Black Walnuts

While backing out of the driveway yesterday morning, my front right van tire hit and skidded on what sounded like a piece of metal.  The combined vibration and sound made Will and I squinch our eyes, putting tight wrinkles in our foreheads.

Once free of the object, we saw nothing other than the squished green husk of a nut.  Deposited by the neighborly squirrels, a walnut had gotten lodged at just the right angle under our tire so as to drag with us a few feet.

I thought of the crafty nature of seagulls:  When a seagull finds a hard-shell clam locked up tight in the surf, it scoops the clam into its beak, soars up high into the sky, then drops the clam onto hard-packed, wet sand created by the high tide.  The seagull dives down to the clam, and if that one solid drop hasn’t broken the shell, the gull hoists it back into the air for repeated drops until the shell breaks open, making the clam meat accessible to the gull’s strong, pointed beak. 

No, squirrels aren’t that crafty.  Surely not.  The squirrel was probably startled by something, dropped the nut, and ran toward the street.  For in our hours spent on the road, Will and I know that’s the direction they run; their safe spot.  The street.

This small nut incident reminded me that this is the beginning of the season that Dad has this year forsworn: picking up black walnuts.  The harvesting of black walnuts starts in the fall and the processing runs throughout the winter months. 

Growing up, I had never considered the difference between the easily cracked walnuts in Grandpa Mills’ mixed nut bowl and the walnuts Mom used in her fudge at Christmas time.  English walnuts were in the nut bowl, and black walnuts were in the fudge.  Only in recent years did I discover that the black walnut, which grows predominately in the wild – as opposed to English walnuts that are grown in orchards – is not an eagerly accepted nut by the general population.  The trees are prevalent in Iowa.

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Since I’ve moved away from my black walnut source – aka: Mom’s freezer, I realize now the value of a quart bag of frozen black walnuts.  If we were to put a market value on the labor that goes into this process, black walnuts would cost more than morel mushrooms – should anyone want to buy them.  Hold that assumption… I just found a retailer that sells black walnuts.

Hammons sells 8 ounces of “Recipe Ready & Fancy – Large” black walnuts for $7.25.  For comparison’s sake, my local store sells 10 ounces of “chopped walnuts” for $7.00.  I’m a little perplexed as I would’ve expected black walnuts to be more expensive given the labor involved to take them from the ground to packaging them in plastic bags. 

As I explored the Hammons site, I found the answer to the low price: they have a hulling machine that removes the husks!  Hammons encourages folks to bring their black walnuts to their farm for processing and, in turn, receive payment which is determined by the weight of the walnut once the husks have been removed by the hulling machine.  (Pop over to Hammons website for a look at the setup.)

The black walnuts in my freezer in Massachusetts were processed differently in Iowa.

Once the black walnuts fall to the ground in the timber, Dad rolls a nut gatherer over the ground to pick up the green and brown husked walnuts.  This tool looks like a bingo cage with a rake handle attached.  The metal wires are just flexible enough for the walnuts to pop through and lodge inside. 

The walnut husks are tight and green when the walnuts are growing on the tree.  When the walnuts fall, the husk has loosened a bit and started to turn brown.  From collecting the walnuts in the timber, Dad dumps the walnuts onto the middle of the gravel driveway near the house and drives over them several times with the pick-up truck.  The movement and weight of the tires breaks the walnuts free from the husks (scientifically known as the pericarps), leaving the hard-shelled nut intact.  (Scientifically, the hard outer shell the protects the seed/nutmeat is known as the endocarp.) If the husks aren’t removed soon after they fall, they turn black and start to harden, or if they are wet, they rot allowing a lovely spot for the larvae of husk flies to live.   

After driving over the walnuts comes the difficult job – the reason Dad has sworn off doing walnuts this year – leaning over and picking up the hundreds of black walnuts and cleaning up the broken husks.  The metal ribs on the nut gatherer are too wide to pick up and contain the freshly hulled nuts.  After the husks are removed, nuts stain – yes, black walnut stain.  Wearing gloves, Dad spreads the freshly hulled walnuts out on a hay rack or truck bed for a few weeks to let the walnuts dry out.   

Similar to the shared process between Mom and Dad in “Corn’s On,” once the  nuts are dried, they become Mom’s domain.  With her flower gardens under snow, Mom’s winter occupation often turns to shelling walnuts.

A few years ago, we found a nutcracker gadget with a handle allowing leverage to be used to crack the nuts. This made the job much easier than trying to balance these hard-shelled little devils and crack them open with a hammer.  Mom processes them in small batches, breaking a pie tin-ful in the basement then taking the pieces up to the kitchen to pick them out with a nutpick.  The black walnut shell actually grows into the nutmeat, so these do not pop out of the shell in perfect halves like the English walnuts; there’s a lot of digging involved to dislodge the pieces.

Mom normally has a quart or two of walnuts picked out and ready to send home with me at Christmas time.  Black walnuts have a distinct taste that does not appeal to many taste buds.  Cilantro and blue cheese are similar in that people either really like black walnuts or cannot stand them.  No middle of the road. 

While Mom makes fudge with these walnuts, I like to generously sprinkle them on salads.  To bring them back to life a bit after being frozen, I heat up a small heavy skillet and then throw in a large handful to dry roast over high heat.  As I continuously move the pan to keep the nuts from burning, the dark brown papery coverings – called the seed coats – start to fall off the nuts and occasionally float into the air as I toss the nuts. 






When they smell roasted and look toasted, I dump the walnuts onto a clean dish towel and roll them around to completely remove the seed coats. 

I add the clean black walnuts to salad greens with a simple vinaigrette and a sprinkling of blue cheese. 

Like cilantro and blue cheese, I leave black walnuts off the menu if we have people over for dinner – unless I sense in someone an adventurous food spirit that would embrace and appreciate these earthy, bold-tasting, labor-infused Juglans nigra

 

Cumbersome and Tumultuous

“… pay attention to areas in your body that are harboring tension…”  Those words are from a morning meditation.

As much as I can ground my physical limbs and body parts to the present, my brain feels like twisted metal set in the future one minute and the past the next.  The movement of flipping randomly between those two times is heavy and grating.  Brainwaves haven’t rested in the here and now for weeks. They are like a set of 500 Christmas lights thoroughly entwined and wrapped around themselves -- or a rat’s nest at the end of my curls that can only be undone by breaking the knot off and flicking it away.

This year, the transition from summer to fall has been intense.  For my sons, letting go of the unplanned summer days and starting the school year is much the same as last year – yet this year’s first day of school is an entrée to change.  Will started his junior year in high school; the one where sights are set on the future more than the present.  Liam started his last year of middle school; every milestone and event throughout the school year will be a “last.”

Will completed the classroom portion of Driver’s Ed in August.  In April, he will be driving to school and to gymnastics – and to the grocery store to pick up milk and bread.  When he does his physical driving test, we will need to pay to use the driving school’s car, for the car he takes the test in needs to have an emergency brake between the front seats – or a brake on the passenger side floor.  For the safety of the person administering the driving test.

I want a powerful brake.  I find myself in a rocket that is breaking sound barriers.  There is no brake pedal to push.  There is no emergency break to pull and slow time.  As the school blues settled in, I’ve been with the boys in spirit.  Then, on the first day of school, something switched.  Yes, much is mysteriously looming, and I don’t have a brake, but the uncertainty of what that first day of school holds is now behind us.  We have begun to conquer the unknown.  We can’t put the brakes on the year as it rolls along, but we can embrace every day and squeeze the good stuff out.

When I picked up Will from school the first day, I shared my thoughts.  I said that despite all that his big, fat junior year holds, he’s an upperclassmen – that’s a cool milestone.  Then I asked him, “So, what was the highlight of your day?” 

“Well, my buddies and I found a pipe behind a wall that leads to a grate, a drain, in the sidewalk.  And we figured out if we talk into the pipe, our voice comes out the drain!  It’s going to be a great prank!” Ah, yes, an upperclassman prank! A gem for the day.

I asked the same of Liam:  What was the highlight? 

“The new teacher understands kids!  We can write in pen or pencil or type.  And she’s not going to assign homework on Thursdays and expect us to remember to hand it in on Tuesdays.” A second gem.

With the school days proceeding one by one, today, I return to the routine of writing a complete thought.  And, I am free to chase down my manuscript.  

If you live in the U.S., you probably remember “School House Rock.”  The words and music from this little ditty, “I’m just a bill,” has become my theme song… 

…where Bill = Manuscript;

Committee = Publishing company;

And so on, until Law = Book this fall.

Fully caffeinated, I am working in the library today.

Prolific Writer.

This is what I’ve written today.

I smile for the fact that it’s a simple sunrise pleasure: wrapped up in a blanket on the deck, drinking coffee, and creating words. I laugh that, for calling myself a writer, this is pretty much the most I’ve written in a few weeks.

I turned to my files after my early game of Porch Scrabble to find a list of writing ideas. I know it exists: a document with idea after idea. I find a file under the 2018 tab, “Collection of Writing Ideas.” For half of the contents, I have no idea what the “idea” for writing was supposed to be.

“Just red nails, please”?

“A sheep’s brain: fat, glucose, and PROTEIN”?

“The right equipment to get the job done”?

And, for the other half, I’ve already written about them. I close this file and continue looking.

I find “Prolific Writer in 2018.” It’s not a list of ideas, but rather a piece of my own writing that I needed to read today. It was written only as a journal entry at the end of 2017, but I found it pertinent to today with Fall 2019, and a familiar routine, just around the corner.

**

Prolific writer.  There, the first two words on a Word document for the New Year 2018.  Published author.  The second two words.  Let Linda Malcolm blossom on paper and in book stores! 

