Monday, October 31, 2011

Power down

As I write this on Sunday evening, we’ve been without power for fourteen hours. This is very rare for us; I can’t remember a time since my childhood that we went for more than about six or eight hours without power, and even those events have happened only two or three times in the past decade, as far as I can recall. But this time, with a heavy wet snowfall on Saturday night pulling down power lines all over the state, we are facing the kind of situation we usually hear about but avoid: already a full day and evening, and potentially several more to come, without electricity.

And I have to admit, I’m finding it hard to think of anything to say about it that isn’t a cliché. Everything positive about power outages has already been said by the many who experience them more often than we do, and yet now that it’s our turn, I’m finding them all to be true: the way it’s made us focus on the simpler things in life – reading by candlelight, savoring a grilled cheese sandwich made over a gas burner – the fact that it has imposed upon us a mandatory hiatus from our Internet connections, with the constant chatter of email and Facebook; the strange reality that all four of us are sitting together on the couch in front of the fireplace reading or writing, rather than dispersed into four different parts of the house, engaged in four different activities. Even the dog seems to want nothing more than to sit in front of the fire, gazing into the flames.

Because this kind of crisis happens to us so rarely, I’m admittedly a little lax when it comes to the fundamentals of emergency preparedness. But this storm has taught me that what I’ve done in that realm is apparently good enough, at least for the first fourteen hours of a power outage. The half-dozen bottles of water stored in a cupboard have been enough so far for drinking and washing up. We had batteries for all the flashlights, and all the flashlights were easy to find in their usual places. We have candles and matches. Because it’s still autumn and because it’s our first year of living in a home with a fireplace, we hadn’t stored firewood yet, but the logs we sawed this morning from tree limbs that fell into our driveway during the storm ignited fairly easily and have kept us warm. It’s reassuring to know that even without scurrying around preparing for a storm, we’re pretty well equipped to manage one, although I should also admit that not until this evening have I understood why people fill bathtubs and washing machines, and I’ll remember to do that in the future.

Waking this morning to the not unexpected realization that we were without power, my first thoughts were of the many duties I would not have to do today; a rush of welcome laziness swept over me, and I slept an hour later than I usually allow myself. I also keep thinking how relieved I am that this situation is the result of a weather system and not, say, a terrorist attack or an earthquake, something with far more profound implications than a simple snowstorm. Sunday was one of the most peaceful days I’ve had in months, maybe even in years. Rick and I cleared limbs and sawed logs together all morning; the kids, absent their usual temptations of TV and video games, shoveled snow together and then put my iPod on speaker and danced.

Later, we went to my parents’ house and played card games. In the late afternoon, my mother and Tim and I took a walk up to the soccer fields and around the cemetery. Back home, the four of us warmed ourselves around the fire.

It will get more challenging as the days pass, if the power isn’t soon restored. I won’t feel so peaceful or tranquil if I’m unable to meet my work responsibilities due to our Internet connection being down. (Even as I write this blog entry, it’s with the awareness I’ll have to find a hot spot to post it if we’re still lacking electricity in the morning.) But for now, all is dark and quiet. Tim remarked on the visibility of stars in the sky with no house lights around to detract from their glow. Like a 19th-century family, we all went to bed early, when the cold and dark simply made it unappealing to be up any later.

It’s all been said before. But this time, I had the chance to find out for myself what it was like. And for now, it’s a very serene moment in time for us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lost and found (no thanks to Tim)

I’ve written before about how much it bothers me to lose things. Materials objects, that is. I just feel that the material world is something you should be able to count on. People can be unpredictable. So can weather and natural disasters and political situations and boating conditions and reader response. But knowing that you’ll be able to find your keys wherever you last placed them – because they’re not going to decide to go for a walk, or have a change of heart about their fealty toward you, or decide it would be funny to hide – is something you should be able to count on. Object permanence matters to me; it’s one constant in a world of entropy.

And for that reason, I’m careful with objects. I pay attention to where I place things. “Is this where I’m most likely to look for it next time I need it?” I ask myself when I put something down. I’m mindful about having specific places for specific belongings and not mindlessly leaving things in places other than where they normally go.

So it was frustrating not to be able to find my pedometer chip yesterday morning. This is a little plastic oblong that plugs in to my iPod and tracks my mileage while I run. Unfortunately, since it’s about an inch long and white, it’s nearly invisible. So I always leave it in the same place, with my iPod and headphones, when I’m done running.

Yesterday, the fact that it wasn’t there gave me the feeling that something was ever so slightly wrong with the world. An object had picked itself up and gone away; that isn’t supposed to happen.

