Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Quest for New-ness #5

When I first started this blog, I was really intent on my Quest for New-ness. On my website, my New Thing label has 84 posts, more than any other. I described it this way:

If I don’t want to get stale in my Third Third, I need newness. I need jolts and shake-ups. Actually, my whole life has been about wanting and liking jolts and shake-ups, but the difference is that now I feel I need them to ward off any encroaching stagnation.

And that was even before the relentless staleness of Covid-19.

So here I am after days weeks months of same-old-same-old. But then we got vaccinated and Tim announced, “Off to Maui!” which jolted me so badly I had to hide for a while. But I emerged, boarded the plane, and traded Alaska snow and cold for Maui sun and heat.

This is the thing about sun and heat: you can lie down in it, you walk around in shorts and tank tops in it, you put sunscreen on in it. You maybe stay indoors during the hottest part of it, but mostly you are breathing air-that-has-not-been-in-four-walls – outside air! You do that for most of the day. It’s kind of miraculous.

But you still have to eat, you still have to acquire food and do something with it – cook it or order it or look at a menu about it. You still have to take showers and wash your hair. You still have to brush your teeth. You still have to put dirty clothes in the dirty-laundry bag.

You still have to wake up and go to sleep. You still have to decide what you’re going to do today: hike or beach or pool? You still have to get in a car that you’ll drive to wherever you might want to sightsee. The car will still need gas. If you read a book, you still have to open it and turn the pages.

Do you see where I’m going here? Most of our days repeat most of our days no matter where we are. And if you’re suffering from too much routine and the psychologists report an emotional state of “languishing,” then you just might not be getting the New-ness your spirit requires.

I grew up on Long Island, so I grew up on water. Beaches and pools. During those sticky, humid days, water was our sanity, our pleasure, and our thrill. I would body surf till my scalp was covered in sand, till I carried loads of sand in my swimsuit. The town pool was daily until my friends got driver’s licenses, then the beach became a daily after work option. I am better in water than on land.

And on Maui, the water is delightful. You can swim in it and play around in it, but it’s very shallow. The thing you can’t do is body surf in it. You just can’t grab a wave and let it take your body over a four-inch surf. That must be why everyone is holding a boogie board, which I don’t quite get: is it like a toy? A baby surfboard?

One of the new things on this trip was staying in a condo. We’d never done that. In this condo was a supply closet with beach chairs and beach mats, umbrellas and towels, flippers and wet suits. And boogie boards. It was like a personal summertime R.E.I.

So we took the boogie boards to the beach. Let me tell you about boogie boarding!

I stood out there, holding the board in front of me. I know my waves; I picked a good one at the right time, threw myself forward on the board.

And I flew!       I was a bullet, flying through the water or the air or whatever it was! 

I was on top of the whole world 

until the wave disappeared below me and dropped me down – free fall! – to the next wave which caught me and took me to shore

where the next wave positively drove me up the beach on two inches of water and sand.

Aaaiiieeee! It was incredible!

When the water went out, the board was buried in sand and I had to dig it out.

I woke up.

That’s it: my fog lifted and light emerged. It wasn’t the adrenaline rush of risk (I gave up terror after the Chilkoot Trail), and no fear was involved in this at all: we’re talking shallow shore breaks. It was the sheer delight of New-ness. A brand-new experience had entered my life, charged new neurons, ignored the same-old-same-old.

Finally, an 85th New Thing!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Elusiveness of Normal

I’m not sure I can be normal again.

I’m fully vaccinated, about to leave 29° snow behind for a vacation in Maui, and these are my thoughts: Should I take some calming medication before sitting on a crowded airplane with a mask on for five hours? This is a plane where everyone has had to have a negative Covid test within 72 hours, but that’s not it.

I’m not scared of Covid; I’m scared of realizing that normal is no longer possible.

I look back at the past year; I’ve made a family recipe art book, tackled art projects, organized an online theater-watching group, read a bazillion books. I even was incredibly excited about getting a chocolate-dipped ice cream pop!