When I consider the most challenging part of writing, it’s the moment when inspiration seizes me and the moment I sit down to write about it:  They are two different moments sometimes separated by days.  What if I shortened the distance between those moments?  Perhaps to within a 12-hour period?  A 24-hour period?  Some writers have the goal of writing at least 1,000 every day.  Could I do that?

The moment of inspiration is rarely paired with the Tuesday sitting at the library.  I take photos to remind me of the moment.  But sometimes the richness of thought just can’t be invoked on Tuesday morning at 9:15.  If I don’t capture that thought immediately, it will hang around more like a ghost than a tangible idea with which to move forward the next time I write. 

I say I have little problem with writer’s block.  I have jotted notes in journals, scraps, pretty note papers everywhere.  However, when I revisit them, I’m often left conjuring up what that original feeling was.  What was it that I did want to say?

…The door to the office just opened… the concentration snapped… I regroup and continue…

The thing with writing is that it’s not like a concrete, finite job with a linear line between points A and B.  It dances around a bit – sometimes as a slow waltz, a hopping fox trot, an energized swing.  And like dancing, once in the swing of it, my body wants to keep going for a couple hours, with perhaps a breather or two in the middle.  But always with the rhythm of the music in the background filling the space in between my ears and my brain. 

Yet, I can’t produce essay after essay, hour after hour.  This year, I look for balance between the writing and the moving of a work to the public domain.  I acknowledge that marketing, web design, book cover design, editing, and polishing is all part of the writing, now publishing, process.  And yet, the writer must sustain.  Must write.  Must find time to fall into the flow.  That’s it… the flow. 

And there are times when flow is broken by the world like a dog continually pissing on a fire hydrant next to the writing desk.  The artistic thought wavers and nearly extinguishes under the gray and black clouds hovering at 10,000 feet and too frequently dipping down as lurking, thick fog.   Then something brutal happens… the scenes when dementors suck the living essence from Harry Potter’s body and he’s left small and lifeless on the ground, until re-invigorated by sweet chocolate.  That’s what it feels like: the blackness sucks the work, the flow, the inspiration, leaving a hollowness that is absolutely uncharacteristic to an artistic being. 

I purposefully step into a brighter spot.  I turn inward and rekindle the flame of caring, loving, kindness, and thinking.  I stop the spinning gray tornado ripping through – or perhaps I give it a good powerful blow to push it beyond the boundaries of my sanctuary.  Go blow and obliterate elsewhere.  Mine is mine.  At such a small, familiar level, mine will be maintained as such.  With goodness and light within reach and needed now.  Where we toil a bit more to achieve, but through this work, it’s more appreciated.  Douse the negative, fan the affirmative. 

In other words, go to the library, Linda.

The goal of 1,000 words…  Could I do this every day?  The making of 1,000 words?  How would my essay writing routine change?  Would the essays grow out of wanderings and ponderings such as these?  Would they write themselves within if given the chance? 

For now, 642 words.

**

The mechanics’ update of publishing Cornfields to Codfish:

My manuscript is still in “content review.” Going on week three of waiting.

I’ve settled on this photo as my author photo for my book cover.

My friend and designer is working on the design of the back cover.

Chugging along toward publication some time this fall.

Summer Is Tired

After a few weeks’ hiatus, a blank page is daunting.

Summer is tired.  My sunflowers are reaching high, and my mid-summer flowers have succumbed to the head.  The weeds are healthy. 

The rabbits are fat.  Many of my plants are missing; the rabbit salad bar has cost me hundreds of dollars over the last few years.  Rabbits don’t like sedum.  Rabbits don’t like hot pepper.  I need to invest substantially in one or the other if I want brown-eyed Susans, lavender, hostas, or ten other types of tender perennials that I see in full bloom as I’m driving around town.  I miss the fox family that lived on our property in 2012.

Many of the planned visits, travels, camps, events that I logged onto our summer calendar in January and February have passed.  We have one more grand hurrah visit left for the summer with Bill’s sister and her family arriving next week.  In the meantime, I’ve already turned to look at the empty squares on the fall, winter, and spring calendar, getting ready to start that planning exercise again.

The marching band started practicing this week at the nearby high school – a sure sign of cooler temperatures ahead.  We’re stepping closer to that familiar life patter that fall brings with it.  With 8th and 11th graders, there are five years remaining of that built-in fall to spring march.

We’ve had travels and visits so sweet that I’m in a bit of a rut, a melancholy lull, wandering this house that echoes at points where people gathered this summer.  Those memories are anchored a bit with remnants – like sea glass, a little beach sand on the deck, and leftovers in the fridge. 

Finally, three days after my brother and his family went home, I cleaned out the fridge, getting rid of small bits and pieces of old food.  I smiled at the drink assortment in the fridge leftover from company in July and August – iced teas, sparkling waters, and one Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.  I envision little faces of family and friends stamped on the sides, similar to the way Paul Newman’s salsa jars have his smiling mug. 

Normally, we move all the non-Malcolm drinks to the basement beer fridge when company leaves.  But I think I’ll let these unopened summer drinks linger haphazardly in the fridge.  Seeing them keeps summer’s memories fresh.

Commuting

Our two-week summer trip to Iowa is over; friends visiting from Iowa have come and gone; Will and Liam are in day camps for the next two weeks.  Liam’s is in Boston, and we are using public transportation to get there.  With a cooler day than the 100-plus-degree weekend, yesterday was a good adventure. 

Bill dropped us off at the station and we caught the “T” into Boston.  In the morning, this city train that runs every few minutes has plenty of room to sit since we board at the beginning of the line.  A couple stops along the way, a young man boarded and sat directly across from us. He was hooked up to earbuds and a device, so there was no chance of making eye contact with him.  Under his light blue New England Aquarium short sleeve t-shirt, tattoo-green octopus arms wrapped down his arm and below his elbow.  The artistry of that tattoo held my gaze longer than socially acceptable.  Liam and I decided that he worked at the aquarium.  We had this conversation just above a whisper, yet no one could hear us because all nearby passengers were hooked up. 

If I caught his eye, would it be appropriate to comment on the tattoo?  My curiosity grew with the speculation of what the rest of the octopus looked like under his sleeve.  What shape and how big was the hump of the head? What did the eyes look like? Or, was it just a tattoo of octopus arms?!?

This morning, same commuting routine with the addition of rain.  I stopped at a gas station to buy two small umbrellas as ours were nowhere to be found in the house or in my van.  Our backpacks were soon soaked since they stuck out beyond the protective field of the umbrellas.  We decided to wear sandals and crocs, knowing they would get wet yet dry throughout the day.  I drove to the station and found a parking spot a couple football fields away from the station.  We skipped over puddles and hugged the edge of the sidewalk farthest from the street to avoid splashes from passing cars.  Half the sprays spun up from the tires still hit us.  Head down and sloshing ahead, I recognized and sidestepped the remains of a dead rat.

The trains weren’t too crowded getting Liam to his camp.  Not the case when I headed for the library.  The train doors opened at the first station and people nearest the doors peeled out in order to let interior passengers get off.  Then we all piled in with the last row of people close enough to the doors to get their bums pinched when the doors closed.  I stood behind a man with his back to me, and I reached through a space near his chin to grab hold of a pole – just as he moved his head.  I nearly clipped his glasses off of his nose.  I apologized and was pushed closer to him by the passengers trying to protect their behinds from the doors.  I spooned this man for five stops.

I disembarked to make a connection at another station.  A train had broken down on the track earlier, so the underground rat trap was packed with wet, sweaty commuters.  Two trains were crammed full and waiting on another to leave the station before they could depart. 

Unsure that I had the fortitude to sardine myself on this final leg, I checked GPS to see how far I was away from the library.  A mile.  I needed to escape to the surface.  I saw an exit sign in the distance and headed that direction.  A train pulled up alongside me.  I would give it a try.  Merge, merge, push, push – I was on!  I was the one whose behind could get pinched.  Nope, with a bit of a shove that condensed personal space to zero, another row filled in behind me.  I needed to hang on to something, didn’t I?  Or, were we so tightly packed that I wouldn’t move with the lurch of the train? 

To be safe, I flung my left hand out and up toward the vertical bar in front of me.  Immediately, I realized that my arm was between a young woman’s eyes and the screen she was hooked up to.   Seconds later, like a calculated move in Twister, I moved my hand to a position just under the three other hands holding onto the pole, around chest height for me – as well as the woman whose sight-line I had been interrupting.  Her half-inch shift moved her bosom away from my arm.  In a bizarre way, this position seemed more commuter-acceptable than blocking that screen. 

She was one of the few who could get an arm up to hold a device.  A tall woman in the bottom-pinch spot held herself steady with one hand on the doorway ceiling.  A man shorter than me was next to her, and he couldn’t reach any train surface to hold onto.  He was relying strictly on the sardine-effect to remain upright.  My left hip was squished into another hip behind me whose owner’s face I never saw.

The distance between three stops translated to immeasurable time. 

I play a poor version of a disengaged commuter.  I felt every piece of human flesh pressed into mine.

And, I’m still frustrated not knowing what the rest of that octopus looks like.  We may be taking a train ride to the aquarium sometime this summer.

Devil's Food Chocolate Cake

For most of July, I’ve been working on the final part of my book — “A Menagerie of Recipes” — a recipe section that will be a kind of epilogue in Cornfields to Codfish. All of the recipes relate back to the essays within the collection.

July is my birthday month, and this year I was in Iowa and had my family all around the table at Mom and Dad’s for supper. After steaks on the grill, we had homemade birthday cake that my sister-in-law and my nieces had made for me. We grew up with homemade birthday cakes and often still make them in our house in Massachusetts, yet it was a special treat to have a traditional chocolate cake in Iowa, made by my family, and scooped out of the standard, well-loved size 9” x 13” pan.

