Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The day before the day before Christmas

How 'bout that snow storm, eh? We only ended up with a couple of feet, but it basically snowed for three days here, starting Friday and didn't really stop until Sunday night. We all left work early to get home. I left at 2pm and that was a mistake; should have left closer to one, when the roads were still okay. There was tons of traffic and it was slippery and nasty.

We stayed in most of the weekend, although Dave got me and Lily out on Saturday afternoon while there was still some light to sled down Hospital Hill, the local awesome sled spot. Really, really fun. We need to upgrade our sleds, though. We've moved up in the world from saucers found at the dump for free. My last run I went down on our plastic toboggan face first and got a mouthful of snow and nearly broke my arm. That's just like me.

I'm sorry I missed the Solstice celebrations and the seasonal sings, but we had lots of fires, and did some cooking -- Dave made bread, and soups. By Sunday afternoon I was climbing the walls and Dave suggested friends for dinner and the next thing we knew we had eight of our neighbors for a potluck dinner. A true potluck: whatever you have in your fridge. Dave made some massaman chicken and rice and I made challah, but late -- we ate our fabulous meal with our fabulous neighbors, and the bread came out just as we were done. I cut us all pieces anyway -- I took my sister Cate's idea and made one big loaf instead of two smaller ones -- and it was steamy and warm. Our friend Doris said it was maybe the best challah she'd ever had, which I take as a supreme compliment, especially given that a) my challah is usually too dry, b) she's older than me, which means she's eaten a lot of challah, and c) she's Jewish, see "c."

We really have great neighbors. It feels like the game on this block is to see who can be nicer. Someone bought a snowblower a few years ago and now someone else uses it to clear everyone's driveways. Not ours, since we have a machine and Dave uses it, but during the last storm last winter he left me half at my request so I could try a little snowblowing myself. I got lazy though, and didn't get to it, and when I did, it was already cleared: Our neighbor had done it. Turns out he thought our machine had broken so he did it. And after they all left Sunday night, as the last of the snow was falling, there he was, clearing the last of our driveway. Really lovely.

I know this sounds out of touch with what most people already know, but this is my blog and my experience: Having two parents working full-time and a school-aged child is a really big deal. I had yesterday and today off and it was wonderful: I did laundry, Christmas shopping, grocery shopping, and took Lily to the dentist and for her annual physical. We didn't even put up a tree this year; we're worried the cat will tear it down. And I am off sugar so I didn't make toffee, either (sorry, all!). But we've been really busy, nonetheless.

The great thing about these two days was that I had had nearly three days already to read, listen to music, make a Christmas mix CD (not a good toffee substitute, I know), and sit in front of the fire. So I was ready to do errands with Lily. And I realized this afternoon as I dropped her off at some friends that we haven't had such concentrated time together, just the two of us, in a long time.

Now Beethoven's ninth is on, loud, and I just listened to Carmina Burana, loud. My end-of-the-year traditions used to include listening to these CDs, and Handel's Water Music, loud, and maybe some Aaron Copeland, and The Planets by Holst. Very joyful music. And then I'd cast some runes and see what was coming in the new year. I'd write in my journal about all the things I hoped to accomplish. And just take stock, in general.

It's really, really nice not to be alone any more, to have a family to share all this with. I was lonely for a long time. I wanted a partner, and a child or two. I wanted someone to take care of, and to take care of me. And thinking about those days now, pre-Dave and post-everyone else, I can see that I was really longing for something. I hope whenever I get frustrated with my commitments, my family, the emotions and the ties that bind, the sheer struggle of sharing your life with other people, I remember how wonderful it is to be with Dave and Lily. How we are a unit, the three of us, working and playing and being together. It's a wonderful life.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Green Potatoes

Lily sang in her first concert on Thursday night. One small-town thing I've noticed is that everyone assumes you know where something is located--and me too, once I know where it is. Case in point is Smith's Helen Hills Hills Chapel (yes that's the name, two Hills). The choral instructions said, meet there an hour before the concert. No address, nothing. And ditto with the next concert, at a nursing home in town. Just, meet at the Calvin Coolidge Nursing Home.

