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Vermont Diary



Personal commentary on life and all that



Updated: 2017-10-24T04:06:26.239-07:00

 



Body Image

2012-07-08T16:26:27.293-07:00


“My *** is too wide. My ******* aren’t big enough. My ankles are thick. I don’t like my *******. I won’t go out in a swimsuit.” You don’t have to be around women very long to hear these comments. And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have felt such comments to be irrelevant at best, and even ungrateful.

I want to turn around and say, “Your *** is exactly the size it was meant to be.” Subject to the ability to modify through diet and exercise, that is. “What makes you think you deserve a different one? We weren’t all meant to be models nor were we all meant to be geniuses. Someone in the world will think each of us is beautiful, bright and lovable, even if only ourselves.”

It is our own responsibility to come to terms with what we have, and what we don’t. We may mourn losses as we age. I am sympathetic to the late Nora Ephron’s “I’m sorry about my neck.” I, too, am sorry about physical losses as I age, but I work hard to slow them down, and I am fortunate to have the few losses I have. To date, there are some parts that hurt (wrist and shoulder) and some parts (knees) that require ongoing intervention, but everything works! I see others who are not as fortunate, who have deteriorating conditions, and I grieve for them.

It would be nice to be prettier, thinner, more fit, but it is startling how many people want to have body image issues on my behalf. People want to dress me differently, change my hair, bleach and straighten my teeth, give me different diets and exercise programs. I take their advice with thanks, but I am perplexed why they have so many opinions about my appearance. And why they feel free to share them.

More than one man has conveyed to me that I’m not pretty enough to marry. Okay, but there is not a lot I can do about the size of my ***, my drooping *******, or the fact that I am not particularly athletic. Since I wasn’t planning on marrying any of them, I have to wonder what was the intent of that message? If they weren’t planning on marrying me—why not just…not ask?

Why be hurtful? I’ve come to conclude it is more about these men than it is about me. I don’t even blame them. What they want is what they want. I don’t gain anything by trashing their view. And I’m still friends with all of them—I can think of at least three—but a little more at arm’s length.

I work hard to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in all areas of my life. I am grateful for my body and how it works for me. I am grateful especially for my mind, even though my memory is not what it once was. I am grateful for all my friends, even the ones who aren’t perfect—that would be all of them. How fitting, since I am clearly not perfect either.




Interrupted

2011-10-10T11:47:04.747-07:00

Before September 1, I had a busy life. So busy that I slept in my exercise tights so that I was ready to roll as soon as I woke. It was very satisfying to hurtle through darkness toward Montpelier, then challenge myself with a killer ab class or a weights workout customized just for me. By the time I settled at my desk, I was physically and emotionally ready for whatever the day might offer. Now my life is not so busy. I fell, you see, down the stairs. In my sleep. After some unknown period of time, I woke up on a living room sofa, bleeding. Based on the puddle of blood at the bottom of the stairs, it seems I had lain there for some time as well. But at the time, all I noticed was that my wrist hurt. Once I wake up, I thought, I’m probably gonna have to go to the doctor for that. And I walked through the puddle of blood and went back upstairs to bed.When the alarm went off at 4:30 (my normal time to get up), my arm still hurt, so I put on a sweater and some shoes (how did my feet get so bloody?) and drove myself to the Emergency Room. Nice parking spot, close to the entrance. Registration staff looked at me horrified—although I had tried to wash off the blood from the head wound—and immediately put me into a wheelchair and skipped all their usual questions. The staff proceeded to take excellent care of me, starting with a catalog of my injuries: an H-shaped laceration on my forehead at the hairline (25 staples and stitches), a broken wrist (30 little pieces), a cut on my right leg (19 stitches) previously held together by my exercise tights, 2 black eyes, a big lump on my left shin, and numerous other bumps and bruises. I really should have called 911, but my battered head was not working very well. By today (October 10) most of my injuries are far, far better. The shattered wrist is still healing. Anyone who knows me might expect me to be chomping at the bit, ready to re-engage fully in life. It is true that I am working half time (thanks to the federal government’s push for telework), and I am grateful to be able to keep my clients rolling along, not to mention grateful to be able to stretch leave a little longer. I am driving short distances to get myself to hand therapy or to the grocery store, and it is nice to regain a little independence. I’m even on the treadmill a couple of miles a day, so distressed I am at how much my muscle tone has diminished in a few short weeks.And yet, I’m not really in a hurry to resume my life exactly as it was. Not that there was anything wrong with it. I take care to try to be thoughtful and responsible about my choices, so there have been no “Aha! I must stop (or start) doing that” moments. I wouldn’t wish to have the injuries again, and I still have a lot of healing to do. But to have life stop, to have others care for me, to have the patterns rearrange themselves, to be required to exercise ingenuity to accomplish the tiniest task…this has been an unexpected gift. This interruption has to it the feel of a divine message. One that I cannot yet parse. So far I know only what it is not. Not a call to find a new friends—if anything the interruption underscores the rightness of these choices. The degree of help and support that came my way in the last few weeks has left me startled, humble and grateful beyond words. Not a call to find a new job—just doesn’t seem to apply right now—job hunting is one thing it is hard to do with one hand. Not moving, no right now. Not a push in any particular direction. So what is it?Maybe it is the gift of time to sit still and listen. To pare my life back to basics and then add back what really matters. For example, it was only yesterday that I added back treadmill time—oh, how was missing my exercise routines! And for the last several days, I have been thinking how much I have missed writing every day. Maybe time to add that back. If you have ever lived in a cluttered environment, your own or someone else’s, then you know that open space can seem like the[...]



