Friday, May 25, 2007

Memorial Day notes

Lately the otherworldly odor of lily of the valley has been wafting through my windows. In Brooklyn we had honeysuckle every spring right outside our bedroom; now our entire house is surrounded by these white coral bells, upon a slender stalk.

Speaking of singing, now that I'm out of New York my singing range is coming back. I used to have three octaves but had lost at least one; My theory was that the pollution that made me cough and congested was killing my upper range. I couldn't hit even the moderately high notes I used to reach effortlessly. And every time we left the city for more than a day or two those high notes would start to re-emerge, and I'd lose them in within a couple of days of coming back. It's really great to be able to sing again.

The closing is Thursday afternoon. Lily is joining us on the walk-through the afternoon before. It'll be odd to see it empty, with just a few (nice) things they are leaving for us. We are in the process of making our paint and carpet selections this week and the painting will start on June 6. It's coming along! Very exciting. Our movers are coming on June 22 and I'll be sending out change of address info in the next couple of weeks. Look for yours.

One of the many things I'm looking forward to is biking to work. Even though we get parking permits finding a spot can be a drag, and plus it'll be good to get a little exercise. Someone at work lives near our new place and is going to show me a good way to go. Last Monday the state started widening route 9 in Hadley, just before the bridge, and traffic can be backed up a good half hour during the morning commute. I found a good short-cut but then they blocked that, as they are doing work on that part of the road, now, where it empties onto route 9. Soon we will live in Northampton. There's so much to look foward to, not the least of which is a new food co-op that is being built just down the street. And a friend from high school lives about a mile away and has a pool we are invited to use. Life is good.

It's been hot this week -- where you live, too? -- and on the way home Friday I saw people getting out of their cars in bathing suits and towels heading toward our swimming hole on the Fort River. It's where we spent part of that Amazing Amherst Afternoon last August, having a late lunch at Judie's (where she berated me for not tossing my salad per her instructions) and then swimming in this particular spot. It was icy cold and just deep enough and with a little current to get a fun dip. A beaver swam by at one point and we all stopped and watched her calmly paddle her way upstream. Then we left for two nights at Nick and Emily's, followed by five at Farm and Wilderness, and on the way home, as we drove past Amherst, I thought, if you lived here you'd be home by now. And the rest is history.

Let me alert you to Dave's new blog, listed on the right of this page, which is about aging and longevity. He's got some great stuff there. And David Fischer, our dear friend who introduced us all those years ago, has mentioned my Harry Potter blogs in his, so I have to tout his blog, too. It's a good way for me to stay in touch with the goings on in New York City. I've listed other friends' blogs there, too.

Blog life is weird, I think. My ethos is to stay positive and loving and talk just about my experience, but so many are hateful. I find it odd. I am sure the internet has as many opinions as there are people but I am still taken aback when I stumble across a site that complains about the unfairness of DUI's, for instance. Maybe I'm just startled that people are so angry.

We are spending the holiday weekend at my sister's in Connecticut, and had a great day yesterday. Lily and I plopped down on the hammock and read. I was barreling through Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. It's been out a couple of years but I am just getting to it, and it’s hilarious. Just a laugh-out-loud funny, smart book. And what a great beach book, too. Then we went to the Madison Surf Club and ate Cate's delicious hummos and guacamole and Lily and I had bad beach food from the grill. We sat on the grassy lawn above the beach near all the barbequers and kids, the little ones swimming, the teenagers moving in packs across the sand. The water was quite calm and gray. The seagulls flew close and we yakked and noshed and got, happily, a bit chilled by the time we left, just as the sun went down. Lovely.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

More about Harry Potter

It's all coming back to me:

I started reading Harry Potter when I was buying some books at the fabulous Community Bookstore (click here, too) in Park Slope--hi, Katharine!--and I saw the first book on display at the cash register. At this point the first three books had been published but only the first one was in paperback.

I had heard vaguely about this new series, which wasn't huge huge yet, and decided to pick up a copy and see what all the fuss was about. I do this from time to time, read a Steven King or a Harlequin Romance, just to see the formula. Usually I don't get hooked. This time I did, especially because the first one, as I've said before, is so amusing. Remember when you didn't know what Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans were? All those clever flavors, some delicious, some odd, some simply revolting. It was all fresh then, new, and not as dark as later books.

(My objection to the first movie was that director Chris Colombus was so intent on making the movie true to the book that he forgot all the humor; I laughed exactly once the entire two and a half hours, when Dumbledore, he of the sweet tooth, talks about not eating said Every Flavor Beans because he'd eaten a vomit-flavored one once and was forever soured on them.)

So I bought the next couple of books in hardcover, claiming they were for 2-year-old Lily when she was old enough to enjoy them. Dave was not fooled. I finished them over the next few weeks and joined the growing crowd of people waiting for book four. The first movie was released around that time, too, I think. Dave resisted reading HP at all until he saw the third movie a couple of years later, when he finally caved. Book three is the best, in my opinion.

Giving in fully to the series took me until book six, though. Katherine at the Community Bookstore was among the first to host Harry Potter parties the night of the fourth book's release in 2000, but I was still humorless then and it didn't occur to me to go, even to gawk, or to order it in advance. Turns out my mom was a fan, too, and I watched as my step-father ordered it on Amazon so she could read it the very first day it was released. How indulgent, I thought snottily, but she was thrilled.

