Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ready to do something different for 2018

This has been a solemn holiday season for me. A contemplative Christmas or New Year's Eve isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and there is a gift wrapped up in the sorrow. I spent quite a bit of time this holiday, and some sleepless nights around the time of Dad's death and funeral, reflecting on priorities and goals.
I have a long-standing interest in living more mindfully and to that end, I've been working on letting go of habits and things that get in my way. Over the last couple of years, for instance, our eating habits have changed as we have tried to eliminate processed foods and cut way back on sugars and simple carbs, and increase vegetables and other healthy foods.
We continue to work on de-cluttering to make the house more peaceful and easy to maintain. In 2017, we set ourselves a list of seven financial goals, met every one of them, and ended the year with no debt other than our mortgage. Even that we took a healthy chunk out of. For the last month or so, I have done a lot of reading on consumerism and frugality and began gearing up for a big change in the new year by unsubscribing from advertising emails and canceling our Amazon Prime membership.
My husband and I have agreed that starting tomorrow, it will be a year of no shopping for us. Obviously we will continue to buy groceries and maintain our cars and fix things that break in the house. I’m talking about discretionary spending. So for 2018, we will be buying no clothing, no shoes, no accessories, no cosmetics, no kitchen items, no gadgets or electronics, no furnishings, no books, no shrubs or trees, no non-necessary household goods. I’m announcing it publicly because I know about myself that when I do that, by god I stick with it. And I was delighted to find a Facebook group all taking the same challenge! Our hope is that having a shopping ban for a full year will be enough time to change our relationship to spending and acquiring things. Because let’s face it, we have plenty of stuff. I’m pretty good at getting rid of excess but new purchases always slide in. Sometimes rapidly. We intend to continue to winnow our belongings to free up space and time in our lives. But for this year, we are going to avoid what feels like an inevitable creep of acquisition.
By the time 2019 rolls around, I am hoping we will have a better handle on discerning the difference between wants and needs. Wants are endless and there is always the next thing to buy in search of happiness. I know intellectually that material goods won't deliver fulfillment, but we are bombarded by the message that the next new thing will fill a void, make us better people, bring us joy and win us the admiration of others. Never mind that all the research on consumerism shows definitively that it just isn't true. With any luck, we will be able to use this year to permanently step off the consumer merry-go-round. I suspect it will be a challenge, but I hope I will learn a lot about myself and about peace this year.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Saying goodbye.

Yesterday we made the trek up to my father's funeral. I dug this old Navy charm bracelet out of a little box of keepsakes I have. Dad gave it to me when I was a kid and I wanted to wear it one last time. When we arrived at the funeral home, I was taken aback by the sight of the open casket. It was a custom my father didn't care for. In fact, he and I sat outside at his father's funeral, both wanting to remember the man as he was when living. But Dad's wife must have taken some comfort in it, and I don't begrudge her that. She and I have had a pretty hostile relationship the last many years and that just seemed to fly away in the face of our shared grief. When she hugged me, weeping, I had yet another burden removed from my heart.
The graveside service, in the bitter cold, was a military one. My sons and brother served as pallbearers, my brother-in-law (an Episcopal priest) performed the service, and the sound of a passing train in the distance merged with both the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace and then the bugle playing Taps. The flag covering the casket was folded and presented by a Naval officer to my dad's wife and all the military men attending saluted the flag and my father.  Afterwards, a soldier offered me a casing from one of the bullets fired during the gun salute. My dad's wife, his kids, and their families gathered at a hotel following the service, to have a drink in his memory. I went with bourbon, knowing he'd approve.
My father would have loved everything about his funeral, including that his kids were all there in his honor. Dad rests now in a family section of the beautiful Lexington cemetery, buried in his dress uniform and surrounded by ancestors from the past couple of centuries. It suits him, and I'm glad he's at peace.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

I'd meant to return to blogging sooner....

