Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Being thankful

As I write this, a half-dozen men are ripping up our front yard, removing the turf and attempting to level out the damp clay-based soil.

Theoretically, someone will deliver sod and someone--these men or others--will install it before the end of the day, though it's already mid-afternoon. All of this was to be done weeks ago, but then the rains came, for days on end, and the people at Rainbow Lawn Care said the sod farm told them it was too wet to cut the sod. So the schedule would change, and we'd say okay, and then it would rain again.

One last day-lily
The complication now is cold weather. If the sod doesn't get installed today, the ground may freeze. Even if it does, we have to water it for a week or more, and with our cold nights our hoses may freeze. And you know what? It's out of my control. It will happen or it won't. The guys are working hard, it's still daylight, it might all come together. If not, it will happen another day, maybe in the spring.

And for that I am thankful! Our lawn looked sort of okay (the crew needed reassurance that indeed we did want the current stuff torn up). But the whole thing was very bumpy. It was increasingly difficult to maneuver a lawn mower around without it nosing down into a crevice or hanging itself up on a bump. And the creeping Charlie and other nasty stuff had taken over. Rather than apply a lot of weed killer, we decided to start over.

The last rose of autumn
We've lived in this house 25 years. We did a lot of yard work when we first moved in, and then gradually for another 10 or 15 years. Lately, we've been coasting. And when we looked around, we saw that trees needed to be trimmed (done), the lawn needed a makeover (underway), and we'd really like a new garage and a back porch (planning underway for both).

We see it as an investment in our own happiness, our own well-being. The fact that we're able to do this gives me a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving. We are fortunate indeed.

For what are you giving thanks this year?

Update 1: 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving, 30 degrees F, windy, and snowing, and the crew arrives with sod, which they install by 10. They worked well past dark last night, leaving about 7 p.m . 

Update 2: I should add that having the yard done is just icing on the cake; I'm truly thankful for my family above all. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why grandparents love Halloween

Two months ago I started making a princess dress for ViMae. She wanted to wear it to the Renaissance Festival first, which gave me about three weeks, and then for Halloween. No problem, I thought.

She chose a pattern and then picked out fabric and trims for the dress and its lacy cape. The girl has a wonderful sense of color, and while she might mix jarring tones in an art project, everything about the dress had to harmonize. The big surprise: instead of pink, she wanted blue. It occurred to her that people would think she was dressing as Elsa, from Disney's magahit Frozen, and she didn't want to be just one of many. So she decided to be Assassin Elsa, stashing a dagger in her boot and threatening to stab anyone who doubted her evil intentions. (You may recall that last year she was Bellatrix Lestrange, the most evil female villain in the Harry Potter series.)

Everything was coming along fine until my sewing machine acted up. It was skipping stitches and breaking needles, and eventually I learned it couldn't be repaired. So work came to a halt while I did some research and bought a new machine. (I switched brands in the process--the trauma was roughly equivalent to renouncing my birth family and going over to the Dark Side.) Anyway, I finished the dress one day before Halloween, and ViMae loves it. Now she is excited that the waiting is over; she can wear it any time, for any occasion. 

Augie dressed as a Berserker, a medieval Viking warrior named for the bear pelts they often wore. Now celebrated in video games and comic book art, the Berserkers worked themselves into trancelike states in which they felt no pain until the battle was over. Berserkers were undisciplined enough that Augie's collection of warrior gear--none made specifically for that period--made up a great costume.

Augie's outfit involved lots of teamwork. He made his shield and axe at Cardboard Camp some weeks ago. Grandma Anita had made him a warrior jumpsuit with flying gold epaulets, designed to his specifications. And Peter had just recently made a helmet called a morion, which in fact is Spanish in origin. We found a fur vest at Once Upon a Child, which suggested the bear pelt, and boots completed the look. Voila--a Berserker. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

TBT: Augie plays Pinetop Boogie

This first appeared in September 2009.

When Augie was just over a year old, he'd come in the door and head for the den, saying "Dah-Nn." Doctor John. The DVD is "Dr. John Teaches You to Play New Orleans Piano," and Augie's immediate favorite was "Pinetop Boogie." While I struggled to learn fingering, he absorbed the music, heart and soul. Here's evidence.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

An October getaway

Peter and I took a two-day holiday this past week to enjoy fall color and continue celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. It was, in a word, wonderful. Romantic, in fact.

