Last month a family member of mine reluctantly turned 70. In fact, I’ve been banned from saying who it is, and he didn’t want a party for fear people would realize he had grown old. So, we went to a restaurant for a special lunch. I made this bouquet for him, and everyone at the restaurant asked about it. I want to show you how to make it because it works for any of the big milestone birthdays – 50, 60, 70, etc. You could also just make the sign read, “Growing Old Sucks.”
Here’s what you need:
Bags and bags (or two giant bags) of lollipops
Cardstock or paper
1 Large flat lollipop
Vase or bucket
Styrofoam ball that is wide enough to sit on top of the vase or bucket
Tissue paper (optional)
Here’s how to do it:
Place the ball atop the vase.
Make a round sign with the message, “TK Age Sucks” to tape or glue to the large flat lollipop. I made two signs and taped them to each side of the lollipop, so that you saw it regardless of which side of the table you were sitting.
Begin sticking the smaller lollipops into the styrofoam ball. Now, you can be quite methodical and make a pattern with the lollipops, and you might use all one kind of sucker. I opted to use many different lollipops of different sizes, and my 4-year-old son helped, which threw any pattern I was making right out the window. The good news is that this is easy enough for a pre-schooler to do. Fill the ball with lollipops until you see no gaps. You don’t want the white styrofoam to be visible. Some people insist on counting the suckers, and only using the number of the birthday in question. I didn’t bother with that. I just filled up that ball to make it look pretty.
Use the tissue paper to fill out the bottom of the vase. Now, my vase was transparent, and we felt like it needed something. The tissue paper was on hand, affordable, and easy. You could use all sorts of things from more lollipops or pebbles or marbles. Just use your imagination to achieve the look you want. You could also add a bow or broach to the body of the vase, depending on its shape and the theme of the party.
Give away the lollipops. At the end of the meal, I passed the bouquet around, so guests could pull off those suckers as a favor. There were only a few of us because this wasn’t an actual party, so I’m still loaded with lollipops now. If you come to my house, I’ll probably give you a bouquet of suckers of your own. Seriously.
I never once doubted my desire to have children. The husband, on the other hand, I wasn’t so sure about. For some reason, I always imagined being a mom but not being a wife. I was a feminist. I minored in women’s studies, and I wanted an equal partnership with a man. Actually, if I’m really honest with myself, I wanted to be the one with all the power. So, I resigned myself to the fact that I would stay single. Then, I went to college and went through having crushes of the week and a few flirtations. I never dated anyone, however. I guess you could say the power hungry me won out, until I vacationed in Italy and met my now husband in 2004.
He was so forward, so Italian, so hot, and so unlike any other man. He asked me when we’d get engaged the first night we met – at dinner with my cousin. I realized then that there are fewer things sexier than a man who is genuinely into you. After I left Italy, he sent me the most romantic texts, and we’d chat online into the wee hours of the morning. Not a day went by that we didn’t connect. Then, he sent me roses in my favorite shade of pink for my name day and announced he’d be coming to America with my cousin to visit me for Thanksgiving. He asked me to date him exclusively over gnocchi on our first date in New York’s Little Italy.
Suddenly, the idea of marriage seemed like Heaven, and I didn’t even think about the power struggle. I would get to keep this man all to myself in my heart and in my arms. And it didn’t hurt that my lifelong dream of having a baby of my own would be much easier to achieve. Plus, I’d have someone to share it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Before I got pregnant for the first time (a pregnancy that resulted in miscarriage), my husband expressed his concern that I would start ignoring him when a baby came along.
The discussion got me wondering about who should come first. Children or spouse? And I feared that if I chose children, then my marriage would suffer. After all, my husband was already feeling pangs of jealousy and we hadn’t even had kids yet. The answer to this epic dilemma came naturally and unexpectedly. In fact, my husband and I didn’t even realize it had come to us until we reflected on the early days of pregnancy and parenthood.
During that first pregnancy, I became ill almost immediately. I was bleeding from the start, and we knew the baby only had a 50/50 chance of survival. In the eight weeks of pregnancy, I basically confined myself to bed and gave up just about everything but work (which I was already doing from home anyway) in the hopes our baby would live. My husband supported that decision and prayed with me for the best outcome. Our baby didn’t make it. But during that time, we had chosen together to put our child before us. We didn’t do it consciously, but that is what we did. When we did our best to put the tragedy behind us, we rediscovered each other, took a vacation, and threw ourselves into each other’s arms. It was all about our love again.
