A Seasonal Ennui

DSC_0240When I picked up my cell phone yesterday morning, the Flipboard magazine article on the screen was titled:  “Top 11 Holiday Decorating Don’ts.”  (It’s on housebeautiful.com if you really need to see it.) My reaction was simple:  I am so not ready to begin decorating for the holidays.  I’m not ready for shopping or wrapping or baking, and yet it’s already December: time to put away the pumpkins and pull out the tinsel.  I don’t know why I’m not in the mood to decorate.

This malaise is unusual.  I’m usually eager to start setting up the house for Christmas and one would think that this year I would have started already.  One needed a sleigh to get to my house this Thanksgiving.  One minute I’m raking leaves; the next minute I’m shoveling snow.  Most of the snow has melted, but it’s still a winter wonderland outside.  Yesterday there was a Winter Weather advisory and we had a few flurries.  Nothing says Christmas like snow.  And yet I feel a little like the Grinch.  Bahh!!

Please don’t ask why for I don’t know the reason.  It could be the toothache that wakes me at night.  It could be the back muscles have become a bit tight.  I think that the most likely reason of all may be that my energy is sapped from chasing someone quite small. DSC_0261

But whatever the reason, I can’t stop Christmas from coming.  Yesterday morning, my grandson spied the snowman placemats that I bought for the kitchen table.  “Snow!  Snow! Snow!” he demanded, pushing away the Thanksgiving placemat at his place.  So I put out the Christmas placemats.  The ceramic pumpkin that held a flower arrangement now looked out of place, so I dug out a Christmas container and made a new arrangement.  Then a shelf in the kitchen where I had a tray with a Thanksgiving scene, some dried fall flowers and a small turkey bothered me so I found some gnomes and reindeer.  The reindeer made me think of the family room mantle.  I had a new reindeer for there.  So I put out the three reindeer and hung the wooden Santa a student gave me years ago.  But now I need to buy white pillar candles.

DSC_0259Why do all this? Why stress over decorating the house?  The reason is that I am not decorating a house—I am decorating my home.  What we do to get ready for the seasons makes our dwellings more than shelter.  These personal touches define us.  When we first moved here, I was quite taken by a home around the corner.  It was a larger, newer colonial than mine.  The entrance to the house was warm and inviting.  The owners had wooden Adirondack chairs on the porch.  Large planters framed the steps to the house, holding flowers or plants that reflected the season.  Then one day the occupants moved, the chairs were gone, and the house is an empty husk.  One can’t easily see my house from the street but I want it to glow with warmth and hospitality.  I want it to say “welcome” to those who come by.  I want it to radiate with the magic of the season.

So I have hung evergreen wreaths on the lamppost at the end of the 20141203_140140driveway, on the deck, on the front door.  I hung red and white bows on the lampposts along the driveway.  I have put away the turkeys and hauled out the Nativity sets and nutcrackers.  This evening I will put battery powered candles in the windows.  The more I do, the more my ennui dissipates.

This afternoon I began to plan where to put my trees.  (I’ll buy them this weekend).  I’m thinking three this year—one in the living room, a small one in the family room and a small one in the dining room.  I can put my small artificial tree in the basement. Speaking of the basement, I’ve got to go now while my grandson is taking a nap.  Somewhere down there is my Grinch doll.  It wouldn’t be the Christmas season without him.

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Leftovers

20141127_163021The day after Thanksgiving I am back in the kitchen, chopping celery, onion and carrots to make a stock. This is a new tradition for me. For years, I stripped the turkey carcass immediately after dinner and tossed it into the garbage.  No turkey bones stayed in my house.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year, The New York Times published Julia Moskin’s interview of LA chef, Suzanne Goin, who gave directions for making roasted turkey stock.  Surprisingly I did not save this recipe.  I still have the Better Homes and Garden recipes from 1978, the year I first roasted a turkey, and an article outlining the steps for the perfect Thanksgiving from a 1988 San Francisco Chronicle, the year we first had a huge family gathering.  I have old clippings from magazines and handwritten recipes from friends dating back to when I got my first apartment, but I didn’t keep this article.  However, I was inspired by the article enough last year that I broke the turkey carcass into pieces, roasted the bones, roasted the vegetables and then deviated from the original recipe.  Instead of gently simmering the carcass on the stovetop, I used my crockpot—so much simpler.  (I also skipped a step involving wine.)  This morning I broke the carcass in two and then realized I was going to need two roasting pans.  I set them in the oven to begin roasting the bones and started chopping the veggies.  That’s when my daughter pointed out that I needed something bigger than the crockpot.

