A Mad Dash and the Value of Fantasy

At the end of the day yesterday, a beautiful March day in Vermont that climbed past 50 degrees F, a day we had watched the ice in the Winooski River breaking away in pieces…

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…Mom and I were scheduled to fly back home.

When I am sitting in an airport waiting for my flight, and in taxis the plane I will soon be on, and off come the passengers who have arrived at their destination, I feel envious as they walk past me. I want to be them in the sense of I want to be arriving, not leaving. I want the travel part of my trip to be over. It’s great to spend time with the people I love who live far away, it’s good for the soul to see other hillsides and travel other roads and gain new mental images of the ever-changing world, but I wish I could snap my fingers at the end of that and just be home.

Some trips are smooth and easy. The flights run on time and are reasonably unbumpy, and there is enough time to get from Plane A to Plane B without undue hurry or worry. Coming home yesterday was not that kind of trip.

In Burlington Mom and I heard over the PA system that anyone with a connection in Philadelphia would miss their connection because of weather issues, so they might as well find accommodation overnight and try again today. Our connection was in Washington DC, but what weather could affect Philly so as to delay or cancel all connecting flights but not affect DC?? We don’t know and can’t know, but the announcement did not make us feel better about getting on a plane.

Then we were told that the plane that would take us to DC would be landing in Burlington at the same time as it was supposed to take off to DC, and in fact it landed more than ten minutes after that, delaying our start by a good half hour. Try as they did to make up for the lost time, we landed in DC at the same time as our connector was supposed to be taking off. That is, we arrived in DC at 10pm and our subsequent flight to Cville was scheduled to take off at 10pm. We were in row 6, which got us off the plane quicker than if we had been in row 22, but still I had serious doubts. When I showed the flight attendant my boarding pass for the next flight and asked her if we were going to make it, she said to ask the person at the bottom of the stairs. He said You will make it.

What does he know? I led Mom, who is not walking fast these days, across the tarmac toward the door he indicated, and immediately found someone who looked like she worked there and said, “I need a wheelchair for my mother!” I realize in retrospect I did not say it calmly and politely. I did not ask. I said it emphatically, being worried (very worried by this point) not only about our flight but also about Mom going faster than she should or could. To their credit, they moved fast to get her a wheelchair, being prodded, possibly, by the panic in my voice. We went as quickly as possible – the wheelchair driver assuring me all the way that we would make it – all of one gate past the one where we disembarked, watched the guy at the desk say into a phone, “Two more for Charlottesville” (as in “Don’t close the door just yet”) and hustled out the door, across the tarmac and onto the plane. Then they closed the door.

Whew! Once we were in our seats, the reality of the close call hit us and we both felt very grateful for the help we got. Mom worried that her inability to move fast had added to the stress, but I told her that having an 84-year-old, less-than-speedy travel companion came in handy. If nothing else, it called attention to our plight. We were on the plane and that’s all that mattered. Time to relax, right?

You bet. Time to resume The Turning by Sarah Silvey, a new fantasy novel I can hardly put down. The part of me that loves invented characters and their corresponding powers, deeds and foibles – yes, the same woman who loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aquaman, The Avengers and all the rest – switched on as soon as I started reading it. Sarah’s fabulous characters and intriguing storyline picked up my exhausted self and plunked it squarely into an imaginary world with far greater challenges and gave me somewhere else to reside temporarily after the harrowing gate-to-gate mad dash. What is making our flight to Charlottesville by the skin of our teeth compared to trying to stop an evil “Other” who can obliterate a small town by commanding the river to overtake it in a flash flood?

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The Turning starts with a young woman named Sienna who is vaguely aware of her unusual abilities, including being able to know what people are thinking. Her village is small, her job of ferrying people across the river is simple, but trouble starts when the blue-cloaked woman with a frightening aura crosses. Enter a brave knight of the Darcean Order who cannot stop the flood but saves Sienna from it, mutants with creepy eyes and grossly misshapen bodies, ordinary folk who chatter cheerfully and care about their companions and a rat-faced villain gathering the mutants for purposes of subterfuge, and you can imagine my current dilemma. I’m home, yes, my bags are unpacked, yes, but it’s time for dinner and all I want to do is read! Brennan, the knight, explained the backstory this way:

…“He was the first Other. Fifteen hundred years ago, Azar united the lands to the east of the desert with his power. He named it Azaria, and together he and his queen ruled the people, masquerading as gods.

“Nobody denies that the things they did were magnificent. Through their power, they made the roads and buildings, many of which were so strong that they are still standing today. By their influence, the yield of crops magnified a hundredfold. Nobody had to work; they only had to worship the Azars and obey their rules.

“Lots of people see these relics and yearn for the wealth and glory of the past, but they have forgotten the Azars’ cruelty. They murdered people for entertainment, made them into slaves, sacrificed them as their divine right. They were depraved. People were forbidden to read and write, to question their god-kings, to meet in secret. Others were employed by Azar to watch the people for rebellion, and any independence of mind or deed was found and crushed. The easy lifestyle and propaganda promoted by the Azars made the people bland and ignorant.

“The Others were insatiable. Masses of people were slain in battles for supremacy between members of the Azar family. Others ruled the cities as well; they played mayor or magistrate, wallowing in luxury and using their power to work their way on people.

“For five hundred years the descendants of the Azars ruled Azaria in blood and wealth, until an assassin found his way into their palace undetected and killed the last king and queen where they slept in their beds. The empire fell apart. Without their gods, the people were lost. They lived in the houses that still remained, but they didn’t remember how to work or think or fend for themselves. Lots of people died, but slowly they learned to survive on their own again, by their own rules, through honest means.

“Today people look at the skeletons of these buildings and they fantasize. They hear tales of gods that walked among men, abundant food, easy lifestyles, and they yearn for those days to be back again. But below the earth, where they cannot see, are the skeletons of the people whom these so-called gods trampled in their lust and greed.”

The evil empire has fallen, its inhabitants are “free again, along with all the responsibility and suffering which that entailed,” but their own history, their own shackles, their own pain, which should guide them to create a better tomorrow, has “drifted into the mythology of the gods. Azar’s name and his power are all the truth that is remembered.” Sienna wonders, “How can people have forgotten something so important?”

Indeed! Why do people forget what’s important? Bravo to Sarah, a fine young writer who gives us not only an engaging story but also a striking window into the risks of allowing ourselves to be led by those who do not, despite appearances, have our interests in mind, but rather, strictly and only, their own power and gain. Oh, and don’t forget how we ourselves, with whatever we uniquely bring to the table, can affect the outcome. Will Sienna develop her own powers and help Brennan take down the evil Others? I hope so, but how will she do it? I don’t know yet, but I suspect I’ll be up till all hours tonight finding out how the story plays out. You’ve got my attention, Sarah, and your wonderfully written story not only entertains me, it conjures up the parallels we all face.

Is there evil in our world too? Undeniably. Are we, to our ultimate detriment, being led? Sometimes. Can we battle all the wrongs? Hardly. Can we think for ourselves, develop our own strengths and avoid some of the downsides of those who would rule us? Of course we can.

