A Baker’s Tale: September 6, 2017

My son Joe is living away at college, and I decided to bake him a cake for his birthday and mail it to him.  I made this decision either because I am a doting mother, or because MS affects the part of my brain that deals with judgement, or because I am a complete doofus, or possibly all three.  Afterward, people seemed surprised:  “You mailed him a CAKE?”  “I never heard of anyone MAILING a cake.” “What ever possessed you to MAIL a CAKE?”  But at the time it seemed to me a reasonable and simple thing to do.  I knew I had a 9 x 13 baking pan with a snap-on plastic lid; all I would have to do would be to bake the cake, find a box to fit the pan, wrap the box, and take it to the post office.  No big deal.  And so I began my project with confidence.

I planned ahead.  Joe’s birthday is September 9, which, in 2017, fell on a Saturday.  I knew that I would be sending his cake via Priority Mail, which promises delivery within 2-3 business days.    But Saturday is not technically a “business day,” and I didn’t want my cake languishing in some overheated postal holding area over the weekend, so I really wanted this package in the mail by Wednesday.  To ensure this, I would bake the cake Tuesday night.

I don’t know what the phrase “bake a cake” means to you. To me, it had always meant adding eggs and water to some powdery stuff that came out of a plastic bag that came out of a cardboard box that came out of the supermarket.  Cakes made “from scratch” came from my mother.  But as my son grew up, it became clear that he really loved Nana’s chocolate cake, and since I really love my son, I figured I’d give real baking a try.  Now, with the help of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (copyright 1950), I can make Nana’s chocolate cake too, which is what I did on Tuesday night.  When it was finished, I set aside a half a stick of butter to soften overnight for the frosting, and I lay my head on my pillow with these thoughts:  “OK, so all I have to do tomorrow is make the frosting, frost the cake, buy a box, wrap it, and mail it.  I’ll set my alarm for 7:30.  If I don’t shower, I’ll easily be done by noon, and I can shower after my nap.”  I slept the peaceful sleep of the innocent and hopeful.

At 7:30 on Wednesday morning, I awoke and went through my morning routine in a leisurely way.  I fed the cats, I took my time about reading the paper and drinking my coffee, I unloaded and re-loaded the dishwasher.  Still in my PJ’s, I set about making the frosting. Not so easy the first six times, but easy now.  I frosted the cake.  Also easy.  I snapped the plastic lid on the pan.  Really easy, even for me.  Then I found a tape measure, and I measured the dimensions of the covered pan so I’d know how big a box I would have to buy.  I even wrote these dimensions down on a post-it and stuck it on my purse so I wouldn’t forget them.  Then I got dressed.  So far, so good.

It rained lightly during my trip to Office Depot.  The forecast had predicted periods of rain, and in hindsight I’m pretty sure those periods only occurred when I was out of the house.  Anyway , I pulled up the hood of my jacket and walked into Office Depot with a light heart, confident in my ability to find a box that would easily accommodate a baking pan 17 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 4 inches high.  The first thing to catch my eye in the Packing and Shipping Department was a roll of heavy brown packing paper–a fortuitous find, since what I had at home would never have been enough.  I picked up a roll and headed toward the wall where the assembled boxes were on display.  I knew exactly what kind of box I needed; packages in exactly the right kind of box had been delivered to my house a million times by Amazon.  Had I been less conscientious about recycling, I might have simply plucked The Perfect Box from a pile in my garage.  But there were no boxes in my garage at present, and I now found myself facing a selection of cake-mailing options that were either way too small or way too big to suit my needs.  I stood there for a full five minutes, trying to stare The Perfect Box into existence.  In the end, I was forced to admit that the smallest box I could use measured 21 1/2 x 15 x 12.  “Well,” I thought, “I’ll just have to stuff it with crumpled up newspaper.”  Out of the corner of my eye I could see a big ol’ bag of packing peanuts.  I mean it was right there.  But I was focused on getting my too-big box, which I looked for under the assembled display.  There was only one left of the size I needed, and the flaps on one end were a bit wrinkled and chewed up.  But just a bit–and anyway, what else was I going to do?  I couldn’t think of another office supply store that I cared to drive to, and I certainly couldn’t just walk into the post office with only a cake and say, “I’d like to mail this, please.”  So I took my roll of brown paper and my slightly chewed-up box to the register, paid my six dollars and change (10% off for the box), and left the store.

The rain stopped just as I pulled my car into my box-less garage.  It must have been between 11:00 and 12:00; I’m not sure.  As I taped together the flaps to form the bottom of the box, though, I could feel myself crest the peak of wakefulness and begin the downward slide.  Here’s how my MS fatigue works:  I’m good for about four to five hours after waking, but beyond that, I begin to tire.  Slowly but inevitably, I become clumsier, I find it harder to concentrate or focus, I become easily frustrated, and my behavior in general regresses to that of a cranky toddler in need of a nap.   While the box began to fill with crumpled up newspaper, I thought longingly of the packing peanuts.  I also did some quick(ish) mental math and determined that I really needed to be napping by 1:00 or I would find myself stumbling around like a zombie.  But look!  Here was a box already half full, and my optimistic self took this as a good sign.  I laid down a sheet of aluminum foil in the middle of the paper, and carefully placed the lidded pan on top of it.  I bid my cake a silent adieu, laid another protective sheet of foil over it, and finished stuffing the box.

