Hey Gourdgeous

Three gourds drawn by my sister-in-law Ann.

I’ve got a little thing with gourds this year.

I’m not sure why, but I can’t get enough of the gnarled, twisted, lumpy, misshapen and in some cases downright hideous-looking symbols of fall lining shelves at supermarkets, garden centers and farm stands.

They’re in my window boxes, nestled between the fading miniature mums and decorative cabbage. They’re on my countertops, holding court in white ceramic bowls and baskets. And they’re on the kitchen table, peeking out of the box holding the salt and pepper, condiments, napkins and sauce packets from the Chinese place.

I should have suspected things were a little off when I texted the following to my friend (and fellow gourd fan) Barbara on Sept. 23rd:

“The farm stand near your house has phenomenal pumpkins and gourds this year.”

I never heard back from her, which was unusual, so I checked the number. I actually sent that text to a stranger, who’s probably wondering what constitutes a phenomenal gourd and why anyone would actually care.

I was equally smitten when my sister-in-law Ann drew three gourds and posted her work on Instagram (#annsarthabit).

“Very cool gourds,” I wrote.

I’m not sure when this love affair (obsession?) with gourds began, but I think it may be a function of age. I never cared about them when I was younger, wondering who’d spend good money on nature’s ugliest bounty. But I’m fascinated with gourds now, realizing they’re Mother Nature’s version of the troll – so ugly that they’re cute and endearing.

Perhaps as we age and become a little lumpier and bumpier ourselves, we develop a soft spot in our hearts for things that are less than perfect. How else do you explain buying a gourd covered in bumps that at certain angles, looks like the surface of the moon?

Gourd close-up.
Moon close-up.

Last year, I stacked several large gourds as part of an autumn display in my memorial garden for my first Lab Lindsey in my front yard. But I’ve been slow to bite the bullet on big gourds this year, mainly because I’ve lacked the time to leisurely gourd shop.

I don’t just want to grab any old gourds on the run. I want time to study them, to decide whether I really want an orange one that looks like it has Elephant Man’s disease or a white one resembling a human brain. Unlike pumpkins, gourds require a bit of deliberation. You must decide whether the lumps and bumps are endearing, or simply too hideous to bear. And because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s probably best to gourd shop alone.

I learned this last weekend at my favorite farm stand, when a teen-age girl ran up to a length of tables holding hundreds of gourds, picked up a small yellow one shaped like a pear and said, “Can we get this one Mom? Puleeze?”

I stared at the mom, hoping she’d say yes. It was such a simple request. It wasn’t a $400 Apple watch, a $1,000 MacBook Air or even a $5 gourmet cupcake from the overpriced Italian bakery down the street. It was a tiny gourd being sold for $1.49/pound.

The mom looked at me waiting for her response. And when she nodded and said it was OK to buy, we smiled at each other. At that moment, we both understood that in the grand scheme of things, a daughter’s request for a pale yellow gourd was a simple wish, and that others wouldn’t always be so simple, cheap or attainable.

My furtive bounty.
Small gourds in autumn hues.

Of course, not everyone appreciates gourds. I was hoping the Curmudgeon would heave some heavy gourds into a wagon and the car for me, but he brushed off my request to buy big gourds.

“Big gourds are dumb,” he muttered, as a couple of young women spirited by with a wagon full of huge gourds. “I bought you a nice pumpkin, and five small gourds. Why do you need big gourds too?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell the Curmudgeon that no one needs gourds, but people want them because they like them around. People have been cultivating gourds for 5,000 years to use for everything from drinking vessels to weapons, so I have humanity and its survival on my side. I’m not the first and certainly the last person to want big gourds.

So I returned to the farm stand on my own, and heaved two big gourds and a 20-pound Hubbard squash into my wagon. I have no idea where I’m putting them, but that’s not the point. I finally put in the time and effort to get the gourds I want. And right now, that’s enough for me.

Open Interview

When my son first went away to school five years ago, I became obsessed with getting a job.

