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Challenging myself

For the past three years, I’ve participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The idea is that you set a goal for yourself to read a certain number of books in a calendar year; you get credit by completing (or finishing) a book that you’ve logged into the online site or phone app.

Participating in the yearly challenge keeps a book in my hand and encourages me to read every day — even if it’s only a chapter. I like the satisfaction of completing the challenges, and being awarded the badges of completion:

GR2011-13

Personally, I like Goodreads because it allows me to keep track of the books I’ve read by year (custom “shelves”) as well as keep a thorough “to read” list that I can access whenever I’m online, in a library, in a bookstore, or at a friends’ house. I also like being able to capture my thoughts about each book in a written review… I can always go back and remind myself what I thought about a book before I recommend it to someone with a vague, “I think I liked this one!”

I also like the social aspect of Goodreads (it basically being Facebook for avid readers), although I don’t think I use it to its full capabilities. What about you? Do you like to read, and if so, are you on Goodreads? How do you use the site? Any book recommendations?

Welcome, 2014

Yesterday was Mom’s 66th birthday and I spent 10 hours at her house with friends and family, eating fried sourdough bread, and lavishing attention on my fur-nieces. It was a great party, and Mom had a great time being the Birthday Princess!

At the end of December WordPress sent me a 2013 “year in review” — how sparse my attention has been on this little corner of the interwebs, but I can’t apologize because the main reason I have little time for writing is because I’ve been riding. As in, horseback riding. And as of 1/1/14 I am officially half-leasing Lincoln, which comes with additional riding privileges and barn time, lessons and learning, shows, and the promise of being able to do many fun things!

I couldn’t be happier.

Getting back into horseback riding was like waking up from a coma, or coming out of a dark closet. I’ve rediscovered my passion, and with that my entire outlook on my life — where I live, who I live with, how I spend my money and my time — has flipped over. I’m restructuring everything, and that takes time, energy, and patience.

For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to something. And the things that I’m not super-thrilled about are more tolerable because I know that I have barn time right around the corner. I’m excited about 2014! But first, here are the Top Ten Things That Were Good About 2013:

  1. Horseback riding
  2. My parents
  3. My sister
  4. My 96-year-old grandmother
  5. Friends + Happies
  6. Miss Kitty
  7. Healthy habits (bicycling, swimming, gym, running)
  8. Books
  9. Travel (NYC, camping, Maine)
  10. Home (mortgage refi, new HVAC)

I didn’t make a new year’s resolution, but here is a short list of things I’d like to accomplish in 2014:

  1. Become a better horseback rider
  2. Find time to keep up my healthy habits
  3. Cook more, for myself and others
  4. Visit my sister in NC
  5. Restructure my finances
  6. Find a considerate, responsible, and sane roommate
  7. Learn to pull (and back up) a horse trailer
  8. Write more (letters, blog posts)
  9. Pick my knitting back up and finish Mom’s scarf
  10. Continue to say yes to new experiences

Welcome, 2014. Let’s be good to one another.

Hi there. How are you?

I’m well. Actually, I’m better than well… I’m quite good!

It’s kind of a relief to feel that way, and to have nice things to report. I start a lot of blog posts in my head, but never seem to have the time to type them out… and it’s not because I’m too busy couch surfing or sleeping, it’s because I’m too busy DOING. That, and a large part of my need to organize and document my activity is served through posting status updates and photos to Facebook… which left me unsure as to what I really want the purpose of this blog to be — secondary documentation of my physical wanderings, or more of my thoughts, feelings, and hopes (mental wanderings)?

Work is busy. My boss now telecommutes and I’ve picked up the lion’s share of her team lead responsibilities in her physical absence. My co-worker is pregnant and we’re trying to accomplish as much as we can together on a large project before she goes out on maternity leave. I’m mentoring our summer student, keeping her busy and exercising my editing skills on a weekly basis. Most of us in the area are preparing for an 11-week furlough (a 20% reduction in pay), trying to figure out how to cut costs, to survive without dipping too deep into savings or relying on credit.

