Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I see a lot of resumes and cv's in my job, and I've noticed that people are starting to list the number of countries they've been to as though it were a miscellaneous qualification.
I'm often nonplussed when I find the bullet point: Visited 33 countries. Is that a good thing? Is 33 a lot? How did he visit? Was it tourism or travel with a purpose? Did he learn the language? To see nothing but the phrase: "Visited 33 countries" seems like a provocation and leaves me with far too many unanswered questions. The higher the number, the more suspicious I become. Is this a succession of one night stands in someone else's land? Did he see anything besides an airport and  hotel? How much additional scenery would I consider enough? 
And no question is more likely to bring my children to blows than, "How many countries have you been to?" The problem is in the word "been." If the plane lands but you do not leave, have you been in the country? Literalists, like Gwyneth, would say absolutely. Or do you have to actually mill around in the airport, use the restroom, buy something? Eat at least one meal? Sleep overnight? Legalists like Gareth want to see a longer commitment. 
I sympathise with the desire to tally countries. I know full well that people collect countries the same way they collect stamps. Those of us who live in the U.S. have it especially rough -- it takes a long time just to get out of the U.S., let alone into any other country. Think how easily one can take on the Benelux -- a couple hours drive will give you three for your scorecard. 
Those scorecards come in many shapes. Some people put pins into maps. Gwyneth has a bracelet, (see above) with charms carrying the flag of every country she thinks she has ever been to. Every so often she's glad to add another link. Last summer it was Ecuador -- a full month of trekking, so no quarrels over whether she was really there; this year it will be Italy, with her Latin class, sizing up antiquities. 
As a middle schooler Gwyneth ran cross country in the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) league. She ran through forests in the Ukraine as a 7th grader, and came in very respectable fourth, as I recall. And she is the only person I know who ran in meets in Albania not once but twice, so no one argues with her over those flags. But to get to Albania she had to travel through the airport in Bucharest. To get to Ecuador she had a layover in Costa Rica. Gwyneth sees them as part and parcel of the whole experience. Others (Gareth) sneer at their inclusion, seeing these stops as only a means to an end.
Who is right? As their mom, I stay out of this. What is certain is that Gwyneth's bracelet, begun many years go in Prague, is one of the her most cherished possessions.  She would tell you that it has 17 links, good enough for any resume. Gareth would tell you that Austria remains hotly disputed.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

                                                         photo by Gwyneth Jones
I have long been an admirer of people who can do things really, really well. The artist who can toss off a sketch on the back of a napkin that you'd actually like to frame. Pianists who can play anything by ear. It's the kind of talent that leaves the rest of us wondering -- how do they do that?   
I find people who can do miraculous things with their hands especially impressive. The sound of John Williams' fingers audibly sliding on his guitar strings is achingly affecting. The music is beautiful, but the sound of his fingers reminds me that it is a mere human making all that sound.
So now the masons have entered my life. They hail from far-away places such as Scotland (where they know a bit about stone), Ireland, and Portugal,and they have been doing this work for years. Today they arrived in sub-freezing weather at dawn's first light to tackle the piles of stones that had been deposited earlier, awaiting their touch. Soon I heard the ping of the chisels, bringing them to life.
Alas, it is my bad fortune that this project occurs in the shortest days of the year. I can greet these craftsmen, but then I must scurry off to work. By the time I get home they are long gone and it is dark. But Gwyneth was able to snap photographic evidence of today's progress-- the stones nicely line the driveway's edges.
I do not know yet if they will prove to be artists or just skilled craftsmen. I await the little grace note --- some extra flourish or lagniappe, that will show me they are not working for me, they are working for themselves. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

                                                                                                             photo by Gwyneth Jones
I've spent some time over the past week learning how to be a caretaker. Harold's time at Spaulding (from where the photo above was taken on an extraordinarily clear and windless Thanksgiving morning) is coming to an end, and we hope to have him back with us next week. However, his recovery is still very much in progress, and somehow I will have to substitute for the many people who currently take care of him, in different capacities, throughout the day.
The training is simple enough, but it has given me lots to ponder. It seems nearly all of us are caretakers at one point in our lives. Parenthood, of course, is a prime example. But eldercare is increasingly a responsibility that families take on, and while America will never have the extended family structure common in many parts of the world, more and more families are opting to take relatives into their homes.
The therapists at Spaulding are very concerned that I won't be able to handle it. I think they are wrong. I am sure there will be moments of frustration, but there is also the joy of bringing home an absent spouse after two whole months, and the sure and certain knowledge that Harold wants more than anything to come home. And why should he not? It is true my life is about to change, but as a veteran of the foreign service, my life was always changing. I am lucky in my children and I think Harold will rally when he finds himself back in his own surroundings.  
At the moment my greatest frustration is mechanical. I wasted two hours trying to install a toilet bar for a toilet that is not designed for the model. I am ready to throw the wrench across the room! I'm trying to get up the nerve to change a shower faucet from stationary to sprayer, (The package said "simple installation" and like fool I believed it. And now I've discovered I need a new drill to install the grab bars that must go into studs, and the stud finder that I know we used to have is nowhere to be found. The hospital people did not train me for any of this!
The irony is that Harold is the best man for these jobs -- he was always amazingly handy, and I never needed to learn how to do all this. But clearly, mastering installation is just one more life skill that I am now called upon to master, so back to the garage to resume the search for the stupid stud finder.     

