What happened to Six Penny Lake? A “lost lake” teaches life lessons

When my daughter comes home, my normal life is put on hold the few rare, brief times she takes a break from her steady flow of travel, studies and work. One of the ideas Sierra had this time home, was to rent a yurt at a state park and have a small adventure. Her and Eben were celebrating their one year wedding anniversary and although we have a sweet little cabin on our property that Todd built for me that the kids sleep in when they are home, they wanted something a little more special and “away.” Since they had to rent for two nights minimum, they invited the rest of the family for night 2.

One of the places Sierra wanted to explore was French Creek State Park, where the yurt they rented was located. We all met there for a cook out and a hike. We chose a 3 mile loop called “Six Penny Loop.” As we walked through the mature hardwood forest, decorated with blooming mountain laurel, I remembered….forty five years ago, I frequented this park on a regular basis with my boyfriend, Chris. He borrowed his father’s Le Mans and we drove his inflatable orange vinyl kayak out to French Creek SP and spent long afternoons in the soft cushy boat, learning about love and sensuality and our bodies etc. The park had Hopewell Lake and Scots Run Lake to boat in and we also swam in the freezing cold Six Penny Lake. Sierra selected a three-mile loop called “Six Penny” for our hike but when I examined the park map, I saw no lake anywhere. How could a lake just disappear? I put it out of my mind and as I walked the loop, I became immersed in my own memories. I hadn’t visited them for most of the last 45 years.

My parents were not thrilled with my boyfriend choice of seven years, from the ages of 15-21. Chris wasn’t a bad kid- he came from “a good Catholic family,” was a bright student and a star on the football team, and he treated their daughter well enough. But my parents thought his personality was too different than mine, so different that I was not able to be myself. He was very quiet and private and I found myself suppressing my own outward personality to under shadow him. My parents knew that once I grew into my own person, a different type of man might better compliment me as a life partner. They didn’t MAKE me break up with him, but I knew for all those years, I did not have their approval and well wishes. They tried to limit our time together in the summer months by giving me a cut off of how many days we could see each other.

Chris and I both loved to hike and paddle and cycle and be in the woods and I saw little harm in sharing more time together. I got good at lying and sneaking around. I spent a few summers driving around crouched on the floor of his dad’s Le Mans, looking to all those who passed, as if Chris was driving solo. He actually saw my dad go by a few times in our comings and going. Chris would wave, then say, “You can come up now, your dad just passed.” When I returned home, I would make up some story about where I spent my afternoon, but it truly was at places like French Creek State Park or some other outdoor natural setting.

Of course, at the time, I completely disagreed with my parents’ opinion. I loved Chris and thought that was all that was necessary to mate selection. As the years went by in our relationship, fortunately for us, we had some separation and I had some distance for my head. Chris went to grad school in Arizona, I went to art school in Philadelphia. I began meeting other young men and realized how many different personalities were out there and lo and behold, I learned THAT YOU COULD LOVE MORE THAN ONE MAN in your life. And just because you loved someone, love was not all you needed to make a life long relationship work. Chris and I grew to be too different. I began to feel confined in the relationship. I wanted to feel free to be myself. I finally accepted the fact that I had to move on separately and went though the extremely painful process of breaking up. He thought we would be together forever and for many of our seven years, we held that “truth” in both our minds.

I was thinking about all these memories and thoughts as we hiked the Six Penny trail. This loop was a possibility for another hike in the very near future, where I would lead, along with my Board Members of my non-profit, River House PA, a group of Veteran patients from the Coatsville VA on a short hike. The idea was to get them out on a beautiful walk in nature but not challenge them so much that they tired and did not ever want to hike again. I was looking for an alternative on the Six Penny trail to shorten their hike. When we came to a short side trail that looked, on the map, as though it led to a locked gate by the hard surface road, I asked my family if we could take a quick detour to check it out.

In just a few minutes, our trail turned into a set of stone steps and a stone walkway. What’s this? It looked like the remains of something man built place from long ago, but the forest was taking it over. In a few tenths of a mile, we began to hear a chorus of croaking frogs and came to a swamp where cat tails and water grasses shot twelve feet into the air. Oh my God, was this the missing Six Penny Lake?

The trail encircled the wetland and in a few minutes, we came to a beautiful old stone dam. The water drained the swamp and flowed freely through the outlet. Part of the lake still remained open water. I stood there and marveled. I remembered swimming in this spring fed, mind-numbing water on hot summer days in my teen years. What had happened?

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We hiked further and explored black top roads that were grown in by the trees and vegetation, narrow and winding with a hint of a white line still painted on the blacktop. On these same roads, forty-five years ago, we drove Chris’s dad’s Le Mans. You could follow the road to old parking areas. There were remains of the stone bath house, water fountains, even metal baskets for storing your belongings while you swam in the tall grass and weeds. It was eerie. There were no indications on the park map that this place ever existed. Did the officials think, “Erase the evidence from the map and maybe the place will disappear off the earth.?” But here it still remained. Why was it removed or attempted to be removed?

That night in my bunk in the yurt, I had a difficult time falling sleep. I relived memories of growing up. I revisited my difficult decision to break up with my childhood boyfriend and find a better suited life partner. Forty five years ago, I was heading down a course that would not be the best choice for a life partner for me, but one who taught me about love. My own husband of thirty-three years snored quietly above me on the top bunk. I have been very happy with my decision to choose THIS man to be my life long partner. My daughter, a bride for a year, slept with her new husband in the double bed across the yurt. As a parent, I am very happy with her decision too, a man who brings out the best in her and supports who she is so she can shine and freely be who she is.

When I returned home from our yurt wedding anniversary celebration, I Googled “Six Penny Lake/French Creek State Park” and found that back in 1999, the lake was part of an attempt by the Department of Environmental Resources to remove dams that were impeding the natural flow of a wild stream. The lake behind the old stone dam at Six Penny had accumulated silt and was filling in. It had served well as a recreational lake in its time but its time was over. Once the dam was opened back in 1999, and Six Penny Creek was allowed to run free, native brook trout returned and within a few short years, the quality of the stream reached the highest rating of health. Removing old dams was controversial back in the 90’s, but it is now a common practice seen as a greater good for the health of our streams, wildlife, and the forest.

