Friday, December 30, 2005

Sing a song of Christmas socks

It was a good Christmas. I got a lot of socks.

We are a family of people who teach and people who make rules, all perfectly fine until you get us into a room together and we each try to bend others to our own sets of rules. Several years ago, some family members jumped onto the Christmas list bandwagon, the concept being that specifying some items as interesting would prevent horrible gifts, those well or not-so-well intentioned items that someone spends hard earned money to acquire and that subsequently clutter our houses. It is a good concept and one that sometimes even works.

Still, I don’t really approve, because I consider Christmas more than the season of stuff and more stuff. I think the heart of Christmas is considering how we can touch each other, and the Christmas list gets in the way as much as it bridges gaps.

In the end, I had no alternative but to offer up a few suggestions just to cut down the yammering. So I confessed that I like socks. I like warm socks and silly socks, slipper socks and all kinds of socks. It is hard to have too many socks or too many mittens or too many hats, because these items all disappear, even when rigorously protected from dogs who love them as chew toys.

Socks can make a fashion statement, but even people (like me) who are picky about clothes cannot be picky about socks.

The iPod was a delightful gift, all the more so because I didn’t even know I wanted one. Probably the best gift I got was my nine-year-old niece stopping in mid-unwrapping to curl up beside me and read me the book she picked out for me all on her own, and a surprisingly appropriate book at that. These were wonderful, unexpected gifts.

But I would really have been happy with socks.

There is little that I want these days, and the things I need are unromantic and unsuited to gift-giving occasions. But anyone who knows me even a little knows how little it takes to please me. Cookbooks or cooking gear—the simpler the better. Dishtowels trump the latest gadget to carve vegetables. Luxurious towels and sheets in white. And socks.

One of the best gifts I ever received was a four-pack of luxurious gray socks with blue snowflakes on them. Multiple pairs of good socks are wonderful, because when one sock gets lost or eaten, there are other matches. I loved these socks so much that I have protected them from dog mouths and I think I still have seven of the original eight socks. They are still my very favorite socks.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Home for Christmas

It was a wonderful Christmas. But then I can’t recall a bad one. Christmas always has a message for those of us who listen for it.

This year I had the quintessential holiday experience complete with small children tearing through paper in the company of lots of extended family and longtime friends. It was the kind of warm and cozy holiday experience that you see in the movies.

I love Christmas gifts, and I enjoy thinking about them and shopping through the year, but this year, for the first time in many years, I actually got a gift that far exceeded any expectations—an ipod! I would never have even thought to request such a thing, but it was exactly what I wanted. Exactly. I think the last time I got such a perfect gift was when a long departed boyfriend gave me a router so that I could dream of replicating moldings in the house I was renovating. As I recall, I burst into tears then, as I almost did again, but mostly I was just delighted. Like a kid at Christmas.

There were shadow moments, of course, including remembered and new trials of traveling by air. I have not traveled much since security measures ramped up, nor since airlines have been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and I have mislaid some of my skills for dealing with expected travel challenges, not to mention a few new ones.

And it always makes me cock my head in confusion when the people who claim to know me well don’t understand what I do with my time if I don’t go to movies or out to eat. Readers of Vermont Diary know what I do. It is a Christmas miracle that we manage to rub along as well as we do, given that we have so little contact throughout the year and—really—so little in common. The warmth of the holiday leaves everyone saying, “Let’s keep in touch more!” Let’s hold on a little longer to the thought that it might happen.

But, gosh! It is great to be home. The South is not home to me, not any more. It is a lovely place to visit, and I particularly enjoyed morning walks in the sunshine. But I feel as strangled by expectation and unwritten rules as ever, and I am glad to be back home where life is a little slower and more deliberate, where people ask for what they need and respect your right to give or withhold according to your resources.

As someone pointed out to me when I took my puppy to work a few weeks ago, I am in danger of going native and of becoming a Vermont booster, blind to her faults. I was obscurely proud this morning to hear that there were only seven murders in the state this year, and I was absolutely delighted to arrive at the parking lot yesterday to find my car ready and running, waiting just for me. In this tourism state where I have frequently complained that service providers don’t understand the demands of travelers from New York and Boston, I was overwhelmed at this welcoming touch.

The puppy has grown. She looks about 30% bigger in just a week. So far her sitters have said she was good, but we have not yet had the full debriefing. The old boys are happy to see me, but did not panic at my absence as they sometimes have. We are all happy to be back in our morning routine of coffee and kibble, looking out at snowcapped mountains, sitting under the artificial light, and blogging.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cooking and cleaning and catching the puppy in the act

Despite having left behind the rat race of Manhattan, I still rush through weekdays and catch up at weekend time. Saturdays are the time allotted for picking up the shreds and tatters of whatever the puppy found, and perhaps even vacuuming the living room rug. Sundays, assuming the Saturday cleaning catchup has been successful, I cook.

Today I went looking for a recipe for sweet potatoes. Last night’s frugal cooking led me to bake two large sweet potatoes along with dinner, my little nod at energy conservation. If you throw all kinds of things into the oven together (but separate), my gleeful spirit feels I have gotten the cooking of some of them for free. So in they go, potatoes and sweet potatoes, eggplant and garlic, peppers and popovers. Nobody seems to mind sharing.

But then I am indentured to vegetables, and I have to figure out what to do with them. I had just unearthed a nifty sounding recipe for sweet potato soup with lime and cilantro, when I noticed that where once there were two large tubers, now there was only one. With yesterday’s breakfast roll experience still smarting, I went looking for the puppy. Sure enough, there was half a sweet potato on the living room rug, which as all dog lovers know is the only place that messy food really tastes good.

Damn. In case you, gentle reader have not encountered this part of my personality, let me enlighten you that my language goes shockingly to hell whenever I am stressed, not that a sweet potato theft generally takes me over the edge. It is one relic of having worked with bond traders, who, no matter what anyone tells you, are not nice people, not wholesome, and not pleasant to be around. It is something of a departure that I have made such a judgment, determined as I am to see the good in everyone, even bond traders. That world is a long way from my world now, except for the occasional inappropriate expletive. Never mind.

While I was thumbing through cookbooks, a recipe card floated to the floor. Anti-chew spray, composed of equal parts of lemon juice and rubbing alcohol, with a dash of Tabasco for flavor. Now there’s a recipe with promise.

I wonder if Toby would like it sprayed on his back legs?

Meanwhile, I am continuing to clean today, having frittered away not only yesterday but also a snow day on Friday, and I want to say a word about cleaning. I don’t like it. For a variety of good reasons, I never really learned how, and I never really learned the discipline of a cleaning routine. My mother always said that a hundred years from now nobody would know if you vacuumed, but they might know what kinds of kids you raised. While I accept that she is absolutely, one hundred percent correct about that, I still bask in a clean, tastefully and sparely decorated room. My soul craves cleanliness as godliness, but my wayward being does not know how to get there as a matter of daily life.

I wish I did have the talent for creating comfort and light around me. At various times in my life, I have tried to learn the skills. Jeff Campbell of The Clean Team is one of my inspirations, at least as important to me as many skilled writers and thinkers. It was from The Clean Team I learned that even if my mother had taught me how to clean, I would have needed to learn all over again. So now, when I am moved to clean, I use Red Juice and Blue Juice. I clean sinks and bathroom fixtures with spray and cleaning cloths rather than sluicing them with water. I wash many, many things in the dishwasher—the glass parts of light fixtures, as my mother taught me, but also dustpans and the plastic head off my brooms, resting in the conviction that the dishwasher sanitizes everything.

In my own personal variation of the Clean Team’s Shmop, I clean floors with wet towels right out of the washer. Never an athletic person, I many years ago passed the milestone at which a bend to the floor is an occasion to ask oneself, “What else might I do while I am down here?” You can imagine how pleased I was to learn that one can clean floors by putting down wet towels then dancing on them, slipping around a little, then throwing them right back into the washer for another round. This kind of effort-conserving innovation makes it all much easier to have a puppy, but she does cock her head bemused when she sees me cavort across the utility room floor which she has worked so hard to make her own.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Why I got a puppy

The old boys are old, it is true, but even at age nine dogyears, Toby is strong and energetic. He has slowed down a little, but he still enjoys a run and a romp as much as anyone. Max cannot keep up, but Max is smart and self-reliant. Either he stays close to me when we are out, or he lies down in a spot where he can keep watch over his little flock of Toby and me and—most recently—the baby Cassandra. We like to go out together, at least we do when the four-legged ones can coax the two-legged one off the couch and out into the cold.

One of my personal goals is to get outdoors more and enjoy this magical place where I live. It is an irony of rural life that tied as we are to automobile transport, unless we plan for foot travel, it does not naturally happen as daily life grinds relentlessly forward. And it is a reality of life in Vermont that we must have different schedules, adapt to different rhythms as the seasons change. Walking is a delight in summer and fall, but the cold and snow of winter bring a halt to that activity.

Snowshoeing is a wonderful replacement for walking, but some adaptations are required. Compared to even the most brisk autumn hike, walking on snowshoes is hard work, although far easier than slogging through the snow would be without this inventive footgear. People from around here recommend ramping up on snowshoes, starting with the first snowfall of two or three inches so that when the snow is really deep, leg muscles are accustomed to the work and feet no longer cramp in protest at peculiar angles. Well, I forgot to do that.

