Retirement 101: The First Year

Just before I walked out the door for the last time

A year ago, give or take a couple of weeks, I took a photo of my emptied classroom and walked out the door for the last time. I posted that photo on Facebook recently as part of the “Photo-A-Day” project (the day’s topic was “empty”), and a friend asked me how “retirement 101” has been, which of course got me thinking, and so here is my testament to the year. It’s a bit ironic that I still seem to measure out the year in terms of the school year rather than the “traditional” calendar. Maybe that’s just the way it will always be, but I’m OK with that!

I was eager, in June, to start this new phase of my life, and my husband and I had big plans marked on the calendar for the first few months. We were not quite finished with some home renovations, and in July we began our 2011 Great Adventure, a cross-country road trip that took us 11,000 miles and nearly three months away from home. We returned to New Hampshire in late October, just a few days ahead of twenty inches of snow that had us wishing for the southern warmth we had so recently left behind. We finished our house project just before Christmas, and then the winter settled in.

I’ve never been fond of winter. I don’t like the dark or the cold, and I normally get the “winter blues” right after Christmas. But this year, since I was retired and home most of the time, it seemed to be darker and colder.  I did a LOT of reading. While we were on our Great Adventure, I had joined Goodreads, a social networking site based on reading — it’s a great site and I recommend it if you like to read. I entered many books I had previously read, and then started logging my current reads and even occasionally writing some reviews, something I had always wanted to do but never was able to keep up. Tally so far in my retirement: 44 books!

Being able to get away when it’s not a school vacation week is a wondrous thing! I flew to Florida to spend a few days with my sister, and to South Dakota to spend a few days with my son and his family. In April, we drove to Virginia to visit with good friends there. A couple of times, different friends “from away” came to spend a few days with us; one of the great things about our home renovation is that we now have space for guests to sleep. Yay!

In January I self-published a small volume of my poetry. The really exciting part about this is that people actually bought copies of it, and some even asked me to sign their books! (If you’ve been meaning to get one, here’s the link: All Stories Have a Beginning, Middle, and End.)

One of the biggest changes in our household this year has been my return to the kitchen. My husband retired a number of years ago, and he willingly and cheerfully took over the cooking so that I wouldn’t have to when I came home from work. (Lucky me!) But now it was my turn, and not only have I done that, but I’ve also learned how to cook differently. We eat more fresh foods, more organic, less meat, and virtually nothing processed. I’ve also learned to bake bread. Buying all that fresh food has been expensive, though, and we’ve decided to grow our own veggies this summer for the first time in many years. Not sure how all the rain we’ve been getting is going to impact the results, but our investment has been small and hopefully it won’t be a total disaster. A friend is organizing a community market for our town this summer, and I’m looking forward to having that as a great resource, too.

Creative pursuits have continued. In January I launched a “poem a day” project. Today is the 155th day of the year, and I have written 158 poems so far. There are many days when I don’t write, but there are other days when I pen more than one, so that goal is being met. The quality of the writing is another whole matter, and I’m not sure that the daily drill is worth it in the long run. The best poems were written in January and February, when I was not only motivated but had fewer distractions (because it was winter) and was able to spend time reading published works and thinking poetically (yes, it’s a mindset). Once the warmer weather arrived (starting with a crazy and unprecedented week in March), I’ve spent much time outside working in the yard, and less time thinking about writing poems. I tell myself that even bad writing can give me material to revise later, but the sheer quantity of work might make that impractical. I shall continue with the project, but it likely will be modified in years to come. I do want to maintain the regular practice of writing poetry, but I think a more flexible regimen will be more practical and will raise the bar of excellence. Maybe the daily practice can be modified to include reading (I can log what I read) as well as writing.

I love the “super zoom” on this camera; it’s equivalent to an 800 mm lens, and it’s great for the wildlife shots I like to take.

My interest in creative photography has expanded. I was able to purchase a new camera this winter, and with the arrival of birds and flowers I am having a lot of fun with it. Over the years, and especially as I posted photos of our 2011 Great Adventure, I’ve considered setting up a small business, selling my pictures. At first I envisioned doing this at craft shows, but watching my dear friend become a slave to that process turned me away from that idea. Another friend then steered me toward online selling and I am almost ready to launch my new photo gallery! I’ll definitely be writing more about that in the next few days and weeks.

Now that I look back on the year, it is clear that I have not been a slug after all!  I know I am hard on myself, and I continue to struggle with a need to accomplish something purposeful every day. I think my goal for the second year of retirement (see, there I go again, having to set another goal) will be to lighten up and enjoy myself. Sounds like I need to plan to be spontaneous . . . I think I can, I think I can!