It wasn’t essential that I have it right away, but it’s so small and inconsequential in appearance that I knew if I didn’t find it quickly, it could simply be swept under a bookshelf or tracked outside with the dog or brought out to the recycling bin with the mail.

And as neurotic as it makes me sound, I felt a little off-kilter all day, knowing that a tiny fraction of my attention was diverted wondering where this little piece of plastic could be.

I told my 13-year-old about the problem when he got home from school. “So just keep an eye out for it,” I concluded. I expected relative indifference on his part, but to my surprise, he immediately started looking on the floor below the mudroom shelf. “I bet it’s either here or in the laundry basket,” he said.

“Why would you think that?” I asked.

“Because those are the only places it could have landed when I knocked it off the shelf last night,” he said.

A ha. A clue. “If you knocked it off the shelf, why didn’t you pick it up?” I asked him.

“Well, I looked for a minute, but I didn’t see it right away, so I figured it had to have fallen either on the floor or into the laundry basket under the shelf and you’d find it eventually.”

Exasperated but hopeful, I lifted a pile of clean laundry out of the basket. My odometer chip tumbled out.

“Tim, if you know you’ve knocked something off a shelf, look for it!” I said, incredulous not for the first time – more like the ten thousandth time – at the seemingly obvious truisms that need to be stated to 13-year-old boys.

“I figured it couldn’t be too far away,” he shrugged.

So now all is well. I have my odometer back and my faith restored in the material world. Tim has learned what I would have assumed was intuitive: if you drop something, pick it up. Okay, realistically, Tim probably has not learned that. But surely a mom can dream.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lunch walks

Looking all the way back to the job I began one week after college graduation, in early June of 1989, I could trace my work history by job title. Or by salary. By immediate supervisor. By office address. By length of tenure.

But yesterday it occurred to me I could also trace my work history by midday walks. I’ve always appreciated the benefits of a lunch hour spent outside in the fresh air, taking a little exercise. And each workplace setting comes with its own options for lunchtime strolls.

When I worked in Boston, I’d walk over to the Public Garden and circle the Frog Pond and the Boston Common during the noontime hour. I’d watch tourists riding the Swan Boats. I’d see well-dressed Beacon Hill aristocrats stepping along carefully, carrying their little purses and walking their little dogs. I’d see Bullfinch architecture on the skyline and Freedom Trail landmarks along the way.

When I worked in Cambridge, I walked along the Charles River, from the Esplanade down to the Mass Ave Bridge or sometimes only as far as the Hatch Shell, where the Boston Pops play on the Fourth of July. At that time I worked for a big company and a lot of my co-workers liked to go walking as well, so we’d head out together and talk about anything but what was waiting for us on our desks when we got back.

When I worked in Waltham, walking was not a popular midday activity in my company. In fact, I’m not sure I ever saw anyone venture outdoors except to get to their cars in the parking lot. We were situated in an office park on a highway exit, so the surroundings were not exactly inviting, but some of the office parks around us had relatively appealing landscaping, with lawns and manmade ponds, and I even found a cut-through to a little suburban neighborhood that backed on to one of the parking lots. It was a neighborhood nondescript enough that it could have been featured in a study about what went wrong in the design of American suburbs, and I doubt even the people who lived there went for many walks around the block. But it was better than sitting in a windowless break room.

Using the standard of lunchtime walks as a framework, though, it’s obvious to me that I’ve figuratively won the lottery at this point. I’m self-employed and get to write all day; better still, I’m at home, where my so-called office – which is actually our kitchen alcove – looks into the woods. A trail from the yard leads into the state park, with over one thousand acres of trails.

So on days like yesterday, which was an absolutely perfect New England fall day, with cool dry air, an occasional gust of wind, and yellow leaves shimmering in the sunlight, my lunchtime walk consists of grabbing the leash, calling the dog, slipping a trail map into my jacket pocket and heading out.

And once I’m in the woods, deadlines and quotes and fact-checking don’t seem to matter so much. I can enjoy the scent of the forest, the rocks and pine needles and tree roots underfoot, the rush of water from the brooks that lace through the woods. The setting is far better than any of my previous office situations, but the joy of getting out in the middle of the day is the same.

Ultimately, that’s always been the purpose of lunchtime walks: to stop thinking for a little while about the work left behind. The woods, as Robert Frost observed, are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises – and deadlines -- to keep. Still, it’s inspiring to know that as long as I keep up with my work, I can slip out to the woods again at lunchtime tomorrow.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy birthday

It was a perfect birthday.

Those years that your birthday falls on a weekend have an inherent advantage, of course. It’s much easier to feel special and have fun all day long if it’s a day you don’t have to get up early or go to work or keep a dentist appointment.

