In December, Everything Came to a Head

We’ve had a lot going on here. My workload’s been heavy (that’s good, actually) but with deadlines that moved up and down my production schedule (publishers and authors sometimes shuffle things around), which caused bottlenecks and logjams that raised my stress level. (In fact, my young whippersnapper doctor put me on a low-dose blood pressure medicine late in the year. But that’s another story entirely.)

In September we learned our beloved cat, Bean (that’s her photo at the top of this blog), was sick—probably lymphoma, which is incurable, but we continued to try various meds and nutrition changes, as well as an ultrasound and needle biopsy on the sixth of December. She was weakening, and my heart was breaking.

In October our annual termite inspection yield the information that our master bathroom floor might fall through, so while we wrangled with the insurance company, we decamped to the upstairs bathroom for our daily ablutions. It took weeks to get the paperwork settled, and work finally began on December fifth. There was dust everywhere. Thank goodness we hadn’t had time to put out Christmas decorations, or they’d have been dusty too.

In November, finally, some good news: my son and his fiancée married. Actually, that was a really special day amidst a month of growing strain. I was working night and day to dismantle my logjam. Bean needed meds and you try giving a cat a pill. It was just … a crazy time. Not good, not bad, but a lot.

Happy couple a few days later: Thanksgiving at our place.

And then, on December eighth, we got a call from Dublin in the very early morning that we’d been worried would come. Gerry’s eighty-seven-year-old mother had been in and out of the hospital all year. Her body wasn’t well but her mind was still just as sharp as a tack. Since Gerry had married me and returned with me to the United States in late 2015, his younger brother, Richie, and Richie’s wife, Isolde, had taken on the responsibility of keeping an eye on Bridie. It hadn’t been an easy year for them either.

The call was from Richie: Bridie had gone to the hospital that morning. The question had already been asked (“She has a son in America—should we call him home?”) but the answer we received at 5am was “Not yet. Let’s wait and see.” So I went off to my doctor for my annual physical at 8am and, of course, my blood pressure was through the roof—I left with a prescription for the low-dose bp meds, madder than a wet hen about it too. Which did nothing to lower my bp.

• • •

(Here’s a tip about that. In those crazy early morning hours, I’d had a cup of tea and a piece of toast, forgetting that they’d take blood at my physical. By the time I got back to the clinic for the bloodwork, it was after Christmas and my blood sugar was up too. A nurse friend of mine rolled her eyes at me, reminded me that stress also causes blood sugar to rise, and said, “Jamie, don’t ever schedule a physical during the holidays!” And I won’t.)

• • •

            By the time I got home, though, “Wait and see” had become “Come home now.” Gerry had already made arrangements with our phone carrier for an international plan, and we came up to the office and sat down at our dueling computers and started looking for a flight for him. I would not be going with him. (Cats, meds, dog, deadlines, and so on.)

Back in the day—you know, when America was great and all that—the airlines offered a sympathy discount for hardship cases like final illnesses and funerals, but no more. We were shocked at the cost of a round trip flight from Nashville to Dublin: the cheapest was British Airways at $3135. It was enough to make us weak in the knees. So we called them. It never hurts to ask, right?

Welp … nope. No family emergency discount. However, the clerk took pity on us and gave us a tip, which I’m passing to you in case you don’t already know it.

• • •

When you are buying tix online, you’ll be asked to choose if you just want the flight, or if you want flight+car or flight+hotel or flight+car+hotel. Let’s say you choose flight+car. You print out a little voucher for a good rate at the car rental place. You don’t pay for it then, you just print the voucher. Magically (!) your flight cost is reduced by half. No joke: the cost went to $1572. The clerk said, “When you reach your destination, just drop by the Hertz window and tell them your plans have changed.”

• • •

            And so he did. Thanks, BA.

