Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bicycle Menopause

This is how cold it's been outside lately: I walked to our nearby blood bank to give blood, and I was almost deferred because my temperature was only 93 degrees.

To me, my temperature reading says something curious both about oral thermometers and also about how few people normally walk to the blood bank.  I waited two or three minutes, and my temperature (as registered by the thermometer I carefully cradled in the back of my cheeks and tongue) rose to 96 degrees, so I got to give blood.  But it goes to say, even though there's no ice on the roads or frost in the skies, the weather is brisk enough that breathing through my mouth during a 20-minute outdoor walk can frighten phlebotomists.

If it's so cold outside that the mere act of walking can frighten phlebotomists, what does this mean about riding bikes?  (Because now that I've written that phrase, I've fallen in love with it.  Frightened Phlebotomists.  Frightened Phlebotomists.  Say it Phive times Phast!  The phlebotomists are frightened.  Hah.)

Biking, it turns out, is another adventure entirely.  Because, okay, yes, it's cold.  When I started doing serious biking last winter, I pretty much expected that.

But also, biking is HOT!  As in, embarrassingly, Take-Off-All-My-Clothes-and-Sweat-in-Front-of-Strangers kind of hot.  And I wasn't expecting that.

Here's what I've learned about running errands on my bike.  (I'm going to preface this by saying I really love my bike nowadays, and winter biking adventures are just one part of this love).  So, everybody says that it's a good idea to dress in layers, and I do.  I have grown particularly fond of these cylinder thingies ("fleece headbands", I think they're called?) that go over my ears:  I put one around my ears and one around my neck, like a scarf.  Hands and toes are vital, so I've got honking warm gloves and I wear boots that are sort of like Uggs, but trash-picked or yard-saled.  I pay careful attention to the far reaches of my body; and as for the middle of my body, I just layer up a bit.

And then biking through Siberia, it's cold.  There's this wind that cuts to the bone, which is sort of exciting but also sort of gives me the feeling that if I crashed right now, I might freeze and stick to the road and the paramedics would need to use a crow-bar to pry my stiff icy body off the tarmac.  The wind zips past and sends icy needles into me, kind of like a Polar Acupuncture which is both painful and also incredibly healing.

And then at some point I come to the red light.  And I stop, and so the wind stops, and all of a sudden this furnace inside my body goes wild and I'm like one of those Chocolate Gateau cakes that looks sort of normal on the outside but has all this molten delicious stuff oozing out of every pore.

The most amazing version of the volcano effect is when I actually get to where I'm going.  Because once I stop AND I go into a warm building with no wind blowing me, it's like I'm having the mother of all hot flashes.  Last January I rode my bike two miles (a mere two miles) to get my mammogram, and it was like 20 degrees outside.  Yes, the ride was a tad nippy.  But by the time I got into the office, I was tearing my clothes off at a furious pace.  All the other women sitting in the office were huddled up in their Christmas sweaters, coats draped over their shoulders or possibly lying on their laps.  And I was stripped down to a t-shirt, standing in the middle of a giant pile of shirts and jackets and windbreakers heaped up around me, sweating up a storm.  And the women around me asked, "Isn't biking on a day like today cold?" but I was in my t-shirt with the steam just sizzling off of me.  Wonder Woman on Fire.

The cold part of biking, I expected that.  The hot part, that's the surprise and delight.  It's like that t-shirt says, "They're not hot flashes; they're power surges".  And they make me feel a bit like a ninja warrior, a force to be reckoned with.

I'm the woman who frightens phlebotomists. Be warned.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Trash Man Cometh (2014)

Here it is, a picture of our 19th trash can of the year.

Last year, we put 17 cans at the curb, so this is two cans to the worse for us.  Sigh.

Garbage-wise, I have become of a bit of a caricature of myself.   Even though I try to go trash-less (or less-trash) without being obnoxious or preachy, I'm sure I fail.  I fail both in the sense that I still create a lot of trash, and also in that I'm probably pretty preachy.

Even without my trying to be the Guru of Garbage, though, other people have come to know me as a No-Bag-Lady.  I stop at the pharmacy where we pick up our monthly supply of meds for the boys, and Richard, the head pharmacist, bustles over to the cashier ringing me up and says, "no, no, she doesn't need a bag!"

I head to market to pick up my Thanksgiving turkey, and the Turkey Lady shoos back the guy lifting my turkey:  "she doesn't need a carry bag."  Then she asks with a wink, "do you need help getting this to your vehicle?"  Even though I don't actually need help, she likes to walk the turkey out to my bike trailer with me.  It's becoming a yearly ritual.

There is a guy who works at my college who, like me, now carries a ceramic plate when he goes to campus events that serve food, so he doesn't have to use paper plates (or worse! plastic ones).

And a few weeks back, I went to a lunch discussion at our faculty center and was delighted to see that the menu featured chili in bread bowls.  I said something cheery about this and the director said, "Oh, yeah, we knew you were coming so we decided to order something that you could eat with no trash."  I laughed a bit ("ha, ha, the idea of planning a whole menu for 20 people around ME"), but the director said, "no, REALLY.  We ordered this because of you."   Well, that was a bit humbling.  And flattering.  Shucks.

