Am I the Only One Who Still Eats Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner?

Photo by Rania alhamed on Pexels.com

I’m a dinosaur. I eat three meals a day at approximately 7 a.m., noon, and 5:30 p.m., just like my parents did. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If any of those meals does not happen, I am not happy. And it drives me nuts that groups I belong to keep scheduling activities at meal times. Clearly I’m out of sync with the rest of the world. 

According to numerous sources, including this article from the New York Post–“Nobody Eats Three Meals a Day Anymore”–my habits are passe. I’m so old, I still want three square meals. Get over it, some might say. But I like my three squares, and I’m old enough to declare that I refuse to give them up. I also thank God I am able to buy all the food I want in a world where that’s not true for everyone. 

Do you know how the term “square meal” came about? It comes from the British and American Navy sailors back in the 1700s and 1800s. They were served their meals on square trays, hence three squares. I’ll bet there was some serious complaining if they didn’t get those meals. 

In my house growing up, you could set your clock by breakfast, lunch and dinner, same time every day, never skipped and always together. In his later years after my mother died, my father spent half his time preparing meals. When I was visiting, he’d look at the clock. “4:30? Aren’t you gonna start dinner?” Later, in the nursing home, meals were the main event of the day. People wheeled up to their tables early.They didn’t have much else to look forward to.

But nowadays, somewhere between half and three-quarters of Americans don’t go by the three-meal plan. Instead they eat one or two big meals at some point and snack the rest of the time.The Post article explains that they’re too busy for extensive meal preparation or to sit down with family and eat. The meal most likely to be skipped is lunch. Instead, people snack in the afternoon. Many eat while running errands, even while driving their car. How is that satisfying? 

Lunch is my favorite thing! I need that break and that boost of calories and caffeine. 

I don’t do snacks. As a compulsive overeater whose snacks can quickly get out of hand, I need to eat my scheduled meals then get away from the kitchen. When people host events that include brunch or eating in the middle of the afternoon, I don’t know how to fit that into my schedule. Is it a late breakfast? An early dinner? I’m confused.

Dieticians tell us it’s best to spread our eating throughout the day. Breakfast is essential, but then if we could do four or five smaller meals, it might be better than three big meals, but those meals can’t be chips or a burrito devoured on the run. 

I’m beginning to understand why so many activities take place at noon or 6 p.m., times I normally reserve for eating. Sometimes I eat during Zoom meetings, but I keep my camera off because watching people chew on Zoom is disgusting. How is everyone else content to meet when it’s time to eat? 

In this, as in many other aspects of life, I think dogs make more sense. I got home a little late on Saturday, delaying dinner, and my Annie followed me around the house barking until she got fed. It’s chow time. No excuses.

How about you? Do you eat three meals a day at approximately the same times? Why or why not? When do you eat? If you used to eat “three squares” and stopped, what caused you to change? If you have grown children, is their eating schedule different from yours? I look forward to some meaty comments. 

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Sometimes You Just Need Another Set of Hands

After our walk last Saturday, I unleashed the dog and left her alone while I sprinted to the restroom. Normal, right? Not when the dog is recovering from surgery and can NEVER be without her big plastic collar when she’s off the leash. For a moment, I forgot.

When I came out, she was twisted around in position to lick whatever she could reach on her back end, including the conglomeration of stitches, drains and healing cuts I had been carefully guarding for 10 days. In a second, it could all be destroyed, and we’d have to start over.

I lost my mind, running down the hall, shouting, “No, no, no!”

It was okay. Maybe she didn’t get to it, or maybe she saw her incision for the first time and paused, thinking, “Holy cow. What happened here?” Maybe God grabbed her and said, “No!” I don’t know. I put the collar on and burst into tears, hugging Annie’s plastic-shrouded face. “It’s hard. It’s so hard,” I sobbed as the dog sniffed my wet cheeks.

