Level With Me Stud

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Having Level Up Stud following me makes as much sense as this scene snapped at Lyman Orchards Golf Course in Middlefield, CT.

My YMCA swimming instructor thinks my latest blog follower is a Russian Bot.

After telling her that Level Up Stud is now among my followers, she said, “Yea, that’s a Russian Bot.” Why else would a young guy with a beard, sunglasses and a come hither expression be following me?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m flattered whenever I get a new follower. But I’m confused. This guy is young, cute, buff and possibly hip. Why is he bothering with a blog about curmudgeons, Labrador retrievers with squinty smiles, and ornery teen-agers who hate talking in the morning?

His blog is a little provocative. It’s not dirty. Well, maybe just a little. There’s some stuff on it right out of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Just to be clear, not every woman loves those books. I read the first one, but was bored silly with the second, and never even cracked open the third. It’s got nothing to do with feminism, objectifying women or my disdain for spankings. I just thought it was dumb.

This doesn’t mean I think you’re dumb if you liked the Grey trilogy. Remember, I watch and went to a Maury taping, so I’m in no position to cast stones.

But having “Level Up Stud” enter my safe space makes me a little self-conscious, and I don’t even know why. It’s like the day my neighbor Ken plopped into the next chair at the hair salon as I sat there with root color and a plastic cap on my head. “Hi Ken,” I whimpered. He nearly jumped out of the chair. “Oh hi, I didn’t even know that was you,” he said.

Just to be clear, most women feel a little vulnerable when we don’t look our best, or what my sisters and I used to term “Ug.” This includes sitting in the salon chair, parading around pool decks in our bathing suit, jogging on the treadmill and baring our soul in our blogs. It has nothing to do with vanity. It’s about letting your guard down, or literally letting it all hang out.

Having guys enter the mix changes the dynamics. You’re suddenly well aware that you’re wearing a shower cap with gunk on your temples, or that your rear end is like Jello as you jog on the treadmill. It’s not that you mind that three gents are on rowing machines behind you. But you’d be a lot less self-conscious if they’d leave. I think this is the theory behind all women’s gyms. Many women just don’t want to be on display in certain situations.

Perhaps the best example is the YMCA’s warm pool, where two dozen older ladies in shower caps bob and weave every morning during water aerobics. There’s something enormously comforting about sharing the pool with a bunch of grandmothers. Anything  you do – even the elementary backstroke – seems daring by comparison, and they’re the friendliest group of ladies.

But the sense of security vanishes when a young guy in a black Speedo thrusts open the door, and struts by on the pool deck. Suddenly, all eyes turn to him, and his tiny suit screaming “SPEEDO” on the rear.

“What’s he doing here?” I whispered to the swim instructor. “And why is he strutting? Everyone in the pool is old enough to be his grandmother.”

“It’s called ‘shiny,'” she said. “What?” I asked.  “You know, sparkling. Something that catches your eye.” Oh, eye candy. Why didn’t you say so? But this guy wasn’t shiny because he thought he was giving us a thrill. That would be like me walking through an assisted living facility, and thinking I’m hot because the old guys think I’m cute.

Spoiler alert: strutting is never cool, unless you’re my friend Joe who tends to strut after hitting a winner in Pickleball. It’s actually kind of cute the way he does it. In fact, we gave him the title “best strutter” during a superlatives bit one year. But in all other cases, it’s actually a turnoff, at least to women I know.

My greatest issue with crossing the great generational divide is this guy viewing me as old and possibly saying to his friends, “You should see what this old bag is writing about. God, she’s duller than dirt. Is this what happens to chicks (well, make that hens) after 50?”

Of course, he’d be justified. Bluebirds, lavender farms, Christmas shops, Stitch Fix and monasteries are not exactly scintillating topics. I’m sure he’d have a lot more fun on a site about young women who can’t be taken seriously because they’re so smokin’ hot.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what LUS needs to know if he plans to stick around:

  • While you’re planning your next workout or sexual conquest, most of us are wondering what’s for dinner, or snipping branches in our yard to force for some late winter color.
  • While you’re power-lifting, we’re wondering if we should go for the cortisone shot in our elbow or stick it out for another month.
  • While you’re rightfully admiring your rocking bod, we’re dashing by the bathroom mirror so we don’t have to look. With any luck, we won’t slip on the tiles and almost break our neck.
  • We can’t believe how hard it is to run. OK, let’s call it jog. Or better yet, stagger.
  • The Big M stands for menopause.
  • The Big C stands for cancer.
  • The sudden urge to urinate is often caused by the Big M, but many people fear it’s the Big C.
  • Sometimes taking care of your body at this age can feel like a full-time job.
  • I have a Twitter account, but don’t know how to use it.
  • I still have no idea what a meme or GIF is.
  • I detest I-Phones.
  • Alexa is a petulant little pain in the neck. Do machines have to be difficult too?
  • I haven’t bought a song on I-Tunes in two years because I can’t figure out how.
  • X-Box is a complete waste of time.
  • I detest guns. I interviewed James Brady and his wife Sarah after he was shot by John Hinckley for an article about tighter gun regulations. This does not mean banning guns. It means making sure they don’t end up in the hands of lunatics. I’m convinced that women will have to take the lead on ending gun violence in schools, much the way they changed drunk driving laws through Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
  • I don’t care if you think I was just on my soap box. I was. I’m tired of young innocent kids being killed by guns in this country.
  • I can’t stand people who text and drive, so cut it out.
  • No one over age 30 uses the term “friend group.”
  • No one over age 30 gets the whole hookup thing. Well, we get it, but we don’t really approve.
  • Women over 30 don’t get the whole obsession with big butts. Just so you know, we’ve been dieting and keeping gyms in business to avoid that look for years.
  • Women my age don’t understand why young guys don’t like body hair. Chest hair was king in the ’70s and ’80s. See: Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds.
  • My swimming instructor thinks you’re a Russian bot.
  • Strutting is never a good idea. So figure out another way to walk.
  • Everything sags as you age, but the eyelids are the biggie.
  • If you are hot, which I suspect you are, try not to let that be your defining characteristic.
  • Most women would take a funny guy over a dull hunk any day of the week.
  • Take care of your teeth. There’s nothing sexier than a man with a beautiful smile.
  • When life hands you lemons, which it will, make lemonade.
  • Winning the race does not mean crossing the finish line first. It means trying your best, and going back to help other people cross the line before you get the beer.
  • Good grooming is essential.
  • Call your mother.
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    Some grooming essentials courtesy of my nephew Brian, the best groomed teen-ager I know.

