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.

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.

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

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I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

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I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

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An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

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Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

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What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

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But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

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It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

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But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

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And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

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…now had shifted down and curved inward.

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Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

My Wood Stove Reminded Me of Bats in a Cave

Something bad almost happened this past weekend. It didn’t, but it might have. Perhaps an unseen mechanism, a force I cannot put my finger on, came into play, like the one that keeps thousands of bats from bumping into each other in a pitch-black cave. Perhaps the confluence of circumstances simply sum-totaled into not-a-disaster, so instead of the standard butterfly effect, where small, seemingly insignificant things having a surprising effect on a complex system, small, seemingly insignificant things actually saved the day. Perhaps divine intervention, the hand of God, moved the pieces on the playing board.

I’m going with the hand of God, but the bats always intrigued me. My children had a wonderful book called Animals Do the Strangest Things.* It includes the lion who “lets his noble wife do most of the work,” the platypus that may be “left over from a long, long time ago” and the “dear, long-nosed, gentle giant [elephant] one of man’s best friends in the animal world.” In the very short chapter on bats, we read about the squeaking sound bats make and how it “bounces right back” when it hits anything in its way (including other bats), so that he “knows there is something there” and can avoid bumping into it.

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The bats not bumping into each other in the cave always make me think of how many collisions/accidents/mishaps don’t happen, how many we somehow avoid, how much more pain, loss and heartache there could be, but isn’t.

Cottage guests here this past weekend came in separate cars and parked them in the driveway circle in such a way as to block my car and prevent other cars from getting close to my house. I understand. It had been late when they arrived the night before, and they probably didn’t even see that it was a circle. Were I a visitor, I would have parked where they did too. But Lynn and Billy, my sister and her husband, were going to pick up Mom and Jerry on their way here for a visit, and they would need to get close to the house – the less walking across my driveway stones, especially in bad weather, the better.

I needed to go ask my guests to move their cars. You can’t do this too early in the morning on a Saturday. You don’t want to disturb guests. But it was getting on toward 11:00 and I expected Lynn and Billy soon. I did what I had to do. I knocked on the cottage door. One of the lovely women staying here for a girls’ getaway weekend opened the door in a friendly way, invited me in and was completely understanding when I explained my request. She couldn’t have been nicer. I had hardly finished asking when I noticed some of the others gathering their keys to go move cars. All good so far.

That’s when I glanced over at the wood stove. I was actually quite pleased to see live coals through the glass, and remarked happily, “Oh, look, you were able to keep the fire going.” I said this because when one of the women had checked in the day before, she had seemed skeptical about the wood stove and her/their abilities in regard to it. In fact, she had said, “There’s no way we can screw that up, right?” She was by herself at that point, having arrived ahead of her friends.

I had explained its simple operation, in particular the lever that adjusts the amount of air allowed into the inner space. The more air, the hotter it burns, I explained. To the right is more air,

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to the left is less.

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With a bit more instruction and caution, the same instruction and caution I give all my guests during wood stove season, I had left her to it. I tell people what to do, not what not to do. Namely, I have not made a habit of telling them how get a lot of air into the stove and therefore create a super-hot fire. I don’t want anyone making super-hot fires. I don’t want to plant ideas about super-hot fires.

When I glanced over, all I saw was the glow of hot, live coals in the bed of the stove through the blackened glass. I surmised that someone in the group was familiar with wood stoves and had overseen the loading and tending. Many of my guests love the wood stove. For some it’s the highlight of their stay. “I spent hours in front of the fire. It’s so relaxing,” one of them wrote recently. Controlled fire is good, warm, comforting. And clearly, on this cold Saturday morning, it was low and could use more wood.

“While I’m here,” I said after some of them went out to move cars, “how about if I load the stove up again for you?” I saw that the inside supply of wood was also low and I could load that up too.

“That would be great,” she said.

I got an armful of wood from the outside pile, brought it in and filled the stove. I went out again for more, and again for more – filling both the stove and the inside hopper. This took five minutes at most. When I came in with the last armful, I saw a blazing – and I mean blazing – fire going in the stove. The only way for it to get going that well that fast is if the lower ash box door is open, such as in this photo.

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The ash box is useful and necessary, but not for guests. As wood burns, it creates ash that falls through the slits in the bottom of the stove and into a removable box. Every few days, if wood is continually burned in the stove, you need to empty the ashes or they will build up and block the air flow. The door, which has a very tight seal, opens with the wood-handled lever you see in the photo (wood because otherwise it’s too hot to touch). You open it, pull out the ash box, empty it in the garden where the ash helps the next generation of plants, put it back in and close the door up tight. The guest should never have to worry about this bit of maintenance. I had not said anything about opening the ash box door.

You can’t even see this door unless you get down on the floor. You have to know it’s there, and you have to have some experience to know that besides being an ash-collection system, opening it even ever so slightly (and leaving it that way) will result in more air – too much air – getting into the stove and causing the fire to burn very hot. Untended and left open, very quickly there could be a fire in the stovepipe. Or worse.

Thank God they left too many cars in the circle. Thank God I had a reason to go over there and came in when I did. Thank God I glanced over at the stove. They were shortly going to leave to go out wine-tasting at some of the local vineyards and then out to dinner. I closed the door up tight, explained why it needs to be left that way and carried on.

Bad things happen sometimes, it’s true. Sometimes it’s beyond bad – it’s horrible, tragic, devastating. Sometimes it veers into the unthinkable. We all can bring to mind examples of how bad bad can be. On Sunday night we watched another: Loving Pablo, a film about Pablo Escobar’s reign of horror in Columbia in the 1980s. My fire-that-didn’t-happen, even if it had happened, doesn’t even compare. No question though, stress happened and fear of what might have happened happened. Rethinking how to explain the wood stove operation happened. But bad fire did not happen. Thank God.