Sealing a cardboard box that has chewed-up edges was a far greater challenge than I had anticipated, and was definitely not worth the $0.37 that I saved in buying it.  Not only did the edges of the flaps not line up with each other; the seam itself was somewhat concave.  And I was getting tired, and not going about this in the most logical or efficient way.  I started by tearing off a long strip of clear 2″ cellophane packing tape from the roll, and adhering 1″ of it to one of the flaps.  This endeavor was not successful.  The edge of the flap was wavy, and most of the tape didn’t stick.  I balled up that piece of tape, threw it aside, and tried again.  This time I was careful to make sure the tape stuck better, which required pushing harder, which required both hands.  For this reason, the long, dangling length of tape curled back and stuck to itself, so I had to throw that piece away, too.  In defiance of all things logical, I was about to make a third attempt when I realized that the end of the tape on the roll had escaped its little red leader tabs and had fallen back onto the roll.  I had to scratch with my fingernails to find where the end was, then scratch some more to lift a little bit up, and then it splintered . . . I don’t know how long it took to get the tape sorted out, but it seemed like forever, and I was good and mad at the end of it.  I decided that another approach was in order.  I stood up and straddled the box, holding it closed with my knees.  I used a short length of tape to hold the two flaps precariously together, and I stepped away.  Then I grabbed the roll of packing tape and proceeded to create a flat seam where none existed.  Crrrrrrt rip stick.  Crrrrrrt rip stick. Crrrrrrt rip stick.  Strip after strip of packing tape, each overlapping the one before, spanned the center length of the box.  When I was done,  not only was the seam no longer concave; there was actually a small mound of packing tape running down the middle.  I felt compelled to give my son some warning, so I found a Sharpie and wrote right on the box:  “This was the last box they had in Office Depot.  You will definitely need a case cutter to get through all this tape.”  I sighed a heavy sigh, then stood up to move on to the next part of this project:  wrapping the box.

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve made Nana’s chocolate cake before.  I know in both my brain and in my heart that no amount of tossing or jostling will make that cake fall out of its pan, greased and floured though it may be.  Nevertheless, I could not shake the vision of this big box turned upside down and, within it, my beautiful cake lying on its frosting in that plastic snap-on lid.  I was determined, therefore, to wrap the box without ever turning it upside down.  Wrapping a large, unwieldy box in stiff, brown, tightly rolled paper would probably have been difficult under any circumstances, but this maneuver left me feeling as if I had just danced for Cirque de Soleil.  I know I worked up a bit of a sweat.  I don’t remember exactly how I got the paper under the box, but I do remember sliding the box across the paper as I rolled it out and measured it, and finally turning the box on its side to tape the paper across the bottom.  I also remember thinking, “Thank God the cats are not out here trying to ‘help’ me, because at least one of them would surely be dead.  I do have scissors.”  But I did finally get thing wrapped, addressed, and stowed in the back of my Honda CR-V.  All that remained now was a quick trip to the post office.

The street I live on runs parallel to Boulevard of Eagles, so named because that’s where Edison High School is, and Eagles are their mascot.  My route to the post office took me, for a short stretch, along Boulevard of Eagles.  Did I mention that September 6, 2017 was the first day of school in Edison?  It was.  I drove to the end of my street, made a right turn, and was about to make another right turn onto Boulevard of Eagles when I happened to glance at the dashboard clock.  2:35.  OH NO!  The school day had ended at 2:30.  I could see the fluorescent yellow vests of the crossing guards, and I knew that at any moment 2,200 high schoolers would come spilling out of every door of that building.  They would climb into the cars that lined the Boulevard of Eagles; they would board the (seemingly) hundreds of buses in front of the school; they would halt traffic by trying to cross the street.  I did NOT want to drive on Boulevard of Eagles.  I quickly hit my left turn signal and went left, and that’s when my MS became a factor.

I knew there must be at least three other ways to get to the post office from where I was, but planning an alternate route while driving was a level of multi-tasking that my brain could simply not perform.  Had I thought to pull the car off the road and stop driving, an alternate route would have presented itself to me.  But I was beyond tired, and pulling over never occurred to me.  I drove in circles for a couple of minutes, then just resigned myself to sitting in traffic.  It was a kind of rest, really.  I got to just sit and space out for a while.  I sang along with my iPod.  I adjusted the speed of my intermittent windshield wipers.  (It was raining again.)  I thought about nothing at all, especially not about boxes or cakes.  It took me 15 minutes to travel a quarter of a mile.

I got to the post office without further incident, and mailed a cake to my son.  Since my route home was different from my route to, I saw immediately which road I should have taken to get there.  “Duh!” I exclaimed, smacking myself on the forehead.  As I neared the end of this dreadful adventure–I was practically close enough to hear my pillow calling my name–I knew I had to turn right on one of three roads.  My first choice, the easiest and shortest, was also home to the local Catholic grammar school, and I avoided it because I figured today was probably their first day of school too.  My second choice, Ovington Rd., involved three speed humps.  Speed humps are like speed bumps, only bigger and more deadly to one’s suspension.  Plus there were three of them.  My last choice was Route 27, a four lane highway that would have meant two traffic lights before reaching my waiting pillow.  I turned right on Ovington, and was immediately greeted by a big orange DETOUR sign that directed on up to Route 27 anyway.  This was too much for me.  I banged my steering wheel with both hands, and burst into tears.

