Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How to Be Somebody

In springtime, a middle-aged writer's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of... roadside cleanup.

The snows, such as they were, have receded.  The forsythia is in bud; daffodils are poking their heads up, dotting the woods with little golden suns; the creeping myrtle is forming a purple carpet.  And every time I drive home, I look out my car window and my pleasure in the glory of springtime is diminished by the dismaying sight of  the  fugly mess next to the road.  Bottles.  Cans.  Plastic bags.  Bits of smashed car mirror. Plastic flower pots.  Bicycle tires.  Paper.  Candy wrappers. Fast food debris.  It's pretty disgusting.  Every time I've looked at it, I've thought, "Somebody ought to pick that crap up."

Well, you can only think that so many times before it dawns on you.

"Hey - I'm somebody."

Today I decided to be the somebody who does something about the trash, instead of somebody who only complains about it and blames those badly-brought-up hooligans who threw it there.  Should whoever tossed that plastic Dunkin' Donuts Iced Coffee cup with the straw still in it out of their car window come back and pick it up?  Yeah, no doubt.  But what do you think the chances are that it's going to happen?  Yeah, that's what I think, too.

So I suited up and showed up.  In my case, that meant jeans, rubber boots, a long-sleeved sweatshirt, gardening gloves with rubber palms, and a clasp to keep my hair out of my face.  Equipment: A bunch of heavy-duty black garbage bags, a large plastic bucket that formerly held spackle (now suitable for mopping, or for collecting garbage from far back in the woods where you don't want your plastic bag to snag on a bramble and rip open), and a couple of clear recycling bags for intact bottles and cans that aren't too dirty to recycle.

I parked my car on a safe pull-off on one of the strips of road that has annoyed me most.  This is a patch of municipal land that has a lot of NO TRESPASSING signs - something to do with the water company.  Naturally, it is a favorite place for beer parties.  Naturally, if you're going to ignore the NO TRESPASSING signs, chances are you will also ignore everything you've been taught about being a good citizen and taking your garbage with you when you leave.  Especially when you've had a lot of beer.  I can tell you with some authority that Coors is the preferred brand of the underage litterbug.

I found some interesting stuff.  Among other things, I found two debit cards and a state-issued ID, all belonging to the same woman, right next to the highway. My guess? Somebody boosted a wallet and tossed everything they didn't want out the window at 60 mph. I also found 6 cents and a little green Monopoly house.  But mostly what I found was beverage containers of all kinds.  Lots of plastic. Lots of glass. A couple of extra-nasty finds were the Poland Spring bottles filled with sloshy yellow liquid. Really?  You couldn't wait till you got home to throw your kid's pee bottle away?

The thing I found that made me happiest about the fact that I had decided to undertake this task, however, was the broken glass.   Most of it was a little further into the woods, generally in an area where there had obviously been a campfire and some drinking games.  A lot of it was next to rocks.  Apparently, getting drunk and throwing your bottles at a rock to hear the jolly, jolly smash is a thing.

Only, what I was thinking was, it's not so jolly if you happen to be an animal running around in the woods.

We have lived here two years. In that time, I have seen: Foxes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, groundhogs, coyotes, geese, ducks, wild turkeys, and not a few outdoor cats.

None of these animals is going to think about slowing down to look for broken glass if it happens to be running.  None of these animals is going to have on stout work boots to protect its feet.  An animal that cuts itself on shards of broken glass is going to be in pain and will suffer horribly for no other reason than that a human being was careless, selfish and irresponsible in that animal's natural habitat.  At best, it will limp along, hurting, while the wound slowly heals, and hopefully it will not be so badly injured that it can't forage for food.  At worst, the cut will get infected and the animal will die a slow, agonizing death, or, if it's lucky, maybe only (only!) lose the limb.  It doesn't have the option of going to the local Urgent Care facility, griping about the high deductible it has to pay under Obamacare.

So it was with immense satisfaction that I picked up every glittering dagger of broken green, brown, clear glass I found twinkling like diamonds in the rich, loamy earth.

The Jewish sage Maimonides posited that one of the highest levels of charity is to "give without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven."  I will never know which animals I saved from coming to grievous harm by picking up all that broken glass today.  And they will never know that they were even in danger, much less that one human being went out of her way to make their habitat a little bit safer.  And this is exactly how it should be.

I started working at 11:00 a.m., and by the time I got home, ravenous for lunch and leaving four enormous black trash bags that were too heavy to move by the side of the road (I had called the Highway Department earlier and was told that a work order to pick up the bags would be issued if I would call in to tell them where I'd left them, so that's what I did) it was 2:00 p.m.  I called the Highway Department, and also the Police Department (ah, you'd forgotten all about those debit cards, hadn't you?)  The Police Department, upon hearing that I'd been Good Citizening away, obligingly sent a squad car to my house to pick up the cards when I said I was too tired and grubby to bring them to the precinct till after I'd cleaned up and had a bite to eat.  (Incidentally, I was not too tired to notice that we have some very good-looking police officers around here. I'm talking Central Casting.) After I handed over the cards, in the hope that the lady they belong to will be glad to get them back,  I sat down, put my feet up, and enjoyed a salad the size of my head and an extra strong cup of coffee.

