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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Curmudgeon or Sweetie-Pie? That is the question.

As we age, we face choices. Actually, we face choices every single day, every single moment. But the big one I’m focusing on right now is whether I’m going to age as a curmudgeon or as a sweetie-pie.

I’m not sure whether sweetie-pie is the right antonym for curmudgeon, but it’s all I have. Even thesaurus.com doesn’t provide one, but there are lots of synonyms for curmudgeon: grouch, crank, sourpuss, grump, crab.

I’ve always thought I was tipping towards the curmudgeon side, mostly because I have Rules. Rules, as in:
  • Do not litter.

  • Your dog is supposed to be on a leash if he is not calmly at your side.

  • Do not contaminate the plastics recycling bins by throwing in unrecyclable, miscellaneous trash.

  • Cell phones should be off during public performances.
I have been known to enforce these Rules in public. Yes, we all discovered the heart of gold in A Man Called Ove, but I’m not sure the recipients of my Rule Awareness Lessons would speak to my heart of gold.

I fear it’s even worse than that. Recently, we had two couples over for dinner. As they were removing their shoes at the front door, some kind of issue arose. When Danny came up the stairs, he was griping about the rules in his house. “We even have a rule about synchronizing the light switches.”

What does that mean to synchronize the light switches? “It means that when one at the top of the stairs is up, you can’t turn off the light at the bottom of the stairs because then the light switch at the top is in the wrong position.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s right. They have to match. Light on means switch up.”

The husbands looked at me. “When the light is off, the light is off. What difference does it make what position the switch is in?”

Oh, yes, this is one of those little glitches in the universe. I am married to a man who doesn’t care what position the switches are in. I run around to the back of the garage to make sure the switch there matches the switch in the front of the garage. Apparently, I am not alone. Women like me are married to men like them. The men call these things “rules.” Personally, I don’t make Tim synchronize the switches … but I do readjust them when I’m in the garage.


I was at a party. A person nearing retirement asked a retired person about the transition.

“I love it,” the retiree said. “I enjoy every day.”

“Well,” I offered, “there are a lot of ups and downs in the transition.”

“Not me,” said the first. “I love every day.”
I draw a lot of conclusions from this, many of them revolving around Barbara-as-grouch and my inevitable fate as a curmudgeon. If I were particularly generous, I might try some self-description of Barbara-as-careful-observer-of-reality, but “I love every day” will never pop out of my mouth.

Lately, however, I have been encountering individuals who take my perception of sweetie-pie to new heights. In my new job with OLÉ (Opportunities for Lifelong Education), I receive phone calls from mostly older individuals wanting to enroll, to register for classes, to sign up friends, etc. I return their calls.

“Thank you, thank you for returning my call. I really appreciate your calling me back.”

And that’s only the beginning. I am thanked for providing information, I am thanked for remembering their names, I am thanked for talking them through the computer process. I am encountering more overt kindness and gratitude than I would have imagined was possible in routine human interaction. Yes, this says even more about Barbara-the-grouch, but my eyes have been opened! I have encountered appreciation to such an overwhelming degree, it’s changing my personality.

Sweetie-pie-ness begets more sweetie-pie-ness. The glow of sweetness just reflects and magnifies. I find myself going the extra mile just because it’s so appreciated. I’m a newbie at this: I still have Rules. I’m still not good at initiating sweetie-pie-ness but only remember it when I encounter it. I have to remind myself that being a sweetie-pie is not the same as being a vacuous optimist. It means appreciating the human effort around us.

Is there such a thing as a sweet curmudgeon?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ready for the Big One?

In the wake of all the Nature-made disasters that have befallen the world lately – Puerto Rico, Mexico, Florida – the subject of “being ready” has come up. At one dinner, one friend went through all the supplies his neighbors have gathered: one has a year’s supply of food, another has 10,000 rounds of ammunition. His wife said, “I have craft supplies.”

I have craft supplies, too. All the women at the table had craft supplies.

Our neighbor says he’s ready because he has a Prius. My husband said that might buy him two days over the rest of us, but I’m not sure how far he’ll get … or what he’s actually ready for. His back stairs fell down so he doesn’t even have a second exit.

Are you ready?

Well, I was once. When Sophie was a baby, Tim fixed our bookcases to the wall so they couldn’t fall on her (never mind the books), and I stocked the pantry, identified the flashlights, filled water jugs. But after a while, I gave up changing the water, the batteries in the flashlights corroded, and maybe we ate some of the supplies. Then I figured we could just raid the closet with the camping gear – at least we have camping gear.

But now, as I look around me, I realize that with the new-carpet-relocation, bookshelves were moved, and they’re not anchored to the wall anymore. In fact, come the earthquake, if I’m at my computer, I’m squashed. Squashed by craft supplies.

