The measure of wealth

As any economist could tell you, there are a lot of ways to measure wealth. There’s your net worth (the value of the things you own compared to the amount of money you owe). There’s your current earnings. There are your projected earnings. (That’s probably a better way of evaluating someone graduating with with a law degree, for example, than net worth is.) I’m sure there are a bajillion other ways: months without income until bankruptcy, ability to survive layoff, projected age to retirement, etc.

Another form of wealth
Another form of wealth

As the holidays draw to a close (even if you wait until epiphany, or count orthodox Christmas), I often find myself reflecting on my wall o’ friendship, and procrastinating from taking it down. I’ve noticed the cards seem to come later every year (I’m part of that trend – I think I mailed my last set on the 23rd!), and I get more New Years cards than I used to, but I love looking at them. Sometimes I take them down and read the notes inside them again. Every year I bundle them in a big bundle and save them. They’re in stacks in my attic, right next to the snapshots of my kids and school pictures.

The truth is that, quite unexpectedly, I find myself rich in friendships. I didn’t anticipate that, as a young girl. We moved a lot. I attended 6 schools by 6th grade. (I did that math when I was very young – I think I count church kindergarten in there.) I didn’t exactly have boatloads of friends waiting for my call. My best friend when I was Grey’s age wouldn’t acknowledge me at school. I, um, didn’t blame her. I wasn’t sure I’d admit to being friends with me either, if I was popular. I wasn’t a very easy kid to be friends with, I suspect. I reveled in being weird. It made me sad, sometimes, but there were books. My memories of childhood are mostly happy ones.

But then I stayed in one place for a while, and gradually learned how to not be quite so weird that people wouldn’t want to admit knowing me. (Or rather, how to keep the weirdness but lose the obnoxiousness of it? Maybe?) Then after learning how to be a friend, I got a fresh start. Man, college was the best.

The moon is hatching, and we're earth's last best hope.
The moon is hatching, and we’re earth’s last best hope.

And since I left college I’ve… accumulated friends. We’re still playing weekly (well, kind of weekly) role playing games with a friend whose name was picked off a bulletin board in a gaming store. (The gaming group has survived four children, and we’re delighted that a fifth has joined us. All boys.) I’ve made some relationships in church that are about ready to drive. The process accelerated vastly when I moved to this house, and there were a bunch of us the same age with kids the same age and we really got along. And then one of your friends introduces you to their friends. It’s been astonishing and wonderful.

I was thinking about what that flowering of friendship really means. Sometimes, when I’m staying out too late and consuming less-than-healthfoods with my friends, I wonder if friendship is bad for my health. But studies show that friends reduce your risk of dying prematurely, or that absence of friends increases it.

And then there are the more immediate advantages. I met a mom once or twice in a gathering of moms. In December, her husband was injured in a serious accident that killed the other driver and critically wounded one of his friends. This amazing group of moms banded together to deliver two week’s worth of dinners to her and her family.

A friendship catalyst
A friendship catalyst

The funny thing about being rich in friendship is that the more of it you have, the more of it other people have too. It’s a lot like love that way. Spending it just creates more of it. The modern world seems poorly set up to create deep and lasting friendships (at least judging by the number of lonely people in the world), but the optimist in me thinks that with some sort of catalyst, friendship-creating-reactions can spread. It’s hard to see friendships (especially those tough ones that cross some boundary, like race or generation or political belief) as anything but a net good to society.

So, do you want more friends? Here are some of the ways I’ve seen people become close friends:

  • Strike up a conversation in a park. (Seriously.)
  • Invite someone you like to dinner. Give them a specific set of three different days, and ask if they need any accommodation (food preference, only drive during the day etc.) If they’re interested in being friends, they’ll either accept one of the three days or counter with a different date. (And don’t be too offended if they’re not willing to get closer. Sometimes people don’t have the energy to spend on new friendships.)
  • Throw a party and mix multiple different “sets” of your friends. One of my bestest friends became my friend because another friend begged an additional invite to a party I held. And this also helps your friends make more friends, which is a kindness.
  • Put your name on a gaming store wall as adventurer seeking game!
  • Bring your neighbors cookies. Knock on the door. When they’re on their front porch, strike up a conversation.
  • Throw a block party.
  • Get involved in a local project. (I made some great friends by being active regarding the Bikeway!)
  • Join a workout group. (OK, this one is just theoretical. I’m not a workout group kinda girl.)
  • Order more Christmas cards, and send them to people you wish you knew better.
  • Exchange contact information with those parents you end up chatting with when you pick your kids up. Then schedule something with them.
  • The internet. I made some dear, dear friends online. I still feel much more connected to people on Facebook than one might think!

    How about you? What are some of the crazy ways you’ve met people? Are you overwhelmed by an over-full social docket, or is there room for a few more busy Friday nights?