But Heidi, my dear neighbor upstairs, had her copy delivered that Saturday, too, and generously let me read it first because she was saving it for her vacation a week later. I devoured it over the next few days, very proud of myself because I caught the editing mistake at the end when Voldemort's wand kicks out the ghostly images of the people he's killed in order of the last first, and they are out of order. JRK had it right originally: first Lily appears, then James, who was killed before her, but her editor made her switch it. Later editions corrected the mistake.

Anyway, so of course I ordered it on Amazon the next time. But sure enough, I had to go to Boston for a funeral that very day and the book was delivered an hour after I had left for Port Authority. Very annoying, especially considering I had two long bus rides that could have been put to excellent use. I did sit across from a guy who worked at Scholastic who I seem to remember said was getting his copy on Monday.

By book six I had given in completely. I went up to the Community Bookstore around 8pm the night of its release and helped set up. Katherine had picked up some candy molds of various sizes and spent days making hundreds of green and gold chocolate frogs, which she served free with butterbeer (lots of recipes online). She decorated the window with the colors of the four houses and displayed all the books except the new one, which would be revealed at midnight. She brought in her enormous lizard to stand in as a baby Hungarian Horntail dragon. And just outside the store she set up a professional photographer with a backdrop and lights so people in line could have their picture taken while they waited. There were other entertainments, too, music and jugglers and so forth, and just after midnight, a readaloud of the first chapter.

We were set up by 11:30 and I was paid for my services with a copy of the book. I tucked it discretely under my arm as I passed by the waiting throng--the line stretched all the way to Garfield Place and around the corner toward Prospect Park--and held off until I got to Union Street, two blocks away, where I cracked it open and read it under the street lights as I slowly walked the rest of the way home. I wasn't much fun the next day, which we spent on Long Island with Dave's mom. I read at stop lights, I read during the previews of the movie (Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which amused because we saw it on Long Island and barely anyone laughed and Dave and I cracked up constantly; this seems to happen to us a lot when we see movies on Long Island), and I read all night until I had finished it early Sunday morning.

The next trick was to find someone to talk to about it who had also read it quickly. No one had, yet. Naturally I called my niece, but my sister was reading it first and I was firmly told to keep my mouth shut. That Wednesday I mentioned it my therapist but she cut me off fast, too, saying, I haven't read book six yet, so if Harry Potter is the metaphor for your life it's just going to have to wait. I brought her my copy the next week. She has read the Tolkien series a million times and says HP is very derivative. I have not and didn't see much of the movies, so I can't attest to that. Of course HP is derivative of everything.

Here are some good HP sites: the leaky cauldron and mugglenet are the best fan sites. The founders of both sites (the head of mugglenet has turned this site into a six-figure job) had a great interview with JRK the afternoon after book six was released and it's well-worth reading. JRK of course has her own site, also a good read and a little less chaotic than the other two. The owner of the movies, Warner Brothers, also has a site.

Finally, and I do think this is all I'll post about this, at least until July 21, if you want to read some really good child-adult literature, try Philip Pullman, the His Dark Materials triology. These books tell an amazing story with extraordinary, gorgeous writing, full of all the nuance and choice and problems of life that you find in true literature. Pullman is dealing with Big Issues here, he says this is his attempt to rebut C.S. Lewis. Love conquers all, too, but it's the act of making love that saves the world in the end. They've done a play outside of London and are making a movie. And it sure is wonderful to see another strong girl. More strong girls in literature, I say!

PS -- one final thought: Is it clear that Hermione isn't just smart, she works like a friggin' dog? Everyone says how smart she is, but she works harder than anyone at Hogwarts at her schoolwork. You go, girl.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Harry Potter predictions

Just finished reading the immensely creepy and kinda boring book six to Lily. It's taken months. I had to read the cave scene with zero affect; I did not want to freak her out--or me. Even so, she was kinda weirded out by it. I think we're all glad it's over.

Here's what I think:

JKR says that two major characters die in book seven.
* I think they will be Voldemort and Snape.

Does Harry live or die?
*Harry lives but loses his powers.

I think Harry goes through book seven finding and destroying the various horcruxes, duh, and in the end kills the last bit of Voldemort's soul in a final battle. But the effort saps him of all his magic. He lives out the rest of his life with Ginny, of course, but as a muggle, never to play Quiddich again. There's precedent for this: We learn in a pensieve flashback that Tom Riddle's mother lost her magic at the end of her life. It happens sometimes, Dumbledore says in an off-hand way. If I were a betting girl I'd bet money that it happens to Harry.

It happens, and it solves all the other problems. First of all, how to head off the rest of the world who want to write their own unauthorized post-Voldemort stories about Harry Potter? JKR won't want to kill Harry, she loves him too much. Second, what can Harry possibly do for an encore after defeating the dark lord? Finally, there's lots of precedent in magical sci fi--I'm thinking of The Wizard of Earthsea series where in the third book Ged loses his powers when he uses them to defeat the bad guy in the afterworld.

*Snape will be redeemed.

In all the books the constant message of Dumbledore, the moral core of the series, is that love is stronger than evil; that Harry can and will win because he has love and Voldemort does not. So Dumbledore's unfailing trust of Snape must be upheld, just as Harry must win. There's lots of hints in this book that Snape and Dumbledore had it all pre-arranged, that if it came down to it, Snape was to sacrifice Dumbledore so that Draco wouldn't have to do the deed.

