Face to Face

My mother was 27 years old when I was born and stubbornly stayed 27 years older than me the rest of her life. By the time I was a young adult, she was middle-aged. By the time I was middle-aged, she neared retirement. At age 66, cancer took her away from us.

For years, whenever I’ve looked at pictures of my mother when she was a girl, teenager, or young married, I’ve seen only my older mother impersonating a younger woman. I’ve had trouble connecting with the sweet, shy girl with soft brown eyes, the bi-lingual daughter of German immigrants, making her uncertain way through youth into a wider and wider world toward an undefined future. Knowing how her life turned out, I can’t help but overlay the more finished­ self onto the images of her emerging self. 

In an attempt to swipe away the filter of her later life as I contemplate her earlier one, I decided to line up photos of her at various ages with photos of my sister and me at the same ages—all of us at 1 year old, all of us at 3 years old, and so on up the line. It was the best idea I could come up with for narrowing that 27-year gap. If I stared at my sister and me at 21, say, remembering like yesterday how each of us was on the edge of new beginnings—Lori just married and moving halfway across the country, me getting ready for a year abroad halfway across the world—could I then look immediately at my mother at the same age and imagine in that face the same kind of excitement and uncertainty about her recent marriage and their unfolding plans to move to California the next year?

That was the goal, anyway—to harness memories of my sister’s and my inner lives at particular ages and then impute the same for my mother, whose image would be right next to ours. Did it work? I’ll let the photos speak first.

Left-to-right in each row is Martha (my mother) - Linda (me) - Lori (my younger sister)

 1 year old

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3 years old

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5 years old

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15 years old

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18 years old

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21 years old

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30 years old

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37 years old

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46 years old

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53 years old

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59 years old

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65 years old

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Just working on the pictures—selecting, scanning, cropping, and adjusting exposure and color balance—brought me closer to the young Martha and the young Lori. Hours of staring—I at them and them at me—led to quiet exchanges of recognition and empathy, some of them going quite deep. 

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The photo that had the most effect on me was the one of my mother at 15. I was gobsmacked by her vulnerability, her gentleness, and, wow!, her beauty, especially those lips, and again those brown eyes. She wasn’t a girl anymore, but not fully adult either—she’s perfectly balanced between the two. She’s delicate, but I also see a budding confidence. My sister and I look sportier by comparison, but that doesn’t mean I can’t remember all the tangles in my brain as I tried to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. 

This photo of my mother at 15 helped me imagine her as a teenager for the first time, and it guided me to her as an 18- and then 21-year-old without the future-mom filter getting in the way. It wasn’t a far leap from there to her at age 30. I could see much more clearly the young put-together woman who knew she was done having kids and was intent on raising the family she’d created. 

Have I generated enough velocity to completely escape the fixed orbit I’ve followed around my mother and her memory all these years? I would say no, but it feels like the smooth path has been disturbed. I’m still circling her, but I’m starting to see angles, lights and shadows, peaks and valleys I’d never noticed before. 

Because I grew up memorizing Bible verses, sometimes stray lines come to me without any effort on my part. These last few weeks, I’ve kept hearing, “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then we shall see face to face.” I looked it up and, to my surprise, found that a more famous verse comes right after it, one that I’d never before associated with the face-to-face part, but I get it: “And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:12-13).

The Pool

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I’m not into regular meditation, but the times I’ve been guided through relaxation exercises and asked to imagine myself in a place where I feel happy, calm, and stress-free, I often choose my childhood backyard next to the pool. There I am, lying on a padded orange-and-yellow-flowered chaise lounge in my bathing suit. The shadows of palm fronds dance on my closed eyelids as a warm breeze rocks the tree’s branches back and forth over my head. The pool filter gurgles happily. The sun gradually warms and relaxes me. My anxieties seem to melt away.  

This is my happy place? The pool I moved away from over 40 years ago? I can remember plenty of fraught moments in and around that pool when I was growing up. Why don’t they spoil it for me? 

In one of my earliest memories of the pool, I’m standing on the hot concrete and staring down into the blue water, with my father holding my waist so I could bend toward the water. “Just fall in!” one of my older brothers yelled. “Let your head hit the water!” the other called out. My little sister looked on quietly. “I’ve got you,” my father assured me. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I was scared. 

I lifted my arms over my head. My young brain wondered why jumping feet-first into the pool wasn’t good enough anymore. Why this pressure to hurtle head-first toward the hard bottom of the pool where I could hurt myself? 

Finally I quieted my nerves and let my head drop into the water. My father helped my torso and legs follow. The cold water rushed into my nose and brought on a vicious brain-freeze. In time I learned to blow air out of my nose when underwater, but this first time it stung. I twisted upwards to find the surface of the water, then paddled to the edge and scampered out. At everyone’s insistence I dove a couple more times to show that the first one wasn’t a fluke. I’d passed that test. 

Learning to dive was a major rite of passage at our house. It was part of becoming a big kid, part of graduating from the Styrofoam-ring set. You mastered it or you fell behind in what brought us together as a family every day from June through September, except when we were on vacation. We were a pool family. 

Being a pool family didn’t mean lolling around on towels with an occasional dip in the water to keep cool. No. Once we all could swim and dive, the pool became the setting for non-stop contests, games, and challenges—the hard work of children’s play. Despite the spread of six years from oldest to youngest, we four kids (and various neighbors—we had the only pool on the block) goaded, tested, and took on each other in as many ways as we could think of for hours on end.

We dove for pennies. If it was your turn, you’d close your eyes while another person dropped the penny somewhere in the pool. Then you had to go underwater and retrieve it, not coming up for air if possible. The person with the fewest trips to the surface won. We also had somersault contests: the winner was the one who turned the most somersaults underwater without taking a breath. I remember gasping dizzily as I shot up for air after setting a new personal record.

There were afternoons when we played many rounds of “Marco Polo,” a version of tag that required the person who was “it” to swim around with their eyes closed, hoping to touch someone else, who would then become “it.” As in penny-diving and somersaults, the ability to hold your breath underwater served you well if you were being pursued, because you didn’t have to answer “Polo” to their “Marco” shout if you were below the surface. I recall long periods of frustration as “it” when I couldn’t find anyone and wondered where they all were. 

And then there were “chicken fights.” We smaller kids sat on the larger kids’ shoulders and tried to knock each other over. The round wasn’t over until one of these two-person towers toppled into the water and the top kid fell off the bottom kid’s shoulders. It’s amazing we never broke any bones or did other permanent damage to each other during these skirmishes. 

Inevitably, my older brothers lost interest in playing in the pool with my sister and me. A definite segregation set in once we got a Ping Pong table for the pool deck. Ping Pong was a magnet for my brothers and their friends. For a couple of summers, the tournaments seemed to take whole afternoons, with a lot of loud shouting and laughing, and girls weren’t welcome. 

We used the diving board for posed photos more than for diving in our teenage years.

We used the diving board for posed photos more than for diving in our teenage years.

Soon, we all began neglecting the pool more and more. My sister and I decided the pool was less important than hanging out with friends, practicing the piano, and going out for summer sports and cheerleading. The wide-open, unstructured summers of our youth gave way to teenage socializing and more disciplined pursuits. 

As we four made our way through high school, we barely used the pool at all, and certainly not to play together. We each invited friends over now and then but rarely pulled a sibling into the get-together. My brother James and I liked to get deep, glossy tans every summer. He preferred floating on a raft in the water, while I usually chose lying on the deck. I applied coconut oil all over my body for this serious task and certainly didn’t want to spoil it by getting wet. 

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We moved to a new house, without a pool, when I was seventeen. Swimming has never been a part of my life since then. I’ve never joined a pool, owned a pool, wished I’d owned a pool, or even used hotel pools except a few times with friends. Pools and swimming just aren’t my thing. And when we get together, we siblings don’t make a point of finding a pool so we can swim together.

Yet, during our childhood, the pool and that backyard became my brothers’, sister’s, and my special territory. It was a place with few rules from the outside and it gave us chances to experiment, create, and design our own amusements. There was no place else we had to be. We whiled away the hours until our mother called us for lunch or dinner.

What else in my life has been so carefree and full of mirth, despite the tense moments of some of those watery tests? It’s really no wonder that my mind goes to that pool to relax. Ten thousand gallons of water surrounded by concrete …. That’s where I felt the strongest feelings of freedom, fun, and belonging I’ve ever known.





One Week When I was Ten

My grandparents on their porch in the late 1920s or early 1930s

My grandparents on their porch in the late 1920s or early 1930s

I see from the current Zillow profile of my grandparents’ former house, down the street from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, that it’s been a rental house for students for years. The whole backyard is paved over, for “TONS of parking!!!” Sky-blue vinyl siding encases the house, the kitchen screams 1990s discount makeover, and the wood floors have seen too many parties. 

I remember their house as a palace. My grandparents, Luise and Richard Heusel, moved in after getting married in 1928. They’d known each other in Kirchentellinsfurt, Germany, before emigrating separately in the 1920s (they were both born in 1901). Some of their friends and relatives also came to Ann Arbor from Germany that decade, providing an instant community far from home.

Luise and Richard lived in the house on Benjamin Street for over forty years, but I spent only a week there at a conscious age. We’d made the long car trek from Southern California to Michigan when I was one and six years old, but I recall almost nothing about those trips. When I was ten, though, I couldn’t get enough of the place. 

