Monday, November 30, 2015

Our New Thing is a new game

Our family plays games. In fact, one of Tim’s and my first dates was over a Pictionary game. When Sophie was little, she called it Family Game Night because that’s what it said on the Sorry box from Parker Bros: “Plan a Family Game Night!” Over the years, we’ve enjoyed Sorry, Clue, Scattergories, and a whole batch of others.

When Sophie discovered Quickword, that became our go-to game. It was a word game with different variations (name as many words as you can in one minute that have to do with baseball or name as many words as you can with AY preceded by L somewhere in the word). That always led to squawking because Tim included generic words like people, men, women, thing, etc. no matter whether it was baseball or circuses; but everyone had their own specialty in one variation or another so things equaled out.

We always took Boggle on family vacations because it was small, but lately, the only way it’s competitive is if Tim and I combine scores against half of Sophie’s. And I’m no longer willing to play Monopoly when there are three of us because it always turns into two people making a deal while the third just goes round and round and lands on things.

Then we moved on to Buzz Word, which is our latest dinner party game and one of the ways we launched Empty Nest social life. We invite over four people and we play two teams of three. It’s still words, but it’s easier and a lot of fun.

This is how you can tell a Third Third party game from ones we’ve known before:
  • It does not involve drinking.

  • It does not involve trivia.

  • It does not go on forever and take all night.

  • We don’t start the timer until the question person has his or her reading glasses on.

  • All the answers are on the tips of all our tongues; they’re just not retrievable.

  • We play it in teams so if popular music isn’t your specialty, for example, you just have to patiently wait for one of your teammates to get it. No frustrating, fruitless, solo circling of the board.

Sophie is trying to introduce us to Settlers of Catan, but I’m still wary of interminable games – Risk, 1863 Civil War. They were horrible as a kid – practically torture – so they never even made it into my Second Third. But I’m remaining open; she insists it’s fun.
Recently, Connie taught me how to play Five Crowns, her family’s favorite, and I brought it back home. For once, we have a non-word game with the right balance of luck and paying-attention. Eleven rounds, so if you muff up badly in one round, there’s still a chance to redeem yourself (and wait for someone else to screw up badly).

Thanksgiving. I am thankful for a visit from Sophie, dinner with good friends, and the many, many games of Five Crowns our family played this past week. New Thing meets Old Tradition, and somehow we all come out winners (no matter what all the score sheet evidence says).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Over and over again

The other side of un-done things is the do-over-and-over-again things. In fact, it’s the do-over-and-over-again things that get in the way of finishing the un-done things. And when you finally get the un-done things done, you can’t rejoice … because there are plenty of do-over-and-over-again things waiting. Always.

Some do-over-and-over-again things do not inspire resentment, but a whole lot do. Maybe frequency has to do with it. While cooking dinner may inspire resentment, cooking Thanksgiving dinner does not. I prepare the same breakfast every single morning (my pumpkin flax granola with raisins and milk), and I still enjoy it, so maybe it also has to do with the ease of doing it. I make my bed every single morning, but I read somewhere that it’s a tiny job with a big impact – making your house look put together – and that’s true, so it feels good.

I really like doing laundry. Just not mountains of it when I’m not in the mood. But mostly, I’m in the mood for laundry, for the sense of transformation it gives me: dirty things become clean (and stay that way for a while). For the sense of order I get as I separate whites from dark colors from shirts. For the sense of pride I get because I can remove any and every kind of stain. In fact, if I am in a slump, I elect to do laundry. But laundry is not an everyday thing.

Neither is cleaning the bathroom, but I never elect to clean the bathroom. I do it because people are coming over. Then, once I do it, I again marvel at how it really doesn’t take as much time as my dread expects. And then, it looks gorgeous. Until someone gets his toothpaste on the mirror and it moves into do-over-and-over-again status.

Cooking dinner is every day. You cook, you eat, you have to cook again tomorrow. Tim and I (sort of) rotate cooking responsibility, but now that he’s working on moldings and stairs – his big project – I feel like I need to do cooking. Once I concluded that household chores tended to fall along gender lines: men got the kind of projects that yielded great satisfaction in their accomplishment, and women got the do-over-and-over-again jobs. But I guess mowing the lawn isn’t a big crowd pleaser either, and choosing new window treatments or painting a room could satisfy.

The thing is, I don’t think I had a problem with do-over-and-over-again things in the workplace. Yes, I had the same monthly report every month, the same newsletter every other month. But those things had significance, some social impact. They felt larger than mere maintenance of personal survival.

Cooking dinner is mere maintenance of personal survival. I’m trying to reframe this: “Cooking dinner is my way of caring about our well-being; I’m preparing interesting and nutritious food for us.” Dream on! Cooking dinner is a schlep of choosing menus, making lists, going shopping, cooking, watching it disappear as it gets eaten, and then having to do the whole thing over again. And over again. And yet again.
Lately, I’ve been picking recipes from my collection of torn-out magazine pages so the tastes have been terrific. I’ve experimented with equipment (the spiralizer, the pressure cooker), with ingredients (bourbon, Arborio rice, shallots), and with cleverness (lining the muffin tin with sweet potato ribbons to make a crust for individual quiches). I bought new knives that I love.

No matter; cooking dinner is still a do-over-and-over-again job.

As I think about it now, when over-and-over-again becomes too dispiriting in the workplace or volunteer life – even in recreation and leisure – I can stop. I can unemploy myself, pass on the volunteer baton, take up a new pastime.

But I have to eat dinner, and yogurt won’t cut it every night. Neither will eating out, bringing in, or eating processed.

Tonight I made such a delicious meal, everyone polished it off. Licked the plates clean. And what am I thinking? “Nuts, now there aren’t even any leftovers. I’ll have to cook again.” Forever. For my whole Third Third. Over and over again.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is shopping browsing or buying?

