Sunday, June 30, 2013

Hearing a different drummer.

When I took my trip to Massachusetts last month, I knew I'd visit Walden Pond while in Concord, so I downloaded a copy of Henry David Thoreau's 1854 classic,"Walden."As I am working my way toward greater material simplicity, I was pulled by his intention: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Who can't resonate to the wish "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"? I really, really wanted to like this book.
The irony of a gift shop at Walden made me cringe. Plastic water bottles, keychains, refrigerator magnets and t-shirts emblazoned with "Simplify." Yeah. Thoreau would be spinning in his grave. But I was also aware of his own hypocrisy about self-sufficiency - like that fact that he was able to live free on the land at Walden Pond because his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson owned it. That he accepted many gifts and ate Sunday dinners back at home. That he had his mother doing his laundry, for pity's sake. He was 28 when he took on this experiment, and surely old enough to fully take care of himself?
The pond now has a walking path that winds its way through the woods and around the shore. It's easy to see the appeal of living here and watching the changing seasons and fun to read his fascination with all that he observed. I was struck by the intensity of his dislike for "brute" appetites and his unforgiving rules about life. He might roast up the occasional woodchuck or eat for days from a pot of unadorned beans, "But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you.  It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery." Oh Thoreau, rich cookery is a delight and not something to be feared. As I did some reading, I also see that he never had any romantic relationships and seemed disinterested in sex. Asexual? Closeted gay? Socially awkward? I do see that he is described as homely and was apparently completely out of touch with what is appealing to women. He wore a "neckbeard" (chin and jaw clean-shaven, and a mass of hair on the neck.  Ick!) and believed that many women found the style attractive. No. No no no. His friend Louisa May Alcott once said his facial hair, "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity."
The cabin is long gone, but the original site is marked off. There is much to be admired about the man and it's sad to think that he died at 44, an age that now seems far too young to me. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist and refused to pay taxes because of the governmental support of slavery. His ideas on civil disobedience inspired Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a tireless observer of the minutia of life and endlessly intrigued by nature.
But he also wrote in a way that could be dreadfully boring at times and also condescending about other people. He spends time with a French-Canadian trapper who is uneducated and seems to view him as a delightful but primitive form of human. And although I fully appreciate his point about not really needing fancy clothing, big houses, and excess material goods, does he have to be so patronizing about it? It's hard not to come away from the book feeling like he's a bit of a pompous ass. He talks about the need to have intellectual conversations outside his cabin because of the inconvenience of too little space when he and a guest wanted to "Utter the big thoughts in big words." Oh dear Lord. When I read that, I head the song, "Big Time" in my head:
"The place where I come from is a small town.
They think so small 
They use small words. 
But not me, I'm smarter than that 
I worked it out. 
I've been stretching my mouth 
To let those big words come right out." (Peter Gabriel)
Thoreau's daily view those two years surely lends itself to a love of the natural world and spiritual growth. And that is the gem buried within the hot air and tedious detail of his book. "We must learn to reawaken and keep awake, and not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep." Well, amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

African dance in Appalachia.

This weekend I went down to the festival celebrating African culture. It was warm but not unpleasant, and the energy of festivals downtown is always fun.
 Sometimes, I envy the kids playing in the fountains. I'm always tempted to run in there with them.
 This day of the festival included a parade with a drumline, dancers and stiltwalkers.
The kids, from first grade through high school, have been attending a camp to learn African drumming and dancing. The cutest are the little bitty girls. I stayed long enough to watch each age group before heading back home.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The sort of thing I fritter away time on.

When I logged on to pay my credit card balance, there was a notice that I could personalize my credit card. For free! I like free. Free works for me. Free and I are buddies. You could choose an image from their photo gallery or upload one of your own. But why in the world would I want to use someone else's photo? The notice said the company will make you a new card (free!) as often as every 60 days, so I didn't obsess about which photo to chose. I went with this Great Blue Heron I took while I was walking by the lake. Their editing program let me reverse the photo so that the bird's beak wouldn't be obscured by the writing. So now, no one in this world will have a card exactly like this one. And best of all? It was free.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Yardwork - thank goodness I love it.

We got some really gorgeous weather this weekend and I spent almost all of Saturday and much of Sunday in the yard. Lately we've gotten a little rain about every other day, with clear sunny skies in between. Perfect for growing my tomatoes! This Better Boy plant has eleven big tomatoes, one ripe enough to pick today. I've already harvested about a dozen sweet cherry tomatoes, most of which I ate before I got inside. The Early Girl now has lots of mid-sized green tomatoes and the German Queen has finally sprouted some blossoms. But year after year I have trouble with one variety that I always buy anyway, because I love them. It's sitting there stubbornly, not a single bloom to be seen. Oh, Mr. Stripey - why must you always disappoint me?

