Category Archives: Personal

Henri and Bob, hurricane reprise

Churning up the Atlantic, Hurricane Henri is barreling towards us on the southern shore of Long Island. It’s on time, expected, even, because we are at the height of the North Atlantic hurricane season. 

I’ve been here before. Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Hurricane Bob smashed, blew down, swept away or submerged anything with the audacity to stand in its way. 

Yesterday, while I was securing outdoor furniture and flowerpots too large to bring indoors, my mind kept returning to a Monday morning in August a lifetime ago. Gathering flowers soon to be destroyed and collecting a few almost ripe apples, I reflected on the contrasts between my memories of Bob and the realities of 2021. 

It was our first summer in a new house then, and the “garden” was not much more than the potato field it had vanquished the year before. The orchard, the hydrangeas, and the towering trees belonged to a hazy future. The advancing storm would find slim pickings at our house.

The sun had hardly risen when the shrill ringing of the phone rudely roused me. I wondered who could possibly be calling at that hour. I didn’t expect my next-door neighbor whom I barely knew.

“Have you brought everything in?” she demanded.

“Why would I do that?” I replied obliviously.

“Don’t you know there’s a hurricane on the way? I’m coming over.”

It was already drizzling. There were no cell phone alerts in those days and few people had mobiles anyway. Our husbands were gone, on their way to work the city. We were on our own.

I was only half-dressed when Lena appeared at the door in her wellies, ready for action. Together we heaved and toted whatever we could into the garage.

Hours later, her mission accomplished, Lena returned home. I filled the tub and big pots with water. We kept in touch— our landlines never abandoned us— as the tempest raged with increasing violence. I felt like the little pig quivering as the wolf did his best to blow the house down.

The rain didn’t come down. It battered us horizontally, gushing over the threshold. It was all I could do, mopping and wringing ceaselessly with huge towels, to keep up with the tide of water. When the water slowed, that was the signal not to relax, but to move to another side of the house where the storm was bursting in under a different door. The hurricane wound round the house, buffeting it from every direction successively. The only respite we had was when the eye passed over before the storm resumed.

Later that afternoon, Bob moved on and bright sun followed. Despite our exhaustion, we had to see how the world outside had fared, so we jumped into Lena’s Jeep and zigged around downed trees and power lines.

For four days we supported each other, living without power and feasting on the contents of our incapacitated freezers. But the barbecue worked, and we grilled Lena’s tomatoes and my mozzarella for breakfast. Our well water depends on an electric pump to reach our faucets, so we had to haul buckets of the water stashed in the tub for the toilets. We bought batteries, burned candles and went early to bed.

On the second day, we saw truckloads of men climbing poles. They came from faraway places like Canada, helping to restore power. Surrounding towns came back online, but our small village stayed dark.

The August heat was oppressive, yet on the third day we reached what then seemed the height of luxury: a friend in one of those towns offered us warm showers. By the fourth day, however, our sense of adventure was waning. Late that afternoon, we cheered when the power finally came back on. 

Today we have a generator. Food will stay cold in the freezer and water will run freely. We will watch television and read books at night. As powerful as it is, though, the generator cannot help the garden. The zelkova gives us welcome shade and shelter, but if pushed to the limit, it is close enough to crash through the roof. While we will be far more comfortable with Henri, we also will be much more vulnerable.

Despite the havoc it wreaked, Hurricane Bob left me an invaluable gift. The unique adventure we experienced together forged an enduring bond between Lena and me.

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Fran Lebowitz and me

Fran Lebowitz in 2011. Photo by Christopher Macsurak, License

I’ve never met Fran Lebowitz. I enjoy her wit, her humor, and her distinctive point of view. I admire her ability to name whatever elephant is in the room, to say what many think but don’t dare say. I spent a couple of hours in her company (on YouTube) today, so she’s on my mind. In many ways I consider her a kindred soul. She loves words and knows her grammar. So do I, notwithstanding the ungrammatical title of this post. I think that “Fran Lebowitz and I” would be a turnoff to the many people who don’t think proper grammar is necessarily a good thing. Yet I don’t feel right lowering my standards. Actually, these days I don’t feel right about many things.

Like the state of the nation, specifically the impending demise of American democracy. Income and wealth inequality, white supremacy, the shameful state of healthcare in the United States and the alarming diffusion of the Delta variant of the coronavirus are dangers and evils that keep me awake. I deplore the gullibility of the followers of radicalized politicians who lie shamelessly to stay in power. The legislatures and executives who deceive their constituents, encouraging them to indulge, defenseless, in activities that expose them to a deadly virus– these faithless leaders are criminals.

I digress. Back to Fran. She’s decreed that “racism is a fantasy” because under the skin there is no difference among human beings. She’s right. Waving the Confederate flag anywhere, let alone in the Capital (which was largely built by Black slaves) is worse than offensive. It is sickening. Fran believes, and I agree, that if the insurgents who stormed the Capitol on January 6 had been Black, they would have been shot. Justice in America is not blindfolded. Difference in gender, on the other hand, she says cannot be denied. Until men can get pregnant, women will have to resist their domineering. I don’t think there is a woman alive of any color who has not had a “me too” experience.

I love gadgets. Living without my computer is unthinkable and my phone is practically attached to my body. Fran, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that technology has been a boon for mankind. She flaunts her comfortable survival without a smartphone, a computer or a microwave oven. I agree with her that riding the subway and seeing practically every passenger intent on his phone is depressing. According to Fran, eighty percent of even the adults are not reading or talking; they are playing games. They don’t read books or newspapers or talk with other people. In fact, most of the time people use the apps on their phones for anything but talking. Texting has become the preferred mode of communication. Human contact– practically eliminated in deference to Covid-19– is losing the battle as office workers prefer working from home and masking and social distancing conspire to keep strangers from interacting.

In addition to a passion for social justice, I share with Fran the experience of writing block or more like a blockade, as she calls it: “I would not call it a writer’s block. A writer’s block to me is a temporary thing. A month, you know, six weeks. This was more a writer’s blockade. To me, this was very much like the Vietnam War. It was the same timetable, it was on the same schedule as the Vietnam War. I don’t know how I got into it and I couldn’t get out of it.” She has said that writing is “agonizing,” that writing is hardest work there is. “The only job that is worse is coal mining.” And very few people mine coal any more.

