Friday, April 25, 2014

Reflections on the Empty Nest

As M. and I near the end of the first year of being empty nesters, I thought this might be a good time to take stock of what it has been like.

We were premature empty nesters. Our daughter, H., is two years younger than her brother J., but in the 8th grade she became interested in attending boarding school and ended up being selected for a full scholarship at an academically rigorous school in Rhode Island. Letting her go away so young was tough, but she was ready for the challenge and we knew that this opportunity was a very special one for her. She is about to finish her junior year there and has been thriving. J., on the other hand, stayed here in Austin to finish high school, and last August headed to Lancaster, PA for his freshman year. So in September, when H. left for school, everyone wanted to know one thing:

"What do you think about having an empty nest?"

For a month or so, my answer was, "It's quiet." The entire house seemed much more still without the kids around. I noticed this at dinner time especially. With three or four people, there was always something for someone to say. I would ask the kids how school had gone, or check in with them about some upcoming assignment or event. We would coordinate schedules and figure out logistics. Sometimes we talked about grades or tests, other times about the kids in their class or their teachers. We weren't always chatty, but someone usually had something to say.

But with just M. and me, things seemed very quiet, especially at first. I started to worry that we just didn't have much to say to each other any more, but it turned out I just wasn't used to the patterns of silence that arise when both people in a conversation are eating. Before the kids left, the only time we really got to eat alone together was on date nights, and you don't notice silence much in a busy, crowded restaurant. Once I recognized this, I relaxed and realized that not every moment together needs to be filled with conversation.

I've also noticed how much easier it is to keep the house relatively tidy. I'm not the neatest person around, but I have a lower threshold for disarray than others in my family, so I usually end up being the one who picks up the dirty socks from the floor or stacks up the papers scattered across the table so we can sit down to dinner. The sock count is down to almost zero now, and we tend to pile the papers at the kids' ends of the table now so I don't spend nearly so much time straightening up.

I go to the store a lot less often now. On Saturday mornings, I make a meal plan for the week and then do the grocery shopping for it, so on weeknights I don't have to stop on my way home to get ingredients or pick up a rotisserie chicken. And we almost never run out of milk these days. Related to this, M. and I don't eat out as often as we used to. This is partly to save money (college is expensive) and partly just because having a meal plan takes away the excuse that there's nothing for dinner in the house.

I like how much more time I seem to have now.  This comes from having fewer extracurricular responsibilities - I'm not helping at regattas or putting together team dinners. Sometimes I feel at loose ends with so much time, but we've started working out at the Y more regularly as a result, and I've also found I have time to read and to think more than I used to. This blog is evidence of that - in the past, I would think of things I wanted to write, but rarely took the time to put the words into a more coherent form. I'm gardening a little more too - for the first time in years, I actually got all the dead stuff cut back before the spring growth started. It's satisfying.

Having more couple time has allowed me and M. to talk through lots of ideas and scenarios about what we want our future together to look like. I wrote about this a few weeks ago - we are mulling whether we want to stay in this house or move someplace else. This conversation is much easier to have when it is just the two of us. Of course our housing choices impact the children a lot, but ultimately we two must make this decision, and talking through the options is much easier without the kids around.

Some things have really helped in this empty nest transition. I think having pets has been a good thing. When there's not much else to say, we can talk about (or to) the dog and the cat, and having a furry friend around when you're otherwise alone in the house is pleasant. Also, Facetime has been invaluable for keeping in touch. This is one place where technology has completely transformed what it means to be apart from your children. I love being able to see J.'s and H.'s faces when we talk to them on Sunday afternoons - I have a much better sense of how they are doing than I would if we just spoke on the phone. Facebook messaging has also been helpful for communicating in the moment - if I need a quick answer from one of them, this is usually the best way to get it. 

Finally, lots of folks who asked how I liked my empty nest would do so in a sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink way - so on that topic, I will just say that it's nice having the house to yourselves sometimes. Know what I mean, know what I mean? Say no more!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Information Frees Markets

When people talk about the free market, I always think of the markets I saw in China in 1986.  Stalls lined the street, with vendors selling arrays of produce, live chickens in baskets, moon cakes, eels, crickets, knock-off purses, cheap tee-shirts, etc. I had almost no basis on which to select one vendor over another. Each offered me "best price" and tried to lure me to spend my yuan on their goods. As a foreigner with almost no Chinese language skills, I was a perfect sucker of a customer.

My biggest disadvantage was that I lacked enough information. I didn't know what a fair price should be, and amounts that seemed small to me probably far exceeded the worth of any item I purchased. Was this seller a notorious cheat? I didn't know. Did a food stall sell items that made people sick? I had no one to fill me in on these details. Without this type of information, I could only trust my instincts. I never got sick in China, but I am positive I got ripped off many times.