Still, this morning was the right time to head out on snowshoes. The puppy has gone into a bratty phase that clearly calls for a couple of good runs a day to flatten her out. I am reminded of a year-old German Shepherd pup named Xena that Max and Toby used to play with in Prospect Park. It took Xena’s owners a good hour of hard running twice a day to turn her into a well-behaved dog appropriate for apartment life. I thought a lot about Xena when I was thinking about bringing Miss Cassandra home. A lot.

So after this morning’s antics, which I will spare you, but they involved two pairs of shoes, both old dogs’ breakfasts, my breakfast, the garbage, the clothes I wore yesterday, and the garbage again, not to mention an unauthorized flat out run all the way around the house and across the road, we went up the hill, me with my snowshoes and my dogs.

The snow is beautiful. There is no adjective that conveys what it is like. This particular storm left us with six inches of grainy, but fluffy, pure white stuff on top of another three or so inches, so the dogs are sinking in to elbow and chest. They don’t care, they just love it. Even with snowshoes, the snow is so fluffy that I sink in about six inches, so it is a serious cardio workout to get up the hill into the sugarbush.

Cassie covers four or five times the distance that Max and I do, and she is in heaven. She is covered in snow. She jumps and runs and dives, skidding along like a sea otter. She chases Toby, and he chases her, but old-dog-canny, he mostly lets her run circles around him. The two of them break trail for me, and Max follows, taking the easiest route for weary old legs. Later, he sticks close behind, sometimes walking on the backs of my snowshoes, his breath warming the backs of my knees.

Just up to the top of the hill and back, then across to the garden to throw a few snowballs, and baby Cassandra is ready for a nap. It is a great workout, with incomparable beauty and the simple joy of dogs enjoying snow. To get me out more to experience this kind of thing—that’s why I got a puppy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Choosing the right story

As humans we are driven to connect the dots, to try to make a story from the stuff of event and experience. We choose the story that pleases us, whether one that involves a higher being directing our lives, one that puts the individual firmly in control of his or her own life, or one that takes direction only from other people. Even the view that all events are independent, random blips, that there is no story is a kind of story, just as random splashes of paint on canvas can be a kind of art.

Some of us spend much of life blissfully unaware that we are living in our own dramatic creation until something happens to jolt us out of it, perhaps an illness or a spouse who suddenly rewrites their own story line and shoves us onto a different path as well. And some of us are uncomfortably aware of how easy it is to make different stories of the same raw material.

Sometimes we change our stories at different times of life. I lived through periods when I could not see past depression, and that is a kind of sick, weary, misdirected story. It is a sad thing to believe the world is random, or worse, to believe the deck is stacked against you. I lived through periods unsure of a belief in God, then as if I had walked through a revolving door, that changed for me, although I am uncomfortably aware that for more serious and faithful souls, that gift is sometimes withdrawn. Still, faith is a gift for which I am grateful today and for as long as I have it.

It is important to have respect for our stories. We cannot force the world to live according to what we wish to see. Denial is a short term fix, although one that can appear to be a powerful cloak against truth. To those who counsel making lemonade of lemons, I say instead learn to appreciate the lemon and its meaning in your life.

I come from a line of story-telling people. Not much gets written down, at least not as far as I know, but there are many, many stories of funny, sad, hopeful, and triumphant events, all of which seem to have happened to relatives. There are a few disgraceful ones, too, but very few, because it is the way in my family to keep darkness away by pretending it is not there. And because we embrace and celebrate hope and light. I still want to write a novel called Story Wars, which would be about big battles of dark and light, alongside siblings’ battle to top each others tales.

Recently I finished reading a lovely book called Sight Hound by Pam Houston, a book I wish I had written. She does a good job of writing the same events from different perspectives, showing the stories of different people interact in specific times and places, and also how sometimes the story changes, and it is time to move on. But the real passion and brilliance of her book is in capturing what it is like to love a dog.

Each dog, she says, has something different to teach us. It is our joyful task to discern what that is. In the book, old wolfhound Dante taught his human Rae how to be loved, and young Rose is to teach her how to play, both important lessons that Rae can only learn at the appointed time in her life.

I can see the same truth in my dogs. Max has taught me dignity and self-respect, how to growl when necessary, how to flirt and how to be a little goofy. Toby has taught me what it is like to be loved completely and unconditionally. Those lessons will be with me all my life and likely long past the ends of their lives. Thinking of how much they have taught me—and at exactly the right time in my life—makes it a little easier to think of losing these old, beloved friends.

Is this view of them, this story a construct that creates meaning out of thousands of walks to the park, squabbles over kibble, and cuddles on the sofa? Yes. But it is a story in which I perceive truth, at least for now. Will I ever come to accept different story in which they are only dogs, only pets, weak substitutes for having more people in my life? I hope not. I like this version, sappy as it may appear to those who have not had the blessing of dogs in their life.

As for Miss Cassandra, I wonder what she will teach me. For now, I am enjoying watching her learn to be part of the pack and learn from the old boys what they think I will need from her in years to come.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Shepherd for a shepherd

A shoe. One of my good work shoes, actually. The edge of another shoe, the ones I wear out in the snow when it isn’t too deep.

One Christmas sock, the kind you wear, not the kind you hang.

A dishtowel. A plastic milk jug.

A bottle of Murphy’s oil soap, still with cap intact, thank goodness.

A shepherd from the nativity scene. I wonder why she picked….oh, I get it. Perhaps a little glue will save him.

This is yesterday’s list of the puppy victims. At my feet, I hear happy crunching sounds as another soda bottle gets pre-recycled.

Monday, December 05, 2005

My kind of day

A snowy Sunday. About three inches of sparkly, fluffy stuff. Dogs out to romp in the fenced yard. Clean the floors, a task best tackled without dog help.

Bake the gingersnaps I made yesterday. How will they turn out, gently hot with candied ginger, dry ginger, and black pepper, molasses mellowed? It is Maida Heatter’s favorite Christmas cookie. I cut them smaller—just over two inches—and get seven dozen from the recipe that makes three dozen of her larger rounds. Enough for my cookie swap on Tuesday. Ah, the satisfaction of an obligation met early.

Dogs in sometime during the baking. Evil puppy Cassandra helps out by stealing the wax paper that wrapped the cookie dough, the foil on which the cookies baked, and the remains of a pound cake—each shredded in its turn on the living room rug.

Dogs out for a romp. We take the “bait” from the freezer—leftover roast beef a tad too rare for me, cut into tiny cubes—and go across the road to the big field for recall work. Three dogs on leashes to get across the road, one of whom does not know how to walk on a leash. The old boys are patient, me too, and we get there. Now, sit to have your leashes released, and they are off!

The puppy still forgets sometimes to put down her front feet, so she skids in the snow, but she doesn’t care. She is as happy as happy gets. She has her favorite Toby to chase, her favorite Mom with roast beef to hand out, and she is learning to work. Working dogs really do love to work. We have a productive session, and even Toby, whose recall skills have been slipping, does well. Even with rare roast beef in my pocket, and even as deeply as Toby love me, it is hard for me to compete with frozen manure, rabbit holes and deer tracks. What a world of doggy delight!

Old dog Max keeps up and gets a little treat from time to time, just because. His medication is getting adjusted again, but he sticks close to me. We probably cover less than a quarter of the distance that the other two skim across. Another inch of snow, and this would be snowshoe depth. It’s the kind of snow that swirls around and piles up in valleys, leaving the hills all but bare.

Home again, and no, nobody wants to go back in the fenced yard. The living room stove is in all our thoughts, and we curl up for a cup of tea and to figure out how you put binding on a quilt. I even find the cool technique by which you make bias binding from a square of fabric cut, sewn, folded, cut, sewn and cut again to the perfect width and length. Math and sewing and an old movie (Adam’s Rib) all in one afternoon, how cool!

I have four more kissing balls to make for the Rotary auction. Our three-person team (one for greenery collection, one for oversight, and myself for labor) will produce eighteen hanging confections of greenery, ribbon and baubles for next week’s big fundraiser. I don’t quite have the will to pull out the greenery again today, not with my newly clean floors. The dogs are joyous when it comes to tree branches in the house, and they help spread sticks and needles all over. Instead we take a nap.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Back for Christmas!

One of my favorite Advent traditions from last year is back. It's Susan's advent calendar

So far, I like Rudolf best. Be sure to click on his nose. (Not sure how this will work unless you have broadband.)

Making room for Christmas

The rush and bustle to create the ultimate Christmas experience is on. Some of it is fun, particularly if we can savor the tree-cutting, decoration-hanging, cookie-baking, present-wrapping and all the layered elements that comprise our individual and family experiences of Christmas. Savoring takes time and mindfulness, and it is ever so human to layer on more and more until our overburdened spirits cry, “Stop! I need rest.”

That rest is the moment of Christmas. In that moment we give up the need to be all things to all people. We recognize our frailty as animal beings that require food and sleep. We learn that adrenaline can be a high, but it carries us to the edge of self-control, only to leave us gasping. We see that our friends and family are human, too, and that each of us does for each other what we can do, no more but also no less.

I go into the holiday season with trepidation. I love my family, but I don’t think they know me. How could they? It has been years since they spent much time with me.

I’m the weird aunt, the one who lives far away where it is cold (why would you do that?), the one who has a family of dogs rather than people, the one who used to have a high-paying job but chose a simpler life. (Do you really think it will change what kind of presents we get? Yes, it will.) A card-carrying introvert, I don’t even seem to make an effort to explain myself, not nearly enough, and I end up feeling like a wayward zoo animal taken in by a family of cartoon bears. They are charming and lovely people, and they know each other’s quirks and habits with a degree of intimacy and a level of judgment that make me shudder.

