“Wasn’t that our turn?” Rob shrieked, as we sped past our exit and drove into the unknown darkened superhighway.

Tossing the map aside I scanned the large green signs above me in hopes of getting us back on the right path.

“Well?” He asked impatiently.

“Don’t talk,” I said, “it makes me nervous.”

“Not knowing where we’re going is even more nerve-racking!”

I’m sorry to say this is an all too common occurrence.


I have never understood maps. I love them, I find them attractive, but I can’t read them; even the ones decorated with pictures of little 3-D buildings. I get lost in the pictures and can’t find my way to where I need to go.

In elementary school I struggled to understand geography lessons. My eyes would focus on the icons decorating the map: corn in the Midwest, cotton in the South. I would daydream about who might live in this spot. Did the girls play with dolls? Did they eat fried bananas for breakfast? I would make up a story about a family and when the teacher called on me I would always have to answer. “I don’t know.” I promised myself I would do better next time but it was pretty pointless.


In college I took a cartography course which was almost laughable. The instructor, an adjunct (in a time when they were less common) painstakingly showed me, yet again, what I was doing wrong.

“Your drawings are well…beautiful,” he would say. “But they’re all wrong.” He paused thinking he had hurt my feelings. “Does that make sense? Does any of this make any sense?”

I only wanted to take the class because a friend of a friend had a clear box of cartography pens on his desk. I had never seen pens like those. They were filled with loose ink that dripped down into tiny needle points.

The instructor probably thought that teaching an evening class to college students would be a nice break from toiling away for long hours, alone, at his drafting table. I sometimes wonder how this group of highly trained draftsmen transitioned over to modern technology and gave up their pens. Such beautiful pens.


When I am driving alone to a place I have never been, a certain panic sets in. I can follow line by line directions much better than visual ones. That’s interesting to me because I have great spatial reasoning skills when something is right in front of me, when it’s physical. But hand me a two dimensional line drawing that points the way and I’m hopeless.

So when GPS came along it felt like a match made in heaven. Until it wasn’t. Same two dimensional map, but now it’s smaller. Tiny really, and you can’t get a lay of the land which is the only thing about paper maps that worked for me. You can only see a little bit in front of where you are and it’s moving. This fact makes it hard to look backwards.

“Is the blue dot on the green line?” Rob asked in complete frustration.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t find the blue dot.”

“I can’t drive and navigate!”

Then there’s “the lady”; that is, the lady in the phone who tells you where to go. Until she stops talking which can happen more than you’d think. Or she never shuts up and repeats the information six times over and you turn her off thinking, you so “got this,” and then you don’t.

When Jackson was graduating from college I left my family at the school to drive to the airport to pick up my sister, Susan. Her flight was getting in an hour before the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. We had plenty of time and Rob had given me a Garmin GPS for Mother’s Day the week before.

“The clerk in the store said this was the best one on the market.”

“Great, “ I said ripping it out of the package like it was the thing that was going to change my life forever.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty to throw that away,” Rob said picking up the directions. “You better read this instruction manual all the way through.”

Reading instruction manuals is something Rob does, not me. He also only seems to get lost with me in the car. My feeling is that if the manufacturers really wanted you to understand what they made, they would put it down in neat, bulleted points that fit on one sheet of paper creating something one possibly could understand.

So with Susan in tow I punched in the coordinates for the college and off we went. The Garmin voice told us to turn, drive and turn. The voice decided for some arbitrary reason to take us off the highway and even though I knew better, I listened. After all she was the authority.

“This must be some sort of shortcut,” I assured Susan.


We drove on. We meandered into odd neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, rich gated neighborhoods and industrial districts where we passed numerous body shops that didn’t sell gas. All the while the Garmin voice kept telling us, “Turn here and here.” And with each turn she added on the number of minutes it would take us to get to our destination.

“Look it’s five minutes longer than it was ten minutes ago and we’ve been driving the whole time,” I screamed.

We hit every red light imaginable between the airport and the college. At each stop the time until our arrival increased.

Susan stayed calm and tried to make the whole situation seem funny. “It’s very hard to argue with her,” she said. Our father used to say there was something funny in every situation, even someone’s death. I wasn’t laughing.

We arrived in time to hear the President of the college propose a toast to the inductees and then make a hasty retreat. I learned about the ceremony weeks later from the pictures Rob had taken.

“I want to get a hammer and smash the Garmin.”

“You didn’t read the instructions,” Rob said.

“No, it doesn’t work. I hate it and I don’t want it. I’d rather be lost.”

The Garmin went back to the store and we carried on as before. If our destination was difficult and we were together I drove and Rob navigated.

Then two years ago I bought an iPhone. I didn’t buy one to text or read my mail or take photos. I bought one because of the GPS. It seemed they had gotten most of the bugs out of the system. I would plug in the address from my current location and off I’d drive, carelessly listening to music while the voice interrupted occasionally to ensure I was on the right path. All was right with the world. Until it wasn’t.

Early in the Fall we were driving home from New Jersey and Rob asked me to plug the directions home into the phone.

As we headed towards the George Washington Bridge he asked me to check the traffic and compare the upper and lower levels.

“It’s not showing up.” I said.

“Well, find out. I need to know if I go left or right.”

It still wasn’t working and he had to make a guess. As we were crossing the bridge he asked me which way to go. Again it wasn’t working.

“You’re doing something wrong,” he shouted.

“I can’t help it,” I cried.

“What am I supposed to do?” he exclaimed.

I thought about it for a second and said, “Didn’t you grow up here? Don’t you know the way home? What if we didn’t have a GPS, what would you do?”

He laughed a good long laugh. “You’re right,” he laughed again. It was as if he had been hit by lightening. I shut off the phone. Rob’s strong sense of direction kicked in and he navigated us home GPS free. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments. We were using it even when we didn’t really need it.


Two nights ago I punched in the address for a bowling alley in a town I had never been to. I was driving along and the voice kept repeating, “You have arrived, your destination is on the left,” but I couldn’t see a bowling alley. It was hidden down a long drive I hadn’t noticed. I drove back and forth past the entrance. The lady in the phone never got excited and never wavered she just repeatedly told me to turn around. I pulled over, looked at the map on the tiny screen and saw my mistake. But unlike most people I had to study the map for several minutes to understand that unnerving question: Where am I?

When I arrived at the bowling alley I saw one of my friends and told her how hard it was to find the place.

“Oh I agree,” she said. “I got lost too.”

“Did your GPS forget to tell you to turn left into the service road?”

“No, I didn’t use one. I just pulled over and asked someone for directions.”


Raising Quinn meant that November 1st was always just the beginning of costumes. The point of Halloween for her had never been about candy, although she liked it, the point was always to become someone else. A lot of people like dressing up but she retained her costumes or parts of her costumes and wore them into the year. For Quinn almost anything had the potential to become a costume. Once she donned the outfit they were no longer costumes but alter egos. She had many.

Quinn dressed up to turn a chore into an alternate reality. On more than one occasion when I had sent her into the basement to sort the laundry on a Saturday morning I’d discover her dressed in an old dress of mine with her head covered in a scarf, wrapped in a makeshift shawl and kneeling on the cold basement floor, the laundry still unsorted.

“What are you doing?” I would ask wondering why this simple task was taking so long.

“A crust of bread for a poor old washer woman?” she’d plead, as she slowly lifted an article of dirty clothing from one basket to the next. The gesture implied that she didn’t have the strength to carry on.

“Oh for goodness sake,” I’d say. “Just finish up. It’s cold down here.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” she’d croak in an old lady voice. “This is where I live.”

Sitting and reading the Sunday paper you might look up and find her decked out in an outfit that resembled an Italian troubadour, mustache and all. She’d dance a bit and sing old fashioned ditties while twirling a cane and never coming out of character. The character went away when she was good and ready to change.IMG_1336

She’d show up at the dock ready for a swim as Jackie O. complete with glamour glasses, a head scarf and a handbag waiting for the swimmers to look up and notice.

When she was very small she was usually some type of fairy. She wore wings but she rarely flew. She liked to crawl into small places and make them her home: the crawl space, the deck trunk or under a desk. Whenever we traveled and went into a public restroom I could gauge the quality of the bathroom by Quinn’s reaction. If it was nice she would say, “This is our house.”

