Pierogi Production Party in Virginia

Lynn and Billy are Pierogi Pros. There is no thinking required following the question: How about if we make pierogies when we come to your house? Yes!

The first question is How many cans of sauerkraut? Lynn routinely uses 15 or 16 for her own party (and made 974 pierogies last time!), but that seems excessive for me and Mom. In February we used five cans. For the December party we settled on three (and maybe we’ll be sorry, but we’ll adjust next time if we are). Imagine the difference in the number of little footballs you have to make ahead of time and the number of pierogies you line up on the pan. Here’s Mom doing an excellent job! Look at those perfect rows!

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Making pierogies is not for the faint-hearted or weak-willed. It’s complex, time-consuming and has various nuances of technique that Lynn and Billy have perfected over the years. Nonetheless, as they say, if we can do it, so can you! What follows is a brief pictorial overview of the process. You are invited to ask questions of me or Lynn if something doesn’t make sense.

Day One:

Make the potato-cheese filling and the little cabbage rolls. You do this the day before because 1. It spreads out the work and 2. It allows time for the fillings to cool, making them much easier to work with.

Filling for Potato-Cheese Pierogi

Sauté 2 large onions in 2 sticks (1 cup) butter until just golden. Add 3-4 cups mashed potatoes, 2 (8-ounce) packages softened cream cheese and salt and pepper to taste. An electric mixer is great for this. We used the stand mixer. Let mixture cool, put in a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Filling for Cabbage (Sauerkraut) Pierogi

Melt 2 sticks (1 cup) butter in large pan. Add 2 large (27-ounce) cans sauerkraut that has been rinsed and drained, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook slowly (low heat) for about 45 minutes until sauerkraut is soft. Let cool, put in a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Day Two:

First, make little cabbage footballs using your hands like this. Lynn calls them rolls or logs, but their ends do tend to taper down like footballs, just saying…

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These little footballs will fit in the form like this.

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But let us not get too far ahead.

Once your cabbage footballs are formed, clear your workspace and gather your tools. You never saw my butcherblock so clean! This is, in fact, a good opportunity to get the dust and you-know out of those corners and crevices, a bit of pre-production deep-cleaning, one might say…


You see three rolling pins. Billy’s is the big, black, marble, heavy, hefty one. You will see why. Mine are the two rather average wooden ones. I didn’t know which one of those Samuel would prefer, and he did not show up until the last minute, being involved with his coding during every other possible minute, so I brought them both out.

The potato-cheese mixture in the bowl on the butcherblock is clearly an ingredient and not a tool, but since it didn’t get its own set of photos while being made (and secretly thinks it’s better than the cabbage footballs), it snuck into the photo here to make sure, at the very least, that it is not forgotten.

Now you are ready to call the troops in and get going with the full operation. These are the ingredients for the dough, all set up in their own space. We are nothing if not organized! Okay, Lynn is nothing if not organized!


The recipe says:


Combine 4 cups flour, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, ½ cup water. ½ cup milk. and roll out thin. Transfer to pierogi forms. Fill with filling. Top with another thin layer of dough. Press with roller. Trim away excess dough.

I mean, how simple is that?

Here it is again, starting just before “roll out thin…” This is enough mixing in the bowl. Billy did the rest with his hands.

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And then he divided that amount of dough into four pieces.

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Then “roll out thin.” When we say thin, we mean thin. You go from this…

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…to this…

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…to thin enough to fit on the 14×14” form.* Move it gently and carefully.

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Billy is the Official Dough Roller. This task requires strength, endurance and no small amount of organization (is this the dough you rolled out twice already? – all looks the same to me!). This guy knows what he’s doing. His smile really says Trust me, I rolled out that dough twice already. You don’t argue.

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For the record, Samuel followed Billy’s dough-rolling lead (which dough was that again?) and will someday be glad he participated in this craziness, even if right now he would rather be coding.