I drop literally from the sky—thanks to Jet Blue—into a swirl of human relationships that have nothing—or almost nothing—to do with me. Not having any recent data about this wayward zoo animal, my family reverts to roles, expectations and memories from many years ago. I become—whether I like it or not—the big sister away at college. I relive all the mistakes I made from ages ten to twenty, the time when my siblings were in high school or middle school, when they were first aware enough of other people to form impressions. There are some isolated memories from other periods of life, but it was those years that shaped the way we relate to each other. With limited contact in later life, we have not had much opportunity to change roles, although we are all now very different people than we were thirty years ago.

Changing roles is tough. I spoke today with a colleague who works closely with a bright, sensitive young man who has recently started living as a woman. The kind of pain that a person must experience before taking a step as dramatic as changing gender I cannot even imagine. My colleague is struggling to get his mind to accept the change, but he cares about his colleague so he will make the effort. This change is a big, outwardly visible, even shocking change in role, so it gets attention. The smaller changes in roles, in how we wish to be perceived, that we ask of our families and friends are much easier for them to overlook in the bustle of Christmas preparation.

Enforced joyousness also brings with it a heaping portion of guilt. We think of friends and family at this one time, but the rest of the year passes in a blur of work, school and other obligations. At one level, it makes me sad that of my entire extended family—brothers, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews—only my mother and sometimes one brother make an effort to stay in touch with me. Only my mother reads my blog, although I used to send it out to everyone until I recognized this sad truth. At another level, I understand that people are busy and after they tend to relationships that are most important to them, there is not much left over.

I believe in love, and I believe that love is action, not feeling. At Christmas, I believe it is important to make an effort to keep connections alive So even though I am sorely tempted to stay at home with friends, with the comfort of old dogs and with my bright and beautiful new puppy, I will spend money I can’t afford and brave the horrors of holiday travel to visit my extended family. I will drop into a family dynamic that does not involve me, since I am only a shadow from the past, but where I am expected to play roles I no longer fit. I will experience conflict and likely tears, possibly my own, possibly tears I cause. It’s what we do at Christmas.

I made an off-hand, flippant comment to a friend that I try to make Christmas simpler every year. Reeling from a new job and a multitude of other life changes, she fired back by e-mail, “How do you do that?” It’s not easy to beat back the urge to bustle. But it is possible to give yourself permission to stop.

This year I won’t have a Christmas tree. Christmas trees and puppies and dog-sitters are not a good combination. I used to make dozens and dozens of cookies. This year I will do a cookie swap and find somewhere to give them away. I like to do my Christmas shopping during summer vacation, but this year I surprised myself by finishing my shopping and mailing all presents before December. A breakthrough! I feel so free!

I used to try to preserve traditions by doing the same things every year, but I ran out of steam. Now I save up energy for the things that matter, and I pick a different one each year. Last year it was important to me to have a Christmas tree and spend Christmas in my own home; this year I will travel, so I will cut back on other things.

Why fuss with the juggling? Why bother with any of it? Because this act of mindfully choosing to spend time together keeps alive a connection to people who are important to me and creates a channel for future connection that may become important one day in ways I cannot foresee. Choosing to spend time together for these few special days is an act of faith in family and in love. The fact that we—like millions of other families—don’t necessarily get along every minute doesn’t change anything. If we pay attention to what we are trying to do, and if we are a little lucky, we may experience a few really special moments of connection, of recognition of each other as unique and special, of mutual support. Then it is really Christmas.

The real work of Christmas is making room for the magic to happen. Even so, we can’t force it. We can only create a little stillness and wait.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Wait a minute

In New England, they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. With snow forecast for last night, I was surprised to wake to late autumn browns and grays, not a flake in sight. Hearing that the anticipated storm had dumped its load to the east, I ventured to drive to Montpelier along the pretty route, the route I dare not drive in winter weather.

Black ice and moose occur on Route 12 too often to trust to good luck, and an unfortunate encounter with one or the other could be deadly. And so I was a little daunted when a quarter of the way on my journey the morning rain turned to snow. Grateful for my new snow tires and a little wary of other drivers, I carried on, and three quarters of the way, the snow turned back to rain.

Returning home after a day of weary bureaucracy, I was sure it was warm enough to go back the same way. It really is a very beautiful drive, winding past farms, pastures, and every variation of the Gothic Revival farmhouse, all with mountain backdrop. A quarter of the way home, the rain turned to snow. I could almost swear that the same red pickup was behind me, lights on high beam to encourage me to go faster than what was quite fast enough in my view. Still, it was pretty. Three quarters of the way home, the road dropped into the valley, and there was rain again.

Most entertaining of all, as I climbed to my house on the hill, I crossed yet again—for the fifth time today—the snow line, climbing, climbing into a frosty wonderland. The dogs were joyous, jumping and romping in the snow, winding up for weekend play.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


For the longest time, Max has not been able to sit, not even for a cookie, and Max prizes cookies above all things on earth. After months of failing capacity, well, what can we expect of an eleven-year-old German Shepherd, particularly one of uncertain parentage, indeed a foundling from the Staten Island Ferry, and a foundling who now has a titanium-and-plastic replacement hip? Well.

It turns out that we may have made the ultimate mistake in geriatric care, the error of thinking that the patient was dying, when in fact he just needed a little well-placed medication. And after the prednisone has kicked in, well, surprise and a little tear from just the over-compassionate left eye….Max sat for his cookie this evening. Oh, my.

Meanwhile across town, my best friend is preparing for another round of surgery. I say she is my best friend, although I may not be hers, but it doesn’t even matter. What matters is this: tomorrow she goes in for another attempt to clean out that burst appendix and maybe to disentangle some other organs and stuff. Oh my.

I spoke to her yesterday, and she was calm. I’m sure it is not unheard of to prepare a variety of arrangements just in case. I’m absolutely positive that I would do the same in her position. But I do hope that all these preparations are unnecessary, and that I will have my friend back, smiling and laughing and playing with a new puppy in months to come. Without her, we will all be less joyous, less expansive, less….just less.

We laughed and joked yesterday about human frailties, about how most of us at heart believe we will never die. Can’t you imagine each spirit gasping at last, “Oh, gosh! I guess I wasn’t the exception!” But some of us, my friend and I among them, accept the inevitability of death and hope for a rich, full life and a timely, dignified death.

I have sent her off to the hospital with a giggle, a new book (Helen Husher’s View from Vermont, which I wish I had written), and tales of my puppy with hopes to hear of her new puppy in January. It’s all I can do.

It would annoy the dickens out of my friend, but I hope you will keep her and all of us who love her in your prayers tomorrow. Sometimes we have to trust in medical expertise and also in something more. We just have to.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Over the river and through the woods

Farm duty is hard duty, never harder than on cold winter mornings when stiff fingers struggle to strip ice off fence latches. I get glimmers of that experience when I take my herd out to the dog pen for a morning pee. First time out this morning, not too bad. It was as if the cold had startled the dog into obeying our new command, “Fence!”

The after breakfast run was another matter. To the firm command, “Fence!” Toby headed directly toward the fence, then veered left and took off through the sugarbush, followed by the puppy and the old dog who is, perhaps literally, on his last legs.

Only a week ago, the puppy was not brave enough for this venture, but time moves on, and now she follows Toby anywhere, even over to Labrador Jake’s house, which is—thank heaven—on the same side of the road. I know where they go, or at least I think I do, but this habit of bolting into the woods is not one I want Baby Cassandra to take up.

In a few minutes, Toby and Cassie were back. But old Max moves more slowly, and as he medication has been tapered over the last few days, he is losing function in his back legs. I stood shivering in the northeast wind for a few bone-chilling minutes, then decided I needed to go find him, just in case he got into trouble, but first I had to get dressed. Trailing around my neighbor’s sugarbush in deer season wearing only long underwear and a purple velvet robe with my boots—just not advisable. Not warm enough for one thing.

I need to take a lesson from all those farmers who roll out of bed and into boots and heavy clothing without even thinking. And I need to figure out how to build a chute from door to fence. It’s not as easy as you might think. When the standing seam roof looses its load, small mountains of snow accumulate. There is shoveling to consider, as well as how to maintain a pathway for the gas man. There is a reason, you know, that the fence is fifteen feet from the house.

Today I am thankful I am not a farmer. I am thankful that I work with my brain and not my hands. I am thankful for my brain. And I am oh so thankful that Toby and the puppy and old Max came back. They think it is great fun to visit Jake, as he visits them. They feel compelled to follow his scent and to overlay it. I think of how easily they could stray the other way into the road.

Life is risky. Sir Francis Bacon wrote, "He who has a wife and children has given hostages to fortune." The same is true of she who has dogs. I am thankful to have them home safe. And, Toby, I will be just as grateful--really I will--if you don't take off on heart-stopping jaunts to explore the sugarbush and visit Jake.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sad news up hill and down

For the last three years, a local garage has taken care of my car. Referred there by a friend, I quickly got to know the owners who took me under their wing and taught me about how Vermonters interact. As time passed, I got to know more people in the shop, including the wiry man with the scraggly white Vermont beard and sweet smile who often worked on my car.

He called me sweetheart—and got away with it—and he knew a lot about a lot of things, including everything that happened on my hill. He lived further up the hill, so from time to time, Ken would give me a ride home if my car was still ailing. He told me about his beagles, and we swapped dog stories. He spoke of his wife with respect and love, even while he flirted with me in a way that said it was only in fun.

Last week, I took my car in to see what it might need and the shop owner handed it to Ken with instructions: “Do whatever you would do if it were your wife or your daughter.” My car came back with four new snow tires, an oil change, and the worrisome banging in the defroster has gone away. I felt very well cared for.