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Robert Frost may famously have said that "something there is that doesn’t love a wall," but my love affair with the walls of New England is in full swing. As a newcomer, the proliferation of walls is one of the first things I noticed. In fact, it is said that there are more than 250,000 miles of walls in our region, so they are not exactly hard to come by.
I’ve become a student of the architecture of walls. By far the oldest and most common are the farmers' walls – the ones Frost speaks of. The story line of his poem speaks of how he and his neighbor walk the length of the wall each spring, replacing stones that have mysteriously fallen.
There’s really no mystery to it – frost heaves can move even gigantic boulders. Woodland creatures hunker through New England winters, the heat of their bodies creating further contrast between the freeze and thaw extremes. These farmers' walls have an honored place in the landscape, but for my taste, too many of them look like piles of rubble.
Then we have the other extreme – fake walls. Commercial establishments are full of these. They start out with breeze block or cinder block – the lowest of the low in the world of stone. Once in place workers affixed an exterior veneer of actual rock. Such fakery is easily spotted miles off. They contribute nothing to the aesthetic of New England and ought to be banned.
Then they are the stylish walls – the current vogue is for dry stacked stone; thin stones placed atop each other. This requires a bit of the mason’s art to plan and balance. It raises the larger debate about dry or wet mortar. People come down hard either way. Purists claim mortar is a travesty; pragmatists point to Robert Frost’s problems with stones falling out each season. I sympathize with Frost – a stone wall ought to be a living thing, surrounded by fields and trees, and susceptible to subtle changes.  And it ought to be possible to be permanent without being so rigid about it.
At long last I am getting my own stone wall. It will be artistic rather than primly utilitarian in true New England fashion, but it will be honed and chiseled and pushed into shape by real masons using real granite. The first stage is the giant pile sitting in the middle of my yard.
I look at it each day in wonderment. What magic will turn this pile into the wall of my dreams?

Monday, November 19, 2012

No meal is harder than Thanksgiving. It lacks the sparkle of New Year's Eve, the elegance of Christmas dinner, or the casual spontaneity of a summer grilled feast. Thanksgiving is burdened with too many uninspired ingredients -- the pterodactyl-sized turkey; gravy, always difficult to do well; cranberries; assorted root vegetables; and the culinary oddity of pumpkin pie.
Many of these foods are eaten only once a year, and Thanksgiving brings them on with abundance. Thus it is no surprise I began hearing signs of insurrection two weeks before the big event.
"What, turkey again?"
"Can we have steak instead?"
"I hate pumpkin pie."
"I hate mashed potatoes."
"What are yams and why do we have them?"
"Couldn't we just get Chinese?"
"Can we get a really, really big turkey?"
"Could we have no turkey?"
"You should definitely brine the turkey."
"This is the year for tur-duck-en."
"Let's deep fry it this time."
"Let's have ham instead."
So, we agreed to have a nice dinner and not worry about what we are "supposed" to have. But tradition has a way of sneaking up one you. First it was C.J. and Ellie's art classes. They produced quantities of cute little turkey objects designed to serve as centerpieces for the table. They sing turkey songs at school. They expect to see a turkey.
Then it was the additional guests -- one who is a victim of Hurricane Sandy. I'm sorry, but someone whose home has been without power deserves better than Chinese takeout.
Then it was all those side dishes. It turns out people like them.
"I hate turkey but I really love the stuffing you made last time."
"We can still have the wild rice dish, right?
"You're going to make homemade rolls, aren't you?"
Thus tradition wins. The photo above, which has absolutely nothing to do with turkey, shows HOME, amidst the long shadows of late autumn, which is where everyone wants to be.  Home with an almost-completed driveway.
Although Harold will not yet be with us, his time at Spaulding is coming to an end, and we are  hoping very much that he will be home -- the best place in all the world -- for the next big holiday, Christmas. All of us will be so very glad to see him at the head of the table we would gladly eat McDonald's just for the pleasure of his company once again. With any luck, all the turkey leftovers will be gone!      

