Birthday Backup

Why is it so easy to choose birthday presents for some people and nearly impossible for others? Mark’s birthday always causes a dilemma. Once I tried to get him a practical, yet manly, gift of a backpack leaf blower. Guess who uses that leaf blower? I am the queen of leaf blowing in Acton, Massachusetts.

Maybe what goes around comes around, and I deserve my leaf-blowing title. Maybe buying a leaf blower for a man is equivalent to buying a vacuum cleaner for a woman. In my defense, I thought men pined for pricey, power tools like the lyrics to that country song, “The only difference between men and boys is the size of their feet and the price of their toys.”

If only life was as simple as a country song. In real life, people are complex and conflicted. Mark, for example, prefers experiences to gifts, values home cooking over restaurant meals, and doesn’t like to waste money on birthdays (which explains a lot about his childhood).

Compounding my problem, Mark’s birthday is in mid-winter when Boston is bleakest, and outdoor activities are at a minimum. According to everydayhealth.com, “January 24 is on record as being the most depressing day of the year,” and Mark’s birthday falls on January 25. When I add in the general malaise that has hovered over our household since last year’s presidential election, you may understand why it’s difficult for me to rise to the occasion.  Rome is burning, yet its birthday time.

As a last-ditch effort, I turned to tech for an inexpensive yet experiential gift. Enter the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things includes driverless cars, smart devices like talking refrigerators, and hands-free, voice-controlled gadgets like smart phones that are supposed to make life easier—the next evolutionary step in human-technology relations. Mark fancies himself traveling to work in a driverless vehicle, but robotic cars are too expensive and not perfected yet. The talking refrigerator would be as welcome as the backpack leaf blower. So I was left with a voice-controlled gadget.

With two iPads, two computers, and two smart phones in the house already, I wasn’t keen on buying more techie toys, but two-day free shipping, no time, no ideas, and a decent price point convinced me.

I ordered Mark a voice-controlled personal assistant called an Amazon Echo Dot that responds to the name “Alexa.” The Echo Dot looks like a thick, round, black coaster with an electric cord that plugs into a wall socket. No screens. No complex instructions (after you download an app to your smart phone). No training the voice recognition software to understand your enunciation (how 20th century). Just say “Alexa” and she lights up.

The blue and aqua, swirling LEDs dance around Alexa’s perimeter when she hears her name to indicate she's ready to listen. One caveat: you must see the light before issuing a command. But her size is unobtrusive, and her voice is pleasant—more like the computer in Star Trek than Scarlet Johannsen’s voice in the movie, She.

Mark played with his new toy for a while—trying new commands.

Alexa: What’s the weather today?
Alexa: Turn on the lights (which works if you have another gadget plugged into a lamp).
Alexa: Set the alarm for 7am.
Alexa: Add cranberry juice to the shopping list (which shows up on his smart phone thanks to the Alexa app).
Alexa: Beam me up scotty. (She responds with “What speed captain?”)

Unlike the smart phone which is glued to Mark’s hip, Alexa stays home, so she’s more of weekend techie toy. During the week, after Mark drives to the office, Alexa becomes my new sidekick.

Alexa: Turn on NPR. (She responds with “Ok, WBUR is your local NPR station.”)
Alexa: Stop. (I cannot listen to the news anymore.)
Alexa: Play Pandora, the Bach station.
Alexa: Make it softer.
Alexa: What’s on my schedule today?
Alexa: Play Love on a Real Train by Tangerine Dream
Alexa: Play the Soundtrack to Blade Runner by Vangelis
Alexa: Play the Stranger Things Soundtrack

How Mark’s birthday gifts end up in my back pocket is a mystery. I assure you, Dear Reader, that I never wanted an Amazon Echo or a backpack leaf blower. I am not a liar. I do not spread fake news. I am not a crook. And Mark’s birthday is not destined for doom like the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers at Hogwarts.

Jesse and I made a terrific birthday dinner for Mark with lots of cheese and chocolate and followed up on the weekend with a trip to Boston’s new foodie destination—Eataly, where we bought enough pasta, prosciutto and pizza to get us through the remainder of the most depressing month of the year. 

Next year for Mark’s birthday, I’m sticking with cheese and chocolate.


Carry On

Only in the darkness can you see the stars."
 — Martin Luther King Jr.