Last night, Ken died. He fell while trying to cut a branch, and died of injuries in the fall. As a young friend who had known him all her life pointed out, “It’s the way he would have wanted to go—quick and with little pain.” We all miss him very much.

The Real World

Come the day after Thanksgiving, I will have been in Vermont for three years, having arrived lumbered with too many possessions, unpropitiously in an early, wet misery of a snowstorm. In the early morning hours, as the movers pulled the van away to head back to civizilation, they made it clear that they thought I was misguided at best. And looking around three small rooms packed with stuff, thinking neither for the first time nor the last that I could die in the Vermont cold, I wasn’t sure they were wrong.

Still I am a good decision-maker, which mostly means that I know when it is time to go to sleep and think about it in the morning. When morning came, it was all white wonder, and I was in love with Vermont on sight.

Please note that I do not like being cold, not at all, so what am I doing in this place that requires a minimum of a sweater all year round? I don’t know. But here I am, and I do love Vermont in all its quirkiness.

Along with the cold, another of Vermont’s less appealing characteristics is its business climate and its economy. Wages are low, and despite the prevailing wisdom that our cost of living is low, we feel the pinch when we pay for housing, gasoline, electricity, and—most of all—heat. It is a pretty place, a safe place, and a haven for recreation (particularly for those who don’t mind falling down in cold, wet snow), but it is not an easy place to make a living.

In my job, I have had several occasions to talk to people who want to move to Vermont, people whose expectations have been formed “away” from here, people who have the perception that there are lots of companies here offering lots of well-structured, good-paying, benefits-laden jobs. “I don’t need a lot,” they say, hoping to jog my memory of several networking options to put on the table, “I only need to make about $60,000 and have healthcare, maybe a little contribution to my retirement.”

Don’t we all?

At any given time in greater New York, in Connecticut, in Boston, in Atlanta that job is readily available. It may take a little time to find the congenial workplace, the requirements that match one’s skill set, but the person looking to simplify life can find opportunities that fit with a new life agenda. In Vermont, it takes longer and requires more luck, more networking, and fitting in to the local community. Vermonters can sniff a phony from miles away, and by the time you walk up to “network” with them, they have vanished into the woods. You have to learn the local language—not so much dialect as rules of engagement—and we outsiders mostly learn by getting it wrong.

I am enjoying living here (beauty trumps cold) and working here (integrity and commitment of my colleagues means a lot), and I have adjusted my lifestyle to fit social norm and reduced income stream. I am fortunate that I am able to do that; honestly I don’t know how some of my friends and neighbors manage. Even so, there are times when the budget pinches, and I remember how much fun it was to have more play money even if I would not return to the associated jobs or cities.

It has been a long time since I made a trip south to visit family, not since I moved here have I done that. Chatting with a Vermont friend who visited Denver recently, I could see in her face a mixture of horror and fascination as she recalled its sprawling roads and malls. That explosion of development is more the norm in America, but is startling to people accustomed to two lane state highways, some of them unpaved, a few that close for the winter.

Television ads already remind me that I will be visiting the real world during the most crazed part of the retail season. I’m hoping I won’t be overwhelmed by this jaunt to America, this excursion into four and six and eight lanes of traffic, this dousing in commercialism. I am hoping my small town self will remember my big city self, when I knew that having money to play with was not a moral failure, nor does my self-selected simple life represent the high ground. I’m hoping I remember that however much fun it is to visit the free-spending commercial world out there in America, it is my ability to stick to my real world budget that allows me to keep choosing this peaceful home in Vermont.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


In the aftermath of 9/11, a tasteless colleague asked me, “So how many victims did you know?”

Was this some ghoulish contest? If I knew ten people who perished, did I score more points than someone who knew only three? There were people who lost husbands, lovers, children, brothers and sisters. Did my experience approach theirs. I don’t think so.

I don’t have a body count as to how many people I knew who died there, but it was only a few. That guy pictured on the New York Post front page, falling headlong….I worked with him on a project or two at the bank that employed us both. What pain must that photo have inflicted on his family as they recalled the last cell phone call as he returned to his desk?

And there was a woman with whom I chatted at a conference. I saw her name on the list of victims and wondered how many mourned her. Were there others? Probably. Sadly. Yes.

But the legacy of 9/11 was not just the black waves of death that day. It cut deeper. For the thousands of us who worked in lower Manhattan, it changed light and landscape. It changed air flow and fundamentals of neighborhood. Just imagine how a neighborhood changes if someone puts up two buildings of a hundred six stories each. There are wind tunnels where there were none before, shadows, and changes in traffic patterns.

Now imagine that those buildings are gone.

They weren’t pretty buildings. The chases for wiring were clogged, and the elevators were slow, so they weren’t all that efficient or comfortable. But nobody expected them to be gone like that, in a matter of hours.

When it was over, there was a memorial concert, a good one. My blessed intuitive dogs huddled close to me, one on either side, while I listened to the music and cried. To this day, I will not attend a 9/11 memorial, not trusting my own response when misguided patriotism kicks in. That’s not what it was about for me. It was only sadness.

Personal stories that stand out for me from that day. Nigel, whose daughter was in daycare on the first floor of World Trade Center One and whose wife was working across the street. All three made it home after a long, long day. Carol, an economist who was evacuated to Jersey City and eventually made it home to Brooklyn. Lou Dobbs, who was the speaker at a conference where I was working….I still cannot see his evening business news without a flashback of memory to that day. And for myself, walking to the corner of Fifth and Fifty-Ninth and seeing two buildings in the distance, then only one, then a gap in the landscape, ghastly mundane.

The tales that came out afterward, even after correcting for sensationalism, were unspeakable. Literally unspeakable. The media could not tell many of them because they were unacceptable in polite discourse. Waves of white ash and death. Falling building parts and body parts. Unspeakable horror.

Bracing myself, tonight I watched the episode of ER with the plane crash, which takes me back to that bright September day when thousands died. I never thought of it until today, but I was blessed by never hearing the sounds of planes slamming into buildings or buildings collapsing into themselves. The stink was bad enough, a mixture of burning electrical equipment, cement and plaster dust, and burning flesh. We all lived with that for days, never sure what the proportions were.

Did I leave New York because of 9/11? No. Not even close. I would have stayed in solidarity with the city if I had not already set my sights elsewhere. But it did change my life. I have one of those personalities that snaps into action in a disaster, dividing emotion from the need for action, then falling apart later. I am still falling apart, still working to try to wrap my small brain and heart around such a horrific event. Sometimes I think it cannot be done, but my dogs are good at picking up the pieces.

Tonight, as I watched a fictional plane crash kill fictional people, I would wager that I cried more than most people who watched the fictional flames and heard the fictional sirens. And my very real puppy who is usually aloof and goofy unaccountably curled up in my lap and licked my face from time to time to comfort me. I think she will be a good dog. As for the big dogs, crying over a TV show doesn’t even move them, not after all that we have been through together. They know what a real disaster looks like, and they know what to do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I Always Liked That Bowl

I only have a few bowls that I really treasure, and this one wasn’t one of those. Mostly I cherish the ones I made in the few years I was a not so very good potter, but this was one that was a gift from the mother of a sometime boyfriend, well, actually a man who broke my heart once.

But I still liked the bowl quite a lot.

It was an old stoneware bowl, creamy white with an unglazed rim where it rested in the kiln. It had a thick rim and a molded design of arrows and spikes. It wasn’t big enough for bread, but it had that old-kitchen happy-baker appeal.

There was an amaryllis in a molded paper pot resting inside. I never even heard the crash. I was on the phone with my mother in the next room, prattling happily about how puppy timeouts actually work, when it occurred to me to wonder what the puppy was doing. I cracked the door and peered around its edge to spy Miss Cassandra. Prancing, one foot after another in four by four time. Tossing the molded paper pot up and down, potting soil and pottery shards all around.

“Ain’t it great, Mom?”

Puppy timeout. Broom. Find the amaryllis (are they poisonous to puppies?). Repot it. Let the puppy out of timeout.

And now we see the real lesson. My puppy, who has many talents—fortunate and unfortunate—just learned to jump up on the sofa. All by herself. Okay, so maybe it is not a joy I would have wished her to learn, maybe I don’t have the same view as she does, but she is jubilant..

"Look, Mom! Look at me!"

Good girl, Cassie, good girl.

We will talk about behavior later, but tonight I have a happy puppy. It was only a bowl.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Beautiful day

I have had my head down in winter preparation for so long that I was startled yesterday to look up and see what a glorious day it was. Stuck in a bunch of perennials, last of the season relics from a friend with a gardening business. Played and ran with the dogs in an attempt to run down Miss Cassie’s energy level. This every so daily activity needs to become part of our routine, just as I used to take Max and Toby to the park every day in Brooklyn. It was important to their physical finess and socialization, not to mention mine.

Most weekends at my house involve culinary adventure, and I attempted Belly-Timber’s homemade Thai red chili paste May I just comment that these people are insane? Although I do greatly admire the photo of Chairman Kitty-Kaga.

And I am grateful for two new techniques. I like the spice toasting method, just until you notice the aroma, starting with the toughest spices and adding one at a time: black pepper, coriander, cumin, fenugreek. The mortar and pestle work amazingly well. I was prepared to work hard to grind my toasted spices, but it was almost easier than using the blender, and much much more satisfying to the senses.