I love a good crafts fair. I love seeing the work of someone’s imagination and skill, and I also play a game of identifying the operative fad. Remember macramé? Dating myself back to my First Third, I remember going to the Greenwich Village Art Fair and the big thing was painting on velvet. (For some reason, the only mental pictures I have are matadors and Elvises on velvet.)

When I first moved to Anchorage, craft fairs meant crocheted toilet paper covers. I almost backed out of moving here because of them. But now I am the proud owner of Paul Dungan wine glasses with pottery stems, a hat from Tracy Anna Bader, and dozens of dolls from Marilee Dupree. And in the biggest treat I ever gave myself, I bought a complete set of dishes, service for ten, from a potter at the Girdwood Forest Fair about a dozen years ago. My room is decorated in all sorts of flying women or women with red hair, the products of crafts fairs across the country, fueling both my inspiration and aspirations.

I enjoy supporting the local artisans and crafters, but now that I’m in my Third Third and avoiding acquisition (with rules like “no new pottery enters the house until a piece leaves”), I only approach crafts fairs with single-minded missions. For years, I was looking for just the right butter dish. Then it was just the right lasagna pan. Then just the right teapot that could handle a big crowd of tea drinkers.

Years back, I had finally found the perfect butter dish, but the potter told me it wasn’t for sale. I think she used it to hold her business cards. I never found a butter dish that equaled it, so I kept using the plastic one that came with the refrigerator. Years later, a new employee started at work. Soon after, she brought me the butter dish. Apparently, the potter (a friend of hers) had always felt foolish not selling it to me and when my co-worker mentioned she was working with me, the potter insisted she deliver it.

An incredible benefit of living in small town Anchorage! I don’t even know how the potter knew who I was.

With all my missions finally accomplished, I’m left to roam the crafts fairs just looking. I don’t wear jewelry so I’ve always skipped those booths, but now I browse all the booths with thoughts like these: “Those wall hangings are gorgeous … but we don’t have any more room on our walls.” “Those tile trivets are clever … but do we really need another trivet?” “That pottery yarn ball holder is lovely … but it works just as easily to keep the yarn in a bag.”

This is not the right head set to browse a crafts fair! This is a bummer head set. I need to come up with a different approach, a way to appreciate without feeling like I’m being so relentlessly practical or stingy.

Oh, I still leave room for the hum, the sense that something is a perfect gift for someone or something that truly inspires. (There was the Snowball Fight in a Can – felted white balls sealed in a paint can – which was perfect for Sophie in California.) But mostly, I stick to consumables, as in food.

Even with food, there are the fads. One year, everything was acai berries. This year, it’s chaga, which is a giant, black, gross-looking mushroomy-type thing. And not even counting the chaga, tea is big. So big that tea is now getting the pottery rule in my house: “No more tea enters the house until more is drunk.” We’re going to be floating for quite a while.

But if I’m going to be drinking all that tea, I need more honey. And to cancel all that sweetness, I’m going to need more pickled garlic. How’s our supply of mustard?
Sounds like a mission to me.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

No butts about it

I know I’ve mentioned that public radio used to introduce my commentaries by saying, “Barbara Brown, whose daily collisions with life leave her with great stories and a grateful heart.” Boy, did I collide Wednesday!

It started with a doctor’s appointment. After 1½ hours in the waiting room, I walked out. I’d missed a Literacy Program training so you could say I was a tinderbox, alive with fuel. I was bristling and pissed. Then, I remembered I had to go to Costco so that would set me behind even more.

I needed plastic wrap, way back in the corner I barely ever go to. I was just noticing hey, they have school supplies back here, when there was a loud human roar. The two guys next to me were suddenly grappling, wrestling, throwing each other around. It was a major fight. It’s the one you heard about on the news, the one where the shoplifter pistol-whipped the undercover security guy.

Now, if you’re friends of mine, you will tell me that my fuel could have sparked the negativity that exploded. That I had so much fury in me that it spontaneously combusted and blew up the guy in Costco. You’ll laugh uproariously over the image of people exploding as I walked the aisles of Costco.
I’d laugh, too, except that the only image stuck in my brain is of the guy’s butt.

The two guys fighting it out next to me were HUGE. I had a mental thought of Sumo wrestlers. And they were FURIOUS. One guy’s face was pure rage. But then his sweat pants started falling down. At first, it was just a plumber’s butt crack, but then it was his WHOLE BUTT. If you’re my friend Linda, you’ll ask, “Wasn’t he wearing underpants?” and I’d say no. I remember thinking he wouldn’t be able to run away with his pants down around his knees, but I decided it was time to depart before he turned around and I was exposed to frontal nudity. Not to mention all this thrashing was happening about a foot away and it was just me and them.
So I raced to move north, looking for a Costco employee. A red-vested woman was already in the aisle on a walkie-talkie, and she said he’d pulled out a pistol. Costco employees were racing to the corner, and I thought, Look at that, they’re all going towards the danger. I kept moving away, gathering others to get them out of the area. We ended up at the food ladies, who already knew what was happening and were passing out food samples and saying “stay here.”

This was only about four minutes into the action. So I’m supposing that even the food ladies are on some sort of walkie-talkie thing. And then, when it was all clear, the food ladies told us we could go back. Other customers started streaming in from the frozen food area and the outside; I guess employees had mustered them there.

All in all, Costco had done a superlative job of handling the situation. Obviously they had a plan, were well trained, and remained calm. When I went back over to get my plastic wrap, it was cordoned off with yellow tape. Costco employees were at the perimeter, asking what we wanted and then fetching it for us. Kudos to all of them.

They asked if I should talk to the police, and I thought of all the police shows I watch and what an unreliable eye witness I’d be. What would I say, that the only thing I could really pick out of a line-up was the guy’s butt?
At this point, I still thought it was two customers with anger-management issues. It wasn’t till I heard the news that I discovered one of them was the undercover security guy who’d spotted the guy (allegedly) shoplifting. They both looked pretty rasty to me so I have no idea which was which. That’s what undercover is all about, I guess.

And now, if you’re my friend Connie, you’ll say, “The one without the underpants is not the Costco employee. They have to wear underpants.”

