Whatever I Want!

I’ve now been out socially a few times meeting with other vaccinated friends in outdoor dining situations. It has been wonderful catching up with friends and co-workers after over a year of lockdown. One of the first things my still-working friends ask is, “What are you doing now that you’re retired?” I should have been prepared for this question but I wasn’t. My hesitation was noticed and one friend tried to help me out. “I bet you’re reading a lot.” “Yes, yes,” I agreed. What else would a retired school librarian do?

After my initial hesitation, I tried listing projects that had been undertaken but, unfortunately, that didn’t sound like enough. After all, I wasn’t the one who actually reroofed the house or laid down the new floor. I mentioned this blog but that, too, didn’t seem to account for a year’s worth of “free time”. So the next time I was asked, I replied, “Absolutely nothing!” with a big smile. That got a chuckle but still didn’t seem like a good answer and, of course, it’s not true. I do stuff everyday. One can’t help it.

But now, I think I’ve come up with the perfect answer. The next time someone asks what I’ve been doing since my retirement I’m going to reply, “Whatever I want!” This is truthful (other than doctor appointments) and will be more to their satisfaction. I don’t believe they really want to hear a list of projects or the details of my daily routine, or even what I may consider a true accomplishment. I mean I cleaned out, painted, and reorganized my entire pantry! Come on! That was huge, but really impressive? Worth detailing? I think not. (Please ignore the fact that I’m telling you about it here.) And I have friends that do things like that in a weekend.

What kind of answer do they expect of me? Here are a few I would like to give:

  1. I came up with a plan to end world hunger while sitting on my couch.
  2. I came up with a plan to end world hunger, my plan worked and I actually solved world hunger. (better)
  3. I wrote a novel and it’s now being made into a movie.
  4. I wrote a novel, adapted it into a screenplay, and it’s now being made into a movie in which I’m directing and starring. (better)
  5. I built a lab in my garage, invented a miracle wrinkle cream, sold the formula and made millions. (I’m getting better at this.)
  6. I hiked all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail by myself, in winter, in 3 months. (This is my favorite.)

I can’t actually try out any of these sarcastic answers without sounding like a smart ass and possibly embarrassing a well-meaning friend so I’m going to go with “whatever I want.” I’ll let you know how that goes.

Appalachian Trail hand drawn map image 0
This is an accomplishment I wish I could claim (not the alone in winter part)

A Florida Native

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law, Ida. She passed away about 10 years ago and I miss her. She was an extraordinary person and a rarity in Florida – a Florida native. She left Florida for graduate school, married and raised her 4 kids in New Jersey but always knew she would return to Florida. My husband, Joe, spent every childhood Christmas in Florida with relatives and he, too, knew he wanted to end up in Florida, so here we are.

When Joe and I first moved here with our 18 month old daughter, we lived with his newly retired parents in Ft. Pierce before buying a house in nearby Stuart, Fl. Joe, having heard all the family stories many times over, paid little attention to my conversations with his mother, but I was fascinated by them.

Ida grew up in Fort Pierce. Her father was killed in a tractor accident in his orange grove on “Five Mile Creek” when she was 4 years old. (The creek was aptly named being 5 miles from town.) After the accident, her uncle took over the grove and her mother, now somewhat penniless, took Ida and her brother to live with her two sisters-in-law. The sisters were unmarried – ‘old maids’ in dated parlance – and had a large but plain house in town. Ida’s mother got a job teaching at the local high school which was within walking distance. So, Ida was raised by her widowed mother and two rather exacting first-generation German aunts. It was during the depression and that couldn’t have been easy but she was not one to complain about her life, quite the opposite.

Although Ida’s family lived with her father’s sisters, her mother’s family was also from Ft. Pierce and she had aunts, uncles, and cousins all around town. Her mother’s parents owned a cattle ranch on “Ten Mile Creek” (and yes, it was 10 miles west of Ft. Pierce) and Ida and her brother spent summers there. (Possibly to get a break from the German aunts but this was Joe’s supposition. Ida never had a bad word to say about her father’s family regardless of the fact that the grove should have gone to her mother and not her uncle. I learned this from other family members.) It was the stories of her childhood summers on the ranch that I found so interesting.

Her maternal grandfather was a descendant of Florida pioneers with a large tract of land but very little else. Every summer, a tribe of Seminole Indians would set up a hunting camp on Ten Mile Creek, as they most likely had done for generations. When Ida and her brother would arrive at the ranch, her grandparents would admonish them not to “bother” the Indians that were camping down on the creek. She told me, “of course, that was the first thing we would do.” They would run down to the creek, wait to be acknowledged and then join in on any activities that were going on, “because they were the only children around to play with,” she explained.

