A Day In The Life

The most frequent question any retiree gets asked is “What do you do all day long?” sometimes followed by a forlorn statement of “I don’t know what I would do without work.”

So sad.

I know you think I’m going to wax on about all of the obvious glories of retirement that include things like travel to exotic places, making the world a better place by volunteering for organizations that no one has ever heard of, or training for that ultra-marathon that no one in his right mind should be thinking about doing.

All of those are great things.  But all of them take a lot of time, and/or planning, and/or money.

No, the best thing about being retired is taking care of shit around the house that you’ve just never had time to do.  Believe me, if I have prepared well and constructed an excellent “to do” list, I can putter about with the best of them and not feel a moment of existential angst over whether my life has meaning. I have important things to do.

Feeding the birds

I have taken on the responsibility of feeding all of the birds of Spring Valley, my community.  Ever since I hung, not one, but two, wild bird feeders on my back fence, the word has gotten out, and birds come from far and wide to pillage my feeders.  What used to last all day now gets savaged in a couple of hours, and then they line up along the fence, moping and staring at me inside the house hoping I’ll come out and fill them again, ignoring the two inch carpet of seed they have wasted, throwing it left and right as they look for the good stuff, whatever that is.

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I went out last night to talk with them about the wastefulness, the expense, and their apparent lack of gratitude.

“Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap,” was all they had to say.

Ungrateful bastards.

Cleaning stuff up

Do you have any idea how many years it has been since I had cleaned out–I mean really cleaned out–my workbench drawer and cabinet?  No one with a real job has time to do that sort of thing.  I actually took everything out of every container on every shelf and threw away a full trash barrel of stuff and ditched a Christmas tree holder that I have come to loath but have been too cheap to replace.  I went so far as to wipe down each shelf.  The grime was impressive.

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The drawer was a revelation.  It too had plenty of trashables, but more remarkable was how many things of value I discovered.  Like, why can I never find a tape measure when I need one?

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Why can’t I ever find the right drill bit?

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The result of my many years of disorganization has been me frequently storming around  the house in the midst of a project, angry that I can’t seem to keep myself equipped with even the most basic tools.  By the way, has anyone seen my Phillips screw driver?

Organizing stuff

I am in a continual war to create enough space in the garage for both of our cars.  The battle began in ernest when the kids started moving away to college in 2000 and using my garage as their free storage unit.  Well, to be fair, it was the ripple effect caused by their leaving and my wife and I reclaiming the two bedrooms that we had loaned to them for eighteen years. This meant boxing up all of their toys, trophies, games, and books so that we could re-take the house.

The lack of wall space available because of their boxes of stuff means that I’m continually looking for creative solutions of where to put everyday household stuff that we are continually tripping over.  There are just not enough corners to pile this crap into. Part of every day is coming up with solutions to complex problems that can only be solved by a simple 29-cent hook.

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Planting stuff

I like to grow things.  It started when we bought our place in 1980.  It was move-in ready on the inside and a barren wasteland on the outside.  One of my greatest joys has been watching my pine trees grow from one-gallon twigs to the 80-foot sentinels that surround the front yard.

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On a smaller scale, I try to keep a vegetable garden going year-round now.  Most recently, I rescued this tomato plant from Dixieline.  I felt sorry for it because it was sickly looking with drooping yellow leaves, sort of dried up and spotted.  Kind of reminded me of me.  I brought him home and replanted him in a pot with some good soil and home-made compost, and as you can see, he is no longer the 98-pound weakling of the garden department.  I can’t wait for the yellow tomatoes he is going to give me as summer comes on.

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So, you see, it doesn’t take much to fill up a day.  This doesn’t even include exercise, yoga, reading, napping, and doing absolutely nothing–all things at which I excel.  But just getting through a few items on the ever-present to-do list can leave me feeling completely fulfilled and satisfied, ready to reward myself with a cold brew out on the back deck where I can relax and listen to the sounds of evening coming on.

“Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap.”

Bastards.

