Look I’m not going to pretend it is all roses around here. I mean, we still have a pandemic happening. But in Vermont things have been fairly settled recently. Our cases of COVID-19 are still pretty low, although there has been a bit of a spike this past week. Still, summer is just about here, and things are more open than they were.
Sometimes it feels like the world is circling the drain. It can be hard not to get angry. I don’t want to be angry. That sucks the life out of me, but how I can I not get angry these days? When I compare my life to others’ I think, what do I have to get angry about? I mean look at this place. It’s beautiful. It is the kind of place people who live in less beautiful places come to go on vacation.
Blue Flag is blooming. There is a patch of it in the field where the cows now sometimes graze. We have these giant domesticated irises at our house, also blooming now. They are related, both purple and intricate and amazing. I got to see both of them when I walked this morning, just as the sun rose, the fog just slipping away into the day. How can those even exist, they seem so fragile? And I get to see them in their glory. Like I said, what do I have to be angry about?
But I pay attention not only to the things right here–the butterflies emerging and the Veery singing and the grass that is somehow four feet tall already–but to what is happening beyond my rural bubble. And that anger pops up. And if you are paying attention then you should get angry too.
So the question: is it OK to enjoy beauty when there is so much to be angry about? I keep hearing the line from the film Bridge of Spies, when the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel gets caught and his lawyer asks him “Aren’t you worried?” since Abel seems so calm. His response: “Would it help?” And that is the answer I have for my question. The problem is, that is another question.
For now I am planning to do both. I plan to enjoy the beauty of almost-summer and I plan to be angry. Beauty is fleeting and I would be a fool to let it pass unappreciated. And anger serves a purpose–it keeps us from becoming complacent, from forgetting, and it can make us take action. I will not bury my head in the flowers but I will still be awed by them. I will not lose myself to anger but I will let it remain, sometimes quietly, sometimes less so.
Those irises are not going to change the world, but finding wonder in them can help me turn that anger into something productive. Those fragile purple petals of late spring can help me to be calm, to think clearly, to be at peace. I get angry that not everyone can be that and think that way and feel that. Maybe not everyone wants to, but I think we would be better off if we did.
I know I should do something and not just talk about it. Of course. We all should. But without experiencing wonder at how beautiful the world is, I won’t be motivated to do the hard things. So I guess I have my answer after all.
I was on a Zoom call recently with some college friends. One mentioned that his college degree, earned many years ago, did not provide much. Another agreed, saying “my degree did absolutely nothing for me!” Now, there may have been some hyperbole there, and this exchange may have involved some ribbing/noodling/general sh*t-slinging, but it did raise my eyebrows a bit.
Now, there is no disagreement that the college experience was worthwhile. I mean, here we were, oldsters who met in our salad days at college, connecting again a couple decades later. There is much to be said about the shared experience of residential college, especially for traditional students. Personal growth, coming of age, maturity, life lessons learned–call it what you will, it is a big deal. But what the heck does a degree in English or Government get you once you head out into the “real world?” Apparently, my fellow former students believe that “nothing” is the answer.
I find myself disagreeing, so here are five things that my undergraduate liberal arts degree in English has given me to help face this pandemic. Call it a metaphor for life in general, but let’s use this quarantine situation for what it gives us, shall we?
It gave me some solid writing skills. I work in an office, so I use email a lot anyway, but these days, working at home every day, I use it more than I ever have. When you can’t just pop by someone’s desk, you have to use other means to communicate. Sure I use the phone or make video calls, but I write emails too, lots of them. And I think about those emails. I write and delete and edit and craft and when I don’t do that I worry that my tone was off or that my message might be misinterpreted. I think about my audience and how formal I need to sound and I try to use the right words. And that is stuff I learned writing papers for English classes. And email is just one example. I will be working on writing a big grant soon, and it will be better because I know how to write–I will be able to focus more on details other than sentence structure, and it will be a better proposal.
It helps me to be a better parent. The past couple of days I spent time helping my daughter, who is home now rather than at school, to fine tune her thesis for her English class. It is fourteen pages, by the way, a solid accomplishment for a high school junior. I can help her with her thesis because I have lots of practice. High school students have to write papers, and if I can help mine to navigate that challenge, then we will have a better relationship. Also, reading literature for a class means you have to pay attention so that you can understand and analyze it. If you are or have been a parent you know the importance of paying attention to your kid. That kid is not you, and they are sometimes going to think in ways that don’t make sense to you. If you do not pay attention you will understand less now and have a harder time coming to understanding later.
