Living on Winter Time


Our winter view (photo by Dana Gillette)


When I moved to Northampton, a local in line with me at the DMV asked, with a mildly malicious twinkle in his eye, “So, have you experienced one of our New England winters yet?” I now know that it was a characteristically Massachusetts question, one that combined equal parts boast, complaint, and the desire to scare away outsiders.

He didn’t scare me. I had moved here from Minnesota. I had experienced high temps of -17, two and a half feet of snow on Halloween, and an ice storm that lasted three weeks. I went north in the winter, to see the frozen waves on the shore of Lake Superior and the icy quiet of the Boundary Waters in February. I had long underwear sorted into different temperature categories, as well as wool socks, hats, gloves, scarves, and mittens for every weather variation. I had an L.L. Bean Bay State Parka.

Although the Minnesota winters are colder and snowier, they are consistent. There aren’t great fluctuations in temperature, so there is less melting and refreezing, and therefore less ice. They are sunnier as well. A classic January day is bright blue skies and a high of 2. More importantly, Minnesota and its residents are built for winter. Sure, they may complain, but natives talk about the weather (and they do talk about the weather, a lot) with pride and a certain amount of awe. Houses are constructed for the weather, pipes don’t freeze, furnaces generally make it through the season. Cities are built with tunnels and walkways, so you can stay inside if you want to. But more importantly, people go out. Weather rarely stops them: they skate, play hockey or broomball, cross-country ski, and they go out for hearty farmer’s breakfasts (eggs, potatoes, cheese, and veggies all cooked together).

I suspect that I’d find more of the respectful awe and acceptance of winter in Northern New England, in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Around here, if seems like most people are fighting it tooth and nail. Perhaps I’d find less whining among the natives, most people I know in the area are transplants. (Note: People in Central and Eastern Mass are excused for their whining about the snow this winter, because it is nuts, as is anyone who has a dead furnace or burst pipes).

We live here. Perhaps you have no choice: something keeps you from moving to a warmer climate (and bigger bugs). Or perhaps you are enamored of Western Mass, its people, landscape, and politics. Perhaps you love the kind of people who love a New England winter, people who couldn’t bear to live anywhere else. No matter the reason, winter isn’t going anywhere and neither are we, so it’s time for a truce.

Step outside on a clear frigid night and notice the way the air smells. I have yet to find the words to describe it, but I always recognize it when I first find it in the early weeks of winter. Sharp? Crisp? Elemental? The perfume of a world at rest?

Perfect the art of dressing for the cold. It’s a challenge and a skill. Silk long underwear for mild days, in the 20s and 30s. Polypropylene when the temperature drops more and the wind picks up. Duofold when it goes below 15. Wool socks and liners. Soft scarfs and mittens. There is no such thing as too cold—there are just bad clothing choices.

Get out in it. Walk, especially at night when you can spy on your neighbors through their windows. Take up a winter sport and learn how to dress for it. I vote for cross-country skiing, since I don’t like going down hills at high speeds and I don’t like trudging up hills with a sled.

Or make a snow monster

Or make a snow monster

Embrace snow shoveling. It is an excellent workout if you use good form and it may be the only time you see your neighbors. Do it after dark—the stillness and quiet of a cold night is part of winter’s charm. Listen to some music or a podcast if you need distraction. I recommend Stuff you Missed in History Class. I can’t hear the name Tycho Brahe without thinking of clearing my car; Caravaggio reminds me of shoveling the front porch.

Luxuriate in your cozy house on a cold night or during a storm. Bake bread and pies. Make stew. Pretend you’re the Ingalls family. Cuddle on the couch under a blanket, drink hot chocolate or a hot toddy, and watch a movie or television show with little cultural value. Reread a favorite book.

Enjoy the fact that winter makes you slow down. You can’t drive fast. You can’t even walk fast without slipping. You spend more time at home. You spend more time with your children, which can sometimes slow time to a complete stop. Recalibrate your pace, slow your life, slow your breath, start living on winter time. You can speed up again in April.

