Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Sobering Must Read

Do we all have the capacity to become killers who boast of their accomplishments? Or are pubescent boys who have become enamored with Rambo the perfect candidates for becoming soldiers?

I just finished “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, a book whose images I will carry forever. It personalized the story of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone, recently publicized by the movie “Blood Diamond.”

I absolutely detest violence of an kind, refusing to see movies that show torture or gruesome death (with the exception of James Bond movies, which never seem real.) So I didn’t see Blood Diamond, but at Kristin’s invitation, I did go hear Ishmael Beah talk about his book at Politics & Prose and of course I bought the book and collected his autograph. I picked it up yesterday as I tucked myself in for a quiet day of doing nothing and couldn’t put it down. This is a story the whole world should read.

Not only is the story compelling, but the author’s prose is beautiful as he tells his mostly sad, but sometimes funny, story of how he lost his life and then reclaimed it. Here are just a couple of clips from the time when he became forever separated from his family and had to leave his village:

“The silence of the village was too scary. I was scared when the wind blew, shaking the thatched roofs, and I felt as if I were out of my body wandering somewhere. ... Not even a lizard dared to crawl through the village. The birds and crickets didn’t sing. I could hear my footsteps louder than my heartbeat”

“I walked for two days straight without sleeping. ... Often my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles.”

“One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I felt that I was starting over and over again.”

“A cock crowed to dispatch the last remains of night and to mute the crickets that couldn’t let go of the darkness of their own accord.”

“We walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime, afraid that nightfall would turn over the uncertain pages of our lives.”

“The breeze picked up its pace. The leaves of the trees began to rub against each other, resisting the wind. More branches snapped in the forest and the wailing intensified. The trees looked as if they were in pain. They swayed in all directions and slapped each other with their branches. A heavy rain followed, with thunder and lightning that lasted for less than fifteen minutes.”

As the author and a small band of boys wander through the forest, finding the remnants of atrocity and longing for their missing families, they skirt death several times and finally are captured by the Army who become a surrogate family. Drugs become a way of life that reddens their eyes and makes them numb to what they must do on a daily basis to survive. They are told repeatedly. “Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you. ... If you see someone without a head tie of this color or a helmet like mine, shoot him.” They killed anyone even suspected of being a rebel, often in gruesome ways. They were totally deadened to what they were doing, high all the time on marijuana, cocaine, and speed.

The author was one of the fortunate boy soldiers, rescued from this existence by UNICEF workers who took him to a clinic in Freetown where he spent months just learning how to live without the drugs and the constant violence. At first he had absolutely no memory of his family, of the stories his grandmother told, of his little brother. But gradually the hellish scenes of the war were replaced with memories of his past.

This boy, who was reciting Shakespeare at age 7 and who lived to survive his ordeal, is now only 26 years old. A recent graduate of Oberlin College, “A Long Way Gone” is his first book. I think he now has multiple possibilities for what he is going to do with his life. But his heart will always remain with his country, a place that still evokes the same scenes that he so beautifully describes in his book.

This is a book that makes you think. It should be a MUST READ for children and adults as well as we struggle to become aware of the many injustices that exist in our world today.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Blow, Blow, Blow Your Nose

As my nose continues to pour and I wish I had stock in Kimberly-Clark, I find myself wondering just what causes all of this stuff to want to escape your body when you have a cold. This springtime virus, which is probably just a variation on the common cold, has me conjoined to a box of Kleenex as my constant nose-blowing is punctuated by an explosive sneeze or an occasional cough.

I posed this question to my friend Reya, who has a treasure trove of knowledge about how the body works gleaned from her studies to be a massage therapist. She made sense of the many ways my body is fighting this nasty bug.

Toxins are constantly being excreted as a result of the infection. It’s the job of mucous in our noses and sneezes and coughs to carry them away. This is one reason hand-washing is so imperative so as not to spread the cold germs.

She also explained that taking antihistamines that tend to slow down a runny nose can have the effect of trapping the toxins and causing sinus infections. I believe I’ll opt for a runny nose, given that alternative.

I keep wondering if I will run out of “liquid” to produce the mucous that continues to drip out of my nose. Maybe that’s why I’m constantly thirsty.

I think I’ll go pop another vitamin C and make a big cup of herbal tea as I put my feet up once again to work on my book. That’s about all the energy I can muster for this day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Surprise in Every Box

When I was a kid, I often chose my cereal by what “prize” was included in the box or by the offer on the back of the box. My favorite of all time was a water-filled rocket you launched from the ground. Today I discovered a surprise I would never have expected to find, but it wasn’t in my Cheerios.

As I ran out the door to take the Dell to the computer doctor, I grabbed a small pack of tissues that had surfaced in one of my recent cleaning frenzies. I had probably picked it up on some trip that took me through Europe.

Two tissues in I came across a small sealed packet, thinking it highly unusual to find anything other than tissues in the pack labeled Tempo. At first I thought it might be hand disinfectant or perhaps hand lotion, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a condom with a brandname of Akuel and an expiration date of 08/2003. (I guess I didn’t realize that condoms expired.)

What an odd pairing of things – tissues and condoms. What sort of society would put these together? And sell them in an airport?

I looked a little closer at the tissue pack to try to discover where it was manufactured. Procter & Gamble but with at least 7 different European addresses.

We haven’t needed these for a while now (thank God) and it’s a good thing since this one is 4 years past its expiration date!

A Dirty Dell

If only someone could vacuum me out and tighten my wires like the Indian guy just did to my Dell, maybe I would now be 100% recovered. My Dell is happily purring away once again, my hard drive is intact, and I am sicker than ever.

I have never had such a peculiar virus. I wondered if it was chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia before the cold-like symptoms kicked in. I have zero energy and my neck and head are terribly achy. I’m sneezy and sniffly and have ugly looking stuff in my throat. I am a real mess. Despite my sense of renewed energy yesterday, I am still dragging around.

I managed to haul the Dell out to the computer geek who agreed to look at it this morning. Meanwhile I parked myself in the Whole Foods café area with a cup of green tea and a book. Before I had finished the Cheerios I brought, I got a call from the computer guy saying my computer was fixed and ready to be picked up.

I ended up paying $55 for him to vacuum out my dusty Dell and tighten a cable. Then my old computer was as good as new. He pushed the power button and it hummed to life.

I wish I could rid myself of this malaise so easily. As I sit here sipping my Odwalla PomaGrand juice, I keep hoping the cold germs will give up on me and move on to someone else. But healing the human body is usually not so instantaneous. Instead it calls on patience, that quality I’m not well endowed with, as we wait out the sweating and sniffling and sneezing and throat-clearing that must accompany a return to good health.

Instead of sitting around feeling a little depressed, I should be rejoicing that I no longer have to take sick leave to stay home, that it’s a good thing this happened BEFORE my 40th reunion weekend, and that my computer has rebounded to full health. Maybe I’ll work today on learning gratitude and patience as I wait for my body to do the same. Maybe I’ll make a pot of chicken soup on the off chance that it might speed things along.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On the Blink

My computer is fried and so am I. Last night’s thunderstorm did in my poor Dell to the point that it makes no attempt to boot or come to life. I’m struggling with a springtime virus that has made me feel just about the same way.

We have surge protectors on every computer in our house, thinking that will save us from the devilish lightning that so often flashes during a thunderstorm. But last night as I was dealing with a storm-crazed Jake, my Dell died a quick and total death. It’s probably the power supply since there is not even a buzz when you push the power button. Tomorrow I will take it to a computer geek who claims he can fix it in 2 hours.

It made me stop and think about what is stored on that machine and not backed up. There are lots of things I would rather not lose, so I hope the lightning stopped with the power supply and didn’t wipe out the hard drive. Maybe this is the swift kick I need to start backing up files I don’t want to lose. Will I learn? Probably not.