I felt I had earned it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Peppering the Bulbs: Auguries of Springtime

 Dedicated to My Friend
Jenna James Chandler -
Who inspires me to believe that rising up from the ground 
in beauty and in strength
is an attainable goal.

"I went a little bulb-happy at the Odd Lots store," I texted my husband.  

I am a sucker for attractively-packaged plant items.  Let me be honest.  A flowery Eden depicted on a glossy wrapper imposes itself upon that unattainably idyllic  mental landscape known as My Garden, and I can't haul out my wallet fast enough.  The people who print up the wrappers know this perfectly well, of course; we Garden People are like that, giving the Fabric People competition in the "Who can buy more stuff that we haven't figured out what to do with yet?" department.

All gardeners run into problems.  One of mine is that we have a lot of shade and far too few areas that could be described as "Full Sun." I tend to buy things that say "FULL SUN" and do not notice that this is stated loudly and clearly on the little information sheet until I get it home and am ready to plant it, at which point I realize that all the Full Sun patches are already as crowded as nineteenth century tenements on the Lower East Side.  Though come to think of it, why do I reach that far back in time for a simile in this, the deplorable age of the Stackable Micro-Apartment?

My other problem is the Critters.  We have critters.  Deer critters,  Bunny critters.  Groundhog critters.  Squirrel critters.  Chipmunk critters.  (Please Note: List contains a fairly large percentage of Burrowing Rodents.  This is what we writers call Foreshadowing.)

So the bulbs were a great buy, because a lot of them will thrive in part-shade, of which I have plenty. They were cheap - $3.99 a bag, with a pretty picture of what they're supposed to look like come Springtime stapled to the top.   I got wise fast to the fact that, no matter how much I love tulips, I am never going to be able to grow them, because the deer love them even more than I do.   "But I am too wily for them, " I thought, as I filled up my shopping cart with hyacinths, daffodils, allium (which I've never planted before, but which looked like something Dr. Seuss would draw, so I tossed them in), muscari (in plain English, "grape hyacinths"), and those charming little white blooms with the still more charming Russian name - puschkinia. (I know.  Makes you want to go to Veselka and order a plate of puschkinia with a side of sour cream.  It turns out they are named for Pushkin - albeit it's Pushkin the botanist, not Pushkin the poet.) "I shall only buy the ones that have the picture of a deer in a circle with a red line drawn through it!"

Last year I planted 100 daffodil bulbs, and it all but killed me.  I live in Rockland County, NY, and they were not kidding when they made the name up.  This is the kind of soil that breaks farmers' hearts. And their backs.  And their shovels.

This year, my ace in the hole is my friend Maria, who is an accomplished gardener, and who has lived here long enough to learn some of the finer points of outsmarting Rockland at its own game. On her advice, I purchased a pitchfork to use in place of the unforgiving shovel. Just as Maria promised, I was able to turn the soil much more easily, and the rocks loosened up nicely without a lot of grunting and sweating and cursing on my part.

This year, thanks to the low prices and the pretty pictures on the bags, I got home, unpacked everything, and found myself staring at 200 grape hyacinth bulbs, 75 puschkinia bulbs, 56 assorted daffodil bulbs, 16 allium bulbs, and 25 regular-sized hyacinths in a wide variety of hues.  I pitchforked the ground like mad and got about a hundred of the grape hyacinths planted on the first day.  After that, it rained, and then I got busy doing other things, and it wasn't until a few days later that I pulled on my gardening gloves and got to work planting the rest.  I put in a long morning, got very dirty and tired, and decided to break for lunch.  Before going inside, I wandered over to have a look at the area where I'd planted the first hundred bulbs three days before, so I could pat myself on the back and be suffused with that nice glow of accomplishment.

Instead, I let out a shriek and raced inside to text Maria.

Those Fucking Chipmunks dug up and ATE all my grape hyacinth bulbs! I'm gonna go Elmer Fudd on their furry little asses!

Dear, loyal Maria, in less time than you'd think it would take to stifle a laugh, texted me right back.

Bastards! Run out and buy some Critter Ridder before you plant any more bulbs. Or try some cayenne pepper.

We had cayenne pepper. I trudged back out and started sprinkling, closely followed by the dog. She, sensing I had something relating food in my hand, tromped around in the freshly-peppered dirt, sniffed it, sneezed, tried to lick it off her feet, gave me a reproachful look, and harrumphed back into the house, giving it all up as a bad job.

Gentle Reader - if ever I have had a case of the Fuck-Its, it was then.

I went inside, stifled the urge to eat a pint of ice cream straight from the container (mainly because there wasn't any, and I was repulsively hot, dirty, tired, and too damn cross to clean myself up and drive to the store), had lunch and a cup of coffee, and brooded.  Was there any point to planting the rest of the bulbs?  Wasn't I just setting myself up for a lot of frustration and chipmunk-rage?

For all I knew, none of the things would come up.  For all I knew, we'd fall behind on the mortgage because I was out planting bulbs when I should have been looking for a job, we'd lose the house, and all I was doing was making the place look nice for when the bank sent somebody to take pictures for the foreclosure website so they could sell it out from under us. For all I knew, I'd get some rare exotic disease related to chipmunk-rage that would carry me off before Springtime ever arrived; even if the stupid things did come up, I'd never get to see them anyway.