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I squeezed out potato-cheese filling and placed little cabbage footballs in the form and pressed edges together and in general tried to be useful when not temporarily holding up the works with my (frequent) “hold, hold, hold!” while I stopped to take pictures, a habit I expect was not altogether appreciated at the time, but here we are with (yes, folks!) pictures!

Once you have placed the first layer of dough on the form, you milk the edges (with milk) to help the top layer of dough stick better…

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…and put the fillings in. Lynn, Master Organizer (aside from deferring to Billy on the question of Has this dough been rolled out twice already?), presides over the squeezing out of the potato-cheese filling.

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You see in the next photo that the portions are not exact and the shape of the dollop is not the same in every one. They are not perfect. We are not perfect. This is not an automated production line in a pierogi factory. We are not automated machines making every dollop the same. That squeezie thing has a mind of its own sometimes, and getting it to break off the desired quantity is a practice-makes-respectable kind of thing. This is my home and we are perfectly at ease with (at least certain kinds of) imperfections. Imperfections make it real and fun and challenging and wonderful and everything a store-bought pierogi can’t be.

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Once the form is filled, you put the second layer of dough on top

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and take the mini-roller and press against the semi-circular edges of the form. You could manage with one of the regular rolling pins or even a straight-sided glass jar.


Lynn likes the wider side of the roller and I like the narrower side. Either way, the job gets done and the edges are pressed together enough to hold.

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You have to press hard enough that the pierogies practically break away from the form on their own (see the orange of the form showing through?).

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And then you can remove the excess dough, which gets re-rolled once and once only, thus the previous “which dough was that again?” to keep track of the dough’s cycle.

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You remove the excess dough carefully, then take the whole thing over to Mom and her waiting tray, and flip them out. (Not the standard usage for the phrase “flipping out,” I grant, but the right phrase nonetheless.)

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See how wonderful they look! Like Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way!

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We kept track of numbers this time by writing with a sharpie on a corner of the waxed paper that divided the layers (three layers max). C=Cabbage  P=Potato  (But you knew that.)

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Layering the pierogies with waxed paper and using a little cornmeal on the surface helps keep them from sticking to one another. You freeze them right on the pans like this. When they are frozen solid, you put them in bags and label them.

We of course couldn’t help it and had pierogies for lunch. How does one say YUM most emphatically!!?? And between my freezer and Mom’s we have the remainder. To give you an idea of quantity, we made 67 cabbage pierogies using 3 cans of sauerkraut and 166 potato-cheese pierogies using 4 pounds of potatoes. That’s a far cry from Lynn and Billy’s 974 total, but Mom and I and everyone who eats at our tables over the next half year or so will enjoy every last bite of these. Plus, we know it won’t be long until Lynn plans a trip and says How about if we make pierogies when we come to your house? Yes!


*In case you are interested in this form, here is the info on it.

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Making 974 Pierogies

Granted, not everyone wants to make 974 pierogies. But if you do, I suggest a party. It works great for Lynn and Billy, who have been doing it for years. The deal is: you come, you work a few hours getting your hands sticky and/or your shirt spattered with flour, and you go home with zip-lock bags full of deliciousness. It’s worth every minute!

Getting a bunch of people together to make good food is, all by itself, a fun idea. Getting together to make a family favorite, something that is best made with lots of help, something everyone is happy to take home – that’s even better. The party invite should say Bring an apron.

Pierogies,* a filled dumpling, are part of my brother-in-law Billy’s Polish background. They make two kinds, potato-cheese and cabbage.  The potato-cheese kind is creamy and comforting in the same way as mac and cheese is creamy and comforting, and the cabbage ones are filled with slowly sautéed (in lots of butter) sauerkraut, i.e. fermented cabbage cooked down to tender sweetness. Both kinds are amazingly good.

Traditionally, you boil them as you would any filled dumpling (or pasta, if you think along Italian lines), douse with melted butter and serve. I like to sauté some onions in a pan over a low flame, lay the frozen pierogies on top, add a little water, cover, and let them steam into tender puffs …

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…then flip to get the other side just a little crispy.

