Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Personal Rat Race

"Naughty, naughty, naughty," a woman signed from the driver's seat of an SUV this morning as I ran along Stoopville Road, near Newtown, Pennsylvania. I was plodding through an inch of freshly fallen snow. I waved and smiled, thinking "naughty, naughty, naughty, why do you think it's necessary to drive on a morning when traffic reports are full of accidents?"

Poor thing. Maybe she had to go to work today, return or exchange a misguided Christmas gift, visit a sick friend or family member in a hospital, or fly somewhere to testify. It's been a long time since I put on a suit and cowarded my way through inclement weather. Cowarded, I say, because I was not a brave maverick. I was a traditional uptight corporate executive who preferred not making waves by failing to show up when I was expected.

Now I can dress warmly and greet snow with enthusiasm or cuddle underneath warm blankets in front of a roaring fire. I can walk instead of run because I don't have to be anywhere soon. I can do my job later, after everyone else is asleep, if I prefer. I can Google my old boss and remember his comment when I resigned, "I wish I could do that." "Certainly you could," said I. "No, my wife likes shopping too much" were the words of a screamer at the office, a wimp in his own home.

"Are you saying you have no regrets?" says Virginia.

"Not about leaving the rat race," says I. "I'm grateful to be running through a maze of my own creation."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

A young man has looked forward to celebrating July 4th with home-made fireworks. As two friends watch, he lights a fuse and drops his handiwork into a metal pipe. It doesn't explode immediately, he waits, then he peers into the pipe. No more wake-ups.

This story appeared among Spike TV's "1000 Ways to Die." Other brief segments showed ways people have died, including one about young women hired in the early 20th century to paint glow-in-the-dark numerals on the faces of timepieces, even though their employer knew radioactive paint was very hazardous to their health. The women's actions reportedly led to changes in the way we view employer responsibility. Another episode showed an obese man who laughed for 36 continuous hours that ended in a fatal heart attack.

That's entertainment? Watching someone do something incredibly stupid can be frustrating. Watching a glowing woman approach her boyfriend in the dark can be unnerving. Watching a man laugh can be funny, for a while. Watching these episodes, based on real events, can be educational and might prevent others from repeating them, they can satisfy the voyeur, or they might provide suggestions to candidates contemplating suicide.

I hope these and other shows don't dull our senses, acclimating us to life's misfortunes. I'm hopeful they get us thinking in constructive ways.

"He deserved to die," we might say because of someone's stupid behavior. That's taking Darwin's hypothesis of "survival of the fittest" too far. We don't "deserve" to die. Life is too valuable for that. Most nations have banned the death penalty. If they've banned it for murders, they could hardly consider it appropriate for stupidity. Some day each of us will die, but in the meantime life is our most valuable asset.

Virginia says, "Watching some of these shows makes me feel dirty, that I'm wasting precious moments. I hope they save more lives than they endanger."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Abandoned Kids

Today we drove north until the snow ended. Now in Pennsylvania, it's much colder, twenties instead of thirties.

We abandoned our goats and chickens. Maybe a neighbor will realize we're missing and go over to claim some free milk and eggs. We don't need to worry about Rosie and Lex, our Boxers. When they get hungry enough, they'll knock open a cupboard or pull open the plastic drawer that holds their food. If they can't figure it out, Yogi, our African gray parrot, will either tell them what to do or open his cage door and feed them himself.

We've officially crossed over; at least, Karen has. For Christmas, her mom used to give her gift cards to Lowe's. This year it was Tractor Supply, and the annual calendar has a picture of a different barn for each month. Karen's no longer a carpenter/handyperson. She's a farmer.

Then we blow it by abandoning our kids. What do you expect when a couple of city slickers move to the country?

"'They' used to say that about me," says Virginia. "Still do. Every time I drive past in my pickup, they figure I'm on my way back to Manhattan. Like you, my friends back me up when I leave for a few days."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Not My Fault

Of course our snow is melting. It won't stay on the ground as long as it did during my childhood when days seemed like months and months like years. We dug tunnels in snowbanks and burrowed our way toward China, where men pedaled rickshaws under pointed hats. We knew these things because Dad had grown up there, he and his pet dragon who responded to an ultrasonic whistle. Off they'd fly to churn mango ice cream in the tropics.

During our search for 3-speed bicycles, we discovered Charlie's Bike Shop. Charlie noticed an orange tinge to Dad's skin, which sent them into a long discussion about China, during which I bought a dark-green Raleigh. My brother, Tom, splurged, then or later, on a 10-speed Carleton, the envy of us all in those days before eight sprockets and endless changes.

My Raleigh with its high-tech hand-twist gear changer was not a paper-route bike. For that, I used a Schwinn with balloon tires and a giant basket in front. Papers lay open so I couldn't resist reading while driving until the time I smacked into the front of a Chevrolet. Body quivering, I happily realized the car wasn't moving. It had been parked on the wrong side of the street. The car wasn't hurt, nor was I, but my front fender made an awful noise until I straightened it.

My favorite customer was Mrs. Hahn, a grandmother to Fred, one of my future brothers-in-law. On a good day I could complete my deliveries in 45 minutes or less. I often stayed longer than that with Mrs. Hahn and her collection of vintage postcards. Where are they now, Fred?

My least favorite customer was the family I rarely found home. Sometimes I had a feeling they hid when I came to collect. Can you imagine refusing to pay 67 cents to an 11-year old paperboy? A month later, they would complain when I finally caught them and said they owed two dollars and 68 cents.

That was a lot of money to a junior high kid and still is to some people around the world. To me it seemed like pure profit since I'd already paid for their papers, kind of like a borrower who begins making payments on a charged-off loan, something I learned about later. Delinquency, default or bankruptcy carried a stigma that seems to have faded over the years. Now we can always find someone else to blame.

"That McDonald's coffee spill," says Virginia, "let's us off the hook. When you can get into court for spilling hot coffee on yourself, responsibility has become a relic of the past."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ordinary People


Moldy sunflower heads
host tasty seeds,

like the tumbledown shack
at road’s end, hidden by trees
and a lawn almost never mown.
No ivy-covered lecture hall
dare impart the wisdom she laughs
when I say her words are golden.

The tall grass hides
small sweet honeydews.

(james pannabecker, 2005)

Last week's issue of Time includes quotations from some of the famous people who died during the past year. We love to lean on the words of famous people, don't we?

Merce Cunningham: "You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls."

Many words instead of "dancing" would work in this quotation. For example, try "playing piano" or "singing" or "running."

I question the suggestion that "[i]t gives you nothing back...but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." The list -- no manuscripts, no paintings, no poems -- appears to focus on material things until it reaches "that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." It's comparing apples and oranges, ignoring the fact that dance performances can be recorded and sold and earn Emmys and other recognition, even money.

What concerns me is the focus on a result -- a manuscript, a painting, a poem, or a "fleeting moment." This focus belittles the process that rendered the result. Most of us do not produce a "fleeting moment" (or a manuscript, painting or poem) that the world would recognize as masterful. Certainly someone who loves to dance regularly experiences the feeling of being alive, not simply as "fleeting moments" but as a daily process of being involved with dance -- studying, learning, discussing, watching, remembering. We ordinary people find value and meaning in our processes.

Virginia nods, "The famous are downright spoiled."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Images of Christmas

A blue-green glow, cast from outside by what we now might call vintage C-9 bulbs, circled my bedroom window in the red-brick house on Kibler Street and comforted the three-year old version of me inside.

A year or two later, in the farmhouse on Zurflugh Road, I sneaked downstairs in the middle of the night. Too big to wrap, not yet named Dobbin, a green-plaid hand-stuffed horse had my name pinned to his neck. In the morning I felt like a liar when I pretended to be surprised. Dobbin remained my bed-time buddy for years until Mother finally asked me if I were too old to re-stuff him a third or fourth time.

After moving to 430 West Elm, our family agreed to become a living manger scene. I thought my sister was going to change sex for Jesus. Instead, a plastic doll rested in the manger and she was a child like the rest of us. Back when photographers said, "Stay still; don't move," we posed as still as possible for what seemed like hours. I remember at this time Mother didn't like animalizing humans, "Don't call them kids; they're not baby goats" and "They're 'aunts,' not 'ants.'"

The house on Elm Street brought us a set of plastic dishes, gray for Dad, pink for Phil, blue for John, orange for me, and yellow for Tom. Mary and Mother might have to remind me what their colors were. These dishes were important for Christmas only because each of us left his or her bowl and maybe milk and cookies under the tree for Santa Claus. In return, he left us nuts, oranges and maybe Pfeffernusse. In our house, Pfeffernusse cookies were hard cookies an inch or less in diameter, so small it was almost impossible to stop crunching them.

Our Chinese heritage, adopted by missionary grandparents who raised their children in China, brought us another tradition -- making chiao tzu (or jao tse and various other spellings) around Christmastime or New Year's. These are traditional Chinese dumplings some of you might call "pot stickers" except they're boiled, not fried one bit. Everyone gathered to help construct them from flour/salt/water dough rolled into very thin, almost see-through 4-inch circles and a filling prepared with ground pork, bok choy or spinach, ginger, soy sauce and maybe a few other ingredients. We dipped a fingertip into a water bowl to wet the perimeter of each circle, placed a tablespoon of filling in the center, then folded the circle in half and sealed the edge. Mother or Aunt Alice Ruth dropped them into boiling water, let the water return to a boil, repeated this (I think), then the chiao tzu were ready to be served in bowls with a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and soy sauce and subjected to our eating contest. Who could eat the most? I recall that sixty-some was the record.

