Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Insatiable log splitter on the loose

By the time other people reach their Third Thirds in Alaska, they often have a cabin. By the time I’ve reached my Third Third, I have friends with cabins. Boy, am I lucky!

I have resisted a cabin for us because I have enough trouble maintaining one residence and its assortment of do-over-and-over-again chores. But I certainly do relish the idea of one’s very own national park in the middle of whatever wilderness it’s planted. So we were delighted to visit Connie and John’s cabin.
As we hiked in, Connie said she used to just walk on trails. Now she realizes how much WORK it takes to keep those trails from being overrun by vegetation, mud, rain, muskeg. Brush, swamp, tree roots. Decay, rust, animals. When they’re your trails, it’s your WORK.

It was a spectacular sunny day. Denali was out and brilliant, the cabin is a 10 on the comfort scale, and Connie and John are gracious hosts. And then I was introduced to QuickSplit. I was so enamored with QuickSplit, I hogged it, didn’t let anyone else get to use it.

Meet QuickSplit:
Why QuickSplit is more fun than a barrel of monkeys:
  1. I’ve never done it before. It’s my newest New Thing.

  2. It takes a job – splitting logs – and adds two of those six simple machines to it to make it EASIER. I feel very homo sapiens-proud when I can see evidence of the brain making the brawn work better. Hooray for the lever and the wedge!

  3. It works better with a partner keeping the log in position. Tim holds the log so the log rises up to the blade in the middle. When the split needs a little help, Tim wields the axe. (He’s good with axe handles….) When you need brawn, you need brawn. I don’t even have aim.

  4. QuickSplit exists within my danger parameters. The blade comes down slowly; it’s not a guillotine, and I’m a whole lever away. Unlike my issues with the axe.

  5. I can see the pile of split logs growing and growing and growing! Yes, this might be a do-over-and-over-again chore, but there is now a mountain of split logs. I am not the one who’ll do it over-and-over-again; and I am helping friends not to have to do it over-and-over-again as soon.

  6. At one point, QuickSplit stopped working. Uh, oh. I broke it. But Connie showed me the little doohickey that swings the ratcheting thing back into position. So now, I KNEW QuickSplit; I was knowledgeable and experienced. Always good feelings.

  7. Sometimes, the log was extra dense and I needed lots of force on the lever. Then I’d have to JUMP UP and PUSH down with everything I’ve got. I love my brute force.
  8. It was sunny, gorgeous, and I was being the little squirrel preparing for winter. I was not waiting till it rained to repair the roof; I was being READY. Something in me felt … righteous.
After a long while, after the wood shed was starting to bulge, I stopped splitting. But then I noticed some newly-chopped log rounds just winking at me, begging to be split. It’s hard to quit when you’re having such a good time.

Monday, August 29, 2016

I set my calendar by the State Fair

The world always seems to be divided into two kinds of people; this week, it’s those that LOVE state fairs and those that groan and say, “Oh, not that again.” I’m in the first group. Come August, when it dawns on me that the State Fair is imminent, visions of quilt shows, funnel cake, and giant vegetables dance in my head.

In fact, I think the State Fair is a perfect Third Third activity. Every funnel cake or pet rabbit triggers a memory of prior funnel cakes, prior rabbits. They sweeten the whole day, but then you find a magician who’s brand new, and he’s terrific, too.

Judith and I go together. Judith is an especially valued friend, but she was especially valued when we traveled with our two girls: Judith can do rides. I throw up on merry-go-rounds. Judith can do them all, but thank goodness, those days are over. We don’t even enter ride territory any more.

Judith and I walk in the Red Gate and check the time. Every hour on the hour is the quilt show so we have to figure out where we’ll be. The quilt show is mandatory, just like visiting Paul, our friend and bonsai guy.

Right off the bat, this year’s Fair amazed us with the prehistoric mammals exhibit. Woolly Mammoths, Sabre-toothed Cats, the Giant Sloth. New to me: the Terror Crane, a giant Big Bird-type creature set up right next to the herd of tiny horses. According to the signage, the little horses had big brains, and the Diatryma (the crane) may or may not have been carnivorous or herbivorous. Except that the exhibit clearly had the possibly vegetarian bird eating a little horse (despite its big brain). All these prehistoric mammals moved and shook a bit. A New Thing and we hadn’t even been in the Fair ten minutes!
Next Judith and I caught Antwan Towner, “comedy magician and mind reader.” He was great! He’d reach into his shiny silver briefcase, preparing us for the next trick. “Wait till you see this!”
His sleight of hand was wonderful, but it’s his patter that delighted me. And the mind reading. I don’t know how he did it. He couldn’t have replaced a whole audience of kids and parents with his own prearranged confederates. I just don’t get how he did it. You go – tell me!

Sometimes, in the Irwin Building, we talk to the wood folks, sometimes the sewing women, sometimes the spinners. Then sometimes it’s the Demo Derby, sometimes the lumberjack show; this year, it was the Tractor Pull.

It took us years to discover Raven Hall, the “slice-it-dice-it” building. Now we relish the pitches and the gadgets. That’s where I’ve fought off the lotion people, the chaga people, the Noni juice people. But that’s also where I got my favorite Cutco knives, where I check out the new Pampered Chef offerings.
Judith and I have worn a path of memory through the Fair. We head to where Southcentral Foundation usually has a booth; where are they? Where’s the potato chip guy, he’s usually right over here. And was there no Visit Juneau booth or did we miss Pampered Chef? I still miss those Racing Pigs.