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It is not a piece of cake to make pierogies, but here are several good reasons to venture into the Pierogi Party Production arena: 1. Many hands make light work. 2. Food is a powerful motivator, meaning you can get people to do work when food is the reward. And 3. Assuming you have someone like my sister Lynn in charge, you know it’s going to be good. She is a master organizer and keeps things going with admirable efficiency and poise. Anyone who can get 12 people to show up at 10:00 on a Saturday morning to do four hours of work with zero monetary compensation deserves applause.

Lynn gets all her ingredients ahead of time. This last time, just before Christmas, they weren’t aiming for 974 pierogies, but they were aiming high! She got six pounds of potatoes, five pounds of butter, 16 (!) large cans of sauerkraut, six large onions, three dozen eggs, a gallon of milk and 35 pounds of flour. The day before, she gets out her recipe (it’s fairly straightforward, you’ll see) and prepared the potato-cheese mixture and the cabbage footballs. Then when her “guests” – all of whom want in on this action because they’ve had these before and they want them again – start coming, she gives everyone a task according to age, ability and stamina, and organizes the steps in such a way as to crank out large quantities in a very short time. It’s a model of productivity.

Four-year-old Brea isn’t going to roll dough, but she can help crack eggs into each batch of dough.

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The rolling out of the dough Lynn assigned to the strong and energetic. If my calculations are correct, Evan and Matt needed to roll out 108 pieces of dough about the same size you’d need for a deep-dish pie.


The pierogi form, this thing…

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…makes 18. That’s 54 times you need to flip pierogies out of it to make 974 total, but 108 times you roll the dough because there’s a top and a bottom. That’s a workout!

Some people press the mini-roller on the pierogi maker to seal the edges together (go, Erika!), some separate the finished ones and some wait their turn.


In the end, they ran out of room inside the house and set up tables out on the porch until these made it to the freezer. 974 is a lot of pierogies! If you don’t believe me, I am sure one of them will confirm the truth of this statement.


The mere 233 we made last February when Lynn and Billy came to my house to visit pales in comparison, but we had our own Pierogi Production Party. We had so much fun (and the pierogies were sooooo good!), we did it again when they came in early December. Tomorrow I’ll give the specifics…


*In case you were wondering, pierogi = pierogies. Both are plural. Both are correct (or at least in our modern English usage correct). I use the -es ending for the plural because that’s how I learned it.

Two Brooders

After Christmas it’s easy to feel tired. Not only do we have all the preparation – the packages, the meals, the travel, the extra this and that not normally in the routine – but we also have the interactions, the conversations and the ideas that floated around and made us think about new things or old things in a new way or things we just haven’t thought about for a while.

And then today it rained besides. It rained so much I had a rivulet of water flowing downhill by way of my little stream bed, exactly where it’s supposed to flow. Don’t you love it when things work the way you set them up to work?

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But I don’t think we can blame Christmas for the two depressed and brooding chickens in my coop right now. They didn’t have to make, get or wrap packages, or prepare meals for guests. They don’t have to rewind the conversations of the family and friend get-togethers in their heads at night, wondering if they listened well enough or if they could have said something a little more clearly (or why Aunt Mildred always has to tell the same old stories!).

And we can’t blame the rain either because it just started last night and these birds have been holing up for a few weeks now, a thing chickens do sometimes apparently. This one we call Blue on account of her blue ears.

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See her in there? Almost any time you look, you will find her in that exact spot. We toss her into the run several times daily so she will go get water and food, but she spends most of her time huddled down on this side of the (rightly named) brooding box. Maybe she’s still scared of Goldyneck, reliving the nightmare of having her tail feathers yanked. I expect she was so traumatized that she has not noticed the blessed truth – Goldyneck has been (perhaps permanently) banished. That’s right. I watched her relentless bullying one too many times. Here she is on the other side of the fence with the Big Girls, clueless as ever. Somehow she’s surviving being Low Girl on the Totem Pole.