I didn’t work much that day. I just helped Gerry gather the things he needed to pack for a two-week stay. (I am proud of the fact that I had stashed 50 euro in bills leftover from the last trip—and several one- and two-euro coins—so Gerry didn’t have to fly off without cash other than dollars.) We were both rattled. And that afternoon I drove my husband to Nashville and put him on a plane to Dublin in the hopes he could see his mother before she parted from this world.

I came home and started sending emails to Gerry’s former work colleagues and other friends of ours, to let them know Gerry would be in Dublin and why. I let our family know. I let our Facebook friends know. I scribbled lists of things I needed to do. I went up and down the stairs letting the dog outside—she stands in the hall and does this low growl until she has your attention—gaining a new appreciation for just how much time Gerry spends letting Suzy out to pee. 🙂

Bridie died Friday just before midnight Dublin time (that would be 6pm our time). Gerry was waiting to board his flight in Chicago, having spoken with her on the phone a little earlier. One of the nieces sent me an electronic message.

Gerry arrived in Dublin in late afternoon on Saturday, precisely twenty-four hours after he’d departed Nashville, and Richie and Isolde took him home and fed him breakfast for supper and put him to bed. The funeral was scheduled for Wednesday. He spent the rest of his time in Dublin emptying the house, speaking with the solicitor, speaking with the realtor, speaking with the bank, and so on. Richie was right there by his side. It was exhausting.

Here at home, the rest of us tottered on. The diuetic I’d been prescribed for the blood pressure made me feel like I’d been run over by a truck. I could barely climb the stairs I felt so fatigued. Also low-grade nausea. But. Just. So. Exhausted. Aaaaagh. (Fortunately it only lasted for a few days.)

Suzy wasn’t getting walked, and she missed her guy. The two of us were walking wounded. On Facebook I posted Opportunity of a lifetime! Take a stroll around the block with the world’s sweetest dog! but got no takers. December is a really busy month for everyone.

The construction in the bathroom continued, which meant our backyard gate was often open. Gerry’s very cautious/aware about these things, but one morning I let her out to do her business, failing, while I was on the phone informing the dentist that Gerry would not make his appointment on Wednesday, to notice that the gate was open… and when I called for her, she was gone. I called and called: Suzy! Suzy!

Nothing.

So instead, I called for Spot the cat, using his mealtime call: SPIT-Spot! SPIT-Spot! He responds very well to it. So does Suzy. So what to my wondering eyes should appear but a seventy-pound yellow Lab who never misses a meal. She was on the driveway between the front yard and the back yard. Came on the run.

I always checked the gate situation after that. We’d had enough trouble.

Yes, Suzy finally took me for a walk today (dragged me around the block). That’s a plastic cup I scooped out of the gutter when I realized I’d forgotten a poop bag. Fortunately I didn’t need to use it.

Those two weeks seemed like two months. I had to let go of a lot of my personal expectations—put up a Christmas tree, decorate, send Christmas cards—and reached a peace with myself. I told myself I’d get to some of it when I could, but for the moment, I just tended to my work and my pets and sat in the hot tub, and knew that all of us would be happy to see Gerry on the other end. I wrapped one present a day and stacked them on the piano.

When you don’t have a tree, the Christmas Piano will do.

I started checking flight status early and learned that Gerry’s plane out of London Heathrow was delayed. His Chicago flight was due in Nashville at 10pm … but who knew? I’ve been on more than one flight that was held for someone making a tight connection, so I was hoping for that. I checked the flight roster—there was one more flight out of Chicago that night. So I went and brewed a pot of tea.

Ultimately, the fully boarded flight out of London was delayed by an hour and 45 minutes. Why? Because somehow someone had been allowed to board the plane to Chicago whose “paperwork was inadequate to enter the US.” That person was removed from the plane, of course, but the main delay was removing that person’s luggage from the plane. How does that even happen? I still don’t have an answer.

