Winging It

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The Curmudgeon strolls outside Mount Vernon.

I live in a place where people ask me how long it takes to get a half-gallon of milk.

That’s the first thing my father said when he saw my house about 16 years ago. A friend asked the same thing when I waxed on about the joys of living on two wooded acres in suburbia.

We’re five or six minutes from the highway, though it doesn’t seem that way. Once you start climbing the long and winding road lined by stone walls and fields, civilization starts to feel far away. Out here, you need a car to get around, and panic sets in when your battery dies or your car’s in the shop for service.

I’ve got two options for emergency milk runs. The closest convenience store is about a five-minute drive. There’s also a small supermarket about the same distance away. It helps having kind neighbors who lend you butter, eggs or dog food when you run out.

I love living in the boondocks most of the time. But there are times I wish that I lived in a city, and could just walk out the door to get anything I need. There’s a certain joy in opening the door and having everything within walking distance. There’s a certain thrill in being a pedestrian.

I realized this during a brief trip to Old Town Alexandria, VA. Our daughter has started looking at colleges, and a friend suggested staying in the historic city across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. while touring schools.

Unlike most of our quick motel stays off busy commercial strips, we stayed in a red brick  Hampton Inn on historic King Street, which could be one of the most charming streets in the country. Dating back to 1749, the downtown features brick sidewalks, black iron street lights, pastel-painted storefronts and townhouses reminiscent of England and a free trolley to the Potomac River waterfront.

 

Pictured above: the back of Mount Vernon overlooking the Potomac River; some scenes from Old Town Alexandria, and our Mount Vernon ornament.

We planned to sightsee in Washington after our six-hour drive, but reconsidered after checking in. We were exhausted and couldn’t face the car again. Besides, Old Town Alexandria beckoned. It seemed silly to ignore our immediate surroundings, particularly when they were so quaint and appealing.

King Street has over 200 restaurants and shops ranging from the Dust Farm Skateboard Store & Museum and Ethiopian Hand Craft Shop to The Hour, a funky shop specializing in antique bar carts and glassware. In between are a Gap/Banana Republic outlet, Anthropologie, Lily Pulitzer, numerous yoga studios, coffee shops, ice cream parlors and an Orange Theory for good measure.

Seeing all the possibilities just outside the door put me in sensory overload. I suddenly had the feeling you get when you’re starving or really thirsty, but didn’t realize it. I had no idea I’d been craving anything more than sleepy suburbia until I was in a different environment. So this is how the other half lives.

And here’s the thing: we never went to Washington to sightsee. We stayed in Old Town Alexandria for two days, soaking in the sights and flavor of the place. Our car never moved from the parking garage until a spur of the moment trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home overlooking the Potomac.

We decided to make the 20-minute drive on Sunday afternoon because neither I nor the Curmudgeon had ever been there. We failed to remember our visit was smack in the middle of President’s Day Weekend, when Mount Vernon is a mecca for middle school student bus trips.

We spent a good part of our visit trying to stay one step ahead of the boisterous student groups, wondering how we’d ushered two children through that terribly awkward and annoying stage. It was no easy task. The chaperones seemed just as eager to get away from the kids as we were, barely stopping to let them look at various exhibits.

The Curmudgeon is a history buff, the kind of visitor who reads every plaque so he can soak up as much information as possible. I’m more a search and destroy tourist, who likes to take a quick look and then move along.

Our different approaches caused tension at Mount Vernon. In fact, the Curmudgeon and I had a little standoff while waiting to get into George and Martha’s homestead.

The Curmudgeon felt I was too pushy taking my place in line, so he refused to stand next to me for about 20 minutes. I didn’t understand what his problem was. We’d killed about an hour just waiting to get into line for our 2:55 p.m. tour, and I was eager to take my place behind about 300 other people.

I passed the time chatting with a couple and their 10-year-old daughter who were behind me, but ahead of the Curmudgeon. I know they thought we were odd – what married couple refuses to stand together in line? But I thought they were a little strange too. Who doesn’t offer to let a husband join his wife just ahead of them?

I eventually relented and joined the Curmudgeon, listening as guides stationed in various rooms around the 11,000-square-foot estate gave us a brief history. Most striking are the vibrant paint colors in various rooms: teals, greens and blues that make you want to banish your neutral color scheme at home.

