Saturday, December 30, 2006

Going on vacation when you don't have a job

Since my job these days is to find a job, I figure I can take a break this Christmas week, so for awhile I refrained (somewhat) from going on the computer and the phone. Instead I'm trying to show up for my family, cooking, reading, and sleeping. I'm also trying not to think about all the things I have to do in the new year. We had Christmas in Connecticut at my sister Cate's and I purposely left my laptop behind, even though their WiFi and CD collection are very tempting. Not on purpose I left my cell phone charger at home, and eventually that battery ran down, so I was really disconnected. But all that helped me to be more present. I think.

It was humbling to realize when we got back on Tuesday afternoon that I had almost no email messages and no phone messages at all. Clearly I am just not that important. So I've been spending the last couple of days online, organizing my bookmarks and getting caught up on my reading. I've being reading Salon, mostly the incomparable Anne Lamott, who makes me feel good about being a mom and being spiritual, and newsy, end-of-year wrap-up kind of stuff.

Anything you want to know about food in New York City, and the coverage of a certain newspaper, and lots of other good stuff, may be found in Regina Schrambling's website, Gastropoda. I worked on a story about the Amish for LIFE with her consort, the extraordinary photographer Bob Sacha, and she is a literary and culinary hero of mine. Thank god she was still on the food desk at the Times after 9/11. Her stories comforted me like pasta or stew.

The Guardian has a really good story about Saddam Hussein. It's possible to tell of the role the United States had in Saddam without blaming his horrors entirely on it. I found it unsurprising that he was beaten regularly and severely beginning as a very young child; I believe that evil is created, not thrust into the world.

One of the great benefits of attending Wellesley College, and maybe women's colleges in general, is its terrific career services for both undergrads and alumnae. Much of it is available online, too. There's an extensive network of Wellesley alums willing to talk to other Wellesleyites, and so far, between them and other introductions, I have had informational interviews with an Amherst town planner, a co-director of a fabulous organization called the Institute for Training and Development, an editor at Smith Alumnae Quarterly magazine, director of a thinktank at UMass, a former PR director from Hampshire College, and a writer/reporter/former Ada Comstock Scholar. Adas are Smith College's version of the Davis Scholars, the program that I participated in at Wellesley. And more to come.

All this is by way of networking for both work and community. I am learning that people don't leave their jobs here, especially if they work at one of the colleges. But while there is little turnover, I am further told that potential employers will be attracted by my coming from New York and the new energy and fresh ideas I presumably bring. Let's hope so. At least they don't seem to expect me to dress like a New Yorker, something I have never done well. A lot of extremely competent people live and work here -- the colleges are big employers, of course, and so are the many non-profits and small businesses, and there are zillions of artists and freelancers of all sorts -- and we were told early on that many people are overqualified and underpaid for what they do. I don't know where I will end up in all this, but what I am taking away is to keep my expectations low -- but as always, not settling -- and just keep reaching out and meeting people and taking it one day at a time.

And through my various connections I do have some beginning friendships now, which helps me feel grounded and less lonely. Lily has two friends whose families have been really friendly to us, including our farmer neighbors next door. Dave is going to chaperone her Wednesday afternoon ski lessons that run all January, four buses full of Amherst elementary and secondary school students and he's also making noises about some other kind of volunteering. He'll look for work eventually, but right now we can actually afford for him to take some time off, and it's a pleasure to let him.

We'll be in Brooklyn for our closing on Friday, Jan. 12, rescheduled yesterday by request of the buyer. Look for us over the long weekend, if you are local. Oh, yes, and a very happy new year to all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Betwixt and between

"Birds settle on a tree for a while, then go their separate ways again. The meeting of all living beings must likewise inevitably end in their parting. This world passes away and disappoints the hopes of everlasting attachment."
-- Buddha

The other night I went up to say goodnight to Lily and she said to me, sadly but unashamed, Mama, I've been crying. I miss Brooklyn! I miss my friends. I am never going to see them again. I don't want to go back for the selling [closing]. I don't want to see Harry, he is my best friend and it hurts too much.

At times like this I worry I'm ruining my child's life. As we were leaving this fall so many of my friends told me they had moved when they were eight, and while most of them had really good experiences, it certainly appeared to have had a profound effect on all of them. Lily has only known Brooklyn for her eight years, and is an urban, New York City kid. She likes the stimulation, the buses, and the subways, and the people on the streets, and her routine, and the noise.