So why am I bothering you (and me) with this issue that gives rise to a massive avoidance response? Avoiding the horrendous “to do” lists of identifying hazards, organizing emergency supplies, even gathering important papers? Just give me some sand to stick my head in.

But Thursday, October 19 is the Great Alaska ShakeOut. At 10:19 a.m., all over the U.S., millions of people will be dropping, covering, and holding on in the world’s largest earthquake drill. I do it every year. It’s a fun way to remind us – wherever we are on that date and that time – however inconvenient it is – that earthquakes are inconvenient, too.


Even if I manage to avoid the pre-drill recommendations (those readiness checklists), I still look around my 10:19 environment: What’s going to come crashing down? What protection is immediately accessible? How do I get away from windows? Call it my exercise in mindfulness….

And then, of course, there’s the theater of it. The website provides sound effects you can put over a P.A. system, but I’m kind of partial to the air horn shock to the system. Then picture everyone scurrying and climbing under tables. At the Literacy Program, there are people who have been in scarier earthquakes than I have – earthquakes in places without building codes – so our preparation will probably include some good stories, too.

So even if you haven’t stored your gallon of water per person per day for three days; met your self-sufficiency requirements for up to two weeks; or even own a crank radio – even if all you have are craft supplies – you can remember what NOT to do:
  • Do NOT get in a doorway (old myth)
  • Do NOT run outside
  • Do NOT believe the so-called “triangle of life” (new myth)
Just Drop, Cover, and Hold On with 100,000 other Alaskans. Sign up today and I’ll meet you under the table.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Invasion of the Vegetables 2

I’ve written about my farmers’ market love affair before, but now I am positively racked with vegetable gluttony. I try to resist the farmers’ market – I can’t possibly fit any more giant celery or giant leeks or giant chard in the refrigerator – but it calls to me. Maybe if I just walk around and admire the vegetables I won’t bring any more home.

But who can resist?

I used to easily pass certain vegetables by; I don’t like radishes and who knew which part of a fennel you ate? But I went one day with my friend Rob, and he said, “If you roast radishes, they get mild. If you roast those salad turnips, they get soft and juicy. Just try it.” I have bunches and bunches of radishes now, and I get more each week. I roast and roast and roast … when I’m not making gallons of soup.
I invite friends over to reduce my inventory. I used to think of it as “making dinner,” now it’s “making room in the fridge” and the dinner is incidental.

It’s not just my weakness either. My friend Judith was traveling so she showed up at my house, abandoning her Brussels sprouts and turnips as she left town. (Yes, it reminded me of those old jokes about secretly delivering excess zucchini in the middle of the night to your unsuspecting friends.) Judith even had a kohlrabi thing, which looks like some terrible mutation but that’s what a kohlrabi is.
I positively scour cookbooks, magazines, and the Internet for recipes. Oh, yikes: I’ve turned into a Foodie! A vegetable-only Foodie. I make things with names like Fennel Leek Soup, Curried Brussels Sprouts with Currants, and Asian Sesame Zucchini Noodles (out came the spiralizer). All the extra leaves go into Minestra di Riso e Fagioli alla Genovese (soup).

Kohlrabi nearly stumped me: my $30 America’s Test Kitchen Vegetarian cookbook doesn’t even have kohlrabi in the index. Martha Stewart, however, has “8 Delicious Ideas” for kohlrabi. That’ll be tomorrow’s experiment, tomorrow’s New Thing.

I found a recipe for turnips and other root vegetables, and the photo in the magazine looked great. The recipe called for parsnips and celery root (which hadn’t made it into my kitchen yet) so I had to visit the farmers’ markets again. I had to. I found the parsnips, and one woman showed me what a celery root looked like, but she didn’t have any for sale. She told me that we could even eat the funny little rooty-looking things that stick out of the bulb.
So off I went to New Sagaya and their odd vegetable collection. (Yes, I’m prowling for vegetables. I’m a veritable vegetable Lewis and Clark.) While the man went to check for celery root in the back, I looked at all the other vegetables. Oh, no! The thing I thought was a turnip – and built the whole recipe around – is really a rutabaga! Hmmm, they look sort of similar.
I Googled “Can I substitute a rutabaga for a turnip?” and am always astonished to discover when lots of other people have had the exact same question before me.  Turns out that rutabagas were invented by crossing cabbage and turnips and supposedly, they turn a brilliant orange when they’re cooked and mashed.

When I moved from New York to California, I discovered brand new vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, things I’d never heard of. I’d grown up on French Style Green Beans from a can; gray, slimy-ish, soft and mushy green beans. I left New York believing that vegetables had to be canned to be safe to eat, like pasteurizing milk. When I discovered FRESH vegetables, my whole diet changed. In San Francisco, I lived near the produce market and bought my food daily.

