No Worries

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I’m not worried.

So why is everyone saying “no worries” to me for everything from thanking them for holding the door at the coffee shop to excusing myself as I slide in to grab some milk at the supermarket?

I don’t mind the expression, but at least five people have said or texted it to me today. This included my friend Barbara, who texted it when I told her I couldn’t walk in a deluge. Barbara was the only one using it correctly. The others just seemed to be waiting for the chance to say it.

I’m not sure “no worries” is the correct response to “thanks for holding the door.” Maybe it is. I missed a lot of popular culture while I was a stay-at-home mother for nearly 20 years. When I finally emerged from my fog, people were saying “Word” for no apparent reason, wearing jeans that look like they’ve been shredded by pit bulls, and sporting magnetic fake eyelashes.

For the record, I did check out the false eyelashes during a recent sprint through Target, but wasn’t going to pay $25 for something that I probably wouldn’t leave the house in. As my pal Lisa down in Florida would say, “Um, that ship has passed.”

It’s hard to keep pace with modern culture when you’re in mommy mode because it’s so easy to opt out. One of my neighbors with fantastic fashion sense spent a few years walking around in light blue sweatpants from Walmart when her kids were little and no one blinked. I stopped looking at fashion magazines and putting on makeup every day because it wasn’t a priority. No one really cared what I looked like schlepping the kids to camp or the orthodontist.

When you finally emerge from the cloud of motherhood, you realize you’re a little out out of it. The only thing I can compare this to is movies when your children are infants.  There are whole years of missed movies (1997-99, 2001-2003) because you’re just too overwhelmed or distracted to watch and enjoy films.

But as everyone is telling me lately, no worries.

I started noticing “kids” 30 and under using “no worries” a few years ago, suspecting it probably began in the California surfer boy community or the Seattle grunge scene. It means “no problem at all” or “sure thing,” but somehow sounds a lot more chill.

It’s an Australian expression, as in “no worries mate.” In fact, it’s the national motto for the land down under, reflecting Australia’s laid-back attitude. “It illustrates important parts of Australian culture, including: “amiability, friendliness, an expectation of shared attitudes (a proneness to easy ‘mateship‘), jocular toughness, good humor, and, above all, casual optimism,” according to Wikipedia.

Americans began saying it about 15 years ago, shortly after the world’s spotlight focused on Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Aussie TV shows like Steve Irwin’s “Crocodile Hunter” are also thought to have contributed to its use in our language.

But, and this is a HUGE but, Australians think it is a little disingenuous for us to use their expression without adopting their underlying laid back attitude. In an article for The Advertiser, Samela Harris comments: “Americans have no idea of the etymology of ‘no worries’. So, while they may cheerily adopt our ‘no worries’ mantra, ‘no worries’ will never catch on as an attitude.”

It’s true, at least in the uptight Northeast. People say ‘no worries,’ but their actions say, “I’m very worried. I’m stressed out. Get out of my way. You’re not moving fast enough. Move over, because I’m a busy person with places to go and people to see. Oh, and by the way, ‘No worries.'”

I got a brief respite from our fast-paced scene during a recent trip to South Carolina. We waited in a Wendy’s drive-thru line for 20 minutes and no one beeped. The Curmudgeon was cursing, wondering if the drive-thru employee had suffered a medical problem and we should investigate. But this is apparently how they roll. I kept waiting for someone to lean on the horn, but instead we all leaned in and waited patiently. Imagine that.

I don’t think I’ve said or texted “no worries” to anyone. I have to feel utterly confident about something before I say it, or else I feel like an imposter. I’m like this with some new pieces of clothing. Sometimes, I let them sit in my closet for months before I feel completely comfortable integrating them into my wardrobe. Sometimes, I never feel comfortable, wondering why I bought them in the first place.

I’ve noticed that “no worries” is being used a lot more by middle-aged folks, sort of the way we’re still using Facebook while most kids and young adults have abandoned it. It takes awhile to learn what’s new, particularly with every year that goes by, and sometimes by the time you learn something new, it’s old.

So I probably won’t be saying “no worries.” I’ve tried to work it into conversations, and it just seems strange coming out of my mouth. But if you do like it and say it, well . . .

Praying For Alice

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Blogging Central is a strange place.

You read blogs and are privy to people’s innermost thoughts and feelings, but you don’t really know them. So when someone disappears after posting regularly, you don’t know whether you should write to ask if everything’s OK, or mind your own business.

Perhaps something came up, like a career switch, or they’re just not inspired. You try to give people space, but then wonder: I hope she’s OK. She’s been quiet for awhile. I guess she’ll come back if she feels like it, or maybe she never will.

This happened with one blogger chronicling her battle with terminal cancer. When she failed to post for about three months, I feared the worst and checked Legacy.com. She had died about a month before, leaving behind her husband and two little girls. I was terribly sad because I knew her story, her fight and how much she wanted to live for her daughters, whom she called her “crayons.”

I know I’m not the only blogger who wonders about people when they don’t post. One blogger, Radjah’s 2 Cents, even dedicated a blog to Behind the White Coat in December. R2C wrote that she understood that she was a busy physician, but misses her posts. Her plea was moving, but did not elicit a response or blog post from BWC, who has been MIA since last November.

(Yes, I feel like an air traffic controller referring to everything with initials, but this is another part of blogging. Abbreviate whenever you can.)

I also enjoy BWC, and have been wondering where she is. I tried to log onto her blog today. It has been rendered “private.” I don’t know what that means, but I’m hoping to get some kind of feedback, just to know she’s OK.

I don’t think people mind if you want to stop something you’ve started. We understand. Sometimes things that seems fun and entertaining, like beading or engraving wood, become a chore. But if you don’t mind, we’d like to know that you plan to fade into the sunset. No one likes being dumped, least of all bloggers hanging on your every word.

Blogger Mick Canning did this today when he announced he was taking a break to pursue other interests, such as painting. He’s got nearly 900 followers who will miss him during his hiatus, but will return because he let us know his plans.

