Guy on Window

Bizarre as it was – the sounds, the images, the mind associations – no one flinched. No one asked for an explanation, no one cared. We all just carried on as if there weren’t a guy on the window, as if a guy on the window happens every day. Let’s take GUY ON WINDOW one word at a time.

GUY: Guy refers to a male generally, unless it’s used in the “What do you guys want to drink?” colloquialism, but that is a different conversation. I am from New Jersey. When we say “I know a guy” it means “I know a man who does X [and I can talk to him about doing X for you].” I have often been amazed at how, for the most part, even from afar (though this is not foolproof of course), we can instantly tell if someone is male or female just from how they stand or walk or gesture. We don’t need to see their face. We don’t need hairstyle or other typical gender signifiers. They can be bundled in bulky clothes. Something about the image tells us “male” or “female.” I’d put money on it: this was a guy on the window.

ON: On is a preposition that implies adherence to or connection to another object. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, “on” means “in or into a position covering, touching or forming part of a surface” as in

“a picture on a wall

There’s a mark on your skirt.

the diagram on page 5

Put it down on the table.

He had been hit on the head.

She climbed on to the bed.

What you don’t see here in this list of possible uses for “on” is “guy on window” or even “there’s a guy on the window.” Because it’s unusual. When I say on, in this case, I mean in-a-position-touching-the-surface-of-[the-vertical-third-floor-window].

WINDOW: Windows are generally glass and generally flat planes. This one was. Sometimes they open to let in air, and sometimes they are sealed shut. The kind in office buildings, especially on upper levels, are usually sealed. This one was on the third floor, and it was sealed. Windows need to be cleaned now and then. This one apparently did.

Of course we weren’t sure what was going on at first. At first all you saw was a foot.

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I was waiting for my mom to get through her appointment with the eye doctor.  There are many aspects to the appointment – various tests and various waiting periods. When you go there as the driver, you know it will be a while. Last time it took almost two hours. This time was better, only an hour and 35 minutes. Still, that’s a lot of time to observe what is going on.

Those of us sitting in the waiting room had heard water being sprayed. We had seen water streaming down the window. Someone new walked in and said, “Is it raining?”

No, not raining, but oh, look, there’s a guy on the window. Yeah, so, a guy on the window. Big deal. He has the right equipment. The water he uses to clean the windows with comes out of the nozzle because it is hooked up to a system that supplies it. He is agile enough to manage this job. He is strong enough to hold everything. He is not afraid to be up that high, though he is strapped in somehow I’m sure. He is paid enough for him to want to do this work. The businesses in this building are doing well enough to pay someone to wash the windows. The building is well made so that no water seeps through. Etc!

So much has to be in place just for this one guy to clean the windows!


I thought about this today while Samuel and I were driving to Vermont. It took 12 hours, the first five of which were in horrible rain. Despite the rain and the accompanying driving conditions, we realized that it’s remarkable to be able to drive 650 miles in one day. Like the guy on the window, so many factors have to be in place for this to happen: We have to have a car that runs, money to put gas into it, good health to be able to make a trip. The roads have to be in good repair, we need to be able to find the gas to put in the car, so there must be gas stations along the way. The state borders through which we travel (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont) – indeed all of the states in the US – allow free travel – no border stops, no restrictions, just keep going. We have jobs and schedules that give us the time to travel. Etc!

And because of all of this, now I get to spend several days with my sweet granddaughters and help my son and his wife with their new house – his straw-bale-insulated, pentagonal house on six rural acres in Vermont, which I will tell you more about soon.

In the meantime, remember that the things to be grateful for never end.

The Right Knife for Slicing Biscotti

Yesterday I quadrupled my biscotti recipe. That’s a lot of biscotti! But I like giving them as gifts, and in this gift-giving season, a pile like this comes in handy.

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I have made these lemon-anise-almond biscotti many times, but this time I had a problem. I formed the loaves and baked them until they were firm to the touch, but I’ve got things to do, you know, so when they came out of the oven, still hot, I wanted to slice them right away.

This has been a challenge for me before, but it was worse today – as I sliced the hot loaves, every time my knife hit a larger almond piece, the piece started to break apart, especially at the edges. You don’t want this. See how some of them are full pieces and some have broken edges?

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You want full pieces. You want all full pieces. Why was this happening?? I was not using my ordinary, everyday serrated knife, the one that fits in my wooden block holder, the one I’ve been using so long that its teeth are worn down (which would surely jam up against the almond pieces and cause breakage).

Instead I was using what I consider my best serrated knife, the one I hold in reserve for special jobs. It lives in the drawer because there’s no slot for it in the wooden block. It’s hefty and shiny and has very sharp teeth (for making short work of almond pieces) and I think it was expensive. It looks expensive. (It was a gift so I can’t be sure.) I was being very careful. Okay, the loaves were still hot, but that shouldn’t matter so much.

But I can’t have broken pieces. It’s true that they would taste just as good, but c’mon, I am not going to give them as gifts. And I am not going to eat them myself (no nuts for me, and almonds are the worst). And I would feel pretty bad saying to someone Here, would you like the broken ones? Yet they seem too good for the chickens!

Then I looked at that gorgeous knife as if it’s the knife’s fault that I had this problem, and I realized: It’s the knife’s fault! It’s too fat! Heft in a knife is perhaps not always ideal. I then remembered another serrated knife that I got at the county fair decades ago, you know the kind: “This knife will slice through wood” and some guy behind a table is demonstrating the amazing strength and sharpness of a $5 knife with a plastic handle. You can hardly believe it’s that good but you see the proof for yourself. I had bought the knife. It didn’t fit in the holder either so it too lived in the drawer. And there it was.