 

Pizza Party

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They were there to play tennis, but they had New Haven’s famous pizza on their mind too.

We live 20 minutes from New Haven, CT., one of the best places for pizza in the United States.

The pizza is baked in coal-fired brick ovens with homemade sauce, sweet mozzarella and heavenly crust as thin as Saltines. Pepperoni, meatballs, and sausage and peppers are popular toppings, but you can also get a white clams casino pie with freshly shucked clams and bacon. We’re lucky, we really are.

When bigwigs are in town, which is often the case as home to Yale University, they make a beeline to famed Wooster Street.  There’s even a quaint arch spanning the street lit in the colors of the Italian flag to herald your arrival to “Little Italy.”

When we talk to friends who have moved from the area, they talk about the pizza and how much they miss it. It’s impossible, they say, to find a decent pie in Virginia or South Carolina. We don’t know how lucky we are to have Wooster Street pizza in our backyard, they say.

The trouble is, we rarely go to Wooster Street for pizza because places like Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza are always so crowded. People line up outside long before they open, even on a Sunday afternoon in the rain or snow, for the privilege of getting in and gorging on the famous pies aka “Ah-beets.”

I understand, but like a lot of locals (OK, townies if you wish) I can’t be bothered. I don’t like lines, but what I hate even more is having people breathing down my neck and staring at me while I eat. I feel pressured, like people are thinking, “Hurry up already. I want your seat.”

My friend John lives on Wooster Street and when we were trying to figure out a place to go for lunch, he proclaimed, “Any place but Wooster Street. I refuse to stand on line for pizza.”

We tried to go out for pizza in New Haven last night. Our son was in town with the Holy Cross College tennis team, and asked if we’d treat them to some authentic New Haven pizza. What I wanted to say is we’d take them out if they beat Sacred Heart University, but I didn’t want to put too much pressure on them. As it is, they had to listen to my unsolicited analysis of their matches afterward.

What I will say is that pizza seemed to be foremost on my son’s mind. I’ve never heard this kid talk so much about pizza. It’s as if he just realized he lived 20 minutes from New Haven. He had the silly idea that you can call for a reservation, but it doesn’t work that way. In New Haven, you show up, stand in line and suffer like everyone else. Hey, I didn’t make the rules, I just follow them.

We dismissed Pepe’s and Sally’s because we knew they’d be crowded, opting for Modern Pizza. Modern has great pizza, but usually isn’t as busy because it’s off the beaten path on State Street. The Curmudgeon and I congratulated ourselves on picking Modern, figuring we’d stroll in on a Sunday night at 6:45. We assumed everyone would have eaten earlier, or would be home getting ready for the week ahead. Isn’t this what most normal people do on Sunday nights?

We figured wrong. At least 30 people were packed in the entrance when we arrived, and a few others milled outside. It was so crowded that The Curmudgeon couldn’t even make his way in to ask how long it would be for a table of nine.

We were looking at an hour’s wait, maybe longer. And we really couldn’t wait that long. The kids had a 90-minute ride back to school, and the dog hadn’t been fed. But it really came down to the frustration of living so close to something, yet always having it out of reach.

It would have been one thing if we expected a long wait, but we were completely blind-sided. And yes, we felt a little foolish expecting it to be empty. We clearly know nothing about other people’s dining habits.

With little time and nine growling stomachs, we did the only thing possible: we called Marcos Pizza in nearby Branford, CT., ordered five pizzas and announced that we would be there in 15 minutes. Upon arriving, we smiled at the empty parking lot, and were thrilled when we entered and a table had been set up for our impromptu party.

Two pizzas came out on silver pedestals within five minutes of our arrival, and the other three arrived minutes later. The only thing missing was my glass of white wine, which arrived in a juice glass resembling an oversized shot glass. Yes, I would have preferred a stemmed wine glass, but you can’t have everything. Sometimes, you want to sit down and just eat pizza without any hassle.

Ice Cream & Tears

IMG_0611It was a quick shop: two half-gallons of strawberry ice cream, whipped cream, hot fudge and butterscotch sauce.

It was an unusual selection for a Monday afternoon in mid-February, but who am I to judge? I had dashed to Ashley’s Ice Cream, the expensive place in town, the previous day for two scoops of chocolate chip ice cream topped with chocolate sprinkles. I justified it by treating my daughter to ice cream, and even sprung for a small cup of soft serve vanilla for the dog.

This would be fine except that it’s Lent, a time for abstinence. Hadn’t the deacon explained the importance of Lent just two hours before? And though I hadn’t specifically given up ice cream, I gave up snacking between meals for Lent. No matter how you slice it, ice cream is a snack.

But a few things were at play. I had worked out incredibly hard the day before, and feeling somewhat entitled. And I’m one of those people who’s having a little trouble settling into Lent, which began earlier than usual this year. Even a nun I know complained about the first day of Lent coinciding with Valentine’s Day, noting “You’d think God could have planned this better.”

Giving up things for Lent is tough in February because we’re already feeling so sorry for ourselves. We’ve weathered the short days, gray skies, snow, and Facebook posts with toes in sand and palm trees. But we’re still scraping windshields, slipping on black ice, and hitting treadmills instead of pavement. Even the dog had trouble this morning, pump-faking three times before managing to hop in the car.

In the interest of full disclosure, I also gave up wine for Lent. My brother-in-law John, a newly minted Catholic, did this last year. I thought it was quite impressive because he works in the liquor industry. I have stopped drinking cold turkey before, and know it can be done. The problem is I haven’t done it yet, and we’re nearly a week into Lent.

I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m going to attribute it to Lent’s early start. That sounds better than a character flaw, drinking problem, tremendous lack of willpower and discipline, or just throwing in the towel.

