Tuesday, May 10, 2016


I am not hip.

Just the fact that I use that expression proves my point, doesn’t it? No one uses the word hip anymore, except to discuss aches and pains and joint replacements. And I’m willing to bet that no one under the age of 40 uses hip that way either.

When I was much younger, we used to say that you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. They were necessarily “square,” and certainly not “hip.” Times have changed a little, but I still would not look for hipness in most baby boomers these days, unless they have grandchildren willing to show them the way. Alas, I am well over 60 and have no grandchildren yet. Which helps to explain why I am not hip.

Several recent experiences have demonstrated my “unhipness.” A few weeks ago, I was doing some stretches in a small room in the gym. The only other person in the room was a young African American man moving gracefully to music exploding out of a portable CD player. I loved the music, which I hadn’t heard before, and I took a risk. I walked up to ask the young man who the singer was. The look he gave me was withering, and the way he said “Rihanna” proved just how out of touch he thought I was.  

Then last week I spent a day at the local middle school, talking with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders about writing and about my newest books. The highlight of the day for me was a lunchtime gathering with 20 students who volunteered to share sandwiches with a writer. Things were going well until one student asked, “Who is your favorite singer?” This is a question that truly tests one’s hipness. My mind raced through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Somehow I flashed on the name “Bruno Mars,” and offered him up. When I got the reply, “Oh, he’s pretty good,” I knew I had passed the first test. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

I began talking about a writing project I had coordinated in the mid-1980s, where I hired a group of talented children’s writers to develop small picture books and (aging person alert!) cassette tapes for pre-readers. I noted that one of the writers developed scripts for Reading Rainbow (which has luckily been around long enough that even these 11-13 year olds knew it). That scored me a small point. But I kept going. Another writer, I told them, had worked for a former Nickelodeon show made in Canada called “You Can’t Do That on Television!” Sure that show was old, but I thought I could make it relevant by noting that it featured a teen pop singer and actress named Alanis Morissette, who, as far as I knew, was still around making music. Nothing, Just blank stares. Not hip!

Alanis, then and now
I could go on, but I think I have made my point. Reaching the age that I have now reached doesn’t mean just losing my hair and maybe eventually losing my mind. It means having to pass tests almost every day to see just where you fit, culture-wise. I have concluded that I may still be cultured, but I am not hip.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Changing Buying Habits

There is clear evidence that some of my priorities in life are changing. Here is one tell-tale sign. Last weekend, the Glen Rock Public Library held its annual book sale. And I made my annual appearance there, scouring through the offerings and debating which ones I wanted to have or needed to have. This annual debate comes with several different questions for me to ponder: Is there room on my crowded shelves for more books? Is Audrey going to have a critical comment about my adding more books to those shelves? Do I really care if she is right in suggesting that I’m probably never going to read most of the books that I’m adding to my crowded shelves?


The sale and my mental debate go on each year, so what was different this time? In a word—ratio. In the month prior to the book sale, I boxed up and contributed more than 60 books for the Friends of the Library to include in the sale. Some of the books I had fallen out of love with. Some I had read and didn’t plan to read again. Some I thought might attract the interest of buyers other than me and be good business for the sale. And some I couldn’t figure out why I owned in the first place. Then, on the day I made my book-sale appearance, I purchased —count them—only three books, almost a world record low for me. 60 books out, 3 in—the ratio seems all wrong. Which is where I see
evidence of changing priorities.
My three new purchases included a copy of Thomas Hardy's
collected poems. Can you ever have enough Hardy?
During most of my life, my books have been my most prized possessions—and the bulk of what I own. Take my move from college to graduate school in June 1971. Graduation was on a Monday, and my graduate program was set to begin Friday later the same week. My parents and I packed all of my possessions into one of the world’s oldest and most rickety Ford Econo-line vans for the 104-mile trip between New Haven and Providence. The possessions consisted of two boxes of clothes, two boxes of record albums, and ten boxes of books—which would seem to be the right ratio for the me then. The van had only two seats, so my father and I took turns driving or sitting on one of the boxes in the back. My mother, as always, rode shotgun. The box sitter spent a lot of time trying to find his balance as the van rocked on its poor springs and loose axles, and the boxes shifted around in the cargo section. That memorable trip ended with me getting out of the van and helping to push it up the steep hill that leads from downtown Providence to Brown on the east side. Not a pretty picture!

