Thursday, December 27, 2007

National Day of Whining

The day after Christmas in England is Boxing Day, likewise in Canada. I have heard lots of explanations of the name, ranging from the traditional day the poorboxes are opened to the poor to the day that Canadians like to shop in box stores (really!).

I am proposing that in the US we should proclaim December 26 to be the National Day of Whining About Our Families--NaDaWhAF for short. Here are some real life examples I heard this Nadwhaf:

My Mom only gave my kids one gift each.
My family didn’t get my packages in the mail—I wonder if she is shopping at the after-Christmas sales.
It was the first day since my Dad died—my brother came late and left early.
My Mom only gave me $12 in scratch-off tickets as my gift.
I never get thank-you notes—I wonder if I should just strike them off the list.
My kids bickered all day.
My teenagers seem to view Christmas as a shake-down opportunity. Only one item on their list was under $200.
My daughter sent me a certified letter for Christmas, but I don’t know what it says because the post office is closed on Christmas Eve.
Everyone in my family was sick.

The great thing about Nadwhaf: It seems to last only a day, at least for most of us. By December 27, we no longer pine for Santa Claus and we have adult expectations of other adults in our lives. Mostly.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas came early this year

Don’t get me wrong, I love the hustle-bustle, the parties and the presents, all the sparkle and warmth of this season. I enjoy picking out just the right present for friends and family, then wrapping them while I imagine the unwrapping. This year, even the baking turned out just right as my cookie exchange was perfectly timed to supply the office Christmas party, and the stollen was ready just before I needed an extra thank-you for my plow guy. All of it is fun, and I wouldn’t miss it.

Still, there comes a time each year when the commotion steps back and silence takes center stage. That’s when Christmas comes. You feel it right down into your bones. Certainly, there have been years when Christmas seemed very far away from whatever woes I was experiencing, but I have been blessed to have a lotta lotta Christmas in my life. And I have learned that while you cannot wrestle Christmas into your life, you certainly can invite its peace and calm.

I’ve never been much for Christmas lights, and this year I have even foregone a lighted tree since we are dog-sitting. So last night I was sitting in my living room with a dozen small candles in the window…and there it was. Suddenly these tiny lights seemed incredibly bright, illuminating the darkness. Just astonishingly bright, and quieter than a (temporarily) three-dog house could be imagined to be. Christmas.

All best wishes for you—that you may know the peace and joy of Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Officially winter

This is a day for great celebration, the shortest day of the year, which blessedly is followed by longer and longer days. Every little lumen is a gift to those of us who crave light. I must have been a plant in another life, or maybe I am one now.

It’s a short day at the office. Most working people have picked their heads up and shifted eyes from computer screens to gaze into the distance and wonder that the holiday season is really upon us. Do we have enough food in the house, enough wine? Heavens, yes. Are our gifts purchased and wrapped? Pretty much, yes. The baking is all done, the wrapping paper is packed away. We are ready to kick back for a few days. As we anticipate the pleasure of our loved ones, we know that the office will wait.

Here in Vermont, it is looking very Christmas-y. Snow came early this year, and in quantity. There’s a good two feet of snow on the ground at my house. The dogs love it, but they look more like porpoises than dogs as they attempt to bound through deep and drifted snow.

Forecasters opine that it is pretty certain that we will have a white Christmas, even though it may rain this weekend. More than one Vermonter has been heard to wish they were staying home this year—the skiing is reported to be excellent—especially if they are heading out west where there has been little snow so far.

Snow! It’s amazing stuff. It’s still a novelty to me, but I don’t revel in it the way Vermonters do. One friend reminisced about building forts and tunnels—she and her small buddies dreamed of creating a network of tunnels connecting all the houses in their neighborhood. And if you go to an outdoor party in the winter here, all the adults fling themselves into sledding, sliding and general mayhem along with the kids. (For a description of a Vermont sliding party see

Vermonters don’t have all the different words for snow that Eskimos do, but they do talk about different kinds of snow. This unusual early December snow is declared to be “greasy.” It is hard to plow, easy to turn to ice under tires.

Perhaps that is why I just got stuck in my driveway last night. I took a run at the garage, but wasn’t going fast enough. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back without running the risk of skidding into a snowbank. Tried to angle left….bigger skid….angle right…smack into the snowbank. This in a driveway no more than fifty feet long, but with a wicked slope.

I called my plow guy, and this morning he came over and pulled me out. I am so grateful that he helps me out of these all too frequent situations, and I told him so, handing over a loaf of Christmas stollen as well. Now that I have gotten stuck—right in my own driveway like the gosh-darned flatlander that I am—it must really be winter.

Long time Vermonters tolerate us newer Vermonters remarkably well. I started the morning with Willem Lange’s story of Favor Johnson on NPR--the story of a hound names Hercules, a flatlander doctor, homemade fruitcake and the real spirit of Christmas. Honestly, they shouldn’t play these stories on the radio! I could barely steer through tears. It’s a good story and you can hear it here

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Thank goodness for Christmas letters

Adapted from a response to my friend Tykie's Christmas letter

I was so pleased to receive your Christmas letter and hear all your good news. Getting married! I wish you the very best.

Even better is the overall tone of your letter. You just seem happy. And I couldn’t be more delighted.

I’m doing well…though not as well as you! I’m sitting in my Vermont farmhouse looking out at snow covered fields. We had an early snowfall, which has left us with about a foot and a half of really nice snow on the ground. This doesn’t usually happen until January, but it is a boon to the ski industry and awfully Christmas-y. I’m not sure when I last communicated with you, but if you want to track my acclimatization to Vermont, take a look at my blog... Some of it is pretty good (if I do say so myself), some is just dull, but I have had a good time with it. There are pictures, too.