This year’s turkey was much larger than last year’s.  This is because I finally replaced the tiny built-in microwave-oven combo that the previous owners had installed.  The concept was good but the microwave was outdated and the oven was tiny.  The first Thanksgiving we lived here, I bought a tinfoil roasting pan, bent it to fit in the oven, placed it on a small cookie sheet so it could hold the weight of a turkey and then cooked a fourteen pound turkey.  The next year I went in search of a roasting pan that would fit in the oven.  I found one (and cooked another small turkey).  However, in haste, I ended up buying two that would not work—the handles made the pan too large.   I meant to take them back.  Husband had a better idea—get a new oven.20140425_151246

I really wanted a new oven.  I knew exactly what I wanted—stainless steel double ovens by Kitchen Aid.  The interior was a pretty blue enamel.  The ovens could be programmed to work as a regular or convection oven.  If I gave up a drawer, this oven would fit.  There was a snag—we would have to have a 40 amp box where we had 30.  To do this, our electrical box would have to be upgraded.  On the other hand, this was not a bad idea.  I really wanted to be able to hook up a generator if we had a power outage.  I’ve lived without power before.  After the January 1994 earthquake, we camped in our backyard while waiting for the aftershocks to stop and the building inspectors to examine the damage to our house.  I‘m not worried about an earthquake.  But losing power in a blizzard and being without heat or water (because we have a well)—that scared me.  I wanted the generator more than the oven.

Upgrade the electrical.  Upgrade the oven.  Then when the sunroom roof leaked because of an ice dam and the door to the deck needed to be replaced, it made sense to upgrade the kitchen door as well.  You can see where this is going.  Now I want to repaint the kitchen, cover the popcorn ceiling, get new window treatments.  Maybe I should replace the cabinets too.  You would think that I would be thankful for what I have.

I am thankful.  I love my new oven.  When the lights flickered on Thanksgiving, I shrugged.  I have my backup generator.  We are fortunate that we can afford to make changes to our house, to buy food, to pay the heating oil bill.  I am fortunate to have a husband who loves me, three successful daughters and the most adorable grandson in the world.

Sometimes we get so caught up in what we want, we forget to be grateful for what we do have.  Instead of concentrating on desires, try focusing on the little joys of life.  A smile on someone else’s face can bring one to yours.

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In case you were wondering what I did with my larger carcass, my husband used to brew beer.  I have a huge stockpot that is currently simmering on the stove.  For those of you who would like Suzanne Goin’s stock recipe, it can be found on the NYT website.  My variation will work really nicely with a chicken carcass as well.  My recipe:

Preheat oven to 400.  Strip the carcass of meat.  (I leave some meat and any leftover skin.) Break carcass into pieces.  If you did not cook the giblets, toss them onto the bones.  Roast the bones for twenty minutes.

In the meantime, chop three or four stalks of celery, two large onions, and four or five carrots.  (use half the veggies for a chicken carcass.) Add to roasting bones.  Roast another twenty minutes.

While the vegetables and bones are roasting, I make a spice packet from cheesecloth.  I cut a square of cheese cloth and then add spices.  I usually add two cinnamon sticks, a tablespoon of whole allspice, a half tablespoon of whole cardamom, a teaspoon of cloves, a teaspoon of juniper berries.  Today I made a second packet: six twigs of fresh thyme, two rosemary and two sage.  I put these in the crockpot, and add the roasted bones and vegetables.  I add water to the roasting pan to scrap the browned bits that cling to the bottom.  This water is poured into the crockpot.  I add more water until the crockpot is full.

I set the crockpot on high for eight hours.  I can open one half of my crockpot lid; so I do this the last hour of cooking.

Today I brought the water to a boil and then simmered it for five hours with the pot lid slightly ajar.

Let the broth cool, discard bones, spice packets, and veggies, and then refrigerate or freeze.

Sometimes I freeze one chicken carcass and wait until I roast another chicken to make stock .

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“This land . . .”

DSC_0128On Thursday nights, I teach a conversational English class at the local library.  The class is for adult second language speakers who want to practice their English skills with native speakers.  We discuss holidays, traditions, idioms, anything of interest.  The class is informal.  Students just drop in.  Last week was my last class before the holidays.  Only one student showed up, an older Russian gentleman, a former Soviet scientist, who left his native country over twenty years ago.  Since it was just the two of us, we talked about current politics, the Cold War, and the differences between Americans and Russians.  At the end of class, he asked:  “I can call you friend, right?”  “Of course,” I assured him.  He has been coming to this class for over two years.  Then he said:  “I love America!”  He told me that life was better here, that Americans didn’t realize how wonderful our lives were.  Then he wished me a Happy Thanksgiving.

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Cape Cod (think cranberries)

I have been thinking about what my student and friend said.  Over the years, I have heard many stories from people who have immigrated and the hardships they left behind.  But this is not an essay on immigration.  Instead I want everyone to think about the wonders of our great nation.  Tomorrow we give thanks for our blessings, our family, our friends, our community.  But sometimes in the preparation for tomorrow’s feast, we forget why we have this holiday.

