What’s Good (when so much is bad)

It’s already been an exceedingly bad couple of weeks for our country, but in the trump era, every week seems to be exceedingly bad. How do we survive between moments of despair, murderous rage, and calls to our elected officials? We write about what’s good, especially what’s good in the little city and the big Valley.

It’s October! Last year, the election leached all the joy out of October. This year, the state of the country is worse, but no worse this month than any other. Everything about October is good. The smell of the air. The purple, reds, and pinks of the leaves. The splash of color from the Japanese maple in the cemetery across the street from our house. Drinking wine and happily shivering in a sukkah. Sweaters and boots (theoretically—it’s been in the 70s most of the month so far). Everyone in my little family was born in July, further evidence that October is the best, and most fertile, month.

We first visited Northampton exactly 20 years ago this week: Columbus Day weekend, 1997. We were traveling to our friends’ wedding in upstate New York, but decided to fly into Bradley Airport and drive from there, so we could visit Northampton on the way. Fantasizing about moving east, we wanted to see if we’d like Northampton as much as were thought we would. Is it any wonder we had moved here within the year? Once I had experienced flying into the airport, seeing the colors from above, seeing the range of hues up the sides of hills around Northampton, spending a cool sunny day wandering downtown. There was no way we were going to spend another October anywhere else.

The summer people are gone! No offense to the many people who visit Northampton throughout the summer, but it’s nice to walk downtown and actually recognize most of the people we see. There are fewer people trying to cross the King/Main street intersection against the light (Parent Weekends notwithstanding). The lines at Herrell’s are shorter.

Outlander.

Apples. Fresh, crisp, perfect local apples. Stopping by the Tuesday Market for my weekly fix from Apex Orchards. Driving to orchards far afield as an excuse to glory in the landscape. Honey crisps that are on the verge of too tart for my tender constitution. Galas that actually taste like they’ve been dipped in honey. Red and yellow delicious that make you realize those things in the grocery stores called red and yellow delicious apples are flavorless travesties. Hauling out the slow cooker to make chunky applesauce (keep the peel on the apples, thank you)

Charlie Arabic Text

My son texting me from college to gleefully tell me that they’ve started to learn definite articles in his Arabic class.

Mums!

Tooling around town listening to Sarah Vowell audiobooks; enjoying her kindred history nerd spirit. Feeling like less of a weirdo for celebrating my 50th birthday by visiting the Culloden Battlefield in Scotland or knowing most of 1776 by heart. Looking forward to whatever book she writes about the trump administration, if we survive long enough to see it.

The Book Mill. The Book Mill will end up on any list I make of things that are good, and it’s especially good in October. You’d think I’d manage to get there more often.

In every exam room at our pediatrician’s office, there is a large sign with information and their policies, and each has prominent gay and trans pride symbols.

Swimming—with my miraculous waterproof iPod. An hour of exercise and peace that I love from start to finish (as long as I can keep the state of the world out of my head). If I time it just right, I don’t have to share my lane with irritating splashy people.

Crunchy leaves. Going out of my way to stomp on them.

 The Ashfield Fall Festival—my favorite of the Valley’s small town fairs. Pumpkin doughnuts. The hardware store. Morris Dancers. Bizarre tag sale finds. Running into a variety of favorite people.

The Halloween art of Fred Zinn. Each year, my husband turns our long porch into a life-sized Halloween diorama. Each tableau is constructed entirely of paint on cardboard. The planet of carnivorous plants, with a strangled Statue of Liberty, because: 2016. Confused classic movie monsters holding a costume party in the middle of an unfortunate cityscape. A carousel with an array of cryptids instead of horses. Kraken’s Tomb: an aquarium of spooky fish with the requisite evil clown fish. This year, it’s Frankenstein’s lab with a cast of mice. Each one is stunning in its humor, sweetness, and artistic skill.

2017HalloweenWindow

Soon (Good Lord, please let it be soon) we’ll have an October where the fear is caused by ghosts and ghouls, not by morons and maniacs. Until then, keep breathing the fall air, gazing at the leaves, and add a little more rum to your hot cider.

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A Late Spring’s Morning Dream

June 10 started with Shakespeare. At 8:45 in the morning. In a middle school cafeteria. It was the kind of performance that the bard would either find horrifying or hilarious. I’ll bank on the latter.