Washington envisioned a nation of prosperity and expansion, plastering his ceiling with symbols of agriculture and covering his walls with oil paintings of rivers, the main source of transportation and commerce back then. A sense of hope and promise permeates each room, underscoring how much our homes reveal about our outlook on life.

Though Mount Vernon is most surely a stately and impressive mansion, the rooms are small and modest by today’s standards. About the only evidence of Martha being a tad spoiled was her enormous walk-in closest, which is generous even by today’s standards. She was a bit of a clotheshorse, taking the entire closet for herself and leaving George to stash his clothes in his first-floor study.

Strolling the grounds and touring the mansion reminded me of how hopeful our founding fathers were for this country. An avid farmer, Washington envisioned a country that fed the world with our crops. And though he was offered a lifetime term, he opted to leave office after two terms, keeping only a secretary desk from Philadelphia as a souvenir of his presidency.

Keeping with George’s mindset, we approached the expansive gift shop and began looking for a small souvenir. The Curmudgeon considered a beautiful Mount Vernon Christmas ornament, but put it back when he looked at the price: $22.

As we scanned the shop, a saleswoman in the Christmas section asked us if we needed help.

“Got any bargains?” I asked.

And she did: the official 2012 Mount Vernon Christmas ornament marked down from $18.99 to $3.99. The Curmudgeon was thrilled to escape for less than $5, and I was thrilled to have something to remind me of Mount Vernon.

Best of all, there’s no date on it, so our secret is safe.

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A closeup of our 2012 commemorative ornament. Thankfully, it’s not dated.

Marie, I Love You

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The after photo. For the before, scroll down.

I walked into a friend’s mudroom, and suggested that she use Marie Kondo’s method to organize it.

When I came home, I realized I’ve got a lot of nerve talking to anyone about organization. My mudroom is a disaster, but my pantry is worse. What’s that line about people in glass houses and stones?

Every January, my friend Christi asks me if I have any resolutions, and the top one is always getting my house in order. But I added a little caveat this year: “I’ve been saying the same thing for 15 years, so it’s probably not going to happen. Even I’m getting tired of hearing myself talk about it.”

Enter master organizer Marie Kondo, the greatest thing from Japan to hit American shores since sushi. Though I read her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up a few years ago, it never stuck. I’m not a naturally organized person, though I like things to look neat. This causes internal strife, particularly when your pantry looks like a bomb exploded in it.

But one day while channel surfing, I noticed Tidying Up With Marie on Netflix, and decided to watch a few episodes. Just watching Marie brought about a sense of calm and possibility. A soft-spoken wisp of a young woman, she enters each messy home with curiosity and confidence, assuring homeowners that her method will transform their hovels into homes.

What makes Marie’s show so different is it relies on her KonMari method – not panic or teams of evacuators, carpenters and designers – to transform homes. Unlike shows like Clean Sweep or Trading Spaces, there’s no 48-hour deadline looming, which often instills a sense of panic in everyone, including viewers.

Even cleaning gurus like the Flylady focus on speed cleaning, with things called the 27-fling boogie – which asks you to remove 27 unwanted items as quickly as possible. But the KonMari method is calm and well, methodical. It allows you time to assess, which cleaning under the gun does not.

We live with deadlines every day, and watching people scramble to redecorate or organize their homes often makes me feel anxious. If you’ve been living in clutter for 10 years, what’s the emergency (unless you expect guests, potential buyers or health inspectors)? Marie shows us that slow and steady wins the race, at least when it comes to organizing.

I love when a homeowner tells Marie she can’t wait for her to change her home, and Marie gently raises an eyebrow. “I’m not going to change your home, you are,” she says. “And you can’t do it alone. You need your whole family to get involved for it to work.”

Marie gives homeowners a month or two to complete the process, which includes sifting through clothes, books, kitchen gadgets, paper, toys and junk in the garage. You get the sense that it’s a manageable process, which makes you think you can do it too.

The trick, she says, is deciding which belongings spark joy in you and your family, and keeping those things. Unwanted items are donated or tossed out, depending on their condition. Before letting go, Marie suggests thanking them. That’s the only slightly weird part. I feel dumb telling a shirt that I don’t need it anymore, but thanks for the memories.