But now, I wake up adrift. Plans don’t excite me. I’m sick of snow, sick of skiing, sick of Netflix, sick of cooking, sick of grocery store pickup ordering, sick of my computer. I started posting poetry on signs on my yard, and now I’m sick of poetry. Sometimes I actually don’t feel like reading, which is truly cataclysmic. Vaccination has been like spotting a finish line and totally sagging before you cross it.


We just restarted our athletic club membership so I could swim again … and I haven’t gone. I’m not worried about catching Covid at the club, not worried about germs. I’m worried that swimming won’t feel good.

Early on in my Third Third, I discovered the Big Three that were necessary for a happy Third Third:

Without teaching at the Alaska Literacy Program, without in-person classes with OLÉ, my days have become sort of adrift. My ability to adapt has petered out. The only schedule I have is on the computer: a writing class, author interviews, recorded theater. Only occasionally am I “of use.” My community is on Zoom.

Our daughter quit her first job, one she had loved. For the last year, I characterized our phone calls as her trying to convince herself she was happy with her job. She faced workplace issues complicated by working remotely, and she was valiant in framing things positively, but her heart was no longer in it. It became just too hard and she quit. Hooray! She radiates happiness now. I’m a big supporter of eliminating negative conditions quickly and decisively.

But the ones I’m in – the ones we’re all in – just aren’t quickly and decisively going away, and I’m losing the ability to convince myself that “X will be fun; let’s do X!” Or even “I feel like doing X.” Or even “X has to be done, suck it up and do it.” I don’t suck it up anymore; I just drift.

I know that my negative conditions don’t include illness or death, job loss, or eviction – as many people’s do – and I’m grateful for that. I know that the snow I’m sick of covers a yard I may appreciate when the snow melts. For goodness sake, I’m heading to Maui! (stop whining!) But I also know that the Big Three for a happy Third Third have been disrupted, and it will take time to re-create the Third Third that works for me.

We’ve had our first fully-vaccinated guests for dinner, been guests for the first time in someone else’s fully-vaccinated home. Both those times felt just like the old normal once we were in them. Really. But they took some psychic lifting to actually do them. They’re still not a new normal.

We may have landed in this pandemic suddenly, but I think we’re going to have to lift ourselves out of it with baby steps.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Collateral Damage

My inanimate objects are suffering from Covid-19, and it’s not just my car. The latest victim: my beanbag chairs.

Yes, yes, I know: nobody has beanbag chairs anymore. Nobody in their Third Third. Nobody who has trouble getting up once they’ve gotten down. I have that trouble, too. But when the TV proved too hard to see all the way from the couch, it was easier to drag the beanbags out into the middle of the floor, closer to the TV. 

(Why do they insist on using text messages on detective shows? You have to race for the pause button and get right up to the TV to see what crucial bit of information the detective has just received.) 

But now – compliments of Netflix and Prime and Hulu, Disney+ and HBO Max and PBS Passport – the beanbags are pretty squashed and flattened. I’m not sitting on beans anymore; I’m sitting on floor.

I sewed my first giant-size beanbag chairs back when I had my first apartment. They have a muslin lining so I can wash the outside, and there have been many iterations of the outside as they wore out, were faded by the sun, or just got tired. Now the outsides are fine; it’s the insides that have Covid.

The issue is the filling: Styrofoam pellets. They start out round and roly-poly, but they flatten. Then you have to add more. That was easier in the ’70s. Since then, it’s been a challenge.

I filled my first beanbag chair in Berkeley, California. I’d driven there in my little Datsun and stuffed it full, really FULL. It was like an early version of air bags, I guess, but as if they’d already exploded. I ended up spending the night, and when my friend Jenny saw the car the next morning, she marveled that no junkies had broken in thinking it was some incredible bounty of drugs.