These stories about the Indians and life on the ranch peaked my imagination. What American kid wouldn’t have loved to have had Indian playmates? I never asked how her grandfather had acquired such a big ranch, but I assume, like the rest of the country, it was originally taken from the natives.

She eventually left Florida with a scholarship, met her future husband at the University of Wisconsin while they were both working on their PhDs. From there, they moved to New Jersey to work as chemists. This, in itself, was an accomplishment for a girl from the wilds of Florida and to hear her stories, the ‘wilds’ never left her heart. There is an epic novel in her tales and if I had the talent and discipline, I would write it. I’m doing good to get out this post.

Ida Mary

Beating the Heat

4/8/21

“I don’t do well in the heat” – my mom, circa 1960’s. She said it often and anyone who knew her well knew the truth of the statement.

On occasion growing up, one of us girls would comment, “uh oh, momma’s getting hot,” and we would react accordingly which meant getting out of her way as fast as possible. “Don’t let momma sweat,” was a family joke that she didn’t think was funny.

It seemed that once she reached a certain internal temperature, she started to speed up, moving quickly, frantically even, to get whatever she was doing done so that she could splash some water on her face and go sit in front of one of the numerous fans we had around the house. This was the 60’s before we had air conditioning. It was also during that decade that the hot flashes started. Being a kid, I didn’t know anything about menopause (and no one was talking about it), but I would see her face turning red, sweat popping on her brow, a panicky look on her face as she began to rush around and I knew to make myself scarce.

It can get just as hot and muggy in North Carolina as in any Florida swamp. My sisters and I had a strategy, though, on how to deal with her ‘spells’. It was called, “let’s go on a picnic. ” When she had finally collapsed into her chair in front of the fan, waving a paper fan so fast it was bound to cause her more heat than relief, we would quickly pack a picnic and drive her the 17 miles up the mountain where the temps were predictably 10 degrees cooler. The old Bel Air had no AC either so the faster we drove, the better the breeze. (We all learned to navigate those curvey mountain roads as well as any bootlegger.) We would find a spot by a mountain stream and she would sit on the bank with her feet in the water and happily exclaim about the beauty of the world. I remember those frantic drives and picnics spent splashing around in the streams very fondly.

I’ve inherited her inability to function well once the temps rise above 90. As much as I enjoy gardening, I just can’t do it in the heat. I get very cranky and may hurt someone with a gardening tool if approached. Now that the Florida summer is around the corner, I feel a pressure to get my yard projects done before the inevitable heat sets in. But I have a strategy as well. I’ve been known to throw down the clippers and race to the pool, jumping in clothes and all. Once I’m thoroughly soaked and cooled down, life is good and I can once again appreciate the beauty around me. It’s not a mountain stream but it’s not bad.

Fear of Normal

It was this week last year that I began working from home. There was definitely a learning curve as I grappled with online platforms and learning strategies. How was I supposed to be a school librarian from home? How could I help struggling students and teachers when they were dealing with the same technical and distant learning issues that I was? I brainstormed ideas with other media specialists, created an online “media center”, promoted ebooks and online resources but, by May, I was feeling ineffectual. Luckily, I had planned on retiring in June and, hearing what my fellow teachers have been dealing with during this school year, I couldn’t have picked a better time. The Universe is my friend.

I’ve written in a previous post of my penchant for making to-do lists. Once retired, my list making switched from work projects to home projects and I started out with great enthusiasm. New flooring, new roof, new furniture, yard projects, etc. I even cleaned out the pantry and repainted the shelves (Whoa, girl!) but by November I hit a wall. I realized no one would be coming home for Christmas and that this pandemic could last a long, long time. My list of tasks had no due dates so what was the rush? I began to take it easy. Real easy. Lazy even. Christmas was minimal. January was all about the political news; I couldn’t get enough of MSNBC and I don’t even know what happened to February, but I can recommend some binge worthy TV.

Recently, however, things seem to be picking up. After feeling like I had all the time in the world to do absolutely nothing but read, cook and putter around, I’m suddenly feeling pressure to get a move on again. I’m fully vaccinated and, last week, had a poolside lunch with other vaccinated friends that I haven’t seen in a year. It felt weird. We were unsure how close to sit, when to remove our masks, and how to be around others who may not have been vaccinated. We were afraid to act normal.

