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…

Fraud Follow-Up

Last week I wrote about the scam I experienced with my cottage. A guy wrote, posing as a traveler. He asked to pay directly through his company and I went along. It didn’t smell right when he didn’t confirm an arrival time with me, nor send the check he said he would. When he said the check was going to be for more than the rental amount and he needed me to remit the $2500 balance so that he and his son Nathan could buy the tickets for their flights (the day of their supposed arrival!), I was done.

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I told him I wasn’t doing that. Clearly the scammers have other people to prey on and turned their attention elsewhere because I didn’t hear from him again after that…

…until six days later when he said the check had been sent.

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I did not respond and was out of town, but sure enough something arrived. Sandy stopped at my mailbox that day, saw the card that said something was waiting at the post office for pick-up, and went to retrieve it. When the postal clerk went to get it from the back, she returned saying she could not hand it over because it had been flagged as possible fraud and would need to be sent to the postmaster.

The very kind postmaster called me today and confirmed that every bit of this piece of mail was fraudulent: the check itself, the return address, even the printed-out postage sticker itself. “Looks like a home computer job,” he said. “We see this all the time, but not so much in regard to rentals.”

Of course I feel stupid and wish I could say I was smart enough to see through it earlier. I should have taken the time to carefully consider what was happening. There are reasons I didn’t.

1. When the weird texts were happening, I was in a hurry, I didn’t feel good and I had an appointment so was trying to rush out the door.

2. I did not want to judge him for poor English (“this tickets money”) because there are lots of reasons for imperfect English.

3. The cottage is my livelihood – I want and need the business.

4. I stand more often in the benefit-of-the-doubt, innocent-until-proven-guilty camp. I want to believe people are good. Most of them are. But not all.

I still feel stupid. Four and a half years I’ve been renting my cottage. Four and a half years of wonderful guests and wonderful experiences. Now this. All I can say is Be on the lookout – scammers are out there looking for money any way they can get it.

Yummy Yammy Cheesy Galette

When you first come home from having been away for a week, there’s not much in the fridge. But I did not feel like going shopping yesterday or today, and anyway I was playing tennis this morning, then flipping the cottage, then waiting for guests to arrive – honeymooners(!), repeat visitors Sally and Ryan – how wonderful to see them again!! I was wrapped up in Sarah’s book for many hours as well (while waiting for Sally and Ryan), so it was after 6pm by the time I thought about dinner. Earlier I had taken a chicken out of the freezer, thinking to roast it, thinking we haven’t had one with a teriyaki sauce in a while and that might be nice, but it was too late for that. Maybe tomorrow.

Hmmm, very limited choices then. I could always make mac and cheese but didn’t feel like that either. I said to Samuel, “Can you make a dough?” He is good at making dough even if he would rather amuse us by hemming Coco in with pillows and blankets on the couch, from which she did not care to move so we concluded that she liked it.

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By “dough” he knew I meant a pizza dough. I knew we didn’t have any mozzarella so a conventional pizza was out of the question, but my daughter Marie has a recipe for a savory galette that came into my mind. Only it’s been five months or so since I made it at her house and couldn’t remember it well.

I remembered her recipe started with a pizza-crust-type crust. Thus the dough I asked Samuel to make.

I remembered it had butternut squash, but I didn’t know I had one/forgot I had one/didn’t see the one I had till I was all done. But I knew I had yams. That would work.

I remembered it had fresh sage. I knew I didn’t have that, but I do (always) have dried sage.

I remembered it had fontina cheese. I knew I didn’t have that, but I did (miraculously, considering how nearly-empty my cheese bin is right now) have asiago. That would work.

I knew it didn’t have ricotta cheese on it, but I had some of that, and thought it might be good to include.

It might have been good to look up Marie’s recipe then and there but I didn’t (or I would have added more onions).

Samuel made the dough, a regular pizza dough. He grated a big chunk of asiago. I cut up two big sweet potatoes (a.k.a. yams) into small cubes and put them in my cast iron skillet in butter and a bit of water over a medium flame to roast (forgetting that Marie’s recipe calls for the squash to be oven-roasted), then remembered the half onion sitting in my fridge and something in me said Add the onion to the roasting yams. I sliced it up thinly, added it to the yams in the pan and covered the pan till the yams were soft, stirring them once or twice with a good spatula; they were done in about ten minutes.