“That’s your room,” she would say pointing to my stall,“and this is mine.” When we were washing our hands she would add, “This is the kitchen.” If the bathroom was luxurious it was often hard to get her out. She would lounge on one of the couches which represented the living room. I’d have to remind her that Rob and Jackson were waiting for us at the table. When we left the bathroom it instantly ended.

Her characters were never limited to our personal lives but expanded into the larger world. For her ninth birthday all she wanted was an authentic Gryffindor robe. The four of us traveled to Abracadabra on West 21st Street to make the purchase. This in itself isn’t so unusual but Quinn threw away the package before we left the store.

“Oh, you’re not going to wear that?” Jackson protested.

She ignored him and attached the clasp as the long black robe draped over her slight frame and engulfed her. For an added effect she pulled on the hood.

“You’re honestly not going to let her walk around like that,” Jackson said imploringly to Rob and I.

“It is a bit warm,” I suggested.

“Oh what do you care?” Rob asked both of us snapping Quinn’s picture and on we went.

It was a warm September afternoon and she walked the streets and rode the subway as a character from Harry Potter but also looking something like a Druid. It was Manhattan-no one noticed.

Another time she went to Thanksgiving at Rob’s sister’s house dressed as a pilgrim wearing a bonnet, a gray, floor-length dress and a long, white apron. I can only imagine it took some effort to transcend the actual situation and pretend she was in Salem instead of a room full of loud Italians eating lasagna.

As a family we loved to go to Old Sturbridge Village. We liked to stroll the dirt roads through the living museum and talk to the interpreters stationed along the way. We stopped in each building and listened to the actors talk about their day in old New England. The interpreters dress in period costumes and make the 1830’s come alive for the visitor. As interpretive villages go they do a pretty good job. The docents do everything from killing and cooking chickens over an open fire to firing muskets and working as the local tinsmith. Some stay in character and some speak as historians. Tourists snap their picture as they explain the operations of grinding corn in an authentic gristmill or how banks used to function. Visitors often ask the interpreters to pose for a snapshot.

Quinn spent parts of these visits quiet and pensive as she detached herself and imagined living in this village. On one trip she spied a girl’s dress from the era inside the expansive gift shop. I remember it was pretty expensive, so it was going to be a Christmas present. She wore it a lot and liked to trudge across the frozen lake alone with a basket in hand because the conditions were often tough for a young pioneer girl.

The following summer on our now almost annual trip to Old Sturbridge Village, Quinn packed the dress, a prairie bonnet, small handmade basket, a pair of ankle moccasins and her American Girl doll dressed in a similar outfit. In the morning while we were distracted with showers and camera bags she dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder or something close to it. She asked me to braid her hair and then gently placed the old fashioned bonnet over her head.

“I am not walking around with her,” Jackson cried as we were getting ready to leave for the museum.

She looked so happy all we could do was tell him to get over it.

“Well don’t walk anywhere near me,” he declared. But after an hour or so she was getting a lot of positive attention and he stopped thinking about it as a bad thing.

At the end of our second day we walked through the covered bridge dodging the horse dung and began the slow shaded climb up from the lake towards the visitors center and gift shop. A woman with two young daughters going in the opposite direction stopped Quinn.

“Can my daughters take a photo with you?”

Quinn had spent the last two days in a sweet dream, living in another era. This woman was validating her authenticity.

“Of course,” she said.

Quinn posed politely framed by a girl on each side of her while their mother said, “Say cheese.”

“Thank you so much, “ the woman gushed. “How long have you been working here?”

“I don’t,” Quinn said.

“Really?” the woman said a little disappointed.

“Sorry,” I jumped in and then added. “But you made her day.”

“Well you fooled me,” she said before thanking us and moving on.

“Do you think she’ll still want the pictures?” Quinn asked as we walked away.

“Absolutely,” I assured her. “She can say anything she wants about those pictures, you’re the real deal.”

Quinn smiled and walked a bit a part from us the rest of the way. There were still a few more minutes left to be of another time. Her family who looked like three clumsy tourists hitching a ride to her wagon shouldn’t ruin it.



Ben Cooper costume illustration

When I was growing up we had a go-to dress up box that was pulled out every time we put on a play or marched in a parade and on Halloween. My mother was a master of making simple original costumes that didn’t come out of a package. She created jewelry-laden gypsies, downtrodden hobos with bandana sacks at the end of their sticks, Paul Revere and Peter Pan, all from scratch.

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

My favorite costume was in second grade when she made me into a Brownie spirit. She sewed brown felt over an old pair of sneakers that drew into a point at the toes and fully dressed me in brown. She topped it off with a refashioned stocking cap.

Our town had at least two costume parades each year and we loved them. During the annual Frontier Days celebration my mother used the thin white cardboard that arrived inside our father’s dry cleaned shirts and made prairie bonnets for me and my sisters and the next door neighbor girls. My brother had a raccoon skin cap and she helped dress the neighbor’s boy as Davy Crocket, an outfit my brother had worn previously. We all wore long skirts with aprons and carried baskets and were the most authentic looking early pioneers marching along the main street. At the end of each parade they held a costume contest and we never won. The children who did win were never better dressed than us so we wrote off our loss to poor judgment. The last parade I walked in I was alone without sisters or neighbors. It was the Fourth of July parade and I went as Lady Justice. My mother fashioned a toga with white sheets and draped a wide ribbon diagonally across my chest with “Justice” written over it. She placed two eye slits through another ribbon for my blindfold then laid a wreath of leaves on my head. I held a sword in one hand and a small scales of justice in the other. She instructed me how to march. The winner of the best costume was a young girl dressed as a bride. The girl’s mother kept apologizing to my mom for the award.

“Your costume is so terrific, I don’t why they chose my daughter. She was a bride… because it was all we had,” the woman said with a nervous laugh.

My mother shrugged it off feeling that everything she did in our town was like casting pearls before swine. It only bothered me.


Years later when it was time to dress our son for his first trick or treat Halloween, Rob was surprised to learn that I had never heard of Ben Cooper. He talked about Ben Cooper like he was a real person or better yet, a member of the family but I knew the type of costume he meant: the one with a plastic mask held on by an elastic string in the back and a polyester one piece suit that was screen painted to look something like the character you were representing. You stepped into it and held it on with two strings attached at the neck. Ben Cooper always put the face of the mask on the suit. Just in case you don’t recognize my face, I have an extra face painted on my stomach. I was having none of it. As an art teacher I knew there was no excuse; I needed to uphold my mother’s costume tradition.

For my son’s first costume I capitalized on his red hair and made him a leprechaun creating green elf shoes after my mother’s sneaker and felt model. We put gold chocolate coins inside a plastic cauldron for his treat bag representing his pot of gold. When we knocked on the neighbors’ doors he handed them a coin. He was an instant celebrity.

jack as goucho marx

The following year it poured and we skipped trick or treating and went to the local town celebration held inside the high school gymnasium. We hadn’t anticipated that there would be a costume contest yet Jackson won first place overall and received twenty-five dollars for being a wizard. Rob was now fully on board. Whatever I decided I was going to turn Jack and Quinn into, Rob prowled the stores for props to enhance my handmade costumes.jack as penguin_0003

The next year Jackson went as a young King Tut and won first prize again. I didn’t notice all the losers crying in his wake because I had a forty-year-old score to settle. I mean if you want to compete don’t put on a Ben Cooper Costume for goodness sake.

I would laugh it off to friends and strangers alike who complemented the costume as I casually fanned the prize envelope around.

“Oh it’s just a silly competition,” I would say.

It wasn’t the money it was the “First Place” written on the outside of the envelope that I needed.

The next time Jackson went as Rip Van Winkle. He was called old man of the mountain by the teenage judges, but of no consequence since we grabbed the top honor once again. Quinn went as a witch so she was pretty much overlooked in a sea of little witches and being two she didn’t seem terribly fazed by the fact she was never really in contention.jack as goucho marx_0001

The subsequent year I was working during lunch on Jackson’s costume when a colleague stopped in my art room and asked what I was doing. I was painting skeleton bones on black leggings and a sweat shirt with glow in the dark paint.

