Not so fast, it isn’t Christmas yet

For anything really nice—clothing, a unique gift—I shop locally. For everything else, there’s Ocean State Job Lot, a chain I discovered in the 1980s when visiting my mother in Rhode Island. A store had opened around the corner from where she lived, and every time I went to see her, I headed over to load up on food, housewares, beauty and bath products, pet supplies and even clothing. My biggest score was a tweed Woolrich jacket that I bought for $15 and still wear.

In time, Ocean State Job Lot opened branches in Massachusetts near where my aunt and cousin live, so now I shop there whenever I visit them. A few years ago, my husband and I discovered a store in Fishkill, N.Y. We would make forays when we went to see my late father-in-law at the VA hospital nearby.

Last week, a friend who had discovered the chain during a trip to in Rhode Island told me an Ocean State Job Lot had sprung up across the river in New Jersey, about a half hour away. The two of us headed over and spent a happy couple of hours stocking up on multitudinous items, including caviar from Iceland, priced at just $2.99.

The caviar will go nicely on the holiday table, which was thrust into the forefront of my consciousness by the Christmas music playing in the background. I happen to like Christmas music, from carols and standards to the more contemporary tunes. But it’s not Thanksgiving yet. Don’t make me listen to “Jingle Bell Rock” until at least Black Friday.

I’m beginning to see why some people call Halloween their favorite holiday. Halloween is all about fun, candy and a little bit of mischief. It’s relatively uncomplicated.

Thanksgiving and Christmas, by contrast, are nothing but complications.

Thanksgiving is a time of mandated gratitude, and while we all have much to be thankful for—starting with the fact that we woke up breathing this morning—some people may not be feeling it on cue. If you’ve lost a person you love, for example, his or her absence from the family table will be acutely painful. Likewise, for anyone who’s sick, homeless or alone, Thanksgiving can be tough sledding.

And then there’s Christmas, when the stakes are even higher—and so are the stresses. During my mother’s first Christmas after moving to Pennsylvania, she heard “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio and began to weep. She mourned the loss of the home she had to leave when illness made it impossible for her to live alone.

These echoes of loss, in all its various guises, represent the flip side of the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” In preparation, I am about to get out the full-spectrum light box my brother made for me many years ago to help me through the dark winter days. No use adding seasonal affective disorder to the mix.

And I won’t be shopping on Friday—not even at Ocean State Job Lot.

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Who are you calling elderly?

After a California newspaper stirred up readers last week by calling a 68-year-old accident victim “elderly,” the PBS-affiliated site Next Avenue turned to Twitter. The website, which is aimed at readers 50 years old and up, asked its followers on social media what they thought of the adjective.

Fully 89 percent of the 127 respondents didn’t like it, saying you should “think twice” before using the word. “86 is elderly; 68 isn’t,” said one reader. Another pointed out that Hillary Clinton is 68, and she’s running for president. Hillary has been called many things, but elderly isn’t one of them.

There’s good reason for those of us in our 60s to bristle at the word elderly. After all, who wants to be described as “ancient … declining … over the hill … on last leg” or any of the other synonyms? Of the 17 equivalent words or phrases at, only one—venerable—is in any way complimentary. Maybe two, if you count “retired.”

Yet, I don’t really blame the newspaper reporter who committed the faux-pas. Most reporters are young, and to a young person, 68 is pretty darned old. I was a reporter in my 20s and to me, anyone over 28 seemed “ancient,” if not “over the hill” or “on last leg.” I remember once estimating someone’s age (mercifully, not in print) as “30 or 40 or 50.” Just, you know, old.

Forty years down the pike, I don’t know what “old” means anymore. Perhaps, as some say, age is just a number, and a meaningless one at that. You’re only as old as you feel and anyway, it’s not the chronological years that count, it’s your biological age.

Yet, I can’t help admiring those who proudly proclaim their age, freely admitting to every hard-earned year. My mother was like that. She was thrilled to turn 50—a high-water mark for her—and pleased to tout every subsequent birthday.

