"Things"

When I was packing to move to my apartment three years ago, my ex-husband and I divvied up the kitchen property and discovered that we had enough pots, pans, crock pots, utensils, glasses, coffee mugs, cookie sheets, and baking dishes for two kitchens. Of course, some things you don’t need two, three, or ten of, so he got the toaster and the bread maker and I got the immersion blender and food processor, but all in all, there was little either of us had to buy for each of us to have a more-than working kitchen.

Three weeks ago, Ron and Red (his dog) moved into the apartment next to mine. I’d mentioned that my daughter, Carlene, was having a garage sale and Ron asked if she was selling any pots and pans. No, I told him, but I’d ask around.

Friend Debbie said she didn’t have any to spare since the one and only set she owned was given to her by her mother for a wedding gift 29 years ago and they were still in perfect working order. My daughter, Cassie, didn’t have pots and pans to spare either, as her old set went to Carlene.

When I went to Carlene’s to help set up for the garage sale, she told me she’d rearranged her kitchen and showed me where she’d moved everything. While she received a lot of new kitchen items when she got married last year, she kept many of the items I’d given her over the years: loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and dishes that I used when I was a kid living with my parents.

In my little pots-and-pans hunt, I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff, particularly how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my Grandma Katinka’s lefse stick and roller when she passed. Her name is still imprinted in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse, along with the ricer I bought specifically to rice boiled potatoes. I still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 31 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. Cassie recently bought a new stand mixer and gave me back my stand mixer that had become a permanent fixture on her counter since Thanksgiving 2009 (Although she “graciously” allowed me to take it home for one day last year so I could make Christmas cookies. One day. No more.)

I won’t part with these and other things until: 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing. Whichever comes first. At least…I won’t part with them intentionally.

I’m sure the folks in Colorado (and New Orleans and Mobile and New Jersey…et al) who lost their homes to flooding had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways, too. I heard one woman from Boulder say in an interview that she’d lost “things,” and that (as she said quite graciously) she was just grateful to be alive.

Put into perspective, as this woman did, “things” are just that. Things. But losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective can be painful. It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your grandfather used to fry trout in during family camping trips; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from a six-week Asian cooking class.

Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways, and when we see people suffer their loss, it offers those of us who haven’t a chance to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal things. We still have the good fortune of being able to touch, look at, and use them.

Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up. Using them or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives, and when they’re gone, to offer comfort in the memory of how they were used.

Ron found a set of pots and pans through a friend of a friend, and I know they are being used because sauteed garlic has a way of penetrating walls, and last week he gave me a jar of honey he recently pasteurized. “Things” have a way of keep giving…
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And speaking of “things,” Cassie’s Christmas give-back project is to host another “spinathon” and to seek donations and items for three Pittsburgh-area families in need of assistance due to declining health or financial issues. Last year, she and her daughter, Claire, raised over $3100 in money and donations for the Animal Rescue League. If you’re looking for a holiday “cause,” please consider reading Cassie’s blog, “Wishes,” for more information on how you can help. Thank you!

 

How Cool Is 50?


Today, I am 50. I was born in Minneapolis on a hot summer day, just before dinner time, and exactly 10 years after my brother, Marty.
The other day I read an article called “50 Cool ThingsAbout Johnny Depp at Age 50.” 
He’s 50? I thought. Hunh…he makes it look really goooood!
In a quick search for “famous people born in 1963,” I found several other famous types who share my birth year, many of whom I thought were way younger than me, like Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, and Seal. There were a few I thought were older, too, like Larry the Cable Guy and Charles Barkley.
I may not be as cool as Johnny Depp, or even as cool as my friend, Shelley, who bought herself a drum set for her 50thbirthday (see “And So This Is Fifty”), but I’m pretty happy with the cool I’ve got going on at 50: great kids, great friends, good cholesterol numbers….
I went through one of my baby books this week and found a few photos that tell some of the story of how I got to be who I am today…kind of. Clearly I didn’t grow up to be Ginger the Movie Star (see #7). But my grandkids think I’m pretty neat and that’s what matters.
1.       I’m a middle child, but there were 2½ years when I was the youngest. Don’t let Marty’s face fool you. He might look all, “Ohhhh…isn’t she cute? Another sister! Just what I always wanted!”, but he wasn’t enamored with my presence. My sister Debbie wasn’t real thrilled, either, since she’d held the title of “youngest and only daughter” for seven years. At least she had the courtesy to fake how she felt and smile for the photo.

My brother tolerated me for the seven years we lived under the same roof. He let me sit in his room sometimes when he played records (when my mom asked me once to tell Marty it was dinner time, I told her we were listening to his “Yeah yeah” music), and he let me feed his hamsters and salamanders. He went to college in ’71 and we moved 200 miles away, so I didn’t see Marty very often. But as we’ve aged, we’ve gotten closer, particularly in the last 25 years. He made me power-of-attorney three years before his seizure, which I had no idea he’d done until I flew out to Minnesota in 2011 when he got home from the hospital and I went through his legal documents to determine how in the world I was going to help him. While I hate that he suffers as he does, that he trusted me to make decisions for him is very humbling and speaks volumes to our relationship.

My sister and I get along famously…always have. Unless, of course, you count the time I stole her crutches after she banged up her leg in a bike-riding accident and I taunted her, “You can’t get me, you can’t get me!” and my mother gave her permission to hit me with them when she got them back. She didn’t, thank goodness, but that was the beginning of my short-lived brat phase, so maybe she should have!

