Joe Pye is always late to the party.

Joe Pye is the tall, handsome one in the back.

I tend to romanticize my garden during the winter. In February, looking out my window at the snow, icicles and gray, leafless trees, I dream of my Marion garden with its beautiful Dogwood, Peonies and faithful perennials. I picture myself in attractive garden apparel, basket in one hand and shears in the other, tripping along the walkways snipping day lilies that have passed their prime, occasionally interrupted by oohs and ahs from passersby.

That was then; this is now. It’s hot. It’s sticky. There are ticks carrying dangerous diseases. I have to dress in Hazmat attire just to pull up weeds. It gets worse. Despite all my precautions, one morning last week I found a tick nestled behind my left ear. Luckily, it was a Wood Tick, not a carrier of Lyme Disease, Babesiosis and worse. But forget about day lilies; it’s the weeding that never ends. Thanks to the humidity and frequent rainstorms, weeds run rampant in ways that prized blooms never will. I was once told that painting the Golden Gate Bridges is an endless job: start at one end, paint to the other, and by the time that’s done it’s time to circle back to the start and begin again. It’s the same with weeds. Two weeks ago the vegetable garden looked great when I had finished weeding. Today I went outside to see how the zucchini was coming along and could barely find it among all the weeds.

There’s more. It’s late July now and the flowers that have started blooming are the ones that herald the approaching winter. My favorite is Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). I don’t know who Joe was but I was drawn to his tall, dark and handsome lavender blossoms when we first moved to New England. Eventually I noticed that Joe Pye makes his appearance as summer is waning. I guess the garden is a metaphor for life: beauty is transient, it pays to be persistent, and sometimes the ones we like best–like Joe–arrive late to the party.

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L. Thon C’est Bon!

Our friends, Larry and Joy Thon

Larry and Joy Thon

Our friend Larry Thon died last week. He was killed when a tree fell on him during a severe storm while he was sleeping in his bed. Larry always said that he hoped to die by going to sleep one night and not waking up in the morning. He got his wish, though in an unexpected way and entirely too soon. It is ironic that Larry, a Marine, Vietnam War veteran and cross-country cyclist who came through so many dangerous situations unscathed, was taken out by a Beech tree.

Bill and I met Joy and Larry Thon on a National Geographic journey to the Galapagos Islands. We connected early in the two-week trip and quickly became friends. One of my sweetest memories of that time was Larry and Joy helping me snorkel. While I know how to snorkel, in the past decade I have become afraid of water–but what would a trip to the Galapagos be without exploring underwater? When they discovered my fear, Larry gave me his right arm and Joy her left, and by hanging on between the two of them, I felt completely safe snorkeling and had a great undersea adventure.

There were other travels together: Egypt, Jordan, Patagonia, Peru, Argentina, the Chilean wine country, Cornwall, Normandy and more. Larry planned many of those trips in every detail, including reservations at the best restaurants in each area. He was very clear on what he did and didn’t like. He liked visiting battlefields; he didn’t enjoy yarn stores. (Nobody’s perfect.) He liked to keep moving. He was a good traveler—no whining allowed. And Joy is the perfect name for Larry’s wonderful wife. We had a lot of happy times together.

One of Larry’s favorite stories involved a trip to France in his twenties. He passed a small grocery store with a poster advertising a certain canned fish: “Le Thon, C’est Bon!” The proprietors were puzzled by the young man posing for a photo in their store until he pulled out his passport and showed them that his name in French was, indeed, “Larry Tuna.”

Bon Voyage, dear friend.

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A Summer Dinner

Clams with Linguica

In September 2015, I wrote here about “A Perfect Day.” The conclusion was that a perfect day would include remembering to appreciate life’s special moments. Today was one of those days full of happiness. My niece Angela and her boyfriend Nick are spending a long weekend with us. The weather is beautiful; digging for quahogs at low tide was fun and the subsequent dinner of Clams with Linguica we all prepared together was fantastic.

