Canine Contrition

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

It was the first thing I said to my daughter Megan after I arrived on foot back to our driveway. Mona, once again shackled, stopped behind me; her demeanor was one of contrition. Megan put her Jeep in “park” and then commented, “I feel the same way.”

It so happens that our house, situated in a former pasture, is a hot spot for deer. We’ve lived here for 24 years, and it’s pretty obvious to us that it’s on one of their well-traveled corridors. Depending on how readily available natural food sources are, they will wend their way from our neighbors’ woods, cross our private road and either approach to graze close to the house or steer further away and feast on our bordering arborvitae. With fruit trees lining our road, there’s plenty to nourish them in our little neighborhood and few predators to cause them real concern.

It was the last “potty break” for the night when I stepped outside with both dogs. I always keep Bowie’s leash taut, but I allow slack in Mona’s. She’s the “good child”. Before I had even completely closed the door, she shot off the steps, and gaining just enough traction, her body snapped around at the end of the leash. If I had had more than a mili-second to think, I would have released the leash. I didn’t, and her body shot out of her collar; with her own gift of a mili-second, she honed in on the four deer across the road. Given her superb sense of smell and her better-than-human sense of sight, she had precise coordinates. I heard rather than saw her make a beeline for them.

I pursued Mona after having handed a psychotic Bowie off to Megan. Galloping across my lawn, the road, and into Pam’s yard, my rising panic stifled my will to curse the fact that I hadn’t laced up my L.L. Bean perfectly-suitable-for-snow boots. The flapping footwear slowed me slightly, and until I could get Mona in my sights (with the flashlight that Megan had hastily handed me in the Bowie-for-flashlight exchange), I was bound to completely spiral in my thoughts. I had only suspected that the deer were close by, as it was very much in keeping with their visiting hours, and the level of canine excitement suggested that the deer were nearby. Either that, or Pam’s semi-feral cat Louie was lurking. (Highly unlikely that late in the day, however; Louie was his most predatory early morning; I often see him strutting back home with his trophies before I’ve even had my morning coffee.) It really is remarkable how many thoughts can run, end-to-end and piling up on each other, through the mind of someone in full panic mode. The first thought to ambush me was that a coyote had darted out of the woods and grabbed her. By the time my flashlight had found Mona, sitting motionless about 20 feet away from the four calmly staring deer, I had convinced myself that I would find her lifeless body, having been kicked in the head by one of the deer, or — even worse, I think — she’d be nowhere in sight.

When my flashlight picked up the glitter of two little eyes, I was overcome with relief. “I’ve found her!” I yelled back to Megan, who didn’t hear me. She had jumped into her Jeep with Bowie, and was earnestly trying to position the headlights on the space between our house and Pam’s.

With a stern, Sit, Mona!, I approached “the good child” and slid her once more into her collar. Note to self: tighten the collar. Second note to self: resume training for recall and stay.

My panic and subsequent relief had whipped up into a frothy consistency in my stomach, resulting in nausea. Yes, I wanted to throw up.

The Alden Graveyard

High on a hill above the Taunton River in the south section of Bridgewater, Massachusetts sits the tiny, 19th century Alden Graveyard. It also goes by the name of Great Woods Graveyard, which I suspect was a name given in later times, although the name pays homage to the tall, straight white pine trees that were harvested over time for use in the region’s boat-building industry. (The graveyard’s earliest identification on Plymouth County deed transfers had it simply as a “burial lot”.) The graveyard is surrounded by a low, lichen-textured, New England-style stone wall, the kind that was constructed with “two-handers” (boulders that required two hands to carry.) The graveyard had a single, u-shaped carriage drive that would deposit “attendees” at the door of the centrally located Alden tomb. 