These are the two knives side by side, the poor cousin and the rich uncle.

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Standing up on their teeth, look at the difference in their thickness. And see what a difference in the slicing!!

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That cheapo knife made perfect slices for me every time. See how each piece on this baking sheet is a full piece, like the one I’ve outlined in red, no broken edges?

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Needless to say, I was very happy I had kept the cheap one, very happy to have the right tool for this job. Bigger, heftier, pricier and stronger is not always better. Only one question remains.

What should I do with the broken pieces??

The Value of Failure

I play a Scrabble-like word game online. One person I play with kills me, I mean decimates me, I mean against him I have a batting average of .166, and probably I won the games I won only because he was not paying attention. Overall my success with this game (like my life, one could argue) is all over the map. The beauty (or curse) of online play is that it keeps track of wins and losses, from which my simple calculations reveal my current averages of .853, .714, .636 (i.e. usually I win these games, but not always), .262 and .315 (besides the .166, usually I lose these, but not always) and .533 and .555 (neck in neck).

A recent game looked like this. I lost. (Bravo, Nancy!)


The statistics do not reflect whether you lose by 33 points or by 3 or by 147. If you lose, you lose. That’s the way games work. That’s life. (Deal with it.)

I am not a super competitive person and do not stress about the score or the win-loss stats. In fact I seldom look at them. Today was the first time (for the sake of this post) that I calculated my batting average. I do not take great joy in beating someone. Nor do I lose sleep over how poorly I stand up next to opponents who make short work of me. I just play. It’s a game.

But in the years I’ve been playing it, I’ve learned a few tricks such as not flippantly using valuable letters like S, J, Q, Z and H, not setting up your opponent for an easy triple, and playing parallel rather than perpendicular words whenever possible. I’ve learned that OK is not an acceptable word but OKAY is. I’ve learned (and try to remember) words like KA, XU, EME and QAT. Unlike the board game on your coffee table, the online version allows you to keep trying combinations until you get one that works. Sometimes you simply don’t have the right letters. Sometimes you say “I didn’t know HOER was a word!”

Against one person I am batting 1.000. 14 wins, 0 losses. Good for me, bad for him, right? Poor fellow. A wonder he still wants to play, wouldn’t you say? It all started when, not long ago, I told him about the game and he said he wanted to play. You’re the writer but I know how to play, he said. Being a writer has nothing to do with it, I tried to tell him. The three people who clobber me the worst in Scrabble or Wordfeud (you know who you are!) are not writers. Instead, they recognize and remember patterns (including spellings) and they play strategically, blocking my moves and setting up their own. Sometimes you get lucky and all the letters you need for a great word are just there. Yay! Sometimes you have them but you have no place to put them! Sometimes you have awful letters, and you have to make the best of it.

Back to: “in the years I’ve been playing.” Some people play solitaire in their idle moments, some check the weather, some text their friends. I play Wordfeud. With time and practice, my game has improved. I tried to tell this to my batting-1.000 opponent. I tried to say You are new at this. I have been playing for years. Give it time. And I tried to give him hints, such as never getting one point for an S. Be careful with S’s. They are very valuable.

The first time he said “I give up” during a game, I said “You don’t have to play.” No one was holding a gun to his head about it. He kept playing so I assumed he was willing to try to learn the tricks and the strategy and the obscure words. There is no other way to learn, right? Experts don’t fall from the sky, as they say in German. In my early days of playing tennis, I played as much as possible with people who were better than I was (if I could get them to want to play with me) because you get better by playing with someone who is better than you are. You write better by reading the prose or poetry of someone who writes better than you do (and paying attention and trying to learn from their mastery). You cook better by following the guidance of someone who cooks better than you do. You build a better bench by working with someone who has made a bench before.

You don’t necessarily win the Wordfeud game (or make it to the USOpen, or write a Pulitzer Prize winner, or land your own cooking show, or remember how to use the biscuit joiner next time), but you get better, and in the big picture, this is what you want.

Near the end of our most recent game, he said “I give up” (again) in the game’s chat function.


“I don’t know all the secret words like Qi and have no chance because of that.”

I don’t know how anyone could think that after only 14 games, they should know what they need to know and have learned what they need to learn. I should perhaps have had more compassion, or at least more empathy in regard to his bruised ego, but I felt disappointed. I am a slow learner myself and have played hundreds of games to get to my own particular skill level, and I have absolutely no doubt that Mark, Lincoln and Samuel would still kill me if we played a game tonight. But they wouldn’t kill me as bad as they have in the past!

What I know for sure is that you don’t improve if you give up. You don’t succeed if you give up. Just ask Michael Jordan.  “Twenty-six times,” he will tell you, twenty-six times he was “trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.” He failed sometimes, he failed miserably sometimes, but he kept on playing. Ask J.K. Rowling or Warren Buffet* or any of the highly successful people in the world who got to their pinnacle only after many failures, devastating failures, failures that would cause other people to give up.

Granted, there are times when giving up is the right or expedient or sensible thing to do. I’m not saying you should do your own wiring if you are not comfortable with the fuse box. Or that you should enter a marathon if you can’t run a 5K. But if you set out to learn something new or do something new or improve something you do only marginally well, there will be failures, stumbling blocks, challenges, points of frustration – whatever you want to call them. They are par for the course, a term borrowed from golf meaning the normal or expected. It is normal to fail sometimes. Unless you fail sometimes, you won’t improve. Failure is a good teacher if you don’t let it debilitate you.

You want to learn a game? Play the game. My friend Fred played golf yesterday when it was 38F – rather nippy! – but he is determined to improve his skills, to learn to play better than he does now. When I told him I played tennis in the cold many times, he asked, “Did people call you crazy too?” Maybe, but I didn’t care.

