A Reason to Live

Matt Laufer at the opening of his art show at the Discovery Museum & Planetarium in Bridgeport, CT. One of his creations, which he paints with a paintbrush held by his teeth, hangs behind him.

If you’re in need of a little hope and inspiration, take a look at Matt Laufer.

Matt, who suffers from acute respiratory failure as a result of a spinal cord injury nearly 16 years ago, survived 11 cardiac arrests last year. It was during one of those near-death experiences that he found a reason to live: to paint and give others hope through his artwork.

Matt took center stage during the opening of his exhibit April 7th at the Discovery Museum & Planetarium in Bridgeport, CT. As he beamed and held court, visitors studied his paintings ranging from cheery giraffes and elephants to colorful scenics and abstracts.

Woods
Beach Life

Museum officials say Matt’s opening is the largest in history at the Park Avenue venue. That didn’t surprise his mom Jane, who admitted she invited everyone she knew to the opening.

Along with his paintings, some of Matt’s poetry hung on the gallery walls. It shed light on his struggle to come to terms with his devastating injury, which occurred when he was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 95 in May 2003. Along with the physical paralysis came emotional devastation. His injury and wheelchair confinement left Matt severely depressed, anxious and reclusive.

One of Matt’s poems.

“He wasn’t ready to die,” said Jane, who was my high school classmate at Lauralton Hall in Milford, CT. “When he was crossing over to the other side, he realized that he wanted to fight. He has his purpose in life now.”

Matt’s latest chapter shows that even when things seem their most grim, there is hope. It also shows the strength of the human spirit, and that it’s never too late to find your purpose. After battling for his life, Matt emerged with a fierce determination to create. He’s loved art since his teens, but had to teach himself to paint using his mouth.

Using paint and a brush held with his teeth, Matt uses paint to express emotions that otherwise would be bottled up. His paintings reflect a range of human emotion, from happiness and whimsy to darkness and brooding.


Green Grass

Coming so close to death convinced Matt that he needed to take better care of himself too. He put on weight, and got a tracheal tube inserted that’s used at night to help him breathe. He’s back to living on his own with the help of a team of full-time nurses. His parents recently relocated to Tennessee, where Jane has found a job.

I get a lot of invitations to attend events via Facebook. But Jane’s invite caught my eye because the last I’d heard, Matt was in the final stages of acute respiratory failure. Jane left her job as a registered nurse, shuttered her fledgling clothing business and moved into his house to care for him full-time. It was clear his deteriorating condition were taking a huge emotional and financial toll on Jane and her family.

I even asked for her input writing a piece for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women about a proposed family leave bill. Jane graciously shared her story with me. http://now-ct.org/?s=jane+laufer

So it was with a mixture of delight and curiosity that I read the invitation about Matt’s opening. Along with the invite was a short video clip of Matt painting – with a paintbrush clenched in his teeth. I’d read books about paralyzed artists who paint this way, but had never seen their work in person.

I wanted to see Matt and his work because in a way, he’s a miracle. A year ago, he was at death’s door. Today, he is vibrant and alive, with a sparkle in his eyes, fans waiting in line to meet him and dozens of paintings to his credit.

Matt’s mother Jane Laufer, right, greets one of hundreds of visitors at his opening.

I tracked down Jane sitting with one of Matt’s full-time aides in an adjacent room away from the fray. She seemed surprised to see me. But if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s the importance of showing up. I’ve also learned that it’s incredibly important to support artists because often positive feedback is the only thing that keeps them going.

I go to plays, recitals, band concerts and business grand openings of people I know because I know what it’s like to put yourself and your work out there for public consumption. Sometimes, a positive word or an unexpected laugh from the audience is all you need to keep going.

But I also went because I wanted to support Jane and her love and devotion to her son. I first met Jane when we were both 14 and freshman at Lauralton Hall, where we strolled the halls in blue jumpers, bobby socks and saddle shoes. We were among a class of 90 at the all-girls private Catholic high school.

