Monday, December 31, 2012

Finishing a year of blogging

     A year ago I resolved to write two blogs a week for a year about my “virgin” experiences as a 64- (now 65)-year-old and this is the last of them.
     Over the year, I often strayed from my original intention to write about two untried adventures each week – still haven’t climbed a 4,000-footer or sung karaoke in a club, for example – and some of the “firsts” I experienced I wish I hadn’t. Discovering the death of my dear friend, Cissy, for example. Or learning that my cat-loving niece had died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 32, barely three months after being diagnosed.
     But I also celebrated a new job, learned to rock-climb, got lost on the choppy water of Lake Umbagog, toasted 10 years of marriage to a man I adore and made the climb to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut for an overnight stay.
     It has been a full year.
     At times, I wondered if I were trying to re-create the twice-a-week column I used to write – my favorite part of my journalism career. Blogging does the same thing that writing those columns did. Not only was I recording part of my life, but creating it. Writing helps shape who I am. In organizing my thoughts and looking for ideas or themes, I encounter my own values and reinforce them. I inform myself. I grow.
     So what now?
     I haven’t decided whether to keep up with the twice-a-week schedule. Maybe I’ll only blog when I DO try something truly adventurous. Maybe I’ll do it just for the practice.
      But I will keep writing – and doing.
     There are still all those 4,000-footers out there.
     And a whole lot of karaoke clubs.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Do not attempt this at home

They tell you not to leave your children unattended (“Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy,” reads a sign in my doctor’s office.)
     They warn you not to leave a candle unattended (136 Americans die annually due to this forgetfulness).
     They tell you not to leave a stove burner unattended (burner? What burner?)
     But a mixer? Even just to go to the bathroom?
     I was preparing a New Year’s Eve meal in advance for a group of 10 for tomorrow – a day when I have to work but am still co-hosting a party with Rick – and was working on the last of the menu items, a chocolate mousse.
     Everyone knows how long it takes cream to whip, right? You could walk around the block, close on your mortgage, do a lifetime’s worth of push-ups and still be waiting for those peaks to form. So, a trip to the bathroom seemed so innocent…
     But when I returned, whipped cream was flying everywhere – on the counter, on the walls, on my cell phone, on the bills, on my purse and, soon, on Rick – who was gallantly trying to shroud the mixer with his body, as though to spare other lives.
     The damage was done but the peaks had formed and I proceeded with the recipe – and the cleanup.
     Still, the proof’s in the pudding – or the mousse – right?
     The final product tasted guest-worthy to me.
     And we’ll still get a good laugh when we discover undetected whipped cream spots in remote kitchen sections in the future.
     Anyway, have a good new year.
     I already am.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Christmas of the flying baklava

     We knew in advance it was going to be a different Christmas – Rick and I were traveling to northern Michigan, to the home of one of my sisters, instead of the usual downstate gathering at my brother’s house.
     But we didn’t know HOW different.
     My brother had gallantly offered to lend us one of his vehicles for the drive from southern to northern Michigan so we didn’t have to rent a car on top of our plane fare. Because he and his children were using his truck and SUV for the drive north, the only vehicle he had available was – oh, pity – his Mercedes. No eensy-weensy Ford Focus, like we usually rent. No air-freshener-smelling rental car at all. A sleek, sexy Mercedes coupe that we could drive in style.
     So we set off in our luxury car in the remnants of a mean snowstorm, drove four hours up interstates and ice-slicked side roads, got to my sister’s and parked the Mercedes at the bottom and to the side of her long driveway.
     The family celebration was going to be in a nearby unoccupied former restaurant my brother had just purchased and Annette, my sister, had made most of the food. We helped her pack the ham and vegetarian dishes and salads and desserts and – most important – the baklava her husband, Mike, had so lovingly created.
     Is it any coincidence that so many movies are made about families gathering for holidays and the mayhem that ensues?
     During the gathering, my brother’s 48-year-old girlfriend confided that I reminded her of her grandmother (though, in context, the comparison was actually quite sweet). One family member, whose name cannot be mentioned lest she ever need to job-hunt again, introduced too many glasses of cabarnet to her over-tired body and had to be borne from the place on the shoulders of her 23-year-old son. Mike caught his leg on the wires leading to the Christmas lights on the festooned archway to the dining area and brought down all the decorations.
     And when my sister, arrived – late because she was bringing the last of the desserts – she was shaking.
     “I’m used to pulling straight back out of the garage,” she said with an embarrassed expression. “It was so dark. I forgot where you were parked.”
     “I creamed the Mercedes.”
     Worst of all, she said, was that Mike’s baklava had gone flying throughout her Pontiac Vibe, never to be retrieved.
     And you? Any family drama over your holidays? Maybe we could start a whole new blog.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Michigan Gothic

This week, on our way to a family Christmas celebration in northern Michigan, Rick and I stopped at a diner we had chanced upon four years ago, trying to remember why we had liked it so much at the time.
The exterior could have used a good paint job. The interior was furnished with standard-issue, chrome-rimmed tables and chairs. And the air smelled vaguely like places do when anti-smoking regulations have not been in place very long.
But this was pure small-town America.
The clientele included two or three bikers boasting ZZ Top-like beards and leather vests, a few WWII vets and their wives, families with loud children and a quiet gentleman who quietly surveyed the scene as he ate his farmer's omelet.
The menu included half American farmland fare and half Chinese cuisine and the wall boasted a photo of the Asian-American founders of the establishment. No beer or wine.
How many placesd like this are there in our country -- frequented by locals but welcoming of strangers, unique but oddly familair, reminders of how connected we all really are when it comes to such basics as good food, warmth and civility?
We had two excellent veggie omelets, tomao juice and decaf, but feasted our eyes as much as our stomachs while we were there.
We left after purchasing four mugs imprinted with local ads and the diner's name, Kawkawlin Restaurant.
We'll be back.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The web of life