When I lived in San Francisco and my brother worked the early a.m. shift as a trolley coach driver, he used to show up at my place, settle in the beanbag chair in the sun, and fall asleep. So when he turned 50, I made him a beanbag chair and flew down to San Francisco in September 2001 with a bag and liner. I called all around and discovered a plastics place for the pellets.

The thing about filling beanbag chairs is that Styrofoam pellets have static. They stick to the plastic bag you’re emptying, to your hair, your clothes, to the bag you’re putting them in. We looked like a popcorn popper had run amuck with us inside it.

Once the bag was filled, planes flew into the World Trade Centers and my sister-in-law buried herself in the beanbag chair in front of the television. It was comforting: beanbag chairs hug back. She liked it. She said, “This is nice. You’ll have to make one for your brother some day.”

But now I have Netflix-flattened beanbag chairs, which means a Quest, a Quest for Pellets. I’ve been led on wild goose chases to Fred Meyer, Walmart, a bigger Walmart, a different Fred Meyer. Salespeople say, “Oh, yes, that’s in Crafts.” Crafts say, “We haven’t had them in years.” Salespeople in the front of the store have seen the pellets in the back of the store, but that is only a figment of their imagination. This happens in every store.

The Quest moves online, where – no, no, no! I’ve done this before! – I lose myself in the customer reviews of pellets.

This is too much complexity for my Covid brain. The floor is just fine.

Friday, January 22, 2021

My Car/My Covid Self

My car and I are experiencing Covid in parallel. Not “together” because mostly, I don’t go anywhere so I don’t drive anywhere, but we’re still tied up with each other, both liberating and traumatizing each other.

Sophie tells us that the Covid experience is markedly different if (1) you have a backyard and (2) you have a car. I am incredibly grateful to have both. So my car meant I could Get Out and About. I was free! Thank you, car.


I’ve already explained here that this is a car with gizmos, that it has “features” that are supposed to enhance my driving experience. That’s what happens when you replace a 1998 car with a 2017 car.

One of the “features” of this car is that it goes dead. When I go away for a month, it is dead when I return. But with Covid, the car was going dead every other time I got in it. We were Tim was constantly jumping it.

When I take my car into the repair shop, I tell them I am a woman who mostly drives alone, so it’s up to them to make sure my car will NEVER break down, never leave me vulnerable in some dark, deserted place. That works. I have only had very reliable cars.

Until mine started going dead. A lot. Mostly, it went dead in the garage, but then it went dead at the grocery store.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Both of us are having trouble leaving the house. No matter how much we may want to be part of the world, we’re retreating. We just don’t go.

Apparently, according to the battery man, I have to drive my car enough for it to recharge the battery. Driving it once a week, maybe to the grocery store five minutes away for pickup is not enough. I have to drive it at least eleven miles.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: It seems that neither of us is getting enough exercise.

So I take a Big Excursion to Target, which is only 7.3 miles away, but I stop at the library and keep the car running during curbside pickup, so I think that counts. I happily find birthday cards for my sister … and in the parking lot, my car is dead as a doornail. It is dark, cold, and far from home.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: We are both traumatized, paralyzed with anxiety.

I ask the friendly Channel 2 News anchorman who has unluckily parked next to me if he would jump my car. I pull out my handy dandy jumper cable case with the instructions on the outside.

Nothing doing. I phone Tim and stand in the now-vacant space next to my car, waving away all the other people who want that space and who think I am an asshole. I explain and one guy offers to jump it.

 “No, thank you, my husband is on his way.” (I want my husband!)

Tim conquers 7.3 miles of rush-hour and bad weather, arrives, hooks up the cables, and sits with his engine running, giving my car an infusion of energy. I vibrate.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Little by little, both of us calm down and can now direct our nervous energy toward Getting Home. We can start. The clock in the car is now two hours behind. I am not sure what day it is; my car is not sure what time it is.

Once home, Tim says, “Tomorrow we can take your car in.”

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: Now that we are safe in the garage and safe at home – kissing the ground! – we are not leaving.

