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Going it Alone

What is your definition of solo travel?

2018 marked the first year I set out on my own to travel the world.

That’s not exactly true. 

I’ve actually been travelling alone since I was in my 20’s, with very few gaps in between.

I suppose that technically, I took my first solo road trip even before then, when I was 16 or maybe 17.  My boyfriend was going to school in western Pennsylvania and I borrowed my mom’s car and drove eight hours to visit him.  I have no idea where she thought I was, but I know she didn’t give me permission to drive all that way, alone.  Boy, I was a bad kid.

Then when I was 18 and in my first year of college I had the entire month of January off. So I drove my best friend, Judith, back to school in Florida.

Somewhere on I-95, January 1977

I had a little two seater convertible sports car—an MG…British Racing Green with a black top, a leather-wrapped steering wheel to accompany the all-cow skin interior tinted a lovely warm, buttery shade of beige. I can still remember the smell of the leather, especially fragrant after a day parked in the hot sun at the beach…and every now and then a tune from the 70’s will pop up on satellite radio (remember the first few bars of Play that Funky Music? or Rita Coolidge singing…”your love….is taking me higher.…”?) and I’m instantly brought back to the woods on a summer night, convertible top pulled open to the pitch black sky (save for the moon and the stars), my headlights cutting through the cool, dark night, the cold air swirling around my sunburned shoulders while the heater warmed my legs.

I think that MGB sat about four inches off the ground and I can also recall the feeling of the cold, crusty snow stinging the bottom of the car, thrown up by the front wheels as we crawled around D.C.’s Beltway in search of our Holiday Inn. A snowstorm in DC during rush hour is never a good thing.

And I remember when, once we got to Jacksonville, we got stuck on the side of an empty secondary road when a belt snapped. We waited along the edge of a canal for a tow truck, wondering what, besides the very loud and very large bugs, was making the gurgling sounds in dark water below.  The garage guy came to pick up us, and we held a pen in our hands in case we had to stab him in the leg, which we didn’t, but you can never be too prepared, I guess.

How did we get in touch with the garage?  We certainly didn’t have cell phones—no one was even thinking about them yet, and I really have no recollection of how we got from the side of the road into the tow truck.  Did we hitch? In the dark, at night…in Florida?   Can you imagine? Clearly a different time.

We made it! Here’s Judith on the beach in Jacksonville

From that trip, I do remember driving on the beach for the first time; heading to the other, rough side of the city to try and get a china doll’s face repaired (a long story in itself); then continuing on to the Gulf Coast to St.Pete and Bradenton.  I remember the smell of elephant poop on my jeans (I sat on a stand at a Ringling Brother’s circus performance), and of suntan oil and orange blossom perfume.  After a quick stop back in Jacksonville, a drive, alone, back to Washington. Met up with my mom and headed back to New York (see, she knew I was on this trip).

Me, DC, January 1977

After that, I moved in to New York City to go to school and the only travelling I did was back and forth to Long Island, the occasional trip to a ski hill or two in the Poconos, a zip down to Florida on Peoples’ Express (anyone remember them?  They came through the plane with one of those credit card slider machines so you could pay your 49.95 for the flight—no wonder they went out of business).

But then I got the bug again, and at 23 I decided to drive from one coast to the other (I think a boyfriend had talked about it, and I figured if he could do it, so could I). I hooked up with a drive-away company –somebody needs to get their car from A to B and contracts with a company to get it done; drivers connect with rides, and it goes from there.

Oh, my driveaway was a gem.

In my case “A” was Newark, New Jersey and “B” was Long Beach, California. I think I had eight days and maybe 3500 or four thousand miles I was allowed to tack on to the car.

That wasn’t enough for this amazing adventure.