May we never forget what’s important and always work for good. And may a good book always serve to take us to worlds we would otherwise not go, and in doing so, help us relax, make us think and/or bring us a fresh perspective on ourselves and our own world. Thank you, Sarah.

Girls and Aprons: Straight Out of Another Time

Two little girls. My world is more wonderful this week because Rise and Eppie are here. By the time they are six and four, there’s more they can do on their own. I do not have to accompany them to the chicken coop every time, but can suggest there might be eggs, and off they go.

If you look carefully, you can see the chickens at the door of their run waiting for Rise. Food! Food! Humans approaching! They bring food! Not this time, ladies!

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That’s my hat she’s wearing, and she loves it because it’s purple. The love of purple applies universally. In other words, if it’s purple, she loves it. This one is especially appealing because besides being purple, there’s a flower on the side. She likes it so much, she wears it indoors sometimes.

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(Yes, that’s Edward Tulane sitting on the table next to Rise on my raccoon skin. They loved reading through it with me the first two or three days they were here. Imagine, as soon as Edward was thrown overboard, Rise said, “I want him to get back to the little girl!” Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? Do you think the author anticipated that a six-year-old would want that?)

On another day, a colder day, Rise got the first 13 eggs of the day and Eppie went out later by herself to get one more. (Don’t rush me! Don’t rush me! one hen said.) Yes, another hat of mine under her hood. If you are an Oma, it is best to have a selection of hats available when the little girls come to visit.

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There’s nothing like a good Ravensburger puzzle to occupy Eppie for a few minutes. She had both 20-piece puzzles together in no time. (I have a puzzle with chickens on it. Imagine that!) I hope kids everywhere are still doing puzzles. 

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I hope they are still eating apples too. I cut up two different varieties and put them in separate bowls and suggested they might do a taste-test to see how they compared. Rise said one was tart and one was sweet. Fair enough. Looks like they each found a favorite.

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Eppie likes reading aloud whether anyone else is listening or not. My mom gave them a marvelous reprinted Dick and Jane set for Christmas, which has adorable drawings and easy story lines. Here she is reading Green Eggs and Ham without prompting. Once in a while she needs help with a word. But only once in a while.

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“Oma, I found paint downstairs…” Ah, yes, children’s paint, supposedly washes out of clothes. But let’s not take that chance. I pulled out the aprons I still had from when my own kids were little, set an old shower curtain liner on the floor and gave them gloves to wear (which did not work on Eppie at all and I had to take them off and take my chances on how well the paint would wash off skin – it did!).

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After this, they did not want to paint again but Rise wore the apron nonstop. I didn’t realize till later that she was wearing it in this photo of all of us.

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Which got me to thinking. Of course. She should have one of her own for when she goes back to her house. They both should have one. While Eppie was sleeping one day, Rise and I went into my newly reorganized fabric scrap boxes (I knew I did all that last week for a reason!) and found some pieces that would be big enough for an apron. Rise settled immediately on a pale pink calico, but we didn’t want to decide for Eppie, so we found several. Eppie chose blue over green, which was a surprise.

Today was a good day to sew. While they played quietly in another room, I got to work, modeling the new ones after the old one. The girls were right there to measure when I needed, so it was easy. Waist to knees and height and width of bib, that’s all I need. The rest was gathers and ties. The girls were a little too quiet at one point. Hmmm. I found an abandoned mess of crayons later. When I asked about it, they said, “Oh, we like to clean!” Good thing, because I’m not cleaning it up.

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They were tickled with the aprons. And I was tickled when Kim said (in response to this photo I sent her), “Oh gosh – straight out of another time.” Indeed they are, though I didn’t think about the fashion era they represent until she said that. You see, girls (these girls anyway) love twirling, and if the skirt is full, the twirl is greatly enhanced. And the ties are long enough to make a bow in the back. Rise always wants a bow.

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If you know anyone who wants one (and I don’t mean Coco!), just let me know 😊 All I need is measurements!

Beyond Comeuppance

We all know someone like Edward: stuck up, conceited, vain, smug, no thought whatsoever for the well being of anyone else. People like this don’t necessarily hurt anyone, they just ignore, push away and take for granted the love and the goodness that comes to them. They get sulky when they don’t get their own way. Their self-importance rules the day.

Comeuppance comes to mind, as in One of these days, he’ll get his comeuppance for treating people so arrogantly, which is Merriam-Webster’s example sentence for a word defined as “a deserved rebuke or penalty.”

But what if people who deserved it didn’t get only their comeuppance? What if their rebuke or penalty were also transformative? What if comeuppance did a kind of magic, and people became better people?

It happens. It happened with Edward Tulane. And if it can happen with a rabbit, it can happen with anyone. Right, Edward is a rabbit, a fancy toy rabbit in a wonderful children’s story I just discovered. Brad and Beth and Piper and Zoe and I went to a stage production of the 2006 book by Kate DCamillo at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The purplish guy in the middle with the long ears – that’s Edward.

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In The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane* a china rabbit, though unable to move on his own or communicate with those who take care of him, can nonetheless think and feel. Edward was as full of Self as a china rabbit from a posh toy store leading a cushy, swank life in Paris can be. The little girl who loved him, Abilene, dressed him every morning with yet another outfit from his extraordinary wardrobe. He “never ceased to be amazed at his own fineness.” Abilene propped him carefully on a chair every day before leaving for school and assured him, “I will come home for you.” She loved loving him, though he cared absolutely nothing for it.

Abilene’s wise grandmother Pellegrina told her a story one night about a princess who was loved dearly but loved no one in return. “You disappoint me,” the witch in the story told the princess, after which she turned her into a warthog. Before Pellegrina left, she tucked Edward in and said the same words to him: “You disappoint me.”

The rabbit’s journey of redemption began where his self-obsession ended. He went with the family an ocean voyage and – oops! – was tossed overboard by some miscreants who had first stripped him of his finery. The last thing he saw was Abilene standing on the deck, holding up his gold pocket watch and shouting to him to come back. (Illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline)

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Imagine Edward’s new life, face-down on the bottom of the ocean. Forget the silk pajamas. Forget admiring his own reflection in the glass. He was humiliated and upset, but stuck. One day a storm churned up the water and he was lifted high enough to land in a fisherman’s net. Lawrence kindly brought Edward home to his lonely wife Nellie, whose immeasurable sadness was brightened a thousand-fold by having this inanimate rabbit in her care. Edward scoffed when she put a plain dress on him and called him Susanna, but Nellie was gentle and told him stories, some of them very sad. The fisherman showed him the stars at night.

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But what does it look like when someone fawns over a toy rabbit? Nellie’s daughter couldn’t stand the talk in town, so when she found her moment she secretly snatched Edward and pushed him face-down into a garbage can – yet another humiliation for him. But being separated from Lawrence and Nellie made his heart pang for the first time.