Planting nasturtiums

2011-05-03T12:17:41.942-07:00

I have relatives and colleagues with obsessive compulsive disorder, and from time to time, I find I understand them very well. In the morning in the gym, when I put my shoes in exactly the same spot as the day before, and the day before that, I understand. When I put my favorite water bottle into one of my shoes, I understand. There is something about making sure I don’t lose that water bottle that gives me control over my world.

Then there are certain things I do every year. Starting at Christmastime, I save the skins of yellow onions so that I can use them at Easter to dye eggs. They turn out the most amazing shades ranging from pale yellow to deep maroon tie-dye. These eggs delight me over and over again.

And in the spring, I plant nasturtiums. I have twelve (isn’t twelve a wonderful number?) galvanized window boxes, an even dozen fitting perfectly along the tops of my porch rails. I used to buy plants, but I found that nasturtiums grow reliably from seed, at least they do with a little care. Soak the seeds overnight, nick each one slightly to give the burgeoning plant life a start, and plant them. Miraculous!

I am an enthusiastic but not a very good gardener. In the back yard, I have a circular herb garden in a space once occupied by an above ground pool. (Now that was a bad idea. Never got the maple leaves cleared out, and really, I am not the pool bunny type!) Gave it away to someone who regretted accepting the gift, hauled in a load of topsoil, and presto chango! It’s an herb garden.

I specialize in invasive species. I pretend I am a gardener, but sometimes I think all I do is weed out Siberian iris, lemon balm, mint, and fern-leaf tansy. A few old reliables come back every year—oregano, chives, catnip, and horehound—without taking over. Thyme is fussy, as are lamb’s ears. Lady’s mantle and peonies are steadfast. I take great comfort in the return of plants that do not run rampant. I am so happy to see them.

Out back, there is much that is unexpected. But on the front porch, there are twelve window boxes planted with nasturtiums. They grow reliably and they look beautiful. I am obscurely grateful to them for being a gardening project that I can manage. I put the seeds in the ground, they come up, and the flowers come. How amazing is that? None of my other gardens act like that, and I love them for their wild and crazy nature. But I love my nasturtiums for being exactly what I expect them to be.



Today I am thankful

2010-11-25T15:05:22.883-08:00

Today I am thankful (not in any order):1. For the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade2. For the pleasure of making pie 3. For a pumpkin that came out to be exactly the two cups the recipe required4. For Mom’s pumpkin pie recipe5. For new recipes googled—say, pecan pie with maple syrup6. For Northern-Southern détente—say pecan pie with maple syrup7. For my family8. For my dogs9. For the joy that my girl dog gets from an 18 inch stainless steel bowl (yip-yip-yip-yah!)10. For neighbors who tolerate her singing (yip-yip-yip-yah!)11. For the giant octopus toy that Stony loves, which has only now started to fray after a whole year12. For a washer and drier that work (we won’t discuss the dishwasher)13. Okay, we will— for the dishwasher’s eight years of service in this house14. For plentiful water – what a gift!15. For the whole idea of flannel16. For old friends17. For new friends 18. For my neighbors19. For the guy who reliably plows my driveway20. For heating with wood21. For my little gas stove in the living room that toasts my toes22. For the pleasure of weeding out items too big to wear any more23. For my job24. For my colleagues, every last one of them25. For certain specific people who have enriched my life this year and made me see the world through fresh eyes26. For the invention of DVR27. For all manner of things electronic: email, word processing, spreadsheets, digital cameras…28. For snow29. For my super reliable, mileage efficient car30. For my friend who visits my dogs every day, just because she cares about them31. For the incredible views from my house32. For water, but especially hot water33. For a big pile of balsam brush on my front porch—garlands in the making34. For my health, especially the dramatic improvements in my health this year35. For my trainers and their good advice36. And most especially for the elliptical trainer and what it does for my shape37. For knitting, which turns 2 dimensions into three—how cool is that?38. For the women who knit with me39. For silk long underwear40. For my garden41. And my house 42. And the 14-inch maple boards in my living room, that extend the width of the house, and that I suspect came from the maple grove out back43. For modern and not-so-modern medicine and for my healthcare providers44. For Vermont’s no-billboard law45. For being (sort of) handy around the house46. For friends who help me finish projects when I’m not quite handy enough47. For the miracle of paint and wallpaper48. For the invention of cleaning products that easily remove nose prints49. For being almost done with my Christmas shopping50. For a day off to finish51. For the gift of hunter orange bandanas for Cassie and Stone to wear for hunting season52. For friends who taste test recipes for me53. For having a garage in winter54. For the invention of automatic outdoor lights and remote garage door openers55. For the lights that come on in my bedroom at the same time winter and summer56. That although I forgot to set the timer for the pumpkin pie, I can smell when they are perfectly done (they are!)57. That the pies came out perfect58. For dogs who don’t steal food off the counter, and even for those who do59. For pecans from my Mom to go into another pie60. For maple syrup from a colleague to in there, too61. For the whole idea of whipped cream62. And for whipped cream itself63. For recipes that turned out (pear jam, pickled pears, apple butter with coriander, pears in maple syrup) and for the lessons from the ones that didn’t (awful pumpkin pickles)64. For recipe mistakes that turn out to be discoveries (apple butter with coriander was supposed to be with cardamom)65. For friends who will feed me dinner today if I bring pie, or probably even if I don’t66. For the farm fresh local organic turkey I still have in the freezer and for the fun of cooking it on another day67. For friends who regularly drag me out for pizza68. For friends who keep calling me even when I am not nearly attentive en[...]



