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.”

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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.

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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!)…

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…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.

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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.

Green Turtles, Pink Boots and Blue Ears

Turtles don’t wear boots, definitely not pink ones, definitely not shiny plastic pink ones that are attached with velcro. No matter. This turtle has boots.

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Whether a fluffy green turtle named Flllfffl dons pink shiny boots, or a moth named Betty is scouting out home zone possibilities on your property, or a superhero named Iron Man is heroically facing the Big Bad named Thanos, the world is a better place because of it. (“Flllfffl” is the best I can spell it, btw – that’s what she said his name is!)

I’ve been thinking about how we suspend belief so selectively. I was all into the Marvel movies (and would watch them all again!) but Star Trek doesn’t do anything for me. Mom can enjoy Mary Poppins float in on a magic umbrella but has no interest in a superhero that can stop a speeding ballistic missile (that scene from Captain Marvel is etched in my head!). And little Piper, my granddaughter from Seattle, sees nothing irregular in a turtle wearing pink boots!

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But it works in reverse, I come to see. For reasons having to do with this little darling living in Seattle and me living in Virginia, Piper and I communicate via video more than in person. She calls me Oma but I think she sees me as the Chicken Lady. She LOVES my chickens. I have walked to the coop, phone in hand (pointing away from me and at my feathery friends of course) more times than I can remember because as soon as we get on a video chat, she says Chickens! If it’s already too late here and too dark outside, I’m sure the call is over in her mind. Check out. Done. If there’s no chickens, why bother?

Coming to see Oma included the natural excitement of seeing the chickens for real. The ride from the airport was too long, but finally we arrived at Golden Hill. No point even going into the house on a beautiful day – let’s go see the chickens!

My first clue should have been when this untimid child timidly hid behind both of her parents. Brad was amused but Beth said Oh, yeah, she has a problem when it’s a real animal. I went in and picked up Whitey anyway and brought her out to show her to Piper. See? Fluffy head, blue ears… Yes, this is a real chicken…

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and this is her real blue ear.

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The photo doesn’t capture how the blue is almost shimmery.

No can do.

Turns out there is a big difference between a real chicken and a chicken on a screen. Small shrieks of terror told this astute Oma that maybe awkward, weird, ungainly chicken movements and throaty, cacophonic, random chicken noises on a screen are one thing, and an omg-it’s-getting-too-close-to-me chicken in the hands – jerking its head randomly and slightly the way chickens do (oh, look, a little human!), a little dirty on its feet from the scratching around in search of delectable bugs (hey, it’s spring and bugs are everywhere!) – is quite another. Whoa, all too real, no thanks, can we go look at the garden now?

Ah, the garden. Oma loves her roses right now!

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I guess we all have our ways of filtering out, shutting down, blocking, or otherwise not having to deal with what’s too scarily real or too stupidly unreal. Likewise we open our arms, hearts and waking hours to what’s appealingly real or fascinatingly unreal. I think we are allowed. It’s a big, full, amazing world, but we would overload our circuits if we took it all in. We draw the lines around ourselves, redrawing them depending on where we are, who we are with, what they day feels like, what our present self can handle.  The lines are wiggly and wavering. They have gaps big and small, with ways to expand when curiosity or security define the moment and ways to tighten up when fatigue, fear and sorrow don’t let us be so open.

Piper is doing just the right thing, drawing the lines where they feel somehow, mysteriously where they should be. Those weird chickens are outside her feel-good zone right now, so, yeah, hiding behind the big people she knows she can depend on makes sense. That turtle with the pink boots – watch him prance around awhile and then rip open that Velcro and pull his boots off when you’ve had enough of that. Why does a turtle need pink boots anyway!?

Oh, but am I still the Chicken Lady? If I’m not, that’s okay. We can redraw the lines.

Welcome/Unwelcome

Now here is a conundrum. What do you do when a thing that creeps you out, makes your flesh woobly and jiggles your insides is actually good? When, as much as you want to destroy it with one fell chop on the neck or well-aimed whack of a shovel, you are indeed asking for more trouble?

Not everything that looks bad is bad. Not everything you want to obliterate ought to be obliterated. But put yourself in my shoes. Okay, my sandals.

You are walking toward your house, hands full. Mine were full of cleaning supplies, yours might have groceries or sporting equipment. You decide to go into the house by way of the back door – easier to drop off your stuff – and you head along the side of the house to where the staircase leads up onto the back deck. About ten paces away from the bottom step you look up and you do not like what you see.

