Slip Siding Away

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Tiny.

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Middle school.

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Almost 17.

I used to get terribly frustrated when my mother wasn’t dressing as nicely as I thought she should.

She’d sometimes wear cut off nylons or my father’s socks, assuming no one noticed her feet. But as a mother myself, I understand. I hope people will give me a pass for wearing my son’s Adidas slides to the prom gathering on the Green Friday night.

I planned to wear a decent outfit for the annual promenade of gowns and tuxedos before this year’s senior prom. But life, as they say, got in the way and I ended up wearing the slides, which my son uses as shower shoes in college.

This might be OK except they’re about 4 inches too big for my feet. As my mom would say, I looked a little like God Help Us. Or at the very least one of those women who have thrown in the towel.

I was hoping no one noticed, but I think a few people did. I definitely caught a kid in Big Y checking out my feet and stifling a laugh as I stood in line and picked up my daughter’s escort’s boutonniere. But I didn’t care, not nearly as much as I did during my son’s senior prom festivities three years ago.

I don’t know a lot of kids in this year’s graduating class because I don’t have any kids in 12th grade. And by the time you’ve attended your fifth pre-prom gathering, all you really want is a few photos and to send them on their way. Oh, there are women who show up in their LBD and pearls, but it’s few and far between. The bulk of the moms come as they are, just happy to have made it out the door.

I wrote a piece a few months ago saying I was rested and ready for another prom, but I failed to factor in the law of diminishing returns. This is about the only thing I retained from economics. It means that the thrill of doing something diminishes every time you do it.

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My professor used the example of eating ice cream. The first one tastes great, the second less so and so on. The same is true for prom preparations. The role of hand maiden gets old the second time, particularly when the princess forgot to get the pedicure and is calling you to paint her toenails 15 minutes before she’s due on the Green.

I’m not sure why prom day is always a nightmare, but it is. Hair appointments requiring leaving school early, and miscommunication between the main office that requires three phone calls, two voicemails, five texts, and finally a hand-written note from home. Make-up misfires. Limp tendrils. Hooks and snaps that won’t stay. A last-minute scramble for an evening bag or anything to hold a few necessities.

By the time we pulled out of the driveway with a large cup of coffee between my knees, I just wanted to snap a few photos, take a look at the dresses – the best part of prom in my  opinion – and send my daughter and her date on their merry way.

Of course, it’s never that easy. There is the problem of assembling everyone for group shots. There are the rolled eyes of your daughter as you move in for another close-up. There’s trying to keep your emotions in check as your daughter and her closest friend pose for a photo, making you wonder where the last 15 years have gone.

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Both girls looked beautiful, my daughter in her blazing red gown and classic up-do, and her friend C in her silk platinum gown with her long flowing blonde hair in tiny braids framing her face. I swallowed hard. They’re two young women now, no longer the pair of girls who did scouting together and struggled to spend a night away from home at sleepovers.

Her family lives across the street. They were the only ones who took the bait 15 years ago when the guy who sold us his house invited us over to meet the neighbors. It was so nice of them to come. Can you imagine if no one showed up?

We learned that they had two daughters, the younger girl the same age as our daughter. A son would follow a few years after we moved in. The girls have known and played with each other since they were 18 months old, which is pretty cool considering how transient some neighborhoods are today.

I loved the fact that my daughter has a neighborhood friend because I was great friends with two girls on my street while I was growing up. Neighborhood friends share a certain bond that other friends don’t. You almost feel related because you know each other’s families so well.

You’re on the front lines when Joe the Boxer eats the molding around a door. You sense everyone’s concern when your friend’s brother goes in for another surgery. You know the ins and outs of other families, when to give parents a wide berth and when it’s OK to let loose. No one else’s house is quite yours, but neighborhood friends’ houses are pretty close.

The previous owner warned us that our neighborhood is not a coffee klatch type of neighborhood and he was right. I can go weeks, sometimes months, without seeing my neighbors, but that doesn’t mean we’re disconnected, distant or don’t like each other. It just means we’re very busy.

We’re there for each other, watching each other’s dogs when someone’s traveling. We borrow sugar, flour, butter and the occasional cup of dog food when supplies run low. We keep tabs on each other’s houses and kids when the teens want to stay home for the weekend, making sure no more than two cars are in the driveway. We text each other to plan neighborhood gatherings when someone notes we’re overdue.

We get a little choked up when we see two beautiful young women standing on the Guilford, CT., green on their way to prom, wondering where the time has gone. I wasn’t a basket case at this year’s pre-prom gathering because my daughter is only a sophomore. I’ve got two more years of teen-age girl stuff – the good, the bad and the angst.

But other parents were watching their only or last child headed off to their last prom – another last in a list of assemblies, concerts, teacher conferences,  banquets, awards nights and sporting events that is senior year. It goes by so fast that you almost can’t believe it.

As parents, we know that this is what we’ve been working for all these years, yet it’s still so incredibly hard marking all of these lasts. My daughter’s date’s mom said that it helped her knowing that I was terribly sad when my son left for college. She said by telling her, I had normalized her feelings.

“I look around and no one else seems to be feeling this sense of loss,” she said. “It really helped knowing you felt it too.”

I felt it in spades and was somewhat floored because I didn’t expect it. I was terribly sad when my son left for school because I felt a huge void. I had invested so much time in him that I missed him more than I ever imagined I would.

It took me a long time to get used to having him away, but I’m used to it and actually embrace it. In fact, I’m still adjusting to having him home for the summer because he doesn’t realize we all get along just fine without him for most of the year.

He doesn’t understand why I use StitchFix, or why I want to watch Dateline when he wants to watch repeats of The Office with me. He doesn’t understand why I want to veg out in my bedroom while his father watches the NBA finals downstairs. He really doesn’t get how much I hate professional hockey, but I do and that’s never going to change.

So prom is over for another year, and this year’s seniors will take their place on the Green in another few weeks to receive their diplomas. I’m happy for them and their families, and excited for the adventures that await them. It’s a wonderful milestone, a commencement of the next stage in life and things to come.