Cuisine Fancy and Simple

2010-10-14T17:15:04.713-07:00

Some months ago, I read a description of Meyer lemons. So appealing was the verbiage that when I saw Meyer lemons in my local grocery store in Vermont, I jumped at the opportunity to try them. After a brief web search, I decided to try making candied Meyer lemon rind and Meyer lemon syrup to go into Meyer lemonade.

Just finished up the candied rind. It is very nice…and a dead ringer for candied grapefruit peel, a classic Christmastime sweet of my childhood. Ha! Still, I’m thinking it is probably worth experimenting with candying different citrus peels, maybe combining them in a yeast bread, something like a stollen, but lighter. I wonder if the different peels would be different enough to be interesting.

Just another adventure in the kitchen.

Followup: I'll need to go back to the old time sugared peel recipe. With three times boiling and a closely watched syrup phase, it is more work, but the new fangled version turned damp and limp. The Meyer lemonade wasn't half bad, though.

Followup 2 Well, huh. After a day of exposure to open air, the short-cut, new version of candied lemon peel was almost as good as the labor-intensive old version. Time to re-think? Maybe so.



Herb harvest

2010-10-10T05:13:15.985-07:00

It’s the first hard frost tonight, they say, and the chill wind confirms. I spent the day cleaning up the garden, harvesting the herbs. I wasn’t sure there was much there, but I brought in lemon balm and thyme, sage and catnip, a little parsley, some oregano and even a few last tiny squash. My kitchen smells wonderful.

Most of the herbs are tied with twine and hung from the spice rack, but I put the parsley into the oven to dry. Start at 200 degrees, put in the parsley and turn off the oven. Repeat several times. That really works!

Tomorrow I plan to forage for a few more experiments. Goldenrod and mullein can be made into teas, they say. And there is plenty of mint. Beautiful, invasive fernleaf tansy, no—unless taken in small, weak amounts tansy can be poisonous. I should have cut tansy earlier to see if the tiny yellow flowers and the foliage would dry for wreaths.

I’m reading and re-reading all my herb books these days, thinking of next year’s garden. I only have two acres, but I can grow a lot of herbs. I’m working through what products I might be able to make and sell to make my garden habit profitable. The dreaming is worthwhile in itself.



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2010-09-18T11:01:20.469-07:00

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I wish I had a different picture for today. A picture of myself dressed up in Corella’s hand made clown costume, which I embellished with extra ribbons, a big bow at the neck, a hat with tissue paper roses, and—of course—a big red, painted-on nose. It was an extra thrill to find that my hot pink Timberland boots were a perfect match. (This picture is Stone, not Daisy or Sam. But it looks just like Daisy and Sam today).

Corella was pleased with the look. And I was pleased that this spry 93-year-old was happy to see me in her finery, prancing my way down the route of the Hyde Park Home Days parade. I had my own spot in the parade as the only clown—no function whatsoever but to wave to the crowd—but I was enticed to walk with the Lamoille Valley Veterinary Services float (complete with a 3-month-old German Shepherd puppy named Daisy), then I was wooed away to walk with the Hyde Park Players. It was something to do with their current play, but I never quite got the connection.

I was too busy waving and babies and old people, while trying to convince Daisy to walk with me. The parade was just that little bit too fast for us, so a couple of times, I had to pick her up (oof!) and scurry forward. Big girl! Somewhere in front of the Hyde Park courthouse, Daisy licked my red painted nose, and then she had one too.

A little further along, I switched to walking her brother Sammy. Daisy gave her breeder a kiss, and then Carole had the red nose. What fun!

All in all, it was fine parade. Puppies were admired. Corella waved back from the reviewing stand, happy to see that one boisterous clown in the autumn sunshine. Corella says she needs a new heart, and that they won’t give her one because she’s 93. She’s a little bummed about it, since she doesn’t really feel old at all, and I do understand her position. Still, on another level, I don’t see a thing wrong with Corella’s heart. Maybe that’s because I spent a day in her clown suit, waving to small children and enjoying puppies.



The Second Half

2010-06-06T03:59:28.591-07:00

It's been a good six months of letting go, making myself space to consider new things. For four months, I have been getting stronger, first walking every morning, then with a renewed commitment to a workout each weekday. I can feel not only my physical strength returning, but also my creativity.

I'm thinking a lot these days about the second half of my life. My mother's family have mostly lived into their eighties and nineties. For my father's family, it's tougher to tell what their natural span might have been, since there were fewer of them, and they were lifelong smokers. It's a fairly strong probability that I have almost as many years left on this planet as I have been here already.

There are some things I want to be different in the second half of my life. I want to be fit and physically active. I want to be well grounded in the place I live and with the people with whom I share my life. I want to dance more. I want many creative outlets. I want to wear pretty clothes. I want to be able to touch people's lives in ways that are direct, personal and meaningful. I want to learn a lot of new things. I want to garden more and grow more of my own food. I want to have more people to cook for (or better yet to cook with). I want less conflict. I want a quiet life.

I'm going to buy one of those big adhesive note flip chart pads, and before I finish new walls in my study, I'm going to create a wall size vision of the second half of my life. I can't wait to get started.



Scent of a Skunk Part II

2010-02-28T14:33:40.918-08:00

I thought it would be one of the dogs who had the first skunk encounter, but no, it was me!

Driving down the hill, I saw a black spot on the snow. As I got closer, I could see that it was furry and moving. I was too close to stop, so I straddled the small animal. I thought for a few minutes I had escaped the spray, but no. It just took that long for the aroma to penetrate from my car's undercarriage.

For days now, my dogs have loved the car even more. Other cars don't like to park near us. Never one to name my cars, I'm thinking this one may be christened Pepe Le Pew.