I spent four years doing economic development work for one of the counties here, which was in many ways very satisfying—-helped me get integrated in the community--but not particularly well paid. Finally last January, I decided that I really needed to prop up the retirement funds a bit before I needed them, so I am now working for a very small wealth management firm...I will hear no whining about commuting—-I have an hour drive each way in the summer. How long it takes in the winter is still an open question…worst so far was two and a half hours to get in one morning. Our interstate is only two lanes in each direction, so it doesn’t take much to close it down completely!

Vermont is awash in former Morganites. Hugh Kemper is attempting to redesign the cost structure of the education system, Tom White is heading up research at Dwight Investment Management, and I see Karen Reukauf Sharf from time to time when she comes up to her Vermont house.

My household has been dog-centric since 2000. My dear old Max died in January of last year. He had been failing for some time, so I got a beautiful German Shepherd girl the November before he died. She is named Cassandra and called Cassie and is a complete delight. She listened carefully to everything that Max had to teach her and learned how we do things in this household. She allows Toby, now eleven I think, to be the number one dog, and he mostly adores her as long as she does not herd him too vigorously.

Cassandra takes her name from mythology, from the prophetess who was doomed to be always correct and never believed. When I first started working in economic development in Vermont, as I was ranting about the need for universal broadband or enhanced computer skills or something similar, someone said this to me: “You are probably right. You are almost certainly right. But in Vermont, you are Cassandra. They will never believe you.” What a perfect name for a German Shepherd! They rant and bark and try to herd everyone, but if you know them well, you know it is pretty much an act. And it helps keep me humble to be reminded that people here don’t believe things that people in other worlds take for granted.

It really is a very simple life here. Neither you nor I was ever particularly conspicuous in our consumption, but my life is pared way back. In a good way.

This morning I got up and made a fire in the furnace. I burn wood on weekends for warmth and economy. A little breakfast, then out for a snowshoe and a romp with the neighbor’s dog Acer (named for the genus of maple trees, Cassie’s best friend). A little later, a guy who once had a little crush on me will bring over lots and lots of evergreen branches, and I will make eighteen kissing balls for the Rotary Christmas silent auction. I’m not in the Rotary any more now that I drive to Burlington, but I still have good friends there and they like to rope me into projects—kissing balls in the winter, duck race in the summer. The ducks live in my garage. This afternoon, I will wash my disgusting floors (all that snow tracked in brings piles of mud), then bake cookies for the cookie swap. This evening, I will get together with friends who count on my good sense and perspective (as I do on theirs), and we will finish the evening with a trial run of Acer staying with us while his family goes away for vacation. I might do a little writing for work or for fun, will almost certainly do a little knitting. I am currently obsessed with socks. It’s a good life.

How do you Washingtonians like the tree we sent you?

Friday, November 23, 2007


I’m a glass half full kind of girl, cultivating an attitude of thankfulness all year long, each and every day. Some days this practice is harder than others, but mostly I am thankful for all the blessings of my life, including the habit of thankfulness, which keeps the edge of everyday life from cutting so sharply.

I’m thankful for my parents, who taught me to say please and thank you and yes ma’am and no sir, but thank you for thinking of me. I’m thankful for reasonably good health and for the doctors and medications that support that state of life.

And as I discussed with my mother on the phone yesterday, we are both thankful for the crowd of people who help take care of us. Carpenters and painters, snow plowmen (for me) and dock haulers (for her), grass cutters and car repairmen, their mundane contributions are deeply appreciated. Taken together, these small tasks make a great gift—our capacity to live alone, as we choose to do. Imagine, we joked, if we had to sleep with some old man just to get our chores done.

Yesterday I had dinner with part of my support system, a couple who have become dear friends, not least because my German Shepherd puppy Cassie started her life in their home. We ate turkey, one they had grown, and fussed over Cassie’s mother, her sister Nellie—same mother, same father, but a year and a half younger, and Miss Abby, the newly-self-appointed leader of the pack. My Cassie-scented sweater was thoroughly sniffed on the way in, then sniffed again when I returned home covered in the scent of German Shepherds who were not Cassie.

There were human friends, too, and the quintessential couple of Thanksgiving strangers. Last minute invitations as they were dug out of their driveway, they came into a warm and hospitable room, and chilled it. There was history, you see. Nobody elaborated on the back story, but we could not entirely overlook past bills unpaid for services rendered and past ungrateful behavior.

In my past life, I spent many hours helping the man set up his dream business. It’s okay, I was paid for my work, and even accepted that many people feel it is their right to treat public servants badly. Still it rankled when he disappeared without a word one day, neither to me nor to the small business counselor who had also spent days on his dream. He tried to explain yesterday—he was busy. One can only imagine how she justified not paying her vet bill to a room full of the veterinarian’s staff. Justified in her mind, that is, not a word was spoken.

They left early, and the room warmed up again. There were enough German Shepherds for us each to have one to mess with. We didn’t give the ungrateful pair another thought, except to be thankful that we don’t need to know them.

We all have behavior that we aren’t proud of, and in a small town people know about it. Our history is written in invisible ink on the backs of our parkas, and although people may continue to extend courtesy, warmth is another thing altogether.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why we love winter

Bright sunshine on the first snow cover. What seasonal light shifts take away, the glare of sunshine on snow gives back.

Puppies tunneling their noses through the snow. We forgot how much fun it could be to run puppy chins along the ground, or to roll gloriously in new snow. We forgot that puppies love to eat snow, to crunch ice. There’s a rush of puppy energy, even for the old dogs. They really love the snow, and watching them, so do we.

Monochrome. Funny, but after the riotous color of autumn foliage, gray and white soothe the senses.

Crunch and crash. The leave are gone, with their ability to deaden sound. Instead we have unaccustomed echoes, magnifying the crunch of sleet underfoot.

Surprise. Each winter has its own new topic: the door that freezes shut for the first time, the frisson of what if might be like to be trapped in the car for and-I-quote-several-hours. What supplies should be on hand for such an eventuality?

