Zen (and Rage), As the Pipe Wrench Turns

You’d think that after almost 9 years of this, I’d be used to the aggravations that are just a part of the price of admission when you’re remodeling something. And for the most part, I think I really am: I can deal with the dust, and the crazily loud and 4.5 on-the-richter-scale vibrations of the sawzall chewing away at studs and joists. I can skate blithely through the unexpected discovery of water-damaged, rotting structural members (though why, with a house that was built in the 1950’s, it should be unexpected, is probably quite silly). I’m getting better at figuring out how to (inhale, annnnnnd,) exhale my way through my frustration when I’m perfectly ready to make plumbing fixture, lighting, and tile selections and my contractor/husband Tim insists that it’s too soon, even though the demolition is done and he’s ready to start plumbing and electrical work, so we need to know what the fixtures are going to be so the rough-in work can go in the right spots. Whatever.

So, it’s actually mildly surprising to me that I still haven’t “yogi-minded” my way around one thing: Tim’s lack of patience and outsized temper when things don’t go smoothly. Take the past 2 days for example: he’s been working on plumbing, which isn’t anything new to him. Plumbing was one of the first trades he learned decades ago. However, and I say this with nothing but love and respect and the knowledge that I would never *actually* throw those imagined daggers at him: he is sometimes tragically disorganized. This is often the major factor that ends up sending him over the edge of seeming sanity and into a screaming, cursing stratosphere of apoplexy. It’s really, really hard not to go there with him.

I mean, I *get* it. Anger is sometimes therapeutic. I’m actually a fairly accomplished practitioner of it myself. Maybe I haven’t developed the proper coping mechanism because I was out of the house working for so much of his earlier toil on this renovation, so I just wasn’t buffeted and bounced around by it as often as I am now that my office just happens to share an adjoining wall with the bathroom being remodeled. But for Pete’s sake. Things are going to go wrong. I know this. How on earth does the guy who’s been doing this stuff for 40 years NOT know this, and how has he not learned to employ mitigation strategies?

Starting, for example, with organizing his stuff, and Just. Keeping it. Organized. I name that because here’s how the scenes usually go down: something goes a little sideways, let’s say, he needs to re-do a plumbing joint to change it from a 90-degree to a 45-degree angle. He’s not happy about having to torch the existing joint to liquefy the solder and pull it apart. I’ll give him that. Then, for whatever crazy reason, the joint’s a little stubborn and he can’t get it separated. The frustration builds. He starts yelling and cursing. He storms out, looking for a different wrench. He comes back with one that isn’t right for the job, which he discovers through another barrage of yelling and cursing. He goes back for another one. The fury builds and the f-bombs fly. He shout-asks me to come in to help, which I’m happy to do if it will make this stop. I torch the joint while he pulls. After more cursing and force, it flies apart and one end of the newly separated joint springs out and burns my finger, but I’m fine and grateful that at least it’s done. I go back into my office thinking the worst is over.

Then, before he or the pipe have had enough time to cool down, he starts looking for the 45-degree joint, which, if he has one, is in a box with all his other miscellaneous plumbing fittings and supplies. Just a box. Not a box with smaller boxes or divided sections into which one could group similar small parts, but a box where everything is swimming around together, and, as Karma would have it, very definitely conspiring and abetting the disappearance of the sought-after 45-degree joint. More foul words and threats against humanity are unleashed like a mythic Hydra as he loudly dumps the entire contents of the box onto the floor and starts wildly sifting through it as if he’s a member of the bomb squad looking for wire cutters and there are 20 seconds left until detonation. With clear malice aforethought, that evil little piece of copper eludes him.

So many of these meltdowns would never get traction if things were in places where he knew they’d be, and he could find them when he needed them. The right wrench. The 45-degree joint (which, about 10 minutes later, materialized, in a clear plastic bag, in plain sight, on the floor onto which it and its brethren had been dumped). And while he’s coming unglued, 9 feet away through the wall between my office and the bathroom, it’s REALLY HARD for me to concentrate and get anything done. I do what feels like an appreciable job of “keeping calm and carrying on,” until I don’t.

