Potato and onion

Tonight my airbnb guest delighted me. She surprised and delighted me. I am surprised at myself for being so delighted. And then I’m not. It’s perfectly reasonable that I should be delighted, I say to myself. It isn’t every day — in fact it has never happened before — that a guest asks for potato and onion.

That’s right. She asked for potato and onion. They were out to dinner. I got a text. “Keswick Hall is beautiful,” Erika wrote. “Thanks for the recommendation … one question, do you happen to have a potato and onion? Or is there a little grocery store nearby that will be open after dinner?” I had sent them to Keswick Hall because you can bring your dog to dinner there (in the part of the hotel they call Villa Crawford), and these guests have a little dog. They seemed quite attached to their dog, Chuleta is her name, plus the Villa has amazing parmesan truffle fries, and it is worth the trip just for that. I was watching a movie when the text came in, and I did not look at it right away. It was a good movie. Then I had to get up anyway, so I paused the movie and looked at the message. Do you happen to have a potato and onion?

Perhaps I should explain two things.

One: Assuming I have chickens (which I didn’t for a while last summer, so this is not to be taken for granted), there will always be eggs waiting in the fridge for my guests. I have also taken to leaving a stick of butter because an egg fried in butter with a little salt and pepper is pretty close to perfection in food as far as I’m concerned, though I know some people prefer olive oil, and to each his own. This is available as well, standing where a bottle of olive oil should stand, just behind one of the gas burners, ready should you need it.

When these guests arrived this afternoon, I explained about the wifi and the stairs and the eggs in the fridge. In response to my eggs statement, Alex said, “Is there oil?” I smiled, feeling my heart soften (he’s planning breakfast, I said to myself, I like these people). Why, you may ask, is it significant that they are planning breakfast? Why does that matter? What does it say about them? It says they cook. Not everyone does. Many cannot. Or don’t have time. Or cannot be bothered. These people would take time to make their own breakfast.

Alex kept going. “I’m excited about your eggs. I guess they are really fresh.” Oh, such welcome words. “You can’t find fresher,” I say. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” Then I said the rest of what I ordinarily say about letting me know if you forgot anything or if you need anything and to have a nice night and enjoy yourselves. And off they went to dinner.

Two: It is a rare day under the sun that there are no potatoes or onions in my pantry. Anyone who knows me will verify this truth. I keep them in baskets so they can get air. I use them frequently. I love them. I cook them in numerous ways, but most often I slice up an onion, saute it in olive oil, and add thinly sliced potatoes (skins on) and salt and pepper. The onion gets soft and sweet and a little brown as the flame does its work, and the potato crisps up just a bit as it, too, softens to peak doneness. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this works for me. Simple and delicious.

Now you see why I am delighted. This man is not only going to cook eggs for breakfast, he is going to fry up potatoes and onion as well. Who does this?

When guests come, when you first meet them, you don’t know what’s coming. You can get an inkling, and you may or may not be right. I had a good feeling about Alex and Erika and Valerie when Alex asked about the oil. Now I will never forget them.

I know it’s not usual for someone to get excited about potatoes and onion. I know I am unusual in that way, and perhaps I will talk about my unusualness another time. Tonight I’m just smiling. Oil. Potato. Onion. And more.

Truly it’s a magical night. In the distance, I hear fireworks – must be a wedding at Keswick Hall. All by itself, that would add to the potatoes and onion delight. But as I write tonight, I am facing the new windows Bradley put in for me a month or so ago. It’s May, one year since another very special guest left me a note saying he had woken to a ballet of fireflies, and he had never seen real fireflies before. I wrote about this in my ‘People love surprises’ post. A year ago, I had questioned and then dismissed whether or not those were really fireflies, as I myself had been used to seeing them in August but not in May. But if he says he saw fireflies, he saw fireflies, and far be it from me to question that. Tonight, guess what is dancing on my windowpane. — fireflies

How can it be? In one night: Oil. Potato. Onion. Fireworks. Fireflies! 

Chickens are cool, even if you don’t have one with three legs

Long ago, when all my children were much younger and we were homeschooling in Vermont, the state guidelines for this unconventional form of education allowed for a great variety of options for covering any given subject area. Science was especially fun. Mostly, we observed, discussed, recorded, wondered about, read about and formulated ideas about the natural world around us. The topic might be snowflakes or mushrooms or the area’s watershed. It might involve an insect collection, a hydroponic garden, or electricity. It was almost always related to something else we were doing or somewhere we were going. The interdisciplinary approach made all the sense in the world to me.

Most of the time, we created the opportunities to observe, discuss, record, wonder about, read about and formulate ideas, such as when one of the dads led a month-long unit study about astronomy. We met weekly at their house on clear nights — how exciting to be meeting at night! —  and took turns looking for planets through his telescope and finding constellations from our perches on their back deck. We compared what we saw to what our books told us we would see, and speculated how different the sky would look half a year hence.

But sometimes, opportunities came to us. Once, during a dinner we were hosting for a furloughed missionary, the phone rang (this was when phones still had cords attaching them to the wall). Kristin Freeman was a fellow homeschooler who was more unconventional than we were. “Hi,” she said in her very straightforward way. “If you want to see a calf being born, come now.” We had not yet had dessert (which I doubtless had carefully prepared) and leaving at that moment necessarily meant leaving all the dishes where they were (a struggle for me, I assure you), but nature called, and off we went! Who among us can say we have seen such a wonder?