Chrissy of Chrissy’s Fabulous Fifties has apologized for her infrequent posts and comments because she just bought her first house and is busy settling in. I understand. The first few months in a new house are crazy, leaving little or no time for anything else. I sort of wish I could bottle that enthusiasm and use it to spruce up a place after 15 years, but it doesn’t work that way. At least for me.

Of course, blogging is not all fun and games, not by a long shot. Some people use their blogs as an instrument to try to process and make sense of life’s blows, like multiple myeloma (Battling the Bone Breaker) or your child’s fight against an inoperable brain tumor (Common Slaves).

Common Slaves is written by Minnesota pastor Joe Reed, whose daughter Alice is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Alice is teaching her parents (and all of us adults) a thing or two about life. When her Dad told her that she would be seeing Jesus and his friends pretty soon, she said, “But you can’t come with me.”

Pastor Joe writes with such love and grace about his daughter, generally including a passage or two of scripture. I wasn’t prepared for his latest post last week when he shared Alice’s grim prognosis. I wrote him a brief message of support on his blog, but felt the need to do more. I felt unsettled, as though someone was dying in my family.

I considered asking the Dominican nuns at a nearby monastery to pray for Alice, but wondered how I would explain my relationship to her. I don’t know her or her family, yet through her father’s poignant words and photos over the past several months, I feel intricately connected to them. I was speaking to a nun on Monday and nearly blurted out, “Please pray for Alice and her family” and then I caught myself.

“You don’t really know Alice,” I told myself, desperately trying to establish emotional distance or boundaries. “You’ve read about her, but you don’t know her. You have no right to feel upset. This doesn’t really concern you.”

And yet it does, and this in a nutshell is the good and bad of being a blogger. Millions of people around the world share their stories on this platform every day. And though in many cases we have no idea what people look like, we get a peek into their lives and what makes them tick, or ticks them off.

I love the reckless abandon that is WordPress because people let it all hang out, pouring their heart and soul onto the screen. I’m sometimes a little taken aback by people’s honesty – there is, after all, such a thing as over-sharing and discretion – but in general it’s a wonderful forum for telling your story.

What you learn as a blogger is that everyone has crosses to bear, some much heavier than than others, and that some people are a lot better writers than others. You also learn that some people are dealing with terribly heavy issues with grace, while others are drama queens, making a big deal about everything.

I like to read blogs by people who quietly or humorously plod along because I’ve got enough drama in my life. I can’t stomach any more, particularly those who use their blogs for attention and sympathy. We all need a little reassurance from time to time, but some people are over the top. What really bothers me is that many of these people have an incredible number of followers. It’s often the best written and most poignant blogs with the fewest followers. Go figure.

As someone who’s never kept a diary or journal, I’m amazed at what comes out on the page and what I’m willing to share about myself. As a reporter, you’re taught to be impartial and keep yourself out of stories. But I hope giving insight into some of my feelings and battles, particularly with infertility, adoption and “relaunching” after two kids, will help people. I know reading about other people’s problems is often helpful, putting mine in perspective or making me feel less alone.

Of course, there are days you wish you hadn’t opened a suggested blog. Today, I clicked on a blog called something like Dealing With Shit written by a young woman talking about her devastation over her upcoming birthday, the first since her father committed suicide last fall. Ugh. UGH! There’s nothing anyone can say, no empty words of encouragement that you can muster after reading such a heartbreaking post.

Perhaps the only thing that I can say to her is that counseling, alone or with her family, may help her cope with her feelings of deep grief. I would also like her to understand that her father suffered from an illness that can be as deadly as cancer or heart disease unless treated properly. Suicide is the leading cause of gun death in this country, but that is a post for another day.

But I said nothing, at least for now. I am someone who always feels the need to comment or offer words of advice. But sometimes people just want to vent and know they’ve been heard, even by a stranger 1,300 miles away in Connecticut.

Here is a link to Common Slaves: https://commonslaves.com/2018/04/17/alice-puddle-boots/

 

 

(Mostly) Gluten Free

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This photo shows the difference between a gluten-free popover (top) and a regular one. Which one would you rather eat?

We went out to dinner the other night with a couple in Savannah, GA., when the subject of gluten came up.

The husband would like to try going gluten free to see if he feels better, particularly the arthritis in his hands. But he still has to convince his wife, who loves bread, to get on board. This is kind of a sticking point because his wife is the one who cooks.

I told him it’s really up to his wife because if the cook isn’t 100 percent on board, going gluten-free won’t work. Gluten is everywhere: Pam cooking spray. Taco seasoning packets. Chicken broth. Cold cuts (not Boars Head). Packaged seasoned rice.  Breath mints. Gum.

Going gluten free – and by that I mean really gluten free – is hard work. It requires constant vigilance, label reading, interrogating waitresses, pestering hostesses, incessant menu planning, and a bit of obsession to pull off. 

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A dessert containing gluten and dairy that I may have sampled during a weak moment.

I know this because I’ve been 95 percent gluten free for about nine years, removing it and dairy (well, most of the time) to control joint inflammation.

A naturopath recommended giving up gluten and dairy after I suffered a bout of rheumatoid arthritis after a stressful series of life events around 2010. The pain moved from joint to joint, shifting from my wrist to my knee to my hips. It eventually became so  painful that walking was difficult some days. I tested negative for celiac disease, but was told that leaky gut syndrome can cause joint inflammation.

I removed gluten and dairy from my diet, and my stomach and intestines felt calmer within three days. The joint pain and swelling dissipated, making me feel better than I had in months. Tests showed my inflammation levels had decreased. More than anything, I was relieved to be pain-free.

Unlike other things I’ve given up, remaining gluten- and dairy-free does not get easier with time. In fact, the urge to cheat grows incrementally each year. It’s hard to eat pizza that tastes like cardboard and sandwich rolls that crumble under the weight of tuna salad while others indulge in real pizza, or dunk fresh rolls in flavored oil. It’s hard to watch people eat chocolate birthday cake, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream or Boston cream doughnuts while you nosh on a handful of almonds or assorted olives.