How brave, even powerful, in a youth-obsessed culture to cherish your accumulated years. My father died at 52; from that perspective, it’s a great and rare privilege to grow older.

The problem, of course, is the whiff of decrepitude hanging over the word elderly. For that reason, it may be sliding out of the language, like “disabled,” “retarded” and other iffy epithets. “Referring to any group using the formula the elderly … is nowadays felt to be inappropriate because it glosses over people’s individuality and perpetuates stereotypes,” says a usage note at Better to talk about “older rather than elderly people.”

Perhaps we could turn things around and reclaim the word by reframing it. “To me, a Native American, it is a title of respect, earned by the experience of age, and not an insult,” said one respondent to the Next Avenue survey. “It is a compliment. I’m 59 and proud to be an elder!”

For me, however, I’ll continue to sidestep the word. I don’t even like “venerable.” In my 60s, I’m happy to jettison all the adjectives.

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On your mark, get set, bake!

Somewhere in my mid- to late 20s, I went through a baking craze. I bought “Beard on Bread” and learned to knead dough, and I tried my hand at many a cake and cookie. I even attempted a couple of the more outlandish confections from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Volumes 1 and 2.

One of them involved scrumptious layers of chocolate mousse and meringue, artfully assembled in an angel-food cake pan and then frozen. It was such a project to make—involving an entire afternoon, and a sink full of bowls, pans and spatulas—that I asked to be photographed holding the finished product before the family consumed it at dinner.

I believe it was a Saint-Cyr Glacé, and it’s just the sort of thing you might one day witness in the making on “The Great British Baking Show,” a PBS series that pits home bakers from across the United Kingdom against one another in 10 weeks of challenges.

The show, which is called “The Great British Bake Off” in England, has a simple premise. A dozen contestants gather in a huge, professionally outfitted tent in Somerset on subsequent weekends to test their skills at making elaborate pastries, pies, cakes and breads. The bakers include both men and women, of a wide range of ages, and representing all the ethnicities of modern Britain. One by one they are eliminated until three are left to face off in the final challenge.

You would think watching people bake might be about as interesting as watching paint dry. You’d be wrong. The show is quietly but thoroughly captivating. I got hooked after catching a couple of Season 2 episodes on PBS and then noticed that Season 1 had come to Netflix. Last week, I obsessively streamed all 10 shows in a binge-watching (though thankfully, not binge-eating) marathon.

I remember my introduction to British courtesy on my first trip to London many years ago: I bumped into someone and they apologized. “The Great British Baking Show” exemplifies just this kind of civility. We witness no shouting, insults, feuds, cabals or backstabbing, of the type commonly seen on American reality TV.

The bakers are humble, humorous and earnest. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (really, those are their names) are invariably kind, even if they hate something. “I think your flavors are very good, I’m just a little bit disappointed in the decoration,” Paul told one of the Season 2 finalists in a typically restrained remark.

The closest I’ve seen to an “incident” was when a bloke named Iain’s baked Alaska failed to set. He impetuously dumped it into the dustbin (garbage, to us Yanks) and then had to haul the trash can up to the judges when it was his turn to present.

It’s fascinating to watch these folks concoct the most difficult baked goods—unpronounceable European breads, homemade pretzels, phyllo dough from scratch, the fanciest French patisserie. Now that I no longer bake, and only eat pastries that are gluten-free, it’s the ultimate vicarious thrill.


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You can’t go home again

I visited my old neighborhood over the weekend to see a friend, and in the course of strolling the narrow lanes of the tiny rural development we walked past the house I used to own. It will be up for sale soon due to the recent death of the owner—a gorgeous woman, a nurse in her 50s—from cancer.

It’s completely out of the question, of course. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help fantasizing, just for a moment, about buying it back. I’ve always loved the house and the community, too.

I bought this house in the late 1980s (can it really be that long?). It wasn’t so much a house as a cabin, with knotty-pine paneling, built-in corner cupboards and a big fieldstone fireplace—a good thing, since there was no other source of heat.