We did not live on a farm, and I did not grow up on one, but it seemed to me that farm animals have a lot to teach us. Chickens seemed a safe choice — a reasonable backyard farm animal, easy to contain, they don’t live forever and they give eggs. Plus they are just funny. If you get the chance, find some and watch them for a while. First of all, they act as if no one ever feeds them, petitioning you for food continually. Also, watch the way they move — the slight head jerks, the proud posturing, the light and careful steps as if the soles of their feet are especially sensitive. And watch the way they tear into greens of any kind. You’d think they have teeth. I dare you to check for yourself to see if they do or not.

Kristin was my go-to for anything farm-related, and somehow through her we got four day-old chicks. For two years we fed them and they gave us eggs. This wonderful arrangement ended because we were going to be making an extended trip which would prevent us from holding up our end of the deal, so Kristin took them back. Chickens then lived only in my memory until we moved to Golden Hill and Bradley and Lincoln built the coop. The Rhode Island Reds and Bardrocks that we started with loved their home, needless to say. During the day they wandered about outside the coop, pecking at random (and presumably tasty) objects, dusting themselves, getting out of the sun by hiding under the cars (not that there aren’t a thousand trees that provide shade, but I will not stoop to disparaging remarks). These birds had the life. At the end of the day, Beth would clap her hands while standing near the coop, and they all came running — and I mean running! — to get inside and go to roost, which in my understanding of chicken language means go to bed. You would think that running to bed was the best part of their day. (Oh, that children would take a lesson from this.) Chickens are hilarious when they are running, by the way. Their weight shifts back and forth from foot to foot while at the same time they propel themselves forward quickly. It is not sleek.

Brad and Beth enjoying a moment with the birds.

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One of that first batch had a mutant third leg. No kidding. Naturally we called her Tri-pod (who wouldn’t?). She did not actually walk on that leg, as it was only about half as long as her two normal legs. The way it was attached to the upper part of her right leg reminded me of the way arborists graft tree branches onto an existing tree. They set it in where it stands the best chance of surviving, and if this process is done well, the odd branch thrives. Chances are good that Tri-pod and all of her coop-mates were equally clueless about the odd leg among them.  But for the rest of us it was very cool! How many people can say they have seen a chicken with three legs!? Watching that girl run was even more hilarious on account of her extra appendage being at the same time both stiff and floppy. There is never an end to the entertainment around here.

Dr. Kathy Samley, a veterinarian soon to be practicing in New Hampshire, enjoys Tri-pod in the summer of 2013. I promise you that’s the right chicken, even though you can’t see the third leg… (we will find that photo!)

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Cottage guests had great fun with Tri-pod. We’d pick her up and made a show of it when she let us, though I imagine she was not overly thrilled with being on display. All our hens cluck and fuss when you get near them — again because they need to convince you that they are starving and you should feed them something yummy like mealworms or strawberries or lettuce — but all that clucking and fussing is as hilarious as watching them run to bed. Also they are very curious and very social. They want to be wherever you are, checking it all out, reminding you with gentle little pecks on your leg that they are part of your world and want to be noticed. “Hey, remember me? I give you eggs!” They like to be underfoot especially if you are trying to do something that is better done without them underfoot, like laying the foundation of a cottage, as we see Brad doing below.

Evidence of one Red getting underfoot…or above shoulder, as the case may be. 


Brad and Beth relied on Zadie a good deal to shoo them away. There is nothing like a good dog when you have chickens wandering around. Zadie is a very good dog, especially once she learned that chickens are not toys to be taken by the neck and shaken for fun (and she is a quick learner — only two chickens were required for this lesson). She became their Great Guardian and Protector. If she was outside, which she generally was all day, we did not have to worry about the hawks, foxes, raccoons and other would-be assailants.

Of course, Zadie was not always around. We think it was a raccoon in the middle of one night that lifted the hatch door into the brooding boxes, entered, attacked, stole, dragged away, feasted, and repeated this violent crime three times before, let us presume, finally being full enough to stop. A fourth hen was slightly mauled, but survived  (her comb was never the same). Bloody paw prints in perfect raccoon size on the siding of the coop and randomly strewn feathers on the ground made us want to get out the yellow tape to cordon off the crime scene (needless to say, this was too awful to even think of taking a picture of). One can only imagine how terrifying it was for the birds. Truthfully, we humans are to blame for this one. We did not imagine that a predator could lift that small wooden door and get inside. But one did! Immediately the next day, we of course put a latch on it and things calmed down in Golden Hill Chicken World after a time. But it does prove once again that there is seldom a dull moment around here, and chickens are a big part of that.

Chickens, as stated earlier, do not live forever, especially because Brad and Beth took Zadie with them when they moved to Seattle. We who remained, clearly unable to foresee how very tempting helpless chickens are to very aggressive animals who must also eat, did not realize how effective Zadie (during the day) had been in holding off said predators. We continued, after Brad and Beth’s cross-country road trip to Seattle had begun, to let the hens roam (during the day). We came home one afternoon to find a big old hawk sitting on the garden fence post gloating over one dead hen at its feet and undoubtedly preparing for its next attack. We yelled at this very large bird and off it flew, hopes surely dashed.  The rest of the hens took a while to come out of their hiding places and back to the coop. All to say, between  raccoons, hawks, and natural death (really, a few of them just plain expired), slowly the flock dwindled to the point where only five or six remained (including Tri-pod) and it was time for some new chicks.