I so don't miss New York. I just finished reading Terrorist by John Updike and his descriptions of New Jersey and the New York City skyline and the streets of Manhattan made me very glad I don't still live there. My sense of New York from here is that it's crowded and busy and easily overwhelms me. I can't organize and filter all the input any more; maybe because I'm older I am finding the need for external forces - the environment - to help me set a more serene picture.

Lily says, don't mention New York! It will make me cry! I promise her we will go back for playdates and visits, and in fact if all goes as planned we will be back the weekend of Jan. 6-7 to visit before our closing on Jan. 8. This last, final act, selling our condo, will mean we truly do not live in Brooklyn any more, and the way housing prices are going, probably never will again. It's odd to think it, speaking as someone who lived there for 18 years, 11 years in the same apartment.

But I don't fully live in Amherst, yet, either. Today I am at that inbetween stage where I have a routine here, I'm getting to know some people, life is happening, and yet, I am lonely. Of course it doesn’t help that Christmas is two days away. The very air breathes solitude and melancholy and saying goodbyes; it's gray and you can feel the sky getting darker as early as one in the afternoon. Not sunset yet, I think when I notice it, but it's coming, just a couple more hours of light and then a black darkness like I have not seen in Brooklyn.

Last night I was driving to pick up a new friend who lives a couple of miles down a lightless street in Belchertown, and a deer jumped out about five yards in front of my car. I caught the gleam of its eyes in my headlights and saw the shadow of its body as it darted across the street. All around me was farmland and this city girl was glad she was in a sturdy car with a full tank and a working heater.

Now we are past the solstice, however, and to push the metaphor too far, I know the sun will start to brighten in other parts of our lives, too. After all, we are here. We have much behind us: making the decision, Dave's company closing unexpectedly, the yard sale, putting our place up for sale, accepting an offer, packing up our apartment, moving everything here. I pray I never have to live through a fall like that again! Now the tasks in front of us are finding work and a permanent home, and settling on school for Lily -- we all miss PS 261.

In the new year we will start seriously househunting, which will be fun because I'll see the places I've only been looking at online. I am feeling a strong tug from the west side of the river, especially Northampton, which they call the City here, as in, I am going to the City for dinner. I also want to be in the country and Dave may want something more suburban, although neither of us wants to be too far from town. Lily is begging not just to stay at her new school but to stay on the same bus line, even -- she's on bus nine.

Finding a house we love will go a long way toward settling my dis-ease, as will finding a job. As for that, people here have been really wonderful about meeting with me, most for as much as an hour to discuss my skills and interests, and I know that even more clarity and opportunity await me in January. There aren't a lot of jobs and people tend to stay in them a long time, like decades. But I trust the universe has something in store for me if I can just keep taking the correct steps.

I suppose it's typical of me to simultaneously imagine myself on a couple of isolated acres that back up on conservation land, unable to see my nextdoor neighbors, and also realize I am lonely and a bit sad about leaving my familiar routines and haunts and crowds. I don't miss the skyline but I do miss my friends, badly. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and I think all three of us are feeling like no one here really knows ours yet; we certainly don't know theirs. It's okay. I know we all will. The darkness is here but the light is coming and after New Year's we can start to get back to the new normal.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Whose woods are these?

Yesterday Dave took us on our first hike, in Pelham-Next-Door, that was accurately described by Hiking the Pioneer Valley guidebook as "an easy and pleasant walk through hemlock forests and alongside running waters." This lovely walk winds past backyards bordered by aging stone walls and edges the ravines of Buffam and Amethyst Brooks. I was astonished by the different types of forests we passed through, how abrupt and distinct they were. One 100-yard section was light, full of 30-foot maples that had dropped their leaves, with dozens of smaller three- to four-foot pale-green junipers struggling to grow underneath them. This area was followed by an old pine forest with huge trees too massive to wrap your arms around and everywhere, soft beds of pine needles.

We took a detour across Meetinghouse Road and followed a dirt road that wound up to the Hills Resevoir. We heard it long before we saw it, as the overflow water cascaded down the stonestepped waterfall as Amethyst Brook continues southwest toward Amherst.

Crossing the road back, we rejoined the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail and took another detour down into the ravine to walk alongside the brook some more. We passed Harris Resevoir, smaller and with shorter falls than the first one, but just as calm and lovely. Eventually Amethyst Brook intersected with Buffam Brook and we passed by Buffam Falls. The streams moved fast, over lots of huge boulders and down chasms into pools deep enough to soak in on hot summer days, if not actually swim. I kept thinking of Frost -- "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" -- and was struck by how quiet it was, and how dark below the canopy. The clouds looked ominous and we got tired so we hustled back to the car, but fortunately it never rained.