You want to learn how to cook? Cook something. My friend Millicent made a quiche the other day with ham, bacon, cheese, spinach and onion. She was super excited not only that it turned out super well but also because “I feel like I accomplished something today.”

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Fred and Millicent are not sitting around wishing they were good at golfing and cooking. They are golfing and cooking – tentatively perhaps, with full knowledge that they have a ways to go perhaps – but they are golfing and cooking.

Golf, cook, play, tinker, build, write, DO whatever you enjoy and want to get better at. Just keep doing it.


*Many thanks to Jeff Stibel for his wonderful Profiles in Failure articles.

First Snow for the Chickens

Today it snowed! It doesn’t always snow when they say it will, but today the weather forecasters were right. We have at least six inches and it’s still coming down, which negated our plans to go see the Russian Ballet perform the Nutcracker on stage in Charlottesville this evening. I’m not sure I ever had to forfeit theater tickets before because of weather. But Samuel made his homemade pizza instead and that was quite a consolation.

Even if it wrecks your theater plans, snow is so beautiful.When it first started to blanket the cedar tree in the middle of the circle, I could see from inside the house the white Christmas lights through the light frosting of powder – it was magical. Outside it was very pretty too, but you could hardly see the lights.

I headed for the garden shed to get the snow shovels and realized that this was the first time my chickens have seen snow! They hatched at the beginning of this past March and were indoors for their first 6-8 weeks. How would they like it? What would they do?

What would you do if you were a chicken? Do you see any chickens?? I didn’t!

Oh, there they are! Underneath! I did not expect a snowy day to turn into an I-feel-proud-of-my-chickens day, but it did. I have Smart Chickens! My chickens stayed out of the snow!

The stuff is cold and wet! What did you expect??

Anyway where did all the bugs go?

I somehow expected the Sewing Circle to be this sensible. They are the bigger hens (which does not make them smarter, I know!), and their sheltered area leads directly into their coop. I’ve marked their little door leading inside, or where it starts anyway – it’s behind that post. I watched them and wondered if they would go inside or continue to tramp around in their very small un-snowed-upon area not wanting to get their cold feet. All they have to do is go up a small ramp from where they are and they will be fully sheltered inside the coop.

In no time they went in on their own, not quite sure what to do in there in the daytime. Normally they come in here only to sleep and to lay eggs. Hey, ‘scuse me, pardon me, looking for something to eat here!

To my delight the Bridge Club was also trying to stay dry! There they were, all huddled up in an even smaller un-snowed-upon area.

It’s cold, lady!

And there’s no way inside from here!

We’re stuck!

It’s true. The configuration of the new coop and run is different than the old one. To get inside, these chickens would have to venture into the white, wet stuff and then make their way up a much bigger, possibly slippery ramp. See it in this next photo?

Poor little silkies! You can tell from how fluffy their heads are that they did not get wet first and then seek shelter. Good little silkies! Why is it that I don’t feel as sorry for their coop-mates? Oh, right, that group includes the one that thinks she’s a rooster, croaking out a sickly sounding half-crow now and then, and the one that won’t let you catch her easily, even when you need to, and the one that insists on bullying the silkies every single morning when I let them out! (She still does, yes, and the silkies endure it…)

But one and all were cold and getting colder, so we picked them up (though none seemed the least bit happy about it), and put them inside their coop and shut the door against the wind. None of them had to get their feet wet or brave the ramp. When it gets warm again we should perhaps build them an easier way in, like a wheelchair ramp, long and gradual, nice and wide (well, maybe not wheelchair-wide!) so they don’t worry on their way up or down. Is this necessary? Would you do this for them?

Pug Meets Pig

You have to wonder about dogs sometimes: what matters to them, why they get excited about this but not that, how they process our interactions with them. For the moment, this is the dog I’m talking about. Coco, what’s going on inside that funny-looking head of yours?

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Samuel presents her with various challenges such as putting her in a closet…

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… putting her in a box…

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…and standing her on a bookshelf.

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Does she care? Is she saying to herself (in whatever way pugs and other dogs say to themselves) What’s up with these humans? I was just trying to have a nice nap. Is there any good reason to be bothering me right now?

The questioning goes two ways. Much as I expect she is clueless about our behavior sometimes, about why or how she ends up in a closet or in a box or on a shelf, we are equally clueless about her behavior. Let’s go for a walk with her.

At this time of year my gravel road has lots and lots of fallen leaves along the sides. The cars going by, few as they are, must provide enough air movement in the right direction for the leaves to land everywhere except in the road itself. For whatever reason, these leaves are really interesting to Coco. There’s a treasure of a smell every few steps it seems.

But okay, let’s keep going because down the road a piece there are, right now, two very large and amusing pigs to visit.


My neighbor Tracy’s very well cared for and fortunate pigs wander around their exceptionally spacious (for pigs) fenced-in area all day looking for acorns they missed or taking a snooze in a patch of sunshine. They seem to love visitors. You approach and they come. You are something to do, an attraction, a point of interest.

Hello! (I love this picture!)


A few days ago Samuel and I took Coco with us on a walk. We were curious what would happen when the pug would meet the pig(s). Initially, what happened was exactly what you would expect to happen.

Uh, hello, what on earth are you?


The pig approached, and they sized one another up. You have to assume more olfactory activity than we could ever imagine (especially with a nose like that!), and who knows what, besides the intense and new smells of each other, they notice. Curiosity lingered a moment, then they both decided to get a little closer and the other pig joined the party.  Hmmm, similar nose, different color, different size, different ears!

Pig 1: Hey, sister, what’s happening?…. What IS that??


