Hit-By-Truck Fifth Year Anniversary

February 12, 2021. This morning I realized that yesterday marked five years since the hit-by-truck incident on February 11, 2016 in Madison Wisconsin, when a pickup truck collided with me as I was walking to work, layered heavily in goose down and fleece against the 5-degree cold. I don’t mean to belabor a major life horror by remarking on it every single year. However, I thought it was interesting or maybe odd that I didn’t even think about the anniversary on that exact date. I didn’t notice it, perhaps because my sister-in-law underwent brain surgery in Vermont on the same day as the anniversary. Yesterday, there were other things to think about besides getting slammed by a truck five years ago. She had been slammed by a stroke in December and the surgery was an attempt to prevent future strokes.

First walk outside after a week in a chair. February 2016

Also today, in the wee hours of a morning insomnia experience, I listened from under the warm covers and quilts to Sam Harris’ podcast discussion with Iain McGilchrist (#234 – The Divided Mind) in which they opine eloquently on the differences between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain, and among many other topics in two hours and 30 minutes, the unique deficits resulting from damage to the left and right hemispheres. Of course, I thought a lot about my sister-in-law’s stroke experience. I also thought about the fact that we are not the same person after a traumatic experience that we were before the experience. “Recovering completely” is a fantasy. Experiences change us profoundly and permanently. Then I thought, well, of course we are never the same from one decade to the next, regardless of experiences. Or because of them.

Broken wrist plus 7 ribs and pelvis 2016
Modification to walker to accommodate new cast on wrist. 2016

Then I began to wonder about the contributing factors to change. The person I am now at age 69 is different from who I was five or ten years ago. Of course. Explanations? Mainly because of aging and moving from the Midwest back to the east coast? Or mainly from the hit-by-truck trauma? Or mainly from the trauma of trading my Wisconsin social network for a new Virginia network made up partly of friends from decades ago and partly of new friends. Everything contributes.

That’s a lot to think about on a snowy cold morning in this forest we live in, from which we have not departed much in a year. What’s going on with my mind and my brain and my recovery from trauma?

My memoir, Risking Wreckage, opens with the scene of the incident five years ago as told in an eyewitness account obtained by my lawyer. A young woman driving a vehicle behind the offending truck saw the incident happen in real time and told the lawyer every painful detail, none of which I knew until some weeks after the not-accident. [I don’t use the word “accident” because the collision could easily have been prevented.]

I used that scene to open the memoir because the trauma of that incident was a wakeup call that we lived isolated from family in an extreme-weather part of America and that when we retired at the end of 2016, we might want to consider moving somewhere warmer and closer to family. So we did.

2016, February 11: From eye-witness deposition. “I saw the driver try to brake at the last instant, but it was too late. The truck smashed into the front of her body so hard that she flew backward several feet in the air. I then saw her strike the road as she landed on her back.

“I pulled over to the side of University Avenue and rushed over. As I reached her, I could hear her groaning. I asked her about her condition, but she was unable to respond. I then called 911 and waited with her until an ambulance arrived. I also helped gather jackets from bystanders to keep her warm. Before she finally was transported from the scene, she was able to tell me her name and that her chest hurt but seemed unable to say anything else. She was visibly experiencing significant pain during the time I stayed with her while she lay on the pavement.”

The Hit-By-Truck Incident. “Who can I call?” asked the ambulance attendant as I lay on the gurney on a sunny freezing February morning, clutching my cell phone and groaning with each lurch of the ambulance.

“Uh, well, my husband is working in Manhattan right now. My brother’s in Costa Rica, my son is in Norfolk, VA, and my daughter is in DC. There’s no family here right now.” Here being Madison, Wisconsin. Anyway, there is no other family, except a sister-in-law in Vermont and a niece in DC. That was the extent of the extended crowd.

After all the risky stuff I’d done in my life, involving mountains, oceans, hot-air balloons, charging rhinos, dehydrated nomads and gun-toting African teenagers, I never could have imagined that the wreckage from an encounter with a Dodge Ram pickup truck, driven by an 80-year-old man, would prove the most damaging. Seven broken bones requiring a few weeks of oxycodone did not flip me into drug-dependency.  But I couldn’t walk without a walker. Me, the mountaineer.

Lying on the stretcher in the ambulance, I extracted my cell phone from my coat pocket, clutched it to my chest, and announced that I did not want anyone to take it from me. Even in pain, my phone addiction is stronger than opioids. I texted my husband; he called and spoke to the attendant. I could barely talk; I was just trying to breathe.

The attendants established that I was oriented and knew the basics: it’s 2016, my name is Jan Hogle, I have health insurance, Obama is in the White House. They asked which hospital I preferred. Dumb question. The University of Wisconsin hospital is just up the hill. I said, “UW. I work there.” As confirmed by the badge on a lanyard around my neck.

Being hit by a truck while walking in a crosswalk is no adventure of the Kilimanjaro variety since neither choice nor a helmet is involved. One fraction of a second and life careens off in an unexpected direction, leaving time to think about my upcoming retirement which I had announced a few weeks previously. Time to move, again. But right now, I can’t move without pain.

