First World Problems

Living in a 100 year old farmhouse has its challenges. Something is always breaking, or threatening to. This morning it’s a plumbing problem (again). We joke that our plumber Adam should really have the spare bedroom as his very own. Part of the problem stems from the way that over time plumbing solutions were oddly cobbled together, sometimes due to expediency and sometimes due to ignorance. Part of the problem stems from having a neutralizer to counteract the acidity of our well water, which occasionally goes berserk in its flushing cycle. Pinhole leaks in our copper pipes have become the bane of my existence. And then there is just the craziness of an old house deciding it needs attention, preferably around the holidays when I am least inclined to be patient with water shut offs, propane tank valve malfunctions or boiler breakdowns. At least, since we installed a backup generator in the summer of 2012, we haven’t had to do without electricity.

IMG_1073I know, first world problems. I’m not facing eviction or shivering in a cardboard box under a bridge. The minor inconvenience of using (compostable) paper products until I can run the dishwasher or properly wash up after meals pales in comparison to the inconvenience suffered by millions worldwide who have only sporadic access to potable water. A trip to the Safeway for bottled H2O and more hand sanitizer until Adam rescues me is a small price to pay for the surety that within hours I will be able to resume my daily routine. A hot shower at the gym yesterday after a ten-minute drive pales in comparison to walking miles with jerry jugs of river water on my head.

Instead of whining, I think I will make a donation to one of the seven water organizations listed here that help ordinary people deal with real water emergencies. In this holiday season, I encourage all of you to do the same!

The Joy of Cooking

Before Thanksgiving I had my twenty-three year old Ikea kitchen cabinets professionally painted. That required emptying drawers and cupboards and getting rid of many things that no longer served me, designating them for either Goodwill or the trash. Inspired by the resultant lack of kitchen clutter, I’ve tackled my 1840s Irish hutch, the home of all of my cookbooks, kitchen utensil instruction manuals, food clippings and miscellaneous things once held by random magnets on the refrigerator. This trip down a decades’ long memory lane became a recipe for smiles, a tear or two and a lot of reflection.

After, organized and weeded out

After, organized and weeded out

The oldest item, aside from the hutch itself, is my favorite cookbook, Joy of Cooking. The mint green cover of this 1963 edition, the last authored by its originator, Irma Rombauer — stained in places and held together with duct tape — gives evidence of not just its longevity in my collection, but of its utility. The red ribbons attached to the binding and provided as page markers are permanently embedded in the turkey roasting and pie baking pages. Which is not to suggest that others are not well thumbed.

IMG_1066Long before Google, Pinterest and Epicurious, Joy was my “go to” for questions about equivalencies, substitutions, techniques, housekeeping tips and proper entertaining etiquette.

Not that I hadn’t been properly trained at home. Whatever else she might have been, my stepmother was, by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s, an excellent home keeper and cook. Yes, meals were meat and potatoes affairs occasionally enhanced by the modern packaged foods newly available at the time, like Shake n Bake or Velveeta. But meals were always a sit down affair, with dinner at 6pm sharp every night, breakfast of eggnog and cinnamon toast ready before school and sandwiches, milk and fruit at lunchtime. My sister and I were schooled on how to cook, set the table and clean up — whether just for our family of eight or an important dinner party with white tablecloths and multiple forks and spoons at each place setting.

But it was Irma and her daughter Marion who first taught me about cuts of meat, measurements for cocktails (who knew what a “jigger was”), drying herbs, the many types of flour and sugar, even how to remove coffee stains by pouring boiling water onto them from a height of two feet! More than a cookbook, Joy was my fictive mother, grandmother and great grandmother, available at an instant to tell me how to do almost anything in the kitchen or dining room, on the porch or patio. The wonderful illustrations, common sense approach and recipes made with readily available ingredients presented in honest and family friendly combinations, made Joy not just one of the New York Public Library’s 150 most influential books of the twentieth century, but an antidote to the over the top foodie extravaganzas that hit bookstores and restaurants in the 1990s and beyond. (Influenced a bit by this, my 1997 edition of Joy rarely is used and will be replaced by the 2006 75th anniversary edition which is more faithful to the original Joy vision.)

