When is a dream a dream, how many should one person have, should you even call them that maybe, and what’s with the mice?

Of Dreams and Mice - Midlife Sentence

You don’t have to tell me that’s too long for a title. My blog platform has this built-in tool that tells me that, and also whether any one piece I write has the appropriate number of subheads and the right sentence structure and whether it has active versus passive language and the appropriate key words. It looks the whole blog over and grades me with a red, yellow, or green light for readability. I’m thinking it also wishes it had another light for “what the hell even is this and how do I grade it?”

(Which is how I’ve come to realize that, if machines do ever take over, we’re going to need someone to be our designated free association speaker to be in charge of confounding the AI while we break in and take all the canned chili and Ho-Hos and other nonperishable foodstuffs and make our escape while the machines are trying to decipher whatever it is the free association person is saying because machines don’t have a “what the hell even is this you’re telling me” response).

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Why the book tour is probably cancelled

Midlife Sentence | Cancelling the book tour

It feels like a breakup, and I’ll admit I’ve been a little mopey about it for a couple of days. But my mind is made up.

After nearly six years together, my first all-but-complete novel and I are taking a break.

The project began as nugget of a thought which turned into a daydream which I then outlined and then fleshed out a little bit more. It stalled out once, but then I picked it back up as a NaNoWriMo 2015 project and raced to the end of my first first-draft, pretty darn proud of myself.

Of course, it needed some polishing and I knew there was hard work left to be done. I was also pretty sure I could be ready to start querying agents that spring, followed shortly thereafter by a Twitter announcement about securing one such agent. Then there’d be a fun cover reveal, a launch party, the announcement of book tour dates, etc.

I wouldn’t quit my day job, though. That’d come after the sequel.

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Not the kind of uphill battle I’d envisioned

Last week there was a grey-haired guy at the climbing gym.

Most of the time, there aren’t a ton of people at there at all, which is how we like it. Thing is, I happen to be the self-appointed official climbing gym over-thirty spokesperson, thank you very much. It’s an official position I just made up and also one for which I’m looking for sponsors, in case you’re wondering.

The climbing thing feels good. Like accomplishing something. Anything. Even if all that means is new callouses and ruining my manicure on purpose. I know we’re supposed to be leaning into this pandemic with all kinds of commitment to wellness and self-care and whatever else, but this has been a weird year for maintaining any kind of fitness. Besides this, the only other thing I’ve accomplished in 2020 is gaining about fifteen pounds without trying.

I started out with good intentions, diligently plotting a twelve-month half marathon calendar in January. Now, at regular intervals I get Google reminders for events that would have happened if 2020 hadn’t imploded. Goody.

As it is, I can’t muster the enthusiasm to run more than two miles at a stretch these days anyway, and I haven’t replaced road running with anything else. I haven’t been to my regular gym since March, of course, which is about the time being indoors with other people lost appeal.

But the climbing gym has a people-counter on their website, which is handy. We’ve learned the times it’s likely to be just us there, along with the guy at the counter, and maybe one other dude who looks like the Hercules cartoon character from the eighties (I’m not exaggerating either, who knew you could recreate that haircut in real life?)

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But …Is It Art?

Hey, guys, guess who has two thumbs and lives with an art critic?

His credentials rivaled only by his timing; it took a scant seventeen years in our last house before Mike offered up this pithy appraisal of our modest collection:

“I don’t know how we ended up with so many girls on our walls.”

Man, I don’t know how it happened either, okay? But, over the years, we had somehow amassed a fair number of framed images of girls. Girls on a Victorian porch, a girl and her horse, a girl lolling around on the side of a pond. Nothing creepy, just … consistent in a kind of weird way.

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On haunted yard art and how I plan to dress my chicken

Midlife Sentence: Gnome Haunting

Our kid had to self-quarantine last week after being exposed to the Scourge. We weren’t surprised. He’d gone a month employing the kind of measures one does against such an eventuality when one exists in the era of a global pandemic but also just turned 21 and by rights should be living his best life.

In other words, he was kind of taking care, but in that way of adolescent males who are pretty sure they’re immortal or invincible or at least endowed with mad ninja skills.

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What your approach to cleaning blinds will reveal about who you are as a person

“I’m going to send you a link to a listing,” Mike said. “Don’t freak out, just look.”

This is what we do these days: Look at house listings and daydream. At first glance, the one Mike sent struck me as a big tangle of weird. It was all angles, different siding on every wall, settled low on its foundation … or was there even a foundation? Maybe not. And purple trim. All in a big, overgrown yard.

