Monday, October 31, 2016

October Book Report: The Four Swans by Winston Graham

I prefer stories with happy or hopeful endings and I’m always on the lookout for good books in that category.   Last year, I came across a list of books with happy-ending stories.  Many of my favorite books were there and so I knew this large list was good news for my bookish self.  The list recommended the books of Winston Graham, just as Masterpiece Theatre announced that they would be producing a series based on Graham’s most well-known work: Ross Poldark.  I picked up the first books in Graham’s Poldark series in advance of the PBS airing.  I loved them at once.

Set in Cornwall in the late 1700s, the series opens as Captain Ross is returning from service in His Majesty’s army in the American colonies.  Ross is a gentlemen, but more aware then most men about the dangers of class division.  He returns from the war a thoughtful man,  hoping to marry the woman he left behind and take his place in Cornish society.  Instead, he discovers that his love is set to marry his cousin, his father has died, and his estate is in ruins.

Things can only improve.  

They do, amidst beautiful descriptions of the Cornish landscape and keen observations about class and obligation in late 1700s England.  The series has a total of twelve novels written over a span of fifty years, starting in 1945.  They are beautifully written, with well-developed characters and thoughtfully explored plot lines.  Graham understands human nature and all its complications; he has an appreciation for the natural world.  His heroic characters are distinctly human.  The less admirable figures are presented as fully developed so that the reader understands their motivations even as they remain unsympathetic.  There is drama amongst the Cornish landscape but also humor, happiness, and an arc toward hope.  

The Four Swans, which I read this month, is the sixth novel in the series and is about four women whose lives intersect with Ross Poldark.  Graham understands the limitations placed on women in the world of the 1790s and though these women are not empowered in the traditional sense, they are influential in their worlds.  

I started October reading this novel.  Reading it amidst the candidacy of Hillary Clinton on the cusp of being elected our first female president, while the latest revelations about Donald Trump’s behavior toward women swirled around us, found me especially thoughtful about the narrow path women still must walk in this world.  Our lives aren’t constrained like the women in 1700s Cornwall, but its clear that we are not yet accorded the privilege of wealthy and empowered men.

The Four Swans didn’t leave me thinking only about 2016 politics.  It was all that I have come to expect from Graham’s novels: an engaging diversion from my world, a story that is diverting and thoughtful. 

That’s happy.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

12 months of Miss Read: October

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fair Acre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fair Acre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

Miss Read in October 

Miss Read’s October is filled with planning for her school’s centennial celebration.  She’s also relishing that last days of summer warmth.  I feel the same way, enjoying the cooler nights and warmth of a fall quilt, but turning my face toward the sun when the afternoons are warm.  I’ve still got my flip flops at the ready but increasingly I come home and look for slippers or socks.  The leaves are blowing about and fall is in the air.  

After a week of cool weather, today is sunny and warm.  Throughout my house, the windows are open so that we can enjoy the air.  As October prepares to close out, I'm aware that warm days like this are increasingly rare.  So they should be embraced and enjoyed. Miss Read agrees.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: October 27

Posting has been light this week, thanks to the fact that the flu is kicking my backside. But I was home today, napping and otherwise letting the flu have its way with me and I did remember to make a picture of my dogwood.

This week has been unseasonably cold and rain fell all day today.  Between the rain and some earlier wind, fall colors seem to have accelerated.  Leaves are everywhere.  The dogwood is closing in on losing the last of its leaves.

Fall is pretty around here and it’s especially lovely in my backyard, which was a blessing to admire as I napped and rested today.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Down for the Count

On Friday evening, a wave of physical exhaustion swept over me.  I assumed I was just extra tired and so I tucked into bed early.  Saturday night, after spending much of the day at school for an Open House, I felt the same kind of exhaustion.  Plus, I was really cold.  Again, I thought nothing of it and went to bed.  Sunday dawned and I felt a little tired.  But T and I went grocery shopping anyway.  By mid-day, I was once again exhausted.  By 4, I’d put on my pajamas and taken to the sofa under a heap of blankets watching endless episodes of American Pickers.  I went to bed at 7:30; JT came home and gave me a kiss on the cheek he was so worried.