Every year the entire 8th grade class at JFK Middle School performs A Midsummer’s Night Dream, with a cast of 220, give or take a dozen. There are three English teachers, and their classes each perform a third of the play. The roles are shared among the students. One kid may play Theseus for an entire act, while the four lovers’ roles are played in shifts. At one point it was a revolving door of lovers, helpfully wearing tie-dyed t-shirts with their character’s names printed on the front. It helps if you know the plot of the play in advance, because it’s very easy to get lost. Sometimes Puck is played by one kid, sometimes the fairies get to share his lines. In one scene the rude mechanicals all wore sports jerseys, in another, tutus. The teachers, as directors, throw gender around willy-nilly. Demetrius played by a girl, Titania played by a boy in over the top drag. Some of these boys may have been wildly uncomfortable with the crossdressing and gender swapping, but you wouldn’t know it to watch. From the point of view of the audience they were unfazed and took on their roles with sangfroid and enthusiasm.

In spite of the silliness, it holds together. The kids have a blast. And if they inadvertently skip an entire scene, well, we all know that Bottom gets a donkey head and Titania falls in love with him, so really how important is Act 3, Scene 1?

MidSummerNightsDream-Theo

Photo courtesy of Kim Duval

My kid played Puck for a whopping seven minutes. Wearing a flowered shirt, a vest I bought on my honeymoon in London, a pink tutu, and fairy wings, he danced, and bounced and schemed, blew glitter at the lovers to send them to sleep, and clutched adoringly at Oberon (his pal Dan, in a glittery back tank and harem pants). He may have spoken the lines a little fast, but his always surprising deep voice carried well. Not so far removed from Puck in personality, he became the character. This is a kid who has gone through life as if there is always an audience around him—this time it was actually on a stage. It will forever be one of the most delicious seven-minute periods of my life.

In the end, it didn’t matter so much that these kids stretched Shakespeare to his limits. They had a weeks-long immersion in this wonderful play. They experienced firsthand how funny, beautiful, and joyful Shakespeare’s plays can be, and why we’re still performing them centuries later. They sharpened their memorization skills. They got mad props from their peers, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, they stepped out of their very narrow teenage comfort zones, at least for a morning.

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There’s a Difference

This is a departure from my typical blog posts, but enough infuriating Facebook conversations, and a girl gets serious. I live in a wonderful little bubble in Northampton, but that won’t matter if Trump is elected president.

You say that there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so you won’t vote for either.

If you want to have access to safe and legal abortions or you want that for your daughters and granddaughters, there’s a difference.

If you want birth control and STI protection to be easily accessible, there’s a difference.

If you know that abstinence education is actually dangerous, there’s a difference.

If you want refugees to have a chance to build a safe life in the US, there’s a difference.

If you want immigrants of any sort to be able to build a safe life here, there’s a difference.

If you want gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to have legal rights to their children, there’s a difference.

If you want gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to be able to make medical decisions for their loved ones, to be able to be with them in illness and death, there’s a difference.

If you want gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to be able to marry someone from a different country and be able to live together, there’s a difference.

If you think transgender people deserve physical safety, there’s a difference.

If you think someone shouldn’t get fired because they’re gay, lesbian, or transgender, there’s a difference.

If you want people of color, and impoverished people to have full voting rights, there’s a difference.

If you believe that people need access to safe affordable childcare so they can work and support their families, there’s a difference.

If you believe that pregnant women have the right to retain their jobs, perhaps sit down at work, and even go to the bathroom when they need to, there’s a difference.

If you think everyone should have affordable health care, there’s a difference.

If you think people shouldn’t choose between food and medications, there’s a difference.

If you think that people who can’t afford health insurance shouldn’t die because they can’t afford treatment, there’s a difference.

If you think people of color, gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people, disabled people, Jews, and Muslims shouldn’t fear for their lives and safety any more than they already do, there’s a difference.

If you know that no particular ethnicity or religion is more likely to produce terrorists than any other, there’s a difference.

If you know that we have much more to fear from people inside our country than those on the outside, there’s a difference.

If you want a chance at meaningful gun control, there’s a difference.

If you see education as essential, or even a good idea, there’s a difference.

If you fear the damage that climate change will do and has already done, there’s a difference.

If you know that climate change will be the worst for the most impoverished, marginalized people of the world, there’s a difference.

If you think national parks are a good idea, there’s a difference.

If you think protected land, water, and skies are a good idea, there’s a difference.

If you value leaders who believe in science, there’s a difference.

If you want leaders who do not fear women, there’s a difference.

If you want leaders who see women as more than sexual objects and/or mothers, there’s a difference.

If you believe that the stability and health of the entire world is tied to the stability and health of the U.S., there’s a difference.