Making Space

2010-02-28T14:34:43.185-08:00

I’m sitting in my study, a strange and jumbled room, the last in the house papered in one of the tiny florals beloved by the last owner. It is the least offensive of the tiny florals, which is probably why it has lasted this long. Functional in a haphazard way, the room has too much furniture and is the only reasonable place in the house for the treadmill. I’m looking at the room, and I’m trying to figure out what would make it a more pleasant place to sit on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Clearly the first step is to move out everything that is not immediately important to the room’s best use. (We will work around the treadmill for now.) Since I am no longer attempting to run a business from this room, I don’t need as many shelves, but which should go? The tall ones that add a library feel? Or the waist-high deeper ones that accommodate piles of paperwork so nicely? Is there room somewhere for a cozy chair for reading here? Is it time to give up on my tall armoire that was made from a kit and still is missing its doors? Should I put some of the shelves in the closet? Can I really work around the treadmill? Will I ever know what storage I need unless I actually sort out piles of old paperwork? So many questions, but only one real answer: clear out the old. Only then will it be possible to imagine the new. I’m craving a new house project, something that takes my personal space to a new level of function and comfort, but I can’t see my way to it. For now, it’s prep work and waiting for inspiration—my least favorite (though essential) part of the creative process. Funny, I didn’t see the answer before I started writing, but now I do. Not the whole answer, not yet. But it is time for the last of the tiny florals to go. I have the wallpaper already, purchased when I moved in almost eight years ago. A mellow yellow with a small abstract repeat, suitable for a study or a bedroom. I think the armoire goes upstairs, maybe the treadmill, too. Keep the tall shelves, and move them to a different wall, no longer in front of the second bathroom door. Put one set of the lower shelves in the closet, the other two out in the mudroom, which needs more function of its own. Give away extra electronic equipment. Clear out, clean up, wallpaper and paint. It’s a plan. I wish the shape of my new life were as easy to discern. In a strange twist, I was accused last week of “liking my job too much.” I do like my job a lot. I think I am well suited to it. I like getting out into the community and finding out about projects, then doing what I can to help them along. I like my colleagues. I pad around in my sock feet most of the day, leading some of my colleagues to offer to take up a collection to buy me shoes. And most of all, I like that part where every two weeks, the federal government zaps money into my bank account. Whoo-ee! I think long term federal employees have lost track of the value of a regular paycheck and outstanding benefits, but it is all new and exciting to me. Yes, I like my job, and I like my routine of walking in the early morning. I like my commute, and I am re-adjusting to having forty hours of my week scheduled for me. But it’s the rest of it I can’t quite envision yet. Who do I hang around with? What thoughts and dreams and activities make me who I will be? It’s stunning how much of our lives change with the change of a job.One thing I am letting go is the church I have attended more off than on for the past eight years. I was there pretty religiously for a year, then got busy with economic development and lapsed, and finally went back about a year ago. The people are pleasant enough, though not particularly friendly, but then we are in New England. But I am missing there the hands-on connection to the broader[...]



Cabin fever

2010-01-31T05:35:51.005-08:00

It’s right around zero this morning, and I am grateful for the gift of a bed of coals that lasted the night. No struggle with insufficient kindling, no running up and down the cellar stairs, just pop in a couple logs and the fire comes back to life. Until this weekend, I had been afraid that the embers of my spirit were burning low. I had started to feel isolated, pitiful and older than my years. When you live alone, as I have for about half my adult life, every now and then you start to buy into social judgments on the single life. You keep saying, “No, really, I am happy,” but you wonder if it sounds as tinny to others as to your inner ear. Certainly, the happiest periods of my adult life have been when I was in a close relationship, married or otherwise, but then so were the unhappiest periods. It’s good to know how to be happy alone. Right now, at the end of January 2010, I’m poised on the rim of a new life. I’m itchy to see what its shape will be, who will inhabit it, and who I will be. Looking back, it can seem easy to divide our lives into chunks that have some meaning: the years I was married, the years I lived in New York, my time (so far) in Vermont, periods that had some kind of story line that I could inhabit for years at a time. I am happy to close the book on some periods—the Chattanooga interlude, say, or the last two years. I’m never sure if I cling too long to old story lines or launch too rashly into the new. At least I have learned to recognize the between-times. For me, health concerns are often a sign of the “betweens.” Something needs to be left behind, and I don’t seem to get the message until my body cries stop! you are living in your head again and ignoring body and spirit. My stamina needs to be rebuilt. As much of a change-lover as I fancy myself, I can be slow to discern when my personal world has changed, and I need to allow myself to be transformed along with it. Certainly (I think), there are periods when you need to run on stored faith, to put your head down and do what you have to do. I wish I were better at recognizing when those reserves are running low. Eventually, even the message penetrates even my hard head, and I start to see where change needs to occur. I need to grow in friendship, with the ones I have and new ones. I need new charitable and volunteer ventures, not that there was anything wrong with the old ones, but I need renewal in this part of my life. I need a spiritual expression that aligns more fully with my heart’s desires. I love my new job, and I need to explore how it can contribute to a meaningful life for me and my broader community. I need to go back to the kind of daily schedule I have had in the past that honored my body in physical activity. I can see where I need change, but I am only beginning to see how it might play out. If the initial stage of the between-times is recognizing that change needs to come, the more challenging stage is the next: making room for it to happen. I’ve been trying to keep still, to make space for whatever is to come. It’s a little like waiting for Christmas. Every year I wonder if it will still be special, and every year it comes, not just a day in the calendar, but a gift like this year’s hoar frost. This enforced peacefulness does not come naturally to me, a confessed control freak.So here I sit, confined to my house by sub-zero weather, warmed by the gift of a fire that kept burning all the night long, nosed into action by Cassie and Stone, who desperately want to get on with the next adventure. We’re doing short runs today, building up reserves of faith and stamina for milder days to come. You can’t rush spring, but you can get ready. Postscript. My horoscope for today, which I read after wr[...]