The weather has been so warm that our leaves are weeks behind their usual schedule, so we headed north and east to the St. Croix River valley where we figured things would be a little further advanced. The birches were glorious tiny points of gold, and the sumac was deep red, and here and there a hardwood was turning red as well. Much of this was contrasted against deep green, and it was lovely. The sun hid behind the clouds both days, but there was beauty everywhere. The photos you see here were taken at Interstate Park at Taylor's Falls, Minn., notable for its scenery including glacial potholes; I've described it before.

We spent the night at the historic Lowell Inn in Stillwater, Minn., once an area favorite and still comfortable despite its age. I try to book a suite when we travel, because Peter needs a place to hang out while he is up half the night. In this case I took the Honeymoon Suite, which also has a Jacuzzi. So in keeping with their historic approach (and probably the limits of the wiring) the suite has no coffee maker and no fridge, but television, free WiFi, and a giant tub in the living room. Frankly, I suspect they should promote it as the Anniversary Suite, because it seems that most of their guests are silver-haired folks like ourselves. On a quiet Thursday night, the dining room hosted only three couples, all celebrating anniversaries.

The hotel's special dining attraction is a multi-course fondue dinner, which was as good as we remembered from decades ago, except that now we know our limits and didn't overdo. The cheese fondue, served with marinated vegetables and several kinds of bread, was accompanied by a wonderful Riesling. In hot oil we cooked shrimp, duck, and steak, all accompanied by an Austrian white and an Italian red that were a little more dry and heavy than we like (we'll never be wine aficionados). The grapes and berries course served as our dessert, and we skipped the chocolate fondue. I've always enjoyed the process of the fondue dinner, and it's even better when you're not the one who has to clean up and deal with the hot oil and messy cheese pot. 

Our drive took us through some delightful small towns including Marine-on-St.-Croix and Taylor's Falls, Minnesota, and Osceola, Wisconsin, all with charming gift shops, antique stores, garden shops, and, oh yes, candy stores. We managed not to buy much, since as Peter reminds me we're in the "de-acquisitioning phase." It's enough to collect experiences, memories, and the occasional photograph. In the process, we celebrated our life together and breathed new oxygen into it. Looking forward to many more years together.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

30 years of adventure and teamwork

Our wedding, 9/27/85
Peter and I are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary. The actual date is September 27, but our observance will extend through our annual mid-October meander into the countryside to enjoy fall color.

I was 42 and not looking to get married when I met Peter at a business meeting. I thought I was happy and fulfilled. But he showed me what it could be like to be loved, and we were married less than six months after we met.

We've grown and changed a lot since then. We learned we could be a great team; our individual talents and perspectives complement one another and we can accomplish a lot when we decide to work for something we believe in. He's helped me take more risks and speak up; I've helped him be a little less the aggressive New-Yorker-in-a-china-shop. He is, by the way, a much more nurturing person than I know how to be.

When we were first discussing marriage, Peter said the secret of our happiness would be the small quiet moments--if we took time to appreciate them. At our ages, he said, we were unlikely to set off on new adventures. He was right about the moments, but wrong about adventure. We've undertaken three life-changing projects together. 

Cafesjian's Carousel
Three years into our marriage, we led a very public effort to rescue a beautiful historic carousel. Through a nonprofit organization we founded for this purpose, we steered the carousel through several threats to its existence, moved it twice, did a museum-quality restoration on its 68 horses, and now operate it as Cafesjian's Carousel in Saint Paul's Como Park. We secured millions of dollars in support, recruited more than 1,000 volunteers, and proved that you can fight City Hall--and win. (We tell the whole improbable story in a book we published last summer.)

This year we have begun working to replace ourselves with new leaders, a transition that is not easy. The carousel has been a full-time preoccupation for 27 of our 30 years together, and it forged our relationship. Together, the team of "Peter-and-Nancy" has often been far bolder, more entrepreneurial, and more wildly successful than either of us could have been--or even imagined--alone. It's hard to let go of that role. On the other hand, we feel a responsibility to pass along what we know to those who will carry the work forward. Besides, we are tired and it's time to move on.

Meanwhile we've been season ticket holders for Saint Paul Saints minor-league baseball since 1993, and for years we really threw ourselves into it. We attended nearly every home game, tailgating before each game and forming good friendships with players, coaches, staff, players' families, vendors, and other fans. Saints games became our social life until changes broke up the community we had enjoyed. This summer, the team moved to a new downtown stadium that is difficult to access for those of us with bad knees. Instead of attending 45 or 50 games, we made about 15 this year, and we're already thinking it will be fewer next year. Gradually and sadly we are giving up a beloved activity that was another big part of our shared identity.