The high perch where the graveyard sits is surrounded on three sides by rolling, terraced fields. We knew it as “Titicut Hill”, but there was also a brief and casual reference to another name — “Hill of Sorrow” — because a sachem’s daughter was murdered there, so Mom once claimed. I grew up next to the Alden Graveyard. The lot of land upon which our little home sat was owned in the early 1800’s by the Deacon Asael and his wife Sarah (Alden) Shaw. It was either Sarah’s two brothers — Solomon and Amasa — or, more likely, her father, Solomon, who — along with his son, Amasa — donated one acre of bordering land in the late 1700s for use as a “burying lot”. 

It pains me to admit how much time my siblings and I spent playing among the headstones and upon the central tomb (and — as a fitting punishment — knee-deep in poison ivy that naturally loved the stone walls). If you stood on top of the earth-covered tomb, which in appearance resembled a hobbit home, and faced southwest, you had a sweeping view of rolling, terraced fields.* Beyond the fields, you could see the silvery thread of the Taunton River. Ok, so I want to believe that, but it’s a lie that I had so thoroughly convinced myself of. Bob — and my four other brothers — assure me that you couldn’t see the Taunton.**  It suggests that the forest was working at its own regeneration, spreading outward from the banks to reclaim what it had lost in the prior centuries. 

It can be expected that colonial era graveyards — with their utter lack of adornment — don’t excite interest beyond the occasional visitor. Visitors who, like me, enjoy musing about the somber and strenuous lives of 18th and 19thcentury New Englanders. They’re quiet, reflective places. That is, unless you’re a young girl who allows herself to be talked into entering the tomb. I will never forget the day I foolishly stepped into that dark, dank, silent space. There had to have been an insanely attractive reward offered by one of my brothers. Most likely Chris. I do recall descending at least one or two of the granite steps. (That must have been one of the conditions for my reward.) The heavy metal door was pulled shut and I was alone in the tomb, or “alone” only in the sense that I was the sole breathing person in a room that also housed dead bodies. I pounded and screamed for hours. Once again, that part is untrue. I think I pounded and screamed for five seconds. . . which seemed an interminably long time.

When the fields on the far side of the graveyard were covered with snow, the whole Alden Square neighborhood took to toboggans and skis and saucers and Flexible Flyers for hours of outdoor sledding. Alternatively, and when we needed a more immediate rush, we’d dash over to the graveyard; from the tomb’s summit, we’d either roll our bodies down (doable at any time of year) or — when snow cover allowed — steer our sleds along a twisting path, avoiding (as best we could) the headstones, much as skiers do on alpine courses. Like, very short courses. . . maybe 15-meter. (For those readers who are at this moment cringing, I promise that, as an adult, I’m much more respectful. . . and not as idiotic where it concerns personal safety, but I doubt your thought process ventured so far as to reflect on the hazards to personal well-being.)

For me, it wasn’t all about play, however. I came to know the families who slept quietly there, and would read and re-read the inscriptions and epitaphs. The earliest known owners of our home made that graveyard their final resting place. The Deacon Asael Shaw is truly “rest[ing] from his labors”, having lived to the surprising age of 92. And “resting place” really does have fulsome meaning, for 18th and 19th century folk believed that admission through the pearly gates could only be secured by presentation of a notarized form vouching for a life of hard work, sacrifice, misery, and really plain and uncomfortable “waring appearill”. (I love to insert that expression whenever possible.) 

My fascination with graveyards, as you can imagine, has been a natural outgrowth from having been next-door neighbor to the bones and spirits of colonial era yeomen and the like. I intend to continue cultivating my interest when opportunity permits — if you’ve ever driven with me, you’ll no doubt have seen my head pivot when I spot a tiny graveyard. I only occasionally, however, will respond to the tug to stop and walk around. Maybe it’s because of the residual sense of terror it inspires — what if someone were to shut me in another tomb? Or, maybe it’s because I am too fearful of the day that my own flesh will mingle with the dust. I don’t want to rush things.

~

*By the way, it didn’t pay to take in the north view from Titicut Hill. All those red-brick buildings with bars covering the windows were a disturbing reminder that ours was generally known to the rest of the town as the “prison neighborhood”.

