Monday, December 26, 2011

Blogging vacation

Taking a vacation from the blog this week. Back in 2012! Happy New Year, all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What a year

What a great year we’ve had. Only I didn’t fully realize it until it was almost over.

A few days ago, I woke up thinking that before January arrived, I’d need to take time to list all the significant events of 2011. This thought process always begins when I sit down in mid-December to write our yearly end-of-year Christmas card poem. I limit it to twelve stanzas, and the first and last are usually dedicated to the very general themes of introduction and conclusion, so that leaves me with ten stanzas for specific events. Needless to say, that’s never quite enough.

So maybe that’s why I woke with a list already scrolling through my mind like the crawler at the bottom of a TV screen. Once I started consciously focusing on it, I realized how many good things happened this year.

We met the wonderful people who ended up moving into our old house. Leaving our home on the farm was easier knowing how happy they were to be there. And they’re making fine use of their new setting, too: within six months of moving in, they’d acquired two cows.

We had amazing luck in finding a rental house elsewhere in town. We were lucky to find a rental house at all, not to mention such a comfortable and spacious one. But the fact that it’s on the edge of a state park with instant access to miles of hiking trails makes the deal seem almost miraculous.

We survived the move. Moving is never easy, and just thinking about those last few days of packing gives me a headache. But we did it. And fortunately, our buyers proved themselves to be the kind of people willing to call us any time they found something we’d accidentally left behind, and the less said about that the better, but let’s just say we’re lucky they’re so honest and ethical.

We had some wonderful getaways: weekends in Maine with friends, an overnight for the four of us in Boston, our summer trip to New York and Pennsylvania. And thanks to my thoughtful parents, I was even able to attend the summer writers’ conference in Colorado, where Mom and I had a joyful week together. One of my favorite snapshots of the year is the one of my mother, her two sisters and me dressed up for a dinner out together during the Colorado week.

We stayed healthy and safe. No accidents, no serious illnesses: not for ourselves nor anyone else in our close family. Those infrastructural problems that inevitably occur in the course of a year – extensive treefall, for example, following October’s snowstorm – could be easily fixed.

I received lots of great writing assignments. I wrote about a producer for This American Life, an ice cream entrepreneur, a child with muscular dystrophy who participated in his first half-marathon, an extended family who has maintained a family newsletter for the past twenty years. And, needless to say, I wrote plenty about the follies and foibles of my own spouse and children, as I always do. Rick stayed gainfully employed as well.

We had a couple of visits from Sarah’s family and a couple of visits from Lauren’s family. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner, a holiday cookie exchange, and a get-together for a far-flung group of my old high school friends. I spent an entire fall afternoon walking on a Maine beach with my college roommate, and I had brunch with a friend from Los Angeles whom I hadn't seen in 19 years. A dear friend from high school who now lives in the Bay area kept me company one morning while I cooked for the upcoming weekend.

And that’s only the beginning. I avoided missing any days of running, keeping the streak intact into its fourth year. Holly and Tim are doing well in school and enjoy strong social relationships. Even the dog has had a happy, healthy year.

It’s far too much for a Christmas card. I’ll have to write my own list of the highlights of 2011, not to try to rhyme it or be funny or clever or interesting but just so that I never forget what a great year it was. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. Commemorating it is the best I can do to pay it tribute. And so I will.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cooking oil, talcum powder: The smells of Chanukah

For the first night of Chanukah, I made a traditional latkes dinner, and the house filled with the fragrant aromas of this particular holiday.

Okay, that’s patently untrue. Sentimental, but untrue. The house smells like cooking oil no matter how much I run the kitchen fan, and not only that, my hands smell like dirt from peeling potatoes. Dirt is a pleasant smell in the spring when you’ve been out gardening, but it’s not as welcome when you can’t get it off your hands in mid-December.

Still, the latkes dinner was worth the stinky house left in its wake. It reminded me of the Chanukah parties my family partook of annually during my childhood. We’d go to my aunt and uncle’s house. Although Jewish traditions have phased out of our life almost entirely at this point, when I was growing up we still celebrated the major holidays with relatives. My favorite was Chanukah, just as it was with most kids: because of the presents, but also the food – latkes may in fact be the only Jewish ceremonial food anyone would actively choose to eat – and even the ritual of lighting the menorah. Even as a child, I enjoyed public speaking, just as I still do, and being asked to recite one of the readings was a treat for me.