“I don’t want a big yard,” I told him.

“I’ve been thinking about reprioritizing,” he said.

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Thirty years from now, this will still make no sense: Love, work, and productivity in the quarantine era

Tiger: Photo by https://pixabay.com/users/zootierpfleger-348817/

I remind myself every day: successful people set their intentions first thing.

On this day, my intentions include reading, working, a workout, working some more, cleaning, walking the dog, relaxing.

I grab coffee, open Facebook, trash that plan.

I interrupt Mike. He’s sitting there, eyes closed, maybe meditating, maybe napping. Whatever. His eyes are closed. I nudge him to share a cute dog video on my phone. He ignores me.

Meditating then.

Our dog scratches the door, then looks at us. Whose turn? We Rochambeau. Mike wins.

I pout. Best two out of three?

Mike wins again. The dog is about to claw through the door. I sigh expansively, my head falls back, my shoulders droop. Mike lets the dog out. Seven seconds later he lets her in.

She runs to me with thanks. You’re welcome, sweetie.

Time to work.

First, though, more social media, then maybe a nap.

I call mom. Talk her out of grocery shopping, explain online ordering instructions, then give up and ask for her list.

I pick out groceries on Albertson’s site. Find out they won’t sell beer online.

I leave my virtual shopping cart in the middle of the virtual aisle in my virtual huff and hop on over to the brewery site that WILL sell beer online because priorities.

It’s only 10 am. Look at me, planning.

I click into a zoom meeting. Change my profile name to “Quarantine Markley.” Mike clicks into a meeting, explains to his boss why his profile name is now “Quarantine Markley.” I laugh. He shoots me a look.

It’s not my fault we’re logged into the same account. I’m not in charge of how stuff works.

My meeting moderator asks me to enter my real name in the chat so people know how to address me. My group apparently doesn’t appreciate creative Zoom nicknames either.

I briefly consider various options while peeling the sad remnants of last month’s manicure from one pinky:

Beatrix Kiddo?

Imperator Furioso?

Ellen Ripley?

The moderator asks me a question and I realize I haven’t been paying attention. I give a reasonably coherent answer and congratulate myself at everyone’s contemplative expression at the wisdom I just threw down. Success!

“You’ll need to unmute yourself,” the moderator says.

Later, I’ll try to figure out why logging in to Zoom from my laptop doesn’t automatically connect me from my work account, so I can name my profile whatever I please. Then, I’ll get wrapped up in thinking of new noms de plume and corresponding virtual backgrounds:

A sushi bar.

A desert wasteland.

A space station.

The dog wants in from outside. We both ignore her.

I click back over to Albertson’s. I had a list, but my cart has timed out. There are seven thousand tabs open in my browser and my computer feels hot, like it’s going to melt.

I give it a rest, go load the dishwasher.

Struck by inspiration, I make Mike swear we’ll clean out the junk room, patch up the hole in the drywall, clean up the yard and do all sorts of other productive stuff this weekend. Then we share a good laugh over social constructs like weekend because time has no meaning anymore and we don’t even know what day it even is right now.

The neighbors text an invitation to driveway cocktails. I mull over whether this requires showering first, and then grab a hat.

We stand in their driveway, more or less fourteen feet apart, with coozy-covered beer cans brought from home. A buff colored Pomeranian runs from one of us to another, shying away at the last minute from outstretched hands. The perfect pet for a plague.

That’s a crazy looking hamster, Brad says. We laugh. Jen tells the story of the dog eating her ex’s mushroom stash from under the bed. He’s almost twenty (the dog, I mean. I don’t know how old the boyfriend is), so the way he bites at the air could be the ill effects of ingesting psychotropic substances or maybe just age.

Nancy’s silver Corolla rolls by. I imagine her giving us the stink-eye when she passes, but her tinted windows mitigate the effect. Mike waves at her, crossing in front of me to obstruct the bird I flip on instinct.

He knows my moves and is better at being neighborly.

I swallow my beer, wondering whether that catch in my throat is seasonal allergies or a sign of imminent doom. I wonder at the havoc regular spikes in cortisol with every breaking news story or inane daily presser from our buffoon-in-chief are wreaking on our national psyche. I wonder if we’re even doing this right? Whether or not, even separated by fourteen feet, a stiff, spring breeze, and a spastic Pomeranian, we’re still infecting our neighbors?