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Can’t get away

A while back I tried to give up my obsession with politics. I knew that stuff was still happening, but I needed a break from the constant pounding of bad news on almost every front and Trump, Trump, Trump all the time, “shocking, but not surprising.” I devoted myself to garden and kitchen, watching the spring unfold, trying to remain oblivious to the death, disease and corruption I knew were swirling about me.

Instead, I soaked up the beauty of nature’s magnificence, drawing strength and renewing hope from the lilac, clematis, cherry, apple, lily, and iris that blossomed in turn. I looked forward to the splendor of peony and hydrangea soon to come. Buds peeped out, then swelled and popped, glorying in the sun and the rhythm of cycles set in motion long ago.

But reality finally had its way. It came rudely banging on my door, shredding my reverie. One dear friend after another began to have problems, serious problems. The Capitol succumbed to a murderous mob and lawmakers were unmoved. The American experiment in democracy was unraveling. It became impossible to look away.

So, hello world, I’m back.

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A very Good Friday

For a Neapolitan, thoughts of Easter conjure up the extended family enjoying a lovingly prepared and eagerly devoured feast. Not least among the delicacies is the pastiera, an essential part of Easter, a dessert that no Neapolitan table would be without.

A certain man I know well came of age in Capri, a mythic island in the Bay of Naples. Despite emigrating from Italy 73 years ago and living in the U.S. ever since, Capri has always been an integral part of him. During this past Easter Week Sal was especially overcome by nostalgia. In his fantasy he savored the pie redolent of orange blossoms and cherished memories, and he mentioned his longing to the people closest to him. Covid has whetted separation from family and friends and unbridgeable distances to a constant, bitter sting.

I called a pastry shop on Arthur Avenue, an Italian section of the Bronx, where shops and restaurants offer every sort of Italian food: mozzarella and parmigiano, salami and prosciutto, broccoli rabe and radicchio, cannoli and, wait for it– pastiera! The bakery’s website vaunted their shipments to every part of the country.

Imagine my dismay to learn they shipped cookies, but not pastiera, because of its fragility.

On Wednesday a former colleague of Sal’s told him to expect a package the following day. He wondered what it could be, and a part of him wished it would be a pastiera, even knowing that couldn’t be.

Imagine Sal’s delight when he found a package on the doorstep next morning– and it contained not one pastiera, but two! His former partner, sharing a craving for the same dessert, had sent one for Easter and one for the freezer.

Later on Thursday, Sal received notification of a shipment from Italy that would arrive on Friday. He was stumped, not having the slightest idea who the sender was, or what could possibly be in the package.

Finally, the parcel arrived. It was a pastiera, shipped from Naples by his nephew, who jumped at the chance to alleviate the longing of the uncle he loves so much.

Neapolitan Pastiera

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2020 Annus Horribilis

And the stars fell out of heaven and the moon could not be found
The sun was in a million pieces scattered all around
Why did you ever leave me, you knew how it would hurt
And now there’s darkness on the face of the earth

Willie Nelson, Darkness on the Face of the Earth

Palo Alto, California, 9-9-2020. Photo by Evan Baldonado

The apocalyptic events of 2020, all coming together, are overwhelming. People are dying. 200,000 dead! and millions infected. Mind-boggling. As are the fires on the West Coast. Who ever heard of orange skies? The pictures are beautiful, awesome, and horrifying. Disasters of epic proportions. Fire tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, ashy skies– Loss and death and destruction everywhere.

Loyalton, California. 8-16-2020. Photo by Katelynn & Jordan Hewlett, AP
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her Senate confirmation hearing, 1996

But all that wasn’t enough. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminist icon, extraordinary legal brain, unflagging energy, is GONE. After a long, difficult bout with cancer, we should be happy that she is finally relieved of her pain. She was 87, after all; she lived a full life, by any standard.

But I can’t stop thinking of her, what she achieved, what she meant to me, personally. I can’t stop thinking about her, sobbing in spite of myself. In other times, no one would question that her legacy, the liberation of women and of men too, would live on.

But today the world is upside-down. Truth is becoming an extinct commodity, and half the country is convinced that everyone else is deceptive, cruel, and scheming to take over the government or what’s left of it. The other half believes the others are ripping the country apart, snuffing out democracy, shredding the Constitution. The freedom and the ideals that we aspired to, but never quite reached, are dissolving. A nightmare.

Is the world truly coming to an end?

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Another day in the time of Covid

img_2079Feeding  the cats was first on the agenda this morning.

I was hungrier than usual, so I took time that I usually don’t, to make myself a cappuccino and a slice of buttered olive bread. Then laundry, then a Zoom call.

A friend was coming for lunch at noon. We had planned to sit outside, social distancing, of course, but the summer sun has given way to autumn chill. We would have to improvise a Covid-safe setting indoors.

We began to prepare a pizza rustica, one of my husband’s specialties. He makes the filling, and I do the crust. Unless it’s a very special occasion, I don’t make the crust from scratch. I let the bottom crust thaw a little, then pierced it all over, intending to blind-bake it.. An idea came to me for a new way to make the crust hold its shape. I set an empty pie pan on the raw crust, and in lieu of pie weights (mine had disappeared), I sprinkled the pan with pebbles I’d collected on the beach.

Meanwhile, I began making a chocolate mousse with a recipe I found last night. Wonder of wonders, it had only two ingredients, bittersweet chocolate and water, and the author, Melissa Clark, assured me that it would take all of 10 minutes.

Right.

First, I had to break the block of chocolate into pieces that would melt in the water. Do you know how hard a block of chocolate is? I began to chop last night and made some headway with a hammer. My husband had a better idea. He used a knife as a chisel and was much more successful. In the morning, I combined the water and chocolate, put it on the stove and hoped it would be okay on its own while I took care of the pie crusts. I prepared two bowls, a large one with ice and a second, smaller bowl inside. Though Melissa said the chocolate would melt quickly while being constantly whisked, mine was pokey. We should have chopped the chocolate into even smaller pieces.IMG_1396

The bottom crust held its shape beautifully. I assembled the pie, filling it with the eggs, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan and tiny pieces of soppressata that my husband had prepared. I gingerly placed and sealed the top crust and slipped it into the oven. By this time, it was 11:30, and our guest was due at 12. The pie usually bakes for at least an hour and has to rest for another 10-15 minutes.

