Canine Boot Camp: Prelude

It occurs to me that I haven’t supplied my followers with any canine updates of late. One can safely assume the reason for that is that the critters have been up to no good. Or, at least that statement applies to wonder dog #2 — Bowie.

Here’s how things stand with my vertically challenged bundles of vexation. Recently, I decided to sort out my problem of dog walking. If I were to distill their unruliness down to its most basic, it stems from their awareness that I’m not the one in charge, and the problem manifests most obviously when I walk them together.

It plays out this way: a moving speck in the distance is determined to be a clear and present danger. Typically, Mona will be the first to observe its presence, and announce by bouncing up and down and woofing. Bowie, before he has even processed this impending peril, lunges at Mona as if to say, Goddammit, can’t you just once let ME be the one who notices it first and I’ve got this — I don’t need your help in guarding my family. Mona responds by snapping back at him, and it all devolves quite quickly. I tighten up the leashes and with arms outstretched to the side, pull the whirling dervishes apart. I walk by the typically well-behaved (large) dog and its owner with an embarrassed sorry, and pick up my pace to distance myself from yet another example of my ineptitude.

“They need to understand that they don’t get to call the shots — you do,” the trainer Katie pointed out to me when I brought them for an “assessment” about a month ago, shortly after I took out an equity line of credit to pay for a two-week boot camp. . . for both of them. . . so that they can learn to behave in a socially-acceptable manner when out in public. Or when there’s a Door Dash delivery. Or when the FedEx truck barrels down our street. Or when Beverly (my new 82-year old Historical Society friend) knocks on the door (because her eyesight is so poor she can’t see the doorbell, which is entirely fine with me so I don’t point it out to her because. . . well. . . that would just be way worse.)

As part of my pups’ boot camp package, I was subjected to my own mini-training, and I must say that I derived great benefit from the experience. I arrived on a rainy morning with both dogs and was instantly agog at the facility’s luxurious accommodations. For starters, as I rolled along the undulating driveway past the various fenced sections (including what appeared to be residual evidence of an orchard or just pleasantly positioned apple trees), the upscale arrangement of living quarters and training yards cleared up any lingering questions I had about the eye-popping cost of the program. Bowie, Mona and I then spent close to two hours learning the new rules — namely, that I am the new sheriff in town.

I can’t speak for my shaggy trainees — I suspect that the under-breath mutterings emanating from the back seat as we rode home were comments such as WTF and Shit, the party’s over, but I left that day with renewed confidence. I was excited to try out my new skills.

For the past few weeks I have dutifully honored the recommendations that the trainer made at our collective pre-boot camp training session. The biggest change to our routine is that I walk Bowie and Mona separately. It creates two very tense moments each morning, given that I have to leave one dog behind when I head out the door for the daily walk. I feel awful. . . TWICE! But the huge upside is that I have been able to walk by other dogs without incident. No barking. No lunging. No need for an embarrassed sorry. It is a blessed phenomenon. I hope it lasts.

And now, as I contemplate all the ways I can enjoy my two-week stretch of freedom — travel down the coast to visit family and/or old friends, book a flight to Oregon to see my daughter, take several day trips (to museums, antique shops, libraries, and historical sites), take walks alone — I’m strangely battling feelings of guilt. When Katie explained that they have a no-nonsense “no contact” policy for the entire two weeks of boot camp, I reacted with a pssshhh, no problem. But I find that I’m already dreading that moment when I drop them off; I know I’m going to feel lonely without the constant annoyance of Bowie’s stealing my books and chewing on the corners, his streaking from one end of the house to the other when the FedEx truck arrives. I’m also worried about Mona’s timid demeanor — what if they take too heavy a hand with her when they “correct” her? She’s delicate. I imagine I’ll be overly “clear” with the staff when I deposit them at the beginning of their stint. In the end, this is what I can offer: I may be a perennial novitiate as a dog owner — I don’t always know how to behave when I take them among other people or dogs, but I won’t be faulted for my understanding of their personalities. As a dog owner, with me there’s a long learning curve. Please be patient.

Sentenced to The Chair

(This story first appeared in Scosche of Class some years ago, but has been expanded upon to include additional characters in my life.)

It may not be the very least favorite place in my world, but it comes pretty darn close. This morning was my scheduled six-month check-up/cleaning, and I was prepared for the usual tsk-tsking about the sad condition of my mouthful of teeth. If you walked down the street and asked every person who looked to be at least 65 years old to open his or her mouth, you’d quickly determine that about 50% lacked dental insurance in the critical early years, maybe even later years. Until I was 14 years old, I only ever went to the dentist when my mouth was exploding with pain caused by a cavity. . . likely from eating too many Snickers. By the time I made it to “The Chair”, the dentist’s course of treatment nearly always was: pull it!