I’d seen Jane about five years ago – or was it 7? – at our last high school reunion. With her trademark red hair and sparkling blue eyes, she was as bubbly and effervescent as I’d remembered her in high school. She was a popular girl and cheered for our “brother” school Fairfield Prep, but was always down to the earth and friendly to everyone.

On our graduation day in June, 1976, we sang Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The song came on the radio last week as I drove home and I found myself singing along. We had to memorize the words back in high school, and they came back to me – for the most part.

Particularly striking: “Your time has come to shine/all your dreams are on their way.” The song reminded me of Jane and my classmates and how much promise the future holds when you’re 18. Your whole life is in front of you and full of possibility. You have no idea that broken dreams or tragedy could be part of the mix too.

And though my high school days were far from perfect, hearing that song sealed the deal. I was going to Matt’s opening, if for no other reason than to support an artist who has found his way, and the mother who never left his side.

Matt delights in greeting visitors, who stood in line for a chance to meet him.

My Netflix Fix

I gave up some things for Lent, but I replaced them with Netflix.

A few weeks ago my friend Barbara sent me an article about Lent, figuring I might want to blog about it.

Nothing really came to mind. As in most years, I’ve given up unhealthy between meal snacks like potato chips and desserts like ice cream. Cape Cod potato chips are my downfall. I don’t realize how much until Lent rolls around and there are none in the house.

Giving up things during Lent is good because it teaches us to do without for 40 days in hopes of growing closer to God. And though I’m also trying to do more for others and go to confession – the Curmudgeon suggested that I ask the priest for a two-hour time block to cover all my sins – Lent wouldn’t seem the same without giving up a few indulgences.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until I realized that I’d replaced my Lenten sacrifices with a new vice: Netflix. Over the past few weeks, I’ve binge-watched at least a half-dozen Netflix shows ranging from Turn Up Charlie and Friends from College to my current addiction, Nurse Jackie.

Over the past two weeks – OK, let’s be honest one week – I’ve consumed seven seasons of the show starring Edie Falco as a drug-addicted emergency room nurse. At my most depraved, I sat through six 25-minute shows in a row, watching expectantly as the seconds ticked down to the next episode.

I’m watching in horror as a woman battles an enormous addiction problem when in truth I’m addicted to the show. I know it’s not how I should be spending my time – anything would be more productive – yet I sit as one episode turns into six.

I need to get through this series and find out what happens so I can get to pressing business like cleaning my house and dealing with a name change on my social security card (long story). I even thought about skipping four episodes so I could watch the finale and be done with it. (I finally finished it yesterday. Spoiler alert: the end is somewhat disappointing.)

I’m not sure why binge-watching Netflix is so addictive, but I think part of it is the ability to watch a series from beginning to end in a compacted period of time without commercials. Netflix makes it so easy. As the closing credits roll, a preview of the next episode appears and well, what’s another 25 minutes of your time?

It all seems so harmless until you do a little research and realize that binge-watching is actually a form of addiction. Studies show that the same brain pathways that cause drug and sex addiction are also involved binge-watching shows. This, of course, is no real surprise. By now, we know that anything pleasurable usually has consequences.

I know a lot of people who’ve backed away from social media because it’s an enormous time sucker, but not so much about people cutting back on Netflix. In fact, newspapers like the New York Times even compile lists of the 10 most binge-worthy shows. Most of the time, I’ve never heard of any of the shows. I’m so out of the loop when it comes to hip shows, which may explain why I’m just getting around to Nurse Jackie.

I didn’t start out to be a binge watcher, but I’m not sure anyone sits down and consciously decides to waste half a day watching a series that ended in 2015. Like many other bingers, I was initially drawn to Netflix because most network TV shows don’t interest me.

I watch so little network TV that I don’t know when most shows are on. I can go three or four weeks before I realize that I’ve missed a few episodes of This Is Us. I know that I can watch it whenever I want, so there’s no need to park myself in front of the TV at 9 p.m. Tuesdays.

