And Now a Few Words from Dr. Dean


Look, it’s the former governor as seen through a smart phone camera from the back row

OK this is just not a great photo, but I wasn’t prepared to take photos. There I was visiting Milton High School today to help out some students and I hear on the morning announcements that juniors and seniors should come to the auditorium for the visiting politician, who blah blah blah really important whatever I can’t really hear I have things to do Vermont big wig such and such and his name is Howard Dean. Howard Dean? Right here today? I started listening but had already missed the details.

After I met with one student he asked if I was going to see Howard Dean. I had a hole in my schedule so I followed him into the auditorium. We were a little late. I sat in the back. He spoke for a while and answered some questions. He talked about how their generation has a different world to take care of and different tools to use to do that. Some key ideas, paraphrased:

When he was young, he and his peers could organize a protest but it took lots of coordination and months to organize. Today anyone can go to and set up a petition to make big companies or Congress take notice, with hundreds of signatures in a couple of days. He told the story of the young woman who got five dollars tacked to her bank statement each month to allow her to use her debit card. She organized a petition and, very quickly, got 300,000 people to say they would switch banks unless the fee was dropped. The fee was dropped.

He asked the group how many of them had at least one international connection, including through social media. The majority of hands went up. He said that when he was in high school there was no social media so only about three hands might have gone up; ok maybe four since “we had some exchange students.”

He was asked a question about the cost of college and noted that college is expensive but there are ways to do it cheaper. He noted the expansion of students at community colleges and that one can transfer into a larger school to get a degree from a different institution. He said that anyone can get a good education at just about any not-for-profit institution if one works hard enough.

He was asked about the number of students who go to college outside Vermont and said “I think that is a great thing.” If you grow up in Vermont and go to college in Vermont and stay in Vermont to work, how are you going to get any experience with the world outside Vermont? Half of what you learn in college is from professors. The other half is from students who go to school with you. So go somewhere to college where you can be around people who are different from you. He likes the idea of students from other places coming to Vermont to go to college. It means that Vermonters who stay here get to be around different types of people and that will make their education better.

If you think you are going to work your way up through the system and become president and then change the world, that isn’t going to happen. To become president you have to work your way through the system you need to change. Change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Today there are more tools to organize people to make change than ever before in history, and more people are doing it despite a dysfunctional political system.

The Iraq war was “the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States.” Patrick Leahy is “my favorite senator.”

He said some other things, as well, of course–things that got me thinking. I especially got thinking about the idea that 50% of what one learns in college is from peers. Somehow that phrasing set right with me. His thoughts on the college experience were directly relevant to the conversation I was having with the student I had been meeting with. I asked the student about that later. He said it was weird that the college topics came up and then said this:

“It made me think differently about how awesome Vermont is.” Yes, Dr. Dean, your words still are inspiring, ten years after you changed the face of political organizing and fundraising, both for me and for the students you met with today. Keep that up.


Maple Sap Syrup Sugar

Maple Sugaring 2014

This weekend is Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, where maple syrup producers across the state open their sugarhouse doors to visitors. The past few years we have enjoyed starting off the weekend with a trip to Shelburne Farms. They offer a pancake breakfast to support Shelburne Explorers 4-H. The kids who participate are really involved in the breakfast, taking payments and serving pancakes and helping to make sure syrup and coffee are stocked. To be sure, lots of parents and other adults are there to help as well, but I love that the kids are right in there getting their hands sticky.

This pancake breakfast is so popular that in the past we have had to wait in a pretty long line to get in. Pancakes were slid onto compostable paper plates as fast as they came off the griddle. Coffee ran out and seating was scarce. It was still a blast for us as a family, including my parents up for the weekend several years in a row. This year, however, I guess we timed it right–no line, no waiting, plenty of coffee and syrup. I think getting there a little later made the difference.

No wait for breakfast but the place was still super busy

No wait for breakfast but the place was still super busy

One of the great things about this event is that the sugarhouse is so accessible. It is designed for education so there is a platform in the sugarhouse to stand on and watch. While sap flows have been meager so far this year, they had some on hand to demonstrate the boiling process. They also scatter small discs cut from maple saplings in the area around the sugarhouse–find one and hand it in for a maple candy. Find one with a maple tree drawn on it and get a large maple candy. Find one with a red maple leaf and hand it in for a pint of maple syrup. My daughter was determined to find that red maple leaf, as she is every year. And this year she did! The mother lode baby.

