Slacker Time

The Curmudgeon and our lab puppy Lindsey, circa 1996.

The other day, one of my elderly passengers was suffering from a terrible cold.

Turns out that the world’s worst cold had descended upon her living quarters, bringing her and nearly all of the other women who live in her complex to their knees.

As she coughed to show me how sick she was, I promised to make her homemade chicken and kale soup, which is the only thing I ate when I came down with a really bad cold about three years ago. This isn’t to be confused with my “wonton soup” cold last year, when the only thing I could stomach was Chinese dumplings swimming in broth.

“Oh, that sounds terrific,” she said, as we made our way to her doctor’s office. “I can’t wait. When will you be bringing it over?” Gulp.

I hadn’t planned on making it immediately. In fact, I told her that I’d have to go to the store to buy all of the ingredients, including a rotisserie chicken that’s the cornerstone of the recipe. But I suddenly realized that the pressure was on because I’d offered to make it, and now she was expecting it. She was sick as a dog, and needed it now.

I went to the store and got the ingredients later that day. The next morning, I prepared the soup and delivered it to the sick ward, relieved that I was free of my obligation and hoping it would help.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need a deadline to get things done. During my years as a reporter, I’d often leave things until the last minute, scrambling to get things done under the wire.

One of my former co-workers at a chain of weeklies used to call me “Deadline Girl.” And as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I haven’t gotten any better with my time management skills. Things often sound like a good idea when I propose them, but following through is another story.

I bought yards of beautiful fabric for dining room curtains about 10 years ago, and it’s still sitting in my linen closet. I’ve been meaning to hang five pictures that were removed during my kitchen remodel for seven years. And a stock photo of two strangers has remained in an old photo cube for nearly 25 years, occupying space along with my niece and a young Curmudgeon with our first yellow lab.

Who are these people? The stock photo in my old photo cube.

I have no idea why I haven’t inserted my own photo after all this time, but I haven’t. It’s been there so long I almost feel as though I know the people. Have you ever heard a lamer excuse in your life?

One of my father’s favorite expressions – and believe me, he had tons of them – was “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Dating back to the days of Ancient Greece and Plato, it means when the need for something becomes imperative, you’re forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.

It makes me feel slightly better that procrastination (or should I say inertia?) has been plaguing man since ancient times. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m getting worse about accomplishing simple tasks.

I began to make a Thanksgiving invitation with Punchbowl, but didn’t complete it because I didn’t have all of my contacts and my iPhone ran out of juice. Even Punchbowl is baffled, sending me the following emails: “Only two more steps to complete your invitations” and today: “Where did you go?” (Good question)

The other day, a friend and I stopped into a farm market to buy apples to make pies. My friend made her crust the next day and assembled her pie, proudly handing me a slice to sample. She asked about my pie, but I had no words. How do you tell someone you haven’t gotten around to peeling and cutting six apples yet?

It’s been five days and my apples are still sitting in the refrigerator along with two frozen gluten-free pie shells that have now defrosted. If I don’t make the pie soon, I’ll need new apples and shells. But this is how I operate. Without a deadline or an elderly woman asking when I’m going to produce the goods, I’m lost.

I have friends who are organized and use every moment to their advantage, and I’m in awe of their accomplishments and time management skills. One woman, my sister’s neighbor Nancy, uses rainy days to make batches of banana bread made from ripe bananas she stores in her freezer. Her Thanksgiving table is always set the day before the holiday, just about the time I’m beginning to wonder where my tablecloths are.

I’d love to be that organized, but it’s not going to happen. Which brings to mind another of my Dad’s favorite expressions: “Know thyself.”

Panza Presenza

Someone in Italy is reading my blog.

When my stats popped up on WordPress.com, the boot of Italy was illuminated like a Christmas tree. This would be exceptionally thrilling except that it’s my sister and her family, who are visiting the motherland on vacation.

Though I’ve got about as much Irish in me as Italian, I consider myself Italian American because my father’s family came from Sicily. I don’t know if all families lean toward the father’s side in terms of traditions and heritage, but that’s how my family rolled. I guess it’s inevitable when your last name is Milazzo.