Years ago, I structured my weeknights around my favorite TV shows because that was the only way to watch them. I associated different nights with certain shows – Dallas was Friday night, Cheers and Seinfeld were on Thursday and Melrose Place on Tuesday – and planned my evening around them.

But being tied to a TV schedule is no longer necessary with On Demand, Netflix and other streaming services. You can watch what you want when you want, and for some of us that’s not a good thing. Some of us have a tiny problem with self control, and knowing when it’s time to step away from the screen.

I met a nice woman last weekend who confessed to holing herself up with her husband in her New York City apartment for an entire weekend watching Breaking Bad – a show I’ve never watched. What I’ve learned is that a binge is very personal: what’s binge-worthy to one person seems a stupendous waste of time to another.

I suspect part of binge-watching is an outgrowth of our desire for immediate gratification these days. Why devote a whole season watching something when you can gobble it up within a week? Still, there’s not a whole lot of time for other things during a binge. Minutes turn into hours, and pretty soon you’ve missed your window to walk the dog or catch up with your spouse.

They say that one of the first things steps of recovery is recognizing that you’ve got a problem, and I do. I don’t feel particularly happy or satisfied when my binging is over, and like too much food or drink, too much TV isn’t good for the mind, body or spirit.

So I’m adding Netflix binging to my list of Lenten abstentions. I’m not watching multiple episodes of anything, and hopefully I will have kicked the habit by Easter.

The idea of Lent isn’t to replace one vice with another, which I’m afraid I did with my binge-watching. It reminds me of a woman I know who told me she was giving up wine for Lent and drinking vodka instead. Um, nice try, but no.

Of course, as any Catholic will tell you, I’m entitled to one cheat day a week and I’m human, so there will be Netflix. (I just watched Amy Schumer’s comedy special “Growing.” I love her.) But the mindless binging for hours on end is over, unless I get sick. Then, all bets are off.

March Madness

If things had gone as planned, I never would have ended up at Round 1 of the NCAA basketball tournament in Hartford.

I like basketball, but I’m not a rabid fan like my mother (go UConn Huskies women!) or the Curmudgeon, who scheduled his entire day around Selection Sunday.

But life is full of surprises, and sometimes you get lucky or someone finally listens when you say you’d love to join him at the XL Center. Or sometimes you’re willing to be the last resort – the person standing between a ticket holder going to the tourney or staying home.

My brother-in-law Rich scored seats to the first and second rounds in Hartford several months ago. His initial plan was to take his son Andrew, a UConn senior who is a sports fanatic, or his wife (my sister) Patty. It was a great plan except for one thing: both were out of town on vacation.

Rich moved to Plan B, inviting the Curmudgeon, who gloated about the invitation for about two days until he realized he couldn’t go due to work commitments. “I’ll go,” I said after he broke the news to Rich over the phone. Nothing. Nadda. Zippo.

“Did you tell Rich that I’d go?” I said. Dead silence.

A few days later, Rich posted the following on Facebook:

Looking to sell ncaa tournament tickets for Thursday session 1

Seriously? I said I’d go. How much did this guy not want to go with me?

I told Patty that I was a tiny bit hurt that my offer had been ignored. I’ve known Rich for about 30 years. In addition to being my brother-in-law, he’s our family dentist. And though we’ve never really hung out together, I thought I’d be a worthy companion.

I pride myself on being a sporty girl. I began watching the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoons in the early ’70s with my father, who loved to watch sports and enjoyed having company. I watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports every Saturday afternoon, and watched more tennis and golf tournaments – both women’s and men’s – than I care to admit.

With no boys in the house, I sort of assumed the role of surrogate son. I was what might be called a tomboy, a girl who enjoyed doing things typically associated with boys. I liked sports, and I really liked cars. At one point, I could tell the difference between a 1972 and 1973 Camaro by the head lights and tail lights.

I grew up playing and watching sports, believing that girls had just as much right to be players and fans as guys. It had nothing to do with gender equality or Title IX. It was simply a matter of following your heart and passions, whatever they may be.