This is what life does, too: change, take away some things, give us New Things.

But the Fair always has to give us … Fair Food. First Judith and I get something healthy, like salmon quesadillas. Then it’s The Big Decision: on to the funnel cakes for me and corn fritters for Judith. Then the dipped ice cream. Then….

Every inch of the Fair is a memory: my first visit to the Rat Race when I’d just moved here and I thought Alaska was INSANE; the time infant Sophie fell off a straw bale in the petting zoo and was buried in rabbits; the Kirby vacuum guy who then made a house call; the reptiles that still give me the total creeps. The sauerkraut lesson Judith and I took; my total envy when I first spied the Cabbage Fairies’ outfits. One year, I even told stories on the Colony Stage!
My memories are sweet to me, maybe just lists to you. (What’s on your list?) But we all have our places that stay the same/change over time, those places that have taken root in our lives. Like Thanksgiving Dinner, the State Fair comes back year after year, bringing fond memories, good stories … and turkey legs.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Anatomy of a Sleepless Night

When I discovered the Big Three recommendations for a good Third Third (structure, purpose, and a sense of community), I knew my most obvious challenge was probably going to be sleeping. Or rather, sleeping on a regular basis on a regular schedule for a regular number of hours. Or, to be more accurate, sleeping. Period.

Some people fall asleep. They close their eyes, and sleep comes to them. With my husband, sleep overtakes him. For me, sleep hides. I have to hunt for it, coax it out of hiding, and hope it decides to stay.

I used to follow little schedules: no exercising after 8 p.m. Begin sleep readiness and shut-down behaviors at 9 p.m. Go into bed at 10 p.m. Hope.

When Sophie was born, that was shot to hell. I don’t think she slept through the night till she was eleven. Even if she’d slept, I’d be Alert to Her. After I stopped being crazy from lack of sleep (Did I stop?), I adapted. I simply acknowledged that every now and then, I’d “go around the clock,” stopped fretting about it, and went along pretty smoothly. If you don’t worry about being tired, you can find that you don’t feel tired. But that was my Second Third.
Right now, writing this, I’m sort of dulled. Not comatose, but just a step up. No zip. I had a long, long night.

10 p.m. Uh, oh, I already knew I’d messed up. I was reading Nicci French’s Thursday’s Child, which is fourth in her series. Her books are intelligent and clever, but they kind of make my hair stand on end. I’d decided it was a daytime-only read book, but at 10 p.m., I’d already messed that up.
11 p.m. Go into bed. Pick some reading material that will force Nicci French out of my head. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time had worked the night before. Tim’s head hits the pillow, and he’s out.

12 a.m. According to general relativity, time moves more slowly closer to the earth’s surface because of gravity so, for example, a clock at sea level will run slower than one on a mountaintop. But is the clock itself actually slowing down – its mechanism and all – or is the elapsed time slowing down? Would the clock show a minute and ten seconds, for example, or would it show a longer minute? Obviously, Stephen Hawking is not putting me to sleep. He’s giving me IDEAS! I am so absorbed in this – I’ll have to check out the 1962 water tower/atomic clock experiment he refers to – that I have two choices: get up, embrace the night, follow this physics problem to its conclusion, OR try a chemical aid.
I have several choices: Advil PM or prescription Lunesta. I have to make this decision quickly because any later, and I’ll be stuck and groggy in the morning. I go with my latest experiment, that ZzzQuil generic.

1 a.m. I’m definitely drowsy, but now my restless legs are awake in bed. My head has moved off clocks and is back with Nicci French and who did it? I have learned that there is no relation between physical exhaustion and falling asleep. Either the toggle switch toggles to “sleep” or it doesn’t. I’d gone for a hike today, been outside, drank my warm milk, done all the right things to promote “feeling tired.” No dice.

3 a.m. I am really, really trying not to fret about the clocks and gravity. I think maybe if I browse a Good Housekeeping magazine, it will be brief (short articles), not intellectually exciting, and not scary. I lie in bed.

4 a.m. I decide to get up and go out to the couch so my reading won’t disturb Tim. As I cruise around getting a blanket, Tim emerges: “What’s going on?” and scares the shit out of me. Now I’m wide awake with adrenalin pumping and might as well finish the Nicci French book. Maybe once the mystery is resolved, I can relax and fall asleep.
6 a.m. I think that works; I may have dozed off for a while. Tim says goodbye. I get the newspaper.

8 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. I may have lost some time there because I’m aware of waking up to look at the clock (which is at sea level). I feel queasy and fogged. This is not going to be one of those smooth round-the-clock days. This is going to be a mess. I miss a 10:30 gathering.

I compensate by cleaning the stove, sink, and cabinets and Googling the water tower clock experiment and Einstein’s time dilation.