Lying in the hospital bed, grateful that I hadn’t died, I wondered how it happened that the truck did not run over me but instead, sent me flying like a tackled NFL receiver. I kept thinking I’d get out of bed and go upstairs to work. But then, I’d breathe and feel the crackles that meant broken ribs and could manage no more than a groan.

Marooned alone in the upper Midwest, at least for the moment, my text to my husband from the ambulance was brief: “Hit by truck. Ambulance. UW Hospital.” It took him 10 hours to get home from Manhattan. He walked into my hospital room, directly off the plane, sat down in the chair opposite my bed, and said, “I never thought I’d see you like this.”

Texting husband in Manhattan in 2016

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Bruce said this morning that he thought it was a good thing that I’d forgotten about the incident on the anniversary. Why is it good to forget about trauma? Maybe it’s not that I forgot but rather that I’ve processed the experience enough so that I can continue on with as much life as I have left, which I hope is a couple of decades at least. Still, each year on the anniversary, I like to remember and feel gratitude for another year of life.

©Jan Hogle 2021 Risking Wreckage: a memoir of adventuring out and settling in

A Viral Story 11/2/2020 (sometimes I write fiction)

From Google images: our virus friends who roam the world with us humans.

A hundred years ago, the Virus Community got together to face the fact that Homo sapiens sapiens was an out-of-control invasive species. Something had to be done. An invasive species is defined as “an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native.” There’s no doubt that H. s. sapiens has caused ecological and economic harm in whatever new environment it moved into over the tens of hundreds or maybe thousands of years since the species wandered out of Africa. Should it have avoided wandering out of Africa? Why did the species members wander? We have no solid data, but we can imagine. And H. s. sapiens took along with it, its favorite viruses and other pathogens. The Viruses were thrilled and the planet’s population was still relatively small. There was some concern among Viruses that H. s. sapiens might become a raging wildfire with an invasion ferocity that could topple ecosystems along with governments. They were right, although it took a long time for that reality to sink in.

For millennia prior to the turn of the century from 19th to 20th, the Virus Community had tossed out a series of half-hearted pandemics which cut back on the Invasion to an impressive extent, but invasives don’t take no for any answer. They keep coming back.

H. sapiens had already stomped to extinction most other “advanced” hominids and was thus the final hominid standing, taking on the label of H. s. sapiens, in case you wanted a bit more confusion. Yes, the gorillas and chimps still existed, but they had wandered way off the evolutionary road and stayed out of the way of H. sapiens.

The planet’s population in the early years of the 20th century ballooned to 1.8 billion, so according to calculations, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed almost 1% (0.94%) of the entire population, although data is sketchy. The estimators have written that back then, the world population was growing by around 13 million per year so the 1918 pandemic “was likely the last time in history when the world population was declining.”

H. s. sapiens made up for all those lost souls.

Various flu attacks from the Virus Community continued over the past hundred years since the 1918 one, but we had vaccines and people stopped noticing.

So, the Virus Community decided to launch HIV when it was obvious that herpes was just a hiccup. It figured they’d get us where we were most vulnerable – sex and drugs. Did the viral onslaught result in significant population impacts? No. Apparently. We are now at nearly 7.8 billion – doubled in just my own lifetime of just shy of 70 years. I haven’t seen blips in the population graphs relating to HIV. When I worked in that industry in the 1990s, the best estimates claimed that HIV would not reduce the world’s population but that it might slow the speed of growth. Not sure if that actually happened. The bottom line is, we’re at 7.8 billion.

Niger, where I lived and worked for four years, is the poorest country according to the statistics despite decades of international assistance. When I lived there in the early 1980s, the population was about 5.8 million; now it’s about 22 million, balancing precariously on the edge of the Sahara Desert. HIV didn’t cut it.

Lots of other Viruses kicked in before and after HIV: rabies, smallpox, hantavirus, ebola, marburg, various forms of influenza, dengue, rotavirus, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and now our friend SARS-CoV-2 or covid for short. The millennials like to call it “the ‘rona.” 

“You got the ‘rona yet?”

The Viruses got together again and in a perhaps last-ditch effort to secure the planet for other living entities, they allowed Covid to erupt. In its first year, planet-wide, approximately 1.4 million people have died. A mere drop in the bucket but the Viruses are not done, and they are very insistent. They want their lives back. They want H. s. sapiens to back off. We are an invasive species, but the Virus Community is very determined, and combined with crazy cultural characteristics (like refusing to mask or get a vaccine), the Viruses may win. Not all of us are willing to hermit. And likely the Virus Community will pop up with something else in the decades to come as H. s. sapiens invades every remaining corner and cupboard of earth’s pantry.

Now, think about this: one percent of 7.8 billion is (clickety-clack) 78 million. And we’re now only at 1.4 million dead. So, we’re a long way from losing this particular Viral War to the percentage displayed by influenza in 1918-ish. And even if lots more humans succumb, perhaps it’s likely that the Viruses will ultimately be vanquished. Or we will vanquish ourselves for some other complex set of reasons and the Viruses will win, having not even done the job Themselves.

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“Black hat, dinner and a movie” — not this year

Covid is causing the first of the three major fall holidays to re-imagine itself for safe celebration. As we slither through October, the children in my orbit are planning costumes and asking how they are going to trick-or-treat during this pandemic. As usual, creativity abounds. And candy absolutely must be collected, so how to do it? It’s all about the candy, right?