“Wow, that’s a lot of work,” she said. “I bring my daughter to the store and tell her she can be anything she wants. It takes about fifteen minutes.”

“Ben Cooper?” I asked.

“Or something like it.”

“Well I really like to do this, “ I said continuing to paint bones.

“You must, “ she said.

A few days later she returned and found me sewing the skull part of the costume to the sweat shirt.

“Still at it?” she asked sitting down.

“It does take time,” I said.

“Does Jackson appreciate it?”

“Of course he does,” I said a little too defensively.

“That’s good,” she said. “Because it’s his costume.”

The morning of Halloween as I was applying the white pancake make-up to Jackson’s face before school he started to cry. “I don’t want to wear this on my face,” he exclaimed.

“You have to,” I said. “You won’t look like a skeleton without it.”

“I don’t want to be a skeleton!”

“Of course you do. This is my best costume yet!”


“You’re sure to win first place tonight.”I assured him.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

“Which part, the costume or the winning?”


Quinn was happily flitting around us as a fairy casting good spells with her wand. Some of her magic must have landed on me. It was Halloween and there was no time to get another costume or improvise one since I had to get to work. I knew the time to change my ways was at least a year away. So I did what all people do when they’re in a pinch with a first grader; compromise.

No make-up was applied for the school costume parade and we skipped the entire town event that evening and let someone else win. He agreed to wear the make-up for trick or treating and the four of us went out for about an hour and called it a night.jack as penguin_0005

The next summer while walking through the New York Aquarium gift shop he discovered a plastic penguin mask held on by an elastic.

“This is what I want to be for Halloween,” he exclaimed waving a black and white mask that projected a three dimensional beak.

“Oh, I can make you a great penguin,” I said. “You don’t need a mask.”

“No I want to wear this!” he said slipping it over his head and waddling around in a circle.

“No you don’t,” I said with a laugh.

“I think he knows what he wants,” Rob said.jack as penguin_0004

With that simple purchase on a hot July day in Coney Island I passed the baton to a new generation. Although I still played a hands on role in their creations and Rob continued to be prop master they started driving the bus and the costumes became their own. When we moved to the lake house Jackson went to the school Halloween dance dressed as Phantom of the Opera. It wasn’t a big hit among his friends since he had to keep explaining to people who he was supposed to be. The next year he was in sixth grade and he dressed himself up as Groucho Marx. Rob suggested a pith helmet which we owned.

“Groucho wore one as Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers,” he explained.

Jackson donned the helmet and a plastic cigar and set off for the dance. Jackson walked around tapping his cigar and doing a great Groucho impression. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.”

A girl at the dance stopped him and asked, “Who are you supposed to be?”

“Groucho Marx.”

“Who’s that?”

“A comedian.”

“What’s a comedian?”

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

That’s a story that’s had a lot of play in our house over the years. Fortunately the teachers had heard of Groucho since Jackson again unexpectedly came home with first place in the costume competition.

Hopefully my involvement in their early costumes continued to inform their choices about how to make a great costume just as my mother’s had influenced me. Their love of costumes has been sustained to this day. Jackson dressed up for Halloween each year in college and continued to win contests. I’m happy to report none of the other contestants cried.

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

The original A-Team

The original A-Team

Please revisit my Halloween Post from last October: PUMPKIN LOVE


Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Our lake is located in the hamlet of a larger town. “Hamlet” is a quaint word to use to distinguish our district from the rest of the town. As to whether it is quaint or not is in the eye of the beholder. The hamlet itself has five businesses: a post office, funeral home, florist, landscaper, an auto repair shop that doesn’t sell gas and a deli. To get anything else you have to drive into the main town’s business district which is a mile down the road. The town itself is an expansive area spreading from one end of the county border to the other, occupying a sixth of the total county. But as I mentioned in the last post, there isn’t very much there and what we have is shrinking. The highway department spends a lot of time before every holiday driving around the county and putting up signs that say Shop Putnam First. They have signs decorated with George Washington’s silhouette, Christmas images, Labor Day icons, veteran’s day icons, Fourth of July fireworks, a Thanksgiving turkey and American flags for any occasion.

“Where?” Rob asks each time we pass a sign. “Where do they want us to shop first?”

When new businesses do open in our town we generally take bets on how long they will last. Mema’s Bakery took over ten years to open (you can’t make this stuff up) but they didn’t bake anything on the premises. They ordered baked goods and had them delivered. They also served terrible coffee and French fries. They shuttered less than a year later. We had a plant store that was terribly cute; they opened in October and closed just after the New Year. A beading store started to pack their boxes last week after opening on Valentine’s Day last year. I guess everyone who wanted to string beads had strung enough.

We had a liquor store that was run so poorly that it was inevitable it would close. You would think that if one thing could survive in a small town it would be a liquor store with no competition. Actually it was a wine store but the owner didn’t know anything about wine and the distributer panned a lot of reject vintages off on him. He rarely carried anything anyone had ever heard of.

“I drink orange-flavored vodka myself,” he boasted in a voice reminiscent of Yogi Bear. “But they say that’s pretty good stuff.” He would point at a vertical case of high priced bottles with maybe one missing.

The wine was never any good. After a few recommendations we stopped going there and preferred to do without if it was close to dinner time and we had a fleeting thought of buying wine.

“Uh, water’s fine,” one of us would say. We went out of our way to avoid Yogi, which is what we called him. Apparently everyone else in town avoided him too. Before long there wasn’t much on the shelves and he blamed the state of the town on his bad business.

“The town’s dead,” he said to anyone who bothered to walk in. He had a point.

A pet grooming salon has now opened in the old liquor store but they’re only open by appointment.

Next to the liquor store was a mom and pop hardware store which was a hard business to like.It was a long running family business that carried loose screws and replaced rake handles on request, but it came with the price of a cranky staff that shouted at you when you came inside. Like a lot of old time hardware stores it was probably run out of business because of Home Depot a little over four miles away.

hardware store 2

But the all-time winner for new occupants was A Few Good Men. They were a motorcycle club that rented one of the abandoned shops on the main street-if you can even call it that. They placed a large grill on the front steps leading into the shop and then roped off the entryway with caution tape so nobody would look in the windows. Club members entered from the back door. A few members gathered everyday to drink a beer or take apart someone’s motorcycle engine and put it back together, but they chose Wednesday nights as their official meeting night and all the “good men” would gather. They lined their motorcycles up in neat rows around the building. The barbeque was stoked and hamburger and hot dog smells wafted across the parking lot towards the hardware store. ZZ Top music blared out from the second floor windows. In warmer weather the men got restless inside the small store and spilled out onto the street. They sat on their motorcycles and revved the engines while drinking beer and leered at the townspeople who leered back at them as we passed. I think the sheriff was afraid of them or he had a brother-in-law in the club because they could do pretty much what they wanted.

During our annual Fourth of July celebration we had a parade that mostly included Fire and EMS trucks. The local Girl and Boy Scouts marched along with a tilted banner followed by the chamber of commerce sitting in a typical parade convertible. We stood on the sidelines and clapped waiting for the Town Supervisor who was wielding a bullhorn from the top of a flat bed truck decorated in red, white and blue bunting.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

But before he could speak A Few Good Men roared into the parade. Their presence in the parade was a public relations attempt on their part to cull favor with the town. It was their misplaced effort to ingratiate themselves because of the townspeople’s grumbling. Somehow they felt they could be seen in a better light if they rode behind the Boy Scouts.

parade 2_0002

Photo by Robert Forlini


Photo by Robert Forlini

The Supervisor’s voice was no match for their endless roaring engines as they hooted at the crowd shouting, “We’re one of you! We’re one of you!” A line of unfamiliar woman lined the street in front of their clubhouse cheering loudly as the bearded men rolled by on their Harleys.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“A few good women?” Rob answered.

Later that year apparently two of them died and they posted a large sign in the window that read “Reefer and Boomer RIP”. It was decorated with a skull and cross bones. From the car window Jackson studied it each time we were waiting at the traffic light.

“That sign is a t-shirt,” he reported.

This prompted Rob to say, “Oh I want one!”

