Sunday, January 30, 2005

Reprise: Bent light

This is a piece I wrote last summer, before Vermont Diary went blog. I pulled it out to remind me why it was that starting seeds in front of the big picture window was a bad idea. It cheered me up to think of the gardening season to come, and I thought readers might like a jolt from an easier season, too.

What’s with this yen to garden? Is it just being in this beautiful green place? Or is it McCreery genes, green jeans if ever there were such. Still, I doubt any McCreery ever trimmed the leading edge of raised beds with scissors as I do. And McCreerys plant sensible vegetables—beans and corn for the freezer.

If I were as smart as people claim I am, then I would buy vegetables at the local markets and pop them into my freezer for winter delectation. But no. I pay to have a large plot plowed, then I build raised beds with straw-lined paths between. And I plant and plant and plant, but I run out of steam before I plant corn or squash or potatoes. Breakneck speed and still it is mid-June before I get anything in the ground. The only crop I regret missing is sunflowers. I had dreamed of having many kinds lining the back row of my garden, beckoning to travelers with their sweet faces.

Now we are almost at the end of July. Gardens are exploding. I don’t meant to sound like we live in an alien world, but actually in July we do. I staked the tomatoes today, and by the time I got to the end of the row, the first ones needed to be tied up again. In the south, they say that kudzu grows 18 inches a day, that if you watch you can see it, if you listen you can hear the vines groan with stretching to cover the next rusted-out car or slow-moving cow. This is beyond kudzu, beyond anything I have ever experienced. The scientists among us say it is something in the angle of the light. We have it such a short time, but pow! Zowie! We have it in double-time.

In the depths of February, I started seedlings indoors. They didn’t do well, and the prevailing theory is that it was the double glazed picture window that bent the light and kept them from thriving. Next year, I invest in hanging lights to start the babies, or maybe I just buy plants from one of the legion little greenhouses. I went to a meeting at Basin Harbor Club in the spring and stumbled over one that offered exotic varieties of tomatoes and peppers for a dollar apiece. I was taken aback by the twenty or so greenhouses and the freedom with which customers were allowed to roam through them—surely their insurance company would not approve. But I came home with Amish Paste tomatoes, Brandywine Pinks, tomatillos, San Marco paste tomatoes, and more—a dozen in all. Along with chocolate peppers, jalapenos, habaneros,….you get the idea. Driving back from Philadelphia a month ago, I even ran across a dozen okra plants raised lovingly in someone’s greenhouse and available to me for a mere dollar apiece.

So why should I start seedlings indoors? Because I can’t help myself. Because it helps me believe that the snow will go someday. And now in July I see that my little seedlings are catching up. My tiny tomato seedlings—which were really pitiful in comparison to their greenhouse classmates—are now half their size and sturdy as can be. And what excitement to see what they turn out to be. Did I mention that my labels—ice cream spoons with ball point pen labels—didn’t withstand the rigors of outdoor life? So I have no idea who these babies are that I have nurtured so lovingly. Kinda like parenthood, eh?

Actually the biggest and sturdiest plants of all guessed the compost pile. What does this tell us about how all our efforts are wasted?, let's say diverted. Unexpected outcomes are now expected, the world is upside down, light is straight where once it was bent, and Zowie! we are carried along in beauty.


My new gardening book does in fact explain a lot, including why my house feels so much colder this year, even before the subzero days, even after installing a gas stove in the living room. It’s the absence of snowbanks around the house, stoked up above the level of interior floorboards. Without our accustomed snow accumulation, the wind whistles through, leaving my feet chilled where I sit in the living room.

It surely doesn’t help that Miss Nell chewed off the weatherstripping from an exterior door, nor that I had to take down the new lined curtains in the puppy-fostering days. Between puppies pooping on their still-pinned-up hems and the threat of Boomer’s bloody tail, there really was no alternative but to take their nubby silk whiteness away. But this may be a project for today: find a good old movie on cable and get the curtains trimmed, hemmed and covering the expanse of windows across the southerly facing sides of my house.

Built by Vermonters in an age when people paid attention to that kind of thing, the house has only two small windows on the north side versus four large ones plus an enormous picture window facing south for the views. Right now I sacrifice one easterly window to wall space for my china cabinet, and the room is so bright that it hardly makes a difference. I wonder, though, how much I could grow winters in that bright dining room if I found another place for that large piece of furniture. This is the kind of project good to chew over on a cold winter day, tucked up with seed catalogs and gardening books.

The cost of the whole puppy raising project is still somewhat mysterious. They came with their own food and even garbage removal, to which I could append my single bag a week for a savings of $2.50 a week. The loss of weatherstripping and a well-chewed old door goes to the puppy account, as does increased heating and electricity. It is probably best that we not dwell on the residue of puppy forays into the sewing room, but think of thread, zippers, seam tapes and ribbons wound round and round and then pooped on. Repayment in puppy wiggles, enticement of visitors into my solitary home, keeping the old dogs a little off balance and engaged—all net positives.

I only had one moment when I thought I had made a mistake not to keep one—the morning that Sweet Pea went to her new home. Bowing down to make himself a little, little dog, ninety-pound Toby was romping with her on the living room rug. But Sweet Pea has gone to a very good home, one where I will even see her from time to time, and she will soon be answering to her new name Lola, teasing my friend J, and romping with Bandit.

Toby is a little sad, but Max is delighted. He thought they would never go. I think Max deserves a break, and maybe in the spring, or maybe even next spring, we will try for a picket fence and a puppy for Toby. There is a season for all things.

I hear from friends down South that Atlanta is encased in ice. They are not accustomed to nor do they suffer cold gladly. Chatting on the phone with my friend, I suspect that I am cozier in my Vermont farmhouse than she soon will be in her all-electric condo, now without power. Soon her power will be back on, and she will have had a mild weather adventure, a day without heat. In Vermont, power might not be restored so quickly and a mild adventure could turn life-threatening, but in Vermont, things are ordered differently. I cannot imagine anyone having only one source of heat. This real threat of nature's disdain for mankind was one of the things that frightened me about Vermont before I moved here, and I retain a healthy respect for the cold and the snow, as I have built reliance on my neighbors who plow me out and notice whether I am about.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Sleep knits up

Sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care….