It taught me patience. Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or Moby Dick? Or Great Expectations? That crap ain’t easy. First, you have to get through it. It takes time just to read those kinds of books. Then you have to try to understand what the heck is going on. I read Shakespeare in college. You might not know this, but that dude did not talk like we do now. If Shakespeare showed up today he would be all “What gives with the Tik Tok and the acai bowls and spelling shop with only one p and without the e at the end?” Just like I was all “Beggarly account? Jackdaw? Take arms against a sea of troubles? What the…” I had to work through those works of literature to first understand them and then to collect my own thoughts into writing. Sure, one could rush through that and slap together a paper. I guess that wasn’t for me. Right now, whatever your situation, patience is critical. If you can manage to collect your thoughts and be deliberate, you will be better off then just trying to slap things together. We all will be.
It helps me to understand the power of story. Politicians get elected because they tell stories. Leaders are followed because they tell stories. You want to be a good presenter or to make a successful pitch or to teach anything well? You need to harness the power of story. Sure those authors I read in college were trying to make a living by telling stories. People enjoy a good story and will pay to hear it/read it/watch it, but stories are integrated into our lives. When we meet someone for the first time we ask each other questions, and we share stories. If you can tell a good story you will make friends, you will be more respected, you can be a better boss. Of course, the ability to tell a good story can mean abusing that power at the expense of others. People want to listen. Whether it is for good or ill, however, stories have power. I learned that by doing all that reading and writing, and I relearn it just about every day during this pandemic. I mean, how can you have a successful Zoom call without a good story or two? (Also, my wife handed me a book, literally as I write this, that she got forever ago, telling me I need to read something from it because it is relevant right now–power of story in action!)
I am better able to make connections between all kinds of things. When I read some of those old books it was important to understand the context of the story. Dickens makes a lot more sense when you understand the issues of the day in 19th Century London, and it makes even more sense when you understand what was happening all over the world at that time. Things Fall Apart or Night–those books are stories within the larger stories of their time and place. Reading those books, and then analyzing them in order to write a paper about them, meant trying to understand how things are related. I found that I better understood those stories because I was studying other things as well. I found myself making connections or having insights in French class or Geology class because of some of those stories. And the reverse was true as well. Coal plays a big role in 19th Century England, and it is featured in Dickens novels, and I learned about it in my lab. All of that learning fed into each other. Making connections is important to understanding our world, whether our own community or international politics. This coronavirus thing is not easy to understand. Where did it come from? Why did it spread so fast? Why can’t we treat it? Will things ever get back to normal? The ability to make connections between all of these things helps me to understand what it all means. I often don’t get definitive answers, but I at least can grasp why I don’t.
As for the rabbit, well, I haven’t been seeing all that many of them lately. Some years they are underfoot but this year they are scarce. I saw several of them this morning. I took a photo. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. Rabbits are just cool critters. Seeing them this morning does not have to have any more significance than that. Sometimes things don’t. Studying English in college taught me that, too.
How about this moon? Setting, nearly full, into pink clouds? That’s a good thing. Things aren’t easy these days, for anyone, whether you are facing death or facing boredom. Which degree of not-so-good are you experiencing? Things are hard here, but we are alive.
It snowed yesterday. It seems everyone who has a way to post is posting about it. We got an inch and a half of the cold white stuff. And it was beautiful. Complain if you want–yeah, snow in May. Boo hoo. It was mostly melted by the end of the day anyway. Green and yellow with bright white highlights–if you can’t appreciate that rare beauty, well, is there hope for you?
I saw a fisher a couple mornings ago. It was up in what we call the tick zone, the snowmobile trail cut in the woods that is just a bonanza of birds in May, but that is loaded with ticks. It was a cold morning–the first of several, so there were few birds singing, except for that Black-and-White Warbler that whispered away non-stop. I was standing, quietly, hoping the birds would wake up already. The rustling in the shrubs turned into a huff of startledness that ducked away. The mystery creature slunk through the underbrush and then crossed the trail a little ways away. A giant weasel–way bigger than a mink or an ermine or a river otter. A fisher! I had never seen one.
Walking back through the tick zone, high on seeing the fisher, a white-tailed deer bounded across the trail, hopping way higher than seemed necessary. That is, apparently, just what they do.
