I’m F.I.N.E.

Standard

One of my favorite authors is Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny. Through sixteen successive novels, Penny has traced the fortunes and misfortunes of Armand Gamache, detective extraordinaire, his family and the friends he makes while investigating murder in the tiny fictional town of Three Pines, Quebec. From said friends, Armand and his wife Reine-Marie learn to use the innocuous phrase, “I’m fine,” sarcastically to project the reality of their situation. In Three Pines parlance, “F.I.N.E.” stands for “F***!ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.”

I think of this expression often because no matter how fortunate I have been in my life, there are always times when I become overwhelmed. Although my children are grown, they still sometimes have trouble “adulting” and just need assistance or reassurance. At times like these, they can get hysterical and I can get frustrated and tense. For instance, just the other day my daughter called to report that her car had gotten a flat tire. She was completely undone, and no advice on the part of myself or my husband could help her in that moment. For the rest of the day, I tied myself in knots despite the fact that I am about 1,000 miles away, and there is a limit to what I can do to help.

I remind myself that this too shall pass and that the reality is, we are all F.I.N.E. to some degree. Why? Because we are all the stars in the dramas of our own lives. It is hard to see past our own noses, especially in times of difficulty. I just finished a twisty thriller titled The Plot* about a struggling fiction writer who steals a story from a fellow writer and suffers the consequences. One of the reasons for the writer’s fate is that he is so wrapped up in himself and his own needs that he fails to recognize others’ true selves.

Outwardly, I seem to project an air of calm and level-headedness. I know this because others have described their image of me in this way. I’m always surprised by my ability to act so convincingly. Inside I’m a roiling sea of insecurities and contradictions. Maybe I missed my calling as an actor!

Louise Penny’s series will continue with the publication of The Madness of Crowds this August. I cannot wait to return to Three Pines and discover all the ways in which the characters are “F.I.N.E” this time around. Maybe I enjoy the books so much because by comparison, my life seems pretty ordinary. So next time someone asks you how you are, beware of answering, “Fine.”

*I highly recommend the novels of Jean Hanff Korelitz, the author of The Plot.

No Cure for Stupidity

Standard

A federal judge in California struck down the state’s assault weapons ban on the heels of a mass shooting there that left 10 people dead. In his ruling, the judge compared an AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife and claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine has killed more Californians than mass shootings. (Kat Schuster, patch.com, June 8, 2021) These are the words of a highly-educated member of the federal bench. Let that sink in for a moment.

Perhaps Judge Roger Benitez has been watching too much Fox News. Fox’s own raging lunatic Tucker Carlson has claimed on his show that the coronavirus vaccine has killed 3,362 Americans, citing unverified data from the federal government. (Schuster) This continual war on facts and evidence is taking its toll on the mind of Americans. We are becoming a nation of idiots.

Take the latest Fox News obsession, Fauci-Gate. Based upon infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci’s emails throughout the pandemic, conservatives have made much of his so-called flip-flopping on advice and recommendations, particularly in the areas of mask-wearing and the origins of the deadly virus. Heaven forbid the good doctor might get some things wrong about a novel coronavirus as it spread around the world. Fauci has never made a secret about the evolving nature of our knowledge concerning COVID-19. Now Republicans want to fire him over changing his mind about mask-wearing. Unlike many of them, Dr. Fauci has actually been basing his recommendations on facts as they have become available.

But conservatives prefer their “alternative facts,” a trend that has just gotten worse since Trump enabler Kellyanne Conway coined the term early in the Trump Administration. Look at the caliber of people being voted into Congress. We have Marjorie Taylor-Greene with her conspiracy theories about wealthy Jews and space lasers. She and her fellow QAnon enthusiast Lauren Boebert were actually elected to office, most likely because of and not in spite of their theory that the U.S. is being controlled by an evil cabal of Satanists who sexually abuse children. I guess that’s why Boebert has insisted on carrying around her handgun everywhere she goes. Gee, I feel much safer now. Ironically, I’ve never known these two women to criticize U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the charmer who specializes in going after teenage girls.

The anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, climate science deniers, and election fraud conspiracy theorists pretty much all come from one side of the political divide. They make everything about politics and their supposed rights being trampled on, all the while opposing protections for Americans whose rights really are being seriously denied. Anyone who thinks the spate of election laws being passed in Red states is designed to make elections more fair is either in serious denial or just plain ignorant of the facts. And Americans who decry efforts to improve policing in this country have willfully turned their heads away from the myriad abuses being visited upon minorities by law enforcement.

Just a few minutes ago, my local Patch online newspaper sent me the following headline: “Republican state Sen. shoots Illinois budget papers with a rifle.” Mind you, this is a man who just announced his candidacy for governor in the next election. I guess you really can’t fixed stupid. But for Heaven’s sake, let’s not keep electing it.

Turtle Beach

Standard

The other night I was driving home from dinner out and noticed the glowing orange lights along the beachfront. It looked as if residents had started decorating for Halloween. Then I realized that the dim glow of orange was for the benefit of the sea turtles that nest on the beaches here every spring.

Every morning volunteers can be seen patrolling the beach and marking the spots where sea turtles have laid their eggs. Sometimes they even move a clutch of eggs from a spot that is putting the unborn turtles in danger. “Sarasota County hosts the highest density of loggerhead sea turtle nests in the Gulf of Mexico,” according to the tourism website visitsarasota.com. To protect the nests from harm in a busy tourist town, volunteers mark their nests with wooden stakes and orange tape. People are discouraged from trying to interact with or photograph the nesting mothers or their young when they emerge from their shells in July. And because hatching sea turtles head toward light to guide them into the water, it’s important that bright lights along the beach be extinguished or shrouded so that the moonlight is their guide and they don’t become disoriented. Hence the glow of dim orange along the coastline.

At nearby Mote Aquarium, visitors can learn more about sea turtles and their nesting process. The aquarium also helps injured and otherwise compromised sea turtles who can’t make it in the wild, such as a blind green turtle named Hang Tough. Some hatchlings are cared for there as well until they are strong enough to be released into the sea. It’s likely they will make their way back some day to lay their own eggs on the local beaches since female sea turtles typically return over and over to the location of their birth to build their nests. (sciencedaily.com, Jan. 28, 2021)

The perilous journey of sea turtles reminds us that life is incredibly fragile. Each summer, tiny baby turtles make their way by themselves into the vast sea. They are vulnerable to predators and to human intervention. Yet humans also have a role to play in their survival. It is heartening to see the dedication of scientists and ordinary people in helping one species survive and thrive.

The Turtle Walks have been canceled this year, no doubt due to COVID-19. On these walks, naturalists show interested people the sea turtle nests along the beach and strive to educate them about the adorable reptiles. I’m looking forward to next year’s season so that I can take an early morning stroll with other nature lovers and learn more about these amazing creatures that share our beach.

Beware Complacency

Standard

*This post contains spoilers about the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the season 4 finale of the excellent series The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a chilling scene in which two architects of the authoritarian regime of Gilead are leaving jail to face charges in an international crimes court for kidnapping, rape and torture. Bracing themselves to meet the jeers of protestors they can hear from within the walls of the prison, they instead step out and are greeted with wild cheers and supportive signs such as, “Free the Waterfords” and “God Bless Serena Joy.” It becomes clear in that moment that the free Canada to which untold numbers of former U.S. citizens have fled is clearly in danger of itself becoming another Gilead.

Gilead, of course, is a fictional state in which the government of the United States has been overthrown by reactionary forces who use a Draconian interpretation of the Bible to establish and maintain power. Yet Margaret Atwood’s creation, interpreted and expanded on by the Hulu series, is a cautionary one. Even before rioters stormed our Capitol to prevent the lawful transfer of power to a new president, the trends and tendencies in this country have been turning toward an extreme Right.

The election of Joe Biden over the grossly unfit and autocratic Donald Trump made many Americans breathe a huge sigh of relief. Having thwarted the Republican and white supremacist attempts to overturn the election, mainstream Americans were reassured that the system still works. Yet there is a danger that we will become too complacent, too willing to forget the scene at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. We are in danger of forgetting that many of the rioters were both current and former members of the military and law enforcement branches of our government.