Back on the stove, the chocolate was still lumpy. I continued to whisk. Finally, it was smooth, ready to be whisked in the cold bowl that was waiting for it. I whisked and I whisked, this time using an electric immersion blender. It was tedious work, though the chocolate smelled wonderful. When it failed to become thick and fluffy, I melted more chocolate as Melissa suggested. While it was melting, the beaten chocolate in the cold bowl hardened. It clearly had to be melted again. Using the bowl as the top of a double boiler, I stirred and stirred until the chocolate liquified and showed no remaining lumps. By then, it was 12 o’clock. Out with the electric whisk. Again. This time, the chocolate gained close to the right consistency.

I filled the first dessert cup. Looked fine. For the second one, I realized I had to remove the bowl from the ice and work very quickly. The chocolate was a little thicker and harder. For the third, I had to dig into the stiff chocolate with the spoon. The leftover chocolate was very solid.

The pizza rustica was in the oven for an hour and a quarter. By then, it was close to 1:00. Our guest must have forgotten or scrambled the date or was very late.

Much later, she called and apologized profusely. She told me the date was on her calendar, but she forgot to look. I laughed. I’ve done that too.

My husband and I enjoyed a delicious lunch, followed by the virtual activities we are obliged do in the time of Covid.

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Cognitive dissonance

From the idyllic

Sitting in the garden, watching the green leaves flutter overhead, matching the birdsong to the red cardinal in the apple tree, listening to the rustle of the pines in the gentle breeze, I marvel at the absence of the sounds of city traffic, ambulance, police and fire engine sirens. I am in a world far removed from “real life.” The contrast between the microcosm to the macrocosm could not be greater. Though now the occasional plane is resuming its drone overhead, the only real disturbance is the roaring of the motorized lawn mowers.

To the gruesome 

Hundreds of thousands dead and dying from a relentless disease, millions of lonely people suffocating in their sickbeds, and the as yet uninfected constrained to wear masks and keep others at a distance. Many millions more out of work, unable to return to their jobs which no longer exist… Institutions that were the heartbeat of the city: theaters, restaurants, music, museums and movie theaters, street artists, exhibitions of human creativity, schools and great universities — gone: some never to return, some irretrievably altered, only a few managing to hold on— for now.

To the unthinkable

The earth is dying and there is no collective will to save it. The air we breathe and the water we drink become more toxic every day. The oceans are rising, reclaiming the land that was home to about 40 percent of the world’s population, exiling them and forcing their migration into the territory of people inland. The seas are warming, increasing the frequency and intensity of death-dealing storms and dispersing previously tropical diseases into the temperate zones. Deserts are expanding and the supply of fresh water and arable land is shrinking. The over 400 million tons of plastic produced annually are choking the oceans and killing marine life. Every human being alive today has plastic in his or her body.

To the signs of hope and change

Black Lives Matter. At last, white people are struggling to understand and begin to acknowledge the legacy of slavery, the systematic racism that pollutes every aspect of American life. Peaceful protests and the eradication of icons of the Confederacy are symbolic actions, but it will take much more to atone for the sins of 400 years and to build a society that fulfills the premise that all men [and women] are created equal and that each has the absolute right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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9/11 Elegy

The ghostly Towers of Light, which appear every year on September 11, manifest the loss endured by New Yorkers and the nation.

The Twin Towers are not all that is missing but remembered. Lost are the almost 3,000 victims in the U.S. on 9/11; 5,000 American and coalition soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, tens or hundreds of thousands (estimates vary wildly) of Iraqis and Afghans killed violently since 9/11 by airstrikes, collapsed infrastructure, and the ISIS occupation.

We have lost the dubious pleasure of air travel, the ability that we took for granted to simply walk to the gate and board a plane after leaving our bags at the curb or the counter. We lost the freedom to walk into many buildings without being scanned and searched. The New Year’s Eve celebrants in Times Square must undergo screening and rub shoulders with hundreds of armed police. How festive is that?

In one respect there is a gain— the multiplication of victims. They are the loved ones of the slain who suffer their loss.

Was killing Bin Laden and exacting vengeance on his co-religionists really worth the spilling of so much blood, the draining of national treasure and the transformation of everyday American life? We are still debating the answer.

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Palermo Journal: Life is sweet

Sicilians are famous for their desserts; they have a greater variety than the other Italian regions. They owe this distinction to the Arabs, who ruled Sicily for over 200 years and greatly influenced the island’s culture, cuisine and agriculture. Among the many foods and plants the Arabs introduced are citrus fruits, almonds, cinnamon, apricots, pistachio, pomegranates, sugar cane and watermelon, all of which feature prominently in Sicilian desserts.

So the signs were unmistakable. From our first breakfast in Palermo, we knew we were in Sicily. On a table laden with pastries there was a plate with empty cannoli shells and a bowl with creamy ricotta filling— Palermanitan DIY. In Sicily, cannoli are not pre-filled, because the shell gets soggy. (N.B. English speakers: “cannoli” is plural. One cannolo, two cannoli.)

We stepped out of the hotel into a land of cannoli, granita and ice cream.

IMG_3525I love cannoli and it was too early (for us) to have ice cream, so my eyes gravitated immediately to a store named Cannolissimo. They sell mostly cannoli, and they make them to order from a counter the width of the doorway and the store itself.

Custom cannoli

First, choose the shell: two kinds of plain or lined with chocolate or two other flavors. Next the filling: ricotta or ice cream, each with six flavors. What would you like sprinkled on top? You have seven choices.

We discovered ice cream heaven on our first night. Cappadonia had opened just two weeks before. The ice cream was the best we’ve ever eaten. The chocolate was to die for and the cantaloupe sorbet could have stood in for the melon with prosciutto.

Antonio Cappadonia

Antonio Cappadonia is the proprietor. The staff calls him “Maestro,” and so he is. He explained to us his process for making chocolate ice cream using only organic ingredients. Antonio insisted we taste his sorbet, which he makes only with fresh fruit that he himself selects, only when it is in season.