  • Hygge

    I read an article in that beautiful late-December period when the media writes thoughtful, long-form articles about things that aren’t breaking news. The article described hygge. The word is a Danish one, pronounced “hoo-geh” (according to my Danish friend) and it means well-being, or maybe coziness. It’s a concept or value that the Danes consider a key part of their culture. In reading through what it means, I realized that it is both a value that I treasure and a place where I fall far short.

    Cozy time by the Christmas tree
    Cozy time by the Christmas tree

    What is hygge to me? We don’t have a fireplace, which is tragic. Fireplaces are practically automatic hygge. Hygge is sitting on the couches and reading books together on library/pizza night. Hygge is a lit Christmas tree. Hygge is sitting on the front porch and working on my book. Hygge is hanging around someone’s kitchen with my neighbor-friends and catching each other up on our lives. Hygge is sitting with my son at Kushala Sip. Hygge is lighting the candles on either side as we sing “Silent Night” together on Christmas Eve. Hygge is when you can’t move because you have a cat on your lap. Hygge is when you’re in the kitchen, light on your feet, making food to feed your friends. I think that any time that is improved by lighting a candle is hyggeligt (rough translation: hygge-time!).

    While I was working on my novel (update: still in progress, added a few thousand words this holiday), my beloved husband expressed that he missed spending time with me. Specifically – although he didn’t use this word – he missed the cozy time we might spend together watching a show or playing a game. I found writing to be a solitary, consuming task and my partner in life missed me when I was being solitary. He missed being hygge together.

    There are of course precious moments in life that aren’t hygge. This weekend we went for a glorious hike along the turgid banks of the Saugus river, finding signs of beaver in the glazed snow. It as astonishingly lovely and refreshing… but not hygge. There are great adventures we pursue. I find, as I prepare to return to work, that the appeal of a difficult task to be well done with hard work is considerable. I like to work hard on things where my hard work leads to a great thing. That’s great – but not hygge. Most of camping is not hygge, but there’s that moment sitting around the fire when the entire world is about 10 feet in the radius of flickering orange tongues of flame, and the call of the loon wafting over the right shoulder that captures the very heart of the feeling.

    Fire's burning - gather round
    Fire’s burning – gather round

    In thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of my most precious moments are these moments. They’re when I feel connected to my loved ones, myself… and even my God. They make my heart well over with joy. And yet I’ve taken them only as they come, taking them as a gift of chance. As I grow older, I look with greater skepticism on waiting for life to shower me with bounty. I prefer to create environments where the fruits I would grow can flourish.

    So… I don’t have a SMART* New Year’s Resolution this year. Instead I have an atmospheric one. I would like to create more opportunities for hyggeligt with the people I like best. That will, ideally, show itself as more reading on the couch, more sitting together to watch the snow fall, more lying in bed next to my husband and listening to the rain fall.

    What do you find hygge? And what are your plans for the new year?

    *Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely – if you really want to change something about yourself, finding an expression of your intention that matches those criteria significantly increases your odds of being successful.

    Thankful for…

    At this hour, standing in this place, I am thankful for…

    • A family that gives me nothing but love and support – and nothing I would write to an advice columnist about
    • An interesting new thing to do that has me excited in new ways (Nanowrimo)
    • A job I enjoy, doing good work with amazing people
    • An extensive collection of pens
    • Two cats, who are equal parts snuggly and annoying
    • A son who is working hard to learn an instrument I love
    • Another son who is the snuggliest human I’ve ever met
    • A dining room with high ceilings and an amazing finish, that is much warmer
    • The opportunity to review my wonderful year in pictures as I attempt to find one that will work for Christmas cards
    • Green tea
    • That studies show coffee is good for you, not terrible for you
    • The safety and security that surround me, and which I consider normal
    • Living in an ancient town with layer upon layer of stories
    • A vast wealth of friends and friendly faces
    • Social media, which I tremendously enjoy
    • Good books. I look forward to eventually reading some again.
    • That incredibly soft fabric they’ve invented lately – and a stars and crescents bathrobe in that material
    • A full cupboard and ‘fridge
    • Teachers who care so much about my sons
    • Stoneham finally has a great coffee shop!
    • Audiobooks for commuting
    • The Economist that keeps me informed without making my blood pressure spike through the roof.
    • The joyful anticipation of a holiday season, as seen through the eyes of a seven and ten year old.

    And most of all … you.