With a little exploring, I was privileged to revisit this place of my youth, with my daughter and new son-in-law, and happy husband of 33 years. Chris, wherever you are, I wish you well. I thank you for sharing part of my youth with me, teaching me about life and love and allowing me the painful but wise decision to move past you and flow freely into the world and adulthood and the rest of my life. And thank you Six Penny and French Creek SP for making me feel gratitude one more way in my life.

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS as we grow older…as in learning the Epley Maneuver and refraining from housework

My daughter asked me to help her clean her Boulder apartment before moving out of her grad school abode. She knows I have a problem with cleaning and she also knows I have a hard time saying no to her. I vowed to do my best, however piss poor that might be.

First task I tackled was cleaning out the fridge. Not much was left, just a half-dozen items for the cooler for our drive across the country back to PA. I moved them out and then proceeded to wipe down the insides with a rag and a basin of hot soapy water. I pulled out the vegetable crisper drawers and scraped out the dried spilled muck. I scrubbed the door channels where the orange juice dripped. It was surprisingly rewarding to see the white plastic become clean and shiny. Wow. I might consider doing this at home. It feels pretty good.

As I wiped, I startled myself with the realization that I had never cleaned out a fridge before (except for a hotel’s mini fridge or a cabin’s fridge we rented short-term). How did I live through six decades and never perform this task? Oh, my husband! He cleans out the fridge! I contemplated feeling guilty, or feeling like I was a bad wife. But decided, not a bad wife, a very bad housekeeper.

My children accuse me of only making others look bad in my blogs, never myself, (often their father, who never reads them) but I disagree. I would not be admitting to this fact if that were so. We all have our gifts and cleaning a house is not mine.

My next job at cleaning the apartment was cleaning the ceiling above the stove. Since my daughter and son-in-law lived in a basement apartment in Boulder, the ceiling was low. I bent my head way back and scraped the grease spots off with a scrubbie. More success and feeling confident and rewarded with a white spotless ceiling. Next was the baseboards, where I had to drop my head and hang it down while I wiped. More feelings of accomplishment. I was beginning to like this cleaning practice and pondered taking a room one at a time at home and overhauling it, giving it a face lift like never before. I just might surprise myself and enjoy the results.

But that night, I climbed into bed and felt weird in the head. Dizzy. Uh oh.

The next morning, something was very wrong with my head. Without even lifting it off the pillow, the room spun. It was 8 am. The carpet cleaner was coming at 9 and my bed had to be stripped and the mattress moved to the kitchen so the bedroom rug could be cleaned. But I could not move.

This happened once before. Last November, six months ago. My doctor told me it was called Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) and probably occurred from flying home from Kenya, a change in altitude.

BPV is the result of a disturbance inside your inner ear. Fluid inside tubes in your ear, called semicircular canals, moves when your position changes. The semicircular canals are extremely sensitive. BPV develops when small pieces of calcium crystals that are normally in another area of the ear break free and find their way to the semicircular canal in your inner ear. This causes your brain to receive confusing messages about your body’s position.

It is a condition and seems to happen repeatedly once it starts.

Epley’s maneuver is the most effective BPV treatment. It involves moving the piece of calcium to a different part of your inner ear where it will no longer cause problems. I called in my son Bryce to help me. We got my laptop, logged on, found the website where a U tube video describes the maneuver step by step, and proceeded to do it.

We didn’t get very far. As soon as Bryce caught my head as I dropped backwards, and turned it, I felt extremely sick and in a matter of seconds, ran through the carpeted apartment with my hand clamped over my mouth as the vomit rose and dropped all through the carpeted apartment.

I pleaded with Bryce to go to the drug store and get me Dramamine to cope. Now the carpet cleaners were coming in 15 minutes. I was still in my underwear, propped in a seated position against the wall of the empty living room floor while Sierra moved out the bed. She was feeling stressed. We had to drive two cars across the country and I would be good for nothing. I couldn’t even tilt the seat back in the car because so much stuff was behind it. It would be a long drive home.

When this happened the first time in November, my doctor gave me two pages of balance therapy exercises to do twice a day- exercises designed to allow the patient to become accustomed to the position which causes vertigo symptoms. They involved spinning and moving your head in all sorts of horribly nauseating positions. I think the idea is to become desensitized to the movement. They took over an hour to do. Needless to say, I only did them twice. They were no fun. My kids yelled at me and told me I REALLY needed to do them now. In two months, their father and I would be heading out onto a mountain bike trip for 1500 miles and it would be a good idea if I felt balanced and secure. We just completed a 300 mile ride from San Francisco to Yosemite and when we had to do single track, I did NOT feel 100% balanced.

Things have been deteriorating over the last few years with my motion sickness. I have always been very sensitive to motion sickness even as a child, as was my mother, and can never sit in the back seat w/o becoming ill. But in the last two years, swimming laps began to make me feel sick. If another swimmer was in the pool, it was worse. The more I swam, the sicker I felt. I wondered if it was the fact that my GF’s pool was switched over from chlorine to salt treatments and I ingested too much. But I did notice that square or contra dancing made me sick too. I could not take the spinning anymore. As I sat out a dance two years ago, a physical therapist happened to sit next to me and told me about inner ear crystal displacements and advised me to go to a specialist and perhaps it was as easy of a fix as moving my head. I believed him but it sounded far-fetched. Now it is all making sense.

Then I read this…”BPPV may be made worse by any number of modifiers which may vary between individuals. Although BPPV can occur at any age, it is most often seen in people over the age of 60. Besides aging, there are no major risk factors known for developing BPPV, although previous episodes of trauma to the head, or inner ear infections.

About ten years ago, me the kids and I were in a very bad accident in my Geo METRO. It was demolished but we were ok, except that I hit my head. I went to a brain specialist and was put on Ibuprofen for a while to reduce the swelling. I had headaches for over a year. They also found that I have a brain malformation, Chiari Malformation, a congenital defect. It is a condition in which the bony space enclosing the lower part of the brain is smaller than normal and can cause complications. I always knew I had a very small head like a child’s when trying on bike and horseback riding helmets.

I read that “Symptoms of Chiari malformation may not appear until adulthood, causing severe headache, neck pain, dizziness, vertigo, numbness in the hands, and sleep problems. In some cases, a head or neck injury from a car accident or sports injury triggers the onset of symptoms.

So between having a malformed brain, a previous head injury, displaced crystals, recently flying, AND hiking up to 10,000 feet in altitude, no wonder this happened.