I should stop right here and explain that this is always the fatal point in my decision tree. What I *should* do: quietly pack my laptop, notepad, phone, and thermal coffee mug, and slip out the door and down the hill to So-G (our local coffee roaster) for some serenity. What I do instead:  calmly offer a suggestion that perhaps when he’s this crazed, it affects his ability to think clearly. Suddenly, I’m transformed from helpful wife into the object of his fury, and with him now directing his ire straight at me, my own team of Piss-a-trons (who’ve been stealthily organizing in the build-up leading up to now) see their opening, and leap into action, all flaming word-swords and rusty-tipped verbal jabs.

After a brief and very heated exchange, he quiets down for long enough to get through the issue, and without a whole lot of additional drama, it’s done. Just like that. Poof. All fury evaporated. The plumbing parts get tossed back into their magic box to await the next episode of As the Pipe Wrench Turns, with any thought of “how this might be avoided in the future” as nonexistent as fingernails on a snake.

As for me, I can still marvel at his abilities and appreciate what they’ve yielded. As a bonus, I’ve also now galvanized my awareness about that fatal point in my decision tree. Let’s see how I do with that knowledge next time (because as sure as the sun will rise, there *will* be a next time. It might even be tomorrow).

Parenting the Parents, Part II. Getting the Ball Rolling.

Ah, the family meeting. We had to get this started somehow. We broached the subject of my parents moving someplace closer to either my sister (up in VT) or me. I acknowledged that they probably weren’t feeling ready yet, but what was “ready” going to look like? When one of them took a header down the stairs? (Those are the exact words I used, by the way.) They didn’t argue about it (though ultimately, my dad dug in his heels about moving out of state – he’d spent his whole life in CT, dammit, and he wasn’t going to leave now. I think he was mostly worried about being able to watch the UConn Huskies Women’s Basketball games, to which they were – still are – seriously committed. . .). They didn’t quite jump right on the bandwagon, either.

Where they were living wasn’t exactly a place known for having a high concentration of quality healthcare. As fall became winter and winter became spring, I encouraged them to call me if they needed help with anything. This was a difficult thing for them – they’d always been self-sufficient. They never wanted to be the dreaded “burden.” But as the weeks wore on and the phone calls came more frequently, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we needed to accelerate the thinking about moving them because the burden of them not becoming a burden was getting, well, burdensome.

Confusion over bills was becoming routine, as was the need for me to often drop everything to run over there to unravel errors or play forensic accountant. (Despite the fact that dad had been saying, quite plainly, for a few months that he couldn’t really handle the finances anymore, mom continued to hand him the mail whenever it contained a bill or a statement. I still don’t know whether this was just 55+ years of married habit, denial, or a little of both. In any case, habit compelled him to think he had to do something with it when she handed it to him, which often ended with things being misplaced, split apart, or otherwise generally mishandled in some way.)

And. They did everything manually – they wrote checks for every bill, pretty much as soon as it arrived. At some point, however, they had completely stopped keeping a running total in, and balancing, the checkbook. They also had a habit of writing out the checks for their quarterly estimated income tax payments as soon as they came back from their annual tax preparation visit with their accountant (dad had given up doing their taxes probably a decade before). They would then stage the pre-written checks in their desktop organizer and make notes in the calendar for when they should send the payments. They’d log them into the checkbook register, but because they had stopped keeping a running total, no one was keeping track of how much was really available in the checking account. I quickly took that on as a part of my routine duties.

I’ve jumped a little ahead though. It was around then (mid-March) that I had a brainstorm: there was a very nice condo complex just 3 minutes down the hill from me. What if. . .? I bounced the idea off my sister, and in short order, I’d reached out to a realtor I knew who had lived there and whose name was often on For Sale signs in the complex. We wanted a unit where single-floor living was an option. Lo and behold, the (almost) perfect unit was available.