To understand the miracle of KonMari, consider my pantry. I had high hopes for it when we renovated our kitchen about eight years ago. We replaced original wire shelving with floor to ceiling wooden shelves to promote organization.

But slowly and steadily, the pantry became the dumping ground for everything, from power tools and Christmas decorations to golf balls and purses. Everybody, including yours truly, tossed things into the pantry. And pretty soon, it looked like this:

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Dumping ground: the pantry before Marie.

I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. And sometimes, you have to admit your shortcomings to make changes. Watching Marie taught me that change is possible if you’re willing face up to your mess instead of shutting the door. Oh, boxes and bins. Along with your willingness to accept change, you need storage boxes to organize your stuff.

Once you start putting things in boxes, you wonder how you ever survived without them. You sort, and then put things into boxes according to category. It’s actually fun, taking the agony out of figuring out where to put things.

I’d be lying if I said it’s an easy process. Clearing a room, sorting and then putting it back together takes time. You won’t finish in a day or even two. And you must be willing to look at displaced items while you figure out where to put them.

Four boxes of stuff sat outside the pantry for about a week until I could face sorting through them. I probably would have shoved them into the garage or basement before the KonMari method. But I was determined to sort through them when I had the time and energy. KonMari taught me that rushing to put stuff away just leads to disorder.

Of course, my pantry still isn’t Pinterest worthy, but it’s organized and we can walk in without the risk of injury. This is such a relief. The other day, the Curmudgeon stepped on a hammer, almost damaging his recently repaired Achille’s tendon. How would we explain that one to his doctor?

I’m not the only one who’s inspired by Marie. Since the show’s New Year’s Day premiere, donations to thrift shops across the country have soared, leading some stores to impose restrictions on how much can be donated. The increase in donations is being attributed to Marie, yet another feather in her cap. I’m starting to believe this woman rules the world.

My daughter called me when she saw the pantry, wondering what came over me.

“Mom, are you OK?” she said. “I saw the pantry, and I’m worried about you.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said. “I just decided to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”

“Are you sure?” she said. “Because this is really organized.”

But I am OK, better than OK, because my pantry is finally organized. Thank you, dear sweet Marie. Now, if this can only last.

 

 

Play On Love

 

Clockwise: NOW Chapter President Cindy Boynton; Maura Murphy; some of us gathered outside the theatre; a look inside, and outside before the show.

I’ve got 24 hours to do something outrageous.

I’m not sure what it will be – suburban life leans toward the safe side of things. But I’m committed. I’ve been assured the world will be a better place if I do one thing today in the name of social justice and activism.

The challenge came at the end of a “talk back” at the conclusion of the play Gloria – A Life in New York City. I attended Saturday’s matinee with about 35 members of NOW’s Connecticut chapter.

The play tells the story of women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, from her heartbreaking childhood caring for her mentally ill mother in Toledo, Ohio, to her rise as editor and co-founder of Ms. magazine in 1971.

Along the way, it traces Gloria’s years at Smith College (about 80 Smith students were at Saturday’s show) and her budding career in journalism, which included “A Bunny’s Tale,” her expose of her 11 days as a Playboy bunny in New York in 1963. Patricia Kalember, who plays Gloria, has done her homework. In addition to being a dead-ringer with her over-sized aviator glasses, streaked hair and slim frame, she embodies Steinem’s attitude and wit.

When she entered the stage in an all black outfit, I did a double take. For a minute, I thought it might be Steinem, who lives in New York, making a cameo. During the talk-back, Kalember clarified Steinem’s position on many subjects, taking exception when an audience member said she hated all men.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say you hate all men. I think you hate what’s happening now,” she said. “Never give up. As Gloria would say, ‘Be a Hopeaholic.'”

I rarely go to New York City or plays, which made this trip a treat. Chapter president Cindy Boynton said she planned the road trip because she loves Steinem, and wants to offer a broad range of activities for NOW members.

“Not everyone wants to march at a women’s rights rally,” said Cindy, who has feminist lectures, knitting circles, happy hours and wellness programs in the works. “Some people want to be involved in NOW in other ways.”

Cindy said she’s offering activities that women feel comfortable attending alone. The vast majority of women attending the play and January’s bus trip to the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., went alone.