If you like rereading this stuff, try it with that in mind. All the interactions that Harry's paranoid mind reads as Snape is Evil can easily be interpreted as Snape is On Our Side. Furthmore, it's just the sort of thing JRK would do, unless it's too obvious, but I don't think it is. She loves writing in this ambiguous way. She loves her readers, especially her younger ones, and she loves to tease us and throw us off track because she knows we love it.

I think Snape and Draco disapparated but not back to Voldemort; they are off in a safe house some place, something Dumbledore promises Draco is possible as he tries to convince the boy to switch sides. Nothing is wasted in JRK's world; she wouldn't tell us that if it weren't meaningful in some way. Snape will end up dying in the end--he has to, to pay for killing Dumbledore, and because he really is a creep--but he will do something to prove he's on the side of good and Harry will forgive him, at least to some extent.

Besides, Dumbledore was going to die anyway. He drank that nasty stuff at the cave lake, the stuff that made him relive the experience of the two orphanage children Tom Riddle had tortured there. Just before Dumbledore drank it he predicted it would kill him -- again, nothing is wasted -- but not before Voldemort found him and debriefed him in order to find out how he had been discovered. That can't happen because Harry needs the element of surprise around horcruxes so that he can pick them off, one by one, without Voldemort trying to protect them or head him off or confront him.

JKR has said we will learn more about James' and Lily's professions, more about why some people become ghosts and not others, and the fact that Harry has Lily's eyes is important, and we haven't heard the last of the Dursleys, and a few other hints. Many years and many books ago she said that she had written the final chapter already, a wrap-up of what happens to the surviving characters, and that "scar" was the last word of the book. It's hard not to read into that, but what does it really tell us, assuming it's still true? Godric's Hollows shares its name with Godric Gryffindor -- not a coincidence, JKR says. Harry is headed there after Bill and Fleur's wedding, so surely the first horcrux will be there, and it will presumably have something to do with his parents' death and most likely, his scar.

All that is nice to know but I find it hard to really predict much more because while JKR has given us lots of clues she has no problem springing entirely new information on us, like the horcruxes. I don't think anyone could have predicted those in advance, and if you don't know those, you can't predict the details. There is lots you can try to figure out, though, and it's fun to reread them and search again for clues.

I still maintain these books are not literature, although she has a terrific ear for characters and dialogue. They are gripping adventure-fantasy tales and I thoroughly enjoy them, especially number three. It's great fun to imagine a world parallel to ours, and to blame all our woes on a parallel dark lord. But they do not tell me how to live; they are utterly predictable in a general way -- Harry always ends up making the right choice, even when it's the wrong one -- and once I am finished with one I certainly don't revisit it for its strong writing and description. I was talking with two or three women at work today, people who put out children's magazines, who either had no idea what these books (and movies) are about, or had tried reading them and put them down in utter boredom. I find that refreshing.

Having said that, god love her, JKR's got kids and adults reading, she's made a ton of money that she is quite generous about giving away, she's handle the entire phenomenon with more grace than almost anyone I can imagine, she seems like a good sort with a funny sense of humor, and best of all, she's got much of the world counting down the last 63 days for a BOOK. And especially in the first book or two I really laughed a lot. All her magic, this other world, is very clever and amusing and I am always entertained, if not enlightened.

I will miss seeing everyone on the subway engrossed in the latest release this July. I read something online by a TV critic, I think it was, saying that she wasn't sure what she will do with herself because for the last decade her life has revolved around Harry Potter and the Sopranos, both of which are winding down. Now that's a funny thought.... what are my cultural touchstones that I can't imagine life without? I don't think Harry Potter ranks up there, and certainly not the Sopranos, which we rented on Netflix a few years ago and turned off halfway through. Really well-written but we couldn't take the violence. At least the HP violence is cartoonish, mostly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Brooklyn versus the Valley

First of all, I want to apologize for being a bit repetitive in my last couple of posts. I guess that's the price I pay of posting more frequently: I really don't have all that much to say.

Also, a friend I love dearly wrote recently to say I should stop bashing Brooklyn. I am curious about this because I don't feel dark about Brooklyn; I adore it, I truly do, and will defend it to the end. So this is an explanatory post that I've been meaning to write for some time now.

I moved because I was just done. I had had enough. Last summer was unbearable, the heat, the brown-outs, the black-outs that didn't get any press because the Queens thing was so much more horrible. But I also to move because of the Ratner arena, the traffic, carrying my groceries home from the coop, the way the DOE and the city and the state did to us and stripped our community of most of its autonomy. I was done.

Maybe we could have made it work, if we had been better about getting two or three week vacations, rather than one at a time, or if we had forked over the dough for a summer place to escape to. Maybe if I had grown up in New York I would have felt lifelong loyalty, not just 18 years worth. But it all seemed insurmountable. It felt like the time was right, and I am still glad we moved.

I think it's that the change of lifestyle here is so striking. For instance, I can't believe this whole closing, how casual it is. To be sure, it's casual even for the brokers. It's hard not to notice differences -- there are tons of them! -- some good, some bad, some just, well, different. The difference between living in an apartment, albeit a big one, versus living in a house. Driving everywhere. No food coop. Not a drop-off school, rather, a school-bus school. Not good necessarily, not bad, just different. I like driving home when it's raining, rather than walking four blocks from the subway or sitting in a bus in traffic. I like not hearing my neighbors, other than the occasional moo. I miss walking everywhere. I miss the PS 261 community. I miss my friends and the easy walking life when the weather is good and everyone is out.

