St. Patrick’s Pandemic

For the first time in the 82 years since the maternity nurses at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital convinced my parents it would be almost unpatriotic to give their newborn daughter any other name when the huge annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade was marching down Fifth Avenue, my birthday took place in a truly surreal time.

(I have always been grateful to those New York nurses, not to mention St. Patrick, even though an DNA Ethnicity Estimate a few years ago indicated I am just five percent Irish.  The rest of me is pretty evenly distributed between Great Britain and Italy.)

The thing about having a name and a birthday like mine makes it hard for friends and relatives to forget it once the day arrives and one way or another mention of St. Patrick gets made. This year’s news mentions tended to be limited to parades cancelled and bars and restaurants shut down. So again this year, and especially this year, hunkered down in my small apartment where public health authorities recommend older persons with medical conditions sequester themselves, I spent the day talking on the phone, answering texts and email, never changing from the scruffy old sweatpants and shirt I throw on to pick up the newspapers each morning.

Any plans for celebrating my birthday changed from day to day as COVID-19 news grew more frightening with the numbers of those infected steadily growing along with deaths. And as we learned more about this brand-new, never-before-experienced virus, with no advanced warning symptoms, some of us began to realize we could already be infected.  At first, I told my Los Angeles daughter that I really didn’t feel like going out to a restaurant or inviting other friends to join us that evening, but it turned out by the time of the 17th, many restaurants here were not serving diners at tables anyhow. She was disappointed and offered to look into nearby restaurants offering take-out meals that she and her husband could bring to my apartment.

That morning, lying in bed I re-played in my mind video she had shown of her husband playing with his new grandkids, delighted laughter of all serving as soundtrack. No, they can’t come here, I thought. I could be a carrier, especially as I’d spent the afternoon before at the DMV renewing my drivers license. I sent a text, but she insisted she had things to deliver. She would alert me from the elevator and hang a bag on my door. I was talking on the phone when a soft knock and the sound of the birthday song from a mobile phone sent me to open the door. My daughter and son-in-law stood  the required four feet back, smiling and wishing me greetings. Thank you, I said, now go home.

In the bag she’d brought were a few grocery items I’d mentioned and four packages of Hostess cupcakes that she, who doesn’t eat chocolate, had searched for. The cupcakes, especially the coconut covered Sno-Balls® are a junk-food tradition for my birthday. On the east coast the coconut is frequently green for St. Patrick’s Day, but here the best she could find was pink. I assured her later when I called thanks, pink is the new green.

Even my birthday cakes are downsizing!

B'day Cake 1.jpg

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Time to Woman Up

Okay, enough of this nonsense. I’ve allowed the current frightening times to scare me from speaking out. When two friends on opposite sides of the country wrote within two days wondering why this website has been even more than usual devoid of blogging activity, I guess I can’t continue to describe it as a site that nobody looks at. There’s two anyway.

Knowing my inclination toward news addiction, particularly political and particularly now, they rightly assumed I’d been riveted to TV coverage of November’s House Impeachment hearings and the subsequent swift Senate trial of the president, with its disappointing results, perhaps my two web followers hoped I’d have a properly snarky comment designed to lighten the ensuing horror. I’m sorry, can’t do snarky right now.

The morning after the Senate vote when only one brave Republican dared to honor the oath each member took at the proceeding’s outset – let’s hear it for Mitt Romney’s conscience and vow to cut him some slack on that hopefully now abandoned practice of driving with his dog in a crate atop his car – I stumbled downstairs to retrieve my newspaper in a masochistic urge to relive it all. A fellow tenant, a man in my demographic age-wise as well as political leaning, asked, “How are you this morning?” and I knew he wasn’t inquiring about my health. Shaking my head morosely, I answered, “Sad. I am so very sad for my country. And fearful.”

I went on to tell my neighbor that the only telegram Ed and I ever sent to the White House in more than half a century of marriage and shared daily consumption of the news, was in response to the Nixon Administration’s Saturday Night Massacre. I remember feeling proud and patriotic, and perfectly safe, knowing it was our Constitutional right to do so. Now, signing petitions, placing phone calls and demonstrating to express my opinions, I do it with a degree of trepidation: Am I opening myself up to being tracked? Harassed by people who disagree with me? Getting on a list of some kind?

