Writer’s Block

Last June, on a writing community webpage I joined a couple of years ago, I came across a notice calling for submissions to their new press.  In June I had two jobs that I loved and the thought of all that money coming in made me giddy with planning. Doctor’s appointments! Haircuts! New clothes! And, now, possibly, a dream come true! Without any of the traditional guilt (spend that much money? On me??) I decided I would make the commitment to publish my book.  I took a series of essays that I published on my website on the advent of turning 50 and created a manuscript called “Flip-flops After Fifty.” Even though I was super-busy with my two new jobs, I began to make the time to spruce up my manuscript and submit it. I couldn’t wait.

Then, as quick as you can say, “we’re-just-not-that-into-you,” the ax fell; both jobs were gone. No more piles of gold, no more fun elective surgery appointments and definitely no book.

In August, I submitted my manuscript anyway. The urge to publish was too great to ignore so without a Plan B, I sent it in. After a couple of weeks, I got the news – they were into me.  Suddenly, fall was looking pretty good. I didn’t know where the money was going to come from, but I had faced more difficult challenges before…I had been a single parent living in an affluent Connecticut burg on about $900 a month. What couldn’t I do?

No one was more excited than I was. I spoke to a publisher at the press and she suggested a January release date.  January? As in three months from now January?  The rushing noise I heard in my ears must have been the sound of a dream coming true. Or the hot water heater dumping its contents on my basement floor, because that happened last summer, too. I paused to reflect: the cost.  As a new publishing house, it was essentially a vanity press, which meant that I was responsible for funding the publishing and the editing they recommended. It was more than a pause; it was a considerable consideration.

I decided to figure it out when the time came and I mentally did the math wondering how much more I could stretch my weary credit card. I’ve stared down greater challenges than this before, and this was a Good Thing. What could possibly happen at this point in my life to keep me from realizing my dream? Besides that pesky losing two jobs thing, I mean.

Writer’s Block, that’s what. I know it’s real, I read about it on Wikipedia: “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity…” It’s intense, alright, and I think I have it. (One indication is that I actually began writing this essay months ago.)

For a while, I blamed my inability to focus on the frequent Grandmother emergencies. “Luca doesn’t have any cookies! I must go to the store and get some animal crackers!” I fall hopelessly in his thrall the moment he greets me in the morning and I get little else done during the day.

There are other reasonable explanations that I didn’t get my manuscript done by the end of September and ready to submit to the editors. Blizzards. There have been several here in the northeast, but to be honest, they came after the January deadline, so they aren’t the best excuse in the world, but they’ll do. Company is another one. I had lots of company. One day I sat upstairs at my computer working on my table of contents only to hear laughter and the melodic trill of an incoming Words With Friends play from my living room. I couldn’t make my Table of Contents behave anyway, so I saved it, unplugged my USB drive and tossed it in my workbag. I joined my friend Sue and we watched movies and secretly checked on appropriate words for the rest of the weekend.

There’s also lunch. You have to eat lunch every day. And clean. That house won’t clean itself, you know.

Writer’s Block is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it should be–in the trauma section. It is traumatic to have a skill, a compulsion, and not even a deadline or the worst self-threats I can think of (and I’m a writer, I can dream up really harsh ones) can shove me towards the computer and place my hands on the keyboard. One guy wrote a book about Writer’s Block (yeah, sure, no problem for him…) and has identified, DSM-style, ten kinds of writer’s block. I chose not to read them so as not to further handicap myself.

My particular case is, in a word, insane. How could I not pursue – finally – the one thing that I’ve wanted to do since as long as I can remember? As a child, I wrote books on ruled pads with construction paper covers and stapled the spine. I posed in front of the mirror that hung on the back of my bedroom door to get just the right look for my book jacket photo. I’ve practiced witty banter so that Oprah, Ellen or, well, anyone, can interview me. What is my problem? Please, please tell me that there is medication for this problem.

A friend of mine, with whom I used to teach, (and we taught English, hence the “with whom”) did publish his book in January. A more malevolent person might have harbored terrible thoughts about his launch, like that maybe it might be postponed or that no one would come. But I didn’t. (I swear!) My friend’s launch both shook me and mobilized me. Honestly, his success was thrilling. No one deserved it more (you know, except for me) and the parties, interviews and glowing articles were tiny pin pricks of reality through the numbness of my block: You can do this, said the tiny painful pin pricks. And I only hope that I can.

I have tons of support…my writing group, for one. And I mean that literally. My writing group is one other person–Trudy. She is about the most wonderfully supportive writing group anyone can have. Every writer should have a writing group as encouraging and as honest as mine is.  My family is also stunningly supportive: husband, children, parents. Brother, sister, cousins and a particularly zealous couple in Florida who also happen to be related to me. I have all the stuff I need – support, computer, ink, USB drives, internet access and time. I just have to talk my irrational fear into releasing control back to my writer’s brain. Yeah, that’s all. And stop hopping in the car to go buy animal crackers for Luca.

Maybe I’ll get past it, maybe I’ll figure out how to shape up my manuscript and get back in the game.

I wrote this, didn’t I?

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This is a guest post from my friend Trudy. Together we are our own writer’s group and this essay came from one of our recent meetings. The Newtown tragedy has, for the most part, left the national spotlight, but its effects linger among many of us. This essay represents the sadness that has descended in and around our little Connecticut towns. Personally, as I read Trudy’s words, I don’t think of it only as sad. To me it speaks also of strength. And love. Always love.

Without further ado, here is Trudy’s essay….

18 December 2012, 10:15 PM

I’m very tired and barely holding myself together after an unfathomable week. Last Friday, in the next town over, twenty children were mowed down by a disturbed young man, mowed down by a powerful weapon, a horrific death machine. Little children, first graders, human beings who were just coming into consciousness, just starting to think of themselves as individuals, beings with dreams and ideas and futures. My heart is broken for them. I can barely let myself consider the hell their families endure. The loss is an aching hole, a stark and violent wound in our comfortable world.