The town dump was worse than the bottom of the sea. Talk about stink! A dog named Lucy found Edward in the rubbish and presented him to Bull, the hobo he was traveling with. The threesome then spent happy years riding the rails and sleeping under the stars – Edward does love the stars! Bull passed the hours telling Edward stories of the family he left behind to find work, and a lot of other hobos likewise found consolation in sharing their woes. Edward added Bull and Lucy to the names of the people who loved him, and he repeated the names over and over as he stared up at the stars at night: Abilene, Lawrence, Nellie, Bull, Lucy.

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Their quiet, nomadic life ended abruptly when an angry conductor threw Edward off a moving train. Once again he was alone, hopeless and helpless, primed for the next humiliation: the woman who picked him up thought he’d make a good scarecrow. The nasty crows incessantly attacked him, but Edward’s journey did not end there.

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Where there is a need and a kind heart, good will happen. Bryce, a young boy who worked in the garden, repurposed Edward, giving him to his frail and sickly sister, Sarah Ruth, who loved him deeply as she got weaker and weaker. Their abusive father created a fearful situation, and Edward understood more and more how important he was to the children, how much power there is in this thing called love.

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After Sarah Ruth died, Bryce took Edward with him to Memphis, where he outfitted him as a marionette puppet. Together they earned a bit of money for food. But not enough. The owner of a diner got angry with Bryce when he couldn’t pay fully and smashed the rabbit’s china face. Reluctantly, Bryce brought Edward to a toy repair shop and left him there.

Restored to a semblance of his former glory, Edward resolutely sat on a shelf, determined not to open his heart again. You know how painful it is to lose someone you love.

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Years he spent sitting on that shelf. He wore his misery on his sleeve. One doll couldn’t believe he didn’t want someone to come buy him, didn’t want someone to love him. He said, “I have been loved by a girl named Abilene. I have been loved by a fisherman and his wife and a hobo and his dog. I have been loved by a boy who played the harmonica and by a girl who died. Don’t talk to me about love.”

Someone came for that doll but no one came for Edward, and he sat alone with his shut-up heart. Another doll, this one very old, thought it was dreadful that he didn’t care if anyone came for him. “I am done with being loved,” Edward told her. “I’m done with loving. It’s too painful.”

“You disappoint me,” she said. “You disappoint me greatly. If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.” After a little girl came and took the old doll to her new, loving home, Edward heard the doll’s voice inside his head over and over: “Open your heart. Someone will come. Someone will come for you. But first you must open your heart.”

Little by little, as he sat there through countless long and lonely seasons, softening happened. One day a mother and daughter came into the shop. The little girl took Edward from his shelf and “held him in the same ferocious, tender way Sarah Ruth had held him.” That’s when he saw what at first looked like a locket around the lady’s neck. But no, it wasn’t a locket. It was a pocket watch, the one that had been his many years earlier. Abilene looked into Edward’s eyes and knew him. She and her daughter took the rabbit home.

Edward’s journey included generous portions of love and tenderness and pain and sorrow. Step by step, little by little, these helped him shed his vanity, become a little wiser and learn to love.

May we too, all of us, make room in our hearts for love. May we find, deep within ourselves, love we didn’t know we had. Most importantly, may we pour forth that love to those who need it and who, in their own way, give their own love to us.

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*The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

His First Book at 85

Throughout his life Hank Browne was fascinated with ruins of all kinds: skeletons of houses and churches long since abandoned, roofs falling in, canals overgrown, kilns and forges crumbling by way of one tiny crack at a time, bridges unused and slowly disintegrating, walls and chimneys freestanding – all of which at one time had stood new and coherent and sound. To him the ruins were a testament to the skills, needs, hard work, challenges and creativity of those who came before us. They were a window into time past, a reflection of the power of nature when left to itself. To him they were beautiful.

For thirty years he wanted to tell the world. Four years ago he began earnestly, building a team and developing ideas that would make his book about ruins a reality. Last night we gathered in his living room to celebrate his achievement, his dream come true. Hank and his book, Vanishing History: Ruins in Virginia, were featured on “Charlottesville Inside Out,” a local PBS (WHTJ) show that introduces the community to extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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Host Terri Allard, in her signature style that both charms and engages, interviewed Hank and his photographer, Kevin MacNutt, at the ruins of Governor James Barbour’s home on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards. A fire on Christmas day in 1884 destroyed the beautiful home that Thomas Jefferson had designed when the United States was a new nation. It is one of the amazing structures still standing, still speaking of its past, that Hank included in his book, and was therefore a perfect backdrop for the PBS segment.

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Hank’s book jacket bio states that his career as an architect included “the challenge of finding technical solutions to the preservation of architectural fabric and integrity.” He also “furthered his professional credentials at the International Center for Restoration of Monuments and Sites in Rome and played a significant role in the restoration of numerous historic buildings including Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia; the Executive (Governor’s) Mansion in Richmond, Virginia; ‘Pine Knot,’ Theodore Roosevelt’s Camp in Scottsville, Virginia; and eleven retail and warehouse buildings on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Even with all that, the writing of a book that was on his mind for 30 years reminds me of the violin story that John Holt tells in Learning All the Time, the one about the guy who was 50 and wanted to learn to play the violin but knew it would take him five years to learn it well and that he’d be 55 by the time he could play proficiently. This may be true, someone said to the man, but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

Let us not overlook that Hank was already past 80 when he took the first steps to create his book. He didn’t know how long it would take. Bravo!

With determination that crossed the line into passion, he had reached out to Kevin and traipsed with him through fields, woods, brambles and rain, time and again – hey, are you free next weekend to go shoot some more photos? When they had compiled an impressive photographic sampling of old, falling, crumbling and ruined houses, kilns, forges, canals, locks, train stations (like this one at Pleasant Valley),

 

bridges, mills, churches, industrial sites, viaducts, tunnels, villages and springs, they began laying out the pages and trying different ways of presenting the accompanying information.

Hank’s goal was not only to show the beauty of the structures – which, granted, is sometimes an eerie beauty – but also to advocate for the care and preservation of what he calls “lonesome evidence of man’s endeavors.” Writing a book has the advantage of allowing you to include what you think particularly pertinent or noteworthy, such as this quote from John Ruskin, a prominent social thinker of the Victorian era:

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our father did for us.”  

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My part started about two years ago, pulling all the pieces together to publish this beautiful, full color, hardbound book that was finally in hand last January. It was selected for the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book and has sold out well more than half of its initial inventory through independent bookstores, Amazon and his website. As we gathered last night to raise a toast, first to Hank and Kevin…

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… and then to all the players who formed a part of this marvelous success story, I thought about all the good and necessary pieces of the puzzle – great people, vast experience, outstanding skills, wise use of resources, passion, determination, guts, patience, humor and mutual encouragement, to say nothing of hard work, long days and many miles traveled.

Just as important as what you have (and we all know this) is what you don’t have, or don’t allow, or effectively push away: naysayers, skepticism, lack of confidence, pettiness. These negatives always vie for positioning but they did not get a place at Hank’s table, so to speak.

