coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Old Friends

We had friends visiting from NYS this week; old friends.  Not that THEY are old, but two of the three have been my friends for a very long time, since the late 1970's and early 1980's.  The third has been a good friend since about 1990.  Well, perhaps we are old by some standards, but we certainly do not feel old. We all feel young.  I still feel like I am about 12 years old. 

They are work-related friends, people I met either working alongside them or in some other work-related capacity back in the day.  These friendships created deep ties.  We have been through so much together, with friendships waxing and waning over the years but always retaining a connection.  We were young together once, we all worked hard to build, establish, and excel in our careers, and now we are all retired.  Time marches on.  It is heartwarming to see that we still connect and can pick up where we left off regardless of how much time has passed.  It is fun to catch up on their lives and remember other friends (and enemies) from the same time period.   OK, OK, especially the enemies. 

A couple of days of girl talk is just what a doctor should have ordered for me.  It cheered me right up.  I love these women.  They are hardcore, no lightweights here.  They are women who lived their lives honestly, with great feeling, and on their own terms.  They are all comfortable in their own skins and revel in their individual personalities. We each married young, but they are older than me by 8-20 years.  So the men they married were pre-feminism husbands.  Rest assured these women have either retrained their men or divorced them by now.  It cracks me up to hear them talk about retraining tactics.  They are a joyous bunch.

Yesterday, sitting by the pool, we toasted a fallen comrade, Maggie, who died in 2006.  Oh how I wish she could have joined us.  She was what one might refer to as a ton of bricks.  I have never met a stronger personality.  She was older than us and alternately intimidated us and encouraged us to be our best selves.  She challenged our politics and our relationship choices at every turn.  This is a woman who refused to wear glasses because she thought they were a sign of weakness.  That is a direct quote, by the way.  She was single her whole life, and her listing in the telephone book was under the name Brandy Alexander.  If you were stupid enough to betray her  I am quite sure she could tear your heart out with her teeth.  We were all more than a little afraid of her. 

For many years this group of women (including myself) would meet Maggie at a yearly bazaar held at an elegant Victorian mansion turned restaurant over the long Thanksgiving weekend.  Let us call it a "Maggie mandated event."  The event was meant to kick off the holiday buying season and was called the Twelve Shops of Christmas.  We would eat a buffet lunch in the old carriage house on the property, staying long and talking loud.  She directed the flow of conversation and we all hung on her every word.  Then we would go into the mansion and shop in the twelve rooms where various upscale businesses set up shop.  It was fun. This annual event was often the only time I saw her.

In late August 2006, I received a call from another former co-worker and Maggie protégé, CA.  CA breathlessly and apologetically informed me that Maggie had been sick, was now comatose, was in the hospital on a respirator, and her family had made the decision to "pull the plug" that very afternoon.  CA has always been the one to inform us about former co-workers from that time period because she was the only one left at that particular workplace.  Her kindness is legion.  Unfortunately, she had only just realized she forgot to tell me when Maggie got sick.  For a while Maggie had been conscious and many of the old gang had gone to the hospital to see her and say goodbye.  Now she was not and the end was near.  This would be my last chance to see her before she was gone.  I was grateful to CA for taking the time to let me know. 

Leaving work immediately, I drove up to the hospital.  I walked into the Intensive Care Unit without anyone questioning why I was there and wandered from bed to bed until I found her.  Her eyes were closed, and her chest rose and fell mechanically.  From what I could tell, she was already gone.  It did not seem like a spirit inhabited that body.  I selfishly wondered why they had not turned off life support sooner.  What a cruel joke to pretend she was still alive.  She would have been angry for me to see her like that.  It was WAY beyond glasses.  In my mind I went on and on with my self-righteous indignation, as if I knew anything about anything.  In fact, I do realize how hard these decisions are for family; nobody wants to make a life or death decision for a loved one.  It takes great courage to do so, and such a decision requires a fearless nature and a clear conscience.  Not everyone can summon those qualities in the face of death.  It is just too hard.  Maggie could have made that decision for any one of us, though.  She was strong that way.

