Playing Housewife (or, I’d Rather Be Camping)

If “zen” is used (casually) to refer to a state of mind where you experience life as it is vs through the thoughts you have about your experiences, I have to wonder if being a housewife/husband is the fastest path to achieving a state of zen.

After all, I’ve heard stories of how zen masters teach achieving enlightenment by doing repetitive, unappreciated tasks that will only be undone and need to be done again.

One of the things I have been working on intensely is learning to leave behind my Type-A habits, be fully present, and really experience my life instead of missing what’s happening because I’m busy worrying about an imagined past or future.

I have run head-on into the most stubborn part of my Type-A traits recently. Having extended my leave of absence from my day job for another 6 months, there are some new developments in our lives:
We must re-learn how to carefully evaluate our spending decisions if we’re going to stick to the financial plan we made when I started my leave (personal leave comes with no pay).
This means one or both of us must cook more.
My husband is working long hours on his feet all day, so the cooking is falling to me.

Any of you who have read my blog for any length of time or who know me personally are probably aware of just how much I like to cook.

This is the crux of what I dislike about cooking (or any household chore): it’s a lot of effort for something that gets completely undone in only moments and then must be done all over again only to be undone once more. You are never done. You can never check it off your to-do list.

The incredible inefficiency of going in a continual circle makes me batty–it’s going backwards. I have an obsession with efficient, forward progression. It is my most Type-A tendency. Almost paradoxically, I would rather sit on the couch doing nothing than invest time and energy in a task that will have to be repeated–I become a Type-B when contemplating such a task!

There is nothing I struggle with more than going backwards.

So far, I have tried to counter this feeling by cooking in bulk. By making large quantities of soup, I have the satisfaction of seeing neat containers in the freezer and fridge waiting for us for days.

But as the supply dwindles, I find my old resentment bubbling up again. I question whether we would be better off just going back to eating out–couldn’t that time cooking be better spent growing the business than saving a few dollars?

I would love to hear from someone who genuinely enjoys cooking for their loved ones and how they get satisfaction from such a task. I’ve heard there are such people in the world, but I suspect it’s one of those legends like Big Foot.

Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

Attitude

I have been thinking a lot about attitude lately. Merriam-Webster defines attitude as:

          1: the way you think and feel about someone or something
2: a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person’s behavior

3: a way of thinking and behaving that people regard as unfriendly, rude, etc.

I don’t think the first and second definitions should be separate. The way we think and feel about someone or something necessarily affects the way we behave.

For example, if we are having a really bad day and are at our absolute worst and then run into an acquaintance at the grocery store, if we have not established trust with that person, we are likely to behave politely and pleasantly in spite of how we feel. Conversely, when we get home, because we trust those whom we love to forgive us, we may unleash a torrent of unpleasantness on them.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It was told by Maya Angelou as something her grandmother once said to her: “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

It begs the question: Why do we save our best behavior for people we don’t know?

Showing the worst of ourselves requires vulnerability. Being willing to be vulnerable comes from trust and intimacy. When we are intimate with someone, we show all of ourselves to them, for better or worse. We trust them to take us as we are. Or, to put it less positively: we believe we can get away with it.

But perhaps the damage we inflict on them and our relationship really isn’t worth the relief of not having to hold in all our anger and frustration?

When I was a child, my mother brought home a book called “TA for Tots”–a popular book in the 70’s. It talks about things like “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies” as a way of helping children and parents identify feelings and behaviors and make better choices. Essentially, giving us a way to choose our attitude.

As a teenager, my mother’s touchy-feely parenting became regarded as “uncool.” Later, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I believed the worst thing anyone could say about me was that I was “emotional.” To talk about feelings became taboo.

Yet, the heart of our attitude, our behaviors, and, ultimately, all of our relationships and all that we accomplish comes down to our feelings.

If instead of snapping at my husband I could simply say, “Hi. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve had a really crappy day and need a hug,” wouldn’t that go a lot further a lot faster to restoring me to my better self? And wouldn’t it make my husband feel wonderful that he could be there to give me what I need? Once again, I should have listened to my mother.