My mother and her brother in the back and my grandparents in the front—in the 1940s

My mother and her brother in the back and my grandparents in the front—in the 1940s

Everything about it and my grandparents’ life was exotic to me. For starters, the basement. Nobody had a basement where I lived. The cool damp air, the dim lighting, the low ceiling, and the mysterious tables, tools, and appliances titillated my curiosity like a circus funhouse. Grandma showed my sister and me how she hulled hickory nuts they collected from the nearby woods. We wanted to try it too. We used the small hammers to hit the nuts, but with much less finesse than Grandma—most of our nuts exploded into smithereens. We fished out the nutmeats from the shells with metal picks. The nuts tasted like walnuts but with a slightly bitter, wild edge. We checked out Grandpa’s workbench with its aging gear. As we left the basement each time, we’d run our fingers along the edge of the tub of Grandma’s electric clothes wringer, a machine foreign to us. 

Upstairs they had two floors—that in itself was novel, because where we lived all the houses were one-story. I fell in love with my grandparents’ furniture. It looked solid and expensive to me, with tastefully carved accents in just the right places. In our house, my parents had opted for a mid-century aesthetic, which struck me as plain and cold in comparison. Our floors in California were tiled or carpeted, not elegant hardwood, like my grandparents’. 

Me with my brothers and sister in a peach orchard near Ann Arbor

Me with my brothers and sister in a peach orchard near Ann Arbor

Grandma sat with us on the porch (a real porch with a swing!—not just a patio) and served us 7-Up in shot glasses. Our mom rarely gave us soda, and we’d never seen shot glasses before, though they looked a lot like the tiny Communion glasses filled with grape juice we got at church once a month. Grandma kept herself busy on the porch making crocheted doilies and lace at breakneck speed from thin cotton thread and a small steel hook. 

My Grandpa fussed endlessly over his vegetable garden in the backyard (the one that’s now asphalt). Everything in Michigan that summer was green and bursting, impossibly fertile and verdant. Where we lived in California, summer was brown—winter was the green season. The garden seemed immense to me at the time, with rows of all the vegetables I could think of, including cornstalks at the back. He let us pick green beans and water the plants. 

On Grandpa’s sixty-ninth birthday, some his friends sent over a big box of soft pretzels from a local bakery. The dense, chewy, yeasty, malty bread with big salt crystals was like nothing I’d tasted before. Grandma served us mostly American food during our stay, but her cakes and cookies loaded with butter and ground nuts were epiphanies to my palate.

Every day was a revelation. My ten-year-old brain took in what it could of this life my mother had left behind when she moved with her new husband to Pasadena, California, so he could enter the seminary founded by the chaplain he’d known while fighting in Korea. My parents had planned to return to Michigan after two years, but at some point decided to stay in California, settling in a small, growing “bedroom community” further to the east, Rialto. 

A badly-focused photo of us in Ann Arbor with our mom

A badly-focused photo of us in Ann Arbor with our mom

Grandma and Grandpa took the train to Rialto when new babies were born plus a couple more times after that, and my parents drove to Michigan with their young family every four or five years. My mother and Grandma wrote to each other every week, but their letters were in German, so the rest of us learned little from them. Long-distance calls and cross-country flights were too expensive and, of course, we had no FaceTime, Skype, or Facebook. What we crammed into those brief in-person visits was all we kids really knew of our mother’s parents. 

There were no more trips to Ann Arbor after I was ten because Grandma died three years later of a stroke. A couple years after that, my grandfather had a scary fall at his house and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He moved in with us and lived another three or four years in a declining state. When he came to California, my mother decided she didn’t want anything from the Ann Arbor house, so her brother sent her some silver and took the rest.

The sad thing is that I remember more about their house than about my grandparents themselves. I wasn’t smart enough to focus on them rather than all the new sensations coming at me, and I was probably intimidated by the German they spoke to each other and my mother. Still, their English was good enough that they could have told me what their life was like in Germany, why they moved to the U.S., what jobs they had in Ann Arbor in their younger years, and what our mother was like as a girl. 

My memories of that time are like a virtual reality experience. As if I were wearing a high-tech headset, I can see vivid images of my grandparents’ house with 360° panoramic clarity. I can feel myself moving through the house. I can even picture Grandma bustling around the kitchen. But that’s where the virtual reality breaks down. I reach out to her and try to talk to her. But my hands touch nothing, and the image of Grandma doesn’t turn to me or answer my questions. 

 “What if’s” are tempting but futile. What if we’d moved back to Michigan after my sister was born? What if Grandma and Grandpa had moved to California? The space-time continuum’s iron fist blocked me from connecting with my grandparents at points in our lives when we could have related best. The closest we came was during that one week, which yielded glorious, if incomplete, memories. 

The reality—true reality, not virtual—is that many people never get to meet their grandparents at all. I get to replay that week with Grandma and Grandpa in my head whenever I like, gratefully. 

This Land is My/Your Land

“Little,” the first responder in this situation.

“Little,” the first responder in this situation.

My sweet, quiet Persian named “Little,” like most cats, was a creature of habit. She made her appearance in particular rooms of the house at predictable times of the day. Twelve years ago, during the week of Thanksgiving, while we were still living in rural New Jersey, she suddenly broke out of her pattern. Instead of appearing in the kitchen at breakfast time, she lingered downstairs in our walkout basement. 

On the day before Thanksgiving, I finally went down to investigate. I found her in our unfinished storage room, sitting on an old chair near the door. Behind her was the mess that had been accumulating for 15 years. An old home bar upholstered with brown tufted vinyl sat in one corner. Dozens of tools and craft supplies lay unorganized on a workbench across from the bar. Leaning on the far wall was a mountain of boxes I’d kept from appliance purchases. Three sets of golf clubs, some boxes of painting supplies, and so much other junk made navigation hazardous. Old fiberglass insulation hung loosely between the studs. I didn’t like to look at it. I coaxed Little into coming upstairs.

On Thanksgiving morning, Little was AWOL again. I found her once more on the chair right inside the storage room. This time, before shooing her upstairs, I paused to see if I could figure out the reason for her delay. I noticed she kept her eyes on something across the room. I followed her gaze there.

A groundhog, a real groundhog, was splayed against the small upper basement window. He (for the purposes of this post, I’ll call it a “he”) wasn’t outside looking in. He was inside facing out. He wasn’t moving. His tummy was on the window and his limbs were outstretched, like he’d been trying to make a snow angel on the window and had frozen in mid-motion. 

Artist’s sketch…well, just the sketch I made in my diary

Artist’s sketch…well, just the sketch I made in my diary

I grabbed the cat and jerked the storeroom door shut. A groundhog in the house! As I ran upstairs and told my husband, my first realization was that the groundhog had probably been there a few days. A groundhog in the house for days! 

With a closed door between the groundhog and me, I calmed down a bit. The first question was whether he was dead or alive. We went outside to the window and saw the groundhog’s torso from the other side. We tapped on the window. He twitched. Alive! But somehow trapped there. 

Now it was Thanksgiving Day and we had no idea who to call. The recording at the number for Animal Control in our township informed us that on major holidays we should call the State Police. It must have been a slow day, because soon after we called, a young officer arrived in his formal uniform with yellow-pinstriped black slacks and a gray jacket neatly belted at the waist. He looked nervous as he took a golf club from the nearest bag and tried half-heartedly to dislodge the creature from the window. That didn’t work at all. Quickly out of ideas, he left. 

The Thanksgiving table

The Thanksgiving table

We had guests coming for Thanksgiving dinner. I shifted into cooking and hostessing mode. The guests came around 2:00 and, though we had a fine time, I couldn’t get the groundhog out of my head. We finally told them about him and realized, when they all looked puzzled, that you had to see him to believe this. We marched them outside to the basement window. Each person gasped as they bent down and regarded the poor stuck beast. 

Starting at 7:00 a.m. the next day, I called Animal Control. After two hours of no response from them or any other municipal number, I called an exterminator. Soon their man Roger, a gentle giant, arrived. He seemed unfazed by the situation we described. He went down, examined the groundhog, thought a bit, and concluded, “I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.” He went to his truck and got long leather gloves and a cage with water and cat food. Then he headed downstairs. 

We heard a minute or two of scuffling and imagined mortal combat. But soon Roger emerged unscathed with the groundhog in the cage, alive but clearly stunned. Roger told us that the groundhog had sunk its front teeth into the wooden frame at the top of the window and couldn’t get them out, because his body weight was pulling him downward. Roger gave us the bill and promised to drop off the groundhog in the woods far from our house. 

I went in and checked the basement window. It was a push-in window with the type of flimsy sash lock that could work itself open over time. The groundhog must have been passing by at ground level outside, found the loose window, pushed it open, and climbed in. We could see that he’d rummaged around a bit and ransacked the insulation in places. At some point, he’d decided to go out the way he’d come in. Apparently, groundhog logic suggested to him that, since pushing the window in had gotten him inside, he should push the window out to get outside. He must have kept trying the push maneuver until he got his teeth stuck in the wooden frame above the window, and then he was trapped but good.

We got that groundhog out of the house (thanks to Roger), but groundhogs were determined to squat on our property. They set up a burrow a few feet from our garage, and we never found a way to unseat them. Short of poison and guns, we tried everything—water, ammonia, cayenne pepper, smoke bombs, and then some—and each time we filled up their burrow with dirt. Without fail, they dug it back out and resumed their lives. They were survivors, that brood. Like the bats in our eaves, the deer that loved my strawberry patch, the territorial cardinals chest-butting our windows, the nesting sparrows, and the raccoons that climbed onto our second-story deck, the groundhogs didn’t give up easily. They reminded us constantly that we were trespassing on their land, not they on ours.  

