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.

Sidelined

This has been pretty much it for me and the dog since early December.

I hurt my leg in early December.

I was playing Pickleball and lunged forward, feeling a sharp pain at the back of my left calf. I hobbled off the court, refusing a friend’s offer of a knee brace to continue playing. That was impossible: I could barely walk. I staggered to my car, and drove off, the first time I’ve ever limped away from a game for anything.

I called my rheumatologist, explained the pain, and he said it didn’t sound like rheumatoid arthritis. I knew that. RA pain is awful, but it’s more like a low steady groan in your joints, which get hot, swollen and inflamed. This pain was an ear-piercing shout, the kind that grabs you by the collar, shakes you around and doesn’t let go.

The only relief came when I was off my feet. Fine. I can veg out with the best of them. But after awhile, I crave movement, sweat, a change of scenery, nature. Doesn’t everyone?

“I don’t think you’re going to be doing anything physical for quite awhile,” my doctor said. He lamented our Telemedicine visit, saying he couldn’t tell much via Zoom. But his phone call diagnosis was spot-on: I haven’t been laid up, but I can’t do anything physical. At the risk of going completely nuts, I signed up for an online writing course. It’s been taking up a lot of my time. Writing a longer piece is much harder than I thought it would be.

This is a minor inconvenience given what other people are dealing with, a fact not lost on me. I just learned a high school friend has been struggling with Covid-19 since before Christmas. She’s a beautiful person, so loved, and all of us are praying for her recovery. Being injured or sick underscores the importance of embracing your health. If you can get outside for a bit, do it. The vitamin D is good for you, and the sun feels wonderful even when it’s 25 degrees, 11 degrees with the windchill.

I know because I’ve been taking the dog to the dog park nearly every day, one of my few excuses to leave the house, and standing near a tree to guard my knee from charging dogs. I’d forgotten how much the dog loves it there. Our town’s dog park is a gem, a fenced-in wide expanse of open land lined with trees, benches and tons of old tennis balls. The masters love it as much as the dogs. They come in all weather, some twice a day.

The good news is I don’t need knee surgery or a knee replacement, two options that were on the table when I met with the orthopedic physician’s assistant three weeks ago. The bad is the MRI shows I have a bone bruise and small fracture in my tibia. Recovery time? Anywhere from several weeks to several months. I’m hoping I’m on the quicker side of things.

How did it happen? I suspect when I was rushing to get to a disc golf tee box in the woods, and tripped over a tree root jutting up about five feet away from the platform. One minute, I was merrily walking along. The next, I was flying in the air towards a wooden platform. Splat. It was one of those falls where you realize how lucky you were not to hit your head or break your neck, the kind where your heart is still racing an hour later.

I didn’t bother me at first. After five minutes of really smarting, my knee felt fine and I was on my way to the next tee. But within a few weeks, the pain was excruciating. I was sure that something was torn because I’d never felt such pain. I asked the Curmudgeon to pull strings for me, calling an orthopedic surgeon he knows to get me an appointment quickly. He came through, getting me in the following day. Note to self: always work your medical connections.

The only prescription is rest and staying off of it, something that’s getting very old after two months. I can’t wait to get back outside, or see my Pickleball friends, masked of course. For now, it’s my laptop and Netflix, two things that have sustained me over the past year. But I envy the people I see outside, the ones who’ve used walking, running or cycling to get through the pandemic. With any luck, I’ll be one of them again sooner rather than later.

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Cleaning It Up

Photo credit: Esty

There are some advantages to living in the suburbs.

Peaceful living, low crime, excellent schools, no traffic and so little noise that you can hear crickets at night. But there are things that require regular maintenance with a bit of an obsessive eye: the furnace, lawn, well, gutters, roof and a little thing called the septic tank.

We got a reminder to have our septic tank serviced in April. Six months and two days before Christmas later, my son called me and said, “You might want to call the septic guy. I can’t flush the toilet in our bathroom.”

I’m not sure why this sent me over the edge, but it did. We’ve had a couple of septic tank disasters, and I didn’t want it happening as I removed the baked stuffed lobsters from the oven on Christmas Eve. Enough has gone wrong lately to convince me that we needed an emergency call to avoid potential disaster.

I called the local septic company, and the secretary was helpful if a bit scolding. “It shows that we sent you a reminder out in April,” she said. “I don’t want to point blame or get anyone in trouble, but we tried to schedule this six months ago.”

“It’s my husband’s fault,” I said. “He’s in charge of the septic tank and let it slide. Then again, we were in the midst of Covid 19 lockdown when the reminder came. We had a lot of other things on our minds.”

