Dreams for a Winter’s Day

What are the lives I would want to live in my next life?

I have always wanted to be a pastry chef and a bread baker.  Baking is my meditation.  I like making things that please people.  I don’t eat what I bake, except to taste it and make sure it will please.  Therefore, I would never get fat on what I make. (Except bread.  I would have to limit my bread.)  I would open a small bakery in my little town. My ovens would be top of the line.  I would offer my challah, French bread and an orange fennel rye given to me by a friend years ago.  My sweets would be Linzer tarts, elephant ears, perfect chocolate chip cookies, and peanut bars.  I’d offer three pies and three cakes: blueberry, apple and cherry,  pound cake,  lemon cake and  sour cream coffee cake.  Money would not be the object, but I would probably become very successful and then get very rich.

When the rigors of the bakery got too much for me, I would mentor the next generation and keep the quality up while I wrote cookbooks about it.  I could write about food forever.  I could also write recipes, menus, instructional manuals, restaurant reviews, and poems about what I crave and what I just ate.

But if I wasn’t a pastry chef, I would probably be a Broadway star. I have been dying to star in a Broadway show forever.   Once I might have been Anita in West Side Story, or the young Gypsy Rose Lee. Now I would take on Dolly Levi, or Mama Rose.  I would fit into the life easily.  I’d have a small pied a terre on the Upper West Side.  Eat after the show dinners at anywhere but Joe Allen which I would know is now a tourist stop.  I would be good friends with a lot of talented performers.  My pre-show ritual would be a teaspoon of honey in a tablespoon of bourbon. I would eventually bottle and label it and give it to friends for Christmas.

If not, I would make jewelry. I adore making jewelry.  There was a bead store on 21st Street and 7th Avenue in New York in the nineteen sixties. It was very bare bones, to-the-trade, with like-size and- color beads separated in big tubs and cartons down the long narrow storefront and shoppers would scoop what they wanted into a basket and take it up front where it was weighed for a price.  I bought far too many beads in those days.  I still have a small container of those original beads, which I have added to from time to time.  In my dreams, I would know how to string a necklace that did not have a little gap where the stringing material showed, because I couldn’t get my fat finger out of the loop of the knot.  In my dreams, I would make necklace after necklace of professional looking necklaces.  I would create paper beads that were just symmetrical enough yet looked homemade enough to be interesting.  I would know what tools to buy, and throw the rest away.

Or maybe I would be a piano tuner.

I have always wanted to be a piano tuner. Why? Because when my piano was enough out of tune to actually hear it, I wanted to be able to fix it.  Because it seems an uncommon specialty and a dying art, and I would become one of the few who knew its secrets and carried it on.  It would take me into houses with pianos which I could help. And pianists, too. I would administer first aid and play music, get to know the keys and the insides, the felt hammers, the strings intimately.  They would yield to my knowledgeable touch.

I exercise my dream muscles from time to time, like this. It is both exhausting and refreshing.

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It’s here.  And you can hardly get through a conversation with friend or family without something about it coming up.  Are you going to vote defensively, or offensively?  Out of hate or love?

At my age my even though my opinions are my opinions, and not likely to change, I keep up with the news every day, and watch it repeated at six o’clock that night, with minor updates.

I used to read Op Ed columns and listen to all the commentators – the ones I disagreed with who made me mad, and the ones I agreed with, who made me smile.  But I don’t ever remember changing my mind about an issue because of something witty and sarcastic anyone said against my opinion, so eventually, I stopped reading the columns and listening to the commentators who made me mad, and just stuck to the ones who confirmed my own opinions. Now, in the age of Trump, I don’t read any of them, because they are all too angry, or they depress me, or they have either gone too far or not far enough.   I read so-called unbiased information warily, too, because I know that even unbiased information in the news, on tv, and online can have a hidden bias.  I avoid Major Speeches.  I turn off Big Debates, too, because most of them are like game shows and are unenlightening, especially if I am already aware of the positions the politicians are going to take.  (And if I do get caught in an every-channel hostage situation and am forced to watch a Big Debate, I certainly make sure I don’t watch the spin doctors that follow.)