The computer industry has lulled me into a false sense of security because I rely on the quick fix of the UNDO button. Whenever I need to reverse, repeal or rescind, UNDO saves the day. UNDO is such a common feature that Windows machines and Macs both include a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+Z and Command+Z respectively) for rapid retraction. Adobe Corporation took it one step further with its Photoshop software which comes with a HISTORY button to UNDO multiple missteps. As I ponder the state of our nation on January 20, 2017, I wonder—where’s my real-life UNDO button?

Technology, for all its promise, has not conjured an UNDO for this election or a time machine that lets me travel back a few years to warn Hillary that a private email server might be her undoing while discretely tucking two tickets to Wisconsin in her pant suit pocket. Science, for all its power, cannot retroactively cancel the Comey appointment as a pre-emptive measure against government interference in presidential campaigns or prewarn the press against over-reporting one candidate and under-reporting Russian intervention in U.S. elections.

As a practical person, I should accept the limitations of technology to UNDO the recent series of unfortunate events even as the incoming administration seems to support traveling back in time when “America was great.” I’m not alone in wondering when the citizens of this country experienced this “greater time” in American history. So I reviewed the choices.

I figured that it's probably not a great idea to time travel in America before antibiotics or during any of the world wars, so I dismissed those decades. Pre-birth control was out. Disco was out. Trickle down was out. And I was left with the 60’s—the protest decade.

Maybe I too young to protest in the 60’s, and some might argue I’m too old to protest now, but I’ll be on Boston Common on January 21 doing just that—joining the Boston Women’s March for America for the “protection of rights, safety, liberty and families.” My long-term plan? Carry on. Sing my song. Blog on. And never give up my dream of equal rights.

Carry On Soundtrack from Sousa to Soul

  1. The Washington Post March by John Phillip Sousa
  2. Hit the Road Jack by Ray Charles
  3. I Say a Little Prayer by Dionne Warwick
  4. Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John
  5. Time has Come Today by the Chambers Brothers
  6. As Tears Go By by Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger
  7. Ramble On by Led Zepplin
  8. Fighter by Christina Aguilera
  9. R-E-S-P-E-C-T by Aretha Franklin
  10. Defying Gravity by Idina Menzel from Wicked Musical


Paint It Black

"Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times,
if one only remembers to turn on the
 — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

A group of my friends are seeking post-election solace in rehashing the death of democracy. But I struggle with their solution for catharsis. I prefer a moratorium on media, so I can sit Shiva in silence.

Throughout this childish campaign, the memories of schoolyard bullies, name calling and blackballing resurfaced. The juvenile saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me” taunted because words can hurt. Words have meaning. Words have weight, depth and breadth. Words can alter public opinion. Words can sway an election. Words stick. And, whether I like it or not, words are a writer’s bread and butter.

Now, in my post-election gloom, the irony for this writer is that I feel compelled to block out the words. Ban the broadcasts. Smother the sound bites. Nullify the noise from reporters, pundits and polls. If only I could expunge all reminders of the 2016 election and embrace the sounds of silence. All I want is to savor the solitude, shun CNN, avoid NPR and discard the Times. Blessedly, the Boston Globe is devoted mostly to sports and local news.

And then it hit me, I don’t have to suffer in silence; I can rework my playlists. I can choose music—sans words. Orchestral music. Instrumental music. Old music. New music. Wordless phrases.

My post-election playlist begins with the instrumental version of Paint it, Black used as a backdrop for a stunning, yet disturbing, slo-mo scene from the opening episode of Westworld, HBO’s new TV series. Westworld is set in a dystopian universe where wealthy vacationers retreat from reality into a replica of the wild, wild west and frolic among lifelike robots who fulfill every fantasy. And right now, the orchestral version of the Rolling Stones hit song, Paint it Black, is fulfilling my fantasies (even if my concentration strays occasionally with visions of Mick Jagger dancing on stage). Fantasies aren’t banned in Boston by the far right yet, are they?

As work progressed on my Dark Days playlist, I noticed subtle changes in tone. Sure, the beginning includes the theme from that blackguard, Darth Vader, and the pirate’s song from the Curse of the Black Pearl. Lots of doom and gloom there. But as I added tunes, my mood modulated from grief to sadness, low-pitched to raucous, ebon to blue, and a surprise finale that booted me out of the darkness. Maybe next week, I'll even be able to listen to a few words. God only knows.

