Love’s construction zone: Behave or fines double

Sometimes, a relationship sails along at 70 miles per hour. The engine of love is running smoothly. The couple is getting good traction and is enjoying the scenery. Jobs are good with all the workers smiling at appropriate moments and whistling feverishly. Cars are running fine. Health is exemplary. Put another coat of paint on the white picket fence and shine up the granite countertops. Enjoy the tailwind.

Other times, love is a construction zone. The wind is in your face. There’s a pothole of a bad habit here. An abrupt edge of a health concern there. The work crews are busy with repairs. Then it’s time for the couple to slow down, be patient, look carefully for signs, know that the construction zone is only temporary and when the work gets done, there will be smooth, or at least smoother, sailing ahead.

Be warned. If you try to drive too fast through the construction zone, you put the workers at risk. And you risk paying double the fine. Wonder and I are now in that construction zone, cleaning out two homes, the Mountain Cabin to rent and her dad’s place to sell. My job at the newspaper imploded, with bad stress outweighing good stress, with an intensity that was compromising health. I tell people I am not retiring, just shy. I am looking for work. That’s not an easy prospect anytime and especially so at age 58. We’ve moved in together, finally. After seven years of my commuting over the Blue Mountains in all kinds of weather, we are now combining our possessions into the Beach Condo, a 950 square foot space a half day’s drive from the Pacific Ocean. It’s like trying to place a blue whale into a kid’s wading pool.

What’s important when going through a construction zone is keeping perspective. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with details. The to-do list, both written and unwritten, stretches interminably, like the interstate across Nebraska with Iowa a distant dream.

It’s also important when in the zone to keep going. Avoid getting stuck in one place. That is especially true as we go through the grief of losing Wonder’s father and brother, all in a three-month span. Wonder’s father, 82, died in February as the result of an auto accident. Her brother, 52, died in May after a three-year battle with thyroid cancer. Their spirit lives on. Their gifts to us are now ours to share. Now there is another kind of grief, less intense but still real, about moving out of the Mountain Cabin, a humble abode yet a dream home albeit of modest dreams. My home of 20 years gave me peace, elbow room, a million-dollar view and a busy deer mowing crew.

There is a bright side. I get a chance to move in full time with Wonder, at the “Beach Condo.” Recent bouts with diverticulitus made me realize life is short and we need to live together sooner rather than later. There are guarantees we’ll get ripe, smell wise, but no guarantees we will live to a ripe age. We can defer gratification and live 90 miles apart until retirement, eight years hence. Or we can take a leap of faith. We recite the vows of poverty, hope for our ship to come in and be together for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse.

For the immediate future, life will be a construction zone. We both realize that. But we know that the zone is only temporary. Soon enough, when we get our homes in order, when our work lives are again percolating, or at least resemble a modern working couple’s, we will once again be up to cruising speed, whether that speed is under the posted limit or well above. We will have put the construction zone in the rear view mirror.

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Be the Cruise Ship Captain

The Wonder Woman, my wife of two years, and I call the double wide mobile home with the million-dollar view the Mountain Cabin. The view of the Wallowa Mountains front range sweeping north 10 miles to Mount Harris is stunning on the most storm-ridden days. When the gold of late summer shines, it takes one’s breath away.

Call me crazy but sometimes I like to think of the Mountain Cabin as a cruise ship, and myself as the cruise ship captain. No, I am not an egomaniac. No, there is no buffet or live entertainment, except when Mattie, our main cat, and Sophie, our auxiliary cat, decide to engage in a game of chase.

It’s all about being the captain of the cruise ship of life, not just a passenger. It’s about being the instigator, the idea guy, the person who opens the door to adventure.

Here’s how it works. As a cruise ship captain, it is my responsibility to find one novel thing to do each weekend to beat the relationship doldrums. For example, the other weekend the Wonder Woman suggested we go to a movie and out to dinner. OK, sometimes, often, nearly always, more times than I’d like to admit, I’m beaten to the punch. The Wonder Woman is the cruise ship captain, and I happily go along with the entertainment she suggests.