It’s not over, it’s only just the beginning for everyone – kids and the parents too. Just don’t forget the Kleenex.

The Last Parade

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Things were going well for Cali at the start of the parade.

Memorial Day makes me happy to be a New Englander.

Everyone dresses in their flag finery – baseball caps, leggings, sweatshirts, wraps, dresses, skirts and bandanas – and heads to our historic Green for an old-time parade, a ceremony and speeches, and a picnic with tortoise races and pony rides hosted by the Guilford Keeping Society.

This year was particularly grand and well attended because the parade has been rained out the past two years. Townsfolk came out in droves – handing out tiny flags, distributing red VFW poppies crafted from crepe paper with green wire stems, and watching in awe as two planes swooped by for a flyover.

As parades go, things were going well. My daughter played the bass drum to the Washington Post, a John Philip Sousa ditty synonymous with Memorial Day. She glared at me as I raced along the parade route snapping photos, but put up with it. She didn’t even complain about “wearing” her clunky drum or her marching band outfit.

I was a lot less discreet than another high schooler’s mother. When he asked her why she and his father followed the middle school band instead of the high school’s ensemble, she said, “We didn’t want to embarrass you.” I thought that came with the territory of having a kid in high school. Breathing, just being alive, is enough to embarrass them most of the time.

It was one of those days that you are proud to be an American. People gathered on front lawns, noshing on doughnuts and bagels and catching up on the latest news. Older folks hauling out lawn chairs, setting up on the grassy strip between the road and sidewalk for an unobstructed view of the parade. Pre-schoolers handing out tiny American flags, giggling as they ran off to get more from their proud parents.

I love this part of Americana, I really do, because this is what Memorial Day is all about. Remembering the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives, fighting in wars and representing our country so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.

I don’t know why so many people came out this year – perhaps it’s because of the last two rainouts – but I think it’s more than that. I think there’s a resurgence of patriotism in our country, a growing feeling that despite the horrors of school violence, terrorism, the drug crisis, the #MeToo movement, and the circus that is Washington politics, this is still the best country in the world.

I think people came out in force to remind themselves of that, to remember that in spite of all the crap – and there is such an awful lot of crap – there’s a lot we can be thankful for today. It was particularly gratifying seeing the number of parents with young children, showing them that it’s good to be patriotic, to feel pride about your flag and your country.

Of course, no parade for my family is complete without a minor glitch. This year, it was our 9-year-old yellow Lab Cali, who insisted on coming as she saw us heading out the door. The dog has not let us out of her sight since we left her for a week-long vacation in South Carolina last month. You’d think we’d left her outside to fend for herself the way she’s been carrying on since our return.

As we followed the last of the fire engines and rescue trucks up the parade route, Cali pooped on the sidewalk. Her accident might have gone unnoticed, except for the woman in back of me who was screaming, “Ew, GROSS!”

Yes, I know it was gross. It’s disgusting when a dog defecates in the best of circumstances, say when there aren’t hundreds of people around and a parade going on around you. And I had two plastic shopping bags at the ready to pick it up when the dog was finished. Unfortunately, I had to march down the parade route with the bag as spectators lining the streets looked on, wondering if I was marching to promote poop-scooper laws.

“I just need to find a trash can,” I whispered to the Curmudgeon and my son, who were trailing behind me with the dog. “Why can’t you ever find a trash can when you really need one?”

And so I marched along with my bag in hand for what seemed like an eternity, wondering when I could dump it. I finally ditched it in a garbage can on the Green. Relief. Just so much relief.

After the speeches and before wreaths were laid at a monument on the Green, three shots were fired, sending Cali into a tailspin. My son gave me the look that you get in church when you’ve got a screaming kid. You know, the glares, mostly from older women, that say, “Do something about that kid now.”

I took her to the perimeter of the Green to try to quiet her. As she sat shaking, a woman approached. “I don’t even like animals, but I was so moved by her reaction that I just wanted to hug her,” she said. “Does she always react this way?”

“Yes, she does,”  I said as Cali tried to jump up on the woman, who was wearing white pants. “She’s had this thing about guns since I took her to a track meet a few years ago and heard the starter’s pistol.”

It’s true. I don’t know what kind of fool brings a dog to a track meet, but I did. The dog freaked out so much when the starter’s pistol went off that she bolted to my car, forcing me to drop my car keys in some bushes. I searched for the keys, but couldn’t find them and had to bum a ride to my house from a kindly  grandmother who took pity on me. I returned to the school and searched for my keys, but never found them. To this day, I have no idea what happened to them.

What made Cali’s behavior so exasperating is that every other dog at the parade and the ceremony was on their best behavior. They sat or stood patiently by their owners’ side, showing no sign of panic or distress when the shots were fired. It was like having a fussy kid throwing a tantrum in a restaurant while kids at other tables sit happily eating oyster crackers and coloring in their paper menus.

At some level, her behavior reflected poorly on me because I couldn’t control or comfort her, and wasn’t smart enough to know that I should have kept her home. I forgot that one of the most important parts of parenting is doing what’s best for your child, and sometimes the right decisions aren’t the easiest ones. Tough love is sometimes necessary for dogs too, though I wish it wasn’t this way.

I wish my dog liked crowds and wasn’t spooked by loud noises. But she is, and no matter how much she wants to join us, she’s seen her last parade. I’m not happy about it, but keeping her home is the right decision for Cali and the rest of our lovely community. It’s the least I can do for my fellow men, women and country.

 

Awards Season

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Throwing the javelin is harder than it looks.

We got a letter in the mail saying our daughter was receiving a high school award for achievement excellence.

When we asked her what it was all about, she said, “I have no idea.” So the entire family went to the ceremony, and sat in the packed auditorium, waiting for her name to be called.

I was convinced she was getting a music award. She’s in the high school band’s percussion section, and spends an extra night or two every week in the percussion ensemble playing the cowbell, triangle, and timpani. It requires dedication, commitment and a little gumption because she’s the only girl among eight guys.

But when the names were called, hers wasn’t among them. So we moved down the sheet to physical education. She’s on the cross country and track teams, and took one for the team this spring, agreeing to throw the javelin. She was probably getting an award for being a team player, agreeing to throw a spear. But when the physical education awards were announced, she wasn’t on the podium.