Why are we even talking about this? It sounds like some older person’s complaint about body deterioration but it is not. I do not feel old but changes keep happening to all our bodies, at all ages, whether it is in pregnancy, sports related injuries, trauma from war, all kinds of things. It is helpful to learn about our bodies and how to keep them healthy and moving and fit so that we can keep living our active lives regardless of our age. It is very important to know ourselves.

So now I understand a little clearer what is happening inside my head, my ears, my brain. I will do my balance exercises, even though I hate them, so I don’t fall off my mountain bike. I will also learn the Epley Maneuver better so I can dictate to whoever is with me, how to move those damn misplaced crystals back where they belong. I’m not going to stop flying and I’m not going to stop climbing mountains or hiking at higher elevations. But now I know how to better manage this condition. It is also probably for the best that I refrain from cleaning, (ha ha, now I have a viable excuse!) and not aggravate those crystals, as good as it was beginning to sound.

Death by Choice

I was riding my stationary bike and since our old boombox is broken and I have no music, I was looking around the sunroom for something to think about, for I was bored with going nowhere. My eyes landed on a metal comb on the windowsill with black hair still in it. It used to be our old cat, Socks’s comb. We had to work it through her fur once she got older and could not keep herself groomed. Her thick black hair once reminded us of a seal, but in her old age, it got grossly matted and looked painful, but perhaps not as painful as it felt to have it combed out.

Socks is no longer with us. She disappeared one day when we were on a trip. When she grew older, she would disappear for days. Every time it happened, we wondered if it was the last time and she had wandered off to die somewhere in peace, from starvation, hypothermia, or both?

Todd and I saved two people in our lives two separate times on Mount Whitney in the High Sierra. We found them sitting sleeping in the snow without gear or protection from the elements. We hauled their butts up to the summit stone shelter, cooked them hot food, fed them liquids, got into sleeping bag with them and saved their lives. They say you get sleepy when you begin to die of hypothermia, after the uncontrollable shivering subsides. It is said to be a very peaceful way to die. “I just think I’ll sit here and take a nap for a bit,” but then you wake up to pearly gates or the hot flames. It seems like a simple and seemingly painless way to go, if you are making plans.

Todd and I saw a Japanese art film years ago, called the Ballad of Narayama, 1983. It is set in a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, where food is scarce, life is harsh and people are desperate and cruel. Anyone who lives for 70 years is hauled to the mountaintop by their children and left to die in the dead of winter.

The son carries his 69-year-old mother, who was still strong, on his back, to the mountaintop. It was difficult for her son, for the climb was arduous, especially carrying live weight on his back. Also, psychologically difficult, carrying your mother to her death-bed, knowing it was the last time you would be with her. Then having the strength to leave her there, by her choice, and returning without her. This scene was startling, as he put her down amongst other skeletons that were sitting in the snow that had gone before her. It was a very powerful scene and one that I has haunted me for decades.

My girlfriend is experiencing a situation where her step mother is clearly ready to die but her birth children are not granting her permission to. They want her to eat, improve, get better, continue living. This 90+-year-old woman is tired. She wants the opportunity to decide for herself when she has had enough living. It is the ultimate personal decision.

Ninety seems like a reasonable age to call it quits. But what about 67? When Guy Waterman, a noted outdoor writer, hiker and wilderness protector, turned 67, he decided he had enough. Famous for his books, “Backwoods Ethics” and “Forest & Crag,” he was no stranger to wilderness, particularly the White Mountains of New Hampshire and knew what happened when you went for a walk in cold weather with inappropriate clothing. Atop Mount Lafayette, on the open, treeless Franconia Ridge, he sat down and froze to death. It was on the same stretch of trail where he and his wife, Laura, had voluntarily maintained for years.

Guy had personal demons and bouts of depression. He lost his two sons, one to suicide, the other to a solo climb on Mount McKinley in Alaska. His wife knew of his suicide plans more than a year before he took his last hike, and said “I can’t agree with him, but I can respect and love him as an individual. He wanted out. And he chose the way he felt was appropriate for himself.” He was executing his personal choice of when he had enough of this life.

I remember when Todd and I stopped to visit our friend, Steve, in Minnesota, who was helping me edit my manuscript., “Journey on the Crest.” We were on your way home across the country and Todd was leaving me there to work for a few days and I would fly home later. Steve’s mom was walking around the home while we both visited, cooking meals, doing light cleaning, when she decided she was going to go check herself into the hospital. She had cancer but was not “dying.”

When I walked Todd to the truck to say good-bye, “I said, “She is going to die while I am here, I know it, so I can help her men through this. She has chosen this time to go.” And she most certainly did. We edited my manuscript in the hospital by her bed, keeping vigil, editing in-between death rattle episodes. I will never forget it. And I was there for days afterwards to help Steve and his dad through the process. They were not emotionally capable of dealing with her death, as well as make all the arrangements necessary for a funeral, without my help.

My own dad seemed to have control over when he died. His cancer had gone from his lungs to his heart when Todd and I were getting ready to head to remote log building school in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. There was no phone service there and we would be out of contact for 10 days. “Are you going to die while I am gone, Dad? If so, I won’t go.”

And he promised me, “I will not die while you are gone. Go to school and learn how to build your house and I will be here when you return,” and he was. I believed him. I believed he had some control over when he went and how long he stayed. He died weeks after my return.

My friend Lucy committed suicide when the pain became stronger and harder than she could deal with. As was my friend’s Veteran son, Zach, who struggled with PTSD. We who are left behind think it is way too early for them to go and we miss them terribly, but who are we to say that they must continue on, for us?

My mom checked herself into the hospital when she was 57. We found old love letters on the coffee table in her living room. My dad had died three years earlier from lung cancer, also at the age of 57, around this same time. None of us four kids knew why she was checking herself into the hospital. She had never experienced even a small heart attack. They were doing a battery of tests on her, but had found nothing. She looked fine to us. She must have felt heartsick over missing my dad. I thought, along with my siblings, that she should kick herself in the butt and get out of there. Live for us. We wanted a mom still. I visited her in the hospital and brought strawberries in for her to eat fo she was refusing to eat. She laid back in bed, her lips parted, pretending I was not there. I obnoxiously slipped a strawberry into her mouth and she angrily spat it across the room with force and energy and said, “Go home, Cindy,” which I did.