My birthday cake reminded me of a recipe I’m including in the book, and I thought I would share it with you. In this section, each recipe will have a short essay to go along with it. It seems I couldn’t just write a list of ingredients and instructions without giving you a little history to go with each recipe!

Devil’s Food Chocolate Cake

I remember Mom making Devil’s food chocolate cake for birthday celebrations as well as an any-day dessert.  She used a recipe out of her standard household cookbook.  I wasn’t able to get permission to reprint that recipe, but after digging around in my stash of recipes, I discovered a “recipe” for Devils Food Cake in Grandma Murphy’s handwriting.  It was just a list of ingredients, no directions.

Finding this card reminded me of how solitary life on the farm was for Grandma Murphy when she was raising her family and farming with Grandpa.  She and Grandpa did not go out to dinner with friends on Saturday nights, nor did they go to church on Sundays.  She did not have a best friend or set of neighbors she regularly visited. 

The women’s voices that I remember in Grandma’s kitchen came from the AM radio show, “The Open Line.”  This program was on WMT, a northeast Iowa radio station, and Grandma listened to women call in to talk about and read off their recipes. 

I can envision Grandma listening while standing at the kitchen counter and quickly jotting down this list of ingredients as they were broadcast by another farm woman.  The instructions weren’t important; they were known: Mix all ingredients together, pour into a greased 9” x 13” pan, bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Frost, or serve unfrosted with vanilla ice cream. 

In a large mixing bowl, I added one ingredient at a time and hand-whisked it into the batter.  I upgraded the cocoa to Dutch-process and the vanilla to Mexican, 35% alcohol; then I baked it for exactly 30 minutes.  I discovered that mint chocolate chip ice cream made on a farm in New Hampshire worked just as well as vanilla ice cream.

An Update from the Laundry Maven

I was in a recent conversation where people were talking about what they do when they are stressed.  Someone responded, “I clean.”  And another one responded, “I do laundry.”

I thought, “Hmm, what a strange way to handle stress.”

And then, the Laundry Maven said something to the effect of, “Damn right!  The power is in the laundry room!”

After listening to her for a few minutes, I had to agree. 

The Laundry Maven feels the rhythm of the laundry cycle and finds comfort in it.  The decisions are limited from beginning to end because she set the rules many years ago.  Constant decision-making and planning – the consideration of variables and foreseeing future moves as in a never-ending chess game – is diffused in the laundry room.  During the breast cancer year, nothing was so stable as those piles of laundry.

The laundry instructions are short and precise.  Sort the heaps into whites, darks, towels, and sheets.  Spray the stains.  Set up the drying rack.  Retrieve empty hangers from the closets. Wash; then dry twenty minutes; then hang shrinkable tops and bottoms. 

The Laundry Maven pays attention and enjoys the ever-so-slight nuances within, particularly the crackle of Liam’s shorts where plastic wrappers from juice packs and snacks have been stashed throughout the day.  She doesn’t check pockets, except for Liam’s, and only his because they are loud. 

Despite Liam never having met his Great Granddad Mills – Liam was born in 2006 and Granddad passed away years before in 2002 – the noise from Liam’s pockets consistently put him and Granddad in the same realm.  Just as Granddad fiddled with coins in his bib overalls pockets, Liam has bits of plastic moving throughout the day. The sound of the plastic crinkling in Liam’s pockets aligns his and Granddad’s grins.  Wash after wash, week after week, that noise brings Granddad and Liam into the same life sphere – albeit for fleeting moments – in the laundry room.  If we stay there long enough, I see my grinning Liam looking up into Granddad’s grinning face, hands in their pockets, gum keeping both of their jaws in constant motion.

Beyond emptying those pockets, the biggest bottleneck in the laundry process, is the cyclical lack of hangers.  Like missing socks, this must be a societal problem for often times the nearest store is completely out of stock.  This was recently overcome by a click on-line and the arrival of twenty-five additional plastic hangers the next day.

Like a row of hay rolls in the field at the end of a hot summer’s day, there is a visual reward at the end of a day in the laundry room.

Then, the cycle falls apart a bit when it comes to putting clean laundry away; it may take a couple days.  As the boys collect their piles of meticulously folded shirts from the laundry room, the Laundry Maven reminds them to put them in drawers, not in piles in their bedrooms, so the painstakingly perfect folds stay intact.  I remind the Laundry Maven to dial it back a bit; that not everyone understands.  Nor should they.  The Laundry Maven is an overachiever.

On days when I don’t know where to start – when indecision and choices and problems fall in an unorganized heap begging for attention, I prioritize three basic building blocks: food, clothing, and shelter.  Then on auto-pilot, the Laundry Maven steps in and says, “I got this one.  No worries.  You work on that menu for the week.”

I obey, comforted that the Laundry Maven has the sanctity of her kingdom in check.  At the end of the day, the table may be cluttered and the countertops sticky.  And without a doubt, the kitchen floor will hold evidence of the day’s meal preparation (if it wasn’t for the floor, I wouldn’t be able to cook).  Despite all that, no one will be hungry and everyone will have clean underwear for morning. 

And the next day, strategies for those responsibilities outside of food, clothing, and shelter will unfold, given that a solid base has been set with attention to those basic necessities. 

And then, Linda Malcolm just might sit down to edit the recipe section of her book. 

Or write a note to some friends.

Big Sky Iowa

If Iowa wasn’t so tied to farming, it could be in competition for Montana’s slogan of “Big Sky Country.”  Rather, with “A Place to Grow” and more recently “Fields of Opportunity,” Iowa’s slogans squarely place the visual toward the fertile, black farmland.

I grew up with the summer slogan of “knee high by the Fourth of July,” which was how tall corn should be by this time of year.  As long as I can remember, the field corn has been more like shoulder high on the Fourth of July.  But with late spring cold temperatures and devastating rainfalls, this year is different.  On a four-hour drive down the middle of Iowa, perhaps 5% of the corn was elbow high.  Most of the corn in the rolling fields could be measured with a 12-inch ruler. 

No matter how much of that humid corn heat we get in the normal corn-growing months, farmers need an extra-long growing season this year.  They need heavy heat through September and dry days through October before they can harvest any kind of quality crop late October or November.  Within the last few years, harvest has been done and equipment tucked away by mid-October.  Snowflakes will undoubtedly land on much of that equipment this year.

Farming is an extended, stressful game of roulette with nature.  A relentless pursuit of hoping for the right numbers to come up. 

At Mom and Dad’s on our annual summer visit, we were sitting at the kitchen table around 8:30 p.m. when the room abruptly dimmed.  There was a distant rumble of thunder as what felt like sunset fell upon us.  A peek through the south-facing small window near the pantry confirmed the blackening sky.  I opened the south-facing back door, and a quick glance confirmed that the storm front was south of us and not directly overhead.  Nothing was spinning; it was a solid mass of darkness.  Perhaps that is why I ventured outside – that lack of spinning. 

Four feet from the door, a white crack shocked me as it went from heavens to horizon.  It was an upside-down firework, a simple white blade of lightning.  The tightness of the lightning, followed by its immediate disappearance, was surreal.  Surely something that powerful should be longer lived than seconds.  Given the intensity of the crack, the solid, black storm cloud should have fallen apart like a freshly broken eggshell.  The strike was probably miles away from where I was standing.  And there was only that one.  Perhaps it was the tail end of the storm?

From behind me came light.  The tight, tall 50-foot high tree line along the west side of the house protects the buildings from wind and snow.  And it limits the open sky visible from the house.  Chasing sunsets, I venture around this border every visit when oranges and pinks highlight the clouds above and tease through the evergreen boughs.  This evening was no different: the sunset beckoned through those evergreen branches.

Satisfied that any additional bolts of lightning were too far south to reach me, I crossed the barnyard and shinnied through a narrow gap between the wooden fence and the barn.  That fence marked a division in the sky between north and south.  Past the fence was a pure summer sunset, unmarked by storm clouds but rather simple, white, fluffy clouds ran lightly across the northern sky – just the right amount necessary to catch the orange and pink rays that were cast up and over to the clouds in the northeast quadrant of the sky. 

To watch the sunset meet the true horizon in July felt wrong; the entire sunset was visible where sky met land.  Three days later, I realize why there was such a disparity in that sight: the field of corn behind the barn is only a foot tall.  In a normal year, this horizon line would be blocked by shoulder-high cornstalks.

After soaking up sufficient sunset, I turned south and squeezed back through the gap.  The whole southern sky was still dark and ominous – but, still, no spinning.  Mom and Dad’s white house contrasted against the dark, but my eye was drawn to another set of colors.  Looking like a gatekeeper between the northern and southern skies, a full rainbow arched over the house.

While sunsets are photograph-able, there was no way to catch Big Sky Iowa on film this evening in order to convey it to a third-party.  While the division between sunset and storm-set was powerfully marked in the sky by a rainbow, on the ground the border was a simple fence and bin between the barn and the hay shed.

A Breach in My Breastplate

I was recently in a social situation when I saw a woman lingering near the group that I was loosely connected with.  She was holding a vogue-like non-smile on her lips.  Her makeup was perfect over her young skin.  She said nothing to anyone.

We were five feet apart when my line of vision and hers clicked like two LEGO bricks, so I smiled and said, “Hi, my name is Linda.”

“We’ve met like ten times before!” She snarled at me, gave her head a short shake in disgust, and casually sauntered away. 

And this is my darkest worry of how the world is really thinking about my ability to remember details. 

Indeed, once she pointed out our prior meetings – and I don’t think there had been ten – I remembered a conversation with her from months ago; again, I had introduced myself to her.  That time she said we had met before and then we briefly discussed hair color and style as probable reasons I didn’t recognize her.  She wasn’t wholly impressed with me then either.

When I meet new people in a crowd, I always say with a laugh that I will probably ask them their name again in the future.  Whether being truthful or being politically correct, inevitably, they laugh and say they will most likely do the same. 

The sting of the words and the tone coming from that perfectly made up face have stuck with me for days.  I know this is not a person I need in my camp, yet my initial thought pattern puts me in a spot of guilt that I made this person, this sensitive woman, feel bad by not remembering her name.  That guilt doesn’t last when I rationalize it for twenty seconds: this isn’t how I would treat anyone who had just introduced themselves to me.  And this particular person is not sensitive. 

I think I know enough from that encounter that a warning bell will chime in my head should I see her again, and that will remind me to leave out the introduction with my greeting.  And, you darn right, I’m going to smile and say “hello.”  However, I’m still sorting out why I feel even slightly compelled to say “hello.” 

Years ago when Will was very young, he wanted to play baseball in the spring, but his gymnastics coach frowned on that, despite the fact that the competitive season had ended.  Will was struggling with what to do.  He respected his coach and didn’t want to let him down.  I said, “Do you want to play baseball?”  He nodded.  “You’re ten, you can play baseball,” I told him.  I knew that didn’t make the decision any easier, so I continued.  “Will, your coach wants you at gymnastics practice because he’s the gymnastics coach, but you need to make your own decision because you’re ten and you want to play baseball.  And, you need to put a fence around your heart and not let his words affect your decision.  There will be times in your life when you need to keep your heart safe behind that fence – and this is one of them.” 

That was a great moment for me.  Not a great Mom-moment, but a Linda-moment.  I’m not sure Will even remembers the conversation, but verbalizing that sentiment has been a useful reminder for me ever since Will played in Little League that spring.  Sometimes you need a rational, armored fence such that every pinging sting doesn’t hit your heart. 

“We’ve met like ten times before!” found a breach in my breast plate.

I’ll say “hi” again, for I know no other way to mend that imperfection in my armor.  And, because Mom has always said, “Kill them with kindness.”  I learned last summer that the action of killing-with-kindness can be maneuvered with either a passion for putting kindness into the world despite the situation or with the precision of sliding a thin metal blade into the toughest leather.  I prefer the first, but I rather inadvertently resorted to the latter last summer.

A young man from the East Coast sat down next to me in a writing class.  We introduced ourselves to one another, and when he heard that I was originally from Iowa, he rolled his eyes and groaned.  He said something to the effect that his writing may upset me because the topic of the ten-page submission was how he more-or-less despises Midwestern kindness.  He was familiar with this phenomenon first-hand as he had accepted the most economical master’s program offered to him – and it happened to be in the Midwest, in the middle of cornfields.  God’s country or God-forbidden country.  His upfront nature was refreshing; sometimes I appreciate this directness in people.  He spoke of the topic in a third-person removed sort of way.

As the week went on, we talked very little; still I could feel that he was exasperated by most people and most situations.  In class on Friday, he said he was looking forward to hiking that evening and exploring the area.  When I saw him Saturday morning, his arm was in a cast.  For the next week, he needed help from strangers – including one Midwesterner.

Sunday afternoon, he asked me for a ride to pick up x-rays from a clinic and medicine from the pharmacy.  I smiled.  And, said I would.  I hadn’t read his submission yet as he wasn’t scheduled for review until the last day of the two-week course, so I hadn’t seen his thoughts on Midwesterners in black and white.  Honestly, I may have subconsciously decided it wasn’t one I needed to read, period.

He thanked me profusely for being so kind as to drive him around for two hours.  I responded something to the effect of you need help and I have the time and the transportation.  We went to the pharmacy first, but his meds weren’t ready, so we decided to pick up the x-rays first. 

Three times I had to ask him what the address was of the clinic.  The third response was finally audible: Love Avenue.  I openly grinned as I gave him a knowing look.  The universe was speaking loudly.  It would have been impossible for either of us not to acknowledge how painful it was for him to be chauffeured around town by a woman from Iowa, let alone having to ask her for a ride to Love Avenue.

This man was a forthright contrarian writer.  And a contrarian in life.  No matter what me, a Midwestern optimist, might say, he would have the exact opposite response. Nothing would give him a glimmer of light to put a little cheer in his demeanor.  I accepted that.  He accepted the ride.  He left campus early.  I never read his paper.

I can’t remember his name now, but I still wish him well from afar.  Perhaps our opposing outlooks will neutralize one another, throwing less yuck at the general human condition.

So, yes.  Next time I see the woman whose comment I remember but whose name still escapes me, I will smile and say hello.  She might need that smile – and it’s no skin off my back.  Nor is her comment now that I’ve thoroughly let my fingers think about it.  Her retort was not about me but rather something within her universe.

I had a thought this morning about my memory.  Ever since chemo and with being on hormone suppressants for a decade, my memory has suffered – but my hair has become extremely curly.  I think my memory is leaking through my hair follicles and putting kinks in my locks. 

It makes me smile to think that I might know where my memory resides nowadays.

Life by the Numbers

I’m pretty sure it was June 17, 2009 when the radiologist’s nurse put an off-putting hand on my back as she led me to the front desk to make an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon for a biopsy.  Today, I’m 10 years cancer free. :)  I’ve had 2 false positives since then.  They conjured up the same feelings as those 10 years ago with that hand on my back.  My annual MRI was 1 month ago – that’s the big kahuna, more all-seeing than the annual mammogram set 6 months apart from my MRI appointments. 

After each MRI and mammogram, I have an appointment with my breast cancer surgeon – so twice a year.  In May, I pointed out 1 correction with my new doctor.  I saw her 1 time before this, so she reviewed my history with me, again, on this 2nd visit.  My decade of details, transferred from an old system to the new system, must have been typed in manually, for they included another breast cancer tumor removal in August of 2018.  I assured her that the only tumors removed were 10 years ago.  A typo.  That “2018” should have been a “2009.”  A reminder to be vigilant and proactive when it comes to my health – or the history of my health.  Those 10 years have been condensed into a 10-line recap in the new system.  That was actually refreshing to see: 10 years out, my cancer can be summarized in 10 lines instead of 100s of pages. 

Will is 15 and has 2 more days left of school.  Liam is 13 and has 5 more days to go.  As for Bill, he turns 60 on Saturday! Bill’s favorite number has always been 8, same as mine, but I think his might be 9 or 18 now, depending on the number of holes he’s playing on the golf course.

We’re attempting to move our 1 guestroom from the big rec room in the basement to a smaller more private room in the basement.  That new room is currently the last stop for stuff before the loft in the barn.  I packed up 6 tubs of craft supplies to go up – that’s funny since I only do crafts 2 or 3 times a year with my neighbor’s little girls or perhaps 1 project at Christmas. 

As the boys moved into their teens, we have been clearing out their rooms a bit making them more like rooms for 10+x humans.  To make more room in their closets, I pulled their baby quilts and blankets out – 1 quilt each made by a Massachusetts friend, a Wisconsin friend, an Iowa friend, an Iowa aunt, and a high school friend; thin flannel receiving blankets that Mom made for them; and finally 2 small white blankets that Grandma Murphy crocheted for them.  For 3 months, they were on my bedroom closet shelves, then in a clear ugly “display” tub, and finally, stacked on the floor.  For 2 months they were in that room in the basement in a black garbage bag to keep them clean. Yesterday, I packed them in a clear tub and took them to the loft.  And cried.  In a future crafty moment, I will find an inventive glass-cased storage unit for them in that room in the basement so I can walk by them and smile at the memories – 100s of my kids and 100s of the hands that made them.

Will made a model of a Byzantine church for school that he wants to keep in his room.  There’s only 1 spot for it: the top of his wardrobe.  We need to box up the cluster of 25+ teddy bears that currently holds residence there.  It’s the 1 lone spot in his room that points to an earlier era.  I will cry.

So… 10 years out.  Many of you were with me on that long road 10 years ago.  We’ve come a long way!  With what I wrote that year, I’ve hoped that if I shared it, it would give 1 thing to at least 1 person on a similar unexpected journey – a smile.  It’s not in a hardcover form, but it is available here on my website, complete with photos of the bald Linda.  That era still feels like someone else’s life when I look through the writing and the photos.  Anyway, feel free to share the Staying Strong link with someone that might find it useful.  Someone who might need a smile.

Staying strong,

Linda

Maple Seeds and Chipmunks

On Tuesday, May 28th at 10:03 a.m. EST, I pushed “send” and launched my manuscript into the next phase… working with my publisher – a major step in turning the spiral bound version into a real book!

I am self-publishing the book with the help of a publishing service, iUniverse, which will help me move the manuscript through the editorial and design stages.  If all stays on track, Cornfields to Codfish will be available in the fall. 

Strangely enough, the first stop for my manuscript is the Philippines.  There, the content will be analyzed to check for libel and copyright infringement.  I’m guessing this is all completed via computer programs that compare my writing to information on the internet.  In two or three weeks, the manuscript will return to Indiana for review by English-as-first-language editors.

In the meantime, I’m working on one final section for the book – a collection of recipes, ones that relate back to the essays in the book.  So just when you think you’ve come to the end of the book, voilà, a little icing on the cake!

I thought I would send you a draft of “Mushroom Risotto,” but that writing took a turn and meandered to a place far from the actual recipe.  I didn’t have time Thursday to pull in the reins and make it suitable to send to you.  Rather, I dropped the reins and let it wander and gallop.  I’m not sure what I’ll find when I seek it out again – hopefully something salvageable that I can call “Mushroom Risotto” in the back section of Cornfields to Codfish.

Today is a Sunday with clouds but, as of yet, no rain.  I fully intend to weed the front of three flower gardens and plant annuals in them.  The perennials in most of the plots are established and few weeds are able to anchor among them.  Every year I fill in the spaces with additional perennials, but in the last couple years those plants haven’t come back. 

I attribute this to the shuffle in the ecosystem in my backyard.  I’m overrun with rabbits.  Seven years ago, I was writing about a family of fox that lived in our backyard.  They were intriguing, and… they were above rabbits in the food chain.  We had two seasons of fox living in the rocky ledge around our property.  Then, late that last summer, a neighbor saw a dead fox on the road by her house, and the following year, no fox family. 

So, the woodchuck returned to his apartments from whence he had been ousted by the fox.  Woodchucks are the equivalent of what Dad calls horses, hay burners – only woodchucks are perennial burners.  A perennial can only take so much continual trimming by these buck-teethed, wide porky creatures before it’s snuffed out.  The wide swathes of empty space in my flower gardens reflect a couple hundred dollars worth of plants that survived only long enough to provide a salad bar to the woodchuck.

That was a couple years ago.  Today, we have an abundance of brave rabbits, with no woodchucks in sight.  Rabbits are just another buck-toothed, heavy-duty nibbler, porky with long ears. 

Procrastinating the move to the flower garden, I took my coffee and a book of essays to the deck.  It was a book that had been on my shelf for nearly a year.  I didn’t think I would get anywhere by picking up the 732-page Anna Karenina that I’m tasking myself with.  The constant pull of all those weeds and baby maples that needed to be pulled wouldn’t let me sink into that story. I only had attention for two or three pages at a time — before the vision of a two-leafed maple sapling interrupted.

Our property is surrounded by maple trees and every fall millions of single-bladed helicopter seeds spin to the ground and lodge themselves in my flower gardens.  Even after a fall cleanup, a hefty number of them spring up as baby maples the following spring.  Every year.  Every single year.  If I take a hoe to them, I only succeed in trimming them, which forces the root to go deeper and for them to regrow stronger the following year.  The most effective method of removal is on my hands and knees, pulling each three-inch-high seedling from the ground with constant steady force so that it doesn’t snap off, leaving the root to go deeper.  I’ve had four pulling sessions so far this spring.  I’m about to head out for, hopefully, one last time. 

With my feet propped up and a blanket over my shoulders, I hugged my book and my coffee in my lap.  Sudden, jerky movements caught my peripheral eye.  A chipmunk was on the deck.  It was rummaging along the edges then darting nearer and nearer to me.  My vocal shooing and flicking of my hand were mere second-long distractions to this little beast. 

The last time I lived on a farm was in 1988, yet my intolerance for rodents – which for me ranges from rabbits and raccoons to rats and chipmunks – has not changed.  I don’t find these critters cute.  They are nuisances and their close proximity to my house in the city takes up a lot of brain space.  So this chipmunk on the deck became intolerable.  I stopped short of throwing something at it.

With my legs up such that it couldn’t run up my blanket, I watched it.  Often I muse at the differences between Bill’s people and my people in his people’s soft spot for animals.  Bill’s mum was a wild animal lover through and through – birds, mice, badgers, hedgehogs. However, I grew up with rabid skunks and raccoons that Dad would shoot in order to protect our family and our livestock.  And, several months after harvest, I would witness corn cribs being emptied and the ensuing dance my dad would have with rats and mice at the bottom of the crib.  Hence the yin-yang of Bill and me: He has a lovely soft heart when it comes to all animals.  I have the heart of a farmer when it comes to rodents. 

I’m quite OK with these small critters remaining at the edges of our properties, but once they move to the flower gardens – and now the deck??  Still, I watched the chipmunk.  He was working hard to dig something out between the boards of the deck.  Quick little fingers magically produced one of those helicopter maple seeds.  He flicked it around so the blade was facing out. And… he ate the seed!   He actually eats maple seeds!  These nuisances without a heart that have me standing on my head for hours in the flower gardens – they are chipmunk food!  This twitching striped rodent is on my side!

Long live the Chipmunk! 

God save the Chipmunk!

Avoiding Revising

There I’ve done it.  I have selected “File -> New” on Word rather than “File -> Open -> Malcolm Cornfields to Codfish beta reader version.”  I had fully intended on opening that rather than writing this to you.  However, procrastination flows freely on the path to perfection.

And that’s the leg of the manuscript journey I’m in now… to perfect it with the last pieces of reader feedback.  Search every “here” and “hear” because my fingers use the two of those spellings interchangeably, despite what my brain directs.  Similarly, “there,” “their,” and “they’re” appear at will with no respect to the context of the paragraph. 

With my readers’ feedback, I’m on a search and rescue mission for dangling participles.  “Born in Iowa, the cornfields shot feet above my head as a kid.”  The meaning of that sentence as it’s written is that the cornfields were born in Iowa, for there is no clear reference to me other that at the end of the sentence, and that is not close enough to the participle “Born in Iowa” to create a clear connection.

Sometimes I do these things intentionally.  Particularly fragments.  Love fragments.  They convey the motion of the brain so articulately sometimes.  They’re much more effective that saying, “I’m thinking in bits and pieces as most of us occasionally do.”  Fragments show that, rather than tell it.  When I taught Developmental English to college freshman, I drilled grammar so my students would be ready to take freshman comp their second year of college.   Students argued with me on my authoritarian direction for writing complete and correctly punctuated sentences. I told them that they needed to learn the rules first, then they could intentionally break them.  Only when you know the rules can you take artistic license in breaking them at just the right time.  Only then.

Since I joined my first writers’ critique group in Boston three years ago, I have wrestled one essay to the ground over and stood up victorious time and again – or so I thought.  It’s the piece of work that has put me to the test in translating from Midwest to New England colloquialisms.  This was in a group of essays that I presented to that very first critique group.  Their cocked heads, inquisitive looks, and blank stares made me rethink my writing style – to write such that anyone would understand what I was saying. 

The problem that arose that day?  Consider this: In a game of Pictionary, put a Midwest farmer at the drawing board with teammates of New England city folk doing the guessing.  Then give the farmer the word “hydrant” to draw.  The farmer’s team will lose.  For the farmer will draw a water hydrant used to fill his cattle’s water tank, and the city folk will never guess it, for the only hydrant they know is the fire hydrant on their paved street. 

Fortunately, a beta reader brought this hydrant section to my attention — again — with a few suggestions.  After fifteen years of watering cattle as a child, I was so familiar with “my” hydrant that I couldn’t tell anyone who hadn’t seen one how it worked or what it looked like.  In my mind, it simply was.  However, after grappling with that two-page description for three years, I think I’ve finally drawn a word-picture that both Midwesterners and New Englanders will understand.  Of course, you’ll be the final judge of that, particularly if you are not a Midwestern or a New Englander. 

The bulk of what I have remaining to edit are clarifications like this and some minor grammar usage issues. That reminds me that I need to search for “its” and “it’s” as well. The biggest mental challenge was taking care of that hydrant section, and that is done.  Oh, but I do now recall that a Midwesterner rightly wondered what the heck a quahog is. 

When my book, Cornfields to Codfish, comes out this fall, you might want a dictionary at hand. Just in case.

Onward to research “quahog” so I can writely define what that is – other than a great big clam.

Counting to Thirty

Yesterday, I was successful in a small thirty-second kind of way. Several consecutive thirty-seconds, actually. Last June, I had a pain in my hip that lingered over the summer. Convinced it was bone cancer, in September I finally went to the doctor. It was just bursitis. Bursitis pain never felt so good! I had too many repetitive movements in my life: sitting at a desk and walking on a treadmill. My hips were struggling with a life of back and forth movement. They needed variation, oppositional stretching, a little specialized attention. A few physical therapy sessions got them back on track and out the door I went with stretches that would keep bursitis away.

After doing the stretches for a few weeks, I felt great so dropped the stretching from my weekly agenda. Within days, the twinging in my hips returned. I stretched. It went away. I’m as bright as Pavlov’s dog: to keep from hurting, I need to stretch. For the rest of my life. That’s a little overwhelming, really. Yet truthful as I’m walking around in a body that doesn’t spring back like it did ten years ago.

The thought of needing to stretch takes up a lot of brain space. The act of stretching takes less than ten minutes a few times a week. I’m supposed to hold each of the five stretches for thirty-seconds, on each side. Why is that math so daunting when I wonder when in the day I’ll be able to fit it in? The stretching grows to the size of a hot air balloon when I think about it, yet when I do it, it takes the space of a little water balloon. And it’s done. I’ve worked the stretching into my Monday and Wednesday routines at the Y. So this scheduling issue only arises a couple times a week.

On Monday, I found a spot on the mat at the Y and started that first stretch. After “1… 2… 3… 4…” I jumped ship to the to-do list to attend to after I left the Y. I caught myself and guessed at “15… 16… 17…” before again my focus flipped 180 degrees. I may have held that stretch for 20 seconds or a minute. I ended it on “add dish washing soap to the grocery list.”

Thankfully, at 52 I talk to myself nowadays.

After that first stretch, the conversation started. While I don’t remember it word for word, the initial screaming went something like, “For crying out loud! Just count to 30! That’s all you have to do RIGHT NOW! Count to 30!”

Then, more calmly, “You’re absolutely right! I can’t accomplish anything right now from that list! I only need to count to 30!”

It was answered by an exasperated, “Finally, you get it! Now, I suggest you count out loud!”

Taking the firmly dispensed advice, for each stretch, a similar but less intense conversation ensued. “Right now, all I need to do is to count to 30.” Then a whispered count.

The gym is a good place to whisper counts. Many people are counting repetitions out loud there. I join the crowd and keep my mind in place for thirty seconds at a time. And I repeat it ten times.

Unsure which benefited more while I stretched yesterday — my hips or my mind.

A Day's Thoughts

A Day's Thoughts...

It’s been a few days since I’ve faced a blank page. It’s a bit intimidating at first. Like arranging dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in months or years. Feeling unsure of how it might go. Will it be like old times? Will we have anything to talk about? Will it be awkward? Then, with a smile and a “hello,” that time between conversations melts. And when the dinner ends, you’re smiling ear to ear. And by the time you get to the car, a somberness clouds the air, for when will you meet again? Can it be sooner than later?

I traveled to Arizona in early April to catch up with my roommates of thirty years ago. We knew one another from accounting days at Sundstrand. I was a pricing analyst and cost accountant. Jeepers, that’s a funny thing to say. I’m many years – and universes – away from that career! For three solid days, we caught up and covered the gambit from kids to husbands, from cancer to the future. It was as if we were in the middle of a desert flower bloom, an outburst of friendship. And it was absolutely wonderful. We timed our arrivals, them from Chicago and me from Boston, within fifteen minutes of one another. The same with our departures. At the end of the trip, we had lunch at the airport, and then they walked me to my gate before going on to theirs. We said good-byes with smiles. Then they were off down the terminal. The sudden aloneness caught me off guard. Honest to Pete, I felt a piece of me just peeled away as the three of “us” became “them” and “me.” The sudden absence of conversation and laughter hit as though I had been thrown into a cell in solitary confinement. Tears rose.

Often times when I fly, I take a virtual walk through our house and jot down house projects that would open the bottleneck of too much stuff in our house. How to clear the dining room. How to better organize the office. How to make more room on the shelves and hooks of the mudroom. How to make the rec room in the basement a place where my family wants to hang out. A virtual walk-through helps me identify projects without putting my hands on a thing and getting distracted.

Inevitably, a room in the basement rises to the top as to where the cork needs to be popped to let all other projects commence. This room has had many labels since we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. Guest room. Craft room. Library. We had shelving and cupboards installed in 2010. Then in 2012, water got in the basement when we were putting an addition on the house and over half of the storage units had to be ripped out. Since then, finding a label for that room has been tough. It’s the catch-all room. During the holidays and decorating the house, I call it the room-where-all-the-magic-happens. It’s a holding room for all things that need to be taken back to the barn loft – out the basement door, across the backyard, through the main level of the barn, (aka the garage), and up fifteen iron steps to the wilderness. To that place behind a cheap wooden knob-less door. The door that I knock loudly on, ten or more times, to let the little beasts know I’m coming up. The story about loft critters is still brewing.

So on the flight back to Boston from Phoenix, it becomes clear that the project that must be on the priority list is this room. Scarier still was that I needed everyone’s help because the cork was made of questionable stuff. Does 15-year-old Will want to keep Beyblades that his 8-year-old-self played with? Does 13-year-old Liam want the journals that his 8-year-old-self drew pages upon pages of Mario levels? Does Bill like to re-do jigsaw puzzles that he has already put together once? I took a deep breath Saturday morning as I headed out the door and proclaimed, “I need everyone in the basement for an hour this afternoon.” Then I ran. Afraid of the fallout. Fast forward to that dreaded hour… I’m amazed at what we accomplished! I set up three stations: keep it in the house, put it in the loft, or donate it. As we moved through stuff, we had a laugh when memories were dusted off. Seeing what the three of them kept and what they didn’t want was enlightening. (Let me know if you want any jigsaw puzzles!) We gained a 10x10-foot patch of floor space and now have two empty cabinet shelves.

Backpedaling, at Logan airport on my way to Phoenix, I picked up a magazine that grabbed my eye. The headline on the front cover was “GET ORGANIZED!” Yes, all in caps. Anticipating my virtual de-cluttering list, I grabbed it and was a bit stunned when the cashier asked for $13 and change. But there were “100+ IDEAS FOR EVERY ROOM” and “QUICK & EASY CLUTTER CURES” – those were surely worth the money. I read it cover to cover on the flight to Phoenix. And then I cussed a Grandma Murphy little “s” cuss word. There was nothing new. I KNEW IT ALL. And it had been written by twenty- or thirty-somethings who had no real stuff to manage in their lives. And too much time to think about all their imaginary stuff. The little tidbits of “Paper Your Shelves” and “Roll Your Towels” were of no use to me. And the offering of how to avoid stray single socks coming out of the dryer? There is no such fix. Fiction.

And finally, our realities of how long to keep blush in your make-up bag before replacing it were so far apart I wanted to throw the magazine, for my replacement of blush has never been based on time but rather on consequence. The day the plastic case dives out of my hand and crashes on the bathroom floor and the lid and base skid apart as the blush breaks and sends crumbles of soft color flying – that’s when I know it’s time. I have about a week of patience after that for taking the hair band off the case and tapping broken rouge with the brush. And if the drug store isn't in my week's travel circle, I can probably make that bumbled together blush case last another two weeks. Fact.

Forty-eight Hours with Will

A couple of weeks ago, I spent forty-eight hours with Will. On Friday, I took him on a college tour at Tufts University in Medford, MA, then to his State Gymnastics meet the following day.

We aren’t in a serious search phase yet as Will is only a sophomore. Over the coming months, we’re visiting a variety of colleges to see which style of school/campus feels right. For Will to answer the question, “Could I spend four years here?” Tufts is perched on the Somerville/Medford line, but once you are at the center of campus, those towns vanish. The school is small, only 5,000 students; there’s easy access to Boston only five miles away; and a mechanical engineering student gave us the tour. Will and I were both impressed by all three of these things, particularly the fact that an engineering student was quite comfortable with public speaking. In June, we are going to visit Boston University, which has over 16,000 students and is right in Boston. A large urban university with no secluded campus but rather a cluster of big buildings hugging the Charles River and bordered by Commonwealth Avenue on the other side. The thought of a school this size makes me quake, but I’ll try to keep that to myself and let Will come to his own conclusions.

Rarely do I spend a full day with now 15-year-old Will. When he was two, we were a duo. Boston was our backyard, and we often made trips to the Museum of Science. On one visit we were with a group of friends — three moms and three kids. After lunch, the moms took the kids into the women’s bathroom. I hoisted Will up to the sink so he could reach the soap and water. Then we moved to the sensory-shattering hand dryer: the XLERATOR. Will and I stood side by side, he with one hand over an ear and the opposite shoulder scrunched up to his other ear. He dried one hand at a time. The sharp funneled warm wind blew the toddler fat around on top of his soft chubby hand. I looked at my hand as the same funnel-shaped air blew my skin around. Unlike Will’s, my skin appeared to be less connected to my flesh. He and I noticed the difference, and a scientist-mom-friend peeking over our shoulders mentioned something to the effect of age and the loss of collagen and how it would only get worse for me. I wasn’t even 40 yet.

Between the campus tour and the information session at Tufts, we picked up on bits of vocabulary that will become the norm Will’s junior year in high school. We stole looks at one another and nodded or shrugged to convey whether we had any idea what “early action” or “holistic application reading” meant. We were in a learning mode, and by the end of the day, we were both saturated. We agreed that future college visits would be best handled by visiting only one college a day.

We came away with some valuable information from the student tour guide as well as the admissions counselor. When touring colleges, ask what student life is like – do engineering students socialize with students outside of engineering? How many classes are taught by graduate students? When filling out the college applications do not write essays about sports, about your favorite family member, or about losing an iPad in a hurricane – particularly when that hurricane killed people. Counselors want to see a glimpse of you not already outlined on the application; they want to read something about you, not your grandma; they probably won’t want you on their campus if your essay only demonstrates that you are self-centered and immature.

Before heading home, I stopped in the bathroom, and when I went to dry my hands, there it was. Again. The XLERATOR. Like the hundreds of times I’ve dried my hands under wind tunnels like this since that day at the Museum of Science, I see that my skin has loosened so much over the years. With the air hitting right in the center of the back of my hand, the skin blows out into a circle with edges that wall up like a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I credit my 65-year-old skin, more than a decade beyond my biological age, not only to the natural ticking progression of the years since that day at the museum but also to a lack of hormones over the last ten years. Estrogen… breast cancer feeds on it, and it helps keep skin supple with collagen. My collagen glue has been wiped out with medicine since 2009.

The day after the tour, I drove Will to his State Gymnastics meet. We left the house at 6 a.m. and drove an hour for the 7 a.m. check-in. In the van, Will immediately put his earbuds in and went to a private place to mentally prepare for the meet. I could’ve listened to Christmas music the whole trip if I wanted to, for he had checked out of this ride with me. All the boys who competed that day placed high enough to qualify for Regionals. Will had a couple of slips. A fall on the rings dismount after a clean routine. A fall out of giants on the high bar that broke his momentum for the high-value dismount he had planned. He was gracious in accepting where he placed and making it to Regionals, but in the van I could tell he was disappointed. It’s a game of math for him. He knows precisely what each skill is worth and goes in confident that he can compete all of them. Then, there’s the personal reckoning after the meet.

On the drive home, I saw tightness in his face – his eyes straight forward and his lips pulled taut into a near grimace. He touched the thick callouses on the palms of his hand, thankful that the one spot of new skin he had babied for a week had not ripped off on the parallel bars. We talked a bit about the competition and prepping for the next one. Another chance to put it all out there at Regionals. Practice the next four weeks, five days a week, would polish his routines.

The conversation quieted. Will nodded off. I glanced over to see his eyes gently closed with a child’s eyelashes protecting sleep. And remnants of those beautiful toddler lips, pouty and supple, erasing teenage contemplation.

The Season of Brown

I’m pretty sure we had our last glimpse of winter from a mountaintop on Sunday. Saturday evening, Bill, Liam, and I drove two hours north up to Gilford, NH; we were skiing at Gunstock Mountain early Sunday morning with another family. Our oldest son, Will, had gone to Crotched Mountain, also in New Hampshire, with a friend to ski Saturday afternoon and night.

A drive north to the mountains never disappoints. And the fact that I can drive to the mountains still seems out of alignment with my Midwest born feet. However, on Sunday the lack of snow on that journey north meant one thing. The Season of Brown has arrived. Yet the summit of Gunstock, at 2,300 feet, had gotten four inches of snow a couple days earlier. When Gunstock came into sight, miles away, we recognized it because of the snowy wide strips running vertically down the mountain. The surrounding area was brown, just like the drive up. Aside from the snow at the very top, the trails weren’t covered in winter snow. Most of this was man-made snow — able to cling to the trails because the ground is still cold, the humidity in the atmosphere is just right, and the sun isn’t yet warm enough to melt it.

The snow on the trails was soft not slushy, but it was heading in that direction. It was hard work plowing through thick snow on some of the trails. My first thought was that it felt like skiing through peanut butter. Our friend we were skiing with named it more aptly: mashed potatoes.

Normally, I find a green run and ski it, by myself, from morning til close. Throughout my typical ski day, I build up confidence such that I don’t have to think about this ludicrous thing I’m doing. I get used to one trail’s curves, icy sheets, and gravelly frozen bits. I go slowly and stop often to take in the view. I don’t worry about getting hurt when I’m skiing alone, for I have complete confidence that one of those little five-year-olds who ski with no poles will get help for me if I happen to wipe out and not be able to get up.

But Sunday was different: our two families skied together every run. As we walked to the first chairlift, I coasted on a fine line between terror and peace. Blues and blacks scared me, yet I had a good set of greens under my belt for the season. Much like my snowshoeing expedition a few weeks back, I remembered that while down might be intimidating, I can ski across anything. Or, as an adult woman on the other side of fifty, I would be quite comfortable taking the skis off and walking down the mountain. Or sliding on my butt. I have choices. Our first run down would be a blue. Green is easiest, then blue, then black, then those crazy double blacks. There would be none of the latter that day.

I think the color label on the trail reflects the steepest part of that trail. I could tell on the blue trails that the earth was propped up a bit, pushing me faster than my comfortable green runs. Everyone skied ahead of me, but Bill. He took up his normal residence behind me, like the dad chasing behind his son’s bike the first time he rides solo. Bill did the same in Utah some thirty years ago when we were at a tough mountain, Snowbird, in which the green trails are the narrow mountain roads circling down the mountain. On that trip, Bill coaxed me down a blue run, away from the edge of a mountain. He stood at the top as I took off across the steep hill. I could traverse but not turn at the edge of the trail. Mentally, I couldn’t get past that moment in a turn when both skis point straight down the mountain. I fell instead. Then, I’d scoot around on my butt to go the other direction, stand up, traverse, and fall again. Perhaps I did this five or six times before I simply didn’t get up. Bill came whooshing down the mountain to my side. I was sobbing. His “let me give you a hug” was met with a fierce “a hug won’t get me off this %$#@ mountain!” I don’t remember how I made it down, but I know there was no hug involved. I had a six-inch purple bruise on the back of my thigh that trip from landing on my ski in the same place each time I fell.

As for Sunday’s trip, our friends had skied this mountain all season, so they had each trail’s personality memorized. They gave us a little debriefing before each run. The kicker was the black run with the “head wall.” Think forehead. A steep to vertical cliff landing at the bridge of a less steep nose. Maybe it was only twenty feet down. Maybe it was fifty. Or, was it a football field? I dropped in from one side and traversed across, cutting the edges of my skis into the side of the mountain to hold on. I was doing wide, ugly traverses leaning into the mountain. As I made the first turn —without a fall, I looked down to where the trail was a bit less angry, but still steep as a nose. I recognized Liam’s blue coat and black pants with a white wiggly puff attached to the back. He had his snow pants on backwards that day so all of his previous ski passes that should have been at his belly button were flying on his backside like a rabbit’s tail. He and his buddies decided not to use ski poles that day, and this made it very easy for him to do jumping jacks — with full extension of legs and arms — as he glided down the mountain.

I pulled my focus back to crossing the headwall. My shoulder was practically hugging the mountain. A straight, outstretched arm would’ve touched the ground. If I fell in place without sliding, which would be impossible, but if I did, my side would fall against the mountain. I wouldn’t fall down onto the the mountain for the side of the mountain was next to me. Watching Liam’s wild flying arms, I couldn’t help think that we both looked like hot messes coming down this trail, albeit for different reasons.

We weaved our way across the whole mountain, skiing most every run but the double blacks, and stopped around 2 p.m. After refreshments at the base, we packed up, anchored our ski bags on our backs, balanced our skis over a shoulder, and carried our poles in the other free hand. We landed on the pavement, out of the slush and mud puddles that had bloomed throughout the day. Then onto the gravel parking lot. A skier needs the right equipment for the job — as does a scuba diver or an astronaut. The lightness when removing the hard plastic boots, big helmet, sweaty gloves, and swishy snow pants leaves the released body feeling like it’s floating.

We slung our gear into the van, and in the driver’s seat, I slowly picked a path through the pot-holed lot onto the road. We were turning our backs on the snow. The woods around us had only dirty lumps of snow remaining. The trees weren’t yet budding. The dead leaves from fall sat as they had in late November. Entering the first Season of Brown for 2019 made me want to cry. The second Season of Brown will come again in November, after Halloween and weeks before the sparkle of winter again covers the dormant, dark ground and trees.

Snowshoes

Last weekend, I was on a solo writing retreat in the Berkshires.

Monday, March 4th

After six inches of snow last night, I worked in the morning then midday tested out my new snowshoes, plus accompanying “gators” designed to keep my calves dry and a water supply tucked into a backpack to keep my body hydrated.  Rather than drive somewhere, I decided to trek around the immediate area of where I’m staying.  There are several buildings on this timeshare plot of land, and around the perimeter, trees are dripping with snow. 

Putting snowshoes on feels like tying narrow tennis rackets to the bottoms of my feet.  My normal stride needs to widen to make room for the wider-than-my-feet snowshoes.  After twenty steps, my subconscious spoke, “Howdy, partner!”  The gait I’ve fallen into is reminiscent of a slightly bow-legged cowboy. 

My wander around the backyard is not a race.  I step slowly and methodically through the white canvas.  Whether dropping backwards into the snow to make a snow angel or writing in the snow by shuffling snow boots to draw a letter then taking a giant hop in order to start the next letter, I find the same giddiness in tableau blanc snow as I do in a new journal, an iced-over mud puddle, or a plate of Christmas dinner.  The perfect beginnings of those things tickle me, but once written in, broken through, or bitten into – respectively, they lose their clean, magical awe.

Following the edge of the property, a hill appears to my right.  In no hurry, I march up the hill and the steel grips on the bottom of the shoes hold tight.  Once on top, I see that to continue on my perimeter walk, I need to go down the other side of the hill.  And down looks longer and more challenging than the upward trek had been.  Remembering Bill’s first downhill ski lesson, I called forth his advice: Don’t ski down the mountain.  Ski across it.  Traverse.

I completed a three-point snowshoe turn by planting each foot heavily.  My eyes drew lines like that on a protractor from the point of origin to the arc.  If I made a traverse about ten degrees down the hill from my original path, I wouldn’t make much progress down the incline.  I sighted a thirty degree line that was doable.  Slow, marked steps took this sloth-like winter human down the other side of the hill.  At one of the turns, I had a pang of anxiety that I occasionally have while downhill skiing.  But it was fleeting because I can turn much easier on an incline with grippy snowshoes than I can with slick boards attached to my feet. 

My turn was as tight as that I make at the end of a row of crocheting, where I have to pay attention to which hole I pull that anchoring yarn through – the one that will make for a perfect turn, matching the one before it; that sets me up for gliding, traverse stitches back across the length of a blanket.  In four traverses, I’m at the bottom of the hill standing in a parking lot.  I hear water flowing in front of me and remember that there is a creek along one side of the property.

The juxtaposition of wide frozen chunks hanging over a noisy rippling stream is eye candy to me.  After I absorb it for a couple minutes, I step down to the stream’s frozen edge, tightly hugging the embankment.  I can’t really tell where the creek starts and the land ends.  The hollowness underfoot makes me think that I’m walking on a frozen, perhaps twelve-inch thick, bank of ice.  It’s wide enough that I don’t worry about it breaking; I stay close to the bank’s edge and do not venture out onto the chunk hanging over the mid-stream flowing water. 

I won’t string along the wondering mind; while navigating along a narrow eighteen-inch section of the bank — I fell in. Although it wasn’t so much a fall as an immediate lowering of my body by a few inches when an edge of ice broke under me.  I heard a splash into the six-inch deep water and immediately pulled that foot up, reached for a tree, and pulled my weight off of the crumbling edge.  I scrambled up the bank – a relative term given I was wearing tennis racquets – and was surprised that my feet weren’t soaked.  The loud splash must have been made by the twenty-five-inch long snowshoe quickly dipping into the water. 

Like following huge Hansel and Gretel crumbs, I turned to backtrack my own footprints and went up onto terra firma. Once on solid ground, I looked up and discovered that the most scenic part of this walk was actually at my back where the sun’s winter rays lit the trees and the stream.

Nebraskan Potstickers

I ended last week’s Musing with a photo of the bathtub at our hotel.  That was a great soak.  That particular late afternoon, I conducted the business of making dinner reservations for seventeen from that hot bubbly tub. 

In Lincoln, New Hampshire, very few restaurants take reservations.  Instead, you can call ahead and put your name on the list.  It would seem they equate this with you walking in and saying “I need a table for eight” to which they reply that there is an hour wait.  So if you call at five, you may be told that the soonest you can be seated is six.  Basically, by putting your name on their list, you wait in the comfort of your own space until 5:45 rather than lolling around at the entrance of the restaurant or standing at a crowded bar dodging elbows for forty-five minutes. 

We were traveling with gymnastics families, so at its peak, we had twenty-four in our community.  Ordering pizza in was the best bet for this group at the beginning of the week.  A couple nights later, the majority of us decided to eat out.  I volunteered to put our name on the list for 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. at a highly recommended local hamburger joint.  One table for eight adults and one for nine kids.  I called at 4:00, knowing from an attempted booking the day before that if I waited until 5:00 to call, we wouldn’t be seated until 7:30 or 8:00.  Which might mean 8:30.  At four o’clock on the dot, I called only to learn that I couldn’t put my name on the list for a specific time; rather, I had to call at just the right time to hit that elusive target time I wanted our groups to be seated.

From the bubbles, I called every fifteen minutes, changing the pitch and pace of my voice each time until I nailed the time.  Still the semi-reservation was complicated… No guarantee that groups would be seated at the same time or near one another, and we might still be split up into smaller groups.  With so many conditions, our group re-grouped.  Six adults went out for dinner.  I think that’s a good number to do dinner with under these “call-ahead” conditions.  Kids happily ate in and the adults had a just-long-enough wait sitting on a cozy couch before being seated.  In the end, six friends squeezed into a booth and laughed most of the evening between bites of brie & bacon or teriyaki burgers.

The next night we were in need of dinner for twelve.  Friends staying at a different location suggested Chinese and that they would pick it up and bring it to our room at the hotel.  I volunteered to organize.  Remembering the hotel had given us a list of local restaurants when we checked in, I found Imperial Palace on the list, plopped it into a Google search, and then sent the menu link to all families.  They texted their selections, and I called in the sixteen items, paid for the order with my credit card, and retreated to the tub again to sooth sore muscles.  I had a half hour.  I needed that half hour.

My phone rang several minutes into the soak.  It was Bill.  “We think you placed the order at a restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska!”

I hit “Recents” on my phone and re-dialed the Imperial Palace.

“Where are you located?”

“Lincoln.”

“What state?”

“Nebraska.”

“Oh no!  I’m the one who placed that big order twenty minutes ago!  I’m in Lincoln, NEW HAMPSHIRE!!”

“Hold on… STOP THAT ORDER!” he shouted to his kitchen. 

I braced myself for his response to me.

“No worries. It’s happened before.  I’ll credit your card.”

How kind this man was not to yell at me.  His response really could have taken the evening a whole other direction. 

From the tub, I sent a short cuss text to Bill, confirming my error.

Then, I texted confirmation of my error to all the parents, including our friends out driving around between Chinese restaurants.  I begged for someone else to take over the ordering responsibilities.  An organized dad called the Imperial Palace in Lincoln, New Hampshire and placed the same order.  I got out of the tub, leaving behind one of the most unpleasant baths ever.  Dinner arrived an hour-and-a-half after the Nebraska order had been placed.

Fortunately, I was with friends.  Forgiving friends.  Humorous friends.  Friends who will long remember ordering Chinese from Lincoln, Nebraska.  One cleverly texted me a photo of the ever elusive Nebraskan potsticker.

Years ago, when the question “why” spilled so easily from preschoolers in my life – my own and the children of friends and family – I would stop the repetitive questions for which I didn’t know the answer with one simple repetitive answer: “because the sky is blue.”  I stole that response from someone else I met along the way.  These now-teenagers still remember my response and have used it with the young “why”-asking children in their own lives.

“Because the sky is blue” gave me an idea.  Rather than linger over this imperfect ordering fiasco, I’ve found a new philosophical answer to an often asked question in our house: “Where is …?”  If I don’t know where the object is, my answer shall be “Lincoln, Nebraska.” This answer shall also apply to those grown-ups who are looking for the location of the next gymnastics meet.  Or the nearest Chinese restaurant. Lincoln, Nebraska.

On Skis

The Malcolms have been in New Hampshire scooting around in calf-high hard plastic boots with slick one-by-fours snapped onto the bottom.  Some of us point them down the mountain and ski.  Personally, I traverse across the mountain and brake.  If the run is gentle, I straighten them out a bit, aim downhill, and work on that parallel sway I see others doing on the steep bits. 

But generally, I grip the side of the mountain with the sharp edges of my skis.  If the pace quickens too rapidly, I turn harder and carve lines into the snow pack with the edges of my skis and conquer the mountain by stopping.  With this maneuver, I imagine I leave giant fans imprinted on the snow behind me, like the tail of a fancy goldfish. 

Daily the view changes.  One day was full of blue sky and sun.  Another, day-long huge snowflakes fell against the evergreens making it feel like I was skiing in a snow globe.  Another, high clouds and strong winds left me not looking around but rather head down into the wind as I worked my way down the mountain.  Yesterday, at the 3,064-foot summit of Loon Mountain, I looked down into the soft, hazy clouds hovering in the space between the mountains.  I looked down into the clouds.

For a flat-lander who grew up at around 500-foot elevation, the thoughts of a being atop a mountain summit, skiing down the side of a mountain, and looking down into clouds… well, I’m intermittently rattled and awed.  On every run, I pull over to the side of the ski trails a half dozen times to look at the mountainous horizon.  From the lower half of Loon Mountain, I see tract buildings on the side of a mountain below and in front of me.  It’s a bit unsettling, for they look like they are pitched forward, about to fall into the valley.    

The ski trails are crowded here with skiers like us on February break from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Wisely, New Hampshire and Vermont hold off their schools’ winter break until next week.  Then they can have the mountains to themselves mid-week.  The skiers rather than the mountain have been my biggest challenge this week.  The skier with the right-of-way is the one downhill; logical as we don’t have rearview mirrors.  This is a fine rule for adept skiers who can pick a line through and around those in front of them.  I generally don’t need to worry about passing other skiers, until I come up on a new skier.  My muscles stiffen when I see a skier making unpredictable, wide traverses, and slow turns.  I’m not sure where to pass them, so instead, I stalk them down the trail until it widens enough for me to comfortably make a move.  I’m the same obstacle to those behind me.

From the summit of Loon Mountain, white capped, 6,288-foot high Mt. Washington in the distance. Mt. Washington’s conditions today: 8 degrees F with 53 mph wind. Not gusting… solid 53 mph wind speed.

From the summit of Loon Mountain, white capped, 6,288-foot high Mt. Washington in the distance. Mt. Washington’s conditions today: 8 degrees F with 53 mph wind. Not gusting… solid 53 mph wind speed.

The longest green trail I skied this trip runs from the summit all the way to the bottom of the mountain.  Green trails, being the easiest and just above the bunny hill, is where relatively new skiers and no-thrill skiers such as myself practice our craft.  Plus, the snowboarders.  I can’t move beyond thinking that people with both legs attached to a wide surfboard on the snow have much less control than those of us attached to two skinny sticks.  The sound of a snowboarder behind me is unnerving.  Boarders have only two edges to carve and do so by manipulating their full body weight between the two.  Often, they travel in groups – this sounds like a grinding stampede coming down the mountain. 

Skiers and snowboarders in New England are more skilled with edges than people who learn to ski out west, for we have ice.  Skiing out west feels like a nonstop trip on marshmallows.  New Englanders are used to the feel and to the sound of grinding edges on patches of ice.  I asked Liam what he thought that scrape sounded like.  “Coffee grinder?”  A good analogy.  As for me, fingernails on a chalkboard.  I end each ice grinding of my skis with a little shudder.  Assuming I see the ice before I hit it, I run my skis across the mountain, dig in the edges, and scrape-slide down until I hit snow.  When a snowboarder hits ice behind me, it sounds like a Mac truck with an engaged snow plow sliding down a giant chalk board.  I grit my teeth and wait for impact.  I narrow my traverse trying to leave as much free trail as possible for this runaway semi.

While I often stop to the side of the trail to admire the view, I do the same to let traffic – boarders and skiers – go by me.  Much like getting onto a busy highway, I watch for a gap, preferably re-entering when the uphill trail is absolutely clear.  I like to have the mountain to myself.  To practice clinging to the side of it and building thunder thighs while doing so. 

By the end of the week, my thighs are my superpower and a hot bath soothes the pain.

Dichotomy of Place

I’ve been out of the loop for a couple weeks! Two weeks ago, I finished Round 2 of my manuscript and sent it off to the professor I met at the New York State Writers Institute for her to read a second time.

Then, last week I stepped off the carousel in Massachusetts and jumped on another one in Iowa to help my mom and my family. Mom was in the hospital for a week with a nasty infection in her colon. She’s home and on the mend, and I’m back on the carousel in Massachusetts.

However, my marbles aren't back in order yet. I'm struggling a bit with dichotomy of place. I spent a week waking up to wide horizon sunrises — and on one particularly cold morning, this spectacular double sunrise.

Then, early Sunday morning, I saw the hot pink morning ball breaking through a cloud on the horizon of Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline sleepily nestled in the foreground. With a strong tailwind, that flight out of O’Hare was the shortest ever back to Boston, an hour and forty minutes.

Unlike my normal landings at Boston’s Logan Airport, when I avert my eyes from the view, I glued my eyes to the window, forcing myself to watch and to hold confidence in the pilot as we glided what looked like only a few feet over the water. I held tight convincing myself that a smooth landing strip would soon appear and catch the jet's tires.

The abruptness of this change in location — from calling one place “home” and then having less than a two-hour flight out of the Midwest to “home” 1,600 miles away — has left me reeling a bit, looking for firm footing on “place.”

So, stringing a line of words together to form a sentence is a challenge. Let alone a few paragraphs. Perhaps next week.

All is well... I’m home.