Immediately after the riots, Republican lawmakers who had themselves been at risk from the mob violence busied themselves in blocking efforts to hold the insurrectionists accountable for their actions. Americans just want to move on, they disingenuously opined. Meanwhile, Republican-dominated legislatures have been busy passing voter suppression laws aimed at limiting opposition to themselves. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that these anti-democratic efforts will be struck down. Democrats hold Congress by the slimmest of margins while Republicans continue to turn their backs on democratic norms. Donald Trump still has a hold on the GOP and cannot be ruled out as the presidential candidate in 2024.

All of this should give us pause. In the Handmaid’s Tale version of a future Canada, Canadians and U.S. citizens who have sought asylum there seem to take for granted their freedoms. Some of the former handmaids reassure the escaped June Osborn that she is free now, that the forces of Gilead can’t get her here. Yet the presence of those Waterford sympathizers shows that everyone in Canada is not equally in favor of the individual liberties that are no longer available in the former United States. Ostensibly they have heard about the horrors inflicted on its citizens by the elites in Gilead. Yet they harken to the religiously-tinged rhetoric of its leaders. It reminds me of the acceptance many people showed for migrant families being separated at our border with Mexico. People are willing to accept atrocities when they occur at the behest of leaders they unquestioningly support.

There is no doubt that it is a relief to have a president who refuses to spew hateful rhetoric and who has righted some of the wrongs of the Trump Administration. Yet we are only an election cycle or two away from further attempts to erode our democracy. Democrats need to keep holding Republican feet to the fire on issues of voter suppression, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the very real danger of white supremacist terrorism in this country.

We need to have long memories and firm convictions to maintain our democratic institutions so that America remains a beacon of freedom in the world.

Creature Comforts

Standard

When I was in my 20s, I had a slight obsession with bathing suits. I collected bikinis like little boys collected baseball cards. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. But I do recall thinking that Deborah Walley sporting a different bathing suit in every scene of Gidget Goes Hawaiian was the ultimate. I had a purple bikini and a red, white and blue one with flirty ruffles – and the figure to do them justice.

Back in those days, I had no money but sizable fashion aspirations. I would see something chic in a department store and long to buy it. Sometimes I’d save up for a splurge – like the hot pink silk skirt and blouse I bought during my teaching days. Or the light pink, fitted denim dress I wore to my side job as a legal secretary in downtown Chicago. An outfit was only desirable inasmuch as it highlighted my curves.

Those days have totally given way to a desire for cozy comfort. Nowadays, my favorite articles of clothing are my pajamas. My obsession with them is similar to the one I used to have for bathing suits. I honestly feel that I could never have enough pairs of them. Constantly on the lookout for sales, I stalk the website of Soma, the lingerie division of Chico’s, a brand of clothing for women of a certain age. Their pajamas promise Cool Nights, and their softness only grows with each laundering.

Recently my sister-in-law came for a visit and brought me a pair of Cuddl Duds pajamas. I was in seventh heaven! If she had brought me the rare jewel from the movie Titanic, I could not have been happier. Of course, they are now my favorite pair of pajamas, and I wear them at every opportunity.

It’s funny how our priorities change as we get older. Looking fashionable, dieting, and showing off my figure used to be my preoccupations. But as I got older and had children, I lost the need to dress to the nines and impress others when I went out in public. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this tendency to favor comfort over style. So soft leggings, slouchy tops, breezy sundresses, and cozy pajamas have taken pride of place in my wardrobe. My feet are clad in loafers and lined moccasins rather than strappy heels.

Don’t get me wrong. I can still get excited for the occasional evening of dress-up glamor. I still look at myself in the mirror and hope to see some glimmer of that fashion-conscious twenty-something I once was. But when it comes to a choice between style and comfort, these days comfort wins almost every time.

Crossword Brain

Standard

I’ve mentioned my crossword puzzle obsession in previous posts. What I find interesting is how many people are unduly impressed by my ability to complete the New York Times Sunday puzzle. I could never do that, friends and acquaintances will maintain. Yet getting good at crossword puzzles is like anything else. All it takes is practice. After thousands of puzzles completed and discarded, I have developed what I like to think of as crossword brain.