Pig 2: I don’t know. Looks like an alien. Vaguely familiar nose though.

Coco: I beg your pardon!

Pig 1: Why is it here? What does it want?

Pig 2: Doesn’t look edible.

Pig 1: What good is it if it’s not edible?

Coco: Hey, watch what you say about edible!

Pig 2: Gotta admire that nose though, smooshed flat the way a nose should be.

Pig 1: It has the nose going for it, I agree. Maybe it wants to play?

Coco: Oh, look, these leaves smell so marvelous!!

And off she went! No longer interested in pigs! Practically perfect pig pals, no less!

Pig 2: Was it something we said?

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Really, Coco?

Coco: If you knew how amazing these leaves smell, you would be on your hands and knees with me! I know that’s a pain for you, bending those ridiculous long legs so you can get to a reasonable height off the earth. The human design is so unhelpful when it comes to smelling leaves and other super important things. By the way, this is super important and I don’t mean to be rude but… busy here!

The preoccupied, party-pooping (possibly pampered) pug pursued personal priorities while these pleasingly plump, perfectly peaceful, pleasantly personable pigs at the pinnacle of their porcine pudginess pondered a plan to play! Positively perplexing!

Isn’t it the same among family and friends though? We get why the people we know or encounter do some things, many things even, but sometimes their behavior is incredible, bizarre, mysterious, absurd. Why, for example, do some people choose vanilla when chocolate is available? I will never understand!

I recently came across a marvelous, short Alain de Botton video about marriage and partnership that makes a similar point about confusing-behavior reciprocity, a.k.a. tolerating each other’s quirks. Why does my husband/ wife/ partner/ girlfriend/ boyfriend/ friend/ colleague/ neighbor/ dog (!) do [….X….]? Weird! Maddening! Crazy! Or maybe just Confusing. Inexplicable. Bizarre. Absurd…

The fact is: You see the other person’s issues much more plainly than you see your own. You have things to tolerate which do indeed get under your skin, and you forget that you (most likely) get under their skin sometimes too.

Why does Coco care more about the leaves than about the pretty pigs? Whoever knows! But she does, and from that moment forth, the pigs didn’t exist for her. Eh. Pigs. Smelled one, you’ve smelled ‘em all. So what. But these leaves!!



My Wood Stove Reminded Me of Bats in a Cave

Something bad almost happened this past weekend. It didn’t, but it might have. Perhaps an unseen mechanism, a force I cannot put my finger on, came into play, like the one that keeps thousands of bats from bumping into each other in a pitch-black cave. Perhaps the confluence of circumstances simply sum-totaled into not-a-disaster, so instead of the standard butterfly effect, where small, seemingly insignificant things having a surprising effect on a complex system, small, seemingly insignificant things actually saved the day. Perhaps divine intervention, the hand of God, moved the pieces on the playing board.

I’m going with the hand of God, but the bats always intrigued me. My children had a wonderful book called Animals Do the Strangest Things.* It includes the lion who “lets his noble wife do most of the work,” the platypus that may be “left over from a long, long time ago” and the “dear, long-nosed, gentle giant [elephant] one of man’s best friends in the animal world.” In the very short chapter on bats, we read about the squeaking sound bats make and how it “bounces right back” when it hits anything in its way (including other bats), so that he “knows there is something there” and can avoid bumping into it.

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The bats not bumping into each other in the cave always make me think of how many collisions/accidents/mishaps don’t happen, how many we somehow avoid, how much more pain, loss and heartache there could be, but isn’t.

Cottage guests here this past weekend came in separate cars and parked them in the driveway circle in such a way as to block my car and prevent other cars from getting close to my house. I understand. It had been late when they arrived the night before, and they probably didn’t even see that it was a circle. Were I a visitor, I would have parked where they did too. But Lynn and Billy, my sister and her husband, were going to pick up Mom and Jerry on their way here for a visit, and they would need to get close to the house – the less walking across my driveway stones, especially in bad weather, the better.

I needed to go ask my guests to move their cars. You can’t do this too early in the morning on a Saturday. You don’t want to disturb guests. But it was getting on toward 11:00 and I expected Lynn and Billy soon. I did what I had to do. I knocked on the cottage door. One of the lovely women staying here for a girls’ getaway weekend opened the door in a friendly way, invited me in and was completely understanding when I explained my request. She couldn’t have been nicer. I had hardly finished asking when I noticed some of the others gathering their keys to go move cars. All good so far.

That’s when I glanced over at the wood stove. I was actually quite pleased to see live coals through the glass, and remarked happily, “Oh, look, you were able to keep the fire going.” I said this because when one of the women had checked in the day before, she had seemed skeptical about the wood stove and her/their abilities in regard to it. In fact, she had said, “There’s no way we can screw that up, right?” She was by herself at that point, having arrived ahead of her friends.

I had explained its simple operation, in particular the lever that adjusts the amount of air allowed into the inner space. The more air, the hotter it burns, I explained. To the right is more air,


to the left is less.


With a bit more instruction and caution, the same instruction and caution I give all my guests during wood stove season, I had left her to it. I tell people what to do, not what not to do. Namely, I have not made a habit of telling them how get a lot of air into the stove and therefore create a super-hot fire. I don’t want anyone making super-hot fires. I don’t want to plant ideas about super-hot fires.

When I glanced over, all I saw was the glow of hot, live coals in the bed of the stove through the blackened glass. I surmised that someone in the group was familiar with wood stoves and had overseen the loading and tending. Many of my guests love the wood stove. For some it’s the highlight of their stay. “I spent hours in front of the fire. It’s so relaxing,” one of them wrote recently. Controlled fire is good, warm, comforting. And clearly, on this cold Saturday morning, it was low and could use more wood.

