Saturday, December 26, 2015

Birding on Christmas

We had no plans for Christmas this year. In the past, we'd traipse down to the town where my husband's mother used to live to spend the holiday with her and, at some point, I'd zip over to a sibling's house to visit with some of my family. With my mother-in-law gone, we opted to stay home for the holidays for once.

Except, at the last minute on Christmas Eve before retiring for the night, we decided that spending Christmas Day out birding (aka "bird-watching") would be a fun way to celebrate. In the months since my husband's mother died, we've been out birding quite a bit. It has proved to be a restorative activity, one that gets us out into natural areas and directs our focus toward something other than memories, frustrations, and endless planning for the future.

To successfully find birds, you have to be fully present in the moment, watching for the slightest movement in the trees, on the ground, or in the skies, and listening for the faintest call, flap of wings, or tap of a woodpecker's bill against a tree's bark. To identify a bird once found, you must catalog a multitude of details, such as the bird's size, shape, color, behavior, and location.

Our plan was to visit half a dozen locations finding as many different species as we could in one day. Hardcore birders often schedule a "Big Day" with official rules, reports, and a competitive spirit, during which they will record as many different species as possible in a single 24-hour period. We are not hardcore birders. We had no desire to get up super early to find lots of owls nor to spend the entire day driving hither and yon to a wide range of habitats in order to find more species. We wanted to have fun and see whether we could pick up all the various birds we'd been seeing over the past couple of weeks when we'd birded in each of these areas on separate days.

Our efforts were hampered by the weather. Christmas Day turned out to be cold, overcast, and windy - less than prime conditions for finding birds. We missed quite a few birds we'd found easily within the last week but such is life. There are no guarantees, no matter how good you think your plan may be. And we thought our plan was pretty good. We'd been in each of these areas recently and even found some of the rare birds (Baltimore Oriole, Rufous-backed Robin, Northern Parula) reported in the local Rare Bird Alert on those visits. But, alas, with the poor weather and less time available for each area, we missed the rare birds and some easy ones, too.

All in all, though, we were happy with a total of 66 67* species when we called it a day at 4 pm. Yep, we're such lightweights that not only did we not get up in the middle of the night, we hung up the binoculars before the sun even set. Okay, that's not entirely true. We did sit in our warm living room and watch our feeders until it was too dark to see just in case anything new showed up in our own yard.

The habitats we visited included urban and rural areas around northwestern Pima County (Tucson, AZ): dry and wet washes, the lower foothills of a mountain park, an urban lake, and wetlands created from treated wastewater. While the quail seed block and suet feeder in our yard attracts birds, there were no species in our yard not present in other locations.

After spotting a pack of 4-5 coyotes trying to catch something in a big bush at our very first stop, we hoped it would also be a good mammal day. In the past few outings, we'd seen a raccoon stalking coots at the wetlands, a bobcat at the same wetlands carrying a dead cotton rat, and another bobcat unsuccessfully pouncing on something in the mountain park. We've seen deer and javelina on occasion both near our home and in the mountain park. But, alas, we struck out on any other mammals yesterday. Blame it on the crappy weather!

Without further ado, here is our 2015 Christmas Day bird list in taxonomic order:

Snow Goose (dark morph)*
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ruddy Duck
Gambel’s Quail
Pied-billed Grebe
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant (immature)
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Cooper’s Hawk
Harris’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sora (heard only)
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Sandpiper Sp.
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Great Horned Owl (heard only)
Costa’s Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Gila Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Gray Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Common Raven
Bridled Titmouse
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Cactus Wren
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Curve-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Green-tailed Towhee
Abert’s Towhee
Rufous-winged Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
House Sparrow

*Edited to add dark morph Snow Goose which we didn't originally write in our notes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 in a Nutshell

Nuts are often a feature of the holiday season, so here's a brief look at some of what made me go a bit nutty this past year.

As I mentioned in the previous post on stress, 2015 was a tough year. The most difficult part was being thrust into the role of caregiver for my husband’s mom for the first half of the year. She had a heart attack on New Year’s Eve and was transferred to a hospital in our area 80 miles away from her home and 20 miles from us.

Although she had significant health problems already, she’d clung tightly to living on her own. Last year, we tried to get her to move closer to us, but she resisted giving up her familiar home and we had to back off the plan. Thankfully, she had neighbors that were willing and able to help her with grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments. Without them, there would have been no choice but to move her since she had to give up driving early last year.

However, once she had the heart attack, it was clear that she could no longer live alone. It would have been unreasonable to ask the neighbors to take on the level of care and assistance she would need from that point forward, especially since her neighbors were also aging and facing their own health challenges. Despite living on an income below the Federal poverty level, she was unable to get state long-term medical assistance to go into a group home, leaving us with no choice but to have her move in with us.

While she was in the hospital and then rehab, my husband and I scrambled to arrange everything. This involved dealing with her rental house 100 miles away and her possessions that would not fit in our house, filing change of address, and helping her pay bills and close utility accounts. There was also the matter of creating space for her in our moderately small house. She needed room to sleep as well as her own area where she could watch TV, read, and do her breathing treatments, as well as enough room to use a walker.

