Let’s All Tie Dye

The Curmudgeon tried his hand at it, using colors from his alma mater.

I’ve always been indifferent, even dismissive, about tie dye.

I’d cringe when my kids came home with a wet tie dye project in a plastic bag from camp, worrying that the colors would bleed all over my good clothes. And I always questioned the fashion sense of adults who pranced around in garish tie dye shirts, wondering what was going through their minds when they got dressed that morning.

“Must’ve been the only clean shirt in their drawer,” I’d think.

I haven’t worn a homemade tie dye garment since the ’70s, and I haven’t felt that I’m missing anything. I’m not a particularly crafty person nor do I crave a collection of tie dye in my wardrobe. So how do I explain my recent fascination with tie dye, which includes scouring Ocean State Job Lot and TJ Maxx for cheap white cotton shirts when I should have been home getting ready for Hurricane Henri?

While the rest of New England was battening down the hatches, I was hunting for 100 percent cotton T-shirts along with other panic buyers, including a woman balancing a one-month-old baby on her knee like a rag doll. It’s amazing what the prospect of a natural disaster like a hurricane does to the human mind. Some people go into survival mode, while other people go straight to denial and retail therapy. I’d like to think that explains why an older woman had to go shopping for throw pillows with a hurricane looming in the Atlantic.

I can’t explain the Tie Dye fixation, at least not rationally. So I’ll blame my 20-year-old daughter Maura, who worked as a day camp counselor over the summer. One day, she asked me to pick up tie dye materials as an activity for her 6-year-old campers. After scouring Wal-mart and coming up empty, I headed over to Michael’s, or should I say Tie Dye Central?

In the old days, tie dye meant boxes of Ritz dye, white vinegar and buckets, a mess just waiting to happen. But today’s tie dye kits are designed to streamline the process and make it seamless as possible. For $20, I bought a Tulip tie dye party in a plastic tackle box featuring everything from adorable plastic bottles containing dye to rubber bands, rubber gloves and even a plastic table cloth to protect my work space.

Maura never got around to using the kit with the kids, but it was increasingly tempting, like a quart of hand-packed vanilla ice cream in the freezer. I knew I would eventually break down and tear open the box, unleashing my inner child. The only question was how long would it take, and which white shirt in my wardrobe would be the first victim.

I created this shirt after watching a YouTube video. You wrap the wet shirt around a cylinder, wrap with twine and then saturate with dye. I’m partial to indigo blue.

One hot muggy day, it happened. I got the overwhelming urge to tie dye, but not with reckless abandon of a summer camper. Instead, I decided to bone up on tie dye techniques on YouTube. In 15 minutes, I learned how to create striations, swirls and blocks of color to make something I might actually wear out of the house. I like things you can master in 15 minutes or less, and tie dye fits nicely into that category.

Watching a tie dye guru fold, twist and pucker fabrics to achieve certain patterns only heightened my desire to try my hand at this ancient process. The only problem would be having the patience to let my project sit for 24 hours to allow the dye to really soak in. Apparently, this is a problem shared by tie dyers worldwide, as nearly every tutorial stresses the importance of letting your project sit for at least one day.

Like most baby boomers, I associate tie dye with hippies of the ’60s, who often wore their homemade creations as a sign of the anti establishment and anti war movement. You can’t look at clips of Woodstock or anti war protests from those days without seeing a sea of homemade tie dye, which was as popular as halter tops, hot pants and low hip hugger bell bottom jeans.

My parents were pretty strict when it came to our clothes in elementary and junior high school. We couldn’t wear jeans to school and tie dye was not encouraged, perhaps because it was associated with hippies and stoners. No one was particularly sad to see the fad disappear in the late 70s, and for years, the only tie dye I saw was in the window of Sunshine Daydream, a tiny head shop along our town’s commercial strip.
But tie dye has more lives than a cat, re-emerging in the 80s and now holding a firm place in the fashion industry. Fashion historians say it tends to gain steam in tough times, when people are looking for cheap ways to reinvent their wardrobes. Maybe surviving a pandemic is part of the current tie dye craze. It would certainly explain my desire to do something that never interested me in the least until now.

Dating back to ancient China and Japan, tie dye arrived on the American fashion scene in the Roaring 20s and during the Great Depression. For the cost of a box of dye, people could create new fashion pieces and on top of that, have a one-of-a-kind piece. Think of tie dye like snowflakes: no two pieces are exactly the same.

That freedom of self expression through clothing boomed in the mid-60s with the anti war movement and in the early 70s with the women’s movement. I never really wore tie dye back then except for a shirt I made at the town’s day camp at the community center. Tie dying was one of our crafts, along with pot holders, a tile trivet and a paper mache cast of a dolphin that I hung on my bedroom wall.

My niece Julia enjoyed making a tote bag.

To share my joy of tie dye, I hosted my own tie dye party with a group of relatives. When one brother-in-law looked like he might not participate, I said tie dying was required if he planned to eat dinner. He quickly scooped up a white shirt and tried his hand at it. I think he might have even enjoyed it.

Explaining my obsession to others often prompts skeptical looks. When I shared it with one sister, she wrote, “I hope you make the best tie dye on the East Coast” in my birthday card. Along with the card was a gorgeous tie dye scarf and beach bag. I couldn’t decide I’d she was indulging or poking a little fun at me. Maybe a little of both, I suspect.

A Cautionary Tale

A field near our house is pretty, but a breeding ground for ticks.

We’ve live about 30 minutes from Lyme, CT., notorious for being the epicenter of Lyme disease.

Almost everyone I know has had Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness carried by a tiny deer tick. I had my own battle with the disease last year after a huge welt on my back didn’t go away after a month, and I finally got myself to the doctor. Ten days of antibiotics cleared it up, but I joined the ranks of relatives, friends and acquaintances with my own Lyme war story.

One of my friends had such a bad case of Lyme that he had to have a port for intravenous antibiotics for several months. A good friend of mine is on antibiotics permanently because of an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease in the late 80s. She occasionally gets a reprieve when her stomach can’t take it any more, but she suffers with permanent arthritis as a result of Lyme.