She died that night. When we came to see her dead in the hospital, after “the call,” there was a look of pure joy on her face, her eyes were open and she was smiling, as though she had just seen my dad. I guess she was where she wanted to be, with him. I still felt it was bullshit though, for quite some time, and that she was coping out. But that was my loss speaking.

I definitely think my mom and my dad had a hand in deciding when they would go. Just like Socks, our cat, and certainly Lucy, Zach and Guy Waterman. My girlfriend wishes that her step mother will be allowed that privilege, that gift of deciding when it is enough.

Years ago, when we were sitting by Steve’s mother’s dying bed, and the death rattle was going on for hours, a psychic friend came in to pay her last respects. The friend said to us, “She is concerned about leaving her men. She needs to hear that it is okay for her to go, that you both will be ok.”

We’ll be fine,” Steve and his dad both said loud, “you can go,” and within seconds, much to our utter amazement, her spirit had left her body and she had moved on.

Todd and I told the kids, “If me and dad tell you we are going out camping one day when it is winter and we are very old and we have scant clothing on, just let us go. We are planning on getting hypothermia and dying together.” They said, “That is so gross.” I was kidding, of course, but it is something to think about, when we are very old and are ready, why not? Up to North Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. They only have to haul our dead butts 3/4 of a mile down. That’s a hellava lot coser than Mt Lafayette on Franconia Ridge!

A Return to Ballet Class

I had to push my wide backpacking feet into the pale pink ballet slippers in order to make them fit. 10,000 miles have been added to my feet’s history since I danced ballet. That is a lot of muscle mass and spreading out. My toes felt so cramped, the shoe kept my foot in a permanent point. This is good. It will help me hold my foot in the correct position at least. How many of the other ballet positions I would remember was scary, but at least my toes would stay pointed. I was heading to an adult ballet class and it was an accomplishment just locating my slippers after 45 years of not dancing.

My new son-in-law Eben danced ballet from the ages of 4-15. I danced when I was in middle school. I loved it. I had always thought of going back to the local dance and art institute, just to limber up and bring this art form back into my life but you must commit to a semester of classes. That schedule gets in the way of a travel writer so I never pursued it. But here in Boulder, where my daughter and son-in-law attend grad school, there is a drop in class. Eben invited me to go one evening while I was visiting. I thought it would be something very special and unique that I could share with my new son-in-law.

Eben announced to the instructor as soon as we entered the hallway of Boulder Ballet that he had brought his mother-in-law to class this evening. The women leaning against the walls with their bags in hand, looked at me with a combination of welcome and sympathy.

There was a fine mix of ages- mostly women in their 40-60’s. They did not have perfect bodies and a few had a thicker menopausal waist, but all of them were working at being a ballerina for an hour and a half of their week. That was cool.

We helped one another take an end of the portable metal ballet bars and carried them out to the center of the floor, arranging them in rows. A full length mirror lined the one wall so we could watch our form. I did not recognize myself in the mirror. I did not look anything like a ballerina. I looked like an imposter. Although I wore black tights and a black tight t-shirt, it would have been a good idea had I lost 10 pounds. I planned to avert my eyes as much as possible.

I stood in first position, heels together, toes pointed outward, chest high and arm held as gracefully as I could, with a curved hand and open fingers. I stood next to my son-in-law at the bar for moral support and watched what he did, trying to copy. Eben and I accidentally kicked one another a few times and we laughed.

I was amazed at my son-in-law. He looked transformed. I have observed him of course, walking around the world, hiking, paddling, even salsa dancing, but here he looked like a ballet dancer and this side of him was new to me. He knew the moves and the positions. He got his leg up quite high. He did not waver or lose his balance. He did not watch others to see how to do it. He was in the zone of a ballet dancer and I was very proud of him. He was the only male here amongst two dozen women and it did not bother him in the least. That is what he is used to, he said.

My husband, Todd, had a bit of a hard time accepting Eben at first. One time in particular, the couple was living at our home in an interim period in their lives. Todd planned to work together with Eben on firewood this particular day. My tight-lipped PA German husband was outdoors working away, waiting for Eben to come out and join in. Eben was in the house waiting for Todd to tell him when he was ready for him. A lack of communication was clearly going on. My husband complained later on, “I came into the house and he was sitting on the sofa, knitting! Knitting! While I was outside doing all these manly things.”

And I looked at him and said, “Why does Eben have to be like you? He can be any way he wants. The important thing is that he makes your daughter happy. Does he make your daughter happy?”

He seems to.”

Well that is all we should be concerned with.”

So here I was with Eben sharing ballet class. How many mothers-in-law get to do that with their new son?

I was alright with the warming up exercises at the bar. They came back to me. I was grateful I had been doing yoga in these past years when it came to bending back and stretching sideways, but still felt clunky, chunky and stiff. What this session was telling me was how far I have come from being a ballerina and from the looks of the grey haired women surrounding me, it was possible to get it back. I am sure that 90% of these women, like me, danced as young girls too. A few of the younger ones looked as if they still danced professionally but most were here for the fun and exercise and the beauty that dance brings into your life.

Once we moved the bars back to the side and spread ourselves out on the floor, I thought, uh oh, now I have to look at myself. There are not a lot of places to hide in ballet class or pretend you are something different from who you are or what you have become. But I could easily avoid looking at myself in the mirror as I had to spend most of my time watching others so I could mimic them.

I exercise nearly every day and can ride a bike fairly fast and far. I can power up slopes hiking without hyperventilating and am poised to head out onto two long distance adventures this summer. This year of turning 60 is my year to notch my fitness level up to a new height. Ballet class is reminding me that I have slipped far from a 15-year-old ballerina, but by the looks of those around me, I could get most of it back. Looking in the mirror at these adult women, there is hope.

During the floor exercises, I spent half my time losing my balance and breaking the pose. Spinning in place, balancing on a single foot that is supporting your body only by your toes, was not easy. Grace was nowhere to be found. I failed half the time but the other half, I was having a good time.

Things got more uncomfortable when we were instructed to head to the corner of the room and section off into groups of three for crossing the floor. The instructor went through what felt like a rapid succession of moves which I could not grasp. I left Eben’s side and went to the back of the group, hoping by the time my turn came, I had watched enough woman to memorize the sequence.