    Don’t you cry for me

    The other night, I tucked a tired Grey into bed. It’s his most philosophical time, since every nine year old knows that the best way to get your parent to linger and not shut off your lights is to start talking about your rich internal life at 8:55 pm. As I returned to his bed with the water (and before I turned on his music and summoned the cats), he softly sang to the tune of “Oh Suzanna”:

    Farewell old master, that’s enough for me,
    I’m going straight to Canada where colored men are free.
    (A href=””>Song of the Free

    I was, shall we say, surprised. “Where did you hear that?” It being a way to extend bedtime, he freely answered. “From a book about the Underground Railroad.” “Was it about Harriet Tubman?” “Yeah.” We talked about race and equality. We talked about good people sticking up for other people against bad laws. I had that ever necessary conversation about how actually we don’t call our friends colored anymore. And after a successful ten minute delay, I kissed him goodnight.

    But it brought me back. I haven’t explicitly thought about my encounter with the Underground Railroad in years. As so many important encounters do, this one started in a grade school library. I got to thinking about how the reading I did in that fourth grade corner of the library changed my life and outlook on race and gender. It helped me see a world outside the Inland Empire farming town, and to see that life from someone less blonde and blue eyed than I was. It wasn’t just Harriet Tubman who spoke to me, but a whole range of these strong, amazing, not-white female characters in this great set of books. I hadn’t intentionally set out to read minority feminist adventures. But I did. And I was – and am – greatly influenced. I’d never before realized what a great collection this is, or would be.

    Freedom Trail: The Story of Harriet Tubman

    by Dorothy Sterling
    by Dorothy Sterling

    I have not read this book in over 25 years, but I remember this: Harriet had no advantages. She was black. A slave. Young. A woman. But she was gritty, determined and resourceful. This book did not sugar coat the hardship of slavery, or the dire danger of escaping. Harriet is gravely and permanently injured. But she risks snakes and dogs and slavers, overcoming so much, to escape. And then, once escaped, she goes back again and again to help others in the same journey. This is a book that inspired me by the capabilities even a young girl could have. It also helped me understand just how lucky my lot in life was. Harriet seemed very real to me, in the pages of this book. It made it clear that it wasn’t some intrinsic merit of mine that gave me a life of comfort and love, and her a life of persecution. But it did tell the horrible story of slavery in a way that didn’t condemn a white person to shame. I could choose to see myself in the helpers & conductors – the allies. I think I’d like to re-read it.

    Island of the Blue Dolphins

    by Scott O'Dell
    by Scott O’Dell

    I’ve always had a fondness for survivalist stories. I devoured almost all of them in the genre I could find: Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Mysterious Island, My Side of the Mountains…. This is a slim but compelling volume in that larger lexicon. It was particularly important that instead of “White person trapped in savage environment” (See…. all the others above except My Side of the Mountain) it was the story of an Indian girl. And she was not left for a few weeks, or a few months. She created a whole life for herself, by herself. It’s a heart-song to independence and self-reliance.

    Journey to America

    by Soniya Levitin
    by Soniya Levitin

    A friend and I were talking about how you introduce your children to the horrors of man’s inhumanity against man. You can’t responsibly raise children who have never heard of the holocaust… but it can be tempting. I’m not sure I want my children to understand how evil we truly can be. This book was introduction. It’s an escape story from the point of view of a young Jewish girl who fights with her family (and alone) to escape from Nazi Germany – with her violin intact. It touches on the hard edges of the horrors, without delving into them. There’s a narrow shave, but a happy ending.

    Journey to Topaz

    by Yoshiko Uchida
    by Yoshiko Uchida

    In counterpoint to that was this book. Of all of them, this might have been the hardest to deal with. It was geographically very close to me. And WWII is described as such a morally clear war from the US perspective. It would have been easy for me to get through childhood not knowing about the Japanese children uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps in the US. Yoshiko Uchida’s descriptions were memorably evocative. I can still almost feel the grit and dirt in the barren and beautiless camps. Her life had started very similar to mine, and then had taken this left turn through no fault of her own. It hit very close to home.

    Julie of the Wolves

    by Jean Craighead George
    by Jean Craighead George

    Leaving the WWII theme and returning to “awesome girls surviving in inhospitable circumstances”, we head up to Alaska for an Eskimo adventure. I don’t remember thinking about how appalling it is for a child to be literally safer with a pack of wolves in the arctic than with her family. I do remember how cool I thought it was to make friends with a pack of wolves. I believe I was cheering for her never to return to civilization. This one was again on the more mature side of the spectrum.

    Naya Nuki: Girl Who Ran

    by Ken Thomasma
    by Ken Thomasma

    This is the book that started my obsession. Ken Thomasma came as an author to speak at my school when I was in second grade. We got a number of signed books from him in my grade school library. I read Naya Nuki over and over and over. I remember driving and looking for the places in the hills where Naya Nuki would hide out. The story is of a Shoshone girl captured by Nez Pierce slavers – who escaped and ran her way back over hundreds of miles and through countless dangers to be with her people. (Although she had to leave behind her friend – a much less important character named Sacajawea.) The countryside was my countryside. I mean, I had seen and touched the man who wrote the book! This was real! And it was a fantastic start to a reading life.