Have more sex. What better is there to do under a duvet?

Keep lip balm and moisturizer in every room in your house and every bag you carry.

Sometimes, when I’m scraping the car at 7:00 a.m. and it’s 2 below zero, I ask myself: do I really like this or am I just saying that out of stubbornness or pride?

It’s like having a baby. There are so many things, from pregnancy to nursing a kid with a stomach bug that make the whole parenting process seem like a royal pain in the ass. But I still love having children. And I still love winter. However, I could really use a garage.

Posted in Seasons | 1 Comment

Cross Country, Across the Street

On Halloween of 1991, Minnesota’s first snowfall of the season brought 28 inches. It shut down the cities for three days because the snow removal equipment hadn’t been ready to go. At some point during our forced hibernation, my father called to say that he wanted to buy me cross-country skis. If I was going to live in that weather, I should make the most of it.

Fred and I immediately went to REI and bought the works. Skis, boots, poles, and proper ski wear, from polypropylene long underwear to wool socks and liners. We went to a brief orientation and took a few lessons. We are nothing if not by the book.

We didn’t know how spoiled we were in Minnesota. Every golf course, every city and county park, and every state park has groomed trails. We could buy an inexpensive statewide ski pass that let us use any trails for just the cost of parking. Fresh snow fell a couple of times a week and it never really got warm enough for the snow to get melty, so conditions were always good (if you didn’t mind the cold).

Fred was instantly good at skiing. Me, not so much. It took many tries to get the right feel, and hills terrified me—going up or going down. Still, we didn’t have kids, and we had ample opportunity, and I improved.

Then we moved east and had kids, and that was the end of skiing for a while. I’m not the parent who could throw a kid on my back or on some sort of sled and take them along. I was also appalled that there were so few ski areas with groomed trails and that the few that existed were expensive. Wasn’t this Western Mass, heaven for outdoorsy people?

I’m a little embarrassed about how long it took me to realize I could ski in the cemetery across the street from my house. To me, skiing meant packing everything into the car with snacks and making a day of it. Who knew that you could just walk up the street with skis thrown over your shoulder?

So now, when the conditions are right, I can ski anytime. I still have to get over myself—the me that dreads the effort of getting everything together to head outside. There’s the stress of figuring out how many layers to wear, so that I don’t freeze on the way out and start roasting within 15 minutes. Which hat won’t get too itchy? Which gloves will go on and off easily when I have to blow my nose? Once I get dressed, I then have work up the nerve to walk outside in my ridiculous snow pants and jacket. They are perfect for skiing: lightweight, water repellent, and with lots of pockets. But they’re grape gum purple with teal piping. This is what happens when you buy your ski clothes in the early ‘90s. I’d replace them, but the damn things won’t wear out and they serve their purpose so well.

From there, it’s remembering the proper neckwear, the Chapstick, the Kleenex, and my phone, and getting out the door.

But once I’m there. Oh.

I may ski with quiet or with music. Sometimes, I can ski in trails that someone else has cut, seeing where their path takes me. Sometimes I have to cut trails myself, even though it can be like hiking with big sticks on my feet. But once I create a track around the cemetery, I can go over it again and again, and finally get a good glide on.

I feel far away, but I can see my house and my kid’s elementary school, and I can greet my friends’ dog Sasha when she barks at my passing. There are ancient trees, and various animal tracks, and the secret backsides of neighbors’ houses.

Within minutes I feel a sense of peace that I rarely feel in any other situation. My body is strong, my lungs are clear, and well, my nose is running, but I can deal with that. I can be in the moment, or think about the day and the future, without anxiety. Everything feels fine. Even the gravestones feel like company and provide fascinating glimpses into Northampton’s history. At some point, each time, I marvel that I don’t do this every day.

Eventually, the clock tells me it is time to stop and return to reality. My body feels like it could go all day. I squeeze in another half lap, and then head for the exit, and home. I shed the layers and start the hot drink. I look out my kitchen window to see if I can make out my tracks in the cemetery, and hope someone doesn’t come along and stomp all over them. I feel blissfully achy and tired, and a little smug that I’ve found this wonderful secret.