This cropped up when my 16-year-old daughter commandeered a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts during our last day of vacation in South Carolina. When I jokingly told her that that I planned to have the last doughnut, she took it out unapologetically and announced, “You can’t have it. It’s got gluten in it. So forget about it. It’s mine.” Brat.

She is technically right, but let’s make one thing clear: I am voluntarily gluten free. I don’t have celiac disease, which is different and a lot more serious . People with celiac disease can’t eat gluten or they become violently ill. I have a sensitivity to gluten, meaning if I cheat I feel guilty and have joint swelling for a few days. I consciously choose not to eat it, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it or always manage to do it.

Just because you don’t eat gluten or dairy doesn’t mean you don’t want to, aren’t extremely tempted or don’t occasionally cave in. I guess it’s a little like the woman named Helen I met the other day on the Pickleball court. As we swatted the ball in the hot southern sun, the intoxicating aroma of bacon filled the air. We looked a little like dogs tilting our heads back to get a better whiff.

“Boy, that bacon smells fantastic,” Helen said. “And I’m a vegetarian.”

You’d think a person would lose the desire for a real Everything bagel or full-fledged fluffy popover with raspberry butter after nine years without them. But our brains are funny when it comes to food. We still want what we can’t have, no matter how much time passes by. The desire to eat something doesn’t disappear because you can’t or shouldn’t eat something. K.D. Lang’s song “Constant Craving” comes to mind, though I know she wasn’t talking about food.

Years ago, I had a tiny problem with cigarettes. I began smoking a few cigarettes in college while writing term papers to get the juices flowing. Later, as a reporter, I would light a celebratory cigarette after deadline to relax and unwind. I knew it was bad for me – my father was a cardiologist after all – but I enjoyed it and was still stupid enough to think I was invincible.

As I got older, I continued to smoke one cigarette a day, retreating to the privacy of our screened porch and out of sight of my two kids every evening. I was ashamed of my habit, but I couldn’t quit. I was addicted to one cigarette a day, and was pretty much convinced someone could be addicted to one puff. That’s how addictive nicotine is.

I finally quit when my son was in fourth grade. I didn’t want my kids to smoke – I had stolen my first cigarette from my mother’s pack of L&M’s when I was 17 – and I didn’t want cigarettes in the house. I decided to do something else at about 7 p.m. when the urge would kick in, and stopped. It was a huge monkey was off my back because I hated everything about it, including buying them at the local gas station. I always felt like such a loser buying my pack of Salem Lights, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.

I still like the smell of a cigarette, or better yet, a cigar or pipe in open air. But I’ve never been tempted to smoke again, even when prodded to “bum” cigarettes by other women who like to smoke at weddings. I won’t even bum cigarettes for anyone because I feel if you want to smoke, you should procure your own cigarettes.

As for the Vape movement, I suppose it’s better than cigarettes, but I don’t get it and have never been tempted to try it. It’s always a little strange when you see people vaping in stores or even on the golf course. No one ever looks particularly proud or happy to be vaping. It always seems to be something done while no one’s looking, in the corners of aisles or in the shadows.

The lure of gluten and dairy has never waned. If anything, it’s grown stronger over the years, and I’ve caved in more than I ever thought I would in the early days. It began with a few scoops of regular ice cream a few summers ago, and now includes the occasional slice of real pizza, or handful of peanut M & Ms. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. I’m not 100 percent any more, which saddens me in a way. It’s so nice to feel you’ve got control, even if it’s over a piece of bread.

The good news is that following a gluten- and dairy-free diet is easier today than it was a decade ago. Food companies are now catering to a growing market of consumers who can’t or won’t eat gluten or dairy. When I first began, I could only get gluten free pasta at the health food store, and it was awful – mushy and tasteless. Today, major manufacturers like Ronzoni are producing a line of gluten-free pastas that are indistinguishable from regular pasta.

Of course, there’s still much work to be done, particularly in the area of hamburger and hotdog rolls, bagels, English muffins and pizza dough. But for anyone who wants to eliminate gluten, it’s never been easier. The biggest obstacle is wrapping your brain around it, and committing to it 100 percent. Then again, that’s always our biggest challenge, isn’t it?

Civil War

I wish I had posted this blog six months ago. Instead, it languished in my draft bin with 120 other unfinished pieces.

Lesson learned. When you have something to say, say (or blog) it.  We all know this, of course, but sometimes forget and assume we have all the time in the world. And then an unimaginable tragedy strikes that reminds us that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

I’m posting this today to honor the memory of Thomas Ullmann of New Haven, CT., and his remarkable approach to handling one of the toughest jobs known to man. Tom was chief public defender for the New Haven Judicial District, defending some of the state’s (and nation’s) most notorious criminals.

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A photo of Thomas Ullmann from Yale Law School’s website.

Tom died Friday during a hiking accident in the Adirondacks. Just seven months into his retirement, he was training to compete in an Ironman competition in Finland when he fell into a ravine. His friends and former colleagues are shocked and devastated by his death.

I initially began writing about Tom after hearing him accept the Yale Sappern Civility Award at the New Haven County Bar Association’s annual meeting last October. Tom told the assembled crowd that he was deeply honored to receive the award because civility had been a cornerstone of his career.

He wasn’t just pandering to the crowd of about 300 judges and attorneys. He was truly honored that his calm demeanor and personality were recognized by his colleagues.

Think about it. Awards are often given out for professional accomplishments. But how often are you recognized for your conduct – how you treat others or how you make them feel? After about age 14, we stop handing out good sportsmanship awards to kids. The focus becomes on winning at all costs, whether in the classroom, sports, and later careers.

It’s always a bit of a miracle when you meet someone who recognizes that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it’s how you play the game that really counts. Years ago when I was still playing a lot of tennis, one of my opponents said, “I want to thank you for calling the lines fairly.” It didn’t seem like a lot, but it was. Because as I used to tell people, your match is only as good as the person across the nets line calls. Tennis is a game of inches, and you wouldn’t believe how many people make bad calls, awful calls, just to win.