Legos--a favorite family activity
Our most fulfilling role, of course, is helping care for our two much-loved grandchildren. Peter was a devoted father to his daughter Abby, and he knew he wanted to provide regular daycare for her children while she and Eric worked (both are teachers.) The moment Augie was born, I wanted to be part of his life as well. Gradually I cut back my working hours and when I was able to retire we became Peter-and-Nancy the fulltime grandparent team. These days Augie and ViMae are in grades 2 and 3; we have them for about 90 minutes before dropping them at school each day, we pick them up some days, and we enjoy frequent play dates. They will need less from us as they grow up, but this is a role from which we never want to retire.

As we move forward, Peter and I need to find new ways to spend time together, to foster our relationship and to replace activities and identities that shaped our first 30 years together. For starters, we are planning a back porch where we can sit together on long Minnesota evenings and admire the garden, listen to music, maybe even listen to a baseball game. Our grandchildren and their parents are welcome to join us any time.

I am content. I have enjoyed being with this man who once promised to "throw a monkey wrench into your well ordered life." He certainly did, and the results were surprising, challenging, sometimes perplexing, often amazing. Now, at the 30-year mark, we are negotiating some transitions. I am pretty sure that we are up to the challenge, and that the outcome will be worth the work.

I love you, Peter Boehm. I love being loved by you, and I love the life we have created together. I hope we have lots more wonderful moments together, and maybe even some rewarding but slightly less taxing adventures!  

P.S., The story of how we met begins here.   

P.P.S., This is posted to Grandma’

Thursday, September 10, 2015

TBT: Parents, milestones, hugs

My parents' anniversary was August 31, and their birthdays were September 4 and 7. Those days became a significant trinity early in my life, and that hasn't changed. Whatever else is going on at this time of year, I find Mom and Dad on my mind, gently reminding me of family, origins, and home.

Mom, in the dress she made
August 31 this year was the 75th anniversary of their wedding. When Mom was in her 60s, several of her friends celebrated their 40th anniversaries, and she seemed taken with this milestone--almost jealous, and certainly looking forward to getting there as well. She was diagnosed with colon cancer just after their 38th anniversary, so the 40th took on a new significance. But she died a week before, and when August 31 came, just after her funeral, my Dad and I couldn't even bring ourselves to speak of it. I hadn't really kept track of the years until my brother Allen noted that this was the 75th. They were a well matched pair, I think, and they both worked hard to give their six children a good start in life.

September 4 was an even bigger milestone, the 100th anniversary of my dad's birth. He died just five years ago, frankly amazed to have lived so long. His parents and sister had all died quite young, and he seemed to be aging quickly so he retired from work at age 62. He reached a point at which he had been retired for the same number of years (33) he had held his job! When Mom died just a couple of years after he retired, he married a long-time widow he met at a church spaghetti supper. She complicated our lives, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

September 7 was Mom's birthday, and had she lived she would be a feisty 99 this year. For many years Mom and Dad celebrated with a group of friends who also had early September birthdays. It occurs to me that of the 10 or 12 people who gathered (for lutefisk, lefse, and Swedish meatballs) just one is alive today, and she turned 104 on Saturday. She is still alert, happy, and loving, and she credits her longevity to her lifelong habit of walking long distances. I think good Italian genes might also have something to do with it.

Our families spent a lot of time together while I was growing up, and now this lady calls me periodically to catch up and to tell me she loves me, and my siblings. I didn't make it to her birthday party Saturday, but I will drive the hour or so to visit with her in the next few weeks. Her children and grandchildren treasure her and know how lucky they are to still have her with them. And just now I think another hug from her would be a perfect gift from home.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ten Years After…and Don’t Call it Katrina

Ten years ago, 80 percent of New Orleans--a city I love--was underwater. Most media covered it as an unavoidable catastrophe: the storm surge overpowered the levees, and who could possibly have expected this? So we thought it was a natural disaster, and we blamed the resulting devastation on Hurricane Katrina.

Television brought us heartbreaking images and stories—elderly residents abandoned to drown in a flooded-out nursing home, families making their way through foul waist-high water, thousands stranded on rooftops and bridges and in the Superdome and at the convention center, baking and some dying in the hot sun. (I've avoided using the most shocking images here.)

The story was still unfolding two days later when my husband Peter and I went to see New Orleans’ own Dr. John at a local jazz club. We had seen him several times before, but this time he was heartbroken, and angry. He was still trying to locate friends amid the chaos. And he was giving interviews with a message: Don’t blame Katrina, blame the people who knew for years that the levees were falling apart. The Army Corps of Engineers and the city’s own government knew that the levees couldn’t hold against a truly strong storm, and they let it happen. Dr. John performed a brand-new song about lies and betrayal, and eventually he produced an album full of protest songs,“City that Care Forgot.”

