Saturday, October 21, 2017

Money Money Money

It is Friday night as I write this out by longhand. Warren is an hour away in a rehearsal with the other orchestra in which he plays. He won't be home until after 11:00 p.m. Tonight is the peak of the Orionid meteor showers; with Warren coming home so late we are planning on going out into the country in the hopes of seeing a few.

Money has been on my mind more than usual as of late. We have family members facing some hardships: a serious medical crisis that will not resolve soon in one branch, the loss of the primary job in the other. There is and will be financial fallout in both. My phone hums all day long with news from the medical front and news from the unemployment front.

These times remind me of my own life over a decade ago, when I was in the middle of a protracted separation (and eventual divorce) that killed me financially, followed immediately by the diagnosis of cancer, which finished destroying any financial stability I hoped to regain post-divorce. Those were  long, hard times, and ended up with my credit destroyed and a bankruptcy under my belt.

I survived it all, with a lot of help from friends and family. Joining my life with Warren was another boost (we do not share accounts; we do share expenses). Acquiring a stable job (I had been an independent contractor) with benefits was also a huge step forward.  Bit by bit, penny by penny, I got back to solid ground.

Looking back from the stability of now, I am grateful for all the help, be it dollars or encouragement. I also learned a valuable lesson: live below my means, however minimal those means may be.

Even today, I look for ways to cut our household spending. Warren and I are not big time consumers as it is, but I can still find adjustments. We have cut our use of the dryer to about one hour every other week. Most of our laundry hangs for 24+ hours on inside clotheslines strung across the basement. We are resisting turning on the furnace until the weather gets markedly colder. Extra blankets at night, an afghan over my lap while I write, corn bags for our toes in bed, passive heat on warmer afternoons: I hope to make it well into November before that furnace goes on.

I've been tracking our grocery spending all year. Through September, we are averaging about $208.00 a month on food and common household items (toilet paper, detergent, that kind of thing). I'm hoping to get it under $200.00/month for the year, but with only three months to go, we'd have to cut a little bit deeper to make that happen. That figure does not include eating out, but we in most months spend less than $20.00 total on eating out.

I did splurge today when shopping at Aldi. [For the uninitiated, Aldi is a German grocery chain that offers limited selections and great prices.] In the meat section were fresh salmon fillets, all set to expire the next day, and all $12.00 off the sticker price (which ran from $18.00 to $22.00). I bought two large ones, each originally $18.00 and change, about 4.7 pounds of fish. My final cost was a little over $13.00 for both, coming in at about $2.60 a pound, a price I have not paid for salmon since I lived in Portland, Oregon almost 40 years ago. The fillets are already cut, wrapped, and in the freezer, except for the slab I am cooking for dinner tomorrow.

Don't think we live a parsimonious lifestyle. I think we live frugally, but with our hands open. (Thank you, Amanda Rigo, for introducing me to the wit and words (and music!) of Amanda Palmer.) I just watch where the dollars go, and make sure they flow to the resources most important to me (Sunday night yoga, Halloween candy to ship to Ramona, a used copy of Carl Sandburg's complete poems).

Back in April, I wrote a post (about money, of course) in which I quoted Thoreau: "keep your accounts on your thumb nail." I still do.

Postscript: We went out last night after Warren came home and sat for some 25 minutes on an empty country road, watching the sky. No meteors (the commentary said they would be best seen "just before dawn"—thanks, but no thanks). But we did see a glorious night sky, we watched Orion rise, and although we are in a populated area and not out west in a remote location, we even saw the Milky Way, a sight that never fails to fill my heart.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Small Moment

We have entered that time of the baseball season that I love the best: playoffs and World Series time. Realize that even this time of year, we don't haul out the television, or stream the game online, or even (for the most part) listen on the radio. Sometimes I'll check the score of a game while it is happening, then turn to other things. It is the idea of the series, that they are happening now, that fuels my passion.

My beloved Chicago Cubs are in the League Championship Series once again after a 5th game win against the Washington Nationals last Thursday. Warren was livestreaming the game part of the evening and I happened to be listening during the 5th inning, which had to qualify as one of the wildest innings in playoff history. I was yelling incoherently—I think some variation of "YES! YES! YES!"—and said to Warren after the side was retired, "I can't listen anymore." So I did not know until the next morning that the Cubs held on and won, propelling them into the LCS.

Last year close to this time the Cubs were bearing down on returning to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Warren and I were out somewhere in Columbus that evening when a text came in from my son Ben:

       Not sure if you are still up but the cubs are 3 outs from                 going [to] the world series

I don't remember whether we were listening to the game when Ben texted but we quickly found it on the radio. That may have been the evening we got back home before the game ended and I told Warren to drive a few blocks more so I could hear them finish. The Cubs won and my phone lit up again:

       They did it! We love you

Indeed the Cubs did it. 

I have saved those texts, locking them on my phone and in my heart. They were quick hugs from Benjamin—baseball, love, World Series, the Cubs—across the miles. October once again, I pull them up and reread them:

       They did it! We love you

I love you too, Ben. Here's to this baseball time of year.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Don't Read This Book. Read This Book.

