The Spring of Staying Put (a/k/a Mulch Madness)

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Reader, we decided not to sell our house.

For those of you who are fans (as I am) of Charlotte Bronte and “Jane Eyre”,  you may recognize that I cribbed this first line.

In the writing workshop I took this spring our terrific teacher told us to get to the point at the beginning.

To let the reader of any story know the essential conflict with which the main character is dealing.

So I have.

And now, if you are patient (unlike a very self-important, senior lawyer at my first law firm who, when I launched into how I reached a conclusion in a legal research memo, would interrupt – “I don’t want to know your explanation.  Just tell me the answer.”) – here is what happened:

This past Sunday – instead of clearing every surface and hiding laundry in the closet in anticipation of our planned first “Open House”, we went out and bought mulch.

Lots of mulch. Dark brown chips of decaying “material” which my husband gleefully spread beneath the recently trimmed bushes in our front and back yards.

JP stood back and looked at his handiwork with a pleased grin:

The house looks great, doesn’t it? The lawn, so green because of all that rain. I’m glad we’re staying.”

I am too, sort of. Pretty much. Almost. Not as sure as he is. But the right decision – for now. I keep tacking the phrase “for now” at the end of every sentence when friends and family ask me why we changed our minds.

It took an intervention by friends to get me off the “Let’s sell NOW” track. My friends saw the blind spots I had that I couldn’t see. That I didn’t want to see. That I hoped would disappear if I tried not to think about them.

Well, duh, of course, I couldn’t see the blind spots – that’s why they have that name.

Everyone has blind spots, don’t they?

The friend who always says “yes” but doesn’t understand why she feels so exhausted.

The relative with the chip on his shoulder who doesn’t feel  its weight.

The colleague who thinks she is being helpful but comes across as patronizing.

My blind spot was taking expert advice without adapting it to our family as our circumstances evolved. The expert crunches the numbers, looks at the market, studies the spread sheets. It all sounded so reasonable.

But when we really dug down into those pesky numbers, when we drilled into the details and up popped the real-life problems moving would create vs. the problems moving would solve, we realized the timing wasn’t right. For the experts maybe, but not for us.

Two of my dearest friends reached this conclusion before I did (and they didn’t even have to research and write a legal memo to get there. lucky them!) They came over on Thursday afternoon as I was taking a last batch of family photos down off the walls. They escorted me into our extremely clean, dog-free living room. They admired our freshly-painted walls, the newly empty mantel above the fireplace and the tidy book shelves and told me to sit down.

I sat on a chair; my friends on the couch facing me.

The house looks great. It really does. You’ve worked very hard  in the past few months to get it this way.”

I beamed.

But don’t sell. JP is right. Now is not the time.”

I squirmed. Like any long married person (our 38th anniversary is this weekend.), I hate it when my husband is right – and I am not. (Thankfully, this is an infrequent occurrence.)

I let my friends list their reasons. I even listened intently without interrupting.

They pointed out the blind spots that I had failed to see. They saw what I knew in my heart but had trouble acknowledging. Moving now would cause tremendous upheaval that our family didn’t need. We already had enough turmoil going on. We didn’t need to pile on.

Not now. Not this spring. Maybe in the fall. Perhaps next spring. Perhaps not then either.

This ran against my nature – since I am quite excellent at creating a plan, making the “to do” list and seeing a project through to its conclusion. Check, check, check. I can focus narrowly and deeply. I do NOT like being thrown off course.

But circumstances changed –  our plan stopped making sense – my husband could see that, my friends could too – it was only me who had trouble changing directions.

The intervention didn’t last long. We hugged, they left and I went to the kitchen to make dinner.

Every day this week, I’ve been happily putting back up the family photographs we had taken down while “decluttering”. JP is trying not to gloat. We are staying home.

“For now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do We Stay or Do We Go? – The Empty Nesters’ Dilemma

lilacs - spring, 2015

 

 

Last week it was suggested to me, ever so gently, by my husband, JP, that we reconsider our once-mutual decision to sell our house this spring.

