Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Making hay while the sun shines

The wettest May since eighteen-ninety-something relented with the gift of a sunny weekend, so we all headed out to cut the knee high grass. Hard work! Doubly hard on a holiday weekend, when we all feel we ought to be remembering or barbecuing or both.

When the grass is this tall and lush, it is slow going—take two steps and back up, stop and let the blades clear. Do a chunk and take a break. Normally it takes me three sessions to cut my lawn, trisected into manageable parcels. This time I did the toughest parts first—six hours so far—and I am about two thirds done. Maybe this afternoon...if the sun is still shining...I will finish the remaining hard patch in the back and the easy one in the front. Then I can plan to do everything over again this weekend and be back to summer norms.

I am toying with dramatically decreasing the size of my garden this year, probably just putting half or more of it into green manure. With the aid of the grass, the garden keeps me tied to home all summer long. I’m thinking I may get out more this summer. See a little more of beautiful Vermont.

Besides, the mice ate big holes in my hammock.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


When I started picking a color for the upstairs bedrooms, I let myself in for gentle joshing at the paint store as I came back again and again for more of those little sample jars. I am the target market for that product. At four bucks a pop, I can afford to try colors over and over again, until I get exactly the right one. Upstairs, I went through seven samples before picking Coastal Fog—the first color I started with, but I don’t care because now I am confident that it is perfect. Now, I am attempting to pick exterior colors. Oh, my.

I live in a classic Vermont farmhouse, which is to say it is a Greek Revival clapboard covered house with a corrugated metal roof. It is currently painted white, and until I ripped them off in a fit of good taste, it had black plastic shutters. I can’t afford to be a preservation perfectionist, but I do draw the line at plastic, non-functional shutters.

I started with the view that it would be nice to have some contrast in the paint scheme to accent the architectural details which now disappear in a blur of white. Historical research is not particularly helpful, since it reveals the following contradictory stances:
1. All Greek Revival houses were always painted white, which was meant to represent pure cut white marble.

2. It is a myth that all Greek Revival houses were painted white—other appropriate colors are light yellow, tan, or gray.

3. Domestic buildings of the period were not generally painted, or if they were, they were painted red or ochre because those paints were the least expensive. Only very wealthy people could afford white paint.

4. Buildings that were heavily used and esteemed (churches and meeting houses) were usually painted in polychrome schemes that we would now find excessively bright.

Well, huh. I took a side trip into investigating deeper colors—maybe a nice charcoal gray—then decided that I don’t want to emphasize all the architectural elements of my house. I particularly don’t want to emphasize the slight bow in the roofline, with corresponding swag in the back wall, which I fear a stark contrasting paint scheme might betray. It was nice to think that a darker color might deter my ongoing infestation of ladybugs, which are said to prefer light colored houses.

I have some other constraints—the rather bright green roof and the white replacement windows don’t fit with every color combination, but I won’t bore you with the details of how I have gotten to one possible conclusion: Clarksville Gray with Lancaster White trim. New London Burgundy doors. I wanted a nice grassy green for the doors, but that green roof...no. I will have the pale blue porch ceiling of my dreams.

I accept the rightness of obsession with colors. These choices stay with us for a long time and have such an impact on how we experience surroundings.

Being boring

Shy people have skills, just not the skills of the extroverted. For example, we know how to fade into the background. We can do it at will.

I remember using this technique on several boyfriends or would-be boyfriends. If they ceased to amuse, I did not need to resort to confrontation or heavy discussion. I just became dull to them, emphasizing the parts of myself that they were unlikely to care for—braininess, attention to detail, rule-following, or a tendency to disappear into books for days at a time. Boring! And soon they would be gone, leaving me to sigh in relief.

Let me emphasize this is not a strategy for long-term friendships which deserve more openness and honesty. When a friendship deserves saving, it is worth risking by exploring what has gone wrong. No, this is a strategy for the short term acquaintance who has turned out to be not quite as interesting as on first encounter.

So I have been boring lately, not so much as a strategy as because I have been busy with house painting estimates and garden planning (is it possible I might take a year off?) and a couple of major projects at work and dog obedience classes (which as everyone knows are really about training the human in the partnership). But partly I have been boring because I was writing for two blogs, Vermont Diary and a group effort that increasingly weighed me down. I felt obligated to write for both, so ended up writing for neither. There is no reason to go into detail as to why I did not enjoy the group blog, but I didn’t. And now that I have been adequately boring, the group blog has thrown me out. All I can say from my cozy briarpatch is “Woo Hoo! Let’s hear it for being boring!”