There's nature here. The gorgeous Prospect Park and towering street trees on certain blocks don't compare to driving by mile after mile of freshly plowed fields, cows, and low mountains on every horizon. I moved here partly because I had summer house envy; some dear friends got a place in Pennsylvania and every time we left I thought, why are we leaving?

There are other changes that happened along with this geographic change. I wanted to work full time. I could have done that in NYC of course, but I am doing it here. I lived half my NYC life working full time and half of it as a mom with part-time jobs and volunteer. That part-time stuff gets old anywhere, although I suspect it would be horrible to do it here, whereas it was mostly great and then tolerable in Brooklyn. And without speaking for him, I think Dave was ready to leave, too, and is more of a suburban/country boy, himself.

Finally, I should also say that I live here now and am not going to write anything bad about it. Don't s--- where you eat, as they say. And maybe that's just the bottom bottom line.

But don't read me wrong. Brooklyn is a great place to live, to raise a family, to be a kid. I tell everyone here that and they often look at me like I'm crazy. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Until I did want to.

PS - I am told by my husband the gardener that magnolias don't smell, not here and not in Brooklyn. Lilacs, on the other hand...

PPS - we saw Lily's teacher again, at the Whole Foods Sunday afternoon. I swear, she's stalking us. She admits it, even! I'm really going to miss her. She's been one of the high points for all of us during this difficult transition.

Monday, May 14, 2007

the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la

Lilacs. Another difference about the spring here is that when I drive with the window open I actually smell the flowers. I think there was too much odor competition in Brooklyn; even if I walked across the street and right up to that magnolia by Laurie and William's stoop I couldn't smell it. Of course I also smell the manure here, and the fertilizer, and other cow and animal smells. But I don't mind them, they smell like life. Don't get me wrong, I love New York, but it doesn't usually smell like life.

A cow update: Our next door neighbors have two calves and are getting more. These two are tied up to the kids' jungle gym and they bawl and howl for food at regular intervals. They sound like grown-up cows. Doesn't bother us a bit. We like cows, especially when there's three or four grazing about 10 feet beyond our clothes line. I moo at them as I go to work and they stare at me.

No, the only sound we don't like is the damn route 9 10 feet the other direction. On these warm spring nights we sleep with the windows closed -- or at least the fan on. Route 9 is a major east-west thoroughfare and the commuters start as early as 4 am on weekdays. We will not miss that. We'll have the distant hum of I-91 about a mile away, but it's not a problem.

Eaating lots of fresh asparagus lately, and today, fresh asparagus ice cream. Well, I had it. I learned a shortcut home through Hadley and it takes me by the famous Flayvors of Cook Farm on South Maple. It's the start of the season and the owner was training a new person, who gave me a taste of the asparagus ice cream but two scoops to take home to Dave of the pistachio. We liked the pistachio, which is also green. I guess the lesson is to separate your green ice creams in the cases. I'm sure there is more asparagus ice cream in our futures. Hadley appears to have a lot of farms, although I think Cook Farm is the last dairy in town; the local crops seem to be vegetables and malls, the latter of which keep the taxes ridiculously low.

Thinking about passing the years waiting for the next vegetable or fruit to come into season made me wonder how we marked the seasons in New York City. It all depends on what your interests are, but I know several people who know it's autumn because the Met is opening, or the theater season. You know it's Christmas, well, you always know it's Christmas in New York, but perhaps your special event is The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet, or the Messiah at Carnegie Hall. The spring means Encores; March means Mark Morris Dance Group is at BAM. August is the Fringe Festival. October means the Yankees are in the World Series, or at least that's how it used to be. And no, I'm not going to link all those. Look 'em up if you want to know.

Of course if you are a parent you mark it by the school schedule: in public elementary schools, November is parent-teacher conferences; January and March are the language and math tests; the first Thursday in June is Brooklyn-Queens Day, which instead of being eliminated entirely, the sensible thing, is now called something else and celebrated by all five boroughs. This day commemorates the founding of those two towns and means yet another day off when working parents are scrambling for childcare. Very annoying -- and then school continues on another three weeks, to end just before July.

Yesterday, Mother's Day, silly holiday. I was served breakfast in bed, complete with an extensive menu of selections, and got to read the paper awhile, until I was made to read Harry Potter, book six (I know what's going to happen in book seven). I chose pancakes, at Lily's request, but then she didn't eat them. Also bacon, yum, and a smoothie, yum. Later we all cleaned house, did laundry, and sorted her clothes seasonally and by size. (She's grown another half inch! She's moving from an eight to a 10, Mum, in most things. She says she's getting hips so now she can wear jeans without a belt. Could be. Also, it turns out there's an extensive hand-me-down network at work, being that most of the staff are parents of young children. I'm bringing in two grocery bags tomorrow.)

I did miss walking around the Slope yesterday -- boy, you sure do walk a lot in the city and you never walk here at all -- and everyone, strangers, even, saying Happy Mother's Day! Always cracked me up. Even in recent years I'd turn to see who they were talking to. It's not that no one says it here, it's just that you don't see masses of people the way you do in the city, and thus have millions of opportunities.

Then later in the afternoon we went to a friend of Lily's so she could join their Dungeons and Dragons game. It was the real thing, just like I remembered from playing in 1978. She's a druid elf and can talk to animals and heal things. At the end of this round she was in a cave fending off giant spiders while three of her cohorts were lying on the ground unconcious from their injuries and the fourth was off in town getting a healing potion. And her dog had run off. She seemed to get into it and enjoy herself, and she's not the only girl, which is kinda nice. A couple of boys from her class are playing. The host family has been particularly welcoming and friendly.