Tell me again,” he asked as we ate dinner in our newly uncluttered kitchen. “Why do we want to move? I like it here.”

I sighed and repeated what the financial advisor told us this winter  – sell now! the market is “HOT”! –  You are empty nesters, you no longer need a three-bedroom brick, colonial home-built in 1948 in which you have lived for 33 years. Time to downsize! Move closer in! Free yourselves of unneeded possessions and repairs!

It sounded very appealing to me. Not as much to JP.

I don’t want to downsize. I like my yard. I like my garage. I like washing my car in the driveway. I even like washing your car.”  My Detroit-born husband puts a high priority on car care.

But don’t you want to be able to walk everywhere? That’s the new big thing. We’ll move to a new condo or apartment with a high “walkability” score.” I told him, visualizing romantic evening strolls to trendy bars and restaurants.

“If we want to take a walk, we can do it in our own neighborhood.  I like sitting in my own back yard, not with strangers in a shared courtyard on an apartment or condo roof. Our house seems perfectly fine to me.”

Versions of this conversation have played out for the past few weeks. I continue to declutter and donate, to empty shelves and cabinets, to get rid of law school books and obsolete electronics . My husband stays out of my way – he doesn’t stop the going-on-the-market-soon process from going forward –  but his distinct lack of enthusiasm hangs heavily in the air.

So I venture off like Goldilocks to find just the right place to move to – that will convince him we should sell once he sees what a terrific new apartment or condo I can find. Our realtor is confident our house will sell quickly. Very soon, she predicts, millennials will be swarming by the dozens to buy our home so they can start a family here – just as we did as young marrieds.

Speaking of millennials, did you know that real estate developers are rapidly building new apartments seemingly targeted at them?

This week I visited several of these new apartment communities that are springing up around us – all deliberately called “communities” – because they market themselves to entice you to sign a lease asap so you make new pals with whom you will soon be exercising in the spiffy gym, mingling in the modern club room and sitting around the community fire pit in the evenings.

These “communities” feature incredibly peppy sales reps who show you floor plan after floor plan as they exuberantly describe the many amenities “your new community” features:

  • bike storage in the basement!
  • weekly “yappy” hours for you and your canine friend!
  • fun events with local bars and restaurants!
  • free craft coffee in the modern lobby!
  • “Wine Down Wednesdays”!
  • “Breakfast on the Go”!
  • And more!!!

Pretty good, huh? Yes, if you are under age 40, my husband comments when I show him the glossy brochures one night after he gets home from work.

We already have plenty of friends, we have our own coffee and wine, we have our own bike storage (it’s called our garage)…our dog doesn’t get along so well with other dogs, you know that – and he loves our fenced back yard  – and what do I need a fire pit for?” he asks.

He makes some good points but I resist – pointing again to the photos of the shiny new, albeit tiny-size, kitchens and living areas in the floor plans. 942 square feet sounds much larger than it is.

Where would we host our family and friends and have our holiday dinners? I don’t see dining rooms in any of these floor plans, do you? The small tables they show barely seat four people.” JP continues. “Just three small closets. How would we manage?”

Rest assured, I tell him –  all of these new apartment “communities” offer extra storage spaces we can rent (for an additional monthly fee, of course.)

Have you failed to notice,” he responds. “that we already have our own free storage spaces?  We have a big basement, not to mention a tool closet and a cedar closet. Why should we move someplace much smaller and then pay extra for storage?”

His tone ups its’ sarcasm quotient as he shakes his head.

 And where would we park our cars? We each have one, remember.”

Again the car thing. To say that JP is hung up on car care underscores the obvious.

I have the answer to this one. “They offer underground parking. $200 a month. For one car. You have to pay an additional fee for a second car.”

I can park for free in my own driveway. So can you!” he retorts. “Why do we want to uproot ourselves to move? You are not very convincing.”

Perhaps my advocacy skills have slipped since my lawyering days.  I must marshal better arguments to persuade him.

We are now at an impasse; the realtor’s Listing Agreement sits – unsigned – on our kitchen counter.