Tough week. Too many “hot” interactions with too many different people on too many different topics. Not hot in the sense of having a heated emotional response, but in the sense of needing to tread lightly and carefully, picking the most honest words with the utmost care, choosing to communicate with the fewest possible words to draw lines with complete clarity. Tough, tough week.

Last night I feel into bed and slept twelve hours straight. Today I will clean my house and bring order to my tiny world, my little Vermont farmhouse. Tomorrow I will take a proper Sabbath and rest.

I spent $82 yesterday, a huge amount of money for me to spend these days and all on non-essentials: books and dinner out. My simple life in Vermont comes at a cost, participating in a reduced compensation structure relative to what I knew in New York. Simply put, I don’t make much money promoting economic development, so I don’t spend much.

Most of the time, it works out just fine. Where I once bought books, I now patronize several libraries. Where I once ate in restaurants (enjoying lots of different ethnic food!), I now cook at home. Even processed foods are off my list. I look at that tube of polenta for $3.99 and think…huh! cornmeal mush….but I do splurge on baby arugula and watercress, leaves I like to eat. With a few strategic exceptions, I am still wearing out the clothes I brought from New York, and when they wear out…I will invest in Carhartts like my neighbors.

Occasional financial anxieties intrude. How long will my 12-year-old Honda last? What about my laptop? The truth is that I do have some reserves—a cheerful relic of those bad old New York work days—and that I am right to make the conservative choice lto ive within my current income. My biggest luxury is living alone, but if I had to, I could have a roommate.

Sometimes I miss spending money more freely. As one example, when family anxieties flare, it can be helpful to throw a little money into the mix, to buy dinner for everyone, or presents, even though the fix is only temporary. Another example is the pleasant release of hiring someone to do something that I could do myself but see as hard work, like tilling my garden or doing my own taxes. When you have money, it is amazing the number of dis-comforts you can buy your way out of.

Not having money has its compensations, too. By now I know that despite my genuine aesthetic delight in some objects (furniture?) or experience (massage?), the ones I really need are few. The real payoff is that I choose with care where I spend my money, and now—as I think I have said before in blogland—I get as much enjoyment from buying frilly underwear as I once did in buying furniture. My dinner out in Montpelier last night, cushioned in the laughter of people on the periphery of my consciousness, was just what I needed. Usually, I save dinners out for times with other people, but last night was pure self-comfort.

The books I bought met my standard for books I need to own rather than borrow, although rent might be a better term, once the overdue fines are calculated. I am reading Lorne Ladner’s The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology and a book by Lewis Hill from over the hill in Greensboro called Cold Climate Gardening. It is time to start looking forward to the promise of spring, not spring as we wish it were, but spring as it really comes here to the cold, cold hills of Vermont.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

I could be wrong

I post horoscopes like yesterday on the refrigerator to try to teach myself to listen. Today, I am still working on yesterday’s message.

Don't get so wrapped up in your own ideas that you feel you must defend all your opinions with your life. That will take away the flexibility you need so badly. The truth of the matter is that you may not always know the best route to take. Other forces are directing you to a better path.

This one is a hard lesson for an intuitive child who saw too much and whose perceptions were often dismissed, a child who grew into an adult distrustful of intuitive capacity and defensive of what she sees. Peeling back the onion layers of personal development, first we learn—children like me—to believe what we see. But this just leads us to new faults, to hold our views rigidly, to defend them against perceived attack, and to pretend that our views are the only reality.

Reality is in the eye of the beholder. I only know my story. Each other person knows only his or her story. And because we are each players in the stories of others, the stories collide in narrative space, with one person’s truth becoming an intrusion on another’s story.

Reality changes. Time alters the relationships of all things, and entropy is the watchword, its downward and outward spiral interrupted by new growth, light and grace. And as the physicists have taught us, reality changes just because we look at it.

So the next layer we learn—children like me—is that we can be wrong. It sometimes happens that we can take in the myriad mosaic bits and process them ferociously, only to create…nonsense. It happens. But once we learn to say “I could be wrong” it happens less often and with less stunning, less disastrous consequences. We learn we can be wrong and that the world doesn’t end. We learn that the very words “I could be wrong” preserve our friendships.

Perhaps most important, we learn that the words “I could be wrong” don’t invalidate our intuitive capabilities. We could be wrong, but we act to forestall negative consequences…just in case we might be right. We could be right, but even the most well-intentioned communication of our views might not be accepted. Then again, we could just plain be wrong. Every measuring instrument fails sometimes. All of our human ways of knowing each other are blunt instruments, ways of waving from one deck to another as our ships pass in the night.

All I really know is my own story, but I can try to be sensitive to each person’s need to weave a personal narrative thread. I can practice saying, “I could be wrong” because, in fact, I often am wrong about others’ lives, their motivations, their ways of relating to me. Most people really are sunk deep in their own stories, as I am in mine. The least I can do is to summon up the generosity to admit that there are other stories that account for the actions I see around me, while still retaining respect for my own perceptions and my own story. And I can trust that other forces are directing me to a better path.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


On the refrigerator I post the horoscopes that I need to remember not just today but every day. Today I am adding this one:

Don't get so wrapped up in your own ideas that you feel you must defend all your opinions with your life. That will take away the flexibility you need so badly. The truth of the matter is that you may not always know the best route to take. Other forces are directing you to a better path.

What! Not rely on my brain? Give my heart and spirit a chance? Or even just be open, not even anticipate what comes next? Take a break? Imagine!

It has been an appliance-focused few days. When the temperature drops below zero, the dishwasher freezes. The on-button brings forth only a low rrr-rr-rrrrr-rr without the background splash, and after a few minutes, my wandering attention snaps back to realize that I need to do something. On cold days, the washing machine drain line freezes, too, but fortunately both yield to a couple of hours application of a portable heater.

Clearly, I have been working too hard. I find myself dancing around the house, singing to myself “I thawed the dishwasher” to the tune of “I told the witchdoctor…”

Ooh. Eee. Oo-ah-ah. Wing-wang-walla-walla-bing-bang.

