ALL IN THE TIMING or I LEFT MY LIST AT HOME

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Winter

I have always felt slightly out of step with the rest of America in terms of timing. I graduated from college in 1980 and those of you who are old enough to remember would be hard pressed to find a worse period to enter the modern job market until 2008. After college I worked weekends for a wedding caterer, and I finally received two full time job offers after an extensive search. One was organizing greeting cards in a local pharmacy, which I didn’t take, and the second was working for B. Dalton Bookseller. The greeting card job paid a dollar more an hour but I thought a job in a book shop offered me more prestige. After all, I was a college graduate and I had my standards. I earned $2.90 an hour and after taxes I cleared a little under four hundred dollars a month. My rent was $105.00 a month and I didn’t own a car, so I got by. By 1984, Reaganomics hadn’t trickled down to me yet so I headed back to school to get an art degree- something that would really secure my future.  I mention all this because some of it was timing and some of it was choice, like most things in life. The trick is to make astute choices when the timing is all off.

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Early Spring

Last week I was working out on the elliptical at the gym and listening to music on my phone. HGTV was on the television above me and the dialogue was in closed caption so I inadvertently followed along. The couple on the screen were searching for a first house. The agent brought them to six different houses and inside each one they looked for their list of “must haves.” For example, they wanted four bedrooms even though they were childless.

“We need room to grow,” the wife cooed with a smile.

“I need a two car garage,” the husband stated emphatically, as if he couldn’t even consider a house with a single garage.

They wanted a great room, space to entertain, modern kitchen and baths, a master bedroom and a big yard for a dog that they did not yet own. At one point they saw a house with a fenced in yard and the woman said, “We can get the dog right away if we choose this house.”

“Two dogs,” the man said.

The words “laughter” flashed on the screen and the couple and agent all looked happy.

They considered the street, the schools, the walking environment, the potential neighbors and above all the resell potential. I was blown away. When did this culture of home shoppers emerge, or were they always around but this show brought them into focus? According to Wikipedia, as of August 2013 approximately 98,229,000 American households (86.01% of households with television) receive HGTV. To the remaining 14% of television households, that stands for Home and Garden Television. I am one of the 14%. This is important for no other reason than that I always get the feeling there’s something I don’t know about.

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Summer

In 2000, when we started to search for our first home, once again the timing couldn’t be worse. It was the top of the market and the inventory was slim to none. We waited in a line to see a beat-up colonial in White Plains that needed to be gutted. We contemplated a small house in West Harrison with a cracked foundation and dead rodents in the sink. Some friends in a similar situation moved in with parents and started to stash cash for a better day. Bidding wars and a total lack of know-how sent us to the back of the pack. I saw a small ad in the Penny Saver with the heading: “The Loon Calls. Pull your canoe up to your very own dock.” I dialed the number. I still remember the first time we drove into the Putnam County lake community following the agent in her car

“This is nuts,” I said. “I’m never going to move here. This is a waste of time.”

I saw a man who resembled a member of ZZ Top work on his monster truck next to a yard filled with rusty junk. When we pulled into the garage-less driveway I begged Rob to keep driving.

He sighed. “She’s waiting for us and this was your big idea. We’ll look and leave. Because in the end it’s all information.” Rob often gets the big picture when I don’t or can’t.

We stepped through the front door. There was little to no entryway and we stared at a living room you practically fell into.  The next stop was a child’s bedroom. The walls were covered in fake vinyl wood paneling that had been painted poison green and caulked together with silicon gel. The bath next to that had border wall paper that was peeling off and revealing mold. We walked through to the back of the house and found two picture windows looking out on a wooded lot and a lake beyond the yard. The kitchen had a large island built up against one of the picture windows and the dining room off of it was narrow and small. We didn’t see all the work involved we only saw the lake.

Besides a kitchen and bathroom and at least three bedrooms for our family of four we never had a list. I feel like if we had we wouldn’t have bought this place.

The couple on the show had found their dream home without any compromises and paid the same amount we paid back in 2000. All because they had a “must have” list or because the timing was right or both. True, they lived in South Carolina but you can’t have everything.

I often think back to that day in late May when we walked through the house that is now our home and out onto the lower deck. A warm breeze was blowing through the trees and warming our skin. The lake was glistening below. Our daughter was swinging on a tire swing and our son was lying face down on the dock trying to fish a snail shell out of the water. Rob and I caught each other’s eye and in that instant I now know having a list wouldn’t have mattered.

