Friday, December 26, 2014


It seems as if every Christmas season it becomes more and more difficult to think of unique and clever gifts to buy for my friends and relatives. I usually spend countless hours leafing through catalogs or searching through online stores, and then walking 20 miles through malls, only to end up empty-handed.
I can remember one year, however, when every gift I gave was one-of-a-kind, unique, and a potential family heirloom. It was the year I enrolled in a ceramics class.  I made steins with dogs on them, coffee mugs with unicorns on them, and for my uncle, the jokester, I even made a set of ceramic turtles that, when flipped over, were anatomically correct. I spent a good deal of time painstakingly painting those anatomical parts in fine detail.
Little did I know, however, that my uncle would open my gift in front of a priest, who had stopped by to bless his house for Christmas.
Anyway, my passion for ceramics began quite unexpectedly. My cousin’s husband, Dave, whose hobby was making furniture, gifted my husband and me with a beautiful, handmade solid-pine coffee table. It was crafted from a single slab of wood that must have weighed 50 pounds. And into that slab, Dave had hand carved a chessboard. His wife then had stained each square in alternating shades of light and dark walnut.
My husband and I didn't know the first thing about chess, but we loved that table.  So at the risk of herniating a few disks, we lugged it into the house and carefully positioned it in front of our sofa.  Then, because it looked kind of naked, I set a basket of silk flowers right in the middle of the chessboard.
For some reason, that bothered people.
"What on earth are flowers doing on a chessboard?" One of our friends asked us when we showed him the table. "You should have a nice chess set on there to enhance it, not hide it!"
"I wouldn't even know how to set up a chess set," I told him. "I don't know a rookie from a prawn."
He rolled his eyes. "That's a rook and pawn.  I thought everyone knew how to play chess.  Heck, I learned when I was about seven!"
I raised my chin indignantly. "I don't have the time or patience for chess.  If I wanted to spend hours sitting and staring at someone, waiting for him to make a move, I'd just stare at my husband snoring in his recliner!"
Still, I couldn't shake our friend's words.  I began to think he might be right. Maybe it was an insult to the chess players of the world for me to conceal a beautiful chessboard beneath a basket of flowers.  So, reluctantly I set out to buy a “pretty” chess set.
I never realized just how many different shapes and sizes of chess sets there were (probably because I couldn't have cared less about them before that day).  I found cheap plastic ones and fancy pewter ones.  I also found some unusual sets, such as one with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on horseback, and another with monkeys dressed in armor.  I must have looked at 100 different sets, but nothing seemed just right for my coffee table.  The fact I had only $19.36 to spend probably didn't help matters much, either.
A few days later, when I happened to mention my futile chess-set search to my friend Linda, her eyes brightened. "I've just started teaching a ceramics class!" she said. "I have my own kiln and everything.  And I have a beautiful chess set you can make for only about $20.  The best part is you can stain it in the exact shades to match your coffee table."
Fool that I was, I figured that making a chess set simply involved painting a bunch of pieces and then having Linda fire them in the kiln.  I was wrong.  The first night of ceramics class, she set an army of soft clay figures in front of me, then handed me a knife-like tool and a bowl of water.  "Here, start cleaning them," she said.
I eyed the pieces. "They really don't look all that dirty.  What do you want me to do with this water? Dunk them in it and give them a bath?”
She laughed. "No, you have to take the knife and scrape off all the seams that were made when the pieces came out of the molds.  Then you wet your finger and smooth down the clay, so there are no bumps or ridges visible anywhere."
Before me sat 32 chess pieces.  Sixteen of them were little guys holding swords or those long-handled axes that knights in armor used to carry.  I knew I had my work cut out for me.  I picked up the knife and set to work.  Within five minutes, I had hacked off two heads and three swords.
"No problem," Linda said brightly. "Just put the broken pieces back where they belong, and then with a wet finger, smooth the clay back over the cracks to fill them in.  The wet clay will act like cement to reattach them."
I wasn't all that great at repositioning heads and swords, so my pawns ended up looking as if they'd fought a few battles...and lost.  It took me about a month to get all of those pieces cleaned.  Believe me, I was so excited when Linda finally said they were ready for the kiln, I nearly threw a party to celebrate.  My happiness was short-lived, however, when I realized I still had to stain my precious little chess army.
I found stains in shades of walnut to match my coffee table, then I daintily applied them to every little sword and ax; every tiny eyeball and nose. When I was finished, the pieces looked as if they were made of wood instead of fragile, breakable ceramic.
I have to admit the chess set looked stunning on the coffee table...even though I set up all of the pieces in the wrong positions. This, I might add, was long before anyone had home computers or access to the Internet, so I couldn’t just look up “chess” and see illustrations of the game.
Not surprisingly, our friend, the chess player, noticed the pieces weren't set up correctly the minute he set foot in the door. "The queen doesn't go there!  And why on earth do you have the rooks right next to each other?"
"Because they looked prettier that way," I said.
"Here, let me fix them for you," he offered. "Then maybe I can teach you a little about the game."
He reached for the queen, and when he did, his arm hit a couple of the pawns (the little guys with the swords).  In a flash, the whole row of them toppled over as if they were dominoes. When they finally stopped falling, the table was littered with tiny disembodied ceramic heads and axes. It took me a week to glue them back together.
That’s when my dog decided to play with her ball and fling it into the air. I don’t suppose I have to tell you where it landed. Let’s just say that if she had been bowling, she’d have gotten a strike.
You know, after that, the coffee table really did look nice with a big doily covering the chessboard and a basket of flowers on top of it. 
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Saturday, December 20, 2014


