So So Sony

Last night I happened to watch a snippet from the movie Notting Hill. Hugh Grant’s character is courting Julia Roberts, a Hollywood movie star. The scene is a dinner party at his sister’s house. A clueless British stockbroker friend has just asked Roberts what she does for a living…then he continues to deplore the paltry pay his buddies on the stage are making. Oh and by the way, he asks her outright what she makes. Now in no universe could I imagine this question in some party dialogue in a London second. Still, his face is priceless when the ravishing Roberts responds, “15 Million a movie.”

It’s one of those moments when we Americans get to feel superior. And boy do we need to feel superior; our kids are testing below other developed nations, with China leading the pack for instance. And let’s not get started on early education, or supporting working women with affordable child care and sane family leave policies. We wonder why we’re not keeping up, while our legislators quibble and quake to get out of town for the holiday season. We should be so happy they passed a spending bill.

Sorry about the rant, but I’m not plugged into the news here in Nashville.

And at first I thought this must be a mistake. I’d heard about the Sony email hacking incident, and felt vaguely sorry for the female exec who wrote that another movie star, Angelina Jolie, was “…seriously out of her mind.” Honestly, wouldn’t you be out of your mind and body probably if you had that many kids? But calling her a “spoiled brat,” now that’s just mean. And then another Sony exec reports that no, “We have not caved, we have not backed down,” as he tries to explain why they are NOT releasing a new comedy, The Interview, on Christmas Day. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-30528772

But they are caving into terrorism. North Korea is right to be worried about this little comedy, because art shines its light on everything, including the ridiculous regime of its Supreme Leader. And today, even if the studio doesn’t release the movie, we all know that hackers will release it online, for free, and eventually folks, even the people of North Korea may just be able to see Seth Rogan making fun of their government. Hey, Seth, how about writing a screenplay about our government? You know, how money runs everything, and our low voter turnout, and Detroit, and #BlackLivesMatter, and oh wait. I agree, it’s hard to make fun of the truth. Just try to consider turning that Rolling Stone UVA rape article into a satire for film – see. Better to keep making rom/coms and action movies.

And thank God for Disney. Cause I’ve been getting up close and personal with Frozen this week. And I am really, really enamored of Olaf. IMG_1902

Origins Porrigins

The other day I was being escorted to my car with a cart filled with bags of groceries, when the well meaning young man asked me if I had anything fun planned for the evening. Take note Northeners – here in the South, grocery clerks don’t even ask if you might need help out to your car. They just commandeer it.

Instead of fluffing him off, I said, “Yes, it’s the first night of Chanukka, do you even know what that is?” He smiled and said that he did, something about oil, right?

Leave it to my brother Eric to send me the real origin story of of this minor level Jewish Holiday that has scant hope of ever living up to Christmas.

A camel walks into a bar. I know, y’all thought it has something to do with a grand fight, the Maccabee brothers take on the holy Roman Empire. But according to this, the first time Chanukka is ever mentioned is in a Jewish law text, tort law no less. Back then, the rabbis were the chief judges and executioners of the land. And they made a distinction about fire damage claims in this Mishna:

If a camel knocks over a lamp, causing a fire, the rabbis say the camel driver is responsible if the lamp is indoors; but if the lamp is outside a shop, the shopkeeper is liable. Rabbi Jehudah provides an exception to this rule: The shopkeeper isn’t liable if the lamp is a “Hanukkah lamp.”

Some 250 years after the Maccabean Revolt, the rabbis explain why the menorah is lit, and it has more to do with a rededication of the Second Temple. Josephus first called the festival “Lights.” But in fact, like all traditions, it most likely originated with a newly monotheistic people trying to accommodate pagan rituals; “The more likely explanation is that Jewish households adopted the practice from pagan ritual, following which the authorities gave the practice a “Jewish explanation” after the fact. The Zoroastrians of Persia for instance marked the Winter Solstice with a festival of fire, called Chaharshanbe Suri, which predated Hanukkah and fell at about the same time of year.”