Hey, Robert, ( ) how’s that for music in your head? What if you write about music-in-your-head as Zen meditation? What does the witchdoctor say about my head?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Feels like home

Some people make changes gradually. That’s never been my way. I’ve moved long distances, changed professions, left lovers, and never once have I done it frivolously. Sometimes changes have come unwelcome. Thrust out of my warm coccoon and into freefall, I have not gone without a struggle. Lately I have been thinking about how hard it is to say goodbye; today it soothes me to think of resting, stewarding energies and looking ahead.

I love the excitement of looking forward to something new. Like the anticipation of the first day of school or the promise of cushioning a stark, clean space into home, every stepping out is once again the transcendent faith and hope of the fool stepping off the edge of the cliff. When I left New York, friends looked at me askance and asked, “How can you leave the security of your job, your friends, your routine?” Was it addiction to excitement? The sense that I had taken from New York all I wanted and could only one-up the experience by putting New York itself in play? More likely, the fear of stagnation overweighted the fear of moving on, tipping the balance toward promise.

There is always an adjustment period. A solemn child, I have long been accustomed to spending time alone. I get lonely from time to time, but I know well that it won’t kill me. I have now dealt with so many goodbyes that I can almost feel the rhythm—three years to mourn a lost love, three years to feel at home in a new place. By middle age, we all have comforted friends who have suffered loss, and abandoned or displaced lovers are more the norm at this age than aged parents or sick children. Some friends, mostly competitive men, have vowed that they would beat the three-year mark, and I always hope they will and cheer them on. But usually misplaced bravado gives way—in time—to a sad reprise of the same old dance. The three-year rule is not really a rule, you see, but rather a preponderance of observations of the physics of emotion. Better not to fight it, better to take the time to breathe in, awaiting the day it feels natural to look forward again.

The amazing thing is that not once when I have seized the brass ring of some big new challenge, NOT ONCE have I regretted the change, and this leads me to conclude—my more cautious friends notwithstanding—that I have not taken too many chances, maybe in fact not as many as I should.

Two years now in Vermont, eighteen months in a new job, a year in a new house, and I am starting to feel at home. I’m breathing deep, feeling the oxygen fill up my lungs, replenish my strength. Nowhere near the next big step off the next big cliff, right now I am content just to be.

Thanks to Jon, for finding the correct quote and citation for one of my favorite poems:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

“Little Gidding”, the fourth of the Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A friend, found again

In the worst of the bad old days, which I hardly know how to characterize, I took a three-week vacation and went to Haystack at Deer Isle, Maine to sit in the wood and make pots for three weeks. It was a blessing, a gift from God, those three weeks. Sitting in Haystack’s clay studio, using my right leg to kick the wheel and gazing out at whales in the ocean, far beyond tall firs in the foreground, I found respite. I found peace. I also found a friend, Deborah.

Most of my best friends have become my friends despite my reserve. Debbie dragged me out one day to explore the coast of Maine. We visited Fort Knox (the Maine one, not the Kentucky bullion repository), almost an identical design to Fort Pulaski on the coast of Georgia, obsolete before it was completed thanks to the invention of spiraled rifle bores....and we talked and talked and talked. Debbie was in Maine to make baskets; I was making pots. We shared suspicion of the makers of “vessels” and we laughed and talked and became friends.

That August, Debbie was still in the early stages of knowing David. She was still amazed that he could love her, and later that year, when he proposed through a slip of the subjunctive, she was whole. One in a string of badly chosen boyfriends—who went to the same high school as Debbie, at the same time as Sarah Jessica Parker—was my preoccupation then, and I somehow was not there when the two of them were united, late-blooming flowers in a garden watched over by a blow-up Godzilla. But I wished them well, and I still do.

They moved South, and the next time I saw Debbie, she was on her way to Russia. It was the first major separation from baby Eli. How can Eli be fifteen? And Avi nine? Honestly, I know I sound like an old woman when I say this, but how can it be possible that time goes by so fast?

I can’t get the sequence right, but somewhere in there is a visit to Debbie and David in Boston. Traveling with the ill-advised boyfriend, I ran into my ex-husband in a garden store. The emotional impact of it all short-circuited my brain and my usual courtesy. I am afraid I was very remote and even rude to Debbie and David. I still feel the need to apologize for that weekend.

But now I know just how the father of the prodigal son felt. I had a friend who was lost, and now she is found. Let the feasting…on Ben and Jerry’s…begin. You see, it turns out that there is a major ice cream obsession in Debbie and David’s home. Maybe the ice cream will entice them to Vermont even if an old friend cannot.

I don’t think I have made a pot since that summer. In one of those weird turns of fate, the pottery teacher was BOTH a disciple of a disciple of the famous and brilliant Bernard Leach…and the next-door neighbor of one of my cousins, the pig farmer now turned pilot (okay, so that’s not so surprising, since I have so many cousins)…and bore a strong resemblance to a painter to whom I was briefly engaged. It was one of those circumstances that leads one to beg God please to stop…it is all too much.

This weekend is another such time. Too, too many things are converging. I am almost with Goethe’s Faust…”Stop, moment, thou art so fair…,” but like Faust, I realize that if I ever reach such a moment, I will vanish in a puff of smoke, as if I never existed. Do I really want that?

But today, I had a holiday letter from Debbie, and for that, I am most grateful. Who says holiday letters are just drivel? Not if they get me a friend back, a cherished friend who was lost, they're not.

Turning the question around

First the recap: Leaving New York three years ago, leaving my husband twenty years ago. More recently, saying good-bye to X—way more difficult than the man or the relationship deserved, keeping Y (enticing connection that he is) at arm’s length. Why is so much of my psychic work about leaving?

Suppose it’s not about the leaving.

Suppose it is about the destination. What would that mean?

Suppose it’s about finding home. What would that mean?

Gather up these strands:
the subconscious message that you have been hearing a lot lately that you don’t listen enough to your body...
the appeal of health in food, exercise, getting updated medical checkups...
the appeal of yoga, stretching, sauna...
the presence on your bedside table of the Dalai Lama’s book How to Practice...
your inability to continue going to the Episcopal's not a loss of faith...
your delight in a few deepening friendships...
your delight in a couple of romantic possibilities (echoes of that body thing)...
your continuing efforts to make your life simple...
your enjoyment of your home (even cleaning!) and your garden...
the pleasure of writing in various forms and for various audiences...
learning from bloggers, many of whom have a Buddhist inclination...
more? what else is going on?

