Finding balance in the second half of life

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Groping Our Way Toward Green

In Community, Survival on March 4, 2011 at 2:19 am

While I was brushing my teeth the other day (with the water off), I heard that  Republicans have switched back to using Styrofoam in the Capitol instead of compostable food containers. They say that the money saved by making the switch can be used to reduce the deficit and that the “Green the Capitol” program didn’t help the environment much, anyway. Democrats disagree. Vehmently, of course.

I don’t know whom to believe. Like healthcare and education, being green is complex.  Something that seems like it’s best for the environment might not be. Our dishwasher has been underperforming for a while (due to either its 17 years or companies changing their detergent formula in an effort to be more environmentally correct themselves), so I’ve been washing dishes by hand. I’d forgotten how much time washing all the day’s dishes by hand takes.

I was okay with it because I thought I was helping out the environment. I’m woefully late to the green scene—we don’t compost and I still use baggies and Saran Wrap, albeit guiltily. Washing dishes by hand made me feel environmentally virtuous. But whether or not hand-washing dishes actually is virtuous depends on what kind of dishwasher you have, which cycle you use, how you heat your water, and the process you use. Can you wash and rinse a dinner plate in about one cup of water? I can’t.  According to treehugger.com, it’s almost impossible to be more efficient than a good automatic dishwasher, as long as you’re using good automatic dishwasher practices.

After that I decided to circumvent green complexity entirely by using less. When cooking, I estimate instead of using a measuring spoon. It’s one less thing to wash. Estimating amounts puts the meal at risk, especially those that call for cayenne pepper, but so far no one has noticed. My son did, however, notice when I went a step too far with my philosophy and drank grapefruit juice out of the container. He’s a teenager who has done that himself. Still, he didn’t approve. (In my defense, it was a moment of weakness, and I’m the only one who ever drinks grapefruit juice in our house.) 

I also buy less at the grocery store. All the packaging makes me queasy, but I’m equally motivated by the work involved. The more I buy, the more work I create all the way around—bagging it, lugging it home, putting it away, not to mention the work involved in making money to pay for it. I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing want from need.

The same goes for clothes. I just don’t buy many anymore. I’ve had my red winter duffle coat for at least 18 years; when the lining wore out, a friend made a new lining for it that was nicer than the original.  When the straps of my purse wore out, I started using an old purse that’s dated, but well made—so well made that it will last for another 10 years, by which time it will qualify as retro.

Perhaps because I buy so few new clothes, I resist parting with old ones, even when I’ve stopped wearing them. I made half-hearted attempts at cleaning out my closet several times last year, but it was still full of things I didn’t wear. When the Salvation Army offered to pick up donations at the curb a few weeks ago, I took another run at it.

We live downtown, a few blocks from a shelter for the homeless. At this time of year, I see a lot of people walk by without real winter coats. When, on the day I tackled my closet, I saw yet another woman in a sweatshirt, it occurred to me that it is morally and ethically wrong to hang onto clothing I don’t wear.  If I have it, then someone who needs it doesn’t. For the first time it struck me as hoarding, and it trumped all my old excuses. There were still some things I clung to, but this time my closet is visibly emptier.

I’m not setting myself up as an example. Rather, admitting to all this is embarrassing. These are basic things, all of which I once knew and practiced but, I’m ashamed to say, set aside during the fat and stupid years.  I’m now having to re-learn them.

“Reduce” is the first commandment of environmentalism and where I should have started.  It was our way of life growing up on the farm. My father, a Christian and a Republican, taught us that God expects us to be stewards of the land. Even as little kids we knew what that meant—in all things, take what you need and no more. Whenever possible, reuse. He made it clear that God didn’t care if you were a kid, adult, or a Martian, for crying out loud—we are all stewards. Even Republicans and Democrats.

Which brings me back to those Stryfoam cups at the Capitol. Since the most environmentally friendly option—drinking straight from the container—truly is unacceptable (even if you are the only one who drinks that particular beverage), maybe the folks at the Capitol could do what I’m asking my family to do at home: use the same glass, water bottle, or travel mug all day.

That would give me lots of company where I am on this journey–at the beginning. And I’m not picky about the company. Bring on the Martians.–Christine MacLean

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A Hole in the Heart

In Family, Fulfillment on January 29, 2011 at 1:55 am

“We’re all done here. I don’t want to see you again,” said the cardiologist to my daughter as we left his office this morning. “Goodbye. Have a good life.”

