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“Hi, I’m calling to enroll in the Basic Cooking Skills classes—all four of them. I’d like to enroll my husband, too.”

“Great! Have either of you taken classes here before?”

“Well, my husband hasn’t, but I took a cookie baking class about a year ago.”

“So neither of you has taken the Basic Knife Skills class?”

I was afraid she was going to ask me this, “Ummm, No.”

“Well, we do recommend that you take the Basic Knife Skills class before starting the Basic Cooking Skills series.”

Nuts. I’d read this in the course catalog, but I really didn’t want to pay $120 for the two of us to take a class on how to use a knife. I mean, come on. A knife? Maybe a food processor, but a knife? So I opted to play dumb. “Really? Do we have to take the Basic Knife Skills class before we can enroll in the others?”

She wasn’t going to give me a break. “Truthfully, you don’t have to, but we strongly recommend it,” she said patiently and with great emphasis on the words “have to” and “strongly.”

Rats. Time to come clean. “Yes, I read that in the catalog, but I was hoping to just jump right into the cooking courses. You see, we’re both well over 40 and have been using knives for years. It seems a bit unnecessary.”

“Yes, ma’am. Most people feel that way. But I promise you won’t be sorry if you take the class.”

Big sigh. Not wanting to have a black mark next to my name before ever even starting the classes, I enrolled us in the stupid Basic Knife Skills class.

Crazy, but true, it’s one of the smartest things I ever did.

For years, my mother had been giving me the business about my dull knives. She lived on the other side of the continent by then and wasn’t in my kitchen often, but when she was, she’d mention the inadequacy of my knives every time she cooked with me. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. I managed to put meals—facile meals, but meals—on the table with those knives every single day of the year for twenty-some years. Why couldn’t she just suck it up and use them without giving me such a hard time?

Why, indeed. Once I took the Basic Knife Skills class, I understood why, and I marveled that Mom hadn’t been more militant about the whole thing than she was. Ye gods, she showed restraint!

The course description of the Basic Knife Skills class read, “Any chef or serious cook will tell you there is no substitute for proper knife skills as the foundation for all other cooking skills.” In hindsight, all I can say is, “Amen.” And after taking the class, I would go one step further and add, more specifically, there is no substitute for the right sharp knife, either. For me that knife is a Wüsthof 6½ inch Santuko knife, a knife I learned about in class that night. I seriously can’t cook without it or, at least, without something comparable.

Need an onion diced up? No sweat (and usually only a few tears). With my beloved Santuko and the techniques I learned in the class, I can dice up an onion—or any other veggie or piece of fruit, for that matter—without any drama whatsoever. That was not true BTC (before the class). BTC, it routinely took me way too much time to prepare the ingredients for something as simple as a stew or a salad. Not surprisingly, I often went to great lengths to avoid preparing certain dishes all together just because I didn’t want to go to the hassle of cutting up all the ingredients. Even worse, when I was truly desperate, I would resort to the more expensive and way-less-nutritious option of buying the already-cut-up-and-frozen versions of the ingredients. How silly.

Today, I can mince garlic, dice red peppers and tomatoes, chop carrots and fennel, slice avocados and mushrooms, and chiffonade basil without thinking very hard or spending much time doing it. I have found I truly enjoy the time I spend standing at my cutting board, mincing, dicing, chopping, and slicing. Even though I have since purchased a number of other kitchen gadgets designed to help me cut up ingredients, I still, more often than not, reach for my Santuko.

And I love using words like “chiffonade” and “Santuko.” Tossing the word “chiffonade” into a sentence makes me sound like I know what I doing in the kitchen, even when I don’t (which is often). It impresses my non-foodie friends and gives me the confidence to try new things with food that I would never have attempted BTC.

Today, I live in my kitchen and love experimenting with new recipes and new foods. I’m mortified to think I might not ever have expanded my vocabulary nor my culinary horizons had I insisted on skipping that one class or had I failed to treat myself to the one kitchen gadget I now know is essential to any serious cook.

The woman on the other end of the phone that day was right. The Basic Knife Skills class was a game changer for me. I will be forever grateful. But you must excuse me now. My roasted vegetable ragù is ready to come out of the oven.

Disclaimer: Names in this posting have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty. You know who you are.

