Friday, December 31, 2004

Tsunami thoughts

The rest and repose of this holiday week have apparently been an illusion, since it was only last night that I caught up with the tsunami heartbreak. Till then, I had caught only the headlines with their horrifying increases in body counts. At first, I tried to measure the impact by analogy to the most horrifying thing I ever witnessed—the 9/11 attacks in which 3,000 people died, some few of whom I knew slightly.

By now, I calculate the tsunami toll at over forty 9/11s. How do we wrap our puny human brains around suffering on that scale? How do we explain it, particularly in the absence of any malevolent intent? Conscious though I am of a God outside myself, I cannot believe that this event is in any way is the result of his intent to harm or punish his creation. How do I explain it? How do I rationalize it? I don’t. That’s not my job.

What is my job is to figure out how to respond. Obviously, I send money. Obviously, I think and pray and talk and write about what this means and what the world community needs to do in the future. Right now I have not yet finished with shock and grief.

When the time is ripe, we all do more. I suspect it will have something to do with how we allocate the wealth here on our little planetary garden.

People will differ about how to make those decisions. Emotions will run high. I live and work every day in a world divided by resource allocation decisions. I run a small non-profit, and every day we make decisions either strategically or tactically, either explicitly or implicitly, but we hope always thoughtfully about how to allocate resources. When I put money into a project, that is clearly a choice, but it is also a resource allocation decision when I spend time with one client and defer another. If I overinvest in one project, by definition I am depriving competing demands for those resources. If I stop investing in an existing project, who is to say whether it might not be my decision that is the last shove over a tipping point. In a sense, all our investments are only as good as the marginal one that pushes a project to success or its demise.

If this sounds like something out of a business school course, it is. I learned as much or more in business school as I did studying world literature at the graduate level, and the lessons are as important in my spiritual life as they are in my profession. The point is that good people starting from good premises don’t come to the same conclusions. In my simple world, this is described as the battle between the republicans and the communists.

Try not to think of these as capital-R republicans and capital-C communists. Instead, think of competing forces in how resources get allocated. When I took my job, one board member took me aside—though he swears he does not remember this conversation—and gave me some discreet advice. “Karen,” he said, “You will deal with a lot of different people in this job, and I just want you to be careful not to spend too much time with the communists.”

This advice has been extremely helpful to me. It reminds me that historically my little non-profit had swung wide in the direction of instituting policies that aim to set up overarching systems that do good for people, financing them by redistributing resources from the more wealthy to those in greater need. My board member was expressing a different view that says people cannot and should not control other people without their consent and that some systems run amuck and siphon off resources to support a condescending and inefficient bureaucracy. Or more accurately, my board member was expressing the need to swing back the other direction in some degree. Similarly, it is one function of government to moderate human tendencies in one direction or the other, as it is the function of the brain to moderate between the demands of the stomach and the heart.

Here in Vermont, we heard some of the same conflicts when the last election ended. It wasn’t so much the refusal of the rest of the country to embrace Howard Dean. Rather, it was the shock at being one of so very few completely blue states. Many Vermonters were completely undone at the idea that other views could be so very deeply and inexplicably different from their own. “What world can they be living in?” was the question I heard again and again, both from liberal left and practical right-thinkers.

And there, my friends, is the crux of the matter. In any given situation, we may choose the care-taking option or defense of freedom. In any given situation, care-taking may bleed over into condescension or stifling bureaucracy. In any given situation, defense of freedom can morph into flint-hearted disregard of my neighbor. It all depends on perspective. It depends on how big the resource pie we have to divide among the multitude. It depends on the skills and the hearts of those who are doing the dividing. It depends mightily on the process in which we collectively engage to divide up the pie. As a second order effect, it also depends on how much of the pie we are willing to chew up in dividing up the pie.

My wish for the new year is that die-hard republicans take a moment to explore the many circumstances in which we do support common good and think about whether our approach needs to expand or at least to be realigned. My wish for the new year is that die-hard liberals (little-c communists) take a moment to think about how our desires to fix the world are aided by budgets and selective neglect of some demands on our time, money and other resources. My wish for the new year is that we each expand our comfortable and constrained worldviews and try to see our counterparts not as monsters but as decent human beings trying to do the right thing even as we battle our lesser instincts in our own hearts and minds.

Perhaps the first step is to decide where we draw the magic circle of who is to be loved, supported and nourished. For me, that circle takes in all humankind.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


One day last week, I woke up with a stiff neck and never completely unfurled throughout the day. It was as if I had been working out with weights: perhaps those nine puppies weighing in at seven to ten pounds each? These days I spend a good part of each day in a variant of the upside-down-dog pose suited to picking up puppy poop or simply reaching, stretching into the corners in which the little darlings creep for their private ablutions. Every time I open the dishwasher, it seems that two or three puppies jump in, and I find myself screeching, “No puppies in the dishwasher!” as I lift them out. It is my own personalized exercise plan, and I didn’t even plan it.

All throughout Miss Nell’s nursing of the vampire puppies, I have kept her fortified with mystery meat items from my freezer: the breaded chicken (tastes just like fried!...not), last Christmas’s sauerbraten, and what passes for smoked salmon in Vermont. As a result, I was able to do a clean count of what’s in there, and it is most satisfying. Frozen soups of all descriptions line the back wall, herbs and shallots nestle in the top tray, my summer garden vegetables are ready to enjoy…and that is it.

Flushed with the energy of active days, I stand in awe of my organized kitchen which is innocent of so much as a single Christmas cookie. What a great time to go on a diet! It’s not that I need it any more than I have for the last two years, but suddenly an open vista of whole grains, vegetables and lean protein beckons. I am intrigued, I am tempted, I leap into a healthier world. Being goal oriented is sometimes less about will and more about seizing an opportunity that is in the right direction.

With that in mind, sometimes the most important thing we can do to get to our goals is to get barriers out of our way…or should I say get ourselves out of our way? It comforts me when I am having trouble making some aspect of my life work to think in terms of manufacturing flow, to analyze the trivial and mundane into submission. And it is a pleasure of single life that keeping myself fed is uncomplicated. There are foods I like and foods I don’t, foods that are good for me and foods that aren’t. Obviously, I have the best chance for success on a diet if I can organize enough foods I like that are also foods that are good for me—the trick is getting the combinations right.

So I have a standard shopping list—two columns on a normal size sheet of paper—that includes everything I normally eat. Items in bold should never run out; items that are special requirements for the next time I shop or are on sale at the local store are written in. With this simple tool, I always have on hand stoneground wheat bread, chicken and fish, the vegetables I am allowed, and the lemons, limes, ginger, cilantro, garlic and spices that make life worth living. Life is far too short for boring food.

Readers will be relieved that I do not intend to blog my diet, but every now and then I may wax poetic about a particular discovery. Tonight, for example, I made Italian sausage from ground turkey, then cooked it with peppers, onion and eggplant. Tasty and so filling I almost couldn’t finish. Hmm. Maybe when I redesign my blog, I will include a recipe section. Food writing is a calling in itself.

An important trick of dieting, at least for me, is never to cheat. That idea that if you get off the train you can get back on may work for others; for me one wrong step takes me down the slippery slope. In this, if not in many other ways, I know myself.

On the exercise front, there are many ways to trick the sluggish beast into action. Redundancy is key: having exercise clothes for the entire week knocks out one major roadblock of an excuse. In my most successful workout years, another key was going to the gym every day. How many times have you gone to the gym and dressed for a workout, then done nothing? For me, never. If I get there and dressed, I do the workout. So I trick myself to get there and dressed, and the rest is all downhill. How hard is it to get up and get dressed every day? Not hard at all.