Then today her grade went to the Quabbin (see my early post on this, in, oh, March?) and Dave joined them. She's taking knitting Monday afternoons and that's pretty hilarious because it started out as a kids' afterschool thing and it's mostly adults in a stitch and bitch. Lily loves it.

This summer she is going to riding camp in Hadley for four weeks and on the second Friday of each two-week session they have a cook-out, hay ride, and bonfire. The next day, Saturday, there's a little show of what the kids have learned for us parents. Then she's doing the art camp in Hatfield -- this place sounds amazing, a barn converted into studio space -- and she chose two weeks of making pottery on the wheel. (That's what she's doing every Friday right now, too, but at the Amherst Community Arts Center.) She finishes camp at Bement for two weeks in August making paper and doing campy things. Some of her future classmates will be there, too, at that time.

She's lonely again right now, and feels a bit out of it at school. She's excited about the new house but told me tonight she still likes the Brooklyn place the best. I gotta say I don't miss it one tiny little bit.

The best part about the summer is that we are off to Family Camp at Farm and Wilderness again the third week in August. That's where we went last year for five days and it was a gas, although Dave and I worked hard, harder than some. Maybe this year we'll get to relax a bit more.

As for the house, I've been joking that we're going to sign the contract -- what they call the purchase and sales agreement, here, or the P&S, at the closing. In fact we finally got it today, only a week late. We knew this would happen and it really didn't phase me very much. Sure ain't New York...

Anyway, we are going to do some work before we move in, but not a lot. Paint, carpets, necessary repairs, maybe a laundry room in the basement, particularly so we can install a slop sink and have a dehumidifier draining into it 24/7. It is really in great shape. Maybe we'll post more pictures then.

Note to selves. We need to join:

Mass. Audubon
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)
Look Park in Northampton? is there something to join?
The YMCA in Northampton, probably. It has free childcare.
The Broad Brook Coalition, the folks who watch over Fitzgerald Lake lead birding walks and wild flower walks every weekend from now into the fall. We may already be members. I can't wait.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dancing with whales

A mother's job is to be there to be left.
Anna Freud

I usually start saying my age early, as in, "I'm 46," when it's still January and I'm still 45. Actually I am 46 now. But I've been thinking this week that we've been here six months. Actually it's not really six months yet, it won't be officially that until the end of May. I just went back and reread my blog entries -- what an odd thing to do! thank you so much to everyone, especially Kim, Jess, Mike and my mom (well, are there actually any other readers?) for urging me to continue. I am so glad I have this now, and it's an added bonus that some of you actually like to read my ramblings.

Anyway, I went back and reread them and you know, being in Bardo, that transitional, waiting phase, sure is hard. And I am still new here and it's still lots of change and stuff going on. But it ain't nothin' like what we've been through since, oh, September. I can't quite believe we've done it. We're actually here. We actually have a life here. We have a new car. We have a new house! I have a job!!!! and a job I like, and it's actually what I used to do. Wow. Lily likes her current school and will have a new one next fall. Dave has the time he wanted to putz and do projects, and be the amazing househusband and father he is full-time.

I still worry about Lily and friends and destroying her life by moving her out of Brooklyn, but not as much and I do think it's going to be okay. She's going to horseback riding camp for four weeks this summer, and two weeks of making pottery on the wheel, and two weeks of camp-camp at Bement, where she'll also make paper a couple of hours a day. She is so easy to be with these days, much less mouthy and whiny. She's trying so hard, and we are, too. She loves the Jones Library here in town -- the book group in Tuesdays and the theater group on Wednesdays, which culminates next week in a performance -- and the librarians are just the greatest, looking out for, finding her books and so forth. She still needs some friends but I think she is doing a bit better.

And yes, the house. We are still not in contract, or, p and s they say here, purchase and sales agreement. That and the five percent down will lock us all in. But between the Dalai Lama's visit, the attorney for the sellers' husband being sick, and a construction permit issue, we are still not there. And I am just not worried. It's lovely that our sellers are Buddhists and clearly honorable people. The Buddha talks about Right Association, well, these are living examples of that, I am sure. I just trust that they want to sell us this house and that it will happen easily and smoothly. If this were New York City I'd be beside myself -- a title search when they could sell it out from under us in a heartbeat?!? but it isn't and I am not. I trust it will happen just like we wanted, by the end of the month, in perhaps an unconventional way, but it will happen, nonetheless.

So, if I am to stay in the day, here's the day: We are starting to make some friends, as I say, and we ran into a couple of really nice kids from school, kids Lily likes a lot, today at the town carnival that set up on Wednesday night on the green. Tiny little thing, this fair -- Lily was comparing it to Coney Island at dinner, saying Coney Island was better because it was bigger and permanent, but not in a mean way -- but very friendly. Lily desperately wanted to do a game so I found a bean toss that said every child under 12 is a winner. Sure enough, after her two bean bags went awry of the target, they gave her the choice of blow-up animals the size of her. She chose a killer whale. Her friends chose a crocodile and a shark.

After we got ready to go home we went over to the Black Sheep cafe where our mover was playing some jazz. Jimmy Burgoff plays bass there most Friday nights and moves pianos and pizza ovens, as well as home furniture and other stuff, for his day job. The moving arrangement is also pretty loose by New York standards, just like the house. But I am trying to be one with the Valley and just go with the flow; Dave's on top of it. We're moving June 22, by the way. Guests welcomed.