Last Saturday promised to be another scorcher, so Tom got up and headed out to run at 7 a.m. instead of his usual 8 a.m. As I’ve mentioned before, Teddy is not a morning dog; in fact, he gets downright grumpy if forced to get up much before 8 (have I mentioned how much I love this dog?). So since I knew he wouldn’t be in need of a wee for a bit longer, I snuggled back down into the sheets for another hour or so of snoozing after Tom left.

A little after 8, I dragged myself out of bed, threw on some capris and a T-shirt, and woke Teddy up. The two of us stumbled out into the backyard; me tugging on Teddy’s leash, slapping the side of my leg, blathering on in a high-pitched plea, “C’mon Teddy. Go potty. C’mon, Fuzz-Butt, do your thing!”; Teddy eyeballing me like I’d completely lost my mind.

When we got about 50 yards away from the back of the house–which took a few minutes because Teddy kept stopping to lay down in every patch of shade we walked through–I heard a low rumbling sound coming from the side of the house and immediately thought, “Oh, crap, I hope the air conditioner isn’t about to blow up.” But it was only 8 a.m. If the air conditioner was thinking about having a nervous breakdown in the god-awful heat, I didn’t want to know about it or deal with it until I’d had a chance to fully wake up. I didn’t even turn around to see if there was smoke. I just kept walking, cajoling Teddy every step of the way to take care of business. Even at that early hour, the heat and humidity were so bad, sweat was trickling down my back and my hair was starting to plaster itself to my head. I just wanted to go back inside.

When Teddy had finally squirted all the trees and bushes in need of a squirt and had determined that all was right in his realm, we turned around to head back to the house. That’s when I saw it. The low rumbling sound was not coming from the air conditioner. It was coming from an ambulance, and I knew immediately why it was there. As we raced up the backyard and around the side of the house, I saw the police cruiser and the firetruck.

The afternoon before, our neighbor, whom I’ll call “Ward,” had started painting his new detached garage. “June,” his wife, had left a day or two earlier to take their boys, “Wally” and “The Beav,” to summer camp and then to go to the lake to hang out with her mom. I knew June was planning to be back in town at some point for a bachelorette party she was hostessing Saturday evening, but as I ran up toward the street, I couldn’t for the life of me remember when she’d said she’d be back.

As I raced toward their house and saw the crowd of firemen, EMTs, and police officers, I had two recurring thoughts: “Good lord, I hope Ward is okay!” and “Thank goodness I put on a bra!”

After Teddy and I navigated our way around the emergency vehicles, I paused momentarily to survey the situation. Two ladders were lying in the side yard as though they’d been tossed out of the way in haste. As I feared, Ward was on the ground toward the back end of the garage, the firemen and EMTs gathered around him. Good grief, the garage is nearly two stories tall at that point, I thought, and I shuddered. I saw that the EMTs were working to get Ward secured onto a board, and I was relieved–at least a little–to know he was in the hands of professionals. I looked around a few seconds more and didn’t see anyone but emergency personnel. No June. No other neighbors. I hesitated, not wanting to be a Gladys Kravitts, asking questions and getting in the way, but wanting to know if June had been notified. A police officer was standing a few feet back from the action, so I approached him and asked if they’d been able to get a hold of Ward’s wife. “She’s right over there,” he said as he nodded toward the crowd around Ward. Phew.

Sure enough, just then June stepped out from behind a tree. When she saw me, she started calmly up the hill. Her demeanor was reassuring. She let me know immediately that Ward was hurt, but he wasn’t going to die. His shoulder was dislocated, his right leg was scraped up, and he was in enough pain that the first words out of his mouth when the EMTs arrived were, “Give me morphine,” but he wasn’t going to die.

As we stood there waiting for Ward to be loaded into the ambulance, June and I commiserated about the fact that he shouldn’t have been up on the ladder in the first place, and she filled me in on the few details she had. Apparently, Ward had gone out early–by himself–to get as much painting done as possible before the heat became unbearable (too late for that, I thought to myself as she talked and I sweated). June had returned home the evening before and, like me, was taking advantage of an opportunity to sleep in Saturday morning. Her reverie was interrupted by the next-door neighbor who came into the house to find her after finding Ward sprawled out in the side yard. That the neighbor found Ward at all is a miracle. Normally she would have left before Tom, who Ward remembers waving at a few minutes before swan-diving off the ladder, but she was running uncharacteristically late that morning. As she opened her garage door, she and her daughter heard his calls for help. Thank goodness. Heaven knows neither June nor I would have heard him. Geez. I didn’t even hear the fire truck coming into the neighborhood with its sirens blaring around 7:30, and it was less than the length of a football field away from my bedroom window when it came to a stop. Unbelievable. And un-nerving. Ward had been lying there waiting for someone to help him for about 20 minutes before the neighbor found him.