Boarded up for years, the house was filled with the original owners’ things, including moldering overstuffed furniture, 1950s knickknacks and taxidermy pheasants and deer heads. You had to go outside and downstairs to get to the bathroom. The place was so bare-bones that my mother called it “the camp.”

Still, I loved it—and the price was right. Among the things the owners left behind was a set of 1950s Fiesta ware. I’ve often ruefully asked myself if it was the Fiesta ware that sealed the sale for me.

The little community in which the house is situated predated the planned developments that dot the area by a couple of decades. There were no amenities, no services, no dues. Just a cluster of cabins, most dating from the 1940s or ‘50s, strung along gravel roads that led down to a park.

Like many people who move to northeast Pennsylvania, I began as a weekender. But over time I winterized the place and began spending more and more time there. Ultimately, I sold my apartment in Brooklyn and moved in fulltime. After a decade in the clamorous city, there was something in the country setting that I craved, even though I questioned my sanity each and every winter.

It was a great place to be single. Rural though the community was, there were people around all the time. I felt lonelier in New York—where you had to make a date to see your best friend—than I ever did here.

The neighborhood seemed to attract colorful characters. Longtime residents included a group of German retirees, among them my next-door neighbor, Isabelle, an amazing baker. She fed me so much rugelach, apple pie and pound cake made from 100-year-old family recipes that it’s a wonder I didn’t balloon to plus-size. Actors, a Broadway stage manager, anthropologists and artists were among the other residents.

My beloved house was not large enough once I met George and got married, and I don’t see myself moving back. I enjoy living in town now, and appreciate amenities like snow plowing and garbage collection.

Yet I can’t help but wonder who will buy the house next. I could tell them some stories.


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Gifts of the season

We’ve finally gotten around to buttoning up the gardens for the winter, shamed into it by the collapse of the dahlias. They went from red and perky—the last flowers still in bloom—to black and desiccated overnight, as if Morticia Addams had gotten hold of them. In fact, it was the first frost of the season, and it did a number on the other plants too.

So the next day, I dug out the dahlia bulbs to store over the winter, a sad annual duty that signals the season’s end. Then I got out the clippers and cut back the peonies, leatrice and hydrangea, while my husband did the final mowing and revved up the leaf blower.

Leaf blowers make a racket. A huge racket, worse than chainsaws. They need mufflers, like motorcycles and hot rods. I began to fear for my husband’s eardrums—and my own, even though I was working in a different part of the yard.

But the leaves must go. Surrounded as we are by oaks, maples and other deciduous trees, we have far too many to mulch into the lawn or leave atop the garden beds.

The changing and then falling of the leaves is a seasonal phenomenon that we who live in the Northeast take for granted—one part pageant and one part pain in the neck. It’s a lot of work to blow and rake the leaves into mounds, pile them onto blue tarps and drag them to the street for the borough’s vacuum truck to suck up.

And the job is never finished, because more leaves will fall tomorrow. Sometimes a soaking rain will make your work harder, creating slick, gluey leaf mats that refuse to budge. Every few years an early snowfall will whip in by surprise, engulfing the curbside mounds and turning them into instant snow banks.

And yet—wow, what a show! It becomes magical simply to take a walk on familiar streets when the canopy overhead is glowing in jewel tones and the vista in front of you encompasses every shade of red, yellow and orange. A drive in the country is dazzling enough to make leaf peeping a tourist season all its own.

How to describe the spectacle of the fall foliage to someone who has never seen it? I happened to mention the colors of autumn in an online chat with my friend Josephine in Kenya. The experience is unknown there. “Here in Kenya we do not have autumn leaves,” she writes. “How do they look?” Whereas the northern hemisphere is poised on the hinge of winter, Kenya is at the Equator and the season is dry. “Now it’s very hot as we are waiting for rains next month,” Josephine said.

Tomorrow my friend and I will be taking a drive upriver in her Corvette. The leaves are probably past peak, but someone told me the colors are still intense in the Catskills. I intend to take some photographs to send to Josephine in Kenya.