The conversation is all about guns and mental illness. This is good. People should talk about this: guns. Who would predict that, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were hashing out all the sniggling details, the givens colonials would agree upon as the founding documents of our nation, a prescription for a free society and culture, that their assertion for self-protection throughout the frontier land with an inaccurate, single-loading musket would spawn the monstrous NRA, an entity able to strike fear and abject submission into each and every one of our feckless, current-day politicians? Blood stains their hands this day. Twenty small coffins. Twenty lives obliterated by a weapon so vicious, so potent that any deer hunter would never use the weapon and its accompanying “stop power” bullets for fear of destroying the animal.

Mental illness is the hopeful conversation. The families I know dealing with a mental disorder are hidden, struggling for help and recognition. The system is fragmented and incredibly underfunded. Addressing disorders of the mind is often considered fluffy, too nebulous to be serious “medicine,” and there’s always the possibility of moral decay, genetic corrosion, the probable source of sickness of the mind. Affected families are besieged, desperate, and mostly mute. What account could the shooter’s mother tell us? Who listened to her? It is burningly, regrettably obvious that she made mistakes. What resources did she have? Does anyone know her story? Did anyone help her?

19 December 2012, 11:20 AM

I await my visiting son Trev’s readiness to go select our Christmas tree for the year, despite my lack of religion. Can I be moral and not religious? Look at me. Look at my children. If only I believed. If only, believing, I derived comfort, relief, answers from a so-called higher power. In our household I/we celebrate the inexorable spin of the earth and its circuit around our local star, the reliable turning of the seasons, the reclamation of light into our lives.

Am I moral? I am tired, worn from the exclamations and explanations – the holy proclamations reproaching all to prayer, and ashamed of my horrid curiosity – the way I can’t turn the radio off or change the channel on the television. I want to grant these families privacy and solace. They enjoy neither and I vicariously participate in the show. We turn slowly from the scene. The fiscal cliff creeps back into the headlines. Holiday spending and Super-storm Sandy and unemployment statistics vie for our attention. Strident voices clash over newly-found issues. “Jingle Bells” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” rebuke me wherever I go. More children will be buried today.

27 December 2012, 5:35 PM

The rush and glut of the holiday are over. We passed it peacefully at home, keeping a roaring fire in the hearth, hiking down the old railroad bed to Volunteer Bridge, watching the Indiana Jones marathon, laughing over the candlelit dinner table. I raised my glass and toasted the people I hold dear. I examined their faces and listened to their voices, noted and appreciated beloved quirks I recognize in each of them.

30 December 2012, 10:15 PM

A new year begins. We say goodbye to the old. The radio and television are rife with retrospectives of 2012. I feel it every year: time accelerates. Wasn’t I just here, wondering what happened to 2011? Life feels tenuous. The “present” flows by as a river in high flood, segueing from future to past with head-spinning certainty. I grasp at moments, my thoughts swirl. The children; I think of them. They are also with me, the mothers and fathers with empty arms. Grief counseling – can there be such a task? Work that drains the soul and saps the spirit (in order to fill a gaping hole in another)? I wish for these parents something to hold onto: another child, a listening friend, each other – a physical anchor in this world.

I was a firm believer in evolution, each new generation improving upon the previous. And yet we cast aside so much of our society as we arm ourselves. We arm ourselves.

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No guns

The young father who sat on our leather sofa in our cozy office about 15 feet away from me on Saturday morning had done nothing to cause me concern. All he was doing was visiting his 4-year-old son, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year.  The boy seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the gap in parenting time.  I knew, of course, from both the Family Services referral form and my own “background check” that this young father had been in jail for at least a year in his past for the crime of Threatening, 2nd degree and he had been arrested many other times for possession of narcotics and controlled substances.  His biggest crime that morning was that he was not paying enough attention to his little boy at departure time, but that was reasonable considering how emotional supervised visits can be in addition to little experience with parenting.

But as the little boy stacked up plastic fruit for his dad to “scan” with our toy cash register, I thought to myself,  “what if he has a gun?”

The only reason that this thought popped into my head that morning was because of the horrible tragedy in Newtown.  I had no reason to suspect this young man; even his rap sheet didn’t indicate any illegal firearms or threatening with a deadly weapon.  But we don’t have a metal detector in our office. Our toughest enforcement is number 5 on our Conditions for Participation agreement: No guns or dangerous instruments will be brought into the visitation center.

Number 5. Not even number 1. Number 1 is that both parents will arrive on time and call in a timely manner to cancel a visit if necessary.

Saturday’s father was not our only parent with a criminal record.  One of our parents had actually been jailed for threatening with a deadly weapon.  About half of our parents have restraining or protective orders and have been accused by either their exes or the police of harassment, threatening behavior, assault.  In fact, both Angelo and I have been verbally threatened by parents in our program; both visiting and custodial parents, both moms and dads.  One of the parents who threatened me had other charges pending against him for assault as well as an equal number of convictions for that same crime.

But even as I sat quietly behind my desk, hoping that no outward evidence of the disturbing thought in my mind was showing up on my face, it did not occur to me that maybe we should have a gun.  Despite the often-sketchy backgrounds of most of our parents, we are not a high risk program.  The courts screen these families and if they think that they are a risk, they are not referred to us.  Our policy is to complete intakes on both parents to determine the best way to proceed, which may include not doing a visit at all.   We have security measures in place in our office–we’re not that idealistic–and we know what to do and how to do it when certain situations arise.  Our job is to protect the children in our care and we will do that to the best of our abilities.  But not with a weapon.

When monsters appear, there is little to do to stop them. They are not a part of our everyday life; to fight a monster, you have to become a monster. That is not a realistic solution.  I’ve heard that people are suggesting that school personnel become armed.   If I had a weapon in my office, I believe that it would be more dangerous to the children we promise to keep safe than it would serve to protect them.  If someone came through my door intent on abduction or violence, there would be little I could do to stop it, no matter how hard I tried.   We’ve done our best, with the help from the courts and the local police, to provide a safe place for children.  And a safe place for children has no guns.

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My Education

Thirty-four years ago, after two semesters at tiny St. Ed’s University and one semester at giant University of Texas, I decided to leave school. My course choices made about as much sense as if I had chosen them from slips of paper drawn from an empty mayonnaise jar.  Radio, Television, Film and Swedish.  Psychology and Photography. I did an internship at a crisis call-in center led by a large, bearded man named Hobbit. I tried out for the school modern dance company and had a French IV class with one other student as we sat in two hardback chairs in front of a massive wooden desk in Brother Hunt’s office as he read to us, in French, from some ancient book I don’t recall. I actually fell asleep in that class. More than once.