The other Brooder is Whitey. I disturbed her to check for eggs underneath (and found a small white one, still warm!) so she is not as tucked in as Blue. Nonetheless she spends as much time on her side of the brooding box as she can.

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The UPside of being a Brooder – today – is that Blue and Whitey are the only two chickens that are dry. The incessant rain does not change the looks of the Brahma Girls. You would not know it’s raining to look at this one

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or her sister.

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Nor are the Reds much affected by the wet weather. Don’t you want woobly red things hanging down from your chin like that!?

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But the silkies, the poor silkies. The rain is not their friend. Fluff turns to spikes in no time. Here’s One-Eye (and that’s the one eye) in glorious spikes. If you look carefully you can see her blue ear.

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Wait, she has blue ears too?  All the silkies do. Here, when she leans over you can see it better.

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Why we call one of the silkies Blue when all of the silkies have blue ears I cannot explain.

Spot is the most spikey if you ask me. Those are some serious spikes.

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But they don’t seem to notice. They walk around in the pouring rain as if they don’t look even more ridiculous than usual. And a night inside with that marvelous heat lamp going… (is this the life or what??)

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…and they will all be fluffy and dry again by morning. Ah, to be a chicken on Golden Hill!! Now why can’t the Brooders see it that way?

Puzzling Puzzles

On Christmas Eve I spent hours bending over the coffee table trying to see the difference between pieces as alike as these. I know, I know – you can see plainly that the one on the left has a little bit of dark on its top outie.


If you’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle, you know that the difference is not so easy to see when the table looks like this.

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The pieces below give you a little more to go on because clearly the very pale green (which makes you want to have a stern conversation with the artist who painted this picture or the marketing person who decided that it would make a good puzzle) – if you can see the very pale green under artificial light when people are walking around making intermittent shadows – is going in two different directions. Do they fit together?

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It could be hours before you discover that they do. In the meantime there are several hundred other puzzle pieces competing for your attention – Pick me! Pick me! – and you can look through all the as-yet-unplaced pieces a thousand times and not see the obvious. Of course they go together.


Sometimes I think I have a disorder, you know, the kind that has to do with not being able to sit still. I keep pretty active in general and have been known to forget what I’m doing because I get distracted doing something else. Is this a human characteristic or a disorder? I don’t know, but I have also been told that I should relax more.

For the record, doing a puzzle like this is totally relaxing for me and I did not jump up and down away from it every time I thought of something else I should /might be doing. In fact it was so relaxing I forgot about the scalloped potatoes I should have made, which in the end Samuel made and which were fabulous. And now he knows that this is a recipe.

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He made this dish on Christmas morning (with some supplemental verbal instruction), and naturally we were doing a bunch of other things, and I forgot how we did the onions last time – on top or mixed in – so we thought it best to put them on top, which trust me was a very good decision. This is how it looked on the table — that white dish between the wine bottles with the golden brown, soft, sweet onions on top. You will have to imagine how good it tasted.

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My point is that I was so absorbed in the puzzle on Christmas Eve that we were scrambling to do the scalloped potatoes (which were none the worse for the scramble) on Christmas Day. Does this sound like a person with a disorder? Okay, maybe a disorder of forgetfulness rather than a disorder of distractibility. Never mind about the disorder discussion!

Puzzles are challenging! Why do we do them? For me and my family they are a holiday activity, and I do not remember ever keeping a puzzle in its finished form beyond a few weeks. Sooner or later we break it all up and put the pieces back in a box. All that work! All those hours! Why do we take time to do something that in the end goes away? It reminds me of what my mother used to say about Thanksgiving – you do all that food prep, days of food prep, and in ten minutes they’ve eaten it all up! My Airbnb cottage guest, Rob, was saying last night that the different sweeteners you use in mixed drinks react differently (and make a different drink) depending on the temperature of the liquid. There is a whole chemistry behind mixed drinks that he is clearly an expert on, but why does he take the time to study this?

Why does Trish make amazing little appetizers like this to bring to a holiday gathering? Why does anyone take time to make food look like adorable little mice? We don’t eat mice! But when they look like this and we know they are sweet, we eat them!

