Nearly thirty years ago, when I was starting out as an art teacher, I had a plan. I would teach art for five years and then transition back to becoming a full-time artist. The only trouble was that millions of others shared this plan, and although I worked steadily at my art work while I taught I never made the break and gave up my salary.

My own fear held me back even as my creative drive mushroomed. Whenever I sat down to work in my studio I found that I had more ideas than I could consume and produce on any given day. This, combined with limited time, young children at home, and less energy from teaching middle school students art all day, drastically slowed my work but the ideas kept coming.

There are many people outside the world of education who believe that public school teachers are responsible for the financial collapse of 2007. madoff110307_560

It had little to do with greed based hedge fund managers or corporate raiders, but teachers, who are riding on a gravy train of highway robbery because they have the audacity to expect a pension promised to them and contributed to by them. But more astonishingly is the lack of respect from teachers themselves towards art teachers. This lack of respect trickles down to students. I have been asked by students if art teachers receive the same pay as, say, a math teacher? “Yes,” I answer slowly. “Yes we do but it’s entirely unfair.” I pause. “Because I work a lot harder.”

Most teachers think their subject is the most important and I’m probably guilty of not seeing the day to day value of math because I never understood it. Math to me is a calculator, a ruler and my check book ledger. I have great respect for the sciences and advanced mathematical formulas that allow buildings and bridges to be built and airplanes to take off but most modern day to day life functions on basic arithmetic.

The truth of the matter is, it’s much harder to get someone to think creatively than it is to teach just about anything. This statement has never been more true than it is today. I’m not talking about teaching students to mimic my work and practice and improve on technique–which is on par with most subjects. I’m speaking about teaching students to think creatively. What does this even mean?

Is this good enough? has been around forever. Asked by uninterested students or students who lack any artistic ability they gave up before they started despite pleas from their art teacher to, “Just try and see what happens.” There have been numerous books written on the subject, the most famous of those, Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards or Drawing with Children by Mona Brooks. But the thesis of these books was built on the belief that drawing can be taught. And in many instances with a willing subject it can. But today I am worried. Not only about the disaffected students but also the artistic ones and everyone in between.


crying angel baby

Now I’m going to return to that young, idealistic teacher of thirty years ago. I was unconstrained by state or national standards, NCLB, Race to the Top, or state assessments that have tried and failed to make art exams with bubble sheets. Twenty years ago I read a story to my sixth grade students by Mark Strand called “The Tiny Baby.” It’s the story of a baby who is so small she fits inside of her mother’s purse. After the story I asked my students to imagine a scenario for this tiny baby. Imagine wide and large and place the baby anywhere in the world. The only restriction was the baby couldn’t be in danger or harmed in any way. I cut out two small babies from a magazine and photocopied them 100 times. The students were free to use any 2/D medium to create their picture. I was awash with questions like, “Can I make my baby surfing?” “Can my baby drive a dump truck?” Can I have two babies and have one baby painting the other baby inside another painting?” “Can my baby fly?”

Once they really understood that they could do anything, most of them set to work, almost breathless with ideas and energy. One in particular got me into trouble. A girl had drawn some garbage cans and placed her baby on the top of the overflowing can. The drawing was intricate and alarming. She had collaged bits of torn newspaper under the baby and on the ground around the can. When I asked her about her idea, she said she had heard on the news about a baby left in the trash that had been found, rescued and adopted. I told her I thought that was a wonderful story and I loved her picture and I selected it to hang in the front hallway of the school with about thirty others of varying abilities but all rich in ideas.


A young girl, holding a baby, sits in a doorway next to a garbage can, New York City. Jacob Riis 1890

Several teachers demanded that I remove the picture because it constituted child abuse. When I explained where the idea came from they were not consoled. A small battle ensued and a disinterested principal who eventually received a parent complaint asked me to take it down, which I did. My philosophy was and continues to be: if a child thinks an image who am I to discourage that thought? Not drawing babies in garbage cans, no matter how horrific, doesn’t make the problem go away.

A year later I stopped teaching art and ran the gifted and talented program where I focused on public speaking and debate. When the district closed that program a decade later I returned to art. It was this return that opened my eyes to a change so great that I might not have noticed as much if I had seen the demise of student’s creativity day by day. In those eleven years and the six that have followed, personal computers and smart phones have demanded my students’ attention to such a degree I could not get more than a small percentage of my students to think creatively. Questions like “Can I make my baby fly?”

were replaced with, “What does a mythical creature look like?”

“Your choice,” I’d answer, throwing out even more ideas about merging random things into something new, which is met with more blank stares. I’d prime the pump and hear, “What color should I choose?” And the ubiquitous, “Is this good enough?” Which translates into what do I need to do to get a decent grade from you so I can stop thinking about this dumb mythical creature which I don’t care about so why should anyone else? This happens while they text their friend under the table. I tried a similar project like the tiny baby when I returned to art from the gifted program.  I read to them about a flying head who asked a community if they would join him on his quest to visit far off lands. As the head flapped his giant wings all the people ran away in fear. The head was so large it cast a shadow across the earth until he sailed away.The minute the head disappeared the people regretted their choice. I then asked the students to describe the head in a picture. I was met with blank stares and, despite prompting, they had absolutely no idea how to begin, or better yet why? Scientists differ on the amount of screen time children should have but I have witnessed the destruction of the creative mind first hand. People have always said children aren’t the same today but now it feels different and much more urgent. I average that less than 2% of my students have the ability or capacity to come up with an idea, let alone an original one. Once they do they don’t know what to do with it. How to color it, rework it or develop it.

I’m ready to leave this profession, both disheartened and hopeful despite the direction we’re headed as a nation in public education.  I’m sure there are wonderful young art teachers out there with great ideas they hope to impart to their students and I wish them well–we need them desperately. They will probably be undervalued and overlooked in connection to any decision the school makes but they are our only hope to rescue the baby from the trash can.


I’m Trumped!


In the summer of 2015 sitting on the deck overlooking the lake we happily mused over the latest invective Donald Trump had spoken. We had house guests staying for five weeks who left for the city at daybreak and returned at supper. So after I had scoured the national pages of the New York Times each morning over tea and toast I set aside the morsels of Trumpisms I had discovered and read them aloud after dinner. This was shortly after his Mexican as rapists and anti veteran comments.

“No, wait…wait…listen to this one,” I would howl with tears running down my cheeks. ‘Hey, I’m not saying they’re stupid. I like China. I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them?” Trump was there for our amusement and we only prayed that it would last as long as our guest’s visit so we could enjoy the show together. But as I mentioned that was last summer. Those words seem tame now. The incendiary, insensitive, hateful and misogynistic language and commentary has only worsened.  Who needs fiction when reality is so unbelievable.

Donald Trump became the only GOP horse in the race because the media and I let him. The media chased him, licked his bootstraps and begged for more. More ratings, more viewers, more people like me, hating him and loving it. Each time Donald Trump called into a news show they gave him unlimited time, free press and rarely challenged his ludicrous applause lines that he followed up by asinine non sequiturs that spun the talking head. Whenever anybody looked the other way even for a second he said or did something more outlandish so we would come back .We loved it and wanted more and Donald Trump was only too happy to comply. He was rewarded with 2 billion dollars in free air time.

We have blamed the followers who pour into his rallies cooing and cheering this monster, because that’s what he has become, a multi-tentacle monster. Crowds that seem to feed off of his hatred and vitriol and spread that hate out into the world like a plague. They’re convinced that Hillary Clinton is the devil-incarnate and Trump is here to slay her once and for all. There is nothing you can argue to sway them away from feeding their monster. It reminds me of Larry Rhodes in the classic 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd starring Andy Griffith. Griffith plays the charismatic Lonesome Rhodes who adlibs his way to a menacing popularity.




My neighbor around the lake boasts a large TRUMP banner off his deck that promises, each time I walk past, that Trump will make America great again. I see into the future and know that my neighbor’s white, and Christian vision of “great” isn’t ever going to be possible due to our changing demographics. At the same time I feel helpless to show him what I know to be true. I overheard him explaining to another neighbor that Trump is going to clean up this country and throw all the deadbeats out. He ranted that the deadbeats are people who take take, take, take from the government. I shuddered thinking about the holocaust.