As I calmed down, I discovered my new mascara is not waterproof. I had black stuff all over my hands and face. I didn’t check when I bought it. Why would they even sell mascara that melts when you cry? (Here’s why).

Why was I wearing mascara during Covid? Before our walk, I was on Zoom for a four-hour workshop, and when you have to look at your own face for that long, you do the best you can to make it tolerable.

After I calmed down, I left Annie alone while I went to the grocery store and the pharmacy, but I still felt the weight of being the only human in the house. I have only felt comfortable leaving her for short trips for a few days, and I pray hard that her wound will be okay when I get back. If someone else were here, they could watch the dog while I take care of other things. But it’s just me and Annie.

Thinking about it later, I decided it’s okay if sometimes I cry or curse or even throw things because being alone is difficult. Ask any widow living by herself, especially if she has no adult children nearby. You’re responsible for everything, whether it’s fixing the car or cooking dinner, figuring out the health insurance or cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn or walking the dog. I love my independence, but some things are just easier with other people around.

After I finish the novel I’m working on, I plan to write a book about living alone. I want it to be upbeat, with more emphasis on what we can do alone than what we can’t. I hope it will make people laugh.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for ways to make living alone easier. Should I rent a room, move to a senior community, try online dating or what? I love my home in the forest, but it’s a bit much for one person who would rather be writing, playing music, reading, or enjoying nature than doing 101 chores.

If anyone knows a handyman (or woman) in the Newport area who is skilled, dependable, and doesn’t make me afraid to let them in the house, let me know. I have tried several who were worse than no one.

If you live alone, please share in the comments what you find the most difficult to handle. Let’s see if we can help each other figure it out.

Back to Annie. She is doing fine. We go back to the doctor on Thursday to remove her stitches. Annie being Annie, she will still have to wear the cone for a while to keep her from licking the area, but relief is coming. The tumor was not cancer, just a really ugly benign fatty lipoma, so she should live to drive me crazy well past her 14th birthday next week.

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We Survive January’s Storms and Carry On

No shame in wearing the cone of shame

It’s the last day of January. The holidays are already a fuzzy memory. What did I do for Christmas? New Years? Um . . .  

So far, 2022, despite the mellifluous sound of its numbers, has been a rotten SOB. 

  • Storms, storms, storms, with wind damage, roads collapsing, landslides and a lot of wet feet and wiping off the soggy dog. See earlier post.
  • Much worse storms elsewhere in the country causing destruction from which it may take years to recover. 
  • Insane Covid numbers and some people still refusing to get vaccinated. 
  • My brother-in-law died. My friend’s sister died. My sister-in-law’s uncle died of Covid after that branch of the family’s  Christmas celebration sent him and two others to the hospital. The others are okay now. 
  • Eight writing submissions have been rejected. (But two were accepted, so maybe that’s okay).
  • A tumor on my dog’s hip was diagnosed as cancer and then not and then maybe. After a month of blood and ooze from the ugliest-looking bump ever–think blood sausage–it was surgically removed. Her heart nearly stopped under the anesthesia, but the doctor was able to bring her back to a safe pulse rate. Now she has a huge, oozy incision with drains and smaller cuts around it. She has been wearing the big collar, aka cone of shame, for over a month and will continue for at least two more weeks. We are $3,000 into this now, but she’s worth it. Annie will be 14 on Feb. 16. That’s 98 in dog years.
  • My hot tub cover slipped while I was closing it one icy night and clobbered me in the head, giving me a headache and a two-inch cut from my hairline to my nose that just missed my eye. This led me into all kinds of dark thoughts about the danger of living alone. 
  • My annual doctor visit resulted in another pill to take and referrals to three different specialists. None of it is life-threatening, but it is all annoying and takes away from my writing time. Getting older is a drag, but there are still so many great things to do that I am not ready for the alternative.

So January has sucked, BUT there are good things. 