It's a place to start.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Among Old Dogs

Now that the puppies are gone, except for Sweet Pea who is sublimely inoffensive, the old dogs have upped their demands for attention, just a little extra to make up for hard weeks, the harsh weeks, the “youf” in your face weeks. Like aged pensioners who grudge the school tax, they don’t see the “youf” as their province.

Max just wants to talk, Toby to cuddle. Highly human interactive, these two, their needs are as individual as any mother’s children.

Cookies and pats for Max, with lots of verbal backdrop. “That’s my boy, my good dog.” The toasty aroma of warm German Shepherd is the most comforting, brain-numbing, loving smell I know. It takes me back to an emotional pre-verbal place of pure trust. I love my Max. Even when I have been lectured to distraction, even when I really wish an old dog didn’t need so many trips outside, even when I wish the mice weren’t seen as a terrorist threat requiring….talk, talk, talk and more talk, even then and always, I love Max.

Bones and apples for Toby, yes, apples. The goofball adores them, particularly stolen from Sweet Pea. He has stockpiled a treasure of three bones and twelve rocks, but no puppies, thank you. How uneven a match between 90-pound Rottie/Shepherd Toby and baby Sweet Pea, who might be up to twelve pounds by now. When she has his apple, well! The heavens might as well fall; no greater debacle or iniquity is possible. Still the baaaaaby dog (see Loving Toby post last week), is my best fan, the one for whom I can never do wrong. He puts a paw on my arm: “Love me, love me, Mom.” I do, Toby, I do, even when the paws annoy.

After weeks of juvenile hi-jinks, weeks of in-your-face puppydom, what a joy it is to sink back into the measured repose of life with old dogs. With old dogs, you can’t help being grateful for each extra year or month or day. Every hug comes with flashbacks to the puppy that was, the steadfast lifelong love that persists.

Let us give thanks for the blessing of old dogs. Let us give thanks for Max and for Toby, for all old dogs extraordinaire.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Why Should I Care?

Once again, I have been sucked into believing the ever so polite promises and apologies, the soothing tones, the earnest wishes that my life might be so much better offered up by Dell Computer customer service. Followed by inadequate follow-through, bad organization, the occasional inept trainee, all knotted together in a sequence of bungling mis-steps so horrific that it would seem planned. Surely nobody could organize ineptitude on such a grand scale, but how do they do it?

The apologies erupt again, but thirty days after a hard drive failure, the cost of exercising the warranty has officially exceeded its value. I simply can’t bear to talk to them again. Another week or so, and I should be back in operation, but that seems to me as a business customer like a long time to get a hard drive replaced.

From experience, I know that it helps me keep my cool when I document abysmal customer service, step by step, name by name. Sometimes when everything goes as badly as the experience with Dell, I spruce up my notes and send them to the company. In Dell’s case, my notes ran to 6 pages of 9 point type. Who knows? They might learn something, but probably not.

I wish I could say the exercise of tattling to Michael Dell had been cathartic, but no. I honestly cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would expose myself to another dose of Dell. So why should I care?

I always care when I see such waste. When people have my good regard and throw it away…stupidly…it’s a shame. Dell will live very well without me, and I will live just fine without Dell. So why should I care?

Maybe it’s just that I am fascinated by good customer service on those rare occasions where genuine courtesy replaces scripts, where attention to the customer’s real need dominates the choices the supplier makes, and where team efforts triumph over slow computer links or horrendous nested phone messages. It happens from time to time, and the company who can make it work gets my business again and again. Companies who are merely adequate at customer service annoy me from time to time, but hardly ever completely alienate me. It takes a dedicated multiplicative effort at unacceptable responses to make me say, “I won’t be buying Dell again.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Mornings are my favorite time, just one of the personal characteristics that mark me as an introvert. I need time to myself, time to renew my sense of my place in space and time, time to get centered, time to touch base with a few selected sources of input and inspiration. Like any other busy professional in this century, I have mornings when I grab coffee and race out to early meetings, but at least a few times a week, I need this time to think, read and write; without it I get a little crazy and more than a little difficult to deal with.

Perhaps even more important that the time for internal processing is the opportunity to skim headlines, review my favorite blogs, and review several horoscopes. I am looking for a ping. I am looking for the thing I didn’t know I was looking for. The item that jumps off the page and says, “Me! Me! I’m the idea you want! Take me home and chew on me.” Here are ideas I am chewing on:

MSN headline….what about a week-long yoga retreat?….This appeals to me because I am trying to retrain myself to make physical activity much more habitual. I am thinking of changing my work schedule to explicitly incorporate three mornings a week at the gym; it is important to me, and I think it can work with the demands of my job. Beyond the benefits of energy and appearance, I love stretching. I love a sauna after stretching. And I want to re-establish a daily practice that encourages a closer link between my sense of my physical self and my head, where I spend most of my time.

I have never been athletic, in fact always was the last chosen for teams and the kid most likely to kick the kickball and get hit on the head when it came down from the sky. I was the kid who took three years to pass beginning swimming. Any new task that could be filtered through the conscious mind, I learned quickly. But if it was a task that relied on muscle learning, I just didn’t get it. And I still don’t. And so I find myself living in Vermont in mid-winter, desperately wishing I could ski (cross-country) or skate, but remembering the injuries I did to myself the last times I tried to learn. Surely, there must be someone who can teach a physically backward middle aged woman how to enjoy sliding.

I also skim my junk mail. Ever since I went on that cruise to Alaska a few years ago, I still get mailings. Among my best memories of that cruise is standing at the front of the ship surrounded by windows, walking on a treadmill and drinking in the spectacular Alaskan mountain and sea view. Another is taking a sea kayak trip out to see red starfish splayed up and down boulders in a bay, otters hooting at us from their island perch as we paddled past. Oh my. How long has it been since I had a vacation that renewed body and spirit as that one did?

