Monday, November 23, 2015

A sangha of one

A while back, I met a friend for coffee, and she gushed, "I'm in love!"

We had both recently lost our aged dogs (mine was a basset mix named Charlie). She, however, had a new puppy, a shiba inu that looked like a little stuffed animal. I oohed over the photos, then enumerated all the reasons I was not getting another dog, the primary one being I was at work all day. She said she had thought the same thoughts, then decided she didn't care.

This resulted in my getting another dog, Betsy Beagle. I too fell in love. But when next I met my friend for coffee, I commented that, by getting a new dog, I missed an opportunity to face my self. She said, "And that's a good thing."

I knew that this was *not* a good thing, but life was full of distractions.

Fast forward. While rereading Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks, I paused to look up the definition of a term online. Included in the resulting search list was a link to the Insight Fort Wayne group, described as a sangha practicing Vipasanna meditation.

My SO practices meditation twice daily. I have tried meditation off and on over the years, mostly off because I have not been able to establish the habit. The FW group meets on Tuesday evenings, not the best day for me because of conflicts, but a Monday evening class for beginners was starting soon, so I signed up for that.

It's over now. While I don't think I learned anything new about meditation per se, being in a group with a teacher has helped me start a regular practice. I started with a 10-minute "sit" in the mornings, to set my intentions for the day. I tried complementing that with a longer sit in the evening, for 20 or 30, someday 40, minutes, but if the day had been full, I sometimes forgot or, if I remembered, struggled with nodding off. Now I sit for 40 minutes most mornings.

I have managed to attend the regular weekly meditation session on occasion. First comes a 40-minute sit, usually in silence. This is followed by a dharma talk, either one delivered by our teacher (Tamara Dyer) or a prerecorded one by another teacher, like Gil Fronsdal, a co-teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California and the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California. (Audio Dharma is a source of free dharma talks.)

And that is it.

Right now I am a little confused about the difference between Zen and Vipasanna Buddhism. Gil has trained in both the Japanese Soto Zen tradition and the Insight Meditation lineage of Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, so they must not be mutually exclusive. Our local teacher, Tamara Dyer, is a retired psychotherapist and is of the Insight school. From my own readings, Zen sounds more rigid and ritualistic, at least when compared with what I am experiencing with the local group. Maybe that is one reason I find myself responding favorably.

I plan to continue attending the sessions when I can. Meanwhile, I listen to dharma talks at home and practice on my own. Maybe I will wake up to my life, maybe I will come home to who I am. Better late than never.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

If I were to suffer a heart attack, it would have happened at Starved Rock

I am a firm believer of vacations. Besides the obvious benefits of R&R, it is good to get out of town once in a while, and see something different. When my daughter changed jobs, she took no time off; in fact, the two jobs overlapped for a while. Crazy! I said, and urged her to take some time off, somehow, someway. Since I am sharing the inheritance from my dad with my kids in the form of subsidizing travel, money was not a real issue. All she had to do is take a few days off and choose a destination.

The end result was a girls weekend away, my daughter, granddaughter, and me, with guest appearances by my son and his pseudo-stepdaughter (that is a long story and not mine to tell). My daughter chose Starved Rock State Park because 1) it is close enough not to be an ordeal to reach, 2) it offers plenty of hiking experience, and 3) it is not in Indiana.

Fast friends

Starved Rock consists of 18 canyons along the Illinois River, near Utica, IL. The 13 miles of trails are well marked, including little signs that indicate whether one is moving toward or away from the visitors center, very helpful when one decides enough is enough. Going off trail is an invitation to disaster: the last time I was at the park, with my SO, a young boy slipped and fell into the river; he was rescued by a boater, but his uncle, in an attempt to save the boy, drowned. A more recent incident resulted in a spinal fracture.

Starved Rock itself as viewed from Lovers Leap overlook

Knowing this, it was tempting to put a leash on the granddaughter. Fortunately, she understands (at least, for now) the necessity of following rules, even when those around you are not. I was a little shocked that parents let their kids scramble around off trail, even taking pictures of the little monkeys. I hope they all get poison ivy, a distinct possibility because it was all around.

Anyway, we had a good time. It would have been nice to stay at the lodge or in one of the cabins, but they are booked well in advance. Instead, we took up residence at the Hampton Inn in Ottawa (not the best Hampton Inn I've stayed at, but perfectly adequate, plus free breakfast! And a pool!) We arrived on Thursday night, so we could have a full two days of fun before returning on Sunday. We hiked the trails for about two hours Friday. My daughter signed up for a guided hike Saturday, and my original plan was to do something outside the park with the granddaughter, but when I told my son our plans, he decided to join us on Saturday. I figured he would not find the Scarecrow Festival in Ottawa all that fascinating, so we hiked the trails again.