2.     I have a very handsome dad, don’t I? He’s my favorite man in the whole world. BTW, I still have that lamp behind us, sans the shade 🙂
3.    I was born with a pigeon-toed right foot and the treatment back in the day was to put a baby in a cast for several months. It straightened my foot about 45 degrees, but because it was still pigeon-toed, I walked slightly abnormally. Nothing you’d notice, but it threw off my skeletal structure and my surgeon is convinced it contributed to my toe, ankle, and knee injuries over the years.This photo is of the first time my right foot felt grass. Either I was skeptical about the grass or it was the moment I decided golf would never be my game.

4.      I started stylin’ young. I put a couple of my mom’s curlers in my hair and secured them with a pair of my brother’s plastic pants. I’ve since learned how to use a hair dryer and flat iron.
5.     How many people can say they’ve met Miss Bloomington 1965?
6.     My love for wheels began early, but what I love most about this photo – along with the rockin’ streamers – is the scarf I’m wearing. My mother always put a scarf on my head when it was windy because I developed ear infections easily. I can still remember the feel of her tying the knot tightly under my chin and how I had to open my mouth wide a few times to get it to loosen a bit. I remember the echoes of the wind bouncing off my scarf and I wonder if the doo rag my friend, Debbie, bought me for my birthday will offer that same sound. I really hope it does.
7.     My mom and dad were never treated to much affection when they were children, and my mother never heard her father say he loved her. But you’d never know it by the way they raised us. The grooviest part of this photo, though, is my dress. I called it my Movie Star Dress and I wore it as often as my mother would let me. I especially liked to wear it when I watched “Gilligan’s Island.” You could have Mary Ann and her pies and Mrs. Howell and her furs. I wanted to be Ginger and her slinky tight dress when I grew up.
8.    I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. My dad read to me long before I could comprehend anything other than pictures. When I was 2, I had memorized a few books and my dad showed off my “reading” skills to the neighbors. I had no idea how to read, of course, but the neighbors were impressed and Dad was amused.I credit my mother for teaching me proper grammar. We were never allowed to say “ain’t,” and she corrected me if I said something like, “Her and me…” She also wrote the most eloquent excuses from school. “Please excuse Lynn from school yesterday, as she was ill. Thank you. Most sincerely yours….” When she says she has no idea where I got my gift of writing, I remind her of the school notes and the way she talked so proper. She just laughs and tells me I’m full of it, but I know it’s true, and I can’t image my life without stories, either those I read or those I write.

Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Mike Meyers, Lynn Haraldson…we were born in the age of Mad Men, JFK, civil rights, Duck and Cover, and the space race. But who I am today is a result of the safety, love, and guidance of my parents, siblings, and teachers, and the many dear friends I’ve made over the years. I welcome this new decade with a renewed commitment to health and personal growth, and sharing the things I’ve learned these last 50 years with my grandchildren, hopefully contributing to their safety, love, and guidance as well.But mostly, I’m going to have a LOT of fun! Bring it ON!

Happy 32nd Anniversary to Me! (A Graduation Tale)