As for my malaise, it started last Thursday when I noticed that I seemed to be moving in slow motion with difficulty. I had just had a complete physical with blood work that attested to my excellent state of health. By Saturday I had a scratchy itchy throat and a slightly runny nose. Allergies? Maybe, but allergies don’t usually cause me to want to take multiple naps a day. Today I think I’m starting to feel some energy coming back. Hopefully there will be no need to consult a doctor and the virus will simply run its course, as they always do.

This is actually the first day since I retired that I have felt sorry for myself. My ailing computer and ailing body have left me feeling a little low. The good thing about being sick is you really appreciate being well when you are once again. I’m ready!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Towels that Match

I’ve always wanted to open the linen closet door and see things that matched instead of the hodgepodge that was there. Nice thick towels instead of the mismatched ones with the raveling hems, some of which have other people’s names written in black magic marker, reminiscent of swim team days.

Today I tackled the linen closet in my series of cleanup projects that could well go on forever. I am getting rid of all the sheets that no longer fit the beds we have. I am getting rid of the well-worn towels. That doesn’t leave a lot.

There’s the off-white woolen blanket my parents gave us when we got married. We have never used it because it really doesn’t get cold enough here to need such a blanket, but it simply can’t be discarded... yet. There are a few spare pillowcases that match what is currently on our beds. There are exactly 2 sets of respectable towels.

I just went online and ordered 4 sets of new towels – all luxurious Turkish towels, all in the same color (grass). I can’t wait till they arrive and I can finally not cringe when I open that closet.

Some of the other old towels will be recycled to the laundry room for wiping dogs’ feet and other miscellaneous jobs befitting a frayed old piece of terry. I can see a trip to the Salvation Army for the rest of the closet contents, hopefully finding homes that need my castoffs.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

My Son the Lawyer

Have you ever heard of someone who studied for the California bar exam for one week before taking it the first time... and passed? This would be my son D, who moved to San Francisco around the end of last year and took the bar exam in February.

He had passed the bar in Arizona, where he went to school, but decided not to accept a job offer there and moved to California instead. With no income at the time, he opted to acquire a set of used bar review books from 3 years ago and do his own prep in lieu of taking one of those intensive expensive bar review courses. The person who provided the books had finally passed on her fourth attempt.

Through January our conversation with D was always, “I’m going to start studying for the bar... soon. Don’t worry.” And we had no choice.

After the test, however, he learned that instead of the percentages from 2005 depicted above, the recent pass rate was more like 39%. He warned us that he probably had not passed and would definitely study more before taking the exam again in July.

Then the wait commenced. It is almost 12 weeks to the day from the time of the exam until you find out how you did. During that time he mentioned several times that the exam had been more difficult that he had expected and that he was going to start studying again... soon.

I knew May 25 was the day when the results were available. I assumed that the lack of a phone call all day long meant a negative report. However, last night D called to say he had checked the bar exam website to learn that he had passed. It was only then that he admitted to having studied just one week prior to the February exam.

This type of thing is so typical of this kid. He is the same kid who couldn’t read one day in the first grade and then could read everything, and I mean everything, the next day. One day he couldn’t ride a bike; after the next he never fell again. He took standardized tests sometimes after only a few hours of sleep and always got an almost perfect score. So why should I be surprised?

So now the real question is whether he should admit to a prospective employer his preparation strategy and its results. Truthfully I would be impressed with his self-confidence and willingness to take a risk, but someone else might call this behavior insane or at least foolhardy in light of the current 39% pass rate.

I am a proud Mom today, wishing my young genius lived a little closer to home so I could give him a congratulatory hug. He has once again proven that he can do anything he sets his mind to do. Now that he is officially credentialed, I hope his mind is set on finding a job!

If you are perchance a lawyer in California and you have any employment advice, please share it with me and I will convey it to D.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dealing with a Lifetime of Stuff

Retirement tends to bring out an un-nesting instinct, where you start to look critically at all the stuff you’ve amassed over the course of your lifetime. It’s definitely a time to tear apart and unburden.

Until this point in my life, since we have lived in the same house for 30 years, my inclination has been to collect things – books, cookbooks, dishes, records, clothes, souvenirs, and paper – lots of paper. I think of this as a form of nesting. We pulled together all those things that would help us raise two children, 5 dogs, and countless other assorted pets.

We have quite a lot of storage space in our house, so it was only too easy to tuck something in a closet or put it on a shelf, never to be revisited for years and years. Our pantry is like an archaeological tel, containing such gems as a set of snail shells for escargot; a crank machine that cores, peels, and slices an apple all at one time; a set of plates intended for artichokes; and a clay cooker or two. The window seats in our family room contain a myriad of assorted board games and box after box of 33-1/3 records, replete with the original scratches.

In my old days, I would have tackled this obvious housecleaning project head on, stopping only to eat and sleep until it was done. But retirement has suggested that there is plenty of time for un-nesting. So instead I am biting off several small projects each week. This week resulted in cleaning out 2 bathrooms, the laundry room, and the drawer in the kitchen where we throw all food that doesn’t have a home elsewhere, like cookies and chocolate and nuts and chips. These are just the tip of a very large iceberg, but they represent a start.

My friend Kris has a 3-month lead on me since she retired in February. She has now been through her entire attic, basement, and storage shed. Last weekend she held a yard sale and made $200 on the things she was ready to part with. She sold a whole box of kids’ games for $5 to a grandfather who wanted something to entertain his grandchildren.

The funniest story she told was that of getting rid of stuffed animals. Anyone who has raised a daughter (or in her case 3) has boxes of furry friends. She cleaned them all up and seated them in groups on the living room furniture. Then she took pictures and sent them to her children asking which ones they just couldn’t part with. They responded sensibly, so now she is down to under a dozen animals and the younger set in the neighborhood are enjoying the rest.

That’s what it seems to all be about – simplifying and casting off what is no longer needed. I will have Kris as my advisor as I tackle 30 years of a very full nest. I’m sure un-nesting will prompt countless memories of long, long ago. But I hope I can use her example to find new homes for some oldies but goodies and to recognize garbage when I see it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shower Woes

There is something so disappointing about a cold shower when you are expecting warm water. As I quickly showered in preparation for meeting some friends from work, in my mind I went over the possible causes of no hot water, lamenting the fact that David is in Detroit:

– The pilot light might be out. Gas makes me nervous. The last time we did this as a team effort with him holding the flashlight and me poking the long match in. I always feel relieved to see the little blue flame again.
– The hot water heater could be broken and could even be flooding the basement – not a pleasant thought.

After my very cold shower which was indeed quick and reminiscent of summer camp, I ran down to the basement to find there was no flood. The hot water heater was actually making a happy sound that would seem to indicate it was working. I ran back upstairs to confirm there was hot water in the kitchen sink.

So that would say it was just my bathroom shower that was affected. Since we remodeled the house 7 years ago, that shower has been a problem. Until recently it was difficult to get it hot enough even on the highest setting. Lately on the other hand, it seemed as if there was only hot water coming out, quickly fogging up the mirror despite the exhaust fan. But why today was there only cold water?

We can do many things, but household repairs are not our forte. I posed this repair challenge to the 3 guys I was out with, two of whom are they kind who do their own additions and would never dream of calling anyone in. One started asking me about the manifold for the hot water and other such questions and suggesting we might have to tear out the wall. That’s the point at which I determined I would be calling a plumber tomorrow.

The good news is the pilot light is lit and there is hot water to be had. I just have to find it in another bathroom. Not a problem.