“While I’m here,” I said after some of them went out to move cars, “how about if I load the stove up again for you?” I saw that the inside supply of wood was also low and I could load that up too.

“That would be great,” she said.

I got an armful of wood from the outside pile, brought it in and filled the stove. I went out again for more, and again for more – filling both the stove and the inside hopper. This took five minutes at most. When I came in with the last armful, I saw a blazing – and I mean blazing – fire going in the stove. The only way for it to get going that well that fast is if the lower ash box door is open, such as in this photo.

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The ash box is useful and necessary, but not for guests. As wood burns, it creates ash that falls through the slits in the bottom of the stove and into a removable box. Every few days, if wood is continually burned in the stove, you need to empty the ashes or they will build up and block the air flow. The door, which has a very tight seal, opens with the wood-handled lever you see in the photo (wood because otherwise it’s too hot to touch). You open it, pull out the ash box, empty it in the garden where the ash helps the next generation of plants, put it back in and close the door up tight. The guest should never have to worry about this bit of maintenance. I had not said anything about opening the ash box door.

You can’t even see this door unless you get down on the floor. You have to know it’s there, and you have to have some experience to know that besides being an ash-collection system, opening it even ever so slightly (and leaving it that way) will result in more air – too much air – getting into the stove and causing the fire to burn very hot. Untended and left open, very quickly there could be a fire in the stovepipe. Or worse.

Thank God they left too many cars in the circle. Thank God I had a reason to go over there and came in when I did. Thank God I glanced over at the stove. They were shortly going to leave to go out wine-tasting at some of the local vineyards and then out to dinner. I closed the door up tight, explained why it needs to be left that way and carried on.

Bad things happen sometimes, it’s true. Sometimes it’s beyond bad – it’s horrible, tragic, devastating. Sometimes it veers into the unthinkable. We all can bring to mind examples of how bad bad can be. On Sunday night we watched another: Loving Pablo, a film about Pablo Escobar’s reign of horror in Columbia in the 1980s. My fire-that-didn’t-happen, even if it had happened, doesn’t even compare. No question though, stress happened and fear of what might have happened happened. Rethinking how to explain the wood stove operation happened. But bad fire did not happen. Thank God.

But tell me what you think: Should I tell my guests about the ash box? Should I tell them what it’s for, what it does and to leave it alone? Should I take the chance that people will do things because you tell them not to, or trust that they will leave alone what you tell them to leave alone, or take the chance that they will not see or open the ash box door (or worse, leave it ajar)? I know there are no guarantees in this world, that accidents happen. We all know you can take every precaution, and accidents will still sometimes happen. No matter what you do, bad things will still sometimes happen. But I do not want to live in fear or be straight-jacketed by it. Humans have been responsibly tending fires for untold numbers of years, and I do not want to get in the way of my guests doing the same and gaining warmth and pleasure from it. The question is: How to present the information.


* Animals Do the Strangest Things by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow, illustrations by Michael K. Frith, Scholastic Step-Up Books, Random House, New York, 1964

A Smart Phone at 88

Last week Jerry decided to get a smartphone. I give him a lot of credit. His jitterbug served him well. It made and received calls the way a landline can’t – he could take it with him when he left his house and it would work. But he wanted a smartphone, so we went to Verizon and got him a smartphone. Jerry will be 89 in January.

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Going through this process with him, helping him choose one and then, most importantly, figure out how to make a call, has opened my eyes (yet again) to the things we take for granted, the things we have learned but don’t remember we actually had to learn, the things that are not as self-evident as they might appear. For example:

Your smartphone can be “on” but not “on” and “off” but not “off.” The power being on and the home screen being visible are two different things. Another way to look at this is that the phone can be on but the screen can be off. Problem is, when the screen is off, it looks like the phone is not “on” (though it might be and probably is, but it depends on whether the power is on). The little button on the side (or the back, or the bottom, depending on where it is on yours) turns the power entirely on or off only if you hold it down/in long enough, but once the power is on, you have to press that same button – but not for as long! – to get a visible screen and for your phone, which was “on” before, to appear “on.”

The amount of touch, the very weight of the tip of your finger on an icon so that you can get from one screen to another, is not intuitive. Those of us who graduated from one cell phone to the next don’t realize how we have adapted to the incremental changes in technology. Somewhere around here I have my first cell phone, a gold-tone Nokia that I could not find to take a picture of (but I did find some scarves I was missing!!). I got that Nokia in 2001, and all the buttons were physical – you pressed them and heard a click and that made something happen. My next phone was a flip phone – how cool was that!? – physical buttons still, and with three letters of the alphabet on each of the number pads, you could even text. (You may remember that you had to hit the 1 once to get A, twice (fast) to get B and three times (fast) to get C, but hey, we could text!!) From there I went to a flat screen where there are no physical buttons. That was a bit of a learning curve, but I needed it for work and everyone around me seemed to manage it, so sooner or later I got comfortable with that too.

But you have to get-to-know and practice-til-perfect how much pressure to place on a given icon. On my phone, if I hit the green phone icon in the bottom left corner lightly (see the green phone icon with the little 1 showing one missed call?),


I get to my phone list. Touching that icon with just the right amount of pressure takes me to the screen that can toggle between RECENTS (a reverse-chronological list of calls made and received) and CONTACTS (my full phone directory including all numbers I have saved in alphabetical order).

If I hold the tip of my finger on that same icon too long, I don’t get to my phone list. It gives me other options:


These other options have their place , and I might even use them someday, but if all I want to do is make a call, and I get these other options instead because I didn’t judge the amount of finger-pressure right, I might (rightly) get frustrated. And it’s not just the phone icon that gives you other options when you hold it down longer.