• • •

            But here’s a third tip: If you are flying from Ireland to the US and you have a choice, use a flight that goes directly to the US (Chicago, Boston, NY, DC, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta … probably others). This allows you to pass customs in Dublin before you ever board a plane. It’s a hassle, you have to be there even earlier than normal, but it’s much less painful than landing in the international terminal, going to baggage claim to collect your luggage, passing through customs, then changing terminals, re-checking your luggage, passing through security, and boarding the next plane.

• • •

            Nonetheless, we took the tickets we could get two weeks ago, and this is what Gerry had to do. There was one last flight to BNA from ORD that night and British Airways took care of booking him on it while he was still in the air. So he collected two pieces of luggage, took them through customs, found his gate, checked the luggage again. As he was boarding for BNA, he got a text from the airlines: “Ooops, sorry, one of your bags didn’t get on the plane. It will follow on the first flight in the morning.” (We’re still puzzled by this. He was there in plenty of time for this flight. He checked them both simultaneously. But one didn’t make it? Why?)

The flight landed at its advertised arrival time of 11:20pm. I was sitting in the huge new park-and-wait and had been since 10pm. Waiting. Tired. Gerry called and said “Don’t come to the terminal until I have my luggage.” So I waited and waited and waited … until 12:30am. Why? Because Gerry had to prove who he was (him with the oops email from the airlines!) and document every leg of his trip, before anyone at the airlines would even agree to say they knew where his missing luggage was! And more paperwork! And me sitting in the park-and-wait having these fantasies about hugging my husband close when I finally laid eyes on him.

“I’M COMING TO GET YOU NOW,” I texted in all caps. “THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”

You would think that the Nashville airport would be reasonably quiet and calm at 1am. But if it’s two days before Christmas, you would be wrong.

Side note on the new arrivals lanes at BNA: They suck. In years past we had a simpler system, a thing of beauty, really, but sometime in the last couple years, airport expansion construction eliminated the ten-minute pull-in parking for loading arrivals and left us with three lanes plus a fourth separated by sidewalk, and it’s insanity because people don’t know how to use it. Drivers are stupid, stopping in the middle two lanes to load their people, thus holding up the entire process, rather than pulling to the two available curbs (lanes 1 and 4) to load, leaving lanes 2 and 3 for through-traffic.

By the time I decided to drive to the terminal, these lanes were backed up well past the curved arrivals entrance (if you know BNA, you know what I mean). And it was raining. When I pulled to the curb, Gerry was banging on the trunk, waiting for me to pop it. He had the suitcase in the trunk before I was out of the car. “This is madness!” I shouted over the roar. No tender hug. “Take me home now!” he shouted back.

• • •

Future tip for airport pickups (especially at holidays): pick up your beloved arrival at departures. Traffic in these lanes is moving quickly, so everything’s more relaxed. In Nashville departures are up one level from baggage claim, and you’re tired and dragging luggage, but pickup goes a lot more smoothly, I’m told.

• • •

            We fell into bed around 1:30am. Gerry awoke at 5am, still on Dublin time. I slept until 6:45am (late for me). We have had breakfast. We are, otherwise, an advertisement for the Walking Dead. But he’s home, and we’re a little travel-wiser. Merry Christmas!

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Holiday Travel? Bring It!

I purchased the glass ornament on the right during my first trip to Ireland in 2003. It is hand painted.

I purchased the glass ornament on the right during my first trip to Ireland in 2003. It is hand painted.

I was delighted to see this article pop up in my inbox last month—How to Make Holiday Travel Less Stressful—because Lord knows we could all do with a little less stress, yes? (Travel or otherwise.) And because I have a little experience with it—and hope to have more.

When the kids are little it’s nice to stay home, or take a trip across town (maybe further) to Grammy’s house. The decorations, the baking, the wrapping … those are all things you can enjoy at home. And it’s good.

But when the kids are grown … a whole new world opens up. You care less about the tree and the ornaments and more about being with your favorite people. Am I right?

Sometimes that involves travel. Your schedule may be the more flexible one.