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“The Kids Are All Right”

My children are now 28 and 33, and yes, it makes me feel old to write that down. Typical of their generation, they are both single and both still testing out a number of possible career choices. Luckily, they are both bright, hard-working, loving individuals and I don’t spend as much time worrying about them as I used to, maybe because they live in different cities and we only get edited versions of their daily lives.

But I have no trouble remembering the early years. Emily (our youngest) did not sleep through the night for the first two years. I have no idea how my wife and I soldiered on with heavy work schedules, early mornings, and no sleep.

We went through the usual number of medical emergencies including several broken wrists due to horses and soccer. When he was a toddler, my son, Nico, implanted a purple button so deeply up his nose that we couldn’t see it and had to take it on faith that this justified a run to the urgent-care clinic. I remember thinking to myself, “You’d better have a button up your nose.” He did and the doctor calmly took some tool that looked like a cross between pliers and tweezers and snaked it out for us.

Emily, my youngest, scared the living shit out of us when one afternoon she suddenly seemed to lose all strength in her legs. She must have been 5 or 6 and seemed quite happy to squirm about on the floor, but we were quickly again off to urgent care for an exam and blood tests. They started throwing around scary words like meningitis. That night we got a call that they wanted to us to come back in the morning to re-do a blood test. The first one had revealed a very high (or was it low?) white cell count and they needed to confirm the results. I called my mom, the registered nurse and asked her what this meant and she hesitated before I pressed her. “Well, it could mean leukemia, but…” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The next morning, they got her right in and drew blood and my wife and I sat with her in an exam room waiting very nervously. Visions of losing my baby girl to some awful disease filled me with dread as we waited. The doctor popped in and without hesitation said “Everything is fine.” The original test had been faulty. By then, Emily was running about like a normal kid again, but I felt like I had aged.

Looking back I can pick out two things about which I was incredibly naive when it came to parenting. The first was my assumption that everything we had learned raising the first child would be applicable to the second child. Not even close. I remember trying to give Emily a pacifier, which Nico had taken to as if his life depended on it. Emily kept spitting it out and looking at me as if to say, “Why do you insist on sticking this piece of plastic in my mouth?” Everything was different. We were five years older. Emily had a sibling to contend with which Nico never did. Her temperament was entirely different.

My second grand misconception was that my job as a parent was pretty much over once I had gotten them off to college. Wow, was I wrong about that. It wasn’t just the financial support; it was everything. I’ve come to believe that kids need more parenting in their twenties than maybe at any other time in their lives. As my father-in-law used to say: “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems.”

I’m proud of the adults they have become. If anything, I would worry that I had made them boring and overly-cautious like I am, but they seem anything but. They seem to be enjoying life and making their way just fine, despite broken bones and purple buttons.

 

 

Misinformed

When I used to have students ask me to write their letters of recommendation for the colleges they thought they longed to go to, one of the boxes I was almost always required to check was the student’s level of “intellectual curiosity.” To be honest, I think this is a great quality for other people to have. I just don’t think I’d rate very high on the scale.

I mostly enjoy reading mindless detective fiction and watching unchallenging (but well-written) TV shows. If I stumble across something on the History or Discovery channel, I’ll rarely hang around to watch. I only want to learn about what I want to learn about—something about the next city or country I’m going to visit, that kind of thing.

Today, though, I was thinking about how my mom had spectacularly lied to me when I was young and curious. It probably happened when one of our neighbors or relatives was pregnant and I asked her that dreaded (at the time) question about “how does the baby get out of her tummy?”

Even though my mom was an RN, I could tell my question made her uncomfortable. It was the 60’s and I’m sure I must have been in elementary school at the time, and we simply never talked about reproduction or bodily functions. Never.

So, she took a deep breath and told me that when it was time, a “natural opening” in the body, “the bottom” opened up and the baby squeezed through. I’m sure, at the time, that I thought the whole thing was just gross and certainly had no follow-up questions, but the image stayed with me—for years. We had all been crapped out of our mothers. That was just how it worked.