Being out of the job market for nearly 20 years – and 56 years old – weren’t exactly strong selling points, but I applied to dozens of jobs on Indeed.com for everything from a writer to a brand ambassador for Kind bars.

Many of the jobs were below my experience level or pay grade, but you commit employment hari kari when you stay home with kids. Employers think you’re a brain-dead ditz who spent her days watching TV and eating bonbons (which is not to say this never happened. It might have. That’s all I’ll say on that subject).

They also assume that you’re out of touch with the working world, particularly computers and technology. They’d much rather hire a kid fresh out of school with magic thumbs than somone who started out on clunky VDTs (video display terminals) in 1981.

I never got one interview from Indeed, and began to wonder if anyone did. That is until I applied for a writing job and was invited to an “open interview” in a public library about an hour’s drive away. In the application, we were encouraged to show our writing chops, so I wrote what I thought was an amusing cover letter.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I got the email to come in for an interview, relieved that someone finally appreciated my sense of humor.

I was happy until I opened the company’s Facebook page and saw that they invited the public to the open interviews at the library. The slight kick I had in my step vanished when the library posted a “job fair” sign in the lobby inviting everyone to the open interviews too.

So much for my writing chops.

I called up the Curmudgeon and told him that I wasn’t going to bother going to the open interview, which we both joked sounded like an “open marriage.” But he quickly turned into my father, ordering me to go. By the way, he’d never do this to either of our kids. He is such a pushover when it comes to them.

“I think you should go,” he said. “You are too much in your shell. You’ve got to get out and explore. If you don’t like what they have to offer, just go home and walk the dog.”

He may be right. Staying home eliminates the need to get dressed up or put on make-up on a daily basis. One of the things I enjoyed most about working is that it kept me honest. It forced me to get dressed up, do my hair and make-up and generally look presentable every day.

I can’t say this has always been true as a stay-at-home mom. I’ve let some things go. In fact, I’ve often felt the need to apologize when walking into Ulta, where employees often look up and probably think: “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

So I looked at this interview as a chance to regain my edge, or some semblance of it.

I dressed in business casual: a new silky blouse from the Loft, a black skirt, black tights and black ankle boots that I hoped would make me look a little younger and hip than I am. I took my seat among three other job candidates, including a young girl sitting with her grandmother.

“This is my first job interview,” she said.

“Oh, did you just graduate from school?” I asked.

“No, I’m actually still in school,” she said.

“Oh, what college?” I asked.

“Well, no, it’s high school. I’m a junior in high school.”

So there it was: I was vying for a writing job against a high school junior, who also applied on Indeed.com and was invited to the open interview. Another applicant was a journalism major at Central Connecticut State University, though blessedly she appeared to be at least 20.

After waiting for about an hour, I was invited into a meeting room and told by my prospective boss that this would be a “speed interview,” which I assume is akin to speed dating. But as I sat there and answered a few questions, I began to wonder about the “open interview” process.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to sift through applications and narrow down the applicant pool instead of hosting a cattle call? And how much can you really learn about someone and their abilities in five or 10 minutes? I think an “open interview” is a useless step, particularly after learning that serious candidates would have to return for a second interview.

But that’s just me. I’m old-fashioned like that. Which is probably why I’ll continue to write my blog and leave this writing job to the high school junior. (By the way, I’m pulling for her to get the job. Can you imagine how good it would look on her college application?)

One of the many pitfalls of getting older is an unwillingness to do things or perform tasks that you were willing to do in your youth to get ahead and advance your career. As you age, you get a lot more picky about how and with whom you spend your time. And at the end of the day, you realize time is a lot more valuable than money.

I’ve learned that I don’t like open interviews, so I’ll probably never subject myself to another one. I’ve learned to embrace my part-time job, which allows me the time and freedom to explore and express myself.

But mostly, I did what the Curmudgeon asked of me. I showed up, and gave it my best shot. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dog to walk.

Uber Baby Steps

I’m not a social media influencer.

But I can take credit for encouraging one stay-at-home mother to become an Uber driver after reading my recent blog post about signing up to drive. And after two weeks of hemming and hawing, I finally opened the Uber app and drove my first passenger, earning a whopping $4.

