Category Archives: Digressions

McGee Waits for Spring

IMG_3228It seems I am not the only one waiting for spring in central Maine. McGee is waiting, too—very patiently—for the planting to begin in the Inch-By-Inch Garden at the grade school in town. Not for a while, McGee. (I don’t know what his real name is or whether he even has a name, but I’ve dubbed him McGee.)

In the meantime, today—as spring is taking its time to come—the crockpot has white beans simmering along with some chicken bones, and I’m thinking about how food is more than nourishment for the body. If the white bean dish is tasty, then I’ll post the recipe some time this week. I also plan on writing about food and memory.

McGee, on the other hand, doesn’t care about any of those things. He’s just ready for spring.

 

A Snowy Walk in the Woods

IMG_3092On Wednesday, I took my dog, Liam, for a walk in the woods. The day was mild, and in my imagination, I caught a faint whiff of sap being boiled into maple syrup. I am always eager for maple syrup season to begin. First of all, I love all things maple, including candy, butter, sugar, donuts, you name it. Second, when it’s maple syrup time, it means that spring is not far away, and despite the mud and the black flies, spring is most welcome in Maine after many months of dark and cold.

The woods in winter are stark and quiet, yet they have their own beauty. Purple shadows slant across the snow between the trees, and the muted colors—dark green, brown, and white—have a pleasing austerity. It’s as though nature has put away her palette and paints and is giving herself a good rest before taking them out again for the exuberance of spring, where the riot of colors—green, yellow, pink—bedazzle the senses.

Liam ranged ahead and then behind me. He seldom stayed by my side. On the snow, he found many interesting things to sniff, and at one point, he found something so enticing that he rolled and rolled and rolled in it. He must have picked up an odor—fortunately I couldn’t smell it—because my cat Sherlock certainly gave him the once over when we returned.

As I walked in the woods, I thought of my son-in-law Mike’s 30th birthday party on Sunday, and what a curious sensation I had while I was there. As Mike blew out the candles on his cake, it was as though I were my mother, instead of myself, watching him. Now, my mother has been dead for nearly 5 years, and I think of her often. But this was different. It  really did seem as though I were her, a bookend, if you will, to E.B. White’s lovely essay, “Once More to the Lake,” when he identified so strongly with his son that he could actually feel what his son was feeling.

I suppose, in a way, it’s not surprising. My husband and I are now the older generation, and as such we are no longer the center of the family, busy juggling career, children, and home. Quite rightly, Shannon, Mike, and our other daughter Dee now hold that center position as we move to the outer edges, watching them deal with the joys and challenges that life brings. In a way, it’s a little sad, but it is also fitting. One thing ends, and another begins.

As I was having these deep thoughts and watching the dog and snapping pictures of the winter woods, my left leg suddenly sunk to its knee in the thawing snow, and it tipped me enough off-balance so that I fell. Fortunately, I was not hurt, and because I am 65 pounds lighter than I once was, getting up was not a problem.

So onward we went. Unless we have another deep freeze, I probably won’t walk in the woods again until the snow is nearly gone. Nobody likes falling, and the older you get, the less you like it. (My husband can certainly attest to this.)

We made it home without further incident, and after tea and some cozy time on the couch reading the New Yorker, I made corn bread and a shrimp, broccoli, garlic and zucchini stir-fry with soy sauce and sesame oil. On top of the stir-fry were ground peanuts and a splash of a ginger marinade.

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A very good way to end the day.

Here are some pictures from the walk:

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Gobsmacked

It’s been exactly one week after the election, and in that week we’ve had a northeaster rip up the east coast and inflict even more misery on New York and, especially, New Jersey. General Petraeus is involved in the type of scandal that tabloids dream of—an extra-marital affair, threatening emails, and top-level stupidity. But what has especially caught my attention is how conservatives were completely blindsided by Obama’s re-election. It seems they had a complete and unshakable belief that Romney would win. After all, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators told them so, which meant it must be true.