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Fort Ticonderoga

 

 

 

 

In our national mythology, the first settlers celebrated after their first harvest to give thanks for survival in a new land.  In the first years as a nation, several presidents including George Washington (but not Thomas Jefferson) proclaimed a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, but even though Sarah Joseph Hale (who also wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb”) campaigned to establish a national day of Thanksgiving for almost three decades, the tradition of a national holiday does not begin until the Civil War.  After the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November a public day of Thanksgiving.  This is a day to be thankful that we are a nation.

We are a diverse nation.  We are a vast nation.  Today the snow is falling outside my window and from the other side of the country, my son- in -law texts a screen capture of the weather in LA:  84 degrees.  I am making the same dishes that I have served at Thanksgiving for the past twenty years or more because my family expects them.  You may be making something different.  We are a nation of different opinions, different traditions, different tastes, different attitudes, and different landscapes.  Yet we are a nation.

As a result, the song stuck in my head this week is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.”  And so I leave you with some photos of our great nation.  Be thankful for what we have.

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Redwood forests

El Capitan Beach, CA

El Capitan Beach, CA

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Vermont Barn on President Calvin Coolidge’s home

 

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Maine

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Memphis

 

Death Valley

Death Valley

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I really like these pigs. On the Arkansas border . . .

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The “Me-Pad” Dilemma

20140819_123203My grandson has been sick the past week and a half.  First he had a cold.  His actual symptoms were not bad: low grade fever, nasal congestion, some coughing.  But he wasn’t himself.  He would stop playing and stare out the window, swaying and blinking as if he were trying to stay alert.  His meltdowns increased:  nothing was right.  The penguin was in the wrong place.  The tower fell.  The car slipped under the sofa.  He just wanted to climb in a lap and cuddle.  So the television would go on:  Cars, Happy Feet Two, Finding Nemo slid into the DVD player.  But it’s a smart television and he’s a smart boy.   “No More Fish!” came the command.   “George!”  And the television would change screens and episodes of Curious George would play.  We do not have a television that responds to voice commands (yet), and while my grandson can work the remotes enough to turn on the TV and DVD player, he cannot navigate the smart TV (and neither can his grandmother).  So Grandma didn’t turn on the television; instead she handed over her IPad.

This is not the first time Grandma has handed over her IPad.  It’s a bribe.  It’s a way of getting something done.  Sit here with the IPad while grandma talks to the contractor, the doctor, a friend.  My IPad has 18 interactive games for preschoolers.  It didn’t come loaded with them.  I bought them.  I also bought some age appropriate books (and my grandson knows that he needs to open the bookcase to get to them).  He loves my two bird identification books. We enjoy playing with it together, but as interactive as the IPad is, I know that it is still “screen time.”    20140815_125807

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, which pretty much translates as don’t watch television in front of your baby.  I didn’t watch television in front of my grandson but I did load an interactive book called Peekaboo Goes Camping onto my IPad.  Peekaboo, who is blue and has huge eyes, hides behind a deer, a tree, in a cave.  When you tap on his hiding place, he pops out and giggles.  Peekaboo also goes to the store and the beach.  By the time my grandson was ten months, he could bang on the correct spot and make Peekaboo appear.  And as a result, the screen on the IPad cracked slightly, just a hairline, not even halfway across.  I cut back on his use of my IPad.  If he saw the IPad, he wanted to play with it; otherwise, it was forgotten.  Out of sight; out of grandson’s mind.  Until he was two.

By the time my grandson was eighteen months, he could recognize the words: Good Night.  He slept with a board book version of Good Night Moon, which we still read before nap and bedtime.  He insisted that any board book that had “Good Night” in the title be placed in his bed.  We would hear him reading before he fell asleep and when he woke up.  It seemed a little odd that he didn’t have a stuffed animal that he slept with so I ordered a Good Night Moon bunny.  We put it in his bed but he didn’t cuddle with it.  He could sleep without it.  It was the book he loved.  Perhaps this early love of literature made it easier to load the IPad with interactive toddler games.  I could sit on Sunday mornings in our sun room and he would cuddle next to me and play with the IPad while I read the paper.  But shortly after his second birthday, things began to change.

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Media began to intrude on our lives.  First the IPad and then movies:  Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two, Cars.  He loves going to the aquarium in Mystic to see the belugas and the penguins.  Happy Feet seemed like a perfect movie.  The next thing we know his crib is crowded with stuffed penguins (and a beanie baby puffin) that follow him everywhere.  Good bye Bunny!  Hello books about penguins.  He still sleeps with Good Night Moon.  We read Curious George stories twice a day.  We read all the time but the media monster has raised its ugly head.

The recent illness has not helped.  Now that he is back to normal, he still wants to watch television or play with the IPad.  “Me-Pad!” he demands.  “No” elicits a roll on the floor temper tantrum.  Last year I read a newspaper article about parents buying children as young as three electronic devices for Christmas because that’s all they want.  Really?  What happened to wooden train sets, Duplo, dolls?  The Me-Pad is an addiction.  The more I load on it, the more he wants to use it.  Is it good for him?