Life is good, and I am truly grateful.

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Learning to Bake Bread

When I was married the first time, my then husband baked all of our bread, and he took pride in that. Rightfully so – it was good bread, with special ingredients that would keep us all healthy and fit. I grew the vegetables, did the work to preserve the food – putting up jars of good relishes and tomato products, and freezing a whole winter’s supply of broccoli and other veggies. So we each had our domain, and that’s the way it was.

Twenty-two years ago we divorced, and eventually I fell in love again and remarried. In all that time, I never tried to bake bread, or make anything that included yeast. I can bake a mean, tender pie crust, great quick breads or coffee cakes, but there was always a deep reluctance to take on bread. It just seemed much too hard.

I watched my baking friends with envy and joyfully munched on their home baked breads, pizza crusts, and cinnamon rolls, wishing all the time that I could do that. So one of my goals in my newly retired status has been to take it on, but I was afraid to try. When my friend Lorna was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I talked about it with her and she declared that we would bake great bread together that very day – but of course we ran out of time and it didn’t happen.

Her visit ended, and then I flew out to South Dakota to visit my son’s family. My daughter-in-law not only bakes ALL their breads, she also grinds her own wheat into flour to ensure the quality and nutrition is at its peak. I’ve always admired her for that, and she makes it look so easy! When I returned home, I wished I had asked her to walk me through the steps – I’m sure she would have been delighted to do so. But I didn’t think of it until I got back to New Hampshire, realized that I’ve been retired nine months now, and still hadn’t made any progress.

How hard could it be? I convinced myself to just give it a shot. All I had to lose was some flour and part of one day. Yesterday, I just made up my mind to do it. A couple of years ago Kiersten gave me a recipe for oatmeal bread (my favorite) that she declared a good starter recipe, so I dug it out of the back of my recipe box, assembled the ingredients on the kitchen counter, and began.

I wasn’t at all self-confident while the project was underway. The recipe didn’t say how long it would take for the dough to rise, and it seemed endless. I had to guess at some other parts, too, but I’ve been at home in the kitchen long enough that I was able to just go with it and use my intuition, and eventually I had three loaves sitting on the top of the stove, rising. I was stunned when the dish towel actually had three good sized bumps – it was really rising! Into the oven with them, set the timer, and wait. It smelled yeasty and yummy, so I was cautiously optimistic.

When the timer buzzed the end of baking, I pulled out the three golden loaves, put them out on a rack to cool, and made the soup for dinner. When it was time to cut the finished product into slices – I was excited and nervous. I took a couple of photos first, wanting to remember this moment.

The slices looked great. On goes the butter – and – oh, it was heavenly. A little touch of sweet (molasses in the mixture) and great texture from the oatmeal. I could have eaten nothing but bread, forget the soup.

At the end of the day, I felt grateful – I had overcome an obstacle that I had built around myself, oh so many years ago. What a great feeling. It’s more than just about the bread; it’s about trusting yourself and taking a chance.

Life is good.

When Going On a Trip, Don’t Leave Your Suitcase in the Kitchen

This week has been exceptionally busy and fun, starting with a visit from my dear friend Lorna. We became lifelong friends during the few years when we were teaching partners. Our principal had an idea that we would be good for one another so he told us to go team teach English and Social Studies, with total autonomy and collaboration. When we found ourselves in the same classroom with the same goals, what resulted was an explosion of energy and magic. Not that we were perfect, by a long shot, but soon we could practically finish one another’s sentences, and pick up nuances in order to expand ideas for one another and truly challenge kids. We were teaching with joy, and it was good.  Although those years were short, we constructed a foundation for a forever kind of friendship.

Lorna lives in Prince Edward Island now, and so we cherish any time we can have together – we hadn’t had more than a few hours here and there for a very long time, so this three day chunk of time was heavenly. We spent the first day catching up, and the second day working together on some projects. The third day was just for fun. It was a great formula and it worked perfectly. We stayed up until outrageous hours of the night, woke up before the crack of dawn, and ate ice cream two days in a row – what could be better than that?

At the end of her visit I was leaving to spend a few days with my son and his family in South Dakota. And I do mean at the very end – I would actually be leaving my house before she did!  I tried to be organized and she was really supportive of me getting things done. At the scheduled hour of my departure I told her I was pretty sure I had everything I needed and if I didn’t have it with me I didn’t need it. There was a crazy moment when my husband and I were leaving and the company was staying, but we got into the car and sped off to the airport in the still-dark-and-way-too-early-morning.

