Happy Light– Happy Winter

There’s a reason animals hibernate. Bears generally enter their dens in September or October and emerge around April. As we battle the polar vortex, a bear’s life sounds quite appealing. But, for those who remain awake during the harsh northern winters, the days are often bitingly cold, dark and bleak. fullsizeoutput_4892

Some people enjoy the winter cold and are unfazed by frigid temperatures. These hardy souls relish outdoor sports like skiing, ice skating and snow-shoeing. My friend, Vivien, actually gets a thrill from shoveling snow and finds it to be a great workout. I, on the other hand, prefer to avoid the cold, grey weather and mostly remain indoors in the winter. I am one of millions of people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly nicknamed “SAD,”) a type of depression that is thought to be caused by lack of sufficient daylight. Symptoms of SAD begin in the fall and run through the winter, and range from mild irritability or feeling ‘out of sorts,’ to more severe depression. The affliction can sap your energy, cause you to lose interest in activities you usually enjoy, generate mood swings, affect your appetite and mess with your sleep patterns.

I have suffered from SAD for many years, without realizing it had a name. I would brush off the negative feelings that crept up in late fall as simply a case of the ‘winter blues,’ or a seasonal funk that I had to tough out on my own. I now realize that there are steps I can take to keep my mood, energy and motivation steady throughout the year.

Aside from escaping to California for a few weeks each winter– which always boosts my psyche, mood and energy level– I have found a new best friend: the HappyLight. The HappyLight, a white light therapy lamp, comes in a variety of styles which range in price from $30 to upwards of $250. The lower-end model I purchased consists of a 7”x9” light box that emits white light to simulate the natural sunlight (without the dangerous UV rays) we normally receive during the spring/summer months.

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Some of these lamps promise to make you feel like “you’re at the beach all winter long.” For a $45 investment, I figured it was worth a try. For the past two weeks, I have been sitting in front of my HappyLight for 30-45 minutes a day as I work or answer emails. So far, I am thrilled to report that sitting in front of this lamp has both stabilized my mood and upped my energy level. And, although I still detest the cold, I am starting to feel more like my spring/summer self.

Even today, as the thermometer hit zero degrees (with wind chills of -16°,) I felt fine. I walked the dog for 20 minutes, then played with him outside in our yard. I am not going to lie: the bitter cold felt extremely harsh. But I bundled up in layers and handled it. And my mood remains upbeat. Perhaps that’s because I leave tomorrow for California. But I like to think it’s due, at least in part, to my HappyLight.

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Happy Light… Happy Winter.

 

Glass Half Full

The glass-half-full person views most situations hopefully or optimistically. There is always a bright side or a silver lining. By contrast, the glass-half-empty person views life pessimistically. I know plenty of people in each of these camps. Neither vantage point paints a complete picture, as real life is a series of ups and downs. Our daily challenge is to relish the ups and manage the downs as best we can.

I am generally a glass-half-full person. I firmly believe that keeping an optimistic outlook begets actions that produce positive results; expecting bad things to happen prevents one from taking actions to mitigate or avoid those negative outcomes. The word “optimism” actually derives from the Latin word “optima,” meaning the best outcome or belief in the greatest good.

However, even optimistic people like me occasionally lapse into negative thinking. It is easy during the holidays, and especially on New Year’s, to fall into the glass-half-empty mode. We may look back on the past year and on what we set out to achieve and realize that we fell short. Instead of focusing on these shortcomings, I find it far more beneficial to look back and take stock of all I’ve done– how I’ve challenged myself and grown. Even though I haven’t accomplished all I had hoped to, I remain grateful for all I have and am proud of my successes. Each small accomplishment or victory feels like a positive and productive step forward.

So, as 2018 draws to a close and we usher in a new year, I challenge everyone to embrace and learn from our disappointments, setbacks and challenges, and to remember the happy times, the positive events and the good we’ve done. A new year is an opportunity to start over, to move forward and put the past where it belongs. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to regenerate and renew our lives.

In closing, I raise a glass-half-full  of cool, crisp Sauvignon Blanc (I am not a champagne person,) and toast my beloved friends and family… I wish each of you a happy and healthy 2019. My inspiration for the new year is credited to Oprah:

“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.”–– Oprah Winfrey

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Full House

Once again, during this season of giving thanks and acknowledging gratitude, I am reminded of what is most important in life. Although my children are now in their 20’s, it is still wonderful when they return to the nest. I forget how much I crave just hanging in our warm, cozy house– with the immediate family intact– until everyone comes home.

