Checking Out at the Grocery Store

grocerybasketWhen it comes to grocery shopping, there’s absolutely no limit to the things I can forget.  Every week, I start with the best of intentions – detailed list in hand, reusable bags at the ready – but as soon as I pass through the automatic doors, all that planning drifts away like steam off a rotisserie chicken.  I don’t know if I’m truly absentminded or just prone to distraction, but one thing is certain – my brain checks out long before I reach the register.

Over the years, I’ve forgotten to buy countless grocery items that were clearly written on my list.  I’ve also bought plenty of duplicates of things that I forgot I already had at home.  I’ve left several umbrellas in the bottom of my shopping cart.  I’ve left bagged groceries at the register.  Once, I even left my purse in the cart corral in the parking lot.  A few weeks ago, I forgot about my deli order until I was halfway through the checkout line and had to sprint all the way across the store to retrieve it.

“It happens all the time, ma’am,” the clerk assured me.  I wish I could believe that.

I also wish I could figure out what’s behind these alarming episodes of grocery amnesia.  It’s the kind of thing that I would love to blame on Mommy Brain, but since my baby is entering fourth grade, I should probably start looking for another culprit.  Could a refrigerant leak in the frozen foods section make me feel woozy enough to forget one item from a grocery list that’s only three items long?  Could the intense challenge of navigating around end-aisle displays and stop-and-go shoppers cause me to buy everything I need for my chicken dinner except the chicken?  Could the overwhelming array of choices in every product category account for my shocking inability to remember which kind of granola bars/toaster pastries/fruit snacks to buy?

Or is it just that a routine weekly activity, accompanied by a bland, lyric-free soundtrack, practically begs the mind to wander?  When I pass right by the Goldfish crackers, chances are I’m thinking about a funny episode of a TV show instead of the nearly empty box in my pantry.  When I reach for the watermelon Italian ice, my mind is probably on a new book I’m reading instead of the fact that no one likes that flavor.  And when I somehow come home with hot dog buns – but, alas, no hot dogs – I’m undoubtedly focusing on an idea for a writing project instead of lunch.

It’s a special brand of escapism – a store brand, if you will – that seems harmless at first, but can have serious consequences.  In the beginning, it’s a minor inconvenience.  Then it becomes an increasingly maddening frustration.  If left unchecked, it can rise to the level of an actual crime.  Trust me – I know the pattern all too well.

On a recent outing at the grocery store near my house, I rolled into the self-checkout area and spotted a friend in the next lane.  We started talking about vacation plans as I scanned and bagged my groceries.  I loaded everything in my cart, and we continued talking as we walked together out to the parking lot.

That’s when a store employee came running outside, shouting, “Ma’am?  MA’AM?!?”  Was she talking to me?  Apparently she was.  My friend and I stopped and turned around.  “Were you just in the self-checkout?” the clerk asked breathlessly.  “Yes,” I replied, wondering what I had left behind this time.

“I think you forgot to pay,” she announced.


The only reason I’m not in jail right now is that it was obvious that I was way more into running my mouth than running off with my groceries.  (Also, I had already scanned my customer loyalty card and positively identified myself.)  How humiliating!  I had no choice but to sheepishly follow the clerk back into the store and pay for my things.

She did NOT assure me that it happens all the time.

I’d say a radical change in my shopping state of mind is clearly indicated.  No longer can I allow mundanity and Muzak to lull my brain into la-la land.  I need to focus and concentrate on the task at hand if I have any hope of saving myself from constant aggravation, not to mention a criminal record.  I’m going to have to do everything I can to stop forgetting things at the grocery store.

I just wonder how long it will take that clerk to forget about ME.

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Dads Who Go The Distance

haroldfryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2013)




usUs by David Nicholls (2014)




Father’s Day is the perfect time to highlight two noteworthy books featuring particularly intrepid dads.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Us by David Nicholls tell the stories of two men who travel well outside their comfort zones to discover the truth about themselves, right past wrongs and attempt to save their families.