About the only sign of my mother’s Irish roots was a crest on a blue and gold tapestry hanging in our finished basement. I don’t know why it was relegated to the basement, but one day it appeared on a dark paneled wall across from the bar and has hung in the same spot for 50 years.

I never asked my mother about the crest, which represents the county where both of her grandmothers were born, until now. She said she bought it from another doctor’s wife who was from Ireland and hosted an art show. She bought the tapestry and two framed prints to help my Dad decorate the basement, which he finished himself.

Aside from the tapestry, there are no other obvious signs of being Irish in the house. There is no Old Irish Blessing hanging on the wall,, nor Celtic crosses, Irish kitchen prayers or anything with shamrocks on it. (The Irish blessing is on an old liquor bottle behind the bar, but I never knew it was there until Mom showed it to me. I don’t think it counts since no one ever knew it was there.)

Mom’s Irish tapestry.
Mom shows me an old liquor bottle containing the Old Irish prayer (below).
I love the Old Irish Blessing.

This is a little sad because the Irish are such a welcoming, friendly and festive bunch, as I learned when I married into a family named Murphy.

Both of the Curmudgeon’s parents were Irish, which made it easy for them to celebrate their Irish heritage and they did – with bells on. My father-in-law was the consummate host, filling our wine glasses before they were empty at dinners. Champagne began flowing at 9 o’clock Christmas morning, tingling our toes as we opened our gifts and requiring a power nap before we gathered for Christmas dinner.

But it’s tougher when parents come from different ethnic backgrounds because families must choose which traditions to keep alive. I guess it’s a little like when parents of two different religions marry and must decide how to raise their child. More often than not, they must choose one religion because it’s practical and less confusing for the child.

I don’t know why Italian won over Irish – perhaps it’s an outgrowth of our paternalistic society and a surname that came straight from a town in Sicily – but we were raised to think and conduct ourselves as Italian American women.

One of the first rules is good manners, and always having more than enough food to eat. If you have just enough food or wine, you risk running out and embarrassing yourself. And let’s face it, no Italian American hostess with any sense of pride wants to do that.

One night while growing up, my mother ran out of veal cutlets at a weeknight dinner. We’d all finished our meals, so the empty platter meant that there wouldn’t be leftovers for sandwiches the next day (seriously, a huge blessing. Finding a cold veal cutlet between two slices of bread in your lunch bag is the biggest disappointment in the word).

When my father saw the empty platter, he turned to my mother and said, “I guess I’m not giving you enough money for meat.” My mom looked rightfully hurt and annoyed because she had prepared enough cutlets. But this is how it with Italian Americans. You may not want or eat the leftovers, but you want to know they’re there.

Another rule is cleaning the house for company. I don’t mean picking up and a light vacuuming. I mean a full-on deep cleaning including wall, baseboard and floor scrubbing, upholstery cleaning, polishing furniture, wiping down windows and dusting door and window jams. Above all, the bathroom must be immaculate.

One of my mother’s biggest pet peeves with my father was his insistence on cleaning doorknobs and light switches before guests arrived. “There’s so much to do around here and he’s polishing doorknobs,” she’d say. It kind of became our catch-all expression for people doing minor work when major jobs loomed.

The other major rule for Italian American queens is never to show up at someone’s house empty-handed. In our house, we referred to people who committed this faux pas as showing up panza presenza. I don’t know if this is the correct translation, but in our house it meant presenting yourself with your empty stomach.

Huh? Here’s an example:

You’re hosting a party. Most guests bring food, wine, flowers or other hostess gifts, but someone shows up with only a smile. The next day, her (and it is always her, not his) oversight is duly noted.

“Can you believe she showed up panza presenza? someone asks. “No, I really can’t. She couldn’t have picked up a few pastries on her way over here? Like we’re all not busy? Who does she think she is coming over here empty-handed?”

Showing up with something is deeply ingrained in my psyche. The other day, we were visiting relatives, who were hosting us for an overnight stay. As we sat in the car waiting for the ferry, I turned to the Curmudgeon and said, “We’ve got to bring something. I can’t show up panza presenza. It’s bad form.”

So we trotted over to a bakery and bought a blueberry pie. It wasn’t much, but it was something. At least we didn’t show up on their doorstep with just two growling stomachs looking to be fed. You want people to feed you because they want to, not because you’re ravenous. (And incidentally, you never show up at someone’s house starving. That’s bad form too.)