But tell me what you think: Should I tell my guests about the ash box? Should I tell them what it’s for, what it does and to leave it alone? Should I take the chance that people will do things because you tell them not to, or trust that they will leave alone what you tell them to leave alone, or take the chance that they will not see or open the ash box door (or worse, leave it ajar)? I know there are no guarantees in this world, that accidents happen. We all know you can take every precaution, and accidents will still sometimes happen. No matter what you do, bad things will still sometimes happen. But I do not want to live in fear or be straight-jacketed by it. Humans have been responsibly tending fires for untold numbers of years, and I do not want to get in the way of my guests doing the same and gaining warmth and pleasure from it. The question is: How to present the information.

 

* Animals Do the Strangest Things by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow, illustrations by Michael K. Frith, Scholastic Step-Up Books, Random House, New York, 1964

P.S. She said yes

I did not ask for heavy rain this summer. I did not know that hidden places in the roof above my head had holes. I mean holes. The kind rain gets through. But I did know what I had to do when I saw and heard water dripping into my hallway and through my walls during a recent storm. I had to call a roofing guy, and I had to do it quickly.

Jorge is a busy man, and after I saw him and his team in action, I knew why. They do good work, and fast. In one day I had a new roof. I can rest easy during the next rainfall. But you can’t plan everything, and I could not be choosy about which day Jorge would come. Saturday, he told me, and every other weekend day after that was booked for a long time. I had to have them come Saturday.

The timing seemed really unfortunate. Guests come to Golden Hill, my airbnb cottage, for a lot of reasons. This weekend I was honored to host Luis and Joy. In his introductory email, Luis had told me, “I am looking for a quiet secluded place where I can ask my girlfriend to be my wife. The plan is to ask during a quiet walk with just the three of us in a secluded setting. Me, Joy and our pup Lily.”

Notice he used the words “quiet” and “secluded” twice each. Secluded I’ve got. The house and cottage are at the end of a 900’ driveway near the end of a mile-long country road. It’s the quiet I was worried about. I’ve never had to have my own roof replaced before, but anything outdoors involving a god bit of hammering is going to be loud.

It was a conundrum. Luis and Joy were coming, and he wanted quiet. But there was no getting around it: I had to have a new roof.

I spoke to them about it on Friday evening — it was only fair to warn them — and they told me not to worry. He is in the navy. She lives in Dubai. They have heard noise before. But he asked for quiet so I worried anyway. Jorge and his guys arrived as they had said they would at around 8am on Saturday. I tried to speak to them directly, but I don’t speak Spanish so I had to hope that my nonverbals would speak for me. I think I was clear, I think they understood. Still I fretted. Once the old shingles started landing (loudly) in the truck bed, I knew it was for real and got nervous. As the hammers really got going around 9am and some kind of (loud) machine was turned on, I agonized.

The noise of a new roof going on is worse inside the house. I went outside to transplant one tree and pull a thousand weeds, and it was not as bad. By then, Luis and Joy had gone out for the day and I breathed a bit. But when the tree was in and the weeds were out, it was time to bake. Yes, bake. Nothing says “apology” like something fresh and sweet out of the oven — or at least I hoped! I used my tried-and-true pound cake recipe, added lemon peel and poppy seed, and called it Lemon Poppy Seed Cake. They came back. I wrote a note, put the cake on a pretty plate, put the plate and the note under the clear glass topper on the pedestal cake stand, set it on the side porch and sent a text telling them to look on the side porch. Luis was so understanding. He texted back, “Aww thank you. Things happen and we make the best out of them.”

I felt a little better when I read that, then tremendously better when Jorge and team were packing up. At least the rest of the evening would be quiet, as well as the morning. I woke at 6am on Sunday morning to the sound of crickets and whatever else is out there making nature noises. It was cool and perfect for a walk. As I passed the garden on the way back, I decided to plant some fall seeds as well, and set about it. By then it was daylight.  Lily, the pup, saw me in the garden from her post by the door inside the cottage by about 7 — and barked. I can’t win, I thought! Now I’ve woken the dog!

Of course, I need not have worried so much. Luis came out to begin packing their car and we spoke for a bit. He assured me that Lily did not wake them up and the roofing noise did not bother them. “We were in our own world,” he said. It reminded me of when you see couples who are clearly in love, sitting at a table for two in a busy restaurant . All the commotion around them does not matter a bit. I guess we probably could have also had a back hoe digging or the chainsaw buzzing, and it would have been all the same to Luis and Joy. She said yes (see his note) — and what else matters in the world??

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So why do I worry so much? I know I want things to be perfect, or as close to perfect as I can make them. Surely this is a simple case of, as Luis puts it, “Things happen and we make the best out of them.” The worry comes because of the transition to the plural pronoun that you all undoubtedly noticed in the last few sentences. It’s all well and good that I am doing everything in my power to smooth over the potentially disturbing impact of the noise that these circumstances create and make things as close to perfect as I can make them– what really matters is that we make the best of them. What I cannot control is how, or how well, the next person deals. Luis is a gem. I don’t know if he saw my worries, my intentions, my wish that they had truly had the quiet he wanted. Most likely he simply has a good heart, and this makes him a fantastic son, brother, uncle, and friend and soon will make him a wonderful husband too.