Then I moved to Alaska. In the grocery store back then, I’d see vegetables for sale that would have been spoiled rejects in California: wrinkled, limp peppers; spotted green beans; soft, squishy zucchini. In California, they were compost. In Alaska, they were food.

That all changed with Costco, but the farmers’ markets offer new bounty with Alaska’s own giant, spectacular vegetables. The farmers’ markets are glorious temples of vegetables, and I worship at them. There are just two Saturdays left, and then they’re closed for the season.

Sob.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Club vs a Bad Book

My book club is happy for a lot of reasons, but what distinguishes us is we talk about the books. Yes, we learn what’s going on with our lives. Yes, we do things together. Yes, we eat food, drink wine, and share recipes. BUT we talk about the books, and we’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.

As soon as the book for the following month is decided upon, we used to race each other to reserve the book at the library. Over the years, that’s proven a problem: if we read the book too far in advance, we forget a lot of it by the time book club meets. (We’ve spent many book club evenings talking about “what’s-her-name” or “was-that-before-that-happened-or-after.”) Billy Collins, in his poem “Forgetfulness,” writes:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of
So we have to time finishing the book so we’re still fresh with it when we meet. But that has its own problems: what if the book is long or tedious and we run out of time? What if everyone else has the library book and it’s not available? So we play this little dance of balancing memory against opportunity. The dance just gets trickier with time.

Over the years, there have been many books we’ve all loved: Bel Canto, Seabiscuit, A Gentleman in Moscow. There are books someone didn’t like while someone else loved it. Book club is the perfect place where discussion actually changes our opinions. There are books no one liked, but there were no books everyone hated.

Until The Echo Maker.
The Echo Maker was unanimously and universally hated. It was long, repetitive, and tedious. The characters were unreal, unsympathetic, and boring. Characters repeated themselves endlessly, so that finishing the book was torture. What may have been an interesting exploration of self and the perception of self was positively excruciating. Only the sand hill cranes came off well.
Am I not being clear enough about this?

Astonishingly, the discussion was terrific. It’s amazing how hating something really enhances the memory! We remembered every hated detail. We knew names, we knew characters, we knew every ludicrous, plodding plot iteration.

One of our more recent experiments was to come to book club with a sentence from the book that impressed us. Mary offered her sentence: Karin, the sister in the book, is thinking back to a time with a former lover:
“Two years ago that month, she’d lain with this man in the pouring rain, naked in the sloppy riverbanks, licking his armpits like a kitten.” (page 329)


Do you see what I mean? Who, who, who would ever find that plausible? What kind of woman licks muddy armpits during sex in the rain? Could you finish an entire book like this?

During the course of our energetic discussion lampooning of the book, I related another hairy armpit story. A friend of mine had worked summers at A&W Root Beer. There were big vats of root beer with some sort of stirring contraption at the bottom. When it became jammed, they had to use a special tool to realign it. The manager got fed up with jimmying it, rolled up his sleeve, and stuck his arm to the bottom of the vat. It was a hot summer day, and his armpits were sweaty. When he pulled his arm out, root beer dripped from his armpit hairs.

I told you, we talk about the book.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

I am who I am because of Vietnam

I cried in public. Worse: I cried while speaking publicly. It surprised me. Why? Because I was crying over the Vietnam War.

It was only the second time I’d cried speaking in public. The first was at Sophie’s bat mitzvah, and I blubbered so badly I served as the benchmark Worst Crying Mother for many years of bar and bat mitzvah kids. But that moment was intensely personal, a life cycle milestone, a sense of time passing, and a sense of family history. A sense of optimism and loss, hopes and dreams.

And so, actually, was Vietnam.

We were all gathered to watch the opening excerpts of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War for public television. The speaker opened by asking the military members of the audience to stand, asking the Vietnam veterans to stand, asking those touched by veterans to stand. And then the program began.
There it was on the big screen, the same horrors in the jungle that had been on the T.V. news every night. Plus the things that had not been on the T.V. screen; the deceit and lies our government had told us that only came out afterwards. There were the marches, the protests, Kent State, the moratorium. There were interviews with Vietnamese people, with families whose sons never came home.

If you’re in your Third Third, you lived it, too. It was the most formative event of our First Third.

And when I rose to speak to the audience, I choked. It was incredibly embarrassing. Apparently, I still hadn’t recovered. Have any of us?

Because, I felt, we all needed to stand, not just the soldiers. The protesters, the people from Southeast Asia, the people still dying of land mines in Cambodia. The families split by the “generation gap.” The people who lost faith in government; the people who lost faith in generals. We were all injured by Vietnam.

When I was in London, I realized that war really happened there. Bombs fell, houses were destroyed, food was rationed. Whether you were on the front lines or on civilian rescue patrol, the war touched you.

Vietnam touched us. All of us. Bombs didn’t land on our homes, but they detonated in our lives.