A guest on Rachel Maddow’s program recently quoted another person who said this feels like Germany in 1939. I’ve always wondered how Hitler and Nazism happened in that advanced and richly cultured country, and yet in recent times it’s become more apparent. When friends ask how I can stand following the news, so much of it unpleasant, any answer I can give about our nation and history sounds priggish and certainly not conducive to continuing conversation.

I replied to my two web followers that every night I climb in bed, my mind buzzing with ideas and a determination to blog about them. But in the morning in front of the computer, I chicken out. And curse the situation that makes me afraid.











Collection of Mugs in Search of a Purpose


What would you do with more than 150 coffee mugs, each emblazoned with a design representing a museum or cultural attraction? If you’d always wanted to open a café that would give you immediate cachét. “Let’s meet at that cool place with museum mugs,” people would say. And possibly, provide a name for your establishment: Café Cachét. Perhaps even a slogan: “Where culture vultures never run out of inspiration.” With an image of a vulture? Nah. That would be seen as overkill, pardon the pun.

My daughters, in their continuing effort to help prepare for the ultimate downsizing of their mother’s stuff, thought I might enjoy learning eBay. Selling on eBay, that is, not the purchasing side of the online auction site. I’ve already experienced so-called “estate sales” on both coasts. For the first one in a very large wreck of a house we’d occupied for 30 years in New Jersey, we were blessed with a contingent of friends who helped. Still painful, so much so that when it came time to empty a more moderate-sized house – though still jammed full – in California, I opted for an estate-sale service that would take those things they considered saleable to one of their two resale locations, extract a hefty commission and send an accounting with a check. That was somewhat less painful, though their accounting reports got very short shrift before being shoved into a file drawer. Again painful.

Trouble is, we liked our stuff. And we were collectors. Once you acquire more than one of a thing it becomes a collection. And before long, an obsession. Not an out-of-control obsession, you understand, just something interesting to do at the many business conferences we were required to attend. If the locale was at all conducive to it, organizers of business conferences almost always included time in the schedule for golf .  Not being golfers either of us, we chose to use that time for sightseeing and especially, prowling museums.

And here is how the mug collection came about. Heading toward the exit after an afternoon of art appreciation and perhaps a pleasant lunch, the conversation might go like this:

 “Should we stop in the gift shop?”

 “Oh, I don’t know, what would we want? The luggage is already heavy.”

“We could always buy a mug.”

Before long, “We could always buy a mug” became “Let’s see if they have mugs.”

And so it begins.

I told one of the daughters my contention is you can’t call it hoarding if it’s part of a collection and properly displayed. And these mugs, never used, were displayed on specially built shelves in the guest room where we assured overnight company they should not worry about waking under a blanket of crockery.

Friends have suggested alternatives to this method of selective downsizing, but my daughters and I think this is worth a try. Who knows? Perhaps there’s a café about to open up with empty walls crying out for décor that is unique — and utilitarian. I picture diners selecting their favorites to take to their tables, much like old-time barber shops kept their clients’ shaving mugs on display.

The first part of the collection goes up for auction on this evening, 10/17. Check it out.




On Columbus Day, Things My Italian Relatives Never Told Me

Even after nine decades of life as an American, I can find new details about history — even history with particular personal resonance. Until reading in yesterday’s New York Times opinion pages Brent Staples’ piece titled “How Italians Became ‘White,’” I had no idea of the extent of depravity and racist violence inflicted upon Southern Italian immigrants in the early years of the last century. I knew there had been discrimination, but I thought of it in terms of slights or shunning – or struggles for employment or embarrassment about mob bosses – not being hanged alongside African Americans for the sin of skin that might have been somewhat darker. My Southern Italian relatives never told me about that.

Staples notes that “a white, Protestant and homogeneous America” was what Congress had in mind when it declared in 1790 that only “free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States were eligible to become naturalized citizens.” His article continued, “The calculus of racism underwent swift revision when waves of culturally diverse immigrants from the far corners of Europe changed the face of the country.” Staples cites historian Matthew Frye Jacobson’s immigrant history “Whiteness of a Different Color” in noting, “the surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view of how whiteness was to be allocated.” Sound familiar, does it?