Samuel rolled out the dough, I put olive oil on it and spread it all over the surface with my hand (just enough to cover the surface, not enough to pool). He then salted and peppered the surface. I put small dollops of ricotta cheese on next, using teaspoons to push grape-sized blobs onto the dough (you see the white blobs?), reasonably spaced. Cooked yam cubes and onion slices went on next (well distributed of course), then some dried sage, then the asiago.

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Into a hot (450F) oven the two galettes went for a good half hour until the crust was nice and brown. It was totally delicious. The combination of cheeses with yams with the sage and onion – oh, yummy! Did I need two pieces?? I enjoyed two pieces! And the crust this time! The crust was especially good. We think it might be because Sandy bought King Arthur bread flour last time I was out of flour, which has more protein, which is supposed to make a better crust. We agree it is better. If you can, buy this kind of flour for your crust.

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After we chowed down on this delicious stuff while enjoying Iron Man 2, I found Marie’s recipe, which I will happily share because 1. It has actual measurements and 2. It serves as a springboard to my altered version. You will see that the “pastry” for Marie’s Butternut Squash and Carmelized Onion Galette is not a pizza dough. I guess I forgot that too. There are various ways I veered from this recipe. But the basic idea is quite the same.

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It all goes to show that you can look and see what’s in your fridge and maybe not have to go to the store in order to make something yummy for dinner!

A Cottage Scam

I have a beautiful cottage on my property that I rent out to travelers. This work is perfect for me. I’ve always loved having guests, preparing the space nicely for them, making them feel welcome and at home. The cottage is separate from my house but close enough that I can be there to greet people when they come, give them a personalized introduction to the property and assist with any needs while they are there – ice cubes, a spice they would like for the dinner they’re making but forgot to bring, a brief conversation about what’s so special in this area. For four and a half years guests have come mostly through Airbnb, sometimes privately. Overall it’s been a fabulous experience and I have met some of the most wonderful people.

The cottage sits a mile off the interstate and is – like my house – in the big woods. It’s secluded, quiet and private, with chickens to watch for amusement, a garden to stroll through and a private trail to the beaver pond, and it’s only ten minutes to town, close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and wonderful local wineries and breweries. In fall, winter and early springtime you can the mountains off in the distance; in summertime you can’t.

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Sunsets can be pretty awesome too.

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Inside there’s a woodstove and an amazing wall of windows…

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…coffered ceilings and a neat kitchen.

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Upstairs a cozy sleeping area.

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Recently I was approached about a private arrangement. The man said he was traveling with his son, asked for certain dates and needed to make payment “by sending you a company check or certified check.” I texted him back and he responded by thanking me and saying he would send me tracking information for the payment. Maybe I shouldn’t, probably I shouldn’t, but so far I trusted.

Whether we think about it or not, we trust all the time. And we trust a lot of people we don’t know. We trust the food we eat in restaurants to have been prepared by cooks who care about quality and cleanliness. We trust the airplane pilot to get us from Point A to Point B without crashing. We trust the auto mechanic not to charge us for something that’s wrong (that he supposedly fixed) when it isn’t.

There’s a fine line in the world of trust. I want to believe the best in everyone – benefit of the doubt, all that. Most people are good and honest. But some people mean us harm. Some want our money.

A few weeks ahead of time, I asked about arrival time. He said there was “a mix-up in the payment sent to you.” Hmmm. He continued, “I was supposed to receive two separate payment one for you and one for my travel agent, but unfortunately the whole sum of these two payments was issued on one check in your name and sent to you.”

This had a whiff of bad (feel free to chide me right here) but I would not be opposed to receiving a check, waiting for it to clear, then sending back the part that is not for me. Mistakes happen. “Thanks,” he said with a smiley face. “I’ll get back to you with the tracking info.”

The day before the expected arrival, I had no check, no tracking information and (no surprise) no good feeling. When I inquired, he said, “I feel very bad about the situation. My vacation planner didn’t put the check out on time. It will deliver to your address later today.” And then (and this really didn’t smell right), “Can we sort out the payment issue first? You can have the dates blocked for me. I’ll bare [sic] the loss for two days until the check clears your bank. And I’ll reschedule my arrival for [two days later]. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks for understanding.”