They also have other activities. Help tap a tree. Try sugar on snow. See a live bird demonstration with an owl. Check out the farm animals. It is good fun indeed.

Heating maple syrup for sugar on snow

Heating maple syrup for sugar on snow

Pouring the hot syrup onto fresh snow

Pouring the hot syrup onto fresh snow

Now wait a few minutes for a chewy and sweet maple treat

Now wait a few minutes for a chewy and sweet maple treat

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Are these lambs the cutest critters around or what?

Are these lambs the cutest critters around or what?

We didn’t end there, however. We wanted to purchase some fresh syrup. Despite the new pint we are close to out of maple syrup at our house. Last year we probably went through about three gallons for the year. Assuming we get some from our farm share I figured we would need about two gallons. We stopped by Shelburne Sugarworks, right nearby, for our supply. We got a couple of gallons from them last year and so brought in the empty glass jugs. They said they would refill them if we were willing to come back later in the day, so we enjoyed some maple cotton candy, purchased some maple sugar (looks like brownish cane sugar but made maple sap–put that in your   coffee!) and watched the band set up. We left before the bluegrass started.

My dad and I headed back at the end of the day. We had a to wait a half hour while they filtered and pasteurized it. When we walked out of the sugarhouse I could barely hold the glass jars it was still that hot. I was careful not to slip on the ice. Busting open one of those on the frozen ground would have been a sad situation.

Amber treasure

Amber treasure



Morning Mink

IMG_3035I went for a morning walk today. We had some fairly warm days this week (it got to 40 degrees yesterday) but the river is still pretty much frozen over. When I got to the bridge over the river, I peered down to see how much open water was there. There was a small opening, maybe three feet long and less than a foot wide. The water burbled under that opening, proving that river is still alive under all that ice. And then this little dude popped up.

I had only been there a moment when I saw a brown something-or-other approaching the opening. I thought it was a branch at first, floating under the ice. But it was a mink. It slipped right up onto the ice and stood there, looking around. I had plenty of time to watch it. I eventually had the stellar idea to put the camera into video mode, but as soon as I hit record the mink disappeared again into the water.

No other water is visible from the bridge. I figured it would have to come back that spot. I waited and waited, video mode at the ready. But no dice. Maybe there is a hole under the bridge. I got no video, but I got to watch a mink up close. Good enough.



Mail Woes

IMG_3029 - Version 2

There really was a name and address on here. I just thought it prudent to redact them. I’m like Homeland Security, only smaller.

We often have issues with our mail. Several times each week we receive mail that is not for us. Typically it is for someone in our town who lives at an address that looks similar to ours. 220 Maple Hill Road is similar to 220 Chittenden Road. I guess.

So we put those letters back in the mailbox and flip up the flag. Sometimes I write a note indicating that it was delivered to the wrong address. Just to communicate to whoever might receive it in the end. We have gotten a few pieces of mail with notes on them indicating that they had been delivered to someone else’s address. So it works both ways. I guess.

A few days ago we got our bill from our “plow guy,” the guy who comes to clear our driveway when it snows. At the same time we got a bill from the same plow guy for someone else, but addressed to us. It was not delivered to the wrong address; the wrong address was written for a different customer. So we got it. Simple mistake.

Right away I wrote on the envelope and left it in the mail box. Return to sender. At least that was the idea. But the next day it came back, despite the note. So I wrote on it again and put it back in the mail box. Hopefully it won’t come back to us a second time. If so, I will mail it inside another envelope to the plow guy. He needs to get paid, after all.

I think the U.S. Postal Service is one of the greatest institutions in our nation. I can send something to anyone else and it will get delivered, for a really small price. Eventually. And sometimes with a little encouragement. When tax documents and bills and other important documents get delivered to the wrong address on a regular basis, however, I do begin to wonder about who is handling things at the sorting bin.

My note to return a mis-labeled bill apparently wasn’t clear enough the first time. I guess. Bad weather won’t stop the mail getting through, just bad handwriting.