But back to the guy with the basket of decadence. I spotted him roaming the dairy section, I think because he resembled the father of a kid who almost killed my son during a basketball game. The kid clocked my son as he went for a lay-up, sending him crashing to the floor. I was afraid he had broken his neck, but he was just roughed up.

The kid was ejected from the game, and ultimately banned from the league. I always felt sorry for his father. I had known him since the kids were in 1st grade. He looks like a kid himself with his lean frame, low slung Levi’s and faded logo T-shirts. The guy with the ice cream was a dead-ringer, and for a moment I wondered if it was the basketball thug’s father.

But it wasn’t. This guy was in his late 30s or early 40s. His worn jeans hung off his body,  and he looked a little shell-shocked, like he hasn’t spent too much time in supermarkets. You can spot these guys a mile away because they almost look apologetic as they dart between aisles. They’re out of their element in a place where everyone else means business.

There was no express line, so ice cream guy got behind me in the check-out line. I was buying groceries for myself and someone else, meaning I was splitting orders and taking twice as long as everyone else. I glanced at him with his basket of items, and waved him ahead of me.

“No that’s OK,” he said. “I’m fine.”

“I insist,” I said. “I’ve got two orders. I’m going to be here for awhile.”

He slipped in front of me and piled the ice cream and fixings on the belt. He fumbled with the basket and when I looked at the ice cream, he explained, “I’m buying this for my daughter. She just had her first break-up. You know, puppy love.”

“Uh oh, emotional eating,” I said. “Are you sure you want to encourage that?” I sounded like one of those know-it-all matrons that I found so annoying in my 20s and 30s. But I said it jokingly, and even the cashier giggled.

“No, it was actually my idea,” he said. “My wife died last June, and I’m still getting the hang of parenting a 14-year-old girl without her. I thought this situation called for ice cream.”

I wasn’t prepared for his explanation or his candor, but I was incredibly moved. I thought I might cry, so I resumed loading my groceries onto the belt. I finally muttered, “Ah, well it can’t hurt. And I’ve got a teen-age girl at home so I’ve done this too.”  I began thinking about his wife: Did she die in an accident or was she sick? It doesn’t matter, but we all do this. Did he have months to prepare or was it sudden? Does he have other children? I suspect he does.

I thought of his daughter without her mom during her first break-up, and my heart ached. Girls that age (well, any age really) need their moms to assure them that everything will be OK, that they’ll find true love someday.

Moms buy your first bra, fix your stupid sewing project, and assure you bad dreams are just dreams. They slide over to let you into bed, promise that you’ll slim down when you grow a little, and tell you to put on more make-up before the junior prom.

Moms are our role models, the first women we think are beautiful and want to emulate. They let us play dress-up with their good shoes, and make mink stoles out of fake fur for our Barbie dolls. They stay up until 5 a.m., until we finally roll in from the senior prom.  They come to our side no matter what, even when we’ve got big kids of our own.

I’m lucky to have my mother, though many people I know, including my husband, cousins, and some very close friends, are not as fortunate. I know they miss their moms. One friend who was struggling with a problem confided, “I just wish my mom was here so I could talk to her about it.”

I can’t imagine how hard it is for a teen-age girl to lose her mother at such a tender stage of life. As a mom, my worst fear is not being around for my kids. I think this is the ultimate fear for most moms, and why we worry so much about getting sick. We want to be there for our kids.

Though clearly out of his element, this father showed me that he’s trying his best while still dealing with his own grief.  Strawberry ice cream with all the fixings won’t mend a broken heart, but it’s a good start. I suspect his wife would approve.

 

Big Fat Italian Holidays

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The Happy Host: The Curmudgeon during his cleaning duties on Thanksgiving. 

Let’s clear things up.

The Curmudgeon did not write a letter to advice columnist Dear Annie complaining about hosting my family for Thanksgiving every year.

Every so often in our 34 years of marriage, The Curmudgeon has asked me if I wrote a letter to an advice columnist. The topics are always about marriage – mostly pet peeves or division of labor issues.

I always assure him that I have not, though I’ve been tempted.

Dear Annie: What do you do when your spouse is hacking for two weeks, refuses to go to the doctor, and his co-workers question your fitness as a wife? Dear Annie: What do you do when your husband’s eating noises drive you insane? Dear Annie: What do you do when you ask your husband if you can run with him, and he replies, “Can you do an eight-minute mile?”

I admit that The Curmudgeon was justified in fearing that people might think he penned the letter to Dear Annie. The writer asked if he was being an old curmudgeon objecting to footing the bill, and entertaining his wife’s extended family every Christmas Eve. I mentioned this to my sister, and she said she suspected I wrote the letter.

I used to be a faithful Ann Landers reader. But I’m not a regular reader of Dear Annie. I don’t know why. She seems like a nice person with horse sense. I love Amy Dickinson, who writes the Dear Amy column for the Chicago Tribune syndicate, including the Hartford Courant. I read two of her books, praised her on her Facebook page, and even went to see her when she visited R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT., last year.

But I’m not a regular reader of any advice column. In fact, The Curmudgeon had to bring this most recent letter to my attention.

Besides both being old curmudgeons, there are some uncanny coincidences: the wife comes from a family of seven kids (yes), and everyone assumes that she will host Christmas Eve dinner every year. (Yes. Substitute Thanksgiving for Christmas Eve.)

The guy takes umbrage with the fact that no one offers to host the holiday, and complains about the cost and effort involved. He grouses that guests invite 16 to 19 extra people without asking, yet his wife has no problem with it. This does not happen at our house, though we have hosted extra people. I think new people add interest to gatherings where the guest list is often referred to as “the usual suspects.”

The Curmudgeon has thought or complained about everything in this guy’s letter, but so has everyone who has ever hosted a holiday. Everyone wishes they were a guest. Everyone wants to relax instead of setting up folding tables and chairs, ironing tablecloths, polishing silver, and rummaging for guest towels. Everyone wants to look their best instead of standing in the closet five minutes before guests arrive, and wondering what to throw on.

The difference between being a guest and a hostess can best be summed up by an experience I had in DSW Shoes about five years ago. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and everyone was looking for cool boots or shoes for their holiday outfits. I was envious and a bit peeved because as a hostess, you aren’t thinking about footwear. You’re thinking about picking up the turkey, making sure you have kitchen twine, and a baster that works.