“We make the best of things” depends on good hearts. Several weeks ago a similar situation took place with guests at the hotel. Things did not go well. Mainly, they did not like their room. We moved them into a better room (finagling room assignments we had for other guests at a time when we had a full house), and they still did not like it. We dealt with them as courteously and professionally as humanly possible, but nothing we did mattered. They threatened, they fussed, they twisted the story, and finally they left. No matter how hard we tried — no matter how good the heart behind the action —  the only conclusion we could draw was that some people just want to be miserable. They carry it with them, they inject it into their surroundings, they leave it in their wake. Piercing words, sour expressions, obstinate attitudes — these gave me pause. I needed some time to process the experience. Be honest now: Had I/we worked hard to offer the best possible solution? Had I/we shown empathy, remained calm, spoken kindly, practiced integrity? Being honest now: Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. You can do only your own part.

What a gigantic difference it makes if good hearts on both sides do what good hearts do.

A “recipe” for strawberry jam

In the early homeschooling days, someone gave me a bit of advice that can apply to just about anything we do. Take a few minutes, he said, and write down why you are doing it. Make a list of your reasons. Make sure you think it through and make a good solid list. One of these days you will be tearing your hair out and asking (seriously) What was I thinking??!! (i.e. What was I thinking when I thought this was a good idea!?) Post your list where you can see it (so that you know just where it is!) because on those days when you are tearing your hair out, you need to look at your list and let it do its good work. Let it remind you why you decided to do this, whatever it is. Chances are good that your list will bring you back to a good place.

It seemed like a good idea to me, so I made my list. Its title was something like: Why I choose to home school my children. One of the reasons had to do with joy. I very much wanted to keep the joy in learning. If I can find a way to keep it fun, I thought, keep them engaged in the process, keep them hungry to learn something new — then (the hope is) throughout their lives they will always be excited and happy to learn new things. I was homeschooling because I wanted to make sure that my kids became lifelong learners, and one way to do that was to keep it fun. I suspect that John Holt’s Learning All the Time played into this, but there were other factors. I just didn’t want my kids to ever be bored or uninterested or think they had nothing yet to learn in this life. There is always something to learn in this life. Too many people think learning is over when you finish school. Oh, how much they miss!

Therefore, when I meet someone who is hungry to learn something, to explore something, to be challenged by something, I am both impressed and happy. If that someone wants to learn something from me, I’m over the moon. This is one reason I love Millicent. She has thrilled my heart time and again by saying things like “Next time you make a quiche, can I come and make it with you? … Oh, please teach me how to make pizza — can I just do it with you next time?. … How do you do that? Can you teach me?” Millicent has a nursing degree and a law degree, plays the harp, sings like an angel, and makes me think deeply and laugh out loud in all of our conversations, and she is hungry to learn something new. These days Millicent is learning how to ride a horse. I am sure she is doing it with enthusiasm and joy, and I could not be happier for her.

Last week one of my airbnb cottage guests reminded me of Millicent’s spirit and her joy of learning. It was all about jam, strawberry jam. As the berries came ripe during the month of May, I began to see that there were many of them, more than last year. They were gorgeous and bountiful and delicious. Look how beautiful.

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I learned last year that these garden-grown berries, untouched by anything except sun and rain and the human hand to pick them, are not like the kind you buy in a store. If you have never picked a strawberry off a vine, it may be hard to imagine the very particular sound they make as they pop off the stem that holds them. To me it is downright musical. The flavor sends you to heaven then, far exceeding any berry on a plastic box. Their being untouched also means they do not last days and days. Freeze them or make jam within a day or they will not be the same.

The first batch looks like and feels like a treasure.

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A few days later there were enough to make jam. (The stuff laying on top is rhubarb, yet another taste marvel…)

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My good friend Sandy was game to help me, and together we made a batch, and a week or so later there were this many again, so we made another batch. There might be 15 jars or so total, I didn’t count. But it came out really good.

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At about the same time, my airbnb guests Sara and Scott (of grilled salami fame, two or three posts ago) had invited me to have dinner with them. During my visit with them, they gave me a good sized hunk of some amazing bread they had bought in town, and I took it back to my house later and had some with that lovely strawberry jam on it. Fresh jam on fresh bread — does it get better than this? So I brought them some in a little bowl so they could enjoy it with their own hunk in the morning for breakfast. After they left I found a note in the cottage that told me that had enjoyed it on cheesecake besides. Sara called it incredible. I smiled. That would have been enough for me. They completely endeared themselves to me.

A couple days after they left, I got the following note:

Hi Patricia – Scott and I enjoyed the last of your strawberry jam this morning.  We have been milking it – literally!  Anyhow, we are just getting strawberries in our neck of the woods and I plan on picking at the orchard nearby this coming week.  Would you share your jam recipe?  It was superb and just the perfect amount of sugar.  Hope all is well with you.  We sure do miss the Charlottesville Area.   

Kind regards,  Sara

Not only were they perfect guests who also invited me to dinner. Not only did they call my jam incredible. Now she wants to make her own! I was thrilled — and worried! I admit it, I am not a good recipe-follower, and here she is asking for a recipe! Having made jam in the past, I knew it is a bit involved, and I had no way to know if Sara had any idea what she was getting into. I had no idea if perhaps it was a fluke that mine came out the way it did, seeing as I was not overly precise about amounts and timing and technique. For example, I am not even really sure how much fruit I used. I just cut up what I had and eyeballed it. How could I possibly give her a recipe? I decided to just tell her what I had done as best as I could which doesn’t look like a recipe to me, but the following is what I told her.

You have to really want to make jam to follow the following.