The reason I left was, of course, for love. I had fallen in love and no amount of time in the chemistry study group I had started could keep me focused on my course work. So when the Fall semester of 1978 was done, so was I. My then-boyfriend and I set up housekeeping in an adorable little Arts and Crafts cottage in South Austin and I found work as a Hallmark card shop manager. Life, as I would know it, began.

Let me be perfectly clear at this point: I did not grow up dreaming that I’d go to college, quit, get married, become pregnant–twice–then get divorced before I was thirty.  But that is what happened. Once I left school, my path went screaming off in a very different direction. I possibly thought I’d “go back”; when the kids were older, when we had more money, when the time was right. It never happened.

Finally though, after several years of single-parenting and working as many jobs as I could, I decided to take the plunge and try to go back to school. I started with the local community college. The career counselor was someone I knew from church and after a long conversation, he directed me to a college called Charter Oak, which at the time was a degree granting institution. I could take the credits I had, amass more from other colleges and they would grant me the degree. I scheduled a meeting with a representative at Charter Oak State College. That appointment was shorter and more to the point: Try the University of Connecticut’s Bachelor of General Studies program. So, on to UConn and a visit with the Admissions rep there. She was very nice and suggested that since I already had some undergraduate credits, I should look into starting at the community college. I had officially been sent in a circle. I was making these appointments between full-time jobs, part-time jobs, picking up kids, dropping off kids, dealing with an ex. The furthering of my education would have to be more easily accessible than this.

Frustrated, I went home and tucked my transcripts and notes into a manila folder and put my quest on the back burner for a few more years. Then one day, into the elementary school computer lab where I was a paraprofessional, came a flyer for a program in Springfield, Massachusetts at Cambridge College.  They had a Master’s program that didn’t require my having a bachelor’s degree. This could be interesting. It was focused on adult learning and the courses were in the evenings and weekends. I could complete it within two or three years. It had been some time since my more frustrating foray into education, so I was newly enthusiastic.  In December 1999, I went up to the information session and took lots of notes. My fiancé said, “That time is going to pass anyway, you might as well be getting a degree.”  So I enrolled. My classes began in January 2000.

As a result of the information session, I learned one important thing: Since the program I was enrolling in was a competency-based program, I would not be earning an actual bachelor’s degree. I also knew that not earning a bachelor’s would keep me from being a certified teacher in Connecticut. But I had my eye on a different job—technology coordinator. At the time, certification wasn’t required and I knew that having a Master’s in Education would be a step up that ladder. This time I had a plan and I created a schedule that would ultimately lead me to a degree and a satisfying and rewarding career. I enjoyed going back to school. And when I walked across that Boston stage in June of 2002 to shake the hands of our commencement speaker Al Gore, I already felt satisfied and rewarded. I had always been a jack-of-all-trades, but now I was a Master in one–Education.

As it turned out, I didn’t get the position I was after in the public school I worked in, but a year later, after being asked to run a student LEGO robotics program for a regional educational agency, I was offered a job doing professional development for them. In addition to teaching teachers about technology integration, I was asked to manage several student programs. Soon, I began coordinating all of the agency’s student grant programs, which totaled about 1.5 million dollars. I developed the programs and wrote the grants in addition to managing the programs with the staff that I hired. Through my multicultural education work at the agency, I collaborated on a project with the director of Education in the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut office. From that relationship, I applied to and was accepted for the ADL training to be a diversity trainer.  In August of 2008, I made a career choice and left the educational agency, which made me available to accept an offer to teach English as an adjunct at the very community college where I had begun my road back to a degree.

Over the last four years, I have taught Developmental English at the college. I have always felt a connection to this school—years ago I taught a writing course in their “Kids On Campus” program— so I sought out ways to become more involved. I volunteered to serve on the committee to review the General Education requirements and I participated when possible in departmental meetings to review goals and outcomes, assess textbooks or score student exemplar papers. I attended campus meetings and social events; more because I liked to than I had to. And when the President spoke one year at the All-campus meeting about including “Beautiful Thoughts” as an initiative, I believed that this was a place to which I could contribute.

Occasionally, I would apply for full-time positions that I felt qualified for. One was a long shot, others turned out to have in-house candidates already lined up. Two years ago, I was called by a colleague who asked me to send in my application for a position coordinating a grant. I made it all the way to the interview with the President and two committee members, my colleague included. They hired another last-minute candidate. After that I decided–no more applications! I chose to be satisfied doing my adjunct teaching. It wasn’t a stretch to do that. I loved it and eagerly looked forward to my one or two classes per semester. It was gratifying, too, as last spring I received an award for Excellence in Adjunct Teaching. Being nominated by one’s peers is as heartwarming as people say. I felt like a member of the community.

And then, this past May, I was again approached and asked to fill a position to coordinate one of four student grant programs in the Bridge to College Department. During the previous semester I had been working for one of the other programs (also a position I was suggested for). Given my experience and successes in student programs and the fact that I had gotten to know a little bit about the department, I was cautiously hopeful.  My goal of becoming a full-time member of the college was about to happen.  I could be an integral member of the community and work with colleagues that I had grown to admire and quite honestly, enjoy.  And even better, since I had been out of regular work for four years, the prospect of health benefits was exciting. My husband and I fantasized about the medical appointments we would make after I was officially hired. I accepted the position.

In June, my credentials were submitted to the President. A request for my bachelor’s degree transcripts came via email and I responded that they already had my complete transcripts. Further consideration was required. For over a month, no one, not even the Bridge to College director, could tell me when we would know the outcome of this scrutiny. My formal hiring date continued to be elusive, even though I attended meetings about where my office would be, what my training schedule would look like and which additional responsibilities I would have.

Then, on July 2nd, in response to an inquiry email I sent to HR, I was informed that, “… the college will not be pursuing the grant funded Educational Assistant Community College Scholars position with you at this time.  As you are aware, it requires a Bachelors’ degree.  Your file has been reviewed on multiple occasions by multiple individuals and it has been determined that you do not have the required degree.” I have never had a bachelor’s degree and I have never represented to anyone that I had one, but I had a Master’s degree. And years of experience in coordinating student programs.  I wasn’t getting the job? I was stunned.