One of the shorter stairways

Here is the thing about the trails at Starved Rock. Hiking there involves going up and down a LOT of stairs, especially if one decides to visit a canyon floor. Even though we did not traverse the whole park nor visit every canyon over the course of our visit, my Fitbit registered 80 flights of stairs in two days. The map displayed symbols I originally took for bridges on the trails, but in actuality were "major stairways". Climbing those lifted my heart rate to its maximum, requiring a rest or two on the way up. Some stairs were so steep I insisted on walking in front of the kids on the way down, in case one tripped. I am surprised there are not more injuries, but off trail antics aside, people must be careful enough most of the time.

Wildcat Canyon

Starved Rock is open year round. When it is rainy, there are waterfalls. Migratory birds stop by (we saw white pelicans on the river) and bald eagles nest there in the winter. Fall wild flowers include mostly asters, golden rod, boneset, and jack in the pulpit. There is a dam on the river, and we watched tug boats push barges through the locks. I recommend visiting during the week, because it gets quite crowded on weekends.

My daughter brought work along, for which I properly chastised her. On the way home, she admitted the work had gone untouched. Instead, she hiked and swam for two days, read a whole book, enjoyed some quality time with her daughter but also some grown-up time away from her. Mission accomplished.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Color my world

When I was in college, back in the Stone Age, I (re)discovered the calming effect of coloring. I bought some crayons and a coloring book and when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, retreated to my dorm room to color. I don't recall sharing this activity with anyone, and my roommate was not often present, especially on weekends, so it was my private little vice.

Once again, I was ahead of my time. If you flash forward to now, you will find that "adult" coloring books and apps are all the rage. I tried one app, Colorfy, and while pretty good, it doesn't allow for shading or enhancements. However, you will never color outside the lines, as each space is filled with the color of your selection - no actual coloring required. I didn't find that as satisfying as the coloring apps targeting kids my granddaughter's age, although the subject matter was generally more interesting than fairies and Hello Kitty.

Barnes and Noble had some adult coloring books on sale, so I picked up one with a garden motif and one of Norse designs. (I'm clinging tenaciously to my Danish ancestry.) I also purchased some pens there, which I both love and hate. Each pen has two points, one short and stubby and one long and pointed like a paint brush. That's the love part. The hate part is there is no way to identify the true color of the ink without yanking off the rather tight caps and scribbling a bit. And some pens seems to have a different shade at each end. And if you don't get the cap back on completely, they dry out rather rapidly.

Naturally, my granddaughter wants to use MY pens and color in MY books. (Boundaries, child!) Yesterday I purchased an "advanced" coloring book for her at United Arts and Education (paisley prints) and some new pens for moi. I have more colors now, but the tips leave a lot to be desired.

I still find the act of coloring to be soothing, sort of like knitting but without the counting and the frustration. Sometimes I am in the mood for the tiny details in some pictures, other times I need to make broad strokes. While coloring, my mind wanders hither and yon, and I get some real thinking done without pulling a muscle in my brain. It easily becomes a time suck.

This pastime continues to be a secret, mostly, as I imagine some people just would not understand and/or approve. I figure it is no worse than watching TV. And maybe someday I will learn to share.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Up to a point

If one's fifties is the decade of regret, the sixties seem to be the age of reflection. At least, that is what I have been doing lately when not involved in this, that, or the other thing.

One thread of musing has gone along like this: How come I never became really good at something? I recall reading articles as a teenager where the author insisted that everyone is good at something, you just have to find out what that is. I don't remember being particularly encouraged by anyone, so blamed "them" for that. Then I wondered if maybe no one saw anything in me worth encouraging. Hmmm.

After I brief respite from that topic, I returned to it from another angle: what was I good at, and what happened along the way? In high school, I was very good at math, loved plane and solid geometry and trig. But then something happened in college when I hit calculus. I never quite understood calc, nor the higher math classes I took while pursuing my computer science degree. So maybe I was good at math, but only up to a point.

Speaking of computer science, I loved designing and writing software and believed I was good at that. But then along came a paradigm shift, from procedural programming to object oriented and event driven software. I understood both at an abstract level, but my OO efforts still looked like procedural code. My brain just did not want to make the shift. So I was good at software development, but only up to a point.