“Me too!” Jackson agreed. But they never had the nerve to ask or else it was just a ruse so they could joke about the missing men Reefer and Boomer. We suspected all of the Good Men had nicknames. It reminded me of Quinn’s experience in Girl Scout camp. Their tradition is to give every girl a camp name for the duration of the session like Squeaky or Chipmunk.

The complaints against the motorcycle club mounted as the Town Supervisor struggled to rid the community of the main attraction. He left office and we voted in a new Supervisor who set about to clean things up. The only way he could get rid of them was to close every business surrounding the main intersection on the premise that the town was going to build some new infrastructure and make a real main street. The recession hit and all we had was a lot of empty buildings. He also drove out the town mechanic where the flat bed truck sat for the parade and where we held the annual tree lighting. A grubby mechanic’s lot seemed an odd place to hold a tree lighting but the mechanic was footing the bill. However, the mechanic had failed to pay his taxes for the last ten years and the county seized the property. The Supervisor felt the shop would make a great brew pub.I suppose it could have if you had a lot of money and wanted to run a business in a town with high taxes and no other businesses. But on the plus side, A Few Good Men had to move somewhere else.

As for the people who live here we’re still waiting to Shop Putnam First.IMG_0406



When you move to a new town or neighborhood one of the first things you have to do after you unpack is to find services. Any town, no matter how pathetic, has some services to offer. Our town, which doesn’t look like one in any traditional sense, currently boasts three nail salons within a block of each other, a beauty salon, pet grooming salon, tanning salon, dry cleaner, laundromat, two delis, a bar and an extremely overpriced gas station.

One of the many services we lack is a decent barber. Rob found one over in the next town run by Sicilian immigrants. A few of the barbers don’t speak any English which is fine for Rob who speaks Italian. Jackson was starting middle school when we moved here and was accused of being two things; a farmer, because he wore a pair of overalls and a girl because his hair was a little long. And I mean a little. Rob was busy on Saturday afternoons with his Italian lessons so I brought Jack to his barber.

“I so got this,” I told Jackson. As a middle school teacher I believed I had the solution to the “girl” tease. In my urban school all the “cool” kids wore their hair very short with a little fringe of bangs sticking out in front.

We arrived at the barber’s at a busy time and Jackson handed me his glasses as he took the first chair that opened. “He wants a crew cut with those bangs,” I explained fanning my hand across his forehead. The man, who I later learned was named Joe, smiled and nodded in agreement but no actual words were spoken.


I sat down behind a half partition that blocked my view and picked up a magazine. Before I opened it, all of ten seconds, I turned to Quinn and said, “You know I better see how it’s going.” I stood up and saw Jackson’s bald head. Joe lifted the cape from Jack’s shoulders and I watched his auburn locks fall to the tiled floor in one sweeping gesture. I strained to see if there was any hair on his head or just scalp. I could tell Jackson knew there was a problem and he reached for his glasses which I had been clutching into a tighter grip. Reluctantly I handed them over and watched the tears well up in his eyes as he ran from the shop while I paid.

“Ciao, ciao,” Joe called back to me as I handed him a tip and left.

The three of us held each other in the parking lot and I consoled him that it looked good. “A real boy cut,” I exclaimed before capitulating and saying how sorry I was. As a victim of severe pixies as a child I knew the powerless feeling of an awful cut. Jackson lamented that Monday was picture day. It should be noted we did not order pictures that year because his hair looked so bad.

A woman overheard us and came over with her two young sons. “If it makes you feel any better that’s the kind of haircut my boys want but their Catholic school won’t allow it.”

It didn’t make us feel any better but I noted to myself that his haircut was too unfit even for Catholic school. But I had to wonder what exactly would have happened to them at school if they had fallen into the speedy hands of Joe the Sicilian barber.

Rob who was a bit taken aback by the severity of the cut asked, “Didn’t you know what you would get if you said crew cut?”

“That is not a crew cut!” I spat. “It’s a baldy sour. A baldy sour is shorter than a crew cut. What’s the Italian for baldy sour?”

“Well,” he thought. “Testa pelata means bald head. Or peeled. That haircut just about sums it up.”big-AP1002A

Jackson spent the weekend inside a baseball cap and by Monday other issues in our lives began to trump his head. We’ve all suffered terrible haircuts and we all know the cure: time. Rob took over Jackson’s visits to the barber and we rectified the problem. But for some reason circumstances dictated that I had to bring him again the following February just before his birthday. There I was nervously traveling back to the scene of the crime.

Rob explained, “Just say, non troppo corti. It means, not too short. He’ll be fine,” he said waving us off.

Rob has had his own misunderstanding at this barber. His struggle to decipher Sicilian into standard Italian has left him and the barber using a few English words. Once he came home and said that his haircut was called The Caesar.

“Really?” I asked. “Because it doesn’t look anything like Caesar’s hairdo.” Rob has short curly hair and never had anything close to a bang.

“Well I can’t explain it, but it is.”

He later found out that the barber wasn’t saying Caesar but scissor. Something like, “you wann’em a Caesar?” It took several trips before he realized his mistake when the barber asked him the same question brandishing a scissor in his hand.

So as Jackson and I drove to the barber I was nervous something could go wrong for good reason. I recited, “Non troppo Corti, non troppo corti,” over and over. I asked Jackson not to talk so I could concentrate. I’m terrible at remembering foreign phrases and I did not trust myself to get it right so I continued to recite it. By the time we arrived inside the shop I looked Joe in the eye and said, “Non troppo corti,” with such a flair that I had added an Italian accent and a slight hand gesture.

Joe spent the entire, much slower, haircut speaking to Jackson in Italian. When he was finished he continued to speak to both of us, rambling on and on in Italian and pointing at the haircut. I couldn’t understand him but Jackson looked pleased with the cut so I smiled and bobbed my head saying, “Si, si.” I felt helpless.

I walked up to the cash register to pay the owner, who did speak English, but he too had reverted to speaking Italian thinking I could understand him. I believe he told me how much I owed and I handed him a twenty, hopeful I would get change. I nervously kept up my ruse deciding it would hurt their feelings if they knew I was an imposter. I was in too deep. It was nearly five PM and I managed a, “Buona sera,” and left before they could ask me anything else.

I know I should have come clean and explained I didn’t comprehend them after I had pronounced, “Non troppo corti.” I guess a warped concept of inclusion prevented me from owning up to my lack of understanding of the Italian language. But isn’t that what we’re all looking for in life, to feel included. It’s why we like to find and return to the local businesses over big box stores. When we walk in they recognize us, smile and we feel good about spending our time and money there. At Christmas time each year these Italian barbers place a spread of cordials and liquors out on the counter and offer their customers a drink. Rob always looks forward to it and plans his cuts around the holidays. He likes being a regular. And for just that moment I felt included. To bad I didn’t understand it.

Jackson's birthday a few months later when he finally had the haircut he wanted.

Jackson’s birthday a few months later when he finally had the haircut he wanted.



Robin Williams as John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society

I was saddened to hear about the death of Robin Williams this past month at the young age of 63. Of course we never met and I knew absolutely nothing about his personal life or struggles but his performances made his public feel as though we knew him. My daughter and I re-watched Dead Poets Society thinking it would be an homage to the deceased actor but the story is so utterly depressing that it had a negative effect on us and we stumbled around the house a bit down for the next few days.

Then less than two weeks later my older brother Chris passed away also age 63 after a losing battle with a brain tumor. I briefly thought of Robin Williams again and how parts of my brother’s life were as distant and far away as a celebrity I had never met.


Chris, Susan, Deborah and me in Illinois in the 1960’s.

I was ten years old and going into the fifth grade when my brother left for college. Mrs. Hudson was my fifth grade teacher. She looked at me and said, “Another Gilman. Are you as smart as your brother?” She didn’t wait for an answer and was fairly disappointed to learn otherwise but she was still nice to me.