In our home we opened presents Christmas morning. Sometimes we had to suffer through breakfast first. Always, we had to endure the familiar and interminable Christmas story, worsened the year some of us stumbled upon the brilliant idea of acting it out, having forgotten how long minutes last when a pile of presents waits unopened. Later, when I joined another family, opening gifts on Christmas Eve seemed like a cop-out. Maybe that's why I didn't hang around.

"That's all water under the bridge," says Virginia, "but I agree, a bit of fun to remember. Look out the window. More water is falling on our white Christmas."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blog Theory

In light of New Year's Day approaching, I've been saying to Karen, "I wonder what 2010 will bring" so often she thinks my Chatty Cathy string has broken.

A friend said, "Now you have a blog, you must find something to say." I didn't ask, but I was curious. Perhaps he was suggesting I don't often have something to say, or that I may often have something to say but it's really nothing, or maybe that having a blog means I must find something to say more often even if it's nothing. Eckhart Tolle might say I'm wasting my time trying to guess what my friend meant, but he's wrong because what I'm thinking about is not what my friend meant. Rather, it's why people, and particularly me, write a blog.

For some reason, that question brings me to the perennial one: What is an artist? I like to think one of the differences between a real artist and an aspiring artist is the real artist doesn't care what others think of his work. He is so confident in his ability (or his lack of it, which technically is irrelevant) that he will do his art forever regardless of what others think of it. He is not arrogant; the fact that other people want his work does not influence his regard for his work, either that it must be good because they like it or bad because they like it.

Would an artist, that is a writer who thinks of himself as an artist, blog? Yes, no. I read somewhere once that blogging, by its nature, is stream-of consciousness. I think the author was wrong. Let's consider the idea a moment. Some artists work and re-work a piece. A writer might pile on a hundred drafts, a painting might be layered with oils. A blogger has that opportunity. He clicks on "New Post" and begins typing. Every minute or so, the software saves the work as a "draft." Whenever the blogger wishes, he can "Publish Post" or "Save Now" without publishing. This process clearly allows deliberate work. The poet who insists on sitting on a new poem for six months before exposing it could happily blog. He could gradually release his work in his accustomed manner, as if he were aging cheese or wine.

My choice is a happy (for me) medium. So far, I've tried to publish something each day, whether or not I'm completely satisfied with the product. I'm not a politician or aspiring to become one, so it doesn't matter if something I choose to publish one day "comes back to haunt me," not that I don't engage in censorship from time to time. I think the supply of violence and cussing is sufficient I needn't add to it.

"Yeah, I noticed you wrote 'manure' the other day," says Virginia, "you sanctimonious twit."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Out-of-Season

I was three and confused when I saw Dad carrying Mother down our driveway, across the street, through the alley to the hospital. At first I was worried, but smiles on other faces belied sickness and danger. She couldn't walk? Something fishy was going on. A few days later we met a baby girl at the hospital and brought her home. Christmas in August.

Twenty-five years later and five hundred miles away, I saw folks celebrating Christmas In August on the National Mall. Apparently they still do, in Washington, in New York City with the Rockettes, and elsewhere. I'm a scrooge in August (no offense intended, Sister Mary) and I still don't care much in August for the music I find comforting or nostalgic in December.

Warm weather isn't the issue. I found Christmas spirit in New Zealand the two Christmases we visited, despite the lack of ludicrous lights. I think the near concurrence of Christmas and New Year's Day with their emphasis on newness makes August seem old and inappropriate. Maybe all the explosions in December and again on July 4 call for quiet in August.

"Wait a minute," says Virginia, "are you saying August could be a great time to remind us to hope for and believe in the possibility of peace, and a Prince of Peace?"

All right, not only August, but please, no "Granny Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I'm admiring our driveway, hard blacktop against a soft snow-white backdrop. I'd guess about 30 person-hours of hard work went into this masterpiece. Two cars remain under cover, but if we wanted we could drive them away, to Mexico for example, and well before we arrived at our destination the rest would melt. Adam, Manley, Karen and I deserve to be proud of our efforts.

I think, like all things homemade, it's prettier than the neighbor's lane cleared by gasoline or diesel. I realize I'm biased and you, dear reader, may think I'm full of manure. I'm reminded of a sermon I heard long ago. Two couples had invited the pastor to dinner. At the home of the first couple, everybody climbed into a car and drove to a fine restaurant. The second couple welcomed the guests into their home and gradually served a meal they had prepared. I'll let you guess which meal the preacher considered extra-special. Of course, he waited until his next assignment, or maybe later, to tell the story.

A pickup parked not far away bears a slogan I'd like to steal: "It's not what you buy, it's what you build." Karen often says she likes the home we're living in now much better than the big, more modern house we enjoyed in North Carolina because it reflects us, our tastes, our work, and our eccentricities, unlike the other house, which was always "the Thomasons'" not just to us but to everyone who met us and tried to picture where we lived. Anyone who knew the inside of our current home before we did would not say it looks the same.

Even the garden beds tickle me now, hidden underneath two feet of melting snow. I can't see them, but I know they're thriving, worms working, playing with manure and mulch, getting ready for spring. Try to order a garden online. You might be able to find a gardener to work for you, but I promise you, the result won't feel like "your" garden. It'll feel like that new dress or suit you bought at Bloomie's.

Virginia says she remembers stories her father told about eating foods her grandmother had "put by." Together they would leaf through black-and-white photographs of Grandma's canning kitchen with row after row of glassed-in veggies and meats. When they went grocery shopping in New York, Virginia would search for see-through containers and beg for pickles, applesauce, dried beef, even pig's feet. Now, when children come to visit, she leads them by hand to her well-stocked pantry and lets them choose something.

A visiting friend recently oohed and aahed about our basement kitchen and its antique glass-windowed cabinets. "So," she said, "when you're hungry you come down here and pick out something to eat. What fun!"

You can't buy that.

Monday, December 21, 2009


"That's totally tubular, dudette." Hey, if you're reading this blog, you're tubular for sure. Seriously, have you ever considered how tubular we are?

We put our food down a tube. Our food leaves through a tube. It goes to the septic tank or public sewer through tubes. We hear through tubes, breathe through tubes, send blood through tubes, smell through tubes. Sex is tubular.

I suppose we could have stopped with bodily functions, but no, we chose to center the rest of our lives on tubes. We spin tubes on our way to drive-in banks, where we make deposits through tubes, which reminds me that when our family shopped at Gregg's Department Store in Lima our mother's charge-slip went to accounting through a pneumatic tube, while I stood there wondering if we'd have to put everything back where we found it.

On July 4, we light tubes and watch them explode. We carry tubes to find our way in the dark or to ignite disgusting smokes. The organ music I enjoyed as a child was created by tubes, as are the sounds of many other instruments -- woodwinds, horns and the Chinese sheng (mouth organ). We use tubes to hold lights, music stands, microphones, speakers, fences, and porch roofs.

We stick blueprints and fine art in tubes. People commute to work in tubes. Girls wear tube tops. We peek, spy and observe through tubes. Radios and televisions used to require tubes, and now those have become artwork (Marc Rust,

As a gardener, I depend on tubes. They're animals wriggling, working hard underground, while plant tubes carry nutrients to flowers and vegetables. When it's too dry, I use tubes to save my plants. Some people are frightened to death of tubes, whether tiny ringnecks or fat rattlers. Karen made her wine rack with tubes.

I understand surfers seek the perfect tube. We measure our dependence on Middle Eastern oil in tubes. To see a movie, a show, a video, almost anything -- and to think we're important -- we get on YouTube.

"Just breathe," says Virginia. "Think tubular. Please pass the celery."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The World of Nonfiction

We drove fifty miles, twenty-five there and back, along newly cleared roads to play piano while a huge crowd of six singers, later a total of eight after two late arrivals, participated in the first annual Messiah Sing-In. Years from now, someone said, stories will be told of this first attempt, two hundred fifty years after the first Messiah performance on Christmas Day. On another Christmas day, one also noted, the members of a church prayed while a woman went under the knife to have a huge abdominal cyst removed, without anesthesia. She lived 33 more years instead of dying as she and everyone, including her doctor, expected.

Wikipedia could, of course, be wrong. It says the first performance of Handel's Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. (It's possible the date of Christmas Day has changed since then.) It also says the work is often incorrectly called The Messiah. I have two editions of the masterwork -- the Schirmer edition is entitled The Messiah and (the) Fischer version simply says Messiah. I'm sure this matters deeply to some people.

I remember speaking with a friend about books. After I mentioned a couple fiction novels, he said, "I don't know them. I read only nonfiction." I think I must have laughed. I said something like, "So when you read nonfiction, do you think every word is true?" He laughed, too. "I guess you're right. I do read fiction."

I sometimes wonder how much of what I write and say is true. In a way, I feel more comfortable with fiction because it contains truth without facts. Well, perhaps I should say "real facts." I realize many people fuss about the facts contained in books like the Harry Potter series, and some publishers have internal consistency fact-checkers. One of my editors is especially good at this. She can be a pest, but I know I need her, especially as my mind moves more and more into fiction.

It happens to most of us. As we age, we build one inaccuracy on another after another. I can wait (see my posting entitled "Speeding," November 30, 2009), but it should be great fun when I'm ninety and my life has become exponentially inaccurate. I hope I'm perfectly sane and well-minded when that time comes even though other people may think I'm living in a world of total fiction. I will ask them, now and then, whether they realize they are, too. Imagine an elderly novelist, fact-checking every day. "Is that for real, James?"