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Yard sale junkies

Last weekend someone posted the most forthright yard sale notice I’ve ever seen. On a local Facebook “for sale” site, she wrote “Come on over and buy my junk!” Now, that’s truth in advertising.

We never got there to see just what kind of junk the woman had. But since my husband and I find it hard to resist yard sales, garage sales, tag sales and flea markets, we did hit an estate sale that we had likewise read about online.

This one sounded promising. Huge old house, long empty and slated for demolition. Former occupant, an antiques dealer. Everything must go, cash and carry.

The place was buzzing when we arrived just after 9. Professionals were running the sale, and after advertising on Craigslist, Facebook and elsewhere, they got a big turnout. Cars were parked helter skelter on the narrow street in front of the house, and the crowd was such that the organizers found it wise to open at 7:30 in the morning, an hour and a half before the official start time.

There was stuff everywhere: inside the house, on first-floor and basement levels; outdoors on the grounds, at the side and in front of the house; in and around the garage out back and in a large storage shed in the front yard.

It was all a little slapdash. You might, for example, find Blue Willow teacups in the barn and the matching saucers in the house. I love Fiesta ware, so my husband picked up a cobalt-blue Fiesta coffeepot without a top on Saturday. He went back on Sunday and found the top sitting all by itself on a random table.

Some things were broken, others mint. Items ranged from architectural relics (need a sink, anyone?) to Limoges china, oil paintings to vintage cardboard egg boxes. The books smelled slightly musty, and rain the night before had drenched some of the items on the front lawn.

In other words, it was a picker’s paradise and in fact, a couple of people said they wouldn’t be surprised if the real American Pickers, TV’s Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, should show up. Supposedly the pair had been filming across the river in New Jersey the day before. But they never did arrive at this sale.

My husband and I bought a crazy amount of stuff, some of which will get resold on eBay or elsewhere and some of which we will keep. I found at least one item that I’m going to give as a Christmas present—you have to know someone’s taste really well to get them something at an estate sale—while my husband nabbed five Noritake dessert dishes in the Azalea pattern that match a single one we already had. We now own a set of six.

There’s something about the chase, the bargain and the discernment—the ability to spot that one special item amid the junk—that keeps us hooked. Junkies? For anyone who loves yard sales, the word takes on a special meaning.


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Halloween: a mixed bag of tricks and treats

Halloween is on a Saturday this year, not a school night. So unless there’s a freak blizzard like the one a couple of years ago, we should see a Golden Horde of trick-or-treaters turn our village streets into one big pedestrian mall.

Literally hundreds of kids ring our front doorbell every Halloween. I couldn’t believe the number when we first moved to Milford and I innocently asked my next-door neighbor how many kids to expect. I thought she was joking when she said 500.

One year a friend over on High Street counted 1,000, but we had closed up shop by then, having run out of candy. I budget a certain amount for treats each year. Once those bags are gone, we turn off all the lights—the universal signal that there’s nothing doing at this house—and retreat upstairs to watch horror movies on TV.

Given that the borough’s population is just over 1,000, where do these ghouls and goblins come from? Most are not local; it’s rare to see kids we actually know. Instead they live in the lake communities and rural towns nearby. Parents ferry them in, sometimes in vans, to take advantage of streetlights, sidewalks and a town setting where the homes are side-by-side and not acres apart.

You either love it or you hate it—in 17 years here, I’ve done both. At times we’ve chosen avoidance, closing up the house and going out to dinner and a movie instead. Other years, we’ve invited friends over to share the entertainment.

One memorable Halloween, four of us wore costumes and dined on split-pea soup (in honor of “The Exorcist”) as we took turns answering the door. I was a French existentialist in black jeans and turtleneck, long cigarette holder and beret (subtle, I know), while my husband wrapped Ace bandages around his head and went as the Mummy. A couple of the littler kids began to cry when he assumed the Mummy’s stiff-armed walk and spoke to them in a deep, Boris Karloff voice. But isn’t that what Halloween is all about?