By this point I was confused and in a hurry but strongly suspecting a scam and highly intrigued as to how he would continue with this. The next bit clinched it: “But there’s a problem. He’s supposed to use the extra $2500 included in the check to book our flights so we can take off. But the check is already on its way and would arrive tonight. But if you can help me quickly remit the sum of $2500 to him right now, I’ll be very happy. Then when the check clears, you have the full amount including the rental fee. I’ll be very glad if you can do this. I’ll be very grateful.”

Ah, now I’m supposed to send money before I receive the check. Sure. And I’m not supposed to wonder how they could, at this point, not have tickets for their flights. So we can take off?!

“There’s no way we could come without this tickets money. And that’s why I’m suggesting you remit the funds to him. Then have yourself reimburse[d] when the check clears the bank. My son is already disappointed and I feel very bad right now.” [two sad faces]

This tickets money? Seriously?

These last few texts all took place within a very short period of time while I was madly trying to get out the door to an appointment. I told him plainly I was not going to write a check for $2500 and got going. Needless to say, no response came, no check, no tracking info, no guests. I lost business but gained understanding of yet another way scammers try to fool ordinary, trusting people. They must sit together, scheme together: Which business can we target next?… Individuals who rent out their homes! Sure, why not?!

They got me on the hook, but they didn’t reel me in. And I’m a smarter fish now.

Any Berry Tea Cake

Last week I had a request for my cottage from a guest who has been here several times before. Crystal’s note included: My daughter and myself absolutely looove that cake you make. It’s my birthday and my friends are trying to bring me to your place tonight. I will pay extra if you have one of those cakes laying around! I know what cake she means.

There’s always something freshly baked under the glass dome waiting for my guests, and sometimes it’s this Strawberry Ripple Tea Cake. (I am not sure what the difference is between a coffee cake and a tea cake, but we’ll just put that point of pondering in the category of Things I Don’t Need to Know.) The recipe came from a hardcover cookbook sitting on my shelf called Old-Fashioned Home Baking, back when (decades ago!) you got recipes either from someone you knew or from some printed material – usually a cookbook or a magazine.

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If you know me even a little, you know that I am all for tweaking/simplifying. This recipe, for instance, calls for making a thickened mixture using strawberries or raspberries. I might have done that the first time, but then I realized it was basically jam. Henceforth, guess what, jam it is! How much simpler and just as yummy.

Also it calls for one large baking pan, but why not two smaller pans? Why not muffin tins? I’ve tried it numerous ways, and with strawberry jam, raspberry jam and this week (on account of a bargain jar) blueberry jam. All good! This recipe is a keeper, and simpler than it looks.

Mix together the 2 ¼ cups flour and ¾ cup sugar. And whatever you do, use butter, not margarine! (I wonder when decent recipe books stopped suggesting margarine as an alternative…) Use a knife to cut up the cold butter in the bowl with the flour and sugar, then a pastry blender till it resembles “coarse crumbs.” My half-cup set aside looked like this.

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To the flour/sugar/butter that remains in your bowl, add the baking powder, baking soda, egg, salt and buttermilk (or sour milk, which is nothing more than milk with a teaspoon or so of vinegar added to it, no kidding; vinegar will sour the milk in no time).

Stir this up, just enough to blend. Overbeating will not make a better cake.

Here’s where, in a hurry, I forgot one of the key steps of this recipe. You are supposed to put most of the batter in the greased (and in this case springform) pan(s), then the fruit, then blobs of the remaining batter, then the crumbs. I just spread the batter in my two pans…

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…added the blueberry jam (about ¼ cup per cake, a little more would not have hurt it)…

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…spread the blueberry jam…

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…and topped it with crumbs.

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It would have been better to mix that jam into the batter a bit, even swirling it in with the blade of a round-tipped knife, before putting the crumbs on top, even if I bypassed the blobbing step. But as my sister would say, “Oh, well!”

The forgetfulness of the baker aside, the result was not so bad.

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It makes a terrific cake for someone who is having a stressful time, or for a neighbor who is always doing kind things for no seeming reason, or just because for people you love, or (oh, right!) for yourself! It is not overly sweet or messy, not trying to be splashy or gorgeous. It’s simply light and moist and delightful with the freshness of fruit and the tender buttery crumbs. It says, “How about a cup of tea or coffee, a slice of this goodness and a few minutes of relaxation?” Some days, sometimes, that’s just perfect.