Days go by, and I eventually take the car into my trusty Subaru mechanic. J-T tells me that these newer cars have so many security features and special electronics, that they are always draining energy. The little red light that’s always blinking is the sign that the car is monitoring itself. If you don’t drive it enough, it won’t recharge enough to be able to start up.

Barbara/Car Covid Parallel: I am constantly ruminating over every little issue, monitoring my mental health and my awkward social interactions. Now I know that my car is doing the same thing! Are my fluid levels good, what about my tire pressure? Did I embarrass myself on that Zoom call, how can I feel purposeful again?

But J-T has a solution: he installs a little Battery Minder in my car. Kept plugged in, it sends a little trickle of energy to my car while it sleeps. My well-rested car is now happy and eager to start up and go.

I need a Battery Minder.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Dark Side of Organizing

The very first post I wrote for this blog outlined the issues my Third Third had raised. The second post was about de-cluttering, and included eight thoughts on de-cluttering. Here I am years later, and all those are still big issues.

In the first blog, I asked, “Why is this Third Third such a big deal?” I gave ten answers, but the first one began, “It’s colored by mortality.” So now, get ready for a pandemic-influenced, dark-outside, morbid blog.

This is how my Third Third began: with organizing! I loved organizing/de-cluttering! It meant things that were strewn all over the place found their preferred location in my now-orderly universe. That new place was more attractive, aesthetically pleasing, neat, accessible, tidy. So, for instance, my hundreds of Anchorage Daily News columns found their way into my handmade books. Books were donated and only favorites held prime spots on the bookshelves. Videos became DVDs.

Organizing made my present and future more pleasant, cleansed of clutter.

It’s not that organizing itself was always smooth and pleasant. Every project suffered from setbacks and lost momentum, but when they were finished, it was terrific!

But lately, some other feeling appeared. After finishing the glorious collection of family recipes in my exquisite, artful, photo recipe book, friends called it a “legacy.”

How lovely! In that first blog, the fifth point in “Why is this Third Third such a big deal” was “What legacy do I leave behind?” Wow, now I had a legacy!

One I’d leave behind. After I was dead. (Cue the dark and the pandemic.)

Then I tackled the photo albatross: I culled, I tossed, I labeled, I mounted in a photo album for easy viewing. I actually finished it! Victory! … Not really. It seems I went from De-cluttering Reason #1 (“You have to toss some of your old life to make room for a new life.”) to #8 (Your kids don’t want your shit.) In other words, my organizing stopped feeling like I was making a new life, but rather packing up my old life for posterity.

My sister says, “Yeah, but as you went through the photos, you were reminded of each fun time and enjoyed them all over again.” Yes, all those fun times in the past.

Here’s another example: Tim and I have been meeting with a financial counselor, as we have every now and then over the years. Previous visits were like: Is this the best way to save? What can we do now so we can REALLY do something big next year or in two years? And how big can it be? Now, our financial plan has this big word in it: Estate. We’re not just looking at bank accounts or mutual funds; we’re looking at our estate.

Estates are for dead people.

Oh, I am getting very morbid. Instead of feeling like every paper I put in its proper file is clearing my desk, I feel like it’s making it easier for my survivors to find.

My siblings, who have no children, have different reactions. My sisters worry about where it will go; my brother happily says, “In the trash.” “But who will sort through it? Who will handle it?” the sisters ask. “No sorting. Whoever gets the house just throws it all out.” And he sweeps his hand across the Zoom screen.

Just today, my friend Chris asked, “What if all your photos, all your saved stuff, just vaporized? Isn’t it just … stuff?” She’s right. My files of community projects, places we’ve visited, high school yearbooks, appliance warranties – those can all vaporize.

But I have a different feeling about my writing. My mother used to write stories – she called her collection “Chicken Every Friday.” I read them once as a teenager, and they were really good. But they’re gone. Just gone. I would have liked to sit with her innermost thoughts. I would have liked to remember her that way.