She’s been seeing him since she was diagnosed at about six months with a ventricular septum defect—a hole between the lower chambers of her heart.  From the very first visit, we knew it was small. It never affected her development. The doctor never limited her or restricted her physical activities. “I see football players who have this,” he said. And that’s what my husband and I said, too, to each other: “He sees football players who have this.” Still, the doctor wanted to see her, every year at first, then every two, then every three.

In the years between visits, she grew. She loved passionately and she hated passionately. She had no trouble expressing her emotions.

My daughter gave me this ransom-style note when she was about eight.

Around the same time, she gave me this heart-shaped rock she found. Later, when it broke, she was the one who thought to fix it with a band-aid.

“Weren’t your feelings hurt when I said I hated you?” she asked me recently.  Fourteen now, still passionate but better able to moderate her emotions, she sees her young self through eyes that are more adult than child. I told her I never believed her, not for a moment.

“I really believed it when I said it,” she said. “I believed I hated you.”

But I knew her heart. I knew its nature as well as the cardiologist, with all his EKGs and echocardiograms and pulse oximetry, knew its form.

And now the form of her heart has caught up to its nature. The hole has completely closed, which is why her cardiologist doesn’t want to see her again. We left with a printout of her electrocardiogram, a parting gift.

I drove her back to school and went to the office to sign her in. She let me hug her before she headed to history class.

I thought about the hole, now closed, about how her whole life lies ahead of her, wide open, and about how I will never be all done here. No parent ever is.

–Christine MacLean

Adios, 2010

In Fulfillment on December 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm

It’s the end of the year, the traditional time for reflection (self-loathing, because of all you didn’t accomplish this year) and planning (setting yourself up for 2011 year-end self-loathing). If, like me, you just can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it, your time might be better spent reading notes written by irrate people and signs written by people who seem to treat quote marks as decorations. You’ll leave the year laughing, regardless of the kind of year you’ve had.  (Photo courtesy of unnecessaryquotes.com.)

–“Christine” MacLean

Marriage (an All-Over-the-Place Post)

In Romance on December 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

My wedding anniversary is later this month. That, coupled with all the press  lately about how the institution of marriage is changing, has made me think of Age of Unreason. In that book, Charles Handy discusses mostly business ideas and his concept of a portfolio life (“a portfolio of activities–some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause”). But he also throws in the idea of a portfolio marriage. His vision isn’t one of changing marriage partners; his vision is one of changing patterns in a marriage–“a portfolio of possibilities,” he calls it.

Handy believes that in successful marriages spouses are able to flex over the lifetime of their relationship. Sometimes you get to take the lead, other times you play a supporting role. There will be times that your roles are ambiguous and overlap and other times your roles are clear and separate. Occasionally you might be “friendly rivals” in your careers and there may be periods when you each want, above all, just to pursue your own interests–maybe in retirement.

Writes Handy, “Too often a change in partner is the way many people match their need for a marriage with the need for change. . .If they do not realize that it is only the patterns which are changing, then it is the relationship which breaks.”

There are many reasons marriages founder, of course, but I do think Handy was on to something. Circumstances change, people change, relationships change, and we (the two people in the marriage) have to be open to all of it and adjust.

I think the same is true on a societal level. Almost 40% of people think that marriage is becoming obsolete, but if we (the collective we) could flex a little, say on the whole gay marriage thing, we could preserve what’s best about the institution–love, commitment, devotion, continuity. But if we don’t realize that it’s only the patterns of marriage that are changing, then the institution might break.

I don’t think it will, though. If you look at the history of marriage, as Stephanie Coontz did, what you realize is that marriage is the cockroach of institutions. It’s a survivor.

 –Christine MacLean

Squirrel! Bird! (aka Self-Interruptus)

In Fulfillment on December 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Jason Fried, president of 37signals, thinks offices are “interruption factories.” He doesn’t blame people for preferring to work at home or the coffee shop; he blames the office. Oh, please. The office is a collection of people, and it is people—not a building or a collection of desks and chairs—that set expectations for how quickly workers should respond to messages and establish norms for if, when, and how it’s okay to interrupt. In fairness, Fried does offer some interesting solutions, all of which involve changing norms. (Lots of luck.)

Until that happens, here’s how you can cut interruptions in half: Stop giving in to distraction. That’s right. Research shows that half the time we interrupt ourselves to check e-mail, the weather, or (lord help us) kittycam.net. It also shows that, once we are distracted, we don’t get back on track for 25 minutes.

I recently scribbled this on a Post-It note and stuck it to my computer: Can you really afford to waste 25 minutes? I’m not sure how much good it will do, but it’s a start.

–Christine MacLean

Happy, Interesting, or Both?