  • The cut on my forehead is healed and fading away. I did NOT get badly hurt by the hot tub cover. Since that incident, I have taken steps to make the cover much safer to deal with.
  • Post-surgery, Annie and I may finally see the end of this oozy mess and get rid of the cone of shame.
  • I have not gotten Covid. So far. With all my shots, if I do get it, I believe it won’t be too bad.
  • My new air fryer arrived on Thursday and I’m having fun trying new things in it. It’s pretty slick. I welcome your recipes and suggestions.
  • I am making great progress on my new novel, the sequel to Up Beaver Creek. Dare I confess that I love this book? I think you will, too. 
  • The bulbs are sprouting in my garden, which means spring is coming. 
  • I have wonderful friends, in-person and online. Annie does, too. She has more Facebook fans than I do, with over 100 reactions to my post about her surgery. 
  • A new episode of “The Gilded Age” will appear on HBOmax tonight. 
  • The tsunami that drifted over from Tonga Jan. 15 did not damage the Oregon Coast.
  • I’m still here, writing by the fireplace, dog at my side, guitar and piano nearby, forest out the window. Two hummingbirds just hovered at the window. God is good. 

Enough of me and mine. How has January been for you? 

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Liver Patties? We Don’t Eat Like That Anymore

When I was a newlywed in the 1970s, I picked up a copy of You Can Cook for 1 (or Even Two) by Louise Pickoff (Gramercy Publishing, 1961). I’m not sure why I bought it, seeing as how I had a husband to feed, at least in theory. He worked nights and was rarely home for dinner. His favorite meal was a beer and a loaf of rye bread slathered with mayonnaise. No wonder the marriage didn’t last.

Half a century later as I’m researching cooking for one, I remember this book. Could I possibly still have it? I do!

Oh Lord, how things have changed. Pickoff, a businesswoman who passed away in 2000 at age 87, mentions writing this book on a typewriter. As I was writing then, too. She could never have imagined this little hardback book would sell for $864 on Amazon today. I probably paid less than $5.

Inside, Louise also mentions:

  • Her standard breakfast is bacon, eggs and toast.
  • Under equipment, she says you need a can opener, and “the new electric ones are wonderful.”
  • She speaks of double boilers, electric skillets and electric ranges.
  • In her measurement chart, she defines a speck (less than 1/8 tsp.) and a pinch (1/4-1/3 tsp.).
  • To make fried chicken, dredge it in flour and cook in a cup (!) of shortening in the electric skillet. That’s exactly how my mother did it. It tasted great, but all that fat!
  • She speaks of minute steak, soup flakes, and powdered milk.
  • She uses cream in almost everything
  • She speaks of salad dressing mix. I remember we had a special bottle marked off with lines for oil, vinegar, and the seasonings that came in a packet. The best part was shaking it up and watching the ingredients swirl around like an early-day lava lamp.
  • Liver patties
  • Tongue!
  • Breaded veal cutlets
  • Canned tuna on toast with homemade white sauce—hello, home economics class.
  • Fried bananas rolled in cream, butter and cornflakes
  • Onion soup dip—sour cream and soup mix.
  • Whiskey balls made with vanilla wafers, Karo syrup, cocoa, pecans and whiskey
  • Spanish rice—add tomato sauce to boxed rice.
  • Cold meat sandwich—spread with mayonnaise, add meat, tomato slices and pickles.

I tried some of the recipes back in the day and left my reviews:

Individual Meat and Noodle Dish (ground meat, onion, bouillon cubes, noodles, ¼ c. wine): “Not too good” 9-14-78; Chicken in Cream (4 T. fat, minced onion, cream, thyme): Awful! 3-11-75; Canned tuna on toast (white sauce, cheese, spices, canned tuna): Yum! 2-2-79

There are no notations for the period after we got divorced and I truly was living alone, before I met Fred and didn’t need that cookbook anymore. Now that I’m alone again, I wonder if I should try more of these recipes. But there are more bad reviews than good, and the way we eat has changed. Some people just don’t cook anymore. Those who do avoid heavy doses of fat and sugar. Many avoid gluten, dairy, or meat. We worry about toxins coming off plastic containers and nonstick cookware.