A few minutes down the road my phone rang – we had left my suitcase in the kitchen. Lorna had raced up the hill to my stepdaughter’s house next door to use her phone – we no longer have a land line, so she didn’t even have a way to call us right away! We turned the car around and raced home, and there she was with the suitcase at the entrance to our very long driveway, giving us a faster getaway.

I still managed to get to the airport on time. Thank goodness she was there – I might have arrived at the airport early, sans suitcase!

So, I write this post from the kitchen in South Dakota where I have spent many happy hours. Kiersten brought the kids to the airport to pick me up, and there’s nothing better than arriving from a long journey into the arms and smiles of grandchildren!

I’m not sure of what the week will bring, but tomorrow I get to teach a home school art lesson; I’m going to have the kids play with mixing watercolors. They’ll paint donuts on the paper with plain water – lots of water so there will be surface tension, and then we’ll dab bits of colors into the water and see what happens. It will be an adventure, I’m sure. (Thanks to Lorna for the idea, AND for tripping over my suitcase.)

Life is good.

Bucket List Item: Buffalo Roundup @ Custer State Park, Part Two

This final holding area agitates the buffalo; you can see the tractor with wings on each side to help push the animals toward the chutes.

In my last post I described the rounding up of the buffalo herd as witnessed by some 15,000 visitors, including my husband and me, at Custer State Park in September. The next part that happens is the processing of each animal. The whole purpose of the roundup is to maintain the wellness of the herd. With that in mind, every animal is weighed, examined by a veterinarian, and given vaccinations. Calves are branded, and it’s also determined which ones will be sold. This is how the park makes sure that it can sustain a healthy herd. The number to be sold varies each year, depending on how much rainfall there has been and the quality of available grassland; the land alone must be enough to sustain the herd, because the park does not provide any additional food supply.  The sale of the buffalo is done by auction at the end of November; the proceeds are impressive – last year’s sale raised some $250,000 for the state parks. Who buys these animals? Other parks around the country buy them, as well as ranchers and meat producers.

In the chutes, handlers work hard to keep the animals safe.

There are groups of buffalo that are actually rounded up ahead of time. We didn’t know this before we arrived at the park, but three days before the roundup we saw them already in the corrals. Some research has revealed that some animals are rounded up ahead of time to reduce their level of stress and agitation.  Once the animals are rounded up, they are left to settle down for a week or so before they are processed. These are the ones that are processed on the day of the roundup; it gives the visitors a good look at what happens after the herd is corralled, and how the animals are handled as they are pushed through the chutes.

The stressed buffalo become combative in the small holding pen.

It’s hard to describe the complex system of fences and gates coming off from the large corral. The buffalo are herded into a series of pens that become smaller as the animals are moved through from one to the next. The final holding pen is small, and the buffalo do not like it; they become visibly agitated and aggressive, and since these were the bison that had been rounded up days earlier, it’s easy to understand why the handlers give them time to settle down. From here the animals are pushed single file into a chute, where a gate closes between each animal so they cannot fight with one another. They are finally pushed into various other corrals or returned to the park, depending on the animal.

This mournful cow became separated from her calf, and tried to find a way to get to it.

It was all fascinating, and we were fortunate to stumble accidentally into some great bleacher seats, right at the top with a pretty good view into the holding pens and the entrance to the chutes. We didn’t know anything beforehand about the process, and we both agreed that we have new respect for the power and potential danger of these animals, regardless of their size.

The most agitated and aggressive buffalo of the day was an average sized cow, who simply refused to go through the entrance into the chutes. As the animals are pushed toward that gate, the available space gets smaller and smaller. Most of the bison resign themselves to the fact that they must go forward, and they cooperate, more or less. But this cow was tenacious and stubborn, and I couldn’t believe how she could flip herself around, making a U-turn in a space that was smaller than herself. The handlers tried and tried to coax, cajole, and push her through, and time and time again she resisted. Several times they released her back into the next-larger size holding pen, putting her back in with a few other animals.

But every time, she would twist herself around, jump, fight against other bison, or perform other various gymnastics to make the task impossible for the handlers, who are all park employees with lots of experience. During this whole process, the experts were keeping a sharp eye on her health and stamina, and when she began to stumble from exhaustion, they simply released her back into the larger herd, hoping that she would be able to settle down and be more cooperative after a few days of rest.

On the other hand, we also witnessed a few very large bulls who obviously had the size and power to challenge the handlers at any step along the way, and some of them just trotted forward and entered the chutes like well behaved school children.