Imagine my surprise when my nervous sophomore biology teacher got to the chapter on human reproduction and was determined to find a way to make a discussion of sex boring. He succeeded admirably. But imagine my confusion when he threw up a transparency on the overhead projector showing the outline of a pregnant woman in the process of giving birth, and the baby was headed in entirely the wrong direction.

I think by then I knew what a vagina was so I knew there was another “natural opening” but I kept staring at that diagram and trying to reconcile it with what I had been told and had believed for maybe 7 or 8 years. I felt the impulse to raise my hand and try to clarify things, but even then I was smart enough to realize that there was a pretty good chance I was going to reveal my total ignorance if I did.

Since during those hormonal years I was mostly concerned with simply finding a kind girl who would let me experience all of the fun stuff that comes before pregnancy and birth, I didn’t feel scarred by the experience. I could understand why my mom struggled with treating the subject clearly and rationally. I soon learned that friends and heavily dog-eared books were much better sources of information than parents.

Even though I tried to be much more open and matter-of-fact as a parent, it became clear to me that it was a subject that kids don’t quite always know how to talk about either. I hope your generation is doing better at it that we did, but I’m not at all sure. After all, we never talk about it.

 

 

How “Field of Dreams” Made Me a Better Father

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Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen the film this piece abounds with spoilers. And what’s wrong with you that you haven’t seen this film yet?

It was supposed to be a movie about baseball. That’s all I really knew about it as I stood in line waiting for an afternoon showing back in 1989. It was the perfect combination of two of my most favorite things. The bucolic pace of baseball interrupted occasionally with bursts of action, and the cool, dark communal experience of watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon.

So, I was confused when the patrons of the earlier show began to stumble out into the bright light of the afternoon, and I could have sworn that I saw an older gentleman hurry away from the theater in tears.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Weird.”

The matinee was a momentary escape for my wife and I from our two kids, who were 2 and 7 at the time—a typical afternoon respite from work, kids, responsibility, life.

As the film began, I probably should have paid more attention to the monologue delivered by the Kevin Costner character where Ray Kinsella (Costner) describes the tortured relationship with his father and his desire to not live the dreamless, workaday existence that he perceived was his father’s fate:

Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find. This, of course, drove him right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially, my major was English, but really it was the ’60s. I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, and I met Annie. The only thing we had in common was that she came from Iowa, and I had once heard of Iowa.

 Hell, I loved baseball, had majored in English, showed up at some Vietnam War protests because we heard Joan Baez was going to be there (she was), and everyone tried to like sitar music because George Harrison liked it and everyone wanted to like whatever the Beatles liked. I could totally identify with this guy.

In that dark theater, I should have paid closer attention as Ray and the fictional author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) begin their road trip and Kinsella tells Mann about the effect of one of his books on his relationship with his father:

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Why fourteen?”

That’s when I read “The Boat Rocker,” by Terence Mann.

Oh, God.” (rolling his eyes)

Never played catch with him again.”

You see? That’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with your father!”

I was completely caught up in the mysticism of the movie and the story of how a dream, any dream, could find fulfillment. How the ball field in Iowa, carved out of his cornfield by Kinsella would provide redemption for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a chance for Moonlight Graham to finally get his first at bats in a big league game. The cornfield also provided the backdrop for Mann to deliver his now famous ode to baseball and its part of the fabric of America where he assures Kinsella that, “People, will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” I was eating up every fantastical theme it was throwing out about redemption, faith, and second chances as avidly as an outfielder diving for a line drive.

So, when Terence Mann drifted off into the cornfield and Shoeless Joe left Ray with one more cryptic message as he pointed to a lone player lingering behind and then left the field, I was completely blindsided. Never saw what the film was really about.

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Because down at the backstop, the player, a catcher, was still cleaning up his gear alone and unnoticed. The player was Ray’s father, a young man on this magical field, not worn down by life, dreaming of being a big-league ball player, a man with dreams—a man that Ray had never known.

