But Sometimes, the Little Guy Wins

Yesterday, Sarah Culberson (who wrote, with Tracey Trivas, A Princess Found) sparkled on stage at Secrest Auditorium, enchanting and inspiring high school students, faculty, and administrators, and a broad swath of community members who’d read her book and who came to hear her message. Then Princess Sarah answered questions and helped distribute writing awards to high school sophomores and juniors.

After that she signed books for people, taking her time, talking with each person individually, then writing something meant just for that person inside the book. The people in line waited patiently, talking softly among themselves.

The students, who were fast-forwarded in line because buses were waiting to take them back to schools, huddled in the auditorium’s aisles when their books were signed, waiting for classmates. I passed a little clutch of skinny high school boys with mushrooming hair; they were passing their books around so each could read what Princess Sarah had written.

“I’m saving THIS book,” one said, and then he reddened as he realized I could hear him.

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Our Foundation was an active partner, with the Muskingum County Library System and Zane State College, in sponsoring the event, which would not have happened without collaboration from the Muskingum County Community Foundation, Secrest Auditorium, book clubs and literary organizations, and of course, County schools. The Welcome Center publicized Princess Sarah’s talk; social media experts spread the word; individuals encouraged others to attend.

It was breathtaking to see how all the planning and work and communicating came together. Despite my deepest fears (Princess Sarah asked the students to think about their superpowers; mine, I know, is obsessive worrying), there didn’t seem to be a huge hole inhabited by that Important Thing I Had Forgotten.

Susan, Pam, and I had lunch out afterward, and we clinked our plastic drinks cup. It was OVER, and we could be happy with the way everything had gone.

And so this morning, a gray and sodden morning, I lit the fire and grabbed Rinker Buck’s Life on the Mississippi, and I sat in the reading chair, reading and drowsing, while laundry chugged and James worked away at a fan fic in an adjoining room.

Obligation over, I was in my special place.

And if, for some reason, I could NOT be in my well-worn chair, reading by the snap and whisper of the fire in my hearth, there is only one place I would wish, equally, to be. And that is at one of the wonderful independent bookstores we are blessed to live near.

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Every independent book store I’ve ever visited has felt, in different ways, like home. As Pamela Danziger notes in “How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon at the Bookselling Game: Lessons for Every Retailer,” (Forbes; 2/12/20), independent bookstores are “third places.” Those are places where, after one’s home and one’s work, a person feels comfortable and welcomed.

(Johnny Dzubak writes about this concept in “What is a Third Place and Why Do You Need one?” at theartofcharm.com. Dzubak says, “a third place is a welcoming space that cultivates essential social experiences in the company of like-minded people.” Every indie bookstore I’ve frequented fulfills this definition perfectly.)

The ambience of the store is important, notes Danziger. Indie bookstores tend to be comfortable and homey, not sterile or raucously sales-oriented. They offer places to sit and read—alone or in company. Many have coffee on premises: I agree, wholeheartedly, that there is an intrinsic relationship between coffee and books. (The bookstores I know that don’t offer coffee on site snuggle up next to coffee shops, and they don’t mind if I carry a hot drink in with me.)

And the staff at these bookstores are amazing. If I don’t ask for help, they don’t push their recommendations on me. But, if I am at that point—I need something really good to read, but I have run out of thoughts and inspirations—those owners and/or clerks are the absolute right people to talk with. They’ll ask me about what I HAVE read, what I’ve really enjoyed, what I put down unfinished, and then they bound enthusiastically to the shelves, judiciously picking up a volume here and a volume there.

I love the way they handle books; they slide their hands across the cover, soothing the book (Don’t worry! This is a good person who will appreciate you!). They flip open to pages, often finding little passages—they remember just where those words reside—and reading a snippet or two to demonstrate just what this book is good at.

Very seldom have I regretted the recommendation of a bookstore employee, because that person is a reader and a lover of books. They’re not just making a sale; they’re making a  connection.

And I can take the proffered book and go to a chair away from the bustle; I can read the first chapter and see if, yes indeed, this is a tome I want to try.

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Danziger writes about Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard prof who conducted an eight-year study of independent bookstores and why, against all odds, they thrived. Raffaelli called the paper based on his study, “Reinventing Retail: the Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.” Raffaelli held focus groups, did interviews, visited bookstores in 26 of the United States, and exhaustively pored through eight years’ worth of media on the topic.

It was a topic worth exploring, because Amazon, which launched in 1995, seemed destined to shut independent bookstores down. By 2009, only 1651 indie stores were left in the US. They were, writes Danziger, “on the verge of collapse.”

But then, things quickly began to change.

Peter Osnos penned “How ‘Indie’ Bookstores Survived (and Thrived)” in December 2013. That year, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), and Teicher’s board of directors, jointly received Publishers Weekly’s Person of the Year Award.

“The award is justified,” wrote Osnos, “by results defying the odds that so heavily favor the Amazon juggernaut and the chain stores, still led by…Barnes and Noble.”

After the 2009 debacle, when Indie stores closed and the end looked imminent, Teicher, his board, and intrepid bookstore owners joined forces and took serious, immediate action. They embraced what Raffaelli calls, “community, curation, and convening.”

Store owners capitalized on a new desire by people to shop locally. People who bought their produce at farmers’ markets were also people, it turned out, who would buy their books at local booksellers’. Steve Bercu, an Austin, Texas, bookseller who served as President of the ABA board in 2013, said, “Nobody has to go to bookstore to buy books, and yet people do. Humans want interaction.”

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James and I love to go to the two local used bookstores in our town. The people who run them—in both cases, they are also the owners—remember us. They’ll tell us if there are, say, newly arrived fantasy books that James might want to look at. When James is ready to check out after a nice, satsifying browse, he engages the person at the register in a long and rambling discussion of Good Books We Have Read This Year and Great Movies We Have Seen.

A visit to one of those shops is not just a book-buying adventure; it’s a time to connect with interesting, like-minded people.

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Osnos also notes that indie booksellers have embraced technology. Specialized computer programs track sales and monitor inventory. Most indie stores have interactive websites, where I can order books or ask questions about books, and they wield social media tools like geniuses. We had heard about a YA author named Mindy McGinnis, for instance; some teachers we talked to like her books, and they think she might be a contender to be a speaker at a future writing awards ceremony.

The day after this topic came up, I received an email from Paragraphs Bookstore in my old hometown, Mount Vernon, Ohio. The email led me to Paragraph’s website, where I learned that McGinnis will be signing books there tomorrow. So I’ll take a ride up through the backroads to Mount Vernon, and I’ll check out this author, and then spend some time just browsing the store.

(And I’ll get, afterwards, to reconnect over lunch, at a diner called The Farmer’s Daughter, with old friends. One of them tells me that the diner has the best chicken salad in the world, which is something we might talk about in another blog.

I had chicken salad at lunch yesterday, too, by the way: the research of the Chicken Salad Club continues, if you’ll forgive the digression.)

And publishers, Osnos writes, seeing the power and resurgence of independent bookstores, have embraced those booksellers, working specifically to help them meet the needs of their shoppers.

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Last weekend, we took a little road trip to a wonderful town called Granville, which has a stationer and a wonderful chocolatier. I was lamenting the closing of their local bookstore when we discovered that it DIDN’T close; it moved.

It moved right next to the chocolatier, and that, I thought, was an even more genius pairing than a bookstore and a coffee shop. Because what could be better than spending fifteen minutes picking out handmade chocolates (mostly for gifts—but not completely for gifts), and then going next door to look at books? (There is a nearby coffee shop, though, in Granville.)

Another wonderful thing about indie bookstores is this: they often carry unique and wonderful cards and gifts; I went home that day with three beautiful cards and an intriguing book called An Elephant in My Kitchen, which I’m looking forward to reading.

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Rafaelli says that independent bookstores succeed because of three things: “…community, curation, and convening.”

At independent bookstores, I connect with other book lovers. I can buy bestsellers, but I can also buy books by local authors and books of local interest. And those booksellers know, for sure and down deep, what their local readers love to read.

And then the bookstores host events. They have authors, like Mindy McGinnis, come in to talk and sign books. They sponsor book clubs. They plug in to on-line activities. They have contests and raffles, they support literacy; they get involved in schools’ efforts to promote a love of reading.

Bookstores were supposed to be fading in 2009, with only 1650 or so left in operation. But then something happened. Sales increased significantly by 2018. By 2021, the momentum had changed completely: there was a 49% INCREASE in bookstores; at that point, over 2500 independent shops were operating.

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Yesterday’s Mary Helen Straker Writing Award ceremony was wonderful: big and energizing, the best kind of noisy, with great varied voices, and galvanizing energy. But today I need some aftermath-quiet; I need, maybe, a visit to a third place.

I love our independent bookstores as third places, somewhere I can go when I need to be out, but cozy, and in the company of other people like me—decaffeinated chocoholics, maybe, craving their next great read.

But I also love indie bookstores because they symbolize something important: that small enterprises, local concerns, mom and pop stores, CAN survive against internet sales giants and price-cutting mega stores. I like the convenience of online shopping, and I love a good bargain. But you will often find me browsing the stacks of a local bookstore, waiting for that ping of discovery when a book I never would have considered jumps off the shelf and into my hands, grabbing my attention.

I’ll put down my coffee and find myself a chair. I’ll read a page or two,–maybe even a chapter,–and then I might go find the person on duty, and ask them whether they, too, have been called by this book.

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In a world gone global, it’s nice, on a regular basis, to remember how important LOCAL is too. Indie booksellers remind me, every time.

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https://www.forbes.com/sites/pamdanziger/2020/02/12/how-indie-bookstores-beat-amazon-at-the-bookselling-game-lessons-here-for-every-retailer/?sh=3cde2a7c1a67

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/how-indie-bookstores-survived-and-thrived/281974/

https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/wigtown-bookshop-vacation/index.html

https://theartofcharm.com/art-of-personal-development/what-is-a-third-place-and-why-do-you-need-one/

Advertisement

Card. Click. Ping.

Every greeting card I’ve ever received lives in a box under my bed. The truth is, when times are tough, a card with a cat holding on to a branch for dear life that says “Hang in there!” can actually make me feel better.

—Leica Lucien, “Everything I Use to Make (Better-Than-Hallmark) Greeting Cards at Home,” in The Strategist (March 30, 2021)

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A dear friend—I’ll call him Eric, because that’s not his real name and he doesn’t like to be public-praised—takes care of everyone. He’s the guy at a wedding reception, for instance, who goes and gets drinks for the couple at the next table who are mobility-limited. He doesn’t know that couple particularly (well, he does by the end of the reception, though), but he notices that their glasses are empty, and their tablemates are off dancing, and so he goes and sits down, finds out their relation to the newlyweds, compares notes on the meal we’ve just eaten, and then takes their orders and runs off to replenish their drinks.

If you live near Eric, he will do things like drop off a pie when he knows you’re struggling; if you live far away, you’ll get a note in his could-be-a-font-it’s-so-perfect handwriting, and that note will weave news and concern in just the right proportion.