Lessons learned:

A) Dave and I can make due with the boots we have for now, but Lily needs hiking boots, or trail runners, or something with some traction and support. She just had her sneakers, which were slippery and not remotely waterproof.

B) I am a scaredy cat. I need to lighten up and not get so anxious about getting lost or Lily getting hurt. At a couple of points on the trail it felt entirely remote and all we could hear was the sound of the rushing water, which I kept thinking was car traffic. When we came up out of the woods we could see how close to the road we actually were, but in space no one can hear you scream. Thank god for cell phones, and cell phone signals.

C) Trust the guidebook but read it carefully and bring a compass. Several times we got a bit confused and a bit nervous about where we were exactly, although in restrospect the guidebook's description was entirely accurate.

D) Buy a general topo map of the area to bring with us. The guidebook's tiny maps don't show the big picture.

E) If we are going to start our hike at 11:30 in the morning, bring lunch! Dave and I should have learned that one on our honeymoon on the Napali Coast.

F) We will most likely join the Appalachian Mountain Club, which Berkshire branch maintains the M-M Trail.

I loved teaching Lily, my Brooklyn girl, how to walk in the woods. I take a lot for granted -- that green stuff on that rock is called moss or lichen and will make the rock very slippery. Likewise the leaf beds, especially when you are headed downhill. It's hard to walk down steep hills and it makes your legs feel funny. You have to be particularly careful of your footing if you are wearing sneakers. Step on the dry, gray part of the rocks if you are trying to cross a stream or a muddy patch. If you push past a tree branch it often snaps back into the face of the person behind you. Pine needles can be slippery to walk on, too. When you forgot to bring lunch, cheese popcorn and apples taste really good. Terrariums are way cool to build.

With the temperature staying in the 50s it doesn't feel like mid-December. Nevertheless, we put up our tree this weekend, which we bought from our neighbors next door, whose family grows them in Rhode Island. We went to a birthday party there and patted some cows, and then to a Hanukah party nearby.

Tonight we went to Hatfield-Across-the-River for its annual Luminarium celebration. On the Sunday before Christmas, the residents line their driveways and sidewalks with candles inside paper bags. Many people have elaborate electric lights, too, so on this evening everyone drives around town with just their parking lights on, or even with no lights at all, in order to appreciate the full effect. Santa passes out candy canes. Various local groups -- a brass band, church choirs and hand bell groups, and even a UMass a cappella group -- played holiday music. What the performers lacked in skill they made up for in enthusiasm. It was all very festive and jolly.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another happy week in the Happy Valley

Here's an example of the flexibility we are encountering as we make our way here: Beginning in the third grade, Lily's school offers lessons on string instruments. She wanted to take violin. So after a couple of false starts -- the violin teacher is there just one day a week and never got the messages I and Lily's teacher left for her -- I finally reach her on the phone. She says she is happy to take new students but that Lily would be behind, since she teaches in groups and the other half-dozen kids have been playing since September and can already play Twinkle. She goes on like this awhile and I start to get the picture. Okay, I say, practicing acceptance. It sounds like it isn't going to work this year.

I'm not saying that, the teacher quickly says. Let me see how we can do this. Then, when she realizes that Lily has already had a year of piano and a year of music theory, she perks right up. She will meet Lily next Wednesday from 1:45 -- no, make that 2:00, or else she won't have time for lunch; she'll gulp a granola bar -- she will meet Lily from 2:00 to 2:30 for a private lesson, show her how to hold the bow and so forth. I am to pay close attention, too. Oh, I say, we can practice over Christmas! Happy I am catching on, the teacher says Lily can then join the group class in January. So this afternoon we went to Stamell Stringed Instruments and got a half-sized violin. Lily was pretty excited. We'll see if it lasts.

In addition, we signed her up for Clay Studio Skills through Amherst Leisure Services, the town's clearinghouse for all sorts of recreation, sports, and arts. The class will be held at the Amherst Community Art Center, I think. It sounds great and Lily was bouncing off the wall with excitement when I asked her if she wanted to take it. She will also take downhill ski lessons on Wednesday afternoons at Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont. They get out of school on Wednesdays at 1:20, so Lily and a million other Amherst kids will take a bus out to this ski resort, where they will outfit her with skis and set her up with lessons. We are to pick her up at a nearby elementary school at 7:30, exhausted, no doubt. Great!