In my as-yet-if-ever-to-be-published book, In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey, the letters my mother (family name Miele) wrote  home from an extraordinary year as an art student in France are interspersed with descriptions of the struggles and successes of her immigrant family striving through the Depression years and beyond.  As a second generation Italian-American, I was perplexed by the absence of empathy toward others enduring somewhat similar indignities. Riding in the car with two aunts on a shopping excursion, I saw one turn to the other and gesture toward me in the back seat. “You know,” the one said, “She thinks black people are the same as white people.”  The other, the driver, replied, “That’s because she went to college.” I wish I’d known at the time to mention the lynchings.

Not long ago, my brother, visiting from the east, chatted with a diverse group of my Los Angeles neighbors. He told them about our Italian grandparents and the discrimination that existed on the East Coast when they started out. “Oh no, not Italians,” the neighbor said, implying my brother didn’t know what he was talking about, that no Italian-Americans ever suffered any hardships ever. Always the conciliator, I quickly interjected, “That’s because the Italians who came to California, established vast wineries and giant banks, and became leading citizens. Not everyone on the east coast was able to accomplish that, given the competition. But they managed to educate their children and assure their success, while becoming stalwart members of their communities.”

I am as proud of my immigrant ancestors whose names are now etched on the wall at Ellis Island as I am of the Revolutionary War surgeon and Midwestern homesteaders in my family tree. They and all their descendants have played important roles in making this nation worth preserving.

Real Drivers Required!

A Saturday morning jolt: Stumbled back upstairs with the newspapers, poured coffee and sat as the New York Times business section fell into my lap. Oh my gosh, a story about a couple in Florida asphyxiated when their keyless car did not turn itself off. That’s the car I lightly, almost jokingly, wrote about on my personal blog last February, describing a harrowing 65-mile drive in a Colorado snowstorm with a push-button rental car. Same car, same model. The Times article says that older drivers especially, forget to turn the ignition off. How is it done? Instructions for starting the engine without a key were printed on the dashboard but not for stopping it. I’m an older driver, and that evening in the motel parking lot, I was disturbed to walk away from a still-running car and sought help from the young desk clerk.  He walked outside to look just as the car shut itself down. “Oh, that’s one of those cars that gives you enough time to get into your building,” he said. The following day I sought instruction from another young man at a car wash on how the various buttons work. “Sure,” he said. “I have the same car.”

Judging from comments by the few friends who read my sporadic postings, many people are confronted by new cars whose bells and whistles leave them flummoxed.

I began to think I was among the few drivers left whose car at home needed my intervention for all sorts of actions. I had titled that February post “Bring on Self-Drivers,” but had been thinking better of it in light of increased news coverage about horrendous mishaps like this one with the unfortunate Florida couple who bought a car they believed was safe. I also recently heard of a car that drove itself under a semi-truck to devastating destruction, its computer works having mis-calculated the space available.

When I contemplate roadways filled with self-driving cars, the picture that comes to mind is an amusement park attraction. Bumper cars without drivers, moving about haphazardly.

No, these times are haphazard enough. People — and real drivers — are required.



The 2020 Campaign. At Last!


It’s barely just begun, but are you enjoying the 2020 Presidential Campaign as much as I am? Or are you not a fellow political junkie? Trust me, there’s good stuff there: Two nights of Democratic debates with a total of 20 candidates, any one of whom I would find preferable to the current situation. And there are even a few more who didn’t make the cut first time but could still do so. Smart, articulate, brimming with ideas; as a bench, all give me hope.

Along with politics, I am also a language enthusiast. I enjoy the words being added to the lexicon during the campaign. We already were aware of “mansplaining,” which any woman alive in the last hundred years could recognize immediately, but after last night’s second televised event – more raucous than the first rather polite offering – we met “manterrupting.” Again, instantly recognizable.

I have been mulling over whether there could be similar terms for what older people encounter. In a conversation a while back with an adult person I know, an adult but not one as old as I – who is? – I remarked that increasingly I find myself being interrupted in mixed-age group conversations as if what I’m trying to add has so little consequence that it doesn’t warrant slowing down the rest of the conversation. “When did I get so boring?” I wondered. “Yes,” she said. “I know what you mean. And how about when entire conversations go by around you as if you weren’t there?”

Did we do that to older people in the past? Were we that rude? There needs to be a term for that. “Elderterrupt” perhaps or “elderignore.” No wonder elders tend to cluster together instead of mixing in with all ages.

Everyone needs to emulate one individual I see on the news frequently who refuses to be interrupted: “Excuse me, I am speaking here . . .”