Knives and Hearts


When two people decide to commit themselves to one another and spend the rest of their lives together, it introduces the interesting challenge of living together under the same roof. Every couple I know has a list of things they regularly disagree about, but have adopted different coping strategies. A popular approach is to ignore anything that seems trivial rather than deal with it. These are frequently the things that blow up when least expected.

The big, horrible blowouts that end relationships often happen only after a long accumulation of tiny steps of emotional separation–and it’s as often that “trivial” annoyances result in these tiny steps. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The trick is to recognize when we’re disconnecting.

The other day, I was emptying the dishwasher. When I pulled out the silverware, I found amongst it my Zwilling J.H. Henckels top-of-the-line paring knife that I purchased at a time in my life when I had very little money. I chose to buy one really good knife instead of an entire set of cheap knives because I wanted something that would last a lifetime.

When my husband and I first started living together, we discovered we had two distinct beliefs about how to wash knives. I had been hand washing them for years. My husband flat out didn’t believe the dishwasher would damage a knife.

As such, for 18 years, I have been periodically annoyed that he puts good knives in the dishwasher. Our debate had always hinged on whether it is damaging to the knives or not. Eventually, I would decide I was being petty given that my husband not only puts dishes in the dishwasher, but he also cooks, does laundry, takes care of the cars, fixes things, etc. Who am I to complain that he puts my good knives in the dishwasher? Until it would suddenly annoy me again.

The other day was one of those days. But this time, for the first time in 18 years, it dawned on me that what annoyed me had nothing to do with whether the dishwasher damaged the knives or not. Rather, the annoyance came from feeling that the action was equivalent to my husband telling me I didn’t matter.

This time, when I asked him not to put my good knives in the dishwasher and he replied “What does it hurt?” my answer was, “Me. It hurts me.” The bottom line is that it’s important to me, petty or not, and it hurts my feelings that respecting something important to me isn’t worth the effort of hand washing a knife.

For the first time in 18 years, there was no debate about who was right. For the first time in 18 years, my husband understood why he shouldn’t put the knives in the dishwasher.

Seeing the look on his face the moment he realized he’d hurt my feelings made me fall in love all over again. It turns out talking about annoyance can be romantic.

Tail Wag

The other night,  I sat at my desk trying to wrap up a few last things.  My dog decided I had already been working too long.  He came over, tail wagging, playfully bouncing, and stuck his nose under my mouse hand, knocking it away from the mouse.  When I turned toward him, he jumped up to put his front paws in my lap and started licking my face and pushing at me with his head, clearly trying to motivate me to get out of my chair.

When I stood up, he started racing around in circles, tail going so fast I thought it might fall off. I couldn’t help but smile as we began our evening routine.

Even though I don’t leave for work physically, I leave mentally.  My dog has tuned into my work day and mostly just naps near by during the hours he’s come to expect me to be working.  But when he needs to go out or is just tired of being ignored, he won’t take no for an answer.  He’s become my alarm dog, telling me when it’s time to take a break if not put work away for the night.

I am reminded of something a friend said to me once about how people should greet each other the way dogs greet their people.  That if we would dance around with wagging tails when we were reunited with friends, we would probably all be happier.  It occurs to me that if we were all as willing to express our feelings and our needs so unambiguously, we’d probably all be a lot happier, too.

I rarely know what I need.  Even really basic stuff like needing to use the restroom.  I will be in the midst of my day hopping from one conference call to the next and have a vague notion that perhaps I should take care of one of life’s most basic and unavoidable needs and then forget until, hours later, comes a sudden moment of urgency that cannot be denied or postponed.

Not knowing what I need makes it nearly impossible to ask for it.  I am surprised and delighted every time my husband magically appears to deposit lunch in front of me.  Realizing I forget to notice when I’m hungry, my husband makes sure I have something to eat without me having to stick my nose under his mouse hand.  I think it’s the most romantic gesture there is, except maybe when he does laundry.

