On "a count of" I'm getting older

I’m not a smoker, but in my job as a medical transcriptionist, I am witness to the many descriptions of smoking history in patients. Some patients even started to smoke as young as 7 years old! One of the more common ways for the doctor to glean probable cumulative effect of a patient’s history of smoking is to use the “pack years” equation.

From Wikipedia:
A way to measure the amount a person has smoked over a long period of time. It is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. For example, 1 pack year is equal to smoking 1 pack per day for 1 year, or 2 packs per day for half a year, and so on.[1]
Number of packs smoked per day * Number of years as a smoker = Pack Year
Example: If a person smokes 30 cigarettes a day for 40 years, then we would calculate as follows:
30 Cigarettes a day = 1.5 packs a day (20 cigarettes in a pack)
1.5 x 40yrs = 60 pack years

We use years as a way to measure other things, too. Think of fiscal years, light years, dog years, lunar and solar years. I am proposing a new classification - craft year.

My friend Sally told me she was scrutinizing her cross-stitch patterns to determine what she could actually complete in the remaining years of her life, what she really, really wanted to complete, and what she knew she would never have time to complete. As a crafter myself, I am entirely empathetic in what is in reality a mini-lesson in mortality.

Back to craft years. I started quilting in 1988. If historically I created 2 quilts a year since then (and this unfortunately is an overestimate, unless you count quilts I made in my head), and used some similar calculation to the formula above, I might be able to determine how many quilts are “left in me.” (I would have to factor in my current productive capacity as nil, in that I'm working so much at the aforementioned job that I still have Rachel's wedding quilt unfinished 5 years after the wedding.) If I divide that by the number of patterns and books I own....well, I’m not sure I want to live past the age of 200 just to quilt. Add to that scenario cross-stitching and sewing clothes, I’d have to live even longer than that.

As always, being human is a gift and a curse; the curse, of course, is that we are aware of our own mortality and current calculations of our life expectancy. There is a reason for the bumper sticker “Too much fabric, not enough time.” How many craft years do we have left? Substitute one’s own personal passion for “craft” and it does give one a sense of urgency, especially for those of us who have started the second half of our lives. Question marks have never been my favorite symbols of punctuation.

'Tis more blessed

Homer Simpson’s favorite expression is now a staple response of our granddaughter Caroline - “D’OH!” Aren’t there times we all want to say that? I had one such experience this week.

I was buying some balloons for my supervisor’s birthday at a local grocery store on my way home from work. Ellsworth, Maine, is a small town compared to most cities, and we have only two supermarkets of comparable size. I passed the first one to get to the second one, which is where we usually shop. I bought several items first (including lemon sorbet), then wandered into the card section, where I knew they had a revolving rack with balloon packages. (You purchase your balloon, then after you check out, you go to the recycling room, where someone will inflate it for you.) I was amazed to find not one birthday balloon on the rack - at least one that didn’t say “30” or “40.” They had plenty of “Happy Retirement,” “Happy Graduation,” and “Baby Shower” balloons, but none that I could use. So I took my groceries to the register, trying to figure out where I could get my balloons.

As I said, Ellsworth is a small place. We used to have a Hallmark shop that sold balloons, but it closed. There was a new party store, but it was out of town on the highway in the other direction. So I queried the girl bagging my groceries.

“Is there a place around here I can get a balloon? Y’all seem to be out of birthday ones.” (I know she figured I was a tourist, since it’s that time of year and I was asking directions. Or maybe it was the “y’all.”) Anyway, she whispered, “You might try the competition,” referring to the only other supermarket in town. I was pleased to be reminded that the other store carried balloons in their florist section. Even though it was backtracking somewhat, it was my only other alternative, so I thanked her and headed out to the car and down the street to Shaw’s. Their florist department is right by the door, so I figured I could get in and out without much damage to the sorbet on what was a hot, sunny summer day.

At Shaw’s, there was only one customer in front of me in the process of getting her order. And it was a big one. She was getting about a dozen black balloons. Apparently the clerk keeps lengths of various colors of ribbon already cut and tied onto the little weight clips to speed up orders, but didn’t have black ribbons pre-made. So there he was, slowly cutting and tying each black ribbon, then slowly blowing up each black balloon, then slowly tying each black ribbon to the inflated balloon. I sighed. This was going to take a while. I thought of my lemon sorbet, probably slowly melting away in my car.

After a few minutes of this painstakingly slow process, the customer gestured to me and said to the clerk, “Maybe you should just go ahead and wait on this lady.”

Now, most people would have been ecstatic. Anyone else would have thought “How kind! How thoughtful! My luck has turned! I accept!” But not me. The first words out of my mouth were, “No, that’s OK. I’m in no hurry.”

