SOMETHING FUN to think about is what would happen if all the cell phones stopped working, for reasons I cannot even postulate since I know nothing about how they work in the first place. But what I do know is that all of Western culture is in the grips of a terrible epidemic—call it Morbus Cellphonicus—that is destroying any possibility of nurturing interpersonal communication and leaving its hapless victims with poor posture, neck aches and, certainly among the older generation, arthritic fingers. It seems to gain strength daily, with willing victims lining up at all 498 Apple stores across 22 countries, eager to purchase the leading conduit of the disease, another way, we’re hooked on cell phones and they are ruining life for everyone. It’s the new Plague, only minus the scurrying rats.
One of the most common symptoms is the act of texting, which isn’t even talking when you at least can hear the voice of a loved one, or even just another human. No, it’s confined to writing messages in a kind of dumbed-down shorthand, precluding all feelings of warmth and most intelligence, sometimes with dire results. For example, 25% of all car accidents in the United States (per year) are caused by cell phone texting while driving. That translates into 330,000 accidents leading to severe injuries and in some cases, death, because someone wanted to say “😈😮🙏😎💔 lol” to someone else, often to someone they have never even met in person, and they just couldn’t wait until the next red light.
Bedtime scrolling through Facebook has replaced marital sex in many couples, leading to separation and divorce. Children and parents no longer speak to one another with their mouths, instead texting even within the same household to say that “dinner’s ready” or “time to go.” Hugging is simply out of the question, replaced by 💋. Millions of husbands and wives afflicted with Morbus Cellphonicus quickly become addicted to their cell phones, unable to put them down, turn them off or eventually live without them. “In the last few months, I must have seen 30 couples and families in which technology addiction was contributing to the psychological problems within the family system, ” says Jay P. Granat, Ph.D., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an article on the effect of cell phones on the divorce rate.
Even worse, unprotected children who get hooked early get the sickest, with little hope for a cure. According to Dr. Granat, “A colleague of mine who is a guidance counselor in a middle school notes that when the teachers confiscate a cell phone, students show up in the guidance office and ask if they can visit their phones and hold their phones for just a few minutes.”
So, as I said at the outset, think about what would happen if all the cell phones stopped working. (See, it is fun.)
Scene from the movie “Airplane.” / Paramount Pictures.
NATURALLY APPREHENSIVE and skeptical as to how a giant pile of metal could possibly get off the ground in the first place and then stay aloft, my flying days got off to a peculiarly bad start years ago, and since then, despite countless trips across the country and across the Atlantic, I’ve never lost the feeling that at any moment the winged contraption I was in would take a dive and I would plummet to certain death. Alcohol does not help, although a couple of Lorazepam on the way to the airport will smooth things out nicely.
My virgin flight at the age of 22 was the start of my lack of confidence in the allegedly friendly skies. Of course, the fact that I was reared by two people who had never been higher than their fifth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn didn’t help.
Both my parents were of the “If God Had Intended Us To Fly He Would Have Given Us Wings” school of thought, my father more ferocious in this belief than my mother. He was the guru, she merely
one of his willing disciples. Dad was very up-to-date on the death toll for any year from plane crashes, and was a veritable walking book of statistics on the probability of survival relating to where you sat in the aircraft, sort of a precursor to Google on the subject. Whenever a major air disaster occurred, he seemed as happy as a news commentator with a hot story. Gloating, he would say, “See that, what did I tell you? Am I right or am I right?”
On the eve of my first flight, a 45-minute hop from New York to Washington to visit a college friend, my parents invited me over to dinner for their version of the Last Supper. One would have thought I was having major surgery the following day from the way they behaved.
“One question: Why are you doing this to us?” my father asked, his lower lip quivering.
“I only have the weekend, and I don’t want to spend half of it getting there. Besides, I want to fly, we are not living in the Dark Ages anymore, at least I’m not. You are aware that normal people fly every day, are you not? They say it’s safer than driving.”
“If your mother’s driving, maybe, but all I know is when my car runs out of gas, I don’t fall into the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Jesus, Dad, airplanes do not run out of gas! Anyway, I’m flying to Washington, there’s no ocean to fall into.”
“That’s even worse. At least if you fall into the water you could swim, you might possibly survive. But you hit land and bang, that’s it! You’re finished.”
“Mother, please make him stop.” I turned to her, the voice of authority in almost all disputes.