This bull is starting a warning charge against the people with cameras lined up along the fence.

One didn’t like the visitors who were gathered around the fence taking pictures, and he gave a scary warning charge for them to get out of his way. There were a few “mama bison” that had become separated from their calves, and their agitation was hard to watch, as they tried to force themselves back through the corral fences to get to their young; they, too, would fight off any other animals that approached, and we wondered if the terribly uncooperative cow was experiencing that same kind of trauma.

"Mommy hug"

Clearly, we learned, it’s not necessarily the comparative size of the buffalo that makes it dangerous. They ALL have the potential to be dangerous; they can run up to 45 mph, and they can jump as high as six feet. We have visited Custer State Park many times, and have seen many examples of visitors stupidly getting too close, or trying with their cars to force the buffalo out of the road so they can proceed along their way. We have also heard stories of visitors who have been killed, or cars that have been trampled – all due to provocation. Buffalo are not the ones to start trouble, and so they appear to be gentle and not unlike cattle. But after watching the roundup and processing of some of these great beasts, I certainly have a new understanding of their power and capability. They are beautiful, magnificent, and a joy to watch, from a safe distance.

Life is good.

Bucket List Item: Buffalo Roundup @ Custer State Park, Part One

Cowboys ride horses and trucks to round up these fast beasts

On the last weekend of September my husband and I attended the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in South Dakota. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but as a teacher I never could, since it’s always held during the last weekend of September. Once I knew I was retiring, though, one of the first things I thought of was that we could go to the Roundup this year, so we’ve been looking forward to it for quite awhile and it was actually the impetus behind our whole Great Adventure – “Let’s do stuff we could never do before!” We made our campground reservations in January – and that’s really something to be said considering our aversion for planning ahead.

It was everything I hoped it would be, and more.

You can see the South Viewing Area behind the trees.

The Roundup is held annually in the fall (this one was the 46th), and has a specific purpose: to maintain a healthy herd that the resources in the park can support. The size of the herd can vary each year, according to weather changes (such as drought) and conditions in the park; 1,300 is the currently published number. During the roundup, every animal is checked and vaccinated. Females are examined to determine if they are pregnant and calves are branded. Most importantly, perhaps, is the culling; every year a certain number of buffalo are sold at auction, held in November. The proceeds last year reached approximately $350,000, and the money stays in the state park system to support its programs. The sale also ensures that the park’s natural resources can support a healthy herd. It’s all part of a system of checks and balances.

Looks to me like the fish in "Finding Nemo"

About 15,000 people attended this year’s Roundup. There are two viewing sites: North and South. We were pretty confused about which one we wanted to go to, but since our campground led easily to the North side, and a park ranger we talked to indicated that the North side was an excellent choice, that’s where we went. It turned out to be a perfect decision once we realized where the herd would be coming from. We could see the whole thing; the people on the South side were too close to see part of it since the hills blocked their view of the herd.

We set the alarm for 4:00 a.m. that morning, got up in the pitch black to feed the dogs and take them for a walk. I have to confess that my husband did the walking in the dark part while I took care of loading the car with our chairs, camera equipment, water, and other things on our list of what to bring. We left around 5:00, still pitch dark; we noticed that just about everyone else in the campground was up that early, too. Even though we were staying in Custer State Park, we had to drive several miles to the viewing area; Custer is one of the largest state parks in the US, encompassing 71,000 acres.

Sunrise at Custer State Park

Parking lots opened at 6:15 and we got to the end of the line at about 5:30, about a mile from the parking lot. As we waited, it was fun to watch the line of headlights grow longer and longer, and eventually we realized that the 6:15 opening time was planned to coincide with sunrise!  It’s helpful to be able to see when you’re parking in a prairie. Lots of park staff/volunteers were there to guide us into the right place, and we were happy with our early arrival. Once parked it was a grab-your-chairs-and-run situation, and we got places in the second row from the fence. Would that wire fence hold back all those buffalo if they decided to run this way? Nope. But the cowboys know what they are doing, and so we all pushed forward as much as we possibly could.

The actual roundup was scheduled to begin at 9:30, but it was after 10:00 before we saw any action. That was OK; there were lots of people to talk to, and everyone we met was friendly and having fun. There was a tent where pancakes and coffee were available, plenty of porta-potties, and weather that was delightful. Chilly early morning mist cleared away and the temperature rose into the 80s, clear and sunny.

We could barely see the line of bison as they crested the far ridge.