Thousands of homes were uninhabitable because of water damage, toxic mold, and lack of utilities. We heard that FEMA would bring in emergency trailers. There was a supply of trailers available nearby—in Mississippi, as I recall. They were locally built, so if FEMA used them and ordered more, they would be boosting a regional economy also disrupted by hurricane damage. Instead, FEMA held out for trailers that would be built in Alaska and transported to Louisiana. When I heard that, it dawned on me: They are stalling so their friends can get into position to profit from this. Just as Halliburton got excessive no-bid contracts in Iraq, a fleet of out-of-town contractors would profit from exceedingly favorable treatment in the cleanup and redevelopment of New Orleans.

Years passed before the stories came out about how greed and corruption did, in fact, prolong the suffering of people trying to recover from the storm, especially the poor and non-white. Rebuilding the poorest and most damaged parts of town took a back seat as developers, investors, and government officials focused instead on more profitable business and tourism projects. City officials pocketed payoffs and traded favors; former Mayor Ray Nagin was sent to prison. Tens of thousands of residents who had fled the city did not return, largely because they no longer had jobs or places to live. In the process, the city lost a perceptible share of its distinctive multiethnic culture.

Peter and I had visited N’Awlins three or four times before the flood. He fondly recalls a locally born cabby who briefed him on his first visit, including where to go, what to eat, and to be sure to order your drink in a go-cup so you can take it out on the street. When we took an interest in crawfish etouffe, wait staff at every restaurant could explain the recipe and technique that made theirs unique.

When we visited this past April, our cab drivers were seldom New Orleans natives; during Easter Week a nice young man from Jordan asked whether we could explain the Good Friday tradition. The wait staff at one Cajun-Creole restaurant was entirely Latino and at another entirely southeast Asian, seemingly imported from elsewhere when a restaurant reopened or changed hands. They provided competent service, but they didn’t know beans about rice and beans. Something similar must have happened in the kitchens; traditional New Orleans food was simply not quite as rich and tasty as it should have been. The problem is not the addition of new ethnicities; it is the decreased presence of those who, like generations before them, shaped the remarkable culture unique to New Orleans.

Of all the expressions of New Orleans culture, music seems to have survived best. Some of the city’s most successful musicians (the Marsalis family, Harry Conick Jr., Dr. John and others) banded together to support the many musicians who were wiped out, and often forced to flee, by the flood. They raised money, built a musician’s village through Habitat for Humanity, established a music school for city children, and kept on playing. New Orleans music is not just an art form, not just a tourist attraction, it is vital part of life. The spirit of second-line parades and “Indian” parades, together with New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco, and the rest, give a sense of the culture and strength that brought the city’s people through the flood and its aftermath.

In case you’re interested, a remarkable HBO series called Treme gives a fascinating picture of post-flood life in New Orleans. Well researched, well written, and cast with wonderful actors, it humanizes the issues and spotlights the city’s music with live performances from a wide range of the best musicians. It’s available on Blu-Ray. I can promise that watching it will be much more fascinating, enlightening, surprising, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring than the feel-good ten-years-after pieces we’ve been seeing in the media the past couple of weeks.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

TBT: Being thankful for every day

This first appeared August 26, 2009; it was my third-ever blog post. 

Today's Cryptogram was "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year." It's Ralph Waldo Emerson (not LL Cool J, who apparently posted it on his web site recently).

Just yesterday I was thinking about the fact that being grateful for each new day is one of the better pieces of self-help advice I ever got. Habitually making the conscious choice to appreciate what you've got changes your approach to the day. I notice it in my responses when greeted with "How are you?" Old responses: tired, overworked, hate the weather, I have this ache.... New responses, at least some of the time: great, love this sunshine, too busy but glad to have a job in this economy, and of course the newly popular, having the time of my life being a grandma.

That single change makes things go better, and it's a bit of a gift to others, too, since negative energy sucks the life out of everyone around. Being open--loving life, things, people--makes us grow existentially; we expand to incorporate in our being that which we love.

I was thinking about these things last night while I couldn't sleep (which made today's Cryptogram a timely surprise). I started thinking about the prayer we were taught to say as children: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." My mother assured me that I was asking God to watch over me, but it sure seemed that I was inviting someone to snatch my soul in the middle of the night. What a creepy thing to teach a child. What did we learn from this recitation, except fear? How did it teach us to be good little people?

So at 2 or 3 a.m. I asked myself, "What prayer would I teach a child, if I were going to do such a thing?" I decided it would be something like, "I give thanks for this new day; please help me use it well." And later in the day, "Thanks for all the good things that happened today." And then we'd talk about good and not-so-good things from the day that offer teachable moments.