Except it wasn’t. In a divided country, Obama won by a comfortable margin. Not huge, but comfortable. The numbers had been close for quite some time, but somehow many conservatives didn’t allow for the possibility of an Obama victory. This includes Romney himself, who reportedly didn’t even have a concession speech ready should the unthinkable and the unbelievable—to conservatives—occur.

In short, the Republicans were gobsmacked, and they have been scrabbling furiously ever since last Tuesday. And why were they so gobsmacked? In part because too many conservatives listen only to news channels such as Fox, where they hear the reality according to the Far Right, which all too often doesn’t reflect reality itself. In the reality of the Far Right, minorities don’t count. They might be deviant, pathetic moochers, but they don’t vote in large enough numbers to affect the election. Women don’t count. This allows Far-Right candidates to feel perfectly comfortable saying any number of ignorant, reprehensible things about rape and still feel as though they have women’s votes. This smug confidence even allowed the most radical element to cast aspersions on birth control.  Moderates on both sides don’t count. They can be easily swayed by the Far Right message. Rust belt workers don’t count. Let the auto industry sink, no matter how much damage this will cause. Blue-collar workers in Michigan and Ohio will nonetheless flock to the Republican candidate. After all, isn’t free-market ideology worth the pain? The poor don’t count. Heck, they don’t even vote.

So here we have the world according to the Far Right and Fox News, and it must be so. Except it isn’t. At least not for a sizable majority.

Now it can be said, with some justification, that the National Public Radio and Television crowd have the same kind of echo chamber, and while it’s true that Public Radio and Television have liberal leanings, there are fundamental differences. For the most part, the news anchors are neutral, but most important, both sides of any issue are presented. NPR and PBS have taken a certain amount of heat for this. Many liberals feel as though the truth should be presented and that allowing the other side to air its views just muddles the debate.

Maybe it does. But what it also does is allow liberals and moderates to be aware of conservative and Far-Right points of view, to realize only too well that people in this country have different ways of thinking.

Let’s put it another way. If Romney had won, would so many liberals have been gobsmacked? I doubt it. While we liberals were hopeful and optimistic, most of us did not take this election for granted.

Yesterday, while I was raking, a neighbor who was walking her dog stopped by for a chat while the dogs romped in the backyard. We talked about the election, and she told me that before the election, she had visited an elderly aunt, conservative but beloved. (My neighbor is a moderate Democrat.) My neighbor’s parents had recently died, and the aunt asked, “Will you have to pay a death tax?”

“No,” my neighbor replied. “That’s only for estates over a million dollars. My parents left some money, but nowhere near that much.”

The aunt was silent for a while. “Are you sure?”

Yes, my neighbor assured her aunt, she was sure.

And where does that aunt get her news? Why, from Fox, of course.

Maybe it’s time for the Far Right to start getting their news from NPR and PBS.

Election 2012

Election day is nearly upon us, and there are matters big and small to vote on. At the national level, of course, is the presidential race, with the major candidates being Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Then there is the state level, with Angus King, an independent, running to take Olympia Snowe’s senate seat, and it’s my guess that he will get it. We also have a gay marriage referendum question, and it seems as though it will pass, making Maine the first state to do so by popular vote. On the town level, we have Farmer Craig Hickman hoping to be elected as a state representative, and he is running against one of my neighbors, Scott Davis. We have an exciting library trustee election, where two excellent write-in candidates—Pearl Ames and Maureen Whitestone—are competing for one seat.

No two ways about it, tomorrow is an important day for our country, our state, our town. I will be going to the polls to vote, as I always do. No absentee ballot for me. I like going to the town hall, where the elections are held, and seeing people I know working at the polls. I like going into one of the booths with the striped curtains. In cocooned privacy, I like carefully marking my ballot. Sometimes, in the booth next to me, a child is lolling on the floor by a parent’s feet, and that young child is getting a lesson in civic duty. Then, I like going to the machines, which suck up my ballots, different machines for different ballots, and usually I know the people who are tending the machines. And then, good citizen that I am, I get a sticker for my coat. I voted, the sticker proclaims. Yes, I did.