** Bob, bless his little heart, allows me to save face by qualifying his statement; it was possible that one could see the flood waters that would occasionally breach the banks and travel as far the pigeon coops.

Battle Over the Trash Barrel

Sure, a second dog is a good idea. Gives the first one a companion. I bought that. . . and, so, there’s Bowie.

That no one ever consulted the pet with the most seniority — Sonny, of the feline sort — has led to a fair degree of resentment, as well as pee and poo deposited in undesirable locations. It hasn’t been so long a time that I don’t remember Sonny’s deviousness where it concerned my sweet Scout. He used to lie in wait around a corner, crouched and ready to ambush my gentle little kitty. She had no use for him, but from her current vantage point on high, she must be smiling and thinking about the beauty and rightness of poetic justice.

Bowie builds in quality time every day — multiple times a day — so that Sonny should never feel neglected. He appreciates Sonny in ways that are unrecognizable to him, that make him anxious. Because of the said level of “appreciation”, Sonny has taken to over-grooming his tail. You should see what that looks like these days!

It all has me thinking about the pecking order that establishes itself, quite naturally. No amount of cajoling, psychologizing, gating, or sweet-talking seems to alter the course of domestic history. At present, Bowie is enjoying an outsized degree of supremacy. He drubs little Mona, he corners and harasses Sonny, and his general swagger — both in home and out in public — suggests that, despite the yearned-for results of bootcamp, I am at the end of his leash, not the other way around.

Admittedly, I haven’t been as consistent as I should be in order to make the usual commands stick; things like sit, stay, leave it, off, come, get-out-of-the-trash, drop-the-poop. Outside of the home, progress is more discernible, but the signs inside are discouraging. I have an improvised gate at the bottom of the stairs on the main level (with a heavy tool bag wedged against it), my deck has another gate, one that is free-standing. (It is only a matter of time before Bowie discovers that if he paws at the edge or noses it, he will gain blissful admission to the free world.)

The most frustrating signal that I’m losing the battle concerns the trash barrel. Once upon a time I was able to have a tall kitchen trash barrel, no lid, open to the elements. In my stubbornness, I have failed (thus far) to concede that a small barrel under the sink is my only remaining option. Instead, I have a lidded stainless steel one to which Bowie recently learned how to gain access. At first he would tug on the plastic liner, which would bring the goods up and into the lid, causing the lid to lift. In answer, I readjusted the liner so that it wouldn’t extend outside the barrel. From my standpoint, it made for a messier affair internally. However, Bowie’s determination led him to re-think his mission and come up with a more creative mode of access. Hence, the “flick and dive”, meaning he would flick the lid with his nose and thrust his head in with one smooth move. My counter-move has been to place a hand weight on top of the barrel. Obviously, he’s going to figure out how to nose it off, and I’ll be confronting what I know must be done: place a small barrel under the sink. . . and then rig a fail-proof lock system on the doors.

This is where I fall on my own sword, my friends.

Mixing Basil Vinaigrette with Bacon and Dogs

Back a few months, when I was refining my list of goals for canine boot camp, the trainer wondered if I wanted to curb “counter surfing”. We both immediately acknowledged that with havanese, as long as you limit objects that can be used as ladders, there’s little need for training in that realm.

Once again, Bowie proved to be a bundle of vexation.

Normally, I don’t get excited about cooking. Last night, however, I was eager to prepare BLT’s, using lettuce from my garden and bacon sourced from a local farm. I had also been planning to make a basil vinaigrette with basil snipped from Megan’s garden. We could either jazz up the BLT with it or add it to the cucumber I picked earlier in the day.

It was an easy summer recipe, one that involved few bowls and pans and didn’t require the oven. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a little Black and Decker food chopper that I love, despite it habitually conking me in the head when I remove it from its high position in the cabinet (its top-heavy motor piece always separates as I lower the unit). It takes up hardly any storage space, does a satisfying job of mincing and pureeing, and is easy to clean. But it has been giving me a hard time lately — something is not lining up right, causing the top part to not sit properly. Of course I didn’t notice until I had added all the ingredients — basil, minced garlic and shallot, fresh lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. This was the first opportunity to make an oily mess in my prep area, which for most people means the entire kitchen (every surface and point of contact within that space.)