20140430_161550I am not sure.  I have taught remedial reading to seventh graders.  How do you make reading exciting when there are so many distractions in the world?  How do you convince teens it’s necessary?  By the time my grandson is in middle school, there will be even more distractions.  There are no clear studies.  One day I read an article suggesting that children who play educational games may have lower reading skills than their peers who don’t.  Another study says video games cause children to have shorter attention spans (that was also said of Sesame Street).  Then I read in the NEA daily news review that an NYU researcher did a study where low income preschoolers were allowed to use a mobile app for reading readiness.  Their scores went up 74 percent without a teacher.  But did they interact with an adult while using the app?

My grandson likes alphabet apps—we have three.  A few weeks ago, he looked at the letters of his placemat and pointed to each:  “Horse Apple Pumpkin Pumpkin Yak.”  He paused and then continued:  Horse Apple Lion Lion Owl Worm Elephant Elephant  Newt.  Last week he laid on the floor of my office, staring at my Jude Law poster, and intoned:  Horse Alligator George (Monkey) Lion Elephant Tiger.  George and Monkey are interchangeable but letter recognition is coming.  This is a plus point for the educational games.  When we read the board book Good Night Train, he calls out the last word of each sentence.  He may have it memorized, but he points to the word.  Score one for the tradition of reading to your child.

The answer is balance.  Play is the most important activity a child can do.  It helps develop imagination.  It helps develop hand-eye coordination.  It helps develop social skills.  Today I ignored the fervent chant for the Me-Pad.  We did four puzzles together.  He did one on his own and then he pulled out the Duplo.  Somewhere there’s a world where bunnies live in a blue house, a giraffe shares a cage with a baby lion, tigers and polar bears play together in a yard while penguins swing or drive cars.  He’s doing just fine (but the Me-Pad is about to go on vacation).

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On a Gravel Road

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After a couple of hours of shoveling and raking gravel, I went inside, made myself a cup of tea and dashed off last Friday’s post about what a great workout this was—squats, lifts, stretches.   Little did I realize what an extended period of time would do to my body.  Hubby and I spent all of Saturday and a part of Sunday, shoveling, raking, shoveling, raking.  Monday morning we both reached for the Aleve.  Today we are still sore.

20141116_151350It was definitely a couple’s DIY project.  Two of us were much more efficient that I had been alone.  Yet my husband and I approached this project with different mindsets:  while I bopped along to Lucinda Williams, focused on the end result—car wheels on my new driveway; he was singing like Tennessee Ernie Ford: “You load sixteen tons, what you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”  But we were moving 22 tons.  You can actually search the web for “calories burned shoveling gravel” and find an answer:  602 calories per hour according to the e-How website.  By the end of the pile of gravel on Sunday, I was either chanting “popcorn and beer, popcorn and beer,” or singing “Green Acres,” which is also our pet name for our house.  As I finished the last of the raking, I stopped and sang: “Darling, I love you but give me Park Avenue.”  My husband’s face fell.  “You don’t mean that, do you?” he asked.

In reality, I love to go to New York for the weekend but I need my space.  I don’t want a bigger house but I would love a larger lot.  I value my privacy and I revel in nature—the deer that cross our yard, the birds, the fox, even the occasional bear.  But oddly enough, as I raked the gravel, I had been thinking about one of those ubiquitous Facebook quizzes—What Literary Character Are You?  According to the quiz, I was Jane Eyre.  I like Jane Eyre, the quintessential Victorian Everywoman, a civilizing angel in a bleak world.  I wrote my master’s thesis on her (and three other Victorian heroines).  I can’t think of another literary heroine that I would want to be, and yet, when I posted my result, I sounded as if I were disappointed.  “Who do you want to be?” asked a friend.  I thought about this while I spread gravel.  I wanted to live in a time period where live wasn’t so hard.  I thought about carrying armloads of firewood up narrow staircases in Victorian houses.  I thought about the vegetable and herb gardens in the backyards.  I thought about washing clothes and linen without a washing machine.  I wanted to be someone whose life was less strenuous.

DSC_0013I went back to the quiz.  This time instead of choosing the Victorian era as my time period, I decided to choose something more modern.  I lived through part of the 1950s and all of the 60s, so I decided against the most modern time period, choosing the Roaring Twenties.  Did I think I was a Hemingway of Fitzgerald heroine?  Of course not, well, maybe.  But let’s face, as strong as some of their female characters are, neither has heroines—things happen because of a man.  So what modern heroine am I?  Even though I changed a couple of my responses—the time period, mode of transportation (a yellow jalopy instead of walking because I love convertibles), house (abandoning the Cotswold cottage for the snowy village), I moved up a mere 22 years from 1847 to 1869 (and across the Atlantic) to another unconventional heroine: Jo March.