 

                                                                                          *****TO BE CONTINUED*****

 

 

 

 

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On Being a Mom Without a Mom on Mother’s Day

Red knitwork, horizontal

“Yes, Mom, what do you want?” I said quietly into the phone. “My boss is sitting right here, I can’t talk now.”

My Mom had been calling me every day at the office for six months. She had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the spring of my 3rd year of law school.

As a newly-minted lawyer at a government agency in downtown DC, my first job, with a boss and my own office (albeit very small and without a window), I was learning to deal with her daily calls.

No, I can’t tell you that,” I told her.

She persisted.

Please, just tell me what your bra size is,” she asked again.

Mom, c’mon, I’m at work, I’m in my office,” I pleaded. “My boss, he’s a man, he is in my office, too.”

She pleaded right back.

I’m at the yarn store in Westport. I’m knitting you a sweater. Just give me the number.”

I gave up.

36B,” I whispered into the phone, as my boss rolled his eyes upward, squelching a laugh.

Exactly one year later my Mom died of cancer. (well, actually she died because of malpractice related to her cancer but that is a tale for another time.) She was 54 years old, I was 28.

I still have the beautiful red, V-neck cotton sweater with the just-below-the-elbow length sleeves she made me, although it no longer fits. It was as stylish then as it is now. She was a woman of both good taste and great kindness.

Some women complain that their elderly moms call them too often.

Every night, can you believe it, she calls me every single night, and then she worries if I am not home by 9 p.m. She tells me to eat my vegetables, have I gotten an eye check up lately, she bugs me about the kids or my job or my husband. When are we going to visit her? Who’s going to drive her to her doctor appointments? Or run to the store to get her a new light bulb or better reading glasses. I’m tired of hearing her complaints about who did or who didn’t sit with her at dinner. Honestly, my mom is driving me crazy. Doesn’t she know what a busy life I have?

I bet she does know you have a life. Hers is shrinking in scope, yours isn’t and she wants to be a part of it.

My Mom called me at the office for over a year when she was ill. Then one day she stopped calling. Three weeks later, on a sunny spring afternoon in May as my Dad and I sat by her bed, holding her hand, in the ICU of a cancer hospital in New York City, hearing the beeps from the machines that had kept her alive ebb away, she died. It was mid-afternoon, on the Tuesday after Mother’s Day. Thoughtful as ever, she chose, I felt, to wait and not ruin the holiday for us.

I would give anything for one more phone call, nagging, annoying, insistent, critical, I’d take it.

And you know what, Mom, I’d say? You have two wonderful granddaughters and two terrific grandsons that you never got to meet. And in 2013 you became a great-grandparent, too.

What else would I tell her? Oh yes, my bra size has changed in the past 34 years. I don’t like the color red as much as I once did. But the sweater remains in my closet and it always will.

Miss you forever, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

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“No Woman Is An Island” (Even When She Wants To Be)

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Twice last week I was reminded of the famous John Donne poem.

First, when I listened to President Obama use the phrase “No man is an island” while speaking before a U.K. audience alongside Prime Minister Cameron –  (and no matter what you or I may think about the foreign policy implications of “Brexit,” that word itself is fun to say.)

But I digress.

Second, when we read a stanza of the Donne poem in the Haggadah during our Passover Seder on Friday night. Friends put together a contemporary “Haggadah”  (the name for the Seder service telling the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.)  Modern versions of a Haggadah, like the one we read from last Friday, often include non-religious readings on the subjects of freedom and humanity.

Thus, we come to the British poet John Donne who in 1624 wrote, in part:

“No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent” – an ode to the connectedness of mankind (and womankind too.)

Yet sometimes connectedness can be over-rated  – as proved by my recent dreams about fleeing to a remote island where WiFi is unavailable .

Which is an odd thing, perhaps, to say for someone who is likely perceived by friends and family to be an “extrovert”, but lately I’ve had severe pangs of over-connection leading to fervent wishes to relocate to an island where no one can reach me.

(with the possible exceptions of weekly visits by my toddler and baby grandsons and the occasional conjugal visit from my husband.)

