Words with Friends or Scrabble? What’s your choice?

Caesium. Unless you’re a chemist, you might comfortably live your entire lifetime without encountering that word—unless, of course, you play Words with Friends. CAESIUM was the word that Zyngawf fielded a couple of days ago, laying the “S” on top of the existing word QUIRTS to make SQUIRTS, for a cool 71 points. Drat! Outmaneuvered again.

Zyngawf is the Words with Friends moniker of one of the folks with whom I regularly play. At the moment, I have six games in progress—one with him, another with Inthesticks and two each with Iggypop and Boomergirl.

These friends have taught me a lot about Words with Friends by example, especially Zyngawf and Inthesticks. Both are experienced players. Inthesticks, especially, loves to win and so, I’ve discovered, do I. Indeed, I didn’t realize how competitive I really was until I began playing with Inthesticks. I’d much rather lose to Zyngawf. He’s such a gentleman that he once apologized for netting 121 points with LAXATIVE on a triple-word spot.

I’m late to Words with Friends, having begun playing only about six or eight months ago. A friend came over one day and, in true 21st-century fashion, we sat in my living room talking while noodling around on our devices—my iPad, her iPhone.

Hey, she said. Do you play Words with Friends? And so we each downloaded the game on the spot and began playing, ignoring my husband’s sensible suggestion that we simply set up the Scrabble board. He and I used to play Scrabble all the time. For years we had an ongoing game, playing at least once a week, sometimes more. We each won about half the time. I knew more words but he played more strategically.

But Words with Friends was different, as I soon found out. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it and I found the losses humbling. “You don’t have the killer instinct—yet,” Inthesticks advised. Playing with her and Zyngawf soon sharpened my skills. Now I even beat them once in a while. Other times, I groan at their uncanny ability to land the big points—the CAESIUM thing.

Boomergirl is about where I was six months ago. She makes words all right, but she doesn’t play the double and triple squares advantageously. More important, she leaves triple-score openings for me. SCREWED, I put down the other day, for 46 points. That’s for sure, Boomergirl retorted. And so I repeated what Inthesticks once told me: “If you leave me a triple spot, you can be sure I will take it.”

Sometimes my husband looks over my shoulder when I’m playing Words with Friends and even helps with the occasional move. I’ve urged him to download the app to his own iPad, so that we could play a game—together, yet alone in our own little screens.

No way, he says. Where’s the Scrabble board? But since I started playing Words with Friends, we just haven’t done taken it out.

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‘Best place to retire’ may be here

A few years ago I proposed a lateral move to my husband. The idea was to trade our turn-of-the-century village home for a smaller house that would better suit us as we grew older—something on one level, with easy upkeep and no rooms screaming for renovation. It sounded sensible as we entered our 60s and we even looked at a house or two, including one with a mold problem. Eww.

In the end, we stayed put. We’ve been in our house for 18 years now, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. I don’t know if we’ll ever move, but we sometimes talk about it—most recently last week, when I spotted one of those “best places to retire” lists online.

The cities were chosen based on criteria like cost of living, health care, crime rate and other quality-of-life issues. Climate factored in, but not as much as you might think. Wintry spots like Pittsburgh, Madison and Fargo all made the cut.

But none of the places I daydream about were included. When I ponder moving, my thoughts first turn to New England. My home state of Rhode Island tops the list, despite the taxes and high cost of living. I’ve often thought of moving back, since I’ve always loved it there and try to visit every summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to be near the ocean?

I love Massachusetts, too.  I could see myself living, say, on Cape Cod or perhaps in the Berkshires. Or maybe I’d settle down in the town where I was born in central Massachusetts, with aunts and cousins nearby.

Then there’s Vermont, another state where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. My husband and I visited Waterbury last month and were entranced by both the scenery and the vibe. There’s great interest in environmental issues in Vermont—we spotted an electric-vehicle charging station at the coffeehouse, for example.  We even toured a place that was for sale by owner—a house-cum-antiques shop we stopped at on the way home, with a barn and chicken coop out back.