(As an aside: we recently replaced a skylight opener. When I asked the Curmudgeon to take the long pole to the dump, he hurled it across the yard and said, “No. This is just like a javelin. Maura can use it to practice over the summer.)

“Why are we here?” the Curmudgeon asked. “Do you think it’s a mistake? Maybe she’s getting an award in health. She really seems to like that class.”

It’s true. She stunned me one day, listing the different kinds of sexually transmitted diseases and whether they were bacterial or viral for a quiz. I don’t know why kids pay such close attention in health class – well, I guess I do – but I wish she’d focus that much in other classes, including math.

Of course, part of the genius of this ceremony was piquing our interest, telling us that she was getting an award, but withholding details. And though the letter stated that administrators understood if students or parents had to skip the ceremony, all but two kids and their parents attended, sitting through nearly 30 awards categories, and numerous sub-categories.

After about 90 minutes, my curiosity turned to impatience. I was 8:30 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten dinner. The tipoff to the Houston-Golden State Warriors game was rapidly approaching. Unlike some assemblies, there was no graceful way to leave. And besides, I still didn’t know why we were there.

“I’m getting a little tired of this,” I whispered to the Curmudgeon. “Does the same kid have to win 10 awards? Can’t they spread the wealth around? And why is it taking so long for every kid to walk to the stage? We’re going to be here all night.”

Part of my impatience probably stemmed from my own shortcomings in the awards department. I didn’t really bring it until sophomore year in high school. And even when I brought it, I wasn’t exactly stockpiling awards. The best I did was in senior year in college, when a piece I wrote about architect Henry Hobson Richardson was published in the literary magazine. I remember being very honored. It’s wonderful to be recognized.

The Curmudgeon has some experience in the awards department, snagging the Boys’ State Award in his junior year in high school. He spent a week with other future political wonks, electing leaders among themselves and listening to lectures from the governor and other state leaders for a week at the University of Connecticut. This is sort of the scholarly version of All-State. I clearly married up.

Sitting in the audience, I had plenty of time to think. I purposely left my I-Phone home, refusing to be one of those parents scrolling through their phones until their child’s name is called, or videotaping the entire ceremony. Either way, the phones are a nuisance, distracting people from the here and now. I wanted to see if I could get through a tedious assembly the old-fashioned way – by actually sitting through it.

As I sat, I thought about awards, and how our attitude toward them changes with age. We give out plenty of awards to kids, and bask in the glow of their accomplishments. But as adults, the awards are fewer and farther between. And if we do happen to win an award for, say, a sporting activity or a professional achievement, we feel ridiculous displaying our accolades.

After my recent bike tour in New York City – which incidentally, I am still recovering from – I waited with 30,000 other participants to receive my medal, which I proudly hung around my neck. I was impressed by the weight of the medal. It had some heft, and for a minute, I wondered if I could use it as a belt buckle.

But after about a half hour, I felt ridiculous and covered it with my jacket. I didn’t win anything – I just crossed the finish line. And let’s face it, people often think less of you when you post your accomplishments on Facebook or parade around with a medal around your neck.

Adults have a complicated relationship with awards. We want the recognition and sense of accomplishment that medals, trophies and plaques bring, but it’s often a hollow  victory. If you post your accomplishment on social media, you risk being labeled a bore and braggart – not that I know anything about that. So you post, and hope that people understand and share in your joy instead of rolling their eyes and thinking, “There she goes – again.”

So as the awards dragged on – AP Calculus, Arabic, Latin II, Set Design – we sat, waited and adjusted ourselves in our seats. When we got to Social Studies, her name was called so quickly that I had to ask the Curmudgeon what it was all about.

“Civics. She got an award of excellence in Civics,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“I didn’t even know she was taking Civics,” he said. “Is that a full year course or a half year?”

“What exactly is civics?” I asked the Curmudgeon.

“I have no idea,” he said.

I guess we won’t be getting any awards for being parents of the year. But we should get some credit for going to the awards ceremony and staying until the end. That felt like a feat in itself.

 

 

2nd Banana

 

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Guilford High School cross country team members have a little fun at the end of a yoga class last fall. I still teach yoga to kids when I feel like it. But mostly, I don’t.

This may sound a little like a Dan Fogelberg song, so bear with me.

I met my old yoga teacher in the grocery store last week. I haven’t seen her in awhile, and we caught up in the produce section, debating which bunch of bananas were the greenest (hers).

She told me that she fired one of her longtime students because the woman was impossible and she could no longer deal with her. As a former yoga teacher, I get it. People can drive you insane on their way to zen. But I didn’t realize it was possible to get fired as a yoga student. I guess everyone should keep this in mind the next time they breathe aggressively, skip deodorant or show up late to class.

As my yoga teacher’s firing of her obnoxious student points out, we’re living in a service economy and the servers now call the shots. I know someone whose cleaning lady fired her. I know someone whose hair stylist stopped doing her hair. I know one local plumber who fails to show up to calls if he drives by a house and doesn’t like the looks of it.

How do I know this? He pulled this stunt on me one Friday shortly before Christmas about five years ago. Though I had tons of things to do, I stayed home and waited for him to come and install a gas line for a new fireplace.

He never bothered to call when he was late, and when I called his dispatcher, I was told he was on his way. Long story short, he never showed up. I later learned that he has a habit of skipping customers if he doesn’t like the job or the house. I’m not sure what this guy’s standards are – my house isn’t exactly a shack – but he lost me as a customer. And I’m quite sure he doesn’t care.

We’re living in a time when we’re thrilled to have people call us back with estimates, and have them show up when they say they will. I’m the service person point person in my neighborhood, referring electricians, plumbers and painters for jobs and vouching for their reliability.

I don’t know how I got this position, but I’ll take it because it means I’m actually getting work done and dealing with quality workers – for the most part.

We gave a handyman a punch list of small jobs two years ago, and he didn’t do any of them. He did take it upon himself to replace a roof on a garden shed that we never use to the tune of $1,000. This item wasn’t on the punch list, but was on his radar, so it got done.