Then, we were blessed in January of the following year, when we learned I was pregnant again. This time, things went significantly better. Still, we both put my health and the health of our child above all else. When our son was born, our whole world became about him. We changed our lives to help him when we recognized he had delayed speech. We stopped speaking Italian and turned to my native English, began spending hours each week on therapy, sometimes on our own and sometimes with a therapist. We went through all the necessary testing and had him placed in special education pre-school, where he is now thriving.
When these challenges present themselves, you just take charge and start doing whatever needs to be done to problem solve. You don’t even think about whether this is going to hurt your relationship. While my husband and I experienced some big lows during that time and our marriage nearly fell apart, we never completely forgot about each other. Standing on the other side right now, I can say we became stronger as a result of the difficulties. Even the arguing we did back then aided in strengthening our bond and uniting us. I’m certain more challenges will come. They always do.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to the question, “Should your kids come before your spouse?” The fact is that circumstance decides for you. Each moment, the answer might be different. That said, you both have to be willing to make sacrifices for your kids and be patient. When you do get the chance to dote on each other – whether it be a make-out session on the couch after the kids go to bed or a date night thanks to the grandparents – take advantage.
My husband and I often say that food and sex have kept us together through those times when our kid had to come first. Even when we were most at odds, we always broke bread together, and we always had sex, even if it was angry sex. We can’t resist good food or each other, and that’s the glue keeping us intact. Someday, well into the future, we’re going to have the time and capacity to get back to putting each other first. But for right now, we only get to do that once in a long while, and that’s perfectly all right with the both of us.
There’s something supremely American – not to mention innocent – about spending the day bowling. But the game, once among American’s favorite pastimes, has lost some of its shine. Certainly, it’s not as popular as it once was. I remember attending bowling birthday parties on a regular basis, grown-ups being in leagues, and even watching bowling on TV. Now, there are few alleys around. In my neck of the woods, there is only one still standing. My son’s first school field trip was to that bowling alley. So, when we were staying at Universal Studios’ Cabana Bay, we just had to play at the resort’s Galaxy Bowl.
This is no old-school joint. It is made to look like something out of the 1950s, but it’s fresh and functioning. Despite it’s retro appeal, it has a modern feel. I really liked the colorful lights that lit up the lanes and the black and white photos of bowling alleys of yesteryear on the walls. The mid-century modern tables and chairs were kitschy and played well into the theme.
Since this was all about my 4-year-old son having fun, we immediately asked for bumpers for the gutters and a ball ramp, so he could more easily handle the ball. Like other players in the alley, we were able to order drinks and food and have it delivered to our lane. My son really enjoyed the chicken fingers, of which he is a true connoisseur, so his endorsement really means something. My husband sampled them, too, and said they were among the best he ever had. They weren’t at all greasy and they had a subtle seasoning that popped with flavor.
Because my son was having such a good time, we both kept giving up our turn for him. Regardless, we had the time of our lives. My son laughed. High fives were given all around. And we enjoyed the snack. For a moment, I felt like we were that perfect, wholesome American family. I was tempted to don pearls, June Cleaver style. Then, my husband got a gutter ball (despite the bumpers) and I heard, “Vafa…” and remembered we’re not even completely American, never mind one of those Golden Age TV families.
But I digress. The point is Galaxy Bowl is a cool place to spend an afternoon. Whether it’s worth it is debatable. As much as I enjoyed it, the diversion is on the expensive side. With the food and the game and renting shoes, we ended up spending at least $60. It’s not terrible, but the Orlando theme parks are already costly. We were in the area a weekend before our Disney trip was set to begin, so we had nothing else to do and it was within our budget. Still, I can’t deny that I felt a little taken advantage of. But on every vacation, don’t you find yourself dipping deeper into your wallet for stuff that you’d never invest in back home? After hemming and hawing in my head, I just tell myself to shut up and enjoy. It works. Frankly, if it doesn’t wipe out the bank account and helps my son create memories and bond with us, his parents, then it’s priceless anyway. Right?
The fog would lift. I could feel each knot in my stomach slowly but surely unwinding. Any toxic sentiment living in my head would float out my fingertips and toes. Once in a while I actually watched it lift right out of me. And I would lie down to slumber for hours without interruption.
That pure relaxation was thanks to Percocet, an oral medication that is part oxycontin and part acetaminophen. For two years, doctors prescribed the pills for me to deal with a severe knee injury that resulted in three surgeries (the last of which lasted nearly nine hours) and constant physical therapy. Although I never became addicted, I have to admit that popping those pills became the highlight of my week because it meant I would finally get some R & R. And I suddenly understood how all too easy it must be for people to get hooked.