Until I am in a routine, I don’t always enjoy the hard work, but I will gladly do aerobics and weight work in exchange for meditative stretching. Add a sauna and make the workout in the morning, and my day is made. My challenge this time is to find a place and a routine that work for me. Until then, warm weather walks and the Nordictrak make a temporary but acceptable stopgap. And snowshoes, it’s time for snowshoes! Maybe this year I will find the trick of keeping German Shepherd Max off the back of my snowshoes.

I tried to learn to ski cross country last year, but my Southern fear of sliding betrayed my will, and my knees buckled on the snowplow. I might try again, or I might stick to snowshoes, or who knows what else I might do? For sheer delight, it is hard to top contradanse, but I don’t think I have been dancing once since I moved to Vermont. I wonder why not?

In the realm of exercise—and other initially unpalatable ventures—I have made the unlikely discovery that combining two things I don’t like sometimes transforms both. It’s kind of like inviting two difficult people to dinner at the same time; sometimes the result is not only lively, but downright memorable. I used to dread reading the dry Economist, but an extended session with it on a recumbent bicycle made my daily aerobics session fly.

And into my mind springs an image of a row of a dozen Lifecycles, each with a Wall Street professional perched aloft. On that particular morning in memory, rows of the New York Times echoed down the line, each open to a particularly intriguing editorial on policy issues relating to a so-called third sex, children who were born neither male nor female at birth. Bemused brains, as yet untouched by the morning’s caffeine jolt, trying to take in a concept that was a little too tough; legs pumping away.

Next week I can work on finding a daily spot of zoned out bliss. The puppies will be moving to new homes, and we will all need a shot of newness in our daily routines. Still it's a little sad to think of no puppies underfoot, no puppies scrabbling at the bedroom door, no puppies chasing Max and Toby, even no puppies in the dishwasher.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Time for a Change

Vermont Diary started as an e-mail blast, an effort to capture time and to make it pass, a way of dealing with the loneliness of being in new circumstances and wanting to share each day’s wonder with a couple dozen family and friends. At the same time, I have always thought that writing would one day overtake me, that it would be something I would be compelled to do. For at least half my life, this sensation mystified me; I didn’t even like to write. For the last decade I have felt compelled to write more often and in more varied forms, and for the last year I have been writing almost every day.

When I started the e-mail distribution, it was partly because I felt that I needed not just to splash around in words, I needed to send them to someone. I needed readers, even if they were mostly unresponsive. I needed to think about the audience on the other end of a communication.

It also started as a form of “contact for contact’s sake,” an attempt to mend the human connections that frayed in my overstressed years or that perhaps were never what I hoped they were. That, I am sorry to say, was mostly unsuccessful, and Vermont Diary has been mostly one-way communication. For those of you who have written back, even once, I am grateful, and I appreciate the thoughtful readers who may not have had a moment to respond.

Still, I am conscious that some people—probably even some who have not said so—find e-mail intrusive. As one usually excellent correspondent said in a testy mood, “Why are you sending me things that don’t have anything to do with me?” And I replied, “Because they have to do with me. With what I am thinking and feeling and what I wanted to share with all of you.” Her plea was for thoughts directed explicitly to her, and I respect that need for friendship to be customized rather than off the shelf.

Since I started the blog, I have been doing duplicate publication, and it has created some difficulties with writer’s perpective and with perceived audience. The mental image of who I am writing to has a profound effect on content and tone. It is also possible for an essay to turn into a discussion in either format, but I have discovered that it is perilous to try to carry a discussion from one format over into the other. People who have bought in to the e-mail format haven’t signed up for the rules of blogworld and vice versa.

Within a few days, I will discontinue the e-mail distribution. It makes extra work, not so much in the few keystrokes it takes to send the e-mail but in the concentration on whether the perspective is right. It will be easier for me to write for a more general audience in the blog and to concentrate on one particular correspondent in e-mail. If you want to continue to read Vermont Diary, it is out there in cyberspace at As a practical matter, what I recommend is setting up a Favorites folder like my Daily folder which takes me to all the websites I check every day. I’ll probably change formats in the near future, which will change the address, but I’ll send a note out to the Vermont Diary list for old time’s sake. Because I know you don’t all read everything I send, will send out the online address for a few more days.

In the last several weeks, there have been only three people for whom I have been keeping the e-mail blast going. One understands this change, one never responds, and the other...well that's another story not appropriate for a public forum. Now it is time to untangle these last few remaining tendrils and divide my writing into a clear public forum (the blog) and more personal forms (letters, e-mail, journal). In the end, it is my development as a writer that drives the change. And, that, I think, is a good thing.

Of course, you can still e-mail me. And I’ll be e-mailing you, but not so often. As my mama used to say, “If you wanna get letters, you gotta write letters.” The same protocol applies to personalized e-mail, but for surfing around various modes of expression, blogworld is a rich new field for exploration.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Of all the quiet, subliminal signals I listen for, there is one that will not be ignored. When my back starts to hurt, I know I have been neglecting regular exercise. Sure enough, the biannual switch of workout routines—another obligatory ritual of life in Vermont—has not yet become routine for me. And yet, intellectually I know that daily workouts are important to my physical and mental health. It’s all under the heading of fooling myself into doing what I need to do. You see, I know what I need, but caught up in each day’s new wonders, I forget.

Today it is back to the Nordictrak, with frolicking puppies safely shut out of the room. Soon I have the fun of a sample gym membership to look forward to. I won it at the Rotary auction: 10 visits for $40—cool! Maybe I will lose myself in the usual January crowd, maybe I will Nordictrak for a few weeks and let the crowds abate. They always do, you know. Either way, I have set up the game so that one day if I feel the wish to go over there and play, there is nothing to stop my good intentions.

And it is back to the diet. Like many women, I am perpetually worrying about my diet, and I have a pretty good regimen: whole grains, protein, vegetables though never quite enough vegetables. I like to cook, and good kitchen organization keeps me pretty much on track. My diet got an overhaul two years ago when I started thinking of moving to Vermont, and at that time I dropped forty pounds, about half of what I attribute to my stressful New York City lifestyle. I flirt with diet off an on, even tried the gruesome Atkins, but headaches and dangerous mood swings sent me back to my customized routine. This time I’m traveling with Dr. Phil, maybe with a cocktail of the soy products that worked for me the first time.

There it is. Even though I am almost always on a diet, I don’t talk about it unless I am really serious. Nobody can make me serious about it until some confluence of circumstances makes me serious, but when I see those strands come together, I leap to catch them and braid them into a new safety net. Wish me luck on the high wire?

Meanwhile, back in my kitchen, there is not a single Christmas cookie to tempt me. At one point, I thought of making a traditional stollen, but I relied on my inner laziness, and the impulse passed. Who says procrastination is a bad thing?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Listening to Voices

In my mind’s eye, my readers are divided into three groups: the ones who experience the world in much the same way I do, the ones who are intrigued, and the ones who think I am simply nuts. An unanticipated joy of blogging is that I encounter readers and other writers who interact with me in ways that enrich my life. It turns out there are a lot more people in the world like me than I suspected. Oh wow.

From the intrigued readers, I hear back a question. Okay, so you look for answers outside your own consciousness, and you hear responses. Exactly how does that work? Mechanically, how does your brain get a message that comes from somewhere else?

I’m never really sure that the answers I get come from outside myself. Sometimes I think getting a different slant on an issue is simply a matter of being quiet enough. Silence helps, rhythmic exercise helps. Then thoughts, instincts, images otherwise drowned out float up to consciousness to be sifted, weighed, deliberated. It is important to respect each and every one of these subliminal messages, no matter how social mores or our own sense of appropriateness or “decency” might leap in with edits. We ignore these voices at our peril.

