The Fourth Grade Bookshelf

The librarian pushed down on the book with her ink-stained, silver stamp. It printed a blurred date on the library card: “October 21.” At the age of eight, I didn’t have many dates I needed to remember. Mom’s birthday. Christmas. And now, October 21st.

“Rich Mitch” was certainly not high-brow literature. But it was a book on the fourth grade bookshelf. And I was only in the third grade. So, that book was a treasure.

Thankfully, the librarian didn’t notice the illicit selection. After all, I was pretty stealth in my pursuit. That afternoon, after exhausting the books on the third grade bookshelf, I had snuck around to the fourth grade bookshelf and grabbed the first thick book I could find with my chubby fingers. It was a thrilling feeling. A deliciously naughty feeling. An incredibly confident feeling.

I read “Rich Mitch” three times before October 21st. I read it during recess. I read it during the commute to dancing school. I read it on Saturday mornings in my bed under a pile of patchwork quilts. “Rich Mitch” certainly had big words and long paragraphs, but I devoured each sentence bite by bite.

On October 21st, I returned the book. I decided to forego the “library book drop slot” since it seemed too heartless. Instead, I said my goodbye and physically handed “Rich Mitch” to the librarian.

“Wasn’t this book on the fourth grade bookshelf?” the librarian asked me. She walked away with a forgiving smile before I could even give her an answer.

For the rest of the year, the librarian turned her head as not to notice when I drifted toward the decadent fourth grade shelf.

It was our little, wonderful, secret.

The Making of a Valentine

I’ll pinch you on the playground.
I’ll give you the prettiest valentine out of my box of cards for the class.
I’ll pick you for my kickball team.
I’ll gift you an Itunes song.
I’ll wear lipstick on days we have chemistry lab together.
I’ll “happen” to visit a friend who also attends your same college.
I’ll break-up with you, just to get back together.
I’ll wonder when the question will pop.
I’ll say YES.
I’ll find myself buying beef jerky at the grocery store.
I’ll watch you paint the baby’s room.
I’ll use the potty to tinkle…with the door open.
I’ll watch you coach a girls soccer team.
I’ll make you spend the night on the couch.
I’ll hold your hand as we mourn a loved one together.
I’ll refuse to throw away your old love letters during our big move.
I’ll start developing a taste for beef jerky.
I’ll watch you walk our baby down the aisle.
I’ll throw your retirement party, and then try to find you a full time hobby.
I’ll escort you to that old timers reunion.
I’ll watch you hold your first grandchild.
I’ll remind you to take your medication.
I’ll push your wheelchair.
We’ll wonder where the time went.

 

 

The Love We Live

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Love is cooking each half of the flank steak to a different tenderness.
Love is having a side of the bed.
Love is deciding who deals with the garter snake, and who deals with bathroom spiders.
Love is compromising with 2% milk.
Love is shower-less road trips and toothpaste-free nights.
Love is choosing seats 42A and B next to the airplane bathroom, just to sit together.
Love is sharing the big popcorn.
Love is clearing the hair out of the shower drain without being asked.
Love is sleeping with cold feet because someone is hogging the comforter.
Love is agreeing to never shop at that store again.
Love is screaming until you make up.
Love is sitting through “Casino Royale” over and over and over again because it’s the only movie you agree upon.
Love is picking up the phone to say you’re running late.
Love is having a system for the dishes.
Love is knowing when to just let it go.
Love is recognizing the one look which means: “I can’t believe what she just said but I’m going to pretend everything is normal until you and I can gossip on our way home.”
Love is really not noticing the few extra pounds.
Love is not having to worry about flirty waitresses or hunky pool boys.
Love is having a library of kisses with special meanings.
Love is allowing the other to take the ice cream bite with the most chocolate chip cookie dough chunks.
Love is finding silver linings in laughable hospital food.
Love is holding hands when nobody is looking.
Love is what we live… sun-up, sun-down, Sundays to Saturdays, around and upside down and back around again.
Love was, love is, and love will be.

 

The Tick Life

In coastal communities, they live The Salt Life. Pick-up trucks drive around with bumper stickers proclaiming their allegiance to the ocean. But in rural Vermont and thousands of towns across the country, we live The Tick Life.

The Tick Life is not one I’ve chosen. It’s a life which has chosen me. My dog is covered in ticks. My lawn is covered in ticks. My friends are covered in ticks. My rocky-road ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles is ruined with one “sprinkle” which actually moves. (BLECH.) Sometimes I think there are more ticks in the woods of New England than there are grains of sand.

When it comes to bugs, I have my preferences. I’ll gently encourage a spider to crawl on a PEOPLE magazine cover and escort him outside. I’ll let the ant live in the corner of the bathroom. And I have no issue with a buzzing bumblebee. But I have no compassion for ticks. If given the opportunity, I’ll flush them down the toilet and then flush again, just to get my point across.

Luckily, I haven’t had a bite yet, but perhaps it’s because I’m obsessed with checking myself.  I’m also obsessed with checking others. (Brad Paisley might think “I Want To Check You For Ticks” is a romantic ballad, but if I’m looking at that dark mole on your neck for a second too long, it’s only because I’m making sure it doesn’t have legs.) In my household, we compulsively shower and check each other’s scalps, armpits and ankles. We wear light colored clothing on hikes, and cover our long hair with baseball caps and scarfs. We flick dirt off each others’ arms just to quadruple check that freckles are just freckles.

Someday, I hope to live the Maple Life or the Morel Life or the Mountain Life. Someday, I hope that the life I live will be glamorous enough to flaunt on a truck bumper. But for now, I’m stuck with ticks. I’m stuck checking and rechecking. I’m stuck flushing and re-flushing. And I’m stuck with the rainbow sprinkles, for fear of the walking chocolate ones.

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Advice for All of Us

There’s a ton of advice for the Class of 2020. But here’s some advice we can all use:

Touch your toes while you can, so you can.

If someone you love cooked, baked or re-heated it for you, eat it without hesitation.

Shop conservatively, tip liberally.

Choose to make something. Anything. Make a pinwheel. Make a lasagna. Make a paper football. Then, keep trying to make it better.

Say “yes” or say “no” loudly when it matters.

Save every card from your grandmother.

Be kind to people who can’t do anything for you.

Don’t ever pretend to be stupid.

Drink more water than anything else.

Chew with your mouth closed. Listen with your ears open.

Give in to indulgences, but not enough to allow them to become routine.

Stop for the lemonade stand.

Call a loved one more often than you call for take-out.

Spend more money on dental care than make-up. (Lipstick can’t help a rotten smile.)

R.S.V.P., regardless of response.

Don’t let your second language be swearing.

Celebrate the people you love with more than a social media post.

Stick with the person who calls back immediately.

Learn the name of both the person who writes your checks and vacuums your office.

Wear out your library card.

Love the heck out of someone, something, or somewhere.

And eat the darn birthday cake.

Shrooms, Ramps, and Snakes… Oh My!

In my ten years of foraging, I’ve collected two morel mushrooms, six ramps, and zero fiddleheads. And yet I talk about the hunt as if I were Hemingway.

The truth is that I don’t even need to find something to enjoy looking for it. I know that the odds are good that pirate treasure isn’t washed up under my parent’s Florida condo. But if I never metal detected the premises, I’d never know if the lost doubloon from the sunken Saint Somewhere was waiting to be found under my mother’s aloe plant.

Here in Vermont, learning how to forage is almost a requirement. Chances are, I’ll never have to survive on the wild weeds in my backyard. But if a neighbor was to learn I’d passed up a morel, I’d be chased from the town.

Of course, I’ve done my homework. I know that morels are hollow, ramps have purple veins, and fiddleheads can only be harvested before they unfurl. (Hence why I haven’t collected fiddleheads since they are always past their prime.) I know not to eat anything until I triple check with Mr. Google. And I know to always carry a bag for the goods, since ramps will stink up a pocket.

What I don’t know is where to find these edibles. Friends give me advice. Websites give me ideas. But as hard as I look, my forage ventures are usually futile.

I have found all sorts of other things I didn’t want to find. Plastic trash bags. Rusty nails. Garter snakes. (I hate snakes more than I hate the Connecticut Turnpike… which is a lot.) But when I do find a woodland treasure, however, I scream louder than a Price is Right contestant. For me, locating a ramp is much more thrilling than winning a microwave on television. It proves that I’m not completely useless. It suggests I’d survive an extra hour in the woods before dying of starvation. It confirms my competence as a forager in the eyes of my neighbors.