Maggie 1984

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Picking and Choosing

Some people like change and others avoid it at all costs. I am not writing this because I have an agenda to push.  I do not subscribe to a one-size-fits-all life model.  It really comes down to who you are and what you need to be happy.  I am absolutely not comfortable with change, but I seem to need it periodically. I get antsy when things remain the same for too long.  I get bored easily.  I court change knowing full well the process of changing will likely be unsettling for awhile, and may even turn out to be a mistake; but I still want the change to happen.  I cannot help myself.  I come from pioneer stock.  Every so often I feel the urge to move on and reinvent myself.  It is called “throwing caution to the wind.”   It is my forte.

Retiring was a piece of cake, except for that unfortunate reduction in discretionary income.  It has been almost a year (I retired last Halloween) and I have never regretted the decision to retire.  Not working has been a pure joy.  We have always lived a fairly simple life, and we have adjusted to a limited income.  Still, I have not ruled out getting a part time job at some point for extra money.   I do not want to, but it would be nice to have some extra money to replace the sliding glass door to the pool area.  The door sticks.  I huff and puff and swear when I struggle to open it.  Plus, I would REALLY like to get my neck done…  I am almost serious about the neck thing.  Plastic surgery is definitely not in our retirement budget, but the neck is not pretty and it is getting worse.  I am not sure I can go through the rest of my life with my current neck. 

Moving, on the other hand, has been the real kicker.   Six months into it I can report that although I am surprisingly happy to live in Florida, I am not yet on the other side of the “process” of changing.  Changing residences interstate kicked our asses and we are both exhausted.  Part of that exhaustion was caused by bad luck, specifically the long delay in buying our house once we got down here last March.  The travel trailer era was a bit mindboggling to live through; however, in retrospect I am glad to have experienced it.  We rose to the occasion, and that is always satisfying. sucked all the joy out of our initial move.  It would have been nice to feel excited about moving into a house instead of just feeling relief.  In addition, we moved from a 4-season, often cold and overcast, but devastatingly beautiful Northern blue state to a relentlessly hot, sunny, overdeveloped, and flat Southern red state.  In NYS we lived in the country amidst rolling hills and endless forest.  In Florida we live in a subdivision.  This all requires some adjusting.  I am not really complaining.  I was looking for change and these challenges certainly keep the old brain cells/sparkplugs igniting.  And I get to see my wonderful grandkids almost every day.  I cannot tell you how much I love that.  However, just selling, sorting, packing, moving from, and buying houses is a stressful process.  That was a LOT of work, for a long time.  I am tired.  I would really rather not move again until my daughter has to put me in the home, and then she can do all the heavy lifting.  I am not above faking dementia in order to get out of hard work.

There are significant cultural differences I notice whether I want to or not.  Some of the cultural norms in Florida are unfamiliar to me.  There are days when the differences are interesting and fun, and there are days when they are overwhelming and threatening.  This morning, for instance, I woke up at 5 am and got up in the dark house to look out the front window.  As you might remember from my last post looking out the window is one of my new pastimes, apparently even in the dark.  Today is garbage day. Everyone puts the garbage cans and recycling cans out on the street the night before.  Imagine my surprise to see a scruffy looking older man flying by on a bicycle down our darkened street.  He went from garbage can to garbage can, opening the lids and using a flashlight to see what he could see.   He held a big trash bag in one hand as he piloted the bike.  I saw him stuff something into his bag at the house down the street and then he drove away.  Yes, I saw a real live garbage-picker.  Things like that never happened in the hamlet we lived in up North.  The only person who came to our NYS house that early in the morning was delivering the paper.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Joining the Bourgeoisie?

OMG – I find myself watching the neighbors through the blinds in my room.   How did it come to this?  