“The government gives it all away,”my neighbor shouted at another neighbor as I passed by.

This neighbor is a senior citizen entitled to and probably receives Medicare and Social Security. Not things being discussed very much in the campaign right now. I also doubt this neighbor is listening to the drumming assault against women. And who can blame him, there are women not listening to it. So many of them.img_0401

Last night with Friends we discussed this horror show playing out in real time. Someone constantly checking their phone to see if another woman had come forward or better yet a new tape revealed.

“There’s tapes out there.”

“They’re waiting till it gets closer so he can’t have time to defend them.”

“I took a break from thinking about the campaign for two hours yesterday and I felt better.”

We nod and then slip our phone under the table hoping something bad has happened to him. We try not to think about Hillary’s shenanigans.

“What really worries me is if Trump loses what happens to the angry mob?”

“If, you said, if.”

“I meant “when” when He loses.” Pause. “I hope.”

But this isn’t 1930 and there’s more of us than there are of them. We’ve even joined forces with some of the GOP for heaven’s sake.

David Brooks said on the PBS News Hour this past Friday, “This is a sort of psychological question,… say he loses what happens the next day? Is there all the Trumpians saying, no, we were robbed, we are robbed, we are sticking with our man, and we’re going into some sort of revolt? Or is it, like, I was a loser and I’m putting that behind me. My intuition about the psychology is the latter is more likely. That people are just going to throw Trump to history, and then a lot of the sense that mass revolt, this is not legitimate, this is not legitimate, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.”

This is in fact what happened to Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd. When he was caught on tape disparaging his fans, he was left alone with just his butler pushing a button on a machine that cheered him on. Like Rhodes, Trump’s fans will only turn when they overhear him turning on them. Because when Trump loses he’ll turn on everyone. Unfortunately me and the news media will probably still be paying attention. At least for a little while.2016-05-01t205655z_1_lynxnpec40135_rtroptp_4_usa-election-trump-protest-800x430



I’ve been dropping my phone lately. This habit was preceded by the thought that maybe I didn’t need a cell phone. Rob countered that just having a long commute requires one. I argued that I commuted for years without one and it worked out okay. Then I dropped my iPhone in a parking lot and the glass shattered. It still worked and I pressed on with the idea that I’d trade it in soon enough. About a month later it fell into the toilet. I learned no amount of time in rice would save a wet iPhone with a cracked screen. I was due for an upgrade and went for the cheapest solution. Ninety-nine cents for a 5S. I ordered the phone online and paid in advance. When I arrived at Verizon they had other ideas.

“You want a 5S?” he asked incredulously.

“Weeell,” I demurred. “I had a 5 and now I want a 5S, so it’s an upgrade.”

“The phone is already four years old.”

“Three and a half actually.”

“By the time you get a new one it will be six years old!” Saliva was gathering at the corners of his mouth.

I held my ground. “I like that phone. It fits my wallet, my pocket and I like the cover.”

“We have a lot of covers for the 6.”

I dug in. “It’s already paid for and that’s what I want.”

He shook his head and went to retrieve one from the back. After a bit of back and forth on the service and connections he asked if I wanted to buy insurance for eleven dollars a month.

I didn’t flinch. “No.”

“Well you broke the last one.”

“It took me three and a half years—I’ll risk it.”

“Look,” he sighed. “This phone would cost you over five hundred dollars if you had to replace it.”

“I thought you just said it was old and not worth much.”

“I never said that.”

“You implied it.”

He was finished. He couldn’t get me out of the store fast enough.

I drove home with my new–old phone wondering why a store would offer a product they didn’t actually want you to buy. It made me think about phones in general and how they’ve become far too complicated. What I didn’t tell the hip, young sales associate was that I spend most of my time on a land line. But some things are better left unsaid.

My lake community is an old, sleepy town transitioning from retirees to young couples trying to find buyer’s relief from the New York City housing market. Maybe the new young buyers aren’t installing land lines but the rest of us have them. To begin with we lose power on a regular basis. Once you go without power for more than two days, charging your phone in the car gets old fast. Your cordless land line goes dead too so you have to keep an older land line that’s connected to the wall so you can call the electric company for an update.

I have a friend at the lake who doesn’t answer her phone. She has a landline and a cell but can never find the cell. When the land line rings she’s usually working one flight down in her studio and doesn’t bother to climb the steps and see who is calling. She does 98 percent of her communication on Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account so we rarely communicate unless we meet face to face. It was simpler when everyone had and used the same means of communication.

My son owns a hundred year old row house in Baltimore. The entry way has a beautiful hallway leading into the kitchen. There’s a space hosting a small table and chair. He has an old black dial phone resting on the table, but it’s only a prop.

“You should get that hooked up,” I say.

“Why? I don’t need it. I have a cell.”

“Land lines are nice,” I explain and then I tell him all the attributes I can list. “Homey, historical, secure, no battery worries—”

“Unnecessary expense,” he interrupts  and walks away.

It’s easy for him to think any phone expense is unnecessary when he and his sister are still tied to our wireless service and they get their cell phone service for a mere 10 dollars a month. Maybe I have a few unnecessary phone expenses too.

In his entry way, I stand and stare at the perfect little sitting area under the stairs—centrally located for the only house phone. It’s charming and inviting and I can imagine the pace of life in this house and on this street when the first line was installed. I picture family members racing to answer before anyone else could.IMG_0601

This reminds me of my own childhood, when we fought our way to the telephone to be the first to pick up the receiver.

“Make it snappy,” someone would inevitably order when I received a call. “I’m expecting an important call.” All of my mother’s calls were deemed important but none of mine were. Eventually my parents added a second children’s line so one line could always be free. It wasn’t. I often kept a friend on each line while I skipped between them making plans. In the early 1970’s I could have been a major deal maker except my best friend Mary trumped me because her father was a big shot at Ma Bell and she could organize three party calls.

Then there’s the whole idea of privacy.

“Excuse me,” I would say, cupping the voice end of the receiver. “Can I have a little privacy?”

“Nobody cares about your dumb call,” one of my siblings might say in response, refusing to leave the room. The only true recourse was to turn your back towards the interloper. It wasn’t a very effective strategy and it often erupted into a fight.

When my mother wanted privacy on the yellow kitchen wall phone she would say, “Go play outside.” And that would be the end of it.

“It’s raining.”

“Take an umbrella.”

In public, people used phone booths. Early phone booths had little wooden seats and counters to lay out your change and louvered doors that allowed for privacy when you were away from home. Today everybody’s one sided cell phone conversation is public knowledge for anyone within ear shot. “Why does that man think we need to know about his divorce?” I might grumble to Rob over a hot drink at the coffee house. Rob shrugs. He agrees but tries to block it out.phone_booth_real

When my children were growing up they shunned the phone. The unknown voice on the other end was better left unknown.

“Pick up the phone!” I would scream from behind a locked bathroom door. They rarely did. Even when Jackson received his first cell phone after his 8th grade graduation—long after his friends had—he never made any calls.

Texts would travel back and forth between our children and their friends about upcoming plans and somewhere along the way it might become muddled.

“Call them up,” Rob or I would say to them.

“No!” they would cry. “Nobody does that.”

“Well it might make things a bit clearer!” one of us would shout back. Occasionally in an act of utter desperation and at our insistence, Quinn might chance a call and firm up an arrangement to meet someone. It usually worked out well but she never converted.

Once Facebook arrived on the scene all bets were off and messaging and texts were the only known means of communication. Even emails were oddities they received from their parents or professors once they went away to college, but never a friend.

Phones today are complicated and instead of offering labor saving means of communication they come with a bundle of problems especially when you buy a new one. You’re told that the process is supposed to be seamless unless of course you drop your cracked phone in the toilet…then you can’t recover anything that wasn’t backed up on the Cloud which, being old school, I didn’t do.

I spent every evening for a week trying to sync my new phone with my iTunes. I became good friends with the people at Apple support who assigned me a case number and pretended to have great affection for the faux-luddite on the other end of their line. However, each solution ended with a new problem. It turned out that even a teeny little upgrade from a 5 to a 5S meant my laptop no longer supported the phone—too old. I have now learned to back up, migrate and restore but it took six support sessions and a trip to the Genius Bar to get me back on track and I still have issues.