But yesterday felt special even within the realm of weekend birthdays. I spent the morning at brunch with 14 members of my family: my parents, my sisters, their husbands, my nieces and nephew, and of course Rick, Tim and Holly. I’d spent previous birthdays with various subsets of that group and always felt lucky to do so, but I don’t think I’ve spent my birthday with both my sisters since I was a teenager. So that in itself earmarked this as a wonderful birthday.

They weren’t actually in town for my big day but for my father’s 75th, which fell three days earlier. And I didn’t expect any fuss to be made over my birthday, after all the celebrating we’d done on Saturday evening in honor of his. But at Sunday brunch there were candles in the blueberry coffeecake and presents at the table, and I felt far more feted than I expected to.

My sisters and their families had to head to the airport and the highway once brunch was over, so I went to my friend Jane’s house to help her pack for her upcoming move. Packing my own house for our move last winter wasn’t much fun, but that’s because it seemed to go on endlessly and I had to make so many decisions along the way about what to keep and what to toss….and then too there was the prospect of unpacking all of these same items at the other side of the move. At Jane’s house, there was none of that: I was there only for an hour and simply did what she suggested without worrying about any of the details. It was downright enjoyable.

And then I went home, contemplated the dishwasher full of clean dishes and the dryer full of clean laundry, thought about which of the two I should start with, and then remembered it was my birthday. So I went for a 45-minute walk with the dog along the trails of Great Brook Farm State Park instead.

In the evening, Rick and the kids and I went out for dinner. Tim and I shared a piece of frozen peanut butter pie with fudge sauce. No explanation needed.

This birthday is not a particularly significant number for me – not one I want to admit to, anyway – but what a happy day. There were gifts, cards, phone calls and emails; delicious food; friends and family. Happy birthday, indeed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An extraordinarily ordinary life

I am almost done with the memoir project I began last March. And even though the client I’m ghost-writing it for will be thrilled if we meet our goal of having it ready for her to present to her family at Thanksgiving, I’ll be a little sorry to see it end.

The project began when the mother of one of my high school friends said she wanted to talk to me about an idea she had in which she would preserve memories of her 75 years of life: her childhood, her teen years, but most importantly her relationship with her husband, to whom she was married for 50 years before he died in 2008. The impetus for putting all of this in writing came during her recent move from her own home to that of one of her grown sons. Faced with box after box of letters that she and her husband exchanged during his time in the military, she thought about what a keepsake it would be for her family and friends if she could just somehow make a book out of all of it.

To say I was reticent to get involved is putting it mildly. I agreed to meet with her only to recommend how she might approach the search for a good ghost-writer who could take this on, but I made it clear that the appropriate person was not me. During our meeting, I framed my sentences carefully. “The writer you end up working with…” I said, and “Once you find the right person to do the writing….” But I told her outright that I couldn’t take it on.

“Let me tell you a little bit more about what I’m thinking,” she said. “I just want to make it a simple story about what it was like growing up in Arlington in the 1930s and ‘40s. About walking to church, and playing violin in junior high, and having my first job at the Arlington sanitarium.”

My fingers started to twitch. The fingers that take notes on my keyboard when I’m interviewing someone for a story.

“And meeting my husband in a chance encounter on the beach a few days before my 18th birthday. Our first year in college. What Harvard was like in the early 50’s.”

I turned on my laptop.

“The excitement of getting engaged the night of my senior prom. My husband’s summer job collecting seaweed in a wooden dinghy in Plymouth Harbor. And then how it felt seeing him go off to Marine Corps officers’ training camp.”

With a sigh, I opened a new Word file. It was becoming increasingly obvious to me who was going to ghost-write this memoir.

Over the course of three months, I did about ten hours of interviews with my friend’s mother, and in between our weekly meetings, I’d review my transcripts and do a little editing. Finally, I started going through the letters she’d selected, letters she and her husband exchanged during three different summers that he attended Marine Corps officers’ training camp in Quantico, Virginia.

From our first discussion to my last edits of our current draft, which is nearly ready to be sent off to the self-publishing press we’ve chosen, I remained transfixed by this story. When I tried to tell a friend about it, she asked, “Did this woman have a really fascinating life?’

“No!” I exclaimed. “She had an ordinary life! But somehow that’s just what’s so fascinating about it: I’m getting such an in-depth look.”

What radio shows she listened to during lunch as a girl. How she and her mother traveled to Downtown Crossing by bus and subway to shop at Jordan Marsh. What she remembers about her first year of teaching. The engagement gifts she received. It’s all so everyday. But told by the person who lived it, it’s also all so interesting.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I find the story of an unsensational life compelling. As a freelance journalist, I’ve essentially made my career out of writing features about regular people doing interesting things. I’ve never covered celebrities or political figures or crime stories; I always seem to write about some aspect of daily life.