I love a treasure hunt. And perhaps someday I’ll find that gold mine of morels, that Spanish doubloon, that missing striped sock in the drier. But for now, the thrill is in the search. And when it comes to hunting and gathering,  I’m much more successful at the farmer’s market.

 

 

Jodi Picoult

One of my favorite storytellers in the fabulous Jodi Picoult. Not only is she an incredibly talented writer, but she’s also an active member of my small New England community. Jodi was gracious enough to share some of her thoughts about words, writing, and Harry Potter, when we asked her to fill-in-the-blank of the following sentences. (Her answers are in bold.)

Ms. Wormgrunt would be a great name for a children’s fictional character.

My most memorable writing teacher was Mary Morris  because she taught me to be my own best editor.

The most common grammar/spelling mistake I still make is putting a comma when I need a semi-colon.

If I could have been a fly on the wall for any conversation in history, I would have liked to have heard Shakespeare talk his way through Romeo & Juliet.

The most beautiful word in the English language is uxorious: excessively fond of one’s wife.

The ugliest word in the English language is intolerance.

The most romantic love scene in the word would have to take place in the Maldives.

I believe that a psychic is one profession which has a lot of potential for a good character.

The song to my life’s soundtrack is anything my son Jake sings.

Three of the most memorable fictional characters in the world are:  Nick Carraway, Lady Brett Ashley, and Harry Potter.

My favorite children’s book is The Paper Bag Princess.

The most important snack which fuels literary creativity is: chocolate.

My favorite place to read a book is the bathtub.

 

 

Funeral for a Friend

I needed glitter. I didn’t want to be a California Raisin, a Ninja Turtle, or a Cabbage Patch Kid. (These costumes were all the rage when I was in elementary school.) Instead, my costume had to have shimmer and shine. And since my dancing school costumes were chock full of glitter, I decided to be a tap dancer-five years in a row. And since my sister liked anything I liked, she, too, was a dancer.

In my New Jersey town, the schoolkids would trick-or-treat on the residential streets near the lake. My mother would drive us to a friend’s home where we would gather with all the raisins, turtles and chubby faced dolls. We would collect candy from decorated homes and then conduct the Great Halloween Trade. After the rules were established (THREE Hershey’s kisses for every ONE Reese’s peanut butter cup), we would barter with each other until we were content with our cornucopia of candy.  We would pack up our bags and head home on a sugar high.

But, the big scare happened AFTER trick or treating.

As my mother pulled our car into our long, backwoods, driveway, we would start to hear the music. The screeching organ notes actually sounded like dying heartbeats.

As we approached the house, the music would get louder and we would notice the darkness. The lights had been turned off. There were no candles burning. There was no glow from the television. Just pure blackness…with the front door wide open.

“You go first, Mom,” we would whisper, trembling.

Mom would walk slowly toward the front door as we gripped to her legs. Our pale white knuckles squeezed her thighs tightly as glitter from our costumes rubbed off on her jeans.

At the door, the music would be deafening.  “The dirge of death,” as we would later call the tune. The song would echo through our haunted house, causing bone-tingling fear. There were pipes and organs and creepy wind sounds.

“Go ahead, kids,” my mom would say as she held back. “I’m sure I just left the radio on.”

Our tiny tap-shoe feet would slowly step through the front door.

“BOO!”

Gasps and screams would follow.

After our hearts resumed beating, Dad would step from behind the front door, and smile.  “Gotcha,” he would say nonchalantly as he turned on the lights.

“Da-ad,” we would roll our eyes, never admitting our fear.

Every year of my childhood, my father blasted Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend to scare us on Halloween. And every year, it worked. We didn’t know it was an Elton John song. We only knew that the sound of those beginning organ notes scared the glitter out of us.

It never got old for my father to scare us. And although one would think that we would have learned our lesson the first time around (or at least the second or third),  there was always that chance that a ghost-monster-vampire actually was in our house. And so the tradition continued, year after year until we outgrew trick or treating. And to this day, it’s one of my fondest holiday memories.

I have a one year old son now. And he’s too young to scare on Halloween. But when he turns six or seven, I have a feeling that Funeral for a Friend might just make a comeback.

 

What I Eat In A Day

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People Magazine has a new feature showcasing what celebrities (primarily skinny women) eat in a day. Inspired, here’s my take:

WHAT I EAT IN A DAY

Two bites off of both ends of a pre-mashed banana

Several floor Cheerios (most* of which abide by the five second rule)

An entire roll of breath mints

Three mouthfuls from a baby food pouch of broccoli and peas

One small cup of coffee mixed in an oversized travel mug with two cups of whole milk and a sugar packet (from the bottom of my purse)

A two year old granola bar from the glove compartment

Seventy two flavored seltzer waters (or at least four)

The crusts of a grilled cheese sandwich

One Arrowroot baby cookie (which, by the way, are delicious)

Two slices of mushroom pizza. Three bites warm. Seventeen bites cold after dealing with toddler tantrum.

One generous glass of red wine

And a mega-multivitamin. Of course.

 

 

What You Do

My father doesn’t need to chop his own firewood. He has a sixty-five year old body, with aches and pains and strains. He can afford to have someone else chop down the wood. Yet, every November, he walks into the woods, returning hours later with truckloads of stackable wood. When I ask him why he chops his own wood, he responds with four words: “It’s what I do.”

Those four words stick with me. Sometimes there doesn’t need to be a reason for our actions. It seems that we all have something that we do without motive. We do it whether anyone is watching. We do it whether or not we can afford not to do it. We do it without an excuse.

And sometimes true intimacy means recognizing (and living with) the things our loved ones do. The little things we do for no apparent reason define our character. We will be remembered for the things that we do, whether or not we realize that we’re doing them. Perhaps we hum while we gargle. Perhaps we spin our wedding rings when we get nervous. Perhaps we eat the broth of the soup before we touch the noodles. Sometimes these things are major, other times, minor. Yet, recognizing these things in each other allows a closeness only achieved with time and attention.

For example, my mother is clueless to one thing which makes her memorable to loved ones. My mother ALWAYS brings a bag of assorted drinks and reading material on trips. Whether it’s a long or short trip, she’ll always pack a bag of iced tea bottles and random magazines. Even if she’s just driving down the street, she pack a Snapple iced tea and a Good Housekeeping magazine. She doesn’t realize that we notice, but it’s what she does, and it’s what we remember.

My husband saves bugs. He doesn’t talk about it often but he’ll bring a spider outside after cupping it in the kitchen. He’ll find a warm place for an ant during a February snowstorm. He’ll even dismiss a mosquito through a window before swatting it down. (For one whole week, we couldn’t use the upstairs sink because he knew a spider was making it a temporary home in the drain.) Saving insects is in his DNA.  He won’t think twice about eating a cheeseburger, but he won’t let you hurt the fly circling it.

Even my dog Mabel has an ingrained behavior. She brings her plush rooster toy to the top of our stairwell every evening after dinner. She can be counted on like clockwork. There are no treats involved in this behavior, nor any human attention. Whether we’re watching or not, it’s what she does.

And for me?  I have lots of habits. I only eat cereal in mugs. I’m superstitious about turning off my Ipod only after a positive lyric. (I’ll literally run another tenth of a mile until Blake Shelton says something happy.) And, I can’t go to sleep unless my hair is in a top ponytail. But the one thing I can’t NOT do is write.

It’s what I do.

 

Why I Invite Strangers To Guess My Baby’s Gender

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“Let me check you out from behind.” She heads toward my backside. “Ah, yes, a little extra on the rump. It’s definitely a girl.”

I’m expecting my first child next week. My husband and I do not know the baby’s gender. But apparently, everyone else knows.

Unfortunately, most of their theories are based upon where I have or have not gained weight. When you’re not expecting, strangers would never comment on the chubbiness of your back. But, apparently, when you’re pregnant, you’re fair game for surveillance.  Friends, family and strangers inspect me like a piece of meat, looking for bulges.

“You’ve gained weight in your face. It’s a girl.”
“It’s all in your tummy. It’s a boy.”
“Your ankles look large. It’s a girl.”

My husband and I decided NOT to find out the gender of our baby for multiple reasons. Sure, as many unknowing parents explain behind a sugary-sweet smile, “it’s one of the only good surprises left in the world.” But we also aren’t finding out because it doesn’t really matter to us. My parents already have grandkids of both genders. We have boxes of hand-me-downs in both blue and pink. We’re ready for tractors or tutus. And we can imagine either little John or little Jane being the love of our lives. (I’ll also admit that my sister warned me that labor could be so painful that the surprise of the gender might be the only way to keep pushing!)