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Yup, a black snake. The question then is this: Is it a snake that’s black, or a black snake?

Snakes in general make me nervous, and someone told me a long time ago that juvenile copperheads look a lot like black snakes. Copperheads are bad, very bad, and they certainly live in my area.  You will spend $500 for a vet visit if your dog tussles with one. Copperhead bites (to pets or humans) are serious, though fatalities are rare and they will bite you only if you try to handle them or if you step on them. I got close enough to take a picture, but that’s it.

It turns out that juvenile copperheads don’t look a lot like black snakes (having one in what I consider my territory encourages googling them!), therefore this is not one of those I should worry about. Therefore I return to the conundrum. Black snakes are the kind of snakes you want in your vicinity. They eat unwanted rodents and other pests. They can even kill the copperheads! Still, they are snakes. Are they welcome or unwelcome? What is it about them that is sooooo unnerving?

Is it the no-legs thing? Is that just too weird? It is the slithering thing? Is it their ability to move vertically without seeming effort or grip? Is it the tongue that flicks in and out? Why do our fear and disgust sensors kick into high gear?

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This photo gives you an idea of its size. Small, as snakes go. Harmless, as snakes go. But I don’t like it! I want it to go away!

Let’s get a little closer (and thank God for cropping tools!). Is it the eyes that chill my spine?

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Makes me think about other things we like as much as we dislike.

French fries come to mind. I love them, but if they are not in front of me I will not eat them, and that is infinitely better for my body.

What about our cell phones? How amazing is it that we can call people, message people, take/send photos/videos, do research, make reservations, calculate numbers, play games, etc, etc, etc. on one device, but go crazy when we can’t get a signal or when we are bombarded by robo-calls or when the battery dies at a very inconvenient time? We never used to have a way to tell someone we were five minutes away – we just gave our best estimate and got there when we got there. We never chatted with friends unless we were in the same room – but those in-person conversations were so much richer.

Thunderstorms? Loud and violent but bring much needed rain (usually) and have a wonderful majestic quality.

Airplanes? So unnatural being 30,000 feet up in the sky, but they do get us to faraway places quickly.

All right, I admit I don’t want French fries or cell phones or thunderstorms or airplanes to go away altogether (maybe just sometimes), and I don’t dislike them anywhere close to how much I dislike snakes. I admit there’s not much I dislike more than a snake. You have your own list of what rattles you to the core.

But black snakes serve a useful purpose despite their inherent eeriness.  I just don’t know what to do with myself when one shows up. Should I be grateful? Thank you for eating all the nasty little mice we don’t want getting into the attic or the basement. But what’s to stop the snake from getting into the chicken coop and feasting on eggs? Nothing. What’s to stop one from showing up on the deck of the cottage and terrifying my Airbnb guests? Nothing. It’s one thing to see wildlife like owls perched in nearby trees or eagles soaring overhead or foxes scampering through the woods. But snakes? No one wants a snake to appear uninvited — especially while enjoying a cup of morning coffee in a lounge chair under the canopy of trees. Okay, a few people might think it’s cool. But most won’t.

To be fair, they are not a common sight. I see a snake about every other year (which is plenty for me!). Perhaps being deep in the woods has an advantage. There’s enough forest all around me, enough natural wooded environment, that they don’t have to come up to the house. Usually they don’t. I wish they wouldn’t. Why can’t they just not come so close?

Avengers: Endgame Prep

I am new to the Superhero scene. On a whim Samuel and I went to see Aquaman in December and I was thoroughly entertained. Is there more like this? I asked him. Uh, yeah, there’s more. Marvel Cinematic Universe films number 22 (and supposedly there are nine more in the works) and have grossed over 20 billion in box office sales since the first one came out in 2008. I guess that’s more.

On Friday we watched Avengers: Endgame, a fantastic three-hour culmination of all the previous MCU films in the “Infinity Saga,” which we watched one by one since December.

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We did not set out to watch them all. For me it was a little like homeschooling: Sure, I can do kindergarten. How can you mess up kindergarten? We started with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Sure, I’ll like it. How can I not like a good clean super hero who fights evil? It was a baby step, and Samuel had to be thinking yeah, we’ll see how she does. I’m here to say I not only stomached this movie – even with its dramatic fighting, huge explosions, edge-of-your-seat exploits and world-annihilating evil – I asked What’s next?