My niece graduated from high school last Friday. So did my nephew’s son and a lot of my friends’ children. What will they remember of that day? The valedictorian’s speech? I doubt it. The number of bobby pins they used to secure their cardboard hats? Possibly. Or will it be what they did afterwards, in the hours following the ceremony, that they’ll keep with them in their hearts?
Most people think of the day they graduated from high school as the anniversary of the day they graduated from high school. I always remember my graduation day – June 4, 1981 – as the anniversary of the day I slept with Clayton Johnson.
Allow me to explain.
I moved to the suburbs of Minneapolis halfway through 9thgrade. I was a small-town girl with small-town clothes and a small-town haircut. I was the Queen of Geek, a princess in the land of Everyone Who’s No One. Every day, my stomach ached. I dreaded every class because I’d been dropped halfway into a subject I knew nothing about. I my small town, I took Earth Science. In the suburbs, I was in chemistry. In my small town, I took Civics. In the suburbs, I was in Economics. In my small town I was one of two flute players in the band. In the suburbs, I was last chair, and several of the girls ahead of me were in a Twin Cities youth symphony. In my small town, I was in home ec. In the suburbs, I was the only girl in shop class because home ec was full. When the counseling center had us take a career exploration test, I had only one result: barge loader.
Talk about a blow to the psyche.
I loved gym class in my small town. I’d left in the middle of volleyball. In the suburbs, we were learning ballroom dancing. It was bad enough that I didn’t know any of the boys in my class, worse that one of the two boys left who could be my partner had bad breath and stared at my chest. The other boy – a tall, handsome blond – was being begged by a tall, beautiful blond girl to be her partner. Divine intervention is the only way I can explain how he looked over at me, assessed my predicament, and left the tall, beautiful girl and asked if I’d be his partner.
“Sure,” was all I managed to say. His name was Clayton (not Clay) and together we learned the waltz, the polka, and the Texas two-step over the course of the two-week dancing unit.
We didn’t become friends, exactly. For the next four years, we said hello and exchanged sterile pleasantries every time we passed each other in the hallway, and we had a math class together in which he borrowed a pencil. We signed each other’s year books every year, always mentioning how much we each enjoyed each other’s “sweet smile.”
For four years I pined, quietly and from afar, until graduation night. Everyone who was anyone (and didn’t have a date with their parents) was going to Greg M’s house for a party. And I mean EVERYONE. There were at least 300 people in and around Greg’s parents’ suburban house, and the beer was flowing. It wasn’t long before the paddy wagons showed up and kids scattered in all directions. I’d not had anything to drink (the line was too long and I’d shown up late), but I didn’t want to get swept up in the bust, so I, too, ran towards my red Mustang parked on a side street near Northwood Park. Of all the people at the party, Clayton was there, too, running next to me down the sidewalk
“Need a ride?” I asked.
“Yes!” he laughed.
We got in my car and drove up Boone Avenue, past the cops and the mayhem. Clayton said he was spending the night with a few of his friends in the woods in what is now a very large shopping development. At the time, a mile from my house, it was the edge of the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis. There was still a lot of natural real estate between Plymouth and Maple Grove back in the early ‘80s.
“Wanna join us?” he asked.
It’s the first time I remember being truly spontaneous all by myself, without the company and encouragement of a cluster of friends. When I left graduation, I was a pack of one, with no other plans than to drink beer at a party with people I’d probably never see again. Or at least, most of them. (Of course, along came Facebook, and many of those people are back in my life, at least virtually.) But fate changed that. Tall, blond, kind Clayton Johnson was asking me to stay overnight in a make-shift camp in the woods. No thought AT ALL went into my response.
“Sure!”
We drove to the woods, parked the car, and walked about a quarter mile in the dark (Clayton held my hand) to a clearing in which three other guys I recognized, and might have talked to once or twice during my high school career, had built a fire and laid out four sleeping bags. They had some beer, a boom box, a few cigars, and a deck of cards. They greeted me like I was expected and I proceeded to spend the night drinking, gambling, and laughing with four boys I didn’t know well, but whom my gut knew I could trust. I shared a sleeping bag with Clayton, fully clothed, and he kissed me a few times before we fell asleep. When the sun came up, I slipped out of the sleeping bag without waking Clayton, walked back through the woods, and drove home. My mother took a photo of me standing next to my Mustang, disheveled, but so very happy. I never saw Clayton again, but I can’t imagine a better way or a better person with whom to jump-start my adult life.
Not sure too many parents want to share this story with their recent graduates, but my hope is that the recent graduates I know and love will trust themselves and forge ahead with their dreams without too much consultation from the naysayers. You don’t have to spend the night in the woods with a boy you danced with in 9th grade gym class, but I do hope you begin your emancipation with fun and high hopes.

A Little Story About Mental Illness


<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>It was 3 a.m. and my sister, mother and I were watching cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a heart attack. What began in my stomach as a churning crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. The feeling crept to my lungs, which couldn’t complete a full breath. It then crept into my mind, which began thinking, I’m dying, too. Within a few minutes I was on my own gurney and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”
It was Halcion. Valium with a kick. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me and I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and I drifted off to sleep as my sister poured me into the front seat of my car and took me home.
I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? What did that sigh mean? That I can’t breathe? But no fortress could stop it. Panic returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue. It came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week my defenses were spent and the pill bottle was empty.
For two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for Halcion, usually in the middle of the night, waking my then-husband, Jason, and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.
So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. We were in a shoot-off and I was running out of bullets.
Then came the day at work when my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while eating a grilled cheese and Old Dutch potato chips dipped in cottage cheese (best comfort food ever). I cried when I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying, and cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.
A few hours later, Jason dropped me off at Golden Valley Health Center and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.
After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale, like their half-pound weight would make a difference.
The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”
The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.
Could I be a bigger baby? I thought as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.
I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-#2-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?
The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.
“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.
“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”
I explained that my psychiatrist said I had a panic disorder and that a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just need to calm down, maybe lose some weight, and I’d be fine.
She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.
The Xanax worked almost instantly and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.
He also brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about Jason (domestic violence issues….another blog for another day), but I wouldn’t go there with him. I said there was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah. Buddy, I thought, all I want is some control of my life.
I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.
I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends” – the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.
The week before the first meeting, I made Kraft macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.
“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” Jason said.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted.
I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk and plain baked white fish. In my food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.
I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI is my go-to place for info and support. Mental illness is often a family thing and should not be an embarrassment. Ask for help, whether it’s for you or someone you love.

We Can All Use A Litte "Self-Inspiration"


I’ve been “should”ing myself crazy these last few weeks. “I should eat more spinach,” “I should go for a walk,” “I should not buy those potato chips.” I don’t know if it’s the winter doldrums or just plain laziness, but asking anything of my body or mind lately is like asking grandson Luca if he wants jelly on his peanut butter sandwich. The answer is always a resounding, “No!” (Followed by a five-minute explanation of why he used to like jelly, but doesn’t anymore, and then making you pledge that you will never, never, EVER put jelly on his peanut butter sandwiches ever again because he doesn’t like jelly anymore. Just peanut butter. But not chunky peanut butter. Just plain peanut butter. And no jelly.)
Recently, a friend was explaining the details of a complex job he was working on, saying that a lot of people in his field go through the motions without ever knowing why. To him, he said, “It’s not enough to know how, but you have to know why.”
In weight loss and maintenance, that inquiry can be reversed. It’s not enough to know why, but you have to know how. I know why eating an apple is more healthy than eating a Pop Tart, but knowing how to choose the apple instead of the Pop Tart requires more skill than simply reaching for and biting into the apple.
Either way, bringing curious attention to both the how and the why is the only way to combat the “should”s. Asking “Why am I ‘should’ing myself up a wall?” is more difficult than mindlessly burying my nose in a bag of Kettle Brand baked potato chips, extra crunchy with sea salt (I don’t care how low fat they are…they are devil spawn), but in the end, a better choice. 
I’m going to be Ms. Obvious here: doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest. But planting reminders of what matters most along our journey can help when we run into the “should”s and the resounding “No!”s.
Writing – whether it’s in a journal or a blog – not only gives me clarity in the present moment, but over the last eight years, has left a paper trail that guides me back to my intentions when I’ve lost my way.
One of my blog posts that reminded me why it was imperative that I extract my face from the potato chip bag was, “What Is Your Deepest Intention?” from 2009.
“I had to decide if I wanted to eat my way to an early death or live the healthiest life I could for as long as I could. That decision became my deepest intention.
“Did I falter once in awhile? Yes. But ultimately, I always went back to the intention.

