Monday, September 3, 2018

Thoughts on Retirement

(Not me)
At age 55, I was laid off from the job I had intended to keep until I retired.  My plan was in place: I had two IRAs and a fixed-benefit retirement plan.  Enter the Great Recession and five years of unemployment and I had to spend my retirement savings to just live. So now that I am in my late 60s and actually retired, it is a much more constrained retirement than that for which I planned.

Still, every morning I can get up as I please.  I dress as I like.  I set my own daily goals.  My grandchildren will have many memories of me because I am with them a lot.  It is not what I planned but it is not bad.  My home is paid for, so all I must worry about are the taxes and maintenance.  Ditto for my car.  I get by.

What's more is that I finally have the time to do the things I have wanted to do all my life.  Last year I published a book.  This year I finished the genealogy of my father's family. I am teaching my grandkids how to think, how to write, and hopefully, how to put one foot in front of the other and just live. I have my own pottery studio and though a health problem interferes with my ability to use it often, I have kept it, and sometimes just sit there because it makes me happy to know that I finally mastered this craft I have loved all my life.

Retirement to me isn't traveling around, staying in hotels, or seeking adventure.  It is feeling my own life deeply, being at no one's beck and call, and accomplishing things I value.  Retirement is a kind of freedom - with an expiration date, I know, but still. So I do a little yoga, tend to my dogs, write a bit, maybe throw a pot or teach my granddaughter how to throw.  I shop when the stores are not busy and read at my leisure.  Life is good.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Breathe in

What does it take to be happy?  A new car? A new job? A new life?  I think most people go through life chasing happiness much the way a dog chases its own tail. That pursuit, in and of itself, runs contrary to actually achieving a state of happiness.

I think we err, not by wanting to be happy, but by not understanding what happiness really is. We mistake the high we experience when in certain circumstances, such as when we get a raise or a new toy, for happiness.  I would submit that indeed, those things make us happy, at least temporarily, but that feeling resides more in the object of our enhanced mood, rather than in ourselves.

Happiness is not so much a high as it is an intrinsic sense that all is well. I prefer to call this state contentment.  For it is the sense of dis-ease that disrupts us.  It is our own striving to always have more, to have better, to do more, to experience more that undercuts what we already have.  When one understands one's own riches now, that striving ceases, and one marvels at the world as it is, rather than as we would make it.

It is easy to be distracted from this contentment when the car breaks down, the child is ill, the house needs repair, or any such thing.  It is understandable that these things yank the comfy rug out from under us and leave us discontent.  However, when we address the situation and look around, we most often see that not all is lost and that indeed, the ground on which we stand is still firm. This attitude adjustment does not ignore what needs our attention.  It simply puts things in their place and gives us perspective.

It is easy to think that with enough money to fix your car, house, life, etc., you could easily be happy, and indeed, financial stress is a chief cause of unhappiness.  Studies have shown that a moderate income overcomes this, but a large income brings additional stress.  The trick, if there is one, is to understand what one actually has.  Focus on that, rather than on what is missing, and contentment grows.

We can chase our tails seeking happiness or we can simply be content with who we are, what we have and the opportunities that are ours.  Every life is filled with good and bad, loss and gain, meetings and leavings.  As we breathe, we have life.  As we live, we have much.  Keep breathing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought him back

About 25 years ago, I made a concerted effort to find out more about my family’s genealogy.  It was a frustrating search.  Not only was I up against old and far-flung records, but many in my family were ill informed at best, or downright devious. At the time, I thought I might find the ship that carried my maternal grandmother here around the turn of the last century but all I uncovered were more questions.

Me, with the next generation.  
Enter DNA testing and in a matter of weeks, I have filled in many blanks. I now know my father’s line goes back to colonial days in this country and originates in either Ireland or Scotland, not Germany as I was told as a child.  While a noted Civil War general I had been told was my great-grandfather, is not, I have many soldiers in my father’s line going back to the American Revolution. 

My mother’s line is still mysterious, due less to deflection than to distance and language.  Her parents immigrated here separately from Ukraine and no family lore or records exist – at least in this country.  I never did find the ship my grandmother took to come here.  According to my mother, she arrived in Baltimore, but according to immigration records she had to have come in through Ellis Island.  Such “mistakes” can derail a search and make one wonder why this simple fact was gotten wrong.