I’m going to leave you with that bit of wisdom.

Technicolor hair

My hair color doesn’t occur naturally. On the planet.

It takes planning. And intent.

And right now, it takes the Internet. I am peeved. For about the fourth time in my hair color history, manufacturers have changed their colors and mine has disappeared. But this time, I moved fast: I immediately ordered a 6-month supply. Technically, Clairol is just changing its number, but practically, that number is hard to find. So far, I’ve only been able to order it from Target online because for some reason, Amazon won’t ship hair color.

There’s a lot here I don’t understand. I used to have such passionate colors. Things like Ravishing Rio Red. Now the wildest I get is Bright Cherry, and that’s translated from Cereza Intenso because my favorite color is only available in South America. Clairol? I was Spiced Tea, but after renaming, I’m just plain old Light Auburn. Now tell me, if you were me, would you buy a color named Light Auburn?
It all started with a play I was in. My character was fierce and formidable, and the director wanted the lights to make my hair glow fiercely and formidably. Off he trotted me to a hairdresser, and I’ve been there ever since. I alternate months with doing it myself at home (hence the need for Clairol).

Each time I went back to the hairdresser, I asked her to notch it up. At one point, after seeing an ad somewhere, I went to a different, “trendier” shop and asked to have my hair done like fire, brighter on the tips. As I sat in the chair, sniffing, I asked the hairdresser, “Is there a swimming pool nearby?” That should have been the clue that I’d been bleached.
And boy, was that some color! Afterwards, I walked into Fred Meyer, and the other shoppers parted, mouths agape. Anchorage hadn’t seen color like that! For a while, during that period, I had to buy my hair color in San Francisco and bring it home.

One regular colorist got the idea. After finishing my hair, she said it wasn’t radical enough. She wanted me to come back the next day to “fix” it. My present colorist laughs over her co-worker who thought my hair was a mistake: “Are you letting her go home like that?”

When I was the Storytime Lady in the Botanical Garden, the kids LOVED my hair. They would touch it and murmur, “Pretty.” Later on, the Covenant House kids loved my hair. They would talk with me.
Then my kid said, “Don’t you think you could tone it down a little?” We were out walking somewhere, and three different people passed and called out, “Love your hair.” I said, “My hair makes people happy.” She said, “I’m just saying tone it down.”

Even in my Third Third, even knowing better, I caved. I asked my hairdresser to adjust the recipe … and the compliments stopped, even in bright sunlight. My hair wasn’t cheering anyone up, including me. No one recognized me in dark movie theaters. No one called out on the bike trails. No little kids’ eyes lit up on spotting me. So I notched it back up.

My friend Rieva has long hair. Our younger, imperious selves were having a conversation about obtuse old women wearing their skirts above the knee. (me: “Mom, I don’t care what the fashion is; you’re 75!”) Rieva was worried about passing the point where long hair was acceptable. I didn’t worry about my color because at the time, I just considered it “auburn gone wrong,” not some potentially unacceptable mutation. Now it’s 15 years later, and Rieva’s hair is still long and mine is still its mutation. And we’re both happy.
I don’t believe this: I just this second made a connection between my criticizing my mother and my daughter criticizing me! How could I have missed that?!?
My friend Diane is vacationing in Costa Rica. Of course I texted her to ask, “If you find Cereza Intenso, can you bring a lot of it back?” It goes with all the purple I wear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Go to school for an eye-opening jolt

I am in my Third Third and I had a major eye-opening jolt last week. Right here in Anchorage. Right in an elementary school. I’m still reeling.

I read the newspaper. I have been involved in fighting for school funding. I have lots of teacher friends. I have volunteered a lot in the schools. I know that Anchorage’s school kids speak 93 different languages, that our census tracts are the most diverse in the country.

And then I walked into my friend Dawn’s class to teach writing, and half the class is somewhat monolingual in a language other than English.

Just think about this. Not about how lovely the cultural celebrations might be, how rich the heritage of the kids are. Think about the reality of teaching a classroom of 27 children where half of them don’t speak the language. Think about being the dedicated teacher trying to reach each child where they are so they can grow from that point.
I went from kid to kid, saw that some put two words to the page, some whole paragraphs. Some were into the creativity, some were tortured by the task. They were all trying so hard, but they each needed individual attention. And Dawn is one person.

Dawn is a superlative teacher who used to teach gifted kids. She elected, in her Third Third, to teach in a Title I school. She loves those kids, and she has the personal presence to command their attention, the skills to guide them. She tutors till 5, takes professional development classes on Saturday, makes home visits. And yet, when we got together to talk about this, she still cried because it isn’t enough.

The kids in her classroom speak Lao, Tagalog, Farsi, Korean, Spanish, Yup’ik, Hmong, and Twi (the language of Ghana). Four of them are special ed students. The parents are hard-working immigrants; while there is little generational poverty here, there is hardship. But the parents are pulling for their kids, supporting the school. 25 of 27 came to parent conferences, several families come to parent education classes twice a week at the school.

There is a bilingual tutor and an English Language Learner teacher – for a half-hour a day. The special ed students get two hours a day. There’s a student teacher, a family coordinator for the school, and a staff that Dawn says gives 110% of themselves to the kids. If a kid was lucky enough to get into one of the Title I Preschool spaces, he’s way ahead.

But there are 27 kids in Dawn’s classroom. If she spent ten minutes with each one individually, more than half her school day would be over. The successful third grader is supposed to be able to read 120 words a minute. One in Dawn’s class can read 6.

I’ve gone to language immersion courses in Spanish and Hebrew. Teaching methods have improved where fluency can be picked up pretty quickly, even for adults. Could we do things differently? Could we put kids in some sort of intensive English-language school and then release them to their local school? Or do we just throw them to the Dawns of the district and mandate that “every child will make a year’s growth wherever they are”?