I wasn't kidding about the outfit. The pants match, too.

I wasn’t kidding about the outfit. The pants match, too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

All Aboard!

It's here!

It’s here!

For our first Christmas together I got Fred a train set. HO scale. As a Jew, I was going for the Christmas cliché. Each year that followed, I bought him an expansion set—more trains, more tracks, more town buildings—always from Ryder’s Hobby Shop in Ann Arbor. This was long before we moved to the East, but it eventually occurred to me that the little town I was building with the train set was an iconic New England town. It was Northampton.

Ironically, Northampton hadn’t had passenger train service since 1987. For years, there has been a train running north from NYC into Vermont (the aptly named Vermonter), but it took a jog through Palmer and then Amherst, to avoid deteriorated tracks. The train ran to Springfield, but there was no service to the rest of the towns up 91: Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield.

Thanks to stimulus money (hurray Barack Obama) and lots of work by our legislators (especially the now retired John Olver) we have a passenger train again! With newly repaired tracks and crossings, the Vermonter will finally come straight up from Springfield. Service doesn’t start until December 29 (and the first run to Penn Station is already sold out), but there was a ceremonial run today.


This afternoon, a crowd of giddy locals and media joined Mayor David Narkewicz, city councilors, and the Expandable Brass Band, and waited for the train’s 2:20 arrival. It actually showed up early, at 2:00. This was a much better precedent than a late arrival. The train stopped at the new Northampton platform and Governor Deval Patrick, and a bevy of officials and media, disembarked for a quick ceremony. The governor was rather funny (someone is certainly enjoying his last few weeks in office) and graciously accepted a NHT t-shirt designed and sewn by Tess Poe, owner of Beehive Sewing Studio + Workspace. Within minutes everyone filed back on the train along with the mayor, city councilors, and other lucky folks, for a trip up to Greenfield (and we hope, back).

U.S. Rep Jim McGovern, U.S. Rep Richard Neal, Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor David Narkewicz.

U.S. Rep Jim McGovern, U.S. Rep Richard Neal, Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor David Narkewicz.

Now, if I’d like, I could walk a few blocks—15 minutes at most—and hop a train to NYC. From there, I could go to Chicago, and even Los Angeles. With some political maneuvering, we’ll eventually be able to take it to Montreal as well. It’s pretty expensive to even go to New York, and the schedule is still limited, but it’s a start.

We never set up Fred’s train set. We didn’t have the right space in our apartment or in either of our houses. It’s all tucked safely in the boxes, most of them unopened. We’re going to set it up during the Christmas vacation, lack of space be dammed. If Northampton can make it happen, so can we.

Posted in Adventuring Beyond Northampton | 1 Comment

Customers are Friends, and Friends are Customers

There are many people who flee or avoid small towns because they don’t want to know everyone. They want a little anonymity. When a favorite Northampton business owner died suddenly last week, I was reminded how glad I am to live in a place where everyone is connected to everyone else, where small businesses are at its center, and where the entire community steps forward in support when there is a loss.

Chris Cavallari owned Serio’s Market and ran it with her husband Gary Golec. She was the third generation to run the market, which has been at the corner of State Street and Center Street since 1950.

Serio’s is one of those businesses that makes Northampton Northampton. It’s a small but full-service grocery store, literally something from another era. It’s packed in a space not much bigger than a 7-11, but you can still get everything you need. It’s my go-to place for local produce—in the past month, I’ve been there almost every day to satisfy my fresh asparagus addiction. They’ve got a full-service deli and meat counter and some of the best homemade soups in town. I could get through winter on their beef stew alone. They’ve got products I can’t find anywhere else, like fantastic slightly sweet Gundelsheim barrel pickles, and delicious locally made zucchini relish. They even sell Tab. (I know this thanks to a friend’s secret addiction.)