Our weather also produces ideal conditions for weeds. I filled bucket after bucket with weeds I pulled out of the flower beds, carting them up to the street. I also had it pointed to me that while I love the extravagantly natural look of over-grown shrubs, it does not make for a house that sells well. So I got out a ladder and loppers and went to work on a huge old hibiscus that is partially obscuring the front of my house. I'm not cutting it down completely, just making it look a little more manageable. I also cleared out another hibiscus that was essentially reclining on my lawn, just looking louche.  I love it. But I'm told it looks untidy. In addition, I took out about half the nandina, which draped over the basement windows and the air conditioner. My dream, though, is to design my next yard so that it has very little grass and is mostly big, joyfully lush gardens. By the end of the weekend I'd stacked an enormous number of limbs by the side of the road. But when I went to get a photo today, the efficient city had already carted them away. While I was outside working yesterday, I was listening to the neighbor kids playing with their cousins, who were visiting. Three on bikes appeared to be in the 5-7 range, and I heard one of the little girls refer to me as "that teenager." The neighbor boy leapt to me defense, "That's not a teenager -  that's Ms. C.  She's a GIRL!"  I couldn't argue with that logic, so I just smiled and waved.

Monday, June 10, 2013

If FB had a relationship status for money, mine would be "It's complicated."

There was probably a time in my life when I didn't worry about money. Probably. I really don't remember. But I do remember how I felt after my parents' divorce. A couple of years earlier, we'd moved to Mississippi and into a nice 4-bedroom house in a subdivision. Clearly we were rich. Okay, I didn't actually think we were rich. But I had my own room! My. Own. Room. Decorated to perfection for a third grade girl with frogs and mushroom lamps and shag carpet and cheerful '70's colors of orange and pink and green. Cut to the divorce when my mother moved us to Georgia to live for a while with her parents. Meanwhile, my father moved his new 24-year-old wife and her children into our house. In one room, my mother and sister shared a bed, and my brother and I slept on little cots. My new baby stepsister got MY room to herself back at the old house.

And for a time, we were poor. My mother went back to college and we found a little rental house. I ducked my head in shame when a substitute teacher asked me loudly why I only paid five cents for my lunch and I had to explain the reduced lunch program in range of the listening ears of my new classmates. My father rarely sent the meager child support checks on time and my mother fumed about it. To us. To say that I was angry about the turn our lives had taken would be an understatement.

I believe that's when it started. I began squirreling money away, terrified that I might need it and not have it. Because I had seen how easily it could happen. The ten-dollar bill in my birthday card from a relative? You might find that rolled up and hidden in the curtain rod. The pockets of my winter coat, in between book pages, in the space behind a dresser drawer - all were good hiding places for money. Coins were counted and purchases very carefully considered. I went door to door offering to rake yards or wash cars for a buck here or there. And you better believe that when I hit 16, I took the $200 I had saved and bought myself a battered '68 Chevelle so I could work at McDonald's.

So here I am at 50, established in my career, and I still fret. I'd mostly laid that aside until my own divorce and holy God did that stir it all back up. But I was determined to do it differently so that my kids would not be burdened with worry. When people criticized me for buying a house and pouring money into fixing it up and furnishing it, I sloughed that off. Yes, I'll take a big financial hit when I try to sell it. But it's been a good home for my boys, they got their own rooms, and I don't regret a single decision I made.
The funny thing is, I'm not even terribly motivated by wealth.  I have deliberately chosen to practice in a way that limits my income because I feel an obligation to help people. I'm fine with that.  And I've never been into status symbols, so I don't need a lot of discretionary income. I drive an old Prius, I don't buy designer clothing (in fact, I'm the Queen of Clearance), I've never gotten a manicure or pedicure, don't get my hair cut professionally, don't wear expensive jewelry, and blah, blah, blah.

