will I do it again? Sure, why not? I have the time, and I really like the concept of Uber, which is built on trust between driver and passenger. Besides, I’m not sure any other stay at home mothers have signed up, meaning my comrade and I now own this town.

A Teaching Gem

Karen Mooney

It’s college admission time for my daughter, so she asked if I’d like to read her essay.

But before she showed it to me, she issued a warning: “We had to write about the most influential person in our life and it’s not you. I hope you’re not too insulted because I know how competitive you are.”

As parents who spent the bulk of our time raising our children to the age of majority, we assume we played a major role in their development and success, and deserve a mention in a college essay. But if it couldn’t be me, I’m happy that it was my daughter’s middle school special education teacher Karen Mooney, who taught her the importance of self-advocacy.

On the final day of school in eighth grade, Mrs. Mooney told her that she’d have to stand up and fight for herself to succeed in high school. She was the first teacher who believed in her, and taught her to believe in herself. I think that’s the greatest gift a teacher can give to a student. And if you’re really lucky, you had a teacher like Mrs. Mooney along the way.

My “Mrs. Mooney” didn’t come until I was in college taking a literary journalism class from Robert Taylor, who wrote for the Boston Globe. Mr. Taylor gave me high marks on everything I wrote, making me think that I had a shot in journalism. He’s the reason I did an internship at the Hartford Courant during my senior year, and applied to dozens of newspapers as a new college graduate.

I had lofty dreams of working for a major metro right after college, but was brought down to earth when I got rejection letters telling me I’d need five years of experience to be considered. So I slogged away a small dailies and weeklies, happy to be paid doing something I loved. I’m not sure I’d have taken that path had it not been for Mr. Taylor, who shaped the course of my life.

But back to Mrs. Mooney.

Anyone who’s ever had a child in special education knows that it can be very trying, both for the child and parents. You want your child to get the help she needs, but worry that she’s alienated from peers in “typical” classrooms. You understand the need for a special ed classroom, but worry that it’s its own kind of prison.

This feeling can be worsened by teachers who pigeonhole students, assuming every child has the same learning disabilities and adopting a uniform teaching strategy. One of my daughter’s teachers was guilty of this, making our experience in 5th and 6th grades a nightmare.

We eventually hired two education consultants to help us navigate the system, but I worried about parents who didn’t have the funds or wherewithal to advocate for their children. Did they just accept what they were told because they didn’t have any other options? It bothered me that only financially capable people were able to afford most advocates, who charge $100 an hour for their services.

Happily, things changed when my daughter got to 7th grade. Instead of being negative and limiting like her previous teacher, Mrs. Mooney was upbeat and funny, and always made me feel optimistic about my daughter and her future. She viewed each child as an individual, with her own set of challenges and goals.

Instead of an adversarial approach to parents, Mrs. Mooney made me feel like we were all on the same team and wanted the same thing: for students to reach their full potential. During a recent visit at the middle school, she noted keeping a positive attitude is often difficult for kids in special ed, because they’ve usually had their share of failure and disappointment by the time they reach 7th grade.

“Some kids are so discouraged they just say, ‘why should I bother?'” she said. “But things are always possible if you keep an open mind. The biggest advice I give parents is you know your child better than anyone else, so don’t let anyone say they can’t do something if you believe in your heart they can.”

An educator for nearly 35 years, Mrs. Mooney is currently in her 29th year teaching at the middle school. She admits that she’s the elder statesmen among teachers, but said she has no plans to retire. She mentors new teachers, emphasizing the importance of building strong connections between students, parents and teachers.

“If you don’t have that relationship, nothing is going to work,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is all about the kids.”

In her brief profile on the district website, Mrs. Mooney notes that she knew in high school that she wanted to be a teacher.

“I have always thought that every child can learn,” she states. “With guidance, patience, encouragement and exposure to a variety of materials and experiences, every child can succeed to the best of their ability.”

Last year, my daughter visited Mrs. Mooney at the middle school. I didn’t know what they talked about. Mrs. Mooney said that she came to thank her for encouraging her to stand up for herself. I also thanked her during my visit to the school the other day. Teachers always hear from parents when they do something wrong, so I wanted her to know she played a major role in my daughter’s success in high school.

Mrs. Mooney encouraged self-advocacy, putting students rather than parents in charge of their education. This is unusual in the arena of special education, where parents often feel over-protective and that they must fight the system for their kids.

An educator reminded me why this is so: schools are on the defensive with any child with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) because of the fear of a lawsuit if they fail to provide services. I get it, but feeling like you’re constantly bucking heads is the last thing parents want when they meet with school officials. And I’ll admit it, I lost it on more than one occasion at these meetings.

This is why Mrs. Mooney is such a breath of fresh air. Instead of bureaucracy and red tape, there was care, concern and encouragement. We were lucky, very lucky, that she crossed our path when she did. I just wish every family was as fortunate.