The secretary chuckled and agreed. She asked me a couple of questions to determine if we were in severe danger of a backup, or just walking a dangerous line. The sink and shower drains weren’t slow, nor had anyone reported hearing that horrendous yet unmistakable gurgling that precedes a full-blown backup.

As she questioned me, she got another call and put me on hold. When she returned, she said, “Well, I’m having a pretty f*&^ing horrible day. How about you?” I laughed because I was having a pretty s^&*ty day too. And though some customers might’ve been offended by her language, I wasn’t. I worked at Sears Service Center during college and know what it’s like to have a rotten day scheduling service calls.

I never used the F-bomb at Sears, but I was tempted. You can’t believe how nasty some people can be, particularly after taking a day off from work to wait for a repairman who never shows up. But the job taught me that some people can be incredibly understanding and polite even when they’re annoyed. It taught me to be understanding with customer service reps because it’s not their fault.

Back in the 70s, no one used the F-word in polite conversation and I’d likely have been fired for saying it to a customer. But things are different today. It’s now part of the vernacular, a relatively tame word compared to some of the filthy words in popular culture, particularly music and videos.

I sometimes can’t believe the words peppering songs coming out of my son’s I-Phone. It’s a good thing that for the most part, I can’t make out the disgusting words or know what they mean. But I don’t envy parents of young kids today. How do you convince kids to keep their language clean when popular culture is working against you?

I was raised in a household of seven girls by two pretty strict parents. I won’t say they never swore, but it was pretty rare. They raised us to believe that swearing, or having a dirty mouth, was unladylike. I believe my mother’s term for it was, “You sound like a common trollop.”

I rarely swore until I became a newspaper reporter in my early 20s and began swearing like a sailor. There’s something about a newsroom and deadlines that promotes swearing. I don’t know a reporter or editor who hasn’t sworn when a story vanishes from a computer screen. If the computer guy couldn’t retrieve it, it meant rewriting it, possibly the most frustrating task ever invented.

Being married to a guy who swears doesn’t help, and the Curmudgeon’s mouth is even worse than mine. He likes to insert swear words where they’re not needed, as in “Where’s the f*&*ing mayonnaise?”

It wasn’t a big deal when we were just a couple. But our foul language came back to haunt us when our son was about 2, and began throwing around swear words like Lego blocks. My daughter also mimicked us. When we ran into a friend of hers from pre-school in the grocery store when she was four, she chirped, “He’s such an a&*hole.” Thankfully, the child and his mom were out of earshot.

Though some parents think it’s funny to hear kids swear – the Internet is rife with videos of tots cursing a blue streak – I deplore it. At a very basic level, it suggests sloppy parenting and a lack of self control on the parents’ part. When you have kids, you have a responsibility to protect and educate them, and language is part of the package.

Sure, a stray curse word now and then is inevitable, but kids learn by example. In the list of things I wish I’d done better as a mom, cleaning up my language ranks close to the top. I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I realize now how lazy I was in this area.

When I hear my kids swear, I try to correct them and urge them to find other ways to express themselves. There are tons of cute options out there: “Oh fudge.” “Dang.” “Shitake mushroom.” “Marone” (every Italian American’s fallback.) And my absolute favorite gleaned from my Pickleball pal Pat: “Oh bother.” (Winnie the Pooh’s favorite expression.)

There’s no need to swear, no need to pollute the environment with expletives, though if ever there was a year to swear, 2020 would’ve been it. So for 2021, I’m cleaning up my act. I’m trying not to swear.

I should be just fine until I get onto Interstate 95 and try to merge into traffic, or some idiot tailgates me on a Sunday morning on the way to the bagel place. In that case, I guarantee I’ll swear, but thankfully no one will be around to hear me.

Merry Christmas

When it comes to holidays, Christmas Eve is my favorite.

It’s the one night of the year when everyone converges at my mother’s house for the traditional “Seven Fishes” meal, arriving around 6:30 full of excitement and ready to tie on the proverbial feedbag. I don’t know how many families have seven fishes, but we come pretty close:

Bacon-wrapped scallops. Shrimp cocktail. Stuffed littleneck clams. Linguine with white clam sauce. Baked stuffed lobster. That’s five. At one point, we had an iceberg lettuce salad tossed with shrimp topped with lemony dressing, but that was deleted some years ago.

The truth is, it’s hard to eat that much at one sitting. By the time the lobster comes out of the oven around 10 p.m., I’m usually stuffed and have to wrap mine up. Over the years, I’ve tried to save room, but the clams get me every time.

It’s not ladylike or something I’m proud of, but I think I ate 14 clams one year. After I wolfed them down, I’d stack up the shells in front of my plate and wait for the next round. Because seriously, there was always another round, another platter to be passed and devoured.