My son made pizza for lunch today. I helped with with the dough, but mostly he handled it himself. And it was really good. Maybe it was really good in part because I was not doing the making, but mostly he just did a bang-up job.
Daffodils are blooming. Dandelions speckle the lawn. Leaves sprout from buds. And I just had a pile of M&M’s. Good things. Good things are everywhere.
We are in those early days of spring when it is still chilly in the morning, but the world keeps getting greener, when the leaves are not fully out yet and peepers sing at night. Winter has left the scene but summer still has a way to go before she arrives.
I have to get out as much as I can to find birds now. Every day new summer residents arrive. This morning I heard my first Common Yellowthroat and I heard two Field Sparrows singing at once, which is unusual around here. A Barred Owl calls all day in the woods above our house, and that Phoebe nest that sat above the porch light all winter is getting rebuilt. In the woods, leaves are still buds. That means I can see the warblers as they hop from branch to branch in the tops of maples. In a month some of those little dudes will be heard and not seen.
Spring flowers are out as well. Marsh Marigolds are blooming, bright yellow flowers and bright green leaves among the leaf litter in the woods. And Trout Lilies, those dainty pale yellow bells, have emerged. Ferns are still curled into fiddleheads, and wild ramps carpet the forest floor.
Spring’s arrival is a gift right now. It is a gift any year, I suppose, but after being inside so long, after worrying about the health of family and neighbors, after staying away from others, it feels especially powerful. A friend said the other day that she has never noticed spring as much as this year. When you spend less time moving around you have more time to pay attention to what is right there.
I plan to get out early again tomorrow, to listen and to look. I may startle the beaver that slaps its tails when we walk past on the bridge, or the wood ducks dipping into the grass on the river’s shore, but I will try to stay calm enough to avoid disturbing them. Every day the world changes a little, layering on spring. If I don’t pay enough attention, summer will arrive and I will have missed some of spring’s wonderousness. Wonder can be found at any time of year, but spring is when it puts on its best display. I would hate to miss the show.
We don’t see a lot of other people these days, at least in person. But we did find a workaround to help. My son had a friend over not too long ago, sort of. They hung out at the end of our long driveway, a good distance apart, but enough to have a long conversation. That worked well to get in some real face time. We have no close neighbors so it was just the two of them.
Not long after that we had their whole family over. The second time they came over we hauled our metal fire pit to the end of the driveway and put that between us. They were on the road side and we were on the house side and it was enough to have a shared experience. After they left we snuffed the fire and pulled the pit off to the side and went back to the house.
My daughter tried this with friends as well. We had three or four fires this way. Then my daughter had a plan to do it one more time. We grabbed some wood and matches and water to put the fire out at the end and headed down the driveway. But we got there and the fire pit seemed, well, missing. Hadn’t we left it right there? We had. It was gone.
There was a pile of cold wood coals. The fire pit was gone, as was the grate that we had set off to the side. Someone had come to our house, dumped the ashes, grabbed the pit with its grate, and taken it for themselves. We were a bit dumbfounded. Who would do that? Especially right now? I mean, I know people steal stuff, but to take it while we are home? During the day? That’s bold.
Missing the fire pit isn’t too much of a problem. It is just a thing, albeit one that brought a lot of joy. My daughter and friends had a fire right on the gravel of the driveway that night. In fact, we have a second metal fire pit. Years ago my wife and I both bought one to give to each other for Christmas. Hers was better so we have had been using that one. I pulled out the second one from the basement and, after way too much assembly, we have another one to use, although we have yet to christen it.
The problem is that someone stole this object that made a big difference during these days of isolation. It was a symbol of how we might come together even when we can’t come together like we would at another time. It allowed for real sharing, not virtual sharing–light across distance. Plus it was a gift, and we had shared many fires with many other people over the years. For someone to just take that? That ain’t right.
Luckily we do have a back-up. I guess we won’t be leaving it at the end of the driveway, however. And I hope that the one that disappeared ends up causing some joy for others, even if it is a soured joy. I hope the sourness wears off, and true enjoyment can be had from our old fire pit. That theft has put a ding in a lonely time for us, so I hope it can take a ding out of someone else’s.
It is the season of wild leeks. That season is short. In the woods, green covers the forest floor. The bright new leaves pierce the dried maple and beech leaves that fell in the fall. When the sun shines through the bare branches, you can smell them.