So when my offer to go to the basketball game as the Curmudgeon’s stand-in was ignored, I was a little taken aback. At the very least I was a better alternative than nothing. Rich later told me that if I hadn’t gone, he probably would not have attended, though a woman who sat next to me was there by herself.

Thank goodness for loyal sisters. Patty spoke with Rich, who quickly called me and told me the seat was mine. We arrived about 90 minutes before the game, and got two seats at a bar at a Mexican restaurant, drinking margaritas along with the rest of the festive crowd.

It was nice to see Hartford so crowded and bustling on a weekday afternoon. It wasn’t exactly Boston before a Red Sox game, but there was excitement and anticipation in the air. It underscores how important sports can be to the vitality and economy of a city like Hartford, which has been lacking a major team since the Hartford Whalers left in 1997. (The team is now the Carolina Hurricanes.)

The games were no surprise, though it was fun having the entire stadium rooting for underdog University of Vermont against Florida State. It goes to show that when push comes to shove, New Englanders always stick together.

The second game pitted Murray State against Marquette University. It was exciting watching Murray State’s star point guard Ja Morant show his stuff on the national stage. Morant is even better than all the hype surrounding him because he’s such an unselfish player. I’d rather watch him than a ball hog any day of the week.

With Round 2 approaching last weekend, I listened as two older men in the next restaurant booth discussed the brackets and picked favorites. As we stood to leave, I went over to them and told them I’d seen Round 1 in Hartford.

As I discussed Morant’s prowess and Florida State’s poor shooting in the First Round, one of the guys told the Curmudgeon, “She sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.”

Not really. All of my predictions for Round 2 wins were wrong. The bad news is those guys probably think I’m an idiot or even worse, a pretender – someone who thinks they know about sports when they don’t. The good is I will probably never see them again because we met them during a weekend visit to the Hudson Valley.

I never have to face them again. And maybe next time I talk sports, I’ll have a piece of humble pie and try not to sound like such a know-it-all.

Judgy Eyes

Judgy Eyes emoji

When are you too old to blast music from your car radio?

And even if you say you’re never too old, isn’t is natural to lower the volume when someone approaches to get into the car parked next to you?

I’m not one to criticize anyone when it comes to music and cars. I still crank certain songs on the radio, or should I say Sirius XM? But I don’t sit in parking lots with the music blaring, nor does anyone within 20 years of me.

I bring up this scenario because a gray-haired gentleman sat inside his red Mustang convertible outside the Fresh Market cranking “Hey Jude” from the Beatles. It was loud, so loud that the car was vibrating.

I gave him a look like “are you serious?” and he just smiled. He seemed a little off, pleased with himself in a way that puzzled me. What I felt like saying is if you’re so desperate for attention, put the top down too.

He was parked close to my car, so close that I had to be careful getting in for fear of dinging his vehicle. And what struck me more than the odd choice of his song – “Hey Jude” is a wonderful song, but certainly not a great driving song like Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” or Manford Mann’s “Blinded By The Light” – was that he did not lower the volume on my approach.

This is unusual because most people lower the volume when other people enter their vortex. Most people are considerate or insecure enough to think that someone else might not appreciate their song choice. Or maybe that’s just me. I can be so self conscious sometimes.

If I were going to blast a Beatles’ song, it would be something along the lines of “Back in the USSR.” “Taxman,” or “Got To Get You Into My Life.” It would not be a soulful ballad like “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday” or the Curmudgeon’s favorite “Norwegian Wood.”

At this point, my daughter would criticize me for being “judgy,” as in, “Mom, stop being so judgy,” or her favorite, “Mother, you are so judgy.” I can’t help it. I’m very opinionated. And I think this regrettable trait became worse when I became a mother.

As mothers, we really don’t stand a chance in the judgy department. We must use our best judgment all day, every day raising our children and it’s hard to turn it off when we’re in the outside world.