I’m more active than ever before. I trained for a 5K on May 4, which I completed faster than my only timed treadmill run of the same distance, and for a 29-mile bike ride on June 1, which left my friend Amanda and I thinking that if we kept riding consistently we could do the 47-miler next year. These two activities are new to me; I was never a runner, and even though I’ve had my bike for three years, this is the first year I’ve actively put  mileage on it. I love what running and cycling are doing to my body though — adding those two disciplines has definitely slimmed me down in a way that my regular gym workouts (cardio & weight lifting) and swimming did not. I’ve lost about 10 pounds in the past couple of months, and am feeling fit and capable!

After my rather severe allergic reaction to mold last year, and subsequent allergy testing, I discovered that I’m allergic to dairy. I was able to pinpoint the issue specifically to casein — a protein found in mammalian milk that happens to make up 80% of cow’s milk. This is good news, because through trial and error I discovered that my body can tolerate sheep and goat cheeses, and water buffalo mozzarella. I don’t have to give up pizza (I just have to make it myself)! Before the knowledge that there were some cheeses out there I could eat, I cut dairy out of my diet completely.

A side effect to not eating as much cheese and sweets, and spending a lot more time cooking for myself, is that I began to eat healthier, stopped craving unhealthy foods (including fried and fast food), and lost some weight. I have to travel over an hour to get to a grocery store with the specialty cheeses, so they’ve become a treat instead of a staple, and I find myself being grateful for my dairy allergy and the change it has made in my eating habits (rather than resenting it).

In June, Diane asked me if I’d like to ride her horse, Lincoln, once a week and I jumped at the chance! I’ve always loved horses and horseback riding, and it’s been about a year and a half since the last time I rode. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I swung up onto Linc’s back and my mind and body responded: Home. Lincoln is a talented draft-cross who can do hunters and eventing (dressage, show jumping, cross country), so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn and grow as a rider, and to have quite a bit of fun horsey time and meet new horsey people.

Lincoln 07.01.2013

The people who make up the Happies group have become an essential component of my personal happiness here in Southern Maryland. Over the past year, I’ve gone from showing up to chit-chat with the group once a week over a beer or two, to spending quality time engaging in all sorts of shenanigans outside of Thursday happy hours.

Liz, Amanda, Richell, and I try to schedule once/month hikes + a homemade lunch. Amanda and I have been cycling together at least once a week since April, and last month we took a “confident city cycling” class and then biked the Mt. Vernon trail together. Diane, Erin, and Julie have welcomed me into the sub-crowd of “horse girls”, and have introduced me to other horsey people. (I may have even found a second horse to ride this summer!) A large sub-group of Happies are kayakers, and on June 9 we participated in the Second Annual S. Wells Memorial Kayak Trip. It’s been raining — thunderstorms — almost every evening since May. If this summer weather would start cooperating, I’m sure we would take advantage of many more opportunities to get out on the water. At least this month a bunch of us are going on the Green Door canoe/kayak trip to paddle down the south fork of the Shenandoah River, a trip that I didn’t get to participate in last year due to being sick from allergies.

Over the past 16 months, I feel like I’ve invested in solid, reciprocal friendships over fun activities like dinners and happy hours, birthday celebrations, holiday parties, movies, River Concerts, pub crawls, live music, cooking dinners, baking cookies, camping, a trip to Portland (OR), races, lots of conversations and much laughter.

Happies 07.04.2013

Fireworks 07.04.2013

I enjoyed last year’s 4th of July picnic at the marina so much that I volunteered to organize it again this year. Around 20 of us gathered in the shadow cast by a pop-up tent to hang out, eat good food, play games, and be merry until the sun set and the fireworks started lighting up the sky.

Yep, life is good.

This Sunday is the anniversary of Sean’s death: March 10. I only know one thing, and that is that I will go swimming. I won’t commit 100 percent to anything else. 