Eric is a born caregiver, but a couple of weeks ago, he was the one that needed propping up after two people he cared about very much died within days of each other. Of course, he spent much of that week running errands for the survivors, cooking meals, and attending services, his focus on others as he carried his own heavy sack of grieving.

As I was getting greetings out of the card basket that week, I noticed one that spoke exactly to Eric’s situation, and so we penned a little note in that, the three of us signed it, and we sent it off to Eric’s address, just to let him know we were thinking about what he was going through.

And Eric being Eric, of course,–he called to thank us for the card. He said it meant a lot, that it HAD been a really tough week.

And I got off the phone after a lovely talk and savored that little click of connection. That simple card was like an arrow that found the bullseye.

Making that connection is a wonderful thing.

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There is a card shop not too far from here, and James and I make a pilgrimage there at the beginning of each month. We are both ID card-carrying members of their rewards club (well, now I think of it, I don’t carry the card; I lost it, and they look me up by my phone number when I check out, but you know what I mean.) Each month we can get a free card, and if we spend XX amount of dollars, we get Y amount of dollars off, and, in our email and snail mail, we get little bonus certificates, sometimes. (I have three bonus buckaroos to spend on cards next month, and that MIGHT buy one card.)

We love the manager and the staff at that store; it’s like one of those old-fashioned, lovely places where they remember your name, and they hope you’ll take your time and browse.

Which we do. We read through the birthday cards, the funny and the poignant, and check off our monthly list of birthday folk. We look at special occasion cards, thinking about people we know, especially far-from-home friends and family, who would enjoy getting a card for, say, Dingus Day, or Doughnut Day, or something like that.

We buy thank you notes and we pick up get well cards and cards that say, “We’re thinking of you.”

Sometimes, we sadly buy cards that say how sorry we are that the bad thing has happened.

The challenge, of course, is finding that exact card that fits that exact person.

That might be a card that spotlights an abiding interest. (I was excited to find a stack-of-pancakes card for a premier maple syrup maker having a significant birthday, for example. And there was a great notecard with a dueling pair—a wine glass and a coffee mug fighting for dominance [in Pam-World, sadly, the coffee mug wins, these days]—that I sent to the artisan who roasts and grinds and ships my decaffeinated coffee beans monthly.)

Oh, the ping and the click of just-right-card-ness!

Chocolate lovers’ cards.

Animal lovers’ cards.

Getting old together cards. (I am on the giving and receiving end of cards these days that speculate on how we’re gonna be the baddest-ass bawdies in the care home. We should live so long, I always mutter, sending it up there like a prayer…or a hopeful demand…)

Those are cards that say, “I know what you care about,” and we send them off, hoping they click and ping with the person who gets them.

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There are shared history cards. Remember when we rode with boys in cars? Remember when we could party all night and work all day? Remember when we were young and naïve and had our kids’ names picked out and were pretty sure we were all going to earn Mother of the Year awards?

Remember when our skirts were shorter than the tunic tops we wear these days?

Or…remember, once-child, when you were little and hated lima beans?

Remember when I swore I’d never use the TV as a babysitter?

Cards that make us remember ping and click too.

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There are cards that tell the receiver they are seen, that someone notices the hard work they do every day (maybe without complaining; or hey, maybe they whinge about it a LITTLE, but that doesn’t make the work any less significant, really.)

Cards that say a person cares, somebody outside sees, could, like Leica Lucien says, really make a difference.

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Cards mark landmark events, too—enviable anniversaries, ceiling-breaking birthdays, life-changing transitions—from high school to college, from school to work, from a life of work to a life of time a person can schedule to their own satisfaction.

From being one person to being paired.

From being a carefree person to being a caring parent.

From being two to being one, again.

From being somebody’s child to being a member of the oldest generation.

I saved cards that marked those landmarks when I passed by them; those cards made the transitions easier, and the thoughts contained gave me a little puff of courage, moving on.

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Cute cards, funny cards, snarky cards, celebration cards, sincere and caring cards: they all belong. And they have been around a long, long time…since the Chinese, in ancient times, sent each other New Year’s greetings, “The History of Greeting Cards” (The Greeting Card Association) tells me. So the urge to connect, to celebrate, and to mark the occasion has been with humans a long, long time.

The article tells me that people in Europe exchanged handmade greeting cards, including Valentines, beginning in the 1400’s. The practice of card-sending had some important pivots: when postage stamps were introduced in 1849, when lithograph machines made cards available on large and inexpensive scales, when Christmas cards became a feature of lives for many of those who celebrate that holiday.

Until today when, it seems, there is a greeting card for EVERYTHING.

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But, you know, I can wander into the family room and click around with the remote on that mammoth screen and think, “There’s nothing to watch.” That, despite having 90-something standard channels and probably a dozen streaming channels that James subscribes to for us. Puh-lease. There’s always something to watch, but some days, a low tech solution—read a book, write a letter—is what I want to indulge in.

Just the same way, I can browse through a burgeoning card store and think, “I can’t find a card for _____,” and then I think I might want to find a different kind of solution, too.

And there are tech solutions—I can subscribe to a service where I can design a very specific e-card and send it. Those might have music and animation; those can be mighty charming.

I can open up Publisher or an online greeting card designer program, and I can laboriously concoct and print a card that says exactly what I want it to say with graphics of my own choosing. (That will take me hours, of course,–much longer than traveling to the stationery store at Easton, say, where, maybe, they DO have the perfect card. But, if I can get through the process, and I can dig out some card stock and find an envelope that fits, I will have a card, finally, that says exactly what I want it to say.

But, truly: I don’t do this very much.

Or, really, ever.)

I do like, sometimes, to send a photo to an online cardmaker and get a bunch of greeting cards made with that image and my words on it. And I love to receive photo greetings…I have a big canvas in a closet, and after Christmas each year, I staple the latest photo cards I’ve received onto it. And this collage is history emerging—the newborn turning toddler turning sturdy baseball player turning graduate. Progressively graying hair and increasingly charming life lines etched into precious faces. Hard workers retired and on the beach, grinning. Layers of photos document how people we love grow and change and thrive.

But I’m thinking now, trying to live within a social media/technology-mindful time, that maybe there are ways to handcraft cards, to return to the practices of the 1400’s, enhanced by our modern tools. Maybe I can sit with a snicking scissors and a tube of glue, with words cut from magazines’ glossy pages or carefully written on fancy paper in Sharpie-ink, with crayons and markers and a very fine pencil—maybe I can gather all of that together and make a card.

But I’ll still go to the lovely card store once a month and do a little victory dance when the precisely right card leaps off the shelf into my waiting hands.

Because it’s all about the ping and the click, isn’t it? It’s about the moment of connection; the moment when I say to myself, “They really thought about what this, right now, IS in my life.” And they sent me a card to say they’re right here with me.

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I’m decoupaging a fancy shoe box to keep the ‘ping’ cards in. I’ll have to keep it in my closet: our fancy new king bed doesn’t allow for under-mattress storage (and so life continues to throw its changes our way.) But, like Leica Lucien, there are cards I want to keep, tangible evidence that someone cares and someone celebrates and someone laughs when I do. Those are cards that, when I need reminders, I can pull out and savor.

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Because they’re so important, I will send cards too, and hope they hit the target, at least a lot of the time.

And there’s no right way to do it, I think: the only mistake I could make is not sending that greeting when the Universe says, “Go.”

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https://nymag.com/strategist/article/how-to-make-your-own-greeting-cards.html

A Lump, a Quiche, a Kiss Goodbye

Wednesday afternoon, and what are my plans for dinner?

We need to eat something a little different, I decide, not meat and a salad and a side dish; we need something….concocted.

I open the freezer door and see a lump of pie dough. We have eggs and ham and cheese to grate.

Quiche, I think. Tonight, we’ll have a quiche.

And suddenly, quiche seems like the only possible option for this chilly Wednesday in March.

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The only problem is this: that lump of pie dough is really shortbread, leftover from Christmas cookie baking. (James and I confer about that; we think we could bake the dough flattened on a cookie sheet, then top it with caramel under a layer of chocolate. Those would be homemade Twix bars…and those would be a treat, maybe, for a day when company came to visit.)

Right now, though, I am fixated on quiche, and I need some pie dough.

I have a good recipe—a GREAT recipe, actually—for pie crust; a dear friend gave it to me years ago. She got it from another friend, who had it, I think, from her grandma. This crust never fails to be flaky and delicious. The recipe makes five lumps of dough, and that’s what I usually have in the freezer.

But today, I think about my yearlong quest to try recipes from the cookbooks I’ve been gifted or indulged in, and so I go searching.

In Baking With Dorie, I find a recipe for all-butter pie crust, and that just sounds like something perfect for quiche, and so I gather ingredients and get my food processor out and start preparing.

A good place to find a pie crust recipe…

I chop cold, hard butter into chunks and I measure sugar and flours and I whir things together, and a little rhythm, a little flurry develops. And the action, the activity, the busyness of hands, open a door and my mind roams free, and I think about the fact that this is a day in Lent. I think of giving things up, and I think of a Facebook post from a friend: she said, right around Ash Wednesday, that she’d be off Facebook for a while, but we could send her an email or, even, give her a call if we wanted to touch base.

I wonder if that dear friend has given up social media for Lent.

I think about an article I read recently about teens who voluntarily gave up their smartphones, opting for flip phones instead, calling themselves ‘Luddites.’

I think about the book I’m reading, Life on the Mississippi by Rinker Buck. Buck writes about crafting, by hand, a flat-bottomed boat to travel the Ohio and the Mississippi in the 2020’s, even though many things have changed since the era when boats like his plied those waters. Buck is not rhapsodic about the changes technology has wrought.

And James is reading about steam power in his history class, formulating a reaction to a documentary he is watching.

And I have a YA book called Retro to read; in the book, an organization urges teens to give up their technology and their investment in social media…but, the book flap tells me, there may be more involved in this than altruism or concern for teens’ health and well-being.

All of these technology perspectives swirl through my head, much like the butter and sugar, floury bits, ice water, and salt, whir in the food processor, forming grainy clots that I can gentle into discs of dough.

The head-bits, though, they clump together, and a doughy idea falls with a thump onto the boney floor of the mind cavern:

Maybe I should think about giving up technology, in same way, shape, or form, for a Lenten sacrifice.

I poke that soft, new-formed idea and ponder.

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One of the kids in that Luddite club, a group of New York City teens that meets in their local library, is Lola Shub. Lola described herself, Avery Hartman writes (“Why teens are giving up their smartphones and joining the ‘Luddite Club’,” businessinsider.com, 10/24/2022) as a “screenager.”

But then Lola’s friend gave up her smartphone, and Lola started thinking about how addicted she herself was to social media, how distracting that was.

How much time it took away from her.

She gave up her smartphone, too, and joined the Luddite Club.

Writes Hartman: “Since giving up her smartphone, Shub says she has more space to think creatively, more time to read, and better concentration.”

Shub no longer does Instagram. Instead, she talks to friends in real time. She may use her phone to do that, but she does not text them: she talks.

And they meet and they discuss, face to face.

Modern teen-aged rebellion: spurning your parents’ technology.