On the other hand, even without delving into the mysteries of prayer or of intuition, sometimes I think that the world delivers explicit messages to me cloaked in serendipity and synchronicity. There are several mechanisms I have come to respect, among them the tendency that exactly the right book will be in front of me in bookstore or library.

When I went to the library a couple of days ago, a book leapt off the shelf and into my arms. Repulsed, I put it right back. The title suggests the lowest common denominator, lurid self help daytime tv kind of thing....title of What Can He Be Thinking? by Michael Gurian.

I swear I had to force myself to remember that when a book pushes itself into my consciousness like that, I really ought to pay attention.

Gurian’s book turns out to be a thoughtful discussion of how men's brain chemistry differs from women's. Really very insightful. Just a bad title.

As I read through it, I had several aha depression equals having your limbic (emotional) system flooded by stress chemicals. As an old Southern girlfriend would say....well, huh. That makes sense. That I can manage.

Descriptions of how men tend to deal in transactions while women tend to deal in relationship. How a relationship means different things to men from what it means to women. Underscoring that it is essential to hammer out what is “the deal."

A section for me that was important describing how, "Each woman could recall the edict of her ancestors to follow a man no matter what the costs--and know that this was an unreasonable and superficial edict, not a deep truth of marriage." Well huh. This holiday season makes 21 years since I left my husband, and I am STILL struggling with this one.

Explanation of how when many men's brains are triggered in anger, they need uninterrupted time to let the rational parts of the brain take over again. How one should NOT attempt to talk to them then. How women especially should not try to talk them out of having their brains work like this…it’s a given, unlikely to change once a man is out of his twenties. All the person can do is manage the experience; being told “just be different” only makes things worse. This explains a lot about several men I have known in various circumstances, not to mention about my own need to withdraw in some situations, to take my time.

Emphasis that women process interpersonal information much more quickly than men do. Hah. You can say that again! The lesson for me: just because I have an insight does not mean that another person—male or female—is ready to hear it. Let the conversation wait until both parties are ready. Of course, taken to extremes this rule could deteriorate into a condescending attitude that I can manage the pace and content of my interactions with other people. But like most rules for living, its opposite rule is also true; we simply dance between the poles.

The book is written by a man and may not have as much insight for other men, but I found it very useful. Guys really are different from us.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

And Christmas Came

In the early hours of the morning just after sunrise, Christmas came. For weeks I have known it would. Still I confess that in last night’s darkness, I doubted. Was it really such a good idea to spend this most wonderful day alone? Despite all my mental and emotional preparations, my embracing of whatever might come, would I slip over the edge into despair and depression? It sometimes does happen that despite our efforts to prepare, we sit quietly waiting for a light that does not come.

So what did I get?

Awareness that I am well loved in every part of life that counts

Knowledge that the steps I have been taking to improve my self-knowledge and my relationships are on the right path

Gratitude that I have work skills that make me independent, that make it possible for me to maintain relationships that make sense for my emotional and spiritual health, rather than being dragged along by emotional or economic neediness

A quiet expectation that the next twenty years will be the best of my life

Motivations for the next big steps in improvement of my health—Vermont has already been so very good for me
--Overt awareness of sexual joy in my life and the link to my own vitality and attractiveness—I like men, I need men in my life.
--A quiet word from a friend who is diabetic that exercise is the most important tool in preventing the disease

Conviction that the things that well up in us have their right place in the world and that we all have the capacity—with time and attention—to put our selves in order both internally and with respect to the world

Specific strategies for how to deal with a couple of difficult issues in human relationships that now confront me

All this in a few quiet minutes. Not the work of a few minutes, but the culmination of days and weeks of contemplating the advent of Christmas. The roundness and wholeness of it startled me, its contemplative nature melding with resolute knowledge of next steps.

This is the gift that comes from the solitude that I offered myself this Christmas. Thanks! It was just what I wanted.

Here's hoping you get everything you truly want this holiday season and always.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Silent night, holy night

For proper Christmas spirit you can't do better than Floyd's epiphany at

Keep that candle burning in your heart.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas Alone

The first couple of Christmases that you spend alone have a tendency to slide into self-pity, even if you put up the tree and string the lights. Two extremes can lead you astray. Either you can try too hard only to crash, or you can resolve to tough it out only to find yourself depressed by an all too daily ambiance on a very special day. I’ve done both, more than once, but I have also learned to create room for Christmas and then to rest in the certainty that it will be there. When I stop trying to engineer a picturesque, peopled holiday, I find joy in contemplating my blessings, a state of mind that opens up remarkable possibilities. That is when Christmas happens.

Among my blessings this year: my fire. I love that little stove that burns so warm and bright. It takes the chill out of my living room and provides a place for my gaze to rest.

My curtains. They are done at last. I bask in achievement, or I would if they were hemmed. But they thwart cold draft off the living room windows, and the clean lines of nubby cream silk falling floor to ceiling please me. The room is transformed from its previous cluttered maroon ambiance to a haven, despite ragged upholstery. My curtained privacy affords a new luxury—drying myself in front of the fire—a sensual delight that is completely new in my experience.

The puppies don’t mind. They are sacked out under the sofa, flattened by their day’s labors. Today, they learned to climb the stairs, and Max is appalled. He spent the day in my bed, equidistant from all edges, keeping watch for intruding, marauding, squealing puppies. Today, they learned to climb the stairs, but not to come down, so from time to time, puppies cry out for rescue.

I took the big dogs to the office for a couple of hours while I dealt with a fried hard drive (really! I just did this in April on the same computer), and they holidayed with people in the building, more delighted to be out in a social whirl than ever. We arrived home to find….oh, nooooooo!.....I thought the puppies had done all they could do to startle me, but no.

There were puppies on the front step. In twenty degree weather. Frantic Nell was trying to round them up, aided only by the barrier of a few steps down. Puppies don’t know how to go downstairs, at least not yet. I can only imagine how they got outdoors. Occasionally, my front door does not latch properly. Or maybe Nell couldn’t handle being alone with her offspring and her frenetic leaps hit the doorknob just right. It’s also hard to say how long they were out there, but my house was quite warm and my furnace was struggling to heat the frigid Vermont hills and fields. No harm done, all puppies safe and sound, so among my blessings I still count puppies.

I’m thinking this is not the year for a tree, but I will look for a pretty wreath and maybe some lights for it. Visitors in a steady stream are forecast, looking for a puppy break, but even if only the 4-H kids (the pet care group) and a few close friends come, that will make for lovely visits. There are interesting things to eat in the fridge, a ham and some of Aunt Ber’s slaw. I’ll push the furniture back and lay down some old quilts so we can all celebrate Christmas with puppies.

Between visits, I’m counting smaller blessings, too: my missing black maryjane rediscovered under the bed, that the auto shop said to me “Isn’t it time for your inspection?” and it was due in December, and discovery of a new kind of lemon (Meyer) reputed to be a cross with an orange.

I am enjoying the search for a few perfect recipes. I have achieved broccoli raab pizza nirvana, as well as the ecstasy of lime pickle, not for the faint of heart with its quarter cup of cayenne to the quart. I am working on chicken with preserved lemon and oil-cured olives, a ricotta pie with spinach and red peppers, something with Meyer lemons, and maybe that dried cranberry panettone in the new Cooking Light issue. I can play in the kitchen and cook anything I want, unfettered by obligations to Christmas dinner or fatty treats. Don’t get me wrong, I love making traditional Christmas things, especially Christmas cookies, but I also love being free not to do so.