When I first met Gary Fieldhouse, I found it difficult to look at him because of his physical deformities.
His back arched away from the back of his wheelchair as though trying to escape contact with it. His hands bent forward at the wrist in permanent paraylysis. When he spoke, he threw his head back and garbled out a few words before inhaling and garbling out more.
Yet he would not be silenced at this gathering of disabled people seeking to tell reporters how their depictions in the press affected them. Only two reporters showed up for their press conferece. I was one.
Gary was born with cerebral palsy and I was so impressed with his determination to be heard -- and to advocate for other disabled people -- that we soon became friends. I wrote a series of stories about his efforts to start a group home in the Lawrence, Mass., area for physically disabled adults who wanted to remain independent. Though he never realized that dream, he ended up living independently in a similar situation in western Massachusetts.
But then he was sent to live in a nursing home not five mintues from my Chester, N.H. house after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer -- this man who could never even hold a cigarette let alone smoke one.
He died in March of 2011, but only after realizing two other of his dreams -- reaching the age of 50 and getting his GED. The folks at Pinkerton Academy presented him with an honorary one weeks before he died.
Something unexpected happened when I -- and sometimes my husband and I -- went to visit Gary during his last weeks. We met his immediate family -- sisters and brothers and their spouses -- and started to share in their family celebrations with Gary -- a pizza party for his birthday, a graduation ceremony when he got his GED.
We have stayed in touch with one sister and her husband, Jane and Ken, and last week, they came to our house for dinner for the first time. We talked about Gary, of course, but also about our own lives and how much we have in common -- political leanings, a love of camping, a fascination with the outdoors.
Before they left, we pledged to go camping together this summer. And I couldn't help but think, as they drove away, how strange is the web of life -- that a chance meeting at a poorly attended press conference two decades ago could lead to a new friendship and tender memories of a warrior in a wheelchair.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Small victories

The chintzy printer had barely outlived its warranty when it died, so I was so pleased to replace it with a sleek, black Canon MX882 that was wireless, scanned, faxed, and almost did the dishes for you. So I was most disgruntled when the new Canon suddenly started producing copies with white strikes down the middle of the page, gave me a message the ink was running out when I had just replaced the cartridges and lit up the LED display with a “printer error” message whenever I used it. Hadn’t it been just months since I had purchased it? I called Canon and an agent there spent 45 minutes walking me through various diagnostic tests before agreeing it was just plain broke. If I had purchased it within a year, she said, they would replace it. Naturally, I couldn’t find my receipt so I contacted BJ’s, where I had bought it, and within three hours they had e-mailed me a copy of the receipt with the purchase date – Dec. 3, 2011. My warranty had expired 10 days earlier. I called Canon again and explained that these problems pre-dated my earlier phone call and were well within the warranty period and, well, wouldn’t they take pity on a loyal customer at Christmas time? The agent hemmed and hawed and said they have to go by the purchase date but that he would…. And then the battery in my phone died. I sensed Defeat laughing in the corner somewhere. I called back, got a different agent and explained the whole situation again. “Just a minute,” he said, before turning me over to Muzak. The minute became five, then six, maybe 10 and finally he was back on the line. “Your new printer will arrive within three to five days,” he said. “I love you,” I told him. He expressed no reciprocal sentiment. But it wasn’t my first small victory of the season. Last year, when the plastic lids on my new Anchor Hocking food containers warped and cracked within a week of my purchasing them, I emailed Anchor Hocking’s customer service folks. Three weeks later, new lids arrived – along with new glass containers, too. Bottom line: Have a problem with a product? Try reaching out to the manufacturer. There ARE still some good companies out there that stand by what they sell.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Making friends with money

My husband and I are a saver and a spender, and you can guess which is which. Naturally, this has led to some conflicts within the marriage, and we are still trying to mediate our differences. But now we are turning a new leaf. We have refinanced our home, wiped out credit card and other debt, resolved to live within our means and determined to pay off our mortgage in five years so we can retire while we can still walk. We have also started taking an online course we signed up for ages ago and saved in our bookmarks. It’s called “Healing Your Money Karma” after a book by the same name and it helps viewers see how the money messages they got from childhood influence money habits of today – and how the shame and secrecy that often attaches to those habits can be eliminated by replacing old messages with ones more in keeping with our adult values. One of my perceived childhood messages was that there was a powerful grantor – my father – and I was helpless to procure anything that cost more than my allowance without his approval and checkbook. That message led to some immature, rebellious decisions about money later in life – buying something I wanted despite not having the money for it being a prime example. But I am replacing that message in my thinking with a new mantra – “I am managing my money well.” It’s such a foreign concept to me. But I haven’t used a credit card for more than two months, money conversations with my husband are no longer tinged with fear or shame and I have faith that we can actually accomplish the goals we have set for ourselves. I am managing my money well. At 65, finally, I think I actually am.