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We do these things because they bring a certain kind of satisfaction. We use our brains and our hands and put them to work alongside creativity, competence, curiosity and confidence. We love knowing we can do a thing that not everyone can do — even if we couldn’t do it ten years ago and had to learn. Rob had a succulent turkey going inside a foil pan inside my gas grill. He showed me. I smelled it and knew that he and Kelsey would be having a fabulous Christmas dinner. He said he loves to cook but can’t bake anything. Kelsey, on the other hand, can bake! Why? Who knows?

Does it matter? We share our strengths and in the end there is both entree and dessert. There is both passion and reason, strength and flexibility, activity and rest. We need all the components that make us human, but we don’t each need everything all the time. The unboring joy of life includes a little of A, a little of B, some of R sometimes, some of Q another time, learning M this year and N the next, one person doing X, another person doing Y (and it all gets done somehow!). It’s like one big puzzle in which no two pieces are exactly alike yet they all fit together to make a satisfying, wonderful whole.


Christmas Trees Among Friends and Family

Sometimes I forget things. My first waking thought today, Christmas morning, was not (I am sorry to say) about the real meaning of Christmas, but instead Oh, right, I told Mom I would make scalloped potatoes to go with the dinner today – better get to that! Yesterday was pure relaxation after Samuel helped me finish up the chocolate lime pie, our traditional Christmas dessert. I got out a new (very hard!) jigsaw puzzle and got completely absorbed with that until we turned on It’s A Wonderful Life while enjoying Samuel’s excellent pizza.

Now I realize I also forgot all about the popcorn garland I was going to add to the Christmas tree. Could have done that yesterday too. Do you think it needs it?


Speaking of trees, I almost didn’t put one up. I was so enchanted with the way my outdoor tree looked this year, especially when we got snow, I said to myself, It’s enough. I wished it had snowed before I made up my Christmas cards this year!

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But snow (in Virginia) melts and various people I know sent me photos of their Christmas trees. How could this not nudge me??

Louisa in North Carolina was the first. How amazing that her tree is not only so incredibly beautiful but that she got her precious pups to pose in front!


My sister Lynn in Massachusetts was next. I love the way her star on top shines on the ceiling, so soft, and I bet it looks different from different angles and at different times of day.


Fred in Kentucky, I venture to say, could tell you where every ornament came from. How precious a walk through memories…


Marie’s (in Idaho) made me smile big. They went out with neighbors and cut one from the woods. I love it!


Even more precious was the photo of Ellie, who is three, holding an ornament. Marie said, “Grandma gave me this one when I was three.” I hope Ellie’s child (someday) is smiling as she holds the ornament I sent Ellie this year…


Claudia’s tree in Germany is full and jolly!


I also loved her table decoration prepared in time for the first Sunday of Advent. How we take such simple elements and put them together to make something so pretty and meaningful!

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Kim’s in Vermont is not exactly a tree, but it is made from branches of trees! At their family camp where they traditionally get their trees there just … weren’t any. She said it’s growing on her and is much more manageable than a real tree! I love it!


We make do and we make it wonderful! Lincoln and Julia in Vermont, in their straw bale house, decided to be even more unconventional. I love theirs too!


Lincoln’s, Kim’s and Marie’s made me think – here I am with the unboring path and yet I have a rather conventional tree. They get the prize for Unconventional! How fun and wonderful to see such a lovely variety, to bear witness to the creativity of those I know, to see and hear about the joy and fun that surrounds this custom.  They all made me smile! What a funny custom it is – we buy a tree or go to the woods to cut one down (or cut some branches, if you are Kim and Dave), then install (assemble?) it indoors in a prominent place and decorate it with our favorite ornaments. Or if you are Lincoln and Julia, you put up some lights and hang ornaments and use your imagination! What a special way once a year to slow down, do something unnecessary but just fun,  share a tradition with countless others and revisit our Christmas memories as we make new ones.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont

My son Lincoln is building a house, but not a normal house. Twenty de-barked trees taken from his six-acre riverside property in northern Vermont constitute the vertical supports, and the first-floor walls are stacked straw bales that serve as insulation. Oh, and the pentagonal design means the corners aren’t square.

