“Honey, I Need a Real Dog”

Last week I was wrestling fiercely in my head and heart about two sweet, invalid pugs I had tentatively opened my home to. Here are Pimm and Polly on my couch, a favorite spot. All they wanted to do was snuggle close, which is not a bad trait if you spend a lot of time sitting. Coco clearly regarded them as aliens, choosing to keep a distance apart.

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I realized, among other things during this enlightening week, that I do not sit a lot. (My inability to post more often on anunboringpath attests to this!) I sit when I write and I sit when I am tired or eating. Sandy says I have two speeds: Off and high. Maybe he is right? Maybe this is another good reason two very inactive, nearly blind dogs are not the best choice for me?

Almost a week into my attempt to be a rescuer, Friday came around, the fiercest day of all, the day I knew I had to make the yea or nay, stay or go, here or somewhere else decision. Friday is also the day I read to Evelyn, who will be 102 in August and has been completely blind for about eight years. If anyone might be sympathetic toward these needy dogs, I thought it would be Evelyn.

Not even close. She was adamant that I should not keep them. First was the you-should-know-this declarative: “They’re dogs.” Meant, I’m sure, to assuage any lingering emotional connection I might have that would lead me to keep them for the wrong reasons. Meant, I’m sure, to suggest that they would be fine in some other place, such place being, in fact, better on account of no potentially deadly stairs that they might fall down. To top that, she – the blind lady who lives in a nursing home – said with as much vehemence as you can imagine her mustering: “They don’t need your home. They need a nursing home.” I was paying attention. She seldom has this strength of opinion.

That evening I sent the note that resulted in the pugs’ departure on Sunday, back to the foster family that bought them (and sent along to me) a suitcase full of cutesy doggie clothes. Anyone who would buy sailor suits, sundresses, raincoats and parkas for pugs, and mark them with their names in permanent marker along the lining of the collars no less, has fond affection for them. I knew Pimm and Polly would be okay. I did not have to be their savior.

Exactly a week after Evelyn told me in no uncertain terms to send the dogs back, I showed up again with To Kill a Mockingbird (our current read) in hand, and had hardly said hello when she said, “Tell me you sent those blind dogs back.” I wonder if she could have paid attention to the story if I had decided to keep them.

When Mom came for her turn to read, and to give me back Rise and Eppie who had been baking chocolate chip cookies with her during my reading hour, I decided to take a picture. Here are my little sweeties, my wonderful mom and happy, relaxed Evelyn enjoying Coco, who chose this moment to be a lizard with her tongue.

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Pimm and Polly helped me see my doggie needs differently. A week with dogs that couldn’t find their food unless you put it smack in front of them and gently positioned their flat little faces in their bowls, a week picking up dogs who couldn’t do stairs every time it was time for them to get a little outdoor time (and picking them up again after they’d had sufficient time to explore nature and do business), a week stepping over the temporary, please-God-let-them-not-take-a-tumble barriers in front of my open spiral staircase – can anyone blame me if I was right ready for a real dog?

Pre-Pimm-and-Polly, while still in the maybe-they-are-a-good-idea stage about a month or so ago, my son Bradley had said to me, “Mom, you have ten acres. Why do you want a dog that can live in an apartment? Why don’t you get a dog that can enjoy all this space?”

Around the same time, I was in Lowe’s, a store that allows you to bring in your dog(s). From a few aisles away I saw a man with a golden retriever on a leash. I am drawn like a magnet to a beautiful dog, so I approached and he gladly let me pet her. In his shopping cart was another dog, a dachshund I think, something small anyway. “She’s so beautiful,” I said about his golden as I stroked her gorgeous fur, glancing up at the other dog as well, as if some of my praise could waft in that dog’s direction. Nice little dog I’m sure. Fair’s fair after all. Well, sort of fair. I continued petting the golden.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly pleased that his gorgeous animal had been noticed and admired. Motioning to the smaller dog he said, “My wife and I always had big dogs, and then our last one passed and we were without a dog. Some friends of ours were getting one of these and there was one left in the litter and my wife and I said, Okay, sure, let’s get a small dog. About four years later I told her, Honey, I need a real dog.”

Much as Bradley’s advice and this incident might have (should have?) weighed into my initial decision to get Pimm and Polly, neither did. I did recall it all later, however, while trying to fall asleep late at night as the two of them on the floor of my bedroom groomed each other like baboons with incessant licking that sounded like wild, snorting boars foraging for truffles at the roots of giant oaks in an ancient forest.

Right after Pimm and Polly left, Lincoln and the girls had arrived. With them came Willow, their six-month-old golden. She is not exactly a lap dog, though Samuel gave it a try.

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She is however – let there be no doubt about it – a real dog. She was as cute as a golden retriever puppy can be when she was six weeks old and enduring January in Vermont.


She even fit in their (standard size) mailbox!

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By six months old she fetches a tennis ball or a stick over and over again…

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…astonishing me with her grace, speed, energy, stamina and strength. Everything in this young body works! Her fur is soft as silk, her teeth white as snow, her eyes clear and bright and happy. She is picture-perfect and real-life-perfect.

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A dog like this doesn’t come along every day. She brings me the gooky tennis ball with that look that says You know you want to whack it down the driveway! I’ll go get it! I will! I’ll bring it back to you and you can whack it again! You know you want to! And I get to watch her run after that ball. I stare in wonder at her perfect form and perfect face. I think she’s happy to be alive, and I found myself happy to be near her and with her.

I think someday I need a dog that needs and wants to walk and run and play, a dog that follows me to the chicken coop and the garden, that learns to come, sit, stay and heel, that makes me stare in awe. We’ll see. One of these days the right dog for me will come along.