Being a homebody, a wallflower, an introvert whose idea of a crowd is three people and a smiling dog, I struggle with cruise ship captain duties. Some days, figuring out an entertainment is harder than others. One reason it’s difficult is we have two modest homes, 90 miles apart. I work in the Grande Ronde Valley, Wonder Woman works in the Walla Walla Valley. I know what’s going on — the cheap date opportunities — in the Grande Ronde Valley but often spend my weekends in the Walla Walla Valley.

Budget is another consideration that looms like dark clouds on the horizon Some days, such as the Fourth of July, the decision is easy. We’re going to the fireworks and celebrating the U.S.A. and independence. Period. End of discussion. Did I say I like fireworks?

As a cruise ship captain, I need to be the man with the plan. Ideas for cheap dates are everywhere — in the newspaper, online, even in the post office lobby.

These activities need not involve long trips or hotel stays. And they don’t need to cost a fortune. A seven-course meal with real napkins is nice, but it isn’t part of our weekend template.

The activities can be something as small as a slow bicycle race or a tennis match when we make up the rules.

The bigger point is, relationships fall into ruts. We need to break out of those ruts and fill the senses with new experiences. We need to be experience collectors, experience hoarders.

Life is not about acquiring material possessions and keeping up with the Smiths and Jones and all their boats, recreation vehicles, swimming pools, great rooms and bowling trophies. It’s about doing stuff. Going places. Turning off the TV and computer for a while, getting away from the smart phone and Facebook. It’s about doing new stuff, or stuff you’ve done 1,000 times before, but with a new twist. For example, instead of just visiting a waterfall, you might take along swim trunks and sit under the spray, letting the cool water invigorate your spirit and then trying to chase down the fool who had this idea.

Being a cruise ship captain means taking the initiative. It means being proactive rather than reactive. It means looking for windows of opportunity, and when those open, jumping through the window like some kind of experience stunt man.

As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Each week, we need to try to do something adventurous.

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Five Years at a Time

Some people say tackle challenges one day at a time. Stop drinking booze. Exercise. Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains that taste like tree bark.

In Over the Blues, I tackle challenges five years at a time. As of Nov. 1, 2013, I celebrated five years of driving over the Blue Mountains of Northeast Oregon, usually once a week, to see the person who for the past two years has been my beautiful bride, the person I call Wonder Woman. They have been magical, the best five years of my life.

Wonder Woman and I met while we both were round the world treks, she going clockwise, me counterclockwise. Just kidding. We actually met on personals a year after the death of my first wife, Tina, who suffered from complications of diabetes. She was a way too young 48. I knew going on personals was a risk. But no risk, no reward, and I wasn’t, at age 50, going to retire to a rocking chair just yet. Through online dating I might get a life of adventure again that I could share with someone special.

We met face to face for the first time on Oct. 26, 2008. On Oct. 26, 2013, we celebrated five years together. Now, both of us 56, Wonder Woman and I look ahead to the next five year stretch, and the next. We have 10 more years of work, if we are lucky enough to have jobs. Both of us have been laid off from dream jobs in the past. I work in La Grande at a newspaper; she works in Walla Walla, 85 miles away, at a college. One of us could quit our jobs and move in with the other. If I moved in with Teri, we’d have to continue to pay rent at what we call the Beach Condo. If she moved in with me, we’d at least own the Mountain Cabin. We’d still have the pay all the normal bills, the insurance and the property taxes.

But there are complications. My job has been in topsy-turvy land for the last five years. First, the workers got a 10 percent pay cut. Then we got a pay freeze, which continues to the present day. As any economist will tell you, however, a pay freeze is really an annual pay cut. The cost of living goes up every year. My pay doesn’t. Then I got a new boss. Then I got another new boss. Co-workers quit and were not replaced. I esentially got a second job. Complicating matters, my company canceled health insurance. I had to go onto my wife, Teri’s policy, which is the equivalent of buying a new car each month. As I walk down the street, I imagine people admiring my new yet invisible ride.