In that moment, Ray and I realized that he had a second chance—a chance to introduce his wife and his father’s granddaughter, a chance to play that game of catch that he had rejected in his youth.

Ok, by now, I’m not crying, I’m weeping. I’ve been so taken by surprise that I’m stunned by the implications of this film and it’s ultimate message. Don’t tell anyone, but I cry at movies, especially ones about sports. I cried at the end of Mighty Ducks II. I cry during about every third episode of Friday Night Lights. Brian’s Song?—forget about it.

This film suddenly flooded me with memories of my dad and thoughts about the father I was trying to become. I had a vivid memory of asking my dad to come and play catch with me. After one or two tosses, I discovered that he had no natural athleticism or feel for the game. He threw so awkwardly that I quickly made up an excuse to cut the session short. As wonderful as he was in so many ways, he did not have this one skill. It was probably the only time that in my youthful ignorance, I felt disappointed in him.

As I grappled with that memory, I was struck hard by thoughts of my own children. I was not an indifferent, neglectful father. I did my share of the chores. In the infant days, I took many turns at late-night feedings and staying home to care for them on days they were sick. I shuttled them to and from day care and pre-school, helped get them dressed every morning, and read books every night.

But having children had both filled a void and torn a hole in my identity that took me years to understand. The all-consuming nature of parenthood had put the brakes on any thoughts about the kind of person I wanted to become outside of parenting and teaching. I probably would never have biked across Europe or climbed Kilimanjaro, but for that period of time I had stopped dreaming.

Even seven years into parenthood, I felt that something was tugging at me that did not allow me to fully embrace the role that I had, to all appearances, fully embraced. I felt an almost constant desire to be relieved from my responsibilities and a tiny, nagging resentment that my life was on hold, that I was missing out on something even if I wasn’t sure what that “something” was.

And absolutely none of this was on my mind when in the dim twilight of the final scene of the film, Costner turned and saw the lone, young catcher. “Oh my god,” I whispered. “It’s his dad.”

It suddenly came crashing down on me that the whole film had been a journey of forgiveness, reconciliation—a second chance for a father and son to “have a catch”, to reaffirm a relationship, to salvage love.

Tears still streaming down my face, it didn’t matter that the ending became awkward and improbable and maybe a little silly; I was too lost between the memories of the son I had been and the father I had become. The singular thought that seared through by brain at that moment was simple, but enduring—you only get one chance to get fatherhood right. One chance.

Outside of Hollywood, there are no do-overs, no cornfields of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realized that I had one chance to be a good dad, maybe an excellent dad, and that already, the years were slipping by quickly.

The film did not so much change the way that I behaved as a father, but it completely changed the way I thought about it. Some of the resentment began to drain away and I more fully accepted everything that came with being a dad.

My clearest memory of how this change affected me came after a long day, after the kids had both been bathed and put to bed and it was my turn to get in the shower. I had to kick away the toys left behind to avoid slipping, tripping or otherwise injuring myself and stood in the stream of hot water and looked about the walls, festooned with colorful, tile stickers the kids had found. Part of me longed to take a shower like an adult, in a clean place without plastic octopi tangling my feet or sea stars staring at me with googly eyes.

And then the thought, the new “Field of Dreams” thought, hit me—look how rich my life is. All of this stuff surrounded me was the stuff of fatherhood and children, of life and love, of the chances that life gives to you only once.

 

Purging vs. Saving: A Dilemma

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When my children come to visit, I now will frequently present each of them with a “present”—one or more plastic boxes, full of their belongings, which they have decided to store in my garage even though neither of them has spent any serious time living at home for the past seven years.

Clothing, horse show ribbons, plastic horse collections, notebooks from both college and high school, and most especially, college textbooks which I know they will never, EVER open again, populate every free space that I can create. I have made a simple (and I think quite generous) rule regarding retention. If they really want to save it, I’ll keep storing it. But they have to look at everything and make a conscious decision that the object still has value.