I crossed the Mississippi for the very first time, broke down at the edge of a field in Wisconsin (where I learned about tobacco farming after being invited in for a coffee with the farmer and his wife while I waited for the tow truck);  I saw the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, and was disappointed by the size of the profiles on Mount Rushmore (they didn’t look as big as I thought they would, although I am sure they are massive-it’s just when anything is pitted up against a mountain, it’s going to seem less than it is); I walked around the base of Devil’s Tower with a couple of military guys (who, as I recall, were bigots—must’ve been if I still remember it) and gazed across the deep blue of Crater Lake;  I stood quietly among the massive redwoods and drove across the Golden Gate, and wondered why I never applied to go to Berkeley.  I had dinner on the edge of the Pacific at Nepenthe in Big Sur, which is still there, three and a half decades later; I drank with the locals in the bar across from my cabin down the road, and I took the car to its owner after gazing up at the Hollywood sign.

I did it again three years later—this time a five thousand mile loop through the entire southwestern US in a teeny weeny rental car with summer tires—the sun-baked eastern desert of California (I remember it was 105 degrees in Needles at 7:30 in the morning—hair dries very fast in that climate); Phoenix and Tuscon and Tombstone, cities and saguaros; Hopi and Navajo, and Roswell too; Moab and a night spent under the stars by mistake in Bryce Canyon; a drive through the mountains in Colorado—quick night fall and a heavy spring snow squall brought me to the tiny town of Victor where I accidently crashed the postmistress’ funeral while looking for a way into the only hotel….a hotel that cost $15 and had one other tenant—an old woman with whom I had to share the one bathroom on the second floor. I sat in my room, looking out over the main street as the kids slid through the snow doing the “loop” through town in their pickups.

Then I moved to Canada.  My big drive across the continent from New York included three sedated cats and all my worldly possessions in a 1980 Chevy Citation, in which the electrically operated seat wouldn’t move unless you whacked it—hard—with a big flashlight, or, I suppose, a bat. This was a far better choice than my car at the time, which was a Chevy Malibu convertible—candy apple red with a white top and the road visible from the trunk through the rust—it never would have made it.

The most un-roadworthy car. Ever.

I drove long hours every day on that trip. I skinned both my knees bloody at a Motel 6 in Janesville, Wisconsin, stumbling up the cement steps with the cat cases into a sad little room; I drove across the Milk River as it diverted across a road in Glasgow, Montana during a particularly heavy summer hailstorm (cracked open the bourbon after that one); I saw cats pant for the first time as they waited in the car in the heat at the border.

And then, after four and a half very long days, I crested a hill and saw the Calgary skyline and knew I had made it to the next chapter of my life.

Calgary, Alberta circa 1985

The next few years involved at least two solo trips back and forth to New York once in the winter, where I got stuck in a blizzard in Minnesota, and once in the summer, where I recall staying at a roadside hotel in Pennsylvania that was so gross I didn’t take my socks off and slept on a towel.

And then I got a job that involved a lot of travel.  All over Canada from coast to coast to coast, as they say: Vancouver to Halifax and north to Tuktoyaktuk (look it up); lots of trips to Ottawa; the back roads of Saskatchewan (you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Eyebrow and Elbow…and Climax) and the highways of Manitoba; ring roads and back streets…and then beyond.  Bulgaria, for work; Suriname for fun and to visit a friend, and then September 11th, 2001, alone on a work trip in Vienna.

I took Andy along for the trip to Tuk.

In between all those trips that I did on my own for work or fun were trips all over the world with family—sometimes two adults and a child; more often a mom alone with a young boy in tow—to visit his grandmother in New York, to see the sights of Italy, to climb the Great Wall of China; to catch a show at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock and the fireworks from the roof of the American Embassy in Ottawa—we were excellent travel buddies.

So I’m not sure why I’m thinking of this part of my life as my decade of solo travel.

It may be because, in the past, there was always someone or something on the other end, expecting me to do something.  Whether it was my mother on one coast and my husband on the other, or a family at home and a week-long work trip to Winnipeg or Washington—there was always someone or something waiting for me, expecting me to do something.

In essence, none of my trips were ever my own.

So, when I woke up one day, just over a year ago, at 60, a single woman with an adult child, I did what I’d done for years: I made plans to take a trip.

Only this time I was on my own.  Sure, I was expected to return home at some point, and I had to make arrangements for someone to feed and water the cats and the plants…but from the time I left home until I got back, I’d be alone.