This experience taught me that free markets are only truly free if information is available to consumers before they make a purchase.

Say, for instance, that a food vendor in the Chinese market sells dishes made with rotten meat, and customers who eat this vendor's food regularly get sick. The sickened customers, as well as their family and friends, will stop buying from that vendor. If enough people boycott his stall, the vendor will go out of business. This is how the free market is supposed to work.

I've been thinking about free markets recently, in the wake of the resignation of Brandon Eich. He resigned only a week after becoming CEO of Mozilla, after activists alerted people that he had made a $1000 donation in 2008 to Prop 8 (the anti-gay-marriage amendment in California). The tech community is by and large a gay-friendly environment, and many software developers and engineers who work for or collaborate with Mozilla objected strenuously to Eich's opposition to marriage equality. A campaign sprung up to get people to remove Firefox from their computers, OKCupid encouraged customers who used Firefox to switch browsers, and developers had begun to leave Mozilla for other companies. Eich correctly recognized that Mozilla would suffer with him at the helm, and he stepped down.

To me, this too is how free markets should function. If people do not like the political positions of the owners or leaders of the company, they are free to refuse to do business with them. If enough people make this decision, the organization's profits will be harmed and it could go out of business. If this makes corporate leaders think twice before giving money to influence political outcomes, then this is a good thing.

No More Mister Nice Blog said it best:

It's important to understand the real context for all of this, which is the Roberts court's evisceration of campaign finance regulation. When there are no rules, the only possible accountability is public pressure.

To apply public pressure, you have to be willing to cease conducting business with companies you wish to hold accountable. I talked a little bit about this in one of my first blog posts back in 2007.

But to do this successfully, you first need knowledge on which to act. In the past few years, a variety of tools have been developed to help filter your prospective purchases according to your values. One I'm intrigued by, but don't yet use, is an app called Buycott. It allows you to scan the UPC code for an item and see its corporate parentage. Something like this would really put the power of information into people's hands.

And in my opinion, information is the most important element of a truly free market, whether that market is a company listed on the stock exchange... or a series of stalls in Guangzho.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dignity and Equality

Over the past two weekends, my husband and I have watched three movies about civil rights in the United States: Lincoln, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and 42. Each is set in a different period of our country's history, and each addresses a different facet of the long struggle to achieve true equality for all Americans, regardless of race.

The Butler and 42 do a particularly good job of depicting the dignity with which African Americans endured the derision, threats, and violence of those opposed to equality. The scene from 42 in which Phillie's manager Ben Chapman taunts the at-bat Jackie Robinson with a barrage of n-words is especially powerful, as is the scene from The Butler where Louis Gaines gets beaten while participating in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. In both cases, dignity triumphs over hatred because of the extraordinary self-control of the victims, whose suffering evokes sympathy in people of good faith who witness the attacks.

Another realization I had after watching these movies was that history truly is unkind to those who oppose equality. From the congressmen who gave speeches justifying slavery in during the debate over the 13th amendment, to the people of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia refusing to accommodate a black man or his team, those who oppose progress through hatred and scorn inevitably end up looking bigoted, stupid, and evil.

I have been thinking about these movies a lot since seeing them because of the lessons they teach. As a Catholic, I see two issues of equality that need to be addressed by my church: marriage equality and women's ordination. And I am wondering how the lessons of the civil rights movement can inform those who are working to effect change within the church.

I recognize that there is a vast difference between what happens in a democratic society and what happens in a religious organization. However, the arguments made by those opposed to change in the church often sound a great deal like the arguments made by those who opposed equal treatment of blacks. And I suspect that, in retrospect, their arguments will sounds similarly small-minded and out of touch.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aches and Pains

At some point about ten years ago, I noticed that I sneezed as soon as I woke up. It happened pretty much every day, to the point where I started keeping tissues by my bedside so I could grab one as I got out of bed. I'd sneeze once, blow my nose to clear it, and start my day.

About five years ago, my morning sneeze turned into several sneezes. Not a huge surprise - Austin is well known for its allergens, including oak pollen, molds, and the dreaded cedar fever. And I've always been prone to allergies, though my usual triggers are privet, ragweed, and (oddly enough) stargazer lilies, an allergen I discovered in the late 80's when I was a travel director staying at high-end hotels that featured the dramatic pink and white blooms in their lobby floral arrangements.