Unfortunately, ticks carry more than just Lyme, and doctors in Connecticut say this summer has been the worst in recent years for tick-borne diseases, which often present with flu-like symptoms. I’m writing this in hopes of sparing other people the agony of an undiagnosed tick borne disease. If you have flu-like symptoms and Covid 19 has been ruled out, insist that your health care provider run a blood panel to look for tick-borne diseases.

The Curmudgeon has been more curmudgeonly lately, complaining of fatigue, body aches and fever. He has been walking around with a digital thermometer in his pocket, taking his temperature while sitting at his desk at the office and driving his car. He has been running a fever of around 102 degrees, and complaining about night sweats and an ache in his back near his kidneys.

Two weeks ago, a Covid 19 came out negative, but his flu-like symptoms persisted. After much prodding, he called his doctor and was told he could get a telemedicine appointment two days later. If he wanted more immediate care, they referred him to a walk-in clinic affiliated with Yale-New Haven Hospital a half-hour away. I suggested the Yale Shoreline Clinic 5 minutes from our house, but the Curmudgeon overruled me. Naturally.

The doctor at the walk-in clinic took a chest X-ray, but never ran blood work. She sent him home, telling him that he looked good, but should consider a follow-up if his fever persisted. He was convinced it was a flu-like illness after a young woman in his office said she had contracted a similar virus, and downed Tylenol to control his fever, which continued to spike without medication.

Convinced it was just a matter of time until the fever abated, he played three matches for his USTA team in Districts outside of Boston last weekend. He’d been looking forward to it for months, and saw no reason to back out just because of a fever. Don’t even get me started on how much I tried to talk him out of it, but it was no use. He wanted to go, and he did, winning two of his three doubles matches.

He arrived home Saturday night and was still feeling awful. He finally went to the Shoreline clinic at the foot of our neighborhood on Sunday night, where they discovered he has Babesiosis, a tick-borne disease caused by microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells. Babesiosis is just one of several potentially deadly diseases carried by ticks in Connecticut, though I’d never heard of it until the Curmudgeon texted it to me.

Doctors considered admitting him to the hospital for treatment of the disease, which can lead to kidney failure and a host of other problems if left untreated. He was finally released about 4 a.m. after a courier rushed medicine from New Haven to Guilford. He will be on meds until the parasite is thoroughly eradicated from his blood cells.

Incredibly, this is the second case of a tick borne illness in my family within a month. In July, one of my brother-in-laws was diagnosed with anaplasmosis, another tick borne disease that infects blood cells. In both of these cases, the disease sufferer was convinced they had a common virus, and resisted seeking medical treatment, having no idea how sick they really were. It was only through prodding from relatives, including my 87-year-old mother, that the Curmudgeon finally sought follow-up care.

How did the Curmudgeon get it?

Though people were quick to blame the dog, we treat her with tick prevention medication and she doesn’t sleep in our bed. It’s more likely he contracted it in the woods near our house, where we’ve been walking the dog due to the the high heat and humidity this summer. Ticks like moist shady areas and there’s plenty of that around here. To be honest, we rarely check for ticks and we don’t wear pants or tuck in our socks, probably the best way to prevent a tick bite.

I hope to get something positive out of the Curmudgeon’s ordeal, trying to educate people to be aware of tick-borne diseases other than Lyme. We all love our pets, but anyone with a dog or who spends time outside should check yourself every day for ticks. We should make it part of our daily routine along with showering and brushing our teeth. Ticks have to be on our radar, though they’ve understandably taken a back seat during the pandemic.

Don’t be scared, but be aware and insist on blood work. Anything less just doesn’t cut it with ticks out there.

Music To My Ears

Distractions are needed when you have a dog that jumps into every mud puddle or pond she finds.

Listening to books as I strolled the hills and meadows of my hometown was one of the only things that kept me relatively sane during the pandemic.

In a perfect world, I’d have someone to keep me company, to entertain and distract me with stories about their spouses and children, or provide a sounding board as I prattle on about my own life. But having a walking buddy is not always possible, particularly in the summer when people scatter. I’ve learned the hard way that a walking date is the first thing to go when the day gets a little hectic, meaning I’m on my own.

A lot of people took up walking during the pandemic to get outside and stay relatively fit. There’s a couple in my neighborhood who march by military style every day, the husband 10 paces ahead of the wife, occasionally making circles to wait for her to catch up. But I’d rather walk alone than trail someone who can’t be bothered talking to me. I’m annoyed for this woman, though it seems to be working for them.

I’m late to the Audiobook game, a person who always wondered about the state of marriages of couples who insist on listening to books on long road trips. I relish having a chance to chat with the Curmudgeon on long car trips because he’s a captive audience, unable to scroll through his phone or sneak a peek at the Boston Red Sox or Boston Bruins game as I rail about something.

The Curmudgeon and I are seasoned long haulers, able to keep a conversation going for most of our annual 16-hour road trip to Hilton Head Island every spring. When things get dull, I play DJ, digging through my music library to play old chestnuts like the Stray Cats and the Peppermint Rainbow, an obscure group from the 60s. No surprise that they were one-hit wonders with a ridiculous name like that.

I first turned to Audible in the early part of the pandemic, listening to a free autobiography by music legend James Taylor. Bonus: Taylor narrated the book in his beautiful voice, which is just as soulful and appealing as his singing voice. Between chapters, I’d play some of Taylor’s songs, happy to know the background of how they came to be.

Taylor’s book unwittingly sparked a succession of Audiobooks about musicians and their music, a kind of MTV “Behind the Music” walk down memory lane. Since March 2020, I’ve listened to 12 Audiobooks about musicians, from Jim Morrison of the Doors, Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship and Tom Petty to Rod Stewart, Heart, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton. 

