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. 


The Search for Soda Bread

As I listened to Brian O’Donovan’s Celtic Sojourn on WGBH radio last Saturday, visions of soda bread danced through my head. Not just any soda bread, but the moist, delicate concoction I sampled over 20 years ago in the Belmont hair salon where Joe, my former hairdresser/aerobics instructor, invited me to try one of his client’s specialties—a gussied up American version rife with plumped currents, golden raisins and caraway seeds. Unique in its tender crumb and foreign in its moistness, I sampled and swooned.

Knowing that the Irish prefer a simpler, unsweetened soda bread made from four ingredients—flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk—was irrelevant. Tradition be damned, that Belmont bread was the best I’d ever tasted.  Alas, no recipe accompanied that tiny taste. “It’s a family secret,” said Joe wistfully. That’s when my quest commenced.

Like Ponce De Leon’s never-ending search for the Fountain of Youth, I get the urge to discover the secrets of soda bread every year around St. Patrick’s Day. And this year was no exception. I thought I had it in the bag when I ran into Lily, a native Irish woman who joins us at the gym for Step aerobics. With her white hair in a French twist and blue eyes a-twinkle, Lily arrives at our health club in full force with a bonny brogue and sassy sense of humor.

“Do you have a good recipe for Irish Soda bread?” I asked Lily, assured of getting the goods.

“Well, no. no.” said Lily. “My mother baked, but I don’t.”

My face fell, and Lily tried to console me. 

“Nashoba Bakery makes a fine soda bread—with raisins!” she exclaimed. 

So much for my blatant stereotypical behavior; I figured all Irish knew how to make soda bread and preferred the purist version without raisins. I nodded politely and moved on. 

Like fools gold, bakery soda bread fakes the form and fails the function—dry, overcooked, sawdust-flavored, stone cold, and solid as cement—a stale disappointment on a plate. Soda bread is best on day one, toothsome on day two and tolerable on day three. God knows how long soda bread sits at a bakery or grocery store, and how many preservatives were added to keep it fresh, encased in its shamrock-studded plastic wrap.

Mark’s no help either. “Soda bread? We never had soda bread when we were growing up. Now if you want a good raisin Challah, come back and talk to me.”

Wrong holiday, dude.

Over the years I’ve collected and tried many soda bread recipes. One bread is too tough. Another is too soft. I am still looking for bread that is just right. The balance alludes me. And being an American, I like it sweet and completely reject the idea that raisins turn “soda bread” into the unappetizing-sounding “spotted dog.”

The second and third best soda breads I tasted were at an International Fair celebrating diversity at our local junior high. Two women brought soda bread samples, and both had merit. One used the traditional buttermilk for moistness; the other sour cream. Since taste trumps tradition, I had no problem sampling both, and taking home their recipes which I still use. The problem is that they don’t completely satisfy—either they darken too quickly or lack the sweetness I crave. As a result, I am always rejiggering those recipes: adjusting the temperature and cooking time, tenting for color control, swapping loaf pans for insulated cookie sheets or adding different combinations of dried fruit.

This year I sought professional help online at the Ballymoloe Cooking School and Epicurious website that offered Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread. Then I applied their techniques to the buttermilk recipe from the International Fair. I gently combined the wet and dry ingredients by hand, pre-soaked the golden raisins and currents in vanilla then dried them, and tented the bread earlier in the process. Bottom Line: I give this year’s bread a B+. Fully cooked in the middle, satisfying crumb, moist enough inside, not too crispy on the crust, but it didn’t quite make the grade sweetness wise.

While at the Ballymoloe Cooking School site, however, I noticed one of their class offerings, Bake your Own Bread after staying overnight at their charming B&B in County Cork, Ireland. “Step into the kitchen and roll up your sleeves, you can learn the secrets of Ballymaloe bread baking,” the website announced. My travel itch twitched, and I thought about speed dialing my travel agent for an adventure next March, 2017.

Who knows? Maybe Ponce didn’t care if he found the fountain; maybe the fun was in the trying. After all, he found gold along the way. Next year, my soda bread will be as sweet as Tupelo Honey.

PostscriptI couldn’t leave without posting some recipes.

Before you start…
For both recipes, presoak 1 C. golden raisins and 1 C. currents in boiling water with 1 tsp vanilla for ½ hour before draining and drying them off.

International Fair Recipe #1 with Buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Sift and combine dry Ingredients including:
-       3C flour (I used half white-wheat and half white)
-       ¼ C sugar
-       1 tsp salt
-       3 tsp baking powder
-       1 tsp baking soda

Mix in 2-3 Tbsp caraway seeds.

Cut in ¼ C butter with pastry blender.

In another bowl, combine:
-      1 beaten egg 
-      1-1/3 C buttermilk.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ingredients and gently mix by hand until moistened. (See Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread for method.) Add raisins and currents. Do not overmix. Turn onto floured surface, gently shape into a round and cut an “X” into the top. Move the dough onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. If your oven runs hot, add a tin foil tent after 15 minutes. Cool and serve with butter. This bread tastes better the second day.