When the morning sneezes progressed to become minor congestion and occasional sinus headaches, I knew I needed to do something more about it than just blow my nose. Experience has taught me that the most effective antihistamine for me is diphenhydramine, aka Benedryl. But I could not take it in the morning because it makes me very sleepy and disrupts my ability to work. So I started taking one pill every night. This worked like a charm: I slept incredibly soundly, and woke up uncongested and clear headed.

At first I only did this during the allergy seasons, but a few years ago I extended it to a nightly routine. Brush teeth, wash face, take a pink pill, floss - these were my evening bathroom chores. If I forgot the pill, I usually realized it when I had problems falling or staying asleep. I'd wake up to my husband's snoring, nudge him to roll over, go to the bathroom and take a pill, and be back asleep in a jiffy.

During the bad cedar season this year, I had to use more powerful medicine, since generic benedryl alone did not work for me. Starting around Christmas, I'd take loritadine (generic version of Claritin) every morning as well as the benedryl at night. This combination worked well for me, even on the days when you could see the yellow pollen pulsing out of the cedar trees, and clouds of pollen marred the Austin skyline.

But in mid-January, I noticed that my joints ached more than usual. Now that I'm in my 50's, I have the usual assortment of aches and pains, but suddenly it was difficult to stand up straight when I first got out of bed, and my shoulders felt so stiff that I could barely lift my arms over my head to shampoo my hair.

At first I did not put two and two together. But I'd had something like this happen back in my 30's when we were living in Baltimore. After a bad bout of ragweed allergies, my doctor had prescribed Zyrtec for me. I had diligently taken it every day for a month, and during that month my allergies cleared up - but I also started having trouble walking up and down the stairs of our house because my knees ached and were stiff. It happened that my prescription lapsed for a few days before I could refill it, and during those few days, my knees stopped hurting. When I resumed the prescription, the pain returned. Now, I'm not a research scientist, but this limited-scope human-subject experiment provided me with more than enough evidence that Zyrtec was not good for me, so I discontinued taking it and reported the experience to my doctor. She agreed with me, and I have avoided Zyrtec and its generics ever since.

Realizing that my morning aches and pains could be similarly related to the medicine I was taking, I stopped taking the claritin every day. And indeed, the aches and pains returned to their usual levels. I still had sore shoulders but at least I could lift my arms. My knees still hurt a bit but not so much that taking the stairs hurt.

Problem solved? Apparently, but I began to wonder what would happen if I stopped taking the benedryl as well. I knew I'd become reliant on it more as a sleeping aid than as allergy relief. But was it causing the various minor aches that I had written up to age? I decided to run another experiment on myself.

For Lent this year, I've given up taking benedryl every night. The first night or two were tough. But my husband's snoring has almost gone away in the past six months, now that he uses a mouth guard at night, and I've found that earplugs work quite well for helping me tune out any of the stray noises that bother me, including a huge thunderstorm in mid-March.

I'm four weeks in to this experiment now. I have noticed that the pain in my shoulders is almost gone, and my knees too feel better. I'm sleeping very soundly every night, even without earplugs. And I have not been sneezing in the morning - which is what started this whole thing in the first place.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Love It or List It?

My recent favorite HGTV show has been "Love It or List It," a Canadian production about couples who are split about whether to stay in their current home or to find a new one. For those not familiar with it, the show's hosts are a designer, Hillary, and a realtor, David. The two of them compete to win the couple over - Hillary by renovating their home to better meet their needs, and David by showing them houses he thinks would suit them better. I find it fun to watch (despite its sometimes over-the-top drama), because my husband and I are going through a love-it-or-list-it moment ourselves.

Our son went off to college this fall, and with our daughter at boarding school, we have a (mostly) empty nest now. We live in a pleasant suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes southwest of Austin, Texas, and our house is comfortable for us. But it was never our dream home - we both like mission-style houses and would prefer to live closer to the center of town, where we both work. When we were house-hunting 15 years ago, however, we were mostly focused on buying in a neighborhood with good public schools - and during the dot-com boom of that era, even two bedroom cottages in our target neighborhoods were selling for more than what we could afford, so our desired 3-2 was impossible for us. We wound up instead in a circa-1980 four bedroom house in one of the area's top school districts - less charming, less convenient, but larger and well-suited to our needs at the time.

Over the years, we have made a few improvements to the house, usually focused on energy and water use - we replaced the builder-grade metal windows with Pella windows, got new heat pumps using money from the 2009 federal stimulus package, replaced all the commodes with low-flush versions, and put in a new garage door when we realized the old one had no insulation value whatsoever. Early on, we also landscaped the backyard and added some hardscape features like a ramp between the lower lawn and the upper, since hoisting the mower up 3 feet gets old very quickly.