I felt more like a wildebeest than a gazelle crossing the wooden dance floor. Eben said no one was looking at me. I said bullshit. I looked at every single woman as they crossed, observing their form, who looked better, who I wished I could emulate. Leaping into the air, I felt fairly ridiculous and know I looked that way too. I got an A for effort but realized the rough road ahead if I wanted to try to get it back. Getting back the grace, the lightness, the magical zone and the beautiful expression that dance provides you with was worth the effort and pushing through the uncomfortable time of being rusty and chubby and out of dance shape, I thought. Had I lived in Boulder, Eben and I would be coming here on a regular basis.

Eben told Sierra that he never saw me so self-conscious and lacking in confidence. He was surprised. But he never saw me at ballet class before. This was a fairly huge move to get out of my comfort zone. I remember when I enrolled Bryce in a hip hop class back when he was 12, since he loved to break dance so much. He was the only guy in the class and crossing the dance floor one at time doing shoulder shrugs put him over the edge, he said, never to return. He said he was emotionally scarred from that experience.

I get that. I was not so uncomfortable or poor at ballet that I would not return. I may enroll in a class back home. Perhaps committing to a full semester is something I would need to commit to. You have to give some things more of a chance. One run at it after 45 years isn’t enough to judge. The other women in the class were the real gift of the experience. All of them were pushing past their comfort zone and had arrived at a place where they felt comfortable and confident and able to dance ballet again. This has been a reminder of who I have been, who I am now, and who I could be again, with some work.

And of course, the best gift of all, dancing with my new son-in-law. How special and unique of an experience is that? It was worth feeling like a wildebeest and I may just decide to become a ballerina again in my near future.

“Do something every day that scares you”(revisited) …Eleanor Roosevelt

Science has proven that doing something that scares you will make you more productive, prepare you for new and unexpected changes, help you push your boundaries in the future, and make it easier to harness your creativity.”

When I rode motorcycle, it was easy to fulfill that command by Eleanor Roosevelt. Every time I switched off the ignition and unbuckled my helmet after a ride, I was grateful that I was still alive and whole. (My uncle died in a motorcycle crash.) I tried to be a good rider. I went to motorcycle safety class, even graduated from the advanced class. But I just didn’t ride enough. The summer that we went to Alaska for nearly two months sapped my confidence. When I hopped on after we returned home, I was nervous. I just wasn’t in the saddle enough to feel comfortable. Every time it was nice weather, my motorcycle friends wanted to ride and I wanted to hike, cycle, paddle, move. So I sold it and used the money to buy the family flights to Patagonia to backpack.

I was scared to landscape paint on the spot- plein air painting, it is called. It is fast and challenging to capture the ever changing light. It sounds much more tame compared to motorcycle riding but it can be very intimating in its own right.

All my life, I have only ever painted from photographs, which distills information down to two dimensions. Plein air is much much different than painting in a studio, with controlled light and having all the time in the world. But it is something that I always wanted to do. In my 45 years of being an artist, I probably only ever painted on the spot two times in total and both felt like utter failure.

So I landed a magazine job with Traverse Magazine in Traverse City, Michigan to take a three-day plein air painting course and write about it. I wanted to attend and be ahead of my learning curve, already feeling comfortable behind an easel and ready to absorb my teacher’s personal gifts and instruction. So I went to my friend Frank Fretz.

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Frank is a fabulous artist and has helped me and my children become better artists for decades. He helped with my books’ illustrations as well as helped 13-year old Bryce create his first book. Frank is now in his 80’s. Still young in my book but I am not sure how long he will be willing to landscape paint with me and so I have asked him for his company and his wisdom and we have begun weekly painting sessions.

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Since it was chilly this first week, we painted in their passive solar home, Frank looking one direction, me the other. I was not convinced I would like plein air painting but I truly wanted to and become good at it someday. My dream is to travel around the country when I’m finished with my next book, “Modeling a Life,” on a press trip. I plan to stop at my old friends’ homes (and a few new ones!) whom I have not seen for many years and reconnect. Have them arrange to have me speak in their local town at a library or an outdoor shop, go for a hike with them, sell a few books, and do a plein air painting where they live. By the time I return from my press trip, I ought to have a nice group of paintings for a show from the road and be half good at it.

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I was surprised to find that while I was painting at Frank’s, I really did enjoy it. I painted for 1 ½ hours and then got a bit frustrated with the changing light and the fact that my painting had gotten so wet I could not spot highlights. Time to quit.

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My husband was excited to see what I had done as soon as he came home from work and liked my painting but couldn’t understand why I kept referring to “the road.” He thought I had painted a stream, with the blue shadows in the road. I am not sure if that could be considered failure or not but I still felt good that he liked it, as did I. I will do some finish work on it after it dries and will post. But I think I am finally ready to take up this new activity of on-the-spot plein air landscape painting and I m excited.

Frank’s wife Lila is very wise and she once told me when I was complaining that I was not painting and always wanted to do this kind of landscape painting, but was doing other important work instead, like writing, she said, “Save something for later on in your life.” I was thinking “old and decrepit” and unable to move and painting in a van with wrap-around windows as I traveled. But now is a very good time to learn to be a plein air landscape painter.

 

Training Husbands- A Life-long Job

Husbands need to be trained their entire life. We wives can’t ever slack off, ease up. That’s the reality of it. And Pennsylvania German husbands, however good-hearted and loyal people they may be, suck at manners.

My husband had a terrible teacher in this department. When we were first married, my new mother-in-law merely grunted, “Salt!” when she wanted someone to pass the salt shaker. I was speechless. I realized shortly after I was married, that my husband had a very difficult time with the words, “Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. I’m sorry.” I repeat them after I give him something like you do a very small child in training, preparing them to be a polite adult.

When my husband began work wth a Pennsylvania German man, I began to see the same behavior in him. If we took him out to lunch, or bought him a present, he would not say thank you, although I knew he was grateful, not just for the act but also our friendship, but these men certainly do not vocalize it. When I witnessed my husband leaving the job and not saying good bye to his boss, I questioned him. He told me that they do not even say “hello” or “good morning” at the start of the day.

I found this shocking and after over thirty years of witnessing it, I am continually shocked.

I came downstairs from my workplace last night and went down into the cool cellar for a grapefruit. I passed my husband reading in his chair and said, “Do you want a grapefruit or an orange?”

he said, “no, I just had one.”

