Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Breaking up with Amazon Prime

Today would have been my Amazon Prime anniversary, but I decided a few weeks ago--before news of Jeff and MacKenzie's divorce--that I'd pull the plug on this romance.

The truth is, I've long been ambivalent about the company that has transformed the way Americans shop, not to mention the metro region I've called home for the past five years. Yet over the past few years, life circumstances and Amazon's crazy convenience led me to use it more than I would have liked. It was time to say goodbye.

Of course, I had some prep work to do. My most important task was downloading a few hundred of the thousands of digital photos I'd stored on Amazon. I also spent the last few days revisiting several dozen episodes of Mozart in the Jungle, easily my favorite TV series of the past 20 years. This is as close as I've ever come to a binge.

I'm completely immune to Alexa's charms. I prefer Spotify and TuneIn for streaming music and podcasts. I don't even order enough stuff from Amazon to make Prime's free shipping worthwhile. It turns out the one thing I ordered more than once last year--filters for my cold-brew coffee system--I could actually get direct from the manufacturer for less than half the cost I'd paid on Amazon, and with cheap shipping, too. I'll also try to remember that there's really no such thing as free shipping, not in monetary terms nor in ecological impact. If I can buy something at a local store and take a walk, too, that's the best use of my time and money.

Amazon started a quarter-century ago as a cool way to order books. It's more expensive to buy at my local indie store, but I want to support my neighbors. I've also discovered another wonderful online source for used books: Better World Books, which is serious about promoting global literacy and curbing its environmental impact. (Honestly, though, I mostly borrow books these days, either from my wonderful local libraries or the Little Free Library boxes that dot Seattle and many other towns.)

I'm sure I'll continue to use Amazon off and on, but I'm also guessing that my savings will go beyond the $119 annual Prime fee as I return to being more thoughtful and intentional about what I buy and where I buy it.

Monday, December 17, 2018

In praise of the pivot

I write today with one simple idea: It's fine to change your mind, to flip flop, to revise course.

I say this for myself as I contemplate the infinite variety of choices I might make for my next chapter of life.

I say it for you and your loved ones, because the best gift we can give ourselves or someone we love may be permission to change direction, even in matters as big as political persuasion, religious affiliation, sexuality, or career.

And I say it for our country and our world because brinksmanship and inflexibility are inhumane. There's always another way forward, even if some will choose to call it a retreat.

When we pay attention, we can see the power of principled, thoughtful course correction (or at least the possibility of it) around us every day, even among people whose views may be vastly different from our own. I heard two examples in 15 minutes of radio news this morning. In the first, a Republican strategist urged the president to pivot away from his demand to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and explained how he could save face doing so. In the second, a Christian writer who penned a bestselling book on saving sex for marriage has asked his publisher to stop printing new copies of it. He hasn't turned his back on his beliefs, but he's seen the harm and heartbreak that an inflexible approach to life and love can cause. 

We can see examples among friends and family, too. One of my dear ones was leaning toward getting a new job in 2019 until a heartfelt talk with his boss made him realize how much he values his current working relationship and how much he might contribute in the coming year. Of course, new facts and feelings could make him change his mind again--and that's OK, too. When we feel free to change our minds based on new evidence, the happier we can be.

Personally, the only thing I know with certainty is that I'll be moving again in a few months. I'm eager to leave a house that really only felt like home to me while Tom was here--and I am inclined to leave (at least in winter) a region that is cold and damp and sees only eight hours of daylight this time of year.

With my portable career and love for new vistas, I am truly spoiled for choice. One day, one hour, one minute, I think I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do first, then I see another possibility and think "hmmmm ..." And there are certainly other opportunities of which I'm not yet aware, too.

At some point, I will need to decide where I want to be, at least for a while. The beautiful thing is that need not be my final decision. And whatever choices you make today need not be your final decisions, either.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Mind the gaps

My sweetheart Tom used to tell a story about a near-death experience he had shortly after his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. To paraphrase: He was on his way to an oncology appointment, driving on Interstate 5 near downtown Seattle, when his windshield shattered. He still made it to his appointment; he was a get-it-done guy. But later that day, a police officer examining the vehicle handed Tom a metal rod, several inches long. It had flown off a truck into Tom's car--and had its trajectory been just a little different, it would have struck Tom's head after it hit the windshield. Yet it didn't, and Tom didn't die that day. His cancer went into remission, he saw his kids graduate from high school, he helped launch a new radio station while working his day job in music, and he fell in love with me.

I've spent much of this year since June 30 cleaning out Tom's stuff, and I came across a longer, written account of that day that he gave as a talk at Toastmasters shortly before Thanksgiving a year or two after it happened. His message, of course, was that you never know when something might fly through your windshield and kill you, so be happy and grateful--and Tom usually was.

Five years ago this morning, I met Tom at the Oakland airport. He'd flown down from Seattle on Thanksgiving morning to spend the holiday with my brother and his husband and me. The next day, we packed up a small rental truck and set off for Seattle, where I'd decided to move to be closer to Tom. We'd only been together a few months at that point, but when you fall in love with someone who has cancer, you don't want to waste a lot of time.