In laymen’s terms, Percocet is one of those opioid medications that has everyone talking nowadays. It’s intended to kill pain, but it’s also killing people because many get addicted and some even move on to the pill’s cousin, heroin. In the last week, the little pill has made it to the tabloids because of rumors that Prince, the music legend, had been taking the medication before his death and may have had some opioid medication on his person when his body was found, according to CNN.
My knee injury happened while I was traveling in my family’s native Italy in 2004. I’m still not sure how it happened, but I fell on a cobblestone street and couldn’t get up. A few hours later, my knee was the size of a cantaloupe. The story is longer and more convoluted (not to mention a lot funnier), but I won’t bore you with the details. While in Italy, a piece of cartilage that had broken off inside my knee moved and obstructed blood flow, so I lost circulation in my leg and nearly had to have my foot amputated. Instead, my foot was saved and I made it home to New Jersey. But the injury set off a wave of troubles that took two years to correct.
The pain I experienced in Italy, with the initial injury, was the most excruciating I’ve ever known, even now that I’ve delivered a baby. The Italians gave me shots to heal the swelling. They gave me shots to thin my blood to get the pulse in my foot back. They covered my ice cold leg with at least 10 blankets and raised it above my heart for hours. They used a giant needle to draw out blood and fluid causing the extreme swelling. They put me in a full leg cast and cut it down the middle (and cut my leg a bit, too, but I digress), so I could get on a plane back to my native United States. What they didn’t do was give me any painkillers. It’s jut not as prescribed there as it is here in my home country. In fact, expert Dr. Drew Pinsky continues to remind people that 90 percent of the opioids prescribed in the world are prescribed in the United States.
A week after my return to Jersey, I had my first operation to remove that cartilage, which was the size of a peach pit, said the doctor. Afterward, he prescribed Percocet. But I didn’t take it at first. When I started going to physical therapy weeks later, my leg was stiff as a board. It was difficult to move it and arthritis was setting in, a result of the hole left by the cartilage. The pain was maddening. My physical therapists said I had to take the painkillers before each session to help loosen up my leg, so I could start moving it again. The first time I took one entire pill as prescribed, and I passed out, literally. From then on, I took half or sometimes even one quarter of the pill. I was taking it three times per week before each physical therapy session, and once or twice a week in the evening to help me sleep.
It was an ugly time in my life. I was grateful to be able to work for Businessweek from my bed, but I spent my free hours mostly crying and contemplating whether I would walk again or sleep again or feel like myself again. After taking Percocet, I felt like I was in a warm embrace for hours. I found myself looking forward to the days I could take one. But I never did take more than a half, once on each day in question. There were days I didn’t take anything at all. I never encouraged my doctors to give me more, and when my physical therapy finally ended, and I was walking again, I never took another bit of the medicine. I walked away from Percocet and never looked back. Still, I can’t deny that the medicine comforted me in a way I never expected.
After all, I was a big proponent of “Just Say No” as a kid, even having served as president of S.A.D.D. as a sixth grader. I never drank alcohol, never took drugs (not even a puff of marijuana), and I encouraged others to lead a clean life. Until recently, I never even drank caffeine. Now, I occasionally indulge in caffeinated tea or soda. Still, my husband jokes that I’m not Italian at all and something must be wrong with me because I don’t drink espresso or vino. Here I was taking Percocet regularly for the better part of two years.
All the while, I was just listening to my doctors. They were encouraging me to take the medication. They said it would help me succeed in physical therapy and that it would help me sleep, which would aid in the healing process. In the end, it worked out just fine. But should I have been taking those pills (even half or a quarter of one) that often for that long? I am not so sure anymore. When I hear about someone getting hooked or overdosing, I wonder to myself, “Could that have been me?” It certainly could have. True, I never overdid it. But even now, when I’m having trouble sleeping or my knee throbs (which it still does on occasion) or I’m just overwhelmed by life, I feel pangs of nostalgia for the days when Percocet was my best friend. Now, I feel the pain.
I come from a long line of married people, who almost never wear their wedding rings. In their defense, their jobs prohibit it. Landscapers, construction workers, and factory laborers shouldn’t wear jewelry that could get caught in machines and cause injury and damage. A few relatives learned the hard way, when their rings led to an accident that caused the loss of a finger. True story. So, the rest of us have learned the lesson.
