sweaters in a closet

Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Last week I began an overwhelming task: clearing out the house of family members who died. They had lived in the same place for 60 years and it seems as if they never threw anything away. I have listened for years to my friends’ stories of dealing with their aging parents’ belongings but it was not until now, when I am doing the same thing, that I truly understand what an enormous undertaking it is.

Neither we nor our adult children want or need any more furniture or furnishings. In addition, though some items in the house were expensive (china, silverware, some of the furniture) they are no longer in style and so worth very little. The solution becomes a garage sale, estate sale, charitable donation or a combination. Somehow I can’t tolerate the idea of those familiar pieces laid out on tables in the driveway but the thought of a dumpster is even worse.

The most difficult task for me was to sort through the bedroom closets and dresser drawers. I thought of my mother-in-law when I first met her, clicking around the kitchen in one of the many pairs of high heels she owned. With the exception of Donna Reed, I had never seen anyone doing dishes in high heels. And then there were the purses, the sweaters, the gardening clothes—remnants of a whole life. The smaller the items –tubes of lipstick, bottles of nail polish—the harder to throw in the trash bag.

There is a positive side to this sad task. It is a strong incentive to clear out one’s life and keep only those things that “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo says in her popular book,  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Now when I look at my closet, I imagine my daughter or sons someday wondering why I ever bought those velvet stretch leggings or thought I looked good in brown lipstick.  Goodwill, here I come!


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Ladybird beetles

Ladybugs in the Oakland hills January 2018

Ladybug, ladybug fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
And her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan.

(English rhyme circa 1744)

Our house is not on fire, though it is only a few blocks away from site of the massive conflagration of 1991. Our children are gone but not far, we have indeed flown away home, and ladybugs have descended all around us in the Oakland hills, where they are hibernating for the winter.

Yesterday Bill Popik took these photos of some of the thousands of ladybugs who are drawn here annually by the climate and the scent of previous hibernators’ pheromones. The clustering keeps them warm, hydrated and provides a wealth of opportunities for ladybug orgies. Despite their cheerful coloration, most hikers walk right past without noticing the moving red mass only inches from the trail.


Still more ladybugs.

Everybody loves ladybugs. They are gardeners’ best friends because they are voracious eaters of aphids and other plant-eating pests. I have had two close encounters with masses of ladybugs: one when a horrified babysitter opened a box of them I had ordered and in her fright sucked them up with a Dust Buster. I had to leave work to drive home and rescue the poor things. (This may seem callous but I had more sympathy for the ladybugs than I did for the sitter.) The other occasions have been during New England winters when they come into the house and gather up high in the corners inside the house. That isn’t a good thing because you can’t really scoop them up and most die of dehydration. There are always a couple of hardy souls who make it through the winter and are fun to release in the spring.

To my friends and neighbors who are braving the New England winter: keep warm, stay hydrated and remember that spring is only a few months away.

NOTE:  If you want to know more about ladybugs, check out this excellent site: The Ladybug Lady


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New Year's Wreath

Happy New Year 2018!

Here’s hoping 2018 will be a sane and peaceful year around the world.


The New Yorker has published this list of best fiction of 2017.  Happy Reading!

In a year that too often seemed like fiction, my favorite novel was one that felt utterly true to life: “Conversations with Friends,” by the Irish writer Sally Rooney. It tells the story of Frances, a watchful, sharp-witted college student in Dublin and her best friend, Bobbi, who together fall into a risky intimacy with Melissa and Nick, a couple in their thirties with glamorous artistic credentials and a fraying marriage. Like the best coming-of-age novels, it captures the beautiful confusion of being an intelligent young person with lots of ideas about the world and no clue how to live in it. Much has been made of Rooney’s gift for capturing the gab of others, as advertised in her title. But fiction is really the medium of thought, and Rooney, who writes with commanding, unself-conscious lucidity, proves a terrific portraitist of Frances’s mind, with its peaks of humor and insight and troughs of poignant self-delusion. This is the first novel that Rooney has written; I was so engrossed in its world that when I finished it, I flipped back to the first page and read it straight through again. I hope her next book comes soon.

