What's Not to Laugh?

Almost everything about aging–except grave illness and death–can be funny as well as disturbing. I try to find the funny and help us all get through it!

If only we could ask Mom…

This is the fourteenth Mother’s Day without my mother, who passed away April 11, 2005. I’ve written before about things I would like to tell her, and I can even add a few, like how her twin great-grandsons, who she knew only as infants, are now teenagers.  And how I can better understand the aches and twinges and difficulty getting out of a chair that comes with age.

But I have questions too. Here is a “rerun” of a post from Mother’s Day, 2013, a handful of the things I would love to ask my mother:

Even though we didn’t have a kosher home, why was it okay that we frequently ate bacon, but a “pork chop” was foreign and forbidden?

Why were you reluctant to send me to Temple Beth Israel Sunday School and upset that I spent money on a menorah, but you blanched at the fact that a boy with the last name of Olson (clearly not Jewish) walked me home from a party?

Why did you think I would wear an ugly polka-dotted bathing suit you bought—convinced that the argument, “It cost only a dollar!” would win me over? (I did eventually wear the suit, and at times so did you—but you looked great in it, as in anything, and I looked…polka-dotty.)

Did you really start my toilet training at 6 months? That’s what you told me to do with my own babies, but I thought that was ludicrous and quoted the baby guru at the time, Dr. Benjamin Spock, to back me up. If you did practice what you preached, is that the reason I have so many anxieties today? (On second thought, skip this one. I really don’t want to know.)

How is it that you were happy having so little in the early days of my life: a small 3-room apartment, a wringer washing machine that you had to go down to a dark damp basement to use, no driver’s license, a husband who had to be at the post office before dawn and then came home to sleep all afternoon, and a fearful little girl who cried for the first four days of kindergarten?

How is that you maintained that happiness (at least from this child’s perspective) when Dad was drafted and you and I had to move in with Grandma and Grandpa in a one-bedroom apartment? And sleep in the dining room on a fold-out bed? And endure—twice!—the collapse of part of the ceiling?

I’ll never have the answers to these questions…just my own speculations. But I feel good having thought about them. It shows, Mom, that you’re still a presence in my life and thoughts. Not just on Mother’s Day, but always.

Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends and family who are mothers or who provide mother-like support and love.


What just happened?

EyesClosed-crPenelope here, checking in after a long absence. Why so long, you ask? (Not that I care whether you really asked or not.) There just hasn’t been enough to kvetch about lately. Oh, there have been the everyday kvetches… You know, my water’s too warm, my food’s too cold, my folks leave me alone from time to time. But nothing major. Until today.

Although nobody tells me anything, I’ve surmised that I was taken to the vet’s office today for surgery. All is well. No surgery needed. But more about that later.

My first inkling that this was no ordinary day came very early in the morning You see, one of my greatest pleasures is rousing my folks out of bed between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. because I’m hungry. I climb onto Mom and just lie there for a while to see if she’ll stir. If she doesn’t, I’ll try chasing my tail while still on top of her, hoping the movement is annoying enough to get her up. If that too fails, I’ll slyly dig my claw into her leg just a bit. That’s when she throws me off of her. Then I’ll start annoying Dad.

This morning, nothing worked. Nobody got up to feed me. Both of them stayed asleep, or pretended to be asleep. Soon I started on my vocalizations. A loud “Meow” is bound to get somebody up. When they finally did get up (way past my preferred feeding time), they went about their business and got dressed! Still no food.

I resigned myself to temporary starvation, when another affront to my dignity began. Dad was trying to scoop me up. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know that means he’s going to 1) clip my claws, or 2) put me in the cat carrier. No. 1’s not so bad, but 2 is terrifying. I managed to escape several times until he ambushed me. I ran upstairs only to find the doors to all three bedrooms and the bathroom closed. Where’s a frightened cat to go? I was outsmarted and had to allow myself to be zipped into that contraption.