How much of a big deal is Christmas Eve?

My father put a four-season porch on the house to accommodate the Christmas Eve crowd. When he was arguing his case to my mother, he noted that the house could no longer comfortably accommodate the family, which now included seven sons-in-law and 17 grandchildren. Of course, they used the porch at other times, but its main function was accommodating the folding tables and chairs on Christmas Eve.

For the past several years, my mother has had the distinction of placing the biggest Christmas Eve order at a local fish store. I know this because the owner Lisa told me. It makes sense: every year, Mom hosts somewhere between 30 and 40 people. Over the years, this has included siblings, cousins and parents of in-laws.

When I told Lisa that Mom wasn’t hosting her party this year because of Covid-19, she stopped what she was doing. “Wooooow,” she said. It had become such a tradition that even Lisa couldn’t believe it wasn’t happening.

The night and the meal preparation belonged to Mom, though seriously, I think she’d have been thrilled to pass it off to someone else. It would be a monumental task for any hostess, but Mom is now 87. When I pointed out to my kids that it would even be an effort for a woman my age, they looked at me like I had two heads.

But it would. Hosting close to 40 people is very hard work, even if you have help. The only people who think hosting big parties is easy are people who don’t host parties, and I know plenty of them.

Of course, things are different this year because of Covid-19. With Mom’s party off, I decided to host a small gathering consisting of three fishes at my house. I invited Mom. She thanked me, but said she planned to stay home. She’s since accepted an invitation from one of my sisters, who lives nearby.

She didn’t look upset about a low-key night though. In fact, I think I saw a tiny shred of relief on her face. For the first time in about 60 years, she’d be a guest and could relax. She was finally getting a reprieve from her hostessing duties. It only took a pandemic to make it happen.

Of course, I’ve never hostessed Christmas Eve, so this is all new to me. But I’m already learning from my mother’s experience. I’m not making a pasta course because it’s too filling. And I’ve already handed off the clam prep to my son, who spent about 20 minutes telling me how hosting parties isn’t a big deal.

My daughter wants to decorate the place, so I told her to have at it. I think there are streamers and snowflakes involved, but that’s OK. I was 19 once, and remember the joy in decorating for parties. She’s also handling dessert, which is such a relief.

We’re keeping things very low-key: No heavy appetizers. Fewer courses. No trashing of rooms with manic ripping open of presents, leaving wrapping paper and ribbon everywhere. It will be different, but it will still be Christmas Eve. And I’m still looking forward to it despite this year’s restrictions and constrictions.

However you plan to spend it, I wish everyone a joyous holiday and a very happy and healthy New Year.

My Chainsaw & Me

A fallen tree posed my biggest chainsaw challenge to date.

As #2 in a family of seven girls, I often felt like the son my father never had.

I’ve met enough #2s from large clans to know that we’re people pleasers, a shade less independent than our older sibling, who has the distinction of being first. I often did things because my older sister did, including attending an all-girls high school and all-women’s college, editing the high school newspaper and wearing my mother’s wedding dress.

With my mom always busy with the “babies,” the three oldest often fell into my father’s care. He took us to church on Sundays, treating us to breakfast at a restaurant with a treasure chest full of trinkets. He took us to Vermont to ski while my mother stayed home, figuring it was easier than getting four little kids into snow suits.

My father always brushed off suggestions that he was disappointed that he had all girls, and I believe him (sort of). Perhaps because he had only girls, he didn’t treat us as “girly girls” who didn’t play sports or only played with dolls, though I loved my Barbies and collection of trolls that I kept in a cigar box.

We played store, school and dress-up in my mom’s closet, but we also played sports in the days before Title 9. Dad put up a basketball hoop in the drive-way and cleared our backyard of trees to erect an ice skating rink. Later, he ignored my mother’s vehement objections to a built-in swimming pool, having one installed on one side of the property.

He loved sports, teaching me Ping Pong, tennis and golf. And he espoused the benefits of jogging in the early ’70s, observing: “Have you ever seen a fat runner?” (Well, yes, but that’s a blog for another day.) He loved to walk and is probably the reason I get so enjoyment out of the solitary pursuit. A walk solves a lot of problems, particularly these days.

Most of all, he believed that girls can do things besides cooking, cleaning, sewing and gardening. In addition to so-called “women’s work,” he saw no reason why girls shouldn’t do chores typically assigned to boys, like painting the garage or shoveling the driveway. In this way, he was ahead of his time, though I still wince when I remember him telling me to let my friend Peter beat me in tennis.

“You have no idea how competitive boys are,” he said. “Let him win once and awhile. It will be good for his ego.” I chose to ignore that advice, finding it as ridiculous back then as I do today. I’ve always believed that you should try to win, or as an old tennis pro once told me, “Play like a lion.”