Relativity question: Is my Third Third going to be longer than my previous thirds because I spend more of it awake? Is my clock running slower? Or is that just a foggy question from a sleep-deprived fool?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Profiles in Third Thirds: Mia

Mia’s house is on the market. She’s already bought a condo in Portland so forty years in Anchorage are about to come to an end. In our conversations, she uses the word “wrenching” a lot. But once we’ve moved past moving sales and real estate, finances and de-cluttering, archives and shipping – the to-do lists of moving – the words she uses become “novelty” and “footloose” and “unfettered.”

The word I use to describe Mia’s moving is “bereft,” as in how I feel. Mia goes back almost to the beginning of my arrival in Anchorage. No matter what direction my life took, somehow we always intersected. I can always count on her for thoughtful consideration, new ways for thoughts to turn, and the remarkable ability to follow ideas through to their twists and turns and implications. I’ve always hoped that maybe sharing the same birthday gave me a leg-up in aspiring to her wisdom. (sigh)
Mia was visiting friends in Portland, heard there was an opening in their building, and bought the condo right then and there. As she put it, “I’ve spent more time buying a pair of pants.” But really, she’d been talking about it for years and her son had moved there. But she still just thought of it as a “vacation home,” like a cabin. Home was still Anchorage.

Until Anchorage kitchen renovation and then the leak and then the renovation re-do. It’s amazing how many relocation decisions hinge on a major house headache. So Mia and Pamela have spent the summer de-cluttering, selling, packing, coming to terms with how much they’ll leave behind. And how much they’ll discover anew.

Mia can’t walk into a community event or gathering without running into her own history: friends from way back when, friends from past jobs, friends from past community efforts. She was one of the founders of Childcare Connection – her contributions to Anchorage are still part of the fabric of our community. Mia’s thread is woven throughout – Understanding Neighbors (a conversations dialog project), Anchorage Film Festival, a whole series of public initiatives to gain and keep protections for LGBT Alaskans. Severing these threads are … wrenching.

But practical matters intercede: “What to do with all that embroidery thread? I might have time to do embroidery again; it comes with us. What to do about the yarn? I might take up knitting again; it comes with us.”
“The hip waders, the XtraTufs, the tent? No, I’m looking for new adventures.”
And so all these decisions are really the practical side of the big question, the one Mia calls “How to be in the world?” (Oh, do you see why I’ll miss her!) Will she volunteer to be an usher so she can see performances and make new friends? Will she become a volunteer docent at the Japanese Garden?

Mia practices, teaches, coaches mediation. She’s brought her skills to warring couples, bickering organizations, struggling community efforts. “How can I use my skills in a different way? Which organizations are the ones to connect with? I’ll have to learn how things work, who’s doing what. It’ll be fun to figure this out,” she says, and now it’s clear we’ve moved past wrenching.
“I have some unrealized ideas to work on. I think we need to face more conflict in our everyday lives. We need to get comfortable with it, learn how to handle it well and productively, and we can’t do that if we keep shying away from it. Broach that subject, figure out how to disagree. I haven’t found an outlet yet for that kind of idea,” Mia says, but I can see her wheels turning.

She says all these moving sales and giving away, all this letting go, has opened up a desire in her to be footloose and less fettered. She doesn’t know what’s next, and suddenly I am jealous of how wide open she is, right now, at this moment. She’s launching into her Third Third.

“Maybe,” she says, “I’ll have a bigger life than I’ve imagined.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Invasion of the Vegetables

I never thought I’d find this week’s New Thing at the Farmer’s Market, and certainly not a Scary New Thing, but here it is:
It’s called Romanesco cauliflower, and it’s enough to keep me up nights. It looks like something prehistoric or extraterrestrial. I don’t think I can actually get up the courage to eat it. It would grow aliens inside my stomach. Last year, when I discovered that Brussels sprouts grow on stalks, they looked magical. The cauliflower: frightening.
The Farmer’s Market was such a display of abundance! It’s not even that my head of Romaine lettuce is the size of a laundry basket or that one bunch of Swiss chard can take up a car seat. The giant zucchini are making their appearance – yikes, there are even Romanesco zucchini! And now there are so many varieties of heirloom tomatoes: Black Krim, Green Zebra, and Chocolate Stripes. But my favorite name is the Mortgage Lifter Tomato.
There’s a build-your-own bouquet flower stall and Wild Scoops ice cream. The fish guys, the sprouts guys, the bread folks. One sign said, “Distressed Gingerbread Cookies, $1/pkg.” I had to ask. The answer, admitted the bakers sheepishly, “No, they’re not unhappy. They’re just not … up to par.”
The musical entertainment was lovely, but all the entertainment I need is to watch Karl of La Grassa slice fresh pasta. He lays out the sheet of perfect pasta, folds it meticulously, and then slices it cleanly. He peels a tab back from the fold of each slice, lifts it up, and shakes the pasta loose. I could watch it for hours.

Special last Saturday, Alaska Farmland Trust had a tent set up for tasting vodka and vodka-inspired food. Clayton, the chef, said he was given the vodka to taste and then he created the dishes: “Heirloom tomato Bloody Mary salad with ghost pepper vodka” and “Spent grain bacon waffle with blueberry vodka whipped cream.” Not much of a drinker, I had the Forget Me Not blueberry vodka with organic lemonade. But then, after a sip of Glacier Melt Vodka, I felt loopy and had to have more of Clayton’s “Potato latkes and smoked salmon with Yensis onion jam.” I just had to. I was driving.