Dawn loves science and social studies. She says that’s where students really engage, but with the emphasis on reading and math, she can barely get to that. “Well,” I asked, “isn’t the new curriculum supposed to focus more on nonfiction so kids can get that?” Well, yes, but the textbooks are so old, they are falling apart. There’s no money for curriculum so the district distributes a “grade level story” every week. They’re supposed to spend a half-hour on it every day.

If you’re like me, by now you’re wracked, too. I wasn’t living in a vacuum. I consider myself well-informed; I teach at the Literacy Program, know the dedication of our immigrants, know how smart they are in their own language. But I never saw the reality of 27 kids with such tremendous educational needs in one classroom.

Dawn is an optimist. She’s one of the happiest people I know. She wants everyone to see the reality of her classroom – school board members, people who vote, potential volunteers. Not like I did at first, when I looked from the outside at this “mini United Nations” and marveled at how engaged the kids seemed.
Come in as a volunteer instead, and work with the kids. (I discovered my friend Barbara there, volunteering to help kids read twice a week.) Dawn wants her classroom flooded with volunteers. That’s the one-on-one chance these kids need. The English learner needs help across his language barrier, but don’t forget: other kids need relief from the slower pace of the classroom, the chance to open up on the highway.

Volunteering is not my usual exhortation for social impact. I’m more about mobilizing, voting, and pounding on legislators for funding, but I am about eye-opening jolts.

No matter where you are, there are kids needing help in a school. And no matter where you are in your Third Third, helping that kid adds Purpose to both your lives.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The un-done done!

Ah, victory! Those three big projects I’d picked out to complete, the ones I’d written about before – they’re done! Or at least two of them are. I still can’t remember what that third one was.

The thing about finishing a quilt in your Third Thirds is your eyes. I need to take off my glasses to thread the needle on the sewing machine, put on my glasses to sew, take off my glasses to inspect the stitches. Look around for the glasses, put them on.

The whole quilt project was an exercise in reckless ambition. I signed up to take a quilting class back in 2011. But then, just before the class, I decided I didn’t want to practice on any old fabric. So the night before, I started a quilt.

I thought I could “whip one out.” I have no idea why I thought that. But I started one … and there it sat. I ended up learning to quilt on fabric scraps.

By the time I vowed to finish it, I couldn’t remember how to attach the binding around the edges. I’d never done that before; it was a New Thing. The notes I’d made at the time were no help:
Fold binding along 45°, line up raw edges. (Rotate piece so stitching is at top.) Fold back on itself so fold at top is 1-2 threads below edge.
So off I hopped to Peggy’s house. Peggy even blogs about quilting so she made me a little paper model of my binding, folded 45° this way and that. Oh, she said, don’t forget to use your walking foot.

That was pull-out-the-manual time. This is a walking foot. If you don’t put the walking foot on right, you break a needle. Now I know how it’s really supposed to go on. You need to take your glasses off to get the walking foot on.
But then I did it! I attached my binding … until I reached a part I couldn’t remember. Back to Peggy’s house. Quick – before I forgot again – I finished it!
Next I had to finish mounting all my old Daily News columns (339 of them) into hand-made books. That meant needing special giant-size paper called “parent sheets.” I used to love going into Frontier Paper and poking through the paper samples, but this time they explained that paper isn’t really happening any more. It gets stale so they don’t keep much in stock. A paper-poor Third Third….

Forging on, I settled on a paper variety and began cutting the columns so I could paste them onto the pages. Somewhere during that process, my paper cutter disappeared. I don’t know where it went. I have the sneaking suspicion that it somehow got into the mixed paper recycling box with all the scraps and ended up being recycled.

 With a new paper cutter, I finished them all. All that remained was sewing in the pages of the last volume. Then I just stopped.

I don’t know why that happens. You paint the whole room … and then stop before putting the switch plates back on. You hang all the pictures on the walls, put the hammer down … and leave it sitting there for months. It’s like the motor powering all the exertion just … quits. (Am I the only one who experiences this?)

So then you have to really push to get your momentum back. After months of repeating “finish binding” on my to-do lists, I just DID IT!


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Profiles in Third Thirds: Cindy

I ran into Cindy at our college reunion while I was harassing everyone with my question, “What are you doing in your Third Third?” Cindy handed me her business card – for her photography. For more than 30 years, she’d been a lawyer.

Now she’s readying things for her first solo exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum. One of her photographs was also just selected for the Metro card when the Expo line opens in 2016 in Santa Monica! (My transit-lover side thrills at this!) You can see her incredible photos at

So I thought, great, I’ll have Cindy tell her story of switching from a legal career to photography. But it’s not like that at all. For one thing, it’s not like Cindy discovered photography in her Third Third. It’s not a New Thing at all.
“One of my most interesting photographs is of Mick Jagger – taken with my trusty Instamatic when I was 12 years old!” *
Cindy took photography classes in high school and college and later joined a local group of photographers, but while she was working as a lawyer, she did most of her photography when she traveled. (Her friends got to see the slide shows.) Digital photography meant learning a whole new, more technical world, so she’s still taking classes.

As Cindy puts it, she and I were “cause people” in college and in our jobs. So she’s still a “cause person” as a photographer. One section of her exhibition is called “Legalize L.A.” It’s “documentary photographs of immigrant rights/amnesty demonstrations in downtown L.A. with what will be a clear pro-legalization message in an election year.”
If she were just a lawyer and then just a photographer, this might be a story about switching careers. But it’s not. When Cindy tells you what else she’s been doing with her life, it’s almost overwhelming. A Santa Monica resident, she served on the Santa Monica Pier Board, and she worked with others to save the palm trees in her neighborhood and to save an anti-war political art sculpture from destruction. Now she’s hoping to shut down the hazardous Santa Monica Airport and convert that public land into a beautiful park.

Being involved in so many other causes not only made her life interesting, it left her standing on many legs. Thinking about it this way, Cindy readied herself for ultimately leaving her job by having so many other things going. One leg could be removed, and the table would still stand.