One of the most surprising aspects of my selections is the number of lesser known group members I’ve opted to listen to over their more famous bandmates. I passed up Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler’s book “Is The Noise in My Head Bothering You?” in favor of bassist Joe Perry’s book “Rocks.” I passed on Go-Go Girls’ lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s book in favor of bassist Kathy Valentine’s book, “All I Ever Wanted,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

For me, there’s something fascinating about the “fly on the wall” stories from people who were in groups, but not center stage. I tried to listen to both Tyler and Carlisle’s stories after listening to their bandmates’ books, but wasn’t interested enough to go past the sample. I’m sure there could be a psychological element involved: I am, of course, the second born child, never having the spotlight to myself. Or it may have something to do with my appreciation for a good base, which makes the song.

Rock memoirs strike the right note during a stroll, engaging me but not forcing me to think too hard. I tried listening to a biography of William Faulkner, but got bored after a few chapters. I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought it, because I don’t have the patience for any of it. I’m pretty sure the hard copy of the book is just as tedious.

One of the best parts about this endeavor is learning tidbits about singers and songs that I’ve loved for years:

John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful played harmonica on the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, changing his name on the album credits so his fans wouldn’t be upset.

Stevie Wonder played harmonica on Chaka Khan’s song “I Feel for You” after attending Marvin Gaye’s funeral. Listening to it, you can almost hear Wonder’s joy and appreciation for life. I’ve loved that song for years, yet never focused on the harmonica part until I realized who was playing.

For me, the background to a song has always been as interesting as the song itself. When he was writing his song “Melissa,”, Greg Allman couldn’t come up with a suitable girl’s name until he walked into a convenience store and someone yelled, “Melissa.” David Lee Roth wrote the words to nearly every Van Halen song after his bandmates wrote the music.

Next up: Sinead O’Connor’s new memoir narrated in her delightful Irish accent, which was suggested by one of my sisters with an equal passion for rock memoirs. I don’t know her music that well, but that’s half the fun of this endeavor. It opened my horizons during a bleak period of entrapment, giving me a mental as well as a physical escape. And for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.

Back in the Saddle

My former editor Linda’s family has created a website containing many of her personal columns and readings for Vermont Public Radio. The address is http://lduchar.me/.

I’ve been looking for a good reason to blog lately.

It came rather unexpectedly as I was saying goodbye to my friend Linda’s son after her memorial service in Vermont.

Like many people over the last 16 months, Linda’s funeral was postponed due the Covid 19 pandemic, preventing her family, friends and former co-workers from gathering to properly mourn, raise a glass and share stories about her. The lack of ceremony made her death at age 83 in March, 2020, a little surreal. Depriving people of the ritual and comfort of gathering to mourn was one of the most difficult parts of the pandemic.

I was relieved that her family decided to press ahead with a memorial mass because such ceremonies often fall by the wayside with the passage of time. When my mother-in-law died in 2004, we planned to hold a memorial service in her hometown “at a later date.” We never could muster the strength or enthusiasm for the memorial service, contenting ourselves with her funeral on Martha’s Vineyard.

There is comfort in gathering after someone you love dies because at the end of the day, it’s how people touch our lives that matters. All too often today, we use social media or a text to convey feelings of sympathy, but there is something to be said for showing up for people in their time of sorrow. In his 2009 book Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, Chris Buckley (son of William F. Buckley) wrote that you don’t remember who shows up at wakes and funerals, but you remember who doesn’t. I’ve come to see the wisdom in his words.

As I was bidding goodbye to Linda’s oldest child Bob and complimenting him on his eulogy, he told me that he once read some of my blogs to his mother during a weekend visit at an assisted living facility in Brattleboro, where she lived her final years with her loving husband of 61 years Bob Sr. As he read one blog about some women having the great fortune of looking great with gray hair, he realized that I had included his mother in the piece. He thought it was incredibly coincidental – he had randomly picked that blog. I thought him telling me the story was equally coincidental. Over the last few weeks, I’ve lamented more than once that I’ve let my blog slide. That’s not like me, and I’m sure Linda, who also happened to be my first newspaper editor, would be disappointed that I’ve been slacking off.

I don’t know why we let things slide that we love from time to time, but we do and sometimes we need messages from heaven to get back on track. I love to blog, but glitches with WordPress and the resumption of life post-pandemic over the past few months put the blog in mothballs. I have a few pieces in the hopper, but I began to feel self-conscious about posting. I began to overthink, a sure recipe for blocking anything good in life.

I began to write personal columns under Linda’s guidance as a reporter for the Milford Citizen in the early 80s. We had a rotating column called “In This Corner” in which reporters and editors waxed about everything from sisters stealing clothes (me) to learning how to drive (Linda). We wrote when the spirit moved us, and it usually did. Everyone contributed columns, including an older society pages assistant named Kay Patrick, who once shared her recipe for blueberry buckle.

The Milford Citizen was a tight-knit group: what we lacked in prestige and size we made up for in fun and camaraderie. People dressed in costumes on Halloween and we had a standing table at a bar next door, where we drank pitchers of beer and feasted on chicken wings during happy hours. One day, we roasted the pressman Warren, who always wore flannel shirts, gathering around the press in the backroom in a collection of plaid shirts. Going to work wasn’t a chore because it was fun, even when we were pushing to get out the paper.

Much of the credit for the atmosphere goes to Linda, who ran the place like a mother hen. She was the first person through the door at 6 a.m., relishing having the newsroom to herself, and couldn’t understand why I could never arrive at work on time at 8 a.m. She ate yogurt at her desk every day, depriving herself the luxury of a lunch out, and was slightly jealous when I’d return from a lunch of whole belly fried clams and french fries, wishing she could indulge like a 23 year old. I don’t think anyone over the age of 25 can pull that off, but it was fun while it lasted. 

During my interview for my first reporter’s job, Linda spent the bulk of the time telling me about her four children, including Bob, who was a student at Columbia University at the time. It was clear that although she was a working mom, her first priority was her kids, and to her credit, I could never tell which one was her favorite. She gushed about all of them with equal fervor and I sometimes was envious that they had such a cool parent. I often thought of her as a second mom, though I don’t think she knew that.