And finally, surprise of surprise, how agriculture clings well into winter. The fields across from my house are paisley’d brown as manure is spread across the season’s first snowfall. If you don’t think about what it is, or maybe only if you do, it is really quite beautiful.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


To Google oneself is an interesting exercise. I have discovered that I have a broader and longer digital footprint than I expected, partly due to working for a few years in a sort of public job in a state that takes open meetings seriously. As a result of that experience, my name is frequently listed as “in attendance,” and sometimes my comments are quoted.

There are as yet only a few brief traces of my newest venture, and that probably won’t change. I live again in the world of private business, after all, so beyond the bio on my employer’s websites, there isn’t much exposure to the digital world.

What really surprised me is that work I did, almost off the cuff, in my early twenties had staying power. It was just a little paper, based on one of those Wait-just-a-cotton-pickin’-minute moments that come to all of us from time to time. A brief observation dating back to the time in my life when SAA meant Society of American Archivists instead of Stowe Area Association. A simple thought backed up by analysis of grant proposals, propped up by statistical support from my former husband.

The simple thought was this: If we really don’t know how long it takes us to organize collections of personal papers, how can we write grants that say we will finish this number of collections of this size? At some level, deeply and collectively, we must have some notion of how long it will take.

Further, in a world of limited resources, we are always making tradeoffs. Perhaps it would be better if we assessed those tradeoffs up front, rather than bending in the breeze of opinion.

It’s nice to look back and realize that the work we did in the MIT Archives in the late seventies and early eighties was creative work. Maybe even groundbreaking in its small way. Younger, more energetic archivists have moved the bar forward since that time, but I find it touching that they would have quoted me, that they have built a theory of archival processing if only in part on our work from that time.

A gift from the internet twenty—almost thirty—years after the fact. A flashback to work in an earlier time. A reminder that our creative brains work in pretty much the same way at twenty and at fifty. Thank you, Google.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Living in your head

A long time ago now, I used to be married to a mathematician. In many ways, it was not an easy life, although it got easier when I came to understand that I was responsible for all things mundane, from electric bills to finding dinner. The man lived almost entirely in his head, except when he blew off steam by hiking or biking, as if the explosion of all muscular synapses would be the only thing that could counteract his habitual over-concentration in the brain.

To an extent, I also live in my head. I can see that many people don’t relate to my craving for things intellectual. But there are degrees of everything, and most of us are very, very different from mathematicians. Or physicists. Anyone who spends a lot of time in a world that is pure abstraction. Don’t feel sorry for them; their lives have a purity and clarity than many of us miss. And if they miss human connection, it is for the most part something they don’t know to miss, just as most of us don’t miss the joys of their lives.

This morning I saw the movie version of David Auburn’s Proof. Very nice. The guy gets mathematicians. The scruffiness, the obliviousness to anything other than mathematics, the fear of being past their prime before they are out of their twenties. The idea that work trumps all other demands. And whoever did wardrobe for the movie was a genius.

Catherine wore a variety of interesting and intricate knits, particularly when she was most herself. Cables and patterns in muted colors. When she feared she was crazy like her father, she tossed off her sweater, as he had shed his winter coat in the snow. When she was furthest from accepting herself, she wore denim. Knits are the perfect metaphor for the mathematical mind, turning linear thread into flat surface.

When I knit, I can get into a zone that is, at least in my imagination, something like a mathematician’s creative ecstasy. I’ll never know that particular passion, but I like to think I can discern its shape. And knitting or writing or painting the house, I do experience the joy of living in my head, a joy that is not available to everyone.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


It’s been two full painting seasons, but I think it is time to declare victory and move on. There is still one door to be painted black, and there is the porch floor and steps, and already some spots need to be touched up, filled in, and otherwise redone. Still, now when I drive up the hill, I see a house that looks pretty darn good. If I do say so myself, as I shouldn’t, as they say where I come from.

Lots of help was provided on the upper peaks, as I decided that not only was I afraid of being on a ladder that high, I was right to be afraid. And I was determined not to drift into a third year with my house in multiple colors, dressed as the Vermont equivalent of white trash.

The patches of red and gold on the trees—I can’t take credit for that painting job, nor for the dusting of white that speckled my deep green roof this morning. It’s winter now, and time to rejoice that my house is painted. I need not paint another drop until spring.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Once again, a new life

No major changes on the horizon, not yet. Rather, I am just now feeling settled with the new job I started in April. Six months, that’s about typical.

Like most humans, I struggle with change, but maybe less than most. I love the excitement of newness, and I crave intellectual stimulation. I’m a person who lives mostly in my head. But the right dose of routine is a comfort, and routine only becomes routine with time.

I’ve adjusted to new colleagues, or they to me, probably a little of both. I’ve adjusted to driving an hour to work and an hour home, which has required a new commitment to staying on schedule to conserve my energy through the week. The dogs have adapted, too.

People ask me if I will move closer to work. Certainly it is too soon to make that decision. You don’t really know if a job is working out for at least a year, sometimes two. Optimistic creature that I am, I can convince myself that things are going fine, then be flattened by other people’s foolishness. I’m thinking of one past boss who ran away to South America, leaving his family in tatters and disrupting the office, too. This kind of thing can happen anytime, of course, not just in the first year of a new job.

I’m not sure I would move anyway. This will startle people who know me, because when it comes to living situations, I am a change junkie. I love to move. There is something wonderful about coming into a new space. I love to roll out my carpets and arrange my furniture, pick colors and find the best spots to sit for morning coffee or plant the herb garden.

But here, thanks to my last job, I have gotten to know people. I can catch up on small town gossip and actually know some of the topics. I can sit in the same spot each year at town meeting and chat with the people next to me, the same ones from last year. And there are people who take care of me: the guys who fixes my car and cuts my grass, my painter/carpenter who is married to Cassie’s breeder, my knitting teacher who is also my dental hygienist, my plow guy who is also the one I call on the rare occasions I need something dug up. At work in the “Big City,” they laugh at this, but here at home, I feel well supported.