What I’ve learned – what’s taken me a lifetime to understand – is that losing isn’t that bad. What is bad is focusing so much on winning that you act like an idiot or cheat to win. I’ve intentionally removed myself from watching most of my kids’ sporting competitions because I deplore the behavior of athletes and their parents at these events.

It’s bad in high school, worse in college. I can’t believe parents have nothing better to do than follow their kids around every weekend, and cheer when an opponent double-faults to lose a game or set. Give me a break.  I’ve decided I’ll let my kids do their thing, and I’ll do mine and they can tell me about it later. So far, we’re all a lot happier.

I didn’t know Tom, but I covered a few of his cases in New Haven court, and was impressed by his calm, understated demeanor. Though prosecutors and public defenders are often bulldogs in court, Tom was reserved and unassuming, befitting his Amish-looking beard. He was so fascinating to watch, this gentle man operating in the high wattage atmosphere of criminal court.

It’s hard to do the work he did because very often, we resent attorneys who take on the cases of defendants accused of heinous crimes. Intellectually, we know they’re doing their jobs, but sometimes it’s hard to separate client from attorney. Tom learned this all too well when he received death threats while representing Steven Hayes, one of two men convicted in the Cheshire, CT., triple murder case.

I wondered how he did it, so I asked him. Well, I sent him an email after getting his address from our mutual friend Barbara, and asked him if I could have a copy of his speech. I was shocked when he told me his speech was off the cuff. He said he would send me a summary of his remarks, and true to his word, I received an email two days later.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Being aggressive and assertive as an advocate does not equate to a lack of civility. What does it take to be nice to your client or a family member?  A simple return of a phone call. Responding to a letter. What about your adversaries, prosecutors or judges?

“I have co-taught the Yale Criminal Defense clinic for the last 15 years and trial practice at Quinnipiac University School of Law for over 20 years, and I have continually stressed to my students that the most important character trait you possess is your reputation.  If you have lost your credibility,  you are in trouble. So I have spent my entire career being a zealous advocate for the indigent criminal accused always maintaining civility.”

I told Tom I planned to post the blog in a couple of days, and would send him a link. I failed on that point, and I can never make it up to him. But I can publicly acknowledge his deep commitment to his profession, and the courtesy he extended to others at all times.

Rest in peace, Tom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaiden’s Tale

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Sending your daughter to prom is more fun than going yourself. 

One of the worst things about going to an all-girls’ Catholic high school is scrounging up a prom date.

It’s fine if you’re dating someone. The matter is quite easily settled. But if you happen to be a single lady, the prospect of a prom date is pretty daunting. I don’t know if it’s any easier for girls today, but I thought asking guys out was torture. I don’t even like asking my husband to do things if I think he might say no.

I thought I had the whole thing figured out when a guy I liked invited me to his senior prom. I was stunned when I learned that my best friend had beaten me to the punch, inviting him to our senior prom. After firing her immediately as my best friend, I was tasked with finding an escort for our prom, suitably called “Pieces of April.” A better name would have been “Shards Through My Heart.”

I had a good friend up the street who attended an all-boys school who I figured would understand my predicament. “Hey, can you do me a favor?” I asked as casually as possible. “Can you go to my prom with me?” “Um, not sure. I have to go home and ask my mother. Can I let you know tomorrow?” he answered.

I understood. He needed permission to spend $75 to rent a tux – and maybe he needed a little time to think it over. He said yes and did go – baby blue tuxedo flood pants and all. I don’t remember much about the night, just that we joked a lot about those ridiculous pants. I was glad that part of high school was blessedly behind me.

I don’t know why we make such a big deal about prom, but we do. Last year, one of my daughter’s friend’s boyfriends broke up with her a week before prom, and we were all incensed because of the timing. Even I wanted to drive to his house, and give him a good dress down. The girl had bought a beautiful dress, and was looking forward to going to the prom for months. He couldn’t have waited until after the prom to break up?

But prom is just so . . . prom. It sort of takes on a life of its own every spring, doesn’t it? Elaborate, clever invitations. Invitations rejected. Hearts broken. Invitations that never come. Hopes dashed. Bones thrown. The dread of spending the evening with someone you don’t really like because you just want a date. The dread of the first, and second, slow dance. The agony of wondering whether there will be a goodnight kiss on the front stoop.

Americans are fascinated with proms, even movies about proms. One of my favorites is 16 Candles, which chronicles Sam’s (played impeccably by Molly Ringwald) fantasy of going to prom with her dream date Jake, who is perfect. Sam gets the guy in the end, but we all know it rarely works that way in real life. Prom is often fraught with angst, disappointment and tears. And no matter how old you are, you never forget your prom.

Prom has been part of the American fabric since the early 19th century. Proms, short for promenade, began as simple co-ed banquets that American universities held for each year’s graduating class, according to Time.

“A growing teenage culture pushed proms younger and younger, and by the 1940s the adolescent dance we know today had almost entirely taken hold,” Time states. “In the 1950s, a thriving postwar economy allowed high schools to eschew the traditional gymnasium in favor of proms held in hotels or at country clubs. President Kennedy rescheduled a 1963 $1,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton to accommodate a local school whose prom had been booked for the same time.”

I don’t think President Trump would be as gracious, but you get the point. Proms are a very, very big deal.

I don’t miss any of it, mainly because mine were not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.  But I will confess that I enjoyed sending my daughter off to the junior prom last year because I got to do all the fun stuff – gown, shoes, hair, accessories and photos – without the hassle of actually attending the prom.

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The boy in a tuxedo at prom.

I sent my son off to a few proms, but it wasn’t nearly as fun. My only involvement was fastening the bow tie, making sure it sat straight, and ordering the corsage. Let’s face it: it’s a lot more fun dressing girls, something we learn when our sons are toddlers and we try to buy them clothes. There are tons more cute clothes for girls than boys. Or at least that was my experience.