When I fell in love with the sports editor and planned to marry, Linda threw a surprise bridal shower at her house, where every woman from the entire newspaper gathered and presented me with gifts. I still remember her luring me over to her house, saying, “Hey, could you come here for a minute?” I was stunned when I entered her house to a roomful of smiling women bearing everything from placemats to picnic baskets. In photos from that day, I have the look of someone who’s seen a ghost; I don’t think my heartbeat returned to normal until the following day when the shock wore off.

As part of the memorial service, Linda’s children compiled a website with slice of life columns that she wrote for the Brattleboro Reformer, the newspaper that lured her away with the promise of a job in the mid-80s. The timing was right: her youngest son Peter had just graduated from high school, and Linda longed for the green mountains of Vermont, where she’d spent her youth before her family settled in Connecticut. I was, of course, devastated. Things were never the same after she left.

The priest praised Linda’s columns about everyday things, noting they evoked feelings of a simpler time and ultimately gave people hope in their everyday lives. As he spoke, I thought of my blog, and how my friend Barbara told me she read some of them to fellow patients while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Barbara told me that they gave them a chuckle at a low point, lifting their spirits as cancer-fighting drugs seeped into their veins. For me, that was the highest praise – better than a paycheck or Pulitzer, though to be honest, both would be nice.

So I’m back to the blog in a very big part because of Linda, and the things she taught me about life: family first, friendship, laughter, faith, home-cooked meals, frugality, keep things simple, celebrate the good times and above all, share your talents, even if it’s just with one person.

I miss her, but she lives in my heart and inspires me. Most of all, I think she’d be happy that I’m back in the saddle again.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

An older woman walked into the monastery gift shoppe where I volunteer every other week.

I love this job because it reminds me of playing store when I was little. There is a cash box with a key, an adding machine with a spool of white paper, and a receipt book with carbon paper on which I write up purchases. The white one goes in the cash box, the yellow one with the customer. We take only cash or checks: there’s not a credit card machine or chip that plugs into your I-Phone to pay anywhere in sight. Volunteers have been known to lend people cash so they can make their purchases, relying on the honor system of being paid back.

Vaccinated, but still masked for now…

I love the job because I’m off the grid for a few hours – my I-Phone doesn’t get service there – and the 20 or so sisters at the monastery aren’t obsessed with sales. Sure, they rely on them to survive, but they have more important things on their mind, including praying for the salvation of man. I’m all for that, because we could sure use it these days.

I knew this customer was a little prickly when she took a seat across from me, and asked me why I wasn’t playing religious music, as many volunteers do.

“I really enjoy the quiet,” I said. “Many of the people who come in here remark on how quiet it is, such a break from the noise of everyday life.” It’s true. The quiet and sense of peace are the first things people comment on when they step onto the monastery grounds in North Guilford, CT. It’s a different kind of quiet, the kind that heightens your sense of hearing and makes you long for more quiet spaces.

“I enjoy hearing religious music when I’m here,” she repeated.

I didn’t flinch, nor feel the need to slip a CD disc into the CD player behind the desk. She made her opinion known, and I listened to her, but I did my own thing. Listening is usually a good strategy when dealing with other people, but it doesn’t mean we should compromise our own wishes. I like the quiet, so it stayed quiet.

Her breathing was heavy and it looked like she was struggling to breathe behind her face mask. I commented that it looked like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was struggling to breathe behind her face mask during President Biden’s address to the Joint Session of Congress. At times it looked like Pelosi was having difficulty breathing, something I’ve struggled with at times behind a mask.

“I didn’t watch it,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t watch him or her for all the money in the world.”

Her friend quickly chimed in, “Every time I see her, it looks like she’s had another facelift. Why would I watch her?”

I was a little surprised by the women’s response to my comment. Once upon a time, it was our civic duty to watch presidential addresses. It didn’t matter if we voted for the president or not: we had a duty to hear what he had to say, to be educated on what was going on with our country. That’s how I was raised anyway. You didn’t skip the President’s address because of someone’s appearance, or even their politics.

Her comment bothered me, particularly since President Biden has stayed largely behind the scenes since taking office in January. It’s not as if he’s been on TV a lot. In fact, he’s been roundly criticized by some for his low profile while tackling the worst pandemic to hit this country in 100 years. So I was interested in what he had to say after more than three months on the job. I figured a lot of other people felt the same way I did.

Since I began voting at age 18, I’ve listened to more presidents I didn’t vote for than presidents I did. But that’s part of our civic duty: becoming informed and listening to speeches and press conferences so we can form educated opinions on issues, not just repeat pablum filtered through political pundits. Failing to educate yourself about what’s going because you don’t like someone isn’t an excuse, at least in my book.

If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you form an opinion, or possibly have it changed? An open mind seems to be a rare commodity these days, but I think it’s something we all need. The worst kind of thinking is believing you know everything, having your mind made up before you know all or even some of the facts. It would be nice if we all emerged from the pandemic a little more open-minded and willing to listen.

This was Biden’s first major address to the joint session of Congress since taking office. I was most interested in what he had to say about the pandemic and the future. I wanted to hear what he had to say about jobs, and was buoyed when he mentioned a push for all of us to buy American again. That hasn’t been a national rallying cry in a long time, and quite frankly is long overdue.

My encounter with the women got me thinking about civic duty, and the importance of doing your part for this nation. I decided to alter my Facebook photo to show that I’ve been double vaccinated against Covid 19. I didn’t know this was an option until several of my Facebook friends put the tiny banner along the edge of their profile photos. It’s a little thing, but shows my support for the vaccination program. It’s the least I can do to show others that I’m on board, actually thrilled to be double vaccinated.

Facebook launched the program in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to promote public awareness and acceptance of the vaccine. The theory is that if people see family and friends doing it, they’ll do it too. Facebook is launching the frames because studies show how social norms can have a major impact on people’s attitude and behavior when it comes to their health.

They have a point: I decided to change my profile picture after seeing one of my friends had done it. It’s a simple thing, but maybe it will convince someone who’s on the fence to do it.

Shaking, Not Baking

The sunset over Daufuskie Island, S.C.

Don’t hate me, but I took a vacation.