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Fall

SAMUEL T. CATT: RESIDENT

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A few years after we moved into our lake house a cat showed up. He sat on the front steps and stared into our living room window. It was only later that we realized it was providence.

“That’s Sweetie,” Rob said. “She lives across the street.”

The neighbors were selling their house and after they had loaded up a moving van and were about to depart we went running over.

“Wait! Don’t forget Sweetie,” we exclaimed, holding the cat under the front paws as the rear legs dangled down.

“That’s not Sweetie,” the neighbor said, lifting up a different cat before our eyes. “This is Sweetie.”

Perplexed we dropped the cat and asked, “Then whose cat is this one?”

“Yours,” she said, as the van drove out of sight.

We walked back across the street and cat that wasn’t Sweetie was already sitting outside our front door by the time we reached it.

“Well at least nobody fed the cat,” Rob said.

Our son Jackson looked upward and shrugged. “Does a little tuna count?”

It felt like we were in the middle of a Leave it to Beaver episode.

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Cat out of the Bag

Our daughter Quinn told us the cat was named Sammy which was later changed to Samuel T. Catt: Resident.

“How do you know his name is Sammy?” I asked.

“He told me,” she said.

That was late summer and Rob began a battle of wits with the cat. It was clear that Sammy had no immediate plans to leave town. Each time the door opened he made a move to get inside and Rob pushed him back with his foot or a broom. The cat was undeterred. We started to trick the cat and run around the house to another door. He ran faster than us.

“No cat!” Rob yelled. “I’m allergic for God’s sake. We need to call the dog catcher.” He announced to anyone who would listen.

“It’s a cat.”

“Dog catchers catch cats.”

In truth they don’t. You have to call Just Strays and then they show up and catch the cat, spay them and then return them back to you. They don’t want them. Their mission is to reduce the population of feral cats. Additionally they ask you for a donation to cover the costs. Sammy wasn’t feral, he had a collar, seemed to like people and had a tattoo inside his left ear. When we researched the tattoo number with the cat registry it came up blank. His previous owners couldn’t have been too bright, they tortured the cat with a tattoo and then didn’t bother to list his number.

“Maybe he ran away from his owners because he’s still mad about the tattoo.” I suggested.

Rob took Sam’s photograph and we posted ‘Found Cat’ signs around town but nobody called. When we sat on the deck he sat with us. When we went to get the mail he went too. When we walked down to the dock he came along and watched us swim. When we pulled into the driveway he was sitting on the stone wall, waiting.

Finally it was decided that Sammy would be our outdoor pet and we took him to the vet and bought a plastic cat house for him to winter in. I laid towels down on the floor of the hut and put a water dish inside. Sammy never considered the hut but sat on the opposite side of the glass sliding door and stared into the kitchen and watched us. Even in the rain Sammy waited. He had a sad pathetic look that made the kids and I melt. This was sort of remarkable considering that I have never liked cats. Rob’s sister had five outdoor cats at one time and there’s a classic image Rob snapped of his father teaching us how to handle cats. I should have felt sorry for them but I didn’t. Sammy seemed different. When the temperature dropped I convinced Rob to let Sammy move into the basement.

“I wash my hands of this,” Rob shouted. “This is all on you and it better only be the basement.” The basement rule lasted one day before Sammy had the run of the first floor.

“That cat is not allowed in the bedrooms!” Rob shrieked.

“I agree,” I said and informed Jack and Quinn of the cat house rules. Cat house rules was an apt term for a cat that ruled the house. He spent parts of each day inside the kid’s bedrooms.

“If that cat so much as puts one paw on the stairs up to our room I cannot be held responsible for my actions,” Rob proclaimed.

“Noted,” I said.