Not a big deal to google it and all, but it's an interesting phenomenon. And also interesting to note that yes, I do it too, as I say, if I know where something is. "Take a left at the Y." "It's just past Serio's." And there aren't a lot of places to learn, so yeah, you do figure it out pretty quickly.

I remember being 19 and going to a theater in Chelsea with my sister Bondi. We were meeting beforehand to have dinner and she said, let's meet at the corner of 23rd and 8th and see what's to eat on that block. I love love love that about New York City.

Anyway, the concert was really fun, lots of groups doing just a couple of songs. The kids went first and they sounded great. Adult and school groups sang, including several a capella groups sang. Last was a hilarious rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas sung by the boys group from a local private school. Here's the University of Michigan doing a version of it:

Hilarious. As usual we saw people we knew who we weren't expecting to, including my friend Peter's from Milton's son. Thank goodness Lily didn't do the local Nutcracker this year, she'd have had to race out of that performance to rehearsal (this was the big performance weekend).

Those of us in Northampton seemed to be okay with the awful rain and ice this weekend, but just five miles out of town it was really bad. People all over western Massachusetts and southern Vermont and New Hampshire don't have power. One woman I know in Colrain, Mass., has no heat and says she can get her house up to 50 or so with the fireplace. Yikes! Her street has only five houses on it so even though they lost an entire telephone pole they are not a priority.

And my poor boss! The ceiling caved in on our top editor's desk, right above her computer and all. She wasn't in, thank god; several of us spent an hour early Friday morning carting everything and trying to find places to dry it out. I have no idea the final damage total but at least her photos seemed okay, and other memorabilia. We've had a terrible time with our roof, which is flat, and apparently one of the drains must have frozen and the water built up, eventually leaking in and soaking her ceiling tiles. Of course those are essentially made of sawdust and paper and when they get wet, yuck.

Oh, the other yuck of the week: On Tuesday Dave made us a lovely dinner with homemade chicken fingers and oven fries. The fries tasted weird, but we ate them, unfortunately. Note to self: If food tastes bad there's probably a reason. These were green under the skin. Second note to self: Do not eat green potatoes. I mean, I knew that, and we couldn't tell that the flesh was green because we didn't peel them. We were sick, sick, sick. We didn't throw up but the two of us writhed around all night, passing each other on the way to the bathroom (no further details, I promised. Suffice to say we were miserable). Thank god Lily didn't eat them.

Today we did house chores, which typlically includes cooking for the week now, so we have lunch and dinner covered--or at least thought of. I did three or maybe four loads of laundry, cleaned the bathrooms and changed the sheets. Dave vaccuumed and made two soups, butternut squash and turkey chili. I made chicken paprikash yesterday and a beets vinegrette today. And we always make enough for leftovers. Tomorrow I have to cook a pot roast because it was out all day by mistake. But yes, Virginia, there is life after green potatoes.

Oh, one last thing: We saw Slumdog Millionaire and were blown away. Go see it.

Monday, December 08, 2008

I hate driving

I got my first speeding warning a couple of weeks ago. Several times I've not seen pedestrians wanting to cross the road, who fortunately know enough not to try to cross until the car driving down both sides have stopped. I worry a lot about my driving. It's a constant battle to stay present.

I want you to know I no longer talk on the cell phone when I drive. I always used a remote when I did, but I read recently that talking on a phone, even if you are on a remote, is like driving drunk. And it played a part in my getting my warning too. So I ain't gonna do it.

I have no excuses. I mean, I could have: I got my license late, when I was in my early 20s. I didn't get a car until I was in my late 20s and I only drove it a year or two. I've lived in cities most of my life, where driving mostly means moving the car to the other side of the street twice a week for street cleaning. I've never had an accident -- well, I nicked a retaining wall two summers ago and took off the side of our brand-new Subaru, so I guess I can't say that any more. I had to file an accident report and it cost $2500 to repair the thing. Insurance paid for it but then our rates went up, natch.

The speeding warning was lucky and I was stupid. Ignorant. I was in the left lane on I-91 trying to get to Lily's school. Well, true confessions: I was talking on the remote. I hung up and noticed an unmarked police car behind me. I had no idea how fast I was going and I made sure to go 65, the speed limit. There are a lot of state police on this stretch of I-91 weekdays at 4 pm. I notice them all the time, waiting, stopping someone, cruising. This one was cruising.