My main concern for Lily at this time is that school just isn't as demanding as what she's used to and I worry she'll get complacent and expect less of herself than she is capable of. The homework is non-existent and she's pretty much beyond what homework there is. But the good things are really good: The facilities are excellent, the teachers are really kind and friendly, and she's making friends in various grades, both higher and younger. She does have P.E. and music and art and library. I do fantasize about private school -- there are about four for elementary-aged kids -- but I'm not so sure they are any better. Stay tuned.

Another great food week, too. It poured all afternoon yesterday, so Dave and Lily made cinnamon rolls from the incomparable Mark Bittman, "How to Cook Everything." I made chicken in a pot with mushrooms and green olives from Sahadi's. Bittman is great because he's so encouraging about improvising; his enthusiasm helped me make up this recipe. I also made quick-boiled greens with sesame dressing from the Cynthia Lair book. And I made -- drum roll, please -- toffee. Two batches. Burned the butter on both of them -- electric stoves are tricky -- but it tasted fabulous, nevertheless. I am only giving it to about a dozen people this year, not my usual 75, and instead of the holly boxes from Sweet Celebrations (those are packed up some place far, far away) I am using festive Chinese food containers that I got at Michael's, the arts and crafts chain. We have one nearby. I only went in for five minutes but it instantly made me want to learn to knit, sew, paint, and make scrapbooks all day.

Dave and I also joined a local CSA in Hadley, run by the The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. There are several around, along with farmstands every block, apparently, in season. We were on a couple of waitlists and this one came up first. A friend who belongs raves about it. We can't wait 'til June.

No specific work news, but I continue to make calls and send emails and chat with people about my interests and skills, and scour the listings. Christmas is 10 days away and I'm sure everyone is buckling down and getting their work done before the break, just as you should be doing. I'll be vague here but I'll keep you posted if anything real materializes. Something will. People sure are friendly and welcoming and I still like living here. Cool beans.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.
—Emily Dickinson

When I got overwhelmed this fall I would fall back on two diversions: I'd search the web for work and real estate in the Pioneer Valley. But then, as the actual move date grew closer the idea of looking for a job at the same time felt like too much. So did my online snacking on houses, instead, all the while reciting my "first things first" mantra over and over. We sold; we moved; we settled in.

And now, as we begin our third week here, with first things first still reverberating in my brain, looking for a paying job with benefits is again a high priority. The Pioneer Valley is a big place but the feel is still very small-town. I've been advised to tell as many people as possible that I am looking for work and what my general skills are, because so much comes about by word of mouth.

My latest mantra is, stay in the day. Be present and try to take the appropriate action in front of me -- email requests for an informational interviews, copy my clips, go on interviews, write thank you notes. And pray.

Speaking of copying my clips, that became another problem on Friday. I took two of my LIFE stories to a copy shop and the clerk took one look and said nope, he couldn't do it, that the store was being sued by publishers and so they would not reprint copyrighted material. I explained that I had written the articles, that this was my livelihood, that I had an interview Monday morning. I pleaded. But to no avail. I am proud that I was very polite and calm and did not start swearing until I had left the building. The library's photocopy machine works okay, incidentally, but the reprints of those oversized LIFE stories look terrible reduced and in black and white. This was never a problem in Brooklyn.

The day ended lovely, though. In the early evening the three of us went to the Merry Maple celebration on the Amherst green. I'd worked hard to bundle up, too, two pairs of socks, long johns, wool sweater, gloves, hat, scarf, but it was so cold my teeth were numb. You know you're not in New York when you find drive five minutes to town and find a parking spot two blocks away from the event. It was legal, even. The town gave out free flashlights that the kids played with on the green, as well as hot cider. We listened to the children's choir and stamped our feet trying to stay warm as we waited for the UMass marching band to arrive. They came, finally, followed by Santa riding in the ladder of the fire engine. True to New England preppy form, I saw a couple of people in shorts and not just students; one was a gray-hair. But I always wonder if those are the same people who eat kangaroo eyes or some other weird food: Are they just doing it to make a point or do they really not feel cold in 20 degree weather?