If there were a way to invite the protagonists of 2017 fiction to a lunch in their honor, I’d propose seating Frances next to Selin, the exquisitely awkward heroine of Elif Batuman’s début novel, “The Idiot.” Selin, too, is a college student with a mightily bookish brain and a paucity of knowledge gleaned from experience. Thinking of her shuffling around Harvard’s silent, snowy campus without her gloves on (she lost them again), or in a tiny village in Hungary, where she has gone for the summer to teach English out of severely misjudged love for an elusive math major, makes me laugh even now. On Selin’s other side, I’m tempted to put Christina, from the short-story collection “Sour Heart,” another notable début, by Jenny Zhang. True, Christina, the daughter of Chinese immigrants living in a series of squalid apartments in New York, is only a kid, but she has a startlingly adult way of expressing herself, and so much rude, buoyant energy that she seems to practically bounce off the page; I think her brashness would do Selin some good. I also want to include Z, the mercenary girlfriend-experience prostitute from Katherine Faw’s “Ultraluminous,” which has much to say about the kind of obscene obeisance that certain men want from women, and the lengths that they will go to get it. The novel has a meticulously polished surface and a molten, furious core; I read it a few weeks before the #MeToo revelations began, and it has hung in my mind like a backdrop to everything that has followed since.

And if real, flesh-and-blood people would deign to join this table of make-believe, I’d extend an invitation, too, to Grace Paley, whose short stories, essays, and poems, collected together for the first time in this year’s “A Grace Paley Reader,” were politically and artistically galvanizing to me, and also a source of deep comfort during this bitter year. Next to her must go her fellow West Villager Tamara Shopsin, whose memoir “Arbitrary Stupid Goal” is a paean to her childhood in and around her family’s legendary restaurant down on Bedford Street when Greenwich Village still felt like a village and weirdos ruled the roost. It’s hard to reflect on the lost past with a love that doesn’t dip into maudlin nostalgia, but Shopsin makes it look as easy as pie.—Alexandra Schwartz

At the beginning of 2017, I started working on a Profile of someone who’s secure in his faith (Rod Dreher, an orthodox Christian); at the end, I wrote about a philosopher who thinks we live in a cruel, pointless universe (David Benatar, an “anti-natalist” who argues that we should stop having children). In between, this turned out to be the year in which I read about the meaning of life. Two writers, in particular, helped me navigate the territory between believing in God and becoming a nihilist. The first was Daniel Dennett, the philosopher of mind, whom I profiled in March. I deeply enjoyed his newest book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back,” but two of his earlier volumes struck me with particular force: the accessible and elegant “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” from 1995, and the more academic “Freedom Evolves,” from 2003. In the first, Dennett helps us understand what it means to occupy a branch on the tree of life; in the second, he argues that free will is real, and shows how it could have evolved along with the rest of the living world. You may be bored of Darwin by now, and of the reductive, triumphalist rhetoric that often accompanies discussions about evolution and our place in the universe. That’s not what Dennett offers. I know of no other thinker who so convincingly shows how human life, in all its vivid, soulful richness, might make sense as part of a purely material universe.

The other writer was Anthony Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School whose book “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” took me on a parallel journey. (I profiled Kronman, too.) If Dennett seeks to reconcile the existence of the soul with the physical world—to connect bacteria to Bach—Kronman sets out to do something similar in the humanist tradition: he tries to integrate the many contradictory ways of thinking about life that, as modern people, we want to credit simultaneously. Many of us have intuitions about the sacredness of life but also believe in the scientific method, which leaves little room for the sacred; we find it hard to envision a literal afterlife but want to understand how we might matter after we’re gone. Kronman combs through the history of thought, combining Augustine with Wallace Stevens, or Nietzsche with Melanie Klein, and constructing a belief system of his own invention—“born-again paganism”—which he finds satisfying. You don’t have to read all of Kronman’s “Confessions” in one go, and you’re unlikely to find it all convincing. But his beautifully written book is illuminating and inspiring. It shows that all of us can try, in our own ways, to solve the riddle of existence.—Joshua Rothman