Our lawn guy texted me two weeks ago and said, “I will be over on Thursday to cut the lawn.” I didn’t think the lawn needed it – it was just starting to fill in and look decent. But I hesitated about texting him back and asserting myself. I finally used my husband as my foil: “Steve and I have discussed this at length and don’t think the front or back lawn are ready yet. See u soon,” I wrote, inserting a little smiley emoji to break any tension.

“K,” he wrote back. This was the first time I have challenged him in about 10 years. He pretty much calls the shots on everyone’s lawns and fall cleanups because he’s reasonable and shows up. But there are times when you want a little control, even it’s just about the stupid grass.

I pressed my yoga instructor about her fired student. I tried to guess who had annoyed her to the point of being banned. I could think of plenty of candidates, but she was too gracious to say and honestly, it was none of my business.

What I do know is the fired student must be pretty bad because this yoga teacher is a pro, managing to deal with a room full of personalities and abilities with grace and diplomacy. I was so impressed by her and the changes yoga made in my life that I became a certified yoga instructor.

I was so unimpressed with teaching yoga that I stopped teaching within three years. By the time I quit teaching it, my only goal was earning back the $2,400 in tuition for yoga school. Some people aren’t meant to teach yoga, and I’m one of them.

People who know me laughed when they heard that I taught yoga because I’m a fiercely competitive person. But with its deep breathing, poses and sequencing, yoga mellowed me out.

One of the things I love about yoga is it’s non-competitive. Well, at least in theory. Women are brutal to each other, and yoga is no different. If you instruct them to keep their eyes on their own mats, they will invariably wander to see whether the student in front of them has bat arms or a roll of fat creeping over yoga pants during a deep forward fold. At least this has been my experience.

I don’t know where women’s competitiveness with other women comes from, but I blame my birth order. I’m the second oldest of seven girls born within 11 years. I had an older sister who was always doing things first, stealing my thunder if you will. On the other end were five younger sisters who were smaller, cuter and needed more attention than I did.

So like many seconds in large families – I will not name names in the interest of privacy – I was an inferiority complex waiting to happen. I developed a strong voice and a fiercely competitive drive in sports. As I will tell anyone before any athletic endeavor, I am not going out to lose. I may lose, but it’s not my intent.

It’s not easy being second. By its very definition, it means: coming after the first in time or order/subordinate or inferior in position, rank, or importance. And if that’s not enough, the English language is rife with expressions to make us feel, well, a little less than:  second banana, second fiddle, second class citizen, second best, second in command and sloppy, well you get the point.

Someone told me that every second (and successive) child has a complex because they weren’t first going through the birth canal. I’m not sure I buy that, but I do think second kids often feel overshadowed by older siblings, and are driven to make their mark.

Perhaps it’s having to walk in the shadow of an older sibling, to always have someone to be compared with from the moment of birth. Whatever the cause, seconds long for acknowledgement and affirmation, particularly from their parents and older sibling. We love to feel special because, well we just do.

I find it interesting that I am still a “second,” that I married someone five years older than I am who happens to be a first born. I am used to being second, and I’m very good at it. But it doesn’t mean I’m always happy about it. It just means I’m smart enough to keep my mouth shut.

 

Glass Menagerie

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Barbara Shulman-Kirwin of BSK Designs in her Guilford, CT., studio.

One of the worst days in your life is the day you lose a pet.

My 13-year-old yellow Lab Lindsey suffered from hepatitis and arthritis during the last few years of her life, ultimately needing help getting up from the floor. People told me I would instinctively know when to put her down, but I pushed it.

I was so close to the situation that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see how sick she had become. And I felt terribly uncomfortable making the decision to end her life. My reasoning: I didn’t bring her into the world, so what right did I have to decide when she died?

Making the situation worse were numerous emergency trips to the vet toward the end of her life. I went to the vet at least three times thinking she’d advise me to put her down, but never got any direction. Both Lindsey and I would heave a huge sigh of relief as we’d get back into the car, driving away as though we’d cheated death.

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Lindsey and The Curmudgeon, circa 1996.

I know now that I was keeping her alive because I dreaded life without her. She was the original fur baby, adopted at eight weeks old about a year before we brought home our son. She was so jealous that she once growled at him, requiring an emergency consultation with the vet. She never did it again, but she put us on notice: she was top dog and was not to be ignored.

Of course, as a new mom, you must ignore your dog at times and Lindsey let us know she was angry. We began calling her the Land Shark. She ate whole loaves of bread, plastic wrapper included. She ate 24 cupcakes intended for a preschool party, paper cupcake holders included. She ate a whole corn cob, sticks of butter, a square wooden block and part of a wicker couch.

When I asked the vet why my dog had suddenly become an eating machine, he noted, “If a dog isn’t getting your attention, she will find ways to get it.” And Lindsey did, becoming one of the most incorrigible dogs on the planet.

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Cali.

Part of her problem was she thought she was human. When other dogs approached and sniffed her, she’d look at them quizzically like “why are you bothering me?” She preferred to hang with human beings, particularly her mom.

I knew something was wrong with her one day while we were out hiking our favorite neighborhood trail. When I turned to look for her, she was gone. I walked the entire trail again looking for her, only to find her standing by the car at the trail head. She had clearly had enough, and let me know in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t up to big hikes any more. I began running after that because hiking just wasn’t the same without her.

Around this time of year about nine years ago, I called my husband at the office and told him to come home. Lindsey was so weak that she needed help getting up to go outside. It was clear it was time to let her go, and we took her to the vet to say goodbye.

Returning home, I was stunned by the emptiness of my house. I looked at the spot on the kitchen floor where she liked to hang out, where I had put a carpet remnant to make her a little more comfortable. Her bowls were on the floor, and her leashes hung on a hook in the kitchen. In an instant, I went from having a dog to no dog. And I didn’t like my new status at all.

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Belt buckles featuring glass.