I have found hundreds of records about my father’s paternal and maternal lines and I have found dozens of distant cousins through my DNA test.  What I will probably never know is the why of all the misdirection.  So, I am doing my best to make it end with me.  I am compiling the records I have found and will make them available to any and all in my family. 

We all do things about which we are not proud.  But those things should not define our lives nor should they color our history with shame.  And they certainly should not confuse our children or their children into future generations.  Whether our beginnings are humble, like mine, with farmers, laborers, and soldiers, or illustrious, we should claim them so that we can see, not just from whence we came, but also how far we have come.

Some sites can track one’s DNA back to ancient civilizations.  Perhaps the most satisfying thing in my search so far has been that my DNA links me to two civilizations known for their pottery.  I have always believed that I had a genetic link to clay because even as a young child, I felt the pull to handle the earth and make vessels.  Long before I could define the word, “potter,” I identified as one and can still recall my excitement at seeing a short documentary on primitive pottery on our newly acquired TV in the mid-1950s. Other girls wanted ponies.  I wanted a potter’s wheel.

Sometime this fall, the sole relative I have discovered on my mother’s side will travel from his home in Russia to Ukraine to do genealogy research into his family.  He will take with him the little I know of my grandparents and try to find out more for me.  I hope he can find something but I suspect my grandparents were of so little importance, and the time was so chaotic, that few records will remain.  While I would love to know more, I feel quite satisfied with where my search has led me. 

The next time I travel to Florida to visit my sister-in-law, I will also meet a third cousin who lives nearby. My parents and siblings are all dead and I am unlikely to live to see another generation beyond my five grandchildren, but I am content knowing that I have finally found the facts – if not the full truth – about my father’s line.  My search led me to answers concerning the likely cause for the lack of reproductive success in my mother’s line.  I carry two mutations, one responsible for my grandson’s defect, and one responsible for neural tube defects, a common cause of spina bifida, and miscarriages.  Knowing this may cause my grandchildren to avoid the pitfalls to which their parents and grandparents were blind.

Some people have asked me why I wanted to know about “all this stuff.”  It doesn’t change anything for me, but it might have, had I known about it sooner.  I might have followed my earliest instincts to create pottery and become accomplished while still young.  I might have avoided giving one daughter spina bifida with the simple addition of the right supplement during my pregnancy.  I might have avoided my several miscarriages.  I might have gotten to know aunts and uncles and first cousins.  Who knows where it might have led? 

The bottom line is that I was curious and now I know.  And I’m glad I know. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

DNA - What does it matter?

Growing up I got used to hearing, "What does it matter?" from my mother when I would ask about my father's family.  He had used an alias for much of his adult life and I wanted to know why.  I wanted to know when they got married and why my brothers had a different last name.  I wanted to know but Dad died young and Mom wouldn't talk about it at all.

Dad with either my brother Jim or
Floyd. Why was this photo cut?
Was someone intentionally cut out?
In January, I spit into a tube and found out.

DNA has played a pivotal role in my life in the last three years, ever since a grandson was born with an extraordinarily rare genetic defect.  That led me to research the topic and write a book about it.  Things got a lot more personal when I turned the search toward my own DNA.

Through simple records searches, I and a few family members found some answers.  But Dad had intentionally obscured his family line, and when real names and dates are unavailable, it is much more difficult to search documents.  DNA changed all that.

After nearly seven decades of knowing next to nothing about my father's family, I have unearthed his line back into the 1700s, at least.  I have located a few not-so-distant cousins, but unfortunately, most of my aunts, uncles, and first cousins have all died.  I still have a few to track down, but I don't hold out much hope of finding them alive.

In the last year, this took on new urgency for me as I lost both my remaining brothers, my only siblings. I felt the press of time and have devoted more effort to this than may seem necessary to some.  At one point in recent years, I decided to just make up a narrative about my family as the truth was so elusive, but this is so much more satisfying.