Randomly hitting buttons will affect your phone’s operation. When Jerry first got his phone, I spent an hour or so with him going over HOW TO MAKE A CALL. I wrote it down step by step, which thing to press and what you will find when you get there. Repetition, repetition, repetition is the name of this game. I came back the next day and found numerous screenshots in his gallery. He does not know what a screenshot is, let alone how to make one. But clearly he hit the home button and the power button at the same time – numerous times – and inadvertently made numerous screenshots.

This morning Mom called me to say that the two of them were “practicing” making calls, but his phone wasn’t ringing. It was just buzzing. Sounds to me like he turned the volume off, Mom. And I walked her through finding the Volume Up button and pressing it until she saw the horizontal blue volume bar that appears at the top get increasingly longer. Oh, that works. Clearly he hit the Volume Down button enough times to inadvertently turn off the volume.

When to swipe and when to touch is not intuitive. When your phone rings, swiping (starting at the larger green phone icon that appears on the lower part of the screen) is the way to answer it when it is not currently in use – i.e. when your phone is either not “on” in the visible screen sense or is not currently occupied with a different app(lication). Touching (the smaller green phone icon that appears on the upper part of the screen) is the way to answer it when the phone IS currently in use – i.e. when your phone is “on” (in the visible screen sense) and is currently occupied with a different app(lication) such as you are in the middle of texting someone or you are reading a restaurant review.

But who thinks this through and realizes the difference? Again, those of us who have been incrementally learning this stuff have learned to swipe when the green phone icon is big and there are arrows moving in the direction of the needed swipe and to touch when the green phone icon is small and the tiny word ANSWER is underneath it. If you are new at this, if you have never used a touch screen before, you don’t necessarily, intuitively, know when to swipe and when to touch. As Jerry puts it, you just want to answer the damn phone.

The challenging nuances of making a call seem unnecessarily cumbersome until you are familiar with the process and have begun to appreciate the value of the many options you have regarding each and every call. But think about it, a four-year-old can learn a foreign language much more easily than an adult of almost any age. Likewise, making the switch in one leap from a mechanical device that serves simply to make and receive calls to an electronic device that can also turn your lights on when you are not at home, track your children’s precise whereabouts and translate a piece of foreign text in a flash is a very big leap.

My Aunt Judy put it well in an email to me this morning:

It’s tough “teaching” us “oldies but goodies” stuff that’s technical, but what goes around comes around. I remember trying to tell my aunt how to operate the “stereo” (young ones probably don’t even know what that word is ??????). Anyway I kept thinking, “But it’s so simple!”  Oh well, now it’s me – you tell me, and it sounds good, but will I remember it tomorrow????   Hey, we oldies are happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning.  

Amen to that. Let us ALL be happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning!

A Saint Barbara Day Cake!

Last week Mom told me she was invited to a “tiny tea party” on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, a party that included all the Barbaras who live in her community. The host is a Barbara who has been hosting Barbara tea parties since starting the tradition in Park City, Utah, in 1999. What a lovely idea!

I asked the host if I could come and take a few pictures. Here they are posing with a cutout of Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was Norma Jeane, not Barbara. Whatever. You don’t get to pose with Marilyn every day.


And again the Barbaras at the table with Norma Jeane looking on – see her in the mirror? (Another Barbara came later and another had the date mixed up.) During the party, Host Barbara (in red) showed them various St. Barbara items she has collected over the years and even gave them a crossword puzzle entitled “Barbaras We Have Known.”

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“St. Barbara was quite a lady,” Mom’s invitation had said. Indeed she was. Virtuous, beautiful, locked in a tower by her self-serving father, Barbara of the legend lived in the third century, converted to Christianity (when that was not the thing to do) and was publicly humiliated and finally beheaded, thus the head she holds in her hand.

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For many years I have had a recipe in my cookbook for Barbara-kuchen, or Barbara cake. The handwriting is my friend Anett’s, who lives in Germany, where St. Barbara is more widely celebrated. It’s really quite a simple cake, even if it looks unintelligible. The main thing is to see that it says Barbara-kuchen at the top.


As a way to thank the host for allowing me to come take pictures at her tiny tea party (and a wonderful excuse to bake), I decided to make the cake. Ingredients are:

14 Tablespoons butter, softened
the grated rind of one lemon
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/3 cup corn starch
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder

You soften the butter (in my microwave this took 1 minute 20 seconds on defrost), add the sugar and eggs, and whisk it till creamy. A hand mixer would have been handy at this time – for such a small amount of batter I didn’t want to get out my big, wonderful stand mixer, but I had to beat the ingredients with a good bit of wrist action to get the fluffiness I wanted. If you have an electric hand mixer, or your stand mixer on the counter, it’s better to use it.

I added the lemon rind after that. You can see the teeny bits of butter still in the batter (my wrist is only so strong). I decided it didn’t matter and kept going.

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By the time I added and stirred in the rest of the ingredients, it looked like this.


Those amazing eggs of mine made the batter so golden! I chose a small springform pan to bake this cake in because, Claudia tells me, traditionally in Germany the cake is baked in a “Kastenform” resembling the tower in which St. Barbara was imprisoned. I reasoned that a larger pan would make a flatter cake and a smaller pan would make a taller cake, so I went with small. My pan is 7 inches (18cm) across and 3 inches (8cm) high. I baked mine for 35 minutes at 375F (a toothpick inserted came out clean). I see now that the recipe says 350F. I missed that earlier.

But it came out okay. See? Bit of a tower, no? (Use your imagination now…)

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I made the frosting with the juice of the same lemon I grated plus enough confectioner’s sugar added little by little until it seemed stiff enough. I can’t tell you how much sugar. I was in a hurry trying to get to this party in time!