International Fair Recipe #2 with Sour Cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. 
Butter a glass loaf pan, line it with wax paper and butter it again.

Sift and combine dry Ingredients including:
-       2C flour (I used half white-wheat and half white)
-       ½ tsp salt
-       1 tsp cream of tartar
-       ½ tsp baking soda

In another bowl, combine:
-      ¼ C melted butter

-      ½ C sugar
-      1 beaten egg
-      1 C sour cream.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ingredients and gently mix by hand until moistened. (See Six Tips to the Best Irish Soda Bread for method.) Add raisins and currents. Do not overmix. Place the dough in the prepared pan evenly and bake 35 to 45 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven runs hot, add a tin foil tent after 15 minutes. Cool and serve with butter. Bread is crumbly; make sure to cool and use a good serrated knife to cut it. 



The Soba Noodle Story

“When did you feel yourself coming down with a cold?” I asked Mark on the first day of our trip to Tokyo.

“At work,” Mark said. “I suppressed it.”

“You suppressed a cold at work and saved it for vacation?”

The nod. The guilty shrug. Classic workaholic Mark.

“Could you get me some cold pills at the drugstore?” he asked sheepishly. “There’s a shop across the street from the hotel.”

“Sure,” I said, not realizing that a drugstore in Japan is not like my hometown CVS until my Moscow on Hudson moment when I faced a 10-foot wall of boxed medicines covered in indecipherable symbols in a foreign country with people who didn’t speak English. 

I returned to the hotel empty-handed, roused Mark out of bed, and enlisted the help of Koko, our native Japanese, multi-lingual guide who was chatting it up in the lobby with the other four members of our small group tour. Mark’s dilemma became a group mission, and our squad marched to the drugstore en masse.

“Do you have congestion?” asked Koko.

“Yes,” said Mark.

Koko turned to the druggist and spoke for two solid minutes in rapid-fire Japanese. She turned back to Mark.

“Do you have coughing?”

“Yes,” said Mark. 

That was enough to set off five more minutes of conversation with the druggist. We were Lost in Translation.

After a few interminable back and forths with symptoms and suggestions, we managed to purchase a small packet of cold pills. But my out-of-element feelings lingered until Koko took us to a noodle restaurant. She ordered thin buckwheat noodles called soba and thick wheat noodles called udon, which arrived nestled in miso-flavored broth and sprinkled with scallions—chicken soup for this American soul and Jewish penicillin for Mark.

Over dinner, Koko told us The Soba Noodle Story in her precise, enunciated English with pauses between phrases and an occasional dropped article.

“Years ago, when I still lived at home with parents, my father retired from government job and needed hobby,” said Koko. “One day on television, my father saw ad for soba noodle cooking school and signed up. After much practice, he make excellent soba noodle. In fact, my father enjoy his hobby so much, he make soba noodles every morning.

The problem is that father expect me to get up early every day to eat soba noodle--even on my day off. “I had to tell him, ‘I love your soba noodle, but please do not wake me for soba noodle on my day off.’

Then one morning, I woke to a crying noise from downstairs. It sounded like my mother. I looked in the kitchen. No one. I looked in the living room. Nothing. Finally, I found my mother sitting under the dining room table, not just sobbing but wailing.

`What is wrong?’ I cried.

Mother gasped and sniffled and sputtered, `Your father is home all day making soba noodle. I have no life. My friends and I don’t have lunch anymore.’

Now, my parents have happy marriage. But Japanese women have fulfilling life that is separate from husbands. The change from husband who work all day to husband at home all day making noodle was hard. A transition. They needed time to adjust. In the end, it all worked out.”

As Koko finished her story, the waiter brought more noodles, with lemon-scented broth this time. “The aroma comes from yuzu, a citrus fruit,” said Koko as she handed out fruit packets in powdered form for us to take home.

Suddenly, whoosh. Like the food critic’s culminating scene in Ratatouille, the portal opened and whisked me back home to mom’s tiny yellow 50’s kitchen. Surrounded by pine cabinets and speckled linoleum, I sat at a gray Formica table while mom served gooey grilled cheese and a cup of Campbell’s tomato soup. My best friend, Lulu, joined us for lunch even though she preferred chicken noodle. Did mom add lemon to make the soup taste better or is this revisionist history?

And why dredge these memories now? Mom’s no longer with us, and I hadn’t seen Lulu in a decade.

On my way Back to the Future, I remembered the last time I saw Lulu and her story surfaced. When Lulu’s father retired, he tried to micromanage the household where her stay-at-home mom had handily raised 10 children. The final straw? Instructing his wife on the proper method for loading a dishwasher. I could imagine him saying, “Do it this way, Marge.” I could imagine her response.

As I sat slurping soba noodles, I thought “maybe this trip is not so foreign after all.” Food, family, and friends are common denominators, and Mark’s miraculous recovery the next day is proof that hot soup cures all. But I still don’t want him to retire anytime soon.Why take chances?