When Peter woke up too, I mentioned this, and we agreed that these are messages Augie and Vi are already getting. Mommy Abby is effusive and animated about pretty much everything they do and see in the course of a day, and any little gift or kindness that someone extends. They can't possibly just take things for granted when she is so relentlessly appreciative. I talk to Augie about this beautiful day, the beautiful garden, the wonderful sunny day... and now we hear him express his own appreciation of beauty...that's a beautiful cat, look at all the beautiful flowers, etc. And we all celebrate the kids' achievements, letting them know how clever, funny. strong, talented, beautiful, kind, and loving they are.

I sometimes have wondered whether we confuse the quest for happiness with spiritual growth. But I have no doubt that these life-affirming, positive, confidence-building messages are totally superior to anything I got from the Catholic Church of my youth. When happiness is based on authentic appreciation of what one has and is and does, it will produce children (and grownups) who are far more fully developed individuals, in pretty much every dimension, than we ever were. As for me, in my new-found blissed-out state, I am a better person than I have been for a long time!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Facing the world through Facebook

I spend lots of time on Facebook these days. Too much, in fact. And it's not because I'm sharing the latest grandkid story or seeing friends' vacation photos, although those things do happen.

No, the extra time is because Facebook has become a source of information on endless topics, served up based on what you've already shown to be your interests. Some is from shaky sources (it's the internet, after all) but some is from news-gathering and news-reporting organizations with pretty solid fact-checking credentials.

So if a friend shares a link to a video in which scientists are literally watching part of an iceberg collapse into the ocean, and if I click "like" after reading it, Facebook will see that my newsfeed includes more stories about global climate change. Several friends share the latest quotes from Bernie Sanders, who has regularly opposed the way billionaire businessmen and corporations have bought influence with Congress at the expense of the middle class. Now when one of those quotes comes my way, Facebook also aggregates a handful of related stories, whether it's about regulating Wall Street or protecting health care or shifting our national priorities away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner, renewable energy. And because I'm interested in all those things (and more), I read them, perhaps "like" them, and voila! I receive more of them.

This is not the only way my newsfeed fills up. One friend loves animals and every day sends a dozen items about endangered species living in protected habitats. She also sends a dozen cartoons. Some are genuinely funny, but to find out which ones, I'd have to read them all. Other friends send inspirational messages, stunning photos of exotic places, or political commentary from the left or the right. These are not their own writing or photos, they are simply passing along things they like. And I compound the traffic flow, because periodically I "like" a message that resonates, or a political cartoon that nails an event or situation in what strikes me as a very clever and insightful way. When I "like" something, my Facebook friends get the same message, and a line saying that I liked this. 

I can put an end to some of this traffic. I can tell Facebook that I no longer wish to see Minion cartoons, for example, or posts from other specific sources. I can even say I don't want to see posts from certain friends, and they'll never know. (In fact, I can continue to see a little preview of everything they have posted, just in case I want to check in sometimes.) So I'm about to regulate some of the volume.

But there's another aspect to all of this. I'm getting more and more information that documents ways in which we are losing natural resources that we need to survive as a species. Ways that our democracy is not living up to its promises. Ways that products we use every day--including food--are introducing poisons into our systems. Ways that progressives and conservatives misunderstand each other at the expense of social interaction and our governance. You get the idea.

We all have perspectives on these issues. A few of my blog friends write about them often, but most of us have chosen to focus on other things--daily life, families, books, aging, sometimes even religion. Anything but "politics." But I've been drawn to those social and political issues on Facebook.

Mostly, I read about them. My Facebook friends and I occasionally write a paragraph as an into to a link we are passing along, but we're not really having discussions there. It isn't a medium that encourages an individual user to write a thoughtful piece...blogging is better for that.

So I'm trying to decide whether to write a few pieces about my most pressing issues, and if so whether to post them here or open a new blog with a new name...because when I look at these issues I'm not exactly blissed out.

Friday, July 31, 2015


I have clothing and fabric strewn about my office, on our dining-room table, and on the floor outside a couple of closets I've been sorting through. The process of de-cluttering, it turns out, creates a lot of clutter while it's underway. 

Quilt project and sparkly stuff
It takes a lot of energy, too. I find myself evaluating items that represent, literally and figuratively, the threads of my life. Should it go? Should it stay? These decisions can be complicated. The secret, I think, is in the timing. Am I ready to let go of this? Am I ready to stop being the person who needed this outfit? Can I see myself getting along without so many bins of fabric and craft supplies? Or, at least, with less of these particular supplies? (There is definitely a voice in my head that says, "If you get rid of this stuff you'll have more room for that other stuff you've been wanting.")

