Aging, City living, Travel



We retreat to the mountains for Memorial Day, our Prius silently easing into a parking spot at the mountainside timeshare condo. We have to shoo away the deer as we unload.

We all have our roles to play.

It happens gradually. We get comfortable in our job. The mortgage kicks in. A couple extra pounds. A drink each night. A quiet release of expectations.

The deer loiter out back, inches from our deck rails. They periodically retreat into the shallow woods behind our unit, more out of boredom than fear.

Our 20s were bold and transient, lived on instinct. Our 30s were sensible and fruitful, laying foundations. The 40s are routine and comfort.

The neighbors fling kibble and the deer gather.

Birds built a nest in the hanging plant on our back patio. There are strollers and squirrels and SUVs and the near constant hum of a lawnmower from somewhere.

Cardinals fly past, brown females or males the color of our throw pillows. Bunnies eye our garden with envy. Hedgehogs dodge cars and we build fences.

Deer dash through our backyards there.

I envy their determination.


European Union Nations Consider Requiring a Visa for US Visitors

At a recent European Union meeting, high level representatives from member nations advanced a proposal that would require US tourists secure a visa to travel to EU nations. If approved, the measure could take effect as early as 2017.

Citing increasing political polarization and instability in the US, leaders discussed concerns over a spike in the number of Americans looking to relocate permanently to Europe. A visa program would allow authorities to better monitor the departures as well as the arrivals of visitors.

While no one would say it specifically, many leaders made off-the-record reference to the increasing possibility of Donald J. Trump winning the US presidential election in November.

“Couple the volatile presidential campaign with the rancor in the US senate and upheaval around the Supreme Court, and you can see why Americans are feeling uncertain about their future,” says Peter Blumbach, an advisor to Angela Merkel

“We understand their concerns and frustrations, but we are not equipped to offer them asylum.”

“We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis,” explained a French official who asked not to be named. “While we are doing our best to help settle Syrian refugees, we cannot accommodate an influx of Americans. Our priority is to help those with the most acute needs.”

Google statistics show a surge in American searches for “move to Canada” over the past 4 months. But the number of searches for European countries is increasing rapidly. Among the most popular “move to” searches are Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland.

American consulates and embassies in these and other European nations reported an unusually high number of inquiries about residency requirements in the days immediately following the Super Tuesday US presidential primary.

While European leaders acknowledge their concerns about a Trump presidency are many, their biggest concern is the possible influx of Americans, and their long term cultural, religious, and economic impact on local communities.

In countries currently most affected by immigration, public sentiment is strong. Activists in Greece have taken to social media, tweeting their growing concerns using hashtags like #NoTrumpMigration and #AprilFools!

Human technology, Language

The Power of Words


A new year, and words have produced results!

December was a month of action around here, of packing and unpacking, of moving, of painting and remodeling. Of transformations, tiring work, tangible physical results and visible transitions. No time for journaling or blogging or any of my usual word play. Too much stuff to get done!

It was refreshing for someone who spends most days in front of a screen typing away, pushing well crafted communications out into an indifferent world, with little to show for each completed project. A sale. A blip in web traffic. An email reply from a reader. Six likes. A share. Tweet. Tweet.

Then January happened.

Our house hit the market on a Friday afternoon. I’d spent time honing the language of the description with my realtor, though I knew the photos were more important. We had put in the labor to clear out the house and hired expert help to refresh and beautify it.

Still, I felt the rich community of the block was its best feature, far more important and enduring than the stager’s trendy hexagon end tables. I wrote a concise essay on the warmth of my neighbors, our memories of block parties and fire pits, and the texture of that special block. My realtor planted it at the open house that Sunday and distributed copies.

By Tuesday we had an offer. We sold our house in less than a week, and to someone we felt was a good fit.

Sadly, that same day I got news of a dear friend’s passing. The founder of my company, the man who hired me 20 years ago and changed the course of my life, left us that day. His contributions to the worlds of responsible business, economic empowerment, fair trade and sustainability will live on for decades. My respect for him is bottomless.