“That intention continues to guide me in maintenance. Without it, I’d behave the same way I always did when I got to some weight goal: by not paying attention to my food intake and slacking off on exercise.”
Creating a volume of writing is like creating a safety net, a place you can fall when you forget that what you’re thinking and doing has all been thought and done before. You just need a reminder that you’re not alone. You have your former self!
If you’ve kept journals or blogs throughout your weight journey, how often do you go back and re-read your words? Perhaps – in the doldrums of winter – you could use a little self-inspiration to help recall the whys and the hows of your journey, too?

Thank You, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

It was predicted that the Internet would turn us into an isolated society of bleary-eyed hermits who shun human contact and subsist on a diet of news feeds, weather updates, and cyber porn.
“They” were wrong, at least for me and a few thousand other people I “know.” The Internet introduced me to a world of people I’d never have met in the physical world. People who have made a lasting impact on how I think and live. People armed with compassion, snark, empathy, and tough love.
“But the beginnings of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” from The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Entering the world of weight loss is all that: vague, tangled, chaotic, disturbing, _______ (insert adjective). And the reality is that most of us don’t journey in the first, fifth, or tenth time with a cohesive plan and the right equipment. We attack weight loss with dogged determination and motivation for about a day, maybe a week, sometimes – if we’re lucky – a month or longer. The problem is that we usually go at it alone, and inevitably we fail because, let’s face it, the self-determination and self-motivation of weight loss is hard to maintain for the long haul. But it can be sustained with a little help from the right friends. The friends who’ve been there, are there, done that, doing that.
Some of my best friends are the people I’ve never never met, or at least didn’t meet right away in the traditional face-to-face way. They are the folks I’ve met through the Weight Watchers 100+ To Lose message board and through blogging. Without their support and occasional ass kicking, I’m pretty sure I’d still be in that “Gotta lose weight. Crap, this is hard. Oh what the hell, eat a donut. Now I feel guilty. Starting tomorrow, I’m eating only celery” cycle.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting face-to-face the User Names who’ve supported me on this journey of dieting, maintaining, blogging, and learning that weight loss is not pretty, it’s not easy, and it’s not a path to happiness. One of the first people to educate me on that latter part was Marcia, or as I first knew her: Aging2Perfection.
When I joined the WW message board in February 2005, I learned quickly that Aging2Perfection was not prone to delusion. She was firmly grounded in the reality of the weight loss world. But she also had the innate ability to love herself, something I floundered with, tangled up in that sticky web of self-acceptance. It was Aging2Perfection who challenged me to step back and breathe and be a better friend to myself.
Finally, last Sunday, I met Marcia. We met at Pamela’s in the Strip. I ordered the crepe pancakes and she ordered the banana walnut pancakes. Our server set a plate in front of me and a plate in front of Marcia while we were talking. We started eating while talking. It wasn’t until I bit into a walnut halfway through a pancake that I realized that she was eating my order and I was eating hers. We laughed, swapped, and kept talking. And if it wasn’t for the fact that people were waiting for our table and she and her husband had to go home and I had to watch Mae, we’d still be talking. Talking about everything, particularly about how our lives as mothers and grandmothers have run parallel the last three years. Weight didn’t really enter into our conversation.
Weight is a part of our lives, not our entire lives. Weight (A) is the proper subset to the superset of life (B). I often forget that and make weight the be all and end all of my day. I let it set the tone of my mood and intentions. It’s people like Marcia who bring me back to reality, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
Some people have a Bucket List. I have a Face-To-Face Thank You List. I wish I could be like Jeannie and blink every one of you who have supported me and been my teachers these last seven years to a face-to-face pancake (or egg white omelet or oatmeal or smoothie) breakfast. We could even chat over leftovers! Or ride bikes or take my daughter’s spin class. Walk or hike. Drink coffee. Whatever.
I just want to say: “Thank you.”

"I did ‘dit’!"

It started with, “Do you see that cleavage, Marge?” and ended with, “I’ll be walking up your fire escape in a minute!”

I volunteer for a non-profit agency that, among a lot of other things, runs a food pantry and soup kitchen, and prepares and delivers meals for Meals-On-Wheels (MOW). Hunger services is run out of a beautiful gothic church in the heart of an inner city neighborhood. I’ve been working there for three months, and what I’ve learned working in all three areas is more than anything I ever learned in college.

When I do a MOW route, I’m always a visitor, never a driver, because I get all turned around in the neighborhoods we service. Yesterday, I was teamed up with driver Deacon Smith, a retired postal worker, who’s been with MOW for 20 years. He’s the sweetest, most laid-back man I’ve met in a long time. Knows Route 3 like the back of his hand.