Hi Sara,

I am so thrilled that you liked the jam that much!! We are really enjoying it too  🙂 As far as the recipe, it is going to sound like a crazy amount of sugar, but every recipe uses a lot. I read five or six recipes in my cookbooks and online (since it had been some years since I made jam) to get an idea of the proportions of fruit to sugar, then cut up the fruit (halved or quartered depending on the size of the berry), which (eyeballing the same amount of water in my pot right now) seems to have been about 3 quarts. I then added a 4lb bag of sugar and 4.7oz Ball Real Fruit pectin (1 container of it) and brought it to a hard boil. It develops foam, which you methodically skim off little by little with a long handled spoon. It continues to make more foam. Just continue skimming it off (a relaxing exercise actually, if you can look at it that way). All the recipes I read said it needs to get to 238 degrees F on your candy thermometer, but we boiled the first batch (not the batch you got, but the one we did the week before) for a long time, half an hour I think, and finally decided that my thermometer had to be faulty because it never got above 220. With your batch, I drew the line at 15 mins (the thermometer was still faulty apparently because it did no better), skimming all the time. Good enough, I said, let’s jar it. Before we jarred it, Sandy mashed it with a potato masher, which broke up the fruit a bit more.

In the meantime, you have a big pot going with boiling water (your canning pot), and you sterilize the jars this way. Have you canned before? If you are not familiar with this process and want to bypass it, I think you can freeze jam too. But the canning is easy, and every canning pot comes with instructions. You sterilize the jars, take them out of the water with tongs (carefully), put the hot jam into the hot jars, wipe the top rim of the glass where the lid will meet it, put the lid on, screw the screw cap on (not too tight) and lower them into the water carefully (again with the special tongs) and boil for 7 mins. Remove from the water and set on the counter; wait for the center each lid to pop down as they cool. This assures you of the seal.

Hopefully I have not in any way discouraged you.  I am delighted that anyone would want to make jam! But if you prefer, send me your address and I will simply mail you one of my jars 🙂

The poor young woman, I thought. She has to make sense of that! But if she had thrilled me by asking, she thrilled me more by her response to my “recipe.”

Thank you for this!  I have canned before (not jam- and it’s been a few years) but I am sure I can do this.  Looks like I will be digging out some of my jars this weekend.  And thanks for offering to mail some jam, but I will attempt this work of art.   It is a labor of love and one I can appreciate .  I will let you know how it turns out.
Kind regards,
Sara

Oh, may the joy we have in learning something new never be squashed!

A mermaid story

I’ve been an airbnb host for more than a year and a half. My little Golden Hill cottage is occupied every weekend with guests from here and there. It may not look like it, but the cottage is kind of like a mermaid. And I don’t mean just any mermaid.

You say the word mermaid and many people immediately think Disney. A few might recall The Secret of Roan Inish. Both of those mermaids are a far cry from one particular mermaid who made a great impression on me. Mine doesn’t have a long, sexy fish tail. She doesn’t entice men. But she is set apart from her fellow creatures — she is unusual, nice in her own way, comfortable being who she is. I’m guessing from the story that she’s about five or six years old.

My neighbor Marty gave me this story not long ago. He lives at the next farm. If you don’t turn left onto my driveway, you come straight to his house. There’s a sign at the end of my driveway that clearly says Golden Hill. See?

Golden Hill sign summer 2015

But people go past it sometimes when they are supposed to be coming here. Last week I discovered why. I was coming home from Richmond, and was unfamiliar with the part of the city I was in, so I had used my GPS to guide me out of the city. Once I was on the highway, it stopped talking to me, so I forgot about it. But it didn’t forget about me. As it started guiding me on the last stretch of the way, I decided to let it. I wanted to see what it would say so I would know what my guests experience. Correctly, at the beginning of my road, it told me to go another three-quarters of a mile, which of course I did. Then I saw my Golden Hill sign, but it did not tell me to turn left. Instead, when I turned left (because I know where I live), and went maybe 30 feet more, it said, “In 900 feet, turn around.”

No wonder my guests sometimes drive past my sign. They are listening to a device that is not telling them to turn. Of course they all find the cottage eventually. There isn’t too far to go. They get to Marty’s and figure it out. Once in awhile, he is outside when they drive up. They explain about being lost and what they are looking for. He points them in the right direction, and tells them in his very dry way, which let’s hope most of them see as humorous, “But you don’t want to go there. She’s weird.” He has done this at least twice. He says this to them because I have said to him (one too many times apparently) that I am weird. When they tell me what he said to them, they are laughing. It borders on a please-tell-us-he’s-not-serious kind of laugh. For what it’s worth, Marty is weird too, because who says that to people? But I can’t mind — he’s right.

Some people are weirder than others. For a long time, my measure of weird has been television. I think I’m weird (or weirder than most) because most people have at least one TV and I don’t. At various times I have had one (and even had one for about two years and didn’t know it, but that is another story). Mine shorted out, or something, maybe half a year ago, and stopped turning on. I didn’t replace it yet, though I expect someday I will. There are numerous other reasons why I have considered myself — and to Marty and others, proclaimed myself — to be weird. Examples are not necessary here. Just trust me on this.

Not every neighbor would give you a story to make a point. But Marty did. It spoke to me.

The Mermaid Story      

by Robert Fulghum

            One rainy Sunday afternoon I found myself in charge of 70 or so school age children.  We were in a gymnasium, and I knew that if I didn’t come up with an idea before long – pure chaos would ensue.  At that very moment I remembered a game – an old roll playing game called Wizards, Giants and Goblins.  So I got my charges to calm down (no easy feat, thank you very much), and I explained the rules of the game:

“Now,” I proclaimed, “if you wish to be a Giant, stand at the front of the room.  If you wish to be a Wizard, stand in the middle.  And those who wish to be Goblins stand toward the back.  All right,  let the play begin.”  I allowed the children several minutes to confer in huddled masses until the action resumed.

As I was standing there I felt I tug on my coat.  When I looked down, there was a little girl with blue, questioning eyes.       