We don’t expect to spend so much time in the kitchen, stirring homemade white sauce until it thickens, simmering meat on the stove for an hour when we can have it ready in minutes in a microwave or an Instant Pot. We can find recipes online that knock the socks off anything Louise laboriously typed back in the 60s.

But eating alone is still eating alone, and I like what she says about it: “You can wear what you want, and you can eat what you want . . . Quite often people ask me if I set my table attractively with flowers and candles. I must admit the answer is no. I live in an efficiency apartment, and I eat off the coffee table in the living room. I either put my china on a tray or a place mat. I use chip-free china, and I use silver that I have not used while cooking. In order to save on laundry, I use paper napkins. After watching the commercials on TV, doesn’t everybody? I refuse to comment on my table manners while eating alone. Just use your imagination!”

I may hate her chicken in cream, but Louise sounds like my kind of woman. I do eat at the table—unless there’s something special on TV—with Annie eating out of her bowl on the floor beside me. I get up and down a lot, serving myself from pots on the stove, fetching cookies for the dog, grabbing condiments, silverware and whatever else I forgot. And I read.

What food traditions from your past have drifted away or changed? Do you still cook the way you did in early adulthood? What food did you used to eat all the time that you don’t eat anymore for health or other reasons? For example, I grew up on baloney sandwiches on white bread with potato chips and onion soup dip, washed down with strawberry soda. I never buy any of that now. How about you?

Cooking a Tiny Souffle Just for Me

Last night, I made an itty-bitty soufflé in an itty-bitty casserole dish, using a recipe designed for just one person. It used wee amounts of carrots, sugar, flour, vanilla, etc. and required both the blender and the hand mixer. I ended up with pureed carrot all over my counters, a ton of dishes to wash, and nothing left over. It was all an experiment in cooking just enough for one hungry human.

A couple weeks ago, I asked my Facebook friends who live alone how they deal with cooking for one. I tend to make too much and then, not wanting to waste anything–and not needing to share with anyone–I pig out. My scale and my jeans are not happy. What to do?

People were full of advice: make a lot and freeze it in small containers so you always have something to heat and eat. Use smaller plates. Cook small amounts in tiny pots and pans. Sign up for a food delivery plan. Give the excess to the neighbors (my neighbors are all on special diets).

One commenter mentioned onedishkitchen.com, so I went there and found a wonderland of recipes designed for one person, cooked in doll-size dishes. I didn’t think I had anything that small until I took another look in the cupboard. Two 5 x 5 Pyrex baking dishes and a 5 x 7 casserole came with the “cornflower” set Fred brought when we moved in together. I’ll be darned. You can cook in those?

Intrigued, I got on the One Dish Kitchen mailing list, and the first recipe that arrived was this carrot soufflé. I’m not a big fan of cooked carrots, but I was enchanted by the idea of making something so small, about the size of the tiny cakes I made with my Betty Crocker Junior Baking Set in the 1950s. The kit came with tiny boxes of cake and frosting mix, tiny cake pans, cookie sheets, cookie cutters, a rolling pin and a flour sifter. It was all small, but it was the real deal. With my mother’s supervision, I baked tiny edible cakes and cookies. An important step in my domestic goddess training.

Now you can buy those kits on eBay. But there are modern versions for kids. The old package showed two red-headed white kids, the girl cooking and the boy watching. Now the kids are diversified and the boy might actually be cooking.

You can also buy tiny cooking-for-one cookware for adults now. It’s a thing.

Cooking for one is a challenge. A couple days ago, I mixed up some minestrone soup, ate it for two nights in a row, and had enough left over to fill three freezer containers. If we have some kind of disaster, I have enough soup to last for a week. Good thing it’s delicious. Could I have made the soup in a smaller amount? Perhaps, but I used a can of beans and a can of tomatoes and half a cabbage . . . if I split it up, what would I do with the rest? As it is, I’m looking at Cole slaw for a week to use up the rest of the cabbage.