During the 10 years my mother lived next door, she got a big kick out of Halloween. We would start off greeting trick-or-treaters on the porch of our house and then break for dinner, after which Mom would want to smoke. We asked that she not smoke inside. So if it was too cold to light up outdoors, she would insist on going home and either my husband or I—often, both of us—would go with her.

We couldn’t leave her alone. She was too slow to keep up with the doorbell’s brisk pace. And as dementia advanced, her judgment was impaired. She would do things like open the door to tell demanding children that she had no candy left.

Note to self: Wait until Oct. 30 to purchase candy. It’s too enticing to have it in the house beforehand.  I also advise buying candy you don’t personally like. No use inviting temptation.

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Lois Lane: My kind of role model

Ever have one of those aha moments that start with déjà vu and end with “Oh, I get it”? Something like that happened to me on Saturday night when I walked into the family room to find my husband watching “Adventures of Superman” on MeTV, our favored reruns channel.

As I settled down to watch Clark, Lois and Jimmy Olson get themselves out of outlandish scrapes—with Superman’s help, of course—I suddenly realized that Lois Lane was an important, if unacknowledged, figure in my life story.

Lois Lane was the reason I studied journalism and went to work as a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper not unlike the Daily Planet. Lois Lane was my feminist role model.

In the 1950s, when “Adventures of Superman” debuted, there were not many role models out there for little girls. The career track was severely restricted.

You were going to be a housewife. If you were to work for a couple of years before getting married, then teacher, nurse and secretary were acceptable occupations. In the real world, I suppose factory work and retail were options too, but those were not the jobs little girls daydreamed about. Meanwhile, no one spoke of what would happen if you were divorced or widowed, or—heaven forbid—stayed single by choice.

I always loved to read and write, and from an early age I knew I wanted to “be a writer,” whatever that meant to me at the time. One of my most-loved Christmas presents, at age 5 or 6, was a child’s version of a rolltop desk modeled along the lines of the oak desk in my father’s office at work. A writer needs a desk.

I never gave nursing a thought; can’t handle blood and guts. And while my dad felt I should teach, wisely pointing out how nice it would be to have summers off, I knew even then I was too impatient to deal with obnoxious kids like myself all day.

Lois opened the door to another possibility.

Lois Lane was chic and professional. She wore wonderful little tailored suits and smart hats. She interacted as an equal with the chief, who assigned her to big, important stories, not the women’s pages.

She wasn’t a “girl reporter.” She was a reporter. She got to travel and have adventures. She mooned over Superman and mocked Clark Kent. I could do all that!

I was pretty young when “Adventures of Superman” was on, and I didn’t connect the dots at the time—didn’t see that Lois was pointing the way. Nor did I think of her later, when it came time to choose a college major.

But she was in there somehow as I settled on journalism, a practical way, I reasoned, to both write and pay the bills. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve enjoyed my many jobs in newspapers, magazines and books.

At long last, let me publicly thank the lady who inspired me. She may be fictional, but her example was real enough.

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Color me content

I belong to a mindfulness group, a circle of companionable souls who get together once a week for meditation and other practices designed to foster attention and the ability to “be here now,” as Ram Dass used to say in the ‘60s.

One week our group leader began the session by passing out crayons and photocopies of a variety of intricate designs for us to color. Mine, according to the caption, was a Panamanian mola, a type of bright, colorful textile made by means of complex cuts in multiple layers of fabric. I was familiar with this folk art because a friend had given me a mola many years ago. I liked it so much that I framed it and have hung it in every place I’ve lived.

But did I want to color a paper version? I thought the idea was a little lame. Crayons? Really?

Nevertheless, I chose my colors and gamely began working along with everyone else. There was silence in the room as we all bore down on our respective designs. Soon I felt myself easing into the flow of the moment. Concentrating on this simple, tactile work made me feel calm and yes, meditative. I thought of those Tibetan Buddhist monks who create mandalas out of sand, grain by colorful grain. Talk about the art of attention.