My plan for today’s blog was to write about this, another perfect day. Then life intervened. I got one of those phone messages no one wants: “Alexis and Bill, please call me” from a friend who, along with her husband, has been a traveling companion on many adventures in foreign lands. Her news was terrible. Two nights ago her husband was killed in a horrific storm when a large tree fell on the room in which he was sleeping. She was in another part of their small cottage and was unharmed.

I rejoined the family for dinner and we talked about our friend, his life and death, and what his wife must be going through. Then we got a second “Please call me message,” this time from one of my sisters. She passed along the news that our sister-in-law had been seriously injured in a biking accident. We have subsequently learned that she will be okay but will need surgery and time to return to her normal self. The perfect day turned out to be not perfect at all. On the other hand, it was real life. And as before, it was a reminder to appreciate what we have.

Photo by William C. Popik, M.D. (who else?)

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Deer tick

This is how tiny deer ticks are.  This is also not my fingernail.

My favorite summer pastime is gardening. After the long New England winter, those little buds that peep out of their greenery in June are like old friends I have missed more than I can say. As in all good stories, however, there is a snake in the garden—well, not really a snake—a tick in the garden (and on hiking trails, in the lawn, in your pet’s hair and on the thousands of resident deer).

In 2017, after a mild winter, ticks are even more abundant and now are carrying far more dangerous illnesses than Lyme Disease. A few years ago, Babesiosis, a tick-borne disease caused by parasites that infect red blood cells, appeared on the south coast of Massachusetts. Babesia infection, even worse than Lyme, can range in severity from asymptomatic to life-threatening. This year an even more serious infection, called Powassan is spreading. According to the CDC, symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss. Long-term neurological damage may also occur.

I am taking the Internet experts’ advice and spraying my clothes (long-sleeved shirt, long pants, neck scarf) with Permethrin, wearing socks pulled up over the bottoms of my pant legs, finishing it off with gloves and a hat. I feel ridiculous, not to mention overheated, in my tick-proof outfit. However, there’s always something more extreme. In this case it’s Tick Shield, a get-up designed by two upstate New York dentists whose entire family contracted tick-borne illnesses. It features long sleeves and a hood, with ribbed elastic around the wrists and ankles. Made from a tightly woven, lightweight poplin, it is pale gray with a fluorescent orange band on one leg as a caution mark for joggers. Yes, it does get hot, but we are told that it is tolerable “if other clothing is not worn underneath it.” I can imagine how that would go over in Marion, Massachusetts.

This apparel dilemma reminds me of my parents’ discussion in the 1950’s during the bomb shelter fad. My father tried to convince my mother that our front yard was the only reasonable place to build one. I remember her declaring that she’d rather die in a nuclear war than have a bomb shelter in our front yard. I was thrilled at her bravery and conviction! In a tribute to Mom, I’m sticking with the only slightly miserable anti-tick get-up I’ve assembled and am passing on the space suit in the hopes that the ticks will move on to easier targets.

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I can't go home again.

Not again!

Can a person really “go home again” and what does that mean? Thomas Wolfe’s most famous book title says we can’t. I’m not sure.

This week Bill and I went home again to the San Francisco Bay Area where he was born and where I lived since leaving Stockton to attend the University of California at Berkeley. We haven’t abandoned New England, where I have left a sizable portion of my heart, but it is time to have a California outpost near both our families and our old friends.

After more than 20 years away, California still feels like home in a deep sense that is hard to explain. Despite the physical changes here—all kinds of new construction that make lots of areas unrecognizable—I am always confident that I won’t lose my way. Never mind that this is a foolish illusion; it’s a sense of having belonged in a place for a very long time. When we first moved to Connecticut, I got lost all the time. There were no geographical landmarks to show me the way—no San Francisco Bay, no Golden Gate, no East Bay hills. I remember pulling over to the side of the road somewhere outside of Simsbury to steady my heart rate and remind myself that there was no chance of getting lost in a sketchy neighborhood. The only danger was from a falling branch or a wandering bear. All I could see on all sides were trees. I’d never seen so many trees. It was impossible to see any landmarks at all—until some of the trees eventually became landmarks.