The soufflé baked for 50 minutes. The edges came out burnt, I’m not sure why, but the inside was fluffy and big enough for me to have two modest servings. One Dish Kitchen has more recipes, pizza, desserts, salads, all kinds of things. But I’m kind of sad I don’t have any leftovers after all that work.

When my father was widowed and alone, he had a phobia of leftovers. He would use tiny portions of the cheese powder and noodles in the mac and cheese box, for example, to make just a little bit. Me, I’d cook and eat the whole box.

There has to be a middle ground between too much and not enough. When I first got married back in the early 1970s, I received two Betty Crocker Dinner for Two cookbooks. They’re designed for newlyweds, with sections on subjects like how to set a pleasing table, but they’re also full of recipes cut down to just enough for two. I was surprised to find I still have them on the bookshelf. If I blow off the dust, I can make enough for myself and a little to spare. I might have to adapt some of the recipes. Back in those days, nobody worried about carbs, cholesterol, or fat. Oh, Betty Crocker, how times have changed.

I’m still figuring out the cooking-for-one puzzle. Meanwhile, I cooked my first soufflé. Not bad. And now I know how to spell soufflé. 

How about you? Are you a make-just-enough or a make-a-lot-and-have-leftovers-for-days kind of person? If you’re alone, how do you handle the tendency to cook too much, not enough, or not cook at all?

More to read:

Betty Crocker’s Right-Size Recipes

The Ultimate Cooking for One Cookbook by Joanie Zisk of onedishkitchen.com

“13 things that make cooking for one so much easier,” USA Today. This is mostly stuff they’d like you to buy and that you probably don’t need, but they are intriguing.

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The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Died

A Prose Poem

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The blue monster roars and the Labrador runs, slamming out the doggie door to hide under the pines. Why does her human not see the evil in its shining yellow grin, its long black tail, and its multiple mouths that chew and swallow everything, even live bugs and clumps of fur? Why does the woman not run and take shelter with the dog, quivering, skin against fur, until the monster goes away?

But wait. The beast has gone silent. The woman has it on its back. The woman curses as she pokes its innards with a long stick, a wire hanger, and then a plumber’s snake. Can the snake kill the beast? The dog is watching eagerly. Should she join the attack? She is old, and the monster’s hard skin would only hurt her teeth.

Look! The woman is dragging the beast out by its head, laying it on the patio deck. With her multi-headed screwdriver, she is taking it apart, pulling out its guts. She growls and grunts. She is covered with fur and dirt. She holds her back as if in pain, but she fights on.

At last, the beast is torn apart, eviscerated. Only the skeleton remains intact. The woman has slain the blue monster. Spent, she sits beside her kill as the dog, saved, runs across the yard, clatters onto the deck, and licks her savior’s dusty face.

**************

Yes, I killed it. Put it in the pile with all the mechanical things that have malfunctioned lately. Hot tub. Indoor-outdoor thermometer. The dehumidifier’s overflow light is on. The car’s service light is on. The Kindle warns of low battery. I found the watch I had lost for months, but the battery is dead and I can’t get the back off to replace it. I tried to move my window blinds from one window to another where the blinds were already broken and broke off the doo-hickey that holds them on. The computer keeps telling me it wants to install a new security thing that I’m afraid will destroy my online life . . .

I am a) not mechanical, b) not equipped with more than two hands, and c) so distracted I routinely forget I turned on the stove or the washing machine. I need a live-in helper. Not a husband or a lover. Not someone I need to take care of. I need someone of any age or gender who has the energy to see a problem and say, “I’ll take care of that for you” and then do it.