But then I made a big mistake. A big, ignorant mistake. I panicked a bit and decided he wanted to pass me. He was right on my tail and I hate that. So I sped up. A lot. I had to pass the car in the right-hand lane beside me. I got passed the guy, and slowed back down to 65. And noticed the cop behind me again, but this time his blue lights were flashing. Oh, dear.

So I signaled and pulled over and pulled out my registration and license. He surprised me by coming up on the right-hand side. He immediately asked, have you ever been stopped before? For a ticket, a warning, anything? I said no. No, no, no. Keep it that way! I clocked you at 81. I was sufficiently terrified and nervous.

So I got my warning and I was properly scared. I said I was trying to get my kid at school and he said it wouldn't take long and it didn't. Of course I went the speed limit the rest of the drive. And as I drove, I got to thinking about it. I figured he'd stopped me because I might have been speeding when I was on the phone, but then it occurred to me that maybe it was when I consciously sped up to let him pass me.

As some of you know we live right by a state police barracks, so on the way home Lily sat in the car while I ran in. I figured someone would be there to ask questions, and there was. A really nice trooper was sitting dispatch, it looked like. I handed him my warning and said, I moved here recently from New York City and I need to know, is there an outer limit I can drive, and not get a ticket, like 70, 75? He looked at me a second, to see if I was serious, I guess, and said, I usually give people 10 or 15 miles, but it's up to the officer. Anything over 65 is speeding.

Okay, I said, so what if I'm in the left lane trying to pass someone on right, can I speed then? He really looked me over this time. But I am nothing if not sincere, and I guess he saw that because he just said, No. Anything over the speed limit is speeding.

And yes, even though I haven't figured out cruise control yet, now I never talk on the phone and I always go the speed limit, at least never over 70, and almost never much over 65 unless I'm not paying attention. I go the speed limit on local roads too, which actually scare me much more, in some ways, because of pedestrians.

Pedestrians. So in New York City they have to have a walk sign to cross a street, and everyone knows what to do. Of course there are jaywalkers, but mostly you're okay there because they know they're being bad so they're watching for drivers. Drivers have to watch for legal pedestrians, of course, but you know they're crossing because when you have the green, they have the walk sign. Here, pedestrians have the right of way no matter what, especially in crosswalks, of which there are many, many, many in the downtowns around here.

I try to be really polite as a driver. When I see someone going the other way waiting to get across my lane, I usually stop and let them turn, especially if there's a line of cars behind them. It's so easy to do and so helpful to the folks behind the turner. Today, on my way to get Lily, I saw such a car, and I stopped and let her turn into traffic. She didn't wave her thanks, but she had Jersey plates and looked about 12 so I figured she was a college student.

A couple of blocks later, a car turning into traffic from a street across from me caught my eye. I slowed but didn't stop because they could turn without my doing anything. But then I look to my side of the street and see a woman carrying some stuff, waiting to cross. Thank god she didn't start out. I screeched to a halt, right across the crosswalk, and felt really stupid. I figured I'd better get out of her way, so I started up again, looking in my rear view mirror to see if she was okay. She was, and she was staring at me a bit incredulously. The car behind me had stopped for her.

So, clearly I am at fault here, and thank god everyone is okay. I've been in this position before, and I hate it. No matter how careful I think I'm being, I still miss stuff, especially pedestrians in crosswalks.

Now my question is, how do I avoid this in the future? I think the answer is to creep through town and to always assume that someone is in the crosswalk, even though there usually isn't. Which I do! I really do! but this time there really was someone, and I hadn't seen her and it scared the spit out of me. I hate cars. I hate driving. I miss subways. That I miss about New York.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Thanksgiving trend piece

In the newspaper world they call a story like this a trend piece: What's the trend this Thanksgiving? Here's my idea, use it in good health:

Everyone I knew who was on the road this Thanksgiving had a HORRIBLE drive home, partly because of the awful rainy weather, partly because it's always bad on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, partly because many more people weren't flying, probably because flying is so expensive and gas is so cheap. Eamples:

-- we spent 6 hours on the road from Plainview, Long Island to Northampton and it should have taken 3.
-- Dave's niece left Long Island at 2 am on Sunday and she had a terrible and long ride home.
-- a colleague came back from South Carolina and said it was rainy and bumper to bumper through 10 states. She said the 15 hour ride took 20 and they got in at 2 am Monday morning.
-- another colleague said they refused to drive to southern Jersey, and the rest of the family got annoyed at them, but they just wouldn't

And here's the trend: Another colleague had Thanksgiving with family the weekend before. Everyone gathered and had the same meal and a great time, and the traffic and shopping hell of the holiday was if not entirely avoided, at least lessened a lot.