Well, I felt cold, and so did Lily, who had refused to take my strong suggestion to bundle up and her dad's strong suggestion to eat something before we went. When the hay ride pulled by the gorgeous workhorses snorting in the cold took its last turn and she wasn't on it Lily burst into tears and begged to go home. We just said we told you so and stayed another half hour listening to brassy Christmas carols, all the old favorites. As we were getting ready to leave we ran into three generations of people from last summer's family camp at Farm and Wilderness. They were pleased to see us, asked if we had finally landed, and I said yes, and thank you for the inspiration to move to Amherst. Small town, indeed!

We ended the evening at Dave's college friends Jay and Louise eating pizza and looking at the Orion Nebula through Jay's telescope. A friend of theirs who moved up here from New York City five years ago came over with his daughter, too -- more small world: The daughter is in Lily's class. The kids watched Laurel and Hardy while we talked about education and community, and New York versus the Pioneer Valley, and public versus private. This evening is a perfect example of why I wanted to move here. It had everything in it for me, and I felt so at home and happy, even though I was frozen.

Yet another example of small worldliness: Lily has a new friend, Jade, another third-grader in her school whose mother is the sister of Lily's third grade teacher at PS 261. She played over at Jade's house on Saturday afternoon, while Dave and I celebrated Emily Dickinson's 176th birthday at her home on Main Street. They had birthday cake from her own recipes and a great hammered duclimer and fiddler playing dance tunes. We saw her bedroom and imagined her writing at her small table in a corner on the street between two windows. Lovely.

After we got home, more of Dave's college friends, Lonnie and Erika came over the river and through the wood from Northampton to visit for a couple of hours while their daughter went to a rollerskating birthday party in nearby Hadley. Dave made us Thai food, a green chili dish with tofu and vegetables and basmati rice that was great, and dumplings from one of the two local Asian food stores. Almost all the food we eat now is food we've prepared, unlike in Brooklyn.

Today the weather is gorgeous again, and a bit warmer, and we went to the Mullins Center, home of the UMass Minutemen hocky team, to skate. We got a little lost trying to find the place, which means it took us 15 minutes to get there, rather than 10. The rink was only open for a couple of hours; often they host birthday parties in the afternoon. It was not crowded by either Amherst or Brooklyn standards and we skated for about 45 minutes before we all putzed out -- Lily had invited Chapin, the next-door neighbor fourth grader, along -- and had pizza at Antonio's in the center of town. Antonio's is a college-town chain, apparently, that specializes in designer pizza the way Bruegger's specializes in designer bagels. Dave had a beef taco slice and I had a salad pizza with olives and artichoke hearts, among other things.

Now the kids are upstairs playing, Dave is out buying groceries, and the Sunday Times is calling my name from the living room (warmest room in the house). Wish me luck with the interviews.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

City mouse in the country

I lived on a farm for six months once, when I was 19. And before I moved to New York City 18 years ago I used to cross-country ski, ride my bike, go car-camping, and even backpacking. I tried for awhile to stay outdoorsy -- I had just earned my class 1+ whitewater canoeing rating from the AMC when I met Dave. But then we set up house and had Lily and it took an hour just to go three miles to get over one of the bridges and escape Brooklyn. I began to forget what was so appealing about looking at trees and being in 40-below weather, anyway.

But part of me still remembered, so we moved here. The countryside here is gorgeous and the resources to support all that activity tremendous -- the town dump has a recycling section, for instance, that reportedly is full of perfectly good used skis of all sizes. Lily's bike was $60 second-hand at that great bike shop, and the store wasn't even open; but he saw us hovering and let us in. Every time you turn a corner there's another path waiting to be walked.

So the first thing I wanted to to do was get The Gear.

Our first Friday afternoon, last week, Lily had no school and it was pouring and really windy. Perfect day to shop. We started at the above-mentioned bike shop, and then went to three or four more stores to start collecting The Gear, mostly for Lily. She got snow pants, Gortex ski gloves, and a pair of knock-off Sorel boots that cost $20. Will I regret not springing the extra $20 for the actual Sorels? Stay tuned. I got a ski jacket, the only one I could find that wasn't baby blue or soft pink.

The weather cleared and it was lovely the next day, our first Saturday, but Dave had a cold and I headed off to my cousin's 90th birthday party two hours away. So Sunday rolled around, another gorgeous, blue-sky day. I'd promised Lily we could make challah, so we started the morning with yeast and flour and lots of eggs. We've been here long enough to get dirty, I decided next, so I spent the rest of the morning changing sheets, doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, and Dave vaccumed. The little house sparkled. (Really!) Then I took Lily next door to play.