UPDATE 3/24/2014: This letter got returned yet again yesterday. That is just not right, I tell you, just not right.

Barred Owl on a Cloudy Day

Barred Owl

On the way home from work this afternoon I stopped by Shelburne Pond to take a quick walk. I trudged through the snow on the trail, looking and listening for birds. I didn’t find much–a couple of distant crows, a few chickadees hiding in the thick evergreens. I figured it would just be a contemplative walk without much in terms of avian fauna. And then an owl took off right next to me.

I heard it. This may not sound like much but owls are quiet. Their feathers are designed for silence. That is how they can sneak up on their prey at night. They make almost no noise when they fly, but I was close enough that I really heard the whoosh of its wings as it passed me. It flew up into a tree above me and I got to watch it for a while.

It flew off again and then again, back the way I needed to go. I walked back and had another great look at it. “You are an amazing creature,” I told it, and I was not fibbing a bit. After a few minutes I left it in peace, in the silent gray woods.

Barred Owl 2

Compromise on the Prank Opportunity

Wrong Address Text MessageThere are times when I hope that I get a text message from someone I don’t know–a wrong number as it were. I imagine when it happens that I will then pretend to the be person for whom the message was intended, make up some snide response, and run with what happens. I got such a message yesterday.

My initial thought was to respond with one of the following:

1. Totally not. I went last year and it was just a bunch of stupid old men trying to sell you crap you don’t need.

2. Can’t. I’m having a bit of a moment with a lady friend, if you know what I’m saying.

3. Wait. Are you that fat dude with the bad hair?

4. Sorry. Got a Candy Crush marathon going right now. I am so kicking ass.

5. Do they have porn there?

But I didn’t. I use my cell phone for work and personal communication, so once I had this flurry of response ideas I paused. The sender might be less than appreciative of the humor I found in such shenanigans. I might get barraged with messages in the future. Tom might share my number with others and tell them all to harass me. Who knows what this Tom might be like? He might be a fruit loop. So I compromised with the message above.

It was not as funny as it might have been, but I did at least chuckle. That is something at least. And Tom found it funny. Good old Tom.

Trying Something New and Snow Melting

I had to work today. I got to present a workshop, twice, on getting organized for the college admissions process. Each session had an audience of about 200 people. It was a lot. It was a little scary. That is why I did it.

If I am not doing something a little scary on a regular basis then I am not learning and growing. When I say “scary” I mean something that at least makes me uncomfortable, something that requires a risk, something that I have never done before. It always a little scary to present to a large group. If I totally miss the mark, then a large group of people will notice that, but when it works well it feels pretty good.

I don’t want to have too much routine in any area of my life. Routines are comforting and safe and it can be really nice to have that at times. If I get into too much of a routine, however, than I stop liking what I am doing. In my job, every day is different, every week is different, every year is different one to the next. That is not easy sometimes, but I certainly won’t get bored that way. If I can take risks often enough, then I will stay interested and I will keep developing as a professional and as a human being.

So I offered a workshop I had never offered before. I got some positive feedback, so at least for some participants it went well. Phew. Before I headed home I took a half hour to walk along the Winooski River, to calm my mind. The snow, 18 inches of it in Winooski, was quickly melting. The temperature got up to 45 degrees today. It wasn’t sunny but the snow slumped and melted. The river was starting to run high.

I watched ducks on the river. I saw three common goldeneye diving for mussels or whatever else they could find. One was hanging out under the Route 7 bridge in a hole in the ice. I saw a bufflehead, always cool to see. I watched a couple of mallards fly in and start dabbling on another open patch of water right below me. I saw my first cormorant of the year as well. I even got to hear a fish crow, which is hard to tell apart visually from your typical American crow but has a distinct nasal call. I watched the water flow around the ice and listened as the ice groaned–I think it is ready for spring.

Mallards on the Winooski River

Mallards on the Winooski River

I have realized that the reason I have enjoyed birding is that it is always new. Every time I go out I am surprised. I may see birds I expect and I may not, but there is always something I don’t expect. The weather may offer something curious, I may see a new species, I may just enjoy being in a new place. I always discover something. There is no bad birding experience. I always take the chance that I will be disappointed.  I never am.

