Wednesday, June 21, 2017

It's never too late to do something different.

One of the big things going on in our lives of late is a mid-life career change for my husband. He was deeply unhappy with his work in the corporate world, trying to juggle competing demands from the heads of the company and not finding much in the job that felt valuable. I hated knowing how much he hated it. When the company started struggling and layoffs ensued, I saw it as a wonderful opportunity. I offered to pick up the financial slack and take over kid duty when he needed to be in class or at a part-time job, and urged him to get trained in something he would feel good about doing. And so, he enrolled in a program to get certified as a Clinical Medical Assistant. With that certification, he could work as a phlebotomist or EKG tech or more generally in a hospital or physician's office. My only condition was that as a needlephobe, I could not let him practice on me! After months of evening and Saturday classes, and lots of studying in a field completely new to him, the course wrapped up with the national exam. We went out to celebrate!
Several days later, he got his results back and found out he didn't just pass the test, he aced it. I pulled out the bottle of bourbon I'd bought to mark the occasion. Because I never had a doubt he'd do well. And he posted this incredibly sweet thank-you: "When I told her we should bring back a couple of bottles of wine from Italy, she said "How about a couple of cases?" When I told her before cooking a fish and chips dinner that I was going inside to batter the cod, she raised an eyebrow and said "Is that what you boys are calling it these days?" And when she could tell I was tiring of a business world that was taking a very real physical and mental toll on me, she said "whatever you want to do we will make it happen"."
Ready for the 6-week externship, which he is now two days into. It was a scary move but, I feel certain, the right one. He's been happier and more relaxed even since just starting the program. And when he came back from the first day at the medical office where he's been placed, he was smiling and wanting to talk about it. That in itself makes it all worth it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Other times, it's a run of funny things.

Like this sweet potato seal I found.
Or a cherry turkey.
Or maybe a place to stop for lunch when you're feeling blue.

And then I saw a joke on a friend's facebook timeline:

Dad: "What's a pirates favorite letter?
Kid: The letter Arrrrrgh?
Dad: You'd think it be the letter Arrrrgh, but they be enchanted by the C's!

I had to try it on my kids, leading to this exchange with my older son:
I walked right into that one!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A run of odd things.

In the last few minutes of the last appointment of the day, I heard a loud thud and then spent too much time watching this scene out the window.
 And then I unwrapped a truffle only to find it was a chocolate Death Star.
Worse, I went into the fenced-in back yard to plant something and saw this on the ground. That's right, a severed duck foot. But why? And how? My theory is that it is the work of El Chupacabra.
But on the other hand, a little house finch landed on my husband's messenger bag when he was on his way to class. That makes up for the rest of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

My tiny war on weeds.

I said I'd follow up on this grassy weed that springs up all over the new clover lawn. Given the root structure, I didn't think it was an actual grass but couldn't find it online or in a weed identification book I'd checked out from the library. I did, however, find a website that lets you send in photos to ask a local expert.
Someone at the ag extension from a neighboring state provided the answer: Yellow nutsedge, "a troublesome, difficult-to-control weed." Apparently I am to be thankful it is not the even more aggressive purple nutsedge.  Sedges spread by underground tubers, so my plan is to just keep pulling them out as they pop up. Thank goodness it's a small area!
More of my attention of late has been here. I love working in the little oasis that is my backyard. And nothing is quite as mind-clearing for me after a long day at work as sitting on the ground and pulling out weeds I don't want.
This is a weed I think of as "popperweed." It's actually called hairy bittercress and when the tiny seed pods dry, bittercress will shoot those little fuckers everywhere. Often into your eyeballs if you are weeding. It's a diabolically clever means of spreading its offspring far and wide.
This is another weed I tried in vain to identify and then sent into the ag extension site. It starts out green and pales to yellow and has hard purplish seedpods and tiny white flowers. I was told this is burweed but when I looked it up, that doesn't quite fit. Particularly since this weed has no spines and that's one of burweed's chief characteristics. I do believe it's a broadleaf winter annual but its identity is still a mystery to me. I pulled out as much of it as I could find and now that it's dormant, I'll wait to see what emerges next winter and pull more.
I declared a fatwa on this weed a couple of years ago. Creeping charlie (aka ground ivy) is not an unattractive plant but it will absolutely take over and choke out everything else. I want room for weeds I do like - clover, wild violets, wood sorrel, henbit, deadnettle - to spread. I have completely eradicated it from my front yard and flower beds, and now I've turned my attention to the back yard. It's a sisyphian task and I suspect I'll never quite get it all. But that won't stop me from trying. And when an entire vine pulls out at once? It makes me absurdly happy.
This is the one weed I will actually use an herbicide on. Because I want the roots dead. I am wildly reactive to poison ivy and it has brought misery into my life on countless occasions. However, I read that the key is not just using soap or a specialty wash, but to take a wash cloth and scrub any exposed area to thoroughly remove the urushiol oil from your skin. I've been doing that and so far, so good.
When the city recently repaved our neighborhood roads, they did so without any sort of notification for not putting yard waste out for pick-up. Instead, they shoved it into my flower bed. On top of blooming flowers. Not knowing why, I pulled it back out and added more to the pile. Lather, rinse, repeat. The third time, I dragged it out onto the newly-paved road, cut back all the leatherleaf mahonia that was growing through my fence from a neighbors yard and added that to the pile. And waited. This time, the city carted it all away. I suspect I'm known as the crazy woman who puts out endless piles of weeds. But I can live with that.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Has it already been a year?