The world is in a transitional phase, coming out of a pandemic, but not sure if it’s really safe to do so. The pictures of the crowds of Miami Beach spring breakers were terrifying. No masks, no social distancing and you know those kids haven’t been vaccinated.

But on my home front, things are looking up. Both my daughters are vaccinated and Joe will be too by next week. And in the spirit of great optimism, I’ve booked a flight to California for July. Will it be OK to fly by then? Will we be able to eat out and visit the wineries as we had planned to do last summer? Will we be able to be normal? I’m afraid of normal. Is that normal?

The Unfinished Novel

2/24/21

You may have heard someone – maybe an English teacher or a writing coach- say that everyone has one good novel inside them. I would alter that a bit and say everyone has one unfinished novel inside them. Because finishing a novel is hard. I’ve tried. I have bits and pieces of one in a drawer and every so often I open the drawer and look at it – three thumb drives and a stack of papers – and wonder what I’ll do about it.

I started it years ago when I was in a writing group. I really enjoyed the group and met some wonderfully creative people but after a few years I stopped going. I had several reasons at the time. Joe had retired and we needed to tighten the financial belt. Paying a writing coach felt like a hobby I could no longer afford. Also, changes at my work had resulted in more duties and demands at a time when I had hoped to cruise into retirement myself. I found I had little energy for anything extracurricular. But the main reason was the writing got hard. I couldn’t bring the bits and pieces together and make them fit into any kind of plotline. It seemed the characters kept wandering off into other stories. I couldn’t see an end. So I quit.

I opened the drawer again a few days ago and asked myself the same question. Now that I’m retired and stuck at home for the un-foreseeable future, am I going to go back to the task? Because it is a task. So why do it? There are so many good and not-so-good novels out there. The world isn’t waiting for mine.

I think to succeed as a writer of novels, you not only have to have talent, you have to have ambition and drive as well. You have to believe what you are doing is serious and important. And that is at odds with my constant effort to let things go. Letting go is what meditation and yoga have been teaching me for years.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to actually finish it? To accomplish a task I found difficult? If, for no other reason than to know I did it. And I still sometimes think about the people I created and their stories. I apologize; all this navel gazing sounds so lame but that is the purpose of this blog, I guess. I enjoy writing when it’s not hard.

Letting go of that drawer full of words seems almost as hard as trying to put them all together and finish the story.

Tree Love

2/8/21

It started with the documentary Intelligent Trees. I found that compelling enough to watch a second doc – The Secret Life of Trees. Then, as synchronicity often operates (or a google algorithm), a review of the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers popped up on my screen. It seems Powers was so fascinated by the subject of trees that “writing The Overstory quite literally changed my life,” he told The Atlantic in a review of the book that won a Pulitzer in 2019.

I enjoy a well-written fiction that teaches me something just like I enjoy a nonfiction that tells a good story so I added The Overstory to my infinite reading list. Then a few days later The Overstory popped up in the Bookbub newsletter. Synchronicity was hitting me over the head. I’m 3/4 into the book now. I’m not going to review the book here – there are plenty reviews online- but with recommendations by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver you can’t go wrong. The writing is beautiful.

Like most of the characters in the book, I’ve always been a tree lover and can make a list of important and memorable trees in my life. I’ll share a few here:

  1. The large magnolia in the backyard of my childhood home in NC. It was the perfect climbing tree with sturdy limbs that seemed to go up forever. It was my fort, my lookout, my hiding place. Once I climbed so high that I could feel the top of the tree sway in the breeze and I became alarmed enough to call out for help. When my mother saw how high I was, she threatened to call the fire department. “She can get down the same way she got up,” reasoned my father. He was right, but I never went that high again.
Similar to my childhood magnolia

2. The Ficus tree in front of the public library in Stuart, FL. It was huge with roots that dripped down from limbs high above. Having newly arrived in Florida, I was amazed by these giant jungle trees. This particular tree was a kid magnet and often served as a babysitter while moms dropped off or picked up library books. My girls loved it. We left Stuart, the library moved, and I can only hope the tree has been preserved.

Not the same tree, but similar

3. The giant live oak in my neighborhood. When I first saw this tree while house hunting, I knew we were in the right neighborhood. So many of the houses we had seen had no trees at all so when we saw all the old oaks in this older neighborhood, I hardly needed to see inside the house to know it was home. The giant oak down the street hovers over two houses and the road, and is covered with resurrection fern that turns green in the rain. If anything happens to that tree I may just have to move.