However, I do like two things that involve money. First, great food. Thankfully I'm a good cook so mostly I can provide that myself, but I admit I will spend money on eating out. And second, travel. But it is so, so hard for me to carve money out to go somewhere and I am really itching to travel.  So I've resorted to a little shell game with myself. My sister told me about a plan of setting aside a sum of money every week, adding a dollar each time.  $1 the first week, $2 the second, until the last week you add $52.  In the end, you've saved $1378. But that would mean saving only $10 the first four weeks and having to cough up $202 the last four. I suggested it might be more fun to randomize it. And while I was thinking that through, I came up with my own plan.  I divided the year into 2-week periods, reminiscent of how I used to get paid before I was self-employed. Wait... let me take a moment to recall actual regular paychecks...  yeah... that was nice. Aaaanyway. On 364 slips of paper, I printed the numbers 1 through 14 26 times each and folded them up. Every day, I draw one and put that money in a bag. To make sure I don't forget, I have a little calendar to record each day's amount and the total amount.
And thus my vacation fund was born. I started it on Memorial Day, drawing a slip with $14 the very first day.  15 days in I have $128 set aside.  When the end of May rolls around next year, I'll have $2730 and I plan to go somewhere fun. Somewhere not in this country.

I know that it's the same money regardless, but somehow it doesn't feel that way. And this is not my only money issue. I can't bear to owe anyone money, so I only go into debt for housing. I have a mortgage, but other than that, I'd rather buy a used car than take on payments, and won't buy anything I can't pay for. I use a credit card the way others use a check book, for the convenience and the frequent flyer miles I'm earning on it. But I keep it paid off because I have a horror of paying interest. And it's not even that I won't spend money. I believe in tipping wait staff well, for instance, and when my cervical cancer ended up costing me $15,000 out of pocket for tests and surgeries, I considered it money well spent. But pay someone to do anything I can reasonably do myself? Nope. That's why you will find me all summer mowing my own yard.
If you look at my to-do list of the last post, you'll see the item, "Obsess about money." Hell, I knew I was going to do it anyway, why not get credit for it? Now that I have on-line banking, I balance my checkbook every few days, check my Visa account, bite my nails over my retirement accounts. I feel bizarrely powerful when I can move money from my checking account into my IRA or make a mortgage payment. Once a quarter, I look at the retirement fund statements, add everything up and then spend a ridiculous amount of time plugging numbers into every on-line retirement  calculator I can find. Some tell me I can stop saving yesterday, others assure me that I will end up in a homeless shelter. This is not an easy state of affairs for someone like me. One of my professors told me that one of the goals of graduate school was to help you learn to tolerate ambiguity. Well you know what? I spent 6 years in grad school and I still think ambiguity fucking bites.

Every time the money in the vacation fund bag on my dresser tops $100, I will pull that out and sock it away in the safe in my basement. In my cold war era house, the original owners built a bomb shelter in the basement with a safe that is permanently cemented in. You heard me. Seems I'm not the only one with a little anxiety about the future.
But hey, at least I hide my financial neuroses under a sunny exterior.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A little randomness from an off-line weekend.

On Friday I found the first ripe tomato. Just a cherry tomato, but it's a start. The first several will never make it into the house - I eat them right off the vine.

Later that night, I ate a ton of good sushi. I sure do love sushi.The person who invited me emailed to say he'd be coming directly from work and so hoped I wouldn't be offended if he was in jeans. I wrote back: "Oh all right, then I won't wear the evening gown I was planning on. Or the tiara. Sheesh."
His response: "Nama told me they have a strict policy of one smartass per table... guess I have to call and change our reservation to two separate tables."
I got some questions about my reference to moving. Yes, but not for a year. As soon as my son wraps up high school, though, I want this house on the market. I know, I know, it's beautiful and peaceful out here, I have a great yard and house, and I've put tons and tons of work into making it just what I want. But this is such a conservative little place that I feel completely isolated out here. I need to live in a bigger town where I will have the opportunity to spend more time with like-minded people. Besides, I can always fix up another house and yard.  It'll be an adventure.

Saturday morning I went out to the lake and walked five miles. When I got back home, I was sitting in my living room, looking out at the park-like view behind my house, drinking my coffee, and feeling unaccountably melancholy. I decided the best way to deal with that was to think of some things to do to make me feel productive. I set about making a list of possibilities, hoping I'd at least get a few of them done.
There were a few cooking tasks on the list so the first step was to get to the grocery store. As I was in the produce section, I passed a little girl being pushed in a cart. She pointed at me and said, "Look, Mommy, that lady's buying vegetables!" The mom looked embarrassed, but I thought it was really funny. Among other things I wanted to get an anaheim and a banana pepper to make a new batch of roasted pepper vinaigrette. I also wanted a chance to try out the immersion blender I'd bought to replace my big blender. I don't even know why I assumed I'd be happier with it, but fortunately it works like a charm.  Very easy to clean, too.
I decided to alter the recipe to make it without any sugar and also added ingredients on a whim.  This batch has the two hotter peppers, roasted (and skinned and de-seeded), plus some roasted red peppers I'd made earlier.  A clove of garlic, a handful of fresh basil and parsley, half a cup of mostly rice wine vinegar and some balsamic vinegar, a third of a cup of canola, olive and avocado oil, ground salt and pepper.  I'm telling you, it's good stuff.