So every time I encounter another piece of my writing, I don’t think happy organizing, clear-the-clutter, how-clean-how-tidy thoughts. I think of being remembered. Isn’t that what we’d all like, to be remembered well? Isn’t that a part of our Third Thirds experience?

In the dark of Covid winter, some thoughts are too bleak to entertain. But in the dark of Covid winter, some thoughts just sit and sit. That’s why this post has been so long in coming. I gave you a warning sign!

(I have heard that opening the door at midnight is supposed to help put 2020 to bed. And for extra insurance, I’ve Googled how to make a hot toddy to toast the arrival of 2021.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Pearl of Wisdom #2

I didn’t even realize this was a Pearl of Wisdom until today. My sister Elizabeth and I were trading memories (or non-memories, which seems to be the case more and more – is there a word for forgottenings?). She’d come across a mention of the play, Bye Bye Birdie, and remembered that I starred in it in sixth grade.

For those of you who may have missed it, Bye Bye Birdie is a take on Elvis Presley going into the Army. Some lucky girl is picked at random to get Conrad/Elvis’s last kiss before he’s inducted. The lucky girl is named Kim, and Ann-Margret became a super star with this role.

In 1963, I was a dork. I had pointy speckled eyeglasses, a flat chest, and scabbed-up knees. I was a member of the Math Club. At my own birthday parties, I hung out in the corners.

I was not Ann-Margret material.

But I had a very active imagination and fantasy life, and the part of Kim became my quest. My totally unrealistic and ripe-for-disappointment quest.

The director of the play was my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Faella, who was truly dedicated and did nothing halfway. She was going to pull off a spectacular production. For the scene where all the teens are talking on the phone in big squares, she’d have us on platforms with ladders and tables. We were going Broadway!

Yes, there was the problem of who was going to be Hugo (Kim’s boyfriend) and who was going to be Conrad Birdie (the kiss). The available pool were the sixth grade boys after all. I’d have to cross that bridge when I came to it.

Besides, I was still a dork.

The day of the audition, all the popular girls lined up. We were reading the part where Kim gets the phone call that she’s been selected as the lucky girl who will get the Last Kiss. Kim has just finished telling her mother that she is no longer going to be treated like a child, that now she will call her mother “Doris,” when the phone rings. She listens and is blown away. She shouts.

One after another, the girls read, “Doris! Mother! Mommy!” Next girl: “Doris! Mother! Mommy!” Next girl: “Doris! Mother! Mommy!” No crescendo, no variation, no increasing volume.

Back in the line, I had a crushing realization: if I read it just like the other girls, I’d just be one in a long line of girls. Plus, I’d still be the dork who thought she could try out for a starring role. I had to do something – ANYTHING – that would distinguish me.

You cannot imagine the crushing realization this sent through me: I had to do something DIFFERENT. I had to separate from the peer group and do something DIFFERENT. Even now – sixty years later! – I can feel the sweat and near-hysteria that gripped me on that line. It was either step out of my comfort zone and risk total and complete sixth grade humiliation or … remain a dork and abandon a fantasy.

My turn came. I read “Doris!” with a whimper, “Mother!” with desperation, and positively WAILED “Mooooommmmmyyyy!”

You could have heard a pin drop. Classmates stared at me. I had broken every rule of sixth grade peer-enforced decorum. But Mrs. Faella said, “Well, there’s no doubt about that. You have the part.”

Bye Bye Birdie was the biggest thing in my life for a long time. I did not become a popular girl; I remained a dork with scabby knees. But the dork was an actress. I had starred on the stage.

So now I’m sitting in my Third Third, musing on sixth grade Barbara. I didn’t know at the time I was learning a lesson, that I had broken through a wall, made something happen by the sheer force of will to appear stupid. I think I’ve revisited this lesson over and over again throughout my life – not just auditions, not just trying for a part – but encountering all sorts of barriers and obstacles and trials.

I’m not sure what the fear is exactly: the fear of losing out or the fear of actually being proven stupid. It seems an impossible effort to break through and risk utter stupidity. It takes practice.