Tiziana and D’Amico

Il D’Amico and Chris with their new friend

Cappadonia is evidently an expert in human relations as well. It took months for him to put together his “team,” the out-going, gregarious and affectionate staff that serves the ice cream. They befriended us, kissing us when we arrived and again when we left.

No evening thereafter was complete for the team or for us without an ice cream fix  and warm hugs on all sides. Italians, especially in the South, open themselves to strangers, but I think they must not like strangers, because they rapidly transform them into friends.

Granita completes the trio of the most popular street sweets. You tell the vendor what flavor you like, and he pours flavored syrup over shaved ice. Granita is reputedly very refreshing in the heat, but it is too sweet for my taste.

Legend surrounds the invention of ice cream. Marco Polo may have brought it from China in the 13th century, though the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) are believed to have been the first to eat “a frozen milk-like confection.” Italians are always players in the fanciful (or not) history of ice cream.

Some believe it was invented in Sicily and taken to France by Catherine de Medici when she married King Henry II. Others attribute it to a Sicilian in the 17th century who opened the first café in Paris and there introduced gelato, the Italian version of sorbet, to the French public.

The Arabs, who ruled Sicily from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, drank an icy refreshment flavored with fruit juices. They called it sharabt, which later became sorbetto in Italian and sherbet in English.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that sorbet as we know it evolved with the addition of sugar. A Neapolitan is said to have written the first recipe for sorbetto. He also added milk to it, creating the first real ice cream.

Suffice to say that ice cream is so loved that everyone wants credit for introducing it to the world.

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Elegy for Main Beach

Makeshift floats in the festive parade, the red wagons and strollers laden with blankets, coolers, picnic baskets and the occasional toddler wound their way from far-flung parking spots to the beckoning beach. In 2003, temporary crutches made it rough going for me, but nothing could keep me from East Hampton’s Main Beach on the Fourth of July. Ever since I can remember, I had gloried in the fireworks, lying back on the sand, gazing at the night sky exploding with color.

Thousands of people were converging toward the sand, passing me and my group of friends and family as I labored forward. Then one couple spotted me. They stopped, saying, “You need this more than we do,” insisting I ride in their kids’ red wagon. I clambered aboard, slightly embarrassed but grateful for the lift. The other adults shouldered the picnic gear that I had displaced and took turns pulling me along. And so we continued, wending our way, laughing and joking with friendly strangers— teens, toddlers, parents and grandparents, all in high spirits and filled with anticipation.

I usually eschew crowds, but the convivial throng at that annual celebration was suffused with bonhomie, a shared feeling of community that bound us together. At the beach, we gingerly threaded a path through the clusters of beach chairs and blankets until we could claim a patch of sand. All around us families were spreading their blankets. Picnic baskets opened, disgorging bowls of potato and chicken salads, bags of sandwiches, grilled chicken, guacamole and no end of other goodies. Sodas popped and drinks poured. Boisterous children barely contained their excitement. Crowning their heads and circling their necks, glow sticks began to fluoresce as the day faded into twilight.

Night fell gradually, and the crowd ate the last of the brownies and cookies and the cakes with red, white and blue icing. Flashlights began to sparkle sporadically.

At last it was nine o’clock, and all eyes turned eastward, caught by the first soaring rockets. They burst in midair, showering fire and ice. We settled back, dazzled by the red glare and starbursts that morphed into hearts and atoms of gold and blue and green. Humongous umbrellas and giant jellyfish commandeered the night sky, eclipsing the stars until they decayed, trailing sparks that fizzled and sank into the ocean.

When the show came to its inevitable end, we gathered our detritus, packed the leftovers and reluctantly left the beach. Though traffic choked the local roads and made for a seemingly endless crawl, it couldn’t spoil the good feeling. It didn’t stop us from returning year after year.

But that was long ago … What the traffic couldn’t do, the piping plovers did. I don’t begrudge the little birds their right to nest on the beach. I am a conservationist and I believe we should protect endangered species and not drive them to extinction. But it’s been 12 years, and I resent the little critters who have appropriated so much of the public domain and deprived us of a tradition that had lasted 90 years.

Even more, I bristle at the appropriation of the flag by the Alt Right. The “patriots” who want to take their country back— Back to where? To when? To the time when native Americans were fighting to save their homeland from European invaders? Or later, when the descendants of those Europeans enslaved the people they captured on another continent? The patriotic pride of “E pluribus unum”— out of many peoples, one nation— that we took for granted is now problematic, because the “pluribus” are being imprisoned and deported, their mosques and synagogues bombed and defaced.

I do hope the piping plovers proliferate and I dream of the day when the sharp divisions that now divide us dissolve. Then Main Beach will open to everyone and the fireworks will again dazzle at the twilight’s last gleaming.

Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain … the memory of time gone by.

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Customer Service with a smile

We all know what it’s like to be frustrated, speaking very slowly and clearly to someone with only a rudimentary mastery of English, only to realize that you aren’t going to get the help you needed in the first place. And that’s only after listening to a pitch or instructions you don’t need or annoying music, and then punching buttons on a phone menu, one after another, only to end up being told (by a robot) to go to the website for answers to a problem not covered by the menu.

[Tip: I have found a shortcut that often works: either I speak either gibberish or rapid-fire insulting comments like, “Of course you don’t understand. You’re a machine! I want to speak to a human being!” etc. Or “Representative. Agent.” over and over. After a few robotic responses (“I’m sorry, I don’t understand”) I usually am redirected to a person who may or may not have the resources to answer my query.]

How delightful it was this afternoon to have my call immediately answered by a real person, one who spoke flawlessly and understood the problem after I described it just once. She appeared to be genuinely friendly, because I could tell (as one always can) that she was smiling on the other end.

This is an unabashed plug for sureflap.com, the maker of the Surefeed Microchip Pet Feeder. The device is ingenious and effective: it allows only one, specific, microchipped pet to eat from it, closes when that pet withdraws and refuses to open for any other animal. (Very handy when one pet is on a special diet and the other one wolfs down everything in sight). After 14 months of continuous use, however, it began to fail until a few weeks later it stopped working altogether. The device is very expensive for a pet feeder, and I expected it to last much longer. Ergo, the phone call to the number posted on the Sureflap website.

