Lessons Learned from a Nasty Vacation

We had planned this summer to take our trailer to Greer, Arizona, for the month of June. But we heard that the fishing would be lousy, and thought we’d go to San Diego instead, and take the kitties.

Have you ever tried to rent a place that says, “Pets Welcome,” with two cats? People hear the word “cats,” and literally hang up on you! So, the best situation we could find was a converted garage in La Jolla for three weeks. And it didn’t go well.

The refrigerator was smaller than the one in our trailer, so Gene walked several blocks each day to get us ice for the cooler. Our bar was set up on the floor behind the entry door.

You could not turn around in the bathroom. And the toilet was so close to the pedestal sink that our knees were under it.

The washer and dryer were in the owner’s back yard. We had to check with him to use them; then, arms full of dirty clothes, we made our way through two gates (and closed them behind us, so the dog wouldn’t get out), opened the double doors to the machines, stepped up on a platform, and tried not to drop anything on the ground below.

Then there was the furniture: When you sat on the couch, you sat almost on the floor, and you could feel the support bars under you. And the dining table was a card table with two folding chairs. The place was perfect for a 20-something single surfer.

The poor cats had no place to run and play, and that lack of space, combined with a skylight right over our bed, meant they woke us at the crack of dawn, ready to eat and be petted.

After a week, we’d had it. We both looked for something in San Diego, hoping there would be owners whose renters had fallen through, and were desperate, read: would take cats. After two weeks, Gene expanded our search, and found a charming little house in San Clemente, so we moved up there for the last week.

Our two-week nightmare got me thinking how lucky we are to be able to get through such an experience still liking each other! And some observations emerged as to why our marriage works. As in any friendship, fairness and reciprocity are important. If one person does most of the giving, resentment is sure to follow.

Here are the keys to our ability to stay happy together:

Empathy — the process that allows us to feel what others are feeling. Gene and I can share each other’s feelings most of the time. and have learned each other’s signals. If he gets grumpy and speaks very softly, as if it’s too much work to talk in a normal tone, I know his back is hurting, or he needs a protein fix or sex. 😊 If I’m giving him the silent treatment, he knows my feelings are hurt, and looks for ways to say, “I’m sorry. I was a jerk.”

Fairness – the idea that things are equal. If he cooks, I do the dishes and vice versa. Household chores are divided equally. He takes care of the garbage, the kitties, vacuuming, and spraying for bugs. And he pays for cleaning every other week. I handle the deep cleaning, keeping the place tidy, the gardening, and yard work. When it comes to birthdays and Christmas, we try to spend the same amount on each of our five kids, their spouses, and our 10 grandchildren. Same goes for pictures on the refrigerator and around the house: equal representation to the extent possible. As to personal toys: if he wants to buy a 1948 Chevy truck, he uses his own money; if I want to buy expensive rugs or take my kids on a special trip, I use my own money.

Speaking of finances, they can be a challenge, especially when a monk is married to a sucker for packaging. We have separate and joint investment and checking accounts and budgets for our separate and joint needs. We’ve been doing that for 20 years, and it works most of the time. We also try to consult each other before making purchases that will impact both of us.

Allowing for differences — He’s an introvert; I’m an ambivert, meaning I love people, but need alone time to recharge. We are opposites on the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, and he’s a 1 on the Enneagram, while I’m a 2. You get the picture: we need to give each other permission to be who we are. And at the same time, we try to spend time together traveling, wine-tasting, fishing, hiking, taking walks, and watching TV. Otherwise, what’s the point of being married?

And when it comes to expressing our love for each other, his “language of love” is acts of service. He shows me he cares by making sure I have the things that are important to me, and by lending me a hand, sometimes literally, when Parkinson’s makes my life difficult. He has an amazing way of being there without hovering or making me feel weak. I try to give him my undivided attention (even when it’s not a subject of interest, like trailer systems) and let him be in charge of things that are important to him, like our finances.  

There’s another thing that gets us through the tough times: not only do we love each other, we love holding each other and having sex. And although the physical challenges presented to two 73-year-olds can be daunting, they’re not insurmountable. 😊

So, as we enter our 21st year together, it’s with the knowledge that even though we sometimes screw up, we know how to make ourselves and each other happy. And that means being true to ourselves and letting each other be who they are, too.

Don’t Be Pickin’ on Your Man

I got married the first time at age 20. My husband, George, and I moved to Seattle, George’s hometown, the following year. George’s parents were big fans of a psychologist named John Boyle. They invited all six of their children and their spouses to a John Boyle weekend, in the hope it would help us all to be good spouses and, if we had children, good parents.

That weekend I learned about two life-changing psychological concepts, the power of affirmations, i.e. positive self-messaging, and the importance of self-determination.

Throughout the John Boyle weekend, between interesting workshops on communication, etc., we worked on our own goals and made a tape of affirmations that we were to listen to each day. The one I remember moat clearly was, “I am completely self-determined, and I allow others the same right.” What does that mean? It means that your spouse and children are not an extension of you; they are their own people with their separate right to determine their own destiny.