I really and truly tried to make amends starting as a teenager, but it may have been a case of too little, too late. I’ve only once heard, “Your teeth look good.” I think the dentist must either have, just prior, dipped his ladle in the well of happy gas; or had momentarily suffered a mental lapse, thinking he was still talking with the patient he had treated just before me. 

The hygienist never seems to come over to my side, either, on the issue — why can’t I just have fewer teeth? In fact, why is it necessary for humans to be assigned a set of, what is it, 36? Isn’t there some redundancy in that? Instead, what I hear is, you need to floss more, use a mouth rinse regularly, and stop eating Snickers bars as an apres-lunch (apres with that little backwards accent mark above the e) snack. No, the hygienist did NOT say that about the Snickers bars; she doesn’t know about them.*

Deep breathing gets me through most sittings, but it doesn’t always work, especially when my jaw is being pressed so hard that oxygen — one of my closest friends — concludes that there is no discernible pathway to my lungs. Oxygen takes the high road, and I’m left with the choice of either passing out or most inarticulately communicating that, “ahhhng url reeeee!” I choose life.

Dr. Tim is the cheeriest dentist that I’ve ever met, and I’ve had plenty. He typically begins our “sessions” by investigating my newest handbag, showing real interest in my handmade products, but — invariably — pointing out that he can find lovely alternatives for his wife at Marshall’s for a fraction of the price I advertise on my shop’s website. It always goes this way, and he remains ever unconvinced when I point out that custom, one-of-a-kind products come at a cost. He smiles, asks me how my business is doing, and then gets down to his business. I once asked him how he managed to always be so happy. (His resting face always features a smile.) He responded, “It’s easy; you just surround yourself with positive people.”  “But, how’s that possible in your line of work?” I wanted to know, because he obviously had to deal with unpleasant patients on occasion. “I just refer them elsewhere; problem solved.” And he smiled. 

There is a most wonderful up-side to the dental chair. . . after the initial twenty minutes or so of jackhammering to remove plaque buildup. One can become — by focusing on the fish mobile in the corner of the room — very reflective. It begins by noting the fascinating differences between those vividly painted fish. Before you know it, you’re drafting thank you notes, deciding on a new color palette for your living room, heck, you’re adding on an additional 500 square feet to your current home (which doesn’t need it, but instead needs some deep cleaning and a Marie Kondo-esque tidying regimen).

As woeful is the state of my mouth — as evidenced by the vast number of porcelain-crowned occupants, I feel profoundly blessed that I can — because of insurance — visit the dentist every six months for a cleaning. I’m reminded of an occasion several years ago in which my mother — a woman of great ingenuity and audacity, but inadequate dental insurance — took it upon her own initiative to solve a dental dilemma (and thus avoid a trip to “The Chair”). I had just arrived with my young daughters at the home she shared with two of her siblings on Manomet Bluffs and, as soon as the excitement and frenzy over our arrival had subsided, I detected something “off” about her face. Looking more closely, it became clear that her smile — ever broad and confident — had an altered appearance. “Mom, what’s going on with your mouth?” She exchanged a quick, knowing glance with my Aunt Marie, co-conspirator in all their screwy schemes, and the two burst out laughing. Mom took a fresh gulp of air, swallowed, then explained. As she launched into her story, her voice dipped. . . conspiratorially — it always did that when she began a narration, “Funny thing. A few days ago I lost my front tooth when I bit into a toffee bar. . .,” (she had dentures) “. . . so Re and I decided we could re-implant it just as easily as the dentist does, with a little Super-Glue. I didn’t notice until it was too late that it was crooked.” She smiled broadly, Aunt Re giggled, and the two of them were then lost in fits of uncontrolled laughter. Seeing Mom’s two lines of generally compliant little soldiers standing rigidly shoulder-to-shoulder at attention (north and south in her flexed mouth) but with one of their ranks keeling over, I was instantly reminded of those old cemeteries where the headstones sit all akilter.  I had to look away.