As the years have gone by, I have added to my possessions and have done occasional winnowings. On the book front, however, the balance has been mostly to add rather than to subtract. It is hard for me to discard a book. I once made the excruciating decision to box up several cartons of books and take them to a used-book store that specialized in both collectables (as I saw my offerings) and junk (as Audrey viewed most of them).The owner rejected almost all of my books and suggested that I do my best for society by (shudder) recycling them as old paper. Imagine, a bookseller without a heart! What did I do with the bulk of the books? I recycled a few and gave most of the rest to the library book sale that year. I hope that they found good adopted homes. I filled their spots on my shelves with new purchases.

Then, this year, the changing me gave away 20 times more books than he took in, and I see that as a continuing pattern. What’s the explanation? I’m not sure that the difference is so much a matter of shifting interests as one of age and pragmatism. As I went through the books at this year’s sale, I focused first on title and topic. But I looked just as critically at length and type size. I have reached an age where my eyes and brain just don’t want to work as hard as they once did to get through a long book printed in type meant for younger eyes, those requiring a milder prescription with a lesser astigmatism. Sadly, I’m sure that there will come a time, hopefully far away, when I will be turning my book purchasing to large-type books or upping the font size of books on my Kindle from moderate to REALLY BIG! But I still plan to be at next year’s book sale at the Glen Rock library and at others in neighboring towns. I have my priorities, after all! 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Too Early Spring

For the past three days, my car’s trunk and back seat have been filled with large bags stuffed with wilted grasses, stems, and branches. And the car is starting to smell a little like dried vegetation. I planned on unloading the bags at the town Compost Center when it is customarily open on either Tuesdays or Thursdays and then getting the car aired out and washed. But each time I have driven by the compost area, the gates have been locked. No sign is posted, but I did see a small-print notation on the town calendar stating that the Compost Center is open for only limited hours before April 1. None of those hours were during the past three days, obviously. But, luckily, April 1 is tomorrow. No foolin’!
My car is loaded with compost-ables
Now, ordinarily, April 1 would be plenty early enough to dump my wilted winter waste, but this has not been a normal winter or early spring for that matter. The ground is already warm enough to clean up the mess and begin planting flowers. That’s why I have those bags of vegetation to compost, if only the gates were open. The calendar says March, but the ground says late April, and the town is going strictly by the calendar.

At our vacation place in Vermont, spring conditions hit in late February this year to everyone’s chagrin there. No snow has fallen in southern Vermont since mid-February, making skiing pretty problematic. We did go up the first week in March, hoping to enjoy what ski resorts call “spring skiing”—soft snow, moderate temperatures, and light crowds. What we found were icy trails with occasional brown spots and an ice storm one morning followed by rains and heavy winds the next. We spent a lot of time either in our home there or walking the dog. And she spent a great deal of time sniffing every inch of snow-free soil.
Tess gives the snow-free Vermont soil a sniff test
Growing up in Georgia, I never knew that spring soil has a special smell. When the ground lays under snow for several months and then emerges, it gives forth a rich, loamy aroma. Northerners take this aroma for granted, but Southerners are surprised by it. And my northern dog enjoys taking it all in. In New Jersey, we have had so little snow this year, that the spring smell has never really been in the air.

Politicians may be debating whether there is climate change going on, but not me. When we visited Savannah Beach in late December, the mix of warm air and chilled ground left the beach cloaked in fog and looking like some kind of moonscape. An apple tree in our neighborhood gave up all of its leaves by December 1 but was still bearing apples from its branches on January 1. I’m not sure how to explain all of his. Global warming, perhaps? Definitely, in our small part of the globe.
Moonscape at Tybee
Apples in January
Politicians and meteorologists can do their debating and analyzing. I’m just hoping that the Compost Center gates will be open tomorrow, so I can get my car back.