Feeling adrift?

It is great fun to wake up knowing that there’s nothing you have to do, apart having from the “must dos” of everyday life—we all know we need to shop for food and go to the dentist. Family, hobbies, and volunteer jobs can take up good chunks of time. But if you fail to establish some conventions for your #retired life, you are almost guaranteed, after a few months, to feel a bit adrift.

I first began doing some of my work at home two decades ago. Accustomed to working in hospitals, financial institutions, court and government offices, and other very structured environments, I found not going out to work everyday and the complete absence of convention unsettling, dedicated and fully equipped though our home office was. I was doing my job well, but everything seemed an uphill climb. The house itself was a distraction, for all the reasons you can imagine.

After several weeks, the switch finally flipped. I realized I needed to accept that while I wasn’t  going out of the house, I was still going to work. I came up with three conventions to aid in the process.

The first was to dress respectably (no PJs, no sweats), put on make-up, and begin every day at a specific time, before the barrage of phone calls and emails. The second was to set small personal work goals for each day, within our larger organizational deadlines. The third was to take breaks in the same way one might in an external workplace. The difference was that I consciously used the breaks to counter the distractions of being at home. I would  start a load of wash or throw something in the oven or take a walk outside. The change of activity always helped me to recharge.*

About now, you are probably saying to yourself, “What’s your point?”

It is simply that my transition to working at home has much in common with the current transition to retirement. Most of us need to establish at least some framework, however bare bones, for our work-free life.

I’m not very far along in this process. Cleaning the stove aside, I still feel better if I dress respectably and put on make-up. I still try to set small goals for each day. I’ve front-loaded many of the routine household tasks that are on my side of the equation for Monday and Tuesday. Early mornings are for reading and writing, with the rest of the day reserved for outlier chores, kitchen adventures, things that Hubby and I tackle together, or those infamous “special projects”.  I have a weekly Pilates class. Miss Pup takes me for a walk several times a day. There are no structured volunteer assignments at this point, partly because I’m still only “demi-retired” and partly  because I may want to keep my giving-back efforts more personal and sporadic.

But I’m not where I need to be, by any means. For weeks I’ve been telling myself that I need to go back to Rosetta Stone® to improve my Italian (yes, it works if you stick with it). I’ve also been telling myself that I need to use all of those cookbooks more, that I should pick one a week and plan all of our dinners around it. And that I should finish the photo projects I’ve started (one down, 30 to go). I’d like to carve out more time for doing new, fun things with Hubby, kids, grands, family, and friends… for needlework, which I stopped abruptly in the early 80s after an upholsterer’s  wife stole the pillow covers it had taken me two years to finish (I forgive but don’t necessarily forget)… and, of course, for reading more. All of which now compels me to ask:

What am I waiting for?

Your thoughts and wise counsel, readers, would be greatly appreciated. Any reasonable challenge will be accepted. Feel free to comment and share.

Photo: Adrift (happily) on the St. Lawrence.

*I realized after I wrote this that I’ve unconsciously modeled my mother. She had a small beauty salon in our home and used the time between customers to do things around the house or start dinner. Thanks, Mom!

A thought on togetherness

Not long ago, a friend, anticipating  her own and her husband’s approaching retirement, expressed excitement about the possibilities ahead: travel, spending more time with family, cooking together, golfing together. She expressed nary a qualm, however, about 24/7 togetherness. Nor, apparently, had he.

Be assured that the following comment is non-pejorative:

Round-the-clock togetherness, even in the most blissful marriage, can be as all-enveloping as a Surround Sound demo at Best Buy.

If you’re blessed with a loving relationship—which, thankfully, we are—and your partner is also retired, or even partly retired, or about to be, you are probably enthusiastic about the opportunity to do more together. My guess, however, is that you probably haven’t thought much about the challenge of doing more together, and how that might affect you both on the home front.

In other words, you can’t always be on a river cruise down the Rhine. 

While it is exciting and, hopefully, delightful for partners to be together without the strictures that a career imposes, there is also a distinct shift in the way you live your life from day to day when you are together virtually all of the time. If you haven’t already, you will eventually discover subtle differences, perhaps even some you hadn’t previously noticed. Remember that all those years, you spent far more waking hours at work than at home.