In any event, and despite all the efforts to rinse and spit and wipe with crinkly bib, I leave the dentist’s office with a face reddened from exertion, and with that gritty feeling still in my mouth. I’m confident, however, that everyone I acknowledge with my exaggeratedly wide, teeth-baring smile will observe how white and beautiful my teeth are. And with all that time in the chair to reflect and sort things out, I cannot help but think: isn’t life grand?! So what if next month I have to return to have my cracked molar “assessed”? That white-knuckled ride is a whole month away.

*By the way, when a hygienist asks how often you floss, it’s pointless to lie — they already know the answer to that question.

Pronouns: They, Them, Their. . . and Thon

I sometimes struggle in a world that seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Even though I don’t see myself as resistant to change (for the most part), some of my efforts to keep pace, I fear, are ineffective. It often leaves me feeling frustrated, and I think that’s because I’m afraid of being left behind, of becoming obsolete or being found insubstantial. So, for example, if I lose connectivity with the internet and my TV thus taunts me with a simple message to that effect, I stand like a fool in front of my TV with a collection of remote controls (some of which I should have parted with years ago and another of which I suspect is an egg timer), and begin clicking every button. When I’ve exhausted all available buttons and have shaken or pounded the life out of each gadget, I unplug every cord from every nearby device and replug them one by one, and hope for the best. Some areas where learning could — and should —take place, just don’t exhibit obvious signs of growth.

Where it concerns change, however, in another realm, I try mightily to trot along with the crowd, and maintain an open and willing mind. It’s indeed heartening to see that our society is striving to create a little distance between reality and our hurtful patriarchal past. In particular, there’s a long overdue yet growing sensitivity with regard to gender-based identity. Admittedly, there’s a great deal of push-pull in the exercise — as can be expected in times of great societal re-shaping. The tussle reflects most overtly in the writing of laws — with each law passed that endeavors to provide a measure of fairness and comfort, there’s another one that sends the pendulum swinging wide in the opposite direction. Change can be uncomfortable — big change is hard.

One change that should be coming more easily to me is surprising and vexing me with how difficult I am finding it. My background includes a solid understanding of language (I have my high school Spanish teacher Sr. Faria to thank for instilling a love of foreign languages), so the expanded applications and use of the pronouns they/them/their to refer to a gender-neutral person should result in a positive embracing of the utilitarian nature of these pronouns. I say utilitarian because they, them, and their have long been used to refer to an antecedent of indefinite gender, even in the singular. (Here is a perfectly acceptable example: Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by their parents. I used to wrestle with the acceptability of using a pronoun that implied a plural antecedent, and would have said or written the sentence in this cumbersome way: “Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by his or her parents.”) Having been assured that Chaucer on occasion used the plural pronoun in similar instances, I am reasonably appeased.

It is one thing to accept the new normal, to get totally behind it — it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice or to navigate the new contexts in which I find it. This morning I read an article in The Atlantic about homeownership that was a fresh and highly engaging perspective. I was taken by surprise by the claim that homeowners these days are staying put longer than was happening when my husband and I bought our first house in the mid-80’s. Compare the five-to-seven year average from 1985 to mid-2000’s with the current average of 13 years, figures provided by HousingWire, a real estate news outfit. As I read along, musing that our first ownership lasted exactly 13 years — evidently, we far exceeded the average, I wondered about the reasons why homeowners these days stay put for a much longer stretch of time. It’s an idea that needs to be parsed, but perhaps later. I quickly got hung up on the featured homeowners, that weren’t homeowners, per se, but rather, homeowner (singular). The proliferation of they, them and their kept tripping me up, so unaccustomed am I to the evolving nature of gender-marking pronouns. I quickly found that my reading comprehension — which is never sharp in the best of circumstances — dropped to an even lower level. Unable to get back on track, I went into a panic. I was overthinking every sentence, looking at each as a mechanical arrangement of lifeless words that performed specific functions but conveyed no meaning. Subject-verb-object or subject-verb-adjective-object or subject-verb-possessive pronoun-object. I could no longer make sense of what I was reading, and it was all because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that a plural pronoun was being used for a singular antecedent. It’s like when someone tells you not to think about such-and-such, and then all you can do is think about it. At one point, I contemplated recasting the subject as a couple instead of one person, but that had no hope of working because I knew that the story was about Neilson, just Neilson, not Neilson and Amelia, or Neilson and David, or Neilson and their pet rabbit Twinkie. (See what I mean? Didn’t you just think that Neilson and somebody else had a pet rabbit Twinkie?)