Chickens may be funny a lot of times, but they can also be very nasty to each other. “Pecking order” is very real, and it means that if one chicken thinks another chicken is inferior in any way, she just pecks her. This is apparently quite likely to happen if you introduce new chicks into an existing flock without precautions (a huge no-no to those in the know). Imagine our surprise and disgust in finding that one of the new young chicks had been pecked so much on the back of her neck that she was bleeding! Another one was killed outright before we could intervene. I admit I did not have kind thoughts after that about the old hens who, by the way, had also stopped laying eggs (a bummer for my cottage guests). I admit I wondered if there might be any hawks in the vicinity. I admit I might have let them out once or twice… Somehow, let us not think how, soon just one remained (and sadly, she did not have three legs). She became “Old Red.” We humans were smarter this time and kept her completely separate from the 16 new chicks we got at the end of last summer, and only very very slowly (and always with supervision) allowed her to be with them as they got bigger. Old Red is proof positive that you can teach an old chicken new tricks because she did learn to get along with those newbies.

And what amazing newbies they are! Ten Bardrocks (one of whom did not survive chick-hood for reasons unknown) and six Americaners, a.k.a. Easter Eggers due to the greenish color of the eggshells they produce. Here is what they look like in the first week.

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And here, getting a little bigger. The Americaners look uncannily like birds of prey to me, as if they are a cousin of the eagle but did not enjoy the advantage of high birth.

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I am not sure if cottage guests love the chickens best or their eggs best. I loved this card that came in the mail to me recently from Heather and Ray, who had her mother, Deb, and their five-year-old niece, Heidi, with them. Heather is an amazing artist whose card captures some of the whimsical fun of the cottage experience (lucky for them, the garden strawberries were just coming ripe when they arrived recently).

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Either way, chickens are an asset to the experience of staying here. The chickens may even be “just what the doctor ordered” sometimes. When Jeff and Ashley planned to bring their children and their dog to the cottage to celebrate Ashley’s birthday last October, they did not know that Sam, their beloved dog, would pass away just days before the trip. Suddenly there was a damper where one had not been before. They came anyway, and found to their delight that Sophie and William (ages 8 and 5) were enamored with the 6-week-old chicks. I awoke both mornings at about 7am to the sound of those two children laughing and playing (come to find out inside the coop with them each time!). That I, through this airbnb venture, can sometimes enable delight and healing and joy brings me more satisfaction than words can express, and adds greatly to my motivation to continue running the cottage this way.

Sophie and William with the chicks…

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The Coop at Golden Hill became a happy place again. Kyle and Heather’s goldendoodle Winnie enjoyed the chickens as much as any child. If her wagging tail is any indication, she felt downright frolicky while watching them from around the outside of the coop during their visit this winter. Kyle caught it on video, and someday perhaps that will appear on this site also. By the middle of February, there were eggs again too. Oh, glorious eggs! Now the bowlful that guests find in the fridge contains some brown eggs and some green. Naturally I purchased a copy of Green Eggs and Ham and keep it on the side table for all to enjoy. We no longer have a three-legged chicken but now there are equally cool green eggs! I like to think Dr. Suess would be pleased all around.

Fortunately, chickens are not the only cool thing in the world. Not everyone can have them, after all. Not everyone wants them either, despite how cool and funny and productive they are, this I grant. But anyone can find or invent a cool-factor if they want to. It doesn’t have to strut or peck. It doesn’t have to have feathers or be social or mutated. Cool comes in all forms and many varieties. Cool makes life fun and funny and interesting. I am here to say: Embrace something cool. Make it your own, celebrate it, show it off, stand proud when you look at it or present it to others, remember it fondly. Let it set you apart from the crowd as a person who steps off the beaten track with a skip and a smile.

You don’t have to

  • Make the best salsa east of the Mississippi, as my friend Lisa does
  • Convert your Mercedes to a vegetable oil fuel system, as my friend Marty did
  • Host a pool party, name it something silly like Bobbapalooza, and make it an annual tradition, as my friend Bob did
  • Travel across four time zones by yourself in order to visit the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, as my daughter Marie did
  • Invent the world’s best sleep fan, as Tim Peery  (Beth’s dad) did
  • Ride a horse at top speed through the countryside, seemingly racing with a train, all while being filmed for a Hollywood movie, as my friend Peggy did (the movie was Giant, 1955, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, and that scene was filmed just a few miles from here)

You just have to follow your heart, do what you love, and reap the unspeakable joy of creating something, learning something, changing something or making people happy. And don’t forget, this lesson came from chickens!

People love surprises

On the other hand (and there is always another hand), some surprises are good and should be reserved for the wow-factor. This is another way of saying Never underestimate the power of magic. In the spring of 2015 a special guest, a delightful man named Rick, came to Golden Hill because he needed a place to stay one night. Rick is an established, accomplished, highly regarded trainer in the high-end hospitality industry. I admit I was a little nervous and that I probably (ok, definitely) paid even more attention than usual to the way I prepared the cottage for him.

When he arrived, I gave him the brief (but hopefully thorough) orientation that I usually give, then said good night. It had been a long day. I knew I would not see him again until he might return to Virginia another time in the future, as he was leaving by taxi for the airport somewhere around 4 a.m. Any feedback I would get, if he chose to leave it, would be in written form. Sure enough, a note waited for me (on his personalized note card, no less!), propped up on a little toy dog he also left behind. He did not note, as many do, Bradley’s fabulous job on the cottage itself, or the peacefulness of the wooded setting, its proximity to local venues, the chickens, the garden, the architecture. Instead, he wrote:  

In the middle of the night, I awoke to a ballet of light. Four fireflies were shining bright, darting back and forth. It was a magic and wondrous moment. I’ve never seen real fireflies before. Your Golden Hill is enchanting on so many levels. Thank you for opening up your home to me!