Or as Greta Garbo was to have said, “I want to be left alone.”

I think we all sometimes get to this stage – when we have given SO MUCH of ourselves to SO MANY PEOPLE that there is very little left and we just want to retreat and not hear, talk or write to anyone for a few days. Or maybe longer.

In my case it has been a confluence of the extraordinary neediness of a certain family member which has overwhelmed me, combined with having to deal with the many trivial “issues” that come up when trying to get a house ready to be sold. Too many demands, too long of a “to do” list and I long to cover my ears, hide my iPhone and escape.

Hence, the “island” metaphor. How good that looks to me at this moment.  Solo and selfish seems like a wonderful place to be.

And though we may want to run off with a small suitcase (for me, it would be very large, because I never have packed light and don’t intend to start soon) to a tropical island (or by a lake or near a mountain, you pick the scenery ) retreat where no one can:

  • irritate us with their ceaseless questions,
  • checks to be written,
  • deadlines to meet
  • calls to make
  • and responses to our emails that show us that they never bothered to read our initial email – for if they had read our first email with more care, they would not have responded with yet another dumb question…

(plea here: we have become a nation of skimmers. a bad thing! I urge you to read emails all the way through. with care. that will enhance our inter-personal communications. trust me on this.)

…we cannot really flee, because, yes, as Donne said, we are all inter-connected, on the same continent of life, and our personal relationships – even when they are mighty demanding – are what – in the end – hold us together and make us human.

So much for the island idea. I must comfort myself with the knowledge that we all go through these episodes of being overwhelmed by life’s demands.

Retreat isn’t the answer even if those tropical drinks with the little perky parasols (but who would be on the island to prepare and serve them to me?) do seem awfully appealing just about now.

 

 

 

 

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Make New Friends, But Keep The Old: Silver and Gold

Silver and Gold

 

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.”

That bit of childhood wisdom has stuck with me. I’m such a literalist that I spent years wondering – which was which? are the new friends the “silver” and the old ones the “gold?” or is it vice-versa?  Who knows? The older I get, the more I value both kinds of friends.

Let’s call new friends the “silver” ones –  like my writer’s group.

I met these five women in 2014 at a class we took together. Different ages, varying backgrounds, but connective tissue among us in our similar approaches to life. Laugh at the funny parts, laugh harder at the tragic parts. Growing older with our imperfect husbands and trying to stay connected to our teen and adult children who make us wonder or worry, sometimes simultaneously.

Through the essays and stories we’ve written and shared with each other every month when we get together, we’ve learned about each others’ pasts – to a point. These women, wonderful as they are, didn’t know me when I was an uncoordinated eight year old with a fondness for meteorology and the nickname of  “nimbus” (SEE: clouds). Nor had they met me as a young married women going through rocky times when my mom died, or as a working mom who once forgot to pick up a child after a late day school activity.  As I did not know them through their passages of life.

Friendships are different when you bond together as fully grown adults.

I recently shared with my writer friends a short story I wrote about an episode in my working mom/lawyer life of which I am not particularly proud. I called it “fiction” but it was – pretty obviously –  based on a personal experience. It was painful to write – and even more painful to hear their responses.

One of them said: “I admire your story because it shows you have layers to your personality that I didn’t know you had.”

She didn’t know that? Do I come across as a superficial person? That was my first thought.  Sure I tell jokes and laugh a lot and try not to take myself seriously. That’s the glossy part you see on top when you first meet me. I’m not like that all the way through. Underneath is the part this new “silver” friend doesn’t know (yet?) about me. That I have inner layers. Layers that get peeled off in years of friendship that we haven’t yet had.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend in the “gold” category.

Caroline is a person I met in a birth education class while pregnant with our first children, born three days apart. Turned out we had graduated from the same all-women’s college, then gone to the same international relations graduate school, where we had met our respective husbands – who also bonded during our shared birth education class by paying as little attention as possible to the instructor’s exhortations to have us take cleansing breaths in unison.