Of course, things are different today when it comes to sports, education and careers for women. But how many fathers teach their daughters to chop wood, check the car engine oil, or change the bits in a drill? Most men assume they’re raising their daughters as they would sons, but I suspect there’s still some sexism at play, at least in some households.

It came as no surprise to me that when I moved into my new house nearly 20 years ago, my father’s gift was a shiny red tool box with a ribbon on top. He knew if anything needed fixing around the house, I’d be the one to do it. His attitude is likely the reason I don’t think power equipment is just for men. In fact, I’ve got a growing collection in my garage, including a lawn mower, power washer and bad-ass leaf blower.

A few years ago after I heard the buzz of a chainsaw from my neighbor’s yard, I decided to buy one. I headed to a nearby hardware store, and told the owner my plans. He looked me squarely in the eye and sighed deeply.

“I will sell you a chainsaw, but I’m going to teach you how to use it,” he said. “Too many people are injured because they don’t know how to handle them. You’re leaving here knowing what you’re doing.”

He removed a small Black & Decker orange rechargeable chainsaw from the shelf and opened it. Unlike its gas-fueled and noisy beefy cousins, it’s compact and light, just the right size for cutting wayward branches or saplings that my father-in-law used to call “weed trees.”

Huddled over a back counter, he showed me how to set it up, tighten the chain and where to put the chain lubricant. He showed me how to cut a branch, noting that it’s important to keep the blade at a slight angle. He showed me where to cut on the blade – close to the saw, not near the end – and warned me not to try to cut anything too thick.

He reminded me to wear heavy-duty gloves, safety goggles and sturdy boots, and sent me on my way with chainsaw in hand.

I suspect he wouldn’t go through a tutorial like that with a man, but I was grateful. Some women would be offended, but I wasn’t because I knew he had my safety in mind. I appreciate his lesson, and think of it every time I patronize his store. (Personal attention and in-depth free tutorials, yet another reason to shop small.)

I don’t use my chainsaw often, but it’s nice to have around. My biggest challenge came when a dead tree fell in our yard during a recent nor ‘easter. The wind was blowing, but not particularly strongly, so I was surprised when my daughter ran into my bedroom and announced a large tree had fallen.

I planned to hire a contractor to cut the large trunk, but figured I could handle the bulk of the branches with my chainsaw. But when I plugged in the charger and set it on a kitchen counter, my daughter became alarmed.

“Are you sure you want to use that thing?” she asked.

I doubt she’d say the same thing to her father, though there’s no chance he’d ever go near it. When he saw the fallen tree, his only remark was: “Wow, look at all that kindling.”

As I began cutting branches, I thought of my Dad and what he’d think of my chainsaw. I couldn’t decide if he’d be pleased or think I was an incredible fool for doing something best left to professionals. He was like that: he believed that women should be treated equally to men, but also told us that being a mother was the greatest role in the world.

In the end, I decided he’d probably think it wasn’t such a hot idea. But I continued to cut away anyway, though perhaps more cautiously than before.

Testing Crunch

I knew my daughter didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving with her cousin Nicki, holding her brother’s golden doodle puppy Cooper.

Getting a rapid Covid-19 test around the holidays is like trying to be the 9th caller in a radio station contest.

Except instead of the phone, you’re camped on your laptop, ready to strike if you’re lucky enough to find an open slot. I know because I had to get my daughter rapid-tested after she came home from college on Amtrak, and needed to be tested before attending a small Thanksgiving gathering.

I thought it would be easy. After all, readily available testing was touted as key to controlling the spread of Covid-19 when the virus emerged last winter. Yet eight months into the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find a place to rapid test my daughter in the entire state of Connecticut.

Part of it was my fault. I assumed that I’d have no problem getting her tested. There is, after all, a drive-thru Covid-19 testing tent at the foot of the road leading to my house run by Yale-New Haven Hospital. There’s also CVS, where she was tested before she went to college in August, as well as DOCS Urgent Care 20 minutes away.

It didn’t seem like a big deal until it was. We went to DOCS, a rapid testing facility, three days before Thanksgiving and were told that we needed an appointment even though the website said drop-ins were OK. I told my daughter to relax, that I’d make an appointment for her when we got home.

But two hours later, I was still scrolling the Internet for an appointment. I couldn’t find an open slot between Greenwich and Mystic. Believe me, I tried. I even entered the names of some of the most rural towns I know, figuring their smaller population might yield a slot.

This tactic works well when going to the Social Security Administration. I avoid long lines in New Haven by going to a tiny third-floor office in Middletown. And even though SSA employees argue that I should go to New Haven because of where I live, I know that I can go to any office I want. It says so right on the SSA website, so don’t let anyone tell you differently.