I understand things change and when I complain about this stuff I usually get the time honored argument that the eraser was going to send civilization straight to hell when they added it to the end of a pencil. Between my iphone and my laptop and my PC at work I’m inundated with emails and have a whole host of people demanding things in a very short period of time. We’re expected to work away from the job because they can contact us instantly. Parents of my students tread where parents never used to tread. I think because they don’t have to work very hard before they click send—there’s no cooling off period anymore.

“Now that I think about it, maybe you deserved that B- in Art, Johnny. I don’t think I’ll call the school and contact the teacher about it after all.”

Tasks that used to be allowed a week or two to complete are now anticipated in 24 hours. As a society we spend far more time managing all this stuff than we used to, so I don’t think we’re saving much labor except our now defunct perusal of Encyclopedia Britannica. I used to love looking through those books.

Students in my school aren’t allowed to have their phones out or on. It’s sort of like holding a tsunami at bay with a child’s plastic bucket. About half of the school population still complies. A boy in my class recently asked me for the time and I looked at my wrist watch. He marveled at the pie time dial.

“You can read that?”

“Of course. You can’t?”

He shrugs. “I just check my phone.”

It seems pointless to have a discussion about why he might want to learn how to read an analog clock.

“Well a watch might come in handy when you can’t use your phone. Especially in this school where the clocks are all broken.”

“I guess,” he answers, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “An iWatch might be cool.”

“But you can’t call anyone from an iWatch.”

“I never call anyone,” he said.

“Then why do you need a cell phone?”

“To play games.”

We’d better get a bigger bucket.

As for me I’m shopping online for a working rotary phone. It will never shatter and it couldn’t possibly fall in the toilet.








Pork Roast Again?


Sunrise December 25, 2015

On Christmas morning I stepped outside on the deck to a brilliant sunrise. A warm sixty degree breeze brushed my bare arms and it felt a lot like early spring. A pair of mallards slowly skimmed the surface of the lake looking for breakfast. Everyone in the house was still sleeping and my mind, as a matter of course, wandered from the vista to dinner. Each holiday is the beginning of a new custom and I’m never sure which one will take, so having warm weather didn’t seem out of place. The night before we made our own version of Feast of the Seven Fishes with neighbors instead of extended family.

Last year, we broke another ritual and cooked a pork roast for Christmas dinner, a tradition we duplicated this year. Who wants to eat fish the day after the feast of the Seven Fishes? When I first suggested pork roast last year the only opposition came from Quinn. Quinn hates turkey and eliminated that as an option as well.

“Oh, I’m not sure if I like pork roast,” she said.

“Oh, you like it,” I assured her.

“How do you know? I’ve never had it.”

“Because we spent forty dollars on an organic grass fed pork roast at the farmer’s market and we have almost four pounds of it.”

“Okay,” she answered tentatively over the phone. But what she really wanted to say was, “We’ll see.”

This year we bought a smaller one but we still had leftovers.


Jackson perhaps contemplating the sliced pork Roast sitting between us.

Every year seems to be the beginning of a new traditional meal because what we eat keeps changing. We raised Jackson and Quinn as vegetarians and now that we all eat meat we’re trying to find our footing. This is further complicated by a variety of restrictive diets that my family is now following. Rob doesn’t eat any grains or fruit but if the meal is in front of him he’ll just about anything. Quinn can’t eat dairy so we have to avoid butter, which can be tricky around “holiday” type foods.

I called Jackson and told him the menu.

“No pumpkin pie for me.”

“But it’s paleo, no dairy or refined sugar.”

“Oh I eat dairy now. But I can’t eat pumpkin.”

“Really? Because it’s one of the desserts your dad can eat.”

“Just buy me some berries.”

“Berries are fruit.”

“They’re not cooked. If you cook the fruit it has a higher GI.”

“Okay, well I’m also making Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and squash.”

“Sounds good, but I can’t eat it.”


“Chestnuts and squash.”



Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell

My mother was a New England Yankee puritan who was raised on a farm in New Hampshire. When I asked her about her childhood holiday menu she said it was something of the Norman Rockwell variety. Turkey, stuffing, turnips, mashed potatoes, gravy, pearled onions, and mincemeat and apple pies. That’s what we ate when I was a child. My father was from an Irish family and the only tradition he brought into our lives was storytelling but no special foods. He loved everything my mother ever cooked and almost everything she prepared was homemade. You assume when you marry someone that you’ll merge two traditions together but one family usually pulls ahead.

The first time I celebrated a holiday with Rob’s family was Thanksgiving in 1984. I asked for seconds. I thought it was unusual that someone would choose to serve lasagna for Thanksgiving, but it was delicious so I ate more. I had already eaten stuffed mushrooms, nuts, cheese and a variety of bar snacks so I remember feeling very full when I was finished. I left the last few bites of the pasta dish on my plate and wondered how long I was going to have wait before it was polite to excuse myself. Plates were cleared and a flurry of activity began to what I assumed was going to produce dessert. Then the turkey arrived.

New dishes were laid out and then one by one in a steady succession a full traditional turkey dinner was set before me: stuffing, vegetables, green beans, gravy and mashed potatoes. They also served sweet potatoes covered in melted marshmallows, which was the family favorite. It was one of those moments when I knew I was the only person in the room who was out of step.

As the food made their rounds all eyes fell upon the latest intruder who had infiltrated the family compound. I piled my plate with everything.

“More stuffing?” Rob’s aunt sang out before I had taken one bite.

“Why not?” I said with a smile.

She heaped another scoop on top.

The conversations were loud and disjointed with several going on simultaneously. When Rob’s father wasn’t chewing he was shouting.

“How long are you going to wait before you cut down that tree?” he demanded of his son-in-law. There was a large oak between their backyards and Mario was convinced it was going to fall over.

“I like the tree,” Richie said, continuing to eat.

“That’s not the point,” Mario bellowed. “It’s going to fall and kill someone.”

“Okay, Mario, calm down,” Rob’s mom said. “It’s Thanksgiving, let’s talk about something nice.”

“It might kill me!”

That might be nice,” Richie said.

“Who wants to do Secret Santa this year?” Rob’s sister asked.

“Is there any more gravy?”

Mario stood and called out. “Only in death is there peace and happiness.”

“Who wants to go for a walk?”

About ten of us bundled up and walked for miles through the late afternoon suburban streets of Yonkers until we felt we could return and eat more.

After the walk we were ushered into the living room to be entertained by Rob’s cousin on the bagpipes. If you’ve never listened to bagpipes inside a 12×15 foot living room you don’t know what you’re missing.

Dessert, which followed the concert, was about ten pies for twenty people which meant everyone could have half a pie. All the pies came out of grocery store boxes and the unanimous winner was Mrs. Smith.

“You just can’t beat a Mrs. Smith pie,” Richie said.

“I like Entenmanns,” Rob’s niece said.

“Who brought coconut cream? That doesn’t go.”

“No, Mrs. Smith is the best. Probably because it comes from the oven.”


I thought back to my mother’s delicately prepared homemade pies and knew if I was going to marry into this family I would have trouble forging any of my own traditions into the mix. My siblings and parents were scattered across the globe and Rob’s family was mostly settled into three houses whose backyards touched.

Every year another variation of this same theme unfolded until I started to host these events. No matter what I tried to inject into these time honored holidays the Italian traditions pushed through and took over. I even started to make sweet potatoes with marshmallows and we always started with lasagna. I always baked a homemade pie but it wasn’t received any better than Mrs. Smith.

These large multi-family gatherings started to become less frequent as the family started to shrink. First Rob’s aunt, then his dad, then another aunt, and sadly his sister all passed away within a few years of one another. We floundered around trying to make our time together meaningful but we all missed these people and we didn’t adapt well. Rob’s niece started to host and that’s when the menu nosedived. They found ways to take short cuts beyond Mrs. Smith. When we walked in the door we were instructed to write our name on our paper cup so we wouldn’t waste cups. Marshmallows on sweet potatoes is one thing but paper cups at Christmas? Appetizers became Doritos and barbecued chicken wings instead of stuffed mushrooms and antipasto. Once when Richie asked for bread a plastic bag of cold sandwich bread was pulled from the refrigerator and passed around. No one seemed to notice but Rob and my children. At least my traditions were having an impact on my own family.