“Those women are clearly not hosting the holiday like Mommy,” I told my daughter. “Now, let’s find a pair of shoes that fits you and get out of here before I lose it.”

I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving since I was 32. I got the gig after my Dad complained that my mother had enough to do for the holidays, and it was time to pass the baton. I volunteered, thinking, “Sure, I’ll do it. How hard can this be?”

I had no idea that one moment of hubris would haunt me for 25 years. With the exception of one year that I traded Christmas with my sister Janet, Thanksgiving is my holiday. It’s fine. I’m happy to do it. But I always wonder, and often ask, my guests what they did with their block of free time.

“Oh, you went to the football game?” That sounds fun. “You ran in the Turkey Trot and drank five beers?” Awesome. “You ran the dog, watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and napped?” Nice!

As our family has grown – I think I was up to 30 guests this year – it’s easier because everyone brings side dishes and desserts. That means I’m an assignment editor, and my family claims I’m very good at delegating. It’s gotten to the point where I say: Just bring what you did last year. If you want to do a different recipe, go for it.

People are happier about making things when they can put their own spin on them. They also like to be known for their specialties: Dewey, king of stuffing, and master turkey carver. Nancy, the great antipasto maker. Patty, queen of creamed spinach. Nicki, the dessert princess.

Hosting a large crowd can be overwhelming, but it’s reduced my workload. After years of making everything for Thanksgiving, I’m down to the turkey, cranberry sauce, gravy (with Mom’s help), a few pies and my appetizer table. If this keeps up, I may eventually just have to supply the place.

So here’s the takeaway:

  • The Curmudgeon did not write the letter, but he could have. I did not write it either.
  • The guy who wrote the letter is an old curmudgeon. As the late Ann Landers would say, “Quit yer beefing.”
  • If you are entertaining, do it with an open heart. No one wants to go to a house where the host is annoyed.
  • Dear Annie advised the guy to talk to his wife, and tell her how he feels. It’s good advice, but it won’t change things. He’s going to be hosting Christmas Eve next year because that’s what you do in big families. You grin and bear it, and always take one for the team. You’d rather do that than make waves.
  • If you go to a family gathering, pull your weight. Offer to bring a food item, bring a bottle of wine, and help serve and clear courses. There’s nothing more maddening than hosting, and having people watch you scramble without offering to help.
  • Don’t koloky yourself. My mother coined this term for guests who come, park themselves in front of the TV and do nothing. I’m pretty sure every family has a code word for this.
  • Thank the hosts upon leaving. It’s not polite to eat and run.
  • Consider offering to host the holiday even though there is no way you ever will.
  • Everyone secretly wants to be an advice columnist.

 

 

 

 

 

Get Lost

 

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Even on vacation in South Carolina, you get the feeling she wants the kitchen to herself.

Growing up as one of seven girls, I value my space.

No one knows how I managed it, but I was the only kid in our family with my own room. Like all the upstairs bedrooms, it was pink – from the walls to the shag carpeting. It was a  little like living inside cotton candy.

I had a cool trundle bed that looked like a couch anchored by long round pillows on either end. I loved that bed, but it was hell to make. Getting the thick bedspread between the mattress and the wooden sides was a nightmare. I would never buy a trundle bed for this reason.

With other people constantly underfoot, “alone time” didn’t exist. The closest I got was retreating to my room, shutting the door, slipping on my white headphones and listening to Jefferson Starship. Their album, Red Octopus, is the first thing I ever reviewed for the  high school newspaper. I take a slight amount of pride that I still love it after 40 years. Miracles is a masterpiece.

I understand the need to be alone. The Curmudgeon retreats to his man-cave in the basement every night ostensibly to “work out,” but I think it’s his way of carving out time for himself. I never interrupt him while he’s going through his paces in his home gym. It’s his time.

My 16-year-old daughter constantly seeks space. I don’t really understand this because she’s the only kid home right now. She’s basically got the place to herself, and is often home alone. But I’m getting the impression that she could survive solitary confinement.  I know she’d be happy if I left town.

“Why are you up?” she says as I pad downstairs at 6:30 a.m. to get a cup of coffee. “You know I hate when other people are up in the morning. I need this time to myself. Go upstairs. Why are you taking so long to make your coffee?”

It’s a good thing I’m not sensitive. If I were, I’d be insulted and hurt. But remember, I was one of seven kids. When we all watched TV in the family room, it was hard to move without tripping over someone. We all usually laid on the floor, nibbling popcorn or Chips Ahoy cookies. Think of a puppies laying all over each other, and you get the picture.

So I’m totally cool with space. What I’m not cool with is her attitude. I feel like an intruder, no better than a flying squirrel living in the eaves. (Yes, it’s true. Something that horrifying does exist, and they love coming into attics.) I’m greeted by “Why are you up?” every day. You would think that she’d understand by now that I sometimes rise early, and need just a minute to get coffee, but she doesn’t.

One day when the Keurig was taking particularly long to warm up, she tried to hurry me along. “Come on, come on, I only have a few minutes before the bus comes,” she said. “What’s taking so long?” I turned to her and said, “This is my house, and remember you are here at my pleasure.” Some people might have a problem with saying that to a child, but I don’t. It pretty much sums up how I feel.

I’m a nice mother, but I have my limits. Yes, we’re moms and supposed to count to 10, breathe and think before we speak, but sometimes you just need to go down to their level. When I’m told, as I often am, that I’m a horrible mother, I offer up the boarding school line. “You know, you can go away to school if you’d like,” I say.

Of course, sending her away is the last thing I’d do. I’d miss her tremendously. I nearly (well, I did) lost it when my son left for college. Besides, I don’t want to shell out $62,000 a year for school. That’s the going rate for prep schools around here, at least the last time I checked.

She finds me incredibly annoying and has no trouble telling me. My home environment was a lot different. I would not be sitting here with functioning fingers if I told my parents to leave so I could eat breakfast alone. I’m speculating, yes, but I don’t think that would have gone over well with my Dad.

But sure, that’s what I really wanted to say. “Get lost Dad! I don’t want to listen to you chomping on your toast or proclaiming “The forsythias are in bloom!” every spring. I know my mother felt the same way. She’s one of those people who ate breakfast with a far-away look in her eyes.