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Who doesn’t identify with Jo March?  Jo’s a woman who rolls up her shirtsleeves and gets to work.  Tomboyish, creative, outspoken (bossy my sisters would say), yet selfless, Jo is a modern heroine—until Alcott tacks on the May–December romance.  (Alcott should have let Jo just be independent in the big city which seems to have been her original intention).  But lucky for me, my husband is more Rochester than Professor Bahaer (or at least he’s more Laurie—we do “pull oars in the same direction,” a line I love).   Yet in some ways, I suspect that Jo March has been a subtle influence on my life.  In the subsequent books, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Jo shows a modern bent toward child rearing and education:  every child should have a pet.  At one time, we had two dogs, one cat, a rat, a hamster, and five mice.  Every daughter had more than one pet.  Children should garden.  I agree with that—and we did.  Children should have access to creative materials, reading materials, adventures.  If Alcott had written about Jo as a grandmother, I’m sure Jo would be outside, tramping through the New England woods with her grandchildren.  In the evening, she would sit next to her husband, talking quietly and reading, contented with her life. Wait, this is my life.

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As soon as I post this, I’m taking that quiz again.

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The Getting Ready for Winter Workout

20141114_104231I have Lucinda William’s song, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” stuck in my head (and if you have to have a song stuck in your head, anything by Lucinda Williams is enjoyable). Why is this song looping over and over in my mind?  Twenty-three tons of ½ inch native stone gravel were dribbled along the driveway this morning.  Somebody has to spread the gravel over the bare spots on our private road.  And that someone is me.  Of course, I didn’t finish today.  I spread just enough gravel to count the time as my workout.

Instead of a morning run, I slipped on an old jacket and gloves (it was 39 degrees), grabbed a rake, a hoe and a shovel and hiked up to the top of the driveway. Spreading gravel is a new experience.  When I bought the gravel, the woman in the sand and gravel company office told me to spread it with a metal rake.  So I began my workout: redistribute the gravel from the large pile using the shovel, comb out the smaller piles with the rack, smooth with the hoe and then tamp it down. Remember to shift the tool from one hand to the other so I work both sides of my body.  After 30 minutes, I removed my jacket. 20141114_104305

Part of the appeal of the Boot Camp and Cross Fit training classes is the focus on strength training—often using muscles that one would work if one was working on a farm or getting ready for winter in New England. Who needs whole body conditioning when one has to get the yard and house ready for winter?

The past few weeks my workouts have been yard maintenance. There’s the rake the autumn leaves off the basketball court routine.  That one includes some sprints (chasing my grandson) and some heavy lifting (picking him up) as well as some squats, not to mention actually playing toddler style basketball when done (Each of us has a ball; he doesn’t have to dribble).  I could use the leaf blower but that thing is heavy—I leave it for hubby to work out with.  Then there’s the carrying and stacking of fire wood drill: more squats, more lifting, some farmer carries, log rolling (pushing).  The actual splitting is done by machine, but the wood has to go somewhere.  And now we have the gravel.  It’s going to be a strenuous workout tomorrow.

DSC_0223The dogs are doing a fall workout as well. They do the “see if we can catch a squirrel sprint” and the “chase the deer dash.” They do their weight training by messing up my log piles and demolishing the stone wall while patrolling for chipmunks.  In a few weeks, they’ll be swimming in the snow and I’ll be shoveling the deck and walkways.  My arms will be so toned for golf next spring.  Sometimes I wonder why I have a gym membership or a rowing machine in the basement.

I really shouldn’t complain. I go to bed tired.  I feel like I’ve accomplished something but still . . . we have logs to cut and leaves to rake and we already had our first dusting of snow.  Nature is getting ready for a long rest.  I want to rest too!

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Armistice Day

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Today, Veteran’s Day, we commemorate those who have served our country in the armed forces, those men and women who risked their lives to protect the freedom of others. The holiday itself cannot repay the sacrifices that it honors, and yet our observance of the holiday makes us remember and makes us pause in gratitude.  And that moment of reflection should make us follow foreign policy and be aware of world events.  What more can we ask of our sons and daughters?  Of the parents of those who serve?  In four more years, it will be the hundredth anniversary of the event that this holiday originally memorialized.  On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Allied forces and Germany agreed to a cease fire.  This armistice began the end of World War I, the war to end all wars.  In 1919, President Wilson would proclaim November 11 as a day of commemoration.  But this was not the war to end all wars.

DSC_0226We know this. Each of us brings our own experiences to this day.  Some of us are veterans.  Some of us are the children of vets.  As a military brat, as a child during Vietnam, as a teacher, I have seen the fathers, brothers, sons of friends, neighbors leave for Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Some came home changed by the experience.  Some did not return at all.  This is the nature of war.  Men leave; men die.  We may think of them in romantic terms—the hero against all odds in battle, defiant in the face of the enemy– but war is a messy place. Samuel Hynes’s new book, The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War has made me realize the pivotal role in American history World War I has played.