I don’t often overtly discuss politics on this blog, which is primarily about food and community, but the day before the election seems like a good day to do so. It will perhaps come as no surprise that I will be casting my ballot for Barack Obama. We have many challenges as a country and a planet—climate change, peak oil, and a growing population that threatens to reach 9 billion by 2050. In the rich countries, especially in the U.S., our levels of consumption are out of control. Yet, ironically, more and more people struggle to maintain a comfortable lifestyle as the gap widens between the very wealthy and the rest of us. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

The point is, we need to work together as a country to address these problems, and when I write “we,” I mean individuals and government. Together. Not each person struggling on his or her own with a callous government looking away as people suffer. With his words and actions President Obama understands this, and the federal response to Hurricane Sandy beautifully illustrates his philosophy. Right from the start, the national guard was there when people needed help. Water and supplies were delivered, and there has been nothing like the horror of Katrina, were people were left in squalor, deserted by a government that had a disdain for helping people who were not wealthy campaign donors.

Barack Obama, for all his faults—he is nowhere near as progressive as I would like—grasps that we are all in this together. He knows that the best societies are those where the government pitches in to generously help people when times are hard—as they have after hurricane Sandy—or with matters that are too big for individuals to tackle on their own, matters such as health care, climate change, and education.

I fear a United States that doesn’t come together to address important issues, to look after all its citizens—the weak and the middle class as well as the strong and the rich. I see countries where this is the norm, and the results are not pretty. Countries such as Somalia, Sudan, even India, which is a democracy. Societies where people scrabble furiously just to stay alive. Then I look to the Scandinavian countries, with their generous social policies, where the mission is to ensure that all people have a decent life. And it shows. The Scandinavian countries are productive and forward thinking, leaders not only in literacy but also in green energy. They are not perfect, but I do believe that right now, they are as good as it gets.

Really the choice couldn’t be clearer. Why is that so many people don’t see this? It will always be a mystery to me, and I can only hope that those of us who perceive that we have to work together—together!—to make the country, this planet, a decent place to live—will prevail tomorrow.

 

 

Fairy House Handbook

As I mentioned in my previous post, on Saturday I went to Longfellow Greenhouses to see the display of fairy gardens, and, yes, I was smitten. Along with the fairy gardens and the various little accessories available for sale—if one isn’t careful, one could spend hundreds of dollars on a fairy garden—was Liza Gardner Walsh and her charming Fairy House Handbook.

I bought a copy, and I’m glad I did because the book is full of low-cost and natural but sustainable ideas for constructing fairy houses and gardens. So now I know I can create a couple of fairy gardens without spending hundreds of dollars on them, which makes the project much more attractive to me.

Besides, Fairy House Handbook is written by a Maine writer and is published by Down East, a Maine publisher. So in buying the book, I was doing my bit for the local economy. And at $14.95, it is affordable.

Over the winter, I will read Fairy House Handbook, and I’ll be planning my fairy gardens. They won’t be grand, they won’t be expensive, but they will be mine, and I’ll have a lot of fun making them.

Faeires, come take
me out of this dull
world, For I would
ride with you
upon the wind, Run
on the top of the
dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the
mountains like
a flame.

—William Butler Yeats, as quoted from Fairy House Handbook

 

Late Summer

Notes from the Hinterland

In New England, is there a time more bittersweet than late August or early September? Summer is not quite gone, and fall hasn’t really arrived. Often, the days are warm, but the nights are cool. The gardens are producing abundantly, and there is a glorious outburst of tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and corn. Dinner still revolves around fresh vegetables, and how sorry I will be when that is over. I love soup, but nothing can take the place of those succulent vegetables, picked just hours before they are eaten.

The humming birds are still here, but I know they will be gone in the next week or so. I am always amazed to think about how these ethereal creatures can migrate so far. Such strength, despite its diminutive size.

My gardens always look their best in July and are more than a little ragged this time of year. But, the coleus look fine, and they will for another month or so, until the frost nips them. And the orange cat always looks fine as he stretches out by the coleus.

September. A time of endings and beginnings. Beautiful but a little sad.