Sometimes an item represents a dream. For example, I came across a pink pinwale playsuit I began to make for ViMae seven years ago, when she was a few months old. The fabric was cute but too heavy for ruffles, and before I'd finished it she was growing so fast I knew she'd never get to wear it. I couldn't throw it away--I had long dreamed of sewing darling clothes for adorable children. But by now, I have sewn other things for both grandkids, and I have also discovered the joys of buying wonderful like-new dresses at Once Upon a Child. Realizing that my dream is intact and even improved, I am finally ready to throw away that unfinished project along with other hapless bits and pieces. Bonus: In the process I uncovered more fabric that the kids have decided will be perfect for some brand-new projects.

Then, of course, there's the matter of an entire work wardrobe--two, really, because summer and winter demand different clothing options here in Minnesota. I'd stopped wearing dresses for work long ago in favor of dressy pants and jackets or sweaters. To my way of thinking, I had maybe five pairs of pants for winter and five for summer. My closets, however, say there were more. And I had them in three different sizes. For a couple of years in my 40s, I wore braces on my teeth. Lost 25 pounds because I wouldn't eat in public. I did give away some of those clothes years ago, but I realized I was keeping a few "in case I ever get cancer and lose a lot of weight." I guess that idea stuck with me because my mother got cancer at 60 and did lose a lot of weight, and shopping for new clothes while you know you are dying is not that much fun. But I'm finally ready to risk it. Those size 8s and 10s are gone.

So are a lot of other clothes that don't fit, probably never will, and perhaps never did. Also gone: things that never were really comfortable, or didn't flatter, or that I just don't like.

Or that I no longer "need." Apparently when I was working I needed eight black long-sleeved t-shirts, differing only in length and in the shape of the scoop necks. Plus eight or ten in other colors. (I wore them, instead of blouses, with suits and jackets.) I can say with confidence that I don't need so many now.

Future pillow cover and more sparkles
The same is true with all the pants, both dressy and casual, that I'd accumulated in an array of classic colors: black, brown, navy, and, of course, tan, beige, taupe, sand, stone, khaki, and other synonyms for, um, tan. Tried them all on, found some in the back of the spare closet that fit better than ones I've been wearing, kept only the favorites. In another closet I found four pairs of pants I'd put in a bin to be hemmed. Kept two, tossed two.

Today we are taking three huge bags full of clothes to Goodwill (along with household items we've recruited for the trip). This will make room to continue the weeding process, which will eventually include books, collectibles, you-name-it. And I plan to revisit my closets in six months or so, because I know I'll be ready to shed some additional stuff.

Cleaning out my closets, and then decluttering in general, was going to be my first post-retirement project. It has taken four and a half years to get started. I think I feared the process; I thought I would have to summon brutal self-discipline to get rid of things that had been part of my life. You've heard, "If you haven't worn it in a year, it's gone." Well, no. Some things just have a longer shelf life than that. 

So I gave away everything I was sure of, including some special-occasion clothes and some of the t-shirts I've collected over the years, bearing logos of favorite causes and teams and places. But I kept things to which I felt attached. A very worn shirt bearing the logo of International Women's Year (1976), in which I participated, for example. And my 1991 World Champions sweatshirt with a few Twins' autographs. And I was already feeling okay about that when I heard about a new best-seller with a rather grand title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

I haven't read the book, but in interviews author Marie Kondo says that when you are torn about keeping or tossing an item, hold it, touch it, feel it. If it makes you happy, keep it. Amen to that.

How about you? Have you mastered the art of decluttering? Organizing? Shall we form a book club to study Ms. Kondo's advice?  Or have you found life-changing decluttering "magic" from another source? Do tell!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Stepping things up

Some days I get a reasonable amount of what I'll call exercise from my regular activities--gardening, mowing the lawn, tap dancing, whatever. Other days I sleep late, sit at the computer, read, watch television.

A couple of weeks ago I decided (again) that I need to be more deliberate about being active. Of course, I've known that forever and haven't changed my habits. So I bought a Fitbit to motivate and remind me. I bought a Charge HR, the model that tracks steps, heart rate, sleep, and stairs.

I began by letting it record my daily activities without making any special effort to step things up. In fact, the first day I wore it, I was so inactive that it thought I was sleeping all day. Then I had a few active days--walking through airports, volunteering at my dance studio's recital dress rehearsal, and the like--and without making any special effort I was logging 4-5,000 steps.