Despite that, there are still some things that go when the steady job ends. I, too, have had a lot of “gigs” going, but steadiness – and all the things that go with it – disappears when the one bigger job ends. For some, it’s the paycheck or health insurance, sometimes the access to a professional world. Cindy misses the staff camaraderie and her clients.
“I thought that my longstanding interests would sustain me, and to some extent that has been true, but there are times projects have ended, and I’ve needed to figure out what is next in order to find meaning in how I spend my time.”
As she puts it – talking about the Big Three – “While I don’t always have Structure, I do have Purpose and Community.”

Like the rest of us, she also has aging parents, house repair stuff, and errands. But she also loves to travel, and with many years of photographing cultures and festivals around the world, her destinations have become “more and more obscure.” But as she says,
“It is also possible to travel and experience vibrant cultures while at home in L.A. because of the extraordinary diversity of the people who live here. It’s just a matter of choosing to explore.”
“It’s just a matter of choosing to explore.” Yup.

* Cindy was on a boat to Copenhagen when she spotted Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and got their autographs. Her brother yelled “Mick,” he turned, and she snapped the photo. She was that close! Trust me, that photo would make any Third Third woman sigh….

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Painting with water

The Quest for New-ness continues and, for the past four weeks, it’s involved a class in watercolors. Friends were taking it, and it was going to be pure fun. Then I saw the supply list.

Here I was, all prepared with my flat little tin boxes with the little cakes of color in them. But the list named specific colors like quinacridone rose, cerulean blue, cobalt blue. Well, obviously, that went beyond little blue cakes. We were going to a whole new level: watercolor in tubes.

The first shock was how much tubes of watercolor cost. And in the stores, different brands had vastly different prices. I was looking at the cheap ones, and the sales guy came over and said, “That won’t mix well. It’s just a hue, not a pigment.” ??

So, of course, I should have known the brush purchase was going to be just as complicated. Is a synthetic brush worse than a natural one? What kind of bristles? I don’t need many excuses to spend time in art supply stores, but these decisions took hours.

Armed with all my new little toys, I went to class. This is the BIG THING I’ve learned: with watercolor, the water does the work. We actually painted our paper with plain water and then added the color to let it bleed into the wetness. We put wet paint on dry paper, wet paint on top of wet painted paper. We even flicked paint from a stiff toothbrush onto wet paper. Some of them came out like Rorschach test blobs, but we were encouraged to play, to let happy accidents happen.

You’re probably looking at my illustrations and thinking, “Doesn’t she already paint?” I paint with acrylics. When acrylics dry, they stay dry. I can paint next door to one color without worrying about the colors mixing and turning to mud. Between colors, I write. As soon as they’re dry, I paint some more. Then I write. But with watercolors, they can always get wet and wake up again. Get them too wet, and they flow into all their neighbors. I tend to err on the side of wet so I make a lot of rivers and they tend to overflow their banks.

Which doesn’t matter a bit if you’re playing and creating happy accidents!

When I was a little girl, I used to watch “Learn to Draw with Jon Gnagy” on Saturday morning television. Jon Gnagy would give us shapes to draw, lines to add, and shading to round it out. Then we would create the same picture Jon Gnagy did, give or take some talent. The best Hanukkah present I ever got was my own Jon Gnagy art set with all his special tools: the kneaded eraser, charcoal sticks, blending pencils. But Jon Gnagy never said, “Play around.”

Our instructor, Amanda Saxton, believes in enjoying art, in experimenting. So our first class, we made sky. With clouds. The next class we made mountains. My mountains seemed sort of extraterrestrial to me, like the mountains on another planet.

Then Amanda brought in irises for us to draw and paint. Amazingly, we started by drawing the shape of the petals with just water. Adding the purple let it bleed into the water, take its soft shape. I finally managed my overwatering problem so my colors could get more intense. And now, because I am such a big baby who laps up positive reinforcement, I feel compelled to tell you Amanda’s reaction: “Barbara, this iris could be in a show.” She is such a great teacher!

Tonight, we had lilies. Lilies are harder because they have white edges. How do you paint a snowman on white paper? Yes, I know here on the blog, I’d just outline it in black, but that’s because here they’re more like doodles. Fortunately, my lily was aging a bit, so its edges were kind of yellowing. Almost cheating, but not quite.

Just as I learned that my Third Third needed to have structure, I think I’m learning that in art, too. When I “just play,” I tend to get a lot of mud. Red, yellow, and blue make brown, after all. But when I have a thing to paint – and next week we move on to animals – I have to put my paint in specific places. I have to think about whether it’s darker underneath or on top, whether this color overlaps that one. I have to really look at what I’m painting.

Really looking at things – that’s only good, too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Growing big

My good friend Julie shared a YouTube video of Brené Brown. I’d never heard of her before, but how could I resist someone who’s described as a “vulnerability researcher.” She talked about the critics in our lives, the people who rain negativity on us, even when those critics are ourselves. She’s my New Thing for today.

In blogging, there are the horrible critics – which I have not encountered, thank heavens – who write despicable comments online. Hooray, I’ve received none of those! I had enough of those with my Daily News columns. The hate mail, the nasty Letters to the Editor. But when I see the online comments on other Internet pieces, it’s almost enough to dry up any creativity and abandon the medium; it’s almost enough to abandon the human race.

But if you’re a glutton for criticism, you can find it easily. With blogging, it comes in the form of analytics. You get all sorts of information about your blog: how many people look at it, how many subscribe to it, how long they spend looking at it, whether they come back to it after the first time. This can become a compulsive habit. Are there more people reading than yesterday? Than a month ago? You can even find yourself checking the map where viewers come from and asking yourself, “Why isn’t my sister in Berlin reading my blog?”

Very soon, if you’re me, you say things like, “This is a dud. It was just an illusion that this could matter in your Third Third. It’s a dud. Let it die.”