but toward the end of November my Dad's wife let us all know that if we wanted to see him again, it should be soon.
My older sister and I drove up with our spouses and my younger stepdaughter (who wanted to meet him). My Dad's cancer had metastasized to his spine and he was failing quickly. Dad also had advanced Alzheimer's and the previous time I had visited, he still knew me but was confused by the presence of my new husband. Still, he was affable and we had a nice visit. It was a marked change, however, from the visit before that, when he could talk about his dementia and share memories. On this most recent visit at the beginning of the month, it was clear that he did not really know who we were. And let me tell you, in spite of all my training in neurocognitive decline, I was not prepared for the gut punch of not being recognized by a parent. I kissed him on the cheek and told him I loved him and he said, "Well, I love you, too!" And that was about as coherent as he got on the lunch visit. Still, several times I looked up to see him intently studying my face and it appeared as if he was aware that I was familiar but couldn't place me. I am glad we went, because a few days ago, he slipped away.
My father was a complicated man. When his parents divorced, his mother walked away from him believing she could better find a new husband without a young son in the way.  Raised in a strict military household by a father who married four times in total, Dad went to the Naval Academy and then on to MIT for a master's degree in mechanical engineering.
I know, we look like a perfect little 1960's suburban family. Dad struggled with alcohol dependence his entire adulthood and life was often chaotic. When drinking, he wasn't able to suppress his rage and my mother either couldn't or wouldn't protect us. When he wasn't drinking, though, he was a great dad. He was very bright and had a fantastically quick wit.
And he was also affectionate and very involved in his kids' lives. After my parents divorced, when I was ten, we visited on alternate weekends and holidays. For a while, this involved him driving about 500 miles each way to pick us up to spend a couple of days with him.
When he got stationed in Hawaii, I spent a summer and we got out to hike, camp, and go to the beach every weekend. In fact, we grew up hiking and houseboating and generally getting outdoors as much as possible. I credit him in large part for my love of nature.
Dad remarried quickly after the divorce and the family merged. My stepbrother and stepsister (who my father adopted) became my brother and sister.
When I went off to boarding school in Switzerland, a perk of his new job, he surprised me on parents weekend by flying unannounced from Saudi Arabia just to spend a couple of days with me. I had been homesick and was thrilled by the visit. He came back in June to see me graduate.
But we became estranged around the time of my first marriage, when I was 25. I needed to talk about the hard parts of our childhood and apparently he had a need NOT to talk about it. My letter to him went unanswered, he skipped my wedding, and we did not speak for four years. But at my brother's wedding, he sat down with me to acknowledge the abuse and ask forgiveness. That's a remarkably healing thing and it lifted a burden from my heart.
We had a great relationship from then on. I visited when I could and we were always happy to spend time together.
He was tickled when I got pregnant, and happier still when I gave each of my sons family last names as their middle names. He doted on his grandsons until he was no longer able to do so. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about ten years ago, but the signs were there for a few years before that.
His funeral is this Thursday. This wouldn't have been my choice for returning to my blog, but you take what life hands you. And what life handed me was a sometimes furious and brutal/sometimes happy and tender father. I know one thing about him beyond a shadow of a doubt, though - he loved me and my sons fiercely. He never failed to say so. I miss him terribly but I have that fierce love stored in my heart.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

I'm sorry, I'm just in a slackerly place.

At least when it comes to blogging. I started to post about our Quebec trip and then just fell off the map. In the meantime, we both celebrated birthdays. On mine, we dressed up and went to the sort of restaurant we found in Italy - a chef who came out to chat with us, escargot to start, amazing roast duckling and seafood, good wine and then limoncello. Not a single person in the restaurant in football t-shirts, a rarity in this town on a game night.
I haven't been able to muster up the extra energy for the blogosphere. At the moment, I'm heavily engaged in a photo project with an expiration date and also work is busier than ever. I will be back, but I need to get a few things done first.  Maybe in another moon.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

See, back in August we had this soon-to-expire Airbnb discount...