It’s these simple things like a cold shower that remind me how incapable I am in certain arenas and how accustomed I am to amenities like hot and cold running water. I guess I should be thankful I don’t have to heat the water for my bath over an open fire!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Meme of 4

I was tagged by Gewels for this “4" meme:

4 jobs you have had:

Computer programmer
Systems analyst

4 movies I can watch over and over:

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Thomas Crown Affair (original)
Any James Bond movie
To Kill a Mockingbird

4 places I’ve lived:

Panama City, FL
Tallahassee, FL
Washington, DC
Alexandria, VA

4 categories of TV programming I enjoy (hard since I don’t watch TV):

Cooking channel
Game shows (like Jeopardy)
Cartoons (once upon a time)
Home improvement (like This Old House)

4 places I’ve been on holiday:

Portovenere, Italy
Lourmarin, (Provence) France
Kauai, Hawaii
Vieques, Puerto Rico

4 of my favorite dishes:

BBQ chicken (made by my husband)
Indian dal with lentils
Breaded veal cutlets (also made by my husband)

4 websites I visit daily:

Gold Poppy
Bullet Holes in the Mailbox
Candy Sandwich
Mother of Invention

4 places I would rather be right now:

Southern Chile
Sogn Fjord (Norway)

My life seems boring and antiquated after doing this meme. But, oh well, it is what it is! How about Richard, Mother of Invention, Old Lady, and Ulysses? Got any 4's to report?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Making Biking History

You might be wondering what these 5 cards from the Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards have to do with the fact that today I rode my bicycle further than I ever have before – 31 miles to be exact. The connection is my friend Kris, who inspired our biking trip to the Eastern Shore today.

It was one of those picture perfect spring days when it’s warm and sunny with a breeze. The white clouds simply floated up there in a very blue sky. As we headed over the Bay Bridge with bikes on the back of our car, we pitied those going in the opposite direction to jobs and school and other required activities. On the trip over, we decided to do the circuit that contains Easton, Oxford, and St. Michaels. I knew this was about twice as long as my normal bike ride but figured it couldn’t be too hard because everything is so flat on the Eastern Shore.

I brought my camera but just never wanted to stop and take pictures of the field of red poppies or the field of green spring wheat or the field being tilled for corn. I saw the most beautiful purple bird but have no picture to offer you. We heard the water lapping everywhere but the recording is only in our heads.

The first leg of this trip landed us in Oxford, a little town that seemed totally asleep. We sat in a park by the water and ate a granola bar before searching for the ferry that would take us across some body of water to Bellevue. We piled on with 4 cars and 4 walkers for the 7-1/2 minute boat trip.

We took the only road that led away from the ferry landing although there was no sign pointing toward St. Michaels. An hour later we rolled into town feeling tired and famished. A restaurant called the Crab Claw seemed likely to have the crab cakes we had both been hoping for.

After we placed our order, Kris pulled a deck of Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards out of her backpack. Her daughter has taken up the religion of the goddess and presented Kris with these cards for a Christmas gift. She suggested that I pull 5 cards that might enlighten me as to what retirement will bring for me. You see my 5 cards above:

Athena – Inner Wisdom – “You know what to do. Trust your inner wisdom, and take appropriate action without delay.”
Nemetona – Sacred Space – “Create an altar or visit a power place to connect with the Divine.”
Sarasvati – The Arts – “Express yourself through creative activities.”
Vesta – Home – “Your household situation is improving, either through a move or a healthy change in the occupants.”
Artemis – Guardian – “You and your loved ones are safe and spiritually protected.”

Every one of these cards resonated with me. I looked at the cards I hadn’t chosen and these were indeed the 5 that most applied to me.

The crabcakes upstaged the oracle cards and we had no trouble cleaning our plates. We then poked around some of the quaint shops, where I bought a couple of things before we got back on the bikes. By this time I was becoming intensely familiar with the feel of my bike saddle.

After a lemonade break midway, we reached Easton once again, found the car, and headed home.

At one point I asked Kris if she could ever have imagined her mother riding a bicycle. I never saw my mother get on one. This made us both feel good that we as 58-year-olds could tackle a 31-mile trip and not wimp out of any part of it. I even had the added bonus of having my cards read as an appetizer to lunch. You can’t beat a day like that!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Making Music

When I read John Daido Loori’s book “The Zen of Creativity” a few years ago, I thought he had an interesting idea but at that time I had not experienced it. He suggested that people get together in small peer groups to share music or art or something of themselves. The group would provide its members with constructive feedback.

Most of us grow up feeling terribly self-conscious about performing in front of others. What if I make a mistake? What if I forget? What if they don’t value what I do? With never the thought of What if they find out something new and important about me?

My first attempt at joining someone else’s group didn’t work out. But then I learned of “Works in Progress,” a piano group that meets on Capitol Hill each month. It was exactly the format that Loori described. There’s no audition, no judging, no critical review. It’s simply a group of people who get together because they have a shared love of music.

For all of us, music is not a vocation, but rather a hobby. It’s where we go when we want to work and relax at the same time. Most of us have had long periods when there was no time to play music. We range in age from 40-something to 70-something. Some people currently take lessons. Others simply play.

Yesterday’s meeting of the group reminded me what a privilege it is to belong. I have finally gotten to the point where I can say “I’ll go next” with no fear. Yesterday it was WE rather than I, as I was playing with others.

Mary and I did a 4-hand Scott Joplin piece called the “Stoptime Rag.” The idea is that you stomp your foot on the first and third beat of each measure. At first this was akin to walking and chewing gum at the same time for me. But I quickly got into the fun of stomping and playing. We invited our small audience to stomp along with us, so it was like having a built-in metronome. We did remarkably well, given that Mary and I had never performed together before. But the point was that it didn’t matter. The group was there to stomp for us, not to judge us.

I stayed on at the piano as Deborah tuned up her base. We then played a Haydn sonata, which featured Haydn at his best. It evoked the feeling of a dance that caught up our listeners. I embraced even the fast parts without fear of failure.

One person played a sonatina from memory, something that still terrifies me. But perhaps one day I will conquer this fear.

Another played a Grieg piece she has done a couple of times now, each time with marked improvements. She stopped short of the end, promising to work on that last page for next month.

There were several remarkable pieces, all varied in their nature and in the ability and experience of the pianists.

At the end we sat around eating fruit salad and cookies and enjoying a chilled white wine. I expressed my gratitude for being included in such a group as we chose a date for our June meeting.

From there I hurried on to a 7:00 PM concert in Bowie given by the Heritage Singers, a 10-man a cappella group. Ironically at my last work retirement luncheon, I happened to learn that a colleague was a singer in this group. As I sat there listening to a repertoire that ran from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Sacred Songs to Get Me to the Church on Time, I felt so lucky to have discovered Scott’s interest outside of work. I will be a regular at future performances of this group.

So Sunday was a day filled to the brink with music. As I consider how to answer the oft-asked question, “What are you going to do in your retirement?” I can always safely say, “I’m going to play and listen to a lot of music.” That’s for sure!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Confessions of a Student

At my last Hebrew class, the teacher Miriam asked everyone to comment on what they had learned. There were comments like:

“I can now keep up with what is going on in the Shabbat service.”
“I now understand the prayers we say each week.”
“I understand how Hebrew roots work.”

When it was my turn I said, “I learned that I can come to class, not do one bit of homework, and still not be mortified.” And it’s true. Since Reya told me about Miriam’s class last fall, I have gone every week and never opened the book in between classes. I’m sure the class would have been even more beneficial to me if I had studied, but it was interesting to see if this non-homework behavior would force me to either work or drop out of class, and it did not. Some nights I was really on. Other nights I was fairly quiet so as not to reveal how little I knew.

But despite my lack of work, I learned an incredible amount just from coming to class.

Yesterday as my friend Liz, who is a published writer and who teaches creative writing at The Writing Center in Bethesda, suggested that now that I am retired I could take one of her classes this summer, I had several reactions:

– I never took a class like this in college because I was convinced I couldn’t make an A in a writing class.
– I could not get by with not doing my homework. It would be just too obvious.
– What if I learned that I wasn’t at all creative? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write about?