Scent of a skunk

2010-01-17T11:16:16.718-08:00

It’s been warm the last few days, warm for this time of year in Vermont, that is. Warm enough for long walks with the dogs. Warm enough that the snowpack compacts and makes for easy snowshoeing. Warm enough that our frozen landscape shifts a bit before settling in for the long haul toward spring.

Last night as I sat snoozing in my chair next to a front window, there was a huge whomp! as the roof shed its load of snow. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but this morning, piles of snow and mangled icicles lay sprawled in new ice berms along the front and back of the house. One always hopes that these avalanches occur at times when there are no dogs or people in their paths.

Today it is warm enough to dry to dig a path through the back berm in anticipation of more snow still to come. It is warm enough to empty the in-house compost bins. And it is warm enough that someone had an encounter with a wandering skunk. Every time I go back out to chip away at the path through the ice berm, the aroma hits me in the face again. I don’t really mind. It is another sign of (false) spring. But I think my dogs will stay penned up until the enticing scent dissipates.

As much as this may feel (and smell) like spring, we must guard against false hope. After all, it is only January 17. No, this is a January thaw, a weather “singularity” that returns almost every year.

As Willem Lange would say, I gotta get back to work. After all, this balmy weather won’t last for long, and I need to be prepared for the next snowfall.



New year, new life

2010-01-16T08:20:31.487-08:00

Long, long ago, when I was finishing college, I took a vocational aptitude test. Something in the combination of my responses led to the following result: you should be (1) a mortician, (2) a tea room hostess, or (3) a social security representative. I’m not sure what were the variables that led to these conclusions, but now I find myself working for the federal government, managing loan and grant programs. I help towns buy fire engines or fire stations, help libraries or health centers expand, and help non-profits that are in the business of helping small business help small business. I’ve been on the job for almost two months, and I love it, almost every aspect of it.

Okay, so the federal government can be bureaucratic. And working in an office with 30 other people provides more togetherness than is completely comfortable for me. But we are making a difference, and that is deeply satisfying.

It’s a new life for me, too. And I have launched into a new life with new (or recovered) habits. Bring your lunch, a healthy lunch. Take a walk at lunchtime. Keep your work hours to a prescribed forty per week. Oh, wow.

With work beaten back to a rationed number of hours, it becomes possible to think again about a real life. I can’t yet imagine how that might look. Chickens? Bees? A new renovation project? New people in my life? It is all a clean slate right now, and I am enjoying some space before anything new is written.

“Funny how those moments come, it hits you, your life has changed. Again and again, we learn the lesson, something still remains.”



Just relax

2009-10-08T07:46:07.477-07:00

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You have a job (almost). The weather is perfect. In this enforced break in the action, can’t you really take a break? Relax.

Easier said than done. After two years of pushing hard to figure out the financial world as it shattered and reformed itself into unrecognizable shapes, after a year of attempting not only a new business but a new way of relating to the world of commerce, I seem to be hooked on anxiety.

Last week, I went to a movie for the first time in….well, in years. I’ve been on the treadmill every other day. Two or three, sometimes four dog walks a day. Bubble baths and reading in front of the fire. A couple of days ago, my shoulders lost their accustomed tension. I could breathe. I notice that even when I play solitaire, I play more slowly, no longer driven to top red with black with red, to strive for an outcome.

Back in the era when I had regular vacations, I went to Deer Isle for three weeks for pottery camp. What a wonderful break that was! All that was on my schedule was sitting at the kickwheel, making pots, occasionally glancing up to see whales spouting out beyond the firs on a rocky shore. Other people to share projects and meals, all cooked for us, and nightly meteor showers for our delight. And still, it took me a good two weeks to unwind. The third week was restoration.

It’s been a long time since I had a real vacation. I have had adventures and expeditions sandwiched in between work trips and, more recently, shorter breaks to enjoy a day trip to Canada or New Hampshire, or just to contemplate Vermont. There is a lot to contemplate in Vermont!

So when last week I was informed that I should expect a job offer in a week or so, to be followed by a couple weeks (or so) for background checks, my brain informed me that this was a good time for a break. It is always possible that this job offer could evaporate, but if it does, I’ll only have lost a few anxious weeks of job hunting. And I will be better for the break, of that I am sure.

Now if only I can continue to slow down my brain, tune up my muscles, and open up to a new life.



Limbo spa

2009-10-04T07:21:27.985-07:00

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Well, this is a strange turn of events. I think I have a new job, but there are hurdles. Steps to go through. It is working for the Federal government, so everything has to go to Washington for approval. I didn’t know that Washington even knew about me, much less cared, but it appears that they (whoever they are) do.

In this intervening time, I’m declaring a spa month. Lots of walks with dogs, some serious exercise every day, good food, green tea. The kids are excited, and so am I. How often do we get a chance to relax and rejuvenate while looking forward to a new life? This back-to-school time has always seemed to me like a new beginning.

It couldn’t be a more beautiful time to take a break. Foliage is peaking: great washes of color light up the horizon. All across Vermont, people are picking apples, carving pumpkins and reveling in beautiful, crisp days. Even a rainy day like yesterday appeals, as the bright colors shine through the mist.