Of course you know the rest of the story. Samuel T. Catt not only went up to the second floor but liked Rob best of all because he slept on his chest. It was as if Sam knew just the person he needed to win over, he was that smart. Rob and Sammy entered into a mutual admiration society. Rob trolled shops  for cat trinkets that resembled Sammy from refrigerator magnets to door stoppers and bought numerous cat toys that entertained him for less than a day. Because Sam still spent long portions of each day outside, Rob installed a cat door that only Sam could open with a magnetic key that hung from his neck so he was never left out in the cold again even when we were on vacation. Sam reciprocated by bringing in an assortment of small animals dead and alive as gifts. Rob had the job of removing all the animals as the rest of us ran to high ground screaming. He gave us a snake, numerous mice, birds that played dead and then came to life as Rob went to pick them up and they started to fly. One morning on my way to work Rob called me panicked.

“I can’t leave! Sammy brought a chipmunk in and its running around the living room.”

“Chipmunks are so cute,” I said thoughtlessly on the other end of the line.

“Not when their in the house!” he screamed.

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Sammy under the tree

After an hour long battle with the chipmunk Rob took the cat’s key away. It felt a lot like grounding a teenage child from driving the family car. Sam could let himself out but not in. We forced him to sit outside the kitchen door and wait to be let inside, always checking to be sure he wasn’t bearing gifts. If we knew it was going to rain we called his name and he came running. The benefit of having an outdoor cat was he didn’t use a litter pan and the house didn’t smell. One of the downsides was the dangers he encountered. He started to cost a lot of money as the vet tried to clear up one scrape after another. Towards the end he couldn’t fend off whatever animal was out to get him. Eventually the vet wanted to amputate his leg but offered no guarantee of survival and cautioned us.

“Of course if you opt to do this and he lives, he’ll have to stay inside the house forever.”

The idea of confining him to a 1500 square foot home with three legs was more than any of us could bear. Sam was in agony. I was away and Rob called to give me the prognosis before he and the kids went into the animal hospital to say good-bye.

“There just wasn’t enough time,” Rob wept.

THE NEW YAR TIMES

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Katherine Hepburn’s character Tracy Lord, in The Philadelphia Story refers to a yacht saying, “my, she was yar.” Then she explains to her fiancé, George, what she’s talking about. It’s a telling moment. We learn that he’s not the man for her because he doesn’t know what yar means.  A majority of the audience for this 1940 movie needed to have it explained as well. It’s clear that most of America, like George, is moving with a different crowd than Tracy Lord. Lately I’ve been feeling like that with the New York Times.

The paper gets delivered to our house at roughly five-thirty every morning. You can hear the driver’s car roar around the lake followed by a dull thud on the street as the paper hits the driveway and the engine roars off again. I find the sound comforting  as I press the snooze bar for the third time. It gives me another reason to get up. Rob has moved on to electronic venues so the physical paper is mine alone. Reading the paper from 6:15 to 6:30 every morning doesn’t give you a lot of time to delve too deeply.  Today I read about rolling bar carts.

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My first thought was, “Who uses a rolling bar cart?” I imagined a house so expansive that the cart could have room to roll. I tried to picture the occasions that might call for a rolling bar cart.

         “Oh Robert, would you be so kind and roll in the bar cart and mix us all a cocktail.”

Would you use one for small gatherings as well as large? The article interviewed Alessandro Palazzi, the barman from Dukes Bar in London. “The style is very important, because it is used as a decoration or to show off your drink collection,” he said.

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Well that explains it. My bar doesn’t contain a collection that lasts longer than the length of a party and it’s usually contained on the card table I set up for the occasion. I mused about the possibility of buying a rolling cart as I started to scroll through the pictures displaying the range of styles available. That’s what the Home section is for, to help you imagine the possibility of owning something you had never thought of before like an exotic tree house or a radiator that’s made to look like a ram for only $11,000.

The bar carts were priced from $300.00 which seemed a bit high but low enough so I could still be a player, and went up to $17,500.00. Most were in the several thousand dollar range. I felt like George in The Philadelphia Story.

I thought about the driver who has to get up at 4 AM to get all the papers in our area delivered on time. Every Christmas we send twenty-dollars to our carrier to ensure this great service.  It seems like a tough job. Last year we had a terrible delivery person and the paper didn’t show up consistently until close to nine in the morning. We were on the phone with the Times every day until they resolved the problem. They never disputed our claim and sent the complaint up to the head office. Boy was I impressed, the New York Times really wanted me us as a customer.

