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“Life”—a Revised Edition

Milton-Bradley's "Life" board game

Milton-Bradley’s “Life” board game: plastic cars and “people”-pegs and a straightforward, pre-plotted Road of Life

My sister and I used to play the Milton-Bradley board game Life, moving a plastic car along the predetermined path (adding pink or blue pegs to represent spouse and kids), and marking the “mileposts” of American living by paying or collecting money for various events. I suppose this game is intended to represent how life is “supposed” to proceed—go to college, get a job, marry, buy a house, buy insurance, buy stocks, get a dog, get a promotion, fix your roof, pay off student loans, pay property taxes, pay income taxes, pay for kids’ education… And eventually retire—either to the Poor Farm or to the Millionaires’ Estates…

In retrospect, it’s not a very interesting game. A player’s individual outcome depends entirely on the spin of the wheel (and the specific “events” on which the plastic car lands), rather than resulting from any choices or actions on the player’s part. What is interesting about this game (again, in retrospect) is the picture it paints of American assumptions—specifically, the events that are expected to compose a Life. (That, and the fact that a player’s success is ultimately measured in money.)

Life at 30: this pair of "pegs" in my back seat, and the rest of life looking pretty predictable...

Life at 30: this pair of “pegs” in my back seat, and the road ahead looking pretty predictable… Ha!

I didn’t question those expectations as a kid counting board-game squares with a game-piece populated by pink-and-blue pegs, and still wasn’t questioning them when I turned thirty. After all, I seemed to be squarely set on that standardized and circumscribed track—complete with husband, house, and a pair of “pegs” (one pink, one blue) in the back seat of my minivan… But this week (my 40th birthday!) I find myself reflecting on the unexpected twists my life has taken in the course of the last decade.

Ten years ago I probably imagined I could write my life-story, at least in its outlines, all the way to the end without waiting to live it. I didn’t foresee any drastic deviations from the proscribed path, and that vision didn’t vary much from the Milton-Bradley version. But God, in his infinite wisdom and humor, had other ideas. (As my A.A. Sponsor says: “If you want to make God laugh… Make PLANS!”) Instead of the conventional course I had calculated, my map of the last decade consists of curves and curlicues, spirals and swivels, U-turns and dead ends and leaps of Faith… I have definitely departed from the predestined path of the presumptive game-board.

winding road sign

so much for the straightforward road!

I’ve been entertaining myself today by imagining a game-board re-write to reflect the reality of my thirties. It’s altogether a richer journey than my designs of a decade ago, but not at all what I’d imagined… Here’s what some of the squares would say in a “Kana” edition of Life

[We begin at Thirty, with stay-home-Motherhood and two small children…]

  • You hit your limit on watching Sesame Street and decide to get back in the (outside-the-home) workforce. Take a full-time job teaching English and science for the state-sponsored online high school.
  • Spend a week aboard a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, earning your sailboat Skipper’s Papers. Charter a sailboat Christmas week in the British Virgin Islands with two small sailors-in-training.
  • Defend your Master’s Thesis in Creative Writing and publish some poetry. Discover that you prefer writing nonfiction! (Although your Master’s program doesn’t offer a “nonfiction” emphasis, this bit of self-knowledge will come in handy down the road, with the invention of the Blog!)
  • Move into an administrative job as Curriculum Director for Idaho’s online high school.  Fly around the country giving presentations, publish academic articles, co-author a book chapter, and establish a national reputation in your field.
  • Move out of your house and your marriage and reimagine yourself as a Single Mom.
  • barefoot at the helm... trying to take control of a new life

    barefoot at the helm… trying to take control of a new life

    Take your first-ever solo vacation: another live-aboard sailing week to earn advanced sailing certifications.

  • Buy a house of your own, to be christened “The Gingerbread House” by your kids. Demonstrate to your kids (and to yourself) that you can mow your own lawn, change your own flat tire, and generally Take Care of Things by yourself.
  • As Taking Care of Things takes its toll, your alcoholic tendencies get increasingly out of hand. You get sent home from work and suspended, pending a review by the Board of Directors after a month of outpatient rehab treatment.
  • Having been given a generous second chance at the job, you blow it almost immediately and get sent home again, this time with a termination letter.
  • Go to jail for Driving Under the Influence. (Do not pass “Go,” definitely do not collect $200. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card.) Embark on a year with suspended license (get to know the public bus routes!) and brace yourself for two years of Probation and peeing-in-cups.
  • a gingerbread house on Rehab-Eve

    a gingerbread house on Rehab-Eve

    Two days before Christmas, call your ex and ask him to take the kids so you can check yourself into an inpatient rehab center. Spend the evening building a gingerbread house with your kids and then drop them off with their Christmas presents. The artificial Christmas tree will never make it out of the box.