Next thing I know, we’re in a cold car driving down the road.I know that road. It leads to the vet’s office. Bad things can happen there (although the nurses and Doc are very gentle).  The only thing that calmed me somewhat was the sound of Mom singing songs to me. She started out with “Soft Kitty” and then, because of the season, moved to “Let It Snow” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”

The rest of the day is fuzzy. I was given a shot, and that’s all I recall. But there was some vague inkling of a catheter taped to my leg and a tube in my throat–or did I dream that. Upon awakening, I heard the Doc on the phone with Mom and Dad saying I didn’t need any teeth extracted at all. (Wait! She was going to remove my teeth? Who authorized that?) Just a little minor gum disease, which was treated, and a thorough cleaning. I guess I dodged a bullet, whatever that means.

Now I’m home and, although happy to be here, I feel a bit loopy. I’m staggering. I can’t climb up to the bed to snuggle with Dad, and, although I haven’t eaten a thing since last night, I’m not hungry.

I just remembered something. On the way out of the vet’s office, the nurse was showing Mom and Dad how to brush my teeth at home. If I were fully cognizant, I would have  objected. That’s just not gonna happen! Anyone who tries to brush my teeth better beware. I do, in fact, have all my sharp teeth, and I’m not afraid to use them.


Here’s another of my essays written as part of a creative project with my friend Brenda. The word to work with here was “brisket.”


If I can’t cook a decent brisket, am I still Jewish? Or, I should say, am I still a Jewish woman? That’s not to say a non-Jew can’t or doesn’t cook brisket, and it’s not to say that a man, of any persuasion, can’t or doesn’t cook brisket. It’s just that I’m sure I am not keeping up with Jewish tradition.

I have cooked many briskets (okay, several…), and I believe they were all passable. But so many of my friends and past generations of Jewish women (mainly my mother) presented briskets that were tender and tasty. They cooked them year after year with the same consistency and without having to more than glance at a recipe, if that.

Since I married my non-Jewish husband, we have together cooked a few briskets. I rely on him because he’s our resident chef. But even with his culinary skills, we needed to ponder which way to cut the meat when it was done. Against the grain? With the grain? And which way is the grain going? This happened every time.

Over the years, I absolved myself by successfully making other traditional Jewish dishes. My favorite are muffin-size potato kugels, stemming from recollection of my paternal grandmother making them every Passover. I didn’t’ have her recipe. She didn’t have her recipe. She cooked from memory—from home in Russia and her early days in Chicago as a housewife. But when I came across a recipe for potato kugel muffins in a Jewish cookbook, I knew I had to make them.

With no grain to cut with or against, these muffins are hard to screw up, but they take some intensive labor. Not wanting to schlep out the food processor, I grate the potatoes by hand, trying hard not to get bits of fingertip or knuckle in the mix. (I’m sorry if you lost your appetite at this point. Forget I said that.) The grated potatoes get mixed with eggs, matzoh meal, and a few other ingredients and then baked in greased muffin tins. The only hazard is getting them out of the tins without leaving half the mixture in the pan. It seems that no amount of greasing prevents some of that.

They’re delicious, they get oohs and aahs from your guests, and best of all, they go great with a nice brisket. Just don’t ask me to cook it.

In the meantime…some words about kvetching

I’m experiencing a bit of writer’s block—or blogger’s block. I can’t think of anything to write about that’s not so controversial that I’ll get death threats. In a way, that’s a good thing: nothing personal to whine about. And when I do notice little gripes and humorous observations, I realize that I’ve already written about them. But this void shouldn’t last long. The world is getting more and more absurd, and I’m sure someday soon I won’t be able to hold back.

In the meantime:
I’ll share some of the pieces I’ve written in the last couple of years as part of a delightful project suggested by my creative friend Brenda Segal. Together, we’ve written about a number of topics, taking turn suggesting the topics and sometimes picking letters of the alphabet from which to choose a word to expound on. Brenda puts our essays into a program that creates a book, then adds illustrative photos (most of which she’s taken) and publishes the book (just for our own coffee tables). Here’s one of my essays called “Kvetch.”