But my rural strategy failed miserably for a Covid-19 test. There was a place where I could drive up and wait in line 20 minutes away, but the results wouldn’t be delivered for 5-7 days. That wasn’t going to work.

When I became frustrated, my daughter said that she’d stay home for Thanksgiving. But who was she kidding? She wanted to go to my sister’s house to see her cousins and their golden doodle puppy Cooper. And finding a testing site became a challenge: I slipped into my old reporter mode, determined to keep at it until I found a spot.

On a lark, I returned to the DOCS website about three hours later. Miraculously, there were four open spots on Wednesday. I moved faster than I have in months, typing in her information and searching for my phone so I could type in the texted confirmation number before it vanished.

And there it was: a confirmed test for Wednesday at 1:27 p.m.

The whole testing process took less than three minutes from the time we arrived and my daughter’s nose was swabbed. Less than an hour later, a DOCS nurse called to say she was negative.

We were happy: she could attend Thanksgiving dinner. But the question remains: why is it still so hard to get Covid-19 testing? I realize Thanksgiving created an unusually high demand, but shouldn’t Covid-19 testing sites anticipate and adjust?

Photo by Business Insider

And isn’t is unreasonable to expect people to wait for hours to get a test? The lines snaking around testing sites in the days leading up to Thanksgiving were incredibly long. Some New Yorkers were even paying people up to $80 an hour to hold their place in long testing lines.

Getting tested shouldn’t be an ordeal or money-making proposition. It should be a quick and simple process, like getting a flu shot at the local pharmacy.

Of course, this is the first Thanksgiving since the pandemic began, and testing sites clearly underestimated the enormous demand for tests, particularly rapid ones. But hopefully they’ll adequately prepare for the Christmas and New Year’s rush.

I can’t write about testing without mentioning that I think some people are monopolizing available time slots. I know of one person who had three Covid-19 tests in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, as did everyone in her family who planned to attend an over-sized gathering. Not only did this violate our state’s recommendations for small gatherings, but it prevented others from getting a single test. Not cool, at all.

As for me, I’m learning from Thanksgiving and scheduling a test for late December in hopes of attending a small New Year’s Eve party in Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t know if we’ll be able to go – everything is so up in the air these days – but I don’t want to do the pre-holiday testing scramble again. I’m pretty sure no one does.

Deli Line

The eponymous G Sandwich.

I was that person in the deli line at Stop & Shop.

When my number 38 was called, I approached the deli counter and began ordering the ingredients for the G Sandwich, one by one:

“A pound of Boar’s Head ham sliced very thin,” I said. “A half-pound of Genoa salami. A half-pound of Pepperjack cheese.” (Instead of American or Provolone.)

It was taking an awfully long time and the middle-aged woman behind me looked peeved. She sighed when the deli clerk disappeared into the walk-in refrigerator to pull out a new slab of ham. I could almost feel the daggers piercing my head.

What was taking so long? I have no idea, but I began to feel guilty about the wait. I was the idiot holding up the line. I’ve been that person a lot lately.

The last two times I went to the drive-thru at CVS to pick up medication for some older friends, it took close to 15 minutes. I was mortified, but there was nothing I could do. The last place anyone wants to be these days is inside a pharmacy.

I was heartened that I live in a community where people almost never blow their horn, and it’s common for folks to buy coffee for the person in back of them at Dunkin’ Donuts. This has happened to me twice, and always restores my faith in humanity. (Yes, I’ve returned the favor, but I need to do it again. We could all use a lift, particularly now.)

When the wait in the deli line seemed interminable, I did something I’ve never done before. I turned and told the woman in back of me, “That’s my last item, I promise.”

She smiled, possibly because people rarely apologize for holding up lines. We may start flushing and sweating, but most of us bear the burden in silence. We know how we feel about the person holding up the line, and we don’t want to be that person. We can only imagine what the people behind us are thinking.

Holding people up is worse today because of the pandemic. People are anxious about being in public places, and want to get in and out as quickly as possible. When people hold us up these days, we get particularly edgy because we fear our health is being put at risk. Every minute we’re waiting, we’re thinking, “I hope I don’t get Covid-19 because of this.”

So imagine how much better things would be if people acknowledged they were taking a long time instead of ignoring us?

“Sorry it took me 20 minutes to fill up the four tires on my car at this air pump, but I haven’t a clue how to use this machine.”

“Sorry it took me 5 minutes to check in at Quest Labs when it should have taken one minute, but I’m technology challenged.”