Soon the memoir will be printed, and my friend’s mother will give copies to her children and grandchildren. I wonder if they’ll like it as much as I do. I wonder if they’ll even read it as closely as I have.

To me, it’s a wonderful tale of a life well lived and even better remembered. To them, it may seem uninteresting: there was nothing spectacular or amazing about this particular woman’s 75 years. But I hope they see in it just what I did: an unforgettable story about the daily wonders embedded within an ordinary life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kids & Kindles

Yesterday’s feature in the Boston Globe about little kids developing a penchant for state-of-the-art electronics such as iPads and iPhones caught my attention. The issue isn’t exactly relevant in our household – at 9 and 13, my kids are considerably older than the toddlers and preschoolers described in the story – and when the kids were that age, we didn’t have iPhones or iPads (and in fact still have just one iPhone in our household and no iPads).

Coincidentally, though, just the night before, I had for the first time purchased a book for Holly on my Kindle. And I didn't do that without a fair share of rumination as to whether it was appropriate for my nine-year-old to be reading on a Kindle.

But my guess is that many parents make the reluctant leap to letting their kids e-read the same way I did: Holly had just finished a book and wanted the next one in the series in order to complete the twenty minutes of nightly reading that her teacher requires. And while I acknowledge that this sounds demanding on Holly's part -- wanting one book and one book only -- I've become used to it from Tim. When he's in the middle of a series, no book except the next book in the series will do. Switching over to reading something else for the sake of convenience -- such as, there's a copy of it right over there on the bookshelf, whereas the book he wants is at the library or the bookstore and we won't be able to pick up a copy 'til tomorrow -- is an option not even worthy of consideration.

And in Holly's case, it wasn't only that she'd have to wait until the next day for me to go to the library: the book she wanted was a brand new release from a popular series, and getting a copy of this high-demand read would take a while.

So I let her order up a six-dollar copy on my Kindle, and thirty seconds later she was reading. I watched her and thought about what I had done. For myself, I'm absolutely a Kindle convert: I love the convenience of carrying as much reading material as I could possibly want -- novels, reference materials, magazines, newspapers, notes of my own -- all on one little piece of plastic that weighs less than a pound.

But the sight of kids using Kindles gives me pause. I've never agreed with adults who shy away from e-readers saying they can't imagine enjoying the experience of reading without the feel and smell of an actual book in their hands -- to me, reading is reading, and why should I have the inconvenience of newsprint on my fingers or the weight of a hardcover in my purse? -- but I'm a little unsure as to whether kids are absorbing the full experience of reading, when no book is in hand.

When a friend told me both her kids, ages 12 and 13 at the time, owned Kindles, I said to her, "I'm not sure my kids would know what they wanted to read if they didn't browse through the stacks at the library." But she told me her kids use the New York Times Book Review section on children's books for recommendations, or they order books by authors whose work they've enjoyed in the past, or they use the "Customers who bought this book also bought" tab on to get ideas about what to load onto their Kindles next.

Or they go to the library, browse through the stacks, and find something they want to read, just like my kids do. Then they order it on their Kindles.

It still seemed a little strange to me, and to some extent, that's the point made in the Globe story about toddlers and preschoolers using iPhones, iPads and similar devices. Surely Holly needs to be immersed in the sensory aspects of reading a book -- the slippery feel of the cover, the heft of the volume, the nubbly texture at the edge of thr pages -- before she's ready to skip that part and go electronic. And seeing her sit there poring over my Kindle screen didn't give me the same twinge of delight that seeing her immersed in a real book always gives me.

Still, it enabled her to read what she wanted to read at that very moment. Admittedly, that might make it more a lesson in instant gratification than literary appreciation. And when she finishes this book, I'll encourage her to find her next one the old-fashioned way, at a library or a bookstore. But for now, what matters to her is that she didn't have to wait even twelve hours to find out what happens next in her favorite series of the moment. And to me, that's a certain kind of passion that I’m more than happy to fuel, whether it finds its resolution on the page or on the screen.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good hiking, bad packing

To my surprise, we did what we set out to do this weekend. This isn’t astonishing in and of itself, except that this weekend the plan was to hike up Bradbury Mountain in Pownal, Maine. Since my new philosophy is to go ahead and plan the things I want to do rather than waiting around for my kids to develop some of my interests, I told them I was going to do this hike and they were welcome to join me. I was sure they’d demur. They never choose hiking when I offer it as an option.