Thanksgiving is becoming like Passover, in that everyone wants to have the meal with everyone, so you end up having several meals, like several sedars. We had two, one on Thursday in Northampton and one on Saturday on Long Island. Dave's family didn't even get into town, all of them, until Friday afternoon.

So I am going to propose that it's not going to get any better, so let's do it the weekend before and be more relaxed and have more fun. That's what I'm going to suggest for our family next year. Wonder if they'll go for it!

Lily the swimmer

So the swim team thing with Lily is kinda cool. She takes lessons on Saturdays at the Y and each 6-week session has a different teacher, with a different style of teaching. Her latest teacher makes them swim a lot of yardage, like 400-500 yards at a lesson, and my drama queen is complaining. She says she gets a cramp, and she's tired, and she can't breathe, and she hates diving off the starting block because her goggles get mushed onto her face (I hate that too). I said I'd talk to the teacher.

So yesterday before I went on the treadmill, I talked to the swim teacher. There happen to be two Lily's in the class, and the teacher was trying to get clear on which one I was the mother of. I kept telling her my Lily was the taller one, and she kept saying, which one is she? which one? like she couldn't believe me. I was like, uh, yeah, that's my kid, the taller one, what's the big deal? I didn't get it.

Then along comes my Lily and the three of us chat a bit and she appears to feel reassured that she won't be pushed too hard. Go swim a 50 back, says the teacher, and Lily gets in the pool and starts to swim the back stroke. A 50 means two lengths of a 25-yard pool, up and back. And she takes off like she's being chase. Within a few strokes she's ahead of the (big) boy next to her who started out before her and was a half a lane ahead of her. She has this gorgeous, smooth stroke, and it looks incredible on her perfect swimmer's body -- all legs and long arms too, strong shoulders, and no body fat. The teacher and I are watching her swim down the pool and I started laughing and the teacher did too. Now you see why I was surprised! she kept saying.

Have you considered the team, the teacher asked me, and that gave me pause. I've been waiting for someone to mention it, but I wasn't sure Lily was ready or in shape enough. Truth be told, I am dying for her to do it, for many reasons: First of all, she loves, loves, loves to swim. The discipline of a team and a coach would be fabulous for her. She's really good at it now but she would get much better. She'd met a lot of other girls around her age, also all drama queens, the teacher tells me, and she'd get to go to meets and have fun.

We talked about it after class and Lily was excited by the idea, although she said she wanted to improve her breast stroke first and get comfortable enough to swim a 500. Makes sense to me. But then she switched, almost imperceptibly, into, naw, I don't want to, and kinda whiny. Yes it would be a ton of time and work, getting her there for a 90-minute practice two or three times a week,not to mention meets, and when would she do her homework, and when would she sleep, and she's been struggling with those tasks so much already. I obviously have my own ambivalence, but it was almost funny how quickly she went from excited to scared and tried to pass it off as something else.

I kind of think it might be good for her in other ways too, like help her become more organized and on the ball -- does she have too much open-ended time right now, too much unscheduled time? I thought I would never be a sports mom. I might be a theater mom, and it looks like I'm a chorus mom (her first concert with the Northampton Children's Choir is Thursday) but sports? Who knows. Stranger things have happened.

First snow

Stop me if I wrote this already: Did I mention that all the hemlocks in our front yard are gone? When the guys were here digging a trench across our yard in October so they could repair the electric, I mentioned that I wanted to redo the yard. They got to talking, the excavator and the electrician, and they said we could give the oaks to a lumber company for the price of taking them down and carting them away. They are very straight, tall, gorgeous oaks. We declined but I mentioned I'd like to get rid of the half dozen hemlocks scattered around the yard.