I tried to tough it out, but began looking at Lab puppies on the Internet within about two weeks. I couldn’t stand my house or my life without a dog.  Taking care of an older or chronically ill dog is emotionally trying. I wanted the good parts of dog ownership again – puppy breath, frolicking, Frisbee catching, swimming and a hiking companion – and I didn’t want to wait.

I got another Lab within a month, and it was the best thing I ever did. Cali is a loyal and faithful companion, though she shares Lindsey’s love of bread and cookies. I took Lindsey’s ashes and planted them in a new garden that I named in her honor. It’s heart-shaped, appropriately, to underscore her permanent place in my heart.

Happily, there are other ways of keeping our departed pets close to our hearts. One of the most unique I’ve heard about is a Guilford, CT., glass fusion artist who creates pendants and wall art containing the cremated remains of pets and people. Unlike vials containing ashes that can break, the ashes are fused into the glass, so there is no risk of breakage.

Some of the ways you can remember your departed pet (above).

Barbara Shulman-Kirwin says she was in her downtown gallery about five years ago when a woman came in with a Baggie containing the ashes of her golden retriever Buddy. The woman asked if she could make five glass pendants containing Buddy’s remains for her and her four daughters.

“I was an unusual request,” she said. “I made the pendants, and they brought such joy to her.”

About a year later, another woman came in with the ashes of her mother and asked if Barbara could make a pendant for her. She began to think that she could provide a service for the grieving, creating pieces that bring comfort and solace.

“I love to make these pieces,” said Barbara, a glass fusion artist for about 20 years. “It’s such a beautiful idea, giving people their own secret, quiet connection to their loved ones or pets. People can disclose or not disclose. It’s up to them.”

Over the years, Barbara has created about 100 memorial pendants for customers. She is currently working on a project for a friend who recently lost her husband, and wants some of his ashes placed in 10 identical angels for her and his nine siblings.

One of the best parts of Barbara’s custom pieces is customers’ involvement in creating them. They pick the glass colors, size, shape and whether the piece will be clear or opaque. Prices range from $25 for an extra small pendant to $55 for extra large. The turnover time is about 48 hours “unless it’s Christmas season,” Barbara said.

Barbara, who recently lost her 15-year-old dog Kali, said one of the first things she did was make pendants for her and her children, which brought her comfort and consolation. She doesn’t expect everyone to love her idea, but she enjoys providing a service that combines her work as an artist, a longtime physical therapist and a forgiveness counselor.

“Some people will think it’s disgusting,” she said. “But we love our parents and our pets, and it’s a way of having them physically close to us at all times. To be able to wear it, well that’s kind of a cool thing.”

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/BskDesigAtChromaGallery/

 

Mother’s Day

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We managed to get a (blurry) family shot at an event last October.

It’s rare to talk to people in doctors’ waiting rooms, but old magazines and boredom prompt conversations, even in these days of smart phones.

“You know what would be good for you to make?” an older woman said to her daughter, who had accompanied her to an audiologist’s appointment. “That coffee cake. You know, the one from the yellow cake mix where you add cinnamon and nuts. That’s what you can make for Mother’s Day.”

“Um,” I interjected. “Isn’t your daughter a mother too? Because if she is, I’m not sure it’s fair to ask her to bake. It’s her special day too.”

I had no business butting in, but they took my comment in stride. But their conversation highlights some of the complications of Mother’s Day, which may be the most overrated holiday of the year.

Just so you know, not everyone loves Mother’s Day. It brings up sadness and a deep sense of loss for people whose mothers or children have died. It stirs up a sense of hurt and regret among moms who are ignored by their children, who don’t bother to acknowledge them with a card, call or even a text.

It’s hard for single women who want a family, but haven’t found the right partner. It’s hard for women who have given up children for adoption. It’s tough for women who are trying to conceive or whose names are languishing on adoption waiting lists, a potent reminder that they’re childless.

I dreaded Mother’s Day during my 10-year struggle with infertility. In fact, I suffered my first migraine at age 30 as I hacked away at an old bush in my front yard to release some of my frustration one Mother’s Day. As lights flashed in my right eye and temporarily blinded me, I thought I was suffering from a stroke. It turned out to be an optical migraine, one of many I’d suffer over the years due to stress, overexertion or simply catching the sunlight the wrong way.

I suffered two miscarriages within about 18 months, so my quest for motherhood felt possible and yet unattainable. With six sisters and two sisters-in-law starting families around the same time, I sat through 23 pregnancy announcements – some more graciously than others.

When relatives and friends told me they were pregnant, I often burst into tears. I was genuinely happy for them, but sad for me and my husband. We  wanted a family too. Why we were having such a hard time having a baby?

Making the situation worse were insensitive comments from relatives. One of the worst was my mother-in-law, who noted offhandedly one Christmas morning: “Every time we even talked about getting pregnant, I just got pregnant.” I guess it’s no wonder I began to dread Christmas at her house.

The disappointment involved in the infertility process is crushing. Hopped up on hormones that make you nutty and produce seven eggs (I once thought I’d need an Easter basket to haul around my ovaries on an assignment in New York City), each cycle begins with hope and ends in devastation. I became so frustrated and disgusted that I took four years off.

One of the problems is advancement in fertility treatments makes it hard to give up the quest of a biological child, making couples who opt out feel like quitters or failures. My gynecologist, a young mother with four children, the youngest of whom is adopted, made me laugh one day when she noted, “You wouldn’t believe how many people won’t consider adoption because they only want a biological child. And these are not exactly stellar gene pools that we are working with. In fact, anything but.”

My life began to change one Mother’s Day at my parents’ house. As people mingled in the backyard, I walked down the driveway and burst into tears. My sister Joanne followed me and encouraged me to adopt a child, telling me that it would be a shame if I didn’t because I’d make a great mother.

Other people had encouraged me to adopt, but I thought we’d be giving up on having a biological child if we took that route. I now realize that adoption doesn’t close doors, it opens them. I contacted Catholic Family Services the following week, and we began the arduous adoption process.

The adoption process is grueling and impossible to complete unless you’re fully committed. But it’s crucial, and the process actually reinforces your decision. I often wonder how many biological parents would pass if put to the test before having children. I do know there’d be a lot fewer children in foster care if everyone had to be screened the way adoptive parents are.