And here’s the kicker: not only was the representative responsive and friendly, she verified that I was a customer, via Amazon, and immediately ordered another to be delivered to me. That’s service the way it should be!

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California mourning

Grandma’s last weeks were painful, for her and for those who loved her. She wasn’t my grandmother, so I can say that I was relieved when she died. A good person shouldn’t have to suffer as she did. Loving, kind and generous, Patty was universally loved.

She welcomed us into her life only a few, short years ago, including us in her warm embrace. Although she and the family were in California, we crossed the country to honor her and offer comfort and solace to the family of which we’d become a part.

All funerals are sad. The ones I remember most were also deeply satisfying, because of the shared love that bonded the mourners, even those who were meeting for the first time.

Grandma was 95, and she led a good life. She was Roman Catholic, so I steeled myself for the ritual that has always alienated me, despite my having been born into the faith. Only a year ago I wrote about the Catholic funeral mass of my brother-in-law. The church was overflowing with stricken friends and relatives who were unprepared for his sudden death. Yet the priest seemed to be playing his part by rote, spouting the same platitudes with the same indifference that were no more than a part of his job description.

The two masses were separated by a continent and an ocean and a spiritual distance equally vast. The priest in California moved among the mourners and spoke to them face-to-face, looking directly into their eyes. He was one of them. He welcomed the people he didn’t recognize, including those of other faiths. He respected them, entreating all to worship as they were accustomed. He was thoughtful and serious, but his sense of humor and his ease among strangers were evident too. He’d known Patty for years and worked with her for the Church. In his eulogy, delivered in an informal, almost chatty manner, he said that one of the three things he most appreciated about Patty was that she laughed at his jokes. “Nobody laughs at my jokes,” he said. “I have to tell my jokes in the bathroom to the priest I see in the mirror.” And he made all of us laugh, just as Patty had.

The priest opened my eyes to a fluid, adaptive Catholicism that can be truly catholic and responsive to the needs of different cultures. Women, including altar girls, took part in the service. A guitar accompanied the piano and the lyrics of the music scrolled on two large screens so that everyone could join in the singing.

Father Michael and Pope Francis are cut from the same cloth. I hope they and others like them will drag the Church into the 21st century.

Photo credit: The Village FuneralFrank Holl1872Leeds City Art Gallery

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The morning after

I didn’t realize how deeply I felt about a victory for Hillary till I found myself crying when I finally accepted that Hillary wasn’t going to make it. Like so many others, I was stunned. Literally dumbfounded. 

This is a huge amount to process. Every woman I meet is walking around dazed, zombie-like. It doesn’t sink in. It will take time to accept the unthinkable. We are truly in uncharted waters.

There is no question in my mind that if Hillary, with all she’s accomplished, were a man, she would easily have won. Women know this. Sexism was blatant when she competed with Obama eight years ago and now it’s back with a vengeance. The double standard applied in the 2016 presidential campaign boggles the mind. In what universe would a man with Hillary’s experience and accomplishments run neck and neck, let alone lose, to a challenger like Trump? Why was his record of fraud (Trump University), racial redlining in his housing projects, indiscriminate lies, sexual predation, etc. so easily swallowed while she was vilified for crimes she didn’t commit?

What will a Trump victory mean for women? For access to safe abortion when necessary? For indigent women’s access to contraception? What will it mean for the immigrants, especially Muslim and Latino?

It’s over now. It’s over for Hillary and for many of her contemporaries who fought so hard for civil and women’s rights and were finally closing in on the unattainable prize. That cohort may not live to see a woman in the White House.

We will have to move on. Rather than expend energy on speculation, it behooves us to continue to fight the good fight. Each of us has to find her own way to continue and contribute to the struggle.

A version of this is at Women’s Voices for Change:

Post-Election Opinion: ‘We Can’t Allow Ourselves to Be Daunted’

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Naples in Capri

Bay of Naples with Castel dell'Ovo and Vesuvius

Bay of Naples with Castel dell’Ovo backgrounded by Vesuvius

It’s August in Naples. This fascinating city is a little too hot for my taste, but the food is delicious as always and the traffic is a little lighter, as it is also in New York, because so many have fled the hot streets.

Traffic may be lighter in the city as locals decamp, seeking respite from the urban hustle and bustle, but the traffic has merely migrated with them. In Capri, backed-up cars with impatient drivers honk their horns to little avail. They jam narrow streets and lanes meant for a quieter and slower way of life, for pedestrians, mules and the occasional horse-drawn cart.

The striking change in scenery, however, is restorative, and a dip in the water close by, exhilarating — if you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot.

I wrote the rest of this post last February, after a death in the family drew us to Naples for an unexpected sojourn. I found it languishing in the drafts pile.

It was time to go home. Elvira came to the hotel to say good-bye. We had breakfast, enjoying each other’s company for the third time in four days, We hadn’t seen each other in years, but there are bonds that distance doesn’t daunt.

Castel dell'Ovo and its little port at Santa Lucia

Castel dell’Ovo and its little port in Santa Lucia

Elvira accompanied us part way to the airport. She left us at Santa Lucia, one of the most sublime and photographed spots in Naples. It the site of a tiny port nestled in the embrace of a 15th-century castle.

The taxi driver, jovial and outgoing, joined the party when the conversation turned to soccer, the Neapolitan passion. When asked which team he roots for, the driver was somewhat taken aback.”Napoli, of course.”

The entire city was ecstatic. Naples had scored a 5-1 victory in the last game, rising to first-place standing. There wasn’t a conversation that didn’t quickly turn to that fabulous game and the possibility of winning the championship. My husband volunteered that his team is Juve, nickname for Naples’s arch rival. “And I thought you were such a good guy,” said Luigi, the driver. “I never imagined that you could be Juventino.”

A little more back-and-forth, until Sal admitted he could never be anything but a fan of Napoli.

“Good thing. I was about to drop you off right here,” said Luigi. He regaled us with tales about his adventures as a taxi driver until we reached the airport.

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Special Black Cat

Zulu

Yesterday was National Black Cat Appreciation Day. I’m a little late to the party because my life is complicated, but I don’t want the occasion to go unmarked. My Zulú is too dear.

