Mrs. Murphy’s Brisket

Corned beef from a crockpot, the best way to do it.

St. Patrick’s Day is a pretty big deal in our house.

The Curmudgeon starts playing Irish folk songs once March rolls around, imploring me to stop vacuuming so I can hear the words to his new favorite song on his omnipresent I-Phone. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s 100 percent Irish, but I like to think it’s because we started dating after a St. Patrick’s Day party 39 years ago.

We co-hosted the party in his apartment for a group of newspaper co-workers, including a young woman from Chile who’d been interning as a photographer. It was primarily a going away party for her, but we served corned beef and cabbage because it coincided with the holiday.

As I recall, I did most of the work while the Curmudgeon holed himself up in a bathroom with the phone, talking to a girl he was foolishly dating instead of me. Though he quickly came to his senses, he still has a knack for making himself scarce when we’re hosting big parties. He can usually be found in the shower just as guests are about to ring the bell no matter how much I beg him to dress earlier.

We won’t be hosting a big St. Patrick’s Day party this year because of Covid 19, but there was a time when it was the social event of the year for us. For many years, we invited everyone we knew – and some we didn’t that well – to our house for a traditional feast of corned beef, potatoes and cabbage. For me, it was a celebration that winter was over and spring was here, though more than one party was accompanied by snow.

A test run last week. Note to self: add some dark green leafy vegetables, or carrots, for more color.

There were some years we wondered if we could afford to throw the party. One year the party began without us because the Curmudgeon was dizzy and ended up in the emergency room due to dehydration.

My sister and her husband filled in for us as hosts while we were at the ER, slipping into the role with ease. While we were there, I received a call from the babysitter telling me that our dog had toppled five corned beefs cooling on the counter to the floor, devouring two and leaving the other three pierced with shards of glass.

When I got off the phone and told the Curmudgeon what had happened, the ER doctor said, “I’m sorry, but you really are having a shi—ty day.” At one point, it was suggested that the Curmudgeon stay in the hospital with an IV drip, but he commented, “If I don’t get out of here, she’s going to kill me so you better just let me leave.” He did, promising to drink gallons of Gatorade instead of beer that night.

One of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had is driving up to my house and seeing a party in full swing. No one noticed we were missing, or if they did, didn’t much care. All I really wanted to do was have everyone leave so I could go to bed, but it was still early so I rallied.

And then there was the year we wondered if we had the emotional energy to host it. It was 2004 and my mother-in-law had just died from Lou Gehrig’s disease, ending a six-month battle that began innocuously the previous summer with fatigue.

We didn’t feel like hosting the party, but had sent out the invitations weeks before her death. We wondered if we could send out something canceling the party, figuring everyone would understand. And then we decided that she would want us to have it because before it was our party, it was her party. For everyone else, it was our usual St. Patrick’s Day party. For us, it was an Irish wake, a way to honor a loved one by remembering the good times.

For years, she invited family and friends to her house for corned beef and cabbage, serving the most tender slices of corned beef I’ve ever tasted with spicy mustard and homemade horseradish sauce. My biggest dilemma in those days was coming up with a good green blouse to wear because she did everything, never asking for any help.

Though she often disparaged her cooking – “I don’t know how to time it so everything comes out at the same time,” she’d complain – she was a master when it came to corned beef. She knew to buy the lean “flat” cut, leaving the heftier point cut behind in the refrigerator bins. She knew the importance of slow simmering for hours, aware that boiling the meat makes it impossibly tough. She knew how to tent it with foil, allowing it to rest on the counter for about an hour to let the juices settle and make it easier to slice. She knew how to cut it across the grain to ensure intact slices instead of messy chunks caused by slicing meat with the grain.

Though my mother-in-law always simmered her corned beef in her biggest pot over low heat on the stove, I shifted from the stove to the crockpot several years ago because I got tired of checking the pot and seeing that it was always starting to boil, or so low that it wasn’t bubbling at all. The crockpot eliminates all the “minding” needed to simmer slowly. I just toss the meat in with the flavor packet that comes with it, a few cloves of garlic, a sliced onion, a carrot, water, and a can of Guinness, set it on LOW, and let it do its thing. Eight hours later, it’s so tender it’s breaking in half when I try to remove it.

Some tips: always rinse off the corned beef, and add enough water so it surrounds the meat, but doesn’t cover it. Cook the meat with the fat side facing up. Cook for eight hours at low, making sure you have enough time to let it sit to make slicing easier. You can keep the sliced meat moist with a few spoonfuls of the cooking water.

At one point when my parties reached 50 guests, I cooked 10 corned beefs at a clip, borrowing crockpots from family and friends. I put a few crockpots in the kitchen, but stationed some in the basement and my screened-in porch to control the pungent smell of simmering corned beef wafting through the house. It was quite a production, renewing my faith in people’s willingness to share cooking appliances and the capacity of the electrical system in my home.

Today, I know enough to avoid certain brands. Hummel’s has always disappointed, though I love their hotdogs. I don’t understand that at all. I usually buy any brand but Hummel’s, studying the packages for the right amount of fat: not too much, but enough so it won’t be tough. Only the flat cut. I’ve learned the hard way that good corned beef is often a crapshoot, that it’s quite possible to cook a tasteless corned beef through no fault of your own. This is why I often buy two corned beefs in hopes of getting one good one. And don’t forget, those suckers shrink when cooked, meaning extra meat probably is needed anyway.

I don’t profess to be a great cook, but I’ve cooked at least 200 corned beefs over the years and consider myself proficient in this area. I’m so committed to the crockpot method that I now own three crockpots, two more than most rational people. I cook corned beef throughout the year, grabbing it whenever it makes a cameo in the meat section, not just around St. Patrick’s Day. I often cook one or two the week before St. Patrick’s Day as a test run, as I did last week.

My crockpots are working overtime, getting more use than they have in the past year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Good Feels

I’m addicted to Undercover Boss.

I told my dental hygienist that she had to watch the one with Darius Rucker, former lead singer of “Hootie & The Blowfish,” who wears an elaborate disguise to find new talent in Texas bars and on street corners. As a country music fan, I know she’d enjoy Darius’ episode, which ends with a stunning reveal that I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it. It’s on CBS On Demand, but also on Peacock. I have no idea why. 

I have what used to be called “TV eyes,” that dazed look from too many hours staring at the boob tube. I’ve watched more TV over the past year than in the last decade, catching up on shows and movies that escaped my notice when things were normal. The nap on the velour in my blue sectional is flattened and shiny where I sit, evidence that it needs to be brushed or vacuumed to conceal my addiction. Some people might call me a couch potato and that’s OK. I’d rather be on the couch than going into TJ Maxx shopping for things I don’t need, or sitting at a bar at the local pizza parlor sipping wine, at least until I get my Covid 19 vaccination next month.

The place where I work part-time is shut down due to a Covid 19 outbreak. Yes, the virus is still around and spreading like wildfire in some places. Please be careful and don’t let your guard down for a minute. This means that I’m in lockdown too, getting out only to grocery shop, hit the UPS store or take an occasional walk at a nearby state park. This means more TV, but I’ve given up on any notion of being above being a TV addict. Aren’t we all at this point? 

I am now officially barred from choosing movies on Saturdays nights with the Curmudgeon and my son because I’ve got a lousy record that got worse with my last pick, The Shipping News. I never watched it when it came out in 2002 because my daughter Maura was 1, and had a habit of crying whenever we wanted to watch a movie. When she got older, she’d come in at the climax of the movie, standing in front of the TV screen with a question or comment. She still does this, though now it’s with phone calls from college in Washington, D.C.

I tried to save face with The Shipping News, pointing out the gorgeous views of  Newfoundland’s jagged rocky coastline, but no. The movie was terrible in spite of its stellar cast: Kevin Spacey (before his legal troubles with two adolescent boys); Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Dame Judy Dench, who I pointed out several times was a dame. It just goes to show that a great cast can’t save a lousy plot. I knew it was bad, admitted it was a dud, but the Curmudgeon looked up Roger Ebert’s review afterwards anyway, noting, “He gave it two stars.” Alright already. I guess I’ll be watching World War I movies and thrillers for the next few months.

Thankfully, there is Undercover Boss to keep me entertained. Clocking in at 45 minutes, Undercover Boss is a quick hit that always restores my faith in humanity, providing a needed shot of chills, endorphins and tears during the boss reveal at the end. I won’t lie: I’ve binge-watched this show, devouring up to five episodes at a clip to keep the endorphin rush going. 

Most thrilling? Seeing places nearby featured, like the Mohegan Sun Casino, Subway, Modell’s (now closed) and a Milford bowling alley where I bowled a few strings with friends last February, my last fun outing before lockdown.

At the heart of it, Undercover Boss reminds me of all the good parts of working, that in the end what people value most is being appreciated and valued. Money is nice, but most employees tear up before they even hear that their boss is buying them a new car or house, promoting them with a 50 percent salary hike or sending them to Hawaii for a family reunion. Words of appreciation, of a job well done, mean something, perhaps because they are increasingly rare, particularly in these days of remote working and learning.

I need to see people being kind to others to give me, as Katy Perry would say, “good feels.” Human kindness and compassion are among the things I miss most about being confined to my house most of the past year. I didn’t realize how much I missed this until I began watching Undercover Boss and began getting that distinctive chill that runs from your shoulders to the top of your skull when you’re moved by something. This show has never failed to produce that sensation, the kind of feeling that makes you realize we’re all connected as human beings. 

It also reminds me of the power of positive reinforcement, another casualty of this pandemic. With people confined to their homes, there’s far less human interaction, depriving bosses of seeing their employees first-hand and doling out compliments or even helpful suggestions for improvement. I’m someone who thrives on positive reinforcement: tell me what I’m doing right and I’ll do anything for you; criticize me and well, not so much.