"You're nuts," says Virginia, "but who am I to say? After all, if you weren't, I wouldn't be here."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blue Snow

Our expectations have been met, and now it's safe to say exceeded. The actual white stuff has nearly doubled the prediction, so maybe we've come out the other end and have a right to be irritated that our expectations haven't been met after all -- as if we have any right to "better" weather.

What kind of farm is this, without a tractor? I was beginning to wonder this myself as we shoveled our lane for the third time in 24 hours. Last night I pushed the first six inches off the lane. By the time I completed my first pass, I was feeling a little bit like Sisyphus because the snow had kept falling, four more inches of it. I repeated myself. I should have set my alarm for 2 a.m. The third time around the stuff was so deep I had to lift it.

Today, whenever I raised my shovel to take the top half off the snow, just as the metal broke the surface, I glimpsed a glacial blue that reminded me of the gradually moving ice masses we'd seen in New Zealand and Alaska. Only once did I notice the mystic blue continue after I deposited it on the rising snow bank.

The snow is still falling, but it has slowed so I don't think we'll see the banks I remember once or twice as a child growing up in Ohio. A blizzard might do the trick, but high winds aren't likely. We dug what seemed to be mile-long tunnels in those banks and burrowed like ground hogs. By the time we tired, we had to wring our clothes out, leave them in the wash tub on the back porch, and scamper upstairs in our see-through tighty-whities to find dry threads.

As it turns out, Karen encouraged my son and his friend, both college sophomores home for Christmas break, to relieve me. They worked about 15 minutes, then came in for lunch. To my surprise, they went back out. I took a warm bath and a nap and woke up to a snowplow stuck near the end of our driveway. Apparently, the boys had invited a neighbor to help them finish their chore. "I guess shovels are better," our son told Karen on the phone as another truck arrived to pull out the plow.

"He's right," whispers Virginia, "shovels are the way to go. Think if everyone took time off to get the exercise. It might even help reduce our reliance on the Middle East or offshore drilling." Maybe, maybe not. Ambulances might have to fill up more often. Whatever, ours is a great farm without a tractor.

Friday, December 18, 2009


When will it start? Our biggest winter storm in years is nearly upon us, they say. Will our expectations be met? If not, who will be disappointed? seems to have its goats in a row. When I order something, the email acknowledgment, sent instantly, tells me that the item is in stock and should arrive by X date. A day or two later, another email says the item has been shipped and I should expect it on X minus 1 or X minus 2 date. It arrives on X minus 1 minus 1 or X minus 2 minus 1 date.

I learned my most important business lessons soon after I began my new job in a bank's legal department. When I arrived on my first day, my boss was nowhere to be found. The other lawyer in the 3-lawyer office welcomed me and offered me some materials to read, to discover how things were done in the bank.

A few hours later, the boss entered my office and closed the door. "I've been fired," he began, "but I think your position is secure." As my mind raced, I felt anything but cozy by a warm hearth.

After the maintenance crew removed his personal effects, the remaining staff met in his ex-office. The desk looked like each of the tables in the office of my previous boss, piled high with stacks of paper, except clearly no one knew what the piles contained. "We need to take care of these," my new, new boss announced.

After arranging the papers in order of receipt, he handed me a bunch. "When you finish these, come back for more. First, call each sender and ask if the matter's been handled."

No more time for casually reading how things were done, I felt like the target of a firing squad. It was a great, fast way to get to know the business and its people. We gradually turned that destroyer into a kayak (at least a rowboat) and I like to think we earned a reputation for responsiveness.

My first lesson: by the end of each contact, be sure both parties know the next step. "I'll get back to you" was a killer. "I'll get back to you Monday" was all right. "I'll call you in three hours" was better, if the matter were urgent. Assuming I did.

The next lesson: allow yourself more time than you expect to need so you can beat your deadline. "I'm sorry, I said I'd get back to you now, but I need more time. Can you wait 'til tomorrow?" doesn't cut it. "Hi Jerry, I've got something for you. Do you have a minute?" a day early wins the prize.

"Of all the tradespeople I hired to work on my place, electrician Fred was the best," says Virginia, "not because of his work or his price, but because he always told me when he'd be here and he was. I remember only one time he was late, and that time he called me beforehand to let me know."

(By the way, a paragraph ago the winter storm began fulfilling our expectations.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More on Specialization

“Don’t talk unless you have to,” singers are sometimes advised before a concert, “talking may wear out the voice.” “Don’t swim,” runners were cautioned back in the sixties, as if swimming might threaten success at the next track meet. Today’s athletes are encouraged to cross-train.

“She will outlast the leaders,” we were told when a 10K specialist ran her first marathon. “There she goes,” an announcer said near the end of the race when she began to put some distance between herself and the others, “it’s her upper body strength. See how she uses her arms.”

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” “I wish you’d concentrate on your game.” Mentors – coaches, parents, and teachers – have pestered us with these possibly contradictory quotes. In high school, aspiring college students rush everywhere to improve their “resumes” for college applications – sports, scouts, clubs, musical groups, part-time jobs, religious involvement, hobbies, and crafts.

Then, many of us forget “variety is the spice of life” as we settle into full-time employment. In olden times, folks prided themselves on staying with the same company for forty-five years. Now we tend to move around, climbing the ladder, or not, exaggerating our busy-ness, convinced “the man” would miss us if we left. “They’re lazy,” some refer to the folks who only work thirty-two hours per week and choose to go home to golf or fish.

Boom. We’re gone, laid off or signed up for greener grass. The employer moves on.

Do we? “X years and what do I have to show for it? No pension. A shrunken 401(k). No health insurance. My shares are virtually worthless.”

“Nurture each of your many baskets, like a schizophrenic broody hen,” Virginia suggests, a song on her lips as she hammers away and her dough rises. “My dad used to quote his father, ‘don’t forget the nest egg. Save ten percent.’” That’s easy for someone with money to say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cuts of Beef

Where is today’s Beethoven? Does he struggle in a condo somewhere, writing furiously, ripping masterpieces to shreds, ignoring Beltone advertisements? Has he discovered conveniences such as triple-headed razors, his pate shaved to simplify life? Are his lips locked in a perpetual frown or does he smile to use fewer muscles?

Plop the real Beethoven into our world. Could he taste trans fats, reverse sugars and the dyes added to products he and our grandparents wouldn’t recognize? Would he notice that the meats we eat could barely walk and never saw real sunshine, that most of us haven’t dissected frogs in science class, much less wrung a chicken’s neck? Like us, would he wash his hands after meeting new people while letting entrees prepared by strangers pass freely through his lips?

We’re so specialized we might die if others stopped working. We dwell on the pronouncements of pretty people who entertain us, politicians who pretend to know what’s best for us (even though we say they don’t), and spoiled brats born with more money in their pockets than we can picture. We have allowed “them” to persuade us to spend our hard-earned cash on things Beethoven didn’t know or need.

“He’d probably enjoy every moment listening to sounds he never knew,” says Virginia, “like crunches of potato chips, the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies, and Muzak on elevators. I bet he’d laugh at the ‘experts’ who try to re-create his music the way it was played when he was alive, as if he could have heard those concerts. I think he’d be more interested in the musician who makes each classic his own.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009



Welcome to my wigwam.

If you don't mind
we'll sit cross-legged
by our fire and listen

     to the sounds we make
     above background noises

please don't go,
let's stay long enough
to hear music playing.

"You're a bunch of overgrown hippies," says Virginia's neighbor, the one who wanders the woods and keeps getting arrested for hunting without a permit. "Hippies, maybe," says Virginia, "but not overgrown. We're only now beginning to put down roots."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Messiah Sing-a-Long

Split fingernails reward me for knocking pianos out of tune. I need to call David, the trusty string bender with two brand-new hips and more surgeries on the way. The cyborg is a reality today.

My current barrier to more creative writing has been preparing for a Messiah Sing-a-Long at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 20, Oxford Presbyterian Church. When the church-meister asked me to play, my head bobbed no and my lips offered yes. I generally don’t care for piano transcriptions of orchestra scores because they present a mountain of effort for what ultimately becomes a disappointing substitute for several dozen instruments. Would you rather hear a piano accompaniment or lots of strings (violins, violas, cellos, double-basses) and cool sounds like oboes, flutes, trumpets and timpani? The more likely question is, would you rather hear something or nothing? Call a pianist.

If you sing in a chorus that practices with a keyboard player, try to imagine what it’s like to work hard, week after week, and then disappear for the performance – or have to prepare an entirely different continuo part for an organ or harpsichord.

“Kind of like an understudy,” says Virginia, "lots of work and no one notices."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Perfect Instrument

Icicles are forming on our deck railing.  If we were having a party, a drunk might slide off the deck into Opossum Run.  After we finished the addition to the cabin, we didn't call for a final inspection.  The inspector could have thrown his tennis ball from a hundred feet and, I guarantee, it would have passed through our substandard railing.  Exhibit 1.

Our choral society might have filled a bigger church for its Christmas concert last night.  Still, some of the audience thought many of the songs "sounded the same."

My composition professor insisted that the human voice is the only perfect instrument.  I wouldn't disagree with him any more than I would tell a mother her baby is ugly.  Some "purists" believe adding another instrument, even an organ or a piano, is like tossing Iceberg with a gourmet salad.

I like salads, but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Throw in some bread, soup, veal and, of course, chocolate.  We did last night, starting with a carol sing-a-long, interspersing every set of three numbers with another community effort, adding an organ and piano here and there, floating a few solos on top, and ending with a rambunctious three-on-the-piano version of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," complete with one musical bench-man falling on his face. 