My husband and I had a head start on our transition because we work together. We’re very different—he is a goal-oriented, concrete/sequential strategist, and I’m a dreamy-eyed writer who, though highly perceptive, sometimes struggles with focus. When we first became colleagues, it wasn’t easy for either of us to adjust to the other’s on-the-job persona, learning style, or work habits; but eventually, with determination, we adapted quite well. We’re especially proud of the fact that many of our clients have admired how well we work—and think—together.

But the constant togetherness that comes with even partial retirement has demanded a certain degree of adaptation from both of us. My husband is  methodical and meticulous. We have the cleanest, tidiest basement in three counties. No errant leaf alights in the garage for long before he sweeps it out. At the risk of  a “sexist” outcry, the garage and basement have traditionally been manly bastions. I use the basement to retrieve wine and frozen meat. I use the garage to drive my car in and out. The only thing I do in an orderly, precise way is follow a cake recipe, which, as any baker worth his/her salt knows, is chemistry that can’t be fooled with.

My husband and I see ourselves as equal partners, without exception. My husband has always helped around the house, done much of the grocery shopping, taken on the bulk of the outside chores. He is much like my late father in that way. But now that there are fewer variations in our schedules, he likes us to do more household projects together, in his methodical, meticulous way. He will always get the job done post haste. I much prefer—and I freely admit this is a failing—to tackle household tasks alone, at a more leisurely, contemplative pace. When it comes to housework, I am highly susceptible to distraction. As a result, I can easily turn an hour-long task into an all-day endeavor. All of this is complicated by the fact that Hubby is a consummate night owl and I am entirely diurnal. Thus, joint projects are not always easy, even though many hands, at least theoretically, make light work. But just as we did with our differences in work styles, we are adjusting and adapting,  and are both finding ourselves yielding ground more often than we used to. After all, we are not talking about life-altering stuff here.

Nonetheless, when you are true partners in life, being #retired demands both a willingness to accept change in the way you do things and  change in the way you relate to each other. Gone are the work hats you always wore and the career that shaped, and financed, your everyday life all those years. There are discoveries, and rediscoveries, to be made and savored.

In the interest of not driving each other completely crazy, it is good, I think, to maintain some interests that are exclusively your own. While you already know that two televisions and a DVR are a necessity, especially on those dark days when the partner who is disinterested in sports begins to think that football/basketball/baseball season will never end. Lots of us have book/aka wine clubs and go to the movies or lunch with friends. We all know about the endless need for capable, giving volunteers, of course. But maybe it would be good to push yourself out of the box a bit and find some brand new opportunity  to explore, something that will stretch you a bit. Learning a language, taking an online course, becoming a docent at the museum, or  your 3,000 digital photographs into books and slide shows, are some possibilities that come to mind. All of which are good for your brain health.

In other words, when you’re not cruising down the Rhine, you don’t need to be together, or do everything together, all of the time. Maintain your separateness as well as your togetherness. A bit of quality time apart will make you appreciate each other and enjoy your mutual retirement all the more.

Photo: A cruise and castle not on the Rhine, but in the glorious Thousand Islands.

Yes, we have some bananas

Although I typically wouldn’t make bread, pizza, or fresh pasta on a miserably damp winter day, nothing motivates the goodie baker in me more. This morning there were three over-ripe bananas in the fruit bowl. Much as I don’t mind them, Hubby likes his bananas firm and even a few speckles put him off. So I regularly intervene to save any that he’d be tempted to toss. I often freeze them for future baking. You don’t even have to wrap them—they will turn black but will be fine in cake, bread, muffins, whatever. But today, banana bread was calling out to me.

Lately, my go-to-cookbook is Canadian Living magazine’s The Ultimate Cookbook. Canadian Living is the only magazine I follow online. I found it a few years ago, while doing some destination research for one of our trips to Quebec, and have been a huge fan ever since. The recipes are interesting, relatively easy, and reflective of Canada’s multi-faceted cultural heritage. Just an aside: if you knit or crochet, you’ll also find great free patterns on that site as Canadians, of course, need to keep warm!