Is it any wonder we’re struggling to find our productivity footing in this real-time dystopia?

Maybe Nancy’s right. It’s time to break this up.

Later we’ll order takeout to be left on the porch and binge on Tiger King. I’ll Google terms like “meth mouth” and “toxoplasmosis.”

I’ll generously get up to let out the dog. Because I’m a giver.

And I’ll set my intentions early: Tomorrow we’ll be productive. Pinky-swear.

How we’ll get through this has a lot to do with how you feel about potatoes

Midlife Sentence | Image by https://pixabay.com/users/michaelgaida-652234/

I called mom the other morning as I was walking into the store. I’ve asked her to stay home as much as possible, and am grateful she’s abiding by that, especially when I hear so many other of her generation aren’t. She asked for bread, bananas, and a bag of frozen hash browns.

We’ve all had this experience by now: weaving our carts around pallets near pock-marked grocery shelves in the process of being restocked almost as quickly they’re emptied. The people doing the stocking looking as though they’ve been there all night, shoppers taking a wide a berth around each other in aisles that are suddenly uncomfortably narrow.

The first items on her list were readily available (well, the bread selection was a little limited, but the produce aisle looked any other day), but the frozen food section these days is grocery’s weird, gap-toothed second cousin. Potatoes are the missing lateral incisors, victims of a rowdy high school brawl no one had the funds or care to replace.

I had a moment, right there in frozen foods at eight in the morning. You know, one of those this-is-so-not-okay moments, and I may have hyperventilated a little next to the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and Eggo waffles.

We’ve all been having those moments. I don’t think I’m special. They probably happen less often for me than for most, as comfortable as we are with telecommuting, with stable paychecks and no kids around to tell us how bored they are. For the most part, I can focus on the tasks at hand, swinging between bouts of near panic when I read the news and think about the state of the world today, to serenity when I take time for a long walk in the sunshine, or get a message from a friend asking about our family.

Then there are moments, like the one in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, where I’m absorbed with “what kind of monster makes off with all the hash browns for God’s sake” thoughts.

The thing is, this situation is new, but the feeling is not unfamiliar, not really. It’s a visceral response to a new experience. It’s a feeling I normally tell myself I relish: the sense that everything is upside down and nothing is familiar and anything could happen. It’s the same sense I get when stepping  off a plane into a place where the air smells different and the sounds are unfamiliar and the signs are printed in a language I can’t read.

We were in Mexico for a conference (was it just a month ago now? It feels like eons), with a little bit of time to find a place to eat before the sun set. I remember thinking “these cobblestones hurt my ankles, this table is dirty, this neighborhood looks seedy, what if I get mugged? Lost? Swindled? How much does this cost in dollars? How much should I tip?”

It was at that moment, the one on a street corner in an unfamiliar town, that I remembered something. I remembered one of the things I most love about travel is that sense I get, right off the bat, that all the rules are different in this moment, and I don’t recognize the landscape, and the air is weirdly muggy, and forget about knowing what street I should be on, I don’t even know where they put the street signs.

I realized the other morning, standing in the grocery store aisle, that this was the same feeling, one in which I usually take delight. At least that’s what I have told myself dozens of times before. The difference is how I deal with it, that’s where the adventure lies. Whether I succumb to the feeling that this is going to be terrible and scary and what the Hell am I doing, putting myself so squarely in harm’s way? Or remember that I’m a good problem solver, and that panic is unhelpful, and that while I don’t know how this is going to turn out, everything normally does for me, and the people I love.

There was the time in Guatemala when Colin was sick and I thought no problem, I’ll just stock up on groceries and we’ll stay in. I was sure I could navigate my way around town with my limited Spanish.

But then all the signs were not in Spanish, but in Kaqchikel, which is my best guess as to what the clerks and all the other patrons were speaking and the out-of-place sense it caused was as unsettling as it was exhilarating. I got through that, albeit with only an overpriced pint of milk and a bunch of plantains to show for it. I did.

There was the time we were in Seoul and realized our Airbnb was in a completely English-language-free neighborhood, and our distinctly western-looking family stood out like a sore thumb. We chose restaurants by looking at the pictures posted on sandwich boards and ordered food by gesturing at what other patrons were eating. That felt like an accomplishment. One that featured more fried chicken than we were used to, but an accomplishment nevertheless.