That's when I realized that I don't have The Gear quite down yet. I walked her next door -- our wonderful next-door neighbors are concerned about kids walking the few yards that go along route nine. What do I know? When in Rome... When we got there, Lily's friend's mom said she wanted to send the kids outside, which makes total sense if you don't live in New York City and don't have to watch them every second and had never occurred to me since I just moved from New York City.

So I went back to get Lily a hat, mittens, and boots to replace her leather school shoes, and realized that not only is she lacking mucking-around farm boots, all she has are the Sorel knock-offs and they are pink! In fact, her other boots are pink, too, and she has pink sneakers, and many of her clothes are pink. She was okay with it, though, and I left her trying to move a hen so she could collect her egg.

The cool thing was, Lily was over there awhile. After egg collection, she rode in the back of a pick-up full of hay to feed the cows, and climbed the piles of Christmas trees they have ready to sell. Her cheeks were red and she was beaming; she'd clearly had a great time. Lesson number two: She hates wearing blue jeans but I am going to have to insist, as her new slacks from Old Navy were covered in mud. I feel like these lessons should all be obvious, but mostly I just think, 18 years is 18 years. You can take the girl out of the city but...

So then we decided to go for a bike ride. Only we'd waited a bit too long, and it was now about 3:00 p.m. We ignored the fact that the sun was no longer high in the sky, we were going to be outside, as a family! Lily was scared to ride her new bike and wanted to ride the tagalong. But we insisted that she practice at least a little, so we walked a little way over to Stanley Street, which is very quiet and flat. She was wobbly and jerky -- the concept of handbrakes is brand-new, not to mention gears. But after riding around for a half hour she was thrilled and excited, and ready to get on the tagalong.

So we went back to the house, switched bikes, and rode the three-quarters of a mile to her school. This will be the perfect place to practice riding her new bike, as it's a flat empty lot with lots of yellow parking lines. For now, she and Dave played on the playground equipment and I chatted on my cell phone (call me!) while my hands froze. It was now well after four and the sun was definitely setting. Note to self: Go out in the morning in the winter, not the afternoon; be home by 4:00 p.m.; and always bring gloves!

Still, it was a lot of fun and we came home and ate fresh challah and homemade potato leek soup and I defrosted.

The cold is definitely an issue. I knew it would be colder in Massachusetts -- it's about 10 degrees colder, as a rule -- but somehow I thought it wouldn't be so bad inside. But I forgot that now I control and pay for my own heat, so I'm no longer living in an overheated Brooklyn apartment. We keep the thermostat at about 67 and bundle up. The bathroom does have one of those warming lamps on a timer, which is lovely. At least I don't feel so woefully underdressed in my jeans and sweaters, like I always did, even in neighborly Brooklyn. Everyone here dresses in that kind of L.L. Bean country casual, lots of Polartec and hiking boots.

Another benefit of living here is reconnecting with my New England friends. My friend George Colt, with whom I worked at LIFE and who is a wonderful writer, drove us around for a couple of hours on Monday, into Shutesbury and Leverett. We bought lunch food at the Leverett Village Coop, another good source of cheap bulk spices, grains, and other fine foods we've become accustomed to at the Park Slope Food Coop. It also turns out that members are eligible to join the Five-College Credit Union, which I hope we do soon.

George presented us with a housewarming gift of a book of topographical maps of Massachusetts and he pointed out many of the great hiking spots. As we drove he showed us trailheads and access points for the rails-to-trails. He took us past a road that leads to a rope swing on the Connecticut River. He had intended us to hike to the top of Mount Sugarloaf and eat lunch there, and I confess I totally wimped out. Truth be told I was terrified of being cold, which is kind of silly because the exertion of the walk would have warmed me up. Turns out we didn't actually have time to make the hike, eat lunch, hike down, and go see Anne, George's wife (and also a wonderful writer). So we nix the hike this time and drove over to their home in Whately, instead.

George and Anne have redone a 200-year-old brick farmhouse and it's stunning inside and out. We had bread and cheese and fresh cider and yakked about real estate and schools and transitioning from New York City. Anne told us about a great camping spot on the west side of river, a cove that we can either canoe to, or drive to, unload, and then move the car a half mile away and walk back. George told us where to go in South Hadley to watch falconers train their hawks. And they both talked about the two black bears that stumbled through the yard one summer afternoon when George was weeding. Fortunately they ignored the dachshound, as they were more interested in each other. The bears, that is.