Not a fan of candy corn

I don’t remember much about Halloween from my childhood half a century ago and there are no photographs of my brother and me in costumes, but I have a memory of sorting candy and of UNICEF boxes full of pennies. Or was it dimes? Certainly, I liked getting candy, but I was picky about what I ate. Sorting it was more fun than eating it. I liked chocolate bars, Hershey’s kisses, and Tootsie Roll pops – only the cherry ones with a chocolate center. I didn’t like candy corn or licorice or malt balls or most of what turned up in my bag. Perhaps my parents ate what I didn’t like. They didn’t ration our candy, maybe because it was one of the few times in the year that we actually got candy. By the time I was in junior high and high school, I quit wandering around asking for candy and stayed home to hand it out, while eating my share.

I read that trick-or-treating only became a widespread practice in the 1930s, so by the time I was old enough to trick or treat in the 1950s, the custom had only been around for a couple of decades. During my lifetime, the holiday has expanded epidemically to include activities in which I seldom take part. For example, I don’t decorate our landscaping or attend wild costume parties. I don’t even carve pumpkins, although there is a pumpkin sitting on my front porch right now.

Why does Halloween exist? It seems like a strange holiday, dressing up in silly costumes and begging for candy. Originally associated with the night before All Saints’ Day, Halloween was believed to be a time when souls clustered close to the living world making people nervous. So, they’d light bonfires to keep ghosts away, and wear masks to prevent spirits from recognizing them. Masks! Such a good idea!

Going house to house asking for handouts evolved from being a custom of poor people looking for coins, to a custom of creatively-costumed children begging for candy. I can’t quite understand that evolution but maybe candy companies had something to do with the changes.

Andy in 1987 in Niamey, Niger, wearing a borrowed costume.

When we returned to the US from living overseas, our toddlers in tow, we thought we should participate in the American custom of dressing them in costumes and taking them around the neighborhood on Halloween. I tried to make costumes for them, but my efforts were not worthy of photographs, and since I was working full time, I didn’t have much energy or time for elaborately sewn creations. They were more interested in the candy. I was a reluctant participant in the silliness, feeling guilty about my lack of enthusiasm. I would have felt better if I could have handed out toothbrushes along with the candy, but I didn’t even know that custom existed until recently, and unlike dentists, I didn’t have access to bulk rates on toothbrushes.

Megan in 1999 as a bag of jellybeans, designed by a neighbor

Our daughter, Megan, seemed to particularly enjoy Halloween in the 1990s and 2000s. She and her friends would concoct creative costumes and wander in groups to collect candy, then come home and stuff themselves with their favorites, sharing some with me. When they were in middle school, I sometimes wandered around with them, staying at a distance, but keeping them in sight.

During my mother’s final five years of life, I’d bring her over to our house for Halloween evening and seat her in a chair close to the front door so she could hand out candy and enjoy looking at the costumed children who came calling. We’d play spooky music, keep the lights low, and I’d dress in witchy clothing to answer the door, eating too much chocolate myself as we waited for the doorbell to ring.

Once the children grew up and left home, Bruce and I invented an opportunity to celebrate Halloween in a different way. On Halloween night, we went out to dinner and a movie to avoid being home listening for the doorbell and giving away candy while we ate it. Motivated by thoughts of childhood obesity rates and the lack of dental care for so many children, I felt I just couldn’t be part of the problem.

The standard Halloween look

There were times when dressing up in costume was part of some work-related event, or a party at the children’s school, so I always created the same persona – dressed in flowing black, with a long-haired gray wig and my Harry Potter sorting hat. For years, that’s how I thought about Halloween – black, the witch look, dinner and a movie.

This year, however, there will be no indoor dinner and no movie; all the theaters are closed. We retired to an isolated mountain, where there are no children coming door to door, since there are few lights, and they might encounter a bear. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, on a street where the houses are closer together, a plan is crystalizing for setting up candy stations, with homeowners sitting physically-distanced, and children being herded along to collect packets for their sacks. The candy collection carnival cannot be abandoned for a wicked virus!

I haven’t decided if I’ll be out there in witch mode to observe the reincarnation of Trick-or-Treating for Covid 2020. At least it will be outdoors. Will someone dress up as a giant virus? That might be something to see. With a crown on the reddish orb, protein spikes protruding menacingly… I’ll have to watch for that costume.

Thanks to Unsplash for this photo!

A dog named Fang

Fang 2000s Madison

Fang in Wisconsin, 2007 

Please can I have a dog while I’m still a kid?” whined our nine-year-old daughter back in the late 1990s. She’d been leaving notes on our pillows, saving every cent, and talking about dogs nonstop since our visit to her aunt’s farm outside Tallahassee where four dogs entertained her for several days. Once home in Virginia, Megan began a relentless daily campaign to convince us we needed a dog, asking us every single day if we could get one. For months, she saved her money and even stopped buying Beanie Babies.

There were plenty of reasons for the mom of the house to object to a dog, the main one being that I worked 4 days a week with an hour commute. The children were in after-school care. No one was home four days a week for 9 to 10 hours a day. I tried to talk her into other lower-maintenance animals, but she would not be distracted from her obsession.