I just read The Best of Us, the new memoir by Joyce Maynard. I first found Maynard when I was 16 and she was 19, when she wrote Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties. I have followed her ever since. The Best of Us is Maynard's account of her life with her husband Jim Barringer: their courtship and marriage in their late 50s, his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, 19 months of treatment, and his death.

Don't read this book. It will break your heart.

Read this book. It will break your heart.

Maynard is, even at her best, a high maintenance individual. She makes it clear in The Best of Us that she can be (and often was) self-centered, demanding, impatient, and a whole host of other less than wonderful characteristics. In the end, she concluded, her husband's cancer and their experiences burned away the dross—the need for constant attention, the need to always have the last word, the needs to be the center of attention, the need to always be right—and brought out the very best in her.

Don't read this book. It will drain you with the ups and downs of their lives as the cancer raged ahead.

Read this book. It will move you by the love and devotion that rose like cream above the nightmare of living with an aggressive cancer.

Two-thirds of the way through The Best of Us, I closed it, looked at Warren, and said, "You cannot read this book. Ever." I was quiet a minute, then said, "Mel [a close friend whose husband has cancer] can't read this book ever either." When Warren asked why, still blinking in surprise at my pronouncement, I added "because it will kill you both."

This book pierced my heart. After finishing it, I threw myself on the bed to think about it. Warren lay down beside me. I thought about what is ahead for both of us. Then I told him I was thinking of the book.

"I'm not surprised."

Then I voiced what has long been in my heart but I have rarely said out loud. "I don't want to leave you."

With that, I started crying. Warren's eyes welled up and tears ran down his face.

"I know you don't."

As I said recently, in the start of an eulogy, all of us are going to die. I know that. But I'm not thinking big universal concepts here. I'm thinking small picture. Personal picture. Our picture.

And that is where The Best of Us triumphs. Maynard's focus is on the small picture, her and her husband's small picture. Because in the end, that's what mattered.

Don't read this book.

Read this book.

Yes, read this book.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Small Moment

The other night, running into my longtime friend Donna at a gala event, she asked me how my basil did this year.

Pretty lousy is how my basil did this year. Even the bees were irked at me.

"I think I still have some left," she replied. She said she would check and if she did...

"Pesto in exchange for basil?"


Midday Sunday she texted me that she indeed had basil. "It's on a bag on the porch near the caladium pot."

Well, I didn't know what caladium was (I do now), but I found the bag easily. Pesto making is in my immediate future.

I don't can anymore; I gave my canner to Goodwill and my jars to our Court's Girls Group. I don't do a lot of labor intensive cooking anymore. I do have a lot of containers of bean soup, different kinds, in my freezer, because bean soup is the world's easiest food to make in bulk and then freeze in portions. But I will gladly spend an hour or so tonight making pesto, some to freeze, some to give back to Donna.

Just a small moment. A little friendship. A little community.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Trigger warning (which I do not believe in, in principle): This is a personal and political post.

I am feeling very vulnerable these days for lots of reasons. My health is increasingly a question mark. There are many nights I crawl into bed with something—the cancer, the treatment, anything—muscling its way to the top. For several nights now I have reached the flat plain of the mattress with gratitude, hugging it as a shipwreck survivor must cling to the first land she washes up on.

Earlier this week both a Confederate flag and a White Power flag went up outside a house about two blocks from here. Even in our "nice" neighborhood, there are people who want to see people like me—any of us who are "other"—eliminated. The neighborhood response was to write affirming slogans of equity and love and acceptance on the sidewalk of the house next door. The flags came down sometime in the middle of the night, but I doubt it was a one-off incident.

How appropriate that I feel that way these days, and that our community had a polarizing event, because I also feel vulnerable as an American living under the current administration. My safety—personal, religious, medical, physical, you name it—is increasingly at risk. All I think about, especially in light of the just concluded High Holy Days, is I have been guilty for being "aware" but not really "getting" what individuals of color go through every single day of their lives. I am so sorry that until the last several months I have only sympathized and occasionally added my verbal support, but have stayed too quiet otherwise.

I am sorry it took Charlottesville to make public what I'd already suspected but not said aloud since the new administration took over: people of color, Native Americans, LGBTQ individuals, Jews, people in poverty, Muslims, anyone who is "other"—we are all in danger. I am sorry that it took this year's attacks on the American Care Act to point out the wrongfulness of my thinking "oh, they'll never take away protecting those of us with pre-existing conditions because even the most flinty hearted conservative Congressman doesn't want to see people die." I am sorry that it took the threat of a Justice Department headed by Jeff Sessions becoming a daily reality of "where am I not safe now?" or, more correctly, "where are we not safe now?" to catch my attention.

I just read The Wrong Way To Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra and found strength in her words. A few months before that, I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and found strength in her words. I just copied two essays, one from each book, and sent them to my friend Anne, hoping they give her strength. I tell myself there are strong voices and minds out there and I draw strength and encouragement from that.

