Monthly Archives: February 2021

Prime time for a Kleenex

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the first thirteen episodes of “Jeopardy!” that Netflix has available to stream and you don’t want anything given away, read no further than this paragraph! (I highly recommend watching these if you like “Jeopardy!” because I found them especially exciting. Bonus: no commercials!)

There is a new hero in my world. Her name is Scarlett Sims.

Recently I had a kidney infection that was so little fun that I couldn’t bring myself to do much other than stand uncomfortably in the kitchen for basically a whole day. To distract myself from pain and the chagrin at having to squander a square of the calendar to this affliction, I turned on the season of “Jeopardy!” I’d been watching recently while folding laundry or going through boxes or sewing/gluing things, hoping that Netflix would help me chill. I was several episodes in, and Austin Rogers, a NYC bartender, was on a winning streak. It’s hard not to like this guy–he’s funny, unassuming, humble, and charismatic with a wild head of hair and a thrift store-exclusive wardrobe. He’s also incredibly intelligent, at least as it pertains to “knowing stuff”. I’d been rooting for him all along, up to the point that he’d won a dozen consecutive contests and $411,000, until the thirteenth episode opened with one of the contenders beaming as Johnny Gilbert introduced her as a stay-at-home mom. This was the first stay-at-home mom I’d seen on the show! To her and the medical student to her left, after glowingly touting Austin as belonging to an elite set of contestants who have attained such a high level of success, Alex Trebek intoned, “Good luck. You’re going to need it.”

Well, as much as I adore that silver fox of an icon whose death saddened me even more than Tony Bourdain’s or Robin Williams’s, I thought that was a bit of an insolent comment. It would take a lot more than luck to best the formidable Austin Rogers, and finally I knew whom I wanted to earn that honor. I mean, just look at her proud, confident smile during her introduction:

Throughout the episode, Scarlett’s self-assured, unintimidated posture of poise sparkled like her lipgloss. She immediately took control of the board, correctly answering the first three clues (the words “the best laid plans of mice and men” rolled off her tongue as if she spoke them every day). She went on to correctly identify “Phyllis Dorothy” as the first two names of P. D. James after sweet Austin buzzed in and answered “Oops”; then she took the money for a question about “Monster High” dolls after he fumbled it. After the first round, she had a commanding lead over the men on either side of her, and then she famously (at least in my mind) swept the entire category on Dolly Parton during Double Jeopardy. (Sure, Scarlett is from Tennessee, but that doesn’t automatically make her an authority on Dollywood.) Her response to one question was incorrect, and Austin did well throughout, making it a competitive round, but when she answered the last clue on the board with the word “contraindicated”, she’d stolen my heart. Still, it was anyone’s game going into Final Jeopardy: as Alex said, “Well! We have a game here!”

Both Austin and Scarlett answered the Final Jeopardy clue correctly, and even if Austin had risked his entire winnings thus far that day, she still would have beaten him by a dollar (as it was, she won by $51), making this such an exhilarating finish that I was actually feeling emotional. But I didn’t weep until Austin reacted to Scarlett’s win with the most ebullient delight; the man was positively hopping with happiness for the woman to his left who had just beaten him, narrowly and fairly, in a match of the minds. You could hear his clapping above the applause from the studio audience, and when she looked over and saw his excitement, her smile went from wide to triumphant. As they high-fived over the barrier between their stations, I sobbed (this did NOT help my back pain). That moment they shared–it was as if everyone else in the world disappeared, and just the two of them were alone on the world’s stage, opponents united in a moment of sheer joy–was as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever seen on reality TV (this is BIG, people. I’ve watched every episode of “The Great British Bake-Off”).

Alex then called this badass stay-at-home-mom a “giant-killer”, which I feel redeems him from his earlier comment about luck as a necessary element in defeating the reigning winner. And the answer to the final clue, the one that won her the victory? It was, fittingly, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. But my favorite line from the episode was what Alex said just before discovering that Scarlett’s carefully-calculated wager had tipped the scales in her favor, a line I might have to embroider on something: “She could be the new champion if she risked enough.” Amen, Alex. Amen.