The sun was just beginning to peep out from behind the clouds as I ended my journey.  Inside, I dropped my purse, kicked off my shoes, and shuffled slowly toward bed.  My eyes were red, and my legs felt weak; I hadn’t showered, I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t napped.  I heard the kitchen door slam.  It was my husband the teacher, returning from his first day of school.  Surely his day had been as chaotic as mine.  But wait– what was that?  He was whistling!  That son of a bitch!  He bounded into our room like a puppy.

“How was your day?” he asked, smiling.

“I tried to mail the cake but the box was too big . . .” and tears began to well up again.

“Oh, honey, you should have waited for me!”

I think he was laughing, but I’m not sure.  I was already asleep.




Let me start by saying that when I was in college, I majored in English.  I proudly wear the sweatshirt my husband bought for me that reads “English Major.  You Do The Math.” Nevertheless, I did have really good math teachers in high school, and in my first year of college I found myself taking two semesters of calculus as well as two semesters of symbolic logic, so I’m not a complete doofus when it comes to things mathematical, and when my son, a high school senior, started talking to me recently about factorials, I felt well up for the conversation.  Now to be quite honest, I don’t remember ever having studied factorials before.  In fact, I couldn’t recall ever having heard of the little buggers in my life.  Apparently they have something to do with statistics (which is why I missed out on them), and my son had been watching some mathemagician playing around with them online and wanted to tell me about what he had seen.  It’s really a pretty simple concept:  a factorial is any whole number multiplied by every whole number less than it all the way down to 1.  So 5 factorial is 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1.  I can’t imagine why anyone would need to make such a calculation, but I am willing to concede that factorials must have some usefulness somewhere or they would not have been invented.  In my mind, factorials are in the same mathematical category as limits and cosines and cube roots–mysterious calculations that only really make sense to the mathematically elite, much as the semicolon and the pronoun “whom” must appear to those uninitiated in the secrets of English grammar.  The symbol used to express a factorial is an exclamation point, and, as an English major, this is where I hit my first serious problem with factorials.

“Wait a minute,” I said to my son.  “You mean to tell me that 5 factorial is written 5! ?”

“Yeah, it means 5 x 4 x 3–”

“I know what it means,” I replied haughtily.  “I’m talking about the exclamation point.  Why the exclamation point?  There’s nothing exciting about factorials, is there?  Or am I missing something?”

“No, Mom.”  (A roll of the eyes.)  “That’s just the way they do it.”  (The word “convention” is apparently beyond his adolescent ken.)

I object to this convention.  I object strongly!  I had always assumed that if the people of the math world were going to appropriate a mark of punctuation from the real world, they would at least have the courtesy to change the name of said mark.  Thus, the little dot that most of us know as a period becomes, in the world of mathematics, a decimal point, or just a “point”.  When a period does a floating mid-air magic act, it means multiplication and isn’t called anything at all.  The lowly hyphen becomes a minus sign.  All of this is fine with me.  Punctuation takes on a new identity in a new world.  But alas! Not so in the case of factorials and the exclamation point; since it is not re-named, this stoic mark of punctuation retains all of its real-world personality traits even while existing in the world of numbers.  By nature, the exclamation point is connotatively both emphatic and ambiguous.  It indicates some kind of strong emotion, either positive or negative.  But let’s face it: there is nothing strongly emotional about factorials, necessary as I assume they must be, and the use of the exclamation point is therefore eminently inappropriate.  So I say this to the world of mathematics:  The use of the exclamation point to indicate factorials is outright theft from the world of words.  It is morally wrong.  The poor exclamation point is totally out of its element, and is likely on the verge of suicide.  A NEW SYMBOL IS DESPERATELY NEEDED.  I humbly submit the following solution.

(At this point in my writing, my son walked through the room.  I mentioned that I was working on a piece about factorials, and asked him if he would like to read what I had written so far.  He read for a few seconds and looked up, shocked.  “Mom,” he said, “this isn’t about factorials.  It’s about punctuation!”  “Well I’m not finished yet,” I explained, “and I was really upset about those exclamation points.”  He rolled his eyes yet again.  “So you’re OK with numbers and letters being together in algebra, but when there’s punctuation involved, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, hold the phones!'”  And he stalked out of the room.  He just doesn’t get it.)

To return.  I humbly submit the following solution:  the ampersand.  This is the fairly intricate symbol that lives above the number 7 on the standard QWERTY keyboard.  It looks like this:  &.  It’s not technically a mark of punctuation, so I’ve no professional objection to its being used in the world of mathematics.  And it means “and,” so it’s really the perfect symbol for factorials since multiplication is just a quicker way of doing addition anyway.  Now I know that there will be at least one immediate and strong objection to the ampersand:  it’s nearly impossible to make one by hand.  Written attempts at the ampersand come out looking like either miniature creations of abstract art or, if you’re really lucky, the symbol used for the G clef.  And even such scribbles take time, more time than the average high-schooler has while copying last night’s math homework from his buddy during homeroom.  But wait!  According to Wikipedia, “in everyday handwriting, the ampersand is simplified in design as a lowercase epsilon or a backwards numeral 3 superimposed by a vertical line.”   PERFECT!  Whether you want to call it a lowercase epsilon or a backwards 3, it’s the same shape with a vertical line through it.  The math world is filled with both numbers and Greek letters; the handwritten ampersand will feel right at home.  Now the opposite problem remains–how to type it–but that has a simple solution.  Let the “handwritten” ampersand symbol live atop the 7 on the QWERTY keyboard, while the old-style fancy-pants ampersand (henceforth to be known as the fancypantersand) can be added to some special font that you can only find by clicking on the question mark icon on your computer.  It will still be there; it will just be harder to get to.  I admit that, over time, the fancypantersand may well become obsolete, but I believe that the handwritten version will serve us just fine, and after all it’s a small price to pay for the inappropriate (and I must say immoral) use of the exclamation point.