Retired salesman Harold Fry is sharing a terse breakfast with his wife, Maureen, when he receives a troubling letter.  His former co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, is dying and has written to say goodbye.  Although Harold hasn’t heard from Queenie in 20 years, the news jolts him out of his mundane existence.  He hastily pens a reply and sets out to post it, but walks right by the nearest mailbox, and the one after that and even the one after that.  He decides to keep on walking until he reaches Queenie’s bedside at the northern tip of England.  “I’m setting off right now,” he tells the hospice nurse over the phone.  “As long as I walk, she must live.  Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.”

Us begins with a similarly disturbing announcement, when Douglas Petersen’s wife, Connie, awakens him in the middle of the night to confess that she is thinking of leaving him.  The news comes shortly before Douglas, a staid biochemist, and Connie, a broad-minded artist and museum administrator, are set to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe with their university-bound son, Albie.  Stunned and unable to imagine life without Connie, Douglas seizes upon this ambitious family vacation as his last opportunity to save his marriage.  Unfortunately, his checklist for a successful trip – including items like “Be fun” and “Try to relax” and “Avoid conflict with Albie” – does not bode well.

As Harold and Douglas leave their normal routines behind, they are able to reflect on the events that have brought them to this point.  These reminiscences gradually fill in the rough sketches of their lives that are first presented.  Both were shaped by demanding fathers and have difficult relationships with their sons.  Both have endured tragedies and harbor untold regrets.  Both are now desperate to make things right.

Harold has spent a lifetime keeping people at a polite distance, but his journey brings him into direct and unavoidable contact with countless strangers.  His acquaintances are certainly unique and in some cases downright strange, but by accepting their vagaries, he just might be able to forgive his own shortcomings.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an absolutely charming story that proves to be much deeper and more meaningful than expected, and nature enthusiasts will surely savor Joyce’s lovely descriptions of the English countryside in springtime.

Meanwhile, Douglas is convinced that he has done everything he can to be a good husband and father, but his recollections show that his efforts have often had the opposite effect.  He struggles to understand how his family – and their Grand Tour – could have gone so far off course and wonders if he can rescue either one.  Us is full of razor-sharp wit and clever observations, but ultimately contains more heart and sincerity than first seemed possible.  Art and travel lovers will certainly appreciate Nicholls’ masterful showcase of the great museums of Europe.

Neither Harold nor Douglas is quite the same at the end of his journey as he was at the beginning.  I hope that readers feel similarly affected when they finish these two tales of dauntless dads.  Happy Father’s Day!


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The Boys in the Boat

theboysintheboatThe Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013)

“Where is the spiritual value of rowing?…The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.”   George Yeoman Pocock

Once in a while, a group of ordinary individuals comes together and achieves something extraordinary.  It’s a phenomenon that might appear magical, but certainly doesn’t happen by chance.  It takes enormous resolve and unwavering trust to create a team that is more than the sum of its parts.  In The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown tells the story of one such team – nine young men from the University of Washington who rowed against all odds to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Do you remember the Dream Team from the 1992 Olympics?  It was the first time the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team included professional players, and its roster was like a Who’s Who of National Basketball Association superstars.  Many considered it to be the greatest sports team ever assembled.

By those standards, the men’s crew team representing the U.S. in 1936 wasn’t exactly a Dream Team.  It was comprised of an underfunded group of working class boys, most of whom had never even held an oar before attending college.  They possessed only strong backs, long limbs and an intense desire to succeed – none more so than Joe Rantz, whose experience provides the foundation for this remarkable story.

Joe endured a childhood of grinding poverty and appalling neglect.  He tried out for the Husky crew team mainly to qualify for a part-time job on campus, but instead found a place where he truly belonged, amidst a cast of memorable real-life characters: Freshman Coach Tom Bolles, with his battered lucky fedora; kindhearted crewmate Shorty Hunt; wily coxswain Bobby Moch; notoriously taciturn Head Coach Al Ulbrickson.  But the most influential presence of all was George Pocock, the British expat who handcrafted racing shells in a workshop over the boathouse.  An expert boatbuilder and oarsman, Pocock was a keen observer of character and a wellspring of wisdom and understanding.

