My Year Away. And Back.

Three Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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Grab a Book and Count Down to New Years!

It’s just a couple of days until the hubster and I leave for our two-week cruise.  We’re finishing our chores here at our beach house where it is ridiculously cold.  (Truth be told, I’m relieved that the weather is so bad. It makes “Hey, let’s leave the beach and go to the Caribbean” a lot more logical.)

As we take down our Christmas decorations (which so far has taken a total of about 10 minutes—I definitely went “minimalist” this year), I’ve been putting things in our cruise suitcase to make sure we remember everything we need for the next two weeks. At the top of the list are appropriate books to read. While Holland America ships typically have decent libraries on them, I don’t want to leave our reading to chance on this trip.  Considering we aren’t interested in many of the official ship activities (seriously, who plays Bingo, anyway?!), having the right books to read is critical.

I picked two: An Odyssey, a memoir by English professor Daniel Mendelsohn who takes his dad on a cruise through the locations of–wait for it–The Odyssey.  I heard the author on NPR and I was intrigued.  For my second book, I chose Return to Glow, a memoir by Chandi Wyant about her pilgrimage on the Via Francigenia in Italy. I’ll read just about anything if it mentions Italy so this was a no brainer.

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Can’t wait to read this book on our cruise!

Selecting these books made me think about books that left indelible imprints on my heart—and also the books that got away from me.  During my sabbatical, when I was first dabbling with blogging, I had a “practice blog” called The Professor & Her Garden that I used during my WordPress Blogging 101 online class. For one of the daily assignments, I wrote about 10 books that influenced me.  Packing my new books for my cruise reminded me of that post.  So, first, here is the list of 10 books I mentioned at The Professor & Her Garden.

  1. That Hideous Strength (C.S. Lewis).  This book has it all.  Space travel; marriage advice; university politics; wizardry.  I first read THS at Oxford during my study abroad.  It’s my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it at least 20 times.  I own the paperback edition (that I loan to friends), a hard-cover American edition (that I read myself), and a British hard copy edition that I keep on the shelf with all my other C.S. Lewis books.
  2. This Perfect Day (Ira Levin).  I read this book in 9th grade and it rocked my world.  It’s creepy, other worldly, surprising, weird, thought-provoking, iconoclastic.  Everything in this book is topsy turvy, which, for a 9th grader, made for perfect reading.  Move over Holden Caufield.
  3. My Losing Season (Pat Conroy).  There is no question that I am crazy about Pat Conroy.  A bit of a stalker, really.  I live in the same town as Conroy did and I used to see him periodically at the grocery store.  (I made note of his grocery cart contents.)  I have a photo of his dad’s (The Great Santini) gravestone on my IPhone. And, sadly, I now have a picture of his grave as well.  I love, love, love his books.  But his book about playing basketball at the Citadel really resonated with me. I am still sad over his death, though—and maybe even a little angry—so I haven’t been able to read any of his books since he passed.
  4. The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear (Oliver Butterworth).  I read this book in grade school and it impressed me to no end.  It’s about a girl who “hears things” and ultimately ends up on a quiz show where she hears all the answers.  Freaky, ethics, and a strong female leading character.  What more could an independent little girl want? I loved this book so much as a kid, I decided to order it on Amazon and read it as an adult. Yikes. It’s really a terribly written book.  Henceforth, I think I’ll forgo re-reading “my childhood favs.”
  5. Drawn to the Rhythm:  A Passionate Life Reclaimed (Sara Hall).  This book is really about how rowing saved Sara’s life.  It’s heart-wrenching but inspirational.  I think of this book every time I don’t feel like going out on the water because I don’t want to row by myself, or it’s too cold, or too windy, or any other million reasons. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I might replace Drawn with Boys in the Boat as my all-time favorite.
  6. Straight Down a Crooked Lane (Francena Arnold).  I can’t tell you how many times I read this book when I was a little kid, but it was a bunch.  It had romance, tennis, and race relations–all rather mind-blowing to me as a child.  Whenever I would read this book, I would think about what a great movie it would make.  I decided that Jimmy Stewart should play the father.  I felt really sad when Stewart died, in part, because he wouldn’t have the chance to play the role of, what I was sure, would be Oscar worthy. Based on my experience with rereading The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear, however, I now have second thoughts about its movie possibilities.
  7. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand).  Reading this book in 12th grade made me feel super grown up.  I wanted to be an architect and I admired Howard Rourk’s independent spirit.  I was a polar opposite to Rand’s philosophy, but I plowed through all her books in high school—and loved them all.  I even wrote a children’s book based on objectivism for an English creative writing class.  It was called Fritzi of Frumple Forest (or something like that).  My teacher wanted me to try to get it published.  I was horrified.
  8. Areopagitica (John Milton).  I was a mediocre (at best!) English Literature undergraduate student (more about that below), but I sure did love Milton.  No matter what college class I teach now, I always find a way to quote Areopagitica.  “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”  Seriously. Can’t you feel your heart racing?
  9. A Girl Named Zippy (Haven Kimmel).  This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Kimmel manages to get to the heart of what growing up in the ’50s was like.  I’m not kidding.  The writing is brilliant.  My daughter read Zippy right after me and guffawed at least as much as I did.  Years later, it has remained a book that makes the two of us laugh just thinking about it.
  10. The Time Bridge (Carol Pardun).  I wrote this young adult novel as my creative thesis project for my master’s degree in communications.  It’s a science fiction, young adult book in the spirit of Madeline L’Engle (or that was my hope, anyway).  It is about time travel and tennis.   I didn’t publish the book (I’m sure it needs lots of work), but it showed me that I could write something long from start to finish.  It let me successfully finish my master’s degree, which spurred me on to seek the PhD.  While my dissertation was nothing remotely similar to The Time Bridge, I like to think that my first attempt at a book-length manuscript provided the framework for successfully completing my degree.