So I can’t explain why this weekend they had a change of heart from their usual reticence, but they assured me that yes, they really did want to do this hike. And since three different guidebooks assured me Bradbury Mountain is probably the easiest hike in Maine, I decided to follow through and see what would happen.

It turns out they really meant it. We did the hike; an hour of walking in all. The kids particularly enjoyed the steep rocks that they could clamber up and down, and the weather was ideal for a fall hike. Foliage in Maine is gradually starting to change, and the views were gorgeous.

But there must have been bad karma going around this weekend when it came to packing our bags. As we were getting ready to leave home and drive to Maine Saturday afternoon, Tim asked if he could slip the few things he needed for a one-night stay into my overnight bag. “Sure, there should be room in the pocket,” I told him. Not until he was changing for bed six hours – and one hundred miles – later did we realize we were talking about different overnight bags. His change of underwear and clean clothes for the next day were tucked in the pocket of the bag I had never planned to bring.

It didn’t matter too much, since I had an extra toothbrush in my toiletries bag. I teased him that for once, he actually had an excuse for not putting on clean underwear in the morning; normally, whether or not he does is anyone’s guess, since he never seems to be able to explain to me why the number of underwear items in his hamper never align with the number of days since I last did the laundry.

So that was a minor problem. Unfortunately, a worse problem occurred when we got back home late Sunday afternoon, enthusiastic and well-exercised from our hike, and I realized my overnight bag had never made it back into the car when we were packing up in Maine.

It means I have to retrace my steps and go all the way back to Portland to pick it up. It was a remarkably stupid mistake on my part, one I stewed over all evening. But in the end, I had to reconcile myself to the reality that while it was careless, it wasn’t awful. No one had gotten hurt, and there was no significant material loss. The only real cost to be paid, other than the four hours it will take me to repeat the round-trip drive this week, is gasoline and auto emissions, but since I drive a Prius, even that can almost be excused.

Still, it’s a big enough mistake that I’ll learn from it. Four dull hours on the Maine Turnpike will surely be enough to make me double-check that I have all my bags next time. And sometimes, that can be a worthwhile tradeoff: make a big enough mistake and you’re sure not to make it again.

Besides, the hike was great. That’s what I’ll hold onto from this weekend, not the frustration of leaving things behind.

I only wish that for Tim, wearing the same underwear two days in a row would vex him enough that he too would be more careful next time. But I’m not counting on it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Trail walking

I’m not sure why it took me so long to follow through on this resolution, but at last I am.

Six months ago, we moved to a house perched on the edge of a state park. Even though I’ve long known about this state park, and lived just a few miles from it for most of my life, I’ve never spent much time in it, and the few visits I did make usually didn’t go beyond the ice cream stand at the park headquarters. One truth about living in Carlisle is you seldom need to drive anywhere to find a good place for a walk, and so I almost never bothered to make the trip.

Now, though, it’s not a drive; it’s literally a walk into the woods bordering our back yard to pick up the trails network. And as soon as I realized how close we were, I was intrigued, hoping this would finally spur me on to become acquainted with Great Brook Farm State Park, far beyond the headquarters and ice cream stand section of it and deep into the dense woods beyond.

But for several months, it didn’t. Our new house is at the far end of the park, so our initial forays were only to figure out which trails led to ice cream. We did that several times over the summer, but we didn’t stray much from that path, once we’d figured it out. And when ice cream didn’t tempt us, the mosquitoes were too strong a deterrent for us to want to explore much farther afield.

Now, though, I’ve renewed my resolve. This park covers more than 1,000 acres of fields, forest, wetlands and farmland, and I want to become familiar with all of it. But I have a notoriously dismal sense of direction, so I want to learn my way gradually and thoroughly.

My first step was to take the familiar route to the park headquarters last weekend to pick up a trail map. And after that, I was well on my way. I tried following one trail on my own last weekend, another trail with my friend Donna on Columbus Day, a third option with the dog during a midweek break from writing. I found that the trail map was actually quite easy to follow, and the more I tried different routes, the more I started to gain confidence I’d never had before in my orienteering abilities. The topography began to look a little bit familiar in different places, and the compass points almost always lined up with my sense of where they should be.

Last year, I made a different resolution: to become better acquainted with the works of Thoreau. I made a little progress toward that end, but not as much as I’d hoped; and then over the summer I received as a gift a copy of The Quotable Thoreau, which is sort of like the Cliff Notes version of Thoreau’s work, perfect for literary dilettantes like me. Now, I feel like the two endeavors – reading more Thoreau and getting to know the trails of Great Brook Farm State Park – are complementary. Thoreau writes about walking in the woods, and that’s just what I’ll be doing. So I hope the two projects will fuel each other.