I mentioned the idea casually to my mother, to plant the seed. She said nothing, but didn’t put up an argument. A week later, on Easter, I brought it up as we were driving them to my house for dinner. I had teed up a virtual tour of the place on my laptop, which we showed them after dinner. They seemed more interested than I’d thought they would be. When I brought them home later that afternoon, I reinforced, again, that I knew the idea of moving probably seemed daunting, but if they liked the place (or any place there), they could buy it and we could take our sweet time moving – even if it took 2 years – at least they’d have it. (Of course, in my head, I was screaming, “Move! Now!! Please!!!”). I also reminded them that I knew their long-term objective, when they needed more care, was to have someone living with them, and that was great, but I wasn’t going to let that happen without the ability to check in every day, so to be only 3 minutes away would be awesome. I left them with that thought. Much to my shock and delight, they called me back that same night to tell me they wanted to buy it. I burst into tears of relief.

A “Food Friday” Foundation

There’s a lot of passion in me for food, and not just because I love to eat, and to cook (especially when I can share what I’ve created with people I care about – ask my neighbors!). For a very ironic reason I won’t go into here, about 15 years ago or so, something happened that started me thinking more consciously about food and its connection to health.

Over the years, spurred by that experience, I’ve read a lot of books: The China Study; many, if not most, by Michael Pollan; and a host of others, from those that address the issues that arise in the body, and even in our DNA, when we eat poorly (i.e. processed foods, refined oils, and sugar), to books about the microbiome. I pay attention to (and read with a critical eye) studies and any articles I see that get into the links between food and health and I am beyond convinced that, just as your car would break down if you continued to give it the wrong kind of fuel, our bodies do just the same. The devil is in defining “the right fuel,” which I don’t actually think is the same for everyone, beyond certain broad guidelines, but the old saying really is undeniable as far as I’m concerned: you are what you eat.

Somewhere along the way, I also became very interested in the impacts of global food production on the climate, and became pretty well convinced that what we eat, and how it’s produced, is one of the biggest things we can focus on and actively consider in our daily choices to if we want to make a positive impact when it comes to climate change.

While I’m at it, climate change. I’m not sure how anyone at this point can deny it’s happening, though I can muster more patience for those who may disagree over what’s causing it. To me, however, regardless of what may or may not be causing it, I fail to understand why we wouldn’t, as a society, want to tackle it as if we CAN do something about it. It could be the economic catalyst that the combustion engine was for the 20th century if we’d just embrace it. We’d come out healthier as a result, with cleaner air, healthier bodies, no reason for continued damage to lands and waters from fossil fuel exploration and production, and lower carbon emissions, which, come on now, certainly wouldn’t hurt. And anyone, anywhere, could hop on the bandwagon and ride (or drive!) it down the highway of a new economy.

I just read a story last night about someone doing something really cool with food production. I found it so inspiring and full of entrepreneurial, yet altruistic spirit, that I have to share it. Forgive the little Microsoft “commercial” in the middle of it – it’s a great example of someone who started as “local” as you can get, but has taken what he learned and is converting it to benefit thousands around the world. Enjoy! https://news.microsoft.com/features/global-garden-how-one-mans-vision-to-feed-his-family-blossomed-into-an-international-effort/?ocid=lock

Cheers for now — Marcia

Project Zen – Writing a Book about our Endless Renovation

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m working on a book about our renovation project. While I’m beyond certain that the form that it’s presently in will NOT be its final form, I’ve just finished my first draft, where my objective was really just to capture the process, mostly chronologically, before working with an editor and probably tearing the whole thing to shreds. In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to share some excerpts of what I’ve written so far. What follows is a portion of the chapter I’ve currently dubbed, ” The Torture of the Architect.”

When Tim and I were married, his younger brother Andy was our Best Man, and I’m reminded, almost daily, of the way he described us and our relationship: “like two raging, bust-butt rivers coming together.” In the now 25+ years we’ve been married, I don’t know that anyone else has captured so well, in so few words, the essence of us, and woe to any poor, faint-of-heart service-provider who happened into our decision-making orbit. This was never more on display than when we started working with our first architect.