Next came my upscaling at the hands of Craig Claiborne. Living in New York City as a young adult and then (as now) a devotee of the New York Times, I devoured his columns and tried many of the recipes in the four Times cookbooks I own: The New York Times Cookbook, The New York Times Menu Cookbook, The New York Times International Cookbook and Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times. More gourmet than the down home cuisine in Joy, but still reproducible by the home cook without a trust fund to spend, Claiborne’s recipes ranged from regional specialties cooked simply to more elegant dishes influenced by international cuisine.

Several staples of our Thanksgiving feast — including the southern cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce — originally came from these volumes. When the Times put out The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century in 2010, after carefully checking to make sure that the stuffing recipe was included, I bought three copies, one for myself and one for each grown daughter.

And then there was Julia. Like many, I was smitten with her PBS cooking shows, which became must see TV for me. Too young to have watched The French Chef while in boarding school in the 1960s, I found her in the 1970s and immediately started working my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While I never made every recipe as did blogger Julie, I made many, and then most from the cookbooks reprising episodes of her later cooking show seasons.

For me, Julia was not just about technique, she was about being fine with less than perfect results. Watching her laugh off small goofs or even dropped chickens and hearing her signature “Bon appetit” at the conclusion of each show made me eager to try to replicate her creations, like her, with a wine glass in hand. It was she who influenced me to acquire Le Creuset cookware, which forty years later is still my “batterie de cuisine”. Living now in the D.C. outskirts, I have more than once made the pilgrimage to her kitchen at the Smithsonian. Some day I will even have a pegboard wall, perhaps in her signature green!

During the 1980s I discovered the Moosewood cookbooks, five of which I now own, with publication dates spanning from 1977 to the early 1990s. Like many, I was first cutting down on meat, eventually choosing not to eat mammals while still cooking with fowl and fish. Especially during the 1990s, the healthy, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare dishes featured in the cookbooks and the Ithaca restaurant for which they were named became staples in my household, both out of principle and practicality; raising two daughters on a teacher’s salary required some real budget jujitsu.

An assortment of culinary classics like the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, Jane Brody’s Good Food Cookbook, Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking have been joined by several Mark Bittman titles. (I’m still coveting How to Cook Everything…. do you hear me Santa?).

Then there are the appliance specific cookbooks/manuals: slow cooker (the best are by Beth Hensberger), blender, food processor (my favorite is the original robot coupe 1973 cookbook which I still have, even though I gave the machine to my daughter), pressure cooker (from days owning a sailboat), ice cream maker, grill, fondue pot. I own too many vegetarian or near vegetarian cookbooks and will keep only one or two, but my two bread cookbooks from Williams Sonoma and Cindi Flahive-Sobel will still have honored shelf space.

Family recipes and those garnered from friends have been painstakingly digitized onto laminated recipe cards residing in a plastic box. Clippings have been weeded out (if I lived to be a hundred I could eat a different saved chicken recipe every day…not likely to happen). My Evernote recipe notebook, Pinterest food folder and New York Times online recipe box hold my virtual clippings.

I began by mentioning smiles and tears, and you might be wondering why. My 1963 Joy has penciled annotations in two different hands drawing me back first to a grand love from my twenties and then a failed marriage in my fifties. The New York Times cookbooks bear the black-penned name and date of my college lover and mate. Julia Child came into my life at the same time that my daughters did, and all of the books were gifts from their father.

I’ve gone through phases, trying new cuisines, new gadgets, new men, new identities. As I leaf through the books, unfold the yellowed newspaper clippings, decide what fits me now and what doesn’t, I experience a rush of joy at remembering the happy times of cooking for men I loved, children I bore, friends I cherished, relatives I wanted to nurture as they had me. Many of those I recall are no longer a part of my life, on to other kitchens, other meals, or other dimensions as in the case of my dear friends Charlie and Antonio.

Cooking is an act of love. My culinary library tells the story of my journey from young adulthood through relationships, marriages, parenting, juggling work and homemaking, empty nesting. After forty-five years, I’ve learned to cook without much use for instruction, working by instinct with whatever is at hand most of the time. But my cookbooks have become totemic, keys to who I have been, what I have aspired to, who I wish to continue to be inspired by. “Bon appetit!”