Change is not easy. A part of me wants to re-read the article over and over until it feels natural. There’s a lot to recommend that approach, because it’s through repeated exposure that I’ll become accustomed to the pronouns’ new applications. On the other hand, I’m aware that there is another set of pronouns already out there that, unlike they/them/their; always refer to a singular, gender-neutral antecedent. Thon, thon’s, and thonself, where “thon” is a contracted form of “that one”. I find these words appealing because they’re so unfamiliar that I wouldn’t already have a fixed understanding or pre-conceived concept of their meaning. The freshness of these words would — in my mind — suit the new expectation. If I read the phrase, “When Neilson bought thon first home…” I wouldn’t have to first undo my understanding about Neilson and someone else; it would be Neilson. . . just gender-neutral Neilson.

It’s doubtful that thon and its other forms will ever garner enough followers to make it a viable pronoun. In my opinion, it’s a tragic waste, given that Merriam Webster had preserved its place in their dictionary from 1934-1961; alas, it was removed due to lack of use. Thon’s inner flame was extinguished too early, one might say.

As disappointed as I am that enough people are unlikely to be inspired to resurrect a perfectly adequate but demoted word, I’m nevertheless invigorated by this recent evidence of the transformative nature of our language’s pronouns. It is hoped that the adoption by the masses of better means to communicate gender identity will result in greater understanding and empathy. Now to invest the effort required to become skilled in their expanded uses. Right alongside efforts to identify remote control devices, as well as cords running — at times mysteriously — from wall outlets to contrivances like modems, cable boxes, security cameras, Roku streaming stick, Sonos speakers, Wii gizmo, and (oh, yes!) the TV.

Opinion: What’s the Matter With You, Charles Koch?

Charles G. Koch, the long-reigning CEO of Koch Industries, has shown his avaricious nature by publicly stating recently that — by continuing business operations in Russia amidst the barbaric war that their leader is waging against Ukraine — he is putting the welfare of 600+ employees ahead of the greater cause of democracy and the lives of thousands of innocent Ukrainians. (By the way, Mr. Koch, no one believes that that’s the fundamental reason for your inaction. Profit has always been your prime motivation. How else to explain that you’re the 18th richest person in the United States — right behind your brother’s wife, Julia Koch.) I’m taking specific aim at Koch Industries when I condemn the 162 companies that obstinately refuse to end or suspend operations in Russia.

Why does Charles Koch deserve particular scrutiny or scorn in this instance? While it’s convenient to begin with his self-delusional lie regarding his reasons not to suspend business in Russia, there are more worrisome signs, in my mind, that this individual is devoid of most of the characteristics that I associate with worthy, civic-minded Americans. And while he may be a decent human being — he looks like he is kindly, his ideologies are in perfect contrast with my own.

The list of sins is long:

  • Deems labor unions as harmful to workers.
  • Minimum wage, likewise, hurts workers.
  • believes public education has been contaminated by a culture of “protectionism”. I listened to a podcast in which he spoke with authority about the common practice of school districts to keep unqualified teachers, all harking back to the poisonous effect of teacher unions.
  • Public educators stifle creativity and promote liberal views.
  • Believes there should be broad environmental de-regulation.
  • Is skeptical about climate change, especially our species’ role in it.
  • A free market economy fosters a society where the rich will provide for the poor; we don’t need governmental assistance (or interference), thankyouverymuch.

Any one of his “truths” can easily be dismantled, and as a retired educator with years and years of both classroom and leadership experience, I’d love to go toe-to-toe with him — at least on the matter of public education; but at the end of the day, his bottomless wallet has vastly more influence on others’ thinking than my impassioned words. He can set up nonprofit organizations, and as part of his family’s “Youth Entrepreneur” program he can dangle tuition money and start-up money in front of (literally) hungry and directionless students; he can even transfer jaw-dropping amounts of money into Republican candidates’ coffers or lobby for de-regulation in all manner of industry.

With the bits that I’ve learned about one of our country’s richest individuals — and I admit a certain bias against ridiculously wealthy people; they can’t claim to have a genuine pulse on what’s best for the average man or woman— I can’t help but shake my head in pure disbelief when I contemplate Mr. Koch’s indefensible contention that he cares too deeply about his 600+ employees working in glass manufactories (operations for which Koch Industries receives tax credits) within the borders of one of our world’s most thuggish and megalomaniacal dictators. Charles Koch’s “philanthropic” reputation cannot help but be stained by his decision. It is to be hoped that he will see the light. . . before it’s too late.

Sources:

Am I Elderly or Still “of a Certain Age”?