I quickly published the obituary I had written for him in anticipation of this moment. (He was 91, after all.) It was an assignment I’d been honored to take some months earlier, approaching the task with diligence and earnest respect rather than sadness. That brief biography may be one of the most important things I have written.

I also wrote announcements of his death and disseminated them to clients, staff and friends.

As people from around the world shared their memories and condolences, and as we grieved together, I was struck by how many people thanked me for my obituary and my beautiful words about Hal.

My words helped honor the man in the manner he deserved, beyond what his family and newspaper reporters could offer. And my writing provided comfort to readers who loved and grieved him as I did.

For the first time in a long time, I remembered just how powerful good writing can be, how articulate words can change minds, soothe loved ones, connect people and tighten communities. I felt a sense of my own power as a writer and felt grateful for my gift of language, my ability to encourage, persuade or comfort with well chosen words.

I watched the president’s State of the Union address with a new enthusiasm that week, eager to let the speechwriters’ soaring rhetoric elevate me. Wanting to join them, to turn my pen to civic matters. The world needs our crisp prose to inspire action and light the way of progress.

(Watch this space.) Write on!



City living, Family

A Note About the Block We’re Leaving


Here is a little something I wrote up ahead of the open house we’re holding this weekend to sell our home. We love you all, neighbors. And we will miss seeing each of you on a daily or weekly basis. Thank you for being such good neighbors and becoming such dear friends. 

This is a special block. In our many years in this house, a house we have loved, I have always felt that our neighbors were the best feature of our home. This block has taught me so much about community and friendship.

I have picked tomatoes from my neighbors’ gardens. I’ve shared growlers on front porches for Mother’s Day. I’ve enjoyed fire pits in side yards and soccer matches in the alley with the kids. We’ve swapped hostas and ferns, provided vacation care for cats, and relaxed in my neighbor’s hammock. I’ve enjoyed back alley cinema here, potluck brunches, and block parties.

We share updates and info on our block’s Facebook group. We shovel snow for neighbors and can always find someone to help move a piece of furniture when needed. We actually borrow a stick of butter or cup of sugar from neighbors here! More importantly, we talk about more than the weather. And we listen.

Beyond the helpful circulation of hand-me-downs, I have really benefited from this community as a mom. I’ve learned to parent on this block and watched my child grow up among friends and neighbors who all look out for each other. Community is a beautiful thing, and I cannot imagine a more lovely one than this one.

As we have outgrown our home here, it has been very hard to say goodbye. If you love kids and animals and fire pits and gardens and interesting conversation, this is the place for you.


Battle of the CD Tower

In case you missed it, we’re moving. Much more on that later. For now, an excerpt from an actual conversation we had this morning.

We were cleaning out and packing our CDs. For those of you born after 1990, CDs are thin rounds of plastic, kind of like the records you collect, but much smaller. They play music similarly, but on a different device.

A note of context for those who do not know my husband: Randy is a sentimental guy. There are not many downsides to being married to a sensitive guy. But one is the tendency toward pack ratting, hording things with meaning.

And so begins the dialogue as we are packing CDs for our move.

Andrea: George Michael? We can get rid of this.

Randy: No! We keep it!

A: Are you serious? It’s mine. I’m pitching it.

R: No keeping.

A: Put it in and tell me we should keep it.

(Puts it in the CD player.)

R: I’m getting rid of this Smashing Pumpkins. 

A: Which?!

R: The dumb one. Not the other one.

A: Yeah. That was seminal for me. What’s it called? It was college.

R: I know. I was there. Oh! The Bo Deans!

A: Why? Oh are they Canadian or something?

R: No! They’re from Milwaukee.

A: No Portishead or Bach leaves this house. Are we really going to listen to all this big band music?

R: Keep it. There’s a Black Crows CD in the kitchen. Can I get rid of that?

(Pause while I compute Black Crows instead of Black Keys.)

A: That’s not mine.

R: It’s not mine. It’s yours.

A: Nope.

R: Yeah, your old boyfriend gave it to you. What was his name? Patrick?

A: Noooooo! Pat was the world music guy! He’d neeeever listen to this crap. Give away pile!