Monday, I took my feverish self to school to help out with a day of community service.  I felt like death on a cracker and nearly everyone who saw me asked, “are you okay?”  I came home at midday and had a nap and finally admitted the truth: I have the flu.

Today I am home while Old Man Tree gets a complicated trimming from a veritable army of tree trimmers.  I’m drinking endless cups of tea and contemplating the fact that moving from the sofa to the teapot feels like a Herculean task.  It’s been years since I had the flu but let me assure you that it still sucks.  I don’t get sick very often and I am the world’s worst patient, resentful of the fact that I am sick and generally convinced that I’m doomed.  Dr. Google is especially helpful in this regard.  

I highly recommend a flu shot, if you haven’t yet gotten around to it.  Because the flu is not fun.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Food Friday: Cinnamon Apples

In New Jersey, diners are located on nearly every corner.  They have huge menus and serve breakfast all day.  In this state, they are an institution.  In the South, that same role is filled by restaurants collectively known as “ a meat and three.”  That means places where you choose what’s on your plate one item at a time.  Your start with a "meat".  The meat choices are usually a long list of options: fried chicken, pork chop, country ham, sugar-cured ham, chicken fried steak, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, pot roast…… get the idea.

The “vegetables” on the "three" list are usually an enormous collection, only some of which are actually vegetables: corn, grits casserole, cole slaw, turnip greens, green beans, squash, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, carrots, crowder peas, cottage cheese, mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes……..and there are always sweet cinnamon apples (also called fried apples).  

Cinnamon apples taste like the inside of an apple pie.  It’s a simple dish of sliced apples, cooked in a smudge of melted butter with brown sugar and cinnamon.  The apples cook down and release their pectin, so the sauce is thick with flecks of cinnamon.  Served warm, they are always delicious.  Leftovers, if you have any, can be served for breakfast with a corn muffin or biscuit, on pancakes, or in oatmeal.

But for supper, they taste like home and fall.  And in our house they taste like your mama loves you.  That’s happy!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: October 20

Last week we had cool weather.  None of the days had temperatures over 70 and the evenings dropped into the 40s.  My plants came in off the front porch, blankets were added to the beds, windows were shut against the chilly night air.  For its part, the dogwood went to full-on fall foliage.  Nearly all the leaves were showing red by the end of the weekend.

Naturally, warm weather returned this week.  The dogwood seems over-dressed for days in the 80s, but having committed to seasonal change the dogwood is not going back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Counting the Days

The other night, I set out to replenish the cotton squares in my medicine cabinet.  I use one each night to remove my makeup.  Typically, I buy a large bag and then take a dozen or so from the bag and place them in the cabinet for my daily use.  In this way, I keep track of how many I’ve used and, as the supply wanes, make a note to add replacements to my Target shopping list.

On Monday, when I grabbed a new stack of squares I had the idle thought that when these squares were gone, the election would be over, and Donald Trump would no longer be in my daily mental landscape.  

The realization was both thrilling and telling.  Thrilling,, because I long ago grew weary of this man and his hateful, ignorant, and incendiary rhetoric.  To think that he will soon be gone from my daily world is exciting.  And telling, because I had not realized how much his presence in my personal newsfeed had taken its toll on my heart and soul.

Eleven years ago, I began to take note of the passage of time by marking the shrinking piles of things I used in my daily life: cotton squares, dryer sheets, coffee filters…..all were small markers as I looked for time to pass and ease the pain of my broken heart.   It started in a peculiar fashion, in July of 2066, just a few weeks after JT’s other mother had left our family, when I was struggling mightily with an engulfing sadness.  One evening, I used the last coffee filter to set up the coffee pot for my morning coffee and I realized we’d bought those filters together.  Now I would buy filters on my own.  That summer found me marking all the things I would now take care of on my own.  I looked to these mundane items for the healing that the passage of time would provide.  When I’ve run through these 160 dryer sheets, I’d think, it will hurt less.  When these 250 coffee filters have gone, I’d hope, this break up won’t be my first thought each morning when I come awake.