I’m elderly. I’m elderly. If I say it enough times, will it be easier to accept? But, is 66 really elderly? Is this something that I should accept (right now)? Am I elderly? Or can I still claim that I am “of a certain age”?

These questions have been ricocheting around the insides of my brain since the end of last week when I had my annual physical exam. (Confession: my last “annual” exam was over four years ago.) Pre-registration was a mighty affair — there were about five pages of questions and fact sheets; even though I entered the clinic with a spring in my step because I’d been feeling pretty fine of late, the “me” who left forty-five minutes later did so with sagging shoulders and spirits and minus the spring in my step. More than anything, I’m curious to know if my contemporaries have recently faced this new line of interrogation. I’m told that the protocol shifts once someone reaches 65 years old.

I was prepared for the softball question — do I feel safe in my home? but beyond that, whoa!, things got real very quickly. I answered questions about whether I use a handrail when climbing or descending my staircases (sometimes), is there a “grab” rail in my shower (no, not the kind that would sustain my weight), do I have scatter rugs (no, but the edge of one of my area rugs is curled up in one corner), nightlights (yes, but they’re currently not plugged in), moveable objects between my bed and the bathroom (do dogs count?), do I have difficulty walking, getting up after sitting for any length of time (define “difficulty”), do I own a space heater (yes, but I lied and said I don’t), do I smoke (no, but this questionnaire is having me consider it), how much alcohol do I consume (when you say “glass of wine”, how big do you mean)? And, finally, the “mini-cog test”: I was asked to draw a clock showing “forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”. Wouldn’t it vex you that they didn’t ask it in the normal way: draw a clock showing “ten forty-five”? No one says, “Meet me at Loretta’s at forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”.

The “mini-cog” test

The mini-cog test, I learn, is to test for early signs of dementia. Dementia is obviously a big concern once someone surpasses the golden age of 65. I know this because the nurse practitioner dedicated a chunk of our time to discussing the importance of having a living will, in which I would make clear to my family whether or not I would want, for example, to be left on life support (long-term) if I were irredeemably suffering full-blown dementia. Better to have that mapped out before it becomes an emotionally-charged issue.

I was careful to appear hale and hearty, mainly because I had read that you don’t typically incur a co-pay for well-visits, but if a diagnosis should arise or medication is changed or newly-prescribed, you may have to pay a co-pay. Honestly, though, I was feeling hale and hearty. . . until the living will discussion.

In sum, it was a lot to take in, even for someone who does every imaginable screening that is medically possible. (I was even apologetic for going nine months between my last two dental check-ups.) So, does anyone know if the protocol changes again when we reach 70 years old? What questions will they add then? As much as I appreciate my doctor wanting to understand me completely, as someone who worked for decades in the field of education, I also understand how questionnaires work — some of the questions exist simply to plant ideas; one might claim that there’s a certain degree of propaganda built into them. Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder how it helps my doctor to know that, at age 66, of sound mind, I own a space heater. (What, is she going to call me up nightly and ask if I remembered to turn it off?) It’s a really great little appliance, by the way, with a realistic flame that appears to lovingly lick the fake logs. Should I be worried, though? About forgetting to turn it off, I mean? This dementia thing has really gotten to me.

Happy Birthday Messages

(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)

The author wins with an early (tactile) greeting!

The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.

At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)

Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.

For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of something essential.

Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.

Key to actors:

  • KM = brother #1 (oldest)
  • TM = brother #2
  • MGM = wife of brother #2
  • CM = brother #3
  • PM = wife of brother #3
  • JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
  • MD = sister (5th child)
  • TD = husband of sister
  • M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
  • JM = wife of brother #4
  • RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
  • MM = wife of brother #5

(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)

(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!

(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)

(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.

(CM): I’ve been planning next year.

(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.

(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.

(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?

(CM): and no text

(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.

(CM): Dah.

(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)

(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”

(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.

(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.

(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.

(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it” or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)

(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.

(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)

(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.

(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.

(MM): HAPPY BIRTHDAY (with party/celebration icon)

(KM): Thanks to all, love you

(MD): Happy birthday!!! (with party/celebration and cake icons)

(MGM): I am the late bird. Happy happy birthday, KM!! (with several celebration icons) Hope it’s a great day and year!

(CM): HB, KM

(And where’s RM, people?!)

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

Alas, my feelings of victory are hollow ones because (I must confess) the card arrived earlier than KM’s birthday only because I can never remember the precise date!