Years ago when I was writing for a newspaper, one of my editors criticized my production. We were supposed to file two stories a day, but this was often difficult, particularly if I was covering a trial all day and then had to file the story on deadline. I refused to sign my annual review because I disagreed with her criticism, telling the manager editor that I felt unappreciated.

“You sound like my wife,” he said. He then admitted that he felt the same way at work. No real surprise there. That’s the curse of every editor who’s ever walked the earth.

What I know, what has been underscored by Undercover Boss, is that people respond to positive reinforcement and praise, that little things like thank you or good job go a long way in making a happy work environment. I don’t remember most of the criticism I received over the years – and believe me, there was plenty from bosses, colleagues and readers – but I do remember the praise:

  • The hotdog shop owner who sent me a bouquet of roses after I wrote a feature article about him, writing simply: “It moved me.”
  • The Sears Service Center customer who wrote a letter to my supervisor praising me for tracking down a part for his broken sprinkler system in his commercial greenhouse, saving him thousands of dollars in lost plants.
  • The supervisor of eucharist ministers at the local church texting me that I did a good job, that I didn’t screw up the altar during Adoration. 

There’s nothing monumental about any of these things, but I remember them because they reinforced my confidence that I’m doing something right. As a stay-at-home mom for the past 23 years and freelance writer, I’m my own boss, so there’s no one giving me the high sign or high five for a job well done. Every once in a while, someone will tell me that I’ve raised good kids and I hang onto that like the brass ring. Boy, that’s music to my ears.

For the most part, raising kids to be good adults is a very lonely proposition, the most difficult and overlooked job in the world. No one tells moms that we’re amazing, have a great attitude, deserve a raise or an Hawaiian vacation because of all of our hard work. It would be nice though.

So I live vicariously through Undercover Boss, marveling at most people’s deep commitment to their jobs and ability to overcome adversities like homelessness, mental illness, prison, cancer, death of loved ones and so very much sadness. Everyone has a story: sometimes, I can’t believe the obstacles people overcome to get to work to support their families, put a roof over their heads and food on the table.

But like the bosses, I learn about the people behind the jobs, the human interest stories that have captured my heart and fascinated me since I got my first reporter’s job at age 23. They’re the ones that give me chills, that bring me back to my shiny spot on the couch that’s getting a little flatter every day.The best part? Undercover Boss has been on since 2010, meaning there are 120 episodes and counting. I’m pretty sure I’m going to see each one.

Just for Laughs

Mike Birbiglia’s poster for his comedy show, “Working It Outside.”

I love stand-up comedy.

Years ago when my kids were young, I’d wake up very early and watch HBO or Comedy Central shows to start the day. I told a few moms at the bus stop what I was up to, and they looked at me like I had two heads, but I didn’t care. I love to laugh.

I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: laughter is good for you, though admittedly there’s been very little to laugh about lately. Laughing releases endorphins that reduce stress and make you feel good.

You don’t have to actually laugh to get the benefits. Just smiling makes people feel better. Try it right now. Smile. Don’t you feel better? Some people walk around with a straw between their teeth to force themselves to smile, but I can’t be bothered with that. I’ve got enough problems with grinding and clenching my teeth.

I’m not just spouting off about this stuff. Years ago, I wrote a piece about the benefits of laughter and how little adults do it every day. On average, most kids laugh about 30 times a day, while adults laugh a meager three times. Pathetic, but it’s probably less what with Covid-19 and the upcoming election weighing on our brains.

I’ve asked the Curmudgeon to go to comedy shows with me three times during our very long marriage. The first two were for Jerry Seinfeld at Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, CT. The third was last week to see Mike Birbiglia, a comedian who stars in the HBO comedy special “The New One.”

The HBO show is all about new parenting and it is hysterical. After watching that show, I became a little obsessed, watching everything Mike has on his website Birbigs.com. https://www.birbigs.com

One of his funniest bits is his take on attending mixers at his all-boys’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. As a veteran of those horrid dances, I could definitely relate. His experience as a sleepwalker and the lengths he goes to to stay safe at night is also hysterical.

But it’s also Mike’s support of fellow comedians during the pandemic that earned him a special place in my heart. To support comedians that were out of work due to club closings, Mike began a podcast “Working It Out” that featured famous comedians, including his buddy John Mulaney, a fellow Georgetown University grad.

The banter between Mike and John got me through a particularly boring hike during the height of the shutdown when walking was the only thing we could do. I laughed during that hike and was enormously entertained by two guys Zooming in their apartments. For that, I’m eternally grateful.

Mike is performing his last outside socially distanced show at the Fairfield (CT.) Comedy Club on Wednesday, Oct. 28th. Fairfield is practically in our backyard (well, not really. It’s an hour’s drive in the best of conditions, but close enough that it wasn’t impossible to go).

When he announced his final outdoor show on Instagram, I told the Curmudgeon I was ordering two tickets.

“I think I’ve got a haircut that night,” he said. “Not sure I can make it.”

Seriously? I told the Curmudgeon to change the appointment and he reluctantly obliged. But he’s not excited about going to the show and is already planning his escape. Did I mention how much I hate feeling like I’m dragging someone to something?

“I don’t think he’ll perform for more than an hour, so we should get home at a decent hour,” he said. “I should be able to catch the end of the World Series if there’s a Game 7.”

Really? Is there anything worse than planning your exit before you even arrive? We’ve all done it, I suppose. But this isn’t exactly torture, unless it’s freezing outside. I’m hoping for temperatures hovering in the low 50s or else I’ll never hear the end of it.

Just to be on the safe side, I bought an extra large fleece blanket that we can spread across our laps so we look like Ma and Pa Kettle. I’m also considering wearing my plum-colored fleece Patagonia pants, though I’m not sure they’re meant to be worn out of the house.

I don’t have the heart to tell the Curmudgeon that Mike has scheduled three virtual shows in late November that folks can watch in the comfort of their living rooms. You buy tickets to the show at the “Nowhere Comedy Club,” and after it ends, even get a question and answer session with Mike.

The virtual shows are Nov. 27th, 28th and 29th https://www.birbigs.com/tour-dates. It’s too late for us – we’re watching Mike in the great outdoors unless there’s a downpour. But do yourself a favor and watch one of his virtual shows. It will remind you just how good it feels to laugh.

Sweet Homecoming

Barbara is overwhelmed when she arrives home and discovers a welcome party. That’s me in the sunglasses with my friend Cindy, on the right.

Every so often, you meet a person who radiates goodness, reminding you of all the positive traits of human beings.

They aren’t perfect, but who is? But being around them is very good for the soul, reinforcing the notion that genuine kindness and good humor are still possible in this very crazy world.

Barbara Paight is one of these people. We first met about 30 years ago at my first job at a small daily newspaper, and reconnected two years ago when we attended the Women’s March on Washington with the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women.

At a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, I warned Barbara that I was alone and would be joining her and her pal Dom for a day in D.C. whether they wanted me or not. Barbara was very gracious, welcoming me with open arms and allowing me to tag along as we explored the city’s monuments and tourist attractions after the march.

What I remember most about that day was laughing and a sense of giddiness about almost everything, including buying colorful beaded bracelets from a monk near the Washington Monument. There wasn’t anything particularly funny about anything we were doing, but the mood was light and uplifting, mainly because of Barbara. Some people are like that, reminding you that the world isn’t such a bad place after all.

I had such a good time on that trip that I wrote a blog about Barbara entitled, “Long Live Lunch Ladies.” https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/thegsandwich.wordpress.com/18012 It was one of my most well-read blogs, mainly because of Barbara’s wide circle of friends.

We promised to stay in touch and actually did, reconnecting for a night of bowling last winter. And then the pandemic struck and Barbara got the news that she had breast cancer, forcing her to make weekly visits to the hospital, the last place anybody wanted to be.

Before her diagnosis and the pandemic, Barbara worked as a cafeteria worker at a school in her hometown. You know someone has superhuman skills when they actually enjoy being around a rowdy group of kids at lunch every day. It takes a special brand of tolerance and compassion to do that work, but Barbara loves her job.

She even took her lunch lady roll onto the road during our trip to Washington, bringing along mozzarella sticks and fruits and veggies for hungry marches in a portable cooler cross-strapped to her body. She taught me the trick to opening up a mozzarella stick correctly, something I could have used when my kids were little.

Barbara set up a Facebook page called “On Mondays I Wear Pink” to allow her friends to track her progress and offer words of encouragement and support during chemotherapy. But I couldn’t help think of Barbara and how difficult it must be to cope with breast cancer during the pandemic. At a time when everyone was being told to avoid hospitals, she had no choice but to venture out and risk contracting Covid-19. On top of that, she couldn’t see any family or friends during her five-month treatment.

Though Barbara knew she had an army of supporters pulling for her, her family and friends wanted to show her how much she’s loved. So on her last day of chemotherapy, they organized a very socially distant welcome home party, covering her house in pink streamers and balloons and lining her street with cheering family and friends. Double bonus: even her husband Joe, who’s been at her side throughout her treatment, didn’t know about the welcome parade.

Barbara emerged from her car looking overwhelmed, thanking everyone for coming out and promising to get better quickly so she can go bowling again and have a sip of tequila with friends. But mostly, she looked happy to finally see people after months of treatment and quarantine.

We were always with her in spirit, but I think the turnout showed Barbara how much people love and care about her. And let’s face it, when you’re sick, sometimes that’s what you need most.

Who’s Zooming Who?

The Curmudgeon crashes my FaceTime session with my sister-in-law Ann to show her his bandana mask.