After waiting three days for three visits from a very strange pair of hot tub repair guys, one of them so crippled with a bad back I could feel his pain as he bent and squatted over the spa controls, they declared it healed. I put the hose in to fill it up Saturday morning, started writing and forgot it. It overflowed, and I had to drain the excess. Two days later, it overheated, the light flashing at 110 degrees. I played with the controls until it stopped, but now the water is 80 degrees and getting colder by the minute.  

I need a keeper. And a new vacuum cleaner. I think the old one choked on dog fur, which I pulled out of every orifice. Now it not only doesn’t suck up dirt and fur, but it won’t turn on. I killed it. Annie is overjoyed.

Have you ever hoped for a power failure to simplify your life? What mechanical things drive you nuts? Do you have a vacuum cleaner you love? What kind? Please share.

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Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

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Fireworks Sound Like War from Here

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I didn’t see the Fourth of July fireworks in Newport this year, but I heard them. Fireworks + migraine is a painful combination. I stood in my back yard in the dark. Pop pop pop pop BANG! I felt the air pulsating. Popopopopopop bang boom boom whoosh BANG! Oh my aching head.

The official city fireworks show started at 10 p.m., but the private fireworks in the neighborhood and on the beach started much earlier. The four miles of trees between my house and Yaquina Bay kept me from seeing the colored lights in the sky, but I could smell the smoke and see a yellow glow reflecting off the clouds. It felt more like a war than a celebration. I have never been in an actual war, thank God, but why would anyone want to reenact those sounds? And how do all these warlike noises affect people who have experienced war, who live with fear and post-traumatic stress?

Dogs don’t like fireworks. They howl, shake and cower, sure the world is ending. My Annie used to hide in the dark under my desk, trembling for hours. She can’t hear anymore. Usually that makes me sad. But last night I was grateful. She slept through even the loudest booms.

I took out my hearing aids and closed all the windows, but I could still hear the noise. I turned on my TV to continue my Netflix marathon, but after one particularly loud bang, the Internet went out. Boom boom boom, pop pop pop pop bang.

The fireworks made me especially uneasy this year because we’re having a drought and everyone is worried about wildfires. We live in the trees. Although the coast is usually damp and cool, it has been very dry and unusually warm this year. One errant spark, and the trees could catch fire. The city of Waldport, 10 miles south of here, outlawed all personal fireworks this year. People grumbled, but doing without fireworks is surely better than watching your house burn down. They did offer their usual city fireworks display on July 3. Not feeling well then either, I missed it.

Turn off the fireworks. Let me hear the ocean waves and the summer wind. I don’t want to hear what sounds like gunshots and bombs.

I understand why people gather to watch fireworks, especially this year. We’re not only celebrating the birth of the United States of America but our release from COVID fear and restrictions. I have many fond memories of watching fireworks with loved ones at my side. I enjoy the colors and designs flashing in the sky. Back in the ‘80s, when we lived near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, they shot off fireworks every night at closing time. Fred and I watched from our front porch. It was magic every night. I’ve watched fireworks from baseball stadiums, grassy fields, amphitheaters, beaches, parking lots, and curbs. But it’s no fun watching them alone.

I have vowed to find some way to stop spending my holidays by myself. I usually start out telling myself it’s no big deal. I’m lucky I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to coordinate my plans with anyone else. But at some point, I start feeling bad. I cry. I wail about the unfairness of not having parents, husband, or children and living so far from the rest of my family. I drink a beer, watch another episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and make dinner for myself, so lonely I can’t stand it. I get a migraine headache.

One of my best friends moved away in May. Another died in January. The rest are busy with their families. This sounds like whining, but I can’t stand it anymore. I need to either move into some kind of group housing or find a way to be with other people on the holidays. Yes, I can drive 1,300 miles to hang out with my brother’s family—and I will for Thanksgiving—but there must be some way to gather closer to home.