It gets worse.

It occurred to me that, after all this scrutiny, there was a very real possibility that since I did not get the program coordinator job, I might not be able to teach anymore, either.  If I did not get an administrative position that I was over-qualified for, it would only follow that there would be some concern about my teaching. (Even though I had received contracts to teach two summer courses.) It was suggested that I contact the Dean of Academic Affairs. Although warm and supportive it was she who told me—in no uncertain terms– that I would not be teaching there anymore.

What a blow. A double-whammy, even. The job I was offered, accepted and had actually begun had been ripped out from underneath me. On top of that I wouldn’t be able to teach, or from what I understood, do anything else at the college. (Afterwards, I had several conversations with other administrators and faculty that echoed this same clear message.) I suddenly felt like I was a pariah.

The administration decided that I did not meet the requirements for the school and they could not have me in such a position in case they were audited.   In my search to make sense of this decision, I wrote to the State Board of Regents (the governing body for all the state and community colleges). My question to them was to clarify which state statute requires the bachelor’s degree that prevented me from being hired. I spent the better part of a Sunday morning searching the Connecticut state web site looking for such a statute—I couldn’t find one. I also asked if this was a singular campus policy or does it prevent me from teaching elsewhere.

In the meanwhile, I wrote to my own Human Resources department to request a letter in writing describing the process by which I was terminated. After several attempts, I received this reply:

“You haven’t been “dismissed” or “terminated”.  You lacked the required degree to be considered for the position in the Bridge to College Office.  Your adjunct contract is ending with the course as they always do.  As [we] understand the situation, your lack of a Bachelors Degree, and, more importantly, your lack of the college credits necessary to earn such degree has caused us to question whether you are adequately prepared to teach as an adjunct.”

If I thought I might get some assistance from my Human Resources department, by the end of that email I was advised to channel all communication through the union rep to avoid a union complaint. The union rep spoke to the HR department of his own accord and not on my behalf, so for me, it just made matters worse. As if they could get any worse.

During July, my last month at the college, I focused on teaching the two courses I still had and worked with the colleagues that I had become friends with (and not dwelling on the fact that “my replacement” would be hired soon). The people with whom I worked were unflagging in their support. It was a tonic. But it did lead me to wonder about a couple of things.  For example, I wondered why I wasn’t approached at the beginning, in the spirit of community or collegiality, to collaborate on a way to address the technicality of the missing degree. I could look into getting one while I started the job. It also made me wonder why it took so long to question whether or not I was “adequately prepared”; my credentials have been on file for the last four years and they were reviewed each time I applied for a position. I’ve been evaluated by my department chair on a regular basis and have received only positive evaluations. By my students, too. This is all on record. Questioning whether or not I am adequately prepared may have been reasonable four years ago, but not now.

And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did call the union rep; to ask about the credential requirements, nothing more. But in the two conversations I’ve had with him (he called me once to tell me he had spoken to HR—after the fact), practically the only thing he could exclaim over and over is how the lack of a bachelor’s degree is “unheard of!” I get it. It’s unheard of. I can’t believe that I am the only one in Connecticut who has non-traditional credentials.

I looked into the Bachelor’s degree thing, too. At Charter Oak, UConn and Cambridge. (Whoa…deja vu!) The consensus, after the “why would you do this now?” remark, is that it will take about two to three years and upwards of $10,000. It just doesn’t seem do-able – especially now that I don’t have a job.

A couple of days ago, I finally heard back from the Board of Regents. There is no statutory requirement for a Bachelor’s degree. It was suggested that had I the appetite for it, a conversation with the Dean (whom the decision was pinned on) would be in order, but I declined. First of all, the conversation that I did have with the Dean began with her walking into her office saying, “This would not be my decision…” so if in fact it was her decision, then I’d rather not have my naïveté pummeled again. And do I really think that I would come out the winner in such a conversation? That at the end of it all, the President would smack her forehead and say, “Hey, wait a minute! Let’s get that girl back here!” And we’d all hold hands in the Rose Garden and read poetry.

That’s not happening.

The unfortunate message here is that if I had stayed in either of those that crazy quilt bachelor’s programs in Texas almost 35 years ago, I would have a Bachelor’s degree and a job. Of course nothing in those undergraduate programs had anything to do with the skills and knowledge I have now. (Except for earnestly encouraging students to stay in school– “Get your degree!” I say to anyone who will listen.)  Having that ancient degree would have somehow qualified me to teach or run a program more than the relevant work I’ve done over the last ten years with an earned Master’s degree.

If I know anything about education–and I do–I know that it takes all kinds of experiences to acquire knowledge.  My own untraditional experience included. Diversity in learning makes for a better teacher and a successful student. I feel that I have been successful in my teaching because I have taken a path that many of my students have had to take; getting their education in the midst of managing a life.  Sometimes it’s just not possible to go the traditional route and fortunately there are alternate routes available. I’m just saying that that experience should be considered when determining appropriate credentials.

So, in the end, I got my answer. There is no actual reason for my termination.  Actually, the only legitimate reason to keep me from teaching is that my Master’s degree is not in the discipline.  Everything else was arbitrary and capricious and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Unfair isn’t illegal. Now that the summer courses are over and I attended the ceremonies and turned in my grades, I’m ready to move on. I will admit to getting a twinge of longing as the start of the semester approaches, but it’s not like I won’t teach again. I feel confident that I did a good job, represented myself honestly and turned in the best work I knew how to do. I am not going to use up a lot of negative energy pursuing options that require me to “fight” an institution that I continue to hold in high regard. I lost a job, two actually, but I didn’t lose my supportive colleagues, lasting friendships or a rewarding experience with incredible students.  That is what my education gave me. I wouldn’t trade it for any other.

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Spring Cleaning

This time of year I have to be very careful with whom I strike up a conversation. Many of my friends and acquaintances tend to have these long and detailed conversations about a topic that, quite honestly strikes fear into my heart. You know what I’m talking about: Spring Cleaning. Don’t get me wrong, I am generally in favor of cleaning; it’s just that I don’t want to do it.