The odd little remedy was a comfort.  Within a year, I was better.  As time marched on, the heartache was less acute.  Eventually, the wound healed.  

Counting out 3 dozen cotton squares and then realizing that when they were gone, the pain that is Donald Trump will have been defeated was surprising.  I hadn’t realized the toll that this election had taken on my subconscious.  But it has taken a toll.  The spite, the ignorance about our democracy, the dismissive attitude toward women, the vindictive rhetoric, the demonizing of decent people, and the hateful language: I am done with it all.  

I want hope.  I want the promise of a nation that works together and moves forward in unity.  I want an appeal to our better angels.  I want to go through my day and neither hear nor read of Donald Trump.

On Monday, when I counted out the cotton squares, it was 22 days until November 8.  As of today, it is 20 days.  We can do this, America.  We can hold on.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Soup Season

The arrival of fall finds us enjoying soup for supper.  To celebrate the season, I will post pictures of the soups we have enjoyed in the past week.  We had black bean soup for supper early last week.  It’s a recipe I’ve been making for years.  It comes together easily and it’s always delicious.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Cats are not supposed to be on the table.  Neither of them cares for my silly rules.

Lucy pleads guilty as charged.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Real Life Conversations with JT: Heads Up edition

The backstory: Commuting in New Jersey is an adventure in crowd control.  The classic New Jersey commute is to drive one set of roads to work and a whole other set of roads to get home.  A t various points in the time I have lived here, I’ve done that.  I’ve been driving the same way home for several years, via local roads instead of the interstate.  Recently, there have been long (and inexplicable) jam ups on a road that used to move quickly.  T has noticed the same thing and recommended that I try the interstate, which I had long ago given up as too jammed with traffic.  We’re tried that route for the last three days and have been rewarded for our effort.  The 10 mile drive home on the local roads had been taking us more than 40 minutes.  The revised route has shaved 20 minutes off the drive.  As JT and I flew down the  highway, we were pleased.  And then JT paid me the ultimate complement in his world.

JT:  In baseball, there is heads up base-running.  But this has been some head’s up driving.  Nice work, Mama.

I’ll take it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: October 13

Earlier this week, plants that spot the summer on the front porch came inside for the season.  Warm blankets joined the quilts on our beds.  Evenings in the 40s warranted these changes.  Fall is most certainly in the chilly air in the mornings.  The dogwood is also making preparation for the cold. Some leaves have already blown off its branches.

Others are still in the process of turning a splendid color.

Each morning I greet the dogwood tree from the back window.  Daily I watch for the small changes that confirm fall is in the air.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Real Life Conversations with T: Marketing edition

The backstory:  I am a regular reader of The Pioneer Woman’s website and enjoyed the photos and descriptions of her line of dishes and kitchen goods, available at Walmart.  Normally, Walmart is off limits in my world but I like the dishes so much that I wanted to visit them in stores.  Thus a recent Saturday found T and I making a trip to Walmart.  The Pioneer Woman goods were there, but they were haphazardly displayed, with no effort to present the collection in an appealing fashion.  I found this tiresome.

Me:  If they were at Target, there’d be a tidy and attractive display.  Walmart just jams the stuff on some shelves and calls it good.

T:  That’s the Walmart way.  Their approach is simple.  They tell us, “We have shoddy and cheap goods.  You know that you love it.  Now get your ass in here and buy stuff.”

At that I burst into laughter.  When I settled, T had one more thought.

T:  It’s a wonder I don’t work in  marketing.