There’s a cruise to Montreal, they say, for Winter Carnival. I don’t need the cruise ship, nor am I likely to want to brave a new city in a foreign language (even one I know a little) in the midst of a major event. But a long weekend in Montreal could appeal. I have to think about that. I need clothes, so a little shopping might be called for, and I still maintain that Vermont’s only real shortcoming is a lack of diverse and inexpensive ethnic food, a draw to Montreal. Puppy responsibilities are behind me, and the big boys manage well for a couple of days on their own, now that I have good baby-sitters for them.

Change the daily schedule…it is a long term gift you give yourself.
Find a three-day yoga retreat…a week might be too much, but three days would be a perfect way to get reacquainted with your body and soothe mind and spirit
The concept of vacation is good. The concept of a long weekend in Montreal has immediate appeal. Why didn’t I think of this before?


Monday, January 17, 2005

Thank you, Dr. King

Attending church regularly can be a source of deep satisfaction, if only because every now and then one hears a really, really good sermon. My most faithful Episcopalian years date back to the eighties, when I attended St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. A merged parish, the St. Ann’s side had sold their sanctuary for a school, and who am I to say nay to their wrenching choice. The Holy Trinity side had a history wrapped in the scarlet diapers of the Communist Party, with a dash of Bernstein for good measure. It was a Holy Trinity teen center, the story goes, that was the inspiration for West Side Story. It was certainly Holy Trinity’s two vestries brawling in the aisles who inspired changes to New York State’s church election laws.

By the time I sought solace there, an uneasy alliance supported an arts program that spanned Aaron Neville’s tremulous warbling to Carmina Burana with chorus in trenchcoats on sanctuary scaffolding. On one hand, an Aeolian Skinner organ…now protected from the elements by modern Lucite…and the window on permanent loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stained glass that might be the first in America, unless Trinity Church across the river at the base of Wall Street commanded that honor. On the other hand, a congregation dedicated to radical arts and more radical peacemaking. All of us meeting weekly to open our hearts—individually and collectively—to God.

Episcopalians delve deep into a rich tradition of liturgy, but scratch the surface and you will find today’s passion. The rector when I was there was Bill Persell, who had grown up in the Episcopal Church. His father was a bishop in New York State, as Bill is now a bishop in Cleveland. Not literally, but in spirit, Bill came of age in the time of Dr. King. He spoke in moving tones of walking with Dr. King in Mississippi and in Alabama, the Deep South of my own childhood. It was only this year that I realized that when my father moved us out of Columbus, Georgia to avoid black people, it was 1963. I was nine, that’s what I knew, but it was 1963, and there was violence in the South.

Speaking of Dr. King, Bill Persell was eloquent, and in the end, it was not Dr. King’s specific views that I remember. Rather it was a view of a man, imperfect, who left his mark on a generation. As a human being, Dr. King was deeply flawed. He set his sights high, and in his personal life as well as in his aspirations for his race, he consistently fell short. But he never, never stopped. To his dying breath, he hoped and he worked—day after day, failure after crushing failure—for change. Too late for the good Doctor to see, change has come, and yet it is change that we still require. One chilly Sunday in Brooklyn, we all stopped to listen to Bill’s memories of Dr. King, to recognize a tormented human being, and to thank him for all he did for all of us.

Thank you, Bill. Keep telling the story. Somewhere in my files, I have a copy of that sermon, but I hardly need to re-read it. This time of year, it comes flooding back into my mind, renewing a thankful spirit within me.

Thank you, Dr. King. And happy birthday.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Out the Other Side

Sometimes I think that when I want to simplify your life, adding a lot more chaos temporarily clarifies priorities mightily. And so it was with us. After the literally bloody disaster of yesterday, today we all cleaned and chilled. When it comes to blood spattered walls, dogs can be most helpful.

Cleaning tip, remembered from the bad old Buppy days and reinforced by emergency room personnel: hydrogen peroxide takes blood out. This tip is particularly useful for fabrics. Spray on upholstery and dab blood away. Soak favorite jeans and wash in cold water. Sadly, the large rip in the knee is not so easily put right.

The jacket I have been wearing lately is the fluorescent green of tennis balls. It was one of the items I bought in my last stock-up-on-warm-things spree in New York, the same spree in which I bought three sets of silk long underwear. As I recall, the jacket cost a whopping twelve dollars, and now I wish I had bought one in every eye-popping color. Once I read the cleaning instructions—do not wash….do not dry clean—the price became more understandable. It’s disposable! I will, of course, try washing it someday, but so far, the blood has sponged off nicely. A cozy fleece lining, some kind of fluffy fill, and an exterior shell of PVC. Yes, my jacket and my plumbing are made of the same ever-wearing plastic.

Dogs had a quiet day, gamboling in the snow with apples, snoozing in front of the fire.

Loving Toby

This morning we are licking our wounds, psychic and physical, Toby and I. Always a needy dog, Toby came to me as an abused puppy. He walked up to me on the street and licked the back of my knees as if to say, “Could I please live with you?” On that day, he was only about four months old, too little to have been through whatever he had been through, too little even to know how to climb stairs. He was dragging a blue and white leash behind him, so he had a home that he had dared to leave.

I looked for this little lost puppy's home. We walked around the neighborhood asking if anyone knew where he belonged. And because I expected to find his home, his family and his proper name, I just called him “Baby.” After a few days, he thought that was his name. To this day, when I want to soothe the big dog’s anxiety, I croon to him, “That’s my baaaaaby, my baaaby dog.”

Naming him Toby was an effort to name him something he might recognize, but that might be a little more dignified than Baby for a big dog who looks like a fierce Rottweiler. I’m told he is likely a Rottie-Shepherd cross. Menacing as his appearance may be, Toby is a marshmallow. A sticky, clingy marshmallow who loves me more than anything in the world. Everyone should be loved this way once in life.