I tried to convince a couple of friends to come over for an authentic Mexican dinner for Christmas, but they are deeply engaged in counting their own blessings, and I cannot fault their choice. Really, wouldn’t it be fun to do something totally different for Christmas? As I recall, last year I made sauerbraten and red cabbage, which is traditional in other parts of the world. Fun. Christmas is fun, when you let it happen.

I am also looking into the new year. At the Rotary Christmas auction, I won a trial membership at a new gym. Maybe I can squeeze my four visits in over the next week and a half before the annual January crowd descends. I’m doing the freezer inventory and thinking about what I can feed visitors not only in the holidays but through the winter. I’m finding soup I tucked away for just these chilly days—carrot ginger and cock-a-leekie and more. I’m cleaning out, clearing the decks, dumping excess stuff. Sometimes it’s meditative work, but more often there is an old movie or Christmas music for accompaniment. Markedly improved satellite tv offerings are yet another blessing of the season.

The first few Christmases I spent alone were motivated by work pressures, compounded by intense dislike of traveling in holiday crowds. But now I don’t understand how anybody has time for Christmas if they travel. So much Christmas happens on its own without preparation or prompting. I hope and expect to emerge into the new year refreshed by this blessed season, and what a gift that is!

Home Alone

At the door I was met by doggy enthusiasm, not times two as is usual at my home, but times twelve. Yes, the puppies escaped the utility room. Someone knocked down the first door, then a wiggly puppy battering ram shoved aside the second door. There were puppies everywhere, most particularly underfoot. I helped the big dogs to a few minutes freedom outdoors, but knew they wouldn’t stay long in single-digit weather. And I turned around to survey my little world.

There was a puppy chewing on the knob of the bottom drawer in the kitchen. There were three puppies in the laundry basket. There were puppies hanging on my shoelaces. There were puppies chowing down on Max and Toby’s senior special, not what they are supposed to eat, but one day won’t hurt them. I quickly removed the tippy water bowl that had somehow not yet flooded the kitchen.

There were little puppy poops almost everywhere except (thank you!) on the living room rug. Inspired, I went to the bathroom. There was a puppy on the scale. I used up the last of the toilet paper and tossed the cardboard core to a puppy. Delighted, she sped away, ears flying, to show off her prize.

Back in the living room, there are—as always—several puppies on the lower shelf of the coffee table. The whole idea of multi-level living appeals to puppies, and I cringe to think how the big dogs will cope if they ever learn to climb stairs. There are at least three puppies chewing on outlets and electrical cords. Did I mention that the public spaces in my house, as distinct from the puppy spaces, are not puppy proofed? “No, Piggie!” I squeal. “Stop that, Daisy! Curly Jack! Get away!”

In my study, there are puppies on the NordicTrak. I turn to a loud crash as two or three puppies have engineered a see-saw with one of its skis. In the box of printer paper, more puppies. It’s like an exercise in quantum physics. No sooner do you observe a puppy in one spot than you turn and it is somewhere else. How can there be only nine of them?

People gush at me, “How cute! You won’t be able to let them go.” Oh no. I will be able to let them go. But for a few weeks, they are fun.

I accepted my fate, escorted the big dogs each to a sofa refuge, blew off my evening meeting, poured a glass of wine and settled down to watch. And they all fell asleep. They slept for hours, rousing only for a few minutes at the time I thought it was time to go to sleep. I can only conclude that they tired themselves out exploring the wonder of being home alone.

Did I mention that they almost set the house on fire? I found the heat lamp with 100-watt bulb face down on the utility room floor, the vinyl flooring scorched and curled away to expose charred subflooring.

Over at Susan’s Advent calendar there are tater tots with their eyes all aglow. The woman is a wee bit obsessed. Often I think that those of us who have daily visits with our inner lunacy ultimately have an easier time with the outer world. She also offers this thought:

One kind thought can warm three winter months. –Chinese proverb

I like that.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Puppy Heaven

Another major life step has occurred in the lives of the nine little wonders in the next room. This morning, I re-arranged the utility room so that my folding three-piece wall no longer keeps puppies in one corner but rather keeps them out of the corner where the freezer and the washer/dryer and the hole in the wall reside. Their tiny world has tripled in size, and now it boasts snoozing, playing and pooping areas, not to mention toys.

They have a plastic thread spool, a few wiffle golf balls, a carpet square, a plastic bucket, a soda bottle, and a couple of knotted washcloths. Puppy heaven.

The puppies also have a step in the corner, which covers a hole into garage and great beyond. They wail with desperate longing to move that step, a maneuver they accomplished one day last week, pulling pink fluff out of the hole and rejoicing. Fortunately, I was home. Now the step is weighted with four full paint cans—all tightly sealed as they came from the paint store—in an attempt to keep them from moving the step again. My conscious and unconscious mind frets over the image of paint cans falling on puppies, latex and oil in many colors pooling in the low spots of the utility room’s uneven floor, hurt paws or worse.

T wants to know why I don’t just fasten something over the hole, but I envision puppies chewing on the edges of whatever I fasten there. You can’t win with puppies. On the other hand, perhaps I could fashion something that would also cover the electrical outlet with china outlet cover in that wall, an item that I would not have ever considered chewing. But then I’m not a puppy, and to them it is interesting. The whole world is interesting.

Most interesting of all, they have discovered that there is a world beyond even the utility room. There is a world with slippery wood floors good for chasing your sister, and a world with carpets that smell like the big dogs. There is a big creature that does fascinating things, like sweeping the floors and wearing shoes with laces.

The gates, however, are a bummer from the puppies view. The big dogs, especially Nell who requires respite from grasping paws and tiny teeth, and I appreciate the gates. There is a heavy metal table that works quite nicely as a sliding door between kitchen and utility room, but now that the puppies know about the world beyond, its opaque finality frustrates them. The baby gate allows a view into that intriguing kitchen, but I am not secure in its long term efficacy, since it was designed for human babies who don’t have such sharp teeth, nor are they small enough to squeeze through a hole that is just a little, just a little (c’mon guys, help me with this!), just a little bigger.

If I’m in the kitchen, outside the baby gate, there is a chorus of puppy chirps, barks and whines. “Oh, please, please!” they seem to say, “Our world is too small. We want to be out there with you and the big dogs!” The big dogs stand aghast, a few feet outside the gate. The four of us are standing firm against the demands of the nine, but we are aware that they are growing faster than we are and have more energy. We must have boundaries; we must use the strategies and wiles our maturity has taught us.

The nine have now collapsed with the weariness of exhausted demands, a pile of puppies just inside the gate. Any minute they will wake again, pushing against the limits of that little world that only this morning tripled in size. Puppy heaven.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Gift of the Dog-i

Toby is always so very happy to see me. It is partly that I have been away from home for four whole hours, partly that no creature has ever loved me as deeply, truly and hopelessly as Toby has from the day he walked up my front walk on Staten Island and licked the backs of my knees.

From about the size of a breadbox that day, too little to know how to climb the many stairs of my house, Toby has grown to ninety pounds of dog. Nobody knows for sure what breeds entered into Toby’s apparently fierce look, but short-cropped black fur and mahogany accents suggest Doberman or Rottweiler, softened by a slight curly ruff and hound-like ears.

Toby has always taken everything hard, and one suspects a tough babyhood. Where German Shepherd Max walks a loose lope, secure in his position in the world, Toby is all coiled spring. In the nine years I have known him, I have never seen Toby live up to the menace of his appearance. On the contrary, he is afraid of wind and loud noises, he defers to most other dogs, and his booming bark covers up a tendency to drool with fear. On the other hand, a happy Toby is a goofy Toby, whirling and spinning in pure joy.