But maybe those kids have a good idea.

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Hello, I say to myself. My name is Pam, and I have a technology addiction.

Just a little one, I think.

But one that, maybe, I can take this moment in time to explore.

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Usually, my day starts around 5:30 a.m., when I am just awake, and when I get up, get ready, and get myself downstairs.

Once, maybe a year or two ago, I would put the coffee on, empty the dishwasher, and then sit down with my morning pages—loose leaf paper, a favorite pen. I would open the hinged top of my head, and spill everything out onto the paper.

But now, I don’t have time for THAT. Now I have to do my Word Games.

This started when I discovered Microsoft Word Games has a monthly challenge. There are three games—a crossword, a jumble, and a boggle-like game—I can play daily. Levels of difficulty—and thus points—vary; if I complete all three games successfully in one day, I get a 500 point bonus.

And I can go from earning a bronze award up to diamond level; the program gives me medals and there are confetti showers as I achieve each honor and, at the end of the month, a big plash if I’ve successfully completed all three games, every day.

I’m a junkie for prizes; I am quickly hooked on playing these word games. And the best time to do these games was right after my morning pages.

But then, I discovered AARP word games, and in there is Codeword, also a daily game. I added that to the routine.

And then, of course, came Wordle.

And after a few weeks of playing Wordle on The NY Times page, I discovered another daily word game called Spelling Bee. Spelling Bee, if I achieve the highest level, tells me I’m a genius.

And then AARP added its own version of Wordle, called Hurdle, with four levels and a final round.

Suddenly, I am spending 45 minutes or more on word games in the morning.

Suddenly I am choosing between the morning walk and the morning pages.

And the morning pages always lose.

Because how can I start the day without my morning screen time, without the digital confetti that celebrates my success?

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The term ‘Luddite,’ these days, refers to someone who disdains technology. Evan Andrews tells me this in “Who Were the Luddites?”—an article he updated on 6/26/2019 on history.com.

In the 1800’s, though, the Luddites were skilled workers unhappy at the prospect that machinery could replace their weaving, or their knitting. The textile workers formed a labor movement in Britain; they were proud of the skills they had honed over years of diligently plying their crafts. They thought something serious would be lost if they ceded to mechanization.

They called themselves Luddites after Ned Ludd, who was appalled by the new technology; Ludd was suspected of sabotaging a textile-making machine in 1779.

I know weavers and I know knitters; I know people who can create quilts and clothes and sturdy bags from whole cloth. And I treasure their work. And I also buy cheap mass-produced bathroom rugs, for instance, and happily throw them in the washer.

Is that wrong? What have we lost in a technologized society? What are the gains?

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Dorie Greenspan insists on a food processor for making pie dough. Would a Luddite use a food processor? I think about this as I pour ice water into the spout of my little machine; I ponder as the disparate ingredients swirl and start to cling to each other, as powder becomes grainy dust, as grainy dust becomes clumps.

[My food processor is OLD. It predates, I think, my marriage, which has lasted a VERY long time.

“How long have you HAD that, anyway?” Mark said to me once, years ago, and I thought then that maybe I should think about replacing the food processor.

But it’s a good little tool; it does just exactly what I need it to do. The day of parting will no doubt come, but for now, we whir along together.]

I stop and test the incipient dough; when pinched it holds together, just as Dorie says it should. I dump it out onto powdered parchment paper. I shape it, quickly and, I hope, without over-handling, into discs.

It would take me hours to get the results by hand that I get with my food processor in minutes. And I think that the right tools are good things, when they enhance, but don’t replace, the work of our hands.

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Dorie Greenspan’s directions have me rolling two dough discs between floured sheets of parchment paper. So this recipe, too, gives me an extra pie crust for the freezer.

I gentle one crust onto my old ceramic pie plate, and I fold heavy sheets of aluminum foil, press them onto the flat of the dough, and bake it in a hot, hot oven.

In five minutes, I take the foil out and let the dough bake a little longer, and then I am ready to pour the rich, thick quiche concoction into the buttery pastry.

James heats potato wedges in the air fryer; I rip lettuce and make side salads for Mark and me. The quiche takes its time, but when we finally pull it from the oven and plunge the knife in, steams erupts, rich and cheesy, redolent of herbs, and we dig in. It is good—a hearty, concocted dinner.

And it’s made by hand with the judicious use of necessary tools.

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Thursday morning I get up and do my morning pages. For the duration of the Lenten season, I decide, I’ll see how I get by without my morning word games.

I’ll cut back on the time I spend on OTHER computer games, too, those after-dinner time suckers. And I will not let myself get lost in aimless Facebook scrolling (“Oh, I’ll just watch this video of the bearded daddy saying hello to the smiling baby…”)

I’ll read more. I’ll call people and actually talk to them on the phone.

***************************************

So here I am, writing this essay about technology, and getting ready to post it on WordPress, and then to share it on Facebook, and I know there is irony here. I am not, nor ever will I be, a complete and total Luddite.

But maybe I don’t need to be…maybe there’s a balance. (And oh, damn: no matter what corridor I run along, I always run smack into a door labeled ‘Mindfulness.’ I suppose one day, I’ll need to turn that knob and plunge right in. Mindfulness would no doubt increase Balance’s chances…)

I’m certainly not saying I’ll never play Wordle again. But I think I’ll use this Lenten season to experiment, to see which technologies I can do without, to get my hand reconnected to a pen, to turn real paper pages in a real book as a toasty fire, instead of an electronic screen, flickers.

Some sacrifice; some mindfulness. Some pondering, and the potential for true change. Those seem to me like the seeds I want to plant in this dawning place, this transitional season.

No Season for Alleluias

“Did you know,” asks Susan, “that in Catholic churches no one says ‘alleluia’ during Lent?”

Scrrrrreeeee-aawwwwkkkk. The rusty wheels of my brain lurch past-ward, exploring, heading back to scary seasons, long ago, when church statues were draped in purple, the color of mourning. (The shadows those shrouds made in flickering candlelight were, for some reason, absolutely terrifying.)

The altar was barren of color and texture: no lace, no flowers, no brightness. Services were solemn. We didn’t say the Gloria.

And yes, it was true, now I cast my mind back over it: no alleluias, either, during Lent.

***************************

I find an article on-line that explains this, because at my current craggy vantage point, it doesn’t quite make perfect sense: why shouldn’t we always celebrate the fact of redemption?

In “Why Don’t Roman Catholics Sing the Gloria or Alleluia During Lent,” Nancy Hackel writes that the alleluia was “…understood to be the main term of praise used by the choirs of angels, as they worship around the throne of God in heaven…”

And during Lent, Hackel continues, Catholics are not supposed to dwell on the fact that they are redeemed, that heaven is an ultimate possibility. Instead, Lent is a solemn time of acknowledging weakness, failings, SIN. It’s a time of repentance and purification, so that, on Easter Sunday, people can raise their voices in tune, again, with the heavenly host,—never, probably, WORTHY,–but always trying to be.

The article uses the term ‘exile,’ in that Lent is a time of separation from the saved and a journey toward that state.

I accepted this thinking as a child; I had my own definition of Lent. It was this:

Lent is a painful time of sacrifice.

*****************************

In the house where I grew up, we had pretty strict interpretations of Lenten rules. On Fridays, we fasted, meaning we did not eat any kind of meat. (An older brother, a cynic at age ten, theorized that meatless Fridays were instituted to drum up business for the Apostles, who were, mostly, fisherfolk.)

Of course, meatlessness was true of EVERY Friday, back in Catholic Churchdom in the early 1960’s. At home and at the Catholic school, this rule was reiterated forcefully: eating meat on a Friday was a sin.

And no one got into Heaven with sin on their soul. The nuns drilled us in this. Say an Act of Contrition nightly before bed, they commanded; then just in case you die during the night, you’ll still be accepted at the gates of Heaven. And go to Confession, purge those sins, at least once a week.

I got stuck on the fact that I could die during the night, suddenly and without apparent cause or warning. Some dark quiet nights, I was afraid to close my eyes.

And one awful Friday, I played at a friend’s house and had dinner there. Dinner was Campbell’s soup in huge cans, enough to feed eight hungry people.

And it was vegetable BEEF.

I didn’t know what to do. My mother had taught me, forcibly, that, when a guest at someone’s meal, I was to take what’s on offer thankfully. And I was to EAT it.

But—beef on Friday! Flames were licking at the bottoms of my Red Ball Jets knockoffs.

I weighed the alternatives and knew that my mother finding out I’d refused food at a friend’s house was the more dangerous option. I ate the soup and went home in despair.

That night, I tried to stay awake all night, because if I was awake, I couldn’t die in my sleep.

Could I?

And the next day, I was first in line at Confession, where the priest chuckled a little at my angst. That was insulting; I was flirting with eternal hellfire, and he thought it was cute.

*************************

So anyway, no meat on Lenten Fridays. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which were High Holy Days, we had to fast AND abstain. That meant no meat…and no FOOD between meals. Nothing! Not even a stale saltine cracker! And probably no dessert, either, even though that, technically, was PART of a meal.

I might have complained once.

I might have been told that Jesus died on the cross for me, and I was so selfish I couldn’t go one day without snacks without complaining.

I did not like Lent. And we’re not even talking, yet, about the Giving Up part.

************************************

It occurs to me to wonder, at this advanced age, who, exactly, was responsible for inventing Lent. (The word ‘Lent’ itself, by the way, is pretty innocuous; grottonetwork.com tells me it’s from the Anglo Saxon word ‘lencten,’ which just referred to the season of Spring, not particularly to a season of sacrifice and repentance.)

In “The Beginning of Lent,” an article by Ted Olsen in Christianity Today online, I get some answers. It was the Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 that first floated the idea. Brittanica.com posits that Constantine convened the Council to address an issue: a bunch of heretics led by Arius of Alexandria. Those heretics did not believe in Christ’s divinity, and they had to be squelched.  So the Emperor drew all of his church leaders together. (The Pope himself did not come, but he did send envoys.)

The Council was responsible for a lot of rules, some implemented and some introduced, and some that remain today.

They decided on consecrating bishops.

They decided against clerical folks also being money lenders.

They toyed with making celibacy mandatory for the Church’s priesthood, but they didn’t have the support they needed—not right then, anyway.

And they came up with the idea of a 40-day period of fasting and sacrifice just before Easter.

At first, it seems, this Lenten observance was only intended for converts, for those waiting to be baptized at Easter, but the Church as a whole must have resonated: soon, Lent was a season everyone observed.

At first, Lent started on Quadragesima (“the fortieth”) Sunday, but Pope Gregory I changed that in the late 500’s/early 600’s; he moved Lent’s start date to a Wednesday. And on that day, he started anointing people’s foreheads with a cross of ashes, reminding all that, “…you are dust and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) Thus Ash Wednesday became the portal to the Lenten season.

*********************************************

Ted Olsen says that the first Lenten rules were pretty darned strict. No meat, fish, or animal product (no butter!!!) was to be eaten. No FOOD at all, in fact was to be eaten until the evening meal.

