The Three-Marker Challenge

My PowerAger friends demonstrate that learning never stops. When they retired from their careers, they took up new hobbies, part-time jobs, and community service.  From kayaking to golfing to biking, directing charities and food banks, working locally and travelling far, they continue to flourish.

I have not strayed from my familiar pursuits. But the gift of extended time with the granddaughters broadened my experience. I learned to do the Floss and I can perform the Cup Song from Pitch Perfect. Give me white glue, activator, shaving cream and I can concoct a cloud slime. I know how to play Wii bowling and the live version of Among Us. The Norris Nuts feel like extended family. Once, I had a brief cameo on TikTok.

More aligned to my inclinations is the Three-Marker Challenge.  Each participant gets a coloring page. Ideally, my son has printed three versions of the same picture from his computer. But any three coloring-book pages can work. The bin of markers is placed within reach. One at a time, we each close our eyes and select three markers. We must color the picture using only those three markers.

Coloring proceeds. Mickey Mouse might have purple ears, an LOL girl could end up with a green complexion, and a nature scene might look like vegetation from another planet. I appreciate how the limited palette requires experimentation in contrast and complement. Best of all, we can let go of what is the “right” color for sky, for animals, or even for skin. Artistry rules.

When I first engaged in this challenge, the girls made it a competition. Of course, the person using beige, brown, and gray had a slim chance to win. Peeking accusations sometimes erupted. On occasion I spotted one of the girls planting a particular color on top of the marker pile in advance. Lately, we simply present our results and relish our originality.

If life is like the Three-Marker Challenge, I do not qualify. I have been gifted a full set of broad-tip and fine-tip Crayola markers arranged in rainbow order. I have the colors to create any life I want. In actual life those who got beige, brown, and gray through the luck-of-the-draw face the coloring bias. How can anyone make an appealing life mural without access to the primary colors? We need all the colors to illustrate life’s nuance. No wonder some resort to cheating.

A few rule changes might establish more equity. Allow returns, exchanges, or trades. Or individuals choose three desirable colors. Maybe four. Even more radical, participants might share their markers. Surely, we can find a way for everyone to start with a basic set of eight.

Thanks to my granddaughters I now have a better understanding of Social Marker Justice.

Move Something

My mom could decorate on a dime. She antiqued tables, sewed throw pillows, and framed her own art for the walls.  I remember kitchen curtains from natural muslin which she decorated with bold red and black Xs and Os. She rearranged furniture regularly. Chairs waltzed in and out of rooms. The sofa would give us a view of our wooded back yard, and the next month offer us a seat across from the paneled wall featuring my aunt’s original paintings. The dining room might be converted into a T.V. room, the dining table repurposed as a lamp stand.  Without excess funds to buy new furniture, rearranging gave our house a facelift. A fresh look at no cost.

My husband, Paul, and I have lived in our home nearly five years, and the furniture has remained in place. With excess time spent viewing the same walls this past year, I am ready for change.  I need a fresh look.

When the pandemic began, I retrieved a worn dusty drop-leaf table from the garage. That table became my desk. I used it for Zooming. I held Facetime calls with the grand girls. I wrote letters and blogs on its maple surface. A table that was one truckload away from the thrift store became an asset for stay-at-home life. Regrettably, a cherished antique plate rack that no longer fit behind the newfangled desk went into storage.

My wall upgrade would start by resurrecting the plate rack. I carried it into every room in the house hoping that like a divining rod, it would lead me to its rightful place. It kept drawing me to a wall near our kitchen that was already utilized with four black and white photos of the grand girls. From my tour of rooms, I realized that the girls’ pictures would enhance the family photo gallery in our bedroom. Pictures down, holes filled and painted, I anchored the rack into place.

Rather than plates, I previously used the piece to display children’s books, Pinkalicious, Purplicious, Goldilicious, and Silverlicious. With the grand girls confined in Canada, the display was ineffectual.  I cast around for an idea. In a basket on the floor, I spotted my collection of Thousand Islands publications. They slid willingly into place, boasting history and geography.