 

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*Better Homes and Gardens Old-Fashioned Home Baking, 1990, Meredith Corporation, Des Moines, Iowa

A Golden Visitor

It’s quite impossible to describe softness in words. Or curiosity. Or grace. The best we can do is give examples and hope that our meaning is clear. Yesterday afternoon all three of these words found a beautiful example in one incredible animal. Millie came to visit.

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Millie is a six-month-old golden retriever. She came with my Airbnb cottage guests Frankie and Steve, who graciously let me enjoy some time with her while they went off to an event downtown. What is it about a golden?

I have always been partial to them. For twelve years, this beauty named Candy was a big part of my world. She was a birthday present for Lincoln when he turned 12 and one of those loyal, gentle, intelligent, perfect dogs that come along now and then in this world.

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She accompanied me to school when I taught in an upper elementary Montessori classroom. As the classroom dog, she brought comfort and cheer to the students every day. I remember one fifth grade boy named Jay saying to me as he sat on the floor with her stroking her fur, “If you’re having a bad day, or someone hurts your feelings, you just go to Candy and pet her, and everything is okay again.”

She seemed to be seriously weakening in the fall of 2012. I had planned a trip and was going to be away for almost two weeks. One morning before I left for work, she was lying on her bed, hadn’t moved yet that day. I got down with her to stroke her lovely head before leaving as I always did. “Candy,” I told her, “you go before my trip or after, but not while I’m away, okay?” Later that morning, Bradley came to me in my office and said, “Mom, I’ve never had to do this before.” He had to tell me she was gone.

How does a dog get so attached to our hearts? I cannot say, but I knew Candy would forever be attached to mine. In her memory and honor, I named my property Golden Hill.

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It all came back yesterday when Millie arrived. I’ve had guests with goldens before but have not been able to spend time with them as I could with Millie. We spent hours outside. I sat with her on the deck of the cottage stroking that amazingly soft fur. We walked over to the coop, she staying right with me as a good dog does. I watched her stare at the chickens – totally, utterly intrigued.

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Around the perimeter of the coop complex she padded noiselessly and gracefully, as if seeing them from a different angle would answer the question written all over her gorgeous face: What are they?

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What are those noises they make? How do they balance those odd bodies on those two ridiculous legs?

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No, I mean seriously: What are they?

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Maybe if I get a little closer…

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Maybe not.

And this one, with the fluffy head… What IS that?

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So I let her inside to see what she would do. Her curiosity was just as intense.

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The chickens, as you can see, were not as interested in her as she was in them.

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Their MO was to get as far from her as they could. Clearly a face-to-face would not be possible without a little help. So I introduced her to them up close and personal.

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No, still no idea…

Millie may have remained baffled, but my day was completely wonderful – I got to enjoy this perfect golden for a few hours. She is and will undoubtedly henceforth be a joy beyond words to Steve and Frankie. I am so thrilled for them. It is not everyday that a dog like this comes into your life.

Chicken Time-Out

It isn’t every day you get mad at a chicken. But today, on this cold Thanksgiving morning (32F), while other people are already basting the birds in their ovens, I was trying to discipline one in my coop. I had to – again! – put Goldyneck in time-out. Do chickens learn? Will she cease and desist her bullying if she gets a taste of her own medicine?

Probably not. Like people, chickens are who they are, and some of them are nastier, pushier, more aggressive. Some are meek and go about their own business and don’t randomly peck other chickens on the back! I have never been able to tolerate a bully.

This is the culprit.

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She’s very pretty. The chicks we got in March included this one, a mix – part silkie, part black copper maran – and no other chicken I have has visible traits of both. You see the bad hair day going on – though not as bad as the silkies – on top of her head. And of course the shiny black feathers of the maran, though hers are fluffier than the other marans.

Goldyneck does not pick on the other marans. They are bigger than she is, being pure maran (her silkie half means she is smaller). The other day I caught her pecking at a silkie. In particular she was pecking at One-Eye, the silkie we almost lost to an eye infection when she was just a few weeks old. Bullying is bad enough, but bullying the weakest among her group was too much for me. I’ll show her a thing or two about bullying.