I have practiced affirmations for years, but I still haven’t mastered the one I learned from John Boyle in the 70s, that “I am completely self-determined, and I allow others the same right.”

And here’s how I know that.

Fast forward 40 years. My second husband, Gene, and I bought a little travel trailer last February, just in time for the pandemic. We “camped” all over Arizona from March through November, feeling incredibly lucky that we could travel, fish, hike, and birdwatch, thanks to our travel trailer. Last summer, we discovered a little RV park in Greer, Arizona.

We’re back this year, and the couple who rents the space next to us year-round has been coming here for years from Laveen, in south-central Phoenix. Bob is a scruffy guy in his 80s, an avid bait fisherman, with a cute sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. His wife, Darlene, is a quiet, kind woman, who invites you into their RV and shares their Bag Balm when you complain about how dry your hands are. We lead very different lives, but that hasn’t prevented us from becoming friendly.

So, Sunday night, when we arrived and re-introduced ourselves. We talked about fishing, and it didn’t seem to bother them that we were fly fishermen, “catch and release people,” even though Bob is a bait guy, who catches and cleans his fish and then gives them away because they don’t like to eat them. We got to talking about cooking, and Bob told us about his beef chili, which he makes from left-over steak that he freezes after family parties, when there’s “a good three pounds of beautiful steak left over.” Before we knew it, he had given Darlene the signal, and she disappeared into their RV and came out with a container of Bob’s frozen chili – enough for a meal for Gene and me!

Now to Gene, who is smart, thoughtful, a successful businessman, a great money manager and investor, a “Mr. Fix-it”, and a funny guy, once you “get” his dry wit. He’s also handsome and sexy and loves me deeply.

So, what’s the problem? I’m the problem. I fuss over Gene, fixing his hair, suggesting outfits different from the one he’s chosen, treating him like a Ken doll instead of the unique and wonderful individual he is. He hates it when I do that, and I know it, but can’t seem to help myself.

Now the point of my story is that it took our neighbor from the trailer park to help me see what I’ve been doing. the other day, Gene came out of our trailer to join the conversation Darlene and I were having with Bob, who was sitting in his truck all excited about the fish he had caught. Gene had been napping after a long day of driving, boating, and fly fishing, and his hair was everywhere. I was a little embarrassed, and I leaned over and whispered to Darlene, “Yep, he’s been napping.” And she said to me, “Now don’t be pickin’ on your man.”

That really got my attention. And I thought to myself, “Darlene is onto something. I am lucky to have this man in my life. Why do I care if his hair looks funny? It’s his hair, not mine. Same with his clothes. When he wants my opinion, he asks me. I need to take him as he is and be grateful. Besides, it’s not about hair… or shirts, or shoes, or any of that. We simply shouldn’t criticize the people we love.”

So, I came away from that encounter with two ahas: 1) I need to allow others, especially my husband, the right to be self-determined, and stop “pickin’ on my man,” and 2) when it comes to the people in our lives, the important thing isn’t how we’re dressed, how we talk, what we read, what we believe, even. What’s important is how we treat each other, and that goes double for those closest to us.

P.S. Bob’s chili is amazing!

Now I’m a Believer!

My husband, Gene, is feeling “like a laboratory rat.” It all started with a grocery shopping trip two days ago.

I arrived first at Trader Joe’s, but after parking, putting on my mask, and walking past several rows of cars, I noticed a long line of socially-distanced, thin, white people patiently waiting their turn to go up and down those skinny aisles. I, too, am white (and yes, I, too, listen to NPR), but I haven’t been thin for some time and I wasn’t feeling patient. So, I walked back to the car, drove south about 100 yards, and pulled into a spot near Whole Foods.

I walked in and after being kindly directed to a clean shopping cart, I took a breath and looked around. It was like Disneyland for grocery shoppers! I had been to Whole Foods, but always for something special, like the apple tarts I took to a picnic, the multi-colored beets I used in a book club salad, and the plant-based “Italian” sausage I added to a spaghetti pie for a vegan friend.

I usually work my way from one side of a grocery store to produce. This was not one of those times. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, walking in no particular direction, watching the interesting masked people, and gathering things on my list. Because hardly any of the brands I buy at Safeway were on the shelves or in the freezer (and everything looked beautiful or at least interesting), I decided to buy two or three different kinds of soup, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, turkey sausage, coffee, bacon, breakfast sausage, waffles, even laundry detergent for us to try.

It was freeing to know that I didn’t have to read every label to know that everything I put in the shopping cart was antibiotics- and hormone-free, organic (in the real sense), and safe for the environment.

And the shoppers were nearly as interesting as the store itself. There were “all sorts and conditions of men,” as the Episcopal collect says, people of all colors and types, some who looked like professional athletes. It made me realize that even if you were raised in a culture of comfort food (my mother put butter on everything) or have limited means, you can choose to make healthy food a priority over other things.