But the most surprising outcome of not knowing our baby’s gender is the fun we’ve had in allowing people to guess. It’s incredibly entertaining to allow folks to share their theories, and in fact, I invite their opinions. A friend of mine, who boasts that he’s predicted the gender of the last ten babies in his neighborhood, is convinced it’s a girl because of the glow of my skin. My sister, who has three kids of her own, insists that it’s a girl because I painted my bathroom pink before I knew I was pregnant. A manicurist at the Dallas Fort Worth airport told me that the lines on my hand predict a boy. (She took the premonition further, also noting that my baby boy will grow up to be a professor.) And of course, I’ve heard many renditions of boy versus girl, depending on whether my belly looks like a watermelon (male) or a basketball (female). Depending on which way I’m facing, my belly looks like BOTH.

People hang wedding rings near my belly. They consult Chinese birthing calendars. They ask me about my sleeping position. And, one person even asked me to pee in a cup of Drain-O. (I put my foot down on that one.) I’m a human experiment and personally, I think it’s quite fun.

In fact, for a few weeks, I got wrapped up in the fun of prediction theories as well. After hearing from a friend with multiple children that all of her kids’ genders were predicted by her dreams, I decided to pay a little more attention to my sleep. For a month, I drank a glass of warm milk and hit the pillow, waiting for a dream of my daughter or son. However, I mostly dreamed of being invited onstage at a John Mayer concert, singing a duet, and then realizing that I’m only wearing my underwear. (But that’s a whole other psychoanalysis.)

Yet, even after all of the dreams and rings and watermelons and basketballs, I still have a theory. I think I’m having a boy. My husband thinks I’m having a girl. And neither of us have any reason for our belief but gut instinct.

One of us is right. One of us is wrong. And your guess is as good as anyone’s. But sometime in the next few days, the mystery will be solved. And it will have the perfect outcome.

September 15, 2016

Storyland

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If there’s one thing that my nephew was NOT going to do at Storyland, it was walk the plank.

For a hot day, we had done well at the kiddie amusement park. My two nephews, ages four and six, had not had a meltdown on the line for the Polar Coaster. They didn’t complain about the kiddie-sized ice cream cone even though they had eyed the jumbo sized sundae bar. They didn’t lose their lunch on the magic tea-cups. All in all, things were going along swimmingly. Until, that is, we boarded the Buccaneer.

When I was little, my family would go to Wild West City, the cowboy themed-amusement  park near my home in Northern New Jersey.  We loved the games and rides, but there was one particular attraction that both petrified and thrilled me: the train ride.  During the infamous train ride, there was a “hold-up” by some not-so-friendly cowboys who would tease the conductor.  It was a rite of passage for every four-year old in our county to wet their pants… and then want to go on the ride again.

Now, as I sat next to my four year old nephew on the Buccaneer pirate ride, I was reminded of the thrill of fear. The Buccaneer was an innocent enough-looking ship that puttered around a natural cove on the outskirts of the park. Little did my nephew know, though, that the Pirate Captain would become the character he most loved to hate.

As we boarded the ship, the Pirate Captain instructed the kids on board that they would be responsible for rowing the boat on a nearby crank handle. (Clearly, the kiddos didn’t hear the roar of the ship’s engine since they were so focused on the Pirate Captain’s orders.) “If any matey stops rowing their crank, they’ll walk the plank,” he arghed from the stern.  The fear popped through my nephew’s eyes as he started rowing ferociously. Sweat poured from his brow and sunscreen dripped down to his chin as his pale arms pushed as hard as possible in ninety-degree heat.

“You can take a break,” I whispered to him. I pointed to some of the older kids who had stopped cranking their handles and were simply enjoying the ride. But he looked at me like I was insane. He rowed harder and harder as we made our way through plunging cannonballs and other pirate surprises.

In that ten minute ride, I believe my nephew could have qualified for the crew team at the Rio Olympics. He rowed non-stop until the moment we reached the dock. The poor kid was so beat as we exited the boat that we had to go sit near a sprinkler and take a rest.  I was worried about him until he muttered the five words that every aunt loves to hear…

Can we do it again?

I was proud of that little pirate.

July 18, 2016

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Butter

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I recently went to a seafood restaurant which had one rule: no butter.

Everyone had to eat their clams and lobster and oysters without the oozy deliciousness of our favorite dairy product. The restaurant wanted us to appreciate the saltiness of the seafood for what it was. It was an exercise in back-to-basics at the request of the hand serving the food.

Typically, I’d get annoyed by these types of restaurants. They always seemed snooty, like the steak house which refused to give you ketchup. If there’s one thing to know about me, I am not a snooty eater. (I smother my rib eye in ketchup,  much to the disgust of my husband who prefers naked meat.)

So, the no-butter rule irked me. I rolled my eyes and vowed to ask for cocktail sauce or something else they’d disapprove. But, when the butter-less crab legs arrived and I took my first bite, something amazing happened. I loved them. I licked my fingers clean not to taste the last drippings of butter, but rather to savor the salty deliciousness of crab.

I’m not giving up ketchup on my hot dogs at the ballpark this summer. But perhaps I’ll try a few favorite foods without all the razzle-dazzle of condiments. Perhaps I’ll skip the salt and pepper on my corn on the cob.  Perhaps I’ll skip the bleu cheese dressing on my fried chicken sandwich. Perhaps I’ll eat a naked hamburger.

I hate to admit that the no-butter rule changed the way I’ll eat crab forever. But this time, the customer was not always right.

 

 

In Awe

I took a walk in the woods this morning. I take walks in the woods nearly every morning.  Usually, I’m only concentrating on two things: waiting for my dog, Mabel, to poop… and debating whether or not I need to take a morning shower. But this morning, as Mabel circled her favorite drop-off spots, I realized something monumental. This particular April morning, the woods were the prettiest they had been all year.

Now, I’m not talking glam-pretty like mid-October in all its glory of orange and reds. Nor am I talking about December pretty with a fresh coat of snow, all Currier-and Ivesy. I’m talking about nature at its most natural. Nature at the moment when it slowly wakes from winter slumber but isn’t quite ready to get out of bed. Nature when, just like a lover at daybreak, it can’t hide what it is really is, filled with both roots and stumps and blooms and nakedness. Nature at its most vulnerable, but also filled with hope.

This morning, the woods were quiet, clean and (almost) ready to take on the duties of renewed growth. The mud had dried, but the weeds hadn’t unearthed. The lilacs hadn’t yet formed their buds but the moss was squishy under my feet. The chicks of spring hadn’t quite flown their nests, but the pond peepers were sounding the alarm for all fauna. But best of all, the woods, even the deep woods, were still bug-less. For a moment, I stood next to my poop-less dog, just appreciating the fact that I was not being eaten by winged blood-suckers.

And, in those woods this morning, I decided that this might be my favorite time of the year. I don’t need to mow the grass nor shovel the driveway. It’s too early to be in the garden but too late to be huddled around the wood stove. I sleep with the windows opened but the air conditioner off. I’m not sunburned nor frostbitten. Vermont is still and simple and serene and spectacular.

And then it hit me.Today is Earth Day. A day to hug trees and plant flowers and recycle our toilet paper rolls into weird crafts which would appall any thinking human. And while I’m the first to admit that the words “Earth Day” inflect guilt as someone who still chooses plastic over paper, I couldn’t help but have a moment of pure “Holy-Mackerel-Mother Nature-Is-A-Darn-Good-Exterior-Decorator.” Clearly, the lady has some talent.

After Mabel went about her business, I took a few extra steps in the wrong direction before walking back home. It was too special of a morning to rush. I wanted to listen to a few more fading peepers and relish in the bouncy soil below my feet. I wanted to feel the hope in the air and bask in the bugless, mudless, snowless, landscape around me.

When I returned to the house, I decided not to take a shower… in honor of the Mother, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scratch, Write, and Sniff

 

When I was in grade school, a girl in my class introduced me to scratch and sniff markers. My mind was blown by strawberry-smelling ink.

For the next five years, our entire elementary class sniffed chemicals from tubes during art class. And at some point, we all tasted the chemicals as well, since it was impossible NOT to lick the green apple marker to see if it tasted like a Jolly Rancher. (For the record, it did not.)