Did I plan the fireflies? Would that I could. Do I even think they were fireflies? It was May in Virginia — one has reason to doubt. Does it matter if I planned this light show or that whatever he saw could be verified? Not in the least. If he says he saw fireflies and was enchanted by them, I will just smile and think (and probably say out loud, even to myself): How delightful!

Some things we can’t explain. They strike a chord within us deeply and move us to a sense of wonder and thrill. That thrill is compounded by the understanding that we — we who also deal with much that is not so wondrous in this life — get to experience a truly striking moment, a moment unlike any other, a moment with some confluence of factors that create a unique image that may forever be part of the memory bank we hold dear. We have the honor and privilege of being in that place at that time with these various pieces all coming together for this one amazing experience. These are the you-can’t-believe-what-happened-at-that-very-moment images, and they are special not only because we did not plan them, but also because they are so amazing.

Is it any wonder that the value of experience is gaining ground compared to the value of goods? We see it in gift-giving as well — instead of buying a tangible item, people are buying someone a dinner, an overnight stay, a horseback ride through vineyards, a day pass at the local resort or theme park, even an ice cream cone. Tangible items are still very nice, and it is hard to imagine the day when a lovely bouquet of flowers or exceptional piece of artwork or a soft or sparkly anything will not be gratefully received (I, for one, am happy to accept any of the above). Needless to say, the flowers could have been gathered roadside, the artwork drawn by a precious grandchild and the soft or sparkly anything coming from commonplace sources. Certainly monetary value is far less important than the heart from which the gift comes. But sooner or later, “stuff” needs to find a tangible place to be displayed or stored. Experiences create memories, intangible images, moments in time, and in the end, though images of them may be stored on the memory cards in our phones and cameras, they live in our minds, not on a shelf.

Within the experience, there is all manner of room for surprises — even when the basic elements are known ahead of time. Those of us who create experiences do so using what we have to work with, in my case a sweet cottage, a peaceful and outdoorsy setting, a warm welcome, fresh cookies, a handwritten note. There is a  downside when guests mention these things in reviews. Part of me wishes the cookies and notes and ambiance could be surprises for everyone; I hope they are never expectations. On the other hand, guests can read as much as they want about a place and hosts can prepare every detail prior to arrival, but until you are there for real, written descriptions and photos are merely representations on a screen. Words and images are hard pressed to stand in for the majesty of the tall trees towering and perhaps swaying above, the sound of clucking hens or rustling leaves in the background and the taste of fresh strawberries out of my garden if you are lucky enough to be here in late May/early June!

Even if you know something is coming, the real thing eclipses the representation any day. Speaking of eclipses, if you are expecting one because you read about it or someone told you it was coming, and you stepped outside and looked up into the sky at the very moment when the eclipse was taking place and there was no cloud cover so you could actually see it, you are bound to be awestruck. Such a phenomenal sight very well may live in your memory forever. But if you somehow missed all the memos and randomly walked outside on that very clear night and happened to look up, imagine your reaction. You can research all you want. Prepare all you want. Surprises have a mind of their own.

And I like to allow for that. You may have noticed that there are a lot of windows on the back wall of the cottage. Here’s what it looks like from the back (thanks, again, Rob).

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In the wintertime, from inside the cozy space, you can see the full range of the Southwest Mountains. It’s pretty much an entire wall of windows. Amazing. This photo gives you some idea of that view.

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Every one of the windows was custom made by Bradley, by the way – did I mention that earlier? With such a phenomenal asset as this, you might think I’d want to showcase it on the web site. Unlike the stairs, however, which would be a bad surprise if guests did not know about them ahead of time, I chose not to include any images of the back wall. I think it better to save some good surprises for the moment of arrival. People walk in and invariably utter some form of Wow… as they take it in. If they arrive after dark, I know that the wow moment will happen in the morning, and will be equally impressive. Some things are best in real time, and you have to let them present themselves in their own glory.

The very nature of a surprise means that you cannot predict what or when or how it might strike your guests. You can lament the rain that came over their very special weekend and come to find out that their favorite part was listening to what soft rain sounds like when it falls on a metal roof. You can put three teddy bears on the bed, thinking their little children will snuggle with them, and instead the girl finds the one you forgot you put upstairs on a shelf. This happened.

A family with two sons and one daughter came. I did put the three teddy bears on the bed. I also placed the toy chicken coop that Beth made with its two stuffed chickens and its straw and wooden eggs where the children would be sure to find it. But I forgot about the bear on the shelf upstairs who now, thanks to Brianna, has a name: Mrs. Teaberry. The handwritten note this little girl left behind is among those I cherish.

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When surprises are in the picture, there are often multiple surprises going on. The fireflies surprised Rick, but then he surprised me with his description of the experience and left a stuffed toy behind! The upstairs bear surprised Brianna, but she surprised me with her sweet note.

As a host, I must say that one of the nicest surprises is to find a handwritten note in the cottage after guests have left. Some people even send them in the mail after they get back home. I am among those who think that a handwritten, personalized note is among the simple delights of this world. The uniqueness of the handwriting reflects the human hand that wrote it. The paper has its own character too — you can’t imagine how many people seemingly brought note cards with them in order to leave a note. Such lovely designs, and the paper itself by its weight and color and texture speaks to the individual who chose it. Then there is the text, every word chosen, whether carefully or quickly, comprises a different and equally touching message every single time.