Show What You Know

One day I picked up a stormcloud from school along with my two boys. I could tell before she even got in the car that this was going to be one harrowing car ride; usually she’s hungry and grumpy at 3:00, but this was extreme. Before we’d even pulled away from the curb, she had yelled at one brother and snapped at the other after pushing her way past them into the car. I told her firmly that I wanted her to try to be more patient and kind, so she yelled at me and practically lay down in her seat. I said that she needed to sit up because it wasn’t safe to sit in such a way that the shoulder belt wrapped around her clavicle. She refused. I told her I would have to pull over until she was ready to sit safely, and I offered her some food. She refused the snack and sat up slightly, arms crossed, eyes angry, lips pouting in a decidedly uncomely configuration. Then I finally understood that this wasn’t just hunger; there was something else going on. I said that she seemed very upset and wondered aloud if something had happened at school that was affecting her feelings. That’s when she started sobbing.

I pulled into a parking lot and came around to her side to hear the story. In short, she was the only one in her class who had misspelled every word on her spelling list during the in-class Writing Workshop assessment (“Show What You Know (SWYK)”). After discussing it thoroughly, we tried to isolate her feelings, which were only about herself (no one else had said or done anything hurtful, which was one relief!). We continued the discussion at home and found words to describe all of the reasons she was upset: disappointment, surprise, frustration, embarrassment, sadness. Next we began troubleshooting ways she could work toward transforming these feelings into positive ones, eventually landing on the idea that learning how to spell all of the words correctly would make her feel proud and accomplished and cheerful. We decided that I would help her practice them until that point, but she neither remembered the word list nor did she know where it could be found. She liked my suggestion that she email her teacher to ask, so we planned to do it that evening before bed.

When it came time to write the email, she asked me what she should write, and because by then she was pretty exhausted in every way, I knew it wasn’t the time to push her too hard, so I explained the way that I would go about it as an example of a place to start: tell her how you feel about what happened, what your plan is going forward, and that you would like her to send the list of words, please, so you can practice them until satisfaction is achieved. Summerly sat down at my computer and got as far as the salutation before the tears began again. She said that she didn’t want to write about her feelings; she just wanted to ask for the word list. Oh, boy. Here’s what I said, basically: “You don’t have to share your feelings just because I would or because I think you should. But think about this: when you tell people how you feel, it’s kind of like a compliment. It’s kind of like you’re saying, ‘I trust you’ and ‘I respect you’ because you’re being vulnerable and honest with them. I can’t think of many compliments greater than those. When you tell people how you feel, not only does it help them understand the situation better and communicate more effectively, it helps them to know you better and also know how to help you better. And it shows them how brave you are.” She took that in, and I’ll be damned if that little girl didn’t wipe her eyes with the back of her hand the way you see in the movies then start typing with a resoluteness that can only have come from dropping a bucket into the deepest depths of her emotional well.

You guys, this next generation: they’re not just going to inherit the earth. They’re going to change the world.

Yes, I helped with her spelling, but the content is 100% hers.

Postscript: These events occurred on 11/20/2020, and I composed this post, as is true for most of what goes live here, a month or so ahead of publication date. I wrote this one the morning of 1/20/2021, exactly two months after the occasion it discusses, hours before watching the inauguration and hearing Amanda Gorman read her poem. Needless to say, this speaks to that and that speaks to this. Go get ’em, kids. The world is your oyster as long as you’re strong enough to open it. There are pearls there if you know how to find them. And if you can’t find them, make them.

Covenant of the ark

What happens after the kids are in bed on a weeknight? Well, if you’re as lucky as I am, sometimes you and your friends text each other about really important things. And sometimes these things involve the kitchen, since it’s a room in which we spend a great deal of time each and every day preparing food for our people and cleaning up the trappings of this process. This photo is a composite of texts that crossed within minutes; the left image was captured from a magazine and sent by my friend, Carmen, and the right-hand shot was taken by me and sent back to her a few minutes later:

Another night, these two photos (left one sent by my friend, Ellen, and the one on right sent by me) crossed space at EXACTLY the same moment, at 9:08 pm one cold night last month in the space of that magic hour during which no children are awake but we still are:

The context of these two conversations was, for the former, a shared appreciation of blue Dawn and curiosity about a new product and, for the latter, a decision to upgrade the can opener found in the mountain home Ellen’s family purchased with many furnishings included (this rusty relic among them). What’s most important here isn’t the nature of these discussions, really, but the camaraderie and connection they represent. In a world desperate to find mending, to grow past all of its social and moral disintegration, if we want to see a brighter day built on unity and progress rather than discord and stagnation, we need these interpersonal synchronicities, however small they seem. We need our coterie of like minds to anchor our heads and our hearts while the wheels of society are spinning and struggling to say affixed on what is decidedly a very fractured axle.