Here’s what the Times says—

  • Travel on the holiday
  • Fly direct, if possible
  • Ship the gifts
  • Go in January instead

—and I have employed a variety of them over my lifetime to make the holidays work for everyone.

For some years my son was in a traveling brass quintet, and one of their biggest concerts of the year was—you guessed it—Christmas Eve. They’d line up a nice big gig in a nice big church in a nice big city, and come Christmas Day morning, I’d find myself driving to BNA virtually all by myself. Roads were deserted. The loading zone at the airport—a madhouse any other day—was nearly deserted. And the people who were there, both travelers and their rides, were very, very happy. (Even the quiet house on Christmas Eve was a moment to be savored.) It was festive!

One of the virtues of flying out of a large city, of course, is the availability of direct flights. This facilitated the Christmas Day flying. And it certainly facilitated the times I flew to see my son when he was living and working as a high school teacher in Phoenix (my schedule was more flexible). A direct flight increases the odds that you and your luggage will arrive in the same place at the same time. You’ll agree, I’m sure, that this is a plus.

I didn’t ship the gifts those years I flew to Phoenix, but I did not wrap them until I arrived. To save time, I brought gift bags and bows with me (rather than shopping for them in Phoenix), but I left the gifts unwrapped so the TSA could see them.

As soon as you reach adulthood, you have to start juggling various holidays and various family groups. This is a prescription for stress, so to the Times’s list I would add this: go with it. Just go with it. You can hold fast to some notion of how things are supposed to be … or you can just take this holiday this year as it comes. And then plan that trip to the Bahamas for next January! 🙂

 

The List: Husbands, Wives, and Christmas

My parents always asked us kids for a list of things we wanted for Christmas … when we were still kids, and when we’d grown up. It’s a habit I continued with my son, especially now that he’s grown, because I don’t see him every day—I don’t know what he wants. Why spend money on something that will never be used?

My husband thinks that’s too mercenary, but then he’s the guy who only gives cash. “They can get what they want,” that’s his motto. It works, though I sometimes find it a little boring. I enjoy the hunt for the perfect gift.

But I think that’s a gal thing. What’s a doting husband to do?

Sometimes, gentlemen, you draw a complete blank, yes? Sometimes … You Just Need a List. If you ask your wife for a list, though, you spoil the surprise.

The list that follows was making the rounds among my Facebook friends. I don’t know whom to credit; the version I read actually included the words: “I just read this somewhere.” So I offer it here, cleaned up and with a few edits.

The Doting Husband’s Gift Idea List: Gifts To Surprise Your Wife

• Gift certificate for a mani/pedi. Supersize it and give her four of them.

• Gift certificate for a professional massage.

• An empty house for 24–72 hours. No less, but longer would be cool.

• A planned weekend with her friends: fancy hotel, all plans pre-made, kids arranged, concert/play/movie/event tickets bought.

• A cleaning company to come and do even just one deep clean of the house. Those dust bunnies are not going anywhere without hired help.

• An upgrade to her engagement/wedding ring: a new wrap, added stones, whatever suits her.

• Concert tickets with backstage passes. Sitter booked. Hotel overnight a bonus.

• Get her car detailed.

• Facials/massages/hair appointments pre-booked and pre-paid for as many months as you can afford. Arrange the babysitter too.

• Gift cards for a girls’ night out. (Besties notified and booked!)

• A weekend, with you, in the big city. Plans made. Sitters booked.

• A local hotel room booked for her for a whole night (or two!)—alone. Preferably one with a spa.

• Don’t forget tradition. I have a friend whose husband, every year without fail, gets her the latest hardback edition of her favorite prolific author.

• Jewelry. Duh.

• Hack her Pinterest. Ideas galore.

• Ask her girlfriends.

• Don’t forget the deluxe wrapping.

There’s your list. A surprise is still the best thing, so don’t ask her for a list. Just do it.