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We found this dress in a consignment shop for about half of what it cost retail.

But sending a girl off to the prom is different. It was my chance to do the prom and not have to deal with all the prom stuff, like my date, shoes killing my feet and bumping to “Brick House.” I could help pick out the dress, suggest hair styles, weigh in on make-up and sit back and watch. Of course, before I could really sit back and watch, I had to go dress shopping, get the gown altered, run to the hair salon, nail place and flower shop, but it was a learning experience. I discovered that I’m a pretty good handmaiden, and would be quite an asset to a princess.

I fully understood my role after our photo shoot in the front yard. After snapping photos, my daughter insisted that I carry the back of her dress (OK, her train) while she sauntered across the street to her friend’s house. Of course, I did it. We had come too far to rip the dress or get it muddy. There’s not a mom in the universe who wouldn’t have grabbed that chiffon too.

With prom season rapidly approaching, I wondered if there might be another junior or senior prom in our (I mean her) future. I’d be happy if she went again – hey, it’s been almost a year since I’ve been a handmaiden so I’m rested – but I’m not counting on it.

We all know my history with proms. Not exactly my one shining moment. So we’ll wait, see and hope along with everyone else. We’ll survive either way. But hopefully there will be fewer broken hearts and more smiles this prom season. We can always dream, can’t we?

 

Groundhog Day

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A panoramic, if blurry, view of the trail.

I’ve wanted to explore a hiking trail for about five years.

It runs off a trail I frequently walk with a friend and the dogs, but we always stop before we reach it due to time constraints. I finally decided to explore it on my own with my 9-year-old yellow Lab Cali.

We got about a half-mile in, crossed a beautiful stream and began to climb a rocky incline when I spotted a faded pink sign nailed to a tree:  “No Trespassing. Hunting permitted by written permission of the (owners).”

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How long has this been going on?

You’ve got to be kidding. I’m finally here, and now I’ve got to turn around after 15 minutes?

I know the owners, who stopped issuing hunting permits about five years ago. I looked at the sign, and it was old and worn, like it might have been there for years. I called the dog and began to turn around when I thought about it.

Even if someone had a hunting permit, which was unlikely, what were the chances of anyone hunting at 10:15 a.m.? Was it even hunting season in Connecticut?

I Googled “Connecticut hunting season” on my I-Phone, and began scanning all the various seasons. Deer? No. Turkey? No. My search came up empty except for one thing: woodchuck. You can hunt woodchuck from March 15-Nov. 15 in Connecticut, but the question remains: why would you?

I figured it was safe to proceed. I’ve never heard of anyone hunting or eating woodchuck, which are the scourge of gardeners, but relatively innocuous in the wild. They spend half the year in full slumber, so how much trouble could they be?

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Bill Murray with this furry friend in a scene from “Groundhog Day.”

Cali and I pressed on, and I’m glad we did. The trail is a delightful spur of a little used, but beautiful trail system in North Guilford, CT. Rushing streams and water cascading over rocks are your playlist during your walk in these woods.

You’ve got your I-Phone, but you don’t feel particularly inclined to listen to music. Nature’s sounds – wind rustling through trees, water tumbling over rocks in spring-swelled streams, crows cawing overhead, and the sound of absolutely nothing at all  –  are your soundtrack.

Best of all, there’s no trace of highway in the distance. That’s always a huge frustration, isn’t it?  You’re in the woods, communing with nature when you notice you can still hear the sound of interstate traffic. But this trail is free of background noise, allowing you to hear the call of a hawk, leaves crunching under your soles, and spring song birds finding their voice. If you stop, you can even hear the dog’s tags tinkling. When was the last time you noticed that?

As you climb and descend, and watch the dog do that little dance that she always does in the woods, you forget about the prospect of hunters. Woodchucks hunters? Give me a break.

Of course, when you get home, you learn that people do hunt and eat these critters, which also go by the name groundhog. There are even recipes for woodchuck cooked in a crockpot. This surprises you until you remember a guy you knew in college who hunted and ate squirrel.

 

As you reach the main trail – and old dirt and gravel road that must have led somewhere at some point – you turn to the right. Before proceeding, you note that an old mylar balloon has been tied to the bottom of a tree, designating the spur. You must remember that on the way home to retrace your steps and get to your car. Losing your way in these woods can mean three hours walking in circles.

 

You decide to untie the balloon and realize there’s writing on it. Two children scrawled messages to their deceased grandmother in black Sharpie, telling her they missed her, and hope she’s happy in heaven. You swallow hard, thinking Grandma is probably smiling down on those two kids. And then you tie the balloon back onto the tree, feeling in some way that you’ve violated their privacy. You wonder how long the balloon’s been there, where and when it was launched, how old those kids are now.

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Blue plastic tubing for sap almost looks like light lasers.

As you follow the dirt road, you see zigzags of blue plastic stretching from tree to tree, looking something like those high-tech laser alarm systems in museums and palaces. It’s tubing to collect sap, which is boiled down, bottled and sold by Our Lady of Grace, a Dominican monastery. They began tapping maples a few years ago, and now their syrup is one of the hottest sellers in their gift shop.

As you descend, you’re twisted and turned around. You’re near the sugar house and the monastery, nowhere near where you thought you were. You call the dog and turn around, making the left at the balloon. Along the way, you encounter two hikers who ask you if it’s safe to proceed in spite of the warning signs.

“Yes, but next time wear bright orange to be on the safe side.”

The advice is actually borne of experience. Several years ago, I walked on trails near my house and encountered hunters in camouflage turkey hunting on privately-owned property that was also open to public hiking. The owners – who later sold much of their land to the the town – issued their own hunting permits. And as I looked up at trees, I noticed some hunters had erected deer platforms in the woods too.

One of the turkey hunters suggested I wear orange, and I headed to Walmart the next day to buy an Orange baseball cap. I bought a bright orange cap bearing a “T.” How was I to know my cap signified that I supported the University of Tennessee women’s basketball Volunteers? You can’t believe how much flak I got for wearing that hat in Connecticut, home of the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team.