This banana bread recipe is distinctive for two reasons: #1, It contains buttermilk. If I had Hermione Granger’s magic wand, I would put a bottomless carton of buttermilk in every fridge. It’s cheap, it lasts for weeks, and it is pure MAGIC for cakes, biscuits, and, of course, fried chicken. #2, You don’t just add the buttermilk—you soak the mashed bananas in it before combining the ingredients.

The recipe, which I’ve copied for your convenience with the website link below,  suggests chocolate chips or cinnamon as variations. You could do neither and it would still be very good. I added King Arthur Flour’s Vietnamese Cinnamon (try it and you will eschew ordinary cinnamon forever), grated orange rind, and the last half cup of golden raisins leftover from holiday baking.

Tender Banana Bread


3 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 tsp baking soda

2-1/4 cups flour (I used about a third KAF white whole wheat flour with all-purpose)
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
[1/2 tsp cinnamon – recommended variation]

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
[1 tbsp grated orange rind – my addition ]
[1/2 cup raisins – my addition]


[Preheat oven to 350 F – my addition; I hate it when the oven temperature’s at the end.]

Stir together bananas, buttermilk, and baking soda. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt [and cinnamon].

In large bowl, beat butter with brown sugar until combined. [Note: I used my Kitchenaid.] Beat in egg, vanilla, and banana mixture. Stir in flour mixture until combined. [Stir in orange rind and raisins.] Scrape into greased 9×5″ loaf pan.

Bake at 350 F until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. 60-70 minutes.

Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Turn out onto rack; let cool completely.







In the kitchen with the King

My love affair with King Arthur Flour started back in the early 80s, when a dear friend—the one who introduced me to the sublime taste and creamy texture of real Cuban-style black beans—took up bread baking. I’d been using unbleached, non-bromated flour for a decade at that point, but after Jorge raved about KAF, I switched. I have never, repeat never, looked back. And I still have, and use, the worn KAF souvenir dough scraper he gave me.

About eight years ago, my husband’s brother and his wife—my beau-frère and belle-soeur, as the French so elegantly say—moved to Vermont. Needless to say, I was beyond excited when we made our first visit to headquarters in nearby Norwich. My sister-in-law is an avid baker, so we were well-matched partners in crime. Since that first visit, our KAF pilgrimage is an annual event.

In between those trips, there have been countless mail orders to keep the pantry full. Just about everything in my baking cupboard bears the King Arthur label (except, maybe for Bakewell Cream®, which I purchase from KAF and about which you will hear more eventually). In fact, I call the KAF catalogue “my wish book”, which is what the original Sears-Roebuck catalogue was called before most of us were born. In the cabinet that holds my baking equipment,  you will find dough buckets, bread pans, sheet pans, and cake pans,  purchased from King Arthur. I have always found these products among the most reliable on the market; it is obvious that care goes into the product selection process.

With #retired time on my hands, I’ve spent much more time baking. In the last three months, we have purchased only one loaf of bread. I’ve experimented with many different KAF flours and blends for bread, pizza, and pastry. The pizza flour blend is terrific. The white whole wheat is a great way to add whole-grain fiber and nutrition to quick breads, muffins, and substantial cookies (oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, for example), for which I typically use half white whole wheat and half unbleached all-purpose. For pies, KAF makes a nice whole wheat pastry flour; but I still prefer unbleached all-purpose. The buttermilk and baker’s dry milk powders are great staples to keep on hand. I could run on and on, but this post already sounds like shameless commercial promotion.

Taking a class at KAF is on my #retired bucket list. Occasionally, their baking educators hit the road; the website has that information. I attended a session near my home about a dozen years ago. Classes are now available online if you can’t get to Vermont or find one in your area.

If you like to bake, and you haven’t visited the KAF website, please treat yourself. The recipes are sensational, and if you have a question or problem, there’s a Baker’s Hotline as well as online recipe reviews. Did I mention, by the way, that KAF was founded in 1790??? Who else can claim that kind of success? Plus, in 1995, owners Frank and Brinna Sands, contemplating being #retired, sold the company to their employees. See www.kingarthurflour.com/about/history.html for a complete history. What’s not to like?

Jasper and the story without words

In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon…

One of my happiest memories is reading to my kids. I remember reading their favorites just as vividly as if it were yesterday.