Having fun alone Christmas 2013 Photo by Robert Forlini

When Rob’s mom died three years ago we stopped going to his family for Thanksgiving. This year we didn’t go for Christmas. Instead we met a group of my cousins for dinner in Manhattan the day after Christmas. We’re having Rob’s family up to the lake for a New Year’s Day brunch. The traditions that we cling to and nurture at the holidays are based on feelings we carry from the past, but they’re always changing—like the canoe ride Jackson and I took this year on Christmas Eve in our shirtsleeves.

For the actual holidays it is now just the four of us and we can do whatever we want. We can eat meat or fish or invite the neighbors but we inject the past into the new. I think of my childhood holidays with masses of presents and artfully laid tables of delicious foods. I think of Rob’s mother’s lasagna scooped out of the Pyrex dish into steaming hot squares of perfection. I think of the Hess trucks we once had to have that now lay boxed up in the attic. I wonder what we may be buying this year that will end up no longer wanted. I see parts of my late father and brother as I listen to my grown son tell a funny story about his life in Baltimore. Maybe one year Jack and Quinn won’t come home and Rob and I will take a trip instead. Everything changes, and serving pork roast seems pretty minor.


Rockefeller Center December 26th 2015



FloridaTaxiCartoonTaxis have been in the news a lot lately. There’s a local battle raging down in NYC between Uber and the Yellow Medallion Taxis. Lots of people need a ride but not everyone agrees on how to manage competing car companies. Uber wants riders to call a cab with their smart phone app. Uber is also more willing to drive people to the outer boroughs. Yellow cabs prefer people to flag them down along Manhattan streets. This way they can pick and choose who to pick up. Additionally, there are lots of private limousine companies competing for business but you usually call them on the phone. Here at the lake, taxi cabs aren’t really an issue. Most people have cars and those that don’t, tend to walk, bike or call Rio cabs.src.adapt.960.high.CagleUbersidebyside_a.1404361338850

A man who lives across the street from me rides to work in a Rio cab everyday. It’s probably a set arrangement and they dispatch a car to him automatically every weekday morning at 6:30 AM. I’m pretty sure he’s not using an app to call for one. During the school months when I’m heading off to work he’s standing at the foot of his driveway like a statue waiting for his ride. We always bid each other good morning and occasionally make a comment about the weather. During the winter I call out into the dark and say, “Have a nice day.” and a deep faceless voice answers back, “You too.” The taxi brings him home again each evening. Other than this I never see taxis around the lake.

On Sunday while attending a neighborhood garden tour, I spoke with a young couple named Chrissy and Mike. They happened to have had taxi trouble the previous evening. As they were out walking, a man driving drunk, the wrong way on their street, stopped his car in front of them. He spilled out of the car and needed a cab. The inebriated man was shepherded into a nearby friend’s home and Chrissy and Mike started calling cab companies. These are the things they told me.

“No one answered the phone!”

“We kept trying.”

“It was only Eleven PM!”

“Don’t people need rides most of all late at night ?”

“I called six people to ask about taxi services.”

“Did a cab ever arrive?” I asked.

“Finally, but it took over an hour.”

“And we had to hang out with this guy!”

“Was he really drunk?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” Mike said.

“I don’t think we got to bed until two-thirty in the morning,” Chrissy added.

Steve Schapiro ~ still from Scorsese's Taxi Driver, 1976

For years I suggested, even begged, my children to call a taxi when they needed to go somewhere if we couldn’t drive them. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was ever urgent enough or important enough to get them to take me up on the idea, not even the taxi tales of my own childhood. They were my version of “…when I was your age I walked five miles to school through sleet and snow.”

“I took taxis all the time when I was young.”

“We know,” they would collectively groan.

“Seven years old and my mother left cab fare for me and my sister to travel to the doctor and back alone.”

“Uh huh.”

“I used to go to girl scouts and if our neighbors the Liermans couldn’t drive me home, I had to call a cab. When I got home I had to tell the driver to wait while I went inside the house to get the cab fare.”

I’m not quite sure why I believed these tales would influence them to want to call a cab. The truth of the matter was, cabs were part of my life growing up but I hated them. I was embarrassed waiting for the taxi while the other children ran out to humming cars outside the town pool. My brother was so embarrassed that when our mother made us take a taxi to school in inclement weather, he made the driver stop a block from the building so he could get out.

Maybe rich kids in the city understand the advantage of hailing a cab over riding the subway but rural and suburban children have never taken to the concept.

When Jackson was in school he avoided cabs at all costs. He saved and eventually bought his own car so the topic became a non-issue. Then, living in Baltimore a year after graduation his car died. He decided to give up owning one and take public transportation. I went to stay with him last summer and after a night at Camden Yards he flagged down a cab for us. If the buses have stopped running he’ll take a cab.

Quinn’s idea of riding in a taxi cab is to have me or her father hail one in Manhattan. She slides in between us and rides in silence counting the minutes until we arrive. Whereupon she scurries out of the taxi as fast as possible while her father or I settle the fare and tip. It sort of feels like she’s doing us a favor by riding along. Last week we drove her down to Virginia for graduate school and moved her into a small shared house about a mile from campus. We drove back and forth running errands along the route she would soon be walking. She followed the sidewalk path with her eyes noting each hill and turn. “I can do that walk,” she said.

Photo by Gary Winogrand

“What if it’s raining?” Rob asked.

“I’ll use an umbrella.”

“Freezing snow and ice?”

“It’s Charlottesville, pretty mild.”

“You need to learn the bus route,” I chimed in.

“Hmmm,” she said.

“What about late at night?” Rob said.

“There’s always a taxi-cab,” I said.

She said nothing but in her head I suspect she was thinking, “Not bloody likely.”

In the morning we helped her buy groceries and then left for home.

“Good luck,” we said as we drove off leaving her alone in a then empty house. Her roommates arrived several days later.

The following day she attended a reception for grad students in the late afternoon. She met some older second years who invited her to go have a drink. The group meandered downtown away from the direction of Quinn’s house to a local bar. They settled in for the night and began their writers’ discourse. As dark was setting in Quinn felt the need to leave. She bid them good-night and headed out the door. No problem, just retrace her steps and follow the sidewalk home.

Earlier that day Quinn had had to force herself to attend the reception.

“I’m not sure I should even bother going,” she had said.

“Go,” I said. “Go and talk to at least three people. Once you’ve accomplished that goal you can leave anytime. Who knows you may like it.”

“I guess.”

We made plan for her to call us when she returned home. I knew it ended at six and when eight-thirty arrived and no word came Rob called her. Rob has always had the philosophy that he could swoop in and rescue either child in a moment’s notice if need be. The fact that four hundred miles stretched out between us was a minor inconvenience.

“How’s it going?” Rob asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“Why not?”

She explained the situation and then panic set in. Rob couldn’t understand her through tears and passed the phone to me.

“I don’t know where I am!”

“Go back to the bar.” I screeched.

“I can’t,” she cried.

“Why not?”

Why not? Stupid parent. Because it would be embarrassing. She would appear young and helpless in front of a bunch of smoking and drinking thirty-somethings.

She started to cry. “I’m out of my league,” she sobbed into the phone.

“Just because you’re lost in a new city at night does not mean you’re out of your league. You have to turn around and find a place to wait while you call a cab.”

“A taxi?” she cried.

“Do you have a better idea?”

“No,” she admitted. She looked around and said, “there’s a Staples up ahead.”

“I’ve got a number,” Rob shouted over to me. He had done a search and located half a dozen taxi companies in the area. He texted her the information.

The taxi arrived within minutes.

“Call us back when you get home.”

A few minutes later the phone rang again.

“I’m home.”

“How was it?”

“Fine,” she said. “He talked to me the whole way here.”

“Well some drivers do that,” I said. “The important thing is that you learned it’s an option.”

“But I can’t take a taxi all the time it will get expensive.”

“No dear, only when you’re desperate.”

“Tell her to keep an emergency twenty dollar bill hidden in her wallet at all times,” Rob said.