With two Covid 19 shots and a bad case of wanderlust – I’d taken comfort in sitting on an I-95 overpass and looking at cars whizzing by in recent weeks –  we decided to take our annual road trip south. We drove because neither the Curmudgeon nor I love to fly. And then there is the issue of packing: if we flew, we’d need to ship a cargo carrier down with all of our stuff.

At one point during the packing process, the Curmudgeon said, “If anyone was coming with us, we’d have to strap him to the roof.” I have no idea how we used to fit in two kids, and a dog.

The Curmudgeon is worse than I am, assembling boxes filled with pantry staples like balsamic vinegar, Good Seasons salad dressing (he forgot the cruet!), and store-brand Shake & Bake for our week-long stay. He packed Brillo and enough laundry detergent pods to last three months. I told him that I didn’t want to eat Shake & Bake chicken while I’m away – that I want to eat lowcountry fare: shrimp and grits and snow crabs plucked from the Piggly Wiggly’s shellfish display case, but he packed it anyway. It remained unopened for nearly 2,000 miles, just as I had predicted.

I enjoy eating local when I’m away, and there’s no better place for seafood than South Carolina. Walking the “squeaky” white sand beaches, you can see the shrimp trawlers dragging for their catch, and buckets of local shrimp are sold at roadside stands along with boiled peanuts, another local delicacy. I like to order “She-Crab” soup, sweet tea, peel and eat shrimp, hush puppies and Hoppin’ John, a mixture of black eye peas and rice. This year, my brother-in-law Ted surprised everyone by ordering alligator bites as an appetizer, which he generously shared with the table. The verdict: sweet and tender, a little like chicken. The next day, we snapped this photo and sent it to Ted with the caption Gator Revenge:

We spotted this guy the day after feasting on Gator Bites at the Salty Dog on Hilton Head Island.

For me, food is as much a part of getting away as the sun and surf. So I’m always a little disappointed when I’m away, and someone suggests baked chicken or hotdogs and hamburgers for dinner. That’s a little like ordering a Maine lobster in Ohio, or fish at a Connecticut pancake house, as I did one evening with disastrous results. It can be done, but why?

Though “eating local” has become as grating a term as “self care,” I’ve always been a fan of regional cuisine, from New Haven pizza and New York soft pretzels and hotdogs to New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes. During my family’s annual summer vacation on Cape Cod every August, I loved feasting on whole belly fried clams dipped in copious amounts of tartar sauce with a side of french fries and coleslaw. Being a late August baby, that was my birthday dinner. I can’t go to the Cape without craving fried clams, though these days I usually skip the fries.

When I’m on Martha’s Vineyard, I want to eat fish all the time, even if it means contending with everyone else crowding around Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha to eat boiled lobsters off their lap for lunch or clams on the half shell at sunset. I want to eat harpooned swordfish, bay scallops as sweet as candy and piles of steamers with drawn butter. I want to cook grey sole the way my mother-in-law did – lightly seasoned with bread crumbs and paprika sprinkled on top and baked quickly at 500 degrees – and I want to eat stuffed littlenecks even if I must return from the beach two hours early to prepare them.

I want to eat local, from the overpriced greens and breads sold at the West Tisbury Farmers Market, the cheese from the local cows and the salsas, jams and hand pressed Limeade rustled up by Islanders. I want to buy overpriced salt harvested from local waters and smoked in flavors like oak and hear stories about different salts from the woman who makes them. I want to buy blueberry muffins from the pie lady, and spring for a sandwich at an overpriced shop. I rarely splurge for sandwiches at home, so why not? Isn’t that the point of being on vacation?

Years ago, my parents went away with some close friends, sharing a house on the beach close to where we stayed this year. My father’s friend pulled a half gallon of ice cream out of the freezer at 10 a.m., and began eating it as though it was routine. My father couldn’t get over it – ice cream in the morning! But his friend explained that he’d never do this except on vacation. My father didn’t get it: he was a disciplined guy and would never indulge like that. But I understand it, more now that I’m older. It’s fun to break the routine, particularly after the year we’ve all been through.

With only about an hour before checkout and coffee ice cream in the freezer, the Curmudgeon made himself a shake at 8:30 a.m. He’d never do that at home, but as he explained: “There was ice cream and milk.” He actually returned home three pounds lighter than when he left, so who am I to question him about shakes before lunch?

Ice cream at 8:30 a.m.? Why not!

So the Shake & Bake didn’t happen, even after the Curmudgeon offered to make it and serve it for lunch. I warned him I didn’t want it, and I meant it. Maybe next time, he’ll listen.

Happy Anniversary

Photo courtesy of istockphoto

I was recently asked to write a short bio for a new venture one of my friends is launching. 

That’s the good thing about friends: they’ll ask you to join their new business when your resume has more holes in it than a moth-eaten sweater. I sat there looking at the blank screen for a few minutes and thought, “Boy, I don’t have much to say on the career front.”

And then I thought of the two reasons why: my son and daughter, who have occupied most of my time for the past 23 years. Years ago, I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around a reporter’s decision to step away from her job to raise her kids. And then my son entered my life at age 39 and I thought, “I’ve got one chance to do this right, and I don’t want to screw it up.”

I doubled down on that thought after my daughter joined our family when I was 42. I’m glad I was able to stay home with them because they’re my pride and joy. So rather than pad my resume, I made it abundantly clear that I was a stay-at-home mom in my very short bio. I don’t care if it doesn’t sound impressive: it’s the truth, and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance.

Though staying home with kids is certainly an acceptable route in our society, it’s not valued in the workplace as experience and doesn’t sound impressive at cocktail parties. Saying you’re a blogger often elicits eye rolls, but here’s the thing: blogging has given me back the gift of writing, something I took for granted all those years as a reporter. It’s given me a forum to express myself, and the confidence to believe I can produce longer pieces.

My road to stay-at-homeness was gradual, certainly nothing I planned when I was setting out. In fact, I wanted nothing more than a successful career, having grown up in a time of women’s liberation and equal rights. When a college friend told me during senior year her goal was to marry, have kids and join the garden club, I winced, believing she was shortchanging herself.

“What about a career?” I thought to myself.