I also made a small batch of a recipe called "massaged kale," just to try it out.  Basically you chop up kale leaves, drizzle them with lemon juice and olive oil and then mash it up with your hands for a few minutes.  I ended up letting it be the base of a huge salad with a little of everything in it: baby Romaine, peppers, cucumber, artichoke hearts, avocados, Greek olives, mozzarella cubes, and almonds.  I'll have it for lunches for a few days.  And made my 5 little bowls of whole grains for work breakfasts while I was at it.
By the end of the weekend, I was nearly done with the den de-cluttering, had done some accounting work I'd brought home, took care of several mending tasks that had been piling up, read, watched movies, even did a little yard work. I'd already done a two-hour whirlwind house-cleaning Wednesday after my kids left (straightened up all the rooms, vacuumed the whole house, cleaned both bathrooms, cleaned the kitchen, changed the sheets on my younger son's bed, put three loads of laundry in, folded some clothes, loaded the dishwasher, and took out the trash) so I had no real cleaning to do except in the den. When a storm suddenly blew in and knocked out the electricity about four this afternoon, I decided I was done for the weekend. I actually managed to knock off all but nine items on the list, and even got in a seven mile walk this morning.
Now I have power, but it is flickering on and off intermittently. I'll start my blog rounds, but if it goes out again, I'm planning to head to bed and fall asleep listening to the rain. 

Friday, June 7, 2013


When I moved in to this house, one of the first things I did when Spring rolled around was start tearing out all the weeds and the plants I didn't like or which had been poorly placed. There was a small stalk that shot up and I nearly yanked it, too, assuming it was a weed. But something stayed my hand - somehow it just seemed like something important. Not long afterwards, I found small round buds being tended by ants. Peonies! I had peonies! I absolutely adore these flowers. They are on the list of flowers-that-smell-too sweet-to-be-believed. If I were going to design a heaven it would be scented with peonies, lilacs, gardenias, camellias, honeysuckle, and lilies of the valley.
The buds have a sticky sugar coating and the ants are quick to find them and feast. I liked to see them out there busily gathering up their treasure while it lasts.
There were two other peony plants elsewhere in the yard and I dug them up and planted them all in the same bed.  This one is a single bloom variety, the one above it double. I like the cheery center.
 The third one only gets a bloom or two each year, in a deep crimson.
My favorites are the pale pink, double blooms. They are so heavy the cause they plant to bend to the ground. But they make gorgeous cut flowers in a small vase or floating in a bowl of water. When I move, I might just dig up this one and take it with me.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Where I'm From.

An embarrassingly long time ago, Molly left me a comment suggesting I do this "Where I'm From" exercise. There's even a template for it, which I did not notice until mine was complete. Because although I said I would, I couldn't figure out how to approach it. In fact, just thinking about it made me feel a little lost and unrooted. But on my recent trip to visit one of my childhood homes, it hit me. I'm not from one place or one stable experience, and that's what needs to be reflected. So from the many homes spanning the entirety of my childhood, where I'm from:

I am from quaint New England neighborhoods and snowy walks to school. I am from sand boxes and swing sets in back yards. I am from rocky seashores and towns with shipyards. I am from the shadow of Viet Nam and fathers in uniforms. I am from liberal churches and education. 

I am from submarine bases and neighborhoods organized by rank. I am from Quonset huts and shopping at the PX.  I am from peace signs and environmentalism. I am from towering sequoias, barking sea lions, and house boats on the lake. I am from roller skates that tighten with a key and Easy Bake ovens. I am from cousins, best friends and long days outdoors. 

I am from people with a wanderlust and family vacations. I am from jungles, deserts, volcanoes and beaches. I am from foods from around the world and home gardens. I am from Scouting and camping and hiking. I am from grandparents and airplanes and road trips. 