My dedication to purging was inspired by the painful experience of having to empty my mother’s home when, two years after my father’s death, she was injured and precipitously consumed by a dementia that had been creeping into her life. Her condition required that my sister and I place her in a board and care home where her living space was reduced to an 11 x 11 single room from the spacious mobile home that she and my dad had enjoyed for over 30 years.

The “purge” was a combination of an exciting exploration of memorable objects and a tedious and painful exercise in laboriously making decision after decision regarding what was worth keeping. Pictures, jewelry, and silver, antique dinnerware—those were easy decisions to make. Kitchenware made its way to the kids and family members who had a use for it, but most of their furniture was dated and quickly donated. My sister and I created a system for tossing stuff. “You want this?” one of us would ask. If the answer was “no,” it was trash. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they did keep at least 10 ashtrays stored away even though they had both given up smoking over 25 years before. We must have easily filled a dumpster with the life they had formerly lived.

And my mother saved paper. Virtually every document that was related to taxes, investments, bank accounts, insurance, health care—anything that looked vaguely official—was squirreled away into a semi-roll-top desk that someone else is now enjoying because I couldn’t fit it in to my house.

I spent hour after hour looking through every one of these documents to determine what actually needed to be saved. I ended up with four hefty boxes of documents that I deemed to be unimportant and took them to a professional shredding company (who knew such places existed?) but also found my father’s service records from World War II, my parents’ marriage license, birth certificates, and other family records that even I couldn’t bear to part with. These were the tangible evidence of some of the most important aspects of the lives of my parents, and I found myself struggling to let them go. I even kept my grandmother’s Social Security card. Now, when will I need that?

And that’s the crux of it—Irrational Emotional Attachment. IEA.   It’s probably a certified psychological syndrome. If it isn’t, it should be. It causes us to keep around mounds of stuff that no one will ever want, that we will never look at or use. Even someone like me, who likes to get rid of stuff, falls victim to IEA.

I had the good fortune of being chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year in 2009. As a result, I made a number of appearances where I received numerous acrylic “awards” which I displayed for about a year and then boxed up. I never look at them, but can’t throw them away. Someday, one of my kids will. The one exception may be the most nominally significant one—an award recognizing me as one of 12 semi-finalists for California teacher of the year. It is a hideous acrylic creation that we dubbed the “menacing eyeball”. As I packed it away, I remarked dryly to my daughter, Emily that “you guys will be fighting over this someday.” For all I know, it will go the way of my parents’ ashtrays.

So, in the spirit of purging, I took on “the box.” For years, I have wrapped up and saved what I thought was a box that only contained the correspondence between my wife of 40 years and myself when we were interested/dating between the years of 1970 and 1974. Two weeks ago, I broke open two layers of plastic and dove into this archive. In addition to our correspondence, I found letters and cards from former students (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), letters from my high school classmates (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), my own high school memorabilia, and letters from former girlfriends and from Mary’s (my wife) friends, some of whom I dated while I was waiting around for her to notice me.

Some cards and letters were easy to discard, their authors being long forgotten, but others were much harder, a clear case of IEA. They told stories of connections with students who I had managed to support during traumatic times, cards from parents who had appreciated my efforts, one former student who I had helped out as a teen just to become her children’s teacher during the last year of my career. Throw them away? Logically, yes, I should. But no, they went into the “save” pile.

These earnest letters from parents and students make up more of my legacy from teaching than any award I might have received.   They make up a nearly 40-year history of working in a profession that I loved. When I look back at them, I like to think that they are representative of me being my best self. They remind me that teaching was so much more than a lesson well planned or another set of papers graded.

I will still open these cards and letters from time to time and enjoy those memories. I promise, I will throw one or more away every time and whittle away at the number that must some day face the shredder.

Next up! What I discovered in the mounds of letters that Mary and I exchanged during our long-distance romance. Ah, young love—It’s a beautiful thing!

“Dish Bitch”

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This started way back.  Way back when apparently our dishwasher began to emit nearly lethal amounts of radioactivity.  I was the only member of our family unaware of it, and apparently the only one immune from it.