Somewhere in the midst of soaking my chiles, I realized that I was using the wrong type—Anaheims instead of the blistering hot little ones. And peel them? You have got to be kidding me! With lemongrass already bruised and minced, spices toasted and ground, I forged ahead anyway but without attempting the peeling. Just threw the whole thing into the food processor. The flavors are truly wonderful, but I am not sure I would try this again, certainly not with the dangerously incendiary chiles that I was supposed to be using.

More to the point, somewhere in the process, I remembered that I don’t actually like the classic Thai red curry heavy on coconut milk. Or at least my arteries don’t like it. I have a nice long log of Not-Quite-Thai Red Curry Paste in the freezer, and I think I will try for some alternate uses. Vermont fusion cooking?

I also determined that I really will require help from someone with a chainsaw to deal with the branch that fell off the crabapple tree in the October wetsnow storm. I’ve been single now more adult years than I was married, but still find it satisfying when I figure out how to take care of something myself, even if it is only recognizing that I need to make a few phone calls to line up capable assistance. I have owned various houses (three) with various maintenance requirements, and still I am pleased when I start to feel I know the house, that I understand what will happen from season to season and even what may break next.

My next challenge is to learn to build a wood fire in my combination wood/oil furnace. There is an economic driver this year, and my chimney specialist opines that the chimney is up to it as long as I am careful not to build too big a fire. My new carbon monoxide detector is installed, and come the first really cold snap, I am ready to try for another step in mastery of my little world.

That’s not today, however. Today looks like a glorious repeat of yesterday’s sunshine and warmth. Time to run the puppy.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Things I learned today

How to jump the baby gate

How to fling a plastic bowl of water over the left shoulder

How to bite mom so hard she screams and hits back

How to shred newspaper

How to pull folded cardboard boxes around the office

How to avoid children

Where Denise used to keep her bottle of hand lotion and how to take the lid off

How to operate the water cooler spigot when I’m thirsty

How to chase my tail

How to bark hysterically at my reflection in the door

Signed, Cassie

PS It was a very busy day.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A break for freedom

Accepting that I will not likely make that last batch of tomato sauce for the freezer, I put the Romas on the compost pile. My kitchen table is my own again. Also finished up a couple of small projects—installing the smoke detector/carbon monoxide monitor, sewing two sheets together for a duvet cover, and finding all the pieces to put together a pillow cover pieced and quilted years ago. It is good to get these things done.

I try not to let inanimate objects bully me. I try to keep around only the projects that I will really finish one day, but the projects go and multiply on me, and either stamina or interest fails on me. It must be a good sign somehow that lately I have been finishing up old, old projects. Quilted the last few stitches on my first quilt. Figured out how to use two types of frames—the lap version made of PVC pipe and the big cherry floor model.

The living room’s winter furniture arrangement can accommodate the big quilt frame, which is now set up with a queen size quilt made of flannel squares. The piecing and part of the quilting date back at least two houses—this is how I think of my personal history—or is it three? No, I think it was while I was living in Brooklyn that I put together simple four-square blocks of flannel, set them on an angle with single squares, and started quilting with big stitch.

The same light that gives me morning light therapy is perfect for lighting this big project. I work on it at least a few stitches a day. Oddly, I do not feel intimidated or bullied by this very large project, not nearly as much as I do by my mending basket or the floors that need vacuuming.

Simplify. I have enough projects to hold me for years, maybe decades. Unless I am absolutely overcome, I don’t buy new ones these days, and I count this one of the benefits of having less free cash than I once did. From time to time I find treasures among my stash, and I have as much fun doing old projects as I once had acquiring them. If I lived a place where it was easier to shop, I might give in more readily, but I am enjoying the freedom of this simpler life.

Today I think I will make a batch of dog toys. Even at the Dollar Store, they cost something, and the squeakers are dangers to growing puppies. I can take a batch of scraps, some leftover stuffing, an hour or two with scissors and sewing machine, and I will get the same result a week from now: a layer of stuffing an inch deep on my living room rug and happy, boisterous puppies. Free and priceless.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Deer in the headlights

It’s true. They really do stop and stare. Driving home last night, weary of work and world lat night, there she was. I didn’t see her walk onto the blacktop. She was just there, frozen in the headlights, eyes gleaming.

I switched off the high beams, slowed the car and stopped. Over the hill, I could see approaching headlights, so I knew I would have to do something else soon to get her to move out of danger. She stared at my car, and we stared back for a long several seconds, then she collected her wits, shook her head, turned and went back into the woods from whence she had come.

In the last couple of days, I am conscious of being very overtired and wrung out. I am aware that this is the state of being when accidents are more likely, and I try to compensate by being extra careful. So I had the high beams on and I wasn’t driving fast, with the result that my friend the deer and I both have lived a little longer and had our respective opportunities to head back into the overarching comfort of our woodsy homes to rebuild our reserves.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Boring blog entry

Never a fan of the "I had cheerios for breakfast" blogtype, I am nevertheless delighted to report that Max is doing much, much better. We pretty much said our goodbyes on Monday, but the vet produced oral steroids that are doing a lot for him. For the first time in several weeks, he is walking easily, getting up with less effort, and sleeping through the night without crying.

The moral to this story: go to the doctor. And if you have been going to the doctor all along, and mentioning the problem all along...mention it more forecefully.

I may make that appoinment for my own physical exam, come to think of it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Three years

Come Thanksgiving, I will have been in Vermont for three years. As you will recall, I decided to make a change in my life to choose health and wellbeing over the cultural and economic riches of New York City. Although I loved the city with the passion of an addict, living there was beginning to damage my health. So I packed up my belongings, my good big dogs, and my negotiated severance check and moved to Vermont.

Many people hate to move; more are afraid to try it, often because of losing friends or even of the effort required—and the risk—in making new ones. Having moved several times, I think moving or not moving is pretty much a matter of taste. There are downsides, sure, like the risk of ending up in a rigid, insular backwater like Chattanooga, but mostly it has been a lot of fun to move around and try new places, new projects, and even new people. The rule of thumb—I don’t think I made it up—is that it takes three years to feel at home in a new place.

Do you lose friends? Sure. People lose track when they don’t fall over each other every day, and some have the skills to forge new ties when the old ones fail, some care enough to do it, and some don’t. After years of living among judgmental people, I have come to believe it is mostly a matter first of skill and second of negotiated expectations.

Skill. If we are lucky, we learn the skills and techniques of friendship early before we even recognize them as such. We learn to treat each other with respect, to anticipate that another person may see the world differently, to communicate with words instead of fists and teeth, to reach out with a smile, a word, a note, even an e-mail or a blog. We learn that others cannot read our minds and that it is only the overt action that strengthens ties. The thought may count, but the act counts ten times over.

Communications theorists remind us that for a message to penetrate the bony human consciousness, it needs to be repeated several times, but somehow in dealing with our loved ones, we expect them to take our unexpressed care as a given. What’s up with that? Disinterested love is a great thing, but it is a rare experience here on earth. Not impossible, but rare. Active, committed love based on tangible interaction is a gift we can all give each other, and the key is improving our connecting skills.

Negotiated expectations. Between friends, boundaries are as important as connection mechanisms. If I don’t have space and time to myself (inside the boundaries) I don’t know who I am and what I bring to the friendship. But the drive to connect is the countervailing vector—we all want our friends to know us, to appreciate us, and to be there to share our experience. It’s our old enemies time and space that create the problem—I want to talk when you don’t, you have a problem you want to share at the same time I have my own pressing concerns.

So we build rules for our interaction, some personal guidelines (“Please don’t talk to me on Tuesdays, because I have a lot of commitments that day”), some which rise to the level of social norms, and some in the spectrum in between (“Our family doesn’t take phone calls after ten o’clock” or “Vermonters only dance with their spouses.”). We each of us get it wrong sometimes. We forget that we have to explain our personal sets of rule to new people. Blinded by our own private concerns, we blunder over the sore spots of those we love, then shake our heads as we realize we have offended.

Remember that old line, “But enough about you. Let’s talk more about me.” We all have friends who pull that nonsense from time to time, and if they are real friends we can call them on it. Sometimes. I have a friend who offended me yesterday, but the specifics don't really matter.

I try to think of what my friend N would do, N who has the greatest gift for friendship of anyone that I know. She has mastered the skills of keeping a large number of friends from childhood forward informed and connected. She has, as near as I can see, no expectations of her friends but that they talk to her from time to time, have lunch with her, spend time with her, introduce their kids to her, and make her part of their life, as time and circumstances permit. And I don’t know anyone who isn’t willing to spend time with such an interesting, well-rounded, thoughtful person. She throws the occasional dinner party, but the real effort she expends in maintaining connections is on the phone. She calls several friends a week, just to catch up. She has a deep, rich understanding of human nature, and she knows when to leave something alone.

I think N would advise me to leave yesterday's incident alone. My hurt feelings, well, those will have to be my problem. In a separete incident yesterday, I know I needed my friends. After a terrible, terrible weekend, we went to the vet who advised cortisone or a much more dramatic series of neurological evaluations and procedures. We will try the cortisone for a week, then reassess, but I have taken the extreme measures off the table. Max seems a little more cheerful this morning, possibly only from the delight of yesterday’s outing to the vet where everyone admired him and cried over him.

Forced to rely on other people yesterday—I am a very, very private person and only rely on others when circumstances force me to—I found that I have a much more robust network of friends than I had realized.

Three years. Right on schedule and just in time.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Not around much

I haven’t been blogging much. Partly it is suffering through the dark mornings and relying too much on adrenaline to get me through the busy fall meeting schedule. Partly though, it is convergence colliding with discretion.