Why not just up and quit after these repeated body blows? you might ask. It’s not that simple. I own the house in Cove. It is our retirement security. I can’t just up and abandon the house. It’s on a cliff and hard to sell, although it does have a million-dollar view. I’m not eager to rent the place. And jobs for 56-year-old Jacks of few trades are scarce. The new job might have weird hours. I might have no vacation.

So for now I continue my Beauty and the Beast commute, through snow, sleet, rain and fog, over the Blue Mountains, down notorious Cabbage Hill. Instead of working on a One Day at a Time program, I am working on a Five-Year Plan. I survived the first five years with their drifting snow, fog and black ice, and with a faithful car that is prematurely aging and needs automotive Geritol. Now it’s on to the second and then the third.

Mind you, I eagerly look forward to living in the same home as my wife, full time. But I don’t want to rush these next 10 years. I want to enjoy each day to its fullest, especially the weekend and vacation days we get to share.

Sure, Teri could pull up stakes and move into the Mountain Cabin. But she’s done the spread sheet. Crunched the numbers. Even before the health insurance debacle, she believed it was too big a risk, that even though the grass was brown on our side of the fence, it could be even browner on the other.

Besides, for the time being, living 90 miles away allows her to tend her family responsibilities. It allows her to be nearer her 81-year-old father and be nearer her brother who is battling cancer.

Sometimes, I think how much easier life would be if we could live in the same house. No double bills for electricity, sewer and the like. Fewer bathrooms to clean. Less travel and wear and tear on the body and the car. Then I think about the adventure, how fortunate we are to have jobs and roofs over our heads. As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” For five years now, we’ve been on a wild ride. I look forward to the second five-year segment, and then the third five-year segment, and continuing this daring adventure. After that, I think I’ll park the car for a year, take a few deep breaths and just relax.

Posted in adventure, anxiety, challenge, commuting, dreams, economy, Hope, Marriage, New Life, work | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel

The question blindsided me. My wife of 23 years, Tina, asked the doctor, “Am I dying?” The doctor hemed and hawed, dodged and darted.

Then 48, Tina had been diagnosed with diabetes at age 2. Since age 11, after a stint at Camp Needlepoint, she had been giving herself multiple shots every day. No time off for good behavior. No summer vacations. Tina consequently was as tough as a coffin nail. Recently, though, her equanimity had been tested when she had received the additional diagnosis of inner ear disease. The two autoimmune diseases piled on top of each other, beating her up from either side. It was a disease double whammy.

Assumptions, a minister once said, make an ass out of you and me. Well, call me an ass but don’t call me late for dinner. I had assumed Tina would live at least until age 60, the age both her dad and step-dad, long-term survivors of diabeters, people who had lost three legs between them, had died. I was wrong.

Several months earlier, in late May, Tina was let go from work. It was a tremendous blow to her ego. The boss was concerned that with her growing lack of balance she would fall in the newsroom and hurt herself and others. She had already been on assignment and had to call an ambulance due to a blood sugar crash. Being let go from work, for this defending champion best Oregon writer in our small daily newspaper category, was yet one more punch in the gut. Her identity was tied up in being a newspaper reporter, a lover of the written word, someone who marched through the community, meeting movers and shakers, with great confidence and skill. The woman was about as well acquainted with the written word as most people are with breathing. She read eight hours a day, and had a book in her hands all the time except when she was working, leading dog 4-H club, presiding over a meeting of the local humane society or feeding her own menageries of seven dogs and four cats. She was the Pied Piper. The dogs followed their fearless leader, displaying unconditional love, wherever she went. The cats were less loyal, providing conditional love, but loving her nonetheless.

Once Tina was diagnosed, and let go from work, we wanted to find answers to she could get her old go-for-broke life back. Her hearing was declining. Her balanced continued to suffer. Trips to doctors in Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Oregon, ensued. We wanted to arrest the downward spiral. Nothing helped. The steroids she was put on gave her a moon face, and the continual decline in hearing made it so she could no longer talk on the phone with her family half the country away in Minnesota. Tina was heartbroken.

I continued to go to work at the newspaper where Tina was so recently a mainstay. In fact, in spite of having suffering numerous mini-strokes, she had won writer of the year for the small daily category in Oregon. That was thanks to bosses not freaked out by an occasional transposed word, and also due to some nimble editing on my part to shield those bosses from the worst of those transpositions.