  • Check yourself into Rehab, subject yourself to a strip-search and confiscation of your toiletries (including feminine hygiene products—although why you need to be protected from those is a mystery). Meet the Old Hawai’ian Guy, introduced by the ward-nurse as “the guy who takes care of everybody.” Engage him in a gripe-session about having to ask a male nurse for your “female supplies;” because this is your first-ever conversation with him, he will dub you “The Maxi-Pad Lady.” Spend Christmas day constructing the exact same gingerbread house you just built with your kids, playing badminton in the hospital cafeteria, and singing a karaoke duet (with the Old Guy) of the Beach Boys’ Kokomo. Fall asleep clutching your childhood teddy bear, hating Rehab, and missing your kids.
  • HuakaiKapono

    “Spiritual Journey”

    Check out of Rehab several weeks later with no earthly idea what to do with your life. Offer to rent a room to the Old Hawai’ian, who needs a new place. Begin addressing the “what-next” question as a team. Get your first tattoo: a honu (turtle) with the Hawai’ian words Huaka’i Kapono—a reference to Recovery that translates loosely as “Spiritual Journey.” Realize that you love Ink.

  • After five months of fruitless job-hunting (your impressive resume no longer being worth the paper it’s printed on in the field for which you trained), you beg your parents for a business-start-up loan to open a Hawai’ian BBQ restaurant with your Hawai’ian Guy. Your parents are blessedly willing to believe in you despite yourself, your recent history, and your lack of business background (or, for that matter, kitchen skills; your mother had already given up on you in this regard when she sent you off to college with a cookbook titled “How to Boil an Egg”)…
  • Creativity, Desperation, and Determination seem to make for a workable business plan. Several months after opening, your new restaurant holds a top spot in the BBQ category of UrbanSpoon, and you begin catching up on your bills.
  • Call your Sister and your Guy’s best friend on a Monday night and ask them to meet you at the courthouse before work the next morning. Marry your Hawai’ian with those two cherished witnesses, and then head over to open your restaurant for the day.
  • 4ebcc7d6fc5888b7f96987651cd68f17_zps023309f6Enjoy the restaurant’s success, and family life, for a year before throwing everything away (not “losing it”—throwing it away) by picking up the bottle again. Your house goes into foreclosure, car repossessed, business gone, and (WORST!) you lose your share of custody of your kids.
  • Sober up again, find a trailer to live in, eke a living by freelance writing, and fight your way back to the most important thing: time with your kids. Learn how to blog. Find joy in writing, and in simple things that don’t require money. Practice gratitude. Remember, in this round of Recovery, to continue nurturing your marriage and praying with your husband—things that helped you both to stay Sober before.
  • After a couple years of bartering and scrounging and scraping by, your husband ages enough to cash in his retirement account (from the career he crashed-and-burned through drinking), and that it’s enough to re-open the restaurant. Immerse yourself for a year and a half in a second round of (successful) restauranteuring… And then remember again, just before your 40th birthday, that you love to write, and “dust off” your dormant blog…
Have I learned anything at 40? Maybe to "hang loose" and let God's plans happen

Have I learned anything at 40? Maybe to “hang loose” and let God’s plans happen

I suppose it’s a common enough (if self-indulgent) urge to take stock of your life when you hit a birthday ending with a zero… And I wonder if it’s also common for people to find themselves shaking their heads at the unexpectedness of their path so far. I’m betting it’s far more common than a “Life” boardgame (or a million other cultural and media messages) would have us believe. (And I’m damned sure that “more money” doesn’t constitute an automatic win.)

Sure, some of the events of the last decade are things I hadn’t yet planned at 30, but they at least fit with my ideas about myself (like the career in online teaching & the move to administration). But there are so many more things that I never, never would have believed (at 30) a part of my future. Divorce. Arrest. Career termination. Academic failure. And that “unexpected” category includes the positive twists as well; I would have laughed my ass off at anybody who foretold I’d own a restaurant!

If I’ve become any wiser in the last ten years, it’s a simple matter of acknowledging the Journey. I accept now that God’s plans are better than mine; that even trials and tough spots can contribute to growth and joy; and that (even when I think I have a plan) I truly have no idea what’s in store for me on the road still to come. Today, I’ll focus on today’s segment of the Journey, and whatever it brings. Huaka’i Kapono.


Full Circle: At the Wheel

leaning on my original "Scubaru" by Lake Pend Orielle in northern Idaho,1993

leaning on my original “Scubaru”—at northern Idaho’s Lake Pend Orielle,1993

Dad took me car-shopping my Senior year of high school, explaining that although he’d drive the new car for a while, it was intended eventually for my use. I pictured myself in a Jeep Cherokee: four-wheel-drive, room in the back for dive gear and camping kit, a rack on top for my parents’ old orange canoe, and plenty of under-carriage clearance for the treacherous Forest-Service roads I enjoyed exploring. Instead of a Jeep, though, we drove away in a 1990 Subaru Loyale wagon—less expensive (even new), and with the same 4WD, clearance, and room in the back for all the stuff I imagined packing for my upcoming Life Adventures.