Post-election Instrumental Playlist 

  1. Westworld Soundtrack - Paint It, BlackRamin Djawadi
  2. Darth Vader’s Theme Song, The Imperial March from Star Wars – John Williams
  3. Curse of the Black Pearl, Pirates of the Caribbean (Suite) – Klaus Badelt
  4. Buena Vista Social Club, Instrumental (Chan Chan Tribute) РDuo Musica è
  5. Hallelulah  (Leonard Cohen Tribute) – Lang Lang
  6. Green Onions – Booker T and the MGs
  7. Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin) – Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
  8. A Taste of Honey – Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
  9. You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, Instrumental – The Wrecking Crew
  10. Soul Finger (ok, it has two words in it) – The Bar-Kays
  11. Purple Haze  (Jimmy Hendrix) – Two Cellos
  12. Light My Fire (Official Instrumental, Remastered) – The Doors


Drill Baby Drill!

Every year around Halloween, Mark and I engage in a pumpkin carving contest. We don’t come right out and say it’s a competition for the best jack-o-lantern, but a mild tension permeates the air around the end of October.

Like the Cubs or the Sox, my odds of winning the pennant are slim. Mark’s pumpkin designs are always more intricate and his knife wielding skills more accurate. My designs always seem dumbed-down by comparison; I tend to choke when carving those thick-skinned cucurbits.

Scary Pumpkin Stalks in Background
Over the years, I’ve relaxed into the underdog position. My expectations ran lower than the rhetoric from that thin-skinned presidential candidate—he who shall not be named. But the perfect storm of events changed history this year.

Maybe it’s a historic year for women. Maybe the odds are finally in my favor. Maybe Mark was a little off his game with a simple “BOO!” inscribed on his pumpkin. Or maybe I had discovered my secret “All Hallows’ Eve” weapon—power tools. That’s right. Drill Baby Drill!

Holey pumpkin, Batman. My gorgeous holey pumpkin with a matrix of uniform, evenly-spaced circles won the day, gaining “WOWs!” from trick-or-treaters and accompanying parents alike. Mark's bold, scary pumpkin couldn't beat my well-ordered, classic design. And I just smiled at my next door neighbor who couldn't suppress his surprise when he learned that I created the winning pumpkin this year, not Mark. Now I know how the Red Sox felt when they overcame the Curse of the Bambino, and all it took was drill with a large bit.

Of course, the drilling process is messy. Pumpkin guts spewed everywhere. That’s probably why women in my generation were never allowed to take shop in high school. More’s the pity.

But the rewards are great. Now I’m ready to take on power tools 101. What’s next? Wood working? Furniture building? House flipping? HGTV watch out. Dames with drills unite.

As Sam Cooke says, "It's been a long time coming, but I know change is gonna come."


Obit for my Saab

The mechanic delivered the fateful news. My Saab 9-3 needed a major organ transplant or a kiss good-bye. And I was the decider. Either I issue a Do Not Resuscitate for my dearly beloved or face an uncertain future with cobbled-together parts because the Saab Corporation doesn’t make those cars anymore.

Faced with the choice of abandoning my faithful sidekick or continuing with a crude copy, I did what I always do in tough situations: I procrastinated. Meanwhile, shadows of Mary Shelley flickered through my brain as I contemplated resurrected parts from the car cemetery. Then I sought advice from family, friends and random strangers as I hoofed it around Acton and contemplated the Frankenstein-mobile.

“Don’t get a rebuilt engine,” said Amy, “they never work out.”

“How many miles?” asked Candace.

 "190,000. But I had hoped to reach 200K."

“You will always worry about what’s going to go wrong next,” said Candace.

“Just get rid of it,” said John who distrusts any car with that much mileage.

After a week of dithering, I rented an economy car at AVIS while I sorted things out.

Writing an obituary for my car and looking for a replacement were not on my To Do list this summer. Like the hymn in the funeral scene from the Big Chill, you can’t always get what you want

My teacher, Judy, told me that you cannot write about trauma until you have processed the grief. But with the body rotting away, there’s not much time for reflection before putting the pedal to the metal. My car deserved a moment of silence though and a small trip down memory lane.

Did I regret not naming the SAAB like the perky millennial in the Liberty Mutual commercial who called her car Brad or the unlucky engineer who named his computer Hal? In the spirit of R2D2 and 3CPO, my auto died with the simple numerical appellation, 9-3.

9-3 took my younger daughter from the Acton Barn Cooperative Nursery school to Mount Holyoke College. 9-3 carted Casey, Peaches, Dips and Ivy to the vet without complaint even when they made the car smell bad. 9-3 braved all sorts of New England weather and saved my butt in more than one snow storm. 9-3 put up with all the mundane trips, outings, play dates and errands of day-to-day suburban life instead of barrel-assing down the highway like a thoroughbred.