So thank you Iran! And that explains why we have so many damn lights all over everything at Christmas! And thank you Rabbis, for wanting to emphasize a victory for our people, when so many times we suffered defeats like Masada.

The Groom said last night, “I Like Chanukka!” After all, you get to eat anything fried in oil right! And the Bride said guess what, “We’ve got six more nights to go!” But of course I had to remind that grocery clerk of the Adam Sandler movie, and the eight “crazy” nights, when he thought it lasted “…like a month or something.”

Still, I wonder why some people spell it with a “C” and some with an “H?” What do you want for Chanukka? IMG_1880


We all have a comfort level, a sweet spot between chaos and control where we find we can do our best work. My desk and my kitchen, my workspaces, may not look organized, but somehow I know where everything is, that is unless someone else was helping me with the dishes.

You probably know that the Bride is pretty well organized. As a teen she had all her college applications figured out and filed before I even got a chance to talk with her about the process. The Rocker takes after me, with a little Type A from his Dad just to sweeten the mix. As a teen he could leave a glass of milk next to his bed until it became a culture medium for the latest bacteria, but his desk was always spotless.

And I just assumed that opposites attract; that marriage was a Darwinian reality show. Most of the couples we know would attest to that narrative, she or he is the messy/creative one while the other is the opposite. But in the Bride’s case, she married someone even more organized than she is; and I realized this when I watched the Groom organize their front hall closet.

Coats and hats and scarves went flying into three piles. Those to keep, give away, or store someplace else – like a snowsuit that might be used should they end up skiing again in the South…or maybe they’d take a ski vacation out West? I was impressed, I was wishing he’d come to my house. But alas, his paternity leave came to an end, so he returned to the complicated diagnostic world of internal medicine.

I remember the first time I couldn’t find a toy when my kiddos were little. After some hemming and hawing, Bob finally admitted that when I took the children on a trip to visit Grandma Ada, he would “clean up.” Which meant he’d enter the family room and throw toys away! Imagine. He actually jettisoned a vintage Barbie doll with clothes in a its original case from Aunt Becky! http://www.vintagebarbies.net/vintagebarbievalues.htm I was incensed, I was mortified.

Today, he tackles the pantry on my trips to Nashville, with my full approval. It’s fine since stink bugs tend to love open boxes of pasta.

Still, the last time I left my Nashville family of four I gave them a piece of my mind/advice…and believe me, I don’t like to give advice unless I’m directly asked for it. “You have TWO children now,” I said, “keeping the house organized need not be a priority!” They smiled, I think they listened. Then I told them what Grandma Ada told me a long time ago,

“Cleaning up with a toddler in the house is like shoveling snow during a snowstorm.”

January’s Real Simple magazine has a good story on this very dilemma; “Dear Real Simple I’m a Control Freak Please Help!” by Virginia Sole-Smith. It’s not online yet but here is the writer’s website http://virginiasolesmith.com/portfolio/ – it’s a great take on how to live with your opposite type, not for the Bride and Groom I’m afraid – perfectionist meet the opposite of an organizational addict.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll peruse Pinterest and gaze longingly at their organizational sites. Now why didn’t I think of this? Hang your shelves upside down! enhanced-buzz-2561-1380825861-20

A Crossroad

Did you ever see the 1998 movie “Sliding Doors” with Gweneth Paltrow? If not, it might be a good one to watch over the holidays with your family. It’s about the choices we make in life, and the outcomes. Gweneth lives parallel lives that change according to one small decision she makes; will she catch that train?

The Flapper met my Father while waiting for a tram in Scranton, PA. She was at that train stop every morning outside his drugstore and he would watch her from the big store window while waiting on customers. Whatever made him chase after that tram one day, and introduce himself, we’ll never know. Was it the way she smoked a cigarette? The way she brushed her platinum hair out of her eyes? It was 1933, and she was quite a dame.

After our Father died in our Year of Living Dangerously, around 1955, the Flapper was able to walk again and she wanted to pick up and move to Rockaway, NJ so she could be close to me. We’d live near each other, and I’d get to know my brothers and sister. And my real, biological Mother. But she needed a job.