Biking to the Cancer Center

Notes from the Hinterland

As many readers already know, two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was lucky in that the tumor was small—stage one—as well as slow-growing and nonaggressive.  I had surgery and radiation treatment, and although my prognosis is excellent, I go for regular check-ups at the Harrold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta, about 14 miles from where I live.

Last year, when I was the heaviest I had ever been, I decided the time had come to lose weight, exercise, and, in general, start taking good care of this body, which, after all, is the only one I have. Fortunately, I love to ride my bike. Not only is it great exercise, but it is also easy on the joints. For me, there is something very satisfying about pedaling and the forward movement of the bike. It sounds crazy, I know, but pedaling really is a pleasure for me.

One of the things I like to do is set challenges for myself, especially when it comes to biking. Now, I know that challenges have a down side. They can drain all the fun out of an activity and turn a person into a driven, humorless Puritan, a real partypooper.  But, approached in the right spirit, challenges can add fun and excitement to life. They can be positive goals for a person to focus on, which in turn can be a way to relieve stress. For me, challenges definitely fall into the second, non-partypooper category, and my husband, Clif, and I have a lot of fun with our biking challenges.

Over the past year, as I began to lose weight and became a stronger biker, I decided that I wanted to bike to the Cancer Center for my summer check-up. It would be a way of saying, “All right, I had cancer. But look how strong I am now.” I would also be riding in honor of the many friends and family members who have had cancer.

Well, yesterday, I did it. I biked to the Cancer Center. I left Winthrop and pedaled on busy Route 202, which fortunately has a wide break-down lane so it’s not as bad as it might be. I rode past cattails, Queen Ann’s lace, and purple loosestrife, which I know I’m not supposed to like but I do anyway. I zoomed past Winthrop Veterinary Hospital, and looked to see if Dr. Dave was working. He was. His motorcycle was parked by the building.

I went up hill and down hill and into Manchester, the worst part of the ride. There is no breakdown lane, and as soon as the lights allow, the cars speed by at 50+ miles an hour. I, on the other hand, slogged up Pelton Hill, and I prayed I wouldn’t get clipped as I felt the wind of the rushing cars. I guess the god of biking was smiling down on me because I made it safely through Manchester and onto back roads leading to the Cancer Center.

I got to the Cancer Center in one piece and in good time—an hour and a half. I had lunch on the terrace overlooking a man-made pond. The sound of the fountain in the pond was soothing, and I felt comfortable, relaxed, and, I must admit, very pleased with myself as I ate my peanut butter sandwich and my apple.

When the nurses, the lab technicians, and my doctor realized I had biked to the Cancer Center—the helmet and the biking shorts were give-aways—they clucked and fussed over me in a very satisfying way. Everyone likes a success story, and unfortunately, this is not the only story at the Cancer Center.

My doctor urged me to come the upcoming Cancer Survivor Day next weekend so that everyone could see how healthy and strong I was, even though I had had cancer.

“It would give a lot of cancer patients hope,” she said.

So, next weekend, weather permitting, Clif and I will be biking to the Cancer Center for Cancer Survivor Day.

I would like to conclude with a few comments about wellness, healthy eating, and exercise. First of all, I am never smug about my health. I know that people can take good care of themselves and still get sick. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck and the way a person’s genes interacts with the environment. Second, I don’t know if healthy eating and exercise will help me live longer. They might or they might not. But here’s what I do know: they will help me feel better while I live, and that alone makes the effort—and it is effort—worthwhile.

Now, on to the next challenge! A 50-mile bike trip. If not this summer then next summer.

 

 

On the Other Hand, Sometimes an Adventure Is Just the Thing

Notes from the Hinterland

In yesterday’s post, I extolled the virtues of being a homebody, but today I’m going to take the other point of view, that the experience and challenge of travel can bring zest and fulfillment to life. I was reminded of this the other day when I brought my cats, Sherlock and Ms. Watson, to Winthrop Veterinary Hospital for their yearly check-up. David Corwin, one of my favorite veterinarians, examined the cats and gave them their shots.