If you’re fortunate enough to have “grands” and they are anything like ours, they, too, love books and being read to. I love buying children’s books for Christmas and birthdays, but let’s face it—it’s hard to keep up with which books they have, which they don’t like, which they get tired of, which they read last week after a trip to the library. Times and tastes change, and parents have preferences, too. I always try to respect those preferences, as I would have wanted my parents and in-laws to respect mine. Luckily, we are pretty much in tune; but even if we weren’t, I would be a good mom-in-law and keep my opinion to myself. Besides, the proof is in the pudding, and our grands are delightful, interesting, active kids who are being taught kindness and consideration for others. Just last week, our little guy was making individual thank-you notes for every pal who came to his seventh birthday party! How can that not make you smile?

But back to the point. For the last year, the idea of creating one or more books especially for them has been swirling in my head. I have tried to write original children’s books for years and failed miserably every single time. Have you noticed that I tend to digress? That sometimes, even after editing multiple times, I overwrite? That my writing is full of parentheticals? That I like $10 words? All of these tendencies spell abject failure if you are trying to write a children’s story. The idea has to be very, very narrow and the language more sparse than the leanest paragraph Hemingway ever produced.

Finally, a few months ago, I had a brainstorm. My husband has had a stuffed moose for many years. His name is Jasper, and he has entertained most of our Brady Bunch over the years, even into adulthood. I have occasionally taken Jasper with us to Maine, to the delight of my late beloved cousin Kristy, for whom I made a hardbound iPhoto picture book of our visit together. Just before we went north last fall, I decided to take Jasper with us and repeat the photo shoot with the intent of making a book for the grands. You can’t imagine how much fun it is to set up photos with a stuffed moose in public places! Flat Stanley meets Where’s Waldo meets… I don’t know, Bullwinkle? Now that I am #retired, I have time for these adventurous intellectual pursuits.

After Christmas, I got started in earnest, but I kept stalling on the narrative. The captions just sounded stupid to me—not the sort of thing to keep a five- and seven-year-old engaged. Then, one night, lying awake at 2 AM, inspiration struck. I remembered that one of my kids’ childhood favorites was a wordless book called Shrew Bettina’s Birthday** by John Goodall. The illustrations were beyond charming, and the kids had a great time making up the story as we went along—a story that was just a little different every time. It was such fun for both of us.

I’ve spent a lot of time playing with the order of the photos, to give it the shape of an unfolding story, and also to make the flow visually interesting. The years I spent as a creative director definitely help with this sort of project. I resurrected a few photos from our previous trip with Jasper, including the one shown here, taken outside the Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta. The charming woman in the photo was delighted to oblige my “Would you mind…”. I did include an intro to let the kids know the book is just for them and to invite them to make up their own stories.

Today, I’m sending the new Jasper book to print. It’s been a great project—way more fun than cleaning closets, for example—and I’m pretty sure the kids will love it. Why don’t you try something like this, too?

Book/info  links follow…





You got up WHEN?

You would think, without the burden of having to get up and out the door every day, I would sleep later. Not so much. In fact, I’ve developed a habit of getting up before sunrise even when Miss Puppy doesn’t harrass me out of bed. Sleeping in general has become particularly problematic since we “gained an hour” (wishful thinking) in the fall. I know I join many of you when I say that I don’t care WHICH time, standard or daylight—just pick one and stick to it already.

The really sick aspect of this early rise habit is that I’ve gotten to like getting up really early and am in fact a bit disappointed on those very rare mornings when I wake  to find the dial pointing to 8 or later. Yes, we still have a plug-in bedside clock that actually has a face and hands. Not everything has to be digital, no matter what Best Buy tells you. It doesn’t reset itself in the spring and fall, or when the power goes out, but neither does the clock in my car, which once actually made me an embarrassingly early for my neighbor’s baby shower. Fortunately, the host had a sense of humor.

Lazing around in my PJs, before Miss Pup makes her appearance and hubby is up and about, I can watch the sunrise, read books, scan my digital reading list (although the news is awful enough to ruin anyone’s morning), and have my coffee in delicious, unfettered silence. My Nespresso® groans briefly, filling my little cup with creamy froth and then uttering not a sound till I make another.