She met Eugene Ginsburg who owned Rockaway Sales through an ad in the newspaper. He had started this prequel to a Big Box Store long before anybody had ever heard of a Best Buy. He was selling mostly hunting and fishing, camping and outdoor gear. This part of Morris County was still considered rural. And he needed a book keeper. My Mother needed a job and so she told him she knew how to keep accounts, which she didn’t. But he gave her the job and his lovely wife, Hope, taught her how to do it.

Eventually she told Mr Ginsberg that he should start selling toys! Because at Christmas people would want to buy toys for their children – and so the store morphed into a mix of Gander meets Toys R Us. Then the Flapper caught the eye of the store’s attorney, and they married and I moved into their house in Dover, NJ; gaining a step brother and sister to boot! I convinced the Flapper that I just had to go to public school, so long Sacred Heart.

Hello Dover Senior High School. If the Flapper didn’t meet the attorney, my stepfather, I would have probably been raised in Rockaway, the next town over and never met my husband Bob. Or what if she didn’t move to NJ, if she insisted I move back to PA? There were so many crossroads in my early life.

And meeting Eugene Ginsberg that day, having the chutzpah to tell him she could do something when she knew nothing about book keeping, well that was another train steering our lives in a certain direction. Gene became a life-long friend of our combined families, and my heart goes out to his family today.

He lived a courageous and exemplary life. One in which he helped so many people without public acclaim. He was humble and truly the kindest, sweetest 93 year old in the whole world. He had a twinkle in his eye at Ada’s birthday party, but I will always remember the dashing young, business man who traveled the world and gave my Mother a chance to build a life with me. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/dailyrecord/obituary.aspx?n=eugene-ginsberg&pid=173441912& IMG_0963

Vim and Vigor

The conference call converged via my iPhone this weekend. Three siblings in three different states all talking at once or in turn, about their lives, their loves, and even their memories. Because I happened to grow up an “only child,” I treasure these calls.

Dr Jim, my psychologist brother, told me to look up a fellow Minnesotan on a TED talk, and so I did. Kay had been reading a book about dying and the health industry’s push to prolong life even when tethered to tubes and machines. And Bob had been reading, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, about crematoriums. Jim thought we needed some positive messages about aging.

Enter Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones. Here is a guy from MN who decided to study the pockets around the world where people just happen to live to a vital old age of 100+. He calls this topography, which happens to be almost exclusively on mountainsides (remember this when he talks about not exercising), Blue Zones.

Sardinia, Italy, that has 20 times as many 100-year-olds as the U.S. does, proportionally. In Okinawa, Japan, we found people with the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. In the Blue Zones (Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica), people live 10 years longer, experience a sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease and a fifth the rate of major cancers.

So not only are people living longer, they are living to a healthier old age. And what do they have in common? Well you’ll have to view his TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100?language=en
or read this article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-buettner/how-to-live-to-100—nine_b_94972.html but here is my take away.

We have become less connected to family and friends than any other generation. We may think we stay plugged in only because of texts, email, social media and blog posts. But that’s not the same as actually being connected. The communities Buettner studied are semi-isolated, the centenarians have friends they have kept since they were toddlers. They belong to the same tribe. And they all have a reason to get up in the morning.

I could relate to a Great Great Great Grandmother, who said her reason is holding her latest Great Great Great Grand Daughter, that it’s like “Leaping into Heaven!” Now this is my kind of old age, staying vital and leading a meaningful life. Not being medicated into oblivion in an old folk’s home.

It will be interesting to see if our generation takes a different tack as we age. Will we age in the same way our parents did before us, become snow birds? Will we line up to enter the latest continuing care community? Or will we drink red wine and walk everywhere while still fishing for our family?

A friend of mine is taking a giant leap and moving across country to San Diego so she can walk one block to the ocean and sail a boat. She’s living each day as if it were her last. We helped kickstart a cultural revolution when we were young, maybe it’s time we started another.