I have been wanting to take a class of some sort, though. Pauline’s example would say that we’re never too old to explore our creativity. Perhaps I’ll sign up for Liz’s class, knowing that my GPA no longer matters.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hoping to Lose a Few

I feel that extra 3-1/2 pounds every time I put on a pair of pants and go to zip it up. I knew I was a little over the weight where my clothes all fit and yesterday at my physical I found out how much.

It sounds like nothing, but extra weight always sits just below my waist accentuating my pear shape.

Two years ago I had been 12 pounds lighter, giving me a somewhat gaunt look. So my current goal is only to get rid of the few extra pounds.

How to do that? Cut out sugar, bread, crackers, cheese, and chocolate. That’s hard for me because I crave all of those things, especially chocolate.

I was good at breakfast. But at lunch after services today, I ate half a bagel and had a chocolate dessert that was not even worth the calories. At Deborah’s house after we played music together, I simply could not pass up a homemade chocolate chip cookie. But no sugar in my tea.

3-1/2 pounds sounds like nothing. But it means I can’t wear the pair of pants I would like to wear to a party tonight. I’ve never been crazy about weight issues, never really having any to speak of. But I like my current wardrobe and would like it to fit. I will discover just a little self-discipline in the interest of not going shopping. After all, my big 40th high school reunion is coming up in a couple of weeks. I might even want to put on a swim suit since it’s at the beach.

How hard can it really be to lose 3-1/2 pounds?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Waking Up is Hard to Do

For the longest time I have been unable to understand anyone not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. For a very long time I have been achy and stiff when I woke up, only feeling better when I got out of bed and moved and stretched.

From the introduction of the Sleep Number bed last week, I have sensed a difference. Every day has improved as I changed the setting down and finally up, once again feeling sort of like Goldilocks looking for the perfect bed.

But today I got it right. It turns out the 60 is the magic number for me. I can lie on either side or even on my back and it feels like I’m floating on a cloud. There is absolutely no tension in my back or hips or anywhere else in my body.

The funny thing is the times my husband and I wake up are actually converging. Never did I think this would happen. I often got up at 5:30 or even earlier when I was working. For many years he has slept until 8:30 or 9:00 most days. Today I woke up (without an alarm) at 8:20. He got up at 8:40. There was a brief moment as I lay there enjoying the mattress cloud feeling when his eyelids fluttered open.

We’ve both joked that one of our goals in retirement is to get on the same sleep schedule. It would appear that I’m headed toward his. That’s OK. As much as I like the early morning light, I also like the feeling of waking up together.

But more than that I like the idea of waking up without all that pain and stiffness that must have been associated with our old mattress. I would be a good ad for the importance of a mattress suited to your personal requirements. It really makes a lot of sense!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Friend's Struggle

What if at age 57 you finally found out you were bipolar? You would finally have the answer to how you had fucked up your life in so many ways. I spent the day in West Virginia visiting someone who once worked for me. Let’s just call him J.

J was smart. We knew that from the minute he descended upon our office. But at times he could be as annoying as hell. He simply didn’t know when to shut up and invariably ended up with his foot in his mouth. He loved to eat, always struggling with a weight problem. He loved to talk about food.

I had some reservations as I promoted him up the career ladder. But his work was solid and he picked up the Spanish that we needed for our work in Latin America so easily. He and I always got along well and he spared me of his sometimes cruel sense of humor.

In his single days, he was heavily into jazz and photography, sometimes even convincing a girl named Benise to pose with all sorts of vegetables as he made harmless porn pictures.

When J announced he was getting married, we were all excited for him. Several of us even made the trip to Connecticut for the wedding. Then a daughter eventually came along. But there were some strange things going on. His wife kept a lock on the refrigerator, I kid you not.

That marriage finally ended in a bitter divorce. His daughter at age 15 told him she never wanted to see him again. And J continued to eat and gain weight.

He met B soon thereafter, who helped him through some awful years. But they too just couldn’t make a go of their relationship. They both currently still live (apart) in a small town in West Virginia.

Meanwhile J retired suddenly, mostly because he was perhaps going to be fired for sexual harassment of a colleague.

This guy sounds like a mess, right?

He has finally made some sense out of his life after being diagnosed as bipolar and understanding that he has an obsessive eating disorder.

But the good news is he has turned his life around. He has lost about 130 pounds, now looking like a very sveldt guy of 5'10". My friend and I brought lunch today, providing only those things on J’s diet. We enjoyed fish soup, a tossed salad, and mixed fruit for dessert.

J understands that he must be on certain meds to stabilize his system – to prevent the lows and highs from being so far apart. He understands that if he resorts to his previous way of eating, he will not have anything to wear and he will gain back all those ugly pounds.

I’m terribly sympathetic with people who suffer from bipolar disorder. It can rob them of relationships, family, jobs, and the chance to lead a normal life. I am so grateful that J has figured this out and has reclaimed his life.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shifting with Confidence

I suddenly realized today just how comfortable I am with driving a standard shift car. There was a time in my life when I was just as afraid of driving a stick as I was of being in water over my head.

When my son was just a baby, my car died and the replacement car was a standard transmission Volvo wagon. If I was to go anywhere, I had to bite the bullet and learn how to drive it.

My husband did all that a husband could do, which ended with my being totally intimidated although I knew in my mind exactly what to do. It was actually someone in my office who offered to go out with me at lunch time and help me feel comfortable with my new used car. The one thing Niki told me that I will always remember is that you can always put the clutch in and then nothing, absolutely nothing, will happen.

After that I drove with more confidence. But I always watched the speedometer to know when to shift. I was never too good at down-shifting. Since that time, I have never regularly driven a car that had an automatic transmission.

I tried to teach my children how to drive a stick shift, just as I made sure they could swim as early as possible. But to no avail. Neither of them ever got the hang of shifting.

My current Honda, with 177,000 miles on it and its original clutch, attests to the fact that I am kind to it. I never gnash the gears or pop the clutch. I shift gently and do a damn good job on hills.

It was just today that I realized that I no longer look at the speedometer when I shift. In fact I shift without thinking about it by just listening to the engine I suppose. This is a life-time achievement I never dreamed I would have.

I just wish I could deal with my fear of deep water in the same way. Just yesterday my friend Kris told me her mother-in-law had conquered her fear of the water at age 64 when she took swimming lessons. I wonder if there is hope for me?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Something New

Retirement seems like the right time to try new things. So when my friend Kris proposed a bike trip to a labyrinth and healing garden, of course I said YES. Only when my husband asked me the difference between a maze and a labyrinth did I realize that I knew nothing about labyrinths.

In preparation for our adventure, Kris gave me two small books on labyrinths as reading material. Sure enough one of the first chapters answered my husband’s question. A maze has dead ends, whereas a labyrinth has only one way to get to the center, albeit full of twists and turns.

Kris and I headed out around 7:30 this morning on our bikes. It was one of the most perfect mornings imaginable – warm but not humid, just about right in every way. She had already scouted out the route, which would take us about an hour, mostly on bike paths, but sometimes requiring us to ride on streets with cars.

Much of the ride there was uphill, with a couple of places so steep that I had to get off and walk my bike because I just wasn’t prepared gear-wise. We encountered very few cyclists or runners or mothers with strollers. So most of the way we could ride side-by-side, which is always preferable. Kris is probably the only person I have ever met who can ride as slowly as I do, especially on hills.

Our goal was the intersection of Lee Highway and George Mason Drive, where there is a gem of a garden associated with the Whitman-Walker Clinic. It was established by the TKF Foundation, a private grant-making foundation whose purpose is to create "Open Spaces, Sacred Places". In the middle of an urban setting is this beautifully sculpted garden with the labyrinth as a focal point.

Kris explained a little about her experience with walking labyrinths. How on Mother’s Day she had come and walked barefoot so as to be able to experience the sharpness and unevenness that her mother, her mother-in-law, her grandmothers had experienced in their lives. How she always sets an intention before beginning.