I like that NOW is offering these activities because it’s allowing me to break out of my routine and explore things that my husband has no interest in. I invited him to the play – a few men accompanied their wives – but he politely declined. Ordinarily, I might be nervous going my myself, but it’s fun traveling with the NOW group.

Our charter bus dropped us off at the Daryl Roth Theatre, a colorful theater-in-the-round that feels a little like sitting inside a kaleidoscope, and gave us a few hours to grab a bite  before heading home. We opted for Pete’s Tavern, a New York landmark with walls peppered with signed photos of famous guests. We sat under portraits of Soupy Sales, Peter Graves, Claire Danes, Bill Hader and my favorite, Johnny Depp.

I planned to attend the play solo when Cindy told me that there were a few extra tickets. I asked my 17-year-old daughter Maura to go and she agreed to join me. She made it clear that she had no plans of actually conversing with me on the bus, scrambling to find her wireless headphones on Friday night.

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Did you say something? Maura tunes out on the bus.

That was fine with me. As the family’s chief driver, I look forward to these bus trips for chilling out and reading, maybe even looking out the window. One of the most disappointing days of my life was a train trip to NYC with my son when he was nine. I was looking forward to doing nothing while he spent two hours talking non-stop about Pokémon and Digimon. I thought I’d lose my mind.

But spending time with my girl is special because it’s so rare. I still remember my devastation when I asked her to go roller skating a few years ago and she brushed me off.

“Why don’t you just go yourself?” she said.

She likes her space, so much that I often have to remind her that I live in our house too. She finds me annoying, and has no problem telling me how she feels. She often leaves the room as soon as I enter, but texts me from school. I don’t get it.

I’d be offended if I hadn’t gone through the same thing with her 21-year-old brother from age 13 to 19 in one of the world’s longest rebellious stages. He had no use for me, and often let me know it. It’s a good thing I’m not easily offended.

We sat across the aisle on the bus and next to each other in the theater. I gave her the aisle seat and was gratified that she paid attention and got the funny parts of the play.

When I asked her what her favorite scene was, she said: “the crazy Russian lady with the hat.”

“You mean Bella Abzug?” I said. “She was a Jewish Congresswoman from New York.” I can see her assuming Abzug was Russian, but the actor’s Bronx accent was spot on. I don’t know how she confused the two, but I’ll give her credit for singling out Bella. With her trademark hat and outsize personality, she was known as “Battling Bella” and was larger than life.

I smiled throughout the play, maybe channeling the energy of the ensemble cast in the intimate theater. Many audience members were emotional and wept, but I couldn’t stop smiling. Perhaps it was my glee about being in NYC instead of Marie Kondo-ing my pantry back in Guilford.

Or maybe it was my joy about how far women have come under Steinem and other leaders of the women’s movement. I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s when women were burning bras, breaking down barriers in the workplace and championing the sexual revolution.

I attended an all women’s college to further my education – not to grab a ring by spring – and kept my maiden name after I married. Though I insisted it was for professional reasons, it was personal: I didn’t think it was fair that women had to give up their surnames upon marriage. OK, that’s my first sort of outrageous act. I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. I kept my name because I felt like it. And I have Gloria to thank.

I didn’t know any professional women while I was growing up – all of the mothers in my neighborhood left their jobs in their 20s to get married and raise families. But my generation was different, and we aspired for more. Most colleges went co-ed, and friends went to medical, law and graduate schools, and managed to build careers along with

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My daughter had a lot of fun taking photos of me at our early dinner at Pete’s Tavern.

families. A lot changed in about 25 years.

Times were changing very, very quickly. And while there were growing pains along the way, the world is a much different place today than it was when I was born in 1958. Girls are raised to chase their dreams instead of boys. And while many women feel defeated by the current political climate in Washington, Gloria-A Life reminds us just how far we’ve come.

The play made me smile, reminding me that change is possible if you’re patient, persistent and believe. At 84, Gloria hasn’t given up, and neither should we.

 

Running On Empty

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A funny thing happens when you show up for a 5K road race in early February.

You get a knot in your stomach and your heart starts thumping as you pin your number on your chest as if you actually expect to do anything more than finish. You realize that no matter how old you are, we all return to field day when the gun sounds. You know you’re 60, but something inside you thinks you’re 12.

Where is this adrenaline and knot in your stomach coming from?