Last night, after chowing down on sushi and guzzling a well-earned Sapporo at Happies, Joel got up to leave and asked me if I was going to make it to the memorial toast on Sunday.

“Possibly,” I said. Of course, the boys wanted to know why I wasn’t a 100 percent “yes”. My expanded answer is that I want to go, but all I’m planning on is swimming. If I feel up to it and trust myself to drive to the bar, then I’ll come. If not, then… “If I can’t drive myself, you could pick me up!” I volunteered.

Gary stepped forward and gave me a hug. Ben told me to “at least go outside on Sunday,” because it’s going to be beautiful. Joel acknowledged that my answer was good enough. And is has to be, because my grief is an island.

Liz’s grief is a chasm; Sean was her person. And while I don’t intend to trivialize the myriad of feelings felt by all of Sean’s friends, I can’t help but think that for them it was a shock, like being slapped in the face by a ghost: Sean was here, now he’s not.

I can’t classify how I feel, and I’m still often surprised by my thoughts and memories. My grief is driven primarily by the fact that I was there. I hate pointing it out, because there’s a tiny, snarky version of me inside my head that says, “Oh, don’t say THAT. What are you doing, fishing for extra empathy? Being there doesn’t make you SPECIAL.”

Believe me, I don’t want this event to be what makes someone consider me special, but being at the pool with Sean on March 10, 2012 does set me apart. No one else, except perhaps the lifeguards on duty that day, find themselves thinking, “What do you call that particular shade of purple? I’ve never seen a human face turn that color before.”

I talked to my friend Jamie last night, and told her that I’ve come to terms with so much that happened that day. I don’t think that the outcome would’ve been different if I’d gotten out of the pool one lap earlier. But I do wish that I’d gotten out 60 seconds quicker, and had touched him. I wish I had held his hand or patted his arm, a small form of reassurance paired with my voice. I don’t think that touching him would have kept him safe, alive. And I could have fought for that touch, but I know that it was the right thing to do — going for Sean’s wallet instead of getting in the lifeguard’s way when he started to seize. But I still wish that I had used just one moment to reach out to him with my fingers, to press my care, concern, and love into his skin like a parting gift.

They wouldn’t let us touch him at the hospital; he was already gone but they wouldn’t let us touch his hand or kiss his bald head. Liz and I were left to stand, leaning against each other for support while we stared as long as we could and tried to make sense of it. Through a fog of disbelief, we both admitted to being glad that he had a beard. We both liked his red beard. We both desperately wanted to touch him, to prove to ourselves that THIS WAS SEAN and not some wax dummy imposter. Instead we tugged on his features with our eyes. So that’s it: I wish I’d touched him. And when not mentally or physically occupied, I’ll find myself reworking through that day and trying to envision a scene where I got to do just that.

I think I’ve actually been doing pretty well, and I work hard to stay positive. I’ve focused primarily on remembering all of the good things and adding elements to my life that honor Sean, or what Sean would have been proud of me for doing. But as the anniversary approaches, I find myself unable to focus my thoughts on only the good bits. Instead, I’m remembering and reliving that day. Replaying the moments that led up to  putting Sean in the ambulance, and that lightning bolt of ice that ripped through my heart when the doctors finally told us that he didn’t make it.

My little internal horror movie is longer than everybody else’s. Liz’s starts when I called her from the pool. Everyone else’s starts later that day, when cell phones and Facebook helped spread the devastating word. Mine starts at 11:45 a.m., with a smiling Sean waiting for me at the door to the Drill Hall. A hug, and then him happily telling me about heading up the road last night to help his nephew celebrate his 21st birthday. His long, bare feet on the tile of the pool deck. His grin because he enjoyed the cold water and the exercise that he was about to begin. The disconcerting feeling of seeing him lying on his back on the pool deck. The surprise in the lifeguard’s eyes when I asked her if Sean had told her about his heart condition. Not being able to remember if he spoke to me when I addressed him, or if he just looked at me — a single look can be so loud.