In Fulfillment on December 1, 2010 at 3:32 pm

From Penelope Trunk's Brazeen Careerist

How great is this photo? It’s from Penelope Trunk, who eventually in her post gets around to talking about how you can’t have a life that’s both interesting and happy. You have to choose. Or, if you don’t have the choice (each of us is born with a happiness “set point” that accounts for about 50% of our happiness level), to accept the hand you’re dealt and play it as best you can. As a writer, I’ve thought about this a lot because I am mostly happy, which seems to put me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to material. My own assessment of my life is that it’s been interesting, but not fascinating. There must be a middle ground–even if it is no wider than a barbed wire fence. Happily (See? Happy!), I thought of someone who has a life that’s both happy and fascinating, at least by all appearances: Ree, aka The Pioneer Woman.

Christine MacLean

Giving Retailers the Brush-Off

In Fulfillment on November 25, 2010 at 10:00 am

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Beyond the purpose of the day–looking at what we have instead of at all the things our culture constantly points out we don’t have–I love the smell of roasting root vegetables and simmering cranberry sauce, the comfort of hunkering in for the day in front of the stove first and later a fire, the easy rhythm of relatives forced to spend time together (although must they retell embarrassing stories that never should have been told in the first place?). It’s the most laidback holiday. There’s nothing else to do besides talk, eat, and watch football on mute. The Christmas season, and all the high expectations that come with it, could wait until the aptly named Black Friday.

Or at least it could until now. This year a number of major retailers are holding pre-Black Friday (euphemism for “Thanksgiving Day”) sales. Even Sears—the Norman Rockwell of retailing–will be open on Thanksgiving for the first time in its 127 years. To which I can only say, Et tu, Brutus?

I won’t be shopping on Thanksgiving or the day after. Instead, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to make for my friend this year with whatever I can find around the house plus supplies that cost less than two dollars. It’s something we started last year, after she told me how it had been a tradition in her family (their spending cap was just ten cents). After a few false starts, I decided on making a voodoo doll. My lack of crafting skills is sadly obvious; who knew a voodoo doll could end up looking like Don King? And I blew the entire two dollars on the skull beads for the necklace.

I think my friend liked it (I know her cat did), but the truth is that the whole experience was a bigger gift to me than the voodoo doll was to her. In making that silly gift, I rediscovered the joy of giving. I remembered that it’s about thinking about the person more and the gift itself less. I learned another small way to take back the holidays.

Christine MacLean

This Is your Brain on Friends

In Community, Fulfillment on November 17, 2010 at 4:21 pm

It went against my better instincts to have lunch with Lois before my first meeting with a prospective client. I felt that I should be brushing up on. . .I don’t know–something–and I’m not great company when I’m anxious. But we had lunch scheduled and I like having lunch with Lois. She makes me laugh.

Turns out my instincts were wrong. Research from the Institute of Social Research shows that the kind of “friendly talk” you have with a good friend or when making a new friend improves focus and working memory. My meeting went well and I got the project.

You might want to keep this in mind if you’re giving a big presentation. However, if the only person around to talk to is a frenemy, skip it. Researchers say conversations that have a competitive edge don’t have any cognitive benefits at all.

–Christine MacLean

Dating, Tamed

In Romance on March 20, 2010 at 6:59 pm

In a few minutes, she will come again, my son’s first girlfriend, she of the long, blonde locks and plate-sized china blue eyes. She will ferry my son away from us, not across the River Styx but on a crossing at least as treacherous–teen dating. When she arrives, he doesn’t rush to leave, but he is eager to be off.  He never looks back.

I’m ill prepared for this. It feels like an embolism in my chest that will surely burst when he leaves for good.

But. Her arm encircles his waist and her hand rests on his belt. But. He smiles in such a way that I know the rest of the world–his dog at his feet, the hockey playoffs on TV, his father at the door, me on the stair–are in soft focus for him. And I remember.

I remember Robert, who parked his car at our house and rode to work every day one summer with my father. He was tall and dark with a slow, winning smile. I started showering in the afternoon. I set my hair in pink sponge rollers.  And I made sure I just happened to be outside at the very moment he and my father came home. I was smitten. I was ten years old.

My affection was not returned. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even noticed. I was devastated to learn, upon snooping through his glove compartment and finding his cigarettes and  love letters, that he loved some girl named Nancy. Misery loves company and I had plenty: my four older sisters were all in love with him, too. It’s because of Robert that to this day, I find the hint of smoke on a man sexy.