Every day I am reminded of what my friend Sylvia speaks of as the abundance all around us. George says they've been here six years and still haven't explored all the hikes and canoing and biking they want to do, and they haven't done a bit of culture, either. I was worried about being bored, but clearly there's more than enough to do here.

Thank goodness we are coming into snow season. My complaint about New York was that I couldn't offset the winter negatives -- mountains of snow, ponds of slush, icy winds -- with skiing and snowshoeing and gorgeous vistas. No longer! Tuesday was our first snow, and while it didn't stick long it sure was pretty. I spent the morning watching the flurries as I cooked corn bread, and red bean chili with quinoa and a salad with creamy (tofu) garlic-ginger dressing from my current favorite cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair. Wonderful book, and great for those of you with new babies. My friend Nick drove down from New Hampshire and we pigged out awhile and then picked up Lily at school and went to the library for a kids' bookgroup. They were reading "The Last of the Great Whangdoodles" by Julie Andrews, highly recommended, apparently. I bribed her with the promise of ice cream to get her to go to the group; she gets very shy sometimes and digs in her heels. But now she's excited and wants to go back next Tuesday. By the way, ice cream in school costs 50 cents, as opposed to a buck at PS 261.

And today's final lesson: Things just take longer when you're on a new schedule and every routine is new. Is it also that we are in the country now? I don't know, although yesterday the country definitely slowed me down. I tried to leave at 9:00 a.m. to go see a friend and had to spend five minutes scraping and defrosting the car. It was covered with enormous, gorgeous snowflakes that had frozen in. That was after I'd discovered the skylight in our bedroom was dripping onto our bed. The poor landlord has been here almost every day, what with the tree branch crashing down in the thunderstorm last Friday, and now this. Guess that's just life in the Big Country.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

We have landed!

We have been here a full week, and it still feels right, although I check myself every day to make sure. Usually when I move I have a Talking Heads moment of, my god, what have I done! But I haven't had that yet. Maybe later.

We have all been unpacking and getting organized. Our rental house is mostly set up now and it's quite cozy. I could live a long time in a place like this if it were maybe a third bigger. It turns it was a button factory and was moved here from north Amherst in the late 18th century and converted into a home.

The downstairs has a large eat-in kitchen, which we've also stocked with cookbooks and Lily's art supplies. I'd forgotten how much I've missed a big kitchen. There's also a large living room in the front of the house, and a long rectangular room off the front door they call the master bedroom, I think because it has the largest closet. We're using it for our office and the remaining boxes at the moment. All the floors except the kitchen are those wide pine boards and the ceilings are low, so it feels snug.

The upstairs is two good-sized bedrooms but they are under steep eaves, especially Lily's room. The ceiling in our room is less steep and we were able to put both our bureaus up there, although not our queen-sized boxspring, so we sleep on the mattress on the floor. Each room has a window and a skylight; ours looks east and Lily's looks west. Right at the top of the stairs is an open area and I've set up some milk crate-and-board bookshelves, just like when I was in college, for Lily, along with a good reading lamp and some pillows. She loves to sit there and read.

We have the two-story half of the house and a young couple live in the one-story half. They described themselves as untypical undergrads, in that they don't have lots of loud parties. They have a small dog, he plays Irish music, and they are both friendly and very quiet and we never see them.

In front of the house is route 9, aka Belchertown Road, a busy road, but there are large trees and a stockade fence, both of which were damaged last night in a brief thunderstorm. We heard a crash and half a tree, 30 feet long, came down right next to the house and blocked the driveway. It took out some of the fence and also the Irish musician's bike, unfortunately, but that's all. The male half of our wonderful landlord couple was here at 7:00 a.m. today to cut it up. He came early because he wanted to be sure to get to the UMass football game; university sports are a big deal around here. Today, for instance, there were 11 games in Amherst alone. They were expecting 30,000 people and have put on an extra 90 police. UMass has great teams, I think they are division one, and the football team is doing really well.

The family on the farm next door breeds dairy cows (can you see the holstein in the middle of this picture, between the two buildings?). We hear the cows mooing and the rooster crowing in the morning. A fourth grade girl lives there -- she has her own chicken, named Mouse Fur -- and she and Lily have become friends. They ride the bus together and the fathers go out to wait with them in the morning, Dave in his slippers and sipping tea, and chat. The parents are very friendly and used to breed cows for Heifer International, among other things. The views behind our house are wonderful -- long cow fields and then the Pelham Hills. It's supposed to snow Monday and we hope and expect to cross-country ski a fair amount this winter, given snow, of course. Global warming has hit New England, too, of course. If there's no snow, we'll bundle up and hike.