    That was hardly all I read as a kid, of course. I had plenty of other books in the reread queue that were not about amazing non-white girls. But I’m in retrospect impressed with that list. I find myself wondering if some forward thinking youth librarian pulled these books out, made them attractive, brought them to my attention. I do not know. I kind of hope so.

    Dear Librarian from Whitstran Elementary back in the ’80s – thank you.

    Quilts and connections

    On Monday, there was a package on my doorstep. It was a box and it was (astonishingly) NOT from Amazon. (The Fedex driver must have been mightily confused by that!) It was from my beloved sister. I knew it was coming. I had an inkling of what was in it, and opened the box with the expectation of seeing an old friend.

    Our wedding quilt
    Our wedding quilt

    This quilt is just about fifteen years old. It was my sister’s first quilt, and is made with my favorite colors. The white around the edge is done with the silhouette of Mt. Rainier. In the corner, the dates and our initials are embroidered – the last time my initials would be BJJ instead of BJF. (Which, side note… changing your initials might be harder than changing your name!) The reason it was sent back to me is because quilt backs are not as durable as quilt fronts and sometimes when it spends a decade on your bed it can get torn. Maybe. (Maybe this is kind of a regular thing with all our quilts. Maybe.)

    BJJ & ARF August 5, 2000
    BJJ & ARF August 5, 2000

    There was also Thane’s baby blanket. He was old enough to vote on his colors. (Grey’s was ready for his arrival, and was themed with dragonflies. He was also lucky enough to get dragonfly curtains which still hang sparkling in his room.) He opted for the Pigeon theme. PIGEON! He was – is – absolutely entranced by it. In this cold winter, where bundling up in blankets against drafts and chills is a necessary comfort, he has been delighted to wrap himself up in Pigeon. (I have dreams, you know!)

    Don't let the pigeon hog the heat ven
    Don’t let the pigeon hog the heat vent

    Grey dug out his quilt from his room and demanded we all cuddle up on the couch in our Aunt Heidi quilts. Well, if you insist Grey! (I’m not cuddled up because I was photographing the situation, obviously.)

    Couch snuggles
    Couch snuggles

    I had this idea, when I was young, that it was impossible to do anything my sister was good at. This was for the obvious reason that I might not be as good at it as she was, and this was completely unacceptable. Things this ruled out for me as a youth included: photography, poetry, cooking, fabric arts and Georgette Heyer novels. Some of these we’ve clearly swapped places on. My niece asked – looking at our senior pictures – why her mother was holding the camera instead of me. I became a half-decent cook. Poetry I love to read but never wrote. And I’m the only one of my family who hasn’t read Georgette Heyer. (I KNOW!) But fabric arts were, and have remained hers. (Well, other than a very unfortunate encounter with a bright neon-striped apron in the year of Home Ec I was forced to endure before I absconded over to shop with the boys.)

    The tradition of quilting, and of giving a baby a quilt, is one my sister comes by honestly. My mother can sew well – I have a cloak of her making in the closet. But she was of the age where women were taught to sew because it had previously been practical… but where it ceased to be a survival skill for a well equipped woman. I’m sure my grandmother can sew too. But it was my great grandmother whose sewing I remember.

    I don’t remember when I got my quilt. It must have been after we got back from Africa – I doubt it crossed those oceans. Perhaps it was given to me when I lived in Merced. I can’t remember life without it. My great grandmother (Grandma Finley – my mother’s mother’s mother) made all three of us crazy quilts – my brother’s being made when she was north of 84 years old.

    What is a crazy quilt? The most practical of all quilts. The depression quilt. Here’s mine:

    My crazy quilt
    My crazy quilt

    My sister’s quilts are made with cotton fabric of a consistent weight. The fabrics are selected for color and pattern, and cut to create the design – then sewed back together. It’s an art form – a lovely one. But creating a quilt like that is certainly a cost. Fabric costs almost more in a fabric store than clothes do in a clothing store.

    But the fabric on my crazy quilt was not purchased for its loveliness or pattern. What you see on my quilt are the dress shirts, worn out skirts, curtains, blouses, dresses, slacks and tablecloths all worn out past repair or reworking. My grandmother collected the fabric from worn out garments (and buttons – we had her button box for a long time and it was super fun to play with!) and then when a child was born she reached into that treasure trove and put together a quilt. I’m quite sure a few of those squares come from my mother’s childhood dresses. I have cuddled myself in the castoffs of my ancestors, put together to warm me by the thriftiest of them all.

    You can see how each quilt square was put together by different pieces of fabric – whatever would fit. There are no squares on my quilt made of a whole piece of fabric, although the same fabric will show up in multiple squares.