(I taught at a lovely inner-city Catholic school when I was first starting out, and I helped my wonderful friend Marsha moderate a group called Mission Club. The kids in that club did a lot of nice things, and one of them was to sell pretzels on, I think, Thursdays in Lent. In each baggie we put a little history of the pretzel as Lenten food along with a handful of crisp, salty pretzels. The snack was originally made with no animal products at all, baked up for hungry kids to snack on; the “only one meal” stricture may have had an age requirement to it [only those over 14, maybe?]

And pretzels reminded long ago kids of their faith. The shape represented the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the middle bits recalled people’s arms, crossed over their breasts in prayer.

So kids, at least, back in those early Lenten days, had a little something to nosh on before supper.)

One thing, though—all over the church, there were little respites built in. In the Eastern church, people took the weekends off from the strenuous Lenten fast. In the Western church, Sunday was a day the Lenten rules did not apply.

(Hah! I thought when I read this. I had friends—some of them very, very holy people—when I was growing up, who insisted that Sundays were days off from Lenten sacrifice.

“No,” said my fierce little mother. “Sundays are NOT days off.”

And so, sadly, in my house, no chocolate in Lent meant no chocolate all the way through those long, long forty days.)

*************************

By the 800’s, church folk were already chafing under, and relaxing, rules. “You can eat any time after 3 p.m.,” they decreed.

By the 1400’s, that rule was relaxed backward until noon.

And in 1966, the Roman Catholic church decided that the only days their followers must refrain from meat were Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (Mom, of course, with all the zeal of a convert, snorted at the sissification of the season. In HER house, we did not eat meat on Fridays, and that was that.)

**************************

And let’s talk about the practice of giving something up, part of the penitential practice of the Lenten season. I had to be careful deciding what to give up, because there were no takebacks. And if, say, I were to declare that I was giving up CHOCOLATE (!), that, my mother informed me, meant ALL chocolate. I could not just refrain from chocolate candy, say. No, I was barred from eating cupcakes and cookies or drinking hot cocoa. No chocolate ice cream, either.

And no Sundays off.

I thought long and hard about what to give up. It had to hurt, but I didn’t want it to hurt TOO much.

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It’s funny, though: the very act of sacrifice can, in a way, be a sort of satisfying self-indulgence. “The happiness benefits of sacrifice are backed up by plenty of social science,” writes Arthur C. Brooks in “What You Gain When You Give Things Up” (2/18/21, The Atlantic Monthly).

For example, giving up chocolate or ice cream or deep-fried foods offers health benefits, and better diet often leads to improved mood and outlook. The things we give up—time spent on social media, for instance—are probably not good for us in the first place.

And, Brooks notes, for him, one of the most satisfying parts of Lenten sacrifices is the sense that we’re in control: we ARE the masters of our ships. We have GOT this.

And, when our sacrifices benefit others (as say, when a person refrains from smoking in their home, aiding and abetting the lung health of cohabitants), the satisfaction increases. Brooks cites research that shows that people who give things up because the results benefit others reap multiplied benefits.

“Whether you observe Lent or not, consider incorporating sacrifice into your life,” writes Brooks.

It’s a very interesting concept. 

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Another interesting approach to Lent is to do something positive, rather than giving something up (or, even, along with giving something up.) Brittany Sims offers some possibilities in “10 Things to Do During Lent Besides Giving Something Up” (theodysseyonline.com).

Sims’ list includes fasting and cutting back (both forms of giving something up, I think) and attending church services, but she also offers doing good deeds, volunteering, donating, and spending thoughtful time considering our beliefs.

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It’s good, I think, to explore the why of things—to ask, where did this tradition come from, and does it still have meaning in my life today? And I like to take the facts I find, spread them out, poke through, and ponder.

And doing that, in this case, leads me to surprising conclusions. I think I was hoping to be able to say, “Well, based on all THAT, we can conclude that observing Lent is just kind of a silly thing.”

But it’s hard to argue with the benefits of some self-sacrifice, some healthy rigor, and I can’t think of any reason to debate the good of sending positivity out into the world. Maybe we don’t need to grind down on the grimness, though; maybe, even in times of deep reflection and self-determined stringency, there is still room and reason for a quiet, simmering joy. But maybe there can be real meaning in the ways I observe this season.

************************

So let us Lent, I say, in whatever way is meaningful for each.

Can I get a very quiet, almost silent, alleluia?

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https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/beginning-of-lent.html

http://stjohn-edgar.org/clickbuilds/StJohn/why-dont-roman-catholics-sing-the-gloria-or-alleluia-during-lent

https://people.howstuffworks.com/what-is-lent-and-why-give-up-something.htm

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/02/why-lent-and-other-sacrifices-make-us-happy/618053/

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-things-to-do-during-lent-besides-giving-something-up

If the Universe Calls, Please take a Message

Signs from the Universe or mere coincidences? There’s nothing coincidental in this conscious Universe.

—Sonia Choquette, Irina Yugay, “12 Signs from the Universe and How to Read Them”

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I reach down to pick up the shiny coin, a 1999 Connecticut quarter.

Appropriately, having just celebrated Presidents’ Day the day before, George Washington’s head is on the front; on the back, a tree branches over most of the circle. “The Charter Tree” reads the caption to the left (my left) of its trunk.  I flip it over, so that a new finder will come across its lucky side…head’s up is GOOD luck, tails is BAD…put it back on the sidewalk, and I go on my merry way, taking my morning walk.

******************

I pull open my center desk drawer at work the next day and find a 1999 Connecticut quarter.

“How about THAT?” I say to myself. “Quite a co-inky-dink.”

******************

Then, one more day: it is Wednesday, and I sit down at my home computer to clean out some email. There on the desk is a shiny quarter, tails side up. And here’s what I see: the Charter Tree.

Another 1999 Connecticut quarter.

So, “Hmmmm,” I think. “Maybe I should pay attention to this.”

*********************

I don’t know if I believe in messages from the universe or not. I know that once, on a college campus a couple of states and decades away, I was cutting across a grassy area on my way to a meeting, and I felt an almost spoken command.

“Stop and look down,” it bade me, and so, I did, of course. There, right by my left big toe, was a huge, gleaming four-leaf clover. I felt a kind of electric charge, and I stooped to carefully pluck the little good luck sign.

Later I told my colleagues about hearing that voice, and I showed them that drooping clover.

“Cool!’ said Anna, but Elyse, a true pragmatist, snorted. “Four leaf clovers are all OVER,” she said. “If you want to find one, you will.”

She didn’t kill my buzz, though; I still feel like something sort of mystical happened there.

I don’t remember anything particularly lucky that happened that very day or that week, but it was right around the time Mark was embarking on his law school explorations, which would lead to our move to Ohio. Maybe that four leaf clover was beaming good luck on the whole venture.

I don’t know. Maybe, as Elyse said, it was just one of thousands of four-leaf clovers I might have stumbled across that day.

**********************

We are re-watching Ted Lasso in anticipation of the new season starting on March 15. The last episode we watched had Sam Obisanya trying to decide whether to stay at Richmond or move to a fancy new African team that a slick billionaire was developing.

Sam is torn; his father calls him, and they talk, and at the end of the call, the dad says he is not worried: he trusts Sam to find the right path. And Sam, without a clear idea of what is right, asks the universe for a sign to help him find that path.

He is walking, Sam is, past a park where kids are playing soccer. The kids are having fun, loving the game, pushing themselves. Sam watches for a bit, until one of the boys whips around, dancing toward the action.

On the back of the boy’s jersey is the name ‘Obisanya.’

Sam nods; he’s gotten his sign.

***************************

And if I see it on Ted Lasso, I know it must be so. Maybe the universe DOES send us signs.

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I search ‘message from the universe’ on my IPad. I get 112,000,000 hits. Other people must think those messages are a real thing, too.

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On blog.mindvalley.com, Sonia Choquette and Irina Yugay write about “12 Signs From the Universe and How to Read Them.” The authors say that what we call a sign from the universe might well be our own intuition (that part of us that KNOWS things without conscious processing—the ‘feeling in the gut’ place of wisdom) trying to communicate with our objective mind. “The universe,” write the authors, “uses many different quirky ways to draw your attention. They can be as unique and unrepeatable as you are.”

In their list of twelve ways we might get messages, they discuss ‘repeating experiences,’ and I put my Connecticut quarter sightings firmly in that camp.  Choquette and Yugay write, “If you notice something happening to you over and over, this is a sign from the Universe to look out for.” Noticing these sorts of signs, these repetitions, advise the authors, allows me to recognize that I often live on autopilot. Here’s something asking me to step outside the rote realm and take a nice big think.

*******************************

Well, I think: so let’s explore what this quarter could be saying to me. Maybe there’s something about the coin itself?

I read that the quarter was released in October of 1999, the fourth in a series of quarters honoring the States. It was minted in Philadelphia and Denver; the one on my desk has a ‘P’ for Philadelphia.

There were some rare Connecticut quarters minted in the wrong mold; those few coins have no outer ridges and are quite valuable.

Mine has the ridges and is worth, the article tells me, exactly 25 cents.

So…the coin is not going to make me rich; maybe there’s something I should know about about the tree. I find, at connecticuthistory.org, “The Legend of the Charter Oak.”

The story goes that King Charles II of England, created charters with England’s colonies on the American mainland. Connecticut’s charter gave its citizens a great deal of freedom. They could determine some of their own laws and rules; they could elect many of their own officials.

But Charles died in 1685 and James, his brother, ascended the throne. James did NOT like the freedom proffered by the charters, and he sent designees to get those charters back.

James’s envoy met with Connecticut dignitaries in a room in Hartford, Connecticut, for hours. The Connecticut leaders had the charter with them; they refused to hand it over.

Suddenly, the story goes, all the candles blew out; the room was plunged into darkness. When light was restored, the charter was gone.

The King’s representative never found the charter, and so, in the eyes of Connecticutians at least, they were still free to operate under their previous freedoms.

The charter was spirited out of that darkened room and secreted in a deep hole in a white oak tree. The tree was flattened during a storm in 1856. It was almost 1,000 years old. Its wood was used to make chairs and chess sets and other precious keepsakes—reminders of how dearly the state’s founders held their freedom.

A chess set carved from wood harvested from the Charter Oak, courtesy of Connecticut’s Historical Society

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I just read a murder mystery where evidence, squirreled away in a tree trunk twenty years before, helps prove that what appeared to be a long-ago suicide was, instead, a crime. And I think of To Kill a Mockingbird, where Boo Radley, the odd neighbor who seldom left his home, left little hand-carved gifts in a hollow tree for Jem and Scout.

There is a romance to things hidden in trees.  But I can’t think of any personal application to my life. I drive by some trees every day that have oval openings in their trunks, opening right onto the street. Hobbit holes, they look like; squirrel shelters, more likely. And there is no way I am going to stop the car and stick my hand into any of those maws.

So…the tree part is interesting, but is there a message there? And do I have to brave the nests of unknown critters to find it?

************************

So not the coin, not the legendary tree; could there be something to pay attention to in the state? Could it be Connecticut?

I search, I ask, I look things up; I don’t find any Connecticut connections, at all.