Before it was all said and done, Ward ended up having to be fully sedated so his shoulder could be put back into place, but he did come home from the hospital that afternoon. Groggy and heavily medicated, but he came home. I’m happy to report, he’s doing quite well as of today, all things–and all possibilities–considered, but I doubt he’ll be up on a ladder anytime soon. For that matter, I’d be surprised if any of the guys in the neighborhood find themselves up on a ladder in the near future–that is if their wives have anything to say about it. The memory is too fresh.

I don”t know about the rest of the guys, but Tom’s not complaining. He’s never been all that fond of dangling from the top of a ladder. Once he knew Ward was going to be okay, he even joked about the new “toys” the guys in the neighborhood were going to be able to buy or  rent–things like hydraulic lifts–that they’d need if they couldn’t use ladders.

Amazing. I’m fighting the nausea I feel every time I think about Ward lying on the ground, all alone, immobile, and in horrible pain, and Tom’s imagining the circus tricks he and the other guys can do in the forklift…or hydraulic lift…whatever. Truth be told, Ward will probably want to be first in line to operate it. Boys. I give up.

As I write, Teddy is curled at my feet, snoring and farting. Mostly snoring. He’s been doing that all day long. Clearly, he’s going to fit right into this family. His extensive exploration of the house and visit to the vet yesterday must have worn him out. Plus, I must confess, he stayed up late with me last night while I wrote. We didn’t get to bed until nearly 2 a.m. Believe me, he was none too pleased when I made him get up at 7 a.m. to go out for a wee as I took the trash out. He did it, but I got the squonk eye.

He really is an incredibly good dog. He eats when I feed him. He sits still while I brush him, and he comes when I call his name. His tail never stops wagging–when he’s awake, that is–it’s pretty lifeless when he’s snoring. When he’s awake, he’s just happy to hang out. Very low maintenance. No bounding around, no pestering, just companionable togetherness. I’m in love.

We don’t have the “I need to go out to whiz” business totally figured out yet. Mostly it’s me running back and forth to one or more doors every few hours saying, “Do you need to go outside? Do you need to go potty?” while he just looks at me. He goes when I take him out, but he as yet to initiate the process. We’ll figure it out. He probably finds the current arrangement rather entertaining for now. I’m sure I look like a dolt bolting around from door to door.

Tomorrow I have to leave him alone for a few hours, and I’m not looking forward to it. Not because I’m worried he’ll be naughty while I’m gone, but because he was clearly sad when I had to leave him for a little while yesterday afternoon. He followed me as I walked through the kitchen and out to the garage. I had to shut the door in his face! Aghhhhh! As I backed my car and my guilt out onto the street, I realized I’d forgotten something. I had no choice but to go back inside. When I opened the door, I found Teddy lying on the kitchen floor, staring at the door. Ouch. Happily, when I came back through the kitchen to leave again, he was at his water dish and stayed there as I said my goodbyes and closed the door. I crossed my fingers that he’d just go back to the living room and resume his nap. Then I tried not to think about it. When I returned a couple of hours later, he was lying on the kitchen floor, staring at the door. Oh, man. I think it’s safe to say I’ll be feeling guilty the entire time I’m gone tomorrow. But again, I’m sure we’ll get it all figured out. He’s a smart dog. It shouldn’t take him long to figure out this is a permanent gig.

Brian walks through the campanile and down the hill at the University of Kansas on Sunday afternoon. For those of you who are not familiar with the graduation ceremony at KU, walking through the campanile and down the hill to the football stadium is considered the meat and potatoes of the festivities by most students and alumni. As a result, probably a good third of the graduates peel off at the entrance to the stadium and head to the bars or their own private parties to begin celebrating, leaving the rest–those poor suckers whose mothers and grandmothers have threatened them within an inch of their lives if they skip the pageantry of the “official” ceremony”–to walk into the stadium and endure the formalities. Brian will be walking into the stadium, but I’m not saying at whose insistence.

