Scenic Route 53


“A great alternative way to reach Grants from Gallup is via Scenic Route 53, which runs parallel to, and south of, I-40. It takes a full day to really experience this out-of-this-world landscape of lava tubes and red arches, volcanic craters and ice caves, as well as unique historical attractions and traditional New Mexican towns.”  

-Lonely Planet

On Friday, I turned 53. I’m not particularly bothered by it. I happened to be online around 1 a.m. and commented that I’d been 53 for 53 minutes, to which my mother (the next day) said “Not exactly.” Which is true, I wasn’t born until 6:40 in the evening. My father had gone home to make a sandwich.

And it was one time zone over, so I guess I wasn’t truly 53 years old until twenty minutes of eight on Friday. But that’s not what this is about. I could be turning 39 or 57 or 10.

This is about expectations.

Like everybody, I’ve had good birthdays and crappy ones. I’ve had full-blown week-long celebrations and birthdays that passed with little notice. Oh wait, that last part’s not true.  I’ve never had a birthday that passed without notice.

But lately I’ve started to realize that the enjoyment I found in a celebration had direct correlation to what I expected from it– but not having any expectations is not only not realistic, it’s not the answer.  The answer is this: make your own fun.

One of the very best things about my birthday is that the weather, which has been a socked-in-solid deep freeze for the last several weeks began to thaw. I know it isn’t spring, this is still January. But it was forty something, and the air felt soft. I went out into the world wearing a velvet coat.

It starts with a swim at the Y, a brand new luxury for me. The day before my husband went with me to sign up for a membership and bought a parking pass for good measure. Then we went out to buy shoes.

“Shoes?” you query. “Who needs shoes to swim in a pool?” Well, that’s true. I don’t need shoes to swim in a pool. But I might need them to sneak a little walking or racquetball or some other exercise disguised as fun. This is a very delicate arrangement, I don’t want to frighten my good intentions.  These are the shoes, they’re far more gaudy than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought in my life, my footwear exists in the spectrum from Doc Martens to sensible Mary Janes.


After swimming, it was off to the kind of meeting that makes you wish you were having a root canal instead. For two hours. Lord help me. Save us from people who refuse to be reassured and offer nothing in the way of solution or support.

And I didn’t even get paid for those two hours lost forever from my life, on my birthday no less– it was all part of a volunteer gig. On the other hand I was the youngest person in the room. That gives me faith that 53 is not all that old, and that there are still plenty of years ahead for me to make trouble.

After the meeting, a late lunch with a friend. The white tablecloth restaurant where we hoped to go had closed for lunch, so we ended up at Panera, but that was alright, I had a favorite salad and it was delicious. My friend gave me this wonderful birthday card, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Inside it says “You’re just a few clicks past thirty.”


bostonbdayI would have lingered longer but I had to go pick up my son.

At home, there were birthday cards– one, from my father’s widow, had a generous check enclosed. There was an odd shaped package from my mother, which turned out to be a tall object resembling an umbrella stand.  We don’t think it truly is an umbrella stand, but it has found a place in the hallway and I like it.

Earlier, on our way to the closed restaurant, I passed by the windows of a shop I had only seen from the car. I’d always thought it was a high end gift shop– you know, home of the $40 paperweight. But walking by the window I saw on a shelf a figure of a dog, but I hadn’t had time to check it out before going home. So, it’s my birthday, right, I’ll indulge myself a little.

Back to the shop, and it is chock full of interesting stuff, shiny baubles and costume jewelry and beautiful French wrapping paper. The dog figure is only ten dollars, but it looks like the head of a mastiff on the body of a hound, so I pass on that, but pause over a number of bracelets, inspect some marked down Christmas ornaments and buy some French wrapping paper. It’s a place I’ll go back to, I’m only sorry it took me so long to go in the first time.

From there to the weird hum of the Goodwill outlet, where I found a blue plaid wool blanket, a poster from a Grand Funk Railroad tour, a first edition of LeRoy Neiman’s Art and Lifestyle, an interesting Melmac tray and a Magnajector. This is a Magnajector.




From Goodwill to the grocery store, and flush with the unexpected birthday check, I splurge on steaks for us. And a ganache-covered torte to serve as birthday cake.

Birthday dinner, then was sublime. More relaxed than any restaurant and you could go back for seconds. No candles on the torte and no singing (that may have been a misstep) but the cake was awesome.

It was nearly midnight before I sat down to check the computer. There were emails. A couple of texts. Some Facebook messages . . . and more than 150 posts wishing me a happy birthday. Some of them so perfect as to be gifts all in themselves.

Like this one.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 4.01.56 PM

And this one from my friend, Terri, quoting Byron.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 4.10.29 PM

And this one from my pal Mark, noting my return to the water.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 11.08.05 PM

What gift could be better than messages like those from friends like that?