I looked at him and said, “Are you a bachelor?”

No.”

Do you live alone?”

No.”

Tonight, just one night later, he came into the bathroom while I was taking a bath with a dish of ice cream.

I said, “How about me?”

Here, take it,” he said, pissy.

I don’t believe you. Why don’t you think of me?”

He said, “You get things for yourself all the time- coffee, tea.”

That was just lame. My husband NEVER drinks hot liquids unless he is in the wilderness fighting hypothermia.

I said, “I always ask Bryce if he is home if he wants a cup of coffee or tea if I am making one.”

My husband got angry and left the room with his bowl of ice cream. We had just gone out to hear music and held hands lovingly. He had just had sex the night before so he was not grumpy. He just has piss poor manners. How did we get to be married for thirty years, after thirty years of work trying to teach him manners and he has not learned them yet? Is it hopeless? It feels like it.

When the kids are home, he gets into bed and doesn’t says, “Good night.” I sometimes make him get up and kiss the kids good night, if they are home from college or visiting from a foreign country. We don’t get blessed with our children’s presence as much as we’d like, so we should celebrate them being home, make them feel as if we are glad they are here. Or they might not want to return as frequently.

I have a good man. He will do anything for me. He will do nearly anything for anybody. He puts himself last. Why can’t I teach him manners? Why isn’t this something a man can learn? Why does he refuse to learn? Is it really a cultural Pennsylvania German thing? I Googled German rudeness and found this behavior to be spot on.

They just seem to have this bizarre understanding between each other that there’s no need to apologize or say thanks, etc.”

Or good night. Or please. They are an efficient and thrifty people. No need to say more words than is necessary.

My husband’s ancestors came over from Germany in the 1600’s. That’s a long time ago. His family has been marrying other Germans for hundreds of years, until MY husband marries a warm and fuzzy, vocal Sicilian/Pole and he runs into trouble.

I know other wives have to train their husbands when it comes to other traits. Mine sucks at manners. I have my job laid out for me until one of us dies.

Please. Thank You. You’re Welcome. I’m Sorry. Good Night.” I will not quit.

PS Please read what Holger Heinz wrote in comments- a brilliant insightful look at the German male mind.

 

 

 

 

 

The Pleasure of Planting Peas

It is March. The snow has melted and the soil has dried out enough to til. Time to get the peas in. It is a rite of spring passage. Like witnessing the early morning take off of the migrating snow geese at Middlecreek Wildlife Management’s lake, and watching the wood frogs mate in our tiny back yard pond as they make the water boil with their girl humping activity and bullying each other to take their turn. The spring peepers go crazy in the shallow vernal pools and the towhee has returned- we hear its song in the morning as well as a dozen other new voices that I can’t identify but glean intense happiness from just knowing they are here or are passing through. They are all symbols of change and change for the better, and hope. No one is ever sad about spring returning.

I place the hard round pale yellow peas in the ground- two inches apart. I push them slightly down in with my index finger. The goats bleat in their nearby pen, the roosters crow, the wind blows my hair around and the sun shines warmly. It always makes me sing that American children’s folk song…

Inch by inch,

row by row,

gonna make my garden grow,

all it takes is a rake and a hoe

and a piece of fertile ground.

Inch by inch, row by row,

someone bless these seed I sow,

someone warm them from below

til the rain comes tumbling down.”

I want to plant peas every spring. I don’t want to miss it. I miss planting other seeds throughout the spring as my husband revolves planting around his schedule. But I never want to miss planting peas. Because it is one of the first signs and rituals of spring. I think the peas taste better too when I eat them in the summer because I helped them get their start in life.

My father had a garden in our residential neighborhood yard but I did not help with the planting or the weeding. I had no interest and my father did not make me. I do remember helping with the peach harvest however, as we had a few dwarf fruit trees in the yard. I was a child who did not always know boundaries or what moderation is and can remember eating delicious juicy peaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks inbetween meals because I loved them so. My whole body broke out in hives because of the excess but that did not dilute my intense love of peaches- they are still my favorite fruit.

While I waited for my husband to put up the fence and rake a trench for my peas, I walked the garden with my head down, holding dandelion leaves in my mind’s eye. I held a stainless steel colander to my chest with a kitchen shears inside for the wind was so strong and whipping, it wanted to pull my tender cut dandelion leaves right out of my container.

The Pennsylvania Germans have a delicious vinegar, egg and sugar hot dressing that they put on endive or dandelion. Dandelion picking is another spring rite of passage and it contains tremendous nutrients and tonics to keep your liver, kidneys and gaul bladder in fine working order. It is free extremely healthy food, growing like weeds.

My kids loved chickweed when they were small. They picked it and put it in salads and just for shits and giggles one time, Bryce dumped salad dressing right on a clump in the flower garden and got down on all fours and ate it like his pet goats. ..upping the fun factor when it comes to harvesting wild edibles and having lunch.

Both children live in the city right now- one in Boulder and the other in Philadelphia. They say it is not forever and I want to believe that. When the kids are home, they do help with the garden. We weed the same rows and chat as conversation flows easily as well as laughter. I never MADE them garden just as my dad did not make me so maybe they will have the desire to grow their own food someday when they have a plot of ground to live on. Maybe that is all it takes, planting a seed of good living. Even if you don’t see the result right away, it can lie dormant underground until conditions are right. I am hopeful my children will go back to their roots when they have the opportunity to find a place outside the city where they can monitor the changing seasons and find simple joy in honking geese overhead and birds building nests in the rafters and purple crocuses coming up in the grass and planting peas in the spring.

Taking Care of Tommy

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He was coming south through the winter on the Appalachian Trail. Dealt with snow and ice and frozen everything, biting winds, sub zero temps and usually NO footprints on the trail. He could count the day hikers he ran into practically on one hand. The most populated trail in the world, but in the winter, Tommy Gathman had it all to himself. He was coming our way in Pennsylvania and we couldn’t wait to take care of him.

I met Tom three years ago right before he began his first AT thru-hike. Todd and I invited him and his partner, Adam Bautz down for any last minute questions they might have before they traveled to Georgia to begin their thru-hike. It was his birthday we learned, so we had to whip him up a cake and sing to him. Then we hosted Tommy when he came through later that year in November. He had injured himself when he came through PA and had to return in the winter to finish our stretch. He was here for 10 nights that year and he became part of the family. We couldn’t wait until he returned this winter. He had a new trail personality, The Real Hiking Viking and had logged 10,000 miles since we first met.