I confess that I bought Hyne’s book because of a research project I had done for the local library two years ago. The library had received some photos from the estate of a woman who had once lived in town.   Among them was a photo of people foxhunting.  “Try to find out if this is in the Litchfield hills,” I was told.  The photography studio was emblazoned on the back.  Several names were written in pencil including “Thomas and Louise Hitchcock”.  It didn’t take long to find that the photo was taken in Aiken, South Carolina.  While Hitchcocks themselves were an interesting couple, I was fascinated by their son, Thomas Hitchcock Jr, who left his prep school to become a fighter pilot in France, was shot down, captured, and escaped.  He was eighteen. He went on to attend Harvard, became an investment banker and died testing a P-51 Mustang during WWII.  More than one source listed him as the inspiration for the character Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Were the stories of other WWI pilots as romantic?

Reading Hynes is like listening to a favorite college professor teaching a small seminar. He is informative, yet informal.  You need to pay attention to tone and diction because what seems like a amusing story of two young men having an adventure can take a tragic turn.  Theodore Roosevelt’s charismatic son, Quentin, finally gets to the front and is shot down.  Hynes uses excerpts from Roosevelt’s friends’ letters to sharpen the loss for us.  But the most poignant is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s letter to the novelist Edith Wharton:  “There is no use of my writing about Quentin; for I should break down if I tried.  His death is heartbreaking. But it would have been far worse if he had lived at the cost of the slightest failure to perform his duty.” (209) Hynes points out the sparseness in the young men’s retelling of their exploits. Their lists of dead friends, their understated diaries yet exuberant letters underscore the romantic nature of being pilots and the harsh reality of the war. One pilot who appears several times in the book, Alan Winslow, seems brave yet empathetic based on excerpts from his memoir written fifteen years after the war. And perhaps these qualities are why Hynes writes in the chapter “Afterwards”: “Alan Winslow was a different kind of war casualty.” (280) For some the experience is more than the mind can handle.

Reading these accounts of pilots during World War I made me realize how amazing their experiences were. The Wright Brothers had taken off at Kitty Hawk a mere eleven years before the start of the war. Aviation was new so new that planes became obsolete as pilots trained. Many of these young American aviators came from wealthy families and attended Ivy League schools. For them, flying was a sport. The war was an adventure. They were pioneering a new form of warfare, one that changes the future of other wars. The technology used in this war—both in the air and on the ground—was devastating. Today we read about guided missiles and drone strikes, suggesting that war can be a remote activity. Nevertheless the human toll is still there. DSC_0236

Today we honor those we lost and thank those who came back. Next year will be the hundredth anniversary of one of the most powerful war poems ever written: “In Flander’s Fields.” Written by a field surgeon after the death of a friend during the battle in Ypres salient, this poem is a moving tribute to all those who serve. I reprint it here as a reminder that war is both personal and distressing:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

                  Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/flanders.htm

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Resilience

20140630_150649 I haven’t written a blog post in almost a year, partly because I have been chasing a toddler. I think this is a legitimate excuse.  After all, I’ve used it before.  Recently I shifted through the reams of my poems (all unpublished) and realized that I had none from the 1980s.  Unless there’s a handwritten folder of scribbled images buried in a box that I have forgotten, I seemed to have spent that decade chasing toddlers and reading picture books.  My creativity was limited to homemade playdoh and decorated sugar cookies.  And here I am again.  But really I shouldn’t blame my grandson.  To be honest, I didn’t think I had anything new to say.  My second year in Connecticut was much like my first:  I was snowed in.  I battled the ice flow in the driveway.  I couldn’t take the cold so I took off for a beach somewhere warm.  I learned about ice dams after one developed on my roof (that was new).  In the spring I planted flowers and herbs.  I went to Maine.  I learned to play golf.  I learned how to stack the fire wood after Dave splits our logs (with a log splitter, not an axe).  And now I’m raking leaves and chasing a toddler.  But every once in a while, I think about the original premise of this blog:  what happens when a sunny southern California girl finds herself transplanted to rocky New England soil?

20141003_151431During her recent visit, my second daughter casually remarked: “This is a different world.”  We were meandering down a one lane road along the river in Litchfield (once again I was lost).  The arch of leafy trees beginning to vaunt their fall colors, the lazy river, the solitude of the road—this was not the world I had raised her in.  While Connecticut might be a Blue state, this is a state where church bells chime the hour.  This is a state where the only liquor that grocery stores can sell is beer and not before ten in the morning.  (If you want to drink wine, you need to shop in a liquor store.  This may be why there are so few Trader Joe’s in Connecticut.)  This is a state that requires you to show id in order to vote (and you have to provide a reason for an absentee ballot).  In this state, the library is the cultural center of every town, offering book clubs, classes, musical performances and historical exhibits.  My town’s library hosted a farmer’s market this summer.  Buy your produce; check out a book.  Life here is different.