I was lucky. Twenty years ago, about 50 children were adopted through Catholic Family Services in Connecticut each year. Today, an average of only 5 babies are adopted through CFS every year. Times have changed, and it’s a lot more acceptable for single girls and women to keep their babies. But the desire to keep your baby doesn’t always translate into happily ever after.

At the same time adoption rates are at an all-time low, a record number of children are in foster care in Connecticut. At any given time, about 4,000 children are in foster care, primarily due to abuse or neglect. Parents who might have given their children a shot at a better life opted to keep them at birth, only to have them taken away and put in foster homes. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this is a tragedy for the children, who are without their parents or a permanent home.

I underwent my last two fertility treatments after we got on the adoption waiting list. The day I learned the second treatment failed, I came into the kitchen and saw the red light blinking on my answering machine. I pressed the button, and it was my adoption counselor telling me about a newborn boy whose birth mom had picked us to be his parents.

We drove out to the northeast corner of Connecticut on a glorious October day in 1997, to see him – a perfect little guy with blue eyes and golden curls. As we drove home, I told my husband that I couldn’t get the baby’s face out of my mind. And that’s been true for the past 20 years. My baby is now a college sophomore, but he’s always in the back of my mind and always will be.

About three years later, we adopted our daughter at six days old. She shares space in the back of my mind (well, the front too, she’s almost 17 and doesn’t drive yet) with her brother. Raising children is difficult, but without question the biggest joy of my life. And in a very weird way, I feel I was destined to be their mother.

Do I wish that I had adopted earlier? Well, yes and no. If I had, I would have spared myself years of frustration and sadness, but I wouldn’t have either of my children. And quite honestly, I can’t imagine life without either of them.

I don’t believe biology makes a mother. Love – opening your heart and caring for your child more than you ever thought possible – makes a great mom. Putting your child’s needs before your own and being there – that’s my definition of motherhood.

When my kids were young and people learned they were adopted, they’d often tell me my kids were lucky. “Are you kidding me?” I’d say. “I’m the lucky one.” And I am. These kids made me a mother, fulfilling a dream that I spent years chasing. I try never, ever to forget that.

Blueprint For Change

One of the best part of my jobs as a reporter was meeting people.

Sure, many of them were famous, but I most enjoyed talking to ordinary folks who were thrust into the limelight because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s hard to interview famous people because you know they’ve been interviewed hundreds of times, and are sick of the same questions.

You can sense their frustration in their eyes. You can tell they want to hear that one question that no one has bothered to ask. When you fail to come up with it, when you ask what they’ve heard before, you can see their eyes start to glaze over and watch them shift from eager to slightly bored.

One of the exceptions was James Brady and his wife Sarah. I met the couple as they campaigned for tougher gun safety laws following Brady’s being shot and paralyzed during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. By the time I met them in the mid-90s, they were veterans of the interview circuit, but engaged and eager to talk about their cause as if they’d just begun.

What was striking about them was their passion. Though they were famous – Brady was Reagan’s press secretary – they were down-to-earth, approachable and maybe even a little folksy. I’m not really sure why this interview is so memorable, but it is. I think it was the way the couple made me feel, as though I could help them get their message out to the masses – that I could be a conduit for change.

I haven’t really felt that way again until I heard Mary Ann Jacob speak at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, CT., last month. Jacob wouldn’t call herself a hero, but she is. She was working in the library at the Sandy Hook School when a gunman charged in, killing 20 children and six adults. Jacob guided the children to safety, hiding out in a storage closet until the shooting stopped.

Though many people might retreat after such a horrific experience, Jacob is emerging as an outspoken advocate for gun safety. She’s encouraging women to take part in the national movement to end gun violence in schools, churches, malls and other public places, saying women must take the lead on this issue.

I had the privilege of hearing her speak, and asked her to write an essay for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women’s blog, which I edit. In her essay http://now-ct.org/women-key-to-stopping-gun-violence/, she outlines what needs to be done to prevent more shootings, and what average women can do to help.

One of the problems, as I see it, is there are so many grassroots movements that it’s hard to know which group to join. I am a staunch advocate for gun control, but I don’t belong to any groups. I guess you could say I’m part of the problem because I’m not part of the solution – yet.

As Jacob points out in her piece, women are ultimately the people who pick up the pieces after gun violence, whether it’s murder, domestic violence, an accidental shooting, or suicide, so we’re involved whether we know it or not. She’s laid out a blueprint of how we can be part of the solution. Now, it’s up to us to follow through.

 

My-my-my Sharona

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Three cheers for TD Bank, who had cheerleaders in front of branches to encourage us. Here, we’re stopped on the Avenue of the Americas to see them perform.

My sister Diane and I biked about 45 miles Sunday in the TD Five Boro Bike Tour, beginning in Manhattan and ending about 4 1/2 hours later in Staten Island. Along the way, we were greeted by cheerleaders, gospel singers, rock bands and the occasional New Yorker boogying to Bruno Mars, helping all of us get into a New York state of mind.

I love New York City, though I rarely get there. I guess that was pretty obvious when I asked someone on the subway what exit I should take for the start of the tour. Yikes, did I have to sound like such a hayseed?

Some takeaways:

  1. New York City is an amazing place to see by bike because its streets are so flat and there are relatively no inclines. The few exceptions are the bridges. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stretching from Brooklyn to Staten Island is the toughest. A lot of people walked, stopping to take photos. I did neither. I was determined not to walk my bike and I deplore heights. But now I’m kicking myself about the photos. What was my rush?

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    The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the toughest part of the tour. A lot of people stopped to take photos and take in the view, but I just wanted to finish.