I’m Going to Live Like a Dog … Or a Goose

Every morning between 6:30 and 7:00 a passel of geese squawk noisily as they fly over my bedroom, presumably commuting from their riverbank home on the Potomac to the corporate campuses and golf courses where they congregate during the workday. For twenty-one of the last twenty-three September morns their honking has signaled that it is time to begin my own trek to work. Like them, I returned to Great Falls at dusk, only to repeat the pattern at the break of the next day. We are all creatures of routine after all.

But now I have retired, and if I am not already up and out of bed their beating wings and loud exhortations to stay in formation and flap harder suggest that it is time to get some coffee and my iPad in preparation for a leisurely catch up on the world’s doings overnight. I no longer need to find and work to keep my place in the human version of the goose pecking order made visible in their aerial V. Geese can live between ten and thirty years depending upon their circumstances, so perhaps some of the same birds are flying over me as were young when I moved in. I wonder, can geese retire, and what happens to them if they do? Do they get to stay back at the water’s edge with the goose version of social security, meals on wings and senior discounts at the marsh grass feeding area? Are they left in charge of the goslings or just abandoned after they can no longer contribute to the working age flock?

Questions like these about aging, longevity and vibrancy have hung over me like a shroud these last few weeks as I inch closer to the dreaded birthday that signifies that I am officially “old.” I don’t feel old, and most people are kind enough to say that I don’t look my age. I don’t really want to be young; I’m “comfortable in my own skin,” as they say, even if it does sag. But being classified as “old” puts things in perspective and forces me to consider big, philosophical questions that are hard. How much time do I have left, and what do I want to do with it? What is the right balance between living now and providing for a possibly lengthy dotage? What is the definition of “quality of life?” How will it change as I age?

Ever since my beloved terrier Sydney passed in March and his younger, devoted (if bratty) companion Addie had her own bout with cancer in May, I have become acutely aware that time is relative. I never used to think about a day as a unit of time in a dog’s life, busy and unconsciously living, selfishly perhaps, according to my own sense of what sunrise to sunrise meant in the 80 or so years that I might be expected to inhabit this earth. I know that Addie and Sydney have been loved, cared for and treated with patience in their infirmity — even if I was not always as sensitive as I should have been to the meaning of each day of their so abbreviated lives. Now I understand that a day in a dog’s life really does equal a week in mine, and I need to make each one count. Retirement has allowed me to insure that Addie has an adventure nearly every day, that I don’t waste whatever remains of her time at my side.

I’m trying to extrapolate this epiphany to my own activities. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned physician and public health advocate so associated with the Affordable Care Act, has a riveting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic explaining in detail why he wishes to die at age 75. Now 57 and in good health, he makes a compelling case for letting nature take its course after 75 rather than prolonging what is usually a debilitated and diminished endgame. He points out that while each of us think we might be one of the outliers who remains vital and productive until well into our 90s, the reality is that most of us will spend our old age in increasing physical and cognitive incapacity. Therefore, for him, setting a deadline by which he will have accomplished his life goals and will thereafter refuse all but palliative care is liberating rather than depressing. He will live as long as nature or God intends, but without benefit of modern medicine after age 75, except for the alleviation of pain.

When I think about this stance toward mortality as someone just hours from my 65th birthday, I come to the conclusion that I should live life like a dog, imagining each day as more precious than I have heretofore and assuming my lifespan to be just ten more years — Emanuel’s age 75 and the average lifespan of a canine. I am in excellent health and spirit and I love deadlines, so thinking that the next decade is all that I have focuses my mind and banishes indecision about which pleasures to partake of and which adventures to seek. Like Emanuel, I am not advocating hedonism in the meantime — that “We are all going to die anyway so why not eat that extra cupcake” mentality. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, not just because it gives me pleasure to be fit, but as an act of social responsibility. I won’t squander my limited but nonetheless ample resources on consumerism, but I will have the kitchen cabinets repainted because they need a refresh and because it will make me even happier to walk into my kitchen in the morning. I won’t get a facelift or a tummy tuck, but I will continue to spend a hefty sum on my hair. I’m giving my thirteen-year-old still perfectly working car to my daughter and buying a brand new one, because, well, because she needs one and I want one. I’ll spend the next ten years traveling as much as I possibly can, while I still can. I want to live to see grandchildren and to enjoy watching my daughters become mothers. I want to read, and write and cook to my heart’s content, but I am sick to death of cleaning and as soon as I can afford it I will pay someone else to do most of it for me. Money is really only useful when it buys survival, security or experiences, and while the temptation is to hoard it for the for the first two, with my ten year perspective and my newfound dog brain I want to use it for living, not staving off dying.

