In praise of impracticality.

For some of us life is long. While we’re living it, we think it is, anyway. We think we have time. It seems to pass slowly.

Until it doesn’t.

My sister Melanie died recently. Right after Christmas, her favorite holiday. And the brutal pain of it made me realize something.

First, a little history. It was the ’60s. Mel was in her final year of university, and spent a semester studying in Italy. She came back from this adventure with an aura of sophistication, suitcases full of souvenirs, and at least one pair of shoes made of butter soft Italian leather. Those shoes had me in thrall.

I was around eleven at the time, so Mel and I wouldn’t be close for some years to come. I was still the little brat she would occasionally babysit, an annoyance she had little in common with.

Now fast forward a few decades. By this time, we were great friends.

I’d just been laid off from my position of eleven years. The PTB called it early retirement, a euphemism if there ever was one, as I was hardly in a position to retire, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. At my age, it was a very scary place to be.

Mel, nearing retirement, was planning a trip to Italy with some friends to revisit her favorite city, Florence. I was aching to go with her, and had a small severance from my “early retirement.” I was thinking hard about making it happen, exploring Italy for the first time with my sister. She and her traveling pals had secured an apartment rental for two weeks that was steps from the Duomo and the urge to go with them was visceral.

But I also had an uncertain future, no real prospects, and a 13-year-old car with an oil leak, and 250,000 miles on the odometer. In the end, I opted for practicality. I bought a newer used car with that money and reluctantly bid my sister bon voyage. She said breezily, “No worries … there’ll be other trips.”

There weren’t. Four years later she was dead.

I still have my newer used car. It’s been a trooper and I hope it continues to be. But if I had it to do over, I’d have a boatload of amazing memories and photographs from Italy, a beat-up car held together with duct tape … and not one single regret.

As it happens, aside from my newer car, regret is the one thing I do have. How I wish that, four years ago, practicality had looked the other way.

Goodbye, sis.

As the fifth child in a brood of six and the only other girl, I was a little in awe of my sister. Melanie’s red hair and cover-girl looks made her exotic in my eyes, and her confidence and independence, not to mention her determined exercise routine, made her downright intimidating. But I didn’t really get to know her until I was in my thirties.

That’s when I found a friend.

After our mom passed, Melanie became the emotional heart of our family, keeping everyone informed and connected and making Thanksgiving and Christmas memorable events. I loved her fiercely. Her rambling house, streaming with sunlight on good weather days, was nestled in a richly wooded cul de sac, and filled with family art and festival finds. It was the embodiment of her — a safe haven to be welcomed, loved, surrounded by art and nature, and a home for feisty, silky cats, morning coffee, evening wine, politically incorrect conversation and always, gorgeous aromas and raucous laughter issuing from the kitchen.

Mel was no less intimidating in my adulthood. She was a force of nature, especially in the kitchen, and never met a recipe she couldn’t conquer or improve. She was also an avid gardener, birdwatcher and a crazy cat lady … minus the crazy. After her retirement, she started exploring her creativity more, experimenting with beading and drawing some lovely, sensitive animal portraits. The odd thing is she didn’t consider herself creative. Yet it was all over her: whether in her knack for decorating, her cooking and her love of art, or her gardening, birdwatching and tenderness toward animals, she was all about creativity, all about creation.

Her death came with little warning and much too soon. I thought I was safe in expecting at least another ten good strong years of phone conversations, visits to her house, orchard and art festival wanderings and wine at “the island.” If my sister’s untimely death teaches you anything, let it be this: hug and appreciate your loved ones while they’re here. Tell them why you love them. At some point when you least expect it, you’re out of tomorrows.

Melanie, may the next phase of your existence be as rewarding and full of love as this one was. We will miss you and love you always.

The designing woman gets my vote

Say hello to my strange addiction: Love It or List It.