Caroline knows my “layers” and I know hers. Not all of them. But enough so that she understands why I had such a hard time yesterday at lunch talking about getting our house ready to put up for sale. How unsettling it is. How I don’t do transitions well. Living in one house for 33 years is a pretty good indicator of being someone who does not handle change well.

With “gold” friends, you don’t need to explain yourself. They know all your foibles, all your less than desirable attributes and they’ve decided they can deal with them. Maybe not admire your flaws, but accept them.

With my newer “silver” friends, we are still getting to know each other. It’s more challenging when we are in our 50’s and ’60’s to open ourselves up to someone new. What if they don’t like what they see, as we peel the layers back on our personalities? We don’t have a shared history of friendship to fall back on. They could decide I’m not as fun as I seemed to be when they first met me – that I have quirks they can’t accept. What then?

It’s worth the risk. Treasuring the “gold” ones while hoping that my “silver” friends become “gold”.

 

 

 

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Say “No” to an Admission Offer from a Highly Selective College?

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Sometimes I cringe when I re-read some of my older Blog posts. And sometimes I think I was spot on.

Early April is here – and with it, I’m moving beyond the March Madness of basketball (that final game where the underdog team Villanova beat UNC at the buzzer was well worth staying up late for) – and again observing the annual “madness” that the college acceptance season has become.

I wrote a Blog post in April, 2015 expressing my thoughts on what really matters when making a college choice.

Here is what I said then  – I think it rings as true today as it did a year ago ———>

 

———> Yes, it is a ridiculous and harmful obsession that some parents, shared at times by their teens, have with getting accepted to an elite, highly selective college.

And yes, “getting in” can become the narrowest of goals in the madness of this college admission season.

But – can I be honest here?

I think it really DOES matter where a student goes to college.

But probably not for the reasons you think.

1st – Attending a college with a well-known brand name DOES open future doors.

I agree 150% that fit matters far more than brand name. Yet brand name can help, especially in the post-college years – – let’s not kid ourselves.

When I applied for internships and jobs, every interviewer I met labeled me (rightly or wrongly) as smart based upon the school from which I had graduated.

“You went to Smith? My (daughter/wife/sister/niece/cousin) went to Smith. You must be smart.”

The name of my college opened doors – got me interviews, introduced me to well-connected alums.

Here’s the key though: It was up to me to achieve once I got in that door.

So if your teen pushes for a brand name school, he understands its’ name will always be on his resume. He’s right; that name alone may ease his path to jobs and graduate schools. But he has to do the work once he gets there.

2nd – Going to a college that offers a diverse and intellectually stimulating community in which to live DOES matter.

Much of the learning in college comes from outside the classroom – which is why it is important to attend a college where you will be surrounded by people you will learn from.

And, assuming a student, is open to new ideas, because this is really what college is about, isn’t it? –  she will not learn as much from people who look like her, think like her and grew up near her than she would from people who are dissimilar.

Diversity DOES matter – because highly selective schools usually can and do offer more financial aid, a student may find a truly diverse student community, in terms of background, beliefs, ethnicity, race and social class in a more selective school.

3rd –  and most important to me  – Where a student goes to college DOES matter to that student’s Mental Health.

Parents and their teens must discuss the topic of college student mental health – before the student sets foot on campus next fall.

The absurd stress of the college admission process is but a harbinger of things to come. If a student gets accepted to the dream elite school of her choice, the prize is an entrance ticket into an even more stressful academic environment.

Highly selective schools function as pressure cookers, packed with intensely focused kids driven to succeed and achieve, to get that A, to find the best internship, to land a prestigious job after graduation or get into a top medical school.

And the impact of all of that stress?

An increasingly deleterious impact on the mental health of college students. More students than ever, according to recent studies, report feeling anxious, depressed and/or stressed.

The University of Pennsylvania, seeking its own answers after a series of student suicides,  wants to change its own campus culture of  self-described “destructive perfectionism” – – a culture sadly familiar to many at similar top colleges where driven students put immense pressure on themselves to achieve and then think they have failed themselves (and perhaps their parents) if they don’t meet their often overly ambitious goals.

So step back a minute.