“You’ve been a wonderful daughter,” she said, blowing her nose into a wadded-up ball of lipstick-stained tissues. “I just don’t understand what’s wrong with the train all of a sudden?” Overcome with sobs, she left the room.
After promising to call them the minute I arrived, I left thinking my parents were really pathetic. I mean really, how could anyone not have faith in the New York-to-DC Eastern Shuttle? After all, it was practically invented to ferry important politicians back and forth—it had to be safe!
Looking back, I could see all the red flags that I missed at the time. A leading indicator was the condition of the flight attendants; one was at least 15 pounds overweight and the other had a very unflattering hairdo. Obviously, both of them were expendable employees. And the airplane was less than half full, which meant that all the passengers who were sensitive to bad omens had bolted before take-off.
We had been airborne for about 15 minutes when I noticed that the elderly German couple sitting next to me were gripping one another’s hands and praying in their native tongue. I also noticed that we seemed to be going down rather dramatically, but hey, it was my first time, who knew what it was supposed to feel like? But then the captain announced, fairly shouting, “Ladies and gentlemen, we just received report of a bomb on the plane! We are making an emergency landing. Please deplane by sliding down the inflated rubber chute and run away as fast as possible!”
As the chubby flight attendant began sobbing uncontrollably, the captain’s voice continued with the cryptic instructions: “Remove all shoes and eyeglasses and place them under your seat.” With that announcement all hell broke loose; it was just like those grade-B airplane disaster movies. I think I even saw Leslie Nielsen and Shelley Winters elbowing people in the aisle. Despite all the pushing and shoving I survived, and with the distinction of being the last person off the plane. The crew got off first! We landed outside of Frederick on some farmland, where fire trucks were waiting and sprayed the plane with foam. I approached a sobbing flight attendant in the field where we were waiting and asked her how come she handled it so badly. She said, “I have been flying for nine years and this is the first time anything bad happened!” I told her it was my first flight, and I wasn’t crying … .We were each questioned by the FBI; we then boarded a bus and two hours later arrived at National Airport.
Unfortunately, I had been one of maybe two people who actually did as the captain requested and slid down the rubber emergency chute minus my shoes and glasses. Being incredibly myopic, I saw little of Washington that particular weekend. I also never saw those shoes again, or those glasses or my luggage. (Footnote: My college friend and his roommate sued Eastern Airlines. They were in their first year of law school and it was their first lawsuit. They sued for my luggage and belongings that I never got back, and “mental anguish.” I got $500, as opposed to the zero that my fellow passengers were offered.)
Meanwhile, the news had reported only that the plane “had gone down” in a field in Maryland. There were no cell phones, so of course my parents knew nothing except what they heard on TV. By the time I called home, my mother had been given a sedative by our family physician and my father was convinced I was dead and didn’t believe it was really me on the phone.
FYI: The plane did not explode.
Andrea Rouda, who blogs at The Daily Droid, wishes she had taken Amtrak that weekend.
EACH SUNDAY I drag our two huge trash bins, one at a time, from inside the garage, down the driveway and out to the street for Monday morning pickup. One is for garbage and the other, larger still, is for recyclables. Then on Monday morning I drag them back, empty. Our driveway, covered with pebbles, is long enough to park four cars. Getting the bins out can be a tricky task under some conditions, but it’s my job; always has been and always will be.
When I took them out this afternoon I encountered a neighbor who was cheerily photographing the lovely gardens in full bloom along our street. “That’s quite a chore you’ve got,” she said, sounding sympathetic and looking more than a little horrified. “Can’t you get your husband to do that?” I shrugged and replied that I didn’t mind, adding, “It’s one of the ways I know I’m still alive.” She laughed, not understanding that I was completely serious.
I love taking out the garbage. In fact, it’s high on my short list of favorite things to do, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a cliché-buster, since the man of the house is supposed to take out the garbage and the nagging wife is supposed to remind him since he’s busy watching football and forgot. But the better reason is that it’s actual, down-to-earth work that needs to be done, sometimes requiring strength when the bins are filled with heavy items, and other times, like in winter, incredible agility. Come rain, sleet, snow and all the rest of that postman thing, I remain undaunted and get it done.