This experience has reminded me of that old chestnut, “Not to decide is to decide.” And thinking of all those old boyfriends has reminded me that not to play along can indeed be a strategy. Maybe I’m not as socially unskilled as I tend to think. Hmmm.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Close your eyes and jump

I’m getting stressed about a major event next week, no make that this week. (Feel the stress increase with that tiny realization.)

Still, I have always been good in crises, whether they arise unexpectedly or are planned. It’s probably something about how I process adrenaline, although there are other aspects of life where that physical function does not serve my best interests. It is certainly something about how I plan. In detail. Obsessively.

After all the plans are laid out, there is—time permitting—a period of secondguessing, re-thinking, burrowing down into even more detail. This is the period when I wake up in the middle of the night with visions of disaster. (How will we hang the banner? Will all the participants show up? Will we all behave ourselves?)

There are so many ways we small humans struggle against physical limits of time and space. But here’s one for what I am grateful, that time marches forward to a tipping point, the blessed moment when all the planning has to be declared finished because it is time to perform. There are still problems to be solved, dance steps to re-choreograph on the fly, but the time for anxious re-thinking is past.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Who’s training who?

We have been doing our homework for dog obedience class, including exercises on attention, walking on a long line (well, maybe we will do this one when the deluge abates), and sit and stay. With roast beef rewards, my two dogs both want to participate.

Cassie is a little shy today, so she retreats to the dining room, and I work with Toby on “stay.” I have him sit, then I put a palm toward his forward and say “Stay!” To my amusement, he slides down into a prone position and executes a perfect stay.

I try it again: sit and “Stay!” Same result. Almost furtively, he slides down. He looks at me apologetically, and he stays. Perfect.

Again and again, the same result. The stay is flawless, but he will not stay in a sitting position, only prone.

Ha! Now I have it.

This is how he was taught to stay when he went to obedience class with my mother in….are you ready?.....in 1998. Eight years ago. A command never practiced, but Toby remembers. He knows “Stay” follows “Down.” And he is mildly embarrassed that I do not know something so simple.

Who’s training who?

First day of school

If you apply the traditional multiple of seven, nine-month-old Cassie is now ready for kindergarten, so we went. There were ten or eleven other dogs in class, along with their humans. Big ones, little ones, pushy ones, shy ones. About half were puppies around Cassie’s age.

After the rains we have had, we were fortunate to have a relatively deluge-free evening. We doused ourselves with the insect repellent thoughtfully provided by the instructor and scoped out a portion of the ball field that was almost free of puddles.

We hung out between Odie, a black-tipped German Shepherd who at six months is bigger and heavier than Cassie, and Tad, a six-month old field Golden Retriever.

Oh, my! That Cassie is so smart! She excelled on looking at me when I call her name, and because she was clearly so good at “sit,” she was selected to demonstrate the first steps of learning “stay.” (The dachshund demonstrated "sit," not too effective as a demonstration given short legs and long grass.)

She is, however, willful, and we amused our classmates with the exercise of walking (dog on a long line) randomly in different directions. This is supposed to teach the dog to pay attention to where the human is going. We don’t have this down at all, not at all. But it was amusing for others to see what happened when I repeatedly went the opposite direction from a seventy-pound German Shepherd girl.

I thought I lavished attention on my dog, but ninety minutes of undivided attention had her enthralled. Did I really need to be reminded how much German Shepherds love to work? How much they crave a job to do? Apparently I did.

Cassie loved school. Younger puppies Tad and Odie collapsed for naps when they got home, but Cassie was calm and relaxed, then ready to try again the following day.

I’m trying to teach her the word “school,” as well as a word my old dogs understand and appreciate: “tomorrow.” In our little language, “tomorrow” means “tomorrow we will do something fun, okay?” It’s one of those words I taught my dogs by accident, kind of like “Max-don’t-lick-that-baby!” You wouldn’t think dogs would be able to anticipate pleasure “tomorrow,” but it seems to work for us.

Why are you here?

I’ve been going through a flurry of routine medical checkups—physical, mammogram, and pap test—and I find that I am not equipped to deal with the medical establishment. I don’t understand their rules. I don’t understand their approach—in fact I am offended when the first question is “Why are you here?”

“I’m here for a physical,” I replied.

“No, you’re not,” countered the nurse. “You only have a fifteen minute appointment.”

