Archive for the ‘Pioneer Valley’ Category


A life of sundaes

Last week marked the launch of my 21 year-old son’s entrance of adulthood. It didn’t all happen last week. It just seems that way this week.

This deeply symbolic passage comes in the form of a one fire escape walk-up efficiency that is nearly equidistant between his childhood home and the two part-time jobs that gave Jerry the confidence and capitalization to move into his own place.

It’s not just Jerry that’s feeling his way around this dramatic shift in roles and perceptions. Even his landlord who fills ten other units at the same address appeared stumped when asked where Jerry should park his commuter mountain bike. His folks were equally challenged to navigate the rules of engagement when it comes to the necessary hands-off, hands-on adjustments to this heady transition.

One potential path to success here is to follow the roadmap that brought Jerry to the doors of his newfound independence. That means being given an arduous series of tasks that don’t change much from day-to-day. While Jerry didn’t master his dual roles of food portioning and custodial work off the bat, he did come to master those jobs during his trial period. Both his supervisors probably get the sincerity and genuine appreciation that Jerry derives from this honest, repetitive work. I say probably because providing more certainty is not my role here.

It’s Jerry who found these jobs. It’s Jerry who did the interviews and the call-backs. It’s Jerry who arrives on-time and prepared for work at hours many of us can scarcely function.

When Jerry tells his boss that he loves his job, it’s not that he has any fanciful relationship to cleaning floors or waking up before dawn to have them done before the first customer arrives. It’s that he’s been given the chance to succeed on terms he understands and in tasks he’s come to master. It’s on the strength of his rote memorization that this mastery can free his mind to escape to the world of superheroes, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages where Jerry is free to hit his personal play and record buttons while mopping up messes and counting out chicken fingers.

But while Jerry’s memory can cycle through those repetitions, he’s unfamiliar with the hard and fast rules of online banking, advocating for himself in the workplace, or reflecting those needs in the form of a schedule; for instance, more predictable hours on the time clock to go with his weekly routines.

That’s not to say that Jerry can’t make up his mind or lacks the willpower and motivation to develop these skills. Jerry’s emancipation wasn’t based on any grand design, parental prodding, or peer models (although I was immensely proud of him for placing independent living at the top of his agenda nearly two years ago and sticking to it). That’s also not to say that the executive function required prioritizing, negotiating, and self-manage are challenges for most 21 year-olds — regardless of how one’s brain works or their prospects pan out.

It’s my hope for Jerry that a year from now he’ll look back on all the hard knocks, confusing signals, hidden surprises and unscripted disruptions, and he’ll out-surprise all of us (as his priest foretold when Jerry received a scholarship from his parish). His responses will be more surprising than the unplanned learning that springs from all these tuition-free lessons. He’ll be better equipped to absorb them and turn these challenges into his own precisely because he didn’t read the correct book, go to the right school, kiss the right ass, or pass the right test with the highest score. Jerry’s ticket to success will not be punched in some gold-plated diploma mill. His past achievements and future horizons are uniquely his.

He’s grown up in a time where the role of parenting has expanded from providing a “roof over your head” to a dome clear over your future. Sometimes … okay … more than sometimes … it’s hard to know when to let go and when to rush in: call the meetings, neutralize the likeliest risks, or organize the new nest. But before I rush in to save the day, I need to ask: whose day am I saving? Am I sparing Jerry from the jaws of calamity or am I serving at the foot of expediency so that I can vanish as swiftly as I swooped in?

There are many executive level decisions I’ve spared Jerry in the past. Either he was going to encounter it later under some trained supervisor in some accredited program or some other as-yet unnamed responsible member of another social circle and scheduling orbit was going to fill Jerry’s shopping cart of independent living with the tools and the mental models needed to bring a sense of order and priority. Like all false hopes that day never arrived. What was there all along was Jerry’s resolve. His sense that if it was part of his experience, it was part of his own self-paced curriculum; that he could learn and even master the finer and rougher points of this unprotected world.