I spent most of my 20s and 30s as a reporter and editor at small dailies and weeklies until I got a job at a bigger newspaper. As much as I loved my work, I knew I wanted to be a mom. My road to motherhood was fraught with disappointment until a miracle came along after about 10 years. I named him Matthew, gift of the Lord. Nearly four years later, we welcomed his sister Maura.

I continued to freelance when my kids were young, waking up the crack of dawn to complete writing assignments while the little monsters slept. But as they got older, even freelancing became difficult because I was so busy shuttling them to sporting events, CCD and other after school activities. What you learn is that it’s actually easier to get things done when your kids are babies. Once the hustle and bustle of shuttling kids begins, your life is not your own.

My desire to write waned as my children got older and I took on the role of taxi driver. I used to tell people that my day didn’t really begin until 3, when I buckled them into their seats and began driving the back streets of Guilford, CT., to avoid highway traffic to get them where they needed to be. I now know every shortcut in town like the back of my hand. But I was a little lost when my son went off to college: without him around, I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself. I decided to start a blog, just to see if anyone might be able to relate to my experiences.

I thought it was three years – honest. Then I got my anniversary notice from WordPress and it says four years, so I guess it must be so. 

I still enjoy blogging, sharing experiences in hopes of connecting with people. It thrills me when people write back, telling me they can relate or sharing their own spin on things. I’m overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and can honestly say it’s been a great experience. I have nothing but good things to say about blogging, and encourage anyone who wants to blog to try it.

At this point, I’m nearing 300 followers on WordPress, with others following on Facebook. I don’t gauge my success in terms of number of followers, but in terms of how I connect with the readers I have: did I strike a chord and remind you of something in your own life or childhood? Did I make you laugh, cry or wistful? I’m not trying for a certain reaction: that to me is manipulative. But if I happen to strike a chord, that’s the money shot. I think that’s what every writer is after at the end of the day.

So here it’s been – four years. Not a long time, but as long as high school, college and some short-lived marriages. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

Truth in Advertising?

The depiction of the 60+ crowd upset a lot of people, including me.

I’m not sure what happens to women over the age of 50, but we become a little obsessed with aging.

It’s not necessarily just our own aging process that interests us. We’re also interested in the age of other women we see on the street, in the supermarket, in the CVS drive-thru line, in ads and on the TV screen, wondering how old they are. Senior days at the supermarket are a particularly fertile time for this pastime: it’s interesting to see how many older women rock spandex leggings or pink streaks in their hair these days.

I don’t remember age being part of the equation when I was a “kid” in my 20s and 30s, but maybe it was always there waiting to be unleashed like the grey hair at my temples. People say one of the gifts of turning 50 is no longer caring what other people think of you. If that’s true, then so is looking at other women around your age and seeing how Father Time is treating them.

My first memory of making a point to Google an actor’s age is after a play at Long Wharf in New Haven that I attended with a few friends several years ago. The star of the show was a gorgeous actress with a killer body, but it was obvious that she was a mature woman. My friends and I debated her age, finally settling the debate with a few finger strokes on our trusty I-Phones. For the record, the woman was a few years younger than I was, but looked a helluva lot better than me. That’s OK. That’s not a high bar these days.

One of my pandemic obsessions is Googling people’s ages on my phone as I watch various shows, or should I say programs? I don’t much care how old men are – they’re merely a blip on my phone screen. But I’ll admit that I did a double take when I realized an old bald guy on a recent episode of “Magnum PI” was Corbin Bernsen. As an early fan of The Young & the Restless, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Corbin because he is the son of the late Jeanne Cooper, who played Katherine Chancellor for years.

I’d seen his name in the credits at the beginning of Magnum PI, and looked forward to seeing the hunky blond actor from “LA Law.” As I watched the show, I kept thinking, “Where’s Corbin?” It wasn’t until the end of the show that I realized that he was the old guy dying in a hospital bed. To be fair, the makeup people did a job on Corbin, making him look much older than his 66 years. He’s still a very attractive man. But it was hard seeing him as the old bald character actor rather than the gorgeous lead from his younger days. Maybe seeing him reminded me that I’m no longer the young woman I was when I was watching him rock that blond mane back in the ‘80s.

It’s nice when you look up a celebrity’s age and are pleasantly surprised that they’re holding up so well: Jane Fonda is 83, Lily Tomlin is 81, Helen Mirren is 75 and Christie Brinkley still looks great at 67. Of course, it’s possible a fair bit of work may be involved, but that’s OK. I’d never fault anyone for plastic surgery, though it’s not a route I plan to take (never say never). I only ask for honesty when plastic surgery is involved: please don’t tell the public you’re all natural when we all know you’re not.

Aging isn’t easy for any of us, and it doesn’t get any easier with each passing year. It’s hard to know what you look like to the outside world as you age, particularly with everyone wearing masks that cover troublespots like lined cheeks, sagging jowls, drooping chins and laugh lines. One of the most humbling experiences is catching a glimpse of myself in the camera at the self service checkout at Wal-mart and Big Y: I look quickly and then avert my eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding going out in public like this,” I think.

You’re having a pretty good day, and then you realize you’re on camera . . .

Though I’m not consumed with age, and realize that aging is a privilege, it’s hard to think of myself as looking like an old lady at 62. So it was with a mixture of amusement and horror that I looked at an age progression chart for the Keto Diet on Facebook. Each of the age groups features a depiction of women at different ages and what they can expect to look like on Keto. Everyone looks pretty good until you get to the woman in her 60s, who looks old from her head to her toes. 

I thought I was the only one who objected to this scary depiction of a frumpy if kindly looking old lady until a Facebook ad for Keto popped up in my feed this week. The responses came from around the world, with the consensus that we’ll all stick to our terrible diets if this is what awaits us:

“How about some new photos of over 60? one woman wrote.

“Wow, looking at how you depict women at certain ages. This is so off,” wrote another.

“My 83-year-old mother looks better than the example of the 60+ woman,” wrote another.  So does my 87-year-old mother, for that matter.

“If going on Keto means that I’ll lose my sense of style and look like this, I’ll stick to my current diet,” a 71-year-old woman wrote.