and my husband was scheduled to start a new job in a week, with no vacation days available until he'd been there six months. What could we do? I got online and found a room for two nights in a little residential neighborhood in Quebéc City, that's what.
It was our most impromptu trip yet - I scrambled to cancel out three days in the middle of a week, we booked flights, brushed up on our French, packed a couple of carry-on bags, and flew to Canada. We used our discount to get a very inexpensive room in someone's home. And it was a little odd. Like staying with the friend of a friend. She was welcoming and accommodating, but we tried to stay out of her way when she was getting ready for work in the mornings because it felt a little awkward.
We shared the walk-up with this very fat kitty
and his even fatter brother. Both very sweet. I was pleasantly surprised that the apartment didn't smell like cat at all. One night, though, I heard something in the bedroom and then shrieked when this fellow jumped on the bed. I'd left the door to our room open while I ran to the bathroom, and he got in.
As soon as we'd dropped our bags at the apartment, we headed up to Rue Saint-Jean to Épicerie J.A. Moisan, the oldest grocery store in Quebéc.
J.A. Moisan opened his store in 1885 and it was fun to poke around in for picnic supplies.
We picked up a bottle of red wine, a baguette, some soft cheese in a hardwood ash, crispy pastries with duck confit and a fruit tart.
The plan was to walk until we found a place overlooking the river. But I'm one of those people who gets pretty irritable when my blood sugar starts dropping and I was hungry. The first place we found in the shade was our picnic spot. No glasses, so we drank directly from the bottle.
After lunch we walked along the river towards the old town.
The Saint Lawrence River flows through Québec, and the city is a port of entry.
There is a boardwalk that runs above the river, and we spent some time after our picnic strolling along it and just enjoying the feel of being somewhere different. Our luck of defying predicted bad weather held and it was gorgeous out.
Just doing my part to keep the Château Frontenac in its position of "most photographed hotel in the world."
Québec takes the idea of entertaining tourists and residents seriously and there were street performers out all the time. Not necessarily great ones, but still.
We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the lower part of the old town, and headed toward the stairs. But more on that in the next post.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Do you ever feel like there is so much going on that posting about daily life seems trivial?

Part of the country is burning, part of the country is drowning, and the leader of our country is taunting a madman in North Korea and denying climate change. And I can't do anything about any of it. So I just shut down for a bit. I don't mean I wasn't living my life, I just mean I couldn't bring myself to blog about the mundane and I have nothing of value to say about what really matters. But when you get right down to it, the mundane is what I've got, so I'm going with it.
Before I get to a bigger trip we took last month, I wanted to post about a quick trip we took with the younger daughter down to South Georgia to visit family. My niece was making a rare appearance and so three of my sibs and a brother-in-law gathered at my mom's house for a crab feast. My sister and brother-in-law picked up fresh Georgia blue crab and the water was boiling when we got there. Most of the people at the table ate a crab or two, but my brothers and I are crab-eating machines. We just keep going until they are gone. It's labor-intensive, but I managed to pack five of them away.
We also spent some time learning how to juggle flaming things. Or trying to learn. I kept dropping them. There are two downed trees out back from previous storms and my brother and brother-in-law had put a lot of time on another visit trying to chop one down.
We all took our turn with the axe. My husband, I will admit, was better at this than I am. I have pretty pathetic upper body strength.
Plus I never take anything seriously.
Because the daughter and I have allergies, we always stay at a motel. Our room had a palm tree immediately outside our door and fire ant hills in the sandy dirt. There's no mistaking what part of the country we were in. It also had a pool, a huge bonus when traveling with a child, and we all hung out there for part of the visit.
The second day, we went to walk a trail. South Georgia greenways are swampier than the ones in our neck of the woods. I looked for alligators, but saw none. I am convinced they are there. Or maybe a chupacabra.
The effects of recent heavy storms were evident on our walk, as well. And the town was bracing for Irma, which did veer inland as feared. Fortunately, my mother and sister reported only minor damage. Another sister had to evacuate from the Keys and my stepmother and her husband also were away from their home in Florida during the hurricane. Earlier, we were glad to get similar reports from my in-laws in Houston when Harvey hit - some flooding but all were well.

But my family was lucky. There was so much destruction and so much recovery work is ahead. Fire and rain and wind, more frequent and fierce. Tell me we aren't screwing up this world. And all I can do is try to help people in the ways that I can and live life while I have it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

I've noticed a theme in our celebrations - they always involve good food.