Dave and Lily went for a bike ride yesterday on the tagalong and had a great time. Later on in the afternoon we got Lily a second-hand bike at a great bike shop. We also got her some snow pants and boots and ski gloves, and me a ski jacket, so we are getting prepared; at least we know it will be cold. I grew up outside of Boston so the weather, the dreary end of November, the waning light, the trees, the very air all feel familiar to me on a basic, cellular level. So far, Dave, who has never lived off the Isle of Long, seems to be adjusting well, too. He's had lunch with his two college roommates, he's baked yeasty dinner rolls and popovers, and good thick mushroom soup with barley, and in general is being very domestic.

Speaking of Lily, she had a great first week. She loves her new school and has made several friends already. She goes to Fort River School, about three-quarters of a mile away, and it's very open, friendly, welcoming, warm, accessible. It's weird to be in a school that's all on one floor, but of course the classrooms are good-sized, light and airy. The class has gym and music and art every week, and they play outside every day. Her teacher, Ms. Davis, is young and friendly and she and the students have been very welcoming to Lily. Ms. Davis lived in Gambia for two years and the class will be writing to students in Nairobi as part of their social studies work. Amherst also has loads of other resources, art and music, and lots of outdoor activities, of course. I expect we'll all sign up for more of that in the new year.

We are getting to know the town and the surrounding areas, meeting new people and renewing old friendships and aquaintances. My mother came to visit and help us unpack this week, and on Tuesday while Lily was in school, she and Dave and I took a drive up to Greenfield, about a half hour north, and had lunch and looked at the shops. On the way back we drove slowly through Historic Deerfield, with its wonderful old homes, but didn't stop. Next time.

We are finding we can get most of the basic food we've grown accustomed to in New York. Lots of independent cafes with WiFi, good sushi, good burritos, Brueggers bagels (at least they're boiled!). No hot-out-of-the-pot mozzarella, but almost all the produce is local, so it's a give and take. We are on a waitlist for a local CSA. There's also a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's -- now that we are away from the Park Slope Food Coop I start to understand the appeal of Trader Joe's -- and a place called Atkins Farms. Plus there are several food coops around, and one that's about a year away from opening. We might join Pioneer Valley Co-Housing as associate members, so we can eat dinner there and hang out with that community from time to time.

In our spare time we've been doing stuff like getting library cards, registering the car, inspecting the car -- when the insurance runner picked up our plates at the RMV the state just punched in my name and my Cambridge address came up from 18 years ago! No one noticed until it caught my eye, and our poor insurance agent had to go back the next day and get it corrected -- finding doctors and dentists, and generally getting oriented.

We wondered if we were rushing it a bit to register the car so fast, but not only is our insurance about half what it was, it turns out our registration is the best proof of residency we have. We've used it to get library cards and bank accounts, and we'll use it for access to the town dump/recycling center (apparently lots of discarded skis and things).

We all love the library, which, like the post office, is not as big as Brooklyn but a thousand times more efficient and, yes, there's that word again, friendly. Lily's going to a kids' bookgroup on Tuesday after school. The library has movies and music, of course, and lots of popular books that have long waits in Brooklyn are either on the shelf or easily attainable.

There's loads of art and music and events. I hope we go square dancing. A new good movie theater opened in Amherst over Thanksgiving. We look forward to finding a sitter and going out one night soon. One thing I've noticed immediately is that I find the smaller sizes -- of institutions, stores, even roads and the general area -- and fewer choices make me feel less overwhelmed by all the changes. My daily life feels more manageable. We do drive a lot but we have been walking and biking, too; we are not far from town.

Next on my agenda is looking for work, so I will be calling local folks for informational interviews and searching the job ads. I have faith that someone here will want the skills I offer. Our condo is in contract, with the closing scheduled for early January, so we expect to start househunting in the new year. We'll definitely have a guest room so make your reservations!

It's a really different world, and Brooklyn feels very close in my heart, but very far away geographically. I don't know what exactly compelled me to come here at this time, after all these years of imagining life in the Pioneer Valley. But I tell people here that I woke up in the end of August and thought, It's time to move to Amherst. Subsequently it's all happened quickly and quite smoothly. So far it feels really right.