For me, at 60, I saw limited time left to do what I call the “difficult” travel—trips that are either physically or culturally or geographically challenging—or maybe all three. And I sat down, looked at a map, and started to make a list.

Now this wasn’t too hard to do, because I love to look at maps.  I picture what the land looks like and then I drop that little yellow man down onto the blue highways.  I stop and do a 360, so that I can see everything—the buildings, the lakes and rivers, the mountains and the flat-as-a-pancake prairie highways that just roll on forever.

Doing this, sometimes when I get to a place, I feel like I’ve already been there.

I figure that there’ll be enough time to sit on a beach when I’m 70 and travel insurance costs too much to do anything crazy.  I figure my knees will hold up for most of this list—at least I hope they will (they just started chronically hurting and kind of crunching when I sit—what is that?!  And as I write this, I’m dealing with a bad case of bursitis in both knees, which I hope will pass soon).

So, two days after my 60th birthday, I took a domestic test run, and headed to Newfoundland.  Took ten days and travelled from one end of the island to the other, top to bottom.  It was exhausting, but exhilarating. I’ll write about that soon enough.

I remember sitting in my cute little rental apartment in one of the brightly colored “jelly bean” houses that line the streets of St. John’s on my first night there. There was a cold, heavy fog blanketing the streets as dusk went dark, and I had plans to head out for fish and chips in a place where I’d heard the dish was as good as you’ll ever find; my suitcase, which got to “the Rock” a half a day behind me after spending the afternoon in Montreal, had arrived and I had everything I’d packed (which was too much). I was warm, and it was comfy, and I was still adjusting to Newfoundland time (a half hour ahead of everybody else), and I considered staying in; after all, my host had left me some super cold, super good Iceberg beer (“made with real iceberg ice!”) and heading out to a pub, alone, in a new town…..?

And then it hit me.  I didn’t come all this way to sit in a house, stare at the TV, and skip the world outside.

So I got off my ass and I went down to that pub, and damn, if they weren’t right.  Those were some of the best fish and chips I’ve had (although I still can’t really figure out the dressing on the fries—gravy? Sure, but dressing…I’m stumped).  Anyway, the service was fine, the people were pleasant, and as I meandered my way back up the hill to the house (after a couple of beers, it was definitely a meander), I knew I could do this. And love it.

So here’s the thing—if you’re someone who would have chosen to stay on the couch, this isn’t for you.  But if you’re like me, and you know you’ll never forgive yourself if you’re still deeply asleep when the sun comes up in the eastern most part of the continent, and you miss the chance to see it peek above the horizon, then take the ride–see what’s out there.

And do it on your own…or at the very least, on your own terms.

Question: what does solo travel mean to you? For me, this could be a solo drive….or it could be a few days on my own in a new place and then joining a tour group, like I did last year in Peru….or just last month in Iceland.

But what does it mean to you?

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Hey, where ya been? Where ya goin’?!!

August 2019

Hi all!

Long time, no see!

I’ve spent the last eight months trying to decide what I wanted to do with the site, and I think I’ve finally landed on it.

I’ve decided to (re)launch North of 50, with a clearer focus on women (of a certain age) and the adventure of experiencing other cultures and places.

If you followed N50 before, you know that throughout 2018, I posted a piece every Sunday for the entire year to the site (some posts you can still see; others have been deleted because I closed the premium account and they are now irretrievable on the site—not to worry–I had them all made into a book). 

On reflection, the problem was that the site as a whole lacked focus, so I closed it off on the last Sunday of 2018, when I set it up to post, as I was on the edge of the Amazon rain forest at an eco-lodge with no mobile or internet. Which was fine.

Taking some time to think about what I wanted to write about, and then discovering some amazing people and their stories, I’ve decided what I want to do. Honestly? I think I ultimately wanted to take this path all along; I just couldn’t figure out how to get there.

What I’ve learned is that no one person can know everything (or in my case, pretend to know).  It’s about all of us and our experiences; it’s the collective voice that tells the story best.