Our teacher thought it was a terrific way to get us to color. And frankly, she was right. We would have colored a crossword puzzle if it meant sniffing our “bubble gum” pink markers. (It was ironic that we weren’t even allowed to chew bubble gum as first graders, which made that darn pink marker even more alluring. They might as well have given us a tobacco marker.)

In theory, scratch and sniff markers were a great idea. However, I’m sure that allowing students to sniff markers all day was not exactly the best idea for our brain development. And, using the markers could be confusing when you were distracted by your olfactory sense. Was it okay to color a tomato picture with the apple-smelling red marker? Should the blue boat really smell like blueberries? And did we really want to use the stinky black licorice marker in our favorite Hello Kitty coloring book?

Yet, those scratch and sniff markers will always have a place in my heart. (Let’s pray that they don’t have a place in my lungs.) They colored my world and taught me the love of art. I looked forward to creating something (anything) that my parents could hang on the fridge.

To this day, when I get a whiff of bubble gum in the checkout line of the supermarket, my mind drifts back to that pretty pink marker.

Chipmunk Hotel

I put one chunk of tomato-basil bread into the small nook in the dead ash tree.  Then, I reach on my tippy toes to place another chunk into another nook.  I continued to circle the tree, filling other nooks with bread pieces.  When every nook is filled, I move forward with my hike, leaving nothing more than an accidental trail of crumbs from the bread bag, as if I were Hansel and Gretel.

This time of year, I get a kick out of leaving bread in the woods for wild animals. Silly, perhaps, but there’s something Cinderella-esque about imaging a bunch of robins and squirrels delighting in a thumb-sized buffet.  (That is, until you realize Cinderella is an orphan who is abused by her stepmother, but that’s another story.)

So, on the weekend, I put on my snow boots. I wrap my chilled ears in a wool hat. And I call for Mabel, my canine companion (who loves eating stray crumbs). We disappear into the forest, following the snow tracks of tiny critters.

It’s quiet in the woods. The only sound in my backyard is the occasional creaking of an old spruce, and the pitter-pat of Mabel’s paws. It’s peaceful and pretty and downright lovely. I’ll spend an hour trekking up the mountain, looking for tree stumps (taller than  Mabel’s reach) to leave the end of a bread loaf for a lucky chipmunk. I’ll peek into a hole under a dead tree to drop a few slices for a hungry squirrel.  And then, of course, I’ll seek out the perfectly wood-pecked dead tree for the ultimate room-service.

The menu changes, of course. Today, it was failed pretzels which never really rose in my oven.  Last week, it was Panera sandwich bread.  A few weeks ago, it was a moldy loaf of whole wheat.

But I find my customers to be fairly open to new cuisines. They’ve never sent back an order.

Photocredit: wunderground.com bkade

Electric Youth

I’m a fan of Tay Sway. She seems like a talented enough young woman with a decent head on her shoulders. Yet, in my eyes, she’ll never be Debbie Gibson.

To this day, I know every Debbie Gibson lyric by heart. Even the last word to the last song on the B-side of her first album.  (Between the Lines was actually one of her better songs, in my opinion.) To say that I was a fan was an understatement.  I wanted to be Debbie. I wore black felt hats to look like Debbie. I even bought her “Electric Youth” perfume, which resembled a battery-powered deodorant stick.

The first (and only) time I saw Debbie in concert at Madison Square Garden, I was speechless.  From the nose-bleed section, Debbie was as itty-bitty as a crumb.  But it was her. And her voice was echoing directly from her lips to my ears.  Somehow, she knew how I felt about boys and life and youth and love. And to this day, it was still the most memorable concert of my life.  (With John Mayer as a close second, and Color Me Badd in dead last.)

It’s easy to make light of today’s tween pop music or simply shake it off.  (See what I did there?)  But the truth is that each of these young performers is shaping lives (for better or worse) for only a few short critical years. I stopped listening to Debbie as soon as I became old enough to hang out with boys who listened to Dave Matthews. I replaced my Debbie tapes with Dave CDs. I threw away my felt hats. And our relationship came to an end.

But deep down, her songs still fill my heart in ways that sometimes surprise me. I’d be lying to say that “Out of the Blue” isn’t the most played song on my Ipod. And when I’m in the shower, I’ve been known to belt out a few of her lyrics I can’t believe I still remember. Yep, Debbie Gibson’s music is tattooed on my soul forever. While most folks today are shaking it off, I’m still shaking your love.

 

 

This film has been rated Animal Friendly. Viewer discretion unnecessary.

Last year, my husband and I went to the movies to see an action/thriller flick starring the late James Gandolfini entitled The Drop. I knew it was going to be violent. And I knew that there were going to be moments when I had to close my eyes.

However, before buying a ticket and committing to the movie, I asked the ticket salesman the question I always ask before seeing a movie. “Is there any violence against animals in the film?”

He looked at me with a smug smile. “It’s a violent movie, ma’am.”

First of all, he called me ma’am, which annoyed me since I was wearing my Forever 21 wrap sweater which should have made me look fifteen years younger than I am. (And certainly not old enough to be a ma’am.)

Second, he didn’t understand the question. I took a deep breath. “Yes, I know it is a violent movie, but I would like to know if there is violence against animals.”

“There’s an abused dog who has a happy ending.”

“Do you actually witness the abuse?”

“I don’t really remember, ma’am,” he said, both disinterested and impatient.

At this point, I could sense the folks behind me getting perturbed. My husband stepped up to the counter to appease the situation. He leaned into the ticket salesman. “Listen, I really want to see this movie tonight, but my wife’s not going to be able to handle dog violence. So, if you could just try to remember the scene, you can whisper it to me, and I’ll make sure she takes a bathroom break during that part of the movie.”

The ticket salesman rolled his eyes and spoke in a quick, monotone voice. “You don’t see any on-screen abuse, okay?”

I smiled happily. “Thank you. Two tickets, please.”

I think Television Parental Guidelines should include “F” to stand for “Fido Abuse.” Although there is a rating for violence (V), it doesn’t tell you specifically what type of violence that you might have to endure. While I’m already numb to human-on-human contact on the big screen (which is a WHOLE other sad column in itself), I can’t handle animal cruelty in the movies or television. Even cartoon movies with tragic animal mother deaths (i.e. Bambi and ALL Disney movies) make me weep.

Heck, I don’t even like to see animals die in movies, even when it is a pleasant, end-of life, storyline. (Forget, Marley and Me.) Basically, I can’t handle a movie unless the pet pooch lives a long happy life… full of treats and L.L. Bean flannel, monogrammed, dogbeds.

Come to think if it, there are other ratings I would also like to see in the Television Parental Guidelines.

“W” – excessive Will Ferrell nudity

“C” –  Cliffhanger endings beyond frustration

“H” –  Health-related outbreaks which will give you hypochondria

“B” – Brooklyn Decker swimsuit cameos which cause guilt about eating Peanut M&Ms with your buttered popcorn.

I’m all for surprises in movies as long as they don’t include animal cruelty, Inception-esque frustration, or excessive supermodels in swimsuits. As far as I’m concerned, warnings about the aforementioned events would help me keep my sanity in the movie theater.

Put as many karate chops as you want on screen. Just keep them away from that Shitzu.

Unexpected Item in Bagging Area!

By Rebecca Munsterer Sabky

Last night, after eating Triscuits for dinner for the second night in a row, I decided to go on a grocery run. I closed the fridge, put on my “fancy” sweatpants, and left the house. After an hour of perusing the various types of shredded wheat cereals, I had a sufficient cart of edibles for the week.

As I pushed my cart towards the exit of the store, I was faced with the soccer mom’s conundrum. Do I take my fifteen items (give or take an item or two) to the Ten Items or Less checkout, or do I wait on the massive line for the regular check out?  As a seemingly law-abiding citizen (I won’t admit otherwise), I decided to not violate the Ten Items or Less code. Instead, I decided to attempt the greatest game in the history of the 21st century:  Check! Your! Self! Out!

For those of you new to this particular game show, the object is simple. Scan your items and place them in a shopping bag  without needing the assistance of a grocery clerk.  Sounds easy, right?  Wrong!  Check! Your! Self! Out! is a sly combination of Jeopardy and Press Your Luck. 

The contestant must first successfully locate and scan the UPC code on a particular item. Then, the item must be placed in a plastic grocery bag on a scale which is programmed to predetermine the weight of that project.  Once a bag is full, the contestant must remove the bag from the scale without aggravating the system.

I’ve been a contestant on this show for about five years now. But, I’ve yet to win. Yesterday, I once again gave it my best shot.