There are changes, though, and they make me wonder where “home” really is. The traffic is awful. The summer is foggy. There is a lot of ambient noise. Just when I think I’m going to hop on the next plane, though, a complete stranger in a checkout line turns to me and discusses the details of her divorce, or the party she’s attending later on, or difficulties with her teenage daughter. This never happens in New England. I’ve gotten used to keeping my mouth shut. But here, I get right back into it and commiserate or even give her advice, pat her on the back and go on my merry way. It’s like being home again.

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NOTE:  No photo this week.  The downloads and links aren’t working but I wrote this so I’m posting it.

I have always felt a kinship with Sylvia, “the easily irritated woman,”  a character invented by Nicole Hollander. I think of her whenever a voice gets my attention.  Some voices are so captivating I could listen to them forever. A good example of this is the Audible narrator of The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. It is an excellent book and I was sorry to to come to tis conclusion because I so enjoyed the voice of its narrator, Rebecca Lowman.  On the other extreme there are the voices of TV’s talking heads. It’s the nasal, tinny ones that grate.

Television commercial voices are notable because the distinctive ones are part of the product’s promotion. According to an admittedly small sample (my friends), everyone recognizes the voice of the manly underwear guy of Dry in the Fly Pants. The ads are parody of manliness (“Get a Pair”) pushing the propriety envelope but also downright funny. There’s no confusion about the ad’s target demographic. Then there are the irritating ads directed towards women. I was listening to but not watching television one day and heard a slow, sexy voice intoning “Anticipating…Feeling…Touching….” That got my attention! It was a car ad, of all things. I thought for sure it must at least be a lingerie ad. It’s hard to imagine getting that excited about an automobile, even a Jaguar. The last television commercial I find irritating is one featuring Jennifer Aniston selling eye drops. It’s hilariously earnest. Close up and looking right at us, Jennifer explains that her friends know her “so well” but (and here she really pours it on, managing to look surprised at her clueless friends) “what they don’t know is that I have dry eyes!  Some friends they are!!!

I feel much better now that I’ve gotten this off my chest.


Reactions to last week’s blog, “Dread Full,” were more numerous and different than I expected. I got e-mails, phone calls and ran into friends on the street who wanted to tell me that shared the feeling. Who knew?  Apparently there are a lot of us out there functioning happily in events they dreaded beforehand.

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Cat full of dread.

Dread of Going Out

I dread going to nearly every event on my calendar. Hartford Stage: “Can’t we just skip this play?” Eating out: “Do we have to dress up?” Just about any party: “Will they even notice we’re not there?” I even dread daily walks with my friends. The corollary to this is that once I get out, I always have a wonderful time.

This isn’t “social anxiety,” which results from fear of interacting with other people. I can talk to anybody any time, friend or not. I don’t get nervous around strangers. It isn’t “existential dread,” a pervasive feeling that life is pointless. It is an irrational reluctance to put myself “out there.” What’s more, I’ve asked around and many of my friends feel the same way. That is a biased sample, but still….

As is my practice, I turned to “The Google.” It seems that many people experience dread of leaving their houses, but some of the advice for “conquering” the feeling is ridiculously obvious. I’m not going to name the sources because they are well-meaning, even if the advice is plain as day: “Reframe” your thoughts so that ‘I don’t feel like going’ is reframed as, ‘I know I’ll be glad I went.'” I remind myself that I always have a good time.   That affirmation, plus a good deal of guilt, gets me out and about, but it is no cure for pre-social dread.

What about you?  We could discuss this over a cup of coffee, but I would dread our meeting.

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Osprey on their nest



Yesterday Bill and I celebrated the 39th anniversary of our marriage. “Celebrated” may not be the appropriate word because we didn’t do anything special. We have been lucky enough to share so many special trips and meals that it would be difficult to come up with a unique celebration. (What was worth celebrating is that we both remembered it was our anniversary.) I look back to our wedding day all those years ago and hardly know who those two people were. We looked good, we felt good but we didn’t have a clue about what a lasting marriage involves.