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The last time we were all together was in mid-August, so this has been a long stretch, during which our frenetic lives have continued on. Yet, once we’re reunited it seems like no time has passed. Within minutes, the familiar dinner table banter returns. We sprawl across the couch watching Monday night football, NBA basketball and movies laced with sophomoric humor. We play board games, take neighborhood walks and snuggle with the dog. We live in the moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures that seem so elusive these days.

 

Never mind the multiple trips to the supermarket, health food store, fish market and other local purveyors to ensure that the refrigerator is always filled with healthy foods that meet everyone’s culinary preferences. Never mind my role as a short-order cook, serving up 3-course breakfasts and home-cooked dinners with the dishwasher working overtime. Never mind the piles of clothing and wet towels on the floor and the beds that will remain unmade for days. And never mind the daily loads of laundry. This is but a small price to pay to have the band back together.

When our house is full, I experience a completeness and peaceful comfort that stirs my soul. My sleep is deeper than usual. I am reminded of a TV public service announcement from my childhood: “It’s 10:00 pm. Do you know where your children are?” During four brief nights, the answer is “yes, I do.” They’re home. Right where they’re supposed to be. And everything feels right with the world. My heart is full.

In closing, I am inspired by the lyrics of Homegrown, a song by my favorite musician that also happens to be my cell phone ring tone…

“I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” –– Zac Brown Band

Full house… full fridge… full heart.

The Running of the Sap

When they reach a certain age, some men buy a fast sports car or motorcycle, trade in their middle-aged spouse for a trophy wife, or quit their job and join a rock band. My husband has opted instead for homespun hobbies that tap into his inner provider. Like his affinity for berry picking in the summer, in late winter/early spring, my hubby is in full-blown maple-sugaring mode. In Pamplona, Spain, they have the Running of the Bulls– here in Armonk, New York, we have The Running of the Sap.

Inspired a few seasons ago by neighbors who had tapped their trees and enjoyed maple syrup for months after, my husband became intrigued– and soon obsessed– with collecting sap daily and turning it into homemade maple syrup. Always a fan of Sunday morning pancakes, this new hobby gave him both a purpose as well as something tangible to show for his efforts. Not to mention the environmental benefits of this sustainable practice (my take, not his.) For those not familiar with maple sugaring, turning sap into syrup is a simple, five-step process.

Step 1– Identify a sugar maple tree

This is easy in summer, as the maple leaf is familiar to all. However, in winter– when we are in syrup mode– maple trees can be identified only by bark. The bark is “furrowed,” characterized by deep asymmetrical grooves that are closely spaced between each plate of bark.

Step 2– Tap your maple tree and collect the sap

Drill a 7/16” hole into the tree. The hole should tilt slightly downward. Then insert a spile (a small wooden or metal peg used to control the flow of liquid) into the hole. Hammer gently on the spile until it is secure. If the weather is warm enough, the sap– which is indistinguishable from water– will begin to flow immediately. The sap drips into a bucket or container that hangs from the spile. My husband uses a sturdy ‘sap bag’ with an airtight closure.

 

Step 3– Transfer sap from buckets to storage containers

A single maple tree will generate as much as 2.5 gallons of sap per day. Pour the sap from the bucket or bag directly into the storage container. Any food-grade container may be used to store the liquid. My husband uses large drink coolers. Store the sap at 38°F or colder. If there is still snow on the ground, keep your containers outside, packed in snow. You can also store them in your refrigerator, or for longer-term storage, in your freezer. Sap will spoil quickly if not kept cold.

 

Step 4– Process sap into maple syrup

When you are ready to make maple syrup, pour the sap into a large pot (a “lobster” pot works well) until it is ¾ full. Boil the sap until it reduces down to ¼ – ½ the depth of the pot, then add more sap. It takes 40 parts sap to make 1 part maple syrup (10 gallons of sap yields 1 quart syrup,) so it can be a long process. Once the sap has boiled down and taken on an amber hue, transfer it to a smaller pot. Continue to boil the sap until it takes on the consistency of syrup. Dip a spoon into the liquid; syrup will “stick” to the spoon as it runs off.

 

Step 5– Bottle your syrup and enjoy!