But slowly, as the chipmunk-rage drained away, replaced by the comfort of lunch and a hot cup of coffee, it came to me why I should do it anyway.

I should do it anyway because I love doing it.

I should do it anyway because when it comes to the future, I am charge of taking the action, but I'm never in charge of the result.

I should do it anyway because even if my wonkiest fears come to pass and I'm not here to see the flowers bloom next spring for whatever crazy reason (hey - maybe I'll sell my novel and be off on a book tour!), I believe it's important to create as much beauty as I can, whenever and wherever I can, because somebody will see it and take joy in it.  And if the somebody doesn't turn out to be me, that's okay, too.

The tree across the creek, flaunting its gaudy autumn garb of Halloween hues, was planted by someone who didn't have me in mind.  Every time I see it, my spirits lift.  I wish I could tell whoever planted it that it brings me joy - that I feel love for the tree and its beauty - that I am thanking whoever put it there in my heart every time I see it.

When I walk through a great public garden like The Cloisters, I am flooded with peace and happiness.  Hundreds of hands labored to create this vision.  I don't have a single name to attach to their efforts.  But I thank them, each and every one.

When I read a great poem by a long-dead poet; when I find a nugget of wisdom I desperately needed on that very day in a tome that had gathered dust on a library shelf until I took it home and gently smoothed the dog-ears from its pages; when I stand in awe before a Van Gogh painting, marvelling at the courage of an artist who permits himself to become a philosopher's stone that transforms unimaginable agony into indescribable beauty... that is when it's made clear to me why we must do it anyway.

It seems to me it must take faith
to be a flower.
Each year I’m shocked
to see them thrusting for the sky –
small soldiers bearing little green-tipped spears,
determined to surround
the tired city trees
that grow in cages of a yard or two of dirt
hacked into concrete.

But don’t you know it’s winter now?
I want to shout.  It’s much too soon –
it might still freeze.
Shouldn’t you wait? 
I am excited
by the prospect of the daffodils,
the tulips, crocus, hyacinths;
my mind fills up with colors.
I see the flowers of bygone years -
they are a promise that I always fear
won’t be fulfilled again.
I want to make it safe for them to grow,
to shield them, tuck them in,
keep them all warm and snug,
where neither cold nor careless hand
can cut them down before
they go from stalk, to bud,
to bloom,
to graceful withered husk…

And yet, I know
my part in this is simple: Have the faith
that they will have their proper span
of days upon this earth;
rejoice that they are here again;
and most of all, don’t grieve

that they can’t stay for long.

Karen Clark, 2010, "The Faith to Be a Flower"

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Red Balloon: A Love Story

June 9, 2015.  After fifteen years and three extraordinarily wonderful Manhattan schools, and finally the ultimate goal - COLLEGE! - my 19 year old son and I walk down the well-remembered stairs of The Red Balloon, an Upper West Side preschool bordered by Riverside Drive and 125th St., on a sentimental journey to the scene of his introduction to Welcome to School – Your Daily Reality for the Next 20 Years. Here he spent three of the most important years of his formative cognitive life – a developmental phase whose importance can hardly be overestimated. 

The Red Balloon!  We saw it, and we fell in love. The huge, well-equipped gym, with its tricycles, kick-balls, trike-carousel, and above all, plenty of floor space for energetic little bodies to race around in! The loaded shelves of the picture book library, the comfy reading sofa! The warm, contented smiles of the teachers and the children! The tempting aromas issuing from the kitchen twice a day, both at breakfast and lunch! The wading pool and the outdoor play deck!  And oh, those wonderful toys and activities! Who would have imagined that all this happy hubbub of Legos, painting, jigsaw puzzles, and so much more was going to teach my unsuspecting tot the essential skills that would form the foundation for his ongoing success as a student?  Not he. Not I.  All my son and I saw on the day we first toured the school, his small hand clutched in my own, was that this was the one.

We enter the bright, cheery foyer with its cubbies and children’s artwork, marveling as we recall how my son once had to stand on tiptoe to reach his winter jacket on a cubby hook that is now on a level with his waistband. It is nap time; the classrooms are closed, and the children doze on their cots. Within minutes, familiar faces of teachers appear. Saundra, who had not known we’d be coming to visit, comes out to see who’s there. Her mouth drops open, she spreads out her arms, embraces my son and calls us both by name.  Norma Brockmann, the director of the school, is delighted that we took her up on her invitation to come by.  She emerges from her office, calling to Orange Room teacher Judy to come and see who’s here.  Judy bustles out, beaming, gives us each a big hug, and starts singing the song from the Arthur cartoon that they used to sing together every day – the one that drove me crazy, because after school my son would sing it all the way home, too. Chris, Anne and Monique pop their heads out to see what’s going on, recognize us at once, come out for quick hugs, and return to the classrooms to supervise the napping children.

Everyone launches into “Do you remember…?”  Norma reels off the names of my son’s classmates and where they went on to elementary school without a single mistake.  Some of them are still in touch with her.  Some are still in touch with my son and are part of his current social circle.  How many of us have friendships that go back to our preschool days?  My son gets excited while recalling an art project he did involving poster paint and a bunch of marbles, and wonders whether the annual apple-picking expedition, his favorite outing, is still a tradition.  It is.  I tell him that I still have the art project he did with the paint and the marbles, tucked away in my Memory Box on the top shelf of the closet, and he is astonished. "No way! Will you show me when we get home?"  I watch his animated face and the glow of satisfaction on his teachers’ faces as he boasts of his freshman year G.P.A. – 3.7, not too shabby! – and I think, “How did we ever get so lucky as to be a part of this school? No – a part of this family.”