I keep these handwritten notes in a notebook on the coffee table. Recently, Keith and Anna, on their honeymoon at the cottage, said to me that they had been looking through it and realized by reading the notes that some friends of theirs had stayed at the cottage as well.

“Yes, Adam and Allie were here. I’d know Allie’s handwriting anywhere,” Anna said.

“You know Adam?” I said. “What a coincidence! Adam and Lincoln went to school together at the University of Richmond.”

“Adam and Allie were at our wedding! You’re Lincoln’s mom?!” Surprise!

See? People love surprises! I love surprises! Not long ago Daniel and Mattie came to stay, a delightful couple. Daniel admired Bradley’s woodwork, so I asked him if he too were a woodworker. “No,” he said, “I’m an artist.” I did not pursue that topic, though now I wish I had. Imagine my surprise when I came into the cottage in the afternoon after they left, and I found that Daniel had taken the time to draw the cottage and left it as a thank you to me. Trust me, this drawing could not be more perfect. He even put his own dog (Cali) and his truck in the drawing. Thank you, Daniel!

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People hate surprises

Brad and Beth decided to move to Seattle in the summer of 2015. Brad had a great opportunity at UW, and I could not blame him for wanting to pursue that. For now, at least, the dream of the family compound was seriously on hold. (And I will continue to think of it as being on hold, thank you very much.) I had never given much thought to any other plan for the cottage and was likely lamenting my new without-them reality when my oldest son Drew said brightly, “Why don’t you try airbnb?” He gave me examples of airbnbs he and Nicole had stayed at recently, telling of the wonderful hosts and the conversations they all had had together. He gave me the boost I needed, then wisely advised: Make sure there are no surprises. Whatever you do, make sure people know what they are getting into regarding those stairs. What he really meant was: Don’t withhold any information that is potentially problematic. 

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Ah, yes, the very odd staircase that leads to the sleeping area. The cottage is small and the staircase is steep enough that Bradley built the treads with curvy cut-outs so that your knees don’t bump the next step as you ascend and your descending foot easily lands on the next tread. There would be guests who for various reasons could not negotiate these, or would not want to. One of my guests went so far as to call them a “sobriety test,” and people who get up frequently at night might not want to deal with a peculiarity. (I do now keep a bottle of water and two glasses at the bedside for those who get thirsty in the night, but the bathroom is still on the first level. It’s through that white door you see in the photo.) You would not want people to arrive and then find they cannot get to the bed built for two; the option of the first floor trundle with its two single beds may not be appealing. I get that.

Drew said I needed a good picture of those stairs. Several friends who are better at photography than I am offered to come take pictures so that the images on the web site would have a professional look. Their generosity notwithstanding, I was impatient to get the ball rolling once I decided on this venture, and the not-so-terrible camera that lives on my phone did the job, at least initially. I did not realize until months later that the casement windows were open when I took the outdoor photos (and that is the one that is on the airbnb site and on this one – consistency may count for something) but the mission was accomplished, and the first set of images successfully were uploaded. During that photo-taking session, I specifically recall considering the best angle for the photo of the stairs. Let there be no doubt. This is not your run-of-the-mill way to get to an upper floor.

One can only imagine the dedicated, hardworking team at airbnb headquarters, basking in their amazing San Francisco office space, reviewing as-yet-unlisted listings (“Hey, Sara, did you ever see stairs like this?”), which is to say I suspect that invisible team felt the same way about this staircase as Drew did.  I did not ask them to position the photo so prominently on my cottage page, but they did. (I can’t think it ended up there randomly.) In any case it is impossible to miss when you open the page and begin to scroll down to read more. The photo’s position is a little like your mom or dad or favorite family friend giving the kind of advice you know is important using a blatant preface: Pay attention now — this is important. The prominence of the image serves plainly as the blatant preface and gently, subtly yet strongly speaks volumes: Make sure you are comfortable with this image. There is no other option for gaining access to the second story.

I love being on hand to welcome my guests. I find ways to finagle my schedule and most of the time am on site when they arrive. Doing the welcome spiel and tailoring it depending on the interest of the guest, time of day and previously expressed circumstances or concerns is one of my favorite parts of this whole gig. For me it involves the meet and greet, the presentation of place and the explanation of must-knows. Part of my spiel is “Right foot first up the stairs.” Starting with your right foot, and having to tell yourself to do so is not hard and possibly adds to the overall charm of the cottage — one more piece that is unexpected and unconventional, but totally works. But I would be subjecting my guests to disappointment and possibly to too big a challenge if I did not tell them ahead of time.

In the grander scheme of life, people do not want to deal with unexpected inconveniences. If something is potentially an inconvenience, or could remotely be construed as an inconvenience, it is best to tell them ahead of time. Whatever is a need-to-know, say it up front. Naturally, individual judgment complicates everything. What bothers me might not bother you. I speak as someone who does not like or eat nuts of any kind.  I am not allergic, it is simply beyond me what people see in them, taste in them, like about them. I just don’t get it. (For this reason, I am sorry to tell you nut-lovers, I also do not put nuts in the cookies I bake. You just have to deal with that.)