The momentum continued. We gathered Paul’s colorful New York hunting licenses from the nineties, arranged them on black matting, and hung the collection. Paul reevaluated his hoard of mounted deer antlers. Some cherished trophies we already have on display. Others from annual hunting trips in Pennsylvania and New York still await their fate. I selected mounted horns from Townsend Hollow, New York. They found a home in our laundry room. Next, we dismantled half a dozen family picture collages from the 80s and 90s. We sorted the photographs into picture boxes, discarded the wooden frames, glass, and faded mats.

Every room in our house enjoyed an upgrade. We made insignificant changes at no cost with little effort. But the results satisfied. My attitude improved and my outlook shifted. My mom clearly understood the principle of physics behind furniture rearrangement:

“Nothing happens until something moves. When something vibrates, the electrons of the entire universe resonate with it. Everything is connected.” -Albert Einstein

Need a pick-me-up? Ready for an attitude adjustment? Yearn for a fresh perspective, but lack the enthusiasm to make big changes? Move something.  

The Subplot

A Canadian Immigration Officer, my antagonist, questioned me today at my place of quarantine. If this is the crisis in the story, as the protagonist I have three choices: resist the existing restrictions (unlawful), return to a Covid-free world (impossible), or prevail and redefine a way forward.

The universal story underlies every aspect of our lives.  A look back reveals all the chapters we have lived. As in a story, obstacles test us. Characters help or hinder us. Hopefully, like protagonists, we grow and transform, using personal strengths to meet the ultimate crisis of each stage.  With extreme difficulties, we might even become heroes.

Every story fits the framework of the universal plot: initiating incident, first energetic marker, second energetic marker, third energetic marker, crisis, climax, and resolution. A subplot can emerge in the middle of a larger story. It follows an ascending line to its own crisis. Once the subplot resolves, attention reverts to the feature story.

When I turned sixty-five, I intended to document the storyline of my senior-hood. For the first two years, I narrated the predictable plot: relocation, grandparenting, and eldercare. Human interest themes dominated with a bit of action from animals and birds. I hoped fellow seniors might relate.

In the middle of my light senior narrative a subplot developed: the pandemic. Just as expected, it follows the universal plot.

INITIATING INCIDENT

 March 11, 2020: Covid-19 is declared a pandemic.

FIRST ENERGETIC MARKER

March 18, 2020: The U.S.-Canadian Border closes. I leave my son’s Canadian home and return to the United States just before border security halts travel.

SECOND ENERGETIC MARKER

June 24, 2020: My husband and I obtain a compassionate exemption to enter Canada with proper documentation and a mandatory self-isolation.  

THIRD ENERGETIC MARKER

January 4, 2021: We reach the 180-day limit as foreign nationals and must return to the U.S.

THE CRISIS

March 3, 2021: We are needed in Canada.

11:30 a.m.: We arrive at the border to enter, but restrictions have intensified.  Officials reject our documents. We return home in defeat.

2:30 p.m.: After regrouping, I obtain the proper documentation and return to the border alone. I fudge some details. I receive instructions on the Quarantine Act. The Immigration Officer allows me to enter.

TRANSFORMATION

A crisis causes the protagonist to see that external events are not the obstacle. The power to control life has always been through choice.

THE CLIMAX

March 9, 2021 10:30 a.m.: An Immigration Officer arrives to confirm my compliance. I answer questions to the best of my ability and the officer appears satisfied. I have done all I can to keep Canadians safe. Most of all, I made an incredible effort as a parent and grandparent during the pandemic year.

RESOLUTION

March 9, 2021 3:30 p.m.:  My pharmacy sends notice that I can schedule my first dose of vaccine. Reunions might be as close as six weeks. I will return to the United States with a new resolve to invest more effort in my own life.

What is your pandemic story?

New Year Solutions

In keeping with the new normal, I am adapting the New Year’s resolution.  I drop the re- and go with solution. I do not want to re-anything right now. I would like all new. In 2021 I will find solutions…to problems. There is never a shortage. They come disguised as puzzles, riddles, quandaries, conundrums, mysteries, equations, pickles, challenges, and dilemmas.

Unsolved dilemmas from 2020 persist. Some problems go way back. Dreaded conundrums rise even after we have weighted them down with cement blocks and dumped them into the deepest strip mine lake. Unforeseen challenges lie in wait. This time last year, we were still oblivious of the pickles yet to come.