For it is a family.  It was in this magical microcosm of a Manhattan melting pot that my son discovered that he is part of the Family of Man, and that we human beings all have so much more in common than we have differences that would keep us apart.  Here he was loved; here he was nurtured; here he was cherished as an equal among his contemporaries, all of them small pilgrims to Grownupland.

My son and I wander to the gym.  The room is as vast as ever, but the equipment looks disproportionately small next to his lanky form.  I look around, remembering his fourth birthday party, and how excited we were when we learned we could rent the gym on the weekend.  It was, as he emphatically told me afterward, "the best birthday party ever!"  He went home from that party loaded with gifts, but the real gifts we got were the intangibles.  Smiles. Laughter. Friendship. Memories.

The Red Balloon gave us so much. It gave my son social skills that have lasted him all his life.  It was here that he heard, “You may not always like everybody here every minute of every day, but everybody here is your friend.”  He learned to be polite – “Yes, I hear you, sweetie, but I can hear you much better when you say please.”  He learned to share.  He learned to relax when taking a test, because the only thing that’s important is to do your best and not worry about being perfect; as a result, he did exceedingly well when he did find himself in a testing situation. He learned to negotiate – “I’ll trade you this Lego portcullis for that set of Lego racing wheels.”  He learned that “No means no” and he learned that sometimes the way life works is that “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”  And we ultimately learned that, thanks to his background of carefully structured classroom instruction that made him stand out as a potential elementary school student and to Norma’s advocacy and savvy about the kindergarten admissions process, he had his pick of some of the finest schools on the Upper West Side when it was time to leave the nest and try his wings at Big Kids’ School.

Most of all, The Red Balloon gave me a lovable, happy child whose natural intellectual growth had been tenderly cultivated by wise and loving hands, and who was ready in every way to go on to kindergarten with confidence in his self-worth and his abilities. The Red Balloon provided the fertile soil in which my son’s intellectual curiosity took root, and thanks to Norma and her outstanding staff of teachers, my son continues to bloom and to reach for the sky. We are so grateful, and I truly believe my son could not have gotten off to a better start in life than he did by attending this uniquely wonderful preschool.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Garlic Mustard Wars

I was trying to decide whether to write about the incredible fantastic display of structural undergarments through the ages I visited yesterday at the Bard Graduate Center (86th & CPW - oh, yes, Gentle Reader, I do still get into Manhattan, and I don't even have to ask the locals "Which way is uptown?" - at least, not yet.) The exhibition, called "Fashioning the Body," is well worth writing about, and maybe I'll take it on tomorrow if the weather is not too beautiful.  Luckily for you, my little Chiclets, today is hazy, hot and humid, even up here in the sticks, and with the best will and the most finely-honed case of Gardener's OCD you ever saw, I couldn't bring myself to spend any more times out of doors. If the weather's nice tomorrow - different story, and, as Tigger would say, "TTFN!"

However, since the latest thing on my mind is always, "What did I do this morning?" I will refresh myself with the tall glass of iced coffee I had the forethought to refrigerate before going outside to get all hot and dirty while I write about how the garden thing is going.  The short answer is, "Quite well."

I won't bore you with a detailed list of everything I've planted, or of all the curious things I've dug up in the process. Suffice to say that I like planting flowers, and that the former homeowners liked to throw vodka bottles into the shrubbery, where they thought the evidence of their shenanigans would be buried in oblivion forever. At one point my spade struck a flat, white, longish box-like thing and I thought, "Huzzah! They buried the family diamonds and, thanks to all that vodka, they forgot to dig them up before they moved!" But it turned out to be a clay drainpipe, and that was the end of my fantasy that there would surely be some kind of rich reward in store for the wonderful person (me) who was doing all this work on the neglected garden.  The rich reward turned out to be the soil itself, which had lain under a carpet of gently decaying leaves that were never raked for decades and had grown fine and moist and fecund, bursting with nutrients that are making my peonies and my Solomon's Seal sit up and take notice.

You will not, perhaps, be surprised to learn that we now have the fattest, happiest robins in the county.  As Mary Lennox discovered in Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic tale of Gardenmania, robins love being around gardeners, because we dig up all those plump, juicy worms and succulent grubs.  Saves them a great deal of trouble - all they have to do is dart down from the tree and pounce.

I have also dug up literally yards of poison ivy, which, in my zeal and innocence, I did not know was poison ivy when I first began yanking it out.  Luckily, I always wear gardening gloves, due to incurable squeamishness (see above, "worms and grubs.")  I now know exactly what P.I. looks like, and I have to say, so far I have been extraordinarily lucky, for while I continue to ruthlessly exterminate it wherever I find it, I have not yet broken out in the classic unbearable itchy rash. I suppose if I keep it up, eventually my luck will run out, but thus far my body has not seemed to recognize the nasty stuff for what it is and is not, at this writing, screaming in protest that I should stay away from that stuff!!!! (Yes, I know - don't burn the plant after you pluck it out.  I looked up all the safety precautions online, never fear.)