My grandmother liked to shop at department stores, which was typical of her generation and station in life. She gave Chanukah gifts that I now realize were the kinds of things you find at department stores and were different from gifts I’d be likely to receive from anyone else, and I loved them despite what I now realize was their overall tackiness: bubble bath sets, perfume in fancy bottles marketed to little girls, miniature purses. The sharp, artificial floral scent of cheap talcum powder or bath salts still reminds me of getting presents from my grandmother.

Latkes were a once-a-year treat, and for good reason. I once read a description of this particular delicacy as “food that makes you feel like you swallowed a couple of rocks.” Not just one rock; a couple. And once I knew better, from a nutritional standpoint, I stopped seeking out opportunities to eat latkes. I certainly didn’t make them myself. But a year ago, I decided to try, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. Plus they tasted delicious and brought back good memories.

So last night I made them again. Like last year, they took much, much longer than I expected – we didn’t eat until 7:30, an hour later than usual – plus I ended up with twice as much batter as I needed; I should really make myself a note on the recipe for next year. And did I mention that the whole house smells? And that my friend Jen, who will not know last night was the first night of Chanukah and whom I have not seen in over a year, is coming over for coffee later this morning and will think my house always smells this bad?

But oh well. My grandparents are long gone and so are our Chanukah get-togethers. Once or twice each December, we’re over at my parents’ house at the right time to help them light their menorah, but most of what my kids know about the holiday comes from discussions at school. It’s not really part of our family tradition anymore.

Still, this is two years in a row of latkes. So even without the floral bubble bath or the general excitement of a high-profile holiday, maybe we’ll make this Chanukah dinner our new yearly tradition.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Seventy-five percent to Christmas

I’m about seventy-five percent ready for Christmas.

I’ve done about seventy-five percent of my Christmas shopping, but my Santa role requires me to take one or two more trips to the nearest retail hub.

I’m about seventy-five percent done with our Christmas cards, too: the newsletter-poem has been drafted and designed, and about one-third of those we’ll send out have been printed, but we need to make a Staples run for another printer cartridge and then print all the envelopes as well before they’re done.

My Christmas cooking and baking feels about seventy-five percent done. I’ve made truffles, toffee, peanut butter squares and peppermint bark for the candy assortments we make up for friends, neighbors and teachers, but I still have to make a peppermint cake for Rick’s office potluck later this week, and I need to make a couple of desserts for Christmas Eve as well.

The house itself seems about seventy-five percent to where I’d like it to be when Christmas Day arrives. It’s generally clean and tidy, but Holly’s room is still a disaster zone, and I definitely want to have it tidied up by Christmas. Not to her standards; to mine, which means I’ll be doing the tidying more or less on my own. Plus there’s one laundry basket of clean sheets and towels yet to fold.

Christmas is six days away. That last twenty-five percent niggles a little bit, but I’ll get there. It’s not such a bad position to be in right now. Christmas is, after all, only as complicated as you make it. The idea that we need to include four kinds of homemade candy rather than two or three, or that Holly’s room must be neat when Christmas morning dawns, or even what should be included in the kids’ stockings, is an idea entirely of my own construct, I realize.

What does it really take to celebrate Christmas? An eagerness to embrace the holiday, whether that means with all its religious significance or rather Christmas as a cultural celebration of family, friends and feasting.

There are plenty of people in the world without children for whom to buy stocking stuffers, parties for which to make desserts, family members for whom to plan a holiday dinner. Christmas festivities are ultimately whatever you make of them. I’m making a lot out of Christmas because I can. And that makes the final twenty-five percent feel entirely worthwhile, no matter how much it may seem to hang over my head.

Friday, December 16, 2011

O Christmas card, O Christmas card....