I spent some time reading in a beautiful little gazebo while Kris walked today. Then it was my turn, as she relaxed by the pool of goldfish, soaking up the sun.

The labyrinth is not the regulation Chartres size, but rather a smaller version. It’s the same idea however. You enter at one side, after ascending 3 steps. I took a deep breath as I went up each step. Then I launched into the path marked by colored stones, quickly realizing there is a lot more walking than I had imagined. My intention was to be grateful for family and friends near and far, some of whom I’ve never met. It seemed appropriate to pause at each switchback to drink in the bird sounds and beautiful flowers all around. As I reached the center I sensed an uplifting feeling. It was easy to retrace my steps back to the beginning. I can see how this form of walking meditation can be so beneficial.

Back in the real world, we stopped for a Starbucks latte before heading for home. The trip back was considerably easier for the most part, with the only grueling section at the very end. There was never the need to get off and walk my bike.

Other than initiating me to the healing properties of the labyrinth, today’s trip was good for me because it convinced me I can do some more difficult bike rides. I have always been a wimp when it comes to hills, but now that my legs are getting stronger, I think I can tackle harder rides.

This was the perfect way to spend the morning with a good friend. Now I want to discover all of the labyrinths in the DC metropolitan area. Does anyone know of another?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Just Another Monday

People keep asking me what I do all day long, as if retirement means your life is suddenly on hold and you become a piece of petrified wood. Truthfully that couldn’t be more from the truth. In fact, I can’t figure out how I ever managed to devote 50 waking hours to commuting and work.

Here’s what happened today – a fairly typical Monday I would guess.

I got up at 6:00 so I could sit with my meditation group on Captiol Hill from 7:00 to 7:30. It was a good sit, where the time flew by and I heard nothing of the outside sounds of morning.

I stopped off at Deborah’s office to have my blood drawn in preparation for a physical later this week.

I came home and practiced the piano for an hour or so. I’m working on Scott Joplin piano 4-hand duets with my friend Mary. I’m also working on a sonata by Antoniotti with Deborah, as well as a difficult Schubert sonata with Bill.

I tackled a small cleaning project, going through the drawer in the kitchen where we have been throwing everything we couldn’t figure out what to do with. Someone after some party had even thrown a Ziplock containing cheese into this drawer. It was not a pretty sight. I moved on and cleaned out the lazy Susan as well. I filled an entire trash bag with things that were old or bad or unnecessary. I found things that I thought were lost. There is something so gratifying about cleaning out even a small space.

I was inspired to cook something interesting for lunch, often wanting to have my big meal in the middle of the day these days. So here was the recipe du jour for let’s just call it

Chicken-Eggplant-Rice casserole:

– Cook one cup of brown rice in 2 cups of chicken broth.
– Saute 2 onions (chopped) in a small amount of olive oil.
– Add one pepper of any color and 2 cloves of garlic (chopped).
– Add one eggplant (chopped).
– Add 2 teaspoons oregano, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves.
– Add one can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes.
– Stir in the mostly-cooked rice.
– Add in a piece of leftover grilled chicken breast, cut into small pieces.
– Add salt and pepper to taste.
– Add in some fresh basil leaves.
– Put in a casserole dish and bake at 400 degrees until the rice is thoroughly cooked (about 20 minutes).

Serve with a fresh tomato-basil-mushroom salad topped with unsalted pistachio nuts and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

After lunch I took the leftovers plus a spare bicycle we weren’t using over to my elderly dying friend Florence’s daughter, who needs a way to work off some of the extra energy she builds up caring for her mom. I had tea with Florence and Lydia. Florence’s sight and balance are definitely impaired, but she is still as smart as a tack. Utterly amazing for someone with an aggressive brain tumor.

I stopped at the now familiar Healthy Back Store, where we are on a first-name basis with the proprietor since we sprang for a Sleep Number bed on Saturday. The bed was delivered today and I was there to purchase an anti-allergy mattress cover.

I came home and admired the new bed, which is at least 6 inches higher than our last bed. I quickly filled the water pillow David had ordered for me, telling myself I now have no more excuses for back or neck pain. I’ll be floating my head on water and floating my body on an adjustable firmness surface. Many people would probably describe this as certifiably NUTS! But we shall see if it makes a difference...

Then I was off to yoga for a 6:15 class with my beloved teacher Leyla. It was a nice combination of working really hard doing lunges and a million down dogs and relaxing into restorative poses as we draped ourselves over bolster pillows. After you wring out your body in a twist over a bolster, you simply cannot have any tension left.

Back home I had a light dinner of cottage cheese and a green salad topped with a d’anjou pear.

Here I am with a rather late post describing a fairly boring (by many people’s standards) day. This is just one of those days that could have been any other day if yoga class didn’t make it a Monday.

So this is the unabridged answer to the question of what I do with myself all day long now that I am retired.

My husband just asked if it was more difficult to write something each day now that I no longer have work to bitch about. It’s not more difficult to find something to write about. It’s just that the subject matter has become much more mundane. There are no more meetings. I’m simply keeping company with a retired husband and two aging dogs. It’s not exactly a roller coaster ride, but the grass isn’t growing under my feet either. So far I’m not bored and I certainly have no regrets about leaving my job. In fact, I highly recommend retirement!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Waiting for the Mail to Come

It’s nice to feel like a queen on Mother’s Day. I must admit that some years have been better than others.

This is a particularly good year. With no prompting or hints, I have been noticed in wonderful ways by my family.

My husband knows how much I need a massage. He gave me a gift certificate to a spa in Alexandria that will cover any of a number of optional massages. I’m always wary of new massage therapists. Will they hurt me? Will they watch the clock? You see, I have a high standard set by my last massage therapist that no one has come close to beating. But hey, it’s paid for, so I now must schedule my next massage.

My daughter called earlier today to offer her good wishes and to tell me something should arrive in the next day’s mail. A call was really quite sufficient, but something in the mail is always exciting.

My son called yesterday to say something would be delivered by 3:00 today. It’s now around 5:00 and nothing has come, but I’m sure it’s on it’s way somewhere between San Francisco and here. At first I thought maybe he had arranged for someone to sing to me or juggle for me at 3:00. I was somewhat glad to find out that it’s just an envelope I’m expecting.

So perhaps tomorrow the wonders of Mother’s Day will continue to unfold as the mail arrives. It’s a good feeling to have those I care most about wish me well on my special day. I’m no Wonder Woman, but I am definitely proud to be someone’s Wife and someone's Mom!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

In Search of Sweet Dreams

After a week of sleeping apart, we fixed the problem. We just bought a new bed that should last us for a long while.

For some time I had been tossing and turning a lot and waking up with an achy lower back that gradually faded after I stretched and moved for a while each day. I wondered if it was fibromyalgia or scoliosis or old age or perhaps our bed.

I decided to try an experiment. About a week ago I started sleeping in our son’s bed, which is nothing to write home about. It’s just a conventional mattress with springs, but it is a lot newer than our bed. Sure enough, after just one night I could sense a difference.

We bought our bed at least 12 years ago when I was also experiencing a lot of back pain. We opted for a foam mattress because we could get 2 different densities of foam glued together down the middle. You see we have different requirements for the degree of firmness in the mattress.

When we bought the king-size foam mattress, it was like heaven. It was such a relief and it completely fixed my back problems then. But we were also told that the life of a foam mattress is at most 8 years.

Four years later, it’s no small wonder that my back is once again hurting. There is probably a permanent indentation in my side of the bed which corresponds to the fetal position in which I sleep.

David hates shopping and I’m actually not thrilled by shopping for a new bed, so we made quick work of getting a new one this afternoon. We visited the Healthy Back Store, where he had already established a relationship when he bought a new desk chair. We were the only people in the place – perhaps not a good sign – but that meant we had the undivided attention of the guy who worked there, who was only too happy to make a sale.