Shakespeare’s Pick Up Lines

It’s funny to me that when we go to a Shakespeare play, we understand at the outset that we will miss a lot of the dialog, we will miss some of the meaning and some innuendos, therefore possibly even some basic elements or twists of the plot. The language is challenging to say the least. Yet we continue to go at least two or three times a year. Last week we saw The Comedy of Errors. Even if some of us didn’t understand about how the gold watch and the money for it fit in till the end, we were still rolling in laughter almost the entire time.

These two “servants” in their matching plaid shirts (shown here during the pre-show, take-photos-now-or-never, come-get-a-drink-on-stage time) and all their compatriots performed hilarious slapstick that needs no words.

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The basic premise of the story involves, according to the American Shakespeare Center’s website, “two long-separated twins, their two tricky servants (also twins), a jealous wife and her lovelorn sister….” You can’t help but enjoy how they find each other, fool each other and ultimately feel great joy together in this all’s-well-in-the-end family drama.

The costuming is from the 1940s. Why not? One actor embellished her role with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Shiny-red-with-big-white-hearts undershorts made a brief appearance, as did fluttering eyelashes, hops onto the laps of those patrons watching from the primo on-stage seats and ouch-didn’t-that-hurt(?!) dives onto the wooden stage.

This troupe of professional actors, performing three or four plays a season, eight or ten shows a week in Staunton, Virginia, has never failed to make me glad we drove the 45 minutes up and over Afton Mountain to get there. They don’t do only Shakespeare. Every year we attend their version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which they keep as fresh and enlightening as traditional and heartwarming. Scrooge generally works his way roughly through the audience as, in the script, he is fighting the crowd on the street on Christmas Eve. One year on his trek between rows, he took a cup an audience member was holding, tasted it, made a face and gave it back. We roared.

You can’t get away from funny at this theater. We all know Shakespeare’s material runs from comedy to tragedy, and there is generally some love interest (because in life, there is generally some love interest). This is the theater that boldly boasts (after they explain that the play will be performed in full lighting as it was in Shakespeare’s day), “We do it with the lights on.”

Bravo to the person who decided to put Shakespeare’s top ten pick up lines on a t-shirt. I expect this is a perennial bestseller in their gift shop.

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In case you find them hard to read on the shirt, allow me to make it easier (minus the references). I cannot speak to the order they are in: chronological according to when the play was written? favorites of the t-shirt creator in reverse order? most or least likely to achieve desired outcome?

You can decide which is your favorite, which you wish someone would use on you, which is most romantic, which you would soooo enjoy using one of these days just to see the reaction you’d get, which would warm your heart, which would bring images of intimacy most effectively to mind…

10. If thou hast sinned, teach me.

9. I come to answer thy best pleasure.

8. I thy parts admire.

7. Come sit on me.

6. Madam, my instrument’s in tune.

5. I entreat thee home with me.

4. I’ll do it in my shirt.

3. Make some sign how I may do thee ease.

2. Let me take you a buttonhole lower.

1. With thy lips keep in my soul a while.

There is no way to top the top ten. I leave it right there for you to do with as you please 😊

Rescue Reflections

I want a dog. I need a dog. I should get a dog. How hard is that? The time is right for me to get a dog of my own again. I think. I thought.

I was never much of a small-dog person, but Coco changed my mind. After she became a nice dog due to Samuel’s efforts, I grew to like her. I grew to enjoy her snuggling next to me on the couch. I grew to find her adorable. Don’t you?

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It’s okay if you don’t. She’s a ridiculous creature, but if you love a dog of your own, you know that doesn’t matter. If you don’t, then there is no use my explaining it. Dogs work their way into your heart. The thing is, she may be small, she may be ridiculous, but she is not foo-foo. I cannot do foo-foo. And she is nice. Nice matters. Coco made me consider a small dog instead of the larger breeds I’d had and been comfortable with: German shepherds (Jesse, then Adam), golden retrievers (Lucy and Candy), a St. Bernard (Mona), then another golden (Bridget).

We knew for the entire duration of Samuel’s Lambda (computer coding school) experience that when he finished and got himself a job, he would be leaving this house and finding a place of his own. I am exceedingly grateful that he found a job locally, but still, he will be leaving, and there will go my snuggler Coco. If she wasn’t such a nice dog, I would not be in such a fix right now. I had a problem to solve. Toward the end of my CASA training, right about when the tragedy of Micah’s death occurred and the 5K hospice race was happening and Max died, I distracted myself by thinking about my next dog.

Coco is nice. Pugs are nice. I looked up “pug rescue” and discovered an organization that currently had a mother-daughter bonded pair available. The description said:

Pimm & Polly are a bonded pair that must be adopted together. Both are up to date on vaccines, microchipped, spayed, and heart-worm negative.

Pimm & Polly are a super sweet bonded mother & daughter. They were surrendered to our rescue because their former owner passed away.

They both get along great with other small breed dogs and kids. Both are around 14 and 15 lbs silver pugs. Polly (Mother) is with limited vision having lost one eye as a puppy. She also has some alopecia from a skin condition during her puppyhood. 

Pimm is her daughter, she is playful liking stuffy and chew toys. Both are potty trained. Pimm takes a daily eye drop for dry eye. Both are very sweet ladies perfect snuggle pugs. 

We recommend gentle older children due to Polly’s vision. A fenced in first-floor home would be ideal for her and her daughter Pimm. Other small breed dogs like another pug would be best suited for these little ladies. 

Pimm & Polly are looking for a loving family that will have the time to give these sweet girls lots of love and snuggle time!

Based on this description, it seemed reasonable to keep going, so I did. Two dogs are generally better than one anyway, so I started the ball rolling – sent in the application, retrieved old vet records, opened my home to inspection. One thing led to the next. I passed their rigorous process. Last Saturday, a week ago, Mom drove with me to Williamsburg to meet them.

We waited in the parking lot next to Pet Smart. Pimm and Polly approached via stroller, pushed by smiling rescue folks doing an admirable thing trying to find these poor little dogs a home. The pugs were dressed up to meet me: full-fledged matching tutus with polka dots, shiny blue nail polish too. In this photo taken just before I took them home you can see we took the tutus off. And in case you are wondering, Pimm’s tongue hangs out that far because there are no teeth to hold it farther in.