I’m not a foodie. I don’t take photos of my food or look for fancy, creative selections in restaurants. When I buy a potato, it’s either smooth, baking, red, or sweet. But at the Farmer’s Market, there’s Yukon Gold, Lemhi, Magic Molly, Huckleberry, Doc’s, Allagash, and German butterball.

The sun was shining, the music playing, and all around me were bushels and bushels of vegetables and healthy food. Everything was just so HEALTHY and fresh. Friends said hello, and I thought, things don’t get better than this.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Beware the Cosmic Light Bulb

We say the Third Third is the one without a parent, without a boss; it’s the Third we get to define for ourselves. But there’s a certain peril in not working in an office, not having the hustle and bustle of externally-mandated to-dos. Not having to do things because someone else or some institution wants them, having lots of alone time, sometimes unencumbered time. The same thing applies with the empty nest: no kid responsibilities.

Before, my roles and responsibilities – daughter, student, employee, wife, mother – defined a lot of my being in the world. In my Third Third, I define myself.

The peril is self-centeredness. I’m not sure that’s the right word. Being self-absorbed? Edgar Bronfman calls it “incessant self-focus on my own problems and issues” in his recent book. In college, we called it being the Cosmic Light Bulb.
Yes, I volunteer and I do things for other people, but I’m the one in charge of deciding what I do. I’m autonomous, and the dictionary says that’s “self-governing; independent; subject to its own laws only.” Sure, I think independence is a good thing, and it’s probably a cornerstone of my personality, but every now and then, I see the pitfalls in the available solitude and autonomy of my Third Third. If I’m not being vigilant, my world is About Me.
Even if I regularly examine my life (and the philosopher in me does it all the time), the autonomy of my Third Third often means that’s happening in isolation. While I may be a constant critic of myself, I’m still a one-sided critic. Sometimes that’s not fair to me, and sometimes that’s not fair to everyone else. In my own world, in the land of I-decide-what-I-want, I can be an autocrat.

It happens gradually. I look at the world and stop noticing that I’m looking through Barbara-colored glasses. And then someone plays Copernicus to that worldview; they see things differently, want different things. Suddenly, the universe becomes multi-dimensional – rotating around the sun, not around me – and from that other perspective, it makes sense. A different sense, but still sense.
If I’m lucky, that’s illuminating and enriching, and I re-orient. I appreciate the different sides to the universe, the variety of wants and desires, hopes and viewpoints of other people. It’s a tremendous feeling of social connection with a spirit of compromise. But if I’m unlucky, I’ve already focused on Me, disparaged a few feelings, overruled a few choices, pushed too hard. Without even noticing.

Okay, this isn’t unique to our Third Thirds. The land of About Me isn’t restricted to any age group. Maybe we thought by the time we reached our Third Thirds we’d be better – resolutely empathetic, kind, and generous. (sigh) Sometimes I still need a smack to the head to reflect, reconsider, and make right with other people. I still make resolutions to do better. I worry that a blog is the very epitome of self-absorption.

There’s a fine balance between working to define ourselves without our old roles and thinking too much about ourselves. A fine line between autonomy and pushiness. If life is a constant story of error, correction, and resolution to do better, I guess there’s more of the same in my Third Third. Yup.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A B Cs of Voter Turnout

What it’s like to work a polling place for a 15% turnout election:

  • You catch up on everything going on with your friend Dawn who’s sitting next to you at the register table.

  • If you’re Karl and you have a new car, you read the entire car manual.

  • Did you know that the last half of the alphabet (M --> Z) gets way less voters than the first half of the alphabet? This is not a New Thing; you’ve noticed this for years working a polling place. Unfortunately, even though you are a “B,” this time you’re on the M --> Z side of the table.

What it’s like to work a polling place for a 15% turnout election when you’re on the M --> Z side of the table:
  • You eat way more Tootsie Rolls from the candy basket than are good for you.

  • You definitively explore the M --> Z issue. One year, you made the cut-off L --> Z but it didn’t help. You think maybe all those end-of-the-alphabet people have become so bored or passive or irritated in a lifetime of roll calls in which they were always called LAST that they have just given up on social participation.

  • However, closer analysis proves that the Zs have the highest voter turnout of any alphabet letter: 4 of 6 Zs voted, a 67% turnout! Maybe they spent their slack time at the end of roll call discussing civic responsibility or current events. Congratulations, Zs!

  • The Qs were next best, with 4 of 8 Qs voting, a 50% turnout. The Qs consisted of only three families, and one of them was highly active.

  • However, the close affiliation of Q with U did nothing to help the U’s: zero of 2 U’s voted, for a turnout of 0%. It appears that U, having spent a lifetime as the tagalong to Q, has just become too passive to even vote.

Things that brighten the day of the person working a polling place for a 15% turnout election on the M --> Z side of the table:
  • PKs. This is code for “personally known,” when a voter doesn’t have to show ID because they are personally known to the poll worker. Hooray! That means a friend has just walked in the door.

  • A brand new 18-year-old voter. A long-time 90-year-old voter. Hooray, we applaud you!

  • 2fers. This is when two people with the same last name show up together and you only have to locate the name once on the precinct rolls. The pleasure in 2fers is only multiplied when they come in with small children and say things like, “Giving them the voting habit early.”