I’m going over to Jerry’s place tomorrow to help simplify the paperwork needed to apply for health insurance. Later in the afternoon his mom will be helping him with budgeting. I will not be organizing his books. I will not be washing the splatters of sauce that gather on his stove. But I will be thinking of the day I’m no longer required to sign Jerry up for vital services.

When that day comes there will be some other complication. I’m confident that when this new difficulty arises Jerry will rise up to meet it. He will learn the problem’s name and maybe even turned an initial drawback into a more neutral puzzle that he can solve – nor not? Perhaps he’ll dismiss it as so much background noise – not worthy of his attention or energy, like the 97% of the BS that will land in the mail deliveries to come. Those are the lesson plans on which a graying father supports an adult son to live his own rich life – not on the father’s terms, or on those of these future challenges, but on Jerry’s own.

ImageWhen I was young, spongy, unformed and self-absorbed I attended a young, idealistic, and small New England college. Hampshire convinced flocking Hamsters like me that you could mold that spongy absorption into your career clay, your alloy of choice.

My Hampshire diploma was my pink slip from the self-made sculpting factory. I received it 1984. “Morning in America” was my early wake-up nightmare to the reality that the days of self-made expressions visited on Kangaroo review committees had no currency outside of Camp Hamp.

I do remember the deflated bubbles, the kicks to the curb, and the queasy disorientation from the world of ideas to the world of shelter and clothing. But mostly I remember the woman with the megaphone blaring into my fallen house of young adulthood. The megaphoner-inner would be Grandma Harriet. Grandma would say:

“Go see your Uncle Stephen. He’s very smart.”

It wasn’t a threat and it wasn’t quite a reward. But there was an implied “… or else.” Don’t go … at your own peril.

Harriet saw my bachelor’s degree from the self-ordained and the bona fide flakiness that comes with encouraging (if not outright expecting) payment for self-expression. Her suggestion felt more like an order. It’s not that I lacked direction, role models, or a running list of intriguing career outfits to try on. She said go see your uncle because whenever I expressed those ambitions or desires she was clueless what I was talking about. She said go see Uncle Stephen because that was the single most direct way out of my head and into a job that paid something.

Career Characters

Stephen I should point out was not just Uncle Stephen. He had the unjaundiced eye. He wished the best for his little kid sister’s oldest son. He defined that wish by the roles of people he’d either portrayed or tried to persuade through his own unflinching candor:

  • The collateral-seeking lender,
  • The risk-averse hiring manager,
  • The status-conscious schmoozer, or,
  • The distracted indifference of the restless producer.

ImageIt was that parade of characters who found their way into Stephen’s mini publishing empire. For a 25 year stretch he and Mark Levine lined the Barnes and Noble self-help table with field guides, coaching manuals and life scripts. He wasn’t just in my corner and kicking my ass. This was Uncle Stephen, one of America’s leading personal finance mentors and a professional life strategist. His perceptions and influence fell into orbits that traveled far and wide of our extended family circle. Inside that circle, Stephen was the official voice of reason. He talked me through my unofficial failures to launch as a twenty-something. He talked me through my improvised workarounds. There were many of those.

Diplomas from Schools of Doubt

* I could tell you that a review copy of a runaway Stephen bestseller was my take home homework from those earlier coaching sessions. That would be misleading. He’s always shown more interest in refining, channeling and ultimately investing his clients in their own destinies where self-discovery drives the narrative.

* I could tell you that I used the nesting impulse to impose my need for control and practicality onto my personal life.  I could tell you that I plunked my young adult savings down on a Park Slope co-op and road the coattails of the NYC real estate boom to financial stability. That would be someone else’s investment success. Spoiler-alert: I held onto that apartment for a decade and still managed to lose 10% of the original sale price.

* I could tell you that I down-shifted from career drive to a more family-based focus. But my life’s been one protracted stretch between where I work and where I live. That split has factored into great disruption, upheaval, and dissolution of several marriages.