Due to various circumstances -- most of which fall under the category of personal laziness -- I hadn't been to the post office in three consecutive days when my 9-year-old and I finally stopped by yesterday afternoon. Our post office box was packed with envelopes. The two of us unstuffed it piece by piece, hauled the load home, and spent a very pleasant half-hour opening Christmas cards. As I should have realized, if you're going to take a three-day hiaitus from collecting your mail, mid-December is not the optimal time to do it; on a typical day during the holiday season, we receive as much personal mail as we often receive in an entire month or more at other times of year.

But it was worth it, because catching up on the trove of cards that had arrived during that time was so much fun. I know a lot of people don't enjoy Christmas cards as much as I do, but for me it's a hallmark of the season. And even though lots of satirists have fun poking fun at the different strains of holiday greetings, I can only say that I like them all. I like the posed, professionally produced family portraits. I like the funny offbeat candid snapshots of kids running through pumpkin patches or digging sand castles. I like those taken in people's back yards and those taken at the far reaches of the earth. I like seeing what people did in Disney World, at Niagara Falls, on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the Caribbean. I like those that were clearly intended to be Christmas cards as the shot was composed and those that have more of an "I guess this one will do" feel to them.

I like holiday newsletters, too. I don't mind when people go on and on about every twist and turn in their family's year. Perhaps because personal stories and how people tell them are such an integral part of my career, I'm interested not only in the facts people include but the subtext about what they chose to say and why. One of my friends wrote a fairly long newsletter but had exactly one paragraph about each child and one detail amplified in that one paragraph: a daughter learned to drive; a son started working at his school's radio station; another daughter is going to be in a play soon. How did she choose those singular details?, I wondered. Were there other ideas that she cast aside?

A few details that friends have chosen to include in the past struck me as unusual enough that I still remember them years later. One friend broke the news of her divorce, apologizing ahead of time for breaking the unspoken rule of including only good news in Christmas cards. Two different women I know who are both mothers of men in their 20's routinely discuss the goings-on of their sons' girlfriends, which I find a little odd -- these aren't even members of the family. But it's still interesting. One of my husband's childhood friends even once started a Christmas card with "Thank God that for once we don't have to start with the news that Tina is pregnant."

Our own Christmas card situation has me annually tearing my hair out. I decided the first year Rick and I were married to write a 12-stanza poem describing our year. It was a fun way to narrate events, and I discovered that the kind of people who complain in general about holiday newsletters don't seem to mind poems because of the poems' innate tongue-in-cheek quality: we're not boasting about anything, we're just trying to come up with rhyming couplets. After we’d done two years of holiday poems, a friend of my mother very offhandedly told me an anecdote about a young woman she knew who had done the same thing for a few years but then found it too hard to maintain the tradition. Needless to say, I took this as a challenge, and that's the primary reason that our holiday poem continues to exist nineteen years later. Now a small number of our friends even write little rhymes back to us.

In the past, we threw in a photo card as well, assuming that some recipients would read the poem, some would look at the card, and some might do neither. (Or both.) But as home-computer technology has improved, the cost of commercial printing has gone up, and the environmental impact of photographic dyes and materials has come into question, we ceased ordering glossy photos and just started embedding small snapshots into our newsletter.

It's one of those traditions I love for about 11 1/2 months out of the year, and then dread when it's time to start writing. But as with any big writing project I face, the sense of relief I have when it's behind me makes all the stress seem worthwhile. As Holly and I pored over the pile of cards we received yesterday, I thought about how those same people would be receiving ours in another few days. I hope they enjoy our work as much as I've enjoyed theirs. Because every single card I receive means something to me, and I hope it's a tradition that never stops.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More to "Hot Cross Buns" than meets the ear

Back in September when my 9-year-old announced she wanted to start instrument lessons, I didn’t dare to look ahead to the holiday band concert.

Too much stood in the way of any expectation that she would reach that point: the idea that she’d follow through from saying she wanted to take lessons to actually attending the weekly instruction; the practicing; having to get up an hour early once a week in order to be at band rehearsals before school. Too much of it just didn’t seem to play to Holly’s strengths. Since preschool days, she’s avoided team sports – even the ubiquitous suburban soccer leagues – and quit Girl Scouts without ever proceeding beyond Brownie level. She won’t attend Sunday school anymore, and she admitted she’d much rather have free time for playing after school than be part of the kids’ book discussion group at the library.