Everyone else in the room last night – Kevin, Hank’s daughters Leslie and Tracy, Leslie’s husband Clark, friends Georgiana and Michael and me (how lucky am I to count as a friend!) – can vouch for Hank’s can-do spirit, his continual gratitude to those who have walked alongside him, his willingness to use technology (his laptop to type out narratives and sort through Kevin’s photo files, a clicker when giving powerpoint presentations), his unquenchable fascination with all things built with care and expert craftsmanship (especially those that have seen better days), and his steadfast belief that some things (especially those that have seen better days) deserve our attention, our praise, our protection.

And he’s not calling it quits. A book about ruins in Maryland is in the works!

When I am in my 80s (Lord willing, I will get there!), I hope I am eager to brave what is new, to embrace the as-yet-unmet goals in my life, and to forge ahead with the same grace, the same energy, the same fortitude that this wonderful man has shown. And I hope there is someone with an arm around me, saying to me as I say to Hank: Bravo! You did it!

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The Best Life If You’re a Pig

Pigs don’t have many choices in life. They are at the mercy of their owners and keepers, and I’d guess many of them would wish for a trade if trades were possible.  I would also venture to say that the vast majority would do anything pigly possible to have the life that Tracy’s pigs have. Do these pigs look happy or what? Okay, maybe they just look curious. There’s something about those noses that’s hilarious and remarkable at the same time.

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I’m not sure pigs could have a better life than these. They have oak trees dropping acorns all through their spacious, wooded area and freedom to root around all day finding those acorns and whatever else pigs consider yummy among the fallen leaves of this time of year. They have a huge enclosure made with movable fencing so it is, yes, moved around, which is better for the land, better for the pigs, plus a change of scenery (maybe they notice!). Oh, hey, this spot has great dirt!

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Their summertime life along the tree line let them pick shade or sun, assuming pigs can pick. Compared to most pigs, this had to feel like they had the whole state of Virginia to roam around in.

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It’s pig paradise. Check out their big bathtub/pool, which is clean only until the moment one of them gets in it mainly on account of the adjacent mud hole for slopping around in.

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You can’t tell so much when they are muddy, but one of these pigs has a few spots and one is mostly plain. I noticed it when I drove by the other day and they had been moved to the woods near the road.

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The spotted one reminded me of Chester the Worldly Pig, a fictitious, determined, clever creature created by Bill Peet in 1965 and among my favorite children’s books. Chester resented his lot in life. “Of all things,” grumbled Chester, “why on earth did I have to be a pig?” Does his face look annoyed?

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“But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.” But what? To solve his problem, he did what we all do (or should do) when we have a problem, he thought long and hard about it. He “turned this around and around in his head until one day it came to him: ‘I’ll be a star in the circus!’” Chester perfected his nose stand and waited for the circus train to go by and see him.

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His plan failed because the train passed by with its shades drawn, so he ran down the tracks until he came to the big top, jumped on a post, impressed them all and got himself a job.

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But as you might imagine it didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out. First they put him in with the lions and terrified him, then they dressed him up like a baby so Roscoe the clown could wheel him around in a doll buggy.

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It was beyond humiliating, so he took off first chance he got. A bear thought he’d make a great lunch,

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but then so did a bunch of hobos. That’s Chester in the bag next to Red Beard.

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“I’m the one that caught this pig,” red beard roared above the noise of the train, “so I’m keepin’ him all to myself!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” bellowed black beard. “It’s share and share alike! That’s the rule!”

“And rules is rules,” growled gray beard.

“I’m breakin’ the rules,” roared red, “so what can you do about it?”

Chester barely escaped with his life. He resigned himself to his fate, the “at the first barn lot he came to, he turned in the gate to give himself up, and the farmer greeted the stray pig with open arms.”

 “To the farmer’s delight, after a couple of years Chester ballooned into a huge blimp of a pig; and one morning the happy farmer said, “Today this little pig goes to market.”

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Now if you’re a child looking at this farmer, are you thinking What a nice farmer! or He got himself a lot of free pork! Or Poor pig! Is his face happy in a jovial kind of way or happy in a greedy way or happy in a didn’t-I-get-lucky way? That’s the thing about art, right? Even children’s art. Contrived as the representation is, you are still free to interpret it with your own experiences and biases weighing in. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to. From the beginning, Chester is painted as a survivor. And now we all know what the farmer is going to do.

Or we think we know.

It’s just like when you watch a movie the second or third time and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Once you know the outcome, you wonder how you missed the important clues. It was plain as day even in the first scene, but I missed it, and you probably missed it too.

On that very same morning a carnival van stopped at the farm, and out of the cab stepped a dignified white-whiskered man with a broad-brimmed hat and a fancy frock coat. He had stopped to buy fresh eggs, but when he saw the huge pig he forgot all about the eggs.

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“What will you take for your pig?” he asked. The farmer thought for a minute, then named his price, which was at least twice what he figured the pig was worth. And to the farmer’s surprise, the man didn’t so much as bat an eye; he counted out the money and the deal was closed.

After the pig was loaded aboard and the van drove away, the farmer had himself a good laugh. “So he thinks he’s bought the world’s biggest pig! Why I’ve seen at least a dozen bigger ones at the county fair.” But if the fellow had gone to school long enough to study geography, he’d have known that Chester was much more than just plain big.

Here’s author Bill Peet, who worked as a sketch artist at Disney Studio on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and authored of 35 books, plugging a good education. In the end, Chester’s grit – despite what we all know happens to pigs in this world – led to an ending where everyone wins. The farmer got a good price, the white-whiskered man got “The One and Only Worldly Pig” and Chester got the fame he hoped for.

“Now if you will please move in a little closer,” said the white-whiskered man [to the crowd in the carnival tent], “you will see the entire map of the world imprinted by nature on this remarkable creature’s enormous hide. On his left side, the continents of North and South America, including the land of Australia, which is down under, of course.”

The crowd gasped in amazement, while Chester oinked in surprise. He was as amazed as anyone.

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“But that’s only the half of it,” said the man, turning the pig around on his revolving platform. “On his right side we find Europe, Africa, and Asia, and for good measure, even that tiny island of Borneo. So you see, my friends, this amazing pig is truly one of nature’s wonders…”

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Last week as I passed Tracy’s property and saw her pigs in the woods – and one of them is spotted! – how could I not think of Chester and the good life that some pigs get? There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but many people do what they do in highly admirable ways. Hats off to Tracy! What lucky pigs she has!

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New To Me and Unexpected

No matter how old we are, there is something new around every corner. This is especially true if you are traveling to places that are not so familiar. Delightful discoveries keep things so interesting. They make you see the world differently. They keep you young, reminding you that you have not arrived yet, that there is yet something to learn, to puzzle over, to marvel at, to be astonished about and even in some cases to cringe about (see below!). Let us never lose our sense of Are you kidding me?