But, oh, the cold. Someone told us the average temps last winter had been minus 5 during the day and minus 20 at night. That put a chill, so to speak, on our Vermont fantasy. I can’t see living someplace colder than Iceland.

Then, how about the opposite direction, Florida—the winter home, in fact, of the Vermont friends we visited? We have family and other friends on both coasts. But my husband thinks the heat would be oppressive. He puts thumbs-down on a Florida move.

That leaves Ohio. It’s not on anyone’s “best places” list, but it’s got one huge advantage: My brother and his family live there. But I don’t know. In between the farm land, there’s lots of malls and highways. It would be like moving to Paramus.

So, until a better idea comes along, I guess we will stay where we are. There really is no place like home.

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Paging Martha Stewart

My college journalism professor, a crusty, old-school newshound, used to tell us he didn’t particularly like to write—he liked to have written. I feel the same way about gardening. I don’t really like digging, planting and weeding. What I like is to watch the flowers come up afterward.

I’m having trouble getting motivated this year. Here it is the end of June and I still haven’t planted the dahlias. I usually put them in around Memorial Day and then dig them up again in October. This year, except for a handful I stuck out back, the bulbs are sitting in the cardboard box in which they spent the winter, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Did I ever really like to garden, or did I just fall prey to what you might call the Martha Stewart effect? Gardening was one of those things one did in the country. All the shelter magazines said so. There was a mystique to it—a glamour. Closer to home, I had the example of my mother, for whom planting was an art form. Her huge backyard garden was all about texture, color and light.

When I first moved to Pennsylvania, my storybook cabin in the woods—which someone once described as “the chalet at the end of the road”—had no garden. So I dug one.

In small plots flanking the front door, I planted bleeding heart, burning bush and other perennials along with a sprinkling of spring bulbs. There were so many rocks that I feared I might be digging up a drainage field. My neighbor Charlie assured me that was just the nature of the soil in Dingmans Ferry.

I chose plants that tolerated the shade and they stayed petite. Everything was on a small scale. It was pretty and manageable. Martha would have approved.

Then I met my husband and moved to town. Our house had no landscaping of any kind, just a poorly kept lawn. We set about fixing that. We bought shrubs for a foundation garden, then dug gardens lining the path to the front door and filled them with flowers and bushes. In time we created additional gardens at the front, back and sides of the property. There was lots and lots of planting.

To say that things thrived is an understatement. We’re in the valley here, not the mountains. Unlike my Dingmans garden, the one here in town enjoys good soil and plenty of sun. The shrubs became enormous and the perennials so vigorous that we regularly dig out the overflow and pot them up to give away. A wisteria that was the size of a No. 2 pencil when planted is now like something out of Little Shop of Horrors. My husband hacked it into submission a couple of weeks ago because it had engulfed the patio furniture.

You can’t argue with success. But it’s a lot of work keeping all these gardens under control. Maybe next year I’ll hire a landscaper. In the meantime, I really must put in those dahlias.

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Let’s hear it for aunts

Two or three years ago, I was ordering bouquets for Mother’s Day and chose identical arrangements of iris and tulips for my mother and my aunt— my mother’s younger sister, who is also my godmother. Aunts don’t get as much respect as they deserve. The drugstore had only a handful of “aunt” cards to choose from, and the online florist’s pulldown menu for “Relation” didn’t even list aunt. Mother was there, of course, along with wife, sibling, cousin, friend, colleague and a few others. But there was no box for aunt. I had to choose “other,” which seemed disloyal, somehow.

Aunt is an important category in my book, even more so now that my mother has died. In these months following her death, I’ve bonded more deeply with my aunt in a kind of love swap made all the easier by the fact that the two of them look so much alike. When friends see photos of me with my aunt, they invariably think it’s my mother.