And then, because I’m in my Third Third and have a personal history, I think back over Previous Duds I Have Launched. I’ve had so many that fall in one category, I’ve even given it a theme: my problem is Big-ness. For whatever reason, I’m missing the gene or the skill that grows something big.
I’ve had lots of ideas and realized many of them. They were good seeds, and they germinated and grew, but they didn’t become mighty oaks. When other people talk of fundraisers, for instance, they talk about the ones that raise a quarter million dollars for charity, and we just haven’t cracked those big numbers for the BizBee. Other people’s little drops become oceans, but mine somehow remain little drops. They’re fun little drops, and they do good, but Big-ness remains elusive.

Which brings me back to the blog analytics. Every now and then, there’s a huge jump in the numbers. That meant that someone posted the blog on Facebook and it got shared … and shared to the public, not even just friends. At first, I thought the analytics machine was broken. Those days make me feel really great. I receive lots of emails about how much people enjoy the blog – and the pictures – but numbers somehow mean it’s real, not just anecdotal.

But on other days, I think about the vast proliferation of blogs in the world, about how I’m practically writing a diary and how presumptuous to put it online and I should just keep it my little secret because it’s too embarrassing to put it out there for ten people. (Which is admittedly an exaggeration, but inner critics don’t worry about exaggerating.) And maybe it was just meant to be a novelty and soon people will just get tired of my adventures and those little pictures.

But if LOTS of people are reading it, that’s a different story. That means it has relevance, serves a purpose, translates as practically a public service to Third Thirders. I don’t have to feel so horribly, mercilessly, relentlessly exposed.

I guess I’d better watch that Brené Brown video again. I seem to have missed getting the message. In fact, right now, at this very moment, I’m planning a replacement blog post for this one:
Or we can try a little experiment in blog analytics. Please share your favorite Our Third Thirds post – you can find it in the Archives. On Facebook or social media, make it public, not just to your friends, so it can be shared. Call it an experiment: Can Big-ness happen?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Am I a Senior Citizen? Are you?

When I realized I could get senior citizen tickets at the movie theater, I was deliriously excited. Some theaters put the eligibility for senior pricing at 65, but my local theater puts it at 62. I don’t think I expected to be carded for senior pricing, and I wasn’t, but still, I waited till I was completely legitimate. Occasionally I wonder if I could have gotten away with it earlier, but I wasn’t going to try.

And why not? If it was just about saving money, trying earlier shouldn’t bother me. And it’s not like I’m so stringently law-abiding that I’m not above stretching things a little. I think I could have handled the embarrassment if someone took issue and wanted to see my license, but still, I won’t try passing for 65 in the 65-and-older pricing places.

Mostly, I think it has to do with paying my way. That getting cheaper movie tickets is some perk I’ve earned by doing whatever I was doing while the years were accumulating. To get my cheap tickets early would be like cheating the system.

But then I found out that one local movie theater defines senior citizen as 60 and over. Oh, no! I’ve been overpaying there for two years!

This is completely crazy. I take up the same seat in the theater as a full-paying person. Why is there a discount for seniors? Is it to encourage us to spend our leisure hours watching movies? Is it an acknowledgement that we have leisure hours? And the different eligibility ages: is this some kind of theater war for the senior citizen dollars?

Now I may fully exercise my senior status for movie tickets, but you will not find me parking in the new senior citizen spaces at Loussac Library. So why do I claim to be a senior citizen in one case and not in another? Well, at the Library, there’s a presumption that the close-to-the-entrance spaces are needed because someone might be infirm or have other difficulty walking. I don’t. I’d feel like I was parking in a handicapped zone or something.
In almost all situations – except movie theaters, I guess – I would never consider myself a senior citizen. I cringe at the thought of someone else considering me one, and I suppose there’s a lot of ageism involved in that – both mine and society’s. As my mother once said when asked why she was still working at 70, “Right now, I’m a head of department. The minute I quit, I’ll be a little old lady.”

When Pew did a study of old age, the average answer for “When does old age begin?” was 68 … unless you were 68. Then only 21% of respondents said they were old.

So I looked up “senior citizen” in the dictionary and got this: “Elderly persons, usually more than sixty or sixty-five years of age.” Elderly?!? Elderly???  Talk about a loaded word. If the movie theater posted “elderly discount,” I wouldn’t even try to get a cheaper ticket.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Solo in the Third Third

I’ve got Tim.

I’m married to him, and that changes my Third Third dramatically. I have two sisters, both single, and at least one of them has a whole different reaction to the notion of retirement because she’s single. Even the prospect of travel planning changes when you don’t have a ready-made travel partner. Even remodeling options change when you don’t have a spouse who’s measuring, cutting, painting, and nailing in all the molding on the new floor.

I would not be sitting here figuring out my future if I didn’t have a husband. I’d be at my job.

One sister lives alone in her single-family home. The other lives in a large, woman-occupied building with two roommates. When I think of the issues we’ve been having lately with my mother – her anxiety at being alone – I think of how we may have to re-structure our living situations in our Third Thirds.

As our neighborhood on Long Island became increasingly the domain of widows, I tried to convince my mother to get together with her best friends and all move in together. “I don’t want anyone else in my kitchen,” my mother said. So now they’re all anxious about living alone.
Aging hippie that I am, I’ve lived in housing with lots of folks. Then we bought three flats in one building and all lived there. Anchorage even has a co-housing arrangement that broke ground. I’ve always thought it was nutty for every household to have a washer and dryer, and as we get older, there are even more reasons to share space.

But you have to be willing to share. Maybe even your kitchen.
Back to Tim. He’s younger than I am, which increases the chances that I’ll die first. Lucky me! Seriously, when we look at our Third Thirds, we have to know that whatever’s in place now may not be in place later. The best retirement plans in the world can shatter with the death of a spouse, not to mention divorce.

My friend Judith recently traveled with her sister. Her sister almost jokingly described it as a practice trip for when they were both widows. I take a road trip a year with one sister, and one circle of women friends is looking at the Chilkoot Trail for next summer. But I understand what my one sister is saying: it’s the planning for the Third Third that benefits from a partner, a life partner.