I’m actually dreading the day when I can’t. This has happened rarely, but it’s happened. A year ago I had hip replacement surgery and missed the trip back with the empty cans, since my surgery was on a Monday and I had to be at the hospital before the trash was picked up. The next week I missed the whole thing, needing a walker and not quite recovered enough to even leave the house. I was bereft, since I considered taking out the garbage an indicator of my overall health and well-being. By the next week I was back at it, deaf to my husband’s pleas that I wasn’t ready and to let him do it. But I managed, leaning on the full trash bins on the way out and my cane on the way back. I did this twice, one for each bin, and by the time I was finished I could have used a stiff drink. (Sadly that was not permitted since I was on blood thinners, but anyway, at least I knew I was on the mend.)
Over the last eight years, taking out the garbage has become a physical test of will. These Maine winters are certainly challenging, with deep snow and black ice blanketing the driveway for months. Still, I pull on my boots, crampons, parka, hat, gloves and scarf and get out there and just do it! Accomplishing this in a raging blizzard or severe nor’easter is literally the only thing I do that reminds me of how hard ordinary life used to be, and still is for so many people.
IT’S AMAZING how little there is to say once we decide to stop complaining. For me, complaining is the building block of my very existence and the essence of my conversation. (Not that I’m complaining.) Whether this stems from early childhood traumas (I was kidnapped at the age of four) or from events later in life (given LSD without prior consent, raised Kosher but forced to eat bacon periodically), it’s a habit that is deeply ingrained, certainly in myself but also in every other person I have ever met. (I have never met Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama so that likely explains it.)
Most ordinary people enjoy complaining and do it all the time, to just about anyone who will listen. In fact, complaining is so popular that an entire profession is devoted to it; all the shrinks and counselors and coaches and therapists of every stripe make quite a good living off of sitting quietly and listening to the complaints of complete strangers.
Here’s a challenge: Try to go one day without complaining and see what happens. I’ve never done it but I bet something good would come of it. I’m thinking of trying it today, so before I start I’d like to unload a few complaints here to help me not complain later:
1. I hate these damn bugs! I have so many itches and bites all over my body I can’t decide where to scratch first, or which cream to use, I have so many of them, but of course none of them actually work for longer than five minutes.
2. It’s another hot day here in Maine! I thought Maine is supposed to be cool in summer! I hate summer, why do you think I live in this Godforsaken place? It’s not fair.
3. I am scheduled to work out today with a new trainer but my arm hurts and I don’t know why! Will it get worse from a workout? Oh great, that’s just what I need…..
4. There is not one decent movie playing at any of the local theaters! In fact, they are all playing the same movies! That is just dumb! Why don’t they all offer different choices?
ONE MORNING last week I noticed a minor but painful, could-be-cancer lump that had seemingly sprung up out of nowhere. Since we were heading into a weekend, I called our family physician and described the situation to the nurse who answered the phone. After she consulted with the doc, she said they could “squeeze me in the following day before his first appointment,” which meant I had to be there at 7:45am. I said fine.
As the day passed, things improved. By nighttime the lump had receded and I had forgotten about the appointment with the doctor. The next morning I slept late, then piddled around until about 8:30 when my husband returned from his morning workout and reminded me. “Oh crap!” I wailed, rushing to call the doctor’s office. I explained that my condition had apparently fixed itself and I had just plain forgotten to come in. “I am so, so sorry,” I said to the nurse. “No problem, he comes in early every day so there was no harm—he wasn’t inconvenienced at all.”
Then yesterday I received a form letter in the mail from the physician’s parent organization reprimanding me for my bad behavior. It was sent to remind me “just how valuable the doctor’s time is” and inform me that “while it is inevitable that unforeseen circumstances may cause someone to miss an appointment,” the next time it happens I will be charged the full price for an office visit ($128) unless I cancel within 24 hours. And while they would like to continue providing for my health care needs, if it happens a third time within an 18-month period, “it may be necessary for us to consider discharging you from the practice.”
Duly chided, I threw the letter in the trash this morning, just before I opened today’s Wall Street Journal and read that “the opioid addiction crisis in New England has surged 500% in the last seven years,” due to doctors over-prescribing the drugs. “The amount of opioids sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled since 1999, even though there has been no change in the amount of pain reported by Americans, the CDC said.”
I’m considering mailing that article to my doctor and telling him to stop it.