I’ve never loved talking on the phone.

Even back in my early days of newspaper reporting, I preferred to talk to people in person because I could get a better sense of whether they were being truthful or lying.

I derive a lot of information and feedback from looking at people: whether they’re engaged, distracted, bored or want to end a conversation. I’m a visual person, one who appreciates the importance of body language, eye contact and subtle nuances.

My disdain for the phone is legendary among my family and friends. I don’t call people often. It has nothing to do with how I feel about them. It has more to do with the way I communicate, and it’s not through my sense of hearing.

One of the biggest reliefs of my life was when my children were old enough to answer the phone and take messages for me. It was like having two tiny secretaries running interference, though I know some people found it incredibly annoying and off-putting.

I know spouses who talk to each other several times each day, but I don’t do that with the Curmudgeon. We rarely call each other unless it’s to warn about a speed trap down the road, or report that we’re low on kibble or doggie yogurt.

In fact, the Curmudgeon may detest the phone more than I do. He failed to call me once during a 4-day boys’ weekend to Martha’s Vineyard two years ago, pushing the outer limits of what’s acceptable and what constitutes spousal neglect.

But with social distancing and sheltering in place the new normal, I’m now turning to my I-Phone and laptop every day to connect with people. Instead of just talking, though, I want to FaceTime.

Up until recently, FaceTime was reserved for my son at college. But since we’ve been in quarantine, I’m FaceTiming my sisters, friends and neighbors. If I haven’t FaceTimed you yet, I guarantee I’m thinking about it.

I ask everybody if they have FaceTime, and am always a little disappointed if they don’t. My mom doesn’t have it, nor does one of my sisters. I can’t tell you how sad I am about that.

I tried to FaceTime my next-door neighbor Jim, and when he didn’t answer, I texted, “I’m trying to FaceTime you about a neighborhood matter.” When he still didn’t answer, he texted me back, “You’re trying to FaceTime Jimbo?”

Yes dude, I’m trying to FaceTime you because I can’t talk to you on the street the way we usually do. I want to bounce a neighborhood issue off you, and I want to see your face when we discuss it. Capisce?

We ultimately ended up exchanging text messages, but you get my point. I need to see people to connect with them. I don’t care what they look like or if they’re still in bed. I just want to see their face.

I FaceTime one of my sisters nearly every day, and we’re usually in the same place: she’s in her bed and I’m sprawled on my couch. There’s no pretense on either end, though I was a little embarrassed when she noted, “Isn’t that the same sweater you were wearing yesterday and the day before?” Um, yea.

My sister and I have gotten so comfortable FaceTiming that I’ll make or accept a call in any state. The other day, my hair was coated in olive and coconut oil and she never even mentioned it. I’m not sure if I should be relieved or offended.

Still, there are limits to everything and how far you’ve let yourself go. The other day, she said, “I think it’s time for you to do something about your roots. I see a lot of gray.” Sisters can say this to each other. Friends, not so much.

Seeing people on FaceTime and Zoom makes me feel less alone and more connected. And I look forward to these virtual meet-ups more than they probably deserve. My sister-in-law Ann organized a Zoom family cocktail party and I showered, put on make-up and wore a black blazer.

“A blazer?” my son asked.

“Well, yes, this is the most excitement I’ve had in weeks and I want to look pulled together,” I said. Sad, but true.

We thought we might see a milestone during our virtual gathering when my nephew Teddy threatened to lop off his ever-growing man-bun in front of all of us. It was an empty threat, though perhaps he will do it when we gather again same time next week.

If you haven’t held a Zoom party yet, I recommend it. It’s the next best thing to being there.

Shop Defensively

My son at an Easter egg hunt in much simpler times.

The grey, white and red behemoth off Interstate 95 beckoned as I drove home from New London, CT.

I pulled into the parking lot of Costco in East Lyme and made one promise to myself: if there’s a line of shoppers waiting to get in, I’m leaving. It was raining hard, a punishing downpour with gusty winds, and I was in no mood to get soaked waiting to shop.

Everyone told me not to worry about a special Easter meal. The Curmudgeon even suggested tacos given the circumstances. But I wanted something special to mark the holiday, which is always a special day in our family.

Easter outfits, and back in the day, even bonnets and new spring dress coats. Coloring eggs with dye, wax and appliqués, then using them for egg salad and deviled eggs. Easter baskets filled with chocolate and jelly beans and Easter egg hunts. Celebrating the risen Christ at church, and returning home for an afternoon feast with relatives.

Easter, Early 60s.

Ordinarily, our extended family of about 35 would be gathering at my sister’s house to celebrate Easter. But with social distancing and sheltering in place in effect, everyone is staying put and marking the holiday at home.

I’m going the traditional route: baked ham, scalloped potatoes, spring vegetables and a salad. I figured I’d pick them up at Costco, a place that seems designed for stocking up during a pandemic.

The aisles are wide, allowing 6 feet of social distancing if everyone pays attention and behaves. There are arrows on floors, directing people which way to go to minimize contact with other shoppers. And there’s tape on the floor at 6-foot increments near the cashiers, showing people where to stand.

The problem is that some people are completely oblivious, failing to follow arrows and realize they have to make adjustments during the Covid-19 crisis. This isn’t business as usual, not by a long shot. And even though we’re all social distancing, that doesn’t give people permission to be socially ignorant.

Cases in point:

+ Signs at the Costco entrance clearly state that only one person per household should be shopping. A middle-aged woman marches down an aisle barking out orders, with her college-aged daughter pushing a grocery cart behind her. The pair commandeer the entire aisle, failing to move to one side to accommodate other shoppers. Neither are wearing masks or gloves.

It looks like they may be shopping for a large party, but that may be a stretch on my part. In any case, I make a point to get as far away from them as possible. It’s clear they’re following their own rules during this pandemic, and I wonder how many others they’ve violated over the past month.

+ I wait at the top of an aisle as a middle-aged couple debates whether a product is a good deal. I can’t enter the aisle without breaking the 6-foot rule, so I wait. They’re completely oblivious to other shoppers, but I try to give them some slack. The second they move, a young woman plows past me and giggles because she thinks she’s cute. Not funny, and I told her as much.

“Um, I don’t think so!” I muttered under my mask. But I don’t think she could hear me, which is probably a good thing. I’m not sure I want an altercation in the rice aisle. But seriously, when shopping, look around and be aware of who’s around you. Don’t be a jerk. Wait your turn.

+ Wear face masks. I know, everyone feels self-conscious wearing them in public, but you’re wearing them to protect lives so get over yourself. I was shocked by the number of Costco shoppers who weren’t wearing face masks or gloves. On a positive note, I was impressed that all of Costco workers were wearing face masks and gloves.

Remember, some people carry the virus and have no symptoms, so you’re wearing a mask to protect others, including the workers who are keeping stores open for us. My mom has a friend who recently tested positive whose only symptom was a runny nose. No fever, chills or coughing.

+ Shop defensively. Be aware of shoppers around you and wait for them to clear a space before encroaching on them. Think of it like driving and waving someone into traffic. When I waited for a man to leave the bagged potato area and then waved, he nodded in appreciation.

“There’s so much more to think about now,” he said. It’s true if you’re a responsible shopper. You can’t expect to follow the rules of social distancing and get out of the store in half an hour.

It took about twice as long for me to shop because in many cases, I had to wait for aisles to clear and circle around to go down aisles the right way. It was also the first time I had been to that Costco, so I didn’t know the lay of the land.

My shopping trip took so long that my kids were actually worried, and scolded me for leaving without my phone. I’ll remind them of this the next time they leave me hanging about their whereabouts, and fail to respond to my texts or phone calls.

Walk This Way

Male eagle keeps watch on a nearby nest. (Eagle photos by Cindy Gerstl)
Cindy spent about 45 minutes photographing the eagle couple, and came away with some amazing shots. Thank goodness one of us had a great telephoto lens.

My I-Phone and I are having boundary issues.

The phone makes assumptions about where I’m headed, informing me that I’m 35 minutes from home and should take the highway because traffic is light. I don’t want to tell the phone that I’m not going home, nor to a monastery 14 minutes away or a hiking trail in the next town.

I don’t remember the “frequent flyer” notifications on earlier versions of the I-Phone, and most of the time I simply ignore them or chuckle at their incorrect presumptions. (For awhile, the phone always assumed I was heading to a liquor store, making me rethink my relationship with alcohol.)

But now I’m having issues with the I-Phone’s health app. No matter what I do, the I-Phone comments on it and I’m always on the losing end of the conversation. It’s like living with an overbearing parent or spouse, where nothing you do is ever good enough.

My numbers are up in March. Then again, the month has just begun.

“Your step count is lower today than yesterday.”

“It looks like you’re a lot more active today than usual.

“You’re walking more by this time of the day than you usually do.”

Even when it’s trying to be encouraging, it manages to get a dig in. Who knew that a phone could be so critical?

I didn’t ask the phone for its opinion, but it doesn’t matter. Along with my step count, it gives me a running commentary on how I’m stacking up compared to yesterday, last week, last month and last year in everything from steps, active and standing hours, flights climbed and hearing health.

And even when I think I’m doing well, it’s never enough for my phone:

Your step count last week was lower on average than the week before.

Your mileage was lower today than the previous day.

Your average headphone audio levels were LOUD over the last seven days.

It almost makes me long for the days when everyone just walked and didn’t worry about steps. But we’re a results-driven society when it comes to nearly everything, including walking. I’m not sure it’s great, but it’s the way things are since the first Fitbit came on the scene in 2007.

I got an Apple Watch for my birthday last August, and it wants me to hook up a feature that alerts you when you have an irregular heartbeat. I can see the benefit of this, but I’m not interested. I’m an anxious person, and I’d be worried about having an irregular heartbeat. I don’t need more things to obsess about.