I still have my black armband from the moratorium. I still remember watching the T.V., hoping my brother’s birth date wouldn’t be drawn “low” in the draft lottery. I still remember fights between “love it or leave its” and “peaceniks” right in our living room.
I still remember raising bail money for protesters, writing an essay for a friend’s conscientious objector application. I still remember my mother’s Another Mother for Peace stationery.

Later, I encountered returning vets, friends who’d gone to jail, men who came back from Canada. I visited the Vietnam Memorial. All I could see were the brothers and sons that never came home, and the broken, broken ones that did.

Many years later, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, I was astonished. I thought we’d all learned that lesson from Vietnam, that we didn’t mess with unwinnable wars. Even further, that we didn’t solve problems with bombs. And now, nearly 15 years later, we’re still recovering from that decision, from a government that lied to us about that, too.

But it’s different now. We can practically ignore this war. We have so many news channels, we can switch when the war comes on. We don’t see the same images; the war isn’t fought in our living room. Without a draft, we can safeguard our brothers and sons because “someone else” will do the fighting. As one friend put it, the news is about new prosthetics, not about whether we should be sending soldiers to be injured.

And yet, they’re still getting injured. They’re still dying. Families and hearts are being broken. Civilians are dying. Gains made are lost, “winning” is a meaningless concept. “We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.”

There are just so many reasons why I cried in public over the Vietnam War.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Hair Rebellion

My hair has declared its independence from my head.

My hairdresser says, “Our hair changes texture over time,” but she’s being nice. My hair is in its Third Third, and it’s become a behavior problem.

My expectations are not unreasonable: I don’t expect to have cheerleader hair. You know, the hair that falls magically into place after the high school cheerleaders twirl and tumble. My hair snarls if I turn my head quickly. I’m used to that. And yes, I know if you look at my self-portraits, it looks like I’ve always had a wild head of hair. The color is deliberate. That’s not the problem.

The problem is the direction my hair has taken. As in, it aims away from my head instead of lying down on it. It has become very, very straight, with no bend or curve to match my head. Bangs stick out like porcupine quills. I look like Raggedy Ann. (Comparisons to Bozo not appreciated.) Observe.
So my hairdresser recommended a leave-in hair conditioner to “nourish” my hair. As with all things food, there’s a line somewhere between nourishment and obesity. My well-nourished hair got lazy and listless. It no longer flew off in all directions; it just laid itself out on the couch and declined to move. It hung from my head, flat and apathetic, as if it had been trapped in a bike helmet for two thirds of my life (with no intention – ever – of getting on a bike). It is the helmet.


The option of mechanical aids came up. While I may not, in fact, be a technological dinosaur when it comes to computers, I am a resoundingly inept dinosaur when it comes to … curling irons. I hold the hair up, look in the mirror, and proceed to burn the daylights out of my hands. My brain might correct for the reverse mirror image, but my motor skills don’t get the message. Too many welts and not enough motivation, and I abandoned the curling iron.

Which leaves my hair styling equipment of choice: electric rollers! Yes, me and Barbie. You put them in, wait a bit, and pull them out. Drab, flat, fly-away hair is transformed into bouncy, peppy, springy curls! Just seconds and you’re a Sandra Dee/Gidget/Donna Reed facsimile.
Since the flip went out somewhere in our First Third and even looking in the mirror you know the word is “dated,” you have to do something. You shake and shake your head till it’s a jumble of … hair.
I call this the “rumpled but smoldering” look. I actively sought this look in my 20s. I aspired to look as if I’d just jumped out of bed after sex.

Other people might just have called it “bed head.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Of Tea and Adirondack Chairs

About the tea thing. About why Happy Uterus Tea would even show up on my radar.

Tea is a symbol.

Tea is the Adirondack chair of my life. The Adirondack chair figured in an essay I read once years ago: a woman bought Adirondack chairs because she had visions of pouring lemonade, setting the glass on the wide arms, relaxing and enjoying life. I have that same fantasy, but in mine, I’m sitting and drinking tea.

The woman in the essay got rid of her Adirondack chairs years later, because she’d never sat in them.
I may not have Adirondack chairs, but I have a lot of tea paraphernalia. I have beautiful teacups, I have teaspoons, tea party place cards. I even have a penguin in a tuxedo who lifts the tea bag out of the cup after three minutes have passed.

My daughter and I had tea parties. She collected tiny tea sets. Lots of them. I’ve moved her tiny tea set collection several times during room relocations, carpet removal, carpet replacement. I know her tiny tea sets intimately. Much of the tea paraphernalia we collected together.

The beautiful teacups were a gift many years ago from a friend. I let them sit in the cabinet for years because they were the “good” teacups. They were waiting for special occasions while we drank regular, no-special-occasion tea from no-special-occasion mugs. Those teacups waited a long time … till I learned in my Third Third that life was meant to be enjoyed now and waiting is a misguided gamble.