    This block has no fewer than 12 different fabrics
    This block has no fewer than 12 different fabric pieces

    Each of those tiny, tiny squares of fabric is sewn to its partners to create the block. What a labor of love. How long did she spend composing the squares – piecing them together like a puzzle? I can see the thoughtful look in her eyes – rimmed by old-fashioned golden spectacles – as she contemplated the pieces. (She had a tremendous sense of spatial reasoning. She was famous for being able to pick the perfect size tupperware for leftovers at a glance. She also cleaned our clocks regularly at Chinese Checkers. She died when I was in my late teens, so I knew her well.) And each of those seams is TINY. Not an 1/8th of an inch more fabric than was absolutely required for those seams was spent.

    My favorite block
    My favorite block

    The differences in the kinds of fabric (there are thick cotton fabrics, thin gingham pieces worn almost to the woof, synthetic fabrics – all manner of clothes) mean that those unforgiving seams have pulled apart in many places – unrepairable because there isn’t enough material to bridge the gaps. The different squares were then sewed each to the other. The actual quilting portion of the quilt was incredibly simple. She sewed the filling and the back on at the edges, and then tied each quilt-square corner with a green yarn knot. I think this all meant that she could put together the entire quilt on her regular, workaday sewing machine – without any specialized machinery. Practical to the utmost.

    There’s a lesson in that crazy quilt. My great grandmother was born in 1900. She was coming of age in World War I, and was a young mother when the Great Depression ravaged a generation. She watched all the young men of her daughter’s age go off to war when World War II hit. I can imagine her as a ruthlessly effective Rosie the Riveter. (She actually was a switchboard operator.) She learned – and she taught – that waste was not only morally unacceptable, but that the ability to make the best things with the least waste was a skill to be proud of. (Well, modestly proud of. She wasn’t a big fan of pride.)

    My home and my life overflow with good things. I have bags of perfectly good clothes and toys I’ll summon some charity to haul away for me. I never know what to do with the spare buttons that come with my clothes – my memories of her keep me from just throwing them away, but I might as well since I never repair any clothing. But perhaps, in her memory, wrapped in two generations worth of love-wrought quilts, I could consider myself pleased with what I have that is durable, of great value, and be content.

    Poetry and Song

    My toast to Bobbie Burns
    My toast to Bobbie Burns

    One of my favorite nights of the year is Burns Night, hosted by my dear friends Dave and Maggie.* The hallmarks of Burns Night, in addition to the Haggis and Scotch, are poetry and song. On the best of the nights, we’ve taken turns – breathless – in the living room sharing words and music. We usually begin with actual songs and poems written by Robbie Burns. (“My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” often gets sung more than once.) We recite his poetry. (Cally’s rendition of “Ode to a Haggis” is breathtaking.) Dave reads “Address to the Deil”.

    Somewhere around an hour in, one of us gives the Toast to Robbie Burns. I was on duty a few years ago and actually read a biography of the Bard of Scotland. Since then, I’ve been on duty in case there’s some failure of speaker to arrive.

    Then we start slipping into the vaguely Celtic. Adam does his priceless rendition of “Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man”. Maggie’s father lifts a mournful voice for “Kathleen Mavourneen”. There’s Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson – by heart or from the books that lay scattered at our feet.

    We slide fully into just poetry, and just song. Nick recites Kite. We belt out “Barrett’s Privateers”. Cori’s liquid voice slides through “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. The night ends swaying, holding hands, singing “Auld Lange Syne” (all verses) while looking into the eyes and hearts of these people to whom we have grown suddenly, unaccountably close through these greatest magic-makers: poetry and song. We have all fallen in love with each other in the silence after the singing. I leave with a joyful heart, and can’t wait for the next year.

    But I’ve never done it at one of my parties, for all my love and passion for it. Why not? I’ve wondered often.

    During Christmas and Easter, I often stand at the front of the church as I play my trumpet. It’s a day a lot of visitors come, of course, and I can watch them as they worship with us. There’s a particular kind of visitor I haven’t quite come to understand yet. The stand with the congregation during the hymns. They often even hold the hymnal in their hands. But they remain stoically silent – jaws clenched and unmoving as the rest of us sing. I wonder: are they there against their wills? Do they think they “can’t sing”? (Do they think we can?!) Do they think that church is something you watch, instead of something you do?

    Last year I toasted decked in my tam
    Last year I toasted decked in my tam – thanks to Joe for the picture!