Sterilize your glass bottles and caps in boiling water, then fill them with syrup. Now you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Speaking of labor, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering why someone would dedicate so much time and effort to a pastime with such a low yield. (Just 1-2 quarts of syrup for two weeks of daily labor.) I posed this question to my husband, and here was his response:

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“I enjoy the feeling of living off the land. I’m taking a natural substance from a tree and making it into something tangible that my family and I can eat. And, when I consider the people who typically make maple syrup, I think of quiet, rural areas in Maine and Vermont. I love the rural countryside. However, we live in a densely populated area. When I make maple syrup– or pick wild raspberries like I do in the summer– I get a taste of authentic, country living.”

In short, maple sugaring has proven to be a fun hobby that provides my husband with a strong sense of pride, accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Plus, our entire family gets to reap the benefits, as his homemade syrup is delicious!

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California Dreamin’ Evermore

I open my eyes to expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, as the sun creeps up behind the lush hills of Angel Island. Pristine sailboats rock in the gently rippling water below our window. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmers in the distance inside a cocoon of fog. I realize with a start that I am not dreaming––this is my current reality, at least for a brief while. I am in love with the Bay Area.

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A peaceful early morning in Belvedere, California

This is our fourth winter trading in the harsh east coast weather for a few weeks in California. We have been especially fortunate this year to have dodged several Nor’easters. While winter in the Bay Area does not promise palm trees and tropical temperatures, we are, nonetheless, immensely grateful for weather in the 50’s and 60’s which suits our active, outdoor lifestyle.

 

Moreover, the appeal of California extends beyond its nice weather and natural beauty. As I articulated three years ago in my initial California Dreamin’ blog post: “To love California is to embrace a lifestyle of openness and friendliness…to achieve an ideal balance between seriousness and fun…to naturally smile and greet those you pass on the street…to strike up conversations with strangers everywhere you go…to feel healthy, fit, relaxed and stress-free…and, to marvel at the selection of fine wines available in the local supermarket!”

Being in California fills me with the purest sense of joy, hope and serenity. Breathing in the fresh morning air is invigorating. Running on a sandy path along the bay, unencumbered by multiple layers of clothing, plus hat and gloves, is liberating. Eating a Dungeness Crab Louie salad on the outdoor deck at Sam’s Anchor Café in February is simply blissful…

 

Even the dogs are happier here than anywhere else. With a daily routine of doggie park play dates, mountain hikes and ocean frolics, the ubiquitous tail wagging is not surprising. I understand how the dogs feel, because my tail never stops wagging when I’m in California!

 

The challenging part of being in California is trying to focus on work with so many wonderful distractions all around. The key is to embrace the Cali lifestyle which incorporates an ideal work-play balance. We have happily discovered that if you work productively and efficiently, you are rewarded with a glorious selection of outdoor play options before the sun sets.

 

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Redwoods & Waterfalls

Choose a seaside walk, a hike among redwoods and waterfalls, a scenic bike ride or a search for colorful sea glass strewn along local beaches. It’s all good.

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While in the Golden State, I am content deep in my soul. I am my best and truest self. My thoughts are crystal clear and my creative juices flow continuously. This is where I am meant to be. I am happy, relaxed and totally at peace. I sleep more soundly than at home––a major feat for a usually fitful sleeper. If only our golden retriever were here, it would be truly perfect.

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Postscript: A week has passed since I wrote this blog post. My three-week reality is now just a beautiful memory… I have returned home to my cold, grey and snowy world… back to California Dreamin’… on such a winter’s day.

 

 

 

Talking to Strangers

Growing up, I always heeded the parental warning: “don’t talk to strangers.” I am fairly certain that most people of my generation grew up with this similar caution. We never answered the door for someone we didn’t know. We politely declined and kept walking when asked for directions or for the time. And we certainly did not strike up conversations with random strangers just to “be friendly.” Strangers were dangerous. We were trained to avoid them.

At some point in my adult life, I seemingly forgot these warnings. I cannot recall when or why, but some time ago I began not only talking to strangers, but also, engaging many of them in interesting conversations and actually befriending some. I can be virtually anywhere– at a checkout counter… in a movie theater… dining in a restaurant… waiting in an airport… hiking up a mountain… riding a ski lift… or working out in an exercise class– and I will happily strike up a conversation.