I have the feeling that most people’s Thanksgiving Day meal this year wasn’t the perfectly cooked feast they had imagined – not when their only source of heat was a candle.

Thanks to the storm, I lost power from Wednesday night through Saturday, but it wasn’t a problem for me because two years ago I had an automatic generator system installed.

I remember when I first decided to buy the system and everyone told me I was wasting my money because I’d probably never use it. They, however, didn’t realize that where I live, if a chickadee lands on one of the power lines or someone walks by and sneezes, I lose power. In fact, in the 21 months since I’ve had the generator system, I’ve already used it six times.

But even though losing power wasn’t a big issue for me during the Thanksgiving storm, I ended up having to deal with a lot of other problems.

First of all, the day before the storm, I was rinsing off the dinner dishes when my feet suddenly felt wet. I looked down and saw a huge puddle on the floor. The water was coming from the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. I searched for the source and although I’m not a plumber, I was pretty sure when I spotted a drainpipe that no longer was connected to anything and was wobbling back and forth, that it wasn’t a good thing. The pipe looked as if it had decided to pack up and move to another location.

The next day, Wednesday, the storm hit and I lost power, which, as I said, wasn’t a problem, but I also lost my home phone, which was. That’s because the cell-phone reception at my house is about as good as using two cans and a string to make calls.

 The moment the power went out, the smoke detector in the basement started to chirp. It also, to my surprise, talked. A nasally female voice kept repeating in a monotone, “Low battery.”

My eight smoke detectors are wired together and also have a backup battery in each one. They are like those old-fashioned strings of Christmas lights where if one light goes out, they all are affected. So if one detector’s battery is weak, there’s no way to tell which one is the culprit without checking every detector. For some reason, whenever there is a power failure, I inevitably end up being tortured by the “curse of the chirp.”

Anyway, each time the voice in the basement said, “Low battery,” my dogs rushed to the floor vents and growled down into them. They apparently thought a female prowler was lurking downstairs.  So, after listening to three hours of growling, I went downstairs and pulled the detector’s battery in an attempt to make the voice (and my dogs) shut up. Removing the battery, however, caused all of the other smoke detectors to begin chirping in sympathy for their deceased buddy.