I have some goals for this period, but one of them is to work hard at not being so goal-directed. Yesterday I drove down to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, almost. It seemed that as I got closer to the festival, it rained harder and harder. And I was getting tired, so when only a few miles from my goal I made a wrong turn, I surrendered and came home.

Actually, I stopped at the mall, another rare experience. For the first time in many months, I was able to buy something frivolous in the fabric store and something necessary (pantyhose and a new calendar) without worry. It is nice to contemplate a regular paycheck. I’m unlikely to go too crazy, but I did consider buying spring bulbs, a luxury that I have not been able to afford for some time. I still might do that, but not until the Federal Government makes up its Washingtonian mind whether to bring me into the fold.

Meanwhile, let’s just relax! I have to go now. There seems to be a pressing need for the morning walk to the pond.



Reframing

2009-09-21T11:06:48.408-07:00

There are giant bugs pounding on my window!

No wait. Not bugs at all. They are hummingbirds, seven or eight of them.

Someone who knows birds tells me that it is migration time. Sure enough, when I look, there are songbirds of every shape and color...everywhere. They particularly like the crabapple tree outside my picture window.

Not giant bugs, tiny birds on their way to South America. How cool is that?



Bravery

2009-09-15T11:09:59.746-07:00

Denial is a lovely thing. It allows us to hide behind our perceptions of the world, our ideas of who we are and how we fit. Or think we do. But sometimes the puzzle pieces come together with blinding speed, moving so fast that we cannot even parse their trajectory. It’s as if we were there….and now we are another place altogether. Here. Reality has shifted.

People think I am brave. I am the one who packed a seventeen-foot truck and left Brooklyn to move to Vermont. No job, a rented apartment. Stepping off into the void. Brave, right? Maybe not.

I am the one who quit a job without having another job. I was hoping to build a practice as a financial advisor, because I love the work, loved the clients even more. On purpose, could I have picked a worse year to try this? Launching into a new business venture, it is important to be appropriately capitalized. But how does one capitalize for a hundred year event? One doesn’t. I didn’t.

There is a woman I know slightly who is far braver than I. She has the bad gene for breast cancer and cervical cancer, and this fall, she will undergo surgery to remove both breasts and her uterus. She approaches it as a matter-of-fact choice. She wants to live to see her children grow up and to play with her grandchildren.

In many ways I envy her clarity. I have neither chick nor child, so I didn’t know what to look forward to when I gave up my last job, still don’t. But I know when I don’t have a choice. When staying feels wrong, it is time to go, and there is no real choice. It’s not a matter of bravery, just a matter of keeping faith with whoever or whatever you hold dear. Time to move on to the next chapter.



Moral dimensions of financial crisis

2009-04-05T10:47:29.382-07:00

Last week I met a man who was enraged. Like so many of us, he had lost about forty percent of the value of his investment portfolio, and he was at a loss to figure out where to put his anger. Yet he sensed that the other side of his anger and grief, there was a different perspective. He was anxious to get there, to be free of his distress. He wanted to move on. Most of us weren’t dealing with confessed fraudsters like Bernie Madoff. So should we be angry at our advisors? Maybe. Certainly, Bernie Madoff and his like should be put in prison, regulation should be re-written and actually enforced, and the pay structure at financial institutions should be brought in line with performance over some reasonable time frame. But I think there is a bigger issue here. I think most of us are really angry at ourselves. At least for a short time, we believed in bubbles. We believed that real estate prices would go up and up. We believed that the inflated price our neighbor received selling last year would drive the price of our own homes next year. We believed that credit would always be easy to get. We believed that huge financial institutions could not, would not fail. And, most dangerous of all, we believed that the crazy things that happened in some markets (sub-prime, alt-A, CDOs) would not affect us as long as we were not directly participating in those markets. We were wrong. I think this means that if we want to get past our anger, we need to stop looking outward and start looking at our own lives. Fundamentally, this is a moral crisis. We had money, we thought, and now we have less of it. Things like this happen, as the disclosures on our brokerage accounts and retirement funds say: You can lose money. If your financial advisor told you otherwise, then your advisor may belong in jail with Bernie. We were wrong. We lost money. And now we need to forgive ourselves for it. If anger at our advisors represents the first layer of the onion, and anger at ourselves is the second, then the next layer of the onion is fear that we may run out of money. Thirty-somethings are a lot more likely to be able to shrug off big losses than sixty-somethings, who have less time to catch up. Those of us who are older are facing the necessity to retire later than we planned, work part-time in retirement, travel less than we had dreamed, or make other adjustments along two themes: planning and stewardship. I’m a planner by nature, creating alternatives for a variety of contingencies, so this is second nature to me. I chose my house partly because it has a first floor bedroom and bath, although I trust I am a good thirty years from needing to live on one floor with a caretaker upstairs. If I lose more money before the time I need to start drawing on my retirement plans, I can sell my house and live somewhere more modest. That’s a contingency plan, and it is also a nod to stewardship, by which I mean not taking more than I need. Right now, I live on two acres, I drive a car that gets 36 miles to the gallon, and I limit my trips to my Burlington office to two per week. I compost. I garden. Could I do more? Yes. I could live in a smaller house, even shared space. I don’t want to do that because I am a very private person, and I love having large dogs. But if I had to give up privacy and dogs, I could do it. Not everyone is as fortunate. Many people in these times have cut their use of resources, their own and those of the wider world, to the bone. So they need more from the rest of us. That means our charitable contributions, our taxes, the price[...]