I only knew my dad for seven years.  I knew him to be gentle but a stern taskmaster.  I knew he expected me and my brothers to toe the line, do things right, to not cut corners, to be honest, and live right. I now know that stemmed from his own early life of crime and deception, a fact he left out of his narratives. For while he tried to instill in us these virtues, he did so with lies and with subterfuge. Whether he did so out of shame or fear that telling us the truth would burden us with his sins, I will never know.  What I do know is that this cost me and my brothers a family we might have had.

Most of the death dates I have found on close relatives are within the last 30 years.  I might have met them.  I might have liked them.  They might have had stories to tell.  But it is too late now. I believe I may be the only person left who knew my dad, who cares.  And it still matters to me.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When the impossible happens

Over the years, I have adopted any number of strays, some for days, some weeks, and some, forever. These usually come with problems related to why they are strays in the first place.

Which brings me to Clark.  Clark is a 15-year-old lab/pit mix who arrived in my neighborhood full of spit and vinegar about 13-14 years ago.  He was so fast!  And so destructive.  He would tear up and down the street, rampaging through carefully tended gardens and delighting in finding newspapers on anyone’s front lawn.  These he would toss high into the air, shredding them into black and white confetti, before loping off to the next yard. That is when I named him Clark, after the newspaperman, Clark Kent. Animal control was hot on his heels and he didn’t care.  He was the fastest thing on the street. 

I knew he would eventually be captured and probably killed so I trapped him myself thinking surely, he would warm up to me, to my airconditioned home, to my other dogs, and settle into being a pet.  I was wrong.

Clark had and has a deep distrust of humans. It took me months just to pet him.  In all that time he never came inside. Instead, he claimed my large backyard as his domain, carved out a home for himself under my pottery studio, and made it his mission in life to keep the yard free of all vermin.  I picked up countless dead racoons, squirrels, rats, moles, even hapless cats.  I did not enjoy this carnage, but I did appreciate his work ethic. He also kept my yard free of human interlopers as he is a big dog, black as night, with an intimidating pitty head and a ferocious bark.

Over the years I have tried to tame him, to get him inside on blisteringly hot days, away from the flies, and on bitter cold days.  He would often come to the door, but would never walk through.  I always thought he wanted to but just could not bring himself to take the first step. All efforts to collar him and drag him inside only proved his superior strength and served to frighten him.

As age crept up on both of us, he could no longer make his hips cooperate to go under my studio and he took to sleeping exposed under the overhang of my studio.  He eschewed the magnificent dog house I got for him but would deign to lie upon a dog bed on the ground.  My worry for him finally grew so great I resorted to creativity to keep him warm.  Last winter, I cut the side out of the pack-n-play my grandchild no longer needed.  I padded it well on all sides and put his dog bed in it.  I stuffed insulation under it so no cold wind would find him that way.  He was highly suspicious of this device and dragged his bed out a time or two, but eventually wound up using it.  This winter I added a heavy blanket over the top to try to conserve his body heat.

Since then I have been going out each night with my mother’s old fur coat to cover him up and tuck him in.  I know he has liked that but still, I worried.  This bomb cyclone was sure to kill my aged dog.  As he stood, flummoxed at his frozen water bowl trying to drink, I nabbed him!  I pulled him into my back porch then forced him up the three steps into the house proper.  Though confused, he wandered around and finally lay down heaving a deep sigh by the fire.  That was four days ago, and finally, after all these years, I have gotten him to walk into the house on his own, sleep in my room (still on my mother’s coat) and let me tend to his cancerous leg. 

Yes, he is old, half blind, more or less deft, a little lame, incontinent, and probably in some pain from his leg but this is a happy dog.  He’s decided he loves hanging around with my other black lab, Elvis, even though Elvis can be a bit of a pill at times.  Yesterday when I let him out with Elvis and Sweetie, he raced with joy to the back fence, leaping a little and looking around. After a spin around his domain, he trooped back in like he’d been doing it for years.

Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I can't believe you said that!

The #MeToo movement has uncovered a lot of poor behavior, mostly by men and mostly aimed at women.  There is outrage on all sides, confusion on the part of some men, and an overwhelming sense of “finally!” on the part of most women.

Never one to avoid the fray, let me enter here.