I also do not watch television except on occasion. Before the cottage was listed on airbnb, a neighbor stayed in it for a few days and suggested that the lack of a TV would be a detriment to potential guests. This was a quandary. The cottage has no ideal place for a television (just look at those pictures in the first post – where would it go anyway?), plus I know for a fact that not everyone feels the way this neighbor does. I myself had been firmly planted in the thanks-but-no-thanks camp regarding television ever since my best undergraduate prof told us that someday we too would watch television just the way our parents did, despite any lofty ideas about having better things to do (“We’ll see about that,” the little voice in my head had said — and thank you very much, Peter Sandman).

On the other hand, maybe some guests would want a TV. Not everyone, after all, had been challenged by Peter. I had input on both sides. Finally it seemed best to go with my gut, but make sure there are no surprises. Leave the cottage aesthetically pleasing (i.e.without the large black screen in the scene) but explain the lack and offer to put a TV in there if someone did want it.

In the country, out here on my gravel road, cable has not come. Stations are limited. But hey, I offered. So far, not a single person has asked me for a TV. Quite a few have thanked me for not having one. We just want to play real board games, they say. We just want to listen to the crickets. We just want to talk to each other. Again I say: Thank you, Peter.

There may not be a TV at the cottage but, assuming you read through the details of my listing, you knew that. It is not a surprise. Whether conveyed through image or words, people want to know what they are getting. This observation is not limited to airbnb. None of the observations I will discuss are limited to airbnb. Parallels are everywhere in this world.

In business, an entire segment of the workforce exists to make sure that the parties involved in any operation or transaction know what they are getting and in fact get it. Words, those squirmy, slippery little buggers that are not always clear no matter how hard we try, comprise the contracts that attempt to clarify the details of our dealings. We had best not promise precision parts if we do not have access to the machinery to make said parts, the labor to build them, the materials specific to the job and the management to pull the order together. We had best not promise confidentiality when members of our team don’t take non-disclosure clauses seriously.

In relationships, we find ourselves annoyed, threatened or worse if vital information is not disclosed in a timely way. We generally don’t want to be with someone who is, in fact, already with someone else. We don’t want to show up for a party with a bottle of wine and having already had a drink or two when our hosts don’t drink at all. We don’t want to find out about an important meeting when, well, you know. Could you — could someone — have told me?

While it’s true that what matters to me may not matter at all to you, the disclosing of certain information will be not only helpful and appreciated, it will keep you from getting into trouble. I don’t want bad reviews any more than I want to sign bad contracts or enter bad relationships. The understanding of “People hate surprises” plays hand in hand with one of the guiding principles of success — preparedness. As an airbnb host, this means be prepared in every way you can think of, and in turn prepare your guests.

One way to do this is to say or present the same thing multiple times in multiple ways including words, image, action or any combination thereof. (Again I thank Peter, who suggested that saying something three times in three different ways would do it.) If you stand too close to me (unless I want you to stand close to me) I can tell you to back up either in spoken words (unlikely since I am not the confrontational type) or I can myself back up (count on it). Backing up increases the distance between us and accomplishes the goal of establishing appropriate space without my having to verbalize my discomfort. If you live with me, I will tell you sooner or later to keep the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase closed (unless of course you are going through it!). This has to do with my lack of affection for the sometimes large arachnids, creepy no matter what their size, that may be living down there and are more likely come up here if that door is open. The nonverbal I have adopted here is a sign on bright pink paper taped to both sides of the door, with the polite imperative: Please close this door (which for the record was pitifully effective with Bradley, who always had better things to do than close a door).

My inability to convey my wish effectively to Bradley should in no way deter anyone from expressing (or trying to express) what’s important in multiple ways. In the case of the cottage stairs there are no fewer than three means of communication. The online text includes a plain description, the web page includes the prominent photograph and my introductory spiel always includes the “right foot first” part. Lack of a TV is plainly stated and plainly visible when you are in the cottage. I don’t bring it up unless the guest does, and usually they say something like “Oh, I’m so glad you don’t have a TV.”

Deception is a bad idea most of the time. The exception that comes to mind is when a friend gets a haircut she is really excited about but which actually looks awful, and you simply say, “You got your hair cut!” with the most genuine smile you can muster, and leave it at that. If you are unable to quickly steer the conversation to other topics, you may be forced to say something along the lines of a compliment, which you know to be untrue. Technically this is deception. I know it’s mild, but still. The best way to avoid trouble is to be straight with people. Present what you have, who you are, what you offer, what’s important to you. To the best of your ability, be clear. Make sure people know what they are getting.

Some thoughts on airbnb

The popularity of airbnb should surprise no one. The last fifty years have seen conventionality thrown to the wind: the women’s movement, homeschooling, the internet. There has to be another way — this era seems to shout from the rooftops — to do the same basic things humans have always needed to do: get along fairly, educate children, connect easily with others or get information …and of course, find a safe, welcoming, affordable place to sleep overnight. We all need to sleep. Every night. Somewhere.

Whether to family, friends, or friends of friends, I always loved being a host. I can honestly say I have changed the sheets in a guest bedroom uncountable times. My job as the director of quality and communication at a Forbes five-star resort has given my passion for hospitality room to fly on a daily basis. But it wasn’t until I posted my little cottage on airbnb and began having frequent guests that I saw some universal truths playing out before my eyes, and now I want to share some of them. For example:

  • People hate surprises — they want to know what they are getting into, so a photo of   the very unusual stairs in my cottage is displayed prominently.
  • People love surprises — they want a little mystery, so I do not post a picture of the view from the wall of windows. I would rather they walk in and say, “Wow, we weren’t expecting that!”
  • One size does not fit all, thus the endless variety of options available to overnight travelers. And thanks to vrbo and airbnb for making these options readily available.
  • Small acts of kindness go a long way…
  • You never know what’s around the next bend…

The engaging, heartening and amusing stories behind these truths and some more will shed one host’s perspective on this relatively new and somewhat controversial enterprise, and further and strengthen the conversations taking place. 