The other thing I've gone after with a vengeance is the garlic mustard.

Now, I had never heard of garlic mustard, and would have assumed it's something one enquires for in the condiment section at Zabar's, or perhaps at Agata & Valentina if Zabar's has run out. An Upper West Side friend with a country house in Connecticut is also a Gardenmania Gal, and she mentioned having spent an exhausting morning ripping out the garlic mustard making incursions onto her property, describing the stuff as "An evil, invasive weed my stupid ancestors brought over from Europe because they thought there wasn't going to be anything to eat." So I asked Mr. Google, and horrors! - there was a picture of it, and we had it by the acre.  And yes - theoretically, you could encounter this insidious variation on Audrey in an 8 oz. container for $12 at a a high-end NYC foodie emporium and think to yourself, "Wow, garlic mustard pesto - how interesting, I shall certainly strike the Originality Gong at the next PTA pot-luck with that slathered onto my penne!"

And yes - you can, in fact, cook with the stuff.  That is, if you can stand the sight of it after you've pulled up dozens of huge plastic trash bags full and discovered that it does, indeed, smell strongly of garlic, although not at all like mustard.  My husband, who, being of sound mind, has not pulled up a single stalk, expresses mild interest in its culinary properties and keeps telling me to bring back some of the young, tender ones because that's what the online recipes recommend.  I keep saying, "Sure, next time I absolutely will," and then I get so infuriated by the utter ubiquity of this ghastly plague of a plant and the fact that no matter how much of it I pull out by the roots, there's always more surging up right behind it, that the last thing I want to do is eat it.  So I stuff it into the plastic bags, willy-nilly, and leave it out for our Kindly Carting Man to take away twice a week, probably to his bewilderment because up to now we were a single-garbage-bag-producing household except on major holidays.

The thing that pisses me off the most about the garlic mustard is - well, actually, there are so many things I can't decide.  For one thing, it's very sneaky and in its infant stage likes to hide behind the poison ivy and then spring out at you a year later (it's a biennial) as a towering, stinky plant-thing with unattractive little white flowers at the tippy-top that are going to seed all over the place and make lots more of it. According to the King County (WA) informational website on "Noxious Weeds" (Ob-noxious, I'd call it!):

  It is difficult to control once it has reached a site; it can cross-pollinate or self-pollinate, it has a high seed production rate, it out competes native vegetation and it can establish in a relatively stable forest understory. It is not eaten by local wildlife or insects.  It can grow in dense shade or sunny sites. The fact that it is self fertile means that one plant can occupy a site and produce a seed bank. Plant stands can produce more than 62,000 seeds per square meter to quickly out compete local flora, changing the structure of plant communities on the forest floor. Garlic mustard is also allelopathic, producing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and mychorrizal fungi needed for healthy tree growth and tree seedling survival.

Got that? One plant can have 62,000 babies all by itself - no co-parent needed - plus, it's not fussy about sun, shade, or swamp; plus, it crowds out and deliberately poisons the native plants that were happily minding their own business before this interloper came along to behave like a crew of hipsters swarming through Williamsburg.  On top of which - heu, miserere mei! - the deer won't eat it, having too much common sense and being far too busy snapping up the native plants that the garlic mustard hasn't strangled.

So I have become a one-woman army on an Anti Garlic Mustard Crusade.  Every morning when I walk the dog, I fill up two big black plastic bags with the Noxious Weed from along the roadside.  It is a losing battle I am fighting, and I know it.  In garlic mustard, I may finally have found the one thing stubborner than myself. But I shall press on, muttering to myself with savage exultation as I thrust the dangling S-shaped roots into the bag, "Ha! That's the end of your propagating ways, you nasty trull!"

Monday, April 27, 2015

Welcome, Sweet Springtime!

As it turns out, springtime keeps you busy once you live in a house instead of an apartment.

Last year at this time, I was paying flying visits to our newly-acquired property, which was then in the hands of the contractors.  There was an overflowing dumpster in the driveway. Next to it was an assortment of broken-down crap the prior owners had discarded in their mad flight from winter snows and dunning notices.  Did I happen to mention that they left owing the heating oil company nearly $2,000?  There was an enormous TV with a kicked-in screen, a broken-down five-drawer file cabinet, quite a lot of cheap Christmas outdoor decoration with frazzled ends and burnt-out bulbs, and a phenomenally ugly waterlogged wagon-wheel chandelier that would have fit right into the saloon scene of Destry Rides Again.  In short, it looked like a tchotchke-mad branch of the Joad clan had recently left in something of a hurry.

The grounds themselves were in a similar state of pristine neglect.  A cursory trip around the perimeter with some heavy-duty Hefty bags and a thick pair of gloves turned up a bountiful cache of discarded vodka bottles, beer cans (somebody was partial to Bud Lite), lots of broken glass (the perfect thing to insure spending large sums - originally earmarked for cleaning out the neglected gutters - at the vet's after you move in with a dog who likes to chase squirrels through the underbrush), half a crack pipe, a syringe (I, of course, am making no speculations as to the provenance of these artifacts, and they may well have been here since Colonial days) and, most curious of all, the Graveyard of Discarded Tools.  These were not small implements like hammers and screwdrivers.  Somewhere, somehow, somebody had tired of at least 30 assorted pickaxes, shovels, wrenches, spanners, lengths of rusty chain, and a lot of other serious construction equipment type stuff I don't even know the name of and had dumped them into the underbrush next to the driveway and kicked a bit of dirt over them.  After briefly toying with the idea of taking them over to where the new Tappan Zee Bridge is under construction and seeing whether anybody could use them, I reluctantly decided they were too rusty and persuaded our longsuffering private sanitation engineer Stacey to take them away.  (Private road = Pay somebody to come take away your garbage twice a week.  In the beginning, we were getting more than what we paid for. A lot more. Stacey was a peach about it, I have to say, although he did some eye-rolling after we left the pull-chain toilet on the stump for his disgruntled attention.)