The whole puppy experience has been hard on big dogs, who opine that we had quite enough dogs before we started this whole fostering thing. From the first day, Nell has been reasonably well behaved in my presence, but the skulking, creeping walk of big dogs suggests that when I am not around, she whispers threats in their ears, both upright and droopy. “Touch those puppies, and I will rip your face off. Even look at them. Go ahead, I dare you. Are you eating that? Didn’t I tell you all food is mine?”

Is it any wonder that when I come home for lunch and puppy care that the big dogs are happy to see me? Even happier than usual? Today, I thought Toby would burst with excitement. The spins, the twirls, the expressions of total delight. The grasping of one hot pink Timberland boot…Wait!!!!

In past transports of joy, Toby has taken a variety of items out to enjoy on the lawn: dish towels, socks, yogurt containers, tennis balls, and underwear. I only buy black socks now in packs of six at a time. I lose a lot of socks completely; others I find around the house with a big bite out of them. Sneakers and other shoes are likewise among Toby’s very favorites. Not only do they have a powerful aroma of…well, me…but they also allow chewing of shoelaces and tossing of the shoe into the air, thereby affording exercise to powerful neck muscles. I always know when Toby has been playing with my shoes, because the laces will be pulled up tight so I can’t get my feet in them.

But, no! Not my favorite hot pink Timberland boots. Last year I lost one each of two pairs of sneakers under the snow, as Toby pranced outdoors with them in an excess of delight and buried them in the snow. I suspect that my one of my favorite black maryjanes has suffered the same fate. Once sneakers surfaced in the spring, they were as appealing as ever to Toby, but they had lost any utility to me. Too much wet, too many cycles of freezing and thawing had left them cracked, faded, sprung and generally useless. Toby loves them still.

“Please, Toby, please!” I begged. “Bring the boot back!” And you know, he did. Faithless, I feared he had sneaked it back out in a later trip outside, until I found it tucked into one corner of the living room sofa. Life with goofy dogs can be exhilirating. Now I sit, my feet clad in my “Up-on-the-WOOF-top” Christmas socks, thankful for Toby’s gift of leaving my hot pink Timberland boots at my side.

For this and all our many blessings, may we be thankful in this season of joy.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

What is 180?

It’s not complicated to take care of puppies, even though there are lots of newspapers to put down and pick up, lots of mopping. Everybody is eating puppy food now, with a cocktail of Mom. And the little brains are just developing enough to look for stimulation. This weekend it will probably be time to reconfigure the pen for more space and more toys. Next week the 4-H kids start coming to help play with them.

This evening I took the opportunity offered by an extra-long Apprentice finale to stuff a dewormer down 9 puppies and to clip toenails (9 puppies times 20 toes), a tiny act of care that took far longer that I ever expected.

180 is a lot of toes.

My favorite toenail story dates back to Brooklyn. The boys and I liked to play with pretty Xena, a hyperactive nine-month-old German Shepherd girl. Xena had two throw toys, and her loving parents would—twice a day—throw one after another for an uninterrupted forty-five minutes, allow for a few minutes rest and adoration from their girl, then pick up a few more minute in hopes of achieving a happy dog flat in front of the fire for the evening.

Like my Maxie, who screams when his toenails are trimmed, Miss Xena was not inclined to participate in grooming rituals. Her mother was a smart lady, even smarter than a German Shepherd puppy. First, she sat down and carefully, lovingly trimmed and polished her own nails, while keeping up a stream of conversation with Xena. “Oh, that is so pretty. I really love having pretty fingernails. They are so smooth and bee-yoo-tiful.”

By this time, Xena was curious what was going on. German Shepherds simply require to know what is going on with their people at all times. She came over next to Mom, checked out the very beautiful nails. And Mom struck. “What? Would you like me to do yours?” And Xena sat quietly, happy to be made as beautiful as her mom. Toenails clipped, all parties happy.

Dogs, like humans, respond to compassion.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tyrone's Prayer Book

Over at Beginner’s Mind ( Robert has many interesting observations today, wrapping up with ' "That's just the way I am!" How many times have you heard or said this? By the time the words have echoed off the walls, they are no longer true, if they ever were. Not only is there hope that we can change ourselves, there's a certainty we will.'

This leads me to wonder how much control we have over how we change, at least in the direction and speed of change. There is so much in the world that we do not control. Even our own hopes, needs, drives and dreams seem to well up from some uncharted corner of our deepest selves. How can we help but feel like aliens in our own minds and bodies?

I believe that our individual trajectories are not entirely under our own control. At the same time, I believe that we each have significant influence over the choices we make, not only in our actions but perhaps more imporantly in the attitudes which drive the alternatives that we allow into our little spheres. We draw on long held values as well as immediate, intuitive flashes of insight. Where do these come from?

Whatever you call that source of direction, many of us call it God. The terminology doesn’t really matter, though I often think that God must be as annoyed at children who won’t use a proper name as any of us would be never to be called by name.

Perhaps this is as good as any place to relate my own particular conversion experience.

Many years ago in Brooklyn, I was attending a local church to which I had turned in my distress after leaving my husband. As for many people, it was a shock to find myself having done such a thing. I didn’t believe in divorce; I had said so for many years. And judging from the reactions of friends and family, I had done something not only unheard of, but unforgivable, so my support network had some big holes in it. To add to my distress, I knew I had made the only choice that would allow me to continue living a hopeful and positive life. After the day I fell headlong down the stairs in New York’s Penn Station, I seriously considered it was the only choice that would leave me alive. I thought church might help, and it did.

But I felt awkward about being there on “false pretenses.” I put this in quotes, because I later learned that my qualms were shared by many churchgoers, that in fact, the best churches speak truly to the very same doubts I had. Still, at the time it seemed unfair that I was enjoying such a warm and wonderful social framework while not necessarily buying into the basic premise. Did I really believe in God? How about this whole idea of his sending his Son to save us?

I had long understood the world in many dimensions, the literal physical overlaid by the spiritual, the imaginaray, and the metaphorical. But how was I to understand this increasing need to create clear and tangible links from each of these worlds to the others?

I was volunteering at the neighborhood homeless shelter. For anyone who has not done this, I highly recommend it as a personally enriching experience on many levels. My partner for the night was an older gay man named (name changed here) Alex. We would serve a meal, talk with the dozen men in our care, sleep in the next room, then serve breakfast and see the men on their way. This was a shelter that rotated from church to church, and the men were carefully screened to exclude serious mental illness, violence and overt substance abuse. The men even stopped at another facility for a shower before they came to us.

They were marginalized people. Men who had been hanging on by a thread. Men who were one paycheck from eviction from their shabby apartments, who then lost the job. Men with a long history of substance abuse, who were clean, at least for the moment. Men who pulled sheets of notebook paper with block lettering out of their pockets to ask my advice on their resume. It was the best resume editing, and the most heartfelt, that I ever did.

I had done this gig once before, over the river at St Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. Years later a refuge for rescue workers at Ground Zero, St Paul’s was one of the earliest churches in New York. I woke up in the sanctuary proper, which is painted rose and that lovely Colonial blue-green, sun streaming through tall windows of rippled antique glass, the sounds of Wall Street traffic in the background, and a charming yellow striped cat named Sur (short for Sursum Corda) purring loudly on my chest. One of the loveliest moments of my life, brought to me by the ten homeless men in the next room.