My son and I popped into the woods late in the afternoon. We each had a trowel. We dug up some leeks. Drive the trowel straight down, pull it back to loosen the soil and shake out some leeks. They are sort of similar to leeks you might buy in a market, but much smaller, smaller than typical scallions. And they are softer, more fragile. We made a small pile, enough to hold in one hand. Bright green on one end, covered in dark dirt on the other.
I washed them in the sink. I collected quite the pile of soil in the trap, mixed with a few dried leaves and grass stems. I had a clean bunch in the end, ready to be made into soup. I cubed several potatoes and sliced the leeks, tossed them with butter and olive oil, and sauteed. I added some water, some stock, some salt and pepper, and cooked it all into a soup.
I also made dinner rolls. I hear yeast is getting hard to come by. We always have a lot on hand anyway, so we are good to go for now. Dinner rolls are like the lazy bread–make some dough and knead it and let balls of the stuff rise in a pan. Then bake it and… fresh rolls, easy and quick. Soup and bread–pretty standard dinner around here.
Oddly, by the time the soup had reduced and gotten thick, it turned a bit green. I mean, the leeks were green but I have never had them turn other stuff green. And this new green was much darker–not the bright green of the fresh leeks. So it had a bit of an off color, but it was dang tasty. Those cut leeks smelled strong before they cooked down so I admit was a little nervous that I had put in too many leeks, but my fears ended up being unfounded.
Our wild leek window is small so I need to dig up some more before they fade away. Omelets? Quiche? Pizza topping? I’ve got lots of options. Especially if I want some green food.
In the past I have gone with the overnight rise. Make the dough, shape the bagels, let them rise in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning? Boil and bake. Bagels for breakfast. I went the standard route yesterday, however. I made the dough in the morning, let it rise, then shaped the bagels. One more rise, then boil and bake.
I tried something new with this batch. I have made plain bagels and I have made cinnamon raisin bagels. This time I used some whole wheat flour along with all-purpose flour where I have used just bread flour in the past. Flour is in short supply these days, what with all the quarantine baking happening, so I added whole wheat flour to increase the gluten content. And I also added toppings.
I have to admit I had a bit of a fear of toppings in the past. Wouldn’t they burn in the oven? Or fall off? But this time I added Everything topping (King Arthur makes a quality mix) to some, and grated parmesan to others. And I left a couple plain as well.
They were not ready for breakfast, but they were just right for a hot afternoon snack. We had no cream cheese (also out of stock these days) but hot bagels are great any time, if you ask me. And the toppings worked like a charm. So good. Will definitely do that again.
I have said it before, but bagels are easy to make. Letting them rise overnight makes them easy, no doubt, but when you have the time, letting them rise on the counter is just as simple. I am pretty sure my family enjoyed them. My wife almost burned her fingers and her mouth she was so eager to eat one. So quarantine bagels? Doing that again.
Way back a lifetime ago, meaning a few weeks ago, Vermont’s governor gave a Friday press conference saying schools would not be closed. There was not a need right then, but the situation could change and the administration would continue to assess what needed to be done to address the coronavirus’s spread. The following Monday he gave another press conference closing schools until April 6th. A week later, on March 26th, the governor ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year.
School is not out, mind you. Students and staff are not going to school but they are trying to keep the business of school moving forward. At first the idea was just to “maintain learning,” to make sure students didn’t forget everything by the time school started back up again. Now, however, the idea is to keep teaching, and learning, and generally doing school.
This, of course, has not been a simple task. At my son’s high school every student gets a Chromebook, so they all have a device to connect with others. My son logs in and connects with his advisory at least once per week. They check in, using Google Hangouts, give each other advice and share stories and maybe even get some ideas about how to generally do school. They vent a little and they reassure each other. At other times he gets online for actual “classes.” This does not look like a typical in-person class but might include a lesson or review or help with an assignment that was posted to their online classroom page.
My daughter had been away at school, far from Vermont. She came home early for her March break. Once that break ended she stayed home. Her school is closed as well. They are trying to hold more formal classes online. Sometimes those classes are 90 minutes. That is a long time to focus when meeting on Zoom, especially for challenging high school subjects.
Yesterday my daughter was in her room, online for pre-calculus class. In the middle of it she texted “lots of algebra” and the above photo. Pre-calculus is not an easy class. It requires paying attention and, for most students, asking questions. That is all upside down in this online classroom, especially for a teacher who does not have a lot of experience teaching online and had little time to prepare for that shift. That photo exemplifies the challenge.