R: Etta James?

A: Keep. Hole. (Laughing.) We can get rid of this.

R: No! We’re keeping that.

A: Seriously? Like you’re ever gonna say “I want to listen to Hole now.”

R: No. This Norwegian writer I am reading alludes to these 90s bands in his novel. It makes me want to listen to them. Garbage too.

A: OK, but this George Michael sucks. He’s like a lounge singer. Can we give it away?

(Meanwhile Robin is dancing to it.)

R: Siamese Dream! That’s it! Here it is. And Jane’s Addiction too.

A: Ahhhh, college.

Robin: We need to buy more food guys. We’re running out. You know dat?


The Prison Industrial Complex by Lego


Lego startles me sometimes with its emphasis on law enforcement, crime, and weapons.


I recently cleaned out my son’s Lego collection and disarmed his figurines. An impressive haul it was! I would never buy him a toy gun, yet somehow all of these firearms have slipped into our household.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon a Lego advent calendar with a mini figure for each day of advent. My enthusiasm curdled when I realized that some of the figurines were criminals: prisoners in stripes or robbers in ski caps and stubble, holding crow bars. There was a police officer too, holding handcuffs, of course. Merry Christmas!

I love Legos. Really, I do. They engage my son so completely that he will fall silent for an hour in the living room in rapt concentration, following the “constructions” to build elaborate vehicles from smartly designed kits. Their designs are brilliant!

And beyond the sets, he free builds with startling creativity. He builds airports, toilets, stores, robots, toilets, rockets, houses, toilets, airplanes, and outhouses with toilets. I can hang out with him on the floor for an hour or more, snapping bricks together, creating worlds.

He loves Lego and we’ve encouraged him to save his money for kits. We’ve bought him plenty too. But there are certain cops and robbers sets we just won’t allow. Like the jail-break set, which includes a prison with graffiti in its cells. It’s beyond depressing.

Our corrections system is an inappropriate subject for play. It seems insensitive and glib to turn prisons into play kits.


Against my protests, we recently ordered a Lego phonics book series. My husband is hoping to leverage Robin’s Lego love to teach him to read. But the plots of the books revolve around cops (short O) and robbers (short O). There are lots of police chases and gritty criminals.


I cringe as we read our way through gold heists, swamp chases, diamond thefts, and bank robberies. There are Lego SWAT teams, confrontations, incarcerations.

Maybe I should count my blessings. At least the characters are beyond race, a uniform yellow. I guess it could be worse.

Am I a prude to be a uneasy about all of this?


 Notes from the Sausage Factory


“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
      – Otto von Bismark

(Sausages = Families)

My dad has almost never stayed for more than a night or two, and rarely comes to visit on his own. My stepmom Robie still works, so their visits are brief. She grew up here, so she has her own list of VIPs to see on their long weekends. We normally get them as a matched set, for 24 – 48 hours.

I was shocked when Dad accepted my invite to come for the week while Robie was gone in Italy!

My delight turned to dread as the visit approached. We live in half the square footage they do, and our home is extremely modest by comparison.

While we don’t aim to impress, we do clean house and make beds and dinners for their visits.

They arrive on Christmas mornings just in time for coffee, quiche and mirth. The tableau they find includes a blissful grandson in matching PJ top and bottom, sitting in a nest of wrapping paper quietly playing. Mimosas are passed. The plate with cookie crumbs and half drunk milk rests on the hearth, just so.

This is the closest we come to Rockwell.

“You’re in for full Szyper-Kester immersion,” I warned my dad in a call just before he came. Unmade beds. Unkempt house. Processed food…

My dad has such a strong tendency to not want to intrude or be a burden, I sometimes mistake it for indifference.

But he was game for the challenge and I invited him in. He learned the way to Robin’s school and picked him up at 3 for the week. They bonded over Popsicles and a shared appreciation of Odd Squad. He heard about our work days and helped us forage the fridge for nightly meals.

And more than anything, he understood. Understood our daily grind and exhaustion. Our willingness to let bad behavior pass sometimes out of sheer weariness. Even the mysteriously long time it takes us to deposit checks he sends for birthday gifts. We’re just swamped.

