Saturday, December 23, 2017

Three Surprises

Every once in a while a year really stinks, like 2009 (and 2008), and 2017 was one of those, but nonetheless as the year ends, dusted off, back at the gym, weight normal, ambitious, I am actually joyous all morning as caffeine carols through my veins, and then I started looking at my Facebook friends' postings and at the Washington Post headlines and came to a dead stop.

I said, I'll cheer up after lunch with a close friend and then to the feed store, which I've always liked because it smells like hay, and stop by the town optometrist who online found parts for my damaged favorite specs, and I'd have them next week. Overjoyed. . .and then poof. . . I looked at my phone. . . so depressing. . .and I kept scrolling through the phone at the coffeehouse. Oh very low indeed although I sat next to the artificial fire and gulped two and a half cups of nice and hot, plus a scone.

At home, because I have to go there, an Amazon box is on the stoop. It's a gift from my sister, brother-in-law and niece: a brand-new, bright red wild-bird feeder. This replaces the green one rusted and peeling, bent from falls and obese raccoons, and it did not once occur to me to buy a new one and I am delighted. Surprise!

Two of the three surprises.
Then the phone rings. It's my niece. "I have kind of exciting news," she said: She is engaged! And I was excited, and she texted me a photo of her ring, and that was thrilling. Engaged at Christmas! What's more romantic?! That's surprise #2.

So I sit up and write two articles -- good ones. (I write four per week for my employer.) Takes until 10:30 p.m. I finish proudly. Because of coffee I'm still awake and thinking of all I must do. I make a list and start joyously checking off items.

Get off Facebook
Unsubscribe from Washington Post
Write four  articles by Sunday
Finish book and sell
Finish novel and sell
Update website
Update blog
Update website blog
Write a new research paper (this past year I wrote two)
Write a new book

What a relief to start on my to-do list (ain't nobody gonna do it for me).  Then there's the more important "to be" list:


This morning I lay in bed drinking coffee and couldn't see outside because of window insulation. But eventually I get up and the light in the kitchen looks awfully bright. And from the window I see: Surprise! An inch of snow! It's beautiful!

And I feel like a new person, happy all day! I'm rockin' those rose-colored glasses! All I need to thrive is good surprises!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trying to Give Money Away

I've always hated tipping, thinking I always do it wrong, just as I hate splitting restaurant checks 50-50 and seeing in my lunch-mate's eyes that they feel screwed and think less of me because I had wine or dessert and they didn't, and I also hate the math of figuring how much to the dime I owe, or pulling out the calculator. You know what I really really hate? A first date who takes me for coffee, and I always order only a coffee (rarely, if I'm hungry, a roll too) and he pays for mine and his, like, $5.50 total, and then he takes the receipt and CAREFULLY FOLDS IT, like, with two hands, actually taking his time creasing it, and carefully tucks it in his wallet, and elaborately restores his wallet to his back pocket with the air of having just sacrificed his firstborn for the good of the tribe, and next time that happens I will run away screaming.

Ahem. 'Tis the season to tip the mail carrier and the trash-pickup man. The trash truck arrives about 12:30 on Thursdays, and when it does I plan to trot down the hill with a holiday card and envelope with money and wish him "Much Joy," he whose fate it is to smell my trash all year, and once it had maggots and I hope he will forgive me. Outside starting at 12:15, so I won't miss him, I do some raking and yard work, glancing downhill toward the road, hearing cars approach and pass, but not the trash truck's snorting and apnea.

I am in fact deeply ashamed because the last few years I have not tipped him. Things were too tight to give a proper tip; it might be insulting if I gave less. The trash-truck driver had for a couple of Christmases left a blue envelope wishing me season's greetings, signed Dale, and I filled it only once, and I wanted today to make up for that and be appreciative. Somebody loves him. (I always used to say when construction workers blocked the roadway and Demetrius, who was driving, would swear and mutter mean things about their bellies: "Somebody loves him as much as I love you.")

Twelve-thirty passes and the truck does not come and still does not come. Finished raking, I commence sweeping. It's been a half hour. Has he already made his rounds and the trash bin at the foot of the hill is empty? I go and check. No, he's not been here yet. He's late. I don't know him. It doesn't matter. I'm tipping today.