I don’t entirely agree that emergency taxi money needs to be hidden but it’s one method. Uber is also in Charlottesville and a taxi ride is only an app click away. They also take debit cards. But the taxi service she rode was quick, efficient and friendly. So at the very least she has many options. In the meantime she has made a few friends who own cars and she learned how to take a free bus to campus so the situation is far from dire. We’re now ready to pass the baton over to her. Really.

Back at the lake we don’t have as many transportation choices. Maybe we need our own taxi battle here. Then Chrissy and Mike wouldn’t have had to hang out on a Saturday night with a drunk stranger for over an hour just to see him safely out of the neighborhood. Or maybe there’s just not a lot of taxi territory here worth fighting for.

© Robert Forlini


I am not embarrassed to admit that I love gnomes. That being said I shun most garden gnomes because they’re too cute or sickly-sweet. If I place a gnome in my yard it has to be a certain type of gnome. I can’t really quantify the type I like but I know it when I see it. We have a gnome named Fred that reminds us of a former handyman.



We have a gnome that sits on a bench inside the outdoor shower and we have a small gremlin that guards the front door.P1000778

When I walk around the lake I take note of what my neighbors choose to put in their yard. Lawn art can usually be divided into one of four categories: religious, artistic, kitsch and cutesy. The world can be divided into two types of people. Those who like lawn ornaments and those who don’t. Early this spring we were driving past a neighbor’s house when we stopped the car. There on the street were two cement cherubs.We called down to the owners who were sitting on their deck.

“Do you want these?”

“They’re all yours.”

We could not believe our good fortune.They easily weighed seventy pounds each and it took both of us to haul them in and out of the car and down the steps. We hadn’t owned them very long before our son, Jackson came to visit and took one of them home for his yard. Apparently lawn ornamentation is genetic as well.

When my father-in-law was not working as a house painter he liked to help his wife buy stuff. They rarely took regular vacations. Their idea of fun was to get in the car and drive into the country.

“Let’s take a ride, “ Mario would say to his wife and son and off they’d go.

The day was made better if they stumbled upon an antique shop or a yard sale. I Don’t think Mario ever really wanted to buy anything for himself but he wanted to buy whatever my mother-in-law, Anne, wanted. Money wasn’t as much of an issue as it was the “principle of the thing.”

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

“Can you do any better on this?” Mario would probably ask, rubbing his hand over a tiny chip on the edge of a Roseville vase. That was how they acquired large collections of Roseville or Rose Medallion tea cups or carnival glass. They picked up a lot of slightly flawed items that were marked down. Anne never really considered the resell value, she just liked the things she picked out.

Mario liked to barter. He never paid the asking price and if the seller wouldn’t come down, even a little, Mario and Anne walked away. He never looked back. There was always more stuff to buy someplace else. Mario was also a sentimentalist. He was a large, very loud, uneducated man that spent his whole life looking for his father’s approval often in the hearts of strangers. For Mario, one of the advantages of having a house full of chipped or scratched antiques was he could give them away.

The first time I met him he was trying to get me to take home two bulky green vases that had supposedly been unearthed years before in Korea.  Mario knew a man who had sneaked the vases  into the United States and then low and behold sold them to Anne and Mario at a loss.

“Some of these other things, might not be worth too much, “ he said as part of his argument for me taking the vases home. “But these two vases…they’re valuable.”

“Really?” I asked wondering why they would want their son’s girlfriend to own them. We ended up taking one ugly vase back to our studio apartment in Brooklyn. It was always easier to do at least part of what Mario wanted than it was to dismiss his requests entirely.

His own father had a large cement donkey in the front yard of his house on East 233rd street in the Bronx. The donkey had two cement baskets hanging across his back that served as planters. I don’t know what happened to the original planter but years later Mario bought a decorative donkey planter at a flea market. This donkey was meant to stay indoors. The small, white, ceramic donkey with big Bambi eyes was so utterly kitsch that I immediately liked it.

When my children were young they liked to sing a song called Dominick the Donkey. It was an old Italian song that Mario knew and hummed along to when they sang it. Dominick also happened to be Mario’s father’s name and maybe the little statue became a substitute for his own deceased father. In any event this particular flea market ware was regarded as something of a pet.

Not the original

Not the original

After Mario died, the house was sold and Rob and his sister divided up the things his mother couldn’t use in assisted living. Rob and I held yard sales for two consecutive weekends. We sold furniture but we also tried to unload a lot of antiques with flaws. I took the donkey. We had just bought the lake house and I wanted the statue as a memorial for Mario. I placed impatiens in the donkey’s two wee baskets and planted his hoofs into the garden soil so it looked like he belonged. I didn’t care what anyone thought.

“That’s Mario, the donkey,” I told anyone who visited.

“No, his name is Dominick, “Rob would say.

“No, Mario. It was Dominick. Now it’s a memorial to your father.”

“But his name could still be Dominick.”


We left it at that. We brought the donkey inside for the winters but the years in our lake yard had not been kind to him. His baskets had both been broken and re-glued several times and he lost a leg. I propped him up against a tree and that worked until he eventually split in half and we had to throw him out. But by now Rob’s sister and my father had died and we had placed lawn ornaments out in their memory too.

Marlene's memorial

Marlene’s memorial

Rob’s sister, Marlene was memorialized with a cement cat. Marlene loved cats even though she was allergic to them. She once rescued 5 feral cats had them spayed and neutered and they lived in a cat house on her back deck. They made a path across the lawn between her house and her parent’s house because Mario was feeding them cheese everyday on his front step. Who knew that cats ate American Cheese Singles?

Mario showing us how to hold a cat. Notice the cheese next to him. Photo by Robert Forlini

Mario showing  how to hold a cat. Notice the cheese next to him.
Photo by Robert Forlini

The cement cat is positioned between two bushes on our patio and if you forget the statue is there you can be caught off guard and think it’s real. We always try to choose tasteful pieces that blend in so no one will be able to tell how utterly tacky Rob and I both are.

During my father’s funeral, just as the first person began to speak a few words in memory, a terrific wind blew around us in the cemetery. We could see the wind wasn’t blowing across the lake in the distance, just around this small party of mourners. The wind was so strong, we held onto hats and pressed our skirts down and struggled to hear the words being spoken. When the last speaker was finished, the wind cut off like a switch.

“Wasn’t that strange,” I whispered to my aunt.

“Leave it to Steve to have the last word,” she said.

My father’s yard memorial is wind chimes that call out from the lower yard. We kept moving them around to new locations because the chimes were temperamental and it didn’t always chime when it was windy and sometimes chimed when it wasn’t. The new spots didn’t change anything and we’ve pretty much given up control to my dad.

When my brother Chris died late last August we were feeling very low and Rob suggested a drive.

“Let’s take a ride,” he said.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

We arrived at a rundown garden shop in Newburgh, New York. The grounds were littered with cement statues in varying sizes and states of decay. We trudged along searching for a donkey replacement along with a garden memorial for Chris. The owner spied us and came over.

“Everything’s on sale.”

“How much is this one?” Rob asked pointing at a weather-worn cement donkey.

“One hundred.”

“His ear is broken.”

“Okay, seventy-five.”

“It’s a little worn.”

“That’s how they age.”

“Do you have any other donkeys?”

“No,” he said. “Let me know if you have any more questions.” He walked back inside.

“Let’s leave,” I said.

“Let’s just go around back first.”

We made our way past some really ugly, painted statues and a variety of cupolas with weather vanes. “Maybe we should put a weather vane on our house.”

“Maybe,” Rob said.

As we headed to the car we came back around to a cluster of small cement statues arranged on shelves. A small angel was sitting on the end.

“What about him?” I asked.

“We’re not religious.”

“Chris was.”


The man showed up again. Perhaps determining we were cheapskates he said, “Sixty-five.”

When we brought the angel home we were tired and placed him in the front lawn between two large plants. “We can move him later,” I said.


Memorial to Christopher

Now, coming up on the one year anniversary of his death the angel is still in the same place. He greets your arrival on the way down the steps and makes me remember Chris on a daily basis, which is precisely the point.

Our quest continues to find a replacement for Mario’s memorial. We’ve been online and searched numerous statue shops but nothing seems to be a fit. The donkeys are too big, too cute or non-existent. We found a small bronze bird on top of a red glass ball that seemed perfect for Rob’s mom, Anne. We planted it near the cat.