I can’t stand talking to people in the morning. There is something incredibly nice about being the first person up, and having the house to yourself. It’s that quiet that’s only available at dawn, and disappears as soon as another person stirs. You suddenly think, “I hear footsteps. Damn.”

I’ve said it before, but I’m always amazed by the crowd at the free breakfast at the Hampton Inn on our annual trek south. Some people are so clearly morning people. Freshly showered and groomed, they’re peppy, smiling, and raring to go from the moment their feet hit the floor.

They say “hi” to you in the elevator. They stand patiently and wait their turn for the waffle maker or bagel toaster, making small talk with fellow travelers. They happily take their seat at a table near the flatscreen TV, watching the news and making occasional comments to their spouse or children.

I am not like them. As soon as I awaken, I slip down the motel stairs to retrieve two cups of coffee in the lobby, praying I don’t run into anyone along the way. I’m not showered, my hair isn’t combed, and I might be wearing pajama pants. I slither back to my room, hoping that the door is still ajar because I don’t have the card to get in.

I don’t want to talk to people, but find myself listening to conversations that I don’t want to hear. The last one was two helicopter hockey moms at the Williams Inn discussing an uptick in teen suicides in one of their hometowns. It was impossible not to listen – they were speaking in a stage whisper – but it was the last thing I could deal with in the morning.

I shifted my ears to the table in back of me, a group of happy people from Maine discussing the previous day’s college swim meet. Sports and celebrity news are about all I can handle in the morning. But to be honest, I really don’t want to speak until about 10 a.m.

Clap Your Hands

(This is part 2 of Maury & Me. The first post appeared on Feb. 13th.)

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This pretty much sums up our experience at a Maury show taping. I was thrilled, and my sister Patty was not.

We hear a lot today about smiling and happiness.

But we almost never hear about clapping our hands to show appreciation and delight. Granted, there are few opportunities to clap during the average day. You don’t get applause for going to work, getting the kids off to school, or bringing the garbage out after dinner.

But I think the world would be a brighter place if we clapped more. Hand clapping is wonderful, triggering a feeling of happiness and elation. And it apparently has physical health benefits – it improves blood circulation.

Like anything in life, you don’t realize how rarely you clap until you clap a lot. I clapped my hands off as I sat in The Maury Show audience with my sister Patty. I clapped so much that my palms stung and hurt. The only thing I can compare it to was my wedding day, when I smiled so much my mouth ached.

Our hands were our way of communicating our feelings about Maury’s guests. If we agreed with them, we clapped loudly and vigorously. If we didn’t, it was thumbs down and “Booooooooo!” This was the only time in life I’ve openly booed someone, and boy, it felt good. How many times do we wish we could do that when we know someone is lying, being a jerk, cutting into line, or cheating in tennis?

Of course, as adults, we can’t openly boo people. But I bet a lot of people would shape up if they could be publicly booed. This must be hardwired into our DNA because honestly, the clapping and booing came very naturally, and was surprisingly gratifying.

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Our view from the audience. That’s not Maury on stage. It’s a producer.

It was tiring, yes, and hard to hear Maury and his guests at times, but it was invigorating. For one hour, we were the judge and jury. If we saw a cute baby on the flatscreen TV over Maury’s shoulder, we’d say, “Awwwww.” If we agreed with a guest, loud applause, foot stomping and maybe stand up. If we disagreed, thumbs down and booing.

Easy peasy. It would be great if everything in life was this simple. Full disclosure: an impeccably groomed young producer stood stage left and encouraged us to clap or boo louder when appropriate. He also used hand signals to quiet us down. I swear some people never shut up.

We all settled into our role with remarkable ease, and most of us became giddy. I want to say fervor, or feverish pitch. Yes, that’s it. That sums it up the feeling in the intimate auditorium.

Like most things in life, there was one major downside to all of this clapping. My hands stung and my palms were red, and my shoulders were sore. I glanced around, and other people seemed to be having the same problem. Our hands were all out of clapping shape.

“Do your hands hurt?” I asked a woman from New Jersey sitting next to me. Yes, they were killing her, she said. So did her boyfriend’s hands. He leaned over his girlfriend, and showed me a red welt where his watch kept hitting his palm. I bet he has a bruise today.

My sister and I were clapping fools throughout much of the one hour taping at the Stamford Media Center. But I know I clapped more often and vigorously. I’m a regular Maury viewer, and was caught in the moment. Patty has never watched the show, and came as a favor to me. I was keenly aware that she’d rather be anywhere else. She never came out and said it, but I knew. Sometimes, no words are necessary.

The Maury audience can be divided into two camps: fans fulfilling a (pathetic) dream of being there, and those who came kicking and screaming. It’s like couples with olives – one usually loves them while the other despises them. Or money. Behind every successful union is one spouse who’s great with money, and the other who’s horrendous. I’ll let you guess who holds the purse strings in my marriage.

TAKEAWAYS:

  • Maury Povich is the consummate host. He looks and sounds exactly as he does on TV. He has the perfect TV voice – not too low, but rich and distinctive. Sade’s song “Smooth Operator” comes to mind. Think of Maury’s voice as a male Sade – smooth as silk, rich and mellow. A little like a crock of homemade butterscotch pudding.
  • Maury has a Golden retriever who trotted out on stage with him with a Happy Valentine’s Day heart around his neck. He did a few tricks for biscuits. It was a nice ice breaker and we all ate it up.
  • Maury’s producers are young and hip, and get the audience in the mood by grooving to the piped-in music before the show. All of the staffers were in their Valentine’s Day finery, and so were a lot of audience members. I was kicking myself for not wearing red or pink.
  • Sitting under the hot bright studio lights feels like you’re an order waiting for pickup under those warming lights in diners. The lights are constant and unforgiving.
  • The show runs like a well-oiled machine. The guests are surprisingly calm and collected, making you wonder if it could be scripted. But then you realize that they probably rehearse with producers before the show. Of course they do. Whoever is prepping them is good at their job.
  • You feel much more for the guests in person. When a woman came on to test the eighth man to see if he was her 4-year-old son’s father and he wasn’t, I thought I might cry. Not so much for the woman, but for her beautiful boy.
  • Some audience members get pizza, but we didn’t. I suspect Maury’s producers entice some people with offers of free transportation and pizza. I don’t mind that they got free pizza, but I think if they do it for some they should do it for all of us.
  • We’re all in suspense. The producers promised to email us a date so we can watch or tape it, and tell all our family members and friends. This is one thing I’ll probably keep to myself.