In some ways it seems to have passed in a flash, in others it seems like we've been married a lot longer than that. I got a Groupon deal for photos printed on metal for five bucks each and had two from our wedding made. I braided the silk ribbons we'd used in our hand-fasting and framed the photos with them to hang on our bedroom wall.
Our anniversary was Sunday, so we decided to dress up and go out for dinner. It had rained most of the day but cleared up in the late afternoon and was very pleasant out.
We headed downtown to the restaurant that had catered our wedding night family dinner. My husband had called ahead and asked if they could re-create the dessert I'd requested a year ago. Not on the menu, but I'd remembered this restaurant used to serve a really delicious chocolate mousse. After the meal, they brought this out - on the house!
Of course, we'd also put back some wedding cake, per tradition, and I had taken it out of the freezer that morning. That and a bottle of our wedding champagne, and roses my husband had brought home that matched the ones I'd carried. We slipped our rings onto each other's fingers to repeat our vow - "Leis an fáinne mé pósadh tú agus geallaim mo ghrá" (With this ring I marry you and promise my love). I admit, we're sentimental fools.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

It's getting there. I think.

I had promised an update on my experimental clover yard. This is the side yard. It is shaded by enormous hemlocks and smaller dogwoods, and is shadier. It's patchy still, but the clover is spreading.
And this is the main part of the front yard. There are parts where the clover is thick and other areas that are essentially barren. With highs approaching the 90's lately, it's really too hot to plant more clover.  I'm going to just watch though the summer and then see what needs re-seeding when the weather cools in the fall.
The only weeds I've had trouble with in the front yard are these little grass-like things. They just pop up everywhere and a couple of times a week I pull out the new ones. I don't believe they are actually grass - they grow from a single root and generally pull out of the ground cleanly. They also pop up in my mulched beds.
Eventually I hope the whole lawn will be covered thickly like this patch. Then my front yard will be a bee and bunny heaven.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mother's Day weekend.

I keep thinking I'll have more time to blog, but life keeps happening and I stay busy. Mostly happily so. I've been baking sourdough bread fairly often and made this loaf of Simon & Garfunkel bread last week when my son and his girlfriend came over for dinner. I made it up - it's a spiraled butter and herb loaf with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I asked the kids and was surprised to hear they both knew the song Scarborough Fair. We just had the bread and a big pot of stout and chicken stew.
Sometimes the busy is just hanging out in the hammock with my younger stepdaughter. She has recently become a voracious reader and we go to the library most weekends to stock up. She and I celebrated mother's day a day early, when she made me a card and brought chocolates. We have a tight bond and I think of her as my daughter now.
I'd heard cheeps coming from one of the bird houses so she and I opened it to check. Baby black-capped chickadees! I took a quick photo and shut the box back up because one of the parents was watching from a nearby branch, waiting to bring food to the chicks.
My older son made a rare visit home and spent both weekend nights at my house. I can't tell you how happy this made me. Mother's Day morning, he, my younger son and my younger son's girlfriend (these two are joined at the hip, so I'm thankful that I really like her!) joined us for brunch. I'm trying to be mindful of their privacy, so this is a before photo. We had spinach quiches, a hearty chicken salad, roasted potatoes and berries with coeur a la crème. We talked and laughed for quite a while and I hated to see them go.
The next day, I was carrying out some recycling and was started by a squawk and flutter of wings in the giant rhododendron by the driveway. The little stubby-tailed blue jay fledgling hopped further into the interior of the shrub and watched me anxiously. I, of course, ran for my camera. But I didn't linger because I was being chided by an adult perched in the hemlock tree above us. I gave it some space until the little bird was coaxed by its parent back to the safety of the nest. I could relate - as a prent, I just want the safety and happiness of my kids.
A belated happy Mother's Day to all the moms (in whatever form that takes) out there.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Maybe not exactly "magic."