I keep telling Tim we need a “theme” for our Third Third (so much so that’s he’s probably thinking how much easier his Third Third would be if he didn’t have me in my Third Third at the same time). What I mean is a theme we craft together. (With a life partner, that planning involves negotiation – something the singles don’t have to accommodate – but that’s the subject of a different post.)

I’m a pretty independent sort. I do what I want, don’t need Tim to accompany me, and am ready to try New Things. I’ve been toying with the notion of spending a year in New York or London without Tim. But that still means we’d confer on logistics, resolve finances, and communicate with each other. We’d still be partners, and in a crisis, we’d be on the next plane.

When I was younger, I used to say that having a boyfriend meant I didn’t have to fret about New Year’s Eve. In my Third Third, my sister points out that I don’t have to think about who my emergency contact is or who will hold my health care proxy.

And this doesn’t even get to the issues of those who, Oops, forgot to have kids.

Friday, November 6, 2015

A year's worth of posts

If this were my old newspaper column, a whole year would have already gone by – 52 weeks’ worth. Instead, it’s only been 2½ months. That’s some crazy pace. So I’m going to consider this a milestone and think about what the blog does for me.

When I started this blog, I was pretty depressed. This Third Third – and my expectations for it – was eluding me. I was floundering with no end in sight. I was beating myself up for lacking discipline, wasting time, being valueless. And I was bombarding everyone my age with “and what are you doing in your Third Third?” I was a demon at my college reunion and a one-question fanatic in my social life.

Somewhere in my vast stretch of time-wasting, I read Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. I read the book, which developed from her blog, which is mostly pictures but also text. It’s truly wonderful, and it gave me Ideas (so it wasn’t a waste of time after all).
I don’t like reading blocks of text on the computer so I thought I’d add my doodles, too. And then, because it helped me to clarify my thoughts when I put them down – those ten things on the list in Identity Crisis #314 – I felt better.

And when I did it the next day, I felt better again. I was being creative! By the next day, I felt disciplined. And when people told me they liked it, I felt valued. When I tried drawing something difficult, capturing something just so, I felt like I was stretching myself. And when I craft a story, I have to think very hard about how to develop it, how to construct a beginning, middle, and end. I like thinking hard.

Wow, just one thing – this blog – and it could solve a whole lot of my dilemmas. And the ones it didn’t? Those were the ones friends and readers weighed in on and helped the discussion along. Relocation anyone?

Last week, probably because of the latest round of mother-care issues, I was horribly anxious. So anxious I couldn’t quiet the frantic ramblings in my head. At one point, I felt like running screaming into the street. My whole self vibrated, and I couldn’t write. So then I decided I must be “empty.” I’d used all my good ideas up. How embarrassing to announce in my blog that I’d run dry, good-bye. Third Third fizzled.

Mostly, I think I’m a glass-half-empty sort of person. When it’s not empty, it’s so-full-and-isn’t-it-so-interesting-how-that-is-and-why-is-that-the-case-because-there-are-so-many-glasses-in-the-world-and-so-many-different-things-to-fill-them-with. You get the picture. In my often black-and-white world, a glass half-empty – glasses not overflowing – might as well be completely empty. And curiosity is both the cure for a bad mood and the symptom of a good one.
Wise people would say this is a case for moderation. I’m guessing other people may have learned this by their Third Thirds. I’m slow.

But this I know: When I finally sat down and wrote this week, I felt better. Cured even. Some people do it with exercise, some people play the piano. I’m going to sit right here and tell a story about it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hand holding

I have Third Third hands. Looking at them, I can’t remember that they were ever smooth and unlined. Sophie tells me she puts sunscreen on her hands because that’s where aging will show up first. I don’t know about “first,” but it’s definitely there.

My hands have extra issues. My joints swell underneath a couple of knuckles and one finger aims in the wrong direction as a result. My mother’s hands are swollen and crooked with arthritis. Lately I’ve noticed that even though my hands appear really steady, sometimes they don’t make straight lines. I’ve given up calligraphy and sometimes I have to brace my hand to paint these illustrations.
So I couldn’t decide about nail polish. Would it attract unwanted attention to my hands or would they make my hands look pretty? Sophie visited and threw out all the old, toxic nail polish she’d acquired over the years. Then she had me try her latest discovery: Dior Nail Glow. She said it was expensive but it lasted a long time.

Try it out again, she said. “You go into Sephora at the Fifth Avenue Mall and you use the tester.” “What’ll I do with one polished finger?” “No,” she assured me, “you can paint all your fingernails. It’s what happens in Sephora.”

So I found Sephora. I headed over to the Dior area – yikes! That little bottle was $27! Who buys a $27 bottle of nail polish?!? (moment of shock as I wonder yet again if there is any of my genetic material or core beliefs in my daughter) I looked around furtively. That price tag had escalated this outing from a little lark to practically grand theft. No one was watching. I quickly applied Nail Glow to all ten fingernails. But I was so nervous about the whole enterprise that I dropped the bottle on the floor and nail polish went everywhere. Aiiieee, panic!

Casually, I picked it up (heart thumping), put it back on the shelf, and pretended I was idly strolling around browsing the make-up, trying to look like a customer and not a vandal. Sophie was right: people were trying on all the products. Yuck, some woman tried on lipstick and then put it back on the shelf.

Fortunately for me and Sephora, my friend Judith showed off her new nail polish: Sally Hansen from Fred Meyer. At $2.99 for Sally Hansen Extreme Wear, I could even splurge and get a spongy buffer thing. I brought it all home to try it out.

Wow! I’ve got shiny nails! Extreme Wear is so tough, it’s practically indestructible. It doesn’t impede any dishwashing, scrubbing, playing with dirt. It lasts and lasts, and I find myself admiring my nails many times a day.

I don’t admire my hands – they’re old hands – so I’m trying to reframe my feelings about them: These are strong hands. They’ve dug gardens, hammered nails, typed pages and pages. They’ve written checks, letters, and grocery lists. They’ve prepared meals, stroked heads, applauded and applauded. They’ve held other hands. They’ve removed splinters, shoveled snow, killed bugs. They’ve been chapped, sprained, and slit by paper and knives.