From My Moments of Shame: The Piano Recital

Mrs. Steidl and me after the recital

Mrs. Steidl and me after the recital

One of the clearest memories I have from my teenage years is a moment of shame. Not embarrassment, not guilt, but shame. Unlike most recollections from that period, this one stands out vividly, a sharp barb on my psyche bringing a painful stab each time my mind tries to glide past it. 

I’ve decided to face this moment head-on and figure out what happened. I want to understand why, of everything that happened at that time, this is the memory that sticks out the most. 

The moment in question happened at a piano recital I gave when I was sixteen. The year before the recital, I’d started taking piano lessons from Mrs. Brigitta Steidl. Piano lessons were nothing new to me. Mrs. Hempenius, with the requisite hairy mole on her chin, was the neighborhood teacher I’d taken lessons from as a kid. I switched to the aptly named Mrs. Keyes, the pianist at our Baptist church, as a young teenager. But these ladies were no preparation for Mrs. Steidl. She herself had trained as a pianist in Poland and Berlin. I never learned the story, but somehow she ended up on the edge of the Southern California desert with her radiologist husband and their two spoiled poodles.   

She immediately started me on scales, arpeggios, exercise books, and lots of literature. She threw me into the deep end. Not used to the pace or expectations, I did my best, but I often floundered. Her feedback could be rough and sometimes brought me to tears. 

My weekly assignment notebook

My weekly assignment notebook

I’ve saved the notebooks where she wrote my assignments for each coming week. As I page through them, I see her liberal use of exclamation marks and underlines. “Too many mistakes! – careful!” “Back to Book, and work on all accents! –“ “Wrong Timing, accent only 1st count! –“ … always something to improve. The occasional compliments flicker like gold in a stream long abandoned by real prospectors. 

She entered me and other advanced students into many local piano events. My practice time increased as I prepared more and more pieces for juried evaluations, festivals, recording competitions, and other programs. She swept me along in her plans, and I obliged. 

The solo recital took place midway into my second year of lessons with her. She was preparing serious pianists, and serious pianists gave solo recitals. It was a new concept to me and my family. This was inland suburban Southern California in the 1970s, after all, not New York City. My sister remembers that I sewed myself a new dress for the occasion. I see the dress in the three photos taken at the recital, but I don’t remember anything about making it. 

The other thing about serious pianists is that they play everything from memory. I was used to this. Mrs. Steidl had made me memorize everything all along. I’d played pieces from memory for all the events she’d signed me up for thus far. 

The recital program

The recital program

The first piece on my solo program was Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 15 in B minor. These inventions are easy, and many piano students play them. Only 22 measures long, the piece was a fine choice to start with. 

Or so I thought. I walked onto the stage, looked at the small audience, took a bow, sat down, and started the Bach Invention. About four or five measures into the piece, my hands couldn’t remember where to go. They just stopped. I quickly started over, hoping no one had noticed. But when I got to the same place, my hands stopped again, and, for a second time, my brain was of no help. My face got hot. My hands trembled. I hadn’t prepared for this. Mrs. Steidl and I hadn’t talked about such a possibility. I started yet again, realizing now that I hadn’t actually memorized the notes or the modulations by name or by visualizing the score. I’d relied solely on muscle memory, which is great when it works, but it’s unreliable and can get short-circuited…by nerves, for example.

I started over at least four or five times before I somehow pushed through the valley of the shadow of death and finished the 22 measures. By the end, I was devastated, embarrassed, and bitterly disappointed in myself. I’m sure my flushed expression when I bowed afterwards showed how upset I was, but the audience clapped graciously. 

It’s a mystery to me how, immediately after that debacle, I played another Bach piece, then Mozart, Beethoven, and, after intermission, Schumann, Mendelssohn, MacDowell, and Rachmaninoff. I have absolutely no memory of the rest of the recital or the reception afterwards. 

I also have no memory of what Mrs. Steidl said to me then. The recital was on June 6. I had a lesson on June 8, the assignment book shows, but it’s the only lesson in the notebook with absolutely no notes written by her. I assume it was a bracing oral briefing. 

It’s so easy now to dismiss the Two-Part Invention episode. So you goofed up? Everyone makes mistakes! No, it’s deeper than that. You’re a perfectionist! That’s why it bothers you. No, I’ve always been more of a “close enough” person. Who remembers or cares? Of course nobody does. It’s not about that.

Then why was this episode so shameful to me that it blocked out all other memories of the day? After thinking about this for a long time, I have a double-lightning-strike theory. 

The first bolt, so goes my theory, was the extreme stress of being the center of attention. I think about my shy sixteen-year-old self. I don’t think I understood just how uncomfortable being the spotlight would be. I’d pushed through nervousness at festivals and other group recitals, but a whole recital where everyone came to listen to me alone was a very different matter. The stress must have kicked in just as the recital started.

The second major shock came when I proved so incompetent on the first piece. Failure to this degree was, frankly, a new experience. I’d been good at virtually everything I’d tried up to that point. School had always been easy. I’d learned new hobbies quickly. I wasn’t the absolute best at sports, but I’d made first string on the teams I’d gone out for. I must have thought there wasn’t much I couldn’t do. But I’d met my match with Mrs. Steidl’s expectations. I’d practiced so hard and I still failed. Too bad this lesson had to be learned right then. 

So there it is, a classic moment of shame and my best guess as to why it made such a deep impression. Does this processing lessen its sting? I would say yes. At least now I can linger on it instead of wincing and looking away. I can feel sympathy for that devasted teenager. I can see now that Mrs. Steidl pushed me too far too fast. Not to mention she bullied me. 

Bach, Two-Part Invention No. 15

Bach, Two-Part Invention No. 15

There will always be some scar tissue where the shameful moment jabbed my confidence in the past. But even back then, the sixteen-year-old didn’t let the experience defeat her. Right after the epic mistake, she picked herself up and finished the recital. She showed up for her next lesson and didn’t walk away from Mrs. Steidl or the piano. She doubled-down on musical study and made it a core part of her life and identity. 

I got out the Bach Two-Part Inventions recently. Number 15 is more difficult than I remember. I’ll keep at it. 

It’s Official: There’s Nothing Worth Stealing in My Garage

Our garage

Our garage

“Did you get married in New Jersey in 1997, ma’am?” A couple months ago I got a call out of the blue from the Portland police. The officer confirmed my name with me, then asked about when and where I’d been married. “Y-y-y-es,” I stammered, wondering where this was going. He explained that a box of paper files had been found at an intersection about a mile from our house. Someone had picked up the box, taken it home, and looked for clues as to its owner’s address in Portland. After finding nothing helpful, my unknown hero turned the box in to the police.

Ten minutes after the phone call, the officer was on my doorstep handing over a ripped and battered cardboard box with manila file folders spilling out at all angles. In the interval between his phone call and arrival, I’d pieced together what must have happened. One morning the week before, when we’d had guests staying with us, I’d noticed that our garage door was open, meaning we’d forgotten to close it the evening before. Thieves must have gotten into the garage that night. 

The files in this box, called “Archived Files” on the label I’d stuck on it, were miscellaneous papers I wanted to keep but wasn’t ready to give indoor status to. I already had a lot of files in my study and couldn’t accommodate these. These files were second-string in my mind – not of immediate importance and rarely consulted.  

Why the thieves took that box baffles me. They left everything else—the lawn mower, ladders, vases, holiday decorations, wine glasses, suitcases, and other typical garage content. They also skipped over boxes named “Linda’s diaries,” “Linda’s musicology articles,” “Annuals and letters,” and “Linda’s old stuff, pretty things.” 

The scene of the crime

The scene of the crime

Did the thieves’ conversation go something like this? “I see some teapots in this box.” “Nah, you’re crazy.” “How about this lamp?” “Nooooo.” “Here’s a box called A.r.c.h…. ‘Archie,’ maybe?” “Leave it. Let’s get out of here. There’s nothing we can sell.” After getting into the car: “WTF! You took that Archie box?” “Where’s the comics? This is just a bunch of papers!” Car stops. Door opens. The box goes plop.… 

Our garage, like most people’s, is a weird space. It’s not fully inside or fully outside. It’s cold in the winter and stuffy and hot in the summer. 

For some people, I’ve noticed, garages harbor hopes and dreams. They’re turned into workshops, studios, small businesses. They’re sometimes refuges for those who want more alone time. 

When we lived in New Jersey, one of neighbors kept his garage spotless, cleaned it out often, and held large family parties in and around the garage. His lovely deck on the back of the house stood empty while guests socialized in the driveway, sitting in lawn chairs on the cement, drifting in and out of the garage to get their food and drinks.

No room for cars in this neighbor’s garage

No room for cars in this neighbor’s garage

For most of us, garages aren’t places to spend time, but a storage solution for big or dirty things, unfortunate purchases we’re not ready to admit to, items we haven’t gotten around to giving away, boxes we’re intending to go through from the last move, outgrown toys and clothes, grown children’s boxes waiting to be picked up, and, of course, multi-packs of paper towels and toilet paper. 

Ah ha! I forgot cars! On my street, there are a lot of parked cars on the street at night. Either most families have more than two cars, or there’s no room for cars in their garages.

Back to my stolen papers, though. What bothered me about the theft was not that it made me feel unsafe: I get that we’re not in the New Jersey countryside anymore. We used to leave our garage door open for weeks at a time there (I was feeding a stray cat for a while). Nor was I troubled because I had too much stuff in the garage. In fact, we took the luxury of time to declutter before we moved across the country four years ago. I knew what I had. I knew what was in each of my boxes. 

