Think Too Much

I spend a lot of time thinking these days.  It happens – you’re in an empty house and you can only carry on so many conversations with the cats before you become worried that you think you’re hearing them talk back…

So I spend lots of time thinking. And this week I’ve been thinking about people and relationships.

A few days ago I was on my way to the local hardware store to take my tiller in for  repair when two cars smashed together right in front of me. I was sitting at a light when a Ford Explorer made a left turn in front of a car traveling straight at 45 mph. They hit head on and the car came to rest next to my truck while the Explorer u-turned and ended up sitting on the curb a few feet in front of me. I jumped out of the truck and checked on the driver of the car. He was a man in his late-20’s, and other than dealing with the shock of the accident and the airbag going off in his face, he seemed fine.  He climbed out of the car and I went to check on the Explorer, which was now surrounded by people who had appeared out of the stores and parking lot next to the accident site. I heard a woman on the phone with 911 already, so I knew I didn’t need to make that call; but as I approached the Explorer I saw that the two passengers were at least in their late 80’s.  They looked stunned and confused, and the woman complained of some chest pains.  I went around to the driver’s to check on the man, and he was quite shaken up, but seemed to be okay beyond a bloody lip.

So I witnessed an auto accident.  Big deal, right? Well, actually it was because I watched a group of strangers, from different age groups, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds all focus on one thing – making sure everyone was okay. The older woman was able to get out of the car, but couldn’t walk, stating that she had recently undergone leg surgery and had difficulty walking. She was also quite confused and in a bit of shock. An extremely large man approached her and offered to carry her away from the car, and when that seemed to scare her a bit, another slightly older man approached her and began gently speaking to her to keep her calm.  About then, the police, fire, and EMT teams arrived and took over. I spoke with one of the officers and gave him my account of the accident. The police eventually cleared a path for me and I continued on my way.

A couple of days later my phone began to buzz as I was receiving the same text blast from THE WIFE and THE NEIGHBOR about another neighbor (THE CHEF) in need of help. Her back had given out and she was stuck, lying on the floor of a local church, unable to get back up.  THE WIFE and THE NEIGHBOR eventually were able to point me towards the correct church, and I headed over. I found THE CHEF lying on her back on the church sanctuary floor with her feet up on a chair, a few steps from the kitchen she was using to prepare food for an upcoming wedding. A very nice man was talking to her as she applied heat to her back, but she couldn’t move. I stayed with her, mostly trying to make her laugh about the situation. Once her son and wife arrived, I alternated between distracting the son (the church had an AWESOME organ!), helping THE CHEF as she slowly began to move and stretch out , and lending a hand to her wife as she loaded up the food for the catering job. By that evening THE CHEF knew that she wouldn’t be able to do much in terms of loading or unloading the vehicles for the catering jobs, so she reluctantly asked her friends for help. It just so happened that I wasn’t doing anything at 11 AM on a Friday (go figure!), so I headed over to help.

Am I telling you all this so that you can see what a great guy I am? No. Not really.  Instead I’m telling you this because it was 15 minutes of effort on a Friday and then another 15 minutes on a Saturday that made a huge difference to them while allowing me to feel good about helping out some people who thought enough of me to allow me to help. It was a chance to pay it forward.

To recap: I was able to see the good side of people last week. First, I saw a group of strangers pull together to take care of people in need, and then I was able to spend a short bit of time helping out some friends. It felt good to see the better side of people. Now I need to figure out if this plays into my bigger picture view going forward, too. While I’m never going to be someone who spends all of his free time doing volunteer work, I should at least figure out if I need to spend more time with others. It runs counter to most of my normal thinking, but challenging my normal thinking is just the kind of thing I need to spend My First Retirement doing.

 

Six Weeks – A Progress Report

“How’s retirement treating you? You look much more relaxed…”

That’s how a neighbor greeted me at a party this weekend and I had to pause for a moment and consider what he said.  Yes. He was right.  I am more relaxed.  It’s happening slowly and subtly, but I’m starting to relax.

Today marks the beginning of week seven of My First Retirement, so I thought I’d offer up a bit of a progress report in various areas. I’ve tried to mix up the posts a bit here, alternating between broader lessons and just stories (mostly about bread, it seems). This will be a little more of the latter.

Let’s look at a few areas of retired life, shall we?