The New York Times recently carried a column by Ada Calhoun entitled “To Stay Married, Embrace Change.” The illustration alone is worth the price of the newspaper. Artist Brian Rea depicts a wife in bed and her husband, sitting in his underwear on the edge of the other side, clipping his toenails. There are bits of toenails all over the rug.   With that title and that cartoon, you just know the writer and illustrator have been married to someone, sometime. Calhoun’s point can be summed up by one of her quotes: “I’ve had at least three marriages. They’ve just all been with the same person.” Time changes all of us.

There used to be a column in the Ladies’ Home Journal: “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” that I read when my mother wasn’t paying attention. I don’t remember what the marital problems were but the stories gave me plenty to think about when my parents argued. What I didn’t understand was that their arguments were only one of the many ways that they were smoothing the rough edges we all have in order to accommodate to the challenges of kids, jobs, finances and everything else that daily life brings.

You may wonder what the photo above has to do with any of this. These two young osprey are setting up their first nest together, one that they will return to every spring if all goes well. So far, they have a mess of a nest and an interloper who tries to oust them every couple of hours. They are holding firm. I am counting on them to join us next year for our big Four-O.

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Dad in his nineties

Jack Popik

Jack Popik died last week. My father-in-law was six days short of his 96th birthday and quite ill; he was ready. Jack was, however, the last of his generation from two large extended families and it was strange to think that all of those brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, are gone.

Services were held at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City. The funeral was the usual combination of the ridiculous and the sublime. Probably due to the tension and grief surrounding death, every funeral I have ever attended had moments of hilarity.   I was concerned that our granddaughter, Kamiko, was too young for a funeral but she wanted to go because it meant a ride in a limo (where does she get this stuff?). Then she complained that the ride wasn’t very long. Jack was an accomplished tennis player, competing well into his eighties. He didn’t like to dress up—ever—so he was buried in his usual outfit: tee shirt, tennis shorts and sneakers. We (“the kids”) thought it was perfect but some of the mourners didn’t think it was suitable at all.

Later that day, family and members of the Temple gathered at Sue’s house for Shiva (a Jewish mourning ceremony) and to share memories of Jack . There was mention of a “life well lived.” I don’t know if Jack thought about that and, if he did, what living well meant to him. He worked hard, had a long, happy marriage and raised two children who in turn raised their own children. At the end of his life he said to me, “I never thought getting old would be this way.” By then he was too tired to talk much so I didn’t find out what he had expected.

At Shiva there were prayers about making every day count. It is a good thing to remember that our time here is limited and that too often we let the days dribble away. It can be hard to pay attention to small pleasures; it is so much easier to think of what we don’t enjoy. Later that week, I was taking Kamiko and her dog, Bella, for a walk. The dog needs to be walked twice a day and I was on duty. Bella knows how to savor every moment as well as every blade of grass in her path. Her walks take forever. Kamiko—in between skipping ahead—whined about wanting to get home to watch Beetlejuice. I had my own plan—to drink a glass of wine and watch the news. I wanted to whine, too. Then I recalled the lessons of the past few days. It was springtime, I was walking in a park with a goofy dog and a sweet little girl skipping along in front of me…. It made the day count.

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fork in the road

Big Small Decisions

Penelope Lively
The idea that our entire lives can be shaped by early, small decisions is the lifelong subject of British author Penelope Lively’s novels. When you think of it, it makes sense. If forty years ago a long-lost boyfriend hadn’t recognized me on the Eastshore Freeway and chosen the same off-ramp, we wouldn’t have re-met, married and created the family we have today.

Lively has written several novels, including Moon Tiger (winner of the Booker Prize), How It All Began and a children’s book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (Carnegie Medal).  For more on this fine writer, read here.

Robert Frost
As long as we’re on the subject, Robert Frost captured the idea of the impact of small decisions in his famous poem:

Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

 The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Megan Cahn
The always interesting A Cup of Jo this week included this article by Megan Cahn, “Is Your Cat Your Best Friend?” You know where I stand on this. Just last week I caught myself telling CatmanDeux, as I was going out the door, exactly when I expected to return. Some of us confuse our cats with our humans.



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