I like to think of myself as a writer with a little bit of skill, and I know that I love to tell a good story.  Or a good bad story.  Or a funny story. Or to share useful information.  And that’s what I want the new North of 50 to do.

I want it to inform, entertain, explain….and above all, share the voices of experience—yours—in navigating the world—and life in general.

I hope you’ll follow along—and maybe contribute.  After all, I think we can all agree…it’s all about the journey.

Back with more info next month (and hopefully a new look–if I can figure out the technology)—get ready to share your stories!

Oh, and there’s a new email if you want to reach out: Northof50info@gmail.com

Best,

Bet

Greetings from the land of procrastination!

Lake Agnes, high above Lake Louise in Banff National Park. Every year for one week or so in September, thousands head up the trails in the Rockies to see the larches–conifers that lose their needles each year. Did the hike a few years ago–four kilometers pretty much straight up into the mountains. (should be coming up by mid-September; my heart, soul, and spirit say yes, but my knees say nope, not this year). Especially not doing it after the glacier hike I just did in Iceland.

I haven’t done as much as I should have to advance the new North of 50….and now—today, as you’re reading this–I’m (hopefully) sitting on a beach eating egg sandwiches and drinking decent, hot coffee with a friend or two as the sun slides up into the sky and summer slowly winds to a close. Or maybe we’re wading knee-deep in warm salt water, crabs skittering over our feet while feathery stands of red and green seaweed wrap themselves around our calves like strands of…..well, seaweed (at least I hope it’s seaweed) in still bay waters on a quiet Sunday morning. Or maybe I’m still asleep at my brother’s house.

Whatever the scene—it’s Labor Day weekend on eastern Long Island—the place where I grew up, and the place that still has the biggest part of my heart.  I love to travel and see new places, and I love the place where I live today, but East Hampton will always be the place that affects me the most.

It’s about the land, and I recently figured out that it’s the light (there’s something about it) that draws a person to create, whether that’s painting, photography, writing or another creative pursuit. And it’s about the woods and the sea and the village, and it’s about the quiet time after all the city people leave (they don’t call it Tumbleweed Tuesday for nothing).

It’s also about the secret places those of us who are from there know about.  People may discover them, but they don’t know them the way that we do.  They’re spots that aren’t in the tour books, hidden pockets where we spent hours when we were younger and spots to which we return with our kids and their kids. They’re special places you want to tell everyone about….but on the other hand, if everyone knows, maybe they become less special.

That’s one question I want to explore in the new North of 50 blog: if you could tell someone about the secret places where you live or where you grew up, the hard-to-find, rarely celebrated special spots in your world, what would you say?  Where would you tell them they had to visit before they left your part of the world?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The new blog.

The look is changing….

North of 50 was originally a nod to age and geographic location, and it still is, in a way.  And I’ll explain that more thoroughly once I get going.  I’m working on a redesign of the logo and I’m still building the new site in the background of the current one.  Actually, that’s only sort of true—in both cases: I haven’t worked at all on either this past month, and here we are at the beginning of September and I’ve just come back from Iceland and am lounging with “da goils” (and my mom) on “da guy” (slang for Long Island—you have say it as one word that rolls into itself: long-Guy-land).

Anyway…..when I get back home, and get back to work, here’s my (current) vision for N50:

The site is for and about women of a certain age—no hard number, despite the digits in the name, yet definitely about for and about a more mature audience—not for the Instagrammer, influencer, jet setting picture-perfect person who makes the journey all about themselves, and makes themselves the center of the story.  The site will be focused on experiences and offer useful insights for others.

It will be a monthly—kind of like an online magazine, with news you can use but also stories you’ll enjoy that will bring the personal dimension of travel into focus. I expect there will be between 6-10 new stories every month.

It’s ultimately about exploring the world. Call it travel if you want, but I think it’s more about discovery–about places, but also about ourselves. I’m planning to set it up based on themes (at least that’s the plan right now); highlighting subjects such as:

  • What is solo travel; what does it mean to you?
  • Tours vs. self-planning
  • Food firsts…or “what’s the hell’son my plate?”
  • When disaster strikes—how to handle sickness, natural disasters, and bad situations
  • Defining the exotic; it’s all in your frame of reference
  • Pets: can’t live without ’em, can’t take ’em with you….or can you?