I don’t kvetch. I observe. At least that’s what I tell myself. Take the weather, for example. I can say, in a perfectly neutral tone, “It’s cold out,” and it’ll be interpreted as “Why is it so damn cold out?” See the difference?

Is this a kvetch about to happen or just me gritting my teeth?

Okay, I do kvetch at times. But these are times that are notably kvetchable. Who wouldn’t say, “Who the hell picked this restaurant?” after being faced with a construction barricade and sign saying “No thru traffic” just as you’re about to turn the corner to your destination?

Who wouldn’t be snarky after then going a block out of your way to turn around, only to find out your car can in fact be that “thru” traffic because there is a lane going your way only you didn’t see it the first time?

And who wouldn’t be swearing under your breath after you turned down that street and found that construction vehicles blocked your access to your destination? When you finally made it into the restaurant after driving over a pile of gravel and around the back side of the strip mall where the restaurant is, who could blame you for kvetching? Even if it was tinged with humor?

In English, kvetching is whining or complaining. All people do it, and I contend even some animals do it…or is it just my cat?. But for Jews, in my experience, it can be a lifestyle. Way back when we were being persecuted (when are we not?), maybe it was a way to seemingly have some control over a terrible situation. Kvetching about one’s circumstances is better than weeping, isn’t it?

Word-seeking revisited

Its been a while since I posted anything here, although I have been writing—a lot. More on that in another post. In the meantime, to get back into the swing of blogging (the easy way), I’m posting a rerun from my Suddenly Sixties blog that you may still relate to. In fact, since more than six years have passed, it may be even more relatable. Don’t forget to read  UPDATE at the end. Or just scroll down to UPDATE if you can’t bear reruns.

Desperately Seeking Words (originally published December 30, 2010)

My first indication that I was losing my vocabulary came decades ago at work—I was middle-aged then—and I was telling our then-Graphics department about something I wanted printed on… I knew it began with a “p,” but all I could come up with was “partridge.” I didn’t say it out loud because (thank goodness) I realized it was not the right word. Eventually, probably only two minutes but it seemed longer, I sputtered “Parchment!” It scared me a little. I wasn’t even in menopause yet.

It’s not easy to be a writer who can’t always remember words. An online thesaurus is my pal, but I don’t use it for the maligned practice of coming up with fancier words to say simple things. I go to this trusty tool to find the word that I’m sure is in my head…someplace. I’ll be typing merrily along and suddenly I’m stumped. Let’s say I want to say something like mutilate, but I know that’s not the word I want. I’m confident there’s a word that’s a better fit—one that I use all the time. I just can’t bring it to the frontal lobes. So, assuming I can come up with a word that’s close in meaning, the thesaurus gives me a fighting chance. I may even know what letter it starts with—in this case, I’m sure the word starts with an “m.” But that’s as far as I can get, until the thesaurus offers up maim. Ahhh. That’s it!

Not being able to retrieve words can take its toll on the marital relationship too. When I want to say something to my husband, I use the handiest words available. Unfortunately, he can’t read my mind (although after all this time he should be able to). So a typical conversation goes something like this:

Me: Can you get me the thing?

Him: What?

Me: You know, the thing, the round thing.

Him: What?

Me: The thing with holes…to catch pasta. The…strainer? Sieve?

Him: You mean the colander?

When I’m groping for a word that’s part of a request, he stares at me, a deer definitely caught in the headlights. He is not only confused but, being a helpful sort, he’s also frustrated. Sometimes his “What?” seems to be getting testier, not unlike the GPS lady when she needs to say “Recalculating,” for the fifth time.

While I’m desperately grasping at words, he may smile smugly. But I know we’ll have this kind of conversation in reverse later this evening. After all, he’s in his g(olden) years too!

UPDATE: February 2017. My husband and I are now equal as to not remembering the name of something or someone. Thank goodness for Google. But sometimes you can’t remember enough about the thing you’re trying to remember to type in the right words for the Google search. You have to laugh at this dilemma, which is far better than crying.