It was a relief that I wasn’t the only one who objected to the depiction in the 60+ age bracket. And people found other problems with the ad, from misspellings (stake instead of steak) to its lack of representation for men and minorities. Some people criticized the clothing, with one guy noting:

“I didn’t realize that age 40 was the age that Karens got their wings.”

Of course, most people commented on the diet, which was, after all, the point of the ad. But I think the comments about the 60+ woman’s appearance speaks to the importance of accurate branding. I know plenty of women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who are in fantastic shape and stylish. Seeing how the 60+ crowd is depicted in the Keto ad is insulting because it’s not an accurate depiction. In fact, it will probably turn off more women than it will attract.

Maybe the ad people will get their act together and update the chart – we can always hope they come to their senses. In the meantime, there’s a bowl of pasta with my name on it.

Artichokes, 101

You know you’ve done something right when a group devoted to cooking and eating enthusiastically embraces one of your creations.

I posted a photo of a single stuffed artichoke I made using my grandmother’s very simple recipe on Wooster Square Cooks and the response was overwhelming, at least as far as my posts go. People love artichokes, especially stuffed the old-fashioned way with breadcrumbs in the center cavity. My grandmother used to spoon breadcrumbs in the individual leaves too, but I don’t because I find the breadcrumbs get too mushy. Besides, the dish is filling and rich enough without adding more breadcrumbs to the mix.

What surprised me is that so many people love artichokes, but had never made stuffed artichokes because they don’t know how. I was happy to share my recipe because they’re easy to make and so satisfying, particularly at this time of the year. I don’t have my grandmother’s recipe written down, but I watched her prepare them so often in her Brooklyn, N.Y., kitchen to know it by heart. The secret was her breadcrumb mix – the same recipe, I believe, that she used to stuff clams and lobsters on Christmas Eve and for stuffed mushrooms.

She favored good quality plain breadcrumbs, not Italian seasoned. She’d dump them in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and a good shake of garlic powder (not garlic salt). A shake or two of dried parsley. From there, she would drizzle in good olive oil and stir, stopping when it reached the consistency of damp sand. Combined, but not saturated. If she added too much oil, more breadcrumbs would go in the bowl until she had the desired consistency.

Some people commented that they used fresh garlic and parmesan cheese in their stuffing, but I don’t. I want to taste the artichoke without being overwhelmed by other flavors. Fresh garlic seems overpowering, but to each his or her own. I’d never dare argue with another cook, particularly an Italian American one.

Like a lot of old-time cooks, I don’t remember my grandmother ever using a measuring cup or spoon, cookbook or recipe card. She was a fantastic cook, but did everything by memory or feel. That’s just how she rolled. So when a few people on Wooster Square Cooks wanted the recipe, I had to think long and hard, particularly about the breadcrumb mixture. It didn’t help that I’d had my 2nd Covid 19 shot earlier in the day, or that I had a few glasses of wine to celebrate.

For my Wooster Square Cooks post, I didn’t have enough breadcrumbs so I crushed up a bag of croutons. My grandmother wouldn’t like that, but in a pinch it will do. The most difficult part of the recipe is making sure that you have enough water in the pot. You’ve got to check it periodically to make sure it doesn’t boil down too much, adding water as needed. Some people said they baked theirs in a Dutch Oven, but I prefer the stovetop so I can keep an eye on them.

I think it’s important to share recipes – can you believe some people guard them with their life? Not what cooking is all about, at least for me. So when a few friends asked for a simple recipe for Easter Brunch, I offered them my mother-in-law’s holiday standard Eggs for Brunch. She got the recipe from her daughter, Sarah, and included it a fundraising cookbook. Here’s it is, in case you’re still trying to figure out what to make for Sunday:

Start by cutting off the stem of the artichoke so it will sit flat in the pan. Next, snip off the sharp tips of each artichoke leaf with a pair of kitchen scissors or a knife (scissors work best). Remove any outer leaves that are withered or don’t look appetizing.
Wash the artichokes, separating the leaves with your fingers, shake off excess water and drain on paper towels to dry.
Use your fingers to spread out the artichoke leaves to open the center cavity. Be gentle, or you’ll end up ripping it apart.
After stuffing generously, place artichokes in a pan containing about three inches of water. Don’t crowd the artichokes. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, immediately reducing the heat to a simmer. Cook for an hour, until leaves are tender. The breadcrumbs will steam, becoming moist and a bit darker during the cooking process. Serve with melted butter, if you want.

Here’s the complete recipe:

GRANDMA ROSE’S STUFFED ARTICHOKES (SERVES 4)

4 large artichokes, outer or any dry leaves removed

About 2 cups of breadcrumbs. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, flatten some croutons in a plastic bag.

About 4-6 tablespoons of olive oil

Garlic powder

Dried parsley

Salt and pepper

Method:

Remove the tough outer leaves of the artichoke. Snip off the end of each leaf with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Cut off the stem and top of the artichoke with a knife. I usually remove about ½ an inch from the top. Gently spread the leaves of the artichoke apart with your fingers, taking care not to break off any leaves. Rinse under cold water, shaking to remove excess water. Blot the top of the artichoke face down on paper towels to remove remaining water.

In a small mixing bowl, combine breadcrumbs with olive oil, mixing in enough oil to create the consistency of damp sand – combined, but not saturated. Add in a shake of garlic powder, salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of dried parsley.

Open the top of the artichoke and spoon the breadcrumbs into the center cavity. If you want, you can spoon breadcrumbs into the individual leaves. I find that the breadcrumbs sometimes become too soggy in the leaves, but it’s all a matter of personal taste. Once stuffed, drizzle a little olive oil on top for good measure.

Place artichokes in a covered pot with about three inches of water with a dash of salt and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Check the artichokes periodically to see if more water is needed. Cook for one hour, letting the artichokes rest in the water for about five minutes.

Serve with melted butter.

This is a meal in itself, very filling. Serve with a side salad and dinner is served.

Better, Worse + Lunch

There was a time when the Curmudgeon made his own lunch and brought it with him every day.