  • The Hatchers. There are six Hatchers on the precinct register. When each of them comes in, they check to see who still hasn’t voted. They make sure that all the Hatchers (children, in-laws, spouses) vote. By the end of the day, Hatcher turnout is 100%

  • One young woman rushes in. Her mother and aunt (not Hatchers) have voted and they have come home to tell her that people have died for her right to vote and she’d better get out there and cast her ballot. Hooray, hooray! Why isn’t this conversation happening in every household???

  • Two redheads come in with bizarrely red hair – just like yours – and you talk hair color.

  • Someone finds the chunky kind of Tootsie Rolls in the candy basket – your favorite – when you’d thought there were only the skinny kind. There ARE chunky ones in there! 

Things confirmed at the end of the day by the person working a polling place for a 15% turnout election on the M --> Z side of the table:
  • Yes, in fact, the A --> Ls have cast 278 ballots while the M --> Zs – with the same number of registered voters – have only cast 216, a difference of 62 votes or 12.5%. Oddly, however, the A --> Ls have ten blank pages in the precinct register compared with only 3 for the M --> Zs. What can this mean? Further study is called for.

  • The 15% of voters who turned up will continue to get robo calls from every candidate in creation because they have maintained their prized status as Super Voters.

  • The 15% of voters who turned up will have made decisions for the 85% of voters who didn’t bother. Angry at our legislature; pissed at our Congress? Don’t like the way things are? Think what a different country we’d live in if those numbers were reversed! It doesn’t take much to take on a measly 15%.

I’ll be back in November …  aiming for the A --> L side of the table.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Do you know this man?

First, some backstory. A few years ago, I visited the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory in Kentucky. They take you on a little tour and give you a little mini bat afterwards.
My mini bat sits at the top of the stairs, behind the recycling. In all the carpet-laying and de-cluttering, Tim couldn’t understand why the mini bat endured. “Can’t we get rid of it?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s here to be handy; in case someone breaks in, I can bop them one.”

Second bit of backstory: I am completely erratic in my sleep cycle. Most of it is me (reading a great book till all hours), but some of it is circumstance (3 a.m. wrong number). A lot of it is just the toggle switch that doesn’t toggle to “sleep” in my brain.

Friday morning was the 3 a.m. wrong number. Friday night was the really great book and the noise outside that involved one young woman with a very abrasive laugh. So Saturday morning, I woke up and told Tim I’d had a rough night, barely got any sleep at all.

“I beg to differ,” he said.

“What are you talking about?”

“There was the 4 a.m. vandalism that I had to chase down with my axe handle.”

This is one of those sentences that gives you pause. You suddenly look at your husband very differently. Suddenly he’s a guy with a secret life right under your nose. Either that, or he’s lost his mind.

“I woke up to the sound of crashing as they bashed the mailbox, but by the time I got into my caftan and grabbed the axe handle, they had already walked down the street. The mailboxes and some cars have been spray-painted.”
If you’re like me, you’re still stuck on “axe handle.” The rest is barely processing … and it’s not just because you’re tired.

“You have an axe handle?”

“Yes, I keep it in the closet. It’s better than your little weanie baseball bat.”

“Did you call the police?” “No.”

Interjection by friend: “He’s lucky. If anyone had called the police, they’d go after the crazy guy in the caftan with the axe handle.”
Interjection by wife: “Yes, but if he’d called the police, and the culprits were just walking, they could have been apprehended.”

Husband: “What I should have done is gotten in my car with the bear spray.”

Lesson for my Third Third on the eve of our 27th wedding anniversary: Don’t ever think he’s run out of surprises.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Tom Sawyer Cure

There’s a piece of paper on my desk – it’s in limbo, waiting till it gets put in its proper place – it’s been there for a while, but maybe this post means it can finally move on – anyhow, this is what it says:
So I’ve been a little sad. Maybe it’s the rain, maybe it’s the post-event letdown of the end of the Chilkoot Trail, maybe it was my second-ever-in-my-life bout with the common cold which meant I missed a weekend camping trip. Mostly, it’s still not knowing what my real “what’s next” is. Who knows? Sadness just descends.

Then it sits around for a while, feeling its own misery.

Into this black hole came a request from Lori: volunteers needed to deep clean the classrooms and office of the Alaska Literacy Program. My thoughts on hearing this:
  • I may be useless, but I know how to clean
  • I may feel lonely, but there’ll be other people there
  • It beats sitting home and feeling worse
  • It supports the Literacy Program and is a good deed
  • I get to write it on my calendar and have some place to be, something to do
If, in the midst of my sadness, I’d contemplated deep cleaning my own house, I’d fall deeper into the black hole. But to deep clean usefully, with other people, as a mitzvah: that was a glimmer of light.

And yes, it’s true: “It’s very hard to be sad and useful at the same time.”