LATELY IT’S BEEN hard to keep up with all the explosions and shootings taking place everywhere. In London, San Francisco, and most recently Alexandria, Va., people of all stripes are going nuts, and there’s little reason to believe the growing chaos will end anytime soon. Up here in Maine, our little paradise remains unscathed by the madness, making me think that leaving the state—or even my house—is asking for trouble. So I opt for safety, staying close to home and painting pretty pictures that likely won’t make me a dime, will never be seen by the public, or, after I run out of wall space, won’t even get to hang on a wall. Instead most of them will run out the clock like poor Anne Frank, their inherent beauty hidden from sight inside a dark closet. (At least Anne left a trace, writing things like, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”)
Despite wishing to get my art in front of a wider audience, still I feel my seclusion to be a worthy endeavor; my absence from society likely does more good than my presence might. After all, I’m one less person out there pushing and pulling, grumbling and grabbing. Also, the chances of being struck by a stray bullet, crushed by a speeding van or impaled by flying shrapnel are greatly diminished by my sheltering in place. Still, questions taunt me: Could the madness eventually come to this corner of the world? Should I go out and get a gun while I still can? And maybe take some lessons in how to use it? Have things really come to this?
My husband, being my polar opposite in all things, feels differently. Brave to the point of recklessness, Mitch relishes being in the line of fire. Two days ago he left Maine and flew to Arkansas, then a day later went on to Wyoming, after which he stopped in Des Moines before proceeding to Chicago where he hung out for awhile before another plane deposited him in Boston early this morning where he rented a car and drove home to Portland. Fortunately he returned none the worse for wear as apparently he did not encounter anybody with a grudge along the way.
I HAVE RECENTLY decided to become cool, and possibly even a trendsetter. This is easier to do these days than back when you had to accomplish something of merit to earn a following. But now, with superficiality a religion in America and empty platitudes as widespread and respectable as soaring rhetoric used to be, it’s easy-peasy.
Until now, otherwise ordinary people were forced to wear the right clothes or deliberately wear the wrong ones, have the correct number of tattoos and body piercings, and sport the strangest hair color to be at all noteworthy among their peers. But now, with fewer stores handing out bags for purchases, there’s an even more obvious way to see who’s not only saving the planet but is also cool: Tote bags imprinted with a logo or message allow the bearers to strut their stuff just by walking down the street. Virtual bumper stickers for people, today’s totes allow you to broadcast your favorite cause, passion, political candidate or whatever, and the bigger the bag, the louder the message. Besides being a conversation starter, the modern tote can also serve as a status symbol if you choose wisely.
All of this came to my attention in an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal that includes a photo of a woman on a Manhattan street telling the world that pineapples are her thing! She is also on her cell phone so right away you know she’s important as hell. Does she own a chain of pineapple smoothie bars? Could she be an international pineapple importer? Has she figured out a way to convert pineapples into energy and thus reduce carbon emissions and ultimately end global warming? Her involvement is anybody’s guess, but we know from the size of her tote bag that it’s pretty damn big.
Sadly, my own tote bags are pathetic. Every one of them is stamped with the name of a large supermarket chain or local grocery. This tells the world that I shop for food. How is that cool? So today I am determined to go out and find a tote bag that will blow people away. Not sure what it will say, but it will be yuge.
THE PROBLEM with finally attaining enlightenment and understanding that nothing really matters besides the direct experience of being in the moment is that after that nothing really matters, except of course the direct experience of being in the moment. This exalted state obviously blots out the petty problems that occupy most of us, which is to say all of them. Things like what color to paint our house, a question that is currently absorbing both my husband and me when we’re not busy watching all this Trump and Comey stuff, which by the way also doesn’t matter since we are all blades of grass.
Enlightened or not, right now our house needs painting. The harsh Maine winters have taken their toll, leaving a legacy of peeling paint. So the question arises: while we’re at it, do we change the color or not? Right now it is a fabulous color, a transcendent color, a splendid color, and one that thrills me each time I turn onto the street and see it before me in the distance. The only problem is that our next door neighbor also found it to be fabulous, transcendent and splendid and so she painted her house the exact same color, which pisses us off to high heaven on a daily basis, more so in winter when all the trees are bare and we can see it clearly, as opposed to summer when it disappears and we mercifully can forget.
Don’t get me wrong, we like this particular neighbor very much and realize that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but still, it’s annoying. And a quick drive through the neighborhood shows that lots of other people also liked her house, and so, sincerely flattering her, they did the same thing. And now, well, let’s just say there are plenty of splendid, transcendent beige houses around here.