It combines two of my very favorite things … exploring houses for sale and watching a killer renovation. Designer Hilary Farr’s kitchens and bathrooms in particular are so spectacular, I run through the reveals in slow motion. Here’s the unfavorite thing: I usually loathe the featured couple by the end of the show.

I know. It’s dumb to let myself get so … invested. It’s hard on the blood pressure. And the show obviously adheres to a formula, and a conflict-riddled one at that. But, my bad, it happens to me every episode. It’s probably because I identify with the designer. Regardless, whether they put $50,000 or $150,000 into the reno, it’s never enough and it’s never realistic for the changes they expect.

In one episode, the husband got so bent out of shape over something Hilary couldn’t do for him that he actually took more than half of her promised budget back. For spite. Unbelievable.

In another episode, the couple insisted Hilary remove the powder room on the first floor to make more open space (probably going on about “sight lines” or “open concept”). Watching this, I was thinking, are you on crack? You want to banish your guests to the second floor to pee when you have a perfectly good bathroom on the ground floor? But they insisted. So she gave them what they wanted, and they went on to list their home anyway. A key reason was the lack of a bathroom on the first floor.

Yet these very same penny pinchers who act as if bad pipes, knob-and-tube wiring and rotted structure are part of Hilary’s greedy plan to separate them from their money are perversely willing to go $100,000 or more OVER their “not a penny more” budget ceiling to buy a new house. Does Hilary ever just slap her forehead off camera and say, “What the fracking FRACK?” I mean, she’s got to.

“Girlfriend. You gotta get back out there.”

It’s a staple of rom-coms, movies and TVland. The romantic intervention.

Some well-meaning twenty-something sits across from her best friend, clasps her hand, looks her straight in the eye and tells her she’s been going solo too long. There’s often a winsome co-conspirator hovering expectantly in the background to lend support.

“Girlfriend. You gotta get back out there.”

So what’s this “gotta” shit about exactly?

I’ve noticed it so much lately. Seen it on TV series — even good ones — as well as movies. You’d think this was a chapter of Modern Romance 101. “The Friend Who Hides From Love.” Riiiiiight.

I’ve gone a few rounds on the romance-o-rama and had more than my share of wine- and pizza-fueled girlfriend heart-to-hearts — “Why hasn’t he called?” “Am I too aggressive/needy/choosy/neurotic/opinionated/serious/frivolous/slutty/prudish/fat?” etc. — but no friend, best or otherwise, has ever told me I needed to start dating again.

Ever.

For the sake of full disclosure, I went through an epic, two-year dry spell without a single date. And no one upbraided me for it! Of course, this was LA, and it’s hard to find normal guys there. (My roommates weren’t getting any action either. Their cats had more sex than we did. The only hookups among our little group were thanks to one roommate’s late-night visit to a sex club. I’m not naming names, but the girl dressed in clubwear and vintage coral pumps running down the middle of the street in pursuit of a departing taxi at 3:30 in the morning — after having almost wimped out on the plan — wasn’t me.)

This line of thought brings to mind a few more rom-com staples.

The meet cute. Never had one single meet cute in my life. A great-looking guy did come up to me in a grocery store once and strike up a conversation … he wanted to know if I knew this girl he was interested in — I did — and asked me how he should approach her. I nicely told him he was on his own. Asshole.

The job that sounds low-paying yet has tons of X-factor (like production assistant at a TV station or junior editor at a fashion magazine or being the voice of a radio call-in show). I should BE so lucky. I was a temp in my single-girl-trying-to-make-it-in-the-big-city days.

The downtown apartment with wood floors and high ceilings decorated with a quirky assortment of “found” objects. That careless-yet-stylish look is supposed to suggest those objects were found at low-rent antique stores, sample sales or maybe Goodwill — because while our heroine can’t afford the pricey stuff, she is Effortlessly Chic and Creative (note the job) — but more likely they were “found” at ABC Carpet & Home or Modani. Our apartment had wall-to-wall shag carpet, a table but no couch, and linoleum in the kitchen … aaand we lived in East Hollywood, the polar opposite of glam.