Yesterday was cold and rainy. I slept until noon, read all afternoon, and watched television in the evening. At dinner time I'd taken only 472 steps. Today, having walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner, I'm at 2,700. Now that I have a sense of what comes naturally, it's time to set specific daily goals. Most walking programs set a goal of 10,000 steps. I'm going to start somewhere lower than that and work up.

One step at a time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Peony time

I can't believe how long it's been, again, since I last wrote here. I have been over-thinking each potential topic and I just need to jump back into it.

So, with no further ado, here is a bouquet of peonies I cut yesterday. I had just returned from a five-day trip to Sacramento, where my nephew was married Saturday, and I was happy to see that the peonies had hung on long enough for me to enjoy them.

The wedding was great, by the way, and I'm very glad I went. More on that later! 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Immersed in music

I love to travel. Peter loves to be at home. I knew it would be a challenge to plan a trip he might actually enjoy, but I really craved some time in a warmer climate, so I gave it a try. And I succeeded.

We decided I'd find a place where we could settle in and become part of a neighborhood for a week. We agreed on New Orleans, a well-loved destination we had visited several times, but not since Hurricane Katrina. We'd see how the city had recovered, but mostly we'd concentrate on music and food.

On our balcony, overlooking Frenchmen Street
With music as a focus, it made sense to stay in the Faubourg Marigny, a district just beyond the French Quarter, where a three-block section of Frenchmen Street has become the place to enjoy jazz and blues. On, my go-to travel research site, I found housing choices ranging from elegant to slightly shabby, and then I hit gold: a rental apartment with big, airy rooms, 14-foot ceilings, and the most wonderful balcony overlooking the street. The second floor of an 1870s commercial building, it's been renovated to include a modern kitchen and bathroom, air conditioning (which we never needed), and lots of electrical outlets. It even has wifi, courtesy of the bicycle shop downstairs. The only downside: a flight of 28 stairs. Happily, Peter's knees cooperated and the stairs, while difficult, were not impossible.

Some people might see another downside. Frenchmen Street is much quieter than, say, Bourbon Street, but it is not quiet. There are at least seven music clubs just on the block where we stayed. We had Snug Harbor and dba on either side of us, and The Spotted Cat directly across the street. Spotted Cat brings on a new group every two hours between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. weekdays and from 2 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekends (which in New Orleans can stretch from Thursday through Monday). The way the club is set up, music sashays right out the front door and into the street...and directly into our home-away-from-home.

Some people who stay there use earplugs when they want to sleep. We just let the music wash over us. Hot jazz, cool jazz, funky jazz, Dixieland, blues--it became the soundtrack for our lives. We went to other venues, too, most notably Snug Harbor where we heard two especially fine concerts. Who could have known that Dick Hyman, whom Peter and I both remember from the 50s, can play jazz with such virtuosity at age 88? He appeared with a quartet headed by Evan Christopher, my new favorite clarinetist, and the entire show was an experience in perfection. Another night we heard a jazz band led by one of the Marsalis brothers. The room is tiny--the very definition of an intimate venue--and Snug Harbor audiences are attentive and respectful, as you want them to be when you've paid a handsome cover charge to hear some of the best in the business.

After the shows at Snug Harbor, we'd walk next door, climb the stairs, and once again sit on the balcony enjoying the scenery and the perfect weather. People up and down the street were having a good time. Those in The Spotted Cat were whooping, dancing, clapping, singing along--not only enjoying music but participating in it--and the energy was contagious.

We've been back several weeks now, and still when I hear any music at all, my ear homes in, eagerly paying attention to the interaction among instrumentalists. Also, I crave hearing live music--blues, jazz, rock, whatever--in small venues, something we haven't done much lately. I've begun to watch the listings in Saint Paul and Minneapolis so we can do more, without having to pack our suitcases. Meanwhile I'm listening to Evan Christopher on YouTube and am about to order a CD, or two or three. He's a wonderful performer and a great scholar of New Orleans jazz, which shows in his work. Hope you enjoy this sample.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On turning six-times-twelve

Wednesday was my 72nd birthday. It's tempting to complain about such a big number, and about the aches and pains and extra medical appointments that seem to be a part of aging. But mostly I can accept my ailments as minor annoyances, and when I'm on good behavior I can try to manage them with sensible things like fruits and vegetables, exercise, and sunscreen. I used to joke that aging is "better than the alternative." My 58-year-old brother's death in January makes me very aware that it's no joke. I'm grateful to be alive.