When people say, “It’s the small stuff” or “It’s the little things”, what they’re actually saying is “These things might seem relatively insignificant, but they’re really important.” Discussions about dish soap and can openers: these matter more than meets the eye in life’s scatterplot schematic. You can see the text and understand the context, but appreciating the subtext is where the power lies. Face value is worth precious little because often what seems little is so precious. Presentation is impecunious in comparison to the deep coffers of representation.

When friends send each other pictures of cleaning agents and kitchen gadgets in the same moment, this is connection in a time when so many connections have been uncoupled and disjointed and interrupted, when the scaffolding of a support system has been kicked out from underneath so many people whose platform of stability relied on it. I am grateful for these moments, for my people who show up in big ways and also small ways that are bigger than they seem. I wish everyone could count themselves so fortunate as to have a network of strong and significant souls to brighten our phones with texts about soap and tools, to brighten our existence by virtue of theirs. May more people find their ark to buoy them through this maelstrom, may they help each other find and hold fast to the shore, may they behold with grateful wonder the storm they were borne in on from the safety of each others’ company, and may they shine a spotlight toward the horizon as a beacon for others alone and adrift.

Parenting is…

…showing your child how to shake and spray the fabric-cleaning foam onto the floor cushion pillow you hauled up a flight of stairs from the basement where another child had somehow flung melted popsicle all over it earlier in the day and watching her rub the foam into the spots with her hand for a full minute while wondering whether she was doing this by choice to enjoy the sensory experience or if she somehow hadn’t recognized that the can was shaped as a scrubber with stiff bristles around the hole where the foam was ejected expressly for this purpose.

It’s so nice to have help around the house, isn’t it?


One night:

Alison, exhausted, backing out of Arlo’s room and closing the door: “Good night, buddy! I love you.”

Arlo: “You know, Mommy, I get scared at night after you leave.”

Alison (inner sigh): “You do? Why is that, do you know?”

Arlo: “It’s my BRAIN! It just thinks things that creep me out!”

Alison (mustering energy from the depth of the day’s reserves): “Oh, yeah? Like what?”

Arlo: “I don’t want to tell you! It’s about YOU!”

Alison: “Really? Now I’m super curious! Please tell me. I’m prepared to hear about the creepiness, and when I’m freaked out, it always helps me to talk about it. Will you try?”

Arlo: “Ok, FINE. It was a spell that was supposed to hit me but it hit you instead, and it made your hair turn black. There’s a lot more but that’s a short way to tell it.”

Alison: “Wow! That sounds like it would make an awesome fiction story! We should write it together! Could we do that? Maybe you could tell me the long version, every single detail, and I can write it down in that spiral notebook you have downstairs. Could we do that this weekend? It could be the first spooky story in our family spooky story book!”

Arlo: “Yeah! I will need help writing it all down, though.”

Alison: “Yes, I said I’d be happy to do the actual recording if you’d like. Now, do you know what the opposite of a spell is? What acts against a spell to dispel it, to undo it?”

Arlo: “No! What?”

Alison: “A wish! So, to make that creepy thought about the spell go out of your brain, we can make a wish to take its place. Let’s both make wishes. I’ll go first: I wish the washing machine will get fixed soon and it won’t cost a lot of money. Ok, it’s your turn. What do you wish?”

Arlo: “I wish for you to sleep well tonight.”

Let this conversation stand as evidence that anyone who says parenting isn’t a kind of sorcery has never tried to leave a child’s room at night while said child is not yet asleep. When wielded well, words are magic wands. Nightlights can’t hold a candle to conversation. Parents, you are all powerful magicians. Keep on shining that light.