Both nine-year-old Toby and eleven-year-old Max, the German Shepherd, have patiently worked through fostering Nell and her nine puppies. They went back to the shelter on Wednesday for little puppy operations and to find new homes. Nell went back, too, having displayed an unfortunate tendency to bully my dogs and to chew up the woodwork. Sweet Pea, who has been adopted by my friend J, is back with us while J is on vacation. Sweet Pea is blissfully fond of both old boys, whom she has known all ten weeks of her little puppy life. She pats them on the nose, eats from their bowls alongside them, piles on top when we all curl up on the sofa. And both old boys are tolerating puppy antics well, now that there is only Sweet Pea. Sadly for me, it turns out that she is the puppy who knows how to unplug the TV and the lights every ten minutes.

J adopted Sweet Pea after an unfortunate experience with Boomer, a rescue dog from New York City. Billed as a Rottie mix, Boomer has sweeter, rounder features than Toby and long, long legs good for jumping and running like a greyhound. His temperament reminds me of Toby as a young dog, all high anxiety, high energy and passion. He is a wonderful dog underneath the anxiety. He does not appear to have the history of abuse that Toby had, but is desperate for attention. He is so anxious that he has chewed the end of his tail raw, with the effect that he sometimes sprays wide washes of blood wherever he goes. His rescuers claim that he is a year old, but he still has the same puppy energy as Xena, a year-old German Shepherd girl we used to know in Brooklyn. Xena’s parents faithfully brought her for an hour’s hard run in the park morning and another hour at night, sometimes with a shorter outing mid-day. That was what it took to keep Miss Xena’s energy levels down to a level consistent with being a house dog, and it is far beyond what Boomer gets in a shelter that is required to walk all dogs on leashes.

Because I love Toby and because Boomer reminds me so much of Toby, I thought we might try him here. He would have to be confined in the back yard, but maybe if he could run down puppy energy, he might get along with the big dogs. If he couldn’t get along with the big dogs, he would have to go back. I love my dogs, and their safety and happiness comes first.

Somewhat to my surprise, it went reasonably well at first. Boomer was more manageable that I remember Toby being; he doesn’t have Toby’s muscle. And someone has taught him a little bit about how to be on leash and some house manners. He needs more training, but he shows promise. He did chase Sweet Pea mercilessly, but did not attack her. Sweet Pea took off screaming, displaying a touch of sister Daisy’s gift for the dramatic. But when Boomer backed off, she came back for more. Max, as usual, gave the new kid a lecture. Max is very verbal.

The anxiety was tough to manage. Boomer needed to run, but he refused to chase toys. He needed to calm down, but refused to be alone. In four hours, we managed only a couple of quiet minutes. And I did take the precaution of taking down the new white nubby silk curtains to protect them from the spray of blood. Everything else in the house is either puppy-proof or aged upholstery or ugly wallpaper soon to be replaced.

The big surprise was that Toby liked Boomer. Toby only rarely romps with other dogs. Chasing and wrestling are not his thing, but with Boomer he had fun. And Boomer seemed to recognize that Toby was top dog around here, a position that Toby has ably defended even against the evil Buppy of yore. Boomer even tolerated Toby putting paws on his shoulders and back, demonstrating Toby’s dominance. Still, I took the precaution of having Boomer in a harness and on leash in the house.

Long ago, I promised Toby that we would never again live through the Buppy days, when I used to come home from work to find new gashes in Toby’s skin. Those were the days when a Buppy tooth punctured Toby’s salivary gland, causing a huge saliva balloon to form under his chin. The vet drained it and bandaged Toby’s head and neck tightly…Franken-puppy. Those were the days of the three-inch gash across Toby’s head; today you can still see the scar.

When I turned to unload the dishwasher, it started. I don’t know who started it or why. The kitchen was suddenly full of whirling, snarling black and tan dogflesh and teeth. I know better than to get into the middle of a dogfight, so all I did was scream and grab for leash. It was over in seconds. I separated the dogs and assessed damage.

There was a lot of blood, but most of it was from the tail spray of the last four hours. Both dogs appeared unhurt, but I had a small tear in my left forearm. I ran it under cold water, somewhat surprised that it really didn’t hurt, then washed a generous squirt of Betadine over it and bandaged it. Now what to do?

Boomer went back to the shelter. He is a lovely dog underneath that anxiety, and the shelter is only making the anxiety worse. He might, with training, fit into our family and become a good companion to Toby and to Max. Or he might keep fighting Toby. I promised Toby he would not have to go through the Buppy experience again, and I will keep my promise.

And I went to the emergency room. You will recall that among the things I fear most in the world, doctors rank in the first three, but a dog bite is nothing to mess around with. They asked who bit me, and I really don’t know. I hate even to report that it was a Rottie mix who did it; these dogs have such bad reputations and in these two cases, undeserved. The tear in my skin had neatly lifted off the top layer, showing the subcutaneous fat and not engaging nerves, which accounted—along with initial shock—for why it didn’t hurt. The memory of that view of subcutaneous fat may turn out to be a powerful weight loss motivator, and this on my forearm, not one of my pudgier limbs. The docs numbed up my arm, washed out the wound and elected not to stitch it up. I go back Wednesday for a re-look. They also insisted on washing down the blood spray (that tail!) on my coat that made me look like a fugitive from a chain-saw-massacre movie.

And then I came home to Toby and to Max. After the requisite verbal harangue, Max allowed that it was all okay with him. Toby was so calm that it made me wonder if I had done the right thing taking Boomer back to the shelter. I had dinner and a glass of wine and fell asleep on the sofa curled up with Toby (Sweet Pea on top!) before Prairie Home Companion was over.

This morning, the truth. Toby huddled close, needing and demanding comfort. Stroke his head, rub his belly, croon softly, “That’s my baaaaby dog.” If I stop stroking to turn a page in my book, the paws come down on my arm, insistent. Yes. Taking Boomer back was necessary. It might have been okay eventually, but it might not. And it might have taken a lot out of Toby and of me before we knew for sure whether it would be okay. I promised Toby that he has priority for my love. I will keep that promise.