My mother was just 19 when I was born and my aunt was in high school. We lived in the apartment upstairs from my grandparents in a small town in central Massachusetts, so I enjoyed an Italian extended-family upbringing for the first four years of my life. It’s a great setting for a little kid.

Whenever I see my aunt, I get new nuggets of information about those years—stories of my grandparents, parents, other relatives and family friends. When I visited last weekend, she recalled how, as a toddler, I would wait for her to get home from school, running to greet her crying “Auntie! Auntie!” Then I would demand to be taken for a walk.

Other than looks, there were few similarities between my mother and my aunt. They disagreed about almost everything their entire lives—they were those kinds of sisters. They had different talents and interests. Each could be headstrong and opinionated.

Nevertheless, they were family. When Mom lived here in Pennsylvania, we made excursions to Massachusetts almost every summer. Before Christmas and on Mother’s Day we would split the geographical difference between us, meeting my aunt and cousin for brunch in Connecticut (a mutually inconvenient location, if you will).

Now I go alone or with my husband, grateful that my aunt is still with us. She’s in her 80s and has had a few health scares. She can’t do as much as she used to. She doesn’t, for example, make homemade pasta anymore—a skill she learned from my grandmother. Nevertheless, she served a mean Bolognese sauce on our last visit.

The people in that generation above us are important. They are like a buffer zone between us and—well, let’s say eternity. I’m grateful that I still have my aunt, that she’s reasonably healthy and active, and that her mind is sound. Besides all those stories, she is a repository of recipes. She’s passed some of them along but they just don’t taste as good when I make them.


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Feet don’t fail me now

Remember the year Sally Field wore sneakers to the post-Oscar parties, flirtatiously lifting the ruffled hem of her red Valentino ball gown to give photographers a peek at the running shoes underneath? That’s the red-carpet look I’m mulling as I shop for something to wear to my niece Beckie’s wedding.

Shoes and I are having a standoff. There’s exactly one pair that I can safely wear at this point and yes, they are sneakers. Anything else can cause pain—the shrieking, screaming kind that seems almost comically out of proportion to the cause. The feet and toes are loaded with nerve endings, and all of mine seem to be wailing at the same time.

Sneakers do not lend themselves to frothy summer party dresses. It’s hard to picture myself dancing at the reception in a flirty black sheath accessorized by New Balance clodhoppers.

The problem stems from a single arthritic toe on the left foot—the one next to the pinkie toe, to be exact. This poor digit has served hard time for 60-odd years. It’s longer than it should be and sits head-and-shoulders above the toes on either side, like that freakishly tall kid in the back row of your sixth-grade classroom photo.

This overreaching has led to years of cruel abuse. The poor toe—which I think I am going to name Gwendolyn—has been crushed and crumpled in all manner of shoes and boots.

Like many women, I love shoes and have worn my share of pointy-toed pumps, though never those “Sex and the City”-style stilettos. At 5 foot 9, I was afraid of towering over the opposite sex. One of the more superficial reasons I was drawn to my husband is that he’s tall enough for me to wear heels with.

Not that I do anymore. I gradually gave them up after leaving New York City for Pennsylvania. Working out of a home office, it didn’t matter if I was wearing cute shoes—or indeed, any shoes. No one knew or cared. I bought my last pair of heels for a friend’s wedding five years ago, and never wore them again. I finally donated them to the thrift store. Let some other Cinderella cram her tootsies inside.

My fallback was ballet flats, but those don’t work for me now. Gwendolyn doesn’t like them. Even sandals are a problem, since Gwendolyn demands sole support. Thankfully, some of the athletic-shoe companies make models that don’t shout Boston Marathon, but even these can be problematic. I recently bought a cool pair of turquoise Keens cunningly assembled out of shoelaces and leather—think cat’s cradle, or maybe sports bondage—and while I can wear them briefly, Gwendolyn and I don’t dare walk far in them.