But since he often shows up with lunch in the middle of my work day while I’m in the middle of doing work, I don’t jump up and run around in circles wagging my tail.  He’s lucky if I make eye contact with him and smile before he returns to his own busy day.  Perhaps I will give that a try on Monday.  Note to self: jump up, wag tail, run around in circles excitedly when Pat brings me lunch.

Human Fireworks

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The theme of fireworks made me think of the chemical fireworks that sometimes ignite between two people. This thought reminded me of a story from my teenage years. It was about someone I didn’t know well, I just knew of her. She was a mother and wife and she went to her high school reunion, reunited with a high school sweetheart and KABOOM! Fireworks.

Fireworks so powerful that she left her husband of over 20 years to marry this man from her past. It was an incident that shocked and dismayed many of the woman’s friends. I believe it was the notion that someone could be so overpowered by a chemical response that they could lose all sense of direction and suddenly wind up on a new course that they found terrifying.

In contrast to this story, my own father was reunited with a woman he went to school with about a year after my mother died. They never dated in school, although she and her husband and my father and mother double-dated in college. The four of them maintained a long distance relationship over the years, exchanging hand-me-downs for each others’ children (I got the daughter’s clothes; her brother got my brother’s clothes), and even visiting a few times when we were children in spite of living many hundreds of miles apart.

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When both her husband and my mother died within 6 months of each other, my father and his friend found support in exchanging emails about the experience, which eventually led to a first date. I never asked if there were fireworks, but I tend to think there were. After all, they saw each other in person for the first time in 20(?) years at the end of May that year, then she came out to visit Dad for their 2nd in-person date in early July. Her second day in town, they showed up on my porch excited to announce their engagement

While I was not prepared at the time to accept that while I was still struggling emotionally with my mother’s death my father was ready to move on, I have come to really love this story. I find it incredibly romantic that two kids who grew up together in the country came together and fell in love 40 years later. I’m happy to report that my father and his wife seem to still have the fireworks going strong 13 years later.

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6 Years

As I write, it’s December 21st.  The end of the Mayan calendar.  The winter solstice.  And, our 6th wedding anniversary–aka, “17 ½ years since our first date.”

Pat and I are apart today.  He is in Columbus for the unveiling of a guitar he’s been building.  I am left alone to ponder our six years together as a married couple.

The most repeated question my husband has asked me for the past 17 ½ years is, “Why do you love me.”  In honor of our sixth anniversary, here are six reasons I love my husband.

  1. We have things in common.  Having something we both love to share makes staying connected a little easier.  This was taken last year at one of the knobs in the Cherokee National Forest when we went to Snowbird Lodge for Thanksgiving weekend.

    Standing on a Knob in Cherokee National Forest just outside of Great Smokey National Park

    Standing on a Knob in Cherokee National Forest just outside of Great Smokey National Park

  2. He’s willing to try things because I like them.  Sometimes, we have divergent interests.  But Pat can rally around part of one of my interests and share some of it.  For example, he can’t get into birds in general, but he really loves raptors.  This allowed him to enjoy a Raptor Experience, which was a dream for me and of only slight interest to him.  I love when he doesn’t just “suffer through,” but genuinely enjoys something he would have never done if he didn’t love me.

    Pat holding Artie, a physically challenged Barred Owl that cannot survive in the wild.

    Pat holding Artie, a physically challenged Barred Owl that cannot survive in the wild.

  3. He loves dogs.  It’s not about the dog as much as it’s about the man.  A man who cannot empathize with creatures dependent on humans are usually men who are insecure, brutal, or psychopathic.  While there may be other reasons not to like dogs, it’s not something I can really understand.

    Pat cuddling Tisen shortly after he came to live with us.

    Pat cuddling Tisen shortly after he came to live with us.