Tom and I had another four-and-a-half years together. It would be more than two years before his cancer returned in early 2016. We spent Thanksgiving that year in a hospital room, three weeks after his autologous stem cell transplant and four days after Tom's oxygen dropped and his temperature spiked to 106.8 as his body briefly rebelled against his re-infused cells. He'd nearly died again, but with quick action from his medical team, Tom pulled through--and a few days later, we noshed on a not-bad hospital Thanksgiving meal while listening to Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant and Paul Simon's The Boy in the Bubble. Two days later, we were home.

"... these are the days of miracles and wonders ..."

A few weeks after that Thanksgiving, Tom would watch his son graduate from college via a streaming site on the Internet. He'd live another 19 months, regain his strength to work hard (mostly from home) and travel several more times, launch another radio station, see his daughter turn 21, and marry me on his 62nd birthday.

Eleven days after that, he was gone.

I'm tempted to say I've written off this Thanksgiving--and likely the whole holiday season. But that's not really true. Last weekend, I joined in an early celebration with my daughter and her dad and my brother and his husband. Later today, I'll volunteer on the reception team for Thanksgiving dinner at the Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter. At this point in my life, it's often easier to be with strangers than grieve with kin, though I look forward to spending time with family and friends, too.

After Tom's death, I started experiencing some serious health challenges. I don't find it useful to post about such things online; some people gain strength from sharing, but I find it draining, so I've kept the details mostly to myself and a few friends and family. Suffice it to say, I'm feeling better now than I did a few months ago and I'm doing what I need to do to address the remaining issues--even as I do the work of settling Tom's estate and as much paid editorial work as I can manage. (I'm lucky to manage four hours a day of the latter, but for now, that's enough.)

Next Thanksgiving, I hope I'll be doing something similar to what I did on Thanksgiving in 2000, when I sat enjoying a plate of pasta at a waterfront restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, ahead of Lonely Planet's Authors Week. Maybe I'll be in Mexico; maybe I'll be in Vietnam. I'll have no fixed address, living nowhere and everywhere (though I'll get back to the Northwest for Christmas). I plan to travel for at least a few years with my portable editing and writing career, and I hope to teach English as a foreign language, too. I've started the process to learn TEFL and will ramp up that plan in the new year once I've concluded my estate duties.

Meanwhile, this is a season of living while we wait to resume life. I have low expectations for myself and everyone around me. We all still miss Tom. Good days and bad. Yes, I'm shedding a few tears as I write this. Mostly, I'm giving thanks for what we had.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Living with death

Halloween has never been my favorite holiday. I don't like to play dress up and I'm not drawn to the macabre; when my daughter and I visited Paris, the catacombs were high on her to-see list and I couldn't have cared less--so I skipped them, took a walk while she waited in the two-hour line, then sat in a sunny park and read a book.

I tried to go back to church in August for the first time since Tom died. I was doing OK until a woman wearing a black-and-white skull motif sweater materialized in front of me and suddenly I had to follow her along the narrow path--a person going to church, in August, wearing a sweater with skulls. Some people really like Halloween.

But not me. So I didn't plan to watch A Ghost Story last night. But I did, and I'm glad, and if you miss someone you loved very much, you might like it, too.

A 2017 release, A Ghost Story is directed by David Lowery and stars Casey Affleck; the two of them teamed up again this year on The Old Man & The Gun, which I saw earlier this week. There's a lot to like about The Old Man & The Gun: its attention to detail, its occasional meandering talkiness (since the character played by star Robert Redford is the taciturn sort, sidekick Tom Waits gets to deliver the movie's best monologue), and above all its meditative quality--yes, a movie that's ostensibly about robbing banks is really about knowing what makes life worth living.

I looked up what else Lowery has made, and I remembered hearing that there was more to A Ghost Story than its title and Halloween-costumed title character. I decided to watch, and I fell into it immediately. Imagine the most perfect moments you ever had with the person you loved, and how those perfect moments lived in an imperfect love that was still far more than enough. Imagine trying to reclaim those moments and--along the way--being of comfort as your beloved deals with your loss. This is what A Ghost Story seems to be about.

I went to bed right after watching A Ghost Story. A soft Seattle rain fell outside the window, and I could imagine having Tom there with me, curled up together as we had been so many times, just like that.

It'll never happen again. What matters is that it happened.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Steady joy

This a a wonderful day. I've never seen this one before. -- Maya Angelou on Twitter, May 17, 2013 *

It's a hard time for so many. My nation is bruised as badly as it's ever been. I have spent a little more time than I usually do with the news because I want to empathize with what others are feeling and thinking at this raw time. But as usual, I feel it's best to consciously ration my media consumption. (Here's an essay I wrote about that for 3rd Act Magazine.)