My private life and my public life have come together to a degree that I can’t count on the anonymity I once took for granted in blogdom. Not that it was ever very hard to figure out who I am, if anyone cared to try. But now I am working on a blog for the organization where I work, and my opinions in that sphere cross over and back to and from my so-called private life.

I do want parts of my life to be private. Although I have little to hide, maybe nothing at all, I cherish a core that is all mine. These days I am working on some issues that are not for sharing, for example my old dog’s failing health. It is heart-wrenching to watch his decline, but this is one instance when writing about it does not help. Talking does help, and I try to spread it around so that I don’t unduly burden people with daily reports of woe. Nor do I even want to think about it every day; I just want to enjoy this wonderful friend as long as I can.

This is not a criticism of other approaches. We all deal with the world in the ways we can Right now I am taking time for Max.

I think I will try another crack at NaNoWriMo as well. Although I wrote myself into an inextricable plot corner last year, maybe I will do better with a different plot, something with less of my life in it. Although I think my life has been interesting, it made for a tortuous, dull novel. Better luck next time.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

First snow

The quiet in the night woke me. The moon seemed extra bright. Without my glasses, I stumbled downstairs to let the dogs out. Oh, wow.

Big, sloppy clumps of snow falling from the sky, sloshing on the ground, which was already three inches deep in the stuff. Not flakes but handfuls of snow drifting silently down. We marveled for a few minutes, especially the puppy who has never experienced such a thing in her short life. “You expect me to squat in this! It’s cold.” Mystified, she jumped back on the step, then simply had to try it out again.

After sunup, the trees cracked warnings, and sure enough—as soon as the coffee was made—the power went off. It may be the first time that I have been in the house during daylight hours without power. I learned that I need to do a little more emergency planning—more candles, some way to heat a cup of water.

And I learned that although the furnace runs on oil, the blower is electric. More and more, I am glad to have my little propane stove in the living room. With the encouragement of the chimney cleaner, I am even considering burning wood in my combination furnace. After all, there is a lot of dry wood in the basement. When I learned that the This Old House plumber’s brother who burned down his house had the same furnace as mine, I thought twice about burning wood, but perhaps if I am careful not to overload it as he did…perhaps it will be an option. Certainly this is a year when we want to have a well hedged fuel portfolio.

It is funny now to look out and see the snow’s white carpet overlaid with yellow leaves. Late fall, early snow. Good thing I cleaned the garden yesterday.

Being without power was more challenging than I expected. Everywhere I turned there was something I couldn’t do. I felt like a deprived energy pig. Couldn’t cook—the stove is electric. Couldn’t do laundry, a standard weekend chore. Didn’t think it wise to clean out the refrigerator as I had planned. Couldn’t vacuum---yay!!!! (I hate vacuuming out of all proportion to the amount of time it takes.)

My big achievement for today was getting my big quilt frame reassembled for the first time since I left Brooklyn, two moves ago. Daunting undertaking though it was, it came together and now graces the living room. In many ways upstairs would have been more practical for such a bulky contraption, but Max can’t make it upstairs at all any more. We want all the time with Max we can have.

The puppy, incidentally, is enormous. Second and third time out, snow kinda grew on her. Soon she was romping and chasing the big boys, skidding down the walkway and chomping on snow.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Flat dogs

So flat. Today the sun was out, and we cleared all the stakes and plastic out of the garden. It was taxing for dogs, all that watching and stealing cucumbers and burying things and digging them up and burying them again and what is she doing with those sticks? I could not interest anyone in evening dogfood, so committed are the three to their naps.

I had a very nice nap myself, then got up and finished the broccoli surprise soup. Surprise because there it was yesterday, after the first frost and all. And again today the surprise of a previously unsuspected acorn squash. And a couple of overgrown cucumbers, but those have now been buried.

One of the reasons that I started writing Vermont Diary was to record garden events, so here is the season wrap-up.

No more yellow tomatoes, or at least not many. They are very pretty, but they don’t have enough acid for home canning. Romas are nice and the green ones keep well into the fall. The recipe of the year may well be oven dried grape tomatoes. Just cut them in half and spread them on a lightly oiled baking sheet and put into the over overnight at the lowest possible temperature, then store in the freezer They are wonderful, but I really must investigate what the energy cost adds up to.

Corn is not a good crop for my plot—too much shade and too many turkeys eating it before it has a chance to sprout.

Sunflowers are a good thing.

Pole beans did not do well. Bush beans were a triumph, and my freezer is full of them. Black eyed peas did not have enough days in the growing season. Summer savory in the bean patch definitely worth repeating.

And what’s up with the eggplant? And the peppers. I had one eggplant and one pepper all season, even though the plants were robust and healthy.

Broccoli was consistently wonderful. The plants from the local garden center were excellent, and the De Cicco ones I grew from seed were even better.

Beets were okay. I like beets but they failed to inspire. Ditto carrots and radishes. I forgot to plant parsnips.

Onions and garlic complete and dismal failure. Couldn’t even find the plants. I blame the turkeys. If you find one up here, consider it pre-seasoned.

Chard: excellent. Collards: very nice. Kale: would be nice with fewer beetles chowing down. Mustard: forgot to eat it. I always think I will eat more greens than I actually do.

The champion crop for this year, as for many years was squash. Pretty round zucchinis that went well on the grill, yellow crookneck, lovely Delicata (several still in my dining room table still life), a funky round red one, some underdeveloped Hubbards, and a few really nice acorns. And of course the seventeen pumpkins. I have made pumpkin pickles and there is pumpkin pie to come. Hooray for the pumpkin pie!

Other thoughts for next year. Mulch and mulch and more mulch. Not quite so many beans. Not quite so many tomatoes. A garden is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t do to be completely in thrall to it and its ogre-partner the freezer. Only today have I escaped the grasp of green tomatoes. Only today am I free.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The movies

The Movies

I am watching a movie called Sullivan’s Travels with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. I am embarrassed that my only association with Veronica Lake is that my mother always accused me of imitating her when my hair was in my face.

“You have such a pretty face.”

The prelude to you oughtta get a better haircut. You oughta lose some weight. You oughtta oughtta oughtta. Who cares? Not me. Not any more.

Yes, I would prefer to be thirty pounds lighter, because I am now at the stage of life to fuss over health issues. Am I pre-diabetic? Well, given the genetic situation, probably. What other ills await me? Who knows?

But I digress. Veronica Lake is quite fetching in her boy’s cap. And I really enjoyed the scene in which first Joel McCrea, then Veronica Lake (oh my!) then the butler all ended up in the swimming pool.

It reminded me of a friend of mine, with whom I reveled in divorce, not that either of us was happy about our respective situations. His wife had a grim affair with her professor, my husband simply opted out, yet somehow we never were on each other’s radar screen. My beloved friend as a lover? We are far too different.

But we shared a memorable and well-remembered dinner. Four hours, or more, in the course of which we explored my unremarkable sexual and romantic history, his slightly more remarkable memories, and…yes, I mark it well…the sexual history of the waiter, more notable than any memories of us two, and isn’t that just the way of the world? Those hours in a Philadelphia restaurant, one of the Restaurant Renaissance locales, remain among my most treasures. Laughter, love and longing, all with a man never meant to be mine, but a friend forever. Nothing can take that evening from us. Nothing can take from us the lightness of love and laughter.

When it comes to real life, and it always does, you know, I rest in moments like those. I don’t mistake them for real life. No, wrong again, they are real life, but they are the truffles of life. I am grateful for these moments of grace. Every single moment.

Where do you suppose that waiter is now? Do you think he played that role more than once? Do you think his conscious mind embraces the number of sad couples--not even couples, just friends who happened to get divorced at the same time, but couples in his eyes—to whom he delivered wine and food and coffee? What a blessing to be able to serve that role! Do you think he knows? Do you think he knew then?

Perhaps it is a condition of grace that it doesn't matter at all whether it is conscious. It was a wonderful evening, even coming as it did in a sad and dreary period in my life, and I cling to that evening still.


If a movie could capture that, well then. That would be a work of art indeed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Play with me!

The puppy wants to play. The big dogs played hard yesterday, and Max is enjoying a snooze, while Toby rips apart one of the baby’s toys. Oh, the moans, the wails!

Yesterday, we saw one of Cassie’s littermates. I had stepped into a new quilt store looking for a rotary cutter replacement blade. I mentioned the topic currently most dear to me, and the store’s owner asked if she was as nice as the puppy in the fuel service store next door. Why yes, she is. In fact, she is little Harley’s sister.

On the sidewalk, after a few preliminaries, they rekindled the rough-and-tumble puppy play of a few weeks ago—bites and snarls that alarmed Harley’s mom. We retreated before there were too many comments about Cassie’s vicious temperament. How quickly these little dogs will have completely different lives! Cassie is not getting weekly baths, either, although we do attempt to cut toe-nails every two weeks—a battleground in itself, all wiggles and screams.

In my living room, moans and wails have given way to noisy snarls—on Toby’s part—which would be alarming if he meant them. Ah, there’s the problem. He is defending not only the plastic chew toy but also a well-aged, buried-and-dug up bone.

And now it is too quiet—a danger sign with puppies as with small children. Yesterday, I found a well shredded electrical cord dangling from a heavy lamp perched on the very edge of a table. I think I watch her every minute, and yet she managed to squeeze in enough time to do this damage, which—if the cord had been plugged in at the time—would have endangered her life as well. I don’t care about the lamp, but I do care about the puppy.