At the end of the day, after that long drive, I feel I am somewhere. The herb garden is well established. Here is the view from the porch where I sit with morning coffee when the weather is fine. I still have interior walls to paint, enough to keep me entertained. And we know seven different places we can go for off-leash dog walks or play dates.

In this moment poised on the front edge of winter, it’s home.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Young love

Cassie has a crush. She has always liked television, preferring animal shows, particularly shows about dogs. One recent evening, I was concentrating on my knitting when the new Jeep Liberty commercial came on (you can see it here )

As my German Shepherd girl skidded into place in front of the television, I realized that she was loving this commercial, most particularly the wolf who drops into the jeep. Thanks to the miracle of DVR, I was able to replay it for her.

"Oh mom," she seemed to say, looking back at me over her left shoulder, "He's so fine."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Seasonably cool

This morning I arose to a fifty-degree house, and by evening I had managed to forget what awaited me. Seasonably cool.

The furnace guy will be here tomorrow to find the problem, but meanwhile I am experiencing rapid re-entry into seasonable weather. We have had a warm fall, with plenty of sunny days to enjoy the foliage, but now only a few bright yellow leaves cling to the maples’ charcoal branches. It is stick season, the lesser known season that follows one of Vermont’s greatest tourism attractions.

Foliage, then stick season, winter, mud season, then summer. Three of the five are good for tourism, but we don’t talk much about stick season (depressing) or mud season (more depressing). And along with stick season comes the reminder of what cold feels like.

It’s not so bad when you have snow to look at, and winter sports to enjoy. It’s not so bad when you get used to it. It’s not so bad when you have been here long enough to be convinced that the cold won’t kill you, not if you are respectful. But when the furnace doesn’t kick on, when it is fifty degrees in the house, when you don’t remember where you put the long underwear last spring, then it is really, really cold.

At such a time, it is lovely to open a drawer and discover the pair of Icelandic wool socks that someone once knit for you. Fluffy fiber and kind consideration, what a nice gift to receive, even nicer to rediscover. And people wonder why I only want socks for Christmas.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Back at the keyboard

A new keyboard. My personal laptop developed intermittent disorders of the type that are difficult and expensive to diagnose last spring. Since then it has been in and out of the hospital, and now it is on almost complete bed rest. It works for about five minutes, then must nap.

I am writing to you from a new (to me)repurposed desktop provided by the generosity of my employer. It had its issues, too, but an extra shot of memory and a new wireless card have made it a terrific solution for my home requirements. And I have a big new monitor appropropriate for fifty-something eyes.

I am so very proud of myself. I installed memory, installed the wireless card, and got all the appropriate settings working again. Now I get mail in a place I may review more than once a week, and I can easily blog again. The blogging outlook is optimistic, since I find that my two hours driving time get populated with lots of thoughts, many bloggable.

For now, I concur with my sad laptop. It's time for a nap.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Watching Matlock reruns last night, I think I spied a palm tree along a street that was supposed to be in Atlanta. I don't think there are palm trees in Atlanta, but maybe I have been away so long I have forgotten them. A continuity glitch?

I’ve been having some of those myself. My laptop failed in the spring, and I have only recently come to accept its death. A few more days, and maybe I will have the hand-me-down desktop (a nice gesture on my boss’s part) set up and operating. But it will probably take longer than that to rebuild e-mail address lists.

The work computer has a leviathan of a client relationship management system, so I am cautious about letting my friends and family drift into it. Correspondents who are accustomed to seeing me e-mail back in minutes now may not get a response for days. It’s all very different.

New jobs do this. So much of our social network is linked to where we work, even more to our electronic complex of phones and computer. Disconnect one strand, and big swatches of the fabric of daily life unravel. It’s almost as if our the electric impulses in our tiny brains merge with these other machines, at least for a time, till continuity breaks.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mid-summer special

There are days in July, sometimes in August as well, when it is brought back to us clearly why we live here. The days are so soft and alluring, it seems impossible to be anywhere else.

I am back to painting. I primed about a third of the back of the house, once again astonished at what a difference even that simple step makes. My friend Tom is working on the peaks, priming and painting the very high parts where I cannot bear to climb. And I am re-priming the ends, priming the back, painting all the parts that I did not get to last summer.

Today was one of those perfect days. A few hours painting, a few hours editing (work, doncha know), a few hours reading Howard Frank Mosher and wallowing in nostalgia of northern Vermont, all capped by dinner on the grill. Last night I made Bobby Flay’s gazpacho, and tonight I added his suggested grilled scallops. Yum!

Did you know that some dogs (Toby) like gazpacho? We will wait to see if gazpacho likes Toby. Miss Cassie held out for the grilled scallops.

Yesterday, we had a visit from one of Cassie’s younger sisters, Nellie. Cassie’s breeder Carol brought her over for a little socialization, puppy and human. Carol is still reeling from the sudden death of Hannah, grandmother to Cassie and mother to her little Nellie. It was one of those things, a sad and rare occurrence, that Hannah died while she was being spayed. Forty-eight puppies—that’s Hannah’s legacy, that and a lot of happy days with Carol and Tom ( yes, the painter).

Carol and Nellie (the puppy) came over looking for another place to be. Did this ever happen to you? That you just want to be somewhere else?

Nellie is just 28 pounds, grave and self-possessed. Right now, she is very dark and she looks a lot like Cassie’s mother, but at this age it is probably just for now. Cassie was very dark, too, at this age, and now she is a golden girl. Her light face shades down to a black nose, and the black fur on her back is shot through by creamy guard hairs . I have baby pictures on my computer, and I am always startled by how such a dark, dark puppy could have turned into such a golden girl.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Swinging and blogging

Across the fields, the big haying machines have almost finished the first cut of the season. I love watching the waist-high grasses fall into long corduroy stripes. One morning this week we walked through a neighbor’s field just after hay had been cut. By evening, it had all been gathered up into gigantic cylinders. The next morning, the cylindrical bales were gone.