That’s the thing. Only four years ago, I put too many priceless things in the garage. I know this now because I went through the garage again after the theft. I came away with two big boxes of items that needed to be moved to safer ground. What was in these two boxes? Words.

Every single thing in those two boxes was some kind of writing: 30 years of letters from friends and family, 13 years of my diary, some journals of my deceased brother, the little notebook my mother kept during my first year of life, and my “Linda’s School Years” book.

Books about the young me

Books about the young me

In just four years, I realized, my priorities had changed dramatically. For 23 years in New Jersey, these letters and journals had been buried in piles of sagging cardboard boxes in a rarely opened closet. When I decluttered prior to moving West, I assigned them the same low ranking—I knew I had to save them, but when would I ever have time to read them?

Now is the time. Yes, now I have the interest and energy to read them. I downshifted my work life so that I could make time for things like reading old letters and diaries and deepening my understanding of how I got to be the person I am today. These letters and journals uncover memories and help me piece together my upbringing, my friendships, my plans, my opinions, my fears, what was going on around me, and the many decisions that have led to the present day. It’s going to take a while to go through everything, but I’ve started.

I’m lucky I got my box back, with the bonus kick in the pants about what I’d been keeping in the garage. The tidiness lulled me into a false confidence. I had nice shelves, uniform containers, and minimal bloat. Everything sparked joy in one way or another, but the precious old words that could spark deeper self-understanding weren’t in the right place.   

Firing People: The Memories that Won’t Fade

bare tree snowy day Manners Road.jpg

In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a consultant who’s paid to fire people. Early on we learn about the rhythms of his work: he flies to a new city, the people line up to speak with him, he breaks the news to each one in sincere tones, offers them Kleenex, and hands them a folder with all the details. Perfectly smooth. Time to catch the car to the airport.

That makes for a good story, but most companies require managers to fire their own staff. George Clooney’s just-in-time arrival and easy getaway are nothing like what I’ve experienced.   

Until I fired one or two employees, I talked carelessly about getting rid of people. “Yeah, he’s gotta go, definitely.” “Why is she still here, anyway?” It was easy to fall into that tough-talk mode. But after I’d done it myself, I knew that no matter what the reason for the decision, no matter how well justified or necessary, there was no getting around the fact that I, their manager, would humiliate and traumatize them, take away their current livelihood, and, at least temporarily, deprive them of their self-respect and part of their identity. 

Often I’d known the person I was about to fire for a while and was on decent terms with them. I’d set goals with them, helped them solve problems, given them constructive feedback, and praised their successes. Suddenly, I was going to shatter the security of their regular income and maybe derail their career for good. 

The more you fire people, the more you know what’s coming. There’s no easy way around it. It’s just going to hurt you both.  

HR met with me to set up all the details of the firings. There were sessions about what exactly would be said during the meeting, who would be there (always at least two people, so there’d be a witness), and the exit terms. A post-firing communication plan had to be written and approved so that we knew who we’ll tell, once the deed was done, in what order, and via what medium.

During these weeks of planning, my anxiety level inched up, and the employee knew nothing. It’s like how many couples break up. One person becomes dissatisfied weeks or months before telling the other partner. The unhappiness grows, deepens, and takes a definite shape. As the person summons up the courage to speak, the ragged narrative becomes smoother, crisper, more logical. The dissatisfied partner finally makes the practiced speech to the unsuspecting mate, who’s floored, taken completely by surprise, and needs his or her own weeks or months to process the new reality. 

During all these weeks of planning. I tried to act as natural as I could. I was never sure if my behavior completely fooled the person or not. I felt guilty about what I was going to do, and the secrecy made it worse. 

When we were finally ready, I scheduled a meeting with a bland title like “Touch Base.” I didn’t sleep well, if at all, the night before. Anticipating the pain I was about to inflict kept me both awake and exhausted.

The meeting came at last. The employee arrived, chatting amiably, but then went rigid when they saw the third person there. On cue, but with a dry, raspy voice, I delivered my memorized lines, starting with “I called this meeting to tell you…” and ending with some version of “So you no longer have your job.” Then I paused as the person absorbed what I’d just said, the equivalent of watching someone double over after a surprise punch to the gut. 

Most people were too stunned to get angry. Some started to question why. Others got up a little steam and claimed it was unfair. I’d been well enough prepared not to argue. That must have made it doubly infuriating. I kept my responses brief and safe. 

I tried to steer the conversation to the exit terms—I’d spent all those hours with HR figuring out the details. Usually the person was on overload by that point and couldn’t process what I was saying. They could read the terms later.

The meetings usually lasted no more than 15 minutes, sometimes as few as 5. The person went home, after having to slink back to their office or cubicle—red-faced or in tears—to get their keys and coat. I stayed to cancel their meetings and implement the communication plan, starting at the top of my list and working my way down. Their world was upended that day. I still had my job. 

Inevitably, they avoided all contact with me from then on. Any personal affinity we had was dead. All I could do was check LinkedIn to find out if they’d found a new job. Occasionally I’d run into one of them in town and get a scowl. Sometimes Facebook suggested connecting with one of them and probably suggested me to them, too. Neither of us clicked “Add Friend.” 

When I first agreed to be a manager, I was thinking only about the planning part of the job—I’d always loved to design how work gets done. No one told me all the things I might have to do. I didn’t figure out until later that being a manager was a Faustian bargain. More pay, being in charge, and climbing the corporate ladder came at a price, including the dirty work of cutting off a person’s livelihood when it had to be done.

I remember each firing well. Those meetings where I told people their job was over are as clear to me as if they were yesterday. Recollections of product launch celebrations, new contract wins, or joyful retirement parties are hazy in comparison. They don’t know it, but the people I fired loom large in my memory. Often, to myself, I wish them well.

It Should Have Been Simple: Making Vegan Dinners for My Omnivore Husband

My husband doesn’t like my  No-Oil Roasted Sweet Potatoes in Bowls

My husband doesn’t like my No-Oil Roasted Sweet Potatoes in Bowls

Four years ago, I spent a long weekend at the Vegetarian Summerfest in Johnstown, PA. I arrived a curious vegan, comfortable with where I was, but open to what I might learn. I left there radicalized. My already firm convictions against farm-animal exploitation turned rock-hard. My suspicion of the meat, dairy, and egg industries deepened into contempt. I also discovered a completely new universe I hadn’t known before: whole-food plant-based eating for health. 

When I arrived back home after a seven-hour drive—plenty of time for resolutions—I told my husband of 18 years that I would no longer shop for or cook animal-based foods for him. He was on his own if he wanted to eat that way, I announced. 

I waited for the blowback—confusion, anger, frustration, or some combination. But he agreed. He said he’d eat vegan meals with me. 

Wow. Hooray! I thought the buy-in part would be the hardest. Was it curiosity? Respect? A desire to keep the peace? Not wanting to cook for himself? I didn’t ask. I’d wanted this for years but had never put my foot down. Sure, we didn’t have exactly the same tastes, but we’d find enough dishes we both liked. 

I decided to take a systematic approach to this new chapter of our eating lives. I’d keep a record of every dish I cooked along with his reaction. I told him he could voice his true opinion. He didn’t have to hold back to protect my feelings. With clear feedback from him and careful records of his responses, I figured it would take maybe six months to land on a few dozen dishes we both liked.

I had a winner the first night: bean burgers and Cajun sweet potato fries. The second night he gave a thumbs-up to a falafel salad with roasted potatoes on the side. Three in a row with a yellow Thai vegetable curry the third night.

Then I hit my first failure, spaghetti with tempeh meatballs. They were too spongy for him. He ate only two bites. I opened my mouth to explain why he should like them but then checked myself and simply documented the failure. 

And so it went for the first 18 months or so. I learned that he really disliked greens, cooked cabbage, Brussels sprouts, peanut sauce, olives, and slabs of tofu, seitan, and tempeh. I found out that less is more when explaining a dish. In fact, he once blurted out, “Please don’t tell me what’s in this!” He rejected about a third of the dishes I tried, which I considered not bad, given that he seemed to be a picky eater in general. My systematic approach was paying off.

Then something started to shift. I didn’t notice it at first, but more and more he rejected dishes that he’d liked just a few months before. I pointed out that according to my records, he actually liked what he was now snubbing, but that didn’t change his reaction. In fact, within the space of the next 12-18 months, major food categories that had previously been okay were wiped out. Sweet potatoes (except as fries) became unacceptable, no matter how I cooked them, as did “rice that stuck together,” including all risottos and brown rice across the board. A great Malai Kofta and my brilliant miso-infused stir-fried vegetables were history, without explanation. Every time I thought I saw a pattern, it didn’t hold. I lost at least half the dishes he’d like before. 

This  Scalloped Broccoli and Potatoes  is a ketchup magnet in our house

This Scalloped Broccoli and Potatoes is a ketchup magnet in our house

He also mentioned more frequently that the food wasn’t filling. Then he told me he didn’t want a salad every night—every other night was plenty. He asked for ketchup more often, too. If there was any sign of potatoes in the dish, he soon fetched the ketchup bottle.

By that time, it wasn’t just vegan food he was flip-flopping on. His occasional trips out for lunch shifted too. He lost his taste for Subway sandwiches and the cashew chicken from his favorite Chinese food cart. He went back and forth on General Tso’s Chicken, a dish he’d loved unconditionally until then. Vegetable Lo Mein went the other direction—he’d never been a big fan, but he came to really like it. Now he loves my homemade vegetable Lo Mein and seems to be on a noodle kick in general. 