The tea vision involves having women friends over to drink tea with me (and my teacups and my teaspoons and my penguin). That meant I needed a large enough teapot to fill many cups of tea. I searched and searched for one for years, and finally found one at a crafts fair in Massachusetts. It’s beautiful.
It’s the teapot I made the tea cozy for, the “tea yurt.”
And then I went to London, where people sit down with their tea no matter what. On Masterpiece, the characters are always offering each other tea for distress and trauma, illness and worry, and it works! In London, I tasted tea at Twinings and bought the most delicious Ginger and Sicilian Lemon “silky bag infusions” at Fortnum & Mason.

So this is what tea is: it’s a vision of a life of friends, of conversation, of quiet, of appreciation for now. Of special moments, of finding calm, of a daughter’s enchantment, of sharing in another culture. Of finding something beautiful, creating something new, of trying out new tastes.

In my Third Third, tea is way more than just worrying about all the peeing afterwards and whether I’m near a restroom. And what to do because everyone else drinks coffee.

This is the bigger Third Third question: Do I actually sit down and drink tea? Do I actually let myself enter that tea drinking mental space? (sigh…) I’m more like the woman in the essay not drinking lemonade in her Adirondack chair.

My Third Third is always a work in progress….

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Missing a Birthday

My mother would have been 92.
This was the first year I hadn’t bought her a birthday card since I can’t remember when. I’d always find one that had some forgetfulness joke to it. A woman in jogging clothes: “I run to stay in shape. I just don’t know where I end up.” Things like that.

I’d come across the card on some other errand, decide it was just right, and I’d save it up for her birthday.

I didn’t get a card this year.

I didn’t remind Sophie to phone Granny.

I didn’t phone either.

Many years ago, I learned a lot about loss and grief. I kept trying to get past a hole, to remedy it somehow. And then I realized that holes never go away; we just learn to live around them. Sometimes, I look around and I wonder how many holes are behind all the people I see.

The last two years, thoughts of my mother came in the form of emergency phone calls and emails, crises to handle and worries to calm. “Mom” meant doctors, going back into hospitals, rehab, walkers, physical therapy. It meant fighting battles, getting pissed off, evaluating care, strategizing. That “Mom” crowded out everything else. Finding a birthday card was just another tedious “to do.”

Nevertheless, when she died, it was like a shock wave passed over my world. But when you’ve lived 4,000 miles and two visits a year away for so long, after a while, the waves fade. They don’t reach to Alaska. I don’t brace myself when the phone rings anymore. Those crises are over. They were a distraction – a complication – from the real hole to come.

Something in me couldn’t let September 2nd pass unnoticed. Something in me thought of birthday cards. And on a sunny moment on our brand new back deck, I thought back to the back deck I grew up on, and I wish I could show my mother. I wish she could lie on my deck and soak in the warm sun, and I wouldn’t even yell at her that it was too much sun already.

I would tell my theater-loving mother that I managed to get non-scalped, affordable tickets to Hamilton, and the whole family was going, and I’d see her in New York in March. And she – the woman who knew and saw every Broadway play for the last 60 years – would ask, “What’s Hamilton?”

And now I will actually visit New York and not see my mother. My sisters tried it and didn’t know where to go when they first arrived. They stared at each other in the car, rootless. My mother’s hole is as big as Long Island, and we haven’t yet figured out how to negotiate it.

But when I think of a birthday and a card, it’s … a warm thought. It’s sad and it still comes with an impossible “I wish” attached to it, but it’s a warm thought. Pleasant even. Comforting. Lying on my back deck, buying a theater ticket, using her pot for soup, peeling a cucumber with her vegetable peeler – who would know they’d trigger so many good memories?

The road around a hole is paved with good memories. Only the good ones seem to linger. I let them in quietly, and they comfort me.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

How happy is your uterus?

I’ve said before that what I lack in artistic execution I have to make up for with imagination. So that’s why, when the rest of my Bricolage Group deals with the monthly challenge of “tea bags,” they make beautiful art out of the tea bag paper. The thinness of the paper, the way it absorbs brewed tea and various inks, and their experiments with the translucence yields gorgeous, colorful art.

I made tea.

Happy Uterus Tea, to be specific. This week’s New Thing.

It all started with the unruly Lady’s Mantle growing in the backyard and whether or not I was going to uproot it for the new deck going in. So I Googled Lady’s Mantle to see what it was good for (other than making the dew that collects in the leaves look like jewels).
Lady’s Mantle is good for Happy Uterus Tea: “Lady’s mantle is a powerful female herb for anytime during a woman’s reproductive life.” So, in our Third Thirds, that would mean it “reduces or eliminates hot flashes/night sweats, … frayed nerves, insomnia, sadness.” What’s not to like?