My husband tells me that when he tells people that I'm frugal, they often respond by claiming they are, too:  "I clip coupons," or "I shop at discount stores".  It's hard for him to explain that his wife doesn't really shop at stores at all.  He says that the one-sentence explanation that seems to sink in the most is, "My wife doesn't use paper towels."   That alone, he says, is enough to convey the sense of my oddity, to convince people that my frugality is a tad out of the ordinary.

So.  Nineteen trash cans at the curb.  Nineteen demonstrations of evidence that I am fortunate to have more-than-enough, that I have so much that I have to send the excess away, that I can package up that excess by the barrel-full.

But a new year waits just around the corner.  And for now, my trash cans are empty.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Moving beyond "no gifts, please"

Here's what I know about parenting:  I know you can't just say to your kids, "Don't do X".    Kids just aren't smart enough to know what to do when they're not
  • picking their nose;
  • hitting their friends;
  • leaving clothes on the floor.
Instead, kids have to know what the alternatives are.  They have to be told about Y.  It's much better to know that they should
  • use a hankie (or at least go in the bathroom and then wash hands);
  • walk away and count to ten, then ask a grown-up for help;
  • use the laundry chute.
After two dozen years of parenting kids -- half my life, for gosh sake! -- I've gotten much better at the "do this instead" commands instead of the "don't do that" commands.

And so . . . well, so I didn't say "No gifts, please" this past Christmas.  I said, "We'll do gingerbread and eggnog on Christmas!"  And it was a FABULOUS Christmas, can I say?!

My step-daughter L (the younger) made this beautiful creation . . .
. . . that she loved so much she photographed . . .
. . . until it got destroyed in an earthquake, alas:

K-daughter, the gingerbread house veteran, created a much more sturdy (well, at least it's still standing now) house with moat and spire.  Her new husband helped.
There were many people in and out of the house. It was a wonderful time.

There were even gifts, albeit minimal ones.  K-daughter made homemade fudge; L-daughter (the elder) bought me re-usable whiskey rocks; L-daughter (the younger) got me mittens.  This was perfect for me -- reusable or consumable, unobtrusive objects.  In fact, my favorite line from all of the season came from L-daughter (the  younger), who reassured me:  "the mittens: they look like they're new, but really they're not.  I got them at a yard sale!"  Perfect.

The boys opened scads of their own gifts.  The girls got useful gifts (LED lightbulbs, or Misto sprayer, plus a few rolls of dollar coins).  But the gifts weren't the center of the celebration; the people and the conversations were, instead.  Gingerbread-construction on Christmas is a keeper of a tradition, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Un-acquired wisdom

I've become fonder and fonder of the financial musings of Jonathan Clements, whose articles appear in our Sunday newspaper.  Two weekends ago, he wrote an article entitled, "Money can also buy you unhappiness".  The bumper-sticker version of his argument?  Money begets buyer's remorse; we buy more things that in turn begin to weigh us down.

Here was one little three-sentence synopsis that I particularly liked:
As folks grow older, they often stop accumulating possessions and instead start giving stuff away.  You might view that as a rational strategy for those approaching the end of their life.  But I view it as acquired wisdom:  All those possessions start to seem like a burden that distracts us from life's pleasures.
Case in point is family heirlooms.  When I was in my early 20's, my then-husband and I toured the country, interviewing our elderly relatives about our family tree.  We helped them catalog photographs that had long remained unlabeled.  We wrote down stories about scandalous matches, eccentric aunts, persons with personality.  We cooked up family recipes.  We rescued some quilts, some photos, army medals, infant outfits.  It was a fabulous and timely road trip, because the keepers of these heirlooms -- our elderly grandmothers and fragile great aunts -- had amazing stories, and my then-husband and I were the last people to hear these stories and write them down.

And then we went back to our lives -- got our advanced degrees, our divorce, our first jobs.  But the stories we collected, those stayed with us.  As did many of the photos and other heirlooms.  I have carried these with me from home to home for two dozen years now, preserving them for . . . well, I wasn't sure for what.  Posterity, whatever that means.  

Now, with my children growing and moving out of the home, with my nieces and nephews likewise turning from larvae into human adult-like objects, I figured it makes sense to share all these beautiful objects that I just Do Not Want Anymore.   The acquired wisdom I have accumulated is that I want to un-acquire all these heirlooms.

A month or two ago, I gathered the photos/etc into groupings that seemed reasonable to me, and I took them all to a nearby frame shop.  I asked the owner to do with them what she will.  
Believe it or not, these photos look better when they're framed properly than they do in my old wrinkly plastic bags.  I like how great-grandpa's sharp-shooter medals came out.  And I like how grandma's cape, made by her mother a century ago, looks a lot snazzier ironed and framed than when it's wadded up in a ball.
 I have a nifty collage of photos of my dad as a toddler/child/teenager; this will be a gift for his new wife.
Did I mention great-grandpa?  He died in 1902, less than a year after my grandfather was born.  He died of an ear infection (can you imagine??), and left a widow to raise three children on her own.  Here is a little montage of photos of him from before he met my great-grandma.