Everyone knows, right, that if you want your name to be called or your bus to arrive, you go to the lavatory or get a drink of water or light a cigarette, and the minute you do that here it comes. So, at about 1:30 I slip indoors for a drink of water, watching out the window all the while. Outside I keep the weather eye -- dark clouds blanketing the west and southwest -- holding the card in hand, and finally I hear a truck and walk down the hill. The mail carrier's vehicle pulls up to the mailbox.

I have no choice but to hand the envelope to the mail carrier with good wishes; she's truly the greatest, and I bet she makes four figures in tips at Christmas, and walking uphill with mail I realize with chagrin that I wrote on that card "Waste Management," but a tip is a tip, and my heart's in the right place, and I guess it's okay.

Maybe, I think, I got the pickup calendar wrong and the trash truck won't come at all today. In the house I prepare another card and envelope with money in it, and just as I rip open the day's mail, the trash truck roars up and halts with a great squeal of brakes. I grab the envelope and lope down the hill waving it, calling "Wait, wait!" And the truck pulls away without emptying the trash and goes on its way!

Did I look crazy or threatening? Is a 60-year-old lady wearing sweats and rhinestone specs running toward your vehicle and flailing a terrifying vision? (I can see how it might be to a guy in his 20s.) Did he interpret my signaling as "Don't take my trash"? Had he perhaps not showered today and felt he wasn't fit for human contact? Did he know it was a tip and he is one of those too proud to take anything? Did he think I might have an emergency and he didn't want to get involved?

Now I must phone the trash company and tell them he didn't take my trash. Or rather, so he won't get in trouble, phrase it in the passive voice: "My trash was not picked up."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Winter Solstice

Happy Solstice!
For a few days each year, at the winter solstice, setting sunbeams the color of flour come through the corner of the house, the screened porch, which points exactly southwest, and through the glass in the door, it hits the shelves of cookbooks.

Cookbooks are my favorite reading and there's one for every mood: frugal, hippie, microwave, Indian, microwave Indian, church-supper casseroles, Cook's Illustrated, Gasparilla (Florida), New York Times, Russia & Poland, vegetarian and vegan, bread machine, and three cookbooks that are all soups, for example. Since 1997, every time I make a recipe I date it on its page and write a note as to how it was received, or the substitutions made, or suggestions for next time. I also have my own cut-out-of-magazines or printed-off-the-Net recipes in a ring binder, and a tin recipe box with handwritten recipes on index cards. I feast on all these. This is wealth.

My top 11 cookbook recipes: Hot & Sour Soup (The Garden of Vegan), Flaxseed Wraps (Wheat Belly), Sausage and Peppers (Microwave Gourmet), Polenta (Microwave Gourmet), Slow Cooker Pot Roast (Cook's Illustrated), Maple Walnut Biscotti (Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites), Chocolate Ice Cream (How It All Vegan),  Coffee Gelatin (internet), Spicy Black Bean Burgers (Betty Crocker Vegetarian Cooking), Beefy Seitan (Nonna's Italian Kitchen), and Bucatini Briganteschi (Cooking from an Italian Garden). Bucatini is thick spaghetti with a hole down the center. It is so hard to find, and the recipe so delicious, I ordered a 20-pound case from a manufacturer. Yesterday I ate my first Olive Stuffed with Bleu Cheese and got all swoony. Want some, with some wine? Come over!

Happy Solstice and Yule, December 21 at 10:29 a.m. Have a feast.

Monday, December 18, 2017

How to Help Birds

This is not a good picture but it illustrates what birds want during this droughty autumn-styled-winter: water. There are three birds, robins, crowded on the clay water dish and another, on the left, flying in. Right next to this water stand/bird bath is the hanging cake of suet that used to be the star attraction at my bird buffet. No longer. The very second I put some water out, birds surrounded the water, perching, drinking, flapping, flying in. Birds are thirsty. No wonder they'd rather eat berries than suet or seed.

Set out a dish or bowl of water if you love your wild creatures. For them it's in short supply.