I banished her. I did not go so far as to relocate her to the woods – I’d have to be really mad for that. But I put her into the other coop I call the Sewing Circle because they almost all have distinctive feathers circling their necks. Here she would have to mix with the brahmas, Rhode Island reds, cinnamon queens and the lone old gray auracana – all of which are bigger than the marans. I wondered what would happen.

Sure enough, a few hours later I came out to bring some scraps to them, and all the Sewing Girls came toward the door, eager to see what I might bring. Goldyneck was right there with them, but the space there is tight. She is smaller and was closest to the door, closest to me, and within seconds not one, not two, but three of her coop-mates gave her a peck on the back – a very clear signal. Move, sister! Move to the back of the line! You do not rate the front of the line! Back she went!

Later, when all had put themselves to bed after dark, I went to check on them. Another form of you-do-not-rate was in effect – shunning! Here she is, farthest back, apart from the rest. Hanging her head no less!!

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I let her spend the night in this purgatory and in the morning decided she could rejoin the Bridge Club, her own group so named because most of them are bantams (smaller breeds of chickens). B for Bantam. B for Bridge Club. (Sewing Circles and Bridge Clubs are both groups of ladies, and we must differentiate. We must help our brains with tricks!)

I was hopeful, as I am ever hopeful, with most things, though a friend did say Chickens Don’t Learn. A full day went by. I was busy and did not spend much time in close observation. I was busy enjoying my cottage guests who were enjoying my chickens. How it thrills me when people – especially young people – hold them, watch them, have fun. The silkies are especially docile and love to be picked up. Okay, maybe loved is too strong a word. They graciously tolerate it. Most of the time.

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Then this morning, immediately upon letting the Bridge Club out of their house/palace, didn’t Goldyneck immediately start pecking on a silkie! It got my dander up, so I moved her again. She was clearly confused. In this image, she is perhaps appealing to the marans on the other side of the barrier fence in her own chicken way.

Hey, how come I’m over here and y’all are over there? Wait, this isn’t right. I’m all alone!

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Not for long. Surely having heard the hullabaloo, the Sewing Circle then woke up.

Oh, no, here they come. Help!

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It wasn’t long before they started showing her whose space this is. First a red, then a brahma. The pecking happens really fast – definitely a peck-and-run technique – so these images, blurred as they are, will have to suffice in showing what I mean. Better move!

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Goldyneck tried to get out of the way, but she stuck close to the fence that divides her from the chickens she would love to be with/dominate. The reds are after me! Do something! Then she turned around and a brahma gave her that proverbial taste of her own medicine. Gotcha!

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Generally I am a tender-hearted person, and I am aware that this action of mine may forever affect your impression of me. The good and the bad will be weighed, and then someone will say Yes, but remember that time she left that poor chicken in with the big girls! But let it be understood that I also removed the offending chicken from those she was bullying! And then I walked away. I did. We will see what happens….

Yummy Cookies Baked When You Need Them

I have hosted Airbnb guests at my charming cottage for more than four years. Among other gifts, I leave them something home-baked, usually cookies. If I remember right, last year I had guests 161 nights. That’s a lot of cookies. Imagine if – each time – I got out the butter and sugar? Creamed them in a bowl? Added eggs, vanilla, flour, etc. and mixed it all up and spooned the dough onto baking sheets and baked the cookies? No way would I have time for this.

You learn a lot if you keep your eyes open. Depending on where you are, you learn a lot about certain things. I spent eleven years working in a luxury resort, and a good bit of that time in and out of the kitchens there. Professional chefs have remarkable skills, including knowing how to manage feeding a lot of people at different times and making it all (seem so) fresh. One thing I learned from the pastry chefs but should have learned from Ben and Jerry: Cookie dough freezes well.

We all knew this. Ben & Jerry made chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream famous.

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If you have tasted this frozen decadence, you will remember how the cookie dough part freezes hard but not too hard. Hard enough to be frozen, but soft enough to bite into. (Oh yum! If only they would make this with a chocolate base!)