But I often can’t imagine why. I always knew the ads were for the One Percent but I think I blocked out the fact that so are the houses, wine, clothes, most restaurant reviews and the vacations they write about. And it seems to be getting worse. I also noticed that full page ads for Tiffany’s, Bonwit Teller or Bloomingdale’s are juxtaposed to  stories about impoverished nations but never next to national or local news. I feel the ad placement is deliberate because expensive items next to the Neediest Cases might be a “tough sell.” Rob thinks the companies just want ads in the first ten pages of the paper and that happens to be the international section.

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On Sunday the second part of the weekend paper arrives. I open up the main section and snap a picture. I make my way through this section and test my ad theory. Then I move along to the Sunday Review where the only ads are for education jobs. I land on an editorial called “Sentenced to a Slow Death.” It begins with, “If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast…” I read about the needless life sentences of non-violent offenders that is costing $1.78 billion dollars for the lives of their collective incarcerations. This is why I read my local paper. The news is for everyone. We have to gerrymander through it to find what we’re interested in.

That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine inching a bar cart around my small lake house and saying, “My, isn’t she yar?” and hope someone is listening.

BROKEN REMINDERS

I have been waiting my whole life for my real life to begin. There is always a lingering distant opportunity of something better. Whenever I travel I see the latent possibilities of what life would be like if I only lived there. I see where I would shop, walk to yoga classes, drop off my dry cleaning and eat. I watch myself through the glass as a happy customer in the window seat enjoying a glass of Malbec with smiling friends. I am well dressed, I am thin, I am popular. I am famous. Then we go home.

It is an odd feeling that certainly doesn’t fill every waking moment but it’s out there. Since late August I have been in Collegeville Pennsylvania-twice, Seattle, Baltimore, and Tampa. Each time I return home I feel three things. The lost potential, relief at the sight of my own bed and the weight of the work that has been left undone. Doing my chores helps to ground me back into my routine. It reassures me that this is my life and it started long ago. As the days between trips add up I start to forget about any fantasy.

Two weeks ago after returning from a trip we put both the yard and house back in order. I stumbled to bed exhausted and stubbed my toe.

“I think it’s broken,” I wailed.

Rob ran downstairs and fetched a bag of ice.

“They can’t do anything for a broken toe,” he said, laying the ice pack over my blue toes and handing me two Motrin.

“Nothing?”

“Just gotta suck it up.”

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After a few days of rest and ice everyone expects you to get back to business. It’s not a big enough injury to curry favor but it nags at you and impedes everyday activities that you still seem to be able to do. You hobble off to work and home again. Only now the dust collects in the corners and leaves pile up outside. You groan at the exertion it will take to simply gather up the pieces of the Sunday paper spread across the living room floor.

My stepfather called and said it best. “A broken toe is nothing more than a nuisance.”

“That’s it,” I exclaimed.

I repeated that all week long when people shook their heads in understanding as I dragged my foot along. “Just a nuisance,” I said, to let them off the hook. They are also tired of my toe.

I collapsed late Friday afternoon on a kitchen stool and stared out at the lake. The distance of the dock is foreboding and off limits. It may as well belong to someone else. I try to remain satisfied with the view but find myself daydreaming about my real life that just hasn’t started yet.

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TEA WITH NO TEMPTATIONS

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Summer is over and as each work day winds down the pleasure of tea on the lower deck watching people fish in small electric motored boats helps me get to the end of a long day.  The days are shorter and the length of time we have to linger outdoors is slipping deeper into fall. More leaves are still on the trees than off so a blog about raking is still to come.

When the weather grows cooler we’ll move inside and watch the heron float across the water from the kitchen window as we re-infuse our morning pot of green tea for an afternoon pick-me-up.

Tea in the afternoon has long been my excuse to stop everything and eat sweets. The trouble is, like everyone, I really shouldn’t eat sweets so I try not to. Most days I just drink the tea and head out for a walk.

My mother in law was a first generation Italian woman who thought that coffee and cake was a cure for just about anything that ailed you. Showing up at her house in the afternoon I could pretty much count on a hot cup of coffee and a piece of carrot cake and warm conversations. In her later years she couldn’t remember why things worked the way they did. Like how the trees grew all those leaves or how they put a carrot into a cake.

“Carrots in a cake?” she would exclaim. “I just can’t picture it.”

“They shred them.”

“Shred them? What’s that?”

I saw we weren’t getting anywhere. “They just call it carrot cake because it’s orange like a carrot.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” she said.