Geese and dogs have much to teach. Both are extremely loyal, the birds mating for life and the canines closely bonded to their pack, whether human or other. Both have strong nurturing tendencies in each gender, sharing the care of young (remember that old adage “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”). Both like to work and love to play, being social creatures with the ability and intelligence to learn and to participate in complex interactions. As far as we know, despite their ability to feel jealousy, affection, sorrow and many other so-called “human” emotions, neither geese nor dogs have a dread of their own mortality. They can plan, but not for IRAs or 401(k)s or tax deductions. They do not live in the future. Whether my remaining lifespan matches that of a dog or a goose, I will try to be more like them, staying mindful of the now, of the ever-present “here” and enjoying the company of others. In my experience, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I do love a wild goose chase! Wish me luck.

Today is National Dog Day (I know, every dog has his day…).

Life without our four-legged canine friends would be infinitely less. Dogs live in the moment, but they also never forget their people. When family members return home, even after an absence of several years, dogs can go absolutely bat shit — as all of those returning veteran YouTube videos have shown us. Dogs don’t care whether we meet our specie’s standards of beauty (even if some of us hold them to their breed standard). Dogs have a range of emotions, including jealousy, as a recent New York Times article affirmed, although anyone with more than one pet already knows that. Dogs can be the shoehorn that gets us off the couch and out the door to enjoy the natural world, rain or shine. They can be the vehicles for meeting new people or talking to people we already know as we stroll through the neighborhood. In tough times, they can be the glue that holds us together, not just as individuals but as a family — snuggling us, kissing us, or just sharing those wise knowing stares that say, “I know you are hurting, but I’m here for you.” They can make us laugh at their antics, cry at their passing, bark at their misbehavior, marvel at their bravery and stoicism, wish for their simple joy in life. They have inspired poets for centuries. While cat videos have become an Internet meme, it is our canine friends who most teach us to be human through the poignant brevity of their time with us, the depth of our mutual respect and affection, and the knowledge of mortality that our sometimes brief togetherness bestows on us, if not them.

Three of my favorite poems follow. They are sad, but capture so well what is so special about the canine/human bond. Moral of the story: live each day trying to be as wise and good as your dog.

 Dog’s Death

 She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.

                                                            John Updike

 

Another Dog’s Death

 For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

 John Updike

 

A Dog Has Died

By Pablo Neruda
Translated By Alfred Yankauer

My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

Some day I’ll join him right there,
but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

Ai, I’ll not speak of sadness here on earth,
of having lost a companion
who was never servile.
His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
withholding its authority,
was the friendship of a star, aloof,
with no more intimacy than was called for,
with no exaggerations:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.

No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he’d keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
as we walked together on the shores of the sea
in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
where the wintering birds filled the sky
and my hairy dog was jumping about
full of the voltage of the sea’s movement:
my wandering dog, sniffing away
with his golden tail held high,
face to face with the ocean’s spray.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him,
and that’s all there is to it.

RIP Sydney, my sweet furever boy.

This is What Medicare Looks Like

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My Medicare card just arrived in the mail, sparking a variety of responses. Relief that soon I will no longer be paying my very expensive monthly COBRA bill. Delight that I will now be able to rejoin Kaiser Permanente after a seven-year stint elsewhere. Anxiety over the fact that I am now officially considered to be an old person.

Aging gracefully is an art. Women (and men) who try too hard to look like they did twenty years earlier strike me as foolish. Men (and women) who want their partners to look like they did twenty or thirty years ago strike me as despicable/disposable. (See this wonderful article by Robin Korth in the Huffington Post about this very topic.)

My goal is to remain elegant, strong, hale and hearty. Serendipity brought me good genes. I supplement my good fortune with a commitment to a rigorous physical fitness regimen and a healthy lifestyle. Nonetheless, no number of crunches or warrior twos will keep my fair skin from losing some of its tautness, but well chosen clothing and a continued zest for living can give me the radiance that came so naturally in my younger years.