These magical machines appear a couple times a year on our hill, markers of the changing seasons. Every year that I am here, I learn more subtle signals of the seasons within seasons. Between first cut and second cut (August) is our true Vermont summer, if you ignore the standard wisecrack that there are really only two seasons here (winter and July, the month of darn poor sledding).

From May to June, for example, is the season of frenzied construction. Although the building season is soft this year, it is still impossible to get a carpenter, an electrician, or even a professional carpet cleaner if you call now. While consuming their stores of root vegetables over the winter, the locals also planned and plotted all their projects for the spring, then flung themselves into action as soon as snow and mud receded. Recent migrants compete for tradesmen by throwing money at the problem. The rest of us beg, plead, and vow to plan further ahead next time.

Having grown up down south where the change of seasons is more subtle, these crisp breaks from one micro-season to another intrigue me. I guess they interest my neighbors, too, since we seem to spend an amazing amount of time talking about the weather. And about microclimates. And about how various forms of human activity relate to the weather.

Today’s weather report is optimistic. This morning’s overcast skies are expected to give way to bright sunshine, with maybe an afternoon thunderstorm to follow. Right now the weather is perfect to sit on my porch swing in my flannel pajamas, a dog at my feet and my happy little fountain gurgling, watching the big machines get the hay in before the rain comes.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fighting fire with fire

This phrase has become so common in our day to day speech that we often forget the real and startling phenomenon—setting a line of fire to stop a fire. It’s a miraculous thing, and who would ever have thought it would work?

In this crazy world, I sometimes double dip my challenges and find to my surprise that both become easier to manage. For example, I used to read The Economist while riding the recumbent bike at the gym. I find The Economist rather obscure and dry, but it was a time when I needed to be well informed, so I read it. As for exercise of any time, well, I can get into a zone and I find its effects highly desirable, but it is not something I would choose as a daily activity if I were designing the world. Oddly enough, taken together, both weekly economic briefing and aerobic activity became more bearable.

The commute—the dreaded commute, so deeply dreaded because the last time I had a significant commute my whole world came unraveled—has had an unanticipated benefit. My house is more organized and cleaner than it has been in years. A friend looked at me in awe the other day, “How did you accomplish that?”

Because I was so worried about driving an hour to work and an hour back, and because I so very much want to create the best chances of success for this new work venture, I set about reorganizing my life a few months ago, really as soon as I knew I was making this change. I was ruthless. I must have exercise in the morning, so I bought a treadmill. I did test runs of morning routine, cutting out anything that slowed me down. I weeded my wardrobe and set up rigorous laundry routines. I bought a new coffeepot. I got rid of all manner of clutter, any little thing that might get in the way of success.

Then one day I looked up, and my house was orderly and clean, almost without effort.

There was a song I used to like that had a line “Funny how those moments come, it hits you, your life has changed…” We concentrate so hard on small steps that the new life we planned so carefully and worked so hard to achieve sometimes catches us by surprise in a moment of unanticipated grace.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Living with Helen Keller

We went to see the puppies today. Hannah’s puppies, which would make them my Cassie’s full brothers and sisters, although in a different generation altogether. Genealogy is so challenging when you dwell in the world of dogs.

Then later today, someone said to me that living with adolescent puppies reminds her of what it must have been like to live with Helen Keller. You always feel that you are the verge of some communications break-through, that any minute the figurative light-bulb will go on over their all too literal fuzzy heads.

I laughed out loud, thinking back to a moment not so long ago, when I felt like I was Helen Keller. My beautiful puppy came to me, desperate to convey to me a concept, which I suddenly realized was a single word, her word, meant to say Mom-I-am-dying-to-go-outside-for-I-really-must-pee. A simple concept, surely, and how frustrating for her that I was so slow to learn it.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between living with a German Shepherd or any other dog smarter than its nominal owner and living with retrievers. Retrievers are needy; German Shepherds are in charge. Seriously.

Oh, wow

Oh, wow, but it is …well, interesting to be in the path of the worst nor’easter in decades.

There is a wind so strong that I can barely close the doors. The dogs are puzzled at a howling from somewhere far away. The front door—nobody ever uses the front door—is firmly shut by a wood bar across it, with barricade chair under the door knob to boot.

The door to the wood chute has blown free. There is a distinct airway from one end of the cellar to the other. And there is a stream in my cellar that I have not seen in my four years in the house. Although the drain system installed in the floor posits a need for same.

In the utility room, the vinyl floor has taken up residence in horror movie land. The whole floor billows and buckles, vinyl straining for the ceiling, but why? I am in awe, I have never seen a vinyl floor behave in such a way. Oh, wow.

Oh, wow. I have put to rest old commitments, made good on old promises, and moved on to a new chapter of my own life. I have changed jobs, and it only took me….well, something like twelve months in all. Last May, I was hoping for a new life; this April, late April, I have it.

As much as I enjoyed my four years in public service, I’m not really cut out for it. Maybe nobody is, not forever.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Weather worlds

The commuting challenge continues. Here’s a new wrinkle: microclimates. I drive one hour to work. It takes 20 minutes from my home to Stowe, another 20 minutes to the interstate, and 20 minutes along the interstate and to the office.

The big surprise is that weather can be dramatically different from home to office. The day before yesterday I left a bit early to avoid the blinding snow squalls which were not only to hamper visibility but also to cause dangerous road conditions. For the first forty minutes there was almost no snow, but then at the edge of Stowe Village, it was as if I had dropped over the edge of the world into an arctic village. Snow, lots of it, blinding drivers and bringing traffic to a crawl. Twenty minutes expanded, I don’t even know by how much, so focused I was on the taillights ahead of me. At last, I could creep up my icy hill to welcoming dogs. Ahhhhh, home.