"That's what we nerds do for fun," says Virginia.  Here's my vote for some trumpets, drums and a real harpsichord.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Up on the Housetop

When I mention where I live, Arnold's Valley, some people, even first-time acquaintances, roll their eyes.  A doctor said, "You know, don't you, that rescue squads won't go there?" "You must be the richest resident," someone suggested (if you've met Karen then you probably know I am).  "Found any moonshine lately?" several have asked.  "Seen any snakes?"  People from the valley ask me that, too, when the topic of our cabin comes up.

Welcome to Arnold's Valley.  (Note:  If you click on the photo it will enlarge.)  Within the first clump of trees sits our farmhouse.  The goat barn appears just above our investment bank; the bigger this pile of horse manure gets, the richer I feel.  Thunder Ridge is the blue-gray mountain, under which Arrowhead Lodge nestles.

The people in this valley who share surnames may be proud to announce "we're not kin," but deep down they love each other.  They'd probably like you, as well as the fire-yellers I've mentioned and even folks from the Big Apple (especially Virginia).  If your car breaks down around here, you won't go long unassisted.  If you take a walk, someone will offer you a ride.  Pass anywhere and you'll get a wave.  Even the ambulance drivers wave back.

We say, all of us residents, go ahead and talk trash.  Enough people already call this home.

The top roofer in the county lives a half-mile down the main road.  He's as busy as you may be if you're good at what you do.  On Sundays he likes to show his shiny red Pontiac Solstice the Blue Ridge Parkway, up on Thunder Ridge.  Yesterday he enjoyed the sunshine with a glass of goat's milk and a little soldering.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Dad and Einstein

The sun rose in the eastern sky this morning.  I keep noticing this, every single day.  I think it might be safe to say "the sun rises in the east."

"Dummy," says Virginia, "don't you remember Copernicus?"

Ah yes, Copernicus, my dear friend, the fellow who suggested the Earth travels around the sun.  If he's right, then -- um -- I guess the sun doesn't really rise in the east, despite my persistent observations.

My father was a biologist, a scientist unlike me, although sometimes I wonder if I might become one.  What would it take?

Was he a scientist in grade school, high school, college?  I'm sure he was by the time the U. of Chicago awarded him his Ph.D.  (I was there, took a long train ride from Ohio, I think, I could be wrong.)  Yes, he must have become a scientist before then.

I took some science classes in college -- Chemistry & Physics I and Genetics.  I majored in math, which is man-made so that doesn't count.  I'd either have to go back to school or study hard on my own.

Why would I want to become a scientist?  I'm curious.  I think it would be fun to exchange e-mails with other scientists, describing what I've observed and what I'm guessing.  It would be even more fun to get together now and then to share notes.  Once or twice I might get lucky and go out on a limb to suggest something new, maybe true.

Yikes.  Now I remember something my father told me.  I think it was important, very important, something like "a scientist might be able to prove something wrong, but can't prove something is true."  Dad was so smart, I knew what he said was true but I also knew I couldn't prove it.  Later, I read that Albert Einstein said something similar: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

And so I cringed when I read about the climate change "e-mail gate," although it's not all bad.  The global warming debate has traveled in some strange directions, partly because we've forgotten what someone tried to teach us about the scientific method back in elementary school.  Of course, some people will challenge the "consensus" on the global warming theory.  In a sense, science demands it.  For years, many people didn't like the idea that the Earth isn't the center of everything, but today's consensus is that the Earth orbits the sun.

I've been persuaded, scientist that I am not, that the weight of the evidence indicates human activities have had a warming effect on our climate since the Industrial Revolution -- more accurately, that no other theory seems to explain our melting ice, rising sea levels, and declining species as well as the rise in greenhouse gas emissions since that time.  As indicated in my earlier posting, "Selfishness" (November 23), it may not matter much whether you buy into that interpretation of the evidence because people like Lovins have demonstrated it makes economic sense to change our behavior.

Let me close with a question:  If the chance is 50/50 that humans are contributing to global warming, does it make sense to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the safety of potential future generations, in case the hypothesis is correct?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Mistresses Attack

"I'm glad to meet you, Olga," says Virginia.  "How are you?"

"Lousy, but getting better," says Olga.  "He abandoned me in that field, and then didn't talk to me for months.  Pants puddled at my feet didn't make any difference."

"I don't know about that," says Virginia.  "Ours has always been a platonic relationship.  We go out to the cabin and talk, just him and me."

"Not ours," says Olga.  "It was sex from the start.  I even heard Karen say, 'I can picture you, Olga, Countryside and Mother Earth News, having fun in one of those little catwalk bedrooms.'  Of course, he never took me there.  Me and papa propagating veggies, that's what we do."

"Gardening is pretty sexy," says Virginia.  "How'd you meet?"

"He never told you?" says Olga.  "It was all Karen's doing.  In fact, she gave me as a Christmas present last year.  Great fun, hiding in a bay of the barn, hoping he'd find me early.  Fat chance, he hates to force-bloom anything.  And you?"

"Forced serendipity," Virginia laughs.  "He was looking for someone and I pushed my way in.  Now he can't get rid of me."

"I've got him," says Olga.  "I'm negotiating with People magazine.  A photograph tells all."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

4-Mile Ride

How about a scenic drive?   It rained so much last night our yard is full of little ponds.  The main entrance to the goat paddock would be heaven for hogs.  I'm sure Karen's checking craigslist or farmers' pages right now.  Two hundred-fifty pounds later we'll be moving the cabin freezer to our basement.  I can't seem to shake my dream of a tiny home in retirement, except the freezers and put-away food would take up half the space, then the piano and a bed....  Well, you get the picture.

Turning left from our lane takes us south.  Look over at the house, perfectly positioned for southern exposure.  Our big six-over-six windows make the upper stairwell the coziest spot in the place even though we have no registers upstairs and two rarely used fireplaces.  On our right, see a short mountain and Tank Hollow, home to the black bears neighbors often spot returning from din-din at the Compost Heap.

Past the trailer park blight of Arnold's Valley, the Thomas Jefferson National Forest is all around us, with the Blue Ridge Parkway capping the east.  The Appalachian Trail snakes close to the ridges, now abandoned by this year's crop of through-hikers who have cried hello to Maine or Georgia or called it quits for now.

Today Thunder Ridge is on vacation, nowhere to be seen.  We left sunshine at the farmhouse.  Opossum Creek tumbles and rumbles behind our cabin, my studio escape from the noises below.

Like Virginia, you and everyone, I sit down to add my own sounds to the melodies and harmonies of Mother Earth -- in this case, I hope, beneficial global warming. 

Driver Wanted

Our county is nothing like Northwest Ohio, where country roads form perfect square miles laid on a giant table top (except for jogs where surveyors reportedly goofed, such as near the homes of my mother and sister).  Here, it could take a half hour to drive to dine with a neighbor on the other side of a mountain, or an hour and a half on a slippery winter's night for fools who should know better.

So when I headed home from orchestra practice last night, I kept an eye on the car's thermometer and prayed it was accurate.  Thirty-four degrees made me queasy.  I admit it; I'm a wimp, terrified by 32 degrees and rain in the dark, no longer invincible like a teenager.  "Wanted:  Struggling writer to chauffeur a scaredy-cat.  Part-time gardening responsibilities.  Salary negotiable."

Virginia volunteered.  That would be almost like hiring a ghost.  She has better things to do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


.  I began this posting with a dot, a frequently used symbol that's accustomed to appearing at the end.  It knows better, of course.  A speck.  From dust to dust.  A divider or connector, too, between things like tenths and ones.  It's also good for abbreviating, as in Wis.  Ubiquitous.  Maybe in my next life, I could be a period (when I was a child, the conclusion of Handel's Messiah taught me how long a period can be)

...on second thought, I might choose an ellipsis, closely related but a bit or two more special, open-minded, nonjudgmental, without the bad connotations, such as the once a month doldrums that visit most of us...

everything is wonderful and then, suddenly, a boom lowers.  Two days without broadband was no big deal, but on the third CenturyLink is toast.  Someone asks the conductor how he wants to pronounce "Jesu," he says "Gee-sue," and three months' practice of Christmas music becomes puke.  A sixty-two degree indoor temperature is a great way to kill bacteria and then, bam, it's killing us.  Our views of Thunder Ridge and the James River Face could content us for life; shazam, wouldn't it be fun wandering the streets of Paris?

"Yes," says Virginia, "it's marvelous to have options -- in the mind as well as real life.  Some people don't, you know."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Boxed In

For the second day we're boxed in.  I'd say "snowed in" but that's not true.  The hard-copy roadways are clear.  Virtual highways are the problem.  Saturday's snow has given unintended meaning to the new name of Embarq (formerly Sprint).  CenturyLink has returned us to the twentieth century.  No Internet.  No Email.  Karen called in.  The message said Virginia's off-line, give us 24 hours.  How about 48?

So all I can do is work inside the box, my laptop.  It's too muddy to work outdoors.  If you're reading this on November 7, it's because I've made it to the library.

Gosh, look at all these books, all this paper.  They remind me of 35 years ago when I first started moving and had to carry tens of boxes of books.  Loaded bookshelves were a good way to brag about eccentric interests.  Now if you have interests, you must be and do or no one will ever know.

"Or you will never know," says Virginia.  There's a big difference between a bookshelf and a read book, and between a read book and knowing what you've read.