I felt a little better about ignoring that feature after consulting my buddy Richie, who is a heart surgeon. When I asked him about the feature, he said, “Unreliable.” That was good enough for me. If a watch is going to send me into a panic, at least I want to know it’s accurate.

Today, nearly everyone is tracking their steps, with 10,000 steps a day being the gold standard. https://blog.fitbit.com/should-you-really-take-10000-steps-a-day/ I know some people who reach their goal just going about their day, but I usually need a 75-minute brisk walk to reach my daily goal.

I don’t always achieve it, but it’s a good incentive to get moving. As a nation, we’re a sedentary bunch, leading to rising levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems. Having a step counter keeps you honest, or at least shows you how much of a slug you are on any given day.

A few years ago, I read that some fitness coaches require clients to have step counters because it’s like having a personal trainer on their wrists. It made sense, so I bought a Fitbit Flex, and then another one when the first one inexplicably broke about a year into the experiment.

Having a Fitbit was a lot of fun. For awhile, I was comparing step counts with siblings and friends, and earning badges for walking imaginary trails with my dog. But there were blips – lots of them – along the way.

The Fitbit always needed to be charged, though I never knew when it was low on juice and it would often be dead after I’d logged the longest hike in my life with no steps to show for it. And you could log steps with the Fitbit just by shaking your wrist (not that I’d ever do something so ridiculous).

I knew one tennis instructor who logged about 30,000 “steps” a day, though many of the so-called steps were from moving her wrist, not her feet. And yes, I may have been guilty of shaking my wrist a few times just to reach the 10,000 step mark some days. Sad, but true.

So I rejoiced when I discovered the I-Phone’s health app, which is like having a built-in step counter without all the hassles. The only hitch is having your I-Phone with you at all times. The other day, I stuffed it into my pants playing Pickleball just to get the steps (4,400 in 90 minutes, by the way).

I shared my frustrations about the health app with my buddies Cindy and Mark while eagle watching the other day. We had to walk from the town harbor to the nesting grounds near Long Island Sound so as not to disturb the eagles, and naturally I’d left my I-Phone in the car.

“Damn, this walk isn’t counting for anything,” I said.

“Why don’t you just put your phone in a drawer if you don’t like it?” Cindy asked.

She has a point, but it’s not that simple. I want to track my steps. I’m a person who needs to be accountable. I just wish the phone would give me the step count and hold the commentary.

For now, I’m taking the bad with the good, opening the little health app Heart to see how I’m stacking up every day. And if it ever gets too much, there’s always the drawer.

But

1-(959) 207-1043 (preferred)

“The Scream” depicts someone yelling. I wasn’t yelling.

The impossible happened: a phone solicitor hung up on me.

I didn’t think it was possible to be cut off by someone who trolls the phone lines every day looking for suckers to foolishly answer their cell phones, but I managed to do it during a drive through New Haven, CT.

And though I try very hard to be kind to people, particularly with the season of Lent upon us, I have no regrets about standing up to someone who has called my phone 20 times over the past week and asking a simple question:

“What do you want?”

“You don’t have to be rude to me ma’am,” said the telemarketer. “I’m not being rude to you. Why are you being rude to me?”

I wasn’t being rude, though I was blunt and impatient. Whoever is behind this number, which pops up as “preferred” on my cell phone, has called me dozens of times, including 13 times on Saturday during a family excursion to visit my son at college. They even called during dinner on Saturday night, though I quickly ignored the call.

As I see it, calling anyone 13 times in one day is harassment. It’s one thing if they’re calling for a charitable cause – I can usually summon my manners and tell them I don’t make donations over the phone. But having your phone ring repeatedly and seeing the same number pop up is maddening.

Like the majority of Americans, I can’t stand phone solicitors and don’t ordinarily answer their calls. In my opinion, they have ruined cell phones by polluting us with unwanted and in some cases, illegal calls. The beauty of cell phones when they first came out was solicitors could not call them. But that changed in 2012, and boy, they’re making up for lost time.

If I see an unfamiliar number, I usually just hit “ignore,” “sorry I can’t talk right now” or my favorite, “please leave a message.” I figure if someone truly has legitimate business with me, they’ll leave a message on my voicemail and I’ll get back to them.

But this solicitor has been been particularly persistent and annoying, prompting me to answer the phone during a 20-minute car trip back from Lowe’s to pick up potting supplies. If nothing else, I wanted to answer the call just to make it stop.

So when +1-(959) 207-1043 popped up again, I answered. The caller addressed me by my first name, which set me off from the start. He’s greeting me by name without identifying himself. I didn’t say “yes” when he said my name. I said simply, “What do you want?”

“Why are you being rude to me?” he said. “I’m not being rude to you. I’m just doing my job.”

“I asked you what you want,” I said. “You called my phone 13 times on Saturday and I just want to know why you’re hounding me. I’m not being rude. Just tell me why you’re calling me.”

(And by the way, repeatedly calling someone you don’t know and not identifying where you are from immediately is being very rude, at least in my book. When I used to call people from the newspaper, I’d always identify myself as a reporter and ask if it was a good time. If it wasn’t, I always offered to call back. It’s ridiculous to assume that a person is free or wants to talk just because you are.)

“I’m required by law to call you,” he answered, still skirting my question. “And I don’t understand why you’re yelling at me.”

“I’m not yelling at you,” I said. “You’d know it if I was yelling at you. This is not yelling.”

And it wasn’t. I was perturbed, annoyed and snarky, but I wasn’t yelling. I know what yelling is. Yelling is what my father and many dads of his generation did when their kids did something dumb. I still remember hearing my friend’s father scream, “How could you be so stupid?” from the road after he dented his car when he was about 16.

His Dad was usually so nice and soft-spoken that it was a shock to hear him raise his voice. But it made me feel better to know other Dads yelled too.

Yelling is sometimes the only effective tool you have to convey feelings of anger and complete frustration. I recently told the Curmudgeon that I don’t think he yelled enough when our kids screwed up, that a little fear of your parents isn’t the worst thing when you do something wrong.

But he isn’t the screamer in the family, I am. And though I try not to do it too often, I know what constitutes yelling.

Yelling is screaming at the top of your lungs when you make an errant golf shot and shout, “Fore!” Yelling is trying to get a dog to stop attacking your sister’s Maltese, which you are pet-sitting and will be killed if anything happens to him, on a hiking trail.

I can yell, and I wasn’t yelling at this guy, who may be the world’s most hyper-sensitive telemarketer. I simply wanted to know why he was calling me, something he seemed intent on keeping to himself. But I have news for him. If he thinks I was yelling at him, he’d better toughen up because there are a lot of people out there with way shorter fuses than I have.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re calling from Social Security and my number has been compromised,” I said.

“I’m going to call you when you are a little calmer,” he said, still refusing to tell me who is represented or what he wanted. “Have a nice day.”

I tried calling the number back several times and no one answered, no big surprise. But he hasn’t called back, so maybe he finally got the message. In the meantime, I’m putting my cell phone on the DO NOT CALL list, something I meant to do years ago. If you haven’t done it, here’s how:

https://www.donotcall.gov

You’re welcome.

Back in the Saddle

My former editor Linda’s family has created a website containing many of her personal columns and readings for Vermont Public Radio. The address is http://lduchar.me/.

I’ve been looking for a good reason to blog lately.

It came rather unexpectedly as I was saying goodbye to my friend Linda’s son after her memorial service in Vermont.

Like many people over the last 16 months, Linda’s funeral was postponed due the Covid 19 pandemic, preventing her family, friends and former co-workers from gathering to properly mourn, raise a glass and share stories about her. The lack of ceremony made her death at age 83 in March, 2020, a little surreal. Depriving people of the ritual and comfort of gathering to mourn was one of the most difficult parts of the pandemic.

I was relieved that her family decided to press ahead with a memorial mass because such ceremonies often fall by the wayside with the passage of time. When my mother-in-law died in 2004, we planned to hold a memorial service in her hometown “at a later date.” We never could muster the strength or enthusiasm for the memorial service, contenting ourselves with her funeral on Martha’s Vineyard.

There is comfort in gathering after someone you love dies because at the end of the day, it’s how people touch our lives that matters. All too often today, we use social media or a text to convey feelings of sympathy, but there is something to be said for showing up for people in their time of sorrow. In his 2009 book Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, Chris Buckley (son of William F. Buckley) wrote that you don’t remember who shows up at wakes and funerals, but you remember who doesn’t. I’ve come to see the wisdom in his words.

As I was bidding goodbye to Linda’s oldest child Bob and complimenting him on his eulogy, he told me that he once read some of my blogs to his mother during a weekend visit at an assisted living facility in Brattleboro, where she lived her final years with her loving husband of 61 years Bob Sr. As he read one blog about some women having the great fortune of looking great with gray hair, he realized that I had included his mother in the piece. He thought it was incredibly coincidental – he had randomly picked that blog. I thought him telling me the story was equally coincidental. Over the last few weeks, I’ve lamented more than once that I’ve let my blog slide. That’s not like me, and I’m sure Linda, who also happened to be my first newspaper editor, would be disappointed that I’ve been slacking off.

I don’t know why we let things slide that we love from time to time, but we do and sometimes we need messages from heaven to get back on track. I love to blog, but glitches with WordPress and the resumption of life post-pandemic over the past few months put the blog in mothballs. I have a few pieces in the hopper, but I began to feel self-conscious about posting. I began to overthink, a sure recipe for blocking anything good in life.