We did a lot of re-arranging, and then rented a storage unit to clear out 25% of our home in order to give her the master bedroom and bathroom. I rushed around to thrift stores to find furniture that would fit while my husband built her a platform bed frame since we couldn’t find something that would work for an affordable price. The bathroom was also modified for handicap-accessibility.

We had planned to start 2015 out in a healthy way, eating better and using our exercise equipment more regularly. Instead, the exercise equipment had to be put in storage, and we responded to the highly stressful situation by stuffing ourselves with comfort food and losing a lot of sleep. After she moved in, we continued to lose ground in eating fresh, wholesome foods due to accommodating her desire for familiar foods, despite the fact that she'd always loved my cooking when we visited in the past.

There were other losses as well. By choosing to do the right thing and take her in, we lost privacy in our home and intimacy in our marriage. Despite sharing my thoughts openly online, the irony is I am a very private person in my home. I abhor having strangers come into my house, but having a home-bound terminally-ill person living here meant I had hordes of strangers in the health care business traipsing in and out on a regular basis, usually without set appointment times.

I was frequently stuck at home waiting for these people because there was no way my mother-in-law could answer the door. She often didn’t hear when someone arrived, nor could she just jump up and run to the door with her bum hip and long stretch of oxygen tubing. And she certainly couldn’t handle a large dog excited that someone was coming to visit. In the dog’s past experience, a vehicle in the driveway meant UPS was delivering his food. The result was that it was often difficult to get out to do the shopping and errands, much less just to take a break. I am thankful, though, that she did not suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s so I was occasionally able to get away for short periods.

There were many other challenges over the first half of the year. Overall, my husband and I found caregiving to be an exhausting responsibility, emotionally and physically. Having another person living in the house meant we lost privacy and intimacy as a couple, too. Still, we strived to provide the best possible environment for his mom and can now rest assured that she was well-taken care of during her final months. She passed away in early July.

It has been a slow road towards reclaiming our lives since her passing. The demands on our time, energy, and resources had been significant and left lasting impressions. I am grateful I was able to attend caregiving support meetings while she was alive and grief support meetings after her passing. Both helped me deal with the emotional responses that have ranged from grief at her passing, relief that she is no longer in pain, relief that we can move on with our lives, and guilt that we found the caregiving experience stressful. Both groups helped tremendously with the feelings of isolation that happen with both caregiving and the grieving process.

I apologize for writing such a somber post right before Christmas but this was a huge part of our lives this past year. The next post will sum up the second half of 2015 with our new plans moving forward. While it has had its challenges, there is a sense of excitement and anticipation in starting a new chapter in our lives.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Losing My Mind

This has been a long and stressful year. Past readers of the old blog may remember me referencing another year filled with stress, shortly after we’d moved into our current home. This year makes that one look like a cakewalk.

There were so many unexpected changes this year in our lives that it was overwhelming. There were demands on our time, our energy, our resources, and our dignity that stretched us to the limit. There were too many sleepless nights where mind, body, and soul did not get a chance to recharge before facing another day of stress.

Chronic stress is bad for you. We are all aware of that. We know we should eat better, exercise more, “manage our stress,” and get enough sleep. Knowing and doing are not the same thing; they are not even in the same ballpark. Hell, sometimes they are not in the same city! Life frequently gets in the way of doing what one needs to do to take care of oneself.

As I read about the effect of chronic stress on people, I came across some articles* that discussed how it can impact cognitive ability - that is, being able to think, process information, and make decisions. Chronic stress can cause what is called “Mild Cognitive Impairment.”

MCI is also a precursor to Alzheimer’s or dementia; it’s that stage where a person starts to get more forgetful. They may lose their keys more often, forget why they walked into a room, forget what they meant to buy at the store, not be able to find the word they are looking for in a conversation, or even miss paying a bill. When faced with what is a relatively minor problem, it may take them longer to sort through the information and options to resolve it, even if that was a simple task in the past.

At first, these seem like little annoyances but over time, it builds into an alarming situation. A person can really begin to wonder if they are losing their mind. This has been my experience this past year and, let me tell you, it’s no fun. I have made more errors in my checkbook this year than I have probably made in the rest of my life combined. In fact, I still don’t know what happened to Check #191. It is simply gone. Did I tear off two checks and include a blank one with one of my payments for utilities? Seems impossible but the previous month I accidentally switched checks between the phone and gas companies’ envelopes. That was a mess to clear up and a mistake I have NEVER made before.

Every now and then, in a conversation, I find myself struggling to find the word I want. I suspect there are times we all can’t remember exactly what word we’re looking for but it started happening to me more this year. Hell, yesterday I couldn’t remember my own address! I was texting my address to someone for a craigslist pick-up today and could not for the life of me remember if my address ended in “Drive,” “Street,” or “Lane.” This morning, I realized that the two texts I sent out yesterday both had the direction wrong. Wouldn’t you think after living here for 5+ years that I would remember whether my street address was North or East?! Apparently not. I sent new texts out to both people this morning and can only hope they don’t blow off the pick-ups because they don’t want to deal with an airhead.