Yikes. Wearing that cap was like committing an act of treason, like wearing a Red Sox cap to Yankee Stadium. But I wore it in the woods to announce my presence, ripping it off as soon as I returned to civilization. I saw no reason to agitate people more than I usually do, and the hat was an opening for anyone itching for a fight. I’ve got enough problems without provoking people with my hats.

As for the trail, I’m happy I explored it, but see no reason to return. Next time, I’ll stay on the beaten trail, the one without the warning signs. You never know when someone’s going to want to hunt woodchuck.

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The main trail.

 

Caving In

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That’s my chair, second from the right. I owned this cave for an hour.

There are two things you can do when it’s snowing on April 6th in New England: gripe or escape.

I couldn’t afford an impromptu trip to Florida, so I decided on the next best thing: retreating to a Himalayan salt cave for about an hour.

This kind of sloppy spring weather – snow showers, puddles, mud and dampness that makes my bones ache and hair frizz – got old about two weeks ago. In his poem “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot calls April “the cruelest month.” I have a hunch he may have been looking at snow falling outside his window in early April when he wrote that famous verse.

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”

― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

It can’t still be snowing. I just raked my lawn last weekend, and Scotts is having its spring sale on its 4-step lawn treatments. I bought a light jacket and pink sandals to go with a sleeveless jersey dress I’m wearing to my daughter’s confirmation this weekend. Enough already.

Enter the salt cave. I read a blog (https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/138230696/posts/324) about detoxifying during spring, but wasn’t sure I could endure an infrared room to sweat toxins out of me. That seemed like a lot of work, more than I was willing to give. This weather makes me sluggish and lethargic. I didn’t even want to put my sweat glands in overdrive.

Then I remembered reading about a salt cave in Connecticut.  I thought I’d have to drive an hour to the nearest cave – and was willing to do it – until I learned that there’s a cave a mere 20 minute drive from my house in Branford, CT.  Faster than you can say “book it!,” I was on the phone making my reservation.

I arrived at Rain Wellness Spa (https://www.rainwellnessspa.com/saltcave) feeling a combination of desperate, harried, dispirited, and congested. I had a splitting headache between my eyes from sinus pressure, and was generally feeling a need to escape. I was led up a staircase to the Saltonstall Cave, a dimly lit room behind a heavy dark brown wooden door.

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The cave is lined with Himalayan salt. 

The cave was nirvana, or as close as I was going to get in southern Connecticut in a snowstorm. Imagine cracking open a giant pink salt crystal and finding a peaceful niche where you can recline, close your eyes and veg out. Pipe in New Age music and pump in salt-infused air and, well you get the idea. After about 15 minutes, I didn’t care what was happening outside my cave.

And make no mistake about it, it was my cave for that hour. I had the place to myself, allowing me to swish my hands in the salt pebbles and put a tiny pile of salt between my brows. I entered that blissful state that you sometimes get on the beach – somewhere between awake and asleep. I tried to fight it but couldn’t. I kept drifting off.

The walls are covered in chunks of pink crystal. You know those strips of paper with candy dots on them? Well, imagine a room like that, only the dots are bigger and a lot more jagged and rough. It reminds me of a crystal mine we visited in South Dakota.

The ceiling looks like a child’s drip sand castle, all swirls and oversized drops hanging down. A crescent moon is in the center of the ceiling, surrounded by stars and constellations. It was a delightful sight for the brief period of time I managed to keep my eyes open.

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Drip sand castle-like ceiling.

I have no trouble believing our ancestors inhabited caves because I settled in quite nicely. I draped myself into one of four lounge chairs sitting in a 6-inch thick carpet of sandy pink salt pebbles. It was glorious. My only regret was I had to keep my white socks on, because I would have loved to sink my toes in the salt too.

Each lounge chair features a fluffy blanket. Think adult baby blanket, or should I call it a wooby? The chairs are comfortable, but the hedonist in me would have preferred a bed so I could turn on my side and fall asleep. Indulgent? Absolutely, but so is the entire experience.

Though salt caves are relatively new in the United States, they’re popular in Europe, with some salt therapy places dating back to the 19th century.  Salt, or halotherapy, is touted as a treatment for various health problems ranging from asthma to skin conditions. It’s also heralded for boosting the immune system, improving sleep and reducing anxiety and depression.

All I know is I felt great when I left. My sinuses haven’t felt this clear nor have I breathed this easily since November. My headache went away, and I emerged from the room mellow, yet energized. It may be mind over matter, but consider this: Rain’s clients include people who visit weekly to manage breathing problems and other health issues. Or at least that’s the main reason they go.

I paid $40 for my cave stay, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip. Hopefully, it won’t be snowing.

 

 

 

Island Queen

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I don’t think I can stand an attack on kitchen islands. My island is my workhorse, particularly on Thanksgiving when I host about 30 relatives. Here’s the aftermath of the dessert “table.” It’s not pretty, but it’s accurate.

Honesty is on my mind a lot lately.

I told one of my sisters that one of the things I enjoy about marriage is you can say what you want to your spouse, and know it’s OK. She seemed a little taken aback, saying she doesn’t enjoy the same freedom with her husband.

Oh. I thought saying what’s on your mind was written into the marriage manual. Doesn’t everyone tell her husband that he has sauce in the corner of his mouth, or that he can’t have thirds because you’re saving half the roast for the following day?

No? Well, I guess I’m lucky. The Curmudgeon and I are honest with each other, and so far it’s worked. Well, most of the time. He tells me when I’m overspending, or putting on a little weight (“that is so not like you!”). I tell him when he’s being inconsiderate planning a guy’s trip on our daughter’s birthday weekend, or driving me insane with his eating noises.

It’s rare to have such an honest relationship. Most people ask your opinion, but really don’t want it. They want you to validate their opinion. If you give them your opinion, you risk alienating them, or worse, making them really mad.