Problem solved.

Alright, now I can get back to factorials and the ideas that I had originally intended to express.  A few days after our initial conversation, my son casually asked this question:  “What do you think 0 factorial is?”  We had just finished dinner and were clearing the table, so I wasn’t able to give the question the proper amount of thought, or I would have answered differently (more on that later).  As it was, I replied, “0 factorial?  It would have to be 0.”  He smiled triumphantly.  “Nope.  It’s 1, and I can prove it.”  “NO, sir,” said I with an air of finality, “0 factorial is 0.” And I continued loading the dishwasher, making a mental note to email Joe’s guidance counselor because someone had clearly led the poor child astray.  Later that evening Joe came to me with pencil and paper.  “Watch this.” And he proceeded to show me this formula: (Much as it pains me, I will continue to use the exclamation point to indicate factorials, though I am confident that it will soon be replaced by the handwritten ampersand.)

For any whole number n,

    n! = (n +1)!
         n + 1

So, for instance,

      1,272! = 1,273!

Well, that one I would just have to take on faith because I was not about to sit and work out all that multiplication.  It occurred to me to wonder who came up with that formula in the first place.  Someone with way too much time on his hands, no doubt.  Anyway, it was easier to see with smaller numbers.  I could agree that 4! = 5!/5, or that 3! = 4!/4.  Big deal.  The kicker came when Joe said,

“So if you follow the pattern, then 0! = 1!/1 which equals 1.  So 0! = 1.”

“Whoa there, cowboy.  Patterns be damned.  Factorials only go down to 1.  There are no zeros involved in factorials.  Zero factorial doesn’t exist!”

Now, for those of you playing along at home, this was obviously a huge error on my part because just hours before I had stated quite unequivocally that 0! = 0, clearly implying that zero factorial does in fact exist.  Luckily, my son failed to notice or care about this egregious logical contradiction, and I just forged ahead.

“Look, zero’s not even really a number.  It’s just a place holder.” (I’ve no idea whether this is true or not.)  “That’s why you can’t divide by zero.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Sure, you can say, ’21 divided by 7′ and that makes sense, but you can’t say . . .” here I cast my eyes around the room and said the first thing they landed on “you can’t say ’21 divided by chair.’  That doesn’t make any sense at all. And coincidentally, ‘chair’ is a place holder too.  It’s a place to hold your butt.”

But he was not diverted by my diversion.

“Look, Mom,” showing me a video on his phone, “there’s a college math professor online saying that zero factorial equals one, and–”

“Oh, honey, you know better than that!  I don’t care if there are a hundred college professors online saying the same thing!  It’s like any given statement made on FOX news–just because you say a thing where lots of people can hear it, that doesn’t make it true!”

“Fine.”  His face was set with a fierce determination, and I could tell that some final coup de grace was coming.  He reached for his calculator.  “Look.”

The calculator did in fact have a little button for factorials, and when he entered “0,” instead of the error message that I expected, the screen showed “1.”  It seemed that the entire math world, as well as Texas Instruments, were conspiratorially allied against me.  I had no choice but to admit a grudging and ill-humored defeat.

Still, I couldn’t let it go.  Hours after the boy had gone to bed, I consulted my old friend, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  There were two entries for the word “factorial.”  The first entry filled me with hope:  “the product of all the positive integers from 1 to n.”  Ha!  No zero!  I win!  But with the second entry, that hope was dashed like seagull shit on an ocean jetty:  “the quantity 0! is arbitrarily defined as equal to 1.”  I comforted myself with the notion that my defeat was only arbitrary.

The question remains:  Why should I get so worked up about factorials in the first place?  Factorials have absolutely nothing–and I mean NOTHING–to do with my life.  Until two weeks ago, I didn’t even know that they existed.  So why would I expend so much mental and manual energy on their behalf?  I think I can hazard a pretty good guess.  I retired from teaching on full disability at the age of 50.  I spend most of my days alone, giving me lots of time to think.  When my husband and son and I engage in “intellectual” discussions (which I’m proud to say we frequently do), and we talk about heady topics like history or politics or science or art, we share information and exchange views, but we seldom argue, not the way my son and I argued about factorials. That was an intellectual exercise of the highest degree.  That argument stuck in my mind, prompted further thought, led me to research (at least a little), and demanded expression.  That is the kind of argument that I hope for you in college, Joe.  May they be many, and may you have joy of them.

The Corned Beef Fest

I want to talk about corned beef.  I really do.  Thick, tender corned beef that you don’t need a knife to cut, and that pinkish-colored cabbage that my mom makes with tomato sauce and sour cream, and boiled potatoes with lots of butter, and Irish soda bread with juicy raisins.  But before I can even mention those tasty morsels, I have to say a little bit about my family, as well as the house that was practically part of our family too.