    That is – I think – the heart of it. We have become a world of watchers. We don’t sound good enough. We aren’t skilled enough. We were told when we were little that we can’t carry a tune. Please, for heaven’s sake be quiet. We all hear the world’s best musicians and artists (remixed, studio supported) every day. How can our voice compete? It can’t. And so we shut up. And our neighbor/friend/partner/kid is also not nearly as good as what’s on the radio, so we make fun of them. We have an entire tv genre built around making fun of people for thinking they can sing. In truth, the moment Adam and I first met was over our shared defiance of this cultural norm. He was walking down the hall of our dorm singing “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”. Instead of giving him the “you’re weird” look, I picked up the chorus. (Prescient, eh?)

    I love to sing, even though my voice is decidedly mediocre. I love to hear my friends sing – even if they’ll never be Brandy Clark** I love to look in their sincere and vulnerable faces as they recite a poem they learned by heart when they were fourteen. I love Nick’s sock puppet hand, Callie’s slicing of the Haggis, Dave’s delightful “deil” and Cori’s key change on “Jock o’ Hazeldeen”. On those Sundays when I couldn’t find faith in my heart, I still came to church to sing the old old songs with my friends until faith could find its way back.

    Where to go from here? I wish I could call on you all to sing – in public, with your friends. But even I’m too chicken (too wise? too often shot down? too defeated?) to call my friends to song. Perhaps instead I can remind you that the joy is not in the passive listening, it is in the listening to a friend. There is something about singing together which is powerful and precious. Sing to each other, my beloved companions. Quote poems. Sing to me. And together we can fill the world with a joyful noise.

    Thane (top row) singing at his school’s winter concert

    * New people at Burns Night sometimes ask how I know Dave or Maggie. My favorite reply is that I married him/her. It’s true. I did.
    ** I don’t remember ever hearing Brandy play guitar or sing in high school. I can’t remember if she was even in choir, and I’m pretty sure she never got a solo in our high school concerts.

    Digging in

    Grey made this cake from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. At 9, he’s already a better cook than I was when I graduated from college.

    So you might have heard that New England is looking at a wee bit of snow tonight. Just a trace. Hardly more than two feet, with hurricane force winds. I mean, barely hurricane force – no more than Category 1!

    Tonight, the great city is quiet. The blanket of softening snow has begun to fall, but the vast dimensions of the sky have not yet opened their portals to loose the flakes upon us. In another hour, by law, we will be contained to our homes with those children who lay slumbering in guaranteed-snow-day anticipation upstairs. There is no sound of traffic outside – no airplanes flying overhead. There is the hum of the furnace and the creak of a hundred year old house settling in the cold night air. The winds are sliding past – not yet howling or moaning. The house is warm and slightly messy – scattered with Transformers, stuffed animals, cables & little boys’ socks.

    The entire region on every side gives a great exhalation from the normal pace. We lay down our commutes and our schedules and our appointments. We forgo our childcare. We do not go into work. (Although – curse of the age – work we must tomorrow since our labors depend hardly at all on our physical location.) In the morning the world will be transformed into twisting snow, cutting us off from the burdens and comforts of our society and demanding that we take a few moments to think of who we are and what we are doing in this world. We will shut the doors against the icy gale, but open the curtains to see the power of the storm. Before the world resumes anew there will be shared meals, laughter, sledding, video games, board games and baked goods. Some of those moments will soak into the souls of my young sons, and become the definitions of winter, of storm, of blizzard.

    Assuming the power stays on (we’ve never **knocking on wood** in the seven years we’ve been there had the power go out in any meaningful way), this storm will be for us an interregnum. A gift. (I know it won’t be that way for everyone. We are very lucky in our circumstances.) For us it will be a time set apart.

    Tomorrow, I’ll probably live-blog it for you – not so much because I think you’ll be fascinating, but because our era allows us to feel most connected when we are most apt to be isolated. I’ll tell you whether it’s a lark, or getting a bit scary. We’ll ponder together the likelihood of school on Wednesday (low). We’ll be joyful and funny and snowbound together. Tonight, I feel great gratitude for the circumstances of this storm, that brings us together even more than it keeps us apart.

    Two decades of building a bikeway

    Over 30 years of leadership is represented with these two gentlemen
    Over 30 years of leadership is represented with these two gentlemen

    Back in 1988, a few folks had an idea about turning an old rail line in Stoneham into a trail. It was a cutting edge idea, at the time – the rails to trails projects were just kicking off. But the land was publicly owned, and it seemed like a good idea. Twenty-seven years later, the plan has final cleared (almost) all the hurdles required to break ground. My own part in this saga was trivial from that big picture perspective, but it was extremely illuminating for me.

    Looking from the outside in, it can be awfully hard to get a hook into local politics. For example, googling my selectmen before a vote revealed… pretty much nothing (fun fact – my blog posts are like time 20 hits on nearly all of them). You can find some general information on what they do for a living. One or two of them have campaign pages, which reveal, well, nothing. Without a hook into the community, it’s hard to tell the obstructionists from the development-happy, the cooperators from the blockers, the sensible from the selfish. It’s almost impossible to educate yourself to vote responsibly when neither you nor anyone you know has any insight into these candidates.