Our first stop was an apartment complex where two clients live. The instruction is that if we didn’t reach one in her apartment, she was likely at the other’s. When I rang the lobby buzzer for one and didn’t get an answer, I rang the buzzer for the other and was let in and got on the elevator.

Knock, knock, knock. “Meals On Wheels!” I said, in my sing-songy voice.

“Come on in! Door’s unlocked!” said the voice inside.

I walked in, and sitting at a table were two 80-something-year-old women in short-sleeved housecoats, drinking coffee and listening to music.

“Honey, just set those down here,” said the woman to my left.

I took the food out of my basket and cautioned them about the sweet potatoes wrapped in tin foil.

“They’re still pretty warm. Be careful when you pick them up.” I set my basket down and leaned over to take out their meals.

“Do you see that cleavage, Marge?” said the woman across from me.

I was wearing a grey t-shirt and a thin white jacket. It’s been unusually warm in Pittsburgh, so a winter coat isn’t warranted. My shirt wasn’t low cut by any means, but apparently when I leaned over…well…the Canal of Boobage was front and center.

“Make sure you’re not leaning over when you deliver meals to men!” the women advised. Embarrassed, I smiled and said I’d be careful.

And I was. The girls were tucked and out of sight the rest of the route.

Deacon and I talked about grandchildren and the craziness that is Pittsburgh’s streets during our route. On our last visit, the instruction on the clipboard was to call the client, who is wheelchair bound, and let him know we were there so he could throw down the keys to the front door. Deacon asked me if I would be OK with climbing the fire escape to deliver the client’s meal. I thought about it for a second and said, “Sure!” So I called the client and said something I’ve never said in my life: “I’ll be walking up your fire escape in a few minutes!”

While Deacon parked, I eyed the fire escape. It was steep and narrow and it reminded me of the steps outside the apartment I lived in when I weighed 300 pounds. It was on the top floor of a 19th-century two-story building, which is more like the height of three stories today. The stairs were narrow and steep, and when I lived there, I had many anxious moments about the “what ifs” of those steps.

What if I got hurt and needed to be brought to the hospital in an ambulance? What if there was a fire and I needed help out? How would EMTs haul me down on a gurney? Would I fit in an ambulance? How would I escape the flames in a fire? Those thoughts haunted me. I know professionals are trained to handle these situations, but to be the source of someone’s potential physical distress really bothered me.

I got out of Deacon’s car with my basket and crossed the street. I looked up and saw the client opening the window at the top of the fire escape. I grabbed the handrail and started my ascent. But what I thought as I climbed was not what I thought I thought I’d think.

‘I’m climbing a fire escape! And I can!’

300-pound me hated the struggle with those apartment steps, and she was the one who said, “Enough!” on January 1, 2005, and began losing weight. She didn’t anymore want to experience that out-of-breath feeling from walking up a flight of narrow stairs. She no longer wanted to have to sit in a chair to catch her breath the second she walked in the door before carrying on with her life. She wanted walking up stairs to be as natural as…breathing.

At the top of the fire escape, I handed the client his meal and cautioned him about the sweet potato. He smiled and thanked me and I did a quick look down my shirt to make sure the girls weren’t exposed. They weren’t. Everything was properly copacetic.

When my 3-year-old grandson accomplishes something, he exclaims, “I did dit!” As I walked down the fire escape, I high-fived my 300-pound self. I did “dit”.

I got in Deacon’s car and we drove back to the church. I thought about my goal anniversary the day before (March 12, 2007) and the fleeting moments of movement I’ve taken for granted since reaching goal: taking the stairs in a parking garage rather than the elevator, walking the dog around the block, putting my bike on the bike rack, taking my bike off the bike rack, standing for an hour cutting vegetables for dinner. As I lost weight, I stayed focused on the big stuff: Can I walk 6, 10, 20 miles? Can I bike 15, 20 miles? Can I crank the elliptical to high for 30 minutes?

I’d lost sight of the little things. Walking, climbing stairs, standing… things that hurt before but don’t anymore.

What I realize is, how cool is it to change the way you eat and move for no other reason than to eventually climb stairs without feeling depleted? What an honorable goal! I admire folks who want to lose weight to climb mountains and run for hours. I sincerely do. But if you can climb stairs and walk around the block? Man…you did “dit.” 

Love Is All Around Me. It’s Everywhere I Go.

Last night was like Christmas Eve. I fidgeted all evening like a 5-year-old waiting for Santa, watching the clock move slowly to bedtime. I don’t usually wish time away, but I couldn’t wait to wake up, work out, shower, and drive to Shadyside to meet my friend Debbie at church, a place I’d not been to in years (church in general, that is). And like an extra cherry on a sundae, after church I was meeting another friend in the Strip District for lunch, a friend I haven’t seen in three years. A friend I met 20 years ago when neither of us knew the sorrowful bond that would forever unite us in the Grief Club. More on that later.

I haven’t set an alarm in more than 10 years. If I want to get up at a certain time, I tell myself before I go to bed, “Wake up at ___” and I do. I’ve done this with 100 percent accuracy all these years. Today I woke up at 5:30. I laid wrapped around my body pillow thinking of all the possibilities today held. I’d take communion for the first time in eight years. How would it feel? What would I pray? When I was a regular church goer, especially at my childhood church, I would stay an extra minute at the altar, kneeling, and praying in such synchronicity with God it was like the only time the world made any real sense to me.