As much as we might like to think we have enough love to take care of everyone, it’s not true. Feeling kindly toward everyone, that we can do. But the important kind of love—the active pledge to do everything in my power to make your life happy—that we earthly creatures must each reserve for only a few. If we make those bonds strong enough, we create a unit that can spread more love in the world. Our little family would like to take care of Boomer, but first we have to steward the psychic and physical resources that make it possible for us to live and love in this world. I like to think that God’s love has no such constraint, that it is a love that is as devoted as Toby’s for me and a pledge as inviolate as mine for Toby, but big enough to take in all the world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

No puppies

No puppies underfoot.
No puppies bothering the big dogs.
No puppies unplugging the television and the lights.
No puppies in the dishwasher.
No puppies.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Sure enough

And just as it happens every week, Monday followed Sunday, and everything got better.

Monday, January 10, 2005


They say—that all-knowing they who explain everything to us—that Sunday evening blues are a carryover from school days. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly the case that anything I leave unresolved on Friday has the potential to pop unbidden into my dreams early Monday morning. Very, very early Monday morning.

And so it was that at three o’clock this morning, I was sitting cross-legged in bed, surrounded by my twelve dogs (the puppies are really, really supposed to go away on Wednesday) and working. In the bad old days working on Wall Street, insomnia was a frequent visitor, and I have been fortunate not to see it or any of its stress-driven symptoms as often since moving to Vermont. The lesson I learned in the bad old days is that I can’t fight it. Insomnia always wins. I might just as well get up, do some work, and lay to rest the underlying anxieties.

People are always telling me that I need to be different from…how I am. That I shouldn’t worry. I shouldn’t take things so much to heart. I shouldn’t allow work to intrude on my weekend. And I have listened to a lot of good advice and changed my behavior, really quite dramatically.

I took the radical step of packing all my stuff into a truck, leaving New York City and moving to Vermont. I scaled down what I spend financially, and I continue to simplify my life. Perhaps most important, I am conscious every day of good stewardship of my physical and emotional strength. I can’t do everything. I can only do a few selected things well, and it is important that I pick the right ones.

If not exactly simpler, work here is undeniably more contained than on Wall Street. I work in a one-and-a-half person office, with oversight of a board of directors. I am fortunate that I work with people who are talented, capable and emotionally in charge of their own lives. I speak my mind. While my directness occasionally ruffles feathers, I believe that my colleagues and my friends expect not only fairness but compassion and even generosity from me. And there is none of that bottling-up-tension stuff, or not much. The skills that I learned in business school and on Wall Street—not to mention in therapy—have helped me operate in this new world with both kindness and effectiveness, and that is a source of great personal satisfaction.

At the same time, since I believe in the work that I do (economic development), and I get excited about it, I feel obligated to take it seriously. At first, it was hard to learn to leave it all at work on Friday evening. It had been years since the concept of a weekend had meaning! In the worst of the bad old days, we would work twelve to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, week after week, for months at a time. Let me stress, this is not healthy.

People who buy into that grim schedule become less effective per hour than those who work more rational hours, but the total work accomplished probably is greater…and that’s why employers don’t change the game. People who buy into that grim schedule compromise personal relationships and ultimately physical health. I know. And I’m not going there again.

But I can only shut off my brain for a limited period. By the end of the day Sunday, certainly by Monday morning, I need to be back at it, sorting through the legal implications of one situation, planning for the next board meeting, making notes to remember to call this person or that one. At any given time, there may be no project that has the live-or-die critical status that it would now require to get my full weekend attention…but there are always several that need to be tweaked to stay in forward motion. And that can’t always wait for me to arrive at the office for a new work week. To the degree that anxiety intrudes into my now treasured weekends, or even further into my sleep, I know the issues can’t wait. If I’m awake at three in the morning…we have to call that anxiety. Is it bad anxiety, or is it the kind that gets us to write the term paper the night before? Who knows?

The counterbalancing gift: that by the end of the day on Monday it all looks better. Anxieties recede in the wake of plans made and set in motion. The “to do” list looks almost doable again. Hot new projects no longer frighten me, they get my juices flowing. Free-floating fears crawl back under the bed. And so I say…Thank God It’s Monday.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Blogtrail buddies

Over at ever so humble Anne of leaves this gift along the blogtrail…

In my effort to be different today as i follow my current blogtrail, i'm taking something from the last blog visited and dropping it at the next. For you i leave:

You have so much to look forward to this year.

This year, you will laugh and love and look great.

You will dust off old dreams and see they still shine - or dream new dreams
that light up your life.

You will find a way to turn off your stress switch and experience a new kind
of happiness - one that sustains you.

The deep peace you have been wishing for can be yours.

You will struggle less and smile more.

You will feel as special as you have always been.

Good things lie ahead.

Wish for them and watch them unfold.

A good year is your destiny. Enjoy!

Better than a horoscope, a good wish for all of us. God bless us every one.

Sociology and High Tech…with Puppies

Ethnic stereotypes are the work of a moment in the mind. Dare I confess that I like shorthair puppies better than fluffy puppies? Surely it is a quirk, a coincidence that the fluffy puppies are the outgoing ones, the extroverts, the in-your-face love-me boys and girls. The short hair ones are self-possessed, calm, lovers of delights most sensual and daily, like curling in front of the fire or sitting in my lap.

It is a fluffy puppy (Baby Blue) that is now chewing on my wireless network card. It is a fluffy puppy (Jack) who is always first in line for puppy treats, and it is a fluffy puppy (Piggie) who is cutest, biggest, and most responsive to his name. When I open the dishwasher, it is Piggie in the dishwasher. It is a fluffy puppy (Snowflake) taking the lead in a four-way tug-of-war with washcloth as object of desire. It is a fluffy puppy (Daisy) who claims to love me better than she loves any other creature on earth. Little does Daisy know, eight-week-old soul that she is, that eleven-year-old Toby has the lock on that distinction. Ah! If I ever find a man who loves me as much as Toby does, I will have either a stalker or a love I hardly dare imagine.

This morning I called my ISP to troubleshoot my internet connection. I will spare you the details, but in the end…the puppies had unplugged my router, sending the electrons meant for my home wireless network off into the ozone. Customer service guy in Indiana just laughed.