So far on my walks through the woods, I’ve seen ponds large and small; green, yellow, red and orange leaves; other people walking; birds; a log cabin; a Colonial-era stone foundation; and yes, lots and lots of mosquitoes. But the mosquitoes will soon be waning as colder weather arrives, and I plan to still be walking. So let’s hope this is one of my few resolutions that sticks, because there are a lot of acres of woods out my back door. And a lot of Thoreauvian passages to read. But I have time, I think. I just need to stay resolved.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Plans that work and plans that don't

We made our plans for yesterday over a week ago. It was a so-called professional day for the kids, so I condensed my work day into a three-hour morning session and postponed most of my deadlines until the next day. The plan was to leave at noon to pick up Tim’s friend Will, drive to Kimball Farm in Westford, have a picnic at the picnic area there, play a round or two of mini-golf, indulge in Kimball Farm ice cream cones, and head home.

But nothing quite worked out the way we planned. Will and Tim wanted to spend some time at home first playing a video game which went on much longer than we expected. It was 1:30 by the time we left the house, rather than noon. We arrived at Kimball’s with our grocery bag full of sandwiches and chips, only to find signs all over the picnic area saying that food from outside, as opposed to food purchased at Kimball’s, was not allowed. We pretended not to see the signs and sat down at a picnic table anyway, at which point we were swarmed by bees.

We moved our picnic away from the general eating area and over to a bench closer to the mini golf area. The bees were no longer a problem and no one seemed to mind that we were eating our own sandwiches, but then Holly pointed to a different sign – one indicating that mini golf was closed for the day.

“Oh well,” I said. “We’ll finish our picnic, get some ice cream, and think of some other outdoor activity instead.” The kids suggested we go to a park we like in a nearby town: Holly could play on the playground equipment there and the boys would toss a Frisbee around. I gave them money and sent them off to the ice cream counter while I cleaned up our picnic.

But the ice cream counter was closed as well, so we reorganized our plans once again: we’d go to an ice cream parlor in another town and a different park near there. It would take a while to get to, but we had the rest of the afternoon free.

The ice cream parlor part of that plan worked out well, but when we got to the park nearby, we were confronted with yet another sign, this one saying that the playground equipment had been removed from that park and new equipment would soon be installed.

It did seem as if an improbable number of our plans had fallen through, but we all agreed that it didn’t matter too much. We were having fun anyway. We’d had our picnic and some very good ice cream, and the boys said Holly could play Frisbee with them since there was no playground available to her. She wasn’t sure she could handle a game of Frisbee, but the boys were patient and taught her the basics. I sat in the sun and watched.

As I sat there, I thought about something Gretchen Rubin writes in “The Happiness Project”: namely, that one criterion for something being fun is that you look forward to it. When I read that, I realized that for me, it’s often not the case: I usually tend to underestimate how enjoyable something will be, with the excuse that pessimism allows the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.

And I’m pleasantly surprised a lot, I admit; everything from parties to coffee dates to vacations tend to be more fun than I expected. But after reading Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts on this, I’ve started to think maybe I’m missing out; maybe I’d be having even more fun if I allowed myself to anticipate good times a little bit more confidently.

On the other hand, yesterday proved that sometimes plans don’t really work out, so you might be anticipating a bunch of things that don’t end up happening, like our picnic/mini-golf/ice cream stand scheme. So maybe what actually helps most is just anticipating with confidence that something fun will happen, though you might not know exactly what.

I hoped, and suspected, that the afternoon with Tim, Holly and Will would be a good time. And as I sat in the late-afternoon sun watching them play Frisbee, I conceded that it was. Despite all our plans falling through, we were outdoors and happy and drinking in fresh air and sated with ice cream. Not the fun we’d planned on, but a great time nevertheless.

Monday, October 10, 2011


It is so hard for me to go offline for any period of time, and yet I’m so aware of how much I need to do this more regularly.

I’ve written before about my ambivalence about not having a Smartphone, which would give me easy access to email when I’m away from home. Sometimes I’m tempted to upgrade, and other times I’m so appreciate of the value of being compelled to just leave my email behind now and then – whether it’s for short periods of time when I go out to do errands or go for a walk, or longer periods of time like the day last month when I spent eight hours on a daytrip to southern Maine and had no access to email from about nine in the morning to five in the afternoon.

If anything, lately I feel like I’ve become more compelled to be on line. Receiving a hand-me-down netbook from my mother meant my online world was more portable then ever around the house, if still not actually portable outside the house. It became so easy to have the netbook with me in the kitchen when I was preparing meals, or on the porch when I was reading the paper, or on my nighttable when I was getting ready for bed at night.