In San Francisco, a bird looked dead on the street. I felt a moment of sadness. But as in Berkeley, where I questioned why the cooler-on-wheels was moving along the sidewalk on its own and Drew said nonchalantly Oh, that’s a robot delivering smoothies, I was equally taken aback by this bird on the street as we walked to the Embarcadero Ferry Building.bird from afar sleeping int he road.jpg

It sure looked dead to me. But no, Drew said, it’s just sleeping.

Sleeping? Whoever heard of a bird sleeping in a road? What kind of bird sleeps in a road? This kind apparently. Get a little closer. Is this bird sleeping?

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Doesn’t it know that a road is a bad place to sleep? Didn’t its mother teach it the basics? If you want a long life, stay in high places away from humans and large, fast-moving vehicles. Get close only when you see lots of grass and the humans are tossing food about. Well, I don’t see grass here and no humans are offering food, but something must have clued it in, maybe even the person who then walked close to it, because in the time it took for us to get past, that bird turned around, faced the sidewalk and got out of harm’s way.

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Smart bird? Or dumb bird got lucky?

Approaching the Embarcadero, we encountered a massive polar bear, part of the Salesforce descent upon the city this week. It isn’t every day you see a massive polar bear. There is something both majestic and adorable about polar bears, even when they are fake. You must agree, this is massive.

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It also leans toward adorable rather than majestic, as does the one in a fairly new book called There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins that I discovered at Marie’s house. It has joined my all-time-favorite-kids’-books list. I will show you the pages at the end.

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I am a huge fan of children’s books. The good ones are as good for adults as they are for kids. This one has it all: rhyme, cadence, delightful illustrations, originality, silliness, cleverness (the kind kids show you at the most unexpected times), hilarity and subtle yet powerful parallels to the “real” world, though you have to think about it a little to arrive at these.

It is impossible to be around children, as I am here now in Boise, without discovering something new in something old. Another book on my list, one that has been there for decades, is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Unsurprisingly, someone thought to make it an audio book. That’s all well and good. What would never have occurred to me is using the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the background with bagpipes, and a narrator with an Irish accent! I never thought of that! Mike Mulligan. Irish. Go figure! Ellie loves listening to Mike Mulligan on the way to school. The music meshes with the story perfectly.

If you have a child in your life – your own or a neighbor having a birthday or a niece or nephew – get both of these books and the philharmonic audiobook to go along with Mike Mulligan. You cannot go wrong.

While on the adorable track, I must mention the three-year-olds at soccer practice, another reality of the world that somehow escaped me before now. I am sure I didn’t do any organized sport myself until I was at least nine or so, but these days they have soccer at three. They do in Boise anyway. Ellie loves it. All those cones are for foot control, by the way. You put your foot in the open end and lift it off the ground and hold it up. Who knew?

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This is the same child who loves to wear a paper skirt, by the way.

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Anyway, in case you didn’t know it, soccer for three-year-olds in Boise sometimes involves “making a pizza” on a parachute (after you walk around in circles for a bit to make you hungry enough to eat the pizza),

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the last part of which is kicking the “meatballs” on top of the pizza. What’s your guess? Will these children grow up to love soccer or some other active organized sport? I think so!

Not everything that is new is adorable. Not everything is even pleasant. Whether just contemplating it or actually taking a drink from it (I couldn’t!), this exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco challenges your grossness meter. According to the sign, the standard drinking fountain on the right and the one attached to this toilet (which has never been used as a toilet) are identical. Both clean, both usable, both dispensing fresh water. But who can bring themselves to drink out of the fountain attached to the toilet? “A Sip of Conflict,” they call it. I’ll say!

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I can hardly look at it without cringing, let alone take a drink! So enough of grossness, let’s head back to Boise for something else I did not expect.

Here is a very old tortoise. How do I know he’s old? I have no idea actually. Tortoises are always old, right? This one was at the downtown zoo, active as a sloth, dry as the sand he stands on. Ellie was fascinated with him.

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Why did I not expect a tortoise at the zoo? You expect giraffes, llamas, zebras. But a tortoise? Possibly I am overwhelmed with newness and adorableness all around me (save for above toilet, we can all agree) and I didn’t even have time to have expectations. I just know that this amazing animal took me by surprise.

Lastly (you knew there had to be food somewhere in here), we made a stop this morning at a French bakery in Boise called Janjou Pâtisserie. I know: French bakery in Boise, something else you would not expect. But what was even more unexpected, what was totally new to me, was a spiral croissant with olives and manchego cheese. Oh yum! I have never seen or had olives and cheese in a croissant before, let alone in a croissant of award-winning quality. Who thinks of this? Why didn’t I think of this?!

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I cannot describe this adequately. You will just have to imagine the soft/crisp, buttery/flavorful, done-to-absolute-perfection nature of this pastry. Drool if you have to. I won’t tell.

I would like credit for having restrained myself in this post with regard to the many awesome trees and other plants one finds while traveling. I know I covered the eucalyptus trees in Berkeley and the Boise rose garden recently, but Boise has more awesome flora, and it is with serious effort that I hold back the low-lying spikey things, the weird wisteria, the blob tree – I spare you this time!

But I have to show you the pages of the adorable polar bear and mouse book. Thank you, Ross Collins, for your marvelous book!

Take your time now. Read slowly, deliberately and out loud if you can. Get a good rhythm going. Look at how the illustrations coordinate with the text. Pretend you have a child on your lap… Better yet, pretend you are the child.

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Having Eyes, and Seeing Beauty

In downtown Boise (Idaho) is a lovely rose garden. I explored a small part of it today with my daughter and her two little darlings, and I learned something about myself: I’ve changed. There was a time when I would have said Those are pretty flowers, and left it at that. I did not “have time” for such things. I had other things to do. I had seen pretty flowers before.

No more. I could have spent all afternoon admiring the blooms. There were so many! They were every color imaginable. They were so perfect.

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Clearly someone (or probably a team) spends a lot of time tending them and does it very well. As we approached on this picture-perfect day, I realized this was no ordinary rose garden. There are over 2000 rose bushes in this special place named after Julia Davis, Boise’s “city mother.”

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You can’t rush through a rose garden because roses are such extraordinary flowers up close. In my case, however, you also can’t take too much time when you have a three-year-old with you and another who’s almost one because the zoo is right next to the rose garden, and that is the actual destination – and guess where they would rather go! Roses do not compete with giraffes when you are three, especially since they have a baby giraffe!

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But Marie graciously gave me some time to use my eyes and see the beauty of the roses. It’s impossible to decide which is the prettiest color. I have always loved the yellow ones.

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This one decided to be both pink and yellow.

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Coincidentally, one of the books I brought along to read on this trip is the engaging story of a little girl growing up in pre-WWII Japan (Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a longstanding bestseller describing the early school days of a woman who went on to become one of Japan’s most popular television personalities).

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Beginning when she is about five – having been expelled from her previous school because her intense curiosity was disruptive to other students – Totto-chan attends an extraordinary school led by a schoolmaster who becomes a hero to her. This man listens carefully, allows for individual differences, advocates for the unsung, celebrates a fresh look on almost anything and creates an environment intent on giving every child the best way to grow, to learn, to shine. How ironic that I come to an extraordinary rose garden the very day after reading these words:

“Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.”