  • Sleep: I sleep much better now than I did in my last few weeks of work.  This should be rather obvious, but having a bit less on my mind just seems to make everything easier.
  • Routines: I’ve developed a definite set of routines each day, and my time is much more structured than I anticipated. I have my morning exercise block, followed by time devoted to learning, then an afternoon section where I am either shopping, cooking, or working around the house/in the yard, finishing up with preparing dinner and sitting on the porch (often with a cocktail and THE NEIGHBOR) as I wait for THE WIFE to get home.
  • Around The House: I’m shocked by how much cleaning I do.  I’ve always done the laundry in the house, and spreading it out a load at a time every few days is actually quite nice, but I just had no idea how much time I would devote to cleaning. Part of it is knowing that there isn’t a cleaning lady coming in a few days to straighten up my messes, but the other part is my own need to keep things tidy after I’ve cleaned them.  And, not to be overlooked, there’s the desire to prove to THE WIFE that I’m not slacking off all day.  Does she care if I slack off?  Not too much. But *I* care.  Yes, I’m still battling that productivity thing in my head….
  • Eating: I eat a lot less than I used to, particularly at lunch.  My diet is much better, too, as eating at home rather than Chick-Fil-A and Wendy’s 3-4 days a week tends to be healthier. I’m also eating far less processed and packaged food, not because I’m some sort of a health zealot, but because I’m preparing most of the meals I eat and they consist of a few ingredients that I can identify. Given, my cooking centers around comfort food and bread, so this isn’t necessarily a path to losing weight, but at least I’m more aware of what is in my food.
  • Cooking: Speaking of cooking, I’m slowly learning how to make a few things. I’ve made a couple of successful soups (the split pea in the pressure cooker was awesome!) and a fine meatloaf, and I even saved a couple of mistakes, turning an overly-thick chicken and rice soup into a nice couple of pot pies. I haven’t repeated anything yet in six weeks, so that makes me feel good. I’m really enamored with the  pressure cooker right now as I can cook chicken dishes in a very short amount of time, but I still haven’t done any sous vide cooking yet.
  • Bread: One of the reasons I haven’t tried our sous vide cooker yet is that I’ve been spending most of my time baking bread.  I’ve progressed from a simple no-knead load to a really delicious pumpernickel in roughly three weeks. Bread is my current fascination, and I’m really enjoying the baking and the learning. As I type this, a rustic country loaf featuring white, wheat, and rye flour is rising in a bowl just a few feet away. I’m getting tremendous satisfaction out of baking and seeing a finished product that people seem to enjoy. I took the pumpernickel (which I had never made before) to a party this weekend and people were very complimentary. It was nice.  Now as for those suggestions from some that I consider starting a bakery, I’ll emphatically say “NO”. I don’t want anything to do with commercial food preparation or the public.
  • Exercise: One of the odd stressors I had in my work life was finding time to run. If I wanted to run in the morning, I often had to get up quite early in order to make it into work at a decent hour. Once the weather turned colder and the days shorter, I would shift to the afternoons, which would mean that I was racing for the door as early as possible just to get home in time to try to run in the relative safety of at least some waning light. I can’t overstate this enough – one of the things that I use to control stress and stay healthy created incredible amounts of schedule stress on me. Meeting running late? No running tonight. Early call? No run today. Slipping out he door to get home in time to run? Gee – the boss sure gave me a funny look as I walked past him. This isn’t a problem now as I have control over my schedule, but it underscores to me how important retaining this time in my schedule will be once I return to work.
  • People: As I’ve stated before, I spend a lot more time alone than I anticipated. That doesn’t mean I’m lonely, but it does make me more interested in talking to people than I used to be.  Truth be told, I’m less lonely at home with the cats than I was working in an office full of people. I definitely expected to spend more time out among others, though.
  • Learning: I’ve devoted an hour or more most days to learning something. So far it has been the basics of some higher-level programming languages like Python and Ruby, but I’m sure it will eventually move in to something else. I’m actually enjoying the coding exercises far more than I thought I would, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s something I should explore more.
  • Music: I’ve listened to a ton of music as I’m working through the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, but I’m also working on my own music. I’ve written one new song so far, which may appear on our next RPM Challenge album in February. I’m also remixing and remastering the first two Letter Seventeen records in order to finally release them on iTunes/Amazon/Spotify, etc. And this is all while we continue to work on finishing the long-awaited-we-hope-we-can-release-this-eventually record we’ve been working on for the last few months. Truth be told, we’re down to a few drum tracks and a couple more passes at some vocals, but these things take time, and the other guys have less of that than I do.
  • Self-Improvement: I’m not sure what to say here. I’m very aware of my desire to improve, whether it be through trying to be kinder or starting to meditate again, or something else along those lines; but I don’t have anything tangible to point to. Well, except for the comment from my neighbor who said I looked relaxed.

I think the real question at this point is “Do I miss work?”  No.  Not really.  I miss a few people, but not much else. Am I thinking about going back to work?  Yes.  Definitely.  I’m starting to learn more and more about what is important to me and what I enjoy.  I’ll just need to include that in my job search. Do I think I”ll need the rest of the year to figure this out? Yep.