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Met some nice strangers waiting in a movie queue for an 8:00 a.m. film…

Whenever I start talking to a stranger, my husband groans and rolls his eyes, as if to say: “here we go again.” I am not purposefully trying to annoy him. Rather, I am naturally friendly and actually get a rush of adrenaline from talking to strangers. During these spontaneous conversations, I usually learn something new, while gaining a different perspective on a particular topic or issue. Sometimes we discover friends in common via the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon. Or, we end up helping one another. And, in certain circumstances it seems easier to tell a stranger something very personal… it feels less risky opening up to someone who doesn’t know you.

I love when a stranger smiles at me and I smile back and we have that wonderful momentary connection. Perhaps it’s my inner California girl shining through. I live on the East Coast, but I spend a lot of time on the West coast and often feel more like a Californian than a New Yorker. In the Golden State, people routinely smile, say hello to strangers and converse with them; it’s part of the open, welcoming culture there. Much less so in New York– except around the Christmas holidays, when everyone is a little bit kinder and friendlier.

Just this morning, I had a wonderful conversation with a stranger. I was waiting in line at a local food market and a woman walked in with a golden retriever. As two “golden retriever people,” we immediately started comparing notes on our dogs. I told her about the rescue group I work with and the story of how we adopted our Golden from Turkey. Then, another woman, who works in the shop, joined the conversation. She, too, apparently had a golden retriever. Within minutes, the three of us had bonded over our dogs. I left the store with two email addresses, two telephone numbers and three new friends– two human and one canine named Harper. I have no doubt we will stay in touch.

So, with apologies to my Mom, I’ve adopted a new guideline: “talk to strangers.” After all, at some point in our lives, every good friend we have was once a stranger.

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The Nest Replenished

If you had told me when I became an empty nester that I would actually miss the piles of dirty clothes and shoes, the daily trips to the grocery store and produce market, the nonstop cooking of omelets, grilled chicken and roasted vegetables and the dirty blender bottles lining the kitchen counter, I would’ve called you crazy.

Well, now I’m rethinking that perspective. Over the past week, I surprised even myself when I discovered that not only did I miss the mess, but also, I longed for it! This meant that our family was intact once again, with both adult children home, a super-happy (albeit mischievous) dog, and a house filled with home-cooked food, animated conversations around the dinner table, laughter over the familiar dim-witted Caddyshack and Animal House jokes and, of course, lots of football & basketball on TV!

Three years ago when our youngest left for college, I launched this blog for the purpose of embracing a new phase of life, embarking upon new adventures and sharing my experiences. My husband and I have fully enjoyed– even celebrated– our empty nester lifestyle. We have relished our newfound spontaneity as we attend concerts, shows and plays, go out frequently on weeknights and travel extensively around the US and abroad. We definitely miss our children, but we stay in close touch and speak to them often. And, most importantly, we are happy that they are each on their own journeys, living their lives.

Yet, for a few brief days this past week, with everyone under one roof, our nest was temporarily full. My responsibilities increased exponentially as I returned to full blown “Mommy Mode,” juggling food shopping, short-order cooking, dish washing, laundry, and the many other tasks that I had cut way back on in recent years.

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I was happy to do all of this for the reward of having my family at home. The experience was completely wonderful and exhausting in equal parts. I loved every minute of it. Interestingly, although our children have grown and matured, we all seem to revert back to our former family roles. Life at home seems so natural and easy… perhaps that’s why it’s important for children to leave the nest and step outside that comfort zone. Nonetheless, I relished our time as a family– sitting around the dinner table and just talking… taking long walks with the dog… watching sports and cheering together for our favorite teams. It is certainly bittersweet to witness our children’s transition into adulthood, but I must admit that, for a few brief days, I fully enjoyed taking care of them.

I did not raise my voice once this week. I gave no unsolicited advice. (well, maybe once, but it wasn’t totally unsolicited.) I did not stress out about the unkempt piles of dirty clothes and the unmade beds. I simply closed the doors to my children’s rooms to hide the mess. I tried to live in the moment and enjoy this quality family time. And, I hugged my son, whom I see so rarely, quite often (I think he was a little annoyed by this, but thankfully, he didn’t protest too much.)

 

Our five days in the replenished nest has come to a close… for now. One child is across the country back at college; the other has returned to real life and work in the city. The laundry is done. The dishes are washed and put away. Our table of four is back to a table of two. Tonight, it will be just me and my husband (and our golden retriever, Casper) watching This Is Us. And yes, this IS us.

The pace is decidedly slower and quieter, but I am good with that. I now realize that our nest is never truly empty, because it remains a warm and welcoming place where we love unconditionally and always feel comfortable just being ourselves.

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Casper figured this out awhile ago…