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I can look beyond the trappings, beyond the shall-we-say unattractiveness of Polly’s hair loss and one eye. (Never mind that some people told me I could enter her in the Ugliest Dog contest and probably win.) I could see that they are sweet dogs, older dogs that have had a rough time. Their former owner did not detect (or blatantly ignored) mange in Polly to the point where the hair follicles are irreversibly damaged. There will never again be hair on the top of her head or on her belly or legs.

But okay. I signed the contract that included numerous points in regard to their well-being, medical care and safety, including promises that I would inform the rescue organization of any change in address or phone number and never allow the dogs to ride in the back of an open pickup truck. It was unequivocally clear that I was never to transfer ownership and that the rescue organization would remain the second contact on the microchip. The pugs would be mine or theirs, no one else’s. Not that I would re-home them, but that all felt a little like Are they really my dogs then?

Just as I put them in my car, I got what is for me an uncommon thing. Some people would call it intense anxiety. I paused. My heart beat faster than usual. I struggled to remain composed. “I don’t know why I have such cold feet,” I told the rescue folks. “But I have such cold feet.”

“Don’t worry,” they said. “Take them home and give it a week. Take two if you need to. Consider yourself a foster family for now until you are sure.”

“What about my money?” I asked, referring to the $425 adoption fee, which I understand helps cover the costs incurred during their year-plus of foster care.

“We won’t cash your check until you tell us you are sure,” they said. Mom didn’t say anything, didn’t want to interfere. I did not remember the words Samuel had said before I left: Make sure, if it’s a yes, it’s a strong yes. It wasn’t a strong yes, it was far from a strong yes, but off we went with stroller, food, meds, bed and a suitcase full of other clothes – matching sundresses, raincoats, fleece coats, parkas, sailor outfits, etc, all marked Pimm or Polly.

Okay. For two days I watched them exploring my house, enjoyed their very sweet natures and the facts that they eat well, do their business in appropriate places (i.e. not in my house) and really just want to snuggle almost all the time. I noticed that Polly only occasionally moved beyond her familiar bed and that neither was able to walk up or down stairs, even on a leash. But they are only about 14 pounds each, not heavy pugs. I carried them when we went outside, picked them up when they wanted to be with me on the couch.

Right away on Monday morning I called my own vet and made an appointment for that afternoon. Dr. Stewart is seasoned, wise and sensible. I trust her judgment and wanted her assessment. The “limited vision” referred to in the description is apparently an understatement. Polly is not only one-eyed to begin with. The best way to imagine the extent of her vision in the remaining eye is to imagine what you can see by looking through a straw – an extremely small field of vision, my vet said, and even that, we can’t be sure how clear it is. She is essentially blind. Pimm’s vision is quite compromised too. A kind of pigmentation happens in the cornea, which should be transparent. Neither cornea is close to transparent, so for her too, the world grows darker and darker.

I chide myself that I did not, as soon as the vet pronounced this factual state of affairs, put two and two together. I was perhaps in the thrall of their sweet, quiet pugness, perhaps heard the voices of our age commending me for this rescue effort. I did not remember how I assist Evelyn (101 years old and completely blind) from her chair to her couch every week when I go there to read to her, how tentatively she steps as she feels along the table in between, how she cannot simply put a fork into her food because for her the world is dark. I did not think about my house, the pugs’ new environment. I did not think about the danger of the open landing at the top of my spiral, cast iron staircase.

A continual mental flagellation has been happening all week, a little bit like the way President Kennedy reportedly walked around the White House after the Bay of Pigs fiasco saying over and over How could I have been so stupid?

The day after the vet visit, I was in the kitchen when I heard an unusual sound, a creaky thumping coming from the front foyer. Yes, the front foyer where you find the spiral, cast iron staircase. Polly was at the bottom, miraculously standing, miraculously with only a small cut on her head.

That night at the dinner table I had a light bulb moment and announced, “Polly fell down the stairs. It’s all very plain now. I just don’t have the right house. It’s not safe for them here.” I sent a note off the next day to the rescue folks, expecting them to come running with supreme concern – if they wouldn’t want them in the back of an open pickup, they wouldn’t want them falling down stairs, right? They didn’t. Instead I got “Is there a way to keep the girls in area with a pet or toddler gate?… At some point any pug you adopt will develop vision issues or issues getting around.”

Vision issues, she said. Um, blindness.

But she gave me pause and okay, maybe a gate, maybe a barrier. But I can’t create a hazard while trying to block a hazard. We go up and down those stairs all the time. And there are stairs on the back deck, stairs on the front deck. A saloon-type barrier might work across a small space but wouldn’t work everywhere.

Several things happened along with the incessant self-flagellation that continued, along with the constant undercurrents of stress, with the voices in my head saying one shouldn’t give up… one should make these things work… they really are very sweet… every dog needs a home… but it’s not safe here…  it’s mostly good here… but what if someone forgets to close the gate?

I did my best to set aside other considerations, to remember the central question drilled into us at CASA training, the foremost goal of the volunteer work aimed at helping abused and neglected children: figuring out what is best for the children. I tried to focus on What is best for the dogs?

I also did what I do when a weight is on my shoulders.  I consulted. I sought the wise counsel of those I trust and respect. I laid out the facts and got a resounding chorus in reply: This is not a good situation. They need a different home.

It pained me to write the note last night, but I did it. So far I have not heard back….

Maybe the time is not quite right for me to get a dog of my own again.

What Do You Do With a Brisket?

I was in the meat section the other day and saw beef brisket at half price. Half price! I have never cooked a beef brisket before, but for half price, I can learn.