After I put the frosting on, I realized it was not stiff enough, in fact was beginning to sag a bit down the sides, so I decided to remedy this by adding a lot of coconut all over it. Anyway you can’t go wrong putting a whole lot of coconut on top of lemon frosting that is covering a lemony cake. You just can’t. Then I thinly sliced another lemon and twisted them to make the cake pretty on top (as if loads of coconut is not inviting enough). Here’s the cake on Mom’s table before we went over to the party.


See those leaves in the jar behind the cake? I brought them too because of another part of the legend. It is said that on her way to prison, St. Barbara got her robe caught on a small cherry branch and it broke. Somehow the branch was put in water and then a new blossom opened on that branch on the day of her execution – the stuff of legends to be sure! I cannot imagine she was allowed to bring her broken cherry branch into the 3rd century prison with her and that someone gave her a jar with water in it, which she then used for her branch until they took her away. But what do I know — maybe this happened!

There is a lot I don’t know about 3rd century prisons. It is not useful to be sticklers about unknowable information like this. Just know that if you cut a branch (cherry or apple traditionally) on December 4, it is supposed to bloom by Christmas. I don’t have a cherry or apple tree, and neither does the community where Mom lives, so I brought branches from my lemon tree (thinking there’s lemon in the cake, so why not lemon?).

I want you to see how droopy my frosting was.

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Time was not on my side, as I said, so I let it go. Anyway, I decided, it would taste the same (delicious I hoped!) and I am not trying to win any pretty-cake contests. Things that are made with love don’t have to be perfect.

To all the Barbaras, but especially to my mom (the best Barbara ever!), I wish a Happy Saint Barbara Day!

What We Do With Obstinate Ketchup

Some people think it’s an abomination to put ketchup on meatloaf. We don’t. We draw the line at putting it on quiche, or mac and cheese, mind you, but meatloaf is fair game. Last night Mom made meatloaf and had invited me and Samuel to come. I have discussed Mom’s amazing meatloaf in another post and there was nothing disappointing about last night’s. In fact, as Mom’s meatloaf goes, this one was exceptional. But it was the ketchup that caught my attention.

Mom has this squeezable container that she keeps it in.

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It’s one of those that people got and used when ketchup still came in a glass bottle (and that was the only way you could buy it). If you had one of these red plastic squeezie things and made a habit of filling it and keeping it filled, you put it out on the table instead of the glass bottle because ketchup is obstinate about coming out of glass bottles. It was too often a maddening experience. You might remember: Either you banged madly on the bottom of the bottle with the flat of your hand and nothing came out, or you banged on the bottom madly and a gigantic blob came out. Only occasionally would the banging result in the right amount of ketchup. We must have the right amount of ketchup, c’mon.

In my family we have been putting ketchup on meatloaf for as long as I can remember. Last night, no surprise, there was that container on the table along with the wine glasses and cloth napkins. Samuel picked it up to decorate his slice(s) of meatloaf and remarked, “This is the best ketchup container.”

“Yes, I’ve had that one a long time,” Mom said.

“Oh, I remember,” Samuel said. “It’s the one I remember from when we came to your house when I was a kid.”

A quick glance at ketchup container images on google revealed a few interesting designs, but most are boring – straight-sided, cylindrical, vaguely transparent bottles with red screw-on lids that have a point. Probably there are not many super cool ones because it is assumed that hardly anyone needs them – ketchup now comes in squeezable containers, not glass bottles. I have one of the boring ones. I use it because I buy ketchup in large containers that yes, are squeezable, but I can barely get my hand around them, let alone get my hand around, turn it upside down and squeeze.

This is a mug shot of mine. I have no idea why I have one with a yellow top, which seems like it goes with mustard. I never thought about it. Mom’s is way cooler.

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It is also possible that some people prefer transferring from the manufacturer’s squeeze bottle to a squeeze bottle of their own, that they are willing to go through the trouble, that they prefer putting an unadorned squeeze bottle at their table rather than one with the word Ketchup in a bold font across the front right under the company name along with supplemental text, a bar code, a list of ingredients and other information manufacturers deem necessary to print on the label because they agree with Miss Manners that packaging at the table is unthinkable.

In her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, in a section headed “Reading at Table,” we see the following:

Would you please comment on the proper etiquette for reading at the dinner table? In particular, is it considered proper to prop a letter against the salt shaker or to lean the newspaper against a carton of cottage cheese, in order to free the hands for eating?
Miss Manners was about to duck this question, on the grounds that it is never proper to eat at the dinner table if anyone else is present and that what you do when you eat alone is between you and your God, and not a matter of etiquette. Then she came to the cottage cheese container. No decent person would put a food package – including ketchup bottles, milk cartons or cereal boxes – on the table, even at home alone with the shades drawn.

Laughable, right? I did laugh out loud, though not so much at the concept but at the language. Miss Manners’ very words have their nose in the air 😊.

But think about it, maybe she is not so far off. Most nicer restaurants stick with only dishes, utensils, glasses and actual food on the table. One of our dinner standards when I worked at the hotel was: All condiments are presented in small ramekins or dishes with appropriate service piece; no portion packets are used except sweeteners. In other words, nothing in a package (including mini ketchup bottles) except the white sugar packets and pink, blue and yellow artificial sweetener packets was acceptable. This standard gets tricky when it comes to jam, honey and Tabasco sauce, trust me.

I think it is entirely up to you what you have/allow/tolerate on your table at home and I suspect you will not be judged for this. Fear not. However I do think Mom’s ketchup container would pass Miss Manners’ muster. Better still, Samuel remembered it from his childhood, and I remember it from mine. The same container all these years – there’s something to be said for that. It makes me wonder which of the things in my kitchen, on my table, in my house will be remembered. What do you hope will be remembered from yours?

