On being thankful…

This post is a re-tread from 4 years ago and I’m astonished at how much has not changed. While we no longer live in Atlanta, my mother is now 93, not 87 and my son is wrapping up a Masters degree in engineering, not starting college as he was in the original post, the important bits are the same–mainly the intense gratitude I feel for all that I have: my friends and family, my country, my hope for the future, and my thankfulness for today.

It’s Monday afternoon.  I spent some time this weekend marveling over the gorgeous fall colors all over Atlanta—a full month later than they’ve ever shown up before. Today I also note that the cooler fall weather has finally come to Atlanta which doesn’t matter because my husband and I will soon be packing up the car and heading south for Thanksgiving as we do every year.

Inside the house, the fireplace has been burning all day. My day has been full of last-minute freelance projects—received late and needing to be done early on top of cooking, cleaning and editing my latest novel.

And I am so thankful.

I am thankful for the chance to write books for a living. I’m grateful for a cozy little house, and for four non-psycho pets who enhance my life, for friends, for a smooth transition of my only child’s introduction to his first semester at college and for my own relatively successful entrée into the world of the empty nest.

Tomorrow my husband and I will drive six hours to my mother’s house in Florida for Thanksgiving. My older brother and his wife have come from northern California, my son will come from his campus fifty miles south of his grandmother’s house. My other brothers will come, loaded down with ham and pies and photos to share and stories to tell. I am thankful that we will have the whole family together again for another year.

My husband and I will bring the dressing as we do every year, the recipe handed down from my father—gone now these past 25 years—and one I have enjoyed for nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas of my life. We shopped Trader Joes and Whole Foods and the local markets in my Atlanta neighborhood for ingredients and specialty items that we buy only once a year. We picked up bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, tins of holiday cookies and candied nuts. This afternoon, as I fried the sausage for the dressing, I thought how lucky I am to be able to buy all this food, to not have to think twice about obtaining the things I felt I needed to make our family’s feast.

I am most thankful that we will all be together for the first time in a year. Through all the health scares, the employment woes, the insecurities, the stresses—both financial and emotional—I can’t forget how lucky we all are to have each other. I know my mother, 89 this year, will sparkle for as long as all her chicks—every one present and accounted for—are gathered in her house. I know this time won’t last forever and that one of these Thanksgivings, we won’t all be together. I know how lucky I am, and how grateful I am for Thanksgiving 2012.

Finally, regardless of how you felt about the outcome of the recent elections, I think you have to be truly thankful to live in a place where the threat of bombs and tanks and guns does not exist. This week, when you spare a thought—among the table settings and turkey drumsticks and football schedules—for those families on both sides of the Gaza/Israel border, I think, like myself, you have to be grateful for our country and for the peace that most of us have always known.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

Tess Trueheart: Voodoo Dog

This is a departure for me so if you can’t bear the thought of wading through somebody else’s dog story I totally understand and will catch you next time. For everybody else…

I once had cause to learn about a wunderdrug in veterinarian circles called Anipryl when my poodle mix began to show signs of confusion. I tried it on her and was happy to see her shake off a new foggy-headed recalcitrance and quickly become her old self again. It made me think, even though she had yet to show any change in behavior, that my other aging pooch, Tessie Trueheart, might also be a candidate for the drug.722258

To be honest, Tess had always been a little gaga right from the get-go.

The list of symptoms that Anipryl claims to countermand read as a personality description of  Tessie who I found at a Humane Society  in Gainesville, Georgia when she was 18-months old.

A mixed-breed terrier, Tess had a hunted, fearful look in her large brown eyes that I was convinced I could vanquish with lots of love and attention. Years later, the best that I can honestly say is that the fearful look wasn’t always there. Whatever happened in those first eighteen months of her life was always lurking right below the surface.

Tess never failed to shy her head from my hand when I leaned down to pet her. She never understood what I wanted when I called her to me. I’d have to say that she adapted to love and learned to tolerate signs of it from us, her family who she lived with for 14 years, but physical intimacy or affection would always freak her out and we learned to be careful not to oppress her.

When Tess first came to live with us, she spent a good deal of time staring at walls. (This, by the way, is one of the classic symptoms that Anipryl promises to address.) There were times when the rest of the family would be watching TV and one of us would turn away from the tube to notice that Tessie was staring intently at one of us—often within just a few feet of our faces.

Once when my brother came to stay with us for a long week to build a fence around our house, he spent evenings with Tess on his lap which was unheard of. He spoke to her in a soft, crooning voice, constantly soothing her. By the time he said goodnight each night, she would follow him to his bedroom and then sleep outside his door.

However, the next morning she would bark at him as if she had never laid eyes on him. She did this every morning for the nine days he was with us. Devoted to him by night. Totally unprepared for him by morning.

A Haitian woman who was cleaning our house once remarked to me as she was leaving one day: “Your dog talks to me.” I had to admit I had noticed that Tess was particularly committed to staring at this woman as she worked. “What’s she saying?” I asked. The woman went to Tess and pulled back her ears. 81746934“Mostly stuff about food and hating the vacuum cleaner,” she said. “But she says children threw rocks at her.” The woman’s hands rubbed over the scars behind Tessie’s ears that I didn’t even know were there.