I’ve never read as furiously or as gratefully as I did this year, searching for something that would both take me out of myself and return me to myself, the way only books can. I went on some retrospective expeditions—I had a good streak of reading all of James Salter and Nora Ephron in succession—but there was plenty of wonder released in 2017. I loved “The Correspondence,” by J. D. Daniels, a beyond-slim collection of essays (two billed as fiction) that left me feeling drunk and dizzy, like I had been given an injection of a stranger’s soul. I laughed out loud at “Priestdaddy,” Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, which works like transubstantiation: no matter what you think you’re looking at on the page, it’s turning into something else. I have been regularly recommending Alissa Nutting’s horrifically funny novel “Made for Love,” as well as Jenny Zhang’s “Sour Heart” and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” two collections that use the short-story format’s mix of intensity and absence to knock you out. “Evicted,” Matthew Desmond’s chronicle of Milwaukee poverty, deserved its Pulitzer and then some. “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s deliciously over-reported oral history of early-aughts New York rock, was a monument to the scuzzy magic that occurs when youth, hedonism, ambition, and talent coincide. I couldn’t put down Sally Rooney’s “Conversations with Friends” or Julie Buntin’s “Marlena,” both of them début novels about the kind of complicated friendship that determines the course of a young woman’s life.—Jia Tolentino

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For the past several Christmas seasons, this blog has featured our family’s version of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Though “One Christmas was much like another in those years around the sea town corner” of Marion, Massachusetts, this year we are in Oakland, California and…well, it’s different! Dylan Thomas’ lovely Christmas poem no longer applies.

This year, instead of this quintessentially New England holiday display:

we have this:

Garish Christmas Decorations

Holiday Decorations by a neighbor.

Luckily, there is one enduring feature, wherever we are: the Christmas Cat.

Cat under the Xmas Tree


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa and whatever else brings you together with your family and friends during this season!

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Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash

I’m not a quitter. I’m proud of that, so it was a wrenching decision I made last week (la semana pasada) to quit my Intermediate Spanish class. I agonized about it for weeks, not only because I’m not a quitter but also for some more important (to me, anyway) reasons.

First, I would freeze every time I was called upon to speak in Spanish. When I managed to stumble through a few sentences, they were full of the simplest possible adjectives: bad, sad, good, great. I sounded like Donald Trump but with a pretty good accent.

Second, my memory isn’t that great anymore. The many irregular verbs and their conjugations that I reviewed so carefully didn’t seem to want to stick around. Somewhere along the way, I’ve forgotten how to memorize. It reminds me of the Billy Collins line from “Forgetfulness:”

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

Third, it was both a shock and a relief to learn that I am at least 30 years older than everyone else in the class. My first reaction was “Whaaaat??” My second reaction was, “No wonder all these people have such good memories.”

So now I am back to listening to Coffee Break Spanish as I perform daily mundane tasks, happy in the knowledge that whatever I don’t remember I can replay. It makes me feel like I’m not a quitter.



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Gifts, Christmas and Hanukkah

Christmas ornaments.

Holiday ornaments.

As Christmas and Hanukkah approach, it’s time to think about gifts. I enjoy buying presents for my granddaughter but finding appropriate presents for the adults in our family is not so easy. Just for fun, I searched the web to see what merchants are suggesting as gifts for adults this year. The Grommet features an Automatic Floss Dispenser, a Golf Club Cleaner, and a Microwave Bacon Cooker. And if those choices aren’t ridiculous enough, J. Peterman promotes a Four-tier Folding Cake Stand and a Bull Lead with a Copper Nose Ring (for the bullfighter in your life?). And just for the guys in your life, Mancrates proposes a Salami Bouquet or an Exotic Meats Jerkygram. Jerky indeed.