Brown’s astonishingly detailed research and engaging descriptions quickly immerse readers in the sport of rowing and the world of the 1930’s.  In fact, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the magnitude of the Huskies’ achievement without this richly illustrated backdrop.  We get to know Joe and his teammates as they rise from the utter desperation of the Great Depression.  We follow them as they challenge the negative perceptions held by their elite, East Coast competitors.  And we wait with bated breath on the shores of the Langer See as they win the gold medal, despite Hitler’s meticulous designs to make the Olympics a showcase of Nazi preeminence.  Their victory exposed the futility of Hitler’s efforts and demonstrated something that George Pocock knew all along – that true unity can only be achieved by mutual trust, not by force.

In his prologue, Brown recounts that when he told Joe that he was interested in writing a book about his rowing days, Joe replied, “But not just about me.  It has to be about the boat.”  During their conversation, Brown says, “…I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew.  To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both – it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition.  It was a shared experience…”

An experience that, thanks to Brown, readers are fortunate enough to share as well.

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Positive Energy

halfmarathonLast Sunday, I hit the pavement along with nearly 8,000 other runners for the 8th Annual Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The day was unseasonably warm and humid, which set the stage for a slow, sweaty slog to the finish line, but didn’t dampen my enthusiasm a bit.  I love race day.  Not because I have any chance of winning – far from it!  It’s because race day offers a rare combination of exhilaration, affirmation and positive energy that seems hard to find in our increasingly negative world.

On race day, most runners are competing only against themselves, not against each other, so there’s always a sense of camaraderie along the course.  Most spectators are there to cheer on a friend or family member, but that doesn’t stop them from urging on every other runner who happens to pass.  They’re more than willing to offer complete strangers high fives, showers from their garden hoses and enthusiastic cowbell accompaniment.  They’ll relentlessly clap, wave signs and shout “Way to go!” and “Keep it up!” and “You got this!” for as long as it takes to ensure that every runner keeps moving toward the finish line.

This was epitomized in the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., where I actually saw a woman holding a sign that proclaimed, “Hey total stranger – I’m so proud of you!”  Another memorable sign from Sunday’s race said, “My awesome ex-husband and his wife are running today!” – quite possibly the most extreme example of goodwill I’ve ever witnessed.

None of this kindness is lost on the runners, who are an uncommonly appreciative bunch.  They say “Thank you” to the volunteers who hand out water and Gatorade.  They say “Thank you for your service” to the Marines stationed along the course.  They even say “Thank you” (and occasionally “More cowbell!”) to the spectators who cheer them on.  In military-sponsored events like the Marine Corps race series and the Army Ten-Miler, you’ll often see wounded warriors running on artificial limbs, and most runners make a special effort to encourage them.  “Great job.” “Keep going.”  “Finish strong.”

This consideration stands in stark contrast to the rest of life, where kind words can be few and far between.  Outside mutually supportive zones like race day, celebrities have Twitter feuds, politicians exchange personal attacks and sitcom kids are disturbingly snarky toward their parents.  An entire industry has formed around ridiculing people on reality TV.  Even average citizens are subjected to cyberbullying, fat shaming and shade throwing, and the comments that cut the deepest seem to go viral the fastest.

What if every day could be more like race day?  Imagine what life would be like if every customer in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles said “Thank you” to the clerk behind the counter.  Or if a fellow shopper approached the mom with the crying baby in the grocery store and murmured, “Keep going.  You got this.”  What if the driver of the car stuck in traffic next to yours rolled down his window and called out, “You’re almost there!  Finish strong!”

I know it’s a long shot, but I feel certain that a little encouragement would make it a lot easier to keep going in life, just as it does on the race course.  Surely the same positive energy that propelled runners up Hospital Hill on Sunday could help conquer other kinds of obstacles as well.  While we may not come across thousands of runners every day, we undoubtedly meet plenty of people who could really use a boost.  The key is to recognize the opportunities.  So keep your eyes open.  Think positive.

And don’t be afraid to use a cowbell if you have to.