So at the cafe, pastries were eaten, coffee drunk, town gossip was traded, and the crocodile danced with the killer whale. And of course, we ran into Lily's teacher and her fiance. We always run into her when we are out on the town. She's stalking us: We saw them at dinner in Northampton before the Mary Chapin Carpenter concert in March. A few days earlier we had seen her at Lily's orthodonist; she had an appointment, too. I have decided we are just going to have to be friends, no matter what. Lily would like that, and I do have a soft spot in my heart for teachers. We are going to miss her. She's one of the best things that happened this year.

But enough about all that. Here is the big issue on my mind right now: How the hell do we decorate this place? Do we have to paint our walls certain colors? Get certain carpets? Decide an overall style? We aren't very materialistic. We like to be cozy and comfortable. It's always weird to me that people -- women, usually -- know exactly what colors and all their houses should be. They say things like, "My living room is going to be a pale peach and my bedroom will be a faint lavendar. The kitchen is a summer green" blah blah blah. Every color has an adjective in front of it.

These are the same women who go to weddings and can tell you exactly kind of bodice the bride's dress had and how it gathered and pleated and buttoned and veiled and all that. Don't get me wrong. Some of these women are among my best friends, DeeAnn. But I can't even make it up, it's so foreign to me. Googling "home decoration" is not helpful.

Ideas welcomed.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

on the Dalai Lama and seeing the sky

The Dalai Lama came to town yesterday. He spoke at Smith today, and by all accounts was his cheery, humble, loving self. He seems like love incarnate. Yesterday Dave said, he's driving down your street at 4pm. Go see him. At 4:00pm I went out and joined the crowd across King Street from the Hotel Northampton. His Holiness got out of the car and walked up the steps and bowed to the crowd who was cheering him and bowing back.

I bowed too, of course, and felt quite teary all of a sudden. My emotion surprised me. I flashed on Fred Rogers, the closest thing I've met to a saint. Now I was in the presence of another. Back at the office someone said, I wish I had been blessed by the Dalai Lama just now. And I realized, of course, that's what I was, I was blessed by him. What an honor. Namu Amida Butsu.

Our sellers are Buddhist leaders in the Valley and they have been with the Dalai Lama for several days, here and in New York City. Knowing this gives me an even stronger feeling about our new house. The love that emanates from the walls and floors and permeates every room makes me feel serene and at home. I'm excited about moving in. The big date looks like it will be Friday, June 22. Helpers welcomed!

Yesterday at work we had the first of the summer "salad" days. A group of us meet for lunch once a month and take turns make salads for everyone to eat. It was all delicious and the best, surprisingly, was a simple salad of watermelon, basil, and feta cheese. Who knew? Cut the basil very thin--chiffonade it.

Then last night around 9:30 the phone rang, and it was Jay, Dave's friend who lives down the street. Jay's an amateur astronomer and he takes lovely photos of the things he gets in his scope. He said, Saturn's up! So Dave went over for a couple of hours and looked at Saturn and his rings and something Jay called the Ghost Ring, which Dave says looks like a smoke ring but says it's a distant star with smoke rings around it. He told Jay it looks like an onion ring. I couldn't find anything specific on Google, and feel free to tell us what it is, if you can.

The weather is so lovely now! Balmy, airy, soft, moist but not humid. I miss the northern half- mile stretch of Fifth Avenue, with all the callery pears bursting into white cloud blossoms all at once. Spring seemed more intense in Brooklyn, in a way, more focused, because there's so little nature that when you do find some it's all clustered in one place. Take a walk up President Street, for instance, in the Slope this time of year and the dogwood and magnolia and cherries will be exploding. I would go from house to house in just one block, breathless at the beauty.

Here, it's all nature, all the time. Most everyone has at least a bit of yard and some daffodils. If I see three or four flowering trees in a row I'm surprised. Yet, I'm also surprised that I find flowering trees everywhere, and in unexpected places--a parking lot, for instance, or beside a field of cows.

Living in an agricultural area, and yes, this is still an agricultural area, makes me even more aware of the seasons. This is grass season, for instance, and I don't mean the illegal stuff. I mean asparagus, the famous crop of Hadley. Just like sugaring season that begins in late February, everyone waits for asparagus. (Click on that link, it's a great article.) Only now it's not pancakes at sugar shacks with fresh maple syrup every weekend, now it's asparagus church suppers, and asparagus sandwiches and asparagus ice cream. I haven't tasted any yet but I can't wait. I can't wait for the season after this one, either. What a joyful way to pass the year, looking forward to the next crop coming in.

Tonight after dinner we drove over to Lily's school, Fort River School--did I mention that last week Dave worked for two or three days with a bunch of other parents installing the new jungle gym? He bolted things and dug things and shoveled concrete and shoveled woodchips. When they heard we were moving, other parents (of course now we are finally starting to get to know some folks) would say, but if you're moving, why are you working on the playground? But of course Dave would help, if he has the time. That's the kind of guy he is. Awww! But it's true! He is!

Anyway, we went over around 7:15 tonight and tossed a Frisbee around for a half hour. Lots of kids were on the new jungle gym (it's gorgeous! and desperately needed; the old one was wooden and full of splinters and not very useable). Some men were playing softball, others were having a mini tailgate party in the parking lot. The sun set slowly and the bugs came out and the sky was this amazing pale blue, with streaks of clouds and one distinct jet trail.