The gorgeous girl who has no love life. That one’s as old as the (Hollywood) Hills. Some favorites: Katherine Heigl in Killers and 27 Dresses, and Keira Knightley’s mom talking about her like she’s the plain daughter in Pride and Prejudice.

The gorgeous girl who’s a career powerhouse but can’t get a date for Friday night. A subset of the previous staple; I always loved this one. Probably because I sucked at both. Think Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting and Helen Hunt in What Women Want.

The annoyingly unnecessary makeover of the already gorgeous girl (from Julia Roberts, Rachael Leigh Cook and Debra Winger to Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and Anne Hathaway, this is classic) because the dumbasses in the movie can’t tell she’s a babe without the flashing signs and arrows of more makeup, a new hairstyle, contact lenses and a great outfit. Seriously!

The schlubby guy with the babe. I really, really hate this one. Schlubby guys across the country have learned from movies that they needn’t “settle” for anything less than a ten. See Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version (not just one, but three beautiful wives plus a smokin’ hot one-night stand) or Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. And lest we forget: As Good As It Gets, Knocked Up, She’s Out of My League and Charlotte and Harry in Sex and the City. Think I’m all wet on this one? Switch the genders in each scenario and we’ll talk.

One or two pairs of Louboutins and a La Perla bra in the closet (My friends and I bought everything on clearance, including shoes and bras; labels like Louboutin and La Perla didn’t even live in the same universe as the clearance racks we could afford).

And finally: The chasing or moment-of-truth scene at the end, when he realizes he can’t live without Ms. Awesome and WTF possessed him to think he could? and he runs/skydives/jumps on a horse/jet skis/hails a cab to her party/taxi/wedding/airplane/fabulous new job in London to beg her forgiveness and spend the rest of his life Making It Up To Her.

Escape the “Holiday 15” in 3 easy steps.

Do you tend to gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s? It doesn’t have to be that way. I have a few quick tips to help keep weight less balloon-y during the eating season, and there’s not a lick of exercise among them. Unless you count patting yourself on the back as exercise.

1. Be lazy
This is the most important one and may sound counterintuitive, but it works. Don’t make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, it’s way hard, takes forever, puts major stress on relationships, and leaves you with an epic mess to clean up and scores of high-calorie leftovers. Go to someone else’s house, go to a restaurant, or better yet, get a couple of Marie Callender turkey dinners (yes they’re fattening, but I don’t want you feeling deprived, you’ll just binge later on something totally random), rent Home for the Holidays and enjoy the peace and quiet. If it’s warm out, open the windows and let in the sounds of screeching kids and inappropriate behavior coming from everyone else’s house and feel the satisfaction of the excellent decision you made.

You could also take a nap. (But you’ll probably want to close the windows first.)

2. Think gift cards, or part deux of Be lazy
I once spent half of December making homemade chocolate truffles for presents. Yes, they’re delicious, personal, less expensive than traditional gifts and Say You Care because they take a lot of time and work. (Note the theme?) But they’re just as delicious to me, and I ate more than I made. And I made quite a lot. Beware.

3. Say no once in a while
Just because you get invited to scads of Christmas parties (you freak) doesn’t mean you have to go to EVERY ONE. Skip the ones you know will be jam-packed with alcohol, homemade eggnog and hi-test Christmas goodies that can only be described with words like rich, moist, luscious, decadent, melt-in-your-mouth. Go to the boring ones put on by your vegan, alcohol-eschewing friends. (And bring a board game like Truth or Dare. Trust me.) You’ll be the only one there, and you might leave with a vague sense of yearning — depending on how much tofu and gluten-free figured into the menu — but the hosts will appreciate you more. And a little good karma never hurts, especially during the holidays.

What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine.

Pssst! Yes, you!

You know who you are.