Brisket sounds old school to me, substantial, hearty. But I really wasn’t sure what to do with it. I turned to my trusted sources first: The Fanny Farmer Cookbook (12th edition), Joy of Cooking (22nd printing), and The New James Beard (first printing). You can’t go wrong with trusted sources, right? Can you tell which one I’ve used the most?

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I started with Fanny of course. She will tell me, I was sure. This tried-and-true cookbook falls open to the quick breads section (so often have I made muffins, pancakes, etc!) and has a section about every kind of basic cooking and baking. Surely Fanny will at least get me started.

But no. Nothing on brisket.

James Beard is out there in a weirder realm as far as my tastes are concerned, always has been. I just don’t make roast Cornish hens or pigs’ feet or sautéed brains. But that’s precisely why I had my highest hopes with him – if I don’t make it as a rule, he probably covers it. C’mon, James. Even if you give me a twist on brisket, I can work with that. Again no. Hmmm.

All right. Joy of Cooking is probably the most comprehensive of the three, as well as the easiest to follow. Titles of recipes and “About” sections ARE IN BOLD CAPS, ingredients are in lower case bold, (optional ingredients in parentheses.) Thank you, Joy of Cooking (!) – I did find BEEF BRISKET WITH SAUERKRAUT.

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But I was not in the mood for sauerkraut. You can see, though, that Joy of Cooking added “…or other boneless stewing beef” which told me I was working with meat that would need to cook for several hours in liquid. Some meats you cook fast, some you cook slow. Stew beef I understand. Stew beef I can do.

Reminds me of a time I stood in line in the dining hall where mom lives. They had meatloaf that day, and the man in front of me – at least 80 years old I’d say – was waiting for it also. We stood in front of the posted menu that included any number of rather unconventional, one could say faddish, items/ingredients.  While the staff were running to the back to get the next meatloaf coming out of the oven (clearly it was a popular choice that evening), I said to the man, “Nothing like meatloaf.”

Clearly I gave him an opportunity to vent. “They give us all this stuff, weird stuff, food I can’t pronounce. Meatloaf… meatloaf I understand. Why can’t they just give us more meatloaf?”

I learned from Joy of Cooking that brisket was stewing beef. Now we’re getting somewhere. Next I did what any sensible person in my position in 2019 would do (but sometimes avoid because of the inundation factor) – I googled beef brisket. Pick a recipe, any recipe. Ah, here’s one that starts with sautéing onion in oil, searing the meat, adding some herbs, covering it with water and letting it cook in a slow oven for a long time. Sounds simple, but it was actually way more complicated than that, and included some other ingredients I didn’t like.

All right, forget about it. Let’s sauté onion in oil, sear the meat, add some herbs, cover it with water and let it cook in a slow oven until it’s done.

I cleaned and sliced three onions and browned them in about 2 tablespoons olive oil (always use extra virgin). I chose oregano and thyme for my herbs since they are doing well in the garden right now.

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I removed these from the pan when the onions were soft enough to have lost their shape and looked at my piece of beef – too big for the pan as is. So I quartered it.

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I put another tablespoon or two of oil in the now-hot pan, turned up the heat to almost high, and let each side sizzle in the hot oil for a few minutes until nicely browned. I noticed when I stuck my large cooking fork into each piece (to put it in the pan or pull it from the bottom to turn it to another side) that the fork did not go in easily. Having to jam it in there told me that this meat would require a long cook time to get tender. Stewing beef it is.

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Three choices for the slow cooking part of this experiment stood before me: stovetop, crockpot or oven. It would have been easiest (and less clean-up) to just put the onions/herbs and water right in this pot, cover it and let it cook slowly. But it was a hot day and I didn’t want a flame on for hours. Using my crock pot seemed a good alternative, but it is not very big. But by the time I put the everything in, it was nearly overflowing. Not a good plan.

Oh, this might be a good occasion for the Lodge cast iron Dutch oven! I retrieved it from its home on top of the fridge in the basement, and everything fit nicely. Besides the meat, sautéed onions/herbs and water (enough to just cover the meat), I added salt and pepper of course, a moderate sprinkling (you can always add more later if you want). I covered the pot, put it in the oven, turned the temp to 325F, shut the door and walked away.

The aroma of the slowly cooking beef in the house all afternoon would have been reward enough, but the taste of the broth was heavenly and the fork went into that meat like nothing after four hours (during which time I might have basted the meat or in some other way tended it, but didn’t, must have been busy elsewhere). Success!

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Notice the liquid cooked way down, concentrating the flavors and softening the meat. I can (you can!) do something with a brisket. This works – it’s simple and delicious. Your call to decide about adding roasted potatoes or spaetzle or whatever side dish would gladly share the savory juices. I am quite pleased about it. Next time you see a half-price brisket, go for it!

Humdinger and Armageddon: Words of the Day

“It’s not very often I would use that word,” the forestry consultant said. “But that’s a humdinger.” A few weeks ago a very large branch fell from a red oak that stands next to my cottage. I can’t get my arms around the branch – the branch is that big. It fell straight back into the woods, thank God. But the now-damaged, now-without-its-counterweight red oak has another big branch positioned over the cottage and another pointing toward the utility pole that stands 40 feet or so from the tree.

The cottage of course I worry about. But the power line that’s attached to the utility pole – well, anyone knows you don’t want a massive tree falling on the power line.  The power company doesn’t want a massive tree falling on the power line.

The red arrow shows where the counterweight branch was. You can see the lean.

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Now all the weight is toward the driveway. This red oak easily tops 100 feet. Other trees stand in that area also, smaller trees (not small, just smaller) between the big, damaged tree and the utility pole. This is a humdinger because it’s complicated.

Could be nothing to worry about. Could be that red oak stands another fifty years.

Could be a disastrous domino effect. Could be a strong wind takes out the power line and demolishes six other trees and whatever else is in its path because the spread, the wingspan, of the upper branches of the red oak would simply grab ‘n go – grab everything between it and the ground and go strongly, heavily (we’re talking tons of weight here with momentum and gravity helping) in the natural direction of all that weight.