Aside from the fact that crossword puzzle makers seem to use a lot of the same clues and answers, there are certain conventions and techniques of puzzle makers. Once you learn them, your brain starts to think like a puzzle maker. A commonality of most crosswords I do is that the puzzle usually has a theme. Often the puzzle is titled so as to give a hint at the theme. For instance, Saturday’s Wall Street Journal crossword had the theme “Marquee Matchups.” This immediately hinted at movie titles as being the likely answers to the longest crossword puzzle blocks.

The first clue related to this theme was “Just another day in Congress, some would say? (Jack Lemmon/Uma Thurman).” This told me that somehow the movie or movies would be related to these actors. I puzzled over what movie both Lemmon and Thurman could possibly have been in and came up blank. Luckily there are all kinds of smaller answers in the “Down” section that could give me some letters I needed to make sense of the clue. I eventually got the word “grumpy” as a start to the answer. Once I got the “o” next to it, I thought of the movie Grumpy Old Men, which did indeed star Jack Lemmon. But not Uma. So I started running through her movies to see what one would make sense with a clue about Congress. And then it came to me: Kill Bill. So the answer ended up “Grumpy old men kill bill.” Voila! I’d cracked the code and now knew each answer featured one movie from each named actor’s body of work.

Another common practice of puzzle makers is the use of puns, homonyms and homophones. So a puzzler needs to think about the various ways you might read a word or phrase in a clue. For instance, the clue might say, “Meet market?,” and the answer might be “singlesbar.” (There are no spaces in the crossword puzzle grid except between different answers.) Or one might say, “Enjoy the nudist colony?” with the answer, “grin and bare it.” I guess it helps to be interested in language, as I always have been.

Puzzle makers also pay attention to parallels and language conventions in their clues and answers. For example, if they use a person’s last name in the clue, the answer will also use a last name. Clue: Frequent director of De Niro. Answer: Scorcese. But if the clue was “Frequent director of Robert,” the answer would be “Martin.” If part of the clue is abbreviated, the answer is also an abbreviation. In the WSJ puzzle, the answer to the clue “Ore. neighbor” is “Ida.”

Sometimes crosswords get really tricky and contain a pattern that includes more than one letter in certain boxes. For instance, I recently did a puzzle in which the letters “mic” went together in several of the puzzle boxes. I had a hard time figuring this out until I came across the answer that basically gave away the puzzle theme. Although these kinds of crosswords can be a little frustrating, solving them also gives me a big sense of accomplishment. And I think my aging brain thanks me.

Although I have branched out to other types of word puzzles in order to stretch my brain, I will always retain a fondness for the good old-fashioned crossword. There is something so satisfying about filling in all the little boxes. My husband teases me that he is going to save all my completed crossword puzzles and bury them with me. I guess there could be worse legacies than being known as a crossword puzzle fanatic. But my crossword puzzle brain and I intend to be around for many more years of puzzle pleasure.

A Three Hour Tour

Standard

People who know me know that I have a substantial fear of water. I can think of few things scarier than being out in the middle of the sea. But my sister-in-law was in town for a visit and mentioned how much she and her husband had enjoyed a boat cruise on a previous trip to Florida. So I thought I’d be a good sport and book a sunset cruise for her, my husband and myself. A two- hour tour – what could go wrong?

The boat was a pontoon that looked somewhat seaworthy. But the captain looked more like a surf bum than a seasoned sailor: tan skin, scruffy beard, bare feet and a shark tooth around his neck. He was assisted by a young woman who, he informed us, was just learning the ropes of boating. Before we took off, the captain informed us that he was not very familiar with the area and that he was not going to follow the usual itinerary. Perhaps that should have been my cue to hop off the boat.

The evening was pleasant and breezy, though, and all was calm as we ventured out into the bay. The captain’s first mate would randomly shout out sightings of various seabirds along the way. Other than that, there was not a lot of color commentary. The two crew members had that jokey, overly familiar manner of second-rate entertainers. Still, I was having a glass of wine and trying to enjoy myself

After stopping to admire a lovely sunset, we started to head back in the direction from whence we came. That was when the sand hit the fan – literally. The boat kept running into sand bars, and Captain Nimrod seemed nonplussed. I started eyeing the cache of life jackets over our heads. Night began to fall.