There have been some unfortunate gifts in Christmases past. One year my mother-in-law bought me some jumbo-size underpants, then apologized profusely when she saw the look on my face. A year or so later, my parents bought Bill an electric shaver, even though he had had a full beard for years.

Family gatherings over the holidays can be difficult. A psychiatrist friend once said to me regarding his patient caseload: “Christmastime is my High Season.” For some families, it is the one time of the year everyone gets together and the rich stew of irritation, competition, resentment and chronic misunderstanding can bubble over. Christmases in my family when I was a kid were like something out of an Irish short story. My mother and her mother had a tense relationship. My father would get tipsy early in the evening when my mother was not keeping an eye on the bourbon bottle. There were lots of presents and we kids tore into them at the same time, so frantically that the whole process was over in minutes and then we were disappointed that it went so fast. Meanwhile, the mother of my great-aunt-by-marriage, the oldest person I had ever seen, dozed in the corner. It was a Dylan Thomas scene without the poetry.

What were your holiday celebrations like? I’d love to hear from you.

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Keep buttoned up.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

When the details leading to Matt Lauer’s firing broke a couple of days ago, my first thoughts were with his victims and my second take was, “Did he really think exposing himself was alluring?” This was not a new question. I had already wondered the same about Harvey Weinstein, Louie C.K., Charlie Rose and John Conyers.

This is one of the differences between men and women. Research* into women’s pornography-viewing habits reveals that women find the female body more attractive than the male’s; certainly artists have shared that belief for centuries. Men apparently don’t. I learned as the mother of two boys that at a very young age, males are proud of their genitals. I also have a daughter and the subject never came up. My sons were sensitive little guys, so they even sympathized with me for not being as lucky as they were.

Now we have grown men acting as if they never got beyond the pride of a four-year- old. Judging from the behavior of the aforementioned group, those men believe women are going to be shocked and awed into submission by the sight of their private parts. Women just don’t think that way. It is hard to imagine even the most predatory, powerful female CEO inviting a male subordinate into her office, locking the door, and dropping her designer pants.

Like many people, I wonder how many more days I will wake up to the news that one more famous man has taken advantage of the power of his position to force himself on unwilling women, men or children. To the men who are waking up during the night, wondering when they will be “outed” and lose their jobs: it is too late to undo past bad behavior but it is not too late to grow up. My mother-in-law would have said, in a different context, “pull up your socks.” To the sleepless transgressors out there: you know what you need to pull up.


*Yes, I really do research these weekly essays.

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Someone else’s beautiful bookcases.

I’m often asked what I’m reading so I thought, on the occasion of giving thanks for what we have, I would list the books on my nightstand.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins
Collins is a former US Poet Laureate. Some of his poems seem, at first reading, to be simple but they aren’t.  This fragment from the book’s first poem, “Reader” gives you a sense of how wonderful his writing is:

Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper, thumb-licking page turner, peruser,you getting your print-fix for the day, pencil-chewer, note taker, maginalianist with your checks and X’s…

Katy Tur: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
My husband Bill and I are news junkies and since Trump’s election our addiction has gotten worse. Katy Tur of NBC and MSNBC is smart, funny and as a junior reporter was given the least-likely-to-succeed-candidate assignment.  Then she wound up covering the winner. Her road warrior stories are entertaining and chilling.

Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow
Do this book justice by reading it in as few consecutive hours as possible. I didn’t and therefore I’m going to reread it. When I got to the last page, I marveled at what an intricate, Stave puzzle of a story Towles has written. What a mind Towles has!

John McPhee: Draft No. 4
I have not gotten far into this book yet but have discussed it a lot with my very well-read friend, James. I have always loved McPhee’s writing. His essays concern complicated and often scientific topics, written in a novelist’s style. If you want to get a sense of McPhee, check out this recent profile from the New York Times.

Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers and good reading to all!