Just to the left of the trunk you can see the utility pole. See it looking miniscule there. It’s not miniscule, it’s a real utility pole, and it’s not that far away even though it looks far away. The tree is so tall, its fall would reach that far. For those of you familiar with my property, even though the tree is behind the cottage, its fall would easily flatten the chicken coops.

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We don’t know. I don’t know. The power company doesn’t yet know. Take the chance and leave it alone? Or play better safe than sorry and find a way to take it down? To complicate matters further, the underground septic tank for the cottage sits right where the bucket truck would have to position itself, and a bucket truck is too heavy to stand there. I don’t know where else they can put it though. And unless they use the big bucket truck with the longest-reaching boom, how else would they reach those upper branches?

My idyllic spot in the Virginia woods – private yet close to town, scenic, peaceful, enjoyed time and again by so many people, including my many Airbnb guests – has its challenges, its downsides, its uh-oh-what-do-we-do-now moments. In this way it’s a mirror, a parallel to the world we all live in every day. We have some elements of beauty, some moments of peace, some examples of systems functioning perfectly. We have a sun that shines, food that tastes wonderful, a bed to sleep in. Most of the time we have well more than we actually need.

And then a windstorm comes and a big branch falls and we worry. Or we encounter something super icky or ugly and we shudder. Or someone loses his temper and says hurtful words, or someone has her own set of struggles and walks away without helping us with ours. Or they take way too long to bring our food or fix the broken pipe or return our call. Or someone we love dearly breathes his or her last.

It’s a recurring theme around here lately. Maybe it’s just the recurring theme of human life that somehow strikes me anew every day: With the good comes the bad. With the bad comes the good. As much as we humanly can, may we keep our eyes fixed on the good – on the person trying hard (even if we don’t see it), on the sweet smiles revealing a good heart (even if that heart is hurting too), on the glorious colors of nature around us, on the wondrous good fortune of living where we can go about our business without worrying about shellfire exploding and without having to pee into helmets or step over corpses or sleep in cold mud.

Okay, maybe I have been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast a lot lately. His “Blueprint for Armageddon” series about the First World War is so excellently done, starting with the suggestion that maybe the most important person of the 20th century is someone whose name hardly anyone remembers: Gavrilo Princip, the man who fired the shot that killed the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, thereby setting in motion the whole war machine as well as decades of repercussions. 

Carlin’s emphasis on the human factor within the extraordinary conflict is both as graphic as spoken words can be and as spot-on accurate as any historical overview I’ve heard or read in a long time. His use of first-person sources is first-rate, as is his ability to paint a picture that doesn’t include actual pictures (in my mind as I listen I see battle scenes and broken vehicles and sickening trenches so clearly!). Hats off to him for researching, organizing and weaving together so many compelling stories about what was supposed to have been the final battle, the War to End All Wars. If you can listen while driving or cooking or walking or whatever, you might find it as captivating as I do.

In my unboring path recently, I’ve gained a fresh perspective on one funny word – humdinger – because of a recent strong wind, and one age-old word – Armageddon – because of a most fabulous history lesson. I wonder what words will pop up next…

Something About This Drill Just Didn’t Seem Right

I don’t pretend to know much of anything about building, yet here we are digging holes, mixing concrete, pouring footers, adding flashing, securing ledger boards, affixing joist hangers, checking measurements and making sure everything is square/level/plumb. I’ve been shown certain things like how to make sure an area is square (the two diagonal distances should be exactly the same length) and how to put a new tip on my handy-dandy, battery-powered (and therefore cordless) drill/screwdriver.

It used to be there were two kinds of screwheads/screwdrivers: Philips (like a cross) and regular (straight). Now there are endless varieties of star and polygon shapes, and all different sizes of those, so you need boxes of bits. Maybe they are called bits and not tips, I can’t remember. Maybe bit is for the drill and tip is for the one that fits into the top of a screw?

This is my great, lightweight and powerful drill/screwdriver. Clearly I am not sure if it is called a drill or a screwdriver, or both. It does both. Does it need to be called both? But the bigger question is: Whatever did they do in the old days without these things?! It’s fantastic!


Some of you are laughing at this picture of the drill already, I can tell.

How we got to this stage in the process is simple: The project that would result in a new front porch, or what you could call an extended front porch (extended off the porch we replaced last year), has been sitting all winter – well, almost all spring too – and I was getting tired of walking through a construction site to get to my front door. The plastic sheeting that has been covering what used to be front lawn was getting to me especially. I was chomping at the bit (not the screwdriver bit!) to make some progress. My son Bradley had had an idea that changed the porch layout design, adding some built-in benches under the soffit (I now know what a soffit is!). Yes, benches under the part where the roof overhangs. This meant more postholes, more footers, more work. But hey, benches!

If there’s one thing I can do, it’s dig. This past weekend I effectively ignored the nagging pain in my right shoulder and by golly, dug holes! You have to dig them right – to the right depth and in the right place. I speak as one who has re-dug holes too many times, including some of these, which comes of not having a very specific plan, but that is another conversation.

Holes. We have holes.


Into the holes we poured cement (is it cement or concrete? – that point is always confusing). Then we put a box on top, a box made of pressboard which is the wooden equivalent of salami – a whole lot of very small pieces all squished together to form a solid. This is what a box looks like up close, with the cement/concrete inside and a thing on top of it called a saddle, or at least that’s what we call it. A gigantic 6×6” post will fit into each saddle.

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The box is there to contain the wet concrete/cement until it sets, i.e. is dry enough to hold its shape and stand on its own. Here are the rest of the footers still with their boxes.

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Once the concrete/cement is set, you have to remove the box. To build the boxes, Sandy used very thin screws that have a weird star-shaped hole in the top. The morning after we had poured the concrete/cement, I found the weird star-shaped tip to put in the drill to unscrew the boxes, and I got it in. I wanted to free those boxes — we had framing to build!