I spent the next hour balancing on a chair and changing every battery in every detector…that is, except for the one out in the garage, which I, a sufferer of severe ladder phobia, couldn’t reach (I’m pretty sure even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t reach that one). So the chirping continued. Frustrated, I decided to put the battery back into the basement detector. I figured hearing, “low battery” and chirping only in the basement was better than being serenaded by a chorus of chirping upstairs, especially right above my head while I was trying to sleep.

Two more days of chirping passed. By then I was ready to take a big drink of tap water. Perhaps I should explain here that back when my house was being built, the water in my well tested ten times the allowable limits for arsenic. I had to have a fancy reverse-osmosis water filtration system installed before the house could pass inspection. The filtration system, however, isn’t hooked up to my generator, so the arsenic doesn’t get filtered out during power failures.

 Also, by Friday, my driveway, which is over 400 feet long, still hadn’t been plowed. I didn’t know if my plow guy was lying face down in a snow bank somewhere or if he’d just forgotten about me. So I grabbed my cell phone and went outside, hoping I might be able to get a signal so I could call him.

After doing everything but hanging by my heels from a tree limb, I finally was able to get a weak signal. I quickly dialed my plow guy.

“Sorry, but you’ll have to find someone else,” he said. “Both of my trucks broke down.”

“But I have very limited phone use,” I said, feeling panicky. “I can’t start calling a bunch of potential plowers. Can’t you recommend someone?”

“Nobody I know will travel all the way up to your place.”

I hung up, certain I’d have to wait until the spring thaw to ever get out of my driveway again. Meanwhile, the basement smoke detector kept talking and chirping, and the dogs kept growling.

Seeing that the voice in the detector was female, I decided to give her a nickname. I called her “Pita,” which stood for “pain in the…” (well, you get the idea).  I kept telling myself to just hang in there and be patient because Pita would be quiet when the power came back on.

Once again, I’d figured wrong. When the power finally did return, the chirping and talking not only didn’t stop, they sounded even louder and stronger.

But being the cheapskate I am, and having just received a property-tax bill that nearly caused me to need a defibrillator, I decided not to call an electrician until Monday so I wouldn’t have to pay extra for weekend rates. By Monday, my lack of sleep had caused bags so big to form underneath my eyes, I looked as if I had two donut-halves glued onto my cheekbones.

The electrician arrived on Monday morning and informed me that my pal Pita was defective and had to be replaced. A mere $165 later, the house finally was blissfully silent.

I also found a landscaper/excavator from Deerfield to plow my driveway for $75.

So in the course of only five days, I needed a plumber, electrician, phone repairman, landscaper...and a second mortgage. The only thing missing was a roofer.

And now that I’ve said that, I’ll probably wake up shivering some morning soon and look up to see snow falling through a big hole in my bedroom ceiling.
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Friday, December 12, 2014


Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with tape recorders. I can remember back when I was about 15 and decided to form a band. I’d written a song and learned how to play two chords on the guitar, then taught the song to my friends Sue and Dee. Even though we sounded pretty much like a trio of wild geese when we sang, we were positive we were ready to make a demo tape to send out to record producers.

Back then, reel-to-reel tape recorders were just becoming all the rage. The only problem was, they were expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. I was so determined, however, to get a recorder for my band’s demo tape, I started to save my pennies for a $600 one I’d seen in Radio Shack. 

My father finally took pity on me, probably because he figured I’d be ready for Medicare by the time I saved up enough money, and surprised my band by renting a recorder for us.  I suspect it was because he figured if we finally recorded the song, we no longer would be spending two hours every day practicing it…and then his ears could stop bleeding.

The minute I touched that tape recorder, I was hooked. I loved being able to hear my own voice, tape my favorite songs and even act out skits like on the old radio shows. I nearly cried when my father had to return my precious machine to the rental place.