  2. People are idiots. When tour volunteers shout into a megaphone to slow down because you’re going down a hill in Central Park, they speed up and almost run you down. I rode the brake down every hill, and I’m happy I did. I heard about at least two very bad accidents, including one chain-reaction crash.
  3. People are really idiots. We’re walking our bikes through a narrow section of Queens and people have to try to get ahead of us by walking their bikes on the sidewalk. As Diane pointed out, these are probably the same people who merge into traffic at the last possible minute. Infuriating.
  4. We’re idiots too. After 15 minutes, we walked our bikes on the sidewalk.
  5. Parents don’t always set a good example. At the beginning of the TOUR, a man with his young son on a tandem said, “Let’s get ahead of some of these people.” When the son said, “It’s not a race,” he said, “Yeah, but we’re going to do it anyway.”
  6. Some people are born philosophers. At the start, one man turned to his friend and said, “Eighty percent of this is watching out for other people.” I’d say it’s more like 99 percent. See #2 and #3.
  7. Only in New York would you have a cyclist dressed as Captain America blasting “My Sharona” and other classics from a boom box strapped to his bike. Yes, I made a point to follow him and other people playing music. As a sometime spinner, I love listening to music while I cycle, and it’s a heck of a lot safer than earbuds.
  8. Speaking of which, don’t wear earbuds when riding with 30,000 other cyclists. Because when people on megaphones tell you to walk your bike, you’re going to be a clueless dweeb and ride your bike until I’m forced to shout, “They said get off your bike. So get off your damn bike already. You’re going to hurt someone.”
  9. Wear something that indicates your hometown. With rain in the forecast, I grabbed my daughter’s green “Guilford Cross Country” jacket, prompting at least three shoutouts of “Hey, Guilford, CT.?” during the tour. One guy even rode by and told me his name: “Ian Ferguson, Guilford, CT.” Hey Ian.
  10. Endorphins are amazing. You’d think standing in a line of cyclists a half-mile long to board the Staten Island Ferry after the tour would make you cranky, but everyone was calm and resigned as we inched along. As I said to Diane, there was nothing we could do about it, so we might as well enjoy it. We chatted up two lovely women from Philadelphia, helping to pass the time. When in doubt, chitchat.
  11. I have very good friends. My friend Steve, who rode with his kids, picked up rider packets for Diane and me on Saturday, sparing us the agony of a trip to Brooklyn and saving us 6 hours in the car. Thanks Steve. I owe you big time.
  12. Unless you’re riding it, a bike is very cumbersome. My bike felt like a petulant service dog (is there such a thing?), rubbing into people’s calves on the subway and generally requiring more attention than any inanimate object should. Though I enjoyed riding my own bike, I would never take it on the subway again. The two don’t mix.
  13. Don’t be afraid to ask directions. Diane loves to read those little subway maps. She has always been far more logical than I am. I just go up to people and ask for directions. It’s faster, and besides, it doesn’t require glasses.
  14. The Statue of Liberty is an inspiring sight, making you proud to be an American. No matter how many times I see Lady Liberty, my chest swells with pride every time I see her and her torch.
  15. Fanny packs are underrated. We all make fun of them and they really scream dork. But they’re the most efficient way to keep track of your belongings. I’m kind of loving the fanny pack. Then again, I think I’m still a little delirious.
  16. Only time will tell how long my wrists and knees will feel this sore. But I’m willing to tolerate it if my pants are loose today. Which they better be, or I’m going to be really upset.

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    On the move: Riders at the start of the 4th Wave, which began around 9:20. We waited about 10 minutes before we jumped in because the people near the start are nuts.

 

Balancing Act

“It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.”      – Albert Einstein to his son Eduard in 1930

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The gator.

Many things sound like a good idea at the time.

Running (or walking) a half marathon. Strolling across the Golden Gate Bridge. Floating in salt water in a sensory deprivation chamber for 90 minutes (there is no amount of Vaseline that can stop some things from burning). Playing a USTA tennis match. Touring the five boroughs of New York City on your bike.

I will be doing the TD Five Boro Bike Tour on Sunday with my sister Diane, and about 30,000 of our closest friends. We were very excited when we signed up in January. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for at least five years, and my friend Steve Mancuso reminded me to sign up this year before I missed the deadline again.

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Scenes from the forest.

I planned to spin and ride my bike to get in shape, but as they say life happens. I didn’t realize it was upon us until three weeks ago. Now, as in many things in life lately, my only goal is to actually make it to all five boroughs.

Completing what you started – or doing what your mind thought was a very fine idea – is probably one of the greatest challenges of aging. In your 20s and 30s, you can hop on a bike and crank out 20 or 30 miles without a lot of angst or training. But as you age, your strength and stamina diminish. You don’t run into a lot of people in their 50s who boast, “I didn’t train at all for this.”

By the time you reach your 50s, you realize the importance of training and preparation. In my sister Diane’s case, it meant bringing her bike to Tony’s Bike Shop for a tune-up and learning it had a broken brake and flat tire. In mine, it meant hopping on a one-speed cruiser and riding around bike trails during my vacation in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

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Spanish moss.

There is something appealing and inviting about bike paths, bringing back fond memories of when your bike was your chief form of transportation. Growing up,  everyone wanted a 10-speed bike, though I never mastered how to shift properly. I still don’t know what I’m doing with my fancy road bike with 40 or so gears, but don’t tell anyone.

I got the souped-up road bike about four years ago when I was doing the Closer to Free ride in New Haven, CT. On my very first ride, a guy in full biking regalia swooped alongside me and asked, “Hey, nice bike. What are you riding?’ Where you headed?” I waved him off, telling him my only goal was to avoid falling on the super-thin tires. It’s pretty much been my only goal every time I saddle up.

Though road bikes have their place in the cycling world, there is beauty in a one speed bike. It forces you to slow down, noticing things that you’d miss in a car or even during a stroll engaged in heavy conversation. The Curmudgeon and I spotted a huge alligator on the banks of a stream in Hilton Head, one of our rewards for biking to the forest instead of driving as originally planned.

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A palmetto tree up close and personal.

But the real magic is the bike trails’ ability to lift everyone’s spirits. As you pedal along, you’re greeted with “good morning!” “beautiful day” or just a nod or a smile from strangers. Without the armor, anonymity and horse power of a car to hide behind, people are actually pleasant getting from point A to B. I’m going to go out on a limb and say bike paths are wonderful for humanity.

There is no tailgating. There is no cursing.  There is no cutting off. There is no rushing on a one speed with a wire basket between the handle bars. When people want to pass, they say, “On your left” and people chirp “thank you.”