There’s a lot of hype about Endgame, which since its release on April 26 (that’s eleven days ago) is the #2 highest-grossing movie ever. The question is this: If you are going to go see it, do you have to watch all the previous movies first? Does it stand alone? Does it make sense if you don’t have the back story?

Samuel and I talked about it at length. I vote for watching them all, but of course that might not be practical, especially if you want to see Endgame while it’s hot so you can join the conversations about it and not worry that someone will spoil it. We decided there are three tiers of prep.

Assuming you have not watched anything up till now,

  1. If you want Endgame to make any sense at all, at least watch Avengers: Infinity War (2018) first.
  2. If you don’t want to get carried away, or don’t have time for 22 films, at least watch The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) before watching Endgame. This will give you some of the essential back story, some understanding of the main characters, some ability to understand the call-backs, references and story arcs in the finale.
  3. If you are into it enough to watch six movies, why not watch them all? I am excluding The Incredible Hulk (2008) because neither Samuel nor I see any essential tie-ins to Endgame.

You don’t have to watch the lead-up movies in order, but it makes sense to. A case could be made that seeing them all (in whatever order) obviously just helps Endgame make more sense, and that there’s something in every movie that contributes to fuller understanding the whole massive and complex story. But you decide what’s reasonable.

We watched The Avengers (2012) after the first Captain America, then Iron Man, with me not totally yet realizing that they all do tie together (quite an incredible feat when you think about it). We watched in mostly story-order, getting some help on that point  from one or two of countless internet sites designed to guide you through the saga in a reasonable way. After the third movie we watched (the first Iron Man) I was totally hooked.

Some are, for me, simply better films or more essential to the big picture. I am putting ** next to the ones noted above as being more important to watch if you don’t want to watch them all, and ++ next to ones I particularly liked (guess what +++ means).

In order of the year they were released, these are the movies.

++Iron Man (2008) – This is Tony Stark’s (Iron Man’s) origin story. I would like to put it in the list of ones to see even if you are not going to watch them all but Samuel keeps saying Then you might as well watch them all. Tony’s brilliant, arrogant and perfectly heroic. Okay, say there’s a mid-list with a few more than the short list. Add this to the mid-list.

Iron Man 2 (2010) – As Samuel puts it, “more stuff happens” in this movie, mostly to develop Iron Man’s character.

++Thor (2011) – Brave and muscular, the crown prince of the planet Asgard finds himself in banishment on Earth and has to prove himself worthy in order to reclaim his power which, besides his strength, is his hammer. You’ll know the hammer when you see it. Thor wants to believe the best in people even when he shouldn’t. I’d add this to the mid list too.

++Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – I love this movie, Cap’s origin story. I know I’m old-fashioned, but besides everything else good that he does, I love that he shaves! Mid-list.

**Avengers (2012) – This movie introduces S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that from the get-go you want to hate. But the Avengers work for S.H.I.E.L.D., which is only a little confusing.

++Iron Man 3 (2013) – Again, “more stuff happens,” more character development, which in this movie is more consequential to Endgame.

++Thor: The Dark World (2013) – In this movie you get more of Thor’s back story, part of which is important for one callback scene in Endgame.

++Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – What happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. plays into larger story arc and for that reason you might consider adding it to the mid list. I also love that regardless of Bucky’s actions, Cap doesn’t give up on him.

+++**Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) This one is the funniest one to me – I love Chris Pratt and how he plays Quill, I love how he dances, I love the music they chose and how it ties into his origin story, I love the raccoon, I love Groot. Also this movie sets up the big bad, a.k.a. Thanos, who comes into play in Infinity Wars and Endgame, so yeah, watch this one.

**Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) I don’t remember Ultron at all but Samuel says some really important things happened, such as the creation of Vision and other characters who come into play importantly later. It also sets the stage for Civil War and is pivotal in Iron Man’s arc. You get more bang for your buck in terms of backstory as compared to some other ones.

++Ant Man (2015) – I didn’t like this one as much as Guardians, but close. Ant Man’s origin story is not essential to Endgame, but if you want to know who he is when you see him in it, if you want to understand the references to quantum realms and such things, see this. Plus he has a lovely connection with his daughter. Mid-list.

**Captain America: Civil War (2016) Internal fighting – oh, can’t we all identify with this? Strong characters choose opposing sides and cannot find middle ground so a lot of fighting happens.

++Doctor Strange (2016) – First of all, Benedict Cumberbatch. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say more. If you watch this movie you understand the stones better and you will recognize the bald woman in Endgame. Mid-list.

++Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – This is a bit more hokey than the first Guardians, but Quill still dances sometimes and you see his character develop, and you see baby Groot, which is so totally worth it all by itself.

+++Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Love, love this one too. We are introduced to the character but more importantly to his relationship with Tony Stark. Well done. Mid-list.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) A continuation of Thor’s character arc, highly entertaining. Big (I mean really big), nasty dog on bridge made me nervous and worried.

++Black Panther (2018) There’s no way to not love this movie. Courage, integrity, desperation, and a bad guy who elicits sympathy because you get how he got bad. Also you understand Wakanda and some of Endgame will make more sense, like Where did those warriors come from? Mid-list.

++Ant Man and the Wasp (2018) – The element of sweet in this movie is nicely done, but there is speed-of-light action aplenty, trust me.

**Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Don’t stop here, is all I can say. You don’t want to end on this note.

++Captain Marvel (2019) – I like Carol, her friend Maria, their friendship story and how Carol ultimately has powers beyond almost anyone’s. Some scenes in this movie look just like a comic book!

+++Avengers: Endgame (2019) When you go to a movie and people in the theater are clapping at various parts, you know it’s speaking to them where it matters. Bravo to all the filmmakers, actors and everyone who contributed to this whole thing.

Can we watch them all again?

Betty Alights on Golden Hill

Right now in my corner of the world, temps are in the mid-60s, low breeze, clear skies, super air quality, perfect sleeping weather, perfect waking up weather. I wonder if that’s why a winged marvel decided to stop by.

Betty, her code name in Virginia, was surely on a scouting mission. She and umpteen others like her have been sent far and wide to check out and report on landing sites that could potentially turn into what her kind calls “home zones.” Points to consider include number, health and variability of maple and oak trees, hiding and nesting options, and the HIF (Human Interference Factor).

Daredevil Betty chose her alightment spot without hesitation, determining it to be both shady (she was hot and tired from the journey) and central (for gaining a full assessment of the surroundings). She touched down, initially unseen, and kept still as a stone, but was less than successful at the stealth part of her job description for two reasons.

  1. Boldly contrasting colors are not as inconspicuous as she thinks. She saw the soft gray-green of the siding, thought of her own soft yellow coloring and decided Yeah, that’ll work. But she momentarily forgot about her baby-girl-pink stripes. Color valuation was never her strong suit.
  2. Vanity got in the way. No one can blame her for thinking that her yellow hair, fine and fluffy, is her crowning glory, and no one can deny that the way it coordinates with the rest of her cape and sleeves is primo. No one can fault her for having an iota of hope that even while gathering intel for her superiors, she might be noticed and admired (and left alone).

Betty showed up quite nicely against the siding of the cottage.

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Is this for real?! Do we really live in a world where moths are the crayon colors a child would choose? The delicate wisps of fluff on the heads of these yellow-topped fuzzies, the tiny pincers that I assume work to gain it food or whatever else moths want, the near-perfect (but not quite because then it might as well be manufactured) symmetry of the coloration – you can’t make this stuff up! Betty caught my eye as I came up to the door. She is a Rosy Maple, apparently not altogether uncommon all the way up and down the East coast.

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Her report is as follows:

Location (1-10 scale):
Hidden – 9
Quiet – 10 (excepting resident and migratory wildlife and HIF)
Safe – 10 (excepting unanticipated newcomers)

Oak/Maple Ratio: 20:1

Aerial View of Alightment Spot:

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Anomalies:

1. Gawky, squawky birds in secure enclosure, some attempting (though failing utterly) to mimic/compete with Rosy Maple hair style.

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2. Unintelligent hard-shelled reptile stuck until rescued.

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3. Broken Oak (sheltering possibilities).

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Human Interference Factor:

Insignificant. Humans emerge from a domestic enclosure or arrive in loud vehicles; putz around briefly; make noise; move objects; tend to above-noted, enclosed, gawky, squawky birds; speak with each other as well as the assortment of clueless, funny-looking canines (see photos below) as if they can understand; and drive away or disappear back into domestic enclosure.

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Additional Observations:

Roses in bloom.

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Strawberries coming.

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Directional Assistance.

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Summary

Observations and Assumptions: Optimal mix of open and wooded spaces. Oaks predominate dense treescape; far fewer maples than desired. Clear signs of benign activity (human and canine), restricted by their inability to fly, all notably innocuous excepting one human (sensed from behind while I was in stealth mode) with flat shiny black object that clicks; no harm occurred. Typical native wildlife unobserved on this visit includes hawks, eagles, owls and other snatchers; skinks and lizards and other quick-tongued crawlies; coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys and other larger predators undoubtedly intent on larger prey and therefore unimportant. Directional assistance could be handy.