He’s home with a crippled sitter. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but three days before our departure, the cat sitter skyped from Norway to say that she’d suffered a bad sprain and a fracture on her ankle and was now on crutches. And what did I want to do? Well, since she doesn’t have to walk the cats as she would if I had dogs instead, and since we had to leave, I asked her to come anyway. So she requested a wheelchair from the airline, hobbled in and slept in the living room the night before we left. We found out she’s a vegetarian of the pescetarian variety and also has an extreme aversion to gluten, so feeding her was a little knotty. But she’s very good natured and we’re all good sports, so that seems to be working.

I’m writing this from the airport, filling in three unexpected hours as our plane was late and we missed the connection by minutes. Traveling today is not for the faint-hearted.

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One of life’s great joys

Today I spent a wonderful afternoon with the daughter of a close friend.AmyFishing

I lost Rona 10 years ago to cancer. She was generous, creative, loving — a truly special person. The pain of losing her is still acute. But when I see Amy flourishing — how beautiful she is, inside and out, how wise and warm, I think of how proud her mother would be.

I also feel a great loss: Rona didn’t watch Amy evolve from an insecure young girl to a confident, successful professional. Amy’s loss is of course even greater than mine, a vacuum that can’t ever be filled.

 

I’m thankful that Amy and I are friends and that we can laugh and cry together over our shared memories.

 

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My brother-in-love

Lauro90Tuesday night Sal called Lauro from India. They joked and laughed. Lauro had seen the cardiologist that afternoon. The doctor had given him the go-ahead to go to Capri the next day. He pronounced Lauro in fine health.

Sal and his brother are closer than any two people I have ever known. They were born in Capri, Italy, and now Lauro lives in Naples and we live in New York. They would speak on the phone every day, and saw each other several times a year. The last time was in January for Lauro’s 90th birthday.

[Annamaria, Lauro’s wife; Giovanni and Olimpia, his children]

Wednesday morning Lauro called to Annamaria from bed, took her hand, squeezed it and expired.

Sal received the call from Giovanni while we were on a bus from Agra to Jaipur. Sal was beside himself, so much so that I feared for him. I made him breathe deeply and he briefly stopped shaking and jerking involuntarily. Some hours later, we left the hotel in Jaipur at 2 a.m. Thursday morning, the best we could do.

The trip was long and stressful: Jaipur to Abu Dhabi to Rome to Naples by Thursday evening. Continue reading

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VBI scooped the New York Times

Sha1993_smog_wkpd

Shanghai smog, 1993

Big Oil’s long history with climate change,” posted September 19 on this blog, asserted that “Exxon Mobil has known for almost 40 years that fossil fuels pose a lethal threat to Earth and all its inhabitants.”

Exxon’s Climate Concealment” was published today in the NY Times. The article deals with the same scandalous campaign of deceit, disinformation and denial by Exxon and other industry leaders that climate change is real and caused by burning fossil fuels. The Times clearly used the same source as VBI did, Inside Climate News, a nonprofit news organization with a Pulitzer-Prize-winning web-site, because the two articles are substantially the same.

Despite the satisfaction of “scooping” the Times by three weeks, I’m glad they eventually deemed the story worthy of publication. Their readership is (obviously) orders of magnitude greater than VBI’s, and the story is important. (No) thanks to Exxon we have wasted too much precious time trying to clean up their mess and switching to alternate forms of non-polluting energy. But petrodollars talk — very loudly — and there still remains a steep uphill climb to counteract Big Oil’s propaganda.

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Cuban Nostalgia, cont.

Past meets present

Past meets present in Havana

Just a few weeks ago, I posted some of my memories of Cuba. The YouShareProject picked it up, wanted to publish it, and I added to it. You can read Cuba’s Siren Song Still Beckons, most likely the first of similar recollections.

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A day in the life …

whirringMachineThe day began at 6:30 when I woke up and mentally scanned my to-do list.

6:45 – Out of bed. Routine morning chores. Husband ready to go since yesterday, but visibly anxious as he always is before a trip “home” to Italy. After all these years, I still haven’t devised a foolproof way to calm him down. I was organizing, collecting and packing my things, personal and work-related. Not a fast or simple task for an obsessive, even for a short getaway.

9:30 – rushed out to an interview – only to find the subway delayed and even the bus pulling away as I was crossing the street. It had to be a taxi. I hadn’t found time to go to the bank, so there went my last $10. And the ride was not without frustration, as the driver had to navigate through traffic choked by double-parked trucks on both sides of the street.

11:00 – Back home 30 minutes before husband’s desired departure time. He tried not to fret while I collected the remaining odds and ends.

11:45 – The bags and the cats were ready to be loaded into the car, but a UPS van blocked the entrance, illegally parked cars lined the street and double-parked delivery trucks bottlenecked the traffic into one barely moving lane. The various bags and the cats had to skirt the moving cars as they were ferried across the street and into the car. Realizing that despite my precautions I had left something crucial behind, I had to go back upstairs. I returned to find my husband on the next street with an expression that did not bode well.  Not only had he forgotten to take his reading glasses, but an inpatient truck had slashed the car’s bumper.

The trip to the airport was blessedly uneventful. Husband arrived two hours before flight time, but inclement weather delayed the flight for almost 3 hours while he was sitting on the plane.  Why is it that a few drops of rain can snaggle a great city like New York?

1:30 – Back on the road. Obsessives wear suspenders, but they also wear a belt, just in case. I set up two GPS devices to guide me through the maze at JFK and onto an unfamiliar route.

3:00 – I found my serpentine way to a Costco on the other side of the highway.  I went mainly for peaches, as they were so good last week, but today I bought blueberries instead, because the peaches had no fragrance. After reaching for the cream, I turned around to find my shopping cart was gone. Back for more yogurt and more blueberries, but that was all I could carry. Finding the car in a huge and unfamiliar lot was a little tricky, because I had wandered in and out and up and down looking for a shady spot for the cats, and had only an approximate idea of where I’d left them. I was concerned not to leave them waiting for me too long in the oppressive heat.

4:00 – Home at last and thankfully, off the perpetually spinning machine. Everybody gratefully stretched their legs. A new set of chores and then finally, some downtime.

