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 http://www.belly-timber.com/mt/archives/2005/10/curry_paste_for.html 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.