I cannot solve massive problems. The new president and his cabinet must tend to those. I will not tackle philosophical riddles such as the meaning of life. I have difficulty finding meaning in each day sometimes. The headaches we have with our appliances are not worthy of a solution, just a quick fix. Currently, our stove’s touch pad is on the blink and our washer is permanently out of balance. I want to find satisfying solutions to the obstacles thrown my way.

To help me prepare for 2021 I looked for examples from 2020. I discovered that last year I solved a challenge, a puzzle, and a mystery. Let me explain.

The Challenge: Empty my dad’s apartment after he moved into a long-term care facility.

In record time, my sister, Tami, and I packed, moved, or stored every antique chest, cupboard, table and chair until it found a choice spot in our children’s homes. We bequeathed vintage crocks, coffee grinders, and framed prints.  Mom’s Christmas collections were ample enough to bedeck five houses this holiday. What great fortune that the antique appraiser took the most valuable items to his auction before the pandemic. In the years since my mom’s death, I had dreaded the overwhelming and emotional task of disseminating the treasures. Now I am joyful to see our children cherish the prized objects.

The Puzzle: Navigate the border closing between the U.S. and Canada in order to reunite with our son, Reed, and his daughters.

After the first 100 days of the pandemic pause, the Canadian government permitted immediate family members to reunite in Canada. My husband, Paul, and I obtained the required documents, followed the strict quarantine protocols, and mastered the subtle communication skills required for admission. Over the past six months, we have made brief visits to our house and returned to Canada under the same constraints. When so many grandparents long for reunion with quarantined family, we assemble a multigenerational puzzle.

The Mystery: Uncover the story of my birth.

I have known since I was about ten that my mom married my dad when I was three. Dad adopted me when they married. Learning this never changed my contented life or my loving bond with my dad. When I became an adult and my birth father initiated a relationship, I declined. For reasons I have not yet analyzed, I never sought details regarding my early years. The many photographs of me with my mom and extended family filled the gap.  My mom would gladly have provided the narrative, but I never asked before she died.

One person who experienced those years with my mom and me still lives in my hometown. Last March I arranged to meet Mary Ann and hear the story. My mom’s best friend from 1953 answered all my questions. She had good reason to remember every detail. She was with us on the day Mom brought me home from the hospital as a newborn. That is when she received a call that her mother had died. Mary Ann and I have been linked by motherhood all these sixty-seven years and I never realized it.

Twenty-twenty showed us that we never know what difficulties will materialize. I read that inside every problem lies an opportunity. Bring on the predicaments, the jams, and the fixes. I am ready for this year’s possibilities.

 

Grateful Ranking 2020

My third annual Thanksgiving post comes late. The way time has contorted itself this year maybe any time works. In 2018 I identified ten insignificant things that made a significant difference to my comfortable life. My husband inspired that list with his comment, “It doesn’t take much to make me happy.”

I revisited that list a year later and found many items to be irrelevant. A new list of ten evolved from 2019. This year’s events have rendered both previous lists inconsequential. Note the ironies from last year’s ranking.

My reliable Subaru Outback (10), with 188,000 miles of travel, now sits in Reed’s driveway for weeks on end while I quarantine 14 days of every month. Like me, the tires deflate from lack of use.

My visits to the local Macsherry Library (7) and the Price Chopper Market (8) have ceased now that I reside in Canada. No worries, I still read on my Kindle and enjoy food from Canadian markets.

Last year I treasured the open border between the U. S. and Canada (4), our access to family. That border has now been closed for nine months with no sign of opening. Canada’s compassionate exemption has permitted us to enter.

2020 Trivial Five

In 2020 life compressed. In my small daily circle five essential pandemic items came to mind keeping with the theme it doesn’t take much to make me happy. On any designated day, the rankings shift.

toilet paper

disinfectant wipes

Zoom

Amazon

Netflix

2020 Vital Five

Even though I don’t venture far, my basic wants are met. Unfortunately, multitudes find themselves in dire need. The contrast between my circumstances and theirs prompted me to recognize five basic requirements of a comfortable life. I find it impossible to prioritize these.

clean air

safe water

food security

economic stability

healthcare

 I greet every day having access to the trivial and the vital benefits for which I am grateful.