“Doesn’t it?” my husband sighed as he cut another piece.

Old habits die hard and I think we keep up the tradition of tea time in some sort of misshapen loyalty to her coffee and cake routine.

However, the old adage that some calories just aren’t worth it, is true. Like an Entenmann’s brownie is not worth one morsel of the calorie or sugar count. The opposite is also true. Some temptations have more value than others like a dessert that reminds you of childhood.

But I seem to have the worst timing for when to be good or bad.

Eight years ago we were traveling home from Cooperstown and we stopped off at Hartmann’s Kaffeehaus in Round Top, New York for coffee. We found the shop in Fodor’s New York which wrote, Desserts are serious business at this simple cafe-bakery, where a “periodic table” of sweets hangs on the wall. The Fürst Pückler torte—layers of marzipan, butter cream, sponge cake, and apricot jam—could put you into sugar shock.

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“That sounds too sweet,” I said as the waitress waited for my choice. “I’ll have the sugar free strudel.”

The plates arrived and for the next half an hour I listened to my family moan in ecstasy with each mouthful.

“It can’t be that good.”

“Better,” my son said.

“Think of the best dessert you ever tasted,” he said closing his eyes and smiling as he swallowed. “This is better.”

“Ten times better,” my daughter added.

Rob rubbed it in more. “I’d let you try some but there’s so many different areas to taste you wouldn’t get the full effect.”

“No, I’m good.” I said picking over my dried out, sugar free apple strudel.

Just when i think I’m done regretting that experience they keep pulling me back in. Recently we were in Gleasons and they offered for one day only; homemade pistachio ice cream inside an anise flavored pizzele with a thin layer of chocolate.

“Those are my three favorite things,” Rob said.

I agreed to split one.

“This is delicious,” I said.

“It is,” Rob agreed.

I could sense something.

“But…?” I prodded.

“But nothing will ever compare to that marzipan cake we ate that time in the Catskills.”

I don’t know why I even bother because I certainly don’t need the calories. I also don’t know who is better off. Me who never tasted it and doesn’t know what I’m missing or my family who understands that nothing will ever measure up to The Fürst Pückler.

PETS GONE WILD

ImageThe best I can figure is an unknown person probably bought some adorable, fluffy, yellow ducklings for Easter and then when the birds grew bigger, ornery and started pooping all over the yard, the owners snuck into our hamlet under the cover of darkness and released them into the lake.  They probably thought it was a match made in heaven. Unfortunately unwanted Easter ducklings tend to end up in trouble. Our resident mallards seem to have sent out a “stay away” vibe because the domestic ducks keep their distance. The white ducks have become a recent topic of concern.

“They’ll become hawk food,” a neighbor stated. “When the lake freezes, that is.”

“They can withstand cold temperatures,” I said.

“They can’t fly,” the neighbor said. “One of them has already been taken down by a snapping turtle. There used to be six now there’s only five.”

“Really?” I exclaimed.

“Really. A lady went to the duck’s rescue and was able to wrench it free from the snapper but by the time she reached the vet it was too late.”

“She fought off a snapper?” I asked. “Was she hurt?”

“A little.”

“Someone can build a hut,” another person suggested.

Good luck getting them in it, I thought. These ducks don’t want anything to do with humans and I don’t think they would abide by being domesticated again. As much as I love ducks I don’t want them as pets. Let alone pets that are “sitting ducks,” so to speak. Maybe the ducks will have a change of heart when the temperature dips.Image

“Well someone ought to do something or we’ll be digging duck graves.”

The conversation reminded me of years earlier, when we had decided to vacation on Cape Cod for a month and had to bring our pet rabbit with us since no one wanted to take care of it. Who could blame them? We set up an area for the rabbit in the basement of the rented house in part because keeping him in the yard made him raccoon fodder. On our last day on the Cape, as we were packing the car, Robert came upstairs with a solemn face explaining that Violet the rabbit had died.

“Died?”

“Dead.”

“Dead?”

He nodded. “What are we going to do?”

“Bury it,” I said.

“You can’t just bury an animal.”

“Why not? You did that a lot when you were a kid.”

He shook his head. “Well for one thing I buried lizards and hamsters for Christ’s sake.”

“So.”

“And for another thing this isn’t our yard. Don’t you think the owners will be suspicious of a fresh pile of dirt on their lawn?”