I began to write personal columns under Linda’s guidance as a reporter for the Milford Citizen in the early 80s. We had a rotating column called “In This Corner” in which reporters and editors waxed about everything from sisters stealing clothes (me) to learning how to drive (Linda). We wrote when the spirit moved us, and it usually did. Everyone contributed columns, including an older society pages assistant named Kay Patrick, who once shared her recipe for blueberry buckle.

The Milford Citizen was a tight-knit group: what we lacked in prestige and size we made up for in fun and camaraderie. People dressed in costumes on Halloween and we had a standing table at a bar next door, where we drank pitchers of beer and feasted on chicken wings during happy hours. One day, we roasted the pressman Warren, who always wore flannel shirts, gathering around the press in the backroom in a collection of plaid shirts. Going to work wasn’t a chore because it was fun, even when we were pushing to get out the paper.

Much of the credit for the atmosphere goes to Linda, who ran the place like a mother hen. She was the first person through the door at 6 a.m., relishing having the newsroom to herself, and couldn’t understand why I could never arrive at work on time at 8 a.m. She ate yogurt at her desk every day, depriving herself the luxury of a lunch out, and was slightly jealous when I’d return from a lunch of whole belly fried clams and french fries, wishing she could indulge like a 23 year old. I don’t think anyone over the age of 25 can pull that off, but it was fun while it lasted. 

During my interview for my first reporter’s job, Linda spent the bulk of the time telling me about her four children, including Bob, who was a student at Columbia University at the time. It was clear that although she was a working mom, her first priority was her kids, and to her credit, I could never tell which one was her favorite. She gushed about all of them with equal fervor and I sometimes was envious that they had such a cool parent. I often thought of her as a second mom, though I don’t think she knew that.

When I fell in love with the sports editor and planned to marry, Linda threw a surprise bridal shower at her house, where every woman from the entire newspaper gathered and presented me with gifts. I still remember her luring me over to her house, saying, “Hey, could you come here for a minute?” I was stunned when I entered her house to a roomful of smiling women bearing everything from placemats to picnic baskets. In photos from that day, I have the look of someone who’s seen a ghost; I don’t think my heartbeat returned to normal until the following day when the shock wore off.

As part of the memorial service, Linda’s children compiled a website with slice of life columns that she wrote for the Brattleboro Reformer, the newspaper that lured her away with the promise of a job in the mid-80s. The timing was right: her youngest son Peter had just graduated from high school, and Linda longed for the green mountains of Vermont, where she’d spent her youth before her family settled in Connecticut. I was, of course, devastated. Things were never the same after she left.

The priest praised Linda’s columns about everyday things, noting they evoked feelings of a simpler time and ultimately gave people hope in their everyday lives. As he spoke, I thought of my blog, and how my friend Barbara told me she read some of them to fellow patients while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Barbara told me that they gave them a chuckle at a low point, lifting their spirits as cancer-fighting drugs seeped into their veins. For me, that was the highest praise – better than a paycheck or Pulitzer, though to be honest, both would be nice.

So I’m back to the blog in a very big part because of Linda, and the things she taught me about life: family first, friendship, laughter, faith, home-cooked meals, frugality, keep things simple, celebrate the good times and above all, share your talents, even if it’s just with one person.

I miss her, but she lives in my heart and inspires me. Most of all, I think she’d be happy that I’m back in the saddle again.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

An older woman walked into the monastery gift shoppe where I volunteer every other week.

I love this job because it reminds me of playing store when I was little. There is a cash box with a key, an adding machine with a spool of white paper, and a receipt book with carbon paper on which I write up purchases. The white one goes in the cash box, the yellow one with the customer. We take only cash or checks: there’s not a credit card machine or chip that plugs into your I-Phone to pay anywhere in sight. Volunteers have been known to lend people cash so they can make their purchases, relying on the honor system of being paid back.

Vaccinated, but still masked for now…

I love the job because I’m off the grid for a few hours – my I-Phone doesn’t get service there – and the 20 or so sisters at the monastery aren’t obsessed with sales. Sure, they rely on them to survive, but they have more important things on their mind, including praying for the salvation of man. I’m all for that, because we could sure use it these days.

I knew this customer was a little prickly when she took a seat across from me, and asked me why I wasn’t playing religious music, as many volunteers do.

“I really enjoy the quiet,” I said. “Many of the people who come in here remark on how quiet it is, such a break from the noise of everyday life.” It’s true. The quiet and sense of peace are the first things people comment on when they step onto the monastery grounds in North Guilford, CT. It’s a different kind of quiet, the kind that heightens your sense of hearing and makes you long for more quiet spaces.

“I enjoy hearing religious music when I’m here,” she repeated.

I didn’t flinch, nor feel the need to slip a CD disc into the CD player behind the desk. She made her opinion known, and I listened to her, but I did my own thing. Listening is usually a good strategy when dealing with other people, but it doesn’t mean we should compromise our own wishes. I like the quiet, so it stayed quiet.

Her breathing was heavy and it looked like she was struggling to breathe behind her face mask. I commented that it looked like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was struggling to breathe behind her face mask during President Biden’s address to the Joint Session of Congress. At times it looked like Pelosi was having difficulty breathing, something I’ve struggled with at times behind a mask.

“I didn’t watch it,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t watch him or her for all the money in the world.”

Her friend quickly chimed in, “Every time I see her, it looks like she’s had another facelift. Why would I watch her?”

I was a little surprised by the women’s response to my comment. Once upon a time, it was our civic duty to watch presidential addresses. It didn’t matter if we voted for the president or not: we had a duty to hear what he had to say, to be educated on what was going on with our country. That’s how I was raised anyway. You didn’t skip the President’s address because of someone’s appearance, or even their politics.

Her comment bothered me, particularly since President Biden has stayed largely behind the scenes since taking office in January. It’s not as if he’s been on TV a lot. In fact, he’s been roundly criticized by some for his low profile while tackling the worst pandemic to hit this country in 100 years. So I was interested in what he had to say after more than three months on the job. I figured a lot of other people felt the same way I did.

Since I began voting at age 18, I’ve listened to more presidents I didn’t vote for than presidents I did. But that’s part of our civic duty: becoming informed and listening to speeches and press conferences so we can form educated opinions on issues, not just repeat pablum filtered through political pundits. Failing to educate yourself about what’s going because you don’t like someone isn’t an excuse, at least in my book.

If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you form an opinion, or possibly have it changed? An open mind seems to be a rare commodity these days, but I think it’s something we all need. The worst kind of thinking is believing you know everything, having your mind made up before you know all or even some of the facts. It would be nice if we all emerged from the pandemic a little more open-minded and willing to listen.

This was Biden’s first major address to the joint session of Congress since taking office. I was most interested in what he had to say about the pandemic and the future. I wanted to hear what he had to say about jobs, and was buoyed when he mentioned a push for all of us to buy American again. That hasn’t been a national rallying cry in a long time, and quite frankly is long overdue.

My encounter with the women got me thinking about civic duty, and the importance of doing your part for this nation. I decided to alter my Facebook photo to show that I’ve been double vaccinated against Covid 19. I didn’t know this was an option until several of my Facebook friends put the tiny banner along the edge of their profile photos. It’s a little thing, but shows my support for the vaccination program. It’s the least I can do to show others that I’m on board, actually thrilled to be double vaccinated.

Facebook launched the program in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to promote public awareness and acceptance of the vaccine. The theory is that if people see family and friends doing it, they’ll do it too. Facebook is launching the frames because studies show how social norms can have a major impact on people’s attitude and behavior when it comes to their health.

They have a point: I decided to change my profile picture after seeing one of my friends had done it. It’s a simple thing, but maybe it will convince someone who’s on the fence to do it.

Shaking, Not Baking

The sunset over Daufuskie Island, S.C.

Don’t hate me, but I took a vacation.

With two Covid 19 shots and a bad case of wanderlust – I’d taken comfort in sitting on an I-95 overpass and looking at cars whizzing by in recent weeks –  we decided to take our annual road trip south. We drove because neither the Curmudgeon nor I love to fly. And then there is the issue of packing: if we flew, we’d need to ship a cargo carrier down with all of our stuff.

At one point during the packing process, the Curmudgeon said, “If anyone was coming with us, we’d have to strap him to the roof.” I have no idea how we used to fit in two kids, and a dog.

The Curmudgeon is worse than I am, assembling boxes filled with pantry staples like balsamic vinegar, Good Seasons salad dressing (he forgot the cruet!), and store-brand Shake & Bake for our week-long stay. He packed Brillo and enough laundry detergent pods to last three months. I told him that I didn’t want to eat Shake & Bake chicken while I’m away – that I want to eat lowcountry fare: shrimp and grits and snow crabs plucked from the Piggly Wiggly’s shellfish display case, but he packed it anyway. It remained unopened for nearly 2,000 miles, just as I had predicted.

I enjoy eating local when I’m away, and there’s no better place for seafood than South Carolina. Walking the “squeaky” white sand beaches, you can see the shrimp trawlers dragging for their catch, and buckets of local shrimp are sold at roadside stands along with boiled peanuts, another local delicacy. I like to order “She-Crab” soup, sweet tea, peel and eat shrimp, hush puppies and Hoppin’ John, a mixture of black eye peas and rice. This year, my brother-in-law Ted surprised everyone by ordering alligator bites as an appetizer, which he generously shared with the table. The verdict: sweet and tender, a little like chicken. The next day, we snapped this photo and sent it to Ted with the caption Gator Revenge:

We spotted this guy the day after feasting on Gator Bites at the Salty Dog on Hilton Head Island.

For me, food is as much a part of getting away as the sun and surf. So I’m always a little disappointed when I’m away, and someone suggests baked chicken or hotdogs and hamburgers for dinner. That’s a little like ordering a Maine lobster in Ohio, or fish at a Connecticut pancake house, as I did one evening with disastrous results. It can be done, but why?