Once you get the boxes apart to this point they just lift off, easy-peasy. I can dig, and I can take boxes apart!



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See how nice it looks when all the footers are box-free? By the time Sandy came over, I had the whole lot of them unsheathed like this.

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He was happy and I was happy because now we could move forward with framing. Then he looked at my tool and laughed. Do you see the little tip sticking out?


“Why didn’t you put the extender in?” he asked. Extender? The tip was sticking out enough for me to unscrew those boxes, but you know, something about it just hadn’t seemed right to me…

Man and Dog: Part Two

They say you become like the company you keep. Keeping company with good people is like being planted in good soil. You get strokes, you get laughter, you get someone who’s happy when you get home, someone to play and talk and eat with, someone to witness the little stuff of life that the rest of the world doesn’t care about.

When you get what you need, you rest easier, you feel loved, you know peace, you give back. And that’s the circle as it should be, the way of the world s.k.a. (sometimes known as) you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours. This wonderful reciprocity can also, and blessedly often does, happen between man and dog, woman and dog, child and dog. (I will let someone else speak for cats.)

Back in February I told the story of a man and a dog who finally met, who became best buddies, whose mutual devotion should be the standard upon which all man-and-dog stories are measured. I think they had been looking for each other for a long time. Max had been penned up outside (regardless of temperature or precipitation) for most of his eight years. Joe had been dogless since his last black lab had died ten years earlier. Joe took Max home from the shelter. I love how in this photo Joe is not at all interested in me holding a camera. He is completely interested in Max.

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When I suggested recently that Max was a very lucky dog, Joe said, “I was lucky as well. That’s the best part. We both won.”

Since February, every time Joe was going to come over, I’d say Bring Max if you want. And when he came I’d say Where’s Max? Max was an older dog with a rough prior life; he was not without some physical challenges. Getting from ground level into the cab of Joe’s truck was too difficult for him. “I need to build him a way to get in,” Joe would say. Fair enough, I’d hope for next time.

This story is supposed to have a happy ending. Joe and Max were supposed to be good for each other henceforth, faithfully and indefinitely. I had no doubt about the faithful part but I was shocked twelve days after the sad news about Micah, a week after the 5K race benefiting Hospice of the Piedmont, and four days after the CASA induction ceremony. I got a message from Joe: Max died today. I’m sorry I didn’t share him more.

No! That’s not okay! NO! Joe took Max in just three months ago, loved him, did everything possible to make a wonderful life for him. Max would never again spend a night alone outside when the temperature was in the single digits, never again pass a day without care and love. Max gave back, listened, played, became Joe’s buddy, made him laugh and wagged his tail happily when Joe got home from work.

It seems to have been Max’s time. Nothing dramatic happened. He was just breathing hard on the porch, Joe helped him inside, and twenty minutes later it was over. Still, c’mon, really? Max? Joe’s Max?

Within two weeks, I got four separate yanks at my heart, four separate reminders that Bad happens.

Why did Micah have to die now? Why do people get terminal illnesses? Why are children sometimes abused and neglected? Why did Max have to die now?

Yet these same yanks were coupled with reminders of so much Good in the world. Within the Bad, the crushing, devastating, heart-wrenching Bad, when we are able to see (and this does not always happen right away), we invariably find pockets of hope, rays of light, stores and stories of benevolence. We find exceptional people trying hard, being kind, showing faith. We experience surprising, heartening moments of peace.

Micah had the most loving, supportive family anyone could want or hope for. He is so dearly and deeply missed. If you really love, is there ever enough time? Thanks to Chris and Brian and everyone else in Micah’s circle for always hoping, always praying, always loving.

Anyone in my community who gets a terminal illness does not have to die alone or in pain. Thanks to Hospice of the Piedmont for giving people a way to help, for organizing care for those who would otherwise struggle much more than they need to. 

Children in my community who need an advocate have someone who will get to know them and will make recommendations on their behalf in family court regarding matters of far-reaching importance. Thanks to CASA for overseeing the efforts to make sure these children have someone looking out for their best interest.

Joe and Max found each other, even if their time together was nowhere near long enough. If you really love, is there ever enough time? Thanks to Joe for showing how very mutual love really is, for being with Max when his time came, for keeping his heart open.

How much of every 24 hours gets wasted? Beyond the necessary tasks of the day, beyond necessary sleep, how much time might we wish we could get back and spend some other way? How well are we using the gift of time that we have? How well do we show love – that’s right, show love – to those in our lives who matter the most?

I think about this often. I get 24 hours, just like everybody else. I can’t do everything, but when I look back, I want to be able to say I used my time well. I want to be able to say I did something – something important, something valuable, something wonderful. I hope everyone can say that. I hope everyone wants to. (I know they can’t and don’t. But I can wish it.)

New at CASA

Four things happened in the past few weeks that include both good and bad, both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, both why-can’t-there-be-more-of-this and why-do-these-things-happen. The first was Micah – a wonderful young man with a forever-place in my heart who suffered a tragic end.

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The second was the 5K race benefiting Hospice of the Piedmont – working alongside an outstanding team of volunteers and staff holding a highly successful fundraising event because people get terminal illnesses but should never have to die alone or in pain. I wonder if this prize-winning, high-fiving child will remember this day…

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The third involves CASA. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, several years in fact, and this spring decided to become a volunteer. I have a ways to go before I am actually useful, but you have to start somewhere.

There are many less-than-optimal home situations in the world. Some are worse than less-than-optimal; they are bad. Some are worse than bad; they are horrendous. In the horrendous cases, children are often in the mix, often not cared for as they should be, sometimes neglected outright, sometimes victims of abuse.