Ten years later my brother and I were both briefly home together and my mother arranged for me to travel with him from Illinois to New Hampshire to attend my cousin’s wedding. Chris was living in the Charlestown section of Boston and we were going to stop off at his house along the way. We had never been anywhere alone together and I remember being almost giddy with excitement but I was trying to act very cool and intelligent. On the plane trip to Boston we mildly struggled to find common interests to discuss before Chris asked me if I had ever seen the show Mork and Mindy. Living in a dorm with no television I hadn’t yet and Chris went on about how impressed he was with the comedian named Robin Williams who starred in the show. He was discussing the comic’s improvisational techniques and how he appeared to spontaneously combust with thought. The first thing I thought was, I like the name Robin for a boy, you don’t hear that very often. Growing up in the Midwest you never heard it except in Winnie the Pooh. I kept this to myself.christopher-robin


When we landed in Logan Airport I tried to maintain my cool, adult act as Chris shepherded me down to baggage claim and then out to the taxi stand. I sat back in the deep cushioning of the yellow cab seat feeling briefly cared for and watched the city wiz past us as Chris kept redirecting the driver to a better route. Chris had been working as a Boston taxi driver and he knew every turn and shortcut.

When we arrived at his apartment I was a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I had imagined. The neighborhood was very run down and almost grey in appearance. Clusters of white teenagers lingered on the stoops looking like thugs.

“There’s Bunker Hill,” he said pointing to the obelisk. “I live right in the heart of Bunker Hill.”

“Cool,” I said or something like it.

Chris lived in a three-story building that slanted quite a bit to one side. As we ascended the steps we had to lean to right ourselves and walk straight. We passed an open door on the first floor where an old woman called out. “Chris, have you seen my cat?”

“No. I’ve been away.”

“Oh,” she said as if she didn’t quite believe him.

We climbed another flight of rickety steps and arrived at his dwelling. I had never known anyone who lived in a slum before and that is the only word I could think of to describe it-slum. A man in a clean white shirt and corduroys stepped out from a back room and I was introduced to his roommate, Jared.

“This is my sister,” Chris said, tilting his head in my direction. “My sister Phoebe.”

“Like Catcher in the Rye?” Jared asked.

“A little,” Chris laughed.

“You’re a little old for the part but it fits,” Jared said lightly.

Jared stared at me and said, “I didn’t know you had a sister.”

Speechless I stared back at Jared and then at Chris and waited.

Chris laughed nervously and said, “Three. I have three.”

Jared suggested we go eat at Durgin Park so I could experience some local fare.

We stood in a long line outside and waited for a table. Chris knew very little about my current life except I was an art major in college and he looked up into the summer twighlight and asked, “What color would you call that sky?”

Sensing I was supposed to impress him I gave it my all. “Periwinkle.”

Chris seemed satisfied. “Ha, ha, that’s great. Periwinkle it is.”

Inside we sat family style at a long table with other parties and I ordered cherrystone clams thinking they were steamers. Raw clams in shells arrived sitting on ice and I couldn’t control my disappointment. The cool act went away.


Durgin Park interior

“Of course, you wanted steamers,” Chris said understanding my mistake. “But these are great.”

I stared at the uncooked mollusks and grimaced while Jared happily ate his Shepherd’s pie.

“I’ll take them,” Chris offered as he slid a raw clam down his throat followed by a swig of draught beer. Then he hailed down an impatient waitress and ordered steamers for me and another round of beer.

“Not to worry,” he said smiling. Fixing orders was something he could do for me.

When we arrived back at his apartment after dinner Chris disappeared into his room. I went into the living room unsure of my next move. The apartment was lined in books on shelves and haphazard stacks of more books rested on most of the free floor space. Their library was filled with books on philosophy, religion, classic literature and massive collections of poetry. Jared sat down across from me. He spoke in soft even tones and asked me questions about my childhood. I gave slow careful answers and tried to be myself which was never easy.

“You’re going to a wedding?”

“My cousin’s, tomorrow. In New Hampshire.”

I went to look for Chris and found him fast asleep fully dressed on a bare mattress. I went back to the living room.

Jared asked if I would like to hear some poetry. He read something he was working on and I strained to find at least one thing I could comment on that sounded intelligent.

He smiled.

“I guess Chris isn’t getting up.” I said.

“I guess not,” he said. “You can sleep here on the couch. “

I looked at the depressed sofa and nodded.

“You’re in college?”

“Yes, in Minnesota,” I said.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“Read mostly,” he said. “Have you read any Bly or Wright?” he asked picking up a book.

You couldn’t go to college in Minnesota in the 1970’s and not know about Robert Bly. “Yes I’ve read some Bly,” I tried to say casually.

“This is Wright’s newest collection,” he said, opening what looked like a new book. He read the title, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright.”

Then he read the poem about a man who idles the day away watching both time and nature pass him by and then feels regret. I thought of my brother in bed with his clothes on, eight years older than me and still not done with college. A man searching for something. A man who had fallen asleep and forgotten about me.

In the morning Chris took me out for pancakes and then we drove north to our ancestral home. Relatives we had always known were waiting for us. No one was thinking it was unusual that it was just the two of us and I pretended that being paired together was an everyday event. The ceremony was alongside a pond on a chicken farm and they had a wedding cake with green frosting. That trip would be the last time either of us saw our grandfather alive and we would both remember that. After the wedding Chris and I said good-bye and I went to Maine to stay with my aunt, before returning to college. Chris went back to Bunker Hill and returned to a life I didn’t want to think about.

Since that time Christopher’s life moved in a trajectory I would not have imagined on that summer day in 1978. He picked himself up and finished college then graduate school. He married and raised two daughters. He traveled the world and mastered three more languages including Japanese. He worked for Fulbright in Japan and ended up as the International and English Language Programs Senior Director at the University of Washington. He divorced. He remarried eight years ago to Sonia. And in a time when I feel like my own family is shrinking his was expanding in leaps and bounds into step-children, in-laws and grandchildren who were always around him and supportive. Sonia and Chris traveled the world together and bought a beautiful house overlooking the Sound. Whether they were traveling or in their home he was content and made the last eight years the happiest of his life. A month before his death he excitedly told me his idea to import Bolivian wine to the United States. He told me he was buying a Lexus and he and Sonia were leaving for Hawaii— a trip they took. He died knowing he had at last found himself. The fact that we are eight years apart has not gone unnoticed by me. I am reminded of the advice of Robin William’s character John Keating: “Seize the day.”


Me, Chris and Sonia in Edmonds, WA last summer

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota


Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.



Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Growing up my parents planned and executed great family summer vacations. They were often two weeks in length which allowed time for a tightly wound family of six to relax and leave their ordinary Illinois lives far behind.

We rode horses twice a day through the Grand Tetons on a dude ranch in Colorado, camped in Yellowstone National Park, relaxed in an remote lodge on Deer Isle, Maine, or stayed on my grandfather’s dairy farm in New Hampshire. Maybe we fought during these trips but I don’t remember that. I remember my mother and father happy and adventurous during these travels. My mother managed to give the four children more space by creating a special section in the way back of the station wagon where we took turns reading comic books. She came up with games like the first person to see a bear gets a lifesaver or counting license plates from other states and endless rounds of car bingo.

My sister Deborah and I just before a ride into the mountains.

My sister Deborah and I just before a ride into the mountains.

We ate in lobster pounds on the Atlantic salt marshes or rustic taverns with churning water wheels in the lobby and fancy dining rooms with cloth napkins stuffed into the water goblet. My father had worked for AAA National and then moved to Allstate to begin their motor club. He understood the meaning of service. If a waiter was serving more than twelve people he or she was being over worked and the clientele was being underserved. He could enter a hotel and within seconds determine if the stay was going to be satisfactory.

“This place is a dump,” he observed seconds after arriving at a northern Michigan summer resort.

It didn’t look like a dump to my eyes but he knew. My father liked American meal plans. He never wanted to camp and on drives between stays he had a knack for finding great out of the way and notable restaurants. If circumstances were out of his control and subpar accommodations were all that was at hand, my father let even strangers feel his pain.

“I’m here at the Midway Motor Inn,” he said into the room phone to the person on the other end. “Not one of your better establishments.”

My mother could be happy with European meal plans and could pack a picnic better that anyone I ever met. On yearly pilgrimages to New Hampshire you could count on three course tailgate picnics that included hot food and table cloths. She could also teach a class in the fine art of packing a suitcase. She was so good she would have a wrinkle free change of clothes for dinner available for the whole family neatly tucked into the top layer of a large suitcase that was situated close to the door. Together, my parents were a family vacation dream team long before the internet. I’m sure problems arose on these trips but I don’t remember any.