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I have learned to adjust. I keep better grocery lists.  I drive out to the farm stands in the summer and fall to buy local produce because there is no year round farmer’s market.  I volunteer at the library.  This September, I set up an exhibit:  Back to School: Images of Avon’s Public Schools from 1890 to 2000, using the library’s archive of photographs, textbooks and student publications.  In January I will set up another display of photographs: Family Life in Avon: Photos of Our Past.  (I’m still working on the title.)  I have joined two book clubs and a golf group.  I meet friends for coffee at the local family run coffee house.  I watch deer grazing in the backyard.  Life seems slower, less hectic.  I have time to enjoy the seasons.DSC_0224

Nature is inspirational. I have learned about resilience.  In the fall, my plants yellow, curl up, wither away.  Dead stalks disappear in the snow. In the spring, I cut away the stalks and find tiny shoots.  And soon I have flowers (if the deer don’t eat them).  Summer 2013 I planted impatiens in spite of the warnings about impatiens downy mildew.  Of course, I lost most of my impatiens before summer’s end.  This year I stuck to perennials that I saw thriving in other people’s yards.  But one day recently, I was arranging potted flowers near my front door when I noticed a tiny impatiens.  Against all odds, a little seed had sprouted in the dirt between pavers and produced a flower.  I find delight in the hardiness of this little plant.  Like that impatiens, I am flourishing where I am.

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Blessed

 

blessed 1The week before Thanksgiving, I was in a HomeGoods store, pushing my grandson in a cart, looking for a roast pan small enough to fit my mini-oven, when a woman approached me and said:  “You are so lucky.”   A few minutes later, in another part of the stores, a second woman told me the same thing.  As I checked out, the cashier asked me how old my grandson was, then she sighed and said:  “You don’t know how fortunate you are to spend so much time with him.”  As I scurried through the lists of things that needed to be done by Christmas, I thought about that morning.  And even now, after the whirlwind of the holidays and my second daughter’s marriage, I find myself reflecting on my good fortune in life.  So often I find that it is easier to look at the negatives rather than focus on the positives.  I get weighed down by what isn’t done, what I can’t have that I forget what I have accomplished, what I do have. blessed 2

I am a fortunate woman.  I have a husband who loves me (even though sometimes I am extremely difficult).  After being together for thirty-seven years, each of us knows what the other will order at a restaurant yet he still surprises me.   I wake up in the morning and smile because he is there.

I have three unique and talented daughters.  Each one has a special place in my heart.  I am proud of who they are and what they have accomplished.  Each one has finished college.  Each one is employed.  The oldest one is determined, relentless in her pursuit of knowledge and what is right, yet caring.  (I love our book chats.)  The second one is outgoing, making friends wherever she goes, and impressively organized.  (Hiking with you is always fun.) The third one is kind and easy-going, willing to share whatever she has with others. (You are the only woman I can tolerate in my kitchen.)  Two of my daughters have married people who are share their interests and are ready for adventure.  My daughter in law and son in law complement our family.  I am lucky to have such wonderful children.

I am lucky that both my parents are healthy and independent, living their own lives and enjoying their activities.

I am blessed with a mother in law who treats me as if I were her own daughter and a sister in law that I can count among my close friends.

blessed 3 WI have siblings that I can rely on:  sisters I can call when I need a shoulder to cry on; brothers who will help me when I need them.  And my siblings have married wonderful people whose company I enjoy.  We have great parties.  And I can’t even begin to say how exceptional my nieces and nephews are . . .

I have absolutely the cutest grandson in the universe.  He is so smart and adorable.  Every day he surprises me with something new.  I can’t imagine a world without him.

I have been blessed by great friends and wonderful neighbors.  Whenever I am down, I know someone is just a phone call or a text message away—ready to hold my hand and tell me that things are going to be all right.  (I miss my So Cal exercise buddies—I’m just not motivated without you– and my former work colleagues—every time I read an education article, I want to call one of you.)  Then there are my friends from college, my friends from mommy classes, women who got me through some difficult times and keep in touch anyway.  And I can’t say enough about friends who are (or have been) my  neighbors.  The folks on our street in Southern California rallied together after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and stayed together.  I know I’ll always have a home there.  My neighbors in Connecticut surprised us by clearing our driveway of snow while we were in sunny and warm California.  We have been fortunate to live in friendly neighborhoods with wonderful people. blessed 8

I have four of the best dogs in the world, which is quite an accomplishment since all of them are headstrong, noisy, and hard to train breeds.  And they love me unconditionally.  (Those cats lurking in my house—they’re not mine.)

I do not want for material things.  I have a warm, comfortable house full of food.

Some days I may wish I had taken a different road, had a different life, but in reality, I am where I am supposed to be.  I cannot even begin to count all my blessings.  I am a fortunate woman.

I wish all my readers a happy and propitious New Year’s.

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Tooth and Claw

DSC_0067Lately Alfred Lord Tennyson’s line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (“In Memoriam A. H. H.”, Canto 56, line 15) keeps popping into my head.   Wild animals lurk in trees surrounding our lot, but this is not unique.  Even in our closely packed southern California suburb, raccoons, possums, squirrels appeared in backyards.  We share our environment with some tough neighbors.  Occasionally these denizens of the forest lash out and remind us that they were here first.  Nature is not gentle.