If you like to camp, you'd like our house.  Summer or winter, it feels much more like the out-of-doors than the homes of most people we know.  Last winter, when some friends were discussing a dip in temperatures, I said, "yeah, we turned our thermostat up to 62 this morning."  I'm sure my mother's friends wonder why she comes to visit, self-induced elder abuse.  But it's no worse than going shopping in the summertime, when goose pimples cover our almost naked bodies because some people can't live without air conditioning.

This morning I wanted to stay in bed, knowing I was as warm as I'd be until I crawled back in tonight.  Then I remembered the weather report had predicted the coldest day so far this Fall.  A great day for a run, I thought, if I could shrug aside the temporary discomfort of getting going.  Dress appropriately and you're master of the weather.

I headed out with my wick-fit artificial fiber, double gloves and polypropylene cap.  The air tasted fresh, rouged my cheeks and offered clear snow-covered vistas.  Sweating soon prompted me to roll my jacket and tie it around my waist.

While daydreaming on Sallings Mountain Road I scratched some frozen water and barely managed to stay upright by using a few back muscles like the child I no longer am.  The rest of the run was uneventful until I stopped dead in Stoner Hollow where a creek had risen over the road.  It was up last week, too, but I ran through because the temperature was 55 degrees.  Today, at 25, I balked.  Detour.

As a child, I loved that unusual and exciting word, time to sit up and pay attention.  We're taking a tour, off the highway.  Look at all the people doing the same thing, like a party.  Hey Dad (the driver), isn't this great?  "I hope it doesn't last long," he would say.  Dad, this is much more fun than the boring interstate.

I felt the same this morning -- inconvenienced like Dad and glad for something different like the miniature me.  I should have expected something when I noticed the third person checking his mailbox on a Sunday.  Yesterday was one of those days that keep folks inside.

Virginia said "detour" reminds her of a group of musicians reaching a colon at a double bar.  Whoa!  Eyes race backwards, searching for a mirrored colon.  Quick, there it is.  Phew!  Just in time.  Like a recipe, next time they'd better read all the way through before beginning.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Snowfall

I flunked another milking this morning, which sent me to a remedial class. As I finished stoking our woodstove, I heard "James, when you get a minute...." I found a minute and my teacher waiting at the kitchen sink. She held a water-ballooned rubber glove. "Pretend this finger is a teat," she instructed. I guess I've been using too much thumb instead of closing the milkflow with my top finger and squeezing with the other fingers. We may test this conclusion tonight. Thank you, glove.

Chores finished, I plan to enjoy a day inside, as cozy as the unharvested carrots I covered with hay yesterday. They're receiving a retention award today, as a thickening layer of white falls on top of the hay. Everyone, everything in the area gets to share this bonus, not just the bigwigs.

This may be gardening's slow time, but I have a long list of things to do. Any of them would add pounds to my shoes, so the best thing today is to sit by a window and envy snowflakes enriching the soil my presence would damage and -- gosh, I don't know if I'm up to my usual approach to bad weather -- kill a writing deadline so when it's dry and sunny I can be outdoors. Forget that. Virginia waits.

She doesn't always. Sometimes she simply arrives, talking away, along with her friends, acquaintances and fellow travelers. It's not schizophrenia, I tell you. I know what's real and what's not.

"Then why are you writing a stupid blog?" she asks. Good point.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Moss: "Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels"

The syntax of Kate Moss's currently controversial quote intrigues me. The fashion model reportedly said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." She deserves a poetry prize.

Disregarding syntax for the moment, I think the eating disorder critics might not be out of line: "Healthy tastes better than skinny hurts." On the other hand, I don't know her, but I suspect Ms. Moss meant to say "thin" instead of "skinny." "Skinny" means "unattractively thin." "Thin" offers alternatives.

That takes care of that. Now for the intrigue, her comparison of taste with feel. I know less about Ms. Moss than I do about Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novel Crime and Punishment my online book club is reading. Giving Ms. Moss the benefit of the doubt, let's treat her as kindly as we would Mr. Dostoevsky.

1. When she said "feels," she probably wasn't, but might have been, attempting to compare two of the five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing). Picture her hugging herself, thinking "thinness feels good. I'd rather feel this than taste my favorite food."

2. More likely, she was associating taste with emotional feeling. Now picture her sitting in her favorite armchair, eyes closed, arms resting lightly on soft upholstery, thinking how wonderful it is to be thin.

3. I doubt it, but she, like Tommy, the pinball wizard, might have been suggesting that someone else compare two of the senses, as in "Lover of mine, wouldn't you rather feel me thin than taste your favorite food?"

4. We could also consider her choice of the word "taste" over "eat," which casts a very different light on her possible intent. Think of a taster -- of wine or food -- who sees the object, smells it, touches it, tastes it, and maybe even hears it (compare, for example, marshmallows and peanuts), and doesn't swallow. Eat your hearts out, eating disorder critics.

Virginia whispers, "Nothing tastes as good as thinness feels with a little fat and muscle."

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I recently watched an episode of the television show, Glee. It reminded me that once or twice I missed track or cross country practice because I was accompanying a Girl Scout troop's production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Patience. I think I might have cried when our coach attended a performance along with several of my teammates, except boys didn't cry back then. Someone told me Coach had asked the entire team to show up.

Early in my career, I learned that when I disliked someone at first meeting I had better pay attention to my wiggling antennae and ask, "what is it that drives me nuts about this person?" Introspection would spot the culprit, invariably something that reminded me of myself -- such as my typically quick reaction to a challenge without thinking, or the fact that he and I both wore a blue suit and wingtip shoes as recommended by a stupid book each of us kept on a shelf (Dress for Success, John T. Malloy). Likewise, similarities between sports and music may explain why they're often viewed at loggerheads.

Athletes and musicians have their own Olympic-like events and the road to success depends on daily, repetitive practice. A musician, like a runner, must develop a plan and a schedule, with the goal of peaking on a specified date. Muscles must be primed to remember, hence the term "muscle memory," because when the big day comes, success depends on a trained brain and a fit body working together.

"Remember," says Virginia, "discipline is interdisciplinary." She's right, of course. I didn't mean to limit these thoughts to music and sports. They apply equally to other endeavors and to life in general. Successful people -- those who feel good about their performance along the paths they've chosen -- train their minds and bodies with persistent discipline. Sports and music are training grounds for discipline, but they're not alone:

-- Gardening
-- Reading
-- Writing
-- Driving a forklift
-- Wine- and cheese-making
-- Farming
-- Carpentry
-- Woodworking
-- Teaching
........ [fill in the blank].

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


When I try to remember the past, I tend to recall things like winning a kite at the local shoe store, not the mundane everyday. I probably should remember studying in high school because that was back when teachers hadn't yet discovered homework, but I don't.

I seem to have changed my schedule recently. Instead of doing "important" things first, my day begins like this. I play stable boy, gathering goat goop so I'm available if Karen wants help milking. I drink my twice daily tea concoction, which consists of one cup of microwaved water, one soup spoon of natural unfiltered apple cider vinegar (the kind with the "mother") and a little honey. This cocktail seems to have removed a few pounds of fat and reduced my bad cholesterol by 20 points. I run at least 4 miles, check the greenhouse (today I watered it), and transplant firewood. I enjoy juice and oatmeal and, if I feel sufficiently stinky or have an appointment outside the home, take a shower. Between 9:30 and 10:30 I scoot up to Arrowhead Lodge to practice piano and write. I could get up earlier, but "ah doan wanna." Since our son went off to college, we tend to stay up late, not having to wake up earlier to make sure he's sprung. Although he didn't need us to reinforce his alarm, I think we wanted him to believe we weren't lazy.

The rest of the day I'm pretty efficient, getting ready for concerts, meeting my writing deadlines, attending practice sessions, eating lunch and dinner, and relaxing in the hot tub. If I want time, I steal it from these activities, which reminds me of the acquaintance who insisted, "Indulge the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves." She and her husband loved to travel, so they did. When he died at an early age, she was grateful for memories. They had tried to make more days unusual.

While many of my abandoned colleagues rush all over the country filling other peoples' schedules, Karen and I mulch gardens, gather free-range eggs, and wait for home-made wine and cheese to age. In February, I no longer expect my boss to hand me a bonus check (I'm the boss). Instead, I get excited when the Asplundh power-line maintenance guys dump wood chips in our field.

I guess I could exclude my morning maintenance and sink into an armchair, sit quietly on the porch, or find some children to play with (of course I mean this in a good, wholesome way; I am not Humbert Humbert). But then, Virginia warns, my teeth might fall out, my arteries could clog, and ex-friends might make a point of sitting at least three rows away from me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Closet Intervention

Many innovators populate these woods. I've often thought it would be interesting to shadow them, accompanying one at a time for an entire day, no strings attached and no required chit-chat or explanations. I would carry a book and my journal and quietly follow.

The more I listen and learn, the more I realize how myopic I am, mired in my own paradigms. It's fun to discover other people's different responses to the same or similar stimuli and inputs. For example, does a wilted plant prompt dismay, cussing, abandonment, questions, research, an alternative crop, a different variety?

Our weekend guests, V and L, mentioned that L had considered hiring a consultant to review her closets with her -- to decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to replace. V convinced her they could do it better together because no consultant would thoroughly understand or appreciate L's fine, sometimes eccentric, taste.

That's what I mean -- a "closet organizer" for my brain. I suppose I could find a consultant somewhere who could help me explore paradigms of the mind, but it would be more fun to do it myself, processing data received directly from other creative individuals. I might even make new friends in the process.