Baby Fever

Fenway Park from a nearby apartment building rooftop.

My nephew and his wife just had a baby boy.

He’s the first great-grandchild in our very huge extended family, so we’re thrilled. I was dying to see him, but I waited a month before I asked if we could stop by and see the little guy in Boston.

We got the go-ahead after watching our last Red Sox game of a very disappointing season at Fenway Park. The Sox looked like they had it wrapped up leading 5-1 in the top of the 8th inning, so I suggested cutting out early to see the little nugget.

“Let’s go,” I said. “I’m bored and getting cold.” I didn’t get an argument from my sister, brother-in-law and niece, so we went to a souvenir shop to pick up some swag for the baby. Truth be told, we were all much more excited about the baby than the game.

As we walked to my nephew’s apartment, we heard a roar in Fenway Park that made us think we might’ve made a mistake leaving. By the time we got to the apartment building on Boylston Street, the score was 5-4, and the San Francisco Giants were coming on strong.

“Uh oh,” I muttered. “The Curmudgeon’s going to kill me when he finds out that we left early. Do me a favor and don’t say anything.”

Our problem was quickly solved when we took an elevator to the 20th floor rooftop deck and peered over one side of the building. There in all its glory was Fenway Park. And though the infield was obscured by the stadium, you could see two outfielders, watch the scoreboard and hear the roar of the crowd.

Talk about prime real estate.

While the game progressed, we craned our necks for a better view of the Tiny Man, who was sleeping and nuzzled next to his mommy in a front pack. As we watched him snooze, I tried to remember having a newborn, but couldn’t. I had no recollection of ever feeding, changing, bathing or holding a baby so small, though I’ve done it twice.

Thank goodness for photos from the newborn stage because it’s a blur.

Babies put their parents in survival mode for the first few months, perhaps explaining my memory lapse of parenting a newborn. Well, it’s not a complete lapse. When my daughter was about two weeks old, I told the Curmudgeon that I planned to walk away from the house until I could no longer hear her shrieking. I got about a half-mile away before I finally found some peace and quiet.

To this day, it’s hard for me to listen to a baby screaming, particulary in a store when I’m trying to shop. I spared fellow customers the agony by pretty much keeping my daughter home during the first few years. She screamed whenever we left the house, so it was just easier to stay home. Some would argue that wasn’t the best strategy, but it’s how I coped.

My sister doesn’t need any advice on grandparenting, but I gave her some anyway: Resist the urge to comment on your son and daughter-in-law’s parenting skills, particularly in the first few months when sleep is at a premium and nerves are jangled.

One relative refused to give me the satisfaction of complaining about my daughter’s fussiness and incessant crying. Nicknamed the “Screech Owl,” she cried non-stop for about three years. Even my mother, who had seven kids, said she was difficult.

But I could never get any sympathy from one relative, who always brushed off my complaints.

“She’s a baby,” I was told. “And babies cry.”

I wanted a kind ear and maybe a little babysitting help, but what I got felt an awful lot like criticism. Of course, I may have been overly sensitive. I had a newborn and my nearly 4-year-old son reverted to acting like an 18-month-old. Happily, he outgrew that phase after a few months.

During our visit with my grand-nephew (boy, do I feel old writing that), we took turns holding the baby, who slept peacefully as he was passed from one person to the next. The thrilling moment came when he cracked open his deep blue eyes and pursed his lips while I was holding him. It reminded me that when you have a tiny baby, everything is monumental.

Babies fascinate us. Experts say it’s because we’re drawn to really cute things and babies top that list. But scientists say it goes deeper than that, saying a part of the human brain is immediately activated when we see a baby’s face that remains unchanged when we see an adult. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080226213448.htm

So in effect, none of us can help going bonkers over babies. It’s hard-wired in our DNA, and is basically part of the evolution process.

After we left, I texted my sister and told her about our visit with her grandson. It was clear that he’s stolen her heart. Babies do this. They make us instantly fall in love, reminding us that life’s full of hope, possibility and joy.

Though she’d left Boston shortly before we arrived to return home to Connecticut, my sister was already counting the days until her next visit.

“I miss him so much,” she texted.

I understand, because so do I. I’m trying to figure out if I can sneak in another visit during an upcoming college tour around Boston with my daughter. I’ve got baby fever too.

To Uber or Not

After signing up to drive, I’m feeling a little hesitant to join the Uber team.

I’ve signed up to be an Uber driver.

It was surprisingly easy. After downloading the app, I gave my license, registration, social security information and passed a background check. The biggest hurdle was coming up with a decent headshot. It took four tries before I came up with an acceptable photo.

But now that I’ve been approved to drive passengers (and their emotional support animals), I’m not sure I’ll actually drive anyone. I’m hesitant to open the Uber app to see if anyone needs a ride, so I haven’t. And though I thoroughly cleaned my SUV after I was approved last week, it’s a mess again so I can’t carry passengers until I clean it.