For most of my life, I was a confirmed cat person, having acquired my first Siamese kitten at age 11. Years later, moving out of the college dorms, I acquired another Siamese kitten who divided her time over the years between me and my parents. When we lived in Africa, we did not have pets, and once we had children in the mid-80s, we didn’t see any need for additional dependent creatures. However, children have other ideas.

Finally, Bruce and I decided independently that we had to find a dog for Megan. We were both tired of listening to her pleading, reading the notes, and hearing her complain that she was the only kid in the entire universe who did not have a dog! So, we caved. The requirements were: no puppy, no expensive purebred dog, had to come from the local shelter, must be at least a year old, and a medium-sized dog — no big ones, no tiny ones. Megan agreed to everything.

Bruce made a reconnaissance visit to the local shelter to check out the possibilities prior to taking Megan there on a Saturday morning. He identified a border collie who he thought looked promising. We knew nothing about dog breeds. We walked into the shelter behind a man leading a medium sized white dog on a leash. We waited patiently for him to explain to the receptionist that he was giving up his dog because he traveled often and because his invalid wife could no longer manage the year-old active dog. This dog had all his shots, was neutered, and house-trained.  He was beautiful, quiet, observant, and appeared to be a bit intimidated by the shelter environment. We talked to the receptionist as the white dog was led away to a cage. Then we went into a room and an attendant brought in the border collie Bruce had seen the day before. He seemed to be a nice dog, but very jumpy. Megan fell in love with him immediately. I suggested maybe we should look at the other dogs in the shelter, so we did.

We found the white dog in his cage sitting quietly and looking sad. The sign said “American Eskimo dog” which meant nothing to us since we knew nothing about dog breeds. Did I already mention that? When the attendant brought him into the room, he hopped up on the bench next to Bruce and put his head on Bruce’s leg, while Megan petted him. He seemed at ease with us, calm, and did not growl. We looked at a few other dogs but kept coming back to the white dog’s cage. His name was Fang, according to the sign, suggesting Jack London’s book White Fang. He looked like a husky to me, but I knew nothing about dog breeds, as mentioned.

1997 Fang and Megan (2)

Megan with her new dog, 1997

The shelter staff did the paperwork and put a temporary leash around his neck so we could take him to our car. I wondered if he would go with us, but he seemed willing, hopped into the back seat, and plopped down next to Megan. Grinning ear to ear, she kissed the top of Fang’s head and talked constantly to him as we drove to PetSmart for equipment. Megan happily slapped her savings on the counter to buy dog food, collar, leash, harness, bowls, toys, and a book about American Eskimo dogs.

Part of the dog negotiations with Megan included her agreement to sleep in her own room at night if the dog slept there, too. For years, Megan came into our room at night, dragging her lambskin, a pillow, and a blanket, to set up camp next to our bed. On Fang’s first night in our house, he settled down next to her bed, we closed the door, and there he stayed. She spent the entire night in her own room for the first time in years.

Both children fell in love with Fang instantly and were good about taking him for walks, exercising him with ball-throwing and running, and feeding and brushing him – for a couple of weeks. The children had school and other activities, so as the mom, I assumed more dog care.  He had to stay in the garage or basement while we were at work and school, four days a week, although being beyond the puppy stage, he was able to wait until we returned to go outside. Still, I felt guilty leaving him for so long each day. Some months later, I learned that my job had been eliminated. No more commuting! I decided to consult part-time from home, and Fang and I became constant companions.

1999 or 2000 Fang Jan

Fang and the Mom

Within a year or so, we wanted to get Megan a twin-sized bed frame since she had outgrown her youth-size bed. Megan wanted a loft bed and insisted that it had to have steps that Fang could climb to get up to her mattress. We began a search for such a bed and found one eventually, although it was expensive. However, it was the only bed with steps instead of a ladder. We got the bed for her, Fang climbed the steps easily, and Megan continued to spend nights in her own room with her dog.

Over the years, Fang became my third child. He consumed doctors’ appointments, baths, and properly-managed food and water. He needed attention, exercise, walks, brushing, and playing. Eskies are very protective of their families, bark a lot, and defend their property. They like to be with their family and follow their people from room to room around the house. They don’t like to be outside alone; they want their people with them. I confess I enjoyed that behavior.

2003 Fang on deck

Keeping watch.

Fang was jumpy in groups of people, unless he was on his own territory. If we had people over, he mingled well, if there were no young children. We had to familiarize Fang with Megan and Andy’s friends.  Fang was a very smart dog and learned quickly who our friends were. He especially loved our next-door neighbors and when we were outside in the yard, and he saw them, he would race at top speed over to their yard to greet them and be petted.

Fang was a good traveler and vacation companion, sometimes over very long distances, such as Virginia to Florida, and once on a two-week trip to Vermont and back. He seemed happy just to be with us wherever we went. He liked car rides, so I often took him with me when I ran errands, if the outside temperature was not too hot. In summers, we had to make sure he did not get overheated. His thick heavy coat of beautiful white fur served him well in winter. When we moved to Wisconsin, he enjoyed romping in snow, especially during snowstorms.

2003 Fang in Chantilly

Fang waiting for the car to start.