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Hats Off To Mom

derbyhatAn epic convergence of all things maternal took place over the weekend, with a celebration of my mom’s 70th birthday on Saturday, followed by Mother’s Day on Sunday.  The birthday party was a Kentucky Derby theme, with roses, mint juleps and all kinds of delicious Southern treats.  Nearly 60 people gathered to honor Mom, and you better believe the ladies took full advantage of the opportunity to wear a spectacular hat.

Music…Fitness…Faith…Family.  These are the threads woven through my mom’s life, and they were all represented at the party.  Her family was there.  Her childhood friends (“the original free-range kids”) were there.  Her college roommates were there.  Her church friends were there, and so were her book club friends, gym friends and choral society friends.  A divorce didn’t end her affection for her in-laws, who were also there (“You can’t get rid of us!” laughed my aunt), as was the woman who later married my dad.

Among the hat-wearing, julep-sipping crowd were a concert pianist, an avid runner and more singers than you could count.  Our rendition of “Happy Birthday” was positively symphonic, with my daughter, an occasional vocal student of her grandmother’s, directing.  Later, when Mom bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t join her friend in running a half-marathon again this year, her pal playfully consoled her, saying, “Remember, I’m only 69.”

Every mom knows that motherhood can be a thankless task, so I decided that this was the perfect chance to thank my mom for all she’s done – especially the things I didn’t really appreciate at the time.  I’m sharing my toast mostly in hopes that it will inspire some gratitude for all moms, but also because I got a little too choked up to get all the way through it at the party.  Here it is…

Mom, thank you for all the vegetables and whole grains.  I’m healthier today because of them. 

Thank you for always jogging around the neighborhood in a certain light blue velour sweat suit.  You showed me the benefits of exercise and physical fitness. 

Thank you for always making me practice the piano and clean my room before going out with my friends.  You helped me keep my priorities straight and my bed made. 

Thank you for allowing only Classical or Oldies radio in your car.  You broadened my musical horizons far beyond the Top 40.

Thank you for taking me to church on Sundays.  You gave me a lifelong gift of faith. 

Thank you for listening.  Your attention taught me how to be more thoughtful toward others. 

Thank you for giving.  Your kindness showed me how to be generous with my time and energy. 

Most of all, thank you for always being there.  Your presence made me feel loved.

Now, your mom may not be a clean eating, high intensity interval training, churchgoing opera diva like mine, but I have a feeling she’s done many, many things over the years that merit recognition.  Don’t wait until next year’s Mother’s Day.  Give her a tip of the hat today.

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Winning Words

goalAt this time last year, I was feeling distinctly uneasy about the state of the English language.  In my post Is Modern Language Boring?, I fretted over our shrinking vocabulary and the resulting deterioration in the quality of our communication.  I implored readers to do whatever they could to reverse the trend.

Had I known that there was already a high-profile group working tirelessly to promote colorful adjectives and inventive turns of phrase, I wouldn’t have been nearly so dramatic.  Who are these language superheroes, you ask?  They’re not educators.  They’re not linguists.  They don’t work at the Oxford University Press, either.  They are the announcers of the European football leagues.

Americans know the sport as soccer, but everywhere else in the world, it’s football.  My husband, a lifelong player, has happily witnessed its growth in the U.S. over the years, so you can imagine how excited he was when Fox, NBC and ESPN began broadcasting English Premier League matches for American fans.  Now he could follow all the action across the pond from the comfort of our family room.

It took only one soccer-watching Saturday morning to realize that the British announcers’ style was very different from anything we had ever heard in American sports broadcasting.  Effective passes were described as “Brilliant!” “Lovely!” “Splendid!” or even “Delicious!”  Alternatively, a poor effort was characterized as “Deplorable!”  We heard one analyst lament that a player had lost the “silkiness” in his game.  It was all so entertaining – and so vocabulary-enhancing at the same time!