Over the next few years, I owned several tape recorders: a huge reel-to-reel that weighed about 50 pounds, a small reel-to-reel about the size of a box of chocolates, and finally, a cassette recorder. The cassette recorder was in the form of a big boom box, as they were called back then. It had a built-in radio and a cassette recorder and player. When the six D-cell batteries were in it, it weighed about as much as a small car.

I loved that boom box. I would spend hours recording songs from the radio or playing records and singing along with them on tape. While I was singing, I was certain I sounded as good as the next Streisand or Cher, but when I later listened to my best efforts, I was certain someone had stolen my original cassette and replaced it with a tape of cattle being branded.

Two weeks ago, I was looking for my storage chest of Christmas decorations down in the basement when I came across my old boom box behind a stack of boxes. I hadn’t seen it in years, and was disappointed it hadn’t aged well. It was dirty, rusty, the antenna was missing, the buttons on the recorder were bent and wouldn’t push down, and the batteries in it all were severely corroded.

A flood of memories came back to me and I found myself wishing I could use that old boom box again. But my common sense told me the only place it was going to get any use would be in the bottom of a trash bin.

A few days later, I happened to be driving through Pembroke Village when I saw a store called Bobby Dee’s Records. In the window was a sign that said they repaired audio equipment. My thoughts immediately turned to my beloved boom box. Even though I figured the repair guy probably would point at it and laugh hysterically, I decided I had nothing to lose by asking if, by some miracle, it could be fixed. The next day, I, lugging the boom box, walked into the store.

“Is there any hope at all for this?” I asked the man who greeted me. He turned out to be Bobby Dee.

He took the boom box from me and checked a few things on it.

“This is a great model,” he said. “One of the best ever made for sound quality.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve owned others since this one, but nothing compares. Do you think it can be saved?”

“Well, it’s in pretty rough shape,” he said. “But I can tell you really care about it. So I’m sure we can fix it up as good as new. Maybe even better than new.”

I was both shocked and thrilled. He said he’d call me when it was ready.

Peter, Bobby and my boom box
I expected not to hear from him for at least a month, considering the sad condition of the recorder, but he called a day later to tell me it was all set.

When I walked into the store, Bobby told me to have a seat and close my eyes.  I did, and he put the boom box on my lap. When I opened my eyes, I was speechless, which was pretty unusual for me. It looked like a new machine – polished, shiny, a new antenna, a new cord, and when I pressed the buttons on it, they all pushed easily.

“Pete did all of the work,” Bobby said. “He really does a great job…he’s a perfectionist.”

Pete approached and I could see the look of pride on his face as he explained everything he’d done to the boom box, from cleaning it to finding an antenna for it, and replacing the old, worn-out belt.

That night, I dug out some of my old cassette tapes and listened to them. The sound quality of my boom box was even better than it had been when it was brand new. I tried recording a few songs from my computer, and it taped them perfectly.

A couple days later, I woke up feeling terrible. My throat hurt, my neck was sore and my voice was hoarse. I groaned, certain I was coming down with either a bad cold or the flu, or maybe even something like strep throat. I went back to bed in an attempt to fight it off.

When I woke up later that day, I felt much better, and that’s when the cause of my sore throat dawned on me. I burst out laughing.

I’d spent the night before playing with my boom box, just like old times, taping myself as I sang along with a variety of songs. My solo concert had lasted over two hours, and then I’d had a good laugh listening to myself on tape.

My “flu” turned out to be nothing more than a bad case of voice strain.

I blame Mariah Carey, Janis Joplin and Michael Bolton. No mortal human my age ever should attempt to sing along with them and try to reach those high notes.





Friday, December 5, 2014


It seems that no matter where I turn lately, people are talking about the flu. It's on TV, in the newspapers, and seems to be the main topic of conversation at every place from the supermarket checkout line to the ladies’ room at the movie theater. It's enough to make me want to douse myself with hand sanitizer and then curl up like a bear and hibernate until spring.