The Best Life If You’re a Pig

Pigs don’t have many choices in life. They are at the mercy of their owners and keepers, and I’d guess many of them would wish for a trade if trades were possible.  I would also venture to say that the vast majority would do anything pigly possible to have the life that Tracy’s pigs have. Do these pigs look happy or what? Okay, maybe they just look curious. There’s something about those noses that’s hilarious and remarkable at the same time.


I’m not sure pigs could have a better life than these. They have oak trees dropping acorns all through their spacious, wooded area and freedom to root around all day finding those acorns and whatever else pigs consider yummy among the fallen leaves of this time of year. They have a huge enclosure made with movable fencing so it is, yes, moved around, which is better for the land, better for the pigs, plus a change of scenery (maybe they notice!). Oh, hey, this spot has great dirt!


Their summertime life along the tree line let them pick shade or sun, assuming pigs can pick. Compared to most pigs, this had to feel like they had the whole state of Virginia to roam around in.

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It’s pig paradise. Check out their big bathtub/pool, which is clean only until the moment one of them gets in it mainly on account of the adjacent mud hole for slopping around in.

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You can’t tell so much when they are muddy, but one of these pigs has a few spots and one is mostly plain. I noticed it when I drove by the other day and they had been moved to the woods near the road.

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The spotted one reminded me of Chester the Worldly Pig, a fictitious, determined, clever creature created by Bill Peet in 1965 and among my favorite children’s books. Chester resented his lot in life. “Of all things,” grumbled Chester, “why on earth did I have to be a pig?” Does his face look annoyed?


“But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.” But what? To solve his problem, he did what we all do (or should do) when we have a problem, he thought long and hard about it. He “turned this around and around in his head until one day it came to him: ‘I’ll be a star in the circus!’” Chester perfected his nose stand and waited for the circus train to go by and see him.


His plan failed because the train passed by with its shades drawn, so he ran down the tracks until he came to the big top, jumped on a post, impressed them all and got himself a job.


But as you might imagine it didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out. First they put him in with the lions and terrified him, then they dressed him up like a baby so Roscoe the clown could wheel him around in a doll buggy.


It was beyond humiliating, so he took off first chance he got. A bear thought he’d make a great lunch,


but then so did a bunch of hobos. That’s Chester in the bag next to Red Beard.


“I’m the one that caught this pig,” red beard roared above the noise of the train, “so I’m keepin’ him all to myself!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” bellowed black beard. “It’s share and share alike! That’s the rule!”

“And rules is rules,” growled gray beard.

“I’m breakin’ the rules,” roared red, “so what can you do about it?”

Chester barely escaped with his life. He resigned himself to his fate, the “at the first barn lot he came to, he turned in the gate to give himself up, and the farmer greeted the stray pig with open arms.”

 “To the farmer’s delight, after a couple of years Chester ballooned into a huge blimp of a pig; and one morning the happy farmer said, “Today this little pig goes to market.”


Now if you’re a child looking at this farmer, are you thinking What a nice farmer! or He got himself a lot of free pork! Or Poor pig! Is his face happy in a jovial kind of way or happy in a greedy way or happy in a didn’t-I-get-lucky way? That’s the thing about art, right? Even children’s art. Contrived as the representation is, you are still free to interpret it with your own experiences and biases weighing in. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to. From the beginning, Chester is painted as a survivor. And now we all know what the farmer is going to do.

Or we think we know.

It’s just like when you watch a movie the second or third time and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Once you know the outcome, you wonder how you missed the important clues. It was plain as day even in the first scene, but I missed it, and you probably missed it too.

On that very same morning a carnival van stopped at the farm, and out of the cab stepped a dignified white-whiskered man with a broad-brimmed hat and a fancy frock coat. He had stopped to buy fresh eggs, but when he saw the huge pig he forgot all about the eggs.

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“What will you take for your pig?” he asked. The farmer thought for a minute, then named his price, which was at least twice what he figured the pig was worth. And to the farmer’s surprise, the man didn’t so much as bat an eye; he counted out the money and the deal was closed.

After the pig was loaded aboard and the van drove away, the farmer had himself a good laugh. “So he thinks he’s bought the world’s biggest pig! Why I’ve seen at least a dozen bigger ones at the county fair.” But if the fellow had gone to school long enough to study geography, he’d have known that Chester was much more than just plain big.

Here’s author Bill Peet, who worked as a sketch artist at Disney Studio on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and authored of 35 books, plugging a good education. In the end, Chester’s grit – despite what we all know happens to pigs in this world – led to an ending where everyone wins. The farmer got a good price, the white-whiskered man got “The One and Only Worldly Pig” and Chester got the fame he hoped for.

“Now if you will please move in a little closer,” said the white-whiskered man [to the crowd in the carnival tent], “you will see the entire map of the world imprinted by nature on this remarkable creature’s enormous hide. On his left side, the continents of North and South America, including the land of Australia, which is down under, of course.”

The crowd gasped in amazement, while Chester oinked in surprise. He was as amazed as anyone.

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“But that’s only the half of it,” said the man, turning the pig around on his revolving platform. “On his right side we find Europe, Africa, and Asia, and for good measure, even that tiny island of Borneo. So you see, my friends, this amazing pig is truly one of nature’s wonders…”

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Last week as I passed Tracy’s property and saw her pigs in the woods – and one of them is spotted! – how could I not think of Chester and the good life that some pigs get? There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but many people do what they do in highly admirable ways. Hats off to Tracy! What lucky pigs she has!