The neighbor to our right is a middle-aged woman with two teenaged children and a dog.  There might be a husband, but I have never seen him.  She seems very nice.  Of course nearly everyone in the South seems "very nice.”  It is hard for a Northerner like me to discern if she is really nice or just well mannered.  When we first moved in she came over and introduced herself and immediately started telling us the details about other neighbors on the block.  Not all the neighbors, just the white ones.  She did not tell me any information about the tattooed Hispanic guy who drives a Harley.  She did not tell me about the two black families who live on the street.   That raised a bit of a red flag with me.  If you remember from my May 29, 2014 post “Oy Vey, and I Really Mean It!” I am uncomfortable with living in a suburban neighborhood.   I do not want to know the details about my neighbors.   The neighbors on our left are our kind of people – they ignore us and have never even waved or spoken to us.   I am pretty sure they wish we would disappear.  I can relate to that sentiment.

So how did I develop this new spying behavior?   My room, aka office/quiltmaking/grandchild’s playroom, faces the street and during the day I keep the blinds open to let natural light in.   My computer is set up in front of the window, because otherwise the room seems dark and gloomy.  As I work on the computer I keep catching sight of Next Door Lady walking her dog, and going across the street to another neighbor’s house.  Every morning she goes over there around the same time.  You can imagine how intriguing this window on the world is to a retired woman with no friends and time on her hands.  I cannot help but notice.  I cannot help but wonder why is she going there every day?  She lets herself in the house and she always has her dog in tow.  There is another dog that lives across the street.  Maybe she is feeding it?  Next Door Lady never stays in their house long.  If I see Across the Street Family outside I inevitably see Next Door Lady walk over across the street and interact with the family’s dog or pick up their toddler.  Are they close friends, or maybe family?   Does Across the Street Lady like spending so much time with Next Door Lady, or does she cringe when she sees Next Door Lady hightailing it across the street whenever she ventures outside?  I wonder what the story is on the tattooed biker down the street?  Why am I thinking about this stuff?

I might move my computer away from the window.  Life is too short.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Counting Calories

Day 3:

I started a diet two days ago.  Today is the day three.  I am counting calories using a calorie counter on my iPhone.  It is a nice app; it converts food to calories and also gives a nutritional breakdown so you know if you are eating healthy each day. When you first sign up you code in your age, height, and weight.  Based on this information the app determines the number of calories you can consume each day and still lose weight.  You can choose to loose ½ pound a week or a pound a week.   Obviously if you want to lose a pound a week your daily calorie count will be lower than if you want to lose ½ pound per week.   I chose ½ pound a week because I am a big weenie.  You then proceed to record everything you eat during the day, every day, possibly for the rest of your miserable life. My brother, Big D, has been counting calories for a while and he has lost over 55 pounds.  

All food has a total number of calories associated with it.  For instance, a McDonalds Quarter Pounded Bacon & Cheese Hamburger has 600 calories.  A large order of French Fries is 510 calories, and a medium Coke will add another 200 calories to your count.  Two scrambled eggs have 202 calories.  Six sweet cherries are 26 calories.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is about 360 calories.  You see where I am going with this.  You are kind of forced to eat healthy simply because it is the only way to eat more than once a day.

You also type in the exercise you do, including the kind, duration, and exertion level. Exercise burns calories. The great thing about counting calories is that you can earn food by exercising.  This is brilliant motivation for getting more exercise.

Imagine your goal each day is 1,500 calories.  At 7:00 pm, you find yourself wanting an ice cream bar that has a calorie count of 170 (Weight Watchers Brand– not the good kind, NEVER the good kind).  Unfortunately, you have already met your calorie goal for the day. You cannot just eat more because you will go over your goal and then you will not lose that ½ pound this week.  If you have been struggling all week to keep within the calorie goal to lose that measly ½ pound, you do not want to mess this up.  You really want to lose ½ pound.  In fact, if you do not lose ½ pound you will lose your mind.  Consequently, you jump in the pool and swim laps for 20 minutes because you know you will burn up 170 calories, thus reducing your daily calorie count down to 1330.   THEN you can eat that damn ice cream bar and your calorie count is back up to 1,500, within your daily goal.  Voila!  You have earned an ice cream bar.  Nothing weird about that.  Totally hypothetical example, of course.  Or maybe that is what I did last night?  No matter, it is exactly what I will be doing this evening.