A few years ago, an elderly man was extremely rude to me on a golf course. Rather than let it go, I caught up to him on the next hole and let him have it, telling him his behavior was reprehensible. I was wearing my mom hat, and scolded him like a child. And he eventually apologized.

I didn’t realize being “judgy” is such a thing until recently. There are even “judgy eyes” that the Urban Dictionary defines as: A look of judgment or contempt that one gives without saying a word. Instead, their eyes speak volumes.

There are judgy eyes emojis, GIFs, memes and emoticons that you can use to express yourself, though I’m not big on any of them. The last time I used one to express a difference of opinion, the recipient asked if I had the stomach flu.

I’m willing to accept that I’m judgy, but I think most moms are. Mothers must be judgy about certain things because it keeps our kids safe and alive. [“No, you can’t swing from that rope over the river because you may slip and break your neck on the rocks below.”] Being judgy is an evolution of mothering that tends to get worse over time.

I dashed to a nearby JCrew outlet last week to buy my 21-year-old son some new pants. I judged that the pants he was wearing – the ones I bought him for Christmas three months ago – were too tight, hugging him in all the wrong places. He’s an adult, yet my judgy mom self still feels responsible for having him leave the house looking presentable.

When I told him his pants were too tight, he offered, “I’ll do some deep knee bends.” This is like the time I asked him to buy dog food over Christmas break. “Is that something I can buy at a gas station?” he asked.

The kid, or should I say man? – is always looking for the easy way out. He didn’t mind walking around looking like a gigolo, but I did. So I bought him two new pairs of pants, and suggested that he give his old pants away.

A certain amount of being a know-it-all goes with the territory when you’re entrusted with keeping a child healthy until the age of majority. As a mom you’re in charge, the warden running the prison or asylum. And as much as our kids don’t really want to hear what we have to say, we’ve got opinions on everything from the color of prom dresses to the topic of a political science paper.

My kids know me well enough to realize I’m going to weigh in on most subjects. Sometimes, they even ask for advice. But I don’t tell them what to do. They have their own opinions and more often than not ignore me. That’s OK. I don’t hold grudges most of the time.

When I asked my mother several years ago something she wished to change about herself, she answered, “I would like to be less judgmental.” This surprised me because I think she’s one of the most open-minded people I know.

But I appreciated her honesty and desire to change. It’s not easy to admit that you’re judgmental. Then again, I think if most people were honest with themselves, they’d admit they are too. We all have our opinions. I think the trick is knowing we do and having the good sense of keep our mouths shut.

So I’m working on it, and will strive to do better. Just don’t expect me to think that it’s OK for senior citizens to blast music in parking lots. That’s something that should stop in your early 20s, at least in my humble opinion.

Sweet Magnolia

Remember Kathleen Turner, the beautiful throaty actress from Body Heat, Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses?

Years ago she wrote a book entitled Send Yourself Roses, which advocates being kind and indulgent to yourself. Today, it’s called self care, that phrase women are always talking about, but rarely do.

I love the idea, and I know plenty of women who buy flowers during their weekly grocery store runs. But they’re not married to the Curmudgeon. Every time there’s a fresh bunch of flowers on the kitchen table, he says “Flowers? What’s the occasion?”

This means that every time I head into the supermarket floral department, I must weigh whether it’s worth buying the $8.99 mixed seasonal bouquet. I usually leave empty handed, as I did when I passed on adorable tiny daffodils and big fat tulips.

But I wanted them, I really did. And I probably would’ve bought them if it wasn’t 6 degrees outside. I worried that they might freeze between the store, my car and the house.

I don’t know why some items are no brainers, while others prompt an internal debate. Flowers, scented jar candles ($19.99!), $4.99 gourmet chocolate bars, saffron and vanilla beans catch my eye, but I pass because I can’t justify the expense. I think it’s a holdover from the early days of our marriage.

The Curmudgeon and I lived on my meager reporter’s salary, which was bare bones even by 1980s standards, while he went to law school. It was humbling, but I learned to pinch pennies. I never bought flowers because they were a luxury we couldn’t afford.