Once I moved past my pack-rat childhood years, I found that clutter makes me edgy. And I started gravitating toward a more stream-lined life. And yet, it just seems to keep accumulating. If I lived completely alone, it wouldn't be as difficult to keep clutter from building up, but I knew I had to have my husband on board if it was going to work. As I often do, I did some reading first to psych myself up. I have read many books and articles on de-cluttering and I can easily say this is the oddest one I've ever read. By far, in fact. First, it is hard to get past the author's obsessive attachment to "tidying." She traces the arc of her personal history with the subject, beginning as a very young child:

"My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five, and I believe that I was trying in my own way not to make trouble for my parents, who were clearly busy taking care of my other two siblings. I also became conscious from a very young age of the need to avoid being dependent on other people. And, of course, I wanted my parents to praise and notice me. From the time I was a first grader, I used an alarm clock to wake up before everyone else. I did not like being dependent on others, found it hard to trust them, and was very inept at expressing my feelings. From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child. I really enjoyed wandering around the school by myself, and I still prefer to do things alone, including traveling and shopping. This is very natural for me. Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things."

Well. I'm no psychologist, but... wait a minute. I am a psychologist. But you don't have to be one to see that this does not describe psychologically healthy development. And then there is this passage which I feel compelled to post in its entirety:

"This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, “I’m home!” Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, “Thank you very much for your hard work,” and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the entranceway. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, “Good job!” and hang them temporarily from the closet doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my closet, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing inside, and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves. My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag on the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my wallet in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, “Thanks for all you did for me today.” Next, I return to the entrance and put away the books and notebooks I carried around all day (I have converted a shelf of my shoe cupboard into a bookshelf). From the shelf below it I take out my “receipt pouch” and put my receipts in it. Then I put my digital camera that I use for work in the space beside it, which is reserved for electrical things. Papers that I’ve finished with go in the recycle bin beneath the kitchen range. In the kitchen, I make a pot of tea while checking the mail, disposing of the letters I’ve finished with. I return to my bedroom, put my empty handbag in a bag, and put it on the top shelf of the closet, saying, “You did well. Have a good rest.” From the time I get in the door to the moment I close the closet, a total of only five minutes has passed. Now I can go back to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of tea, and relax."

I have to tell you that is one of the saddest things I've ever read.
And yet, I myself like things to be organized and I found myself motivated in spite of the bizarre advice in the book. I don't worry, as Kondo does, about labels on things that are out of view. "Strangely," she writes, "just closing the cupboard doors does not conceal the flood of information. The words become static that fills the air." She advises you to remove labels whenever possible. Yeah. That's not going to happen. And I did not do my discarding and organizing wearing a dress and blazer to indicate my respect for the process. Nor  did I begin by offering a greeting to my house. "If you do this repeatedly, you will start to feel your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things. Carry on a dialogue with your home while tidying. I know this sounds totally impractical and fantastic, but if you ignore this step, you will find that the job goes less smoothly."

But what I did do, which seemed to go smoothly enough although in spite of my lack of conversation with the house and the fact that I was in pajama pants, was go through the bathroom cabinet and weed out everything that we weren't using or was past its expiration date, and set up a system where back-up products were up higher and stuff used more regularly organized and accessible.
That leaves the open shelf clear and uncluttered. Kondo advocates storing things in shoeboxes and boxes from Apple products (she must a big consumer of iPhones and Macbooks). I don't think keeping cardboard boxes around is a good idea since the glue in them attracts roaches. Maybe that's not an issue in Japan but in our house, cardboard goes into gardening projects or recycling. For storage containers that show, I like prettier things anyway. Our vitamins/meds boxes go into the woven lidded basket we bought in Gaiole, Italy, washcloths in another basket, cotton and swabs in ceramic and wooden cups. It's just more aesthetically pleasing to me, but that's my quirk.

Also on the list of things that didn't happen: "One of my clients cleared out a closet and shed that she had neglected for ten years. Immediately after, she had a strong bout of diarrhea after which she felt much lighter."  What. The. Hell.
What I do agree with is discarding things first and then organizing/storing things. And I also already knew that it helps to drag everything in one category out of the closets and drawers and into one spot. But she suggested a slight re-frame that made sense to me - to decide what you want to keep rather than what you want to get rid of. So from the pile on the bed I picked up one piece of clothing at a time and either put it in a stack to return to my room or tossed it into the discard pile. Possibly the most helpful bit of advice is to ask whether each thing "sparks joy." That's a bit of an overstatement, but in all seriousness, why keep things you don't love? At one point, as we were going through my husband's clothes, he threw a t-shirt on the discard pile and then looked at it sadly. I said, "Wait a minute - I thought you loved that shirt?" He acknowledged that he did and I told him to keep it - it definitely fell under the "sparks joy" category for him.