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Retirement for better or for worse

Dream: Retire and Relax

Dream: Retire and Relax

How do you adjust when your partner retires and you continue to work? How do you adapt when your life has followed pretty much the same routine for over 45 years and the pattern changes abruptly? When you’ve had to tiptoe around and silence the phone, not to mention keeping the kids quiet while they were home, for fear of waking him, when he had only five hours or less to sleep before going back to work? Leaving parties early or missing them altogether because on Friday and Saturday nights he struggled, usually in vain, to stay awake? (Now he’s up till 1:00, no problem.) He was always home for our early dinners, and always absent for breakfast — his workday still less than halfway through at that hour.

The children and I had to adapt our lives to his schedule. We all knew the drill.

Flash forward. Suddenly, with little warning, he’s home all day. The children are gone and I work at home. I try to work, but it’s not easy when I am constantly interrupted. He can make pizza rustica with his eyes closed and in his sleep, a marinara sauce that makes me swoon, but what I think of as routine tasks on the computer, not so much. I hear my name called a lot. I want to be patient, because I know this transition is much more difficult for him than it is for me.

There are also definite upsides: he’s a marvelous cook who knows how to please everyone. That part is very nice. It means that I can work longer while he is busy in the kitchen. And we eat so well! I am always misplacing things, and he either knows where they are or is much better at locating them than I am. I have company. I don’t wake up alone. He found the picture for this post. Now we can explore the city, doing all the things we could never do before because of his work routine. We can travel more.

It also means he expects to have breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times, every day, and I’m not used to that. When I’m on deadline, I work furiously until either the hunger pangs begin to distract me in the afternoon, or it’s time to work out.

He was very low, even depressed. But now, three weeks in, things are looking up. I have accepted and understood why he continues to go into the office once a week. You can’t hurtle forward for 66 years and then stop on a dime. A lot of stuff accumulated during that time, and now he is going through old photographs and documents and mementos that have special meanings.

All in all, a work in progress. Some back and forth, but mostly forward.

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Cuban nostalgia

I want to go back to Cuba. “Nostalgia” in Greek is literally “an aching for a return home.”

DCP_1055I have been exiled for all of my adult life from the place where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. I lost my grandmother, my cousins and my indulgent aunts — half my family was snatched away. And my loss was minuscule next to that of my friends.

The “lucky” ones were sent by their parents to the U.S. as children to escape indoctrination and hardship. Some of these “Peter Pan” kids were sent to relatives, but others to institutions, because there was no one to care for them.

HavanaDecay Now the gates that had been slammed so tightly shut are beginning to reopen. And yet, I will return with trepidation rather than eager anticipation, for I will not see my grandmother or my aunts; I will not be able to return to the place I knew. You really can’t go home again, even though some aspects of Cuban life are in a time warp — the American cars of the 50s, carefully maintained way, way past their lifespan because they were irreplaceable.  There were no new cars to take their place.

Much of Havana is the same. Sort of. The houses and buildings are still standing, but they tend to be ramshackle and ill-cared for. The Spanish colonial façades are familiar and still beautiful, but they barely conceal the decay inside.

Twelve years ago I went back, so I know what to expect. Despite the hardships they have endured, Cubans are irrepressible and spontaneous — they haven’t lost their good humor — it’s what enables them to keep going. They paint and dance, write and sing — the arts cannot be shackled.

Twelve years ago I didn’t want to go back — I didn’t want my cherished memories to be ravaged by the present. Today, I do. I want to see my compatriots hopeful, optimistic, their indomitable spirit allowed at last to fly free.

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Dreaming of Cuba

1955 Chevy on El Malecón in Havana, Cuba, with El Morro Castle

1955 Chevy on El Malecón in Havana, Cuba, with El Morro Castle

When I was growing up, I spent a part of every year in Cuba with my Cuban family. I almost remember — I heard the stories so many times — standing at the railing of my grandmother’s balcony when I was two years old. Pushcarts teeming with fruit and vegetables, others with knives and cutlery, yet others piled high with many-hued fabrics, each vendor hawking his wares with a distinctive cry, kept me pressed against the railing, fascinated by the colors and the sounds. When my grandmother saw something she needed, she’d lower a basket on a rope so that the vendor could fill it with mangoes and papaya or bacalao (salted codfish) or sacks of black beans and rice. Then she would hoist the basket back up, remove the groceries, count out the pesos she owed and send the basket with the money back down to the peddler waiting below.

I remember a Havana that was noisy and garish, rhythmic and musical. At dinnertime it was redolent with the smells of ropa vieja, picadillo, arroz con pollo, tostones, frijoles negros and the like. Bananas grew in the backyard. At 11 in the morning, we had a break at school and ate pastelitos de guayaba, flaky pastries filled with guava paste that I still savor and crave today. I remember the incomparable beaches and the people who loved me.

That was before Fidel’s triumph. During the long decades that followed, my memories persisted, even as the distance between them and harsh reality continued to grow. Today I’m reading Havana Nocturne, T.J. English’s account of the seamy, violent and thoroughly corrupted underbelly of the beautiful city in those halcyon days. Cuba is very much on my mind as it is for many in the wake of the rapprochement between Pres. Obama and Raúl Castro. In the weeks to come I will be reconciling nostalgia and history as this new era unfolds.

Photo by James Seith Photography

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Shrinking tables

FamilyDinnerThis is a great time of year: spring is finally loosening winter’s grip, kids are preparing for spring break, (mostly) women are cooking and shopping in preparation for the annual holiday and the traditional feast.

And yet . . . For some families the holidays have become more nostalgic than joyous. Holiday tables that used to have children that are now parents themselves welcome the next generation — little ones squirming, toddlers on the move, pre-schoolers hiding under the tablecloth; teens texting; middle-schoolers sharing their latest discoveries; adults trying to carry on a conversation; grandmothers pulling everything together; grandfathers pouring wine and helping out wherever needed; indulging aunts, a grouchy uncle — some of these holiday tables are suddenly silent. Where have all the families gone?

The middle generation — parents struggling to spend quality time with their kids while fielding the demands of work and perhaps also caring for an aging parent, not to mention nurturing loving relationships with their spouses — this middle generation is stretched by responsibilities and pulled in many directions at once. Some scatter, enticed by job offers too good to turn down that require relocation to faraway places.