I carried this image of what family travel was supposed to look like into adulthood and expected Rob to share this almost utopian vision of summer journeys.

Coming from an Italian American family that considered a trip to the drive-in movie a great escape, leaving has always been hard for Rob.

“Who will watch the house?” he always asks.

He grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by relatives who managed each other’s homes. Which really wasn’t necessary since no one went anywhere. He was eleven years old before his father stopped working long enough to take a vacation. Since vacations were atypical they were rarely planned. His parents liked to get in the car and see where they ended up but they usually made it back home by nightfall.

“Let’s take a ride,” his father would say.

Once they went to Niagara Falls on a whim and found a room for thirteen dollars. They were having so much fun they decided to stay a second night but the room was already booked to someone else the following night. Mario threatened to cut the manager’s head off and put him the wax museum. When that approach failed they spent the night in the car after Mario refused to pay fifteen dollars for a different room in a different motel.

blog2_0004Conversely my parents wouldn’t pull out of the driveway without a reservation.

So our early life together morphed into a more lackadaisical approach to the concept of summer vacation. I wanted to stay in highly-rated turn of the century inns we couldn’t afford and see nature. Rob enjoyed busy tourist attractions where he could take a lot of unflattering pictures of tourists and eat hotdogs. That combination and a deficiency of funds made a long weekend seem like the most we could handle. Additionally when we moved into the lake house Rob felt summer travel was redundant. A suggestion to drive to Long Island and swim in the ocean was often met with a yawn.

         “It’s so far.”

         “Too much traffic.”

        “It’s nice here.”

It is nice here at the lake but as much time as we spend actually relaxing we spend twice that amount tending to all the things this house requires. None of which are terribly restful. It’s also not the ocean.

Going away also means securing the house before our departure James Bond style. This is only limited to locking the doors and windows, putting a pole in the sliding door, setting up light timers, checking the outdoor floodlights, turning on the alarm system and stopping the newspaper delivery.

“Do you think we should stop the mail?” Rob questions me.

“What Mail? We’re leaving on a Friday and returning Sunday.”

“Saturday mail.”

“Nothing is ever in Saturday mail.”

“Thieves don’t care,” he explains. “It’s the same reason you don’t want papers to pile up out front.”

Rob learned you can’t stop mail for less than three days. We usually chance it and go out of town anyway. This is especially humorous since we have never had even an attempted robbery in our neighborhood. On rare nights we forget to lock the basement door.

“The axe murderers overlooked us last night.” I call upstairs in the morning after making my discovery.

“We were lucky this time,” Rob answers back.

When we finally did hit the road Rob hissed “Shhhhhh,” every ten minutes trying to hear upcoming traffic reports on the radio.

Before the invention of the GPS, human navigators reading paper maps probably made fewer errors overall. They can also take in the big picture and get the lay of the land but I have never been a great direction-finder.

“I can’t drive and read the map at the same time!” Rob would often bark as we passed our exit.

One night we had trouble finding our hotel in Pennsylvania and Rob pulled off the road and started ranting while he grabbed the map from me. A small crowd from a nearby bar started to cluster around our car to see what the racket was about. Jack and Quinn crouched down in the back seat begging their father to please stop. It was too late the crowd’s interest was peaked as they watched us drive away, still lost.

Often upon arriving at our hotel room I would step back and sigh. “You sure this was a three star hotel?” As I stared out of our room window at two steaming Nuclear reactors.IMG_0084

“That’s what they promised.”

“Well they can promise anything.”

“Pretend we’re the Simpsons.”

“Or on Three Mile Island.”

I had a plan to stay at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge one weekend but Rob booked us into the Pilgrim Inn instead. It was nearby and half the cost and in his defense I was spending money we didn’t really have. We had to drive through the industrial area to reach the Pilgrim Inn and the people next to us opened their door strung up beads and smoked pot crossed legged on the sidewalk. The management didn’t have a problem with this.

But even at “okay” places I can find fault. The breakfast isn’t really breakfast but processed white flour products made six months ago. We pick through it and then leave searching for a better meal usually accompanied by loose tea served in individual infusers.

“Isn’t this nicer?” I ask unfolding the cloth napkin. I have ordered a dairy free omelet from free range chicken eggs accompanied with homemade scones.

“I guess,” Rob concedes. “Nicer and more expensive.”

“Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s any good.”

“Hmmm,” he says and we leave it at that.

Once we went to the Great Clam Chowder Cook Off in Newport, probably thinking we would be the only people there. Instead it felt like we were at a rock concert minus the music in the broiling hot sun. We inched our way through the crowd.

“I got some,” I thrust small plastic cups of white glop into everyone’s hands.

“It’s too hot,” Jackson moaned touching his burned lips.

“I don’t like clam chowder,” Quinn said after she tasted the first sample.

“I’ll eat yours,” Rob offered.


Still hungry we stared longingly out at the smart hotel guests sitting on verandas, overlooking the harbor and eating tapas while we trudged back to our car. We sat in traffic to get to our hotel which was far away in the wrong end of town. We had to spread towels across the damp mildewed carpet or sleep with our sneakers on. The pool was filled with water bugs and in the morning the hotel ran out of hot water. Breakfast was A&P donuts and instant coffee. I could picture my father asking, “Did you check the AAA guide before booking?”

After checkout we left the crowds behind and strolled through mansions and gardens of an earlier era. We picked out the room we would like for our own complete with canopied beds and roll top desks. We marveled at the all the places you could get away from one’s family. A billiards room, parlors, private sitting areas and expansive and manicured lawns.

We inched home in Sunday night traffic along I-95 reflecting on how the other half lived. We realized it was a busy world today and you can’t just jump in a car and hope it will all work out just because you have a GPS. We determined to change and the very next trip, to Cooperstown, we instituted with German precision. We read AAA guides, cross checked with Trip Advisor reviews, made reservations, budgeted and planned out stops alongside streams where we picnicked with a homemade spread my mother would be happy to share with us. But we also made a spontaneous side trip to the Catskill Game Farm. I protested that this detour was ruining an otherwise perfectly planned trip.

“I’ve always wanted to return to this place since my first trip as a child,” Rob explained.

I scowled and resisted.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” he said and went to buy the tickets.blog2_0003

I trudged behind my family staring at my watch while Rob and the kids ran ahead to the tired old animal exhibits. Emaciated animals drooped in the far corner of a plant-less dirt floor surrounded by chain link fencing. A broken contraption called the Relax-A-Lator sat next to the kangaroo exhibit. It egged the pedestrian on with “TRY IT!” I could picture Mario dropping in coins years prior so the whole family could indeed give it a try.assblog2_0001

The Catskill Game Farm closed the following year because of lack of attendance and I could argue that probably is a good thing. But in retrospect I no longer see that road stop or many others like it as a waste of time. Jack and Quinn have experienced what summer vacation might have felt like for their parents and can now choose an organized trip or a spontaneous one or, as is often the case, the best of both.



I lose things. I lose them and then I tend to blame other people. I never blame them to their face I just do it in my mind. I admit it’s a very bad habit especially since the suspected person hasn’t done anything. Most of the time the person never exists.

When I was young my father lost a lot of things too. Except in his case he knew he was the culprit. I remember watching him storm around the house searching madly for something.

“I’m losing my mind!” he would bellow.

“What’s the matter?” I would ask cautiously.

“What’s the matter?” He would sigh and place his hands on his hips. “I’ll tell what’s the matter. I can’t find my god-damned glasses that’s what the matter.”

I would stare at him and twist my mouth.

“What?” he would have asked.

I’d point. “They’re on your head.”

His hand would reach up and drop the glasses down onto his face. Then he would slide them further down his nose and peer out over the top of the frames. “Are these my glasses?”

“You know they are!”

“Well what do you think of that?” He would smile. “And they were here all along?”me and dad_0001

“Yes,” I would have nodded.

The entire family discovered his glasses on his head or resting on the car dashboard or next to the toilet with a magazine. My father “lost” keys, shoes, watches, socks, important papers, you name it, but he always just blamed himself.

I have evolved.  With my inherited bad habit there’s often an unsuspecting culprit.