In the end, I had a pile of 83 articles of clothing and 8 pairs of shoes to donate and my husband had off-loaded 54 articles of clothing and 6 pairs of shoes. This doesn't count the non-donateable items like socks and underwear or t-shirts too shabby to give to anyone. To be fair, I have significantly more clothes than my husband because women's clothing tends to be much more specific and varied. So his outgoing numbers represent a bigger percentage than mine.
Kondo also advocates vertical storage, a technique my older son had shown me years ago when he was still in high school. The idea is that you can see at a glance everything you have and stuff doesn't get lost at the bottom of a pile. But again, her mystical thinking about organizing clothing leaves me cold. She writes, "Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle." Folding actually improves the fabric. Sure. Sure it does.

She believes that clothes can guide you in their own folding: "There is nothing more satisfying than finding that “sweet spot.” The piece of clothing keeps its shape when stood on edge and feels just right when held in your hand. It’s like a sudden revelation—So this is how you always wanted to be folded!—a historical moment in which your mind and the piece of clothing connect." Sigh. Is this sort of animism really necessary?

She even wants you to gently fold your socks. Your socks. She chides one client: "I pointed to the balled-up socks. “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest." Who knew we've been mis-treating our socks all this time?

Kondo is Japanese and she threw in this wacky little racist gem for good measure: "Japanese people quickly grasp the pleasure that comes from folding clothes, almost as if they are genetically programmed for this task."
But still. Although I certainly don't believe that "clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure," I can agree that storing by type helps me find what I'm looking for more quickly.

Marie Kondo strikes me as rigid and obsessive in her routinized, solitary life. I don't want to be like her. So I think it's safe to say that I will not be storing my carrots vertically in the fridge, thanking my belongings before I discard them, texting my old phone from my new phone, weeping when I notice soap scum, setting my dishes on the veranda to dry, asking my house where something belongs, or throwing out any book I have not yet read. However, somehow it still encouraged me to start the purge I've been building up to do to get my house back to the uncluttered state I am happiest in. And my small closet? It currently has only clothes I really like. I may not feel my "cells buzz" when I gaze upon it, but you have to admit - it is now an organized thing of beauty.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the trail.

See those pink lines in the right lane? Our city has thirteen designated Dogwood Trails, which are open every April. One of them runs through our neighborhood. It also happens to run along one of our frequent walking routes.
Around the corner from us, one family has put in a labyrinth marked by stones which they keep open to the public. When we go by, we often take a few minutes to walk it. I really love that feeling of quietly centering down.
On our last visit, we were surprised to find our cat already there. Hodr got up from her perch on a nearby chair and walked with us. In her own way, of course, cutting straight through to the middle to demand attention.
The trails are timed to be open when the dogwood trees are in full bloom, and there is hardly a house on the trail that doesn't have at least one of the white- or pink-flowered trees.
The same goes for azaleas. I love the great variety of colors of azaleas.
This house has a wonderful mural painted on their shed. It's an actual door, but it looks like fairies might live there.
The pink guiding lines have arrows to keep drivers on the trail. When I first moved in a few years ago, I had trouble finding my way around the neighborhood because there is nothing remotely grid-like about it. The streets wind around and two roads can be parallel for a bit and then twist to become perpendicular and cross each other. It helped me to have the arrows to guide me back to my house.
Hey, what a cute Little Free Library right on the Dogwood Trail!
Our neighborhood trail is this year's featured trail. That means we've had even more April traffic than usual. Fortunately people are driving very slowly because they are busy looking at all the houses and yards.
We live in the sort of neighborhood where people play basketball, walk, ride their bikes, and hang out in the street chatting with each other. It really is a remarkably friendly place.
Most people who live along the trails take gardening/landscaping seriously. It helps that we have a landscape architect on the block who is always happy to field questions and give advice.
And many people I've talked with in the neighborhood are interested in gardening in a way that doesn't harm the earth, so you don't see a lot of people employing chemicals.
It's a joy to drive home down my street under the dappled shade of the big trees.
And hey, look at that cute little house on the trail... okay, that's mine. I felt a little badly that my yard is covered in straw while the clover is growing but it doesn't seem to stop all the cars and church buses from slowing down and taking pictures. My yard is more of a summer yard than a spring one, though. In a couple of months everything will be full and lush.
But spring is still the perfect time for sitting on the deck and having dinner. We grilled swordfish with tarragon butter and zucchini with balsamic vinegar. From the deck, all you can see is green all around. I love walking the trail but it's also good to be home.