I will miss her enormously-comfy leather seats that molded perfectly to my body. I will miss her reliability—whether enduring the suburbs or escaping them. I will miss the feeling of safety that enveloped me when I entered her domain.

As I watch 9-3 sitting peacefully in my driveway, I think… “she still looks great.” And as I listen to Robin Young on WBUR tell me to donate my vehicle to a worthy cause, I think… “she would have liked that.”

I think I’m ready to let go now.

Obit for 9-3, personal assistant, transportation expert and all-round fun ride

Acton—Cosmic Blue Pearl Metallic SAAB 9-3, four-door hatchback with well-worn charcoal-gray leather seats, illuminating sunroof, and most excellent Bose sound system, died suddenly on Saturday the 30th of July while exiting the Route 128 off-ramp on her way home from a week in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

Manufactured in 2002 in Trollhättan, Sweden, 9-3 loved to drive really, really fast down the highway. Besides trips to the Cape, 9-3 traveled from Maine to Washington DC, but spent most of her time bopping around town. Her 5-speed manual transmission and 4-cylinder 2-liter turbo-charged engine made her the peppiest car on the block, while her cobalt color never faded.

The bright blue 9-3 spent her entire life in Acton where she zipped around, weaving in-and-out of traffic in true Massachusetts fashion—a real cutoff queen. Her go-to, road-trip books on CD included the Series of Unfortunate Events followed closely by the Harry Potter set, but around town she preferred to rock it out old-school with Radar Love and new-school with Shut Up and Drive.

In appreciation for lasting twice as long as her predecessors, and in the off-beat chance this obit brings catharsis to those left behind, 9-3 merits a memorial playlist. Continuing the Big Chill theme, her last ride relies heavily on the Stones—driving past Miss You, swerving around Satisfaction, gunning it on Paint It Black, then taking a sharp right and down shifting to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. If only I could add Start Me Up.

9-3 leaves behind her constant companion (Janice), her favorite passenger (Mark), and occasional joyriders (Amy, Jesse and Alyssa).

Memorial gifts are not accepted, but memorial playlist suggestions are always welcome at jward@acanthi.com.


It’s a Sign...

”I like your sign,” said our new neighbor as she waved and jogged past the house on her early morning run. Truth is, I’ve met more neighbors in the past year since I placed a political placard in the front yard than I have in the last 10. Is this an omen?

As a born and bred New Englander, I don’t usually wear my heart on my sleeve or my beliefs on my lawn. Until now. But this election reminded me of college. Not the books, tests and all-nighters, but the passions, causes and beliefs. The immediacy. The heightened reactions. The instinctual responses.  I never realized how much I missed the pure gutsiness of telling it like it is. Or how I thought it was. Or how I think it should be. Bear your soul; burn your bra; live your life.

After graduation, of course, reality set in. Jobs and student loans and responsibilities ruled. Besides, I needed that bra to support my power suit, and bra burning was such a budget buster. As far as offering opinions in the workplace? I think not.  Like Archie Bunker’s warning to Edith, I learned to “stifle.” My new mantra: seal your soul and spare the bra or pay the piper.

So it was a great surprise to me when I felt the excitement of engagement return over this year’s presidential race. My early feminist leanings, once thwarted by the failed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, have risen—phoenix like. Maybe passion is not just for the young—even though I doubt my kids will believe that. Why should they? I didn’t believe it. For the longest time I proudly said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

My new vocabulary includes canvassing and caucuses, phone banks and primaries, down ballots and “off topic” election speak. I attend rallies, ask voters to volunteer, hand out pamphlets, donate money (to Mark’s chagrin), proudly present my “woman’s card” to anyone and everyone, and last but not least, carry a sign that tells the world, I’m with her.  I feel that I’ve waited my whole life for this moment—to see a woman in the White House. Not as first lady or cook, cleaner and bottle washer, but a woman holding the top job, president of the United States of America.

And yet some of my friends agree with the message, but fear the sign. “You're brave to post a sign on your lawn,” said one friend who preferred to remain anonymous for this blog and her election selection. She’s already encountered the opposition—Facebook friends who indubitably dis, locals who need neutrality, business associates who deal in “don’t ask, don’t tell,” nudgy neighbors who hold a grudge, even angry children who resent her preferred candidate. Whether I like it or not, fear of confrontation and concern for others often dictate a woman’s life.