I took communion in other non-Lutheran churches where the host and wine were passed around to us in the pews. There was no invitation to the “table” and I’d get distracted by the proper disposal of the little plastic cup rather than sink into prayer the way I did at the altar. (This is not in any way, shape or form a criticism of alternate forms of communion. I believe these kinds of “rituals” that we are introduced to in childhood become what we prefer, and so if those of you who take communion seated in a pew were asked to walk to the altar, I can imagine that would feel kind of weird and disconcerting. Just saying.)

At 6:00, I reached over and opened the top drawer of my nightstand and dug out my iPod. I wanted to listen to Tara Brach’s weekly Buddhist teaching – my “church” the last four years. She talked about right speech and how if we really pay attention to the words we speak and the intention from which they are derived, how revolutionary the changes would be in how we relate to each other. I thought about God and my lack of communication with God via the traditional mode of prayer and what God might think when I stepped up to the altar later and took the host and the wine.

But first, I had to work out (another form of church for me). I rolled out of bed and immediately put on my workout clothes, a habit I’d gotten out of the last several months. When I have my spandex and t-shirt on, it’s like I’m obligated to work out. If I sit around in my PJs first, I make all kinds of ridiculous excuses not to work out. Like the 2-minute transformation from pajamas to workout clothes is a mental climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I had a little breakfast (a protein pancake ala Joy Bauer, only cut by 1/3) and some leftover steamed broccoli. I did the dishes and then crawled back in bed to read “Eat Pray Love.” (Am I the only woman who hasn’t read this yet?) When the food settled, I went into my spare room, which is equipped with everything a guest needs: a bed, a recumbent bike, bench, weights, and a Duplo Lego set, small bongo drum, tambourine, recorder, color crayons, color books, a Dora the Explorer pop-up book, and a stuffed giraffe.

The workout was great. I sweat. I caught up on my Health magazine reading (I’m up to September). I jumped in the shower; got all clean. Dried off, put product in my hair, put on my makeup, then reached under the sink for the blow dryer and my brush. Only there wasn’t a brush. I’d left it at BF’s.

‘Oh crap.’

I was going to a church I’d never been to, meeting people for the first time, then seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years…and I had no brush to tame my curly hair? Temporary panic.

Then I felt something I hadn’t felt in…ever. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. It was just hair. I’d deal with it. Perfectly quaffed hair wasn’t what I was about today. (In fact, it doesn’t need to be what I’m about any day, but that’s another blog.) I was meeting friends, meeting new people, taking communion, talking to God. What did hair have to do with any of it?

I dried it, straightened it as best I could, threw on some hairspray and looked at myself in the mirror. “Meh…it is what it is.” That’s what my daughter Cassie would say. She’s a much older soul than me. I threw on a dress, some tights and a pair of boots, grabbed my purse and walked out the door, feeling that same Christmas Eve anticipation.

The church – St. Andrew’s Lutheran – is a place Debbie had been to a few times and liked very much. The fact that it was Lutheran (the tradition in which I grew up) was a big bonus. Both pastors (both female) saw us sitting in the almost back row (that’s what Lutherans do) and introduced themselves. Very welcoming.

I was surprised how quickly I recalled the words and the melodies of the liturgy. We even sang “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” a hymn I could sing in my sleep, familiar like a Beatles’ song. And when I went up for communion, it was like sitting for a moment in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by sacred things. I prayed a lot in that room. Some happy prayers, some not so happy. Today’s was a thankful prayer; thankful that I was there even though I was unsure what to pray. I suspect I’ll figure it out in the coming weeks and months. I like St. Andrew’s very much.

After the service, I drove to the Strip to meet my friend Ed. I’d parked on Smallman, which meant I had to pay $5, which I’d forgotten I’d given to St. Andrew’s.

Called Ed.

“Hey, I’m here! Where are you?”

“I’m on 18th.”

“Um…I only have $2 and they want $5 for parking. Can you come find me? I’m near the church.” I knew he’d know what church.

“Sure! I’ll be there in a few.”

I made small talk with the parking attendant. A nice kid, maybe 19 years old. Hell bent on his $3, though. Can’t blame him.

A minute later, I saw Ed across the street, waiting for traffic to clear, and it was like I’d just seen him yesterday.

“Hey!” we said in unison. He kissed me on the cheek and asked how I was before pulling out his wallet. What a gent.

We talked non-stop to Primanti’s, which is NOT a diet/nutrition-friendly place. But when Ed comes to da’burgh, he needs a cheese sandwich piled high with coleslaw and French fries between white bread. Oh wait, they do add a slice of tomato to every sandwich…LOL. I confess I ordered a cheese sandwich, too, sans the coleslaw and fries, with an egg on it. I ate half and it was good, especially dipped in Dijon mustard. Hey, I worked out and I’m human! *grin*

He drank an IC and I drank iced tea and we talked every second. We walked down Penn Ave and I bought roasted edamame at the Macaroni Company. I hesitated buying the one remaining lavish in the Mediterranean market, but strolling the store I decided to buy it, just as a woman dressed in skinny jeans and boots and hanging on to the arm of what I assume was her preppy husband grabbed it and I felt like I’d been rescued from a refined white flour coma.

“Oh no!” said Ed.

“Believe me, it’s for the better,” I told him.