Good News for Bibliophiles

In yesterday’s New York Times, Columnist Timothy Egan gives hope to all of us who love books – real books, the kind he describes as “with a spine, a unique scent, crisp pages and a typeface that may date to Shakespeare’s day.” Dismissing Steve Jobs’ 2008 dismissive quote that “people don’t read anymore” and acknowledging that “nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year, Egan still manages optimism. He cites rising sales of printed books, along with increased new openings of independent bookstores and declining sales of electronic versions.

Egan’s piece was titled “The Comeback of the Century.”

I read the column while casting rueful glances at my apartment-sized IKEA bookshelves that hold the remains of my late husband’s 3,000-volume collection. “This is a very nice collection,” said the only buyer of books I was able to entice to the house to look. “Yes,” I responded. “Ed loved to prowl used bookstores on his lunch hour when he worked in New York.” I refrained from mentioning that was easier to do in New York, not that the book-buying ceased much when we moved to LA. Bibliophiles will always find a way to acquire.

I watched the book buyer arrange those that interested him into pathetically short stacks and nodded as he pointed to each stack and said, “Two dollars, five, ten and fifteen.” I accepted the small check he wrote and watched him pack his purchases in the boxes he’d brought and drive away. I hadn’t even paid attention to what warranted the “fifteen.” Just one more unpleasant chore for the newly widowed.

And now I stare at the remains on the IKEA shelves. I did keep the collection of every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and have since added the past three winners) along with books written by friends and family members, and some I just couldn’t bear to part with. And I purchased a Kindle in order to download books I want to read right now, but I haven’t done much of that. Too dangerously easy for someone on a budget.

My appreciation for yesterday’s Times column extends to Egan’s appreciation for storytelling, which, he writes, “will never die,” continuing, “And the best format for grand and sweeping narratives remains one of the oldest and most durable.” Pointing to the fact that “more than a third of the people in the United States and Britain say their cellphones are having a negative effect on their health and well-being,” he proposes “a clunky old printed book [as] a welcome antidote.”

Ed and I, both onetime print journalists, harbored dreams of adding a couple of those “clunky old” things to the world during our retirement years. He completed the first volume in an envisioned trilogy depicting a fictionalized version of life among the Volga Germans. Those Russian-born descendants of ethnic German colonists, of which Ed’s mother was one, had been living since the 1700s in communities along the Volga River. I was unsuccessful in convincing Ed to submit that first manuscript, titled Scattered Grains of Wheat, to a publisher; he felt he should be further along with a proposed trilogy, and the second volume was giving him problems. “Why not skip ahead to volume three?” I offered. “That book will practically write itself since it covers stories we’ve been hearing about for years. And then you could go back and fill in with volume two.”

But before he could even decide on whether that was a good idea, he was hit with a deadly medical diagnosis: Stage Four inoperable lung cancer that took over both our lives. After more than three years of treatment – both traditional chemotherapy and more experimental options – he died at age 84. Everyone who knew and loved him was heartbroken. “What about his books on the Germans in Russia?” was not a first question on people’s minds, but it did eventually surface. A daughter who is a journalist gathered all his research materials and computer files and hopes to complete the project in her father’s name.

My attempts at producing a “clunky old” thing like a book also stalled. In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey is a memoir of sorts featuring use of my mother’s letters home from France in 1930-’31 where she attended art school, lived with the family of a well known French painter, met and socialized with other noted artists of the day, and also possibly had a romance with a descendant of French nobility – someone her cheeky brothers back home always referred to as “the no-account count.” Upon completion of my manuscript, I was at a loss about how to proceed to get published. I felt I needed expert assistance and contacted scores of literary agents, some encouraging but none knocking down the door to represent me. And I started this website as a way to showcase my abilities.

But life does intervene, doesn’t it? That’s why we should hold up and celebrate those who manage to write and publish in spite of all obstacles. I have always had a particular soft spot in my heart for Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of the 1984 best seller . . . And Ladies of the Club. I read that she found annoying press notices that claimed the book took her 50 years to write. She said, “It may have taken me 50 years or more to get it done, but I didn’t do it all at once, for heaven’s sake! I did it whenever I had a moment, and mostly I didn’t have a moment. I had a living to make . . .”

These days, one might say to her, “You go, girl!”