He began waxing nostalgic about foods from his past. His mother’s peas in warm milk and butter and his step-mother’s Hungarian Goulash evoked wistful memories. When we went out to eat and he ordered a hamburger, Fettucine Alfredo, or pepperoni pizza, he ate lustily and reminisced about other times he’d eaten and loved them. 

This is not how I imagined our shared eating would go. I was hoping that beliefs would follow actions—that he’d become a vegan once he started eating this way. But that’s not what happened.

I wonder whether subconsciously he was experiencing vegan eating like a diet, and after 18 months something inside just got sick and tired of the deprivation. Or maybe I’d completely disrupted his food preferences and left his taste buds confused. It’s like I’d scrambled the signals in his taste center, and it was having trouble processing the input it received. 

He does like almost all of my vegan desserts, like this  Carrot Cake

He does like almost all of my vegan desserts, like this Carrot Cake

These days I don’t experiment much. I’ve pared down my vegan menus to dishes I know he likes. If I’m not sure, I run an idea up the flagpole before going to the store (“I was thinking of making that basmati rice pilaf tonight—what do you think?”) and wait for the response. My system and perseverance are nothing in the face of his stubborn and complex tastes, mystifying to both of us, it seems. 

Lest it sound like our dinner times are fraught with tense discussion about food, fear not. We are happily absorbed by a New York Times crossword puzzle every night over dinner, leaving little time to talk about much else. At this point we don’t need to say much about the food. I can read his non-verbals all too well, and he knows he’ll never go back to a time when he gets to eat what he likes best.

“Marriage demands compromise” sounds like such a cliché. But we live and eat our version of that cliché every evening around 6:30.

Give Me That

A few weeks ago, with only four days to go before a wedding shower I was to attend, I realized I hadn’t bought a gift. I looked at the couple’s wedding invitation and saw they were registered with both Amazon and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It was easy. In less than five minutes I’d located their list on Amazon, bought something in my price range, and chosen shipping and payment options. 

List of wedding gifts

List of wedding gifts

I might not have thought twice about this mundane transaction had I not, later that exact same week, come across a list of the wedding presents my first husband and I had received when we got married in the early 1980s. I don’t remember saving the list. The yellowed pages with faded blue ink smelled of mildew from long storage in a New Jersey basement. My sister’s youthful handwriting instantly took me back to that gift-opening party we shared with immediate family all those years ago.  

The joke we told each other in those days was, “How many crockpots did you get?” Most couples in our circle didn’t set up a registry. It was something better-off families did at what we considered high-end department stores like Harris’ and Broadway in San Bernardino, the nearby “big city.” The rest of us just crossed our fingers and hoped the potluck of gifts we opened would help furnish a decently balanced starter household. 

If you received a wedding or shower invitation back then, saying yes meant you were committing yourself not just to the expense, but also to the time, effort, and creativity of buying a gift. Some people tended to give the same thing to about every couple. My mom favored stainless steel bowl sets. Others took greater risks and bought presents that played off something special they knew about each couple.  

Opening wedding gifts a long time ago

Opening wedding gifts a long time ago

The list I found shows that most of what we got fell into the safe, practical category: a kettle, blender, mixer, sets of baking pans, cookie sheets, dozens of towels and sheets, and almost miraculously just one crockpot. 

But there were the bolder choices: a pewter creamer and sugar bowl set, an inlaid-abalone vase from Vietnam, a dramatic glass salad bowl at least three times the size of any I’d seen before, a delicate glass pitcher perfect for breakfast juice (or sangria for two, I discovered later), and an exquisite ceramic quiche dish. I have and love all these pieces still.

What startled me was seeing that a few gifts actually launched my husband and/or me into new, lifelong passions we otherwise might never have pursued. His grandparents gave us a handmade patchwork quilt—“grandma’s garden” pattern in gentle pastel colors. It was love at first sight for me. I’d sewn my own clothes and dabbled in cross-stitch, knitting, and crocheting, but I’d never considered making patchwork or appliqué quilts. Within a year after our wedding, I started trying my own quilts. I mastered a few easy patterns, then broke away and started making my own designs and combining patterns as needed. Over the last three decades I’ve made a couple of dozen quilts, each giving me hours of in-the-zone joy as I played with colors, shapes, prints, and textures.

golden sceptre label.jpg
wheeler's fancy label.jpg

One friend gave us two original orange crate labels from the long-gone orange groves that had dominated the acreage in our hometowns in Southern California. Labels were glued onto the narrow ends of wooden orange crates to identify where they came from, and unused stacks of labels had been thrown carelessly into nooks and crannies of barns and warehouses, where they were discovered decades later. These antique lithographs pulled us into their tiny paradisal landscapes of sunshine, snow-capped mountains, and rows of orange trees nestled in lush green valleys. The notion that such colorful and elegant designs had been part of everyday transactional commerce fascinated the budding cultural historians in both of us. This pair of labels whetted our appetite for more. During the year before we moved to New Jersey, we spent many happy hours in antique stores combing through dusty boxes of labels and buying new favorites. After moving East, we had to use catalogs and mail order to fill in our collection. Several rooms in my house today are decorated with original orange crate art, and the labels still make me smile. 

One of my college professors gave us two classical LPs, one with a Mozart concerto that became one of my all-time favorite works to listen to (I write about it here). We also got five different vegetarian cookbooks, titles I hadn’t known before. Two of them, by Anna Thomas and Sally Pasley, became indispensable to me in the kitchen for a couple of decades. 

Most of the 100+ gifts we received are long gone, having served us well until they broke, wore out, or were given away when we had to have something bigger or better. 

The gifts that had the most staying power were those we didn’t know we needed or wanted. Sometimes others know best. Or, at least, they know different. I’ve noticed over the years that the outfits my sister and husband buy for me aren’t ones I would have chosen for myself but often become my favorites. Other people can see potential where we can’t. They take greater risks for us than we do for ourselves. What we each know and prefer is like what we can see by the light of a campfire. What’s beyond the blaze that might be perfect for us can only be seen when the sun comes up and illuminates the whole world of possibilities. It’s other people who bring on the sun. 

I like the idea of crowdsourcing the future for a couple-to-be. It’s hard to imagine any but the oldest souls forgoing a wedding registry in favor of a trust-the-universe approach. So I won’t hold my breath. But just once I’d like to get a wedding invitation that, instead of listing where the couple is registered, reads, “Surprise and inspire us with unique things we’d never think to ask for.”

How Much Do I Care About the World’s Plastic Problem?

One week’s worth of one-time-use plastic in our home

One week’s worth of one-time-use plastic in our home

For whatever reason, plastic has been preying on my mind recently. It’s not that I haven’t known there’s a plastic problem. We’ve been recycling to the letter of the law since I can remember. I’ve taken reusable bags to the grocery store for a long time. And we gave up buying bottled water about five years ago. 

But a new place in my brain lit up a few months ago when I read about a woman who doesn’t buy or use any new plastic.[1 ] At all. To avoid plastic packaging, she shops for produce at farmers’ markets and buys things like sugar and rice in supermarket bulk sections using her own glass containers. She avoids take-out food. She doesn’t buy any products made of plastic or that come in plastic containers or wrapped in plastic, which means she makes a lot of her own stuff, like shampoo, toothpaste, and household cleaners. If there are no alternatives for a particular type of product—like a refrigerator, computer, or car—she buys a used one, so at least it’s not “virgin plastic.” Her goal is to create no demand for plastic, to have a net-zero plastic footprint.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I walked into the produce section and cringed at all the plastic packaging. I saw with new, guilty eyes all the clear clamshells for greens and berries, the pre-sealed plastic bags of mini peppers, carrots, and celery, and, of course, the rolls and rolls of plastic bags and ties for anything else you might want to bag. As I walked through the rest of the store, all I could see was aisle after aisle of plastic containers, with only an occasional section of glass jars for jam, metal cans for soup, or cardboard packages for breakfast cereal. 

At home I opened up my bathroom drawers and cupboards. I’d say about 90% plastic. Brushes, combs, first aid, all tooth-related products, cleaning supplies, and countless containers of face and hair products. And, to boot, most of them were stored neatly—Marie Condo would be proud—in plastic storage containers. 

To add insult to injury, I learned from a website that chewing gum is made mostly of plastic. Another innocent pleasure bites the dust. 

My sister and I with our vinyl-sided lunch boxes; inside the food was wrapped in wax paper

My sister and I with our vinyl-sided lunch boxes; inside the food was wrapped in wax paper

After these moments of painful epiphany, I decided to take action. My first step was to buy a supply of paper lunch sacks and small wax paper bags to replace the Ziplocks and Baggies in my kitchen. The wax paper bags arrived from Amazon two days later… in a plastic envelope. Doh. I realized that they’re exactly like what my mother used for our lunches when I was a girl.

The next three things I’m planning to try are shopping more at farmers markets, making some of my own cleaning products, and refusing any plastic bags offered at stores or restaurants.

But I find it overwhelming to think about going all the way to a plastic-free life. I’m not sure I have it in me. It would take so much time to learn about the alternatives, so much driving to places where items aren’t pre-wrapped, so much research to figure out alternatives to new plastic products (e.g., I just bought a Waterpik water flosser—what about that?) or find second-hand versions of every plastic product I need. And even if I go to all that effort, turning my life upside down for the cause, I can’t do anything about some of the globe’s biggest plastic problems: most of the plastic in the oceans, for example, gets there from other parts of the world, not the U.S.