All three dogs had a big day yesterday. We did a road trip out to the building I manage, so there was a good, long car ride and a romp at the building site. Today the old boys are moving slowly, and won’t they be happy to see the girl put into her crate when it is time for me to go to work?

The photo I wish I could send you: two black dogs, viewed from the back, one large and one small, both squatting for a companionable morning pee.

Yes, Toby squats. Not sure why, but he never learned to lift his leg. Under the heading of why-are-we-having-this-conversation? file this flash of memory of a guy in Prospect Park who aggressively argued with me that Toby must be pooping unattended because he was squatting. Since I had just dropped the morning poop in the trash, I had nothing to show in our defense. And since rationality was not going to work, I could only walk away. Sometimes, there is nothing to be done in the face of mistaken belligerence.

Threats in the form of licking yet another electrical cord—this one plugged into my reading lamp—get my attention at last. Somebody is going to have to play with Cassie. It looks like I am nominated. Well, okay.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Rocks, hard places and the paths between them

Old dog Max can’t go for long walks any more. And baby Cassandra can’t go far. When October days burst forth in glorious Vermont color, we just have to be outside. We did a walk to the top of the maple grove behind the house—I was dying for a walk myself.

Damn these short days, shorter and shorter until the solstice. Understanding the solar rhythm doesn’t make it any easier to tolerate. Mornings now, the time I would most love to be afoot…those mornings are spent under that high intensity light bulb. I can do anything I want as long as I stay under there for an hour.

Today was just too spectacularly beautiful. We had to—absolutely had to—go for a walk.

As any owner of multiple dogs will tell you, getting a picture of the dogs together is one of those anthropomorphic daydreams. Dogs may love each other dearly, may romp in pairs or trios or more, but they will not be photographed in such dear aggregations.

Ta dah! The playful pair.

Ta dah! Let’s all be shepherds together.

And the ultimate troika. My three loves, captured in a single digital image. Amazing how the tiniest one is the center of the party, even as she trails the big boys. Toby already loves her as plush toy, playmate and partner in cuddles. Max is coming to recognize her qualities, or at least he has stopped snarling.

Postscript. Oh my goodness. She is the worst. She just peed in Max’s bed. The brat.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Things I learn from my puppy

Wear your ears a different way every day.

Jump on the big dogs every chance you get. If they bite your head, don't let it worry you.

Play like you mean it. Ditto sleep.

Sleep a lot. Cell division is serious business.

Find toys and joy in every little thing.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


My horoscope for today: You have taken on a lot of new responsibilities in recent weeks and now the planets are warning that you must not take on any more. Even a Leo has limits and you have reached yours and maybe even gone a little bit beyond them. At the moment you are just about holding things together - but don't push your luck.

Amen to that.

Sounds like a day for cleaning house, sprucing up garden, playing with dogs and not much more. I had to abandon a failed pickle project last night. It may be time to compost the rest of the tomatoes. It is certainly time to bring in hammock and outdoor chairs.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

It’s one of those spectacular Vermont autumn days. Thick mist in the valleys, a serious nip in the air, and a forecast for foliage turning so fast you can almost watch it. I have a new puppy whose ears hourly take a different turn. And an old Toby-puppy who thinks the new one is a toy. And a very old Max-dog who needs a lot of attention.

Simplify, simplify.

I’m thinking of writing this one word above the front door of my house in a spot where I would see it every time I come downstairs.


Thursday, September 29, 2005

Toby caves

He's playing with the evil puppy. With a deep play-bow, Toby makes himself little dog size, then scoops her up and flings her bodily across the living room rug. She picks herself up with a shake and comes back for more.

She thinks she's a big dog and she loves to play with Toby, who is--conservatively speaking--six times her size.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A smile a day

Yesterday while I was getting dressing, I heard the funniest noise, kind of a “boinggg-g-g-ga!” The puppy had found one of those door stoppers that looks like a coiled spring. It kept both of us amused for several minutes.

Cassie is a brave creature. The second night she spent with me, I heard three big thumps in the night as she fell or jumped off my bed, a rather high sleigh bed with tall headboard and footboard. This morning I decided to watch her technique. I assumed that she would have figured out how to use the siderails as a halfway stop, but no. She took a running leap and launched her tiny self over the footboard into mid-air, coming to rest with a thump on the carpet. Oh my goodness! I don’t think I can watch that again.

She has also been working on stairs. I have been walking her down, holding her little collar, to avoid a headlong slide down fifteen steep steps. But today, she marched right over to the stairs and was determined, “I can do it myself, Mom.”

The minute morsel does not have the slightest fear of the big dogs, no matter how they growl and snarl. She puts up one small paw and pats their muzzles. Toby now routinely lets her curl up with him, although he still claims all the toys are his. There was one time yesterday when I swear I thought I saw out of one corner of one eye….Toby playing with the puppy. With Max, she plays the “Hey, let’s be German Shepherds together” card, and he just looks at her: “Oh, please.”

Saturday, September 24, 2005

So big

Baby Cassandra is home, and—as is the way with babies—she has changed enormously since my last visit to the breeder’s home. Somehow in the last week, the pups got longer and lankier and even more beautiful.

I picked her up yesterday. As the guy who jumped off the 50-story building opined on passing the 20th floor….so far, so good.

The 2-mile car ride home was uneventful, and after brief introductions all around, I put her in her crate for a nap and went out for half an hour’s errands. Then we all worked in the garden for awhile. Half a dozen trips to the garden and back were heavy work for an eight-week-old pup, but she loved being out with us and she slept soundly last night.

This is my first time having a pedigreed dog. All my others have been foundlings who turned up at my door. As much as I have loved them all and still love Max and Toby, I would like to avoid any repeat of the pain and expense of Max’s hip replacement. So this little girl has papers. Good genes and a good home-raised start to life—we’ll try to build on this sound foundation.

The boys are responding reasonably well. Max wants more cookies—the key to a good life in Max-world—and Toby wants to hoard the toys.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Under lights

I sit here like the plant that I am, soaking up light rays from an Ultralux UL559155, my emergency light bulb having been delivered by Fedex a couple of days ago. I feel ridiculous. And I am more than a little annoyed, and annoyed in the second degree at myself for being annoyed at physical facts that are beyond my capacity to control.

It is barely mid-September, and the light has changed dramatically in this northern clime. Days are short. Late sunrise makes it hard to squeeze in the morning walks I have come to crave, and early sunset simply startles. Where has the day gone? It is an early warning of losses to come, of snow and cold and even more darkness, all part of the cycle to be sure, so how can these changes surprise me so?

I love Vermont’s four seasons, and we have not quite left summer. True, there are orange tips on the trees, and there is sometimes a nip in the air, but mostly we bask in warm sunshine, even as we recognize these are likely the last such days. We bask, but we mourn the loss of summer, and—annoying as it is—we mourn ahead of the loss! Why can’t we enjoy these late summer days for themselves?

Part hibernation instinct, part ant-like need to prepare, part mourning, we watch these last harvest days pass in solemn review. We pack up our school bags and get back to work, feckless children turned again to our sums and sentence diagramming.

But the greatest loss is the loss of the faithless sun. The Ultralux lamp can replace its kind and gentle rays only in one spot in my house—so here I sit, constrained to this one spot, soaking up lumens and mourning the turn of the year. With all the blessings that each season brings, the loss of light is still hard to bear.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Soft between the ears

Me, not her. I don’t seem to have a thought in my brain other than attempting to get back into the swing of things and looking forward to having a new baby in the house. I am aware that puppies, like babies, are far more interesting to their parents than to anyone else, but I really, really do like her. So please bear with me.

I had to make an emergency Ultralux order a couple of days ago. I used up my full spectrum light bulb growing seedlings in the spring, and I am one of those people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why does this sneak up on me every year? Wouldn’t you think I would remember what it is like? But no.

No, I wait until I am snarling at everyone I encounter. When the jerk quotient goes up….it usually means there is something wrong with me. When I start craving carbohydrates and dragging from home to work and back, accomplishing little or nothing in either place…there is something wrong with me. And it happens every September, or at least it happens here in Vermont where the days shorten so quickly and the angle of the light teases over the horizon—catch a ray, if you can! Honestly, I think I am a plant. But the light therapy works.

And a couple of hours in the sunshine playing with nine little German Shepherd puppies, that’s pretty effective, too. I annoyed them all today by cutting toenails (180!), but except for Cassie, they forgave me. First skirmish in the battle of wills.

Eighteen little ears are pointing every which way, not quite ready to stand up, but getting there.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Wild thing

The puppies are very…active. And very interested in exploring the world with their mouths. Here is mother Sadie in a rare moment tolerating tiny razor teeth near sensitive parts. She is not nursing a lot these days, but she is wary of strangers—and I still count as a stranger—near the puppies. And yes, we do expect that the babies' ears will stand up in time. What Sadie lacks in ears, though, she makes up in sweetness of temperament, and she has turned out to be a good mother.

Little Cassandra is fast distinguishing herself as a pushy girl, and in this household, we like our girls pushy. Here she has launched herself in search of thongs and toes. Personally, I have taken to wearing heavy suede Merrell pull-on shoes when I visit the puppies.

But here she is in the breeder's arms--thirty seconds of calm before she started chewing fingers and watch and every blessed thing in reach. The boys don't know what is in store for them.