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What about a coin? Is there a message in finding a coin in itself, and not so much emphasis on this particular coin? (Maybe the same coins just popped up to insure my attention, but it’s the idea of a coin itself that I need to explore.)

I think about coins; I remember the flat blue books my brothers used to connect pennies in. There were spaces for all kinds of pennies—Indian head pennies. Lincoln head pennies, wheat pennies, bronze pennies, steel pennies. I think the collecting was part of a Cub Scout project, maybe; I remember the project ending and my mother popping pennies out of the blue books and putting them in a jar. She complained about this project bitterly; I don’t remember why.

I remember that, when I whined about having nothing to do, my mother would plunk me down at the kitchen table with scratch paper and a few small coins, and tell me to do rubbings. And I loved to put the paper over the coins and rub a pencil or crayon over their surface. I would rub carefully until all the details emerged, and when I was satisfied, I would turn the coins over and rub the backs. I don’t know why this was such a soothing activity, but it always kind of zenned my agitated little self out.

A rubbing of the Connecticut quarter I found on my desk…

I remember, too, one night when Matthew stayed at my father’s lonely apartment while I had an appointment; my dad and Matt walked to the playground less than a block away, and when I came home, Matt excitedly showed my what he found there: a very old, nicely preserved, silver dollar.

It seemed to me to be something that might be worth some money, and so we took it down to the police station to report Matt’s find. To the boy’s dismay, they kept it for a month, but no one claimed it, and so we went back, finally, and picked it up, and Matt added that coin to his collection.

I theorized: I imagined some kid raiding their parent’s coin collection for cigarette or beer money, taking the ill-gotten gains to the playground after dark, swinging high with remaining coins in pocket…coins flying, leaving a trail for Matt, then, to find. A little pirate treasure in the playground mulch…

Matt was just glad I finally let him take that bounty home.

***********************

I look into the symbolism of finding coins. Emily Smith, in “The Hidden Meaning of Finding Coins: More than just a sign of good luck” on medium.com, writes that finding a coin is a reminder, or a harbinger, of abundance.

I’ll think about that; maybe it’s the coin, then, and I need to be aware of, a reminder to be grateful for abundance.

*********************

Maybe though, I think, it could be the date; maybe the message is something about the year 1999. And it occurs to me that 1999 would have been right about the time I was working on the college campus where I came across that four leaf clover.

That was just the beginning of a family adventure; Mark and Matthew would have been finishing their degrees at a local college (Matt’s first bachelor’s degree; Mark’s second), and Mark would have been deciding that Ohio Northern was the law school for him.

And the thing about a life-changing adventure is that we plan for it so long, and then we spend the long years of execution immersed in it. At the end of the adventure’s tunnel, some force shoots us out into whatever our new life looks like, and we’re so busy figuring out where we landed, getting our bearings, and setting new roots into new ground, that it doesn’t occur to us for a long, long while that: hey. The adventure is complete.

***********************

Stories end when the adventure reaches its ultimate conclusion, successful or tragic, and then there’s the ‘happily ever after’ part. So, suddenly, twenty years have passed since Mark’s law school graduation, and we are rooted into a completely unexpected place and woven into a surprising new tapestry. Life has changed in rich, surprising, sometimes painful, but always worthwhile, ways.

Maybe the sudden surge of Connecticut 1999 quarters is reminding me of that—that the journey that began, blessed by a four-leaf-clover in 1999,—has branched off in ways I couldn’t have imagined then. Maybe it’s a little goad to take stock of my blessings.

And maybe it’s a challenge. Maybe it’s saying, Okay: here you are here. This time has finally arrived. What are you go to do within it?

I’ll take a good think on that this week, and I’ll ponder gratitude for abundance, too.

************************

And maybe there’s no message here at all. Maybe I just happened on the same quarter in three different places in three consecutive days, and it means no more than that.

But I like the point that Choquette and Yugay make about living life on autopilot. If seeing three Connecticut quarters in the space of three days wakes me up a little, makes me look around and think about the richness and value of life, right here and right now,—well, maybe that’s meaning enough. I’ll try to make this period of awareness and clarity last.

*************************

But—if I get any notes from Connecticut or find any messages inside a tree, you can bet I’ll be taking them seriously. A wonderful week to you, my friend!

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https://chopra.com/articles/how-to-recognize-signs-from-the-universe

A Week that Chafes, and Chicken Salad

That Kind of a Week

This week,  about two and a half hours from here, fish died—thousands of fish—because a train carrying toxic waste derailed. People who live in that town, East Palestine, Ohio, are worried for the safety of their children, for their elderly friends and family, and for their own well-being. (How would it feel to be told, “Never mind; it’s all good. You go on and move back in”?)

Smack dab next to an article about that derailment, this week, was an article about ocean temperatures rising outside New England,—-temps rising so high that whale habitats and the habitats of other species are being seriously threatened.

This week, a friend is dealing with the serious illness of a beloved parent. “I feel rainy,” she texted yesterday, and it was one of those gray, relentless days, when drizzle was a break from the torrents–and rain was a reality and a metaphor.

This week, I’ve become hyper-aware, suddenly, of how tasteless, nasty, and just plain mean bumper stickers have become. Those stickers have been blaring in my face at stoplights, in parking lots, and in traffic lines. I’m sad to say the little stick figure sexually assaulting the word ‘it’ is one of the least offensive I have seen. We, as people, are angry, and we’re rude.

This week, I learned that Ohio’s education department is investigating parents who are home-schooling their children using a Nazi curriculum. One report said that more than 3,000 families were enrolled.

And this week—just yesterday, in fact—I came home from work and discovered that James and Mark had not gone out for their usual Thursday lunch. Instead, James said, he nuked up a Devour, and his dad polished off the chicken salad I made a day or two back.

“Chicken salad,” I thought, and I held that thought in one hand and balanced the rest of the week’s topics in the other.

Chicken salad was much lighter and much easier to contemplate. I have to deal with those other topics somehow, of course.

But, “This week,” I thought, “I am writing about chicken salad.”

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My Own History With Chicken Salad

I came to chicken salad a little later in life than many, probably around my college years, when going out for fancy lunches with ‘the girls’ became a treat. Those lunches marked days when there was cash jingling in pocket and a lovely break from the routine on offer. There was one little café some friends and I especially liked, right down by the lake. On cold, windy days, the waves would smash up against the break wall, sending droplets hard against the window where our table nestled, and where we sat warm and safe, viewing nature’s fury.

I think it was there I had my first chicken salad, which was scooped onto a plate and served with a moist bran muffin and a handful of crisp potato chips.

I remember grapes and celery in that chicken salad.

And I remember hearing the angels sing, just a little,–just a soft, everyday-joyful tune,–the first time I tried it.

And so I began ordering chicken salad at diners and cafes and restaurants, fascinated to see differences in ingredients and presentation: sometimes there were nuts and sometimes there were grapes; the white saucy part could be very different from place to place. Often, chicken salad was served on a croissant; at some places, you could pick your preferred bread—whole grain, plain old white, maybe rye, even. Sometimes the chicken salad came in a perfect snowball, carefully scooped, and there might be some fresh fruit on the side, along with a moist and beautiful muffin.

I liked chicken salad in ALL of its ways.

I started using leftover chicken to make salad at home, experimenting and improvising.

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A Very Short History of Chicken Salad

We have Liam Gray to thank for chicken salad as we know it, several websites (you’d be surprised how many websites offer a history of chicken salad; see some links at the end of this essay) tell me. In 1863, Mr. Gray owned Town Meats, a meat market in Wakefield, Rhode Island. He had some leftover cooked chicken, and he chopped it up, threw in some tarragon and grapes, and stirred it all together with mayonnaise. People loved it; they loved it so much, in fact, that Liam Gray converted his meat market to a deli, where he sold a lot of chicken salad sandwiches.

And, of course, people who liked chicken salad took Gray’s idea and ran with it, adding things they liked and removing the bits they could do without.

*********************************

Variations on a Theme

The Joy of Cooking offers a basic chicken salad recipe—they mandate a mixture of chicken, celery, grapes, and toasted almonds, walnuts, or pecans, served, not on bread, but on a bed of lettuce—but then they offer at least eight variations. My Better Homes and Gardens ‘New’ Cookbook (I’ve lost the copyright page, but the book is about as old as James is) mixes the ‘finely chopped cooked chicken’ with celery, green onion, lemon juice, pickle relish, hard-boiled eggs, and mayonnaise. BH&G recommends spooning the salad onto lettuce OR scooping out tomatoes so I can stuff them with the tasty stuff.

I turn to great-cook friends who might not mind getting an 8 a.m. text about chicken salad, too. Every person who responds loves chicken salad.

Terry writes, “So, I like chunked chicken, definitely grapes, walnuts or pecans, celery, and lots of mayonnaise…I can go either way on onion…I love them but [my husband] won’t touch a raw onion!” Terry wants her chicken salad served on a flaky croissant.

Larisa notes that when she makes her own, the chicken is usually shredded, but she enjoys chunky chicken when someone else is the salad assembler. Larisa’s okay with or without grapes, but she does like the salad with nuts in it.

Susan admits to being a chicken salad aficionado. Most days, a chicken salad sandwich is her bring-to-work lunch, and she likes the ‘smooth’ rendition a local deli provides. If she makes chicken salad at home, though, it will have grapes, slivered almonds, celery, and a dab of sour cream…and no onion. And it will be chunky.

“Of course,” Susan says, “all chicken salad has to have good mayo, never Miracle Whip.”

And Mary Lou writes about preferring chunky chicken salad, but she doesn’t object to a salad that uses shredded chicken. Definitely no onion, she says, and she likes celery in there for crunch. Grapes are okay, too. Mary Lou says, “…my basic principles would be—chunky, celery, lemon, mayo, and maybe a little sour cream and an optional fruit like grapes or apples. Along with a nice muffin.”

Her mom’s recipe set Mary Lou’s standard, and it called for celery and lemon, chopped apple, and pineapple. The creamy white sauce was a mixture of mayo, heavy cream, and pineapple juice. Her mother adapted that recipe, Mary Lou believes, from a Lazarus recipe called “Hawaiian Chicken Salad.”

Dressing recipe from the Lazarus Cookbook. Image courtesy of Mary Lou

And that led me to a little exploration of the Lazarus Department Store in Columbus, Ohio, and its influence on whole generations of chicken-salad eating women.

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The Lazarus Effect

Being from Elsewhere, I didn’t really appreciate the effect that the Lazarus department store had on people who grew up in the region. The store was opened, Linda Deitch tells me in a January 2, 2022, article in The Columbus Dispatch, in 1851, by Simon Lazarus, a German immigrant. In those days, it was a one-room men’s wear shop, but Lazarus’s store knew such success that, in 1909, it relocated to a grand six-floor building on High Street. It added twenty departments with the move, and it became a landmark and a mainstay in Columbus life.

Lazarus was a ground-breaking department store in many ways. For instance, it was the first store to offer its shoppers a moving escalator.

It was one of the very first stores to offer air conditioning, too, way back in 1934.