The Winooski River is still in winter mode

The Winooski River is still in winter mode, but thawed a little today

Snow Day Number Two

We had another snow day today. The snow fell all last night and most of the day today. It is hard to tell just how much snow fell. The wind blew hard. We may have gotten two feet. We had “blizzard-like” conditions. A blizzard needs to have sustained winds of 35 miles per hour for three hours. We did not quite meet that definition. A severe blizzard also has temperatures of 10 degrees or lower. We started the day at 14 degrees. So I guess we just had a snowstorm.

I stayed inside for a while, although the kids did get out early. They didn’t last long in the cold and wind, but they went out several times throughout the day. I figured I would start with breakfast. Since I did not have to drive anywhere I used what would have been my commuting time to make home fries.

I paired these hot crispy potatoes with a hot omelette

I paired these hot crispy potatoes with a hot omelette

The snow did let up eventually. I took a walk in the afternoon when it was falling lightly, although the wind was still pretty fierce.

The town road crew got the road passable, but wind kept the drifts coming

The town road crew got the road passable, but wind kept the drifts coming

There's a river under there somewhere

There’s a river under there somewhere

By the end of the day the sun came out for a bit, the light low across the white landscape. Before the sun set the world turned pink. After a dinner of soup and hot sandwiches, we all headed back outside again. We fell backward off the hill into a huge snowdrift and flipped upside down into the pile the plow had left. We tossed snow at each other in the dark. We came inside red-faced and a little soggy. After some reading together the children headed up to bed. Two days off and they are back to school tomorrow. I worked a bunch from home today but I am back at it myself once the sun comes up. It was a great couple of days in our house. We have to enjoy the snow when it comes, and we did.

Late day sun on Camel's Hump

Late day sun on Camel’s Hump


Not Spring Now

Snow coming down hard

Snow coming down hard

It started snowing early in the day. School was cancelled. Then the snow let up. I went to work. Luckily I only was in town half the day. The drive home was slick and slow. Then it really started to snow. By late in the day it was coming down and the wind picked up. And the temperature dropped. We had ourselves a snowstorm.

I went for a ski around the field. It was fine when I had my back to the wind but heading into the wind–ouch! Those little crystals of ice are painful when they slam into one’s face. My hood was a handy tool. By my second lap my ski tracks were almost filled in.

Skiing in the blowing snow

Skiing in the blowing snow

This morning the snow was still falling. Drifts piled against the house. I could only see out half the bedroom window. No school today. I will get some work done from home. First, however, I plan to rekindle the fire in the stove and to brew some coffee. And to appreciate being warm inside.

Sneak Peak at Spring

Blue Sky Day

Blue Sky Day

We’ve got Camel’s Hump and the waxing moon and a little snow and blue sky, not to mention 41 degrees. That is your fine spring scene for you. The road was a bit muddy–really muddy on the edges. I got sucked in a bit when I was forced over by a passing truck. No matter–I cleaned off my boots in the grainy snow.

I walked out to get some air and to see what I could see. The afternoon was stunning, I tell you. I unzipped my jacket. I took off my gloves. I watched a red tailed hawk soar out over the fields and catch dinner. I was feeling pretty good. At the river I stopped and examined it for a bit. I saw lots of ice with water pooled on top, animal tracks criss-crossing the wet snow on the surface, and just a small area of open water. Soon there will be beavers and mallards and kingfishers here.

Not much open water right now

Not much open water right now

Almost back to the house and I heard something I haven’t heard since fall–the echoing call of a killdeer. I thought I might have been mistaken. Perhaps it was just a robin behind some trees, the sound twisted by the landscape? So I listened. I heard it again. Then I spotted it way out there–white and brown moving against the white and brown. I tromped over the snow and ice and dried grass until I got close enough to see it well. Then I heard another and spotted that one, too. Then another. Now that is a sign that spring is just about here.

Killdeer here early

Killdeer here early

Tomorrow it is forecast to snow. A lot. We might get a foot or more by the time it stops. The annual battle between winter and spring seems to have begun. We will enjoy the snow–sledding, skiing, digging. I imagine the snow will not stick around long. Then we will enjoy spring. Winter and spring both offer a lot to amaze me. I can’t go wrong this time of year.