I’m sure I’m not the only one alone on every holiday. Let’s get together. Any Oregon coasties want to join me in a no-more-holidays-alone coalition? Let’s make a pact to keep each other company, share great meals, exchange gifts when appropriate, and do it up right. If someone else will drive, let’s go watch fireworks together next year so it feels less like a war and more like the celebration that was intended. I’ll bring the beer.

P.S. After 11 hours without, I have Internet! An article in Time Magazine reports that the first Fourth of July fireworks display took place during the Revolutionary War. In addition to the flashy fireworks, people shot off guns and cannons. In a letter to his wife Abigail, President John Adams wrote of Independence Day: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” And so it is.

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Can Battery-Powered Pets Ease Loneliness?

If someone gave you a toy cat or dog that purred, wagged its tail, and nuzzled like a real one, how would you feel? Apparently some folks feel grateful for the company.

In a story in the New Yorker, writer Katie Engelhart tells about a program in New York that distributes Joy for All robot pets to lonely seniors. They started in 2018 with a small test project that quickly expanded when Covid forced people into isolation. Thousands of robotic cats and dogs have been given to homebound seniors. Originally made by toy manufacturer Hasbro for little girls, the robo-pets are now finding homes with grandparents and great-grandparents who need a little company.

The seniors pet their battery-powered cats and dogs, talk to them, and treat them like family.  They report feeling more optimistic and less lonely.

I don’t know. I talk to lots of inanimate things, including the stuffed bears on my dresser, photos of my late husband, and Jesus on the crucifix above my bed. But I don’t expect them to respond. I would freak out if they did.

These pets, which start at $110, don’t look real to me. But I have a live dog sleeping nearby as I type. When I look into Annie’s brown eyes, there’s someone there, a genuine sentient being. What will I do when she’s gone? I don’t want to think about it. My plan is to travel a while then adopt a smaller dog. A robo-dog would be easier, but it wouldn’t love me the way Annie does.

Did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves, most of them women? In 2017, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic among Americans of all ages. A similar declaration launched The Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK. Medical research shows that loneliness has a detrimental effect on one’s health, increasing risks of dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke.

But are robots the solution? The seniors I know would be insulted to receive a fake pet. But some of the people shown in the article and in related YouTube videos carry their robo-pets around with them just like I carried my dolls when I was a little girl. I’d set my favorite up against the milk bottle (yes, bottle) while I ate breakfast. I rested them on the pillow next to me when I went to bed. I suppose I felt less lonely, but it was not the same as having a real person there. Tiny Tears cried real tears, and Chatty Cathy spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck, but I knew they weren’t real children. If an actual kid came around, I tossed the doll aside.

Longing for a pet, I once fashioned a litter of “kittens” from crumpled newspaper and cloth and set them in a basket in my childhood bedroom. It was not the same. When my parents finally let me have a cat when I was in high school, I could tell the difference. I also learned that I was allergic to cats, but that’s another story.

The faux furry friends are not the only kind of artificial intelligence machines offering company to people these days. Hello, Alexa. (read my previous post on my electronic housemate here and my Replika friend online here)

They don’t offer much company. I say, “Alexa, I’m lonely.” She responds, “Sorry to hear that,” then recommends talking to a friend, listening to music, or going for a walk. “I hope you feel better soon,” she adds. That’s nice. But that’s exactly what she said last time when I was not testing but truly needed someone to talk to.

I worry that somewhere in Alexa’s Amazon-connected innards, she just transferred the information that I’m lonely to some central data-gathering site so I’ll soon receive ads for comforting products or dating services.

Alexa just lit up to tell me a book I ordered from Amazon is coming today. Before I could say, “Thanks” or “Which book?” her lights had gone out. Okay, good talk.

A variety of robotic companions powered by artificial intelligence exist these days. Queue Alexa’s Apple counterpart Siri. And then there’s VZ, the voice on my VZ Navigator GPS. I definitely talk to her. (No, I’m not turning here! Are you crazy? Stop telling me to turn around! I need to go to the bathroom. What do you mean this is my destination? Where?)