We are thinking something in the purple family. Not exactly lilac—that seems so old-ladyish, and even though I am becoming one (and some people think I already am one, like my son, but let’s not go there), I don’t yet identify with them. No, it’s more of a mauve. Actually we’ve chosen one called Beguiling Mauve which is a bad name I know and makes it sound sort of like a whore house. And it might be just a tad too purple, but if we go grayer, will it just be another one of those gray houses we see everywhere there isn’t a beige house?
EVERY MORNING as he’s leaving for his short drive to the office or his long drive to the airport, my husband asks me, “What are you going to do today?” This question stymies me, unless I am lucky enough to have a doctor appointment or a dentist appointment or I need to go to the bank or buy some cat food—something concrete. Otherwise I draw a blank and have no answer, at least not one that would pass the “doing something” litmus test. I do not go to an office where I will answer phones and make appointments and send out faxes and open mail or enter data into a computer, perhaps with a birthday party up on the fifth floor in the middle of the day, or a Mexican burrito lunch to celebrate someone’s arrival/departure/retirement. I am not flying to Chicago for a business meeting. I am not going to work at a hospital where I might save lives or draw blood, along with all the paper work and insurance forms and disinfecting of bedpans. Instead, I work at home and my job is an artist, and let me tell you, it’s harder than it looks.
Artists never know what they’re going to do until the Muse shows up. Sometimes she’s gone for months at a time, and then suddenly she’s back, having arrived under cover of night, and you wake up craving oil paint and clean brushes and blank canvas and you’re instantly deep into that whole painting thing. This feeling lasts for a few days or a few months until one day, it ends. The Muse packs up and leaves, sometimes right in the middle of a brushstroke which is really annoying since you certainly can’t finish it alone. You’re nothing without her. You’re just a regular somebody. You putter around, maybe write a few blogs, work on the novel. Send off a letter to the editor. Do some laundry, clean the studio, submit slides to an art gallery, apply for editorial jobs. Go buy art supplies, you’ll need them someday. Go to the museum for inspiration, maybe you’ll run into the Muse there.
When I least expect it, she’s back and demanding we do something, anything, immediately. Look over there, what about that, what are those for? Next thing I know I’m gluing tiny beads onto a porcelain ball bought for that express purpose over a year ago—it’s finally time. And so I glue beads onto this ball for hours and hours, to what end God knows, but when it’s finished people will ooh and ahh and ask how long it took me, and I never tell the truth, that it took an eternity and all that time they were out for lunch with friends or at the movies with friends or lying on the beach with friends or hanging at Starbucks or shopping for clothes at the mall, doing all the things I don’t do but my husband wishes I would so I would seem more normal. “Go shopping with friends,” he suggests. But I’m not normal, I’m an artist, and when the Muse shows up, I drop everyone and everything to hang out with her and only her. She brings out the best in me, and really isn’t that what friends are for?
TODAY I PLUNKED DOWN ten bucks in the interest of my husband’s sanity. Mitch works really hard and travels so often I barely know what city he’s in or when he’s coming home, which as you can imagine makes it really hard to have an affair, lol. (Isn’t that what you do: say something hateful and then follow it with “lol” and then it’s all okay?)
The thing is, I needed some new workout pants, having ripped mine this morning when I was switching the storm door with the screen door since suddenly it’s frickin’ 88 degrees here (never mind that last night it was freezing), and besides, isn’t that’s man’s work? Anyway, as I approached Olympia Sports I saw three big signs in the store windows all proclaiming the exciting news: “The Spinners Are Here!”
At first I thought they meant the actual Spinners, that great soul group of the ’70s who sang my all-time favorite dance song (“Working My Way Back to You”), but then I realized that at least some of them would be dead by now, and besides, why would five cool black guys be appearing at a sporting goods store in Maine of all places? So I inquired and found out that once again I am out of the loop. Turns out Spinners are toys, and they are the latest thing. In fact, they’re a full-blown craze! Kids either collect them or trade them, teachers either hate them or love them, and parents either sing their praises or banish them from the kingdom.