As planned, my dad drove the wagon for a couple years, periodically taking me to an empty lot at the edge of town for lessons in driving the stick-shift.  And eventually—once I’d learned not to lurch around the lot or assassinate the engine—he turned over the keys.

Subaru canoe

Set for Adventure, 1996

I’d thought myself clever to come up with “SCUBARU” as a personalized plate—but someone else had beat me to it! With sailing, scuba-diving, and canoeing in mind, I settled on WTRLOGD for the plates… Still, I come from a family that names cars, and this one would always be “Scubaru” to me.

I loaded her up at various times with Forest Service maps, tent and camp-stove, hiking boots, canoe paddles, picnic blanket, books and camera and journal… And over the years my trusty vehicle & I ventured forth to “fill in” the Idaho atlas with tracks of where-we’d-been. A five-foot map of the state hung on my wall, with all my roaming & rambles marked in highlighter pen—and at every opportunity I interspersed those outings with forays to the Pacific coast.

Scubaru proved her worth over and over again. In a blinding snowstorm atop Washington’s Snoqualmie pass, when most of the cars on the road were either pulled over or slid onto the shoulders, I put on my chains and kept right on going. An ice storm in Oregon’s Colombia Gorge encased trees, signs, and roadway in inches of solid ice, but Scubaru crept cautiously all the way to Portland, accompanied by the explosive acoustics of bursting trees alongside the road.

Subaru Sawtooth camping

Camping “off-road” in the Sawtooth National Forest, 1998

After one particularly hairy drive in the Sawtooths (a pot-holed and washed-out dirt road, no wider than the car and without turn-outs for passing—just a sheer drop, inches from the passenger tires) I spotted a warning sign: “NO passenger vehicles.” (Oops. If there were a companion sign at the other end of the road where I started, I’d missed it!) I had to peel my fingers off the steering wheel to pat Scubaru’s dashboard and congratulate her with a heartfelt “Good girl!”

Of course, even four-wheel-drive isn’t foolproof. (Though Dad also taught me not to BE a fool; specifically, not to drive into tricky conditions with the 4WD already engaged—because if you get stuck when you’re in 4WD, you’re really stuck!) Nevertheless, I had to dig her out of a couple spots. I used a snowshoe to scoop a back tire out of a snowbank in the Boise National Forest, and in the Salmon-Challis Forest put my grandpa’s collapsible Army shovel to use, extracting her from a mire of mud where a beaver dam had flooded the road…

Subaru Washington beach

Washington Coast “beach highway,” 1997

When a downpour threatened a planned picnic along the Snake River, I popped open the tailgate and happily set my spread in the back of the car.  Sheltered by the overhanging door, I savored my strawberries & brie to the soundtrack of raindrops pelting the roof. On a couple occasions, with lightning storms too close for comfort in an exposed tent, I folded down the back seats and stretched out to sleep.

On the shore of Big Trinity Lake, I woke one morning to drifts of snow piled against my tent-corners, and had to chip my solid-frozen bacon from the cooler with a hatchet… but Scubaru scooted me safely back down the mountain, heater blasting.

Along the Washington Coast where stretches of beach serve as legally designated “highway,” I misjudged the incoming tide and dashed the last leg with waves licking the tires and wipers warding off wads of sea-foam blowing against the glass. Scubaru served staunchly through many a scrape and adventure.

With a little love and care, a Subaru will run forEVER. I drove that one for close to twenty years, and I might still be driving her… But when I departed my first marriage, I didn’t stop to quibble about any of the community-property stuff. Not long after I moved out, the wagon was also absent from her accustomed spot in front of my ex’s house… I never inquired about her fate.

2014: “Kana Girl’s Hawai’ian BBQ” license-plate holder on the NEW (old) Scubaru

Fast forward a few years… My husband started making noises this summer about the red 1989 Subaru Loyale parked in front of our neighbor’s house: I wonder if they’d consider selling it. I countered with “practical” negatives—we work together and don’t need a second car, they’d have posted a sign if they wanted to sell… But Keoni recognized what I hadn’t acknowledged even to myself: my affectionate nostalgia for that whacky wandering wagon.  In no time at all he had negotiated a sale-price, payable primarily in the form of a sizable certificate to our restaurant.

Subaru Scubaru

20-odd years later: the SCUBARU plates!

Next thing I knew, I was slipping into the driver’s seat of a car that felt as familiar and comfortable as a favorite old pair of jeans.