On his first night here, we fired up our Finnish log sauna. Joining him was Fred Murai from Africa Safariland Tours, my friend from Kenya whom I was hosting for three weeks. We shared stories of grizzly bear encounters and hippo encounters. We sweated away toxins together naked and bonded as friends over shared laughter, cool water outdoor showers, and lively conversation.

Every morning we dropped off Tommy at a trailhead and every evening we picked him further down the trail, 15-23 miles away. He got to hike unencumbered without the full load of his backpack and enjoyed the warmth of the living room woodstove, a delicious organic meal for dinner and fresh baked pie and ice cream for dessert.

While Tommy visited us, he made time to go into nearby Reading, PA to be on a special podcast, “The People Chronicles,” speaking on the topic of hiking veterans and how good walking in the mountains makes you feel, anyone feel, but especially combat veterans. Another crew also came to interview him from “Berks Story Project” to create an audio show on his hiking adventure, his time serving in the military as a Marine and his very exciting plans for his future.

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My girlfriend, Laura Arnold a massage therapist from Blue Sky Therapeutic Massage, Hamburg, PA, traveled to our home with her portable massage table and upstairs in our warm loft, massaged the Veteran’s hard used muscles for 1 ½ hours free, as a supporter of River House PA- our non-profit for Veterans. What a treat that was for Tommy and so generous of Laura.

Throughout the course of the evenings, I watched Tommy lounge and relax on our sofa, make himself comfortable as if our home was his home, as it indeed is. I watched him gobble down the snack that I always brought along in the car when I picked him up at the trailhead, then fed him again immediately upon walking in the door, then again at supper, followed by a bedtime snack.

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Todd and I would do this anyway for Tommy, because we love him and he is “our boy,” but now River House PA is connected to it too. We do it for Veterans and are here to support them as they make their way north and south on the Appalachian Trail or any trail, supporting them from afar. This is what we do. We want Tommy to succeed, stay happy for when he is walking in the mountains, he is blissful and all is right with his world. We’re behind you Tom- Springer Mountain, Georgia is within reach!

TRACKS IN THE SNOW

My son and I went out for a winter walk in the woods this morning. It was a quick walk as he had to get dressed up and drive to Reading for a funeral. A very sad funeral- that of a 25 year old friend who simply sat back on the sofa while watching the Super Bowl game and died. His death was caused by a rare virus of the heart, which no one knew he had. His passing shook Bryce’s world and those of his friends. “We aren’t supposed to die this young,” they think. Indeed.

Snow had fallen a handful of days before this morning’ s walk. In less than 2 miles, we saw so many animal tracks it was phenomenal. Deer, turkey, coyote, bobcat. We found “highways” where herds walked through on their way to dense evergreens thickets where they yard up during these frigid days and nights. Comfort in numbers. We saw what appeared to be a small deer dragging its one leg, perhaps injured during hunting season and now crippled, struggling to get trough the winter. Another spot we saw where it looked like a coyote had laid down and made a rounded depression and perhaps scratched his hind quarter. Years ago, I followed the tracks of a grouse in the snow, only to come up to a log where it looked like there had been a struggle, blood drops stained the white snow, feather tuffs sprinkled the snow’s surface. Here, on this banquet log, a raptor had enjoyed a meal. This was the grouse’s last minutes on earth and I stood there staring, privy to a life passing.

I said to Bryce, “It is amazing to travel in a snow covered world and witness all the life that is going on unbeknownst to us. There is little sign when there is no snow on the ground or it would take a much more educated woods detector to read what the animals were doing. In the snow, we get glimpses into their private lives. Leaving tracks in the snow of what occurred here as they go on with their daily life.

I am reminded of that song, “Dust in the Wind, All we are is dust in the wind.” Twenty-somethings have a hard time wrapping their heads around death. They just haven’t experienced much of it, most of them, and maybe never up to this point. Bryce told me that he and his girlfriend talked about it, “Where is Mike now? He was here just days ago, alive, big, real. And now he is gone. Where did he go? Is he in the air around us, his spirit, invisible to us? Is he is the heavens, as a star? Is he no where?”

I walked along nodding my head. Yes, I asked all these questions myself when both my parents died when I was in my twenties like Bryce. I remember hiking in the High Sierra being up top of 12,000 ft passes, some of the closest physically I had ever been to “heaven” and I shouted, “Where are you mom and dad? Can you hear me?”

I advised Bryce to read some books on death and dying, accounts of those who have gone on to the next dimension and returned to tell us a little about their experience. If nothing else, it is a comfort to read. Bryce said, “But no one knows what happens.” No, no one is sure. But you have to come to some place of acceptance and you do need to look at you own life, those of us who remain behind, and think about the tracks you are making in the snow.

Our family has recently surfaced out of an bad experience where one of us was severely wronged. It was painful knowing someone’s heart was taken advantage of and their kindness deeply violated. It made us think about what is “FAIR” in life. I believe that shit happens all the time, some of it is within our control, other times we feel as though we are victims. I have lived long enough to understand and believe that we may not be able to do anything about what happens to us, but we can have a say in how we react to it. That is within our control. We have a huge role in how we choose to live our lives.

It is never too early to be made conscious of the fact that none of us know how much time we have here. We should not put off really living, actualized, conscious living where we are not just coasting. We should always strive to be kind, fair, honest, and respect one another. We leave our footprints on the lives of every human soul we encounter. Our impact continues long after the snow has melted and we are gone. Who do we want to be? How do we want to be remembered? There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Cutting my Husband’s Hair- A Marriage Time Gauge

When my husband’s grey hair gets long, it sticks straight out like he inserted his finger into an electrical socket. The tufts of hair above his ears stick out like a clown. He used to have thick, curly dark brown hair that looked gorgeous when it grew long. Back then, he looked like something out of “Braveheart.” Now he looks like something out of “One Few Over the Cuckoos Nest.” When I can no longer stand to look at him, I find the time to cut it.