And it was due in large part to the efforts of Fred Lazarus, Jr., grandson of Simon, that the celebration of Thanksgiving was moved, in 1939, to the fourth, rather than the last, Thursday in November. This, of course, was a boon to retailers; they could open the holiday shopping season just that little bit sooner in years when November had five Thursdays. So, in a way, we have Fred Lazarus, Jr., to thank for the evolution of Black Friday shopping.

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Image courtesy of Mary Lou

Lazarus opened its Fifth Floor Tea Room during World War I; in 1953, the tea room was dubbed “The Chintz Room.” Women wore hats and gloves to dine, and girls learned how to comport themselves.

“It’s too bad you never got to experience the Chintz Room,” Susan writes, “the first place I ever found out that one should eat French fries with a fork, not fingers.”

And the Chintz Room was the place where many young women first savored a very special chicken salad. For those girls, as for Mary Lou, Lazarus chicken salad would always be the standard. The tea room closed in 2004, just about the time I was settling into this area.

If only I had known enough to hurry to Columbus for a chicken salad lunch before those doors closed for the very last time.

The Chintz Room’s menu, complete with chicken salad. Image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/8d/89/1b/8d891b8d58d2d92c4af81098624a2019.jpg

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But there are still chicken salad experiences to be had. One correspondent, whose name I won’t use because the recipe may be  a guarded secret, got the details on a local restaurant’s chicken salad many years ago. That unique salad is made with green onion, parsley, and tomato. All that is unusual enough, but the signature addition is pepper jack cheese. That adds a little heat, my anonymous source tells me, and it’s very different and very good.

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And here’s a quirky touch Mark and  I have learned, after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, to add: we use both shredded and chunked chicken. We chop the chicken up in nicely sized pieces, and then we put half of those pieces in the food processor and pulse them. The chunky chicken gives us that real-chicken chew; the shredded chicken holds everything together—no escapee chunks falling out onto my plate, or worse, onto my otherwise clean top. We like the method so much we might try it with ham salad, too.

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This Week, Again

Ah, this week. This week, the hospital called—not a problem, they said, but they thought I should know that Medicare believes I am a man. Our insurance covers wellness procedures like mammograms, but the hospital must send those procedures to Medicare, too, even though Medicare will not have to pay for them.

So the hospital notified Medicare of my mammogram, and Medicare responded that they don’t cover regular mammograms for male patients.

There was a whole dialogue between the hospital and Medicare, but nothing was to be done until I, the patient, got on the line. So I chatted with Medicare. And a very nice person there told me that she could see where the problem occurred, but she couldn’t fix it; I’d have to go to Social Security for that.

Social Security and I have had some words in the time since I retired (Do you know that they regard any pension money you may have as a ‘windfall’? Now, to me, a windfall is something unexpected, a treat that falls from a tree into your lap. Whereas a pension, now—a pension is a plan I made and a fund I paid my hard-earned money into. Because of my ‘windfall,’ though, my Social Security dividends are greatly reduced. It hardly seems reasonable or fair. But…if that means Social Security lasts longer, and people who need the larger payments to live well enough get them, I guess I will hush my mouth.)

Anyways, I dreaded what I feared might be a lengthy and frustrating experience, but, once I took my driver’s license and birth certificate to the Social Security office, the process couldn’t have been easier. The problem, a very nice lady told me, occurred in 1984. That was when Mark and I got married, and I officially removed any traces of my former married name from my Social Security profile, and updated my marital status.

It seems that a long ago clerk, instead of entering ‘M’ for married, entered ‘M’ for gender. I’m lucky, I guess, that the error didn’t kick me in the behind long before this.

But the problem is straightened out, and in two short weeks, I’ll have my new Social Security card which will assure me of my accurate status.

It’s not a huge big deal, but it was frustrating and upsetting—just another glitch in an unsettling kind of a week.

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There are issues and problems and frustrations in this world, on big stages and small, and some are pressing, and some are annoying, and some are in the wings, waiting to jump on stage.  

I need to be present and thoughtful, and I need to deal with all those things in the ways that, situated right here, I can. Maybe I can sow some kindness where hatefulness reigns, and maybe I can lend support to someone who needs a sturdy shoulder.

And maybe I can monitor my own carbon footprint and write letters, add my voice, to urge bigger, more impactful, climate-affecting influencers to monitor and change their practices NOW.

I will do those things, but it is okay, I think, to savor the little things meanwhile. I have this idea, for instance, of forming a kind of chicken salad club. We’d travel the region once a month to sample a different eatery’s rendition. I even thought, because I am, under it all, nothin’ but an English teacher, that we might create a rubric that scored things like “chew” and “crunch” and “unexpected savor.”

At the end of a year of exploration, whoever ‘we’ is could total up the rubric scores, and we could extend a Top Chicken Salad Award to some lucky restaurant.

A chicken salad club won’t solve the world’s problems, but it might add zest while we work on those things. And a little zest wouldn’t hurt right now, would it?

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I’m pasting some resources and recipes at the end of this post, and I would love to hear from you if you have thoughts on chicken salad, tips and tricks to share, and/or a kick-butt recipe that you don’t mind broadcasting.

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In addition to the wonderful thoughts of friends, sources include these:

That inspirational Hawaiian salad, from Mary Lou’s files

https://kitchen-catastrophe.com/kitchen-catastrophe/qt-62-the-surprisingly-complicated-history-of-chicken-salad

http://www.chickenscratch-blog.com/chicken-salad-back-to-the-beginning

The History Of Chicken Salad: Uncovering Its Origins

Now Open: Walking Season

I open the curtains at 7:30 a.m., and I see full daylight.

And just like that, the walking season is begun again. I lace up my sneakers, pull on my big bruiser of a parka, wrestle it zipped, and set off.

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The pavement’s only a little damp from the overnight drizzle, long stopped now, and I step carefully, getting my outdoor morning walking rhythm back. The snow is gone, but the air is cold.

Across the street, three of our neighbors still have their Christmas lights up, a bold white shouting chorus in the morning stillness. Ann called last night to ask if we’d heard the helicopter overhead, if we’d seen it shining its intense beam down on our sleepy neighborhood. (We heard it; Jim jumped and said “Yikes,” at the sudden strong whirring. It seemed right on top of us, right over the roof, a hovering thrum. We, snugged up in the family room away from the street, didn’t realize the copter folk had scanned the street with a spotlight, though.)

Ann and I wondered who or what they were searching for. I shivered, a little frisson of the unknown creeping up, and I told her to call if anything made her uneasy. And then we talked for a moment or two, of jobs and weather and of her proud daughter’s new driving license, and she said, in kind of a confessional rush, “I just took down my tree. I love having the tree up. And now the house feels sterile.”

“You should keep your tree up as long as it lifts your heart,” I said, and now, seeing the three houses boldly offering up their fairy lights, I smile. Seasons end not so much at the “right” time, but more when participants say, “Well, good. That was satisfying, and now we’re done.”

**************************

Around the corner, nine mama deer look a little exasperated to see me. I see little thought bubbles over their heads: Her again? Oh, boy: I suppose we need to meander.

They DO meander, not too quickly, giving me looks that say, “We were crossing this street ANYWAY. We’re not afraid of YOU.”

These February days, the mamas are a tight group. The bucks—a grown up and a couple of youngsters, antlers just barely forked—have been haunting the streets in the early nights. The girls, I guess, have decided life is best if they stick tightly together.

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The lawns are dull and golden-beige; the only green is onion grass, cockily proud. The rest of the grass is sad and matted, tired and spent.

Here and there a flattened Christmas inflatable hugs the ground like an exhausted sleeper. There’s a scooter outside one house, and a small bicycle, handlebars tassels lifting slightly in the soft breeze, outside another.

And, I realize as I round the corner, it is school bus time. A young dad and his impossibly tiny daughter bolt out of a house, hurry down the cement stairs, and rocket across the street. (How is it possible that scrap of humanity is old enough, already, to be on the bus to school? How, I wonder, can her daddy stand to send her off each morning, the first of those wrenching separations that define parenting? He holds her hand firmly, even when they are standing with the sturdy, relaxed mom casually herding her three rambunctious boys.)

The bus approaches; its lights flash on and it gentles over to the curb. The boys bound on, their waving mom halfway gone already. But the young dad lets go only at the last moment, and then he waits. The little one finds a seat, and as the bus pulls away, he waves and waves.

********************************

There is a hawk scree-ing somewhere down by the river. Morning traffic grows heavier as 8:00 a.m. approaches.

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I circle through the park and check the Little Free Library. There is space there! Jim will be excited; yesterday his package arrived from Amazon: three more books in the Redwall series. Those were books that Jim must have read to himself, and we read together, dozens of times over his childhood years. He loves putting those books in the little library and seeing, the next time he checks, that they have disappeared.

If it doesn’t rain later, I think, we will stop back down, load those Redwalls up.

It’s fun to imagine what kid might be taking those books and calling them treasure.

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And I think, as I walk, about Valentine’s Day and remind myself to address the cards waiting on the sideboard; today would be a good day to get those in the mail.

And I think, as I walk, that I could stir last night’s green beans into last night’s rice, then chop up the leftover chicken and stir it in, too. A tasty improvised casserole for lunch.

And I think, as I walk, that I will wear my comfy shoes rather than the pinchier, more stylish ones; we have a road trip/site visit in the afternoon–better to be comfortable than to be trendin’.

And I hear a gurgling liquid sound as I pass by the yard behind the pretty, well-kept red house, and suddenly water bubbles up in the middle of that backyard, a freshet or a geyser, definite and emphatic. What the heck?

And just as suddenly, the water ebbs and disappears, but my eye is caught by a sudden movement just beyond the bubbling source: a lean-looking robin is hopping underneath the bald-branched bushes.

A robin!

Suddenly the air carries just a hint of warmth underneath the cold breeze, and I swear I can smell, already, new growth.

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I hurry back to the house, to the coffee chugging into the old worn carafe; I’ll celebrate that faithful coffeemaker whose days, I’m afraid, have been numbered by its replacement’s order. And I’ll munch some granola, sip hot coffee gratefully, center my mind for the work day and beyond.

But all day long, I know, joy will quietly bubble.

Walking season is back.  

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And no matter what the groundhog says, I know better: I saw a robin. Spring can’t be too far behind.

Month of Purity, Month of Mud

Barefoot in the dark night’s waning hours, I open the curtains on the back door, and I see, to my great surprise, a layer of snow.

It is not so deep, that snow, that grass can’t push its prickly shoots up and over the top of the unexpected blanket. But the driveway is covered. Neighborhood cars parked in other driveways, unprotected, have layers of fluff, and for the umpteenth time, I send up fervent thanks for the fact of having a carport, of not having to scrape and brush the morning car.

Just for fun, I look up school closings on my IPad, and I see that every school in the county is closed today. Closed for .6 of an inch of snow! We chuckle about this, Mark and I, children of the Snowbelt, where we walked to school, several miles, through six foot drifts, all winter long. (It was uphill, both ways, too.)

“We don’t need no stinkin’ snow day!” we snort. “This is nuthin’!”