I won’t even try—not here—to tell everything about the Lucas family that there is to tell.  That story, like my family itself, is as big as it is beautiful.  Suffice it to say that there are six children—three boys and three girls, three adopted and three not—and that there are 17 years between the oldest child and the youngest.  The house grew along with the family.  It started off in 1962 as a simple two-bedroom affair, but six kids and two additions later it was a sprawling five-bedroom ranch.  By the time it was finished, you needed a map to find your way around.  Like my family and our house, the Corned Beef Fest was an organic thing that just grew and grew.

It began in the late ’90s. My brother Brian (the youngest Lucas) mentioned that the parents of a college friend of his owned an Irish pub in Jersey City, and he invited my parents to go there with him, which they did.  I should mention that my mother is Irish, and although my Hungarian father was not, he did always enjoy high quality food, whatever its nationality.  So in the course of their meal at the pub, my dad said, “Hey!  This is really good corned beef!  How can we get some of this really good corned beef to eat at home?”  And by the following March, that Really Good Corned Beef graced the Lucas dinner table for a special St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, and it was from this humble beginning that the Corned Beef Fest was born.  Every March thereafter, more and more people came to join the Lucases in their consumption of really good corned beef.  At first a few of my younger siblings’ friends joined us, and then my parents started inviting their friends, and then the Corned Beef Fest was truly in full swing.  Even guests started bringing guests.  It was as if my parents’ welcoming embrace just grew wider every year.

Here’s a little sampling of what went on at the Corned Beef Fest, like a small slice of Irish soda bread for the reader.  Upon arriving at the Lucas home, whether you were a newcomer or a regular at the Fest, the first thing you did was surrender your outerwear.  (It was March, remember, and New Jersey, so it was still cold outside.)  All coats were given to one of the Lucas kids (there was always one of us around somewhere) and carried off to the  part of the house where the bedrooms were.  No one but a Lucas dared to enter those far off regions where shadows and quiet prevailed!  For one thing, there were (somehow) five bedrooms and three bathrooms back there, and a person could get lost.  Also, it was dark and hushed and very far from the noise of the party, and if you were a little kid or were even slightly drunk (there were plenty of both), you might be a wee bit spooked.  In any case, one of the Lucases would deposit your coat on the growing pile on the bed in my sister Kerry’s old room, then return to the celebration, the sounds of laughing and talking becoming louder as the bedrooms were left behind.

There was a good deal of chatting and mingling and snacking; you might hardly notice that dinner preparations were being finished or that long folding tables were being set.  Although we kids tried to help out when we could, my parents seemed to be everywhere doing everything at once, and smiling as they did it.  One minute I was with my mom in the living room helping her spread a tablecloth, and when I turned around I could hear her in the next room break off a conversation with one of her friends to ask my brother to bring up more cups from the basement.  At the same time my dad was delivering cocktails to a few of his buddies, who were teasing him about being an old Hungarian wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day.  “Everybody’s Irish at the Corned Beef Fest!” he joked in return.  “We even have some Bailey’s for dessert!”  He gave them a wink as he made his way back into the kitchen to lift a couple of huge slabs of meat out of the pot of simmering water.  Then, after a solid hour or more of pre-meal partying, a remarkable thing happened.  A murmur rippled through the several rooms of the house that had people in them; the TV was muted; folks began to move toward the kitchen, but the boisterous noise of a moment ago seemed to drop a decibel or two.  Now almost everyone at the Corned Beef Fest was Catholic, but even those who weren’t understood and respected the importance of this ritual.  The kitchen table was laden with the delicious food of the Fest, but first we were going to say grace, a brief Catholic prayer that just about everyone knew.  Some people stood around the table, but of course there wasn’t enough room for everyone; we squished together in the other part of the kitchen, in the dining room, in the foyer, even spilling over into the living room, and for a few brief moments the noise and bustle of the party hushed and everyone stopped what they were doing or saying to ask for God’s blessing.  Hearing all those voices praying in unison made you feel like you were in church, but instead of the heavy scent of incense, it was the wonderful aroma of a corned beef dinner that wafted our prayer to heaven.  Whatever a person’s individual belief, this blessing was a special thing.  My dad always added an extra “thank you” to the Lord for the gathering of all these really good friends at this really good meal.  And now—let’s eat!

A line formed as we moved around the table, buffet-style.  I tried to take very small portions of everything—corned beef, two kinds of cabbage, shepherd’s pie, potatoes, green beans—but by the time I got around to the bread there was no room on my loaded plate.  “I’ll never finish even half of this!” I exclaimed to no one in particular.  “Don’t worry, hon,” assured a friend of my mom’s who was behind me in line.  “When food is really good, you find a way to make room for it!”  We laughed, agreed that there are no calories at the Corned Beef Fest, and continued to pile on the food.  I found some old friends at the dining room table, cousins actually, whom I hadn’t seen since last year’s Fest.  I had to steal a folding chair from the living room to squeeze in at the table, and then I commenced to dig in and catch up.  It was late at night when the last coat was fetched and the final guest departed.

At the last Corned Beef Fest in 2009, my parents welcomed over 50 guests into their home, and my mom cooked (I would not have believed this had she not told me herself) a staggering 75 pounds of Really Good Corned Beef.  Our friend Herb sang Irish folk songs, and my husband accompanied him on the guitar.  My mom bought long strings of green beads and plastic green hats for people to wear.  Mom and Dad wore matching green aprons with shamrocks embroidered on them.  At some point during the evening, as my mom later told us, my dad looked around at this wonderful gathering of family and friends and whispered to her, “I think this will be the last one.”  Maybe he thought the Corned Beef Fest had reached the point of perfection and couldn’t possibly get any better. He passed away that November, so I guess he was right.  It had been a good run.  Really good.

Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

Assignment #1 (300-500 words)
Write about something you hide or have hidden.
How has hiding this made your life more difficult or more easy?
What comical adventures have you had trying to hide this thing?

Confessions of a Grammar Nazi

I met my husband through a personal ad, which I placed and he answered.  It was 1993, the Internet was still in its wee infancy, and there was no such thing as online dating, so when I finally admitted that I needed help in catching one of those “other fish in the sea” that I’d heard tell of, I wrote the kind of personal ad that only an English teacher would write, and prepared to cast my line.  When I was ready to place my ad, however, I found that most of the newspapers in my area handled such mating calls in the same way:  a person (me) would place an ad, and anyone who cared to respond to it would call a certain phone number and leave a voicemail, to which I could listen at my leisure.  No, NO,  NO!  A voicemail was totally unacceptable!  I wanted—I needed—a writing sample.  It wasn’t that I was going to go full-on Red Pen on the heartfelt, handwritten lines of Mr. Right; I understand that English can be grammatically slippery for even the most well-educated, and also that some people (poor souls) are just bad spellers.  But there is one error that I simply cannot abide:  THE RUN-ON SENTENCE.  I am constitutionally incapable of dating a man who writes run-ons, and I felt strongly that the kindest, fairest thing to do would be to eliminate the ineligible right at the start by looking at a writing sample.  Just imagine what might have happened if I had accepted voicemail responses instead of written ones . . .

Mr. Right and I have been dating for two months or so, and it is now Valentine’s Day.  I am really excited about tonight’s date because, well, it’s Valentine’s Day, and, you know.  It turns out that Mr. Right is quite handsome, and has an exquisitely dreamy voice.  We have dinner in a swanky five-star restaurant, and his white teeth sparkle like teeth in a toothpaste commercial.  I am looking hotter than any 5’1” English teacher ought to look.  He gives me a bouquet of roses and a card, which I open and blushingly read:  “I love you so much, your the best thing that ever happened to me.”  A RUN-ON AND A MISSPELLING OF ONE OF THE MOST BASIC HOMOPHONES IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE!  My jaw drops, my eyes bulge, my face wears a look of horror that bespeaks either a bloody corpse or something truly gross in my dessert; I scream a scream that you only hear in an R-rated movie; I drop the card as though it is burning my fingers; I grab my purse and run from the restaurant.  Mr. Right will never know what caused my sudden meltdown and my flight of terror.  I never speak to him again.

Fortunately, my insistence on written responses to my personal ad worked wonders in preventing such scenes of pain and tragedy.

[This marks 495 words, and seems like a good stopping place.  Indeed, it is the only stopping place that will allow me to remain within the 500 word limit.  However, I beg your indulgence for one final sentence.]

Of the 36 respondents to my ad, I only bothered calling the one who recognized my allusion to The Taming of the Shrew, writing a witty letter free of run-ons, which led to dating, co-habitation, marriage, and a kid, in that order, and in conclusion I would like to point out that this sentence, while admittedly a long one, is NOT, on my sacred honor and by all that I hold dear as writer of grammatically correct English, a run-on.

The Lost Supper

The Lost Supper

I always knew this day would come.  From the moment my son was born, at 4:38 am on September 9, 1998, there lurked in the back of my mind—the way back—the knowledge that there would come a day when he would no longer be my little boy.  But knowing it and feeling it are two very different things, and oooh! how it hurts to say goodbye to your baby!

My son Joe is a drummer.  He’s been shaking the walls of my house since he was five years old, and he played the snare drum in his high school marching band.  His decision to attend Towson University in Maryland was based in part on his eagerness to join the marching band there.  In August, we learned that the band members would have to report to campus a full week before the other 10,000 students, cutting short our yearly family vacation to the Jersey shore by two days.  Fine.  Well, not fine, but do-able.  My plan was to come home from the beach Thursday night, do a quick load of laundry for Joe, and leave for Towson with the rest of his pre-packed stuff by 10:00 Friday morning.  That would give us plenty of time to drive down, move Joe in to his room (where I could show him how to make hospital corners and introduce him to the black magic involved in folding fitted sheets), and have a nice sit-down dinner before saying our solemn goodbyes and seeing him proudly off to his 6:00 practice.  (My husband Bill would be with us this whole time, of course, doing all of the driving and most of the heavy lifting.  But this story is about me and Joe, and Bill’s participation in it is mostly parenthetical.)

Here’s how it actually went down.