Transferring the vinaigrette to the dressing bottle was tricky and resulted in additional oily mess. While the bacon was sizzling in its pan and filling the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma, I cleaned up the second oily mess and chopped the cucumber. Mona and Bowie were only slightly satisfied with my offering of bits of cucumber — their noses were communicating more hopeful messages about available food stuffs. As the bacon pieces each arrived at that perfect degree of crispness I transferred them to a paper-towel covered plate. . . right at the edge of the counter. (See where this is going?)

Now ready to pull it all together I gave the bottle of homemade vinaigrette a good ‘n vigorous final shake, spraying green matter in every direction. Not only were there globs on the island, the floor, the ceiling, the cabinets, and everything resting on the island; but it was all over my face and arms, in my hair and ears, and sticking to my t-shirt. It smelled divine — as far as vinaigrettes go — but, well, it did mean I wasn’t going to be eating my dinner at the planned hour.

I dashed upstairs to do a quick shower and then skipped back down to clean the kitchen. . . and then I saw it. Or, rather, I didn’t. At the edge of the counter sat an empty plate. No paper towel and NO BACON. Bowie was just finishing up (because dogs don’t waste paper towels that are suffused with bacon grease).

So, here’s what I have. (A) I’m a slow learner where it concerns my doggies. This wasn’t the first time that Bowie made good use of my neglectful attitude. He has helped himself to things that I’ve (on occasion) left at the edge of the counter. He only needs it to overhang by about 1-mm. (B) I’m a slow learner in other aspects of my life, as well. Ask Megan about my bad habit of not tightening covers. And why does it always seem to be that the very items that need to be shaken up are the ones for which I leave the cap loose? (Juice bottles in my refrigerator are not to be trusted. Nor are the several cans of chalk paint in my craft area.)

And Bowie, other than exhibiting an increased need to slake his thirst in the quiet hours before even the earliest of birds is signaling a new day, is none the worse for his episode. He’ll not appreciate that it was very expensive bacon, and there’s no hint that he’s remorseful. Of course it is twelve hours later, so I’m not sure what I can realistically expect. I’m reminded by something that the trainer had said. In a different context (boot camp) I was expressing my worry that Bowie and Mona might be missing me. (In truth, I was more worried about Mona. She’s. . . . sensitive.) Jennie assured me that dogs very much live in the moment, so I shouldn’t worry. When I look at Bowie’s adorable little face with his crooked little teeth, I think, I wish I could be more like you. His ability to push “reset” gives him fresh starts over and over, all day long. Not a bad thing. . . unless it means you once again forget to tighten a cap on a bottle of vinaigrette.

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.

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!

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!

The Mona Lisa is Non-Fungible*

I learned today that the Mona Lisa is non-fungible. It only took me three articles and two You-Tube videos to learn that. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a lot today, all having to do with virtual reality and things like “NFT’s” and blockchain and bitcoin (although I have to admit there’s a certain quality about all these things that my brain just naturally rebels against, and, consequently, I’ll probably forget by tomorrow everything I learned today.) If you’re wondering why I would waste “valuable time” on things that don’t really exist or only exist digitally or intangibly, it’s because I wanted to understand why the hosts of Good Morning America were behaving this morning as if they’d all just glanced out the studio window at 44th and Broadway and seen a flying saucer. Gobsmacked, they were.

I can only take so much of GMA’s reporting, as it tends to see-saw between alarming, ohmygodwe’reallgoingtodie delivery and overly ebullient, ilovepuppies feel good stories. I understand that if they reported that Grady McGrady (not a real person, by the way), an average person working in a typical job was having an average day, it wouldn’t capture and hold anyone’s attention, even the average American who would — and should — be inclined to sympathize with Mr. McGrady. I always feel as if they’re masterfully manipulating my emotions. I’m up, I’m down. I’m up again (because heaven forbid I be left in a puddle of my own despair at the end of the show.