So I won’t lie. I will tell you straight as (Harriet is my witness) that Stephen is my secular rabbi and spiritual bookkeeper. In nearly all of Stephen’s many interventions (barters, guiding questions, and petitions for my practicality) he’s given me the gift of perspective-taking. He helped me unload the professional baggage we carry when the career options we select don’t choose us back.

Our job, as he’s often counseled, doesn’t define us or who or what we mean to the people we cherish. It’s a stream of income. It’s just as fluid and prone to change as our income stream prospects.

13 Step Program

I went back to visit Stephen recently. It wasn’t that I needed career advice, negotiation pointers for some negotiation in the balance, or greater appreciation for letting go of forces beyond my control.

I needed to tell him about a wonderful new job that among other things caused people I barely know to contact me out of the blue for career pointers and job-hunting approaches. I told Stephen that the experiences are my firsthand bumps and mid-course corrections. The messaging, however, is a page straight from the Stephen playbook. That alignment between personal ambition and market reality is a lifetime balancing act written, produced, and scored by Stephen Pollan.

The day I got to his office, his current admin (in a bad run of temporary admins) had bailed on the later afternoon appointments. Fresh from an AM appointment the same day, my sister-in-law prepared me for the empty reception area and the likelihood that Stephen would be jumping through honking congestion to make it back for our 4 pm (– he strode in at 4:01 without breaking a sweat and asking how late he was).

I noticed then that his bookcases were bare and the wall was lined with moving crates. He had his office bags packed. No more cross-town hurdle-jumping wind sprints. Just an elevator commute from his east-side residence to a first floor professional suite in the same building.

He told me that he was starting his newest book. The working title? The Tyranny of Self. He wasn’t too attached to it as he offered to let me steal it. After enough of Stephen’s counsel, I understand. This was the 13th in a 12 step program to address the same demons I confronted when I left Hampshire: The raging seduction of a workaholic, who hides behind the virtue of the provider, and in the concealment, loses the dignity of his labor.

They share their better selves with the work, not with the selected people that a less involved laborer would simply understand as their home, their shelter from the ungenerous world. After enough trips to Stephen, I understand the need to give away working titles.

ImageI’ve been married three times. I don’t know anyone else who has their names on three divorce decrees. And as improbable as it may be to have been undone by three declarations, eyes, hearts, and futures wide open. Three former wedding anniversaries. Three former mothers-in-law. Three former wedding toasts. It almost sounds exotic by the enormity of its dimension. Reminds me of my father’s legendary request for his second wife to marry him on the same day as his first marriage so he’d only need to remember one date. With practicalities that impulsive, who needs secret valentines?

I am just now starting to appreciate the majesty of living in an unwavering state of love. I am stilled by the calm and quivering in the excitement of this very same love. It’s an exploration of a mutual understanding that begins in adventure and carries me to a place I had only dreamt of before I met this love. That place is home and I’m surrounded by a nest that exudes anything but emptiness.

It’s easy to overthink the role that destiny plays within the prism of possibilities that form the backdrop of a flowering romance. Easier still is to over-reach the emotional lift of falling in love. That it will bring stability to all we hold onto and change to every temptation we can’t resist for letting go.

In retrospect each marriage was a reaction to a prior commitment — not the right expression of a passing courtship, no matter how lasting or genuine the nature of these friendships. In but one of the disolutions was there someone else to spark the break-up. The truth is that I could no more ask my first three wives to honor their marriage vows than I could ask them to change their own guiding path or true nature. I accepted divorce not as a judgment of faith or commitment but the simple admission that three people had tried to maintain an appearance, to be something they were not. I accepted they were no longer in love with me as the rejoinder of an inertia-laden descent into a calculation best approximated as Bal’s law of “diminishing returns.”

It’s a bit like the Central Square Payless shoe store I was shopping in last night. I tried on the 9.5s and they were too wiggly. I went down to the 9s. They were overly snug. I walked away from marriage with the sinking feeling I was walking on 9.25 feet in an unpaved world of unwearable fashion. That feeling only persisted when I went back to online dating — especially when I tried to explain to potential dates the sincerity behind not wishing to walk directly into marriage #4.