I found a pig that I really liked at an art museum gift shop. The pig had two baskets strapped across his back for planters. I texted a picture of it to Rob. “How about this instead of the donkey?”

He texted back. “No.”

I didn’t press the point. In the end we both knew that only a donkey would do. And a particular sort of donkey at that. You see when it comes to lawn art there’s no accounting for taste.


  family-dinner-1When my mother was raising children I remember she was great at marking time. She understood ceremony and held up a barometer about what mattered to her. Dinner was the most important meal and a lot of tension and energy went into each one. Tables were always set with dishes—never paper—unless you were picnicking. No glass jars or cartons were ever allowed and meals arrived on platters with serving spoons. Time seemed to stop for a few brief hours after all the preparations were over, and everyone took a collective sigh and soaked in the moment or occasion. Holidays and birthdays were magnified under this same barometer of marking time, as if to say: notice this, before it passes for good. Just because another one will follow doesn’t diminish the importance of this one. If you ignore it, knowing that the moment will soon go by, you won’t necessarily miss it but you’ll never understand how you could have appreciated it.

Living on the lake offers year-round natural events that fit into this equation of marking time. And nothing is more fleeting or more satisfying than raspberry season. It starts as a few stray berries begin to dot the road or poke through some bramble near the mailbox. This is the beginning of a tiny two week window that offers a bounty like no other. After the first raspberries of the season open, it takes a constant vigil to know when to begin picking. Last week, driving around the lake, it happened.

“Look,” I said, pointing for Quinn’s benefit. “That’s the color we’ve been waiting for.”

“Let’s go tomorrow,” she said.

“First thing.”

Wild-Raspberries-smJust after breakfast we set out on our yearly harvest. After a short walk we discovered an unexplored area next to an old abandoned house down the road from us.

“Are you sure we can be here?” Quinn asked, walking cautiously behind me into the overgrown yard.

“Nobody lives here,” I said.

“That wasn’t my question,” she said.

“Look.” I nodded towards an enormous area of bramble glistening with crimson notes, stretching out along the water’s edge. Quinn stopped worrying and started picking. A warm breeze circled around us as we clutched clumps of deep red berries that fell off the vine into our baskets with very little prompting. We picked in different sections of the large patch, so we couldn’t see each other as we talked about the past and recounted the years we had been continuing this tradition. It did not go unnoticed that this would probably be our last opportunity to do this together. Quinn is moving to Virginia in under a month and probably won’t be back home this time next year.

Some years we had a lot of competition for the berries and we have had to be willing to venture deeper into a patch.

“That man across the street is eating all our berries.” I would say peering out the front window.

“Well technically they’re not ‘our’ berries. He’s entitled to pick some too,” Quinn said. This comment was usually followed by a short pause and a solid plan to get out there and garner our share.

Raspberry picking is not for the faint of heart. To produce a healthy and satisfying yield takes energy and determination, plus a few sensible rules. When we first started raspberry picking fourteen years ago, we stumbled for a while. Jackson, Quinn and I dressed in summer clothing and started walking around the lake in search of the elusive food. The picking was easy and we stayed along the edge, picking one by one. Kaplink, Kaplank, Kaplunk into a small pail we all shared. It reminded me of the children’s book by Robert McClousky, Blueberries for Sal. sal3Quinn was always good for around twenty berries before she fatigued or was scratched. Jackson ventured deeper and produced a bit higher yield but after half an hour he would peer into the pail.

“Is this enough for jam and a pie?”

I demurred.

“Quinn didn’t pick enough,” he cried.

Rule number one: everyone carries their own pail, paper bag or basket.

The first time we brought the berries home we dumped them into a bowl and placed them on a shelf in the refrigerator, only to discover the small pile of red beauties overrun with tiny green bugs that couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to the warm weather.

Rule number two: Immediately fill a sink with clean water. Soak and sort all berries before storing.IMG_1737

Raspberry bushes like to hang out with poison ivy and they grow on branches that protect themselves with sharp needle like thorns. As the children grew our prowess to collect more and more berries grew. We would emerge with scratches around our knees and ankles and the occasional patch of poison ivy.

Rule Number Three: Wear high socks and sneakers, long pants, a light weight long sleeved shirt and a hat.

Wearing long pants and sleeves in July can be quite uncomfortable in itself so always try to rise early in the morning before the sun gets too high and pick for about an hour. Anything longer can diminish any pleasure that might be achieved during the experience. Once you return home, enjoy a swim or if possible an outdoor shower to flush away any residual stickiness.IMG_0212

Once the picking and washing are complete the decision on what to bake fills the kitchen with delicious anticipation. If the berries are picked early and they have a predominate orange color, then jam with added sugar is your best bet. But if the color resembles garnets, then fresh over ice cream or yogurt is the way to go. Having a large colander full of clean wild raspberries can yield two jars of jam, a pie, muffins and several days worth of fresh berries for breakfast. In our house there was initially a bit of a squabble over who picked the most and who was entitled to more.

“Father didn’t help pick, can I eat another piece of pie?”

This comment usually elicited a reference to The Little Red Hen story and Rob would raise his hand in a solemn pledge. “I’ll wash the dishes.” It’s an easy promise to make when the last piece of wild raspberry pie is staring you in the face. But really that’s the best part about picking: sharing. We looked forward to returning home, dumping our full paper lunch bags into the collective pile, and listening to Rob or whoever happens to be visiting coo.

“This tastes so much better than grocery store raspberries,” my sister Susan said once as she closed her eyes while taking a bite of our homemade pie. “It’s like another food.”

“Right?” we all agreed, exhaling our collective sigh, really pleased that someone else understood our efforts.

IMG_1744 IMG_1743 IMG_0201

Rule number Four: Always share your bounty—it makes it all the more rewarding. I’m glad we have house guests right now because you need a willing audience to help you mark the time. In another week it will be gone.

Elana’s raspberry Bars. I have linked the image to the recipe for your enjoyment. You can use the store bought variety.



Today is March 1st and it’s snowing. We’re stuck in a weather pattern that seems unwilling to let go of its hold on us. The thermometer read minus five yesterday morning when I crawled out of bed and headed to the gym for a 7AM spin class. This is my mission- to get ready to ride around the lake on my bike when all the ice melts. I always choose a spin bike in the back row and stuff my big sneakers into the upper clamps on the pedals. As I slowly warm-up before the start of class I look at the shoes of the other class members. Almost everyone has expensive spin shoes with cleats that allow them to lock into the pedal. I recently learned that the spin shoe gives you a better workout . It provides muscle balance, increased power and more comfort but I haven’t made the purchase in part because I’m waiting to see if this spin thing takes. The same way I’m waiting for spring.

It’s strange riding in place at the back of the pack in a cold room with a teacher shouting instructions through a head set over loud music that is intended to inspire you. When we’re simulating an easy ride along a flat road it helps if I close my eyes and remember my childhood in Illinois. Bikes were always at the ready as we hopped on and took off in a moment’s notice. We met friends at the park or in front of Petranek’s Pharmacy and leaned our bikes up against the long glass store front before we went inside for an ice cream at the still operational soda fountain.

Petranek's Pharmacy

Petranek’s Pharmacy

When we’re imitating a climb in class I imagine ascending the hills around my lake house on a warm spring day. Each of these hills vary in intensity and in every  fantasy I never have to get off and push the bike to the top.

Our winding and hilly road is so narrow it runs as a one way strip past our house, so if you forget anything you have to drive all the way around the lake again to retrieve it which can easily take over ten minutes. As a driver you have to creep along at 20 MPH to avoid hitting pedestrians walking their dogs or the occasional jogger. Most drivers are slow and careful and almost everyone waves as they pass you. The road has seven hills in total which can be challenging. For this reason, the hardest thing to do here is ride your bike.

Raising children on Lake Drive didn’t offer a lot of opportunities for bike riding. We have a small flat portion of road that runs about an eighth of a mile just in front of the house. Because the house is set below the street we had to haul the bikes uphill to reach the road, so the image of children running outside and jumping on their bikes for a quick spin to visit a friend never happened.

Jackson learned to ride a two wheeler bike before we moved here but Quinn arrived without that ability. As a parent this always bothered me, that I had somehow failed to provide her with this simple and basic skill. Another mother once announced to me that she had done her duty as a parent and the rest was up to the child.