When a venting exercise takes an environmentalist turn

To the tune of the original song (with apologies to Julie Andrews):

My Favorite Things

Cooking for children and doing the dishes
Flu shots each fall against small people’s wishes
Opening bills the mail carrier brings
These are a few of my favorite things

Six dozen new emails and Singapore math
Repeating the sentence “It’s time for your bath”
No response means that they’re not listening
These are a few of my favorite things

Nine types of insurance and diapers that leak
A kid with a splinter and coffee that’s weak
The school nurse’s name on your phone when it rings
These are a few of my favorite things

When the seas rise
When the smog’s thick
When the forests burn
I simply remember my favorite things
And perspective at once returns

Filing the taxes and pipes frozen solid
A hundred more emails and why is my kid
Asking “What if all birds lost control of their wings?”
These are a few of my favorite things

Meltdowns at bedtime and full laundry baskets
Breaking up fights without blowing a gasket
Dreading the pollen that comes every spring
These are a few of my favorite things

Five different breakfasts and food that gets wasted
Rejected at once though it’s barely been tasted
By this point my inbox is overflowing
These are a few of my favorite things

When the seas rise
When the smog’s thick
When the forests burn
I simply remember my favorite things
And perspective at once returns

Gestalt, meet 2021



  1. 1. a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.
  2. 2. a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel (from ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’) or brunch (from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’).

I learned two new words in the past year or so, and I adore them both. The first is “interrobang”, which (just in case you’re not familiar with this delightful coinage) is the name for the symbol “?!”, an expression I find rather endearing. It’s a way of questioning and emphasizing simultaneously, changing the nature of the preceding sentence to add inflection. The duality of the interrobang is evidenced within its own nomenclature: it’s a punctuational portmanteau (though not new, that’s another word I love!) combining the interrogative nature of the question mark and the exclamatory essence of the exclamation point, and it works so well to communicate the commingling of two terminal punctuation denotations. It’s like a diacritical mark but acts on an entire idea rather than a single letter, embellishing the ability of the author to emote more specifically, much like the use of italics or capital letters can change the meaning of a sentence. (There’s the iconic example of how emphasis on different words can affect the meaning of a sentence, as in saying “I never said she ate my banana” seven different times with emphasis placed on a different word each time to elicit seven discrete meanings.)

I’m calling 2021 “The Year of the Superlative Interrobang” because it presents the most exclamatory question mark I can imagine in terms of what the coming months will bring. The number “21” even visually resembles the symbolic mashup of the interrobang, does it not?!

The other word that was brand new to me this year is “satisfice”. Some people will likely decry the validity of this newfangled notion of a verb, but I quite like it. It expresses the idea that one must settle for less than what’s excellent but won’t settle for less than what’s reasonably adequate. It’s like shopping for a book with the knowledge that you won’t be able to have a new copy, or even one in “very good” or “good” condition; you have only “acceptable” options available, and you have to pick amongst those. This, too, feels very on-theme for 2021: we must sacrifice so much to eke out a satisfactory state of existence. It’s not what we’d like, but it’s enough. We miss what we can’t have and do but we’re grateful that what we can have and do is sufficient. It’s not good, but it’s good enough.

Looking ahead, I envision that life in the coming years will be a portmanteau of sorts itself, one in which our lives the way they were almost exactly a calendar year ago will combine with the way our lives have been during the intervening year to produce something that resembles both versions of reality somewhat but never again completely. We’ll go back to some of the old ways but incorporate many of the new (or maybe we’ll go back to many of the old ways but incorporate some of the new…the proportions will likely differ from person to person and family to family). Everyone will fold “life before” and “life during” together like two halves of a briefcase that they will carry as they travel through “life after”, however that may look after this satisficing interrobang of a year, and pull from it what and when they will. Just as these new words are enriched by virtue of the fact that they integrate two separate concepts into one, so will the vista of our lifescape serve as a reminder that, like so very many aspects of this world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


You know what? I’m going to go one step further and create a list of my own portmanteaux, beginning with one that includes the Gestalt concept of a whole exceeding the sum of its components. Take axiomatic mathematical theory and fuse it with existentialism, and I give you “axiostentialism”. Forgive me, Aristotle.