Meanwhile I don't dare start up a nice cozy outdoor fire. The other day I panicked seeing thick woodsmoke crossing Highway FF but it was a homeowner -- I could see him -- burning leaves and wisely attending to the fire. Lack of water is not only causing thirst but the woods are a tinderbox.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Cheer Up, Get a Gadget

This is the coolest lamp ever, cordless (after you charge it up). It is about the size of a hand. It arrives folded, and unfolds like a cherry-picker to any extent you like. The head with all the LED lights twirls left and right, up or down. Touch the pad at the bottom and it bursts into light or turns off. Stroke the pad at the bottom and the LED lights turn yellow or dim.

I am fascinated. The bedroom ceiling light is so wuss that it can't take higher-voltage bulbs nor the coiled energy-saving bulbs because they're too long for the fixture's base and cover. Even with a table lamp there was never enough light for taking stuff from the closets or reading--a bedroom not fit for reading, how did I let that happen?--and I wanted a reading lamp but not one affixed to the headboard (which is padded fabric) or a gooseneck that'd be in the way or might poke me in the eye. I looked at some floor lamps that would arch themselves over the bed. The problem is when you want to go to sleep, or more precisely, when you want to sit up, you have to slap them aside. This one is easily picked up and moved anywhere. What a great design. I am buying one for my stepfather.

What am I reading now that there's light? Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. That guy knew small towns and he is hilariously mean about their leading citizens and persons of quality unencumbered by the thought process, and the virtuous, and cynics, and outliers, the whole cast of characters.

The lamp is not itself pink. That's only the daylight that comes through the pink wintertime insulation fitted over the windows.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Salad Days

I felt seasonally bad, holiday bad -- I really did -- and thought it might be a relief to quit this plane of existence (hey, in winter I have those thoughts while bundling up indoors as if to go skiing, while the dry air deepens lines beneath my eyes) -- until I went to the salad bar --

and loaded up a carton with all I wanted, as much as I wanted, including corn salad, pasta salad, kale salad, beets, imitation crabmeat, greens of every footprint, garbanzos, croutons, tomato; three meals' worth) and went home and ate a plateful --

and realized that in death I could no longer have hot chicken noodle soup with a grilled cheddar on swirl rye -- with kosher pickle --or a broiled trout --

and although there are no bills or heartaches or body aches in the next life, there is also no hard stuff, although there might be wine, and no grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta pesto (world's greatest anti-depressant), so I decided to hang in there and focus on what's good. Ninety percent of the time things turn out okay. The trick is having something or someone to look forward to, and taking a walk even when you'd rather not. The solstice is imminent: December 21 at 10:29 a.m. In its honor I'm throwing an Irish high tea. Already have the Kerrygold butter, the clotted cream, the jam, the tea, the scone mix . . .

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Look Through My Window

The cabin's original windows with original silica glass (single-pane, and it's wavy) look like this, a little scarred, but it's been 80 years and only two are left and there's no greater fun than yanking them open in good weather, yanking hard and maybe even prying with a butter knife, and letting the breeze in to sweeten the room, and thought I'd show you the view in summer:
And just so you don't get too romantic about living in a 1930s log cabin in autumn during a rainstorm:

The leaking problem is largely solved by a piece of thick translucent plastic Demetrius stretched into a wooden frame he custom-built to fit this window from the outside, a homemade storm window, but in the summer I remove it. In autumn when the window leaks--as the weather and precip is increasingly driven in from the north--I set the shield back over the window. Then I must seal every crack in the inside with those rubbery strips of foam or else cold wind whistles through the warpings. Yet it's all worth it. These have to be the coolest, strangest windows on earth.

Yes, these windows should all be repaired and maintained, but the owners don't think the house is worth maintaining. That used to annoy me until I realized what I treasure isn't the INSIDE of the house but the hundred acres it sits on and all comes with it. In the Manhattan penthouse I will someday inhabit, I will never look back on my life and be sorry.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Autumn brings church-sponsored come-one-come-all suppers of chicken, ham, roast pork, pork sausage (at Catawissa Union Protestant Church, $3 a pound to take home), and beef, advertised in the Events section of the local paper. I never like to take photos of food at these plentiful church suppers because it gives me away as an intellectual, but absolutely had to photograph this dessert table to show you, no matter what anyone thought. (The secret of life is: Nobody's thinking about you. Nobody's looking at you. They're all too busy worrying about themselves.)