.

Picture Day

My granddaughters are already psyched for this week’s school picture day. Ensembles are selected. Alarms will go off early. Hair will be styled. This baffles me. Photos are not a novelty anymore. With special events in short supply these days, perhaps picture day itself inspires them to look their best. In today’s world this is the photo op, a chance to shine in the spotlight. Just in time for the holidays, the final prints will be ready for frames or sent to the relatives. Picture day endures despite the pandemic.

As an elementary teacher it was my experience that school went awry on picture day. If you are a non-educator, I do not expect you to understand how school pictures disrupted the educational process. Let me explain.

Promote

The photography company sent posters to hype the event. They hung above every drinking fountain, outside the office, and in the multipurpose room. A color brochure of immaculate smiling young models showed the purchase options, combinations of wallet-size, 3×5, 5×7, 8×10, photo key chains and similar trinkets. A subtle psychology worked to influence choices. Did your child deserve the Basic, the Standard, or the Deluxe package?

Pitfalls

Classroom teachers distributed packets to students who carried them home to the parents and guardians. The children were relied upon to return the envelopes, selections clearly marked, with cash or check by the scheduled day for pictures. Balancing the books must have been crazy. The cash did not always match the package price. Checks were made out to the company, to the school, the PTO, and even to me. This process had more pitfalls than mail-in voting ever could.

Every morning, from the time the order-forms were sent home, I would request the returned envelopes be handed to me for safe-keeping in our classroom vault, a locked drawer. On picture day I put the packets into the hands of the children only when they formed a line and proceeded to the photographer. At least one student would have to make an emergency call home requesting the picture order be rushed to the school.

Prolong

My students, grade three, were always scheduled late in the day. The impossible aim to keep dress clothes tidy through physical education, art class, and lunch turned the day on its head. I postponed outdoor recess despite noisy objections. Anxiety increased. At last from the intercom, “Mrs. Findlan, please bring your class to the library. Be sure all students have order forms and money.” Cheers would erupt.

Proceed

We proceeded down the hallway envelopes in hand. One or two boys wore a tie and several girls sparkled in gowns suited for the red carpet. Fortunately, even students without envelopes had a photo taken. Their disappointment would come later when the developed prints arrived for only those who purchased.

Preen

We arrived at the library, and the photographer’s assistant requested I arrange the children by height, either tallest to shortest, or vice versa. The ends of the line fell into place easily.  The others put themselves shoulder to shoulder or back to back. Arguments erupted. Plus, dress shoes changed proportions we had previously known.

 I attempted to tuck, tie, and smooth the shirts and dresses. I did my best to tame the boys’ hair using the little black combs every student is supplied.  When they learned the combs were theirs to keep, they beamed as if they held five-dollar bills.

Pose

One by one the children perched on the stool, tilted their heads and gave toothy smiles.  Teachers had a photo taken as well. The children took full advantage to become unruly when I was behind the velvet curtain, so I seldom wore a natural smile in my picture.

We marched back to the classroom, dropped off combs and bolted to the playground. Unfettered joy abounded as they mounted the play structures and raced around the grass, oblivious to smudges and stains. I suppressed thoughts of November retakes.

Persevere

Mayhem would soon resume with Halloween and continue for two months as each holiday flowed into the next.  The stretch of increased excitement and erratic schedules began on picture day and lasted until the new year.

 I cannot fathom how picture day and the months that follow will be orchestrated during this pandemic, whether in person or virtual. Teachers, resourceful troopers and classroom warriors, will do what it takes…and smile.   


 [CF1]

Ambushed

Roving coyotes scream and howl,

Terrorizing shrieks bounce

Above the trees and across the fields,

Shudders slither up my neck,

I imagine unwary prey ambushed

In the crisp star-studded navy night.

Soulless slayer brays and boasts,

Across networks and through the nation,

Blatant lies boldly broadcast

Treachery thwarts my rhythm,

I grieve for 200,000 innocent souls

Needlessly dead on the autumn equinox.