So, on our team (Hooray, I was part of a team!), Polly, Jim, and I washed walls. The only time I wash walls is to repaint them, and that was a long time ago. But I had my favorite kind of scrubbing tool and walls in front of me.
We chatted about hiking and bicycling and uphills and downhills. Jim did windows and furniture; Polly did vacuuming, bathrooms, and fabric cleaning. I focused on walls. And I discovered my New Thing for the week: Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser.
Friends had talked about Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser for years, but I’d never tried it. It feels squishy, like a memory foam pad. I hadn’t expected that, and I liked the sensory experience. But what I really liked: it worked! It took scuff marks off the wall! Like magic! I thought of the hour I’d spent on our laundry room floor when magic like this existed. I was going to go home and look for more scuff marks. I wanted more time with a Magic Eraser.

Deep cleaning the Literacy Program classrooms is like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting. The place was filled with volunteers moving furniture, getting into corners, climbing on stepladders. Would we have had as much energy cleaning our own homes?

Poor Tim finds me a barely half-hearted, mostly reluctant back porch painter … and then I go and wash walls elsewhere?

I surveyed the clean walls and the bucket of now-dirty water and thought of my own walls. Going home was going to mean looking a little suspiciously at them. Polly said she wasn’t going home till after dark.

After washing the door, I couldn’t bear to replace the old, dirty, covered-with-years-of-tape Exit Sign. There are eleven exit doors. I gave myself a mission: buy new Exit Signs and figure out a cleaner way of attaching them. Velcro dots? Magnetic strips? Where do they sell Exit Signs?
I started out sad and useless. Then I volunteered to wash some walls. The Literacy Program got a deep cleaning, and I ended up with a mission, a New Thing, and a sense of accomplishment. I think I came out ahead.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What would you put in a Memory Box?

Last month, my mother moved into the dementia wing in her assisted living home. It had reached the point where she was so nervous about ever being alone that she wasn’t sleeping, was sitting next to the desk person to be near someone in the night. Now she has a room-mate, closer supervision and assistance, and more appropriate activities.

The bottom line: my mother is really happy with the move. She’s still in very familiar, supportive environs, and she likes the attention. I’ll be visiting her next month.

The director asked us to help fill a “Memory Box” for my mother, one with things that would remind my mother of events, happy times, whatever.

What do you put in a Memory Box for someone who can’t remember?

Last week, I made my mother’s rice pilaf for dinner. I followed the recipe she’d typed up for me when I was in college, including her notes, “Put lid on pan because it will shpritz out” and “You may not be able to get these brands in California, so use something comparable.” The card is covered with assorted food stains so I scanned it and sent it for the Memory Box.
Will my mother remember that she ever made rice pilaf? I doubt it. It’s probably gone the way of the gone-forever chicken fricassee. Even her famous Noodle Kugel, the one that won an award from the Yiddish Book Center, might be gone; she no longer recognizes the mug she received as an award.

My mother and I have long, laughter-filled conversations. I don’t rely on or even expect any memory to be operating: everything I tell her is just a new, funny story.

Nevertheless, my siblings and I have been struggling to fill the Memory Box. “The Photos” are going in, the ones we’ve taken every ten years of all of us sitting on the living room couch in the same positions the one professional photographer arranged us in when we were little. We’d hold the photograph from the time before so there was always a photo-within-a-photo-within-a-photo. Other recipes are going in. One Mother’s Day, I’d arranged for the local newspaper to write a feature story on my mother; that’s going in.
The Memory Box is really a snapshot of our memories. We are filling the Box with the things we remember, the things that seem to whisper “Mom” to us. I can’t hope they’ll trigger an awakened memory in my mother – although my siblings might – but I hope they’ll seem like nice things when she reads them. Maybe she’ll be pleased as if it’s a warm-hearted story she’s heard for the first time.

I made a book for her of all the thank you notes Sophie has written to her over her lifetime. They go from mere pictures and dictation to misspelled letters to long chronicles. We go through that book hooting and laughing over the phonetic spellings, over the lists of “what I’ll spend the money on,” over the elaborate descriptions of dresses and outfits. If it’s all new to my mother, it doesn’t matter. We are not making new memories because they’re gone in minutes, but we are having a good time in those good moments. And good moments are what we have.
But I wonder, if my mother were organizing her own Memory Box, what would she put in it? What would she look at in her life and say, “This, this is what I want to hold onto. This is a memory that I hope lasts and lasts.”

And then, because I’m in my Third Third, I wonder, What would I put in my own Memory Box?

What would you put in yours?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #3

Question for my Third Third: If it’s not enjoyable, why am I doing it?

Climbing the Golden Stairs required intense focus. Mountain climbers like that feeling, they say it makes them feel really alive. I like intense focus, too; I call it “flow.” My flow comes from a creative activity: art, writing, theater, problem-solving. Not from clinging to a rock on a mountainside.

It wasn’t just the Golden Stairs. The whole Chilkoot Trail requires focus. Every footstep has to be planted, whether it’s over a shaky plank or on rocks through a creek, through rocks and scree on an eroding trail or assessing the depth of mud. You can’t just amble along, idly hiking and humming like Winnie-the-Pooh without looking at your feet. When we’d get to the rare spruce needle path, I’d shout hooray and relish the cushiony simplicity of merely walking and looking around.
What I like about hiking: the big, wide, expansiveness of Nature, how it invades your senses without any extra attention.

What bothered me about the Chilkoot: the big, wide, expansiveness of Nature was where I placed my foot. Sure I stopped frequently and looked around and marveled, but the focus was on the ground, on my next step. I had to interrupt to appreciate the Nature around me.