I’m actually in better shape now than I was in my forties and fifties, brought about by a bout four years ago with piriformis syndrome, an excruciatingly painful condition that I vowed never again to experience. Once I could get up off the floor and walk more than a few paces without Advil and curse words, I went to a rehab specialist/personal trainer, who “fixed” me. In the process he got me addicted to working out and doing yoga; if I go three days without either a gym session or a vinyasa class I feel physically and spiritually depleted.

Every time I think about cancelling my once a week sessions with my trainer I remind myself that our workouts are the best insurance policy I have against future injury, frailty and loss of mobility. He tells me that I am in the top one half of one percent of fitness for my age, and that makes me feel better than saving the almost $300 a month would. And, thanks to him and to my awesome yoga teachers, looking in the mirror feels really good as long as I don’t glance above the neck. (And, of course, Nora Ephron had the last word on that subject).

Sometimes, when I do catch a glimpse of myself without makeup in the morning, I wonder who the hell that old hag staring at me is. I don’t have a wattle, or jowls, or flaccid shoulders, but the dark circles never seem to go away no matter how rested I am and the parentheses around my mouth are much more pronounced than they used to be. I’m still blonde, but I do get highlights now to blend in the darker, muddier, not quite blonde not quite grey hairs. I accept the lines on my face as evidence that I have seen a full range of human experience and chosen to persevere in the face of personal challenges. I have no interest in Botox or fillers, no desire for a tummy tuck or a knee lift. Concealer, a bit of mascara and I’m ready for the real secret to staying young: finding the daily balance between savoring the moment and continuing to set goals for myself.

My yoga practice keeps me robust and graceful, and more importantly centered. It has become a cliché that it’s not about the destination but the journey. For me, the journey takes me back to the “aha” moment I experienced shooting a bucket of balls into the lacrosse net for hours on end until I could target particular gridlines in the net. Or the split second burst of nirvana in midair knowing that I was going to nail the entry on my pike with a half twist low board dive. Achieving a new yoga asana through a combination of athleticism, determination, proprioception and practice, practice, practice fills me with gratitude for the breath that each new day brings. Knowing that I can count on my body to hold me up frees the rest of me to reach for improvement in other ways; I’m working on being more patient, more loving, more forgiving.

When it comes right down to it, I am lucky to be “old,” let alone in fine fettle. With luck I will grow to be as ancient as my 94-year-old father, inspirational as he is setting new physical goals for himself each day as he recovers from a recent medical crisis. As he put it, “As long as I keep improving, I am happy to be alive.” Word.

 

The Year in Review

It’s been a year since my retirement after nearly thirty years of classroom teaching and school administration. While this last weekend in June may not be New Year’s Day, it is nonetheless time for taking stock and setting goals for the coming year. Nearly all of my friends and acquaintances advised me to take a year off, to just chill out, before setting big goals and expecting to chip away at my bucket list, but I didn’t believe them. I think the karma gods figured out right away that I was now available for all sorts of unplanned speed bumps on the road to a new life phase; let’s just say that it’s been an eventful year. Let the record show that those who warned me were right and I was wrong!

So what have I learned?

1) Just because I don’t have to get up at o’dark thirty to go to work doesn’t mean my animals think I should sleep in, even though I don’t go to bed at 9:30 anymore.

2) It’s a lot easier to eat well and to exercise well and often without the daily grind of working full time.

3) As an introvert, I sometimes have to remember to get outside of my own head and interact with people other than my partner, and then I have to do something about it, which I mostly have, but there is room for improvement.

4) I don’t seem to have much in common with a lot of the people my own age. I am the oldest person in most of the new adventures I’m involved with, and that’s just fine.

5) While I miss the actual act of teaching — interacting with kids, thinking up new ways to present material, mentoring students and younger colleagues — there are big parts of being a K-12 teacher that became more and more onerous in recent years. I am delighted to never again have to:

o   Write another report card comment

o   Explain in person or on some idiotic online form that no one ever reads “how I’ve developed myself professionally this year”

o   Sit through another faculty meeting

o   Post an assignment in yet another format on yet another piece of crap software

o   Endure being told that I am blunt and intimidating because I have decades of experience and am not afraid to say what I think

6) Maybe I just need some space, but the book I wanted to write about the state of contemporary American education is the furthest thing from my mind right now.

7) Finally, having the time to deal with all the junk I’ve accumulated — both physical and virtual — doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun to sift through it and, as they say, “deaccession” (except for most of the work clothes, which went to Goodwill immediately).