The Pandemic Pack

Earlier this summer a lone dark-gray wolf appeared in the field behind our son Reed’s house. Wolves typically function in a pack.  Within the pack a distinct hierarchy exists in each gender. An alpha male and an alpha female dominate the average pack of six. Between the alpha, the strongest and wisest, and the omega, who ranks last, wolves establish order among themselves.  Pups and yearlings remain subordinate for about 2-3 years when they leave to find another pack or start one of their own. During our 50 days of sequestering with Reed in Canada I have observed just how the pack phenomenon works in human families.

Food

Number one necessity for any pack is the food. Canadian wolves prey on caribou, elk, white tail deer, and moose. Our Canadian pack simply shops at the No Frills market. Fully committed as a contributing member of this pack, I volunteer to do the grocery shopping. But I prefer to shop at Metro. The pups quickly discern the difference in brands of fudgesicles, ice cream, tomato sauce, and even bread. Complaints are aired.

Reed, the residing alpha male, shakes his head in wonder that I only purchased two packs of chicken and burger, and one bag of milk. Yes, milk comes in plastic bags that fit into small pitchers. The corner of the bag must be cut with scissors in order to pour the milk. I still work to master the perfect snip. Paul compensates for my inadequacies by stocking the garage fridge with frozen treats and root beer. He keeps a basket full of snack-sized chips. Paul rises in the hierarchy.

As the alpha, Reed takes responsibility for the pack’s meals. He does his cooking on the weekend, a protein, a starch, and roasted vegetables.  After work during the week, he can heat his own meal and prepare whatever the pups prefer with little fuss or mess. At my own house I was the alpha female of the kitchen. With all good intentions I now assume weeknight cooking. It soon becomes apparent that I use four times as many implements as Reed. For one vegetable I might use a colander, a pot, a serving dish, and a storage container. If we have three or more courses, dirty pots and pans litter the countertops. Now that we are five for dinner, more dishes, flatware, and glasses fill the dishwasher. Unfamiliar leftovers jam the fridge. A phrase comes to mind: pack disruption.

Division of Labor

The division of labor defines our new ranks in the Canadian pack. Just as he has in other summers, Paul mows the grass, hauls recycling to the dump, completes minor projects and repairs. Above all, he partners with Reed for musky fishing expeditions on the St. Lawrence. Where Paul once took the lead on tactics and tackle, Reed now dominates. Paul is the beta to Reed’s alpha. The beta, second in rank, shows commitment and loyalty to the pack, reinforcing the alpha’s decisions.

My responsibilities could be met by most teenagers. I clean up after myself, empty the dishwasher, do some laundry, play with the girls, make meals when necessary. The role of Delta wolf, third in command, might suit me. They are considered the messengers of the pack. Deltas require an even temper. They take charge of caring for the pups when the alphas and betas are busy. Most fun of all I spot the girls from the boat when they ride the tube on the river. I should accept my rank as Delta.

But my Sigma, tutor wolf, tendency emerges. I set up financial incentives to keep the girls reading over the summer. Outright bribery only works for Rayna, who values the cash. Britt, who just had a fabulously well-gifted birthday simply says no. My system only aggravates tension between the girls who both strive to be the alpha female.  I feel myself sinking below Wiley, the family dog, as the Omega. Paul advises, stay in your lane.

Territory

Wolves are the top predators in their habitat.  On rare occasions inter-pack conflict arises over territorial disputes Fortunately, Reed’s house is roomy.  Paul and I can establish ourselves in peripheral locations. I occupy a cozy guest room that I call The Nook and Granny.  Paul uses the Wink-Wink Apartment that was our initial basement quarantine space. Plus, we hang out as much as possible in the boat garage. I call it my office and have all my reading and writing supplies on hand.  Around 3:00 daily Paul mixes me a vodka tonic at the fully stocked 40-Acre Shoal Bar. When the pups miss us, they come out for a snack. We use beer bottle caps to play Blackjack with Rayna. At least once a week we hold a picnic there and cook on the grill. In our boat cave we reclaim our ranks as alphas.