I could list all the personal examples of sexual harassment I’ve endured but I doubt that would add anything to the conversation.  It is enough to say that I believe women when they say they have been groped, propositioned in the workplace or by strangers, intimidated by coworkers, bosses, or others in authority over them, or just raped.  I believe them.

I also believe that most men are just gob-smacked by all this. There are men who would never think of saying or doing anything inappropriate to any woman.  I know a few men like this.  There are probably an equal number of men who are simply gross, taking every opportunity to turn an ordinary remark into an innuendo, getting handsy, spewing “compliments” on strangers, and taking offense when such are not greeted well.  The majority of men fall somewhere in between. 

A woman who smiles brightly is not inviting men to bed.  A woman who passes pleasantries with you is not asking you to grope her.  If a woman is ignoring you, that’s a good sign that you should stop whatever you are doing and direct your attention elsewhere.  If a woman greets your off-color comment with silence, she does not need you to go into detail so that she “gets it.”  She needs you to stop. This goes for women you know as well as for strangers.  It’s not that hard, guys. 

We women are tired of being told how to avoid getting raped.  We are tired of being told by strange men to smile.  We are tired of up-skirting, chest-staring, stalking, and other tasteless behaviors by men with whom we associate.  We are tired of checking our hotel rooms for hidden cameras, and tired of being told how to dress.  It is exhausting, demeaning, dehumanizing, and we have had it!

By all means, tell your coworker she looks great.  But don’t ask if she’s had a boob job.  Ask if she has the report you worked on.  Smile at a stranger and then fix your attention elsewhere.  Don’t be a creep.  It’s not that hard.  And when I say “hard,” you know I mean difficult, so don’t turn it around to the status of your dick.  Not cool.

Women who don't warm up to your unwelcome shoulder rubs, demands to smile, suggestions on how they might dress so they look sexier, etc. are not humorless lesbians.  They are simply uninterested in you!  Shocking, I know. 

The bottom line here is this: just treat women with respect.  That's how real men behave.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Coat Conundrum

Nearly every woman I know has kept her wedding dress.  Not all have kept their husbands, but the dress is separate, existing as it does, skirting the line between fantasy and reality.  I even kept mine and it was just an eyelet lace dress, not a real wedding gown.  The point is, there are some garments one may certainly outgrow but which never quite make it to the Goodwill bin.

I have a laundry basket filled with such items.  There are favorite shirts, worn at their creases and faded; dresses my late mother sewed for me replete with tiny hand stitches I cannot just discard, and a couple of handmade quilts I earned during my time living in Vermont.  One item stands out. 

When my mother moved in with me in her very old age, she brought her old Borgana coat.  Borgana, or Borganza, as it is sometimes called, looks and feels rather like beaver fur but is a synthetic.  When I was 14 she bought me one and I did not appreciate it.  As a short person, the last thing I needed, especially at that age, was something that added width, subtracted visual height, and made me self-conscious. I accidentally ruined that coat by leaning up against a hot radiator.  Though Mom was angry, she did not replace it with another.  Instead, I got a pea coat, which was what I wanted in the first place.

When Mom died, 10 years ago this month, I got rid of all her clothing the next day.  That sounds unfeeling, but I knew if I kept them, they would only deepen my grief.  Later, I found her coat and could not part with it.  Every year since then I’ve debated what to do with a coat older than my grown children, stylish as pillbox hats, and as likely to be used as the hatpins they required. 

A few weeks ago, I tidied up my office and took the coat out of the closet.  I thought, “It’s time.” So I gave it a little more thought and found the perfect use for that old, beloved, besmirched, coat.  I’m giving it to Clark, my 14 year-old black lab.  Mom liked him; buttered English muffins for him and loved his gentle ways.  But Clark has a quirk.  He won’t come inside the house and in recent years I have kept him warm by creating a bed for him out of an old pack-and-play lined with blankets.  Before I retire for the night I tuck him in.  This winter he gets Mom’s coat. 

I went out last night with it for the first time and tucked in my crazy old dog.  He groaned with joy as he felt the furry warmth surround him.  Even this morning, I saw him return to the bed and nuzzle it happily, preferring it to his usual hole in the ground beneath my bedroom window. 

Somewhere, I think Mom is both mad and smiling that someone finally appreciates that coat!