Now think about it: If you can bite into frozen cookie dough, you surely can put a knife through it. And there we have the solution to my needing fresh cookies very often – homemade slice and bake! I mix up a batch of dough, portion it out, freeze it in little logs, then slice and bake as needed for incoming guests. Voila! Everyone has fresh baked homemade cookies! (I once heard a speaker say that the secret to success is Preparation, Preparation, Preparation. This applies to cookies too!)

The log-freezing method is great for guests, but also for those who enjoy their cookies fresh, soft and chewy, right out of the oven — like you! Realistically, you can eat only so many this way, and the rest go in a tin and, well, they aren’t as good in a few days. By freezing the dough in smaller amounts, you can spread out the joy of fresh-baked without getting out the ingredients and going through the whole process every time.

Think co-workers, neighbors at the holidays — or make them for random, unexpected gifts. Prepare ahead and bake only as many as you need for each person or occasion. Fresh every time! (So-and-so invited us to dinner, honey… What?? … Oh, I could bring along some freshly baked cookies! Watch this — super quick!)

I know that chocolate chip cookies are an all-time favorite, but I have preferred to make oatmeal cookies with mini chocolate chips in them. Somewhere in my brain there is better justification for cookies that have whole grain in them. Often I also put dried cranberries or golden raisins in them, but this time I didn’t because … I forgot.

The recipe I use has been in my cookbook forever. Here is the list of ingredients:

Oatmeal (Chocolate Chip) Cookies

3 sticks (1 ½ cups) butter, soft (use the defrost setting on your microwave if you want)

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

½ cup water

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

6 cups oats

(For the cookies I make for my guests, I also add a teaspoon of cinnamon, 2 cups of mini chocolate chips and often a few handfuls of dried fruit.) BTW, other cookie doughs work well with the log method, including shortbread cookies.

First cream the butter and sugars with a strong wooden spoon. This mixture will pull away from the sides of the bowl.

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Adding the eggs, water and vanilla changes it quite a bit. Now it looks almost grainy. Notice I changed to a whisk to be sure it all got mixed in thoroughly.

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Once you stir in the flour, salt and baking soda, the consistency changes to almost velvety smoothness. Look how beautiful! (And back to the wooden spoon!)

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Now add the oats. How’s this for action photography!?

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I put my oats tin in this photo too because (like the allspice tin I showed in Colonial Pumpkin Pie) it is another one that has been around for a long time and is among my favorites.

Once you have the oats in the bowl, add the mini chips too.

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Stir it all up till it looks like this.

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Now clear your biggest surface (for me this is my table) and lay out as many pieces of waxed paper as you want. I give my guests 8-10 cookies on a plate (under a glass dome) and have found that a log about 6 inches long yields that many cookies. That means 16 pieces of waxed paper and between ½ and 2/3 cup of dough on each one.

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I don’t measure the dough – I just divvy it up into approximately equal size blobs. It doesn’t matter if it’s exact. In my case it only matters that they are about the same amount, and this is the amount that makes 8-10 cookies. You can make your logs however long you want, some longer than others if you want. Just remember you need longer paper for longer logs!

To make the logs, I hold the paper underneath, cradling the dough and using the paper to help form the log.

Use your fingers from underneath to mush the dough into the log shape. I make mine about 1 ½ inches in diameter, but you can do what you like. Once you are happy with your log, wrap it up snug in the paper.

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Do the same with all your blobs until you have a neat pile of wrapped logs.

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My very dark table is making them look suspended in mid-air, don’t you think? Okay, maybe not a prizewinning photo, but still cool.

Put these wrapped logs in a plastic freezer bag and freeze them. When you are ready to bake some, take out a log and cut it into the slices about 1/2 -inch thick.

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Place cut-side-down on your baking sheet and bake at 375F until they look not quite done. In my oven this was 13 minutes today. If you take them out when they look just a little bit uncooked, just ever-so-slightly brown at the edges, they will be chewier. I love them that way. If that sounds good to you, try it!

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Building Skills for Building Stuff

For four years now I have been hosting Airbnb guests at the cottage that Bradley and Beth built on my property.

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As a kid Bradley always loved to build things in the shop – I remember when he was a teenager and I prayed he would be careful with dangerous power equipment. He was, and he taught himself many aspects of carpentry that he later incorporated into the cottage, such as the coffered ceilings, cherry tongue-and-groove floors, all the custom-made windows,

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and the beautiful railings in the loft.