I got to the check-out stand and prayed that the sticker shock wouldn’t make me choke. The total was $375.00. I hadn’t spent that much in one grocery trip since I had three children at home!

But we humans have an amazing capacity for rationalizing. And I began to construct my argument:

  • At Whole Foods, all the food has been screened before being bought for the store, so you don’t waste time or money checking ingredients;
  • The store is conveniently located, saving you time and gas;
  • Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, so I get an extra 10% off sale items because I’m an Amazon Prime member (a total of $30.18 this trip or 8% of my bill)).
  • The experience is so pleasant, I can hardly wait to return, saving the annoying dance to the song, “Who’s Going to Go?”
  • Of course, the bill was higher than usual; I bought extra samples of some items, so we could try them. And I bought a salmon fillet, lamb chops, steaks, and…
  • What’s the most important thing we have? Our health. Our kids all know this; they eat very well. Yes, we have fewer years left than they do, but let’s make them healthy!

Gene was horrified when I told him what the experience had cost in actual dollars. So I let it go, and waited.

That night, we ate reheated Whole Foods spare ribs ($14.64 and enough for four) with barbeque sauce, beans, and salad. The ribs were the tenderest, tastiest ribs we’ve had in a long time. Gene fried the maple bacon yesterday morning, and we had it on peanut butter toast – the thing should be outlawed! Last night, he cooked spaghetti sauce with one of the marinara sauces and a combination of the sweet and hot fresh turkey sausage, crumbled and browned. He added his usual browned fresh mushrooms, red pepper, garlic, and herbs, and served the sauce over Tuscan spaghetti, also from Whole Foods. It was amazing!

This morning, he made fluffy scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and served them with the apple chicken sausage, blueberries, and sliced strawberries. You guessed it: awesome!

So, I think it’s fair to say that after some testing, we both know the food from Whole Foods tastes better! The blueberries are sweeter and firmer; the avocados have more flavor and a more buttery texture; the turkey sausage is more interesting; the waffles have more density, so you only want one, and bacon from the meat counter (which is one of the best “rides” at the market) is actually cheaper than the packaged variety we usually buy, and so thick and flavorful, one piece is enough. Oh, and those spareribs!

Dinner is almost ready!

Now I’m a believer! And I think Gene is, too.

How Things Work

Gene and I went into self-quarantine on December 22nd, after being exposed to COVID-19. We had taken son David birthday presents on the 21st, and he tested positive the next day.

Then, on Christmas morning, daughter-in-law Kim needed to go to the hospital, having cut her forearm with a knife while trying to remove one of those awful zip tags from some packaging. The paramedics had come and stopped the bleeding, but she needed stitches. Of course, I offered to drive her, so David and the kids could stay home.  Kim and I wore masks, she sat in the back seat, and I waited in the car while she went into the ER. The next day, she tested positive.

So, feeling like Thurston and Lovey Howell on Gilligan’s Island, Gene and I settled into self-isolation. We ordered our groceries through InstaCart and put off errands unless someone offered. We took walks, binged on “The Queen’s Gambit,” watched old movies, read books, and even played double solitaire, something I have never been able to get Gene to do.

I gardened and cooked, had long phone conversations with family and friends, sorted old cards and pictures, did some deep cleaning, and made 100 phone calls to people in Georgia who were registered to vote in the run-off election for two U.S. Senators.

We had to skip Christmas Eve outside at Church with some of the kids, and I set the Christmas Eve table for just the two of us. But between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, we were able to FaceTime with all five of our families.

On January 6th, Epiphany, my side of the family congregated in our daughter’s back yard for a twice-postponed Christmas dinner and gift exchange. We wore masks and practiced social distancing to the extent possible with 10 grandchildren, as they played chess, jumped on the trampoline, swung in the hammock, ran around with the dogs, and rode scooters on the Sport Court.

The timing was good, since the big kids had been home from school on Christmas break and the little ones are mostly home anyway.

Like so many others, we are feeling grateful – for what we have and for what we haven’t caught. And in the process of our self-quarantine, I have acquired a new vocabulary from my husband, who could have been an electrical engineer. He kept busy working on an old chainsaw, his 1948 Chevy pick-up, and the hot water heater. And because he had no one else to talk to, I learned about magnetos, gap gauges, distributors, timing lights, circulating pumps, and temperature sensors.

I imagine this knowledge, which I plan never to use, will need to be refreshed occasionally, sort of like the game of football, which Gene patiently explains at the beginning of every season. But it is satisfying to know that I can turn on the hot water in our bathroom and understand why it takes so long to get hot, and why you need a gap gauge and timing light to fix a distributor.

Who knew that a pandemic would present an opportunity for me to learn how things work?

Gene’s ’48 Chevy PU with new wood trim