I felt like Goldilocks going around to all the beds and trying them out. This one is too hard. This other one is too soft. Oh, I like this one over here. It’s just right. We tried and rejected Temperpedic. We both liked the medium grade Sleep Number bed, which cost about 3 times what we paid for our last bed.

It felt really yummy on my back as I lay there and zoomed the setting up and down. We will have dual controls, so his and hers can be different firmness. Just what we wanted.

I had to laugh when David told me he missed me. I’m always asleep when he comes to bed and I always get up before he does. I asked him if he missed seeing the lump on the other side of the bed and he nodded yes.

So later this week we will be having a reunion in the bedroom after the Sleep Number 3 arrives. A little separation makes getting back together again a sweet thing to look forward to!

Here’s to sweet dreams!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Spicing It Up

The highlight of my day was a field trip with my friend Kris to a new store in Rockville – Penzey’s Spice House. She has been using their spices for 30 years now, courtesy of her sister who lives in Chicago.

Penzey’s is a mom and pop business which until recently had 3 retail stores in the midwest and thrived with mail orders. Their first store in this area recently opened in Rockville. At Kris’s suggestion, we decided to go check it out.

The smell upon walking through the front door is that of all the ethnic cuisines put together – pleasant but difficult to sort out. I grabbed a shopping basket and started around, smelling the samples as I went.

I never realized that curry or cinnamon or vanilla from different parts of the world could smell so entirely different. At one point we both started sneezing uncontrollably from too much aroma.

I’m never good in a smorgasbord situation. True to form, my basket was full to the top after I had made the rounds. But the good news is I bought only small quantities of everything, wanting to decide what to buy more of on a return trip. For a whopping $32, I had 10 new spice treats ranging from cinnamon to basil to curry to paprika to “Sunny Paris” and a few more.

Someone once told me that the shelf-life of spices is a mere 6 months. Kris and I both confessed to having cans of old spices. (I don’t think they even come in cans any longer.)

So when I got home, some of the antiques had to go to make room for the new ones. Some people collect coins. Some collect stamps. I collect spices, as you can see below. I will definitely be returning to Penzey’s.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Gone to the Dogs

We’ve just come from our first “Yappy Hour,” a gala event at the Omni Shoreham hosted by Cassidy, the hotel’s newest dog-in-training. Jake accompanied us and made us proud that he could behave in public.

The Yappy Hour was a fund-raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization that breeds and trains dogs to be working dogs who help people with disabilities. I learned about it from my Hebrew teacher Miriam, who (along with her husband) is raising Olaf, a year-old black lab.

It was a perfect Spring night to be in the garden area of the hotel. They had gone to great lengths to make it a fun experience for the dogs. There were silver water bowls, endless treats, and centerpieces of tennis balls for fetching.

The real surprise was the baby lamb chops, sushi, shrimp cocktail, grilled vegetables, mini-crabcakes, and an open bar for the dog owners. At the cost of $30 per dog, it was a cheap dinner for us!

You would think there would be dog skirmishes breaking out all over. But after the initial butt-sniffing, most dogs were cordial. The guests included many dogs in training. But in addition there was a bulldog, a miniature pinscher, an Australian cattle dog, a Bernese mountain dog, and any number of other breeds represented.

My teacher Miriam and her husband Sean showed up toward the end with Olaf, who was strong enough to drag Miriam across the patio. He is still a little too exuberant to tell whether he will make the grade to be a guide dog. Some dogs end up as sires or dames. Some find their place in hospitals like the VA Hospital. We heard of one dog that had worked miracles with an autistic child.

I had always thought that raising a dog for 18 months and then turning it over to someone else, even if it was for a good cause, would break my heart. There was a man there tonight who was currently fostering his 16th dog and had stories to tell about every one he had raised.

With my love of animals, I might consider taking on a dog in my retirement. I can’t think of a better way to make a positive commitment to society.

But for tonight, it was just an odd mixture of dog biscuits and Chardonnay at one of DC’s finest hotels.

Check out a slideshow of the event on David's Blog.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Grocery Shopping on X-day

Retirement means there are no more holidays, no more workdays. Or maybe it’s more like every day is a holiday.

When I open my eyes in the morning without having the jarring sound of an alarm clock, I find the day looks very much like the one I said goodnight to. Mon runs into Tues runs into Wednes runs into Thurs runs into Satur runs into Sun. It takes an event like a Monday yoga class or a Wednesday meditation group to distinguish one from the other.

I had a sudden realization as I went to Whole Foods today at 1:30 to buy some groceries. The parking lot was empty. There were plenty of carts. I breezed in and out in no time with no waiting in line, no hassle. Where was everyone? Then I realized they were all at work!

So I cooked tonight. Credit me with one fine dinner. It was a made-up fish soup, sort of like a bouillabaise. But in my own cooking style, I refused to consult a recipe, preferring instead to mentally imagine what would taste good. Here’s what I did:

– Sauteed onions, garlic, and ginger.
– Added coarsely chopped oyster mushrooms.
– Added baby spinach, fresh basil, parsley.
– Added a can of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes.
– Added Chilean sea bass chopped into bite-size pieces.
– Added homemade fish stock (still leftover (frozen) from the Passover gefillte fish).
– Added a handful of pasta.
– Cooked just until the pasta was al dente.
– Ladled into bowls and topped with garlicky croutons.

Even though it was not required cooking, it was fun and warmed our bellies.

On my way into DC to meditation tonight, I realized that I had never brushed my hair today. It’s really hard when there is no routine. How could I leave out this necessary part of grooming? Tomorrow I will do it for sure!

I never realized just how structured and programmed my life had become. This is like a whole new way of life. At meditation, one person commented that I had taken on a new relaxed look. Maybe it was my wild hair. Maybe I really am learning how to be leisurely.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Honeymoon Is Over

Why did I think I was going to have all sorts of time on my hands when I retired? So far I haven’t been able to finish a thing I have started. This is a bigger adjustment than I had anticipated. The friend I had lunch with today reminded me that I am only on day 2, so I should cut myself some slack.

The reality of retirement set in on Sunday, after the last party was over and I could catch my breath from the craziness of the past few weeks.

There is a necessary renegotiation of how ordinary things get done around the house now. David suggested that I might need to take on a greater role in things like getting the cars repaired since I was no longer working for money and he has two small paying jobs. I could feel the hackles go up!

I figured the next thing to come was a suggestion that I now cook every night instead of just on weekends as had been the arrangement when I was still working. Before that discussion could take place, I checked with my friends Bill and Kris who are both retired and found out they fend for themselves for dinner. If someone wants to cook, that person does, but there are no expectations. That’s the plan I proposed to David. He somewhat reluctantly agreed.

My original idea had been that every day I would tackle and complete a small house cleaning job – just a closet or a drawer or a shelf. So far I have managed to load up the kitchen counter with things from my past work life and the contents of a few drawers and the piles still await sorting and discarding and relocating. It would seem that I am just moving most of this junk from one place to the other without a whole lot of progress in getting rid of anything.

And where is all that free time I thought I would have? Thursday and Friday are totally used up and other days are quickly getting filled. I’m starting to understand those retirees who ask how they ever managed to work a full-time job!

This is perhaps the time to BREATHE, find a book, make a cup of tea, and put my feet up. David reminds me that the junk will all be there tomorrow. No one is grading my performance any longer.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Some Thought-provoking Questions

Pauline recently offered anyone who wanted a chance to answer 5 customized questions. Here are my Q&A’s.

(1) How do you work through feelings about events that disturb you?

Events that disturb me fall into 2 groups – those that affect me and those that only involve others. As for events that affect me, my typical response is to breathe, think for a while, and consider my options, with doing nothing always being one of them. I have seen too many people get burned by firing back hasty angry e-mail responses. I will typically look for a solution that involves compromise (if there is a disagreement) or mediation if there is the chance that an uninvolved third party could help. There are times when there is no recourse other than acceptance, like the work situation that eventually forced my decision to retire.

