Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sometimes the Big Stuff Matters

I could never live with someone that didn’t share my political views. It is such a vital part of who I am, what my values are, what is important to me, that I can’t imagine not sharing that with a partner. Steve, my husband, agrees. We know many people who have strong relationships while disagreeing politically. Good for them. It wouldn’t work for me. During election years, we cheer for our candidates and are horrified by the others.
“Mom, I thought you and Dad were going to stop yelling at the TV after President Obama was elected,” our younger son, Connor laughs.
“It’s not him we’re yelling at.”
And it’s great to cheer and yell together.
It’s the smaller, little things on which Steve and I have vastly different views. The biggie is heat and air conditioning. He believes very firmly that one should be a bit chilly in the winter and warm in the summer. Over the course of about 35 years of cohabitation we have been known to follow each other around to adjust the thermostat, with him turning it down in winter and me turning it up, neither one of us acknowledging that this was happening. I think I’m the reasonable one; when the weather is nice, I completely agree that it is delightful to have the windows open so fresh air can waft through the house. I don’t rush the air conditioning, but I do approve of it.
We used to have neighbors, whom we are still very good friends with, that rarely opened their windows at all, and set the air conditioning low very early in the season. It wasn’t cool in their house in July, it was cold. When they would have us over in the summer months, I would warn Steve. “We’re having dinner next door in the meat locker.”
And there are those stifling days of July and August when it is my fervent belief that air conditioning is a luxurious necessity. There is no doubt in my mind that Steve wouldn’t turn it on for one minute if I wasn’t around.
When we were renovating our house, which consisted of tearing it down to the studs and replacing everything from plumbing to electrical to heating systems, the most intense disagreement we had was over air conditioning.
“We don’t need it,” he insisted.
“Oh, yes we do.”
On a sweltering August day last summer, with the air conditioning humming away, I called up to Steve’s third floor office, the one that used to be an airless attic.
“What do you think of the air conditioning now?”
“I can’t hear you,” he called back.
Food is another subject that we view differently. Citing general health concerns related to cholesterol, and later on, ethical and environmental questions, Steve stopped eating meat about fifteen years ago. That was not happening for me. I’ll take a braised short rib any day of the week. I love embarrassing my kids in restaurants that list “humanely raised veal” on their menus.
“Do you have any inhumanely raised veal,” I ask the waiter. “I hear it tastes better.”
To his credit, this amuses Steve rather than horrifies him, and he joins the kids in merely rolling his eyes as he orders some broiled salmon over quinoa and swiss chard. Restaurant ordering is also often a source of amusement when a server assumes the martini and steak are for him and the white wine and scallops are for me.
Whenever I get a pedicure, he shakes his head in bewilderment. “How can you let someone even touch your feet,” he asks. I remind him that sitting in that massaging chair, having Tina file the calluses and dead skin off my feet is one of my greatest joys and pleasures.
Steve obeys traffic signs strictly, with no room for interpretation. He resists crossing the street if it is against the light, never mind that there are no cars in sight. I, meanwhile, lope along in the crosswalk without him, ignoring the Do Not Cross sign, and wave from the other side. While driving, I speed up, just a little bit, to make the yellow light, while he cautiously and carefully steps on the brake, coming to a full stop.
He doesn’t get the concept of binge-watching, which is one of my favorite pastimes. Currently, I am rewatching season three of House of Cards for the third time, while he watches it alongside me for the first. He lasts, at most, two episodes.
“C’mon,” I plead. “How can you stop now?”
“That’s enough for me,” he says, leaving the room as I pout at his common sense approach to TV viewing and turn to season five of The West Wing.
But, as with politics, we agree on the big stuff.
We laugh at the same things. Although, sometimes, he get this look on his face, which lasts about two seconds, and I know he’s deciding whether what I just said was funny or horrifying and grossly politically incorrect.
We make big decisions quickly and firmly. Buy this house? Yes. Get a new puppy? No.
home school Connor? Yes. Vacation there? No.
Most importantly, we equally and agreeably raised three children to adulthood. We didn’t really believe in punishing, and both thought that natural consequences did the trick. One of the kids didn’t want to wear mittens in the winter? Go outside and have cold hands, then we’ll talk. You don’t want to have this for dinner? You’re probably going to be a bit hungry later on. We thought grounding an adolescent was generally a silly punishment, but the one time we did it, it was for something big and we both agreed it was necessary. Be kind, we both told them.  Read a lot. Try hard. Be yourself.
I acknowledge that raising children is a mine field and much can be attributed to luck, but we have turned out three smart, funny, compassionate adults who always vote for the Democrat.
And we did it together.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Blue Bomber

It was a 1969 Buick Electra 225.  My father first bought it as a second car in the early 1970's so my mother wouldn't drive the brand new Cadillac, which he wanted to keep all shined up and sleek in the garage, when she was running errands or bringing us to school or driving 2 towns over to see her mother or one of her sisters.  She didn't like the Buick; it was big and clunky and used.  She drove it resentfully.  “The Cadillac just suits me better,” my mother told my father to no avail.  Since my father had a truck that he drove to work, the Cadillac remained in the garage unless the four of us went somewhere as a family or my parents went out to dinner. The old Buick sat, dull and bulky and utilitarian, in the driveway.