First, I picked items which were easy to scan.The box of cereal with the clear UPC code on the bottom. The bar of soap. The instant rice box. So far, so good. The items matched their predetermined weight on the scale. Once they were safely bagged, I used a careful maneuver to remove the first full bag from the scale and back into my shopping cart.  I had survived the first round of competition. Moving on!

The second round was a bit trickier. I successfully navigated the scanning of a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream pint. (I had previously made a rookie mistake in another game when I forgot to swipe the ice crystals from the UPC code.)  I also performed scanner gymnastics to correctly align the UPC code on corner of a carton of seltzer. (Who says sweatpants at the grocery store aren’t appropriate?)  And lastly, I was able to squash a tube of moisturizer just enough as to flatten the code for the scanner without popping open the cap.  With the finesse of a pickpocket, I swiped the second bag from the scale and to my cart. Success! It was a close call, but I had made it on to the final round.

The final round of Check! Your! Self! Out! is notoriously impossible. It is the dreaded produce checkout. To win the game, I needed to successfully weigh, identify, and bag my tomatoes. I started by placing the tomatoes on the scanner for the weigh-in. The machine informed me that I was purchasing 1.23 pounds of misunderstood fruits. (You, too, thought they were a vegetables, right?) Then, I was required to identify the variety of tomatoes. My options were bountiful. There were beefsteak tomatoes.Tomatoes from the vine. Roma tomatoes. I looked at my purchased tomatoes. They were red and round and generic. In fact, they resembled all of the tomatoes on the screen.

Other customers were now lined up behind me. The ticking of my Swatch watch added to the drama of not knowing the correct answer to the tomato question. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.   I considered using a lifeline and phoning a friend.  I considered asking the audience on line.  I even considered running back to the tomato display (à la the old 90’s game show Supermarket Sweep) to identify where I first picked up these buggers.  But as my Swatch tick-tocked, I knew I needed  be a big girl and make my best guess. I closed my eyes and chose beefsteak. To my delight, the scanner accepted my answer. I was home free.

But as we all know, no good game is over until it’s over. (Vanna doesn’t change out of her ballgown until the final puzzle is solved.)  As I leaned over to place the “beefsteak” tomatoes in their appropriate grocery bag, my wallet accidentally fell out of my pocket.  It landed with a thump in the plastic bag, and the weight of the wallet jammed the machine.

Unexpected item in bagging area!!!

The lights above the checkout flashed and the customers in line sighed with disappointment. They knew I would have to wait for a supermarket clerk to come reset the machine.

I looked down at the ground with disgust. I had lost yet another round of Check! Your! Self! Out!  There would be no prize but to get out of the supermarket alive.

 

 

Clark Moore

I knew Clark before he starred in Love, Simon. I knew him before he was an a capella star on The Sing Off. I knew him before he won his first Oscar. (It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.) And he’s not only talented, funny, and smart…but he’s also kind. He’s a big city guy but he’d be a wonderful small town neighbor. I spoke to him in 2015 about everything and nothing.

clark
What was your first job, and what did you learn? My first job was a regional radio commercial for Coke and I learned how gratifying it was to get paid to do something you love.

Where is your favorite vacation spot? Any beach house in Hilton Head, South Carolina! There’s nothing more relaxing than a southern beach town.

What’s a necessary indulgence? I could never say “no” to anything wrapped in (or that incorporates) bacon, or a great sale!

If you’re in a department store, which section/thing do you gravitate towards?  The fragrance section. I have a very strong sense of smell that is directly connected to many fond memories.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? “The Southern Benedict” (fried chicken on a biscuit, covered in a black-peppered, sausage hollandaise gravy) at Folk Art in Atlanta.

Something most people don’t know about you? I’ve seen every episode of Battlestar Gallactica.

Do you sing in the shower?  What’s your go-to tune? I do a full broadway show in my shower every single day! This morning I was singing a playlist that included Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Robyn.

What’s one thing on your Bucket List you’d like to see/do/experience? I want to live in Ireland for at least a year.

What would people be surprised to find out about your daily routine?  People are usually surprised when they find out I don’t iron my clothes. I don’t even own an iron!

How do you order your eggs? Always over-medium with salt and pepper.

What was the first concert your saw live?  *NSYNC No Strings Attached. It was life changing. They came down from the top of the stage suspended by strings like puppets.

Finish this sentence: I’m likeable because… my glass is always half full.

Willie Geist

I don’t watch a lot of daytime television but I’ve always loved Willie Geist. He reminds me of the kid in class who could hang with both the troublemakers and the teachers. If Willie ever wants to move out of the city, I’d be the first to welcome him to the woods. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his love of books in 2016, and I still find his answers effervescent:

The book I hope to read soon is David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”

My most memorable English teacher was Abby Brown in 7th grade.  Mr. Brown was young and passionate. He once yelled at me for throwing a book to a friend because it disrespected the book. That, I must say, was a little over the top.

The most common grammar/spelling mistake I still make is putting the period or the comma outside that damned closed quotation. Still looks better to me on the outside, but what do I know?

If I could read an autobiography about anyone, it would be Jesus. We’ve heard everyone else’s version of the story. He definitely would debut high on the New York Times bestseller list — just after Bill O’Reilly.

The most beautiful word in the English language is “Chateaubriand.” Wait, that’s French. How about “effervescent”?

The ugliest word in the English language is “Buttafuoco.”

The most romantic love scene in the word would have to take place in Provence, maybe during a walk up Mont St. Victoire as it looked to Cezanne.

If someone wrote a book about my life, they would be surprised to learn that for the better part of the early 1990′s,  I tried to dress like a rapper. It didn’t work.

The book which I continue to re-read is “City Slickers” by William E. Geist. It’s a collection of my dad’s best columns during his time at The New York Times. Man, they’re good.

The book I tend to gift to loved ones is “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” It gets very awkward when it turns out the loved one is not pregnant — they’ve just put on a few pounds. Always ask a third party before giving that book. Lesson learned.

My favorite children’s book is “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus.” We’re big on the Mo Willems collection in our house.

My favorite library/bookstore in the whole world is Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey. It was my hometown store growing up, and a small bookseller that is thriving.

When I read, I love to snack on Twizzlers. Industrial-sized bags of them.

photocredit: NBC.com

One man’s junk…

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I found this pig platter at the Norwich Dump, ahem, transfer station. (The term transfer station makes Vermonters sound more proper.)

It was an interesting find, to say the least. (The “free to a good home” pile is typically chock full of glass vases and kiddie toys. I typically don’t even bother to look at that particular section of the dump because I’m usually focused on getting rid of my own junk.) I wasn’t sure why it had two rings near the snout and tail. It technically looked like a platter, but it also looked like something you could hang at the entrance of a farm. I wasn’t sure I would ever use it to serve cheese and crackers, and certainly not any pork products. Regardless, I needed to have it.

When I got home, I hung it proudly in my kitchen above the sink. I nailed it up, and then took a few steps backward, admiring my piggy as if it were the leglamp in a Christmas Story. It looked terrific, and it really added to the casual shabby chic decor (aka, random assortment of accessories, dish towels, planters, and Simon Pearce vases) in my kitchen.

Now, my houseguests ask me where I got the porker. I just muster a smile and casually say, “oh, around town somewhere.”  I’m fretful of the day when someone will enter my home and realize that it’s his/her old trash. But I’m hopeful the donor might get a kick out of his/her trash as the focal point of my home. (A few years ago, a friend wore another friend’s old prom dress to a spring party after finding it at a local hand-me-down charity.  Let’s just say that there were a lot of shared giggles.)

After all, one man’s swine… is another girl’s treasure.  And this little piggy finally came home.

The Real Housewives of Vermont

The Real Housewives of Vermont*

Episode One: Poppy, the flower-child housewife from Bennington, flips out at Samantha, the Connecticut import, when Samantha hints that the GMO-free labeled tofu on Poppy’s kitchen table might actually be a big box store imposter with (sigh) GMOs.

Episode Two: Fern, a fourth generation cheese maker, is insulted when Violet, the witchy snob of Lake Champlain, calls Fern’s homemade Vermont cheddar a little less sharp than other varieties. How rude!

Episode Three: Violet flips a table in anger when her husband accuses her of cheating with the plow boy. Later that episode, we learn that Violet’s husband is actually the one cheating. With whom? The plow boy!