I’ve never been to Italy, but I hope to change that next summer. Both kids are graduating from their respective schools, and we’re thinking of going over to see the old country. It’s too early for a non-planner like me to think about, but I’ve already have one prospective stop.

While writing this piece, I stumbled across a restaurant in Sicily on the web called Panza E Presenza. It’s located in none other than Milazzo. Coincidence? You tell me.

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Broken Vows

A man, his paper and juice.

It was an innocent question.

“Do you need anything at the grocery store?”

So I was a little taken aback when the Curmudgeon fired back with this response dripping in sarcasm:

“Orange juice. I mean, could we get some orange juice in this house?”

To be fair, my daughter drinks orange juice like water, and my son was home from college, putting an enormous strain on the food supply. But I’d never heard him complain about orange juice, and was surprised by his tone.

So I asked him about the orange juice, and here’s what I got:

“Orange juice is part of the trust,” he said. “It’s expected that you’re going to always have milk, juice, butter and eggs in the refrigerator. Why wouldn’t you buy orange juice if you’re at the store?”

This was the first time in 36 years of marriage that I’d ever heard the words OJ and trust in the same sentence. I had no idea specific food and beverages were part of the marriage contract. I had no idea I was breaking a sacred trust by failing to supply orange juice on a daily basis.

But that’s what great about marriage. You’re always learning something new, even when you least expect it.

It didn’t start out this way. At one point, the Curmudgeon was a prodigious grocery shopper, slipping into to the store after jogging at night, or bringing the kids to basketball games on Saturdays.

But the Curmudgeon has pretty much retired from grocery shopping, except for the occasional dash for doggie yogurt, fat-free chocolate milk, beer or butter and eggs, which we can’t keep around with a teen-age baker under our roof.

His retreat from the grocery store was subtle yet steady and deliberate, much like a woman extracting herself from a toxic friendship. It was clear that he was no longer interested in grocery runs, but no words were spoken. He just stopped going to the store and I picked up the slack.

This seems to be how most household chores are ultimately divided between spouses – the war of attrition. One day, you turn around and realize that you’re doing the grocery shopping, housework and bulk of the child-rearing, though that’s not exactly how you envisioned it at the pre-Cana conference.

I admire women who assign weekly grocery shopping to their husbands. They’re my heroes, and I’d like to talk to them about their power of persuasion someday. But the majority of American women – a whopping 70 percent – are still the primary grocery shoppers for their families, according to a survey by Progressive Shopper.

“Although women’s personal and professional advancements have grown significantly in recent decades, their time spent grocery shopping has not decreased,” the study states.

Women also are the “rulers of the kitchen” (no surprise here). According to the report, 84 percent of women are the sole preparer of meals in the household, with 61 percent of women stating that they prepare meals at least five times per week.

Aside from meal preparation and grocery shopping, women also are responsible for other important household areas: seven in 10 women said cleaning the house is their job, while three-fifths said they take on the majority of the laundry chores in the home.

Seriously? This isn’t fair. No wonder women are so stressed out, exhausted, angry and in need of self-care. We’re doing everything around the house except taking out the garbage and putting salt in the well. I think all of us need to stand up for ourselves a little more.

I had no idea how much I dread grocery shopping until I returned from vacation last summer. I was still in “re-entry mode” – that weird state when you just return from vacation but feel and want to be still away – and a major grocery shop loomed.

The thought of going to my regular supermarket was overwhelming, so I drove 15 minutes to another store in a different town. I associated grocery shopping with being home and back in my routine, and I wanted no part of it. And though I’ve returned to my regular store dozens of times since then, I dread it. Every. Single. Time.

My worst recent experience occurred on senior citizens’ Tuesday when I was nearly run down by an elderly woman in a riding shopping cart. As she cruised the aisles, she had her husband on speaker phone, barking orders from home for specific food items. They were too lazy to write out a list, so she decided to call him and inflict their conversation on the entire store.

I wouldn’t have minded, except that she wasn’t watching where she was going while she drove the cart. She was completely oblivious to everyone else, and nearly drove into me in the dairy section as I was headed to get – you guessed it – the orange juice.