But that was reminiscence. Back in Brooklyn, as I was setting out soup bowls and napkins, I became aware that Alex was engaged in an increasingly heated argument with one of the ten homeless men who were our guests for the evening. A man with a good heart, Alex tended to be a bit difficult and his interactions were sometimes confrontational, especially when the subject was religion, which Alex experience either as liturgy or his own personal variety of the charismatic. He was getting argumentative, and the homeless man was getting agitated.

Distraction. That was what we needed. I shooed Alex off to ladle soup into bowls, and steered the homeless man over to a table, with some difficulty disengaging him from telling Alex what he thought of his excessive, overwrought, ornate, queen-like variant of religion. “What’s your name?” I temporized. His face turned back to me, and I had a chance to look at the man.

A tall, thin man of stunning black complexion, Tyrone was dressed head to toe in a white canvas jumpsuit, which was unaccountably spotless. The man lived on the New York City streets, and he was wearing a spotless white jumpsuiit. I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.

“What were you talking to Alex about?” Whatever possessed me to go back to this obviously difficult topic? But it was not a problem to Tyrone.

“I was telling him about Jesus.”

“Okay. How about if you talk to me for awhile. What do you believe about Jesus?”

Tyrone looked at me as if I were simultaneously the scum of the earth and the most pitieable creature he had ever encountered. He pulled himself up to an even greater height, looked down his nose in his most compassionate way, and intoned, “It’s not what I believe. It’s what he is.”

Dear reader, it was as if all the cylinders in the locks to my heart, mind and soul lined up and the doors fell open. I apologized immediately, “Of course, you are right. Please tell me more.” And he did.

Tyrone had a tiny paperback book that contained all his favorite prayers. It was his most prized personal possession, but he offered to lend it to me because he felt I needed it more. Here I was a successful banker with a good apartment, a string of academic degrees and loving friends and family. And I was being—quite rightly—pitied by a man living on the street. I got it.

I did borrow his book. How could I refuse such a gift of the heart? I photocopied it and returned it to Tyrone two days later, with my sincere thanks. I have been fortunate that my faith has been unshaken since that day. People tell me that it is not necessarily true that faith is like a revolving door that goes only forward, but that has been my happy experience.

Faith in what? I’m not sure I can even explain, living as I do in worlds imaginary and metaphorical. But I do believe in hope and light. I do believe that the rushing winds of the Holy Spirit kiss the corners of our mundane physical spaces. I do believe in tangible, physical links from each sphere to the others, like the actual and concrete visit of God to our grubby and glorious world and like the dominion of a tiny baby over us all.

‘Tis the season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Quiet Time

Remembering my winter skills—leaving extra time for the car to warm up, backing into the garage, lots of tiny changes in the rhythm of the day that feel like putting on shoes that have gotten wet and dried stiff, now in need of reshaping to our chilly feet.

Feeling a little headachy, wondering if I am fighting off a bug.

Catching shards from ragged tempers, the most indirect hints of other families' strife that may never find overt expression in the outside world, but nevertheless cast shadows in this otherwise bright season.

Catching up with work projects, filling in old details that have been pushed aside by pressured deadlines. Now things are slower, and I can tend to basics. It’s boring. And it’s comforting. As long as life doesn’t go on like this too long. It won’t.

Last year the week between Christmas and New Year’s was inexplicably busy, way busier than the rest of December. People bounced into my office in a steady stream, dreaming of new lives for the new year. Creativity and hope at every turn.

Social events. To whatever degree the Scroogelets stand aside and mock, even they see genuine warmth freed by seasonal good will. A friend today gave me a silly, frilly, shaggy scarf in all the colors of the rainbow. I love it. Another friend tolerated my crabby need for mid-day breakfast.

All the presents are wrapped and on their way. Should I get a tree? Have an open house? It’s pretty nice here with just the fire. Snoozing with a puppy on my chest. First one, then another. Every puppy gets a turn. Every puppy needs to learn this soothing pose. Catch their photos at Can you pick out the fake puppy?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

More Later

Christmas blogs and advent calendars are helping me get in the spirit. I highly recommend the Quipping Queen and I am enjoying every day. Toby turns a quizzical, tilted head look every time its music starts to play.

Some others I could mention are as yet too surly for appropriate recognition of the season, but I suspect even these Scroogelets will be won over. Those who are outwardly most cynical nurse a tender, romantic core.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Entropy and Reality TV

Today I am in a flurry creating order in my home and in my life. As much as I enjoy the boisterous, lively clutter in which I generally live, sometimes I crave the plain lines of unadorned surfaces. It’s not that dust and dog hair bother me; sadly, they do not. But when they are gone, I enjoy glowing wood surfaces, along with clean wool and cotton aromas. It’s never completely clean around here (entropy rules!), but I enjoy living at the other end of the clutter spectrum even for a little while.

It’s sad to see the self-flagellation of willing victims on the current crop of makeover shows. Whether it is straight guys submitting to the will of Queer Eye in the hope of becoming cool or overwrought homemakers exposing their overstuffed closets and spare rooms to the clutter busters of Clean Sweep, the participants show an appealing wish to break out of old behaviors and try something new, something hopeful. To me, the Fab Five sometimes sound just plain bitchy as they opine whether their newly cool, madeover guys will be able to keep doing mousse. And surely, just because that poor woman owned twelve pairs of red sneakers—because you never know when you might want something just a little different—surely, it was not necessary to make her cry.

I would like to see the makeover show in which a tightly controlled homemaker with a pristine designer house is encouraged to put her kids’s drawings on the refrigerator and let the puppy on the furniture. I would like to see her asked to repeat after a chubby and cheerful earth mama who has never seen the inside of a salon, “I’m so proud of your work, honey. How did you think to make the sky that gorgeous tangerine color?” and “Oh sweetie. I am upset you broke my favorite lamp, but it’s only stuff.” I would like to see the organizational demon corporate manager who is schooled to let two unscheduled events into each and every day, perhaps coming to realize that human emotion occurs in the workplace as well as everywhere else.

Perhaps, though, we can figure out how to avoid guilt tripping anyone who takes a step into unfamiliar territory and instead celebrate their bravery. Perhaps.

For those of us who are accustomed to living on pendulum swings from social to private, clear to cluttered, organized to chaotic, reckless to thoughtful, predictable to erratic, perhaps we can step out in other ways. Perhaps we can expand the amplitude of the pendulum swing. Or maybe try spending more concentrated time at one end of the swing, the more unfamiliar one. While the so-called natural world does not allow for suspension of the laws of physics, our internal lives need not be so constrained.

I love the concept of entropy, the idea that the universe is constantly, unavoidably falling apart. Somehow knowing that makes all the disorder not so much my fault. Age, rust, decay, all take their toll on the sharp lines, the perfect shapes we see around us. The trend can’t be halted.

But more, I love hope. Hope tells us that new life creeps in, sometimes in the most unlikely ways. It’s all part of that eternal battle of death and life, dark and light, battles in which neither partner fully exists without the engagement of the other. Think about it: if it were never dark, we would not know what light looked like. As much as I hate the darkness when autumn days draw short, I love moonlight on snow. As much as I hate the gray/brown stickiness of mud season, I love the bright green shoots of new plants pushing up to the sun.

Friday, December 10, 2004

My life with stars and magic

Guidance for today in four versions sparks different responses and a choice as to which to follow. My horoscope from the Burlington Free Press:

You are cheeky, experimental, zany to the extreme. Your attitude attracts the best and the brightest to you.