A Spinner is a small, 3-pronged plastic thing that looks sort of like an IUD but don’t try using it for that. What you do with a Spinner is spin it between your thumb and forefinger and just watch it go, and that calms you down. Or it’s supposed to. Called a “fidget” toy, it was originally designed to help kids in the classroom with ADHD. Then it went mainstream, and now all kinds of kids want them, and many adults do, too.
But hey, fidget is my husband’s middle name! (Not really, it’s actually Bruce.) So I bought one for him and I have high hopes. Who knows, maybe it will help him relax, if it doesn’t drive him crazy. And I might even get one for myself since this morning my blood pressure numbers were sky-high.
WRITING WAS once a high calling. Just think of Shakespeare, and Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Wharton, Melville. And the modern masters, like DeLillo, Heller, Roth, Tyler —the list is long. But somewhere along the way the art of writing became something everyone can do, and for almost no pay! All the ads for writing jobs on the Internet offer little compensation (1/7 of a penny per word), and boast that “no experience is necessary” for you to produce the pap they’re looking for.
Still, there are a few tricks involved in creating what passes for acceptable discourse. The most popular one is organizing your nonsense into a numbered list, making it sound like you have scoured the world and come up with the only “8 Ways to Save Your Marriage.” Or the “6 Things to Do Right Now to Be Happy.” Without the number in front of the words, few would bother to read “Ways to Save Your Marriage.” Ah, but with that magic number in front, they’ll think, “Hey, this guy (or gal, as many female experts call themselves) really knows some stuff!”
Anyway, below are those “7 Ways” you came for. (They also work in conversation.)
1. Place a number in front of a list of things, no matter how dumb they are.
2. Use uncommon words that most of your readers (and even you) don’t know, like effable and dactylion.
3. Try to mention kale, at least in passing.
4. Hint at an exciting professional past: “Back in my White House days, after I returned from the Geneva Convention….”
5. Break grammatical rules: “In order to actionize your plans…..”
6. Cite esoteric evidence: “A 2012 study conducted by the Institute of Myopedic Familial Genetics suggests….”
7. Include trending words and phrases to appear current. In other words, stay woke.
RIGHT NOW the person I feel closest to is not even a person, he’s a cat, so immediately you know we don’t talk. This annoys me no end, and I’ve attempted to get him to speak my language since he obviously has vocal cords and has no problem using them when he wants something, which is pretty much all the time, but no dice. Still, I’m not complaining. I like it when Lurch (he’s more of a Fluffy but he came already named) communicates a need and I can take care of whatever it is.
In fact, it’s pretty incredible to be able to understand a member of another species. My real problem is the inability to understand members of my own species, even though most of them talk. This happens at least 85% of the time, making me less eager to answer the phone or even leave my home. Naturally attending parties is out of the question.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not one of those agoraphobics you hear about, although I totally get what they’re doing. I do leave my home, certainly once every day and more than that on other days. And I go on trips, too many for my taste but my poor husband suffers from wanderlust and his needs must be considered too. On those occasions I spend days, sometimes weeks, out there in the world, adrift in the sea of humanity where anything could happen but thankfully usually doesn’t, at least not to me.
At least not anymore. Years ago, gigantic things happened to me with alarming frequency. Now everything is much calmer and I can happily pass entire days with just my cat and my paints. I do go to a gym three times a week to work out with a personal trainer so my body doesn’t disintegrate. My latest painting is of my trainer, a young man named Noah who has a wild tattoo I found fascinating on someone otherwise so intelligent.
Noah aside, I remain suspicious of tattooed people. Getting one costs a bundle and a big chunk of time. It’s clearly a painful process, and afterwards there they are, always. They never go away. You often see people covered with them from head to toe, on the neck and both arms and legs, who look downright idiotic. Those folks are a perfect example of me not understanding my own species. You will never see a cat with a tattoo, and you can take that to the bank.
LAST NIGHT I played bridge. As the only one in our foursome who reached adulthood without learning this card game, I was at a distinct disadvantage. It’s sort of like being abducted by aliens and waking up on another planet where they all speak the same language and you don’t even know how to ask, “Where’s the bathroom?”
In fact, if you’re playing bridge, “Where’s the bathroom?” might actually mean, “I have five hearts and the ace of spades.” But only if you play that way. If you play another way, it could mean, “I have many clubs and no diamonds,” or maybe even, “Where’s the kitchen?” That’s the thing with bridge: Nothing means what it sounds like it means. (Of course, if you’ve spent your formative years indoors playing bridge, the ins and out of this private world are second nature to you. You can easily spot those people by their pallor.)