Uber driving seems like a bit of a stretch for those who know me, but I have a part-time job driving for a religious organization that I thoroughly enjoy. You wouldn’t believe how appreciative people are when they need a ride. I’d forgotten until we waited over a half hour for our son to pick us up at the ferry on Martha’s Vineyard over the summer. By the time he got there, I didn’t know if I wanted to hug or scream at him for making us wait so long.

As a reporter for years, I enjoy meeting and talking to strangers and hearing their stories. People open up in cars, telling you intimate details of their lives, from their recuperation from a stroke to their decision to attend their 20th high school reunion in Maine against their better judgment.

And there’s little on the line talking to a driver in a car, which may be the 21st Century equivalent of the neighborhood bartender. People spend a lot of time in transit these days, and the preferred method is Uber. I figure at the very least, I may get a little fodder for my blog.

I’m not worried about my safety because, well, I’m just not. I covered crime in some of the worst areas of New Haven, CT., and didn’t give it a second thought. This is something of a miracle for a person who tends to obsess about almost everything.

One of the reasons I registered to drive is my incredibly positive experience with Uber. Every time I’ve needed a ride, Uber drivers have been quick, polite and professional. I’ve got some time on my hands now that the kids are back in school, and I wanted to return the favor and earn a little pocket change.

What I love most about Uber is how it gets you out of jams. During a recent visit to Boston, my niece realized that she’d be late for a college meeting if we walked a half-hour back to Boston University. We were in the middle of dinner, and the options were packing up our meals or calling an Uber.

Within four minutes, our driver arrived in a Toyota Hylander, and we were spiriting along the streets of Boston. Along the way, our driver told us he’d been driving for Uber for two years, and likes it because of its flexibility. It’s his full-time job, and he’s doing well: the day he drove us, he’d already earned $330 via 20 rides.

Another incentive is your car must be immaculate. I told my husband that if I signed up to be an Uber driver, it would force me to keep my car clean. I said I might even equip the backseat with hand sanitizer, tiny bottles of water and tissues like many of the most considerate Uber drivers.

I need a little inspiration to keep my vehicle clean because my messy car is legendary. Back in the day, my dad gave me a bumper sticker: “A clean car is a sign of a sick mind.” What a jokester. When I told my brother-in-law Rich about my Uber plans, he said, “You can’t do it. Your car’s not clean enough.”

We’ll see about that.

One thing is very clear: Uber wants me on the road. Within hours of my approval, Uber texted me that my account was active and I could sign in and start earning money immediately.

When five days passed and I still hadn’t signed in, they sent me the following text:

“Do you have questions about taking your first trip? Most drivers do. Visit the Stamford hub to ask questions.”

When two more days passed without any action, I got this text:

“Wanna get rolling and start earning? Get support from Uber experts at the Stamford Greenlight Hub.”

And this yesterday:

“Shali here from Uber. Did you know Uber partners have access to special deals on phone bills, gas and more? Take your first trip and enjoy your perks today.”

What I’m wondering is this: has anyone ever called the Greenlight Hub and said they’re having second thoughts?

I’m not really sure I want to drive for Uber. I think I may have just wanted the option to do it. How many times do we sign up for things thinking it’s a good idea only to dread it once the day comes around to actually do it?

This came to light while discussing a possible part-time job decorating specialty doughnuts with my friend. As we discussed sharing the job, it sounded like a great idea and I told her I was headed to the business to discuss it with the owner. But as I drove by, I realized the prospect of the job was much more appealing than the position. I really don’t want to be anywhere two afternoons a week for five hours, so I drove by without stopping.

This is often the saga of a stay-at-home mom wanting to return to work. We want to work and be productive, but we’re used to making our own schedules and it’s hard to fathom being in one place for several hours at a clip. At least it is for me.

What’s holding me back from Uber?

Besides first-time jitters, my biggest fear that I may get a passenger who gets angry or impatient with me if I get lost. Though this doesn’t happen often in my part-time driving job, my GPS has sent me on wild goose chases. Just a few days ago, it had me getting off and on the highway three times to find a doctor’s office that was only a half-mile away.

My passenger and I became very frazzled when it became clear that we were going to be late, but I was fortunate that I know the woman well and she’s even-tempered and kind. I’m not sure I could tolerate someone yelling at me or becoming frustrated while I’m driving.

I also don’t like the fact that passengers rate drivers, and visa versa. Everyone’s experience is subjective, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with someone assessing me while I’m driving. I’m an outgoing and friendly person, which might annoy some people. I could get a terrible rating for just being myself.

So I’ll continue to weigh whether I want to actually drive for Uber, or just keep it in my list of possibilities. In either case, I’m going to clean the car again – just to keep all my options open.