Fang’s 10 years with us coincided with the decade when I mostly stayed home so that I could better manage our children and their issues through middle and high school and look after my elderly mother in her final five years of life. My mother and the dog were devoted friends. It was a risky period of my life – those years from my mid-40s to mid-50s. Fang was there as my constant companion through losing my job and my mother, moving from Virginia to Wisconsin, launching two children out of the house into their adult lives, and through the symptoms of my own medical conditions.

And then he died.

At the age of 11, he got cancer. After surgery to remove a tumor from his hind leg, he recovered well for a few weeks while Megan came home after her first year at college. They romped as they always had.

2007 Fang and Megan in Madison

Megan and Fang, 2007

She left for a summer job and within a week after her departure, Fang began to suffer badly from pain. The vet said the disease had returned and we decided to put him down since the proposed treatments were too draconian. Losing our beloved dog was an exceedingly difficult experience for us, and it was a first for me. I had never felt so close to an animal before.

The vet and an assistant came to our house for the procedure outside in our yard on a beautiful day – May 18, 2007. Andy, Bruce and I held him as he passed. We all cried; hugged each other and the vet and the assistant, and then faced the empty house. The first day without him, I spent the entire day cleaning out our garage to cope with my grief. The constant movement, lugging stuff, sweeping, and reorganizing were all distracting and satisfying at the same time. I kept looking for him, stretched out in the sun, as he would have been, but he was not there. I still think often of him, imagining how he would react to different situations, particularly as we retired and moved back to Virginia.

Friends who have had many dogs throughout their lives maybe do a better job of coping with the coming and going of their canine companions than I did with the loss of mine. They are convinced there has to be another dog. Fang was the only dog I’d ever become attached to, and I missed him so badly that I simply could not imagine acquiring another animal. Six months after Fang’s passing, I returned to full-time work leaving behind a dog-less empty house.  Working again after Fang’s death was a good distraction from missing him.

Now in retirement, I ignore my grown children’s hints that we should get a dog. It’s been 13 years since Fang’s passing and every year in May, I remember losing him. For the moment, we still enjoy the exhilarating freedom of a household without dependent creatures. Before covid, we could wander about with no schedules, no requirements, no need to be home to let the dog out. There are no vet bills, no dogfood attracting bears, no middle-of-the-night barking in response to visits from the local wildlife passing through our forest. When and if the time comes for acquiring another dog, I am confident that I will know the situation when I see it. A dog will make its way to me if and when I again need a canine companion. Just like Fang did.

2000s Fang in Madison

Fang enjoying his last winter, in Wisconsin.

Raisin burritos

These days, we check in almost daily with our son, on the Mercy ship, and our daughter, isolating in Los Gatos CA. And my brother, alone in his NYC apartment. There’s an underlying current of anxiety in my mood. In everyone’s mood!

And so, we cook! But I have chosen not to respond to requests to join a recipe exchange, aka a “chain letter” as we called them many years ago. Too much trouble for low ROI. Please don’t take personally my lack of participation.

That said, here is my recipe for Raisin Burritos. We’ve been making them since the early 1980s when we lived in Hatch, NM, and learned about red and green chile. Bruce gets credit for finding the recipe on the back of a raisin box and suggesting we make it. At first, I scoffed. Who puts raisins in burritos? But when we tried it, we loved it. I lost the original recipe so had to reinvent it some years back, but this has worked for us. Recently, I googled on “raisin burritos” and there are some interesting recipes out there, but not this one.

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Cook/brown 1 lb ground beef with chopped up 1 onion and 1 green pepper, in a large pan with a bit of oil; add in as much garlic as you like. I use a lot.

Season with salt, pepper, and oregano. I also add Mrs Dash’s seasoning, which I use in almost everything.

Add 3/4 cup water, 3/4 cup raisins, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 can of corn, 2 small cans of chopped green chile to pan with meat & veggies; mix well, allow to simmer until liquid is gone.

Use about a dozen large flour tortillas; spread each with some refried beans, add some of the meat mixture, grated cheddar cheese, taco sauce. Then roll up the burrritos and arrange them in a baking dish. Heat 30 minutes or so at 350 degrees. I like to top them with sour cream once they are ready to serve, and sometimes add more sauce — taco, salsa, or chile verde.

They freeze well. To reheat, I put them in a toaster oven (for crispy tortilla wrapping) rather than a microwave (which makes the tortillas mushy).

So, that’s gonna be the extent of my recipe-sharing for the time being! Let me know if you like them.

 

Covid diary post for Easter Sunday

Not too much sun today on Sunday, on our isolated rural slope looking out on the woods from my project room window. Rumor has it, a major storm is coming.

As I write, YouTube is broadcasting the Easter service from Washington National Cathedral in DC. Not having been a regular churchgoer for the past 40 years, I only learned last week that churches are remote-sharing their services. So, it occurred to me to see if the Episcopal Cathedral might be doing that and of course it was! How bizarre to see the entire empty church on Easter Sunday with 46,000+ people worshiping remotely. Watching the empty cathedral with its handful of clerics, listening to familiar Easter organ music, I felt empty of jubilation. I enjoyed celebrating Easter as a child and young adult, but the prayers and Biblical readings of the season no longer spark joy in my response. I felt the sadness in my online view of the vast cathedral in which throngs of participants usually cluster but cannot now because of the malignant microbe.