The recipe was pretty simple: I had the Lady’s Mantle, both leaves and flowers. I even had the raspberry leaves. On a trip to Fairbanks and the Farmers’ Market, I landed the lemon balm. I had to dry out all these cuttings, but that was pretty simple once I discovered that leaving them in a hot car on a sunny day works. Then I just occupied myself crumbling leaves into jars. And as long as I was crumbling leaves, I threw in some mint from my garden, too.
Once before I’d made tea bags out of coffee filters – that was another project for a different crazy idea – which I sewed into the right rectangular shape. But this was supposed to be Art. I needed some kind of Happy Uterus shape.

Uteruses (uteri?) are pretty unrecognizable as shapes. In fact, they look suspiciously like something else which I dare not mention after my previous scary experience of this blog becoming an Asian porn attraction.
So I tried several different shapes. Since they’d be soaking in hot water, I thought I could decorate them by sewing designs on them rather than painting.

I filled them with the dried leaves and sewed them shut. I made little tags and attached them with thread.

Is this Art? Or, the bigger question: Is my uterus happy?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Visiting Daughters Come ... and Go

I love being the mother of an adult daughter. Well, I love being her mother; it’s just that now, we’re in this stage, and I just realized: this stage – unlike the others – is permanent!

The adult daughter interacts with us. She doesn’t hide out in her room, she doesn’t spend all her time disappearing with friends. And while she interacts, she says interesting, intelligent, compassionate things. We’re treated like human beings; we’re not embarrassments or dinosaurs or targets to vent frustrations on. (Been there, felt that.) We even get compliments. She observes us, says nice things about us.

We are all lucky I’m in my Third Third. Here’s an example: She was running a marathon, and I knew she’d be seconds away from making her hoped-for time. Tim and I met her at the bottom of the last hill, and we ran alongside, running her up the hill, pushing her pace, calling encouragement. Along the way, she shouted, “Stop running me in!”

Previous, Second Third Barbara (to herself): “Oh, no! I see other people running friends in. I was just trying to be supportive. I hate that she’s always embarrassed by me.”

Third Third Barbara (to herself): “Let it be.”

Later, the adult daughter said, “I was so worried that I’d be disqualified for having you run me in, like it was some sort of assistance.”

“But,” I said, “the guide encouraged it, said it was fine as long as we didn’t get in the chute.”

“Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know that.”

This is how adults talk with each other!

The adult daughter compliments you on all your cooking. She grabs leftovers from the refrigerator and eats them again and again. The adult daughter makes plans with you for a trip to New York. She pores over genealogy information, asks for your maternal grandmother’s maiden name so she can search out more data. She meets you for lunch, loves the little kids’ entrance door you show her at the library because you know that is right up her alley. We play many hours of 5 Crowns on rainy nights.
The adult daughter never makes her bed, throws clothes every which way. The mother of the adult daughter makes the bed because that is her thing and she is so incredibly pleased that the adult daughter is home. The adult daughter finds a hole in her favorite running pants; the mother of the adult daughter mends it because she is good at that. The adult daughter thanks her effusively!
The adult daughter stays up very late, so the mother of the adult daughter stays up very late, too. They’re not really talking; the mother is just there, on the couch, reading nearby. It’s called “just being there,” and it was her whole principle in child-rearing and it’s there to be done again, so she does.

The only problem with the adult daughter? Adult daughters leave. They return home. The mother knows this, knows she gave her daughter wings, knows she’s soaring.

But when she leaves, that mother is so very, very sad.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Procrastination is our friend.

The clutter that defies my attempts at de-cluttering is usually the result of either of three things:
  • being in-the-middle of a project or idea, or
  • being completely stumped as to how to disperse the particular object, or
  • pure procrastination
In the second category, I had a few problems I’d mentioned before: my cacao bean roaster, my mother’s samovar, and my audio cassettes. The cacao bean roaster ended up on my friend Judith’s mantle, where she’s trying to figure out what to do with it. The samovar and audio cassettes are still my problems, still taking up space while I … procrastinate.


BUT, every now and then, procrastination is our friend! Every now and then, failure to de-clutter means you still have the thing you were considering giving away, and you need it!

No, I still don’t need a samovar or audio cassettes. Does anyone?

Way back on June 5, 2012 was the last Transit of Venus. This is when Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun and you can see the little black dot of Venus moving across the face of the Sun. If you missed it, sorry: the next one isn’t until 2117. It’s a very big deal if you’re trying to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and history is full of expeditions to observe it around the world.

So there was no way I’d miss it on June 5, 2012, when the University of Alaska Anchorage Planetarium set up telescopes and had us all watching the skies. They gave out special solar sunglasses.