So, my husband wrapped up his externship and started applying for jobs. Starting a new career at 50 is an unsettling thing but I was confidant it would go well. Just one day after he submitted an on-line application for jobs at one of the two companies he was most interested in, he got a call to schedule an interview. They offered him two different jobs and he made plans to accept one of them. In the meantime, the company he'd done his externship for contacted him, as did a third company, and he went back to talk with them. We talked it over and he accepted a position with the medical company where he'd externed. When he let the first company know, they asked if he'd reconsider! But for a variety of reasons, this felt like the best fit and this past Thursday he had his orientation. We met downtown to have dinner outside. After cooling our heels for more than ten minutes, my husband went to track down a waiter. They were apologetic, we were friendly, all was well. We had ahi tuna and chicken salads and a bottle of wine. We were feeling celebratory, it was a gorgeous day, and the delay just wasn't a big deal to us. But the owner of the restaurant thought it was and charged us half-price for the wine and gave us the dinners on the house! Sweet! We left a huge tip.
Friday was my husband's first real day of work. It's the same company but a different office, so a new set of providers to get to know. They were happy with him, he enjoyed the day and we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had the younger daughter that night, but planned a celebratory meal for the two of us on Saturday. We grilled swordfish with tarragon butter and zucchini with balsamic vinegar and feta. And I made up another side dish - caramelized sweet onions and fresh beets with their greens in a maple-bourbon glaze.
We still have a small stash of wedding cupcakes in the freezer, which have stayed remarkably delicious even after all this time. For the occasion, we had bought a bottle of champagne during the externship with the plan of breaking it out when my husband officially started as a CMA. We cracked it open after dinner and toasted checking off one of the biggest of our financial goals we'd set for 2017 - a job with benefits! I am in private practice, which means expensive, high-deductible insurance and only unpaid time off. My husband's previous employers (and I'm just going to say it, his previous employers were not good people) did not offer anything in the way of paid health insurance or a retirement plan. So this is a big deal for us. I know life is uncertain and anything can turn on a dime, but for now we are celebrating.

Monday, August 21, 2017

In the zone.

So I have a trip to blog about from last week, but first I just have to post about the eclipse.
Our town was just outside the zone of totality so that if we stayed home, we'd only have a partial eclipse. Instead, we got up at 3 am to head southwest to bring us right in the center, less than an hour's drive. Our goal was to stay clear of the interstate and I found a small park near a little bitty town. We stopped for breakfast mid-way and arrived at the park before dawn.
At day-break, after a nap in the car, we took a 2 1/2 mile hike through the woods. At that point we were still the only ones in the park.
We ended on a ridge overlooking the lake, with the morning sun lending a rosy glow to everything.
On the hike back down, we noticed these absurdly large fungi on the ground.
A few more cars had arrived when we got back, so we set up under one of the few shade trees. I'd packed more food than is actually sane and we had chairs, a cooler and a blanket.
This little park had a bathroom and only one dark-activated outside light, which my husband temporarily disabled. Near our tree was a meadow loaded with Joe Pye weed and other butterfly-attracting wildflowers.
Eventually, two other families joined us in the shade. In all, only about 30 cars showed up for the eclipse. Just down the road, people were selling parking spaces at their businesses and homes, but this was free and much more pleasant. We were told that the highways had become parking lots by late morning.
But we weren't there for the scenery. It was eclipse time!
At first, every photo I tried to take just looked like the regular sun.
Finally, I managed to get a shot with the eclipse glasses held over the camera lens on my phone. Not a great one, but you can see the encroaching shadow of the moon. I had a book that had come with the glasses that I lent to the first family that joined is. One of the little girls was enthralled with it and tracked the phases, comparing the moon to the drawings. I gave her the book to keep.
The shadows through the trees became little crescents.
Oddly, some of the photos showed a little reflection of the crescent of the sun.
I'd read that shadows become sharper as the eclipse increases, so I pulled my hair out of its ponytail so I could see that phenomenon.
Right before the total eclipse, the temperature started dropping and the sky began to darken to a twilight shade. It was eerie.
Then totality! Everyone pulled off their eclipse glasses and a spontaneous cheer went up. We toasted with a sip Irish whiskey. I wasn't expecting to feel that sense of awe, but it was actually spectacular. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to experience it long ago before anyone understood what was happening. Must have been terrifying.
The two and a half minutes of totality flew by. When the moon shifted enough to allow the sun start to shine around the edge, everyone cheered again. The two families we'd sat with gave me their email addresses and asked me to send them the last two photos. We made our way back home along back roads to avoid traffic and started thinking about how we might catch the one total eclipse when it rolls around again in 2024. Because it's totally worth it.