Since TV news is not a feature of our lifestyle, we get our covid-19 information online, from the major news sources that have a track record of integrity and honesty in reporting reality. Or at least, reality as understood to the best of the journalists’ abilities. Our son works as an engineer on the USNS Mercy, docked in LA for the time being. Our daughter is also in California, working from home as a therapist. Her clients are often homeless with no access to the electronic capabilities that most of us take for granted, but everyone seems to have a phone of some sort, so they can communicate with therapists and service providers. My brother is hunkering alone in his apartment in lower Manhattan, interacting socially but remotely with everyone he knows. What a great service, Zoom. He is the strictest observer of physical distancing that I’ve heard about. He will survive.

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The news is dire, but here on our slope, spring is early, and we watch the transformation of the forest with red buds, dogwood, and other trees whose names and blossoms I continue to forget. The forest floor is popping up those tiny ephemeral flowers that require me to step carefully. The first bear of the season, looking scrawny and small, wandered by our critter cam up the slope above our house late one night this week. This year, we are not traveling, so we can witness the entire uninterrupted transformation of spring on this mountain.

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In our rural county, there are still only a handful of positive covid-19 cases. Just this past week, the post office hung a clear plastic shower curtain in front of the desk, and only one person at a time is allowed into the inner room where the desk is located. Everyone is supposed to wear masks when out in public – the grocery store, the liquor store, Dollar General, the hardware store, the post office. Not everyone is doing so. I began sewing masks for us, using quilting fabric that’s been piling up in my stash for decades.

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For four weeks now, we have stayed home except for grocery runs, post office, and the title company where we refinanced our mortgage two days after our last plane flight on March 11. Thankfully, we have had no symptoms of illness since our early March week in Montana. Virginia has many covid cases, but they are clustered in the northern part of the state near Washington DC, in Richmond, and on the coast in Virginia Beach. Here in our rural county, where we have so few cases, we wonder what the future holds, and how long we’ll be restricted to home.

It’s a surreal existence, tethered to our devices, walking about in the forest where no other people converge, exercising at home, meditating, cooking, and occasionally venturing out but stretching out those excursions from weekly to seldom. It’s only the grocery store or the post office. We are waiting, wondering, checking in with family and friends, Zooming every two weeks with our immediate relatives spread out across the country and on that ship. I’m tired of reading the news. We are so fortunate to be retired in a rural area with things to do in a house big enough for both of us but cozy enough for comfort.

Meanwhile, spring advances up the mountainside. Rain falls. And the stream comes to life, roaring.

IMG_20200413_163137 2020 apr 13

What to do with all those photographic images?

How to preserve memories, stories, and photos?

I wrote this set of suggestions for how to approach the problem after a friend asked me for advice based on my experience preserving photos, stories and memories in photo-scrapbook albums. As a child, college student, and young adult, I created scrapbooks and wrote in journals, but it was not until the late 1990s that I realized it was possible to combine photos and stories about them in a single album – a photo-scrapbook album. My priority has been preserving the photographic images, but also including information about the photos alongside the images. Several people have asked me lately about how to deal with all the images they find in their possession. I find it helpful to make lists. Here is my advice.

  1. First, make a list of everything you have that you might consider preserving if you had all the time in the world and an unlimited budget; indicate WHERE it all is. Examples:

Electronic photographic images:

  • Photos on phone (approx. how many?)
  • Photos on flash/thumb drives (#drives; #images?)
  • Photos on desktop computer (location[s])
  • Photos in the Cloud (Google Photos, OneDrive, others?)
  • Photos on laptops that are not also somewhere else
  • Photos on external hard drives (#?)
  • Photos on camera card(s)
  • Photos on CDs from a long time ago
  • Photos from Facebook, Instagram or other social media

Photos in print form/slides:

  • Heritage/antique photos from ancestors
  • Prints from pre-digital era (in boxes? drawers? list locations)
  • Slides (approx. #)
  • Photos in frames on display

Memorabilia: including printed documents, report cards, ticket stubs, maps, artwork, newspaper articles, magazines, name tags, brochures, coins, stamps, postcards…

  1. Next, make a list of all the types of albums you might do if you could wave a wand and make it all happen. Examples:
  • Calendar years photos/activities (start with this year and work backwards)
  • Christmas album (which years? or a Christmas album with 2 pages per year)
  • Your most recent vacation (or any other vacation from the past)
  • Someone’s wedding
  • You kid’s Toddler to Teen album (or Birth to Graduation)
  • A work album, summarizing your jobs over the years, or one particular job
  • Your own baby album (your own Birth to High School Grad album?)
  • Your own school album
  • An album preserving your parents’ photos (and/or other ancestors)
  • An album about your house over the years
  • Other projects?
  1. Now, using that second list, put a number by each album project, ranking them by their importance to you. In other words, which album project would you like to finish first? Then you can think about where the photos are located that go into that highest priority album.

 I only use scrapbook albums from Creative Memories but the embellishments might come from anywhere. My favorite source is ScrapYourTrip.com which has paper and embellishments  on any topic imaginable including travel. Creative Memories also has great paper, stickers, die-cuts, other embellishments, and tools.