But, of course, we realize our county does not have the arsenal of snow removal equipment that our old home did, equipment that was geared up and roaring to wipe streets clean when the first flake fluttered to earth.

And there are kids here who live way out on country roads, which can be slick and dangerous, especially if there’s ice underneath that sweet white topping.

And today’s snow was completely unexpected. (No way that fat little groundhog is going to like what it sees.)

The truth is, one just never knows. And that’s February for me, in a nutshell.

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January slid quickly away, dragging, as it went, the last clingy scraps of a cozy holiday season. Even the little park’s decorations are down; the gazebo is back to its placid, wooden state: sparkling tree gone from its center, no greens and icicle lights dripping from its eaves. Now it’s just a summer shelter shouldering on through February.

February is the month, I am told, in which the heaviest snow falls. But it’s also the month when spring weather pops up. My phone weather app tells me we will have REALLY cold weather this weekend.

But then, by the following Thursday, the temps will soar up to fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s February: we’ll figure it out, each day as it comes.

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Some months have names that make sense, in a way. Like the fall months, leading into winter, have counting names—sept, octo, novo, dec. Those might not correspond to the way we count months NOW, but still—how the months earned those names? I get it.

And I can see why January is named for Janus, the god of comings and goings.

But where the heck did the name ‘February’ come from? (It’s the toughest one to learn, some tongues wanting to say FebYOUary instead of FebBREWary. My young tongue, in fact, took a while to wrap around the right way to say it; I remember being corrected. I remember trying to remember to enunciate that ‘r’.)

I look February up on etymonline.com, and this is what I learn:

February was the final month in the Roman calendar, and the Roman feast of purification took place then. And that’s where the name comes from: “februarius menses”—-the month of purification. The root verb is februare: to purify.

So February is the month of purification?  

But then, etymonline.com tells me, in Old England, February was called Solmonao.

That meant “mud month.”

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Mud month indeed! The ice melts and the mud softens, clinging to boots and shoes. It creeps into the house. I wield the damp mop five or six times a day, wiping out foot records of comings and goings.

The cars are spattered.

Lawns look tired, disheveled, and worn, their dead leaves anchored in mud.

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John Lawless submitted this poem to Standard Contest 70 in February 2018 (poetrysoup.com):

February Feints

February creeps across the mud

chuckling

knowing it is not her milieu

snickering

as she tats snowflakes

whistling

as she scatters them

icily

on freshly chilled winds.

February veers—from frozen ground dotted with those tatted snowflakes to mud bogs waiting to suck me in. It brings snow days and it brings days when a winter jacket is just too warm, when kids shrill in school playgrounds.

I find, searching online, that there are lots of February poems, and most of them zero in on weather.

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But Valentines Day—that brings emotional warmth, in honor, Britannia.com tells me, of a saint with foggy facts. St. Valentine died in the third century in Rome. He’s not, anymore, a SAINT saint, our Valentine: the Roman Catholic Church decided in 1969 that they just didn’t have enough hard data about the man to sanctify him.

Still, people call Valentine the patron saint of beekeepers, epileptics, and lovers.

Some say Valentine was a Roman doctor and a Catholic priest who became the patron of lovers because he courageously married couples in secret. The government wanted those men single—then they could be sent to war. But married, they were excused; they could stay with their beloved wives.

Or perhaps another story is true—that, imprisoned (maybe for performing those marriages), the saint befriended the jailer’s daughter. She was a blind girl, but Valentine, whether by miracle or medicine, cured her of her blindness. And he would write her missives from his cell, signing them, “…from your Valentine.”

History’s hazy—are either of those stories true? It does seem pretty clear that Valentine was martyred and that his feast day is February 14. That’s a day young students prepare for by crafting fancy boxes in which to carry home all the sweet or funny cards their classmates will give them. They prepare, too, some of them, by being forcibly plunked down at the family table, given a pen, a class list, and a box of Valentines; a stern adult, arms crossed, stands there while the muttering, disgruntled child fills out a Valentine for each  and every classmate.

More carping there than Cupid. Oh, well.

Valentines Day is a day for special cards for moms and grams, for salted chocolate caramels packed in shiny cardboard hearts, for a big bouquet of fragrant roses, a day for feting sweethearts.

Unless…it’s not. Uncoupled women took matters into their own hands one year; Merriam-webster.com notes that Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope coined the term Galantine in 2010. Women who did not have frenzied Galahads to bring them flowers and chocolate co-opted the day; they celebrated with girlfriends, buying their OWN special gifts: Galantines Day. And so there to the idea that couple-ness is the only state to be celebrated, some might say.

Merriam-Webster-webster.com notes that the Galentine holiday has been dunned for its lack of inclusivity, its embrace only of single women (Is there a Palentine?), but, the site says, there are efforts to address that issue.The writer uses the passive voice, though…efforts are afoot…and so we don’t know what efforts, or who might be making them.

But anyway: valentines and galentines: February.

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“Would you help me,” James asks on the afternoon of February 1, “get my monthly finances in order?”

“Sure,” I say, and he makes room for a chair by his laptop. He creates a fancy table onscreen with spaces for Resources, Expenses, and Other.

Under expenses, he lists his regular expenses, the streaming subscriptions he supports, the practical things he needs to pay for this month: haircut, new socks, prescription drugs, supplements.

He puts down his monthly income; he writes what he knows is coming in, and then he slants his eyes at me.

“Do we KNOW,” he asks delicately, “if you and dad will give me CASH for my birthday?”

Hah. No wonder he wanted my help.

To solve that mystery, I say, we will have to  arrive at the great day itself.

Jim sighs and starts a wish list, just in case that birthday cash appears.

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A rare and varied list of February birthdays awaits me at birthdayhub.com. Such notables as Ronald Reagan (and OTHER presidents, of course, who give us a snug day off) and Charles Lindbergh were born in February; so were Rick James and Tommy Smothers. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Laura Ingalls Wilder flaunt their three-name names in the list; Rihanna flounces by with only one. Clark Gable, Cybill Shepherd, Yoko Ono; Sidney Poitier, Erma Bombeck, and Johnny Cash. Babe Ruth. Jules Verne. Roberta Flack (about whom there is, this month, a PBS documentary airing).

Josh Groban.

One of my favorites: George Thorogood.

And closer to home our godson Philip, our grandniece Maddie, our friends Patty, Pam, and Wendy.

And James of course.

And some other wonderful people. You know who you are.

All kinds of interesting personalities were born in February, that shifting, changing, fascinating month.

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James and I take a little trip to the craft store, looking for bouncing bears and wrapping ribbon, and I come upon a sale: all Valentines supplies are marked down 40 per cent. So, unable to resist, I come home with a floppy set of silicone cupcake molds, heart-shaped. At the register, the clerk asks, “Have you ever baked with these before?”

She is, perhaps, a little older, even, than I. She looks disapproving.

I have not used silicone baking pans, I tell her, then ask, “Have you?”

No, she says, a little grim. She likes metal pans.

I get her: it seems impossible to me that this floppy, rubbery substance won’t melt in the oven. But I have in mind small heart-shaped cakes, frosted with white buttercream. Then, I will dig out my fancy frosting tips and bags, and add white flowers and squiggles and dots. Sweet little Valentine’s Day goodies.

Maybe. If the silicone doesn’t melt.  We will see.

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I stop at the library to pick up a book on reserve.

Margaret, the wonderful library associate, checks it out for me. She hands me the receipt with a flourish.

“It’s due,” she says, “March 2. And I hope that comes soon. I can’t wait to see the end of February.”

She waves and turns to the next borrower in line, so I don’t get to ask: what’s wrong with February? The weather? All that emphasis on hearts and flowers? Something to do that’s worthy of dread?

Or maybe it’s just the paradox of the month itself: month of purity, month of mud…of Valentine’s chocolate-y excess and Ash Wednesday’s stringent fasting.

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The month that joggles me along, teasing me, unwilling to let me know just what I can expect: February. Here it is, though; might as well jump in.

Sleep Tight

As we get older, it gets more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. That doesn’t mean we don’t still need seven to nine hours.

—-“How Sleep Changes With Aging,” Mark Stibich, Ph.D. (verywellhealth.com)

The night is deep and quiet. Far, far away, way over on his side of the new king-sized bed, Mark’s C-Pap whooshes pleasantly. Outside, the wind curls, buffeting and pleading, juddering the windows.

The house is not too hot, and it’s not chilly, either—just right for sleeping.  There’s nothing more pleasant than drifting off to sleep, safely protected, when the weather’s wild and woolly.

And I am tired…it was a full, busy, GOOD day, and I was glad to climb upstairs at 8:45, soak in a steaming tub, and then fall asleep at page 231 of Slow Horses.

So why now—at 3:34 a.m.—am I wide awake?

The more I try to relax and fall asleep, the awaker I get.

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“How did you sleep?” Mark will say when he comes down in the morning, freshly showered and ready to start the day.

“Hang on,” I will answer. “I have to consult my Fitbit.”

The Fitbit tells me how long I slept. It tells me how much of that time was spent in REM, deep, and light sleep. It tells me how many waking moments I had across the span of my nightly slumber.

Then it gives me a grade.

Last night, I finally gave up at 3:45, brought my book downstairs, turned the lamp on and read until dawn.  

Four hours and 22 minutes, Fitbit sniffed disdainfully. Fair.

I don’t think it ever gives a grade lower than Fair. I long for the rare morning the Fitbit pats me on the head and says, “You done GOOD, kid.”

That only happens, if I am very lucky, about once a week, though.

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I’ve been comforting myself with the thought that, at my exalted age, I don’t need as much sleep as I used to need. But I’d like to solve the mystery: why are some nights just sleepless? And what can I do about those nights?

I go searching on the internet, and I’m a little dismayed at what I find.

Dr. Mark Stibich, in “How Sleep Changes With Aging,” (verywellhealth.com) disillusions me. I DO need as much sleep as ever—I should average between seven and nine hours nightly. But he acknowledges that there are parts of the aging process that interfere with that goal.

Pain can wake me up, for instance, and keep me from dropping back into a slumbrous state. Consider arthritis, says Dr. Stibich, and he’s right: I know that critter. It lives in my right shoulder, and it’s happy to remind me, deep in the darkness, that it’s hoping to occupy that space for a good long time.

And there are age-associated conditions (diabetes, say, and prostate issues for men, for example) that wake us up after two or three hours.

“Hi, Sunshine!” those conditions say. “Hey, let’s waltz on over to the powder room!”

And I want to ignore that nagging voice, but, oh: it is persistent.

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Mark and I get up in the mornings and compare notes. How many trips?

One morning last week, Mark bounded down the stairs. “I only got up ONCE all night!” he crowed.

We made ourselves a nice omelet; some things are just worth celebrating.

**********************

Dr. Stibich reminds me that heart troubles can also be sleep-swipers. They can wake me from a sound sleep, wake me with weird breathing issues or irregular heart beats.

And, of course, aging provokes conditions that exacerbate anxiousness. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, mental illness…all these things lead to anxiety, and anxiety (even the ordinary, garden variety of anxiety) prods my eyelids open, and sends me, finally, padding downstairs while the rest of the world seems to be resting peacefully.