So what have been the best things to happen during this first year?

1) Traveling, from planning a trip to actually doing it, has enriched my life and my relationship beyond measure. Mr. D and I have spent months away from home, visiting the West Coast, Asia, New York and Rehoboth. We’ve become a well-oiled partnership on the road, and it has brought us closer. We’ve met some seriously inspirational new people on our travels, almost all of them adventurous and younger than we are, because we don’t ever stay in impersonal and/or expensive places. We’ve had quality time with friends and family during times other than school vacations, and we’ve been able to take leisurely trips to places known and unknown rather than freaking out over how many days we have until we go back to work. I know, most people think, “teachers have all summer off, what’s the problem,” but let me tell you, I used to work my butt off during the summer catching up on household chores, planning for new courses and making “old” ones fresh.

2) I’ve taken two classes that have seriously changed my life. Getting started on learning to really use my DSLR camera enabled me to see the world anew. I wish it weren’t such a pain to transfer these photos in real time to Instagram! Even more importantly, the short story semester class I took with the renowned author and professor Mary Gordon gave me the jumpstart I needed for my own writing. The reading list was challenging, her lectures were riveting, and the comments I received on the five papers I had to write for the course renewed my confidence in my ability. I nearly cried tears of joy when she wrote that she was “blown away” by the “depth and elegance” of my thought and prose. I really needed that as I began to get serious about committing to the next step in my intellectual life.

3) Serendipity brought me a forum to test my authorial wings, and also gave me the opportunity to share with three women who have become my writing touchstone. Kate and I met at the first meeting of an author’s group at our local library, but decided independently that the group just wasn’t for us. She took the initiative to start a group and before we knew it we had four committed women ranging in age from twenties to sixties and several others who came and went sporadically. We meet every two weeks to share work with no restrictions as to genre. Pieces must not exceed 1200 words and must include a word drawn at random the previous session. After one school year so far (not including vacations) we have by my count met sixteen times. The support and critical acuity of my co-members has emboldened me to write deep from the gut, enabled me to hone pieces after receiving excellent criticism, and given me a sense of community and grounding in what can be a lonely or overly narcissistic endeavor.

What have been the biggest challenges of this first year of retirement?

1) Without question, health issues have been major stressors, even though none of them have been my own:

o   My father’s wife’s death after an arduous battle with ovarian cancer

o   My father’s own frailty and ultimate health crisis and recovery

o   Mr. D’s very unexpected pacemaker implantation

o   My brother’s bout with colon cancer

o   My sweet elder dog Sydney’s cancer recurrence and consequent euthanasia

o   My feisty middle aged terrier’s thyroid cancer surgery

Can I tell you how much I loathe cancer?

2) It’s taken a long time to let go of the goals I set for the first year (blogging on two separate blogs every week, accomplishing a number of home improvements, consolidating and perhaps getting rid of all of my electronic and physical teaching materials, becoming a better person, blah blah blah). I’m now choosing to focus on how much I have really accomplished rather than how much is still left to do.

3) It was very hard to adjust to not earning money. This was not so much a financial hardship as a change of self-definition. I continued to do some tutoring, but in effect was, for the first time in decades, not receiving a paycheck per se. I’ve gone from being not just employed but also having at least one freelance situation on the side to being retired. I have no plans or desires to return to the workforce and feel fine now, but those first few months were anxiety producing.

So what’s next?

I’m much less future oriented and much more present in the now than I used to be. My goals are simpler. I want to

o   Be able to hold a handstand in the middle of the room by my birthday

o   Work through the tutorials on the photography program Lightroom5

o   Spend quality time with my remaining terrier now that I have a sense of her mortality

o   Freeze fresh sweet corn and can fresh tomatoes

o   Post on my blogs at least once every two weeks

o   Clean out the garage and the carriage house

o   Get the tile and floor jobs done, preferably by paying someone else to do them

o   Read more

This past year has been one of the best of my life, even though the challenges have been many. I’m looking forward to each day as it comes, and I can honestly say that retiring when I did was one of the best decisions I have ever made!

On a Lark

I am a lark and my partner Mr.D is an owl. It’s not because I am as happy as a lark, or because he is as wise as an owl, although both clichés fit. As far as I know, Facebook hasn’t yet had a quiz to determine which bird one is, and if one popped up in my news feed I’d be afraid to take it after finding out that if I were a dog I’d be a pit bull.