 

Maury & Me

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A glimpse of what’s to come on Maury’s website.

I have a confession.

Well, actually two.

The first is I watch The Maury Show. The second is I’m going to a live taping of Maury in Stamford, CT., this week.

I know I shouldn’t watch it – that it’s trash TV.  But the show fascinates me, from its guests with their own sleazy set of morals to the DNA and lie detector results. It’s hard to believe that someone tested 14 guys and still doesn’t know who fathered her child, but this is the stuff of Maury.

The weirdest: a case in which two different men fathered the same set of fraternal twins. That means – well, you know what that means. Maury loves to bring up this case every time there is a DNA test involving twins, because he’s seen everything.

A friend told me she occasionally watches the show because it reminds her that other people have problems, many much bigger than hers. It’s true. Watching Maury puts things into perspective, giving us a major reality check. We’re all so boring and ordinary.

Things may be bad, but:

Your mother isn’t sleeping with your husband. Your sister isn’t sleeping with your man. You know who the father of your child is, and you don’t need a DNA test to prove it. Your husband is not paying for sex (well, you’re pretty sure he’s not.) You’re not wondering if the convict you slept with fathered your twins instead of your husband. You’re mother isn’t dressing way too sexy for her age. Your teen may be difficult, but you’re not ready to throw her into jail to shape up.

Yes, I watch. I don’t rearrange my schedule around it – boy, that would really be sad. But if I’m home, I’ll turn it on. There’s no law against that, is there? And when I’m completely stressed out – say, on Thanksgiving when I need to relax before 38 people arrive for dinner –  I turn it on to chill out. Having a tough turkey is nothing compared to telling your husband that you’ve been stepping out, and another man may have fathered your three kids.

Confession #2:

I’ve got tickets to Maury for a live taping. When I told my son, he asked how much I paid for the tickets. “Um, nothing,” I said. “They’re free. You should get a group of kids from your college to go. They love college kids at Maury.”

I don’t know why I’m encouraging a kid who has no trouble wasting time to go see Maury. When he told me that a friend had gone home for the weekend to do laundry, he said, “No offense Mom, but if my friends aren’t home, there’s no way I’d rather be home than here.” So many parties, so little time.

Of course, he learned to chill-ax from an expert. I am easily distracted, often diverted from chores midstream to check texts, listen to voicemail, read blogs or demand Alexa play “Good Old Days” by Macklemore featuring Kesha for the 10th time. The Curmudgeon often implores me to complete my tasks, and though it’s annoying, it’s one of my biggest challenges. Always has been.

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No surprise here: None of my Facebook friends have publicly liked Maury.

I call Maury my guilty pleasure. I’m a square who plays by the rules, so it’s fascinating watching people who don’t face the music – er, Maury and his boisterous audience. I don’t know why people come on Maury to reveal bombshells, but they do. What is this guy going to do when he realizes he may not have fathered her child? I can’t believe she sleeps around like that. What an idiot!

Call it voyeurism, exploitive or a colossal waste of time, but Maury has survived where others have failed. He’s celebrating the 20th year of his show, and is credited with changing people’s lives by uniting them with their fathers and siblings. That’s big time. Having a father in your life is a game changer. Just ask anyone who didn’t.

I’ve been toying with the idea of going to Maury for years. Why I decided to actually get them last week is a mystery to me. But the line “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” comes to mind and I have no idea why.” I despise that Janis Joplin song.

I thought I’d have to wait weeks for tickets. But an hour after I submitted my request, I got an email confirmation. I guess people aren’t knocking down the door to go.

A few other things to consider:

  • I don’t know how much longer Maury is going to do his show. He just turned 79! He looks healthy and fit, but you never know when he’ll retire.
  • It won’t boring, unless it’s an update show on past guests, or a show on cheaters caught on tape. Wait a second. Clark Gable, the Clark Gable’s grandson and host of Cheaters, is on those segments. I’m OK with that.
  • I may get a few blog posts out of it.
  • The show has been on for 20 years. I can’t be the only one watching it.
  • I think they serve free coffee, doughnuts and bagels before the show.

I started watching Maury when I began staying home with my son in 1997. I had never watched it because it’s on at 2 p.m. Most people who work don’t watch Maury. If you doubt me, consider the number of ads for colleges, technical schools, tractor-trailer driving schools, accident attorneys, and structured settlement payouts aired during breaks.

These ads assume you’ve got better things to do with your time. Maury’s guests may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, but neither are we because we’re watching them. They’re on stage, and we’re their audience. What does that say about us?

It reminds me of going to the San Diego Zoo with The Curmudgeon, and standing outside the gorilla enclosure. As we watched them, one gorilla pulled excrement from his behind, and began throwing it at us. I guess we know who had the last laugh that day.

What saves the show from being completely exploitive and tawdry is Maury. Like a judge presiding over a courtroom of derelicts, Maury shows compassion, concern and respect for guests, no matter how poorly they’ve behaved. He always strives to get both sides, and will often shush guests for interrupting other people. “You had your chance, now it’s his,” is one of his favorite lines.

Maury is a voice of reason on a stage full of chaos, relying on his well-honed journalism skills to keep order. He scolds, yes, and urges people to change, take care of their kids and stop dressing like tramps. But – and this is a big one –  he doesn’t scream or demean. He’s a little like the Dad we all wish for: strict, but understanding and endlessly forgiving. We could all learn something from him.

So with my tickets secured, I still had one problem: who to bring with me on this junket. Let’s face it, not everyone watches Maury and even if they do, no one admits it. What’s even tougher is revealing that you have tickets to a show that no one admits watching.

A glance at Maury’s Facebook page confirmed my fears. He’s gotten 3.3 million likes – none from my FB friends. The page invited me to be the first of my friends to like it. I’m not ready to take that leap.