So I didn’t really expect her announcement in September about trying percussion to turn out much differently from soccer or Scouts. And I certainly didn’t expect we’d get through the first three and a half months and find ourselves seated in the school auditorium waiting for the curtain to go up on a chilly Tuesday evening in December.

But Holly attended her lessons. She practiced between lessons. She learned to lug her bell set on and off the bus and up the steps to the music building at school. She even managed to wake up a half-hour early each Wednesday morning for band rehearsal.

And once we were a couple of months into the routine, I began to look forward to the December concert.

It’s not that I expected to hear fine musicianship or a compelling range of musical selections. The first band concert of the first year of music instruction, which at our school is fourth grade, is instead a showcase of abilities that it would have been hard to imagine some of these kids possessing a few months earlier. Holly, and the other 79 fourth graders, demonstrated throughout the course of the 45-minute-long program that they were able to sit quietly in their seats. They kept their eyes on the conductor. They stood when he motioned them to stand, and they took their places on stage. They bowed on cue.

They played music, too, but in the end, that was the least of what impressed me. Hot Cross Buns and Jingle Bells aren’t difficult compositions, especially for the percussion section, where Holly has indeed made her musical home. What impressed me was the life skills they’ve developed in just these first few months of band: their focus, their respect, their ability to function as a group.

Naturally, Holly still had a few hallmarks of her usual maverick self. While the other girls donned velvet sashes and taffeta skirts; Holly insisted on black ankle pants, a long shirt, a scarf and black boots. Her wardrobe vividly reflected that she’s still not what you’d call a conformist. And she doesn’t need to be. I understand why she’s never found her way with soccer or Scouts or afterschool clubs. She likes to do things her own way and plan her own time.

But apparently not always. By being part of the band and part of this week’s performance, she showed another side: a side that recognizes the value, sometimes, of getting with the program. And as I watched her move with confidence and agility from her bell set to the snare drum to the bass from song to song, I realized that she had found a group she felt vested in.

It’s a start. And maybe by the June concert, I’ll even succeed with the velvet and taffeta dress.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pre-holiday getaway

When we first broached the idea with friends about going away this weekend, I acknowledged that in some ways it seemed like not the best timing. “I know every weekend in December is really busy with parties, plus there’s always Christmas shopping or baking or decorating to do….” I said tentatively. “But do you think it might work out to go away the second weekend in December anyway?”

And in some ways, as the date approached, it continued to seem like a silly idea. After we’d agreed it could be fun to be in Portland instead of home this past weekend, party invitations started arriving via snail mail and email, and I realized we’d miss out on some key social events. I looked at my Christmas preparations list and saw how much still needed to be done – not just the inevitable gift-shopping but also the card-writing and candy-making and Christmas tree-purchasing. I wondered why we didn’t pick a wide-open weekend sometime amidst the tedium of late January instead.

But there was still a sneaking suspicion that this could be a great weekend to go away. And it was. Holiday spirit abounded in Portland, and the city glowed with glittery ornamentation in a way that our quiet suburban town just can’t match. We toured a Victorian mansion decorated for a Civil War-era Christmas; we shopped at bustling downtown stores as part of a Downtown Holiday Stroll, and we viewed an exhibit of gingerbread houses.

Then, inspired by all the clever gingerbread architecture we’d seen, the four kids in our group made their own gingerbread houses. After dinner, we strolled to the Old Port to see the colorful lights on the outsides of buildings downtown as well as the pretty wreaths and somewhat more discreet ornamentation on our neighbors’ doors.

Rather than pulling us away from the holiday spirit, going away actually seemed to add to it. But it wasn’t only because of all the festivities. If I had stayed home for the weekend, I would have done a lot of cooking and some housecleaning and a little bit of shopping. Instead, we did a lot of walking throughout the city, ate some wonderful food, learned a little bit of history at the Victorian mansion, and had a great visit with our guests. Since we didn’t have a lot on the schedule, the kids could take all the time they wanted decorating their gingerbread houses, and when they were done, there was still nowhere else we had to be, so they went outside to toss a football around.