We all liked having a dishwasher.  We would have felt deprived with out one.  No one minded putting dishes into it, and I think there was a kind of satisfaction to be the one who would declare, “I think it’s time to run the dishwasher!”  No one, except me, seemed to understand that the appliance became essentially useless once it was sitting there full of clean dishes.

However no one, and I mean no one, would voluntarily empty the dishwasher. Except me.

I accept the idea that there are certain things that are “dad” jobs.  I understand the division of labor.  I knew that I maintained the outside of the house, and that it was my role to fix things (or make them worse at my discretion), to build walls, and dig up pipes.  As a modern guy, I didn’t mind splitting the household chores as well, and the whole family agreed that we were all better off with me not being the head cook.  For some reason though, bags of trash never made it farther than the middle of the garage, as if my two kids and my wife were incapable of the 7 extra steps it would take to go through the garage door and actually deposit them in a trash can.

And there was emptying the dishwasher.

On a Friday afternoon when my teaching friends were gathered at the local pub, celebrating the end of the week with a few beers, I launched into my lament, the unfairness of it all.  Stephanie, ever able to turn the phrase declared, “Oh honey, you’re just the dish bitch.”  Along with everybody else, I burst out laughing at the label.  “Damn,” I said, “you’re right!  I am the dish bitch.”

I went home determined to ditch my new-found title.  At this time the kids were still in their teens, and therefore basically indentured servants.  Chores around kitchen clean-up seemed to be split between “washing” and “drying” only.  Everyone was long gone by the time the dishwasher shut itself off.  It just so happened that we filled it that night and as I fired it up, I declared “Just so you know, when this gets done, I am not going to empty it.”

The kids (and my wife, I think) rolled their eyes, saying silently to each other, “Ah, dad’s having a thing” and went about their business.  The dishwasher sat full, the dishes cleaned, for another two days.  After all, we had other dishes.  If someone had a favorite glass, you could always pull it out.  Eventually, once I had reiterated my stand loudly and repeatedly enough, the kids broke down and split up the task.

And then things went right back to normal.  Every now and then, I’d try the silent, passive-aggressive approach.  After a week or so, the kids might notice.  “Oh, “ my son would say, “gone on strike with the dishwasher again, dad?” and then he would do the responsible thing.  He’d figure out a way to manipulate his sister into doing it.

Now the kids are grown, and it is just my wife and I and the appliance.  For some reason, she takes great care in making sure the dishes are positioned properly, frequently reorganizing them once I have put them in and occasionally pulling some things out and informing me that “these don’t go in the dishwasher!” although the rules about this always seem to be changing.

I knew I had finally lost the war when I returned from a 10-day visit to my sister in Hawaii and in the morning began to clean up my breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher.  “Hey,” she said, “the stuff in the dishwasher is clean.  I ran it right after you left.”

I was speechless.   She was busy getting ready for work, and said it so matter-of-factly that I checked myself from saying what seemed so obvious to me.  In fact, to save time, I just ran the dialogue through my head.

Me:  So, you ran the dishwasher and let clean dishes sit in the dishwasher for 9 days until I would return to empty it?

Her:  Look, when you’re gone, I barely cook, I use paper plates. I never needed anything from it.  I don’t even think about it.

Me:  (long silence, since I have no idea how to respond—this happens a lot)

 Game, set, match.  After all, what if Mary insisted we split up the cooking responsibilities 50/50?  She is nearly a professional chef, and I get confused when the recipe says words like “bake for 30 minutes”.  We would live in a culinary wasteland for half of each week.

So now, I embrace my inner dish bitch.  I am one with the dishwasher. I will make sure that it is cared for and well tended, like my vegetable garden.  Putting away the dishes will no longer be a chore, but my spiritual communion with the kitchen gods.  I will hear Rodney Yee’s voice coaching me as he does in my yoga videos. “Feel your sidebody stretch as both arms extend to put the big plates on the second shelf. Breathe…”