It took me a few years to recover from that loss and start dating Paul, my first real boyfriend. I remember Paul. He was shorter than I by about three inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in what he taught me. (No, I’m not going there.) Before Paul, I thought studying for a test meant looking at the material for a few minutes. But Paul, who was a socio-economic class or two above my farm family, was a serious student who eventually graduated at the top of his class. Paul studied five or six hours every day, and it was by watching him that I learned how to be a good student.

Then came Greg. I remember Greg. He smoked pot. I didn’t. We stayed together for longer than we should have. I don’t know why. Oh, wait. Maybe I do. He was good looking. Remember Robert? Yeah, he looked like a younger Robert. I was going to say that I learned nothing from that relationship, but then I realized that Greg taught me to play tennis, and tennis has been a hobby of mine ever since.

And I remember Keith, who was waiting for me when Greg and I broke up. Funny, athletic, and personable, he liked to lift weights–and use me as the weight. We laughed a lot. From him I learned that dating could be fun. He was the quintessential nice guy and I broke up with him in a hallway conversation between classes–an approach that strikes me as a precursor to the text break-up. I was a jerk. I regretted breaking up with him later, when I realized that nice, funny, personable, athletic guys who are fun on a date are pretty hard to come by.

I remember the things I learned in those early dating relationships that helped make me who I am and shaped my preferences. I remember that all those relationships prepared me to see that the right man who finally came along was the right man, and to treat him right.

Now when I see my boy-man son and his girlfriend together, I try to think of all he’s learning (no, not that,  although that occurs to me, since she’s older than he is and has had other boyfriends). She’s a good student and she has some ambitions; I wouldn’t mind if some of that rubbed off on him.

And she plays on the tennis team, which is why twice last week he asked me to go hit some balls with him–my son who has stonewalled me whenever I’ve asked him to play over the past five years.  Until now. In that way, she has not only given him back to me, but given us a new common interest that might connect us even as he pulls away, even as the embolism throbs near my heart.

She’s breezing in the door now, smelling of roses and french fries. She can ferry him across that passage and I will be waiting, racquet in hand, on the other side.–Christine MacLean

This Age Is My Age

In Survival on March 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I’ve always liked the idea of aging naturally. I wasn’t going to dye my hair or get a facelift or even wear anything more than a light foundation on my face. Then I started aging and saw (once I put on my reading glasses) what aging naturally actually looked like.

News flash: It does not look like Lauren Hutton–older, sure, but still attractive. Instead it looks like my older brother (around the eyes) and my mother (everywhere else).

And that’s just the beginning. I’ve exercised and eaten right my entire life; now suddenly, it does no good. I run for a tennis ball and I feel my buttocks galumphing along behind me, trying to keep up.  (While absolutely true, this is puzzling, since I don’t really have buttocks; they have sunk into my thighs.) My good genes are failing me.

My sister, who recently attended a conference on aging, says the problem is not with my genes but with my thinking. She says  the body knows it’s on a journey. As we age, every part of us is being pulled down by gravity, closer to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That sort of thing. Sags, wrinkles, heavy-lidded eyes are all signposts along the journey. I don’t like the signposts. I don’t like them at all.

The most I can muster at the moment is a grudging respect for them and their potential to make me a better person. Henry Nouwen wrote, “every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, and deeper.”

I want to be that person who chooses the losses I experience to be passages to something new.  I want to embrace this stage, or at least accept it. But there is still a part of me that thinks why not do whatever you can to look younger? Our society values youth. Age, not so much.

I have a friend who is a doctor. One of the things she enjoys most is doing botox because it makes patients so happy. “I can fix those,” she said, not unkindly, pointing at the worry furrows between my eyebrows. I told her I wanted to age naturally, which I thought was going to be the same thing as aging gracefully. My friend, who is a nonconformist, laughed and said, “I had a lot of angst about whether to dye my hair and then when I finally did it, I realized, ‘Oh, it’s just hair.’ It’s the same way with botox. They are just wrinkles.”

Maybe they are just wrinkles. But for me it’s a slippery slope. If I look younger, I could easily fall into believing that I am younger. If I run a half marathon, I might think I’m literally outrunning death. Lots of people do.  With plastic surgery, botox, tummy tuck, and butt lift, I never have to look my age.  I can deny I’m aging at all and I can put off doing the hard emotional work of coming to terms with death. As  much as I despise them, I need those signposts. But my furrows are not yet deep, and with age comes this wisdom: Never say never.

Christine MacLean is a mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, and writer living in Holland, Michigan. She was the editor of Jugglezine.com, an ezine about balancing work and life, for the 12 years it existed.