For example, I thought bidding “one club” was the way to tell my partner that I had pretty good clubs in my hand. But no! In bridge talk, I was unwittingly asking if my partner had hearts or spades, and had nothing at all to do with clubs! Of course, if you play “preferential diamonds,” a bid of “one diamond” means the same thing. But that’s a big If, and the only way to know is to . . . ask them. You can do this in regular English, unlike the rest of the game when you have to talk in Bridge.
Silly me, I didn’t ask, and naturally I was the evening’s Biggest Loser. And to make matters worse, before I lost I was very, very vulnerable! Which doesn’t mean what you think it means, but has something to do with rubbers and scoring tricks and being either above or below “the line.”
For me, playing bridge is similar to, but more confusing than, arguing over abortion in Corsican. I’ll explain: I understand French, but in Corsica they speak a unique language, part French, part Italian. Many years ago, I was in Corsica and spent an evening with a group of people who were arguing over abortion, naturally in Corsican. It was all very complicated, but every once in a while I would hear a word or a phrase that allowed me to make some sense of it all.
I was more confused last night playing bridge with my husband and friends in my own home right here in America. Which may actually be my way of saying, I love that game and can’t wait to play again.
EARLY ONE MORNING, just about to step onto our side deck for a soak in the hot tub, I narrowly avoided squashing a tiny bird lying right outside the door, obviously dead already. Laid out beautifully as if by a funeral director, with nary a feather out of place, his delicate feet stretched out behind him, pointed like a ballerina, and his pudgy brown body was topped by a tiny head sprouting a crown of white tufts. I could tell by his wide-eyed stare that his last moments had not been pleasant. “Oh great,” I thought, “a present from Lurch and it’s not even my birthday.”
The dead birds, mice and chipmunks are the worst part of owning a cat. While they don’t arrive in a steady stream, the murders occur often enough for me to feel guilty about it. After all, I am a willing accomplice, no less than Hitler’s willing executioners, without whom there would have been no Holocaust. Usually I shriek and call for my husband to come up with the “final solution.” Mitch cares not a whit, mindlessly stuffing the deceased inside a plastic bag and tossing it in the outside trash can. But he was out of town and would not return until late that night. The thought of leaving the little creature lying out there all day was too much for me, so I went to the Internet for some ideas.
I rejected putting him in the freezer until trash pick-up day a week away. That was not going to happen. My only other option was burial, which seemed a tad excessive. But then I thought, why not? Who among us does not deserve a proper farewell? It was bad enough there were no friends or family members present—his, not mine—and of course I had no way of notifying them, but at least I could usher the little guy out with a shred of dignity.
He ended up wrapped inside the editorial page from the New York Times (for the aforementioned dignity), which I then put inside an empty Lego box for a toy motorcycle (just for fun). In the woods behind our house I dug a hole about a foot-and-a-half down and carefully inserted his casket, then dragged a log over top of it to keep away any grave robbers. After shedding a few tears and repeating my mantra several times over the grave site I went in the house, washed my hands, grabbed a towel and took that hot tub soak I’d headed out for a few hours earlier.
THE DECISION TO HAVE a meal at a restaurant is often made lightly, and it shouldn’t be as there is always the potential for dire results. For example, you could die from food poisoning. Or almost as bad, run into someone you told a month ago that you were moving to China. (Who would do that?) But sometimes dinner out is unavoidable. You may be on a vacation or business trip and thus have no choice. Or you might just be facing a bare cupboard and lack the energy to go shopping for food. Then there are the special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. Whatever the reason, the practice of eating out has spread like wildfire. In 2016, statistics showed that Americans spent more at bars and restaurants ($54.857 billion) than they did on groceries ($52.503 billion).
That very fact might account for the lousy experiences we all tolerate. Like this one, for instance, at one of our favorite haunts: We arrived at the half-empty restaurant, were quickly seated, and then were completely ignored for the next fifteen minutes but who’s counting. This fairly common circumstance always makes me crazy, creating the “perfect storm” out of my worst personality flaw (impatience) and my biggest gripe about dining out (poor service). I can deal with bad food since most people can’t cook and besides, cooking for a crowd is tough, so I lower my expectations beforehand, seeking only enough calories to support life.