Living on the Far Side

2009-03-22T05:37:04.543-07:00

One day last week as I drove up the hill where I live, I looked to the left and counted thirteen in my neighbor’s front yard, then another fourteen to the right in the open fields.
A few days without snow cover, and there is grass to eat, but the deer seem to have to range far to find enough. They are out at dawn and at dusk, as we might expect, but also in broad mid-day. The deer are hungry.

Constrained to the house more than usual, my dogs watch out the windows and let me know when more deer appear. I have become vigilant, doing a complete scan all around the house before anyone goes out even for a quick pee or to run the ten yards or so to the fenced dog run. Still, a couple of times when I thought there were no deer, we stepped outside to see a whirl of white tails. Thank goodness, my dogs come when they are called, at least if I speak quickly before they are in full pursuit.

The deer seem to be getting stronger, but they don’t move away quickly even when human or car approaches. They stand and stare, as if to say, “Please, let us eat this nice grass. There is nothing for us in the woods.” It’s a little spooky, a little like living in a Far Side cartoon. It makes me feel as if I should rush from car to house and lock the door, lest I hear the sound of hooves on the front porch and see antlers framed in the front windows.

Meanwhile, the back window—one of only two on that north-facing side of the house—has broken. No trees nearby, no falling snow or ice. I have to wonder if a bird flew into it with enough force to crack the glass. And from the front windows, I just saw a flash of black and white fur. Skunks back in the barn. Nature is on the move. It must be spring.



Don't jump

2008-11-03T16:46:49.943-08:00

From a family member:A protester's sign in front of the New York Stock Exchange: "Jump you fuckers!" with the comment "I try not to forward things, but I just had to send this. Points for creativity and brevity of message."My response: Zero points for forgetting that your sister worked across the street from the New York Stock Exchange for seventeen years. It's fun to demonize someone else, isn't it? But the majority of people who work in financial services in New York are just regular folks, trying to cover their bills. Think folks like Doug and Carrie in The King of Queens--that's what most people who work in financial services are like. Then there is a layer of professionals very like me...in fact I was one of them. The financial industry expands and contracts much more than other industries. I haven't seen the job loss numbers in a few weeks, but I seem to recall losses of over 170,000 jobs in the last survey I saw. That's not just in banks, investment banks and insurance companies--it also affects cab drivers, coffee shops, hair salons.I can tell you from personal experience in 1998 when I was laid off the first time that it is a double hit when these waves of job reductions occur. Not only do you not have your old paycheck, but there are very few jobs to compete for. And the bills keep coming. Not surprisingly, there were a few people who jumped. One woman I knew jumped under a subway car. I know you didn't intend to offend me, and you didn't. But I do find these flip responses annoying. There is plenty of blame to go around for this crisis, and plenty of pain as well. Was there greed on Wall Street? Yes. But if you rounded up the people who were driven solely by greed, I believe you would be able to fit them in the average small town high school gymnasium. Add the ones who simply did not understand the complexities of the financial instruments they were selling, and then you need a much bigger venue. But that is the nature of the financial industry. Do you think that the people who sell variable annuities with guaranteed income streams really completely understand the embedded risks? Very few do. We have to rely on regulators to bullet-proof the products that are sold, and regulation tends to focus on the general public, not on the supposedly sophisticated investors that bought mortgage backed securities. Regulators failed us in the years since mortgage requirements were relaxed. And individuals who took out mortgages that they couldn't afford deserve blame as well. Plenty of blame to go around. Personally, I have lost about 40% of my retirement savings if you measure it today. But I have great confidence in the US financial system to rebound. I was on Wall Street (literally, in an office overlooking the New York Stock Exchange) in 1987 when the market crashed. And I was there on 9/11/01. We really thought the world was ending then. This crisis does not feel anywhere near as bad as that--we were unsure whether the markets or the city itself would survive the attack. An attorney I worked with briefly appeared on the front page of the New York Post head down on his way out of an upper floor window of the World Trade Center. Another jumper. From one of our recent newsletters, here are a few other downturns for your consideration:October 1973: Arab Oil Embargo launced a financial crisis, time to market improvement was 12 months October 1974: Franklin National bank collapse (bankruptcy), time to market improvement was 2 months May 1984: Continental Illinois bankruptc[...]



Sunshine at my back

2008-08-19T17:39:01.039-07:00

Recovery of a window in my dining room has had more impact than I ever could have expected. The light is different throughout the entire ground floor, all four rooms in this simple and traditional Vermont farmhouse.

As I sit in my new most favorite place, I can see out windows in all four directions. First, I imagine eyes in the back of my head, looking across the porch to the dawn. To my left are two majestic maple trees and a wide expanse of pasture, the old dairy barn in the foreground. Ahead, I glimpse the crabapple, which seems to bloom only one year in three, periodic victim to harsh Vermont winters. Beyond the crabapple, the forsythia, even more sensitive, and beyond that, the valley stretches down to the village. To my right, perhaps the most fraught, a single small window looks to the maple grove and the northern wind. Vermont farmers knew how to build, windows few and small to the north, many and expansive to the south.

I could sit in this spot for years, analyzing portfolios and answering correspondence. Puppies at my feet. A pot of tea at the ready. Taking breaks to run to the raspberry patch or the vegetable garden. Perhaps I’ll get a chicken or a few.

The downside of my new profession is that I must, must, must make calls to people I know little or not at all. If the payoff is sitting with the sun at my back and German Shepherds on my feet, I’ll hit that bid all day long.