Every time I read the newspaper I am disturbed by events totally out of my control that affect people often halfway around the world. Just yesterday there was the NYT story about tainted medicine that stretches from China to Panama and has sickened and killed untold numbers of people. I’m disturbed at the situation in Darfur that never seems to get any better. I’m disturbed that there are children who are slave laborers instead of students. I’m disturbed that the environment continues to suffer. There is no working through of these kinds of feelings, which simply serve as a reminder that all is not right with the world.

(2) If you could choose just one charity worldwide to donate money to, which one would you choose and why?

Since there has been so much news of corrupt use of funds in organization like the United Way and even the Red Cross, I tend to give my money directly to those who will benefit from it. I would love to think there was an organization that embraced the same principles I value and would spend my money wisely without allowing those at the top of the organization to profit. Probably the last such organization to which I contributed money was that the Jane Goodall Institute, to support her work to save the endangered chimpanzees of Africa.

I have given of my time and my money to support families living near where I used to work as they struggle to survive. Most of them are single-parent families that have many mouths to feed. I always tried to find families where there was a will to improved their situation in life. I made sure we developed an ongoing relationship, instead of dropping off a Thanksgiving basket never to return again. There were disappointments along the way. But there were also successes. One family was able to volunteer to help me the next year. That made it all worthwhile.

(3) What one place in the world would you most like to live and why?

My first reaction was to say “where I live right now.” I love my location. I love my house. I love the fact that I am near a beautiful city where most of the museums and many concerts are free. Every time I fly back to DC, but especially after a trip to the parched southwest, I embrace the greenness that welcomes me home. I have no intention of leaving.

On the other hand, I really do love Paris. There is something magical about this city which worships food and beauty more than perhaps any other. At any time of the day or night it offers scenes that make your heart feel love for the place and for anyone who is around you. I certainly wouldn’t mind living in Paris if given the opportunity!

(4) How does the faith you were brought up with instruct your daily life?

I am actually quite distanced from the faith I was brought up with. I grew up as a Presbyterian. I memorized the catechism at an early age. I joined the church at the age of 8. I read the Bible seriously. But I never could wrap my brain around predestination. I also had trouble with the unquestioning acceptance of all that was in the Bible, as my mother thought we should embrace it.

What I carried forward from the religion of my childhood was a treasure trove of sacred music. It didn’t take an acceptance of the Trinity to find peace and beauty in the works of so many great Christian composers. I still know all the old hymns and Christmas carols. I can easily go both ways when it comes to music.

(5) If you were a book, what genre would you be and why do you think so?

My first reaction is that I would want to be a page turner. Therefore, I would be a mystery. As a child I thrilled to the Nancy Drew books, reading every book from that series in the library one summer. I have always enjoyed a good who-done-it story.

But then I would also like an element of romanticism within my pages. I want the drama of a classic like Wuthering Heights or The Secret Garden or any number of love stories. I want some element that pushes human emotion to its limit, but there must also be a happy ending. I don’t want to be a tragedy – no Romeo and Juliet.

(Bonus) What is your favorite way to relax?

I’m actually not very good at relaxing. But I have learned some things from a few experiences over the past several years that give me hope. Perhaps my favorite relaxing experience was paddling a little boat around the Tidal Basin on a warm spring day with a good friend. We sipped white wine in real glasses while we joined the ducks and the waterdragon Splendor in celebrating a perfect day on the water.

The possible ingredients for relaxation seem to be: free time, beauty, music, a good book, a hammock, a picnic lunch, friends, family, nice weather, a bike, chocolate. Any combination of these is a good start toward relaxation!

I will make the same offer Pauline did: If you are reading this and haven’t experienced the joy of answering 5 questions like these, please make your request and I will provide your list of questions.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Rather Low-key Fiesta

My retirement party taught me a lot about myself and my friends and the reality of partying at 58. Everyone, with the exception of my young ex-boss and her husband who were off to India (whew!), came. They spent hours eating and talking. No one got even remotely inebriated. Then they all went home around 11:30.

Why did I ever thing I could recreate the May 5 party experience I had had when I was 24 and living in a group house? That party had been all about snack food, beer, loud music, some illegal substances, dancing, and sex. Everyone I know who was there still remembers the May 5th party.

Why did I even for a minute consider renting china and flatware and making this a “formal” dinner party? The people who came were more than happy to pile their plastic plates from Costco high with paella and ratatouille and salad and eat it all with sturdy plastic utensils.

Steve, I hate to tell you that there was no dancing. At around 10:30 I suggested that we could dance to some oldies. The group I was sitting with at the time looked at me like “You want to do what?” and suggested that David bring his iPOD and speakers into the room where we were sitting so we could LISTEN to oldies as background music. This was just not the dancing crowd, as some of you predicted would be the case.

I was actually glad I had spent the two days before the partying cooking as opposed to having it catered. It was cooking that was not pressured or hurried. I created a menu of special foods that I like a lot. On Saturday afternoon I had help from David and several friends who came early to help get everything ready. Angelina, the young woman who cleans our house, was there to keep the kitchen under control during the party. She did the lion’s share of cleaning up.

There were no speeches or toasting. Several people brought cards and bottles of wine and a few even brought gifts. But people tended to gather into 3 groups: the international office, the current office, and everyone else. There were old photo albums around and more recent photos that David had printed out. As people looked at pictures, they remembered stories and even argued about who was in some of the pictures. There was a lot of tripping down memory lane.

The whole evening was low-key and informal. Some people were snapping pictures as I posed with various groups. But in general, there was nothing structured at all.

My goal today is to find a home for leftovers we don’t need, for beer and Diet Coke we won’t drink. I slept in until well after 8:00 – a real accomplishment for me. Exercising, reading the Post and the NYT, a little Blogging, and some music with Deborah are all that’s on tap for today.

Tomorrow I will probably start making some serious lists of the endless possibilities for cleaning, travel, volunteering, classes. But today I’m practicing leisure.

A Labor of Love Spanish Style

Paella must be one of the most labor intensive, but delicious, dishes imaginable. You never realize when you order paella in a restaurant just how much work is involved.

The paella we had in France at the Cadenet horse show in was spectacular, made outdoors in giant paella pans over an open fire.

The last paella I had at a Spanish restaurant in Old Towne was only mediocre, featuring a lot of peas and rice and some overcooked shrimp. That was the day the party menu was hatched. Anything we made would be better than that paella.

My friend Kris, who has mastered the art of cooking for a crowd, came over at 2:00 to help us with the remaining cooking. First we made guacamole with perfectly ripe avocados. Then we turned our efforts to preparing the various things that ultimately get combined for the paella. It’s now 5:00. So during the last 3 hours David, Kris, and I:

– Cooked chorizo and sliced it into thin rounds,
– Sauteed chicken legs and wings,
– Sauteed the chorizo rounds,
– Sauteed tiny cubes of lean pork,
– Sauteed a mixture of onions, garlic, pepper, and tomatoes,
– Scrubbed mussels and clams,
– Steamed lobster, shrimp, mussels, and clams.

And while we cooked, we planned our next adventure with Kris and Bill, this time to Chile and Argentina. First we must convince Bill that he wants to South America. I think a week in December in the Chilean lake country and in Tierra del Fuego sounds just about perfect.

As for tonight’s gala, at 6:00 we will build the paella from all the things we prepared, combining them with rice and fish stock and peas and lots of saffron to finish cooking. The guests arrive at 7:00.

This is the real thing. I can’t wait to taste it!
(Much later) It was delicious!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Retirement: Day 1

Today was like a smorgasbord of all the things I want to do for the rest of my life. But the biggest change actually was the absence of the anger that I have been carrying around for months now.