I’d probably still be on the fence had it not been for my new Uber comrade, who texted and called me after she signed up. She wanted to discuss her first two rides, and I had to confess I hadn’t opened the Uber app yet.

While I was sitting home mulling the whole thing over, she was hitting the road in her SUV, shepherding a high school student to his mom’s house in a neighboring town, and bringing a teen-ager to work at a nearby shopping center.

Listening to her talk, I found myself jealous about her spirit of adventure and willingness to try new things. And though she complained about the pay, I reminded her that she provided a service to two kids who really needed it.

I had to remind myself that this was my idea, and I needed to get with the program if I ever planned to drive with Uber. I went to Dino’s Car Wash and shelled out $29 for the MVP package, which included a wipe down of my dusty dashboard. I was just returning home in my immaculate car when my Uber app jingled.

The sound is something like a slot machine when you hit the jackpot. Hearing the sound makes you think you’ve won something, and you actually have: a chance to rake in a couple of dollars shuttling people around. It’s kind of the same feeling when you hear the CoinStar machine at the supermarket. The sound of coins in a machine is exciting and invigorating, even if it’s just someone’s jar of old pennies being counted.

Once you’re pinged, you have about a second to decide if you’ll take it. If you hesitate, you’re out of luck. But don’t worry. I was constantly reminded that I was in a “busy” area and ride requests would be flowing in at any minute.

My children tell me all the time that I’m “technology challenged” and I can’t argue with them. When the Uber app went off, I had no idea what I was looking at, but decided to accept the request from a rider named Cody. As I drove over to Cody’s house, I realized that I had no idea where he wanted to go and just hoped it wasn’t Bradley International Airport or New York City. I had no time for a long drive, so I hoped that Cody was staying local.

And he was: a recent high school graduate who hasn’t gotten his driver’s license yet, he needed a lift to his job at Shop Rite supermarket, where he works as a cashier. Cody doesn’t live on or near a bus line, and his parents encouraged him to use Uber so they don’t have to cart him around all the time. He said all of his experiences have been positive (at least up until our ride).

I told Cody that he was my first-ever Uber rider, and he seemed honored. I wished that I had flashing lights like they do on the show “Cash Cab”or a cupcake to mark the event, but alas I did not. What I did have was a captive audience in Cody. The kid is proof that today’s teen-agers can carry on a conversation if given a chance.

Cody is working at the supermarket to save money to attend school to learn how to be an auto mechanic. Though many of his high school classmates are now away at college, he said some of his friends work with him at the supermarket.

He said most of the customers he encounters are nice, but noted their moods tend to shift with the weather. Show him a stormy, grey day and customers are likely to be a foul mood, he said. But he said overall his expeience as a cashier has been positive. This was such a relief for me. I’d hate to have people being mean to Cody because he’s such a nice kid.

After I dropped off Cody at the store, I realized that I hadn’t swiped and officially launched my Uber route. I immediately texted my Uber guru Shali, noting “I just did my first ride, and I want to make sure I get the $4 I deserve coming to me.”

She told me not to worry, that it had been logged and I’d be paid. And then she reminded me that I still hadn’t entered my bank account information, which is needed if I expect to get paid.

Will I do it again? Sure, why not? I have the time, and I really like the concept of Uber, which is built on trust between driver and passenger. Besides, I’m not sure any other stay at home mothers have signed up, meaning my comrade and I now own this town.

A Teaching Gem

Karen Mooney

It’s college admission time for my daughter, so she asked if I’d like to read her essay.

But before she showed it to me, she issued a warning: “We had to write about the most influential person in our life and it’s not you. I hope you’re not too insulted because I know how competitive you are.”

As parents who spent the bulk of our time raising our children to the age of majority, we assume we played a major role in their development and success, and deserve a mention in a college essay. But if it couldn’t be me, I’m happy that it was my daughter’s middle school special education teacher Karen Mooney, who taught her the importance of self-advocacy.