Which means it’s time to find a soundtrack to assuage fears, starting with Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing til I reach a Higher Ground. Maybe I needed this unprecedented 2016 election to show me the way. Maybe my time has come todayMaybe I’m turning into my grandmother who believed that old age entitled her to tell it like it is. Maybe salad days and senescence have something in common after all. 

I knew there had to be a silver lining in our design flaw, formerly known as "aging." Maybe it’s a sign.


A road to nowhere. I blame Ike.

“I  feel a blog article coming on,” mused Karen with a sidelong grin as she listened to me kvetch about my car which had been banished to the body shop. My car was not the culprit; my lack of transportation caused my crabbiness.

Living without a car in Acton, Massachusetts is like being stranded on a desert island without drinking water, reading material, fresh food, flowers, music, sunshine, caffeinated iced tea, daily exercise, the internet, my cat and conjugal relations. As we used to say in the ‘60s, “it’s the pits.” And I’d only been without my car for a week. How do people survive longer?

My sad story started two months ago when I left my 14-year-old, blue Saab 9-3, sporting a mere 178,000 miles, in the body shop because a 50ish gray-haired man wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks and reeking of some sort of smoky substance that did not resemble cigarettes, rear ended me. To make matters worse, Mark and I thought it would be no big deal for me to live without a car for a week or two.  Marooned in the woods at the end of a dead-end street, the nearest connection to civilization called Piper Road loomed ½ mile away. And that road is a killer. No sidewalks. No bike paths. Piper Road is a winding cut-through for speed demons zooming toward Route 2 at breakneck speeds, so they can arrive at work 30 seconds earlier. Even if I walked to the death trap, known as Piper Road, I’d take my life in my hands to cross it for the next ½ mile of my journey toward the real world.

I blame Ike.

Sixty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower did us in with interdependence on the interstate in this country, and on June 29 the New York Post wished the sexagenarian system a happy birthday. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 shaped America and the way many of us live now—in the suburbs, dependent on our cars. “Driving your Chevrolet cross the USA” was cool before the fitness craze, the oil crisis and climate change. Now, not so much.

The first few days of stranded living weren’t so bad, but I started to feel like I was in solitary when day four reared its head and the body shop hadn’t started work on my car yet. Friends called and offered rides, but I remained steadfast in my own personal isolation tank. Queue Helen Reddy. “I am strong. I am invincible. I Am Woman,” and I can live in the burbs without transport.

Day five broke me. Ann called and offered lunch at Nashoba Bakery in West Concord. Jailbreak time.

The next day Karen called and I accepted ride #2. “I don’t mind,” she said. “In fact, I want to. You’ve given me lots of rides, and you should let people help you.”

“You’re right, of course,” I said while secretly acknowledging my wussiness about asking for help.

Halfway through my week of woe, an email announced the “Acton Complete Streets Prioritization Plan” which asked residents to “join a public forum to share ideas & knowledge to improve Acton’s streets for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists.”

Aha, I thought, “Piper Road, you’re going down.”

The attached flyer described the new Complete Streets Funding Program, authorized by the 2014 Transportation Bond Bill which “offers Massachusetts municipalities incentives to adopt policies and practices that provide safe and accessible options for all travel modes – walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities.” The program is competitive across towns in the Commonwealth, and each town can apply for up to $400,000 in funding. Because of rules, regulations and exceptions, Acton could expect about $250,000 in funding if approved.

Luckily the meeting started at 7pm after my husband got home from work, so I borrowed Mark’s mini and drove to Town Hall where 30 to 40 people learned about Complete Streets. Given that $250,000 only goes so far, the meeting coordinators asked us to break into groups and make suggestions for small improvements (like sidewalks and bike lanes) to alleviate Acton’s car-centricity.

I lobbied hard for sidewalks on Piper Road and tried to explain the isolation of living in a neighborhood that is cut off from the world at large. But my neighborhood is not the only isolated pocket in Acton, and I left the meeting wondering if I was doomed to auto dependency for the duration.

At the end of the meeting, the coordinators promised to consider our ideas, create a plan, present it to the state, and follow up with us in June via e-mail regarding Acton’s bid for funding.  It’s now July; my car is back from the shop; I am still waiting for news on Complete Streets; and my playlist includes Life is a Highway and Walk on the Wild Side. Thanks a lot, Ike.