First I want to give a little background about my cottage, then talk about what I have learned from it.

How the Charming Cottage on Golden Hill Came to Be

In the spring of 2011, I purchased ten wooded acres in the lovely town in Virginia with a three(tiny)-bedroom, 40-year-old modular house on it. I called it my “little house in the big woods.” In front of the house was an open patch maybe 60 feet across where the sun could get through; besides that, there were trees and more trees. The driveway is long and flat, but the land slopes off both sides. On one side it’s a pretty dramatic hill. If you cut a swath through the trees and had a good snowfall and started at the top with skis on, you’d fly down that hill. Once you drive the 900’ or so driveway to the house, and then realize how the land drops off, it feels a bit like you are on a kind of peninsula, a teardrop-shaped ridge that makes you feel like king (or queen, as may be) of the hill.

The property had come on the market in February, meaning the leaves were down, meaning I could see from the open sunny patch northward to the whole range of the Southwest Mountains. My friend and realtor Stuart Stevens had grown up in this town and knew each bump of that range by name, and spoke each one with affection, as if it were a dear friend whom he knew well. I suspect he did.

My sons Bradley and Lincoln and I had had a kind of dream: Find a beautiful piece of land and build a place that the whole family could use, enjoy, come to, leave from, consider home. We had looked throughout the winter at many lovely sites, but none grabbed us until this Keswick property came on the market for the first time in nearly forty years. Within minutes of standing on that hill, I made up my mind to make an offer and had no doubt this was a good decision.By the first of May, we were in.

Many improvements were to come, but the first was a chicken coop designed after one very fine image in my memory. When my children were very young, I brought them one summer to the Eiband farm on a road called Kaisersmad in the picturesque town of Betzigau in the Allgau region of Germany. The Bauernhof has belonged to the Eiband family for generations, and I became connected to it when the eldest daughter and I had decided to be pen pals when we were each 12 years old; thus began a lifelong friendship. Claudia’s endearing father made a habit that summer of holding  Lincoln’s hand, then three and a half, and together walking to collect eggs from their coop. I was smart enough one day to take the photo that would one day serve as the image to duplicate.

Here’s Lincoln at age 3 1/2, walking with Claudia’s dad, Adolf Eiband, at their farm in Betzigau, Germany, in the summer of 1991.

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If I ever have a chicken house, I had said to myself, it will look like theirs. Lincoln and Bradley were not overly pleased to have to construct the small gable that serves no purpose besides its resemblance to the Eiband version, but they figured it out. Using poplar (I think it was poplar) cut from the property and milled with Bradley’s Alaskan saw mill, they worked together to erect the chicken coop of my dreams. Its red metal roof was the icing on the cake. There could simply be no better chicken house for me. I look at it and smile, which is all you can ask of a chicken coop.

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Here’s Rise, Lincoln and Julia’s daughter, age 2 1/2 in the spring of 2015, heading out to visit the red hens. I framed this picture and hung it in the cottage.

The cottage was next. This fell to Bradley and Beth because Lincoln and Julia got married, making things both harder and easier. Labor hours would necessarily increase for Brad and Beth, but control of the design, pace and construction allowed their creative energy great opportunity. And in the end the kudos for the cottage go to them. Let me repeat: The kudos go to Brad and Beth.

In any creative process, the project is not limited to the hours spent physically, overtly engaged in it. Rather, for a time you live and breathe it. Ideas come while driving, showering or drifting off to sleep. Sticky points gnaw at you for days or weeks and suddenly the solution appears. Friends and family members arrive to visit and each in some way gives a hand — some hold the other end while you lift a wall or settle a beam in place, some feed the bank of ideas that you will draw from on a given aspect of the design, some simply admire and thereby encourage. All contribute to the ultimate product. But Brad and Beth did the lion’s share. One recent guest said in his review:

The cottage matched the listing description. However, the listing could not tell the charm, the beauty, and warmth of this wonderful place. The cottage had huge windows which opened up to the green forest. This is a place to connect with nature.

The whir of the planer and the buzz of the table saw in the workshop underneath my bedroom became commonplace for those two years or so, and I realized I am one of those people who feels like all is well with the world when the sound of power equipment is going in the background. Saturday morning meetings over coffee to catch up on the latest and the upcoming became commonplace too. I made some big breakfasts in those days, thinking that of course I had to provide sustenance to these hard working, wonderful and amazing people who just kept going on this project one piece at a time.

I took pictures to document the process — not as many as I now wish I had, but enough to make an overview. In the cottage is a looseleaf binder with photos showing the construction; here are a few:


laying the foundation (note chickens behind Brad — all that dirt was dug out by hand as well)

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raising the first wall – that’s Beth’s dad Tim Peery helping on the left (thank you, Tim!)

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resting a moment (yes, that is a chicken hat, isn’t she cute?)

One set of photos I unfortunately cannot find shows the cherry French door when it was still laid out in pieces on the basement floor. I know that photo is somewhere (probably buried in a phone that no longer works), but in the end the door speaks for itself. Bradley made the door — designed it, chose the wood, planed the lengths, trimmed, mitered, joined, finished.