Episode Four: Cinnamon, the playgirl of Rutland (who actually wears lipstick, which infuriates and amazes the other Vermonters), gets a little too close to Poppy’s husband at the Tunbridge Fair. Poppy storms off in her Carhartts, while the other women give Cinnamon a piece of their mind.

Episode Five: The REUNION! Cinnamon pleads that she’s just misunderstood because she wears make-up. Poppy and Samantha agree to disagree about GMOs, childhood vaccines, and the origin of the word “pumpernickel.” Violet announces a separation from her husband and a new house with a heated (not plowed) driveway. Fern celebrates the end of the season with the announcement of a brand new cheese variety: Green Mountain Gouda. Andy Cohen toasts all the women with raw Vermont cow’s milk.

*If only this show existed. Andy Cohen, call me maybe.

 

You think you know your friends…then you address them.

You think you know your friends. And then you try to address them.

Last summer, I addressed 100 wedding invitations to my family and friends. Making the list was difficult. It was hard to whittle down family and friends to a group which would fit under a tent. But it was even more difficult addressing the envelopes. Believe it or not, I had no idea what my friends’ actual names were.

I have some friends I have known since elementary school. And as far as I am concerned, I’ll always refer to them by their childhood names. But childhood friends sometimes get married, move away, and reinvent themselves.

When it was time to address wedding invitations, I started writing their names as I remembered. I began with Ms. Heather Jones. Yet, as soon as the ink dried, I remembered that Heather has a husband, David Smith and probably went by Mrs. Heather Smith. Yet, she was still using Heather Jones Smith on facebook. Was Jones Smith her full last name? Or just Smith? It was all so confusing. I ripped up the two-dollar envelope and wrote “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” I wasn’t sure if it was correct, but I hoped that Heather would be forgiving.

It got worse. Did my bridesmaid prefer to be a Dr. after receiving her PHD in biochemistry? What about the friend who may or may not have hyphenated her maiden name with her new surname? What about the gay couple who might have taken one of their surnames, but not the other? What do I do with the recently divorced woman who just changed back to her maiden name on twitter, but not at the office?  What about the couple who created a hybrid of both of their names? I didn’t even know the correct name of the clergyman marrying us. (Father or Reverend?)

As I toiled with hyphens or no hyphens, Ms. or Mrs., Fr. or Rev., I realized that the only thing to do was to make my best guess. If Mrs. Jolie Pitt was offended because I called her Ms., I still hoped that she would still stick around for a piece of wedding cake. (I felt like it would be more offensive to call her and admit I had no idea what her name was.)

And as I pondered MY new married name, I thought about all of my options. I could be Mrs. Sabky. Or I could be Ms. Munsterer. I could combine surnames with my husband to be Sabsterer, or I could hyphenate to take up as much space as possible Munsterer-Sabky. Or I could be a Madonna-esque diva (like Adele and Twiggy), and simply use my first name, Rebecca.

I realized that people can call me anything they like, as long as they call me. After the exercise in addressing wedding envelopes, I was more sympathetic to all of our changing names. Call me a friend, and I’ll still come to eat your wedding cake.

 

Skullduggery Island

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Be happy this isn’t Skullduggery, son.

When you were young, there was probably a place that scared the bejeezus out of you. Of course, that would be the same place that your parents would use to threaten good behavior. For many of you, it was probably the dentist, or your sister’s dancing school, or horror of horrors: summer school.

In my case, the place of pure fear was Skullduggery Island.

Skullduggery Island was a mini-golf course somewhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Miami Beach. We uncovered the monstrosity when my parents stopped at a gas station somewhere on the Florida Turnpike during a family vacation. I couldn’t tell you where it was, but I can tell you that I lived in fear of the entire Sunshine State. Forget the colorful golf balls and the water-features on the turf, Skullduggery was the stuff of nightmares.

The entrance to Skullduggery was a cave, covered in skulls and skeletons. It retrospect, I think it had a bit of a pirate theme, but as a tyke, I was so distracted by the plastic dead bodies, I didn’t notice any swashbuckling references. It looked like a CSI crime scene, covered with torsos with missing limbs and skanky looking corpses. As a six year old, I couldn’t unsee it. And my parents knew it.

They played right into my fear. “Want to play a round of golf?” my dad would ask jokingly every time we drove by the exit.

I would act like a typical, even-keeled kid. I quietly locked the door with my elbow,  stuck my nose back into the safety of my Archie comic book, and tried not to pee my pants with fear. “Not really,” I would mutter, trying to conceal my complete horror.

“Well, then, you should probably behave for the rest of the drive,” Dad would smirk at my mother. It was one of those disgusting moments that parents relish. (Like preschool graduations and first school dances.)

This went on for more years than I’ll admit publicly. Skullduggery Island closed long before I ever conquered my fear. I don’t think it attracted many mini-golfers, perhaps because, well, I don’t know… maybe it was too frightening for poor little scaredy cat children, and too cheesy for anybody with half-a-brain. (Not that I’m still bitter about the place thirty years later.)

But I behaved in that car for years because of my fear of psycho pirate skeletons who might kidnap me between putt-putts on green turf. And to this day, I still lock my door on the Florida Turnpike. Not because I’m still scared of psycho pirates. But rather, because there’s something scarier living in the Florida Everglades these days, and they also start with a “P.”

They call them pythons. Lock your car doors, kiddos. And hold in the pee until you reach Georgia.

 

The Trendiness of Backyard Chickens

This morning, I ate an egg laid by Mrs. Darth Vader. It was a beautiful pastel green egg with a healthy orange yolk which rose as the egg crackled in my frying pan. The egg certainly didn’t look like it would be associated with a nefarious Star Wars character. And yet, there was comfort in knowing that my breakfast came from a hen so well treated that she even had a name, albeit a silly one.

I usually don’t know the name of the chicken who lays my eggs. Even though I typically buy cage-free eggs, the carton never shows pictures and names of the happy producers. And although it seems trendy to raise free-range chickens in Upper Valley yards these days, I don’t plan on raising hens anytime soon. When I was growing up, my parents kept a rooster and two hens in our backyard after rescuing them from a nearby abandoned property. We built a hen house and a fence, and properly researched raising poultry. Yet, the rooster nipped at my little sister’s heels and my mother couldn’t cook enough omelets to keep up with the eggs. One short year later, we handed the chickens over to a nearby farmer with more patience and thicker skin on his feet.

So, having a colleague gift me a dozen beautiful green eggs — yes, they come naturally, not just in the imagination of Dr. Seuss — from her backyard was a real treat. She gave me the carton as a token of appreciation for helping her transition to her new job. She could have brought me flowers or taken me to lunch, but the eggs were the far more exciting treat. As I marveled at the oval beauties, she explained that her family collects eggs daily from Mrs. Darth Vader as well as her other four cluckers: Caramel, Butterscotch, Owl Face and Ghirardelli. On the top of a carton was packaging which explained that the chickens are well guarded by Penny Lane, the family’s Labrador retriever. It felt completely typical for the Upper Valley.

After all, the Upper Valley is filled with hobby farmers whose backyards are utopias of purpose and playfulness. I have friends who are beekeepers, milkmen and maple syrup boilers. I have neighbors who raise piglets and others who forage for morel mushrooms. Sure, it’s great to meet a farmer at a local farmers market who will sell you milk from his local dairy cows. But it’s even better when your best friend milks her family cow (named Holy, as in holy cow) to provide you with fresh cream with your coffee.

I look forward to the summer months when my fridge is filled not only with vegetables, but also filled with love. Pete gives me sungold tomatoes. Wynne picks me homemade grapes. Bernard gives me leafy greens. And Ben gives me berries. None of them are farmers by trade, but they all enjoy sharing the bounty of the backyard.

Me? I’m not a huge contributor to the trade. But, in the late summer, I do have stamina for picking more black raspberries than I need. I boil and sugar them down to preserves, and hand out jars to anyone within arm’s reach. It gives me great joy to have a friend coo with excitement over homemade jam from my Upper Valley backyard. And as soon as berry season arrives, I plan on giving my colleague a jar of sweetness in exchange for more green eggs.

Yes, life is good when you know where your breakfast comes from. And it’s even better when you know the name of the chicken producing your egg. And when her name is Mrs. Darth Vader? Well, that’s something to cluck about.

(As posted in the Valley News on May 31, 2015)

 

Tapas Schmapas

Tapas is the Spanish word for sucker. Or at least, that’s how tapas make me feel.