Some principles about tackling the challenge:

  1. Not every photo needs to be preserved. Duplicates, blurry photos, bad composition photos can be discarded but don’t discard completely until much later in the process. Just in case. Have a Discard Bin.
  2. Years from now, people who look at your albums will be most interested in people photos, not landscape photos. None of us are Ansel Adams. But we are very interested in what people looked like in earlier years, regardless of how bad the photo might be.
  3. Only the best photos might need to be scanned for posterity, but keep in mind that scanning is time consuming; you take certain risks if you give/send your photos to a commercial enterprise to scan for you; think about why you want to scan pictures – what’s your objective?
  4. Identification of the who/when/where/why/what in the albums is critical. Journaling is absolutely necessary, but you can be terse in how much you write on the page. Use your own handwriting. Typing and printing labels is too time consuming, and people really like the actual handwriting regardless of how sloppy it might look to you.
  5. The main issue is not the embellishments on the page, how cute they are, how they coordinate with the photos. The priority is preserving the images and the information about the images. So, when you’re doing albums, don’t get carried away by the impulse to overdo the decorations and stickers. (Do as I say, not as I’ve done.)
  6. Once you’ve decided on the project you want to tackle first, clear off a large table and assemble all the images for that project.
    • Decide if the project will be limited to one album or not (but see below). One CM album can have 40-45 sheets which is 80-90 pages; at 5 photos/page that could be 400-450 photos. The number of photos in my 12×12 albums range from 300 to 450. I recommend limiting projects (vacations, annual albums) to one album. Only scrap the best photos.
    • Determine if you need to scan and make copies of any images for that project.
    • Determine if you need to get slides printed (consider using a service).
    • Do you have enough paper/embellishments? Albums?
    • Assemble all the photos and memorabilia for that project by subsections and store in a Power Sort Box or other archival quality container.
    • I recommend and use CM’s Power Layouts Kit with extra Guides to do draft layouts on the big table before I start attaching photos to a page.
  7. The more albums you do, the faster they will be completed. You will get good at this.
  8. Don’t get distracted by multiple project ideas. Keep notes as you work, if other ideas occur to you about other projects. Focus on the project at hand. Get it done. Leave all the stuff out on the table (maybe toss a sheet over the table if you have pesky cats) but leave it out where you can do a page here and there as you have a minute. Eat somewhere else besides the dining table. Try to do something on your project every day even if you only spend 15 minutes on it. Other days, you’ll have a few hours and you’ll get a lot done.
  9. When your first project is done, leave it out where you can see it and congratulate yourself. Now you can move on to the second project on your list.

These comments and suggestions relate to traditional photo-scrapbook albums, not photo books. The latter are done completely online with digital images. Memorabilia can be photographed or scanned in and then used in photo books. I’ve done some but prefer the traditional kind. But use whichever method you like the best… just get those memories and photos preserved!

Stages of Memoir-Writing

39809046 - the text what's your story appearing behind torn brown paper.

Most of us aren’t famous for anything, except perhaps among our immediate family. In our Third 30, many of us want to write and reflect on past memories and experiences, especially in January when we face the New Year with the imagery (or mirage) of a fresh start. It’s a personal therapeutic journey. Writing memoir is a lot like organizing those boxes of photos all jumbled together in the top shelf of the closet. You begin to sort out the memories, like photos, organize them, interpret them, make some sense out of them, preserve them for posterity.

Many of us turn to professionals for assistance with this process. I’ve done the same many times. I find in most of these undertakings, that the leaders of the workshop or retreat or class have assumptions about why everyone is there — assumptions about why we “should” write and what our objectives might be. Sometimes I feel like the leaders of the sessions might think that if the objective is not to publish, then you are wasting their time. People have different reasons for writing memoir, and I think it’s important for people leading writing groups to understand and accept that objectives vary, and that the objectives can change over time.

Here is my understanding of the stages we go through as we sort memories…. (and photos…) and write about our past experiences:

  1. You decide you want to write about your life, but mainly just for yourself  — an exercise in self-reflection. You begin writing a few pieces… birth, childhood, school experiences, first job, first heartbreak… you write irregularly.
  2. You find you don’t write as often as you’d like, so you join a writing group. You meet once a week or so, and find yourself writing more often. Progress is made on writing many small pieces about your life. You begin to share some of those pieces with family and friends. Some actually read the pieces and like them. You feel encouraged.
  3. Some years later, you realize you have a couple hundred pages of text (about 300 words per page). You decide to organize the small pieces into a bookYou print it out, make copies, take the copies to Kinko’s for binding, and give them to some of your family members who have requested The Book. You feel “finished” with the memoir. But you keep writing because the group is fun and you have a few more things you’d like to write about your past. And anyway, some of the dicier pieces you did not include in the book. You feel you understand yourself a bit better.
  4. You take some writing classes and workshops and decide you might want to find your theme and try to publish The Book. Time goes by. A ton of rewriting and editing happens. You work with someone to move in the direction of publishing. The Book is published. Now you are really finished with it.
  5. Oprah picks up your book. You have to do a book tour; learn how to speak in public. Your book is optioned for a movie starring someone who does not look remotely like you did when you were young. You figure the movie is going nowhere because there’s no sex, booze, or drugs. However…
  6. Something about the movie wins an Oscar so you get to attend the Oscar ceremonies! Now, you’re really done! Maybe… you should start on a novel…

Each of these stages can be an objective in writing. Perhaps, even, your objective is to have a “writing life.” Does that mean, to make a living from writing? Good luck with that idea, but some people do just that. Some people also win lotteries. Does having a “writing life” mean you have to make money? What if making money is not the objective? Perhaps just writing is the objective.