I stop by Serio’s several times a week – to restock our bananas and apples or to pick up ingredients for dinner. I’ve been known to go there two or three times in a given day: I like to think it makes me very European, but I’m really just forgetful. When I stop in, I’m guaranteed to see someone I know, or my friends’ kids, who work there now. They even have a delivery service, and their radio jingle is a charming throwback: “Customers are friends and friends are customers… Serio’s.’”

When Chris died suddenly last Friday, the response from the community was quick, overwhelming, and extraordinarily touching. Word spread quickly on Facebook and there was an immediate outpouring of grief and shock on my newsfeed. It was a front page story in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. DJs on our radio station expressed their condolences, playing specific songs for Chris’ husband. People poured into the store to give support. One friend posted on Facebook that she stopped in at lunch on Monday to give Gary a hug and found a line of others waiting to do the same. I heard from friends that the line at the funeral home for today’s wake was out the door and down the street.

I didn’t know Chris well. She had rung up my groceries hundreds of times, and we’d often have a little small talk. For the past two years I arranged with her to donate apples to the bake sale at the Nothampton Education Foundation Spelling Bee. She gave us a giant crate of beautiful local apples to balance out the piles of baked goods. A few weeks ago I was in the store and asked her if they had the new Ben and Jerry’s Cores. Chuck had been lobbying for them for days. Chris hadn’t heard of these, but said she’d look into it. She then pointed me toward the pints of Sweet Scoops, a New Hampshire frozen yogurt, on sale – buy one get one free. I took her advice and picked up a pint of ginger and a pint of coffee. They were just as good as she said they would be.

Tonight I stopped into Serio’s for the usual reason: bananas, apples, and lettuce. I wrote in the memory book they had put out for customers, just below the entry written by my friend Sarah, who had clearly been in the store moments earlier. Just before checking out, I went back to the freezer and got a pint of the Sweet Scoops, in memory of Chris, and in honor of her wonderful store.

Serio's Market (and Serio's Pharmacy) back in the day. Other than the cars, it looks the same today. (Photo courtesy of Forbes Library Special Collections)

Serio’s Market (and Serio’s Pharmacy) back in the day. Other than the cars, it looks the same today. (Photo courtesy of Forbes Library Special Collections)

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Summer in the (Little) City

I don’t like summer. There. I said it. I keep trying to like it. After all, who doesn’t like summer? I’ve had better luck learning to like November.

The reasons are obvious. I wilt in the heat, and fully melt in humidity. I could happily do without anything over 82 degrees. I spent most of our unbearable July in a state of panic over global warming and the increasing electric bill. I don’t like sunscreen or bug spray. I really don’t like bugs. My old house, with the damp basement, smells musty. We have a neighborhood skunk who likes to make her presence known on a regular basis.

While I see plenty of bugs and varmints, I rarely see anyone I actually like. Everyone disappears. I’ll go weeks without seeing favorite people who I usually see a few times a week in non-summer. I can walk through Northampton on a Saturday night and not see anyone I know—it’s like the usual denizens have all been replaced by people from Connecticut.

Each year, the ever-changing schedule of summer nearly breaks me. Not unlike a toddler, I like a consistent schedule and the academic year accommodates me nicely. Summer means camps that change every few weeks, with new morning prep, new carpools, and wildly varying schedules. And then there are the weeks with no camp, but we won’t speak of that.

I might enjoy doing many summer things—music festivals, historic sites, parades, amusement parks—if it weren’t for the aforementioned heat. Scratch that. I don’t like amusement parks in any weather.

And don’t get me started on everyone’s Facebook posts from places I’d like to be. By mid-August I begin contemplating blocking half my friends.

I feel extensive summer guilt about all the things I’m not doing. I’m not taking jaunts to the shore, or even a nearby pond. Because, oh, it smacks of effort. I’m not hiking (I prefer that in the fall when it’s not so buggy), and not canoeing/kayaking/sailing. (See “effort” above). I’m not camping at the Cape, or in Maine, or actually, anywhere.

I don’t even like iced coffee all that much.