IMG_1893

A Jane Austen / Georgian Christmas

I stumbled upon this article in the New York Times back in August, which was probably about as late as you could wait and still get a spot on this travel experience (“heritage tourism,” they say in the trade) … but it’s something to put in your tickler file for next year, yes?

I think it sounds like a lot of fun, if you like a tour. (We’re not generally the sort who goes in for tours, but this seems pretty upscale, with plenty of time on your own worked into the schedule.)

I snagged this photo of Bath Abbey from the NYTimes article © 2014.

I snagged this photo of Bath Abbey from the NYTimes article © 2014.

Day 1: Arrive at London’s Heathrow Airport. Meet your expert guide, Rosalind Hutchinson, and depart for a visit to the Jane Austen House and Museum in Chawton, including a talk by the curator and the opportunity to view a first edition.
Have lunch as a group at a historic local pub before continuing to the hotel in Winchester. This evening, before dinner, enjoy “A Jane Austen Evening” by the Madding Crowd. Carols, songs, hymns and anthems are included in a mummers play celebrating Christmas as in the time of Jane Austen.

Day 2: Tour the historic city of Winchester. Visit Jane Austen-related locations, including 8 College Street, where she spent the final weeks of her life, and Winchester Cathedral, where she was buried following her death in 1817 at the age of 41. The afternoon will be at leisure to attend services at the Cathedral, shop or enjoy the ambience of Winchester at Christmas. Have a Christmas Eve dinner with mince pies and mulled wine at the hotel tonight. Guests also have the option to attend midnight Eucharist at Winchester Cathedral.

Day 3: For Christmas, you are free to relax, explore or attend services at Winchester Cathedral. There will be a Christmas Day luncheon, complete with Christmas crackers. In the evening, you may decide to dine at the hotel’s evening buffet.

Day 4: Depart for Steventon Village, the village in Hampshire where Jane Austen was born in 1775. Visit the rectory where she spent most of her first 25 years.
Travel along Popham Lane, a route she often walked, to the Wheatsheaf Inn, where the Austens posted letters and collected their mail. These and many other locations in the area provided inspiration for Jane’s incisive novels about English town and country society. “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” were all written at Steventon.
Visit The Vyne, a National Trust property once owned by the Chute family, who hosted many parties attended by Jane Austen and her family. Enjoy a light lunch followed by a curator-led tour. Later this afternoon, meet with a member of the Jane Austen Society.

Day 5: Visit the quaint village of Lacock, which is sought after by filmmakers for its picturesque streets and historic cottages. Have lunch in a historic pub and continue to Bath. Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805, after her father retired from his ministry at Steventon.
Relax and enjoy the rest of the day, perhaps taking a sumptuous English tea at the hotel.

Day 6: Head out for a tour of Bath, known for centuries for its healing waters. Highlights include the Palladian-style Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon and the houses where Jane and her family lived at Sydney Place and Gay Street.
Visit the Assembly Rooms, a fashionable meeting place for 18th-century society, featured in Austen’s novels. Visit the Jane Austen Centre and the impressive costume collection at the Bath Fashion Museum. Later, continue to the Roman baths and the soaring Bath Abbey, which has undergone many transformations during its more than 1,000 years of history.
Today’s grand structure was one of the last great medieval cathedrals built in England. Tonight, toast your trip with a farewell dinner at the hotel.

Day 7: After breakfast, transfer to London’s Heathrow Airport for your flights back to the U.S.

If you’re a Jane Austen fan, do bookmark the website of the Jane Austen Centre, and the Jane Austen Society (England and North America). Here’s an interesting blog that’s All-Jane-All-the-Time, from the Vermont wing of the Jane Austen Society. Here’s another one, Austenonly.

Now start saving your nickels and dimes for that tour next year!