The juxtaposition of these memories swim around me, in the flooding that surrounds my heart. They are awesome and absurd, bright and dark, sweet and bitter, and colorful. Like snippets of the variety of movies that we watched together: fun, dangerous, happy, sad, quirky. The shark in the water is March 10. Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun Sean made me watch Jaws for the first time just last year. No wait, it must have been two years ago. (Oh God.)

As the anniversary of his death approaches, I don’t know what mood will prevail: happy to have known and been friends with Sean and to now share a friendship with Liz and his Happies crowd, or a perverse lonliness where intellectually I know I’m not alone in my sadness, but the differences in what I’m thinking about and how I’m feeling make me feel separated, apart. An island floating so near a land mass of hands and hugs, laughter and tears, beer glasses clinking, and memories verbalized.

I’ll try to be there, for the memorial toast. It would be nice if the good thoughts, the ones that are easy to share and express, helped make a bridge across those troubled waters. It would be nice to not feel so alone, so recently again haunted by pictures that don’t exist in anyone else’s memories.

Neighborly spirit

I woke up this morning and peeked outside to see my familiar neighborhood blanketed in white, the known world reversed like an infrared image. Four to five-and-a-half inches of snow were reported throughout Southern Maryland this morning, and we’re forecasted to get at least another inch this afternoon/night.

This dusting of snow — especially this light, powdery kind — doesn’t typically cause me much distress. It’s the ice that makes me slow down, plan ahead, and lead with my shovel.

Lead with my shovel?

Yeah, I wrote that correctly. See, I learned a few years back that when you walk or drive through the pretty snow, you expose pavement or asphalt, and when the sun comes out later on, the packed-down bit of snow left in the bottom of your boot print or in your tire tracks will start to melt. But because there’s really no where for the water to go, it’ll puddle and then freeze overnight.

Nothing really much matters when you get the heavy, wet rain that Maryland normally sees — that stuff packs down and sticks to the ground until March, with a layer of ice underneath. However, when you’ve got dry, fluffy snow, you’re better off leading with your shovel. Remove the snow without packing it down, and then if you’re so inclined, you can sprinkle salt down to keep whatever snow melt remains from freezing solid.

Unless, of course, you really like to play on winter’s dangerous Slip-N-Slide. Go right on ahead. Just remember that a visit to the ER will put you right there amongst all of the cold and flu victims — GERM GREMLINS — that this season has to offer.

But I digress…

So this morning I woke up, saw the snow, and decided to wait for the sun to help me before I dug out my car. A leisurely breakfast, a book, a cup of hot tea — I could really get used to mornings like this! Around 7:30 a.m. I confirmed that at least one truck had broken free of its parking space, crunching down on the little snow bump that the plow leaves behind. The light was still weak, and it had started snowing again. I washed dishes and started a load of laundry.

By 8:30 a.m. I was bundled up — snowpants, down coat, wool hat and thick winter gloves. I cleared my sidewalk and then began to circumnavigate my vehicle. A soft broom helped me clear the windshield, hood and windows. Guaranteed avalanche-free, I started the car to warm up the engine and continued. I was an explorer, breaking ground on my way through the frozen polar tundra. I was a moose, knocking the snow and ice off of my antlers. Then I returned to myself and became a good neighbor.

I like my neighbor, Joe. He’s a good guy, retired, quiet. Last year he had heart surgery, but before that we would trade off helping each other out with the mowing in the summers. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to come home from a crappy day at work, knowing that the grass couldn’t be put off for another day, only to park and see that it was already taken care of. Although he likes to do it, strenuous outdoor work is still a little bit too much for Joe. And I couldn’t bear the thought of him being trapped inside of his house, or slipping and falling on some ice because the tree in my front yard casts his sidewalk in shadow for most of the day.

Remembering my mantra to lead with my shovel, I created a cleared-asphalt bridge between my car and Joe’s car. Then I cleared his car off using the same pattern I worked around mine: I circled the vehicle once first, then used the broom to gently sweep the accumulation off of it. Then I re-circled the car to clear the path again, and went to work dismantling the snow plow’s wintry gate to the main drive.