We wandered into a bar and had a few drinks and talked like only we can. Ed’s wife died 15 years ago this week; a woman I am so blessed to have called my friend. Ed and I have long wandered in a trench of grief, all the while reconciling it with our “normal” lives. He gets me. I get him. We are both happy, well-adjusted individuals, but underneath the surface is a commitment to love that we can’t let go of. When someone dies, the love that brought you together doesn’t die. It’s not like divorce. The contract remains in place. Whether it’s a child, a parent, a friend or a spouse. The contract we make with that person from the time we meet is permanent. There are no outs. Not even death can separate the love. But we live with it. We integrate it into our lives.

Ed and I said goodbye a few hours later. He was traveling to the place his wife died to honor and salute her on Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., the time of her death. I left, filled with the strength of my late husband’s love, and drove home feeling so blessed (yes, blessed) by the presence of God in so many forms: Debbie, the church, the Eucharist, Ed, our conversation, and the recognition that I am not alone, even when I feel most alone.

Love is…all around me. And my wish is that it surrounds you, too, this Thanksgiving week.

In Memory of Sgt. Joseph Garrison, Whom I Never Met, But I Owe

I hated someone once. The feeling was so deep and raw that it threatened to incinerate my heart and leave it in ashes just above my belly button. The feeling lasted for a moment, no longer, because it was so heavy and difficult to hang on to that if I’d surrendered to the pain, it would have left a scar so deep that plastic surgery couldn’t have fixed my heart to the way it was before.

The gift within that moment of burning clarity was the knowledge that the pain was my own damn fault.

Not God’s.

I never met Marine Sgt. Joseph Garrison, but on Thursday I stood outside the church in which his funeral was held, ready as best I could to make sure hate didn’t permeate the walls of the stone structure in which his family and friends mourned in the way we all deserve to mourn: in peace.

Garrison, 27, died June 6 when a road-side bomb went off near his vehicle in Helmend, Afghanistan. He was a local boy, the friend of a friend of my daughter’s, and the son of parents I knew remotely through this connection and that. Western Pennsylvania, like all the other parts of this county, raises up some mighty compassionate, dedicated children. The kind who wake us up to what’s really important.

The folks at Westboro Baptist Church threatened to bring their cardboard signs of hate to Joey Garrison’s funeral Thursday. They wanted to use his death to forward their message that God hates homosexuals and therefore kills those who serve in the military in defense of our homosexual-tolerating country…or at least that’s what I’ve been able to cull from their convoluted postings on their website.

I grew up Lutheran. Went to a Lutheran grade school, and graduated from a Lutheran college with a minor in theology. While I’m not a practicing Lutheran right now, I know Lutherans make the best church coffee ever AND they know the Bible. Individual Lutherans might not always interpret the scriptures the same, but we’re usually in the same theological boat. God’s cool, he’s mellowed with age, and while he created us in all our messiness, we still believe (yes, even me, despite my spiritual meandering the last 15 years) he loves us just the same.

There are many instances in the Bible in which God got mad. Really mad. He threw a LOT of tantrums. Flood, anyone? And while I’m pretty sure surging water wasn’t the best solution to his problem at that moment, God’s anger personifies real feelings we all experience at some point in our lives. God knows mad. But he also knows tolerance. That’s in the Bible, too.

There was an undercurrent of apprehension, volatility, anger, incomprehensiveness, sorrow, tolerance and genuine love at Joey Garrison’s funeral. The feelings were there in the counter protestors’ signs, in the flags held by the veterans – young and old – and in the hearts of the Patriot Guard Riders, who stood ready to defend against anyone who got in the way of Joey Garrison’s ride from church to cemetery.

I was at the funeral in Distant, PA, with friends; one who knew Joey and one whose son wants more than anything to be in the Air Force. Her niece was there, too. She stood quiet and alone much of the time, pondering, no doubt, the fact that her husband is in the military, training in California for what will most likely be a tour to a war zone.

We’ve not, as a nation, been asked to sacrifice much except our military personnel to the wars we’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not like World War II when citizens bought war bonds and planted victory gardens and collected steel and rubber and asked its women to work in factories dominated by a male work force but who were now fighting a war. We are disconnected in so many ways, living these wars through reports that we can ignore simply by muting the TV or turning the page of our newspapers and magazines.

But attending a military funeral – even if it’s to stand outside ready to deny access to someone who wants to disrupt mourning with hate – is something every American citizen should do. We should all listen to the bagpipes and watch as a soldier’s casket is lowered into the hearse by pall bearers dressed in their uniforms, knowing it could be them being buried that day. We should all feel the weight of the grief of the families and hear, through the looks in everyone’s eyes, the burning question, “Why?”

I’ve never felt as connected to my citizenship as I did last week. I didn’t realize how the gravity of the responsibility of our citizenship is so often lost in the very freedoms in which we move.

I am sorry for the folks at WBC who harbor, cling to and profess such hatred and anger. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with a yolk of cement tied to my heart every day.

But more than sorrow, I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America. And I thank God – the very God who I’m sure still rolls his eyes and wonders what the heck this world is doing to itself – that there are folks like Joey Garrison who work every day to defend me and my sorry ass views.

Thank you, all of you, who serve and have served our country in the military and as civilians. We might not always have our crap together, but I refuse to believe we are forsaken by hate.

Peace. Namaste.

Learning The “Ropes”

This week was filled with those first warm spring days in which you can’t help but smile every time you breathe.

I moved into the left side of this 100-year-old duplex last November when nature had gone dormant and so had I.