We hit the skids one night in the middle of his stay. Our family meltdown was something about Robin’s bad behavior, Randy’s slack response, my nagging him about parenting and then a reverse domino that sent the vitriol back around again.

Lots of tears and yelling and guilt. Having my father as a witness only intensified my shame.

“See, dad? We’re all freaks! You probably want to go home now,” I sobbed. “I don’t blame you.”


“Bu-bu-but, I I I don’t really want you to go. But if you want to I understand. I’m s-s-sorry. This just happens sometimes.”

My dad was unmoved, but in the good way. Like a rock. I cried. I talked. He listened. Without judgement.

“You’re in the sausage factory now,” I told him, when I was able to laugh again. “You like the end result, but it’s any ugly process.”

This to a man who read me The Velveteen Rabbit regularly in childhood. This is Real.

At the end of a long workday, we look nothing like our Christmas card photo.

Dad and I laugh about it now. It was a pivotal night in our relationship. Sausage Factory has become code for human, vulnerable, honest. I feel brave for letting him in. And I think, strangely, we both feel lucky.

On a date night at the end of the week I found myself relating a version of the meltdown story to some friends at a cocktail party.

One of them mistook the meaning of sausage factory for an overabundance of men in the house. We laughed as he explained that in college if he and his friends walked into a bar without enough women, they’d say “Dude, this place is a sausage factory. Let’s go.”

I blushed as another guy agreed he had understood the same thing.

“I pity my wife,” our host told me, “because she lives in a sausage factory” (with him and their three sons).

When I told my father about the confusion he was quick to dismiss these guys. The allusion to the famous quote about government was over their heads, he said.

“No, no,” I told my dad. “They’re really bright guys. One of them is a urologist!”

When I said the words aloud we fell into fits of laughter. We howled until we cried about misunderstandings, sausage, and our sausage factory. Our dear, dear sausage factory.

I’ll fly the freak flag proudly on his next visit.

Family, Language, Travel

10 Reasons Ireland Rules for Family Vacations

Ireland is a wonderland for family travel. The warmth of the Irish people and the county’s well established tourist infrastructure make it an inviting and accessible place even for novice travelers. The left-side driving is the only challenging part, but the freedom and spontaneity a rental car allows make it essential. Off-road Ireland is where the adventures begin!

My son Robin will remember this vacation for the rest of his life. Here are 10 reasons you should consider taking a family vacation in Ireland.

1. Happy dining

Bangers and Mash …and peas, and bacon. Bread and butter. Chips. Crisps. Baked beans. There are simple pleasures on kids’ menus throughout this fair green land. And the omni-present Early Bird dinner means mom and dad can dine in some of the cities’ best restaurants before 7 pm and enjoy two course for under 25 euro. Dinner is served from 5pm onward, and many places remain open serving food between lunch and dinner. We found kids’ menus in some of Dublin’s most sophisticated restaurants.

2. Family pricing   

All the major sites we visited in 5 different counties had family discounts. For a couple euro more than the cost of 2 adults, a family of four can enter, whether at the Rock of Cashel or the cathedrals of Dublin and Kilkenny. Under 6 is usually free. And the major museums of Dublin are free, so you can duck in for short visits and leave as soon as the kids start whining. And in terms of airfare, flights to Dublin and Shannon are among Europe’s lowest in cost, especially if you can plan for very early June.

3. Endless green

Parks, fields, and open greens — for kicking a soccer (foot) ball or tossing a foot (rugby) ball. Or hurling, I suppose …if you’re into that kinda thing.  (I wouldn’t trust my son with a large stick, and those pro players make our hockey players look like wusses.) Whether it is in a Dublin park, on a castle green like the lush acreage of Kilkenny Castle, or in the wilderness of Country Kerry, there’s open space that invites you to run around and be free. Hiking trails through moss-covered thickets. Rolling hills to roll down. (Robin rolled down the high slopes of the Rock of Cashel for almost an hour; we’ll visit the Hill of Tara next trip to do the same.)