I knew I'd be plunking down some serious money for all these frames.  It turns out I saved a bunch of money through my own indifference.  I told the framer just to be creative and to take her time.  She ended up using  her left-over materials from previous projects, and because she was in no hurry she could try out various ideas without having to commit to buying supplies.  Altogether, this cost about a thousand dollars less than I thought it would.

It was still pricey -- it's an expensive way to get rid of stuff I don't want.  But dang, does it look nice!

I am really happy to feel like I've preserved something worth preserving, and also to be giving my family a piece of their history.  But most of all, a la Clement's observation, I think that investing a bit of money to divest myself of a few possessions is evidence of an acquired wisdom.

So this is my most expensive Christmas yet: giving my heirs their looms, and giving me a bit more room.  A great gift all around.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Eating the elephant-mother-chair

About a dozen or so years ago, my husband and I "inherited" a giant recliner chair from his mom.

My husband's mom was a woman with all sorts of psychological problems; when he and I got married, I'd tell people:  "We both idolize our fathers and analyze our mothers".  She was a bitterly unhappy woman; his childhood memories are of her lying on the couch, complaining about the neighbors and threatening to kill herself.  He feared our family dinners at first, because his childhood dinners meant listening to his mom carping ceaselessly at his father, who bent his head and accepted it until he could escape from the table.

She was deeply suspicious of anyone unlike her (or anyone like her, for that matter).  When we were getting ready to adopt, the social workers tried to prepare us for negative comments and snubs.  To our surprise, I heard one and only one derogatory comment about adopting a brown son: my husband's mom asked, horrified,  "Couldn't you at least have gotten a Chinese one?"

Recovering from your own mother; there are so many stories there.  For my husband, the big-tough-army-guy, there were a few years of counseling.  There were the years he had to avoid riding his bike by himself, because her voice would fill his head.  There was a conscious effort to be unlike her in every way, both in good ways (avoiding racism) and in harmful ones (fearing family dinners).  When my daughter was in kindergarden, I wrote a note to her future self about my own parenting, saying something to the effect that I hoped to do the "least possible amount of damage."

We recover from bad parenting the same way we eat the metaphorical elephant: one bite at a time.  We share big elephant recipes with our imperfectly-mothered friends.  We chew on the gristle.  Occasionally, we find strong bones.  We gain strength.  We go slowly, thinking that this hulking beast will always looming over us; but one day, if we're lucky, we'll realize the elephant is almost gone.  If we're very lucky, we keep the best parts.

This recliner chair, like my husband's mom, took up more than its fair share of space in our living room.  And after years of hard use from my highly energetic, ADHD, and yes, brown sons, it started falling apart.

This past weekend, I decided to take the chair apart.  I used staple-removers, screwdrivers, and needle-nose pliers to pull out the staples holding the upholstery onto the frame.  There were hundreds of these staples, and I spent many hours focusing on staple, after staple, after staple.  Underneath the fabric was the wood-and-metal frame, and with more screwdrivers and wrenches, I carefully disassembled the skeleton of the chair into various pieces.

When I was done, I had a pile of scrap wood for use in future projects, a second pile of metal pieces that I will donate to Paul D. (who recycles scrap metal as a way of earning some money), and two garbage cans full of foam and fabric.  I'm feeling pretty guilty about those two garbage cans, actually, but I know it could have been worse.

It was wonderfully therapeutic, taking apart a chair.  At every single stage I had no idea what lay ahead; but the next immediate step was always obvious:  remove this staple, this staple, this staple.  Take out this screw, this bolt, that bolt.  One thing at a time, always a small sense of accomplishment, even as the chair loomed over me, seemingly unchanged.

Until suddenly, the chair lay in pieces at my feet, sorted into piles.  All that remained for me to do was to share the pieces I thought were worth sharing, toss the things I didn't want, keep the things I thought I could use.  And then to vacuum up the dirt.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pre-travel toothpaste prep

Sometimes you gotta uglify something before you can pretty it up.  I felt a little obnoxious about putting a nasty, tsk-tsk sign in our shared bathroom.  But it was only there for a week.
The boys, they leave toothpaste blobs in the sink.  It yucks me out, but while we're home it's just me that gets yucked out, so I feel petty to be constantly carping about this.  In a few weeks, though, we'll be traveling.  We'll stay at other people's houses.  And in the past, some of them have gotten yucked out, just like I do.

Nagging is ugly, too, and besides feeling petty, it's proved singularly ineffective.  One problem is that nagging happens long after the fact, not at the moment of toothpaste yuck-ification.  But a sign right at the place of the dreadful act?  Would "pre-nagging" work?
The answer one week later:  yes.  We have a beautiful sink now.  I took the ugly sign down.  We're ready to travel.