That's when the electrician said he'd take down those down himself, to heat his home, and I was all over that. A couple of weeks later he zipped through and now our front yard looks like a construction zone, with this swath cut through the pachysandra, and the fresh stumps. That happened to be the week all the oaks dropped their leaves, so we aren't exactly sure the reason for the sudden light in our living room, but I'm hoping it's the missing hemlocks. I love the light; it pours into the room in the morning. Lovely!

All by way of saying that we woke up to the first snow this morning but the hemlocks that always looked so cool covered in the stuff are now gone. Oh well! Small price to pay. Dave recently got us an indoor-outdoor thermometer -- you put a little monitor outside -- and it also predicts the weather. It had little snow coming down on the graphic this morning, kinda funny.

We need to grind up the leftover branches, and dig around in the yard and maybe start thinking about what plants and paths and other stuff to put in there this spring. But meanwhile we pull down our shade at night now, because you can see in from the street, and enjoy the light. We aren't doing much in the yard right now because of the season and the ground being frozen and all, but I did get to pitch our four or five pumpkins into the woods. We had one big one, 25 pounds maybe, and a big long green squash thing with several little pumpkins nestled inside. They've been there since before Halloween and someone has been noshing on them. There's seeds and pumpkin guts all over the path to the house. So I pitched them into the woods. I think deer have been at the big one because it was eaten away at the top. But I could be wrong.

Going to and from Lily's Star Wars role-playing game this afternoon we passed through some of Hadley's gorgeous farm land, with the Holyoke Range to the south of us, and all we could see was this expanse of sky, with heavy puffy fierce gray clouds. Nothing like living in the country to make you feel small and inconsequential. Whenever we go over the Coolidge Bridge into Hadley I tell Lily to look at the mighty Connecticut River -- it's always striking, no matter the weather -- and we try to come up with vivid descriptions. Nothing ever quite captures it, although Lily comes close. Today, as Lily said, it looked gray-blue and calm, and with the fierce clouds it was quite a sight.

It's so not calm tonight. The snow has stopped but it's roaring outside -- it sounds like a train's been going through for the past couple of hours. It's the roar of the wind and when I opened up the window to get a real listen it felt like I was inside it. "Doro-thee! It's a twister!" It unnerved me so that when I ventured out this evening to meet some friends and a branch flew into the car, I turned around and went home. I've seen what the wind can do to 150-foot trees here. And it spooked Lily enough that I had to put on some quiet music to drown out the roar and let her sleep.

I'd say we aren't doing much of anything at all these days except go to work in the morning, and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. I'm not sure if it's the holidays, or the lengthening darkness, or the cold, or what, but we are really going to ground lately. Which isn't to say we aren't busy: Every weekend now we have things to do. Small-town living is really, really different from city living, and one thing I've noticed is that it's a lot easier to get involved, in a way. I have decided not to sit on the board of that theater company, but I could. And that this is not the time for Lily to join the Y's swim team (it meets either monday-wednesday-friday or tuesday-thursday from 6:30 to 8) but she could (see the other blog entry).

Right now the focus of our family is to adjust to Dave and I both working and Lily adjust to fifth grade and boys and social stuff and increasingly demanding academics, not to mention hormones that send her up and down the emotion meter. And that's about all I can do, that and do my own work. We're managing to keep the house relatively clean. Dave went out today and did some food shopping while I took Lily to her Star Wars game, and he's been cooking up a storm. Lily had two birthday parties this week and we could have joined the Mayor's Hot Chocolate Run, a fundraiser for Safe Passage, a local battered women's shelter. But we had to make some choices and that one was the only option.

I've been trying lately to be more present with Lily, to really pay attention, to focus on what she's saying much more, and to be with her at the times that are hard for her, like getting ready for bed or getting ready in the morning. If this weekend is any example it's better when I do. She likes the company and the attention and she doesn't act out as much. I'll ask her to brush her hair and get ready for bed, for instance, and if I don't go up with her, I'll find her a half hour later reading a book. If I do, I can putz in her room, put away clothes, straighten things, keep her company, and keep her on track to be getting to bed on time. (Sleep is so crucial! She needs 10 hours at least, if at all possible, which means bedtime is 8:30 on school nights.)

Sleep is so crucial. For all of us.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thanksgiving recap

So yes, I promise weekly postings, but but I get a bye over holiday weekends, like Thanksgiving. This is our two-year anniversary of moving here, the weekend before Thanksgiving.