Wait a minute. I think I just realized how some people must see veganism. For me, eating a plant-based diet is non-negotiable. It’s not hard. It’s about standing up for animals, period. But for many others, my excuses for not jumping onto the plastic-free bandwagon must sounds familiar to what goes through their heads when they think about veganism: too much time to learn how to do it, too much driving, too many new stores, too much research to come up with alternatives. And even if they went to all that trouble, it wouldn’t make much real difference, since in some countries people are eating more meat per person than they used to.

I’ve often felt like a failure because so few of my friends and family have gone vegan as a result of knowing me and my beliefs. But maybe I should think about it differently. Just as I’m committing to baby steps on the plastic front, many of my friends have told me about their small vegan victories, like “I hardly eat meat for lunch anymore.” Rather than thinking to myself, as I usually do, “Why not give it up for breakfast and dinner too?,” I should be thankful for what they’re doing. Even though it’s all or nothing to me, it’s not for them, just as plastic isn’t for me. 

Maybe each of us has a limit when it comes to radical commitments that demand emotional, social, and logistical effort. I wish I could dedicate myself to several “number 1” commitments. But for me, and probably most of us, there can be only one “number 1.” Mine’s veganism, that woman in the news piece has taken on plastic, someone else’s cause is justice inequity, someone else’s, human-trafficking, and the list of “number 1’s” goes on. 

Recent cooking demo

Recent cooking demo

The last three years I’ve thrown myself into my vegan website, volunteer writing and research on the subject, and cooking demos here in Portland. I’d love to see a direct line between my work and an increase in the number of vegans. But I suppose I need to consider my efforts more as clearing paths for those who want to take strides in the direction of animal-free eating. Better dozens of people decreasing their animal intake by, say, 25% than one or two people going 100% vegan. 

I’ll try to be much more grateful when I hear of a family member or friend’s small step toward more plant-based eating. Even though what I long to hear of is the giant leap. 

[1]Steven Kurutz, “Life Without Plastic is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.” The New York Times, February 16, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/16/style/plastic-free-living.html

On the Road to Jericho

Max square.jpg

I commute to work on the Max, Portland’s light rail system. One day not long ago, I was sitting near the front of a car, my nose in a book, and a commotion caused me to look up. A man was on the floor, his hand reaching up and gripping the safety bar. It was clear he couldn’t pull himself up. One, then two people, then a third, helped him to a seat about six feet away from me. They even had to bend his knees so he could sit down. He was completely helpless. Then the three dissolved into the train crowd, and we took off. 

The destitute man had a face that had been handsome once, before destructive forces ravaged him. I wondered how he could survive like this. Was he high? He must have been—otherwise he would have been wheelchair-bound in that condition.

His head was down. After 5 minutes, he started to move. At a glacial pace he extracted pens and then Max tickets from his pockets and dropped them one by one to the floor. People (not me) stooped to pick them up and put them into his grimy bag. By the time we neared my stop, he started trying to speak. Did he need help? He may have gotten a few garbled words out, but by that time, the door opened, I stepped out, and the train went on its way.

I still feel guilty about not being one of the people to jump up and help him to a seat. And for the 20 minutes I rode facing him, all I did was hope he would stay calm and quiet until I got out. 

As encounters with destitute people go, this was longer than usual for me. More typical is to get asked for money, especially if I’m waiting or sitting somewhere downtown. I get uncomfortable when this happens. I freeze while my brain runs through the usual questions: “Is this one of those ‘professional’ beggars I’ve heard of?” “What are they going to do with this money?”  “Will they see that I have plenty of cash if I open my wallet?” I over-think it and often just say no. That makes me feel worse. 

Learning Bible stories old-school style: with “Flannel Graph” figures.

Learning Bible stories old-school style: with “Flannel Graph” figures.

I grew up in evangelical churches, which meant Sunday School every week when I was a kid. One of the stories we heard over and over was The Good Samaritan. A man going from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten, robbed, and left half-dead by a gang of thieves. Soon a priest comes walking along the road. Rather than help the man, the priest crosses to the other side and walks on. A Levite follows soon after and does the same thing. A Samaritan man, however—his people traditional enemies of Jews at the time—stops, dresses the injured man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and tends to him for a few days. He gives the innkeeper money to continue the man’s care. Jesus asked his disciples after finishing the story, “Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?"

When I was young, this parable seemed like a no-brainer. Help people who needed help. Why did you even need a parable for this? But now I get it. Helping a stranger is a big deal, even if the person is a “neighbor,” let alone an enemy. I am more often the priest or the Levite, not the Samaritan, when I come face-to-face with a person needing help.        

But even if I opened my purse each time and slapped a $5 or $10 bill into the requester’s hand, it feels so futile. I’m much more in sync with Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that “the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.”[1] It's the right vision by a mile. But it also lets me off the hook. Yup, those people in power need to fix the system so that every child is born into a decent life with a fair shot at safety, success, and happiness. 

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Hillsborough, NJ

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Hillsborough, NJ

There has to be something in the middle. I think the closest I’ve come to giving well was as a member of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in central New Jersey. We had only a couple dozen members, but we were mighty. Every month or so, not on any kind of schedule, the pastor or a member would hear about a family, person, or organization in need, and we’d immediately circle up and decide what to do about it. Sometimes we wrote a check out of the church treasury, but more often we responded with exactly what they needed most—used furniture, winter coats, grocery store gift cards, back-to-school clothes, Christmas gifts, transportation, or food. Sometimes we met the people we helped, sometimes not. There was no application form, no documentation. We just responded.

I feel like I was “good” as a member of Mt. Zion. Am I “bad” now? I’m still me. I realize now what a privilege it was to give like that, as a member of a team with access to requests we could fill. 

I wonder if the priest and Levite were sometimes “good” too. And if they’d been walking together on the road to Jericho with a few friends, would they have stopped to help the injured man? I’d like to think so. Granted, the Samaritan stepped up on his own and proved to be the best neighbor, no doubt about that. But some of us are more risk-averse and slower to do the right thing. We do best when we have time and teamwork.

Typical homeless encampment in downtown Portland, OR

Typical homeless encampment in downtown Portland, OR

I’ve lately found more ways to help out. At the holidays we gave backpacks stuffed with new socks, shirts, and underwear to an organization that works with the homeless. I’ve found a Facebook page for a rescue mission near where I work and another for a family shelter near our neighborhood. They send out alerts for items they need—I buy those and deliver them. It’s not enough, but better than before. 

I intend to jump up and get involved the next time there’s someone on the Max or the street who needs help. 

I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn the Good Samaritan parable once again, but I did, and I have. You don’t get to choose your neighbors or their needs or when you’ll encounter them. You only get to choose how you respond. 

[1]From King’s speech “A Time to Break the Silence”.

My Dinner with Mozart

Drawing of Mozart in silverpoint, made by Dora Stock during Mozart's visit to Dresden, April 1789. Public domain.

Drawing of Mozart in silverpoint, made by Dora Stock during Mozart's visit to Dresden, April 1789. Public domain.

Over the years for various personality tests, job interviews, and self-help programs, I’ve been asked this same question: What three historical figures would you most like to have dinner with?

I usually start the list with Mozart. He’s a natural choice for me, because I wrote my dissertation on him. I’m also very curious about his creative process. He wrote in letters that he composed pieces completely his head and only later wrote them down. How was that possible? And I’d like to see what kind of person he was—the child-man as depicted in the play and film Amadeus, or a more serious sort who only sometimes indulged his silly side?

When I’m asked the dinner question during interviews, there’s never enough time to talk about the actual dinner conversation. We hurry on to the next question, as if the interviewers were just checking to see if I’m clever enough to name worthy and interesting people.

So, okay, let’s do this. What if I did get to have dinner with Mozart? 

Let’s be concrete about how this meal would go down. Here are my assumptions.

  • I’ll time-travel back to him, not have him come to me.

  • It will be late in his life, when he’s sick and fearing the worst, i.e., he’s 35 years old.

  • We’ll understand each other’s language. 

  • The dinner is vegan. Hey, this is my fantasy dinner.

  • He’s been briefed ahead of time about this visit, and he’s wrapped his head around the fact that he’s going to meet someone from over 200 years in the future.

Maybe for starters I’d tell a personal story. I’d relate how the slow movement of his Piano Concerto in A Major (K.V. 488) meant so much to me at a particular time in my life. My favorite music professor from college gave me an album of two Mozart piano concertos for a wedding present when I was 23. I couldn’t stop listening to that slow movement. My pulse leapt each time I heard the melody in the woodwinds soar up then drift slowly down, with aching chords underneath moving from dissonance to warm resolution. 

In high school and college, I played a lot of Mozart works.

In high school and college, I played a lot of Mozart works.

I’d been so heads-down in college either practicing the piano or studying scores for my history or theory classes that I hadn’t learned to luxuriate in music, to let it feed my soul. Mozart’s slow movement was my first love in that respect—it quieted my mind and resonated with emotions I felt but still couldn’t identify. 

I’d give Mozart some time to ask questions, sure. The story I just told would likely prompt questions about the history of recording technology, the evolution of musical instruments, changes in performance and concert practices, and the evolution of musical styles. It’d be a hoot to play him some music that came after his time—Wagner! Stravinsky! Glass! The Beatles!   

Then I would have my chance to ask him about his creative process. But now that I consider how I’d want to use my time, I think I’d much rather help him understand how his art has deeply touched many, many people.