By the time I'd cleared out all the garbage, it was winter and all I wanted to do was hibernate. I did manage to plant 100 daffodil bulbs before the ground froze and I collapsed, and to my amazement and delight, most of them seem to have come up. (I haven't counted, but they're in all the right places and look very pretty and bloomy and Spring-like.)

March brought wind. Lots of wind.  We would lie drowsily in bed hearing the gale moaning through the trees and sleepily murmur that one of these days we should probably do something about cutting down all those dead branches on all those neglected trees before something happened.

Then, of course, something happened. One-half of one of those dead trees fell down, smack-dab across the roof of the Honda CRV.  Bye-bye, Honda CRV.

Fortunately, nobody was in it or near it.  Fortunately, we had insurance.  Fortunately, the book value of the Honda covered not only a replacement car (we now have a used Accura, and I am still figuring out how things like the windshield wipers and the CD player work) but some of the cost of belatedly hiring the Tree Guy to take down the most egregious threats to life, home and automobiles.  The three hulking dead trees all the way at the rear of the property still loom tall and proud, and I hope they won't fall on me while I am absentmindedly wandering around near the stream some day, but at least they're not hanging over our roof.

After the threat of Heavily Ironic Death By Killer Tree During Loving Attempts to Minister to Mother Earth had been more or less resolved and a ton of previously impassable wood had been cleared away, I was finally able to see what was going on alongside the driveway, drag out more bags of rubbish, and get down to the seemingly endless task of raking away thirty years' worth of sodden dead leaves and dumping them into the woods. My bisters are healing nicely; thank you for asking.

So finally I'm at the fun part, which is, of course, the part where I visit plant nurseries, load up my cart with jewel-toned magnificence in bloom and then put back more than half of it after remembering that we have way too much shade for most of these plants to thrive in, and anyway the deer think everything is salad.

I also bought a big bag of manure. I never thought I'd be paying for cow shit, but it seems you're never safe from being surprised until you're dead.  Did you know there's sales tax on cow shit?

Last week my local library celebrated Arbor Day by handing out red maple saplings to residents with library cards. Mine is presently  about a foot tall and living in a large planter tub the Joads abandoned in their flight; it will eventually be planted in the ground and go leaping towards its full growth (60'-80' tall with a 60' canopy) after I get the dead trees by the stream taken down.

The reward, of course, is that every morning I wake up and something new and beautiful is now in place of what was formerly slovenliness and rubbish.  The former homeowners, at some stage of the game, must have had good intentions and some sense of garden design, for all sorts of nice little surprises are emerging from beneath years and years of disrepair. Thanks to their decades of failure to do any raking, I have some of the finest topsoil you've ever set eyes on - rich, dark and loamy. The wildflowers are popping their little heads out of the ground with happy cries of, "Look, Mama! We can see the sky!"  We have sweet, pale purple violets, bright yellow trefoil (or, as I prefer to call it, butter-and-eggs), two charming Japanese red maples beginning to unfurl the fans of their frilly leaves, and a lot of vivid-hued  flowering ground cover that was clearly once planted on purpose before sloth and Smirnoff took over.The forsythia is in full riotous bloom, the robins are fat, saucy and perfectly delighted that somebody has made it so much easier to get at the worms than it used to be, and if the large, redheaded woodpecker doesn't stop jackhammering at the slat of our deck that apparently has some sort of delectable grubs in it, I am eventually going to have to Do Something besides look at him through my field glasses and marvel at the fact that there's a woodpecker, a real, live woodpecker, eating up my deck.

Welcome, sweet Springtime!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Literacy) Volunteers of America

If you're my age, Gentle Reader, you saw the blog title and instantly flashed on Jefferson Airplane cover art and people in funny hats saluting ironically.  Just wanted to get that off my mind.

But this is not actually going to be a piece about members of dinosaur bands wearing funny hats and saluting ironically.  At least, I don't think it is - I never know where my blog is going to take me, and sometimes it's like Betsy Trotwood's dear friend Mr. Dick and  King Charles' head in David Copperfield - no matter what poor Mr. Dick sets out to talk about, up pops King Charles' head and there he is, at it again, talking about decapitated Stuart monarchs.  I'll do my best, though.

My point - and I did have one - was going to be that I am now halfway through my training as a volunteer in Rockland County's Literacy Solutions program, and I am surprised by how enjoyable I am finding the process. So let me get back to that.

The training is done in six three-hour sessions taking place at the library.  There are roughly 20 aspiring volunteers, many of them retired teachers.  The three ladies leading the sessions have been working within the program for a very long time, and they are dynamic, enthusiastic, and well-prepared for every class.  Excellent role models, in short.  There is also a backlogged waiting list of almost 60 aspiring students waiting to be paired off with a tutor.  20 volunteers. 60 potential students. Even I can do the math.  There is a distinct need for this service.