You’re the one who closes off your connections list to others you connect with on LinkedIn.

Okay. Apparently you didn’t get the “we’re all in this together” memo.

Sorry if this sounds scoldy, but I think you need reminding: the benefit of being on LinkedIn is designed to be mutual. By connecting with people you know and/or have worked with, you have a potential connection to everyone they know and/or have worked with. But for the system to reach its fullest potential, it must work in both directions. Equal advantage, equal opportunities, for all.

Once connected, members can view the contact lists of their connections to see who they have second- and third-degree connections to. Perhaps you see this as a kind of intrusion. If so, you are missing the point: not a single one of us gets anywhere professionally without help from others. And to meet people in fields or companies of interest, arranging introductions via those already connected to those people adds a measure of comfort to the process. It’s a built-in set of references and recommendations.

And here’s the plain truth of it: If you deny your connections access to your other connections, you are taking benefit without giving back … and the embodiment of a professional cul de sac.

If privacy is your issue, eschew social media and stick with your Rolodex … or a folder under the mattress, if you prefer.

Health insurance. Now *there’s* an oxymoron.

There’s nothing like a baby brother on a ventilator … to make you think about things like health insurance.

Armed with a new sense of urgency, and thinking it would be just a matter of determination and “due diligence,” I went online to BCBS Florida and searched through their catalog of insurance products.

Whoa. Quite a list. After locating their version of catastrophic coverage, I started filling it out online.

Forty-five minutes later…

Overwhelmed with decades of minutiae and constrained by the conventions of the form — and only into the second of five sections — I thought screw it, I’ll do this in person.

Next day, a follow-up call from their sales staff. We spend at least another 30 minutes on the phone, answering questions that start with “In the last 10 years, have you ever,” explaining gaps in knowledge, naming doctors and imaging facilities and hospitals and tests and medications taken or applied, and then I mentioned I have psoriasis. Cue sound of a screeching stop. After she goes off the line for five minutes, she comes back and tells me I’m denied. What the crap?

Now I was ready to hang up. She hurriedly suggested “alternatives,” a word that, used the way they use it, is an oxymoron. I could get their not-medically underwritten plan, which is inexpensive, but doesn’t cover anything catastrophic — the very stuff I want to protect myself against. Or I could get temporary insurance (up to six months max per 12-month period). If I get it month to month, the titanic deductible resets to zero every month. If I get six months’ worth at once, I have to pay all charges up front. Meaning, I could shell out $1,200 for six months of “protection” that I don’t even use. That sounds no different from gambling to me, and there’s one thing I know about gambling — the house always wins.

It’s gotten to the point that being able to afford decent health insurance that covers what you need it to cover is equivalent to winning the lottery … and there we are with the gambling metaphors again.

Destressing: What’s your recipe?

Being a lover of all things procrastinatory, I am a devoted watcher of House Hunters. Last night it was about this sixty-something powerhouse of energy, a trauma surgeon, who decided she wanted to move from her current home in Indiana back to her home town of Fargo, ND.

Ya gotta love someone with the spunk to choose to move to Fargo. And I certainly respect and appreciate people who are not afraid of cold weather. I’m growing more like them with every Florida summer (and every hot flash suffered therein).

As the narrator skimmed over an abbreviated portrait of the woman, she mentioned how this trauma surgeon’s way to destress was to give dinner parties for 24. Uh-huh … waitWHAT?  [Camera cuts to me choking on my popcorn.]  Having 24 people in your house expecting to be fed and entertained is a stress RELIEVER?

This boggled my mind. My husband and I invite one couple to dinner and I’m a twitching knot of stress. And then there’s that business of the having 24 friends. She has 24 friends?

I can just see her leaving after a long day at her stressful job of emergency tracheotomies, attempted suicides and traumatic brain injuries and saying to herself, “I am absolutely done in. I need to relax. What shall I do? I think I’ll go to the supermarket, pick up a 30-pound turkey and make a dinner so big it deserves its own ZIP code and invite 20 or 30 of my closest friends over to eat it with me! Perfect! I’m feeling zen already.”