So, those are the books I read.  But what about the books I didn’t read? I’ll say it again.  I was an English Literature major in undergraduate school.  What you do in that major is read books. A lot of them. So how in the world did I miss these?

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird. I know, I know. It’s embarrassing. I’ve tried the excuse that I was an English lit major, which means I studied mostly English stuff.  And, yes, I know that everyone read this in high school. But when I was in high school, I took English electives.  That’s where I was introduced to Ayn Ran and Ira Levin (see above).  I also took a class called “Hell.” (I’m sure it was actually called something else.)  We read The Inferno, No Exit, and Damn Yankees to name a few.  Going to high school in the early ‘70s offered some interesting experiences. I don’t know why I haven’t read Mockingbird (I haven’t even seen the movie), but at this point, I sort of feel like I’m committed to this short coming.  Like the people who have never seen a Star Wars movie. They are out there.
  2. War and Peace. I like books about war. And books about peace.  And long books. So this doesn’t make any sense.  But, for whatever reason, I have decided it’s just too late for me to read this book. Or any other Tolstoy for that matter.
  3. The Great Gatsby. So, I have seen the movie (the one with Robert Redford) and I didn’t like it all that much. (I did see The Way We Were about a zillion times, however.) I started feeling guilty about this recently after reading an essay about Tender Is the Night, written by a newly retired English professor friend of mine. I realized anew just how lacking my American Literature background is.  I think my demise started when I read Flannery O’Connor.  I pretty much have been running from American literature ever since.

I could go on and on about all the books I have not read.  But, I’ve decided to think about the books that I have read—and the impact that they have had on me. And to also think about the books that await me.  I have a quote on my office wall by (of course!) C.S. Lewis: “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” For the next two weeks, I’m planning on curling up in a comfortable chair out on the deck of a gargantuan ship, reading my new books, periodically lifting my head high enough to soak in the sun and contemplate the ocean—and other vast things. Not a bad way to start 2018 even if it is devoid of some classics that I know I should have read. I’ve got two weeks of nothing to do but read, think, and hang out with the hubs. Reality will start knocking soon enough.  But for now, grab a book and an afghan (unless you happen to be in the Caribbean) and celebrate! Happy New Year!

 


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Can you have a mid-life crisis when you’re 61?

Okay, okay.  I know I’m past middle age (At least I know that when I’m thinking straight).  That being said, ever since returning from Italy on June 6, I’ve been contemplating the next phase of life.  Usually, I phrase it something like this:  “ARGHHHH!  There’s not much time left!  I’m 2/3 of the way through life. IF. I’M. LUCKY. What happened?  So much to do! So much to do!”

Since learning to live with achalasia, I’ve spent a lot more time contemplating “What’s next?” than I would normally be inclined to do. Clearly, I’ve had some sort of massive wake-up call.  For example, I’ve always planned to work until I’m 70. And why not? Being a tenured full professor is a fantastic profession. Job security. Good pay. Flexible hours. Extremely liberal vacation time.   Who would walk away from that?

Except, I just had the vacation of a lifetime. And I want more. I loved being in a different culture. And I want more of that. I loved crossing the ocean at 15-20 knots (i.e., slowly) with time to stare out into the horizon wondering about everything or nothing.  I want more of that, too.

Seventy as a retirement age is starting to sound too far into the future. I’m not getting any younger. Clearly. I used to look younger than my age. But, people no longer stare with their mouths agape when they find out I have grandchildren. Sometimes I’m given the Senior Citizen Discount. Without asking.  And, more than once recently, I’ve had acquaintances assume I’m retired—and look a bit of a confused when I tell them I’m still working.  Heck, I’m not even Social Security eligible yet.

In my “I’m getting old!” full freak-out mode, I’ve noticed more creaks and moans coming from my body. Recently while rowing, I damaged my “sits bone” (the ischial tuberosity for anyone who is interested in keeping up with my continued bizarre medical escapades) and for the first time, I’ve wondered if it might be time to sell my racing scull.

We own two houses (one at the beach and one in the city), which take a modicum of effort to keep in good shape.  Lately, I’ve walked around both houses thinking about things we should start getting rid of.  (Including at least one of the houses.)

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Here’s a view of our island at high tide.

I met with the retirement guy to get his opinion on whether we have enough money to retire sooner than later.  And, I’ve read just about every online publication Social Security offers trying to figure out if I know enough to make the decision to retire.

As for the hubster, he’s taking my whirling dervish “let’s do something” activity in stride. Occasionally, he’ll listen in when I say I’ve found the perfect cruise that leaves Amsterdam and travels through Iceland and Greenland on its way back to the States. Apparently, I have just developed a NEED to see the Arctic Circle. I think I’ve convinced the hubster that we need to get our next adventure to Italy set right now.  We’ve booked an apartment in Nereto, Italy, next July.  I’ve never heard of Nereto. either, but apparently I need to go there as well.

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I can’t wait to go back to Italy to see more views like this!

I’m studying Italian every day—determined to be at least 50% fluent before I return. I’ve read that studying another language helps delay brain deterioration.  So, now I’m worried that my brain is deteriorating. (Drat! I broke my 29-day streak on Duolingo.)

Big breath. Sigh. Here’s the thing. Yeah, I’m getting older. But my life has been pretty awesome—and it looks like it might be pretty awesome in the future as well. (I’ve got my next trip to Italy planned so it can’t be all bad, right?) I’m normally not a freak-out kind of person. Maybe a wake-up call once in a while is good. And maybe visiting the Arctic Circle really is a good idea.  Who knows? But, what I do know is that I’ve had an amazing summer—and now it’s time to get back to work. The fall semester starts in just a few days.  Looks like I’m not retiring this year no matter what the retirement guy says.  And that’s okay. I’ve got time. I hope.

 

 

 


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When Achalasia Takes Vacation

As you all know, the hubster and I recently travelled through France and Italy to celebrate our 40th anniversary.  You all also know that I had put so much planning, hope, and expectations on this trip that some people (okay, my husband) was concerned I might be disappointed.  I mean what trip could possibly live up to a vacation I had spent untold hours thinking about, rethinking about, and then thinking about again?  Those of you who know me well, know that I have a vivid imagination.  Believe me, there was not one inch of this trip that I didn’t think about (multiple times) before we left.

So, how was it?  In a word, Epic.  I mean utterly, truly, unbelievably epic.  It was what I had hoped it would be.  And then some.

I could point to any number of reasons it was so magical.  Spending a month with the best guy ever would be one reason.  Being out in the middle of the ocean for two weeks would be another.  Breath-taking scenery everywhere we turned would be yet another.

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The ship hadn’t even left port and I was already relaxed!

But, eating the food was a highlight that was so delightful, it’s difficult to describe.  Simply put, I ate with gusto on this trip. And, I ate a lot.  In fact, I am positive that I ate more in one month than I have eaten over the entire past year.  One night, for example, we decided to take a break from our normal four-course meal at our agritourismo.  We walked into town for a “light” dinner.  This breezy dinner consisted of a pizza for each of us (Do the math.  That’s two pizzas.), a scoop of gelato (I think on that night I had Nutella and Cream, if you can imagine) and a carafe of wine.  And, just for the record, that entire meal cost about 25 euro.

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This is the restaurant where we had a “light” dinner of pizza, gelato, and wine.

In Italy, if a pasta dish were available (and in Italy, pasta is always available!), I ate it.  Formaggio?  Oh, si, grazie!  Coupled with a delightful (and crazy cheap) local wine, I was happy.

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My lunch in Cortona. And, yes, I ate every bite.

It didn’t stop there.  We ate dessert with just about every meal, which, if you knew my husband (since he doesn’t like sugar), is amazing. At one restaurant, we even shared three desserts, each one yummier than the one before.

My achalasia was clearly on vacation.

I first started noticing that I was eating easily during our transatlantic cruise. While you hear stories of people piling their plates at the buffet with bacon (yes, I did see people eat way too much bacon in one sitting), waffles, and everything else they could grab, there were wonderful healthy choices that were truly mouthwatering.  Oatmeal for breakfast, exotic soup for lunch (and usually ice cream afterwards), salmon and vegetables for dinner.  I loved the food on the ship and ate it with joy.  I was relaxed and breathed deeply while sitting on our balcony.  Over the two-week cruise, I only had to pause and consider whether I could continue to eat (usually the answer was yes!) just a few times.

In Italy, I only had one semi-major constriction of my esophagus and I wasn’t even eating then.  It was while driving on a mountainous, supposedly two-lane road with 180-degree hairpin turns about every two minutes. I think anyone fearing a heart attack would be justified at that moment.

Before our trip, I considered whether I needed to worry about gaining weight over the month. After all, the only good thing about achalasia was that I was able to shed my excess weight.  What if it came back? I even brought a pair of my old-size pants just in case I wouldn’t be able to fit into my new-size clothes by the end of vacation.  I finally concluded that if I found I could eat, I wasn’t going to worry (much!) and that gaining up to 10 pounds would be acceptable and well worth the price for eating fabulous food.

But I didn’t gain weight.  Not even a pound.

I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps I ate less than I thought.  (Even if true, I’ve got pictures of the entire pizzas I devoured so I know I ate a lot.)  Perhaps exercise kept the extra weight away (Yes, we walked a lot, but I don’t think it would be possible to walk enough to keep the “calories in/calories out” equation even partially balanced.). Perhaps I only ate good-for-you food.  That was mostly true, but a big bowl of pasta has some serious calories, no matter which way you count them.  And, as for the 5 oz. of wine per day is good for you medical recommendation, yes, well…

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Just taking a rest before gearing up for a four-course dinner.

I think it was a miracle. A full-blown “hey, I’m going to give the girl a break just because I can” kind of miracle.  A challenging year of barely eating ended with a flat-out celebration of the goodness of food.  Ecclesiastes 7:14 begins “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” I’ve had a bit of adversity—not much compared to others, but I’ve shed a few tears—and from May 6 to June 6, I had joy.  Complete freedom to eat without worry.

Since we’ve been back, I continue to do well, but I certainly can’t eat the way I ate on vacation.  I’m back to thinking carefully about my food, paying attention to the pains, drinking plenty of hot water when I get into trouble.  In short, I have nearly daily reminders that I still have achalasia and I always will.

But, that’s okay.  I got a glimpse of joy.  My favorite author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”  I might be stretching here, but I think I got a glimpse of a sliver of heaven on this trip. And it looks a lot like Tuscany.


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A Gastronomic Epic Anniversary Trip Right Around the Corner.

I know it might seem like I am obsessed with food.  I’m not.  Okay, actually, maybe I am.  But when you’re staring into the abyss and wondering if you’ll ever eat like a normal person again, it makes you pause.

That’s one reason when I discovered I had Achalasia about the same time my husband and I started planning our 40th anniversary trip, we quickly zeroed in on France and Italy—both places that excel in foods we like to eat. The idea was that we’d celebrate our anniversary—and the joy of being able to eat again post surgery.  During the darkest days leading up to my surgery in February and ongoing recovery ever since, when I was feeling particularly bad, I’d close my eyes and imagine myself sitting in a small Parisian café, eating split pea soup with a touch of sherry ladled out of a white porcelain tureen.  Or sitting in a Tuscan village pizzeria tasting that first beautiful bite of pizza con pomodoro.

No doubt about it, I love food.  When I think about the best times of my life, it often includes eating something delicious, often with my favorite people.  Here are some of the best times I’ve ever had eating.