But today, I don’t think of them as an extravagance. They’re a little thing that makes me feel good, like an ice cream sundae without the calories. I crave flowers, particularly when the doldrums are at an all-time high.

By now, everyone but the most diehard skiers is sick of winter. We know that spring is near – we can almost taste it – but there’s still the matter of March. Over the past week, about a foot of snow has fallen on southern New England and the temperature has hovered around 20 degrees.

March is Old Man Winter’s way of showing us who’s boss. Like a nagging cold that lingers for weeks, it sneaks back just when you think it’s gone for one last hurrah. It will leave in its own time, when it’s good and ready. And there’s nothing can do about it except hunker down, organize drawers and binge watch Netflix.

At this point, there’s no color in the Northeast. The sky is often battleship gray, and the landscape is a mixture of grays, browns and faded gold. When we could still hike – before the trails froze over – my dog faded into the straw-colored grass lining the woods. Now, she blends in with the phragmites and sand at a nearby state beach, the only place we can navigate.

My tawny-colored dog Cali blends in with the scenery in late winter.

My house looks like a barren stretch of landscape too. It needs flowers or a few blooming plants to inject some life and energy. But there’s the Curmudgeon to be considered. I don’t want to start a war of the roses over, well, roses.

Enter my flowering trees and shrubs, which explode in color every spring, but quickly fade into the background. Two overgrown forsythias on the property line provide a splash of yellow, but are quickly overshadowed by other bloomers, including my favorite magnolias and lilacs.

I often force branches for an economical dose of spring. Forcing takes time, but the reward is well worth it. For the investment of a little time and a water, you get a jump on springtime color.

I cut some forsythia and magnolia branches on Feb. 1st and put them in a few inches of water. The forsythia bloomed within about three weeks, while the magnolia bloomed after five weeks.

The magnolia is splendid, much better than I imagined when I cut it in the depths of winter. Big plump purplish pink flowers are emerging from their furry shells in vibrant contrast to the delicate branches.

Those who love magnolias know that they’re in bloom a woefully short period of time. We wait all year for it to bloom and then we blink and the petals are blanketing the ground. Forcing gives an up close and personal sneak peek, a glimpse of spring and what’s to come.

With spring taking its sweet time getting here, I’ll be heading out with the clippers again this week for some lilacs. It will take about a month for them to bloom, but that’s OK. The anticipation of what’s to come is almost as exciting as the actual blooms.

Cause And Effect

A blog I wrote about author Cheryl DellaPietra, above with my friend John, had unexpected ripple effects.

When I began writing this blog in May of 2017, I didn’t know what to expect.

All I knew was that I missed writing and needed a creative outlet, so I decided to give it a try. My goal from the beginning is to share my experiences in hopes that at least one person can relate. I’m not out to accumulate the most likes or readers and that’s a good thing. I don’t exactly rack them up with every post.

But one of the most unexpected joys of writing this blog is feedback from followers, many of whom are friends or former classmates and colleagues. It’s heartening when someone writes and tells me that something I wrote inspired them, or just lifted their spirits.

Life can be tough, and I know some of my readers are going through trying times. Gravely sick relatives, surgeries for children and joblessness in late middle age are just a few of the challenges some are facing right now. Yet I’m heartened that they carve out some time to read my blog. Knowing someone took the time to read my blog – as my nephew Bobby did during a break working as a resident in the ICU in Boston one day – is the biggest compliment I can get.