Nope, it’s all about our circadian rhythms. I’m a morning person even now, in retirement. I’m up and at’em at first light, down in the kitchen brewing coffee, cooing at the cats rubbing my legs and feeding the goofy terrier who is ineptly balancing on her hindquarters in anticipation of breakfast. By 10:30 PM I am past ready for bed, savoring appropriating the entire mattress acreage to myself before one, two or three other beings claim their fair share. Dan, by contrast, routinely sleeps until 9:00 AM and goes to bed closer to midnight. He is in charge of letting the dog out for a last pee and insuring that both cats are inside, safe from marauding foxes and prevented from terrorizing small sleeping animals and birds. (PS — Mr.D got Great Dane on the dog quiz. Jealous.)

While the saying goes that opposites attract, I don’t think we are well suited for one another primarily due to our sleep patterns, although they do afford each of us alone time at bookends of the day. As we age, we each have nights when the sandman forgets to sprinkle one of us. Lying awake, listening to the sleep noises of as many as four other beings, one can sometimes fantasize about using pillows for other than their intended purpose.

It’s interesting that sleep researchers have nicknamed morning people after a species of bird known for its grounded nest, beautiful song, and ability to learn as many as thirteen other vocalizations. Larks are favored pets in Asia and I saw and heard many in their ornate birdcages perched either on windowsills or hanging like lanterns from balustrades in Hong Kong and Vietnam. Poets have immortalized the lark as the harbinger of dawn, the gatekeeper of the space between heaven and hell, torpor and consciousness, ignorance and enlightenment. A humbling charge for this tiny feathered creature! On the downside, larks are a favorite delicacy in some parts of the world, eaten bones and all, and not just by cats.

I wonder whether larks, too, sometimes have nights of fitful sleep. If so, do their minds wander as mine does, from semi-consciousness to moments of clarity? Do they too suffer from the indecision of whether to rise (if not shine) or try to induce somnolence through a combination of will and relaxation techniques? I suppose I do feel a bit bird-brained at 2:30 AM as I review every possible thing I could add to my to do list or try to recall the main plot points of the dream I just awoke from.

My sleep patterns are, not too surprisingly, often ill-adjusted during times of transition. I well remember realizing that newborns first sleep through the night as a survival instinct, natural selection having chosen those who did so just before their mothers, psychotic from lack of sleep, flung them against the cave walls. In menopause I would sometimes awake in a puddle of sweat, needing to change not just my PJs but my sheets. At the time of my divorce I spent many an anxiety riddled 3 AM hour diverting myself by working a New York Times Sunday Crossword in a book I kept by my bedside. And of course we all know about jetlag.

It turns out that one’s circadian rhythm is probably inherited. I got mine from my father and my grandfather, both of whom — like me– could fall asleep instantly and sleep through the night for a solid seven hours until their late middle age. I clearly remember Papa napping on the davenport in the sunroom of my grandparents’ house. What I didn’t realize was that he never actually went to bed at night, leaving the big mahogany sleigh bed to my Nana, thereby sparing her his restlessness and insomnia. And now my aged father has as his primary medical complaint his own nighttime wakefulness, for which he is perpetually overmedicating himself, causing a chain reaction of other problems like impaired cognition and wobbly balance.

Will this be my fate? Will I lose my morning warble? My groundedness? Will I become not a songbird, but a misunderstood pit bull, snarling at strangers from the cumulative abuse of lack of sleep, banned from apartment buildings and public places because of my supposed unchangeable evil disposition?

I think not. I’m not much of a napper now, but I can learn, just as I have learned to really let go during the savasana phase of my yoga practice. After all, my pit bull profile tells me that I’m sincere and extremely versatile, and larks are one of the smartest members of the species, able to mimic the tones and behaviors of other birds. And who really cares whether one sleeps between 2 AM and 5 AM or between 2 PM and 5PM? Whole cultures do this in the form of a siesta, and medical research has it that this is a partial explanation for the longevity of Mediterranean and Latin American populations.