Meanwhile, they are very curious when I come home smelling like puppies, and I hope this aroma gives them a hint of one small furry thing to come. Their lives are full these days, what with the flocks of turkeys everwhere and the tendency of many of Toby's favorite rocks to hop unexpectedly. Toads, doncha know?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Better now

The key to reducing angst for me is often decluttering. Get rid of all those projects that are staring expectantly. I still have hopes of finding my other boot, but I put the one in the closet—it was staring at me. I put the zucchini on the compost pile—I refuse to be cowed by zucchini. I mowed the grass and I planted some perennials I bought at a going-out-of-business sale. I put entire stacks of magazines right into the recycling pile. I stuffed the mousehole with steel wool—a temporary solution, but at least it stops Max from sitting in front of it wailing and whining.

From Mom comes the comment that from chewing shoelaces, Cassandra can be expected to move on quickly to chewing shoes—Toby will surely teach her. And Max will likely teach her his most annoying habit, asking for a cookie every single time he comes in from outdoors. I have never before replaced a dog during the failing years, but my friend Joe routinely does so. And he notes that this practice transmits bad dog habits through the generations. Is there any hope that Cassandra will not whine incessantly for cookies, bury my shoes, and bring rocks into the house?

I washed the windows—imagine! Now I can see the spectacular Vermont landscape unblurred by dog nose prints.

Seasonal turn

A vague sense of disquiet and annoyance is my constant companion these days. I can’t get my arms around what is wrong, but everything seems wrong. My house is cleaner than in months, my dogs are well behaved, and yet, something is tickling my consciousness.

I’ve tried all my usual remedies, from physical exertion to quiet meditation, from structuring my world with lists and priorities to practicing acceptance of whatever comes. Maybe I am asking too much of this seasonal transition period.

For me, this time of year has remained—long after school days were over—a season of new beginnings. Change junkie that I am, I generally rush headlong in the direction of new experience. So has something happened that makes me unwilling to go there? Or is this year’s change that nothing much will change?

I’ve been in Vermont three years now, the magic rule for how long it talkes to feel at home in a new place. I am starting to see easier friendships. I am starting to be able to have a Vermont conversation full of who is related to who and where various things “usedta be.” My health is better than in twenty years. I like my job, and I think I am good at it. I am feeling more secure about my place in this corner of the world and my ability to take care of myself here, even in the harsh winter weather that terrified me when I moved here. And yes, I did notice the irony that it was harsh Southern coastal weather that killed the most people last week.

So why the angst? I dunno. As an old boyfriend used to say, “If you don’t know what to do, sit down.” Not bad advice, but I think I will keep doing a little more peaceful, seasonal preparation—cleaning house, clearing gardens, cutting off the mouse superhighway, and getting ready to add little miss Cassandra to our household at the end of the month.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Lazy long weekend

Well, not really. More like anxious activity. Yesterday I dug the potatoes and harvested the beets, put zucchini and yet more beans in the freezer, and reorganized the freezer all the way to the bottom for good measure. I spent time online trying to figure out why my eggplants are all plants and no eggplant, likewise my peppers. But with Labor Day weekend upon us, it is all but too late. Any minute the frost will come.

Which led me to wonder, should the frost really be allowed upon the pumpkin? And what are those round baseball size squashes that start out lemon yellow and turn orange. What did I plant? And I discover once again that all my obsessive note-taking is still not enough to shed light on mystery vegetables.

It has been a whirlwind summer, and I can’t say the garden was completely successful. Beautiful eggplant plants, beautiful pepper plants, and outstanding okra plants, but only one eggplant and a few okra pods to harvest. Sturdy collards and kale, but badly chewed by Japanese beetles, which mercifully spared the still productive broccoli. I think I might have had a melon, but Toby buried it before I could get close enough to see. Lots of lovely lemon cucumbers, masses of green tomatoes, and way more zucchini and yellow squash than anyone could possibly need. I understand that some of my neighbors donate produce to the local food shelf—I wonder if it is too late to do that.

Before I hit the garden yesterday, I dropped off clothing and food at the hurricane relief site, then joined my neighbors in line to buy gas, feeling furtive and guilty for my extra two gallons for the lawnmower. There is so much to mow and trim and weed and repair to be ready for the change of season, which is first felt in increased meetings starting this week. I feel it in the need to change over to fall transitional clothing, but even more I feel it in the worry over the new hole I found in the garage wall, a veritable mouse superhighway.

Too late, frost, surfeit of vegetables, changing seasons, changing wardrobe, head off the mice….no wonder I am feeling anxious! Today, I spent the day weeding and mulching the herb garden, getting ready to pot up the rosemary and the tarragon, worrying that I am likely to kill them indoors but knowing that the harsh winter cold will surely do so. Perhaps it is time to simplify again, or at least to sort out the priorities—the things that will get done (like making room for a new puppy) versus the things that will not.

Friday, September 02, 2005

They grow up so fast

I dropped by last night to visit little Miss Cassandra and was startled by how Sunday’s little fluff balls had become Thursday’s little dogs. Still fluffy, but where Sunday’s pups were placid, last night they were romping up and down the porch, chomping on my ankles and my shoelaces. What fun!

Monday, August 29, 2005

How many dogs?

“How many dogs do you have?” is the question that carries that disapproving intonation. As a single woman, presumably, I am only entitled to one, or perhaps two, if we admit that dogs need company during the day.

I do agree that four was too many, and particularly when the fourth was the Evil Buppy, a Newfie mix with something unaccountably aggressive, a wild youngling that took on Toby and left him with gashes and rips in that startlingly fragile Rottie pelt. Toby is actually a Rottie/Shepherd cross, or so I was told by a woman outside a Chinese restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, and she assured me that she knew the truth of his ancestry by looking into his deep brown eyes.

The Evil Buppy, transmuted into mild Clyde, now lives with twins and their mom in Atlanta. He is an only dog, as he was always meant to be, and he guards them with a ferocity that is unknown to Newfoundlands and a gentleness unknown to the other parts of his heritage.

But two is good, and three was okay. I will soon have three dogs: Max, the 11-year-old shepherd with artificial hip, heart murmur and buoyant outlook; serious Toby, the 9-year-old Rottie/Shepherd cross; and Baby Cassandra, my first purebred German Shepherd.

So when people ask me, “How many dogs do you have?” I will reply, “Three.” I know that this number is all too temporary. I hope that Max has plenty of opportunity to teach the little girl a thing or two and to come to trust that she will be able to take care of us. I hope that she keeps Toby guessing, hopping, off balance—keeping him young for a few more years. I hope we learn again how to walk on a leash, come when called, and romp in Vermont fields. I hope I have three dogs for a long, long time.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Color me crabby

Sheesh. Why do they ask for feedback if they don’t want it? I sent back the customer comment card. No, I was not happy. If I place the call for air conditioner repair for the building I manage, I expect that I will get a call back letting me know what work was done and what followup is required. At a minimum, I expect that if I have to track down the company to find out what was done that I will get an explanation and—perhaps—an “Oh, we’re sorry. We did explain this to the person onsite, but we understand we should have called you back.” And if I have had to provide my credit card to cover payment for the work, I am all the more sensitive to wanting a followup call.

Color me crabby when I make the followup call and get attitude and huff. Surely it is not unusual that a building owner (the firm that employs me) is offsite?

So I filled out the customer satisfaction questionnaire. And I said that I expected to get a call back and I expected that if I had to make the followup call that the information would be courteously delivered. I don’t demand an apology, but I do demand courteous followup.

I believe in customer service. I give a lot of credit to vendors who attempt to improve their service levels. So when someone sends me a customer satisfaction questionnaire, I fill it out, particularly if I think there is some clear step that the vendor can take to improve their service. Seeking disconfirming information is a sign of maturity and good business practice.

But, guys, if I am not happy, you will not bully me into being happy.

It is not my fault that you had trouble finding the building—you had my phone number and could have called me, you had the address and could have used Mapquest, you could see from the exchange that my location was not the same as the building’s location. (Yes, we can still make that calculation in Vermont.) But did you call? No.

It is not my fault that you didn’t meet my expectations of getting a call back. I do expect this of vendors: if I make the service call, I expect to get a call back that the work was done and what followup is required. I accept that I have to educate vendors the first time I work with them that this is my expectation, and I accept that some will not be able to meet my expectations. And in certain fields, demand for vendors is such that I have to put up with behaviour that does not meet my expectations. This is not one of those fields.

It would not have been a deal breaker if, when I tracked you down, you had delivered the information courteously. But instead you gave me a lot of defensive guff about how you had a hard time finding the building and how 99% of your customers have the requesting party onsite. The 99% figure is suspicious, but even if it were true, I am not interested in how things are for your other customers. And if you had a hard time finding the building, why didn’t you call? We cannot take cell service for granted in Vermont, but as it happens, there is good cell service around the area where this building is located. If your service technician could call your dispatcher, certainly one of them should have been able to call me for directions. But nobody called for directions, nobody called me when the work was finished, and when I tracked down someone for information, you took out your frustration on the customer. Way to make sure I don’t want to repeat the transaction!

The vendor called me when my customer satisfaction questionnaire arrived back in their office. I took a deep breath and called back, hoping for an improved interaction, but the pseudo-apology was really just a defensive “explanation” of why they did what they did. In the end, this firm does not offer any advantage over their competitors. In fact, I have existing relationships that don’t require me to pay upfront with a credit card, but I took a chance on them in order to get a quick response. Still there are other options. Smart competitors recognize that there are always other options.

I would have been happy to give them some feedback, would have been happy to provide information rather than simply voting with my feet, which is what most unhappy customers do. I give them credit for asking for feedback, and I wish them well in the future, but I won’t be exposing myself to a repeat of this negative experience. Ironically, it was not the failure to call me that was the negative experience, it was the badly managed customer satisfaction discussion. Perhaps they will get it right with the next customer. I hope so.