Bridges

As everyone who knows me understands, I love to study the landscape when driving. It takes a real conscious effort to keep my eyes on the road, and there are several views that make such responsible behavior very difficult. As I’ve mentioned before, whenever I cross the Gillis Bridge on Rt. 1 between Salisbury and Newburyport — especially at either sunrise or sunset — my eyes veer from the path I’m traveling in order to drink in the beauty. What is it about bridges that stirs our sensibilities?

When I was teenager (and at the age where one would assume reason had begun to take hold), I often took long walks and even longer bike rides from my home high on Titicut Hill, a place that had amazing, long views in nearly every direction, but was envied by no one because of its proximity to a maximum security prison. For those wondering why on earth I would take long walks and bike rides in that setting, it comes down to this: you can live a cowed, circumscribed life behind locked doors, or you can shrug your shoulders and ask yourself, what are the odds — really — that an escaped prisoner will happen to be in the same space at the same moment as I? (Weirdly, and maybe inexplicably, I didn’t find it creepy, but rather reassuring when the patrol would follow slowly behind me on the service roads and field lanes.) As everyone who grew up around Alden Square knows, you did your best to assign the prison to a subordinate corner of your mind, and tried to have an ordinary childhood.

In my travels back then I would inevitably stop in the middle of whatever bridge I crossed. Living in Bridgewater implied that there was no paucity of bridges that spanned waterways. Most often, the water maundered lazily, affording my thoughts to likewise flow without hurry from one idea to another. Whether this habit translated into a lifelong fascination with bridges over water, or it was because of an innate fascination in the first place that led me — as if by magnetic force — to the middle spot of all those hometown bridges; it has been an enduring compulsion.

My dog Mona, however, does not share my affinity for bridges, and I trace it back to our first “journey” over a serious bridge. Soon after the completion of the new John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River in 2017, I was eager to walk the pedestrian trail connector that was included in the engineering plans for the replacement bridge. (The bike/pedestrian walkway had been proudly acclaimed as the first of its kind to be built into an interstate bridge.)

After parking the car, I set out with Mona from the Salisbury side of the William Lloyd Garrison Trail. We had gone barely fifty feet and she began sniffing around for a suitable place to “do her business”. Alas, her only option consisted of one thing — concrete. Soon her appraisal took on a desperate quality. I assumed (wrongly) as I coaxed her along that she would become less particular about bathroom accommodations. She tried to be a good sport about it, trotting along for a bit, then swiveling or zigzagging whenever her nose picked up a scent that only dogs can detect. Dissatisfied, she’d then continue on beside me. By now, we were about one-third of the way in our ascension of the bridge’s span. And, then, Mona’s relief was suddenly at hand (or paw). There, right there in her path, was the magic key to her deliverance. A single leaf. I watched — one can’t help but be interested when a dog is aiming for a single leaf. Mona skillfully arranged herself above the leaf and achieved a perfect dispatch. (Granted, the havanese — with those short legs — is already close to the ground.) I may have imagined it, but it did seem her eyes rolled toward heaven and she shuddered with (physical) relief.

Mona seemed, if not happy, at least willing to continue our journey. I, of course, felt the need to reach the pinnacle of the bridge’s span. (For those unfamiliar with the Whittier Bridge, it is a substantial one over a sizable river.) If I could get to the bridge’s midpoint, I knew I would be rewarded with an exquisite view of Deer Island, which sits in the middle of the Merrimack, suspended charmingly between two small bridges. To this point, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was picking up. But, by the time we reached my goal and turned to face Deer Island to the east, the wind was howling. I wanted to enjoy the moment. I tried to enjoy it. I just couldn’t, and in all fairness to my 12-pound little girl, the situation demanded that I — for once — accept that not every bridge is well-suited to reflective thought. We turned and headed back down the bridge, Mona in good spirits, but — no doubt — making a mental note to object with every one of her twelve pounds if I ever, ever tried to take her on the Whittier Bridge again.

Merrimack River looking west from RR Bridge trailhead at Old Eastern Marsh Trail (Salisbury MA)

Bowie’s Few Minutes of Freedom

Do you ever have those occasions when — after the horse has cantered gleefully out the barn door — you wish your “thinking fast” part of the brain had given way to the “thinking slow” area. . . but maybe at lightning speed? A fifteen minute ungraceful lurching through the still deep snow this morning was a result of one of those moments.