A wonder indeed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

End of the Season

For most of the summer, a collection of my plants spends the season outdoors on the front porch. Before I tucked under my quilt last night, I checked the overnight forecast, saw that it called for an overnight temperature of 40 degrees and brought in the last of the front porch plants.  There is evidence of seasonal change everywhere I look.  The garden's collections of zinnias came up nicely and now it looks like those buds are racing to show off their blooms.   

It was 38 degrees when I got up this morning; the first frost is around the corner.  Knowing this, I am happy about each bouquet that I collect.

They remind me of the virtue of patience and their presence makes my house cheerful.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Soup Season

I don’t make a lot of soup in the Summer.  For some reason, hot soup in a bowl doesn’t seem appetizing when the days themselves are steamy.  But when the weather turns cooler and the mornings are crisp, I start thinking about soup.  My favorite soup recipes are the sort that simmer and fill the house with a delicious smell.  Alas, my workdays often feature late arrivals home and the need to get supper on the table quickly.

I have some soup recipes that come together quickly.  Sometimes, I pull a soup together on the weekend, ready to be quickly warmed when we get home on weekdays.  Chicken noodle soup is always better this way.

It’s only October and early October at that……there are plenty of soup days in our future.  That’s happy!

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Real Life Conversations with T: Presidential Politics edition

The backstory: T pays attention to the news but not in that 24-hour-news sort of way and thus I often have the pleasure of sharing the latest story about Donald Trump’s shenanigans, as was the case this morning when I informed her about the Washington Post's story about the Access Hollywood B-roll footage of Trump acting like a Neanderthal toward women.

S:  So basically, he confirmed what we’ve always known: he’s a sexist pig.

T: Again, I say, I want a president who is smarter than me.

Let us note for the official record that Donald Trump does not meet this test.  Women of America, let’s hit the ballot box and show Mr. Trump to the door.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Halloween on the Front Porch

When it comes to decorations for the front porch, October is my favorite month.  I’ve a great vintage black jack-o-lantern tablecloth and it serves as a foundation for my plans.  Mums, ghosts, gourds, and pumpkins make things easy and each October I have lots of options.  

Out front, there’s a Halloween flag, a mum with a ghost, and a Halloween sign.

By the rocking chair, things are welcoming for whichever ghost stumbles by and needs a rest.

October mornings are often too cold to sit out on the porch when I wake up in the inky early morning.  But in the afternoon and early evening, the porch is still welcoming and on those days, I’m aware that the time is fleeting.  Fall days pass quickly, the sunlight steadily shrinking and the cold creeping closer each day.

This year, I set out the Halloween decorations on the first day of October.  I enjoyed making my plans and visits to local produce markets for pumpkins and mums.  It makes me happy to celebrate the season and I look forward to Halloween itself, when neighborhood ghosts and goblins will knock on the door in search of candy treats.

That’s happy!

But not particularly scary.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: October 6

In the past week, Fall has taken a firm hold.  Mornings are cool and even the afternoon warmth feels thin, as if the sunlight itself is increasingly in need of a rest.  

In the evenings I crack open my window before I climb under my quilt and I fall asleep to the sounds of the drying leaves crackling and crunching as they brush against against one another, preparing to fall into the yards and streets of my neighborhood.  In the morning, there is a cold dew that blankets the day and a chill that holds even as the sun rises.

The dogwood is clearly doing its part to enjoy the season.  

Fall is in the air and it feels lovely.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Real Life Conversations at School: Politics edition

The backstory:  I have a collection of political buttons dating back to the 1940s and they hang in my office.  Each year, I pull out a few to display on my bulletin board.  I also add current buttons to the collection and recently, some 2016 Hillary Clinton buttons were added to the bulletin board.  Looking at the board, my colleague S had some questions.

S:  Is the JFK button valuable?

Me:  Yes, though my most valuable button is “Pretty Girls for Nixon.”  
(oh, culture wars)

Me:  I won’t buy any Trump buttons, so I’m using Goldwater as a stand-in.