If this current age has done one thing, it has revealed the meaninglessness of rhetoric and has uncovered a lazy electorate. We may stamp and shout, but we don’t have a lot of information to support our opinions.  I admit to it. Many of us believe what we believe because we have always believed it.  We are Democrats or Republicans, Progressives or Conservatives, because that’s what “we have always been.”  Or, we hook onto one issue that matters to us, and close our eyes to everything else.  (I am guilty of that – I won’t vote for anyone who wants to make abortions illegal again.)  Many of us think only of ourselves and our little world and not about the whole world.  And too many of us, lately, can’t separate disagreement from being disagreeable.

And the politicians themselves? I have no illusions.  After placating voting blocs and PACs, handlers, big contributors, and party rules, what is left over is chump change in terms of ideas and solutions.

So, you ask, how do I to vote?  Where do I get the information that leads me to my chosen candidate?  If I read everything warily, avoid staged performances for my benefit, and won’t listen to pundits, how will I know which way to go?

My answer is very low tech: beside the issue which is a deal-breaker for me, I use my instincts and I will vote for the person I like the best.  I’m for the one who radiates honesty, looks and sounds like a good person, and seems to have the qualities I would want in a friend.  Sounds a little naive?  Perhaps so, but is it any less naive to think I can select someone based on information I have no way of knowing the accuracy of, or based on economic policy the intricacies of which I won’t pretend to understand?  Wouldn’t I be, in that case, just choosing to believe the person who puts the questionable information in the best possible light?  And what’s the difference between doing that and trying to look someone in the eye (figuratively, yes, because it is not possible to look a televised or written-about person in the eye) and saying, “He looks nice,” or “She sounds good?”

I have always relied on this instinctual way of choosing friends and business associates, so why shouldn’t I do the same when it comes to voting?  So, if Candidate A’s eyes shift away from the reporter when he’s asked a tricky question, while Candidate B looks him in the eye and says, “That’s a hard one,” or “I don’t know,” Candidate B pulls ahead in my personal opinion poll.   And if Candidate A leads an upright life (but not too upright, if you know what I mean) and Candidate B is constantly getting into trouble, then I’ll tend toward A.  (Unless the trouble is minor, and Candidate A seems to enjoy it too much, publicly, in which case, all A gains in rectitude he loses in self-righteousness.)

Will it work this time?  I don’t know.  But I know that I have never, since my eighteenth birthday, missed voting in an election and that’s still a good thing, and I aim to keep doing it. So, deep breath, here we go.


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Questions, Rhetorical and Real

Before Google, if I wanted to find the answer to something, I’d call my friend, Marion, who knew everything about everything, or knew where to find out what she didn’t know. (Which was, as I recall, the incomparable New York Public Library Information desk).

Now, no matter what I want to know, I don’t even have to dial a number, I just rev up the laptop and Google it.  Does this satisfy? Does it make me happy?  Well, let’s say it scratches an itch.  If I can’t quite pull up the name of the writer but remember the title, Google is there in a flash.  Even when I can’t remember the title, Google manages to help.  It can infer.  I’ll input something like “20th Century book about predatory love” and it will give me a list which includes Lolita by Nabokov.  Bingo.  Is that marvelous?  With Google, what can’t we know?

Which got me thinking.  Are there questions that are unanswerable and eternal?

Of course, the first in that category are the rhetorical questions, those sentences phrased as questions but meant to make statements, like “Where did they come up with a name like that?” And “What were you thinking?” and “Who me?” and “Are you kidding?” and “Why should I?” and “What do you think I meant?”

But then I started to think about challenging Google for real, by asking questions that are slightly more philosophical in nature.

First, I asked Google to explain what “it” was in the phrase, “It is what it is.”  Google equivocated on defining “it,” but did a pretty good job of interpreting the phrase, either as a sense of potentiality ( like if you wear a cat as a hat, “it” – the cat – is a hat and not a cat); or sense of the unchanging nature of certain things (like night and day); or a blunt expression of acceptance of the current reality ( like you didn’t get the job).