Things went as planned until Friday morning when we neared the southern end of the New Jersey Turnpike, and traffic began to slow.  There was construction on the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  Within a few minutes, slow traffic had become a bona fide nightmare. In the back seat, Joe, who had been uncharacteristically attentive and even a little talkative, put on his headphones. Once, when Joe was a toddler and in the car seat, someone in heavy traffic had illegally cut in front of my husband.  “Idiot!”  Bill had yelled.  Joe, wanting to imitate Daddy’s road-rage, piped up from the back seat with the worst insult he could think of:  “You . . . you . . . you don’t even know what letter comes after C!”  The traffic crawled on and on.  We were nearing the toll plaza on the far side of the bridge, but the jam clearly continued beyond that.  I had the EZPass in my left hand, raised to the windshield; Bill rarely used it and it was not attached to the glass.  We were literally halted under the toll plaza, and I couldn’t tell if the “EZPass Paid” sign was meant for us or for the car ahead of us.  The muscles in my arm began to ache.  When he was six, Joe developed an obsession for anatomy.  We were reading one of his body books at bedtime, and on the “muscle” page, an arrow pointing to the buttocks of the figure identified the gluteus maximus as the largest muscle in the human body.  “No, Mommy,” said Joe with a smile.  “It’s the BOOTIE-us maximus!”  “Good job, Joe!” I laughed.  “You made your first joke!”  Our car finally got to move, but now all sixteen lanes of traffic from the toll  plaza had to merge down to . . . how many?  seven?  one?  three?  lanes.  Some cars had their left blinkers on, some their right.  No one knew where they were going or what they were doing, but everyone was doing it at a blindingly dangerous and tense lack of speed.  There were a good number of eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers in the mix, as well as one or two of those tiny two-seater death-mobiles that look like they just popped out of a Pez dispenser.   All in all, it took us about an hour and a half to travel a length of highway that should have taken us about 15 minutes, and in that time I watched my sit-down dinner with my boy seep out of the tailpipes of our Jeep Grand Cherokee.

When we finally reached Joe’s room (after some clenched words about directions and circling the campus at least twice), it was well past 3:00.  Joe’s room is on the 7th floor in one of four “towers.”   This room is considered part of a “suite” because there is a bathroom joining it to the room next door.  The first thing I noticed about my son’s living space was that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom.  I had not thought to pack toilet paper; I never had to take my own toilet paper to college; I had sent my kid to college without toilet paper!  Bill was on his way out to look for the college store—(“so you can make his bed or whatever”)—and I asked him desperately to look for some toilet paper.  Before he returned, I also realized that I had sent my kid to college without enough hangers, and without a bowl or spoon for cereal.  I felt like a terrible mother.  All three of us were overtired and uptight.

At 4:45 Joe pointed out that he really needed to eat something before a three-hour practice, and that he had to be there by quarter to six.  We drove to a McDonald’s off campus and ate in the car.

At 5:35, we took the elevator down to the lobby for the last time.  Before going outside, I stepped over to the front desk, where I could see Joe’s RA sitting.  I caught his eye.  “You take care of my boy.”  I followed my husband and Joe, thinking of the empty hallway on the 7th floor, the lonely room.  Outside, the sun was setting, and its level rays shone in my eyes as I faced my son.  His silhouette was clearly outlined, but his features were indistinct, a tabula rasa.  Another girl from the band, also on her way to practice, greeted him, but halted her approach as she realized that we were saying our goodbyes.  Bill hugged him first, a quick, firm, manly hug.  Then it was my turn.  I hugged him close and told him that I loved him.  When I stepped away, I could see that Joe’s face was contorted, and he was crying.  And then my son and I were clinging to each other for dear life, tears flowing, but  Bill was quoting some poet and saying that  “all farewells should be sudden” and someone was tugging at my arm and the sun was in my eyes and the car was moving and he was gone.


I just returned from a weekend at Towson.  I went to see Joe perform at Towson’s first home football game.  I never saw his face during the game, but over breakfast this morning, I scanned his face, eyes, like a secret spy camera, for signs of change.  He appeared neither miserable nor ecstatic.  He seemed the same.  But I’m not fooled.  His life as “my boy” is over, and his own life has begun.


I thought it would be easy to make a blog. Even the phrase itself, “make a blog,” sounds like something a toddler would say while pointing at the toilet.  “Look, Mommy, I made a blog!”  Blogging sounds as if it should be as easy to accomplish as any bodily function.  Ah, the innocence and naïveté of untried youth!  In reality, making a blog is a harrowing, nightmarish experience, a swirling confusion of hyperlinks and hoodwinks, an  unsolvable puzzle with enough cryptic three-letter acronyms to make “www” seem more elementary than ABC.  I always fancied myself an intelligent person and a quick learner, but I have been bested by technology that has very clearly outpaced me, and thwarted by a few computer geeks who probably don’t even know how to use a semicolon.

Alright, let’s go back a bit.  There was a time when I was not quite so frustrated about blogs.  In 2013, soon after I retired, I easily created a blog.  I posted all of seven pieces of writing on it.  But I didn’t know how to use “tags” or “categories;”  I wasn’t even on Facebook, so I had no way to let anyone know that my simple dichromatic blog existed. I might as well have been writing longhand in an old-fashioned diary, and locking it up with a key.  That first attempt at a blog languished, and I gave it up.  It still exists, but only because I don’t know how to get rid of it.  It is just hanging there in cyberspace, untagged and uncategorized, attached to nothing, a mote of cyberspace dust, waiting to be discovered by some metaphoric particle physicist of the future.  Or for WordPress to go belly up.  Whichever comes first.

More recently, I took an online writing class in “the personal essay,” and found myself with several short non-fiction pieces that I thought would make appropriate blog fodder.  I decided to create a new blog.  This time, I determined, I would do it right.  I would research.  I would prepare.  I would learn what “tags” and “categories” were all about.  I would even join Facebook so that I could pretend that I had friends, and I would find a way to make my writing easily accessible to those friends I pretended to have.  This is the story of my quest to create that new blog, how I screwed it up, and how I became frustrated and angry enough to make the title of a blog post as close to a curse word as I could.