Great Gma Ada and the Love Bug

Great Gma Ada and the Love Bug


Yesterday I attended a writing seminar on the art of the memoir. Putting one’s family on the page can be a daunting task, and yet it seems I’ve been doing this my whole life. It started when I was a young wife, and found myself alone on a mountain with a baby girl. From that first published piece in the Berkshire Eagle, “Guns in the Woods,” writing has been my salvation, a revelation of sorts.

Don’t bother trying to Google it. The Bride was probably around The Love Bug’s age, a toddler in a time before the Internet. We lived such a simple life when I look back. The memoir instructor asked us to draw a map, but I was puzzled. Where was home for me? Home. It’s not so much a place, as it is a feeling. Maybe because I was never quite at home with my foster parents, always traveling back to the Flapper in Scranton.

One house alive with brothers and a sister and ideas! Another house solemn, asleep and afraid of the dark.

Another early Eagle essay described what the Flapper must have felt when she learned we were at war. I had asked her once how she found out about Pearl Harbor on December 7th in 1941. She told me she was pregnant with my brother Jimmy (Dr Jim), and she was listening to the radio on a stool at the ice cream fountain in my Father’s drug store with her stockings rolled down around her ankles. I always loved these details. Details are the building blocks of a writer’s life.

By writing, I could somehow paint a picture of that scene in the drug store.

I wish I too could have read those comic books after school at my Father’s store. I wish I could have helped him compound medicine in the back room. I wish I could have climbed up on his lap while he was reading the newspaper.

But my life, my memories of Victory Gardens are different. Being stung by a bee on the foot, underneath Nell’s clothesline. Riding down the hill in Daddy Jim’s car to Mass, and then on to Zanelli’s for a Rocky Road sundae. The dreaded tick tock of a grandfather clock in the hall. I was too young to remember that Year of Living Dangerously.

Maybe I write to reclaim it. IMG_1849

There is only one area of my life where I exhibit OCD tendencies. My kitchen table is semi-covered with a cloth (so the cat wouldn’t slip off) and miscellaneous notes and magazines. My study is a study in my “file by pile” method. But when it comes to books, once I find an author I love, I’ll stick with her/him and find everything they ever wrote. Which is how I came to read Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/16/AR2006031601632.html

I loved Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. But in this story she has entered a new realm. I’ve always wanted to have faith, to believe that everything has been planned for us and all we have to do is pray. But my early lapse from a severe Catholic upbringing, coupled with a conversion to Judaism so my children would be raised in a faith, has left me adrift in a spiritual mumbo jumbo, a limbo of grace deferred. So it was a rare pleasure to lose my doubting/Thomas/self in a young minister’s life.

I’d recommend this book particularly at this time of year. It’s about loss, and fathers and daughters, and so much more. It’s about a marriage that was probably a mistake, a New England community filled with gossip and judgement. The protagonist preacher, Tyler, thinks about what Catholic saints and German Protestant ministers jailed during the Holocaust would do in certain situations. He is suffering because his wife has died.

One of my favorite Buddhists is Pema Chodron. She shares her breathing contemplation/meditation to relieve that little sense of discontent we all experience from time to time. Suffering is inevitable, “Everybody dies” as Bob likes to remind me. Pema tells us to take six deep breaths and open our hearts to the pain, even the everyday disappointments:

“When you breathe in, you can recognize that all over the world — right now and in the past and in the future — people are going to feel exactly what you’re feeling now. A feeling of being rejected. The feeling of being unloved. The feeling of insecurity. The feeling of fear. Rage.” Chödrön says. “Human beings have always felt this and always will. And so you breathe in for everyone that they could welcome it, that they could say, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ Embrace it.”


Pema calls this practice “Compassionate Abiding.” We accept our fear, our pain, our feelings and we learn to incorporate them, not to resist, in order to forge our spirit. What a beautiful concept, this is, in a way, prayer. It’s saying the rosary after confessing your sins; but without the beads and the dark priest’s closet. And the shame. It’s forgiving yourself.

When everyone around you seems to be in the “spirit” of the holidays, and you find yourself feeling blue, take a few moments to breathe, and abide within the feeling. IMG_1764


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