Long Weekend

Oh, the things you can get done on a long weekend (after the kitchen is cleaned). We went through all the congrats cards we brought back from the party in Ireland and made a list for thank-you notes. Started writing thank-you notes. Then I did my usual thing of displaying the cards for a while on the bookshelf. Many a birthday card, thank-you card, wedding announcements, and more have been displayed on this shelf. It prolongs the delight. 🙂

Wedding cards.

Wedding cards.

And those little bells? They were repurposed from my friend Amy’s wedding (more than a decade ago) and used by a group of friends to ring us “in” when we arrived at the Nashville Airport on 20 October.

This is the weekend for counting our blessings, and we really are blessed when it comes to friends.

Lexington Thriller Parade

Last week one of my friends—a former resident of Lexington, Kentucky—posted on Facebook a video of the annual reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that has happened in downtown Lexington every year since 2002.

Source: Thriller! Lexington Facebook page.

Source: Thriller! Lexington Facebook page.

It purely delighted me, and I have put it on my bucket list.

“When you think of Halloween in Lexington,” says the writeup at the Lexington Herald-Leader’s website,

You think of candy, pumpkins—and the Thriller community dance during the Halloween parade.

First conceived in 2002, Teresa Tomb of Mecca Dance Studio and Melissa McCartt- Smyth, who works in the office of Lexington mayor Jim Gray, refined the idea by putting out a note to see if Lexingtonians were interested in participating.

The idea was to involve Lexingtonians even if they didn’t have formal dance training.

That first year, McCartt-Smyth recalls, “We worked on it for a couple of weeks. We did a little rolling (street) blockage with the police. We did word of mouth. We even invited my parent.”

It was a modest thing.

“We thought it would be just a fun little street performance,” Tomb said.

Tomb and McCartt-Smyth thought that would be the end of it—until the next July, when they started getting calls asking when rehearsals for 2003 Thriller would start.

Here’s a clip from 2015, 2014, and 2013.

Isn’t that just fabulous? This year thousands lined the streets to watch, and they had six Michael Jacksons and more than twelve hundred zombies. The zombie walk is open even to those who have no dance or theater training, but they must learn the dance. Lexington-dot-gov says if you want to shamble along, it’ll cost you $11.00 ($6.00 if you’re sixteen or under), and you are required to attend at least one regular rehearsal and one staging rehearsal.

Now, Lexington’s a four-hour drive from here, so I don’t think I’ll be dancing in the streets, but I do think it would be fun to be there some October, don’t you?

 

Happy New Year in the American South

My parents were both born in the Midwest, but my father was a Southerner by heritage, and he grew up keeping to the traditions of the American South.

Like having black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, preferably to break the fast. Black-eyed peas, hog jowl (fried up or to season the peas), and spinach … each symbolic of luck and wealth. (Some people serve cornbread, the color of and representative of gold.)

And so I carry on the tradition.

If you think you don’t like black-eyed peas—and I hear this a lot—it may be because you’ve only had dried peas boiled in Hoppin’ John. Or canned peas, which is worse. (Don’t get me wrong: I like Hoppin’ John. It’s just a completely different taste and texture.)

But this is 2015, kids! And I have a better recipe—made with fresh or frozen peas. They don’t get mushy (as you can see below) and the bay leaf and onion give them a sweet cast. Seriously, try it! The whole dish is done in less than 45 minutes and it tastes great. Great for vegetarians too.

Twenty-First Century Black-Eyed Peas

2 T. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion
1 bay leaf
1 lb. fresh or frozen black-eyed peas
4 c. vegetable stock (add more if needed)
1/4 t. each salt and paper

Pour oil into large skillet and sauté garlic, onions, and bay leaf over medium-high heat until tender and fragrant. Add peas and vegetable stock. Simmer until the peas are tender—about a half hour. Add salt and pepper, and serve warm.

Garnish with chopped fresh parsley, a dollop of sour cream, or chop up and fry a bit of pancetta to sprinkle on top.

Black-eyed peas, 1 January 2015.

Black-eyed peas, 1 January 2015.