Soon, medical bills were stacking up like a big pile of snow in a grocery store parking lot. Creditors were demanding payment. Tina had formerly handled our finances, and now I had to take control. What’s more, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I would have to find assisted living for Tina. It was dangerous, with her balance issues and hearing difficulties, to leave her not just at work but at home alone. I hooked up with Neighbor to Neighbor Ministries for help, and the friendly folks provided a helping hand, but that was only a stopgap measure. I needed and scrambled to find long-term answers. Every lunch hour, I’d race home from work, a 32-mile round-trip, to check on Tina, make sure she was okay.

A tsunami of infection, however, changed everything. It made all my daily scrambling over the past few months mute. Tina was admitted to the local hospital. Interventions failed. With the problem spiraling out of control, she was then whisked by air ambulance 260 miles to Portland and one of the leading medical facilities in the Northwest. As it turned out, I said my goodbyes, writing on a yellow legal pad, in the local hospital’s emergency room. I told Tina I would go home and feed the pets. It gave her a moment’s peace.

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From Over the Blues to Beyond the Blues

In 1843, a wagon trail was built over the Blue Mountains of Northeast Oregon, and pioneers crossed in a trickle and then a wave as they completed the last mountain hurdle of the Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Willamette Valley. Today, Interstate 84 follows the ruts. A trip that took three days in the 1840s can now be completed in less than an hour, when the sun is shining and the freeway is clear of snow, ice and fog.

For five years, I’ve traveled this route roughly once a week to see the woman who two years ago became my wife. We are pioneers of another sort — pioneers with a Prius, that most gas efficient of cars. We were in the early wave of online dating, two introverts finding each other through the miracle of the Internet. In the early days, 2008, the few, the proud, the brave made this journey. Now online dating services have blossomed in profusion, and are becoming increasingly specialized. There are online dating services for blacks, for farmers, for older people — you name it. There’s probably even an online dating service for Seattle Seahawks fans, or people who like collecting buttons.

The difference between Wonder Woman, what I call my wife of two years, and me and the pioneers is that our journey failed to end when we got over the mountain. There was no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. We didn’t settle down, build a cabin, homestead 160 acres, plant wheat, raise a cow and a chicken. Our journey continues. And due to the vagaries of employment, the cost of health insurance, just trying to have a comfortable life, we are likely to remain in this circumstance, going over the Blues, for at least 10 more years, until we can retire.

The first part of our journey I call getting over the Blues. I was recovering from the grief of losing my first wife, Tina, to complications of diabetes at age 48, in 2007. Teri was recovering from the grief of losing her mother, Helen, to leukemia at roughly age 70. We met in 2008 and got married in 2011.

After that, the project morphed into a whole new direction, which I call “Beyond the Blues.” During the work week, we work at our respective jobs 85 miles apart. On the weekends, we enjoy each other’s company. Lots of times we just are home and enjoying being together. Occasionally, a window of opportunity opens for a new adventure — for example, going to a show in Seattle — and we hurry to jump through before it snaps shut. We have taken many adventures together, from the mountains high above Whistler, B.C., to a waterfalling tour of Oregon. Many more adventures await, Beyond the Blues.

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Buying Love

Romance does not have to cost an arm and a tuxedo-outfiited leg. Every kiss does not have to start at Kay’s jewelers. You don’t have to put love on a credit card and pay 20 percent interest to some rich banker singing “Kum-Buy-Ya” in the distant suburbs.

Romance, however, does take due diligence. A creative mind. An enterprising soul.

The other evening, for instance, I looked on the nightstand only to discover something amiss. My favorite book was no longer on the top of the pile. Instead, what should I discover but a note from Wonder Woman (my wife of two years), scribbled on scratch paper, encouraging me to make it a good week.

Did I say we work 85 miles apart, with the Blue Mountains in between, and during the work week live in homes 90 miles apart? It’s the economy. We need our jobs. We don’t have government retirement pensions or health care coverage like a Senator. We have bills to pay, mountains of them, and don’t want to go into retirement (10 years from now?) owing our soul to the banker singing “Kum-Buy-Ya” in the shower.