The idea of living in a forest is romantic, like living in a fairy tale; but, in truth, the reality is more blood and guts. Our house is on a set back or flag lot.  We have a long narrow driveway to a lot behind three houses.  Before the houses were built, the city planned a road that would follow the path of a turn of the century road almost now forgotten and connect our street to a nearby cul de sac.  For whatever reason—wetlands protection, right of way conflicts–the road was never built.  People who have lived here a long time refer to this open stretch of land between houses as the Horse Guard road because the Governor’s First Horse Guard has a right to ride there (and up my driveway).  It also serves as a corridor for wildlife. DSC_0006

From the windows of my house, I can watch nature slink by in this small woods.  Deer routinely graze in there and on our lawn. A Barred Owl often sits aloof but unperturbed in the trees.   A fox has been sighted.  Numerous bears have tramped through.  A skunk was seen waddling along a nearby road.   This summer yellow jackets made a nest in an old chipmunk burrow in the front yard.  We tried spraying the opening, but the next day the yellow jackets would have carried out their dead and continued their daily activities.  Then one day early in the fall, I walked out of the house to find that major excavation had occurred.  Someone had dug up the nest.  Someone with large claws.  Nature can be dangerous, especially when you have no fence.

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This weekend, on a lazy Saturday morning, we neglected to put the field collars on the two German Shorthaired Pointers.  We have no fence but the dogs know their boundaries.  The collars (yes, they are technically shock collars) can make a beeping noise to let you know where your dogs are while hunting.  My dogs think that the beeping sound means ‘come here now.’  So when one steps over the boundaries, disappears from sight, I merely press the locator button.  The dog returns.  It doesn’t work if the dog isn’t wearing the collar.

In the time it took to pull the newspaper from its slot under the mailbox, Peanut and Dude disappeared.  Peanut was barking (squirrel, deer??) in a neighbor’s yard and came barreling back when called.  Dude did not.  We searched; a neighbor helped.  We called, we whistled, we beeped the collar that he wasn’t wearing.  No Dude.  Finally we went in the house and called the police.  (Animal Control is closed on the weekend.)  A few minutes later, the police dispatcher called back.  Someone had called to say that she had found a dog.  We drove around the corner to find Dude with a woman who obviously loved dogs.  She had given him biscuits and cleaned a puncture wound on his leg.  “Maybe he ran into a fence?” she suggested.  But as we examined him, we realized that this was not a small nail wound.

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My veterinarian’s office is open on Saturdays.  I rushed Dude over.  The vet examined the dog.  Her first analysis was that it was definitely not a domestic dog’s bite.  The puncture wounds were in too narrow of a pattern to be a bobcat; they were too large to be a fox; a bear would have done more damage.  The canine teeth marks strongly suggested a coyote.

I had seen the neighborhood coyote.  I thought I was seeing my first wolf in the wild.  While western coyotes run 20-35 pounds; eastern coyotes weigh between 30 and 50 pounds.  Several sources including the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection note that eastern coyotes are larger because genetic research has found that they have crossbred with Canadian wolves.  I have had minor encounters with western coyotes while walking my dogs in my old neighborhood.  After I saw my first eastern coyotes, I kept the beagle and Peanut on short leashes at night.   Eastern coyotes are a force to be reckoned with.

Sometimes I wonder about Dude’s encounter with the coyote.  Did Dude think it was another dog and go bounding up to it, wagging his tail?  Or did they both chase after the two neighborhood turkeys, running into each other as they looked for lunch?  Was Dude attacking?  Did he reciprocate?  Or was the leg bite given as Dude retreated?

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The answer doesn’t matter.  Dude needed minor surgery, antibiotics and pain medication.  He now wears the doggy cone of shame in an effort to keep him from licking his wounds.  For the most part, he is unaffected.  The morning after his encounter, I took his cone off so he could eat and sniff the yard.  He immediately took off again.  Fortunately he was wearing his collar.  He stands at his perimeter, watching, guarding.  He seems to be looking out for that coyote.

A friend told me that someone who lives on a neighboring street saw a coyote traveling toward a local turkey farm.  She called the farm to warn them that a coyote was in the neighborhood.  “We know,” the farmer said.  “He’s gotten five of our turkeys.”  This is an efficient coyote.

Two wild turkeys had been crisscrossing our yard since spring.  Yesterday afternoon only one showed up.  That one danced on the hood of my truck.  Did the coyote get her friend?  Did Dude, tracking the turkey, run into the coyote?  Was she on the truck to get out of the coyote’s range?  Or to thank Dude for saving her?

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I can only speculate about Dude’s encounter with the coyote.  Dude isn’t saying anything.  But even if he could talk, he probably wouldn’t say anything.  That’s the type of dog he is.  He broke the rules; he’ll live with the consequences.  He’s a westerner, stoic like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne character.  One takes one’s chances; one takes one’s consequences.

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Posted in adventures, backyards, dogs, Life in Connecticut, nature, New England, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment