A Moment in Time

Liam turned twelve in January.  His humor and personality have bloomed over the last six months.  Liam rarely spends money, particularly when it's his own.  So when we are out and about and he sees something he wants, I only need to say, "Did you bring your money?" and the want disappears.

"Oh, well, I don't need it if I have to buy it," he affirms.

Liam knows I'm working on publishing a book and recently asked if I would make any money on it.  I told him that I hoped so but wasn't sure how much.  He suggested that I start walking to the library to write, that way I would save money on gas that contributed to the expense of publishing.  I told him my time was also valuable.  He nodded with, "That's true, I guess."

His favorite story is the one I wrote about him when he was three and pretending to be a seal -- by sticking rocks up his nose.  "That one is HILARIOUS, Mom!  I know you'll make money on that one!"  I'm not including that story in my book, but for Liam's sake, here's the link to that one.

Liam and I have different negotiating styles.  Every time I ask him to unload the dishwasher, it begins.  "I'm just going to unload the top rack.  Wait, why do I have to unload the dishwasher?  I'm always unloading the dishwasher."  The chat over not unloading takes longer than just unloading it.  I generally try to avoid confrontation and stay quiet as he mumbles his way through this revolting chore.  

Then last week, when he decided he would leave half the top rack for me to do, I told him that I was only going to wash two pairs of his underwear for that week.  He finished the whole rack.  I told him he's part of the family so needs to help with chores, or something to that effect.  I told him it was good practice for when he grew up and lived on his own.  He told me he would have a maid to load his dishwasher.  Every spoon?

The conservation lessons Liam learned in science from last year -- or maybe the year before -- have parked firmly in his frontal lobe.  Doing laundry on a drab day, the Laundry Maven had lights on in the two rooms adjoining the laundry room.  She watched as shadows approached the laundry room with each downward flip of the light switches.  When Liam reached the laundry room, he flicked that light off too.  Then looked right at the Laundry Maven and said, "Is that OK?" The Laundry Maven needed not to speak a word.  "Oops, sorry, guess not!"  Coming into the house at dusk from taking Will to gymnastics, I can only see a silhouette of Liam created by glowing from the light of the computer screen.  He flicks lights off and sits in complete darkness just like my dad does.  

Yet when Liam sees someone upset, he thinks of his wallet first.  What can he get for them that will make them feel a bit better?  That caring charm appeared this week when I crashed on the couch a couple times worn down by this silly cold.  Liam immediately left his computer, grabbed a fleece blanket and tucked me in, then brought me a glass of water to calm my cough.  All without me asking for any of it. 

As for the lessons on social grace that I spew forth daily, Liam hit maximum capacity a few days ago.  In the middle of one such lesson from me, he replied very calmly, "I don't need a moral story, Mom."  There wasn't even an eyeball roll with this comment.  It was just a calm, affirmative "I got it" moment.

The weekend I went away to write, I dropped into a quiet jewelry store to have a look around.  The owner was the only person in the store, and we started to chat.  During my four days of solitude, this was my longest conversation with another person.  Through our pleasantries, we soon found that we had a few things in common. 

The shop owner, who was maybe a few years older than me, loves Bill Bryson, the non-fiction writer who was born in Iowa.  We talked about Jewish customs and Korean customs; this was a conversation spawned by a stack of beautiful Mazuzahs in his store.  He explained how they were hung on doorways.  Having studied Judaism in college, we talked about the richness of Jewish culture.  And that led to a discussion of Korean culture, which in turn revealed that my husband and I had adopted our children from South Korea.  The store owner shared an adoption story: he was adopted.  

It was then that things got a little intense.  It was an argument that I've had before but with people in the general public -- never with an adoptee.  With other people, I end it with complete confidence that I win.  I don't have his exact words, but they were to the effect that we have given our sons such a gift by adopting them.  My counter, as it always is, is that Bill and I are the ones who have received an amazing gift of family through adoption.  We are the ones that will be forever grateful and honored to be parents of our sons.   But the shop owner didn't acquiesce, saying we may think that, but really, it's the other way; they are the ones...

It was clear that neither of us would back down.  I was definitely teary-eyed and he may have been too behind his glasses.  I bought my Mazuzah and left the store knowing that each of us was just a hair more right than the other.

Welcome to My New Website!

Today, rather than original thoughts, I share with you original art! 

Just before the holidays, I started working with a designer on a new website.  Our goal was to have it up and running by January 31st.  And, Voila!  Here it is!!

Writing is most often a solitary enterprise, so when I have an opportunity to connect with other creative people, it's very exciting, particularly when we are on the same wave-length.  It doesn't feel like work.  Like my writing critique groups, there is a passion for the job at hand, so it's hard to label it as "work."  It's time-consuming but oh-so exhilarating -- both the process and the end product.

So, here you are... I introduce to you Linda Malcolm's newly designed website!  Let me give you a little tour. 

Musings, where you are now, is the home of my most current writing.  Yes, as Linda Malcolm looks at gathering more readers from the world-at-large, "Hump Day Shorts," will be renamed. "Musings" will take their place.  For those of you who have been around for awhile, you and I both know what Hump Day Shorts are, and in the foreseeable future, you'll get word of a new "Musing," most likely still on Wednesdays - or whenever Hump Day lands that particular week!

My Home page is a little like the Table of Contents in a book.  On this page, before I scroll down, I get caught up in the video footage at the top of the page and imagine that I'm flying over the cornfields near the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport on my way home.  I highly recommend just hanging out here for a bit, particularly if you live out-of-state and miss those perfect corn rows.  

Staying Strong is now a very visible section on my site.  While I don't want to daily relive the year of breast cancer, my hope is that a greater good will be served by that year if other people connected to breast cancer can read my raw, unedited journal and glean something from it.  I don't revisit the writing often... and I sit near tears telling you to take a look.  I've shared it with a few women underground and it has seemed to help in some way, so here it is.  Don't miss the "Chemo Camo" photo gallery: photos of bald me applying "camouflage" and becoming a nearly unrecognizable chemo patient.  These photos were taken eight years ago this week.

Photography is straightforward: Photos from my travels and my life.

Subscribe will open a page for new readers to sign-up and receive my weekly emails.  So, please if you aren't a subscriber, join me!  If you already receive my notes, feel free to share this link liberally with your friends!  

Finally, About Linda is meant for newbies to my writing who wonder what the heck this site is all about.  It's a good place for new readers to get a taste of my slice of life writing. 

Now, until next week, you'll have a little something to read!  Feel free to leave comments on any posts.  I'm happy to chat with you along the way on this new adventure!

Hiking in the Berkshires

A couple weeks ago, I went away for a long weekend: a solo writing retreat from Friday through Tuesday.  Late Sunday morning, my reward for four hours of early morning work was a snowy hike.  Around 11 a.m., I pulled on my boots and briefly looked at a trail map of Beartown Forest State Park.  I had seen road signs for the park near where I was staying in South Lee, Massachusetts.  On the map, I found a short loop trail around Benedict Pond near the entrance to the park.

The bubbling anxiety of walking by myself was making me grumpy as I drove three miles on a narrow backroad to get to the park entrance.  I regularly walk in a state park near our house, more often than not I go by myself and take the same route every time.  For most of that local walk, I stay on the main trail where, time and again, I see many of the same runners, dog walkers, women, and men.  I’m comfortable there on the 45-minute loop I make through the woods. However, I’ve found myself in many conversations with other women who would never walk alone in my park at any time of day, and they look at me as if I have three heads with not one complete brain between them.  

Here, I ponder my recent reading of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.  The English author, Helen Russell, and her husband moved to Jutland, Denmark, so he could take a year-long assignment at LEGO’s headquarters.  She made it her mission to research why Danes were so happy – despite paying high taxes and living through cold winters with only ten hours of sunlight a week.  

Russell found that high on the list of factors affecting their happiness is trust.  As much as our American culture relies on lawsuits, Danes rely on trust.  They trust the government to provide services with tax money.  They leave babies in their prams outside coffee shops while having lunch.  They have a high degree of trust in people, unfathomable to many Americans.  They even trust… strangers.  

I want to have trust in my immediate world around me.  I want to believe that people who cross my path are good.  I want to see the world from the perspective that everyone is making the best decision they are capable of at any given time.  Yet, what I had done with this whole walking-alone thing was slung every woman’s words of fear into a bag and flung it over my shoulder to take with me on this winter wonderland walk. Ugh.  My mood grayed to match the winter sky.

When I pulled into the snowy parking lot, I saw four other cars already parked.  Trying to shake the anxiousness, I thought, “This is good; there are other people here!”  And then my self-talk flicked the other direction. “But are they good people?”

Cussing to myself at this ridiculousness, I leaned against the van and pulled on my snow-gripping Yaktrax over the bottom of my boots.  At the trailhead, I saw that the sign for Benedict Pond Road was pointing in either direction, so I knew I was on the loop trail.  The path looked straight for about 200 yards before it bent slightly.   It was a narrow, snowy version of Highway 20, that straight, paved road that runs from border to border across Iowa.  Only the path ahead of me was on a 20-degree incline.  

I heard a stream rushing to my right before I even started on the upward hike. I went twenty feet off-trail to see the water up close.  Half the width of the 20-foot wide stream was still iced over, but the flowing water had hollowed out ice under the surface.  In some places, there was a foot of open air between the inch-thick surface ice and the water running underneath it, leaving spectacular frozen formations.  I soaked up the scene for a few minutes and then returned to the path. I already felt happier about being alone.

Hiking is as broad a term as beach.  When we have visitors and they want to go to the beach, I feel like handing them a questionnaire:  Big surfing waves or wide tidal beach?  Straight sandy beach or rocky bay? Lots of people or lots of space?  Surfing or wading?  Shell or sea glass seeking? 

With hiking, I don’t mind going up hills, as long as there is a little reprieve with a flat path or downhill after the uphill.  I like going on steep hikes if I’m climbing up rocks, scrambling over tree roots, and grabbing onto trees to make my way.  However, this endless walk on a 20-degree incline to the heavens was not my cup of tea. 

Huffing and puffing, I kept going, visualizing the map that indicated the pond would be just around the next bend, but only another upward slant was around each bend.  Finally, an hour into the walk, I came to a sign marking “Beebe Trail,” a trail that I saw marked near the trailhead where I started.  I decided to give up on the pond loop trail as I knew Beebe Trail would loop around and come back out on the main road I’d been climbing.  I noticed that the anxiety and shallow breathing I had experienced at the trailhead had now been replaced with deep, heavy breathing as I tackled the hill.  

On Beebe Trail, I was only a few yards in when I headed up a steeper incline and found my left foot wouldn’t hold on the snow and ice.  Wondering if this steeper trail was such a good idea, I looked down to see that the Yaktrax on my left foot was missing.  It had silently fallen off somewhere along the way.  I shrugged and thought, that’s the answer: I wasn’t going up Beebe Trail.  I was going to backtrack the way I came to find my brand new snow gripper.  A half mile back down the trail, I saw the curled up piece of rubber and metal springs in the distance.  I scooped it up and leaned against a tree to put it back on.  I pulled the rubber front high over the toes of my boots, hoping that would keep them from falling off again. 

With only fifteen minutes left in the hike back down, I heard people and dogs behind me.  At first glance, I saw the people had poles, so I thought they were cross-country skiing, but they weren’t moving at a gliding pace.  They were hikers decked out with spiky versions of my snow grippers on their feet, backpacks filled with water, and hiking poles.  We all exchanged “hellos” as we fell into step.  I asked one of the men if he was familiar with Benedict Pond as that’s where I thought I had been heading.  He thought a minute then told me that the pond was near the main entrance about eight miles from here.  Lost in thought over the idea of hiking alone, I had neglected to notice that the main entrance was not where I entered the park.  I was on “Benedict Pond Road” not “Benedict Pond Loop Trail.”

I could tell by their chatting back and forth that these hikers, four men and two women, knew one another pretty well.  I asked the same man if the group hiked together often.  In fact, he told me, they hiked every Monday and Thursday year-round.  Starting in 1993, a group of retired men decided to hike together on Mondays; they had originally dubbed themselves the “Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.”  Literally, an old boys’ club, which now included women in the mix.  The hiking group’s founder was one of the founders of Kay Bee Toys – a Kaufman Brother who lived in Pittsfield.  Every week they hiked a different mountain in the Berkshires and enjoyed it so much that they added Thursdays to their schedule.  

Again, I’m reminded of another thing Danes have in their lives that make them happy: belonging to groups that meet regularly, often weekly, throughout the year.  When you belong to a group of people with common interests, you don’t spend a whole lot of time planning to meet or searching for “your people.”  The plan is in place and your people are there.  I think about the groups that have popped up around me and how much I look forward to being with them.  From writing and reading to cooking and Pilates, being with people who share a common personal interest is refreshing.  Rather than looking for cookie cutter replicas of ourselves, we see one facet that we can delve into with energy, as do the Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.  No one mentioned their previous careers, their families, or their medical history.  They’re retired and they like to hike.  

And one more thing the Danes regularly do: get out in nature – no matter the weather.  They say there is no bad weather in Denmark, just bad clothing.  Bill says something similar about the weather in England, if you wait for a warm, sunny day to golf in England, you’d only go golfing a few times a year.  So layers and rain gear are key for golfing in England.  You just need the right gear for the climate. 

That morning, I walked alone on a snowy path.  I got my heart rate up.  I met a bunch of friendly strangers.  I breathed in fresh air.  I had sturdy boots and snow grippers.  I felt like a Dane.  Happy.

Memories in the Hall

As the New Year starts, I look around me and see that much in my house reflects the past. The comfort of familiar nostalgia just may be beginning to bog me down. The longest hallway in our house reaches from the doorway to the kitchen near the back door and runs the length of the mudroom and the laundry room. It’s eighteen feet long and filled with photos in black and white frames of our family, both Bill’s side and mine.

Since 2012, the photos haven’t changed too much. With no family in town, I wanted a hallway filled with family photos to remind our sons Will and Liam of their connections to their people who are hundreds of miles east and west.

There are only three rows of photos and the bottom row is at the height of a 7-year-old as that’s how old Liam was in 2012. Walking through the hall one day, Will asked, “These are so old. Why don’t you put newer pictures up?”

The answer is not so much that I don’t have space; there is plenty of room to make another row above the current grouping. Most of these photos are touch points in the past marking good times with family in Iowa and England throughout the boys’ childhood. Plus, pictures of their great-grandparents, who hold such a big space in my memory that I wanted the boys to at least know the faces of their grandparents’ stories. The boys have sufficient personal memories now to have a clear feeling of “place” in a family that isn’t down the street or in the next town over.

Recently, Liam stopped to look at a photo of Bill’s family and said, “Mom, can we take a new photo and put up here?” In the photo on the wall, Bill’s mom is sitting in a chair in her living room and her family, all seven of us, are sitting around her. It was taken five years ago when Liam had decided that smiling for photos was a bit boring. His pose that day, bulging cheeks and eyes, resembled a puffer fish. And now, at 12 years old, he sees that and wants a retake. Sadly for this photo, there is no retake. Grandma is in a nursing home now and her illness has taken away her livelihood and her physical being of “Grandma.” I hesitate to remove that one from the wall. The same is true of the early 80’s portrait photo of Bill’s dad that anchors the far end of the photo gallery. He passed away in 1984.

I wonder in our house who lingers in this hallway all that much. It’s a straight shot from the bedrooms upstairs, to the bottom of the stairs, through the office and down this hall to the back door. I know it’s heavily trafficked but few linger. Alas, there is the Laundry Maven who regularly chats with Frank, Bill’s dad, as his picture is right across from the washer and dryer.

For Christmas, Bill’s sister gave us a framed black and white photo of our nephew playing guitar on stage. It’s in a 10”x10” black 3D frame. I saw the photo on their living room wall when we arrived a couple days before Christmas. I wanted to ask her for a copy of it, and there it was under the tree. If ever there was a photo that summed up a beautiful journey from child to adult, this was it. He’s looking down intensely at his guitar as he’s playing. In black and white, his t-shirt is gray and his black leather vest pops with stage-like presence. There is the true grit in the photo: He’s not looking outward to the world or to his parents for guidance, he’s truly come into his own passion and his confidence exudes from the photo. That photo had to find a place on the wall, so one of him as a young teen, with guitar in hand, came off the wall.

In a vein of honesty, since this photo was a gift, it was easier to replace the old with the new. To look through photos to find more current ones to blow-up and frame? That’s a rabbit hole I could fall into for weeks. I would pull-up the most current on my iPhone, do a small scroll back through fall, hit summer in Iowa and find twenty photos by the time I reached the beginning of last year. And, my inclination would be to keep going. Ah, boundaries… I could set the limit of going only to the beginning of the previous year – yet that would eliminate the Christmas in the previous year where I see so many adorable photos at the tiniest flick of my fingertip. I’m already overwhelmed. I’m not confident that I could abide by such time constraint.

However, it’s doable. If the kids are noticing these aging framed photos, then the prints inside need a re-do. They’ve seen them often enough for the moment to have become a memory. Will sitting on a rock with Grandpa in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with the ocean behind them. Will standing next to Grandma in the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston. In that picture, the top of his head is at her waist; today, Will is slightly taller than Grandma. These photos are from Grandpa and Grandma’s first trip out to see us. And from that same trip, a photo of Liam pulling a pen out of a pocket in Grandpa’s striped bib overalls, the same type of bibs he wears every day in Iowa. Liam doesn’t need to be reminded of that pen, for over the last ten years, he and Grandpa have regularly held contests of who-can-hold-the-pencil-under-his-nose-the-longest on Skype. Yes, those photos can come down.

I’m moving in the direction of updating and I think I know how to do it – the same way Mom does. I’ll put the new photos in and leave the old photos behind the new in the frame. Mind games.

Happy Hump Day!

 

Update on the Laundry Maven

Early in December, I had stories bumbling around in my head about Christmas cookies. Having perused one grandmother’s metal recipe box and another’s hand-written recipes, I felt the stories were ripe for telling. A theme was coming together for December Hump Day Shorts.

Then the ranting and raving Laundry Maven appeared. She had been so quiet over the last few months, systematically sorting light and heavy darks, whites, and towels that I had forgotten how riled up she could get. She had been in a confident pattern of doing laundry such that there was never a worry about a uniform shirt being ready or clean underwear in the family’s drawers.

All changed when she was taking a dark load of clothes out of the dryer, and she noticed rainbow-colored spots on Will’s blue sweatshirt. While Will’s fourteen and a little old to be getting this much paint on his clothing, she was happy to see evidence of creativity. With a casual shrug, she set the sweatshirt aside to spray with stain remover and to send through the washer and dryer again. The other pieces of laundry were black, and it wasn’t until she looked at her own new pair of pants up close that she realized the rainbow colorization had happened within the confines of the dryer, not the artistic setting she had originally visualized. Red, yellow, and blue. This load held the most expensive and favorite heavy dark clothing owned by the family – with the exception of one item: 12-year-old Liam’s school uniform trousers.

The Laundry Maven does not check pockets – never has, never will. Well, actually, she does give Will’s trousers a squeeze around the pockets. Over the last four years, she has put two black pens and a four-way, red, green, blue and black pen through the washer and dryer. However, Liam doesn’t pocket his writing utensils; instead, the Laundry Maven keeps a running score of candy consumed by this kid based on the number of wrappers remaining in the dryer after every load of school uniforms.

With the dark load of laundry out of the dryer, the Laundry Maven peered inside to see three Crayola crayon wrappers with bits of wax still stuck to them. Their shapes showed no signs of being crayons pre-dryer cycle. Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played in the back of her mind upon seeing the rainbow dots scattered on the surface of the dryer drum.

I was torn away from my sister-in-law’s recipe and writing a grocery list to make her “Almond Sugar Cookies” to search up “how to remove crayon from dried laundry.” There was a major hit on Google when I pushed enter. It’s always comforting to know you aren’t the first, and you can bet money you won’t be the last.

The first direction sounded like that given to a soon-to-be-father when his wife will be giving birth at home: “Fill a few large pots with water and boil them.” Then, put the clothes in the machine, add laundry detergent, and all the boiling water. Add ½ cup vinegar and 5 tablespoons blue Dawn. Of course, vinegar and Dawn. The cleansers of cleansers and miracle workers of miracle workers.

The Laundry Maven heard a ring of laughter in her ear – that of her mother’s, the Vinegar Maven. The number of ways the Vinegar Maven uses vinegar… innumerable. “Just run some white vinegar through the coffee brewer, it will clean it out!” No. “Put white vinegar on your cloth to clean your windows.” No. (Actually, that “no” might have been directed more toward cleaning windows than using vinegar.) “Take a little white vinegar and…” No.

Per the Laundry Maven’s request, I purchased a gallon of white vinegar to start her down the road to erasing rainbows from the clothing. Once the Maven had added all ingredients through the boiling water, vinegar, and blue Dawn, she let the cauldron set and soak for 15 minutes. Unbelievable: The rainbow spots disappeared from the clothing!

Thinking the same concoction would remove the stains in the dryer, she ran beach towels through the dryer then took them out and immediately went into the drum with a cloth doused in vinegar and blue Dawn. The fumes of acidic vinegar hitting hot metal sent her reeling backward. Damned vinegar. She re-washed and re-dried the beach towels five times so that they would soak up any crayon wax from the dryer.

I’m reminded of this story now because the two loads of dark clothes the Laundry Maven did last week also called for hauling water to the washer. The cold water would not fill, so she carried three-gallon pails full of cold water to the washer from the bathroom around the corner. One pail was filling in the bathtub while she sloshed the other one to the washer – for two wash cycles and two rinse cycles. I walked stocking-footed through the pond left in her path.

Yesterday, we had a new washer delivered. I haven’t seen the Laundry Maven this happy in months. She spent a lot of time in the laundry room yesterday, aside from catching up on the mounds of laundry. The Laundry Maven lovingly stared at the cleanliness and listened to the quietness of this new and mighty machine.

Winter Adventures

Winter adventures settled in over the New Year. A week’s worth of sub-freezing temperatures was followed by a whopping Nor’easter blizzard to swath us in white. That thing blew like a Midwestern snow storm. It mounded up snow drifts like I’ve never seen out here; they were the kinds of winds that I remember from Iowa – those that blew forcefully across the plains with very few structures to break their powerful gust. Then post-blizzard, more frigid temperatures.

I wish I could say that those winter adventures thus far have been the snow-filled fun of skiing and sledding followed by hot cocoa. That’s what my little Polly-Anna-self expects in the Normal Rockwell scheme of things. However, I’m a grown-up. Damn it.

On December 30th, when our plane landed at Logan after a seven-hour flight from England, the pilot welcomed us to the artic. It was only a couple degrees above zero. My lips turned just imagining that wait for the bus to take us to the parking lot where our van had been all week. We hadn’t taken heavy winter coats to England because they have milder winters. Will and I glanced at one another while we waiting for the bus. “This feels better than England,” he said.

Blustery wind and rain made for damp, cold outings in England. Our winter coats would’ve been welcome. However, there on the curb at the airport, we stood in the crisp, still air; it felt peaceful and considerably warmer than England. The arctic chill’s ferocity wasn’t coming at us.

As much as I like to travel, it’s always wonderful to open the door to our own house after being away. The warmth and quiet of the house quickly gave way to a barn smell. As Bill brought the bags into the house, I cut up citrus fruit and chucked the pieces down the garbage disposal. Better. Liam headed to his little nest: the computer hutch next to the Christmas tree. “It’s the tree! The tree stinks!” Yup, it was a little ripe. Having been in the house since December 1st, on the 30th the tree no longer pulled enough water through its trunk to keep it alive. Not willing to give up the lights of the holidays just yet, I cracked some windows. Three days later, the morning of the blizzard I pulled all the ornaments off and hauled the stink bomb to the curb, spilling ripe water all the way across the living room floor.

Shift back in time to the morning after we got home from England… I threw my foot to the floor next to my warm bed and felt cold wood. I pranced on my toes to my closet to grab warm clothes. Then I went to each bedroom and bathroom to touch the baseboards – where hot water should be coursing through to heat the rooms. Each baseboard was ice cold. Frozen pipes.

We didn’t panic as this has happened with the new addition every time it gets this cold for a couple days. Somewhere in these outer three walls of our new bedroom, the pipes sit too close to the outer wall or simply don’t have enough insulation on that side to protect the heating pipes. We set up space heaters and turned on the gas fireplace in our bedroom. We didn’t call the plumber; we knew the drill. The pipes are new and not copper, so they shouldn’t break. We placed the heaters where we guessed the pipes were frozen. It was a roaring 85 degrees in our bedroom and still no heat. For the record seven days in Boston with temperatures below freezing, we waited. And, we are still waiting.

Let me back up, Sunday morning I saw two four-foot long water spots on the living room ceiling, and water was dripping through a light fixture. I went into Lucy-getting-kissed-by-a-dog mode: “Move the furniture! Roll up the carpet! Roll up the padding! Cover the bookcases with cut up garbage bags!”

Bill turned the water off in the house, and we waited an hour for the plumber to arrive. Our plumbing company is owned by two brothers who are like CSI pros; they’re calm and think methodically through the situation. John was on call for the weekend. He was incredibly apologetic that he had to be there. I thought he would bring in a hatchet to break open the ceiling; that’s what I was ready for – let’s just get to the bottom of this. Instead, he thoughtfully said, “I think you have an ice dam causing this leak. I really don’t think it’s a broken pipe.”

I’ve run out of steam to tell this story. I just need my Normal Rockwell winter. Candles burning on the mantle. Red noses from sledding and skiing outside. Sitting by the fire drinking hot cocoa after a day outside. Warm stew shared with friends on a winter’s night. Seeing snowflakes swirling in the outdoor lights.

With Christmas decorations tucked away, I was well on my way to creating a more simply decorated living space for the rest of the winter. My idyllic winter visions are marred by these winter adventures. The couch is shoved against the island in the kitchen. The rug and foam pad are rolled up and in the middle of the dining room. There’s still no heat upstairs; during the week we aren’t home long enough to turn the water back on to the heating system to see if the leak originates from burst pipes. Today it’s supposed to get above freezing, so if it freezes again tonight and the ceiling leaks, we’ll lean toward an ice dam causing the yellow watermarks.

Yet through all of this, we are making wonderful memories for our children. From the couch in the kitchen, Liam looked in awe at the expanse of bare hardwood floor in the living room. “Mom, this is so cool! Can we leave it this way for a while?”

Knock yourself out, Liam. The date that the rug returns to the living room is not in the immediately foreseeable future.

Happy Wintry Hump Day!

English Lumps of Sugar

My mornings in England over Christmas started with dark coffee at the Rump & Wade. I am the early riser in our family, so each night before I went to bed, I laid out my clothes and packed a book and a journal for my morning excursion.

We stayed at the Cromwell Hotel in Stevenage, named after Oliver Cromwell. Not because he lived there in the early to mid-1,600s, but rather John Thurloe, his secretary, owned the then farmhouse. I interpret secretary to be like a cabinet member; Thurloe was Crowell’s head of intelligence. It seemed strange to me that I awoke every morning to Cromwell’s portrait on the wall of Thurloe’s home. I wrote that off to modern day marketing.

The Rump & Wade is the bar and restaurant connected by a long hallway to the Cromwell. We Malcolms had a little giggle at the name. During the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, Cromwell led the English Parliament after the death of Charles I. Within a government torn apart by war, Cromwell led the remnant group that remained, the “rump.”

As for Wade, well, honestly, the origins of Rump was a bigger fascinator to me than Wade. Perhaps it refers to George Wade, who was born in the generation following Cromwell and served in four wars throughout his lifetime? Just an educated guess at that one, based on a little poking around at the history of “Wade” in England. Naturally, most references were to walking through shallow water. I would hope that the name Rump & Wade has a deeper meaning than that.

The Cromwell is fitted out with beautiful dark wood paneling, and the hallway to the Rump & Wade is painted bright Caribbean blue. It opens into a brightly lit brasserie with a bar and tables for breakfast in the morning or lounging in the evening. The connected restaurant seating is reserved for more formal lunches and dinners. A small table near the window was my morning retreat, not for breakfast, just quiet coffee.

The tables were fully set, including a little pitcher of milk for English breakfast tea and a bowl of sugar cubes. My table was set for breakfast; however, I wanted elevensies: coffee, not tea. It’s customary to take a short break and have coffee, or tea, around 11 in the morning, with a little something to go with it, like a biscuit (cookie) or bun (sweet roll). I was asking for elevensies at sevensies.

However, coffee was readily available in the hotel restaurant with freshly brewed American-style pots waiting on the sidelines next to the bar. When the waitress served coffee to me the first day, I asked for cream. She took my request in stride and brought a small pitcher of cream to the table. I didn’t bother asking for sweetener instead of sugar. I had sent the bar into a bit of a shuffle asking for sweetener the night before. It would be a sugar-filled week with two lumps of sugar in each cup of coffee.

In my childhood, lumps of sugar in sweet little bowls were not prolific. Lumps of sugar were used infrequently and out of the context of a fresh linen-covered breakfast table. My uncle occasionally took my sister and I horse-back riding, and after riding, we would feed the horses lumps of white sugar from our flat out-stretched hands. Flat like a table so the horses’ lips would tickle them and their teeth wouldn’t nibble them. I can’t help but think these little lumps are horse treats served up as posh on the English table. Don’t get me wrong, we have sugar cubes in the states too – but not at the pub, Fuddruckers, or our other local kid-friendly haunts.

Lumps of sugar slow the consumption of coffee. Not once in England did I pour coffee into a travel mug with a dash of sweetener and a splash of half & half to gulp on the way to somewhere. When I ordered coffee the first morning, I smiled and put on my best American accent to ask for a little pot of cream to go with it. The smile was an apologetic “I’m-so-sorry-I’m-an-American-drinking-coffee-at-7-a.m.-asking-for-cream.”

However, the first six days, the same waitress was there every morning, and she knew my routine by day three. Then on Day Seven, a new waitress… and complete confusion.

“You can just help yourself to coffee over by the bar,” she replied as I wandered around with an empty coffee cup.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it was self-service!” Why hadn’t the Day One through Six waitress said something?

“Oh, it’s not, but I assumed since you were right there…”

“May I have a little bit of cream too, please?” I asked as she poured the coffee into the cup in my hand.

“If we have any,” was her reply as she walked behind the bar. “How much do you want?” She was going to glug it into my cup directly from the gallon jug. Yes, in England, gallons of cream.

I couldn’t say tablespoon; that’s American. I want more than an English teaspoon. “Just a little splash,” I decided, thinking the translation would be easier if she just poured a little pot for me.

I took my cup back to the table and found no sugar bowl. I borrowed the one from the next table over. And, this being the seventh day, let the thought fully develop: How many other people’s fingers had reached into this sugar bowl to grab a lump of sugar? There were no sugar tongs nor a spoon in the sugar bowl. I was sure that many, just like me, reached in for a lump or two with their fingers. I saw rows of sugar bowls full and stacked up behind the bar. This was not a disposable set of cubes. The bowl was moved from table to table and refilled as needed. I wondered how often they were cleaned.

Conflicted thoughts between packeted sweeteners and bowls of sugar cubes bounced around in my brain. How many trees do we chop down in order to individually package truckloads of quarter teaspoons of sugar? And the accompanying three different sweeteners in the “sugar bowl”? How many kids, including my own, create wasteful games out of these packets? The stateside health department’s intolerance of germs seems to have swung the sugar pendulum ridiculously far from simply serving sugar cubes. Or is it easier for restaurants to receive shipments of tiny packets that lumps of sugar? I was in full sugar spin.

The lunacy over sugar ended when – after dropping two cubes of sugar into my morning coffee – I opened my journal to write. The memory of horse lips tickling my palm 40 years ago reminded me of swimming with stingrays, for the underside of a stingray ranks number one as the softest object I’ve ever touched — second only to those horse lips taking sugar cubes off of my then 10-year-old hand. Yes, sugar cubes over Christmas riled a memory that pushed velvety horse lips to second, outranking the silkiness of my boys’ cheeks as babies.

Merrily We Roll

Like many of you, Malcolms are in the final push to Christmas! We fly to England Saturday morning to spend the holiday with Bill’s family. Our family’s December schedule is flip-flopping around like a fish freshly pulled to shore. My mind is carrying me along in the same fashion of fits and bursts…

Last night on my way out to a writers’ meeting, I asked Liam what he had to do as Secret Santa today. “Oh, it’s the last day, so I need a gift under $15 to give him,” he oh-so-casually explained. Liam is in 6th grade, so I’ve had many years of experience with this kind of last-minute information. We gathered six doo-dads I had picked up from Target’s party favor shelves earlier in December. Then, I looked at the four dozen Snickerdoodles I had made that morning. Do I want to part with a few of these for a Secret Santa gift? Yes, a dozen cookies would elevate the value of this gift, particularly if I assigned a dollar amount to the 6 a.m. labor that went into these cinnamon & sugar lovlies.

As something a little different for Christmas treats, I made almond crackers and breadsticks with a batch of hummus early Sunday morning. I put a package together to give to my neighbors who have four little children; they weren’t home so I left the box on the front seat of their pick-up truck. That afternoon we four Malcolms went to a Christmas concert in Boston. In the middle of the Hallelujah chorus, it hit me: Nuts! Oh my God, nuts! Do any of the kids have a nut allergy?!?! Holding my phone under the table, I quickly dimmed the screen light and texted my neighbor. Later, I learned there were no nut allergies. Hallelujah.

Earlier this month, we went out to dinner, and I took the Christmas Chat Pack with us to prime conversation before dinner. I love these cards; in fact, it would’ve been nice to give these to Liam’s Secret Santa buddy. But I digress… One of the questions was “what is your favorite part of Christmas decorations?” Both Will and Liam agreed: lights. That nugget channeled my decorating energy; I didn’t need every single tub of Christmas decorations opened and distributed — I needed some basics, plus a whole bunch of lights. I bought eight new strings of white lights to cheer up the living room and kitchen; I’m averaging hanging two strings each week of December. The string that I hung in 10 minutes yesterday lights garland in the kitchen, plus an empty high shelf. The glow is sweet enough; I don’t feel a real need to add a bauble to that shelf.

Will and Liam are 14 and 11, respectively; they are old enough to sit through Christmas concerts and musicals. Of course, there is a bit of negotiation involved with Liam. “Will there be popcorn?” “Can I have Skittles?” I acquiesce in order to sit through live entertainment with my family at Christmas time. Last Sunday at the concert, Liam proclaimed, “This is food heaven with great music! Good fun!” At 51 years old, I’m no longer above bribery. On the way home, we cinched the seatbelt around Liam extra tight to keep his sugar-bounce in check.

At the end of November, I purchased some small peppermint bath bombs as gifts — and as I write this, I wonder where I hid them. But I digress… Late one evening, I decided to try one out in a foot bath. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never used one before. I filled my foot tub with warm water, placed it at the foot of my recliner, and dropped a bath bomb in. I slid my feet in and watched and waited. For being a bath “bomb,” very little was happening; it was just bouncing around on the surface of the water and I smelled no peppermint. I had expected it to dissolve more quickly. A couple minutes later, I plucked it out of the water to inspect it. Did you know that bath bombs are wrapped in plastic which must be removed for them to fizz and add happiness to a tub and aroma to the room?!?!

Hoping you are merrily rolling along this holiday season! Happy Hump Day!

Yankee Living

I started off the morning with a brisk hour-long walk around a lake. It was 22 degrees, and with the windchill, it felt like 12 degrees. I spent the next two hours coaxing my thighs and cheeks back to life. Those were the coldest parts; I think fat draws the cold in and holds onto it longer than other areas, like hands and lower legs.

Winter has finally suggested it is in the vicinity of New England. Saturday I joined three friends, new and old, on an early morning drive to King Arthur Flour in Vermont. A winter storm was in the forecast for that afternoon, but never was the suggestion made that we cancel our plans.

One friend suggested we take cutters to collect winterberries along the way. Another said that those branches break easy enough, so we wouldn’t need cutters. As for me, I wondered to myself, “What exactly are winterberries?”

We headed two hours northwest, through New Hampshire then just over the border of Vermont to Norwich. “Winterberries grow where it’s swampy, so watch for wet areas,” suggested the breaker of winterberry branches.

We were on four-lane interstate roads the whole trip, doing 65 miles an hour. The weather was clear and the traffic was light. Nevertheless, whenever bare bushes with bright red berries were spotted on the side of the road, there was too much traffic behind us to slow down and gather branches. And true to the forecast, all of the bushes were in low-lying wet areas.

As we drove along, my Midwestern brain said not to trespass on other people’s property. God knows, I never went looking for morel mushroom on a stranger’s property. Of course, Iowans may be more protective of their morel patches than New Englanders are of there boggy winterberry bushes.

Thinking about it, I remember Dad and neighbors being very protective of their land. No trespassers. Period. Why? Because it’s a major asset? Land in Massachusetts is rocky and seems unfriendly to plowing and sowing. With the ocean, on the other hand, no one dares pull up a lobster pot marked by a buoy that’s not their own. Each of those beautifully colored buoys is an identifier to the lobsterman who set out the cage.

As a kid, while I was dropping handfuls of protein on small piles of corn in the manger and then holding the cows’ tails so they wouldn’t switch Mom in the face as she milked, a little girl in New England was helping her lobsterman dad repaint hundreds of buoys to put out. First jobs for both of us, very different, hundreds of miles apart. While old milk cans provide decorative nostalgia in the Midwest, old buoys do the same in New England. And, I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that some farmers and some lobsterman find nothing nostalgic in those reminders of hard-earned livings.

Back to Vermont. At King Arthur, we donned aprons and claimed our spots in the front row of the kitchen classroom. One of my new friends mumbled something about attention issues and the front row. I felt a bonding moment with her over that acknowledgment.

We made three different kinds of crackers, not my first choice of baking class, but the words “Saturday, baking class, and Vermont,” plus the thought of an outing with friends, nudged me toward signing up. I went with an open mind and was awed by the three recipes we cranked out in three hours. Grissini, lavash, and almond flour crackers.

 

Becca, the woman who taught the class, seemed to have had a cup of zen before she started the day. We all followed suit, gently rolling the various doughs until they came together. Working out frustrations while kneading dough can lead to tough bread. She seemed to barely touch the dough; her hands glided over the surface and formed soft balls of yeasty goodness.

Incidentally, Becca grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, approximately six hours southeast of Mom and Dad’s dairy and grain farm in northeast Iowa. And now, we two farmgirls live 1,600-plus miles from our homes. Some of her father’s wheat goes to a processing plant that supplies King Arthur Flour. Perhaps that’s why she had such a soft touch when she worked the dough.

After the crackers had baked, we proudly carried them to the car, along with our purchases from the King Arthur on-site store. That was when we felt the first flurry of snow. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the sky was already darkening to dusk. I took the wheel for the return trip to Massachusetts. And voila: enter snowstorm. At 45 mph, I kept an eye out for wetland and spotted a group of winterberry bushes within the first half hour of the drive. No one was behind me on the snowy road, so I slowed and pulled over at the next bright patch. Only one bush. Our lone winterberry gatherer exited the car; she was the only one with boots on. The snow was falling at a steady clip, and from the warm van, we watched her break and collect oodles of branches. “Now, she is a true Yankee!” declared one of the other women in the car.

And that made me think, what is a true Yankee? While there are many meanings, and not all positive, what constitutes a Yankee culture? A Yankee has a certain grit and get-to-it-tiveness, very similar to a cliche Midwesterner. However, I certainly didn’t feel like a Midwesterner that day: I had traveled from one state through two others to go to a baking class. From northeast Iowa, no one plans to travel two states over to Colorado to bake for a day.

The want or need to live somewhere with four seasons certainly has something to do with being a Yankee. Here, when school is canceled on a Friday for a snowstorm, it’s not uncommon for Massachusetts residents to pack up and head north to the mountains. If a vehicle can maneuver up ski mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine, it can surely move through a snowstorm in Massachusetts. In Iowa, I remember hunkering down as blizzard winds blew across the prairie. However, my immediate family here seeks deeper snow on steep inclines. We hailed from different parts of the world and dropped anchor in Massachusetts. So we follow suit in heading north/northwest during snowstorms…

No matter that I’ve woken up every day for the last 13 years feeling like a Midwesterner living in New England, I am getting closer to claiming to be part of the Yankee culture.  And now… I have been the driver of a winterberry expedition van.  That must count for something.  I’ll pack boots next time I head north; my first successful breaking of a winterberry branch should cinch my inclusion in the New England Yankee culture.

Until then, I’ll identify more closely as a daughter of the Midwest.

To you, wherever and whoever you are, Happy Hump Day!

The Rotund Tree's Slow Evolution

I write this to you while sitting next to the lit Christmas tree; it's not decorated, just lit. The tree is a round-as-it-is-tall Frasier Fir. While picking it out on Sunday, we Malcolms stuck close to our annual tradition: Scene 1, me pointing to the perfect tree; then Bill raising his arm straight up to prove he is unable to touch the top bough, saying, “This one is too tall for our living room.” Before resigning to that opinion, I drop my head to the trunk and see how much we can cut off; decide that’s too much of a gamble; and concede that we should not pay for an extra two feet when that’s how much needs to be chopped off the bottom before it goes into the house.

Scene 2, Malcolms move on to the neighboring tree, looking for one with the same shape as that first tree.

Scene 3, finally a four-way consensus on the perfect tree.

On Sunday, it took the tree salesman longer to explain the difference between a fir and a spruce than it did for us to find the tree. Our rotund tree was the second tree we looked at, only three trees down from the too big 10-footer.

We went to a new Christmas tree lot this year and had elves deliver the tree to our house via a sleigh on wheels. They pulled it behind their work truck that they use in their irrigation business the other three seasons. The elves even brought the tree inside and set in up in our tree stand. I thought this experience would be a welcome change for my Chief Tree-putting-up Elf, Bill, pictured here under the 2016 Christmas tree.

It made so much more sense for two professional elves to take care of this job as opposed to the Chief Elf and his three un-trained helpers.

While the tree was still wrapped in netting, I fed it two tablespoons of sugar in warm water, per the elves' direction. The elves told us to leave it for about an hour before we cut the netting off and released the branches. During that time, Bill noticed it was slightly askew, so he, Will, and I adjusted the angle of the trunk just a little bit, looking for 90-degree angles between trunk and floor from all vantage points. Finally, I cut the netting off and the branches shyly released. When I went to bed, they were still reaching for the ceiling.

At first sight of the tree the next morning, I gasped – for many reasons. There’s the tree! Yay, we have a tree! It’s so beautiful! ...Oh, my goodness, how did it get so big? How will I drag it out of here in January when it’s now twice as wide as the back door? The tree is nearly hugging the love seat! I need to re-arrange the furniture!

Sidebar: I have visual perspective issues. Salmon fillets double in size from the fish counter to my kitchen counter. Soup recipes calling for 10 cups of stock surely would be better if doubled. Hanging a picture on the wall usually ends in scratches on the paint because I can’t accurately visualize the placement of the hook on the photo relative to the nail on the wall. For me to get a golf ball into the hole in the green? Forget about it. So goes it with this tree. However, now that I’ve moved the computer hutch over twelve inches and the love seat back two feet, this over-sized tree is magnificent. The green breadth of the tree has stolen the living room focal point away from the wide-screen TV.

Last night I found the small tub of white tree lights from last year and pushed the strings into the depths of the branches toward the trunk. Eight strings later, I had hardly made a visible glow. I had two brand new strings of colored lights so added those to the mix. This could work… but I saw plenty of room for more twinkle. Once the wattage is at an acceptable level, I’ll start adding the decorations. From past experience, I know it makes the most sense to be happy with the lighting BEFORE putting ornaments on the tree.

Every year I get a bit better at accepting the fact that I do not, cannot, shall not put the tree up in one day, like I did when I was in my twenties. Now, there are more lights to buy, 25 years of accumulated ornaments to hang, and four schedules to coordinate. I might get twenty ornaments on today, none tomorrow, five on Friday, and finish over the weekend.

Acknowledging this fact makes tree trimming much more enjoyable than fretting over the slowness of the process. The rides to and from basketball, gymnastics, scouts, trumpet lessons, drum lessons, STEM classes – not to mention the daily school drop-off and pick-up – make for intermittent decorating. Fact.

Yes, today I’ve decided that I will appreciate the few minutes it takes to put on this year’s new baubles from Maine, NASA, Vermont, Boston, and Iowa. And, I will be grateful for the friends and our family who have weaved memories with us throughout the year.

We have a lovely, pudgy Frasier Fir from which to hang years’ worth of commemorations, celebrations, and reminiscences. And this intermittent decorating means several days for which to remember, to be thankful, and to be present. And of course, to laugh at year's past.

Happy Merry-Making!

The Whale Tooth in the Trunk

My house is still breathing deep as it was last time I wrote a few weeks ago. It's recovering from the bout with Halloween. This weekend we are going to get our Christmas tree; then the official Christmas decorating will commence! Monday night, we returned from a week in Iowa. We packed a ton into that week, and each day had a definable cadence: Wednesday we put up Mom’s Christmas tree and decorations; Thursday we had a Thanksgiving feast with just Mom, Dad, and Aunt Anne; Friday we took two tall, dead elms down at Mom and Dad’s; Saturday we celebrated an early Christmas with my sister’s and brothers’ families; Sunday we had a belated Easter egg hunt; Monday we flew home. When the bus dropped us off at our van in the airport parking lot, we looked at one another as if we had just time traveled, “Didn’t we just leave?”

In the van, the same goldfish wrappers, grocery lists, and empty water bottles were right where we had left them – and that was just the inventory in the front seat. As Bill packed the cases into the cargo area, I remembered what was tucked into a side pocket back there: a baleen whale tooth.

At the beach last summer, I picked up an intriguing skinny, white, foot-long stick. At first, I thought it was just a hard piece of plastic, it felt like the handle of a fly swatter but was frayed at one end. Within 30 seconds, the thought of baleen whale tooth came to mind. Where did I pull that from, God only knows. At the end of that beach day, we packed our sandy beach chairs, coolers, beach quilt, and buckets into the van. And one, at that time “possible,” whale tooth.

At home, I shook out the blankets, put the chairs and buckets in the garage, and took the coolers to the mud room. I knew what to do with those items in our day-at-the-beach inventory. But a potential whale tooth? I gave it an up-close inspection: hard plastic on one end split into thin plastic hairs at the other; then I went into the house and Googled it. Sure enough: baleen whale tooth it was. It is. Yes, indeed it still is. In the back of my van. And yes... that was July and it's now nearly December.

Why is it still there? Well, where does one keep an amazing treasure like a whale tooth? It won’t fit in my shell jars; plus those are meant for shells only. It might fit in the long, rectangular, bronze planter box perched high on top of the computer hutch. That’s where I keep the complete horseshoe crab shells I’ve collected. A long way from the ocean, they are tucked deep into the planter, collecting dust from the air. They share the planter with a small creeping plant lodged at one end.

I know why I haven’t put the whale tooth into the planter: it’s a silly place to keep a treasure. I want to see it – as I would like to see the horseshoe crab shells. However, I know that scattering my beach treasures willy-nilly on shelves would put them in a whole new category – no longer Treasure, but rather Clutter. Collectors of Dust. A better home decorator would have this sauced out by now.

I have a thought. I could put the odd-shaped sea treasures in a clear, oblong glass serving plate that I have tucked away. Then put it on display on a shelf. When the treasures and the glass gather dust, I can just run them under water to give them a quick cleaning. But this mini beach vignette won't appear until Christmas decs have spent time on the said shelf. No, the safest place for the whale tooth is still in the back of my van… until January. What’s one more month?

Take an Iowa farm girl off the gravel roads, plant her next to the Atlantic Ocean, and voila! There she is with a whale tooth stuck in her trunk.

Clementine Pumpkins

Last weekend, I stripped Halloween from every shelf, wall, window, table, windowsill, and crevice. Bill and the boys carried the tubs from the basement out to the barn loft. Now, the living room, kitchen, and dining room feel spacious. The rooms are breathing, filling up their lungs to prepare for the next intense barrage after Thanksgiving. I’m in the coffee shop where the barista has made a poinsettia-like latte for me – it just needs a few red sprinkles to complete the visual sensation. The Christmas music in the background made me smile -- until another regular came in and said, “What is this music?!? We just took the bats down!” And the channel was changed. Ugh.

I’ve been listening covertly to a Capella Christmas music since the beginning of September. With the five-part harmony of Pentatonix, I can pitch my atonal voice in anywhere and it blends just fine – when in the confines of my van.

Bill caught me in the tub one evening in the middle of a Pentatonix holiday concert (but I was not singing). His “What the… ???” was met by my, “Out! This is my private space!!” On November 1st, Bill sent me an email with a list of all the radio stations that are playing Christmas music. This, despite the year I high-jacked his pre-set buttons on November 1st: I programmed every one to the same Christmas station. His old rock'n'roll channels were nowhere to be found. I love spreading good cheer like that!

Occasionally, the blue-tooth connection in the van connects randomly. I picked up a friend for lunch in late-September and used voice recognition to text and let her know I had arrived. She got into the van and as she shut the door, “Silent Night” started blaring. To her shocked amusement, I replied, “Sorry, I thought I had it turned off!” It will take a while for that to escape her memory.

My logical Will is not a fan of Christmas music before December. He knows about my recent propensity to play out-of-season Christmas a Capella; however, I turn the volume down completely when I pick him up from school. I note his quiet glances to the screen and the small appreciative smile he gives me after he reads, “Mary Did You Know."

Liam, on the other hand, let’s me sneak in Christmas tunes. We were home alone the night before Halloween making treats for school: peeling Clementines and adding a celery stalk stem to create pumpkins. Cooking isn’t cooking for me without music playing. Short-order cooking doesn’t require music because I need all senses to focus on the preparation of three different meals. But for leisurely cooking, crooners like Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra are my accompaniment to food creativity. As we started to peel 40 clementines, I whispered to Liam, “Do you care if we put on some Christmas music?”

“That’s fine, Mom!” I obviously have some credits built up in my court for the allowance of more electronics time as he’s gotten older. I met Liam in the middle; he’s not a fan of loud a Capella, so we peeled clementines with my crooners singing Christmas standards. And five minutes later, there I was… steeping in tricked out senses. Visions of orange and green combined with Liam’s bright eyes and smile; sounds of Christmas melodies and Liam’s snickers and chortles; smells of citrus and that stringy vegetable; tastes of juicy fruit and the trying of celery (which Liam spat out into the sink); and touches of soft orange rinds, the feeling of the knife sculpting pumpkin stems, and a gentle elbowing between Liam and me. The scene ramped up to euphoria. One of those times where you are so thoroughly in the middle of here-and-now, that the exhilaration of the moment is the axis upon which the world spins. Even once past, that memory whips up an elated memory with the intensity like that of the Grinch whose heart has been newly warmed.

Post-Halloween, and back to our normal routine, I had Christmas music playing when I picked up Liam from school one day. He asked me why I play Christmas music this early. I hesitated. Do I answer honestly or breeze over the question?

“Liam, I don’t want to sound grim, but sometimes I think, ‘What if I’m not here at Christmas? Why should I wait until December to play my favorite music?’ Sometimes you should just do what you love to do and not wait for the perfect or right time.”

“Yeah... I get it, Mom, but that is a little dark.”

But it’s the truth. And I’m loving every listening, from “Silent Night” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Jingle Bells.” Perhaps I will have had enough when we reach Easter? Maybe.

But for today... Have Yourself a Merry Little Hump Day!

New Freedoms with a Tween and a Teen

Independence abounds in our house this fall. It's not always predictable, but it is taking shape. At 11 years old, Liam is old enough to be at home on his own more often now. I'm still a bit nervous going out beyond three miles from our house in the evening and leaving him alone. Last night, Bill and I went with our friends to a musical at a theater 14 miles from our house. I dimmed my phone, set it to vibrate, and sat with it on my lap the whole show. At intermission, I called home.

"Hi, Mom. I've made my cup of noodles and I'm fine." That's how Liam answered the phone. I reminded him what time Will would be home from gymnastics. And that Liam needed to go upstairs at 9 p.m., away from hand-held electronics and to our bedroom. When we got home at 10 p.m., Liam was upstairs watching TV in our bedroom, and Will confirmed he had gone up to bed a half hour earlier. I don't know if that's true. Part of me hopes that when they saw the car come in the drive, Liam raced upstairs, and Will covered for him. I like to believe there is a bit of an alliance between them -- a joint brotherly independence.

Last Friday night, Bill was out of town and I went to Boston with a friend for the evening, leaving the boys to their own devices until midnight. When I got home, Liam was in bed fast asleep and Will was hanging out in his bedroom. All was calm.

I'm reveling in this new-found freedom. On evenings when Bill and I are both going out, and I'm fussing over what to get the boys for dinner, it's refreshing when Liam quells my worry, "Mom, I won't starve. I'll just make a cup of noodles."

Then, Will chimes in, "Yeah, EZ mac in the microwave works for me."

We are traveling new territory in the mornings too. Will gets up to his own alarm, showers, makes breakfast, and packs his own lunch. Liam comes down and turns on the TV. I've spent each morning the first month of school hovering and poking at him to eat, pack his backpack, and make his lunch. This morning, I couldn't take watching any more tween shows at 6:45 a.m. I made breakfast for Liam and told him to turn the TV off at 7:30 and finish getting ready for school. Then I went to the office and shut the door to eliminate noise coming from the Nickelodeon channel. It was a productive half hour for me, and at 7:30 I heard the TV go off, and at 7:45, "Mom, I ready!"

Note to self: No need to hover. The magic of self-regulation seems to be taking hold!

After school pick-ups have also changed for the better. I pick Liam up first at 2:15 and take him home, then get back on the road to pick up Will at 2:45. And a strange thing is happening with each of them: conversation. Liam needs to release loud verbal energy in the car. Will needs a quiet drive with minimal conversation. I need harmony. Again with Liam old enough to be on his own, this is all doable.

I've heard parents talk about their expanded freedom when their kids can drive, but there isn't as much talk about this stage. Perhaps, because it's nerve-racking. Plus, there are no hard and fast rules as to when this independence is appropriate.

(Coincidently, reflecting back to 1976, I was 10 years old and babysitting. Yup, when Elvis died I heard the news while I was taking care of two little girls. I probably even fed them and did the dishes while their parents were working.)

We have several carpools in place to get many kids from A to B throughout the week; however, I've always brought Will home from school -- nearly an hour roundtrip. A parent who lives nearby reached out to me about carpooling our sons home from afterschool band practice. It's not a regularly scheduled ride share, so we juggle it every week depending on what days work best for each of us. Yesterday morning, I got a text, "I can bring Will home today if he can wait until 4:00." Yes, thank you!

I reminded Will what this parent's car looked like and to go to the pickup point on time. At 4:00 I smiled, happy to have this little system worked out and to not be on the road. I was working in the office while Liam and his buddies were playing outside. At 4:30, I still hadn't seen Will and was worried that he had forgotten the plan. His phone is dead so I couldn't text or call him. At 4:50, I called the dad who was bringing Will home, and I could tell immediately by the background noise that he was at home, not in his car.

"Did Will forget to meet you at school for a ride home?" I asked.

"What? He's home! I dropped him off about a half hour ago."

"Reeeally?!" I was dumbstruck.

"Yeah, he saw his little brother on the tramp with his buddies and said something like, 'I'm going straight to my room.'"

"Aha... OK. Well, thank you!"

Our office has two doors; the one closest to the stairs to the second floor had been shut. I opened it and went up to find Will doing homework on his bed.

"Hi, Mom."

"Hi, Will. I didn't know you were home... I've been a little worried since 4:30, and I just called Mr. Smith to see where you were."

"Ohhh..."

"Just let me know whenever you get home. A simple 'Hi Mom' will do." I won't thwart your independence. Let's just get on the same page.

Will gave me a nod and thumbs-up in reply.

I sent the dad a quick text: "I found my kid..." accompanied by an embarrassed emoji.

Your car is parked near Home

It’s funny how similar pieces of information have different levels of importance depending on the situation. My online shopping habit leaves me lost when I enter a mall. If I need to go to a brick and mortar multi-plex, I try to look at a map of it online before driving there so I can see where to park and which way to turn once inside the building. More often than not, I still search for a mall directory when I get there so I can visually get my bearings. Finding the store is the easy part; finding the “You Are Here” marker is more challenging and is just as important as the store location. As I’m back on the driving circuit this month, my phone has started to monitor my travels. Perhaps this is happening because I use the Waze GPS app daily. With no as-the-crow-flies route to Will’s school, I use this app to find the quickest of five or six possible routes. This app considers current traffic flow. When I get to school, the app automatically says, “Are you going home now?” It knows my routine. With one click of “Yes,” our journey home is mapped out, again, using the quickest route.

This smartphone is giving me cues at home as well. If it detects movement, a message comes on the screen: “Your car is parked near Home.” It’s akin to the “You Are Here” marker on a mall directory, but at home, this is absolutely useless information. After school on Wednesday, Will and I exchanged glances when this message popped up.

“Well, it would be good for someone suffering from severe amnesia,” he offered.

“I’m not that bad yet,” I replied. “Something more useful – like ‘Your Trumpet Is in the Trunk of the Parent’s Car Who Drove the Carpool Home Monday’ – would be much more useful,” I suggested. Now that would legitimate the word “smart” in smartphone.

Will has played trumpet in the band at this school since 6th grade. He has the habit down to a science, rarely forgetting to take the instrument and always bringing it home for his Saturday lesson. And within our house, it’s either in the mudroom or the office/music room. This year, band meets after school twice a week, and for the first time, the school has made it an elective so it also meets during the school day, and students get credit for it. During the first week of school, the instructor made it clear that students would be docked if they forgot their instruments.

On Monday, we tried out a band carpool, and another mom picked Will up and brought him home from an after-school practice. It all worked seamlessly and alleviated a trip for me. However, Wednesday morning we were scouting the house for the trumpet. Finally, it dawned on Will where it was: in the back of the mom’s car who had brought him home. He texted the carpool mom’s son – only to find that his mom had left on a business trip that morning. I texted the carpool dad.

We were operating on the assumption that the trumpet was most likely in the trunk of a car that was parked at the airport. With no word back from the dad, I called the music store where Will takes lessons. Yes, there was a trumpet there that Will could use for the week. I would pick it up at 11:00 and get it to the school in plenty of time for band period that started at 1:00.

As I headed out the door, my cell phone buzzed with a new message. I was hoping it would be a message from the carpool dad. Yet again I saw, “Your car is parked near Home.”

“Yes, but where is the trumpet?” I shouted at the smartphone.

In the van, I plugged in the smartphone and drove to the end of the driveway. As I prepared to make a right-hand turn, my phone buzzed with a message again. I glared at the device, but alas! It was a message of substance! “Trumpet in my trunk.” Carpool mom had driven carpool dad's car when she picked up the kids on Monday. The trumpet wasn't at the airport after all!

I turned left instead of right and drove to the carpool dad’s house to retrieve the trumpet. In the school office at 11:30, I added it to the myriad of other dropped-off objects on the counter: phones, lunches, iPads, and books.

Seeing those other forgotten objects calmed me and made me feel a little more connected to the world. The secretary’s warm, sincere smile as one student walked in to pick up his lunch reminded me that we aren’t alone in the September rush of creating habits and getting used to new routines.

So went the time dedicated to writing this week’s Hump Day Short. As needed, the writer pulls over and hands the reigns to the mom…

I must end here as I just received a text from Will. A Google doc that is due today has disappeared into the cloud-o-sphere…

Thank God It’s Friday.

What the Boys Wear

I’m looking nearly eye-to-eye with my 13-year-old (soon to be 14-year-old) Will. At his physical this summer, he was just 1 ¾” shorter than me. With his school shoes on, he’s only about ¾” shorter. Thinking he had popped up an inch overnight one morning last week, I had him back up against the door where we’ve been marking the boys’ heights since they were old enough to stand. “It’s just my shoes, Mom.” Yes, partially. He had grown another quarter inch in the last month. Liam has hit the growth spurt as well. Nearly four inches since last August. Will has more markings on the door in recent months. I don’t have a system of monthly or bi-monthly measurement. It’s more like, “Gosh, you seem taller! Go stand by the door; I’ll bring my Sharpie.” Or, “You’re pants are too short. Go stand by the door; I’ll bring my Sharpie.” And when Will’s head approached my shoulder and beyond, I’ve marched him to the door more often over the last year.

Will and Liam are not caught up in clothing styles or brands. Comfort comes first. And with both of them in school uniforms, comfort becomes a relative word during the week. Then, after school and on the weekend, the t-shirts and sweats come out. Will has few t-shirts that aren’t gymnastics related. Liam seldom dons shirts unless we are leaving the house or company is coming over. However, lately, he’s been cooking and has realized it’s good to have a shirt on to avoid splatters on bare skin. What shorts Liam wears only matters if we are hiking; then he needs pockets to carry rocks.

I’m pretty sure I could control both of their wardrobe choices by simply putting a shirt I selected on top of the pile every morning. There’s little thought given to holes or clothes that are too small. Consequently, if it has outlived its useful life in the Malcolm home, the Laundry Maven needs to take note then intercept it in the laundry cycle, or it goes directly back into the rotation.

Matching can sometimes be a challenge, but one I rarely comment on. Basically, any color t-shirt matches any color stripe on black sweat pants or shorts. I see that trend with boys around their age. If Will has a neon green shirt land jackpot with a pair of sweats having the same neon colored stripe, I might comment on how nice he looks. With his quiet response, I see a frame from a comic strip, and we are face to face. In it, I have wide open admiring eyes with a bubble that says, “Matching neon green – top and bottom!” Will has raised eyebrows with a thinking bubble saying, “T-shirt. Sweats.”

Both of the boys played a bit of golf over the summer. That required more formal attire – a belt, a collared shirt, and nice shorts. A bit of grumbling melted into acquiescence in order to chase a ball for a couple hours. It’s good for them to see there is a time and a place to dress appropriately. Though those times seem far and few between compared to 20 years ago.

When we are going out, sometimes I ask them to put on something a bit nicer. I like to see what they come up with on their own. Generally, they avoid the trousers with zippers and opt for black sweats and a collared shirt. The only suggestion I might make is a change from white to black socks, particularly if three inches of their ankles are showing.

Happy Hump Day.

Hikers/rock collectors in the distance. (Summer 2017  in Vermont)

A new angel walks in heaven now

The prep for the weekly Hump Day Short was back on track Wednesday morning after the school drop-off. Just before I put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard, I checked my email only to find that a good friend had died earlier that morning. We had been acquaintances for eight years as my younger boys followed the same trail as her older boys through the same school then through the same scout troop. A couple years ago, we bumped into each other in the library on a winter day. Having not seen her for a few months, her missing eyebrows just below her knitted cap prompted my direct question, "What's going on?" And her reply, "I'm going through what you did. Do you have time for coffee?"

Through our many shared mocha lattes over the last couple years, I discovered that she also grew up in the Midwest, Minnesota, and our conversations felt like those around Mom's kitchen table. We rarely went in-depth over that two-word beast, breast cancer; with two women raised on black Midwestern dirt we took one day at a time. We talked about the immediate plan for treatment, the thing most controllable. But mostly we talked about family - near and far, our lives in our community, and the weather - as most Midwesterners do. Her no-nonsensical approach to life was like a breath of fresh air blown in from the plains. She kept on a steady keel with few complaints. All who crossed her path professionally and within the community will feel an unfillable emptiness at the table - as I will across a small coffee table. God gained a great angel; earth lost an amazing woman.

As much as I turn this loss around in my head, I have no fresh words but rather fall back to these...

“How long will it hurt?" Will was around seven when he asked that question. It was after a skinned knee or elbow. I don’t remember the wound – only those words. And the insistence that I just tell him how long. The begging.

Wouldn’t it be a great feat to look at a watch or a calendar and mark the end time or date? How much more manageable pain would be if we had that ability.

Instead, the time of intense pain puts us in a different continuum, bare of minutes and hours and outside the realm of normal. How can there be a normal anywhere when the here and now is filled with this much pain? Must the birds sing this morning? How can the sun reflect onto clouds and hand us the most glorious sunset?

If we could only answer that question. How long will it hurt? How much farther from today will a footstep out of bed be the first one back to the patter of life before that ensconcing pain? As much as it may seem to be a perverse punch to the gut, the fact that life continues around us gives a sense of comfort when that first return step into "normal" is made.

The uncertainty of pain exhausts. The unknown when and where and how forces us to live in the moment. Moment after moment. Living normal life on skates, that slowness induced by pain feels unnatural. Living in the moment and letting go of the control we look for in daily life – another layer of pain.

Concentric circles of pain fall around the person at the center of it. Whether an unwelcome diagnosis or an unexpected illness, an equal but different intense pain emanates from the center of that pinwheel to the first closest circle; the ones who would do or give anything to make that pain disappear but who can only comfort and support the person fighting the fight.

And with our woven friendships and acquaintances, the circles continue to increase in number. And in those outer circles, we want the same for the inner circles: for the pain to subsist. To find that answer to “How long will it hurt?” All of us have been in those tight inner circles, asking the same question. And, if there was any way we could, we would answer that question to alleviate some of your pain.

Instead, it remains the unanswered question, and often times, all we can do is let you know that a piece of our heart is with you every day...

Whether you are a good-vibes or praying type of person, or both, please whisper Marietta's name today, as well as anyone else's who may find themselves in a circle asking, "How long will it hurt?"

What is the plural of octopus?

Since we moved out to the Boston area in 2005… …Well, that’s as far as I got last Tuesday while writing a piece titled “Chasing R’s.” It was/is/will be a commentary on the Boston accent, or rather my attempt at translating words and conversations.

Last Tuesday's writing:

"Up at 5:00 a.m., I was sure this would happen: two hours of writer’s flow. However, Liam and his new octopus plush have now joined me in the living room. And, now the _Octonauts_ show is on TV. He’s taken a keen interest in octopuses/octopi/octopodes since a week of summer camp where the kids were encouraged to do in-depth research on any topic they chose. Hence my knowledge of the three acceptable plural forms of octopus.

Octopuses are boneless so can scoot through very small holes. I’m told their favorite snacks are crabs. They have nine brains: one in each tentacle and one in their head. If a tentacle gets cut off it grows back. Brain and all!

The appeal of octopuses to Liam: they are very sneaky and very smart. They are near the top of the food chain because of their intelligence and their defense mechanisms. They leave enemies in a black cloud of ink or they blend into the background.

The giant Pacific octopus is Liam’s favorite because it has the biggest brain. He also likes the coconut octopus because it’s the smartest and it uses tools, and they can run with two legs on the ocean floor. One octopus can walk on land and it makes a gooey, slurpy sound as it moves across land.   Thanks BBC for the sight and sounds of this phenomenon! 

It’s only 6:00 a.m., and Liam and I just wrote his journal entry for the week."

And from there, I spent a half hour youtubing octopi: one scuttling across the ocean floor like a cartoon creature and another carrying a big shell as he ran, then setting it down, crawling inside, and pulling the lid over the top of him to hide.

I now better understand Liam’s fascination with these slug-related creatures.

Low Maintenance: Mulch It

Last Saturday morning, I was lodged into a corner of my kitchen avoiding the 6-foot long window over my kitchen sink. It overlooks the backyard and the deck, which is the main entrance to our house. When we put an addition on five years ago, we added windows all along the back of the house so we could see the kids playing in the backyard. I didn’t consider the reverse view: we are on display for anyone in the backyard. And so are the dirty dishes on the counter and in the sink. It was designed with Pottery Barn ideology and is being lived in with Malcolm practicality. I was hugging the corner cupboards after hearing a clunk on the deck. The lawn care guys were outside, and they had found a pair of my leather sandals I had missed picking up before the rain the night before. The crew leader had plopped them on the deck for me.

On Wednesday, I had taken my small snippers, the long-handled trimmers, and a hack saw to the front yard. Never mind what precluded the need to see something majorly physical accomplished, just know I was armed and the trees quaked. After perhaps 10 little snips on the weeping cherry, my most beloved snippers of 10 years fell apart and random pieces scattered on the ground – with the smallest bits disappearing under the dead grass. I picked up the long-handled trimmers and the first cut proved worthless: they were rusted after being last used to help a Boy Scout with his Eagle project in the spring. We cleared a trail in rain and hadn’t dried them properly after the outing.

Bill’s hack saw beckoned, and my mind flashed back to tree trimming at our first house in Rockford, Illinois. My mom used to make the 3-hour drive to our house in her little Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. On a couple occasions, Mom and I spun like tornadoes pruning trees and loading branches up in her truck to take them to the pit. We were exhilarated and exhausted at the end of the day. That was about 20 years ago; she was my age then.

I was a lone Tasmanian devil Wednesday. I cut 10-foot branches down from a thorny Black Locus that a bird had shat out. Its branches hung over the sidewalk ready to jab any kid who would soon be walking down that sidewalk to school. It’s an invasive tree and can grow up to 100-foot tall – and its growth is so quick it seems visible week to week. I decided not to fell the whole tree as it may have landed on a passing car. I took down to a stump another tree-bush next to the locust that had gotten out of control.

I grabbed maple branches, pulled them down, and then reached up as I high as I could with the hack saw. Cutting 6-feet of weight off of the ends resulted in a bouncing up of the whole branch – hopefully to let more sun in underneath. I crossed the drive and acted on a decision I had been resisted making for a couple years: Is my magnolia a round tree-bush or a tall thin tree? Again like the maples, I considered the need for more sunlight under the tree for perennials. It’s now a rather regal magnolia tree. I tossed all trimmings onto the dead grass of the front lawn. Scratched, sweaty, heart-racing… I was a conqueror of trees.

Bill’s pet peeve is when I leave piles after working in the garden, so I called our lawn care company and asked them to pick up the trimmings and take them to the pit for me. And, I texted Ian to forewarn him of the sight that would meet him at the entrance of our drive. The manager of the lawn care company agreed and offered to do it for free in return for an accidental major weed-whacking incident in mid-July: They had ventured into one of my “flower gardens” and taken out all my raspberry bushes and ferns and trampled seedling wild flowers.

I purposely don’t use mulch so that plants have bare dirt to propagate from one year to the next. Having said that, I have a 6’ x 10’ bed near the back door that is all Columbines. They are a spectacular bloom of solid pink in the spring, but now they are a bed of tall, rattling, dried out Columbine pods. In the front garden, where I get the best sun, I left empty a 2-foot wide strip along the front of that flower bed – thinking I would get vegetables or annuals planted. I didn’t get that done, but it made me smile to see little Brown-eyed Susans and Purple Cone Flowers popping up amidst the grass and weeds in that area. Then a second weed-whacking incident occurred. I believe that was the day that I turned my back on every single weedy garden space around my house.

However, Thursday morning I decided to tackle the side garden where the first weed-whacking incident occurred. As I approached the weed patch, determined to find wildflower seedlings remaining after the lawn care guys trampling, a rabbit ran out from behind the long grassy and weedy plot. With my new gardening knee pads on -- a practical and spectacular birthday present from Bill's family -- I crawled on my hands and knees carefully excavating around 6-inch high fragile seedlings. It was a rabbit wonderland: tall weeds and grass providing cover to the rabbits as they mowed down the new growth. In my 1 ½ hour weeding expedition, I was doing little more than exposing a tender salad bar for the rabbits. The same rabbits who had claimed all of my new perennials that I had planted last summer amongst the Columbines.

Saturday morning the lawn care guys came by to pick up the trimmings. I really did not want to come face to face with them, given my weedy flower gardens which had precipitated their haphazard weed-whacking. That’s how I found myself jammed in the corner of the kitchen. I thought they were only there to pick up the trimmings. Then I heard the mowers and blowers wind up. With a sigh, a curled lip, and a shake of my head, I packed my computer and journals and headed out the door. I scared the daylights out of the crew leader as I appeared on the step only a few feet away from him and his leaf blower. Immediately, he turned the blower off.

“Mrs. Malcolm, I noticed your flower beds are a bit overgrown.”

No shit.

“I have some ideas about a mulch garden in the back where the grass isn’t growing.”

I’m more concerned about where the quack grass IS growing.

“And along the side of the house some mulched deciduous trees. Low maintenance.”

Sadly, I think he has a point. And I know from experience the power beheld in the hands of a weed-whacker. Dad routinely whacks flowers on the edges of Mom’s flower gardens. I just pay someone to do it here. This feeling of power is much the same, I'm sure, as that of a nearly-uncontrollable swirling diva after the first hack-sawed branch falls.

The English cottage garden I had in Rockford in my twenties is not taking hold here. Indeed, I do think I will concede to a bit of mulch and bushes. And shift my focus to just a couple flower gardens to keep under control.

For my primary responsibility now is pruning and growing children, not multiple flower beds. I’ve come around the bend and know that making part of my environment “low maintenance” will eliminate the weedy chaos that daily burns my corneas.

Fortunately, it has meant days of sweat and physical labor that leave me exhausted and exhilarated at the end of each day. Energy well spent.

Have you laughed today?

I've been investigating effects of the release of endorphins in the brain that result in an analgesic. Regarding this biochemical process, through my research I have deduced two analogies: one of baseball and one of an ice cream cone. In baseball, the team and fans are happiest when the pitcher makes excellent throws that result in strikes; on the other hand, balls high over the catcher's mitt and in the dirt may get the pitcher pulled and booed.

When a kid orders an ice cream cone, the waffle cone is open to his favorite flavor, say good old plain chocolate; however, if the scooper mistakenly fills the cone with one of the flavors on either side of chocolate, perhaps espresso bean or chocolate with peanut butter, at best the kid will be unhappy, and at worst, he will need an EPI pen.

In both of these, there is a transmitter and a receptor: The transmitters are the pitcher and the scooper, leaving the catcher and the cone as the receptors. At the most basic level, this is how the brain transmits chemicals to opioid receptors in the brain.

What goes between these transmitters and receptors determines the level of human happiness and comfort. In a perfect world, opioid receptors wait for delivery of happy natural opiates, like uplifting endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Perfect pitches and chocolate ice cream.

Enter life. When humans are thrown a curve ball, the transmitters start throwing stress and pain at the receptors. Pitches in the dirt and espresso bean ice cream. Then the body tries to produce chemicals to offset the bad stuff, but it can't always keep up. At times like this, a bump-up in endorphins creates an analgesic, aka... pain relief. Enter laughter. It's like a natural endorphin pump filling those receptors and blocking the yuck.

The crazy-ass thing about this is that when pain and stress rear their nasty heads, to laugh is one of the last emotions that happens naturally. I think to some degree there is an association of guilt with laughing when life deals out the dark stuff. After all, what is there to laugh about in times like this? In fact, it's precisely the time to throw the best pitch and the perfect scoop into the opioid receptors. I truly hope the following might give you at least a giggle, plus a little surge in endorphins.

During chemo eight years ago, I remember a few times when humor rocked our family. I scooped some of these moments up in a short piece called Impersonations. This still makes me laugh aloud when I read it.

During that same time, I borrowed several DVDs from a friend's library -- all comedies. They were on hand in case I needed pure escapism at 2:00 a.m. when the steroids were keeping me awake. If you have 90 minutes to tickle your funny bone, these are a couple comedies that have left our family in stitches this summer:

The Secondhand Lions - In short, hilarious shenanigans between two eccentric uncles and their great nephew.

The Sandlot - Witty, gritty young boys living and breathing baseball in an empty lot next door to an enormous furry "beast."

Finally, this month I'm dedicating "P.S." below to Laughter -- maybe a photo, a story, or a one-liner that gave me a laugh, giggle, chortle, or belly laugh -- accompanied by snorts -- will do the same for you.

And sometimes, there is simply no harm in laughing at yourself. So, I leave you with this photo which was taken between workouts: Before I had gone on a long walk... and just after I had pulled on a crossback bra. Here's the story: The Commonality between Cat's Cradle and Crossback Bras.

The Gold Maple

When we first found our property here in New England, we loved the fact that it was surrounded by maple trees. The first autumn, we filled five leaf bags and didn’t even make a dent in the piles. We needed help raking. Now every year we have a 4-hour show: a crew of five people, each with industrial leaf blowers, accompanied by a covered dump truck with an attached giant Hoover. It has an 18-inch tube of a mouth that sucks the leaves into the truck bed. The second year we hired another company to remove some dead trees. The owner told us that our maples are not good ones; they pop up and multiply like rabbits. That fall, we paid more attention to the leaves. They turned a dirty brown/yellow before they fell. While they provide great shade and a thick, natural privacy fence, our maples aren’t the vibrant beauties you think of when you hear the words “fall in New England.”

Last year, eight years later, I decided we needed at least one true New England maple. At our local nursery, I asked for a Gold Sugar Maple. The man cocked his head and said, “Which one do you want?”

He explained that there is a Gold Maple and a Sugar Maple. The Gold Maple leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. The Sugar Maple leaves turn splendid yellow, orange and red. The other major difference is that Gold Maples take ten years to mature, and Sugar Maples take 25 years. Needing a bit of instant gratification, I chose the Gold Maple.

Before planting the new tree, a few spindly maple trees needed to come down. We called our tree removal company, and a man came out to give us an estimate. I pointed to the trees that need to be taken out, and he spray-painted a red “X” on each one. He looked at the root-bound ground and asked, “How are you going to dig a hole big enough for the root ball?”

I shrugged.

He offered to dig it with a stump grinder. He had a glint in his eye like a kid with a new toy to try out.

He backed into our drive a few days later with a trailer. On it was a big machine with the words “Vermeer” across the side. That company is headquartered in Pella, Iowa! For years we have driven by it on the way to our friends’ house. I knew it was an equipment company that told me I was on the right road. Now, sitting in my drive was a stump grinder from that very company! Believing that small things point to good karma, I knew planting this tree would be a successful endeavor.

I directed where the tree was to stand and the men maneuvered the grinder into place. The mechanism dropped to the ground and spun wide and deep enough for the root ball. It spit out rocks and broke through tree roots, creating a nest for the new tree’s roots.

The arborist’s face lit up as the machine did the work. That man loves his job! Having a sufficient hole, he and his assistant cut off the gunny sack from around the root and dropped the tree into place. They filled in the dirt, making sure the tree stood up straight.

“Now, you get the hard part of keeping it alive! You see I left a 6-inch deep trench around the tree? Fill it with water twice a day until mid-October.” It was June.

Faithfully, we filled the trench with two gallons of water morning and night. We dug it out when too much dirt washed in after heavy rains.

In the fall, the leaves turned gold and fell, just as a New England maples leaves should. Bill told the snow plow guy not to knock it over when he plowed at 2:00 a.m. Come spring, it budded and new leaves sprung forth. On hot days when the leaves droop a bit, I set up a sprinkler and for an hour let a small arch of water fall on and around the now washed out trench.

When I come home from my daily drives, I park right in front of it and give it the once over. Every time I park. A little check-up. Three or four times a day.

Yesterday afternoon, I pulled in and looked at the tree. And a rather strange thought occurred to me: I want to be that tree. I want a foundation of space carved out for me and a trench with a reservoir of nutrients. For mind, body, and soul. And who but me to tend to all of this? To observe a daily habit of care. To check that I’m not wilting.

I think back to when I was going through breast cancer treatment when my doctor told me that my first priority was myself. Really, that should always be the case – how else do we expect to take care of others if we aren’t taking the very best care of ourselves? Our needs change day to day, week to week. We should check in frequently, making it a habit as natural as brushing our teeth or taking a shower. What we need doesn’t necessarily come knocking at our door. Rather if we purposely think about our needs, then we can be proactive in fulfilling them.

A walk in the woods. Dancing to loud music in the kitchen. Conversations with friends every day. A meal in a restaurant that doesn’t serve chicken fingers and grilled cheese. Sleep. Skyping with Mom and Dad. Drinking more water. Taking a half hour to sit down and eat lunch. Stirring a pot of risotto for a half hour. Gardening.

I’m the only one who knows what I need – **if** I take the time to give myself the same occasional once-over as I do that tree. A certain calm sets in around me when I care for myself as I do for the people – and one Gold Maple – in my life.