This was when I started to realize we were out at sea in the dark with the Beavis and Butthead of boating. The first mate kept hopping over the fore and aft decks, shining her flashlight into the water as the captain shouted at her. At one point they tried distracting us with the sight of the full moon, which Nimrod blamed for the unexpected shallows in our path. I was quietly considering whether I would be Ginger or Marianne in any kind of Gilligan’s Island scenario. More like Mrs. Howell, come to think of it.

It got darker and darker as our little boat struggled across the bay. There were almost no lights on the boat, and the captain and first mate were struggling in pitch darkness to find the markers that would lead us to safety. I tried not to start hyperventilating. Meanwhile my sister-in-law was happily chatting with the other passengers, all of whom seemed to have not a care in the world. At one point my phone rang. It was my daughter FaceTiming me. She had a look of shock on her face as we explained to her that we were out on a boat in the dark, which was why she couldn’t see us at all. No doubt she was thinking, Who are you, and what have you done to my mother, the land lubber?

The two-hour tour stretched into three as we finally got free and made a loop around in deeper waters, making our way back to the marina. As the boat neared the shore, the first mate blithely asked for tips. I wanted to give her and her mate some tips all right!

On the way to our car after disembarking, my husband quipped, “No good deed goes unpunished.” I was pretty sure that was my first and last boat ride.

Unmasked

Standard

Since the CDC issued its recommendation that vaccinated individuals need not wear masks in most public places, mask mandates have started to disappear. Here in Florida, the governor has gone so far as to bar local governments from enforcing their own restrictions. So off go the masks, just like that.

I thought it would feel like a relief to go out and about in public places without a mask, but instead it feels jarring to see people unmasked. I still don my mask when walking into the grocery store or coffee shop – or pretty much any indoor establishment. And my husband and I are still loath to dine indoors despite the fact that we have both been fully vaccinated.

One reason I’m reluctant is that the pandemic is far from over. While hospitalizations are down across the U.S., the numbers of new infections (which Florida has the dubious distinction of leading) indicate that there is still plenty of risk, even to people who have been vaccinated. And even if my being vaccinated reassures me that contracting COVID-19 would most likely lead only to a mild infection, I still feel it’s my responsibility to protect others in the unlikely event that a variant of the coronavirus infects me.

When we first started wearing them, masks looked and felt odd. People were uncomfortable with them and would make jokes about them to ease their own embarrassment. But over time, we have grown used to the sight of people in all walks of life wearing their masks. Over the winter and early spring, there was virtually no cold and flu season. My sister, a high school teacher whose in-person classes resumed in the fall, said for the first time ever, her students only went through a single box of facial tissue in her classroom. While there may be a number of factors contributing to the reduction in viruses overall, including hand-washing and social distancing, it seems pretty clear that masks played a role in keeping us healthier overall.

It would be great if people took it upon themselves to wear masks in public whenever they felt an illness coming on. This is already the custom in many East Asian countries, which have had their own brushes with serious epidemics in the recent past. It is considered a social responsibility to protect others from one’s viral infection. And if we had a custom of wearing masks in the face of illnesses, we would get a jump on a future airborne coronavirus if it should attack.

I’m still uneasy about seeing people maskless indoors in public places. Only 50 percent of Americans are vaccinated, so many of those unmasked people may still be at risk of spreading COVID-19. I feel bad for store employees, many of them still required to wear masks, being exposed to maskless customers for hours each day. So I will continue to wear my mask until the pandemic is truly history. And I will keep it handy in the future to protect myself and others from illness.

What’s In Your News Feed?

Standard

The Facebook elves must think I am obsessed with breast support. Every day in my news feed I see numerous ads for various brands of bras: from sexy, lacy items to ones offering maximum comfort. I have no objection to shaking things up in my wardrobe, but it gets tiring looking at women in their underwear. Or for that matter, men! I also get plenty of closeups of male packages ensconced in various types of boxer briefs.