Not MY tree, but you get the picture (pun intended)

Do you have an important tree in you life? If so, give it a hug. Science says tree hugging is actually good for you. Who knows, the tree might like it too.

Sorry, Julia

So, last night I tried cooking something new – Duck a l’Orange. Sounds fancy, right? I signed up for one of those meal delivery services that sends you everything you need to make a complete meal plus instructions. Hello Fresh offers a discount and since Joe and I haven’t been to a restaurant since last March, not even for take-out, I thought a meal kit would be a good alternative. Besides, I’ve run through my entire repertoire of dishes several times over and wanted to try something new.

The first box arrived yesterday and I was excited. Inside were three big, glossy photos of what the meals should look like once prepared and on the other side of the photos were the step-by-step instructions. What could go wrong?

I laid out the 3 photos for Joe and asked him to pick one. He chose the duck. The kit included two plump duck breasts with skin on one side, small potatoes, arugula, an orange, a shallot, fresh thyme, a packet of sliced almonds, a packet of apricot jam, and a cute little bottle of red wine vinegar. The instructions noted that this was a recipe made popular by Julia Child.

I had never cooked duck before so I followed the instructions carefully. The trick is to cook the duck skin side down until it’s crispy while skimming off the fat as it cooks, then flipping it over to cook on the other side for “3 to 5 minutes”. You then remove the breasts to “rest” as you make the sauce in the same pan. Duck fat and thyme were added to the potatoes (yum), and orange zest to the sauce and the salad. I literally could not remember the last time I had zested an orange.

It was all going swell until I sliced into the pieces of duck. They were pink inside and the juice ran pink as well. Although I had never cooked duck before, I was pretty sure, like chicken or turkey, it should not be served rare. No matter, I thought. A quick stint in the microwave will finish it off. In two minutes the juice was clear and the slices were no longer pink. I arranged everything on the plates, drizzled the duck with the sauce, and everything looked perfect. Almost as perfect as the photo.

Their photo, not mine.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked Joe after a couple of bites.

“Very flavorful.” he said

Was that a compliment? I wasn’t sure. The potatoes were delish, the salad with the homemade dressing was remarkably good, and the orange sauce on the duck was indeed flavorful, but the duck…was chewy and the skin was practically inedible. I was, of course, disappointed. Joe was kind about it (he’s not stupid), but we agreed I should never have put it in the microwave.

As I took our plates back to the kitchen and put them into the sink that was already full of bowls and utensils that had been used to make this not-so-perfect meal, I heard him humming. He was humming the Sesame Street Rubber Ducky song!

I looked for something soft to throw at him, but I was laughing too hard to follow through.

I learned a few things making this first Hello Fresh meal:

  1. Pickling the shallots in wine vinegar and sugar before putting them in a salad is brilliant and I will definitely do that again.
  2. Mashed potatoes are always delicious no matter what you add to them.
  3. Never microwave the duck.

I vow to try this meal again and get it right next time. No rubber ducky; I want to make Julia proud.

Saturday Notes

01/16/21

I admit that I was worried about what Trump may do between the election and Biden’s inauguration but sending goons to storm the Capitol with intent to execute lawmakers was not on my bingo card. It’s taken this long for details to emerge and for the seriousness of the act to sink in – and we’re still learning. I’m not going to rehash the event or offer any insight as to why, how, or even a WTH, as I’m sure anyone who has been tuned into the news has already asked those questions and heard scores of pundits offer their own two cents. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to stay away from the news for at least a few hours today.

It’s a beautiful day here in central FL – cool, sunny, and breezy. Neighbors are walking, biking, and out working in yards. Joe is at an outdoor chili cook-off and Ralphie and I are cuddled on the sofa. I’m looking forward to a bowl of award-winning chili later if things go his way. In any case, a good bowl of chili.

I’ve grown used to my slow, uneventful pandemic life and sometimes I wonder if “getting back to normal” will be any different. I haven’t missed work, people, or social events as much as I had anticipated. (Missing my far-away daughters doesn’t count.) I guess I’m more of an introvert than I realized. Other things I’ve pondered since being in virtual lockdown since last March:

  1. Looking forward to the weekend is no longer a thing.
  2. Zooming has lost it’s charm.
  3. Where does all this dust come from?
  4. When will someone invent a self-cleaning toilet?
  5. Buying shoes on-line has not been a great success.
  6. Blogging is a challenge when you have nothing to report.