The DAD Talks Series: Episode 1

One of the most enjoyable side effects of writing this blog is hearing feedback. I love it when my faithful editors alert me about a typo that I missed despite my attempts at laser-focused proofreading; I love it when someone points out another angle or asks questions; I love it when people joke about something I’ve mentioned. After Wednesday’s post about reusing pickle juice, my dad had some thoughts which spurred a discussion that had me laughing as I went to bed and in stitches again the next morning despite the fact that it had been a really hard couple of days. I’d be remiss not to share it, but first a note of context: my dad and I both possess a love of the Claussen brand pickles (he likes the whole kosher dills and I like the minis), but they aren’t available at the few places I “shop”, so he gets them for me when they’re in stock at his grocery store. One of my favorite aspects of this DAD Talk is that at the time of its occurrence and at the time of this writing, he is actually in possession of a jar of Claussen minis that he’s been saving for a day warm enough for a visit. With no further ado, I present Episode 1 (my dad’s text is black on grey and mine is white on blue):

Yes, I know I also mistyped “the” when I should have typed “they”, but I rather like the autocorrect invention of “potsticker dance”, so we might have to get choreographic next time they’re on the dinner menu.

Scratch “from scratch” (sometimes)

I’ve used several different recipes to make blueberry muffins from scratch, and without fail there is at least one person living in my home who doesn’t like the results as much as the ones produced by the boxed mix. A few years ago I began having a hard time finding the variety of the brand that everyone likes–Duncan Hines “Simple Mornings” without the streusel topping–so I just bought the same brand with streusel and omitted the topping because, let’s face it, they’re sugary enough as it is and no one was going to miss what they didn’t know they might be missing. However, I had a hard time with the prospect of just throwing away the sealed plastic bag containing premixed streusel with enough preservatives to guarantee a substantial shelf life, so I put the packet in the pantry each time I made a batch of muffins. This “save everything” incentive is a bit of a compulsion, I admit, and I’m sure its roots are in one control issue or another, but I like to think it aligns with the pact I’ve made with the universe to preserve what could be useful, even if it isn’t in that moment. I’m sure you’re familiar with that good old “I’ll figure out something to do with it; I’m sure it’ll come in handy someday” line of thinking. My friend Ellen calls me resourceful. She’s kind.

The practice of this concept, though largely lost on some people (a group that may or may not include my husband, who is very patient with my “keep it because it might be useful later” philosophy towards a great many things), oftentimes does prove out, which only serves to reinforce its validity and therefore cause me to keep my “keep it” mentality. Please allow the following recipe to act as my defense in holding onto things that I’d guess most people would throw directly in the trash without a second’s thought:

Three-Ingredient Apple Crisp

3 lbs. Granny Smith apples (or another firm, tart variety)
Six packets of streusel topping from Duncan Hines Simple Truth muffin mix (one packet comes in each box) or another 12-muffin mix with crumb topping included
Six tbsp. good cinnamon

Peel, core, and thinly slice apples and place them in a buttered or oil-sprayed baking dish. Mix streusel topping with cinnamon and spread evenly over the apples, then place on the middle rack in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40-50 minutes, until bubbling and slightly browned on top. Serve (warm or cooled) with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or in a bowl with a pour of heavy cream.


Bonus kitchen-economy tip: Empty pickle jar? Before you dump out that piquant chartreuse brine, consider this: I did a second planting of green beans in late summer, and what came up were lackluster in both texture and flavor. Even the pet bunny wasn’t interested. But guess what? I stuck them all into a pickle jar with the leftover liquid and (two weeks of refrigeration later): voilà! Pickled green beans, great in a salad or alongside a sandwich. Sliced onions or a peck of any kind of peppers work well too, and they keep for a long time. I’d bet okra, beets, radishes, rhubarb, ginger, and green tomatoes would be interesting as “cheat pickles”. And before you recycle that glass jar, just think: you can use it to freeze things because it’s already tempered and won’t shatter all over the plastic sachets of frozen potsticker sauce from the bags of Ling-Lings that you save because, sooner or later, there will certainly be something to stir-fry.