Summers greatest disappointment: we like to think it will be like the summers of our youth—carefree, open ended, lazy, full of reading and beach trips. It will never be that again.

“Quit complaining and tell us what you do like,” I hear you say. Fortunately, even for an inveterate summudgeon, there are things that do redeem summer, especially here in my little city. They are, in no particular order:

June’s explosion of roses. The magical few weeks when the lilacs are in bloom. The stunning pink lilies in my garden. We went away in early July one year and missed them. We’re not allowed to do that again.

Our CSA farm. In June, I think it is the greatest thing in the world. All this wonderful produce? All for me? By October, it’s just one more thing to deal with. But there is always a point, standing in a field at the end of the day, when the air has cooled and there is no child whining, when I’m picking sugar snap peas or green beans, and I can’t imagine anything better.

Eating things from my backyard. I didn’t grow up with vegetable gardens, so I haven’t lost the thrill of walking into my backyard and clipping some basil or picking some cherry tomatoes. My husband does most (OK, all) of the gardening, and he doesn’t believe in structured vegetable gardens. He plants wherever it makes sense, so the melons are around the side of the house, the cherry tomatoes along the fence, the sugar snap peas on the other side of the yard. Since I don’t plant the vegetables, I never quite know what growing. It’s nice to discover that the vine growing on the deck is actually cucumbers. Right now I’m eating fresh cukes like candy, and I’m both delighted and appalled at their tiny prickly spines.

The light. When I think of childhood summers, my first thought is almost always to the quality of light in the evening—coming home from the beach or after playing at a friend’s house all day. That’s still the same.

Early morning. I’ll admit that I rarely see it. Even if awake, I barely see it (I’m not a morning person). But when circumstances dictate that I’m up and out before 8, there’s a bonus: the quiet, the coolness, the potential.

Walking to Herrell’s Ice Cream, standing in line, eating Burnt Sugar and Butter while sitting on the wall across the street, and watching all the people from Connecticut walk by. Or Go Berry when I’m feeling yogurty. Really, this is our primary summer activity: some variation on going downtown and looking at people.

Going outside in my pajamas at 11:00 p.m. to watch the International Space Station fly over, and catching a shooting star while I’m at it.

Hanging out with friends on a deck somewhere, in the early evening, with a vodka tonic.

Each year, there is a moment, usually in mid-August, when my feed is littered with photos from Cape Cod and Maine, I’ve just driven the carpool to Deerfield, and a car goes by with kayaks on the roof, and I hit bottom. That’s when I calmly smack myself in the head and remind myself that I live year-round where I used to vacation. I may not travel often to wonderful places, but I do get to live in one.


Our very own July 4th fireworks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Choosing our Neighborhood School

It’s nice to have a blog when the local paper chooses not to publish the op/ed guest column you submit. I wrote this in response to a rather heated newspaper debate about our area’s charter schools and the financial impact they have on Northampton’s traditional public schools. I’m not going to get into that debate here. However, many of those who wrote columns and letters defending charter schools were quick to assert that non-charter schools are mediocre, and implied that given the opportunity, charters are always the better choice. With 10 years of experience in Northampton’s schools, I can say without reservation that they are excellent, and the first choice for many families. 

Bridge Street School's Fifth Grade Graduation

Bridge Street School’s Fifth Grade Graduation

Ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, we were offered a spot for our 5-year-old son at the Hilltown Charter School after having been on the waitlist for several weeks. We received the letter on a Friday and had to respond by Monday. We agonized. Rumors were spreading that the Northampton School Committee was going to cut art, music, and gym from the elementary schools, but we also had every reason to believe that Bridge Street School, five houses away, would be great for our son. After much exploration, we saw that there was no evidence that he’d get a better education at Hilltown or a worse education at Bridge Street, and at the local school, we’d be remaining in our community. We turned down the space at Hilltown.