The Hill and Campanile at KU on Graduation Day

I have to admit, I thought Brian had screwed it all up long before he arrived on campus as a freshman. Legend has it that if you walk through the campanile before you are a bona fide graduate, you jinx yourself right out of ever graduating from the university. Just to make me crazy–I’m sure–Brian walked through the campanile when he was a senior in high school. Thankfully, the gods have a sense of humor and overlooked his youthful indiscretion, so he will be in the throng of blue robes marching down the hill on Sunday. His will not be a dignified march, however.

Tradition dictates that graduates put their own unique stamp on the festivities, and many do so with great verve. For example, when our daughter, Carey, graduated from KU three years ago, she festooned her mortarboard with a huge plastic brain–one of the tamer embellishments that day. It’s not unusual for the kid to carry balloons; throw streamers; tote giant beer mugs; hold stuffed Jayhawks, teddy bears, and flamingos or inflatable bananas. Some of them even carry boom boxes (do they still call them that?) and dance down the hill. It’s a party every step of the way. I’ll not steal Brian’s thunder by revealing his plans, but I promise pictures after it’s all over.

The "Brain"iac

The "Brain"iac

After graduation, we’ll return here to the house to celebrate with family and friends. We took the easy way out and ordered Brian’s favorite barbecue, so I won’t have much to do the night of the party. But that doesn’t mean I totally let myself off the hook. As is true most any time we host a large gathering, I’ve been obsessed with checking things off my long list of home-improvement projects–projects, in all honesty, that I’ve been ignoring since…well, since…last summer when we hosted Carey and Austin’s engagement party. Somehow long-ignored tasks become more urgent with company coming, so I’ve been painting, cleaning, scrubbing, weeding, planting, mulching, and running errands like a mad woman for the last several weeks. It’s silly. I know it’s silly, but it’s usually requires something rather dramatic to snap me out of the idiocy.

Yesterday was the day. Yesterday was mulching, the last straw (or wood chip). The weather wonks were promising torrential rain by late afternoon, so I got up early and began raking, fluffing, and flinging mulch like my rear was on fire, trying to get the stuff put down before the rains came and turned it all into a soggy mess. Then it didn’t rain. Stupid weather wonks. More to the point, stupid me. While soaking my aching muscles in a steaming hot shower afterward, I finally accepted the silliness of trying to cram months worth of tasks into a few short weeks. No one will notice or–if they do notice–care that the wood blinds haven’t been meticulously dusted or that the flower beds have a few bare spots where I’ve failed to get something planted. I know that. I’ve known that all along. I just forget.

Sanity restored, it’s time to put down my rake/paintbrush/dust cloth and pick up a wine glass to toast my son. We have accomplishments to celebrate, friends to catch up with, and food to eat. It should be a great weekend!

I hope you all had a wonderful Mother’s Day. I certainly did. My goal was to get through the day without any mental or physical exertion. Mission accomplished. I slept late. Tom fixed my breakfast, retrieved the newspaper off the driveway (which I uncharacteristically got to read from front to back), and made the bed–upon which I promptly took a nap. Carey and Austin co-hosted a lovely Mother’s Day luncheon at Austin’s folks in the afternoon at which all I had to do was drink margaritas and engage in witty repartee. My children showered me  with lovely gifts, and Tom washed and vacuumed my car. It was a fabulous day. I suppose I did have to shower and put on makeup…

Yesterday was my 27th Mother’s Day. I wish I could tell you I remember my first Mother’s Day, but unfortunately I can’t. Carey would have only been about six weeks old at that point, so it’s safe to say I probably had dark circles under my eyes, baby barf on my shoulders, and two big wet spots on the front of my shirt where I’d leaked through my breast pads. I know my boobs were ginormous and my butt was months away from getting back into my jeans, but I honestly don’t recall being upset by any of it. I just remember being so excited to be a mom. I was only 23 when Carey was born–and she was an easy baby–so I operated under the “Naivete Is Bliss” rule for months after her arrival. In hindsight, it wasn’t a bad way to fly. Tom will never let me forget how I used to pick her up as soon as I’d get out of bed in the morning and head out to sit in my rocker recliner to nurse her. When she was finished, I’d change her diaper and head back to the chair where we’d nap together–Carey in my arms–until she’d wake up again to eat. We’d repeat the process all day long until Tom returned from work in the evening to find us both still in our jammies. Whoops.