Keoni and our son Kapena are plotting “improvements” to the engine and paint and upholstery… Fixing her up will be a fun family project, but I’m content already. I’m “back” in my very first car, and behind her wheel I’ve come full circle. This time with the SCUBARU plates!

*************


From Noah’s Ark to Yellow Submarine

busted pipes

an unwelcome sight beneath our home at two in the morning

I jinxed myself, no doubt about it. When I wrote last week about our growing tribe of pets and animals, I ended by saying I hoped we wouldn’t be floating away like Noah’s Ark. Just a couple nights later–Saturday night, to be specific, or rather, the “wee hours” of Sunday morning–Keoni woke me to say there was a distinct sound of gushing water beneath us. Oh, that can’t be good.

Bundled up in bathrobes and sweatshirts, we emerged from our back door with a flashlight, stepped over the rivulets of water streaming out from underneath the trailer, and pulled the skirting off the side beneath our bathroom. Sure enough, the main water line was in free-flow.

flooded

the remains of our “lake,” Sunday afternoon

Our favorite neighbor, Bill, is also the maintenance guy for our trailer park, so Keoni was knocking on his door as early as we deemed decent. (The sun wasn’t quite up, but the sky was light… All three of us realized afterward that the nation’s clocks had been set back during the night, so we really woke him at an earlier hour than we’d intended…)

Bill answered the door in his pajamas; Keoni greeted him brightly with the observation that it was Sunday at our house, and he just wanted to see if it were Sunday at Bill’s house too. Oh, and by the way… Our trailer was now sitting in a veritable lake, and could Bill come take a look?

Times like this, we’re glad that our home is propped up on cement blocks ABOVE the ground. We’re also glad we’re on a well, and not paying for all the water that was suddenly surrounding us. (Not even feeling guilty; it’s headed straight back to the water table it came from.)

Neighbor Bill, prepared to swim beneath our trailer

Keoni whipped up some French Toast for all of us while Bill crawled underneath to wrestle with our pipes (and modeled his sense of humor along with the life-jacket I jokingly fetched for him)… Before noon we had running water IN the house again, and our moat gradually began to recede.

I’ve had the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” song stuck in my head ever since. That’s absurd, of course, since our home was mercifully NOT “beneath the waves”–but somehow that song is sticking with me anyway. I think it’s not even about the flooding.

I have (at long last!) begun writing a book. A book of my own—which is a topic we’ve talked about every time I’ve been commissioned to ghost-write an e-book for someone else. Hell (we keep saying), if I can knock out a book on astrology or vitamins or the Foreign Exchange system (topics in which I really have no interest or background—just solid research skills), why am I not writing the book I want to write? So now I am. Working title: “Your Backyard Homestead: Sustainable Living, Wherever You Live.”

And still humming “Yellow Submarine”…

“…and we live a life of ease; every one of us has all we need…” I’ve always associated the phrase “life of ease” with affluence, but that’s not necessarily so. After all, I’m paying the bills by doing the one thing that comes most easily to me: wrangling words. And I get to spend my days in this home I love (moat or no), with my husband and our kids (and the cat and the ferret and the chickens and the mice)… I love my life. I am happy. No, more than that. I am joyful. The official U.S. “poverty line” is still a target way above our heads, but we have all we need. And right there we have the heart and the core of my book!

“…and our friends are all onboard; many more of them live next door…” I’ve been reading Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss. It’s a humorous and insightful look at the nature of happiness, and the things that actually make people happy. He observes, among other things, that people often say “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but then proceed to behave as if it did. Social science studies show that money does affect happiness–but only up to a point. And that point, he explains, is a lowly fifteen thousand dollars a year. With the basics of security (and, interestingly, dignity) taken care of, additional funds don’t translate into additional levels of happiness. This idea, too, fits in with the premise of the book I’m writing.

Weiner also illustrates that many factors that do add to people’s happiness are tied to social interactions. Trust. Family ties. Cultural connections. Community identity. Neighborliness. He observes at one point that when we get money, we tend to use it to buy walls. Richer people are likely to have taller fences, essentially–and poorer people may have known neighbors instead. Which of those things make us happier? Why, the people-connections! When I shared that bit with Keoni, he pointed out that the thought was exactly in line with a blog-post I write a while back, on the Dying(?) Art of Knowing Your Neighbors.  As I think about it, our neighbor-relations have also contributed substantially to our “homesteading” lifestyle—everything from our ability to scrounge and barter to our collaborative efforts last summer in Bill’s vegetable garden.

the rock Keoni painted for Elena Grace, whose favorite song is Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

The “Yellow Submarine” song, after all, isn’t about getting overwhelmed or swept away by flood. It’s about living joyfully among other people in a state of satisfaction. Small wonder if that’s been playing in my head all week.

Come to think of it, even Noah’s Ark (the original “swept away by water” story) ended with a Rainbow of Promise.


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