That’s a lot better than pretending you don’t see us, or being completely oblivious to people in back of you. Acknowledging people lets others know that you know their time is valuable, that you realize there are other people around besides yourself.

The supermarket deli is always a dicey proposition because you never know how much people are ordering or how long you’ll be there. A short line can turn into a long wait when the person in front of you orders 10 subs, or 1/4-pound of six different lunch meats.

This explains why some supermarkets allow customers to order cold cuts and pick them up at the end of their shop. Supermarkets are also pre-slicing and packaging cold cuts and cheeses, placing them on refrigerated shelves so customers can avoid the deli line.

I admit I’ve resorted to pre-sliced meats when I’m in a rush, but here’s the thing: they’re often not as fresh and rarely sliced the way I like them. I once bought ham that was so thick that no one would eat it. I ended up throwing it away.

Going the pre-packaged route seems like a good idea until you get home and discover the ham is marbled with fat, or the turkey looks a little slimy. So when I spied my deli compatriot inching toward the pre-packaged section, I tried to intervene.

“Almost done!” I said.

But she’d had it, and I couldn’t blame her. We were the only two people in line and my order was taking forever. To make matters worse, only one person was manning the counter and he was taking his time. Another deli worker was slicing pre-orders and pre-packaged items, but refused to make eye contact with her.

Six minutes turned to seven, then eight.

“That’s it, I give up,” the woman said, grabbing her cart and heading for the pre-packaged section. “Look, it’s not your fault. I just don’t understand why they don’t have more people working. The wait is absolutely ridiculous.”

I agreed with her. My order was clogging things up, and I wasn’t happy about it either. So the next time we needed deli meat, I let the Curmudgeon do the dirty work. I told him he didn’t have to run an errand with me if he’d go to the store.

He jumped at the opportunity, and I avoided being the deli line blocker for one week. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Breaking Tradition

A painting of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, 1621, in Plymouth, MA.

Our huge Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family is off.

After debating whether we could have it for weeks, it’s off the calendar because Connecticut resumed its limit of 10 people per gathering to stop the spread of Covid-19.

My son pointed out that it’s a recommendation, not an order, but it makes sense. The virus is spreading like wildfire here, and we all need to make sacrifices and double down efforts to contain it. One day of celebration isn’t worth the potential disastrous consequences.

Though I know it’s the right thing to do, I’m not happy about it. It’s been my holiday for about 25 years, ever since my father decreed that my mother would no longer be hosting it. I naively said, “I’ll do it. How hard could it be?”

I quickly learned that hosting the year’s biggest food fest is an awful big deal. Of course it’s the food: people look forward to feasting on turkey, trimmings and pumpkin pie all year. But more important is the emotional element: it’s the consummate family get-together and everyone has childhood memories of their own family’s gatherings.

G and the Gang.
Desserts.
The Curmudgeon is always in charge of cleaning.
Wrestling the turkey neck. My grandmother would be proud of me wearing a hair net.
My daughter, left, and her turkey-clad friend at the annual Turkey Trot, which is virtual this year.
My brother-in-law, who began bringing his own knife and apron after he had to wear one of mine one year.
My cell phone rests on the finished turkey. I have no idea why.
G is always in charge of gravy.

As a hostess, you want to make sure you live up to people’s expectations: the turkey must be moist, not dry and tough, and you must include side dishes like creamed onions and turnips because they’re part of someone’s family’s Thanksgiving tradition. Thanksgiving hostesses don’t want to disappoint because they know a lot is riding on the day.

I’m now well past the age that my mother was when my father issued his edict, yet no one thinks it’s too much for me. Then again, I’m not like my mother, who tries to do everything herself. I learned early in the game that it’s best to delegate, and that people like to contribute to the Thanksgiving meal.

Over the years, one of my brothers-in-law has become the designated turkey carver and stuffing guy, bringing two types to satisfy everyone’s taste. Another brother-in-law handles sweet potatoes and green beans, while my nieces are known for their decadent desserts.

My mother is in charge of the gravy, willing to cut short any conversation to mix the pan juices with flour, turkey broth and Gravy Master and whisk over a hot burner. After all these years, I’m still intimidated when it comes to the gravy so I’m happy to pass it on.

I planned to have my own tiny Thanksgiving with the Curmudgeon and our two kids, but the idea made me sad and I began to get very sentimental about my long streak of hosting the holiday. My nostalgia for the old days got worse as I looked at photos of Thanksgivings past and realized how much fun they were.

And then one of my sisters invited us over to her house, where we’ll share the holiday meal with her family and her in-laws. What a relief! I didn’t have to host Sad Thanksgiving.

If things go well and the weather cooperates, we’ll all meet later at another sister’s house for socially distanced dessert and coffee outside on the deck. We’re breaking tradition, yes, but hopefully we’ll all see each other from a safe distance of six feet.