I thought about how to disguise the mound.  

“I also think it’s a health hazard,” he said, as he phoned the only local veterinarian and asked what to do.

I was nervous because it was the end of our vacation and we were low on funds.

“Uh huh…Oh…uh huh…I see…well, okay then,” he said. “Just a minute, I’ll check.”

There was a brief pause as Rob cupped the phone receiver and turned to me. “Well, for three hundred dollars we can have a private cremation and funeral, and for two hundred dollars we can have a private cremation and remains in an urn.”

“That’s it?”

“Well for thirty dollars we can only get a mass cremation and no remains.”

“Robert!” I screeched.

He uncapped his hand. “Uh, we’ll take the thirty dollar one.”

Which in the end is what we did just before driving back to New York petless.  At least the rabbit didn’t die in the hands of a hungry raccoon. In our defense we didn’t buy him for Easter and he was our pet for over seven years. And call me heartless, but I don’t think I would have tried to wrestle a snapping turtle for a duck, even a nice white domestic one. I tend to give snapping turtles a wide berth.

This afternoon I was sitting on the dock after an end of summer swim and a hawk swooped down in front of me and snatched a pretty big fish out of the water. It was precision timing and the normally fast moving fish didn’t have a chance.  What kind of chance do five fat, displaced, white ducks have on a field of black ice with hawks circling overhead? I feel for my feathered friends but I’m not getting involved in that one either. I just wish people would stop trying to make their children so damn happy at Easter.

 

*Easter bunny horror stories: Resist the urge to give rabbits, ducks, chicks

 

NUTTIN HONEY

ImageThere’s a moment, in late spring, when the blossoms are falling off the trees and the light green leaves have burst forth from every branch. This is the longest point in time when you can enjoy the benefits of the cool shade that the leaves provide without thinking about raking. The variety of greens enhances the borrowed landscape of the lake that stretches beyond their branches. This is the moment when all of the benefits of the trees outweigh any downside.

Then sometime in late July a familiar “plink” hits the wood deck floor. Initially, you pretend you didn’t hear a thing. Occasionally someone will look up from his or her book and say something like,

“Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. My mistake.”

You return to your day. What else can you do? What chance do you have?

The oak trees are by far the worst offenders. It happens maybe once in a day, then several times a day until by the second week in August you have to make sure you’re positioned under a deck umbrella for protection. The first rounds of falling acorns are usually small and green and they fall from the sky like large raindrops. Then the squirrels begin their seasonal pillaging. They break open the nuts with reckless abandon and toss the shells overboard. Additionally there’s a barrage of sharp edged beechnut seeds that litter our path. Gone are the lazy summer days when you might step out on the deck in bare feet. You can’t even wear flip-flops: thick-soled shoes only, please! There is no safe place.Image

The first year we moved in I was driving around the lake and something dropped from the sky and smashed a hole in my windshield.

“I thought it was a bullet!” I exclaimed to Rob.

He examined the extensive damage. “It looks like a rock hit you.”

“Then a rock fell from the sky!”

“It was a black walnut,” our son explained.

I shook my head. “This was green.”

“Did it look like a small tennis ball?”

I nodded.

“That’s a young black walnut,” he said, raising his hands up as if it was difficult to talk nuts with such amateurs.

The large encased nuts became a sport to my daughter and me. We drew an imaginary line down the one-way street and kicked the nuts back and forth to motivate us to run faster until the outer green shell broke apart or the nut rolled out of range into a patch of poison ivy. Once the black walnut season was over it was difficult to prod my daughter out for exercise. Nuts can have that affect on people.

It isn’t like you have any real control over trees, aside from cutting them down and that feels cowardly. It just seems that each nut is a potential tree and we already have enough.

On a last note, I found this great website, Acorns: The Inside Story, which writes about all the wonderful things you can do with acorns including eating them—go figure.

SATAN ZERO, US ONE

ImageThirteen years ago this week we moved into our lake house. About three years into ownership I decided the house had been a huge mistake. The complaints were long and varied: it was small, there was no place inside for the children to entertain friends, my daughter’s bedroom was on the first floor facing the street, there was no garage, and the yard…well let’s just say we had nicknamed it Satan’s lawn.