Though “eating local” has become as grating a term as “self care,” I’ve always been a fan of regional cuisine, from New Haven pizza and New York soft pretzels and hotdogs to New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes. During my family’s annual summer vacation on Cape Cod every August, I loved feasting on whole belly fried clams dipped in copious amounts of tartar sauce with a side of french fries and coleslaw. Being a late August baby, that was my birthday dinner. I can’t go to the Cape without craving fried clams, though these days I usually skip the fries.

When I’m on Martha’s Vineyard, I want to eat fish all the time, even if it means contending with everyone else crowding around Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha to eat boiled lobsters off their lap for lunch or clams on the half shell at sunset. I want to eat harpooned swordfish, bay scallops as sweet as candy and piles of steamers with drawn butter. I want to cook grey sole the way my mother-in-law did – lightly seasoned with bread crumbs and paprika sprinkled on top and baked quickly at 500 degrees – and I want to eat stuffed littlenecks even if I must return from the beach two hours early to prepare them.

I want to eat local, from the overpriced greens and breads sold at the West Tisbury Farmers Market, the cheese from the local cows and the salsas, jams and hand pressed Limeade rustled up by Islanders. I want to buy overpriced salt harvested from local waters and smoked in flavors like oak and hear stories about different salts from the woman who makes them. I want to buy blueberry muffins from the pie lady, and spring for a sandwich at an overpriced shop. I rarely splurge for sandwiches at home, so why not? Isn’t that the point of being on vacation?

Years ago, my parents went away with some close friends, sharing a house on the beach close to where we stayed this year. My father’s friend pulled a half gallon of ice cream out of the freezer at 10 a.m., and began eating it as though it was routine. My father couldn’t get over it – ice cream in the morning! But his friend explained that he’d never do this except on vacation. My father didn’t get it: he was a disciplined guy and would never indulge like that. But I understand it, more now that I’m older. It’s fun to break the routine, particularly after the year we’ve all been through.

With only about an hour before checkout and coffee ice cream in the freezer, the Curmudgeon made himself a shake at 8:30 a.m. He’d never do that at home, but as he explained: “There was ice cream and milk.” He actually returned home three pounds lighter than when he left, so who am I to question him about shakes before lunch?

Ice cream at 8:30 a.m.? Why not!

So the Shake & Bake didn’t happen, even after the Curmudgeon offered to make it and serve it for lunch. I warned him I didn’t want it, and I meant it. Maybe next time, he’ll listen.

Happy Anniversary

Photo courtesy of istockphoto

I was recently asked to write a short bio for a new venture one of my friends is launching. 

That’s the good thing about friends: they’ll ask you to join their new business when your resume has more holes in it than a moth-eaten sweater. I sat there looking at the blank screen for a few minutes and thought, “Boy, I don’t have much to say on the career front.”

And then I thought of the two reasons why: my son and daughter, who have occupied most of my time for the past 23 years. Years ago, I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around a reporter’s decision to step away from her job to raise her kids. And then my son entered my life at age 39 and I thought, “I’ve got one chance to do this right, and I don’t want to screw it up.”

I doubled down on that thought after my daughter joined our family when I was 42. I’m glad I was able to stay home with them because they’re my pride and joy. So rather than pad my resume, I made it abundantly clear that I was a stay-at-home mom in my very short bio. I don’t care if it doesn’t sound impressive: it’s the truth, and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance.

Though staying home with kids is certainly an acceptable route in our society, it’s not valued in the workplace as experience and doesn’t sound impressive at cocktail parties. Saying you’re a blogger often elicits eye rolls, but here’s the thing: blogging has given me back the gift of writing, something I took for granted all those years as a reporter. It’s given me a forum to express myself, and the confidence to believe I can produce longer pieces.

My road to stay-at-homeness was gradual, certainly nothing I planned when I was setting out. In fact, I wanted nothing more than a successful career, having grown up in a time of women’s liberation and equal rights. When a college friend told me during senior year her goal was to marry, have kids and join the garden club, I winced, believing she was shortchanging herself.

“What about a career?” I thought to myself.

I spent most of my 20s and 30s as a reporter and editor at small dailies and weeklies until I got a job at a bigger newspaper. As much as I loved my work, I knew I wanted to be a mom. My road to motherhood was fraught with disappointment until a miracle came along after about 10 years. I named him Matthew, gift of the Lord. Nearly four years later, we welcomed his sister Maura.

I continued to freelance when my kids were young, waking up the crack of dawn to complete writing assignments while the little monsters slept. But as they got older, even freelancing became difficult because I was so busy shuttling them to sporting events, CCD and other after school activities. What you learn is that it’s actually easier to get things done when your kids are babies. Once the hustle and bustle of shuttling kids begins, your life is not your own.

My desire to write waned as my children got older and I took on the role of taxi driver. I used to tell people that my day didn’t really begin until 3, when I buckled them into their seats and began driving the back streets of Guilford, CT., to avoid highway traffic to get them where they needed to be. I now know every shortcut in town like the back of my hand. But I was a little lost when my son went off to college: without him around, I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself. I decided to start a blog, just to see if anyone might be able to relate to my experiences.

I thought it was three years – honest. Then I got my anniversary notice from WordPress and it says four years, so I guess it must be so. 

I still enjoy blogging, sharing experiences in hopes of connecting with people. It thrills me when people write back, telling me they can relate or sharing their own spin on things. I’m overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and can honestly say it’s been a great experience. I have nothing but good things to say about blogging, and encourage anyone who wants to blog to try it.

At this point, I’m nearing 300 followers on WordPress, with others following on Facebook. I don’t gauge my success in terms of number of followers, but in terms of how I connect with the readers I have: did I strike a chord and remind you of something in your own life or childhood? Did I make you laugh, cry or wistful? I’m not trying for a certain reaction: that to me is manipulative. But if I happen to strike a chord, that’s the money shot. I think that’s what every writer is after at the end of the day.

So here it’s been – four years. Not a long time, but as long as high school, college and some short-lived marriages. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

Truth in Advertising?

The depiction of the 60+ crowd upset a lot of people, including me.

I’m not sure what happens to women over the age of 50, but we become a little obsessed with aging.

It’s not necessarily just our own aging process that interests us. We’re also interested in the age of other women we see on the street, in the supermarket, in the CVS drive-thru line, in ads and on the TV screen, wondering how old they are. Senior days at the supermarket are a particularly fertile time for this pastime: it’s interesting to see how many older women rock spandex leggings or pink streaks in their hair these days.

I don’t remember age being part of the equation when I was a “kid” in my 20s and 30s, but maybe it was always there waiting to be unleashed like the grey hair at my temples. People say one of the gifts of turning 50 is no longer caring what other people think of you. If that’s true, then so is looking at other women around your age and seeing how Father Time is treating them.

My first memory of making a point to Google an actor’s age is after a play at Long Wharf in New Haven that I attended with a few friends several years ago. The star of the show was a gorgeous actress with a killer body, but it was obvious that she was a mature woman. My friends and I debated her age, finally settling the debate with a few finger strokes on our trusty I-Phones. For the record, the woman was a few years younger than I was, but looked a helluva lot better than me. That’s OK. That’s not a high bar these days.

One of my pandemic obsessions is Googling people’s ages on my phone as I watch various shows, or should I say programs? I don’t much care how old men are – they’re merely a blip on my phone screen. But I’ll admit that I did a double take when I realized an old bald guy on a recent episode of “Magnum PI” was Corbin Bernsen. As an early fan of The Young & the Restless, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Corbin because he is the son of the late Jeanne Cooper, who played Katherine Chancellor for years.

I’d seen his name in the credits at the beginning of Magnum PI, and looked forward to seeing the hunky blond actor from “LA Law.” As I watched the show, I kept thinking, “Where’s Corbin?” It wasn’t until the end of the show that I realized that he was the old guy dying in a hospital bed. To be fair, the makeup people did a job on Corbin, making him look much older than his 66 years. He’s still a very attractive man. But it was hard seeing him as the old bald character actor rather than the gorgeous lead from his younger days. Maybe seeing him reminded me that I’m no longer the young woman I was when I was watching him rock that blond mane back in the ‘80s.

It’s nice when you look up a celebrity’s age and are pleasantly surprised that they’re holding up so well: Jane Fonda is 83, Lily Tomlin is 81, Helen Mirren is 75 and Christie Brinkley still looks great at 67. Of course, it’s possible a fair bit of work may be involved, but that’s OK. I’d never fault anyone for plastic surgery, though it’s not a route I plan to take (never say never). I only ask for honesty when plastic surgery is involved: please don’t tell the public you’re all natural when we all know you’re not.

Aging isn’t easy for any of us, and it doesn’t get any easier with each passing year. It’s hard to know what you look like to the outside world as you age, particularly with everyone wearing masks that cover troublespots like lined cheeks, sagging jowls, drooping chins and laugh lines. One of the most humbling experiences is catching a glimpse of myself in the camera at the self service checkout at Wal-mart and Big Y: I look quickly and then avert my eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding going out in public like this,” I think.

You’re having a pretty good day, and then you realize you’re on camera . . .

Though I’m not consumed with age, and realize that aging is a privilege, it’s hard to think of myself as looking like an old lady at 62. So it was with a mixture of amusement and horror that I looked at an age progression chart for the Keto Diet on Facebook. Each of the age groups features a depiction of women at different ages and what they can expect to look like on Keto. Everyone looks pretty good until you get to the woman in her 60s, who looks old from her head to her toes. 