I ran it by my friend Wendy, saying offhandedly: “Hey, have you ever seen Maury?” “No, what is it?” she asked. Wendy wouldn’t waste her time with Maury. She watches HGTV while doing household chores. What did I expect from a gal whose father left Wall Street to run an inn in Vermont when she was 10? As she noted, “We were the Bob Newhart Show.”

No, Wendy is not Maury’s targeted audience. While she’s getting decorating tips for her Vermont vacation home, we’re diving into the underbelly of society, wondering how people can do some of the things they do and still sleep at night.

The list of my prospective companions would be intimates – people I knew would love me despite Maury weakness.  I’d start with siblings, and work my way out to close friends. From there, it would be on to anyone who’d ever mentioned watching Maury, which was one person.

Incredibly, I scored on the first call. One of my sisters agreed to come. No, she doesn’t watch Maury – she thought I was inviting her to Jerry Springer. But it’s an honest mistake. I’ve got to go to figure out what I’ll wear. As the producers reminded us in our confirmation email, we’re going to be on TV and should be dressed properly. That may be the only thing that’s proper about this whole experience.

Bluebird Central

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A wooded lot means one thing: birds.

I live in a little of pocket of Guilford, CT., that’s always running behind.

While other townsfolk post photos of crocuses, daffodils and blooming bushes in spring, my yard is dormant. I’ve got oaks, tons of them, with a crooked birch thrown in for good measure.

All of this shade means my plants and shrubs lag two weeks behind the sunny side of town. I’m not one to knock down trees. The last time I took down a tree was 20 years ago at our old house in in Milford, CT.  A woman walked by, and said we’d committed a crime against nature. I offered to show her the rot inside the huge maple, but she walked away.

This is one reason I moved to a more rural community, on a lot with privacy. I don’t have to field unsolicited comments from the peanut gallery. When a friend a few streets over moved downtown to be closer to civilization, she found a note in her mailbox: “We think it’s time you painted your fence.” When another friend moved to her dream house overlooking Long Island Sound, a neighbor demanded she take down her wind chimes. She eventually sold her beach house and moved back to the woods, where she’d be left alone.

We don’t have sun, the beach or glorious roses, but we do have space and birds. Northeastern bluebirds love my shady corner of the universe. Crimes against nature? I don’t think so. Just ask my little friends with the bright blue backs and rust-colored bellies. They know who’s got their back.

I don’t just have one bluebird – I’ve got about a half-dozen feasting on suet, bird seed, sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and shelled peanuts. If my yard was an airport, it would be Atlanta, LAX or O’Hare. We’re busy, very busy, with birds landing from dawn to about 4 p.m. every day.

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A blue bird explores some seed in a snow-filled bird bath.

I don’t know why I have this embarrassment of birds, but I’ll take it. The landing strip and feeding area are Hometown Buffet – nothing fancy, but endless opportunity to feast. A tube feeder, a thistle sock and suet cage dangle from a shepherd’s hook. Shelled peanuts hang from a feeder on the back door, while a small window feeder holds homemade suet and seeds.

Our Christmas tree carcass lays nearby for quick cover from predators. A cooler, lawn chairs, an old bucket and bamboo tiki torch holders are convenient perches for our winged guests as they wait their turn. Woodpeckers and bluebirds love suet. They once devoured a block in 24 hours.

The concrete ribbon that is Interstate-95 runs through our town, dividing it into “above” and “below” the highway. Bird experts tell me that bluebirds are common “above’ the turnpike. With its trees and sprawling lawns, our area of town is perfect for bluebirds.

It is not, of course, all luck. We all do our part to attract bluebirds, erecting wooden bluebird boxes to provide convenient nesting spots. I have a few that the previous owner installed several years ago, but I don’t know if they’ve ever been used. I’ve tried to peek inside, but never got close enough to discern a nest. The last thing I need is an angry mother bird pecking my face.

Everyone out here feeds birds in the winter. Feeders and suet cages dangle from trees, poles and hooks all over town. One guy three houses up has at least eight feeders on one tree. I don’t know him, but I think it says something that he’s so kind to birds. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

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A tufted titmouse stops in.

Some people pamper birds, putting out slices of fresh fruit, jelly, heaters in birdbaths, crushed eggshells, and expensive seed to up the ante. My sister tried an experiment: generic bird seed from Walmart in one feeder, expensive organic seed from a bird speciality shop in the other. Turns out birds don’t like generic stuff either.

I love bluebirds because their brilliant blue coloring is striking, particularly against freshly fallen snow. Besides their beauty, they’re a reminder of recovery and renewal in nature and life. Bluebirds were threatened with extinction in the ’50s and ’60s due to pesticides like DDT, and losing nesting sites to housing development and starlings.

But tighter environmental controls (banning DDT, for instance) and erection of bluebird houses saved them. I’m glad. They’re stunning, and welcome burst of color against the drab winter landscape.

I could watch bluebirds for hours, and sometimes I do. They’re patient, and quick to escape when woodpeckers or bluejays storm in. The bluejays around here look like they’re on steroids. They’re the size of pigeons or small seagulls, and travel in packs of three or four.

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I’m not happy about bossy bluejays, but what can I do?

I’m not thrilled to be feeding bluejays because they’re so bossy and entitled. They swoop in like an urban gang and other birds scatter. But it’s like handing out candy to kids who you know were driven in from out-of-town neighborhoods on Halloween. They not your intended audience, but you hand over the goods.

I told one of my sisters that I had bluebirds and she doubted me, causing me to doubt myself. So I took a few photos and emailed them to her. She contacted her bird expert consultant, who confirmed that it was a bluebird. Score!

With a fresh blanket of snow, the birds are busy. The Curmudgeon just noted that they’re swarming the feeders. Looking out the window, I saw the frenzy. Pretty soon we’re going to need an air traffic controller.

 

These Dreams . . .

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Our road before the plows.

I haven’t worked for a newspaper in about 10 years.

So why the recurrent dream about having NOTHING to file on deadline, and being in major trouble with my editor? It’s not just that I don’t have a story.  I’ve been doing nothing, absolutely screwing off big time. As the dream foreshadows, I’m about to be found out.