 

Clouds Of Bread

It seemed like a simple enough task. I wanted to bake some bread. I had already met with some success using a couple of variations on a no-knead bread recipe, but this time I wanted to make real bread. So I found a (slightly dodgy in hindsight) recipe online and broke out the mixer.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note at this point that I have operated the mixer upwards of 4-5 times in the past 20 years.  Tuck this factoid away.  It will become relevant shortly.

I began assembling my ingredients.  I set out the butter to soften up. I measured my milk. I proofed my yeast, just to be sure that it was active. In other words, I covered all of my bases. I then poured all of the wet ingredients into the mixer and scooped in the initial two cups of flour. I attached the scraper blade to the mixer and plugged it in.

2015-10-09 13.36.45POOF.

I forgot to check the switch as I plugged the mixer in. Instead of being set to zero, it was wide open, on ten.  Flour flew EVERYWHERE. Truly, the picture doesn’t properly convey the mess. The dry flour covered most of the counter and floor, while wet, gooey, gluey bits of flour/water/yeast/etc. flew as far as ten feet across the room.  The chairs in the background of the picture have spots of “glue” on them.  So do the floor mats.  And so did I.  I looked like a contestant from a Nickelodeon show who had just been slimed.

I took a moment to assess the situation and watch the flour cloud settle, during which I loudly requested that a deity bring damnation down upon the KitchenAid corporation and the makers of all ingredients previously in the bowl. Then I realized that my jeans were covered in flour glue that wasn’t going to wipe off, so I headed upstairs, changed my clothes, and started a load of laundry.

At this point I knew I needed to clean things up, but I was uncertain if I should still try to make bread. On the bright side, I definitely saw the humor in the situation, even if it wasn’t funny to me quite yet. I posted a picture to Facebook which is still getting plenty of responses.  Let’s call that a moment of personal growth.

As I started to wipe up the counters I decided to go for it again.  After all, it hadn’t taken long to assemble everything, and I had a much clearer understanding of the controls of the mixer now. But first, I needed to mop the floor.  As I cleared the flour and goo from the floor and the mats, I noticed that there were floury footprints across the kitchen.  Oh yeah… I was barefoot and walking through all of this.  One quick trip to the bathroom to clean my feet, and I stopped working against myself as I mopped.

Once the kitchen was back in reasonable shape (I’m still finding flour remnants here and there three days later…) I began assembling my ingredients again. I tossed some butter in the microwave to melt, then mixed up the yeast and other wet ingredients. Just before turning on the mixer, I realized that I now didn’t have enough flour to complete the recipe.  This is, of course, AFTER I had one cup of flour in the bowl. Luckily, the grocery store is just up the road, so I quickly headed over and bought not one, but TWO bags of flour. I tossed the second cup of flour into the mixer and turned it on low and…. it stirred!  No clouds! It was awesome. I slowly added some more flour and eventually switched to the dough hook. After everything was mixed, I pulled the ball out of the mixer and began kneading.

As an aside, if you’re wondering why I didn’t just use the dough hook for kneading, there are two reasons. 1) I didn’t realize that I could use the hook for kneading. I was following the recipe and only later read about using the hook for the kneading phase, and 2) The idea of punching something for ten minutes sounded like fun about then.

After ten minutes of punching and rolling the dough ball, I put it in a large bowl to rise. I started the oven preheating and felt pretty proud of myself. The kitchen was mostly clean and I was making bread despite a prior disaster.

And then I walked by the microwave.

Remember that butter I melted before running to the store to get more flour? It was still in the microwave. It was not in the dough.

I once again uttered a curse that would make Professor Snape proud and considered my options. Maybe I could integrate the butter into the dough before the rise. I grabbed the dough ball and started coating it with the butter and kneading it when I realized exactly how silly I looked.  I stopped.  I laughed a bit (more personal growth!) and grabbed a plastic bag.  I took the dough ball and tossed it in the trash.

By now, I figured I was pretty good at pulling this recipe together.  I had all of my ingredient. I knew how to operate the mixer. I was an experienced kneader. I would remember to include the butter this time.

That’s right – I decided to make a THIRD batch of dough. I was not going to be defeated by bread.

I assembled my ingredients in the mixer and executed all of the steps properly this time. I made it through my ten minutes of kneading and punching, channeling my inner Sugar Ray Leonard, and I produced a ball of dough to put in the bowl.  It was divine, and, to be honest, pretty easy by now as I was quite well-practiced at the routine.