Several years ago we hired a carpenter from The Pennysaver (again) who showed up while we were both working and was let inside by our son who was home for the weekend. The carpenter was supposed to install a large glass medicine cabinet and repair a wall inside our clothe’s closet. After removing the old cabinet he discovered such a mish mash of beams inside the wall that he backed off of the job.

Jackson called me and explained the problem but I was having none of it.

“Let me speak to him!” I demanded.

The conversation that followed didn’t go well when he reported that he was going to put the old cabinet back and just repair the closet at the original cost for both. He further explained that the closet was a bigger job than he had anticipated. After a lot of back and forth he said, “I am going to finish this wall that I started and you can send me a check for whatever you feel the work deserves!”

“Fine,” I said and we never spoke again.

When I returned home he had done a nice job but I was still a little rattled by his manner. We begrudgingly mailed him a check for the full amount. That would have been the end of it except the following day I went to put fruit in the hand-blown fruit bowl that normally sat in the middle of the dining room table.

“It’s gone,” I declared.

We tried to remember the last time we had used it and who could have had the means to steal the bowl. The logical conclusion was the angry carpenter.


“He was the only one who had the opportunity,” Rob decided. “He let himself out while Jackson was in his room.”

“He was also unsure what we were going to pay him for the job and he wanted to get something.” I added.

We had a fleeting thought to try to find out where he lived, drive over, and pull a George Costanza.

              “Ah hah!” we would exclaim, as we stormed into his kitchen and pointed at the fancy fruit bowl that his wife was busily arranging with her plastic fruit collection. But of course some sanity returned to us and we resisted. Over the years we would tell the fruit bowl story to anyone who would listen.

Still from Seinfeld

Still from Seinfeld

Then this winter while I was housebound after foot surgery I started to lose things with reckless abandon. I lost my gold watch the same day we had a cleaning woman for the first time. Coincidence? She is a nice, hard working woman who rescued me after a fall and drove me to my doctor’s office, free of charge. Still we couldn’t find the watch and I had never left the house during the period it went missing.

After the emergency trip to the doctor’s office I had returned home without my clown shoe and called the office to explain their error. They denied it but said I could come in for another shoe just the same. How inconvenient.

Early spring arrived and I was able to return to work, remove the boot and eventually start to live a more normal existence. This led to cleaning out my closet where I discovered a long missing Chinese coin that Rob had given me for good luck. I pocketed the coin and carried on. The next day I continued with my cleaning spree and way in the back of a deep cabinet over the refrigerator, under a platter, sat the hand-blown fruit bowl I had written off as stolen over four years ago. It was an odd moment that made us take stock of ourselves. It begged the question: Could we change?

A few weeks later I opened up the sleeper couch in the den and discovered my watch—still ticking. As I strapped it to my wrist I cringed at the thoughts I had harbored against the innocent cleaning woman. Later that week Rob discovered the missing clown shoe inside a laundry basket in the basement. I tried not to think about the words I had spoken about an uncaring medical staff.

These discoveries led to a top to bottom house cleaning that has not ended. Besides accepting personal blame for missing items I was going to combat my inherited forgetfulness with good old-fashioned organization.

With everything back in order I was fully reformed. But in the course of two days I have rapidly regressed. My sister Susan was visiting. Just before an outing I was unable to track down my handbag even after an extensive search. I assumed the worst.

“Someone came through the front door while we were on the lower deck and stole my purse!”

“No?” Rob exclaimed.

“Maybe you should keep the door closed when you’re in the back,” Susan suggested completely unaware of our past transgressions.

Rob called my phone and we discovered the bag and all the contents inside the den. The following day I decided that someone had made off with my laptop from the upper deck. It turned out Quinn had moved it to a chair in the dining room. Okay, so do I need a step program? Accusers Anonymous maybe?

The night before my sister left we went down to the dock to sit for a bit and discovered an empty umbrella stand where a large, nine foot umbrella had once stood.

“Oh my god,” I exclaimed. “Someone stole our umbrella?”

“Are you sure,” Susan asked.

“Well it was right there and now it’s not,” I said, pointing at the hollow stand.

“Wow,” she said.

What else could one say?

“Somebody rowed over here, came on our deck and plucked out the umbrella and rowed away. The nerve—,” I continued until my eye rested on half an umbrella sticking up out of the water a little further down the shore. “Oh,” I added. “I guess the wind did it.”

“Mystery solved,” Susan said.


Several days later we discovered the umbrella had been retrieved from the muck and returned to our dock by an anonymous and helpful neighbor whose very last intention was to keep it for themselves.  I think I’ll start that chapter of false accusers–if I can find any.




When you buy an old house it’s a forgone conclusion that you’re going to have handymen in your life. Where you find them depends on circumstance, friendship, good or bad luck and poor judgment. As a first time homeowner I did the one thing everyone tells you not to do. I looked in the Pennysaver. I found George. No last name was ever given and when we tried to track him down it turned out the address of his business didn’t exist. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When George arrived, I directed his attention to the strip of lawn that consisted of a few patches of crabgrass struggling to compete with the dandelions and plantains. “We were thinking of putting a walkway along here and a patio in the backyard,” I said pointing.

George grunted a monosyllabic sound as he looked at the ground.

Taking this as encouragement I added, “I’m thinking red brick. It would be so charming, don’t you think?”

“Interlocking,” he mumbled.


George pulled a folded brochure out of his back pocket and pointed to a picture of an interlocking patio resting up against a multimillion dollar house and yard.

“Well… I guess that could work,” I said slowly.

“And I want half up front.”

I nodded and backed away afraid I would jinx the deal.

“It’s all settled,” I proclaimed to Rob who had been avoiding any encounter with George.

“Maybe we should get another price,” Rob suggested. “Did he give you a written estimate?”

I paused. “No.”

“A timeframe?”

I said nothing.

Rob was on a roll. “Did he give you any references?”

“And you found him in the Pennysaver?”

“Well who did you find?” I asked to no response. “Exactly!” I smirked. “And isn’t that the point of the Pennysaver? So there’s no problem.”

We soon learned what the problem was when he started the job. Sometime during the first hour of work our neighbor came over and asked George to fix his steps across the street. George agreed and the next day his men showed up for work at our neighbor’s house instead of ours. The day after that he moved onto third job. Everyone had paid him half upfront and nobody’s work was complete. Our neighbor tried to sue him and we learned the phone number listed in the Pennysaver was now out of service. Then our neighbor tried to convince us to pay for their lost payment to George and have us deduct that amount from George’s remaining bill.

“That’s insane,” Rob finally chimed in. “Why would we do that?”

“You recommended him!”

“You stole him!” he countered.

When George and his workers did show up again he nickel-and-dimed each step proclaiming it wasn’t part of the original price. For example, the Belgium block border he pointed to in the glamorous brochure picture was an additional ten dollars a block installed. The work in our yard was eventually finished but the experience was so stressful and overpriced I vowed never to use the Pennysaver again.

My next brainchild was to hire the man who left a hand written index card in our screen door. It read:

Gutters cleaned and a phone number.

“Our gutters are a mess and this guy said front and back, fifty-bucks.”

“Get a reference,” Rob said.

“Ooo…kay,” I said, knowing I had already hired him.


The next day Glenn showed up with his sidekick Jerry and the roof and gutters were cleaned within half an hour. They took their money and that would have been the end of it but I was so happy to have two eager workers readily available. I asked about chopping wood. There was still the business of the fallen tree in the lower yard.

On the coldest day of the year, Glenn and Jerry drank Pepsi, smoked cigarettes and chopped a two hundred year old Maple tree into hundreds of fireplace-sized logs. They worked all day with nary a break and climbed the steps to our home with frozen fingers and sweating brows. They sat in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate and I gave them the cash they deserved. Glenn always took the money and paid Jerry himself.

I thought I had found the handyman dream team so when the Spring rolled around I called Glenn (the boss) and lined up a series of jobs: a deer fence, cement repair, re-gravel the driveway and painting the decks.

They started the work with reckless abandon barely stopping to eat or drink. Danger signs were everywhere but I kept ignoring them. We saw them sneak into the woods at odd moments, reappear and sneak off again. Their speech was garbled on occasion and they smoked constantly and downed liters of Pepsi but avoided solid food as far as I could tell. They argued a lot until Glenn would say, “Who’s running this job site anyway?” Jerry always backed down.