Yesterday, the reverse. The icy hill, always the first challenge, is plowed by two different towns, so conditions can be different between here and the dump half a mile away. Then messy roads in Morrisville, not so bad on the road to Stowe, and a terrible slick patch right in the middle of Stowe Village. I saw the car in front of me slide sideways, so I was prepared with a correction when my car did the same. Steady improvement in driving conditions eased my tense shoulders for the second leg of the journey, then the third was as if no snow storm had ever occurred.

In fact, there was only a dusting over there in the “banana belt,” warmed by Lake Champlain, as compared to another (yes, another!) six inches at my house. I suppose I must be more tolerant of the failure of area network news stations to accurately report what is going on at my house. It is not uncommon to see a storm with 2 inches of snow in Burlington, 6 inches at my house, and a foot in the Northeast Kingdom. They have area spotters who report on local accumulations, but it is not nearly so interesting to know after the fact how much snow came as it would be to know what was expected. Microclimates.

Still, I think I prefer living in the “snow belt” and commuting to the “banana belt,” rather then the reverse. If I am going to be stuck somewhere, I want it to be at home with dogs, food, and a big pile of wood. And it is comfort to know that if I make it off the icy hill, conditions will be better and better all the way to the office, with the exception of Stowe Village. For such a wealthy little town it is hard to understand how Village roads can be so much worse than the rest of my route, but I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to figure it out. Instead, I slow down, focus on the car in front of me, and try to breathe through Stowe.

At least a little, I can see now why people keep asking me if I will move closer to Burlington. Not yet, for sure, not until I have a better sense of what this new life will be like, and I really do love where I live. But I can see how the commute could wear. In a way, though, it is a lovely thing to have the world of work and the world of home be physically separated, whether by migration from microclimate to microclimate or—as I have had in past situations—by crossing water. The ability to draw that sharp line is, I believe, restorative to the spirit.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Plow guy says "Enough!"

We officially have no more room for snow. My plow guy says so. And he has had enough of plowing, never mind the financial windfall. I am grateful for his good cheer and heavy equipment, even baked him loaf of bread in thanks.

For reference, note the cross bar on the gate is four feet off the long unseen ground. And no, that's not the pile from the roof--that's base.

How whiny we have become in three short weeks since we had way too little snow!

So much to see

I have long held a theory that tolerance of commuting is carried on a chromosome. I can’t cite scientific evidence, but have observed that people who say that you can get used to long travel to work in fact can get used to it. Others, myself included, launch into new travel patterns with enthusiasm, but sputter and fail.

The last time I was faced with any significant travel to work was the fall of 1983. My husband and I lived in Princeton, and we each traveled long distances to work. I took the train north to Manhattan, and he took the train south to Philadelphia. Lots of people did it.

But the ninety minutes I traveled in the morning stretched to more like two hours in the evening, worse if I missed my usual train during budget season. On those occasions I spent an hour watching the rats run up and down the tracks, waiting for the next train. I was spending far too much of my day cooped up with stressed-out polyester-clad men and women, who streamed like cattle through the PATH train turnstiles then scrambled for seats on an overcrowded train. My husband fared no better. He hated his job, hated the commute even more that I did, if that were possible.

I tried to read, tried to sleep, tried to focus on the positive—that at least I wasn’t driving—but when I fell down the stairs of Penn Station that Christmas, I knew that commuting was not for me. By New Year’s, my marriage was over, and I was living in one room in Brooklyn, convinced that I was constitutionally incapable of commuting. For the next several years, I traveled one subway stop to work and back, then moved to Staten Island.

From my tumbledown Victorian on the north shore, I traveled almost exactly an hour, most of it on the Staten Island ferry. Now that was a great commute! Drink the coffee, read the paper, watch activity in New York harbor, nod to Lady Liberty, or just stare into the dawn—highly restorative. Come 1998, my job disappeared, and I had an offer in mid-town. An hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I could take the commute, so I moved away.

Until now, I have avoided any commute longer than half an hour, especially driving. It’s not that I mind driving; often I enjoy it. What I mind is the enforced timetable gridlock, and I mind other drivers. Many people are at their worst when driving, although Vermont’s ration of road rage is smaller than more traveled places. Still, it’s a matter of probabilities. The more you are on the road, the more the probabilities are against you—probabilities that someone will make a dangerous, even fatal error. Since I have never held the illusion that I am any better than an average driver, and since my reaction times have deteriorated with age, I figure the probabilities are stacked against me.

All this weighs in against driving to work an hour each way, and yet I am now doing it. Opportunities in Vermont are not so rich as elsewhere, and I know myself well enough that once a job feels like a trap, it is time to do something different. So I am taking the calculated risk to commute, trading off the downside of much more time on the road against the certainty of new interests, new people, new horizons.

Having made that tradeoff, I find pleasant surprises in the drive. It offers quiet time to enjoy my own company. Gnarled thoughts disentangle themselves, as the Vermont landscape rolls by. Barns and fields, mountains and meadows. I haven’t seen a moose yet, although there are signs of moose crossing areas even on the interstate. I have even found some alternate routes to work, a startling achievement in a state with so few roads that there is generally only one route from A to B, if that. There is a lot to look at.

In another reminder that more time on the road brings new dangers, I was also—for the very first time in my life—stopped for speeding. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised at this perfect record; I am the original Goody Two Shoes when it comes to authority. But yes, I was doing 37 mph in a 25 mph zone. Something I said must have struck a chord with the young Waterbury policeman—he let me go with only a verbal warning. Since then I have heard from others that Waterbury seems to have a revenue program, so perhaps I will trade that village for more scenic alternatives.