And of course, destinations.  There will always be destinations.

It will be demographically and geographically diverse—stories of people and places all over the world. And there will always be the opportunity to comment and to share experiences and expertise.  There will be tough subjects, and controversial ones too….bottom line is, you’ll learn something from each piece.

It will be broken in to sections:

First person: stories of travel: first solo trips, girls’ weekends, the seasoned traveler, off-the-beaten-path journeys, the ups and downs of being on the road, adventures of a lifetime and misadventures (good and bad) never be repeated—in either case. Some difficult topics….and a little about what’s in your backyard that people need to know about (see above).

Tips and tricks: a section to highlight useful info that includes input from experts of two kinds: experts in the their fields, like doctors and travel specialists and outfitters and government-types; and experts who have the first-hand knowledge and insights into places around the world, as seen through the eyes of a mature women traveler. This could be info about travel warning or vaccinations or it could be suggestions on what to pack and what to pack it in….or it could be a tip on a great website or a special place to visit.

Community Board: a place to connect on a range of topics; a place to find meet ups and share info, updates to travel warnings,

So this is where you come in:

I’m looking at a December or January launch, and I want to share your stories. One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s stories about themselves is decidedly less interesting than the stories of others.

So if you’ve got a story you’d like to share, send me an email: Northof50info@gmail.com .  Tell me, in a few sentences who you are, the place you’ve visited and what you story is.  I’ll get back in touch and we’ll build the story from there. 

I’d like to get started working on some stories as I do the other background work.  Right now, my plan is to launch the site December 1st and to post the first full issue on New Year’s Day.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Best,

Bet

Editor’s note: I drafted this over the course of the month, bits and pieces here and there, but somehow, my final draft which I finished early this morning, has disappeared. I’ve recreated it as much as i am able, and have vowed to conquer WordPress once and for all, so I don’t lose my material again. Sigh.

He Honored the Cabbage

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Stones at the South End Cemetery (I did not know that’s what it’s  called) near Town Pond, East Hampton NY

Sometimes I like to walk in cemeteries.

There are a few good reasons for this, the title of this essay being one of them.

But here are some other thoughts:

First, there’s usually very little, if any, traffic.

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A mausoleum at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Moriches NY

And if there is, it’s usually moving pretty slowly.  Because of this, you have the option of doing one of two things: you can stick your headphones into your ears, crank up the music and even sing as loud (and in my case, as badly) as you want. Who’s gonna complain?

Or, you can keep the music in your pocket and listen to the quiet. They’re usually big enough places that you can get away from the access roadway and just listen to the sounds—birds, the wind, perhaps water as it trickles through a fountain.  Definitely a great place to get away from the noise.

But I also like to have a look to see who’s there.

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Old stone, can’t tell who’s there

 

This probably started in my home town on the east coast.  There’s a cemetery on the village green where there are people buried who were born in the 1500’s!  Whoever heard of such a thing?

Later,  I had the chance to visit Europe where there are graves and markers much, much older than that.  There are big buildings (mostly churches, but other places too)  in London and Paris and Rome where many famous people have been laid to rest. People make pilgrimages to see some of the tombs.  And I’ll admit it, I’ve done that too…but that’s not the same as being in a cemetery.

Some cemeteries are massive, like the ones in Queens, just outside of Manhattan that seem to go on for miles. Acres and acres of tightly packed plots running along the expressway, clearly on the landing path for one of the nearby airports—not a very quiet spot, and confusing if you don’t know your way around.

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Plane coming in over the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Queens

 

 

I’ve only gone a few steps into one of those cemeteries once, and wondered how a person would even find someone’s final resting place in a place that huge, but I guess if you’ve been there before and you know what you’re looking for, it’s probably as simple as finding a house you visit often or specific space in a  park—you just know where it is.