It’s not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got. And if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that we all need to be flexible.

The Line Forms Here

Unlike most modern men, the Curmudgeon doesn’t cook.

He enjoys baking chocolate chip cookies, particularly for summer family picnics and holidays, and has whipped up the occasional birthday cake for yours truly. But for the most part, he leaves the cooking to me.

I don’t mind cooking because it gives me a nice measure of control over what I eat, but I don’t love it like some people. I’m not a foodie nor a gourmet cook, though I cook more than a lot of people with so-called gourmet kitchens.

On average, I cook dinner six days a week, reserving one weekend day for take-out pizza. When you live within spitting distance of New Haven, CT., the pizza capital of the world, you feel justified having pizza often, even if it’s only New Haven-style pie from the pizza parlor down the block.

The exception occurred last weekend when my sisters and I ventured to New Haven’s famed Wooster Street for Sally’s Apizza for a birthday celebration, though our experience reminded me why we never go there. We ordered three large pies, and were told they’d be ready at 1:15.

I looked at my watch, and it was 1:13 p.m. “Wow, that’s fast,” I thought. “This is awesome. No wait at all.”

And then I realized that I hadn’t changed my watch to Daylight Savings Time. It was only 12:13 and we were looking at an hour-long wait. No matter. We were together with my mom for the first time in several weeks, and would make the most of it in the parking lot turned dining room next to Sally’s.

Still, our wait was a bit of a surprise to some of my siblings.

“Who eats pizza at noon on a Sunday?” one of my sisters asked. “Where are these people coming from?”

Apparently, a lot of people eat pizza for lunch on Sundays. There were license plates from New York and New Jersey lining Wooster Street and a knot of customers on the sidewalk waiting for take-out orders. This is why I don’t like going to Sally’s under normal circumstances. There’s always a line, and people stare at you while you eat your pizza.

I don’t like to be watched while I’m eating because it makes me nervous and self conscious. I think this is a pretty universal feeling, even among animals. My dog steals away to another room when I give her treats or bones to relish them in privacy and thoroughly enjoy them.

Within a few minutes, the early November chill gnawed at our bones, and two of my sisters left to buy hot coffee at a pastry shop down the street. Those of us who remained at the picnic table stayed masked, noting a nice side benefit of masks is they keep your face warm.

White clam pie.
Pepperoni pizza.

Just as my sisters returned with the coffee, it started to drizzle. As the first drops fell, people at adjacent tables scrambled for cover, snapping up every table under a tent lining half of the parking lot. I didn’t think people could move so fast. It reminded me of musical chairs where people find seats as fast as possible, leaving their competition in the dust.

I don’t begrudge people taking the tables under the tent. Well, I do. We were there before almost everyone else, and had the horrible luck of being furthest from the tent. But what was most galling is that a pack of teen-agers swooped under the tent, without considering that a group of elders was getting soaked.

Worse, three of their fathers observed their actions, and commandeered another table for themselves. They could have sat with the kids, but apparently wanted their space. Apparently, the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

As we took cover in our cars while the pizzas baked in the wood-fired brick ovens, the birthday girl and I shook our heads, saying we hope we’ve taught our sons better. I assume that my son and his brethren would give up their seats for a group of women, including an 86-year-old grandma, but who knows? Maybe I’ve dropped the ball too.

To my mind, there’s nothing that says more about parenting than good manners. With the at-times regrettable help of Barney, I taught my kids to say “please” and “thank you,” as well as the other intricacies of living in a world with other people.

I wasn’t surprised that those three fathers missed the chance to school their kids on kindness and consideration because they were leading by example. And that’s perhaps the most disappointing part of our experience.

We didn’t say anything to the kids or the fathers, though we did grumble about them under our breath. I noted that if people are rude enough to take two tables for themselves when one would do, they might not be receptive to a lecture on manners by strangers.

The good news is that we finally snagged a table under the tent, and wolfed down several slices of plain, pepperoni and white clam pizza. The wait – and the aggravation – was worth it. It really is the best pizza around – sweet sauce and thin crust with black soot that covers your lips and fingers.

Still, I’ll probably be like my old friend John S., who lives on Wooster Street yet never goes to Sally’s or its equally famous counterpart Pepe’s because he can’t stand all the fuss. I understand, I really do.

F

Falling Down Laughing

Testing out the disc golf course, before my fall.

Some people wanted to hear about my night out at the Fairfield Comedy Club to see Mike Birbiglia. This is what’s known as a folo-up in the world of archaic newspaper lingo. (That’s spelled correctly. I spelled it normally and my old editor emailed me and pointed out that it’s folo. Their need to correct astounds me.)