I should tell you a couple of more things here to properly set the stage for all that is to follow. I believe in visualization. I can picture things in my mind fairly clearly. I have been known to do vision-boards. I have always ended up eventually getting more or less what I’d been able to picture. I believe that attention yields quality, but I am quick to cut through options to make decisions, probably because I already have a strong sense of what I want firmly etched into my brain. I’m pretty organized. I’m a task-master. I analyze what I want to do and therefore what steps need to get done to do it. I make lists; I check things off; I update my lists. I’m a “clean-as-you-go” kind of person. And I impose it on everyone around me, or there is often hellfire and damnation. I admit it. I can be a nightmare.

Tim is nearly a savant. He knows his craft so well that he can do most things almost automatically. However, he also has ADHD (so do both of our sons – something that has tempered my previously *very* impatient tendencies, and I’m a MUCH better person for it. I swear.) He has a hard time visualizing things, yet he’s a highly visual person. He suffers from analysis-paralysis. He has an exceedingly difficult time pulling the proverbial trigger on most decisions. He, not unlike many, if not most, people with ADHD, lacks organizational and time-management skills. He is allergic to writing things down, which didn’t go so well when Mr. Mom had to fill out the same medical history form for the 4th time when he took one of the boys to the doctor. He makes up for it though, with his amazing skill and his infectious sense of humor.

When he’s in the moment, he’s in the moment. He narrates what he’s doing, not for anyone’s benefit, but just because it helps him think. When he’s not focused on a task, though, he can be a total scatterbrain. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that, in the approximately 9,250 days we’ve been married (as of the moment I’m writing this), he has misplaced, or outright lost: keys, wallets, phones, articles of clothing, and all varieties of tools at least 9,250 times. If he’s not already interested in what you’re saying, then it’s highly likely that even though he appears to have heard you, he hasn’t actually processed what you said. He will quite possibly cut you off mid-sentence and talk over you. There is little “executive oversight” between what happens in his brain and his verbal articulation. I think I coined a phrase somewhere in the earlier stages of this project, when I told someone that they should check to see whether he was wearing his decorative ears or his functional ones. You really can’t take his seeming inattentiveness to you personally. But we’re married. So, stupidly, I often do.

These fundamental differences between us have been pretty much at the crux of every knock-down, drag-out fight we’ve gotten into. And I’m pretty sure they’ve scared the living daylights out of the unlucky service providers with whom we’ve attempted to meet and work together, because we aren’t ones to hold back our opinions of each other in any given moment.

Nevertheless, and without reservation, I trust (and have trusted) him 100% to do the right things as he has done his work here. I think I actually trust him more than he trusts himself. Even if he can’t organize his way out of a broom closet (and I’m looking for a full topographical map . . .)

Parenting the Parents, Part I. Acknowledgment.

We started noticing that something was going on with dad several years ago – he wasn’t really getting around the way he used to – this was a guy who took care of all the routine maintenance on their house, plus 3+ acres of property. In the woods. There was no end to the work of clearing dead and fallen branches and trees, and over the years he’d amassed a truly inspiring collection of tools and devices to keep it all under control, from pole pruners to wood chippers, a few different chainsaws, and every kind of shovel, sledgehammer, and post-hole digger known to mankind. He and mom also grew a huge garden every year, conveniently enclosed as it was by the fence that used to surround our in-ground pool, until they filled that thing in about 20 years ago because taking care of it just wasn’t worth it anymore for the relatively short swimming season we get here in CT.

Even though they lived only 45 minutes away, we didn’t get over there very often. Life, you know. They came here a little more frequently, but still only 4 or 5 times a year at most. When my younger son joined freshman crew in high school, we had them come over so we could go together to the riverfront in Hartford to watch him row in his first local regatta. We parked in the parking garage that I parked in every day for work – it was probably 1/3 of a mile (maybe ½) from there to the riverfront, and fairly flat terrain. We set out as we always did, strolling at a decent pace. It didn’t take long to notice that dad was struggling – not in the way you see it with many older people – out of breath and panting – but with his gait: it was as if he couldn’t get his legs going properly – lifting them up and putting them down in a normal walking pattern was a challenge and he lagged behind. The walk back later was the same.