I'm not simply proposing the time-worn concept of a mentor. I wouldn't expect these people to take an interest in me, although that suggests a second step. If any of them wanted, we could trade places and I could be the subject for a day. As another step, we might meet to discuss our notes and explore the questions we withheld during the days of observation. "Why didn't you do these two things in the same trip to the barn?" "Did you consider painting it blue instead of green, or staining it?" "Did you ever sit in the rocking chair on your porch to enjoy your remarkable view?" "Do you really need to shower every day?" "Did you consider multiplying instead of adding?"

Virginia once said, "I've learned to be suspicious of any person who gripes about being too busy. 'Busy-ness' is a personal paradigm, created by choice. If someone is 'too busy,' he or she suffers from closet clutter."

Monday, November 30, 2009


I can wait until Christmas. Most of us have experienced the slow movement of time that occurs as our skidding car approaches a guardrail, we trip and a path gradually rises to meet us, or we're stuck in a dead-still line. Give me one of those lines.

A postcard waited in our mailbox last week, carrying a short request: "40th Reunion Bluffton High School Class of 1970, August 28, 2010. Please mark your calendars and plan to attend!" I'm thinking "40th" must have been a typo.

Former neighbors from the Show-Me State visited us this weekend. Yesterday, we telephoned their daughter, Jordan, and suddenly realized she's about the age Karen was when our St. Louis friends gathered to help us load a U-Haul trailer to "North Carolina or Bust."

This coming June we will have nestled here among these mountains longer than the two of us have lived anywhere else (and we aren't real estate shopping). The little boy for whom Jordan wrote the story, "Adam's Great Adventure," will be entering his third decade.

Yes Virginia, there may be a Santa Claus. I wish he'd trek like a turtle before descending one of our chimneys.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What's Underneath?

From a distance, a group of professional musicians dressed in black and white looks clean, solid and prepared to demonstrate that practice makes perfect. When I was in my twenties, backstage at the Kennedy Center, I spied a member of the National Symphony Orchestra slipping on his bow-tie and pulling a wrinkled jacket from his locker. As he walked by, I sniffed and did that thing most people do when they can't quite believe their noses -- sniffed again. Perhaps he took too literally the usual performance rule of "no perfumes or colognes."

I think musicians enjoyed being directed by Leonard Bernstein's baton. He could be intimidating with his amazing ear, his remarkable intelligence, his photographic memory, and the fact that often he had composed the scores on the musicians' stands. I remember once he turned to the union steward and said something like, "could we go another 10 minutes?" At the sound of a few grumbles, the steward shook his head and Mr. Bernstein stepped off the podium.

I would like to think the members of a community orchestra who gather unpaid have come to have fun. I think it's fair to say most of us do, although sometimes it requires special effort when we stumble in at the end of a long working day. Too often I see frowns and hear mumbling when our instruments are silent. "That was too fast." "I wish he'd give us a better downbeat." "What happened to the bassoons?"

Some musical groups recognize the truth of their efforts. Their first focus for fund-raising is their own membership. Too many others ask, after a concert, "Why didn't more people come? They missed a wonderful performance. The general public doesn't support music any more."

Hmmm. You can't ride an elevator, wait after punching 1, 2 and 3 for customer service, or watch a movie or commercial without musical accompaniment. This wouldn't happen if folks didn't "support music any more."

On the other hand, too many people expect performances to be as perfect as a professionally produced and carefully edited recording. During the early twentieth century, an upright piano played an important function in every properly appointed parlor. The household member who'd best figured out the blacks and whites led the entertainment, while everyone else sang. Now, almost every day, that piano goes unclaimed when it's offered free for pickup on Craigslist or

One of my gripes is the performer who, all excited, tells you about her every next appearance and insists you attend. Gradually you realize you haven't seen her at any concerts but her own. Listen to someone like Virginia. She won't be asking you to show up. You'll be begging her for a schedule of recital dates. In between, she'll be applauding every chance she gets.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

My oldest brother sent an email wishing his siblings a relaxing day. Each year we rent a log splitter for one day and split the pile of wood we've collected since the last rental. Today was that day.

After eight hours with the machine, I'm physically spent, but I'm relaxed. The exercise took me away from both my professional writing and piano practicing. I had to stay alert to move the wood and operate the machine, but otherwise my mind wandered freely and unfettered. I didn't worry about the credit troubles of Dubai, whether folks were trampling each other to death for store bargains, or about people spending money on things others don't want.

George F. Will's column yesterday foresaw another "huge, value destroying hurricane" beginning today -- that is, the annual Christmas buying binge that instantly destroys billions of dollars of value. Referring to Joel Waldfogel's book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, he claims that the gifts people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to their preferences. What the gift recipients would be willing to pay for the gifts is less than the givers paid. That difference is lost value -- estimated by Waldfogel at $12 billion in the 2007 Christmas season. Interesting, according to Will, data from 1919 shows that Christmas sales as a share of the economy are about half as large today as they once were. Cheers!

Why is today called "Black Friday?" Wikipedia offers two explanations. Some say it originated in Philadelphia, where the police used the term to describe the traffic resulting from millions going shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Merchants and the media use it to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers go from being in the red to being in the black.

I didn't worry about Black Friday, even though I was among the shoppers at the Lexington Wal-Mart at 7:45 this morning. (Minutes later, I was the only customer at Green Valley Rentals.) All I spent was about $7 on a 2" ball trailer hitch, so I zipped through a self-service lane while others waited nearby with loaded carts. Knowing all those people were juicing up our economy eased my mind until Virginia whispered, "Did you notice all of them are using credit cards?"

"Oh shush," said I. "Most likely, they're taking advantage of their free-ride period. They'll pay everything off in 30 days."

Cool. I relaxed today.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Exit Strategy

This morning's run took me past several elderly buildings, two for sale. I had an urge to explore, the same feeling I remember from childhood. No matter how many people have visited, old places contain treasures, usually things we can't buy unless we hunt through flea markets and antique stores. At least one thing has changed since I was young -- I remember when we could have bought new the things I find.

After my run, I noticed a dusty folded piece of paper on the mantle in our bedroom, exactly the kind of thing you might come across in an abandoned site. It read: "Obama 289 McCain 321." A little over a year ago, Karen returned from one of her seemingly interminable stints at the polls and handed me that piece of paper. Today I tossed it in the copper bucket we keep handy to feed our fireplace, then caught myself thinking, "Is this something I should keep for posterity?" Fifty years from now someone might find it interesting. No, I left it there. Purgatory knows our houses already contain enough nonsense.

That decision was easy, but it set me thinking about other choices, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former President Bush's most lasting legacy may be the important lesson: have an exit strategy.

It might be fun to buy those old buildings I watched this morning. (Driving by in a car, you catch a glimpse; when running, you get to watch.) One was an old motel, with a restaurant, a line of rooms and a couple structures that might have been a laundry and game room. How about converting them into a retirement center? Right, in Glasgow, along the not-so scenic flat main drag? They'd be hard to sell -- no exit.

Guests often ooh and aah at my 9-foot concert grand, then they ask, "How will you get it out of here?" Don't worry. I have a plan.

By now, you know we have goats and chickens. Runner ducks are on the way. They cramp a traveling lifestyle. What if we miss our freedom? First, we'll sell the animals we've named. Second, we'll eat what we can't sell.

Virginia, transplanted from a neighborhood of millions to one with a few hardy souls, knew she could move again if things didn't work out. Karen and I have done that a few times, not because things didn't work out but because it felt right to move on. Do that too many times and no one will come to your funeral. Who cares?

Today's advice: Think things through. Always have an exit strategy unless you truly don't care, which also counts as a plan.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Life is good and getting better. I haven't lost my job (although I've threatened to fire myself), the cabinets in our canning kitchen are full, the freezer is packed, our wells give us good water (so far as we know; maybe we should test it), and our family and friends seem to be well or on the road to recovery. My garden continues to feed our table in late November. What could be finer?

Good stuff is on its way. The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. An LED light bulb that burns less than 10 watts while generating the brightness of a 60-watt incandescent. Electrodes our brains can use to tweet on Twitter. More efficient batteries. Levitating mice. Pork grown in petri dishes without methane emissions or slaughtered pig brains. Vertical high-rise hydroponic gardens.

Buy that stock. The recession is almost over. the Dow Jones Industrial Average is rebounding, back on its way to 20,000.
Virginia says, "Don't continue reading. Be happy."

My gut tells me I've just explained why the stock market is up -- the big O, Optimism, or maybe just hope (some folks call it "the wave" effect). We're happy to sweep our doubts under the Chinese carpet.

Something fishy is going on. I've got to carp about it. Every month we find comfort in reports that unemployment is rising more slowly (cheers!). Proposals to reform the banking and financial industry are shriveling on the vine. People we don't know are cashing lottery-sized bonus checks from companies our tax dollars rescued only one year ago. Meanwhile, our "safe" investments earn minuscule interest rates. Office buildings sit empty. The same "for sale" signs have decorated yards for years and new ones keep sprouting.

Aw, forget it. Let's party. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Try to remember: 1979 Beaux Arts Ball, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., a fundraiser for the Corcoran School of Art. I was a gawking spouse of a student, having slipped in with a $5 pass on the ruse of offering free help. My used penguin costume came from a formals rental shop on 18th Street (when I bought it for $40, the proprietor tossed in a stained cummerbund and ragged suspenders; the same outfit served me well at music gigs). My left hand held an eye mask on a stick and I felt like a peeping tom as the evening loosened up, particularly when men kissed on the grand staircase and a transvestite in a skimpy nurse's dress invited all comers to touch the bulging breasts his partner, a cosmetic surgeon, had recently installed.