“She can read, swim and ride a bike,” she proclaimed. “Now she’s ready for life.”

We had the reading and swimming part down but the bike part alluded us. I’m also not entirely sure Quinn held great ambitions about bike riding. She owned a variety of bikes over the years that we lugged to the street, loaded into the car and then drove off to a flat area so she could learn. These experiences never went well and they exhausted me so I stopped initiating them. There was always a small voice whispering in my ear that said, “Yes, of course Quinn will learn to ride a bike.” She was fairly athletic, taught herself to dive and was eager to try new things but riding bikes wasn’t among them. It was hard to reconcile since her paternal grandfather had been a champion bicycle racer.

Then, during the summer before eighth grade we noticed an old Schwinn chained up outside Herb’s Auto & Bicycle Store. We pulled over and got out of the car to take a closer look. The bike only had pedal brakes and it was heavy with big tires and a wide cushioned seat. The cross bar was low so it was easy to climb on. Quinn instantly loved it like an old friend.vintage-schwinn-bicycles

For fifty dollars we toted it home and set it up on the kick stand in the gravel drive. Quinn sat on the wall and looked at it for bit then climbed on. “I’m ready to learn,” she announced. All my failings as a parent were about to be mended and erased with time. I procured a helmet and the instructions commenced right in front of the house.

She steadied herself with me holding her seat and we practiced using pedal brakes and tipping to one side to stop with her feet. This concept alone reassured her that safety was just a step away. Back and forth along the allotted eighth of a mile she pedaled. She rode one way turned around and rode back. She did this activity for three days. She had it, but I wanted more. I wanted her to ride around the lake or even part way around. She needed to feel the freedom bike riding could offer, after all hills are a part of life.

quinn bike1I briefly reflected on the time I tried to ride around the lake with Jackson shortly after we moved in. He had a new bike and as we took off down the hill he steered himself and his bike into a neighbor’s hedge with his legs sticking out one side and his head and hands out the other. Lots of people came running over including the hedge owner who was in her yard talking on the phone.

“I have to hang up, a boy just crashed through my bushes.”

As she helped me free him I repeatedly apologized but she stopped me.

“I hate these bushes, I’m going to cut them down.” Which she did about a year later.

I decided Quinn and I  would go the other direction and take on some smaller hills first. Before starting out I drilled her again on the use of her brakes.

“When we come to a hill don’t pedal, just coast and when it starts to feel too fast push back on the brakes to slow yourself.”

“Okay,” she said as if she wanted to please me.

“You can do it!” I said.

“Okay,” she said again.

Off we went slowly and steadily coasting down a slight slope before leveling off. “You did it,” I sang out. Quinn forced a weak smile and we pedaled on and then climbed up another incline. When we reached the top we stopped our bikes and looked down.

“I’m not so sure,” she said frowning.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I assured her. “Just remember to brake as you gain speed.”

“Can I put my foot down?”

“Well you have to stop to do that,” I explained. “We’re coasting to the bottom and that gives you momentum to ride up the next hill.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’ll be right beside you.”

She looked straight ahead saying nothing. I took that as a sign and started pedaling slowly as she followed me. The time between that launch and her crash was mere seconds but I always see that fall in slow motion. I watched the panic set in as she lost confidence and her bare knees and palms skidded across the asphalt. I was powerless to stop the thing that I had started.

Once again another neighbor woman sitting on her porch ran to the rescue. She helped me drag Quinn to the curb and offered some damp paper towels to quell the bleeding then she went to call our house. Rob glared at me as he shepherded a crying Quinn into the car and he became the good cop. I was the bad cop who rode my bicycle home alone.

Quinn limped along for weeks with bandaged and scabbed legs. She wasn’t having any part of the old back in the saddle adage. The bike was stored in the crawl space and languished for years. Her brother asked to bring it to college but Quinn insisted she would one day use it. Eventually some friends brought her to a park and taught her all over again. Eventually she wanted the Schwinn at college and we pulled it out but now it needed new tires and we couldn’t locate the proper size in any store so it went back underground. For one whole year- Order Quinn’s tires– sat at the top of Rob’s to do list. She occasionally reminded him and then forgot about it. I mean if she really wanted the tires she could have looked for them herself.

Sort of like me riding in the back of the spin class staring at all the other people’s spin shoes, wondering if this is a hobby that will take or if spring will ever come.

photo by Robert Forlini

photo by Robert Forlini


simpsonIf I had in my possession all the money I ever spent eating out in restaurants I would be a rich woman but I don’t regret most of it. My biggest regret in life is the money I’ve spent eating out in bad restaurants. Little did I know that moving to Putnam County I would be embarking on an epicurean’s wasteland. As two parents working fulltime jobs with a healthy commute and other time spent shuttling our charges to one lesson, rehearsal or activity after another we invariably threw up our hands in desperation and headed out to eat. Living where we live this is much easier said than done. When we moved into the lake house there wasn’t a single restaurant in our actual town- just delis and they almost all sold pizza.

The seller of our house told us the best pizza was located in a tiny strip mall across from the roundabout about a mile out of town. It was called Al Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza. He said it should not be confused with Forno III Pizza which was closer. Neither should be confused with The Original Al Forno which packed up and moved to a town further south. At some point all three owners of the Al Forno Pizza parlors worked in the same place but some bad blood passed between them and they splintered into three separate feuding restaurants.


Both places claimed to make pizza like “The Bronx” whatever that is and in the end both places were pretty bad. If you went into either one the owner went into a ten minute diatribe about how the other Al Forno’s owner was a crook and couldn’t make pizza. Now normal house buyers would not put a lot of stock into which pizza was superior when buying a house but we listened to the seller and for a while the one by the roundabout was the spot.

The four corners of main street had a car repair shop on one side, an historic house that failed as a restaurant on the opposite, a hair salon called Untamed on the third corner and Maria’s Deli on the fourth. Maria was a super grouchy woman who spoke with a thick Italian accent and supported her large family from the proceeds of the deli. She made her own Italian bread. It was a bit cakey and had a very distinctive taste but she often sold it warm and we occasionally bought it. Based upon the success of her bread she decided to expand into a full scale bakery inside the deli. She made fancy cakes and cookies and displayed them under a glass counter in the back of the store.

“That’s beautiful,” I said one afternoon admiring a small decorated cake.

“You want it?” she barked at me.

“Weeell…” I demurred. “We do have a birthday coming up.”

“You want the cake?” she snapped.


“This is a great cake.” She said.

“Okay.” Something about Maria’s crankiness made me want her to like me even more.

After dinner I surprised the family with the cake. As I served it I explained that Maria was going to launch a full line of baked goods.

“So now we have a bakery in town which is something we actually need…what?” I asked looking at Rob’s face. “It’s no good?”

“It tastes just like her Italian bread except with sugar.”

I took a bite. “It does.”

“Does she just have a one size fits all dough recipe?” he asked. We avoided Maria’s for a while. Not surprisingly the bakery idea died. Maria decided to start making pizza. She expanded her deli as they pushed through to the closed up flower shop next door and installed a large pizza oven. When you went in to buy milk or a sandwich she told you about her pizza business that was coming soon. In addition to the fighting Fornos the town had a smattering of small delis servicing each lake community and each of those delis sold pizza.Mama_Celeste

Maria seemed almost pleasant for a brief period anticipating her new venture until the historic house across from the repair shop reopened as a…you guessed it, a pizza parlor called Pizza and Pasta.

This pizza parlor had something all the other places didn’t have, tables. Not to be outdone, Maria charged forward with her plans and by the time she opened up she had set up some plastic tables in the front of the deli but more people went to Pizza and Pasta.

After the first week of Pizza and Pasta, Forno III put a banner out offering free Pepsi with each pie. Then Maria hung a sign in her window that offered two pies for the price of one. Around this same time Al Forno’s Brick Oven near the roundabout started to look very grubby and we stopped going altogether.

Pizza and Pasta made a sign that said, BYOB and free salads with each pie. So Maria upped her offer to include two pizzas and two liters of soda for fifteen dollars. Then another small deli about two miles before the main corner decided to start selling pizza and they offered one large pie with two liters of soda for ten dollars and they delivered for free. They weren’t on the same block as the other three but they did start to siphon off customers who lived closer to their store.