Check Box of Open Questions

The first time I dated Patty I had checked the open relationship box. At the time it was hard to see how monogamy was going to expand my experiential horizons. It almost seemed a bystander, a pattern that held fidelity hostage to a lifelong quest for home and family. The more I played by the rules, the more they played me, boxing me into a corner of choices that found their voice in the language of rejection:

  • Marriage 1: “The harder I try to make things easy, the less of a difference it makes.”
  • Marriage 2: “I ‘have’ to work three hours away to support us.”
  • Marriage 3: “My son ‘lives’ in Western Mass.”

The sentiment feeding all these lines comes from a Matt Pond PA song called Locate the Pieces. It describes the isolation of a break-up when a couple’s feelings for each other can’t outlast changes in their relationship:

“Lately, I don’t know what I could want from anyone.”

That was my idea of holding on: to ask for nothing and expect less in return — not exactly the cry for help that might inspire reaching back to Mister Solo-mon! Could I accept the uncertainty of a sputtering journey, a makeshift arrangement? All I could offer in exchange for hard-stop choices was the gentle acceptance that these misgivings were exception-proof. I can tell you through experience that loving someone for whom they are (apart from the best laid wedding plans) is not a marriage-preserving separation. It’s a deal breaker.

Relationships abhor placeholders even worse than nature has it in for vacuums.  Whatever hurdles real or imagined would be cleared in time for a love to rekindle is one hope I have learned to extinguish. But the hope I held out for is the most intoxicating rush a spouse-worthy love scout can fathom: one where we’re loved for who we are — no matter the rawness of our wounds or the staleness of our circumstances.

In the Cards

It was that promise I heard being answered when Patty looked down at her plate on that first date and told me she could not abide by open relationships. I folded my cards almost as quickly as my dinner napkin. I’m one clumsy negotiator — and proud of it. The pride lies in knowing my forte is in setting scenes, not in telling stories.

Patty and my story is a marvel of reverse engineering. Every tender adversity is an affirmation that we have something right and true to share. Our respective experience resonates through every loose end and unkept resolution. It’s like we met in the relationship repair shop — and we were both minding the store!

If I haven’t already said it plainly there is all give and no rebound at work here. I can tell because…

* I ask things of Patty and she responds by spoiling me.

* She asks things of me and I’m honored.

* I laugh. She laughs back.

* We don’t share a 50:50 split. It’s more like a 100 all inclusive.

* When I leave to work in Eastern Mass she supports my travel. That’s an inescapable presence in a drifting void for most of my adult life. I acknowledge this and call each night we’re apart.

I pour my life into hers. I do it with the gratitude that I won’t die with this replenishing love still inside me. I give it without qualifiers, conversions or justifications. On this Valentine’s Day, I give it to us. Measurement free.

The truth is that for all my passing grades and failing marriages all these lessons together add up to a smidgeon of why I found my life partner while I’m here. The rest is luck. It’s purity diluted somewhat by my appreciation of the past as prologue. The rest is just an inkling of probability. There is no deserving this but a simple grace uncoerced in the heart.

Kissing French Street Hello

Posted: September 1, 2012 in Pioneer Valley

One of the telltale signs that your heart is in lockstep with your head is that your home and hearth is also your most prized capital investment.

An indication you’re on the cusp of home sweet investment is the positive tipping point behind the rejoinder formerly known as there-goes-the-neighborhood. The gentrified winds are blowing on my squatting parcel and summoning these changes down the newly-paved Route 47 off ramp known as French Street:

1. Gardening of plenty: Reclamation of river bed fertility
2. The planning principles for doing this: Mother Permaculture (you go, girl!)
3. Kitchen channel for home cooking: Energy star foodie cathedral
4. Clearing the air rights: Demolition of skanky, derelict trees
5. Stubborn with the thermostat: Extra helpings on the insulation

All these soaring resolutions bring out the domain master in me — the dominatrix of domesticity. All unannounced particles of crumbs that cross my slippers prompt the next dust cloud gathering before the welcome mats reawaken.