Really, Carey’s entire first year was pretty easy. I only remember two unpleasant episodes. The first was an ear infection in the middle of the night and the requisite hellish car ride to the emergency room. I will never ever forget one minute of that night, particularly being forced to stand out in the hallway while the doctor examined Carey. I was ready to rip someone’s head off–specifically that prune-faced nurse who all but shoved me out the door. Luckily, Tom (as always) was there to provide a more level-headed perspective.

The second episode was really more humbling than unpleasant; although, I’ll warn you right now to stop reading if you’re eating. On that occasion, I was reminded that no matter how else I might see myself, I was, always and forevermore–no exceptions–a mom. I had gotten all dressed up to go out with Tom and some friends. It was the mid-80s, so I had the big hair, a bright yellow sweater with a fringed scarf wrapped fashionably around my neck, tight jeans, high-heeled boots, and fake fingernails. I thought I was all that and a bag of chips. That is, until I went to the ladies’ room after dinner. There, as I washed my hands before returning to the table, I discovered a chunk of bright yellow, dried baby poop under one of fabulous fingernails. (I told you to stop reading if you were eating.) It’s not that my discovery wrecked the evening so much as it finally sealed the deal. There was no escaping the fact that my primary role in life was now Mom. The proof was under my fingernail.

By the time Brian came along, I was pretty well settled into the job. At least, at the time, I thought I was. Like Carey, he was an easy baby. Unfortunately, the two of us didn’t get to spend a lot of quiet time together when he was an infant because by then Carey was an active three-year-old. As an illustration of just how active, one day while I was putting Brian down for a nap, the phone rang. It was a neighbor about five houses up the street who had two daughters just a little older than Carey. We had only moved into the neighborhood a few months earlier, so I was mortified when my new neighbor–whom I barely knew–told me that Carey had just arrived at her house on her tricycle. What?! What!?

How in the world that child got the garage door up, I’ll never know. Thank goodness there was a sidewalk and she had enough sense to stay on it. That the neighbor didn’t call the authorities on me for negligence, I’ll be forever grateful.

When Carey started school, Brian and I finally got our one-on-one time together. One of my favorite memories is of our bike rides together. I would strap him into the seat on the back of my bicycle, and the two of us would peddle all over town, usually stopping at one of the city parks for a picnic lunch. He looked like a Weeble in his big ol’ bike helmet. I was crushed the day he told me he was too big to ride on the back of my bike anymore.  Just like I was crushed his first day of preschool when he told me I didn’t need to walk him into the building and crushed the day Carey dressed herself because she didn’t like the outfits I picked out.

That’s the insidious thing about motherhood. You think, “When in the world are you ever going to outgrow waking me up in the middle of the night…needing me to dress you…making a mess every time you eat? And then, I’ll be danged if they don’t do it, and you’re facing your 27th Mother’s Day and the only thing you’re responsible for is getting your own lazy backside into the shower. Your grown children are planning the festivities, preparing the food, and treating you like a queen.

I’m not complaining…exactly. I’m just saying…

I sincerely hope that you have someone in your life who makes you laugh out loud at least once a day. For me, that someone is Tom, the hubby. Tom has many fine qualities, but his most endearing has to be his ability to find humor in nearly every situation, even when the laugh ends up being at his expense. In the more than 10,230 days we’ve been married, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s made me laugh audibly at least 10,000 of them. Yesterday was no exception.

Late yesterday afternoon, I was working in my home office with the windows open. It was a gorgeous spring day, so it came as no surprise that Tom headed straight to the bedroom when he got home from work to swap his dress slacks and pinpoint Oxford for his “play” clothes. On his way back down the hall, he stuck his head in the office and said, “I’m going outside to mow.” Because I was distracted with my own project, I heard the words, but I didn’t absorb their meaning. At most, I managed a grunt in response.

A few minutes later, when I heard Tom ratting around down in the basement and heard the mower start, the neurons in my brain finally fired, and all I could think was, “Oh, crap. I hope he doesn’t try to mow behind the willows.”