The other day, I may have found a temporary cure for this word seeking problem. The downside is that you have to hurt yourself. Here’s what happened: My husband, my resident chef, cooked a dinner that included chicken and capers. When I tasted it and praised it highly, he said, “It’s like the dish I usually make, Chicken _______.” He was stumped. He could not remember the second word to that phrase. I knew what he meant, but when I tried to name the dish, I was stumped too.

“Scallopini? No that’s not right. Vesuvio? Nope.” We thought hard for a couple of minutes and decided to move on.

About an hour later, I was getting something from our pantry cabinet and, being uncoordinated, I started to close the cabinet door while my head and upper body were still peering inside. The result was a blow to my head that stunned me for a second. (I’m fine. No concussion, just a little bruise next to my right eye.) I stood upright and calmed down bit, then shouted out, “Chicken Picatta!” I ran upstairs to my husband exclaiming, “I just bumped my head on the cabinet door badly, but I remembered chicken picatta!” He wasn’t sure how to react.

I’m back…

Penelope_softedgesPenelope here. You may have noticed that my mom (you know her as Bonnie) has been a slacker when it comes to posting on this blog. I like to post (mostly to complain), but as remarkable and talented as I am, I’m unable to post without help.

So I cajoled and whined and got her to agree to cooperate today. I hate that she has to help me because I didn’t want her to know what I’m about to admit: I am becoming more affectionate. And liking it. Loving it!

As you may recall (but probably not), I’m part Abyssinian. Abyssinians have some common traits: Long legs that can jump pretty high, pointy ears, a narrow (on the bottom) face, and a masterful aloofness. Yes, yes, I know all cats are supposed to be aloof, but Abs can be really icy. When they want to be. And that’s the secret.

When I came into this household, I did the requisite rubbing up against their legs, mainly to gain their acceptance so they’d feed me and scoop my litter box. After a while, I jumped onto the bed with them but refused to spend the night. I also sidled up to each of them backward, showing my lovely behind rather than face them. They learned to live with this

But lately, I find myself craving a good pet session. I define good as including belly rubs and massages behind my ears and under my chin. I also find myself following mom around the house much of the day. (She’s home so much now that she’s retired.) And when she takes a nap, I hop up on the bed next to her, making sure my body is pressed up against hers. When I’ve had enough of her petting, or she decides to start wasting time on her iPad (I hate that thing; it takes away valuable time from her main purpose: meeting my every need!), I curl up and go to sleep, still making sure part of me is touching her. Sometimes I throw a paw over her leg just to make sure she stays there to keep me company (see photo, below). I can lie like that for hours. And so can she, if she’s sleepy enough or there’s a good true crime show on TV. (For goodness sake, hasn’t she seen enough of murder and mayhem? Those blood-curdling screams wake me up from a pleasant snooze.)

img_0359The next thing is even harder to admit: I have been occasionally sitting on mom’s lap, once for 20 whole minutes. She seems thrilled and proud when I do that, as if I’ve just been awarded a red ribbon at a cat show. I don’t do it too often, but if  it’ll get me more petting and better treats, I’ll bump it up to once a week.

Lest you think I’m not living up to my Abyssinian reputation, I still will not allow either of them to pick me up. When it’s time for a visit to the vet, I won’t go into the carrier on my own, so dad usually scoops me up, only after an exhausting (for both of us) chase through the house.

I also will remain aloof (in this case invisible) whenever guests, workmen, cleaning women, or anyone else is in the house. Canoodling with mom and dad is now on my list of appropriate behaviors, but greeting strangers is definitely not. At least not now. Watch this space.


A visit to the vet, reluctantly

For you first-time readers in this space, my name is Penelope, and I’m a rescue cat. Penelope_softedgesI’ve lived with my adoptive parents over two years now and, much as I hate to admit it, things are pretty good here. Wondering why I hate to admit it? I’m known for my whiny vocals (which Mom calls kvetches; I had to learn a little Yiddish after I came here). I wouldn’t want it too seem like I have nothing legitimate to whine about.