I would first tell him that The Magic Flute, which had premiered in Vienna just three months before he died, went on to have a run of 223 performances, the most popular opera at that theater ever.

Then I would sketch out how his reputation grew after his death. His operas quickly made their way across Europe, to London, and even to the New World within a decade or two after his death. Joseph Haydn and other composers passed along their high esteem for Mozart to anyone who would listen. Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and most other 19th-century masters paid homage to Mozart’s talent. The growth of public concerts in the 1800s spread his works to many more people than just the highbrow circles Mozart was used to.

Voyager’s golden record carried into space, which includes a Mozart aria. NASA. Public domain.

Voyager’s golden record carried into space, which includes a Mozart aria. NASA. Public domain.

What would race through his mind as I sketched out how famous he became over the next 200 years, how his name is now known the world over, how millions of people love his music, how Mozart Festivals are held around the globe every year? I’d tell him he’s even in outer space. An aria from The Magic Flute is imprinted on a golden record aboard the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, now about 12 million miles from Earth. 

Did Mozart compose for the future? Did he dream of immortality? I could ask him that. All the artists I know get excited just to see their work bring delight, inspiration, or comfort to people right now. Sure, like all of us, they hope that something they’ve done will escape the grave and have a life of its own. It seems cosmically unfair that artists can never know whether their works will make a difference after they die. 

Just looking around my house I see that I have lovely pottery, paintings, prints, and jewelry that I’ve bought over the years at arts and crafts fairs. I usually don’t keep the cards or receipts. That’s too bad, because I should contact each of the artists and tell them that their creation brings me joy when I look at it or use it. I’ve read countless novels by people who have died too young—they’ll never know how many pleasant hours they’ve brought to me and others. 

My friend Ned Walthall’s lake project (see his site  here )

My friend Ned Walthall’s lake project (see his site here)

My husband drafts and revises his exuberant novels for hours and days on end. I have a photographer friend who wakes up in the dark every day, weather permitting, to get to his position beside a lake where he captures the sunrise and the day’s unique play of light, clouds, and atmosphere on the water and trees. What keeps them going? Perhaps the urge is actually the quiet voices of future admirers telling them that their efforts will bring moments of insight and joy to people they don’t know, in ways they can’t imagine.

But during my dinner with Mozart, I’ll be able to right this wrong in at least one case. Time will be overcome so that he’ll know his art made the world much richer and more beautiful. 

I guess the only other thing I’d want to do is ask Mozart if he and I could play one of his four-hand piano duets together. I sure hope Instagram Live Video works in a time machine. 

I Just Fixed the Food Processor I Bought During the Reagan Administration

My 1984 food processor

My 1984 food processor

One weekend not long ago I found myself on eBay, bidding for three replacement parts for my 35-year-old Cuisinart food processor. Duct tape had held the pusher assembly together for the last few years, and, while not ideal, it was working fine. But suddenly that weekend, when I was grating carrots, the small tab that locks down the lid snapped off and scuttled across the floor. Since the Cuisinart won’t work unless the lid is locked in place, I was at a crossroads: buy a new food processor or look for replacement parts?

This decision is usually a no-brainer for me—hooray! I get to buy a new appliance without feeling guilty! But this time I was hesitating.

I bought the Cuisinart in 1984, at the end of my first year of graduate school at Princeton. My husband and I were part of a gang of five couples who got together for monthly potluck dinners, each of us hosting the event on a rotating basis. (How we organized ourselves without smartphones and texting is a question for another post.) At a dinner that spring, one of the wives showed up with a brochure about food processors and suggested we order them together. 

Whether or not to join in the purchase was a huge decision for me. First, the price tag of $165 ($399 in 2019 dollars) was staggering. I’d come from a frugal family and didn’t part with money lightly, especially on a grad student stipend. Second, I’d bought very few kitchen tools for myself, relying mainly on hand-me-downs and wedding gifts. For me, buying an appliance that I could only imagine my mother tsk-tsking, especially if she knew what it cost, would be crossing a new kind of adult Rubicon. 

My mom and me in the kitchen

My mom and me in the kitchen

On the other hand, I’d loved to cook since I was a small girl pulling up a chair to the counter in our 1960’s subdivision kitchen. My sister and I helped our mom make dinner every night, and on Saturday afternoons we three baked together. We made Saturday-night pizza, cinnamon rolls or coffee cake for Sunday, and usually some cake-mix cupcakes or cake layers for the week ahead.

But after I became a vegetarian in college, my cooking curiosity and independence soared. Practically overnight I forgot my mom’s pot roast and tuna-on-toast recipes and discovered dishes I’d never heard of before. The first cookbook I bought was Diet for a Small Planet, based on the now debunked system of complementary proteins. I moved on to the Moosewood Cookbookand The Tao of Cooking.(Remember, there was no Internet, no Google search, no food bloggers.) I read my cookbooks like novels and dog-eared the pages of recipes I wanted to try. 

Some of the dishes I was desperate to make required a food processor. I distinctly remember trying to devise hacks to make soybean burgers, like mashing them with a pastry blender, but to no avail. That frustration, combined with peer pressure, budding autonomy, culinary aspirations, and the sheer joy of acquisition pushed me into joining the others and buying a Cuisinart DLC 7 Pro, 14-cup capacity. 

My copy of the original Moosewood cookbook—the spine broke, so I put it in a looseleaf notebook.

My copy of the original Moosewood cookbook—the spine broke, so I put it in a looseleaf notebook.

When the food processor arrived (several weeks later—no 2-day Prime shipping), I basked in my new-owner’s pride. This impressive machine was boxy like the Volvos of the time, heavy too, with a case of white plastic and black lettering (no copper or brushed stainless options then). The only two buttons read “On” and “Pulse/Off.” The blade was saber-sharp, and the motor, strong like a mini tank. 

I made my soybean burgers and was in heaven. I moved on to hummus, pesto, salad dressings, chopped herbs at scale, graham cracker crumbs, nut butters, and the blue-cheese-pecan spread recipe that I found in the user’s manual. I tried the bread blade for baguettes, though I eventually came to prefer the no-knead approach. I used (and still do) the regular blade for pie crusts. The Cuisinart was my rocket ship to new culinary universes—Middle-Eastern and Indian food in particular—previously unknown and untasted. Fast-forward to when I became a vegan 9 years ago. The Cuisinart came with me. Lately I’ve been obsessed with date paste, which only the food processor seems to get right every time.

Cooking gradually became a major part of my identity. Somehow I went from strictly following recipes for soybean and cottage cheese casseroles to creating and sharing my own recipes on my vegan website, giving cooking classes, and voicing strong opinions about food at the drop of a hat. Since 1984, I’ve never stopped trying new dishes, consolidating what I like, learning from mistakes, and moving on to new experiments. The Cuisinart has always been part of that exploration. It’s survived seven moves across thousands of miles with never a hiccup or whine.

When I took a peek at what I could buy now if I abandoned my 1984 model, I saw that the current Cuisinart 14-cup model is the most highly recommended. It still has just those two buttons, “On” and “Off/Pulse.” It’s available in four fancy finishes. And the price tag? $168 on Amazon today, much less in equivalent dollars than my old one. 

In 1984 I had the chance to buy something else: an original Apple Macintosh, with 128K of RAM (yes 128K of working memory—today that would get you a single grainy jpeg photo). Princeton offered each student a Mac for $600. I considered it briefly. I ended up concluding that I didn’t need a personal computer because I’d already learned how to use the university mainframe for word-processing. What could be easier than walking or driving to the campus computer center, using a terminal there, and picking up my printing the next day?  

The pusher assembly lasted 35 years but took a beating.

The pusher assembly lasted 35 years but took a beating.

Am I glad I chose the Cuisinart instead back then? I am. I’d have dumped the Mac a long time ago, kicking myself now for not having saved it. I still have the Cuisinart, kind of a buddy in the kitchen, reminding me of my 20-something self, poised to dive into a lifetime of food adventures.

I’ll be lucky if I age as well as the Cuisinart, which works perfectly again after my successful bids for replacement parts on eBay. I may need new parts myself in the coming decades: a knee replacement, a new hip, very likely cataract surgery. And if I have to get dental implants and eat soft foods? I know absolutely what I’ll use to puree them.

Invisalign at My Age?

Braces.jpg

“Keep the trays in your mouth for at least 22 hours a day,” my dentist told me as he inserted my first set of clear plastic Invisalign braces. “You can’t eat or drink anything except water when they’re in.”

This was the scariest part of getting Invisalign. A dull ache in my mouth as the teeth shifted like tectonic plates I could take. Sleeping with a mouthful of plastic, no problem. Lisping or spitting a bit when I talked with the trays in, I was ready for. But no snacking? No cup of tea whenever I wanted? No gum-chewing to freshen my breath? No tasting as I cooked? These habits seemed fundamental to my well-being. Being a grazer felt like a permanent trait, possibly traceable to a snacking gene on one of my chromosomes. What was I doing, bringing this deprivation on myself?

Second grade school picture

Second grade school picture

I can’t remember a time when I liked my teeth. They’re crooked, especially the lower ones. Even with a few teeth extracted when I was young to make room for the rest, my lower front teeth look like a line of dominos the cat just walked through. On top, my two front teeth dominate my smile, with the neighboring lateral incisors lurking behind on each side like shy toddlers who’ve just been introduced to a stranger. Those two front teeth were massive in relation to my face when they first came in. The rest of me grew into them a bit, and bruxism (teeth grinding) whittled them down a millimeter or two before I got a mouth guard. But I’ve never had that lovely U-shaped arc of well-aligned teeth, top or bottom. 