NO HURRY? I had sorbet in my car, probably sitting in the sun to boot, Ed was expecting me home for dinner, and I said, “I’m in no hurry”? D’OH!

What was the matter with me? I’d been on the other end of this scenario countless times. I’m the world’s foremost “let them go ahead of me” customer. Anytime I have more than an armful of groceries and someone is behind me with a handful of items, I always offer to let them move up in front of me. Most of the time, they graciously accept. It always makes me feel good. It’s more blessed to give than to receive, isn’t it?

Or is it? I once read a folk tale about a beggar in India who was content with his lot in life and did not curse it, because his belief was this: He provided a service to the wealthy. For if indeed it is more blessed to give than receive, he gave them an opportunity for being blessed every time they gave him a coin. If the wealthy didn’t have a chance to give, they would be denied the blessing.

We have been so trained to believe that giving is the only blessing, when accepting someone else’s gift can be a blessing, too. Of course, it’s nice to be on the giving end. It makes you feel good, doesn’t it, to dispense whatever you have to give - time, money, talent, wisdom, maybe even something as little as a place in line? Who knows - maybe that balloon lady was relieved when I rejected her offer. But maybe, just maybe, she was a little disappointed at being denied the pleasure of giving.

Life is indeed a circle - we are all givers, and we are all receivers, and our positions change as much as the temperatures in Maine. I need to remember to accept whatever position I am offered at any given time with gratitude.

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature....

Those of you who are near my age might remember The Wild Wild West, the TV show starring Robert Conrad. It has always been one of my favorite shows, so I ordered Season 2 in DVD. To be fair, I also ordered something Ed would like - the TV show Topper, which he remembers from his own childhood. Ed was born in 1946, and I was born in 1954, which makes us close to the beginning and end of the Baby Boomer generation.

I was excited to watch Topper, because it actually came with a few commercials. I get a kick out of watching old TV commercials. Jello was this show’s sponsor, so we got to see several Jello ads from that era (1953-1955). Jello was introducing three new flavors - and on the box, yes, there it was: “artificial flavoring.” Ed turned to me and commented, “Do you realize how long we have been eating fake food?”

We’ve been reading books on eating locally, the Slow Food movement, and organic gardening, so “fake food” has been on our minds lately. Our generation was raised on food like Jello and margarine - chemical concoctions invented in laboratories. We are the first generation to accept chemicals as food. White bread, soda pop, Cocoa Krispies - all creations of decades of processed, preservative-laden eating. It makes one wonder about the cumulative effect these “foods” have had on our bodies - a whole generation that has lost touch with natural sustenance. It boggles the mind.

Ed thinks one day they’ll discover that the plaque buildup in Alzheimer’s disease is really trans-fat accumulation - a fake food that the body can’t recognize and doesn’t know how to handle - and one, coincidentally, the Baby Boomer generation has been ingesting most of our lives. Whether or not his theory will pan out is anyone’s guess. But it does put the “wonder” in “Wonder Bread.”
Our part of Maine is always in a peculiar weather pattern this time of year. When I leave for work at 4:00 a.m., the temperature is in the 40s, and as soon as I get in the car, I turn the heat/cool system dial all the way over to the right and hope I warm up soon. By the afternoon when I leave work, the car has usually been in the sun all day and the temperature is now in the 70s, and the first thing I do when I get in the car is turn that same dial all the way back over to the cold setting, and flip the air condition on. All that in the same day.

I’ll bet we all have to do a great deal of adjusting in our lives. Some of it is as simple as heating up our area when we are chilled, or vice versa, but others require more effort. After my remarkably successful attitude change at work a few weeks ago, I caught myself yesterday in a thought process that was negative, and realized immediately that I needed a minor attitude adjustment. Nothing major, but all the same, I caught it in time.

They say that people who have lost a lot of weight find success in weighing daily, trying to discern signs of weight gain in the 1- to 2-pound range so they can adjust their habits accordingly before the gain gets out of control. So in one sense, those seemingly minor adjustments are helpful.

We all have bigger adjustments to make, however, and how we handle them can determine how much we struggle in life. I have an acquaintance who admits, “I don’t do change well.” That’s a pity, because life is all about change. Scientists tell us in evolutionary terms that when environmental conditions change, the animals and plants who fail to adapt are the ones who become extinct. Being unable to adjust to changes in our lives might not be have such a drastic result, but they certainly can make our lives harder than they need to be.