There’s too much at stake. There’s a difference.

 

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Good Friends

NYPL-Boys

My kids choose good friends.

I don’t know why they’ve been so blessed. I certainly didn’t always have such good judgment.

I knew this was a good sign even when they were very young. They are naturally cautious, and not drawn to the dangerously charismatic kids, the risk takers, the ringleaders. With this tendency, my intuition told me they wouldn’t get lost.

There have been a few friends with problematic parents, but the kids have always been fine.

In the past few months, Ted has become part of a little posse of 8th grade boys. It is mostly kids he has met in middle school, but also includes one kid he’s known since kindergarten, one of my favorites. They’ve been to a few movies as a group, but their main activity is walking to downtown Florence after school on Fridays, stopping by the Florence Pie Bar, and then walking to one of their homes. They’re smart and kind and they have an easy, unself-conscious way about themselves. The boys in the group call Ted by his full name – first and last – like characters out of an odd drawing room comedy. Two of the boys in the group are named Tommy, which confirms my suspicion that they really exist in an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

In January, on a day off from school, the boys met for an early lunch at Miss Flo’s Diner. I could see so clearly that it was to be one of those moments when adolescents practice being adults. I dropped him off with some money and a reminder to be respectful of the waitresses and other diners.

Later that day he told me what he ate and what they talked about. He also described these cool machines at the table: you can flip through song titles, pick one, put in a quarter and it will play music! (Clearly there has been something missing in his education.)

The following week, I heard a story from another parent that he had neglected to tell me.

After lunch, when they asked the waitress for their bill, she told them that they were all set. Their lunch – for six 13-year-old boys – had been covered by a couple at a nearby table. The elderly couple (as Ted called them – they were probably 55) thought they were such nice, well-behaved boys, that they picked up the tab.

Ted is starting high school in the fall, and I still have trouble seeing it. He seems far too young, and so do many of his friends. But with this sweet posse, and the other kids he’s attached himself to, I’m not at all afraid to see him go.

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Mice and Bats and Rats

A few weeks ago, as I sat working on the couch in my sun-filled living room in the middle of the day, a mouse scurried out from the space between the wall and the fridge and got a few feet into the room before my minor freakout sent him back from whence he came.

I thought I had a deal with the mice: they promise to stay out of sight when I’m around and I promise to feel bad when they get killed in a trap. They never cooperate.

Living in an old house, I’ve learned to accept the annual attempts by the mice to set up housekeeping.

I grew up in a relatively new house in the suburbs. We didn’t get mice. Except once. My mother called an exterminator, and that was that.

My first mouse encounter as an adult was in our pre-homeowner apartment. I literally got up on a chair and yelled for Fred. Honestly, this is still my response when I see a mouse. We were young and idealistic and didn’t want to kill the critter. We could catch it and set it free! Sure we could. We actually managed to herd him into the bathroom where there was no escape, dropped a large yogurt container on him, and slid the lid underneath. When we picked it up and peeked inside he was rather still. I still contend that we scared him to death.

Not wanting to just toss him in the dumpster downstairs (young, idealistic), we stuck the yogurt container into the freezer to preserve the body until we could have a proper funeral. I helpfully wrote “Dead Mouse” across the top, so that an unsuspecting friend wouldn’t mistake it for homemade chicken stock.

Sometime later—who knows how long he was in the freezer—we walked to the river to toss him over the embankment. Fred carried the yogurt container under his arm, top facing out, as we strolled along, nodding at other walkers and looking for a good spot. It wasn’t until we sent the mouse on his merry way, that we realized we had been greeting all those walkers with a container proclaiming “Dead Mouse.”

This was the last time we gave a mouse a funeral. When we bought an old house, and they became a regular part of our lives, we gleefully set traps.

In this house we had only a few mice. To make up for it, we had bats. We’d regularly wake up in the middle of the night with one circling over our heads. We determined that they were getting into our chimney, coming out in the basement, flying through the house, and finding their way to the bedroom. It was the only room with air-conditioning; we assumed they thought it was the outside. Lacking a net, Fred became quite skilled at capturing bats against the wall with a shoebox. The first time he caught one, we let the it go out the front door. It was back in our room before we returned. The next time, we put the shoebox in the car and drove a good fifteen miles away. Across the Mississippi River. At 3:00 in the morning.

One night, we woke to the sound of “flutter flutter thwap,” over and over. This evening’s bat was repeatedly running into the spinning ceiling fan. It eventually knocked him to the floor. He was easy to catch.