Desk space is the most valuable real estate in my office. Papers and articles, mail and bills need that space. Desk space is the space where items of immediate concern – items of current necessity – fight for attention. Desk space is the place where urgent items are at risk of missed deadlines if they get covered over. Desk space is my High Priority Zone.

The cardboard solar sunglasses have been sitting on my desk since June 5, 2012.

Every time I’d pick them up or shift them around because they were in the way, I’d know they really needed to be relocated elsewhere. But then I’d ask myself: Where do cardboard solar sunglasses go so I’d be able to find them when I need them?

I couldn’t come up with a single obvious and apparent location.

Without an obvious and apparent location, you run the risk of not being able to find things when you need them. I just barely stumbled across the TSA luggage locks when I needed them, but where-oh-where is the large-size label I was saving for the cover of that notebook? Or the short extension cord? If something doesn’t come as a whole family of objects – if it travels solo – it can go astray.
But Monday is the Total Eclipse of the Sun, and I am ready! Sunglasses are apparently sold out all over Anchorage, and FAKE ones are being offered for sale online, but I just had to shift a few papers aside, and there mine are! They spark a lot of joy! For now, the joy of de-cluttering has been replaced by the joy of NOT de-cluttering.

Yes, this sets back the de-cluttering cause significantly, and I know those sunglasses really do need a permanent home, but that can wait till after 10:14 a.m. on August 21.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Not all hands on deck

We built a deck.

Let me correct that: we had a deck built. I had nothing to do with any hammering or digging or measuring. My job was to say what I wanted and pick out colors. My job was actually to decide to go ahead and build a deck at all. After that, I was pretty useless. Tim is the hero of this story.

We’ve lived in our house for 28 years. The concrete patio has been crumbly and broken for a while, but we’ve gotten by. Mostly, we don’t use it. Tim would say, “The stairs need work. I keep repairing them, but they need more work. We have to decide what to do about the patio.” I’d look but couldn’t decide where I’d want a deck, where there’d be the most sun, what about over there, and it always got too complicated.

But this summer, after visiting a friend’s deck, I said, “I’m ready for us to build a deck.” In Barbara language, that might have meant next year (and the us is definitely an inaccurate pronoun). In Tim language, it means decide on a design tomorrow, pick out materials, hire a contractor – can he start Monday?

He’s my husband – you can’t have him!

First off, he rented a jackhammer to break up the old, crumbly patio. He and Dillon, our friend’s son, banged away and hauled the rubble to the front of the house.

Tim loaded the truck. When it was all carted off to the dump, it was 16,000 POUNDS of concrete.
I’m keeping him!

When Lance, our marvelous, master-craftsman, deck builder, dug out the Sonotubes, he unearthed giant boulders. My job was to put them on Craig’s List and wait for everyone to fight over our free rocks. They did.
The deck is mostly finished. It’s spectacular. Friends say it will change my life. My Third Third life is going to involve spending a lot of time on that deck. It’s so sturdy that I figure in an earthquake, the deck will keep the house standing.

The lawn is littered with lumber that I wouldn’t let Lance or Tim haul away because it can be recycled. My friend Connie said it would be a crime not to recycle it, but Connie and I can be a bad influence on each other that way, and it’s not lying around on her lawn. If worse comes to worst, I’ll go back on Craig’s List.
Tim sorted the lumber for me, but I’m waiting for it to dry so it won’t get my car wet. Yesterday, he said, “I’ve ordered a load of topsoil to fill in the patio hole. They’ll be here in the morning.”

“Now?!” I panicked. “What’s the rush? We’ll have a pile of dirt that’ll turn into mud. I still have to dig up the baby tree that I’m donating. Why do you have to rush things?”

“Because I have to get seeding started to put the lawn back together. I’ve already found a kid to help me move the dirt.”

Just now, I looked out the window. The topsoil is raked and spread over the torn up spots. It’s done.

I can hear my friends yelling, “Yay! We’re on Team Tim!”

Now I have my big job: planning the deck warming party. It’s a little problematic because of the forecast for rain. I’m trying to dawdle a little to see what the weather does. Eventually, I’ll have to get around to finding some deck furniture. That’ll take some research.

How odd this is! I usually think of myself as a get-it-done, make-it-happen mover (who often has to prod her husband), but I’ve clearly been just watching from the peanut gallery while Tim handles, hauls, sweats, and gets dirty. It’s good to have our identities messed with a little, to reevaluate ourselves, to let a marriage shift around and rebalance itself. A little disconcerting, but interesting. I have to hope all my laziness is just premature deck lounging, but I’m thinking each of us just has different speeds depending on our different talents. (I wonder if Tim would accept this generous analysis.)

This deck is a gift for our Third Third, and I hope it means more enjoyment, socializing, and relaxation. I hope that every time I sit on it, eat on it, or lounge on it; I’ll remember whose sweat made it possible.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In or Out?