Saturday, November 17, 2012


In an age of too many kindles, it is a relief to attend something as well-worn as the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. I went last night with our daughter Andie, and we knew where we were long before we got to the door. We found ourselves in a sea of middle-aged men in tweeds of every hue. One even sported a monocle.

Exhibitors came from many of the world’s corners. There was an overabundance from Maine, several from east coast states, and one from Santa Monica. European booksellers came in droves from the U.K., but also from Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and France.
No matter their origin, they all arrived slightly rumbled, professorial, and owlish. Never have I seen a group of people inhabit their role more fully than these booksellers, who skirted as close to the edge of self-parody as is possible. When I tired (if that is possible) of the books, I began eavesdropping on their conversations. They spoke knowingly of provenance, frowned in troubled ways over bindings, and proudly pulled out their very best selections under the tablecloths for their friends. They sipped wine (where did they get it?) and in one or two cases, sherry. It was clear they all knew each other, clubbable men from another era.  
It was laughably clear that we were amateurs. Sellers courteously asked us if were were looking for anything special. How to reply? "Just looking" is what you say in a clothing store."Just drooling," was more like it. We examined signed first editions by Aldous Huxley, Julian Barnes, and Charles Bukowski. We read a letter from Henry James to his publisher. And held in our hands a signed volume from Winston Churchill, in an odd fountain pen script, to a his dear friend.

It was easy to gravitate toward the "pretty" books, bound in red Moroccan leather with gold leaf and ribbed spines with familiar names. We saw Jane Austen titles, over and over. And in between all the books, scores of antique maps, incunabula, artist’s books, and even a Nobel prize medal from 1959.

Clearly, many of these books are art objects, skillfully hand-crafted, sometimes with hand-made paper and hand-sewn bindings. Many of them carried lush illustrations that drew the reader further into the story. It made me realize that books from our era never carry illustrations, a factor that may be more of a loss than I realized.

These books raise a disturbing question -- are they actually meant to be read? Over and over I had to resist a life long habit of pulling down books and reading in them. Then, with a start, I'd realize that this was not Barnes and Noble. As collectibles, these books had an entirely different role.

Or do they? Some would argue that they are no different from coins, stamps, or fine china. But their dual purpose suggests otherwise. No one would be so stupid as to use a rare stamp to mail a letter, but one could, as least theoretically, read these books. It might take white gloves and a "clean room,"  but it would be a qualitatively different experience than reading the words on a Kindle, while riding the subway to work in the morning.

To that end, one could wear tweed, sip a sherry, sit in a library in an over-stuffed leather chair in front of a crackling fire.

 I know which I would prefer. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


This photo of Harold was taken late last summer. He's sitting sideways, for some reason, in his favorite chair, surrounded by his books, his cat, and NPR playing in the background. The photo is a reminder of all the good times we had last summer: on the Cape, with family, and on the deck overlooking the river.

It occurs to me that it is increasingly possible that Harold's story will have a happy ending. Or, like the proverbial cat, he still has many of those nine lives left. He is patiently and steadfastly recuperating from the stroke he suffered. His determination impresses all those who work with him at the rehab hospital, and he is lucky to have a remarkably resilient body.

Today I visited toward the end of his physical therapy hour and was surprised to learn that he had already walked three laps around the 9th floor. I watched him walk a fourth lap and saw that there was no difference in gait with his left and right legs. His speed has not quite reached the level of "strolling" yet, but he had a good, easy rhythm. He is finding it easier to chat, and the islands of fluency his speech and language therapist mentioned are more and more apparent.

Strokes are mean, insidious things, but Harold's surprising progress reminds me of the old half-empty glass. I can focus on how unfortunate it is that he suffered this stoke, or I can focus on his amazing courage and adaptability as he fights his way back to what he calls "normal" once more.

Obviously, he's the one calling the shots and, eternal optimist that he is, it is newly clear to me that he wants me to focus on how far he's come in six weeks, not on how much he lost. I will try to remember to take another photo of him in that same chair a year from now, in the hope that he will look every bit as good.  

Comeback stories are inspirational at any age, and Harold deserves all the credit in the world for his own remarkable journey. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


Ellie and C.J. arrived Friday afternoon, just after the workers had parked all the big rigs for the day.  The late afternoon sunlight on an unseasonably warm autumnal day made this work-in-progress a perfect place to try out all the equipment.

Children always contribute a valuable perspective. While I stress about completion dates, styles of masonry, and above all, how much this is going to cost, Ellie and C.J. delight in discovering each new stage when they come on Fridays. They check out the tractors right after the chocolate milk but before the heart waffles. 