Then last summer, embattled striker Luis Suarez left Liverpool for Barcelona.  While Suarez’s behavior was often, well…Deplorable, his intense style of play was Delicious, and his absence was keenly felt on the pitch.  Not to mention in our family room.  There seemed no choice but to subscribe to BeIN Sports, the network that broadcasts Spanish La Liga matches.

And thank goodness we did.  Otherwise, we might never have encountered the unparalleled linguistic dexterity of commentator Ray Hudson.  His enthusiasm for the game is only surpassed by his enthusiasm for words, and one goal is all he needs to take off on a frenzied flight of descriptive fantasy.

When Leo Messi scored during a recent Barcelona v. Rayo Vallecano match, the gravelly-voiced Hudson called the forward “Magical!” and praised his “Wonderful, prismatic vision!”  But that was just a warm-up.  As the goal was replayed, he marveled at the way Messi slipped past defenders “Like smoke through a keyhole!” with ball-handling so smooth he was “Dripping honey on each touch!”  He really said that!

Hudson has been known to describe goals as “Sublime!” “Exquisite!” “Celestial!” and – our favorite – “Magisterial!”  In last week’s Barcelona v. Real Madrid El Clasico match, Neymar Jr. set Suarez up with a pass that Hudson first pronounced “An absolute 24-carat ingot of a ball!” and then during replay “A cross between a rapier and an absolute thunderbolt!”  Suarez’s finish?  “A beautiful kiss home.”  I swear I’m not making this up.

Hudson’s lavish tributes can range from illuminating to downright perplexing.  Many times, he helps you appreciate a player’s skill in a whole new way, such as, “Suarez peels away from his defenders like skin on a tangerine!”  But he’s equally capable of tossing out a real head-scratcher, like the time he called a Jeremy Mathieu header “More accurate than a bucket full of knuckles!”  If you have any idea what that means, please let me know.

Now, I realize that football announcers may not be able to save the English language all by themselves.  But you do have to appreciate the passion and creativity they bring to it.  Their spirited commentary not only enhances our enjoyment and knowledge of the game, it also reminds us of the dynamic power of words.  Try using “magisterial” in conversation this week and you’ll see what I mean.  Then check out some Ray Hudson highlights at the link below.

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The Rosie Effect

the rosie effectThe Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion (2014)

If you enjoyed The Rosie Project as much as I did, you’ll be thrilled to know that Don Tillman and Rosie Jarman are back in Graeme Simsion’s second novel The Rosie Effect.  Not only are they back, but they’re married and – surprise! – expecting a baby.  Will Don, a brilliant but socially challenged genetics professor, and Rosie, a free-spirited medical student, be able to navigate the path to parenthood together?  You’ll have to read this hilarious and heart-tugging book to find out.

We first met this unlikely pair in Simsion’s 2013 bestseller, when Don launched The Wife Project.  The highly intelligent, textbook Asperger’s case (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, minus the ego) decided that a wife would improve his quality of life, but as he later admitted, “My innate logical skills were significantly greater than my interpersonal skills.”  Don designed a comprehensive questionnaire to identify candidates with desirable traits such as Non-Smoking, Punctual and Omnivorous.  Then he met Rosie, a chronically late vegetarian…and a smoker!  She failed Don’s questionnaire, but caused him to experience emotions that he couldn’t explain.  He ultimately dropped The Wife Project to help Rosie find her biological father and, in the process, discovered that he was capable of going beyond logic and finding true love.

In this outing, Don and Rosie have moved from their native Australia to New York, where domestic bliss has had a mellowing effect on Don.  “I had learned that, in marriage, reason frequently had to take second place to harmony,” he says, a sentiment that would have been unthinkable only a few months earlier.  But the announcement of Rosie’s surprise pregnancy puts his newfound adaptability to the test.  Is Don up to the task of fatherhood?  Will he be able to forge a strong emotional connection with the baby, as he did with Rosie?  Can he manage two close relationships at once?  He initiates The Baby Project to find out.