After an hour-long rise, I pulled out the ball and punched it down again, then rolled it and placed it in the loaf pan. After another hour, I saw that the dough hadn’t risen as much as I would like, but that’s been a consistent problem for me thus far, which I’m blaming on my yeast. I decided to go for it and tossed the pan in the oven.

The end result was a nice loaf of white bread.  It was a little too dense (again – I blame the yeast) and small, and I will likely tweak the recipe to include more flavors in the future as it was a bit bland; but I was following the recipe to see how things would turn out. It was certainly edible, and I learned a lot. I just hadn’t planned to learn quite so much about cleaning.

 

The Fine Art Of Breathing

I read an article the other day about how people breathe when they run. It basically boiled down to people breathing in on a regular cadence so that the in and out breaths aligned with the same foot each time, which can contribute to longer-term injuries for some people (always breathing in on the left foot and out on the right, for example). The article also mentioned that runner tend to take shallow breaths, which hurts their overall efficiency. The suggestion was to take deeper “belly breaths”, breathing into and out of your diaphragm for better overall lung usage, and to do it on sets of five steps so that your breaths in alternated feet.  I tried a modified version of the technique, taking deep and slow breaths every third inhalation or so, and it seemed to work really well. I ran faster and felt much stronger through the run.

This got me me thinking about mediation. I’ve always viewed my running as a form of meditation, and the breathing exercise while running seemed right out of a Tara Branch book.

Late last year I read a book by Dan Harris called 10% Happier. In short, he described how he has used meditation to calm the voices in his head and establish better focus. Dan wasn’t interested in the mystic side of meditation (one of my favorite quotes from him is “I didn’t want to live in yurt or be one of those people who uses ‘namaste‘ unironically.”). He wanted to use it to gain some sense of control while still maintaining his edge. This appealed to me, so I dove into the book.  I didn’t start meditating right away, but I did start implementing some mindfulness practices. I reminded myself to “respond, don’t react.” I also tried to live by the mantra “don’t give a $5 response to a 50 cent problem.”  And it worked.  Quite well, actually.  I made it through most of the first quarter of the year calmer and more relaxed than I had been in years.  Eventually, I started meditating for 10-15 minutes a few days a a week. I found that practicing after work calmed me down and allowed me to let go of the stress of the day.

As usual, we’re about 400 words into the post, so it’s time to ask the question “yes, but what does that have to do with retirement?”  Quite a bit, actually. Over the past few months I’ve fallen off the meditation wagon. It’s been weeks since I’ve spent a little quiet time practicing. I’ve been intending to get back to meditation while I have time during my days, but it hasn’t been a priority. Until this past week.

My town of MAYBERRY is going through a local election cycle right now. Candidates are beginning to put signs out and people are starting to state their opinions, and, well… it’s ugly. Friends aren’t being friendly. Battle lines are being drawn over signs in yards or posts on websites.  People are calling one another names or making horrible accusations or comments about one another. Quite honestly, it’s awful. THE WIFE and I live in a great little town full of friendly people who all seem to genuinely like one another, but every few years folks tend to forget that and come a bit unhinged. There have been rumors that a neighbor had her dog shot because of an opinion her husband voiced at a council meeting. At another meeting, someone apparently threw a punch. It’s surreal.

People need to remember to breathe. They need to keep in mind that these same people they are demonizing today will still be their neighbors after the election. I’ve spoken to a number of friends, and we definitely disagree about a number of issues; but we still find a way to move past that. It’s okay to have a different opinion than your friends.  No… really.

Between the article about running and MAYBERRY GONE WILD!, I think the time to start meditating again is now. I need to be calm and collected. I need to respond, not react. And I need to set an example to my friends and neighbors about how an adult is supposed to act. I’m sure the return to practice will help me when I go back to work, too, so I may as well start today.

Either that, or I’m going to have to start carrying a bat when I go to town.

The lyrics to Don’t Wanna Know Why seem rather appropriate about now.

Don’t wanna know why you like me I don’t care
Don’t wanna know why I walk by and you stare
Don’t wanna know why just to wanna know why
Don’t wanna know why just to wanna know why

When I… Breathe in, breathe out.
Carry on, carry out.
Try to… Drive through your life
Breathe in, breathe out.
Carry on, carry out.
Try to… Never say goodbye

Don’t wanna know how you’re feeling I don’t care
Don’t wanna know when you’ll meet me I’m not there
Don’t wanna know why just to wanna know why
Don’t wanna know why just to wanna know why

When I… Breathe in, breathe out.
Carry on, carry out.
Try to… Drive through your life
Breathe in, breathe out.
Carry on, carry out.
Try to… Never say goodbye

I wish I knew
How to tell you
How to tell me why