So here, in no particular order, are a few follow-ups to earlier blogs:

  1. In November, I wrote the blog “Gonzo Girl” about a book party I hosted in honor of Cheryl DellaPietra. Cheryl wrote the novel based on her experiences as an assistant to famed author Hunter S. Thompson. After reading my blog, my sister Janet proposed that her book club read “Gonzo Girl” and Thompson’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” (Always one to one-up me, that girl.) On Monday night, her book club hosted Cheryl at a dinner to discuss the book, which is being made into a movie. They had a great time, as I expected they would. And no, I am not Cheryl’s unofficial agent, though I’d be happy to pass along her contact info if you’d like to host her for your book club.
  2. When the Curmudgeon refused to go to “A Star is Born” with me, I wrote about going to the movies alone for the first time. A few people told me that they had gone to separate movie theaters by themselves, but that’s not the same thing. Going alone to a movie means just that – taking the initiative to drive yourself there and do the whole routine solo. A few weeks later, one of my most faithful readers sent me a beautiful note telling me that the blog inspired her to go to the movies alone for the first time in years. Thanks for the note D. I truly appreciate it.
  3. I wrote a post in January about dropping the ball by failing to teach my son to cook. Since then, he has cooked two amazing meals: pasta with homemade tomato sauce and chili, and he’s on deck for making a meal during his spring break. I’m pretty sure he was inspired by the blog, but he’ll never admit it.
  4. My recent blog about Marie Kondo’s KonMarie home organization method prompted a flurry of feedback, primarily on my Facebook page. My friend Barbara told me she organized her mudroom after reading the post, and Linda told me that she organized her bureau and shelves after watching Marie’s show. I can’t say enough about Marie. Once you use her method, it’s contagious.
  5. My blog “Ring My Bell” about a Salvation Army ringer I encountered outside Wal-mart and my recollections of being a bellringer for a newspaper story inspired some readers to donate or at least say hello instead of avoiding eye contact. One of my friends told me that he happily gave a bellringer $5 and felt great after doing so. Wonderful.
  6. I wrote a blog last July about the Curmudgeon rupturing his Achille’s tendon. The road back from that injury has been long, but he’s making progress. He has started hitting tennis balls with the ball machine, attends spinning classes at the Y (an upcoming blog I think), and plans to start running once the weather gets warmer. Best of all, now that he’s nearly 100 percent, he’s fodder for my blog again.
  7. A blog I wrote about homemade spaghetti sauce inspired my cousin Denise to make a huge pot and post it on Facebook. It’s the little things in life that make me happy, and this really did.
  8. A blog I wrote about my penmanship and my daughter’s inability to read cursive inspired my pal Barbie to write and say that it inspired her to write a long-overdue note. Again, the little things.
  9. After writing the blog, my friend Cindy asked me if I would blog for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women. This position has allowed me to take some amazing trips and connect with some former co-workers I hadn’t seen in years, including Barbara P.
  10. The Curmudgeon is really the Curmudgeon. In signing off a recent email from Thailand, his sister Sarah told me to give my love to my kids and the Curmudgeon. Huh? How did that happen?
My son Matt began cooking after I wrote about kids’ cooking.

Street Smart

My co-pilot Cali, from a Facebook post four years ago today.

One of my greatest accomplishments is a perfect score on my written driver’s exam.

I was 16 and one month old, and remember feeling proud smug that I answered every question correctly. My mother was thrilled when I got my license, having another driver for weekly McDonald’s runs and catechism pickups on Saturday morning.

Back then, we couldn’t wait to get our license so we could cruise through suburbia. But today’s kids are in no particular rush to drive. Two of my nieces and a nephew didn’t drive until they were 18, and I’m still chauffeuring around my 17-year-old daughter.

She wants to get her license, but we’re in no hurry because we worry about her safety. It’s not so much her, but all the other drivers that parents worry about. We know how many idiots are out there – tailgaters, red light runners, people who cross three lanes of traffic to exit without signaling – and we shudder.

I know one mom who followed her son the first day he drove to school on his own. This is how we roll. We want to make sure our kids get from point A to B, and can’t believe they can actually do it without us.

As experienced drivers, we know the dangers lurking on the roads, and we worry that our kids are too immature or inexperienced to handle them. I walked around holding my breath for about a year after my son got his license. Just when I got used to the idea, he was in an accident en route to a high school debate.

No one was injured, but my anxiety level soared and I learned how to use Find My I-Phone to track him. This is the best tool ever invented for moms of new drivers. It assures us that they’ve arrived at their destinations without them knowing we’re checking up on them.