As soon as I passed my driver's test (on my second attempt)  in 1973, my mother passed the Buick along to me.  She would drive it occasionally, but I was definitely the excuse why she needed to drive the Cadillac. “Sherry has to go to work,” she would tell my father. Or, “Sherry needs the Buick because she is staying after school and there won't be a bus for her to take home.” I didn't care. I loved The Blue Bomber.
Maybe it was because it was my first car; maybe it was because I was one of the few among my friends who had a car at her disposal.  But I think it was more than that.  It represented a heady freedom for a 16 year old small town girl. I could climb into the car, turn the key in the ignition and go. Just go. My mother’s only requirements for use of The Blue Bomber were that I wait in the long 1970’s gas lines that stretched for blocks to fill the tank, drive my younger sister around when she needed a ride, and and go into town to grab a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread at Cumberland Farms. 
The Bomber had a dull bluish-gray patina with light blue cloth seats that scratched the top of my legs whenever I drove wearing shorts.  A bench seat that stretched from side door to side door was in the front as well as the back.  No seat belts of course, so on Friday nights we could fit 4 girls in the back seat and 4 in the front.  Each of the four doors was heavy and wide, with over-sized gleaming silver handles and a button to push in order to tug the door open.  The Bomber had a huge blue steering wheel that loomed  over the top of the dashboard. I can still feel the individual ridges on the underside of that wheel, where I fit my fingers. Fins on the back, not too big, but fins nonetheless.  
The AM push button radio was always set to WRKO 680, as we blasted the music and sang along with Elton John, Carly Simon, and Stevie Wonder. My love of driving began with the Bomber as did the feeling of freedom whenever I climbed behind that wheel, knowing that I could, if I wanted, go and do anything. That sensation reoccurred a few years later as I was driving away from my very short first marriage, my stick shift Toyota Corona packed to the gills and me belting out Donna Summer tunes.
I learned how to change a tire when I had the Blue Bomber.  I was working at Jordan Marsh in Framingham's Shoppers World and came out at the end of my shift to find a flat tire.  I called Uncle Ronnie, who lived nearly and knew cars.  He came right away but refused to merely change the tire. I changed; he directed, stepping in when more than my 16 year old brute force was needed. I bragged endlessly about how I could change a tire when, in fact, that was the first and last time I actually did so. One winter night that same year, I gripped the Bomber's over-sized steering wheel, its heavy backside swishing menacingly from side to side, all the way up the steep hill heading into town during a heavy snow storm.  
I drove the Bomber to Pete's Market, located one town over, renowned school-wide for selling Michelob Seven's and Boone's Farm wine to the 16 and 17 year old set.  We would always send Janet in because she looked the oldest, was the prettiest and flirtiest, and she always succeeded.  One night we sent Teresa in first; then Janet after Teresa was rejected. When Janet returned with the bottle of Tango and bag of ice, she told us how the store clerk mentioned that “some underaged kid was just in trying to buy beer.  Can you believe that?” Often, after the trip to Pete’s, we would head to the lake and bring our drinks and snacks to the sandy beach.
On Friday nights, I drove the Bomber through the center of town, stopping at the only traffic light, where we would throw open those heavy doors and all eight of us would run around the stopped car in what we called a Chinese Fire Drill. We would drive around and around town for hours, waving and honking at other cars full of kids, virtually the only entertainment available in our small, small town.  We thought nothing of racing down the winding back roads, speeding up to go over one “Victor's Bump” named for a heave in the road in front of Victor Bunde's house.  Seatbeltless, we all careened into the air, squealing with delight. We were free and invincible.
On hot summer mornings, we piled beach blankets, towels, cokes and chips into the Bomber’s cavernous trunk and took off up Route 128 to Crane's Beach, with all of the windows rolled down and singing along to the radio at the top of our lungs. Everyone pitched in $1 for gas and it was always enough. We baked in the sun, came home with scorching sunburns and couldn't wait to do it again the next week.
Now, over 40 years and many cars later, there is a core group of 4 of us from those teen aged days who get together and go away for a weekend every year. We've been to Manhattan, Provincetown, Newport, Portland. Of course, I always drive. Felicia always hands over a dollar for gas. Everyone buckles her seat belt.  As we sit on a beach or go for a hike or visit a museum, the Blue Bomber comes up in conversation. We remember, then we marvel that no one got hurt. Or arrested. And how we would have killed our children if they behaved as we did. When we remember high school and boyfriends and bad behavior, the Blue Bomber looms large, as a character in every story, in every memory.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Out My Window

I watch. It might be more politically correct and more writerly to say I observe, but let’s face it. I’m watching.
When we first purchased our dilapidated antique house just outside of Boston, I claimed the sunroom as mine. It was tumbling to the ground in its current state and would have to be removed and replaced but there was no doubt that I wanted it. Looking at the house from the sidewalk, the sun porch was on the left, listing and lurching and done, off to the side of the core of the house, separate, yet attached. Not too big, not too small.