I’ve often wished our holiday season involved a little bit more time for nature and reflection and a little bit less time going to parties and addressing Christmas cards. Yet I wouldn’t want to do without the parties and cards and other holiday minutiae altogether. They’re part of the season also. But being out of town gave me the opportunity to focus on some of the aspects of the season that I tend to neglect: time outdoors, quality time with friends.

On Friday night after dark, I stood out on the balcony looking at the full moon over Casco Bay, with the masts of sailboats lined with holiday lights twinkling from the harbor below. It was a new perspective on the holiday season. And just like the rest of the weekend, it made stepping out of our usual holiday-season routine for a couple of days seem like a wonderful idea.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blanket praise

Last month, according to the Boston Globe, USA Today and numerous other news sources, the Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York, inducted three new items: Hot Wheels, the dollhouse and the blanket.

According to the article I read, “Curators said the blanket was a special addition in the spirit of two earlier inductees, the cardboard box and the stick. They praised its ability to serve either as recreational raw material or an accessory transformed in myriad ways by a child’s daydreams.

‘Blankets have been keeping people warm for centuries, but they have also been heating up kids’ imaginations,’’ serving as superhero capes and tents, said Christopher Bensch, the Rochester museum’s chief curator.”

If it were up to my 9-year-old daughter, blankets wouldn’t just be in the Toy Hall of Fame; they’d be in the Hall of Fame of Life, if there is one. Yes, she uses it as recreational raw material and for the traditional purpose of staying warm. She also uses it as clothing, napkin, apron, shroud, umbrella, puppet, carpet, slide and imaginary friend. Sometimes she even spreads it over puddles before she walks across, as if she’s a gallant knight offering the height of chivalry to herself.

Each of my children has one comfort object from which they have been inseparable since toddlerhood, but the two objects are very different. Tim’s is a pale green stuffed frog named Ba; Holly’s is a faded fleece baby blanket that once had a print of light brown puppies with red bows, though the pattern is all but indistinguishable now. At the ages of 9 and 13, the kids still need their objects close at hand; when we leave on overnights of any length, the first question I ask once they’re in the car is “Do you have Ba and Blankie?”

As Tim has pointed out, though, I don’t hide my biases well. He occasionally quotes me on a regrettable outburst in which I said “Ba is a member of the family; Blankie is just a blanket.” The kids were shocked that I could compare the two and announce which I preferred, almost as if I had just baldly announced which of them I liked better. But I maintain there’s no contest. To my mind, Ba just has a lot more character. He’s a creature, not a blanket. He has a name that isn’t the same as the name given every other copy of his kind. You can love a frog, whether it is alive or inanimate. But a blanket? Ba has eyes, a mouth, an expression. (These days, he doesn’t have much else; he’s so ragged after 13 years of affection that his limbs and torso have shredded into strings. But he still has a face.) Blankie has just….a lot of square inches of dirty gray fleece.

But Holly loves Blankie, and for that reason alone, I do too. She drapes Blankie over her face while she sleeps at night; when I go to wake her in the morning, I like peeling Blankie back slowly as if I’m opening a present, with Holly’s sleepy face under the wrapping. She totes Blankie down to breakfast with her and holds onto it (“Him!”, she insists on correcting me. Him? No comment.) until it’s time to leave for the bus; then she drapes Blankie as close to the door as she can in anticipation of a reunion in the afternoon.

A few days ago, I saw Blankie lying on the staircase in the middle of the school day as I was throwing a load of laundry into the washer, so I scooped it up and tossed it in along with the other dirty items. By the time Holly got home, Blankie was already in the dryer, but she was horrified by my temerity nonetheless. “You have to ask me!” she chastised. “What if I had needed him sooner?’

It didn’t help for me to protest that she was at school. To her, there’s always that chance that some kind of emergency will necessitate immediate contact with Blankie.