Cutting my husband’s hair is one of my gauge’s in life, like children growing up. No parent can deny that the years are not speeding by when they see startling and rapid growth before their very eyes. Our single friends can deny anything is happening, that change is not occuring for a decade or more and then get slammed with a shocker. Few things shock parents when it comes to the passing of time. And I also bear witness to it when I peer into my husband’s pink scalp, wet and oily after he dampens his hair for a haircut. His scalp is more visible every time I give him a hair cut. More scalp, less hair, and it turns paler, losing its pigment.

My mother taught me how to cut hair as soon as Todd and I became serious in our relationship. I have been doing it now for thirty two years. Until my son decided he would be cooler with a “man bun,” I cut his hair too. Up until he was 23.

Bryce gave me grief during every single hair cut. He questioned what I was doing, how much I am taking off. He’d make me pause and run to the window on the sunroom, and check it out. “OK, looking good,” he’d compliment me. I tolerated the questioning and the doubting. I knew I was good. And, I told both of them anytime they wanted to go to Paul, the Kempton Barber, I’d even give them the money. I threatened for years, “This is the last time I am doing this. You will shut your mouth while I cut or I will not cut your hair.”

My boys secretely loved their haircuts or they wouldn’t keep coming back. It’s not a question of money when you can get a good professional cut around here for $8.00.

I like to cut my husband’s hair because it gives me a sense of power. I am in charge of his hygiene. And I like that. After all, I have to look at him.

I take his chin and move it around. I nudge his head. It is the only time I get to “push my husband around physically,” ha ha, albeit gently. I reprimand him for moving, for scratching the itchy cut hairs on his neck, for not keeping his head in the position where I move it to, for talking when I am working on his moustache, for petting the kitty with his foot. Most of the time though, he sits quietly like a good boy.

For many years, I made him separate his legs and I came into his crotch to get close to the front of his head to cut. He loved that. He pested me repeatedly about cutting his hair naked. “Take off your shirt,” he’d plead. I looked at him crooked. “I have a job to do. This is not fun and games.” Now I cut from the sides.

As time went by, I decided to cut his beard too, and then his eyebrows. I haven’t had to deal with the nose or the ears yet. I am not sure how I feel about the nose and the ears. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. There are many older men walking around with eyebrow hairs that curl and cover their eyes and actually impair their sight. I cannot for the life of me, understand why that is OK with them? They trim and manage their nails. They don’t let them grow and curl like crazy millionaire Howard Hughes did. No husband of mine is going to walk around with gorilla eyebrows. That’s why I get the scissors out myself and get the job done.

I tell my husband that his hygene is a reflection on his wife. I tell him that he will not be one of these greasy old men who don’t wash their hair, but comb their hair back making separated lines with the comb that remain, thinking if they comb it and it lays flat, it looks neat. It does not. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU DID NOT WASH YOUR HAIR FOR AGES!

When Todd picks up little balls of severed beard hair off his lap and remarks, “this stuff is like steel wool.” I respond, “I know. You rub it against my shoulder every night and I feel like I am getting road rash.”

My life as a barber made a 180 when I discovered and purchased a hair cutting/styling kit from Amazon. The electric razor kit comes with multi colored tips that snap on with measurements for different cutting lengths. There is even a tapered one for around the ears. I get such joy out of choosing colored tips to professionalize my work, even though I can never remember what length I use on his beard and have to make multiple tries.

I had a sharp learning curve with this tool the first few times. “Whoops!” I said when I saw a whole bunch of scalp skin appear after I took a pass and only 1/8 inch of hair remained. It looked as if I was aiming for the military shaved look on the sides. I HAD to do the other side once I slipped on the first to even it out. He knows when I begin to laugh out loud that something detrimental to his looks has just occurred.

Todd flinches every time I cut his beard- for 32 years now. He cannot relax. He says he can FEEL the scissors or the shaver on his skin. “Don’t make me look gay,” he begs, and cut it too short. He used to sport longish mountainman beards but not anymore. I think you have to be more careful when you are an older man. You can look shabby and downright scary with very little length.

He really tightens up when its time to trim his moustache. He is terrified I will cut his lip although I never did. I only ever accidently snipped his ear once and did not even break the skin.

When it is nice out, I cut his hair on the grass front yard and run a cord out for my electric hair cutter. If it’s cold, the job is done in the bathroom. He has to shake out the rug afterwards, sweep up the grey steel wool hairs with the dust pan and brush. I ask him afterwards, “Well, how does it look?”

I didn’t look at it.” That’s how much he cares about how he looks.

When he finally does look in the mirror, he always says that it looks good and thanks me. I don’t look for thanks. Remember, I do this for myself. For my own personal satisfaction.

I cut a few other men’s hair over the years and one in particular felt intimate. (even though I did not insert myself between his legs!) It IS a personal task, cutting someone’s hair or it can be, I guess, if there is already emotions in the air. One time, my one friend had his hair cut by a woman/mother of a young child who was a sexy babe and by the sounds of it, perhaps a flirt. His wife was not thrilled with this act and so he teased her and said he didn’t really mind the breast milk dripping in his face while she cut the front.

When I am done with my husband’s hair, I turn his chair around so I can see his neck in the light and look for blackheads that run along a crease in his thick muscular neck. A blacksmith and a chainaw carver ‘s neck gets dirty often. I attack it with an extracting instrument and he REALLY recoils then, for it hurts.

It sounds gross and it is gross. Who else can you get to do this at a place you cannot reach or even see other than your wife? I went to a face skincare salon one time and she attacked my nose with a blackhead remover and I never even saw a blackhead there. I came home and told Todd, “She would have a field day with you.” Of course, my husband would never go to a woman like that. Too personal and embarrassing. And here lies the beauty of a marriage, especially a long marriage. We watch our spouses grow older, their hair thin, their eyebrows bush out and they see changes in us too and IT IS OK. There is no pretending. A few of us, a very few of us, even get to cut their hair, and trim their beards and snip their eyebrows and even more is revealed. We are both growing older and for the lucky ones of us who are well loved, we don’t even care because it is happening together.

And I look at my husband after his hair is so neatly cut and his beard is neaty trimmed and he is so handsome and I tell him, “After that trim, you look good enough to fuck,” and that is what he cares about most, thirty two years ago, now, and probably thirty two years from now. So he sits there like a good boy and let’s me attach him with the trimmer and the scissors and the blackhead extractor. “Whatever makes the wife happy.” It did not take thirty- two years to learn that, but then again, he is a fast learner.