I don't remember seeing blue sky in Brooklyn, or even missing it. Was I blind? Did I never look? I do remember the gorgeous sunsets we'd see as we walked down the hill to our house, brilliant streaks of reds and oranges. But I had forgotten what sky really looked like until tonight, and more importantly, how much of it there is. It's really quite a big thing, the sky! I wonder if a negative affect of cities is that because people only see buildings they don't realize how small they are. I know when I see the wide expanse of the sky I have a clear sense of my insignificance.

I am so glad we are here. Times like this, I wonder what took us so long.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Working full-time. What a concept.

If you count babysitting, I started working for money at age 11. Beginning with when I dropped out of Johns Hopkins after one semester, I worked full-time, either at Farm and Wilderness, or cobbling together several part-time jobs in Baltimore. I took a year off to study scenic design at BU, but went right to work in Boston after I dropped out (I can't draw). Third time's a charm: I worked part-time all through Wellesley and full-time summers and Christmas vacations.

And then grad school in New York City, followed by Time Inc. And then Lily. November 10, 1998. I was always planning on going back, and that might have happened if I had still been working at LIFE magazine. I didn't feel the same way about This Old House magazine, so after my six-month maternity leave was up I resigned. Just after Lily turned one I started working part-time at the Fifth Avenue Committee. I freelanced for several places--I particularly recommend the Gotham Gazette, a superb, thorough web magazine about New York City news and policy, edited by one of my former professors from journalism school.

I also volunteered, of course. Partly inspired by the Fifth Avenue Committee, I tried some community organizing, including helping get the Warren St. Marks Community Garden on our block off the ground (sorry) and co-founding the Park Slope CSA. Mostly I put out newsletters for whatever school Lily was in.

And of course I was the primary caretaker for Lily, a responsibility I almost totally discount, while Dave, a very active father, brought home the bacon every week. I have wonderful memories of taking 7- or 8-month Lily to Prospect Park with the big stationwagon stroller my father and step-mother generously got us. Those hot summer mornings I'd pack that thing with a blanket, food, diapers, reading materials, and a couple of toys, and we'd hike up the hill a mile to the Meadow, where I'd set us up under a tree. All afternoon we'd play and nurse and eat and doze, just me and her.

Eventually Lily went to preschool. During the day I went to every event and many field trips (you never can go to enough of those), and picked her up afterwards. We'd go to a playground, or a cafe, or a mother's, for a nosh and adult conversation. I'd go home and make some sort of dinner, or at least think about it. Those were wonderful, in some way terrible times.

More information than you wanted to know, I've no doubt. At any rate, while I worked hard hard hard during Lily's first eight years, no job was full-time and most of what I did fell into the category of unpaid. Just look at my tax returns. True labors of love.

So today, nearly six weeks into it, breaking in a new job, buying work clothes, getting up and dressed and out the door at the same time (8:30am) every day and leaving the office at the same time (5:30pm, more or less; later than I should be) has been an adjustment. But it's not as big a one as I might have feared. I fit into those stereotypical traces pretty easily. I remember how to answer phones; occasionally I pack lunch--I'm trying to pack more; I get outside during the day; I stay off the personal phone calls and email (that's new behavior from when I was in my late twenties).

It's a strange transition, partly because it's all so familiar. It's still hard for me to do the transitions: leaving for work or leaving for home. I'm clear my time is Lily's when I am home, and weekends are for the family as exclusively as possible. But I wonder what I should do with myself when Lily is in bed. I feel anxious during the commute and search for something positive thing to do with the time--I have never in my life commuted regularly in car to work, so this at least is very new. NPR? iPod? Blue Tooth? I don't have that many minutes.

Dave is a far better housewife than I was, especially when it comes to cooking dinner, which is always delicious and healthy. He does the laundry and pays the bills. He's on top of every detail about the new house: the lawyers, the brokers, the inspectors, the contractors, the movers. By definition he handles all the childcare, picking Lily up after school, talking with her teacher, taking her to afterschool events, arranging playdates, helping her with homework if I'm not home.

The hardest adjustment is Lily's, of course. We've been in Amherst now nearly six months(!) and while she's more settled, it's still hard. She doesn't complain. She doesn't have a Friend yet. Several friends, but no Friend. And now her mom is working. We are moving again, and we'll be across the river and 10 miles from her new friends. She is watching her mom go from primary caretaker to primary breadwinner, and her dad do the reverse. Her world has changed immeasurably--will she ever forgive us?--and if the ground feels like it's shifting under me I can't imagine what it feels like for her.

She ran a half mile in 6:40 in gym today, I bet the farthest she's ever run in her life. Last Saturday's events at Bement, her new school, included a book fair and she asked me to buy her teacher a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends. It seems her teacher was borrowing someone else's. Of course I did and the teacher sent a delighted thank you email yesterday. How easy to be kind!

On Sunday we threw the bikes onto the new rack that Dave got. It fits on the new hitch he had installed on our new car. It was a gorgeous but surprisingly chilly day. We drove to the bike path and rode down to Pete's Drive-in for an ice cream. The woods were lovely, dark and deep, but we also rode past sweeping fields--what would have been our backyard if we had rented that farmhouse on South Pleasant--and Amherst College tennis courts.