A confession. . . Yes, another one. (Don't tell me you are weary of my confessions?  We haven't even gotten to the spicy ones yet.) Some years ago I thought I would get an advanced degree in education and look for a job as an English teacher.  I lasted exactly two days in the program before withdrawing in confusion and haste.  Dear Gentle Readers Who Are Teachers - I don't know how you did it.  How on earth did you choke down all those never-ending mouthfuls of Dead Sea fruit known as Educational Theory?  Especially in the despairing knowledge that the Powers That Be were planning to change it all up on you anyway in a few years, tell you nothing you'd learned was relevant any longer, and sporadically present you a nice fresh plate of Dead Sea fruit to consume in the lofty name of Professional Development (meaning that you'd have to go to school and sit in the classroom listening to somebody drone on about adolescent psychology while all your students took the day off.)

Now, it will be said, and with some justice, that I did not give the education program a fair shake, and that some of the classes would undoubtedly have proved interesting and inspirational, which is probably so.  No matter.  I have found my niche in the literacy volunteer training, which provides pithy advice on what to tell a student who wants to go out drinking with you after class, ("No, thanks") down and dirty tips on how to inculcate the use of the definite article in those students whose native tongue does not have definite articles, and which, above all, urges me to make the lessons fun.

Fun, let me tell you, was sadly lacking in the postgraduate education classroom.

And that, to me, is a problem, at whatever level you are planning to teach.  Because if you can't get your students excited about learning... if you can't figure out a way to engage them, to make them sit up a little straighter, to make their eyes sparkle as they make a connection they can't wait to share with you - then chances are that everybody - teacher and pupil - is going to go home thinking, "I don't wanna do this anymore."

Now, I am not necessarily planning to use this particular illustration of the importance of proper capitalization with my literacy students (at least, not until they are very advanced, and then only when we go out drinking after class . . . ahem! - which, as you know, we are not going to do.)  But here is a sample of the dynamic lesson taught to us today by the Literacy Ladies:

Correct capitalization is extremely important.  It can make the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

It's like I said. . . Lessons should be fun.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The House Elves Cook a Meal

It is always a dilemma whether or not to disclose that one has performed a Random Act of Kindness, because in doing so one risks venturing into the murky shoals of the Humble Brag.  Having made this disclaimer, I am going to talk about something I did yesterday that gave me enormous satisfaction and that I plan to do again for the very selfish reason that it made me feel so good to do it.

I was exchanging emails with a close friend with whom I have, in the past, joyfully collaborated on some writing projects.  My friend lives near me and has a full-time job in the Bronx and two children under the age of five.  While she dearly loves creating anything related to the arts, she is presently paying off a mortgage and raising two small children.  So, like many other people in these hard times, she must often put her artistic talents on the shelf because there are only so many hours to the day.  Here is her description of A Day In the Life:

My basic day is get up at 4:30 a.m., shower, dress, get things for me & the kids, then help my husband get the boys dressed & into car and we all have to be out by 5:45 a.m.! I work, get off at 3:30 p.m. if I don't get stuck with mandatory overtime, fight traffic to the babysitter's & then the kids go crazy that I am there. It takes about 30 minutes to get out of there and I actually feel bad not chatting w/ the sitter but I try and avoid packed rush hour traffic - which is impossible, because it's 4 pm at that point. I leave by 4:15 and get home by 5 (if I'm lucky) and heavens forbid I don't have the travel DVD player or the baby will scream and throw his bottle from boredom. 

If the kids fall asleep in the car, which is often, then I can forget them going to sleep for the night before 10pm. I get home; at least one of them wakes up; and here go the 3 trips back and forth between the car and the house to get everyone and everything out. Happy to have a driveway!

Then it's food time, sometimes unhealthy leftovers. Husband finally gets home by 6:15 - he gets off at 4:45, but traffic turns the 30 minute trip into an hour and a half!!!

By 9:00 I'm exhausted, but I usually can't go to bed before 10:00 because the kids are wired.

Sleep 4-5 hours, then get up and do it all over again. 

This is a brutal way to live.  I can't tell you how much I admire and honor the many, many unsung heroes and heroines of these times who are soldiering through the exhausting grind that being a responsible human being trying to live decently and raise a family has become. Yes - I know - many people have it even worse than the above situation.  But that doesn't mean this situation is good - it means things are bad.

I myself have had little success in finding work relating to my field (English majors are not, as it turns out, highly sought after to run Fortune 500 companies - who knew?) so I free-lance as an editor, do some SAT tutoring, help high school students with college application essays, etc.  In other words, I am blessed with a flexible schedule and a husband who has a nine-to-five job that produces enough income for us to live on.  I'm incredibly lucky, and I know it.

So here's what I did after I read my friend's email.  I thought to myself, "What is the one thing that is most lacking in her life right now?" And the answer, obviously, was, "Time."  Time to enjoy relaxing with her family after a long day of work.  Time to enjoy the luxury of a home-cooked meal that takes longer than five minutes to throw together.  Time to come home and not have to play catch-up with all the stuff that piled up while she was out.  And I came up with a plan.  And, after a bit of incredulity and resistance on her part, I prevailed upon my friend to let me  put my plan into effect.