A wolf pack’s hierarchy promotes smooth functioning and social serenity. When members know their place, squabbles are few.  Only when new members arrive does the struggle to establish rank occur. I expect plenty of families find themselves in a multigenerational home during this pandemic. Don’t become a lonely wolf. If you have been called to merge with another pack, use your strengths, find your place, and contribute to the common good.

Caution: This is a High-Speed Thrill Ride

black and white roller coaster

Confinement hardly describes our 100-day shelter-in-place experience. Paul and I took regular outdoor walks. We made weekly trips to the recycling center, sometimes driving by The Korner’s take-out window for pizza. We used masks for monthly runs to Price Chopper and picked up prescriptions at Kinney Drugs drive-through. Zoom, FaceTime, and MessengerKids connected me with friends and the granddaughters. I appreciate the privilege to have had such an easy time. It was like riding a carousel, around and around, almost pleasant, but going nowhere.

 

In contrast, my emotions pitched high and low. Every time we neared the date for the border opening so we could reach our Canadian family, the date was pushed back. First May 21 to June 21 to July 21 to No Time Soon. Up and down, forward then backward, like a roller coaster. Reunion with American family is just as tentative. I cling to hope that I can attend my niece’s Pennsylvania wedding. My dad’s long-term-care facility remains in lockdown to keep him safe from the virus. A Findlan family fishing trip might go on without us.

 

I start planning 2021. The coaster clicks on the tracks ascending gradually. We will reschedule our Disney trip. I will take the train to New York City with the granddaughters. Visitors will come to our 1000 islands home. I make an itinerary for a Pennsylvania vacation. Without warning I hurl over the crest, then plummet downward. The velocity wrenches my neck. My stomach churns. Will we make it to next summer? Will I ever see my dad again? How does this end?

 

We get word that immediate family may enter Canada under restrictions. I head to the border. In summer, a line of 10-20 cars at customs is typical. Today I pull up behind one car and a Florida RV. Customs protocol is second nature. Windows down, sunglasses off, know my license number, hand over the passport opened to my picture. Today I wear a mask. Plus, I carry a letter providing my son’s address, phone number, and his permission to offer a place of quarantine. I have a picture of his permanent resident card on my phone, proof that he resides in Canada.

 

My on-line source painted a rosy picture of immediate families reuniting north of the border. Foreign nationals would be required to quarantine for 14 days. Nothing to it. But wait, that was simply the colorful façade of the funhouse. I bump through the doors where the unexpected waits to terrorize.

 

The scowling monster pops up first, a uniformed guard reluctant to hear my plea. I earnestly provide all the documentation. I tremble and perspire.

 

“Where are you going?” As if to imply his goal is to stop me.

 

“To my son’s in Gananoque.” Then I ramble about quarantine, how I live just a few miles away on Wellesley…

 

He interrupts, “Do you have your son’s birth certificate?”

 

“No, I don’t have that.” I am the child who is 48.5 inches tall standing against the attraction sign: You must be 49 inches to ride.

 

“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” he demands.

 

“You just have to take my word for it,” I sob. My voice quavers, “We are used to crossing several times a week and I haven’t seen my granddaughters since March 18 when the border closed.” He is certainly aware of those dates. Not to offend I add, “As you know.”

 

Perhaps my graying hair and teary eyes soften him. He returns my passport with a printed set of instructions and issues a severe scolding over the birth certificate. I barely hear his admonishments except the part about the $750,000 fine and four-year prison sentence. I am intimidated and elated all at once. I accelerate out of the dark and into the sunshine on Canadian soil.

 

For thirteen days I ride the Ferris wheel. At the top of every revolution I get a glimpse of the immediate future. We will move out of the basement apartment (wink, wink) and into the main house with Reed and the granddaughters. Family activities can resume outside. Reed will take us boating and tubing on the St. Lawrence. At the bottom of every rotation I wrestle with the fact that each time we go home and return, we face a repeat of the funhouse quarantine. I cancel my trip to Holly’s wedding.

 

Amusement park rides have always given me motion sickness. The thrills and chills of the pandemic can hardly be characterized as amusement. But the coronavirus experience, like a bizarre Stephen King carnival, incites adrenaline rush and fear with spins, drops, acceleration, and reverse motion. My equilibrium is skewed. This requires something stronger than Dramamine.