  4. He enjoys learning new things.  My husband is a rare combination of inventor and explorer.  He loves to tinker, experiment, figure out.  Occasionally, he takes on a new adventurer.  When we moved to Chattanooga, he repeatedly mentioned hang gliding–he really wanted to learn.  In this case, I tried something new just because he wanted to.  We both had a great experience learning.  He swears he will fly again when he gets things more stable at his business.  I don’t really care.  I just enjoyed learning with him.

    Pat gets set for his first mountain launch.

    Pat gets set for his first mountain launch.

  5. He has a sense of humor.  This should probably be number one for me.  I am incapable of loving a man who has no sense of humor.  Fortunately for me, my husband is not only hilarious, but he thinks I’m funny at least half of the time I think I’m funny.  I can’t imagine spending my life with someone who never gets my jokes.

    How many husbands would understand why this shot was funny when originally posted with a bunch of photos of the moon?

    How many husbands would understand why this shot was funny when originally posted with a bunch of photos of the moon?

  6. He’s so smart, he can solve anything.  He’s brilliant with any kind of mechanical issue.  This goes back to #4.  I often call him MacGyver.  He could escape captivity with a pack of matches, a stick of gum, and a string.  His brilliance is what I most admire about him.

    I don't have a photo of Pat problem solving, but can't you just see in his face that he's coming up with some new amazing invention?

    I don’t have a photo of Pat problem solving, but can’t you just see in his face that he’s coming up with some new amazing invention?

There you have it.  Six reasons I love my husband.

I love you, honey.  Thanks for sticking it out with me.

Chasing the Sun

I have had many romantic notions about the sun in my time.  What sounds more romantic than hanging out on a beach watching the sunset?  Or watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii?  Or staying up all night and watching the sunrise together?

The truth is, watching sunset on the beach caused one of the worst allergic reactions I’ve ever had–never did figure out what I sat on.  Standing on Mauna Kea to watch the sunset caused light headedness and near hypothermia.  And as for staying up all night to watch the sunrise, well, I haven’t actually managed to stay up all night since I was in my 20’s.  Even then, by the time the sun was rising, I was nodding off.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets.  The beach sunset in San Diego was the first time I’d watched the sunset from the West coast.  We sat on a collection of rocks for a half an hour while the sun made its descent, slowly melting into the ocean at the end of its journey.  In the foreground, a collection of sea lions barked a chorus to accompany the show.

As for Mauna Kea, the clouds sank below where we were standing.  We were like the gods of Mt Olympus watching the sun follow the clouds until it disappeared beneath them.  And, the tour that took us there provided parkas, so we weren’t really at risk of freezing to death even in the blistering winds that blew up the mountain at impressive speeds.

And the last time I watched the sunrise after staying up all night, I was at Daytona Beach on the East coast, watching the sun rise out of the water like a brilliant breeching whale.

These days, I’m shooting sunrise and sunset only when I happen to notice something interesting and I happen to have my camera handy.  This is mainly because when I actually plan to shoot sunrise or sunset, I come home with about 1000 images that all look virtually the same.  Then I spend hours comparing and deleting.  It’s a time drain.

But maybe that doesn’t make them less romantic?  After all, I took the shot of the sunset over the glass bridge when Pat and I were strolling around downtown Chattanooga holding hands, exploring our new city shortly after moving here.  The image of sunrise over Market St was taken during a similar early morning walk along the riverfront.

Perhaps I’ve started taking the sun for granted.  There was a time not so long ago when seeing the sun was a real treat, regardless where it was in the sky.  In my home town, there are only 5 sunny days a year.  I think that’s the average per week in Chattanooga.

Maybe that’s why I’ve once again ended up with so many photos of the sun?

Walkin’ in the Moonlight

At the end of the day, I find myself with no new photos, nothing to write about, and a dog that needs to go for a walk.

I decide it’s been too long since I shot down at the riverfront at night.  I have shot the riverfront from the roof and balcony many times, but I can’t remember the last time I actually carried my camera down to the river after dark.