The news that apparently left the GMA hosts dumbstruck was the disclosure of Walmart’s recent forays into the metaverse and their plans to create their own cryptocurrency, as well as begin making and selling virtual goods. That’s right; pretty soon you’ll be able to buy personal care items and toys — the not real kind — if you have approved levels of NFT’s (non-fungible tokens). If you pause for just a moment to reflect on why they’re muscling into this realm, well, why not? In their own words, they’re “continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences.” (It’s perhaps cynical of me to suspect that this big-box giant has within its mission statement some language about garnering a bigger percentage of consumer spending than the competition.)

You might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe the lines between our physical and virtual lives are becoming blurred. I’m more apt to reframe it all by pointing out that our virtual behaviors are claiming more of our time, time being something that will always have finite value. If I ever have occasion to look back on something I either did or had and can’t remember if I did it or had it virtually or physically, then I might concede that the lines are blurred. The argument really has to do with how realistic-seeming these virtual elements have become, how effectively they mimic the real world.

This all brings me to my larger point. I’ll offer an example here: RTFKT is a sneaker brand; they design virtual sneakers that are then auctioned off, one pair per month. They’ve sold out every month, and the highest bids consistently come in at $15,000 or higher. I can’t speak for other consumers, but even if I had that kind of money to spend on anything virtual, I question the authenticity of emotion that that type of purchase (and possession) would generate. I spend more money on boots than I ought to, but when I physically wear them, they make me feel good. Could I feel the same if I dressed up my avatar in one of my pairs? Mmmm. . . doubtful.

So, why have we become a virtually acquisitive society? Washington, D.C. filmmaker/journalist Johnny Harris explains this phenomenon from a psychological standpoint, “As soon as humans have enough abundance to have their basic needs met — food, shelter, warmth, etc. — the next frontier is to create value in things that have no inherent value.” Cyclically, perhaps, and often tied to periods of plenty, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. All it takes is a persuasive salesperson to proclaim that such-and-such has great inherent value, and it provokes a human response to want to acquire it. Hence, you’ll have people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, er. . . NFT’s to “own” a few seconds of video of NBA Top Shots.

For Johnny Harris’ clear and very understandable explanation on YouTube, click here.

*”non-fungible” – A term used in economics, for all intents and purposes it means unique and irreplaceable.

Goodbye, 2021

Before we all kicked the year 2021 square in the butt, I’m sure we were already imagining ways in which 2022 might be better. It can’t be worse, we all say with more wishful thinking than confidence. I wonder, though, whether we begin 2022 with greater determination to succeed in our resolutions and promises or instead with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders that suggests we wield less power over our lives than we would wish. Like the next person, I gave some thought to the new year, but at this juncture there’s still a great deal of vagueness; I’d say my resolutions are yet unformed, but might include ideas such as “be kinder” and “practice intentionality”, which means, I think, that I won’t be able to continue for long with my yet unformed resolutions. The impediment to launching — right now — into any list of concrete, measurable, and healthful goals is that I’m not finished with 2021.

It started by musing out loud in the presence of my daughter that there must have been something positive about 2021, some gains; you can’t have a whole year that was just awful from beginning to end. . . can you? Thus, before I wrestle with any mental exercises to view 2022 with suitable optimism, I’ll pause to reflect on the upside of 2021.