But I was also becoming increasingly aware lately that I go to the Internet, particularly email, for the wrong reasons. I was constantly searching, waiting, anticipating that all-important email…and yet I can no longer explain what that email might be.

At some point it occurred to me I was looking at my computer screen the same way my husband sometimes looks into the fridge: certain that there must be something in there to satisfy his longings, and yet unable to name what that longing might be for, when I ask him pointblank what it is that he wants to eat.
And so this past weekend it was with a sense of relief that I closed up my computer at 10:00 Saturday morning and left for an overnight trip. “There’s nothing I need. There’s nothing that will come by email this weekend that will make my life any better than it already is,” I told myself several times. And I didn’t give it another thought while we were away.

The funny thing was that when we arrived home midafternoon on Sunday, I found I still didn’t want to get on line. I didn’t care how many emails had built up; just like my husband with the fridge, none of them was going to fulfill the nameless thing I wanted from it.

So I went for a walk in the woods instead. I walked for an hour and a quarter, and then when I got home I turned on my computer at last. I had 30 new emails, certainly not a staggering number for a day and a half off line. I scanned the subject lines quickly. A few from friends who I was happy to hear from, but none of them contained anything terribly important. A lot of ads, of course. A few items related to community events or issues. Nothing work-related since it was a holiday weekend. I went through them all briefly, responded to some, and then disconnected. It felt good.

Changing my ways this one time doesn’t mean I’ve ended my compulsion once and for all. It just means I’m trying really hard to rethink it, to remind myself that a sense of spiritual or emotional enrichment almost never comes via email. I don’t know if I really have the capacity to improve in this area. But reminding myself of how much more that walk in the woods did for me than scanning my emails ever will seems like a good start.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Eating well, cooking well

For me, New Year’s Day has nothing on Labor Day when it comes to making resolutions. I imagine I’m not unusual in this regard, at least among parents of school-aged children. Never mind new resolve with which to correct habits in early January; for us, September is the fresh start in which I try every year to do everything right.

This fall, one of my resolutions was around menu planning. I like to cook, but I’m not always the most efficient meal planner. Despite the abundance of interesting recipes easily located in cookbooks I own and more cookbooks at the library; recipes sent by friends or by my sisters; recipes via the Internet; and recipes in magazines that arrive monthly in the mail, I’m all too quick to fall back on those dishes that require no recipes at all, because they’re so simple or because I’ve made them so many times. They please the palates of my family, but they also tend to get a little dull.

And there’s just so much good food out there waiting to be prepared. Interesting ingredients. Original techniques. Newly evolving cuisines. For someone who really does enjoy the culinary arts, like me, it just doesn’t make sense to fall back on baked drumsticks and pasta with red sauce and meat loaf quite so often.

My sister Sarah is the opposite. She is not only a good cook but what I would call a proactive cook, one who is always trying new recipes and new methods. In fact, she once told me that when she asked her husband if he liked a particular dish she had made, he said pleasantly enough, “What difference does it make? I’m never going to see it again.”

I aspire to be more like that. Over the summer I became lazier about cooking than ever. Tim and Rick were playing baseball during the dinner hour four nights a week, and it was just so much easier to grill or sauté some standard piece of protein and throw a salad together than get out a recipe and measuring spoons and ingredients.

But now with school back in session, I’m resolved to try harder. When the fall issue of Eating Well arrived in the mail in late August, I gave the kids a packet of stickie-note flags and asked them to go through the magazine and mark every recipe they’d like to try. In the weeks that followed, I tried to make each recipe they had flagged, and each one was a success. A friend gave me a recipe she thought we’d like, and I made it the very next day. When I came across an interesting recipe in the newspaper, instead of just telling myself I’d try it someday, I printed it out right away and put it in my cookbook holder.

The kids have actually noticed and remarked upon this new approach. They’re impressed that as I make out the grocery list, I can tell them what I plan to make for dinner each day in the upcoming week. (So far this week it’s been spinach strata on Monday, sausage risotto on Tuesday, chicken pot pie Wednesday, and corn fritters with roasted squash on Thursday. Friday, of course, is the Sabbath. Not in the Jewish Orthodox sense but in the sense that I plan to wait around for someone else to make dinner. No matter how long I have to wait.)

Resolutions have a way of falling by the wayside. For New Year’s resolutions, late January is typical; for New School Year resolutions, probably soon after Columbus Day weekend. But with luck, that will be just when a new issue of Eating Well arrives in the mail, and it will be enough to keep us flagging recipes – and using them – for at least another month.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Summer fruits

I’m eating one last plum. One small, soft, juicy, purple-black plum, its pulp sweet and cold, its skin tart and fibrous. One last plum before the summer fruit season ends.