Then I asked Google, “If I live in the moment, how do I plan for the future?” On that, Google did about as well as you or I would do: arguing for living in the now as opposed to planning ahead, or re-defining the saying “live in the moment” to include planning for the future and listening to the past.

I asked Google, “How can I seize the day if all good things come to those who wait?” Its topmost responses seem to agree that we shouldn’t wait at all, because “all the good things” will end up being taken by people who seized the day.

My final question to Google was, “How can I be real if I have to fake it till I make it?” which it answered with a little bit of psychobabble about appearing confident when you aren’t.

Now, I know there is an algorhythm thingie which lists the best (most popular, most influential) responses first, and I admit, I didn’t go further, so I don’t really know if the complicated, revealing, novel and truly Google-icious answers were somewhere down the line.  But the exercise reminded me, as far as I went,  that Google is a collector of responses by people – like my friend, Marion, and the lady on the desk of the New York Public Library Information Desk — no wiser, though a lot wordier.

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Anyone who reads this blog knows how it goes: the phone rings and you hear someone, usually a male, sounding frightened.  He says, “Hello, grandma?” and follows with a story of peril, being threatened with incarceration or physical harm, or stranded in a bad place. Its success is pinned on whether or not you – the grandma or grandpa – falls for those first two words.  If it works, you will end up sending money through Western Union or with gift cards you purchased, to a post office box.

As you know, I fell for it, briefly, the first time, but not long enough for it to cost me anything more than a day of feeling shaken.

Second time, I scammed the scammer (see February 18 post) stringing him along, pretending to believe he was my grandson, knowing that he wasn’t, having given him a fake grandson name.  That time the story was he was caught with drugs (not his, of course), and I had fun putting him through his paces, until finally, he figured it out and hung up.

A week ago, I got the call again, and this time it was “Samuel” (another grandson I don’t have) whose name I offered. This time he was in the hospital, with a broken nose (which, I had read, was a common ploy since it would explain if his voice didn’t sound quite right) and a lot of asides about how much pain he was in, calling for a nurse. My fake grandson was in a car crash and was going to be transferred to jail for DUI unless I called this lawyer (name and number offered). I assured “Samuel” I would hang up and call the lawyer immediately. “Don’t talk, darling,” I said.  “Grandma will fix it.”

Then I called the New York State Attorney General’s Office. While I was waiting to be connected to the Attorney General’s Office, the “lawyer” himself called on my other line, asking if anyone in my household had received a call from my “grandson.”  I told him to hold on. So now, I had the scammer on one line, and law enforcement on the other.  But the man I was connected to moments later at the Attorney General’s office cut me short after I said, ““I just got a phone call this morning from someone saying he was my grandson…” “I don’t have to hear anymore,” he said.  “Don’t send him anything, don’t tell him anything, tell him to take a hike.”

I explained that I had one of the scammers on the other line, holding, and I had a phone number, but he wasn’t interested. They were probably working from outside the country and were able to bounce their phone signals around so the number I had was already changed, he said. I said maybe we could catch him?  I was willing to play it through.   He said if I wanted to call my local police, it was up to me, but he would suggest I just hang up next time.

I called my local police department, and the dispatcher said that the scammers were “too slick” and able to change their phone numbers at will, and my local department didn’t have sophisticated enough equipment to catch them.

I called the FTC financial fraud help line, but the young woman I spoke to explained that they were working to identify patterns of crime nationwide, so “nothing would happen immediately” about my particular complaint.  She sounded about as interested as a phone answerer for a credit card company fielding another customer complaint. Polite, neutral, unmoved.  Of course, the fake lawyer had hung up long ago.

Get it yet?

No one is very anxious to catch the scammers. It seems to be looked upon as a nuisance, more than anything else. The emphasis is on prevention and protection of the gullible old people, even though a CBS News Report said it is reported that monetary losses are in the billions of dollars each year.  That’s real crime.   Yet the response to it is…somehow to flatten or manage the individual crimes into a generic type and not go after the individual criminals at all.