So, here’s what I’ve got:

  • Our society is thinking more creatively about the 40-hour/week/9-5 work paradigm. The concept of “deep work” finally caught on, resulting in lots of companies going to a four-day work week. The common sense inherent in the term means that businesses have re-structured how their workers behave while on the clock. Without getting into the finer points, a couple of typical examples would be: adjustments to meeting schedules to allow for greater productivity, and when and how many times a worker should look at email messages. Businesses have generally been urged to consider modifications that bring about greater efficiency, less wasted time. In a related way, working remotely has become acceptable; finally, employers are trusting that many tasks can be performed off-site and out of view of the boss.
  • Lighter traffic on the roads. As a consequence of the first item on this list, there are fewer cars, hence fewer annoying people out there. In many cases, we are also surprised by available parking where heretofore one had to be unusually lucky to find a parking spot.
  • Improved air quality (especially in countries and regions with historically horrible patterns of pollution, namely the United States, China, and Europe), less so in countries that have already been proactive in reducing carbon emissions (such as Sweden).
  • Expanded choices for lovers of jigsaw puzzles. I leave you to reflect on that however you will.
  • “Oobleck” is officially in the dictionary. (Increased home schooling likely was a factor.) In a year in which Dr. Seuss’ legacy came under harsh scrutiny, this validation by Merriam-Webster warms the heart of all of us. Who didn’t — at least once (and probably only once) — destroy their parents’ kitchen creating a school project with a cornstarch, water, and food coloring concoction? And, of course, because memory softens over time, we repeated the nightmare with our own children.*

It’s easy to see how the few examples above inter-connect, at least if we tease out their genesis. And while it might cause us to pucker our faces, the notion that COVID has brought about anything good is worthy of rejoicing. Such thinking allows us to say with no sense of contradiction, Hallelujah, and good riddance, 2021!

*Recipe for Oobleck: 1c cornstarch, 1-2c water, few drops food coloring; add water to cornstarch in mixing bowl; add food coloring. To achieve desired consistency, add more water or cornstarch as needed.

Fun Fact: quicksand operates on the same principle as Oobleck; they’re non-Newtonian fluids, neither solid nor liquid. Instead they get their properties by either increasing or decreasing pressure. Here’s a great article on Oobleck by Scientific American, whereby they even coax you to make a “big batch” of the substance in a large bin, then remove your shoes and socks and step into it and walk around in it. (Do you sink in when you stand on it? they invite you to discover.)

Lamenting the Decline of the Semicolon

Seriously, when was the last time you used a semicolon? Are you so afraid of using it wrong that you just don’t? Did you know that it’s considered the most controversial punctuation mark?

This past week I came across an essay on the diminished use of the semicolon, and it piqued my interest. I confess that I’m a big fan of that particular mark of punctuation; sometimes, a comma just can’t do the job, and using a period to create a full stop hews my ideas too radically. If you shy from using it, here’s a simple piece of wisdom from a 17th century language expert; Richard Hodges gives us this guidance: “At a comma, stop a little; at a semicolon, somewhat more.” (Follow link here to ThoughtCo.)

The essay that caught my interest, “The melancholy decline of the semicolon” by Will Lloyd (follow link here) was a delightful look at how authors and readers feel about the inherent worth of a punctuation mark that is so often misunderstood that it engenders strong feelings of contempt. Imagine that! A tiny grammatical function has the power to incite loathing.

Pause to consider what Ben Platt discovered in 2017: from 1800 to 2000, semicolon usage decreased 70%. Also, researchers at Lancaster University tell us that in the last 30 years, usage of the semicolon has decreased by 25%. One should not conclude that I’m a smug know-it-all when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I make lots of mistakes, and I frequently will re-write chunks of sentences just to avoid cornering myself in a situation in which only the best editors and language experts can maneuver with finesse. But there are times when I will not be dissuaded from its use; I will not, as others might suggest, use the em-dash or simply slap a period down with a sense of dramatic finality. I worry, too, that I’ll wake up one of these mornings and the headlines will be some version of: “Semicolon Usage to be Outlawed.” Just as worrisome is the thought that I’ll be among the 5% still using the semicolon, while the rest of the population will be communicating entirely in acronyms and sentence fragments. At some point, someone will ask with complete bewilderment, “What’s a sentence?” SMH WTF