Were we expecting six inches more?

Friday there was a storm, dropping six inches of wet snow, sleet and freezing rain on top of what was left of the Valentine’s Day blizzard. And there was plenty left of the three feet of snow from that storm, even though it seemed lighter than air, that Valentine fluff.

When Saturday dawned, the storm had passed, and all around looked like a Christmas card. Wet snow clung to trees and bushes. A sky of blue, gray, gold and peach reminded me that Vermont always shocks with color.

We had a peaceful Saturday, errands and dog romps in the snow, pausing to consider the enormous pile of snow that whomped down onto the path so carefully shoveled for fuel deliveries. The path that is now a mound of wet, packed ice and snow. Well. That will need attention on Sunday.

It’s a funny thing about snowstorms. You don’t hear them. Unlike rain or sleet, snow comes in silence. And yet, you come to awareness that something is going on. There’s a brightness that intrudes on sleep. And an absence of sound, a hint that even the usual sparse traffic up and down the hill is not there.

Open the back door, and the puppy bounds up onto the mound. It probably isn’t a good idea to have to walk uphill on the snow from the back door…what happens when it starts to melt? Will water flood direct into the house? And why is the puppy sinking into what looks like six inches of fresh powder?

Were we expecting this?

Another ping to the consciousness. Perhaps I will need to start listening to news on the weekend. It might have been a good idea to be aware that we were expecting more snow. Not an issue on a quiet Sunday morning with plenty of food and wood in the house, but as I start to plan for long morning commutes, perhaps I should be more prepared.

I check the weather on the computer. Snow showers, with a dusting to two inches. I crave the Weather Channel. How is it that a place as obsessed with weather as Vermont, a place where the morning news has the same forecast six times over, how can it be that there is not Weather Channel? I try the local television stations—no hint of another winter storm. And yet, outside my window is white, white, white. The kind of white that says accumulation is occurring.

Weather forecasters have gotten so proficient, and they warn us so often that we come to discount their dire predictions. In an information rich world, unexpected weather seems a betrayal. I see my neighbor out for her morning walk, and I shout out, “Were we expecting this?”

“Two or three inches,” she calls back. “Isn’t it grand?” The puppy concurs--it is a grand surprise.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Adaptation 2: Wormholes

A growing German Shepherd brain is a wondrous thing. Cassandra loves figuring things out, and I love watching her figure things out.
Here's a picture of Miss Cassie, diving for snowchunks. For perspective, note that the cross bar on the gate is four feet off the ground.

Almost every day, the two dogs and I make a short trip down the hill to visit Acer and his family. Acer and Cassie are well matched in energy level, and twenty minutes of running and romping makes both puppies more pleasant indoor company.

We haven’t been able to visit Acer since the big snow last Wednesday. We simply cannot get there. We have tried a couple of times, but the snow is too deep. The snow is also too deep for our usual games; we have had to adapt, hence the puppy racetrack laid out in the herb garden.

Yesterday we drove out on some errands then stopped at Acer’s house on the way back up the hill. Such happy puppies! But they couldn’t navigate the large field where they usually run in circles—just too much snow. We tried throwing chunks of snow over the side of a steep drop from the driveway for the dogs to chase and chomp, a favorite game.

Both young dogs leapt over the edge in joy, then were surprised at how difficult it was to swim up the bank through deep snow. They made it, but it was a tough job. Another snow chunk, and they were off again, but this time Cassie turned after a few steps and came back up her first track. Smart girl!

Soon both dogs were diving off the bank, but returning up the same couple of wormholes through the snow that they had first created. Look Ma! We invented a new game! Play with us!

In the background, Toby wandered back and forth, looking for the perfect chunk of snow. Not for this old dog the wild games of puppies. Not too long for puppies either. They played hard, but we went home before anyone got tired enough to risk injury.

Puppy life is back in order. Now if I could just find my mailbox.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Well, that didn’t work! It really is not possible to snowshoe in three foot deep powder snow. After fifty feet of sinking in as far as my knees, then trying to pull snowshoes out of the hole…well, I turned back toward the house.

Instead of backtracking, I made a big loop, which has now become the puppy’s racetrack. Old Toby was ready to come right back in, but Cassie had not had enough exercise for an eighteen-month-old German Shepherd girl. She romped around the racetrack while I watched from the door, then steadfastly sat at the highest point on her snowbank for several minutes, sniffing the breeze and keeping watch.

As for me, I switched from snowshoes to shovel and started on a path from the driveway to the back door, just in case the oil company needs to make a delivery. The snow is lovely, light powder, as easy to shovel as it is hard to walk through. Cassie likes the shovel almost as much as the vacuum cleaner. I stopped every few minutes to throw a lump of snow into a bank for her to chase—it is as funny as you might imagine to see a large dog swim in snow as high as she is tall.

Predictably, I took a lot of grief for closing our office for two days. Even in a blizzard that now ranks as the second worst in recorded history, Vermonters think one should keep on keeping on. I’m not from here, and I still stand in awe of the vagaries of weather. I still believe cold weather and snow and ice can kill me. So when the authorities declare a travel advisory and ask that Vermonters stay off the roads unless travel is absolutely necessary, I think they are speaking to me. It is not a good idea to acclimate to dangerous behavior, I say. If I take two days off every single time there is a storm that is the worst in decades, I don't think the Vermont economy will suffer unduly.

It is surprising to me how little we have heard of people’s experiences in the storm. Maybe people aren’t completely dug out yet. I am fortunate that my plow guy lives half a mile away and is in the excavating business. He spent all night out plowing driveways, then in the morning brought over the heavy equipment to dig me out. No rush, I wasn’t going anywhere until it was all over.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tim's Wood

Trombley Hill Road is my address, but few Trombleys live here now. Tim sold me the family farmhouse and two acres, then moved down the hill to a new house. But as time moved one, heating bills and healthcare for his wife took their toll, and Tim sold that house, too. Tim’s sister was the realtor, but she lives somewhere else, so now there is only the other sister who lives across the fields. It is sad to see families leave Vermont home places, but younger generations can’t handle the ongoing investment in dairy cows and maple groves.