What else? I was good at sports when we lived in Illinois, but the competition was sparse because back in the dark ages, there were no interscholastic team sports for girls in that state. We moved to Massachusetts my senior year, where they were more enlightened and I was less good compared with the others. Not to be deterred, in college I tried out for volleyball and sprained both my thumbs the first day of practice. After that, I stuck to intramural sports. As an adult, I did continue to play tennis, teaching my son until he surpassed me. I also played in a parks and rec league, until I got tired of losing all the time. Now I play golf, and even though my form is good, the results are inconsistent. Again, I'm good, but only up to a point.

I'm a good gardener, up to a point. I'm a good knitter, up to a point. I'm a good cook, up to a point.

What is this point I reach where my talents don't develop further? Maybe I get bored easily and don't stick with something long enough to become better. Maybe I am lazy, just don't want to put the work into becoming better. Or it could be I am simply average (HORRORS!)

That is when it is helpful to remember, We don't all have to shine.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Still getting used to this retirement thing

I've been retired for a little more than a year now, and my new lifestyle is still evolving. A few activities have fallen by the wayside completely (Wild Walkers), some are worth doing but not so often (volunteering at Salomon Farm), some I want to do more (senior yoga and golf), and there are yet more things to try (memoir writing, shibori). I'm still knitting and gardening, cooking less, reading more, and grandma'ing as needed.

I've read several columns lately that could have been written by me. One celebrates the idea of being "too old for this", and by "this", the author means things like feeling insecure about one's looks or worrying about other people's opinions. Another is by Gina Barreca, who is cultivating the art of not caring about things like fashion (comfort trumps beauty), toned arms, and symmetrical eyebrows. I haven't cared about a lot of these for a long time, but something clicks once one reaches a certain, ahem, maturity that solidifies all this not-caring. It's very liberating.

So now I wear skirts that don't hide my varicose veins (they stop at the knee instead of descending toward my ankles, thus avoiding the member-of-an-evangelical-cult look), am growing my hair out (tough right now in the heat and humidity of August), and I talk back to my doctor. I still pluck chin hairs but am more lackadaisical about hair that grows elsewhere on my body. I would still like to lose 30+ pounds, but (Whole30 or not) I'm not giving up the occasional dish of ice cream or bottle of beer to do so.

I am also abandoning attempts to like activities or support causes that don't really interest or move me. It isn't that these things are not worthy; I'd simply rather focus my energies and money elsewhere, guilt free. Life is too short for "shoulds".

Life is also too short for fear. I hope I do not turn into one of those oldsters who is afraid all the time. Not that I don't nurse my share of fears, irrational and otherwise, but I don't want them to rule my life. At least, not yet.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


I've been calling the cat-with-no-name "Beau", which rhymes with "NO!"

Some days, Finn and Beau get along fine. Other times, I think Finn is going to kill Beau, pinning him to the floor and administering some punishing bites. And yet, Beau keeps coming back for more.

Beau is an indoor cat, so Finn gets respite by going out most nights. I put them in separate parts of the house when I am going out. But I wonder what will happen when Beau reaches his full size.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Whole30, more or less

My daughter lost 15 pounds following the Whole30 way of eating, so I gave it a try. The first time, I lasted about two days. The second time, I kind of eased into it, but still could not make it all the way through 30 days. And I lost only 2 pounds. Nevertheless, I continue to eat Whole30 sorta - consuming lots of vegetables (averaging 2 cups at each meal) with animal protein and fruit on the side, avoiding processed foods, avoiding sweeteners (artificial and otherwise), avoiding grains and legumes, making my own mayonnaise using olive oil, etc. - because it feels like a healthy way to eat.

And now I have pseudo proof that it is good for me: my total cholesterol dropped 40 points and LDL fell 30 points, as compared to last year. Whoohoo! So often we do this or that, because someone somewhere says it is the healthy thing to do, but rarely do we see direct results from our efforts. While there may be other factors at work in these results (e.g. my life is less stressful since I retired), I am choosing to believe my new way of eating has a lot to do with it.

My doctor was not impressed, however. True, my numbers are still too high, but I received no kudos for my accomplishment, no questions about how I did it. Instead, I received the Statin Lecture (and a few other lectures - I'm a non-compliant patient). I held out, but left the office rather upset with the doctor.

Two days later, I think I have figured out why she was so adamant about statins, when in the past her attitude has been "You have no other risk factors, so I wouldn't worry about it": the Affordable Care Act. It is my understanding that doctors are now being held responsible for the outcomes of their treatments, just as teachers are being held accountable for their students' success. I'm generally in favor of the ACA, just as I am generally pro-education reform. However, I take issue with how they measure accountability. I don't know how best to measure accountability, but using test results, be they medical or educational, does not make sense to me.

Now excuse me while I go eat a bit of BBQ beef and a whole lot of cole slaw.