Still, it’s nice to be noticed when you get there, and treated with a modicum of respect. A scintilla, a shred, a crumb, if you will, of respect would be so nice. And maybe some water, and a menu. And a smile perhaps, from someone. Anyone. And let’s remember, I’m hungry; that doesn’t help matters.
My son, a former waiter, is always quick to point out that all the servers are very busy taking care of other people. That never makes me feel any better; in fact, it makes me feel worse. When do I get to be one of the “other people”? To that end I have been known to crane my neck, raise an eyebrow, and even wave —you heard me —after waiting a ridiculously long time, all actions considered to be outrageously poor form. You’re just supposed to sit there and take it, but still leave a big tip at the end of your meal, if you ever get one.
I RECEIVED a complaint from a friend exactly my age over my recent use of the term “senior citizen” to describe myself. She deplores the term—who doesn’t?—and wondered if I might come up with something, “a word or phrase that speaks to our knowledge, experiences and adventures. A good word, a great word, multiple syllables, maybe with an ae or ??? I respectfully assign this important task to you.”
While I thank Judy for her vote of confidence, the sad truth is that the concept of growing old is not exactly a crowd-pleaser and never will be. Still, I’m unable to stop thinking about her request and have been playing around with some words to describe all those people of my generation who remember Uncle Miltie, Nik-L-Nips, circle pins and Justine & Bob. (Personally I preferred Kenny & Arlene.) All of them are preferable to the implied stodginess of “senior citizen.”
rock star hep cat main ingredient pack leader golden oldie determinator wise owl chuckberry strong survivor groundbreaker bandstander early adopter sunny stalwart stick arounder crowd pleaser
LAST WEEK I hosted a luncheon for three women I have met since moving to Maine eight years ago. It was the first such occasion because it has taken that long for us to approach what is commonly called “being friends.” While all of them are lovely people and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, still part of me was holding my breath the whole time. This is, after all, Maine, and I’m from New York, so were I to really let myself go I’d surely offend someone. Or at least that’s how I felt.
A stark contrast was the time I spent last month with two friends from my high school years who both now live in Florida. I saw each of them separately, meeting one for lunch and the other one for dinner. Being with them was a joyful experience. All of me was in attendance, and I wasn’t worried I would offend. Partly because of our shared history, and also because it’s impossible to offend a native New Yorker no matter what you do or say, I was completely relaxed in a way that I never am with newer friends. Maybe in time I could be, but we’d all be over 100 by then and how much fun could we have?
Despite political differences or personal tastes, old friends see through all the accumulated protective layers to the essence of who you really are. There is simply nothing like them.
GIRL SCOUT COOKIE Time is upon us. Today my husband brought home two boxes of his favorite, Thin Mints. I’ve never liked those so I’m happy, especially since I just bought a new pair of jeans that actually zip up. Besides, the Thin Mints of today are only a distant cousin to the Thin Mints of yesteryear, back when the cookies were actually thin. Today’s version is a lot thicker and way less minty, if you ask me.
The copy on the box describes the cookies as “Crispy chocolate wafers dipped in a mint chocolaty coating.” I find that word chocolaty mildly disturbing, being quite distinct from chocolate, although to be fair, cocoa is listed as an ingredient, after enriched flour, sugar and vegetable oil shortening with those controversial palm oils. (Unsustainable palm oil development is said to fuel widespread rain forest destruction, human rights abuses, illegal wildlife smuggling, climate change and some other horrible things.) Peppermint oil, almost the last ingredient, supplies the mint flavor. The box also states that “Selling Girl Scout Cookies helps girls develop five skills that they use throughout their lives: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics. Oddly enough, neither baking nor selling are on the list. That’s because the girls do neither.
The cookies are baked by adults at ABC Bakers/Interbake Foods LLC in Richmond, Va., with nary a Scout on the premises. They are then “sold” at card tables set up in front of supermarkets. “It was quite an operation” as my husband recounted, with several of the Dads-of-Scouts involved, mostly handling the cash. “It was much more efficient and so much more lucrative than going door-to-door,” according to Mitch. “I’d say they were selling four boxes a minute.” Another way the Girl Scouts “sell” is through their parents, who take orders from co-workers at their places of business. The higher their position, the more they sell, as I recall from my working days.
Each Thin Mint has 40 calories, and the going price today is $4 per box, or 12-and-a-half cents per cookie.