A podiatrist has offered a surgical option. I may do it one day, but for now I’ll stick with the toe cot he recommended, and wear it under my sneaks. With Sally as our inspiration, maybe Gwendolyn and I can rock the look after all.

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Hooked on ‘Grace and Frankie’

Other than an occasional movie like “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” there are precious few examples of successful aging in the popular culture. Films and TV mainly center on younger, more photogenic people, with their elders chiming in as parents or in other supporting roles.

So it was with great interest that I queued up the latest Netflix original series, a sitcom called “Grace and Frankie” that pairs Jane Fonda with her old “Nine to Five” co-star Lily Tomlin.

The women are married to law partners—Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, respectively—who confess in the first episode to a homosexual affair two decades long. Robert and Sol leave their wives and move in together, while the women wind up as roommates in the beach house the two families mutually own.

The impeccably groomed Grace (Fonda) and hippy-dippy Frankie (Tomlin) don’t much like each other. Grace has retired as the CEO of a cosmetics company she founded, while Frankie is an artist who teaches painting to ex-cons. Part of the fun is watching this Odd Couple cohabit, but the payoff is seeing them gradually develop and deepen a friendship.

Let it be said upfront that yes, Jane Fonda looks amazing at 77. She’s too thin (there’s a running joke in the series about how Grace never eats) and is a bit of a Stepford Wife, thanks to cosmetic surgery. Nevertheless, Fonda truly does look ageless. So does Tomlin, actually, with her long hair, flowing robes and scarves.

The show follows the foursome in the aftermath of the husbands’ revelation, and it’s not all played for laughs. “Grace and Frankie” explores the emotional wreckage that occurs when a relationship of 40 years implodes. You can understand why Sol and Robert want to come out. Yet you feel for the wives as they try to figure out what to do with themselves in a culture that does not cherish older, single women.

Grace, at loose ends, contemplates going back to work. She tries computer dating, then hooks up with an old friend, Guy (Craig T. Nelson). When they go to bed together for the first time, the famously toned Fonda—remember those exercise tapes?—laments the flabby state of her upper arms. Ah Jane, we can all relate!

Frankie, meanwhile, finds it hard to cut her ties to Sol. Only at the very end of Season 1 does she start to come back to life, as Sol prepares for his wedding to Robert.

There are many memorable moments in the first 13 episodes. My favorite might be the scene where Grace and Frankie are ignored at a grocery store checkout counter—they’ve become invisible, an experience I’ll wager every woman over 50 has shared. Frankie retaliates by shoplifting a pack of cigarettes. It’s not a course of action I would recommend. But I couldn’t help thinking, “you go, girl!”

The writing is uneven and “Grace and Frankie” falters here and there. Nevertheless, I’m already eager for Season 2.

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Woodstock revisited

In her new book on aging, women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup advises that if you want to stay young, don’t ask for senior discounts. These reminders that you’re old enough for AARP will soon have you thinking of yourself as aged and infirm.

In the same vein, here’s another piece of advice for keeping your mind-set youthful: Don’t go to museums showcasing events that you’re old enough to have witnessed firsthand. There is nothing like seeing a gaggle of ninth graders gawking at “historical” items that might have come out of your junk drawer to make you feel like a geezer.

That’s my takeaway after visiting The Museum at Bethel Woods at the site of the legendary Woodstock music festival—three days of peace, love and the mightiest collection of bands ever assembled. Just across the border in Sullivan County, NY, Bethel Woods is a place I’ve long meant to see. So it was that my friend Joyce and I decided to meet there recently for lunch.

Neither of us made it to Woodstock. Joyce was out of the country in 1969 and I was working that weekend. In retrospect, it’s probably just as well. Although the music was amazing, as seen in the movie and subsequent album, I don’t think I would have liked the crowds, the drugs or the mud. Even in my best Emporium India dresses, I never passed as a hippie. I was more in the category of uptight white chick.