Finally, we saw dark spots rising above the ridge in front of us, behind the South Viewing area. It was much like an old Western movie – the buffalo crested that ridge, appearing bit by bit, and many people in the crowd noted it sure didn’t look like there were 1,300 of them. From the distance they didn’t even look very big the herd maintained the same shape as they traversed the prairie. It looked to me rather like the schools of fish in Finding Nemo.

Because of the heat, the cowboys let them move slowly, lumbering across the grass until they got closer to the goal: the gates leading into the large corral area. Near the end, though, we could feel the ground shake and hear the deep rumble of the running beasts, and the crowd cheered and yelled as the animals were driven into the enclosure.

It was amazing to watch hundreds of buffalo run through the small gates in the fence.

Once the herd came over that ridge, the whole round up happened fast. People took pictures, and videos, and talked and laughed, and the next thing we all knew, it was done. Visitors are welcomed to view the herd in the corrals, and can also watch the process of handling the animals through the chutes and finally back to the larger enclosures or back into the park. Stay tuned!

Life is good.

Nemo Road

This is the bike that took me through the hills and valleys of Nemo Road.

Back in 2001, my husband and I spent a month in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My son was getting married, and I wanted a lengthy visit so that I would be familiar with the area he was about to call home. Geoff and Kiersten were working most days, though, so Doug and I had plentiful time for exploring the area on our motorcycles.

One day, we decided to drive out of town on Nemo Road, which begins in Rapid City, and runs for miles and miles through the Black Hills to the town of Lead. What would be interesting about this ride was that there were warnings posted, that bikers should avoid Nemo Road due to road construction. But we had heard some other bikers talking about going that way, so we decided to do the same; we had heard that it was a beautiful ride through some of the prettiest parts of the Black Hills.

“Road Construction” hardly describes what was going on, though. “Earth Moving” is more like it. In many places one couldn’t yet determine where the actual road would be. We were in a line of motorcycles all on the same journey, and I was terrified. I didn’t have more than a few years of experience, didn’t feel very confident in my abilities as a biker, and I thought I was done for. Seriously. The “road” was soft dirt in many places, mud in many others, and we were dodging construction vehicles and some formidable road equipment. There were uphills, downhills, and lots of curves, all in  places that had no firmament.

It was the most scared I’ve ever been.

But I couldn’t just pull over and quit. There was no place to pull over TO, and I couldn’t quit because there was no place to leave my motorcycle. I had no choice but to keep going.

I fought back tears. I prayed. I coached myself with positive affirmations. I think I can, I think I can. And somehow, I made it through.

I made it through.

It was a huge personal triumph that has stayed with me, and it will always be a symbol for me of triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. Nemo Road is my Rubicon; it was a point of no return that changed me forever.

Yes, Dear Readers, this story does have current applications. During our travels this summer, I have had two occasions to use my “Nemo Road” experience to face my fears.

The first time was at the Grand Canyon. I have been seriously afraid of heights for much of my adult life, and the first time I visited the North Rim, in 1997, before Nemo Road, there were some walkways that I did not attempt. This year when we were planning the visit, my husband challenged me about it; I remained skeptical. But he had planted the seed, and after thinking about it for awhile, I approached Bright Angel Point with new resolve. I wasn’t sure where in ’97 I had turned back, but I recognized it right away when we got there.

Me, at the very farthest edge of Bright Angel Point.

It was a narrow bridge with no shoulder, but it did have railings, and this time around I took a deep breath and strode across. Doug was so proud that he told the people around us what a great accomplishment this was for me. Several people in the group cheered me on and one lady offered to take a picture so we’d have a great souvenir for the record book. It was a great moment.

The second time I remembered Nemo Road was this week, at Mesa Verde National Park. This park encompasses an astonishing number of ancient cliff dwellings built into deep canyons. Most of them can be seen from roadside overlooks, but the park offers several ranger-guided tours so that visitors can actually walk through the dwellings. There are severe warnings for people who want to sign up: “Caution: All tours involve climbing narrow, uneven steps and climbing ladders. They are strenuous.” It was the ladders that got to me; my old fear of heights raising its evil head one more time. Doug and I talked about it, though, and he again commented, “Remember Nemo Road. You can do this.” I considered it overnight and decided I would never have this opportunity again to see these amazing cliff dwellings. I did it, and it wasn’t scary at all.

The moral of this story, of course, is about facing your fears. But it’s also about having that one turning point when you know deep inside yourself that you are capable of more than you ever believed possible. I don’t know if my fear of heights has actually disappeared, but I do know that it has lost a lot of power.

Do you have a Nemo Road?