We celebrated the holiday, as usual, with Dave's family on Long Island. that was one of those couple negotiations we settled when we first got together. The question was, where do we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas? I realized early on that it's more fun to spend Christmas with people, who, if they aren't exactly Christians, at least grew up with the holiday and don't think of it as a time to have Chinese food and go to the movies. Not that Dave's family did that. But I like hearing the carols and seeing the tree, and Jews, naturally, aren't really about that.

Plus, it was clear that Thanksgiving was Dave's family's holiday, because that's when his parents got married and celebrated their anniversary, and that's also his aunt's birthday weekend. So once we settled that, after a couple of years, things were much easier. Now I'm confused again about both holidays because a friend suggested Dave and I should have our own tradition and not fall into those of our families. But that's a bigger question and not one we're changing right now.

At any rate, this year I was feeling exhausted and was all set for the meal to be catered, or take-out, or anything but Dave doing it and me helping him. But then Brian, our nephew, stepped up to the roasting pan and said he really wanted to cook. It was lots of fun, actually, to my great surprise. Brian and I organized it, set the menu, with Judy's help, as she had already purchased a few things. First we sat down with her and drew up a shopping list. She told us what she had -- brussel sprouts, broccoli, sweet potatoes -- and then we filled in with the rest of the menu. Then Brian and Sarah and Randy did the shopping at Fairway (!!) and we split the cost with the others. They bought desserts knowing that Delia would bring her amazing chestnut dessert (she's Romanian so she calls it Romanian but I'm Hungarian and we make it too, so it shall remain nation-less).

Everyone made a dish, their dish. I am particular about gravy--I prefer WASP gravy to what is apparently Jewish gravy (I know several Jewish cooks, including a national food writer, who says to put the meat drippings in the blender! sacrilege!) -- and I also brought two butternut squashes, so I made those two dishes. Sarah and I double-teamed the stuffing and Dave prepared the turkey. Brian made some great mashed potatoes with bacon and cheese, Dave did brussel sprouts, I guess I just cleaned and steamed the broccoli, you get the idea. Lots of food but not too much. When Judy suggested spinach or Dave suggested peas, we said, no! we have enough food! And there was just enough to eat, with a few leftovers.

The guests brought other food of course and Brian also made the spinach dip you put into a loaf of bread that tasted very retro-eighties. It was fun. It felt like no one did too much. The table didn't look quite as gorgeous as when Josh did it, but as Gary Smith, the scenic artist I worked with at the Center Stage Theater in Baltimore and later in New York City, used to say, "Anyone can decorate, it takes a queen to make it art."Josh's tables were definitely art. Our table was barely decorated. And Lisa and Wes did most of the dishes afterwards.

And that was our second Thanksgiving of the weekend -- My sister's husband's brother let us invite ourselves to his Thanksgiving on the actual day (the LI one was on Saturday) and that was really fun. That's my brother-in-law's brother, aka Cate's brother-in-law, aka Jim's twin brother, aka our friends Eliot and Madge. The food was outstanding -- we just brought shrimp cocktail and ice cream, something simple -- and there was tons and tons of it. My sister Cate is the person to invite to your big party. She thinks of everything, works like a dog, everything tastes awesome, and she's cheerful and fun in the process. What more could you ask for!

We rolled out of there and headed down to LI that night, and traffic was a breeze. Alas, not so on Sunday. We left LI on Sunday a little before 2pm and got home after 7 . . . what with the rain and the bad driving and the very heavy traffic, it was a terrible trip. We can't complain, though, Sarah and Randy took something like 14 hours to go what should have been 10 to 12, and that was even though they left at 2 am Sunday morning. And a colleague at work drove back to Northampton from South Carolina and got in at 2am Monday morning and then she had to come in to work. Took 20 hours for what should have been 15. She said it was traffic and rain through10 states . . . so I can't complain one bit.

The question is, what do you next year? Sarah's thinking they'll just stay longer. I don't have the vacation time, and that's usually a closing week so I couldn't take it anyway. They say that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the worst travel day of the year, and the Sunday after is the second worst. I wish we could just stay home and let everyone come to us, but that's not an option at this time. Maybe some year.