On the final day of school in eighth grade, Mrs. Mooney told her that she’d have to stand up and fight for herself to succeed in high school. She was the first teacher who believed in her, and taught her to believe in herself. I think that’s the greatest gift a teacher can give to a student. And if you’re really lucky, you had a teacher like Mrs. Mooney along the way.

My “Mrs. Mooney” didn’t come until I was in college taking a literary journalism class from Robert Taylor, who wrote for the Boston Globe. Mr. Taylor gave me high marks on everything I wrote, making me think that I had a shot in journalism. He’s the reason I did an internship at the Hartford Courant during my senior year, and applied to dozens of newspapers as a new college graduate.

I had lofty dreams of working for a major metro right after college, but was brought down to earth when I got rejection letters telling me I’d need five years of experience to be considered. So I slogged away a small dailies and weeklies, happy to be paid doing something I loved. I’m not sure I’d have taken that path had it not been for Mr. Taylor, who shaped the course of my life.

But back to Mrs. Mooney.

Anyone who’s ever had a child in special education knows that it can be very trying, both for the child and parents. You want your child to get the help she needs, but worry that she’s alienated from peers in “typical” classrooms. You understand the need for a special ed classroom, but worry that it’s its own kind of prison.

This feeling can be worsened by teachers who pigeonhole students, assuming every child has the same learning disabilities and adopting a uniform teaching strategy. One of my daughter’s teachers was guilty of this, making our experience in 5th and 6th grades a nightmare.

We eventually hired two education consultants to help us navigate the system, but I worried about parents who didn’t have the funds or wherewithal to advocate for their children. Did they just accept what they were told because they didn’t have any other options? It bothered me that only financially capable people were able to afford most advocates, who charge $100 an hour for their services.

Happily, things changed when my daughter got to 7th grade. Instead of being negative and limiting like her previous teacher, Mrs. Mooney was upbeat and funny, and always made me feel optimistic about my daughter and her future. She viewed each child as an individual, with her own set of challenges and goals.

Instead of an adversarial approach to parents, Mrs. Mooney made me feel like we were all on the same team and wanted the same thing: for students to reach their full potential. During a recent visit at the middle school, she noted keeping a positive attitude is often difficult for kids in special ed, because they’ve usually had their share of failure and disappointment by the time they reach 7th grade.

“Some kids are so discouraged they just say, ‘why should I bother?'” she said. “But things are always possible if you keep an open mind. The biggest advice I give parents is you know your child better than anyone else, so don’t let anyone say they can’t do something if you believe in your heart they can.”

An educator for nearly 35 years, Mrs. Mooney is currently in her 29th year teaching at the middle school. She admits that she’s the elder statesmen among teachers, but said she has no plans to retire. She mentors new teachers, emphasizing the importance of building strong connections between students, parents and teachers.

“If you don’t have that relationship, nothing is going to work,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is all about the kids.”

In her brief profile on the district website, Mrs. Mooney notes that she knew in high school that she wanted to be a teacher.

“I have always thought that every child can learn,” she states. “With guidance, patience, encouragement and exposure to a variety of materials and experiences, every child can succeed to the best of their ability.”

Last year, my daughter visited Mrs. Mooney at the middle school. I didn’t know what they talked about. Mrs. Mooney said that she came to thank her for encouraging her to stand up for herself. I also thanked her during my visit to the school the other day. Teachers always hear from parents when they do something wrong, so I wanted her to know she played a major role in my daughter’s success in high school.

Mrs. Mooney encouraged self-advocacy, putting students rather than parents in charge of their education. This is unusual in the arena of special education, where parents often feel over-protective and that they must fight the system for their kids.

An educator reminded me why this is so: schools are on the defensive with any child with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) because of the fear of a lawsuit if they fail to provide services. I get it, but feeling like you’re constantly bucking heads is the last thing parents want when they meet with school officials. And I’ll admit it, I lost it on more than one occasion at these meetings.

This is why Mrs. Mooney is such a breath of fresh air. Instead of bureaucracy and red tape, there was care, concern and encouragement. We were lucky, very lucky, that she crossed our path when she did. I just wish every family was as fortunate.