If you’re that child, who’s looking out for you? Who’s speaking on your behalf? In Charlottesville, as in many other places, volunteers called Court Appointed Special Advocates take on one case at a time and stick with it over the course of about a year, or until there is resolution. They spend time with the child and with the various adults in the child’s world, develop an overall understanding of the situation and make a recommendation to the judge as to the outcome that would be in the best interest of the child.

I was one of fourteen people in CASA training this spring.  We went through 42 classroom and courtroom hours, both intensive and comprehensive, over the course of six weeks. On the Tuesday after the 5K race, the induction ceremony was held at the courthouse. (You are not allowed to bring cameras or phones into the courthouse, so there are no pictures of this event.)

The work will be solemn at times, disturbing no doubt, heartbreaking. I wonder if I have any idea yet just how disturbing and heartbreaking. Probably not.

We try to imagine what we will face, but my own imagination is perhaps not wild enough to paint the picture accurately. I have known low income to the point of state aid, to where spending $4 to rent a movie gave me great pause, to where a $20 tip elated me and my mother brought me groceries and my sister gave me a gift card from the grocery store. But I have never been homeless. I served on a federal grand jury and listened for a full year to the cases involving murder, armed robbery, drugs deals and suspicious overdoses, and my heart has cried rivers for Micah and my dear friends. But my record is clean and I have never done drugs. There is a lot I don’t understand.

We shall see what it feels like, looks like, smells like, sounds like. We will look into the eyes of these children and wish we could do more. We will do our part to form a recommendation – even if it is not-great as compared to even-less-great – and hopefully better the situation for the child. We will – I am sure – pray.

I know I am new at this. I know there is much I don’t know, much I will not be able to know, much I will miss that could be pertinent. Yet again I hear Edward Everett Hale’s words in my head:

‘I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.’

We were encouraged to invite family and friends to the induction ceremony. Mom and Jerry came, Samuel came, Sandy came, Brad and Piper and Zoe were in town that week and also came(!). It had been made clear that the judge in this court loves children and we should definitely bring the little ones. I know they won’t remember it, but they were there for and with me.

Super exciting for me as well was when I looked up and saw Ellie and Josh. Josh was a prize student of mine at the Montessori school when I first moved to Virginia. Ellie is his angel of a mother. I’d met Ellie surprisingly at the 5K race on Saturday, having not seen her for many years. In our brief conversation I had mentioned CASA and the induction ceremony, and they came!!! I’m not sure there are words to describe the power that strong and loving support of family and friends brings to the table.

This is the CASA house in Charlottesville. Sad cases come in. Oh, say it isn’t so. Say this didn’t happen. Say these parents didn’t do that… But over time, good happens. Lots of good happens. The staff and volunteers have one goal primarily in mind, one light guiding the emails they write, the phone calls they make, the miles they drive, the hearings they attend – what is best for the child?

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I have been assigned my first case. This coming week I will meet with the social worker assigned to the case. It’s new territory and it’s not everything, but it’s something I can do.

Good Will Come

During the same week as the tragic news about Micah, I found myself both grateful and conflicted that I had something else going on. Grateful because being involved in a pre-scheduled event kept me from becoming paralyzed with What?! Oh, God, no… and Why am I so far away? and What can I do? How can I help? What should I say? And conflicted because I wanted to shut the world out, mull his death over, cry-cry-cry with and for my dear friends who lost their beloved son, sort out my own shock and frustration and grief, make some kind (any kind) of sense out of it. It felt almost disrespectful to be going about something else.

But something else was the order of the day and I could not get around it. Besides, redirecting works for me. Ultimately, the little voice inside my head says Just because I can’t do X doesn’t mean I can’t do Y. Just because I can’t do everything I want to do doesn’t mean I can’t do something that matters. That’s my twist on Edward Everett Hale’s words:

‘I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.’

I play a part every year, second Saturday in May, in a fundraising “Run and Remember” 5K event for our local, wonderful hospice organization. How’s that for timing? The shock about Micah came on Tuesday and the well-attended race was to be Saturday. I was neck-deep in last-minute stuff: Did the AV people know we need a mic at the starting line for the 12-year-old who would be singing the national anthem? Would the banners be put up on time? Did we have enough waters? Where were the coolers with the spigots for the water stations on the course? Would the rain hold off?

Over 300 runners and walkers, shown here at the starting location just above the first tee at Keswick Golf Club, would be winding their way through the gorgeous course doing what they can do to support the vision and the practicalities of Hospice of the Piedmont. To make it happen, I do my bit and so do a lot of other people. Once again, well over $100K was raised so that we can help “achieve a day when no one has to die alone or in pain.”


I don’t ever feel like I do much – there’s practically an army of people covering the various aspects of this event. And it would be easy to think There are a lot of people who can do this or that. They don’t really need me. But I am always so glad I did. This year especially.

1. I was reminded of the many dedicated volunteers who themselves could surely find other things to do but instead show up for the meetings, the bag/swag stuffing, the registration and all the other little tasks that make for a flawless event year after year.

Among the gems in this group are Susan Quisenberry, Diane Brownlee, Lorisa Cooper and Jeannie Golub – how would we manage registration without you??

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Jeanne Chamales and Melba Campbell, stalwart and steady, give of their time and energy every year as well. And not just on race day. Everyone puts in many hours ahead of time. There are calls to be made, errands to run, emails to write, store managers to find (generous store managers who gift us fruit or power bars or prizes)….

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Melba is the heart and soul of this event. All hats are off to her for her amazing leadership and energy throughout the years. She would of course never take the credit but would always graciously redirect it to the individuals who freely share their gifts of knowledge, skill and time. Lisa Jahnke is one. She doesn’t even live nearby but still supports the effort with encouragement and advice and by keeping a sharp eye on social media. Mary Miller is another. She knows everyone in local media (and therefore gets us lots of coverage) and also takes many photos (and is therefore not in any of them!). Melba knows truly, as does everyone involved, that every little bit counts.