People look at it and see a door. What I see — beyond the research on how to build a french door, beyond the trip to the guy he found (on craigslist, no doubt) who had the best quality wood at the best price, beyond the image of planks of wood subsequently hanging out the back of their white Civic (named Sensei), beyond the pieces carefully positioned at the pre-assembly stage on the basement floor — is the intelligence behind it all. I’m allowed to say that because he’s my son, and besides, he’s the one who didn’t read until he was nine. He doesn’t get extra credit for that delay, but it is kind of remarkable. That’s a whole nother story though, which I will get to one of these days.

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here’s that cherry door before it had a deck in front of it

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and getting near the end, stonework all around the foundation

I do remember when the guy came from the glass company to measure for the cottage windows, including the trapezoid-shaped ones, and when they came, the trapezoids were all wrong and had to be recut (at their expense, not mine). Bradley said, “Mom, it’s basic geometry.” Perhaps. But the door — the door is not basic. The door is a peek at a young man who doesn’t let the fact that he has never done a thing stand in the way of doing it. He just figures things out. He is first a thinker and then a doer. He invested in great equipment (all somehow at good prices) and the best and most highly recommended books on carpentry so that he might tap into the expertise of those who have already figured some other things out. It was a joy to watch him.

Beth is his perfect counterpart, God bless her. She worked her day job all day at her computer, somehow shutting out whatever Brad was doing nearby. She walked their dog Zadie, and took me along, almost every day when I got home at 5ish. Oh, how I enjoyed those walks! Beth is truly one of the world’s best listeners. She is sweet, balanced, and confident and a perfect match for Bradley’s intelligence and gumption. And she somehow made me feel like she actually enjoyed my company, which she deserves a great deal of credit for. Understand that after working all day, after a mile and a half walk with me and then a bit of supper, she started with whatever needed to be sanded or primed or relocated or organized or painted or planted. That’s right, I haven’t even begun to talk about the massive garden they planted too!

They worked and they worked. Joyfully. Skillfully. Steadily. The accomplishments of these two are truly mind-boggling, and their attitude is inspiring. I am forever grateful not only for this gift that they left me, but also that I can share it with others who enjoy it so much. I especially love it when cottage guests give them a shout out. Here are some more comments that have come from my guests:

We both agree, the Cottage at Golden Hill takes the cake as the most unique, comfortable, peaceful & relaxing AirBnB we have ever been lucky enough to stay at!

Her son Bradley did such a phenomenal job with all the construction of this beautiful house.

The views, wood burner and floor to ceiling windows were my favorite features of the cabin.

The pictures do not do it justice…the space and view are beautiful.

Charming is an understatement, this cozy cottage (built by her talented son) is full of character.

The cottage is beautiful – looks just like the pictures – amazing craftsmanship!

The cottage is incredibly charming and cozy.

The cabin itself was amazing! Her son and his wife built it themselves and its beautiful.

The cottage was even more beautiful than we had hoped. The craftsmanship was exquisite!

Easy to find and yet tucked away in the woods, this cabin is elegantly cozy and gorgeous…completely designed and hand-built by her son, who is indeed a master craftsman. He and his girlfriend labored over every beautiful detail for 3 years. As an architect and interior designer, I really appreciated the quality craftsmanship and design…the way you can see forest views out of EVERY window and the little touches like the beautifully finished flooring, cherry shelving and kitchen island. (Hi Brad! Your Mom told us you read these. You and Beth rock! We were blown away and inspired.)

The house is perfect. The location and craftsmanship are wonderful.

The house is stunning and very comfy and the location is beautiful and peaceful.

Floor to ceiling windows meant tons of natural light, but it felt very private thanks to its orientation toward the woods. We had a great time sipping coffee on the patio watching the chickens peck around the yard.

Great location and beautiful crafted home.

The home was more beautiful than we expected. It was gorgeously designed and built by her son…which made us marveled at it more.

we just sat in awe at the craftmanship of your sons little home. (architect or engineer?) your chicken coop may have convinced my new wife we can have one

The cottage was just as described and pictured. It is a work of art, set in the woods and very peaceful.

This house is so awesome! The pictures were not even able to capture how beautiful this cottage was. Patricia’s son built it by hand, which makes it even more unique and special. Tiny-home fanatics (like my boyfriend and I) will DIE when they see this.

Patricia’s son is something of a Renaissance man and built the cottage and most everything in it with skilled hands and utter attention to detail.

Your son is so talented and you’re very generous to share such a gift with the airbnb community. We couldn’t get over the quality of craftsmanship evident everywhere.

Patricia’s Son and his girlfriend built an amazing cottage that is Cozy and peaceful.

We were blown away by the beautiful windows and the view of the mountains! I did not expect the house to have that. Perhaps you would want to include a picture of this on your page? It was our favorite part of the house. 🙂

Patricia’s cottage was wonderful – everything we expected and then some! It was cute, quaint, and absolutely perfect. It is a a beautiful property nestled back in the woods.

This cabin is the cutest! I can’t believe they built it themselves.

This space is a true gem. Bright, open and extremely comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. In fact, we are planning a time to come back for a whole week to sink in and enjoy the stunning architecture of the cottage and it’s peaceful surroundings.

The cottage itself is just beautiful, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the woods, and maintains the perfect balance between quaint/rustic and modern. My husband absolutely loved the wood burning stove, too– despite 65 degree weather, he kept it going all weekend and it was wonderfully cozy!

My great thanks to Rob O’Connor for the following images which give you some idea of the finished product.

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