It's a sour and confusing season we're living through. I feel this keenly, as personal grief over the loss of my beloved and brilliant Tom suffuses my days and nights--and yet amid this cultural acrimony and wrenching personal loss, I can still seek and I find the steady hand of joy. Maybe not every minute or every hour, but every day, often enough.

I named this blog for Henry David Thoreau's affirmation that "surely joy is the condition of life." But another quote about joy speaks to me now: Brother David Steindl-Rast's observation that joy "is the happiness that doesn't depend on what happens." This is steady joy, and it's a gift to be treasured--and a practice to be cultivated--especially at a time like the one we find ourselves in.

That's all the wisdom I have to offer right now, but you might enjoy this lovely "On Being" conversation about gratitude between Brother David and Krista Tippett.

* The great poet Angelou indeed made a "mistake" in this tweet; of course, she meant "This is a wonderful day." For whatever reason, she never edited her tweet, and I won't, either, even though I make my living as an editor. OK, one more thought, courtesy the Rev. Lindasusan Ulrich of BraverWiser: "Spirit of Compassion, remind us that our task as humans is not perfection." Amen to that.

Appletree Cove, Kingston, Washington. Photo by Julie Fanselow

Monday, September 3, 2018

Here's to the working people

That's most of us, right? I am going to work a bit today, but that's because I took an early holiday weekend Thursday through Saturday. Being my own boss means having the flexibility to time-shift my time off. But since today is Labor Day, I'm also thinking about the other people who are working today, especially in low-wage jobs and contract labor with no benefits.

I shy far away from politics these days, but today I want to salute organized labor. For two years (2010-2012), I worked alongside and on behalf of thousands of educators in Idaho during a time when they were fighting several pitched battles on behalf of their students and themselves. These were amazing people who put in long hours on their jobs as teachers and coaches and counselors, and who knew the power of spending a bit more time to organize and negotiate good working conditions, wages, and benefits for themselves and their colleagues.

Missouri voters recently said no to a "right-to-work-for-less" proposition on their ballot. This was one of the best developments for American working people in many years. Organizing takes time, people, and money. It's only fair that all the workers who benefit from the fruits of labor negotiations help pay for them.

Those of us who work for ourselves--who've created our own jobs--can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act (which was a brilliant job-creation bill) and grant ourselves time off as we need it. For teachers and nurses and police officers and firefighters and skilled craftspeople--not to mention retail and service and healthcare workers who need advocacy more than most--organizing is one way employers and employees can work together to be sure hard work is valued and recognized.

It'll be great if we can one day live in a world where all work--including the work of parenting and caregiving--were justly valued and fairly compensated, and where we all enjoy healthcare, paid time off, guaranteed retirement income, and the other rewards of hard work. Until then, happy day of remembering that unions built the American middle class and the 40-hour workweek. And don't forget to vote.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Make it up as we go along

I have a habit that's developed over the past two weeks: Since I need to wait at least a half-hour between taking the pill for my mysterious new medical condition and drinking my morning coffee, I fetch my phone--which I try to leave outside the bedroom; I usually sleep better that way--and listen to SPACE 101 in bed for a while. It's a low-power Seattle radio station that my husband helped launch during the year before he died.

Often, I'll hear Tom's voice lingering on in station IDs. Always, I'll hear his music: the thousands of inspired, eclectic tracks he programmed for the times of day when there's no one live on the air. This morning, I heard R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" and "40 Years in the Wilderness" by Bruce Cockburn, "Festina" by Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly, "Call the Police" by LCD Soundsystem, and "Blue Juice" by Jimmy McGriff.

The random automation occasionally drops a heart bomb. "This Must be the Place" has been a favorite song of mine for decades, and I remember playing the Talking Heads' track as the highly symbolic first song I listened to in a few new apartments over the years, from small-town Ohio in my 20s to Oakland, California, in my 50s. This summer, when I heard it a few days after Tom died--again, early in the morning on SPACE, knowing he'd programmed it--I knew it had been ruined for me forever, if ruining a song means that tears will start flowing whenever I hear it from now on, and that those tears will be sad and welcome at the same time.

I gave it a good go this morning. Maybe I'll try to sing along, I thought. I sat up, got out of bed, choked out a few phrases as I pulled the shades open and poured my coffee. I made it most of the way, but I had dissolved into tears by the time David Byrne sang "Did I find you or you find me?"

In his excellent book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller describes the intersection of joy and grief, which William Blake summed up as "the deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy." "On my visit to Africa, I remarked to one woman that she had a lot of joy," Weller writes. "Her response stunned me: 'That's because I cry a lot.'" She wasn't happy because she worked a lot or shopped a lot or watched a lot of TV, but because she cried a lot.

I am crying a lot. Some days go by with no tears, but it's better when I cry. I am hopeful that however and whenever and wherever the tears come, they will wash away whatever silt has built up in my bloodstream and organs and pores over the past few months--that music can heal me, cover up the blank spots, and eventually let me find the next place I'm meant to be.

Listen to SPACE 101fm