I’m pretty lucky my friends tolerate me despite my penchant for being opinionated. I can’t help it. I was born in late August, falling under the sign of Virgo. Astrological.com notes that Virgos are often the butt of jokes for being so picky and critical, “but their attention to detail is for a reason: to help others.”

Yes, I think I’ve caught people sniggering behind my back at my perfectionism and intensity. The only thing I’ll say is I’m up front about it.

Let me assure you, my standards and expectations for myself are just as high as they are for you. I wouldn’t be driving you so crazy if I wasn’t driving myself crazy too. Are Virgos holier than thou? Yes. Do we think everyone needs and values our opinion? Hell yes.

Virgos don’t give our opinion to annoy people, but because we want the best for them. Why we think we know what’s best is another question, but we do.  (By the way, Astrological.com’s description of Virgos is dead-on, even right down to our penchant for being hypochondriacs, over-thinkers and perfectionists.)

My honesty has become a bit of a sticking point between me and my pal Barbara over her upcoming kitchen remodel. She asked for my input, and well, I was brutally honest. I told her I’d lengthen the island. I think I may have even gone as far as calling her current island “stubby.”

This may be akin to inferring someone’s child is a little on the short side. I don’t think she was too happy with me.

Barbara told me that she likes her island, and it’s staying the same size. She told the same thing to my sister Patty, who’s helping her with the design, and suggested expanding the island too. I thought the issue was moot until Barbara fired a salvo, texting me and Patty a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Kitchen Islands Are Ruining Kitchens.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-kitchen-islands-are-ruining-kitchens-1522769824.

In her new WSJ column, writer Michelle Slatalla delineates her reasons for passing on an island in her recent kitchen remodel. Likening islands to sports bars in the vast oasis that is early 21st century kitchens, she says she prefers the homespun feel of a kitchen table. She said it brings back fond memories of her grandmother sitting in the kitchen chopping onions.

I get it, and I hope Ms. Slatalla loves her kitchen. For the record, I do all my prep work standing, and I’ve never seen my mother, professional chefs or anyone else sit while chopping onions. You need a certain amount of leverage to cleave and mince onions. You can sit hulling strawberries, cutting the ends off green beans or maybe peeling potatoes, but chopping onions? I’m pretty sure standing is the preferred position.

I asked my friend Michele, a gourmet cook, to weigh in. Michele, aka “Cook Chic,” said she loves her island, which anchors her large kitchen, provides informal seating and gives her vast space to prepare meals. Without her island, which she expanded during a kitchen makeover, the center of her kitchen resembled a dance floor, she said.

I feel the same way about my kitchen, which is long and has been unkindly compared by some to a bowling alley. When we moved in, it had a small center island just large enough to seat my two little kids. They colored and later did their homework at the island while I cooked macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and grilled cheeses (as my daughter called them). Seated on their Ikea wooden stools, they were a captive audience, and I tried to impart some wisdom during mealtime.

But the island was small and impractical, housing a few drawers, a small cabinet and my cooktop. I considered moving the cooktop to the perimeter during our remodel, but realized I like cooking at the island. I’ve got tons of counter space, and no one infringes on my space. One side of the island is essentially mine, all mine.

Though I agree some islands look like monoliths, Patty designed my island with a slight curve on one side and table legs so it looks like a gigantic table. I spend 95 percent of my time at my kitchen island, which houses my microwave, cooktop, pots and pans, spices and a rarely used beverage refrigerator. (Seriously, not needed. Nor is my gigantic Lazy Susan, but that’s another post.)

Best of all, the island’s deeper than my countertops, giving me space to spread out when I cook or bake. Anyone who’s ever seen me in the kitchen knows I need all the space I can get. Doesn’t everyone?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion on kitchen design, and what’s important to some are extravagances to others. I recently joined Barbara for a trip to the Clarke Kitchen & Appliance Showroom in South Norwalk, CT.,  https://clarkeliving.com/ to check out the latest in Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances.

Upon entering, we were offered coffee, expresso or cappuccino, and were quickly greeted by our consultant, who spent an hour going over the finer points of really expensive appliances. When I mentioned that I had gone with another brand on the advice of my kitchen contractor, the consultant  seemed even less interested in me than he had before.

As we toured the showroom filled with $10,000 refrigerators and $8,500 ovens, an on-site chef emerged with a thimble of cream of asparagus soup for each of us. It was delicious, and a very nice touch. You don’t get that kind of treatment in Sears or PC Richard & Son, where I bought my inferior appliances.

What did I learn at the showroom? There are people who spend $100,000 for 6-inch thick stone countertops. That the ideal installation for your kitchen wall oven is “sitting proudly.” That means instead of being flush with your cabinets, the oven protrudes about a quarter to half an inch outside the cabinets. (My wall oven is only slightly proud.) That there are actually people who care whether their appliances sit proudly.

In her piece, Slatalla notes that her husband wanted – and got – a separate area for his cappuccino machine and coffee grinder in her remodeled kitchen. I don’t give a hoot about a cappuccino maker, though some people plunk down $2,500 for built-in models.

I would never do that. I have a $40 Mr. Coffee Expresso maker that suits me just fine. I am not a coffee snob, nor am I particularly knowledgeable in the area of wine, caviar, cheese or many of the finer things in life. But I know what I like, and one of those things is my kitchen island.

Please don’t put islands in the politically correct arena with everything else. I don’t think I can stand it.

 

Granny’s Eggplant

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Grandma Rose, May, 1986.

Note: I wrote this piece as part of the Tenement Museum in New York’s project “Your Story, Our Story,” which invites people to share photos and personal accounts that tell the story of immigration in the United States. You can learn more about the the project – and participate! – at https://yourstory.tenement.org/.

I’ve got the world’s ugliest colander.

It belonged to my Grandma Milazzo, and is the only artifact I have from her kitchen.  I got it by default, a rusted souvenir snagged while helping clean out her apartment overlooking the West Haven, CT., shoreline.

Actually on second thought, it’s probably a deep fryer basket – though I never saw Granny deep fry anything. Folks plunged these baskets into pots of boiling oil before electric models like the FryDaddy and Fry Baby came along.