Wow. I think of myself as boring, generally slightly behind the curve. Academically bright enough, but otherwise wide-eyed and oblivious. But I do agree that my friends are the best and brightest. I choose friends carefully, let them in only slowly.

Another on-line horoscope comes complete with rainclouds depicting both my work life and my love life, then moves into the unusual territory of suggesting that I get professional help. Is this a seasonal offering?

If things get too hard for you, Karen, are you open to seeking out some counseling? Don't let pride or embarrassment get in the way of getting the support you need in your life when things get to be too much. Ever look in the yellow pages under this category? There are literally thousands available. This is because there's a great demand for these services! You're not alone, and the sooner you take care of yourself, the quicker you'll get back on the right track.

Now, really. After seventeen years in New York City, where surely everyone has been to therapy, where the entire city goes a little off in August when the shrinks are out in the Hamptons, this message cannot be for me. I got pushed into the helping professions when I was first divorced.

Now I have my local rent-a-friend, all the more important to me in this period when I still have few close friends in Vermont. She’s a person with whom I can rant about fractious boyfriends, struggles at work, why I’m in such a bad mood for so little apparent reason, even differences in local culture from rural Georgia to New York City to rural Vermont. That is, we could talk about those things if such issues were to arise, and you know, they do. I don’t have the illusion that any of my life problems can be unique, and I do benefit from having other perspectives.

The automated Tarot reading for the day is more appealing with its promise of successful development of friendships and love relationships. Incredible charm, eh? And after a tough week, I could get behind the idea of going with the flow.

Love: Temperance Touchstone: Strength Career: The Hermit
The kindness of Temperance and the power of Strength promise you a successful development of your friendships and love relationships, k. You are radiating an incredible charm, you know how to seduce by being kind and gentle, and you're laying down one card after the other, while smiling all the while. Unless you start getting manipulative with it, this cocktail of attributes ensures 100% happiness! As far as your career is concerned, you feel as if your entourage are much more able to accomplish things than you are. And you're undoubtedly right! Supported by Strength, your colleagues are taking advantage of an energy and determination that you lack today. You are represented by the Hermit, who is encouraging you to do the exact opposite, to let yourself be guided by others, and go with the flow without trying to direct it.

But these are the ones I intend to follow today. I’m not sure whether the Rotary Christmas Auction is exactly the place to “let ‘er rip,” but it will have to do. And I’ll try not to scare off the cuties.

Trying to get into work was tough -- but forcing yourself to socialize tonight certainly won't be. You've been ready for the good times for a while -- so now that they're here, feel free to let 'er rip.

You're feeling good -- maybe a little too good. You'll need to score some humility quickly if you don't want to scare off the cuties in your neighborhood.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Wiffle Puppy Poopy Piffle

Almost five weeks old, the puppies are cavorting, snarfing up well soaked puppy food, and pooping more every day. They are smart little critters and they know what newspapers are for. When I step into the pen, they come over to chew my shoelaces and try to climb my legs. I try to pick up each one every day, and truly I don’t know who is the cutest puppy.

Is it Snowflake, until recently the chunkiest puppy, now growing a respectable fur ruff? Or Pig, named for the white shawl on his back, but now looking as if he has lived up to his name and become really piggy? How about Daisy, the little girl who squeals every time she is picked up, but was one of the first with a fierce little “woof!”

Violet, who is smaller but otherwise looks just like Snowflake and Daisy, has a winning personality and a soft, quizzical face—some days Violet is my favorite. Many days, the favorite is Cherry, a reddish brown plush honey with dark ears and enviable poise. Don’t forget Baby Blue, a smallish, quiet young dog dressed in stylish taupe shading to dark chocolate brown.

The black ones are beginning to look like their pretty mom, especially Curly Jack who always has an enthusiastic greeting. Mr. Greenjeans inherited a little of Nell’s curly coat and much of her nose, but in GJ’s case a white splash down the long nose emphasizes its prominence. His long front stockings complete his ensemble. Last born, always sweet tempered, little black Sweet Pea looks like a plush stuffed animal. When she and Curly Jack were sick last weekend, their very limpness got them favorite puppy status.

Now all are fit and sassy again. I bought them a package of wiffle golf balls at the Dollar Store. It took a only a few minutes for them to learn how to jump on them so they shoot across the room and how to gnaw them. Entertaining, these wiffle balls, even if a brother’s ear is more interesting to chew.

Next week the photographers are coming to capture puppy fun for the next North Country Animal League newsletter. The shelter director asked if I thought they would be able to get a photo of Nell and all nine babies posed, all looking appealing for potential adoptive parents…then realized what an impossibility she had proposed.


The other day the classic movie You Can’t Take It With You was on TV. It’s how I have always envisioned my life, and this week it’s pretty close to how my house looks. I took an hour out from tending puppies this evening to create a bonnet and shawl for Ted’s skit at the Rotary Christmas party. The shawl is easy, the bonnet a bit more of a challenge, but a little fabric, a little lace, and they only have to work for a stage view.

Also stacked around my living room are my curtains, in process for many months, as well as three other sewing projects and a couple of knitting projects. The curtain rod project had a breakthrough thanks to the miracle of the one-inch sheetrock screw, the moral equivalent of whacking a project into submission, so now the curtain rods are installed, not perfectly, but well enough.

Draped on the loveseat to my left is a large dog, while on the loveseat to my right is…a large dog.. His hips seem to be bothering the old boy this winter, so it’s aspirin and a downy perch for Max—I now wheedle to get him up from the hard, cold floor onto the furniture. Toby will always choose to be up high as a maneuver for dominance.

Around the corner in the dining room, Christmas gifts, some of them handmade, await wrapping. My dining room table, its finish marred by past encounters with a dog who liked to climb, is protected from further damage by a small, roughly tied quilt that I started with visiting Nell in mind but decided to keep for a more permanent bed for creaky Max.

Turn one more corner into the kitchen, which is big enough to accommodate all my food adventures. One wall is graced with two multiple antique bread pans, the only item I ever found large enough to accommodate my vast spice collection. A counter showcases jars of my current obsession—preserved lemons and limes pickled with cayenne pepper. The very last of my summer tomatoes have ripened on another counter, where they keep company with the pots of herbs that sat on the front step all summer. Open the cabinets and you will find part of my collection of herb vinegars and pickles of green tomato or baby onion or shallot, all from my summer garden. They don’t all fit in the kitchen, though, so the rest are in the bathroom linen closet, but otherwise the bathroom is relatively “normal.”

Tam finds my house somehow disturbing. She sees the unfinished walls in the stairwell, the staples not yet completely removed from when I ripped up hideous carpet, the door shredded by visiting Miss Nell’s attempts to escape her offspring. I see freshly painted living room walls in a restful blue-green, fourteen-inch maple floor boards, and the warm flicker from my new little stove that is now the focal point of a restful room. Finished is in the eye of the beholder, as is evident when I visit Tam’s beautiful new slipper tub that has sat, unplumbed, in her bathroom for the last several months. We could compete for the centerfold in an as yet unlaunched magazine to be dubbed Unfinished Home.

Personally, I think being finished, like being tidy, is overrated. It’s not that I set out to have an eccentric household. Rather I leap from one enthusiasm to another, and since my twenties when I accepted that it is my lot to do so, I have been happy to live this way.


Oh, piffle. Wiffle balls. Puppy poop. This may need some re-thinking. Not every enthusiasm is a success.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Motivational clothing

Long meetings and difficult people always make me squirm. Speakers who attempt to win my support in meetings generally are wasting their breath—I come from the school of thought that says that most real work is done outside meetings, that if you don’t know what decision will be made in the meeting, you probably should not go in. Posturing and posing bore me. Games counting the incidence of corporate-speak make me giggle. Try it. Count them: “at the end of the day,” “net net,” “low hanging fruit,” “opportunity to collaborate,” “draw a bright line,” “where is the tipping point?”

