My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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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!