That was 4 years ago. My sister said something to my mom (as did my husband) about having him checked out by a neurologist. Eventually they did, but all the guy apparently checked for was Parkinsons, which it wasn’t. Time went by, and things got to the point where “walking” for him was essentially shuffling. But it got worse than the physical symptoms.

I hadn’t realized what was really happening until my sister called me at some point in the fall of 2017. In addition to his property-care prowess, dad had a sharp financial mind. He was a CPA. He handled all the major finances of the household. And for the first time ever, he’d bounced a check. Thankfully it was one he’d written to my sister, but she told me he confessed that he was finding himself confused and he was afraid he couldn’t handle these things anymore. My sister came down from Vermont. We met with their estate attorney to update their wills and make some other changes to a few things. We executed powers of attorney. And we had a family meeting.

It was just the very beginning of a world of change.

Time to get rolling, ready or not

“I am a work in progress.” *Thinking* that has begun to feel more and more natural – normal, maybe – over the past several months. I can say it out loud to friends, but writing it feels different, and a little scary. There’s something far larger than a small part of me that feels like, at age 53 (really, almost 54), that shouldn’t be the case though. Guilt? I’m the breadwinner. Shouldn’t I be an expert in *something* by now?

The truth is that I’m good at a few things (being fairly organized; annoying the crap out of my husband when he doesn’t clean up after himself or work consistently enough on a project; advocating for my parents; breaking inertia; cooking; deluding myself into thinking I can carry a tune; self-effacing humor; pricing real estate so that it actually sells). I know I’m really good at handling crises well, not that I want to do that for a living, thank you. So I decided to do a blog, inspired, in part, by a guest blog that a friend asked if I’d like to do last month (you can read that here: https://meetmaple.com/2019/01/18/a-love-letter-from-the-universe/)

When people who haven’t seen me in a while ask me what I’m doing, I’ve been saying that I’m “semi-retired,” because, in reality, that’s what I am. I can’t, nor do I have any desire to, pursue another “job” at this point. I need too much flexibility in my life so I can help my parents, both of whom, it can now be officially said, have dementia. Gratefully, we do have a caretaker helping during weekdays, but coordinating the calendar; scheduling and sitting in on every doctor’s apppointment; taking care of the bills; dropping everything to get there when there’s a fall, a dead battery in something, a leaky faucet or stuck toilet; gathering all the paperwork for annual tax preparation. . . That all adds up to at least a part-time job, and the job is mine.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a book chronicling (I don’t think I’ve ever typed that word before – it looks weird, doesn’t it?) the experience of surviving our genuinely daunting, 8+-year home renovation (which still isn’t done, but damn, we’re close), and, probably as close as I’m going to get to doing anything professional again, trying to help a very cool business whose main presence is now in the midwest, expand here in the northeast. Oh yeah, and continuing to hone my investing skills. And selling off a few pieces of family real estate.

The book has been writing itself in little snippets in my head all along the way (since around 2010), but the process of getting it down “on paper” has been more daunting than I’d ever imagined. For now, I’ve been focusing on just nailing down the chronology and as many of the crazy stories as I can remember (some are impossible to forget!!), as I’m sure once an editor gets their hands on it, we’ll end up totally reorganizing it. I’ll probably share parts of it in this blog, though.

So I talked in my first post about coming up with some sort of schedule, and here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. Mom & Dad Monday – here I’ll share stories of caretaking, things I’ve seen, heard, and am learning along the way;
  2. Hump-Day House Stuff – bits of the book, lessons and resources for energy-efficient building, how to not kill your spouse during a renovation, etc;
  3. Food Friday – my passion. This will probably include everything from recipe and party ideas to musings on the latest studies on the links between health (or disease) and nutrition.

I’m probably NOT going to do 3 posts a week, but for now, I’m trying to get some content together and teed up so there’s at least a fairly regular progression of stuff in all the categories. I hope it will be a place where you find equal parts of fun and helpful info, and maybe this will even become a place where we can all share our stories and learn from each other.

Cheers for now!