I thought I was the only one who objected to this scary depiction of a frumpy if kindly looking old lady until a Facebook ad for Keto popped up in my feed this week. The responses came from around the world, with the consensus that we’ll all stick to our terrible diets if this is what awaits us:

“How about some new photos of over 60? one woman wrote.

“Wow, looking at how you depict women at certain ages. This is so off,” wrote another.

“My 83-year-old mother looks better than the example of the 60+ woman,” wrote another.  So does my 87-year-old mother, for that matter.

“If going on Keto means that I’ll lose my sense of style and look like this, I’ll stick to my current diet,” a 71-year-old woman wrote.

It was a relief that I wasn’t the only one who objected to the depiction in the 60+ age bracket. And people found other problems with the ad, from misspellings (stake instead of steak) to its lack of representation for men and minorities. Some people criticized the clothing, with one guy noting:

“I didn’t realize that age 40 was the age that Karens got their wings.”

Of course, most people commented on the diet, which was, after all, the point of the ad. But I think the comments about the 60+ woman’s appearance speaks to the importance of accurate branding. I know plenty of women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who are in fantastic shape and stylish. Seeing how the 60+ crowd is depicted in the Keto ad is insulting because it’s not an accurate depiction. In fact, it will probably turn off more women than it will attract.

Maybe the ad people will get their act together and update the chart – we can always hope they come to their senses. In the meantime, there’s a bowl of pasta with my name on it.

Artichokes, 101

You know you’ve done something right when a group devoted to cooking and eating enthusiastically embraces one of your creations.

I posted a photo of a single stuffed artichoke I made using my grandmother’s very simple recipe on Wooster Square Cooks and the response was overwhelming, at least as far as my posts go. People love artichokes, especially stuffed the old-fashioned way with breadcrumbs in the center cavity. My grandmother used to spoon breadcrumbs in the individual leaves too, but I don’t because I find the breadcrumbs get too mushy. Besides, the dish is filling and rich enough without adding more breadcrumbs to the mix.

What surprised me is that so many people love artichokes, but had never made stuffed artichokes because they don’t know how. I was happy to share my recipe because they’re easy to make and so satisfying, particularly at this time of the year. I don’t have my grandmother’s recipe written down, but I watched her prepare them so often in her Brooklyn, N.Y., kitchen to know it by heart. The secret was her breadcrumb mix – the same recipe, I believe, that she used to stuff clams and lobsters on Christmas Eve and for stuffed mushrooms.

She favored good quality plain breadcrumbs, not Italian seasoned. She’d dump them in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and a good shake of garlic powder (not garlic salt). A shake or two of dried parsley. From there, she would drizzle in good olive oil and stir, stopping when it reached the consistency of damp sand. Combined, but not saturated. If she added too much oil, more breadcrumbs would go in the bowl until she had the desired consistency.

Some people commented that they used fresh garlic and parmesan cheese in their stuffing, but I don’t. I want to taste the artichoke without being overwhelmed by other flavors. Fresh garlic seems overpowering, but to each his or her own. I’d never dare argue with another cook, particularly an Italian American one.

Like a lot of old-time cooks, I don’t remember my grandmother ever using a measuring cup or spoon, cookbook or recipe card. She was a fantastic cook, but did everything by memory or feel. That’s just how she rolled. So when a few people on Wooster Square Cooks wanted the recipe, I had to think long and hard, particularly about the breadcrumb mixture. It didn’t help that I’d had my 2nd Covid 19 shot earlier in the day, or that I had a few glasses of wine to celebrate.

For my Wooster Square Cooks post, I didn’t have enough breadcrumbs so I crushed up a bag of croutons. My grandmother wouldn’t like that, but in a pinch it will do. The most difficult part of the recipe is making sure that you have enough water in the pot. You’ve got to check it periodically to make sure it doesn’t boil down too much, adding water as needed. Some people said they baked theirs in a Dutch Oven, but I prefer the stovetop so I can keep an eye on them.

I think it’s important to share recipes – can you believe some people guard them with their life? Not what cooking is all about, at least for me. So when a few friends asked for a simple recipe for Easter Brunch, I offered them my mother-in-law’s holiday standard Eggs for Brunch. She got the recipe from her daughter, Sarah, and included it a fundraising cookbook. Here’s it is, in case you’re still trying to figure out what to make for Sunday:

Start by cutting off the stem of the artichoke so it will sit flat in the pan. Next, snip off the sharp tips of each artichoke leaf with a pair of kitchen scissors or a knife (scissors work best). Remove any outer leaves that are withered or don’t look appetizing.
Wash the artichokes, separating the leaves with your fingers, shake off excess water and drain on paper towels to dry.
Use your fingers to spread out the artichoke leaves to open the center cavity. Be gentle, or you’ll end up ripping it apart.
After stuffing generously, place artichokes in a pan containing about three inches of water. Don’t crowd the artichokes. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, immediately reducing the heat to a simmer. Cook for an hour, until leaves are tender. The breadcrumbs will steam, becoming moist and a bit darker during the cooking process. Serve with melted butter, if you want.

Here’s the complete recipe:

GRANDMA ROSE’S STUFFED ARTICHOKES (SERVES 4)

4 large artichokes, outer or any dry leaves removed

About 2 cups of breadcrumbs. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, flatten some croutons in a plastic bag.

About 4-6 tablespoons of olive oil

Garlic powder

Dried parsley

Salt and pepper

Method:

Remove the tough outer leaves of the artichoke. Snip off the end of each leaf with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Cut off the stem and top of the artichoke with a knife. I usually remove about ½ an inch from the top. Gently spread the leaves of the artichoke apart with your fingers, taking care not to break off any leaves. Rinse under cold water, shaking to remove excess water. Blot the top of the artichoke face down on paper towels to remove remaining water.

In a small mixing bowl, combine breadcrumbs with olive oil, mixing in enough oil to create the consistency of damp sand – combined, but not saturated. Add in a shake of garlic powder, salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of dried parsley.

Open the top of the artichoke and spoon the breadcrumbs into the center cavity. If you want, you can spoon breadcrumbs into the individual leaves. I find that the breadcrumbs sometimes become too soggy in the leaves, but it’s all a matter of personal taste. Once stuffed, drizzle a little olive oil on top for good measure.

Place artichokes in a covered pot with about three inches of water with a dash of salt and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Check the artichokes periodically to see if more water is needed. Cook for one hour, letting the artichokes rest in the water for about five minutes.

Serve with melted butter.

This is a meal in itself, very filling. Serve with a side salad and dinner is served.

Better, Worse + Lunch

There was a time when the Curmudgeon made his own lunch and brought it with him every day.

It was always the same: peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread, an apple and three oatmeal cookies. He’d buy chocolate milk from the roach coach – those shiny trucks that went from place to place at breakfast and lunch before Uber Eats and gourmet food trucks became a thing. He pinched pennies so hard that he used the same raisin bread bag to pack his lunch until it fell apart.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter's salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can't do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter’s salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can’t do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.

I don’t like leftovers. I know, I should, and I probably fall in the minority of people, but I don’t. My father refused to eat them, so we can blame him. At one point, he told my mother to stop making baked sausages and potatoes because the dish reminded him of when he was a poor medical resident. He made a similar proclamation over filet of sole Almandine, not because it reminded him of being poor, but he was simply sick of it.

As eaters go, he was a tough nut, the only person I ever met who didn’t like condiments on his hotdogs and hamburgers, and hated all cheese, even the smell of it. My mother used to prepare separate trays of “lasagna in the boat” for my dad at holidays without cheese. That’s the way he ate his pizza too. Before he ordered fish and chips, he always asked if it was made with cod, refusing to order it if it was. He didn’t order it very often.

One day, my dad thought it might be nice to come home for lunch to see my mother without seven kids around, but my mother quickly put a stop to it. She wanted an uninterrupted stretch of time to herself while we were at school to get things done and whatever else moms did while they had the house to themselves. As a mom myself, I understand this completely.

“I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch,” she declared one day, repeating a quote attributed to Wallis Simpson, wife of Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne for his lady. Aside: I think Prince Harry takes after his great great uncle in the love department, washing his hands of the monarchy for Meghan. I doubt Meghan would tell Harry to get lost at lunch, but who knows? We all have limits to our togetherness.

Wallis Simpson didn’t want her husband home for lunch either.

My father was not amused by my mother’s proclamation; in fact, I think his feelings were hurt, but he got the message. From then on, he ate peanut butter crackers at lunch, arriving home like a maniac at 6 p.m. ready to eat anything in sight.

It never occurred to my mother to pack a sandwich for my father, though it certainly would have been easy enough: most mornings she stood at a thick cutting board and made seven sandwiches for us to take to school before lining us up and combing our hair, mostly into braids and ponytails. From there, she added cookies and a bag of chips, even after I implored her to hold my chips. Of course, we sometimes had hot lunch too, but what I remember from those days is her sandwiches: cream cheese and jelly (and “a punch in the belly,” she always added), ham and cheese and when she was really desperate, cold veal cutlets on a hard roll. (Those were immediately tossed in the trash.)

I don’t have lunch with the Curmudgeon, though there was a time that we ate it together every day. That’s one of the benefits of dating and then marrying a co-worker: you have a built-in lunch buddy to explore the delis and diners within a 10-mile radius of your workplace. We had about 10 establishments in our lunch rotation, from a hamburger joint that served Afghanistan cuisine (fantastic!) to Mr. Sizzle, home of the pastrami nightmare.

Today, the Curmudgeon eats lunch with a few friends at work. They go to a few delis to pick up sandwiches every day, mainly to get out of the office. I understand the need for a change of scenery. Eight or more hours in the same place can drive you nuts. I never brown-bagged my lunch when I worked full-time, mainly because I needed to leave the premises.