I knew that I wanted to put my new blog on WordPress.  That was the only way I knew how to do it, and “WordPress” had worked as a magic word for me the first time.  But I did not sit down at my computer and go to wordpress.com.  No.  That would have been the smart, logical, simple thing to do, but it did not involve the extended amount of research and training that I believed I needed.  Instead, I went to Google.  I typed in “how to create a blog on WordPress,” thinking that somewhere out there there must exist a tutorial that would teach me, in non-technical terms, everything I needed to know.  There were many to choose from!  I read the brief descriptions that followed each link in the list, and was attracted to one in particular.  The description contained phrases like “for beginners” and “non-technical” and “7 easy steps.”  I placed my cursor over the link, and I clicked.  And so the nightmare began.

I should have been immediately suspicious because all of the hyperlinks on this site appeared in orange, when even I know that hyperlinks are supposed to be blue.  Conventions in writing lend stability to life, and you don’t get to break those conventions unless you’re, like, the e. e. cummings of the computer world.  In any case, I ignored the orange warning and dove headfirst into disaster.  I think I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account of the next couple of weeks, but here are some of the more bizarre parts:

•    Given the choice between wordpress.com and wordpress.org, I made the “informed” and “intelligent” choice to go with wordpress.org.  This meant that I had to spend actual   money, which I did, to the tune of about $72.  That was dumb, even for me.

•    Having spent 25 years teaching high school English, I feel pretty confident about saying that I know what the word “theme” means.  In the world of literature, theme is a big deal.  One could almost say that theme is the biggest deal there is.  So when one of the “7 Easy Steps” to creating a blog directed me to “choose a theme,” I was a little confused.  It seems that in the Blogian language, the word “theme” refers to a web page’s format or layout.  Theme has nothing to do with content or, heaven help us, ideas.  It’s all about presentation.  How did this happen?  How did this whopper of a concept come to mean such a relatively meaningless thing?  Here’s what (I imagine) went on:

Around a table scattered with crumpled up papers sit four members of a Computer Science team who have been charged with creating a “user friendly” way for the “average Joe” to create a website without any knowledge of technical computer vocabulary.  At the moment, they need to come up with a user friendly word that describes the physical layout of a website page.  All four are clearly stumped.  Suddenly, the leader of the group is struck with an idea.

Leader  (rubbing his head):  Hey! What’s a subject in school that every student has to take?
Geek#1 (with distaste):  Uh, gym?
Leader:  No, you numbskull.  We can’t ask people to “choose an athletic supporter,” can we?  No.  I was thinking about English.  Everybody takes English in school, right?
Geek #2:  Yeah. So what?
Geek #3:  What do you want us to do? . . .

The next day, the three computer geeks re-enter the room, where the team leader is already seated.  The geeks are dressed in black, wearing black hats, and carrying crowbars and flashlights.

Geek #3:  We broke into the English Department office, just like you asked us.
Geek #1:  Man!  There was a lot of stuff in there!  I didn’t think those lame-ass humanities types could even fill up a filing cabinet, let alone a whole office!
Leader:  Never mind that.  What did you find?
Geek #3:  I spotted some stuff about setting, saw it while these two were still fiddling with their flashlights.  “Setting” seems like a good word to me.  You know, like setting a table.  It’s a word to describe where everything goes.  I didn’t see the point in looking much further after that.
(He crosses his arms and gives Geek #1 a superior look.)
Leader:  Good idea, but no.  There’s already a clickable word called “Settings,” and regular people might get confused.  Always remember that non-computer people are very, very stupid.  How about you?
Geek #2:  Well, it was hard to see it all in the dark, but this thing called “theme” seemed to be everywhere.  There were all kinds of themes.  There was even one about technology!  I’m still not sure what it means exactly, but it looks like we can make it be whatever we want.
Leader:  Sounds pretty good.  Let’s just hear from the peanut gallery first.
Geek #1:    I found a whole folder about just punctuation!  Everybody knows about punctuation!
Leader:  No, no, no.  Math got all the good ones years ago.  Well, “theme” it is, then.

And that’s how the word “theme” came to have its current absurd meaning in the Blogian language.

•    After choosing a theme and setting up some categories, I thought it was time to connect my blog to Facebook.  Some emails to the orange hyperlink company (they don’t take phone calls) informed me that I needed an IFTTT account.  IFTTT, logically, stands for “if this then that.”  But for me this was the last straw.  Why should blogging be so hard?  All I wanted was to post a few bits of writing on a simple blog, and share them with my friends on Facebook.  This IFTTT nonsense was too much.  I decided to scrap the whole project.

•    My attempt to recover my $72 moved this whole experience into the realm of science fiction.  Like, we’re talking The Twilight Zone.  It involved some of the wittiest emails I’ve ever written, which, based on his responses, were totally unappreciated by the service rep who fielded them, and some far-out, psychedelic phone calls (different, third company) about a password that I didn’t know I had.  Somebody somewhere refunded 50 of my 72 dollars.  I stopped there.

At long last, I logged on to wordpress.com, which is what I should have done in the first place.  Blogging is so easy this way!  I can tag!  I can categorize!  I can send you, my friends, notifications, whether you want them or not!  Whether you want them or not!  Now that’s what I call progress.