That’s pretty much all I want to hear at 5:30 ince the day will get noisy soon enough. Aside from a car or two going by—we live in a very quiet neighborhood— everything in this house “sings”. The phone will play that little ATT tune: da da da da da da DA da da da. The dishwasher will beep three times when it’s done. The oven will beep when it’s hot enough and again when the timer goes off. The microwave will let me know when I don’t open the door; the refrigerator, when I don’t close it. And the washer and dryer will announce when the load is done. A virtual symphony of morning-to-night sound that I am grateful not to hear now.

I don’t do housework in these early morning hours unless I have a fairly quiet chore. In addition to guarding my quiet time, I try to let my night-owl husband sleep an extra hour or two. But on occasion, I play in the kitchen. The photo shows a particularly aggressive pancake episode that occurred right before dawn one winter morning. Right now, it’s almost 7, and I have four loaves of bread in the oven that I made and shaped last night. All but one are surprises for our neighbors. The aroma from the baking loaves will probably set Miss Puppy’s nose to wiggling and coax her out of bed. It’s temping enough to soothe even the most committed morning curmudgeon. Too bad you can’t bottle it.

Oh, look—I see daylight. Pup will be up soon, the loaves cooling on the rack, the sun streaming through the shutters. On second thought, maybe no sun this morning. I’ve read another chapter of The French Chef in America, which so far I’m loving just as much as My Life in France, finished this post, and I’m ready for another espresso. Getting up early, it turns out, can be pretty darn sweet. Except at about 3 PM, when you start to feel like that semi ran over you. If I hit that wall, I find it’s just best to give in and take a catnap or, if I can’t, to hit that Nespresso button again.



French-word-a-day… credit where it’s due

This is my first stab at writing a blog, but I found the first blog that interested me, French Word-a-Dayhttp://french-word-a-day.com — in 2001 or so, long before I ever knew that this sweet petit gout of an American ex-pat’s everyday life in Provence was called a blog. I’ve read it faithfully ever since. As a matter of fact, it’s still the home page on my browser.

Kristi Espinasse, trailblazing blogger, is humble by any estimation and would probably blush to hear that she’s inspired me, but she has. She has graciously allowed me, and her legion of other readers, inside her life. She has introduced us not only to her own petits coins of Provence, her vigneron husband Jean-Marc and children Jackie and Max, her extended family, interesting friends, and delightful neighbors. She has shared both delight in frustration in the quirks and ticks of an American living la vie française. She has taught me dozens of idioms that I would never have learned otherwise, using context to derive meaning, in the effortless style I’m copying now. And she’s a fine photographer. In 2007, her blog was one of the very first to evolve into a book, Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France*. I’ve bought many copies over the years for French-loving friends. There’s many a book I’ve enjoyed thanks to the links on her site. And I don’t know what I’d do without the yogurt cake recipe, an easy home cook’s staple in contrast to the gorgeous, complicated creations best left to the pâtissiers.

Although not by any means lacking in charm or humor, there is nothing sugar-coated about Kristi’s blog. She honestly shares the challenges of everyday life, most of which anyone can relate to. Without self-indulgence, she writes about the stuff of life that isn’t so pretty: her insecurities, her fears, her indecision, and the inevitable family crises. Over the years, this has ranged from coping with messy kids, to what to feed the band of volunteers who come to help with the vendange, to health scares and major life changes. When she is down, she writes through it, understanding that the writing is helping her to name and scale the latest hurdle and, in turn, helping us as well. I remember in particular her own self-doubt when she first started to garden, planting a few seeds with no real idea what to do if or when they sprouted. She has since evoled into a bold experimenter in permaculture* who has produced a “messy” (by her account) but wildly beautiful (mine, judging from her photos) and prolific bounty of good things to eat.

We were lucky enough to visit with Kristi when we made our second trip to Provence in 2008. She was as warm and welcoming as I’d imagined she would be.

So, Kristi, thank you for sharing your Provence life with me, with all of us, and for your friendship over the years. Without your blog, I don’t think I’d be writing #retired.

Thanks to my husband for taking this shot of Kristi and me.

* www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743287290/mdj-20)

* www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/permaculture-101