That early lawn was actually a combination of crabgrass and plantains posing as grass. The front lawn sits three feet above the front entrance and is held back by an ugly cement block retaining wall. The backyard drops down one hundred and fifty feet to the dock. The lawn mower had to be lifted by two people section by section to keep the weeds at bay. So when we heaved the mower to the lower yard it tended to stay there. Mowers that are left out in the rain don’t last very long.

         “Help me move the mower.”

         “Ask my father.”

          “His back hurts.”

           “So does mine.”

I am not mechanically inclined. My husband thinks he is, which is interesting since we break lawnmowers with reckless abandon.  He explains it this way.

            “Just because someone is mechanically inclined doesn’t mean they understand all machines. I never studied small engines.”

            “Oh.”

We have owned (no exaggeration) nine lawnmowers. We average about one a year. This year we had two repaired. Having two mowers has cut down on the hauling. After thirteen years there are only two small sections of yard remaining that ever get mowed, yet we need two mowers.

Another big lawn issue is tree maintenance. Several years ago a two hundred year old maple tree silently pulled from the ground and landed in the lake, smashing the docks and rowboat in the process. Nobody heard or saw it fall except a neighbor who came over to inspect the damage.

“Oh, that was what I heard last night,” she said, as we stared fifty feet out into the water searching for the end of the tree.

Numerous tree men were called in to bid on the job.

            “That’s a doozy, alright.”

            “How much?”

            “Well seeing that it’s in the water… and the street is two hundred feet up, I’d say…seven thousand.”

            Next.

            “Have you ever thought about moving?”

The man we hired only charged two thousand dollars and brilliantly used a winch that he ran through other trees, pulling the fallen tree out of the lake by a truck up on the street. Then of course we had to hire two men to chop up the tree into fireplace size logs. We could have a fire every day for a decade and still have wood left over.

One of the early draws of the lake house was that we were planning to throw a lot of parties. I don’t know why we thought this since we never threw many parties before buying the house. For our daughter’s high school graduation she wanted a big party. We invited seventy-five people and needed the use of the whole yard, but the whole yard wasn’t available. A month before the graduation party I sat on the steps in the middle yard and cried.

            “How are were ever going to fix this?” I sobbed, pointing at the remains of a giant, rotten railroad tie sandbox. (That I had to have, eleven years prior.)

            “Don’t worry mama,” my son said. “I’ll fix it.”

            I stared blankly at this twenty-one year old who had feigned illness to get out of any and all yard work for his entire life. “You? How?”

            He shrugged. “This is nothing.”

One month and hundreds of dollars in plants and supplies afterward (which included a power saw with a burned out motor) we had a Japanese garden complete with a floating wooden walkway that he built from discarded lumber. Two summers later, I still can’t believe he pulled that off. It proved to me that miracles can happen.ImageImage

            In the years of ownership and with the help of various handy men we have also built tiered garden beds, erected three different types of fences, connected the upper and lower decks with a staircase, installed an interlocking brick walkway and patio, dug a flagstone walkway, erected a stone wall, designed and built a solitary reading deck, rebuilt the dock three times, installed two fountains and an outdoor shower, transplanted dozens of perennials in the hope that one day, the yard would be care free or at the very least easy to maintain. The other hope was that our marriage would last. With every winter season I never know what disaster lurks for the following spring. I don’t know why we stayed but I have only recently stopped wanting to sell it.

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MONARCHS AND THE QUEEN’S BLOOD

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Susan’s Milkweed Bed near Asheville, NC

Recently, my sister Susan who lives in North Carolina, sent me a photograph of her newly planted Milkweed bed. It boasted six young Milkweed plants lined up in two neat rows. She and her husband Tim had sent away for the plants as part of a grassroots effort to help save the Monarch butterflies.

“I became involved in this dilemma after reading the novel The Butterfly’s Daughter last year,” Susan said.

                “Will the Monarchs be able to find your plants?” I asked.

                 “We’ve been told they will. A sort of ‘plant them and they will come’ kind of thing.”

We grew up in a family of six in Northern Illinois. We lived in a split-level home that sat alongside a small, undeveloped stretch of wild prairie. Wildflowers grew in abundance. Each summer produced Bachelor Buttons, Black-Eyed Susans, Thistles, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and Milkweed. Monarchs were commonplace. I remember in the early fall we would look out on our yard and see hundreds of Monarchs clinging to the Forsythia bushes. They might stay for a few hours or a day or two before flying away, followed by a few stragglers that came along every few days after the first sighting. I have always known they migrated but never thought much about them or considered where they were heading.