Children love routines, and doing something unusual once is often sufficient to establish it as customary. Since I took their pictures one Friday afternoon, I am told that I "always" take their pictures on Friday afternoons. This is now an important part of the ritual. Shameless hams, they eagerly bound from one tractor to the next and vie for the most outlandish poses. 

We part company, however, on our attitudes toward completion. While C.J. and Ellie will be heartbroken when the tractor finally goes back to whatever construction yard it came from, I will be cheering because at long last, our project will be at an end!

But I fear we have many more Fridays before that happy days arrives.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In Between Two Storms

My 57-mile daily commute is testimony to the reality of microclimates.

I left this morning amidst limb-cracking winds and temperatures in the low 40s. As I made my way north, I ran through the entire wintry mix repertoire: freezing rain, sleet, slush, snow, and back to wintry mix, and finally rain.

Some people will tell you that we got the first snow of the year today, but it did not snow at Brigantine. The storm did, however, rain, howl, and wreak havoc all night long. The workers picked up the pace on Monday and Tuesday to compensate for the impending hiatus. As a result we've lost the wild look of a Jurassic Park with gigantic two-storey pine roots upended into the air -- they're all gone.

Now we look like a highway project. At least three differnt kinds of gravel, substrata, aggregate, and other road building materials are being poured over and into the new driveway. Thanks to the time change I am never home in the daylight, but Gwynnie was good enough to conribute this photo of a dump truck.

We should have a spate of good weather and deliveries next week of the long-awaited stones with romantic place names like Cape Ann, Old York, Ashlar, and Belgian Cobbles.
Yet to come -- the breaking up of the old driveway.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Please to remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.

Thirty years ago today, Harold and I were married by Winslow Christian, a state Appellate Court Judge, in his San Fransisco office. We had met him earlier that year on a USIA-sponsored U. S. Speakers tour in Peru and Chile. He and Harold served on panels explaining how reporters, lawyers, and judges interact in newsworthy court cases.

Over the years we've had a lot of fun associating our anniversary with Guy Fawkes Day, a holiday nearly unknown in the U.S., but one associated with very un-anniversary like images of fireworks, bonfires, and "burning the guy" in effigy. 

Like any marriage, our has had its share of fireworks, but the years sneak by and suddenly here we are, celebrating 30 years together. I honestly don't remember how we celebrated the previous 29. A few are memorable, a few were probably marred by forgettable skirmishes. But this year is tough, because we are not exactly together, physically, as Harold continues to recover at a rehabilitation hospital. But as it turns out we were both very mindful of the day.

I started out thinking the best way through was to "forget" it was our anniversary and treat it as a normal day. I had plenty of work to keep me busy and it would have been relatively easy to have gotten lost in all the demands of meetings, reports, and classes.

But, in a wonderful tribute, our children wouldn't let either of us forget. "Happy Anniversary," was the first thing Gwyneth said to me this morning. Then she sent me a valentine's text, fearing I would be sad. And Gareth visited his dad, since I could not, and strolled into his room reciting, "Please to remember the fifth of November." He reported that Harold instantly grasped the significance of the phrase, looked utterly panic-stricken, and said the only possible word under the circumstances: "Flowers?"

To hear that my dear husband recognized the rhyme, still knows the meaning it has for us, and is desperate to buy me flowers is the only anniversary present I need. 


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Welcome to Jurassic Park!

It's hard to capture in a single photo all the mayhem of our front yard. In addition to the big piles of dirt, we have massive tree roots -- the remains of six behemoths -- strewn about. Wires, cords and small trenches make this treacherous. But of course, the machinery makes it more fun than a playground. Our grandchildren C.J.and Ellie are happily dwarfed by the big shovel, above.

The Norwell Board of Selectmen postponed Halloween because of the hurricane -- at one point 80% of the town was without power. We had our Halloween on Saturday and despite, or perhaps because of all the upheaval, we had just as many treat-or-treaters as ever. One of Gwyneth's friends took an appreciative look at all the destruction, and said, "it looks like you've got Jurassic Park here."

All in all, we managed to create a yard scene for Halloween far scarier than anything as conventional as skeletons or witches. And indeed, we are a big attraction. Although I am away at work all day, I hear that the neighbors set out lawn chairs and cold drinks cases for their front row seats at the proceedings. So I guess we can be proud of our big mess.

Once again we are racing the weather. A Nor'easter comes in on Wednesday, so Monday and Tuesday are supposed to be big progress days. The idea is to truck in masonry and truck out all the lumber in a tactical tour de force.

I"ll keep you posted.