Be clear about your objectives as you begin writing, and recognize that you can change your mind over time.

 

Sankofa — looking back to look forward

There is a Ghanaian Akan proverb associated with the Twi word “Sankofa” that summarizes why some of us write memoir. The proverb is: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The word “Sankofa” literally means “to go back and get it.” I’ve only begun reading about this cultural concept since stumbling across the word “Sankofa” and following links to read more. I have not been to Ghana, but I’ve lived and worked in several other countries on the African continent, and I like to read about culture and history from different parts of Africa. The Sankofa idea spoke to me as a memoir writer.

I’ve been encouraged by the idea that it is good to look back and remember so that moving forward is well-informed. At the beginning of my Third 30, I’m reviewing my memoir pieces and thinking a lot about the writing group I led for five years when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m no longer there and the writing group is continuing under new leadership, but during those five years, our group wrote and shared hundreds of memoir pieces – hundreds of stories. I’ve gone back in my memories and retrieved more than half a century of stories, typed them into Word, backed them up, and printed them. And I’ve told people that one of my major activities in retirement (my Third 30) is to compile these memories into a book that will be a bit more organized than the 400 or so pages I’ve written so far. Some people seem confused by the idea that an anonymous person (not famous) would bother to write memoir. Others seem to think that writing memoir is narcissistic. I don’t at all believe that it’s a waste of my time to write about my life, especially now with more than half a century of perspective and with time to do so.

In fact, I was working full time during those five years of writing memoir with my writing group. So, it’s possible to write and reflect even when you think you don’t have the time. We all have stories to tell! Our stories are not narcissistic, or bragging, or self-serving. Our stories are our gifts to the future – who we were, what we did, and what we did with our lives. They are perhaps even more important simply because none of us are famous for anything. Our stories provide the personal insight and description and interpretation that may somewhere, sometime, somehow, make a difference to someone else – perhaps someone we couldn’t even possibly know.

It’s the stories of ordinary anonymous people that need to be told and preserved by those people themselves.

We all do have stories to tell. But most people never write those stories down, or type them out, or record their voices. My dad did, but not my mother, or my grandparents, or my aunt or uncle. Only my dad’s story remains, and it’s only part of his story as he never continued his descriptions past his early 30s. But at least I have his earliest years written in his hand — his memories and his photographs preserved safely. He told at least part of his story.

I hope to do a better job preserving my own stories for whoever might read them in the future.

This is a traditional symbol of Sankofa. The bird is looking backwards, taking an egg from its back. It symbolizes taking what’s good from the past and bringing it into the present “in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.” Says Wikipedia.

 

sankofa bird

 

Longevity and the next 30 years

Within the past year, I looked online to see how long I might live.

The results were sobering – ranging from 86 to 96 to 102! Since I’m just now turning 66, that means I might have 30 years left – my Third 30. What will I do during those years?

A Social Security info sheet says that “the typical 65-year-old today will live to age 85;” more than a third of us will live to age 90 and one in seven will live to 100. So, maybe I have 20 years; maybe 30 years. But let’s say I’m beginning my Third 30, just for fun. I had a paternal grandmother who lived to 100 and a maternal great grandmother who made it to 93. Genetics is on my side.

To kick off our Third 30, my husband and I both retired, downsized our stuff, sold our house in the upper Midwest, moved back to the east coast, bought 3.7 wooded acres in a rural county, and are building a cozy compact house. Those were many changes in a relatively short space of time, but we remain upbeat, energetic, and excited to have exactly the kind of one-level living we think we need at this stage. We hope this will be our last house, although considering our past behavior, perhaps not. My personal nomadic existence has historically involved 9 states, 2 foreign countries, 19 cities, and 30 dwellings – all in 66 years. Together, we have owned five houses ranging in size from 1,000 sf to 4,200 sf (not at the same time). This last house will be a little over 2,500 sf including guest rooms for our grown children’s visits.

We make frequent visits to our trees on a slope where the house will eventually sit. I imagine waking up in the morning looking at trees outside my windows, and wandering out to the screened porch to drink coffee. If we live there for many years to come, what will I be doing during my time there, once the building project is done, we are moved in, and everything is unpacked?

These questions are obviously not unique to my husband and me. All retirees face similar questions but maybe fewer realize how long they might be around to contemplate their Third 30. No, I don’t regret my decision to retire at age 65, and I have many interests but still… how will these Third 30 years play out?

I will think about all this in my blog, but right now, I’m heading out to walk my 3-mile circuit. The weather is lovely and it’s still cool.

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Family photograph from before 1927 when my grandmother (X marks her) died from pneumonia. Next to her is one of the twins — either Olive (my mother) or Rose (my aunt). It’s possible that the lady in the lace cap is the relative who lived to 93. Also possible that the man to the far left is my grandfather who I never met.