According to the AARP this same scam, one of many, has been going viral since the early 2000s.  Yet they have not developed an inoculation and don’t seem to be in any hurry to do so; law enforcement is offering the same stale advice they offered when it first started: “just hang up.”

What’s the connection between this and ageism?  How does this qualify to be considered part of the cultural cage we live in when it comes to aging Americans?

It’s a home invasion.  It’s a felony crime.  Yet ageist old people are content to complain, bemoan, suffer the humiliation and sometimes loss and do not demand better action than “just hang up,” and “be smarter than the crooks.”  And ageist bureaucrats are content to put hopeful but misleading messages, such as “Crimes Should Be Reported – Even If You Didn’t Send Any Money” – which is what I found on the New York Attorney General’s website despite the fact that it was the N.Y. State Attorney General’s office who had no interest in my call.

I’m angrier at law enforcement than I am at the scammers.  And you should be, too, whether you are old, have parents who are old, or are waiting to be old.

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Preparing for holidays when you are older can be like an archeological dig. Marcel Proust, the French writer, wrote famously in Remembrance of Things Past, of how the full flowering of memory (and several pages of flowery prose) resulted from dunking a cookie into a cup of tea.   Sometimes (as I detailed here a few weeks ago during Thanksgiving), the day is readily remembered and enduringly sweet.  But doing things as you have always done while everything around you changes can be complicated, too.

So now, here we are at Chanukah and Christmas. Our children and grandchildren are scattered far and wide this year, building new traditions while trying to keep old ones.  We’re used to that.  We’ve been doing it since the kids got married and for a while we alternated holiday tables (his parents or hers?), and continued it when the kids went away to college and some years we carried on without them, making do with phone calls and Facetimes, some years adjusting the party to suit ourselves (like Chanukah in January one year).  So, what do we do in the meantime?  Do we alter the menu or keep things as they are?

What Proust knew is that the foods themselves are powerful reminders and remainders of holidays past.  Do we stick with that certain hors doeuvre which is a nightmare of labor intensiveness, but without which the holiday wouldn’t be the same, and those ordinary sugar cookies spiffed up with blue and white or red and green sprinkles, and make them even if we don’t like them anymore?  I have been making the same apple cake for Chanukah for years, but never without calling the friend who gave me the recipe, to check how many apples I need.  I guess I could have written down her answer one of those times, but the truth is, half the reason I made the cake is that it brought back memories of when we used to spend our Chanukahs together, when our children were small; the powerful desire to hear her voice made the holiday nicer.

Even bad foods are strong jogs to memory.  Can you forget that overcooked broccoli your sister used to bring every year that you had to yum and ahh over?  What about your dear dead friend’s sweet potato casserole, and that fact that every time you ate it and your tongue came in contact with a chunk of foreign matter which turned out to be canned pineapple, you gagged?  So finally, the question arises: if making that hors doeuvre exhausts you, and the cookies crumble, uneaten, in their tins, if a  table set with mom’s dry turkey, Auntie Lil’s stuffing with the raw sausage, dead Nellie’s casserole, and  hand-grated potato pancakes with a little bit of the cook’s knuckle and blood, and if the friend who gave you the recipe never calls back, is the tradition worth keeping? Is the food worth making? It may be pure history, cooked and sauced, but so what?  Is that the bargain you strike with yourself, to keep memories alive?

And taking it a step further, what if all those traditions you keep alive make you not only nostalgic, but sad, too?  Maybe you can’t drink anymore, your diabetes can’t take the marshmallow topping, any salt will cause you to swell up like a blowfish, and the animal fats are so forbidden that if you as much as look at a steak your heart skips a beat.   And what if everyone who used to sit at the table is gone?  What if you have closed doors that you can’t open?  What if you live in a smaller space, or your ears can’t take the noise, or your nerves can’t take the inevitable argument about this or that?  Is there a law that says you have to repeat yourself, even if you don’t care to?  Why maintain traditions if they don’t do what they used to do?  I don’t know. I’m just asking.