And it’s not even that I don’t want to do it. I just can’t. I don’t have the coordination, patience or attention span to plan to clean.

I think it would be pertinent and ironic to mention at this point that one summer I supported my family in part by cleaning other people’s homes. These poor people didn’t know about my deficiencies nor was there any reason to tell them. Fortunately for them, I was merely bucket holder and mop toter to a frighteningly obsessed woman who knew how to sweep through a home and leave it literally tingling with cleanliness. I simply followed her lead.

These conversations that I refer to reveal people who take a, well– perverse, thrill in chasing dustbunnies down to their demise. I was having coffee with my friend and writer’s group Trudy one day and she mentioned that she needed to get home and wash her kitchen floor. I was floored. You do that? Like, get a buckets and sponges and some kind of cleaning fluid and plan to wash the floor. Like all at once? Not with a paper towel when you spill some spaghetti sauce? I was both impressed and baffled. I believe I had the same confused look on my face as I did when my friend Sue once said to me, “Sorry I was late, I had to iron my blouse,” and I had to ask, “What’s an iron?”

But back to this cleaning thing. Spring cleaning is an age-old tradition – I’m told – which is the practice of thoroughly cleaning a house in the springtime. The practice of spring cleaning is especially prevalent in climates with a cold winter. This is true…I looked it up on Wikipedia. In another ironic turn, I found that this activity apparently finds its roots in the Persian New Year celebration of Norooz. Now, I was at a Norooz celebration this year as a matter of fact. We did not clean. We ate and drank. It was fun. Not like cleaning at all.

Now before you all shrink back in horror and make a mental note to never, ever come visit me – my house is not about to be condemned by the Health Department. I’m not a reality show. The problem is that I’ve tried to clean. I just can’t do it. Here’s an example: Recently I realized that my husband had not replaced the mini-blinds in my bedroom with darker ones; the beige ones we put up when we moved in were still hanging in place. The new color wasn’t a new color at all…it was dust. And, embarrassingly, it was about several years worth of dust. I thought that raising them up and down shook the dust off, in a sort of self cleaning function. In addition, I have had several cleaning ladies on various occasions who apparently still don’t do windows. I’m not going to talk about the cleaning ladies…they were my husband’s idea, I didn’t want them in my house and it was painful and horrifying for me personally. I had to attempt in my challenged way to get the house in order and then flee to another state while they were in my home. And they didn’t clean the mini blinds.

So it was up to me.

The first task was getting them down from the windows. There were three different kinds of hardware holding them in place so it was difficult three different times. I prepared my cleaning supplies…a full bottle of cleanser, a brush, a sponge and took them outside to the front yard to the hose. I will spare you the ugly details but suffice it to say that an activity that would have taken most people about 20 minutes took me over an hour. I couldn’t decide whether or not to clean them fully extended or fully collapsed and it turned out neither was very manageable. I hung the once beige mini blinds over the side of my porch to dry and they looked worse than when I took them down. Seriously. They looked like I took them outside and threw dirt on them.

So, I’m done with Spring Cleaning. I’m not talking about it, I’m not worrying about it, I’m not doing it. It’s a nice concept for those among us who have some coordination and endurance, but for those among us who don’t – and I’m just talking about me here – I will simply pull the shades when the morning sun streams in and highlights the dust on my bookshelves. Besides, I’ve found that there is a plastic container that dispenses handy moist wipes for cleaning almost anything: wood, bathrooms, windows, babies. They’re better than ketchup in a squeeze bottle and they keep the Health Department at bay.

Who wants to talk about cleaning anyway?

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Some things just bear repeating…

My Dad, Jimmy Carter and me

Friday, February 10, 2006

I have a crush on Jimmy Carter. I think he can fix all the worlds’ ills and strife just by opening his mouth and allowing that soft, gentle Southern accent to pick everyone up in its great big ever-loving, peanut farmer richness and get everyone to start remembering just what is important in this world. Like peace, shelter, dignity, rights. I’m not alone in this feeling, am I? The man did, after all, win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maybe it was because Jimmy Carter was the first president I ever voted for. That is a memorable experience – voting in one’s first presidential election. It is a huge civic and mature responsibility especially when combined with an equally exhilarating milestone – reaching the legal drinking age. I was of age, in Texas, in my first semester at college and voting for a United States president – who won! It doesn’t get much more memorable than that!

Or, maybe it’s because he resembles my dad. My mother has always maintained that I have been drawn to men who look like my dad – blonde, fair skinned, blue eyed, etc. I once kicked my pediatrician’s stethoscope across the room and hid under a table, all because, according to my mother, he had dark hair and didn’t look the slightest bit like my dad. I was pretty sure it was because he was messing with my dress and that he had a huge needle in his hand. I was four, I’m supposed to be discriminating? My dark, chocolate-eyed, Italian husband doesn’t believe that theory, and hasn’t for the last 18 years. But the fact remains, there is a resemblance to Jimmy Carter from my dad. I have definitely done a few double takes when I’ve seen Mr. Carter on TV– “Hey, what’s my dad doing on CNN?” Then I realize – oh – it’s just Jimmy Carter again.

Looks aside, there are other similarities between Mr. Carter and my dad. They are both family men, married to the same woman for almost 50+ years, in their 70s, seemingly ready to retire and yet working harder now than when they had real jobs. Mr. Carter’s real job, of course was being president of the United States. My dad was a chemical engineer at General Electric. Now they are both peace activists working against time and tide of popular thought to prevent war, pain and suffering.

My brother writes a monthly newsletter from Hollywood, where he moved to keep warm. One of them referred to the emails that our dad sends us – daily. With the war in Iraq being waged daily on TV, the internet and in our hearts, the emails come fast and furious alerting us to peace vigils, phone calls to make, petitions to sign, and other people-driven contributions required to remind people that peace is good – war is bad. This activism has not just recently occurred, however. We attentive offspring have been watching our parent’s commitment to good causes all our lives. Because you don’t think my dad did all this alone? The very least he needed was my mother’s support. The best he got was her complete agreement in the issues and causes he felt needed the most attention. Hunger, race relations, conflict resolution, and yes, peace.