“That certainly smells good.” I offered when I stopped inside Maria’s one afternoon. You can see I never learned to keep my mouth shut. The result was the same. Pizza that tasted like her bread and cake dough. It was as if she flattened out the bread into a pie pan and put tomato sauce on top.

So we went to the restaurant with table service, free salads and our own wine. Until the time we ordered a Marguerita pie which consisted of a can of crushed tomatoes spread over the dough with a sprinkling of basil on top. When we questioned the waitress she explained that it was the chef’s personal version.

“It’s a can of crushed tomatoes on dough,” we said.

“Yes,” she agreed.

Pizza and Pasta closed within a year for lack of business.

Apparently most people didn’t like pizza that tasted like cake batter either because Maria closed up the pizza portion of her business a few weeks later and the feuding Fornos went back to life as normal. During this period a bagel shop opened across the parking lot from Marias and they siphoned off the A.M. buttered roll crowd. Now less people had a reason to put up with a crotchety Maria. Eventually she closed her deli altogether and moved away.


As for us we stopped eating pizza and most bread products about this time and maybe other people did too. Or maybe they crossed the county line and ate pizza at any number of other available pizza options. We went from a glut of pizza choices to very few when they ran each other out of business. Forno III closed up and remains an empty shop because they owed the landlord back rent. Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza was sold and now has a glowing neon sign in the window that says WINGS. Maria’s Deli turned into a small grocery store that doesn’t sell pizza and the bagel shop closed last year as well. A bar opened up where the restaurant was but as far as I know they don’t serve pizza. The service station closed because the owner owed the county eight hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. The town supervisor has tried in vain to get a developer to move in and open a brew pub. I could be wrong but I don’t think that will ever happen.

On Friday nights driving north to a childless house I never think about pizza anymore. Then last week I passed by the empty store where the bagel shop stood and saw a sign; Coming Soon Nonna’s Pizza.IMG_1499




At Christmas time I move through stores on autopilot always hoping something will jump out and say, “Buy me!” I want the object to make me feel like I have to purchase it. For a long time there were a lot of products telling me to buy them for Quinn.

Going into my downstairs bathroom I am reminded of one of these earlier purchases. There in the corner of the soap rack, a rubber, pink bath-robed Hello Kitty toy hangs on. It’s covered in years of soap film and I periodically wash her down and prop her back up into position. When we had the bathroom renovated about eight years ago she was the first thing we bought for the new bathroom. She originally fit snugly over the top of some pink shampoo. The plumber polishing the grout off the tiles asked me about her.


“Who’s that?”

“Hello Kitty.”

“What kitty?”

“No, Hello Kitty,” I said more slowly. “It’s a brand. Well, she’s a cat and they make a lot of products with her picture on it. Quinn loves Hello Kitty.”

He scratched his head and continued polishing. “Well I never heard of her. I’ll have to ask my daughter if she has.”

“I bet she has,” I added, knowing his daughter and mine were only a year apart.

Before he left for the day he checked in with what was left on the job and said he would return the next day to finish up. Then he said, “Hello Kitty right?”

“Right, Hello Kitty.”

“And you say I can find her on lots of things.”


The truth is once you start looking for Hello Kitty items you can’t stop finding them. Which was good because Quinn loved Hello Kitty. She had acquired several t-shirts emblazoned with the squat little cat, lunch boxes, lamps, jewelry, socks, backpacks, pencil cases, tissue boxes, hair clips, and dozens of toys.

When Quinn was less than three we happened upon a Sanrio exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Quinn came face to face with a live Hello Kitty and fearlessly plunged into her arms. This cemented the beginning of a long and loving relationship.IMG_1399 Initially Hello Kitty products were harder to find. We used to travel to Chinatown and visit the Sanrio store on Mott Street. One of us would distract a young Quinn while the other purchased a special item for Christmas like a Hello Kitty suitcase. When we found anything to do with Hello Kitty we bought it because we believed it was special.

Just as Quinn’s fondness mushroomed, Hello Kitty’s popularity soared nationwide and she was available for the taking. Oddly, Quinn was largely alone in her fascination for the white cat among her immediate friends. Which might explain why the plumber with a young daughter had never heard of the character. When Quinn had a birthday party you could be sure that the majority of the gifts from her friends had something to do with Hello Kitty. To know Quinn was to know her love of this character.

When we first moved to the lake house, McDonalds was having a Hello Kitty Happy Meal promotion. For eight weeks they handed out a different Hello Kitty keychain. It was the only time in memory we ate there. We ordered a Happy Meal and ate the fries but threw the burger away so we could have the key chain. A friend explained to us on the third week, “you don’t have to buy the meal, just buy the toy.”

She had DVD’s which told of animated exploits of the little animal and featured her twin sister, Mimmy. The only distinguishable feature between the two was Hello Kitty had a red bow and Mimmy had a yellow bow. Kitty was an extrovert and Mimmy was an introvert. In one story Kitty convinces herself that her mother doesn’t love her and runs away only to discover nothing could be further from the truth. The episode was title “Mommy really loves me after all.” However, whenever Quinn was mad at me it was often referred to as, “Mommy doesn’t love me after all.”kitty-and-mimmy

According to Sanrio, Hello Kitty yields over six hundred million dollars in revenue from over 80,000 different Hello Kitty branded products in more than 60 countries. That’s a lot of Hello Kitty. Maybe if we had known this, we might have stopped buying Hello Kitty products and accepted that our quest was futile. Sometime around 2003 when Quinn was ten she really owned enough but nobody took much notice, including her.

The products continued to pour into her small bedroom. When she was in the eighth grade Rob took Jackson to Miami to sing in an honors choir. Rob had a lot of hours to fill while Jackson was rehearsing, and besides photographing he shopped and returned home with a large plastic Hello Kitty alarm clock.kitty

As he was setting up the clock, Rob said, “I knew when I saw it, Quinn had to have it.” Hello Kitty was coming out of an enormous teacup and a slice of lemon lit up when the alarm went off. It took up most of the available space on her on her nightstand.

She was thirteen and still liked toys, but I think I detected a bit of the flame for Hello Kitty starting to dim with the arrival of the clock. On the following birthday her best friend gave her a large Hello Kitty lamp which we immediately set up, but she made no future mention of it. It went on this way for a while. Each time someone in our circle saw a new Hello Kitty product they thought of Quinn and bought it for her. The next year we bought her a fancy Hello Kitty watch. I think she wore it half a dozen times. I languished in a drawer before I took it over and started wearing to work. Some of my middle school students fawned over it and wished they owned one. I soon stopped wearing it as well.

The following Christmas we went to a Kay Jewelry store to buy a Hello Kitty pendant necklace. It was cute and small and we believed represented a more grown-up version of the character. We discovered the cost was over a hundred and fifty dollars and left without buying it. I decided to feel Quinn out.

“Oh look at this pretty necklace,” I said, pointing out the object in a sales flyer.

“Please don’t buy that for me,” she said.



On her next birthday her cousin dropped off a large stuffed Build-A-Bear Hello Kitty that talked. “Is she kidding?” Quinn complained rolling her eyes. She never took it out of the box.21948Alt1LR

I had to admit it was an odd gift for a sixteen-year-old but in all fairness Quinn had never announced the infatuation was over. It had been over for a few years but maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell anyone. She had long stopped asking for these items, but people assumed once in love always in love. And they were so damn easy to find now.

When she cleaned out her room all of the Hello Kitty items were piled into a box and sold at a tag sale or given away. The small items were brought into my classroom and placed inside my prize box.

“You have an awful lot of Hello Kitty things in here,” a sixth grade girl remarked as she picked over her choices.

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “Do you like Hello Kitty?”

“Not really,” she said.

Lots of people have childhood attachments to characters and retain a few of those things into adulthood. Rob’s niece loved the character Snoopy as a little girl and still appreciates receiving birthday cards with his image on them. Not Quinn. The shampoo cap is the only thing that remains because I can’t bring myself to toss it. I still have to stop Rob from buying anything Hello Kitty. He see’s one and say’s “Oh look,” and then stops himself. We remind ourselves that Hello Kitty is no longer part of our lives and we move on. They still talk to us but we’re trying really hard not to listen.