And now, I sit at my desk, in the new sunroom on the left, surrounded by brand new windows, framed photographs and books on the shelves and am supremely satisfied.  Sometimes I write, sometimes I study Italian or pay bills.  I think about going to the gym. Often, I merely dream about this and that. Sometimes I leave my desk and settle into the comfy, floral easy chair in the corner with a book and a cup of Irish Breakfast tea.
No matter where I am in this perfect room, with sun streaming in all seven windows, I am constantly and willingly distracted by the comings and goings of neighbors, passersby, dog walkers. I am compelled to watch.
I glance out and see the rugged middle-aged man with the long, red, thinning pony tail walking his two brown Australian shepherds and know it is 7:30am. I have never spoken to him and have no idea what his name is but I do know that he lives in the house one street over with the always changing political signs on the front lawn, signs that inform me that if we were to have a conversation, we would agree on many things. I know that he lives with a woman who is quite stocky with long white messy hair and who occasionally walks the dogs but at a different time, always in a housedress and Birkenstocks no matter the weather.  I am very bad at guessing ages, but I think it is very possible they are mother and son. But maybe not.
One of the first neighbors I met was Dan, who lives behind us, to the side, just behind the sunroom, so that our backyards abut. “You used to have the ugliest house on the block. Not any more!” he yells to me over the fence.  He wears a black leather motorcycle jacket, black jeans and a Vietnam Vet baseball cap. In warmer weather, when I have the windows open, I hear Dan pop open a Bud Light while he sits on his back porch and I know it is 10:30 in the morning. He tells me that he grew up in that house and returned to live there with Carol after the war. “All of us kids used to run through these yards,” he says, “before everybody put up these fences.” I wonder if he is resentful of the fences and somehow blames us for them. But he’s friendly enough and writes down his phone number in case we need anything.
Our house was in a state of disrepair for such a long time that it was an object of intense curiosity during the eighteen month renovation. We got used to people strolling by, often stopping directly in front of the house, pointing and commenting. Kevin stops when I’m in the front yard and we discuss wood gutters. Leola from across the street asks for recommendations for a landscape company to reseed her lawn. A young couple pushing a double stroller and juggling Starbucks cups tells me they think the yellow we’re painting the exterior is too bright. “You think?” I answer. I shrug. “I like it.”
The UPS guy is now my buddy. In the midst of the chaos that renovation causes, I did a lot of online ordering, everything from light fixtures to cabinet pulls to Levolor window blinds, and received a lot of deliveries.  The UPS guy helps me carry the heavy packages into the house and sometimes he stays until I open them because he wants to see what I order. He has been known to question my purchases and comment on the renovations with entertaining banter. He always leaves with a “See ya, Cher!” When I am walking down Mass Ave, if he drives by in his big brown van, he beeps and waves. Once, I was having a pedicure two blocks away and he walked into the salon with a pile of packages. “Cher!” he yells in greeting, making me laugh. “Is that your husband?,” the woman in the next chair asks. I shake off the odd question. “Nah. That’s my UPS guy.” Three years later, he is still my UPS guy. He doesn’t wear a name tag so I don’t know his actual name. I don’t want to know. I like calling him my UPS guy. When he doesn’t have a delivery for me, he’ll still drive by the house, stop in front of the sunroom, and wave and beep if he sees me at my desk. My buddy in brown.  
Michelina rang our doorbell one evening. She explained she lives directly behind us and was having some tree work done in her yard. Would we mind if they trimmed some of the trees on our property which were overhanging theirs and casting shadows on their vegetable garden? As we walk out to take a look, I listen carefully to her accented English. “Michelina, are you Italian?” She tells me she was born in Italy seventy years ago. “Mia nonna era d’italia, troppo! Vicino a Napoli,” I tell her. “Anch’io,!” she replies and flings her ample arms around me. We are bonded. She introduces me to Giovanni, her husband, whose English is not good at all. This works out perfectly for me because he is more than happy to talk me in Italian whenever we are in out in our adjoining yards. He corrects my paltry vocabulary and inconsistent grammar. I love warm summer evenings when I am out having a cocktail on my patio and can overhear Michelina and Giovanni’s rapid fire Italiano banter.
Gordon lives directly across the street. I watch him lace up his white sneakers most mornings on his front porch, stretch a bit, then head off on a jog. After a large snow storm, he always maneuvers his snowblower across the street and clears the sidewalk in front of our house, and we grab shovels and clear off both sets of steps and our front porches. He is a widower, and lives alone in that very large brown house. I always bake him cookies or brownies after snowstorms and he tells me what a great baker his wife was. “Her apple pie was the best.” He sighs. It makes my heart hurt.
I am surrounded by a cast of characters.  I watch, and I don’t judge. OK, maybe sometimes I judge. Like the time the guy didn’t pick up after his dog who left his business on our front lawn and I chased him down the street, shaming him into coming back. Haven’t seen him since.
But, mostly, I just sit back and enjoy the show.