Enjoy this pic of Ralphie and Louise, my pandemic companions.

Saturday sleep in

A Christmas Memory

12/29/2020

A few nights before Christmas this year, Joe suggested we ride around town and look at the lights. This was not something we had ever done. Usually, with family home, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, and parties to host or attend, looking at lights was not on the to-do list. But 2020 was not a usual Christmas and the offer of a joy ride sounded like a good diversion from our Christmas solitude.

We had fun commenting on the displays and judging them to be successful or epic fails. Mockery can be good for the soul. (Some of those inflatables are truly awful, aren’t they?) So, when we pulled back into our driveway and I observed our meager porch and window display, from somewhere deep in my neocortex a Christmas memory emerged. I will try to flesh it out here.

In the small North Carolina town where I grew up, spectacular yard displays were not common. There was one house in our neighborhood, however, that did go all out and, at the age of 7 or 8, I thought it was fantastic.

“Why don’t we do that?” I asked my parents.

“A waste of electricity,” was my fathers reply. ( ‘a waste of money’ was generally the explanation for all my perceived childhood depravations.)

The only indication that we, indeed, celebrated Christmas was a small white plastic candelabra with red bulbs that sat in our living room window. I had seen an article about Hanukkah in one of my mother’s magazines, and, wanting to show off my new worldly knowledge, commented that people seeing only a candelabra in our window would think we were Jewish.

“What? Of course not,” she exclaimed. “It’s not the same shape,” she said, uncertainly. “And it’s red,” she added.

I moved on. “I like theirs better.” I said, pointing to the house catty-cornered from ours. The Wilson’s had, in their large picture window, three tall red candles of irregular height with white bulbs and plastic halos. “It’s more elegant,” I pronounced. (At age 8, already a critic.)

A day or two later, the stubby candelabra had been removed and a single tall white candle with a white bulb appeared in every window across the front of our house – two in the dining room, two in the living room and one in my parents’ bedroom. In order to accomplish this, my mother had rounded up every extension cord she could find, as electrical outlets in homes built in the late 40’s were not plentiful. The cords stretched under the buffet, behind the sofa, and, in my parents’ bedroom, they draped over the built-in vanity and across the floor in front of my father’s closet. (I distinctly remember this because it was my job to plug them in every early evening and unplug them before I was sent to bed.) My father’s only comment on what I thought was a great improvement to our outward showing Christmas presentation was ‘too many cords.’

One sleepy night when it was time for me to unplug them, I suggested we leave them on all night. The newspaper my father was reading snapped closed and I knew immediately what he was going to say – ‘a waste of electricity.’ He did not disappoint.

A few nights later something close to a miracle occurred in North Carolina. It snowed on Christmas Eve. All the neighborhood kids were out that night, giddy, and doing what kids do in the snow and I was among them. This was the memory that came to me as I sat in our driveway last week: I was playing in the snow in the front yard and had turned my attention to the front of the house. The snow was falling, the yard and bushes were covered in snow and above them shone a single candle in each window. I was briefly transfixed by what I can now only describe as a moment of transcendent beauty. I ran inside and urged my family to come out and look. My father and older sister ignored the request, but my mother put on her galoshes and came outside. Together we stood looking at our house and at the snowflakes swirling in front of the streetlight. After a few moments she asked,

“Is it as nice as the Wilson’s?”

“Better,” I proclaimed.

They say that as we age, our long-term memories become clearer and more accessible. I say, bring them on.

Unfettered Thinking

12/17/2020

Me: (On the sofa imparting some tidbit of information found on Twitter that I considered mildly interesting)

Joe: (in nearby chair looking upward toward ceiling)

Me: “Did you hear me?”

Joe: (looking at ceiling)

Me: “Joe, are you even listening to me?”

Joe: (still seemingly focused on ceiling) “No”

Me:

Me: “Should I repeat it?”

Joe: “No”

Me: (considering)

Me: “You seem distracted. What’s on your mind?”

Joe: (deigning to look at me) “You’re distracting. I’m just thinking.”

Me: (now curious) “about what?”

Joe: “Why are you peppering me with questions? You’re like a machine gun with questions.”

Me: (!) Wow, are you OK?

Joe: “Yes, I’m OK. Can’t a guy do some unfettered thinking without getting a million questions?”

Me: “Unfettered thinking?”

Joe: “Yes, unfettered thinking” (leaves chair and goes upstairs to, presumably, do some unfettered thinking)

Me: (resumes scrolling)

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