If you’re not interested in hearing about it, stop reading now. I get it. We’re all a little envious when we hear people are getting out, but don’t hate me. This is the first real night out I’ve had since the pandemic began. I’m usually cooped up at home like everyone else.

And it really wasn’t all that fun, and that had nothing to do with Mike Birbiglia. In fact, it was the comedy night that almost wasn’t.

I was supposed the meet the Curmudgeon in his office parking lot at 6 p.m. We planned to grab cheeseburgers and shakes at a 50’s-style drive-in en route to the 7:30 p.m. show. When I arrived at his office, the Curmudgeon was nowhere in sight. I called his phone twice and he didn’t answer.

After a few minutes, he emerged from the first floor of his office building, looking sweaty and disheveled. “Come on, let’s go,” I said. “What’s taking you so long?”

“It’s a long story,” he said. “But I’ll be out in five minutes and I’ll tell you all about it.”

After getting into the driver’s seat, he said, “I fell while I was running. I tried to swoop around two guys walking with their backs to traffic on a busy road. I went up onto a grassy area, and caught my foot on a vine. Before I knew it, I was on the ground and my face was an inch from the pavement. I’m lucky I didn’t break my shoulder.”

“Did the guys stop and ask you if you were OK? I asked. “No, but there’s no way they didn’t know I fell,” he said. “They had to have heard it.”

Once you know someone isn’t seriously injured in a fall, it’s hard not to laugh. Last month, I fell while walking out of the Dollar Store holding nine red, white and blue balloons. The first thing I did when I hit the ground was look up to see if anyone had seen me or was having a laugh at my expense. Fortunately, I heard no one laughing and I managed to hang onto all of the balloons. But I’m sure it was a comical sight.

I told the Curmudgeon I’d understand if he wanted to skip the show, but was relieved and grateful when he told me that he’d press on. This was the first thing we were doing as a couple in nearly eight months, and I was looking forward to it more than anyone really should.

But I’d have understood if the Curmudgeon wanted to take a pass. Besides being incredibly painful, falling is scary. Besides the Dollar Store tumble, I’ve taken three bad falls while hiking recently, catching my foot on roots concealed by leaves.

The worst occurred while we were out scouting the town’s disc golf course for an upcoming fund-raising tournament. As we approached a raised wooden tee box covered in bright green astroturf, I tripped on a root and pitched forward, slamming onto the platform with my left shoulder, hip and knee.

I hit the ground with such force that I couldn’t move for several minutes. When I finally tried to get up, I needed the Curmudgeon to help me off the ground.

The physical pain was the least of it. I felt my heart racing for almost an hour. The adrenaline was still coursing through my body, and of course, I played out all the various scenarios that could have happened in my head: I could have broken my neck or hit my head.

I need to be more careful, but I come from a long line of women prone to falling. My maternal grandmother once fractured her arm falling in her backyard garden, and my mother has broken her nose and foot in separate tumbles in recent years.

I’ve been fortunate . . . no broken bones yet. But falling is no joke, and you can bet I’m more cautious when I go hiking.

Speaking of falls, Mike almost wiped out about midway through his set. He took a step backward and nearly fell on a makeshift stage under a tent. He said he’ll always remember our show because he almost met his maker during the performance.

I did not laugh uproariously during the show like some people, who almost sounded as if they’d been planted there, but I had a big smile on my face and so did the Curmudgeon throughout the show. I felt good to be outside at night under the moon with other people who wanted to be entertained. It felt good to see people, albeit from a safe distance.

It also felt good to laugh or giggle at Mike’s observations, including: “I wonder what the woman next door thinks when she looks out and sees all these people and tents in her backyard.”

Or my favorite stemming from his role as the husband of Brie Larson’s character in “Trainwreck.” After the movie came out, someone wrote, “In what universe would Mike Birbiglia be married to Brie Larson?” He noted that life’s not fair, pointing out that the film’s director Judd Apatow is married to beautiful actress Leslie Mann.

In what universe would they be a couple? a troll asked.
Leslie Mann and director Judd Apatow attend the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Though most people were in twos, threes or fours, there was a woman seated nearby by herself. She laughed loudly and clapped her hands at nearly every joke, and I was impressed that she went solo. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to show up to a comedy show alone, but then again, I think I was nearly 60 before I went to the movies by myself.

Maybe she tried to drum up someone to go with her and couldn’t find any takers, or maybe it’s just something she really wanted to do and thought, “The heck with it, I’m going.” Or maybe she just needed a night away from the people she’s been locked down with since last March.

Yes, that’s probably it. Alone time with a funny man. It doesn’t get any better than that.

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