Does it always just come down to being outside?

When I am away from home camping, breathing air that hasn’t been inside walls, I can say, “Today I just want to sit in the sun and read” and birds sing. I can look up and watch the clouds, doze off because the sun is warm, forget where I was on the page, notice some plants I didn’t notice before. Listen to the birds, feel the sun, stretch my legs.

If I were home, I’d remember that the Visa bill was due, the health insurance form had to be filed, the garden weeded and why haven’t I managed that with my “free” time? These thoughts crowd my brain; they drown out the “still, small voice.”


I don’t think it’s just about being away from home. When Sophie was little, I would take her to the playground or on a walk, and everything would become about doing nothing but being with her. No thoughts of extraneous to-do’s because I was being a Good Mother, and that eclipsed all.

Somehow, just plain peace of mind doesn’t have the same momentum in the face of all those to-do’s.

Richard Louv coined the expression “Nature-Deficit Disorder” to originally describe what happens to children separated from the outdoors. Then he extended the conversation to include adults. What if, he asks, we were as immersed in nature as we are in technology?

I don’t have a dog. Friends with dogs have to walk them. I’d returned from London biking everywhere, but when my knee went, so did most of my outdoors. Now my knee is better, but I’m still indoors-heavy and outdoors-light. I’m indoors writing about being indoors-heavy after all. It’s so easy to get out of whack.

What if I had to earn indoor time with outdoor hours?

What if what’s essential isn’t just passing-through-outdoors, but being-in-the-outdoors? Because I’m not sure it’s movement as much as it is fresh air. And I’m not sure it’s fresh air as much as it is paying attention and looking around. Can it happen in the backyard or does it require wildness or greenery or landscape? Do people who own cabins feel the weight of to-do’s even though they’re in their outdoors?

Would I even notice any of this if the weather weren’t particularly lovely right now?

Does it always just come down to the weather? Do happiness and contentment and freedom and peace of mind always just come down to the weather?

I don’t know. Right now, I’m off to reduce my deficit. Quick, while the sun shines.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Getting Comfortable

Do you sleep on the ground?

Did you used to sleep on the ground? Like, in a tent?

I remember when camping in a tent meant the old, closed-cell foam camping pad. You could feel every rock in your back. When we discovered self-inflating Therm-a-Rests, life changed – we had cushion! A whole inch of cushion! I still remember our first camping trip with baby Sophie; she turned the tent into a bouncy house. We found her in the morning by the door of the tent, having bounced there after Tim and I fell asleep.

Funny, that old Therm-a-Rest just doesn’t bounce anymore. Or rather, I don’t bounce. I thump and rattle and groan.


One friend said it’s not even just the sleeping on the ground that gets her; it’s the getting up.

When I backpack, I sit on the ground. Many years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a fold-up-able chair that basically held my butt on the ground. It felt so extravagant. When we all had little kids, I took it on our first car camping trip with friends. I was a little embarrassed to bring it out around the campfire.

But then, everyone else unloaded real chairs from their cars! At first, it was just chairs. Then the chairs got arms. Then the arms got cup holders. Now the chairs have cushions.

It happened with stoves, too. Camping used to mean fiddling with stoves, relentlessly fiddling with little stoves that held a single pot and that always seemed to clog. The first time someone pulled out a two-burner Coleman stove, I almost flipped. Now we own one. We even put it in a kayak.

Now our friends camp with cots and air mattresses, even RVs. Last weekend, I spotted a car going into their tent site with a giant air mattress on the roof. The guy was riding the back bumper, holding the air mattress on the roof with his hands. She was driving really slowly, but how did they get there?!? I figured they must have gone to the electricity at the RV site to blow up the mattress and were now delivering it to their tent.
My friend Rob once had his well-used camping gear described as “prehistoric.” When I buy mine, it’s usually with the assumption that it will last a lifetime. (I buy a lot of things that way.) It’s my stubborn fight against planned obsolescence – not to mention the emotional attachment to my gear – but this curmudgeon side is now getting in the way of … progress. Yeah, I used to walk to school in the snow, too, but I’m pretty sure dinosaurs were uncomfortable before they went extinct.

When I hiked the Chilkoot Trail last summer, my friend Mary loaned me her blow-up NeoAir Therm-a-Rest. Wow! It was a sleeping transformation! It was thick and cushy and still lightweight; oh, the miracles of technology! But last weekend, Tim and I still pulled out our old, one-inch-thick Therm-a-Rests … and groaned and tossed and turned.

No more! If the world is building better mousetraps, I’m getting with the program. I love camping. I love sleeping in a tent, all contained and cozy. I love breathing air that hasn’t been inside walls. I’m ready to update!

Stodginess lurks in secret places, and it’s so liberating to cast it off.

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