  ” ‘Scuse me.”

  “Yes, what is it?”

  “Scuse me, but where do the mermaids stand?”

  “Mermaids? Mermaids?” I sputtered.  “There are no mermaids.”

  “Oh, yes there are.  For you see, I’m a mermaid, and I wish to know where to stand.”

  Now here was a little girl who knew exactly what she was – a mermaid, pure and simple and she wanted to know where to stand.  And, she wouldn’t be satisfied standing on the sidelines watching the others play.  She had her place, and she wanted to know where to stand.

But, where do the mermaids stand? – all those children we try to mold and form to fit into our boxes.

Sometimes, I have moments of inspiration.  I looked down at that child, and I held her hand -“Why the mermaid shall stand next to The King of the Sea.” (Yeah, King of the Fools would be more likely.)

  So, we stood together – the mermaid and the King of the Sea – as the Wizards, Giants and Goblins roiled by in grand procession.  It isn’t true, by the way, what they say about mermaids not existing.  I know they do for I’ve held one’s hand.

Now I may have a soft spot for little girls, but no way is this one weird. She’s just different, and knows it, and is happy with it. She doesn’t try to be something she’s not. No molds for her, no boxes, no convention. All she needs to know is where to stand. If Robert Fulghum’s story is nonfiction, then somewhere in the world there is a five-year-old who helped me know that where I was standing, apart from the rest in numerous ways, was really ok. And not only ok, but good. She gave me a new perspective on something that had nagged me for years. I still call myself weird sometimes, but now I mean it more in the sense of unconventional, which is probably the same thing but somehow more palatable. As never before, I am ok with being unconventional. The beaten track isn’t for everyone.

The cottage that Bradley built is one of a kind. Search the world over and you will not find another. You might find a cottage with a wood stove and a deck facing the mountains and a 12/12 pitched roof, but will it have custom cherry windows and coffered ceilings? You might find a cottage in the country where there are 15 chickens, but do six of them lay greenish eggs? You might find a cottage that has a big garden with deer fencing all around because of the many deer that live in the woods, but is one of those deer white?  The Charming Cottage at Golden Hill is set apart from all other cottages, from all other lodgings, just like that little girl who fancies herself a mermaid — it’s unusual, comfortable, nice in its own way. 

And I get to share it. I get to be part of a movement that celebrates uniqueness. We all have a general sense of what goes into a good, comfortable, safe night’s sleep, but I get to interpret that in my own unique way and be a host in my own unique way. Because Brad and Beth built this amazing little house, I get to be part of a wave that says: Take the road less traveled. I’d say they are part of the wave too.

Take a good look at the people around you, and you will see some similarities. We all eat, sleep, breathe, void, move, and wear clothes in public. Keep going with this list. What else do we have in common? You may be able to generate an extensive list, but I am hard pressed. We certainly don’t all eat the same things, like the same music, use the same vocabulary, prefer the same activities, travel to the same destinations. Not everyone cares for dogs or cats (or snakes or ferrets or turtles or fish or parakeets) in their homes, but some people would be lost without their pet. Some people look forward, some look back, some mainly live in today. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. And some like it hot.

My cottage is in the country. What do you see when you look out of those custom windows along  the back wall? This is what you see:

trees.jpg

Trees. You see trees and more trees. Some sky as well. A range of foothills in the wintertime when all those trees have lost their leaves (which you cannot see in the photo but is there, I promise). You will not see buildings. Ugh to all that nature, I am sure some say when they look at the listing. Not everyone likes green. Some really do prefer concrete (my brother-in-law Fred comes to mind). Also, there are steep stairs that lead to the main bed in the cottage. Some people don’t want stairs of any kind. I have a drip coffee maker and a french press. Maybe Keurig is your thing — or maybe you don’t even know what a french press or a Keurig is, and all you want is a cup of coffee, for crying out loud! Why do there have to be so many choices!??!

There have to be so many choices because we are all so different. We don’t get everything — in general or when we travel — but we make choices and align our have-to-have’s and wish-to-have’s to come as close to (what for us is) perfection as possible. We continually juggle reality with desire and try to get the weekend or the vacation just right. And what makes anything perfect for you is different than what makes it perfect for me. This is why I think airbnb is enjoying tremendous success, and why it is so cool to be a part of it. The options are practically unlimited — size, location, decoration, ambiance, amenities, price, etc. Bungalows, cottages, condos, yurts, mansions, apartments, etc. Take your pick.

I love that there are lots and lots of choices. My little cottage is not for everybody, and that’s ok. Like me, it’s unconventional in various ways. Like me, it doesn’t have to fit a mold. I am glad it doesn’t. I’m glad I don’t. Granted, not fitting a mold is a pain at times, and you are misunderstood at times, but overall (and I can hardly believe I’m saying this after struggling so long about it), unconventionality is an asset. The success of this cottage, I am convinced, is at least in part because there is nothing else like it. The little mermaid of this story tells me to celebrate my unconventionality and I can choose to make the most of it. And the success of Golden Hill shouts loud and clear: Don’t be afraid to be unusual, nice in your own way, comfortable being who you are. Pick your passion and run with it. Nobody else can do what you can do the way you can do it. 

A white deer and grilled salami

The gravel road I live on is about a mile long and my property is almost to the end. It’s a private road, privately maintained, and maxed out as far as the number of residences, which is under ten. Some parts of the road are narrow, so narrow that if someone else is driving toward you from the opposite direction, one of you has to move over up onto the grassy side areas, or back up if the side areas are too steep. This is not a lot of fun when it is late at night because of course there are no streetlights, but with so few vehicles on the road, it seldom happens. More constant an issue is the condition of the surface, which, being gravel, is irregular to say the least, and more so after all the rain we have had of late. Let’s just say you do not break any speed records on this road.