If that 10-year-old Barbara could do it, so could this Third Third one. So can we all.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Art vs De-cluttering: A Play in Three Acts

The Setting
I save art supplies. Not only paints and brushes, inks and pastels, pencils and papers, fabric and yarn; but things that could possibly turn into art. Pieces of bark, sticks, wire, metal. Old scraps of rubber, plastic, sponges, things with texture. Mesh net that once held onions or cheese or whatever. Bins of this sort of stuff.

The key phrase is “could possibly turn into art.” Anything can possibly turn into art. Anything can also turn into clutter. Junk. But junk can turn into art.

You see the problem here? Quilters nicely call their hoard of fabric their “stash.” That’s because fabric looks like fabric. My sticks and bark and scraps look like junk.

Way back when, I bought Crab Cake Minis at Costco. It was an experiment. Then Covid-19 happened and what was I going to do with 36 crab cake minis and no guests? So they sat in the freezer until Sophie visited and I thought, “only chance to get rid of the crab cake minis,” so we ate them.

They came in a distinctive plastic shell, sort of like Costco apples, but mini. It was a sheet of little half-globes, each holding a tiny crab cake. The angel on my shoulder looked lovingly and imaginatively at that sheet, dreaming of how it might print a pattern or turn into something else.

But the devil on the other shoulder shouted, “No more junk! You have bubble wrap and other plastic textures. Just junk! Throw it out!” Which I did.

Art Inspiration (the Motivating Action)
My assignment from the Anchorage Museum’s Book Arts class is to make an accordion book of one of my collections. I’d already done something with my pressed leaves, something else with my tiny rocks. This time, I looked at my collection of flying women, the ones gathered around my computer as my muses. I would paint a sort-of-somewhat 3-D image of each doll and give her a page.

And there’s one of my Marilee Dupree dolls dancing over me, sitting on a globe. 

A globe that would be perfectly represented by a Crab Cake Mini half-globe!

[Brief episode of foul language]

Shopping Expedition #1
Costco has apparently moved on from Crab Cake Minis to Mini Tacos and Mini Quiches and Spanakopita. No more Crab Cake Minis.

Supporting Cast: The Friends
I turn to my Thursday Morning Women and my Friday Morning Women. They have lots of ideas, but it comes down to the packages that Ferrero Rocher chocolates come in. I’ve never heard of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, but I Google it, and Target has them.

Shopping Expedition #2
Target has them, but while the plastic packaging holds individual little chocolates, it has flat bottoms. No little half-globes. But while I am at Target, Friday Morning Judith has been on a thrift shop expedition of her own and has brought a plastic egg carrying case to my doorstep. It’s hard, too hard.

Supporting Cast: The Family
Obviously, I’m getting pretty boring by now, talking about little half-globes. My sister Allison, who lives in Germany, knows international chocolate. She’s also an incurable researcher, so during our Sibling Zoom, her head disappeared. We all know what that means, so the rest of us started yelling, “Stop it, Allison! Stop researching!”

But the flurry of emails couldn’t be interrupted: for a German chocolate named Toffiffee. Followed by an email for Toffifay, the name in the U.S. Followed by the directions to a Walgreens that sells it in Fairbanks. Followed by the directions to the Walgreens on my corner!

Shopping Expedition #3

The Encore
One of the other dolls hangs from the ceiling on a parasol.

Aha, there were those paper cocktail parasols Sophie got a long time ago for a birthday party. There were some left over that I’d saved for years. ... But I’d finally de-cluttered them, too.

[Another brief episode of foul language]

What’s to be done? I obviously can’t live in a house filled with all the infinite possibilities of junk-to-art. Right now, my art space is getting overwhelmed with projects-in-process. It’s driving me a little crazy, crazy enough to do some serious de-cluttering … and repeat this show in a few months.

Ah, but Judith to the rescue again: she has a stash of little cocktail parasols! So now I’ve reduced Judith’s clutter while she saved me from my over-eager de-cluttering error. Such a win-win!

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