Laurel and Hardy

They showed up with black eyes on more than one occasion from what was described as a “friendly fight” the night before.

“Boys will be boys,” Glenn said, when I expressed concern.

One day I arrived home from work and Rob was waiting for me.

“Go look over the deck,” he said stony faced.

“Why?” I asked slowly.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with crossed arms.

I peered over the deck at the splayed body of Glenn spread eagled on the steps leading into the yard.

Since Glenn and Jerry started working for us we had learned a few things about them. Jerry had bad teeth and lived in a  house with other transients. Glenn wore expensive clothes from L.L. Bean and had parents who continued to monitor and support him even though he was thirty-six. They both had DUI’s and were dropped off by Glenn’s father, or they walked. Sometimes gypsy cabs rolled up to get them. Still I kept hiring them because they showed up, had reasonable rates and workers were hard to find. As the Spring had worn on the quality of the work began to fall off. The previous week they had raked a lot of the gravel meant for our pull-off over to the neighbor’s curb. Now, utterly perplexed, I stared down at Glenn’s lifeless body.

Rob walked up behind me. “He’s drunk, well he was until he passed out.”


“Drunk, drugged, what’s the difference?” Rob said. “I saw Jerry stumbling away from our house on my way home and knew something was wrong.”

“He looks dead.”

“No he’s breathing, I checked.”

We tried to rouse him to no avail.

“Should we call his parents?” I asked.

“I was thinking police! You never learn your lesson when you hire people. No references, no licenses. If they fall off our roof who get’s sued? We do!”

Some time later Glenn opened his eyes, stumbled up onto our deck and slurred out a long incoherent song he had written that was going to make him famous. I made him some ice tea which he filled with half a cup of sugar and never drank. He chained smoked sitting at our table like an invited guest and told us things about his “woman” nobody would want to know. Finally we coaxed him into the car and Rob drove him to his parents.

His parents never acknowledged the episode but invited us over to play Parcheesi like were Glenn’s new friends. We politely declined.

At one point Glenn quit being a boss and went to work for Cutco Knives. He begged us to let him come over and listen to his pitch. We nervously acquiesced. He cut a penny with a scissor and one half flew into the air and hit me. Then he struggled to saw a piece of rope in half with a knife. We were supposed to be so impressed with his demonstration that we would be persuaded to spend hundreds of dollars on Cutco knives.

Instead I said, “Oh, my.”

“Neat,” Rob said without an ounce of encouragement.

“My parents bought this whole line,” he said, pointing to a six-hundred dollar knife set in a catalogue. “These are the best steak knives in the world.”

“We don’t eat meat.”

“My parents really like these knives.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “But we don’t eat meat.”

His sales pitch was complete.

We did buy a “Japanese” vegetable knife for one hundred and sixty-one dollars and change. We had to help him fill out the order form. He called and told us he had won an award for best new recruit because of our knife and his parents’ set. Unfortunately they represented his first and last sales.

I’d like to write that he went into rehab and we never hired him again but that would be untrue. Glenn and Jerry still came calling a few more times and we offered small jobs with little chance of accidents. Eventually Glenn’s parents sold their home and moved away and Glenn apparently with them. I don’t know what happened to Jerry but he’s probably better off without his boss.


As for us, all repairmen are now hired by Rob from a reliable reference. It takes a while because their calendars are pretty booked but there’s a lot less drama. The best handymen are worth the wait.



I remember glancing through my parent’s address book when I was a young child and coming across an unfamiliar name.

“Who’s Elmer?” I asked my mother.

“Someone we used to know.”

“Why don’t you know him anymore?”

“First they moved away and then we did. Now we both live in different states.” She paused before finishing. “He was your godparent.”

My godparent? Being a godparent varies in importance by family and religion but it loosely means someone agrees to take care of you if something were to prevent your own parents from doing so. Now being or having a godparent in my family didn’t hold a lot of meaning but my parents were close enough  with Elmer that they asked him to hold me during my baptism.  I don’t remember ever meeting him. It was a story I never pursued like the endless names of missing or dead people that clutter the pages of handwritten address books everywhere.


Next month we will be living at our lake house for fourteen years. It is the longest I have lived anywhere since my childhood in Illinois. I like to think that I have kept myself abreast of the transformations around the small community. The abandoned cabins that have been plucked from obscurity by young couples just starting out. The writer who sold his novel and moved to Manhattan. The old man who no longer walks his small dog but now walks alone. This represents physical evidence of the changes that keep taking place around the lake.

I never take the time to scroll through my iphone address book and update each contact. Like most people I make corrections or additions on an as need basis. My hardcopy however is a habit I cannot drop. I flip through the pages periodically and note the changes. It is a stroll through the past outfitted with old appointments, saved Christmas cards and past acquaintances and family members. Each name that gets crossed off tells a story however small about my life since we moved in.IMG_0958

Back in 2003 after a lot of back and forth with the district my son was bumped up to a higher level math class in November well after the class had started. Jon, a colleague from my job drove north every weekend to our lake house and caught Jackson up to the rest of the class. They sat together in the dining room on Sunday mornings overlooking the lake as Jack went through each concept next to Jon who watched the hawks fly across the freezing lake. His address and phone number and friendly visits were so important to us then that I thought he would always be in my life. But now he’s retired and has settled in New Hampshire in his own lake community.
It took months to locate someone willing to tackle the clean-up of the 200 year old Maple tree that fell silently into the lake while we slept one summer night. I wrote about this episode last summer in the post Satan One Us Zero. The tree man was named Gleason- I think that was his last name and we keep his name in the address book waiting for the next tree disaster which at this writing has never arrived.

A carpenter listed as Fred built the steps that connect our upper and lower decks. Before Fred, no one could figure out how to build the steps or else they didn’t want the job. Fred liked to talk about his former life in Alaska. He kept noisy huskies that he screamed at to shut up in the frozen Alaskan nights. He listened to right wing radio all day long hoping Sarah Palin would run for president. The steps were the single best improvement we ever made in our house because they changed how we functioned. We wanted Fred back so he could fix the dock that was smashed by the falling tree. He promised to come later that month but never did. Maybe it was our Obama 2008 bumper stickers on each car.IMG_0948

Plumbers, electricians and other repairman will stay put in the book unless there’s a good reason to cross them off. Dyckman’s Wildlife Control number was added to the book when an injured raccoon sat at the threshold of our open basement door one morning. Upon discovering him I screamed so loud Rob thought someone was trying to murder me. I screamed the same way when I slipped on my aqua shoe and discovered a dead mouse inside or I when I was unclogging the filter on the fountain and pulled out a dead bird. This time my screams made the raccoon run deeper into the basement.Raccoon Head So we had to call in a professional. It’s a good thing we kept his name in the book because a few years later a squirrel fell down the chimney and was trapped inside the fireplace until Dyckman arrived.

The next crossed off name is Alison my former yoga instructor. For years she taught an obscure type of yoga called Kundalani on the dusty community center floor. She made tea and passed out granola bars and told every participant that Monsanto is the devil incarnate. They are, but most of the people who tried the class ate the free bars and never came back. I was the only class member on more than one occasion. Everything Alison does in her life is towards the promotion of health. I desperately wanted to be like her but fell short in too many areas to mention. Before indulging, I sometimes ask myself, “is this something Alison would eat?” Last year she moved away with her three year old daughter but I have her email on my computer so technically we could be in touch. I keep trying to think up something to ask her but all I really want is to roll up my yoga matt and walk down to the community center and take her yoga class.

Our Community Center

Our Community Center

The last name I came to is the child of a friend named Patsy. Patsy died twelve summers ago this May. She never wanted me to move to the lake house and kept looking for houses near her that we could trade up to. She was killed near her home by a drunk driver and I used to think that if I never moved away events would have been altered and maybe her fate would have turned out differently. I no longer think this but each time I read her daughter’s name I say, “I really have to call her up and see how she’s doing.” She’s grown up, married, possibly a mother and working as a teacher. I’m probably never going to call her but I decided not to cross off her name. She and I both know we can’t change the past but seeing her in my book helps me remember it. Maybe that’s why Elmer stayed too.