I have a clean driving record, though I’ve received verbal warnings for speeding and talking on my cell phone. I was cited a few years ago for making an illegal turn, but fought the ticket and won. I have no points on my license, and pride myself on being a decent driver.

So what’s my point? I couldn’t get my license today. I’ve failed three practice tests for a Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles learner’s permit. You need a score of 80 to pass, and I can’t break 65. Either the test’s a lot harder, or I’ve forgotten everything I learned in driver’s ed.

I’m going with the second option because I’ve been driving for nearly 45 years and know what I’m doing. I’m willing to bet most drivers – Connecticut or otherwise – would fail because some of the questions are ridiculous.

The good news is I did well on road signs, which still mean the same thing they did back in the 70s. The bad is I’m completely out of touch with today’s terminology. Since when is gridlock at an intersection called “blocking the box?” What box?

Here are a few questions that tripped me up. See how you do.

When a vehicle does not pass an emissions inspection, the driver will be given __ to have the problem fixed and the emissions re-checked.
A. two months
B. two weeks
C. a week
D. one month.

The answer is A. But I didn’t know this because we didn’t have emissions tests in 1975. They didn’t become required in Connecticut until 1983.

At a speed of 55 mph, a vehicle needs _ to pass.
A. 5 seconds
B. 10 seconds

C. 14 seconds
D. 12 seconds

The answer is D. I said B. At least I didn’t say A.

If you fail the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) test, your operator’s license will be suspended for at least
A. 60 days.
B. 30 days.
C. 1 year.
D. 45 days.

The answer is D. I said A. I don’t know how they came up with 45 days, but it seems arbitrary and too short. And I felt better when even a lawyer I know pretty well got this wrong too.

During heavy traffic, drivers are prohibited from entering any intersection, unless there is sufficient space on the opposite side of the intersection to accommodate their vehicle without obstructing the passage of other vehicles or pedestrians. NOT doing so is referred to as
A. blocking the driver.
B. blocking the way.
C. blocking the intersection.
D. blocking the box.

The answer is D. I said C. I have no idea when this term was invented, nor have I ever heard anyone say it. But the next time someone does it, you can be sure I’m going to use it.

__ are areas around a truck or other heavy vehicle in which other vehicles disappear into blind spots.
A. Blind-Zones
B. Side-Zones
C. No-Zones
D. Slow-Zones

The answer is C. I said A. I have no idea when this term began being used, but even my son knew it. He said they discussed in in driver’s ed, and it’s in the manual. Oh.

Pretty much anywhere near a truck is the No Zone.

So what has this taught me? I’m hopelessly out of touch with today’s terminology, and need to brush up on my driving lingo. But it also shows that you can be an experienced driver without knowing all the rules and regulations in the handbook.

Still, I think I probably have a lot of company, at least in terms of general driving knowledge and operation.

I follow the rules of the road and try to control my road rage. I don’t text, put on mascara in the rear view mirror, eat a Quarter Pounder with cheese while driving 80 mph, or read a book while driving – all things I’ve seen over the years.

I don’t blast my music so other drivers can hear it at red lights, or make right turns on red without stopping. I don’t cut into traffic and expect another driver to stop, or drive around without headlights in rain, snow or at dusk.

I use my blinker, sometimes excessively, and am infinitely polite at four-way traffic stops. I don’t tailgate (most of the time) and if I wave you into traffic, I expect a wave or some type of acknowledgement for my kindness.

I am a typical driver, what I like to think as an everyman driver. I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me, and if things go as planned, we’ll all get to where we’re going without incident. I may not be book smart, but I’m street smart. And at this point, I think that’s enough.


Winging It

IMG_3280

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.

IMG_3294

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

Marie, I Love You

IMG_3354-2.jpg

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:

IMG_3207 (1)

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.

IMG_3220

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

57144106632__638815A4-5317-42C4-968F-1C7D6F999475 (1)

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.