Nixing the wedding ring makes total sense in those instances, right? But what about those in office jobs, who don’t wear their ring? When you’re Italian, many people already think you’re a Latin lover. Failing to wear the ring on the married finger just might send the message that you’re willing to fulfill the stereotype. That’s the argument I regularly have with my husband. He wears his ring everyday. In fact, unlike me, he never takes it off. But he wears it on a necklace around his neck. When he’s wearing a suit and tie, it’s under his shirt, and you don’t even see it. In my opinion (and it’s been seconded by many others), he’s a tall, dark, and handsome Italian man, which makes him a walking temptation. And I want people to know he’s taken, he’s mine, and they can’t have him. The ring should tell the world to back off and move out of the way for me, the wife. Is that too much to ask? Seriously, is that too much to ask?
So, every so often, we debate this issue. His argument is that he finds rings uncomfortable. Also, after having worked in a nightclub for most of his adult life, he believes women are more drawn to men wearing rings. He claims women relentlessly flirt and leave their numbers for the married men working the bar. I’ve never been a drinker, so I have never spent much time in clubs. Maybe I just don’t know what’s really going on in the world, which is entirely possible. I have always seen men wearing wedding rings as off limits.
I wear my ring every day. But I do take it off if I’m doing any physical labor or serious cleaning around the house. And I take it off before showering or going to sleep for the night. Although it’s only happened a few times, I have gone out in public without the ring. My husband could care less, but I feel naked without it now. These experiences have only reinforced my inability to understand his desire to be sans ring.
When I wrote about this argument for another publication in another life, many people sent in comments demanding I divorce my husband. God bless the Internet for the solidarity it produces. Note sarcasm. I failed to take their advice with good reason.
Yes, I would prefer my hot husband wore his wedding ring on his all-important finger. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. Plenty of married people, who wear their rings, cheat on their spouse. The ring guarantees nothing about faithfulness. In the end, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror. It’s up to you to do the right thing whether you’re wearing your ring or not.
One of my very favorite parts of the day is reading to my son before going to sleep. The best books take us to another place and set us up for the loveliest of dreams as we drift off to another world that lives only inside our heads. Night at the Stadium (Aladdin, Jeter Children’s, April 2016) presented by Derek Jeter, about a young boy who gets lost in Yankee Stadium and ends up talking to baseballs, bats, gloves, Babe Ruth in Monument Park, and of course Derek Jeter, is a homerun with kids and parents alike.
Released today, it arrived in the mail shortly after I dropped off my son at school. I pre-ordered it from Amazon last week. My sister and 3-year-old nephew immediately read the tale. Even though my nephew isn’t easily captivated by books (and may have asked, “Is it done yet?” once or twice), we agreed that my niece and son are going to be in love with this book. For starters, illustrator Tom Booth’s colorful images are eye-catching and seem real. The talking balls and bats practically jump off the page. Writer Phil Bildner knows how to tap into a kid’s imagination. What kid doesn’t want to have conversations with his or her baseball? And, helllooooo, Derek Jeter is the one presenting this, and he appears in the book to boot. How cool is that? This books is part of a partnership between Jeter and Simon & Schuster, which has the athlete and role model releasing books for young children, middle schoolers, and adults alike. The children’s books are meant to teach fundamentals about life inspired by the values of Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation.
We come from a suburb of New York City, and my late grandfather would take my mother and her brothers to opening day at Yankee Stadium every year, when they were kids. In fact, we used to joke that my grandfather would disown us if we rooted for another team. My thirtysomething sister may or may not still dream of marrying Jeter. In other words, we might be a bit bias. Still, I think any baseball fan will get a kick out of this story for children.
Yankees fans, however, will appreciate some of the insider references. First, the family on the cover resembles that of Derek Jeter. The protagonist, Gideon, could be a young Derek Jeter, in fact. Then, the talking sushi points to the gourmet options and even pokes fun at their lack of belonging at the stadium. Even in a children’s book, it’s nice to see people not taking themselves too seriously. Of course, the inclusion of Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth will make this a keeper for all Yankees die hards. This is the season for cracker jack and baseball, and this book will put the whole family in the spirit. I bet my son will dream of hitting one out of the park after this read.
“Don’t wait for someone else to open doors for you.” -Fortune Cookie (but could be anyone in my family)
Most of the time life is one big kick in the ass. Few people know this better than immigrants – and by default their children (mostly because they never let them forget it). I remember asking my father for some toy when I was a kid, and he replied, “You know, back in Italy, I would cut school to play soccer. But we didn’t have a ball. We would use whatever we could find. Often, we’d be kicking around a rock. We didn’t care if our feet got bruised. And once I was walking with Nonno into the woods, where we would plant grapes to sell to winemakers, and my shoes fell apart, so he made me shoes out of leaves and that’s what covered those bruised feet on the walk home.”