And here I sit, going to work everyday, reading or, sometimes not reading, all the emails I get, wondering, who thought it was a good idea to get this man a computer? I feel like I did when I was in grade school gym class. I hated gym class. Besides the fact that we had to wear these ridiculous blue gym suits – ugh – even the most un-athletic of us were forced to participate in very excruciating athletic calisthenics. Like jump rope. I guess my gym teacher also didn’t resemble my dad, because I didn’t like her very much either. Anyway – when the group jump roping started, everyone had to line up and jump in, jump for 10 counts or something and then jump out. Please – could I just wear this stupid gym suit to classes all day instead? It would be less painful. The anxiety I developed waiting to jump in, jump for the expected number of jumps and jump out was unbearable. I would let the other girls cut in line – they liked this crazy jumping!

And that’s how I feel about all this peace activist stuff – I am waiting for the rope to come around at just the right time so I can jump in and not make a fool of myself, or not fall down and get laughed at. What do I do? What can I do?

If I wasn’t so uncoordinated, I would smack myself in the forehead. Of course, it has been before me the whole time – my whole life in fact. I’ve seen what one man – or woman – can do, both on the worldwide stage and the personal. My dad will never have a non-profit, nongovernmental organization named after him, like Mr. Carter. But believe me, he works hard at the same causes with the same impressive dedication. Mr. Carter has unlimited resources at his disposal and he has the dignity to use them with respect. There probably aren’t too many people out there who will say “no” to a former president. Plenty of people say no to my dad. But that’s ok – because he just gets back on the phone, computer, or podium and asks again. I have two role models before me, one whose website I can visit and research the latest work on conflict resolution and one I can call on the phone and ask advice from – that would be my dad. If I haven’t learned by now that one person can make a difference than I haven’t been paying attention. Or, to quote Mr. Carter’s Nobel Acceptance speech, “an individual is not swept along on a tide of inevitability but can influence even the greatest human events.” So where does that leave me? I guess I just get in there and jump.

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Near-Death Experience

Near death experiences are pretty simple; they end one way…or the other. It’s the “near” part that one gets to live to tell and that part is what I am going to tell you about now.

A couple of weeks, after a particularly stressful month or so, I got up on Sunday morning, only to realize that I had no energy to stay up and after my coffee, went back to bed. Since mid-July I had been traveling, hosting travelers, traveling some more and beginning my crazy-quilt series of jobs that I do to pretend that I’m gainfully employed. Quite frankly, I was tired. So I went back to bed to catch up on some much needed sleep.

For what seemed like the entirety of the two hours that I slept, I dreamed that I was having a heart attack. I was breathing hard and experiencing crushing pain in my chest and asking people for help. At times, I would realize that I was dreaming and try to wake myself up, only to continue dreaming and breathing hard and feeling pain. I pretend woke myself up about three times before I finally actually woke myself up. I was exhausted.

I got up and found the nearest comfort at hand: a peanut-butter and potato chip sandwich on white bread. It has been my go-to comfort food since I was a kid. (Don’t judge me. It was spectacular.) After my sandwich I submerged myself in a Law & Order: SVU marathon. I was still rattled and I couldn’t shake that awful feeling of not being able to breathe. I also was rattled by what I hoped was an old wives’ tale that dictates that if you dream you are dying, you’re dying. That was not comforting. Later that night, at bedtime, I was eventually able to sleep, but it was very late and after several rounds of Sudoku.

The next day I had a routine doctor’s appointment. The pharmacy I go to had messed up my prescription – again – and when I called my doc to have him resend it, they saw that I hadn’t been in awhile, and suggested that I come in. Fine. At my appointment, we chatted about boring aging stuff and then he said, “Anything else I should know about ?”
I said, “No. Well, I’ve had this thing with my arm, where it doesn’t move for a few minutes.”
He said, “Hm.” He sounded serious. “It sounds like a TIA.”

A couple of things here…the first one is that one of the reasons I go to this doctor is because is not an alarmist. No worries, very laid back…take the meds, don’t take the meds…no skin off his teeth. I like that in a doctor. (By the way, my GYN was recommended to me by a girlfriend who swears he saved her life. I like that in a doctor too.) The second thing is this TIA he was talking about is a Transient Ischemic Attack – …a mini stroke. All of a sudden this guy is talking about strokes and blood pressure and he wants to listen to my heart and knock on my knees. What kind of a doctor was he anyway??
“Is there anything else?” he asked.
“No”, I said. Like I was going to tell him about the white flashes in my eye.

I left with him telling me he was going to set up a carotid Doppler. Isn’t that for weather? That didn’t sound fun at all. I figured I had some time before I had to do that, when, on the drive home, my cell phone rang. It was the Imaging place calling to set up the appointment. For the next day.

Now I was getting really scared. Since when does any test get scheduled for the next day? I’ve never had anything scheduled less than three weeks down the pike. The fear and chest pain from my dream came roaring back to me…was it foreshadowing? Was that happening? I was so scared that when I went home that I didn’t even talk about it, not to my husband, my parents or any of my friends. The appointment was after school, and I wouldn’t need a ride, so no big deal. I went by myself. After it was over, and they didn’t rush me by ambulance to the nearest hospital, I decided I was okay. The tech said I would hear from the doc by the next day.

The next day, the doc’s nurse called to schedule both an MRI and an MRA…of my brain. She set it up for the following day. The following day! When does this ever happen – unless time is critical. Once that appointment was made, I was a wreck. I kept thinking that I would have to write letters to my family. You know what I mean—good-bye letters. Just thinking about it made me cry. I pictured my head as a big black time bomb like in a cartoon…just waiting to go off. That’s what I was…a walking time bomb. I dragged all the stuff off the emotional shelf…I was about to become a grandmother, I still have to publish something – anything, I only just got to Italy – was my time up already?

So, let’s jump to the end. (No pun intended.) At my office on Thursday afternoon I got the call that I was fine. At least my brain didn’t indicate that there was any damage or potential danger. Supposedly. But really, and not to sound too catastrophic here, but with us humans, there’s always danger. We’re all so fragile, so oblivious. I don’t know if this experience really counts as a near-death experience, but is has impacted me. I learned lessons. The first one of course is to always keep your mouth shut when you go see your doctor. The second one, and more importantly, is to NOT keep my mouth shut with the people I love. Keeping things to myself – good or scary – doesn’t do anyone any good. Especially me, but it’s not fair to the people I love, either. Then they don’t get to comfort me, boss me around, do endless research on the internet in the hopes of providing alternate diagnoses or feel scared themselves.