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Autumn Leaves and Leaving

Autumn Leaves, Simsbury, Connecticut

Autumn Leaves,
Simsbury, Connecticut

In the autumn of 1996, Norm appeared at my kitchen door and told me he had come to say “goodbye.” Our family had moved to Connecticut from California six months earlier and Norm was one of my few friends. We had worked together fashioning a garden around the newly built house, planted trees, installed a raised bed for growing vegetables. It was Norm who taught me about frost heaves, the mud season, hardy perennials and Swamp Yankees—all new concepts for a West Coast native—and he was a good friend, besides, so I was distressed at his leaving.

“Are you moving away?” I asked.

He shook his head; I recognized the incredulity with which most locals greeted my cluelessness. “No. It’s the end of October. I’ll see you when winter’s over.”

It seemed odd, since we lived three blocks apart, but that was before I understood it wasn’t only the leaves that left by the beginning of November. The comforting night sounds of crickets, cicadas, and katydids were silenced. The ever-present, annoying mosquitos disappeared, too, but so did most of the neighborhood birds. All that remained were a few drab sparrows, winter-plumaged finches and—a life-saver for the Seasonally Affective Disordered—cheery red cardinals. Garden magazines carried articles about choosing plants for bark color to add “winter interest”—a depressing concept, if ever there was one. Then the sun set early—really, really early. By 4:00 p.m. the sky began to darken. By 4:30 I had to turn the lights on.

The natives had terms for all varieties of winter weather: sometimes the sky was only “spitting” snow; other times we endured Nor-easters, ice storms, power outages that meant not only loss of electricity but also water, because the well had an electrical pump. I began to wonder why anyone ever chose to settle in New England. By February even Florida seemed appealing.

That was many years ago. In time, Norm retired, the kids went off to college and I, belatedly, grew up, too. I stopped hating winter (well, except for January and February) and began to enjoy Snow Days, the “bones” of my leafless garden and flannel sheets. In California, one season slid into another and I scarcely noticed. All that counted was if it rained or not. In New England, I learned to appreciate the austere snowscape as well as the extravagant summer foliage. That appreciation is all the keener because winter is so long. I’d like to think that I’ve become accustomed to friends’ leaving, too; it would be a pat, inspirational way to end this musing. That’s not true, though. The best I can do is to remember that with losses comes the anticipation of new friends, different landscapes and other adventures–after an appropriate wait, of course. And for those of you who are impatient, there’s always Florida.

Note: I publish this “From the Archives” every November.

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Media Closet controls

Herein lies the problem.

What do you call an expensive multi-media system that is supposed to work with the push of one button but instead requires three controls per device and a closetful of equipment? I call it the temptation to swing a baseball bat. Three smart, thoughtful young men have spent so many hours installing, wiring and programming our new system that they have morphed into family members—quasi-nephews. So why oh why can’t the troublesome high tech glitches be corrected?

As people of my age go, I am more knowledgeable than average. I know that the first rule when something goes wrong with a cable box, computer, cell phone, camera, etc., is to unplug it or turn it off, then restart it. That often works. Otherwise, though I don’t understand what the root of the problem is, I’m sure it must be my fault.

There is a voodoo element to my relationship with technology that led, in the early days of Kindle, to my ordering an e-book and then standing at a window with my device open to the light, half expecting a winged book angel to show up. I didn’t know much but I had faith. The same could be said about our granddaughter, age 8. She doesn’t know the first thing about how cell signals and internets work and yet performs miracles. Recently she asked that I play “Despacito” on my car radio. I explained that I didn’t have that song in my iTunes collection so it couldn’t be done. She held out her hand: “Nana, give me your phone.” I still don’t know what she did but less than a minute passed before she and her little friend in the back seat were grooving to the song.

I keep hoping for a clear explanation as to why our three wise young men can’t perform the same miracles as an eight-year-old. As the last installer/nephew left at sundown Friday, I asked if the system was ever going to work as it was supposed to. “Oh, definitely,” was his answer. “Then why does it keep conking out?” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled the smile of a man at peace with himself and the vagaries of technology: “It’s electronic. Things happen.”

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