Our love of bikes seems almost ingrained in us, as if the need for transportation is hardwired in our DNA. It begins around age 2 with tiny tricycles and then perhaps a Big Wheel, before getting into two-wheelers with training wheels and then just one. And then almost miraculously, the big day arrives. You’re riding your two-wheeler, first on the grass and then on the street. Ah, freedom!

I’m always a little shocked when people tell me they don’t know how to ride a bike because it’s sort of a rite of passage, isn’t it? I think teaching kids to ride a bike is somewhere in the Parents’ Manual right after toilet training and throwing a ball. Even parents who aren’t athletic or could give a hoot about bikes teach their kids how to ride.

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The hidden swamp.

I spent a lot of time on a bike as a kid. I rode mostly around the neighborhood, a kid-friendly dead-end street running off one of the main drags in town. We weren’t allowed to ride our bikes on the main road because of the traffic. One of my favorite pastimes was riding around in circles in the turnaround. That was my time to be alone, to ponder life’s big questions.

There’s something almost hypnotic about riding a bike, without an intended purpose or specific destination. The bike becomes more or less an extension of you, and the pedaling becomes second nature. Unlike a spin class, you’re not thinking of how you can’t wait to get off the bike or how the guy in front of you is crushing the red zone while you’re still in blue. Riding slowly gives you the feeling you could go on forever, which maybe you could if you didn’t have to make dinner.

Upon returning from vacation, I threw my bike into the back of my car and vowed to ride every day until May 6th. I managed to do this once. I’m not sure what my problem is, but I think it’s got a little to do with procrastination and a lot to do with the fact that the closest bike trail is 30 minutes away.

Like a lot of things in life, proximity is the deciding factor between a good idea and something that actually gets done. So I’m heading to New York City without expectations of myself or anyone else. And if all else fails, there’s always the subway.

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The benches have seen better days, but the words still ring true.

 

No Worries

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I’m not worried.

So why is everyone saying “no worries” to me for everything from thanking them for holding the door at the coffee shop to excusing myself as I slide in to grab some milk at the supermarket?

I don’t mind the expression, but at least five people have said or texted it to me today. This included my friend Barbara, who texted it when I told her I couldn’t walk in a deluge. Barbara was the only one using it correctly. The others just seemed to be waiting for the chance to say it.

I’m not sure “no worries” is the correct response to “thanks for holding the door.” Maybe it is. I missed a lot of popular culture while I was a stay-at-home mother for nearly 20 years. When I finally emerged from my fog, people were saying “Word” for no apparent reason, wearing jeans that look like they’ve been shredded by pit bulls, and sporting magnetic fake eyelashes.

For the record, I did check out the false eyelashes during a recent sprint through Target, but wasn’t going to pay $25 for something that I probably wouldn’t leave the house in. As my pal Lisa down in Florida would say, “Um, that ship has passed.”

It’s hard to keep pace with modern culture when you’re in mommy mode because it’s so easy to opt out. One of my neighbors with fantastic fashion sense spent a few years walking around in light blue sweatpants from Walmart when her kids were little and no one blinked. I stopped looking at fashion magazines and putting on makeup every day because it wasn’t a priority. No one really cared what I looked like schlepping the kids to camp or the orthodontist.

When you finally emerge from the cloud of motherhood, you realize you’re a little out out of it. The only thing I can compare this to is movies when your children are infants.  There are whole years of missed movies (1997-99, 2001-2003) because you’re just too overwhelmed or distracted to watch and enjoy films.

But as everyone is telling me lately, no worries.

I started noticing “kids” 30 and under using “no worries” a few years ago, suspecting it probably began in the California surfer boy community or the Seattle grunge scene. It means “no problem at all” or “sure thing,” but somehow sounds a lot more chill.

It’s an Australian expression, as in “no worries mate.” In fact, it’s the national motto for the land down under, reflecting Australia’s laid-back attitude. “It illustrates important parts of Australian culture, including: “amiability, friendliness, an expectation of shared attitudes (a proneness to easy ‘mateship‘), jocular toughness, good humor, and, above all, casual optimism,” according to Wikipedia.

Americans began saying it about 15 years ago, shortly after the world’s spotlight focused on Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Aussie TV shows like Steve Irwin’s “Crocodile Hunter” are also thought to have contributed to its use in our language.

But, and this is a HUGE but, Australians think it is a little disingenuous for us to use their expression without adopting their underlying laid back attitude. In an article for The Advertiser, Samela Harris comments: “Americans have no idea of the etymology of ‘no worries’. So, while they may cheerily adopt our ‘no worries’ mantra, ‘no worries’ will never catch on as an attitude.”

It’s true, at least in the uptight Northeast. People say ‘no worries,’ but their actions say, “I’m very worried. I’m stressed out. Get out of my way. You’re not moving fast enough. Move over, because I’m a busy person with places to go and people to see. Oh, and by the way, ‘No worries.'”

I got a brief respite from our fast-paced scene during a recent trip to South Carolina. We waited in a Wendy’s drive-thru line for 20 minutes and no one beeped. The Curmudgeon was cursing, wondering if the drive-thru employee had suffered a medical problem and we should investigate. But this is apparently how they roll. I kept waiting for someone to lean on the horn, but instead we all leaned in and waited patiently. Imagine that.

I don’t think I’ve said or texted “no worries” to anyone. I have to feel utterly confident about something before I say it, or else I feel like an imposter. I’m like this with some new pieces of clothing. Sometimes, I let them sit in my closet for months before I feel completely comfortable integrating them into my wardrobe. Sometimes, I never feel comfortable, wondering why I bought them in the first place.

I’ve noticed that “no worries” is being used a lot more by middle-aged folks, sort of the way we’re still using Facebook while most kids and young adults have abandoned it. It takes awhile to learn what’s new, particularly with every year that goes by, and sometimes by the time you learn something new, it’s old.

So I probably won’t be saying “no worries.” I’ve tried to work it into conversations, and it just seems strange coming out of my mouth. But if you do like it and say it, well . . .