Six months later, buds are budding, birds are nesting, flowers are blooming, and my seasonal affective disorder has migrated for another year.

Gardening is an old friend, and it’s been especially comforting this year as I learn my way through this unfamiliar new life. Along with patient friends and a supportive family, what sustained me through the unusually harsh winter were thoughts of what was lying in my new yard beneath its snow and leaves and decay of last year’s growth.

‘What are you hiding and what might we grow together?’

This week we finally got acquainted, my yard and me, when I raked up, dug up, and pruned five 30-gallon bags worth of compostable material, and surveyed the early spring perennials and the beds in which they have emerged. I planned (at least in my head because god knows I’ll change my mind a hundred times when I walk into a nursery) what annuals I will plant come May and how much mulch I’ll need.

….ahhhhhh….I heart spring!

I watched, for the hundredth time, this video when I was with the g-babies the other day. It always makes me smile.

Spring is here, in all its complexity. It’s not perfect this year, it’s not what I expected, but it’s here nonetheless. And you know what? That’s gotta be OK because Mother Nature’s not asked any of us for our opinion.

Soooo….in getting all cool with my yard, I realized that gardening is familiar, but lawn work is not. The people who lived on the other side of the duplex – the ones who shoveled the walks this winter and would mow the yard this year – bought a house and moved out a few weeks ago, leaving yours truly with the keys to the shed. So a few days after doing what was familiar – gardening – I took on the unfamiliar. Mowing.

I earned my allowance and spending money cutting grass as a kid, but I haven’t pushed a mower in 30 years, let alone start one.

I heaved the mower from the shed and looked for some kind of button thingy that I remember pushing to prime the engine for easier starting. Apparently that went out with the dinosaur, and mowers have advanced in this post-ice-age technology.

I knew to hold up the metal bar on the handle and hang on to it as I pulled the rope to start it. But the motor was having none of it. After several attempts, I concluded that I was either A) too weak to pull the rope hard enough (why is self-depreciation always the first option?). But I assured myself that I work out diligently and am strong, so that really wasn’t an option; or B) I wasn’t priming it the right way.

“Hey, neighbor, want some help starting that thing?” a voice called from over the fence.

‘Crap,’ I thought. I couldn’t hide my mower-starting efforts with all the grunting and such and a motor taunting me with every pull: “Ummm….no. Ummmm…no. Try again. Ummm…..no.” My need for help was transparent.

I swallowed my self-consciousness and called back over the fence, “Yes, I could use some help.”

Mr. Neighbor came over, and within a few minutes, had the mower running. Like a patient father, he showed me how to move the throttle on the handle to start the mower properly. He insisted I try it myself a few times, and while that felt a little weird (I’m 47 for godsake!), I adjusted the handle throttle and pulled the rope and…by golly…it started every time! On the outside I was totally cool, but secretly inside I was doing a HUGE happy dance.

By the time my lesson was over, it was getting late and I had plans. No time to mow. So I dragged the mower to the porch and figured I’d get ‘r done first thing after the g-babies arrived today.

“This is Grammy’s mower!” I said to Claire and Luca, pushing the red monstrosity on to the yard. “You two stand back while I start it, OK?”

Moments later….

“What’s wrong, Grammy?” asked Claire. “Why won’t it start?”

Pull. Pull. PUUUUULLLL! Dammmmmmit!

I looked at them. They looked at me.

“Grammy, why can’t you start it?” Claire asked again.

….Sigh…

What I’d normally have done is swear a lot and kick the tires and blame the machine. But I had a 3- and 2-year-old depending on me to be a responsible grandmother, so I took a deep breath and went over in my head yesterday’s instructions.

“Pull the throttle up to start and, holding this bar, move it down to get maximum power.”

I pulled the throttle forward, pulled the rope and YAY!! Mower power ensued! Vrrrooooom, vvvvvroom! Eureka!

Luca was impressed. He followed me all over the yard. Claire just gathered my hand tools and went to the driveway to dig up rocks. But the point is, I mowed my lawn – the first lawn in 30 years – and I did it well. I learned there are water-logged dips in the middle of my yard and water-deprived inclines. Whoever lived here before had a dog or three because there are clear indications of “This is my place to pee” dog markings.

But all in all, I think my yard and I are going to get along juuuuuust fine. In fact, I’ve gone outside more than a few times today or peeked through the blinds just to admire my “work.” God knows my shoulders and hamstrings are shot right now. Thank goodness for Advil. But I’ll adjust.

Hopefully we have a long summer ahead, full of gardening and mowing opportunities. I look forward to that planned peace.

Life, as my sister-in-law always reminds me, is good. It really is. Rough and bumpy as my lawn? Yes. Uncertain as spring? Yes. But we’re doing it and living it every day, so why not progress in those day-by-day infinitesimal moments by deciding to learn how to…for lack of a better metaphor…prime the mower the right way and start it?

***********SIDE NOTE!**************

Claire made the “That’s Church” blog today! That’s Church is a blog about everything Pittsburgh, and is written by the always honest and very funny Virginia Montanez.

Claire dictated a letter to her mom (my amazing daughter Cassie) for Pittsburgh Penguins player Sidney Crosby while he was recovering from his “brain boo boo,” as Claire calls it (a concussion). She included this picture she made for him, too:

The Pens sent her an autographed photo of Sid, and it’s become more important to her than her two previous favorite things: blanket and chickipoo.

Go Pens! Or as Luca says, “Uh, uh, PENS!!”