Students everywhere are making it work as best they can, but many are just not logging on, and many simply can’t. We are lucky. Our kids are responsible, for the most part, and we have reliable internet access in a safe home. Not only do we have plenty to eat, but I am cooking more than ever now that I am not commuting to and from work. This is a game changer for education on all levels. School will never be the same, and no one knows yet what that means.
My children are not going back to school this year. Will they be in school in the fall? If so, what will that look like? What will this mean for graduation requirements, or for college admissions? Or for the future of higher education? Students ask “When will things get back to normal?” but, sadly for them, they won’t.
We will get through this, of course, and we will all be changed, and good things will come from this very bad time. As the head of my daughter’s school said in an online town meeting, “This stinks.” Unlike the virtual whiteboard in pre-calculus class, everyone with any connection to education understands that.
It has been a while since we have all been home together. And it has been even longer since we have all been home together for this long. We all get along well, two adults and two teenagers, so mostly things are copacetic. We help each other when needed and stay out of each other’s way at other times. We watch movies together and eat dinner together and play games together.
LIFE has been a favorite for a while. As you can see from the photo above we have several versions of it. We have a more classic version–the 50th anniversary edition which has updated graphics from the one from the 1960s. We have the electronic banking version–everyone has a “credit card” that uses a card reader to keep track of the dollars.
Then we have the Despicable Me version–branded to match the movies with minions instead of cars for pawns. That one is designed for younger children so it is a quick game. And then we have a more modern version with pets. In this last one everyone has car or a dog in their car and there are cards with specific pet themes (“You’ve won a pet beauty contest! Collect $50,000!) Seems a lot for that but I’ll take it.
The Escape Room games are fun. They are challenging and rewarding, but I can’t deny I find them a bit stressful. The clock literally ticks, with dramatic music that gets faster as the clock runs down. It is pretty great to solve those, of course. Better than winning a pet beauty contest for sure.
Recently we got the retro version of Pay Day. We have not actually played that yet but we seem to have plenty of time to get to it. And we have a whole bunch of other games as well, just not pulled out of the closet yet. So we have plenty to keep us busy. I keep hearing about people doing jigsaw puzzles. We tend to do those when we are away from home, on vacation somewhere, so it seems wrong to do them now, when we are home quarantined.
We are making the best of our situation. We connect with friends as we can. My wife and I encountered several neighbors yesterday when we were out for a late day walk. We chatted with them from opposite sides of the road. For friends who are farther away we use Face Time and Zoom and Facebook video calls and Google Hangouts. We also play video games. And we play board games. We do our best to keep things interesting. And we stay home safe.
We used to have a road trip scavenger hunt. The idea was to check off items one might see out a car window. Stop sign, fuel truck, school, cows, that kind of thing. Whenever we played this game there was inevitably one item we could not find–a bird on a wire.
It was weird. It is not hard to see a bird on a wire most of the time. Even in winter there are birds and they are sometimes to be found on wires. But when we had that scavenger hunt in hand, and this happened many times, we could not find one. It became a joke in our family. We would be out walking in a new place, with no scavenger hunt list to check, and one of us would point and shout “Hey there’s a bird on a wire!”
I have not played that travel game in years but I still think of it, of those road trips, whenever I see a bird on a wire. I though of it today. After a day of way to much inside time, of too much computer work, of too little physical activity, I went outside with a pair of binoculars as the sun was setting. I didn’t have the binoculars to look at the setting sun. That would have been stupid. I had them to look at birds, were I to spot any. I did spot some. And one of them was on a wire.
Actually two of them were on a wire. Two bluebirds, singing their song that sounds like they are just too lazy to sing as boldly as anything like a Robin, flew onto and off of that wire. Blue birds against a blue sky with the low bright light of the closing of day in early spring–good stuff that. It was a beautiful sight and it was good to get outside and to move around a bunch and to listen and to look for our avian neighbors. And those birds, perched on that wire, reminded me of some good trips with my family.
I still think of that game when I see a bird on a wire while I am driving. I am not driving much these days. There is a chance I will do some driving tomorrow but that is still not a definite plan. I am staying home, along with the rest of the crew, most of the time. You know, stay home and stay safe. I mean, if I want to see a bird on a wire, apparently I can do that by walking down the road. No driving required.