At 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I texted my friend to make sure she was on her way home.  I then drove over to her house with a great big beautiful lasagna that my husband the chef had made.  She knew all about the lasagna, and had given me the passcode to her garage door opener and told me how to turn on the oven.  Although she'd initially had reservations and demurred about not wanting to put me to any trouble, she  admitted that she was very glad to be looking forward to arriving home to a dinner already underway that she would not have to think about making.  ("You have to let me pay you back for the groceries!" she kept insisting.)

But I had a few other surprises up my sleeve that she did not know about, and that was part of the fun.

I parked on the street, happy that I'd thought to throw our snow shovel into the back of the car, because the driveway was completely covered in 4 inches of fresh snow.  As I shovelled it clear, I thought about how I would feel if I had to come home to an uncleared driveway with two cranky kids in the car and the prospect of making dinner still ahead of me.  I would probably take one look and burst into tears.  Clearing off the driveway was a pleasure, not a chore.  It made me so happy to think that I could smooth my friend's way toward at least one hassle-free evening.

Driveway cleared, I pulled in and unloaded the big hamper-on-wheels that we use when we're transporting large amounts of food.  I let myself in, got everything into the kitchen, started preheating the oven, and went to work.

To begin with, the second lasagna - the one for the freezer.  There are always too many noodles in the box for just one lasagna, so we'd decided to make a second and freeze it.  Into the freezer it went.

I put the cut-up Romaine lettuce and the thick, eggy Caesar dressing my husband had made into the fridge, along with a small container of grated Romano cheese I'd shared out from our own larger container at home.  Nothing is as aggravating as having a wonderful pasta dinner in front of you, wanting to put a little grated cheese on top and being unable to catch your server's eye at the restaurant, right?

Next to the salad fixings I placed an aeresol can of whipped cream. For the lasagna?  No - for the gingerbread!  M.F.K. Fisher's delectable "Edith's Gingerbread" has been a cherished standard in our family since the first time I doubtfully tried out the recipe.  Whip baking soda into molasses "until light and fluffy"?  Was M.F.K. Fisher kidding?  As it turns out, she was not - the molasses quickly turns a beautiful, creamy taffy-brown hue and doubles in size when you follow her instructions.  The result is a ginger bread that is light and fluffy, yet moist and with a tender crumb.  The spices are assertive, not aggressive, and, as Fisher remarks, the gingerbread nearly always gets gobbled up before it can even cool off, which is a pity because it is so good when it's cold.

I turned the gingerbread out of the baking pan onto a pretty plate from the cupboard and put it on the kitchen counter to save it from immediate attack by the kids - or at least, to give my friend a fighting chance to get to it first.  My friend and her husband had bought a fixer-upper house and planned the renovations themselves, and it turned out beautifully.  I admired the gorgeous granite countertops for the umpteenth time.  Behind me, the stainless-steel oven chimed out its little tune - the oven was pre-heated, the lasagna could go in!

I placed the lasagna on a cookie sheet - no need to have cheesy, tomato-y messes bubbling over for my friend to clean off the oven at midnight.  I popped it in the oven, shot her a text - "Lasagna in at 5 p.m., take out at 6, let rest 10 minutes before you eat it."  Then I turned back to the kitchen counter and unfurled half a bunch of bright yellow chrysanthemums I'd picked up at the grocery store when I'd shopped for the ingredients.  They are generous with the flowers at my supermarket, and for five dollars I'd gotten a large bunch of cheery mums that amply brightened up not only her kitchen, but mine as well!  $2.50 apiece to make two women happy certainly seemed like a bargain.

I put the flowers in a vase and propped a little handwritten menu up against them.  It all looked very pretty - the dark brown fragrant richness of the gingerbread, the golden sunshine of the flowers, the Carte du Jour in my nicest script, the shining countertops and gleaming appliances. My friend may have no time to call her own, but she is one fastitious housekeeper. I don't know how she manages it.

I finished by setting the table,  Before I left, I texted my friend again to make sure she'd be home in time to pull the lasagna out of the oven at 6:00.  Of course, she was stuck in traffic.  Of course, that was fine; I turned the oven down and texted back that the food would be ready at 6:30.  I locked up the house, hopped in my car, and went home.

At 6:45, I got the first text.

Just got home!!! Wow UR too much & U shovelled the snow! Holy shit, along w/ cake & flowers I just can't believe it what a treat!

From then on the texts came in a steady stream - the kids were ecstatic, the house smelled fantastic, her  husband, who is of Italian descent and incredibly picky about pasta, was reaching for thirds, and so on - until I finally texted back that she should stop texting already and eat her dinner before it got cold!

I cannot begin to tell you how much fun this was for all concerned.  We all felt absolutely great. There is nothing quite as gratifying as pulling off a nice surprise for somebody you love very much.  My husband, of course, enjoyed the compliments to his cooking.  My friends got a bit of pampering after a long day of hard work, nasty traffic, and horrible weather that made the commute even worse than usual.  The kids were happy because we'd deliberately chosen a meal that was kid-friendly, and because there was dessert. And, of course, because Mom and Dad were a little less stressed and exhausted than they could have been.

The best way to keep what you have is to give it away.