On the other hand, the terrain and landscape was spectacular. I look at photos I took and gasp at the beauty.
I think fondly of the people I met along the trail. By traveling from camp to camp, you meet up at the end of each day’s hike. The crowd from Sea to Sky Expeditions became special from the very first. Nathalie and Kate shared their gourmet meals, and we all shared conversation. Marty and 12-year-old Lucas were a particular delight; camp didn’t feel complete till I found them each day.

Afterwards, relaxing at the end of the Trail, at the last camp in Bennett, I looked at the photos Lee took on the Golden Stairs. (She lifted her hands to take a photo!) Joan and Barbara were on two legs, not all fours. “This must have been after the first false summit, right?”

“No, that was on the main part.” But how could they stand up??? I don’t understand. Was I just crawling when everyone else was walking? I was all alone so I had no one to observe (even if I could take my eyes off my immediate hand-holds). How real was my horror?

I emailed the National Park Service and Parks Canada to find out just how steep the Stairs are, and they told me “that the Golden Stairs hill has an average slope angle of 35 degrees with the steepest part measuring in at 45 degrees about 3/4 of the way up the Stairs.” That is VERY, VERY STEEP. I am not just a scaredy-cat.
So now we’re back at Barbara’s question: “What exactly was the point?”

Was it some bucket-list aspiration? Was it about conquering some difficult task and feeling the pride of accomplishment? Was it about stretching myself? Or was it about enjoying the company of women in the beauty of Nature?

It was all those things. But you don’t conquer the fear of heights. You stifle it, get past it, don’t let it limit your life choices, but you don’t enjoy it. I once took a behavior modification class where people learn to get over fears. We began with the intellectual: is the catastrophe you imagine realistically going to happen? The next step is doing a lot of the fear-inducing thing till you’ve minimized it. Finally, there are relaxation and calming exercises.

The only thing that worked on that mountain was brute emotional force.

And let me tell you about relying on brute emotional force: it’s not what I want for my Third Third. That’s it. I’ve earned – and learned – better. It’s no test I want to “pass”; it’s a test I don’t even want to take. I have it, I’m capable of doing it, but I don’t have to seek it out.

Would it be a terrible shame if I’d missed all the glorious aspects of Nature on the Chilkoot Trail? If I hadn’t seen all those artifacts close up? If I hadn’t met all the warm-hearted people I spent time with on the Trail, shared the camaraderie of the women? No, there are more beautiful places in the world than any of us can visit in one lifetime. Find one that fuels your soul.

I say this, and I mean it. This is the lesson I’m taking from the Chilkoot Trail. But I’m beginning to think the Chilkoot Trail is like labor and delivery. After a while, the discomfort fades and you tell jokes about it, laugh over it. It didn’t kill you, right?

If you find me laughing about being terrified on that mountain, smack me about the head.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #2

Two hours into the Chilkoot Trail, we stopped for a snack break. I sat in a lovely spot under a tree … in a pool of sap. My pants were a sticky mess, soaking through to my underwear. When I pulled them down to go to the bathroom, it tore from my skin like duct tape. For the rest of the trip, I carried bits of the Trail with me, stuck to my pants.

This was not a problem on the Trail. This was a “funny anecdote.”

The river had reached flood stage and the ranger warned us at the outset that waters were waist high. Fortunately, by the time we got to the worst part, the river had crested and people had laid out planks of wood to traverse the miles-long swamp. We had to climb over rickety debris to figure out the next path through the muck, tilting and turning, stretching to reach the next foothold. One false step and we’d be soaked and filthy.

This was not a problem on the Trail. This was an adventure. We called it the “jungle gym.”
The last thing on my to-do list before going was to sew and secure the buckle on my backpack. I didn’t get to it. After stopping at our first camp, Gwen approached me with a found buckle: mine! The trip would have been impossible without it.

This was a potential problem on the Trail that didn’t materialize.

The Trail includes a long suspension bridge. My fear of heights rose up and lodged in my throat. The bridge swayed, the slats looked rickety, the river below roared. I had to keep moving and force my way forward. Somewhere in the middle, I thought I’d throw up, but then I’d have to lean over the side or look through the slats. I made it over. I have steely resolve, after all.

This was a problem that foreshadowed a far bigger problem: the Golden Stairs.
When I'd looked at the pictures of the stampeders going over the Golden Stairs in winter, all lined up, it didn’t look bad: they were standing on two legs, there were a lot of them in a line. That’s winter, when 1,500 steps were cut in the snow. This is summer, when there are only boulders up the steep, 35-to-45-degree slope with orange wands planted intermittently so you can find your way.

This is what you have to do to climb the Golden Stairs: you reach up with your hand and find a stable boulder that holds its position. You search your feet around to find supports for them. You look ahead for the wand. Sometimes your head can’t lift because a jutting boulder blocks your pack; you have to reposition with a shifting 37-pound pack on your back. At all costs, you DO NOT look down. Your whole world is just your next step: choose a rock, test it, step up, fight off fear, don’t look down. Choose a rock, test it, fight off fear.
Hysteria nipped at my psyche. By then, I knew I was nimble and strong. On any other rocks, I would be scrambling like a monkey, sure-footed in my trusty, beloved new boots, but here I was high up on a steep slope.