But we never did much to improve the interior of the house. Oh, once I got inspired by Trading Spaces (my first HGTV addiction) and made over the dining room, complete with laminate floors, imperfectly-installed chair rail, and bifurcated orange/yellow walls. ("Don't be afraid of color!" chirped Genevieve; but I say to you, be very afraid of orange and yellow, Genevieve). It's hard to call that an improvement - though the evidence is gone now, hidden by the sedate cream my husband kindly painted it for Mother's Day a few years ago. And all three bathrooms have gone through their own mini-transformations - still no granite countertops and spa-like amenities, but at least the floral wallpaper is gone.

Now we are considering what our next step should be for housing. We don't love-love our house but we have great neighbors and our location, while not ideal, is relatively convenient. The biggest issue for us is lawncare - the lawn is pretty big and we have many trees (both live oaks and ashes), which means we have lots of leaves to rake and two raking seasons a year. (For my friends not familiar with live oaks, they drop their leaves in March, not in December like most trees in Texas). Until this year, we've had kid labor available to help with this problem. But this past weekend, we spent a combined 16 hours blowing and bagging leaves, and it left us both exhausted. Yes, we could hire someone to do this for us but M. resists paying someone to do a task he could do himself. He's ready to list it.

As for me? I'm not sure yet where I fall. Inertia is hard to overcome, and these bodies have been at rest here for a long time. Getting the house ready for the market takes money, and we are already paying a lot for school. And the kids both grew up in this house - for them it is almost all they've ever known. But I'm willing to see what the alternatives are, in case one of them turns out to be more appealing. We both like the Mueller development in north central Austin, and it is very close to our favorite restaurant, Black Star Coop. We might find ourselves buying a house up there if the right property becomes available.

So we are making small improvements to prepare the house for the market, so we can be ready to act if that's where our hearts lead us. Will these improvements be enough to get us to love it? Or will the appeal of new construction, a small yard, and nearby nightlife make us list it? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Wedding Gifts in Real Life

After 15 years in the same house, my husband and I are finally getting some much-needed work done. This work includes replacing the broken range hood with a venting microwave. Doing this will free up counter space.

To prepare for this work, I just emptied the cabinets adjacent to the range hood, because I do not want the sawing and hammering to rattle and possibly break our dishes. Emptying the cabinets took much longer than I expected. In addition to the plates, glasses, and bowls we use every day, I found items we have not touched pretty much since we moved in.

For instance, on the top shelf, I discovered the Williams-Sonoma crystal wine glasses that we received from our generous friends and family when we got married. I remember registering for these when we were engaged all those years ago. At the time, it seemed very important to us to have nice stemware, so we added 8 red wine and 8 white wine glasses to our wishlist, as well as 8 liqueur glasses. I imagined us hosting candle-lit dinner parties: an appetizer of smoked salmon or lobster bisque, served with a light chablis or fruity chardonnay; then steak or filet mignon for the main course, accompanied by a robust cabernet sauvignon or a hearty burgundy; and finally with dessert, we would serve Grand Marnier. Everyone would linger over the cordials, laughing in the glinting light of the almost-burned-down candles.

Now those slim-stemmed glasses are coated in grease and dust, having sat untouched on that top shelf since they were placed there, out of reach of our young children, back in 1998. We use sturdier, less expensive wine glasses for the $5 wines we buy at the grocery store. Candlelit dinners are rare, usually only on Sundays during Advent and on Valentine's Day, and formal dinner parties are even rarer, since most of our entertaining takes the form of potlucks. Once in a while, we break out the Mandarin Napoleon (the cheapskate's Grand Marnier) and sip it after dinner as we watch TV. The glamorous life we imagined has given way to the ordinary life we created.

As it turned out, the most useful wedding gifts we received were items we had not even registered for. Since I already had a set of aluminum cookware when we got engaged, we by-passed pots and pans when creating our registry, instead selecting items to dress up the table. But a few people sent us things they knew to be useful. For instance, my cousin Betsy sent an oval flame-colored non-stick Le Creuset pan that we used constantly for 10 years until the non-stick coating wore off. And my colleague Denise gave us my favorite kitchen item of all, a 10-inch straight-sided all-clad stainless steel pan from Williams-Sonoma. I use it almost every day and no matter how burned on a dish might get, it comes clean with very little effort and looks almost like new after all these years.

But isn't that the way marriage is? The romantic dreams you have when you start out give way to the practical realities of daily life. What you value turns out to be durability. Items that clean up well and last prove their worth again and again. There is nothing wrong with our delicate crystal stemware, but it turned out we did not need it to have a successful marriage.

Though now that the kids are away at school, maybe I'll clean up those fancy wine glasses and splurge on a $15 bottle of wine...