Once we gave a dinner party where Tess sat two feet away from one of the female dinner guests and kept up a low-grade growl while never once taking her eyes off the woman. (I must confess to having never liked this woman and was more amused by Tessie’s rudeness than I should have been.)

If she was let out to the backyard to relieve herself, she would later return to the closed door and stand silently for one of us to remember she was out there. But when you opened the door, she would just stand there staring at you. (Another advertised symptom treatable by Anipryl, BTW.) Usually my husband or I just lifted her back inside.

We often referred to Tess as our “voodoo dog,” because she was so otherworldly in so many ways. She acted as if she heard voices from a place only she had access to.

Once she awoke the house in the middle of the night by making a sound like a human scream. Later that morning, we received word that a friend of ours, dying of breast cancer, had given up the fight at exactly the time in the middle of the night that Tess screamed.

Tess was a classic Omega dog. She never allowed herself to sleep on our bed while we are actually in it, but indulged when we left. While my other dog would sniff a proffered treat suspiciously, holding it up to the light, touching a tentative tongue to it to make sure I wasn’t trying to poison her, Tess immediately wolfed down anything offered to her. She allowed all other animals in our house—dogs and cats—to eat before she did, yet she was ravenously hungry at all times.

Tessie resembled a bloated miniature greyhound. She was tan and, because she liked food so much and I saw it as a way to give her love, chubby. Her head was small, her legs long and skinny but her middle was very round. Once, when my husband was picking up my step-daughter from her relatively-snooty equine day camp which was heavily populated with adorable Jack Russells in the back of every SUV, Tess, who had accompanied my husband that day, got out and became briefly, insanely happy, rolling in a pile of horse manure. When my husband finally caught her, a middle-aged and very unimpressed woman asked with intense disdain what kind of dog it was. My husband—carrying a redolent Tessie at arms’ length—grinned at her and said: “I’m surprised you don’t know. This is a pedigreed Butterball!”

Two years after we got Tess, my son pointed out to me that Tessie was wagging her tail. We’re not sure when, exactly, she started doing that, but we do know she hadn’t done it before.

As it turned out, while I was happy to have my other ancient dog on Anipryl—and was pleased with the results—I knew in my heart that it wasn’t really an option for Tess.88305750

As my husband said, “What if we put her on it and she becomes normal?”

Heaven forbid.

NB: When Tessie died, she did it in typical Tessie-style—without explanation or advance warning on the 14th anniversary of the day we found her.

 

 

Belonging Starts by Leaving Home

I have lived at 35 different addresses in my life. 13 of those addresses were before I turned 18. The 22 apartments and houses since then are the legacy of an ex-military dependent who spent the bulk of her childhood moving, saying goodbye, saying hello. My husband, who spent his entire childhood and adolescence in one neighborhood and in one house, is resigned to my relentless restlessness (eight of the 35 moves were with him.)

It’s my belief that the feeling of belonging and travel are not mutually exclusive. I think, to a certain degree, we travel in order to feel like we belong. Not only does travel give you a glimpse of the rest of the world, and therefore a snapshot of your place in it, it also helps you to see that we are all a part of one large human family.

In fact, the expatriate experience—one that you’d typically think of as apart or separate from the collective group—is really a definitive exercise in belonging. Nowhere is the feeling of belonging more strongly felt than when you live abroad and happen upon a fellow American. This could be someone you might not bother to cross the street for back home, yet in this context—say one where they are the only American besides yourself in a room of foreign nationals—they are met with real pleasure and enthusiasm.

Think of all the expatriate clubs and organizations in Paris, for example. First, there are an astounding 165,000 Americans living in France today (50,000 in Paris, alone) so they have no problem getting a taco party together to watch American gridiron or feeling like “they belong.”

Then, of course, there’s the technological revolution and how it’s affected the expatriate. When my husband and I lived overseas—he in the late seventies and me in the mid-eighties—contact with family and friends was expensive and slow. A letter to New Zealand from the States could easily take two weeks to get to me. The phone calls—expensive and infrequent—had serious quality issues, (like a humpback was squatting on the cable that threaded along the ocean floor from Jacksonville, Florida to Auckland, New Zealand.) My husband and I often remark how much easier it would be to live in a foreign country today, with skyping, and the instant gratification of cell phone contact. During the decades that he and I lived overseas, we felt truly and completely separated from our support group of friends and family back home.

The plus side, of course, was that it added to the immersion effect, for us, a large part of the reason we were overseas in the first place. He was living in Germany at the time and the lack of home contact probably aided in his mastering the language that much faster.

Like all travel, living abroad tends to give you perspective. It gives you a different point of view either of how you live back in the States—or how you want to live. Have you ever come back from a trip overseas and then made a drastic change in your life? I would love to hear how a trip or travel in general has changed you.