I shared this purely hypothetical example with my youngest sister, who is also counting calories and has been doing so for months.  Her answer to me was "Wait until you see what you will do for a glass of wine!"  I can only imagine.  That sounds like a day 5 kind of challenge to me. 

Today I ate breakfast at 8:00 am.  It is now 10:30 and I am waiting for it to be noon so I can eat again. Eating my next meal is pretty much all I think about now.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

My Mother's Daughter

About 15 years ago my mother moved from the family home to a small apartment. She made the change a few years after my father died.  For over 35 years she lived in the old barn-like house that 6 of my parents’ 7 children at least partially grew up in.  Of course it was not a barn, but it resembled one so I will henceforth refer to it as the Barn House.

There was 20 years between my oldest sister, CHD, and my youngest brother, WW. CHD was grown up when we moved into the Barn House.  She only lived there for a couple of months before she found an apartment and got on with her adult life. I must have been about 12 when we moved in.  I was in 7th grade.  There was a lot of living that made THAT old house a home!  At first there were only five children living there, because CHD had moved out in 1965.   Good Catholic that she was, my mother was soon pregnant again and we had a sixth child living with us (the 7th sibling) in the Barn House by 1966.  In The Borg society, I am referred to as 3 of 7.

When Mom made the decision to move, I went to Northern Indiana to assist my siblings in paring down her belongings.   The goal was to keep only the “essentials” enabling her to fit into a one-bedroom apartment.  My sweet mother is a fully realized pack rat.  She saves everything because everything is on her “essentials” list.  It was always chaos in that house, but after 35 years the Barn House was jam-packed with memories and odd treasures.  Old pictures were in every drawer, and filled old purses and boxes tucked away in the back of her closets.  Cookbooks were stuffed with additional handwritten recipes.  Her bibles, St. Joseph Missal (Latin/English) and post Vatican II missal (English only) were chock full of genealogical goldmines in the form of funeral cards and obituary clippings.  She saved every saint medal, holy card, rosary, ceramic Blessed Virgin Mary statue, and wall crucifix her kids and grandkids ever gave her.  She has 7 children and 16 grandkids so that made for a lot of Catholic tchotchkes.  I do not know how many years worth of braided palm leaves we found.  For those of you who do not know, you get palm leaves when you go to mass on Palm Sunday.  You take them home, braid them and put them up in the house.  It is a Catholic thing.  I actually had one up on my bulletin board in the NYS house. Why not?  I threw it away last February before WE moved. Actually, I regret throwing that braided palm away.   What was I thinking?

It was fun wading through each room of my parents’ house one last time.  Of course I wanted to help my Mom and my siblings, but I must confess my primary purpose was to wallow in my mother’s things for the last time. I savored every drawer full of "stuff" and every room full of junk. That "stuff" was soul deep.  It was about my past.  It was about my parents’ life together.  It was about my mother’s neurosis. It was all a living testament to my mother’s strengths and weaknesses.  I wondered if our lives would change once her "stuff" was gone.  Interestingly, it was also about old time Roman Catholicism, the kind of mystical/devotional life every Catholic was taught to observe back before Vatican II modernized the church in the mid 1960’s. I have to stop before this post turns into my standard rant against Vatican II changes.  It always shocks people who mistakenly presume my normal liberal views would support saying the Mass in the vernacular.  That rant will have to wait for another post.

Unlike my more pragmatic siblings, I could not fault her when I found stacks of old church calendars in a corner of the kitchen.  These are calendars that each parish church gives out free to parishioners every year. The pictures of saints, the BVM, and her illustrious son were reason enough to keep them. They were beautiful.  There are many things one might fault the Roman Catholics for, but their art is not one of them.  For crying out loud, wouldn’t it be a venial sin to throw out things like that anyway?  OK, I threw them away when she was not looking, but still – I was so happy to get my grubby little hands on them for a few minutes. I stood firm in defending this collection, although I did kind of wonder why the pile was stacked on top of chocolate covered cherry boxes filled with old recipes and newspaper clippings that were stored underneath a chair pushed in a corner of the kitchen.  But then again, the opposite corner held a cart filled with old newspapers and magazines.  Maybe it was about balance, or a feng shui decision meant to increase the flow of favorable energy in the room?  I am willing to give the old lady the benefit of the doubt.  I love her madly and I find her quirkiness endearing. 