So I suppose the Toy Hall of Fame designation serves as something of a gentle rebuke to me. Blankie is more than just a scrap of material. Holly has insisted that for years, and now toy curators are backing her up, calling it recreation, comfort, an accessory to imaginary play and an agent of warmth. I should really try to appreciate Blankie a little bit more. And for the moment, freshly washed, fluffy and smelling of clean laundry, Blankie has my affection. Blankie, you’re no frog. You’ll never have a stitched-on smile or shiny glass eyes. But to Holly, you’re perfect, and that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unseasonably warm

It seems that people generally fall into two camps regarding the unseasonably warm weather with which December of 2011 has begun. Some, like my friend Jenn, are saying “The holiday season just isn’t the same without frosty air and snowflakes. Where’s the weather to set the mood? When can we say it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?” Others are just happy to be catching what feels like a little reprieve before true winter kicks in.

In past years, December has been a cold and snowy month, though last year’s epic snow accumulation didn’t begin in earnest until the day after Christmas. Nonetheless, this week’s temperatures in the sixties seem to mean something to everyone, whether positive or negative.

I’m a little reticent to admit it, but at the moment, I fall into the reprieve camp. I say “reticent” because relishing the unseasonably warm weather makes me feel, well, old. There was a time when I found snowstorms romantic; frigid mornings inspiring; icy ponds and frost-crusted branches magical. But that time was decades ago, when the driveway seemed to magically plow itself and the ultimate crowning touch to a snowy day was a school cancellation the next morning.

There are still plenty of things I like about winter weather. Snowshoeing, for one thing; and I’m looking forward to snowshoeing even more this winter because of all the trails near our new house. I like the surprise of getting to sleep a little bit late because school is closed and the kids don’t have to catch the bus. I like watching Tim and Holly go sledding together. I like the way the fields and woods throughout our town look when blanketed with snow.

And perhaps it’s only because I’m so sure all of that will still come within the next few months – or maybe weeks – that it’s easy for me to say I’m enjoying this unseasonably mild weather. But the fact is, temperatures in the 60’s or even 40’s, with the ground still dry, simply make life easier than deep snow and crusty ice. Last night was our annual town tree lighting. For the past several years, the weather has been uniformly freezing for that event: adults stamp their feet and dab at their runny noses while kids run in circles to stay warm while we sing carols and wait for Santa’s arrival by firetruck. True, it’s a little harder to be in the Santa mood when you can stand outside during the tree lighting in a sweater rather than a parka, but it still seemed like an easier evening overall this year than it has recently.

The weather is expected to change in the next day or two, and maybe then I’ll finally get some Christmas shopping and decorating done. Snow and cold are definitely a catalyst to getting into the holiday mood, as I learned when we had a foot of snow in late October and Holly started talking about her Christmas wish list even though it wasn’t yet Halloween. “It feels like Christmas!” she said on that October 30, and it did. Now it feels like September. But September is a beautiful month, and I’m going to breathe deeply of the mild damp air and enjoy it just a little more before I have to dig boots and gloves out of the basement for another long winter.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas candies and cakes and more

What I like least about Christmas: the pervasive awareness that for so many people, Christmas is not what they wish it was. It’s hard to celebrate wholeheartedly knowing how many people are unable to celebrate the way they would like to – and the way that so many marketing messages tell us we all should – because they are hobbled by illness or financial woes or physical distance from loved ones.

But there are many things I do like about the holiday season: the parties, the decorations, the special concerts and performances.

Way up at the top of the list of what I like about the holidays, though, is the food. Every year, the list of foods I traditionally make for the holiday season seems to grow. When we were in our twenties, Rick and I developed the habit of making truffles for gifts, and that was our sole holiday cooking ritual for years. But now the roster has expanded. The candy we make for gift-giving includes the original truffles but also peppermint bark, toffee, peanut brittle, and peanut butter balls. For entertaining, we make chocolate mousse pies, eggnog cheesecakes, peppermint chocolate layer cakes, at least two or three of each every season. For parties, we buy specialty cheeses and dips.

Sometimes I almost regret the fact that we eat so well all year long, diminishing the specialness of fine food on holidays, but we purposely avoid these special Christmas foods the other eleven months of the year so that they always seem like a novelty when their time comes around. It’s true that eating large and rich meals is not a luxury reserved for holidays, as it must have been for almost everyone centuries ago when a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast stood out markedly from the menus of the rest of the year. But the candies and eggnog cheesecake and peppermint layer cake are always something I’ve gone eleven months without, and the return to those savored treats are among my favorite things about the holiday season.