See what I mean? As the baby of the family, my father will never say that his family was ever poor or wanted for anything despite wearing twigs on his toes every now and then. But the truth is that they did. My father’s siblings have recounted hard times, giving up going to school past fifth grade to work to help make ends meet, and days when there wasn’t enough bread for everyone. My father had 9 brothers and sisters. Two of the girls passed away before their third birthday. My grandmother delivered her babies, including my father with the cord around his neck and my uncle with the placenta intact, all by herself. They lived all together in a small house with few amenities. Their bathroom was outside in the garden.
By 1960, the family grew weary. Working the land was hard for little reward. And while our native island, Ischia, was becoming a tourism mecca, it was hardly the land of opportunity. So, they were off to America. My grandparents were already in their 50s, when they picked up and started a new life in a new land. They worked and worked and saved and saved. They bought a house. My father became the first in the family to graduate high school, and he eventually launched his own landscaping company after being mentored by his brother, who had taken a similar path.
My father would go door to door with business cards promoting his lawn maintenance and planting services. He hit the pavement and then would cold call potential customers. There was no Facebook or Twitter for advertising back then. He would write out invoices by hand until my mother married him about 10 years later and started doing his bookkeeping and introduced him to the world of computers. We had a Commodore 64 back in the day. Ahead of our time, no? My father went from having fewer than 10 clients when he first launched to nearly 300 today. He put my sister and I through college (both at George Washington University, one of the most expensive universities in the United States) without garnering any debt.
I digress. The point is that no one handed him anything. A high school diploma certainly helped, as did years of working for my uncle in his landscaping business and working at factories and the supermarket. But he had to earn everything else and fight for every client and every cent. There were no trust funds or networks of contacts or funding from anyone, like you might find at a fancy university like the one where he sent me. Without ever saying it, he showed us we had to open our own damn doors.
You can’t afford to wait around for some nice person to hold your hand and turn the knob, nor can you expect the guy on the other side to give you the secret password to unlock the portal to success. Neither of them wants you on the other side. They are never coming. You just have to get up off your butt, put in the effort, and push that heavy slab open all by yourself. My response to getting that fortune in my Chinese take-out last week was, “Of course.”
Life is going to knock you down. Sometimes, it will get you so low that you might not be able to imagine rising again. That’s precisely why I’m a firm believer we must find the joy in every day and celebrate whenever we can (even if that might be the cheesiest line I’ve ever written).
There are fewer better excuses for a party than a birthday. While we make a big deal out of kids’ birthdays, many of us practically ignore those of the adults in our life. Some of them don’t want anyone to know their age, after all. Truly, the older we get, the more reason we should recognize and honor our birthdays. Not everyone gets into those later years. So, make the joy when you turn the next number.
Make the guest of honor’s favorite food. This is a no-brainer. If you’re not a chef, take them out to dinner. My father loves to cook himself (and in old-Italian-man fashion doesn’t believe anyone else can cook as well), so he actually made his own meal for the party. My son and I just made him yellow cupcakes with chocolate icing, and my mom made a lemon meringue pie, which is his favorite dessert.
Set a gorgeous table. You can make a table shine with a few little details, such as matching plates and silverware, nice glasses, and a fun napkin fold. I like to search napkin folds online. I pulled together the above bash in a few hours. I just put a blue plastic tablecloth from the dollar store on the table and made it fancy by adding gold fabric, which had been meant to wrap a Christmas gift, as a runner. I also had collected pine cones in the fall and kept them on hand. I used them to hold up place cards I made in the shape of stars. I just used Word.
Put up a banner. Nothing could be easier than making a personalized birthday banner. Sure, some are elaborate, but they definitely don’t have to be. For this one, I just typed each letter into Word and used different fonts for each. Then, I printed it out on blue paper and attached the letters to a ribbon using tape.
Put a centerpiece on the table. My father is a landscaper, so I try to use real, fresh flowers for his birthdays. But you could easily use artificial flowers or candles or little figurines or ornaments. Really, you’re limited only by your imagination. For this floral arrangement, I used baby’s breath and some roses, which I picked up at the supermarket, to start. The roses are at the center, and the filler frames the bouquet. You can use floral tape to make a grid on your container to keep flowers in place or you can use floral foam to do the same. I added blue plastic stirrers to add some flourish.
Get festive. I had party hats and horns on hand for this fiesta. I like crepe paper and balloons. And conversation is always flowing at our house, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t up for fun and games. I’ve had cards asking for best memories of the guest of honor. We’ve played Tombola, Italian Bingo, or Italian cards or bowling on the Wii. The point is to distract yourselves with something entertaining to bring a little extra joy to life in recognition of another year on the planet.