My sister Diane got the prize: the heavy cast iron pot Granny used to make her famous Sunday “gravy.” Diane claims the pot makes the sauce, and who am I to argue? I’ve been following Granny’s recipe for years, and mine doesn’t come close. Even I call mine “Irish sauce.”

I rarely use Granny’s colander, preferring modern strainers with finer mesh and less mileage. It’s old, dented and has that distinctive patina from use. It’s funny how certain items, particularly kitchen equipment, spark tender memories and are part of our heritage, whether we realize it or not. What’s in your kitchen – or house – that best tells your family’s story?

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The colander. Or is it a deep fry basket?

Like many Italians, Granny was a fantastic cook. I don’t ever remember her using a cookbook. She was a whiz in the kitchen and my mother’s right hand at holidays into her 90s. She was industrious, a whirling dervish who lived to feed us. I never saw her sitting down doing nothing. That just wasn’t in her DNA.

She worked as a seamstress in New York City before marriage, and loved fashion. Her prize piece was a hand-stitched sequined gown that she let my older sister wear once. She loved Macy’s, but sometimes got so excited that she’d hyperventilate and have to run out of the store. When she found something she really liked, she’d call it a “honey.”

When we were little, she’d take us to stay overnight at her house on Avenue M in Brooklyn, N.Y.  I loved Granny’s house, particularly her kitchen with its huge walk-in closet. It’s where she stored her canned and dry goods. It had a long cord with a tiny silver toggle that you pulled to turn on the light. My sisters and I would get in the closet, flick the lights and pretend it was a spaceship.

The house also featured an unheated front alcove that was perfect for storing food and soda before family gatherings. She also stored huge mesh bags of oranges and grapefruits there in the winter. When I was searching for a place to put four huge antipasto platters at Thanksgiving, I thought of Granny’s alcove, and how it would have come in handy.

Some years, Granny took us to the city to get new winter coats. My mother insists this only happened a few times, but it feels like it was a tradition. Maybe anything done in two consecutive years in kid time seems like a tradition. One year, she even bought us fluffy fake fur hats to go with the coats.

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A wool coat and fluffy hat after a trip to Macy’s in NYC. This was shot in the back of our station wagon. I’m leaning on my fluffy hat.

Granny was a clean cook long before the notion came into popular culture. After my grandfather’s heart attack, she watched his diet, cutting out salt and saturated fats. She was so fastidious that she wiped the top of every can before opening it, and then cleaned the inside rim of any gunk with a napkin. She took cooking seriously, donning a hairnet and apron while preparing food – an attention to hygiene and detail that I appreciated even as a child.

Grandpa called her Aunt Tilly and got quite a charge out of her many quirks. She’d drive me crazy asking at breakfast what I wanted for dinner. When both of my parents were sick at Christmas one year, Granny took command of the kitchen. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to make a miserable situation tolerable. I never loved or appreciated her more than that Christmas.

Her name was Rose, and she was thrilled when we turned on the radio in 1970, and she heard Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” for the first time. “Call the station and have them play it again!” she begged. And so we did, dialing up WNHC in New Haven, CT. We may have listened to the song 10 times that day, and I might have thought to myself, “Alright already. Didn’t you ever hear you name in a song before?”

She loved my husband and used to call him my “better half,” which I found slightly annoying. She knew this guy for two years, and suddenly he was my better half? I wondered who came up with that stupid expression. But every time I hear it, which I did the other night in spin class, I think of her.

She was an expert housewife when it mattered. Her house was immaculate. Once when some gunk got on her orange shag carpeting, she got down on her knees with manicure scissors to extract it.  She was equally impeccable in appearance, wearing dresses, stockings and leather shoes. Her only nod to modern fashion was gaucho pants.

She was sharp until the day she died at age 93 in the back seat of my mother’s car. Though friends consoled me by saying she lived a long life, I thought somehow she’d defy the odds and live forever. When someone’s in your life for so long, you start to think they’re immortal.

I’m thrilled that she got to meet my son, saddened that she never met my daughter. But I feel her presence all the time, and know she’s in heaven looking out for me. Deeply religious, she had a special devotion to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations. When I pointed this out, she noted, “No, St. Jude is good for everything.”

One of her best dishes was eggplant parmesan. She advised us to pick up eggplants and choose the lightest ones because they have fewest seeds. I’ve found her method easy and reliable. She also eschewed tomato sauce, using tomato juice (always Sacramento) to keep things light. And though she fried the eggplant, I bake mine in the oven after breading it in gluten-free breadcrumbs to reduce greasiness.

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GRANDMA ROSE’S EGGPLANT PARMIGIANA

(Serves 8)

2 large eggplants, thinly and evenly sliced into rounds

3 eggs (or Eggbeaters)

2 cups almond or skim milk

1 can gluten-free breadcrumbs

1 can spray olive or canola oil

1 tablespoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

1 lb  BelGioioso fresh mozzarella cheese (or your favorite brand), thinly sliced or shredded

1 6-pack tomato juice (Each can is 5.5 ounces), or one large can of tomato juice

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Parchment paper

METHOD

Place two cups of breadcrumbs in a large baking pan and season with garlic salt and salt and pepper. In a separate baking pan or large bowl, beat eggs and slowly whisk in milk.

Soak eggplant slices in the wet mixture, shake off excess, and then dredge in the breadcrumbs, shaking off loose crumbs. Add breadcrumbs to bowl and season as needed. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and place eggplant slices on the paper.  Spray a light coating of olive oil over the top of the eggplant to prevent dryness. Place in 350 oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Drain on paper towels.

In a large baking pan, lightly cover the bottom with a layer of tomato juice. Place one layer of eggplant, drizzle generously with tomato juice and cover eggplant slices with a thin slice of mozzarella cheese. Repeat layering until you have eggplant on the top layer. Pour remaining tomato juice onto top layer and sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes and then remove foil and let bake another 15 minutes or until bubbly and top is brown. Serve immediately.