I woke up on my own around 7:00. I could see light in the window and it just felt like the right time to get up. I didn’t even bother to put on my watch. The excuse of needing to get to work was no longer there, so I went down to exercise.

Afterwards I did something that I have been intending to do for a long time. I meditated in a dark room with only the light of a candle for probably about 15 minutes.

By this time I had earned that cup of coffee I had with my Cheerios out on the deck. I digested the Washington Post along with breakfast. The birds provided the background music.

Then it was time to do some cooking for tomorrow night’s party. But this was one of those experiences that was different for me today. Instead of the frantic chopping with a deadline that often results in a horrible backache, today’s cooking was a totally new experience. I had decided to work to the degree that I could sitting at the counter instead of standing up on the stone floor – infinitely better for my back. While the chicken wings baked in their garlicky sauce of honey, soy sauce, catsup, and olive oil, I shaped miniature empanadas, crimping the edges of soft dough around a filling of seasoned beef fillet. It took quite a while, but it didn’t matter because there was no deadline.

Next was vanilla flan, basically a custard poured over brown sugar that caramelizes as it cooks. While the flan was in the oven, I mindfully chopped the many ingredients that go into ratatouille. It is such a lovely medley of vegetables – onions, garlic, eggplant, green squash, yellow squash, peppers, and tomatoes. The trick is to know when to stop cooking it so that it doesn’t get mushy.

There is nothing better than cooking when there are no deadlines. It gave me time to discard a bad batch of pastry dough and make another without feeling pressured. It gave me time to leave the flan in the oven more time than called for because I had doubled the recipe. It gave me time to sip my breakfast coffee for hours.

The rest of the day included a walk with my husband, a nap, playing the piano for a while, a surprise baguette from our friend Kris, and then dinner with my friend Reya. When I got home, I realized that today was just a sampler of the people and activities I love most. I had a lot of extra energy that was freed up by releasing my anger. If this day was typical, retirement is everything it had been advertized to be.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Job That Was

It ended without a bang or even a whimper. As I drove out of the parking lot expecting pomp and circumstance or some sort of recognition, I realized I was just any other car pulling out. But the difference was, I never ever had to come back.

Believe it or not, I came in today and actually did real work for a couple of hours before calling it quits. I briefed my staff on the status of what I left behind and then looked at the daunting check-list of places I had to visit before being cleared to leave. It was worse than the stations of the cross. Much worse because it dragged me all over this strange new building that is so hard to navigate.

I was to what I thought was the final stop when the woman said, “But did you ever have a security clearance?” I said probably because I used to travel for AID business. So it was back to another office only to learn my security clearance had been cancelled in 1993. Got the signature and that was it.

Back to the final woman again who issued me my “RETIRED” badge and marked me cleared to leave. My goal was to be out of there by 11:30.

It was 11:25 when I got back to my desk. A last check on my e-mail showed a message from my boss: “How long are you going to be here today?” I replied, “Five more minutes” and promptly walked out at 11:30. I’ll always wonder what she was planning to say to me.

The last day at such an important part of my life made me think back to other last days. In kindergarten we had a little graduation ceremony. In 6th grade we had a pool party. I hated junior high school too much to remember the last day. When I was a senior in high school, our class went on a bike ride on the last day of school. In college I probably skipped class and went to work in the bar where I had a second job to save money for my trip to Europe. In high school and college there was the cap and gown thing with a million rounds of pomp and circumstance as people paraded up to get their diplomas.

The difference between any of these other significant endings and today was that it was a group thing. It wasn’t like I was in the retiree class of 2007. I was quite on my own. I shook a few miscellaneous hands as I prepared to head out and then I simply left.

One person had stopped by to ask me an interesting question sometime during the morning: “What advice can you leave me with?” I quickly answered, “Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, what you know is right. Sometimes it means that you will have to leave a job.”

As I picked up speed on Suitland Parkway, I felt a black cloud lift. I was so happy that I had followed my own advice. I was thrilled to be beginning the rest of my life with no one to report to any longer.

The most asked question: “What are your plans?” My answer has become: “I’m going to turn off the alarm clock and learn how to be leisurely. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Last Lunch

Instead of the last supper, I just had the last lunch. But hopefully instead of looking to die, I’m looking to LIVE!

This was the one lunch I didn’t arrange. My long-time colleague Doug in his typical fashion created the perfect lunch. The food, the people, the gifts were all carefully thought out. There were no tears because it was such a positive experience.

The closest thing to a speech happened first. Doug said some nice things and then presented me with a $100 gift certificate to Politics & Prose and two season tickets to a chamber music series at the Kennedy Center. Bula, one of the world’s best Indian cooks, handed me a bag of mangos. I said just a few things.

Then we turned to food. This is where working with a diverse bunch of people comes in handy. There was a smorgasbord of wonderful spicy food, mostly of Chinese, Korean, and Indian cuisine. A marvelous chocolate cake topped with the biggest strawberries ever provided dessert.

Not only was the current IT staff invited, but people from the past, like Jonah, Lynn, Scot, and Ken, came as well. A few others drifted by the door and were invited in by the delightful aromas. My husband even came, a little late as usual.

In keeping with my recent discoveries at other lunches, I learned that Scot sings in an a capella group. He agreed to invite me to their next concert. And I found out that Lynn is going to a live recording of Peter Schickele doing PDQ Bach in June. He sent me the link to get tickets.

Posted over the magnificent food table was the following verse:

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.


I intend to find out just how good it can be. Now I am off to coffee with another colleague as the clock ticks down. One more trip to Suitland. One more day of work. And then it will be over.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Lunch with a Different Flavor

Today’s lunch was a departure from “let’s make a salad together,” as I enter the home stretch toward retirement and say some final goodbyes. Instead I was invited to the home of the cleaning people from El Salvador for lunch with 3 generations of their family.

The big news is that Sandra, the 20-year-old daughter, and her baby’s father recently bought the house you see above in a quiet and relatively safe neighborhood not too far from my office. The mortgage payment is $2500 a month. But they split it between the 8 adults who live in the house and it seems not so impossible. Add in the 4 children who also live there and that makes a total of 12.

The house is actually in excellent shape. What first struck me was the colorful front yard. Only when I looked a littler closer did I realize that most of the flowers are artificial. That’s OK. It gives the house a cheery look.

The idea inside is that a family lives in a bedroom. So far there are 4 bedrooms. But they have big plans to excavate the crawl space and add more rooms in the basement.

As we stood out front, a neighbor drove by in search of someone to move azaleas in her yard. Sandra is the only one in the entire house who speaks English, so she brokers all deals for yard work. These people are a lesson in industriousness. Everyone works at least one permanent job.

Lunch was two blocks down the street at her mom Morena’s house. Her brother Santiago, the boy who still struggles in school, was home with a badly sprained ankle, relishing a week off from school.

Sandra’s daughter Michelle and her aunt Nayele (who is actually younger than she is) played with their cousin Jason. (That is, until they all were exhausted and took a nap in the picture below.) But the dominant sound was from the big screen TV which played the Spanish equivalent of MTV.

Morena is one of the best cooks around. She had made rice with vegetables and chicken. Sandra had made chicken salad in avocado halves. I brought Chilean baked meat empanadas, which they seemed somewhat suspicious of since they are not a staple in their diet. Of course there were hot tortillas and hot peppers for whatever we chose to put them on.

Lunch was really about a feeling of acceptance in their family. I have helped them with a number of maintenance problems and school issues along the way. They call me “Senora Barbara.”

I made sure they had my address and telephone number before I left. I am just sure that we will stay in touch as they gradually grow their roots further into US soil. Eventually everyone will be legal. Meanwhile they will be enjoying a lifestyle that would never have been possible for these people with limited education in El Salvador. They embody the American dream that every immigrant who comes here must have.

Adios but hasta la proxima vez!