It took a bit of shovel-thrusting, but eventually I found the curb in front of Joe’s unit. A few additional stabs, and I found the end of his sidewalk and cleared to his front door, making sure that the curb and the step down from the curb to the street were clear as well. A liberal sprinkling of snow melt (salt) later, and I was finished!

All in all, it took me less than two hours to clear two sidewalks and two cars. Joe and I each have two parking spaces, but only one car. I didn’t clear our extra spaces — the sun is going to have to help me out there! Still, this random act of kindness made me feel good (and kept me outside and moving for a little while longer, which felt good). I know that Joe will appreciate my effort, and it will make his day *that* much easier when he needs to get going somewhere.

Have you ever provided a random act of neighboring within your community?

Today I happened to click on the wrong menu button and ended up on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed page. I then found myself reading this post and taking this quiz.

Jen-Archetype2013

Apparently, based on my answers to the quick quiz, my overall personality is comprised of three main archetypes: 37% Caregiver, 22% Advocate, and 21% Intellectual. The other 20%  is simply categorized as Others. Without creating an account, or retaking the test with the exact opposite answers, I can’t figure out what the other archetypes are. (Although, from the post I read, I know that Athlete and Spiritual are two of the seven other types.)

I think I’m most surprised that I registered so high as an Advocate… it made me think of a friend and co-worker who recently began investing herself in training to become an actual advocate and mediator because she found the work more fulfilling than her day job. I, too, am looking to find a different profession, job or career. Something that makes me feel excited to go to work and to contribute, that I know is me making a difference. I want to do something that lets me know there’s a reason I’m doing it, a purpose for the work and the effort.

This isn’t necessarily a new development. I’ve never been quite absolute on what I want to be when I grow up, and 12 years spent working in a relatively small area that supports one industry hasn’t exactly opened my eyes to what else is out there.

I remember going to a bridal shower once where most of the ladies were from Washington, D.C., and finding myself saying, “You get paid to do WHAT?!” and “That’s a paid position?!” over and over. I had absolutely no idea that those types of jobs even existed. This is a problem for a girl needing to use online job search engines like Monster.com, which ask you to search by career or job title.

“What if you don’t know what jobs your skills qualify you for?” I asked my counselor recently. She encouraged me to take small steps, and to start with a Google search for “jobs Communications majors have.” Unfortunately, Google supplied me with the same generic list of careers over and over, and no real job ideas or data to research into.

Instead, about a week later, I found myself thinking about my current skills. What do I like doing, and what do I find myself doing naturally? I came up with (drumroll, please) — editing. Yet I’m painfully aware that there’s more I could learn in order to be a better editor, thanks to working with two other editors and spending the last decade watching each of us edit the same articles. That led me to a quick search for online classes.

And so here I am. 33 years old, enrolled in a six-week course called The Keys to Effective Editing through the College of Southern Maryland (CSM). I’ve already learned that there’s an “en” dash in addition to the hyphen and em dash, and how to use these three dashes correctly.

Right now, I’m just having fun learning about something that I enjoy, so I guess I’ll worry about tackling that job search engine after I’ve completely re-edited my resume.

When I was a very little girl, my mother taught me how to get up on a stool and microwave my own bottle. This began my lifelong love affair with quick and easy meals, of satisfying my hunger without the hassle of pre-planning or pre-heating. I became a master sandwich artist with a specialty: the triple decker grilled cheese. I found I enjoyed the science of baking, but the words “add to taste” made me quake in my apron. And somewhere along the line, I started telling myself that I couldn’t cook.

I would tell you with a straight face, “I can’t cook!” despite the fact that I made this, this, and this. I’d happily bake my little heart out, and would reluctantly declare that I could cook, but only with a recipe! Even armed with written instructions, I was only enthusiastic about cooking when I was acting as sous chef to someone else’s culinary genius. (And I really didn’t like having to be in control of making sure that all of the elements of the meal are hot and ready to eat at the same time.)