I did have eyes and I did see beauty, and for the beauty I saw I am very grateful. But I did not see only beautiful roses in the rose garden. In the middle of the path leading to the gazebo sits this fountain. I don’t like the blue water because it looks artificial to me, but I soon saw past that. Look carefully around the edge and you will see imbedded plaques.

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The etched words were mostly in memory of loved ones, such as this one.

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But this is the one that moved me nearly to tears:

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At first I thought maybe Linda’s Uncle Fred was one of the gardeners, and maybe he was. But it could also be that they strolled this garden together and it was all the better for having done it together. In the end, for these two people, together was best. And I thought: Would the zoo today have been as wonderful if I had not been able to listen to Ellie’s gasp when she saw the lion?

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Would I have enjoyed watching the anteater look for his own lunch in the dirt if we had not been together on benches next to him eating ours?

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Being together today, I stood next to my daughter holding her daughter who’s feeding the llama – most definitely a sight more beautiful than any rose – and the roses are very beautiful! I am so blessed to have eyes to see it all, to enjoy their sweet company, to spend this week together.

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“Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.”

Your Favorite Chair and a Flood of Light

Did you ever notice that you often sit in the same chair when you head to your living room? There are, say, three, maybe four chairs in there, and nine times out of ten you sit in the same one. Maybe ten times out of ten. How about when you go to visit a friend, neighbor or family member? Same thing, right? If given the choice (that is, if it’s an occasion to sit down and someone else didn’t get there before you), you find yourself in the same chair. I do.

For some reason, the right end of my couch is softer than the left. You sink in more, which is not necessarily a good thing unless you are settling in for a good long movie. I am not sure whether it came this way or whether this happened during the first year I had it, when we lived in Maine and spent hours, sometimes entire weekends during the cold and snowy winter, watching consecutive episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I put this on the list of things I will never know). Anyway, the other thing for me is that being right-handed, if I sit on the right side of my couch I have the arm to contend with. I almost always sit on the left.

This is my friend Lisa enjoying a moment with Coco on my couch. Coco does not seem to have a preference as to which end to snuggle down in, as long as it has a pillow. I aim to please, and she has her choice. Or a lap, which is sometimes better.

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I never really thought about this chair business until I read a book that my friend Stephen in Canada recommended. “If you are going to build anything, read A Pattern Language first.” The title confused me, but Stephen is a smart person so I ordered the book sight unseen. It’s written by Christopher Alexander, who, according to author Witold Rybczynski, is “an architectural theorist who has inspired smart-growth advocates, counterculture DIY-ers, and computer programmers.” http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/architecture/2009/12/do_you_see_a_pattern.html

Am I perhaps a counterculture DIY-er? Can’t say I ever defined myself like that, but the book makes a lot of sense to me. It includes – briefly and clearly – hundreds of ideas for designing spaces that are comfortable for people. It talks about light and privacy and community, about the height of the ceiling, the pitch of the roof, the gradience of intimate spaces, and which side of the street you would most likely prefer to live on because of its orientation to the sun. It’s a cross-cultural, cross-economic, brilliant classic. You pick and choose your way through it nonlinearly, ignore the parts that don’t and won’t apply, and marvel at Alexander’s ability to state the obvious about the house and neighborhood you live in and some reasons you like it or don’t but never put your finger on before.

Almost the last chapter is “Different Chairs.”

“People are different sizes. They sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike….

Obviously, the ‘average chair’ is good for some but not for everyone. Short and tall people are likely to be uncomfortable. And although situations are roughly uniform – in a restaurant everyone is eating and in an office everyone is working at a table – even so, there are important distinctions: people sitting for different lengths of time; people sitting back and musing; people sitting aggressively forward in a hot discussion; people sitting formally, waiting for a few minutes. If all the chairs are the same, these differences are repressed.

What is less obvious and perhaps most important of all, is this: we project our moods and personalities into the chairs we sit in. In one mood, a big fat chair is just right; in another mood, a rocking chair; for another, a stiff upright; and yet again, a stool or sofa. And of course, it isn’t only that we like to switch according to our mood; one of them is our favorite chair, the one that makes us the most secure and comfortable; and that again is different for each person. A setting that is full of chairs, all slightly different, immediately creates an atmosphere that supports rich experience; a setting that contains chairs that are all alike puts a subtle straight jacket on experience.

Therefore:

Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth.”

Working with what I have – old red couch and chair, two armed chairs gifted to me, one love seat from when Mom downsized – I have tried to make a space that gives options for people, and I do notice visitors gravitating to one chair or another. I prefer large dogs on the floor; this one, called Coconut, generally respects this rule. At least when I’m around.

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The chapters in Alexander’s book are that succinct and that practical. Naturally, there are many chapters about light: Wings of Light, Tapestry of Light and Dark, Indoor Sunlight, Light on Two Sides of Every Room, Window Place, Filtered Light, Windows Which Open Wide and Pools of Light. Yesterday we did some work to make Samuel’s room brighter and more comfortable. One thing at a time in an old house, and this weekend was his turn.

This is what it looked like before, the darkest room in the house. The single window might be original to the house, built in 1973. We’ve been slowly replacing them all. Moisture gets between the panes over time, clouding up the view, and this one, as you can see, requires a stick to hold it open!

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First the skytube: to bring light from above and to balance the light in the room. There is only one exterior wall, so we can’t have “light on two sides.” But light from above is a darn good substitute for one of the sides.

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Then we made a hole in the wall in to put in new windows. A big enough hole for two windows. They are not in yet; that comes later today. Those plus the sky tube will make a big difference!

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Light is, of course, not the only thing that makes our spaces comfortable. But wherever we spend a lot of time, we want to feel as good as we can feel. The environment of our created spaces plays into that more than we realize sometimes. It’s only one factor of course, but many, many things come together to make our lives wonderfully interesting, comfortable, safe, personalized and unboring. Comfort is one of them.

I don’t know who’s happiest about the new light in Samuel’s room, but I know it’s worth every bit of effort and frustration. See that wire hanging between the studs that had to be moved? By tomorrow that’s long forgotten. Light will flood this room and the peacefulness of the view will both sooth and inspire.

For seven years that room has been too dark. I am so grateful for the change!

 

The First Step is One of Many

It seems like there are all kinds of first steps taking place in my world. Some first steps are literal. My oldest granddaughter and my youngest son both had their orientation for school this week – Rise for kindergarten and Samuel for an intensive online course. Both of them took the first step into a new world that will stretch their minds, their skills and their futures.

Are these the ponytails of a kindergartener or what?

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Some first steps are a long time coming. Yesterday I put eight concrete cinder blocks in place in front of my house. This is when I was partway there, with four in place and four to go.