    Then came the Greenway. This project was so incredibly clear cut, I didn’t need a 20 year Stoneham veteran to explain the ins and outs to me. The pro was that we had an amazing project on public land paid for by state funds and sponsored by MassDOT. On the opposing side we had… uh…. safety concerns (which were bogus – the crossings will be much safer with the new work to be done) and uh… … The funny thing was that despite voting down a delay of a vote, and then voting down the initiative in the October meeting, no one could or would articulate a real & compelling reason why they didn’t think Stoneham should have this awesome amenity. The reasons, I believe, were all buried in relationships, history and some selfishness on the parts of the businesses who had been using the land for years with little or minimal compensation to the public. (I’m left to speculate. Anyone who’d prefer to explain the real reason is free to leave a comment!)

    So in this complex community, I finally had a touchpoint. Using information available to me, I could see that the Greenway was good. This provided me the entryway into understanding more about the town. My involvement started out very lightly. In 2011 I walked the Greenway route. In May of 2013 I wrote about the project. In a sign of my outsiderness, I tried to reach out to the Selectmen using the publicly available contact information (which was rather unsuccessful). Then this fall, at the request of a friend, I went to the Town Hall meeting where the vote was both delayed and denied.

    I was shocked into action. The excuses for failure were SO LAME. And they looked very much like they were going to successfully kill the project. I spoke at the meeting, and came to the attention of the advocates. Coming back from that meeting, I wrote a letter to the local newspapers. I reached out to the supporters, and helped collect signatures for a special town hall meeting. I engaged in the ad hoc group that pushed to get out the vote over a one month period. I walked door to door with my kids. I cold called 200 likely voters (a more pleasant experience than usual, based on the fact that 99.8% of the town thought the Greenway was a great idea). I called for the vote in the special Town Hall meeting, packed to the gills with hundreds of usually unheard residents who had answered our calls to support the project.

    The townhall meeting felt like a movie where the hard work all pays off in the end
    The Town Hall meeting felt like a movie where the hard work all pays off in the end

    My portion of the effort was definitely at the eleventh hour and much less than that of others, but when the time came for drinks afterwards, I got the invite. I sat at a table of people who had poured years, tens of thousands of dollars and their hearts and souls into making the town a better plan to live, with no ulterior motivation. There was elation. There was exhaustion. There was a vague sense of unease that the opposition might find one more thing we hadn’t known about or thought about to block the project. I looked at those people, still struggling to put faces and names together, and settled into my place in the community.

    Many things have come from this effort. The largest, of course, is that we now have a Greenway (assuming nothing bad happens from here on out). We have invited many residents of Stoneham to their first ever Town Hall meeting – hopefully some number of them become more engaged in guiding our community. I hope that the older entrenched interests in the town have realized that there are many more people in Stoneham than the handful of hundred who have historically done so much for the community, and that our planning needs to take both new and old residents into consideration. And I – I hope that I and my neighbors become more engaged in the town. Finally, enduringly, I have made some new friends in this adventure, who may be my friends in this great town for years to come.

    What about you? Do you understand how your town ticks? Are you a voter? How do you figure out how to vote on local issues? How does a stranger come to become a local in your community?

    Back to life, back to reality

    Was this Christmas afternoon disc the last frisbee session until April?

    Well, it’s done. We have Christmas Eve’d, Christmas Day’d, flow out to Washington, done Christmas twice more with the natal clan, relaxed, hiked, had a wedding*, locked ourselves out of the RV, got back in, returned to Boston, deconstructed the Christmas tree, put away all the suitcases and watched “The Battle of the Five Armies”. (Because being home at 3 pm on a Monday is an opportunity not to be wasted. We had the theater to ourselves!)

    The frenetic pace of the holidays is well and truly done – even Epiphany has passed – and we’re through to the other side.

    Oh, what a dark and bleak other side it is. The oppressively cold, persistently dark, nothing-to-look-forward-to time of year. I was reminded, being in Washington in January, that at least here in New England we periodically see daylight. Yesterday was a day of darkened skies and lowering clouds in the Northwest. The rivers ran high with rain and snowmelt. It never got above dim the entire day. Returning to New England the winds blew through our coats like Legolas’ knife through Orcish armor as we stood shivering, half-asleep at the taxi stand. But at least there was daylight.