We live on just a little over an acre– most of which is high and dry–but the very back of our lot includes a swale that gets downright swampy after a really heavy rain or rapid snow melt. Years ago, we planted a bunch of willows in and around the low spot thinking the water-loving trees would soak up the excess moisture and hide the muddy mess from the rest of the yard during the soggy seasons. It was an un-characteristically brilliant bit of landscaping. The willows have done exactly what we hoped they would do, which means there are truly very few times when the ground is so soggy you can’t maneuver through the swale on foot or on the mower. But still…there are times…

As I mentioned, yesterday afternoon was perfect. Perfect temperature. Perfect blue sky. Perfect southernly breeze. However, the day hadn’t started out that way. The morning had been grey and dreary. More than two inches of rain had fallen overnight onto ground that was already struggling to absorb the rainwater from previous storms. For the last several weeks, walking on the golf course has been like walking on a sponge. Even our yard–which normally drains really well–is squishy in spots where it normally isn’t squishy. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t surprised when I could see standing water under the willows from clear up on the back porch. Surely, Tom wouldn’t take the mower down into that mess, I thought to myself. Surely.

I heard Tom engage the mower blade and head out into the yard. Without giving his activity another thought, I turned my attention back to the computer and began scanning the screen to see where I’d left off. I had just managed to recapture my train of thought when…WEEEEEE, waaaaaaa, WEEEEEEE, waaaaaa, WEE WEEEEE, Waaaaaaa…I froze…WEEEE, waaaa, WEEEEEEEE, waaaaaa…you have got to be shitting me…I got up from my chair and walked over to the window…WEEEEEEE, waaaaaaa, WEEEEEEE, waaaaaa, WEEEEEEE…oh, for the love of …sure enough, Tom and the mower were in the middle of bog, the mower buried up to its back axle in slime…WEEEEEE, waaaaaaa, WEEEEEEE, waaaaaaaaa…Tom was trying to rock the mower out of the mud much like you would rock a car out of deep snow…WEEEEEE, waaaaaa, WEEEEEE…I stood there and watched…WEEEEE, waaaaaaa, WEEEEE, waaaaaaa. I repeat, you have got to be shitting me.

After a few minutes, Tom finally grasped the futility of the situation and shut the mower off. He stepped down off the deck of the mower and into the mud, picking his way gingerly through the willows to the near side of the swale and firmer ground. Oh, and did I mention he was wearing baloney-slice-slick flip-flops? Once on solid soil, he stomped back up toward the house–I guarantee you, cussing all the way–so I returned to my desk. I knew what was coming.

“mary?…MARY!”

“Yes?”

“Can you help me?”

Here’s where things get dicey. We live in a neighborhood of large lot homes. Around here, manhood is measured not by the size of a man’s kick-stand, but by the size of his lawn mower. Mower attachments–seed spreaders, aerators, tillers, snow plows–all earn a guy bonus points. I’m not joking. Tom put a good size riding mower on lay-away two days after we signed the contract to have the house built, weeks before the builder even had a chance to start scratching around in the dirt. But mower fever didn’t stop there. A few years after we moved in, Tom succumbed  to mower envy and bought (cue the heavenly music) The Grasshopper, a professional zero-turn radius mower with a 60-inch deck. We’re talking a manly mower here. He attempted to whitewash the whole business by claiming he’d bought it for our son to use as a way of earning some money, and, admittedly B-man did earn much of his mad money and a good chunk of his college tuition running a rather lucrative mowing business while he was in high school and college, but that’s beside the point.

Tom wanted that mower. He loves that mower. He loves to mow. And, in his defense, I understand why. Tom works in a profession where most projects morph into different projects before they can be completed. He rarely gets to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing a project through to the finish line. With mowing, he gets to complete a project in 45 minutes or less. The grass is long. He gets on the mower and runs it around the yard. The grass is short. The job is done. Ahhhh.

But, again, that’s all beside the point. The point is I can’t drive the dang thing. There’s no steering wheel or anything remotely similar to a steering wheel and/or a shifter to get it to move forward, go in reverse, or turn in the direction you want to go. What it does have is two inverted L-shaped levers, one on either side of the driver’s seat, that you push and pull and yoink around in various combinations to get the mower to move in the direction you want it to go. The two front wheels spin spastically in all directions, and the back tires are so wide you can’t possibly keep them from running over flower beds or getting caught in the neighbors fence. And here was Tom, standing at the top of the stairs, asking if I could help him. Sheezzz. The possibilities weren’t good. The way I figured it, my options were either to stand in the muck and push while Tom splattered me with mud or to get on the mower and try to get it to do what I needed it to do without leaving Tom face down in the gunk or, worse, under the mower. Decisions, decisions.

I followed Tom downstairs and donned a pair of B-man’s huge rubber boots. Tom shoved his bare feet into an equally oversized pair, and we began our trek to the back of the yard, clomping along like a couple of goobers. As we walked, Tom kept looking at me like he expected me to say something, but what was there to say? There was no need to state the obvious.