Such love notes can’t be bought at the grocery store. They come from the significant other’s heart, not from the pen of some anonymous wordsmith sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of Hallmark’s world headquarters.

The notes cost nothing but an attention to detail that has become as rare these days as salmon floating down river on innertubes.

Admittedly, the Wonder Woman sets the romance bar high. Sometimes I remember to leave her notes. Often, I don’t. Fortunately, she shows me unconditional love, for better or worse.

Her notes don’t always rhyme. They never contain pictures of a bride and groom groping each other on top of a wedding cake.

The notes don’t cost $3 to buy at the grocery store and 50 cents to mail, and they never get sent to Buffalo by accident.

The Wonder Woman knows how to keep love alive without darkening the doors of Jarred’s Galleria of Jewelry. She can whip love into a frenzy by just dropping a few chosen words on a bit of scratch paper.

We’re not rich. Far from it. But we are wealthy in the ways that matter. Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but notes on scratch paper are rarer, and if they keep the banker from ki-yi-ing, all the better.

I’m not cheap. I’ll give the Wonder Woman diamonds when I can. Most often, however, I will find more unconventional ways, ones that don’t break the bank, to show my love.

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Black Friday

A lot of people celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by rushing to big box stores for bargains. They wrestle each other over the latest Ipad, and scare store employees spitless with their stampedes toward the video game section.

I celebrated Black Friday by driving 75 miles over the Blue Mountains to go to work. As I began climbing Cabbage Hill, a six-mile, 6 percent grade on the west side of the range, I was just finishing up my daily meditations. “I will be enthusiastic, energetic and empathetic today,” I was saying to myself. “I will be the most 3E person in the room. Or at least one of the three.”

Only the E turned out to be more of an EEEEEEEEE. I had hit black ice. Before I knew it, the Prius Snow Leopard was sliding. The warning system in the car began buzzing to tell me the obvious. It is a helpless feeling. The car fishtailed one way. Then another. I tried to remain calm. Stay off the brakes. Be gentle with the steering wheel. The car fishtailed again. Then again. Finally, I regained traction.

I was shaking but OK, and wishing I had brought along an extra pair of underwear. I continued driving up the road, thankful that at those glorious hours of the morning, around 6 a.m., I had the road mostly to myself. Neither of us were making record time, anyway, but I noticed after the slide that the pickup ahead of me had also slowed to a crawl. Both of us had decided we had done enough Olympic iceskating triple sow-cows for one day.

Before I left the “beach condo,” my wife and my’s modest duplex in Milton-Freewater, one-half hour earlier, I had checked the Oregon Department of Transportation’s TripCheck. It had given the all-clear sign. Now that I knew differently, I felt I must warn other drivers. If I could prevent one accident, it would be worth it, and I didn’t want a wreck on my conscience. It had enough to think about with the 3 Es. But I didn’t know who to call so I pulled over and called Wonder Woman, my wife of two years, back home, and asked if she wouldn’t mind getting out a warning.

Unluckily, after the slide, I still had almost 50 miles to drive. Now I was wondering how much more black ice I would encounter. I took it easy, but I usually drive less aggressively than most drivers going over the Blue Mountains. I figure I would rather get to my destination in one piece than sooner. The work will still be there, and I will do my share, and on time. And display the 3 Es. Or at least one of them. Sometimes.

Finally, after many more twists and turns in the road, and ups and downs, I arrived to a glorious sunrise in La Grande. At work, I turned on my computer and looked up TripCheck. At 6:30 a.m. they had posted spots of ice. Too late for me, but at least the other drivers who went later had forewarning.

I may not have scored the latest Ipad or video game on Black Friday. But I did get a chance to go to work and enjoy life yet another day, or year, or decade, or longer, depending on the vagaries of Obamacare, Social Security, the sunset industry of newspapering and how well I managed to display the 3 Es, or one of them. You never know what challenge or joy is around the next corner. Sometimes you slide a bit. But if you can keep going enthusiastically, energetically, with empathy. Or at least enthusiastically.

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