When we came out of the woods we were in Hadley farm land--source of the famous Hadley asparagus--and the back of the route 9 malls, source of the famous Hadley low taxes. The sun was cold and the air smelled like manure and flowers. We heard birds and saw many more people biking, walking, and rollerblading. At Pete's the ice cream made us chilly and the enormous hawk skimming the air about six inches above us gave us the shivers.

Back on the path Lily collapsed, as I had anticipated but had decided to ignore until it actually happened. It was a long three and a half miles back to the Mill Lane parking lot. But I have to say it was worth every agonizing moan, tear, and sigh from her. She had never biked more than a mile in her life and here she was on a two-wheeler, working the gears and handbrakes, riding perfectly to the right of the yellow line, all thought of the tagalong fading into distance memory. I praised her profusely and can't wait to ride again.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

House and health

So now we are in that weird time where we've had the inspection, we're about to buy this house, and we're just finalizing the contract, or what they call here, the purchase and sales. The inspection went well -- really nice guy. He was very thorough and very educational, giving us tips about what to prioritize now and how to maintain our house in the years to come. He and Dave spent the four hours cracking each other up. I took pictures of the house and some of the items the sellers want to leave behind.

This may sound naive to the natives, but so far there seems to be little classism here in the Happy Valley. We've heard lots about carpenters and others with advanced degrees here. Before the house inspection we had a termite inspection and Dave said that the two owners of that company both have Ph.D.'s in entymology. Not only do you not find highly educated craftspeople in Brooklyn as a rule, you don't find the intelligencia mixing with people who work with their hands. Part of that is snobbery, of course. But maybe it's also that with so few people overall, you can't afford to be choosey; who wants to turn down an interesting conversation, no matter what the source?

Maybe if you live in the country you can't afford to be single-minded in your interests, either. If you own a house you're probably interested, at least a little, in renovation and up-keep. But chances are you also bike and cook and read, too. In New York City there's so much of everything that if you want your life to revolve around opera, or baking, or Chinese, you can do that to the exclusion of just about everything else.

Sorry for the digression. We met the wonderful owners -- he's a retired religion professor and the head of a local Buddhist church. She's a lovely retired special ed teacher. I am no longer worried about the grounds being too dark or not good for gardening: They said they were not gardeners and did not have green thumbs, although she did teach Japanese flower arranging for 40 years and she has gorgeous orchids. That means that if the grounds look as nice as they do, Dave's green thumb will turn them even nicer.

Standing out there yakking we also met some neighbors and although everyone's kids appear to be grown, we're hoping for visits from grandchildren and kids on nearby streets. This street is quiet and a dead-end, so it'll be a great place to practice bike-riding. Although it's an access point for the Fitzgerald Lake conservation area and there's an area for parking just a couple of houses down, I don't anticipate a ton of traffic; many people who live in the town look blank when I mention Fitz Lake. I have a fantasy of walking in the woods before work in the morning. I've been waking up at 5 am these days anyway, maybe because of the light. It could happen!

The woods around the house on Wednesday afternoonduring the inspection were roaring with bird song. I saw a mess of red-wing black birds and two turkey vultures. I want to join Mass. Audubon and get some of their CDs with New England bird song. I gather we have to be careful of bears, and not leave bird food out during the spring months. I am going to love the wildlife. I am delighted to learn to live with the ups and downs of raccoons and coyotes and foxes and whatever else. Hell, I lived with the ups and downs of Brooklyn for nearly two decades. What's the difference, really? Everything is a trade-off.

And otherwise we are all well. Lily was sick yesterday so Dave stayed home with her while I went to the Bement spring auction. Bement is her new school. I met some great parents and the whole feeling of the place reminded me of PS 261 in terms of the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. We went as a family to the school this morning for their Spring Fling, and that was fun, also. Again met some nice folks. I think Lily will like it.

As I was driving home last night I was glad we decided not to live in Deerfield, only because it is a long way from Northampton and Amherst. I am also glad our new house is inthe northeast corner of Northampton; closer to school.

I have two more pieces of news, both health-related. One is I had a routine colonoscopy-- I'm very healthy -- this week and I bring it up, one, because it's a crucial test everyone should do; colon cancer is one of the biggest killers but also one of the easiest to arrest if you find it early enough. It's deadly because most people are too embarrassed to talk about the procedure, never mind go through with it. The other reason is that I was at a health practice about a mile from our house and afterwards, when they offered me some food to break my fast, I had my choice of either cinnamon toast or English muffin with strawberrry jam. That was the best English muffin I've ever eaten.

My other health news is that Lily came into our room at two in the morning recently, sobbing. We heard her coming from the other room because she was limping so badly she was dragging her leg. "My knee! My knee!" she cried, tears pouring down her face. Her knee hurt so badly she couldn't put any weight on it. Oh, my god, I thought. Bone cancer. But I kept a brave face,wiped her tears and Dave her some Motrin. She curled up under my arm and we snuggled the rest of the night.

In the morning she was still limping a bit but she went to school okay. Dave carried her backpack to the bus for her. As soon as I got to work I immediately started quizzing my co-workers -- it's handy to work at a parenting magazine where almost everyone in the building has kids, most of them under 10. "It's growing pains, right?" I asked one of my colleagues.
"Yup. It's growing pains."
"Really? They'd be so bad she'd be limping and sobbing?"
"Yup." And she told me a couple of similar stories from her life. Phew!

A few days later Dave said, "Lily, c'mere, I have a hunch about something. Let me measure you."

She had grown a half an inch in two weeks, an inch in two months. That'd be enough to make anyone sob.