The algorithms that shape our Facebook news feeds make for some interesting commentary upon our needs and interests. Along with ads for different types of underwear, I see a lot of photos of athleisure wear. Clearly I’m not the career-driven type or fashionista looking for more dressed-up fare. This trend in my news feed also includes blankets and huggable pillows. One would think I was a veritable couch potato! Also, what does it say about me that my feed is filled with ads for wine and cocktails? On the other hand, there are lots of postings on the arts and literature, so I must not be a complete philistine.

It can be annoying when one idle search for new paint-by-numbers kits for my daughter yields dozens of ads for them on my Facebook page. In fact, I only need mention an item within the vicinity of my iPhone, and the next thing I know, I am seeing examples of said item all over my page. I guess it’s a good thing I haven’t done any Google searches of porn, murder, or Hitler.

There is another interesting trend I’ve noticed in my news feed lately. I’ve been seeing lots of memes asking a random question, such as: “Peanut butter goes with what? You are not allowed to say jelly.” Presumably readers are expected to answer this question in the comment section. I’m not sure exactly what the purpose of such memes is, and I have a somewhat suspicious nature that makes me wonder whether someone is performing a psychological experiment on Facebook users. After all, there are those phishing memes that ask you to divulge possible answers to your security questions online, such as the name of your pet or a favorite rock group or song. Whatever the reason for these postings, I resist the urge to play along. The internet already has enough personal information about me.

For some time, of course, critics have complained that our social media accounts are bubbles which exist only to validate our beliefs and opinions, especially in the political sphere. It’s true that I rarely have any Fox News stories popping up in my news feed. While some of this is guided by actual subscriptions to news sites, it is also true that my Facebook feed is not likely to challenge my beliefs in any significant way, except in the case of postings by certain friends who don’t share my point of view. (Yes, it’s possible to be friends with a Trump supporter.)

Still, I think you could do an interesting psychological profile of people based on what turns up on their social media sites. What’s in your news feed?

Small Town Charm

Standard

I spent the past weekend helping my daughter move into her temporary digs in a small town in Vermont where she will spend the next ten weeks playing soccer with a semi-professional women’s team. From the moment we set foot in the town of about 7,000 residents, we were embraced with a warm and friendly welcome from the people we met.

I like to think of the village in which we raised our children as a small town. But connected as it is to the greater Chicago metropolitan area, our hometown has more big city sensibilities than the picturesque Vermont town in which we found ourselves. First of all, we found these new surroundings much less technologically dependent. Although most public places have WiFi, many of the cafes shut it off for major periods of time. Numerous small businesses accept only cash, and the front desk clerk at the hotel in which I stayed informed me that there was no Uber presence anywhere nearby.

We met the soccer team administrator, his wife, and children over the course of the weekend as they helped the young soccer players move into their lodgings. Later on we ran into the administrator’s wife at a local store, and she explained that running into people you know is a major part of small town living. She had been raised here and had moved her family back after some years away in order for them to go to school and grow up in the same friendly environment. The couple also explained that the town was so safe nobody locked their doors or their cars.

Everyone we met had a slow-paced friendliness that we “big city” types could find either charming or, at times, irritating. But it was enjoyable not to feel hurried or stressed, except when my daughter, still completing college classes online, had to make a Zoom call at a particular time. My daughter related to me how, when she asked some strangers where she could find a cafe with WiFi, they had directed her to a place nearby and then said, “Have a really great day!” It’s hard not to fall in love with a town where people make a point of wishing you well.

The town itself is as picturesque as a postcard. Surrounded by gentle green mountains, it features lovely clapboard homes, roundabouts, and buildings erected in the early 1800s. Main Street winds through town lined with quaint, white-painted inns, restaurants, and unique shops. There is even a Museum of Fly Fishing. And despite the lack of big box stores nearby, we were able to obtain everything my daughter needed for her stay in this rural paradise.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to the small town way of life. We noticed that almost everything closes by 9 pm. So night owls are a bit out of luck here. Particularly for young adults, the small town environment can seem stifling and boring and necessitate long car trips to more thriving metropolises. And said lack of Uber service led to a pricey taxi ride to the airport for me when I was ready to go home.

Still, I was happy to leave my daughter in such a beautiful, safe, and friendly locale for most of the summer. I hope she enjoys the large dose of small town charm and creates some happy memories for the future.