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During the building process, he and Beth worked tirelessly at full-time jobs and the work on the cottage.

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I worked too, but mainly many hours at my job at the hotel. I paid the bills, made food and talked through material and design decisions with them.

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Here and there I contributed actual labor, but as anyone in their 50s knows, there is a big difference energy-wise in what you can do in your 50s compared to what you can do in your 20s. I marveled at their energy! I wanted to help! But plain and simple I was too tired, emotionally and physically, by the end of the day. It was their amazing project.

During a few of the cottage-building years, my son Lincoln and his wife Julia lived nearby. Lincoln worked at a woodworking shop in Richmond, honing the skills he himself had been developing. He and Bradley together built not only the original chicken coop, but also skillfully remade the base of my antique dining room table using solid mahogany – they designed and built graceful, perfect legs and gave new life to a family heirloom.

If I had been more present during those years, how much I could have learned from them both! I remember thinking this, remember admiring them, remember longing to work alongside, remember sitting exhausted in a chair…

Lincoln and Julia moved to Vermont in 2013 and Brad and Beth left for Seattle in August of 2014. The decision to try hosting through Airbnb, to “share” this gem of a cottage with others who might appreciate it, seemed reasonable. It took till early October 2014 to get everything ready, but from the get-go, literally within hours of posting the details of my cottage on their site, I had my first guests, and it has been great guns ever since. For two years I managed both the cottage and my job at the hotel (a bit of a juggling act). Then in a good-sized leap of faith in October 2016, hoping that I could get by with just the cottage, I resigned my position at the hotel.

Now I have time and energy for building things! Or unbuilding things, as the case may be. Sandy handed me the drill and up I went on the roof of the old chicken coop run to unscrew the metal panels in order to clean them and put them back on a rebuilt frame.

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Filling holes with concrete? I can do this.

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I can also dig out earth to make a level place for a deck to connect the old and new chicken coops.

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And build the coop deck’s framework with scrap 4x4s and 4x6s in rows to support the decking boards.

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I worked with my Uncle Ernie to make a bench for that deck, getting a little more comfortable with the chop saw. I still don’t like using the table saw.

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And once that all was finished (and huge thanks to Sandy for doing the lion’s share of the work) — oh, how beautiful it looks to me on this rainy November morning —

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we turned our attention to the house foundation

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and front porch project. I’m the grunt labor, I know this. Sandy is the energizer bunny, working for endless hours, bringing skill and ideas, and has way more confidence in my capabilities than I do. And Joe and Samuel have been invaluable in this getting so much of this work done so quickly.

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A few years ago, I assure you I did not envision myself nailing in joist hangers!

What happened? Yes, I now have more time, and yes, I am not so sapped of energy as in the past. But there is something else. Actually two somethings.

  1. I have always admired the things people accomplish when using their hands/bodies together with their brains, but in my world it was the men who were building and fixing things. My hat is off to all of them evermore, but while Bradley and Beth still lived here, my friend Peggy one time gave him some of the tools she didn’t need any more that she herself had used for years for woodworking and for fixing things! She is the first woman I knew who was not intimidated by machines or carpentry. I expect she has no idea how I marveled at her, how I admired that aspect of her great character. She also gave Bradley a SHOP sign that he proudly affixed to the shop door. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Peggy!

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2. I was always intrigued by the concept that you are never too old to learn something new. Back in the homeschooling days, I read a lot of John Holt’s work. I paraphrase here a story he told of someone who wanted to learn to play the violin but was 50 years old. “I’ll be 55 by the time I can play it decently,” the person said. “Yes,” he replied, “but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway, so wouldn’t it be better to have learned to play the violin during those years?”

In five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

That phrase stuck with me. I stretched it to not only:

I’m x-years old now. I want to learn [pick a skill]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to have learned that skill in those five years – even if not to the master level – than to get to x+5 years old and still be wishing I could do that thing?

But also to:

I’m x-years old now. I struggle with [pick a subject]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to make some strides in that area in those five years than to get to x+5 years old and still be struggling in the same way with that thing?