None of the four kids in my family got braces when we were young. We weren’t rich, although I’ve lately started to wonder if our parents could have swung for braces if they’d wanted to. They provided well for us on my dad’s bowling-alley-manager salary, but there weren’t many frills. Based on their no-nonsense Midwestern attitudes towards so many things, I’m assuming that braces fell into the “nice to have” category.  

I envied the kids with braces at school, even those who had to wear rubber bands or head gear. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been deeply attracted to delayed gratification and to fixing basic infrastructure problems before moving on to exterior beautification. Braces meant your family was investing in you. Braces meant that you were being set right for life. Braces made you part of the “haves” rather than the “have nots.”

Once I went to college, graduate school, and then into my work career, I barely thought about braces. The obsession faded completely. If you’d asked me when I was 35 whether I’d ever get braces or still wanted them, I’d have snorted an emphatic “No!” I couldn’t have imagined myself with a mouthful of metal at the office. Braces were for kids, and I’d missed that window. No biggie. Life isn’t fair. One of my brothers got braces in his late 30’s. I never told him, but at the time I thought he’d made a vain and misguided choice.

So what changed? Why am I doing this now? Certainly the invention of clear plastic braces makes it possible. But why, at my age, when an older woman’s thoughts turn to strategies for looking younger, am I choosing braces over, say, a forehead lift, spider vein treatment, or some kind of augmentation or suction? 

Am I looking for the perfect smile? No. Perfection in my case would require more work on my bite, maybe some bonding and gum grafts, and possibly a botox injection or two. That’s not going to happen. Some people get braces because they’re embarrassed to open their mouths and show their teeth. That’s not me. This isn’t a confidence issue. In fact, I can’t imagine that anyone’s response to me will be at all different with my teeth straighter.

I’m now a month into braces, and the no-snacking regime hasn’t been as hard as I thought. I guess I’m not the unalterable grazer I’d imagined. I can actually go up to six hours between meals if I have to! I’m in a phase now where lunch is sometimes a line-up of my long-favorite snacks—peanuts, popcorn, rice crackers, roasted edamame, sliced apples, carrot and celery sticks, washed down with some black tea. I feel less deprived that way. I’ve already started sneaking an occasional green tea with my trays in. I learn the best tricks from a Facebook support group. Whether I’ll drop any weight like some of the people say they have, we’ll see.

I know I’m not the oldest person using Invisalign. On one of the threads in the support group, someone mentioned that she’s 71. You go, girl! On another site, several dentists noted that they have Invisalign patients in their 80’s. Whoa. 

I don’t know about them, but my impulse to get Invisalign doesn’t feel like I’m doing it for the future me and whatever intangible benefits it might bring. This desire for Invisalign seems to be about the past. It’s about a long-standing wrong that needs to be set right, a teenager’s yearning that needs to be addressed.

I find myself irresistibly more in touch with my younger self these days. I’m drawn into those feelings and desires as if they were cryogenically preserved years ago and recently brought back to life. Maybe semi-retirement these last few years has made room in my head for youthful frustrations and yearnings to creep in. I used to say that I didn’t remember much from my childhood, but now that the non-stop parade of full-time work problems doesn’t dominate my brain, more and more scenes and impressions from the past have stepped into the light. 

So I seem to be making a late investment in a young woman whose logical mind just wanted something fixed and wanted to feel more special. Would her life have been different if she’d had braces back then? Would she have been a little less shy or pursued a different career path? Would she have been considered prettier and offered different opportunities at key points in her life? Who knows? I have no complaints. I’ve been incredibly fortunate my whole life. And on top of all that, I’ll soon have straight teeth!

I’m the Older Lady on the Treadmill Next to you in Fitness Class

Treadmill Tennis shoes 16x9.jpg

Yes, I’m old enough to be your mother. I realize that might be distracting. And my outfit isn’t in style. When did cotton become so uncool for women to work out in? 

You might be wondering why women over 50 become members of Orange Theory, SoulCycle, CrossFit, or pick-your-favorite yoga studio. Shouldn’t we be taking walks around the block for exercise and leaving hardcore fitness to the younger generation? Before I answer this, let me back up and trace the journey that eventually led me, well into my 50s, to sign up for Orange Theory. 

“Linda uses a backhand as she tries to stop her opponent from scoring the last winning point.” Eisenhower High Aquila 1977

“Linda uses a backhand as she tries to stop her opponent from scoring the last winning point.” Eisenhower High Aquila 1977

I came from a sports-oriented family and was a pretty serious athlete in high school. I played first singles on the varsity women’s tennis team and was the catcher on the varsity softball team. I wasn’t a jock at heart, though, and, truth be told, I wasn’t as good as these first-string roles sound. As soon as I got to college, I ditched organized sports, both as a player and fan. But I was motivated to stay in shape. So I switched from sports to fitness.

I happened to start college when “aerobics classes” were exploding in popularity. The term “aerobics” didn’t even enter the vernacular until the late 1960’s[1] (its successor, “cardio,” came much later). By the end of the 1970’s, you could sign up for an aerobics class almost anywhere, including universities. Our instructors, clad in leotards, tights, and leg warmers—so many of them were dancers—taught uncomplicated jumping steps to rows of new fitness junkies. We huffed and puffed to the beat of rock-n-roll playlists, which in those days were made on home stereo systems. Instructors had to tape each desired track in sequence from vinyl LPs onto long-running cassette tapes. 

I didn’t settle into any tried and true routine in my 20’s. I relocated a lot. I went to graduate school. I had a number of one-year teaching jobs. So fitness was catch-as-catch-can, and my body was forgiving. I used university gyms, played tennis if I could find a buddy, walked with my new Walkman, and started using taped workouts. Jane Fonda revolutionized aerobics in the early 1980’s with her famous “Jane Fonda Workout,” available on cassette, vinyl, and VHS videotape. This meant that you didn’t have to go to a class. You could do aerobics in your own home, just you and Jane.

My 30’s was a career-building decade, so I had to fit exercise around my busy work schedule. I lived 15 minutes from the nearest city, and it seemed like a waste of time to drive to a gym and back every day. I started buying more aerobics tapes (later DVDs) so I could finish in an hour before showering and leaving for the office. 

The problem with the tapes, though, is that they got to be boring. I ended up memorizing every move, every song, every word with the exact inflection the instructor used, every tiny mistake they left in. Going through the same workout over and over could be mind-numbing, and pretty soon I was strongly tempted to skip a day, and then another. Even in the 90’s after Gin Miller invented step aerobics, Billy Blanks created Tae Bo, and the number of DVDs ballooned, the only trick that worked for me was to buy a lot of DVDs so I could space out the repetitions of any one workout. 

Treadmill P90X ripoff.jpg

In my 40’s a lot of advice came out saying aerobic conditioning was not enough. Building muscle was critical for good health and a fiery metabolism. Ever the cheapskate, after the P90X craze took off in 2005 with its twelve DVDs of intense resistance and body-weight training, I bought a cheap knockoff. After a month, all the lunges and squats made my knees scream in pain. That was the first time it dawned on me that I might be getting too old for fitness. No matter what I did or how I tried to strengthen my legs, I couldn’t keep going. I had to put those DVDs aside. 

My restlessness for something new led to a year of tap-dance lessons, including a season-ending recital in which my class performed in full fig and fedora to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” The next year I decided to start running, mostly because I wanted to join work colleagues in my company’s annual 5K. I kept to tame distances (morning runs had to be fit in before work) and I didn’t run in the winter in New Jersey. I found running 3-4 miles quite agreeable—why had I never tried it before? I loved getting outdoors and enjoyed the “runner’s high.” During the cold months I went back to my DVDs and hammered them out as usual.

Treadmill half marathon.jpg

My 50’s has been a decade of “need a change” in every direction. I left my job of 25 years. My husband, cat, and I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon. I down-shifted to part-time work in order to start my vegan website, cooking classes, and writing.

On the fitness front, during my first summer in Portland, my 20-year-old niece proposed that we train to run a marathon together. I warily committed to a half marathon, and we spent the next five months piling up the miles. Toe and sole blisters slowed me down until I learned that your running shoes should be at least one full size bigger than your street shoes. And I had some trouble with my IT (ilio-tibial) band until I learn to stretch it and knead it with a foam roller. I finished the Portland Half Marathon that fall and was full of plans to run a race every few months. 

But my niece went back to college, and Portland retreated into its seasonal affective winter. I needed something more to supplement my routine. I’d permanently had it with the DVDs. 

Orange Theory email feedback

Orange Theory email feedback

That same niece, when she was home for the winter holidays, took me to an Orange Theory class for high-intensity interval training. During that trial session I was pathetic on the rower and in the weight room. But, runner that I’d become, I crushed it on the treadmill. It took a few months to decide, but finally I signed up for the 2-times-per-week plan. It was the first time I’d joined a studio or gym. I’m going on two years at Orange Theory and just started using the 25-pound dumbbells for some of the lifts.

Before feeling sorry or embarrassed for the older lady on the treadmill next to you, remember that, like me, she may have pranced and twirled her way through the dawn of modern cardio. She has seen a lot of fitness fads and technology come and go.

We’re playing the long game. We know deeply that it’s about perseverance, not high speeds and too-heavy weights. It’s about health and quality of life, not the fountain of youth.

As long as the workouts don’t bore me, injure me, or require me to wear a spangled vest and black fedora, I’m in. 

[1]Cooper, Kenneth H., and Mildred Cooper. Aerobics. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.