    I haven’t quite decided whether I kind of like this time of year, or actively loathe it. Let’s review:

    Actively loathe:

    • It’s really cold
    • I’m never warm
    • Paying off the bills from Christmas
    • No days off until like May
    • Also, Christmas cookie weight, and January gyms
    • Commutes in snow
    • Tax time

    Kinda like:

    • No pressure to “make the weekends count”
    • Looking outside and noticing that it’s snowing
    • Snow days
    • Feeling like you can really settle into hard work at work, and plan
    • Time to read
    • Hot tea

    I think that even in the final analysis, the negatives outweigh the positives, but there are some small compensations to treasure. The ground is still bare here in Boston. The weather this week is supposed to hit negative numbers. I am ready for a month of seeing people I always intend to see and have trouble making the right time for, reading books, and wearing my fuzzy bathrobe as much as possible.

    What about you? Is Q1 your favorite time of year, or least favorite? What small compensations are there to the lousy-weather, no-holidays time? What, if anything, do you look forward to?

    *I promise I’ll give you a full rundown, and I did take approximately ninety-bajillion pictures, but my sister-in-law has requested that we wait to Socially Media her wedding until she’s back from her honeymoon to join in the fun!

    2014 Year in Review

    My boys
    My boys

    I did not manage to write a Christmas Letter for my Christmas cards this year. I know, I’m so terribly sorry for disappointing you like that. I’m sure you’ll somehow manage to pull through… but the Christmas letters serve a useful purpose in addition to making my Christmas Card process even more complicated. They’re a nice moment to reflect back on the year and set down the milestones, for posterity as it were. So in this close of year time, I’ll take advantage of the six hour flight to Washington to do just that. (Then I’ll play Minecraft. My sons are guaranteed to think this is entirely unfair.)


    Grey is nine, and started third grade this year. Thane is six, and starts his school career in Kindergarten. We had his preschool graduation this year, with cap and gown. Both of them are doing very well. Grey is majorly obsessed with screens of all sorts (can’t imagine where he gets that from…) and has dabbled with blogging and Scratch programming. His online time is primarily spent playing mindless video games. His favorite is Minecraft. Grey has gotten very good at board games. On a few occasions, he’s stayed up late and played “grownup” games with our friends (like St. Petersburg or 7 Wonders). He’s done quite well.


    Thane is a still a young and innocent 6. He’s less all about screens than Grey. His DS has gone unplayed for at least a year. He loves that fiddly finicky work – like making mosaics or building with Legos. He can sometimes disappear for several hours into his room, building things and singing to himself. Less charmingly, he’s definitely at the disgusting-obsessed phase of life. If I never hear about poop or vomit over dinner again, it’ll be fine by me. He is reading, but it’s heavy work for him. You can watch him visibly tire over the course of a book. So he reads… but he’s not really a “reader”. Lately he’s been in constant motion – unable to stop bouncing. He never walks – there’s always a hitch or a skip in his step!

    I got cats in high places
    I got cats in high places

    Our cats like to sit on Adam’s head. Their hobbies include eating things that aren’t food, and throwing up.
    Neither Adam nor I made major work changes this year. Our roles and companies remain the same. Work is, of course, a thing that requires a tremendous amount of time and energy, and creates a significant part of identity. It seems misleading to talk abou the year without work. But, on the other hand, a personal blog is really no place for work talk. So let’s leave it a big part of our lives that shall go unremarked.

    Tropical Island boys
    Tropical Island boys

    This year, in the “fun things” category, we went to Cozumel with the kids. I was nervous that we’d go through great expense and effort for a vacation that would end up wearing us out. Happily, it was a tremendously relaxing and enjoyable experience! There was snorkeling, game playing, lying reading on beaches, jeep adventures, Mayan ruins and early nights. I think we’re all hoping that the future will play out in such a way that we can go back again!
    Adam and I also celebrated our 14th anniversary with a meal of dehydrated noodles on the north side of Mt. Rainier. We had a superb five day backpacking trip that fed my heart, soul and imagination.

    Adam & John
    Adam & John

    Our family experienced some additions and subtractions this year. In the subtraction category, Adam’s grandfather, John Turley, died in October. He had come to the end of a long, and largely joyful journey. I was extremely glad that I had gotten to spend a bit of time with him a few weeks before he left.

    In the addition category, on Halloween my brother asked his lady to build a life together with him. I’m delighted to report that she agreed to this plan! We’ll be celebrating their wedding in the first days of the new year (assuming that spending a week with my entire family doesn’t scare her off the proposition). It reflects that last time someone will voluntarily enter my family in a generation. I’m really looking forward to getting to know her better.

    This year was one of the years in the heart of the “young family” time of life. My children are getting so big, so fast I can start to understand that confused lamentation of the parents of teens, wondering where their babies went. Grey is halfway through his childhood – with as much behind as there ahead. We are busy busy busy – at work, at play, with our children, with our chores. I have a hunch that this will be the time of life that we look back on most fondly when the business ceases and the house quiets. This was a lovely year. I have great hope that 2015 will be lovelier still!