Under the Effluence

Knotweed pops through a patch of cardboard mulch like so many pimples gathering after a teen pizza binge.

This gushing of OCD on display tackles a very different agenda beyond the foot-wiping at the front door. There are no such dust-ups on the Hazmat-strewn floors of my backyard. Chards of broken bottles, oxides of batteries, remnants of socks, and the spew of non-degradable garage sale relics form an open burial pit of squalor. This caliber of decreptitude is normally reserved  for a harder core of hillbilly location.

That’s when rugged individualism goes it alone and flies past the D.I.Y. stop sign and straight into the DDA (“don’t-do-anything”) ditch. That’s the post industrial stench rising from the fertile river beds of Hadley:

“No other species fouls its own nest,” as my second spouse liked to say in a categorical rejection of another isolated mountain culture. The flock of the church of humans has been known to place claims on the privacies contained within these soggy, crumbling mountain isolations. Abuse of the land is no less inevitable than the slicing through of these edens-turned-junk-yards by the rampaging of cold flood flash points into the convulsing rivers.

If my scavenger escavations are no more burials than treasures then my true anal obsession is taking wide open aim at nature’s own neighborhood bullies. That’s not the occupation of the soil by years claims on its transfer station status. That’s the feeding on its natural generosity by the invasives — namely the conspiracy of Japanese Knotweed that strangulates a less aggressive and more local population.

Godzilla the Gardener

My obsession reminds me of the fascist four-year-old games that I used to play in pursuit of childhood justice fired by World War II movies, newsreels, and riveted fixations on “Victory at Sea.” My fighter squadrons were fresh on the heels of those unrepentent Pearl Harbor bombers. “Take that!” I’d shout, pumping my payloads into the tails of those nose-diving dragon gunners. “Take that to your Emperor of Knotweed!”

That’s the viligence that captivates the digging up of the necks of these vermin by the clenching of my dirt-stained fingers and insatiable shovel. The vehemence only deepens when they rewire the rooting systems I’ve disrupted. I’ve created my own barriers by patching together some cardboard mulching around the most infested areas. The counter-insurgency lies somewhere between feeling the need to squeeze out the latest outcrop of whiteheads from these lawn pimples and playing whack-a-mole with a tenacious and cunning adversary. This is certainly the gaming board when a new strain peaks its head above a crack in my patchwork.

My tree guy Matthew tells me that I’ll need to keep my retribution guard up for at least another two years to wrest control away from the invasion of these garden snatchers. Given the small dimensions of my yard I intend to maintain a heavy footprint on the lay of this promising land patch.

ImageHere’s what it’s like to move into a new and empty home by yourself when just the idea of it delivers a serious buzz:

* I can walk the boat to the pond or run the fan or fan the incense or un-run a color choice or the number of napkin boxes I opportune. And that’s not even messing with the cabin zoning as the AC can be as noisy or as borderline lukewarm as I want.

* I can bump into bumpable unpacked boxes and not have to explain the noise or wonder if I’m bumped up to noisy neighbor status.

* I can agonize over a soap dish at Cedar Chest. I can play out the cleaning habits of the three women I’ve co-starred in the preening of house. These three women will have agreed on little except that Alan Rickman is the pinnacle of sexy and that their co-star was raised by wolves.

So which civilizing influence will tilt the battle to burnish my OCD credentials in the cracks of my early post polyurethane floors? Is it the Dust Vac or the Swiffer? Am I persuaded to visit the Murphy’s Soap upon the soft, placid cork in the kitchen? Do I Lemon Pledge the electronics? Where will an all-purpose generic suffice? Do I suck down moths in mid-flight or wait for the dust-up in the morning glare? When are spiders the enemies of my enemies and when do I have to vanquish the suspect in a potential spider bite case? When is it time to dispense with dry mops and play whack-a-mole in the stubble of the backyard? I turn my ADD shopping list to the insidious weeds that require my train wreck brand of root canal and trunk piles.