Recommendation: Excellent home zone potential. For purposes of resting and nesting, this safe, viable location is well suited. 

Respectfully submitted,
Betty, R.M.

 

Best Beet Salad

In our family you get to say what you want for your birthday dinner. The process starts about a week before the birthday with me saying, “So, what do you want for your birthday dinner?” A few days later, when I ask again, I get an answer and proceed. This year, along with herbed salmon (a recipe I got twenty years ago and have made countless times since) and mushroom risotto (which I have never made because I am not fond of mushrooms), he asked for beet salad.

My mom made beet salad when I was a kid. In retrospect I see it was one of those salads you can make without having anything fresh in the fridge. If you want, you can open a can of whole beets, drain and grate them, add the dressing (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, see below) and serve. But if you want it best, use fresh beets and fresh oregano.

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The ones I got were about as big as baseballs. I have not found a difference in flavor – big beets vs. small beets – so get what looks fresh. Look at the greens. If the greens look fresh, as in not wilting, the beets (which look the same regardless) are fresh. I cut the greens off (for chickens in my case, though some people would cook them separately) and put them in a pot.

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Notice how clear the water is. This does not last long. As soon as they start cooking, the water will get pink/red. Turn on the flame, bring to a boil, then turn down and let simmer. Cook the beets until you can put a knife into them easily, which could be 20 minutes and could be 40, depending on the size of the beets. Mine took 40. I was doing other things so just turned the flame off when they were done and walked away. An hour or so later, Samuel said Hey, look at the rings in the water.

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If anyone knows what that is, I’d be curious. I don’t think it’s bad. We all ate the salad yesterday and live to tell about it.

When you are ready, drain the beets and fill your pot again with cold water. If you have let some time go by, all the better because you handle these with your hands and if they are cooler, you will have an easier time of it. (If you are pressed for time and the beets are hot, you can do the job of getting the skins off while holding the beet under cold running water.)

Your thumbs are the best tool in the kitchen for this job. You can use a knife, but you will forfeit part of the beet. With your thumbs, exert pressure and push, slightly to the side. The skin should pop off. If you dunk the beet in the water now and then to give the sloughed-off skin a place to go (it likes to swim in the red water of the pot), you can see your progress more easily. You will need a knife for stubborn parts and for the end that the greens had been attached to. Beets are generally loath to give up all their skin without some resistance, a good reminder to us all, right? Don’t be a total pushover.

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Now notice that my hand is clean in the photo above. Duh, you say, of course you would work with clean hands. Yes, I work with clean hands. But this was the first beet. Remember how the water in the pot became red? So will your hands become red, which is actually kind of cool if it doesn’t gross you out.

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Which is to say – and this is a warning – do not wear that new white shirt you have, nor anything you might be sorry you splashed beet juice on. Wearing an apron when working with beets is a good idea. You could stain wood with beet juice.

Now don’t worry. Your hands will wash clean soon afterwards. The white shirt I can’t promise anything about.

When all the beets are skinless, rinse your hands and get out your grater. Here’s mine that I love (and my mother hates for reasons I will never understand). It’s a perfectly fine grater and whatever you grate ends up in the container below.

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Next, if you are fortunate to have fresh oregano in your garden…

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… go get eight to ten stems, take the leaves off and chop it up fine. That’s what I needed for the about 8 cups of beets I had for my salad. Remember it was Samuel’s birthday, meaning there would be extra people for dinner, and beet salad keeps very well in the fridge (wide-mouth mason jars are perfect for storage), so I like making a big bowlful. I had a full quart leftover.

Add the chopped up, fresh oregano to your grated beets as well as a small onion, chopped fine. It doesn’t matter if you use red onion or white onion. You will not be able to find the onion in the salad once the beet juice stains it red anyway. If you are partial to the flavor of onion, you can add more onion. No one will get in your way. In the rare, practically unthinkable instance that you don’t have any onion in the house, carry on without it. The oregano is what makes the difference in this dressing. If you don’t have fresh oregano, use dried. I would use one full teaspoon per four cups of grated beets.

The rest is simple: olive oil (extra virgin is best), apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.