The women, now grandmothers, actually enjoyed the planning and the endless errands and the pre-holiday work overload. They enjoyed the tumult when three and sometimes four generations converged in their homes a few times a year, even though by the end of the evening they couldn’t wait to kick back and put up their feet after the last child had gone.

Years ago we learned that Hallmark cards and Norman Rockwell pictured fantasies that didn’t exist in reality. Still, when the realization hits that the family can no longer be gathered, planning a festive occasion seems futile, too much work for minimal reward.

That’s when friends come in. They are in the same boat and all too happy to join forces to celebrate the holidays in a new way. They forfeit the rough-and-tumble, trading it for adult conversation and shared experiences. Different, but not bad at all.

Photo by Toby Simkin

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Do you love Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, et al.?

AnythingGoesLast night I went to a wonderful show — classical music from Broadway, by which I mean Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lerner & Loewe, Irving Berlin … There are many more, but what’s the use of naming them? Only audiences “of a certain age” not only recognize but love the music created by those names. (I and a few of my friends know all the lyrics and can sing them all.) I often wonder MyFairLady2when I look around me at the audience at the opera or chamber music or even pop standards like those I heard last night, and see only grey and balding heads: What will happen to this music when the greyheads are gone?

Guys&Dolls2Peter Gelb is doing a masterful job of revamping the opera, things like ripping “Rigoletto” from its 16th-century palace setting and plopping it down in a casino in 1950s Las Vegas. I think that is a brilliant move, since the power plays of the debauched nobility differ little from the depravity of 20th-century gangsters. Jealousy, pride and a father’s love aren’t bound to time or place. With novel staging in new productions and free outdoor showings, Gelb may well succeed in enticing new audiences. SouthPacificGreat theater deals with the human condition, and since that doesn’t change from one age to another, the costumes worn by the players in no way alter the themes of love lost and won, jealousy, treachery, death, cleverness, stupidity and so on.

I suspect the musical theater is different. OklahomaThe “younger set” no longer swings to the music of Glenn Miller or Harry James — they don’t need to cling to each other on the dance floor when they can hook up in bed with no effort. Cole Porter’s marvelously witty lyrics no longer resonate.

Every age, of course, has its own passions, styles and crazes. And each age thinks theirs are the best. As they should.

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The Raven’s many colors

Once upon an evening dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over bunches of notes and notebooks and pages from studies of yore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a banging,
As of something sharply whomping, well outside my chamber door.
“’Tis some blasting there,” I muttered, “blowing up my chamber door—
    Must be that and nothing more.”
So I gazed outside my chamber, and this is what I saw:
P1010291
P1010230
Eagerly I kept on watching, watching from my chamber door.
Only that and nothing more.
And the fireworks kept coming, exploding by my chamber door.

P1010177

P1010208

 

 

 

“What could they be?” I wondered as I looked and looked some more.

Finally I went to Google, asking and inquiring wherefore.

 

 

“For the Chinese New Year,” came the answer.

Only that and nothing more.

 

 

Apologies to Edgar Allen Poe

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Tough choices

The world and our lives are so much more complicated now. Do we want our comings and goings tracked by our credit card, MetroCard and E-ZPass? Do we want to be observed and recorded by the innumerable surveillance cameras indoors and in the streets? Do we want our phone calls, e-mails, Facebook postings, Google searches stored on a server, available for retrieval by powerful programs of the NSA, FBI, DoD and other arms of the government? Must we remove our shoes and submit to body searches at the airport? Are these invasions necessary to make us feel safer?

All this personal data collected and analyzed undoubtedly makes apprehending a terrorist after the fact much easier than it would be otherwise, but we don’t know how many plots have been actually been thwarted before they could be executed as a result of the government’s spying on its citizens.

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Locked and loaded

HattiedJohnsonFrnt

Olympic medalist Hattie Johnson

The rifle was heavier than I expected.

I took a deep breath and exhaled, raised the .22 caliber rifle and settled the stock into my shoulder. It was loaded with live ammo. Next, the cheek weld—placing my cheek just so on the stock—the intimacy is undeniable—then guiding the rifle with my cheek in order to line up the sights.

It’s  actually a lot more complicated than that necessarily brief outline. An instructor called shooting the most Zen of all the martial arts, because you have to exert complete control over both mind and body. You have to shut out every extraneous thought and be aware of every muscle and breathe at the right times. You have to know every part of the weapon that becomes one with your body.

What did I feel? Continue reading

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Women with guns

An Iraqi woman practices shooting a weapon under the supervision of International Police Advisor Anna Bailey on a range in Fallujah, Iraq, April 29, 2008.

An Iraqi woman practices shooting a weapon under the supervision of International Police Advisor Anna Bailey on a range in Fallujah, Iraq, April 29, 2008.

I’ve never handled a firearm, much less fired it. I find it hard to believe that women are the fastest-growing demographic among gun-owners in the U.S. That factoid, together with the observation that mass shooters are very rarely women, prompted me to find women with guns. I spoke to women who hunt game, who sports shoot, others who keep a gun nearby for safety and yet others who do it for fun.

That last category intrigued me. I learned about feminine holsters for concealed carry and heard women who fear for the Second Amendment and are licensed for open carry. There are women who don’t leave home unless they are packing.

In a few minutes, I’m leaving for the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range in Chelsea, where I will learn to handle a gun and shoot at targets. I’m going alone and don’t know whether to feel exhilarated or anxious. I did a search for a photo of a woman shooting, and the search engine asked if I meant “women shopping”! It’s time to step up to the plate.

Update: This post was originally titled “Shooting, but not to kill.” I changed the title because it wasn’t accurate.

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I have a dumb phone!

Love my phone

Love my phone!

“My phone is older than my son.  And my son is nine years old!”

I was immersed in my book, but when I heard the ruckus, I lifted my head.

“How do you receive texts?” someone asked.

“I don’t,” she replied. “I have a dumb phone.”

Jennifer Perry had the whole crowd at the hairdresser enthralled. That was the most amazing part— the young women were crowding around Jennifer and jostling for position in order to get a better look at her antique device. Had these women never seen a mobile phone that wasn’t smart?

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