I’m beginning to understand why I revel in these minutiae flare-ups. This house was built by men. However unlike in most cases, a woman’s hand is not present in the expression of the home. I’m free to second-guess my own interior decoration in the privacy of this creation. I have amnesty blankets of permission to make up my mind. This act holds certain unintended consequences. Sometimes this contains savage consequences in my marriages — especially when I saw the choices as two avoidable extremes:

(A) Making a fuss about it or,

(B) Complete suppression.

Talk about no one being vested in a sunk cost situation.

Playing out scenarios like juggling calendars is one such hazard. I’m traveling too far over too few hours and I misplaced a few priorities along the way: Especially when my sense of obligation and devotion are locked in private competition.

This sounds like a simple case of arguing over control. But to be more concrete here, the conflict is fundamental. It’s the appointment-cancelling version of a gagging reflex. That’s a reference to our impulsive aversion for event planning – namely who’s the sponsor and what are the attendance requirements:

  • What do I say to whom?
  • How do I listen in a sincere, attentive way?
  • Where does non-verbal dialog outflank both of these channels?

Another is my mastery of the self-limiting nature of failed relationships that go on for too long. Show me a reason to avoid an argument and I’ll show you another expectation that I could learn to live without.

In place of this master miscasting I have an open and not so fragile invitation to live in a state of generous communication. Anyone who opens the bulkhead to the basement of their brains has free and welcome access to my attic whenever the sump pump forgets to take its allergy meds. I really mean that.

Yes, I am both the kind and queen of my castle. And that’s just the warm-up for the ultimate victory here. I attain the unnatural born rite to exercise a woman and Governor Romney’s prerogative — the right to change my bleeping mind.

The pulsating membranes of a home are springing to life. The floor plans are now sanded, stained, and open to trafficking feet. The brittle bones of an 1875 farm house have been reclaimed by the construction methods and materials of tank-less hot water systems, natural gas stoves and hearths, mini-splits, and spray foam insulation.

I am humbled by good fortune, astonished at the outcomes, and deeply gratified as:

  1. An info-geek whose architectures are purely mental constructions — even after my user-tenants take occupancy. (The concentration of ownership in data “clouds” is one aspect of climate change I’m better prepared to handle than a flood in my basement).
  2. A weary refuge released from the splintered floorboards of past broken homes.

Point 2 does not imply a replay of this road map. Contrary to industrial grade spiritual traditions, I have come to know absolution as a two-way street. I feel nothing but resolution and regard for my fellow passengers from these prior home wrecks.

That said, my gratitude extends beyond life lessons and circumstances to Lesley Theall. Lesley clearly saw my handyman challenges extending beyond hammering and measuring to include project managing the orchestrations of home-building from scratch. She knows that merely pitching a mailbox at 4 French Street would earn instant ribbon contention in the soap box derby of my personal Home and Garden network. She saved me from myself.

As I transitioned from land parcels to housing options I also received the good counsel of realtor Maryellen Stokarski. Maryellen knew there are few options between empty-nesters looking to downsize and younger couples with McMansions in their sights. So she led me to my love at first sight moment. That’s not an overstatement considering the monogamous nature of this transaction (the property never made its way to the MLS listings)!

I am particularly grateful to Peter Gelinas of Valley Building Co. and his capable team of contractors for their dedication to details, deadlines, team play, and an innate ability to anticipate issues that will never surface because of their design work, coordination, and craftsmanship.

Here are the spoils of their handiwork.

Living room: man cave or conference facility?

Site of future privacy room of reading library.

Wall-to-wall screens at porch side.

Hickory owes nothing to consistency and has thus found a home in my kitchen.

The second floor landing banister view of the front door. (Note that patch of cork flooring on the lower left)

Lowe’s did the carpet with lightening speed but I completed their customer satisfaction survey even faster


Unofficial team portrait

Feng shui … or bust


French vanilla siding on N. Hadley’s biggest small house


That truncated look from the deck-side

Back wall of kitchen and living room

First floor landing rights

Mayhem in the master

Dungeons without doors

Inside out view of porch from mud room

Life begins at the hop but it ends better on the porch