Birthday flowers
We extended the birthday celebration over several days, as usual. On Tuesday, Peter and I saw the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was not as good as its predecessor, but it was much better than the St. Paul Pioneer Press's review made it seem, and we enjoyed it even though we picked holes in the plot afterwards. Wednesday we had birthday treats with the grandkids (including special chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies from Abby), and all six of us went to Boca Chica, our favorite Mexican restaurant, for dinner. When we arrived the hostess asked whether we were "Peter and Nancy" and when we said yes she led us to a table with a large bouquet of flowers. This was very puzzling because we had not made a reservation! It turned out that our newly hired executive director at the carousel, who knew where we'd be, had sent them. I love that she did that, and that she is clearly a person who understands the value of "the grand gesture."

On Saturday Peter and I had lunch at our favorite special-occasion Italian restaurant, La Grolla on St. Paul's Selby Avenue. We arrived just after noon and for quite a while we were the only diners in a room designed to hold at least 40. We were glad to see the tables begin to fill later, because we'd hate to see the restaurant go out of business. As usual, we ordered enough food that we could just reheat the leftovers for dinner.

Birthday selfie
Spreading my birthday celebration over several days has a practical advantage. By the time the observances are over, I have grown accustomed to my new age. A couple of months ago, the idea of turning 72 sounded strange and harsh. Two weeks ago I still didn't like the sound of it. By now it's lost its strangeness. It's my age and I'm proud of it. And just for fun, here's a selfie I took on my birthday.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Being present in my own life

On December 31, I began a post about my resolution for 2015. But I was conflicted about it, so I waited. And waited.

A phrase took up residence in my brain: I want to inhabit my life more fully.

I may have seen this phrase in one of your posts; less busy-ness and more meaning have been big topics here and on Facebook, especially among women. I tried to put it into different words. I want to be more present in my own life. But the original phrase still speaks to me.

I love my life and all the opportunities it provides me. I'm not looking to change direction. But in the midst of winter doldrums, I felt as though my great life was going on without me. I was letting opportunities go by, spending time on escapes like computer games and sleeping a lot. My office was strewn with stuff that had accumulated for more than a year. My best energy was going into my continuing obligations to the carousel. Peter and the grandkids got a watered-down version of me. I got a watered-down version of me.

As the new year approached, part of me wanted to grab hold of my wandering attention and flagging energies by scheduling every day, assigning myself, say, an hour of housekeeping, 30 minutes of physical exercise, a few hours devoted to carousel responsibilities, and others to something new and fun.

But another part of me resisted. Life can't just be a series of tasks. What, I asked myself, is my most compelling priority? What single concept can provide focus and passion so that the daily activities will fall into place of their own accord? 

Just days into the new year I found that I could not have scheduled my life even if I'd tried. My youngest brother, David, had entered hospice care in mid-December, and January became all about finding the right days and times to visit, and about withdrawing into a cocoon after each visit to process what was happening. And then as I drove home one afternoon I began to experience terrible tooth pain. So now I was juggling pain and medications and dental visits, which were real enough for me but irrelevant and annoying as I strove to be present for my brother. At the end of January, he died. I will write much more about him another day, when I can focus just on him. But this post is about something I learned during the course of his final journey.

My time with David was rich and fulfilling, in large part because he was such a good, gentle, thoughtful person. But also because when I was there with him, I learned to be totally focused on him, totally present for him. As he grew weaker, his reality was right there in his room. Things we used to talk about--politics, the news of the day, stories from various parts of our lives--were no longer relevant. It had taken me a couple of visits to get the hang of it, but we both were in the moment.

Twice David told me about having night terrors, waking up with his heart pounding because he'd been fighting death. He said when he realized it was a dream there was a split second of relief, and then the realization that he really was dying. He had many good conversations with friends and family, but he never told anyone else about the dreams. I took that as a kind of gift, a sign that our visits were meaningful to him as they were to me.

After each visit I found myself exhausted. I think this was partly because I'm an introvert and partly because I was so sad. I would go off by myself to think back over everything we'd said, everything I'd learned, exactly how my brother had changed since the last visit. I had to take it all in, think about it, feel it, process it.

And one day I realized that I was doing just what I needed to do, and just what I had (sort of) resolved to do. I was present, in the moment, with a person I loved and who was my top priority right then. I was paying attention to him, and also to myself, to my responses. For the past couple of months, just when I'd thought I should get busy and get more things done, I have understood my limits and fed my need to be quiet and listen.

So that's my intention, not just for 2015 but for life. I will focus on inhabiting, or being present in, my own life. I want to be more aware, more in the moment, with the people I care about. I want to spend my time doing things that matter to me. I want to make use of the riches all around me, and that includes husband, family, friends, blogging, tap dancing, and so much more. And yes, it also includes napping from time to time.


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