 

 

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“C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort”…the Paris Catacombs

In Paris, in the late 1700’s, the city’s cemeteries became so overcrowded, six million sets of bones were moved into underground caves created by the mining of the limestone that sits under the city.  Today the catacombs are a tourist attraction, and sometimes it worries me that the value of the real estate of these big New York burial grounds–along with others that are maybe not as large but are sitting on prime land–might result in the same sort of planning exercise.  How disturbing that would be.

 

Bottom line is that when I do go walking in cemeteries and burial grounds, I don’t usually stop to look at the gravestones; it seems kind of disrespectful or presumptuous for some reason to walk off the path and into an aisle to read someone’s epitaph and life’s information.

Although you miss some pretty interesting stuff if you don’t take a few minutes to look around.

Like the title of today’s essay.  He honored the cabbage.  On a random gravestone.  What does that even mean? I googled it to see if there was some sort of secret meaning behind the phrase. There isn’t.

She did what she could. What about that one? Was she unwell, or did she have a dozen kids, or an unmanageable husband? What was her situation?

Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs for a .44…no Les, no more. In the Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, Arizona.  Pretty much sums it up. Some other guys you might have heard of are buried there too.

Sometimes it pays to stop and read the stones.

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Next time, I’ll  look to see who else is there (I suspect it is a family space)

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Here lies a minuteman

Down the street from my brother’s house, there’s a small, well-kept graveyard where a for-real American Revolutionary Minuteman is buried.  Josiah Smith clearly survived the war, as he died in 1786

 

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Custer’s Last Stand, at the Little Big Horn

I’ve seen the place where George Armstrong Custer fell at the Little Big Horn, which is not technically where his grave is—I just found a site called Find a Grave, and it turns out he is buried at West Point..

 

 

About a month ago, I came across a monument to the people who died when TWA flight 800 went down in the Atlantic off

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Remembering TWA 800

Long Island in 1996 (I know there are other memorials to Flight 800, so I was surprised to find this one tucked into a small local cemetery).

And just like that one, there are others, like the Imagine memorial in Central Park to honor John Lennon, and maybe one of the biggest, the September 11 memorial in New York; again, I’m sure that most of those who were killed are interred elsewhere, but it is nice to have a space to go to remember and reflect.

 

 

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I even come here for some quiet reflection; as busy as it usually is, you can always find a quiet bench

Which brings me to what I’ve been thinking about.

I just wrote my first last will (you know what I mean) last year (I know, I know—should have had one years ago), and I had to decide what I wanted to happen when I die (aside from leaving my prized headband collection to someone who will want them, as well as all my gold and doubloons).

I have opted to be cremated and to have my ashes scattered, some in the mountains and some at sea. And I don’t want a marker anywhere. So in effect, when I am gone, I will be gone—no trace, no tomb, no tracks.

It’s certainly a personal choice, but I think of how very infrequently I visit my own father’s grave (and how sad it makes me to see the unkempt grounds where his ashes are buried)…and I’ve never seen my grandparents that I can recall; in fact, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure where some of them are buried.

And I bet a lot of other people have been moving in this same direction.

But think about what that means…it’s not so much about being able to physically find the place where a person has been buried—it’s more about the memory of what they have done in their lives, whether it’s paying tribute to a vegetable or making us laugh or getting us to stop and think about how they–or the way they died–changed the world.

I’m not changing my mind about what happens to me.  It’s just occurred to me that, while it may take a long time, the idea of the traditional burial ground may be slowly changing. We may need to think about how we will remember those who have left us and how they contributed to us personally.

Maybe I’m wrong, but just in case I’m not, I think I’ll continue to take my walks in these quiet places.  But now I may just think a little more closely about who’s there.

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Imagine…if we had nowhere to go to remember.

 

Are You My Mother? Nope, but that’s okay; in fact, it’s grand!

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Hook Pond, East Hampton, in the mist.

Earlier this week I sat down to dinner with some of the people who know me best.

Some are married, some divorced, and others never married; some are gay and some are straight; some have kids while others don’t; and some are well-physically and/or financially, and some are struggling.

And some are 60, and some are not.

Continue reading “Are You My Mother? Nope, but that’s okay; in fact, it’s grand!”