  • Eating alone in Tbilisi, Georgia. I prefer not to eat alone, but sometimes, there is no choice. Right before my sabbatical started, I spent about a month in Tbilisi, Georgia (the country, not the state), teaching a class. It was my second time in the country, but the first when I was alone for most meals.  That made the comfort of food even more important. When I ate “Georgian beans” I never felt lonely.  It’s hard to describe how delicious Georgian “lobani” are.  But, every time I ate them, I felt better, I felt at home, and I felt like everything would be okay.

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    A simple meal, but until you’ve eaten Georgian beans, you don’t really know what comfort food is.

  • Eating dinner at the Alvah Stone. My friend Kathy F moved from South Carolina to Massachusetts and I visited her a few years ago on my way to an academic conference.  Converted from an old mill, the Alvah Stone restaurant had it all—including an incredible chef.  We didn’t know what to expect, but it surpassed everything we could imagine.  We enjoyed the food (and wine!) so much that as the hours rolled by, the chef eventually came out of the kitchen to say hello.  I seem to remember an inventive take on gnocchi, a hint of lavender water in the shortbread, and a dry Riesling that made me swoon.  It remains a dinner for the record books.

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    The chef at the Alvah Stone was delighted that Kathy and I loved his food.

  • Creating a send-off dinner party. My friend Marcie and I cooked and hosted a dinner party last summer to celebrate our friend Kathy R who was heading up north to begin her presidency of Westminster College. We invented a cocktail (the Presidential Cocktail, of course) and cooked our hearts out (does blueberry soup with toasted pound cake croutons ring a bell?) as we toasted our dear friend.

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    The Presidential Cocktail that Marcie and I invented was just the beginning of this send-off dinner party.

  • Independence Day every year. Speaking of Marcie, many of my epic food experiences involve Marcie. And one of my favorite culinary events is the 4th of July when Marcie heads down to our beach house for a weekend of sun, relaxation and epic cooking.  Over the 4th, you can be sure that a blueberry pie will emerge along with any number of salads, fish, and veggies.  Cooking with Marcie is always grand.

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    I’ve made a lot of pies in my life, but there is nothing like a blueberry pie in July.

  • Cooking for the hubster. One of the joys of cooking is to cook for people I love. And the ultimate example here is cooking for my husband, Gary.  One of the many great things about my mate is that he always appreciates when I cook for him.  Doesn’t matter what it is, he eats it and (usually) likes it.  During our 40 years of marriage, I don’t think he has ever complained about something I cooked.  (And this includes the tater tot casserole with canned peas I made when we were poor and newly married.)

And now here we are, one week before we leave on our “big trip.”  In my mind, I have imagined in exquisite detail every meal I am hoping to eat during our 31 days away.  There are the four-course meals on our transatlantic cruise.  We’re sitting by the window at a table for two, gazing out at the sea, savoring a mango and feta salad.  Or a pile of heirloom tomatoes with a balsamic reduction.

Or, we’re grabbing a croissant in Paris on our way to a stroll along the Seine.  Or we’re tucking in to a piece of focaccia in Recco, Italy (which happens to be where focaccia was invented). Or eating dinner at our agritourismo in Tuscany, rendered speechless by the lightness of the homemade pasta.

Gary’s worried that I’ve played these scenarios out in my head so many times, the reality of our trip will not live up to my dreams of it.

But, I’m not worried.  The trip is already an unmitigated success in my mind, however it ends up in reality.  During the most painful days of my recovery, I would close my eyes and imagine the cooking class I’m planning to take in Italy.  Or the gelato I am planning to eat.  Or the breakfast on our balcony during our ocean crossing.

All of these dreams involve my husband.  He’s looking forward to the trip, but probably not to the level that I am.  He’s been on one cruise.  And he hated it.  Still, he is willing to take a two-week transatlantic cruise where we will spend many days at sea (and no way to get off the ship no matter what the weather is like, or how loud the people are, or how obnoxious the lessons in making animals out of towels may be).  And any ideas I have had about what to do while we’re in France and Italy, he has basically said, “Sure, sounds great.”

He is taking this trip to make me happy.  I am already happy over the whole thing.  This 40th wedding anniversary trip is already one for the record books.  And nothing like weather, long lines—or even achalasia—is going to change that.  I’m spending an entire month with the man who, as a college student, saw my potential.  What in the world did we know so long ago?

Turns out, we knew more than we thought we did. And that makes me happy.  And grateful.  So Bon Voyage! Ci vediamo quando torniamo!