Many of my friends talk about the mixed feelings of changing over their wardrobes from summer to fall: the end of cotton skirts and sleeveless blouses; the ushering-in of wool sweaters and blazers and suede boots. This year, with warm humid temperatures extending into the beginning of October, some of them have sounded more eager than wistful about saying goodbye to bathing suits and sandals and reaching for their autumnal wardrobe.

For me, the wardrobe turnover isn’t all that meaningful. It’s in the fruit crisper that I mark – and lament – the change of seasons.

Goodbye to sweet white peaches, tangy yellow peaches, intensely flavored apricots, red and purple and black plums. Goodbye to complicated cherries, delicious despite their tangle of stems and messy pits, and nectarines, the fruit that seems to have an agreeable disposition, neither as sloppy as peaches nor as mealy as apricots.

Goodbye to summer vegetables as well: plump sweet corn kernels lined up along the cob; dark flavorful tomatoes in blobby irregular spheres.

I’m not adamant about locavorism, mostly because I can’t imagine forever giving up bananas, avocadoes and coffee. But the very best of the summer fruits and vegetables simply aren’t available in the supermarket off-season. And even without being proactively locavore, I appreciate the annual rhythms of the harvest: asparagus in the spring, an abundance of juicy tomatoes and fruits, and flavorful lettuces, in the summer, pears and apples in the fall, oranges and grapefruit in the winter.

So today I say goodbye to summer’s delicious stone fruits. One more perfect plum, and then eight or nine months without. Time to turn to the autumnal harvest for cooking and snacking inspiration. The wheel of the year turns, and we’re at the start of a new season, once again.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Just do it

I set my alarm Sunday morning for 6:30. Early for a weekend day, but on the Sundays that I’m not only going to church but also teaching Sunday school and need to be there early to prepare, that’s what time I need to get up if I want to fit in a four-mile run.

And I did want to fit in a four-mile run. At least I did when I got ready for bed on Saturday night. Four miles sounded just great. It would take me about 45 minutes, counting actual pack-up-and-get-out-the-door time (iPod connected, cell phone in waistpack, shoes tied, hat located, dog pacified since she doesn’t get to run with me on weekends), so as long as I was on the road by 7, it would work out well.

But I woke yesterday morning about 6:25 and listened to the rain on the roof and noticed how chilly the bedroom was and looked at the gray sky through the skylight and felt very different from how I felt on Saturday night. No longer did I want to go for a four-mile run at all. Nor a three-mile or two-mile run, or any run at all.

Just get up and go, I told myself. Just go ahead with the plan.

How about after church? the other voice in my head countered. When I’m awake, and there’s a little more daylight on the road.

The weather won’t be better after church, my conscience replied. Plus it’s an extra change of clothes if you go in the middle of the day. Get up and go.

But I’m drowsy and chilly and don’t want to go running.

Then just do a mile. Just get out there for a mile, and once you’ve done that, if you want to, you can do more, and if you don’t want to, you can stop.

This, as I so often say, is the number one reason to commit to a running streak. Being a streak-runner means never having to decide whether or not it’s a good day to go running.

No, there was no question I’d go running before the day ended, but does it have to be so early? the voice in my head went on. I’m up at 5:20 five days a week. Can’t I sleep late on weekends?

But of course, I knew from plenty of past experience how that would go. If I waited to go running, I’d needlessly waste stores of mental energy throughout the morning thinking about how my run still lay ahead. I’d get home from church and not feel like changing into my running clothes. It would be late afternoon and I’d still be dreading the thought of a run on a cold gray afternoon.

Or I could just roll out of bed and go, before I was fully conscious of what kind of day it was.

Just a mile, I reminded myself. If it’s not going well, you can stop.

But any runner knows how that goes, and why it’s such a good trick to use on yourself. As I used to tell Tim, after five minutes in the rain, you’re as wet as you’re going to get; might as well just keep going.

Besides, after five minutes of running, you remember why you run. Lying in a warm soft bed, it’s hard to re-create the feeling of breathing in fresh cool air, the rhythm of your feet against the roadway, the breeze, the smell of wet leaves. All you can remember while you’re lying in bed is why you don’t want to get up yet.

So I got up anyway, put on my running clothes, drank some water, headed out the door.

And as always, half a mile in, I wasn’t thinking about turning back. I was thinking about the next three and a half miles and how good it would feel to just keep running.

Roll out of bed. It’s a lesson I seem to learn over and over again. Rolling out of bed is often the hardest part of the run. And after that, it really truly is downhill all the way.