S:  Goldwater?  I was 10 when Goldwater ran and he was not popular in my house.  But in comparison to Trump, Goldwater is a delight.

I can’t argue with that.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Personal Best

One of the best parts of being a parent of a teenager is the pleasure of watching my child come into his own being.  JT loves physical activity, a trait that was apparent in him pretty much the moment he learned to walk.  For his whole life, he’s brought both confidence in his physical ability and an innate caution that is rather an unusual combination.  I remember when he was two years old and liked the slide at our local park.  He’d scramble up the ladder and then pause to situate himself before he slid down, hands up and ready to fly.  This combination of confidence and caution was empowering to us both.  I knew he wouldn’t climb to the top of the jungle gym if he didn’t feel confident he could come down safely.  He knew that I would let him take risks.  In sports, he’s found a place to express that combination of confidence and caution and be a team member who pulls his teammates forward.
I am proud of what he’s learned about himself.

This fall, he’s running in his fifth season on the Cross Country team.  He’s always liked running and for the last two years he’s treated the season as a chance to train with a team and enjoy himself.  But he’s grown up a lot in the last year and over the summer he made an effort to run and push himself so that he entered the cross country season in much better condition.  This year, he was ready to ratchet up the personal challenge.  He brought some friends to the team and at practice, he pushed them and himself.  His coaches were pleased; he was proud of his effort.  In early races, he ran well enough to score times that were his personal best.  He did this three races in a row and earned the last of seven Varsity running positions.  He began to speak with the coaches about how much faster he could finish a race.

JT has always been a good finisher; turning on the gas in the final 300 yards and regularly passing the runners in his path.  The trick for JT was to start stronger, holding the pace in the second mile and still having enough energy to finish strong.  For all his teenager boy traits, JT is cautious.  Running faster early in the race felt risky to him.  During a race, runners can’t use a watch so he needed to develop an internal sense of pacing.  So he tried it at practice where the task at hand was pacing and timing.  The varsity team ran up and down a stretch of road, checking their timing with each mile, and getting a sense of where they should be and how they could get there.

Last Wednesday, the team returned to a course they’d run earlier in the year.  JT was determined to see what he was made of.  He ran faster from the start and in the first half-mile, he was toward the front of the pack, a place I’ve not seen him run that early in the race.  He looked good.  As the race progressed, I could see him from across the field, holding the quicker pace he’d set from the start.  At the mid-point of the race, he was in the top 15.  He held that pace at the end and finished strong.  Two hundred yards out, the runner in front of him knew he was going to be passed.  JT finished the race with a personal best time that was 2 minutes faster then he had ever run before, 19:34 in a 5k race.  

My boy spent the next two days walking two feet off the ground, proud of his effort and enjoying the congratulations of his coaches and team members.  He’s not the best runner on the team, but he’s a good runner working steadily to get better.  His spot on the Varsity team is looking more secure each day. Meeting that challenge is a life lesson that will linger long after the season is complete.  

Saturday, October 01, 2016

In the Backyard Neighborhood: October 1

I am of two minds regarding the arrival of Fall weather. On the one hand, I like  sleeping with the windows open and I enjoy a cozy sweater on a cool morning.  I’ve already started to admire the trees whose leaves have begun to change.  On the other hand, I’m not ready to pack up my flip flops.  And I am nowhere close to saying goodbye to the leafy green trees.  So the arrival of Fall feels like something of a mixed blessing.  In the backyard corner, things have begun to change.

The peach tree leafed out early this Spring but it’s looking more and more ready for a break from the obligations of growing.  

The hostas are weary and even this week’s cooler weather and rain can’t hide the tired edges of these leaves.

The rains of the last few days will help to make our Fall a pretty season.  I remind myself that each season deserves its turn in the spotlight and that Mother Nature runs this show, not me.  I’ll be sad to see the end of the green trees but the I’m looking forward crisp leaves, big pumpkins, and the mums of October.  They are  a reminder that every season gets its turn to show its beauty.