Maybe this has you wondering: what’s my recipe for stress? Not being a fan of leaving anything to chance, I am an inveterate list-keeper — so of course I have a list for destressing!

1. Put on sweats.

There’s really no step 2; that’s it. Yeah, my smart-aleck husband says “open a bottle of wine,” but really. Everything after step 1 is gravy. And you can be sure that having a dinner party for 24 is nowhere in there.

SRSLY?

Maybe you remember that saying from the sixties: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

Borrowing from that, what if they gave a New Year’s party and nobody came?

What if indeed.

My husband and I are not exactly social butterflies. (Blame it on scars sustained in high school.) But we have a small circle of friends, good friends we thought, and we wanted to bring them all together to celebrate another year’s passing. Lavish them with wine, Champagne, and various yummy homemade appetizers, with our lovingly decorated Christmas tree glittering in the background, scented candles all aglow and soft jazz playing on the stereo.

We asked them a few weeks before Christmas, thinking that was enough advance notice to get a commitment.

Almost everyone said yes, saving one man, who thought his wife might have to work that night.

We got busy with the preparations. Buying wine (would three bottles be enough?), Champagne, ingredients for hors d’oeuvres, as well as holiday decorations and serveware. Plus furious list-making, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the guest bath, washing linens, de-cluttering and last-minute grocery shopping. My husband spent several hours on our kitchen’s tile floor the night before, scrubbing the grout with a noxious chemical cocktail that burned off his fingerprints and made his fingertips smart for the next day and a half.

And then it began. The beg-offs started trickling in. One person had fallen on his tile floor and injured his elbow so he and his wife were going to stay home. The wife who thought she might have to work was correct, so despite her urgings to her husband to come anyway, he stayed home. The next couple’s daughter was visiting with her husband and new baby; they were going to stay home. A neighbor couple and their two teen daughters had family visiting nearby. They were going to spend the evening with them.

WOW. In one three-hour period, the party we had planned for weeks, looked forward to and spent ridiculous amounts of money on to make just so, disintegrated.

We were left with dozens of homemade rumballs and cheese-olive hors d’oeuvres in the freezer; four bottles of wine and Champagne, and two giant bottles of soda in the fridge; at least $100 worth of Christmas cookies, hors d’oeuvre ingredients and holiday serveware we no longer needed; a vast echo in our checking account and that old familiar feeling from high school. You know the one (if you don’t, lucky you). The one when you never get picked for the team.

I really, really hate that feeling.

But hey, the kitchen floor looks fabulous.

A WTF moment. One of many.

Okay, do you watch Curiosity?

I just finished watching the most recent episode, narrated by the go-to man of silken-voiced narrators, Morgan Freeman. I love and trust Morgan Freeman.

But this episode explored the question of whether there are parallel universes, and what string theory is, with discussion about black holes, what they are, where they go, where they come from, etc.

I am drawn to these programs, in spite of the fact that typically, they force me to confront the concept of infinity.

And that is where I always get into trouble.

I have trouble understanding infinity. After all, I’m accustomed to a reality of borders and containment. Of starting and finishing, outsides and insides.

After this program forces me to contemplate infinity, i.e. try to visualize it, it goes on to say that our universe is constantly expanding, and at a greater speed the farther one goes.

Wait just a damn minute.

That suggests edges to me. How can something be expanding if it is already infinite in size? If there is no space not occupied by our universe — which I would think sums up the definition of infinite — then there is no space for it to expand into, right?

If there is space for it to expand into, then that means there was unoccupied, or at least available, space prior to the expansion, doesn’t it?

If there was unoccupied space prior to the expanding, then our universe wasn’t infinite. Scientists, please, make a commitment. Either it’s infinite or it’s not. What’s it gonna be?