As Joyce predicted, the museum café had fare named after musical groups (Country Joe and the Tuna Fish wrap). But while the food was good and the setting lovely—manicured fields in every direction—we found the exhibits underwhelming. Much of the installation consisted of multimedia displays and videos about the period and the music. But if you lived through the Vietnam War, and grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, these were anticlimactic.

There were few actual artifacts other than ticket stubs and iconic 1960s albums, many of which I had bought when new and still own. The orange caftan made “in the style” of the one Richie Havens wore to open the festival looked like someone had run it up on their sewing machine yesterday.

The flower-power VW Beetle and psychedelic bus were awfully clean. Indeed, a museum staffer came in to sponge the seats and walls of the latter while we were inside, something I’m betting never happened in 1969.

Bethel Woods is mainly a venue for music. Lots of ‘60s rockers appear, including—this summer—Neil Young and Jackson Browne, along with contemporary artists. A museum visit might best be enjoyed as an adjunct to your concert experience, not as a special trip.

A recent study suggested that most people stop listening to new music at around the age of 33. Maybe a season ticket to Bethel Woods, with its roster of old and new performers, could jar us out of that trap. Just don’t ask for a senior discount.

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And God created dandelions

You can tell it’s spring by the blossoming of the pear trees on Broad Street and the carpet of dandelions blanketing my yard. Is it my imagination, or are there more of these cheeky yellow flowers than there were last year? Did the hard winter give rise to a bumper crop? Or does the abundance signal my years of failure at controlling them? They seem to have multiplied, loaves-and-fishes style.

As every gardener knows, the humble dandelion—formally, Taraxacum officinale—is one of the most tenacious plants around. It gives kudzu and poison ivy a run for the money in terms of invasiveness. The dandelion’s tuberous roots, which grip the earth with a clawlike hold, must be taken out whole or you wind up doing the opposite of what you intend, and prompt new growth instead of stopping it. Roots can be a foot long—monstrous, in a way, and yet you can’t help but admire their stamina. If only my roses and lilies were this robust!

We don’t use herbicides, so I weed by hand. I start with the beds at the front of the property, digging out the dandelions with a long, pointed, metal stick expressly designed for the job. Then I work my way up the plots lining the path to the front door, silently cursing the fools who planted all these gardens—aka, our younger selves. It seemed like a good idea 18 years ago, when we bought the house. But now, not so much.

Next come the foundation gardens in front and the strip that runs along the side of the house. There’s a small plot for herbs by the back door, a hummingbird garden in the backyard and an iris bed at the rear of the property.

Needless to say, it takes a while. I can’t weed all the gardens in a day. As for the lawn, we’ve pretty much given up. If you just mow everything that grows, the end result is a blur of green, and that will have to be good enough.

Of course, there’s another way to look at dandelions. A couple of years ago, I spotted dandelion greens on the produce list of the food coop at the health food store. Marie, the owner, told me they were one of the best foods available for cleansing the liver. In fact, “The Herb Book” by John Lust recommends dandelion juice or tea for digestive problems, arthritis and even insomnia, and includes recipes for an eight-week “dandelion cure” made with fresh root.

It seemed silly to buy dandelions when I had so many free ones at hand. So I began picking dandelion leaves right out of the yard and using them in soups, stir fries and green shakes. Friends pick them too. One likes them in salads and another, in pasta with garlic and olive oil.

Maybe instead of arduously yanking them out, I can find a way to turn my bounty of dandelions into a cash crop. I wonder if I’m zoned for a dandelion farm.

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As ageless as Adaline

If you’re looking for a chick flick to go see with your girlfriends, I recommend “The Age of Adaline,” which I caught last week with my friend Jessica. This movie is the very definition of female fantasy—it’s about a woman who never ages.

A car crash plunges Adaline into icy water, but she is revived from hypoxia by a massive, Frankensteinian lightning strike. After that, Adaline remains 29 years old for eight decades, giving star Blake Lively the opportunity to wear a variety of period costumes and hair styles.