The mission spirals out of control almost immediately, when an afternoon spent observing children at a playground lands Don at the police station.  His newly-acquired expertise on fetal development and maternal nutrition requirements seem to have a maddening effect on Rosie, who I’m sorry to say is somewhat less likeable than she was in the first book.  Meanwhile, Don’s friends need help with their own urgent problems.  It will take all of Don’s considerable brainpower, plus the support of his friends and a little bit of luck to save his marriage and his chance at fatherhood.  I have no doubt you’ll be cheering him on the whole way.

Don narrates the entire story, which grants readers an enlightening perspective on the inner workings of his mind and his social interactions.  His straightforward, logical approach sets a comically ironic tone for the book, especially when it exposes the highly irregular behavior of the supposedly regular people in his life.  It also helps readers understand how challenging everyday situations can be for those who are “wired differently,” as Don puts it.

In one memorable scene, Don is thoroughly affronted when a Loud Woman in a bar calls him “Rain Man.”  “A society of Rain Men would be dysfunctional,” he scoffs.  “A society of Don Tillmans would be efficient, safe, and pleasant for all of us.

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope Simsion will give us many more opportunities to check in on Don and Rosie in the future.

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Dear Lorne Michaels


March 4, 2015

Mr. Lorne Michaels
Saturday Night Live
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112

Dear Mr. Michaels,

There we were, settled in on the sofa for the comedy event of the year – the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special.  Your three-and-a-half hour reunion extravaganza had been hyped for months and promised a star-studded cast, top-notch musical guests and even brand-new skits.  My husband and I were looking forward to an evening of fond memories and total hilarity.

But within the first half-hour, we realized that something was wrong.  There was a flicker of apprehension when Chevy Chase tottered onto the stage.  A worried glance was exchanged when Dan Aykroyd reinacted his 1976 Bassomatic pitch, with no discernible comedic result.  Our worst fears were confirmed about six minutes into a seemingly endless episode of The Californians, which even plucky Betty White couldn’t save.

“Oh my gosh, it’s not that funny,” I said in dismay.  What in the name of sketch comedy was going on?  This was supposed to be a celebration of four decades of outrageous humor – a total laugh riot – but instead it just felt overwhelmingly awkward.  What a letdown.  As Billy Crystal might say, “I hate when that happens.”

At some point in the planning process, you must have decided that a clip show just wouldn’t do for your 40th anniversary.  Instead, you conceived a program that was, for all intents and purposes, a supersized version of the weekly show, complete with guest hosts, new skits and full-length musical numbers.  You certainly succeeded in bringing a sense of the unpredictable, madcap highs and lows of a live show to the anniversary celebration.  But I have to wonder if it was the best way to showcase 40 years of SNL.

There seemed little point in reprising old skits, word for word – as Aykroyd did with the Bassomatic – when the original clips would have been so much funnier.  After Dana Carvey’s dutiful rendition of “Chopping Broccoli,” there was a momentary pause before the audience applauded, as though they couldn’t quite believe that was all he was going to do with it.

New skits – Celebrity Jeopardy and The Californians – had their moments, but were hampered by too many celebrity hangers-on.  Jeopardy, in particular, featured some standout performances by Darrell Hammond, Kate McKinnon and others, but felt fragmented due to the sheer number of participants.  Likewise, the Weekend Update segment, with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin, was a delightfully sharp collaboration, except for the constant interruptions by A-listers eager to impersonate their favorite SNL characters.

The Wayne’s World skit, with its list of Top Ten Things About Saturday Night Live, was a welcome change of pace, in that it managed to honor the show and amuse the audience at the same time.  Your beguiling montage of SNL audition videos was another major highlight.  (I still can’t believe you passed on Jim Carrey.)  Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg’s new Digital Short “That’s When You Break” brought down the house with an infectiously funny clip reel of cast members giving in to the giggles.

All of which made me wonder why you were so averse to an anniversary clip show.  Were you afraid you’d look like a slacker if you didn’t lead with new material?  Were you worried that the classics had become stale?  Mr. Michaels, the truth is that we viewers LOVE the clips, and the chance to see them again is the main reason we tune in to these retrospectives.  I mean, Chris Farley as a Chippendales dancer?  Tina Fey as Sarah Palin?  Martin Short and Harry Shearer as synchronized swimmers?  I’m laughing out loud just thinking about them!  I feel certain that your team is more than capable of creating new ways to present these treasures so they never get old (see “That’s When You Break” above.)  You’ve got 40 years’ worth of comedy gold in the vault over there at NBC.  Please don’t be so stingy with it next time.