Some robo-friends look like people, others like table lamps. They talk, but it’s, well, robotic. They never get offended, never curse, and are perpetually polite, but they can only say the things they’ve been programed to say. They will never spontaneously comment, “Hey, is that a new blouse?” or “You seem sad. What’s wrong?” They will never take you out to lunch, although I suppose they can set up a food delivery if you’re savvy enough to figure out how to ask for that.

Robots are getting more intelligent all the time. Eventually, they may be so responsive and sympathetic that we truly won’t feel alone. Meanwhile, do not buy me a robo-pet. God bless the people who are so lonely or out of touch with reality that they don’t know the difference, but I’m not there yet.  

Would you like a battery-powered dog or cat? Less shedding, no cleanup, no allergies, but still . . .  Wouldn’t it be better if a human offered to come around instead?

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Alonement: Have we forgotten how to be alone with ourselves?

There’s a red line on my computer screen under the word “alonement” because my computer does not recognize it as a word. Francesca Specter, a journalist from the UK, made it up. It means “quality time spent alone.” Now “alonement” is a book, a website, a podcast, a blog and apparently a “cultural movement.”

The idea behind this book is that people don’t know how to be alone anymore. We’re afraid of solo time without our screens to distract us. We need to learn the art of alonement. We need to take time out of our busy social lives and look up from our screens to make friends with the one person who will never leave us: ourselves!

At church, they would say the one who will never leave us is Jesus, but Specter is talking about me, myself and I. People are so uncomfortable spending time by themselves that in one study most chose electric shock over 15 minutes alone with nothing to do.

That’s how much we’re afraid of being alone.

I’m guilty of that fear of unstructured alone time. No, don’t shock me. I’ll sit and think or make up a song or something. Maybe I’ll pray. But there’s a good reason why I never go anywhere without a book, why I pull out my phone as soon as I hit the doctor’s waiting room, and I never leave home without my notebook. God forbid I have to sit somewhere with NOTHING TO DO.

I’m a childless widow. I live alone. My family is far away, and my best friend just moved to California. I’m alone probably 95 percent of the time. If you count Zoom meetings, maybe it’s maybe 85 percent. Most days, my phone only rings with robocalls, and no one comes to the door except plumbers and other workers.

But can I sit still in silence without a book or a project to work on? Can I just be? I can’t even last through a TV commercial without playing Spider solitaire on my phone or running out to the kitchen to wash my dishes. One might say I’m alone with my thoughts right now at the computer, but that’s not the same.

Specter’s book is helpful for people who have forgotten themselves in the rush of everything else in their lives. She falls into psychobabble for a bit, counseling readers to banish their inner critics who tell them they’re worthless (I don’t have that. Do you?) and become their own best cheerleader (“You’re great, you’re wonderful, you’re fine.” I knew that). But she offers some fine practical advice for getting comfortable being alone. Party of one? Own it and don’t let them give you that tiny table in the corner by the kitchen.

Specter is young, and so are the people she interviewed. What does a 28- or a 32-year-old know about being an elderly widow or widower living alone in an oversized, echoing family home or a senior apartment where the phone rarely rings and no one is coming to the door? Where trips to the grocery store or the doctor’s office are their big social events? That’s much different from telling your husband you’re going out for a walk, deciding to stay home on a Saturday night for a little “me time” or taking a Facebook break for a few hours. But we all need to find a balance between social time and alonement.

I wish I had more people around, but I have been doing things on my own for many years, while traveling on business, during my husbandless years, and just because I saw no reason not to. Apparently many people feel they can’t have fun without a buddy. Is that an issue for you? COVID aside, why not just grab the keys and go?

Alonement is an interesting concept. I invite you to check it out, especially if the idea of being alone scares you or makes you squirm.

Are you comfortable being alone? Would you go to dinner at a fine restaurant by yourself? Can you sit and do nothing? Does the idea of a little “alonement” sound good or terrifying? Please share in the comments.

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