One of our greatest disappointments in pastoring churches was their inability to adjust to change. Whether it was a new pastor, a new hymnal, a new book of liturgy - any new way of doing things just fed their underlying fear. “We’ve always done it this way” was their mantra. I realize there can be a certain comfort in the status quo, but change is going to happen whether we consent or not, and we can either deal with it in some productive way (which may give us a modicum of control) or resist with all our might (which can be very energy-draining).

We certainly had to make adjustments when we moved to Maine from Tennessee. We had to get used to the snow and cold weather, for one thing. We had to get used to the idea that not everyone understood us when we spoke (and we as well had to ask people to repeat things). Since we moved again to Hancock, we are adjusting to being without a garage, adjusting to a smaller house, adjusting to a longer commute and smaller closets and less acquisition. These are all adjustments of choice, however. The adjustments were required and understood as necessary, based on our decisions to move and our life objectives.

The harder adjustments for me seem to come as a result of inevitable life changes that I don’t seem to have had any say in. I didn’t really decide to become older. I didn’t make a choice that my 52-year-old body shows signs of wear and tear (although undoubtedly some poor decisions on my part exacerbated that). I watch my body show signs of age, I watch my little kids grow up, I watch myself become a grandparent, I watch my job absorb changes that may not be to my advantage - and my first impulse is, well, shock. Everything seemed to happen so fast! My next reaction is, just like the churches, a little fear. Am I going to adjust well to aging, with its accompanying decline in my mental and physical abilities? Am I going to be able to be a successful mother-in-law? Will I be a good enough grandmother? Can I keep my new positive attitude at work while others make what I consider poor decisions that affect my production?

How boring life would be with no change to adjust to! As much as I adored my children when they were little, it would be weird to have them stay that way forever. I once heard a comedian make fun of a traditional reaction to seeing a young person whom you haven’t seen in a few years, “My! How you’ve grown!” Of course they’ve grown! Why the surprise? The surprise would be if they hadn’t grown!

As I make my various necessary adjustments to life, my role model is becoming Mother Nature herself. Each season flows into the next, never the same, but still it flows. Winter may leave kicking and screaming, but spring does arrive eventually. We open the windows, plant some flowers, enjoy the melons...and adjust, even knowing that fall will be here before we realize it and we will have to adjust again.

Of all life adjustments, I think the most important is the adjustment of attitude, for that seems to set the tone for how we handle the whole caboodle. Now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have some fresh cantaloupe in the kitchen which demands my attention. Eating summer’s treats again is one adjustment I can make with unmitigated pleasure!

Filling Up

I noticed yesterday that I had half a tank of gas, so I stopped by the gas station and filled up on my way home from work. As I was standing at the pump, I experienced the familiar sensation that this act gives me - a feeling of security. Have to go somewhere unexpected? Full tank of gas. Price shoots up 50 cents in one night? Full tank of gas. Whatever happens in the world tomorrow, I have, at least for right now, a full tank of gas.

It’s not much, but it’s something. It has a limit, though. My tank will only hold so many gallons, and it’s impossible to shove any more in. Would I have more security if I had a bigger tank and filled it to the limit? Would I have even more security if I had one of those oil storage tanks in my yard?

The problem with simplifying and downsizing is that other parts of my life are not restricted in size, and in my tendency to fill them, I run into that problem. I think it’s human nature to want that feeling of security, even about trivial things. It gives me contentment to see my hundreds of quilt books on the shelf. Yet, more quilt books are published all the time! Egad! How much is enough?

I taught my kids a lot of important things, but I also regrettably taught them my bad habits. Matt, for one, knows that no matter how big a meal he eats, or how full he gets, there is always a little, tiny corner of the stomach that can hold something sweet. Miraculously that miniscule space has avoided filling up for the entire meal. There’s always room for more - if it’s something we really want.

I think we realize that having more than we need of anything good is pleasurable, but I think we may not realize that we are also searching for that feeling of security. Food, clothes, money, personal collections - it seems we consumers are always ready for more. Unlike our gas tanks, the situation is a bottomless pit, and it is a struggle we have to relive day after day after day. Excessive consumption is enticing and is actually a self-propelling act. It’s hard to know when to stop because the gas doesn’t spill over the side and give us a clue.

Ed and I used to joke that that someone with 100 million dollars was someone who was not satisfied with having 90 million dollars. That may be true. The other side to the story is that someone with 90 million dollars is probably making so much profit and interest that their money expands without even taking action. They probably can’t even spend it fast enough. (Unless they’re in the government, of course.) At a certain point, our desire for security can spin out of control and take on a life of its own.

So in the end, we have to be our own monitors of consumption. Like nutritious eating or exercising, it unfortunately falls into the category of “Decisions you wish you could make one time and be done with it” instead of “Decisions you have to renew every day for the rest of your life.” I hate those.