I am from steamy gulf coast air and shrimp boats off shore. I am from hurricanes and bayous, mosquitoes and moccasins. I am from bikes with banana seats and Kodak Instamatics with flash cubes. I am from water that tastes of sulphur and gumbo with crawdads. I am from catching tadpoles and setting off firecrackers. 

I am from red clay and dusty summer heat. I am from cows in the pastures and corn on the stalk. I am from hard farm work, acres of pine trees and a broken-down horse. I am from building a home with hand-skinned logs and tending babies. I am from lazy Southern drawls and lingering vestiges of segregation. I am from wasted August afternoons in  unairconditioned schools with outdated textbooks. I am from falling asleep at the wheel after too-long work shifts. I am from redemption through band and drama and reading. 

I am from British boarding school rules and thrice-weekly skiing. I am from powdery snow, jagged mountains and glaciers. I am from Alpine walks and tiny chalet-filled villages. I am from navigating in French and enforced church attendance. I am from priveleged classmates and elitism. I am from pints of beer, crusty bread and rich chocolates and cheeses. 

I am from great rage and great love. I am from alcohol-soaked fury and abuse, cuddles and bed time stories.  I am from family secrets and shame, and outward normalcy and success. I am from cruelty and  misfortune, tenderness and good luck. I am from terror and sorrow, resilience and strength. I am from everywhere, from yin-yang and balance. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Still de-cluttering...

As my younger son and I drove into town to Goodwill this afternoon, the Macklemore song "Thrift Shop" played on the radio. Seemed fitting. I've been piling the things I'm getting rid of in the living room, and took this photo mid-way through the process. I ended up with about twice this much stuff, boxed and bagged and loaded into my car today. Five big full bags of clothing, among other things. It's been interesting to watch the effect on my life of getting rid of things - like when I get dressed in the morning. I used to stand in front of my closet and think that I had nothing to wear. I had plenty, of course, but it took energy to look through and I'd often pull out several things before I found what I wanted. Now that half of it is gone and I like every single thing I have left, getting dressed is easy. I also like not having to move things around to get what I want out of a kitchen drawer.  And even the rooms I've not gotten to (the den and the basement), I've made dents in. I was moving the ironing board this morning to get something out of a basement cabinet and I stopped to consider it.  How many times had I used it since I moved into this house in 2007?  Exactly zero. In fact, years ago an old boyfriend wanted to iron something when he was over at my house and for the life of me I could not think where they ironing board might be. I finally remembered that I'd stashed it in the basement.He was appalled that I could not readily recall the ironing board's location. Apparently I do not iron. Into the pile it went. Someone who does iron might as well get some use out of it.
As I made piles to give or throw  away, there were just a few things I could not bear to send to the landfill or donate. Chiefly, Froggie, my stuffed animal from childhood. I know, it sounds horrible to burn your transitional object. Froggie travelled with me everywhere, including family trips to Panama, Canada, Hawaii. Throughout my childhood, she lived on my bed, including at boarding school in Switzerland and even in the dorm when I went away to a University. I loved that frog deeply as a child. So much so that the fabric had frayed to the point of allowing stuffing to protrude in several areas, making me cringe when I looked at her. It was time to let her go. With some old letters I did not want to hang onto as kindling, I made a small funeral pyre in the backyard and sat until nothing but ashes remained.
I've really thought hard in this process about the notion of sentimental items. A standard de-cluttering rule is not to keep anything you don't actually have out or in use. But screw rules - my goal was to figure out what worked best for me. Ultimately, I decided to keep some things that were meaningful to me but to winnow them down to one small box. Another de-cluttering rule is not to buy organizing systems of containers. The idea is that organized clutter is still clutter. But I made an exception in this case because I knew it would help me limit what I kept. And because I sure do hate rules. In a 6x6x10 box, I kept the little things. My kids have always loved looking through the bigger box I used to have them in, and ask questions about each item. Anything that didn't still conjure up an important memory, I tossed. As you can see, I still have a fair amount of room left over.
The other two boxes are 3.5x10x12. One holds photos and one old cards, my children's drawings, letters and other paper items. Some time ago, I got a deal on scanning photos and I took the boxes and photo albums my ex had at his house of our family photos. I dismantled the albums and spent a couple of weeks sorting and organizing the twenty years of our marriage in photo form. I finally had 1600 photos scanned and put on a DVD. I kept a small stack of the hard copies and returned the rest to him. I still have some from my childhood to scan and will add that DVD and the few I keep. The two boxes are about three quarters full. And if I want to keep something in one of those categories, it will have to fit, even if that means clearing something else out to do it.