But in pursuit of knowledge I have decided to declare a test-moratorium on all useless tradition, just for the holiday season.  Instead of sentimentality, I’m going for rationality.

Here’s a list I made myself:

If you can’t eat it, don’t make it.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.

One of everything is plenty.  Two is too much.  If, in an excess of enthusiasm you end up with two pies instead of one, give one away.

Give something away, anyway.

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the day.

And lastly, make new memories.  It is never too late.

Let’s see if that works.


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 PASSING FOR RICH (With apologies to my millionaire friends)


Aside from Warren Buffett, millionaires are not popular right now.  And all this talk about rich candidates “buying” their shot at the Presidency hasn’t helped.  And that has touched off some thoughts about being rich, being poor, being in-between and being happy with what you’ve got.

When I was very young and couldn’t afford to go to the theater, my friends and I used to do something called “second acting.” We would arrive at the theater after the doors closed and the play began.  Dressed nicely to “pass” (in those days one didn’t go “to Broadway” in jeans), we would mingle with the audience who came out for a smoke after the first act curtain, and then sneak in along with the crowd, and find seats for the second act of the play.  That way we got to see at least half of what ticketholders got to see, and for that short period of time we were no different from the people who could afford a Broadway play.

I am also reminded of once, not long ago, when the economy was not doing well, and  I had an encounter  with someone I will call Rich Person, whom I had known for some time. Whenever Rich Person and I had met in the past, I always came away feeling remarkably deprived.   Always polite and pleasant, Rich Person still managed to mention his trip to Paris, his second home, and that darn high tax bracket, all without seeming to notice he was mentioning it.  But this time, he was practically humble, complaining about the faltering economy, reviewing hard times.  His spouse had recently left a big job, and they were now living on one salary, and he, in the financial services field, was feeling a tad uncertain about his expected end-of-year bonus. (Never mind that even poor, this guy was probably rich.)
“Aww, what a shame,” I said, oozing concern.  “When will you know?” Was that gratitude I saw in his eyes, for my sympathy?  “Everybody’s suffering,” I said, soothingly.  “We all have to just hang in there.” A great big gob of fellow-feeling dripped off me onto his Bruno Maglis.

And in that moment, I realized that we were finally equals, and for some idiotic reason related to misery loving company, I felt happy for the first time since I had looked at my depleted 401K.

Now, I have never been really rich, and barring the right lottery ticket I think that bus has left the depot.  But, on the bright side, I was now part of a majority of people whose finances were fizzling, and why not enjoy the loss as fully as I could? If you view it in a certain way, Rich Person and I were at that moment practically in twin boats.  Which made me, by proxy, formerly rich too, didn’t it?  After all, losing two thousand is, to me, proportionally just as disturbing as Rich Person’s loss of two hundred thousand.  Or, let’s up the ante, someone’s two million, even.  It is practically the same thing.

“I used to have a lot more,” had appreciated.  So you could say I was actually making money, even if it was only in my own mind.

In my usual crowd of teachers and writers, “I dropped a bundle today” meant I took my dirty wash to the laundromat, in Rich Person’s world it meant “yesterday I had lots of money.”  And, “I’m down one” meant that my net worth has shrunk by maybe a million, not that a single just dropped out of the hole in my pocket.  Still, going through it together  made me feel less bad (though still not good).   We both could no longer afford diamonds from Tiffany, truffles, the trip to France, orchestra seats to The Producers.

Just like that, I had slipped into the crowd of formerly rich people.  Like them I enjoyed not-having this, not-having that.

But, you guessed it.  There’s a larger point, and that is, though we are certainly all different, we are also all the same.  And we are all in the same boat in so many other ways than whether or not we are millionaires. Would it make them better candidates if they  had to struggle to pay for their media access?   If their motives are pure, and they are  as willing to risk their billion as I am to risk my hundred, what’s the diff?



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On line at the supermarket one day recently:  The man in front of me was tapping his foot, you might even say stamping it and when the checker finished packing the person in front of him (during which there had been a friendly conversation, which was maybe the source of the man’s impatience?), she rolled the conveyer belt forward and faced him.

“Were you making faces at me?” she said.

“No,” the man said, holding his hands up like it was a stick-up.

“Oh.  I thought you were making faces at me,” she said, as she slid his few items over the scanner.  “You have a bag?”

“No,” he said.  “I’ll just…” and he started to gather them in his arms.  “Spend a nickel,” the checker said, and bagged his items in the five-cent bag.

He did not object. “It wasn’t you,” he said.  “My car just died and I’ m late for work and I have to meet triple A outside.”

The checker nodded at the apology.  “Bag’s on me,” she said.

The woman behind me sighed.

The sound was so familiar,  I turned to see if she was someone I knew. When our eyes met, the woman seemed to understand I had turned because of the sigh, and she shook her head.  “No,” the woman said.  “It’s just…general,” and she waved her hand at the world.

“I know,” I said, nodding sympathetically.

“Oh my god,” the checker said, as she advanced the conveyer belt.  “Did you get that guy?”

“Having a tough morning,” I said.

Oh my god,” the checker said again.  She was having trouble scanning my yogurt.  She wiped the scanner and tried again.  “Damn thing,” she said.  “Acting up.”

“Maybe it’s rebelling against the prices,” I said.

“The woman behind me laughed.  “Yeah, “she said.  “It’s fighting back.  What are eggs now?”

“Forget the eggs, I just saw a bag of oranges for five dollars,” I said.

“I won’t buy at that price,” the woman said.

“Me, either.  I put them back.  I just put back two red peppers. For two forty-nine I can live without peppers.”

“And tomatoes, too,” she said. “Well, tomatoes are already off this time of year, anyway.  And now lettuce is contaminated again, maybe tomorrow it’ll be chopmeat somewhere, what was that other thing that keeps getting poisoned?  Spinach?”

“Spinach was two years ago,” the checker said. “I’ve had it. This is my last year.  It’s getting to be too much for me.”

The woman nodded.  “It’s getting scary to eat.”

“And fly,” the checker said.  “I hate to fly.  And I can’t stand on my feet a whole day anymore.”

“I used to love to fly,” I said.  “But now…the cost…the lack of services…the security…every time I see people standing with their shoes in their hands I want to cry.”

“Sad,” the woman said. “The world is getting crazy.  Look at the weather, lately.”

“Oh, my god, the weather!” the checker said. “It’s killing my arthritis.  I’m going in for a knee operation because of this job.”

“What about the Bahamas? All those people killed in, what was it, an earthquake?” the woman behind me said.

“A hurricane,” I said.  “Dorian.”

“And California,” she added.  “The floods. The wildfires. I hear the air is very bad there.”

“It’s polluted,” the checker said.  “Let’s face it, the world is polluted.”

“Oh my gosh, I forgot Lysol,” the woman said.  “Could you…”

“Go ahead,” I said, and trained an eye on her cart while she ran off to the Lysol aisle, as if someone would come along, in this troubled, polluted, weather-crazy world and steal her unpaid-for groceries right out of the checkout aisle.

The checker rubbed her eyes and yawned.  “We lost power last night,” she said. “I was up all night waiting for it to go on.”

I nodded, as if it made sense to me.

The woman came back, waving a can of Lysol.  When she took her place behind me, the checker stopped bagging my order and we both waited, as the woman turned the can around until she found the price.
“How much?” I said.

“Four seventy-nine,” she said, then shrugged.  “What are you gonna do?  I need it.”

I was going to say she could probably do better with the store brand, but the checker had finished packing and I was counting out what I owed her.

“Well…” I said.

“Well…” she said.

“Nice talking to you girls,” the checker said.

“It’s been fun,” I said.

“Have a nice day,” the woman said, and smiled, and as I left I heard her sigh once more.

And that’s why I don’t go to the self- checkout even if it saves me time.  Where else could you get such a cheerful start to your day?

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