Freud would have a field day with this dream, or maybe not because it’s so transparent. I obviously feel like I’m dropping the ball in some aspect of my life. It’s my take on the dream where you’re going into a final exam for a class you’ve never attended. Yeah, that one.

 

I don’t know why some dreams are so common, while others are just a one-night performance. When I was a kid, I had a dream in full color with a fantastic plot and suspense. I remember waking up and saying, “I really outdid myself.” If I had a nightmare, I’d wake up and turn an imaginary dial on the side of my head, thinking I could change the channel like a TV. If only.

I don’t know why we share recurrent dreams, but I suspect it’s because we all have the same basic needs, desires and fears. When you have bizarre dreams or thoughts, particularly as a child, you think you’re strange. I’ve tried to assure my kids that we’re all a little weird in our own way, and that’s OK. When they say, “But you don’t understand. I’m really weird,” I say, “Yeah, everybody else is really weird too.”

I wish someone had told me this when I was a child. I also wish that someone had told me that adults are often just as mystified by life as children. One of my great childhood myths was thinking I’d grow up and have all the answers. One of the most disappointing realizations is finding out no one does.

We’re all slog along some days, particularly when unthinkable things like children accidentally being killed occur in our community. Our town has been shaken by the accidental shooting death of a 15-year-old high school freshman. My daughter didn’t know him, but came home from high school band practice completely shaken and distraught. High school students aren’t supposed to die. When they do, it’s up to parents, teachers and social workers to comfort and counsel them. But understand it? No way. There’s no way any of us can make sense of it.

 

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Clouds, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, MA.

What you begin to learn in life is that horrible things happen to wonderful people, and good things happen to many people who don’t deserve it. We wonder why our strapping jock friends from college died from cancer, and people who abuse their bodies are still out in the bar every day. Why women who don’t want to get pregnant have no problem while others who desperately want to conceive can’t. Why people abuse their children instead of relinquishing custody. Why people kill spouses instead of divorcing them. Why some people are fighting for every breath, while others don’t want to live.

The list, of course, goes on and on, perhaps explaining common recurrent dreams. They’re our desperate attempt to sort things out. Some people journal about dreams, while others look for explanations of characters or plots. “What does it mean when a rabbit shows up in a dream?” I Googled once when I had an enormous amount of free time on my hands.

Growing up, my mother used to tell us about her recurrent dream. She’s hosting a holiday dinner and guests are on their way, but her cupboards are bare. Keep in mind she had seven kids, and hosted every holiday dinner because it was easier to stay home than cart all of us to a relative’s house. It’s no wonder she had this dream a lot – she was in panic mode every time a major holiday came around.

I don’t remember ever having a holiday where my mother was calm. The house needed to be cleaned to company standards – immaculate bathrooms, vacuumed carpets and tabletops polished with Pledge. As she scurried to get everything done, she’d complain about my father, who cleaned fingerprints from around doorknobs, doorjambs and light switches with Windex and a rag. “Do we really need him polishing doorknobs?” she’d ask. That became her term for someone doing minor tasks while major ones loomed.

I bring this up because I have a recurrent dream about The Curmudgeon. I suspect I had it because he was leaving at 3:30 a.m. for a business meeting in Vancouver. (No, he didn’t invite me, but that’s another post.) In the dream, we are divorced, but I’m still crazy about him and want us to get back together. I don’t understand the reason for our break-up because we still love each other and should be married, but we’re not. OK, maybe I really did want to go to Vancouver. But someone’s got to stay home with the 16-year-old.

Two other recurrent dreams involve my current house in Guilford, CT., and former home in Milford, CT.

In the first one, I’m in this house, but stunned to learn there is a complete floor of rooms, including a grand dining room with an adjoining foyer, that I’ve failed to decorate.   When I go to explore the unknown rooms, I find all the old owner’s furniture covered in sheets and tarps.

The second involves breaking into my old house while the new owner is at work. I have kept a key to the house, and sneak in to explore while he’s out. I have had this dream at least 12 times and it’s always the same: I’m upstairs in the master bedroom nosing around, and he’s at the door with the key about to come in. So busted!

I’m not sure what any of this means, or why I’m sharing such a mundane yet personal topic. But I’m curious, very curious, if anyone has ever had any version of these dreams.  I mentioned the extra rooms dream to a friend once, and she looked at me like I had two heads. So no, I don’t talk about dreams too often.

I recently read a post by a guy who’s been blogging about as long as I have about mistakes he’s made. I give him credit for writing it, but I wouldn’t dare to think I know anything about blogging after eight months. We’re still getting our feet wet, and we’re going to make mistakes.

One of the things he mentioned was before posting, ask yourself, “What’s in this for readers? What are they getting out of it? Why should they read it?”

I can’t think that way because then I’m writing for all the wrong reasons. I write what I’m going to write and hope it resonates. If it doesn’t, I’m sorry. Maybe it will next time.

I’ve been in jobs where I’ve twisted myself into what I thought people wanted, and was miserable. There’s a certain happiness that comes with writing (doing) what you want. It may not bring you followers, money or fame, but it does bring you joy. At a certain point, you realize that’s what it’s all about.

The guy also suggested taking blogging seriously. Um, no. I have too many other things in my life that I have to be serious about. When I start taking blogging and followers too seriously, I’ll never write again.

One of the greatest things I heard about Tom Petty after his death was a taped interview of him talking about his songs. He said he had to write for himself, and hope that others would enjoy what he created. It’s obvious by his songs and success that he had the right idea. Do things you love and do them well, and people will sense it.

I had substitute in my spinning class at the YMCA the other night. Ronni arrived in a business suit and heels and started class. About 15 minutes in, she ducked out of the room like Superman, and returned two minutes later in her workout gear. She pumped up the music, got on her bike and took us on an exciting adventure through the spinning bike’s color zones. Boy, she’s kickass. You wouldn’t believe how many times she was in the red zone while I was in white.

At the end of the class, she thanked us for coming and apologized for being a little frazzled at the beginning. She had no idea she was subbing for a teacher who was sick until right before class. I thanked her for a fantastic class, and she seemed appreciative. People can tell if you love what you do, or are just going through the motions. No one wants someone going through the motions.

Ronni did that class as much for herself as us.  I’m just glad she took a bum like me along for the ride.