But I am comfy here. Wet food…the Elegant Medley (more expensive) kind, dry food, a litter box that’s scooped several times a day, and two very attentive people who are home much of the time. It’s all good.

Except, that is, once a year, when my parents attempt to take me to the vet for a checkup. They try to be subtle and act like it’s just an ordinary day, but I know something’s up. Maybe it’s that black bag sitting on the floor…the one with the mesh sides and zippers. I remember being in it last year when they took me to the vet. This can’t be anything good. My motto is “You’ll have to catch me first!”

They try. I manage to outrun both of them, even if they’re on opposite sides of the room closing in on me. Dad’s the official catcher though. I give him a good workout, zooming from bedroom to bedroom, down the stairs and up again. When I think he’s getting dangerously close, I scoot under the bed or the sofa, a place neither of them can reach. In fact, they can barely bend down to see if I’m still there.

After this goes on a while, I can hear snippets of a phone conversation Mom is having. “I’m afraid we’ll have to reschedule. We can’t catch Penelope!”

I’ve won another round! Alas, the appointment was rescheduled, and as hard as I tried to win again, I let my guard down for a second, and Dad scooped me up and put me into the black bag. Soon we were on our way.

Although I don’t like other people, the technician and vet were nice to me and very gentle. And I got a compliment! I lost 0.6 pound, and the vet said “Good job!” She may have been talking to my folks, but I’ll except the praise too. After all, I’m the one who scurried around the house and raced up the stairs…an excellent way to trim my tummy.

Cake mix blues

I don’t bake anymore. My number one reason is that I don’t want the sweet stuff in the house because I’ll eat it all myself, or what’s left of it after guests leave.

It’s not that I was a great baker. I made good brownies from scratch, if only they wouldn’t fall apart while cutting them or stick to the pan. But they were tasty. I made cupcakes, bundt cakes, cookies. Evidently, I made a lot of box mix cakes. This is what my younger daughter remembers fondly.

She was visiting from across the country last week, and her one request was for a yellow box cake with canned chocolate frosting. “It’s my favorite,” she told me. I wanted to bring it up a notch, so I made a suggestion: “I used to make the pudding cakes (adding a box of instant pudding to the mix).” “No. Just a yellow cake mix and canned chocolate frosting,” she replied.

It was the least I could do for my loving daughter, whom I haven’t seen since she moved last fall. I hadn’t baked in years or used a mix to make any sweets, but, how hard can it be? It wasn’t hard at all, but it wasn’t one-two-three-bake either.

First (after buying the mix and frosting), I had to find my 13 X 9 metal pan. Do we still have one? If so, where did we last store it? It took looking through three logical cabinets and the drawer at the bottom of the stove before I found it up in a high cabinet that required a stepladder to reach…that is, without having a bunch of pans and glass dishes tumbling out on my head.

Next, I looked for the electric hand mixer and found it quickly. But where were the beaters that should be attached? Searching everywhere at least twice ended with finding them behind the pot lids, where they were all the while (probably laughing about my poor eyesight).

I got out all the ingredients and then set out to oil the pan. The bottle of oil was pretty full, and a bit (or a lot)of oil spilled into the pan. I had to mop it up with a large number of paper towels.

After that, things went well…until I haphazardly slammed the oven door closed and the cake developed a round depression in its middle. With some extra frosting loaded in that depressed middle, my box mix cake was ready for prime time. Daughter declared that it was perfect and tasted just as she remembered.

Both daughters welcome their childhood cake.

Both daughters welcome their childhood cake.

After everyone who wanted cake was served, what remained in the pan was handed back to me. It lasted less than 24 hours. Cake for breakfast anyone? This is why don’t bake anymore.