 When we first moved to the lake, thirteen years ago this month, I was out walking with my children and we came across some Queen Anne’s Lace.

“Queen Anne was sewing some lace and she pricked her finger with the needle, causing a single drop of blood to fall onto the lace,” I explained, pointing to the single crimson flower at the center of the white lacy plant.

               “How did she bleed on all of them?” my then six-year-old daughter had asked.

                “It’s just folklore,” I said as I spied some Milkweed. I hadn’t seen any since I moved from the Midwest.

                 “Look at this,” I said, breaking open one of the pods and revealing the soft white substance resting inside. “Seeds.”

              “It feels like silk,” my son said. He pulled the fine threads apart and we watched them float into the wind.

My book club is currently reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is high on scientific information about Monarchs and climate change, which is fed to the reader through human drama. Kingsolver draws heavy parallels between the plight of the Monarch and human choices. It’s unpleasant to read about the world falling apart. Losing the Monarchs is a symptom of those choices.

I actually hadn’t thought about Milkweed since that first time we stumbled upon it, so I set out on my morning walk in search of it. Today, I didn’t find any.  I also only found three Queen Anne’s Lace plants. Three? And the three I did find didn’t even hold the red drop of queen’s blood.

I felt so obtuse that I hadn’t noticed less wildflowers growing around the lake until I read Kingsolver. I called my sister back.

             “I don’t think we have Monarchs here. I’ve never seen any.”

             “If you used to have Milkweed then Monarchs were there,” she said. “Plant some and they’ll come back.” She told me where to order the plants.

When I look out at my lake from the deck, my world seems visually beautiful.  It’s hard to believe from my vista that nature is out of balance, but intellectually I know it is.

It reminds me of the words of the baboon Rafiki from The Lion King.

             “No, look harder.”Image

The truth is I want to find the drop of queen’s blood inside the lace in abundance and I want bright orange Monarchs to pass through my yard and light on a Milkweed plant.

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DUCK TIME

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We consider the ducks on the lake to be our friends. They have been stopping off on some rocks near our dock for years. We have enjoyed watching them fish, preen, and socialize before heading out to other ports. Then after hurricane Sandy a large log from a felled tree floated across the lake and hovered near our absent neighbor’s shore all spring. The log became known as the Duck RV, and it allowed us to have an even nicer relationship with the ducks. They met and congregated on the log at various points during the day before settling down in a line for nighttime. The log had become their home. This arrangement worked well until the Duck RV moved again.

Each day the Duck RV inched closer to our dock. It was difficult to swim around because of unseen branches that stretched out from the log beneath the water’s surface. Our swimming water became littered with small downy duck feathers. The stench from the duck feces coating the log was wafting into our air. The Duck RV had to go!

With my husband Rob at the oars and me in the water pushing from the back of the boat, we heaved the log further down the lake and deposited it into a niche of uninhabited lakefront.

But just like humans, ducks are creatures of habit. And that night while eating our supper on the upper deck I looked down at the darkened water and asked, “What is that?”

Dozens of motionless blobs were floating in front of our dock.

“Ducks?” my daughter asked.

Rob peered down. “I think it’s a duck armada.”

I ran to get the binoculars.

“What are they doing?”

“It looks like they’re sleeping,” he said.

“Ducks don’t sleep floating in the water.”

“How do you know?”

“Don’t you remember Make Way For Ducklings?” I said. “When ducks find a home they want to keep it.”

“I think they’re angry,” Rob said.

“They don’t look angry. Some of them have their heads tucked in. ”

Time passed and we grew tired watching the homeless ducks and went to bed. I got up in the night for water and the ducks were still there, waiting. Waiting for something that had once been available and now in an instant wasn’t. At least that’s how it must have felt in duck time. It seemed as if they were holding their ground, moving only as far as the current pushed them along. We cared about the ducks but we just didn’t want to share our small stretch of waterfront with them.

A few days later the ducks had happily discovered their RV’s new home. The sad part is that we can’t watch them anymore. Sort of like our own children going to college and then moving away from home.