Speaking of next time, the SNL 50th Anniversary Show is only ten short years away, and I’d like to offer a few suggestions, if you don’t mind:  Cut the duration of the show to two hours.  Eliminate the musical guests and the celebrity groupies, except maybe a few of the frequent hosts.  Make it clear to Eddie Murphy that there will be no more heartfelt tributes unless he participates in the show in some meaningful way.  And most of all, bring on the clips!  Then when we look back we can say, in the words of Chris Farley, “Remember the Saturday Night Live 50th Anniversary Special?  That was awesome.”


A Saturday Night Live Fan

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All the Light We Cannot See

all the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Once upon a time, there was a French girl who was enthralled by the creatures that dwell in the sea.  In a land far away lived a German boy who was fascinated by the radio waves that travel through the sky.  After many years, they finally met in the place where the sea and the sky come together at the far edge of the world.

When you put it that way, All the Light We Cannot See sounds like a fairy tale, which it most assuredly is not.  But neither is it a typical World War II novel.  Author Anthony Doerr has created something truly extraordinary – a resplendent, utterly engrossing epic that centers not on the conflicts that separate us, but on the universal forces that connect us.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the French girl who lives with her father, Daniel, in Paris.  Blind since the age of six, she spends her days at the National Museum of Natural History, where Daniel works as a locksmith.  Her favorite retreat is the mollusk laboratory, with its vast collection of intriguing specimens.  When war breaks out, Marie-Laure and Daniel flee to his uncle’s home in the city of Saint-Malo on the Breton coast.

Werner Pfennig is the German boy who, along with his younger sister Jutta, is raised in an orphanage in Zollverein, a bleak coal-mining town in the western part of the country.  His life changes the day he salvages a broken radio and succeeds in repairing it.  Werner’s natural curiosity develops into an exceptional gift for mechanics that comes to the attention of the Nazi war machine.  At 14, he is sent to an elite military academy to prepare for service.

Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories unfold separately in carefully crafted narrative segments that move back and forth between the two characters’ perspectives and between the past and present.  Readers feel as though they’re following two paths that circle each other, coiling tighter and tighter until they reach their inevitable convergence.  The suspense builds with every turn and becomes almost unbearable before it is finally resolved.

Doerr populates Marie-Laure and Werner’s journeys with an exceptional cast of characters: patient, inventive Daniel; haunted, cerebral Uncle Etienne; fiercely devoted Madame Manec; gentle giant Volkheimer.  Each is brought to life so completely and so affectionately that it would be nearly impossible to choose a favorite.

Ingenious plot structure and authentic characters notwithstanding, it is Doerr’s gorgeous, imaginative language that makes All the Light We Cannot See really shine.  The visual imagery is stunning: When Daniel sees the lights of German planes in the night sky, “…he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.”  And when Werner sees Marie-Laure walking to the bakery in Saint-Malo early in the morning, “A million droplets of fog bead up on the fuzz of her wool dress and along the warp of her hair, and the light outlines her in silver.

Because Marie-Laure is blind, Doerr lavishes special attention on his descriptions of touch, smell and sound, causing readers to feel a heightening of their own senses.  When Marie-Laure touches the sand on the beach for the first time, “It’s like cold silk.  Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles.  Tiny slips of wrack.”  And when Madame Manec opens the window to let in the sea air, “The wind gusts.  In Maire-Laure’s mind, it shifts and gleams, draws needles and thorns in the air.  Silver then green than silver again.”  Heavenly.

This was hands-down my favorite book of 2014 and likely one of my lifetime top ten.  One passage in particular seems to sum it all up: When Werner and Jutta tune in to a children’s science broadcast, they hear a French voice pose an interesting question.  “The brain is locked in darkness…And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light.  It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”  I’m no scientist, but I imagine it involves the same creative brilliance that Anthony Doerr employs to illuminate All the Light We Cannot See.