Thirty years later, I searched for a dark suit and tie. Whenever I choose one I hope it still fits. I'm not retired, but my suits are. Only my original tuxedo's replacement regularly sees moonlight.

Karen barely recognized me when I greeted her in a patterned stripe suit, hung by a black and white tie. Pinched black wingtips tipped me toward the car. After a short drive, we parked for a few minutes, watching our neighbors arrive. Most seemed like strangers, having abandoned overalls and camouflage. They looked surprisingly normal. Perhaps we should attend church more often. We joined the crowd descending a hill to the cemetery and exchanged greetings, smiles and a few stories and jokes. A tent and glistening Confederate magnolia wreath led us to the appropriate gravesite.

Our murmuring stopped when a bagpipe sounded its off-key salute. Knowing nothing about bagpipes, except what my Kurzweil keyboard produces, I wondered if a sharp were missing. We watched as the family slowly left a line of parked cars and hunched into the dozen pillowed chairs clustered under the tent. Each member grasped a red rose. The family matriarch, aged 96 with a repairing hip, didn't look familiar in her wheelchair. We remembered a spry Democrat who bounded down basement stairs to iron her and her daughter's laundry. Now the two would not even share a room. Her over-sized sunglasses looked very sad.

Virginia went shopping after she found a dinner invitation in her mailbox. She had nothing nice enough in her backpack wardrobe and no one to dress her.

Monday, November 23, 2009


When I'm not bleeding, I don't think about band-aids unless someone close to me is bleeding or I've written "band-aids" on our grocery list.

Our home sits high on a hill above Elk Creek and the James River, so when it rains long I don't worry about flooding.

Because we've set aside a fair amount of savings, I don't fret much about the recession we hope is almost over. That's not true. I do worry. Some of our investments have taken it on the chin, and I have a sneaking suspicion we're not climbing out of this thing -- that there is much more to come.

It's easy not to worry when we feel safe and sound. Then, all of a sudden, something changes.

The highest point on the 1200-some islands of the Maldives is no more than several feet above sea level. If I lived there, I'm sure I would think a lot more about global warming than I do seven hundred feet higher. Where I live, we have the luxury of debating whether or not global warming is occurring.

An overwhelming crowd of experts says it's happening. Others dispute it. If I lived in the Maldives, I'd be getting pretty upset about the rest of the world's failure to take every step possible to reduce the globe's warming. We who think we're safe now must not be selfish. We must not ignore the Maldives. If the day comes when we watch islanders scramble for dry land, we'd better be prepared for more trouble.

I first heard that global warming is a conspiracy of the Democrats in 2000 when I overheard a conversation in the cafeteria of a children's hospital. Our son was recuperating from a bowel resection. Why, I wondered, would any political party engage in this kind of conspiracy? Since then, we've wasted nearly ten years of opportunity in nonproductive debate.

In Natural Capitalism, Hawkens, Lovins and Lovins not only pointed out that reducing our carbon footprint makes economic sense, they provided hundreds of examples of what businesses and countries around the world have done to take advantage of this cash cow. So, even if global warming were a hoax or not induced by human activity, the measures we take to reduce carbon emissions are likely to make sense.

Virginia says, "read the book even though it's ancient history by now." (It was published in 1999.) Or try to catch Lovins when he speaks near you. Maybe you've read some of the many depressing, doom-saying books. Natural Capitalism is an optimistic description of an approach that works.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Favorite Things

World peace. Almost everyone laughs at the beauty contestant who offers this response to the big question. Give her a break. I like that answer, especially if it's spruced up to show some thought went into it. I suppose we laugh because we don't believe world peace is possible. But it is. We must believe it is. It isn't going to happen if we don't give it a chance.

Switch sexes for the moment. Mr. America. Big muscles. Macho. "Sir, if you had one wish, what would it be?" Here is a fellow bred to do battle. If he joined the military, it wouldn't be to do "the surge." I mean, think a moment, these guys are trained to "win," not to help rebuild roads, sewers and schools. "Time's up. What's your answer?"

If you think this scenario is unrealistic, maybe you're too young to remember Cassius Clay. Soon after he became Muhammad Ali, member of Islam, he was threatened with prison when three times he refused to step forward for military induction. As it turned out, the fighter wasn't that kind of fighter. Tried, convicted, his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He won (as he usually did). Some jeered. Others of us cheered.

After world peace, what's next? Raindrops on roses? Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes? I sincerely doubt it. More likely, brown paper packages tied up with strings. We like our things. I'm no exception. I have a feeling that what seems to be almost everyone's favorite Broadway tune is aptly titled. We can't pick just one thing, so we make sure it's plural, our favorite hundreds of our thousands of things. This sort of tears the word "favorite" down to size, doesn't it?

Friends of ours have a son who may appear difficult from a parent's perspective, but I'm proud of this guy. He took his backpack and maybe forty dollars and hitchhiked to a city. His dream was to make sails and eventually sail away. A day or two after arriving, he landed a temporary job in a boatyard and a part-time position at a restaurant. He found a five-acre parcel downtown, near a port-a-john, a convenience store and some public housing, where he pitched his tent. When the weather turned cooler, he moved up, into an insulated wigwam. The first jobs disappeared; now he manages a tee shirt shop. Offered a raise, he said, "I don't need one."

Virginia took a similar path when she hoisted her pack and aimed north on the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes it makes sense to set "things" aside and focus on what matters most. We could live with much less material support than we do. Consumption may feed our economy, but I have a feeling we could starve it and find other ways to survive.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orange Elegy

Gunshots echo through our valley this light-filled Saturday. It's orange vest weather, but I'll let mine dangle until the new year, except on Sundays. Meanwhile, let me grouse about the expanding roadside collection of cans and bottles as these irritating holiday decorations sparkle in the sun.

This is not a diatribe against smart, responsible hunters. Each year we're blessed with gifts of venison for our freezer. I can admire graceful white-tail deer until they decimate my beets and carrots. I've even been known to contemplate shopping at Nuckols Gun Works. Without hunters, we might have no chance of keeping the deer population under control.

Unfortunately, two heedless hunters have spoiled this season in our neck of the woods, stilling the hearts of two young people. May other guns not point at human targets. And why, tell me, do the cans and bottles pile up this time of year?

Virginia wore orange through November and December as she renovated her sylvan church. She welcomed pressure-treated venison and recycled the cans and bottles tossed from pickups.

Friday, November 20, 2009

All [Wo]Men are Created Equal

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

This phrase appears in:
(a) the Bible.
(b) the United States Constitution.
(c) the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
(d) the Gettysburg Address.
(e) both (c) and (d).

If you're wondering about the right answer, perhaps a Google search will help you out. I suspect this is one question that would draw a lot of (a) answers in a poll of Americans.

Where did the statement "all men are created equal" originate? Some say Thomas Jefferson wrote it to express dissatisfaction with the privileges of royalty.

Now consider this: The phrase is -- (a) true, or (b) false.

A Google search may help answer this question, too. Think of the babies born around the world and whether their parents can do a Google search. Some can, some can't. Are those babies created equal?

Some would say they aren't. Certain babies clearly have advantages others don't have -- such as higher levels of wealth, intelligence, physical ability, and beauty -- yet we have seen that an abundance of one talent over another doesn't necessarily mean that person will "succeed" more than someone with less talent; Witness, Michael Jackson or John Forbes Nash, Jr. (whose schizophrenia is shown in The Beautiful Mind). Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan) suggested that when all is taken into account, the difference between one human and another is not so great that one may reasonably pretend to be more valuable than someone else.

I think Hobbes was right, and that one of the mistakes we make is to over-emphasize specialized talent, such as a biologist, a mathematician, a writer, or a lawyer. Wendell Berry, in Citizenship Papers, writes: "Facts in isolation are false. The more isolated a fact or a set of facts is, the more false it is. A fact is true in the absolute sense only in association with all facts. This is why the departmentalization of knowledge in our colleges and universities is fundamentally wrong."

Time, the magazine, has struck out twice on this topic in recent issues. A couple weeks ago, an article bemoaned the fact that budget cuts have "trimmed starting pay at major airlines to $36,000 -- little more than a grade school teacher's." This week's article on five lessons we can learn from China quoted a young Chinese engineer as saying none of his descendants would ever work in the wheat fields again, as an example of the lesson, "Look over the horizon." What are we being asked to buy into -- that grade school teachers aren't worth as much as airline pilots and that farmers are less valuable than engineers?

Nonsense. If I were to choose people I admire for their expertise, I would include a fine farmer among them. A successful farmer is the quintessential "Renaissance" person -- meteorologist, mechanic, chemist, biologist, environmentalist, reader, scientific experimenter, athlete, economist, manager and more. I would also include an excellent grade school teacher, someone who, like the farmer, wends a wide knowledge of living into a class experience.

Karen, Virginia and I have discussed an ideal university. The students arrive in early summer (in our climate) to build a dormitory and grow food so as to be prepared for cooler weather in the Fall. As they pound nails and hoe weeds, they discuss relevant mathematical and engineering principles, as well as books they have read. Their entire learning experience is built around living experience.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And It Was Very Good

Many folks see evolution as a call to arms. Some of them judge anyone who thinks evolution has merits to be not a "Christian."

I don't get it. I thought "Christian" referred to belief in Christ, whose teachings appear in the New Testament, not the Old, and who, as I recall (my memory could be faulty) did not discuss evolution.