If accepted to a highly selective school, congratulations – and yes, it’s true that its’ name brand will be a helpful lifetime credential and alumni connection.

And yes, a top college often offers the most intellectually intriguing and diverse community in which to study and make forever friends.

But perhaps – if your student gets accepted by the most tippy-top, elite of schools, because of his perfect grades, mega test scores, impossibly impressive list of awards, achievements and leadership positions, even if your son or daughter is the kind of student who could barely find time to floss in high school, given how busy he or she was –

Perhaps your student should do the unexpected –  and  consider saying “no, thank you” to that most elite of colleges?

What if your student instead considered instead a college with a culture that is not one of  “destructive perfectionism” – but instead one that will support as well as challenge a student.

Here’s the plan:

  • Colleges themselves must take the first step to lessen the pressure to be perfect in order to be accepted.
  • Parents should dial down their own expectations.
  • Students should put their own mental health first (and second, and third) – and start rethinking about college (and high school) as places in which to enjoy learning, to thrive in instead of being driven into a frenzy of unrealistic achievement goals.

Then the only March Madness will be the games we watch on T.V.

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Your Own Lane in “Semi-Retirement”

stratton mtn

On a family trip one summer to Vermont we stopped at a familiar ski area to ride its’ alpine slide.

For the uninitiated, an alpine slide starts at the top of a non-snow-covered mountain where you sit on a sled, with a control stick between your knees, and guide your own ride along the twists and turns of a trail down the hill to the bottom.

The best part about this summer slide at Bromley Mountain is that it’s a triple track – described as “North America’s first triple-tracked” alpine slide, 2/3 of a mile long.

Triple Track means (duh) that each rider has three tracks to chose from. As I remember they were labeled – Fast, Medium and Slow – or maybe the three tracks had more clever names like #1 -“Speed For Teens”, #2 – “Active Dads” and #3 – “Moms Who Are Very Cautious.”

Whatever their designations were, I chose – no surprise here  – the latter, the slowest but steady track, kind of my life mantra, expressed on the side of a mountain. My husband and teenage son picked the faster paths, then whizzed down the mountain on their own sleds.

They were waiting for me when I arrived, five minutes later, having applied my own s-l-o-w sled’s brake multiple times as I approached every sharp turn and fast straightaway.

That triple alpine track was made for me – I like to be in charge of my own ride. I love the opportunity to choose my lane. If only life was like that alpine track.

Lately I have been veering from lane to lane.

One day I am happily zooming around with multiple plans and projects, volunteering, lunching with friends, going to meetings. The next I am contentedly at home by myself – along with our trusty terrier at my side – thinking that nothing is better than being able to sit alone in a comfortable chair (I know, don’t sit too long! bad for your health. I get it) – and write.

I did not choose to retire from my law firm at age 60 – that was an unexpected decision made for me by the cardiac authorities.  All of the articles on what to do to plan for retirement were suddenly irrelevant. I was plopped into it whether I liked it or not.

Three years have passed since then and I am still finding my way in what I call “semi-retirement.” Every day I either do too much – or I do too little.  Finding the right balance, the right lane has been tricky.

I would love nothing more than to sit at a desk all day and write. I’ve written a few short stories featuring (what else) witty and worried women in law firm settings.  Do I turn one of my favorite of these short stories into the first chapter of a novel? Or do I keep writing stories until I come up with a collection of them? Haven’t I set aside my childhood dream of becoming a published author for too long?

How ambitious those plans sound. And how self-indulgent. I now have the choice to spend hours doing what I love – while my husband is very much not-retired – (he likes his job, but loving it? you’d have to ask him.)

I  feel responsible to be productive. So some of what I write is non-fiction and earns a (tiny) fee, and I talk and write about young adult mental health and get paid for that too – and next fall, if it happens and I hope it will, I may get to teach a class about the state of mental health on college campuses.

Do these small paying “gigs” add up to giving me the right to stay in the slow lane with my writing projects?

Will the guilt I feel when I sit down to write ever subside?

I think about this as I veer from “semi-retirement” lane to lane and then back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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