4. Kid-friendly pubs
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Drink with yours kids. The locals don’t mind and won’t judge you. In fact, they will likely hand you a kids’ menu. Pubs are family friendly before 8 or 9 at night. Guidelines vary a little based on place or season, but pubs are a multi-generational affair. So grab a pint, and a half pint of milk. Did I mention the bar games? Go off peak for extended play time at the ring toss (above).

5. Irish music

Whether you are tutoring your child on the importance of early U2 or taking in an early evening trad (traditional music) session in a pub, music is everywhere. Stomp your feet. Clap your hands. Use your bodhran, a traditional drum used in folk music. You can pick up a decent one for 13 euro, and any local who sees your child holding one will warm to you immediately and may even offer a lesson. It seems the school kids here learn to play them, at least in the southwest of Ireland. The little drum is great and travels well. But under no circumstances should you buy your child a tin whistle. Seriously. They should tuck a set of earplugs into the box it comes in, wrapped in the sheet music for “Oh Danny Boy.”

6. Irish television

Turn on the tellie and make new friends. Peppa the Pig (though we think she’s British) is a favorite of ours. Better yet, listen in as your old buddy Dora is dubbed into Gaelic. Seriously. Dinosaur Train airs in Gaelic too! It’s just exotic enough to stretch a young mind.

7. Farm life 

I’m talking sheep. On the road. Cows up close. Goats sneaking up to the fence behind you, their MAAAAAAAAW so loud it makes you jump. Free range happy cows and hay baling. Tractors everywhere and farm pastures as far as the eye can see. In County Kerry there are places like Kissane Sheep Farm, Molly Gallivan’s, and the historic farmstead at Muckross House where kids can see it all up close. Explore the farmers’ markets and sample cheeses. Better yet, stay on a farm like we did. This is where food comes from, kids!

8. Everyone speaks English

It is so easy to get what you want and need, and the people here are generally so warm and accommodating. Your children can easily befriend the local kids at the playground and you can chat up their parents. The Gaelic signs keep it interesting, but it is really nice to be able to talk to everyone you meet, ask questions and make friends. Talking to the locals is one of the best ways to understand Ireland and discover its hidden gems, and it can get you out of a pickle quickly. Don’t be shy!

9. Fairies
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Yes, they are real. See this proof? Ireland has a sizable community of fairies and leprechauns. Evidence of their existence is everywhere, if you open your eyes and look. We recommend starting your search in the mossiest part of the forest, where the ferns grow tall. If you don’t succeed, have your child ask an elderly person. They are eager to tell your kids all about them and just as eager to hear reports of your sightings. They must remember a time when the fairies roamed free.

10. Each day ends like this… 

A creamy stout poured from a nitro can. And yes, those are wool slippers that are 76% more comfortable than the Uggs in your closet. Cozy cozy. The sun sets much later this far north, so days are longer and you can grab a little R & R outdoors after bedtime in summer. In cooler months you can just chill by the fire. This is me on a rainy June evening, when outdoor temps dipped and the sun didn’t set until 10pm, leaving us a nice long and quiet evening to enjoy while Robin slept upstairs.



Dental Detours

I haven’t read Dante. So can someone please tell me in which circle of hell you must floss another human being’s teeth?

Fitting penance for sins of the mouth flesh. A recent trip to the dentist has revealed three cavities! Our first ones. Ever.

The whole appointment starts badly. Busy office. Dental hygienist stops me at the door when I follow Robin in as I have for all 8 of his visits. “Just Robin. You wait here. We’ll call you.”

Not sure who is more uncomfortable, Robin or me. But there is no conversation.

Robin is a good and obedient patient. I’ve enjoyed our previous trips to the dentist. When told to take a turn with the brush once a day, I say no problem. I help him brush twice each day. On the tutelage of the pediatrician, I’ve done this his whole toothsome life. Robin hands me the toothbrush each time.

As he’s gotten old enough to argue or doddle, I give him choices. Passive aggressive ones. “Up to you. If you want cavities, that’s your choice. I don’t care if you brush.” He always chooses toothbrush.