Yet how to choose? Pumpkin, seasonal, one of the pleasures of late fall? Lemon, 'cause I get it so rarely? Berry pie, because the summer drought meant no berries in the meadow this season? Cherry, because it's always great? Peach, because you never know what you might be missing? Apple, because that's American? Exotic entry, Amish Pineapple pie? Coconut, or chocolate silk, or pecan pie? Custard? How about a slice of each? How about Union Pacific lays some railroad track out to my house and delivers me pie every day by the boxcar full? The only thing they didn't have was Concord grape pie, a New England regional specialty I liked to make from the purple grapes I and my friends liberated from abandoned grape arbors in upstate New York. I make a good one when I want to do the work.

On my deathbed I just know the pies of my life will pass before me.

If this photo does not make you want to go to church suppers than nothing will.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Natural Amber

Tree branches seeking sunlight strong-arm their way into the lane where they scratch or interfere with vehicles, and while pruning them one morning this caught my eye. It couldn't be. It was. Amber. Gooey as caramel. Sticky as maple syrup. Natural amber 50 feet from my door.

People wore amber as far back as recorded history goes: there's an amber pendant about 13,000 years old. Amber doesn’t require mines or miners or advanced technology or expensive equipment. It grows on trees. Like finding pearls in oysters, finding amber in nature is a matter of luck, and very lucky for the finder. Those who wear amber align themselves with the Sun’s power.

Amber is not tree sap. Sap runs in the tree's veins. Amber is a resin, more like tree lymph, originating in cells, not veins, and seeping only when the tree is in crisis, filling a non-lethal wound and maybe protecting it against an insect invasion or a fungal infection. For this reason amber has always as been associated with healing. Well, this was my lucky day.  I plucked off the hanging pieces that were not still encasing the wounds, which were positioned as to make me think they had been made by bagworms. The amber drops could have been rolled all together into one, like clay, but I wanted to study the shapes and also the inclusions: bits of bark, and how some pieces were smooth and some ridged, possibly meaning different rates of extrusion, but all concentrated in one area of the tree. I looked for more. None. Once in a lifetime? I spent half an hour trying to identify the tree (which has no leaves, currently, and most books identify trees by leaf shapes), but I do know that amber is most commonly found on evergreens, and this wasn't one.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Fast Living

In Belfast, Ireland, for an international academic conference I gave a paper, but so did a lot of other people, and my paper was a success as were many others, and in this galaxy of new people and ideas I fell in love with the little pots of tea as well as 21-year-old Bushmill's whiskey, only 10 British pounds a glass, then upon returning home my head spun as I fought to finish two long long highly detailed articles and eight short ones, and draft new poems. It's spinning now.

I loved Northern Ireland and would settle there if only because the money has a picture of the Queen on it. The rest of Ireland uses euros. Dublin is a big city, a major city, the New York City of Ireland, with suburbs and all that. Belfast is a former shipbuilding town, walkable and quite trim, and one needn't go far to find castles and fishing villages. The Titanic was built in Belfast, and I thought the Titanic Museum would be corny. Oh no. This was serious economics, business, and labor, and the portion about the sinking was terrifying. Who was it who told me--I think it was the cathedral sexton--"Even little kids, three and four years old, come here and they have heard of the Titanic." It seems basal, like a collective memory; I felt changed, as if a shovelful of spirit, or complacency, or conviction about what life is, was moved from here to there. A museum hasn't done that to me since Auschwitz in 2012.

As usual I returned home and looked around in wonder: I live here? This is my house? My home? In all the world this is my home? My first venture out was to the grocery store where I saw this car in the parking lot and knew I was back home in Missouri.

Today I took a walk, a major achievement, and admired the December sky and its sun's long shadows, like no other month's, more like moonlight because the trees are leafless: museum of shadows.