Short forms

I was reading a women’s magazine while sitting under the hair dryer waiting for my color to set. It may have been Women’s Health, but I’m not sure. I’m only sure that its demographic is women much, much younger than I am. (But are there any print magazines out there for us?)

In the ten minutes I took to read only one-third of the issue, I counted five weird shortened words. I’ve gotten used to “meds” for medicines and “scrips” for prescriptions, and I understand that it’s easier to say and write a word that has one syllable than one that has three. This is especially important when you’re trying to fit everything into a tweet.

But the more pages I turned in this magazine, the more short forms of words I saw that I’d never before encountered. In some cases, it took me a few seconds to figure out their meaning. Here are the ones I jotted down before I decided to give up and read something else:

Convo….conversation (The “o” at the end tripped me up here. Without context, I never would have figured it out.)

Rando….random (Really, is this any shorter? Would it be so much trouble to include the damn last letter?)

Sitch…situation (Don’t get me started on the “ch” here! Sure, they shortened the word from four syllables to one, but are we really saving ink here?)

Obvi…obvious (What? This is just silly.)

Vag….vagina (I’ve heard other short forms, or maybe more polite and printable forms, but this is a new one for me.)

Days later, I saw the front of a Target flyer and was drawn to this phrase in bold type: for your grill sesh. Yes, it was Target. Yes, it said “sesh,” which I assume was short (and not so sweet) for “session.”

I majored in English in college and spent 40 years editing and writing at work, so it’s no wonder I get annoyed by this desecration of the language. But I’m not an old fuddy-duddy either. At work, I evolved from technical writing and editing to creating marketing copy. The stricter grammar rules needed for a report to the Department of Energy, for example, softened when I started writing catalog and web copy. It was okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but” and pop in a few sentence fragments. For effect.

But I scratch my head over these short forms of everyday words, especially when they’re in print and an article is not restricted to 140 characters…including spaces. It looks like pure laziness, but I think the writers/editors are trying hard to sound hip. And, of course, attract young readership. Unlike our forgotten demographic who, presumably, doesn’t spend as much on the nail polish and mascara that their advertisers are selling.

Well, maybe I am an old fuddy-duddy after all.

Who moved my potty?


Something new to kvetch about

Penelope again, checking in. I haven’t had too much to whine about lately…although that never stops me. But recently, my humans did a switcheroo on me. They relocated my potty (known as the litter box to you).

Ever since I joined their household (July 2014), the litter box was in the first floor powder room. It’s an intimate, dark space, perfect for privacy while doing one’s business. The only drawback was that guests also used that space to do their business. But that wasn’t a concern of mine because the mere sight of a guest…or even the ding-dong of the doorbell…has me running into my favorite far-away spot.

I like my mom and dad, but I  refuse to mingle with anyone else. (It looks like I’m terrified of outsiders, but that’s not the case; I just choose not to associate with them.) I had been hoping that guests would decide to avoid sharing a potty room with a feline, even though I’m meticulous in my potty hygiene. (Okay, I’ll admit to getting a little aggressive and flailing around a bit of litter. Just a bit though.) But when everyone leaves and I feel confident that I’ll have privacy again, I enter the room and see the evidence: used paper towels in the wastebasket. Many people have used the room! The only good news? I didn’t see any of them. I was busy hiding…er, sheltering in place…in an upstairs bedroom.

Then, one day not too long ago, my mom called to me while holding my empty potty. “See, Penelope? Your litter box will now be here,” and she set it down next to the washing machine in a little alcove dedicated to laundry. She filled it with litter, relocated all the other equipment that goes with it, and said, “It’s ready now when you are.”


My new (cramped) potty space

Am I ready to change the habits I refined in the last two years? Am I ready to do my business with the sloshing and spinning of the washer and bumping and thumping of the dryer as sound effects?

Do I have a choice? Sure, many of my fellow felines have been known to relieve themselves anywhere and everywhere, but that’s not me. Besides, I depend on the kindness of these two people who feed me, talk to me, give me belly rubs, and most important of all, scoop my poop.

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