What does he know of cavities? Only what I’ve told him: They’re bad. They hurt. They are expensive to fill, so if you get too many we won’t be able to afford vacation, kid. So brush up or you’ll never meet Mickey Mouse.

It’s enough. But there’s more. Let’s not forget the diet.

No gummy vitamins! No sticky or chewy candies! Limited sugar. In stores, Robin points to jelly beans and tells me they are bad for your teeth. On Halloween he hands over his Tootsie Rolls and Laffy Taffy before I even ask.

Our efforts have been affirmed on all previous dental visits. I chat up a friendly hygienist who inevitably comments on how great his teeth look. When the dentist tells me what a great job we’re doing, we high five. “Team work!”

So this time I am completely unprepared for the news.

After an eternal wait, I’m summoned by a grimacing hygienist. Robin is upright in the yellow pleather recliner of the back office, holding plastic prizes but not smiling.

There are x-rays on a lightboard. Apparently, not only is 5 the age when mom has to wait outside. It’s also the age when they take x-rays. I should have been informed.

Three cavities. “They’re small,” says the stern-faced dentist.

“So we don’t have to fill them?”

“You do. These baby teeth are very brittle and will rot quickly.” He shows me two other small spots that may be turning into cavities. He’ll watch those for next time.

(I am not a bad mother. I am not a bad mother. I am not a bad mother.)

All this in a mouth where teeth only touch in 6 places. A mouth that drinks juice once a week. That doesn’t know the cloying sweetness of Jelly Bellies, nor the jaw joy of chewing gum. That has never experienced the vivid flavors of a Jolly Rancher, nor the sweet fizz of soda. What gives?

“Floss,” the hygienist says quietly. “Be sure to floss. Just in the back. Those molars that touch. That’s where the problem is.”

Oh yeah. Floss. I forgot. So many details. And a silent reminder to check my smugness.

In the meantime I’ve lost some leverage with the threat of cavities. Been there. Done that. The truth is, they don’t hurt and won’t hurt to fill. Our plane tickets are already bought for summer.

The next day he bounds into his classroom on the heels of a spring break that included a visit from Granny and many movies, museums, restaurant lunches, and treats. What’s the first thing he excitedly tells teacher? “I have three cavities!”

A proud moment. A rite of passage for us both. Our fate is bound in dental floss.

Aging, Family

A List for All Seasons in Life

I never understood those kidless 20-somethings who went to Disney World for vacation. I mean, if you thought you might procreate later, why not save it for then and go to Prague instead?

To everything, turn, turn, turn…photo (10)

Pixar movies
The zoo
Harry Potter
Tree identification by bark and leaf
Bible stories
An all-inclusive resort vacation
U-Pick produce
The constellations
Little House on the Prairie
A pet

This is a list of things I’ve always been curious about, but things that I chose to put off for my parenting years, so I would have something to look toward to. Seriously. I was mindful of this, as if I were budgeting the new and interesting.

The thing is, there have always been so many things that interest me. It seemed prudent to explore things like theater of the absurd and day drinking first. I couldn’t imagine any child of mine waiting for Godot.

Live jazz
Wine tastings
The Fringe Festival
A regular yoga practice
Art galleries
Spicy ethnic food in funky restaurants in not-quite gentrified neighborhoods
Spicy ethnic food with expensive ingredients and protracted preparations at home
Subtitled films
Creative sex
International travel

All of these things were better experienced in the pre-parenting years. The DINK years. The years of wine and roses. And creative sex.

Maybe I should think ahead to the empty nest years, track where I have burgeoning curiosities. What might be better with the gifts of age and time and quiet, conditions that seem unimaginable to me now?

I’ve told Randy that when we retire, I will cultivate orchids and he can tend bonsai trees. Of course retirement age will likely be so late, his hands will be too weak to hold those cool looking scissors.

What else might be good to save for later? Maybe some interests I have had for decades but never quite gotten to. Or a few deferred treats to soften the blow of aging…

Tropical fish
Long baths
The New York Times crossword puzzle
Minimalist decor
Sewing and/or quilting
River cruises
High maintenance plants and gardens