And then I found out all kinds of interesting things about the number 53.

  • It’s the number of an incredible scenic highway in New Mexico.
  • 53 is a prime number.
  • It’s the code for direct-dial calls to Cuba, a place I desperately want to visit.
  • 53 is the racing number for Herbie the Love Bug.
  • The Daily Mail says that 53 is when middle age begins.
  • At 53, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony
  • Sidney Sheldon began writing his first novel at 53.
  • Robert E. Peary reached the North Pole at age 53, and that’s how old Walter Hunt was when he invented the safety pin.
  • 53-year-old playwright Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia.
  • Sue Monk Kidd published her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, at– yep, 53.
  • The atomic number of Iodine is 53. In it’s gaseous state, it’s violet, like the cardigan I’m wearing in the photo above, taken on my 53rd birthday. It is present in ocean water, as I too, would so like to be. But the Egyptian-inspired pool at the Y will have to be a close second.
  • The character of the Grinch (who stole Christmas) is 53.


As is Dewey Largo, who in the episode of The Simpsons that I just happened to watch on the night of my 53rd birthday, sings “My country ’tis of thee, my job is misery. Life disappointed me, I’m 53 . . . .”

(I think I aged better than Mr. Largo.)


Here’s what I know: you are responsible for your own happiness. I had a wonderful happy birthday, because I decided that I would have a wonderful happy birthday. Many, many people, friends and family alike, helped make it even happier. But from the time I got up in the morning I decided to celebrate the day like the present it was.

Today I am still eating birthday cake. Lucky girl.


Birthday Cake


It was indeed a labor of love that began on Thursday afternoon, with the construction of Ghirardelli dark chocolate ganache, and Ghirardelli white chocolate ganache. About ten o’clock this morning the cake was finished. In the 40 some hours interim, I baked four layers of cake (and two dozen cupcakes), two of Mexican dark chocolate cake (in a 10-inch square pan) and two of a kind of caramel-dulce de leche cake in 8-inch springform rounds. The cakes were crumb-coated with ganache and left to dry. There was ganache filling between layers, and chocolate ganache on the base, and vanilla buttercream on the upper two layers. Decorative bits were piped in buttercream, always a bit of a nightmare. I used a fondant plate on the top, on which I’d pasted an “edible” image of my grandmother in 1918, age two.

We put the whole mess in the trunk and drove 150 miles with our fingers crossed and the a/c blasting, hoping against hope that we wouldn’t get there and find that it had dissolved into a puddle of sticky buttercream.  (We had an animal carrier with the two bottle-fed kittens in the backseat with Julian, so there was no room for the cake in the cabin.) And when we got there . . . it was just fine. The relief made me a little weak in the knees.

Each year my father’s family gathers the first weekend in June for what my cousin Tyson has dubbed “Granny-palooza.”  Pandemonium reigns. Sometimes my uncle, an accomplished bluegrass musician, plays. Sometimes my other uncle, an accomplished schoolteacher plays. Babies coo and gurgle and cry by turn. Grannie, who at 96, has “imperious” down to a fine art, demands audiences, coffee, more coffee and kisses. That’s okay, age has some perks. I wonder sometimes if we don’t become a more distilled essence of our true selves as the years clock over, or if we just lose all patience by the end of it. 96 is a lot of years to put up with stuff.

Several years ago, in her early 90s, my grandmother struggled with the mere fact that she was still alive. She didn’t want to be alive. She wanted desperately to go “home” to her reward. So many of her contemporaries are gone, including her husband. My father, her eldest child, is gone. She says that she does not understand why God is not done with her yet. I’ve got no answer for that. She’s had health problems (a number of them quite serious) since before I was born. I guess she’s just made of tougher stuff than we know.

Today, as she begins her 97th year, we gave her a day of the things she cherishes most now: her family, many of us sporting purple (her favorite color) in a swirling array of which she was the center.  There was a pile of gifts for her, many of those purple, including ours– the Land’s End nightgown and the many boxes of Puffs tissue– because nursing home tissues are pretty wretched. And an enormous cake, 40 hours in the making, with  purple candles and a photograph from  a time long ago, when she was a much beloved child. .

. . .

Target number 55. Steps walked 2053. (I didn’t mean to be short today– but there was not a minute extra to walk.) Breakfast was yogurt and granola in the car. Lunch was potluck at my Uncle Kerry’s: 4 jumbo shrimp, a cup of spinach salad, quarter cup of Waldorf salad, cup of fruit salad, half a cup of pulled pork (no sauce), two tiny slices of cake. On the way home, a chicken salad sandwich and an iced coffee.