I made it to the first false summit. There are three. It levels off for a bit so I calmed because now I couldn’t fall the whole way down anymore. Then it started raining. Then I became trapped behind a guide and an extremely fearful, slow-moving woman. Then the wind picked up.

The summit is less than halfway on that day’s hike, and there’s a hut at the top. I’m sure I read something once about a ranger there, about hot chocolate. It turned out to be a freezing closet that could barely hold eight people. When my teeth started chattering, I knew I had to get going. The next camp is four miles away over more difficult rock scrambling; shifting, eroding paths on the steep edges of water; hazardous creeks and icy snowfields to negotiate; yes, beautiful wildflowers and waterfalls.

It took 11 hours to go the eight miles from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp.

I walked into Happy Camp and two women offered me hot tea. “Do you have a cup?”

I stared. Cup?

“Here, use our bowl.”

After three bowls, I set up the tent in the pouring rain. Later, when Barbara and I were lying in the tent, she asked, “What exactly was the point?”

Tomorrow, the point. Or not.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #1

Before I left for the Chilkoot Trail, friends described it to me as four days of hiking and one arduous day for the ascent of the Golden Stairs. At the end of the trip, Lee said in order to understand arduous, you’d have to re-think hard as if it were easy. Personally, I prefer grueling, but because it also involved fear, I’d add harrowing.

You can tell this whole experience is going to require some processing as I write about it. The lessons I took away – things I learned about myself – are multi-layered.

We were six women ages 60 to 70, and every one of us made it through safely and without mishap. I shared a tent with another Barbara, who regaled me with her summations of each day. At the end of the trip, Barbara said that when people will congratulate her for finishing, she’ll say, “It was the trip of a lifetime. Let me tell you all about it so you won’t have to do it.” The bottom line: if I were to advise visitors to Alaska, I would NOT send them on the Chilkoot Trail. I wouldn’t send myself.
Around this point, Cheryl would shout at our tent, “Stop introspecting! It was a great hike! I’ll come back in a couple of years and do it again.” And if you’re Cheryl – the only one of us who’d done it before – TWICE before – you’d be an energetic spark plug who simply loves the movement, the activity, the effort, the terrain, the rocks, the creeks, the sheer adventure of it all. There is no doubt that Cheryl thrives on this, and it was a pleasure and inspiration to hike with her.

What I love about backpacking:

  • I love being in air that has not sat inside walls. I love the freshness and openness.
  • I love having all that I need contained on my back.
  • I love the simplicity of living minimally, wearing the same clothes for five days, not brushing my hair, having no chores outside of the ones on the trail.
  • I love not being reachable by the outside world.
  • I love sleeping in a tent where I am protected from mosquitoes and rain and feel utterly and completely safe.
  • I love wildflowers, leafy foliage, babbling brooks, pretty rocks, the hugeness and awesomeness of Nature.
  • I love feeling my own strength and fitness.

The Chilkoot Trail had all this plus history. Blueberries littered the bushes till it looked like blue jewels had been flung around. On one path, there were so many blue and green stones it looked like a blue Yellow Brick Road. Creeks and waterfalls and lakes just sparkled. Forests were magical, with rock punctuating every landscape. Dubbed the longest museum, rusty artifacts from the Klondike stampeders littered the path. The terrain was varied, shifting from rock to water to spruce to snow and back again, and it was exciting to follow a trail with cairns, steps cut into stone, and an improvised “jungle gym” (more about that later).
Before the trip, I was worried about my physical stamina. I didn’t know if I could DO IT – travel the 33 miles uphill with a 37-pound pack on my back. Within five minutes, I knew that was no problem. I literally scampered along the trail.

Lesson Learned #1: I am fit, powerful, and strong. I have physical strength and stamina as a product of the way I live and exercise. I can lay that question to rest. I don’t need to test myself on that anymore.

Before the trip, I prepared. I measured what I ate on camping trips, registering what amounts left me full and satisfied. I figured out how to package things so they’d be easy to pull out meal by meal. Because all trash has to be packed out on the Chilkoot, I minimized waste and packaging. I experimented and figured out how to keep my Wheat Thins unbroken and unsoggy! I took Tim’s sleeping bag to save 10 ounces, borrowed Mary’s tent and Thermarest because they were lighter.
I could do all this because Joan handled all the paperwork: registration for the Trail, permits for our campgrounds, hotel reservations before and after, train tickets for the return – even lunch on the train! She is a logistical wonder.

Lesson Learned #2: I am a diligent preparer. Not overly familiar with backpacking, I asked advice, aimed for minimizing weight, maximizing convenience and taste, and it worked! I came back with only eight ounces of a spare meal.

Lesson Learned #3: I have steely resolve. At the end of the Trail, when Joan described our state as being “depleted,” we realized that if we suddenly had to hike five more miles, we’d do it. We do what has to be done. Period. We six women are six tough cookies. On the trail – in life – we do what has to be done. Period. We may have known this before, but the Chilkoot Trail reaffirmed it.

All these valuable lessons, with beautiful Nature – what wasn’t pleasant? What lesson did I learn that means I don’t need any more Chilkoot Trails in my life?

That’s tomorrow.

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