Tim left me a stack of wood in the basement. The furnace burns either oil or wood, but for the first couple of years I lived here I was intimidated by the wood burning furnace. Then one cold weekend, I built a fire and I was warm for the first time that winter. Now I build fires every weekend, as much to save on the cost of heating oil as to be really, toasty warm. When you run on oil, you see, you set the thermostat at a barely tolerable level, but when you burn wood, you don’t have such fine control, and the house is filled with jagged, blessed warmth.

When Tim sold me the house, he left me a stack of wood in the cellar. He left me a living room with fourteen-inch maple floorboards, harvested and shaped from the maples on the family farm. I feel a connection to those trees that I, personally, have never known. I feel responsible to them.

It is cold this week. A record-breaking blizzard has dumped two and a half to three feet of snow on us, followed by howling winds and single digit temparatures. A good time to build a fire in the wood furnace. I started yesterday morning, feeding the fire every hour all day. This morning I was thrilled to see that the coals had lasted through the night, and all I had to do was add one more log to the coals.

Tim’s logs are big logs, far bigger than the ones that were delivered as firewood this fall. I have to believe that they came from the maple grove up the hill. These logs are rough cut, hunky, and well aged. Someone cut them years ago, thinking that they would keep someone warm. Probably someone named Trombley, but certainly someone who lived nearby, watching the maples through the seasons.

I am fortunate to be that someone.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow Day

There are so many things I could be doing. Working, cleaning, laundry, baking, mending. I could be learning all about cascading style sheets. I could do my taxes and review my retirement plan. I could get on the treadmill for an extra mile or two.

But how often do we get a snow day in Vermont? Oh, we get days when it snows, even days when it snows a lot. But not days like this.

There is really a lot of snow out there. Television weatherpeople say it is around twenty-three inches. I say it is one German Shepherd puppy deep, about shoulder height.

The surprise on her face as she attempts to bound through the drifts is my treat for the day. She dives, coming up completely white, only her eyes dark and liquid with excitement. She still seeks out the usual spot to pee, but squatting completely swathed in powder is a new experience in her short life.

We try a short walk around the back yard, but the snow is thigh deep for me, so we don’t get far. I throw huge armfuls of snow at her, and she leaps and tries to bite it, then bounds in joyful, wide circles.

A day like this is a gift. It’s a day to watch as the snow covers the swing, the wheelbarrow, and the woodpile. It’s a day to call friends and hear stories of how it really is out there on the roads. It is a day to sit and knit, to play with puppies, to heat up soup from the freezer for lunch, to wave at the snow plow guy, and to do as little as possible. How often do we get a snow day?

Tomorrow we will start working our way back to daily routine. But today is a snow day.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Unseasonable spring

I am changing jobs and attempting to achieve an orderly transition for myself and for both employers. It is toughest on the old employer, or at least I would like to think so, but I know that nobody is irreplaceable. Life will go on in my old office, sooner than anyone thinks possible, and my new life will blossom at the new place.

Spring is a good time for planting, as one friend said to me, so let us make use of this strange unseasonable season and plant the seeds of something new.

The rhythm of my day will change. Since I am a creature sensitive to daily and seasonal pattern, I must prepare for an earlier wake time, an hour’s drive, exposure to Vermont’s relatively mild version of road rage, urban energy replacing bucolic rural pastimes. Will I leave my dogs home alone for more hours at a stretch? Will my elderly Honda tolerate greater demands? For how long? Will I be able to find a carpool? Maybe not one that can handle the residue of muddy paws.

Will I take my lunch? What if I forget it? Do I have enough professional clothes? Can I find a dentist, a dry cleaner, a bank that is more convenient?

Will they like me? Will I make new friends? Will my old friends forget me? Will people I thought were my friends disappear? Almost certainly, they will like me. They already do, since I am working at each job part-time, and I can already tell that it is no just a honeymoon that makes me feel at home in the new place. And I know from past changes that some people will move out of my life, even some that I will be sorry to lose. That’s change for you.

But here’s another thing I know about change. Some people will turn out to have been better friends that I ever knew. Some people will pop up again in my new life, surprising me with connections stronger than I ever dreamed. This whimsy in the way the world reorders itself never fails to amuse.

That’s the part I can’t control, nor would I wish to. So for now I will put gas in my car on Sundays, do the laundry every weekend, put lunches in the freezer, renew my pedometer pledge, buy another suit or two, and go to bed by ten without fail. If I can start with a healthy and centered routine, I have the greatest chance to blossom in this new garden.


Yesterday I saw taciturn Vermonters crack and admit that it was kind of nice to have a day of sunshine and temperatures in the fifties right smack in the middle of what is supposed to be winter. Up till now it had been all gloom and despair. No winter sports, no tourists to prop up our local economy. We still feel these losses, but just for a day it was nice to kick back and enjoy a taste of spring.

Cassie had four playdates yesterday. We went to check on Lola and Amiga who had spent two nights with us while their mom was away in Boston, then stayed for a few minutes play. Driving back home, we looked in on Miss Elly, who is Cassie’s aunt and half-sister in one of those convoluted relationships that dogs can have. Acer’s dad called around lunchtime, looking for some playtime, and it was so much fun that we went back for another romp in late afternoon. In Cassie’s opinion, this is how all days should be.

I am conscious of needing to carve out playtime for myself. I am changing jobs, which for now means I have two sets of expectations and demands. The old world is still very much with me, and the new one asks for more attention every day. It’s a good kind of stress, and it is nice to be valued, but still. I need to find that part of each day that belongs only to me and the dogs. I need playtime.