So here I am, cutting decking boards on a chop saw, knowing the difference between a rim joist and a sill plate and a ledger board, toenailing deck joists in place to hold them until it’s time to screw in the hangers. In a conversation with my son Lincoln the other day, he said, “It’s very cool to see you learning how accessible and simple all this building stuff is. Not just some magic that you have to ask some pro woodworker to do every time. Measure, mark, cut, secure, repeat!” I told him I have my limitations: I am not very strong and I am scared of some of the equipment. He said, “Well you should be scared of those tools! Every safe woodworker is.”

Today I am grateful for all the people I’ve known who have woodworking skills, all the encouragement I’ve received from people I love (in ways they are probably not aware of) and all the enthusiasm of friends and family who cheer on these projects. All of this has developed in me a greater interest in the craft and a hunger to learn more. One of these days I might do more than the grunt work, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I’m having fun and there’s a wonderful result!

Here we are now, with temporary steps on the side! For the first time in almost a month, we can go in and out through the front door 😊

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Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange

I know there are people in the world who would feel, as I do, a twinge of sadness the day after a storm splits the gigantic chrysanthemum.

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Or who wish they could wander out to the garden to pick fresh oregano and purple basil for the homemade pizza about to go into the oven (see the basil in the box behind the rosemary?). Or who would like to make applesauce together from freshly picked heirloom Virginia apples. I suspect there are people who have some time – a few weeks or a few months – to explore a corner of the world that is surely different in some ways than their own and who wonder about my corner of Virginia.

I’m thinking this is Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange.

There’s always something going on around here: planting, harvesting, building, cooking, baking, (eating!), trying, creating, discovering, resting, marveling, playing, listening, digging, watching, learning, discussing, fixing, pondering.

There are my various gardens with herbs, vegetables and perennials. I’ve moved the azaleas in between the crape myrtles in front of the fenced garden. Turns out, the neglected bush that just got dug up in the front corner of my house was actually two bushes. This photo shows them moved, with their fresh dirt around them, but not yet trimmed, staked or mulched. I did that later in the day, after taking the photo. I had to take the photo when I did, and you see why. I did not ask little Coco to park herself there to enjoy the sunshine…

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We have got to do something about the blackberries that are going crazy inside the garden, and the tomatoes could be pulled and winter crops planted. The asparagus bed is none too tidy, begs for attention. One of the rudbeckia got smashed somehow and needs a little love. The front yard is a mess from the recent Big Dig, but soon we’ll be pouring footings and building a nice front porch.

My two custom-built chicken coops provide palatial accommodations for 29 interesting (some bordering on ridiculous) chickens. They need new mulch or straw when they’ve scratched through what we put down before, but they give lots of amazing eggs to make good food with! My lone araucana isn’t laying her greenish eggs any more though – could there be a reason? This black copper maran had a face-off with Coco yesterday. Both have curiosity, but the chicken less so. She just wants to get back to scratching in the straw. A white silkie came toward us to investigate.

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When the sun rises on a day with too much cloud cover, and it can’t quite get its rays to stream through the giant trees in my back woods, there’s always an otherworldly feeling and sometimes a glorious mist that sparkles on the leaves or in the air.

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When the wind kicks up such that those trees can’t help but engage in a wild dance, it’s a sight. The not-so-manicured trails through the woods are a pleasant walk leading to the beaver pond with its lodge and dam. The beavers keep making their pond a little bigger. I don’t get down there often enough.

When a fox trots in a wide circle around the coops, wishing (you know it!) that there was a way to get to those fat and surely delicious chickens, it doesn’t know how its red fur shines in the sun. When guests stay at my gorgeous Airbnb cottage, they just might see a mother bear and two cubs walk through the yard. A few weeks ago, someone did.

Recently I was in Seattle and met several enthusiastic, capable au pairs. I got to thinking that some people who would like to come to Virginia for a little while (but don’t necessarily have a friend here already) might prefer a household without small children, and might prefer a country setting. They might enjoy getting to know the plants that grow in this climate, or the way we lay decking boards, or the vibe of downtown Charlottesville, fifteen minutes away. It’s a vibrant university town with great restaurants and shops, exhibits and lectures, sports and music events. The Presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are all within half an hour’s drive.

Over the years I’ve had short- and long-term visitors many times and would love to share my little piece of the world with some new friends. If you are thinking it’s a good time to do such a thing and have a little interest, you can let me know.