But the other day, these guys drove around for 45 minutes in search of their lunch. Their favorite deli in Branford, CT., was closed due to Covid 19, and they had to wait about a half hour for tuna fish sandwiches at another place. So I did something I’ve never done in nearly 40 years of marriage: I offered to make the Curmudgeon a sandwich to take to work. I was feeling so generous that I offered to make one for his co-worker too.

I agree that a sandwich from a deli always tastes better than one made at home, but I figured I could handle tuna salad, about the only option available during Lent if you don’t want egg salad or a PB&J. By Wednesday, I had all of my ingredients: tuna fish, celery, shaved carrots, lettuce, tomato, Spanish onion and hot red peppers for his friend. Despite my supplies, the Curmudgeon was initially dismissive, saying he could handle his own lunch, but thanks.

By Friday morning, he was cautioning me that he only wanted lettuce and tomato on his sandwich, while his friend hated lettuce so I’d better not dare put any on his sandwich. I offered to pack the lunches so he could take them with him, but he worried that the sandwiches would be soggy sitting for hours. This seemed a reasonable concern, though plenty of other people, including school kids, must contend with this every day.

“Come at 12:15 p.m.,” he said. I felt like an Uber Eats delivery person. But at least they don’t have to make it too. To get myself in the mood, I washed the lettuce, sliced the tomatoes and assembled the tuna salad early, throwing it in the refrigerator so the flavors would meld. I’m not sure why deli tuna is so good, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to master at home. Mine is never quite mushy enough, lacking the distinctive texture that makes deli tuna so great. I even used an ice cream scoop like they do at Subway, flattening the mounds of tuna with the back of it.

A few hours after he left, he phoned to say his friend was out of the office, so he wouldn’t be needing lunch. He then suggested I pack my own tuna sandwich and join him at the picnic table outside their office. This surprised me on a few levels: he deplores eating outside, and he hasn’t invited me to have lunch with him in at least 10 years. Then again, I was bringing the sandwiches, a definite plus in my column.

The weather cooperated, a balmy 60-something degrees in mid-March, and the dog limited her begging to me, knowing better not to bother the Curmudgeon when he’s eating. It was pleasant, fun, and best of all, he saved a little money. It was nice eating out with him, even if it was next to the office parking lot and a garbage can.

Some of his office co-workers ambled by, and commented on how cute it was that we were picnicking after all these years. But just as quickly as it began, it ended. When I offered to make tuna sandwiches again, he brushed me off.

“It was nice, but I’m all set,” he said.

I’m back to eating alone, just as Wallis and I like it.

Wooster Square Cooks

A generous bowl of Cavatappi, inspired by Wooster Square Cooks.

I may be the only person who isn’t watching Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” series right now.

I’ve been hearing rumblings about it, but am watching the first season of “Bloodline,” a family drama set in the Florida Keys on Netflix. I overheard a woman telling someone about it at the dog park, listening unabashedly when she described Kyle Chandler as a “hottie.” With spring still a few weeks away and no immediate travel plans, seeing palm trees, sand and the glorious blue-green water of coastal Florida on TV is my only escape. Kyle Chandler? Impossibly cute in a “Dad body” kind of way.

I got my first Covid 19 shot this week, a milestone that I treated as a major life event, a trophy to celebrate outrunning this virus for the past year. I washed and styled my hair, wore street clothes and two matching socks, something that’s been unnecessary up to this point. I brought the dog, whose gone from faithful companion to my appendage. When I had to drop her off for tests at the vet last week, I wondered how I’d survive two hours without her.

Note to self and anyone getting the vaccine: wear a T-shirt. I wore a pullover sweater and a button-down blouse, meaning I had to practically strip to find my left shoulder. Embarrassing. Like everyone else, I was thrilled that vaccine day had arrived, so I wasn’t thinking clearly. One kind woman brought the Yale-New Haven staffers manning shot central a bag of goodies to show her gratitude. I may copy her when I go for the second shot on March 25th.

So I’m not watching Stanley, at least not now. But I’ve done the next best thing, joining the Wooster Square Cooks, a lively Facebook page with 24,400 members and counting. My childhood friend Don invited me to join the fun, and I accepted, maybe the best decision I’ve made in the past 6 months.

I was so appreciative of Don’s invitation that I FaceTimed him, reaching him at his North Carolina home. We were once neighbors and good friends in Orange, CT., but I haven’t spoken to him in 40 years. This is what I love about cooking and being Italian American: it breaks down barriers, making it seem perfectly rational to call someone up after four decades.

Don told me that he was invited into the group about three weeks ago, and in turn invited about 25 friends to join. To his surprise, everyone accepted. Unlike me, Don is having no trouble finding cooking inspiration: for him, it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to tap into his Italian heritage and unwind after hours of screen time working remotely.

He posted his first dish to Wooster Square Cooks this week: chicken cacciatore which he likes spicy, adding a few jalapeño peppers to the sauce for kick. I asked Don if he was nervous about posting with so many great Italian American cooks on the site. I know I’m a little intimidated, the way I feel when I cook for other Italian Americans.

“A little,” he admitted. “But then I decided to just post it anyway. Everyone is very supportive on the page.”

For me, the page has rekindled my interest in cooking, something that’s been waning for the past few months. Like it or not, the past year has put enormous pressure on home cooks, particularly during the winter months when many of us refuse to dine inside restaurants. Take-out is nice, but we try to limit it to once a week, mostly pizza from the closest parlor. That means the other six days I’m on deck, often at a loss at what to cook. I’ve apologized more than once in recent weeks for my lousy dinners, and no one has argued with me.

I know about the New York Times “What To Cook” Column and I get that it’s helpful, though I could have come up with its lame suggestion of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on my own. What I love about Wooster Square Cooks is that people share photos of what they’ve rustled up for lunch, dinner or dessert, whetting my appetite with big bowls of linguine with white clam sauce stacked with little necks, or chicken cacciatore with meaty thighs swimming in red sauce.

Unlike “Foodie” photos of food prepared by restaurant chefs that can be so grating, you get the sense that the folks on Wooster Square Cooks are proud of their creations and want to share their joy, perhaps even inspire people when we all need a little inspiration, both in the kitchen and in life. I’ve never gotten the sense that anyone is bragging about their culinary skills; rather, they’re just putting them out there, assuming everyone is just as capable of making zeppole as they are.

So much of cooking inspiration is gleaned in casual conversations, explaining why so many of us are simply at a loss right now. Stuck inside our houses still, we lack the day-to-day interplay that often inspires us to try something new. Wooster Square Cooks is a virtual coffee klatch where people swap ideas and inspiration, igniting the palate and stoking desire for Italian dishes that we’ve forgotten about. It’s a little like looking at an extensive menu, being reminded how good certain dishes are and wondering what to order.

I’d expect nothing less of a group based around Wooster Square, a New Haven neighborhood that’s home to some of the best pizza parlors, Italian restaurants and pastry shops in the world. Sally’s Pizza and Pepe’s Pizza are both on Wooster Street. Need I say more? And though many of the group’s members have Italian last names like my maiden name, it’s thankfully not a prerequisite for membership.

Besides the impossibly tempting dishes, I enjoy the dialog and the questions among members:

“Can I mix white and red wine for chicken piccata?”

The consensus: absolutely NO.

“I want to make escarole and bean soup, but don’t have white beans. Can I use black beans?”

“NO!”

“My prize lemon. Now I have to decide it’s best use LOL,” wrote my old high school classmate Lisa Sorrentino Rehm.

At last count, she had 576 likes, three shares and 105 responses ranging from lemon cream pie and chicken piccata to scallops over angel hair pasta. Your mouth is watering right now, right? I told you this page is the bomb.

“Artichokes on sale for 99 cents each at such and such store, in case anyone is interested.” (Um, who isn’t? Thanks for that tip!)

“What’s everybody making for dinner tonight?”

I remain silent, not wanting to admit it’s hamburgers – again. That’s not what this group wants to hear, what it’s all about. It wants evidence that some imagination, effort and love was involved with trays of homemade lasagna or manicotti hand stuffed with good ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Posting hamburgers would be akin to admitting you’re making a McDonald’s run.

Lately, there’s been a lot of broccoli rabe with garlic, olive oil and sweet sausages, one of my favorites because it’s so easy. I always serve it over ziti or spaghetti, but have been surprised that many people serve it with Italian bread. You learn something new every day.

The other day after scrolling the page, I went to an Italian specialty food store about five minutes from my house for the first time. I was craving imported Italian pasta and red sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes, the kind you crush yourself in the food processor. I walked into the store and was surrounded with pastas of every shape and size stacked on tables and shelves. Looking around, perhaps to show that I am no neophyte when it comes to macaroni, I asked the saleswoman if they had cavatelli – pasta shaped like tiny hotdog buns. They did not, but I bought something that looked like it. It was flat, without the distinctive channel that runs along the center and catches the sauce so nicely.

I added to my haul, buying pasta twisted by hand to look like long pieces of licorice, and tight thin spirals called cavatappi that look like springs. The pasta is imported from Italy and about three times as much as I’d spend in the grocery store, but it’s worth it, like the difference between store brand ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s. I may never go back to Ronzoni. Who am I kidding? Of course I will, but it’s nice to dream.

I haven’t dared told the Curmudgeon how much I spent at the Italian store, but I don’t think he’d mind too much. He had three bowls of the imported pasta with sauce, meaning he liked it more than my usual stuff, sometimes referred to as “Irish sauce.” This sauce was thick and meaty, cooked slowly for three hours with sweet sausages to meld the flavors. It may have been the best pot I ever put up, and I have the Wooster Square Cooks to thank for it.