Having gone small yesterday, it seemed reasonable that today I would go wide, so I put my 16-35mm lens on my camera, grabbed my loupe and tripod, and talked my husband into coming with me and bringing the dog.

Walking Renaissance Park at night is always an interesting experience.  The meadow voles who live on the hillside at the park entrance seem to be mostly daytime critters–no rustles are heard in the leaves as we walk by, unlike earlier in the day when something scurried away every few steps.  Ironically, if they would hold still, we would never know they were there.

But as we head down the walkway past the wetland, leaves crunch loudly in the woods to our right.  A little too loudly.  We glance at each other and then peer into the darkness of the woods wondering what might be lurking there big enough to make that much noise.  I remind myself how loud even a mouse can be in fall leaves and we keep moving without any boogie men jumping out at us.

I pause to shoot the reflected trees in the wetland water.  It’s not the most stunning reflection, but I like the bright trees at the top of the hill and the dark sky streaked with clouds.

Tisen drops Snake (one of his newest family members), leaving the red and green toy (doesn’t every family have a Christmas snake?) laying in the shadows along the sidewalk while he investigates a smell.  Whoever was here before him left behind an interesting story–I finish shooting long before he’s done sniffing.

The night is cool, but I am warm enough with a sweater and light jacket.  The frogs and cicadas have disappeared and the only noises we hear besides the occasional rustle of leaves is the voices of other couples walking in the moonlight.

I think how romantic this walk might be if I weren’t carrying a tripod and stopping to shoot for long intervals.  My husband patiently keeps Tisen entertained while I shoot.  Maybe that’s it’s own kind of romance?

As we work our way around the same path we have walked hundreds of times in the past 15 months, I look at the scene anew.  Shooting causes an interesting shift in perspective–I look at the moon, the clouds, the lights, the converging lines, and the sculptures from different angles and look for new ways to combine them in my frame.

I realize the same old scene is actually never the same twice.

Bowl Games

Many moons ago, I taught an Essay and Research class.  One of the things I taught my students was to narrow their focus.

Every time a student was stuck, it was because they were overwhelmed by a big subject and didn’t know where to go with it.  Creating a more current, hypothetical example, a student writing about the economic crisis of 2008 would get as far as “it was awful”  and then not know what else to say.  If they wrote about what caused the economic crisis, they would have something to go research.  But, since none of them were interested in writing a dissertation, that would also lead to writer’s block.  If they wrote about one cause, they would get further, but were usually bored.  But if they wrote about one family and what happened to them, suddenly, they would not be able to stop writing.  As you narrow the scope of what you write about, you often find a nugget of inspiration.

Taking a lesson from my own class (although, I shouldn’t take credit–there was probably a teacher I’ve forgotten who shared this wisdom with me), as I look for photographic inspiration, I switch from thinking about every possibility in the world to giving myself a highly constrained assignment:  shoot one bowl in one place as many ways as possible in about an hour.

As I clear off the largest surface I have available to work on, creating a space about 2 feet by 2 feet (how I miss having a big table), and place a weathered copper bowl under a light, my husband watches me.

“Do you know what you’re going to write about?” He asks.

I ignore him because I, in fact, have not a clue what I’m going to write about.  I am only worried about what I’m going to shoot; the story will come.

He watches me spend my hour on about 40 shots of this poor, beaten bowl.  I start with my 24-70mm lens on a tripod with a simple light bulb behind the bowl.  Then, I try it with my flash with an 1/8” grid strapped on top.  Not satisfied with the spread of the light, I try it with a softbox attachment.  This ruins the contrasting shadows.  I try with a snoot (I still love that word!) and hold the snoot in various positions to create a spotlight effect on different parts of the bowl.

Finally, I ditch my flash and switch to my 100mm macro lens.  I get up close and try to get as much depth of field as possible (not much) across the gleaming rim of the bowl.

“Have you decided what you’re going to write about?” my husband asks again.

I give him a look.

He says, “Well, you’re over there taking all these pictures of that bowl, I assume you know what you’re going to write about.”

I still haven’t told him.