The basic proportion of oil to vinegar in this salad is almost 1:1 but not quite. Use somewhat more oil than vinegar. Per four cups of grated beets, use 1/3 cup oil and ¼ cup vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. It’s yummy at room temperature or chilled. It’s yummy as a side dish or a snack. It’s yummy!

Roadside Delicacy

Sorry to say, this post is not about a new little bakery located conveniently along the side of the road, making delectable eclairs or macaroons, luring me in, tempting me. It’s about flowers. And Avengers. And coffee and bourbon. Hey, does anyone have any chocolate?

You know how dialog works. Two or more people on the same topic. All pretty focused. All engaged, curious, polite. The subject can be interesting even – maybe about the Avengers, or someone’s great uncle who left an inheritance no one saw coming, or what about this new pasta you don’t have to drain, or the accident that caused a four-mile back-up on the highway this morning.

Then suddenly something catches your eye and you get distracted. Anyone forgives you for interrupting a conversation to call attention to a burning building in the distance, or a collision about to happen, or a large insect entering your zone, or anything in your field of vision resembling a superhero or (oh, dear) Thanos. Have I been watching too many Marvel movies lately?

Something as ordinary and unimportant as roadside wildflowers should definitely not qualify as conversation-stoppers. I confess! I did it! Look at the face I got for asking him to hold both leashes so I could take a photo…roadside3.jpg

…of flowers! Yes, look – those sweet yellow flowers to the left. No one asks them to grow there. No one plants them, tends them, nurtures them. They just come. They just brighten the roadside with their sunny color and delicate form. They brighten our world unasked (oh, that we would take their example!).

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Those of you who are looking beyond Samuel’s mildly annoyed expression may notice that he is not wearing shoes. Please know that this is not because he doesn’t own shoes. He does. He just chooses to walk barefoot on the gravel of our road because… because… “Samuel, why do you still walk barefoot sometimes?”

“Why would I not?”

Need a person know more?

“I hadn’t been doing it so much recently because it was winter,” he added.

Okay.

Exploring this further, he says walking on the stones is a lot like drinking black coffee or strong bourbon, or exercising regularly and vigorously, or eating very spicy foods. All of these things are inherently unpleasant – the strong flavor or pushing yourself physically is a kind of barrier to get over or through.

The beauty and the enjoyment are in the complexity of the flavor or the exercise (or even the stones, sharp and uncomfortable as they are). Give a child a choice between sugar and black coffee, he suggests, and the child will choose sugar hands-down every time. But as you mature and can learn to appreciate the nuances, the layers, the waves of an experience like drinking black coffee or a new bourbon (which he says is really good — can’t touch the stuff myself).…

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… you partake of something much more interesting. As for myself, I choose shoes when walking on gravel roads and am happy-happy with a good piece of chocolate, which does not require any flavor, strength or conditioning barriers. You just eat it and soar.

Speaking of complex and interesting, we are heading to see the Avengers End Game tonight as part of Samuel’s birthday celebration, having just seen Captain Marvel at the Violet Crown last week. We’ve been working up to this since Christmastime, when our trip to the movies to see The Return of Mary Poppins sparked a trip to see Aquaman, which got the whole superhero thing going. We chose the Marvel series and have wrapped up all of the necessary pre-reqs for End Game and hope it is as good as people are saying. A lady in my CASA training course the other day said a big guy in a seat in front of her at the movie was blubbering at one point – blubbering as in something being tearjerkingly sad. We shall see if it is also complex and interesting…

…Oh! Look at these lovely lavender blooms, again there along the roadside with no planning or effort on anyone’s part.

Hey, can you hold this leash while I take a photo?

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I did it again. Right in the middle of Avengers talk, I had to take a picture. I don’t think I do this often (oh, no! maybe I do!), but I am quite sure it happened when it did because just the very day before, Samuel and Mom and I were talking about the verbal and nonverbal habits we all have, how we interject a certain word or phrase far more than is necessary as a kind of filler or finish people’s sentences for them or play with our hair (I don’t know anyone who does that!). Another habit is interrupting the flow of conversation with a random, non-following comment such as: you are talking about how you made your pizza and the other person looks out the window and says, “Oh, I need to remember to get Q-tips.”

Point being, I was totally guilty of the same thing that I have repeatedly observed in others and even annoys me! Am I modeling their behavior, monkey-see-monkey-do, or simply prone to the same? I catch myself, chide myself, apologize and again try to focus – but you know this world is just so complex and so interesting!! Take the lavender flowers for instance… 😊