At first, I jumped on the tapas bandwagon. It was a novelty to think of communal dining in a day and age when everything is “gorge on the run.” I loved the idea of Spanish-influenced food courses over long periods of time with close friends. I appreciated the portion-control of smaller-sized items.

So, I went to dimly lit restaurants with yellow tablecloths and ordered large glasses of wine and small plates of food. Crostini with goat cheese and marinated red peppers. Chorizo-stuffed mushrooms. Ham and cheese croquettes.

However, there would be two small croquettes on the plate, and one and a half would go to the other three people at my table. I’d get a half-croquette, and I would leave the restaurant hungry.

My friends and I quickly learned to order more plates. Shrimp scampi, baked mussels, chicken skewers. By the time we had satiated our appetites, we would find the bill outrageously expensive and ourselves outlandishly “well-wined.” (Ordering extra glasses of wine was the only way to pass the time while waiting for other plates.) Eating enough to satisfy hunger seemed to cost a pretty penny with all of these tiny dishes.

If an alien landed on earth, he would wonder why tapas restaurants could charge more money for littler plates. It is a win-win for the restaurant industry: let people spend more money by ordering more expensive plates of smaller-portioned food. In any regular fine-dining restaurant, I can order a bowl of mussels for $10.99. At a tapas restaurant, I can order three mussels for $7.99. And I allow this to happen…because I’ve had four glasses of sangria.

I want to love tapas restaurants. I really do. And if you want me to meet you at your favorite tapas restaurant, I will be there with bells on.

Just know that I will have already eaten dinner. 🙂

 

Bye Bye Miss American Pie… C’Mon Sing It!

I’m not usually wooed by men whose names are displayed on wobbly chalkboards near the entrance to pubs. But, there is something fabulous about a good cover band singer after a few pints of tap beer.

Recently, a particularly memorable cover band singer caught my attention. It was a rainy day during a particularly rainy vacation.  When I walked in the brew pub with a friend, haddock and Guinness were the only things on my mind.  But there he was, warming up his guitar and drinking a bottle of beer from the stool behind a microphone.

He started strumming the opening chords of “Mustang Sally.” The motley crowd of après-work salesman and chatty singles turned their heads in his direction. In no time, he had the complete attention of the audience as they bobbed their heads along to the tune of “Ride, Sally, Ride.”  Frankly, he wasn’t bad. He even hit a few notes which were impressive.

After many rounds of applause, the CS announced that he was willing to take requests. A few women in the crowd went abuzz. The lady sitting next to me announced to her husband that she was going to request their wedding song. (She didn’t disclose her wedding song, but from the look of her beer-gutted husband, it was probably “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”) But another patron of the bar beat her to a request by yelling out “Margaritaville.” The CS smiled and started strumming.

“You know you want to make a request,” my friend urged me on. She knew my weaknesses.

The problem was that making a request is tricky business. I didn’t want to request a song that nobody knew, nor did I want to ask for something that he couldn’t play. I wanted to request something the crowd and more importantly, the CS, would enjoy. And I knew from previous experience that there were a few songs which were guaranteed hits with the cover band crowd:

  1. Songs that have the word “sweet” in their titles (i.e. Sweet Home Alabama, Sweet Caroline).
  2. Springsteen songs
  3. Songs about America (American Girl, American Pie, American Woman).

After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided to go with another slam-dunk request: “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.

I took a deep breath and waited for the end of “Margaritaville.” I approached his makeshift stage, stuck a carefully folded dollar bill into his beer stein and flashed my most charming smile. In close proximity, Mr. CS was even more handsome than I imagined. For a second, I was under the spell of a rock star.

“Something you wanna hear?” he asked, flaunting a dimple in his right cheek.

I sheepishly made my request and scurried back to my seat like a shy schoolgirl. (My friend rolled her eyes at me.) The CBS started strumming my tune, and the crowd clapped with enthusiasm  My song was a hit (whew!), so I ordered another beer and bobbed my head along to the music.

Two sets, two pieces of greasy haddock, and one more beer later, the CS was at the end of his gig. His closing song was a dead-on version of “Southern Cross.” We all clapped with enthusiasm, as he tipped his head to the crowd. Then, he was gone. He didn’t even hang around for a free meal.The CS had officially left the building, guitar and all.

Upon my own departure, I noticed a chalkboard on the sidewalk near the entrance to the pub. I glared closely at the print carefully, but the rain had spread the scribble into long, while chalk smears, disguising the true identity of the CS.

I knew I would never hear him play again. But for one night, I had the best seat in the house, and had fallen under the spell of a (somewhat) rock star.

 

Would you recognize your husband’s handwriting?

When I was little, I could recognize my friends’ salutations in my yearbook just by looking at their handwriting. Heather’s handwriting was incredibly feminine and loopy. Donna’s handwriting was textbook-esque and tiny. Christine’s handwriting was rigid at the corners, but curlier in the middle.

Now, I have close friends whose handwriting I’m sure I couldn’t recognize. I know their email addresses, but I have no idea how they write the word “Sincerely.”

I have to admit, I love handwriting. There is something intimate about recognizing the way your loved ones make their mark. Since handwriting doesn’t change throughout the years, knowing the way someone holds their pen is a stamp of a long-lasting friendship.

Plus, there is something artistic about handwriting. My friend Dana has incredibly slanted handwriting which  looks like it belongs in a calligraphy magazine. My dad’s handwriting is nearly illegible, but incredibly masculine and deliberate. My sister’s handwriting is similar to mine, except tidier on the page and without as many exclamations.

So, naturally, when I got married, it was important to me to recognize my husband’s handwriting.  Thankfully, he’s a letter writer, so I have bountiful evidence of his block letters (evenly spaced).  His handwriting is so… him.  Cool, calm, collected.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I worry for the day that partners can’t recognize the tilt of a loved one’s signature. Perhaps we should all make sure to step away from the email now and again, just so our kids can learn our signatures.

If Ski Areas Had Honest Slogans

SKI

Sugarbush, VT:  “Waffle House North.”
Big Sky, MT: “Four Flights from Anywhere.”
Killington, Vermont: “Voted Boston’s Best Bar.”
Tahoe, CA: “There’s an App for That.”
Deer Valley, UT: “Lifestyles of the Rich and Slow.”
Jay Peak, VT: “We Lost a Bet, and Built a Waterpark for French-Canadians.”
Jackson, WY: “Beards Gone Wild.”
Stratton, VT: “The Best Lift Lines Money Can Buy.”
Snowshoe, WV: “Fingers Crossed for Snow.”
Okemo, VT: “More Corduroy Than J. Crew.”
Sugarloaf, ME: “You Can’t Get There From Here.”
Mad River Glen, VT: “Tele Shaming since 1948.”
Mount Bachelor, OR: “Bend Versus the Volcano.”
Hunter, NY: “Long Island Playground.”
Stowe, VT: “Ben and Jerry Can’t Afford Us.”
Aspen, CO: “What’s in your wallet? It won’t be for long.”
Vail, CO: “Ski and Be Seen.”
Whiteface, NY: “Just Try to Stay Warm.”
Alta, UT: “Snowboard Intolerant.”
Sun Valley, ID: “No Small Potatoes.”
Snowbird, UT: “Where ACLs go to Tear.”
Powder, UT: “Dude Tested, Mother Disapproved.”
Mountain Creek, NJ: “Mallrats Unleashed.”
Taos, NM: “Someone is always bigger and better than you in the backcountry.”

By the way, I love ALL of these mountains, so no hard feelings, please 🙂

Seesters

I look a lot like my sister. And if you’ve ever been introduced to the two of us, you know that I’ll always tell you that “I’m the prettier one.” Because that’s the sort of person I am.

And if you’ve met us, you will also know the truth that my sister is the prettier one. Which makes it annoying to have a sister in the first place.

I have a lot of friends, but I only have one sister. And she makes me crazy, happy, insane, punch-drunk, peppy, jealous, emotional, competitive, tired, joyful, frustrated, silly, overwhelmed, and proud. If you have a sister, you know what I mean. Friends are for forever, but sisters are since birth ’til death and every day in between.

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Sisters never need to state their names on voicemail.

Sisters have photo evidence of your pre-brace face.

Sisters will tell you what they really of your boyfriend, “the walking beer keg.”

Sisters wear matching outfits through childhood…

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Sisters know which jeans best fit your body type.

Sisters kick you under the table at Thanksgiving when Dad tells that story for the umpteenth time.

Sisters know which 80’s song still makes you cry.