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See those large planter boxes off to the side? They need to move to make way for the “big dig” coming up soon – excavation work at the front foundation to fix an issue I’ve known about for seven years. By the time all eight blocks were in place, the sun had made shadows across the boxes so you can’t see them as well in the photo below. But they are still there. Soon they will be on the blocks. Here are all eight blocks in place, just waiting.

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Seven years! Ever since I moved into this house, I knew there was something funny about the outside wall as you go down the circular stairs toward the basement. It’s definitely bowed inward. No, I have not been watching too much of Stranger Things, the Netflix series Samuel has me hooked on. Okay, I take that back, I’ve been watching it every night all week. But I do not think a monster will be pushing through it any time soon! The earth though, surely, has been pushing against that outside wall for some time now, about 45 years actually. It’s time to fix it.

Some first steps are unexpected. I wonder if the silkies that laid these first eggs knew what was going to be happening when they sat down that day last week.

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First steps can be exciting. They take you back. Oh, this thing is really happening! Look at that! Even if you are a chicken, first steps mean that a thing that has previously been just a vague unknown is finally a reality.

First steps can be scary. The situations at school that Rise will face will mostly be fun and good, but some will take her into new territory socially, academically, emotionally. She’s ready for it, but we all know how other kids can be. She’ll have her moments. She’ll grow. She’ll get stronger. She’ll face the next day slightly less unsure. Then, hopefully, the next first step will be slightly less scary.

Most first steps are not as freestanding as we think. They might feel like a first step, but there are usually steps toward the first step. There are connecting steps, prior steps, prep work that came before. The first step toward actual walking is actual, confident standing up, the first step toward which was actual, confident sitting up. My grandson Nelson hardly needs a prop anymore and will very soon be off and running.

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My granddaughter Piper is two. She is not a kindergartener yet, but this week she played as if she was going to school with Rise.

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First steps often start with an idea or a hope. We build up to them. A few weeks ago on the way to Vermont I bought a book at the airport. It might have been the first time I ever bought a book at an airport. But I wanted something light and interesting, and found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It got my attention on several points. Isn’t there a guernsey cow? What could that have to do with a literary society? And what could potato peels have to do with a pie?

I finished the book yesterday when I had had enough of digging holes, fetching cinder blocks and hauling them into place, leveling, squaring, backfilling, etc. and needed to sit on the couch for a bit. (Funny how your body tells you That’s enough! You are done for today!) It turns out that the Guernsey is indeed a breed of dairy cattle from the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy (the other major island of which is Jersey, thus Jersey cows are a real thing too – who knew!?). On Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the second world war, was (fictitiously) a literary society. The shortage of food led to making pie crusts with potato peels.

The author notes at the end explain that the book was many years in the making, many years vague, unformed, unsubstantive. The book was in fact a collaboration between a woman and her niece, health issues necessitating the help the younger woman gave toward the finished product. For all of us, every project, every meal, every trip, every class contains many steps, many of which are steps toward the next thing, which can sometimes feel like the first thing.

I remember in my house in Vermont there was a shabby bathroom next to the family room. It was functional when we moved in, but partly unfinished (visible studs even), nowhere close to as nice as I wished it was. For one reason or other, it took five years to get around to redoing that bathroom. I cringed at the bathroom, wished its remodeling came sooner, but it didn’t. And because it didn’t, I had five years to think about it and play with ideas, rejecting some, holding onto others. There’s no doubt in my mind that that bathroom was better in the end because I had five years to think about it.

Reading the notes at the end of the book about Guernsey felt like a step for me toward writing one of the books that have been in my head for many years. I was inspired by the author having made an impulsive decision to visit Guernsey, bought a book at an airport (!) and then (unbeknownst even to her) developed the spark of an idea for her own book over the course of the next few decades. Impulse can be good, books can be good, and letting ideas brew for a time is definitely good.

Hank Browne, who wrote the Ruins in Virginia book I referred to yesterday, was an architect for 50+ years, working often on projects that involved some sort of historic preservation. It was an idea of his for a long time to draw attention to the crumbling ruins he saw here and there. At some point he decided It’s time to make this real. He has already sold hundreds of copies and is working on a book about ruins in Maryland. Hank is 86. My hat is off to him in a very big way!

What’s brewing for you? What new project do you have in mind? What recipe do you want to try for the first time? What trip do you want to take to a place you’ve never seen before except in photos? You know you’ve already taken some of the steps toward making that thing a reality. You’ve thought about it. Maybe you’ve even rejected it. But then you think about it again.

Rise and Samuel and even Piper took important steps this week in their journey of lifelong learning. Nelson is one step closer to walking on his own. The silkies are laying eggs! I took a concrete (using literal concrete) step yesterday toward my big dig project.

Sparks. Brewing. Steps forward. Movement forward. Doing the next thing. Thinking about what that will lead to. Time goes by. More sparks. More brewing. More time. Real steps. “First” steps. Next steps.

I wonder what steps today will bring.

 

Crackers Revisited

Late in the afternoon yesterday I went to visit my friend Hank Browne. First thing (after hello) I said was, “I have a little something for you. These are my homemade cheese crackers,” and I handed him a little baggie full. Never having had these crackers before, he said, “Now why would you make these when you could just buy a box?” I said, “You try them and then talk to me.”

This is the photo of Hank that we used on the end flap of the jacket of his book.* I love the fact that he is actually holding a bagel in this photo but we cropped it out.

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Sometime after I left him with my crackers, I texted him and said, “I need to know what you think of my crackers.” He said simply, “You are my cracker maker.” I think he liked them.

Last week my mom called me to ask for “the cracker recipe.” She did not have to tell me which cracker recipe because only one matters in my world at the moment. There’s a reason you stick with a recipe. It works and it’s wonderful! Imagine sharing /savoring/devouring some of your favorite cheese alongside homemade crackers – these homemade crackers.crazy 2 baked on rack.jpg

These crackers have texture, flavor and the possibility of crazy shapes if you are so inclined. They can take cheddar (Cabot if you please), parmesan, Monterey Jack or just about any hard or semi-hard cheese. I think asiago would be great. Jarlsberg even.

About two years ago I wrote about these same crackers, but at the time I thought it was enough to present the recipe and show what they looked like finished. See how much I’ve learned in two years? Lots of pictures are good! Here we go. Still, we will start with the recipe. It’s from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary cookbook. Back in the day I thought it was very cool that I got one of their first-run, limited-edition 3-ring binders.

All you need on this page is the list of ingredients, but feel free (later) to compare their instructions with mine. I don’t even look at the instructions any more. Oh, wait. Perhaps I had better check!

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That’s right. They wanted you to roll out the dough on a floured surface and then transfer the crackers one by one to the baking pan. I did that for a long time. Terribly time-consuming, and as you might have guessed, I have other things to do. So a few years ago I came up with a waxed paper method I will show you, and just yesterday (lucky you!) I realized an even better way to get the rolled-out dough to the pan. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before!

First, grate your cheese. Use the finest hole of the grater you have. This is mine that I got in IKEA years ago. I like it because 1. It has its own bowl that the cheese falls into and 2. it has a second top with bigger holes that I use at other times for other things. My sister Lynn has the same one and she loves hers too. But my mom never liked hers and gave it away. To each her own.