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Mommy Piñata Syndrome

pinataThe flu is on every mom’s mind these days.  Apparently, mutations to one of the active strains of the virus have rendered this year’s vaccine less effective.  That’s why you and your family and all of your friends and neighbors are getting sick, whether you were vaccinated or not.  At this rate, the flu might become almost as serious of a threat as Mommy Piñata Syndrome.

What?  You’ve never heard of Mommy Piñata Syndrome?  I guess I have some explaining to do.

Mommy Piñata Syndrome is a condition that I self-diagnosed in the greeting card area at Target one day last year.  I was shopping for birthday cards and came across one with a picture of a piñata on the front.  Piñatas are usually associated with birthday parties, but this little guy wasn’t dangling from the ceiling, full of candy.  He was lying on a psychiatrist’s couch saying, “The sick part is, I kind of like it when they hit me.”

Ironic, right?  For most of us, the idea of blindfolded partygoers taking turns bashing us with a stick is extremely unpleasant.  But a piñata is built especially for that purpose.  The birthday beat down is his opportunity to fulfill his destiny – to do what he was made to do.  And that can feel very rewarding, even though it’s also rather painful.  Who knew a piñata could be so masochistic?  And why did I feel like I was identifying with him?

Because I have Mommy Piñata Syndrome!  Don’t get me wrong – this has nothing to do with domestic violence or physical abuse or anything like that.  It’s just the emotional thumping that we moms inevitably suffer in the course of our everyday duties.  You see, we really put our hearts into raising children and running households, and when you do that, you’re bound to get your feelings hurt once in a while.

Like when you’re making dinner and your kids walk into the kitchen and say, “Ewww, what’s that smell?”  BAM!  Or when your child says loudly in public, “Remember that time you made me go to school and it turned out I had strep throat?” THWAK!  Or when you pick out something for your teenager at the mall and she says, “No offense, but it looks like something you’d wear.”  KAPOW!

It’s not just the debilitating one-two punches that contribute to Mommy Pinata Syndrome.  Routine wear and tear can really shred your crepe paper as well.  When your child awakens you at 2:00 a.m. with a Very Important Issue on her mind, what do you do?  You get up and talk it out.  Then she drifts off to sleep, while you lie awake worrying until dawn.  MOAN.  Or how about your efforts to encourage your son to read?  You spend an hour carefully selecting a book you’re sure he’ll like, then he spends just a minute flipping through it and says, “It looks boring.”  GROAN.  Back to the library!

And that’s just it – no matter what, we moms keep going back for more.  We really want everyone to eat well, stay healthy and sleep soundly, and we feel it’s our duty to continue trying until we succeed.  It’s what we’re made to do, and like a piñata at a birthday party, we find satisfaction by fulfilling our destiny, no matter how many lumps and bumps we acquire in the process.

Alas, there’s no cure for Mommy Piñata Syndrome, but many moms have found that group therapy – in the form of a girls’ night out, book club meeting or the like – can help alleviate the symptoms.  In extreme cases, one-on-one counseling with a skilled professional – such as a long phone conversation with the patient’s own mother – may be prescribed.

Ironically, the most effective treatment of all comes straight from the source of the affliction.  Anecdotal evidence is scarce, but I can share one example:  Three days before Halloween, I realized that the fleece character hat I had ordered for my daughter – the central element of her costume – would not arrive in time for trick or treating.  In true Mommy Piñata form, I assured her that this was not a problem, because I could easily drop everything and MAKE a hat just like it.  She looked doubtful.  I headed for the fabric store and, in the waning hours before Halloween, managed to create a reasonable facsimile.  She tried it on and said, “It’s perfect!  I can’t believe it!”  A moment later she added, “And it’s even more special, because you made it.  Thank you.”  I’ve been in remission ever since.

So the good news is there’s hope for all of you Mommy Piñatas out there.  The bad news is we still have at least a month of flu season ahead of us.  Stay well.

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