What has caused all my stress this year? Well, that’s the subject of another blog post. I know how to keep readers coming back. Bwuahahaaaaa!

Second question: Is there anything I can do to reverse this downward mental spiral? Possibly. The bigger question is whether I will take the steps necessary to try to put the brakes on. Writing this blog is actually something I hope will help my brain. If not, then it may at least be a way to drag others down with me. It’s more fun to lose your mind with others than all by yourself.

*Footnote. There will be a change from my previous blog: I will no longer provide as many links as I used to include. In the past, if I discussed a topic, I often spent considerable time researching it and posting links to clarify, support, and/or expand on my comments. I won’t be doing that nearly as much now.

Why not? There are several reasons. The most important one is that I simply don’t have the time to chase down information I came across at some point in the past. The other is that you, the reader, are more than capable of chasing down this information if it interests you. It is good for our brains to study those things that stimulate our interest; learning builds more synaptic connections and might even help stave off problems like I am having with forgetfulness.

Now, where was I? Oh, I remember…. Ha ha.

So, you have a choice when you read what I’ve referenced without providing a supporting link.

  1. You can choose to believe me and enjoy reading what I’ve written.
  2. You can choose not to believe me. After all, you don’t know me and I could just be making things up. Goodness knows that happens all over the Internet!
  3. You can follow-up with your own research to find out more.

I hope if you choose the third option that you will do so in order to expand your own knowledge and understanding, not because you hope to prove me wrong. I don’t claim to be right all the time so spending your time trying to prove me wrong is, in my opinion, a waste of your time. And if that is how you get your jollies, you are probably reading the wrong blog in the first place.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Oh Kimchi, How I've Missed You

It has been at least two years since I’ve made fermented kimchi. This morning, while assessing how to clean out the produce drawers in my refrigerator, kimchi popped into mind.

“Oh geez,” my mind immediately responded. “That’s way too much work. Let’s just chop up this Chinese cabbage and do a stir-fry. If you really want Korean flavor, put some Gochu jang sauce on it.”

“But I want kimchi!” Who knew taste buds could whine?

I used to make kimchi a few times a year. I love the taste but my husband doesn’t care for it and tends to object to the smell during the fermentation process. The lack of kimchi is not his fault, however, as I’m the one who has not been up to the challenge of making it.

The real problem, though, is that this perception is faulty. It is not difficult to make your own kimchi. No more chopping is required than is needed to make a tasty stir-fried dish with the same vegetables. It simply seems like more work because there is a one-week delay before the food can be eaten. In this world of instant gratification and fast, easy meals, waiting a whole week after doing all the prep work seems like forever.

Fermented kimchi is worth the wait. I have been making a quick cucumber Korean pickle recipe occasionally, and it’s good, but it does not have the depth or intensity of fermented kimchi. The quick pickles with their touch of cayenne heat are a great breakfast option with leftover rice, but I miss having spicy, pungent, sour cabbage kimchi over rice for lunch.

Well, patience is supposed to be a virtue so I’m makin’ kimchi! This morning, the carrot slices and chopped Chinese cabbage soaked in brine while I did other chores. After a few hours, the brine was drained and the softened vegetables tossed with onion, garlic, chile peppers, and ginger. This spicy mixture was packed down into a quart canning jar and weighted down with a baggie of drained brine. Hopefully I’ll remember to throw a bit of cheesecloth over it to keep out dust and pests.

Every day, I get to play with my kimchi while it ferments. I need to keep pushing the vegetables back down under the brine that they create from the residual salt left after draining the soaking brine. In a week or so, it should develop a nice sour flavor (and odor) from the fermentation. Then it gets capped and goes into the refrigerator for use. I can hardly wait.

I concede that I am still exhibiting some impatience. If I wanted more traditional kimchi, I would ferment it for up to a month in a cooler spot than my kitchen. Sorry. Can’t wait that long. It’s already been two years!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Hello? Is This Thing On?

Hello, World. It's Chile. Remember me? I blogged for five years, met loads of wonderful people in cyberspace (and a few in real life, too), and then disappeared with promises to write a book.

The book didn't happen. The intention was there but the time and motivation was not. Life got in the way. C'est la vie. No use bemoaning the past; it's time to move on.

I've been thinking about whether to resurrect the blog with a new focus but kept putting it off until I had time to pretty up the set-up. If I wait for that, I'll never get started writing again. So, I'm just diving in. I'll be floundering around a bit until I hit on just what I want to talk about.

Here are some subjects rolling around in my head that I may want to share.
  • What happened after my blog went dark
  • Life does not cooperate with New Year's Resolutions
  • Being a caregiver is stressful
  • Am I losing my mind?
  • Contemplating life on the road
  • De-cluttering on a massive scale
I'm going to click "Publish" now. I may regret it. You may regret it. But at least I'll have finally made a decision on whether to start blogging again!