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Of course if you are using parmesan or romano cheese and it came already grated, you are good to go on that point. I chose cheddar this time because Cabot was on sale this past week and I bought four of the Seriously Sharp bricks, maybe five.

Also, I tripled the recipe because I know how these disappear. If I am going to go through this process and make something that doesn’t go bad in three days (not that they will last three days even tripled!), I might as well make enough to last a while and be able to give some away. You want to share this kind of love.

Put your cheese in a large bowl and mix in the cornmeal. I happened to have yellow cornmeal but you can get white also. The one I had in the house yesterday is also a somewhat coarser texture than I have had in the past, but it doesn’t matter unless you care about them being a finer texture in the end. They are good either way.

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Naturally your cheese is a little moist, so mixing the cornmeal into it first helps keep the cheese from clumping. We don’t want clumps.

Next add the flour. This additionally de-clumps.

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Add the rest of the dry ingredients (i.e. everything else except the eggs, oil and water). Mix in. I did not add the Dijon as suggested in the recipe, but I’m sure it’s good.

The recipe says to mix the eggs, oil and water together separately and then add it to the dry ingredients. You can do this if you want but it works just as well for me to break the eggs right in the bowl and then pour the oil and water in and stir it all up. Two things: 1. If you are worried about shells getting in your crackers (you don’t want shells), break the eggs in a separate small bowl and pour them in, and if you are going to do that, you might as well beat them up right then with the oil and water before adding to the big bowl. I did not worry about shells because my hens are making good strong shells. Your call. 2. I always use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO, as the pros call it).

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This mixture looks so yellow because of the yellow cornmeal as well as the very yellow yolks my hens are making. Yours might not look this yellow.

Here is what they dough looks like with all ingredients mixed together. You don’t want it gooky, but it should hold together. If your dough doesn’t hold together nicely or seems too dry, you can add a little water to it. But don’t make it gooky.

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Now the fun part.

I did the rolling out part three ways. You can choose which way seems best to you.

  1. Between two sheets of waxed paper
  2. On one sheet of waxed paper with flour on top of the dough
  3. Between a sheet of parchment paper and a piece of waxed paper

All of these methods allow you to transfer a full pan’s worth of crackers to the pan all at once. The two-sheets method is what I discovered a few years ago. It has the advantage of being less messy than the old floured-surface method but the bottom sheet can wrinkle a bit. I’ll show you.

Take about as much dough as comfortably fits in your hands mold it to a flat ball or oval and put it on the paper.

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Put the second sheet on top and smoosh it a bit.

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Now use your rolling pin to roll it out. See, no messy floured surface. If you are careful you can re-use the paper for the next ball of dough.

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Keep rolling until your dough is about 1/8-inch thick. Remove the top sheet and flip the whole thing onto your silicone-mat-lined baking sheet. If you don’t have a silicone mat, grease the pan.

The first time I did this, I cut the cracker shapes first, then flipped it. You should not cut on a silicone mat. In the end I found a better way, but this way first.

I removed the top sheet and cut the shapes I wanted. The tool I have is called a Raedle, which is basically a wheel with a zig-zag edge connected to a handle. The one that says Grand.. on it was my grandma’s. It has been used a lot over the years, thus the chipped off name. The other pictured here I found in an antiques shop near me called A&W and had to decide which of my children to give it to. I settled on Samuel because he made these crackers for me some years ago when I was writing my book. Batch after batch sustained me through that project and I’ll never forget his kind service to me. This one is a beauty. If you find one at an antique shop, buy it. If you don’t have one, a pizza cutter works fine.

raedle.jpg

The dough sticks to the paper which makes the flip possible, but do you see how the paper can get a bit wrinkly? This happened as I continued to roll out the dough to the thinness I wanted. It does not affect the crackers, but maybe that bothers you.

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The bottom sheet may wrinkle less if, on top, you use flour instead of another sheet, but either way the wrinkling is not a big deal. Using waxed paper also means you have to be able to flip the paper on to the pan as I will show you. If you are shy of flipping, use the parchment. You can bake right on it. I’ll show you that later.

For now, this is the flipped waxed paper on the pan.

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Little by little I carefully peeled what is now the top paper away.

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There are always a few stragglers that don’t want to stay with their fellows. See that one at the top? Every crowd has a few renegades. Just put them where you want.

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Brush water on the dough before you salt the crackers. I couldn’t find my little brush so I dipped my hands in a little bowl of water and used my fingers to wet the dough – just enough to make the salt stick. Use coarse salt.

salted.jpg

And into a 400-degree oven they go. The original recipe says 375, but 400 works for me. You bake these until they are as dark as you like them. I love them a little darker but was in rather a hurry yesterday so these are not as dark as I would normally make them. Still good though!

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Transfer them to a rack to cool. Try one or two. Stop if you can. Oh yum.

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Now back to the other rolling-out methods. First, one sheet of waxed paper only. Put flour on top, rub your fingers over it to smooth out the flour a bit and then roll the dough out.

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You might need to keep adding a bit of flour until you get to full size and desired thinness.

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This method still requires you to flip the paper onto the pan. I found that cutting the cracker shapes before flipping made it trickier, and I know you should not cut on the silicone mat for fear of damaging it but I decided to take the chance. I flipped the uncut dough, removed the paper, then used the Raedle gently. It’s easier and I managed to not damage my mat, but then I remembered parchment paper. That’s the ticket!

Cut a piece of parchment paper that will fit your pan, roll out the dough either with waxed paper on top or with flour on top. This shows waxed paper on top.

parchment.jpg

Then simply slide this paper onto your pan. No risky flipping. No pre-cutting of shapes. No worry about mat damage.

This is the parchment slid onto my pan, which you can’t see because I cut the paper too big.

parchment ready.jpg

So I trimmed the paper.

parchment cut.jpg

Brilliant. Cut shapes, brush with water, sprinkle salt, and into the oven it goes just like that. Regarding shapes, have at it – standard squares or rectangles, maybe diamonds as you see above, or a little more free form as below. It was fun to make the arc cuts, but in the end the crackers were pretty square anyway. You can use cookie cutters if you want too. Either cut them on your counter and move them (tedious but the most efficient use of the dough) or cut them on the parchment and just leave the in-between parts to eat on the side later.

You don’t have to separate the crackers after cutting but before baking. The baked crackers break apart easily.

I know it’s just as easy to buy a box. But the other night I took the last few of the last batch of these, the ones my mother made last week and gave me, to the airport when I picked up my son Samuel. He polished them off well before we got home, at which time he asked, “Do you have any more crackers?” I knew there were no more of the homemade ones and started showing him his choices, the boxes in the cabinet. He stopped me short. None other would do.

You try them and see if he’s not right.

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*Hank’s book is Vanishing History, Ruins in Virginia, published last year by my little publishing company, Paper Shoe Press. You can find it on amazon!

low res Ruins cover image Browne.jpg