Adventure isn’t synonymous with comfort. That’s what we’ve told our kids forever. That’s what we tell our students bound for a year abroad in another country. Sometimes adventure means taking the risk that you’ll be laughed at for your poor pronunciation. Sometimes adventure means you’ll sleep through a boarding announcement for your connecting flight. If you’re Indiana Jones, adventure may be eyeball soup or snakes on a plane. Adventure isn’t necessarily good, but it’s always interesting, and the best coping measure has to do with mindset.

It appears these days that adventure sometimes means coping with a new grocery landscape. I’d rather deal with that than snakes, frankly.

For some, adventure means coping with much more: loss of work, insecurity, illness. Some of us will respond differently than others. Some will insist on carrying on as though nothing has changed. Some will panic and hoard. Some will wag their fingers at everyone else and what they see as a hysteria based upon rumor and inuendo. Some will, inexplicably, resort to all of these actions at once.

We can’t control everything, but what most of us can control is how we respond to what’s happening around us. Just as with all adventurous experiences, if we’re successful, we’ll mitigate the damage, and may even come out the other side with a greater sense of our own selves, our purpose, with stronger sense of the world around us, and relationships with the ones we love.

And maybe with some interesting stories to tell, to boot.

With that in mind, here’s my own plan:

I will attend to what’s happening, rather than ruminating on what could be, keeping my mind clear through exercise, meditation, and regular breaks from social media.

I’ll stay rested, hydrated, healthy, and sober (for the most part), so I can keep doing so.

I’ll expect mistakes to happen. Some might be my fault. When they are, I’ll own them, ask forgiveness, and take the time to reflect on how I can keep them from happening again.

When others make mistakes, I’ll offer grace and forgiveness to the best of my ability. We’re all trying to muddle through this.

I’ll remind myself that while I have my own list of problems, things might be exponentially harder right now for others, and maybe the comfort and privilege I have is something I can extend to them in the form of a favor or an encouraging word.

I’ll be grateful for what we do have, for the spring sun, the emerging flowers, for my neighbors who wave hello from across the street, and the hope that all represents, and yes, grateful for adventure.

So what if some monster made off with all of the hash browns? There’s still rice pilaf the next aisle over, there’s instant mashed potatoes, there’s cous cous. Heck we live in the potato state. That produce section isn’t just for the vegans among us.

I know we’ll get through this. We’ll scope out the alternatives. We’ll realize the value of being kind and patient with each other and with ourselves.

And we will be better for it.

This is why people tend to stay put

Photo by aung nyi on Unsplash

People in Buenos Aires live in little apartments crammed full of collectables handed down from generations. At least, that’s the impression I was left with after a trip to Argentina some time ago. A couple members of our team stayed with a petite, cranky woman who had a spare room in an apartment wherein every square inch of flat space was occupied by vases and candlesticks and clocks and various and sundry other tchotchkes she’d inherited. Almost every home we visited in the city felt the same. Very elegant and perilous at the same time. I remember thinking any sudden move on my part could bring down any number of heirlooms.

I also remember thinking what a pain in the ass dusting must be for the Argentines.

Mike and I have been working on getting rid of crap for the last few months in preparation for a move. Judging by the contents of our cupboards and closets, it’s been a while since we’ve engaged in any kind of purge. I’ve forgotten how much dang storage space we have in this house. We thought the cupboards and built in shelves were cool when we moved in––all this space to store crap! We had more room for stuff than we thought we would ever need.

We’ve since filled all that space.

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Bigotry, the Bible, and why we’re quitting the kitchen

Why we're quitting the kitchen | midlife sentence

Dear Rev. Bill,

Five years ago, this summer, one of our boys made an off-hand comment about homeless people being “scary,” and I realized our privileged children needed an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the more vulnerable members of our community. We started serving dinner at your shelter on a monthly basis.

As volunteers, we have served families with young children, older couples, adolescents the same age as our own boys, and young men and women dressed in work coveralls or collared shirts. We’ve also served the folks we expected to see when we began, people who hold signs on street corners, and the gentleman in the stocking hat we pass each Sunday as he enjoys a cup of coffee in our church lobby.

We’re not demonstrably religious people, but we tend to find volunteer activities that conform to our values, which happen to align with the teachings of Christ. He’s the one, you’ll remember, who directed us to “love one another.” He also said something about “that which you’ve done to the least of these you’ve done to me.” 

There’s probably supposed to be an “onto” and a “thy” in there, but you get the point.

We’ve received far more than we’ve given in this effort. I’m almost embarrassed at my satisfaction in the hearty thank yous and well wishes and wide smiles we get as we pass trays across the counter.

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