I was in decent running shape a few years ago, and now I’m not. No matter how much I “train” – and by that I mean jogging with my dog on nearby hiking trails – I can’t get my groove back. I’m slow, and getting slower. I didn’t realize how pathetic I look until I told a fellow dog walker I’m “running” and she said, “Good for you!”

This set off an internal dialog. What did she mean? Does she think I’m too old to run, or should I say shuffle?

I planned to do a 5K on New Year’s Day and couldn’t because I threw my back out playing too much Pickleball. So I set my sights on the IRIS Run for Refugees, a 5K in New Haven, CT., that raises funds for refugee resettlement in Connecticut. I like a good cause, and I couldn’t think of a better one given the debate over Trump and his Wall.

Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way. About 3,000 runners of all shapes and sizes converged at the start line. It was the largest turnout in race history. Even U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal was there, saying he planned to show a photo of us to fellow senators to show some Americans support refugees.

As he addressed the crowd, I looked to my right and saw a 4-year-old girl with bright blue eyes in a jogging stroller. I thought about her, and what this country will be like when she’s an adult. I hope that we’ll have our priorities in order by then, that we’ll have all of this sorted out. But I’m not so sure.

As we took our place in the middle of the pack at the start, I noticed the diversity of the crowd:

  • College kids from Yale University’s Trumbull College wearing Viking hats and carrying a huge flag stood in front of me. Note to self: get away from them as soon as the race starts unless you want to be speared or poked in the eye by the flag.
  • Lots of young moms and dads with jogging strollers, including one behind me. Another note to self: get away from the jogging stroller unless unless you want to be rammed by it or worse, left in its dust.
  • .Lots of people my age or older: Good for us!
  • Tons of kids of all ages: proof that schools and parents are instilling a sense of activism and social justice in the next generation.
  • People of all races and skin colors.

As the race began and we all inched toward the start line, I began listening to “Earth, Wind, & Fire Essentials.” If you want to tell your brain that you’re not old, listen to songs that you danced to at college frat parties. I can’t listen to “That’s the Way of the World” or “September” without feeling 18 again.

The music gave me a kick in my step, and I gleefully pass walkers during the first mile. I’m feeling pretty good until a roar erupts and the leaders pass by in the opposite direction. You’ve got to be kidding me.

I let out a weak cheer and then resume my plod, stopping midway during the second mile to take off my fleece jacket and tie it around my waist. I’m feeling OK until I look up and see a guy pushing a jogging stroller with another kid in a backpack ahead of me. Even a pack mule is outpacing me.

The third mile was ugly. I tried to run . . . and I just couldn’t at times. At one point, I said, “I can’t! I’m gassed” and a young woman turned around and smiled a me. She was walking too, so I guess she understood.

For me, running has always been a solitary thing, something best done alone. I have trouble keeping up a conversation because it always seems like someone asks me a question while we’re approaching a hill. And it’s hard to find exactly the right pace. Someone always wants to go a little faster or slower, making finding your perfect stride impossible.

I don’t enjoy these races for a few reasons. They make me realize how slow I really am. And they bring out a competitive spirit that has no business existing in a body that’s not built for speed. I try not to get annoyed as people go by me, yet I can’t help feeling a little peeved, particularly when people look like they don’t train at all.

But with the finish line (finally) in sight, the adrenaline and resolve returned. I began running again, refusing to stop and walk in front of so many spectators. When a young woman next to me began walking, I looked at her and motioned her to run again, as if to say “Oh no you don’t. You’re finishing strong.”

And she did. She began running and she didn’t stop until we crossed the finish line. I was so proud of her. I realized that sometimes, all we need is a little encouragement to get over the finish line. If I took anything away from the race besides my lousy time, it’s that. Sometimes, the smallest gesture means everything in the world.

My friend Christi greeted me at the finish line with words like, “You did it!” but my time was pathetic, even embarrassing. I’m not even putting it in here. If you’re that curious, look it up online. I promise you will have a good chuckle.

But as the Curmudgeon looked up the race results online, I studied my time. Yes, it was slow, ungodly slow. But I finished 36th in my age group. That’s something, isn’t it? I’ve reached the point where I’m making allowances for my age, cutting myself a break.

I suppose I’ve earned it, and at this point, I’ll take it.