The decision as to which role I would play in the recovery mission was easy once we reached the mower. The mud stunk. There was NO way I was going to end up covered in that stuff, so I climbed on the mower, and Tom gave me a review lesson on operating the mower while I kept thinking, “Holy crap. I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill him. Holy crap.” After several anxious minutes of cussing and grunting and pushing and cussing some more, the mower was out, the newly formed ruts in the yard were rapidly filling with water, and we were on our way back up to the house. This time, when Tom looked in my direction, waiting for me to say something, I couldn’t help but smile.

“What?!” he almost yelled.

“What do you mean, ‘What?'” I started snickering. We’ve been married 28 years. He knew what I was thinking. It started with a “dumb” and ended with an “ass.” We kicked off our muddy boots at the edge of the patio. He grabbed the hose and began blowing the mud off the boots as I climbed the stairs, laughing harder with each step. But the time I reached the top step, I was gasping for air. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t laughing then. I couldn’t have heard him over my own guffaws even if he was, but, in typical Tom-fashion, he’s laughing and making snarky comments about the whole escapade now. As I said, it’s a very endearing quality.

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In my previous life, my to-do lists were generated by the demands of a busy family and exacerbated by my professional life: get the laundry done, finish the user documentation for Client X, shop for the ingredients for the taco casserole you’re taking to the soccer banquet, compile and distribute the meeting agenda for Organization Y, call and invite Prospective Customer Z to lunch next week to discuss possible projects. If I failed to check an item off the list, I ran the risk of causing a problem for a family member, a client, or my business. Now that my children are grown and gone and I no longer have a “professional life,” per se, the items on my list are all of my own creation and have little potential for impacting others negatively if I fail to get them done. So, why in the world am I stressing out over checking off the tasks? For that matter, why do I even bother to make lists in the first place? One word. Guilt.

I’m finding I feel just as much pressure to make my lists and be as “productive” now as I did when I was working. Actually, I feel more pressure to be productive, in large part–I suppose–because I’m not contributing financially to the household anymore. No paycheck, huh? No, but I’m baking homemade cookies and tackling home improvement projects and preparing yummy, nutritious meals every evening and writing every day and…and…  Ironically, no one around here but me cares that I’m not employed and adding to the family coffers at the moment. No one around here has ever complained about the lack of homemade goodies or the projects that have gone undone in the past. So why the guilt? Why can’t I sit down to read a book, stretch out on the couch for a hour-long afternoon nap, or watch the Barefoot Contessa make yummy chicken pot pies and enjoy myself? Actually, I would be lying if I said I never take an afternoon snooze or that I never watch my favorite cooking show. It’s just that I do those things sparingly and never do them without feeling guilty. I can never just “be” without guilt raising its ugly mug and ruining what, by all accounts, should be a pleasurable past time.

Strangely–and maybe fortunately–the guilt comes in multiple strengths. For example, I can sit down and read a book or magazine article without guilt if I’m reading the book as part of my research for a writing piece. That type of reading is productive, right? I can sit down and read a book with minimal guilt if I’m reading the book for my book club. Not income-producing maybe, but still productive. Read purely for pleasure? Now that is clearly non-productive. Guilty! I’ll give you another example. I feel guilty if I go out and play golf during the day without Tom. However, I can lessen the guilt if I walk instead of ride. Then the round can be considered exercise, and that’s productive, right? As for naps, I still haven’t figured out a way to rationalize those. No matter how good I feel physically after a nap, I always feel I need an excuse for having taken it even if no one asks for one. It’s goofy. I know it’s goofy, but I can’t seem to make it stop.

I suspect there are many like me. I know at least one, a dear friend who lost her job a couple of months ago. Before three weeks had passed, she had–among a number of other smaller projects–cleaned out every closet in her house, cleaned and re-organized her entire basement, and re-painted her living room and dining room. Now, with all of her home improvement projects completed, she’s offering to help me with mine. She’s nuts. We’re kindred spirits.

With the exception of vacation days, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to fully enjoy “non-productive” days. Even though I love the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a particularly productive day, I can’t help but think I would be healthier and happier if I could occasionally embrace a day–or part of a day–in which all I’ve managed to do is enjoy the singing birds, the setting sun, the building storm clouds, the back of my eyelids, and/or the company of my favorite author. Without guilt.

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