Presently it looks like this. The smoke coming out of that stovepipe might lead you to think it’s warm in there. Indeed, it’s warmer than outside!

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Last week Samuel and I traveled to Vermont to work alongside Lincoln and better understand his project. I found myself awestruck not only by the hard work, craftsmanship and ingenuity evident everywhere, but also by the fortitude, patience and ease with which every member of the family is walking through this process.

First of all, it’s not warm in Vermont in December. It wasn’t warm in November either. This year, Thanksgiving was the coldest on record (11 degrees Fahrenheit, -11C), and snowfall broke the previous record set in 1900 with 32” (81cm) of snow in November. As Lincoln has been building this unusual, amazing house, he and his wife Julia and their two delightful daughters (Rise and Eppie, 6 and 4) have been living in a 16’ (4.8 meter)-diameter yurt on the same property. It has a wood stove that keeps it toasty, but the privy is detached and the adjacent “greenhouse” that Lincoln and Julia slept in is unheated.

Some nights it got down to –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20C). Think about that. How many blankets would you need? They would turn their electric blanket on about 40 minutes before going to bed. A couple weeks ago when he was about to get the wood stove in the house set up, Lincoln said, “It’s very exciting for those of us sleeping in unheated greenhouses waking up to -4 degrees on our faces.” When I said I could not even imagine how that feels, he said, “Eh. Our electric blanket is awesome. It’s basically just like getting out of bed into a walk in the freezer.”

You can see the yurt and the greenhouse down the hill from where Samuel is standing with Coco tucked into his jacket. (She was a constantly shivering camper during this week, but that is another story!)

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This is glorified camping. In the winter. In Vermont. As the fire dies down, you can sometimes see your breath inside, but no one seems to notice. None of them complain. They just carry on. Here we are cooking dinner together in the yurt one night early last week. I have an ear warmer on under that hat, and I am wearing four layers on top (including a wool sweater and an alpaca sweater), and two on the bottom (cold weather leggings under snow pants) and the girls are in regular clothes, oblivious.

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There is no running water right now. The pipe that brought water into the yurt froze during the very cold November. No matter. They bring in water in large containers such as the one behind me in the photo above, filling and refilling at their friends’ house (Zach and Nicole live a very short drive away). But there’s electricity and internet. They have a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a toaster oven. You heat up water to do the dishes. You put on another sweater if you feel cold.

Lincoln works on the house day after day, one task at a time. Julia works outside the home, coming and going with gentle, saintly tolerance. Rise goes to kindergarten and Eppie to preschool, and I suspect few of their classmates are as unspoiled or resilient, or as well equipped to handle the various forms of adversity that their own lives will bring. The snow, the cold, the construction zone, the tight quarters, the inconveniences – they all take it in stride. They may not have running water yet, but they will. In the meantime, as they love, support and serve one another with smiles and strength and kindness, they are happy, healthy and secure in a peaceful, incredibly beautiful place. They ask for nothing and have everything they truly need.

I stand in awe.

Lincoln could have built a normal house, and it would have been done by now, or nearly done. A normal house would have square corners, a shingled roof and indoor plumbing as it applies to both kitchen and bathroom. There would not be sawdust and bits of straw everywhere or 6ml plastic for windows.

But he didn’t. He created a unique home design that is enormously ambitious and unconventional. He is living his dream, and Julia, God bless her, is his perfect partner.

Lincoln’s dream is a lot of work (a lot of work!), but it lets girls be prairie dogs,

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includes dizzying heights,

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demands outstanding joinery,

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and creates surreal images.

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I hope these few photos have whet your appetite. I plan to do a more thorough step-by-step of his building journey in future posts. If you have any questions or want me to explore any particular aspect of the project more, let me know.

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?