But before you get too lost in envying Adaline’s good fortune (while remembering how hot you, too, looked at 29), the movie delivers the downside. Being forever young can wear thin as you watch your friends, relatives and lovers all age while you remain unchanged.

People start to wonder, which is why Adaline changes identities every decade, rebooting her life again and again with a new job, new name and new place to live. That’s not as much fun as it seems. Think how exhausting it would be for a baby boomer to start over as a Millennial. You’d have to master a whole new mind-set and lingo, and maybe even get a tattoo.

The weirdness of being ageless is driven home in the character of Adaline’s daughter, played by Ellen Burstyn. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the 82-year-old actress calling the twentysomething Lively “mommy.” Things get even stranger when Adaline falls in love with a hunky young man whose father is played by Harrison Ford. I won’t tell you more so as not to spoil it for you, but be assured that love conquers all in the end.

Agelessness was on my mind even before I saw the movie, thanks to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s newest book, “Goddesses Never Age.” I missed Northrup’s PBS special but watched a couple of her videos promoting her ideas online, so I ordered the book, despite my reservations about the “goddess” language.

In fact, I was a little surprised at how New Agey the author—an OB/GYN who is a trusted specialist in women’s health—has become. Along with advice on diet, exercise and medical issues, Northrup talks of angels and astrology, chakras and shamans. She writes of prayers, affirmations and the mind/body connection. She has a lot to say about the Argentine tango, her own favorite form of exercise.

Northrup isn’t saying that women can stay 29 forever, like Adaline. But she points out that to some degree, the way we age is within our control. Inactivity and sugar will make you older faster, she warns. So will an outlook that equates aging with deterioration. The two are not necessarily paired, Northrup says. You can be older—or rather, ageless—and vital.

Northrup offers many hints and tips for ageless living, including one piece of advice I really like: When people ask your age, just say you were born in the 20th century. Even Adaline could go with that formulation.


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Reading challenge

Interested in participating in the book challenge I described in my previous post (“A 21st century book club”)? Here are the 50 categories of books to read; the idea is to check off as many as you can in a year. I’m told the challenge originated at GoodReads, but I couldn’t find it there. So I’ve just cut and pasted from my friend’s e-mail. Here goes:

[ ] A book with 500 pages
[ ] A classic romance (Suggested authors: Jane Austen, Agnes Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Georgette Heyer, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Barbara Cartland, Elizabeth Gaskell)
[ ] A book that became a movie
[ ] A book published this year
[ ] A book with a number in the title
[ ] A book written by someone age under 30
[ ] A book with nonhuman characters
[ ] A funny book
[ ] A book with a female author
[ ] A mystery or thriller

[ ] A book with a one-word title
[ ] A book of short stories
[ ] A book set in a different country
[ ] A nonfiction book
[ ] A popular author’s first book
[ ] A book you have not read from an author you love
[ ] A book a friend recommended
[ ] A Pulitzer Prize winning book
[ ] A book based on a true story
[ ] A book at the bottom of your to-read list

[ ] A book your mom loves (loved)
[ ] A book that scares you
[ ] A book more than 100 years old
[ ] A book chosen entirely on its cover
[ ] A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
[ ] A memoir
[ ] A book you can finish in a day
[ ] A book with antonyms in the title
[ ] A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
[ ] A book that came out the year you were born

[ ] A book with bad reviews
[ ] A trilogy
[ ] A book from your childhood
[ ] A book with a love triangle
[ ] A book set in the future
[ ] A book set in high school
[ ] A book with a color in the title
[ ] A book that made you cry
[ ] A book with magic
[ ] A graphic novel

[ ] A book by an author you’ve never read before
[ ] A book you own but have never read
[ ] A book that takes place in your hometown (or close to where you live)
[ ] A book originally written in a different language
[ ] A book set during Christmas
[ ] A book written by an author with your same initials
[ ] A play
[ ] A banned book
[ ] A book based on or turned into a TV show
[ ] A book you started but never finished

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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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