They’ve touched the world with love. And they still work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Best thing since sliced bread

One of the pleasures of being on my own schedule is that I get to volunteer on my own schedule, too. I’d been involved with the Alaska Literacy Program for years, mainly because of the old “teach a person to fish” idea. Giving people the tools to forge their own self-sufficient futures seems to me to be the way to go, and literacy is a natural. But I’d never actually tutored or taught a class.

Until I unemployed myself.

I started as a substitute, teaching writing for a couple of weeks. Then I took on a whole class on Idioms. They gave me a book with lessons and a classroom with students. We did a whole bit on anger: hit the roof, blow my top, go off the deep end, see red.

And then every now and then, there was an idiom on the list that I didn’t get: “take out the garbage.” Why was that an idiom? And then you realize, as you’re working with people whose first language is not English, that “take” usually means you get something and keep it. We take seconds on dessert. But we don’t hold onto our garbage; we dispose of it. So in that case, “take” is different, an idiom.

Oh, I love words!

Sometimes, when I’d give an assignment, I’d tell the class they had to come to class no matter what, no chickening out. “Chickening out?”
This was proving to be a lot of fun. Literacy Program students are committed adults; they are there because they want to learn, to become citizens, to be active members of their families and society. I graduated to teaching a whole writing class, and they taught me things, too. When Vilairat had been out collecting devil’s club, she ended up with lots of spines in her legs. She came into class with banana peels wrapped around her legs. I was skeptical … until the remedy showed up in one of my magazines at home.

Now I’m teaching a great class. I have students from Korea, Laos, Mexico, South Sudan, and China, and our book covers things like renting an apartment or visiting a doctor, reading prescription labels, dealing with emergencies. Yesterday, Sophia (who knows Chinese medicine and is preparing to apply for the test to be qualified to practice) told us that tofu and flour, mashed into a paste, is good for burns.

We have spent a lot of time recently on using the present perfect tense: I have eaten, you have danced. While I might use it because it sounds right to my ear, I have to provide the rules to help my students develop the ear. It reminds me of when I lived in Costa Rica, taking Spanish. After a while, when I finally mastered the subjunctive (I wish I were…), someone told me that made a big difference, that before I’d only spoken Tarzan Spanish: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” I couldn’t tell. Even now, I wouldn’t feel the jarring it would give to a native speaker’s ear.

This is hard work. Rosario, from Mexico, was reading about elevating a wound. But pronunciation is tricky: this is wound like “woooond,” not like “wound around.” Rosario’s daughter goes to preschool down the hall while Rosario is in class, and she’s adorable.

We look at complex pictures of things going on and try to explain them in English. In the department store, a shopper had fallen asleep in a chair in the furniture department while a man checked the price tag. “No,” said Sophia, “that isn’t a price tag. That’s the controls. It’s a massage chair; that’s why she fell asleep.”
That one really had us laughing. Maybe you had to be there. In fact, you can be there. The Literacy Program is always looking for more teachers, and the staff gives lots of help and support. I am valued as a volunteer, and walking in the door is like walking into an oasis of pleasant, positive, meaningful activity. If one of the Big Three for a Third Third is Purpose, I get that. The fun is just gravy (an idiom).

Monday, November 2, 2015

Technology vs. the Blog

Inexplicably, the printer stopped scanning my illustrations or even printing. I tried turning it off and on. I tried lots of things on my computer, but it was just “looking for printer.” I turned the computer off and on. Then I went back to the printer and played with its little buttons for a while. That’s a more complicated endeavor, but I actually re-confirmed the wireless connection and it said, “The printer is connected to the network.”

The computer didn’t know that. It was still looking.

Tim’s printer printed. Mine was “not found.”

You know what this means, don’t you? This means I have to enter Google-land and hunt for solutions. First, I have to figure out how to describe the problem. I have to decide which to type in first, the computer (Mac) or the printer (HP), because that determines which junk I will have to wade through to find the problem they both share. But they think the problem is the other guy’s fault so there are all sorts of blind alleys and dead ends.

This is all very depressing because basically you’re sifting through old posts, records of other people’s technical nightmares. They all ask panicky questions and get incomprehensible answers. Some of them are in such a state of crisis your own heart starts pounding.

If I finally end up with an HP printer not working on a Mac, then I have to include “suddenly” in my problem description – as in “suddenly can’t find printer” – and that’s where I finally find a solution: I need to delete my printer and then add it back in. Deletion is no problem, but when I try to add it back in, nothing shows up. “There are no printers on your network.”

It’s here, right here! You can see it, right? It's gigantic.
This was about three hours one night and then the printer printed a test page. Yay…. Short-lived. That was just a fluke in the universe. By now, I’d joined the HP Support Forum so I could ask my own question and not just pore through everyone else’s disasters.

Five hours the next night, and then I tried turning the router on and off. Victory!

I remember reading an essay once about a man trying to get his elderly mother to use a computer. Whenever it crashed, he knew to just turn it off and then on again, but this seemed so … wrong to his mother. She just couldn’t trust a machine or a problem that needed to be jiggled as a solution.

Why should turning things off and then on again work? Why is that even useful? Does it take those 30 seconds to heal? To calm down, take a breather? This is advanced technology – do heart machines need to be turned off and on, too? If there’s some sort of glitch that gets cleared, does that mean glitches are ever-present but just some of them erupt?

So now I have my printer/scanner back … but I lost Google. It’s there, and it lets me type in a search, but then it just sits there. Unmoving. So I had to search around – without Google – for a solution. I learned that if my time zone is incorrect on my Mac, Google won’t work. ??? So I made sure it showed I was in Alaska Standard Time, and it came back.

But now it’s gone again. And then it comes back. And then it’s gone.

I am NOT a tech dinosaur, but there is a problem in our Third Thirds: most of us don’t come with IT departments.

Sharing Button