My grandfather, the expert napper who just went with the flow instead of trying to change it, was the sweetest most loving man, like Dan, a Great Dane “ genuinely humble . . .extremely smart . . . approachable . . . the kind ruler of [his] own kingdom.” So, chronotype is not destiny. Circadian rhythm is not fate. All twenty four hours are there to be lived whether as a misunderstood but lovable and fascinating pitbull or a happy song-filled lark. Or maybe both. 

In My House, Redskins are Potatoes

About three seasons ago I went cold turkey and gave up football.  It wasn’t easy.  I’d been watching my whole life as far back as I could remember.  I grew up in a Giants household back in the days when fans wore paper bags over their heads in shame.  (Maybe that will make a comeback after this season). My first boss had Jets tickets and sometimes I, a lowly researcher, was given one.  I owned my first home in Patriot territory, but I never got to a game in person.  I’ve lived in “Redskin Nation” for almost thirty years. My children grew up fans of the “skinnies” as we called them, always being a little too politically correct to go with a Native American moniker. My ex was a rabid Green Bay fan.

What made me do it?  First, it was the expansion of the NFL into every nook and cranny of the TV schedule.  What used to be a terrific Sunday pastime, with must watch Monday Night TV in addition, turned into Sunday, Monday, Thursday, sometimes Saturday and a zillion cable channel nightmare. And then there was fantasy football and the chat about that all week long. I figured if I didn’t call it quits I might actually end up unable to lift my butt off the couch.

And then there was the concussion issue.  I’d seen some horrible injuries over the years, including one west coast player whose name I can’t remember becoming a quadriplegic right on camera during a Monday night game. But the increased number of brain disorders diagnosed as tests became more sensitive and helmets and padding became more not less lethal seemed to mark a turning point.  An article in Talking Points Memo yesterday posited that perhaps all pro football players suffer damage not because of concussions per se but because of repeated knocks on the head.  You can read it here.

And then there is the controversy over the Redskins name and Dan Snyder’s adamant refusal to change it.  And the mystery of what the heck happened between Incognito and Martin in Miami.  Is the culture of football just a bit toxic? I know that football is America’s game, made all engrossing by high definition TV, the yellow line, cheerleaders, halftime shows, the Super Bowl, yadda yadda yadda.

I just concluded that while I am not a hater, I wanted to reclaim that time for other things. I’ve paid a bit of a price, since I can’t always knowledgeably participate in the convo at the gym or get invited to the nachos and beer parties that I used to go to.  But overall, I’m happy that I’ve retired my jersey,  a couch potato no more.

“Deaccessioning”

I’m moving in a new direction, and you can tell by my newly reorganized and not yet overflowing bookcase.

These books will go to a former colleague.

These books will go to a former colleague.

These books will go to the neighborhood kids.

These books will go to the neighborhood kids.

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These are women’s history books from graduate school!

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Ditto!

These books will go to Goodwill.

These books will go to Goodwill.

It took an afternoon, but more than that it took almost thirty years to get to the place of being able to let go of books that were so much a part of my scholarly and leisure time life. I made the decision that only the classics and books I hadn’t yet read would stay. I have books in almost every room of my house, and several more bookcases to cull, but this was a big one. It was bittersweet, because handling the books reminded me of times gone by, passions now dimmed, colleagues long since out of my address book.

But it is liberating as well. I am reading voraciously now, but not in the same vein. I am writing more than I have in many years, but not in the same genre. This purge cleared the way for this new phase of my intellectual life.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

I’m taking an online course exclusively for alumnae of my college, taught by an eminent professor of literature who is also a well known writer. The two works for this assignment were Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover.  In each novel, a central theme concerns the source of a writer’s inspiration and the motivation for becoming a writer.  Not to trivialize these great works by comparing them to my own paltry efforts, tonight’s webinar made me think about the NaBloPoMo challenge that I have taken up for November. Apparently, and I am paraphrasing here, Samuel Beckett posited that writers need to fail, fail again, and then fail better.  My esteemed professor elaborated on that notion suggesting that all writers feel like failures because the vision one has in one’s mind is never perfectly translated into words.  Where does the desire to write come from? Is it merely a narcissistic act of self-discovery or self-promotion? Is it an ode to some platonic ideal of the perfect form? She suggested that talent is inborn, but the discipline to fail, fail again and then fail better is an attribute to be cultivated through practice, practice, practice.  So,  perhaps the point of NaBloPoMo is just to begin to fail, to fail again, and then to fail better.