When my dear friend Anne came to visit, she discovered the raging depths of my cooking self doubt when she found out that I was afraid to make soup.

“You just add whatever you have into a pot, season it and let it heat up!” Anne exclaimed.

“But don’t you see?! That’s exactly how I ruin things — I over season!” I retorted. I was always ready to point out my flaws.

She just shook her head, and then we made soup. I watched to learn, but a little voice inside my head whispered, “Do you really think you can do this on your own?!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fast forward to some time in late 2012, when I made a conscious decision to stop being inadvertently negative, both toward myself and toward the world. All of the “I should’s” and “I don’t think I can’s” and “I can’t’s” had to go, including my thirty-year-old mantra of “I can’t cook.”

For someone who fears a primary role in the kitchen, I sure rip out, print and save a lot of recipes to try. The other day, I went through a stack of magazine recipes and tossed all of the ones that I didn’t think I could successfully substitute dairy products in, or that no longer looked yummy. Two filtered to the top — a Pioneer Woman recipe for Italian Chicken Soup (for which I’d previously purchased a specific type of pasta), and one for Turkey & Veggie Meatloaf Minis that was printed in People magazine.

The soup — doctored to not include jalapenos, heavy cream or Parmesan cheese — was excellent. I split the pot and traded with Mom for some homemade beef vegetable soup, and Mom reported that both she and Dad thought the soup was “excellent.” Inspired by that result (plus finding myself growing tired of eating from the same three homemade soups for lunch and dinner while I was sick), I decided to tackle the meatloaf recipe after work today. Without grocery shopping specifically for this recipe. Would this be a disaster? Or would I prove to myself once and for all that I can cook?

Okay, so here are the two recipes so that you can compare them. I emboldened the items in my recipe that were different from my source recipe.

Lisa Lillien’s Turkey & Veggie Meatloaf Minis

  • 1/2 cup grated onion
  • 7 tbsp. ketchup, divided
  • 1.25 lb. lean ground turkey
  • 3 cups shredded broccoli coleslaw, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fat-free liquid egg substitute
  • 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt

Jen’s Turkey Quinoa-Rice Meatloaf Muffins

Mom was coming over for dinner, and she’s gluten free, so I couldn’t substitute bread crumbs (an ingredient I know Mom used to put in her meatloaf) for the quick-cooking oats. Searching through my pantry, I found one 90-second-microwave pouch of quinoa and whole grain brown rice. My experience with quinoa is that it definitely needs to be mixed with other foods or dressings that have flavor, because it’s pretty boring on its own. I figured the mix would blend well with the lean turkey, supporting the meatloaf flavor without trying to take over, and since it was a quick-cook package it wouldn’t need any additional preparation. Since neither Mom nor I has an egg allergy or a cholesterol issue, I went ahead and used an egg. And then after putting in the garlic and salt, I added a sprinkle of dried basil and about 3/4 tsp. of Mt. Elbert All-Purpose Seasoning that I bought on a trip to Colorado a while back.

I threw everything in a bowl, mixed it up WITH MY HANDS (Yes, Mom, I made a face while doing it!), and then plopped equal-sized portions of the meat mixture into a greased muffin pan. After I brushed the tops of each little mound of meat with the additional portion of ketchup, the pan went into the oven, which had been pre-heated to 350 degrees. 35 minutes later the meatloaf muffins were ready to join some mixed veggies on a plate.

“Well,” I looked at my mother. “It’ll either be good or it won’t. If it’s just a little bit not good, I have more ketchup. If it’s a lot not good, at least Dad left you with leftovers at home!”

I was busy getting situated and setting up the laptop to the first episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, so Mom took the first bite. “It’s good!” she declared. And a minute later, I had to agree — it was good! Yummy, in fact. And best of all, each muffin was only 120 calories!

“Can I take some with me to work for lunch tomorrow?”

“Absolutely, Mom.”

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