It was always the same: peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread, an apple and three oatmeal cookies. He’d buy chocolate milk from the roach coach – those shiny trucks that went from place to place at breakfast and lunch before Uber Eats and gourmet food trucks became a thing. He pinched pennies so hard that he used the same raisin bread bag to pack his lunch until it fell apart.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter's salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can't do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.There was a reason for his frugality: he was in law school and we were poor, subsisting on my ridiculously low reporter’s salary. Still, I was impressed that he never changed it up. He could eat the same thing day in, day out, and never get tired of it. I can’t do that. I need variety in my life and in my meals, unable to have the same thing two days in a row. This may explain why we rarely eat the leftovers that the Curmudgeon meticulously packages in plastic storage containers after every dinner.

I don’t like leftovers. I know, I should, and I probably fall in the minority of people, but I don’t. My father refused to eat them, so we can blame him. At one point, he told my mother to stop making baked sausages and potatoes because the dish reminded him of when he was a poor medical resident. He made a similar proclamation over filet of sole Almandine, not because it reminded him of being poor, but he was simply sick of it.

As eaters go, he was a tough nut, the only person I ever met who didn’t like condiments on his hotdogs and hamburgers, and hated all cheese, even the smell of it. My mother used to prepare separate trays of “lasagna in the boat” for my dad at holidays without cheese. That’s the way he ate his pizza too. Before he ordered fish and chips, he always asked if it was made with cod, refusing to order it if it was. He didn’t order it very often.

One day, my dad thought it might be nice to come home for lunch to see my mother without seven kids around, but my mother quickly put a stop to it. She wanted an uninterrupted stretch of time to herself while we were at school to get things done and whatever else moms did while they had the house to themselves. As a mom myself, I understand this completely.

“I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch,” she declared one day, repeating a quote attributed to Wallis Simpson, wife of Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne for his lady. Aside: I think Prince Harry takes after his great great uncle in the love department, washing his hands of the monarchy for Meghan. I doubt Meghan would tell Harry to get lost at lunch, but who knows? We all have limits to our togetherness.

Wallis Simpson didn’t want her husband home for lunch either.

My father was not amused by my mother’s proclamation; in fact, I think his feelings were hurt, but he got the message. From then on, he ate peanut butter crackers at lunch, arriving home like a maniac at 6 p.m. ready to eat anything in sight.

It never occurred to my mother to pack a sandwich for my father, though it certainly would have been easy enough: most mornings she stood at a thick cutting board and made seven sandwiches for us to take to school before lining us up and combing our hair, mostly into braids and ponytails. From there, she added cookies and a bag of chips, even after I implored her to hold my chips. Of course, we sometimes had hot lunch too, but what I remember from those days is her sandwiches: cream cheese and jelly (and “a punch in the belly,” she always added), ham and cheese and when she was really desperate, cold veal cutlets on a hard roll. (Those were immediately tossed in the trash.)

I don’t have lunch with the Curmudgeon, though there was a time that we ate it together every day. That’s one of the benefits of dating and then marrying a co-worker: you have a built-in lunch buddy to explore the delis and diners within a 10-mile radius of your workplace. We had about 10 establishments in our lunch rotation, from a hamburger joint that served Afghanistan cuisine (fantastic!) to Mr. Sizzle, home of the pastrami nightmare.

Today, the Curmudgeon eats lunch with a few friends at work. They go to a few delis to pick up sandwiches every day, mainly to get out of the office. I understand the need for a change of scenery. Eight or more hours in the same place can drive you nuts. I never brown-bagged my lunch when I worked full-time, mainly because I needed to leave the premises.

But the other day, these guys drove around for 45 minutes in search of their lunch. Their favorite deli in Branford, CT., was closed due to Covid 19, and they had to wait about a half hour for tuna fish sandwiches at another place. So I did something I’ve never done in nearly 40 years of marriage: I offered to make the Curmudgeon a sandwich to take to work. I was feeling so generous that I offered to make one for his co-worker too.

I agree that a sandwich from a deli always tastes better than one made at home, but I figured I could handle tuna salad, about the only option available during Lent if you don’t want egg salad or a PB&J. By Wednesday, I had all of my ingredients: tuna fish, celery, shaved carrots, lettuce, tomato, Spanish onion and hot red peppers for his friend. Despite my supplies, the Curmudgeon was initially dismissive, saying he could handle his own lunch, but thanks.

By Friday morning, he was cautioning me that he only wanted lettuce and tomato on his sandwich, while his friend hated lettuce so I’d better not dare put any on his sandwich. I offered to pack the lunches so he could take them with him, but he worried that the sandwiches would be soggy sitting for hours. This seemed a reasonable concern, though plenty of other people, including school kids, must contend with this every day.

“Come at 12:15 p.m.,” he said. I felt like an Uber Eats delivery person. But at least they don’t have to make it too. To get myself in the mood, I washed the lettuce, sliced the tomatoes and assembled the tuna salad early, throwing it in the refrigerator so the flavors would meld. I’m not sure why deli tuna is so good, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to master at home. Mine is never quite mushy enough, lacking the distinctive texture that makes deli tuna so great. I even used an ice cream scoop like they do at Subway, flattening the mounds of tuna with the back of it.

A few hours after he left, he phoned to say his friend was out of the office, so he wouldn’t be needing lunch. He then suggested I pack my own tuna sandwich and join him at the picnic table outside their office. This surprised me on a few levels: he deplores eating outside, and he hasn’t invited me to have lunch with him in at least 10 years. Then again, I was bringing the sandwiches, a definite plus in my column.

The weather cooperated, a balmy 60-something degrees in mid-March, and the dog limited her begging to me, knowing better not to bother the Curmudgeon when he’s eating. It was pleasant, fun, and best of all, he saved a little money. It was nice eating out with him, even if it was next to the office parking lot and a garbage can.

Some of his office co-workers ambled by, and commented on how cute it was that we were picnicking after all these years. But just as quickly as it began, it ended. When I offered to make tuna sandwiches again, he brushed me off.

“It was nice, but I’m all set,” he said.

I’m back to eating alone, just as Wallis and I like it.