With his white hair and ruddy complexion, David Corwin is one cool veterinarian. He’s retired and fills in for the full-time veterinarians when they are on vacation or need time off, and when the weather is good, he comes to work on his motorcycle. I’m not sure exactly how old Dr. Corwin is, but I would guess he’s at least in his mid-sixties.

When I had come in, I had spotted the motorcycle in the parking lot. As Dr. Corwin looked into Ms. Watson’s ears, I said, “I see you came to work on your motorcycle today.”

“Yes,” he answered. “And I have a big trip planned. I’m going to ride the motorcycle to California to join my wife, who’s visiting our children.”

“All by yourself?”

“All by myself.” Then he grinned at me. “And I’m a diabetic who needs insulin shots.”

“That’s very adventurous, ” I said.

“Well,” Dr. Corwin said, “I know plenty of people along the way, and I know how to take care of the diabetes.”

I thought of my own bicycle challenges, and although they are much more modest than going cross country solo on a motorcycle, those challenges add zip and energy to my life. I said as much to Dr. Corwin, who readily agreed.

I also said, “You know, if something happens to me on my bike, at least I’ll go doing something I like.”

“Darn right,” he said. “It would beat dying in a nursing home.”

When he was finished with the cats, and they were back in their boxes, I said to Dr. Corwin, “Bon Voyage!”

“Merci!” he replied, sounding as delighted as a school boy going on holiday.

I’ll be thinking of Dr. Corwin on his motorcycle as he heads west to California, which, despite its hard times, still exerts a pull that is almost magical. Bon voyage, indeed.

 

Liberty and an Island in the Lake

Yesterday, at a party, I met a woman named Liberty who lives on a tiny island in one of our town’s many lakes. The island is close enough to shore so that Liberty’s front porch winks at you through the pine trees that surround it, and in the late afternoon, as the sun sets, the island positively glows. It is one of those islands that draws your eye and captures your attention in a warm, welcoming way. Not all islands are like this. I’ve been on one that was downright spooky, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I guess islands all have their own mood, some good, some not so good.

Liberty is as warm and beautiful as the island she lives on—perhaps there is a connection?—and I spent quite a bit of time talking to her. In the course of our conversation, Liberty told me how she came to live on this island during the summer, and it’s a story worth sharing.

In the late 1920s, Liberty’s grandparents and aunts and uncles came to Winthrop, Maine, for their summer vacation. This was at a time when the journey was made by train to the lake and then by steamboat to a big hotel built especially to accommodate those summer visitors. The passenger train, the steamboat, and the big hotel are all gone, and in this day of cars and chain hotels, it really feels like a trip to the past to picture people coming to Winthrop by train and boat.

While on vacation, Liberty’s family canoed around the lake and came upon the island, which just happened to be for sale at a very good price. The family pooled their money together and bought the island, complete with house, in the summer of 1929, just before the stock market crashed in October.

“They bought it just in time,” Liberty said.

They certainly did, but what makes this story even more extraordinary is that Liberty’s family came from Harlem, and they were, of course, African American. Winthrop, like most Maine towns, was white as white can be, and with only a few exceptions, it still is. Also, during the 1920s and 1930s, the Klan was very big in Maine—only Georgia had a bigger membership.

Craig Hickman, who was at the party and who is also African American, said, “Just think, in the late 1920s, a black family bought an island in Winthrop, Maine.”

It is indeed amazing to think about, and although Winthrop has its share of problems and cranks—don’t get me started about how the school budget has twice been voted down—it is also an amazingly tolerant town. You can be pretty eccentric and different in this mostly meat-and-potatoes town, and nobody bothers you. In fact, the town’s people might even like you and invite you to parties.

“Maybe Winthrop has had a history of being tolerant,” my husband, Clif, observed.

Maybe it has. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to get into an in-depth conversation with Liberty about whether her family had to deal with discrimination in town. But Liberty has invited me to come visit her on her island, and as I don’t own a boat, she has even offered to fetch me. Perhaps I’ll take her up on her offer, if not this summer, which is fast coming to an end, then maybe next summer.