And I laughed, too. After three weeks of battling Dell’s outsourced customer service reps in India (“Don’t tell me your name is Victor or Sean…I know it is Sohail or Rajiv…and that really doesn’t matter to me if only you could do something about my failed hard drive.”), but my tiny local ISP has outsourced the middle-of-the-night service not to India but to Indiana. And when we find the problem, it is that the puppies have unplugged the router. Hah!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Puppies at home

The puppies are almost ready to go to new homes later this week, so it didn't take much arm-twisting from bluepoppy to get me to snap a few more pix. I will sort them out later and add captions, but you can see them at

I put in a couple of pictures of the big dogs, too. From their expressions, you will be able to understand why we won't be keeping a puppy. For now, fostering is about as much as we are able to handle.

End times in the garden?

Reports from Asia of thousands on thousands of human deaths obscure the news that few animals perished. Processing all the news items slowly as I have been, I just now caught up with this bemused report from BBC News ( )
that Sri Lanka’s elephants, deer, jackals, leopards and crocodiles appear to have escaped the flood. Unobserved by technological wonders, uncommunicated by human political mechanisms, unheard by humans (except perhaps by one small girl named Tilly), the tsunami was no surprise in the animal world. No robust scientific explanation has yet been offered.

This simple observation swirling in my brain slammed into a memory rekindled by Susan Sontag’s obituary. How did I never know that Susan Sontag wrote about Heinrich von Kleist? Not widely known in American circles other than for the story line of Eric Rohmer’s film Die Marquise von O, Kleist was one of the major writers of German Romanticism, or at least so I recall from graduate studies in comparative literature decades ago. More important to me, since I take life in very tiny, Karen-centered bites, Kleist was the author of an essay highly influential in my personal set of values. I have been looking for that essay from time to time, not putting a whole lot of effort into the search, for years. Today I took a google at it, and found the full text of the essay in English translation at

To my extreme surprise, I had remembered almost all of it, practically word by word. Somehow it seemed to me that if I ever found it again, it would be a more intricately developed argument, more complex, and longer that it turns out to be. The link above will take you to an essay of under 3,000 words, but with a theme still profound to me in the integral links of apparent opposites: innocence and education, effort and grace.

"Now then, my good friend, you are in possession of all you require to understand my point. We see how, in the organic world, as reflection grows darker and weaker, grace emerges ever more radiant and supreme. – But just as two intersecting lines, converging on one side of a point, reappear on the other after their passage through infinity, and just as our image, as we approach a concave mirror, vanishes to infinity only to reappear before our very eyes, so will grace, having likewise traversed the infinite, return to us once more, and so appear most purely in that bodily form that has either no consciousness at all or an infinite one, which is to say, either in the puppet or a god."

"That means," said I, somewhat amused, "that we would have to eat of the tree of knowledge a second time to fall back into the state of innocence."

"Of course," he answered, "and that is the final chapter in the history of the world."

Many of the little vignettes that lead up to this revelation are drawn from the animal world, for example the untutored fencing bear that always defeats the most practiced and thinking human opponent. But a dancer who studies diligently can approach perfect grace, using knowledge to counteract the loss that came of knowledge. Returning to the garden through a back door.

All this is the very stuff of Romanticism with the natural world, our earthly island home, as the garden. I am no longer prepared, as once I was, to analyze or extrapolate what this means in terms of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Nor am I prepared to apply the concepts to modern human society. What I do I know is the impact that it has had on my life’s efforts to explore my world both through analytical thinking and intuition, seeking understanding and grace, with expectation and belief that the answers I find will converge at last.

Robert’s List

I am so grateful to Robert for not tagging me for this quiz that I am inspired to do it anyway.

Three names you go by:

Three screennames you have:

Three things you like about yourself:
kind heart
curly hair
pretty good brain

Three things you dislike about yourself:
short temper
ugly toes

Three parts of your heritage:
Scots Irish
New York City (was there so long it has to count)

Three things that scare you:
conservatives/liberals/people who jump to conclusions

Three of your everyday essentials:
my dogs

Three things you are wearing right now:
blue flannel pajamas with dogs on them
long purple velvet bathrobe (cheap, bought on a whim, worn to threadbare)
hot pink Timberland boots (okay, I only put them on for this question but I love them and the other one recently returned from dogland)

Three of your favorite bands/artists (at the moment):
the whole cd my brother just made me for Christmas

Three of your favorite songs at present:

Three things you want to do in the next 12 months:
lose ## pounds/increase physical stamina
install an herb garden where the aboveground pool used to be
paint my house

Three things you want in a relationship (love is a given)...I could hardly improve on Robert's list:

Three physical things about the opposite sex (or same) that appeal to you:
ability to fix things

Actually, those weren't physical, were they? Okay, try again:
fit enough
not too tall
bald, actually, is very good

Three things you just can't do:
hook up my VCR
tolerate threats to those I love

Three of your favorite hobbies:
home improvement
walking and looking
cooking, especially from my own garden

Three things you want to do really badly right now:
fix my daily workout routine
redesign my blog
scrub my house from top to bottom (all that puppy poop, you know)

Three careers you're considering:
writing/teaching/public speaking
public administration…within limits
financial advisory

Three places you want to go on vacation:
back to Paris
road trip! (always a favorite)

Three things you want to do before you die:
write something really, really good
find a loving and secure community
maybe get my knees fixed (see fear of doctors, love of walking above)

Three *cough* people who have to take this quiz now or…I guess this would have to be optional since I opted in….but…

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Catching Up and Clearing Out

Last year in my new house I sent cards to everyone I know; this year not, with the unforeseen pleasure that I was able to spend New Year’s morning responding to the cards and gifts that had come to me. What a most remarkable group of friends I have! Some messages have gone by modern e-mail, others by good old snail mail, all with my most fervent thanks for friendship and good wishes for happiness in the coming year. Particularly the old fashioned hand written cards and the small tokens still left to dispatch left me in a haze of nostalgia and good will. I think this New Year’s Day card writing practice could make a good tradition.

The weather has been gray and uncompromising all day, but sun is breaking through. It’s only 3:30, so I think I will attempt a walk before this first day of 2005 sinks back into winter gloom and darkness. Carpe diem, y’all.

More tsunami

I like David Brooks op-ed piece in the NY Times today. I think he has it exactly right, that we make up all these stories about the "last days" or about our better natures or about political implications to obscure the fact that nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable and ultimately fatal.