Being near the end of a gravel road and having to drive slowly has its advantages. For one thing, it allows me to both ease into and ease out of my day. I can’t tear out of here, nor can I zip back in. In much the same way as we are all given 24 hours in a day and no more and no less, I have been given the physical constraint of this road for the first or last mile of every trip I make, and am forced to accept its reality. As with the 24 hours, after a while you don’t really think about it. As my mother says, it is what it is!

Slowing down also means you see things you might not otherwise. About a year ago, on my way to work as I slowly drove down my road,  a patch of while caught my eye off to the left about 20 yards away. Sure enough, it was the white deer my neighbors had talked about.

white deer (2)

You are never really sure if people are pulling your leg or not when they tell you about rare animals they have seen in the wild. I know rare animals exist, and zoos get them sometimes. In the zoo in Nuernberg I saw a white crocodile many years ago, and I can believe that someone trapped it and gifted it to the zoo. But a white deer in my own neck of the woods?

There it was. I drive a Prius, very quiet in its electric (slow) mode. I came to a stop, let the window down and aimed my very handy phone camera at the magnificent creature. My vision is not superb, but I saw him more clearly than he appears in this photo. I assure you — that is a white deer!

A few days later when I was with some friends playing tennis, I showed off my photo. We all have stories to tell, and I had a new one. Look what I saw! Pat, one of the wonderful women I play with, asked me to send it to her, and when we played the following week, she handed me printouts she had had made of the deer photo in various sizes. That was so nice of her! I took one and put it in the notebook that sits on the coffee table in the cottage for my airbnb guests. Usually, since there are important things to cover during the intro when they first arrive, and I don’t want to keep people too long, I don’t mention it. Sometimes though, if they start talking about wildlife, or if they have children who seem like the  kind who would want to know, I tell them that if they get really lucky they will see the white deer as I once did, and I tell them about the photo in the book.

In my area there are a lot of hunters. A good bit of the land around me is posted No Trespassing / No Hunting, but even more is not. I was so glad to have seen the rare deer when I did because I thought there was a better chance that I, who do not buy lottery tickets, would win the lottery than that this trophy deer would live through hunting season. Nonetheless I told my guests about it sometimes. One can hope. And sometimes, I guess, they found the photo in the book and imagined that it must have been taken in these woods. Very occasionally, as I drive slowly past the spot where I saw her, I wonder whatever happened…

This winter I was not as active as I should have been, so recently I decided to walk more. Each day lately I have been walking on my road. To the end and back is not an overly impressive distance, but it’s something, and I don’t feel so much like a slug soon to turn into a whale if I don’t get moving. Tonight after work I walked. Bridget, my old dog, did not like the idea much, but she came along. I did not see the deer. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps thinking about how long it has been since I saw it brings too sad an image of a mounted trophy head to my mind, and I prefer not to go to that sad place, so I effectively keep it pushed away most of the time.

I came home, collected eggs (nine today), and watered the newly planted cabbage, cuke, eggplant, basil, tomato and pepper plants, the not-yet-emerged carrots and onions, the thriving spinach, lettuce, beets and snow peas, and ate the first snow peas off the vine! On my way back to my house, my wonderful cottage guests, Sara and Scott, came out to say hello. We had very pleasant conversation about their dinner on the terrace overlooking the golf course at Keswick Hall last night (yes, they loved the parmesan truffle fries!), and about their day exploring Monticello and its walking paths. Then Scott said, “Oh, we have to tell you — we saw the white deer!!”

They saw the white deer? Yes! Coming back toward the cottage this very afternoon, there she was — running as only a deer can run, not posing as she did for me. They did not get a photo, but they had seen it in the notebook on the coffee table, and wondered. What a gift to them this creature gave! During their first airbnb experience, on a little getaway to celebrate their anniversary, they saw a white deer no less! The image of her extraordinary whiteness, of her graceful stride, of their incredible luck at having been in the right place at the right time to see her even for a few moments — this all will stay with them in a way no photo can. (Also think of the deer’s incredible luck at having evaded hunters for yet another year!)  I am delighted to have been a small part of their amazing experience. Once again, I get back more than I give.

And then some. “Please, have some dinner with us,” Sara graciously offered. They were grilling burgers and salami. Wait… grilling salami? I work at a five-star hotel where they do all sorts of things with food that I have never heard of. I’m half Italian and probably ate salami before I knew how to say it. But I had never had it grilled. You have to try this! It just might be my new favorite! Two slices at a time, Scott says (it’s a little thicker that way). In a cast iron pan works just as well, Sara adds. It was Sara’s idea to begin with, Scott admits. Sara smiles. They put it on their cheeseburgers all the time now. Brilliant, really brilliant.

I had a full day at work starting at 6am today. I took this photo of the fallen rose petals carpeting the walkway of the pergola by the horizon pool at about 615.

May 31 2016 pergola rose petals.jpg

I filled in for the restaurant manager and oversaw a busy breakfast. I worked with Susan and Ashley to edit the member event calendar. I began preparing the schedule for an important training event coming up. I answered mail, interacted with vendors, attended meetings, got home around 530. I thought it was a pretty full day. Then the walk, the eggs, the garden. I did not expect the white deer besides. I did not expect grilled salami! You never know what you are going to come home to. Thank you, Sara and Scott!

Potato and onion

Tonight my airbnb guest delighted me. She surprised and delighted me. I am surprised at myself for being so delighted. And then I’m not. It’s perfectly reasonable that I should be delighted, I say to myself. It isn’t every day — in fact it has never happened before — that a guest asks for potato and onion.