As far as coming down with the flu goes, I don't know which scares me the most – having to suffer the terrible symptoms of the illness…or having only my dogs here to take care of me if I get sick.

The last time I had the flu was over 30 years ago. But I remember it as if it were yesterday. And let me just say I'm the first one to admit I make a terrible patient. When I get the cold or the flu, I transform into Grouchy Gertie.

I started off the day feeling fine. I spent most of it Christmas shopping at the mall, sipping hot chocolate in the food court and enjoying all of the mall’s festive decorations.  On the way home, I decided to stop at the local supermarket to pick up something for dinner.

By the time I reached the checkout counter, I felt as if I'd been trampled by a herd of stampeding cattle.  My head was pounding, my joints were aching, my face was burning and my teeth were chattering.  I drove straight home and crawled into bed.

The next morning my temperature was 103, yet I felt as if someone had shoveled ice cubes into my underwear. I barely could lift my aching head off the pillow. The worst part was I’d had a flu shot a few weeks before. If the shot was supposed to protect people from seven different strains of the flu, I suspected I was the lucky one who’d managed to catch strain number eight, a rare one carried by something like arctic snow fleas.

As I lay there, moaning and groaning, my husband appeared at the foot of the bed.

"Can I get you anything?" he asked.

"Hot tea," I managed to croak, even though I knew that trying to boil water might be a real challenge for someone who’d touched the stove only five times during our entire marriage.

"How about for lunch?" he asked.

"Chicken soup," I said. "It cures everything."

"Do we have any chicken soup?" he asked.

"No, you'll have to go to the store and buy some."

The look on his face was one of sheer panic.  If there was one thing my husband was terrible at, it was grocery shopping.  Whenever I wrote out a grocery list for him, I had to describe every item in so much detail, you'd think I was writing a college thesis about food.  Even then, it still wasn’t enough to ensure he’d come home with the right product.

"I told you to buy Campbell's Chunky clam chowder!" I recalled saying to him one time as I pulled a can of Snow's clam chowder out of the shopping bag. "You need milk to make Snow's!  We don't have any milk! And even if we did, I’m lactose intolerant! I wrote everything down for you. How could you get it wrong?"

"You didn't tell me the color of label!" he'd said, his tone accusing. "The color of the label is a very important piece of information, you know!"

So when he finally brought me a bowl of steaming chicken soup during my bout of the flu, I was hesitant to try it…and with good reason. I mean, in the past, he'd served me condensed soup he'd heated straight out of the can without even adding any water to it.  It resembled a bowl of yellow toothpaste.

The soup looked and smelled good, but it had these little black things that looked like beetles in it I didn’t recognize. When I tasted them, they were chewy and flavorless.

"Honey!" I called out to my husband. 

He appeared in the bedroom doorway within seconds.

"What kind of chicken soup is this?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "Why?  Don't you like it?"

"I'd like it better if I knew exactly what I was eating," I said. "You don't happen to have the can it came in, do you?"

“I’m not sure.” He left the room and I could hear him rummaging through the trash container in the kitchen. He returned with the soup can.  The label said it was chicken soup with wild rice. I’d never eaten wild rice before, but after that soup, I was pretty sure I’d prefer my rice to be more domesticated.

In my husband’s defense, he really did try to make me feel better, which I realize was a nearly impossible feat. He made tea for me that looked like black coffee, and when I complained, he made another cup that looked as if it had been siphoned from an aquarium that was in desperate need of a good cleaning. He also served me a plate of something that resembled little black corn curls. He later informed me it was “extra crispy” bacon. Even the dogs rejected it.

Miraculously, I survived that bout of the flu, and I haven't had it again since, knock on wood. But now that my husband is gone, I’m worried if I do get sick, I’ll have to fend for myself. And even I don't want to have me for a patient.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe my husband really wasn't such a bad nurse after all.