Not even testy yet, I said I was quite certain that I had scheduled a physical, and eventually—after reading me far too much of another Karen’s chart—the nurse realized that not only was I there for the wrong reason, but I was the wrong person altogether. I was directed to go back out to the waiting room and fix that.


After I was called back for a second look on the mammogram, another nurse greeted me—without actually looking at me—with “Why are you here?”

“Because you called me back. Surely that is in your records.” By now I was getting testy.

Yesterday the routine pap test. “Why are you here? Did you want a pap test or a full physical?”

“Well, your office called me to say it was time for a routine pap test, and that’s what we scheduled, so I guess that’s why I am here.”

Since when do physicians attempt to up-sell? And if you’re going to pursue that revenue enhancement strategy, you might want to do it on the phone at appointment time, not when I have blocked time for a simple pap test. Not that I wanted a physical.

“Have you ever had a negative pap test? Are you still having periods?”

“Gosh, I think that information must be in my file, since I have been coming here for four years.”

This is the second time I have had this experience with the same nurse. I would change doctors, but it appears that it is standard practice in my town to greet a patient not with “Good afternoon, Karen. I see you are here for your test. I’ve taken a look at your file and this seems to be routine. Do you have any questions?” but with an abrupt and disorganized “Why are you here?”

Speaking as only one patient who—thank heaven!—does not see a lot of the medical community, I find this greeting disrespectful.

Perhaps there is something about the medical community that I do not understand. Perhaps I am oversensitive—well, actually, I am. Perhaps it is that I spend a lot of time trying to create an environment of acceptance for the clients who walk into my office for business advice. I just know I would never use such a blunt greeting. People looking for help with their businesses are a little vulnerable, and they need to be encouraged that it is okay to ask for help and that help will be forthcoming. Are patients that different?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


As a hobby, it has a revolutionary ring.

“What are your hobbies?”

“I’m really into demolition.”

As stress reliever, there are few better ways to refocus the mind from grant-writing and job descriptions, budgets and the details of annual gatherings.

As instrument of history, the crowbar is a surgical tool, prying away layers of cheap building materials, dirt and accumulated crud to reveal the beautiful bones of old houses—instant gratification in which we indulge at our peril. Some of that admittedly substandard material provides insulation—important not to remove more on a sunny summer day than can be replaced by the time the snow flies.

Sometimes the payoff is a startling discovery. When I ripped up carpet from my living room, I found fourteen-inch maple boards. Not exactly pristine condition, but I far prefer their scarred and pitted warmth to cheap carpet and accumulated dog hair. This weekend, the carpet in one upstairs bedroom came up. While not as dramatic, the payoff was still sweet: a painted floor in reasonably good condition. A new coat of paint, and it will be much easier to sweep away the piles of ladybugs. (Can you have too many ladybugs? Oh, yes.)

One more bedroom and a hallway to go. It is such a pleasure to watch the house become mine, project by project. Every owner of an old house dreams, I suppose, of having the money to do it all at once, but I’m not sure we would make wise decisions if we had all that money to spend in a single swoop. And we wouldn’t have any demolition projects left to brighten rainy weekends.

The outright destructive steps—swinging hammer or crowbar—are relatively short, satisfying as they are. Demolition is a process of removing material layer by layer. It requires a fine touch, attention to detail, and always more hauling of debris than you imagined possible. It takes patience. It takes an eye to see where to stop. It takes listening for the house to tell you when you have peeled back to its essentials.

Demolition is more than a hobby, more than raw escape. Demolition is a metaphor.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Love suddenly

Bang bang bang bang bang!

In rural Vermont, it is a shock to hear someone banging on the door at 8:30 in the evening.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said the nice man in the baseball cap. “There is this big black dog in the middle of the road, looking like a deer in the headlights.”

Oh. I see her, and I let out the universal puppy call. “Puppy, puppy, puppy, puppy-eeeee”

And the dog head back down the side road along my property.

“Ah, uh, okay,” says the nice man, who then leaves me to watch for the dog.

Sure enough, I get into the car and head down the side road. There’s the dog, but when I stop, it moves on. I toss my cookies in the dog’s directions—the dog biscuits in my sweater pocket—but no joy. The dog is having none of this. I give up, and turn my car back toward home when the owner meets me on the way.
“Her name is Love,” he says, “I guess she must have followed my truck.”

They say that great new jobs and wonderful love does not come to find you in the confines of your home. Today I wonder.