This week, I’ll start baking in earnest: for our annual cookie exchange party tonight among a small group of friends, for gifts for the kids’ teachers and our neighbors and other friends; later for Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day brunch. I could happily live without ever hearing another Christmas TV ad from Target or another story about Black Friday shoppers gone mad, and I wouldn’t even mind a ban on inflatable ten-foot-tall Santas in people’s front yards. But the tastes of Christmastime bring back all the best of the season to me, and I’m looking forward to the kitchen soon filling up with the aromas of chocolate and butter once again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Creative cow-tending

Despite visual evidence and pastoral sonnets to the contrary, life in the barnyard is in fact never dull.

As I wrote about recently, the herd has grown. And for a while, it looked like my cow-feeding responsibilities would end as a result. Twelve animals, ranging in size from medium to extra-large, just seemed like too many for me to deal with every morning.

But then they were divided by fences into smaller groups, which made it a little less intimidating, and it turned out that I didn’t want to give up barnyard duty after all. So once again, since the beginning of last month, I’ve been out feeding the cows every morning before my daily run.

The feeding season started out well. This week has been challenging, though. I thought I’d developed a foolproof system, one that would work even with a sub-herd of six bovines following me as I trek through the mud to the barn. Adhering to the successful method I developed last winter, I climb up the outside ladder to the loft and throw down some haybales, which is supposed to divert the animals sufficiently that I can then slip in and out of the front of the barn without anyone following me as I pull out a few more bales.

But we have a new animal named Gretchen who is very large and a little bit pushy. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Pushy is a relative term, and when you’re Gretchen’s size, simply ever-so-slightly-leaning, or standing with the slightest bit of sideways motion, can make you seem pushy to someone less than one-tenth your weight. Anyway, Gretchen is clearly a grass-is-always-greener type of girl – quite literally, in this case. She dives in eagerly enough as I toss bales down from the loft, but somehow by the time I slog my way through the mud around to the front of the barn, she’s always right behind me, certain that whatever bales I’m about to pull out for the other herd are inherently superior to those that she was offered.

Other cows, assuming a creature who is both larger than they are and more interestingly colored (black and white as opposed to their uniform red coats) must know something they don’t, follow suit, and before I know it, I’m hemmed into the lower level of the barn, unable to push the gate back open because they are all standing too close to it. So I throw out some more bales, but because they are all in my way, the bales more or less bounce off their sides and land on the ground, directly in front of the barn door. So the cows stand there and eat, and I still can’t get out.

Yesterday I solved the problem by climbing over the barn gate rather than opening it, sliding into the few inches between Gretchen and the side of the barn, and slithering my way to freedom. This is a bad idea in any conditions, given that the space between a large animal and a wall is not where you most want to find yourself; and an even worse idea given the current mud conditions in the barnyard, where getting anywhere quickly – or, in this case, out of anywhere quickly – could present a problem to boots that can’t lift out of the ooze.

Today I solved it more creatively. When Gretchen and a few of her compatriots stood directly in front of the barn, I placed hay bales on their broad backs and let them roll off the other side. The animals turned toward the hay once it fell, and I made my escape.

It’s not a great solution, but in the barnyard, as in life, circumstances are ever changing. Within the next few weeks, the current configuration of animals is likely to change – some will be moved for breeding; others for weaning – and it will be less complicated when there isn’t such a high concentration of critters in any one place. The mud will turn to frozen ground, and that will make general navigation of the terrain easier as well. Moreover, Gretchen might wise up to the fact that there’s no difference between the bales I’m throwing down from the loft and those I’m trying to hoist out of the lower level, and then maybe she’ll eat contentedly near the loft and leave me to pass in and out of the front of the barn unobstructed.

Between the three, that last possibility is the one I’m least inclined to bet on. But it could happen. The grass may be always greener, but the hay is always….hay-colored. Maybe the animals will realize that. And if not, I’ll just keep finding new and creative ways to vault over them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and somehow, if need be, I’ll come up with a bovine circumnavigator of some kind before the winter ends.