2. I got to see the exultant faces of the runners returning all sweaty and smiling, each with their own measure of satisfaction, each knowing that their efforts are not only helping their own bodies stay fit, but also providing care and services for those whose bodies are not so cooperative any more. Good begets good.

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3. What is it about the face of a child that comforts our souls, reminds us there is good reason to carry on? At least one adorable child stands sweetly in front of the camera every year. This one was attracted to the colorful pinwheels some people buy in honor of lost loved ones.


4. A delightful surprise happened. After the race, in my usual spot behind the food table, as I was scooping this event’s signature homemade granola into the Fage yogurts that Keswick Club provides or suggesting that the runners get one of the chocolate covered strawberries that The Melting Pot in Charlottesville provides (before they are gone!)…


…I saw a woman I knew, a woman I hadn’t seen for at least ten years, the wonderful mom of one of my most wonderful students ever. She was not facing me, so I went around and tapped her on the shoulder and said You’re Ellie! And we had hugs and smiles and joyful words and fond reflections galore. I love living in a small community! I am so glad to have reconnected with Ellie and Bill and Josh! This completely unexpected encounter has opened a new door, I’m sure of it. Even if I don’t yet know what’s next.

I got to thinking about the 5K event in relation to the news about Micah. Death is death. We can’t avoid it ourselves any more than we can avoid watching someone we love, at some point in our lives, endure it. But we can honor each other in how we approach it – loving and supporting as best as we can, being thoughtful and prayerful in full knowledge that thoughtfulness and prayer matter a lot, and also doing something (find something, there is always something) to help make that threshold a little easier to cross, a little easier to bear. In the doing, good will come.


Special thanks to Mary Miller for these photographs!

Ebbing in the Aftermath

Bad is almost always coupled with Good. Bad can be crushing. But within it, when we are able to see and feel, we invariably find pockets of hope, rays of light, stores of benevolence. We find exceptional people trying hard, being kind, showing faith. We notice children smiling, oblivious and silly, bringing flashes of delight. We experience surprising, heartening moments of peace.

Four different recent events have brought to these certainties to mind. Today I will tell you the first, the most heart-wrenching. It hit me hard.

When my son Lincoln was almost a year old, the Walls moved to town. Crissie and Brian had three children then, the youngest being Lincoln’s special buddy Micah. This grainy old photo shows these two happy boys on one of our camping trips.

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Lincoln and Micah were peanut butter and jelly, always together, as dirty, happy and carefree as one-year-olds, then two-year-olds, then three-year-olds should be. The kids your kids grow up with – the ones they roast marshmallows with, build sandcastles with, share sticks with – these kids have a forever-place in your heart.

Friends like Chris Wall don’t come along every day either. Crissie made me laugh, made me think, modeled genuine kindness, gentleness, humor, respect and graciousness in ways I had never seen, ways I wanted to emulate. She made me consider my actions, my motivations, my future. Things didn’t have to be perfect (or perfectly neat and orderly) – and that was a new concept for me. Amidst mess there was beauty.  By mess I mean lots happening at the same time and therefore a few things out of place. By beauty I mean deep and abiding love for her family, a tender heart of gold, a willing and humble spirit. I was grateful to immerse in her world. She became one of the dearest friends I have.

I knew from our conversations over the last few years that Micah was having a battle with substance use addiction. I don’t use Facebook much, and missed the message the day it appeared on Crissie’s page, but Kim didn’t. Imagine the moment I got her text. “Just heard about Micah. So very heart breaking.” The outpouring of love and support evident on that page following Micah’s lost battle is both continual and astounding. Clearly the Walls are not alone. But I bet sometimes they feel it. I know they fought hard, I know they gave him all the help they possibly could. There can be nothing on earth like losing a child. I have known the loss of a sister and the loss of my father, but not the loss of a child. I cannot imagine the hole in their hearts.

Chris and Brian, Katie, Stephen and Nathan, my words feel inadequate, empty, fleeting, like a bunch of symbols suggesting a vaguely recognizable idea. But my heart bleeds with yours, my tears commingle, my prayers beseech, my hugs reach out across the miles. It’s not enough, I know it’s not enough. Nothing I or anyone can do will fill the Micah-size hole.

I don’t know what their days look like, how much they need to talk or need to be quiet, how fervently they pray, how deeply they ache. I can hope, only hope, that they will find and rest in rays of light, patchy as the light may be. I can hope that the world will be gentle in the upcoming days, that their faith remains strong, that unexpected kindness knocks on their door. I can hope they will see smiling children being oblivious and silly, and feel surprising, heartening moments of peace. I can hope they will allow themselves to be “in ebb” for a while.

Before today, I’d never heard ebb used this way but I like it. “Just chilling,” is the way I heard it. “Ebbing.” Usually ebb refers to the part of the tide cycle when the water is washing back toward the sea, the necessary receding before the inevitably rebuilt wave comes again toward its crash on the shore. You could make a case for ebb being the low point in an oscillation cycle or, more generally, the pause before the energy, the rest before the push, the passive in preparation for the active. We all need that sometimes. We all need to not push, to just be. Especially when we’ve been pushing for a long time.

How do we walk alongside people who have such a big hole in their hearts? How do we love those who are far away? How do we show we are tasting the salt of the tears they cry? Even if you do not know the answers to these questions, even if you think your way is insignificant, remember the words of Edward Everett Hale:

‘I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.’

I hope the rest of us will use the salt of tears to spur us on to do the thing we can do, even if it is only something and not everything, even if it seems minor or unrelated or unimportant, even if it is something else. Like bringing flowers to a shut-in neighbor. Like volunteering to do the harder thing. Like giving up your place for someone less mobile or sending a check to a worthwhile cause. Today I saw this poster. It’s about kids, but the ideas can apply to almost anyone.

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So simple. You have your own style, your own way. Maybe today, don’t just think about whatever it is you could do. Maybe instead, do it.