I worried whether to allow comments on this post. Steilstra writes about the vulnerability of writers in this electronic age, the ease with which one could be traced, stalked, threatened, and she concluded she might as well be public about her voice and her stances as a determined individual could find her no matter what. I don't worry about being harmed in that way (fantasy thinking of an older white woman living in a "nice" neighborhood, albeit one with a White Power adherent two blocks away), but I worry about something far more insidious in me: offending others. I am still learning to speak up for what I believe in, even if my voice shakes.

Like right now.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


Yom Kippur came in last night, Friday night, as we ate a late evening supper of blacks beans and rice, a side salad, and bread.

If you are Jewish or familiar with the rites of Judaism, you know that any sentence linking Yom Kippur and eating is immediately suspect. Yom Kippur is the capstone of the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, which started midweek last week with Rosh Hashanah. It is considered the holiest day of the Jewish year, one of introspection and atonement, and requires fasting from sunset to sunset.

But there is an exception from the fasting. If you are ill and it is against medical advice to fast, you do not have to fast. In fact, some Talmudic commentators observe that under such circumstances, the individual is prohibited from fasting as to prevent further harm to the body.

As a person with cancer who is in ongoing treatment, treatment that just moved into Phase 2 earlier this week, I get an exemption. Given how I felt by day's end (at the start of Yom Kippur), I knew I had slid past the point of no return on feeling okay (heck, I'll even say "decent") and was rapidly approaching the stage of red flashing lights accompanied by a loud repetitive buzzer.

I am coming up on my 13th anniversary of being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I have far exceeded the mortality tables for this particular cancer. Six to seven years post-diagnosis is a good, solid number for how long one lives. Over eight and the crowd starts thinning. At 13 years out, I feel like I am perched on the far rim of the flat world depicted by Renaissance cartographers.

Here be dragons.

The High Holy Days, regardless of how I observe them in the larger Jewish community, are for me a meaningful time of the year. Perhaps the most meaningful time of the year. I spend the days leading up to them, the waning days of the old year, reflecting on the year past and the year to come. During the ten days between the start and conclusion of the Days of Awe, I often meditate on what I could have done better or differently in the last year and what I hope to be and do in the year just beginning. What am I going to do to be a better friend? A better colleague? A better partner/spouse/companion to Warren? A better parent? A better family member? A better member of this community? Tikkun olam—the obligation of each Jew to repair the world, not matter how small a repair that may be—is always present in my mind.

There is always, always room for improvement in the community, in my work, in my life, in my family.

Tradition has it that during the Days of Awe, the Book of Life is opened in heaven, so that one's fate for the coming year may be inscribed. The book closes at the end of Yom Kippur. A traditional saying is "may you inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life."

May we all be so inscribed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Loose Threads

Yesterday Warren had an afternoon rehearsal (followed that evening by a concert) in Mansfield, which meant I had a lengthy block of time in which to read and write.

Reading I did. I finished off Bootstrapper, a painful, thoughtful, hilarious memoir by Mardi Jo Link. It is appropriately subtitled From Broke to Badass on Northern Michigan Farm and is about divorce, poverty, and scraping by. 

But the writing? Sometimes I just can't make the sentences flow coherently no matter what. This was one of those times. Three starts, 400+ words in each time, and...nothing. The topic would bog down and I couldn't salvage it. Or the next one. Or the next one.

Sometimes all I have are bits and pieces of thoughts. It is not unlike opening my well worn sewing box and seeing a sketchy layer of snippets of threads from prior repairs, some still threaded through a needle, but all too short to use.

So here are my loose threads, in no order chronological or otherwise, from my afternoon and my blog attempts:
  • Doug's wonderful memorial service and the many layers rippling out still from it
  • Effigy Mounds
  • Dinner in Rochester with my longtime friend Tani and her partner Tom (Tani and I go back some 30+ years)
  • Decorah, Iowa, and wondering where that little gem has been hidden all my life
  • Mayo
  • Mayo
  • Mayo
  • A vivid prairie sunset
  • Realizing there were still plenty of tomatoes in my garden 
  • Being on campus at the University of Chicago and realizing we were in the middle of the freshman arriving on campus
  • Remembrance Rock (Carl Sandburg's ashes are under it) 
  • Crossing the Mississippi River three times in one day
  • Making a sour cherry pie with my dear sister-in-law and savoring every bite (our husbands, brothers, do not eat cherries in any form, which baffles Margaret and me, but leaves more pie for us)
  • Super Dawg
  • The iconic red barn set against the autumn trees 
  • Nomadland (Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) by Jessica Bruder (If you are reading only one book on the continuing economic wreckage of modern America, this should be it) 
  • Taylor, my "other" son, getting married yesterday midday
  • Making it home Wednesday evening before sunset and Rosh Hashanah began
  • Gifting a piece of art—one that I love so much that Warren said, with surprise in his voice, "you're giving them that?"—to someone I love and knowing it was the absolutely right present

And that is enough for now.