As I drove home – oh, let’s be honest – I drove to the liquor store and got myself a bottle of nearly expensive wine – I was smiling. I smiled all night. I wondered if I could get a copy of my brain scan from the Imaging place for the profile picture on my Facebook page. And then, I fell asleep…and didn’t dream much of anything at all.

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Civic Delinquents

Hello, dear readers. I’m resposting again…just to keep things updated! This one is an old favorite and bears repeating…Thanks, as always, for your support!

I think I’m about to coin a new term…ready? “Civic Delinquency”. You know what I’m talking about. No? Well, welcome to Civic Delinquency 101. This is not anything like civil disobedience which is tolerable – and actually obedient, really, in its practice of demonstration against government without antagonism or anger. No, this is more insidious and rampant. Civic Delinquents are those people who behave in a way that negates anybody else’s existence or importance in the community. Civic Delinquents can be male or female, young or old, rich or poor. They can be in positions of authority, like an elected politician or just your basic Joe (or Joan) Schmoe on the street. Civic Delinquency seems to be hereditary, unfortunately, and is passed down to the young in alarmingly increased numbers. This is evidenced by the amount of squished bread at the bottoms of grocery bags across the nation, thoughtlessly packed by neophyte Civic Delinquents at their first jobs.

Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “what the hell is she talking about?” I’ll elaborate. This is a typical scenario in which you will find a Civic Delinquent (CD): You’re in the grocery store after work, picking up a little something for dinner and trying to remember if you bought mayonnaise the last time or do you already have 4 jars of it at home? Lots of people do this at the end of a long work day. Everyone is in the same boat; busy, stressed, hungry and wanting to get home before LOST comes on. You’re halfway done…heading down the home stretch and suddenly you are stuck. An abandoned cart in the canned vegetables section is angled between the ill-placed display of turkey basters and your only clear route. There is no driver – she’s down the aisle looking at soups. After a polite “ahem” doesn’t grab her attention, you attempt to move her cart enough so that you can get by, but by this time there’s an oncoming cart and visions of twisted metal and spattered beet juice are all you can see. You think about picking up a 2 lb can of peeled tomatoes and heaving it at the absent cart driver’s head but you’d probably miss anyway and now a cart jam looms so instead you continue to try and reach over the seat of your cart to jockey her cart out of the way so that you and the now other person behind you along with the oncoming cart may safely pass. At this point the CD looks up and sees you handling her cart and gets up and walks toward you as if to apologetically help clear this potential disaster. You start to smile as if to acknowledge this momentary lapse in good sense when you realize – she’s pissed at you! She snatches her cart away without so much as a “sorry -thanks” or glance at the pile-up she’s caused and strolls indignantly on her way. Clearly you crossed boundaries by touching her stuff. And the whisper that escapes out from under your breath is … “bitch” You’ve seen her, haven’t you? Grocery stores are veritable breeding grounds for civic delinquency, both in customers and employees. Any retail establishment for that matter is obviously the perfect place for a CD, because they are always standing at the front counter answering “No, we don’t have that” to before even a question forms in the customer’s mouth.

But by far the activity that contains the biggest possibility for civic delinquency is driving. Cell phones make it practically suicidal in taking your car on the road anymore, but that is an entire commentary in itself. We even had a guy wearing a hands-free headset nearly run us down one time, so keeping both hands on the wheel clearly isn’t the problem. I’m talking about the woman in the big brown Hummer parked in the right turn lane in across from the church last Sunday evening, ostensibly to pick up someone, but who knows? No blinkers, no visible emergency like smoke pouring our from under her hood. Just parked because it was easier than making a left into the parking lot or parking across the street and actually walking to where she needed to go. Another one of my favorite examples are the people who are visiting your neighbors and park in front of your driveway. Now, sometimes I don’t even have to walk out of my house, much less take my car and go anywhere so it doesn’t really hamper me, but seriously…in front of my driveway?

I could go on and on…and I just might. But it gives one pause…what the hell are these people thinking? Its as if no one else exists in the world and that they are entitled to land anywhere they want to without regard to anyone else who might be in the vicinity. You can see it in the CD’s eyes – they’re a little more distant than others because they are probably thinking of the next thing that they need. A parking space, a can of soup, that lane on the highway (the one you’re in, but they’re behind you and you need to MOVE! Who cares if there is a semi on your right?) And one of the more disturbing manifestations of civic delinquency is litter. I guess the anti-litter campaign in the seventies really hit its mark with me, because when I see all the trash that is collected on sidewalks or around doors to public buildings or on the roads and in the parks, I have to wonder – who still thinks its ok to throw garbage on the ground? It must be Civic Delinquents!

But, then, this morning, my husband and I were on our way back home from the gym. (You don’t even want to know what some “lady” civic delinquents do there to the ladies room!) We approached a crosswalk in front of the library where we could see 3 kids waiting to cross. In our town we have a rather loose “law” regarding crosswalks – stop or not…we really don’t know what the actual law is. These boys were about 12 and they stood at the sidewalk watching both ways on the lightly trafficked road. We saw them in time so we slowed to a stop. These boys didn’t just dart across the road as if everyone would stop in their presence. They waited – acknowledged that we were in fact stopping and the first kid gave a wave with his hand, like – ok – we’re going for it! They trotted across, made it safely to the opposite sidewalk and started to walk in the direction of the local movie theater a half a block down. As we passed them, I watched as one of the kids looked back at us while we drove by – and smiled and gave a little wave. I waved back. And smiled. There’s hope yet.

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15 Minutes of Fame

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Andy Warhol

When I was little, I used to stay up late at night and watch the Johnny Carson Show. (Do I have to link to Wikipedia here for the youngsters? Before Jay Leno, okay?) I used to imagine sitting on the couch across the desk from him, engaging in lively and somewhat risqué banter while inconspicuously tugging my beautifully frothy dress over my knees and demurely crossing my elegant, sparkly-heeled feet. Why was I being interviewed? My fantasy didn’t include those details. All I know is that I held Johnny in thrall and he hung on my every word while I smiled and chatted and talked about – well, again. Who knows. But I was delightful.