When I turn to Genesis 1, I find the 7-day creation story these folks think is critical to Christian thought. As I read it, Genesis 1 gives the following schematic:

Day 0: A formless, watery void.

Day 1: Light.

Day 2: Sky.

Day 3: Dry land ("earth") and the "seas."

Day 4: Sun, moon and stars.

Day 5: Living creatures (but not humans).

Day 6: Humankind.

Day 7: Rest.

I admit that making this neat list from the sometimes ambiguous language might be risky, but I think I have the basic elements "correct."

Don't stop! There's more. Genesis 2 mixes things up a bit. In Genesis 2, man is created earlier than the "animal of the field" and "every bird of the air," sort of throwing a wrench in the science of the 7-day story of Genesis 1.

Why, I ask, does the Bible begin with such a remarkable inconsistency? Could it be a warning that the words that follow should not be read "literally?"

When one of her neighbors welcomed Virginia to Sin Valley, she carried a gift. "If you're going to live in this church," she said, "then you need one of these." "Thank you," said Virginia, as she placed the new Bible on a dirty, dusty mantle and went back to work.

P.S. (1/10/10).  Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle offers a real-world example of evolution:  "More than 500 species of insects and mites now resist our chemical controls [pesticides], along with over 150 viruses and other plant pathogens.  More than 270 of our recently developed herbicides have now become ineffective for controlling some weeds.  Some 300 weed species resist all herbicides."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Do you know what's really sad (and irresponsible)? That all of us have friends suffering from cancer and instead of choosing to tackle cancer like we responded to Sputnik, we've spent more than $3 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Sputnik shocked the U.S. and inspired us to invest in scientific research and education.) $3 trillion! We could have used it for good things, such as fighting cancer, providing excellent health care, and feeding the hungry.

Let's make this personal, as we must. My father died of cancer 12 years ago. He deserved better then and his memory deserves better now. My mother, my in-laws and my sister-in-law are cancer survivors. If your loved ones are suffering and you think our money has been well-spent, think again.

You might ask yourself this question. In 2001, assuming you're part of a family of four, would you have been willing to write a check for $40,000 to the U.S. government to pay for these wars? That's $3 trillion divided by 300 million U.S. residents, times 4. If you would have been willing then, do you think you would be pleased with your investment now? Make that -- are you happy with your investment now, because since you didn't write a check, the $40,000 amount waits to be repaid by your children and grandchildren, with interest of course, even though it has vaporized?

Virginia says my numbers may be wrong, but the logic is right. One of her neighbors says we may burn in hell for this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homeland Security

When local teenagers found a radio-telephone left by a public safety employee in the bathroom of a gasoline station, they tried it out, resulting in vehicles rushing to a phantom emergency. Rather than charging them with felonies, I wanted to reward them for pointing out a serious glitch in "homeland security." Recent reports have disclosed that our country's air traffic control system is outmoded and does not provide real-time data; if I remember correctly, it tracks planes twelve seconds after they've been.

Eight years after 9/11/01, homeland security remains elusive. I feel as if we've checked our brains into high school lockers. When I see the fancy new emergency vehicles purchased with federal funds, I think of the Mustangs teenage boys covet and crash. If the things last, they'll be outmoded in three years.

A particularly important failure sticks out. How can we expect to be "safe" if we depend on distant supplies for the basics of everyday life? It's been reported that the average food item on an American table has traveled 1500 miles. If you think that's normal, let me mention that the same average for Italian tables is less than 50 miles. Our number one priority should have been, and should be, developing local and regional resources, not fighting civil wars overseas (Virginia whispers, "could any war be 'civil?'"). We need plans that focus on satisfying basic needs with products available nearby, including food, water and energy. In the event of an emergency, the "battle" will be lost if many of us are thirsty, hungry and power-less.

Monday, November 16, 2009


A vegetarian, in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post, wrote that he's tired of apologizing for causing inconvenience at dinner events. He argued that it's time for carnivores to apologize for their adverse environmental effects.

I'm a debitarian and I think it's time for the high users of consumer credit to apologize to the rest of us for their adverse economic impact. If they hadn't been greedy, and susceptible to encouragement from mortgage brokers and other moneymongers, the recent financial collapse might not have happened. I'm not against credit altogether. I support responsible use -- say, a mortgage loan well within the borrower's ability to pay, a credit card balance he or she could pay off within a month (or maybe three), and occasional use for true personal financial emergencies, such as medical treatment.

Did you know that beginning about 2004 banks began allowing customers to exceed their account balances when they used debit cards? Now over 80% of banks allow this. Abracadabra, the debit card suddenly becomes a "credit" card, often without its user even knowing it.

I think practices like this contributed to the financial crisis we're in and may hurt our ability to crawl out of it. I expressed this opinion, including my recommendation that the Federal Reserve Board ban the practice, when I commented on the Board's proposal to sanction the practice so long as the banks disclose what they're doing.

The Fed ignored me. The banks "need" those overdraft fees. The final regulation, adopted last week, simply requires disclosure in advance, which could be as early as when an account is opened.

The mom of Phil, a banker who had the hots for Virginia, was impressed by Virginia's reaction when she learned that she had "earned" the trust of her grandfather. Even before Virginia knew how much money was involved, she made sure her sister would share the bounty. Virginia was a debitarian, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Road Kill

Carnage littered my run this morning, mostly squirrels, with a few skunks and opossums. Something about this time of year brings animals to the roadways, maybe the warm asphalt.

One of the squirrels had died in a cozy, prayerful-like curl, as if he had died happy. The mouths of the others were opened into final screams.

Death by Chocolate
(dedicated to the Arrowhead Trio)

He hovers by the door,
reluctant to enter,
savoring every note,
settles into an armchair,
nodding, legs askew.
He need not wait any longer
for heaven; the note
on his lap says “thank you.”

Three wrinkled men
play unfamiliar masterworks
to almost empty halls,
dreaming that on a distant day
they will join him on stage
midst dissonant harmony.
Instead of screaming ambulances,
listeners will gently applaud.

The chance of dying during a concert or tennis match is mighty slim, as is, I suppose, the risk of dying during a scream. We'd rather die happy, unless perhaps it happens during an act of heroism, such as pushing a child to safety from a speeding car.

Something we can do for ourselves, although it may seem selfish and self-centered, is to consider redesigning the way we live. If we want to die happy, we should try to live happy. If we want to die heroically, we should try to live heroically.

This reminds me of a question facilitators of planning workshops sometimes ask, "If you knew you only had 6 months to live, would you be doing what you're doing?" If the answer is no, then "why not?"

I once knew a woman who cleaned her house everyday. She complained about being "too busy." I don't remember if she complained because of all the other things she had to do, or because her house was dirty.

Virginia chose to answer the question "yes." I have a feeling a "yes" answer is easier for folks who feel financially independent than for people who struggle to make ends meet, but none of us wants to be roadkill.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Imagining Things

Sometimes I fret about things I have no business thinking about. Or do I? For example, I read in a newspaper that a request by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity was denied because "neighbors expressed concern about safety and property value."

I wasn't at the hearing, so I don't know what was said, and the paper didn't elaborate. Let me speculate. The chairman of the zoning committee says, "Mr. Jones, you wanted to say something?" Jones responds, "Yes, thank you. I live in the neighborhood and am opposed to this request. We neighbors are concerned about safety and property values." The chairman asks, "What do you mean?" "If you approve this request, our property values will decrease," says Jones.

Then what? Did Jones present a poster or PowerPoint slides showing the effect of a Habitat home on property values? Did Habitat respond by pointing to the increase in the assessed value of a house it had built two doors down in 2005, or by displaying statistics on the property values in other neighborhoods with Habitat homes?

Or was Jones concerned about something else?

-- That single mothers set bad examples for neighborhood children?

-- That people who can't afford to buy homes on the regular real estate market might default, resulting in the home sitting vacant during foreclosure?

-- That singles who move into Habitat homes tend to allow significant others to stay over or move in, leading to poor family values?

-- That people of different color from that prevalent in the neighborhood are poor neighbors?

I understand. Some life coaches encourage folks not to fuss about scenarios their minds imagine. I am letting go....

...but I know that if Virginia were chairperson of the zoning committee, she would have asked Mr. Jones question after question until he said what he meant or asked to be excused.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Picking Peas in November

I picked peas this morning, enough for one good serving or to flavor the soup Karen's planning to make for dinner. I think Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) is firming Karen's localvore resolve. We produce a large portion of what we eat, but haven't eliminated our grocery bill. I like to think that's coming.

The more I read and hear about the food sold in stores, the more I wonder if that's the biggest reason why each of us is at high risk for cancers. Most of us think either too little about what we put in our mouths or too much about it for the wrong reason -- "I'm too fat."

I'm looking forward to tasting goat meat. At the same time, I'm a bit queasy about eating Chaps or Telly. Maybe the best way to go about this is to find another goatherd and trade butchered animals (without mentioning any names). When my college roommate called this morning, he mentioned that a goat resides in their freezer. He said nothing about its name or breed. He said the one dish they've made so far, a curry dish, was very good, not at all "gamey" and more like beef or chicken than lamb.

Speaking of chicken, I'm working up to wringing my first neck, maybe next Spring. So far, each of our 10 hens has been focused on laying eggs so as not to draw attention to itself. The rooster, Puck, has come the closest to roasting, having not prompted anyone to go broody, but we've promised him leniency through at least one Springtime.

Virginia is a localvore, without being radical about it. Mung, down the road from her place, is the rich radical.