Believe it or not, I found a handwritten Pillsbury Flour Contest recipe submission that my maternal grandmother (who died before I was born…) submitted in the 1940s.  It was lying between two magazines in a pile of many.  I wish I knew how it got there.  If I had just picked up the entire pile of magazines and dumped them in the trash this recipe would have been lost forever.  Talk about treasure!  I probably slowed everyone down because I insisted on looking at every knickknack and perusing old recipes to my heart’s content.  I did not care, though.  On that day I imagined myself an archaeologist of sorts, and I am nothing if not self-indulgent.  It made the old lady happy, too.  She was thrilled that I valued her stuff.  I was having fun and I might even have been her favorite child for a few fleeting moments there.  When you are 3 of 7 you appreciate those fleeting moments.

I took pictures of rooms and furniture and piles of junk.  My younger siblings thought I was nuts.  They seemingly had no nostalgic feelings about the Barn House.  They just wanted to throw everything away so the house could be cleaned out, cleaned up and sold.   I was shocked and disturbed.  Why wasn’t I practical and focused?  Could it be that I am like my mother?  Oh, HELL no!

The best part was when three of us went through the linen closet with my Mom present.   She had a huge upstairs hallway closet with lacquered wooden doors that opened up like French doors.  This linen closet was wide enough that all four of us could stand and sort through the shelves at the same time.  We found many linens, very few of them useable.  There were old tablecloths with holes in or stains on them, sheets so threadbare you could see through them, and old towels and doilies that were tattered and torn.  Unfortunately, our sweet mother did not see them in the same way we did.  These things held different meanings for her.  She became agitated and defensive, not wanting to throw anything away.  Her standard response if we posed the question “Can we throw this away?” was “No, it is still good, someone could use that.”  She displayed classic Depression Era post-traumatic stress syndrome with subsequent hording behavior. It was amazing to observe at close hand. Her eyes were wild. She positioned herself behind us so she could see exactly what each one of us was doing.  She pulled things off the trash pile if we tried to sneak them there without asking her first.  We made four piles on the floor: the trash pile, the Goodwill pile, the give-to-a-family-member pile, and the keep-for-the-new-apartment pile.  I think you can imagine how much went on the trash pile. 

After 15 minutes our sweet mother could no longer stand the sight of us.  We took a break.  We three siblings conspired when Mom went to the bathroom (do not get me started on her bathroom…). We decided to reassure her by putting the unusable things she could not bear to throw away on the Goodwill pile and then throw things away when we took them away from her house.  We also agreed to “take” many things she wanted to pass on to family that in reality no family member would possibly want, and to quietly dispose of them accordingly.  Sorting into piles became easier for all of us.  She was happy, we were happy, and the job got done.

I came home from that visit with many amazing treasures:  An aluminum potato ricer I have absolutely no memory of, the tin French fry slicer that had intrigued me my entire childhood even though I do not make French fries, a heavy metal meat grinder I will almost certainly never use, the no-tech haircutting tools my grandmother used to cut our hair as children (giving us Mamie Eisenhower bangs in the 1950s).  I foolishly brought home two boxes filled with the inexpensive Currier and Ives-style china that my Mom had painstakingly purchased piece by piece at the grocery store.  I did not want them, but it made her so happy when I said I would take them.  I also had Mom’s old Singer sewing machine even though both my daughter and I already had new machines.  I took many funeral cards and all the Blessed Virgin Mary statues that I ever bought her, despite the fact that I have not been a Roman Catholic since 1968.  It made me happy to take these things, but I found it made me sad to have it all. I am happy T and I were able to get rid of so much “stuff” this past year in anticipation of our move to Florida. That is when I finally gave the potato ricer, the china, and the old sewing machine to the Salvation Army.  They were still good.  I am sure someone is using them.