That was my first taste of what turns out to be a major new fad: coloring. Coloring books for grown-ups are suddenly a thing. You’d be surprised at how many people have told me they love to color or know someone who does.

As every little kid knows, coloring is creative. You get to make art. You choose the colors, add effects and—if you’re ambitious—even insert new elements into the picture. Moreover, it’s a refreshingly analog activity, balm for those of us who spend too much time staring into screens.

So a couple of months ago, when my cousin Karen asked if I might like a coloring book for my birthday, I eagerly said yes. She picked one out that seems tailor-made for an aging boomer. Titled “Peace & Love Coloring Book,” its cover depicts a peace symbol that has morphed into a mandala, emblazoned with flowers, hearts and swirls. Smack in the center is an anime-style smiley face. Does my cousin know me or what?

Inside is hippie-style artwork in the manner of “Yellow Submarine” and Fillmore East posters. Very groovy. I’ve done just one picture so far, a psychedelic butterfly, using the colored pencils my cousin sent. I just bought myself a box of Crayolas. Maybe I’ll branch out into markers and gels too.

Coloring is relaxing; it’s something you can do if you’re feeling scattered, overwrought or subpar. That’s why I purchased a coloring book for a friend who’s just out of the hospital. She’s a huge reader but can’t concentrate at the moment. Post-surgery, her attention span is roughly equivalent to my kitten Moe’s.

Coloring therapy should be just the ticket.

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Kitten apocalypse

I’ve sometimes thought how great it must be to run an animal rescue operation—specifically, for cats. Think of the fun you’d have canoodling with cats all day and playing with kittens.

I’ve just had a very small taste of that experience, and let me tell you, it’s no easy job. I have new respect for rescuers, especially those who work out of their homes.

A neighbor took in an abandoned mama cat and four tiny kittens, housing them in her upstairs bathroom and attached laundry room for weeks. When she went on vacation recently, I told her I’d watch them here.

It took two cars to transport cats, cat beds, baskets, towels, litter boxes and tarps to place under those boxes in case of, um, spills. We brought over their food—dry and canned, adult and kitten—along with dishes, bowls and a flotilla of cat toys. I set the gang up in my home office, complete with cat trees and window seats that my own cats enjoy.

I promptly fell head over heels for the little family: two orange kittens, two tuxedos and their mother, a longhaired calico barely past kittenhood herself.

But wow. What a lot of work.

Mom and kits were hungry. Every morning I mixed weaning formula from a powder my neighbor supplied, then brought up an assortment of food—canned, and a little dry—during the day. I felt like a cat waitress, but at least I wasn’t feeding them formula out of a syringe around the clock as my friend Polly did for tiny kittens she once fostered.

All that eating made for lots of trips to the litter box. I was constantly scooping, and as soon as I cleaned, someone would go back and use the boxes again.

Kittens are nature’s anarchists. They’re like the Marx Brothers in miniature, running amok in merry mischief. I lifted my rat’s nest of computer wiring off the floor and removed desk accessories and important papers. But you can’t put everything away, and the kittens found plenty to get into.

I felt like Gulliver among the Lilliputians whenever I walked into the room mid-caper. They loved to run, chase, jump and oh yes, tear paper. Paper shreds were everywhere. The envelope for a card I acquired for a friend had puncture marks from tiny teeth, and the flap of a Netflix envelope was thoroughly chewed. Working at my computer was a challenge, since you never knew when a low-flying kitten would land on the keyboard. Thank God for the “undo” command.

The week extended to two, after my neighbor and I decided the office was a better venue for kittens than her bathroom.  Then she adopted the mom cat and took her home permanently; another friend adopted two of the kittens.

Of the two left, one is promised to someone in Queens. And despite group ambivalence from my husband and my grown cats, it looks like the final kitten, a little black-and-white fellow that we’ve been calling Moe, will stay right here. He turns out to be a keeper.


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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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