**********************

So maybe I need to change something…maybe I actually sabotage my own sleep. I check Mark Stibich’s list of things I can do to foment sleep instead.

—Exercise more, he suggests; people tend to grow more sedentary as they age.  It’s true that when the weather is lousy, I don’t get my long walks in. I try to compensate by sneaking short walks before and after work, but Dr. Stibich is right: I could work on this.

—He also writes about the importance of getting enough sunlight. It makes sense this time of year, when days are speckled with sleety rain and, sometimes, snow, that I don’t spend as much time outside. And sunlight triggers melatonin production, and I need that substance coursing through my system to maintain a good night’s sleep. I need to push myself out the door every day.

(And, if need be, I can take a melatonin tablet or two half an hour or so before I head upstairs for the night.)

—What are you ingesting, the good doctor asks, and, oh, this is a bitter question for me. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine—all can interfere with sleeping, notes Stibich. I would own up if that was the case, but I neither use nor abuse any of them. I may have a drink once or twice a year, but really, I gave up all those vices decades ago. (Thank goodness for amazing decaf beans; I would miss my coffee so…) It’s not FAIR, I pout, stamping my size elevens. It’s not fair. I gave up all this stuff and I STILL can’t sleep.

***********************

Check your medicines, too, says Stibich. As we age, he gently reminds me, we tend to take two or more daily medications.

And yes, that is true, but I don’t THINK the Crestor I take just before bed, per directions, is the culprit.

—And finally, Dr. Stibich points to naps. Naps are great, he says; naps are FUN. But if they run more than twenty minutes, they can steal from our nighttime sleep load. This is not a problem, either, though: sometimes, but not nearly often enough, I sneak a twenty minute snooze in, late afternoon, in the reading chair. I WISH I had hour-long nappie times.

***********************

I’m thinking I can take some steps to improve my sleeping habits…make some dietary changes (I don’t need all that sugary stuff, anyway); get serious about morning pages again—-those are such good cobweb cleaners. And most of the thoughts that pop into my head, and seem so hugely significant, at 3:00 a.m. ARE cobwebs.

I’ll remember, in the sleeping house, when I was seven and got a grocery bag stuck in my bicycle tire; I was marooned on the sidewalk, and a mean old lady (Old lady: huh! Probably ten years younger than I am now…) screamed at me from her second story window: Move along, you bad girl! Move along!

I’ll remember a jerk I worked with in another time and place, and I think, in the quiet hours, of twelve perfect comebacks to a cutting remark he made twenty years ago, a remark that left me uncharacteristically silent. But, oh, I could tell him NOW…

At 3:00 a.m., faux pas and discrepancies come back to haunt me. They’re too gauzy to bat away, but they’re sticky enough to keep me awake. Cobweb sweeping is in order.

I’m going to try some yoga. I’m going to try some meditation.

Just because I know I’m in good company—LOTS of woman who’ve chugged around the planet as many times as I have experience sleep issues—doesn’t mean I, or any of us, have to stay there.

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The final piece of Mark Stibich’s article says this: get plenty of sunlight and exercise, and look at your meds. The time of day you take something may determine how much it affects your rest. Talk to your doctor, he says; talk to the doc.

And if I do all that and nothing improves, then I may have some kind of sleep condition—apnea or insomnia, for instance.

Talk to your doctor, Stibich says again: follow all the sleep tips, see if anything changes, and then: go talk to the doctor.

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I started writing this yesterday, long before the sun came up. I am finishing today, at the dining room table, with beautiful soft winter sunlight pouring in the window. I’m going outside and get me some of that sun. While I’m at it,I’ll get me some of that exercise stuff, too.

And half an hour before I head up to bed, I’ll take a melatonin.

I swept the cobwebs this morning, scrabbling out three morning pages. I have located a simple meditation I can do each night before bed. I am being careful of diet, starting right now.

Maybe all these practices will kick in, maybe the ship will slowly turn. Maybe I’ll start getting up each morning, consulting my Fitbit, and reveling in its review of my sleep. Good! it will say, day after day. And well rested, content, I will smile and sigh.

I’ll let you know when if that happens, in a post that, I hope, is not written in the post-midnight quiet of my sleeping house. May your sleep be deep and untroubled.

We Never Talk Any More

I still need you.

I still want you in my life.

But let’s face it, we never talk anymore.

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Yes, Smartphone, I am saying this to YOU.

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I know that YOU know that there were phones before you, even when I was very young. Calling a friend, talking for—whoa, ten minutes?!—was an incredible treat. And then, just when we were developing a rhythm, heading toward the most fun part of that conversation, the Voice would intrude.

“Are ya DONE?” it would snarl. “I have ta call my HUSBAND.”

My mother would slash her hand across her throat: cut it short. And I would hang up, deflated.

My first phone…I loved it so, but I had to share it with all the people who lived in my house AND with some unknown, borderline civil, party line.

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And the black rotary desk phone on the dining room buffet gave way, as I grew, to a lovely beige wall-hung model in the kitchen. The cord on that phone would reach into the living room.

We moved, and the party line partner disappeared.

I would wait for that phone to ring…and it was not, always, for me. But there could be a call from a friend, a friend with whom I’d plot the most wonderful adventures, recount the most interesting stories from school that day.

It could be an invitation to a movie with a very cute boy.

That call could trumpet a prom date, even.

In those days, girls did NOT call boys, so half of the people I might like to have telephone conversations with had to place a call to me, or the talk just didn’t get talked.

When that phone rang, when it was for me, I would slip as far away as the cord would let me, savoring a thin film of privacy.

That film was often breached and torn.

“WHO are you talking to?” they might demand, or, “Why do you always seem to get phone calls just when it’s time to do dishes?”

“I need the phone!” someone else might say. “Make her get OFF!”

I loved that phone. I talked on that phone whenever I could. But there were pot holes that peppered the pathway of our togetherness.

Love’s path is never smooth.

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Life bore me, sodden and floundering, on its unrelenting waves, and I met many phones along the way. Landlines, they were, shared with partners and roommates and family members, except during a brief stint of the single life. And, settling into relationships, the nature of conversations changed.

Telemarketing became a thing. I remember being almost nine months pregnant and finally—finally!—settling into sleep on a Sunday morning. And the phone—betrayer—rang on the bedside table, next to my ear. And I told the telemarketer how she had interrupted my brief attempt at sleep, and she sounded like she might cry. Which was okay, I thought, since frustrated, exhausted tears were rolling down my cheeks, too.

There were rare but shocking calls that began, “Are you alone? Is someone there with you? Can you sit down?” And then I hated the phone, the instrument that changed life irrevocably, that removed a beloved person from the list of those I would call in the future.

And there were work related calls, and reminder calls, and there were, still, those lovely rich conversations that textured my life. I couldn’t always trust my phone; it brought bad things into the house, but I needed it. I needed the news it provided, even woeful news. I needed its lifeline.

When we moved out of state, when we got landlines with different area codes, the phone helped me stay connected.

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Ah, but technology: it stands still for no one.

Email became, often, an easier way to keep in touch, not demanding an immediate response. I could—or my receiver could—think about the message, respond when we had had a chance to ponder and compose.

Single emails built into chains, into saveable, build-able, conversations.

I used my phone a little less.

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And then: my first mobile.

It was a work phone.

It was a flip phone. And wasn’t I cutting edge?

This is a folding mobile phone.

I tried to use it only for work, although sometimes I would call the family if, say, I was going to be later than expected. Or I’d get a call about dinner plans or about something we needed at the supermarket I’d be passing by on my way home.

My flip phone.

My landline.

My loyalties divided.

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And a work flip phone morphed into a purchased cell phone, a personal phone in addition to the landline. And texting started to be a thing; texting, like email, got the message there, and did not demand immediate spoken responses.

My cell phones got smarter and smarter. The landline became less and less essential.

And finally, we let the landline go, turned our backs, walked way. But our cell phones went with us everywhere.

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Once, long ago, when I was commuting, I said, “I like the long ride home. The car is one place no one can bother you.”

But smart phones connect to cars; they stay, always, focused and alert. Now there is never a disconnected time.

And the smart phones—they crave attention. Once I sat in a restaurant and watched two young female friends come in and be seated. They talked for a moment, until the pretty animated one pulled out her smart phone and looked at it. Her face lit up. Their conversation stopped.

For the whole time we ate our lunch, the perky girl tapped and texted, ignoring her friend, who looked sadder and sadder.

Smart phones demand. ALL the time, they say to us. All the TIME.

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A commercial spokesperson asked me this: “Remember when we used phones to talk on?

I bristled. I still TALK on my phone, I thought. But then I had to admit it was true. I texted. I checked email. I got voice messages and I left them, too.

COVID confined, and I talked with people via ZOOM or FaceTime or Teams on my laptop or iPad.

I used my phone to fact check and shop, to text, to track my Fitbit activities.

I wore my old phone out and got a new one, and finally I had to face the truth. Our relationship has changed. My iPhone and I: we just don’t talk any more.

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I go for a walk, smart phone tucked in my pocket. (We may not talk, Phone, but I don’t go many places without you.) And while I walk, I ponder this new reality, this new dependency.

A week or two ago, the boyos and I did a kind of tag team thing so I could drop the Hyundai off at the shop, about 35 miles away, where they will repair the hail damage wrought in Spring 2022. James and I arrived first, to discover that the collision shop was gated, and we’d have to leave the car at the dealership next door.

I texted Mark to let him know.

He never replied.

I went for a walk to get my hourly steps, to appease my FitBit, another technological relationship that has become essential. And I was heading back to the car when Mark pulled in.

“Did you try to text me?” He asked, a little breathless. “I FORGOT MY PHONE.”

Forgot his phone! We stared at each other, aghast.

Who leaves home without their phone anymore???

Mark was sort of anxious. We filled out the envelope, slid the keys in the drop box, and followed his phone’s siren call: we headed back to the house.

When we got in, before he hung his coat up, Mark went and grabbed his phone.

“THERE you are,” he said, and he checked anxiously to make sure no urgent messages had arrived during the 93 minutes we were gone.

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Listen, Phone: I need you. I need you in different ways from when I started phoning; I have changed, but, oh, you have changed too.

You have gotten faster; you have gotten more expensive and more adaptable. You have gotten sleeker.

You have gotten all those things, and I, so sad to say, have not.

But I have grown to need you, to be anxious when (several times a day), I forget where I’ve left you and have to search, calling. Yes, I am dependent, and yes, it seems I need you more than you need me.

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It is what it is, Phone. You make life doable in so many ways. But there are days when I think back, when I think of the pleasure of twining a grubby cord around my wrist, of searching for some semblance of privacy, of getting to the end of a conversation, and whispering, “No—YOU hang up first!”

And giggling while a person in an adjacent room makes gagging noises.

Life changes. Relationships morph. We take what we need and learn to live with the rest. It is, truly, almost all good.

Just sometimes, I think, as I tap a text into my phone and wail to see the whimsical effects of spell check as my message flies off into the universe, “Wouldn’t it be nice, once in a while, just to TALK?”

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Phone photos from free Internet images