As much as my two dogs Mona and Bowie enjoy our daily walks, the restrained pace is a poor substitute for the freedom to run unhindered. These days they rarely have such opportunity (especially with the amount of snow that keeps getting dumped on us), so today — because the surface is just hard enough for them to run across without breaking through — I tried to simulate the experience as best I could by placing each of them on a long lead and running beside them up our private road. If you have dogs, you can probably relate to this: as soon as I began running, they thought, oh, fun, let’s play chase. The first obstacle, literally, was a maple tree that they decided to encircle with their long leashes. My solution was to follow behind. . . and go round and round as they continued round and round. This moment was the first in which it would have been wise to pause for a moment, reflect on alternatives to chasing two dogs round and round a tree.

Having successfully liberated the maple tree, we returned to our backyard, where I was able to pry the gate open to our new, fenced-in garden area. After unclipping my two excited pups, I sat on my bench and watched them chase each other and wrestle with all the freedom they could wish for. Their joy made me smile.

When I decided playtime was over, I clipped the two pups back on their leashes and headed out through the gate. That move was a signal to resume the game of chase and wrestle, or rather, chase and wrestle-wrestle-wrestle, quickly converting two dogs and two leads into something resembling a tumbleweed. Seeing that one of the leashes was wrapped around one of Bowie’s back feet, I reflexively — and here’s where I would have enjoyed the benefits of slow (rational) thinking — unclipped his leash BEFORE grabbing his collar. Thus freed, he dashed off across the yard, the leash having miraculously fallen away from his foot and the rest of his body. As Mona strained to join her brother at the end of a now tangled skein of two leashes, I set off in pursuit of the wily Bowie. By now, he was nearly to my neighbor’s front door, but he suddenly had second thoughts. I used his indecision as an opportunity to flip the script. I’m not proud of it, but I essentially dangled Mona as bait.

Oh, Mona, aren’t you just the best little doggie?! Let’s go play! And I ran with her toward our house. She, of course, was thrilled, thinking she was about to have Mommie to herself. She bounded along and bounced up and down. Bowie streaked straight as an arrow right at us. I threw myself at him as soon as he was close enough. Collapsing in the snow, we were now our own contorted arrangement, and both of us were breathing hard. I had no back-up plan if I had failed — it’s doubtful you can pull that trick a second time. A subdued trio then climbed the front yard and re-entered the house. God, I hope all my neighbors didn’t just witness that.

So, I’ve signed up Bowie for boot camp. It can’t come soon enough.

an exhausted Bowie after his fleeting moments of freedom

A Post-Modern Era – Sure, Whatever

I told my older daughter yesterday that I had a real desire to want to drop the word “postmodernist” into a conversation — seamlessly, or as if I use it all the time. The result, of course, was that I had to go down the google rabbit hole to find out what it even means. I landed on a literary website that — no surprise — assumed a certain degree of prior knowledge. I don’t have that.

If I stated that in order to understand postmodernism — as an era or sensibility or cultural style — one needs to first consider modernism; then all of you (or, rather, I should say, all of us) would instantly lose our way. I made a valiant effort to make sense of it all, but after tripping over words such as metanarrative and philistinism, I became hopelessly lost in even the most general statements. Consider this premise: modernism, which flourished during our grandparents’ and parents’ time, was shaped by a suspicion of all things popular*. I just couldn’t get past the idea that what became popular was a rejection of that which was popular. (So, who was making it popular? A different set of people than the ones who were eschewing it?) I arrived at the end of one article being less clear than when I began.

Modernism, at its most negative, was characterized as puritanical and uptight, cleaving rigidly to historical truth and objective reality. That movement gave way to postmodernism right around the time that the civil rights movement was taking firm hold of the collective conscience. By the time I was graduating from high school, it was in full flower. To compare the two “movements”, all one really needs to do is examine how our parents’ lives (if they came of age just prior to WW2) were different from our own, and make generalizations. Looking at just one aspect — livelihood — tells us a lot. Manufacturing and constructing things with one’s hands no longer made sense (or cents, for that matter.) The Information Age was already under way, re-shaping not only work-related skills, but attitudes, as well.

Without getting all high-brow, I think I can safely say that postmodernism in some way claims that reality is relative, and nothing should be taken seriously. Your reality is different from mine. So, if I claim that gluten is a baker’s best friend, that reality may hold true for select bakers, but not others. (I like gluten.) It gets worse. There is no objective reality, so say the postmodernists. In this way, science and “historical truth” — according to britannica.com — are invalid measures. As such, they are merely dartboards for muzzy-headed Fox News pundits and guest personalities, the Fauci deniers, if you will. Even death loses its objective nature. If you have watched (and liked. . . as millions of viewers do) “Shaun of the Dead”, you will have a great appreciation for postmodernism.