A decade later, my younger son is graduating from Bridge Street School, and it’s been an excellent run. Certainly, it hasn’t been perfect: no school is without its weaknesses, and constant budget cuts compound these. However, my sons have been happy socially and challenged academically. Their quirks—the long hair they had for several years, their nutty imaginations—have been embraced. Their teachers have been excellent: patient, creative, and inspiring. My older son, for whom we passed up the spot at Hilltown, entered 9th grade at Northampton High School this year, and hit the ground running, excelling in a schedule made up of mostly honors classes. Clearly the foundation he received at BSS and JFK is strong. Although we had choices for his high school education, we chose the school in his community, with an extremely diverse student base, and classes like Honors Art and AP Physics.

Without a doubt, the greatest gift that the Northampton’s public schools have given my family is its very diverse community. As we like to say, it’s a Richard Scarry world. My kids’ friends come from affluent families, from families struggling to get by, and from families staying at Grace House until they get on their feet. Their friends include kids who are academically high achieving and kids for whom even reading is a challenge. Their friends are those who find it easy to follow the rules and those with significant behavior problems. To them, all of these kids are simply their friends. What matters is whether they’re fun, whether they’re kind, or whether they’re into Doctor Who, Modest Mouse, and Rick Riordan’s books.

As my little guy has finished his last year at Bridge Street, my husband and I have been working on the 5th grade yearbook and graduation slide show. I’ve spent the last three months walking around the school with a camera in my hand and a lump in my throat. Today, as I wandered the halls trying to find the last few staff members to photograph, I asked myself if I regret the decision we made a decade ago? The answer is an easy one: Not for a minute.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Village Nark


It takes a village to nark on each other’s kids.

Ever since we were able to buy a home within walking distance to downtown Northampton, I’ve anticipated with mixed emotions the time when my kids would eventually be out and about on their own. I loved the fact that they would be able to get downtown by foot and wouldn’t be dependent on rides. I didn’t love the fact that they would ever be out of my sight.

Fortunately, in this little city, that’s not such a problem, because the eyes are everywhere.

So far, no one has ever narked on Chuck for questionable behavior, but I always get reports from friends when they see him. They are often delighted that he seems to know who they are. I feel the same way when the teens I know prove to be aware of my existence.

I, however, have been narking on my friends’ kids for years. Often, it is innocent:

“Hey, I saw Artie walking down King Street toward Stop and Shop.
“What? He’s not supposed to do that!”
“Whoops. Sorry Artie.”

Sometimes I’m not sure whether I should nark, so I take an oblique approach. When I saw a friend’s son biking without a helmet, I posted on Facebook: “If you saw a friend’s child biking down Elm Street without a helmet, would you tell them.” Conveniently, the offending teen’s mom was the first to respond with: “I’d want to know.” I told her. Hopefully she didn’t reveal her source.

Last week, on the first warmish spring day, I looked out my window too see a friend’s daughter biking through the cemetery. At first I thought it was a rather odd woman pertly biking on a child’s bike with a big flowered basket, not unlike Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. This would not be out of the realm of possibility in Northampton. Then I realized it was just a very pert child, one I knew. This led to another inadvertent narking.

– Is your child biking around the cemetery?
– Are they biking? I told them they could go to the cemetery together. I didn’t want them biking in it. Do you only see one??
– Oh jeez – am I narking on them? Now I see two.
– I appreciate the narking.

What followed was a hilarious thread about biking in cemeteries, gravestones shaped like penises, and how glad we are that everyone is looking out for our kids. For the record, these girls were wearing their helmets.

Sometimes the little city network is good just for keeping track of the kids. A year ago, on a Friday afternoon, I realized that I had no idea where Chuck was. He had walked from the middle school to downtown Florence, a village within the city limits of Northampton (or DT Floho, as he called it at the time). As usual, he wasn’t answering his cell phone, most likely because it was out of battery power. I mused on Facebook that I wished I had a tracking device implanted on him so I could trace him. Within minutes, a friend posted that she had just seen him walking down her street, which told me where he was and where he was going.

’Round here, we don’t need tracking devices or, apparently, cell phone battery power. We just need the village.

Posted in I Love Northampton | 3 Comments