German Shepherds on my feet

2008-08-18T06:18:38.227-07:00

As I spend more time working from home, my contentment in this house grows. I find myself tweaking furniture placement, finishing up construction projects, opening the curtains wider to better enjoy the views. To the east and south, the Nebraskas lie beyond wide vistas of pasture, forest and valley. Out back, old Mr. Trombley’s prized maple grove still stands. The trees are enormous and very old. Nobody taps them now, and every now and then one falls. Except for half a dozen, they stand on my neighbor’s land, and none is near enough to threaten my cozy nest. There is only one window to the back, not a very large one, the winds of winter coming from that direction, but I can see the maple grove from here.

My dining room, where I now sit and type, is all new since yesterday, the culmination of a project to remove a clumsily placed closet and put in its place my large breakfront cabinet, formerly in front of a window. There are now three windows in this room, and the entry way is more graceful. From the porch, you have a welcoming view right into the dining room, or at least it is welcoming to those already acquainted with my two German Shepherds. And from the dining room, you can see out to the porch, orange and gold nasturtiums perched all around the rail. Sunrise happens through this window, and before today I had never seen it save from the porch.

I’m working through what it means to work from home. Do I have my office-office and my home-office in the same space? Will I really allow clients into my home? Do I try to create an upstairs space that is psychically extra-personal? How do I feel about cluttering the dining room with laptop and files? All of these are good and intriguing questions. In the winter, this room with its three windows, two interior doors and one exterior door may be chilly, but right now I sit with the dawn at my back, views to the outdoors on every side, and toasty German Shepherds on my feet.



August morning

2008-08-07T14:37:18.000-07:00

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On Sunday, my friend shook his head sadly. He travels throughout the region, and already he was seeing leaves—just a few—changing on the trees at elevation. Surely, I rejoined, it must be only stressed trees. We were only a few days into August. And we scarcely feel we have had a summer, so much rain have we had this year.

Ten inches one week. The farmers despair of their hay. Children are whining, and so are adults. We are missing the opportunity to soak our bones in intense summer sunshine, to pack away remembrance of warmth during the proverbial two weeks of Vermont summer. We specially need warmth now, as we face winter with unprecedented fuel prices.

Today as I walked to my car, I could no longer deny the signs. Not one colored leaf, but many. True, I don’t see them in the branches yet, but all over the front lawn lies confetti of red and gold. August 7. Usually, we get another week or even two before a certain chill turns the air, and we know. Winter is on the way.

Life will speed up now. There are kids to get ready for school, insulation to wrap around pipes, wood to stack, vegetables to freeze. Once we see those first leaves and feel that first chill, it’s time to get busy.



Counting blessings

2008-08-04T17:43:38.838-07:00

Much to my surprise, the evening news played “Happy Birthday.” After a moment’s surprise that my quiet celebration had national coverage, I realized that Barack Obama shares my birthday.

In accordance with long-standing tradition, I took the day off. I believe my birthday should be a holiday. After many years of more success than error, I am careful what I choose to do with the day. The most memorable birthdays are the least planned, but the most carefully engaged. My birthday is a day when I am likely to get in the car, head for the bottom of the driveway and only then decide which way to turn. Sometimes I get promises for my birthday; I still owe myself a kayaking lesson from last year. And one day I will collect.

Today we started with a good, long swim in the Little River. The dogs splashed, swam and attempted to herd several Golden Retrievers and one prim, immaculate little pit bull girl. It was raining, sure, but after rain every single day in July—ten inches last week—we couldn’t wait any longer for swimming. Last year we went swimming twice a day.

A nice lunch, a glass of wine, a nap, and a trip to the raspberry patch took up most of the afternoon. A few household chores. I may be almost to the end of the laundry backlog. A thought of cutting some grass in the afternoon, but the mower refused, and I took it as a sign. A good book. A short walk down to see Cassie’s best friend. Most of all, a staunch refusal to think about messy details of life and work. Today is not a day for worry but a day to savor all my blessings.

Dinner over, I stepped out to consider the pile of wood that still needs to be thrown into the cellar. The work is soothing, even meditative, but I am careful not to overdo. I threw a few logs down cellar, then stood still for a moment, enjoying the rainbow over Mount Elmore.

Across from my house are two spots rainbows are almost certain to occur after a bit of rain and the sidewise slant of Vermont light. Sometimes the two are connected by one gigantic bow, often double, even triple rows of color. They are stunning, gorgeous, predictable, yet wholly a gift, just perfect for a watchful birthday girl counting her blessings.



Stacking wood

2008-08-02T04:50:36.773-07:00

The decision to purchase more wood is easy. Finding a seller is easy. Then starts the hard work of getting the wood in.

Over the last two years, mostly last year as my confidence in the wood furnace improved, I burned almost two cords of wood, primarily on weekends. Circumstances have altered, and I now expect to be working locally two to three days a week, so I can burn more wood. Certainly economics would suggest more wood and less oil. So I ordered six cords.

Mind you, it took me months to get the last wood into the cellar. The delivered pile was just slightly downhill from the wood chute, requiring an intimate relationship with the wheel barrow. Load, move, drop into cellar, move, stack.

This year’s deliveries are a little closer, and the outside work is easier. Still, it’s drop, move, stack. Then do it again. And again. Great exercise—aerobics and weight lifting all in one. And the work is highly, highly meditative. Just what I need as long as I’m careful not to overstrain my fifty-ish un-athletic back and knees.

My professional changes are much the same. It’s easy to make the decision to go from a marketing role to a sales and business advisory role. It’s easy to make lists of people to call, and I have a strong enough network of past relationships that many people will do me the courtesy of seeing me. Just like it’s easy to order the wood. The challenge will be to see if I can keep doing the daily lifting.

By the time winter closes in, I should have some idea if I can stay the course. Sure hope my wood is in by then.