Bat-1

When we got a dog, we thought she would at least alert us to bats. That first night after she came home with us, as we stood at the stove, the dog between us, a bat flew up from the basement and soared between us as it made its way to the dining room. The dog didn’t bat an eye. Clearly, we were on our own.

Eventually we left that house, and the Midwest, and moved into our current home. I got used to the mice. I still flipped out when I saw one, but I got to the point where I could even deal with emptying a trap and burying the mouse in the garden, if need be.

If you get used to mice, the universe will send you a rat. Our first sign was a tennis ball in the basement that had been entirely stripped of its fuzzy coating. We opted for denial. Then we found a box of matzah in the pantry, a large chunk of it torn open, and matzah strewn everywhere. We had a rat, and it was Jewish.

We consulted an exterminator. He said he could bait and poison for $300 or we could buy the same stuff at the hardware store. We went the cheap route. Mr. Rat managed to remove the bait from the terrifying jaws of death trap without getting caught in it. Next step: poison. This meant we would eventually find a dead rat somewhere in the basement. Or hopefully we’d find him. Horrified at the prospect, I wondered aloud how big it might be. “Think about rats in labs,” Fred suggested in an attempt to comfort me. “They’re not so big.”

In a few days, I found the rat. It was the size of a squirrel. A big squirrel.

The rat seemed to be an anomaly, and we went on for several more years just dealing with mice. And their poop. I got used to that too.

This summer, we began hearing noises in the wall. Although I considered moving, we called a critter removal guy instead. He inspected the house and declared it possible that we had an entire circus: red squirrels, flying squirrels, birds, mice, and possibly rats.

After a few days of perusing the real estate ads, the noises stopped, and Fred came upon a dead rat in the basement. We have no idea how it died, but we were appreciative nonetheless. My photographer son found it fascinating and took a raft of photos before we disposed of the critter. There were no more noises all summer and fall, so we decided it was just another anomaly.

When we trapped last week’s midafternoon mouse, Fred noticed that he seemed a bit big. And gray. We put him in the deep freezer—warning sign included—and called the critter guy. He blithely inspected the frozen, smashed horror show, and proclaimed it a baby rat.

He thinks we’ve had rats all along. They’re very clever, and stealthy, he explains, and it’s possible we could have gone this long without noticing. In order to maintain a shred of mental health, I have chosen to remain skeptical. But we’re still going to pay a fortune to have him take care of the problem anyway. Until then, I’ll be at a motel.

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Animal Show

We lived in St. Paul in the 1950s. At least it was the 1950s in our sweet neighborhood on the edge of the Macalester College campus. In the rest of the city and the world, it was the 1990s. There were a few brownstone apartment buildings like ours, but it was mostly single family houses, built in the 1920s. They weren’t very grand, but far more than we could have afforded at the time. In the afternoons there were kids everywhere. Playing in yards, riding bikes, many wearing the uniform of the local Catholic school. A few blocks away we had a pharmacy with an active soda fountain. I regularly expected to see Beaver Cleaver. We didn’t have kids then, so these families, their houses, children, and lives were great mysteries to us.

I was a graduate student at the time, and would spend the late afternoon in a nearby coffee shop pretending to read and understand cultural theory. Fred worked at an art college in Minneapolis. After taking the bus home to our neighborhood, he would meet me at the café and we would walk home through the 1950s together.

On one particular spring day, as we approached our street, we heard a tiny voice calling. A few houses away we could make out a small figure at the top of a hill on a sloping lawn of a Tudor style home. As we came closer, we saw that it was a little girl. She was probably six. Since this was before kids, I really had no way of knowing where she fit between 4 and 13. She stood next to a side table with a few cages on it. In a high pitched but steady voice that would impress a carnival barker, she called out:

Animal show

Pause

Ten cents a ticket

Pause

Two hamsters

Pause

A rabbit

Pause

And a raaaaaaaaaaat.

I’m ashamed to say that we didn’t go up and buy tickets. I chalk it up to being twenty-something and a little afraid of children.

In the years since, it’s become one of our favorite go-to bits, to break into the animal show chant when the spirit moves us. It never ceases to be funny.

I’ll visit the neighborhood next month for the first time in nearly two decades to visit Macalester with my son. I fully expect it to still be the 1950s.

Meanwhile, as far as I’m concerned, the little girl still lives on there, at exactly the same age, in exactly the same place. So do the hamsters, the rabbit, and the rat.

AnimalShow

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Living on Winter Time

JanuaryCemetery

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.

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