Many years, and a whole Tonight Night host debacle later, I have not been on Johnny’s, Jay’s or anyone’s late night talk show. I have laid low, raising children, teaching some folks and posting my essays on my website. I haven’t done anything, it appears, that anyone has ever wanted to interview me for or put me before a camera.

Until now.

Some of the folks I teach are members of the over-50 crowd, the AARP set, retirees. I teach writing using a journal and mostly it’s a fun way to dig into parts of life that have often remained unexcavated. A few weeks ago, a former student from that class emailed me and said he had met some folks who wanted to put together a show with local writers, poets and musicians and would I be interested. Sure, I said, count me in. I had to audition, which was nerve-wracking, but it was kind of fun to be in a group of creative people and try out my work. I heard a few days later that I was in the line up – the first “First Thursday” was April 7th – and it was going to be videotaped. As this venture was a whirlwind, I didn’t realize that the couple behind it all were recent transplants who were interested in starting up another TV business here in Connecticut like they had back in Britain. I thought it was just going to be videotaped for posterity’s sake, not for commercial purposes!

But, ok. I’m game…

The night of the show I was nervous. I don’t mind being nervous because I feel like it keeps me on my toes and that way I don’t make any really huge mistakes…only lots of little ones. Like I might keep playing with my hair, but I don’t forget to read a whole page. I went on second, after the host’s intro and the first vignette – a scene from a play. I had to walk through the kitchen and time my entrance between the exit of the actress from the scene before and the possibility of the host coming back out to introduce me. He didn’t so I stepped out from behind the curtain – and into the lights.

I wish I could say that I took to it like a duck to water, but that would be a flat out lie. During the rehearsal, the director told me to remember to look at the camera. The sound person reminded me to speak directly into the microphone. I forgot it all as I stepped up to the mic and introduced myself. After that, everything was a blur…

Until now.

It was videotaped. I’m on film. The producers told us that they’d have it online for us to see, but after I obsessively checked the website on the day it was supposed to be launched, I forgot about it. (Fine. I didn’t forget about it, but I had other stuff to do, too. Like work. And compulsively check online for the video.)

Today we got the email that it went live. The couple, David and Douglas Bibbey have worked tirelessly on the editing and it shows. Meanwhile they are also trying to get the next show ready to put up — it’s called First Thursday remember, so it’s soon. And they have kids. And it’s Spring Break. Lots and lots of reasons to put off editing a video that millions of people are waiting for. But they did it and it’s ready.

My fifteen minutes of fame. Actually, it’s less than that, but I’m okay with it. I closed my eyes the first time I watched it, just peeking as if I were watching a Scream marathon. Then I watched it again and I didn’t hate it. I kind of like it – which is why, of course, that I’ve written this whole description just to let you all know that now, you can watch it, too.

I hope you enjoy it. (Let me know!)

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On February 24th , I picked up Annie from the bus station because she came up from Brooklyn to help me the next day with an event I was hosting at my home. She dug through her bag and pulled out a card and said, “Pull over for a second…Tony and I have something for you we forgot to bring for your birthday.” I pulled over and turned on the overhead light. I opened the envelope, thinking to myself that I was about to get a nice gift card, flipped over the card and read, “For Grandma on her Birthday…”

I screamed.

As many times that Annie and Tony came up and I wished that was the news they had – slyly testing out my unfounded suspicions by offering Annie a glass of wine as she walked in the door, only to have her readily accept – I didn’t see this coming. To be fair, my friend Guy had a premonition about this, but he said I’d hear about it around Christmas time (which is why I was always at the ready with an open bottle of Yellow Tail Cabernet and a glass…for testing purposes only). I can’t even explain how I felt…it was a mixture of disbelief, joy and another, somewhat surreal feeling, as if everything was about to change.

Which it will.

Annie and I hugged and cried in the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts for a few minutes before getting on the road to home. I felt a huge obligation on my shoulders as I pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Every car was a potential bad driver, every shadow held a potential danger. I think I was gripping the wheel as hard as I did when I drove Annie and then Christopher for the first time when they were babies. The responsibility was monumental and I was as alert and vigilant as I’ve ever been.

On the way home, Annie told me about the suspicions that led her to the early pregnancy test section of the drugstore, her confirmation trip to the doctor and the way she let Tony know. We devised a fun way to tell Angelo (telling him about a new magazine we thought he’d like that Annie just got – Pregnancy & Newborn! Get it? We are so clever…) and he was just as overcome as we were. We spent the evening eating some dinner and having some wine…just me, though. Grandmas don’t have to quit drinking during the pregnancy.

Thank God.

The rest of the weekend was a blur of baby talk and planning. Annie was amazing at helping me with my event – hosting a presentation and a high tea for a literary organization that I am a member of. The other ladies in the group loved Annie and couldn’t say enough complimentary things about the way she “co-hosted”. The one thing they couldn’t say, though, was “Congratulations!” Because Annie swore me to silence on the news. But it was on the tip of my tongue for the rest of the day. And week…and month.

She and Tony decided to initially share the news only with their parents because it was so early in the pregnancy. Siblings and grandparents came a couple of weeks later…but I still couldn’t tell anyone else. (The real question is, of course, did I anyway?) After I told my parents, I couldn’t wait to tell my brother and sister. But I couldn’t. So I quit talking to them. I quit talking to almost anyone that I might spill the beans to. And I definitely couldn’t post it on my Facebook page.


While I respected their right to make this decision, I was going crazy to tell people. So I told the relatives in Italy when we were there. So, yes, they all knew two weeks ago. But many of them don’t speak English, so I figured I was safe. Since Friday though, the ban has been lifted. Annie and Tony went to the doctor and saw the heartbeat on their little bambino/a. I got the go ahead to call people now…but still no Facebook! Annie called me on Saturday night to ask me how many people I called. I finally talked to my sister, but I didn’t reach my brother. But that’s it. I’m not really a phone person anyway and I stewed about how I was going to tell everyone without the effortless megaphone quality of Facebook. And then I realized…I’m a writer. I’ll write about it. (duh) So, this, my friends is my official announcement – I’m going to be a Grandma! In October!

I think I should learn how to knit.
Sofia or Luca

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