That’s right. She asked for potato and onion. They were out to dinner. I got a text. “Keswick Hall is beautiful,” Erika wrote. “Thanks for the recommendation … one question, do you happen to have a potato and onion? Or is there a little grocery store nearby that will be open after dinner?” I had sent them to Keswick Hall because you can bring your dog to dinner there (in the part of the hotel they call Villa Crawford), and these guests have a little dog. They seemed quite attached to their dog, Chuleta is her name, plus the Villa has amazing parmesan truffle fries, and it is worth the trip just for that. I was watching a movie when the text came in, and I did not look at it right away. It was a good movie. Then I had to get up anyway, so I paused the movie and looked at the message. Do you happen to have a potato and onion?

Perhaps I should explain two things.

One: Assuming I have chickens (which I didn’t for a while last summer, so this is not to be taken for granted), there will always be eggs waiting in the fridge for my guests. I have also taken to leaving a stick of butter because an egg fried in butter with a little salt and pepper is pretty close to perfection in food as far as I’m concerned, though I know some people prefer olive oil, and to each his own. This is available as well, standing where a bottle of olive oil should stand, just behind one of the gas burners, ready should you need it.

When these guests arrived this afternoon, I explained about the wifi and the stairs and the eggs in the fridge. In response to my eggs statement, Alex said, “Is there oil?” I smiled, feeling my heart soften (he’s planning breakfast, I said to myself, I like these people). Why, you may ask, is it significant that they are planning breakfast? Why does that matter? What does it say about them? It says they cook. Not everyone does. Many cannot. Or don’t have time. Or cannot be bothered. These people would take time to make their own breakfast.

Alex kept going. “I’m excited about your eggs. I guess they are really fresh.” Oh, such welcome words. “You can’t find fresher,” I say. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” Then I said the rest of what I ordinarily say about letting me know if you forgot anything or if you need anything and to have a nice night and enjoy yourselves. And off they went to dinner.

Two: It is a rare day under the sun that there are no potatoes or onions in my pantry. Anyone who knows me will verify this truth. I keep them in baskets so they can get air. I use them frequently. I love them. I cook them in numerous ways, but most often I slice up an onion, saute it in olive oil, and add thinly sliced potatoes (skins on) and salt and pepper. The onion gets soft and sweet and a little brown as the flame does its work, and the potato crisps up just a bit as it, too, softens to peak doneness. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, this works for me. Simple and delicious.

Now you see why I am delighted. This man is not only going to cook eggs for breakfast, he is going to fry up potatoes and onion as well. Who does this?

When guests come, when you first meet them, you don’t know what’s coming. You can get an inkling, and you may or may not be right. I had a good feeling about Alex and Erika and Valerie when Alex asked about the oil. Now I will never forget them.

I know it’s not usual for someone to get excited about potatoes and onion. I know I am unusual in that way, and perhaps I will talk about my unusualness another time. Tonight I’m just smiling. Oil. Potato. Onion. And more.

Truly it’s a magical night. In the distance, I hear fireworks – must be a wedding at Keswick Hall. All by itself, that would add to the potatoes and onion delight. But as I write tonight, I am facing the new windows Bradley put in for me a month or so ago. It’s May, one year since another very special guest left me a note saying he had woken to a ballet of fireflies, and he had never seen real fireflies before. I wrote about this in my ‘People love surprises’ post. A year ago, I had questioned and then dismissed whether or not those were really fireflies, as I myself had been used to seeing them in August but not in May. But if he says he saw fireflies, he saw fireflies, and far be it from me to question that. Tonight, guess what is dancing on my windowpane. — fireflies

How can it be? In one night: Oil. Potato. Onion. Fireworks. Fireflies! 

People love surprises

On the other hand (and there is always another hand), some surprises are good and should be reserved for the wow-factor. This is another way of saying Never underestimate the power of magic. In the spring of 2015 a special guest, a delightful man named Rick, came to Golden Hill because he needed a place to stay one night. Rick is an established, accomplished, highly regarded trainer in the high-end hospitality industry. I admit I was a little nervous and that I probably (ok, definitely) paid even more attention than usual to the way I prepared the cottage for him.

When he arrived, I gave him the brief (but hopefully thorough) orientation that I usually give, then said good night. It had been a long day. I knew I would not see him again until he might return to Virginia another time in the future, as he was leaving by taxi for the airport somewhere around 4 a.m. Any feedback I would get, if he chose to leave it, would be in written form. Sure enough, a note waited for me (on his personalized note card, no less!), propped up on a little toy dog he also left behind. He did not note, as many do, Bradley’s fabulous job on the cottage itself, or the peacefulness of the wooded setting, its proximity to local venues, the chickens, the garden, the architecture. Instead, he wrote:  

In the middle of the night, I awoke to a ballet of light. Four fireflies were shining bright, darting back and forth. It was a magic and wondrous moment. I’ve never seen real fireflies before. Your Golden Hill is enchanting on so many levels. Thank you for opening up your home to me!

Did I plan the fireflies? Would that I could. Do I even think they were fireflies? It was May in Virginia — one has reason to doubt. Does it matter if I planned this light show or that whatever he saw could be verified? Not in the least. If he says he saw fireflies and was enchanted by them, I will just smile and think (and probably say out loud, even to myself): How delightful!

Some things we can’t explain. They strike a chord within us deeply and move us to a sense of wonder and thrill. That thrill is compounded by the understanding that we — we who also deal with much that is not so wondrous in this life — get to experience a truly striking moment, a moment unlike any other, a moment with some confluence of factors that create a unique image that may forever be part of the memory bank we hold dear. We have the honor and privilege of being in that place at that time with these various pieces all coming together for this one amazing experience. These are the you-can’t-believe-what-happened-at-that-very-moment images, and they are special not only because we did not plan them, but also because they are so amazing.

