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.