I come away from my examination of cultural eras with these thoughts, questions, and conclusions:

  • A term like “postmodern” makes me reflexively think that it applies to a period that we’ve yet to enter or experience (because I can’t help but think that “modern” applies to now.)
  • Who gets to name the eras/movements?
  • Have they got our era wrong? I tend to think that it’s the loud minority — as always — that is paid attention to.
  • If we buy the notion that “reality is subjective” (and that maybe we all place too much emphasis on historical truth,) then the behavior of certain members of Congress and a certain past president vis-a-vis January 6 makes a lot of sense to me.
  • In a post-modern setting, irony rules.
  • We’ve exited the post-modern era and are now in what someone has decided to call “meta-modern”. If you’re willing to accept the defining features of this new movement, they are a reaction to all the chaos and cynicism of post-modernism. . . naturally.

(I promise you I will not return to this discussion. Honestly, learning about postmodernism was painful, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever slip the word “postmodernist” (or any of its related parts of speech) into a conversation. It was not a carefully considered idea, even if I wanted to sound smarter by using it.)

*from “Literary Theory and Criticism” (literariness.org)

My Introduction to Dough

I set out recently to learn a new skill. I’ve never been able to work with dough, not the gratifying kind that earns interest. . . well, maybe that, too, but rather the sticky goop that insists on shrinking when you manhandle it with a rolling pin and yell at it to expand. As if in a cruel twist of irony, all the other necessary ingredients and supplies that you remove from your cabinets do very much appear to swell to eventually consume the entire expanse of your kitchen island, as well as all remaining open counter space. (I never concern myself with the rogue bits of cheese and diced vegetables that descend to the floor, as the dogs will work conscientiously to address that issue.)

My husband George was the pizza expert in our house, having acquired mastery in the years he worked (as a high school senior and then while a student at North Shore Community College) at Monty’s Restaurant in Lynn (of the “Monty’s Monty’s by the sea, buy two pizzas get one free” renown.) Over the years he perfected his own recipe, very similar to the thin-crust sort that Monty’s sold. We were all big fans of his style of pizza. Sadly, he never wrote down the recipe, nor did he share it orally with any of us.

This past Christmas Eve, my older daughter and I joined our McKenna relations in Beverly and had a relaxed dinner featuring pizza with crust that very much resembled George’s, nice and thin and crispy. I consider it close enough to say that it is. . . well, close enough, so I have an acceptable contender for the crust. I’m still working on what goes on top of that, as well as my skills in making it look round and even.

Not content to satisfactorily make just pizza, I got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to make English muffins. I blame it on Judy, because she came to one of our “girls’ breakfasts out” with bags of homemade english muffins for each of us. Darn it, but weren’t they the most delicious?! That was at least a year ago, and now that I’m working on my dough skills with serious purpose, I decided this past weekend to make some myself. “So easy”, “the simplest recipe”, “a snap”, “a cinch” — such lies those culinary bloggers boldly (and cheerily) posted. Maybe my first mistake was consulting people who spend their days in their own home test kitchens. It would have been more helpful to land on a blog in which the blogger admitted frankly that they don’t know what the f**** they’re doing in the kitchen. It would serve as a vital object lesson for all other amateurs (and by “amateur” I mean a total ignoramus).

If you saw the resultant state of my kitchen (both days, since you are advised to “proof” it overnight and do a second proof on day 2), you would be struck by how uncannily similar it appeared to the Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. Every surface staggered under the weight and chaos of bowls, skillets, whisk, sheet pans, spatulas, flour, cornmeal, more flour, more cornmeal, small bowl for milk (that I failed to warm up), additional bowls (because “medium-size” is such a relative term), melted butter (because I was too aggressive with the microwave), specks of yeast (because those packets are impossible to open neatly), cooling rack, and all manner of measuring utensils. But not, significantly, a metric weight scale. I won’t go into the specifics and tease out where I first went wrong (and where I subsequently went wrong), but I will say that despite sensing at nearly every stage that I should scrap the mission, I persevered. . . nevertheless.

Lacking the highly desirable nooks and crannies, and denser than the expected “light and fluffy” quality, and not so much round as asymmetrical and somewhat oval and of varying sizes, they have — in the end — a mild and satisfying flavor. I’ll take it! If George were here, I think he’d applaud my efforts. He’d probably gush — as he poured syrup all over them — about how delicious my pancakes are, and I wouldn’t feel the least need to disabuse him!