Knitting helps. Focusing on the next stitch and the next and the next somehow makes it easier for me to focus on what the speaker is saying. More important to other meeting participants, the need to watch those stitches keeps me from over-contributing.

The other thing that helps—a lot, as it turns out—is knowing I have on really great underwear. As I seem to listen intently, I am really thinking about my pink and white lace bra with matching tanga with the flower on the back. Or the sculptured lace frill that I wore yesterday. It’s just hard to take irrational ranting seriously when you think about your underwear instead.

In the same spirit, I am saddened to report the loss of one of my favorite shoes. They were cute and comfy, a mary jane style in black sneaker fabric with white and silver trim. When I wore those shoes, I always felt I could go faster and jump higher. I even felt smarter and younger. But Toby, who loves all my shoes indiscriminately, appears to have made off with one of them. I suspect that it has been buried in snow and will only reappear with the spring.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Are you happy?

It’s easy to find topics to write about. Every day a million interesting things happen to me, or to any one of us. Simple experiences like staring into the fire, listening to sleet on the window, sleeping dog at my feet. Memories linked in, sometimes with a new twist of perspective, sometimes a poignant glimpse of another world. Blinding flashes of insight which like as not evaporate just as quickly. The spooky sense of knowing what is going on with loved ones, followed by fears of living in fantasy worlds born of isolation.

What’s hard is finding the right thing to write about, and the right perspective. Although it’s easy for me to write, I try to maintain a certain standard.

I try not to be flippant. Often fail.

I try not to be cynical. Even today when I am trying to install curtain rods. Where did I put the hardware? Okay, found it. Why is the drill cord always three inches short of where I want to go? Oops, failed again. Cynical and flippant. Why is my living room still littered with tools, hardware, curtains and curtain parts, and—oh yes—the vacuum cleaner. Did I mention I hate to vacuum? Did I mention that I am always, always surprised that it gets the rug clean? Cynical, flippant, and more than a little boring.

While I was up there teetering on the step ladder, an answer to one of Robert’s questions occurred to me—the one about where and in what time would you like to spend a week? I think I might like to be a twelve-year old boy for a week. I want to spend a lot of the week in shop class, with maybe some fishing and baseball thrown in. It goes without saying that I would want to be more athletic for that week than I ever have been in my real life, although I might opt out of surging hormones.

I especially want to learn all those little tricks that guys learn that make carpentry and other fix-it projects go better. When to whack it and when not to. How to get obstructive nails out of old wood. I learned a few from an old boyfriend, but the most important rule he taught me that whenever frustration levels escalate, when you really want to whack it, it’s time to walk away. Take a break. Come back with a fresh perspective.

I’m not a patient person. I like to whack problems, but I have come to understand that flailing away at them often makes them worse. Now I am working on learning technique.

In my writing, though, I’m trying to get past technique. I’m trying to be honest first, and I am trying to be clear. And I am trying to write for the right reader, to distinguish blog (the world of many readers) from e-mail (for very specific readers) from journal (most private of all.) Privacy issues are not too troubling, despite occasional slips highly regretted, but creating content that is meaningful for the particular audience often calls for a little extra care.

Some of the best topics come from bits of conversation I save for later. Yesterday a friend asked me, “Are you happy?” I was so startled that I didn’t know what to say. How often do we ask each other such direct questions? And yet, isn’t it really what you want to know from your friends and loved ones. “Are you happy?”

As I recall, I mumbled, “Yeah, I guess,” and then launched into some boring, oft-repeated issue from work. It was a terrible answer. The right, honest, non-flippant, non-cynical, true answer, which probably would have seemed too raw for polite conversation was, “Yes, I am happy.” It doesn’t really need more explanation than that, does it?

Saturday, December 04, 2004

One secret of a happy life

Tiny goals. Micro goals.

I was not looking forward to crawling—on my belly in the snow and the dirt—under the garage door today. The automatic opener had stopped working, with the door in closed position, and that door from the utility room into the garage is apparently no more than a cruel joke. But then putting any kind of door into a Vermont farmhouse with moody foundations is playing games of chance with the universe. Will it open next year? Will it open next week?

I digress. I was not looking forward to the crawling part. At its widest point, the gap is not so very wide, though I have become grateful for its wideness, where once I wished it narrower. There is, you see, no other way into the garage once the garage door opener locks the door closed. How wide is the gap? About the depth of my ribcage, which turns out to be the tallest part of me when I am lying flat on my front, scrabbling in the dirt floor of the garage, trying to remember how to crawl. About the depth of my ribcage if I remember to exhale and flatten, rather than inhaling and scrabbling.

It really wasn’t so bad. I worried ahead, you see. I thought about the possibility that I might be too fat to fit—no problem, just the ribcage. I thought about the snow on the ground and dressed in my ski pants, specially pulled out for their first wearing of the season. I thought about doing the deed one night last week when I first noticed the door was jammed, but I decided it was better to plan for daylight maneuvers. I strategized with others. Their solutions didn’t work, but it made me feel I was dealing with the problem.

Finally, today, I did the deed. It took a whopping fifteen seconds to crawl under the door, maybe five minutes to solve the problem with the door, at least for this time. But my sense of accomplishment is enormous! Tiny goal planned, prepared, worried over and accomplished. I am ridiculously, prodigiously proud of myself.

It wasn’t the only thing I did today. I went to a meeting for work, got more puppy food, mopped the bathroom, cleaned up after puppies. Tam helped me trim puppy nails. It wasn’t even the most time-consuming thing I did today—that was probably my nap. But it was fully and completely satisfying.

Now I have to start worrying for the next time. It really wasn’t so bad, but I don’t want to do it again with several inches of snow and ice narrowing that gap. I don’t want to do it again, say, with the car in the garage. This task, however, may fall into the category of things we do whether we like them or not. My mind’s eye is now picturing the car trapped in the garage, or—I should say—myself trapped outside the garage without transportation. Wait! Wait! That’s too far ahead to worry. With Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that “tomorra.”

Tomorrow—which comes sooner than “tomorra”—I will vacuum upstairs and downstairs (I can’t believe how much I still hate vacuuming) and I will attempt to finish the living room curtains. Cold air off the windows is a motivator. But these simple housekeeping tasks don’t rise to the mythic level of today’s tiny quest.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Waiting on purpose

My friend Jon sent this really nice advent calendar
And here’s another that I also quite like

We spend a lot of life waiting. There is a temptation to fill all those waiting times with other projects, multiprocessing ourselves into oblivion. Just to wait—neither looking for distraction nor rushing the ultimate—is a worthwhile practice. But I never said it was easy. No easier than it is for the seven-year-old to wait for Christmas.

I wonder what the grown-up version of the advent calendar is. Maybe giving ourselves little treats. Maybe just remembering to open up the metaphorical little door and marvel over one small gift of the day.

Tonight brings a different kind of waiting. Outside my window, the first real snow of the season has hushed the world and stopped traffic up slippery Trombley Hill.

On my way home tonight, I watched the car in front of me fishtail up the hill. “Good thing I have front wheel drive!” I thought. Yeah, right. Eventually I had to recognize that my little Honda was not up to even the first hill, never mind the really steep one. I went around another way and came into my own steep driveway from the other side, maintaining enough momentum to slide right up to the front porch. Home at last!

That was two hours ago, and I don’t think another vehicle has come up the hill. It’s okay. We can wait.