Sisters help you make bad decisions onstage…

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Sisters are both your biggest competition, and your biggest support.

Sisters help get you out of that little legal thing.

Sisters share your love for putting too much salt (or pepper or hot sauce or ketchup) on everything.

Sisters help you pick out undergarments…

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Sisters can’t stand the friend who doesn’t treat you like a sister.

Sisters know how you order your salad. (Dressing on the side, no feta.)

Sisters mispronounce the same words. (Perishables?)

Sisters get revenge on your wedding day…

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Sisters don’t care who pays for lunch.

Sisters call at 2am without having to apologize.

Sisters could guess your computer passwords, if need be.

Sisters insist that you hold their kids in pictures…

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Sisters won’t let you wear that in public.

Sisters attend both your Girl Scout Gold Award ceremony and your retirement dinner.

Sisters know how you got your nickname.

 Sisters share that one weird thing. Post-wine squinty left eye…

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And sisters know that they’re lucky to have a sister. 

Cheers to the Seesterhood!

The DOG IQ Test

Duke, the super dog.

Duke, the super-sweet (but not super smart) dog.

 

By: Rebecca Munsterer Sabky

A few months ago, my husband and I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about dog intelligence. The piece centered around a particular Dog IQ test which gives a sense of your pup’s natural intelligence.

While we watched the segment, I had two dogs in the house. While they were the same breed of dog, they couldn’t have been more different. My dog, Mabel, the six-year-old black Labrador, had used her charm to convince my husband to cuddle her on the leather couch. On the other hand, my parents’ dog, Duke, the ten-year-old yellow Labrador whom we were dog sitting, lay two inches from the wood stove, dangerously close to self-combusting.

After the segment concluded, we decided to give the dogs the test for our own entertainment.  We popped open a bottle of wine, grabbed a stopwatch and some treats, and let the games begin. (Let’s just say it was a slow Sunday night.)

The test included many basic exercises. For example, it tested long-term memory.  (Show the dog a treat, remove him from the room, and see if he can find the treat minutes later.)   It tested basic problem-solving skills. (Hide a snack under a low table and see if he can get it out with their paw.)  It tested language recognition. (Say a standard word like “BICYCLE” while calling for him, and see if he waits to come until his proper name is called.)

Mabel took the test first. I’m biased, but I believe that Mabel might be the world’s smartest dog. She knows how to hide her toys when other dogs visit. She can hike for miles without a leash and never leave my side. And she knows how to give kisses right when you need them.

As we gave Mabel the test, she easily completed all of the exercises. I was happy to be proven right.  Mabel scored 31 out of 35 points, which the quiz key labeled a “genius.”

Next up was Duke.  Duke is a special dog. He’s sweet. He loves people. But he runs in circles aimlessly with bugged-out eyes and straight legs. Let’s just say that we didn’t expect much.

At first, Duke didn’t fail miserably. He just failed. In tests where he could score five points, he would score one. But we were happy with one.  When he was unsuccessful finding a treat under a soup can, we still celebrated the fact that he tried.

However, one particular exercise really perplexed Duke. The dog intelligence test requires you to throw a towel over your dog’s head and count how long it takes for the dog to shake it off.  Mabel had shaken the towel off in a matter of seconds.  Duke, on the other hand, seemed content under the towel.  After two minutes of wearing the towel, Duke had no chance of getting any points.  However, we let him sit with the towel, hoping that eventually he would shake it off like Taylor Swift. After four minutes, we couldn’t take it anymore.  We removed the towel, and Duke just smiled at us, completely unaffected.

I’m not sure we learned anything from the test that we didn’t know already.  Mabel is incredibly underutilized as our pet, and should be working as a guide dog or an avalanche dog rather than just living with us.  And Duke.  Well, Duke is special.  He’s happy just being there.  And that makes for a darn good animal.

Writing to Harry Styles

Girls, get your pens out. Writing will change your professional life, your love life, and your financial life. And if nothing else, it might just get you a date with Harry Styles.

Let me explain.

I have a day job that has nothing to do with writing. I’ve made very little money off the writing I have published, and I’ve had hundreds of literary pieces rejected by editors worldwide. In fact, I am posting this column on my own personal Word Press blog since it has been shunned over a dozen times by major publications. Regardless, I feel strongly that it needs to be printed. Writing can change your life. Take it from me.

Let me start with how writing has changed my professional life. As I mentioned, writing is not my primary source of income. Yet, my ability to manipulate the written word has catapulted my career.  For example, a thoughtful and well-crafted thank you note scored me an invitation to a very exclusive networking event. A well-organized report propelled me to a chair position on an important professional committee.  And I don’t embarrass myself with poorly written email correspondence, most of the time. (I once signed off an email to a colleague with “Breast wishes, Becky.” Whoopsie.)

And, writing is the reason I got married this past September. You may not believe this, but without an ability to craft a funny email, I would most likely still be sitting on a bar stool, chatting up match.com men. My fiance and I dated long distance for three years. The only thing we had to keep our love alive were love letters. My incredibly educated, horrendously handsome husband fell in love with average ol’ me because of our communication. Not because of a particular outfit. (L.L.Bean boots and middle school sweaters are my uniform.)  Not because of the way I look. (My refusal to go to a salon has caused breakups.) But, instead he fell in love with me because of the way I could make him laugh over daily email. (Dear Jamal, I love you more than land mines. And they’re the bomb.)

And lastly, my love for writing has scored me lots of really nice stuff. A few years ago, I won a short story contest in a travel magazine, and won an all-expense paid trip to Tahiti. Tahiti!  Writing literally paid for me to go snorkeling with sting rays. And, I have won contests for all sorts of beauty products. Last year,  I won a supply of high-end (and very expensive) sunscreen. (I barely touched the stuff because I live in the land of gray skies and freezing temperatures, but it made my Floridan friends happy.)  I’ve also won flower bouquets, gift certificates to fancy restaurants, designer beach towels, a ski trip to Quebec City, and a year’s supply of Special K cereal. Oh, and did I mention Tahiti?  I did. Oh good.

Things weren’t always this way. The first thing I wrote was dreadful. Inspired by a music class in fourth grade, I wrote lyrics to a song which I thought would be Debbie Gibson’s next hit.  It was called “All American Girl” and it made no sense whatsoever. (Looking back, it was somewhat of a rip-off of both Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”) But I had fun writing it. And when my little sister started singing it around the house, I knew I was on to something. (If Molly liked something, then I knew it was valuable.)

From there, I started writing all sorts of things. Poems. Diary entries about teachers I didn’t like. Fan mail to Candace Cameron (D.J. on Full House) who I idolized. Stories about leprechauns. (Yes, I went through a leprechaun phase. It was weird.)

But my writing really developed when I discovered a boy band. The New Kids on the Block were young, good-looking, and everywhere. (You could buy New Kids bedsheets, bath towels, posters, dolls, etc., and I had them all.  My bedroom looked like a museum to hair-sprayed boys.) The youngest member, Joe McIntyre, was the cutest boy I had ever seen in my life.  Naturally, I thought I should write Joe a letter and introduce myself. According to my plan, he would be so taken by my letter, he would come to Jefferson, New Jersey, sweep me off my feet, and marry me. It was a perfect plan. I just needed to write the perfect letter.

So, I went to work. I crafted and re-crafted the perfect note with a flashlight under my sheets after bedtime. I crossed out sentences, and re-wrote full lines, carefully choosing my words. Love, Becky? (Too desperate.) Sincerely, Becky? (Too formal.) Smiles, Becky? (Just right.) And when I finished one letter, I would start writing another.

Out of the hundreds of letters I wrote, I only mailed about a dozen. Considering I sent them to only address I could find (a talent agency in California), I’m pretty sure that Joey never received them. But looking back, those countless letters made me a better writer. I might not have won the heart of a New Kid, but I certainly gained a love for the written word.

So, girls, find your motivation wherever it lives. Write not because you want to write the Great American Novel…but because you want to ask someone special to the prom.  Write because you really, really want to convince your school board to allow foreign exchange programs to Italy just so you can taste real gelato. Write because you want to tell Grandma Mabel how much you love her. Write because someday your diary might be a relic in the National History Museum. Write because you might win a lifetime supply of cheesecake-flavored chapstick. Write because there is a because…whatever it may be. Writing can and will change your life if you stick to it.

And there’s no better way of sticking to it than writing to Harry Styles. By the time you find the perfect words, he’ll be balding and you’ll be a Pulitzer Prize winner. And at that point, you probably won’t have time for him.

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