Is it any wonder that the value of experience is gaining ground compared to the value of goods? We see it in gift-giving as well — instead of buying a tangible item, people are buying someone a dinner, an overnight stay, a horseback ride through vineyards, a day pass at the local resort or theme park, even an ice cream cone. Tangible items are still very nice, and it is hard to imagine the day when a lovely bouquet of flowers or exceptional piece of artwork or a soft or sparkly anything will not be gratefully received (I, for one, am happy to accept any of the above). Needless to say, the flowers could have been gathered roadside, the artwork drawn by a precious grandchild and the soft or sparkly anything coming from commonplace sources. Certainly monetary value is far less important than the heart from which the gift comes. But sooner or later, “stuff” needs to find a tangible place to be displayed or stored. Experiences create memories, intangible images, moments in time, and in the end, though images of them may be stored on the memory cards in our phones and cameras, they live in our minds, not on a shelf.

Within the experience, there is all manner of room for surprises — even when the basic elements are known ahead of time. Those of us who create experiences do so using what we have to work with, in my case a sweet cottage, a peaceful and outdoorsy setting, a warm welcome, fresh cookies, a handwritten note. There is a  downside when guests mention these things in reviews. Part of me wishes the cookies and notes and ambiance could be surprises for everyone; I hope they are never expectations. On the other hand, guests can read as much as they want about a place and hosts can prepare every detail prior to arrival, but until you are there for real, written descriptions and photos are merely representations on a screen. Words and images are hard pressed to stand in for the majesty of the tall trees towering and perhaps swaying above, the sound of clucking hens or rustling leaves in the background and the taste of fresh strawberries out of my garden if you are lucky enough to be here in late May/early June!

Even if you know something is coming, the real thing eclipses the representation any day. Speaking of eclipses, if you are expecting one because you read about it or someone told you it was coming, and you stepped outside and looked up into the sky at the very moment when the eclipse was taking place and there was no cloud cover so you could actually see it, you are bound to be awestruck. Such a phenomenal sight very well may live in your memory forever. But if you somehow missed all the memos and randomly walked outside on that very clear night and happened to look up, imagine your reaction. You can research all you want. Prepare all you want. Surprises have a mind of their own.

And I like to allow for that. You may have noticed that there are a lot of windows on the back wall of the cottage. Here’s what it looks like from the back (thanks, again, Rob).

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In the wintertime, from inside the cozy space, you can see the full range of the Southwest Mountains. It’s pretty much an entire wall of windows. Amazing. This photo gives you some idea of that view.

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Every one of the windows was custom made by Bradley, by the way – did I mention that earlier? With such a phenomenal asset as this, you might think I’d want to showcase it on the web site. Unlike the stairs, however, which would be a bad surprise if guests did not know about them ahead of time, I chose not to include any images of the back wall. I think it better to save some good surprises for the moment of arrival. People walk in and invariably utter some form of Wow… as they take it in. If they arrive after dark, I know that the wow moment will happen in the morning, and will be equally impressive. Some things are best in real time, and you have to let them present themselves in their own glory.

The very nature of a surprise means that you cannot predict what or when or how it might strike your guests. You can lament the rain that came over their very special weekend and come to find out that their favorite part was listening to what soft rain sounds like when it falls on a metal roof. You can put three teddy bears on the bed, thinking their little children will snuggle with them, and instead the girl finds the one you forgot you put upstairs on a shelf. This happened.

A family with two sons and one daughter came. I did put the three teddy bears on the bed. I also placed the toy chicken coop that Beth made with its two stuffed chickens and its straw and wooden eggs where the children would be sure to find it. But I forgot about the bear on the shelf upstairs who now, thanks to Brianna, has a name: Mrs. Teaberry. The handwritten note this little girl left behind is among those I cherish.

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When surprises are in the picture, there are often multiple surprises going on. The fireflies surprised Rick, but then he surprised me with his description of the experience and left a stuffed toy behind! The upstairs bear surprised Brianna, but she surprised me with her sweet note.

As a host, I must say that one of the nicest surprises is to find a handwritten note in the cottage after guests have left. Some people even send them in the mail after they get back home. I am among those who think that a handwritten, personalized note is among the simple delights of this world. The uniqueness of the handwriting reflects the human hand that wrote it. The paper has its own character too — you can’t imagine how many people seemingly brought note cards with them in order to leave a note. Such lovely designs, and the paper itself by its weight and color and texture speaks to the individual who chose it. Then there is the text, every word chosen, whether carefully or quickly, comprises a different and equally touching message every single time.

I keep these handwritten notes in a notebook on the coffee table. Recently, Keith and Anna, on their honeymoon at the cottage, said to me that they had been looking through it and realized by reading the notes that some friends of theirs had stayed at the cottage as well.

“Yes, Adam and Allie were here. I’d know Allie’s handwriting anywhere,” Anna said.

“You know Adam?” I said. “What a coincidence! Adam and Lincoln went to school together at the University of Richmond.”

“Adam and Allie were at our wedding! You’re Lincoln’s mom?!” Surprise!

See? People love surprises! I love surprises! Not long ago Daniel and Mattie came to stay, a delightful couple. Daniel admired Bradley’s woodwork, so I asked him if he too were a woodworker. “No,” he said, “I’m an artist.” I did not pursue that topic, though now I wish I had. Imagine my surprise when I came into the cottage in the afternoon after they left, and I found that Daniel had taken the time to draw the cottage and left it as a thank you to me. Trust me, this drawing could not be more perfect. He even put his own dog (Cali) and his truck in the drawing. Thank you, Daniel!

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